Jan 222016
 

My brilliant zoologist friend Darren Naish wrote a retrospective piece for Scientific American about various interesting zoology-related news stories from last year–including a “monster mystery” I played a role in revealing. It’s a fun read, check it out, 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.

Jan 202016
 

The mystery of a Christmas tree in a vacant New Orleans building window has been solved–and provides lessons to skeptics on psychological priming, eyewitness expectations, and why people see things that aren’t there. You can read the story HERE.

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Jan 182016
 

A recent study published in the “American Journal of Public Health” examined the demographics of California school students who had requested and received exemptions from mandatory vaccinations for nonmedical reasons. My recent article for Discovery News examines why many anti-vaccination parents are better educated than those who endorse vaccines. You can read it HERE.

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Jan 152016
 

Haven’t got any hate mail or death threats so far this year, so here’s a nice one recently: “Hi! I am doing a semester project on the Rose Hall Plantation. I have looked at a total of eleven (11) sites to try and unmask the mystery surrounding Annie Palmer. I read your article debunking everything the legend stands for. The article was published to ‘centerforinquiry.net’. I just want to talk to someone who has such an understanding and history in the paranormal world. I am only a sophomore in high school, but I so badly want to learn. I know I have no standing or importance to you in your every day life, but I hope you take the time to educate a young woman from South Dakota in the paranormal myths and facts that surround Annie Palmer and the Rose Hall Plantation Great House. I look forward to hearing from you!”

I wrote back to her and gave her the info she was looking for, happy to help out!

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Jan 122016
 

My not-entirely-resume-building appearance on the Swedish-language show “Jimmy’s Sick World” discussing the chupacabra is now out, for those who are interested… you can find it HERE.

jimmy world

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Jan 102016
 

I was quoted about a month ago on the PBS Newshour about bringing science and investigation to claims about aliens and UFOs. You can read it HERE.

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Jan 052016
 

My new CFI blog is about a recent exchange I had with a woman who saw me on a TV show for my Rose Hall investigation and sought further information about ghosts there. It provides insight into flawed ghost hunting assumptions, and the practical difficulty of doing a thorough historical investigation into a specific question that ghost hunters often have… you can read it HERE.

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Jan 012016
 

For those who didn’t see it earlier, I wrote a recent piece for Discovery News explaining how news stories exaggerate risks of disease, and how to understand relative vs. absolute risk in journal findings… you can read it HERE. Hopefully it will help calm some people’s fears.

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Dec 282015
 

A BBC travel reporter writing a piece about Ecuador’s Sumaco biopark repeats a common myth as fact: Specifically that there is a palm tree that “walks” across the forest floor. I investigated this claim years ago, and wrote about it in both Skeptical Inquirer magazine and in a column for LiveScience.com (you can read it HERE). I politely suggested that the reporter or a BBC editor contact the “expert” quoted and ask for the source of his information (preferably a peer-reviewed botany study).12321610_10206770419833358_2213566468497522772_n

Dec 122015
 

In my column in the new issue of Skeptical Inquirer I investigate a report of a mysterious Costa Rican “Toucan Man” said to abduct children. Lots of interesting folklore in this one, check it out on newsstands now!

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Dec 102015
 

I was recently quoted on the PBS Newshour about bringing science and investigation to claims about aliens and UFOs. You can read it HERE.

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Dec 032015
 

I was interviewed for a HuffPo piece on ghost hunter Joshua Warren’s claim that he discovered an amazing photo of Abraham Lincoln in the White House: “Radford is surprised that anyone would consider what Warren calls “the world’s most credible and amazing ghost photo” to be serious evidence of the supernatural. “If this really is the best photographic evidence for ghosts — if a published expert on ghosts can’t tell the difference between an ordinary long exposure and a ghost — then the quality of ghost evidence is in far worse shape than I imagined,” Radford said.” You can read the piece HERE.

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Nov 222015
 

Last month a blogger for NJ.com shared a photo of a bizarre, somewhat goatlike silhouetted winged form in the sky. Despite several obvious signs that the anonymously submitted photo is faked, it went viral and has been widely shared on social media as long-sought evidence of the mysterious Jersey Devil. My Discovery News article on the Jersey Devil is HERE.

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Nov 182015
 

Last month reports have surfaced in England of people dressed as clowns stalking and trying to abduct — or at the very least scaring — children. I gave a presentation on this topic earlier this year for the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research. My Discovery News article on it is HERE.

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Nov 152015
 

I was recently asked by the Huffington Post to look into the case of a big-breasted ghost apparently caught on film, and perhaps even moving artifacts in a museum. The article, with my commentary and analysis, is HERE.

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Nov 082015
 

Last month a bizarre photo circulated apparently depicting a flying city in the clouds. Explanations ranged from mirage to hoax to conspiracy operations; my take on it for Discovery News is HERE.

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Nov 022015
 

In my over 15 years of investigations I’ve covered many dozens of claims of psychics and psychic detectives. Of those, about a half-dozen stand out as being particularly interesting or intriguing–not just yet another psychic making dubious claims, but some novel twist that at least suggests a closer look is needed to understand what’s going on. You can read about one of those cases HERE in my blog.

