Jun 172018
 
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed:   Ben shares a minor mystery that dropped into his lap, in the form of a photograph tucked into a used book on demonic possession. Then Ben, Pascual, and Celestia discuss logical fallacies: what they are, how they are used, and how they can help us improve our own reasoning. Skeptics hold logical fallacies near and dear, as they represent common errors that have been identified and catalogued over the eons—a blueprint for ways our thinking can go wrong. Pascual goes over the straw man fallacy, as evidenced by the “war on Christmas,” and Celestia talks about how the tu quoquefallacy has recently been popularized as “whataboutism” by John Oliver. Ben explains the non sequiturand the concept of warrants—which is the (usually implicit) part of an argument that links the evidence to the claim. Then after a quick romp through Morton’s fork and personal incredulity, we examine a recent article by Maaarten Boudry that questions the persuasive utility of fallacies. Fallacies are not a mic-drop, and identifying a fallacy does not confer an automatic argument victory (i.e. the fallacy fallacy). We as skeptics often rely on things that are technically fallacies, and conspiracy theorists can weaponize fallacies for their brand of “logic” as well. But abandoning logical fallacies altogether is throwing out the baby with the bathwater; a tempered approach, where we identify the fallacy and also put it into understandable terms, might be best.     You can hear the show HERE!     
Jun 152018
 
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: This week, Pascual gets skeptical about the “reason for the season,” namely Jesus, competing pagan solstice holidays, and Jesus mythicism. Whether Jesus existed is one of the few things that dips into “fringe” scholarship and conspiracy theories but is also taken seriously by many skeptics. Celestia suggests an alternate holiday tradition around the goddess Inanna’s striptease as she headed to the underworld. Then we get into the importance—and difficulties—of replication in science. Ben talks about replication in skeptical investigation, namely replicating some supposedly paranormal artifact like the Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot film in order to debunk it. The problem is that some quite mundane things are impossible (or very impractical) to replicate completely, and the burden of doing so does not rest with skeptics but with those making an extraordinary claim. Mythbusters had an unfortunate side-effect, convincing many laypeople that a crude replication with poor protocols can replace the scientific method. Yet some replications can be highly effective—such as when a magician shows they can get the same result as a psychic through mere trickery. Replication is absolutely necessary to science, however, and the current “replication crisis” is a concern. Pascual goes into the Mozart effect, which was never replicated, and the industry that nevertheless blew up around it. With so few funds to replicate studies, one hope is that science reporters will develop a better sense of discerning poor protocols, and kill stories based on bad studies rather than helping them go viral.   You can listen to the show HERE! 
Jun 102018
 
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: This week, Ben and Pascual talk about the phenomenon of outrage, especially on the internet. They break down some classic outrage from the last year and even have an update on a big story from last year! Celestia also stops by with another tasty fortune cookie.     You can listen HERE!
Jun 082018
 
Ben opens with ruminations on why psychics are conspicuously absent from real-world crises they could help with (if their powers are real). Then Pascual looks at a purported flat-earther who will be launching himself in a homemade rocket soon. Digging into the story, he found that this fellow’s flat earth views surfaced only recently, after failed crowdfunding attempts, and it all might just be an unusual marketing ploy. Then, in our main topic, the guys look into the familiar mantra of “they want us to be divided.” Coming from both sides of the political aisle but most recently aimed at President Trump, this idea is, at its core, a conspiracy theory resting on the premise that we are all united and the government somehow gains from us being split up, uneducated, and in a state of turmoil. Just like the old canard about doctors keeping their patients unhealthy, this puts public officials in the role of doing the opposite of their job description—and within the context of a vast cabal. Incompetence, rather than organized subversive effort, is often the much more reasonable explanation for government malfeasance. But are there any people who do gain from this? Yes—foreign entities like Russia do actually organize and try to sow discord within the American population. If we are noticing divisive efforts and blaming our own government for it, then all the better for Putin. Skeptical outreach, learning how to vet sources, and critical thinking are the best weapons against this type of incursion.     You can listen HERE!
Jun 052018
 
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: This week Ben, Pascual, and Celestia have a roundtable discussion on the practical aspects of everyday life as a skeptic. Boots-on-the-ground skepticism efforts include social media presence, etiquette, and tactics; picking your battles; and knowing when you need your own little echo chamber for sanity’s sake. Keeping a salon discussion from devolving into a flame war is always the goal, but can anything be gained by out-and-out fighting? Ben talks about the importance in his own investigation work of listening to believers and walking the tightrope of helping them without alienating them. In real life, picking at the closely held beliefs of loved ones can be a minefield—but as skeptics, it feels wrong to go along with notions simply to get along. Finding common ground and focusing on empathy can help people gradually expand their mental framework. Pascual talks about the homeopathic remedies used by many musicians, and we discuss how sometimes just defining a term (or showing someone the fine print on a label) can do all the skeptical work for you. We all share some minor victories and also some pitfalls we have encountered.   You can hear it HERE!  
May 292018
 
