Several of my Skeptical Inquirer articles are referenced in the new Indiana University Press book UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens: What Science Says, by Don Prothero and Tim Callahan, with a foreword by Michael Shermer (you can see the book HERE). I can't want to read it! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
Episode 18: Food Evolution Documentary and Chewing the Fat on GMOs This week on Squaring the Strange, Celestia, Pascual, and I open with a discussion on what people consider uncanny, bizarre, or strange. What takes something from implausible to downright mysterious? An understanding of statistics is one angle to consider, but ignorance of particular fields is also at work: from the World Trade Center to the pyramids to cancer remissions, people who lack the relevant technical knowledge are the ones gobsmacked by particular events or facts. Headline writers emphasize this “bizarre” aspect without providing context, leading many to jump right to conspiracy theories or supernatural explanations. Then Celestia, back from the 2017 meeting of the Institute of Food Technologists, discusses the new GMO documentary, Food Evolution. The film was funded by IFT but director Scott Hamilton Kennedy was given complete control over topic, content, and approach, and he chose to tackle the human side of the GMO/organic controversy. Kennedy did a beautiful job bringing the human element to the forefront and takes viewers along a persuasive narrative of finding common ground and changing minds. We touch on hot button topics like GMO labeling, evil corporations like Monsanto, and patenting living organisms. We also discuss the negative feedback the movie has so far received, and the strength (or rather lack of strength) in the arguments that the anti-GMO crowd has put forth. Namely, a Huffington Post columnist supported by organic industries decries the appearance of a logo in the film’s background, and Mike Adams calls Neil deGrasse Tyson a race traitor. Lastly, we let you know how to check for a screening of Food Evolution in your area, and give shoutouts to some online resources for anyone wanting to learn more about GMO tech. Listen to the show HERE! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
I'm quoted, along with eminent scholar Daniel C. Dennett, Ted Schick, and others, on the question of "What's the harm in false beliefs?" Here's an excerpt: False beliefs, by themselves, are not harmful. Belief is inherently harmless; believing that you can safely jump off a building isn’t a problem until you actually attempt it. It is instead the actions and decisions made based on those false beliefs that cause harm. Every human lives and dies having held countless false or unproven beliefs. Most of them are insignificant (such as, perhaps, thinking Sydney is the capital of Australia); some are profoundly personal (such as, perhaps, not knowing one was adopted); and still others are serious and life threatening. With each false belief a person sheds, they decrease their chance of being harmed by that belief in the future. Thus the harm in a given belief depends entirely on what the specific belief is. Belief in the efficacy of unproven medicine can kill; belief in psychics has cost people their life savings, and so on. There are also many indirect harms and costs to false beliefs; people have died while hunting for ghosts and looking for mythical lost treasures. Others have spent decades of their lives—and personal fortunes—searching for Atlantis, Nessie, and other myths based on unfounded beliefs. Belief in extraterrestrials did not, by itself, cause the 1997 Heaven’s Gate suicides, but it was a key element in the cult’s belief systems. False beliefs can harm not just the deceived but others as well, for example parents who refuse their children medical care in the belief that God will heal them. I have for many years documented the harm that comes from belief in magic—not just historically but in the present day; women in India and Pakistan have been accused of witchcraft and murdered, and in East Africa albinos have had their limbs hacked off with machetes for use in magic rituals. The harm is all around us if we choose to look. Fundamentally the answer is that truth matters; what is real and accurate and true is important. An excellent forgery of a great painting is still a forgery, and whether it’s authentic or not should matter to someone who buys it. Ignorance is the default condition of mankind, with critical thinking and skepticism the best ways to fill that knowledge vacuum with information and fact upon which to make human progress. You can read the rest HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
The 1937 disappearance of pioneer pilot Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan in the Pacific Ocean has been the subject of continuing research, debate, and speculation—most recently in a show titled Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence. I wrote an in-depth analysis of the show; here's an excerpt: If the photo is what it’s claimed to be, it means that the “lost” pair were alive and well on a dock in the Marshall Islands in 1937. That still doesn’t fully explain where they went after the photo was taken, and as noted the show suggests they were captured by the Japanese and died in prison on Saipan—a fact that the U.S. government knew about and covered up. To be clear, this idea is not new and is only one of many theories put forth over the years—and widely rejected for lack of evidence. While Earhart’s precise fate remains unknown, the most widely accepted explanation is also the most mundane: they ran out of fuel and their plane crashed into the vast Pacific Ocean. In an effort