Oct 302015
 

From the Radford Files archives:

Each year at Halloween, parents have concerns about trick-or-treating, and many believe that a danger far graver than chocolate overdose awaits their children in quiet neighborhoods: sex offenders. This scare is fueled by alarmist news reports and police warnings. In many states, convicted sex offenders are required not to answer the door if trick-or-treaters come by, or to report to jail overnight. In many states including Texas and Arkansas offenders will be required to report to courthouses on Halloween evening for a mandatory counseling session.

 

The theory behind such laws is that Halloween provides an opportunity for sex offenders to make contact with children, or to use costumes to conceal their identities. This has been the assumption among many local politicians and police for years. New research also shows that it is simply wrong.

 

A new study shows that the public has little to fear from sex offenders on Halloween. The research, published in the September 2009 issue of Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, examined 67,307 non-family sex offenses reported to law enforcement in 30 states over nine years.

 

The researchers wanted to determine whether or not children are in fact at any greater risk for sexual assault around Halloween. The answer was a conclusive no: “There does not appear to be a need for alarm concerning sexual abuse on these particular days,” the researchers state. “Halloween appears to be just another autumn day where rates of sex crimes against children are concerned.” Not only is the hype and fear unwarranted, but the study also suggests extra taxpayer dollars spent monitoring sex offenders on Halloween are wasted. All the mandatory counseling sessions, increased police presence, and so on had no effect at all on the incidence of sexual abuse on Halloween.

 

That taxpayer dollars are being spent on ineffective and misguided policies regarding sex offenders is not surprising to experts in the field, since the laws target a group that is actually among the least likely to offend against children. Despite popular belief, research has consistently shown that sex offenders are no more likely than other criminals to re-offend. The idea that sex offenders are incurable or require increased vigilance upon release simply has no basis in fact. Children are in far greater danger from their parents than any stranger on a sex offender registry. These measures provide a false sense of security, since there is no evidence that the policies actually make children any safer. As the study’s authors note, traffic accidents are a far greater threat to children than sex offenders.

 

 

This piece originally appeared in the Briefs Briefs column in the September 2009 Skeptical Briefs newsletter.

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Oct 252015
 

 

In the wake of a shooting at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College that left at least ten people dead, President Obama held a press conference in which he stated that “Somehow, this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. We become numb to this.”

 

It’s an understandable lament.

 

There’s also no evidence that it’s true, and plenty of evidence that it’s false.

 

Is the reporting becoming routine? The news media, for their part, have a fairly standard template for reporting on mass shootings, and it’s not much different than the way it covers any other tragedy, from a natural disaster to an act of terrorism. It involves collecting the basic facts, speculation about causes and motivations, glowing biographies of once-promising lives tragically cut short, and so on. If you look at how the news media covered the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, it’s not much different than how it covered the Sandy Hook Elementary School or Aurora theater shootings nearly fifteen years later.

 

The emergence of the 24-hour news cycle and proliferation of cable news networks had an enormous impact on how stories were covered, but the idea that there is a “numbness” to media coverage of mass shootings is simply false. In fact if anything journalists go out of their way to avoid seeming callous or jaded to tragic news stories and devote significant airtime to exploring (some would say exploiting) the personal and communal grief in the aftermath of these events. Emotion and sensationalism—not numbness or treating mass shootings as “routine”—are coin of the realm in journalism.

 

So Obama is wrong about the reporting; what about the public’s reaction, the royal “we” who he claims become numb to these events? Once again Obama has misunderstood or mischaracterized the situation. Citizens of Roseburg, Oregon, where the shooting happened, are certainly not “numb” to the tragedy. As The New York Times noted, “One by one, the congregants of the Liberty Christian Fellowship took the microphone on Sunday, steadied their breaths and told stories of how a gunman’s rampage inside the community college here rippled through their lives… Nearly every person in this close-knit lumber town of 22,000 in the shadow of the Cascade mountains in western Oregon seems to know a victim or is related to someone who fled from gunfire that day. Everyone, it seems, has a terrible, personal story to tell.”

 

Nor is there evidence that the general public has become inured to mass shootings; instead of a collective shrug the Oregon shootings have spawned outrage around the world and on social media—spurred in part by hashtag activism among Christians. If, as President Obama claims, Americans have become “numb” and desensitized to routine gun violence and mass shootings, then this reaction is curious indeed. No one in America has shrugged their shoulders and said (or even suggested) that the latest shootings didn’t affect them because they’d heard and seen previous shootings. (Such a statement would be fodder for an Onion news article, though the satirical news source hasn’t used that specific angle yet.)

 

I wrote about this phenomenon extensively in my book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us, focusing on attempts to censor entertainment media content because of its claimed desensitizing effects: “Politicians pushing their constitutionally challenged quick-fixes and alarmist agendas often don’t even recognize the contradictions in their rhetoric. How is it, for example, that American teens on one hand are said to be desensitized to real violence through playing video games and watching violent films, yet in the next breath we are told that those same students are shocked and stunned by the violence in their schools and communities? If young people don’t think much of killing because they see gore and violence in the video games Doom and Mortal Kombat and watching The Matrix, they presumably don’t need the phalanx of psychologists and counselors that floods into schools after each shooting.”

