Pleased to announce that my new book ‘Big– If True: Adventures in Oddity’ is now available in paperback and Kindle. Please check it out if you feel so inclined! You can get it HERE!
Pleased to announce that my new book ‘Big– If True: Adventures in Oddity’ is now available in paperback and Kindle. Please check it out if you feel so inclined! You can get it HERE!
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.”
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.
Back before the pandemic, 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.
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.
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.
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.
A longer version of this article appeared on my Center for Inquiry blog; you can read it HERE.
“This episode we discuss the otherworldly monolith that’s popped up in a remote part of Utah, and Ben shares another in his series of “used book mysteries,” this one perfectly timed for the election. For our main segment, we have a lengthy discussion with newly minted CFI fellow (and just plain jolly good fellow) Kenny Biddle. Ben and Kenny bring up some of their investigative heroes, lay out some principles of skeptical investigation, and tell us why they have a passion for digging into cold-case mysteries. Good advice to be had for anyone who wants to sharpen their investigation tool set.”
You can listen to the episode HERE!
When my book “Scientific Paranormal Investigation” was published in 2010 I took out a full page ad in the T.A.P.S. (“Ghost Hunters” TV show) magazine. I figured their audience needed my book more than anyone…
For a episode of Squaring the Strange we have a discussion on the legendary “Ghost Army” of WWII. These very alive flesh-and-blood soldiers were plucked from art schools and theater groups, and their very dangerous job was to hoax their way across Europe and put on elaborate ruses. Joining us is Col. Francis Park, Ph.D., a military historian who can bring us perspective on the tactical use of fraud versus force.
Check it out HERE!
It seems I’m quoted in a new article on conspiracy theories, including Covid-19 and QAnon. (Or at least that’s what I *want* you to think…)
You can check it out HERE!
In 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after takeoff from Florida’s coast, an accident that laid bare not only institutional flaws in the application of high technology but also flaws in the public’s understanding of science. Many myths have emerged in the years since the accident, such as that the shuttle exploded—it didn’t, it “was torn apart as it was flung free of the other rocket components and turned broadside into the Mach 2 airstream” (Oberg 2011). Other myths remain, such as that the accident was largely a failure of technology when in fact it was largely a human-caused tragedy.
A new documentary series on Netflix titled Challenger: The Final Flight examines what led up to the accident. Through extensive archival footage and interviews with the families of the crew and engineers involved with the flight, we see a troubled agency that put political pressure above safety.
A Presidential Commission was appointed to study the Challenger shuttle accident and its causes. At first glance the culprit was a mechanical problem: the failure of small O-rings to seal on a solid rocket booster, leading to a catastrophic chain reaction. Yet the real fault for the explosion went far beyond a simple gas leak. The Rogers Commission was very critical of NASA’s procedures, finding serious flaws in the decision-making process that led to the launch.
Engineers at Morton-Thiokol, the company that made the O-rings, warned that seals failed repeated tests under the cold conditions present the morning of the Challenger launch, an unusually cold morning. Engineer Roger Boisjoly, among others, predicted that the O-rings would fail if the shuttle launched in cold weather, and notified his supervisors of this. NASA managers ignored the red flags and went ahead anyway. As tests and engineers had predicted for years, the O-rings burst and the flight—along with its seven astronauts—was doomed.
There are so many components to space technology that, on some level, failure is guaranteed—and expected, hence the presence of redundant and backup systems. The organizations making decisions concerning the Challenger launch (including NASA, Morton Thiokol, and others) had elaborate and specific procedures to assure that accurate data was used in crucial decisions. Instead of this process working correctly, important studies (such as those showing an inverse correlation between O-ring integrity and temperature) were not passed along to those who needed the information, and middle-level decisions were circumvented, primarily for expediency.
Brian Russell of Thiokol, in his testimony before the commission, stated that he did not “realize that there was a formal launch constraint” on the issue of O-ring “blow-by” problems. In other words, he didn’t know that the issue was critical enough to affect the decision to launch. In response, commissioner Robert Rummel replied that the reason that the issue of O-ring safety had been closed out (i.e., prematurely declared resolved) by Russell was “because you don’t want to be bothered. Somebody doesn’t want to be bothered with flight-by-flight reviews, but you’re going to work on it after it’s closed out” (Rogers Commission, 143).
In other cases engineers complained of bureaucracy that impeded their ability to resolve safety issues. The Rogers Commission report quoted one memo from Thiokol engineer S.R. Stein that “We are currently being hog-tied by paperwork every time we try to accomplish anything” (Rogers Commission, 253). In his book Truth, Lies, and O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster, Allan McDonald, director of the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Motor Project at the time of the accident, notes that “In dozens of emotional talks given around the country following Challenger, Roger Boisjoly had been charging that officials played ‘fast and loose’ with the astronauts’ lives, ‘absolutely abdicating their professional responsibility’ in pressuring Thiokol to reverse its original recommendation not to launch. In Boisjoly’s view, stopping the launch of the shuttle was a ‘no-brainer,’ requiring ‘only common sense’” (p. 603).
If the scientific side of the Challenger disaster was plagued with problems, the social side wasn’t much better. Physicist Richard Feynman was on the commission, and in his Appendix F to the Rogers Commission report he discussed exactly this issue, stating that he believed that the true likelihood of shuttle disaster was about 1 in 100: “Official [NASA] management… claims to believe the probability of failure is a thousand times less. One reason may be an attempt to assure the government of NASA perfection and success in order to ensure the supply of funds. The other may be that they sincerely believe it to be true, demonstrating an almost incredible lack of communication between themselves and their working engineers” (Feynman 1986).
The Challenger accident was fraught with demanding impatience; the liftoff had been delayed several times already, and Americans quickly grew tired of seeing the sleek shuttle sitting impotently on the launching pad. What was promised—and eventually delivered—was action. Society is relatively unconcerned with evaluating the goals of science. NASA administrators were under enormous pressure from both the public and the government to launch the shuttle. Ironically, had the shuttle been delayed yet again to a warmer morning the shuttle would likely have been fine, but the underlying problem still ignored.
The documentary focuses its first few episodes on Christa McAuliffe, the high school teacher who was the much-vaunted “Teacher in Space.” But she was only the highest-profile of the astronauts, overshadowing the others. Co-directors “Glen Zipper and Stephen Leckart conceived of it in 2015 while looking to make something personal. Both had seen the disaster as boys but could only remember the name of one astronaut aboard Challenger: McAuliffe. Who were the other six? The more they dug, the more they found extraordinary people: Ellison Onizuka was the first Asian American in space and Ronald McNair was the second African American. Judith Resnik was the second American woman in space and the first Jewish woman. ‘We wanted to humanize these astronauts and wanted you to know these characters and understand the human side of this whole story,’ co-director Daniel Junge said” in an Associated Press interview. Veterans Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, and Gregory Jarvis rounded out the crew.
The series includes intriguing information about how the Reagan administration pressured the investigative committee to avoid embarrassing NASA—an effort that could be fairly characterized as a coverup. It was only after information was leaked to the mainstream press by a brave engineer insider revealing that NASA had been warned about the problem that full pressure was brought to bear on the Rogers commission to get to the truth—public relations be damned.
Institutional arrogance is revealed in the stated purpose of the space shuttle: “to provide routine, economical access to space.” NASA’s assumption that any endeavor as complex and perilous as manned space flight could ever be “routine” or “economical” reveals technological arrogance. Part of the reason that the event was so shocking to the American public is they were insulated from the risks and science. The expectation was that everything would work perfectly, as it always had before, during the previous 55 missions into space over 25 years. Like people who use their cell phones every day, they have no idea how the devices work, they just expect them to work. Yet, as Carl Sagan famously noted, “It is suicidal to create a society dependent on science and technology in which hardly anybody knows anything about science and technology.”