to breathe life (and ratings) into a theory heavy on speculation but light on evidence, the History Channel offered what they claimed was something akin to a smoking gun: a blurry photograph of what might or might not be Earhart and Noonan. Doubts were raised about that explanation before the show aired and quickly escalated afterward. As National Geographic explained, “New evidence indicates that the photograph was published in a 1935 Japanese-language travelogue about the islands of the South Pacific. As Japanese military history blogger Kota Yamano noted in a July 9 post, he found the book after searching the National Diet Library, Japan’s national library, using the term ‘Jaluit Atoll,’ the location featured in the photograph.” Instead of being hidden in a secret archive deep in the guarded National Security vaults, the image popped up on the first page of search results: “His search query turned up the travelogue, The Ocean's ‘Lifeline’: The Condition of Our South Seas, which features the ‘Earhart’ photograph on page 44. One translation of the caption describes a lively port that regularly hosted schooner races—with no mention of Earhart or Noonan to be found. Page 113 of the book indicates that the travelogue was published in October 1935.” This of course poses a problem because the photo was published two years before Earhart’s final flight. It’s almost certainly not Earhart but even if it was, it has nothing to do with her disappearance. Displaying keen investigative acumen, Yamano said in an interview “I find it strange that the documentary makers didn’t confirm the date of the photograph or the publication in which it originally appeared. That’s the first thing they should have done.” To be fair, the entire show does not stand or fall on the photograph’s authenticity. The show’s producers likely knew that the photo itself might not be entirely convincing and suggested that there was hard forensic evidence to support the theory: bones found on the island where Earhart supposedly died were to be subjected to genetic testing and compared to Earhart’s known relatives to prove she was on the island. As Eve Siebert noted on the July 12 episode of The Virtual Skeptics podcast, “I’m assuming that this did not actually happen because if they were able to identify bones buried on Saipan identified as Earhart’s, they really buried the lede by focusing on that blurry photograph.” The History Channel promised viewers in a July 9 tweet that “After tonight, the story of Amelia Earhart will no longer have a question mark.” This prediction turned out to be prophetic; indeed, the single question mark has since been replaced by dozens of question marks—ranging from the integrity of the History Channel to the competence of its on-air researchers. (If it’s any consolation, the recent show almost certainly supplants a 2012 show that Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning called “one of the worst examples of television promoting pseudohistory.”) You can read the rest HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
I'm quoted in a new article about the "Blue Whale game" scare.: On the surface, Blue Whale has all the hallmarks of a moral panic similar to other "challenges" that often scared parents, such as the choking game, pharma parties, and the fire challenge. All of these were cases where parents, local authorities, and click-hungry media outlets took either isolated incidents or rumors and turned them into full blown scares, no matter how many people were actually doing them. Indeed, prominent skeptic Benjamin Radford wrote that Blue Whale shares many traits with classic moral panics, including "modern technology and seemingly benign personal devices as posing hidden dangers to children and teens, the threat [of] some influential evil stranger who manipulates the innocent, and an element of conspiracy theory." There's also more on this in a recent episode of Squaring the Strange.... You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
This blog is part of a series I've titled "Unco Junto" (after the discussion clubs founded by Benjamin Franklin) in which I offer an introductory topic essay and a handful of commenters are invited to respond in any way they see fit. The goal is to provide a forum for long-form--and hopefully provocative--analysis in a media often dominated by superficial sound bites. The entry examines the nature of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy seems to be a running theme on the news and in social media, especially in the political sphere. It seems that hardly a week goes by that one political party is not accusing the other of hypocrisy, on everything from confirming Supreme Court judges to health care reforms. When President Trump fired FBI James Comey in May, White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stated that the reaction from Democrats was "the purest form of hypocrisy" and that "Most of the people declaring war today were the very ones what were begging for Director Comey to be fired." This accusation of hypocrisy is objectively and factually incorrect; though many Democrats had criticized Comey at various times (including for his handling of Hillary Clinton's e-mail investigation shortly before the presidential election), almost none of them had in fact called for Comey to resign or be fired; the sole exception was Tennessee's Rep. Steve Cohen. In fact there was bipartisan concern over Trump's handling of the matter, as well as the varying justifications given for Comey's firing. Here is an analysis of three examples of claimed hypocrisy, followed by a brief look at the phenomenon. You can find it HERE! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