 

I’m sure Obama meant well, and the president offering comforting commentary or words of solace—no matter how trite or even self-evidently wrong—is de rigueur for the job. I understand and sympathize with Obama’s frustration with both mass murders and Washington’s political inability to address the issue. Overall I share his belief that existing gun control laws are inadequate and should be stronger (though I also recognize that as a practical matter there is no way to stop shootings and murders).

 

Perhaps I’m being too harsh on Obama for engaging in a bit of hyperbole. After all, we all sometimes say things off the cuff that we don’t mean literally. But these were prepared comments delivered by the President of the United States about a grave and important topic, surely messages meant to be taken to heart. Perhaps usually eloquent Obama simply used the wrong words to describe his feelings and the nation’s reaction, but I do not believe for a minute that he has become numb to the deaths; instead I expect they weigh on him, as a president, as a father, and as a human being.

 

The fact is that there is little or no evidence that Americans, the news media, or anyone else is becoming numb to mass shootings, as Obama claimed. Murders are inherently horrific events, and the killing of innocent people by strangers is especially tragic. The inability to pass meaningful gun control legislation in America has many causes, but human indifference to mass murder is not among them.

Oct 212015
 

Good science requires good data, and to get valid results scientists must consider all of the evidence. If a researcher chooses to exclude some of the information available in an experiment, for example, he or she should offer a rationale for doing so. When researchers only present to the public or peers data that supports their conclusions, that’s called bad science (at best) or outright fraud (at worst).

Agenda-driven pseudoscience, by contrast, often involves cherry-picking and careful selection of evidence. This happens, for example, when a psychic offers a client a list of a dozen impressive predictions but carefully omits hundreds of spectacular failures. Any psychic who makes enough predictions (especially ones of a general nature) will be correct some of the time by simple random chance. What’s needed when examining the evidence for psychic powers is the entire data set—all the predictions made, whether they turned out to be right, wrong, somewhere in the middle, or inconclusive—and establishing a success ratio. If the selection criteria are valid and the rate is significantly above random chance then it may indeed be evidence for psychic powers.

I was reminded of this recently when I saw a new book by Skeptiko podcast host Alex Tsakiris with the bold and red-flag-raising title Why Science Is Wrong…About Almost Everything. In it he devotes a whole chapter to a case I researched as part of a challenge to explain the best case he could find for psychic detectives, one he’d seen on TV. I expected Alex to continue to be wrong about the case, but I didn’t expect him to tout it as a victory in his book.

The case involved a psychic named Nancy Weber and her claims that she helped catch a serial killer named James Koedatich by giving police officers Jim Moore and Bill Hughes biographical details about the killer long before he was caught—details which Weber claims, and Tsakiris believes, turned out to be amazingly accurate. Koedatich killed a woman named Aimee Hoffman (at which time Weber entered the case) and later another woman.

Tsakiris writes that “the investigation was quite extensive. It spanned months of work and included multiple transcribed interviews with all the key players. The conclusion was self-evident—the police detectives repeatedly corroborated psychic detective Nancy Weber’s amazing account…. Amazingly, Radford still denies this fact” (p. 90). It’s easy to mislead people through selective quotation and cherry picking evidence; even the most reasonable and sensible person can seem like an unreasonable fool if you simply omit contrary information and present one side of the story.

A Bit of Skepticism

When the project began I was somewhat surprised that Tsakiris assumed that “reality” TV shows such as Psychic Detectives were factually accurate (despite ads touting the show as “Not just based on a true story. It is a true story”). Having written several books about the mass media, having debunked many “based on a true story” claims made in sensational TV shows and films, and having participated on dozens of television shows, I began the case with a healthy skepticism about the truth of “reality” TV shows. Television show writers, producers, and editors routinely twist and manufacture “facts” to make a more sensational story; the goal is entertainment, not truth. I had assumed that Tsakiris was media savvy enough to realize that not everything on TV is true, but I later realized that I was mistaken.

No one, including Tsakiris, Weber, Moore, or Hughes, offered any evidence whatsoever supporting their claims. The police officers’ notes are long gone and there are no other records of what Nancy Weber claims she told police. Not a single piece of paper was offered by Tsakiris or anyone else as evidence in this case. This “amazing” case rests entirely on the contradictory memories of three people from a third of a century ago, yet Tsakiris boldly offers it as an example of Why Science Is Wrong.

The case is far too complex to discuss in any detail here, and my in-depth research can be found in my book Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries and in Skeptical Inquirer. However I can summarize my findings and I encourage interested readers to seek the original sources to decide for themselves where the truth lies.

In contrast to Tsakiris’s claim that “the police detectives repeatedly corroborated psychic detective Nancy Weber’s amazing account,” a close review of their statements reveals that they contradicted virtually every specific claim Weber made about what she told them regarding Koedatich. I consulted transcripts from both the Psychic Investigators TV show and the Skeptiko podcasts, and interviewed all the principals at least once. As I reviewed the information from Sgt. Bill Hughes and Capt. Jim Moore, it became clear that their accounts differ dramatically from those of the psychic. For example:

1) Weber claims she specified that Koedatich, Aimee Hoffman’s killer, had served prison time in Florida: “He came up from Florida where he had been imprisoned for murder.” Moore agreed with Weber; Sgt. Hughes originally disputed this claim, and later changed his mind.