Society’s values play an important role in the perception of technology. We live in a society in which immediate gratification is expected, and convenience is prized. Society is impatient for change; we want and expect things to be done immediately and correctly; we don’t have time for the nuances, complexities, or caveats that are the hallmarks of science. This misunderstanding was fueled in part by NASA itself. The shuttle program was packaged and promoted by NASA and the government as a safe and patriotic venture into space. In fact NASA was so confident that they added McAuliffe on Challenger largely as a public relations tool. The other astronauts on mission 51-L had specific scientific duties; according to McAuliffe’s schedule, her role was to beam down two “lessons from space” to schools across America as an ambassador for the space program. One wonders how the mission could have been taken so lightly that they could have reserved a space for PR stunts.
Fueled by patriotism, a lucky streak, and NASA’s confidence, Americans were coaxed into complacency about the safety of manned space flight. Rockets and space shuttles are incredibly complex machines, with tens of thousands of important parts, all—as the grim joke goes—manufactured by the lowest bidder. Each launch takes years of preparation and hundreds of brilliant, dedicated professionals.
The shuttle program has now been retired, but the question can be asked whether it was worth the cost in dollars and human lives—or whether it should be revived. Without knowing what true risks are, it’s impossible to know. The documentary includes a defense by William Lucas, the director of NASA’s Marshall Space Center, on whose shoulders much of the blame has been laid. He insists to this day that he made the best decision he could, given the information available to him at the time from Thiokol.
NASA is not eager to admit it, but life-threatening crises and potential problems will always go hand in hand with manned space flight. Optimism should be tempered with realism about how inherently dangerous and complicated it is to put humans into space. We have not mastered space flight, and should not fool ourselves into thinking otherwise. As Feynman concluded in his report, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”
Feynman, R. (1986). Appendix F: Personal observations on reliability of shuttle. World Spaceflight News and National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Report on the space shuttle Challenger accident. Washington, D.C.: Office of Government Publications.
McDonald, Allan, and James Hansen. (2012). Truth, Lies, and O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster. University Press of Florida.
Oberg, J. (2011). 7 myths about the Challenger shuttle disaster. NBC News. Available at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11031097/ns/technology_and_science-space/t/myths-about-challenger-shuttle-disaster/#.UFYTD44gyPA.
Rogers Commission, Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. (1986). World Spaceflight News and National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Report on the space shuttle Challenger accident. Washington, D.C.: Office of Government Publications.
A longer version of this piece appeared on my CFI website column; you can find it here.
New episode of Squaring the Strange! Pascual takes the helm and steers us into some weird audio territory… We use a few pop music lawsuits as a jumping-off point to examine what originality even IS when it comes to creativity and how to put music together. Is a “flavor” of music protected as intellectual property? What do modern composers borrow from much older operas or Gregorian chants? What about alien music? “Tune” in to find out!
I’m far too modest to mention it, but there’s a nice new review of my chupacabra book on the Adventures in Poor Taste website… you can find it HERE.
I was recently a guest on the X Zone Radio show, using the clever pseudonym “Benjamin Bradford.” We talked about various things ranging from the origins of Halloween to the psychology of ghosts to my investigation into the Chase Vault moving coffins mystery! You can check it out HERE!
Watch Professor LeAnne Flaherty interview Jim Underdown, Kenny Biddle, and I for her Brooklyn College parapsychology class… We talk about ghost investigations, psychic detectives, critical thinking, testing claims, and much more…
You can see it HERE!
The KiMo Theater in Albuquerque is one of New Mexico’s best-known ghost stories, and has been the subject of many articles, blogs, and TV shows. After a tragic accident in the 1950s claimed the life of a young boy, it is said that his spirit returned to the theater and caused one of the most famous poltergeist occurrences in history. To this day, a shrine is left for the boy ghost, and offerings are made by performers there to assure a safe and good performance. It’s a scary, fascinating story—but did it really happen? Join folklorist and investigator Benjamin Radford as he separates fact from fiction and uncovers the true story of the KiMo Theater ghost. This presentation is based on a chapter in his 2014 book Mysterious New Mexico: Miracles, Magic, and Monsters in the Land of Enchantment.
Oct 22 6:00 PM MT
You can register here!
I’m a guest on the new The Next Truth show, talking about skeptical and scientific approaches to ghost investigation.
You can listen to it HERE!
Americans, like everyone else, should ideally be more educated about history (and everything else). But no, a recent poll doesn’t reveal that a significant percentage of Americans either deny the Holocaust or are largely ignorant about it. Here’s a media literacy take on the alarming headlines...
In the wake of racial incidents such as the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018, it’s natural for the public and pundits to wonder just how common anti-Semitism is. Deadly attacks on Jewish houses of worship are thankfully rare, but what about anti-Jewish belief among the general public? One often-used metric is public opinion polls about the Holocaust.
In April 2018 Newsweek posted a news story titled “One-Third of Americans Don’t Believe 6 Million Jews Were Murdered During the Holocaust.” It was widely shared on social media, including Yahoo News.
The disturbing headline seemed to suggest that neo-Nazis are succeeding in sowing Holocaust denial among Americans. The Holocaust is the highest-profile event in history about the dangers of intolerance and anti-Semitism, and with about a third of Americans—over 100 million people—doubting a key aspect of the Holocaust, anti-Jewish sentiment seems widespread indeed.
Given the potential fear and concern headlines like this can spawn, it’s worth taking a closer look at the story through the lens of media literacy and skepticism. The data came from a survey by Schoen Consulting on behalf of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, released for Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was a national study of 1,350 interviews with American adults during the last week of February 2018, with a margin of error at +/- 3%.
A Closer Look
If you actually read the study (available here) you realize that the Newsweek headline is misleading in several important ways.
First, the phrase “don’t believe” in the headline implies doubt: that you are presented with a claim or proposition, and you state categorically that you do not believe it. However the question (number 19, if you’re following along) didn’t ask respondents what they “believe.” People were asked to estimate, or put a number on, how many Jews they thought were killed. The exact wording is “Approximately how many Jews were killed during the Holocaust?” The responses were, in order of presentation: 20 million; 6 million; 2 million; 1 million; 100,000; 25,000; Other; or Not sure.”
Phrasing is important, especially in surveys. Had the question been phrased “Do you believe 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust?” then the percentage responding No would accurately capture how many doubt that six million Jews were killed. It should also be noted that there is in fact no historical consensus on the exact number of Jewish deaths in the Holocaust, but most experts believe the number is between 5 and 6 million. Had the question been phrased more accurately (by historical standards) and less precisely (by estimation standards), as in “Do you believe that about 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust?” it’s quite possible that even more people would have correctly answered that question.
A closer look reveals that among American adults, the vast majority, 49%, gave the correct answer of 6 million. Six percent actually overestimated the number of Jews killed by over a factor of three (at 20 million). Note that the second-highest response, Not Sure, at 13%, means just that: they’re not sure how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Thus “Not Sure” is not a catch-all response for “None” or “An Insignificant Number” or “Surely Fewer Than 6 Million.” It could mean the person thought that the number was closer to 15 million, or 10 million, or 8 million, or some number not among those specifically listed.
For all we know, many of that 13% could have accurately estimated that about 6 million Jews were killed, but weren’t confident enough in their grasp of historical facts to select that option. If that’s the case then the number who knew the correct answer could be over 60%. But we don’t know because of the way the question was worded. To be clear, this limitation doesn’t invalidate the question, or render the survey or its results flawed; it just means that we must be careful in interpreting the results—especially on a subject as important as Holocaust belief or denial.
The poll does show that many Americans are wrong about various Holocaust facts (such as whether the Holocaust preceded World War II or vice-versa). How significant is this? It’s not clear. One common question in science is “Compared to what?”; in this case for example, what percentage of average Americans should we reasonably expect to know the answers? Eighty percent? Ninety percent? One hundred percent? We can all agree that ideally the answer is “higher,” but if many Americans are vague about historical events that happened in World War II, they’re not much more informed about what’s going on in modern America.
A 2007 survey by Kelton Research found that 80% of respondents could name the main ingredients of a McDonalds Big Mac sandwich, but fewer than 60% could recall all the Ten Commandments, and a 2010 Pew poll found that only 55% knew that the Golden Rule is not among the commandments.
