Jan 262017
 

August 8, 2014: The Shoppes at Rose Hall, Montego Bay, Jamaica

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I was done. I’d arrived at the gated tourist mini-mall about half an hour earlier, and couldn’t take any more of the servile shopkeepers shilling shelf after shelf of schlocky tchotchke of unrivalled tackiness. I didn’t need a colorful coffee mug featuring a baked (and well-endowed) rasta firing up a spliff, nor a shot glass with a slightly off-kilter outline of Jamaica, nor a Bob Marley-scented candle (don’t ask). I considered getting a bag of criminally overpriced Blue Mountain coffee, but thought the better of it when I read the fine print saying that the contents were “no less than 30% Blue Mountain coffee beans,” which by my admittedly shaky math left a lot of percentage for non-Blue Mountain beans. It was the off-season, and only a handful of sunscreen-scented tourists ran the gauntlet.

Awaiting a return shuttle back to my hotel, with the low tropical roar of the Caribbean to one side and the famous Rose Hall plantation house looming on the hill facing us, I noticed that the young woman at the boxed-in greeting/information desk was reading a romance novel.

The type didn’t surprise me—more romance novels are sold each year than all other genres combined—but I noticed that it was an American Harlequin-branded novel. I wondered if this young black Jamaican woman was relating to the blonde, Caucasian characters in the book and on the cover. After all, it’s often said that people want to see representations of themselves—their bodies and their culture—in their entertainment, spawning perennial complaints about the lack of minorities in TV shows and films. Curious, I approached the desk. She looked up, prepared to offer a canned answer about what shops were where, when the shuttles ran, or where the nearest restroom was.

Instead I pointed to the book tented before her on the desk and asked, “Do you prefer American romance novels to Jamaican ones?” She smiled and said yes. I asked if Jamaican ones were available and she said yes, but that they aren’t widely read. (The previous day I’d been in two bookstores in the nearby city, Montego Bay, looking for books on local folklore and seen a handful of locally-published books with sensuous dark-skinned covers—surrounded by rows of Fifty Shades of Grey.) She said that it wasn’t that Jamaicans preferred non-Jamaican characters or settings, nor that North American romance writers were better than locals. Instead, she said, Jamaican books are more expensive than others because they are printed elsewhere and shipped here, thus subject to import taxes and shipping. (Harlequin novels are, too, of course: except for sugar and coffee most things are imported to the island. But they’re mass-produced cheaply, and economies of scale drive up the cost of Jamaican books.)

Also, she said with a shrug, “Jamaicans don’t read.”

You read,” I noted with a smile.

“Yes, but I was forced to,” she replied. “As a girl I’d get a whoopin’ if I didn’t read. My mom had encyclopedias and she would make me read them to her, to learn.” I leaned forward on the wooden ledge, intrigued; I assumed her mother was a schoolteacher. “Was your mom a big reader?” I asked. She shook her head: “No, not at all. She didn’t finish high school. But she wanted me and the other children to learn to read, it was important.”

It was clear that the whoopin’ she referred to was not metaphorical; having spoken to a handful of Jamaicans I got the distinct impression that corporal punishment was widely practiced. She’d actually get smacked for not reading, not learning. “I love reading now,” she hastened to add. “I’m glad she made me read, I love to read the Twilight books, Harry Potter, all those.”

I was in Montego Bay for a television shoot; a producer from a show called The Dead Files (which airs on The Travel Channel) brought me out to do an on-camera interview about an investigation I’d conducted into Rose Hall, a former slave plantation said to be haunted by the ghost of Annie Palmer—the White Witch of Rose Hall. It’s one of the best-known mysteries in the Caribbean, a sordid tale of slavery, sexual perversion, voodoo magic, multiple murdered husbands, and bloody revenge. I’d done historical and on-site research solving the mystery; it can be found in Chapter 12 of my 2010 book Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries.

Back at my hotel after the shoot I’d spent the previous night reading a memoir titled Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs, who was born a slave in 1813 North Carolina and eventually escaped to freedom in 1842. It’s an unusual first-hand account of slavery during that time—rare because most slaves were illiterate; in fact in 1830 the North Carolina General Assembly passed a law making it illegal for anyone to teach a slave to read or write, and the penalty was severe: “If a white man or woman, be fined not less than one hundred dollars, nor more than two hundred dollars, or imprisoned; and if a free person of color, shall be fined, imprisoned, or whipped, at the discretion of the court, not exceeding thirty-nine lashes, nor less than twenty lashes.” As for slaves, “if any slave shall hereafter teach, or attempt to teach, any other slave to read or write, the use of figures [numbers] excepted, he or she may be carried before any justice of the peace, and on conviction thereof, shall be sentenced to receive thirty-nine lashes on his or her bare back.” Similar prohibitions enforcing slave illiteracy were found elsewhere at the time.

