So this is cool: I’m quoted in Rolling Stone encouraging people to, quote, “Stop Falling for Made-Up TikTok Moral Panics!”
Check it out HERE!
Also, don’t forget to check out my podcast, Squaring the Strange!
So this is cool: I’m quoted in Rolling Stone encouraging people to, quote, “Stop Falling for Made-Up TikTok Moral Panics!”
Check it out HERE!
Also, don’t forget to check out my podcast, Squaring the Strange!
I’m quoted in a news article in the Spanish-language newspaper Clarin on the social and cultural drivers of witchcraft, including at Salem: “Más allá del mito: Las Brujas de Salem, la verdad de la ciencia a 330 años.”
In 2016, before COVID and amid the encroaching commercialization of Christmas, Black Friday sales, and annual social media grumblings about the manufactured controversy over whether “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” is appropriate, an ugly episode of racial hatred tainted the beginning of the holiday season.
It began when the Mall of America hired a jolly bearded man named Larry Jefferson as one of its Santas. Jefferson, a retired Army veteran, is black–a fact that most kids and their parents neither noticed nor cared about. The crucial issue for kids was whether a Playstation might be on its way or some Plants vs. Zombies merchandise was in the cards given the particular child’s status on Santa’s naughty-or-nice list. The important thing for parents was whether their kids were delighted by the Santa, and all evidence suggests that the answer was an enthusiastic Yes. “What [the children] see most of the time is this red suit and candy,” Jefferson said in an interview. “[Santa represents] a good spirit. I’m just a messenger to bring hope, love, and peace to girls and boys.”
The fact that Santa could be African-American seemed self-evident (and either an encouraging sign or a non-issue) for all who encountered him. Few if any people at the Mall of America made any negative or racist comments. It was, after all, a self-selected group; any parents who might harbor reservations about Jefferson simply wouldn’t wait in line with their kids to see him and instead go somewhere else or wait for another Santa. Like anything that involves personal choice, people who don’t like something (a news outlet, brand of coffee, or anything else) will simply go somewhere else–not erupt in protest that it’s available to those who want it.
However a black Santa was a first for that particular mall, and understandably made the news. On December 1 the local newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, carried a story by Liz Sawyer titled “Mall of America Welcomes Its First Black Santa.”
Scott Gillespie, the editorial page editor for the Tribune, tweeted later that night (at 9:47 PM): “Looks like we had to turn comments off on story about Mall of America’s first black Santa. Merry Christmas everyone!” The tweet’s meaning seemed both clear and disappointing: On a story that the Star Tribune posted about an African-American Santa, the racial hostility got so pervasive in the comments section that they had to put an end to it, out of respect for Jefferson and/or Star Tribune readers. He ended with a sad and sarcastic, “Merry Christmas” and sent the tweet into cyberspace.
Overnight and the next morning his tweet went viral and served as the basis for countless news stories with titles such as “Paper Forced to Close Comments On Mall Of America’s First Black Santa Thanks to Racism” (Jezebel); “Santa is WHITE. BOYCOTT Mall of America’: Online Racists Are Having a Meltdown over Mall’s Black Santa” (RawStory); “Racists Freak Out Over Black Santa At Mall Of America” (Huffington Post); “Mall of America Hires Its First Black Santa, Racists of the Internet Lose It” (Mic.com), and so on. If you spend any time on social media you get the idea. It was just another confirmation of America’s abysmal race relations.
There’s only one problem: It didn’t happen.
At 1:25 PM the following day Gillespie, after seeing the stories about the scope and nature of the racist backlash the Tribune faced, reversed himself in a follow-up tweet. Instead of “we had to turn off comments,” Gillespie stated that the commenting was never opened for that article in the first place: “Comments were not allowed based on past practice w/stories w/racial elements. Great comments on FB & Instagram, though.”
This raised some questions for me: If the comments had never been opened on the story, then how could there have been a flood of racist comments? Where did that information come from? How many racist comments did the paper actually get? Fewer than a dozen? Hundreds? Thousands? Something didn’t add up about the story, and as a media literacy educator and journalist I felt it was important to understand the genesis of this story.
It can serve as an object lesson and help the public understand the role of confirmation bias, unwarranted assumptions, and failure to apply skepticism. In this era of attacks on “fake news” it’s important to distinguish intentional misinformation from what might be simply a series of mistakes and assumptions.
While I have no doubt that the Tribune story on Jefferson would likely have been the target of some racist comments at some point, the fact remains that the main point of Gillespie’s tweet was false: the Tribune had not in fact been forced to shut down the comments on its piece about the Mall of America’s black Santa because of a deluge of racist comments. That false information was the centerpiece of the subsequent stories about the incident.
The idea that some might be upset about the topic is plausible; after all, the question of a black Santa had come up a few times in the news and social media (perhaps most notably Fox News’s Megyn Kelly’s infamous incredulity at the notion three years earlier–which she later described as an offhand jest). Racist, sexist, and otherwise obnoxious comments are common in the comments section of many articles online on any number of subjects, and are not generally newsworthy. There were of course some racists and trolls commenting on the secondary stories about the Star Tribune‘s shutting down its comment section due to racist outrage (RawStory collected about a dozen drawn from social media), but fact remains that the incident at the center of the controversy that spawned outrage across social media simply did not happen.
A few journalists added clarifications and corrections to the story after reading Gillespie’s second tweet or being contacted by him. The Huffington Post, for example, added at the bottom of its story: “CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to reflect that the Minneapolis Star Tribune‘s comment section was turned off when the story was published, not in response to negative comments.” But most journalists didn’t, and as of this writing nearly two million news articles still give a misleading take on the incident.
The secondary news reports could not, of course, quote from the original non-existent rage-filled comments section in the Star Tribune, so they began quoting from their own comments sections and those of other news media. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy, wherein the worst comments from hundreds of blogs and websites were then selected and quoted, generating another round of comments. Many people saw racist comments about the story and assumed that they had been taken from the Star Tribune page at the center of the story, and couldn’t be sure if they were responding to the original outrage or the secondary outrage generated by the first outrage. As with those drawn to see and celebrate Jefferson as the mall’s first black Santa, this was also a self-selected group of people–namely those who were attracted to a racially charged headline and had some emotional stake in the controversy, enough to read about it and comment on it.
I contacted Gillespie and he kindly clarified what happened and how his tweet inadvertently caused some of the world’s most prominent news organizations to report on an ugly racial incident that never occurred.
Gillespie–whose beat is the opinion and editorial page–was at home on the evening of December 1 and decided to peruse his newspaper’s website. He saw the story about Larry Jefferson and clicked on it to see if the black Santa story was getting any comments. He noticed that there were no comments at all and assumed that the Star Tribune‘s web moderators had shut them off due to inflammatory posts, as had happened occasionally on previous stories.
Understandably irritated and dismayed, he tweeted about it and went to bed, thinking no more of it. The next day he went into work and a colleague noticed that his tweet had been widely shared (his most shared post on social media ever) and asked him about it. Gillespie then spoke with the newspaper’s web moderators, who informed him that the comments had never been turned on for that particular post–a practice at the newspaper for articles on potentially sensitive subjects such as race and politics, but also applied to many other topics that a moderator for whatever reason thinks might generate comments that may be counterproductive.