Along with mermaids and dragons, unicorns are among the world's best-known mythical creatures. From early artistic representations by Albrecht Durer and medieval tapestries to kitschy New Age posters and kids' T-shirts, unicorns are universally beloved. We all recognize the striking image, but the story behind the magnificent beast is equally enchanting. The unicorn did not spring fully formed in the popular imagination; instead, it gradually evolved from numerous early sources. First reports of the unicorn date back to the fourth century when Greek physician Ctesias recorded exotic tales he'd heard from travelers: "There are in India certain wild asses which are as large as horses, and larger. Their bodies are white, their heads dark red, and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn on the forehead which is about a foot and a half in length." The horn, he added, was said to be white, red, and black. The legends spread, and different cultures spawned various versions of the unicorn. The ki-lin of Chinese lore — which had a 12-foot-long horn on its head and a coat of five sacred colors — was renowned for bringing good luck. Though modern images tend to assume unicorns are horse-sized, the Physiologus (a 12th-century bestiary) described it as "a very small animal, like a kid." The comparison is to a baby goat instead of a preteen human, but in either event the unicorns described wouldn't stand much above knee height. You can read the rest of my LiveScience.com piece HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
A researcher claimed that the chupacabra can be traced back to legends of the nightjar bird. I respectfully disagreed, which he then responded to, and which I then replied to. If you want to see two educated adults (one of them right and one of them wrong) kick each other's intellectual and metaphorical shins like kids on a playground over folkloric details of a mythical monster's naming and origin, here's your chance! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
For those who missed it, I was recently a guest on "StarTalk Radio" with Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, and the irrepressible Seth Shostak! Topics included UFOs, conspiracy theories, and whether a shortage of cow anuses on other planets is the cause of mysterious cattle mutilations. You can listen HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
My overview article on crop circles is now up at LiveScience.com, check it out!Crop circles — strange patterns that appear mysteriously overnight in farmers' fields—provoke puzzlement, delight and intrigue among the press and public alike. The circles are mostly found in the United Kingdom, but have spread to dozens of countries around the world in past decades. The mystery has inspired countless books, blogs, fan groups, researchers (dubbed "cereologists") and even Hollywood films. Despite having been studied for decades, the question remains: Who — or what — is making them? Find out HERE! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
We are just past the 2017 summer solstice (June 20 and 21 were the longest days of the year for anyone living north of the equator), and amid the celebrations, pagan rituals, and Stonehenge treks, there were many who performed a trick seemingly unique to that day. According to some, eggs and brooms can somehow be balanced on their ends on that day (and/or on the vernal equinox, when day and night length are about the same; and/or on the first day of Spring, take your pick). YouTube videos can be found of many people trying this quirk for themselves, mostly successfully (videos showing the trick not working are of course less popular and interesting). The British tabloid The Daily Mirror--a reliable source for unreliable, sensationalized information since 1903--offered a story about goofy beliefs about the equinox including that eggs and brooms can be balanced on that day. You can read the rest HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
Following up on my book Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore, I have occasionally written about varied speculativepseudohistories of the chupacabra, and indeed the subject is ripe for conjecture. In a blog titled "The Secret Prehistory of the Chupacabra," Jason Colavito writes that "the chupacabra name derives from 2,300 years of European and American traditions about nocturnal creatures that prey on livestock. And it all started with a small, completely harmless little bird." Colavito notes, correctly in my estimation, that "The first chupacabra was not a monster, nor was it a vampire. Originally, the goatsucker was so named not because the creature sucked blood like a vampire but because it sucked milk directly from the teat. The legend originates in a story told about the European nightjar (genus Caprimulgus), a smallish, nocturnal, and insectivorous bird that inexplicably developed a bad reputation, earning it the name ‘goatsucker.' The first author to record this story is Aristotle, in his History of Animals, written around 350 BCE." So far so good; we agree that a small bird named chupacabra--like a great many birds around the world including owls, ravens, doves, etc.