 

2) Weber claims that she specified of the killer that “his last name… begins with a K.” Both Moore and Hughes dispute her claim.

 

3) Weber claims that she specified that the killer’s “last name… ends in an ‘ish’[or –ich].” Neither Hughes nor Moore confirm that Weber gave them this information.

 

4) Weber claims that she specified that Hoffman’s killer was of Polish descent, and that “his last name is Polish.” Both Moore and Hughes dispute her claim.

 

5) Weber claims that she specified that “the man who did this, his first name is James.” Moore agrees with Weber, but Sgt. Hughes stated, “She didn’t have complete names for us… I do not remember the first name at all.”

 

As mightily as Tsakiris strains to revise the police officers’ testimony to his liking, even Nancy Weber herself acknowledged that Moore and Hughes did not corroborate key points of her story. The psychic’s explanation is that the officers—whose memory Tsakiris repeatedly defends, since his entire case rests on it—simply didn’t remember what she told them: “Yes, [Sgt. Hughes] does not recall it but… it does not mean I did not say it.”

Sgt. Hughes admitted that “No information she gave led to his arrest…the case was solved by good police work.” I was also surprised that Tsakiris—despite his touted investigative thoroughness researching this case—repeatedly (and somewhat disrespectfully) managed to misspell both of the names of Koedatich’s victims.

Who’s telling the truth, me or Alex? This isn’t a matter of subjective interpretation; the transcripts are available for anyone to review, and I have posted excerpts of the audio online so people can hear for themselves what the police said:

http://benjaminradford.com/investigations/psychic-detective-interviews/.

In his chapter on the case Tsakiris chooses to not only hide that fact that the police contradicted most of Weber’s statements, but he also did not reveal to his readers that in my research I found Koedatich in the phone book using only information that Weber claimed to have given Moore and Hughes at the time. If Tsakiris is correct and Weber is telling the truth, it is baffling that despite the police having so many specific, accurate, identifying details about Koedatich—including his first name, the first and last parts of his last name, his ethnicity, criminal record (including where he served time and for what crime) and his hometown—they were somehow unable to find and arrest him before he killed again. If I could do it with the information Weber claims she gave the police, why couldn’t Moore and Hughes? Neither Weber nor Tsakiris have offered an explanation for the apparent incompetence of their star witnesses.
Tsakiris also neglects to tell his readers that I discovered Nancy Weber falsely claimed to have psychically known unpublished details about Aimee Hoffman’s murder when in fact those details had been reported on the front page of the local newspaper and in the New York Times the day after Hoffman’s body was found. This is irrefutable evidence that Weber either lied about or badly misremembered key details of the case. Tsakiris and Weber have been unable or unwilling to explain this serious lapse in her credibility.

The Brave Mavericky of Alex Tsakiris

Several prominent Forteans have commented on the book. Jerome Clark has a long and distinguished history of interesting research into the paranormal—his early apparent endorsement of the Cottingley Fairies hoax photograph notwithstanding—and I’ve quoted from his three-volume series Strange and Unusual Happenings several times. Biologist Rupert Sheldrake, well known for his claims about psi phenomena, including psychic dogs, contributed to the book.

In his foreword to the book Rupert Sheldrake noted that “When Alex started his enquiries, he expected that the leaders of organized skepticism would have strong and persuasive arguments, but he soon found they did not… a strong ideological commitment forces them to deny all evidence that does not fit into their worldview.” Out of the thirteen chapters in the book, Sheldrake then singled out my case as an example of Tsakiris’s keen investigative skills: “I particularly enjoy the way Alex followed his enquiries wherever they led, including working with skeptic Ben Radford on an enquiry into information from psychics that helped solve crimes. When Ben questioned some of the evidence, Alex called the detectives who had been handling the cases, so that he and Ben could together clear the point up by speaking to them directly” (p. xi). Sheldrake goes on to marvel at Tsakiris’s “investigative skills, and his bravery and commitment to truth.”

Jerome Clark reviewed the book in Fortean Times magazine. Of Tsakiris’s podcast—which Clark misspells as “Skeptico”— he states that “the skeptics who appear on his show are wont to complain of being ‘sandbagged’. Translated, that means they found themselves up against an interviewer who had done his homework.” Clark notes that among the big-name skeptics whose sloppy scholarship and ideological blinkers have been exposed by the wily Tsakiris is “the prominent debunker who goes to comic lengths to salvage a ‘skeptical’ claim in the face of assertions from informants (in this case law-enforcement officers) whose patience he tries as he seeks to revise their testimony to his liking.” With mixture of bemusement and mild surprise I realized that he was referring to me.

I take no particular pleasure when friends—or even those I disagree with—fall for hoaxes or repeat demonstrable misinformation. I make an effort not to endorse dubious or false claims; before I reference something in an article or book I make an effort to verify its accuracy. That’s one reason why, for example, I rarely share news stories on social media unless I either have researched it myself or have taken at least some due diligence steps to affirm to my satisfaction that the claims or information contained therein are accurate.

