I was recently a guest on the NPR affiliate WAMU in D.C., "The Kojo Nnamdi Show", talking about the role of skepticism and media literacy in recent rumors of child abductions. You can hear the interview HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
August 8, 2014: The Shoppes at Rose Hall, Montego Bay, Jamaica I was done. I’d arrived at the gated tourist mini-mall about half an hour earlier, and couldn’t take any more of the servile shopkeepers shilling shelf after shelf of schlocky tchotchke of unrivalled tackiness. I didn’t need a colorful coffee mug featuring a baked (and well-endowed) rasta firing up a spliff, nor a shot glass with a slightly off-kilter outline of Jamaica, nor a Bob Marley-scented candle (don’t ask). I considered getting a bag of criminally overpriced Blue Mountain coffee, but thought the better of it when I read the fine print saying that the contents were “no less than 30% Blue Mountain coffee beans,” which by my admittedly shaky math left a lot of percentage for non-Blue Mountain beans. It was the off-season, and only a handful of sunscreen-scented tourists ran the gauntlet. Awaiting a return shuttle back to my hotel, with the low tropical roar of the Caribbean to one side and the famous Rose Hall plantation house looming on the hill facing us, I noticed that the young woman at the boxed-in greeting/information desk was reading a romance novel. The type didn’t surprise me—more romance novels are sold each year than all other genres combined—but I noticed that it was an American Harlequin-branded novel. I wondered if this young black Jamaican woman was relating to the blonde, Caucasian characters in the book and on the cover. After all, it’s often said that people want to see representations of themselves—their bodies and their culture—in their entertainment, spawning perennial complaints about the lack of minorities in TV shows and films. Curious, I approached the desk. She looked up, prepared to offer a canned answer about what shops were where, when the shuttles ran, or where the nearest restroom was. Instead I pointed to the book tented before her on the desk and asked, “Do you prefer American romance novels to Jamaican ones?” She smiled and said yes. I asked if Jamaican ones were available and she said yes, but that they aren’t widely read. (The previous day I’d been in two bookstores in the nearby city, Montego Bay, looking for books on local folklore and seen a handful of locally-published books with sensuous dark-skinned covers—surrounded by rows of Fifty Shades of Grey.) She said that it wasn’t that Jamaicans preferred non-Jamaican characters or settings, nor that North American romance writers were better than locals. Instead, she said, Jamaican books are more expensive than others because they are printed elsewhere and shipped here, thus subject to import taxes and shipping. (Harlequin novels are, too, of course: except for sugar and coffee most things are imported to the island. But they’re mass-produced cheaply, and economies of scale drive up the cost of Jamaican books.) Also, she said with a shrug, “Jamaicans don’t read.” “You read,” I noted with a smile. “Yes, but I was forced to,” she replied. “As a girl I’d get a whoopin’ if I didn’t read. My mom had encyclopedias and she would make me read them to her, to learn.” I leaned forward on the wooden ledge, intrigued; I assumed her mother was a schoolteacher. “Was your mom a big reader?” I asked. She shook her head: “No, not at all. She didn’t finish high school. But she wanted me and the other children to learn to read, it was important.” It was clear that the whoopin’ she referred to was not metaphorical; having spoken to a handful of Jamaicans I got the distinct impression that corporal punishment was widely practiced. She’d actually get smacked for not reading, not learning. “I love reading now,” she hastened to add. “I’m glad she made me read, I love to read the Twilight books, Harry Potter, all those.” I was in Montego Bay for a television shoot; a producer from a show called The Dead Files (which airs on The Travel Channel) brought me out to do an on-camera interview about an investigation I’d conducted into Rose Hall, a former slave plantation said to be haunted by the ghost of Annie Palmer—the White Witch of Rose Hall. It’s one of the best-known mysteries in the Caribbean, a sordid tale of slavery, sexual perversion, voodoo magic, multiple murdered husbands, and bloody revenge. I’d done historical and on-site research solving the mystery; it can be found in Chapter 12 of my 2010 book Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries. Back at my hotel after the shoot I’d spent the previous night reading a memoir titled Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs, who was born a slave in 1813 North Carolina and eventually escaped to freedom in 1842. It’s an unusual first-hand account of slavery during that time—rare because most slaves were illiterate; in fact in 1830 the North Carolina General Assembly passed a law making it illegal for anyone to teach a slave to read or write, and the penalty was severe: “If a white man or woman, be fined not less than one hundred dollars, nor more than two hundred dollars, or imprisoned; and if a free person of color, shall be fined, imprisoned, or whipped, at the discretion of the court, not exceeding thirty-nine lashes, nor less than twenty lashes.” As for slaves, “if any slave shall hereafter teach, or attempt to teach, any other slave to read or write, the use of figures [numbers] excepted, he or she may be carried before any justice of the peace, and on conviction thereof, shall be sentenced to receive thirty-nine lashes on his or her bare back.” Similar prohibitions enforcing slave illiteracy were found elsewhere at the time. This practice, along with the history of slavery intimately associated with the country, was fresh in my mind as I heard the young woman tell her story. Most blacks in Jamaica are the descendants of African slaves brought to the island beginning in the 1500s by Portuguese to work on sugar plantations. I didn’t ask, but it’s very likely that her relatives—perhaps as recently as her great-grandfather—were slaves. An irony dawned on me. The discipline meted