--had folkloric associations, in this case that it suckled goat milk. Where we part ways is in seeing clear links between the subject of my book and the bird of lore. I briefly discuss the goatsucker bird in the first chapter of my book (see page 4). The chupacabra monster is very specifically a vampire: it sucks blood from its victims. The "goat sucker" bird that shares its name instead sucks milk from goats, which is a different theme--there are few reports of surviving chupacabra victims, as the monster's actions are typically said to be lethal. Also the word chupacabra (as specifically describing the subject of my book) was, from all indications referred specifically to rumors of goats being killed and drained of blood in rural Puerto Rico, not to the milk-drinking whippoorwill bird. The best evidence is that the word chupacabra was first coined by San Juan-based radio deejay Silverio Pérez in late 1995 live while commenting on then-circulating rumors and tabloid stories about strange attacks on the island. I have been unable to find any pre-1995 references to a blood-sucking chupacabra in Puerto Rico or anywhere else--despite a standing $1,000 reward for any verifiable, published pre-1990s reference to a vampiric chupacabra--and Colavito offers none. Colavito does an admirable job of tracing the linguistic lineage: "The name, in its now-obsolete Spanish form chotacabra, was in common use in Spanish America (including Puerto Rico) from at least the nineteenth century (and probably many centuries earlier), changing to chupacabra in the twentieth century when the older Spanish verb chotar (to suck) became obsolete and gave way to the newer synonym chupar... the nightjar is native to Puerto Rico, and I have been able to find printed references to the bird on the island as ‘chotacabra' dating back to at least 1948....The change from the obsolete form chotacabra to the modern form chupacabra, reflecting changes in colloquial Spanish, masked the connection, leading to recent claims that the word did not exist prior to 1995." Colavito does not account for (or glosses over) the notable absence of chupacabra (as referring to the now-familiar vampiric monster, not the bird) between the time that "chotar" became "chupar" and the eve of this century. You can read the rest HERE. And Colavito's response is HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
I was recently interviewed for Vice media’s popular Motherboard site about my investigation into the 1997 Pokemon seizure mass hysteria incident, which was published both in the Southern Medical Journal and also in Skeptical Inquirer magazine sixteen years ago this month (May/June 2001). The series is titled “Science Solved It!” and the interview can be heard HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
Did you miss an episode of Squaring the Strange? We talk about what we're skeptical of recently, as well as take a close look at psychics and the law. Please check it out!
My new CFI blog examines a case study in TV ghost hunting illogic and pseudoscience. "This show aired in 2016 when the two stars have, they claimed, a combined thirty years of ghost hunting experience. In any other career, a third of a century experience would result in demonstrably better results, but not in ghost hunting, where thirty minutes of ghost hunting experience can yield exactly the same results as thirty years." There is no one "right" way to investigate paranormal and ghost claims, except through the use of critical thinking and scientific methods. The techniques I present in my seminars and book Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries have proven themselves useful and effective in solving mysteries. They are drawn from many sources including professional investigations (such as procedures used by police detectives, FBI agents, and investigative journalists), scientific methodologies, formal and informal logic, psychology, personal experience, and other investigators-along with a dose of common sense. Often it's useful to provide examples of flawed investigations, and in that light I offer an analysis of a recent episode of the ghost hunting show Kindred Spirits titled "Breaking and Entering" (airdate November 18, 2016). In it former Ghost Hunters cast members Amy Bruni and Adam Berry investigate a supposedly haunted home owned by a woman named Meghan. Read more HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
My Skeptical Inquirer column about the purported links between EMF fields and ghosts is now online! Many ghost hunters, including the T.A.P.S. team on the television show Ghost Hunters, use EMF detectors to search for electromagnetic fields because they believe that intense magnetic fields can create hallucinations, which in turn might create the illusion of ghosts. The basis for this theory comes primarily from research done by a Canadian cognitive neuroscientist, Michael Persinger. He found that hallucinations (such as out-of-body experiences) could be triggered by stimulating specific areas of the brain with fixed wavelength patterns of high-level electromagnetic fields... You can read the rest HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
Hey folks! The new episode of Squaring the Strange podcast is now out, and in it you can hear Pascual Romero and I in Part 2 of the series on Jamaican ghosts and folklore (this carving below is of a Jamaican "duppy"). Listen here! https://squaringthestrange.wordpress.com/ You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
Nice note from a teacher friend of mine, glad to see an article I wrote several years ago is still being read and steering people toward skepticism... You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