I feel badly for Sheldrake and Clark because sooner or later at least some of the people who read their comments will—out of curiosity or a desire to seek out original sources and not merely accept Tsakiris’s selective portrayal of the research—find my published work on this case and see that this pair have been misled into endorsing a one-sided and intellectually dishonest take on that investigation by a person they exalted as fair-minded and committed to truth. Why Science Is Wrong?I was more bemused than annoyed by Tsakiris’s chapter (and Sheldrake and Clark’s explicit endorsements of it) because for those who wish to do a bit of research and consult easily-available resources to verify the facts, the harm is to their reputations, not mine. Sheldrake and Clark will be the ones who, years from now, may be asked in an interview, book signing, talk, or other public event how they could have endorsed such a manifestly biased book chapter. Had they not done any research? How do they explain Tsakiris’s decision to omit the voluminous examples in which the detectives refuted Weber’s claims, and even that the psychic had been caught claiming information she read in a newspaper as having come through psychic abilities?

I haven’t spoken with either Rupert Sheldrake or Jerome Clark about the matter but given that we’ve been on more or less opposite sides of the fence on many Fortean subjects for going on two decades, it seems certain that they have long ago painted me as a stubborn, closed-minded skeptic who refuses to look at evidence, and when Tsakiris offered an example supporting that assumption they were quite happy to assume it was true and highlight it as a clear example of my position.

Because of cognitive biases including anchoring bias and confirmation bias, when people give us information that fits our preconceived notions and worldview, we often accept it uncritically. Those who tell us things that challenge our assumptions tend to be subjected to extra scrutiny or dismissed outright. As Sheldrake himself states on page 87 of the book, “I think there’s a tendency for people to see what they want to believe, to believe what they want to believe, to only notice evidence that fits their dogmatic point of view or their belief system. He himself is a perfect example of that.” (Here Sheldrake mistakenly refers to psychologist Richard Wiseman instead of Alex Tsakiris.)

There’s irony in the daisy chain echo chamber of misinformation: this case began when Alex Tsakiris assumed, with little or no research or verification, that the Psychic Detectives TV show he saw was an accurate account of Nancy Weber’s psychic claims. Six years later Sheldrake and Clark assumed, with little or no research or verification, that Alex Tsakiris’s book chapter on the case (essentially little more than interview transcriptions) was an accurate account of Weber’s claims and the resulting investigation. The accusations against me by these three of sloppy scholarship and investigative ineptitude resulting from an ideological blindness to contrary evidence is especially rich.

The conspiracy-minded among Skeptiko’s listeners may wonder if Tsakiris is not actually an undercover hardcore skeptic seeking to discredit people like Sheldrake and Clark by publishing false information to see which prominent critics endorse it without having done any research, and then exposing the deception and embarrassing them into admitting they were gullible and should have checked their facts. This double-agent scenario occurred to me, but Occam’s Razor suggests it’s unlikely. It seems more likely that Tsakiris genuinely does not understand why his “best case” for psychic detectives is a spectacular failure by any reasonable standard of evidence. Perhaps he should revisit his online boards where even many of his supporters voiced their concerns over his total reliance on the accuracy of decades-old contradictory memories.

Tsakiris casts himself as a maverick groundbreaker daring to ask tough questions of pompous skeptics and puncturing the pretensions of science. He is instead following a well-trod path using a tried and true formula: Speak quickly, act confidently, attack critics, and refuse to acknowledge even obvious errors in your evidence and arguments. That’s not how science works, but it will help you fool some of the people some of the time. Science may indeed be wrong some of the time—its self-correcting mechanism is perhaps its greatest strength—but it’s Alex Tsakiris who is wrong in this case. His “best case” for psychic detectives is in fact astonishingly weak and if that is one of his marquee examples of how Science Is Wrong, then science is in far better shape than anyone dared imagine.

This piece is adapted from an earlier article on the CSI website.

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Oct 202015
 

I and three other experts including Susan Gerbic are extensively quoted in a new story about internet hoaxes: “In today’s fast-paced news culture, misinformation and disinformation are spread with a click, often before authenticity and credibility are verified. Sometimes it’s harmless and funny, like The Onion fooling Fox News. But in other cases, this type of behavior is not only irresponsible but also incredibly dangerous. To understand this culture of deception, Hopes&Fears gathered four experts on hoaxes, falsehoods, rumors and pseudoscience…” You can read it HERE. 

Oct 082015
 

From the Radford Files archives:

In October 2009, a six-year-old boy named Falcon Heene was thought by many to have been floating alone through Colorado skies on Thursday in a silvery weather balloon created by his inventor father. It turned out that the whole incident was a hoax, staged by his parents in hopes of getting their own reality TV show. One issue that has been lost in the story is that a lying “eyewitness” was at the root of the story.