out by a parent, of course, is very different from the discipline meted out by a slave owner. However there are parallels, and the ironic contrast of a mother giving her child a beating for not reading and improving herself was impressed upon me, especially coming from a community who in earlier days may have at one time been beaten for learning to read and write. Many American children only grudgingly learn to read and write, and after graduating high school never read for pleasure or work. They’re not illiterate; they can read food labels, government forms, bills, and day-to-day information. But beyond that, they pretty much don’t read—just as she said most Jamaicans don’t read. A generalization, to be sure, but one with more than a grain of truth to it. I saw this first-hand years ago when I worked with the Literacy Volunteers of America teaching adults and non-native speakers to read; in most cases the clients grew up in households where reading was neither valued nor encouraged. I was fortunate to grow up in a literate home where newspapers, books, and magazines could be found, but many people do not have that benefit. I felt a strange literacy-based kinship with this young Jamaican woman and her mother. I pictured her as a young girl in their small house in the island’s rural mountains reading encyclopedias (which are written at a far higher reading level than anything you’ll find in most classrooms) aloud to her mother and siblings, tripping over the polysyllabic words—and in the priceless process learning about everything from antelopes and architecture to zoology and zymurgy. She grew up to be a bright, personable, intelligent, and well-spoken young woman. As a reader, writer, and media literacy advocate I of course value literacy, and we were both grateful that her mother did as well—even if it took the threat of a whoopin’ to enforce it. I asked her what she wanted to do in the future, and she said she was planning to get a degree in business administration, a natural and lucrative career for a booming tourist island. I heard my hotel shuttle arriving behind me, but before I left I told her I was sure she was going to be an important and successful professional some day. She smiled confidently, sat upright in her chair, and turned back to her romance novel. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
A crowdfunding project has helped launch a new magazine, Kazoo, to empower girls and (in part) help steer them toward STEM careers. Kazoo focuses on girls and women, according to its website: “All of our stories are either developed or inspired by top female artists, explorers, scientists, chefs, athletes, activists, writers and others. Regular features include: science experiments; comics; art projects; recipes; interviews with inspiring women from Olympic athletes to astronauts; and fun activities, like secret codes, jokes, mazes, search-and-finds and more.... It will feature some of the most powerful and inspirational women in their fields, thus giving girls a more well-rounded sense of the world and the possibilities within it.” Touted as “a magazine for girls who aren’t afraid to make some noise,” the website notes, Kazoo isn’t just for girls: boys would “probably love it, too. After all, there’s no such thing as say, girls’ science and boys’ science, or girls’ art and boys’ art. Science is science and art is art, of course. But most media that cover similar topics use boys as the default target audience, while girls are left with the burden of just ‘putting themselves in the story.’” Founder Erin Bried explains that she and her five-year-old daughter were looking for a magazine they could enjoy together but were dissatisfied with what was available. Bried drew upon nearly twenty years of experience in high profile magazine including Self and Glamour, and in April 2016 launched a Kickstarter campaign “with hopes that other people would also be as interested in a magazine that doesn’t tell girls how to look or act, but instead inspires them to be strong, smart, fierce and, above all, true to themselves. Within 30 days, Kazoo became the most successful journalism campaign in crowdfunding history.” (Full disclosure: I contributed to Kazoo’s campaign.) The theme of Kazoo’s most recent issue (Winter 2016/2017) is architecture, and features blueprints for making a snow fort and a bridge made of candy; a comic about the Brooklyn Bridge, a city scavenger hunt, ice science experiments, a banana bread recipe, and more. Kazoo, which carries no advertising, is only available in screen-free print form (since its pages contain art projects and puzzles) and costs $50 per year for four issues; subscriptions are available HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
A decade after meeting sex education activist (and documentary subject) Shelby Knox I interviewed her about her life since the film, feminism, and activism. My new CFI blog is out, you can read it HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
In my recent CFI blog I examined studies on media representation, especially of minorities. Two recent reports have helped describe and quantify the issue, one from GLAAD (formerly the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), and the other from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. The reports (Where We Are on TV and Inclusion or Invisibility? Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment, respectively) are the results of painstaking tabulation and analysis. Like any measure they are not perfect, but they do provide insight into media representation trends. As a longtime researcher on the media (and author of Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us), I was interested to review the findings, specifically focusing on the status of sexual and racial minorities depicted onscreen. The results were interesting and surprising; you can read it HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
Last month the respected Toronto Star published a prominent and alarmist piece questioning the safety of the HPV vaccine Gardasil, which can help prevent cancer in girls. It didn't sit well with scientists, as my article for Discovery News notes; you can read it HERE.