This practice, along with the history of slavery intimately associated with the country, was fresh in my mind as I heard the young woman tell her story. Most blacks in Jamaica are the descendants of African slaves brought to the island beginning in the 1500s by Portuguese to work on sugar plantations. I didn’t ask, but it’s very likely that her relatives—perhaps as recently as her great-grandfather—were slaves.

An irony dawned on me. The discipline meted out by a parent, of course, is very different from the discipline meted out by a slave owner. However there are parallels, and the ironic contrast of a mother giving her child a beating for not reading and improving herself was impressed upon me, especially coming from a community who in earlier days may have at one time been beaten for learning to read and write. Many American children only grudgingly learn to read and write, and after graduating high school never read for pleasure or work. They’re not illiterate; they can read food labels, government forms, bills, and day-to-day information. But beyond that, they pretty much don’t read—just as she said most Jamaicans don’t read. A generalization, to be sure, but one with more than a grain of truth to it.

I saw this first-hand years ago when I worked with the Literacy Volunteers of America teaching adults and non-native speakers to read; in most cases the clients grew up in households where reading was neither valued nor encouraged. I was fortunate to grow up in a literate home where newspapers, books, and magazines could be found, but many people do not have that benefit. I felt a strange literacy-based kinship with this young Jamaican woman and her mother. I pictured her as a young girl in their small house in the island’s rural mountains reading encyclopedias (which are written at a far higher reading level than anything you’ll find in most classrooms) aloud to her mother and siblings, tripping over the polysyllabic words—and in the priceless process learning about everything from antelopes and architecture to zoology and zymurgy. She grew up to be a bright, personable, intelligent, and well-spoken young woman.

As a reader, writer, and media literacy advocate I of course value literacy, and we were both grateful that her mother did as well—even if it took the threat of a whoopin’ to enforce it. I asked her what she wanted to do in the future, and she said she was planning to get a degree in business administration, a natural and lucrative career for a booming tourist island. I heard my hotel shuttle arriving behind me, but before I left I told her I was sure she was going to be an important and successful professional some day. She smiled confidently, sat upright in her chair, and turned back to her romance novel.

 

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

Jan 102017
 

A crowdfunding project has helped launch a new magazine, Kazoo, to empower girls and (in part) help steer them toward STEM careers. Kazoo focuses on girls and women, according to its website: “All of our stories are either developed or inspired by top female artists, explorers, scientists, chefs, athletes, activists, writers and others. Regular features include: science experiments; comics; art projects; recipes; interviews with inspiring women from Olympic athletes to astronauts; and fun activities, like secret codes, jokes, mazes, search-and-finds and more…. It will feature some of the most powerful and inspirational women in their fields, thus giving girls a more well-rounded sense of the world and the possibilities within it.”kazoo

Touted as “a magazine for girls who aren’t afraid to make some noise,” the website notes, Kazoo isn’t just for girls: boys would “probably love it, too. After all, there’s no such thing as say, girls’ science and boys’ science, or girls’ art and boys’ art. Science is science and art is art, of course. But most media that cover similar topics use boys as the default target audience, while girls are left with the burden of just ‘putting themselves in the story.’”

 

Founder Erin Bried explains that she and her five-year-old daughter were looking for a magazine they could enjoy together but were dissatisfied with what was available. Bried drew upon nearly twenty years of experience in high profile magazine including Self and Glamour, and in April 2016 launched a Kickstarter campaign “with hopes that other people would also be as interested in a magazine that doesn’t tell girls how to look or act, but instead inspires them to be strong, smart, fierce and, above all, true to themselves. Within 30 days, Kazoo became the most successful journalism campaign in crowdfunding history.” (Full disclosure: I contributed to Kazoo’s campaign.)

 

The theme of Kazoo’s most recent issue (Winter 2016/2017) is architecture, and features blueprints for making a snow fort and a bridge made of candy; a comic about the Brooklyn Bridge, a city scavenger hunt, ice science experiments, a banana bread recipe, and more. Kazoo, which carries no advertising, is only available in screen-free print form (since its pages contain art projects and puzzles) and costs $50 per year for four issues; subscriptions are available HERE.

 

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

Jan 062017
 

A classic article from the archives, in which I talk about ghost hunting ethics:

The drive from my apartment to the haunted house was about twenty minutes, but I found myself wishing it would take longer. I wanted more time to get a handle on what I was going to say, how I was going to tell the family that their house was not haunted by a demon or angry ghost. In theory, it should have been a straightforward conversation, not unlike telling a nervous child, “There’s nothing under the bed, now go to sleep.” It should have been a comforting and satisfying task for a prominent, experienced skeptical investigator. In practice, however, there were real people with real fears and real feelings, people who had been misled and lied to. And I’d probably have to lie to them again—or at least not tell them the whole truth.

You can read the rest HERE. 

 

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

Nov 302016
 

My buddy Ian Harris has a new blog about chemtrails:

I was driving on the freeway in Los Angeles, and the car in front of me had a bumper sticker on it that said “Chemtrails Kill.” Now, I love to laugh at the chemtrail people anyway, but this one had me almost pulling over to catch a breath, because the vehicle was not actually a car but a giant, Suburban-type SUV. The irony of this one is just way too thick to ignore. You are driving around in an eighteen-passenger, four-gallon-to-the-mile, urban assault vehicle on a road with a million other cars, worried about condensation happening at thirty-five thousand feet! Watch out: water vapor at one part per zillion is falling all around us! And let’s not pretend that “Chemtrails” are anything but that—water vapor accurately known as contrails. Contrails have existed since the invention of the jet engine. We know definitively what causes them. There is less secret involved here than why your windshield has that “mysterious” water on it every morning. We know more about the formation of contrails than we do about where that one sock goes when we do the laundry. The science behind contrails is more understood than the science behind what makes those One Direction kids so damn adorable.

 

You can read the rest HERE. 

 

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

Nov 282016
 

An excerpt from my upcoming book on ghost hunting:

It’s important to realize that apparently odd, peculiar, or strange things happen in our everyday lives—and usually pass unnoticed. The cat or dog acts strangely for no apparent reason; we discover we had more (or less) money in our pocket or purse than we remembered; we happen to look at a digital clock at 12:34, or 11:11; on a crosstown drive we seem to catch all green lights—or all red ones; keys get misplaced at an especially bad time; an old friend calls out of the blue not long after you thought about him or her; and so on. 

When afraid, alarmed, or psychologically primed to the idea that something unusual and unknown is going on, our sensitivity to anything odd or out of the ordinary goes up, and things that we would otherwise ignore (or perhaps not even notice) can take on added significance. Common occurrences such as flickering lights, dead batteries, unexplained but fleeting unease, computer crashes, blurry sections in photographs, video glitches, and so on can be, and have been, claimed as possible evidence for ghosts. Not only does this unconscious psychological bias lead us to pay attention to such mundane mysteries, but it also imbues them with added significance, making them much easier to remember. A flashlight that happens to go out during a power failure will be soon forgotten, but a flashlight that happens to go out in a dramatic moment when a ghost hunter is asking for a sign from an invisible spirit will be remembered for a lifetime…

 

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

Nov 252016
 

In case you missed my recent appearance on the “Big Picture Science” show talking about aliens and UFOs, it’s HERE!

 

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

Nov 232016
 

In my latest blog I and three guests examine the nature of “authenticity,” which played a role in Donald Trump’s election. But what is authenticity, and why do we value it?

The New York Times noted that “Trump… has polled as one of the most authentic candidates in this election, despite statements and behavior that might also be called brazenly inconsistent. In fact, his authenticity problem looks like the opposite of Clinton’s: Nervous Republican politicians have been trying to suggest that what they themselves call his ‘racist’ invective is merely for show. In other words, Trump’s establishment supporters seem to be hoping that his authenticity is the expedient work of a conniving opportunist. The words ‘authentic’ and ‘authenticity’ derive from the Greek ‘authentes,’ a word that can denote ‘one who acts with authority’ or ‘made by one’s own hand’…. For a long time, Americans decided that the most authentic politicians were the most likable ones. This method of appraisal wasn’t entirely frivolous…”

You can read the rest HERE. 

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

Nov 152016
 

Batman’ has vowed to stop the scary clowns! (No, really–kind of.) In my CFI blog I take a closer look at what drives copycats.

The rash of scary clown reports that have plagued America over the past two months have recently spread to other continents including Australia and Europe. It’s gotten so bad that schools in the United States and Canada have been put on lockdown, and Ronald McDonald has (temporarily) been put on ice. According to Yahoo News, “Seems the scary clown craze is not only in America. There is an issue with people dressing up and frightening people in England, but they pissed off the wrong person: Batman. Someone in Cumbria, located in North West England, has been chasing off those dressed as clowns in the hopes of making children feel safe, according to The Telegraph.”