 

The fact that a large silver balloon flew in the air was, by itself, hardly worth noting. No, what propelled the story to international importance was the first-person eyewitness account of Falcon’s brother Brad. According to Sheriff Jim Alderman, police questioned Brad several times about what he had seen shortly before the balloon flew away. “He said he saw his brother climb into that apparatus and he was very adamant, they interviewed him multiple times and that was his consistent story.” At that point the concern became for the safety of the young boy, not an escaped balloon: Had he fallen to his death? Was he still aboard the balloon? He had been abducted? Where was the child?

 

Police were skeptical, but the boy repeated his story and insisted on the truth of what he’d seen. Many people (and journalists) probably thought, “Why would a child lie about something like that?” Much is often made of first-person eyewitness testimony in our society; indeed it is the basis for most ghost, monster, and other paranormal claims. Some people have even been convicted of crimes based on little more than one person saying, “I saw this happen.” But as this case reminds us, just because a person—even a seemingly guileless young boy— swears to have personally seen something, and consistently sticks to the story, does not mean it’s true.

 

 

 

This piece originally appeared in the Briefs Briefs column in the September 2009 Skeptical Briefs newsletter.

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Oct 042015
 

 

With the news last month about the discovery of a “super-Stonehenge” circling one of the world’s most famous monuments, attention has once again focused on the Wiltshire marvel. There are thousands of ancient stone circles across Europe, of which Stonehenge is by far the best known and most impressive. While there are many genuine historical mysteries about Stonehenge — such as who built it and for what purpose — there are just as many fabricated ones trading in myth and conspiracy. You can read my Discovery News piece HERE.

 

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Oct 022015
 

In reviewing my shelf of ghost hunting books for a book chapter I’m writing I noted that the author of two 2011 books on ghosts and ghost hunting writes that she “is new to the paranormal community, having entered field investigation in 2008.” Doing a bit of math and knowing the lead time it takes for a book to be edited and published, I realized that she could not have had more than three years of experience (and probably closer to two) before she felt like she knew enough about ghost hunting to proclaim herself an expert and write two books on the topic. I needed at least five years to become an expert on the chupacabra, which is a far narrower subject. Ghost hunting books are rife with self-proclaimed experts whose experience is watching TV and taking ghost tours…

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Sep 252015
 

I spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with conspiracies and conspiracy theories. Over the years I’ve written about dozens and dozens of conspiracy theories, including the Obama birthers, the Sandy Hook shootings (for which I still receive hate e-mails), Osama bin Laden death conspiracies, claims that vaccines are attempts to poison children, 9/11 truthers, the EPA spill in the Animas river, and countless others. I’m fascinated by the psychology of conspiracy thinking, why some conspiracies gain traction while other fade away, and more. One curious and often-overlooked element of conspiracy thinking is that conspiracy theorists are for the most part completely uninterested in actual, provable conspiracies, such as the GM coverups. You can read more at my CFI blog. 

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

 

Sep 202015
 

I’ll be giving a presentation on my chupacabra investigation to the Albuquerque SciFi Society on October 9 at 7:30 PM; the origin of the chupacabra has interesting origins with H.R. Giger and the film “Species.” You can find out more HERE. 

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Sep 182015
 

I was interviewed on the harm in magical thinking, including discussing my research into muti murders in Africa, in which albinos have been persecuted, attacked, and murdered because of the belief that their body parts are magical. It’s a topic I’ve written about and raised funds to help stop last month. Listeners can hear the show (titled “Magical Thinking: What’s the Harm?”) HERE. 

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Sep 162015
 

I was recently a guest on the 16Miles2Hell show, talking about conspiracy theories, the history of conspiracy dissemination, and the psychology of conspiracies…

Put on your tinfoil hat and check it out! 

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Sep 142015
 

For those who didn’t see it last week, here’s my article on Stonehenge myths and how restoration efforts sparked conspiracy theories is now out, you can see it HERE.  

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Sep 092015
 

I recently read Candice Miller’s book The River of Doubt, about Theodore Roosevelt’s 1914 exploration of an unknown river in the Brazilian Amazon. It’s a fascinating story of adventure, misadventure, murder, and more. In the book I also found an excellent real-life example of one of my favorite logical fallacies:post hoc ergo propter hoc, also called faulty causation. Read more HERE. 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Sep 052015
 

My new blog on eyewitness testimony and how we can all be fooled…

 

Dennis Plucknett and his two sons, along with a friend, went hunting at a camp in northeast Florida in 2004. It was early morning, and the group had gotten separated. His fourteen-year-old son Alex was sitting in a ditch about 220 meters away from his father when someone yelled, “Hog!” The elder Plucknett grabbed his .308-caliber Ruger rifle with scope, steadied his aim, and fired one round at a boar in the distance. Within minutes, Alex was dead of a massive head wound, killed by his father’s shot….

Sep 042015
 

A journalism researcher named Craig Silverman published a report on best practices for debunking online misinformation in journalism and the skeptical community:

“I recently completed a fellowship with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism that saw me study how news organizations handle online rumors and unverified claims. I also examined best practices for debunking online misinformation. This research is collected in a detailed report called “Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content: How News Websites Spread (and Debunk) Online Rumors, Unverified Claims and Misinformation.” Below is a report excerpt that offers a look at current debunking efforts in journalism, and among the skeptic community…”

In the report we find this nice quadruple-play complimenting my work, that of Skeptical Inquirer and CSI, as well as my Prometheus book Media Mythmakers.