I recently wrote a piece for Adventures in Poor Taste with the self-evident title 'Finding Bigfoot' Celebrates 100 Episodes of Spectacle and Spectacular Failure":
This Sunday, cable channel Animal Planet will air the 100th and final episode of Finding Bigfoot, a show documenting a group of people not finding Bigfoot. It’s not everyday that a television show whose premise and title is self-evidently flawed gets a chance to be celebrated, and I thought it was a good time to reflect on the elusive man-beast it references. I found a relevant quote several years ago in the Mütter Museum of anatomical and physical anomalies in Philadelphia. Written by pioneering medical investigator Stubbins Ffirth in 1804 and displayed now on a pamphlet, it said, “The interests of truth have nothing to apprehend from the keenness of investigation, and the utmost severity of human judgment.” Though the language is from 200 years ago, the message remains relevant: no theory, no bit of evidence, no argument should be immune from critical examination. Dogma hides truth, while open debate helps expose it.

If you’ve seen Finding Bigfoot at any point over the past nine seasons, you know that cryptozoologists and the monster-enthused public deserve better than this pseudo-investigation. They deserve a fair hearing of all the evidence and arguments. Cryptozoology should not be about advocacy or faith; it should not be about mystery-mongering nor debunking.

Cryptozoology should be about getting to the truth of what remains undiscovered. Skeptic and proponent alike need to let the mistakes, hoaxes, false theories and faulty arguments fall by the wayside, so we can get on with the real business at hand: searching for Bigfoot. Could Bigfoot exist? Absolutely. Anything is possible. But it’s also the wrong question. The question is not what is possible, but instead what is probable — in other words, what the evidence supports. Bigfoot is a convenient, culturally-understood categorization for “an unidentified large, hairy, bipedal creature.” Bigfoot is not an identification; it’s a label for an experience. 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, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
May 152018
 
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed:     To start the episode, Ben shares a tale from the road about being on the Oprah network’s Miracle Detectivesand stumbling upon a snack-food related miracle. Then in our main topic, the guys discuss Halloween scares of the past and present—not ghosts and ghouls but rather rumors and concerns that have terrified parents and the public. For instance, fundamentalists have long worried that Halloween has sinister links to Satanism and even mundane activities might pull kids into the Dark Lord’s influence. Halloween is linked to the pagan holiday of Samhain, which predates Christianity and therefore Satanism, yet the church has a long history of bristling at such competing traditions. And, ironically, many fundamentalists employ the very same recruiting tactics they accuse Satanists of using. The poisoned-candy panics seem to occur every year, flogged by the media, despite the fact that the only two cases of contaminated candy harming anyone involved the child’s own parent. Stranger danger in general is a concept to examine in light of actual statistics, and we should consider what harm we do to children by pushing a false notion of how much random people want to kill them. The poisoned-candy scares took on a racial tone when post-9-11 rumors circulated about terrorists turning to bulk candy purchases as a new tactic. Then, to wrap up, Ben and Pascual touch on sex offenders and their role in Halloween-related scares, and of course one of Ben’s specialties—scary clown panics!   You can listen HERE.   You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
May 102018
 
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed:     Buckle up for part 2 of our Squaring the Strange Halloween series! This week, our spooky hosts bring us an exciting adventure into the tantalizing world of ghost sex. From celebrity spectral affairs to unwanted advances from the other side, Ben and Pascual look into the cases and the facts.   You can hear it HERE.  You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
May 052018
 
Ben and Pascual kick off the 2017 New Mexico Podscape festival by musing on natural disasters and cryptids, for instance how Hurricaine Hugo in Puerto Rico helped spawned the chupacabra legend. Then, since a doomsday was recently predicted for the very day they recorded, Ben and Pascual discuss apocolypses (apocolypi?). Interpreting everything from astronomical lineups to hunting out supposed Biblical patterns, people have been predicting the end seemingly since the beginning. Ben recounts trying to interview an apocalyptic prophet one day after the doomsday he predicted, and harkens back to the 19th-century Millerites, who ended up splintering into the 7th Day Adventists after their predicted doomsday failed to show up. Then to wind up, Pascual talks about “psychic vampire repellant,” which can be yours for $28 on Gwynneth Paltrow’s website Goop.     You can here it HERE.    You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
May 042018
 
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: Ben and Pascual first touch on last week’s Vegas shooting, particularly the misinformation that was circulated afterward—not conspiracy theories (which could be a whole show later), but rather the false assertions made by talking heads mentioning the event in service of fighting a larger social problem. While it’s understandable that people want to make legitimate points about gun violence or mental health or racism, it undermines advocacy when statements are demonstrably false. Pascual looks at messages of surprise from news outlets and does a rundown of the motives (if found) of previous shooters. Then the guys turn to el chupacabra, the Latin American beast that appeared on the cryptid scene around the early 90s. Origin stories for the vampiric creature abounded, from being an extraterrestrial set on spreading blood diseases to a secret government experiment to a foretold beast of God’s wrath. Ben brings context to the folklore, explaining how the beast was genuinely terrifying and serious to impoverished ranchers and farmers living in rural Puerto Rico, for whom losing any livestock was a crippling tragedy. The chupacabra also has the distinction of being the first monster myth spread by the internet. Slowly, the chupacabra myth morphed from a truly terrifying exotic beast never glimpsed to a more mundane creature resembling a canid, as carcasses found far and wide were said to be dead chupacabras. You can hear it HERE.      You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
May 032018
 