The respected PBS television series "Nova" has won multiple Peabody and Emmy awards. So how did it manage to so badly bungle an episode on anorexia, spreading myths and misinformation about the dangerous disease? Here's a piece of investigative journalism I did, adapted from my Masters thesis on the subject of eating disorder misinformation in the media. You can read it HERE.
My article for Discovery News on how the U.K. is using belief in black magic to stem sex trafficking in Africa is now up! I hope you find it as interesting as I do... It's good to see this sort of bottom-up culture-specific effort to end this scourge. You can read it HERE.
A viral story about how a high school allegedly used Photoshop to change their students’ yearbook photos to make them thinner started on Reddit earlier this month and has appeared on Gawker, Jezebel, Gizmodo, PerezHilton, and elsewhere. As it turns out, the story isn't quite as outrageous as claimed, you can read it HERE.
My new CFI blog on the bizarre, misogynistic mess that is Disney's "Into the Woods." You can read it HERE.
In my many years of writing articles and occasionally fact-checking news media reports (see, for example, much of my book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us), I'm continually baffled by the defensive stance that people often take when you fact-check their statistics. People often assume that if you're checking their facts that you must be against them or what they're trying to do. HERE is a follow-up about the film Miss Representation...
Encouraging new study finds that weight discrimination is rare, not common: Most people report experiencing no harassment, insults, or boorish behavior due to their weight, and only 5% report being discriminated against because of their body size. You can read my piece on it HERE.
Yes, people are still being accused, tortured, and killed because of witchcraft accusations. It happened last week in East Africa when seven people died; my article on this horrible event, with some background on witch hunts, can be seen HERE.
Whatever happened to the viral "Bring Back Our Girls" campaign earlier this year? My article on Boko Haram and the forgotten captives, in which I explain why little has been done, and why buying the girls' freedom would probably be the best option but won't happen. You can read it HERE.
I have a recent blog on the importance of fact-checking statistics and claims--including those made by people whose causes you support. You can read it HERE.
Hundreds of Colombian girls and their families are blaming HPV vaccines for mysterious symptoms. An interesting blend of anti-vaccination conspiracy and mass hysteria, you can read my article on it HERE.
The son of convicted serial child molester Jerry Sandusky came forward recently in an interview with Oprah Winfrey to corroborate reports of his adopted father’s abuse. However some psychologists are concerned about the validity of those memories. You can see the story HERE.
Last year it was pop superstar Kesha; now it’s actress Natasha Blasick — star of “Paranormal Activity 2″ — coming forward to talk about her sexual experiences. What's behind reports of supernatural sex? You can read more HERE.
My new article on why some people falsely claim to have been the victim of bias, discrimination, and even violent crimes... You can read it HERE.
I recently wrote about penis-theft panics for LiveScience.com. I'd written about it before, for example in the book I co-authored with Bob Bartholomew, "Hoaxes, Myths, and Manias: Why We Need Critical Thinking," and I included it in a talk I gave last year on mass hysterias at a skeptics conference. It's an interesting subject that always gets people tittering... You can read my recent story HERE.
A boring new study published in PLoS-ONE has riled critics who read sexism into it where none exists. Blame poor journalism and ill-informed, knee-jerk reactions by people attacking things they never bothered to read. You can read my piece on Discovery News.
I'm quoted in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on racial bias in news reports: "As author Benjamin Radford wrote last year in an analysis for Discovery News, 'If you disappear, you better hope you're young, white, female and cute, or the media may not care.'" You can read the story HERE.