“Benjamin Radford, also a scientific investigator, echoed this: “Of course often a mystery is debunked when it is explained, but I try to remain open-minded about the subjects.” Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine and a research fellow with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, a nonprofit educational organization. He has written many books on skepticism, myths, and paranormal investigation, including (fittingly) Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us.”

Sep 022015
 

When adventurer Steve Fossett went missing Sept. 3, 2007, Web users were enlisted to help in Fossett’s rescue from the comfort of their own homes. Using a program called Mechanical Turk, high-resolution satellite imagery of the search area was collected from a company called Digital Globe. Participants were shown a single satellite image and asked to note any objects or wreckage that could be a plane or its debris. Though Fossett and his plane remain missing, the satellite technology used to search for him could theoretically be applied to other searches, and may finally verify the existence of large, mysterious creatures reputed to inhabit the globe. Unknown animals such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster, for example, might be easily located and captured–if indeed they exist.

While satellites would be of limited use in heavily wooded areas, Bigfoot creatures have been reported in many areas with relatively little forest, including Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Texas, and Arizona. A single twelve-foot Bigfoot may or may not be hard to spot, but a family of them surely would be easier to find. Furthermore, there cannot be only one Bigfoot; there must be a breeding population of them, by some estimates 6,000 to 10,000 in North America alone. Surely a coordinated, close inspection should reveal dozens, if not hundreds or thousands, of Bigfoot in remote areas at any given time.

The search could include bodies of water as well. Many lake monsters and sea serpents are reported to be fifty feet or longer, and surface regularly where they are seen. If armchair investigators are up to the task, it should be possible to organize a team to monitor monster-inhabited lakes such as Scotland’s Loch Ness, Canada’s Lake Okanagan, and America’s Lake Champlain using Google Earth technology. Monster buffs don’t need to dip their toes into cold lakes or brave the wilderness to search for their quarry; they can scan a dozen square miles over cup of hot coffee at their leisure.

Of course, if such searches are done and still reveal no solid proof of the monsters’ existence, few minds will be changed. Diehard believers can always claim that all the monstrous beasts somehow hid undetected, or are masters at camouflage. Or the searchers didn’t look long enough, or in the right places. It only takes one live or dead Bigfoot or lake monster to forever prove that they exist, but nothing will ever prove they don’t…

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

 

Aug 302015
 

Benjamin Radford

Skeptics often encounter—or are cornered by—people making all sorts of claims. Most of them, such as those tested by me, Jim Underdown of CFI-West, the JREF, and others, are sincere people. They are very rarely hoaxers or liars but instead well-intentioned people who genuinely believe they have special abilities, or have discovered some important secret of the universe.

When I encounter these people I try to be as respectful and polite as possible. Ignoring them, or even worse, mocking them, is both cruel and unnecessary. Sometimes there’s much to be learned from engaging such people, in terms of psychology and understanding where mistakes happen.

Earlier this month I got an e-mail out of the blue from a foreign person whose message simply read, “I send a letter and an attachment.” Normally such an abrupt email would be deleted—pro-tip: that’s not the best way to submit an article for publication—but I opened it and read it. It was about 20 pages on dowsing, in which the writer claimed that a dowsing pendulum moved through some as-yet unknown “radiation” that he was studying. I saw what seemed to be a mistaken assumption on the first page, one upon which the remaining 19 pages of theory and writings relied upon to be valid. Willing to look at his work but wanting to help him nip the error in the bud, I wrote to him

“Thank you for your submission on dowsing. I began to review your article but found it confusing after the first page, and here is why: It’s not clear why you are attributing the pendulum movement to a form of radiation instead of the ordinary anatomical muscle twitches and tension associated with fingers, wrists, elbows, arms, and so on. If you could clarify that perhaps I could better evaluate your paper.

all best,

Benjamin Radford”

 

He got back to me about a week later:

“I am sorry for the delay, but I do not know English and had to use a text translator, and these things take time. If the dowser detects by means of a wand or a pendulum a water reservoir underground, some kind of radiation from this water must affect him.

As an electronic engineer, dealing with radiocommunication, propagation of electro-magnetic waves for over 40 years, I was mostly interested in searching for this radiation. My article concerns the methodology of searching this radiation, however I do not deal in it with phenomena in which this mysterious radiation, by an influence on a human, forces the pendulum to move in his hands. Perhaps I will write an article on that topic.

In physics, there are four basic forces of interaction on matter. Vocationally, during the entire period of my work experience, I have dealt with technical measurement of electro-magnetic radiation. I could not believe in what was being said in radiesthesia, that there is some kind of additional unknown radiation. And I was right.

Radiation of neutral hydrogen at the frequency of 1420 MHz is responsible for radiesthetic phenomena, known for many years, particularly in radioastronomy. It is observed and measured by means of two large parabolic antennas of the diameter of dishes above 15 meters. Science has accused me of identifying the type of this radiation with a pendulum. They say that if I had measured it, it would have been a different story. Namely, measurement over an underground water reservoir would have to be done locally with a small antenna, e.g. a half-wave dipole of a several-million smaller power gain from the parabolic antennas. So far, I have not had a measurement receiver of such sensitivity.