“I didn’t know why the comments were off,” he told me. “In this case I assumed we followed past practices” about removing inflammatory comments. It was a not-unreasonable assumption that in this case just happened to be wrong. Gillespie noted during our conversation that a then-breaking Star Tribune story about the death of a 2-year-old girl at a St. Paul foster home also had its commenting section disabled–presumably not in anticipation of a deluge of racist or hateful comments.
“People thought–and I can see why, since I have the title of editorial page editor–that I must know what I’m talking about [in terms of web moderation],” Gillespie said. He was commenting on a topic about his newspaper but outside his purview, and to many his tweet was interpreted as an official statement and explanation of why comments did not appear on the black Santa story.
When Gillespie realized that many (at that time dozens and, ultimately, millions) of news stories were (wrongly) reporting that the Star Tribune‘s comments section had been shut down in response to racist comments based solely on his (admittedly premature and poorly phrased) Dec. 1 tweet, he tried to get in touch with some of the journalists to correct the record (hence the Huffington Post clarification), but by that time the story had gone viral and the ship of fools had sailed. The best he could do was issue a second tweet trying to clarify the situation, which he did.
“I can see why people would jump to the conclusion they did,” he told me. Gillespie is apologetic and accepts responsibility for his role in creating the black Santa outrage story, and it seems clear that his tweet was not intended as an attempt at race-baiting for clicks.
In the spirit of Christmas maybe one lesson to take from this case is charity. Instead of assuming the worst about someone or their intentions, give them the benefit of the doubt. Assuming the worst about other people runs all through this story. Gillespie assumed that racists deluged his newspaper with racist hate, as did the public. The web moderator(s) at the Star Tribune who chose not to open the comments on the Santa story may (or may not) have assumed that they were pre-empting a deluge of racism (which may or may not have in fact followed). I myself was assumed to have unsavory and ulterior motives for even asking journalistic questions about this incident (a topic I’ll cover next week).
In the end there are no villains here (except for the relative handful of racists and trolls who predictably commented on the secondary stories). What happened was the product of a series of understandable misunderstandings and mistakes, fueled in part by confirmation bias and amplified by the digital age.
Gillespie and I agreed that this is, when fact and fiction are separated, a good news story. As noted, Gillespie initially assumed that the newspaper’s moderators had been inundated with hostile and racist comments, and finally turned the comments off after having to wade through the flood of hateful garbage comments to find and approve the positive ones. He need not have feared, because exactly the opposite occurred: Gillespie said that the Star Tribune was instead flooded with positive comments applauding Jefferson as the Mall of America’s first black Santa (he referenced this in his Dec. 2 tweet). The tiny minority of nasty comments were drowned out by holiday cheer and goodwill toward men–of any color. He echoed Jefferson, who in a December 9 NPR interview said that the racist comments he heard were “only a small percentage” of the reaction, and he was overwhelmed by support from the community.
The fact that Jefferson was bombarded by love and support from the general public (and most whites) should offer hope and comfort. Gillespie said that he had expected people to attack and criticize the Mall of America for succumbing to political correctness, but the imagined hordes of white nationalists never appeared. A few anonymous cranks and racists complained on social media posts from the safety of their keyboards, but there was very little backlash–and certainly nothing resembling what the sensational headlines originally suggested.
The real tragedy is what was done to Larry Jefferson, whose role as the Mall of America’s first black Santa has been tainted by this social media-created controversy. Instead of being remembered for, as he said, bringing “hope, love, and peace to girls and boys,” he will forever be known for enduring a (fictional) deluge of bilious racist hatred. The true story of Jefferson’s stint as Santa is diametrically the opposite of what most people believe: He was greeted warmly and embraced by people of all colors and faiths as the Mall of America’s first black Santa.
Some may try to justify their coverage of the story by saying that even though in this particular case Jefferson was not in fact inundated with racist hate, it still symbolizes a very real problem and was therefore worthy of reporting if it raised awareness of the issue. The Trump administration adopted this tactic earlier this week when the President promoted discredited anti-Muslim videos via social media; his spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders acknowledged that at least some of the hateful videos Trump shared were bogus (and did not happen as portrayed and described), but insisted that their truth or falsity was irrelevant because they supported a “larger truth”–that Islam is a threat to the country’s security: “I’m not talking about the nature of the video,” she told reporters. “I think you’re focusing on the wrong thing. The threat is real, and that’s what the President is talking about.”
This disregard for truth has been a prominent theme in the Trump administration. Yes, some tiny minority of Muslims are terrorists; no one denies that, but that does not legitimize the sharing of bogus information as examples supposedly illustrating the problem. Similarly, yes, some tiny minority of Americans took exception to Jefferson as a black Santa, but that does not legitimize sharing false information about how a newspaper had to shut down its comments because of racist rage. There are enough real-life examples of hatred and intolerance that we need not invent new ones.
In this Grinchian and cynical ends-justifies-the-means worldview, there is no such thing as good news and the import of every event is determined by how it can be used to promote a given narrative or social agenda–truth be damned.
I understand that “Black Santa Warmly Welcomed by Virtually Everyone” isn’t a headline that any news organization is going to see as newsworthy or eagerly promote, nor would it go viral. But it’s the truth.
The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! Part two in our four-part series on moral panics. This week we talk MUSIC, and go into the past, present, and future of (as Fresh Prince would say) parents just not understanding their kids’ music. So sit back and hear about gansta rap, Miley’s twerking, and even some far-too-jaunty Bing Crosby tunes! Check it out HERE!
My psychologist friend Stuart Vyse wrote an interesting article on scary faces, and mentioned me in the piece! Not sure how I feel about that, but take a look anyway… It’s HERE.
Nice article on the chupacabra in Mississippi’s oldest newspaper that credits my research and book. I’m not even annoyed that they (like many others) used a copyrighted photo of mine. Check it out!
For those who didn’t see it: New episode of Squaring the Strange is out, the first in our series on Moral Panics. This week we look at games: it’s not just first-person-shooters that have caused parents and social guardians to wring their hands and ask “will no one think of the children?” Your grandparents worried authorities when they turned to the vile pursuits of pinball, and their grandparents were paying with Ouija boards without a single care about demons or ghosts.
The first issue of Skeptical Inquirer with me as Managing Editor came out 23 years ago, joining the indefatigable editor Ken Frazier. Been quite a ride; I hope I’ve helped encourage at least a little critical thinking during that time…
I was recently a guest on the Radio Wasteland show, talking about some of the cases in my new book “Big–If True: Adventures in Oddity.” We discuss psychic detectives; why police rarely prosecute psychics; the idea that the government wants to keep Americans uneducated so we’re easily controlled; the truth about subliminal advertising; chemtrails; why Halloween freaks out some Christian fundamentalists; the claimed link between EMFs and ghosts; and much more…
Check it out HERE!