A bizarre illness affecting nearly 20 students at a Western New York Junior-Senior High school now has an official diagnosis: mass hysteria.The students, almost all of them girls, and mostly friends, began experiencing involuntary jerks and tics. Sometimes their limbs, neck or face would suddenly spasm; other times they would twitch, grunt, or shout. It was strange and troubling behavior, made all the more scary because it had no clear cause.... Read the full story HERE.
The editors of nearly 20 international editions of Vogue magazine agreed last week to ban from their pages all fashion models younger than 16 or "who appear to have an eating disorder." The move comes at a time when thin models are increasingly being accused of promoting unhealthy body images. But will it do any good? You can read more HERE.
I recently wrote a piece for Discovery News explaining the dearth of solid research supporting the claim that girls want to look like Barbie dolls, and it was quoted in a Yahoo News piece; you can read it HERE.
I recently heard about a new report claiming that half of students in grades 7 through 12 reported being sexually harassed in school. Having analyzed many media claims before (and written a book titled Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us), I was somewhat skeptical. I did some investigation and revealed the surprising truth behind these alarmist numbers. You can read the story HERE.
“If all printers were determined not to print anything till they were sure it would offend nobody, there would be very little printed.” –Benjamin Franklin I was recently and publicly called a “fat hater” on Facebook by someone I know. It was in response to an article I wrote for Discovery News about a rhyming children’s book for 4 to 8 year olds called Maddie Goes On a Diet. The article was about a controversy surrounding the book, in which an overweight 14-year-old girl loses weight and gains self-esteem through diet and exercise. Outraged critics were concerned that the book could harm children, and I interviewed one expert (and quoted another) who claimed the book was damaging. I also analyzed their criticisms, and pointed out several logical errors and mistaken assumptions that critics were making about the book (for example that the diet Maddie goes on is an unhealthy, calorie-restricted diet, and that the book was likely to have a significant influence on children or their diets). I spent about half a day researching and writing the column, and the final product provided a much deeper level of analysis and critical thinking than most of the other news stories on the topic (do a Google search for the topic and see for yourself). Many Discovery News readers agreed with my analysis. Yet others dismissed my piece—not because my facts or arguments were wrong, but because it was just another example of my well-known “fat hating” bias. My article could be safely ignored and dismissed (or perhaps not even read) because anything I wrote was clearly driven by an anti-fat ulterior agenda. I would have welcomed some substantive criticism or comments explaining where my logic or arguments were faulty, but none were offered. This is, of course, a version of the logical fallacy of the ad hominem attack: Criticizing the person, not the argument or claim. We see it all the time in skepticism; it’s nothing new. But when a colleague and ostensible critical thinker does it, it’s disheartening. I should confess that I have also been publicly accused of hating both gays and dwarves. No, I’m not making this up. Interestingly, as far as I know I’ve never been accused of hating (or bias against) Blacks, Jews, Asians, or Muslims. Then again, the week’s not over. As it happens, I am not at all shy about identifying targets of my hatred; George W. Bush and psychics who exploit grieving families pretty much complete the list. If I hate you, I’ll make that perfectly clear; you won’t need to read between the lines. But gays, dwarves, and fat people (not to mention fat gay dwarves) are fine by me. The claim that I hate gays would surely come as a surprise to my many lifelong gay friends, including James Randi, to whom I dedicated one of my books. And the idea that I hate overweight people would also surely come as a shock to nearly all of my ex-girlfriends, few of whom are svelte. A few years ago, I even lost a friend who refused to speak to me because I had written an article that included a discussion of false rape claims. She (apparently) badly misread the piece and somehow concluded that I was suggesting that real rapes don’t occur, or that real victims shouldn’t be believed. I of course wrote no such thing. On very rare occasions I’ve even heard the suggestion that I am somehow biased in favor of sex offenders (whatever that means) because I have written about the sex predator panic scares, explaining to parents that family and friends pose a far greater danger to children than any convicted sex offender. In fact a child is far more likely to be physically or sexually abused, abducted, or even killed by his or her parents than a sex offender stranger. This is a well-established statistical fact, and how that could be interpreted as a bias toward sex offenders is beyond me. I am used to attacks and criticism; it comes with the territory. Any time you are challenging someone’s beliefs or claims, and especially when you do with references, sound arguments, and sources, people get upset. In my twelve years of doing skeptical investigations and science literacy work, I’ve been threatened with both violence and lawsuits (including from a New York Times reporter—involving a predator panic piece I wrote, in fact). I get hate mail of some sort nearly every week; I’m told that I’m stupid, willfully ignorant, and an embarrassment to