Even if somebody was able to locally measure the radiation, nobody would believe that it was responsible for the phenomenon of radiesthesia. Its identification can only be done by a human acting as a sensor, through his extraordinary sensitivity for this kind of radiation, and that is what I have done.”

 

I reviewed his response and replied,

 

“Thank you for getting back to me. My question is very simple: you wrote that “If the dowser detects by means of a wand or a pendulum a water reservoir underground, some kind of radiation from this water must affect him.”

It’s not clear why you are attributing the pendulum movement to a form of radiation instead of the ordinary anatomical muscle twitches and tension associated with fingers, wrists, elbows, arms, and so on. In other words, it is virtually impossible to hold a pendulum completely still for very long, and this is because of the ordinary movements of the body (breathing, arm muscles, etc.). So I don’t understand upon what scientific basis you are assuming that any radiation is involved in causing the pendulum to move. If you could clarify that perhaps I could better evaluate your paper.

all best,

Ben Radford”

About a week later I got the following reply:

“From the physics lessons, we know that the pendulum is a mechanical resonance oscillator with simple harmonic motion, and if it moves continuously when held between fingers then it must also be subject to a certain enforcing force of periodic variability through the human body. And if it is so then there must occur a frequency synchronicity of some kind between the both frequencies or else the pendulum cannot move. A child on a swing must be pushed in pace with the rhythm of the movements of the swing or else, if the pushing movements are random, the child won’t swing.

However, the vibration of the finger muscles, the hand or other parts of the body are completely coincidental and even if they oscillate the pendulum its vibrations will fast disappear; it is not going to be a continuous movement, unless someone intentionally moves his hand so as to enforce the oscillation of the pendulum for prolonged time, but then this would be a cheating.

By changing the frequency of the pendulum (we have no control over a change in the frequency of the gravitational field) we can observe how the pendulum adjusts itself (in a better or worse way) to the frequency of the field, the manifestation of which is a change of the shapes plotted by the pendulum in the space. Obviously, the latter would not happen if we use an ordinary pendulum: a weight on a thread where the thread is held at a different point each time. Such a pendulum is unsuitable for serious research.

In my pendulum, the weight is screwed on a steel wire (like a nut on a bolt) and the entire pendulum is suspended in a special grip on the blade of a steel pin.

Obviously, the muscle tensions of individual parts of the human body cause pendulum movements, however such a movement is coincidental and only interferes with the measurements, it is regarded as an interference impeding the measurement itself.

On the other hand, it is the micro vibrations of the skin (epidermis) of the fingers: the thumb and the index finger, in which the pendulum is held, that give the appropriate periodic movement to the pendulum and the direction of the movement, caused by the influence of the variable gravitational field of the surrounding.

The measurement of the distribution of the field is very burdensome; it consists in the transferring the pendulum from a point to a point and stopping at each point so that the vibrations of the pendulum become stabilized, which takes approximately three (3) minutes. In order to be able to find a point where the field strength equals zero and the pendulum does not move at all, the pendulum must be set in the space with an accuracy of a few milimetres.

My pendulum is quite heavy (approx. 50 gram), it would be difficult to hold it at specific point with such an exactness, and this is why it is suspended on a thin thread on a special stand (the photograph is attached).

A pendulum synchronised with the sought field moves in a single vertical plane with constant direction. Obviously, the direction of the plane is different at different points.

The direction of the plane of the movement of the pendulum in the gravitational field of the surroundings is the only and the base measurement done using my pendulum. The plane is always perpendicular to the vector of the magnetic field of the sought radiation which is polarised horizontally in the space above the surface of the Earth. Therefore, we know its situation at the points of measurement, and, consequently, its special distribution.”

With all due respect to this person—who I think really does believe he’s onto something—I still didn’t get what he was saying. It wasn’t an English translation issue, we just weren’t talking about the same things. I replied,

“Thank you for your response. You noted that “The vibration of the finger muscles, the hand or other parts of the body are completely coincidental… Obviously, the muscle tensions of individual parts of the human body cause pendulum movements, however such a movement is coincidental and only interferes with the measurements, it is regarded as an interference impeding the measurement itself.”

I understand that you believe that the muscle movements cannot account for the pendulum movements, but I do not understand why you believe this to be so: What is the basis or reason you say it is “coincidental”? Can you provide any citations or references to studies showing this? Or have you done any experiments that rule out muscle movement as the sole source for pendulum oscillations?

I am not trying to be negative or difficult, but I sincerely don’t understand why you believe muscles cannot account entirely for the pendulum movement. You must show that the pendulum moves with no muscle movement at all…

Thank you,

Benjamin Radford”

I await his response and hope that if it comes, it doesn’t simply send us around in circles…

Aug 272015
 

I’m finishing an interesting article on the pseudohistories of the chupacabra: The Hispanic vampire turns 20 this month and was created in large part by the 1995 film “Species.” However those who believe the monster exists have offered a wide variety of completely fictional “true” histories of the chupacabra… Look for it in an upcoming issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine!