Jul 122020
 

The recent episode of Squaring the Strange is out! This time around we examine the legend of snuff films–movies in which one or more of the actors are (really) killed! 

We are joined by filmmaker and encyclopedia of weird film knowledge Erik Kristopher Myers. The notion of a “snuff film” is a strange convergence of conspiracy thinking, urban legend, moral panic, and actual film trivia, and we tour the genre–or, rather, things that have been assumed part of this elusive genre–from the Manson family to Faces of Death to an early found-footage gore fest called Cannibal Holocaust. Have any real snuff films ever been uncovered, or any black market snuff rings investigated? What are the factors that play into our belief in, and fear of, these monstrous commodifications of our mortality? And how have moviemakers and underground video producers capitalized on the idea?

Check it out HERE! 

Jun 142020
 

In the new episode of Squaring the Strange, we are joined by filmmaker and encyclopedia of weird film knowledge Erik Kristopher Myers. The notion of a “snuff film” is a strange convergence of conspiracy thinking, urban legend, moral panic, and actual film trivia, and we tour the genre–or, rather, things that have been assumed part of this elusive genre–from the Manson family to Faces of Death to an early found-footage gore fest called Cannibal Holocaust.

Have any real snuff films ever been uncovered, or any black market snuff rings investigated? What are the factors that play into our belief in, and fear of, these monstrous commodifications of our mortality? And how have moviemakers and underground video producers capitalized on the idea?

You can listen HERE! 

 

May 132020
 

I recently wrote a column Russ Dobler at Adventures in Poor Taste

 

When I encounter people raising questions or researching topics such as ghosts or Bigfoot, I’m often disappointed (and a bit baffled) by their seeming lack of genuine interest in establishing the truth behind these claims. They act as if the topic is urgent and important, that establishing the truth behind them is paramount and worthy of devoting lives and fortunes to, but when it comes down to implementing good practice or doing scientific research, they lose interest.

I’ve done hundreds of investigations over the years: journalistic investigations, folkloric research, paranormal investigations, and so on. Though topics have varied greatly, from mass hysteria to chupacabrasmedia literacy to psychic detectives, the common theme is that my goal is to solve the mystery and understand what’s going on. If I’m going to devote time and effort into looking into a subject, I want to take it seriously and investigate it to the best of my ability (within financial and other practical constraints).

These topics — if real — are important. If psychic powers exist, that would be incredibly important to know, and for science to understand (not to mention put to practical use finding missing persons and preventing pandemics, for example). If Bigfoot exist, that too is of legitimate interest to biologists, zoologists, and others; we’d need to understand what these animals are, where they fit into the tree of life, and how thousands of them have somehow managed to exist into the modern day leaving no physical traces of their presence.

You can read the rest HERE!

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 

 

May 102020
 

This installment finishes our discussion on three missing persons cases that Ben, Celestia, and Kenny followed in real time and tracked with psychic detective predictions on how the cases would play out. Part 2 features Ben’s examination of the Harley Dilly case, a teenager who went missing in December of 2019. The same content warning applies: we must discuss some details of the case that may be disturbing to some listeners. With these three case studies, it becomes clear how well-meaning (and sometimes not-so-well-meaning) psychics gum up the works at police departments and cause distress to the families as tragedies occur. With social media, this effect is increased with the second-wave effect as followers on social media send and resend a psychic’s prediction to authorities. 

 

You can listen HERE!

 

May 082020
 

In our recent episode special guest Kenny Biddle joins Ben and Celestia (remotely!) to look at some current missing person cases as they unfold in real time, and how psychics have “helped” (or interfered) in the progress of each case. This turned into a rather long study, so this part has cases brought by Celestia and Kenny, with some discussion of why checking and debunking this type of psychic activity necessarily falls to grassroots skeptical activists. Content warning: missing child cases, as well as psychic pronouncements on what happened to these victims, are discussed in detail.

You can listen HERE!

May 012020
 

The current issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine features an investigation I did into a famous mystery, the Chase Vault in Barbados. Coffins were said to have mysteriously moved while sealed in the vault, attributed to curses, ghosts, flooding, and more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I visited the site twice and solved the mystery; you can read about it, and listen to our episode of Squaring the Strange: http://squaringthestrange.libsyn.com/episode-97-the-dancing…

Apr 292020
 

There’s a natural—almost Pavlovian—tendency to follow the news closely, especially during times of emergency such as wars, terrorism, and natural disasters. People are understandably desperate for information to keep their friends and family safe, and part of that is being informed about what’s going on. 

News and social media are awash with information about the COVID-19 pandemic. But not all the information is equally valid, useful, or important. Much of what’s shared on social media about COVID-19 is false, misleading, or speculative. That’s why it’s important to get information from reputable sources such as the Center for Inquiry (CFI), not random YouTube videos, health bloggers, conspiracy theorists, and so on.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed, and science-informed laypeople are likely suffering this information overload keenly, as we absorb the firehose of information from a wide variety of sources: from the White House to the CDC, and from conspiracy cranks to Goop contributors. It’s a never ending stream—often a flood—of information, and those charged with trying to sort it out are quickly inundated. As important as news is, there is such a thing as medical TMI.

We have a Goldilocks situation when it comes to COVID-19 material. There’s too little, too much, and just the right amount of information about the COVID-19 virus in the news and social media. This sounds paradoxical until we break down each type of information. 

Types of COVID-19 Information

In thinking about the COVID-19 outbreak and the deluge of opinion, rumor, and news out there, it’s helpful to parse out the different types of information. 

1) Information that’s true

This includes the most important, practical information—how to avoid it: Wash your hands, avoid crowds, don’t touch your face, sanitize surfaces, and so on. This type of information has been proven accurate and consistent since the outbreak began. This is of course the smallest category of information: mundane but vital. 

2) Information that’s false 

Information that’s false includes a wide variety of rumors, miracle cures, misinformation, and so on. The Center for Inquiry’s COVID-19 Resource Center has been set up precisely to help journalists and the public debunk this false information. The problem is made worse by the fact that Russian disinformation organizations—which have a long and proven history of sowing false and misleading information in social media around the world, and particularly in the United States—have seized on the COVID-19. 

As CNN reported recently, “Russian state media and pro-Kremlin outlets are waging a disinformation campaign about the coronavirus pandemic to sow ‘panic and fear’ in the West, EU officials have warned. … The European Union’s External Action Service, which researches and combats disinformation online, said in an internal report that since January 22 it had recorded nearly 80 cases of disinformation about the COVID-19 outbreak linked to pro-Kremlin media. ‘The overarching aim of Kremlin disinformation is to aggravate the public health crisis in Western countries, specifically by undermining public trust in national healthcare systems—thus preventing an effective response to the outbreak,’ according to the report. … The disinformation has targeted international audiences in English, Italian, Spanish, Arabic as well as Russian and other languages, the report states. European Commission spokesperson Peter Stano said the center has seen a ‘flurry’ of disinformation about the spread of novel coronavirus over the past weeks.” 

3) Speculation, opinion, and conjecture

In times of uncertainty, prediction and speculation are rampant. Dueling projections about the outbreak vary by orders of magnitude as experts and social media pundits alike share their speculation. Of course, epidemiological models are only as good as the data that goes into them and are based on many premises, variables, and numerous unknowns. 

Wanting to accurately know the future is of course a venerable tradition. But as a recent post on Medium written by an epidemiologist noted: “Here is a simple fact: every prediction you’ve read on the numbers of COVID-19 cases or deaths is almost certainly wrong. All models are wrong. Some models are useful. It is very easy to draw a graph using an exponential curve and tell everyone that there will be 10 million cases by next Friday. It is far harder to model infectious disease epidemics with any accuracy. Stop making graphs and putting them online. Stop reading the articles by well-meaning people who have no idea what they are doing. The real experts aren’t posting random Excel graphs on twitter, because they are working flat-out to try and get a handle on the epidemic.” 

4) Information that’s true but not helpful

Finally, there’s another, less-recognized category: information that is true but not helpful on an individual level, or what might be called “trivially true.” We usually think of false information being shared as harmful—and it certainly is—but trivially true information can also be harmful to public health. Even when it’s not directly harmful, it adds to the background of noise.

News media and social media are flooded with information and speculation that—even if accurate—is of little practical use to the average person. Much of the information is not helpful, useful, actionable, or applicable to daily life. It’s like in medicine and psychology what’s called “clinical significance”: the practical importance of a treatment effect—whether it has a real, genuine, palpable, and noticeable effect on daily life. A finding may be true, may be statistically significant, but be insignificant in the real world. A new medicine may reduce pain by 5 percent but nobody would create or market it because it’s not clinically significant; a 5 percent reduction in pain isn’t useful compared to other pain relievers with better efficacy. 

One example might include photos of empty store shelves widely shared on social media, depicting the run on supplies such as sanitizer and toilet paper. The information is both true and accurate; it’s not being faked or staged. But it’s not helpful, because it leads to panic buying, social contagion, and hoarding as people perceive a threat to their welfare and turn an artificial scarcity into a real one. 

Another example is Trump’s recent reference to the COVID-19 virus as “the China virus.” Ignoring the fact that diseases aren’t named for where they emerge, we can acknowledge that it’s technically accurate that, as Trump claimed, COVID-19 was first detected in China—and also that it’s not a relevant or useful detail. It doesn’t add to the discussion or help anyone’s understanding of what the disease is or how to deal with it. If anything, referring to it by other terms such as “the China virus” or “Wuhan flu” is likely to cause confusion and even foment racism.  

Before believing or sharing information on social media, ask yourself questions such as: Is it true? Is it from a reliable source? But there are other questions to ask: Even if it may be factually true, is it helpful or useful? Does it promote unity or encourage divisiveness? Are you sharing it because it contains practical information important to people’s health? Or are you sharing it just to have something to talk about, some vehicle to share your opinions about? The signal-to-noise ratio is already skewed against useful information, being drowned out by false information, speculation, opinion, and trivially true information.  

Social Media Distancing

While self-isolating from the disease (and those who might carry it) is vital to public health, there’s a less-discussed aspect: self-distancing from social media information on the virus, which is a form of social media hygiene. Six feet is enough distance in physical space, but doesn’t apply to cyberspace where viral misinformation spreads unchecked (until it hits this site).

The analogy between disease and misinformation is apt. Just as you can be a vector for a virus if you get and spread it, you can be a vector for misinformation and fear. But you can stop it by removing yourself from it. You don’t need hourly updates on most aspects of the pandemic. Most of what you see and read isn’t relevant to you. The idea is not to ignore important and useful information about the coronavirus; in fact, it’s exactly the opposite: to better distinguish the news from the noise, the relevant from the irrelevant. 

Doctors around the world have been photographed sharing signs that say “We’re at work for you. Please stay home for us.” That’s excellent advice, but we can take it further. While at home not becoming a vector for disease, also take steps not to become a vector for misinformation. After all, doing so can have just as much of an impact on public health. 

During a time when people are isolated, it’s cathartic to vent on social media. Humans are social creatures, and we find ways to connect even when we can’t physically. Especially during a time of international crisis, it’s easy to become outraged about one or another aspect of the pandemic. Everyone has opinions about what is (or isn’t) being done, what should (or shouldn’t) be done. Everyone’s entitled to those opinions, but they should be aware that those opinions expressed on social media have consequences and may well harm others, albeit unintentionally. Just as it feels good to physically hang out with other people (but may in fact be dangerous to them), it feels good to let off steam to others in your social circles (but may be dangerous to them). Your steam makes others in your feed get steamed too, and so on. Again, it’s the disease vector analogy. 

You don’t know who will end up seeing your posts and comments (such is the nature of “viral” posts and memes), and while you may think little of it, others may be more vulnerable. Just as people take steps to protect those with compromised immune systems, it may be wise to take similar steps to protect those with compromised psychological defenses on social media—those suffering from anxiety, depression, or other issues who are especially vulnerable at this time. 

This isn’t about self-censorship; there are many ways to reach out to others and share concerns and feelings in a careful and less public way through email, direct messaging, video calls, and even—gasp—good old fashioned letters. Like anything else, people can express feelings and concerns in measured, productive ways, ways that are more (or less) likely to harm others (referring to it as “COVID-19” instead of “the Chinese virus” is one example). 

Though the public loves to blame the news media for misinformation—and deservedly so—we are less keen to see the culprit in the mirror. Many people, especially on social media, fail to recognize that they have become de facto news outlets through the stories and posts they share. The news media helps spread myriad “fake news” stories—gleefully aided by ordinary people like us. We cannot control what news organizations (or anyone else) publishes or puts online. But we can—and indeed we have an obligation to—help stop the spread of misinformation in all its forms. 

It’s overwhelming; it’s too much. In psychology there’s what’s called the Locus of Control. It basically means the things which a person has control over: themselves, their immediate family, their pets, most aspects of their lives, and so on. It’s psychologically healthy to focus on those things you can do something about. You can’t do anything about how many deaths there are in China or Italy. You can’t do anything about whether or not medical masks are being manufactured and shipped quickly enough. But you can do something about bad information online. 

It can be as simple as not forwarding, liking, or sharing that dubious news story before checking the facts, especially if that story seems crafted to encourage social outrage. The Center for Inquiry can act as a clearinghouse for accurate information about the pandemic, but it’s up to each person to heed that advice. We can help separate the truth from the myths, but we can’t force people to believe the truth. Be safe, practice social and cyber distancing, and wash your hands. 

 

This is the first in a series of original articles on the COVID-19 pandemic by the Center for Inquiry as part of its COVID-19 Resource Center, created to help the public address the crisis with evidence-based information. Please check back periodically for updates and new information. 

Apr 262020
 

There have been many pandemics throughout history, but none have taken place during such a connected time—both geographically and via social media. There’s a tendency to follow the news closely during times of emergency; especially when separated during isolation and quarantines, people are understandably desperate for information to keep their friends and family safe.

 

Overreacting and Underreacting

While scientists, doctors, nurses, epidemiologists, and others struggle to contain the disease, many are spending their self-isolating time on social media, sharing everything from useful information to dangerous misinformation to idle speculation. One thing most people can agree on is that other people and institutions aren’t handling the crisis correctly.

There’s much debate about whether Americans and governments are underreacting or overreacting to the pandemic threat. This is of course a logical fallacy, because there are some 330 million Americans, and the answer is that some Americans are doing one or the other; most Americans, however, are doing neither.

As The New York Times noted, “contrarian political leaders, ethicists and ordinary Americans have bridled at what they saw as a tendency to dismiss the complex trade-offs that the measures collectively known as ‘social distancing’ entail. Besides the financial ramifications of such policies, their concerns touch on how society’s most marginalized groups may fare and on the effect of government-enforced curfews on democratic ideals. Their questions about the current approach are distinct from those raised by some conservative activists who have suggested the virus is a politically inspired hoax, or no worse than the flu. Even in the face of a mounting coronavirus death toll, and the widespread adoption of the social distancing approach, these critics say it is important to acknowledge all the consequences of decisions intended to mitigate the virus’s spread.”

Recently the governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, joined much of the country in finally ordering citizens to stay at home to slow the spread of the disease, after suggesting that other states were unnecessarily overreacting to the threat. Kemp inexplicably claimed to have only recently learned that the virus can be spread by asymptomatic carriers—something widely known and reported by health officials for well over a month.

On social media, the issue of how and whether the threat is being exaggerated often breaks along political party lines, with conservatives seeing the danger as exaggerated or an outright hoax. There are countless examples of divisive rhetoric, and many are framing the pandemic in terms of class warfare (for example pitting the rich against the poor) or spinning the outbreak to suit other social and political agendas. It’s understandable, but not helpful. Pointing out that the wealthy universally have better access to health care than the poor is merely stating the obvious—like much pandemic information, true but unhelpful. It’s not going to prevent someone’s family member from catching the virus and not going to open schools or businesses any faster. This isn’t a time for what-about-ism or “they’re doing it too” replies; this is a time for unity and cooperation. Liberals, conservatives, independents, and everyone else would benefit from putting aside the blame-casting, demonizing rhetoric and unite against the real enemy: the COVID-19 virus that’s sickening and killing people across races and social strata.

At the same time, it’s important to recognize that the measures taken to slow the spread of the coronavirus in America and around the world—while necessary and effective—have taken a disproportionate toll on minorities. As Charles Blow wrote in The New York Times, “social distancing is a privilege …  this virus behaves like others, screeching like a heat-seeking missile toward the most vulnerable in society. And this happens not because it prefers them, but because they are more exposed, more fragile and more ill. What the vulnerable portion of society looks like varies from country to country, but in America, that vulnerability is highly intersected with race and poverty … . It is happening with poor people around the world, from New Delhi to Mexico City. If they go to work, they must often use crowded mass transportation, because low-wage workers can’t necessarily afford to own a car or call a cab.”

While each side likes to paint the other in extreme terms as under or overreacting, there’s plenty of common ground between these straw man positions. Most people are neither blithely and flagrantly ignoring medical advice (and the exceptions—such as widely maligned Spring Breakers on Florida beaches, some of whom have since been diagnosed with COVID-19—are newsworthy precisely because of their rarity) nor spending their days in masks and containment suits, terrified to go anywhere near others.

Idiots and Maniacs, Cassandras and Chicken Littles

People can take prudent precautions and still reasonably think or suspect that at least some of what’s going on in the world is an overreaction or underreaction. Policing other people’s opinions or shaming them because they’re taking the situation more (or less) seriously than we are is unhelpful. It’s like the classic George Carlin joke: “Anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac.”

Instead of seeing others as idiots and maniacs, panicky ninnies and oblivious fools, perhaps we can recognize that everyone is different. Some people are in poorer health than others; some people listen to misinformation more than others; and so on. People who were mocked online for wearing masks in public may be following their doctor’s orders; they may be sick or immunocompromised or have some other health issue that’s not apparent in the milliseconds we spend judging the situation before commenting. Or they may be ahead of the curve, with changing medical advice. Why not give them the benefit of the doubt and treat them as we’d like to be treated?

Whether people are underreacting or overreacting is a matter of opinion not fact. The truth is that we simply don’t know what will happen and how bad it will get. In many cases, we simply don’t have enough information to make accurate predictions, and when it comes to life and death topics such as disease outbreaks, the medical community wisely adopts a better-safe-than-sorry approach.

Both positions argue from a false certainty, a smugness that they know better than others do, that the Cassandras and Chicken Littles will get their comeuppance. Humans crave certainty, but science can’t offer it. Certainty is why psychic predictions such as Sylvia Browne’s (supposedly foretelling the outbreak, which I recently debunked) have such popular appeal. The same is true for conspiracy theories and religion: All offer certainty—the idea that whatever happens is being directed by hidden powers and all part of God’s plan (or the Illuminati’s schemes, take your pick).

Instead of bickering over how stupid or silly others are for however they’re reacting, it may be best to let them do their thing as long as it’s not hurting others. Polarization is a form of intolerance. Maybe this is a time to come together instead of mocking those who don’t share your opinions and fears. We all have different backgrounds and different tolerances for uncertainty.

This doesn’t mean that governments should be given license to do whatever they want, of course. Citizens differ on their opinions about everything the government does; there’s never universal agreement on anything (from gun control to education funding), and there’s no reason to assume that responses to COVID-19 would be any different. If you don’t like what measures state and federal governments are taking to stop the virus, welcome to the club. Some are of the opinion that too much is being done, while others think too little is being done. While the public noisily argue and finger point on social media, scientists around the world are working hard to develop better treatments and vaccines.

Before believing or sharing information on social media, ask yourself questions such as: Is it true? Is it from a reliable source? But also, is it helpful or useful? Does it promote unity or encourage divisiveness? Are you sharing it because it contains practical information important to people’s health? Or are you sharing it just to have something to talk about, some vehicle to share your opinions about? Be safe, practice social and cyber distancing, and wash your hands.

 

This article originally appeared as part of a series of original articles on the COVID-19 pandemic by the Center for Inquiry as part of its Coronavirus Resource Center, created to help the public address the crisis with evidence-based information. You can find it HERE. 

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 

Apr 232020
 

My article examines uncertainties in covid-19 data, from infection to death rates. While some complain that pandemic predictions have been exaggerated for social or political gain, that’s not necessarily true; journalism always exaggerates dangers, highlighting dire predictions. But models are only as good as the data that goes into them, and collecting valid data on disease is inherently difficult. People act as if they have solid data underlying their opinions, but fail to recognize that we don’t have enough information to reach valid conclusion…

You can read Part 1 Here.

 

Certainty and the Unknown Knowns

The fact that our knowledge is incomplete doesn’t mean that we don’t know anything about the virus; quite the contrary, we have a pretty good handle on the basics including how it spreads, what it does to the body, and how the average person can minimize their risk. 

Humans crave certainty and binary answers, but science can’t offer it. The truth is that we simply don’t know what will happen or how bad it will get. For many aspects of COVID-19, we don’t have enough information to make accurate predictions. In a New York Times interview, one victim of the disease reflected on the measures being taken to stop the spread of the disease: “We could look back at this time in four months and say, ‘We did the right thing’—or we could say, ‘That was silly … or we might never know.’” 

There are simply too many variables, too many factors involved. Even hindsight won’t be 20/20 but instead be seen by many through a partisan prism. We can never know alternative history or what would have happened; it’s like the concern over the “Y2K bug” two decades ago. Was it all over nothing? We don’t know because steps were taken to address the problem. 

But uncertainty has been largely ignored by pundits and social media “experts” alike who routinely discuss and debate statistics while glossing over—or entirely ignoring—the fact that much of it is speculation and guesswork, unanchored by any hard data. It’s like hotly arguing over what exact time a great-aunt’s birthday party should be on July 4, when all she knows is that she was born sometime during the summer. 

So, if we don’t know, why do people think they know or act as if they know? 

Part of this is explained by what in psychology is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect: “in many areas of life, incompetent people do not recognize—scratch that, cannot recognize—just how incompetent they are … . Logic itself almost demands this lack of self-insight: For poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack. To know how skilled or unskilled you are at using the rules of grammar, for instance, you must have a good working knowledge of those rules, an impossibility among the incompetent. Poor performers—and we are all poor performers at some things—fail to see the flaws in their thinking or the answers they lack.” 

Most people don’t know enough about epidemiology, statistics, or research design to have a good idea of how valid disease data and projections are. And of course, there’s no reason they would have any expertise in those fields, any more than the average person would be expected to have expertise in dentistry or theater. But the difference is that many people feel confident enough in their grasp of the data—or, often, confident enough in someone else’s grasp of the data, as reported via their preferred news source—to comment on it and endorse it (and often argue about it).  

Psychology of Uncertainty

Another factor is that people are uncomfortable admitting when they don’t know something or don’t have enough information to make a decision. If you’ve taken any standardized multiple-choice tests, you probably remember that some of the questions offered a tricky option, usually after three or four possibly correct specific answers. This is some version of “The answer cannot be determined from the information given.” This response (usually Option D) is designed in part to thwart guessing and to see when test-takers recognize that the question is insoluble or the premise incomplete. 

The principle applies widely in the real world. It’s difficult for many people—and especially experts, skeptics, and scientists—to admit they don’t know the answer to a question. Even if it’s outside our expertise, we often feel as if not knowing (or even not having a defensible opinion) is a sign of ignorance or failure. Real experts freely admit uncertainty about the data; Dr. Anthony Fauci has been candid about what he knows and what he doesn’t, responding for example when asked how many people could be carriers, “It’s somewhere between 25 and 50%. And trust me, that is an estimate. I don’t have any scientific data yet to say that. You know when we’ll get the scientific data? When we get those antibody tests out there.” 

Yet there are many examples in our everyday lives when we simply don’t have enough information to reach a logical or valid conclusion about a given question, and often we don’t recognize that fact. We routinely make decisions based on incomplete information, and unlike on standardized tests, in the real world of messy complexities there are not always clear-cut objectively verifiable answers to settle the matter. 

This is especially true online and in the context of a pandemic. Few people bother to chime in on social media discussions or threads to say that there’s not enough information given in the original post to reach a valid conclusion. People blithely share information and opinions without having the slightest clue as to whether it’s true or not. But recognizing that we don’t have enough information to reach a valid conclusion demonstrates a deeper and nuanced understanding of the issue. Noting that a premise needs more evidence or information to complete a logical argument and reach a valid conclusion is a form of critical thinking.

One element of conspiracy thinking is that those who disagree are either stupid (that is, gullible “sheeple” who believe and parrot everything they see in the news—usually specifically the “mainstream media” or “MSM”) or simply lying (experts and journalists across various media platforms who know the truth but are intentionally misleading the public for political or economic gain). This “If You Disagree with Me, Are You Stupid or Dishonest?” worldview has little room for uncertainty or charity and misunderstands the situation. 

The appropriate position to take on most coronavirus predictions is one of agnosticism. It’s not that epidemiologists and other health officials have all the data they need to make good decisions and projections about public health and are instead carefully considering ways to fake data to deceive the public and journalists. It’s that they don’t have all the data they need to make better predictions, and as more information comes in, the projections will get more accurate. The solution is not to vilify or demonize doctors and epidemiologists but instead to understand the limitations of science and the biases of news and social media.

 

This article first appeared at the Center for Inquiry Coronavirus Resource Page; please check it out for additional information. 

 

 

Apr 202020
 

My new article examines uncertainties in covid-19 data, from infection to death rates. While some complain that pandemic predictions have been exaggerated for social or political gain, that’s not necessarily true; journalism always exaggerates dangers, highlighting dire predictions. But models are only as good as the data that goes into them, and collecting valid data on disease is inherently difficult. People act as if they have solid data underlying their opinions, but fail to recognize that we don’t have enough information to reach valid conclusion…

 

There’s nothing quite like an international emergency—say, a global pandemic—to lay bare the gap between scientific models and the real world, between projections and speculations and what’s really going on in cities and hospitals around the world. 

A previous article discussed varieties of information about COVID-19, including information that’s true; information that’s false; information that’s trivially true (true but unhelpful); and speculation, opinion, and conjecture. Here we take a closer look at the role of uncertainty in uncertain times. 

Dueling Projections and Predictions

The record of wrong predictions about the coronavirus is long and grows by the hour. Around Valentine’s Day, the director of policy and emergency preparedness for the New Orleans health department, Sarah Babcock, said that Mardi Gras celebrations two weeks later should proceed, predicting that “The chance of us getting someone with coronavirus is low.” That projection was wrong, dead wrong: a month later the city would have one of the worst outbreaks of COVID-19 in the country, with correspondingly high death rates. Other projections have overestimated the scale of infections, hospitalizations, and/or deaths. 

It’s certainly true that many, if not most, news headlines about the virus are scary and alarmist; and that many, if not most, projections and predictions about COVID-19 are wrong to a greater or lesser degree. There’s a plague of binary thinking, and it’s circulating in many forms. One was addressed in the previous article: that of whether people are underreacting or overreacting to the virus threat. A related claim involves a quasi-conspiracy that news media and public health officials are deliberately inflating COVID-19 statistics. Some say it’s being done to make President Trump look incompetent at handling the pandemic; others say it’s being done on Trump’s behalf to justify coming draconian measures including Big Brother tracking. 

Many have suggested that media manipulation is to blame, claiming that numbers are being skewed by those with social or political agendas. There’s undoubtedly a grain of truth to that—after all, information has been weaponized for millennia—but there are more parsimonious (and less partisan) explanations for much of it, rooted in critical thinking and media literacy.

The Media Factors

In many cases, it’s not experts and researchers who skew information but instead news media who report on them. News and social media, by their nature, highlight the aberrant extremes. Propelled by human nature and algorithms, they selectively show the worst in society—the mass murders, the dangers, the cruelty, the outrages, and the disasters—and rarely profile the good. This is understandable, as bad things are inherently more newsworthy than good things.

To take one example, social media was recently flooded with photos of empty store shelves due to hoarding, and newscasts depict long lines at supermarkets. They’re real enough—but are they representative? Photos of fully stocked markets and calm shopping aren’t newsworthy or share-worthy, so they’re rarely seen (until recently when they in turn became unusual). The same happens when news media covers natural disasters; journalists (understandably) photograph and film the dozens of homes that were flooded or wrenched apart by a tornado, not the intact tens or hundreds of thousands of neighboring homes that were unscathed. This isn’t some conspiracy by the news media to emphasize the bad; it’s just the nature of journalism. But this often leads to a public who overestimates the terrible state of the world—and those in it—as well as fear and panic. 

Another problem are news stories (whether about dire predictions or promising new drugs or trends) that are reported and shared without sufficient context. An article in Health News Review discussed the problem of journalists stripping out important caveats: “Steven Woloshin, MD, co-director of the Center for Medicine and Media at The Dartmouth Institute, said journalists should view preprints [rough drafts of journal studies that have not been published nor peer-reviewed] as ‘a big red flag’ about the quality of evidence, similar to an animal study that doesn’t apply to humans or a clinical trial that lacks a control group. ‘I’m not saying the public doesn’t have the right to know this stuff,’ Woloshin said. ‘But these things are by definition preliminary. The bar should be really high’ for reporting them. In some cases, preprints have shown to be completely bogus … . Readers might not heed caveats about ‘early’ or ‘preliminary’ evidence, Woloshin said. ‘The problem is, once it gets out into the public it’s dangerous because people will assume it’s true or reliable.’”

One notable example of an unvetted COVID-19 news story circulating widely “sprung from a study that ran in a journal. The malaria medicine hydroxychloroquine, touted by President Trump as a potential ‘cure,’ gained traction based in part on a shaky study of just 42 patients in France. The study’s authors concluded that the drug, when used in combination with an antibiotic, decreased patients’ levels of the virus. However, the findings were deemed unreliable due to numerous methodological flaws. Patients were not randomized, and six who received the treatment were inappropriately dropped from the study.” Recently, a Brazilian study of the drug was stopped when some patients developed heart problems. 

Uncertainties in Models and Testing

In addition to media biases toward sensationalism and simplicity, experts and researchers often have limited information to work with, especially in predictions. There are many sources of error in the epidemiological data about COVID-19. Models are only as good as the information that goes into them; as they say: Garbage In, Garbage Out. This is not to suggest that all the data is garbage, of course, so it’s more a case of Incomplete Data In, Incomplete Data Out. As a recent article noted, “Models aren’t perfect. They can generate inaccurate predictions. They can generate highly uncertain predictions when the science is uncertain. And some models can be genuinely bad, producing useless and poorly supported predictions … .” But as to the complaint that the outbreak hasn’t been as bad as some earlier models predicted, “earlier projections showed what would happen if we didn’t adopt a strong response, while new projections show where our current path sends us. The downward revision doesn’t mean the models were bad; it means we did something.”

One example of the uncertainty of data is the number of COVID-19 deaths in New York City, one of the hardest-hit places. According to The New York Times, “the official death count numbers presented each day by the state are based on hospital data. Our most conservative understanding right now is that patients who have tested positive for the virus and die in hospitals are reflected in the state’s official death count.” 

All well and good, but “The city has a different measure: Any patient who has had a positive coronavirus test and then later dies—whether at home or in a hospital—is being counted as a coronavirus death, said Dr. Oxiris Barbot, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Health. A staggering number of people are dying at home with presumed cases of coronavirus, and it does not appear that the state has a clear mechanism for factoring those victims into official death tallies. Paramedics are not performing coronavirus tests on those they pronounce dead. Recent Fire Department policy says that death determinations on emergency calls should be made on scene rather than having paramedics take patients to nearby hospitals, where, in theory, health care workers could conduct post-mortem testing. We also don’t really know how each of the city’s dozens of hospitals and medical facilities are counting their dead. For example, if a patient who is presumed to have coronavirus is admitted to the hospital, but dies there before they can be tested, it is unclear how they might factor into the formal death tally. There aren’t really any mechanisms in place for having an immediate, efficient method to calculate the death toll during a pandemic. Normal procedures are usually abandoned quickly in such a crisis.”

People who die at home without having been tested of course won’t show up in the official numbers: “Counting the dead after most disasters—a plane crash, a hurricane, a gas explosion, a terror attack or a mass shooting, for example—is not complex. A virus raises a whole host of more complicated issues, according to Michael A.L. Balboni, who about a decade ago served as the head of the state’s public safety office. ‘A virus presents a unique set of circumstances for a cause of death, especially if the target is the elderly, because of the presence of comorbidities,’ he said—multiple conditions. For example, a person with COVID-19 may end up dying of a heart attack. ‘As the number of decedents increase,’ Mr. Balboni said, ‘so does the inaccuracy of determining a cause of death.’”

So while it might seem inconceivably Dickensian (or suspicious) to some that in 2020 quantifying something as seemingly straightforward as death is complicated, this is not evidence of deception or anyone “fudging the numbers” but instead an ordinary and predictable lack of uniform criteria and reporting standards. The international situation is even more uncertain; different countries have different guidelines, making comparisons difficult. Not all countries have the same criterion for who should be tested, for example, or even have adequate numbers of tests available. 

In fact, there’s evidence suggesting that if anything the official numbers are likely undercounting the true infections. Analysis of sewage in one metropolitan area in Massachusetts that officially has fewer than 500 confirmed cases revealed that there may be exponentially more undetected cases. 

Incomplete Testing

Some people have complained that everyone should be tested, suggesting that only rich are being tested for the virus. There’s a national shortage of tests, and in fact many in the public are being tested (about 1 percent of the public so far), but such complaints rather miss a larger point: Testing is of limited value to individuals.  

Testing should be done in a coordinated way, starting not with the general public but instead with the most seriously ill. Those patients should be quarantined until the tests come back, and if the result is positive, further measures should be taken including tracking down people who that patient may have come in contact with; in Wuhan, for example, contacts were asked to check their temperature twice a day and stay at home for two weeks. 

But testing people who may be perfectly healthy is a waste of very limited resources and testing kits; most of the world is asymptomatic for COVID-19. Screening the asymptomatic public is neither practical nor possible. Furthermore, though scientists are working on creating tests that yield faster and more accurate results, the ones so far have taken days. Because many people who carry the virus show no symptoms (or mild symptoms that mimic colds or even seasonal allergies), it’s entirely possible that a person could have been infected between the time they took the test and gotten a negative result back. So, it may have been true that a few days, or a week, earlier they hadn’t been infected, but they are now and don’t know it because they are asymptomatic or presymptomatic. The point is not that the tests are flawed or that people should be afraid, but instead that testing, by itself, is of little value to the patient because of these uncertainties. If anything, it could provide a false sense of security and put others at risk. 

As Dr. Paul Offit noted in a recent interview, testing for the virus is mainly of use to epidemiologists. “From the individual level, it doesn’t matter that much. If I have a respiratory infection, stay home. I don’t need to find out whether I have COVID-19 or not. Stay home. If somebody gets their test and they find out they have influenza, they’ll be relieved, as compared to if they have COVID-19, where they’re going to assume they’re going to die matter how old they are.” 

If you’re ill, on a practical level—unless you’re very sick or at increased risk, as mentioned above—it doesn’t really matter whether you have COVID-19 or not because a) there’s nothing you can do about it except wait it out, like any cold or flu; and b) you should take steps to protect others anyway. People should assume that they are infected and act as they would for any communicable disease: isolate, get rest, avoid unnecessary contact with others, wash hands, don’t touch your face, and so on. 

 

A version of this article appeared on the CFI Coronavirus Response Page, here.

Part 2 will be posted in a few days.

Apr 152020
 

For those who didn’t see it: A recent episode of Squaring the Strange revisited a classic mystery: The Bermuda Triangle! The Bermuda Triangle is a perennial favorite for seekers of the strange; Ben still gets calls regularly from students eager to ask him questions about this purported watery grave in the Caribbean. We look into the history of this mysterious place and a few factors that influenced its popularity. What does the Bermuda Triangle have to do with a college French class? And what does a new bit of 2020 shipwreck sleuthing have to do with the legend? The one thing the Bermuda Triangle does seem to suck in like a vortex is a kitchen sink of very weird theories, from Atlantis and UFOs to rogue tidal waves and magnetic time-space anomalies.

You can listen to it here! 

Apr 052020
 

In recent weeks there’s been many rumors, myths, and misinformation about the current coronavirus pandemic, Covid-19. One of the most curious is the recent resurrection of a posthumous prediction by psychic Sylvia Browne.

In her 2008 book End of Days, Browne predicted that “In around 2020 a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments. Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.”

This led to many on social media assuming that Browne had accurately predicted the Covid-19 outbreak, and Kim Kardashian among others shared such posts, causing the book to become a best-seller once again.

There’s a lot packed into these two sentences, and I recently did a deep dive into it. First, we have an indefinite date range (“in around 2020”), which depends on how loosely you interpret the word “around,” but plausibly covers seven (or more) years. Browne predicted “A severe pneumonia-like illness,” but Covid-19 is not “a severe pneumonia-like illness” (though it can in some cases lead to pneumonia). Most of those infected (about 80 percent) have mild symptoms and recover just fine, and the disease has a mortality rate of between 2 percent and 4 percent. Browne claims it “will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes,” and Covid-19 has indeed spread throughout the globe, but Browne also says the disease she’s describing “resists all known treatments.” This does not describe Covid-19; in fact, doctors know how to treat the disease—it’s essentially the same for influenza or other similar respiratory infections. This coronavirus is not “resisting” all (or any) known treatments.

She further describes the illness: “Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.” This is false; Covid-19 has not “suddenly vanished as quickly as it arrived,” and even if it eventually does, its emergence pattern would have to be compared with other typical epidemiology data to know whether it’s “baffling.”

You can read my full piece at the link above, but basically we have a two-sentence prediction written in 2008 by a convicted felon with a long track record of failures. Half of the prediction has demonstrably not happened. The other half of the prophecy describes an infectious respiratory illness that does not resemble Covid-19 in its particulars that would supposedly happen within a few years of 2020. At best, maybe one-sixth of what she said is accurate, depending again on how much latitude you’re willing to give her in terms of dates and vague descriptions.

Browne’s 2004 Prediction

But there’s more to the story, because as it turns out Browne made at least one other similar prediction with some significant differences. I discovered this a few days ago. I have several books by Browne in my library (mostly bought at Goodwill and library sales), among them Browne’s 2004 book Prophecy: What the Future Holds for You (written with Lindsay Harrison, from Dutton Publishing).

On p. 214, I found an earlier, somewhat different version of this same prophecy. Details and exact words matter, so here’s her 2004 prediction verbatim: “By 2020 we’ll see more people than ever wearing surgical masks and rubber gloves in public, inspired by an outbreak of a severe pneumonia-like illness that attacks both the lungs and the bronchial tubes and is ruthlessly resistant to treatment. This illness will be particularly baffling in that, after causing a winter of absolute panic, it will seem to vanish completely until ten years later, making both its source and its cure that much more mysterious.” 

Comparing this to her later 2008 version (“In around 2020 a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments. Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely”) we can see a few differences. 

It’s not uncommon for writers to revise and republish their work in different forms, sometimes changing or summarizing material for different formats and purposes. But in the case of predictions, it also serves an important, albeit unrecognized, purpose: It greatly increases the chances of a prediction—or, more accurately, some version of that prediction—being retroactively “right.” It’s one thing to make a single (seemingly specific) prediction about a future event; it’s another to make several different versions of that prediction so that your followers can pick and choose which details they think better fit the situation. 

Note that the earlier prediction—which said “By 2020” (a limited, much more specific date than “In around 2020,” which as I noted spans several years)—focused on “more people than ever wearing surgical masks and rubber gloves in public,” which was “inspired by an outbreak of a severe pneumonia-like illness that attacks both the lungs and the bronchial tubes and is ruthlessly resistant to treatment.”

It’s certainly true that surgical masks (and, to a much lesser extent, gloves) are much more common today than, say, in 2019, but that’s an obvious and predictable reaction—as Browne herself admits—to the outbreak she mentions. Had Browne predicted any respiratory disease outbreak and specified that more people would not react by wearing masks and gloves, that would itself be an amazing (if nonsensical) prophecy. While we’re on the topic of self-evident revelations, note that Browne’s phrase “Both the lungs and the bronchial tubes” is redundant and nonsensical, providing only the illusion of specificity, since bronchial tubes are inside the lungs; saying “both … and” is meaningless, like saying “both the face and the nose will be affected,” or “both the West Coast and California will be affected.” Either Browne doesn’t know where bronchial tubes are, or she assumes her readers don’t.

Note that “This illness will be particularly baffling in that, after causing a winter of absolute panic, it will seem to vanish completely until ten years later, making both its source and its cure that much more mysterious” was changed to “Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.”

Note that the qualifier “after causing a winter of absolute panic” was dropped from the earlier version—which is convenient for Browne, because the widespread panic surrounding Covid-19 didn’t begin in winter but instead in mid-March. (Of course, I’m not suggesting that Browne predicted in 2008 that her 2004 prediction would be wrong and changed the phrasing!)

Another noteworthy prediction dropped in the later edition was that the disease would seem to vanish completely after ten years, “making both its source and its cure that much more mysterious.” But “seeming to vanish completely” for a decade has nothing to do with whether “its source and its cure” are mysterious. The source of the outbreak has been pretty well established: Likely a meat market in Wuhan, China. The exact source, the specific name of the very first person that first had it (and where he or she got it from), the so-called Patient Zero, may never be known—not because it’s inherently “mysterious” but merely because epidemiology is a difficult task. 

It’s not clear what Browne means by a “cure” because viruses themselves can’t be “cured,” though the diseases they lead to can be prevented with vaccination. Like the common cold, influenza, and most other contagious respiratory illnesses, people are “cured” of Covid-19 when they recover from it. In any event, neither the source nor the “cure” (whatever that would mean the context of Covid-19) are “mysterious” by medical and epidemiological standards.

Browne’s Other Predictions

After I wrote a piece about Browne’s failed predictions, I soon received hate mail from many of her fans who defended the accuracy of her prophecy and demanded that I take a closer look at her predictions. So I did; many of her predictions are set far in the future, but I did find a few dozen in her book Prophecy: What the Future Holds for You that referred to events between the time the book was published (2004) and this year. Here’s a sampling, in chronological order:

• “There will be a significant vaccine against HIV/AIDS in 2005” (p. 211).

•  “The common cold will be over with by about 2009 or 2010” (p. 204)

•  “By around 2010, law enforcement’s use of psychics will ‘come out of the closet’ and be a commonplace, widely accepted collaboration” (p. 180).

•  “By around 2010, it will be mandated that a DNA sample of every infant born in the United States is taken and recorded at the time of the baby’s birth” (p. 182).

•  “In about 2011, home security systems start becoming common … The windows are unbreakable glass, able to be opened only by the homeowner … Doors and windows will no longer have visible, traditional locks that can be picked or tampered with. Instead the security system allows access … by ‘eyeprints’” (p. 169).

•  “There won’t be a successful manned exploration of Mars until around 2012” (p. 128).

•  “In around 2012 or 2013 a coalition of five major international corporations … will combine their almost limitless resources and mobilize a vast, worldwide, ultimately successful movement to revitalize the rainforests” (p. 105).

•  “By around 2014, pills, capsules, and even most liquid medicine will be replaced by readily accessible vaporized heat and oxygen chambers that can infuse every pore of the body with the recommended medications” (p. 209). 

•  “By the year 2015 invasive surgery involving cutting and scalpels and stitches and scars will be virtually unheard of” (p. 205).

•  “Telemarketers will have long since vanished by 2015” (p. 171).

•  “To give law enforcement one more added edge, by 2015 their custom-designed high-speed vehicles will be atomically powered and capable of becoming airborne enough to fly several feet above other traffic” (p. 190).

•  “The search for extraterrestrials will ultimately end in around 2018 … because they begin stepping forward and identifying themselves to various international organizations and heads of state, particularly the United Nations, NATO, Scotland Yard, NASA, and a summit being held at Camp David” (p. 127).

•  “By the year 2020 researchers will have created a wonderful material … able to perfectly duplicate the eardrum and will be routinely implanted, to restore hearing to countless thousands … Long before 2020, blindness will become a thing of the past” (p. 203).

•  “By 2020 we’re going to see an end to the institution of marriage as we know it” (p. 255).

•  “By about 2020 we’ll see the end of the one-man presidency and the costly, seemingly perpetual cycle of presidential campaigns and elections” (p. 135). 

•  “The year 2020 will spark an amazing resurgence in the popularity of the barter system throughout the United States, with goods and services almost becoming a more common form of payment than cash” (p. 140–141).

 

There’s more—oh, so much more—but you get the idea. Hundreds of predictions, mostly wrong, vague, unverifiable, in the distant future, some right, and so on. On p. 97 of Prophecy: What the Future Holds For You Browne claims that “my accuracy rate is somewhere between 87 and 90 percent if I’m recalling correctly.” Yet another failed prediction. 

 

Apr 032020
 

The new episode of Squaring the Strange is now out, for those who want a break from virus bad news. Celestia, Kenny Biddle, and I tracked psychic detectives’s involvement in current cases. In this part 2 of the show, I talk about my examination of a 14-year-old Ohio boy who went missing last Christmas and the psychic detectives involved. Details of the case might be disturbing to some, but it’s an important topic.

Please check it out, you can listen HERE! 

Apr 012020
 

There’s a natural—almost Pavlovian—tendency to follow the news closely, especially during times of emergency such as wars, terrorism, and natural disasters. People are understandably desperate for information to keep their friends and family safe, and part of that is being informed about what’s going on. 

News and social media are awash with information about the covid-19 pandemic. But not all the information is equally valid, useful, or important. It’s easy to become overwhelmed, and science-informed laypeople are likely suffering this information overload keenly, as we absorb the firehose of information from a wide variety of sources: from the White House to the CDC, and from conspiracy cranks to Goop contributors. It’s a never ending stream—often a flood—of information, and those charged with trying to sort it out are quickly inundated. As important as news is, there is such a thing as medical TMI.

We have a Goldilocks situation when it comes to covid-19 material. There’s too little, too much, and just the right amount of information about the covid-19 virus in the news and social media. This sounds paradoxical until we break down each type of information. 

Types of Covid-19 Information

In thinking about the covid-19 outbreak and the deluge of opinion, rumor, and news out there, it’s helpful to parse out the different types of information. 

1) Information that’s true

This includes the most important, practical information—how to avoid it: Wash your hands, avoid crowds, don’t touch your face, sanitize surfaces, and so on. This type of information has been proven accurate and consistent since the outbreak began. This is of course the smallest category of information: mundane but vital. 

2) Information that’s false 

Information that’s false includes a wide variety of rumors, miracle cures, misinformation, and so on. The Center for Inquiry’s Covid Resource Center has been set up precisely to help journalists and the public debunk this false information. The problem is made worse by the fact that Russian disinformation organizations—which have a long and proven history of sowing false and misleading information in social media around the world, and particularly in the United States—have seized on the covid-19. 

3) Speculation, opinion, and conjecture

In times of uncertainty, prediction and speculation are rampant. Dueling projections about the outbreak vary by orders of magnitude as experts and social media pundits alike share their speculation. Of course, epidemiological models are only as good as the data that goes into them and are based on many premises, variables, and numerous unknowns. 

Wanting to accurately know the future is of course a venerable tradition. But as a recent post on Medium written by an epidemiologist noted: “Here is a simple fact: every prediction you’ve read on the numbers of COVID-19 cases or deaths is almost certainly wrong. All models are wrong. Some models are useful. It is very easy to draw a graph using an exponential curve and tell everyone that there will be 10 million cases by next Friday. It is far harder to model infectious disease epidemics with any accuracy. Stop making graphs and putting them online. Stop reading the articles by well-meaning people who have no idea what they are doing. The real experts aren’t posting random Excel graphs on twitter, because they are working flat-out to try and get a handle on the epidemic.” 

4) Information that’s true but not helpful

Finally, there’s another, less-recognized category: information that is true but not helpful on an individual level, or what might be called “trivially true.” We usually think of false information being shared as harmful—and it certainly is—but trivially true information can also be harmful to public health. Even when it’s not directly harmful, it adds to the background of noise.

News media and social media are flooded with information and speculation that—even if accurate—is of little practical use to the average person. Much of the information is not helpful, useful, actionable, or applicable to daily life. It’s like in medicine and psychology what’s called “clinical significance”: the practical importance of a treatment effect—whether it has a real, genuine, palpable, and noticeable effect on daily life. A finding may be true, may be statistically significant, but be insignificant in the real world. A new medicine may reduce pain by 5 percent but nobody would create or market it because it’s not clinically significant; a 5 percent reduction in pain isn’t useful compared to other pain relievers with better efficacy. 

One example might include photos of empty store shelves widely shared on social media, depicting the run on supplies such as sanitizer and toilet paper. The information is both true and accurate; it’s not being faked or staged. But it’s not helpful, because it leads to panic buying, social contagion, and hoarding as people perceive a threat to their welfare and turn an artificial scarcity into a real one. 

Another example is Trump’s recent reference to the covid-19 virus as “the China virus.” Ignoring the fact that diseases aren’t named for where they emerge, we can acknowledge that it’s technically accurate that, as Trump claimed, covid-19 was first detected in China—and also that it’s not a relevant or useful detail. It doesn’t add to the discussion or help anyone’s understanding of what the disease is or how to deal with it. If anything, referring to it by other terms such as “the China virus” or “Wuhan flu” is likely to cause confusion and even foment racism.  

Before believing or sharing information on social media, ask yourself questions such as: Is it true? Is it from a reliable source? But there are other questions to ask: Even if it may be factually true, is it helpful or useful? Does it promote unity or encourage divisiveness? Are you sharing it because it contains practical information important to people’s health? Or are you sharing it just to have something to talk about, some vehicle to share your opinions about? The signal-to-noise ratio is already skewed against useful information, being drowned out by false information, speculation, opinion, and trivially true information.  

Social Media Distancing

While self-isolating from the disease (and those who might carry it) is vital to public health, there’s a less-discussed aspect: self-distancing from social media information on the virus, which is a form of social media hygiene. Six feet is enough distance in physical space, but doesn’t apply to cyberspace where viral misinformation spreads unchecked (until it hits this site).

The analogy between disease and misinformation is apt. Just as you can be a vector for a virus if you get and spread it, you can be a vector for misinformation and fear. But you can stop it by removing yourself from it. You don’t need hourly updates on most aspects of the pandemic. Most of what you see and read isn’t relevant to you. The idea is not to ignore important and useful information about the coronavirus; in fact, it’s exactly the opposite: to better distinguish the news from the noise, the relevant from the irrelevant. 

Doctors around the world have been photographed sharing signs that say “We’re at work for you. Please stay home for us.” That’s excellent advice, but we can take it further. While at home not becoming a vector for disease, also take steps not to become a vector for misinformation. After all, doing so can have just as much of an impact on public health. 

During a time when people are isolated, it’s cathartic to vent on social media. Humans are social creatures, and we find ways to connect even when we can’t physically. Especially during a time of international crisis, it’s easy to become outraged about one or another aspect of the pandemic. Everyone has opinions about what is (or isn’t) being done, what should (or shouldn’t) be done. Everyone’s entitled to those opinions, but they should be aware that those opinions expressed on social media have consequences and may well harm others, albeit unintentionally. Just as it feels good to physically hang out with other people (but may in fact be dangerous to them), it feels good to let off steam to others in your social circles (but may be dangerous to them). Your steam makes others in your feed get steamed too, and so on. Again, it’s the disease vector analogy. 

You don’t know who will end up seeing your posts and comments (such is the nature of “viral” posts and memes), and while you may think little of it, others may be more vulnerable. Just as people take steps to protect those with compromised immune systems, it may be wise to take similar steps to protect those with compromised psychological defenses on social media—those suffering from anxiety, depression, or other issues who are especially vulnerable at this time. 

This isn’t about self-censorship; there are many ways to reach out to others and share concerns and feelings in a careful and less public way through email, direct messaging, video calls, and even—gasp—good old fashioned letters. Like anything else, people can express feelings and concerns in measured, productive ways, ways that are more (or less) likely to harm others (referring to it as “covid-19” instead of “the Chinese virus” is one example). 

Though the public loves to blame the news media for misinformation—and deservedly so—we are less keen to see the culprit in the mirror. Many people, especially on social media, fail to recognize that they have become de facto news outlets through the stories and posts they share. The news media helps spread myriad “fake news” stories—gleefully aided by ordinary people like us. We cannot control what news organizations (or anyone else) publishes or puts online. But we can—and indeed we have an obligation to—help stop the spread of misinformation in all its forms. 

It’s overwhelming; it’s too much. In psychology there’s what’s called the Locus of Control. It basically means the things which a person has control over: themselves, their immediate family, their pets, most aspects of their lives, and so on. It’s psychologically healthy to focus on those things you can do something about. You can’t do anything about how many deaths there are in China or Italy. You can’t do anything about whether or not medical masks are being manufactured and shipped quickly enough. But you can do something about bad information online. 

It can be as simple as not forwarding, liking, or sharing that dubious news story before checking the facts, especially if that story seems crafted to encourage social outrage. We can help separate the truth from the myths, but we can’t force people to believe the truth. Be safe, practice social and cyber distancing, and wash your hands. 

 

A longer version of this appeared on the Center for Inquiry site; you can find it here. 

Mar 292020
 

The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! The first of a two-parter, in this episode Celestia and Kenny Biddle each examined recent (then-current) missing person cases and closely examined how psychic detectives “helped” (or interfered) with each. A sobering topic but we think you’ll find it enlightening. Please check it out HERE!

 

Mar 232020
 

Our recent episode of Squaring the Strange is about literary hoaxes!

I discuss some “misery memoirs,” stories of victims triumphing over incredible hardships (Spoiler: “Go Ask Alice” was fiction). Celestia discusses newspaper reports of horny bat-people on the moon, and we break down the cultural factors that contribute to the popularity and believability of hoaxes. We end with the heart-wrenching story of a literary version of Munchausen by proxy, one that moved both Oprah and Mr. Rogers. Check it out HERE! 

 

Mar 202020
 

For my Russian-speaking friends, I present my appearance on a Russian television show talking about monster folklore. Though Moscow paid for it, I promise my part (around 19 minutes in) is not Putin’s dezinformatsiya, and I got no Shill Rubles for it!

You can see it HERE! 

 

As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) nears its three-year anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen!

Mar 152020
 

I was recently editing a piece by Rob Palmer (perhaps better known as “The Well-Known Skeptic”) on the subject of misinformation he encountered in the middle of the world. Or, put another way, bogus information on the equator in Ecuador (a country named after the equator).

I had a particular interest in the topic, having visited the equator near the Colombian border and listening to a tour guide give information I knew was simply false, about several equator-related myths including egg balancing. I wrote a column about it for Skeptical Inquirer magazine (July/August 2016) and discussed it on my podcast, Squaring the Strange.

Tour guide in Ecuador balancing an egg on the equator (a feat that can be done anywhere)
The author balancing the same egg away from the equator

In the process of fact-checking something for the Palmer piece (I’ve forgotten what), I happened to come across a short article for PrevueMeetings titled “3 Strange Equator Tests to Try in Quito, Ecuador,” by a writer named Jessie Fetterling.

It featured three “tricks”: the water-funneling trick (in which water drains in opposite directions above and below the equator); the finger-pulling trick (“involves one person holding their thumb and forefinger in an O shape. On the north and south side, it’s very difficult for someone else to pry them apart. However, on the equator, that same person trying to pry them apart can do so with ease”); and last, my personal favorite, the egg balancing trick (balancing an egg upright on a nailhead). All these have been widely debunked for years, and the explanations can be found at the links above.

I generally don’t spend much time correcting errors and misinformation I find online—who’s got time for that?—but sometimes as a courtesy to the writer I’ll send them a quick note. As a writer myself, I’m well aware that anything I put out into the world (especially online) reflects on me and my scholarship. No one likes to be told they’re wrong about something, but I appreciate it when people point out an error in my articles, so that I can correct it. Unlike an opinion piece, nonfiction writers have an obligation to their readers to get facts right as best they can—especially if those readers might use that information in some way.

I noticed that the website, PrevueMeetings, is “a multi-platform brand that inspires planners by providing immersive experiential travel coverage, professional development,” and so on. I’m not fluent in corporatespeak but Fetterling’s article promoted the tricks as “fun tests for attendees visiting the famous line and its Inti Nan Solar Museum to prove they are standing at the center of the Earth. Here are three that go beyond the typical sun-dial observation (that faces upward instead of horizontal on the equator) for planners to incorporate into a team building program.”

Team building activities are great and all, but should be based on truth and facts, not myths. If anything, these could badly backfire if any of the participants have a background in science or critical thinking, because it would undermine the credibility of those who endorse these myths. If I were in a team-building program and being shown “amazing facts and feats” that were easily debunked with high school science and/or a few keystrokes, I’d frankly wonder what else the host company told us was wrong. I’d be mortified to be a team leader or team building programmer and have one or more of the participants raise their hands during a demonstration and say, “Um, I took science courses in college and I don’t think this is right…”

I decided that the best thing would be to just write a reply, since the story offered a Reply box for comments. I typed in a short, concise, polite somment and finished Palmer’s article.

I thought nothing more about it until a few weeks later it crossed my mind to see if Fetterling’s article had been corrected or updated—or at the very least that my corrective reply had posted. It had not, remaining unapproved by a moderator and unposted.

I realized that PrevueMeetings might not want to have any comments showing that an article that appeared on their site was wrong. That was their choice of course—though it seemed to defeat the purpose of allowing people to reply to the piece; maybe they only approved positive comments. Nevertheless I felt obligated to contact Fetterling to let her know—after all, as a self-described travel junkie the article has her name on it, and it’s a significant error: the entire premise was flawed. It wasn’t a matter of fixing a date or spelling, it would have to be rewritten. Better yet, it could be updated and used as a critical thinking team building exercise: “Here’s three common myths about the equator—but are they true? How can we use logic and research to prove or debunk them?”

I contacted her, via both her website and Twitter, politely noting that her information was wrong, and providing links and references in case she wanted to correct it.

I never heard back, and today the article remains exactly as it has for three years, misinforming people about “tricks” at the equator. That’s okay with me, I’ve done due diligence. But this short story explains why and how bad information is sometimes created and perpetuated.

Calling “bullshit!” isn’t always enough—unless maybe you do it loudly in front of your team-building captain as she’s cheered for balancing an egg on a nail.

 

A different version of this article originally appeared on my CFI blog; you can read it HERE!

 

As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) nears its three-year anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen!

Mar 122020
 

The recent Squaring the Strange is even more awesome than most! We talk with expert Ron Pine about the Minnesota Iceman, a “sasquatchcicle” hoax of truly epic proportions. How did a sideshow gaffe fool two prominent cryptid researchers, and make it all the way to the Smithsonian for (limited) examination? What does J. Edgar Hoover have to do with this? Or a reclusive California millionaire? Listen and find out!

 

Mar 082020
 

So this is cool: I’m quoted in an article on Bigfoot in The Mountaineer: 

If you wear a size 14 shoe, chances are some of your high-school classmates called you “Bigfoot.” But that doesn’t mean you are an ape-like beast who may — or may not — just be a myth. A 1958 newspaper column began the whole thing. The Humboldt Times received a letter from a reader reporting loggers in California who had stumbled upon mysterious and excessively large footprints. The two journalists who reported the discovery treated it as a joke. But to their great surprise, the story caught on and soon spread far and wide. Bigfoot was born. Of course, reports of large beasts were not exactly new. The Tibetans had a Yeti, familiarly known as the “Abominable Snowman,” and an Indian Nation in Canada had its “Sasquatch.”

Guess what? Cochran found out the hair did not belong to Bigfoot. It was sent back to Byrne, with the conclusion it belonged to the deer family. Four decades later, the FBI declassified the “bigfoot file” about having done this analysis.“Byrne was one of the more prominent Bigfoot researchers,” said Benjamin Radford, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer magazine. “In the 1970s, Bigfoot was very popular.”

You can read the rest of the article HERE! 

 

As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) nears its three-year anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen!

Mar 052020
 

As the world enters its third  full month dealing with the deadly coronavirus, misinformation is running rampant. For many, the medical and epidemiological aspects of the outbreak are the most important and salient elements, but there are other prisms through which we can examine this public health menace. 

There are many facets to this outbreak, including economic damage, cultural changes, and so on. However, my interest and background is in media literacy, psychology, and folklore (including rumor, legend, and conspiracy), and my focus here is a brief overview of some of the lore surrounding the current outbreak. Before I get into the folkloric aspects of the disease, let’s review the basics of what we know so far. 

First, the name is a bit misleading; it’s a coronavirus, not the coronavirus. Coronavirus is a category of viruses; this one is dubbed “Covid-19.” Two of the best known and most deadly other coronaviruses are SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, first identified in 2003) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, identified in 2012). 

The symptoms of Covid-19 are typical of influenza and include a cough, sometimes with a fever, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea. Most (about 80 percent) of infected patients recover within a week or two, like patients with a bad cold. The other 20 percent contract severe infections such as pneumonia, sometimes leading to death. The virus Covid-19 is spreading faster than either MERS or SARS, but it’s much less deadly than either of those. The death rate for Covid-19 is 2 percent, compared to 10 percent for SARS and 35 percent for MERS. There’s no vaccine, and because it’s not bacterial, antibiotics won’t help. 

The first case was reported in late December 2019 in Wuhan, China. About a month later the Health and Human Services Department declared a U.S. public health emergency. The average person is at very low risk, and Americans are at far greater risk of getting the flu—about 10 percent of the public gets it each year. Three cruise ships and several airplanes have been quarantined. There are about a dozen confirmed cases in the U.S., and most of the infected are in China or are people who visited there. Though the number of people infected in China sounds alarming, keep in mind the country’s population of 1.4 billion. 

The information issues can be roughly broken down into three (at times overlapping) categories: 1) Lack of information; 2) Misinformation; and 3) Disinformation. 

Lack of Information

The lack of information stems from the fact that scientists are still learning about this specific virus. Much is known about it from information gathered so far (summarized above), but much remains to be learned. 

The lack of information has been complicated by a lack of transparency by the Chinese government, which has sought to stifle early alarms about it raised by doctors, including Li Wenliang, who recently died. As The New York Times reported:

On Friday, the doctor, the doctor, Li Wenliang, died after contracting the very illness he had told medical school classmates about in an online chat room, the coronavirus. He joined the more than 600 other Chinese who have died in an outbreak that has now spread across the globe. Dr. Li “had the misfortune to be infected during the fight against the novel coronavirus pneumonia epidemic, and all-out efforts to save him failed,” the Wuhan City Central Hospital said on Weibo, the Chinese social media service. Even before his death, Dr. Li had become a hero to many Chinese after word of his treatment at the hands of the authorities emerged. In early January, he was called in by both medical officials and the police, and forced to sign a statement denouncing his warning as an unfounded and illegal rumor. 

Chinese officials were slow to share information and admit the scope of the outbreak. This isn’t necessarily evidence of a conspiracy—governments are often loathe to admit bad news or potentially embarrassing or damaging information (recall that it took nearly a week for Iran to admit it had unintentionally shot down a passenger airliner over its skies in January)—but part of the Chinese government’s long standing policies of restricting news reporting and social media. Nonetheless, China’s actions have fueled anxiety and conspiracies; more on that presently. 

Misinformation

There are various types of misinformation, revolving around a handful of central concerns typical of disease rumors. In his book An Epidemic of Rumors: How Stories Shape Our Perceptions of Disease, Jon D. Lee notes:

People use certain sets of narratives to discuss the presence of illness, mediate their fears of it, come to terms with it, and otherwise incorporate its presence into their daily routines … Some of these narratives express a harsher, more paranoid view of reality than others, some are openly racist and xenophobic, and some are more concerned with issues of treatment and prevention than blame—but all revolve around a single emotion in all its many forms: fear. (169) 

As Lee mentions, one common aspect is xenophobia and contamination fears. Many reports, in news media but on social media especially, focus on the “other,” the dirty aberrant outsiders who “created” or spread the menace. Racism is a common theme in rumors and urban legends—what gross things “they” eat or do. As Prof. Andrea Kitta notes in her book The Kiss of Death: Contagion, Contamination, and Folklore

The intriguing part of disease legends is that, in addition to fear of illness, they express primarily a fear of outsiders … Patient zero [the assumed origin of the “new” disease] not only provides a scapegoat but also serves as an example to others: as long as people do not act in the same way as patient zero, they are safe. (27–28)

In the case of Covid-19, rumors have suggested that seemingly bizarre (to Americans anyway) eating habits of Chinese were to blame, specifically bats. One video circulated allegedly showing Chinese preparing bat soup, suggesting it was the cause of the outbreak, though it was later revealed to have been filmed in Palau, Micronesia. 

The idea of disease and death coming from “unclean” practices has a long history. One well known myth is that AIDS originated when someone (presumably an African man) had sex with a monkey or ape. This linked moralistic views of sexuality with the later spread of the disease, primarily among the homosexual community. More likely, however, chimps with simian immunodeficiency virus were killed and eaten for game meat, which is documented, which in turn transferred the virus to humans and spawned HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), which in turn causes AIDS. 

The fear of foreigners and immigrants bringing disease to the country was of course raised a few years ago when a Fox News contributor suggested without evidence that a migrant caravan from Honduras and Guatemala coming through Mexico carried leprosy, smallpox, and other dreaded diseases. This claim was quickly debunked

Disinformation and Conspiracies

Then there are the conspiracies, prominent among them the disease’s origin. Several are circulating, claiming for example that Covid-19 is in fact a bioweapon that has either been intentionally deployed or escaped/stolen from a secure top secret government lab. Some have claimed that it’s a plot (by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or another NGO or Big Pharma) to sell vaccines—apparently unaware that there is no vaccine available at any price. 

This is a classic conspiracy trope, evoked to explain countless bad things, ranging from chupacabras to chemtrails and diseases. This is similar to urban legends and rumors in the African American community, claiming that AIDS was created by the American government to kill blacks, or that soft drinks and foods (Tropical Fantasy soda and Church’s Fried Chicken, for example) contained ingredients that sterilized the black community (for more on this, see Patricia Turner’s book I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-America Culture.) In Pakistan and India, public health workers have been attacked and even killed trying to give polio vaccinations, rumored to be part of an American plot.

Of course such conspiracies go back centuries. As William Naphy notes in his book Plagues, Poisons, and Potions: Plague Spreading Conspiracies in the Western Alps c. 1530-1640, people were accused of intentionally spreading the bubonic plague. Most people believed that the plague was a sign of God’s wrath, a pustular and particularly punitive punishment for the sin of straying from Biblical teachings. “Early theories saw causes in: astral conjunctions, the passing of comets; unusual weather conditions … noxious exhalations from the corpses on battlefields” and so on (vii). Naphy notes that “In 1577, Claude de Rubys, one of the city’s premier orators and a rabid anti-Protestant, had openly accused the city’s Huguenots of conspiring to destroy Catholics by giving them the plague” (174). Confessions, often obtained under torture, implicated low-paid foreigners who had been hired to help plague victims and disinfect their homes. 

Other folkloric versions of intentional disease spreading include urban legends of AIDS-infected needles placed in payphone coin return slots. Indeed, that rumor was part of an older and larger tradition; as folklorist Gillian Bennett notes in her book Bodies: Sex Violence, Disease, and Death in Contemporary Legend, in Europe and elsewhere “Stories proliferated about deliberately contaminated doorknobs, light switches, and sandboxes on playgrounds” (115).

How to Get, Prevent, or Cure It

Various theories have surfaced online suggesting ways to prevent the virus. They include avoiding spicy food (which doesn’t work); eating garlic (which also doesn’t work); and drinking bleach (which really, really doesn’t work). 

In addition, there’s also something called MMS, or “miracle mineral solution,” and the word miracle in the name should be a big red flag about its efficacy. The solution is 28 percent sodium chlorite mixed in distilled water, and there are reports that it’s being sold online for $900 per gallon (or if that’s a bit pricey, you can get a four-ounce bottle for about $30).

The FDA takes a dim view of this, noting that it 

has received many reports that these products, sold online as “treatments,” have made consumers sick. The FDA first warned consumers about the products in 2010. But they are still being promoted on social media and sold online by many independent distributors. The agency strongly urges consumers not to purchase or use these products. The products are known by various names, including Miracle or Master Mineral Solution, Miracle Mineral Supplement, MMS, Chlorine Dioxide Protocol, and Water Purification Solution. When mixed according to package directions, they become a strong chemical that is used as bleach. Some distributors are making false—and dangerous—claims that Miracle Mineral Supplement mixed with citric acid is an antimicrobial, antiviral, and antibacterial liquid that is a remedy for autism, cancer, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, flu, and other conditions. 

It’s true that bleach can kill viruses—when used full strength on surfaces, not when diluted and ingested. They’re two very different things; confuse the two at your great peril. 

Folk remedies such as these are appealing because they are something that victims (and potential victims) can do—some tangible way they can take action and assume control over their own health and lives. Even if the treatment is unproven or may be just a rumor, at least they feel like they’re doing something.

There have been several false reports and rumors of outbreaks in local hospitals across the country, including in Los Angeles, Santa Clarita, and in Dallas County, Texas. In all those cases, false social media posts have needlessly alarmed the public—and in some cases spawned conspiracy theories. After all, some random, anonymous mom on Facebook shared a screen-captured Tweet from some other random person who had a friend of a friend with “insider information” about some anonymous person in a local hospital who’s dying with Covid-19—but there’s nothing in the news about it! Who are you going to believe? 

Then there’s Canadian rapper/YouTube cretin James Potok, who last week stood up near the end of his WestJet flight from Toronto to Jamaica and announced loudly to the 240 passengers that he had just come from Wuhan, China, and “I don’t feel too well.” He recorded it with a cell phone, planning to post it online as a funny publicity stunt. Flight attendants reseated him, and the plane returned to Toronto where police and medical professionals escorted him off the plane. Of course he tested negative and was promptly arrested.

When people are frightened by diseases, they cling to any information and often distrust official information. These fears are amplified by the fact that the virus is of course invisible to the eye, and the fears are fueled by ambiguity and uncertainty about who’s a threat. The incubation period for Covid-19 seems to be between two days and two weeks, during which time asymptomatic carriers could potentially infect others. The symptoms are common and indistinguishable from other viruses, except when confirmed with lab testing, which of course requires time, equipment, a doctor visit, and so on. Another factor is that people are very poor at assessing relative risk in general anyway (for example, fearing plane travel over statistically far more dangerous car travel). They often panic over alarmist media reports and underestimate their risk of more mundane threats.

The best medical advice for dealing with Covid-19: Thoroughly cook meat, wash your hands, and stay away from sick people … basically the same advice you get for avoiding any cold or airborne virus. Face masks don’t help much, unless you are putting them on people who are already sick and coughing. Most laypeople use the masks incorrectly anyway, and hoarding has led to a shortage for medical workers. 

Hoaxes, misinformation, and rumors can cause real harm during public health emergencies. When people are sick and desperately afraid of a scary disease, any information will be taken seriously by some people. False rumors can not only kill but can hinder public health efforts. The best advice is to keep threats in perspective, recognize the social functions of rumors, and heed advice from medical professionals instead of your friend’s friend on Twitter. 

Further Reading

An Epidemic of Rumors: How Stories Shape Our Perceptions of Disease, Jon D. Lee

Bodies: Sex Violence, Disease, and Death in Contemporary Legend, Gillian Bennett

I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-America Culture, Patricia Turner

Plagues, Poisons, and Potions: Plague Spreading Conspiracies in the Western Alps c. 1530-1640, William Naphy

The Global Grapevine: Why Rumors of Terrorism, Immigration, and Trade Matter, Gary Alan Fine and Bill Ellis
The Kiss of Death: Contagion, Contamination, and Folklore, Andrea Kitta

 

A different version of this article originally appeared in my blog for the Center for Inquiry; you can find it HERE. 

 

As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) nears its three-year anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen!

Mar 022020
 

I’m quoted in a new article about real estate omens and superstitions at Realtor.com! 

“An outdated kitchen and a lack of curb appeal aren’t the only things that can keep buyers from biting. When it seems like there’s just no explanation for a perfectly good home sitting on the market, you might consider other possible causes. Certain items, colors, and symbols have been thought to attract malicious forces to an otherwise peaceful abode. And while some people scoff at such beliefs, others take them seriously—and not just around Halloween.

“There are countless folkloric beliefs, and savvy homeowners are smart to acknowledge and respect such beliefs, whether they share them or not,” says Benjamin Radford, deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and co-host of the “Squaring the Strange” podcast.”

 

You can see the rest HERE! 

 

As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) nears its three-year anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen!

Feb 202020
 

In case you missed it, our recent show was on the Mothman, a creature first spotted in the 1960s in rural West Virginia. Ben takes us on a tour of the area and discusses his trip there to help research the creature for a German television show. Like many cryptids, Mothman has gone through several incarnations and taken a few turns on its modern folkloric journey, from men-in-black conspiracies to Native American curses. And what do Point Pleasant residents think of their peculiar neighborhood monster, who brings with it a fully stocked museum and annual festival? From its glowing red eyes to its comic book abs and (by some accounts) grey feathery wings, we examine what makes Mothman tick.

You can listen to the show HERE. 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 

Feb 182020
 

I’ve investigated hundreds—probably thousands—of things in my career as a skeptic and researcher, from misleading polls to chupacabra vampire legends. Some investigations take hours or days; others take weeks or months, and a rare few take years. It all depends on the scope of the investigation and how much information you have to analyze. In some cases a mystery can’t be solved until some other information is released or revealed, such as a medical or forensics test.

However there are some mysteries that can be solved in less than a minute. This short piece offers one quick example.

I came across a “news” headline on several Facebook friend’s walls stating that “85% of People Hate Their Jobs, Gallup Poll Finds.”

It’s a false story. In this case, three clicks of a mouse, each on a different link seeking a source, led me to the origin of the myth. If you’re a slow reader, of course, it will take longer than if you can quickly skim the page or report, but with practice this could be done in just a few minutes.

The first step is a sort of skeptical sense that there’s maybe something to investigate, some claim that is false or exaggerated. After all, we see countless news stories and social media posts online daily, and the average person rarely if ever fact-checks them. One red flag is the source: where did the information come from? Is it a reputable, known news organization or is it some random website you’ve never heard of? To be clear: reputable news organizations sometimes get information wrong, and perfectly valid and accurate information often appears on obscure sites and blogs.

But in this case the information was clearly presented as a news story. It is formatted as a news headline and offers a surprising or alarming statistic from a reputable polling organization, Gallup.

When I clicked on the link I went to some site called Return to Now. The red flags popped up when the “news” article was revealed to be three years old. As I’ve written about before, old news is often fake news. But this “news” story was also uncredited. Someone wrote it, obviously, but who? A respected journalist or someone cranking out clickbait copy?

There’s no name attached to the piece, and the About section of the site isn’t any more helpful: “Return to Now is dedicated to helping humans live fully in the present, while gleaning tips on how to do so from our distant past. It’s a new kind of ‘news’ website, whose contributors are not as concerned with current events as we are with the whole of the human experience. Topics will include rewilding, primitivism, modern ‘tribal’ living, tips for getting off the grid, sustainability, natural health, peaceful parenting, and sexual and spiritual awakening.” It’s not clear what that means, though the fact that they put the word news in quote marks is revealing; I want—and readers deserve—news, not “news.”

In this case the piece offered a link to the Gallup poll it referenced. Many people would likely stop there and assume that the existence of the link meant that what the link contains had been accurately and fairly characterized. After all, someone must have at least looked at the content at that link in order to have written the sentence it contains, and the headline. Unless of course the person is lying to you, intentionally misleading their readers (or, perhaps has reading comprehension issues and badly misunderstood what it said).

If the article had not provided a link at all, that too would have been a red flag. Not everyone embeds links in their writing, but those who don’t at least provide a source or reference for their information, such as a book or published journal article. Otherwise it looks an awful lot like you’re just making it up.

In this case the click link was accurate and did work, and led me to the promised Gallup poll referenced in the headline and article. It’s a one-page blog and I skimmed it for the alleged statistic: that 85% of workers hate their jobs. It didn’t appear anywhere. Nor, for that matter, did any reference to “hate” or “hating” a job. Always be skeptical of polls and survey results reported in news pieces, and when possible consult the original reports; they often contradict the headlines they generate.

But I quickly realized that there was another prominent statistic that seemed to be the other half of the 85% figure: 15% (since 85% + 15% = 100% of a polled statistic). The Gallup poll found that 15% of the world’s one billion full-time workers “are engaged at work.”

But not being “engaged at work” is not at all the same thing as “hating your job.” You can love or hate your job, and be engaged or not engaged at it. The two measures have little or nothing to do with each other, and it’s clear that someone saw the poll and decided to mischaracterize its results and spin it into a clickbait article, recognizing that few would read a piece headlined, “15% of People Are Engaged At Work, Gallup Poll Says.”

The problem of misinformation and fake news on social media is of course made worse when people share the information without checking it. Those who share bogus stories like this are both victims of manipulation, and promoters of misinformation. It’s a good reminder to think before you share. You don’t need to invest hours fact-checking information; as this case shows in some cases you can do it in just seconds. Or better yet, avoid the problem entirely by only sharing news stories from reputable news organizations.

 

Note: This piece, originally appearing in a different form on my CFI blog, was inspired in part by a FB friend named Rich, one of those whose post caught my eye. After the quick search described above I diplomatically pointed this out to him, and Rich not only thanked me for doing the research, but quickly corrected the headline and vowed to do better. Be like Rich.

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 

Feb 152020
 

My buddy Kenny Biddle recently did a great investigation into a new book by TV ghost hunter Zak Bagans. You can read it HERE. 

Below is an excerpt: 

I really did not want to read the book this article is about. I know that will likely give away the tone of this overall piece, but it’s just my honest reaction. When I saw the first announcements on social media that semi-celebrity Zak Bagans was releasing a new book titled Ghost Hunting for Dummies, I immediately groaned, deciding I’d pass on reviewing it. I’ve amassed quite a collection of “How to Ghost Hunt” type books since the 1990s, and I didn’t see any possibility of Bagans offering anything new—especially given his spotless track record of completely failing to find good evidence of ghosts during his decade-plus on television. At the time, I had no idea how right I’d be about that.

A close friend and colleague, Mellanie Ramsey, mentioned she was going to review the book on a podcast. After a brief conversation, she urged me to read it and participate in the podcast. I reluctantly agreed, placing an Amazon order and receiving my copy of Ghost Hunting for Dummies two days later. The book is over 400 pages and published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., under the For Dummies brand, which boasts over 2,400 titles (Wiley 2020a). The “Dummies” books are meant to “transform the hard-to-understand into easy-to-use,” according to the company’s website (Wiley 2020b).

My first impression comes from the front cover, which I found to be an overall poor design compared to the Dummies format I was used to seeing: the slanted title, a pronounced and stylized Dummies logo, and either a character with a triangle-shaped head or a photo representing the content of the book. The cover of Ghost Hunting features the title printed straight across with a much smaller and less stylized version of the Dummies logo. The word for is so small that when I showed the book to my wife, she asked “Why did you buy a book called ‘Ghost Hunting Dummies’?” The cover also features a photograph of a basement stairway and door, along with an odd photograph of Bagans with his right hand extended toward the camera, like he’s reaching out to take your money. Overall, it’s just not an attractive cover.

Inside the book, the first thing I noticed was a lack of references; there are no citations or references listed anywhere and no bibliography at the end of the book. For me, this is a red flag; references tell us where the author obtained their information, quotes, study results, and so on. When a book is supposed to be educating you on a specific topic (or in this case, multiple topics), I expect to know the source material from which the information came. However, because this is the first book from the Dummies brand that I’ve purchased, I wasn’t sure if the lack of a bibliography was the standard format. I headed over to my local Barnes & Noble store and flipped through more than forty different Dummies titles, none of which contained references. I also noticed that all of the titles I checked, from Medical Terminology to 3D Printing, were copyrighted by Wiley Publishing/John Wiley & Sons. Ghost Hunting for Dummies is instead copyrighted by Zak Bagans.

There are several indications this book was rushed into publication for the 2019 holiday season. Chief among them are the extensive number of errors: typos, misspellings, repeated words, and missing words are littered throughout the pages. Another indication of premature release comes from the lack of the classic Dummies icons. On page 2, it’s explained that “Throughout the margins of this book are small images, known as icons. These icons mark important tidbits of information” (Bagans 2020). We are presented with four icons: the Tip (a lightbulb), the Remember (hand with string tied around one finger), the Warning (triangle with exclamation point inside), and the “Zak Says” (Zak’s face), which “Highlights my [Zak’s] words of wisdom or personal experiences” (Bagans 2020, 3). Over the 426 pages, there are only thirteen icons to be found throughout: five Tips, four Remembers, three Warnings, and one “Zak Says.” I guess Bagans didn’t have much wisdom to impart upon his readers.

Throughout much of the book, Bagans displays a strong bias against skeptics and scientists, even going as far as to claim to understand scientific concepts better than actual scientists. For example, while relating why he believes human consciousness can exist outside of the body, Bagans mentions Albert Einstein’s well-known quote, “Energy cannot be created or destroyed; it can only be changed from one form to another.” Bagans follows this with, “it’s baffling why this concept is so easy to understand for a paranormal investigator but not for a mainstream scientist” (Bagans 2020, 108). It’s actually mainstream scientists who understand this and Bagans who’s confused. The answer is very simple. Ben Radford addressed this common mistake in his March/April 2012 Skeptical Inquirer column “Do Einstein’s Laws Endorse Ghosts?”:

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 

Feb 092020
 

The new episode of Squaring the Strange is about literary hoaxes! I discuss some “misery memoirs,” stories of victims triumphing over incredible hardships (Spoiler: “Go Ask Alice” was fiction). Celestia discusses newspaper reports of horny bat-people on the moon, and we break down the cultural factors that contribute to the popularity and believability of hoaxes. We end with the heart-wrenching story of a literary version of Munchausen by proxy, one that moved both Oprah and Mr. Rogers.

Check it out, you can listen HERE. 

 

Feb 052020
 

This week we were joined by Erik Kristopher Myers to discuss a short history of a particular sort of easter egg: the dreaded “hidden subversive element” stuck into a kids’ show or game, either by a perverse animator or a much more sinister coalition bent on corrupting the youth of America. Disney has made a cottage industry of hiding adult content in cartoons–whether real or simply rumored. And the rumors of subversive dangers in D&D both plagued and popularized the once-obscure RPG. From pareidolia to pranks to the people who wring hands over such dangers, we break down a long list of memorable legends.

You can listen to it HERE. 

Feb 032020
 

This is the second of a two-part piece. 

The recent Clint Eastwood film Richard Jewell holds interesting lessons about skepticism, media literacy, and both the obligations and difficulties of translating real events into fictional entertainment.

Reel vs. Real

The film garnered some offscreen controversy when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution issued a statement complaining about the film, specifically how it and its journalism were portrayed. They and other critics complained particularly that the film unfairly maligns Scruggs, who (in real life) co-wrote the infamous AJC newspaper article that wrongly implicated Jewell in the public’s mind based on unnamed insider information. Scruggs, who isn’t alive to respond, is depicted as sleeping with FBI agent Shaw—with whom she had a previous relationship, at least according to Wilde—in return for information about Jewell.

The AJC letter to Warner Bros. threatened legal action and read in part, “Significantly, there is no claim in Ms. Brenner’s Vanity Fair piece on which the film is based that the AJC’s reporter unethically traded sex for information. It is clear that the film’s depiction of an AJC reporter trading sex for stories is a malicious fabrication contrived to sell movie tickets.” Such a depiction, the newspaper asserts, “makes it appear that the AJC sexually exploited its staff and/or that it facilitated or condoned” such behavior.

The newspaper’s response was widely seen in the public (and by many journalists) as a full-throated defense of Scruggs’s depiction in the film as being baseless and a sexist trope fabricated by Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray to bolster the screenplay.

Richard Brody of The New Yorker writes that “It’s implied that she has sex with a source in exchange for a scoop; those who knew the real-life Scruggs deny that she did any such thing. It’s an ignominious allegation, and one that Eastwood has no business making, particularly in a movie about ignominious allegations.”

Becca Andrews, assistant news editor at Mother Jones, had a similar take: “Wilde plays Kathy Scruggs, who was, by all accounts, a hell-on-wheels shoe-leather reporter who does not appear to have any history of, say, sleeping with sources…. Despite Scruggs’ standing as a respected reporter who, to be clear, does not seem to have screwed anyone for a scoop over the course of her career, the fictional version of her in the film follows the shopworn trope.”

It all seems pretty clear cut and outrageous: the filmmakers recklessly and falsely depicted a female reporter (based on a real person, using her real name) behaving unethically, in a way that had no basis in fact.

A Closer Look

But a closer look reveals a somewhat different situation. It is true, as the AJC letter to Warner Bros. states several times, that the film was based on Brenner’s Vanity Fair article. However the letter conspicuously fails to mention that the film was not based only on Brenner’s article: There was a second source credited in the film—one which does in fact suggest that Scruggs had (or may have had) sex with her sources.

Screenwriter Ray didn’t make that detail up; one of the sources the film credits, The Suspect, by two respected journalists, Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwan, specifically refers to Scruggs’s “’reputation’ for sleeping with sources” (though not necessarily in the Jewell case specifically) according to The New York Times. Ray fictionalized and dramatized that part of the story, in the same way that all the events and characters are fictionalized to some degree. This explains why Scruggs was depicted as she was: that’s what the source material suggested.

The defense that, well, while it may be true that she was thought by colleagues to have had affairs with some of her sources—but not necessarily in that specific case—is pretty weak. It’s not as if there was no basis whatsoever for her depiction in the film, with Eastwood and Ray carelessly and maliciously manufacturing a sexist trope out of thin air. Ironically this book—the one that refers to Scruggs’s reputation for sleeping with her sources—was described by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution itself as “exhaustively researched” and “unsparing but not unfair.” It’s not clear why mentioning her reputation for sleeping with sources was “not unfair” when Alexander and Salwan did it in their (nonfiction) book about Richard Jewell, but is “false” and “extraordinarily reckless” when Ray and Eastwood did it in their (fictional) screenplay based in part on that very book.

True Stories in Fiction

The issues surrounding the portrayal of Scruggs in Richard Jewell—just like the portrayal of Jewell himself in the film—are more nuanced and complex than they first appear. Eastwood and Ray were not accused of tarnishing a dead reporter’s image by including a true-but-unseemly aspect of her real life in her fictional depiction. Nor were they accused of failing to confirm that information contained in one of their sources. Instead they were accused of completely fabricating that aspect of Scruggs’s life to sensationalize their film—which is demonstrably not true.

More fundamentally, complaints that the film isn’t the “real story” miss the point. It is not—and was never claimed to be—the “real story.” The film is not a documentary, it’s a scripted fictional narrative film (as it says on posters) “based on the true story.” (The full statement that appears in the film reads, “The film is based on actual historical events. Dialogue and certain events and characters contained in the film were created for the purposes of dramatization.”) That is, the film is based on some things that actually happened; that doesn’t mean that everything that really happened is in the film, and it doesn’t mean that everything in the film really happened. It means exactly what it says: the movie is “based on actual historical events.” Complaints about historical inaccuracy are of course very common in movies about real-life people and events.

Similar complaints were raised about Eastwood’s drama American Sniper about the film’s historical accuracy as it relates to the true story of the real-life Chris Kyle; these pedantic protests rather miss the point. Much of the “controversy” over whether it’s a 100% historically accurate account of Kyle’s life is a manufactured controversy sown of a misunderstanding, a straw man argument challenge to a strict historicity no one claimed.

In an interview with The New York Times, “Kelly McBride, a onetime police reporter who is the senior vice president of the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit organization that supports journalism, said the portrayal of Ms. Scruggs did not reflect reality” (emphasis added). It’s not clear why McBride or anyone else would believe or assume that a scripted film would “reflect reality.” There is of course no reason why fictional entertainment should necessarily accurately reflect real life–in dialogue, plot, or in any other way. Television and film are escapist entertainment, and the vast majority of characters in scripted shows and films lead far more interesting, dramatic, and glamorous lives than the audiences who watch them. While fictional cops on television shows regularly engage in gunfire and shootouts, in reality over 90% of police officers in the United States never fire their weapons at another person during the course of their career. TV doctors seem to leap from one dramatic, life-saving situation to another, while most real doctors spend their careers diagnosing the flu and filling out paperwork. I wrote about this a few years ago.

Richard Jewell is one of many “based on a true story” films currently out, including BombshellFord v. FerrariA Beautiful Day in the NeighborhoodSebergDark WatersMidwayHoney BoyHarriet, and others. Every one of these has scenes, dialogue, and events that never really happened, and characters that either never existed or existed but never did some of the specific things they’re depicted as having done on the screen.

It’s understandable for audiences to wonder what parts of the film are historically accurate and which parts aren’t, but making that distinction and parsing out exactly which characters are real and which are made up, and which incidents really happened and precisely when and how, is not the responsibility of the film or the filmmakers. The source material is clearly and fully credited and so anyone can easily see for themselves what the true story is. There are many books (such as Based on a True Story—But With More Car Chases: Fact and Fiction in 100 Favorite Movies, by Jonathan Vankin and John Whalen) and websites devoted specifically to parsing out what’s fact and what’s fiction in movies. There are also a handful of online articles comparing the true story of Richard Jewell with the fictional one.

There’s no deception going on, no effort to “trick” audiences into mistaking the film for a documentary. It is a scripted drama, with events carefully chosen for dramatic effect and dialogue written by a screenwriter and performed by actors. It’s similar in some ways to the complaint that a film adaptation of a book doesn’t follow the same story. That’s because books and films are very different media that have very different storytelling structures and demands. It’s not that one is “right” and the other is “wrong;” they’re different ways of telling roughly the same story.

Similarly, to ask “how accurate” a film is doesn’t make sense. A fictional film is not judged based on how “accurate” it is (whatever that would mean) but instead how well the story is told. Screenwriters taking dramatic license with bits and pieces of something that happened in real life in order to tell an effective story is their job. Writers can add characters, combine several real-life people into a single character, play with the chronology of events, and so on.

Ray certainly could—and arguably should—have changed the name of the character, but since in real life it was Scruggs specifically who broke the news about Jewell, and it was Scruggs specifically who in real life was rumored to have been romantically involved with sources, the decision not to do so is understandable. It’s likely, of course, that complaints would still have arisen even if her name had been changed, since Scruggs’s name is so closely connected to the real story.

The question of fictional representation is a valid and thorny one. Films and screenplays based (however loosely) on real events and people are, by definition, fictionalized and dramatized (this seems obvious, but may be more clear to me, as I have attended several screenwriting workshops taught by Hollywood screenwriters). Plots need conflict, and in stories based on things that actually happened, there will be heroes (who really existed in some form) and there will be villains (who also really existed in some form). The villains in any story will, by definition—and rightly or wrongly—typically not be happy with their depiction; villains are heroes in their own story.

The question is instead what obligations a screenwriter has to the real-life people cast in that villain role—keeping in mind of course that interesting fictional characters are a blend of hero and villain, good and bad. Heroes will have flaws and villains will have positive attributes, and may even turn out to be heroes in some cases.

You can argue that if Ray was going to suggest that Scruggs’s character slept with an FBI agent (as The Suspect suggested), that he should have confirmed it. But screenwriters, like non-fiction writers, typically don’t fact-check the sources of their sources. In other words they assume that the information in a seemingly reputable source (such as a Vanity Fair article or a well-reviewed book by the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia and a former Wall Street Journal columnist, for example), is accurate as written. If they report that Scruggs had a reputation for sleeping with sources, or hid in the back of Jewell’s lawyer’s car hoping for an interview, or met with FBI agents in a bar, or any number of other things, then the screenwriter believing that she did so—or may have done so—is not unreasonable nor malicious.

In the end, the dispute revolves around a minor plot point in a single scene, and the sexual quid pro quo is implied, not explicit. Reasonable people can disagree about whether or not Scruggs was portrayed fairly in the film (and if not, where the blame lies) as well as the ethical limits of dramatic license in portraying real historical events and figures in fictional films, but the question here is more complex than has been portrayed—about, ironically, a film with themes of rushing to judgment and binary thinking—and should not detract from what is overall a very good film.

For those interested in the real, true story of how Richard Jewell was railroaded, bullied, and misjudged—instead of the obviously fictionalized version portrayed in the film—people can consult Marie Brenner’s book Richard Jewell: And Other Tales of Heroes, Scoundrels, and Renegades, based on her 1997 Vanity Fair article; and The Suspect, mentioned above.

The Social Threat of Richard Jewell

In addition to the potential harm to Scruggs’s memory, several critics have expressed concern about presumed social consequences of the film, suggesting, for example that Richard Jewell could potentially change the way Americans think about journalism (and female journalists in particular), as well as undermine public confidence in investigative institutions such as the FBI.

There is of course a long history of fears about the consequences of fictional entertainment on society. I’ve previously written about many examples, such as the concern that the 50 Shades of Grey book and film franchise would lead to harmful real-world effects, and that the horror film Orphan, about a murderous dwarf posing as a young girl, would literally lead to a decline in international adoptions. Do heavy metal music, role-playing games, and “occult” Halloween costumes lead to Satanism and drug use? Does exposure to pornography lead to increased sexual assault? Does seeing Richard Jewell decrease trust in journalism and the FBI? All these are (or were) plausible claims to many.

The public need not turn to a fictional film—depicting events that happened nearly 25 years ago—to find reasons to be concerned with the conduct of (today’s) Federal Bureau of Investigations. Earlier this month, a story on the front page of The New York Times reported that “The Justice Department’s inspector general… painted a bleak portrait of the F.B.I. as a dysfunctional agency that severely mishandled its surveillance powers in the Russia investigation, but told lawmakers he had no evidence that the mistakes were intentional or undertaken out of political bias rather than ‘gross incompetence and negligence.’”

No one would suggest that fictional entertainment have no effect at all on society, of course—there are clear examples of copycat acts, for example—and the topic of media effects is far beyond the scope here. I’ll just note that the claim that Richard Jewell (or any other film) affects public opinions about its subjects is a testable hypothesis, and could be measured using pre- and post-exposure measures such as questionnaires. This would be an interesting topic to explore, and of course it’s much easier to simply assume that a film has a specific effects than to go to the considerable time, trouble, and expense of actually testing it. Who needs all the hassle of creating and implementing a scientific research design (and tackling thorny causation issues) when you can just baldly assert and assume that they do?

There are certainly valid reasons to criticize the film, including its treatment of Scruggs, the FBI, and Jewell himself (who is also not alive to comment or defend himself). Good films provoke conversation, and those conversations should be informed by facts and thoughtful analysis instead of knee-jerk reactions and unsupported assumptions. Richard Jewell is a moving, important, and powerful film about a rush to judge and an otherwise ordinary guy—flawed and imperfect, just like the rest of us—who was demonized by institutional indifference and a slew of well-meaning but self-serving people in power.

 

A longer version of this piece appeared on my CFI blog; you can read it HERE. 

 

Jan 302020
 

The recent Clint Eastwood film Richard Jewell holds interesting lessons about skepticism, media literacy, and both the obligations and difficulties of translating real events into fictional entertainment.

It’s no secret that non-police security officers get little or no respect. They’re universally mocked and ignored in malls, security checkpoints, and airports. The stereotype is the self-important, dim, chubby ones, typified by Kevin James in Paul Blart: Mall Cop and—shudder—its sequel. Of course the stereotype extends to sworn officers as well, from rotund doughnut aficionado Chief Wiggum in The Simpsons to Laverne Hooks in the Police Academy franchise. They’re usually played for laughs, but there’s nothing funny about what happened to Richard Jewell.

Richard Jewell tells the story of just such a security guard who found a bomb at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics celebration. He spots a suspicious bag underneath a bench and alerts authorities, helping to clear the area shortly before the bomb goes off. The unassuming Jewell (played by a perfectly-cast Paul Walter Hauser) is soon seen as a hero and asked to make the media rounds of TV talk shows and possible book deals. There’s no evidence connecting Jewell to the crime, but the FBI, without leads and under increasing public pressure to make an arrest, turns its attention to Jewell. Things take a turn when Jewell is named in the press as being the FBI’s main suspect, a tip leaked by agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) to hard-driving Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde). But when he becomes the target of unrelenting attacks as an unstable and murderous “wannabe cop” he seeks out a lawyer named Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell) to defend him.

What’s the case against him? FBI “experts” assured themselves (and the public) that the bomber fit a specific profile—one that Jewell himself fit as well (a loner with delusions of grandeur and a checkered past; the fact that he was single and living with his mother didn’t help). Psychological profiling is inherently more art than science, and to the degree to which it can be called a science, it’s an inexact one. At best it can provide potentially useful (if general and somewhat obvious) guidelines for who investigators should focus on, but cannot be used to include or exclude anyone from a list of suspects.

Bob Carroll, in his Skeptics Dictionary, notes that “FBI profiles are bound to be inaccurate. I noted some of these in a newsletter five years ago. Even if the profilers got a representative sample of, say, serial rapists, they can never interview the ones they don’t catch nor the ones they catch but don’t convict. Also, it would be naive to believe that serial rapists or killers are going to be forthright and totally truthful in any interview.” For more on this see “Myth #44: Criminal Profiling is Helpful in Solving Cases,” in 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, by Scott Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry Beyerstein; and Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article “Dangerous Minds: Criminal Profiling Made Easy.”

Psychologists will readily acknowledge these caveats, and their assessments are typically heavily qualified—much in the way that a good science journal report about an experiment will be candid about its limitations.

Journalists, however, are less interested in important nuances and caveats, and their readers are exponentially less so. The public wants binary certainty: Is this the bomber, or not? If not, why is the FBI investigating him, and why wouldn’t they explicitly announce that he wasn’t a suspect? Complicating matters, the public often misunderstands criminal justice issues and procedures. They widely assume, for example, that lie detectors actually detect lies (they don’t); or that an innocent person would never confess to a crime he or she didn’t really commit (they do). (In the film Jewell passes a polygraph, though little is made of it.)

When agent Shaw is confronted with evidence suggesting that Jewell does not, in fact, fit the profile and is likely innocent, instead of questioning his assumptions he doubles down, rationalizing away inconsistencies and stating that no one is going to fit the profile perfectly.

Jewell, a by-the-books type, is especially heartbroken to realize that his faith in the FBI’s integrity was sorely misplaced. All his life he’d looked up to federal law enforcement, until they turned on him. He isn’t angry or upset that he’s being investigated; he’s familiar enough with law enforcement procedures to understand that those closest to a murder victim (or a bomb) will be investigated first. But his initial openness and cooperation wanes as he sees FBI agents attempting to deceive and entrap him.

As Bryant tells Jewell, every comment he makes, no matter how innocuous or innocent, can be twisted into something nefarious that will put him in a bad light, and provide dots for others to (mis)connect. The fact that a friend as a teenager built homemade pipe bombs for throwing down gopher holes (long before he met Jewell) could be characterized as either a piece of evidence pointing to his guilt—or completely irrelevant. The fact that he has an impressive stash of weapons in his home could similarly be seen (if not by a jury, then certainly by a story-hungry news media) as being evidence of an obsession with guns—or, as he says with a shrug to Bryant, “This is Georgia.”

The film doesn’t paint the villains with too broad a brush; before an interview with the FBI Bryant reminds Jewell that the handful of agents harassing and persecuting him don’t represent the FBI in general; the entire U.S. government isn’t out to get him—no matter what it feels like. The news media is seen as a pack of vultures, camping out in front of his house, robbing him and his mother of privacy and dignity. You can probably guess what would have happened to Jewell in today’s age of internet-driven social media outrage; if not, see Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Shaw and the other FBI agents, as well as Scruggs (presumably) sincerely believed they’d named the right man—at least until a more thorough investigation reveals otherwise. The film is not anti-FBI, anti-government, nor anti-press; it is pro-due process and sympathetic to those who are denied it.

Ironically but predictably, even not talking to the police can be seen as incriminating. Those ignorant of the criminal justice system may ask, “What do you have to hide?” or even “Why do you need a lawyer if you’re innocent?” These are the sorts of misguided souls who would presumably be happy to let police search their property without a warrant because, well, a person should be fine with it if they have nothing to hide.

The result is a curious and paradoxical situation in which a completely innocent person is (rightfully) afraid to speak openly and honestly. Not out of fear of self-incrimination but out of fear that those with agendas will take anything they say out of context. This is not an idle fear; it happens on a daily basis to politicians, movie stars, and anyone else in the spotlight (however tangentially and temporarily). Newspaper and gossip reporters salivate, waiting for an unguarded moment when—god forbid—someone of note express an opinion. A casual, honest, and less-than-charitable but otherwise mild remark about a film co-star can easily be twisted and turned into fodder for a Twitter war. For example Reese Witherspoon laughing and reminiscing casually in an interview that, years ago, at a dinner party Jennifer Aniston’s steak was “tasty but a bit overcooked” can easily spawn headlines such as “Reese Witherspoon Hates Jennifer Aniston’s Cooking.” A flustered Oscar winner who forgets to thank certain people (such as a mentor or spouse) can set tongues wagging about disrespect or even infidelity—which is one reason why nominees write out an acceptance speech ahead of time, even if they don’t expect to win. The fewer things you say, the fewer bits of information you provide, the less fodder you give those who would do you harm. As Richard Jewell demonstrates, this is, ironically, a system that prevents people from being totally open and forthcoming.

Eastwood’s past half-dozen or so films have been based on real events and actual historical people: American Sniper (about Navy Seal sniper Chris Kyle); The 15:17 to Paris (Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, and Alek Skarlatos, who stopped a 2014 train terrorist attack); The Mule (Leo Sharp, a World War II veteran-turned-drug mule); Jersey Boys (the musical group The Four Seasons) and J. Edgar (as in FBI director Hoover). The complex, sometimes ambiguous nature and myriad facets of heroism clearly interest Eastwood, arguably dating back over a half century to his spaghetti Westerns (and, later, Unforgiven) where he played a reluctant gunslinger.

This is not the first biographical film that Eastwood has done about a falsely accused hero. His 2016 film Sully, for example, was about Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (played by Tom Hanks), who became a hero after landing his damaged plane on the Hudson river and saving lives. Where Jewell was lauded—and then demonized—in public, Sullenberger was a hero in public but behind closed doors was suspected of having made poor decisions. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) officials second-guessed his actions based, as it turned out, in part on flawed flight simulator data, and Sullenberger was eventually cleared. (In another parallel, just as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution complained about its portrayal in Richard Jewell—more on that later—the NTSB complained about its portrayal in Sully.)

Just as we have imperfect victims, we have imperfect heroes. Bryant eventually realizes that Jewell has an admittedly spotty past, including impersonating an officer and being overzealous in enforcing rules on a campus. Jewell, like many social heroes, humbly denies he’s a hero; he was just doing his job. And he is exactly correct: Jewell didn’t do anything particularly heroic. He didn’t use his body to shield anyone from the bomb; he didn’t bravely charge at an armed gunman, or risk his life rushing to pull a stranded motorist from an oncoming train (as happened recently in Utah).

He’s not a chiseled and battle-hardened Navy SEAL; he’s an ordinary guy who did what he was trained and encouraged to do in all those oft-ignored public security PSAs: he saw something, and he said something. This is not to take anything away from him but instead to note that mundane actions can be heroic. Any number of other security guards and police officers could have been the first to spot the suspicious package; he just happened to be the right guy at the right (or wrong) time. One theme of the film is rule following; Jewell saved many people by following the rules and insisting that the backpack be treated as a suspicious package instead of another false alarm. But the FBI did not follow the rules in either its pursuit of Jewell or its leaking information to a reporter.

Jewell’s life was turned upside down, and if not destroyed at least severely damaged. That didn’t end some three months later when he was finally formally cleared. The news media had spent many weeks saturating the country with his name and face, strongly suggesting—though not explicitly saying, for legal reasons—that he was a domestic terrorist bomber.

Who’s responsible for an innocent man being falsely accused, bullied, and harassed? In the real case, apparently no one: though in real life an FBI agent was briefly disciplined for misconduct in connection to the case, the agency insisted that it had done nothing wrong; after all, Jewell was a suspect and the investigation did eventually clear him. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution also got off scot-free, with a judge later determining (in dismissing a defamation suit filed by Jewell) that its reporting, though ultimately flawed, was “substantially true” given the information known at the time it was published. Richard Jewell is having none of it, and points fingers at misconduct in both law enforcement and news media (though the film depicts no consequences for anyone responsible).

A longer version of this article first appeared on my CFI blog; you can read it HERE. 

Part 2 will follow soon…

Jan 222020
 

A June 6, 2018, article from ChurchandState.org titled “Propaganda Works – 58 Percent of Republicans Believe Education Is Bad” was shared on social media by liberals and Democrats, gleeful that their assumptions about conservative anti-intellectualism had been borne out in objective, quantifiable data from a respected polling organization.

The widely-shared article states that “Fox News, like Republicans and Trump, could never succeed as an ultra-conservative propaganda outlet without an ignorant population. The only way to continue having success at propagandizing is convincing Americans that being educated and informed is detrimental to the nation and its citizens; something Fox and Republicans have been very successful at over the past two years. The idea that education is bad for the country is contrary to the belief of the Declaration of Independence’s author, Founding Father and third American President Thomas Jefferson…. Obviously, the current administration and the Republican Party it represents wholly disagrees with the concept of a well-educated citizenry, or that it is beneficial to America if the populace is educated and informed. Likely because the less educated the people are, the more electoral support Republicans enjoy and the more success Trump has as the ultimate purveyor of ‘fake news.’”

There are a few things to unpack here. The first is that, like UFO coverups, this blanket anti-education effort allegedly spans many administrations and generations. Democrat and Republican alike are allegedly participants in this institutional conspiracy. The effects of Republican education cuts would not be seen in general education levels for years—if at all—and thus any “benefit” to keeping the public ignorant would of course boost the goals of future Democratic presidents and administrations as well. If true, it’s heartening to see this common ground and shared agenda between otherwise deeply polarized political parties.

Americans are in fact better educated than at any other time in history. In July 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau revealed that 90% of Americans twenty-five and older completed at least high school—an all-time high and a remarkable increase from 24% in 1940. Education has risen dramatically in the population as a whole, across genders, races, and economic statuses. In 1940, 3.8% of women and 5.5% of men had completed four years or more of college; by 2018 it was 35.3% for women and 34.6% for men. The United States spends $706 billion on education, according to the U.S. Department of Education (2019), which comes to about $13,850 per public school student. Not only does the government provide free, mandatory grade school education, but it also offers low-interest student loans for those who wish to pursue higher education. All this is puzzling behavior for a government that wants to keep its citizens ignorant, but perhaps someone didn’t get the memo. I discussed—and debunked—this idea in my recent column in Skeptical Inquirer magazine (see “Is America a Sheeple Factory?” in the January/February 2020 issue).

The article states, “Seriously, it is beyond the pale that anyone in this country thinks education is bad for America, but nearly 60 percent of Republicans is a mind boggling number. It is not entirely unexpected, but it is stunning that they have no issue telling a pollster that they believe education is a negative for the country.”

It seems damning indeed… but did 60% of Republicans really tell pollsters that? As always, it’s best to consult original sources, and in this case we can easily look at the Pew poll to find out. The question the 2017 Pew poll asked was not “Do you believe education is bad?,” but instead “Do you believe that _____ (colleges and universities / churches / labor unions / banks / news media) have a positive or negative effect on the country?”

These are, obviously, very different measures; you can’t generalize “colleges and universities” to “education” and “having a negative effect on the country” to “bad.” If you’re going to report on how people respond to certain questions in a poll or survey, you can’t retroactively change the question—even slightly—and keep the same results. That is, in a word, misleading and dishonest. Curiously, the fact that one in five Democrats (and left-leaning independents) believed that higher education has a negative effect on the country was completely ignored. That’s a third the number of Republicans who responded that way, but still a surprisingly high rate for self-identified social progressives (depending, of course, on how they interpreted the question).

I have often written about the perils of bad journalism in reporting poll and survey results. Having researched and written about misleading polls and news articles on many topics, including hatred of transgendered people (see, for example, my article  “Do 60% Of People Misgender Trans People To Insult Them?”); Holocaust denial (see, for example, my article “Holocaust Denial Headlines: Hatred, Ignorance, Or Innumeracy?”); I also recently debunked an article by Global News reporter Josh K. Elliott who wrote an article falsely claiming that “Nearly 50% of Canadians Think Racist Thoughts Are Normal.”

A closer look at this poll finds that the most likely reason for this response is not that Republicans think education is inherently bad (as the headline suggests) but instead that colleges and universities (which is what the question asked about) are bastions of liberal politics. (The original piece eventually and briefly acknowledges that—contrary to its clickbait headline—Republicans don’t actually think education is inherently bad.)

One recent example is Tennessee senator Kerry Roberts, who on a conservative radio talk show stated that higher education should be eliminated because it would cut off the “breeding ground” of ideas, a proposal that he said would “save America.” When asked about his comments Roberts later stated that “his listeners understood it was hyperbole” and that he was “was clearly joking” in his comments that eliminating higher education would save the country from ruin. Sen. Roberts has neither proposed nor supported any legislation that would in fact eliminate higher education. He said, however, that he absolutely stood by his criticism of American liberal arts education “one hundred percent.” So it’s pretty clear both that: a) he was indeed joking about wanting to abolish higher education in America (and that his words were mischaracterized for political gain, a routine occurrence); and b) that nevertheless he does believe that colleges and universities spawn liberal beliefs anathema to his own.

There is a very real and demonstrable anti-education and anti-science streak among many conservatives, on topics ranging from creationism to medical research (see for example, Chris Mooney’s book The Republican War on Science). But this headline is not clear evidence of that.

While it may be fun for liberals and progressives to paint conservatives as inherently opposed to education, doing so creates an intellectually dishonest straw man fallacy. It is also ultimately counterproductive, obscuring the real forces behind those beliefs. If you approach the subject wrongly believing that many Republicans fundamentally disapprove of the idea of education, then you will badly misunderstand the problem. You can’t hope to meaningfully address a problem if you’re operating on flawed assumptions.

The marketplace of ideas is served when data and polls are presented honestly, and opposing views are portrayed fairly. Skepticism and media literacy are more important than ever, so check your sources—especially when you agree with the message—to avoid sharing misinformation.

 

A version of this article first appeared on my Center for Inquiry blog; you can see it HERE. 

Jan 182020
 

The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out, it’s “The Head Show!” It’s all about heads–too many and too few. Folklore about multi-headed or headless monsters, multi-headed people throughout history, beheadings, experiments on heads, and shrunken heads. Oh, and the frozen head of Walt Disney, of course. Heads up!

 

You can find it HERE!

 

Jan 152020
 

If you missed the 2019 documentary I’m in, “Wrinkles the Clown,” it’s now available on DVD and streaming. It’s a fascinating look at a real-life evil clown hired by parents to scare kids–or maybe something else entirely…

More info is HERE!

 

Jan 082020
 

For those who missed it: The recent episode of Squaring the Strange is out! In this episode we talk about caricature and mysterious crystal skulls. Can we trust what Dan Ayrkroyd tells us on his fancy vodka bottle? Are there really thirteen of these ancient and powerful relics? What is the Skull of Doom, and does it have strange properties that baffle scientists? We even look at an ill-conceived lawsuit against Steven Spielberg involving the crystal skulls featured in a Indiana Jones movie. Check it out, you can listen HERE!

 

Dec 282019
 

In a previous blog I discussed my research into an ugly episode of racial hatred that tainted the 2016 holiday season. The Mall of America hired its first African-American Santa Claus, an Army veteran named Larry Jefferson. A local newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, carried a story about it on Dec. 1. Later that night an editorial page editor for the Tribune, Scott Gillespie, tweeted: “Looks like we had to turn comments off on story about Mall of America’s first black Santa. Merry Christmas everyone!” Overnight and the next morning his tweet went viral and served as the basis for countless news stories with headlines such as “Paper Forced to Close Comments On Mall Of America’s First Black Santa Thanks to Racism” (Jezebel) and “Racists Freak Out Over Black Santa At Mall Of America” (Huffington Post).

George Takei responded the next day via Twitter: “Watching people meltdown over a black Santa in the Mall of America. ‘Santa is white!’ Well, in our internment camp he was Asian. So there.” It was also mocked by Trevor Noah on Comedy Central, and elsewhere.

Yet every major news outlet missed the real story. They failed to check facts. My research (including an interview with Gillespie) eventually revealed that the racial incident never actually occurred, and that–despite public opinion and nearly two million news articles to the contrary–the Star Tribune did not receive a single hate-filled message in the comments section of its story on Jefferson. What happened was the product of a series of misunderstandings and a lack of fact-checking, fueled in part by confirmation bias and amplified by the digital age (for a detailed look at the case see my CFI blog “The True, Heartwarming Story of the Mall of America’s Black Santa.”)

I’ve been writing about journalism errors and media literacy for two decades (including in my book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us), and usually there’s relatively little pushback (except, perhaps, from journalists reluctant to acknowledge errors). However a curious part of this story was the criticism I received on social media for even researching it. Perhaps the best example was when I responded to a post about the initial story on a fellow skeptic’s Facebook page. She and all of her friends on the thread took the erroneous news story at face value (which didn’t surprise me, as virtually everyone did) but what did surprise me was the suggestion that trying to uncover the truth was unseemly or even “a distraction tactic.”

One person wrote, “I actually can’t believe that a self proclaimed skeptic is even having this argument in a country that just elected Donald Trump. It’s not skepticism when it disregards the proven fact that a great deal of the country, enough to elect a president, are straight up racist.” Of course I never questioned whether many or most Americans were racist. My question was very specific, clear, and about the factual basis for this one specific incident. Neither Trump’s election nor the existence of racism in America are relevant to whether or not the Tribune had to shut down its comments section in response to a deluge of hatred against a black Santa.

The ‘Distraction’ Tactic

One person wrote that me asking how many people objected to the black Santa was “a distraction tactic–now we can talk about how most people are not racist and change the subject from racism.” I was stunned. I had no idea that asking if anyone knew how many people complained would or could be construed as somehow trying to distract people (from what to what?). I replied, “Trying to quantify and understand an issue is not a ‘distraction tactic.’ I have no interest in distracting anyone from anything.’” No one–and certainly not me–was suggesting that a certain number of racists upset over a black Santa was okay or acceptable. I never suggested or implied that if it was “only” ten or twenty or a hundred, that everyone should be fine with it.

But knowing the scope of the issue does help us understand the problem: Is it really irrelevant whether there were zero, ten, or ten thousand racist commenters? If Trump can be widely (and rightly) criticized for exaggerating the crowd at his inauguration speech as “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration–period” when in fact it was several orders of magnitude smaller, why is asking how many people complained about a mall Santa so beyond the pale?

Usually when I encounter claims of investigating being a distraction in my research it was itself a distraction tactic, an attempt to head off inquiry that might debunk a claim or show that some assumption or conclusion was made in error–not unlike the Wizard of Oz pleading for Dorothy and her gang not to look behind the curtain. (“Why are you asking questions about where I suddenly got this important UFO-related document?” or “Asking for evidence of my faith healer’s miracle healings is just a distraction from his holy mission” doesn’t deter any journalist or skeptic worth his or her salt.) If a claim is valid and factual, there’s no reason why anyone would object to confirming that; as Thomas Paine noted, “It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry.”

I tried to remember where else I’d heard the phrase used, when someone who was asked about something called the questions a “distraction.” Finally I realized where that tactic had become common: In the Trump administration. When Donald Trump was asked about a leaked Access Hollywood recording of him bragging about groping women sexually, he dismissed the questions–and indeed the entire issue–as “nothing more than a distraction from the important issues we’re facing today.”

Similarly, when Vice-President Pence was asked in January 2017 about whether the Trump campaign had any contacts with Russia during the campaign, he replied, “This is all a distraction, and it’s all part of a narrative to delegitimize the election.” Others in the Trump administration (including White House spokespeople) have repeatedly waved off journalists’ questions as distractions as well.

This is not particularly surprising, but it was odd to see some of my most virulent anti-Trump friends (and Facebook Friends) using and embracing exactly the same tactics Trump does to discourage questions.

There is one important difference: In my judgment Trump and his surrogates use the tactic cynically (knowing full well that the issues and questions being asked are legitimate), while those who criticized me were using the tactic sincerely; being charitable, I have no reason to think that they realized that the black Santa story and reportage had been widely (if not universally) misunderstood. But the intention and effect were the same: An attempt to discourage someone from looking beyond the surface to see what’s really going on, and attempt to separate truth from fact.

Importance of Due Diligence

A recent news story highlights the value and importance of bringing at least some skepticism to claims: Recently a woman approached reporters at The Washington Post with a potentially explosive story: that embattled Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore had impregnated her as a teenager and forced her to have an abortion. This would of course be a potentially devastating revelation for the conservative Moore, already under fire for dating (and allegedly sexually assaulting) teenagers.

According to the Post, “In a series of interviews over two weeks, the woman [Jaime T. Phillips] shared a dramatic story about an alleged sexual relationship with Moore in 1992 that led to an abortion when she was 15. During the interviews, she repeatedly pressed Post reporters to give their opinions on the effects that her claims could have on Moore’s candidacy if she went public. The Post did not publish an article based on her unsubstantiated account. When Post reporters confronted her with inconsistencies in her story and an Internet posting that raised doubts about her motivations, she insisted that she was not working with any organization that targets journalists. Monday morning, Post reporters saw her walking into the New York offices of Project Veritas, an organization that targets the mainstream news media and left-leaning groups. The organization sets up undercover ‘stings’ that involve using false cover stories and covert video recordings meant to expose what the group says is media bias.”

The Post reporter, Beth Reinhard, “explained to Phillips that her claims would have to be fact-checked. Additionally, Reinhard asked her for documents that would corroborate or support her story.” Reinhard and the Washington Post did not ask for evidence to establish the truth of Phillips’s account because they doubted that sexual assaults occur, or that Phillips may indeed have been sexually assaulted by Moore–in fact quite the opposite, since the Post was the first to break the story and publish accusations by Moore’s accusers–but instead because they were doing their due diligence as journalists. Investigative journalists and skeptics don’t question claims and ask for evidence because they necessarily doubt what they’re being told; they do it because they want to be sure they understand the facts.

Had The Washington Post not questioned the story–or been deterred by accusations that trying to establish the truth of Phillips’s claims was some sort of “distraction” tactic–the paper’s credibility would have been damaged when Phillips’s false accusation would have quickly been revealed, and the Post’s failure to do basic research used to cast doubt on the previous women’s accusations against Moore. Martin Baron, the Post‘s executive editor, said that the false accusations were “the essence of a scheme to deceive and embarrass us. The intent by Project Veritas clearly was to publicize the conversation if we fell for the trap. Because of our customary journalistic rigor, we weren’t fooled.”

What Happened?

There are several critical thinking and media literacy failures here. Perhaps the most basic is where the burden of proof lies: with the person making the claim. In fact I wasn’t making a claim at all; I was merely asking for evidence of a widely-reported claim. I honestly had no idea how many or how few Tribune readers had complained about Jefferson, and I wouldn’t have even thought to question it if Gillespie hadn’t issued a tweet that contradicted the thesis of the then-viral news story.

The black Santa outrage story is full of assumptions, mostly about the bad intentions of other people. To the best of my knowledge I’m the only person who dug deeper into the story to uncover what really happened–and for that I was told that I was causing a “distraction” and even hints that I had some unspecified unseemly motive.

It’s also important to understand why a person’s questions are being challenged in the first place. It’s often due to tribalism and a lack of charity. CSCIOP cofounder Ray Hyman, in his influential short piece titled “Proper Criticism discusses eight principles including the principle of charity. “The principle of charity implies that, whenever there is doubt or ambiguity about a paranormal claim, we should try to resolve the ambiguity in favor of the claimant until we acquire strong reasons for not doing so. In this respect, we should carefully distinguish between being wrong and being dishonest. We often can challenge the accuracy or validity of a given paranormal claim. But rarely are we in a position to know if the claimant is deliberately lying or is self-deceived. Furthermore, we often have a choice in how to interpret or represent an opponent’s arguments. The principle tell us to convey the opponent’s position in a fair, objective, and non-emotional manner.”

To scientists, journalists, and skeptics, asking for evidence is an integral part of the process of parsing fact from fiction, true claims from false ones. If you want me to believe a claim–any claim, from advertising claims to psychic powers, conspiracy theories to the validity of repressed memories–I’m going to ask for evidence. It doesn’t mean I think (or assume) you’re wrong or lying, it just means I want a reason to believe what you tell me. This is especially true for memes and factoids shared on social media and designed to elicit outrage or scorn.

But to most people who don’t have a background in critical thinking, journalism, skepticism, or media literacy, asking for evidence is akin to a challenge to their honesty. Theirs is a world in which personal experience and anecdote are self-evidently more reliable than facts and evidence. And it’s also a world in which much of the time when claims are questioned, it’s in the context of confrontation. To a person invested in the truth of a given narrative, any information that seems to confirm that idea is much more easily seen and remembered than information contradicting the idea; that’s the principle of confirmation bias. Similarly, when a person shares information on social media it’s often because they endorse the larger message or narrative, and they get upset if that narrative is questioned or challenged. From a psychological point of view, this heuristic is often accurate: Much or most of the time when a person’s statement or claim is challenged (in informal settings or social media for example), the person asking the question does indeed have a vested interest.

The problem is when the person does encounter someone who is sincerely trying to understand an issue or get to the bottom of a question, their knee-jerk reaction is often to assume the worst about them. They are blinded by their own biases and they project those biases on others. This is especially true when the subject is controversial, such as with race, gender, or politics. To them, the only reason a person would question a claim is if they are trying to discredit that claim, or a larger narrative it’s being offered in support of.

Of course that’s not true; people should question all claims, and especially claims that conform to their pre-existing beliefs and assumptions; those are precisely the ones most likely to slip under the critical thinking radar and become incorporated into your beliefs and opinions. I question claims from across the spectrum, including those from sources I agree with. To my mind the other approach has it backwards: How do you know whether to believe a claim if you don’t question it?

My efforts to research and understand this story were borne not of any doubt that racism exists, nor that Jefferson was subjected to it, but instead of a background in media literacy and a desire to reconcile two contradictory accounts about what happened. Outrage-provoking stories on social media–especially viral ones based on a single, unconfirmed informal tweet– should concern all of us in this age of misinformation and “fake news.”

The real tragedy in this case is what was done to Larry Jefferson, whose role as the Mall of America’s first black Santa has been tainted by this social media-created controversy. Instead of being remembered for bringing hope, love, and peace to girls and boys, he will forever be known for enduring a (fictional) deluge of bilious racist hatred.

The fact that Jefferson was bombarded by love and support from the general public (and most whites) should offer hope and comfort this holiday season. A few anonymous cranks, trolls, and racists complained on social media posts from the safety of their keyboards, but there was very little backlash–and certainly nothing resembling what the sensational headlines originally suggested.

The true story of Jefferson’s stint as Santa is diametrically the opposite of what most people believe: He was greeted warmly and embraced by people of all colors and faiths as the Mall of America’s first black Santa. I understand that “Black Santa Warmly Welcomed by Virtually Everyone” isn’t a headline that any news organization is going to see as newsworthy or eagerly promote, nor would it go viral. But it’s the truth–and the truth matters.

This piece appeared in a slightly different form in my Center for Inquiry blog. 

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 

Dec 242019
 

Amid the encroaching commercialization of Christmas, Black Friday sales, and annual social media grumblings about the manufactured controversy over whether “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” is appropriate, an ugly episode of racial hatred tainted the beginning of the 2016 holiday season.

blacksantatweet

It began when the Mall of America hired a jolly bearded man named Larry Jefferson as one of its Santas. Jefferson, a retired Army veteran, is black–a fact that most kids and their parents neither noticed nor cared about. The crucial issue for kids was whether a Playstation might be on its way or some Plants vs. Zombies merchandise was in the cards given the particular child’s status on Santa’s naughty-or-nice list. The important thing for parents was whether their kids were delighted by the Santa, and all evidence suggests that the answer was an enthusiastic Yes. “What [the children] see most of the time is this red suit and candy,” Jefferson said in an interview. “[Santa represents] a good spirit. I’m just a messenger to bring hope, love, and peace to girls and boys.”

The fact that Santa could be African-American seemed self-evident (and either an encouraging sign or a non-issue) for all who encountered him. Few if any people at the Mall of America made any negative or racist comments. It was, after all, a self-selected group; any parents who might harbor reservations about Jefferson simply wouldn’t wait in line with their kids to see him and instead go somewhere else or wait for another Santa. Like anything that involves personal choice, people who don’t like something (a news outlet, brand of coffee, or anything else) will simply go somewhere else–not erupt in protest that it’s available to those who want it.

However a black Santa was a first for that particular mall, and understandably made the news. On December 1 the local newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, carried a story by Liz Sawyer titled “Mall of America Welcomes Its First Black Santa.

Scott Gillespie, the editorial page editor for the Tribune, tweeted later that night (at 9:47 PM): “Looks like we had to turn comments off on story about Mall of America’s first black Santa. Merry Christmas everyone!” The tweet’s meaning seemed both clear and disappointing: On a story that the Star Tribune posted about an African-American Santa, the racial hostility got so pervasive in the comments section that they had to put an end to it, out of respect for Jefferson and/or Star Tribune readers. He ended with a sad and sarcastic, “Merry Christmas” and sent the tweet into cyberspace.

Overnight and the next morning his tweet went viral and served as the basis for countless news stories with titles such as “Paper Forced to Close Comments On Mall Of America’s First Black Santa Thanks to Racism” (Jezebel); “Santa is WHITE. BOYCOTT Mall of America’: Online Racists Are Having a Meltdown over Mall’s Black Santa” (RawStory); “Racists Freak Out Over Black Santa At Mall Of America” (Huffington Post); “Mall of America Hires Its First Black Santa, Racists of the Internet Lose It” (Mic.com), and so on. If you spend any time on social media you get the idea. It was just another confirmation of America’s abysmal race relations.

There’s only one problem: It didn’t happen.

At 1:25 PM the following day Gillespie, after seeing the stories about the scope and nature of the racist backlash the Tribune faced, reversed himself in a follow-up tweet. Instead of “we had to turn off comments,” Gillespie stated that the commenting was never opened for that article in the first place: “Comments were not allowed based on past practice w/stories w/racial elements. Great comments on FB & Instagram, though.”

This raised some questions for me: If the comments had never been opened on the story, then how could there have been a flood of racist comments? Where did that information come from? How many racist comments did the paper actually get? Fewer than a dozen? Hundreds? Thousands? Something didn’t add up about the story, and as a media literacy educator and journalist I felt it was important to understand the genesis of this story.

It can serve as an object lesson and help the public understand the role of confirmation bias, unwarranted assumptions, and failure to apply skepticism. In this era of attacks on “fake news” it’s important to distinguish intentional misinformation from what might be simply a series of mistakes and assumptions.

While I have no doubt that the Tribune story on Jefferson would likely have been the target of some racist comments at some point, the fact remains that the main point of Gillespie’s tweet was false: the Tribune had not in fact been forced to shut down the comments on its piece about the Mall of America’s black Santa because of a deluge of racist comments. That false information was the centerpiece of the subsequent stories about the incident.

The idea that some might be upset about the topic is plausible; after all, the question of a black Santa had come up a few times in the news and social media (perhaps most notably Fox News’s Megyn Kelly’s infamous incredulity at the notion three years earlier–which she later described as an offhand jest). Racist, sexist, and otherwise obnoxious comments are common in the comments section of many articles online on any number of subjects, and are not generally newsworthy. There were of course some racists and trolls commenting on the secondary stories about the Star Tribune‘s shutting down its comment section due to racist outrage (RawStory collected about a dozen drawn from social media), but fact remains that the incident at the center of the controversy that spawned outrage across social media simply did not happen.

A few journalists added clarifications and corrections to the story after reading Gillespie’s second tweet or being contacted by him. The Huffington Post, for example, added at the bottom of its story: “CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to reflect that the Minneapolis Star Tribune‘s comment section was turned off when the story was published, not in response to negative comments.” But most journalists didn’t, and as of this writing nearly two million news articles still give a misleading take on the incident.

The secondary news reports could not, of course, quote from the original non-existent rage-filled comments section in the Star Tribune, so they began quoting from their own comments sections and those of other news media. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy, wherein the worst comments from hundreds of blogs and websites were then selected and quoted, generating another round of comments. Many people saw racist comments about the story and assumed that they had been taken from the Star Tribune page at the center of the story, and couldn’t be sure if they were responding to the original outrage or the secondary outrage generated by the first outrage. As with those drawn to see and celebrate Jefferson as the mall’s first black Santa, this was also a self-selected group of people–namely those who were attracted to a racially charged headline and had some emotional stake in the controversy, enough to read about it and comment on it.

Unpacking the Reporting

I contacted Gillespie and he kindly clarified what happened and how his tweet inadvertently caused some of the world’s most prominent news organizations to report on an ugly racial incident that never occurred.

Gillespie–whose beat is the opinion and editorial page–was at home on the evening of December 1 and decided to peruse his newspaper’s website. He saw the story about Larry Jefferson and clicked on it to see if the black Santa story was getting any comments. He noticed that there were no comments at all and assumed that the Star Tribune‘s web moderators had shut them off due to inflammatory posts, as had happened occasionally on previous stories.

Understandably irritated and dismayed, he tweeted about it and went to bed, thinking no more of it. The next day he went into work and a colleague noticed that his tweet had been widely shared (his most shared post on social media ever) and asked him about it. Gillespie then spoke with the newspaper’s web moderators, who informed him that the comments had never been turned on for that particular post–a practice at the newspaper for articles on potentially sensitive subjects such as race and politics, but also applied to many other topics that a moderator for whatever reason thinks might generate comments that may be counterproductive.

“I didn’t know why the comments were off,” he told me. “In this case I assumed we followed past practices” about removing inflammatory comments. It was a not-unreasonable assumption that in this case just happened to be wrong. Gillespie noted during our conversation that a then-breaking Star Tribune story about the death of a 2-year-old girl at a St. Paul foster home also had its commenting section disabled–presumably not in anticipation of a deluge of racist or hateful comments.

“People thought–and I can see why, since I have the title of editorial page editor–that I must know what I’m talking about [in terms of web moderation],” Gillespie said. He was commenting on a topic about his newspaper but outside his purview, and to many his tweet was interpreted as an official statement and explanation of why comments did not appear on the black Santa story.

When Gillespie realized that many (at that time dozens and, ultimately, millions) of news stories were (wrongly) reporting that the Star Tribune‘s comments section had been shut down in response to racist comments based solely on his (admittedly premature and poorly phrased) Dec. 1 tweet, he tried to get in touch with some of the journalists to correct the record (hence the Huffington Post clarification), but by that time the story had gone viral and the ship of fools had sailed. The best he could do was issue a second tweet trying to clarify the situation, which he did.

“I can see why people would jump to the conclusion they did,” he told me. Gillespie is apologetic and accepts responsibility for his role in creating the black Santa outrage story, and it seems clear that his tweet was not intended as an attempt at race-baiting for clicks.

In the spirit of Christmas maybe one lesson to take from this case is charity. Instead of assuming the worst about someone or their intentions, give them the benefit of the doubt. Assuming the worst about other people runs all through this story. Gillespie assumed that racists deluged his newspaper with racist hate, as did the public. The web moderator(s) at the Star Tribune who chose not to open the comments on the Santa story may (or may not) have assumed that they were pre-empting a deluge of racism (which may or may not have in fact followed). I myself was assumed to have unsavory and ulterior motives for even asking journalistic questions about this incident (a topic I’ll cover next week).

In the end there are no villains here (except for the relative handful of racists and trolls who predictably commented on the secondary stories). What happened was the product of a series of understandable misunderstandings and mistakes, fueled in part by confirmation bias and amplified by the digital age.

The Good News

Gillespie and I agreed that this is, when fact and fiction are separated, a good news story. As noted, Gillespie initially assumed that the newspaper’s moderators had been inundated with hostile and racist comments, and finally turned the comments off after having to wade through the flood of hateful garbage comments to find and approve the positive ones. He need not have feared, because exactly the opposite occurred: Gillespie said that the Star Tribune was instead flooded with positive comments applauding Jefferson as the Mall of America’s first black Santa (he referenced this in his Dec. 2 tweet). The tiny minority of nasty comments were drowned out by holiday cheer and goodwill toward men–of any color. He echoed Jefferson, who in a December 9 NPR interview said that the racist comments he heard were “only a small percentage” of the reaction, and he was overwhelmed by support from the community.

The fact that Jefferson was bombarded by love and support from the general public (and most whites) should offer hope and comfort. Gillespie said that he had expected people to attack and criticize the Mall of America for succumbing to political correctness, but the imagined hordes of white nationalists never appeared. A few anonymous cranks and racists complained on social media posts from the safety of their keyboards, but there was very little backlash–and certainly nothing resembling what the sensational headlines originally suggested.

The real tragedy is what was done to Larry Jefferson, whose role as the Mall of America’s first black Santa has been tainted by this social media-created controversy. Instead of being remembered for, as he said, bringing “hope, love, and peace to girls and boys,” he will forever be known for enduring a (fictional) deluge of bilious racist hatred. The true story of Jefferson’s stint as Santa is diametrically the opposite of what most people believe: He was greeted warmly and embraced by people of all colors and faiths as the Mall of America’s first black Santa.

Some may try to justify their coverage of the story by saying that even though in this particular case Jefferson was not in fact inundated with racist hate, it still symbolizes a very real problem and was therefore worthy of reporting if it raised awareness of the issue. The Trump administration adopted this tactic earlier this week when the President promoted discredited anti-Muslim videos via social media; his spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders acknowledged that at least some of the hateful videos Trump shared were bogus (and did not happen as portrayed and described), but insisted that their truth or falsity was irrelevant because they supported a “larger truth”–that Islam is a threat to the country’s security: “I’m not talking about the nature of the video,” she told reporters. “I think you’re focusing on the wrong thing. The threat is real, and that’s what the President is talking about.”

This disregard for truth has been a prominent theme in the Trump administration. Yes, some tiny minority of Muslims are terrorists; no one denies that, but that does not legitimize the sharing of bogus information as examples supposedly illustrating the problem. Similarly, yes, some tiny minority of Americans took exception to Jefferson as a black Santa, but that does not legitimize sharing false information about how a newspaper had to shut down its comments because of racist rage. There are enough real-life examples of hatred and intolerance that we need not invent new ones.

In this Grinchian and cynical ends-justifies-the-means worldview, there is no such thing as good news and the import of every event is determined by how it can be used to promote a given narrative or social agenda–truth be damned.

I understand that “Black Santa Warmly Welcomed by Virtually Everyone” isn’t a headline that any news organization is going to see as newsworthy or eagerly promote, nor would it go viral. But it’s the truth.

Merry Christmas.

 

This piece originally appeared on my Center for Inquiry blog in 2017; you can see it HERE! 

 

 

Dec 202019
 

For those who missed it, on the new episode of Squaring the Strange, we discuss the darker side of ghost hunting. Not a demonic dark side, but instead real-world harms and consequences. Things like trespassing dangers, costs to historical sites and organizations, loss of life and limb, and even the mangling of reputations. Please check it out, you can listen to it HERE

 

Dec 152019
 

Better late than never: I was interviewed recently by Ty Bannerman on KUNM’s program “Let’s Talk New Mexico” about NM ghost stories and folklore. I discussed my KiMo theater ghost investigation, and a bit about the St. James hotel… check it out HERE! 

Let’s Talk New Mexico: We’ll be discussing the paranormal side of New Mexico, from modern visitations to traditional legends, as well as taking a look at why we are so fascinated by these supernatural tales. And we want to hear from you! Have you ever experienced a ghost sighting? What happened? Or do you just love ghost stories and want to share a few of your favorite? Why do you think people find these tales so compelling? 

 

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 

Dec 122019
 

Celestia and I are especially pleased with a recent episode of Squaring the Strange, in which we spoke to Leo Igwe, the tireless skeptic, humanist, and human rights advocate in Nigeria. His work on behalf of people persecuted as witches in sub-Saharan Africa is both daunting and vitally important. Skepticism and critical thinking can sometimes mean the difference between life and death.

Human rights advocate Dr. Leo Igwe joins us to discuss the dangers posed by so-called “witch hunters” in his home nation of Nigeria and other parts of Africa today. He discusses the entrenched nature of magical beliefs in the region, as well as the complicated power structure that props up those who call out fellow citizens as witches. Religions brought from Europe now play into the mix, with Islam and Christianity working alongside traditional beliefs; witch hunters are often pastors or church leaders, solidifying their power further. Victims are often powerless–the elderly, disabled, or children–and once accused they must run for their lives, abandoned by family and often the state authorities as well. Dr. Igwe talks about the challenges of getting the message across to international agencies and the UN, whose members are sometimes hesitant to speak out against these atrocities for fear of seeming racist or Islamophobic, a trend Igwe decries as stifling critical debate and much-needed open dialogue.  

Please check it out, you can listen HERE.