journalism. Some people leave comments on Discovery News articles saying I should be fired. I think writing is the only profession where people who have read a few paragraphs of your work feel entitled to tell you what a horrible, incompetent person you are, and on a fairly regular basis. I don’t mind the criticisms, it’s the bias accusations that annoy me, and it’s instructive to briefly analyze them. When I question claims about aliens and UFO photographs, critics assert that the only logical reason I would do so is because I have a bias or agenda as part of a government conspiracy to keep the truth from the public. When I question claims about alternative medicine and homeopathy, it’s not because I have researched it and know a lot about it, but because I’m being paid by Big Pharma. When I question claims made by psychics, critics say it’s because I have a bias toward protecting the scientific status quo—or that if I were to accept the reality of psychics it would devastate my worldview. And when I question claims about the links between media images and eating disorders, it can’t be because I know something about it—having studied it for years and written a book about the mass media—but because I hate fat people. All of these folks have one thing in common: The assumption that the reason I’m criticizing their claims or arguments because 1) I haven’t done adequate research into the subject, and if I did, I’d realize that they were right; and 2) I have a hidden agenda, some bias or ulterior motive that compels me to write my ill-informed rubbish despite all the obvious evidence against my position. Often the basic logic goes something like this: “You are saying something that’s different than what I heard (or believe), so you must be wrong.” It rarely seems to occur to them that maybe what they heard (or believe) might be wrong, and that the author who has spent hours (or days or years) researching it might know more about it. Truly open-minded people who are willing to listen and consider information and arguments that contradict their beliefs are discouragingly rare. Many of these accusations of bias and hatred would of course not happen if I stuck to safe, non-controversial claims (among skeptics, anyway). If I restricted my critical analyses to UFOs or Bigfoot or psychic claims, I would only garner criticisms and attacks from the believers (and there’s plenty of those). My friends and fans, skeptics and otherwise, are happy to have me fight the good fight against woo, pseudoscience, and New Age bullshit day in and day out, month after month, year after year. But some of them get very uncomfortable when I write and discuss topics that touch a nerve, especially issues about gender or sexuality (religion, as you might expect, isn’t really a point of contention among this crowd). Things get a little awkward when I question whether or not, for example, the “It Gets Better” anti-bullying campaign actually had any effect, or whether the “epidemic” of gay teen suicides last year was real. Things get a little awkward when I question whether sex offender notification laws are useful, whether false rape claims are a problem, or whether fashion models and a rhyming kid’s book actually lead to anorexia. I apply my skepticism across the board, asking for evidence behind any and all claims. I don’t like it when people whose ideas and policies I oppose lie and repeat false statements to make their points, and I don’t like it when people whose ideas and policies I agree with lie and repeat false statements to make their points. I try hard not to be selectively skeptical. I believe that there should be no sacred cows, no taboo topics. I will continue to write about body image and sex offenders and bad statistics and faulty arguments wherever I encounter them. I will endure the barbs and personal attacks, because I believe that these things should be openly discussed, and the arguments, pro and con, should be carefully analyzed instead of ignored or dismissed because of some perceived bias. Truth is best served when everyone asks, “What is the evidence?” not only for claims and ideas they oppose, but also for those they support. The principles of free speech are not tested by popular speech, but by unpopular speech. In the same vein, the true nature of open and skeptical inquiry is not tested when a person says something we agree with, but in how we react when a person says something we disagree with.
A group of British soap opera actresses appear naked this month in a magazine to raise awareness of age discrimination on television. The fact is that there are few good TV and film roles written for older people, male or female. Actors undeniably have a longer shelf life than actresses, though even Hollywood's biggest male stars are offered fewer and fewer significant roles as they age. Read more HERE.
"When the new documentary film Miss Representation premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, audiences were riveted, and Oprah Winfrey acquired its broadcast rights. Writer/Director Jennifer Siebel Newsom interwove stories from teenage girls with provocative interviews from the likes of Dr. Condoleezza Rice, Lisa Ling, Nancy Pelosi, Katie Couric, Rachel Maddow, Rosario Dawson, Dr. Jackson Katz, Dr. Jean Kilbourne, and Gloria Steinem to give us an inside look at the media and its message." I will be participating in a special post-screening panel discussion about this documentary on Sunday Sept. 18 at 12:30 PM at the Guild theater in Albuquerque, New Mexico. THE GUILD CINEMA, 3405 CENTRAL AVE. NE, ALBUQUERQUE, NM 87106
WHEN: Sunday September 18 after the 12:30pm screening of MISS REPRESENTATION
HOW MUCH: $5 students w/ ids & seniors 60+ / $7 general admission
CONTACT: Keif Henley, firstname.lastname@example.org , ph# 266-2065