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed:   Ben ruminates on the blowup over Trump’s NFL tweets this week, wondering why so many people (especially Trump’s critics) seem to give him more power by fueling the outrage machine, thus distracting themselves from the core issues. Owing to Trump’s clear track record of lies, exaggerations, contradictions, and impulse thoughts, perhaps the best skeptical approach is to not give his tweets any weight at all—as they do not represent legislative action, the views of most of America, or even, perhaps, Trump’s core values (if he has any). Then, for their main topic, the guys delve into conspiratorial thinking: from medieval witch hunts to the Illuminati. What factors make people more prone to fall into believing conspiracies, and what are some hallmarks of a typical conspiracy theory? Why do proponents doubt some things so strongly but swallow every point made in an amateur Youtube video? It’s also valuable to examine what exactly is taken as evidence—and if, for argument’s sake, that “evidence” is true: does it really prove the theory put forth or is it simply one small strange thing likely meaning nothing? Finally, we run through a quick history of disseminating information, from the rise of the printing press to modern day. Cranks with conspiracy notions have gone from buying back-of-magazine ads and Xeroxing pamphlets (and in one case cementing tiles down on East Coast streets) to putting up websites and starting podcasts—and, alarmingly, being interviewed by mainstream journalists and quoted by the President of the United States. You can listen HERE.    You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
May 012018
 
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed:   Episode 24: Copycat Crimes This week, Ben is skeptical of the History Channel bland promise to be transparent and do more investigation on their recent Amelia Earhart fiasco (spoiler: they haven’t). For the main topic, the copycat effect, Ben talks about behavior modeling versus ideation, covering everything from fears of anorexia to the artistry of crop circles. Moving onto serious crimes, the guys discuss the church fires during the 1990s: after President Clinton addressed the issue and formed a task force, the fires actually quadrupled—most set by juveniles who had no clear motive. As parents know, the drive to copy and gain attention is clearly present in children, but some people never grow out of it. Certain instances were a perfect storm of copycatting: the Anthrax scare of 2001 resulted in tremendous anxiety and costs, as it was cheap and easy to fake with talcum powder while being expensive and time-consuming for authorities to deal with. The clown panic of 2016 was a less harmful (but to some, even scarier) example of copycat behavior and attention-seeking. Copycat suicide has many aspects to explore, from the self-immolation of political martyrs to recent concerns about the show 13 Reasons Why. Just like real-life events, there is always a risk that art can inspire some individuals to act in dangerous or criminal ways—but blaming the media for social ills is often too simple an explanation.   You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!   
Apr 282018
 
Here's a fun, folkloric piece I wrote a few years ago about Friday the 13th... "Speaking of weird fishermen's superstitions, there is one fish That Shall Not Be Named. Sometimes it was called "the beast," other times "the red fish," "the foul fish," or simply "the fish." Scientists may call it Oncorhynchus gorbuscha, or even Salmo salar, but under no circumstances should the fish be called by its true name: salmon."   You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Apr 262018
 
I get plenty of hate mail (and the occasional death threat) so I wanted to share this nice e-mail from the grateful parent of a student whose email I responded to: "In February, my son, Braden emailed you with questions about the Chupracabra for his science research project. Your answers were very detailed and provided a great source for his project. I appreciate the time you took to respond! Many of our students never received a response, so I want you to know how much we appreciate you. Braden was excited and intrigued by your answers (as we all were). Thank you for taking the time and making a difference!" You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Apr 232018
 
I wasn’t “surprised” that the Southwest hero pilot is a woman, but I suppose many people might be. This CNN analyst claims it’s because of the images of hero pilots in movies.   But if people are indeed surprised to discover that the pilot is a woman, it has more to do with statistics than sexism. It’s not so much that the public assumes that women can’t be competent and courageous, but instead that only about 6% of commercial airline pilots are female. Since 94% of pilots are men, assuming that the pilot of any given flight—whether hero or heel—is probably a man is a reasonable and valid statistical inference, not a sign of movie misinformation or gender bias. There’s unfortunately plenty of sexism in the media, but I’m not sure this is a good example...   You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Apr 052018
 
The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! This week we have an update on a flat-earth "experiment," then we talk treasures: hiding them, hunting them, and passing along rumors of them! Treasure hunting is rife with folklore and sometimes danger. People seeking riches have trespassed, committed crimes, and even died. From murdered casino magnate Ted Binion’s buried vault to Forrest Fenn (who claims he hid a treasure you can find with clues in a poem) to Arizona’s legendary Lost Dutchman Mine and Capt. Kidd's treasure, and more. Please check it out!      You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Apr 022018
 
For those have asked, "Why aren't they calling it terrorism?" here's a breakdown; it depends on who "They" are, and whether you're talking about formal or informal definitions of "terrorism." My new article is a primer on the topic... In the weeks since Mark Conditt died as police closed in on him, many on social media have been asking why he was not being referred to as a terrorist or his bombings labeled “terrorism.” (The same question often arises in other high-profile crimes as well, but here I focus on Conditt’s case specifically, as each incident has its own set of particulars which may weigh more strongly for or against a terrorism label.) The issue is not terribly complicated, but it is nuanced and often counter-intuitive. Part of the confusion stems from which group you’re talking about. In other words, who’s the “they” in “Why aren’t they calling it terrorism?” Different “theys” have different answers, as we will see. One of the first things a critical thinker learns to do when hearing the phrase “They say...” is to ask: Who, exactly, is “They?” Attributing a position or statement to an anonymous, homogenous group is not only clouds the issue instead of clarifying it but often steers the conversation toward any number of fallacies (They say acupuncture has been used for thousands of years. They say that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and so on). There’s also the problem of people using different definitions of “terrorism” interchangeably. Like many words, terrorism has a legal/technical definition used for specific purposes (such as indicting a suspect on certain criminal charges) and a looser, more informal definition that laypeople use in everyday conversation. Neither definition is incorrect; they’re both valid and useful in their specific contexts. There is of course nothing unique about this; laypeople use countless terms (energy, tension, heat, etc.) in ways that are different than a physicist would use them, for example. This problem often arises in the legal arena—one in which definitions of terrorism are important. For example the lay public may consider any killing to be murder (after all, someone died), but to a district attorney there are many different types of murder, with different definitions and penalties (first-degree murder, manslaughter, negligent homicide, and so on). Language is flexible, but that flexibility can contribute to ambiguity when people don’t clearly define terms, or apply their personal, informal definitions to other contexts. So let’s distinguish between the formal and informal definitions by using Terrorism and terrorism, respectively. The Patriot Act defines domestic terrorism as an attempt to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.” (Whether one thinks that this definition is too broad or too narrow is beside the point here; law enforcement follows the laws as written.) You can read the rest HERE.   You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Mar 302018
 
As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) comes upon its one year anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen!   This week, content producer (and sci-fi nerd) Celestia Ward drops in at the start of the show to discuss the purported sexist outrage against Dr. Who being recast as a female. Looking at actual percentages versus the visibility of sexist troll comments, this sci-fi outrage has many components—from a modern boogeyman aspect to a false equivalency in reporting. Then the guys welcome their first-ever guest, Andrew Torrez of the Opening Arguments podcast. Andrew shares his legal experience and answers skeptic-related questions that involve the law. Many people who pride themselves on being skeptical about pseudoscience or conspiracy theories fail to question legal myths or ignore the consensus of legal experts. During the interview we learn about the motives behind misrepresenting the McDonalds hot coffee case, the nuances of “blocking” Trump’s travel ban versus postponing it for judicial review, how the media presents mistrials versus actual acquittals, systemic problems with the cost of pursuing justice, and potential complications with widespread use of police bodycams. Ben and Andrew discuss the notion of doubt, and what constitutes reasonable doubt (to skeptics and to jurors). You can hear the episode HERE!   You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Mar 252018
 
As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) comes upon its one year anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen!   This week Ben looks at some updates to the blue whale suicide game / moral panic discussed in episode 6. The death of Isaiah Gonzales has been attributed to the game on secondary media sources, but actual reports have no evidence supporting this. Pascual discusses the “cancer sunscreen myth” reported by Paul Fassa and sourced from NaturalNews.com. By completely misrepresenting a credible study, the article categorizes sunscreen as a dangerous carcinogen and urges readers to get more sun exposure for health benefits. It also contains a common red flag to watch for in bogus medical articles: make sure the doctor quoted is a medical doctor and any degrees listed are from accredited universities. Then Ben and Pascual discuss the main topic of pedantry. Being called pedantic is not ever a compliment, and skeptics frequently come under fire for this behavior. When is pedantry better avoided, and when is it beneficial? Ben points out the necessity of being a pedant when it comes to editing and publishing: articles should be fact-checked and errors corrected. Rather than aiming for a “gotcha” moment, good pedantry should aim to improve precision and sharpen an idea. The enemy of truth is often ambiguity—and this type of ambiguous communication is on display in President Trump’s statements, which seem deliberately vague and evasive (though he is certainly not the first politician to employ such verbal tactics). Law is another arena where specificity and pedantry is a foundational pillar, as vagueness or minor errors can have disastrous results.   You can hear the show HERE! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Mar 232018
 
As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) comes upon its one year anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen!   Ben looks closely at intuition and how it can be categorized as a type of confirmation bias. Pulling from news stories, we see many unfortunate things that intuition, if it existed, should have prevented; yet intuition is commonly credited as a force in stories where disaster is averted. Further, our intuitive instincts are often wrong, and people like pilots or other professionals receive specialized training to overcome these drives. Then Pascual looks at BBC’s Watchdog, which reported on ice machines containing fecal bacteria—the same bacteria that has been found in beards. Despite the disgusted alarm that the scary words “fecal coliform” bacteria can create, it’s actually quite common everywhere in human habitat, making that report a non-story. For their main topic, Ben and Pascual look back at the celebrated crop circle that allegedly appeared in broad daylight at 8:00 a.m. on July 7, 1996 in a field near Stonehenge. This crop circle had a number of factors that made it a “best case” to investigate: it was far too complex to have been created by natural means, it seemed to appear in a well-traveled area, and (according to witnesses) it showed up suddenly rather than manifesting overnight. Ben goes through his research and investigation process and lists how each factor fell away with applied scrutiny. After making a timeline and culling through everything each eye witness said, Ben found good reasons why each could be mistaken in what they remembered. Further examination of the site photos and topography also show how impossible it would have been to see the site from the road, as was reported.   You can hear the show HERE!    You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Mar 122018
 
For those who are interested in a primer on Atlantis, check out my article for LiveScience.com, recently updated! The idea of Atlantis — the "lost" island subcontinent often idealized as an advanced, utopian society holding wisdom that could bring world peace — has captivated dreamers, occultists and New Agers for generations. Thousands of books, magazines and websites are devoted to Atlantis, and it remains a popular topic. People have lost fortunes — and in some cases even their lives — looking for Atlantis. You can read the rest HERE!    You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Mar 012018
 
With the recent release of the third installment of the Fifty Shades of Grey series there has been considerable consternation about what effect the film (and its predecessors) will have on the public. A Christian Science Monitor story by Gloria Goodale explained "How ‘Fifty Shades of Grey' Is Contributing to Shift in Norms on Sexuality," for example, and a hilariously scathing review of the new film appeared on Pajiba.com and went viral, headlined "'50 Shades Freed' Is an Ignorant, Poisonous Anti-Feminist Hate Anthem." Dozens of other blogs and articles make similar claims, though they do not seem to have dampened its audience's ardor: the new film has brought in nearly $270 million to date. The missing logical link in these stories is in what in argumentation is called a warrant. It's a principle or chain of reasoning connecting a premise to a conclusion. For example in the statement "I see the freeway is packed, so we're probably going to miss our flight," the warrant is that traffic congestion will delay passengers getting to the airport on time. This may or may not be true--for example the traffic may clear up shortly, or the flight might also be delayed--but the warrant offers a reason or logical rationale linking a claim to its conclusion. Often the warrant is implied, such as "Four out of five doctors use our brand of pain reliever." The warrant is that most doctors would use one brand over another because of its quality or efficacy. Again, this may or may not be true; the doctors might use one the brand because it's cheaper than its competitors (or free from the pharmaceutical company) though no more effective. Understanding warrants is crucial to determining whether an argument or claim is logically sound or reasonable. People often cloak their disagreement or displeasure over a piece of work (a film, book, cartoon, etc.) with an assertion that it is not merely personally distasteful or offensive but in fact dangerous to society. Most people understand that merely saying "I don't like this film" is, quite rightly, likely to be met with a response along the lines of, "Thanks for expressing your opinion." In order to have that opinion carry more weight and garner public support, the critic often goes a step further to assert that the object of their scorn is a threat to public health or morals. It is a form of fearmongering, a technique used by manipulators for millennia. Sometimes it's a president stoking fears of Muslim or immigrant terrorists; other times it's a conservative media watchdog group complaining that, for example, Teen Vogue is encouraging America's teens to engage in anal sex. And so on. This pearl-clutching is nothing new, of course. Parents have been concerned about the harmful effects of pastimes and entertainment for centuries. Blaming entertainment 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. And the family game Twister was famously derided as "sex in a box" by a competitor who diligently (if self-interestedly) warned the public about this immoral game. This is, however, where a line becomes crossed because the critic is then in the position of making a factual claim and should offer evidence for that claim. Saying you don't like chocolate ice cream (or rap music, pornography, or anything else) merely expresses an inviolable, unfalsifiable personal preference which cannot be challenged based on any evidence: If you don't like it, you don't like it. End of story. For more see my CFI blog, HERE!   You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Feb 252018
 
In the new episode of Squaring the Strange, Celestia and I square off on misleading documentaries. Far from being reliable "research," it's important to remember that documentaries are the vision of a particular filmmaker, and by their very nature will have a point of view. We run through the good, the bad, and the "well, you tried." Some handy tips on spotting red flags. Please check it out HERE!     You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Feb 222018
 
As we approach our one-year anniversary Squaring the Strange, the podcast I co-host with Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward, I wanted to review early episodes you may have missed!     Episode 10: Of Emperors and Clothes Ben reads some of his “fan” mail, from a man in India who believes he has a method of creating ley lines remotely. After a brief explanation of what ley lines are—as much as these fuzzy energy notions can be defined, anyway—Ben and Pascual parse what exactly this well-meaning writer believes he can do, and how the ideomotor effect leads many dowsers to believe they are detecting things like water, oil, or ley lines. Then for their main topic, the guys dig into that classic Hans Christian Anderson tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” The tale has an interesting ending that many don’t remember: after the little boy calls everyone’s attention to the fact that the emperor has no clothes on, he continues to walk the parade and his chamberlains carry the train that is not there. Or, in other words, even when you speak truth to power, it continues on as before. The whole story is a tour through skeptical concepts. The king relies on second-hand accounts rather than going to the source himself, which is comparable to relying on social media posts or testimonials and anecdotes today. The concept of “invisible thread” may seem silly, but is it really so different from claims like psychic ability, homeopathic memory of water, or holistic energy adjustments? In the story, people censor their observations because of a fear of authority, of losing their jobs, and of going against the social norms. Likewise, today people shy away from stating unpopular observations or opinions because they might want to avoid public shaming on social media. Then, finally, we see the sunk-cost fallacy as the emperor and his court continue on their way.   You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Feb 202018
 
As we approach our one-year anniversary Squaring the Strange, the podcast I co-host with Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward, I wanted to review early episodes you may have missed!   Episode 9: Until the Light Takes Us  On the skeptic radar this week, Ben brings us a disturbing story about foreigners allegedly abducting girls in South Africa. No abductions actually took place, but the power of parental fears coupled with xenophobia and rumors on social media resulted in looting and vandalism. Then, after a pedantic discussion on illegible band logos, Ben and Pascual dive into Until the Light Takes Us, a documentary about Norwegiean black metal during the early 1990s. As the Satanic Panic took hold in the US, in Norway the overtly anti-Christian metal scene was propelled to international news as leader of the “black circle” Varg Vikernes was convicted for arson and murder after several churches were burned down. The media was quick to affix Satanism as a motive, though Vikernes himself said he burned the churches down for Odin, which was in line with the stated pagan beliefs of those in the movement. In Norway, as in America, things not connected to Satanism were quickly branded as such for consumption by the masses and to fit with the current moral panic. Pascual shares some insider insight on the Satanic Panic—including how some bands capitalized on it and how some young fans flocked to the shock effect it offered.     You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Feb 172018
 
A viral outrage story from 2016, about an Alabama pastor who allegedly said that anyone who doesn't stand for the anthem should be shot, is circulating again. It's almost certainly false, as I explained in a blog at the time... It's easy to assume the worst about people (especially those whose views you likely disagree with), but a) beware "outrage" stories, and b) give people the benefit of the doubt you'd want given to you. 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, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Feb 102018
 
As we approach our one-year anniversary Squaring the Strange, the podcast I co-host with Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward, I wanted to review early episodes you may have missed!   Episode 4: The White Witch of Rose Hall Listener question: poltergeists! This week, as the first part in a two-part series on Jamaican folklore, Ben and Pascual (mostly Ben) discuss the white witch of Rose Hall. Reputed to be one of the most haunted locations in the Caribbean, this mansion nestled high on a hill outside Montego Bay was once home to a white woman named Annie Palmer. Legends of her misdeeds range from husband-killing to demonic orgies to slave torture and curses. Ben traces the story backward, through local legends, a gothic bodice-ripping horror novel "based on true events," and decades-old newspaper reports. We learn about the guiding principles and stumbling blocks involved in investigating a mystery like this "on location." Ben weighs evidence (as well as nonevidence such as photo artifacts and testimonials from tourists, ghost hunters, and psychics), and we see how abolitionism helped amplify the story. Ben and Pascual mention the Patreon and tease next week's episode, as well as the promise of some Jamaican goodies for a patron giveaway!   You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Feb 052018
 
As we approach our one-year anniversary Squaring the Strange, the podcast I co-host with Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward, I wanted to review early episodes you may have missed!   Episode 2: What Are We Skeptical About? Introduction, the podcast’s new social media and Patreon. What are Ben and Pascual skeptical about this week? Pascual discusses the Wall Street Bull v. Fearless Girl statue lawsuit controversy and public interpretation of art, as well as an artist’s rights once their work is in the public square; Ben discusses the recent viral story about a white 2-year-old defending her choice of a black doll to a Target cashier, and points out red flags like lack of corroboration/witnesses, a flood of supportive messages, the urban legend/Snopes concept of “glurge,” and the danger of major media outlets repeating stories that have no real source or evidence besides a Facebook post; the similarity to a viral story in Fall 2016 about a pastor who (supposedly) announced at a football game that anyone not standing for the national anthem should be shot. Ben and Pascual analyze Ben’s “fan” mail. (SHAME ON YOU, BENJAMIN!)   You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Jan 182018
 
Over the new week or two I'll be posting some blurbs and reviews of my new book Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits. It is currently available as an e-book at Amazon.com and will be available in print in a few weeks (preferably at your local independent bookstore!). “An informative read, this book is a must read for not only those who intend to investigate the paranormal but also for those who already do. Radford offers an up-to-date overview of the field of paranormal research in a way that demonstrates what good, rational research methods are alongside examples of how ghost research can (and does) go terribly wrong. Radford passes on useful and accurate information about how to be a good investigator in an easy-to-understand way, while also recommending a variety of other sources that will help people easily gain a deeper understanding of the research relating to this field. Ghost hunters may pick this book up and feel affronted as it tackles behaviours and methodologies that they employ, but it does so in a manner that isn’t dismissive and, hopefully, will help people reflect on the error of their ways. If people only choose to read one book about how to investigate ghosts this is the one—it’s got all you need to know! --Hayley Stevens, paranormal researcher and blogger   You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Dec 292017
 
New episode! This week, we kick off the first half of the "New Years Resolution" series where they look at woo in the gym. Just in time for your resolution, The Credible Hulk joins our hosts to walk us through some of the myths and misconceptions that run rampant in the bodybuilding/gym world.   Check it out HERE!      You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Dec 252017
 
Santa brought me a great gift: A nice review of my book in a prominent folklore journal: "Bad Clowns is a thorough, useful survey of the history of bad, creepy, and evil clown narratives and imagery, and one that could prove a timely and accessible teaching text for undergraduate courses on contemporary legend, folklore and popular culture, or folklore and media. Bad Clowns does an outstanding job of querying why clown imagery has come to be associated with fear, crime, and violence... Ideas involving the uncomfortable intersection of childhood with adulthood, the catharsis of chaos, and the idea of a clown as a magnified cultural mirror – lurk deeper. For these questions alone, the book is worth a read." You can read the rest HERE.    You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Dec 212017
 
My investigation into a viral news story circulating one year ago this week, about a black mall Santa reportedly deluged with racist hate. It was tragic and sad--and fictional: "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 a social media-created controversy. Instead of being remembered for bringing joy to kids he will forever be known for enduring a (fictional) deluge of racist hatred. The true story of Jefferson's stint as Santa is exactly 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." One year ago , amid the encroaching commercialization of Christmas, Black Friday sales, and annual social media grumblings about the manufactured controversy over whether "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays" is appropriate, an ugly episode of racial hatred tainted the beginning of the 2016 holiday season. It began when the Mall of America hired a jolly bearded man named Larry Jefferson as one of its Santas. Jefferson, a retired Army veteran, is black--a fact that most kids and their parents neither noticed nor cared about. The crucial issue for kids was whether a Playstation might be on its way or some Plants vs. Zombies merchandise was in the cards given the particular child's status on Santa's naughty-or-nice list. The important thing for parents was whether their kids were delighted by the Santa, and all evidence suggests that the answer was an enthusiastic Yes. "What [the children] see most of the time is this red suit and candy," Jefferson said in an interview. "[Santa represents] a good spirit. I'm just a messenger to bring hope, love, and peace to girls and boys." The fact that Santa could be African-American seemed self-evident (and either an encouraging sign or a non-issue) for all who encountered him. Few if any people at the Mall of America made any negative or racist comments. It was, after all, a self-selected group; any parents who might harbor reservations about Jefferson simply wouldn't wait in line with their kids to see him and instead go somewhere else or wait for another Santa. Like anything that involves personal choice, people who don't like something (a news outlet, brand of coffee, or anything else) will simply go somewhere else--not erupt in protest that it's available to those who want it. You can read the rest HERE.    You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Dec 102017
 
The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! In it we discuss how to tell when "Just asking questions" is either a cynical conspiracy ploy or a sincere effort to understand something, and then move on to my research into the best evidence for lake monsters and Champ, the creature in Lake Champlain. Check it out HERE!    You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Dec 072017
 