As I discuss in my new book Bad Clowns, This is not the first time that a costumed real-life superhero, of sorts, has come to the rescue of people in clown peril… You can read the rest HERE. 

 

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

 

Nov 122016
 

I was recently on the Project: Archivist show, it’s always great to talk to those guys.

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Here’s what they said about it:

“Ben Radford returns this week to talk about his new book “Bad Clowns” those malicious misfits of the midway who terrorize, haunt, and threaten us. We talk about Dip Clowns, Clown Porn, Native American Clowns, Crotchy the masturbating clown and the great clown panic of 2016.” You can listen HERE! 

 

 

Oct 302016
 

Halloween is just around the corner, and amid the make-believe witches, ghouls, and goblins, there are supposedly real-life villains who hope to harm on children October 31. News reports and scary stories on social media leave many parents concerned about protecting children from Halloween threats.

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But are they real or myth? Here are five scary myths and legends about the spookiest holiday

1) Halloween is Satanic

While many people see Halloween as scary and harmless fun some people, including many fundamentalist Christians, believe that there is sinister side to the holiday. They believe that underneath the fantasy costumes and candy-dispensing traditions there lies an unseen spiritual struggle for the souls of the innocent.

Christian evangelist Phil Phillips and Joan Hake Robie, in their book “Halloween and Satanism,” explain that the seemingly harmless costumes (such as witches, zombies and vampires) put children’s spiritual lives at risk by interesting them in supernatural occult phenomena–and, ultimately, on the road to Satanic practices. Of course it’s not just Halloween that these groups are concerned about–they have in the past protested against role-playing games, heavy-metal music, and even Harry Potter books.

Historically, however, there is little or no actual connection between Satanism and Halloween; for one thing the early pagan traditions that many scholars believe became part of what we now call Halloween had no concept of Devil. The idea of a Christian Satan developed much later, and therefore Halloween could not have been rooted in Satanism.

2) Beware Tainted Halloween Candy

The most familiar Halloween scares involve contaminated candy, and every year, police and medical centers across the country X-ray candy collected by trick-or-treaters to check for razors, needles, or contaminants that might have been placed there by strangers intending to hurt or kill children. Scary news reports and warnings on social media claimed that dangerous candy had been found, raising fears among parents and children. Many medical centers across the country,including in Harrisburg, Penn., are offering free X-raying of candy this Halloween.

This threat is essentially an urban legend. There have been only two confirmed cases of children being killed by poisoned Halloween candy, and in both cases the children were killed not in a random act by strangers but intentional murder by one of their parents. The best-known, “original” case was that of Texan Ronald Clark O’Bryan, who killed his son by lacing his Pixie Stix with cyanide in 1974. In essence he used this myth to try to cover his crime.

Yet the fear continues. There have been a few instances of candy tampering over the years-and in most cases the “victim” turned out to be the culprit, children doing it as a prank or to draw attention. Last year there were a few news reports about suspected tainted candy, and police determined that the incidents were hoaxes. In Philadelphia an 11-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy in who reported finding needles in their trick-or-treat candy admitted they made up the story for attention, and a 37-year-old father claimed to have found tainted candy in his kids’ loot; he later admitted it was a hoax and claimed that he put the needles in the candy to teach his kids a lesson about safety.

Fortunately, parents can rest easy: Despite the ubiquitous warnings on social media, there have been no confirmed reports of anyone actually being injured or harmed by contaminated Halloween candy from strangers.

3) Beware Halloween Terrorists

After the September 11, 2001, attacks, rumors circulated that mysterious Middle Eastern men were buying up huge quantities of candies just before Halloween. Many people were concerned that this might be part of a terrorist plot to attack America’s children, and the FBI looked into the case.Prompted by the public concern over potential terrorism, the FBI acknowledged that it was investigating the cash purchase of ‘large quantities’ of candy from Costco stores in New Jersey. A week before Halloween, on October 22, the FBI cleared up the rumors. It was one man, not two, who had bought $15,000 worth of candy, not $35,000. The man’s nationality was not revealed, so he may or may not have been Arab or dark-skinned or even had an ethnic name. As it turned out the man was a wholesaler who planned to resell the candy, and the purchase was a routine transaction that had nothing to do with terrorism.

4) Beware Sex Offenders on Halloween

Though the fears over poisoned candy (whether by malicious neighbors or foreign terrorists) never materialized, the reputed Halloween evil took a new form in the 1990s: sex offenders. This scare, even more than the candy panics, was fueled by alarmist news reports and police warnings. In many states, convicted sex offenders were required not to answer the door if trick-or-treaters came by, or to report to jail overnight. In many states including Texas and Arkansas offenders were required to report to courthouses on Halloween evening for a mandatory counseling session.