How useful is the Facebook 'Safety Check' function during terrorism and disaster? A closer look in my CFI blog... When the attacks in London happened, many people used Facebook's "Safety Check" functions to alert friends and family that they were safe. When launching the feature, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced, "When disasters happen, people need to know their loved ones are safe. It's moments like this that being able to connect really matters." As Wired explains, "When activated, Safety Check locates Facebook users near a disaster site through the city they list on their profile, or from where they last used the Internet. Users then receive a notification asking to confirm that they're safe or to say that they weren't in the affected area. Those who choose ‘safe' generate a notification to their friends and followers, who can track how many of their friends were affected." I'm sure the effort is well intended, but my natural skepticism led me to wonder just how useful it really is. There are about 10 million people in London at any given time (8.5 million residents plus another 1.5 million visitors per month, roughly) and the chances that any given one of them will be harmed or killed in terrorism or a natural disaster is very remote. You can read the rest HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
I recently stumbled across this photo on Twitter depicting an African Cultural Studies professor referencing my investigation into the skeptic-raping monster popobawa-- and my "Fortean Times" cover article on the topic... You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
My work has been included in the new edition of a university textbook on Abnormal Psychology. (No, I'm not a case study.) Cool! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
"This photo of Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg has one convicted felon; if you immediately assumed it was Stewart, you should think again!" This meme is a wonderful lesson in prejudice and stereotypes--or at least it would be if they weren't both convicted felons... Stay skeptical, my friends! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
I was recently a guest on the NPR affiliate WAMU in D.C., "The Kojo Nnamdi Show", talking about the role of skepticism and media literacy in recent rumors of child abductions. You can hear the interview HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
An inspirational cancer survivor widely honored (and featured in Beyoncé's "Lemonade" video) turns out to have made up or changed important parts of her past. Now many of her supporters are feeling betrayed, accusing her of theft, faking illness, and worse. It's a fascinating lesson in how easily people can be manipulated by tapping into popular narratives, and why critical thinking is important... You can read the remarkable, in-depth CNN article HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
A mysterious 310-foot-diameter crop circle that appeared in a farmer's barley field in Chualar, Calif., as 2013 ended puzzled the public for more than a week. Echoing the sentiments of many, the field's owner told CNN, "To be that intricate in design, it kind of baffles me as to how that was done."Videos and photos of it went viral, and though some dismissed the crop circle as a hoax, others weren't so sure. Some crop-circle experts wrote in-depth analyses that claimed to cleverly decode hidden meanings in the pattern, including that a bright comet would appear in the sky later in 2014... You can read the whole story HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
I was recently interviewed by Vice media about my investigation into the 1997 Pokemon Seizure case. I think the girl who got me a latte at my favorite coffee shop wasn't even born when I solved that mystery... You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
A Memphis mother calls police saying that her baby son was kidnapped by a Black man who stole her car. An Amber Alert was issued; police dogs, helicopters, and searchers scoured the area for hours--and find that her baby was never missing. Skeptics and skeptical researchers routinely encounter and investigate a wide variety false reports: False reports of Bigfoot, UFOs, miracle healings, alien abductions, psychics, illnesses, and so on. I've personally investigated many such reports, including of phantom clowns (see my book Bad Clowns for more), racist conspiracy theories and legends (such as the Blood Libel anti-Jewish myth and anti-Muslim stories), and more. The xenophobic archetype of the evil outsider is ancient and takes on new forms. Understanding the psychology and motivations behind false reports can be enormously helpful. Some of them are hoaxes, but many are the result of sincere mistakes, misperceptions, and other cognitive errors. When false reports concern "unexplained" topics (faked ghost sightings or UFO photos, for example), the result is usually just wasted time and the loss of credibility of a hoaxer or its proponents. However when false reports involve real-world subjects (for lack of a better term) they often implicate minorities and can result in miscarriages of justice. False reports of crimes, for example, are often used as a weapon against minorities. You may recall Susan Smith, the mother who in 1994 blamed an African-American man for kidnapping her children when she in fact drowned them in a lake. Or Jennifer Wilbanks, the so-called "Runaway Bride" who claimed to have been kidnapped and assaulted by a Hispanic man, but who had in fact voluntarily left her groom at the altar. Or the infamous Central Park Five case, in which five Black and Latino teenagers were arrested in 1989 for the brutal rape and assault of a white jogger in New York's Central Park. Many people--including Donald Trump and African-American poet Sapphire (author of Push, from which the Oscar-winning film Precious was adapted)--jumped on the bandwagon falsely accusing the young men of the crime. The list goes on and on... and continues today. For a more in-depth analysis see my CFI blog HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
I'm pleased to report that my book "Bad Clowns" was--however briefly--mentioned in a review in the "London Review of Books." Very nice!