This month is the anniversary of one of the highest profile—and best documented—UFO reports in modern American history, with hundreds of eyewitnesses and reasonably clear (albeit nevertheless ambiguous) video footage. Despite the (at-least-temporarily) unidentified flying object making international news, the incident has been largely forgotten and ignored by the UFO community, precisely because it was conclusively debunked. It holds no interest to them and only serves as a lesson in eyewitness misperception. There is little to gain from UFO believers revisiting the case, but it holds important lessons for skeptics and critical thinkers.
On Monday evening November 8, 2010, something flew in the skies approximately 35 miles off the California coast. Dramatic video of an (apparent) missile streaking into the sky near Los Angeles was captured by a KCBS television news helicopter cameraman and widely studied. The rocket-like contrail rose like an arced pillar in the sunset, unusually wide at base and narrow at top, seeming to rise vertically in the air. Navy and Air Force officials denied that they launched any missiles in the area at the time, and said they were investigating the incident. The Internet was soon abuzz with conspiracy theories about who might have launched it, and for what purpose.
These theories included UFOs; a secret missile launch (China was widely suggested); government testing of chemtrails; a publicity stunt for alien-themed TV show; a secret military launch from nearby San Nicolas Island, often used by the Air Force; and so on. (The “explanation” that it was a launch from a Chinese submarine raised even more questions than answers: What’s a Chinese sub doing only a few miles from California?)
CNN suggested it might be a North Korean missile, while on CBS News former Deputy Secretary of Defense, Robert Ellsworth, suggested it was a missile after all—but an American one: “It could be a test-firing of an ICBM from a submarine… to demonstrate, mainly to Asia, that we can do that.” For the conspiracy theorists who insist that the missile was some sort of secret government test, this explanation collapses under the weight of its own illogic. Why would the government launch a “secret” missile only 35 miles from Los Angeles, and that would be obvious to anyone looking in the skies?
Veteran UFO researcher and former Skeptical Inquirer columnist Robert Sheaffer was among the first to offer an explanation: “As surprising as it may sound, the object seems to have been simply an aircraft contrail, with tricks of perspective making it look like a missile flying away from you, when in fact it was an aircraft flying toward you. It depends on an effect of perspective. The aircraft’s path must be directly toward, or away from, the observer. Second, even though the contrail is five miles above the ground, as it recedes into the distance it appears to touch the ground, because of the curvature of the earth. As shown by the daytime photo of the vertical contrail on ContrailsScience.com, we know that the aircraft that made it was not flying straight up like a rocket, but when seen directly straight-on, that is what it looks like. And for viewers a few miles away, getting a different perspective, all they see is an ordinary-looking slanted contrail.”
This explained many aspects of the sighting, including the fact that according to the Federal Aviation Administration, radar in the area did not reveal any fast-moving unidentified targets. Furthermore, pilots in the area did not report any unusual sightings, which would make sense, since from their perspective the jet’s contrail would not appear strange. Furthermore, Sheaffer noted, this is not the first time that a contrail has been mistaken for a missile launch; an identical missile-like jet contrail was reported south of Los Angeles on December 31, 2009.
Mick West of Metabunk was also quick on the case, and offered a detailed analysis to several journalists. To the best of my knowledge, Robert, Mick and I were the first prominent skeptics to offer a plausible explanation when I wrote about it for Discovery News (now rebranded as Seeker); Mick and I later discussed our work on the case on my podcast, Squaring the Strange.
But some were skeptical of the skeptics. Bill Sweetman, of Aviation Week, was quoted as noting (correctly) that the plume seen in the footage was more characteristic of missile. The reporter who filmed it, Gil Leyvas, said in interviews that he’d seen countless plane contrails during his long career and insisted he’d never seen anything like it. From The New York Times: “Mr. Leyvas said that he had never seen an airplane contrail that resembled the contrails on Nov. 4 and Nov. 8. In fact, while he was recording the contrail on Nov. 8, he briefly panned the camera away when he saw a second contrail in the distance, only to discover that the second one had been caused by a jetliner. ‘There was no comparison at all’ between the two, he said, because the mysterious one was several times bigger. He added, ‘The video speaks for itself.’” Physicist Michio Kaku went on Good Morning America and refuted the idea that it was an airplane contrail (more on that shortly).
It took another day for the government to complete its investigation. When they did, Pentagon spokesman Col. David Lapan noted, “With all the information that we have gathered over the last day and a half about this condensation trail off the coast of southern California on Monday night, both within the Department of Defense and other U.S. government agencies, we have no evidence to suggest that this was anything other than a contrail caused by an aircraft.”
Despite these plausible explanations the “mystery missile” video was irresistible to television outlets across the country, which were playing the clip incessantly. Locally, KCBS noted in one segment that “it even looks as if there is some sort of rocket separation” shown on the tape. The mystery deepened when some people reported hearing the rumbling of a missile launch just before it was sighted.
Soon after my article was published on Discovery News piece, commenters were, of course, dismissing me as a shill trying to cover something up. My editor, Ian O’Neill, and I replied with a follow-up piece where I even more clearly laid out the evidence:
Let’s look at the evidence comparing the contrail explanation to the missile theory.
1) According to the Federal Aviation Administration, radar in the area did not reveal any fast-moving unknown targets. A missile would have been picked up on radar, while a jet would not have been flagged as unusual.
2) No trace of the alleged missile has been seen falling into the water off the coast of Los Angeles, nor has the missile or any part of it been recovered; it seems to have simply vanished into the sky. If the contrail was created by a plane, of course, no falling missile would be seen nor found.
3) The object seen in the video moves like a jet, not a rocket. As Michio Kaku, a physics professor at City University of New York noted on Good Morning America, “The trail seems to change direction. Ballistic missiles don’t do that. It doesn’t accelerate. Ballistic missiles accelerate up to 18,000 miles per hour, this is traveling at a constant velocity.” While missiles accelerate greatly during launch, aircraft typically maintain a constant cruising speed once they have reached the desired altitude—exactly as the videotape shows.
4) There is no record of any missiles being fired at the location and time of the sighting, while there are records of commercial jets in the area at the time. One blogger, Liem Bahneman, has identified the route and flight number as US Airways Flight 808 from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Phoenix, Arizona.
5) Perhaps most damaging to the missile theory, the only people who saw (and recorded) the mysterious phenomenon were in one television helicopter videotaping the sunset. None of the nearly 4 million people living in Los Angeles noticed the “missile” launch, and pilots flying in the area reported seeing nothing unusual—and certainly not a missile being launched. This is very strong evidence that the phenomenon was only unusual from one unique perspective; that is, people looking at the same thing from different distances and angles recognized what it was, or didn’t think it was strange. This supports the jet theory and discredits the missile theory.
In the end, the “mystery missile” was indeed exactly what Mick, Robert, and I said it was from the beginning: an airplane contrail (Flight 808) seen from an odd angle. The case provides an interesting case study in social contagion, the psychology of expectant attention (also known as psychological priming), and how people can misinterpret ambiguous sights and sound as confirming their expectations. The people who claimed to hear the rumbling of a distant rocket launch likely weren’t lying or hallucinating; instead they simply reinterpreted ordinary ambient sounds in light of the “missile” launch they believed they’d witnessed. The same goes for the local news analysis that claimed to see “some sort of rocket separation.” There was no rocket separation because there was no rocket; instead people saw what they were expecting to see. This is of course the same principle underlying many reports of ghosts, Bigfoot, UFOs, and other phenomenon.
In any event the conspiracies failed for another reason: there would be no reason for officials to hide or cover up the launch; missiles and satellites are routinely launched from the California coast. All the Pentagon would have to do is issue a statement telling the public that it was a planned launch, and the issue would go away. Maybe we can’t always believe the “official explanation,” but when it fits the facts, we should.
There is an understandable eagerness to opine ahead of the facts, as Michio Kaku, Robert Ellsworth, and many others did. Many took the fact that the original eyewitness who saw and filmed it, Gil Leyvas, didn’t recognize it despite having seen hundreds of contrails as evidence that it must be something else. This principle should be kept in mind when UFO believers state boldly that experienced pilots would obviously be able to recognize a plane, planet, balloon, or any other mundane thing in the sky. Possibly, but not necessarily; after all, that’s why they’re called Unidentified Flying Objects.
I recently presented a talk, “Folklore and Public Health: Partners in Mitigating Medical Misinformation,” for a webinar on Contemporary Legends and Pandemic Lore, put on by the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research in association with Mahatma Gandhi University in India. Nice to be able to apply critical thinking and skepticism to public health issues!
New episode of Squaring the Strange is out! First Tim Mendham from the Australian Skeptics pops in for a quick visit, then we sit down for a discussion with Vegas magicians Matt Donnelly, R.J. Owens, and Vinny Grosso. Each of them has a perspective on magic and skepticism. It’s a fun and fascinating talk, available via your auditory input channels! Check it out HERE!
I’m quoted in a substantive new article on ghost hunting by Joe Capozzi. Check it out HERE!
Also, don’t forget to check out my podcast:
I’m quoted in a new article by Russ Dobler on techniques that can fool people into thinking you’re psychic (by way of the upcoming Spider-Man movie!) for his Adventures in Poor Taste website… Check it out HERE!
New episode of Squaring the Strange is out! Folklorist Daisy Ahlstone shares some facts, folklore, and even furry art celebrating the thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian tiger, which was declared extinct in the 20th century. Ahlstone talks about the extreme commodification of the species, from hunting bounties to gaffed specimens to logos and travel packages luring tourists to Tasmania. Along the way we learn about endlings, necrofauna, and what genetic projects might produce someday. You can listen HERE!
For those who missed our Grand Opening of the Online Friggatriskaidekaphobia (fear of Friday the 13th) Treatment Center, it’s not too late to join the fun!
We had song, dance, puns, and a short talk by me about the psychology of superstitions, and you can watch it HERE!
I’m quoted in a Global News Canada article on the search for Sasquatch, talking about why the evidence for Bigfoot keeps falling short. Check it out HERE!
Also, please subscribe to my podcast!
From a library press release: “Benjamin Radford and Joe Nickell are considered to be among the top lake monster authorities in the world. They discuss the different types of lake monster sightings, delve into explanations for those sightings, and examine hoaxes, evidence claims, and legends surrounding the monsters. They have also conducted groundbreaking fieldwork and experiments…”
Technically true, but to be fair there are about ten times as many astronauts as “lake monster authorities.” But, hey, I’ll take it!
I was recently a guest on the Squatch Talk show, talking about Bigfoot sightings, evidence, skepticism, and much more. It was a fun conversation, and since the host’s internet went out, we will be doing a Part 2! Check it out HERE!
Also we briefly talked about my chupacabra book:
New episode of Squaring the Strange is out! We discuss the recent Snopes plagiarism revelations and put it into context, and then look at sound therapy and vibrational healing. If you’re not quite sure what “Vibrational Medicine” is, join the club! You can listen HERE!
Did you hear our recent episode of Squaring the Strange? We talk a bit on the resurgence of dowsing and announce some upcoming appearances… then we sit down with guest Prof. Brian Regal, who takes us on a tour of pseudoscience and pseudohistory. Learn how confirmation bias leads to weaponizing fringe theories in order to rewrite history (and change the color of major players). Check it out HERE!
Times of social stress, hardship, and uncertainty spur interest in all kinds of divination and prophecy. The public goes to see psychics and fortunetellers more often in times of economic depression than prosperity, times of loss rather than love. It’s human nature, and magical thinking in its various forms—including superstition and conspiracies—helps people cope with daily stresses. People want to be reassured that good things are just around the corner, that fortunes will improve and whirlwind romances with proverbial tall handsome strangers are in the cards. People want an edge against random chance.
This was true during the pandemic, but there are other stresses—environmental ones such as climate change, widespread fires, and an enduring drought that’s kept much of the Southwestern United States parched for years. It’s no surprise that people are getting more desperate to find water.
The New York Times recently reported a jump in interest in, and hiring of, dowsers (or “water witches”), such as Rob Thompson, who “claims that he can locate streams of water in the fractures in the earth’s bedrock, using two L-shaped rods that together resemble an old-fashioned television antenna. Amid California’s extreme drought, just a two-hour drive north of the nation’s technology capital of Silicon Valley, the water-seeking services of a man relying on two three-foot rods and a hunch are in demand. ‘This is my busiest I think I’ve ever been in my life,’ said Mr. Thompson, a third-generation water hunter with silvering hair and the lumbering gait of a bear… His busy schedule is a sign of the desperation of ranchers, vineyard owners and land managers as California reels from a crippling drought that has depleted aquifers, shrunken crops and forced some farmers to sell off their water rights.”
If you’ve ever heard the phrase “They wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work,” dowsing is a perfect rebuttal. People through the centuries have revered and perpetuated practices despite the fact that they simply do not work. Dowsing is a textbook example of this. Part of the reason for dowsing’s longevity is its versatility in the paranormal world. If we conceive of the paranormal as a tasty (but ultimately nourishment-free) meal, dowsing is a sort of all-purpose side dish. It can stand alone as a New Age endeavor when searching for water or missing jewelry, or it goes equally well with a variety of pseudoscientific main dishes, including crop circles and fortune-telling. Dowsing is said to find anything and everything, including missing persons, buried pipes, oil deposits, and even archaeological ruins (see “Dowsing and Archaeology: Is There Something Underneath?,” in Skeptical Inquirer, March/April 1999).
I most often encounter dowsers during ghost investigations. Many amateur ghost hunters use dowsing rods to search for ghosts, believing that ghosts can be detected by (or communicate through) dowsing rods. In 2007, I demonstrated dowsing for the National Geographic Channel’s Is It Real? TV series on “Ghost Ships” in response to a woman who used dowsing rods on ghost hunts.
The dowsing with which most people are familiar is water dowsing (also known as water witching or rhabdomancy), in which a person holds a Y-shaped branch or two L-shaped wire rods and walks around until he or she feels a pull on the branch or the wire rods cross, which allegedly indicates that there is water below. Often a pendulum is used, sometimes held over a map.
According to proponents, dowsing has a robust history, and its success has been known for centuries. For example, in her book Divining the Future: Prognostication From Astrology to Zoomancy, Eva Shaw writes, “In 1556, De Re Metallica, a book on metallurgy and mining written by George [sic] Agricola, discussed dowsing as an acceptable method of locating rich mineral sources.” This widely cited reference is a rather transparent example of a logical fallacy called the appeal to tradition (“It must work because people have done it for centuries”).
However it seems that the dowsing advocates didn’t actually read the book because it says exactly the opposite: Instead of endorsing dowsing, Agricola states that those seeking minerals “should not make use of an enchanted twig, because if he is prudent and skilled in the natural signs, he understands that a forked stick is of no use to him.” So even 465 years ago, dowsing was recognized as worthless.
How Dowsing ‘Works’
If you assume that dowsing works—and that is of course a huge unproven assumption— how does it work? The proposed mechanisms are as varied as the dowsers themselves. One source states that “Dowsing is possible … through the strong psychic energy radiated by the object and picked up by the [dowser]”; another confidently states that “dowsing is not weird or spooky … it is as natural as memory. In fact, some scientists believe it may well be one of memory’s forms … a vestigial memory of a survival method of searching, using senses other than the five obvious ones.” The Amazing Randi in his Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, notes that dowsers often cannot agree on even the basics of their profession: “Some instructions tell learners never to try dowsing with rubber footwear, while others insist that it helps immeasurably. Some practitioners say that when rods cross, that specifically indicates water; others say that water makes the rods diverge to 180 degrees.”
I don’t believe dowsing per se is fraudulent—that is, for the most part it’s not a scam, hoax, or intentional deception. Instead it’s a form of self-deception that often convinces others. There’s no intent to deceive, it’s more of a mistake or misunderstanding. I’ve met many dowsers over the years and without exception they have been credible, down-to-earth people. They seem sincere because they are sincere: they really believe they have this power, and have convinced themselves over and over with their results. In this way they often convince other people—especially those who haven’t researched skeptical or science-based explanations. Sometimes the dowsing rods cross or the forked twig does seem to dip—but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s water below. The cause is what in psychology is known as the ideomotor effect: unconscious movements that make the dowser think that some other mysterious force is at play. If the dowsing devices were moving independently of the dowser then this should be easily demonstrated, but it doesn’t happen.
Dowsers have been subjected to many tests over the years and have performed no better than chance under controlled conditions. There are various ways to scientifically test dowsing abilities. I have done it several times myself, and read studies done by others. The easiest is to get 20 identical 5-gallon opaque plastic buckets and (with the dowser out of sight or at another location) place a sealed gallon jug of water under one of the buckets (being careful of course not to leave any traces that might reveal where it is). The buckets should be placed 2-3 meters apart (or at whatever interval the dowser claims they can discriminate water from non-water). Have the dowser come out to the field or lot and find the water. You can do a similar experiment hiding valuables on sandy beaches in grids as well. For more on this see CFI’s Jim Underdown of the Independent Investigations Group demonstrating dowsing testing for NBC News.
The problem is that dowsers fail to demonstrate their ability in scientifically controlled experiments and tests. It also depends on what you’re looking for and where. In fact it can be difficult to disprove a dowser’s claim for the same reason: if they claim water will be found in a spot at a certain depth, they can always insist that the water is there—just that they were a bit off on the depth: It’s 50 meters, not 20 meters like they thought. In order to prove or disprove that, of course, you’d need to dig another 30 meters (possibly a difficult and expensive proposition).
And if they find water, does that mean that dowsing works? Not necessarily. In most places on Earth there’s water somewhere below the surface—maybe a few inches, maybe a few meters or more. So any dowser who says “If you dig here you’ll find water” is statistically very likely to be correct—and would be just as correct if he or she chose a spot 10 meters away in any direction, or 10 miles away. There’s also the issue of what psychologists call “confirmation bias,” also known as “remembering the hits and forgetting the misses.” People generally tend to better remember their successes than their failures, or they rationalize away their failures (“I was having an off day,” or “The sun was too hot,” etc.). Unless dowsers keep careful track of all their claims—both correct and wrong— it can be easy to misremember their success rate.
Of course when dowsers are wrong they simply point out that no one is 100% accurate all the time—doctors, mechanics, scientists, and others make mistakes, and this is of course true. But the problem with that comparison is that doctors and mechanics can reliably prove their skills most of the time; this is not true with dowsers, and in fact there is no known scientific mechanism by which a forked branch, pendulum, or two L-shaped rods could possibly “detect” water. Keep in mind that dowsers claim to be able to find a great many “hidden” objects, including missing keys, water, oil, gold, and even ghosts! This raises the interesting question of how dowsers could know what the rods are reacting to: Is it a vein of gold 20 meters below the earth, a reservoir of water 100 meters below the earth, oil shale 200 meters down, or the dead spirit of someone who died at that spot in 1973? There’s no way to know. British Petroleum and other multinational oil companies spend billions of dollars trying to locate offshore oil fields through expensive, difficult, and time-consuming sampling, computer models, and so on.
In fact in September 2015 the Royal Dutch Shell Corporation abandoned its drilling in the Alaskan waters after spending $7 billion searching fruitlessly for oil. Why would they do that if all they need is to have a dowser on hand to point them directly where to drill? Any dowser who could reliably and successfully do what they claim could easily become a multi-millionaire consulting agent. Why doesn’t it happen?
There is no science behind dowsing, and though the main harm is wasted time and effort, it can also cost lives: in 2010, modified dowsing-rod devices claimed to detect bombs were sold by a man named James McCormick to the Iraqi military. As Slate noted, “McCormick’s company was selling these fraudulent magic wands at great expense to the Iraqi government, which spent $16,500 to $60,000 each for these things, devices which might as well have been crayon boxes full of rocks. They were useless. Or, as it turns out, far worse than useless. The Iraqis were using them at military checkpoints. On Oct. 25, 2009, terrorists carrying two tons of explosives got right past the magic bomb sniffer and detonated their cargo, killing 155 people. Two months later, it happened again, with 127 people killed. Not long after, McCormick was arrested under suspicion of fraud.” In April 2013 McCormick was convicted.
The consequences of water dowsing is less dire but no less real: wasted time and effort. Still, as long as there are desperate people who need increasingly scarce resources, water witches will not be far behind.
A longer version of this piece appeared on my CFI blog; you can read it here.
I’m interviewed by Canada’s Global News, talking about bringing science to ghost investigations… Check it out HERE!
Our recent episode of Squaring the Strange had as our guest historian Jay Smith, who joins us to talk about the murderous 18th century French monster known as the Beast of Gévaudan, thought by some to be a werewolf, a hyena, or perhaps even some Frankenstein-inspired hybrid! Dozens of peasants were left dead, while Paris and the rest of the world were enthralled by the story–but what was really behind it all? Check it out HERE!
The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! Pascual leads us on a fun discussion of MYSTERY MUSICIANS! Celestia starts with the OG mystery musician, a dude who was rumored to live under the Paris opera house, and we look at some folklore and urban legends that arise for artists who put on disguises. Check it out HERE!
Tuesday night the 15th at 5:30 MT / 7:30 ET, I will be giving a live Zoom talk for the Rio Rancho Public Library discussing my research into the famous Hispanic vampire el chupacabra and my book “Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore.” The talk is free but you need to register, so sign up if you’re interested! Register here:
The documentary The Woman Who Loves Giraffes tells the remarkable story of a remarkable Canadian woman named Anne Innis Dagg, who first became fascinated by giraffes as a young girl upon seeing them at the Chicago Zoo. Though virtually unknown—and certainly not as recognized as some of her female contemporaries including Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey—in the early 1950s Dagg was frustrated and surprised that there was very little written about the biology and behavior of giraffes. Only 23 at the time, in 1956 Dagg decided that she would have to do the research herself. She then traveled to South Africa to study giraffes in the wild.
This would have been an impressive enough feat in its own right, but is even more remarkable when we consider the social and political climate of the time. In the 1950s young women simply didn’t do that; they were supposed to get married and raise children, not head off to Africa alone to study wild giraffes.
Dagg had applied to live and study at ranches near where giraffes roamed wild, and was roundly rejected—because, you know, it’s a dangerous area and no place for a woman! Nevertheless she persisted, and eventually a South African citrus farmer named Alexander Matthew reluctantly agreed to house her. She then spent months in the field taking extensive notes about all aspects of giraffe behavior. Her research led to writing the definitive textbook about giraffes—one that is still used and taught to this day. (She and Matthew became and remained lifelong friends.)
But The Woman Who Loves Giraffes isn’t just aboutgiraffes. Dagg’s story is also told through the prism of sexism (and, to a lesser degree, racism, insofar as her research was done in Apartheid-era South Africa). Upon her return Dagg was denied tenure at the University of Guelph in 1972 despite her original research, impeccable credentials, and articles in peer-reviewed publications. One of her professors at the time is interviewed and claims—mostly unconvincingly—that there was in fact no Old Boys Club thwarting her career and that Dagg had merely given up seeking tenure too soon.
Sadly, the impediments soured Dagg on academia and she turned to other things, including raising children and writing books about sexism and feminism. (In 2019 the University of Guelph issued a formal apology to Dagg and established a research scholarship in her name to support undergraduate women studying zoology or biodiversity.)
Dagg had assumed she’d been long forgotten, but that wasn’t in fact true. With a few parallels to the documentary Searching for Sugar Man, unbeknownst to Dagg her seminal books on giraffes were still widely read and revered in the (admittedly niche) world of giraffe experts and zoologists. The last third of The Woman Who Loves Giraffes focuses onDagg’s unlikely return to both (some semblance of) recognition and the South African ranch where she did her pioneering research some half-century earlier. It’s a bittersweet return in part because the giraffe populations have since been decimated (she notes ruefully that during her years there it hadn’t occurred to her that giraffes might ever be endangered, because they were so plentiful and beautiful). The film points out that while other African animals such as gorillas, elephants, and rhinos (quite rightly) get attention and donations, giraffes for whatever reason don’t elicit quite the same sympathy from the public and wildlife organizations (the film suggests that donations can be made to her foundation).
Director Alison Reid masterfully combines archival footage and current interviews, and must have been delighted that Dagg had appeared on a 1965 episode of the game show To Tell the Truth, which opens the film. The Woman Who Loves Giraffes is a wonderful and inspiring story of a strong, fearless female scientist who led an astonishing life and contributed groundbreaking zoological research about these endangered animals. I’ll end with a photo of giraffes not far from where Dagg did her research; these are likely descended from the same animals that she studied a half-century ago.
I’m interviewed in a ‘Superstitious Times’ piece on the inability (or unwillingness) of investigators to call out fraud and hoaxing in their own fields: “What’s happened, Radford added, was the democratization of paranormal investigators, in particular those who pursue ghosts. “My genuine concern, whether they recognize it or not, is that the enormous amount of time and effort that is being wasted on not doing good work. My point has always been, just do good research; just improve the quality of work.”
Check it out HERE!
In a recent episode of Squaring the Strange we have everything: Lil Nas X’s Satanic Shoes, a sketchy alkaline water CEO, and geologist Sharon Hill educating us about spooky geology like bottomless pits, the mysterious “Mel’s Hole,” quicksand, and hollow earth theories! Check it out HERE!
My new blog examines some myths about, and ways to address, covid vaccine hesitancy. From concerns about efficacy to the “Dirty Dozen” social media anti-vaxxers, the first step is understanding the problem; the second step is knowing your audience.
As the second April opens under the pall of the pandemic, there are about 129 million cases of COVID-19 and nearly three million deaths. The good news is that vaccines are becoming more available, and nearly three million doses are being distributed each day. So far about 97 million Americans have been vaccinated (including me). Nevertheless, vaccine hesitancy remains. Reasons for this have been explored on this site and elsewhere, but it seemed a good time to take a closer look at what’s driving it.
Some people have been deterred by the varied levels of efficacy across the COVID-19 vaccines. Pfizer, for example, is 95 percent effective; Moderna is 94 percent; Oxford/AstraZeneca is 70 percent; J&J is 66 percent, and so on (keep in mind that the data are still being collected, so the rates may change over time). This has led to some thinking that one shot is “better” than another. While it’s obviously true that higher efficacy is better than lower efficacy, that doesn’t tell the full picture. Some vaccines require a second shot, while others need just one dose. If there’s some concern about the availability for the booster shot (the person needs to return three to four weeks later), then the one-shot vaccine may be better. Some vaccines need to be kept in very cold storage and for practical reasons may not be able to be administered in tropical regions, for example.
Some people seem reluctant to get the vaccine because they somehow think that anything less than 100 percent effectiveness is problematic. The SciBabe recently corrected this idea in a Facebook post:
Fully vaccinated people are going to get infected. That’s what anything less than 100% effective means. The ‘best’ of these are about 95% effective. Which means that, give or take, 1 in 20 may get a mild case if exposed. Note, 95% effective is on par with our most effective vaccines. The measles vaccine is 97% effective. The no-longer available Lyme disease vaccine was 80% effective (and don’t you wish that was still available?). Two doses of the chickenpox vaccine is 90% effective. A full course of the polio vaccine is about 99% effective. The pertussis vaccine is 98% effective after a full course of five doses, but only 73% effective after the first dose, and immunity can wane without boosters. So why don’t we see news stories all the time about fully vaccinated people getting those diseases? Is it because there’s something “better” or more trustworthy about those older vaccines? Is there something “they’re not telling us” about the covid vaccine? No.
Plus, of course, vaccine effectiveness rates are averages, and the real-world protection varies by individual. A person with an otherwise healthy immune system may only need a 75 percent effective vaccine, while someone who is immunocompromised may need a 95 percent effective vaccine. Complicating matters, you don’t know which variants you will be exposed to, and each vaccine conveys different protection against different strains. While there are some differences between the vaccines, the fine distinctions are moot. In the end, the consensus among experts is that anyone should get the first available vaccine. Trying to second-guess your exposure (or holding out for a more effective vaccine) just increases the risk of getting COVID-19—and potentially infecting others.