The theory behind such laws is that Halloween provides a special 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. Yet there is no reason to think that sex offenders pose any more of a threat to children on Halloween than at any other time. In fact, there has not been a single case of any child being molested by a convicted sex offender while trick-or-treating.

A 2009 study confirmed 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: “There does not appear to be a need for alarm concerning sexual abuse on these particular days. Halloween appears to be just another autumn day where rates of sex crimes against children are concerned.”

5) Beware Scary Clowns

In the wake of the recent scary clown panics across the country, several national stores including Target have removed scary clown masks from their shelves, and both kids and parents are asking children to both beware of people in clown costumes and to not wear scary clown masks. Several counties have banned scary clown costumes and masks this Halloween. As one writer noted, “A Kemper County, Mississippi’s Board of Supervisors voted recently to make it unlawful to wear a clown costume in public. The ban covers all ages and includes costumes, masks or makeup. The ban –which will expire the day after Halloween –comes at the request of the county sheriff… It comes after a series of reports from around the country and Alabama that spooky-looking clowns were threatening children and schools. Some of those reports were later debunked and a few led to arrests with concerns over the creepy clown phenomenon growing as Halloween approaches.”

Clown masks have also been banned from some New Jersey schools; as “USA Today” reported, “The West Milford Police Department has said there is no specific threat against the community. Still, there have been spotty and unsubstantiated reports on social media about people in scary clown masks lurking around township school yards in recent weeks.”

Fortunately so far there are no confirmed reports of children being seriously injured, abducted, or killed by anyone dressed in scary clown masks over the past few months. Most of the reports are hoaxes and copycats, usually by teenagers who have fun scaring people or seeing themselves on social media.

Halloween is scary enough on its own, between overpriced candy and sugar-sated kids.  The real threats to children don’t involve tampered candy, Satanists, scary clowns, terrorists, or sex offenders; instead they include being hit by a car in the dark, or wearing a flammable costume, or injuring themselves while walking on curbs because they can’t see out of their masks. Most kids are very safe at Halloween, and the average child is far more likely to die of a heart attack or be hit by lightning than be harmed in some Halloween-related menace.

 

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

Oct 292016
 

Did you listen to my interview with Vito D’Amico on the Wrecking Crew Comedy podcast, Halloween edition? No? Well here’s your chance! We talk about TV ghost hunters, pseudoscience, a man who asked me to remove a ghost from his neck, and much more. Check it out HERE! 

 

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

Oct 222016
 

Donald Trump’s recent comments about the prospect of a rigged election and widespread voter fraud should he lose have taken his conspiracy theories to a new level.

Political conspiracies are nothing new, and date back millennia–the Roman Empire was rife with intrigue and plots--but Trump’s endorsement of conspiracies is unprecedented in American politics. No modern politician has so successfully and routinely employed conspiracy theories as Trump.

Trump has implicitly or explicitly endorsed several prominent conspiracy theories, including about the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. When asked about it during a media interview Trump responded, “I’m hearing it’s a big topic… They say they found a pillow on his face, which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow.” (In fact Scalia died of natural causes, a pillow was not found over his face, and his family was aware he’d been ill for some time.)

Trump has also endorsed several explicitly anti-science conspiracy theories including that childhood vaccines cause autism, and that global warming is a hoax (tweeting on Nov. 6, 2012 that “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive”). Trump’s best known conspiracy theory, however, involves questions about President Obama’s birthplace, which was of course a clear challenge to his legitimacy as president under the Constitution.

But recently Trump took a new tack. Vanity Fair noted last week that “Donald Trump is once again down in the polls, and like clockwork, the Republican nominee has resumed warning his supporters that ‘Crooked Hillary’ and her allies will steal the election. His latest theory as to how the vast left-wing conspiracy will cheat him out of the White House? Undocumented immigrants, Trump says, are receiving fast-tracked U.S. citizenship so they can vote for Hillary Clinton in November.”

Trump has trafficked in many conspiracy theories for years, but this is one is different. Here’s why.

By employing this specific type of conspiracy theory Trump sets up a no-lose situation for himself (and those who endorse him). Trump has called into question the legitimacy of the very foundation of a representative democracy: voting.

A conspiracy about the prospect of voter fraud in case of Trump’s loss resonates personally and emotionally with ordinary voters in a way that other conspiracies will not: Not everyone cares whether or not Obama was born in the United States, and even fewer likely care about the exact circumstances of Justice Scalia’s death. But voting is a different matter: it is the people’s voice and right, and everyone wants their voice heard. As US District Judge Mark Walker ruled recently, “No right is more precious than having a voice in our elections.”

Voter fraud is not unheard of in elections around the world, of course, and while some voter fraud is possible, rigging an entire American election would be virtually impossible as a practical matter. There are simply too many independent machines to alter all of them, and in any event even if Trump’s claim was true, there are not enough recently-minted citizen migrants to significantly alter voting patterns across the country.

The voter fraud conspiracy is especially insidious because it cannot be conclusively disproven. Any investigations that find no truth to the allegations can simply and easily be dismissed as whitewashes and cover-ups. The nature of conspiracy theory is such that any evidence that contradicts or undermines the theory is assumed to itself be part of that that cover up. In this way conspiracy theories are self-perpetuating and what in science is called non-falsifiable; that is, they cannot be proven wrong.

It’s not clear whether Trump himself genuinely believes that conspiracy–after all, if he is certain that the system is fatally rigged against him, why bother to continue?–or if it’s just one of his trademark bluffs and blusters. If Trump loses the election in November, there will be some people-perhaps thousands, perhaps millions-who harbor some doubt about the legitimacy of the outcome. And that can indeed undermine confidence in the country.

Oct 202016
 

Little-known fact: I’m a contributor to ep5, a non-profit organization of volunteers who provide educational content to public radio. I’ve recorded about a dozen “90-Second Science” pieces on skeptical subjects including chemtrails and the chupacabra…

 

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Oct 182016
 

I’m quoted in a new article in The Guardian by Jason Wilson:

“It started in Green Bay, Wisconsin. On 1 August, witnesses reported a clown walking around with black balloons. At the end of that month, in Greenville, South Carolina, a clown tried to lure some kids into the woods. Four days later, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the same thing happened. On 6 September, local news in Greensboro, just up the road, reported that “a person wearing a scary clown mask, a red curly wig, a yellow dotted shirt, blue clown pants, and clown shoes” was chased off by a local with a machete….”

You can read the rest HERE. 

 

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Oct 132016
 

I was recently interviewed by a Spanish journalist about the clown scares sweeping the country; here’s an excerpt:

Q: What is your opinion on the recent sightings of terrifying clowns in the United States and other countries? 

A: The scary clown panic has spread across the country to dozens of states and even internationally, fueled by hoaxes, copycats, pranksters, rumors, and social media. The creepy clown panic became so serious that it was addressed in an October 4 White House briefing!

Q: Why is this phenomenon occurring right now?

A: There are several reasons why this scare clown panic is happening now. The most important is probably the effect of social media. People see these scary/funny clown photos on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. and get inspired to dress as a clown and participate in the scares. Plus, of course, the news media is reporting these stories a lot.
Q: What could be the motivation of those people who dress as clowns to scare people?

A: Most of them are doing it for fun and attention, they want to make the news—but do it safely and anonymously, without facing any consequences. Even if the police come, there is very little they can do since dressing as a clown is not illegal. There are a handful of reports of minor injuries, but nothing serious, no abductions or murders by these hoaxers. After all, if you really want to assault or injure somebody, you don’t need to dress as a clown to do it!
Q: According to your book Bad Clowns, why is the clown in all societies and cultures?

A: The clown character, historically and culturally, has always been an ambiguous person—neither good nor bad, but sometimes either or both. The clown is a trickster figure, as is the Devil, of course, so there has always been an element of the unexpected, the scary or threatening in the clown. But the type of clown most people are familiar with these days is of course the good, happy clown. So these scary clowns subvert that idea, and that’s one reason they are so interesting and compelling.
Q: According to your book, why are many people afraid of clowns?

A: There are several reasons why people are scared of clowns, but one is that clowns are masked, and people are uneasy around masked strangers—for obvious reasons! Plus, the makeup is often garish and exaggerated, which looks okay from a distance (for example from the seats in a circus), but looks scary close up.

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Sep 182016
 

Bad Clowns, by Benjamin Radford, blends humor, investigation, and scholarship to reveal what is behind the clown’s dark smile. This book describes the history of bad clowns, why clowns go bad, and why many people fear them. Going beyond familiar clowns such as the Joker, Krusty, John Wayne Gacy, and Stephen King’s Pennywise, it also features bizarre, lesser-known stories of weird clown antics including Bozo obscenity, Ronald McDonald haters, killer clowns, phantom-clown abductors, evil-clown panics, sex clowns, carnival clowns, troll clowns, and much more.

 

For my history of evil clowns, see my Utne piece HERE. 

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

Sep 102016
 

I got a Google Scholar alert telling me that my work has been cited in a research paper titled “Human Error: Crucial Failure in Nuclear Accidents.” As an undergraduate in UNM’s General Honors program, I wrote an award-winning essay analyzing the role of human error in the space shuttle Challenger accident and the Chernobyl nuclear accident (both in 1986). In sum, though both were widely considered technological failures, they were actually caused by human error and failure to follow safety procedures.

 

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

Sep 082016
 

I was a guest last month at New Mexico’s premiere science fiction and fantasy convention, Bubonicon. I gave a talk titled Contacting the Dead: Séances From the Victorian Era To Modern Times, described below

Though TV shows like Ghost Hunters have raised the profile of ghost hunting, there’s nothing new about seeking out spirits of the dead. For millennia people have tried to communicate with the deceased, using everything from chalkboards to Ouija boards to EVP (electronic voice phenomena). Focusing on the 1800s through today—including early mediums, the Spiritualist movement, and files from England’s Society for Psychical Research—writer and investigator Ben Radford discusses the theories and techniques behind attempts to speak to the dead. Fans of SF, fantasy, horror, and occult history will enjoy this informative and entertaining historical look at a century and a half of attempts to contact the afterlife.

Meeting of the Bens

Meeting of the Bens

At the autographing session I was seated next to 6-time Hugo Award winning sci-fi writer Ben Bova. We chatted for about 15 minutes; he was engaging and delightful, recounting stories of working with his friends Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and other greats of the golden age of sci-fi. Fans brought piles of his books and old magazines for him to autograph. I joked with him that having to sign so much was a penalty for being prolific and said I’d only written nine books (compared to his hundreds of credits) and he encouragingly replied, “That’s nine more than most people.”

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

Sep 062016
 

A few thoughts on the recent furor over a pro football player refusing to stand for the National Anthem. I couldn’t care less what Colin Kaepernick does and don’t question his right to protest as he sees fit. But I do find it bizarre that he believes that standing for the anthem somehow implies that he personally and necessarily shows pride in the flag, the country, or its character, for the same reason that I don’t believe that when people recite the Pledge of Allegiance they truly think or believe that by doing so, they are offering their “allegiance” to a flag or the country for which it stands. Children and adults who recite the Pledge don’t—either implicitly or explicitly—personally endorse the statement affirming that America actually provides “liberty and justice for all,” nor do they assert that our nation is indivisible (or, for that matter, that it exists under the Christian god).

Instead, like the National Anthem, it’s a custom largely devoid of significance; it’s not actually an oath of fealty or assertion of support from a citizen to a state. “This country stands for freedom, liberty, justice for all—and it’s not happening for all right now,” Kaepernick said—apparently lamenting that an unachievable, aspirational statement had not come to fruition in the real world. 

I’m fine with his protest, and my issue has nothing to do with disrespecting the country or the flag but instead the strange premise that standing for the anthem implies personally endorsing its content or asserting that the country’s ideals are being met; I’ve never heard that before, and don’t know of any logical basis for that assumption. I’ve also not seen anyone explain this reasoning, but will be curious to see if anyone does.

Aug 182016
 

A new article on Gizmodo about monsters references my chupacabra research: “Other descriptions peg it as looking like a wild dog with a pronounced spinal ridge. Skeptical investigator Benjamin Radford went in-depth into the legend of the chupacabra, and concluded that many sightings were actually dogs or coyotes with mange, which contributes to their strange appearance…” 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.

Aug 122016
 

There’s a YouTube video that’s been around since 2014 about my chupacabra research, though I only recently got around to watching it. It’s a little slow and amateurish, but a decent and concise summary; you can see it HERE. Of me he says, “I think [Ben Radford’s] done a great job and as far as I’m concerned he has solved the chupacabra mystery.”

 

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

Chupacabra illustration by Benjamin Radford

Chupacabra illustration by Benjamin Radford

Aug 112016
 

As you may know, in 2001 I helped solve the mystery of the bizarre 1997 Pokémon seizure incident. I wrote an article that became a cover story in Fortean Times and co-authored a medical journal article about it. I revisit the puzzling case in my new Seeker article:

Only those living under a rock or on a self-imposed news and social media quarantine could fail to have heard about the latest fad sweeping the world: Pokémon Go. The game app uses geolocation features that allow users to view a virtual Pokémon-populated virtual world through their phone’s camera. The goal is to “capture” the digital creatures (“Gotta catch ’em all” is the game’s slogan) and use them to train and battle for virtual territory.

The game has become enormously popular, with millions of people around the world playing the game since its July 6 launch. It’s been credited with getting slothful video game players out for fresh air and exercise—and even sparking romance.