For centuries rumors circulated about an ancient lost city—not Atlantis but a “White City” of immense wealth hidden in the Honduran jungles of Central America. Myths of treasure and every imaginable curse run rampant—but the fact that the city existed somewhere out in the jungles was widely accepted by Hondurans. I attended a talk by Doug Preston, about his research and new book The Lost City of the Monkey God—at Albuquerque’s historic KiMo theater, whose resident ghost I investigated and debunked several years ago (as described in the first chapter of my book Mysterious New Mexico)—and followed up with a telephone interview, excerpted here. Radford: You seem to have a knack for finding yourself in the middle of fascinating mysteries and real-life adventures, between the deadly jungles of The Lost City and The Monster of Florence, where you’re tangling with a serial killer. Most writers lead a fairly sedentary life—why are you different? Preston: “Well I think it’s probably a little bit of stupidity there [laughing]. I find myself falling into my own stories, like with The Monster of Florence I started off thinking I was writing a story about these long-ago crimes in Florence, these serial killings, but all of a sudden we [Preston and his co-author Mario Spezi] got pulled in by the police investigation, and pretty soon I was being interrogated as a suspect... it was really crazy.” Radford: As you talk about in the book, finding the Lost City came at a great cost, both in terms of the expedition, your health, and other factors. Can you talk about what went into finding it? Preston: “The legend of the Lost City did talk about the city being cursed, that all who went in there would become sick and die, and so forth. And of course I completely dismissed those legends. Well it turns out that part of the legend is kind of based on the truth, and that is that the valley is a hotzone of disease, and two-thirds of the expedition came down with this really serious tropical disease called mucocutaneous leishmaniasis. It’s incurable, I’ll have it for the rest of my life, and it’s really quite an awful disease. But I’m getting excellent treatment.” Radford: You talk about some of the myths and legends surrounding the city; where did they come from? Preston: “These legends and stories really date back about 500 years to the time of Cortez. He wrote a famous letter in 1526 while he was in Honduras to the emperor Charles V and reported that he’d heard very reliable information of a wonderful and rich civilization in the interior of Honduras, very wealthy and rich an advanced culture, and ever since then there have been legends and stories about this lost city, sometimes called the White City, Ciudad Blanca, sometimes called the Lost City of the Monkey God, somewhere in these mountains. A number of people have looked for it, and some have actually died in the search...Like most legends, it’s based on the truth, it’s based on the fact that there was a great civilization in this area that actually built more than one city.” Radford: Let me touch on some of the challenges to writers and science popularizers when reporting a story such as this. There’s always a tension between wanting to communicate complex ideas in science, anthropology, archaeology, and so on to the public, but not overly sensationalize them. You touch on that in your book, expressing a bit of reluctance about calling it a “lost city” in the vein of Indiana Jones, but in the end you have to get people’s attention. Preston: “Well, this is something that you as a science journalist know about very well... As you mentioned, you have to strike a balance between writing a heavy and scientific tome which nobody will read except scientists, or going too much in the other direction and writing something that’s so frivolous and non-factual that you’ve really done a very great disservice to the science. I try to occupy the middle ground. Everything in the book is accurate, nothing is made up, everything has been very carefully vetted—but it is exciting, this is a sensational discovery.... As for using language like the ‘lost city,’ well it is a city and it is lost! I know some archaeologists have said, ‘Oh, that’s just Indiana Jones hype’ but in fact it isn’t hype. It is actually real and it is quite exciting, and I want to convey that excitement to the reader without burdening them with a lot of scientific jargon.” Read the rest of the interview HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
My recent blog on how a faked abduction may have contributed to the mosque shooting in Quebec, and why false crime reports often target minorities... Skeptics and skeptical researchers routinely encounter and investigate a wide variety false reports: False reports of Bigfoot, UFOs, miracle healings, alien abductions, psychics, illnesses, and so on. I've personally investigated many such reports, including of phantom clowns (see my book Bad Clowns for more), racist conspiracy theories and legends (such as the Blood Libel anti-Jewish myth and anti-Muslim stories), and more. The xenophobic archetype of the evil outsider is ancient and takes on new forms. Understanding the psychology and motivations behind false reports can be enormously helpful. Some of them are hoaxes, but many are the result of sincere mistakes, misperceptions, and other cognitive errors. When false reports concern "unexplained" topics (faked ghost sightings or UFO photos, for example), the result is usually just wasted time and the loss of credibility of a hoaxer or its proponents. However when false reports involve real-world subjects (for lack of a better term) they often implicate minorities and can result in miscarriages of justice. False reports of crimes, for example, are often used as a weapon against minorities. You may recall Susan Smith, the mother who in 1994 blamed an African-American man for kidnapping her children when she in fact drowned them in a lake. Or Jennifer Wilbanks, the so-called "Runaway Bride" who claimed to have been kidnapped and assaulted by a Hispanic man, but who had in fact voluntarily left her groom at the altar. Or the infamous Central Park Five case, in which five Black and Latino teenagers were arrested in 1989 for the brutal rape and assault of a white jogger in New York's Central Park. Many people--including Donald Trump and African-American poet Sapphire (author of Push, from which the Oscar-winning film Precious was adapted)--jumped on the bandwagon falsely accusing the young men of the crime. The list goes on and on... and continues today... The Abduction of Alyssa Langille On Sunday January 15, a 15-year-old Canadian girl named Alyssa Langille was abducted by two men in Mississauga, near Toronto. According to news reports, "A witness said two men jumped out of a silver van at St. Barbara Blvd. and Comiskey Cres. just after 1 p.m. on Sunday. They forced the girl into the van and were last seen heading south on St. Barbara towards Derry Rd., according to the witness." The suspects were described as a "South Asian man around 24 years old, described as tall with a thin build, and wearing an orange turban with a grey sweater with cut off sleeves and a green shirt underneath. The second was simply described as a South Asian male." Based on that information an Amber Alert was issued, and the news media told the public to be on the lookout for these abductors and their victim. Exactly two weeks later in the neighboring province of Quebec, a man named Alexandre Bissonnette allegedly opened fire in a mosque, killing six people and wounding eight others in what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a "terrorist attack on Muslims." Though the suspects in Langille's abduction were not specifically identified as Muslim--Sikhs and other turban-wearing groups have of course been mistaken for Muslims--the South Asian nation of Indonesia has a high percentage of Muslims, and the implication was clear to Canadian audiences. In another layer of fear-fueling misinformation about minorities, Fox News falsely tweeted that the suspect in the attack was of North African heritage, specifically Moroccan. Fox News eventually removed the information after being asked to do so by Trudeau's director of communications, Kate Purchase. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation also made the same error. As it turns out Alyssa Langille was not in fact abducted. Her father had called police after the girl's sister found that Alyssa had placed clothes in her bed to make it appear as though she was still sleeping in it, but she had run away. Toronto police found Alyssa in Scarborough, a district of Toronto, unharmed. It's easy to see how Langille's abduction would have hit a nerve, especially in Canada's eastern provinces; as The New York Times noted, "right-wing extremism has long thrived in Canada among skinheads, white supremacists and others," particularly in Quebec. The racist trope of the ethnic foreigner preying on young white women is particularly evocative; perhaps one of the best known cases involved Emmett Till, the African-American teenager who was lynched in Mississippi at the age of 14 in 1955 after reportedly flirting with a White woman. According to recent news reports, Till's "accuser has recanted the most incendiary parts of her claims against him. Carolyn Bryant Donham told author Timothy B. Tyson that her long-ago allegations that Emmett grabbed her and was menacing and sexually crude toward her, ‘that part is not true.'" Indeed, defending the "honor" of White females is a longstanding theme in White nationalism. Whether the (non)abduction of Langille partly inspired Bissonnette to attack the mosque is unknown at the moment, but it is almost