It’s tempting to respond to vaccine hesitancy with snide and snark, but for those hoping to change hearts and minds a more diplomatic approach is best. Sure, there are some people who are actively and knowingly sharing misinformation about vaccines (including, notably, Russian intelligence–led troll farms and the book-promoting viral video Plandemic, whose claims I and others have debunked). However, many people have genuine concerns, for whatever reason, and the issue is complicated by a plethora of COVID-19 pseudoauthorities.
The problem is not helped by a news and social media context that exaggerates dangers of vaccination. Memes and social media posts constantly highlight the rare, minor, and expected side effects of getting vaccinated, and false (and true-but-misleading) news stories about people who suffered because of the vaccines are shared. Any medical treatment or drug—from a tooth extraction to aspirin—can have potential side effects; that’s not a reason to fear or avoid it. As a National Public Radio report noted:
The odds of dying after getting a COVID-19 vaccine are virtually nonexistent. According to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you’re three times more likely to get struck by lightning. But you might not know that from looking at your social media feed. A new NPR analysis finds that articles connecting vaccines and death have been among the most highly engaged with content online this year, going viral in a way that could hinder people’s ability to judge the true risk in getting a shot. … To date, the CDC’s reporting system has not received evidence linking any deaths directly to vaccines. And yet, on almost half of all the days so far in 2021, a story about someone dying after receiving a vaccine shot has been among the most popular vaccine-related articles on social media.
With over half a billion vaccine doses given worldwide, by random chance alone some people will have had reactions, and some of those reactions will be severe (though expected in some small percentage of patients). Highlighting the real-but-rare problems with an otherwise overwhelmingly safe and effective treatment runs a real risk of doing more harm than good. The line between raising awareness and alarmism becomes blurred, especially when activists are involved.
People who are sincerely misinformed need to be provided accurate information to battle the rampant misinformation. Shaming people into getting vaccinated is less effective than promoting the personal, social, and economic benefits of widespread vaccinations. The carrot-and-stick approach has its uses but may backfire when people feel they are being forced into it (whether they in fact are or not). Nobody likes to be told what to do, and that’s especially true for people with an underlying distrust of authority, the government, and Big Pharma.
Another effective approach is to recognize the various demographics of vaccine hesitancy and identify the specific ones. For example, polls show that Republicans and Trump supporters are less likely to be vaccinated than others. By pointing out to them that 1) the vaccines were developed during the Trump administration; 2) Trump personally vouched for their safety and efficacy; and 3) Trump himself received a COVID-19 vaccine, that will lay bare some obvious contradictions and perhaps induce some cognitive dissonance. They may still refuse the vaccine, of course, but they will likely be forced (in their own minds and on social media as well) to recognize the disparity between their professed support for Trump and rejection of “his” vaccines.
The Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), a nonprofit NGO, recently released a report titled The Disinformation Dozen: Why Platforms Must Act on Twelve Leading Online Anti-Vaxxers. As the report notes:
The Disinformation Dozen are twelve anti-vaxxers who play leading roles in spreading digital misinformation about Covid vaccines. They were selected because they have large numbers of followers, produce high volumes of anti-vaccine content or have seen rapid growth of their social media accounts in the last two months.
In previous articles for the CFI Coronavirus Resource Center, I have written in some depth about at least two of the “Disinformation Dozen,” Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Kelly Brogan. The others are Joseph Mercola, Ty and Charlene Bollinger, Sherri Tenpenny, Rizza Islam, Rashid Buttar, Erin Elizabeth, Sayer Ji, Christiane Northrup, Ben Tapper, and Kevin Jenkins.
The CCDH analysis found that about three-quarters (up to 73 percent) of the anti-vaccine content posted to Facebook originates with members of the Disinformation Dozen, and they were responsible for 65 percent of the anti-vaccination material on Facebook and Twitter between February 1 and March 16, 2021. The report urges that social media companies take action:
Social media companies must now follow their repeated promises with concrete action. Updated policies and statements hold little value unless they are strongly and consistently enforced. With the vast majority of harmful content being spread by a select number of accounts, removing those few most dangerous individuals and groups can significantly reduce the amount of disinformation being spread across platforms. The public cannot make informed decisions about their health when they are constantly inundated by disinformation and false content. By removing the source of disinformation, social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter can enable individuals to make a truly informed choice about vaccines.
Polls reveal that there’s little difference in levels of vaccine hesitancy between Blacks and Whites. A recent PBS Newshour/Marist Poll found that “73% of Black people and 70% of White people said that they either planned to get a coronavirus vaccine or had done so already; 25% of Black respondents and 28% of white respondents said they did not plan to get a shot.”
Addressing concerns about vaccine hesitancy among African Americans in a New York Times opinion piece, pediatrician and public health advocate Dr. Rhea Boyd noted that despite the large impact on Black populations and low vaccination rates,
Many are quick to blame “vaccine hesitancy” as the reason, putting the onus on Black Americans to develop better attitudes around vaccination. But this hyper-focus on hesitancy implicitly blames Black communities for their undervaccination, and it obscures opportunities to address the primary barrier to Covid-19 vaccination: access. A closer look at the data reveals that when Black people are given the opportunity, they do get vaccinated.
I explored the intersection of racism and COVID-19 vaccination (or, more accurately, anti-vaccination) agendas in a previous article, “Where Racism, Anti-Vaccination, and COVID-19 Conspiracy Meet.” While it’s true that demonstrable historical mistreatment of minorities plays a role in distrust of medical authorities, Dr. Boyd notes:
Many Black Americans need not resurrect the ghosts of the Tuskegee experiment to recall a moment in which they’ve endured medical mistreatment. As KQED recently reported, researchers say Tuskegee rarely comes up when Black people share concerns about Covid-19 vaccines. Rather, issues like racism in health care and safety concerns are cited much more often.
Thus—at least in the case of COVID-19 vaccines—while latent distrust of doctors is a factor in the African American community, it should not be seen as the main driver of vaccine hesitancy. Public health interventions are best crafted by listening to the affected populations instead of making assumptions about them or speaking on their behalf—and that’s especially true for underrepresented minorities.
There are other media approaches that might help make a difference. From a public relations and messaging standpoint, one suggestion is that news and social media move away from illustrating COVID-19 vaccinations with images or video of people getting injections—not because it’s misleading or irrelevant but instead because it’s unnecessary and may unintentionally deter people. Most people don’t enjoy getting injections of any kind, and health or strong immunity would be a better image to pair with encouragement about getting vaccinated.
We are not out of the covid pandemic yet, and each person who refuses to get vaccinated, for whatever reason, puts us one step further away from ending this outbreak. Until we have reached herd immunity, the best advice is to get vaccinated and continue wearing masks and social distancing. Yeah, it sucks—but you know what sucks even more? Infecting others and dying from COVID-19—or surviving it with long-term health effects.