While for most it’s harmless fun, reports have emerged of various pickles that Pokémon players face, and in a recent Seeker piece Aylssa Danigelis listed ten hazards of virtual reality gaming, including trespassing arrests, car crashes, falling or tripping due to inattention, and robberies.

You can read the rest HERE. 

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

Aug 012016
 

This is cool.. I was recently mentioned in a Forbes article on ghost hunting science and pseudoscience:

There’s no shortage of retailers to provide for your spooky-seeking needs. Products marketed as “Deluxe Ghost Hunting Kit” and “Ghost Hunting Spirit Box” can be found on Amazon and Ebay…Benjamin Radford, Deputy Editor the Skeptical Inquirer, said using “ghost hunting” equipment in general might be the field’s fatal flaw, “Ghost hunters go after whatever they think is weird. There’s no way of testing for a weird feeling.” Science… life’s wet blanket.

You can read the whole story HERE. 

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

Jul 302016
 

For those who didn’t see it, I recently wrote a piece about a fascinating 1880s-era scientist/educator/feminist/ghostbuster named Eleanor Sidgwick…

The long-awaited “Ghostbusters” remake is out… While vampire slaying has often been portrayed as a female-dominated profession (at least on television), ghost hunting seems more male-centered, at least as depicted on reality TV shows such as SyFy’s “Ghost Hunters,” now in its eleventh season of not finding ghosts.

The new “Ghostbusters” film has an all-female lead cast, but if you’re looking for a real-life pioneering female ghostbuster, you couldn’t do much better than Eleanor Sidgwick.

You can read the rest of the story HERE. 

 

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

Jul 212016
 

With all the recent discussion of shootings and how the news media have covered it, I thought I’d revisit a blog I wrote in 2014 about how people often misuse (and misunderstand) the phrase “the media.”

As a longtime media and science literacy educator (as well as author of Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us), I regularly see “the media” blamed (and rarely praised) for any number of ills, some justified but many not. The phrase “the media” appears regularly and continually in public discourse-often as the subject of blame or derision: “the media” is said to incite violence, to inflame racial hatred, to manipulate consumers through advertising, and so on. “The media” is said to push an impossible beauty ideal on American women leading to an epidemic of eating disorders; violence in entertainment media such as video games is blamed for real-life violence, and so on. This is nothing new; blaming “the media” is an old tradition-in fact when Jack the Ripper was active in 1880s London, violence in the play “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” was blamed for inspiring the serial murders.

You can read my CFI blog HERE.

Jul 182016
 

I’m mentioned, flatteringly, in a recent “New York Times Magazine” for an investigation and article I wrote. You can read it HERE.

“But when it investigates the paranormal, Fortean Times brings painstaking research and analysis to bear on topics that most sensible observers would dismiss immediately. Consider our mutual friend the Lizard Man. The November cover story traced the South Carolina legend’s roots to a 1988 sighting by a Lee County teenager. This young man claimed that he stopped on his way home from work to change a flat tire when he spotted the seven-­foot-tall creature, which jumped atop his car, curling its long green fingers around the roof. Later, deep scratches were found in the paint. It’s a silver-­screen-­ready scene, recounted in seductive detail. But just when you’ve been sold on the legend, the pendulum swings back to skepticism. Yes, it’s cinematic — “suspiciously cinematic,” the writer Benjamin Radford warns, while thoroughly debunking the story. And I mean thoroughly: “Any bipedal creature running and jumping on the roof of a car would land with its head, hands and fingers toward the front of the car and its windscreen,” Radford noted. But “somehow this acrobatic Lizard Man ended up with its fingers on the rear windshield.” Yeah, right.”

 

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

Jul 122016
 

Looks like my new book “Bad Clowns” even made it to the Wikipedia page on clowns. Very cool! If you haven’t read it yet, there’s still a few copies left at your local independent bookstore, or at Amazon.com!

 

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

Jul 082016
 

So this is cool: I’m quoted in a new Yahoo News piece on the mystery of spontaneous human combustion; 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.

Jul 052016
 

In the current issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine I have a column about investigating claims of egg balancing in the Ecuadorean jungle at the equator! Check it out on finer newsstands now!

 

 

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

Jun 252016
 

According to Google’s Scholar Alert (or in my case “Scholar” alert), my work is referenced in the new book “Policing and Social Media: Social Control in an Era of New Media.” Looks like a pricey textbook, but maybe I’ll see it some time…

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

Jun 232016
 

A standup comic doing explicitly skeptical material on a regular basis as part of his act is unusual– and I interviewed him about his career. 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.