certain that the social media-savvy extremist was aware that a dark-skinned turban-wearing man and his colleague were being sought in connection with the abduction--or worse--of the young blonde woman. There is a further ironic twist to this story. Usually it is the "victim" who falsely accuses racial or ethnic minorities of their kidnapping or assault--often because it lends crediblity to their claims and plays into widely accepted negative stereotypes about those groups. In this case it turns out the eyewitness who claimed to have seen Alyssa Langille abducted by a turban-wearing man in a van was Uzma Khan, described as "a 32-year-old woman from Mississauga" Ontario, who has now been charged with public mischief for her false report and is due in court later this month. It's not known why Khan made the false report--perhaps it was for attention, or she misunderstood something she saw--but her decision to specify that a fictional abductor resembled a popular image of Muslims may have had results she could not have predicted. False crime reports of any kind are not only a waste of police resources and divert attention from real victims, but they can also have real-world consequences.
Those times you really agree with someone, then they go off the rails... my new CFI blog: About once or twice a month (though sometimes once or twice a week, depending on how much I'm reading at the time), I come across an article or blog that makes some important point that I agree with. Maybe it's about the need for skepticism, or about politics, or anything else. I'm reading along, nodding in approval in paragraph after paragraph (or assertion after assertion), pleased at thinking about those it might educate. And, just as my finger is reaching to share or like the post, I wince. The writer or commenter stumbles, making a gaffe or mistake that I can't in good conscience implicitly endorse. It's frustrating because I agree with the overall point, and think the comment or piece merits a wider audience. It's like some well-intentioned skeptic writing a piece about why the evidence for Bigfoot (or recovered memories, or alien visitation) is poor, and giving two solid, accurate reasons--followed by a third which is flat-out wrong, or an argument whose premise is embarrassingly flawed. This happens regularly enough that I've taken to describing it (to myself anyway) as The 10% Fail. Ninety percent of it is on target, but the last ten percent undermines the author's credibility in some way. This issue is a common lament among professional skeptics: a well-meaning but inexperienced skeptic goes on television or gives an interview-ostensibly representing organized skepticism--in which he or she misspeaks or mangles some salient fact in the process of debunking some bogus claim, and that error is then seized upon by opponents as proof that skeptics (writ large) don't know what they're talking about. I recently found an example of this, written by Andrew David Thaler of the Southern Fried Science... Read more HERE.
A new horror film titled The Bye Bye Man scared up $16 million in box office sales over the past week. The film is based on the chapter “The Bridge to Body Island” in Robert Damon Schneck’s nonfiction book The President’s Vampire (reissued last year as The Bye Bye Man, complete with the obligatory cover teaser “Now a terrifying motion picture!”). Intrigued by the topic, I read the book and interviewed the author. Our conversation covered a wide range of topics, from alien abductees to Charles Fort’s disappointingly lax scholarship (see Schneck’s chapter “The President’s Vampire” for more), but we soon chatted about the monstrous creation he helped usher to the big screen... you can read my Special Report HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
A classic article from the archives, in which I talk about ghost hunting ethics: The drive from my apartment to the haunted house was about twenty minutes, but I found myself wishing it would take longer. I wanted more time to get a handle on what I was going to say, how I was going to tell the family that their house was not haunted by a demon or angry ghost. In theory, it should have been a straightforward conversation, not unlike telling a nervous child, “There’s nothing under the bed, now go to sleep.” It should have been a comforting and satisfying task for a prominent, experienced skeptical investigator. In practice, however, there were real people with real fears and real feelings, people who had been misled and lied to. And I’d probably have to lie to them again—or at least not tell them the whole truth. You can read the rest HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
My research on the famous Bell Witch ghost is referenced on the Wikipedia page about the case! Brian Dunning too!
A friend of mine found this meme floating around Facebook. Very cool!