Exaggerating and highlighting the ignorance of Americans is a time-honored tradition, especially among journalists and comics. The Tonight Show with Jay Leno often featured man-on-the-street interviews showing passersby stumped by simple questions, and Canadian comedian Rick Mercer hosted a long-running segment on the same theme titled “Talking to Americans,” on the satirical comedy show This Hour Has 22 Minutes in which Mercer, posing as a journalist, would ask unsuspecting American tourists bizarre non-sequitur questions such as whether they supported hunting polar bears in Toronto or would like to congratulate Canada on moving its capital from Ottawa to Toronto.
It’s all good flagellatory fun but obscures that fact that most Americans (that is, the statistical majority of them) are in fact fairly knowledgeable about their country and world history. Most people can answer such questions, and the fact that a minority of them can’t—or in many cases may know the correct answer just aren’t confident enough in their knowledge to commit to it on camera or to a questioner—reveals little about any uniquely American ignorance.
Holocaust Denial or Innumeracy?
Part of the issue is psychological. In his book Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences, mathematician John Allen Paulos notes that people have difficulty conceiving of large numbers. When estimating, people easily slip “between millions and billions or between billions and trillions… because we too often lack an intuitive feeling for these numbers. Many educated people have little grasp for these numbers… A recent study by Drs. Kronlund and Phillips of the University of Washington showed that most doctors’ assessments of the risks of various operations, procedures, and medications (even in their own specialties) were way off the mark, often by several orders of magnitude” (p. 10).
This does not excuse anyone’s errors, of course. Ideally, everyone should have a good grasp of historical and civics facts, as well as basic statistics and probability. Before concluding that Americans are dumb as rocks, keep in mind that most people (of any nationality) struggle to remember their computer passwords, much less who their representatives are. Not knowing the exact number of Jews killed during the Holocaust is not a metric of Holocaust denial or anti-Semitism, or indifference to (or ignorance of) Jewish persecution.
The Newsweek headline, however, was not merely a glass-is-half-full analysis but instead a clear effort to characterize many Americans as racist, or at least grossly ignorant of the plight of the Jewish community during the Holocaust (Brown University sociologist Dan Hirschman agrees, noting in a May 8, 2018 blog that the Newsweek headline “implies that 1/3 of Americans are Holocaust deniers of some sort”). These are people who didn’t pay attention in history class and who don’t have a good grasp of large numbers—not Holocaust deniers. The survey did not suggest that underestimating the number of Jews killed was any sort of attempt at minimizing the Holocaust.
If we want to know how many Americans doubt the Holocaust happened, we need look no further than question 33, which unlike question 19 is not as open-ended: 96% of respondents answered “Yes, I believe the Holocaust happened.” Three percent said they weren’t sure, and 1% of them responded that they did not believe it happened. This 1%—not the 33% suggested by Newsweek—would presumably be among the Holocaust deniers.
This is not the first time that a poll about the Holocaust produced alarming numbers. In one of the most infamous examples of flawed polling, a 1992 poll conducted by the Roper organization for the American Jewish Committee found that 1 in 5 Americans doubted that the Holocaust occurred. How could 22% of Americans report being Holocaust deniers?
The answer became clear when the original question was re-examined: “Does it seem possible or does it seem impossible to you that the Nazi extermination of the Jews never happened?” This awkwardly-phrased question contains a confusing double-negative which led many to report the opposite of what they believed. Embarrassed Roper officials apologized, and later polls—asking clear, unambiguous questions—found that only about 2% of Americans actually doubt the Holocaust. In fact the 2018 news headlines about the Holocaust poll could have accurately read “Holocaust Denial Drops 50%” (from 2% to 1%), but the news media emphasizes bad news.
Polls and surveys can provide important information about the public’s beliefs. But to be valid, they must be based on sound methodologies, and media-literate news consumers should always look for information about the sample size, representativeness of the population, whether the participants were random or self-selected, and so on. Whether due to poorly-worded questions or an alarmist news media, reports like these leave the false impression that racism and anti-Semitism are more widespread than they really are. The recent rise in hate crimes against the Jewish community is well documented, but the recent rise in Holocaust denial is not.
If you want a break from bad news: The new episode of Squaring the Strange is now out. This week we discuss the Bangladesh Toilet Ghost. Or, rather ONE OF several Bangladeshi toilet ghosts. I bring cultural and social context and a surprising history about factory work and pressures on the workers there… by the time you hear it all, you’ll think “well of COURSE there were reports of a ghost in that toilet! It makes perfect sense!”
Check it out HERE!
My podcasty co-host Celestia and I were recently interviewed on a podcast called Unexplained Inc., on skepticism, investigation, Squaring the Strange, and other oddness. You can listen HERE!
News and social media are awash with information about the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately much of what’s shared on social media about COVID-19 is false, misleading, or speculative. From the White House to the CDC, conspiracy cranks to Goop contributors, it’s a never-ending flood of information, and those charged with trying to sort it out are quickly inundated.
Among the organizations offering advice on the virus and vaccination is a 501c3 nonprofit called Children’s Health Defense, founded in 2016 by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. The Children’s Health Defense (CHD) initiative sounds unimpeachable. Who doesn’t want children to be healthy, right? It’s one of those suspiciously generic Astroturf names intended to evoke images of righteous empowerment and healthy children running through meadows. The logo is two hands cradling a globe circled by silhouettes of children holding hands. Banner headlines encourage people to “Read the Science Now.”
But there’s a sinister side to the organization. The CHD positions itself as a science-based advocacy organization bravely fighting for justice, public health, and equality, but it has a long history of spreading misinformation.
One recent project involved a viral video that circulated in May titled Plandemic, which featured a lengthy interview with virologist Judy Mikovits. Mikovits offered scattershot conspiracy-laden assertions about the “truth” behind the pandemic, prefaced by claims of having been framed for a crime and accusations of government coverups going back decades. These supposed coverups involved various medical authorities, including Dr. Anthony Fauci. Within weeks, the video was widely shared on social media, often by people who were “just asking questions.” The video was soon identified as containing dangerous misinformation by social media platforms, including Facebook and YouTube, and removed.
As I noted in an article at the time, Plandemic was never about finding truth but instead a wildly successful publicity stunt for both Mikovits’s book Plague of Corruption: Restoring Faith in the Promise of Science (which soon topped best-seller lists).
And who wrote the foreword for the most popular anti-vaccination conspiracy book of the past few years? None other than Robert F. Kennedy Jr. In fact, both Kennedy’s name and Children’s Health Defense appear prominently on the medical conspiracy book cover.
One hallmark of anti-vaccination is that anti-vaxxers usually deny that they’re anti-vaccination. In the Plandemic video, for example, Mikovits explicitly denies she’s against vaccinations. No, no, that’s all wrong—she just wants safer vaccines, she says, ones that have been proven safe and effective (conveniently ignoring the fact that they already have). Indeed, in one CHD article casting doubt on the safety of vaccines, anti-vaccination crusader Kennedy, who spends much of his time fighting vaccination, takes umbrage at being called an “anti-vaxxer.” He considers it “bullying terminology” and “name calling.”
This bit of intellectual dishonesty is in some ways a measure of the success of science and medicine. It means that those against vaccination recognize that many in the public are in favor of vaccination, and therefore they feel the need to vehemently deny their obvious motives. They quickly fall back on the classic conspiracy trope that “We’re just asking questions!”—ignoring, again, the fact that the questions they’re asking a) are mostly rhetorical, not factual; and b) to the extent that they are factual, have been answered, repeatedly, by scientists. It’s similar to the position taken by intelligent design creationists and 9/11 Truthers who recycle laundry lists of “Questions the ‘Experts’ Can’t Answer” when in fact they’ve simply chosen to ignore the plausible, evidence-based answers.
In this context, it’s no surprise that Children’s Health Defense recently chose to cynically capitalize on the pandemic with the headline “From the ER to the High School Football Field, People Want the Response to Covid-19 to Be Evidence-based, not Political.”