During the recent trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd, an interesting—and easily overlooked—aspect related to psychology and critical thinking arose.
As MSN reported, “Derek Chauvin defense attorney Eric Nelson on Wednesday suggested in court that George Floyd could be heard saying he ‘ate too many drugs’ in audio recorded during his arrest last year. Nelson made the claim while he was questioning Los Angeles Police Department Sgt. Jody Stiger, a use-of-force expert brought in by prosecution, during cross-examination. ‘I’d like you to see if you could tell me what Mr. Floyd says in this instance,’ Nelson said before playing a clip from body camera footage captured of Chauvin restraining Floyd during the May 2020 arrest that preceded his death. It is difficult to discern what is said in the clip. ‘Did you hear what he said?’ Nelson then asked Stiger. ‘No, I couldn’t make it out,’ Stiger responded. ‘Does it sound like he says, I ate too many drugs,’ Nelson asked before again playing the footage. ‘Listen again.’”
What did Floyd really say? It’s likely we will never know. But Nelson’s transparent efforts to prime the jury into hearing that phrase may have harmed the prosecution. That’s because of what in psychology is called an anchoring effect: we tend to more easily remember, and accept, the first explanation or information we hear. If there are two or more competing explanations for something, we tend to “lock on” to the first one and disregard others. That doesn’t mean that people can’t and don’t change their minds or update their information, of course—just that in general it’s easier to lodge the first idea in someone’s head than the second or third.
In the Chauvin trial, the damage was somewhat mitigated by other witnesses offering different—and in fact contradictory—interpretations of whatever Floyd said, including “I ain’t do no drugs.” The jury, hopefully recognizing that interpretation is highly subjective and easily manipulated, will be careful not to afford that issue too much weight in their deliberations. Whatever ambiguous comment George Floyd said—in his increasingly oxygen-deprived state under former officer Derek Chauvin’s weight and knee—is less relevant than the sea of other clear evidence about the case.
The question of interpretation of ambiguous stimuli is a core concern in many skeptical investigations, from EVP (alleged “ghost voices”) to UFOs (“What’s that odd light in the sky?”) to Bigfoot and ghost sightings and photos (“What’s that weird thing in the distance?”). I can’t count the number of times I’ve had someone present me with a photo, audio, or video recording and express exasperation and incredulity that I was not seeing what was plainly obvious to them.
I diplomatically explained that while their favored interpretation was possible, it was not the only—nor even the most likely—explanation. I try to explain the phenomenon of pareidolia, how people see faces in clouds and meaningful messages in ambiguous sounds. I discuss this at length in my books Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries and Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits, but it’s often useful to see how these principles apply in real-world situations where the consequences of misinterpretation (or over-interpretation) can be dire.
Ambiguous Audio in George Zimmerman Trial
There are many real-life cases in which the meaning and significance of words have been subjected to intense legal and forensic debate. In everyday life meanings in speech are not always clear. In February of 2012 a Florida neighborhood watchman named George Zimmerman shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin. During the trial Zimmerman claimed that Martin had attacked him and that he had shot the young man in self-defense; many, however, believed that the shooting was racially motivated. Those calling for civil rights and homicide charges against Zimmerman referred to a 911 recording of a call in which he muttered “these fucking coons.” Or did he?
Other news media and audio forensic experts heard a very different phrase: “these fucking punks.” Did Zimmerman say “punks” or “coons”? The phonetic sounds are quite different (“pǝNGks” versus “kōons”), and most people would have little difficulty telling the words apart. Different experts, however, came to different conclusions. The distinction is very important: one is a general derogatory label that could refer to anyone of any race, and the other is a racial slur referring specifically to black people. How that one word was interpreted could have been key in deciding Zimmerman’s future if presented as evidence to a jury or prosecuted under hate crime laws.
After several weeks and more careful audio analysis, the prosecution concluded that Zimmerman had not in fact uttered the racial epithet; he had in fact said “punks,” just as his defense attorneys had claimed. In explaining why different well-qualified experts had come to contradictory interpretations, Florida state attorney Harry Shorstein “said [prosecutor Angela Corey’s] team probably relied on audio enhancing from the FBI or the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Shorstein called such enhancing ‘an indefinite science.’”
Audio analysis is indeed an “indefinite science”—even for experts and professionals; unlike DNA testing, audio analysis has a large measure of subjective interpretation. The more important point is this: If experienced audio experts with the police department and the FBI could not agree on what Zimmerman said in a reasonably clear audio recording (far greater than most EVP), there is little reason to put much faith in the accuracy or validity of interpretations by amateur ghost hunters with no professional training or experience.
Cursing Elmos and Reverse Speech
We do not, of course, routinely misunderstand one another in everyday conversation but it happens more frequently than most people notice. Lecturer (and former educational programs consultant for the James Randi Educational Foundation) Barbara Drescher wrote an insightful piece on this for her site ICSBSEverywhere, using the then-recent controversy over a seemingly foul-mouthed Tickle Me Elmo as an example:
I just caught a report on our local Fox News station about a couple that appeared on Good Morning New York, complaining about Elmo’s potty mouth…Notice that the segment opens with a statement of FACT — the toy has a dirty message — rather than a question about whether this might be true. This is a perfect example of how human perception is influenced by knowledge. Perception driven by expectation and belief is called “top-down” processing, whereas perception that starts with information from the senses is considered “bottom-up.” Most of our daily perception is top-down in nature.
In many of my classes, I demonstrate this by playing music clips backwards. Some claim that these clips have “hidden messages.” Everyone from the Beatles to Queen to Eminem to Britney Spears has been accused of it. An entire website is devoted to the study of what David John Oates calls the greatest discovery of all time: Reverse Speech. He even sells training courses and other products (surprise, surprise). Oates claims that our unconscious is revealing itself through our speech and that these messages can be heard if we listen to recordings of this speech backwards. He spends countless hours listening to audio recordings of politicians, celebrities, and music — listening for anything that sounds like English and documenting it. Sometimes the audio must be slowed down before one can perceive the message.
It’s always important not to over-interpret evidence, of any kind. We all bring our personal experiences, expectations, and assumptions to bear on everything we experience and remember. It’s not inherently good nor bad—it’s just how the human brain works. But the first step to minimizing the problem is recognizing the psychological and social contexts, the prisms through which we interpret and understand the world. And the best way to do that, of course, is through skepticism and critical thinking.
New episode of Squaring the Strange is out! This week I look into a TikTok rumor of abductions at Target, and then we tackle the Beast! That is, the Mark of the Beast and the Number of the Beast. We talk of pimples and witch-prickers, the 1970s rise of 666 as a taboo number, and how many mundane things have been cast in the shadow of the Antichrist! Check it out HERE… IF YOU DARE!
I’ve been asked a few times if I’ve ever appeared on “Coast To Coast AM,” and always said no. So I was surprised to discover I had, back in 2018. I’d totally forgotten about it. I never talked to Art Bell but if I had I’d have reminded him about his role in the Heaven’s Gate suicide tragedy (and of course never been invited back, but oh well).