It’s hard to disagree with that. People do indeed, and should, want public health officials to act on evidence instead of politics. And for the most part they have, despite concerns from across the political spectrum about the safety of eventual vaccines. The accompanying article has little to do with its clickbait title and instead criticizes Dr. Anthony Fauci and others for ignoring possible treatments and encouraging the closing of schools for children’s safety.
A glance at recent posts on the CHD website reveals a pattern. After a piece titled “Peaceful Rallies Around the World to Champion Freedom,” we have a series of curious headlines, including “The Measles Vaccine Narrative Is Collapsing,” “25 Reasons to Avoid the Gardasil Vaccine,” “The Facts About Measles,” “’Herd Immunity? A Dishonest Marketing Gimmick,” and an unfortunately unironic piece titled “Countering False Vaccine Safety Claims.”
Even a cursory glance at the list reveals conspiracy claims, false statements, and non sequiturs. To pick just one example of many, in the rebuttal to the “false claim” that vaccines don’t cause autism, the Children’s Health Defense offers the bulleted claim that “The National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program [VICP] has paid many vaccine induced autism claims.” The text file links not, as one might expect, to a peer-reviewed medical journal study affirming the connection between vaccines and autism but instead to a sixty-four-page article in the Pace Environmental Law Review about the program and whether it’s a fair legal forum for claims. Even assuming that it’s perfectly true that the program “has paid many vaccine induced autism claims,” that doesn’t logically mean that vaccines cause autism.
The question of whether vaccines cause autism is a medical issue, not a legal one. There may indeed be legal implications if a link existed, but in the world of compensation claims and liability, claims are sometimes made and paid out with little evidential basis. In some cases, for example, companies determine it’s cheaper and faster to simply pay a claim they know or suspect is false than to litigate it. The mere fact that some claims were paid for autism complaints at some point is not a logical or coherent rebuttal to the claim that vaccines cause autism—and the fact that the Children’s Health Defense presents this transparent non sequitur as such is troubling.
In 2019, The New York Times examined such claims and found that “Over the past three decades, when billions of doses of vaccines have been given to hundreds of millions of Americans, the program has compensated about 6,600 people for harm they claimed was caused by vaccines. About 70 percent of the awards have been settlements in cases in which program officials did not find sufficient evidence that vaccines were at fault.” Center for Inquiry General Counsel Nicholas Little adds,
What I see from the law review article is that there are eighty-three claims of autism among brain damage claims compensated under VICP. The VICP is clear after the Omnibus Autism Proceeding (OAP): vaccines are not considered a cause of autism and are not compensated. … The VICP requires you to show an injury that is vaccine related, and there are “table” injuries. It seems likely these kids have both autism and suffered from vaccine-induced encephalopathy, or residual seizure disorder. But that doesn’t mean the vaccine caused the autism. Both the OAP and federal courts have been clear: There’s no evidence that vaccinations cause autism or that thimerosal causes autism. Claiming otherwise is a misrepresentation of the proceedings.
Because of the recency of the pandemic, there’s relatively little on the organization’s website specifically about the new coronavirus. However, a review of other information on related topics is revealing. Though anti-vaccination efforts appear prominently in the Children’s Health Defense literature and on its website, they serve as an umbrella for other debunked health scares, including 5G and wireless harms and water fluoridation. Oh, and they’re also upset that social media companies have labeled some of their materials as false and misleading and therefore in violation of their policies.
For some topics, the Children’s Health Defense does offer links to valid research—albeit largely cherry picked. This helps maintain the veneer of scientific legitimacy. In some cases, the studies are legitimate and peer reviewed; in other cases, they are clearly labeled as early drafts (for example one document from the National Toxicology Program on fluoride begins with the disclaimer “This DRAFT Monograph is distributed solely for the purpose of pre-dissemination peer review under the applicable information quality guidelines. It has not been formally disseminated by NTP. It does not represent and should not be construed to represent any NTP determination or policy.”)
Nevertheless, we can examine the original NTP document to see whether the Children’s Health Defense fairly and honestly summarized its findings. Here’s what the CHD wrote: “2019: A systematic review of 149 human studies and 339 animal studies by the U.S. National Toxicology Program concluded that ‘fluoride is presumed to be a cognitive neurodevelopmental hazard to humans.’”
Indeed, that statement, by itself, is true and well known. The draft report states: “This conclusion is based on a consistent pattern of findings in human studies across several different populations showing that higher fluoride exposure is associated with decreased IQ or other cognitive impairments in children” (emphasis added). In other words, the dose makes the poison—a medical principle well known since the 1500s but apparently unfamiliar to Kennedy and his Children’s Health Defense writers.
By consulting the original document, we can see that the CHD conspicuously left out the rest of the paragraph in that draft: “However, the consistency is based primarily on higher levels of fluoride exposure (i.e., >1.5 ppm in drinking water). When focusing on findings from studies with exposures in ranges typically found in the United States (i.e., approximately 0.03 to 1.5 ppm in drinking water) that can be evaluated for dose response, effects on cognitive neurodevelopment are inconsistent, and therefore unclear” (emphasis added).
The CHD website could have accurately noted that “levels of fluoride in excess of what Americans drink is presumed to be a cognitive neurodevelopmental hazard,” but why would they? By intentionally obscuring the fact that the fluoride levels found in U.S. drinking water have not been associated with health risks, the Children’s Health Defense adopts a sensationalized, alarmist, and anti-scientific position. This is only one of several examples found in a quick spot-check of articles.
Kennedy and the Children’s Health Defense have been criticized by skeptics from time to time, including by Dr. David Gorski on the Science-Based Medicine blog. The group was also the subject of recent reporting by mainstream news media, including NBC News, which examined false and misleading health claims widely circulating on social media.
To be fair, not all the information issued by the Children’s Health Defense is wrong—and that’s part of the problem. By mixing in some legitimate health concerns (over environmental lead, mercury in fish, climate change, air pollution, pesticides, etc.) with bogus and exaggerated ones, Children’s Health Defense muddies the waters. If Kennedy’s organization either stuck to legitimate science—or to obvious New Age antiscience and alternative medicine conspiracy (e.g., David Avocado Wolfe and Natural News)—its misinformation would be easier to counter. By combining the enduring Kennedy mystique, conspiracy theories, and pseudoscience, the Children’s Health Defense is a genuine threat to public health—especially during a pandemic.
One of the most celebrated American naturalist/explorers was George K. Cherrie (1865–1948), who in his 1930 book Dark Trails: Adventures of a Naturalist (G.P. Putnam’s Sons) wrote about his adventures, primarily in Central and South America.
Cherrie engaged in many expeditions, perhaps most famously accompanying Theodore Roosevelt on his nearly-disastrous 1913–1914 jungle descent of Brazil’s Rio da Dúvida (“River of Doubt,” later renamed the Roosevelt River).
Dark Trails provides a fascinating first-hand look at a prominent explorer’s enthnographic, botanical, and zoological studies. Cherrie’s memoir reflects a generally hard-nosed skepticism one would expect to find in a man of science. For example in a section where he recounts being a witness to faith healing among a South American tribe, Cherrie could be channeling the Amazing Randi half a century later: “Of course it was a piece of crude prestidigitation. But the widespread success of such charlantry testifies to the high value of mental suggestion; on the other hand, suggestion of evil [e.g., a curse] works with equal efficacy” (p. 48-49).
Amid the interesting anecdotes of exploration and scientific enterprise, Cherrie also speculates on various bizarre topics including ghost beliefs and superstitions—even, at one point, seeming to tacitly endorse what to modern eyes is clearly a version of the Vanishing Hitchhiker urban legend. In a chapter titled “Death and After Death,” Cherrie recounts for his readers a bizarre encounter with the seemingly supernatural in which he was personally involved. I quote it here at length to give readers the full, fascinating context:
“The native is always in a receptive state of mind toward supernatural things. At the slightest provocation he concludes that the Spirit of Evil is about. One summer night I reached Caicara, a tiny village nearly surrounded by jungle… We had the usual reception committee of barking dogs, naked and half-naked children and indolent natives. Some of the women had brought chickens and fruit for sale.”
As it happened Cherrie recognized in this speck of a Venezuelan jungle village “a previous acquaintance of mine, a local trader, a half-caste European who had gone native” and welcomed him. Cherrie writes,
“He led the way up a smooth path to the village, followed by a motley procession. The trader and I dined outside, waited on by his native wife who, despite an untidy one-piece costume, served us with a delicious dinner. Over our coffee I described my journey and spoke of my work collecting animals, birds, and other creatures. “Just at present I am especially interested in night-flying insects,” I told him. “There are an abundance of these, but they are not always the ones I want.”
“Not even with your light?” he asked. He had seen me using a lantern as a lure for insects on a previous occasion.
“Yes, I use my lantern, but somehow it doesn’t always serve to attract the things I want.”
For a few moments my friend seemed engrossed in deep thought. Then suddenly he sprang to his feet and with true Latin enthusiasm, exclaimed: “I have it!”
He led me by the arm to the corner of the garden from which we had a view of a rocky hillside. The entrance to the path leading to the summit was about two hundred yards away across the plaza in front of the village church. In the haze of the twilight I could see near the summit of the hill what looked like a low white cloud. “The graveyard,” whispered the trader.
Then I remembered the local cemetery was on top of the hill and that it was surrounded by a white-washed adobe wall about ten feet high. “Why not try your lantern on that?”
Instantly I saw what he meant. If I could illuminate a section of the white wall it would attract multitudes of insects and when they flew within the rays of my lamp I should have them silhouetted against the white wall beyond. In this way I could identify and capture just the specimens I wanted. The trader reminded me at the same time that the villagers didn’t make it a practice to visit the cemetery at night. So there was little likelihood that I would be disturbed.
On the following night I set out just after dark, using a flashlight to follow the winding trail that led up to the burying ground. I took with me my insect net, cyanide bottles, containers of various sorts, and a large three-burner lamp which I had fastened inside a box with a reflector behind it. It was like an automobile lamp, the light being visible only from directly in front. [This is a version of the magic lantern images that entertained audiences decades before film was invented.]
When I had reached the wall it was an easy task to prop the lantern up on an old stump and light its wicks as a beacon for the moths, beetles and scores of other insects which I hoped to capture. I was not disappointed with results. Scarcely had I turned up the first wick when I heard a buzz and, turning my head, received a stinging blow in the face. It was a head-on collision with a mole cricket! Of course I could have done my collecting by picking up such specimens as flew into the lamp if I had simply turned its rays out toward the tangled thicket about me. But this would have been a slow and unsatisfactory method and have left my choice largely to chance.
My attention was fixed on the adobe wall in front of me. Rays from powerful lantern illuminated a white disk on the wall fully ten feet in diameter. Between the lantern and the disk, a distance of from fifteen to twenty feet, was a cone of light sharply defined against the blackness of the night. Within a few seconds this cone became populated with hundreds of flying, buzzing, circling, darting insects. Could I have magnified the size of the little animals and by some magic reduced their relative speed, I should have gazed upon a graceful dance of bodies which varied both in size and color.
For some time I made no effort to use my net. The endless procession of whirling little bodies fascinated me. Only when a beautiful big moth circled lazily into the light and his wing-spread was shadowed large against the white wall behind him, did I make a wide sweep with my net and begin the real work of the evening.
The simplicity and fruitfulness of my device seemed to hypnotize me. Fatigue of the day’s labors fell away. In my enthusiasm I felt as if I could go on swinging my net all night long. I could not get my specimens into the containers fast enough. In fact, my gyrations, for all their clumsiness and mediocre speed, where on the order of those described by the insects themselves. Little by little I gave up the proper technique of insect netting. The graceful sweeps and twists with which I normally tried to imprison the insects in flight gave way to wild lunges and gnomelike jumps. Never in my life had I spent so riotous a time at collecting. When fatigue did come it came with a rush. I had lost all account of time. I was not even sure what I had collected. In any event, I felt it was the most successful evening’s work with insects I had ever spent. Having extinguished my lantern, I made my way slowly back to my lodgings and dropped contentedly into my hammock.
The sun was just breaking through the mist over the river when I awakened. But instead of the sun’s rays awakening me, it was the sound of many footsteps and excited voices outside my door. Sliding out of my hammock, I hurried over to a hole in the wall that gave a view of the street. What I saw was a surprise to me. The somnolent little village had suddenly come to life. Little groups of excited, gesticulating people held my astonished gaze. My first thought was another revolution. The only thing the setting lacked was a “general” on horseback.
My morning coffee came, also my host, accompanied by an old man whom I recognized as one of the important elders of the settlement. The look on my host’s face was a curious mixture of emotions which I could not decipher. After bidding me good morning he turned to the old man and began a colloquy something like this: “You say the whole village is in a panic?”
“Yes. The place has lost its peace for the first time since the great plague.”
“And why should the people be so distressed?”
The old man excitedly related the terrible details. “It was late when we saw the first light,” he said. “This light could only have been that of the Evil One. No man’s torch was ever so bright. It illuminated only one spot and that on the wall about the sainted dead. In its gleam danced many demons. One would disappear and another quickly take its place. Only devils from hell ever danced so fearfully.”
“How large would you say this demon was?” asked my host.
“Oh, of colossal size; with very long arms and legs.”
“Did he have a tail?”
“Opinion is divided. Some say they saw it plainly. Others not.”
After a good deal of cross-examination the trader permitted the old man to go. Then he turned to me with a laugh, saying: “So you’re a devil—nay, a whole pack of devils!” He caught his breath presently. “With a tail!” he laughed. But of a sudden he became serious, and warned me not to admit that I had had anything to do with the phenomenon. He explained that if I succeeded in convincing the villagers I had been up at the cemetery the night before they would also be convinced that I was in league with Satan himself, and so not to be trusted. As violence to a white man on some such pretext was a not unheard-of occurrence I was glad to take advantage of his advice and keep silent.”
Cherrie’s choice to remain silent about the true nature of the phantasmagorical sight was a wise one. Mob-led killings of suspected witches (and others assumed to be in league with the Devil) continue to the present day in countries around the world, including Brazil, Pakistan, and Nigeria. One wonders what beliefs and legends Cherrie’s nocturnal entomological antics may have accidentally spawned in the region; it would be fascinating to return to Caicara and interview local elders about the colossal, long-limbed and tailed demon seen dancing with swarming demons in an unholy hellish light in a cemetery a century ago…
A longer version of this piece first appeared on my CFI blog; you can read it HERE.
In case you missed my appearance on the TV show “Cheddar Reveals” talking about dragons and other monster folklore, you can watch it HERE!
I recently gave a live presentation on Phantom Clown Panics for the Folklore Podcast. Cost is a reasonable £5, which supports the podcast…
Most evil clowns are fictional, but some bad clowns are reported to roam streets and parks looking for innocent children to abduct—yet seem to vanish just before police can apprehend them. Some say they are real, while others claim they are figments of imagination. They are known as phantom clowns, and were first sighted in 1981, when children in Boston reported that clowns had tried to lure them into a van with promises of candy. Other reports surfaced in other cities and in later years, with the same pattern: Parents were fearful, children were warned and police were vigilant, but despite searches and police checkpoints no evidence was ever found of their existence. They returned in the fall of 2016 when reports spread across America—and later around the globe—of these menacing clowns.
You can check it out HERE!
I was recently interviewed on the Dos Spookqueños show, talking about ghost investigations, New Mexico mysteries, and other weirdness. Check it out HERE!
New episode of Squaring the Strange is out! I’ve researched faked abductions for almost two decades now, and on the new show discuss patterns, motivations, and examples of people pretending they’ve been kidnapped. From the runaway bride to the McDonald’s worker who claimed a homicidal clown kept her from getting to work . . . people tell strange tales for a variety of reasons (or, for no reason at all!).
Check it out HERE!
In cause you missed the recent episode: Susan Gerbic, of Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia, joins us to bring us up to date on her recent psychic research and writings, as well as her team’s ongoing efforts in shoring up the information on various Wikipedia pages in response to pandemic misinformation. I share my thoughts on one of the last public theatrical events I attended before Covid-19: the Theresa Caputo Experience! We compare and contrast some of the psychological tricks and showmanship involved in a psychic’s stage performance and how people get sucked into a celebrity psychic’s crafted image.
You can listen HERE!
I was recently interviewed on the Dos Spookqueños show, talking about ghost investigations, New Mexico mysteries, and other weirdness. Check it out HERE!
New episode of Squaring the Strange! This month is the 25th anniversary of the emergence of our favorite beastie, the chupacabra! We discuss the past, present, and future of this little vampiric critter . . . as well as disappearing mailboxes and what the media’s “not talking about!”
BONUS: Another episode of “Celebrities Reading Ben’s Hate Mail”!
Check it out HERE!
And for more info on the chupacabra, check out my book!
Across America—and indeed across the world—curious designs are appearing on the landscape. The patterns have spread from back yards to churches, public parks, and even medical centers. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of people have created and used the designs as meditative, spiritual, and even therapeutic tools. The pattern is the labyrinth, and though present in many places and eras, they have never been so discussed, used, and revered as at the turn of the twenty-first century. What began as a New Age fad has quickly gone mainstream, with dozens of books, magazine articles, organizations, Web sites, and seminars devoted to labyrinths.
On a physical level, a labyrinth is a single-path, maze-like pattern. Unlike a maze, however, you cannot get lost in the labyrinth; there is only one path in and out. You begin at an opening at the outside, make your way to the center (the “rosette”), and go back out. The labyrinth’s simplicity is both attractive and symbolic.
On a metaphysical level, however, the labyrinth is variously described as “a single path spiritual tool that is a right brain enhancer,” (Labyrinth Society 1999); “a lens that brings our collective unconscious into focus on a personal level while at the same time aligning us with the larger forces at work in the galaxy,” and a “sacred space, a place where you can take chaos and bring it to order” (Explorations 2000). A labyrinth is a bridge “between the ancient and the modern,” and walking one is a “simultaneous spiritual-aesthetic-political act” (Schaper and Camp 2000, 151). It is, in essence, anything the user wishes it to be.
At first glance, labyrinth walking seems like little more than a harmless, if curious, pastime. And to some degree it is: As a skeptical investigator I enjoy labyrinths for their own sake and art, completely apart from any mystical meanings. My mother even got married in a labyrinth several years ago.
But the movement also has surprising—and disturbing—anti-science and paranormal roots. New Age feminism plays a prominent role in labyrinth literature, often denigrating “rational, male-centered thinking” in favor of feminine, “intuitive” thought.
For the woman who spawned the current movement, labyrinths are more than just an interesting design; they are a tool for reconnecting both with imagination and femininity. Walking a Sacred Path frequently portrays our modern world as too rational, unimaginative, and out of touch with wisdom, and the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as the good old days of unreason when our connection to the Earth was strong and women were valued. “The labyrinth stands with a tradition that recaptures the feminine sense of the Source. It utilizes the imagination and the pattern-discerning part of our nature.…Due to the loss of the feminine, many of us are out of touch with the depths of our beings, our Source. The feminine must be enlivened and welcomed back into our male-dominated world so integration can begin to occur—between feminine and masculine, receptive and assertive, imagination and reason.” Imagination and reason are apparently seen as mutually exclusive, with our world suffering from too much rationality and too little fantasy.
It is interesting that much of the feminist-influenced theory behind the labyrinths is rooted in Sigmund Freud, whom many believe to have been quite sexist and anti-female. It was Freud, after all, who developed the theories of penis envy (that women secretly felt inferior to men, lacking a penis) and hysteria (“wandering uterus”—that women have a condition in which unconscious emotional conflicts appear as severe mental dissociation or as physical symptoms. The underlying anxiety is assumed to have been “converted” into a physical symptom, and was considered to be a female disease brought about by movement of the uterus). One labyrinth source, www.sacredwalk.com, notes that “It is important to express these [painful] feelings so that we move through this to the next place in our lives, without taking the baggage of hurt with us.” This message, common in labyrinth literature, is Freudian through and through: our current problems won’t be resolved until we deal with their causes and begin a transition. Feminists have come full circle from deriding Freud for his antiquated and sexist notions of women to embracing Freud for his insight into resolving issues for transition.
Perhaps the most influential labyrinth book is Walking a Sacred Path by Rev. Lauren Artress, who gives seminars and talks about labyrinths. Walking a Sacred Path frequently portrays our modern world as too rational, unimaginative, and out of touch with wisdom, and the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as the good old days of unreason when our connection to the Earth was strong and women were valued. Artress goes so far as to claim that women were better off in the Middle Ages: “Both the imagination and the feminine were devalued when we moved out of the Middle Ages, and in their suppression lie the seeds of our present-day spiritual hunger” (p. 111). Artress sees the labyrinth as a tool for reconnecting both with imagination and femininity. “The labyrinth stands with a tradition that recaptures the feminine sense of the Source. It utilizes the imagination and the pattern-discerning part of our nature.…Due to the loss of the feminine, many of us are out of touch with the depths of our beings, our Source. The feminine must be enlivened and welcomed back into our male-dominated world so integration can begin to occur—between feminine and masculine, receptive and assertive, imagination and reason” (p. 14).
Artress provides no evidence that spirituality was all that great to begin with, and just assumes that our forefathers were happier, more imaginative, and more spiritually connected. This sort of false nostalgia is common in today’s New Age circles, with their emphasis on “ancient wisdom,” “lost knowledge,” etc.
Though this paradigm is appealing to many, it is also simplistic and somewhat contradictory. Barbara G. Walker, writing in the Skeptical Inquirer, cautions against taking the male/female paradigm too far: “We [feminists] are in danger of going too far into our own brand of dualism, when we label patriarchal and bad everything that is modern/scientific, while declaring matriarchal (or natural) and good everything that is primitive/magical. At the same time, we accept with off-handed ingratitude the gifts of technology that are made available to us every day: electric light, radio, television, telephones, trains, airplanes, cars, [and] computers .…Only science, with its objective, ‘linear’ approach, could have discovered bacteria, viruses, [and] antibiotics….. Almost everything that we can claim to know with any certainty about our world has been learned through science and not by subjectivity, instinct, or insight” (Walker 1993).
Artress discusses the value of imagination at length in her book (it is one of the longest sections), and it’s clear why: Imagination is very important to experiencing the powers of the labyrinth. “The labyrinth is an evocative tool. It works through the imagination and the senses…” (Artress 1995, 97). In other words, the more imagination you have the better the labyrinth will work for you.
Artress believes that the spiritual crisis that she sees in our society is partly the result of a lack of imagination. “We are beginning to realize that Western civilization—held together by rationalism, empirical research, and man’s control of nature—is coming apart.…As we in the West learned to use our rational minds, we developed a sense of superiority that denied our intuition and imagination their rightful place among the human faculties we need to survive” (Artress 1995, 106). (Non-Western cultures might find Artress’s implication that they never learned to be rational rather insulting.)
Yet this alleged cultural (and male driven?) loss of imagination is hard to find. We are surrounded by products of the imagination: hundreds of thousands of books, films, songs, plays, role-playing games, magazines, and works of art are produced each year. From Harry Potter to Law and Order, Pokémon to personal Web sites to John Grisham novels, works of imagination are everywhere in Western culture.
Other writers see labyrinths not so much as fulfilling a void of imagination as serving as a kind of user-friendly spirituality. Donna Schaper, co-author of Labyrinths from the Outside In, believes that many people are shunning the traditional, rigid rituals of religion and “widening their claim to worship in nature—hiking a mountain, for example, rather than sitting in a designated worship space” (Artress 1995, 31). In this way, labyrinths are a more accessible path to God or enlightenment. With some caveats, labyrinth walkers can take a spiritual journey on their own terms, when they wish, how they wish, and (using portable canvas labyrinths), more or less where they wish. Perhaps responding to a desire for easy spirituality, many churches have now embraced labyrinths and some even built them on their grounds.
At times the anti-science and anti-rationality rhetoric surrounding labyrinths is alarming. A blurb from an organization called Mind Body Spirit in Walking a Sacred Path states, “One strong lesson of the labyrinth is the physical realization of the continuum of life.…[I]t is clear that linear, logical thinking is no longer a roadmap we can trust.” I hope this is most decidedly not the message that most labyrinth walkers take. To dismiss logic and rationality as fundamentally untrustworthy is deeply wrongheaded and dangerous.
Artress admits that “We do not really know how or why the labyrinth works” (Artress 1995, 177). This echoes the statements made by many promoters of pseudosciences: We don’t know why they work, they just do. Yet, depending on what exactly the claim is, we do in fact know why labyrinths “work.” If you believe that walking a labyrinth (or listening to trickling water or meditating in front of a candle) will calm you, then it probably will. There is nothing mystical about it; it’s simple psychology.
One woman quoted in Walking a Sacred Path went so far as to put her faith in the labyrinth because she doesn’t understand it: “It is precisely because I do not understand ‘how it works’ that I trust and honor it.” (Artress 1995, 11). In this view, the less you know about something the more faith you should put into it. One wonders if she uses the same strategy in selecting investments and trusting friends.
Labyrinth literature presents a dichotomy in which mazes represent the undesirable logical, rational side and labyrinths represent the intuitive, safe side. As Artress writes, “Mazes challenge the choice-making part of ourselves.…Our logic is challenged.” The labyrinth, on the other hand, “does not engage our thinking minds” (p. 52). Thus mazes, which force people to think logically and rationally, are rejected, and labyrinths, which are to be followed one way and without question or choice, are embraced. You don’t need to engage yourself at all to follow a labyrinth, and walking the path frees one from the burden of thinking.
It’s unfortunate that labyrinth devotees (and many New Agers in general) have embraced what is at its heart a patronizing, anti-feminist paradigm that dismisses critical thinking, science, and rationality.
Artress, Lauren. 1995. Walking a Sacred Path. New York: Riverhead Books.
Explorations: Visions of the past, memories of the future. 2000. Catalogue, Fall.
Labyrinth Society brochure. 1999. The Labyrinth Society Inc., New Canaan, Connecticut.
Schaper, Donna, and Carole Ann Camp. 2000. Labyrinths from the Outside In. Woodstock, Vermont: Skylight Paths Publishing.
Walker, Barbara G. 1993. Science: The feminists’ scapegoat? Skeptical Inquirer 18(1): Fall.
This piece is adapted from my article “Labyrinths: Mazes and Myths” published in Skeptical Inquirer magazine.
The twin plagues of COVID-19 and racism have come to the fore globally over the past few months, and as with any such afflictions there’s a social desire to scapegoat, finding someone (or some group) to blame. Parallels between the pandemic and racism are not hard to find. Earlier this month George Clooney referred to racism as America’s “pandemic,” for which we must find a “vaccine.” Street protesters as well can be seen holding signs encouraging people to “Treat Racism Like COVID-19.”
The two are analogous in some ways, prompting some anti-vaccination crusaders to compare themselves to pioneering Civil Rights leaders, seeing themselves as victims of social injustice who will no longer be silent. As MacKenzie Mays noted in a September 2019 piece for Politico: “A chorus of mostly white women sang the gospel song ‘We Shall Overcome’ in the California State Capitol, an anthem of the civil rights movement. Mothers rallied outside the governor’s office and marched through Capitol corridors chanting “No segregation, no discrimination, yes on education for all!’ Some wore T-shirts that read ‘Freedom Keepers.’ But this wasn’t about racial equality. In the nation’s most diverse state, protesters opposed to childhood vaccine mandates — many from affluent coastal areas — had co-opted the civil rights mantle from the 1960s, insisting that their plight is comparable to what African Americans have suffered from segregationist policies. Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove said, ‘The whole conversation around vaccinations is actually one about privilege and opportunity. It’s a personal choice. It’s a luxury to be able to have a conversation about medical exemptions and about whether or not you think your child should be vaccinated.” However passionate Jenny McCarthy is, she’s no Rosa Parks.
René F. Najera, editor of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s History of Vaccines website, recently examined the cross-pollination of racism and anti-vaccination efforts, highlighting an incident that came to the attention of the California Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus (APILC), which “denounced racist online postings from anti-vaccine people. One of those people is Rob Schneider, an actor and comedian who at one time had a television series on Netflix. This is not Mr. Schneider’s first foray into the cultural discussion on vaccination … The posts denounced by APILC includes Mr. Schneider’s comparison of Richard Pan, MD, to Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China and author of several atrocities within China and the expansion of Communism around China’s sphere of influence in the post-World War 2 era. Dr. Pan is a child of Taiwanese immigrants to the United States. (This is apparently not the first time Mr. Schneider has engaged in questionable racial speech that some deem to be racist.) In another post denounced by APILC, ‘Christine Lee’ posted a photoshopped poster of members of the California Legislature who have Asian heritage. In the text of the posting, she asks several leading questions, such as ‘Notice anything else about them?’ after pointing out that they are ‘all doctors-turned-politicians.’ (The implication being that they are all of Asian descent?) The final posting being denounced is that of ‘Cathy S-R,’ a self-described ‘Doctor of Chiropractic, medical freedom supporter, informed consent, dog/cat lover.’ In her posting to Twitter, she asks Dr. Pan if he is an American citizen [and] then contradicts her initial insinuation about Dr. Pan’s citizenship by stating that Dr. Pan ‘[m]ake [his] country proud.’”
It’s not just Asians, of course—though prejudice toward them has increased with their association with COVID-19 and its origin in Wuhan, China. University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire professor David Shih notes that “People of color have been long associated with disease and public health pandemics. In the United States alone, the history of racialization cannot be separated from the discourse of non-white bodily or mental illness … I would like to focus on black Americans, and the influential story told about them by a single man, Frederick L. Hoffman. Hoffman was an actuary for the Prudential Life Insurance Company when he published Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro (1896). The 330-page document argued that black people should not be insured because they were a greater risk for mortality compared to other racial groups. Their lower life expectancies were directly related, Hoffman explained, to inferior, inherited racial traits which promised their eventual extinction as a people. Flawed as it was and critiqued by no less than W.E.B. DuBois in its day, Hoffman’s diagnosis was widely adopted by the insurance industry and went on to shape public debate over the ‘Negro question’ … Blackness was, quite simply, a public health problem. One of the reasons why we are not talking about the anti-vaccination movement as white is because we talk about geography and social class instead. These demographic characteristics often stand in as proxies for race, which is more controversial.”
Nevertheless, race does occasionally come to the fore. In The Kiss of Death: Contagion, Contamination, and Folklore, professor Andrea Kitta examines the characteristics of well-known “patient zeros and superspreaders” of various diseases, including Mary Mallon (“Typhoid Mary”), Amber Vinson (the Texas nurse who contracted Ebola in 2014), and Chong Pei Ling (SARS victim in 2003). Notably, “of the thirteen cases listed, only four are ‘white’” (p. 34). The perceived link between nonwhite skin and contagion is clear and helps form the basis for initiatives to close America’s borders. 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. For more on COVID-19 racist conspiracies, see my previous article in this series.
Conspiracy theories are common among alternative medicine proponents—who often portray themselves as marginalized medical professionals denied the imprimatur of mainstream medicine—and some bleed over into racism. One prominent proponent is Kelly Brogan, a “holistic psychiatrist” who has gathered a huge following online for her dangerous theories about COVID-19, made in interviews and a series of videos.
Brogan invokes Jewish history and the Holocaust in her arguments against vaccination, “suggesting the possibility that the US government is planning to ‘link our passports with our vaccination records’ as a method of gaining ‘totalitarian governmental control not unlike the divide-and-conquer dehumanization agendas that preceded the Holocaust.’” Brogan, associated with Gwyneth Paltrow’s New Age company Goop, was found to have misstated her credentials. On her website, she claimed that she was board certified in psychiatry and psychosomatic medicine/consultation psychiatry, but a search of records found that she was not; after an investigation by The Daily Beast, Brogan quietly deleted the references to her certifications.
On social media, Brogan has shared videos with titles such as “Vaccine Conspiracy or Racist Population Control Campaign,” a 2014 video from anti-vaccination activist Celesta McGovern reprising longstanding rumors about attempts to sterilize Africans. The claims were soon debunked on the Science-Based Medicine website but have continued to circulate widely. There are many examples of racism in medicine, but the campaign Brogan highlights is, ironically, not among them.
Many other alternative medicine and holistic websites also promote anti-vaccination conspiracies. NaturalNews, Mike “The Health Ranger” Adams, and others, for example, have widely shared bogus “news” stories attempting to discredit mainstream science, with headlines such as “Tetanus vaccines found spiked with sterilization chemical to carry out race-based genocide against Africans.” It’s all thrown into a toxic stew of misinformation about the dangers of vaccines, GMOs, cell phones, you name it.
Like all conspiracy theories, these rumors and stories have a superficial plausibility, and gain traction by tapping into deep-seated—and often legitimate—concerns and fears. There is of course a long and well-documented history of racism in medicine, from the Tuskegee Experiments beginning in the 1930s to disparate healthcare treatment. When two French doctors recently suggested that a tuberculosis vaccine should be tested on Africans to see if it could be effective against COVID-19, the comments were denounced as racist and relics of a colonial past by the head of the World Health Organization (WHO). “Shouldn’t we do this study in Africa, where there are no masks, no treatment, no resuscitation, a bit like some studies on AIDS, where among prostitutes, we try things, because they are exposed, and they don’t protect themselves?” asked physician Jean-Paul Mira. The WHO called the comments “appalling” and said that any WHO-led vaccine testing will follow the same standards regardless of where it’s done.
Folklorist Patricia Turner, in her book I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture, observes that “African-American mistrust of governmental agencies is not without merit … Official disrespect for the bodies of African-Americans has a long history in this country” (p. 112). Medicalized racism is real, harmful, and a serious problem, but that doesn’t mean that any given wild conspiracy theory is true.
Brogan’s attempt to paint the medical establishment as racist is ironic given her own history of promoting conspiracy theorist David Icke—who claims among many other things that Barack Obama is a Reptilian (when not spewing racist tropes). As The New York Times noted, “Mr. Icke draws on ideas from the anti-Semitic pamphlet The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, argues that Holocaust denial should be taught in schools and that Jews are responsible for organizing anti-Semitic attacks, and calls the Talmud a racist document. In other writings, he has posited that a cabal of a child-sacrificing, bloodthirsty lizard people, many of whom are Jewish, are secretly running the world.”
In a March 20, 2020, post, Brogan encouraged her followers to “listen through to the end [of an interview with Icke] to learn how to remain calm and manifest the impossible.” Regarding COVID-19, she states that in fact “there is potentially no such thing as the coronavirus.” Brogan seems to decry racism conspiracy when it serves her anti-vaccination purposes, and promote racism conspiracy—or at least those who do—when it suits her.
Anti-vaccination wellness influencers such as Brogan are also actively sharing conspiracy theories from far-right groups such as QAnon about COVID-19. A recent Mother Jones article found that “Some have fused wellness hoaxes and pseudoscientific homeopathic treatments with QAnon and other far-right conspiracies. One such notable influencer is Joseph Arena, a chiropractor who uses the title ‘Dr.’ and has more than 40,000 followers. Arena has pushed explicit QAnon theories about massive pedophile rings run by the deep state on his Instagram account and has directed his followers to pro-QAnon pages to find ‘the truth.’… Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai, a biology PhD [with] nearly 100,000 followers, pushes QAnon-styled conspiracies about “deep state” [including] that the coronavirus is a tool for the ‘deep state’ in ‘consolidating its Power using its protected class of Hollywood & Academic whores.’”
The recent Plandemic video is laden with conspiracies and hints darkly at motivations in its attacks on Dr. Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates. For example, as to the claims made about Fauci in Plandemic, former New York police officer Mitch Danzig, notes in an article for The Jewish Journal that “The NIAID, under Fauci’s leadership since 1984, provides dozens of grants to labs researching infectious diseases. These grants weren’t awarded to work on COVID-19. Many were, however, awarded to perform work on SARS, which spread across the world in 2003. The NIAID also didn’t give the funds directly to the Wuhan Institute. The grants were given instead to the EcoHealth Alliance, which invests in health research globally that led to at least 20 research papers on pre-COVID-19 coronaviruses published over the past six years. The grant referenced in these breathless, innuendo-filled stories about Fauci also wasn’t the first awarded by the NIAID to the EcoHealth Alliance. The NIAID has been providing grants to EcoHealth Alliance to fund infectious disease research projects all over the world, including in Chinese institutes, since 2005. This ‘smoking gun’ that Fauci conspiracy theorists keep touting is about as big a ‘Nothing Burger’ as one can imagine. But it is about as demonstrative of the claim that Fauci is responsible for COVID-19 as pointing to a specific Jew being the president of CBS as ‘proof’ that the ‘Jews control the media.’ To say that these conspiracy theories about Gates and Fauci, which often are promoted by a cohort of anti-vaxxers as well as anti-Semites, are specious and baseless, is to be kind.”
Anti-vaccination advocates are of course not alone in spreading medical misinformation for social and political purposes; anti-abortion groups have been known to spread false rumors about contraception being secretly given instead of tetanus vaccines to women in developing countries.
The protests about race relations and reopening the country are also being shared and eagerly amplified for political purposes by America’s enemies. In a Washington Post piece, Ishaan Tharoor noted that along with American citizens watching the racial rioting and protests, “America’s putative foreign adversaries also are watching. ‘This incident is far from the first in a series of lawless conduct and unjustified violence from U.S. law enforcement,’ the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, adding to the Kremlin’s long history of pointing to human rights abuses in the United States. ‘American police commit such high-profile crimes all too often.’ Officials in Iran did the same, calling out racial injustice in America. ‘If you’re dark-skinned walking in the US, you can’t be sure you’ll be alive in the next few minutes,’ read a tweet from an account associated with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, which was accompanied by a video that detailed the horrific history of slavery in the United States. And then there was China. Already locked in a spiraling geopolitical confrontation with Washington, officials in Beijing seized on the protests to push back against the Trump administration’s assertive messaging on Hong Kong, a city whose unique autonomy is being dramatically curtailed by China.” China in particular is especially sensitive to the widespread criticism of its early handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, and its leaders may feel a sense of schadenfreude in America’s troubles.
Who’s spurring the racial protests? Conspiracies point to any number of people, including rich Jewish businessmen such as George Soros who are allegedly hiring fake protesters. (In fact, this has been debunked.) Who’s spreading COVID-19? Rich liberals such as Bill Gates, hoping to become even richer. (In fact, this also has been debunked.)
Not all alternative medicine proponents are anti-vaccine, of course, just as not all anti-vaccination activists are conspiracy theorists, right-wing, racist, or all three. However, it’s not surprising that a Venn diagram reveals considerable overlap among the worldviews. Conspiracy is inherent in anti-vaccination belief, because Big Pharma has allegedly invested untold fortunes in keeping the “truth” about vaccines from public knowledge.
People across the political spectrum believe conspiracy theories, and they all share a common worldview, one which is fundamentally distrustful of authority and anti-establishment. All pride themselves on being independent thinkers, a special breed of “woke” folk who are smart enough to separate themselves from the sheeple and not be swayed by what “They” want you to think. Theirs is a world in which world events are part of a Master Plan orchestrated by a Jewish cabal, the Illuminati, Bill Gates, Big Pharma, or whoever else.
Racism, conspiracy thinking, and the rejection of science are all toxic problems, made worse when combined with the chaos and uncertainty of a pandemic. Fortunately, these are all learned behaviors that can be conquered. The best inoculations against misinformation are critical thinking, media literacy, and skepticism.
A longer version of this piece first appeared on the Center for Inquiry’s Coronavirus Resource Page; you can find it HERE.
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!
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!
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 chupacabras, media 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!
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!
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!
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.