My new CFI blog on how our expectations can and do influence our perceptions and interpretations... Earlier this month police in Schaumberg, Illinois, responded to a call of one or more gunmen walking around a business district. According to the Chicago Tribune,"investigators determined that the purported gunman was a maintenance technician wearing a belt that held a tool resembling a gun, police said. ‘Everyone is safe. Every office is open, and officers are clearing out,' Schaumburg Police Sgt. Christy Lindhurst said shortly after noon on Tuesday.' At 10:50 a.m. police received a call of a gunman at the Woodfield Corporate Center at 200 N. Martingale Road. A ‘very heavy police presence' responded, Lindhurst said. Some businesses evacuated. Others chose to shelter in place.'" Another news report offered additional details and claimed that a second gunman had been spotted: "Schaumburg police responded about 10:50 a.m. Tuesday to a report of two men with guns. Police later reported that there was no indication that shots were fired, no firearm was found, and police say no one was injured. Police reviews video surveillance, and confirmed that the original report was incorrect. Schaumburg police say there was no threat." How do we explain this mistake? Drills, nailing guns, and other construction equipment can look like a weapon from a distance. But the item was seen in a tool belt worn by a uniformed maintenance worker. Obviously a shooter could dress in any fashion they like, but there are tens of thousands of construction and maintenance workers with equipment-laden toolbelts across the country at any given time, and very rarely are they mistaken for active shooters. There's something else at play, and it involves eyewitness perceptions. This case is reminiscent of another from four years ago. In 2013 Ohio's Oberlin College cancelled classes after someone reported spotting a person walking on campus wearing what appeared to be a Ku Klux Klan-like hooded robe at night. College officials released a statement on Monday explaining that "This event, in addition to the series of other hate-related incidents on campus, has precipitated our decision to suspend formal classes and all non-essential activities ... and gather for a series of discussions of the challenging issues that have faced our community in recent weeks." What of the uniformed Klansman spotted on campus? According to a piece on Slate.com, "Local police responded to the report, but weren't able to find anyone wearing the hard-to-miss KKK garb. They did, however, discover a female walking with a blanket wrapped around her, suggesting the very real possibility that the eyewitness was mistaken." The Chronicle-Telegram added, "Oberlin police Lt. Mike McCloskey said that authorities did find a pedestrian wrapped in a blanket. He said police interviewed another witness later in the day and that person also saw a female walking with a blanket." It's much more likely that a person on campus was wearing or carrying a light-colored blanket, coming back from a toga party, or even a prankster dressed like a ghost, instead of dressed in full Klan regalia. As The Atlantic reported, "Reports on Monday that someone was walking around the campus of Oberlin College in Ku Klux Klan regalia--for which the Ohio liberal arts college cancelled an entire day's classes--may have been a huge misunderstanding. That's the sense one gets from reading a comprehensive report published on Tuesday morning by the local paper, the Chronicle-Telegram, which traced the early-morning sighting to someone wearing a blanket: ‘Oberlin police Lt. Mike McCloskey said that authorities did find a pedestrian wrapped in a blanket. He said police interviewed another witness later in the day and that person also saw a female walking with a blanket.' But no KKK garb." But why would someone make that particular mistake? The answer lies in what psychologists call expectant attention and confirmation bias. Expectation Influences Perception Though many people assume that eyewitnesses accurately perceive, understand, and report what they experience, we are subject to several biases--and they influence us in ways we often aren't unconsciously aware of. In order to make sense of what we see (especially things we don't recognize or fully understand), the human brain looks for contextual cues; we look for what else is going on in the environment that might lead to one interpretation instead of another. One powerful influence on our perceptions is our expectations. A well-known example of this can be seen in the illustration of a duck or a rabbit. Neither answer is wrong; both interpretations are correct within their context. But the context makes all the difference. How does this apply to the Klansman seen at Oberlin College? There were at several contextual factors that led the eyewitness to associate the figure with the Klan. Most importantly, the campus had recently experienced a string of events characterized as hate crimes, with flyers and graffiti targeting African-Americans, gays, and Jews appearing on campus. The events were widely reported and triggered much discussion on campus about the presence of hate groups. Most bald men are not skinheads, and racists can come in any race, gender, or color. But the most identifiable hate group-the only one with an image that is unmistakably associated with intolerance-is the Ku Klux Klan and their distinctive hoods and robes. Secondly, the location played a role in the misidentification: The white-clad figure was not seen outside a local pizza place or library, but instead outside the Afrikan Heritage House, the building on campus most closely associated with African-Americans. It's unlikely that if the same woman had been seen outside a campus synagogue she would have been interpreted as a member of the Klan. Then there's the fact that the eyewitness probably didn't know exactly what an actual KKK outfit looks like. Real Klan robes have a distinctive, specific cut to them, and typically a cross emblem on the front. The eyewitness only caught a glimpse of the person, in low light and early in the morning. Psychological studies have shown that under such conditions, the human mind is very poor at accurately perceiving, remembering, and reporting even basic elements of the experience. Our brains often "fill in" details with what we expect to see--not necessarily what we actually see--and we tend to bias our reports accordingly. Thus a person wrapped in (or even carrying) a light-colored blanket can become a Klan outfit. The same thing happened at Woodfield Corporate Center: In the context of school and workplace shootings, anything is possible and in light of scary reports many unusual things are plausible. In an enlightening article for New York magazine, David Wallace-Wells describes being caught up in a chaotic panic caused by a false report of a gunshot in a New York airport: "When the first stampede began, my plane had just landed. It started, apparently, with a group of passengers awaiting departure in John F. Kennedy Airport Terminal 8 cheering Usain Bolt's superhuman 100-meter dash. The applause sounded like gunfire, somehow, or to someone; really, it only takes one. According to some reports, one woman screamed that she saw a gun. The cascading effect was easier to figure: When people started running, a man I met later on the tarmac said, they plowed through the metal poles strung throughout the terminal to organize lines, and the metal clacking on the tile floors sounded like gunfire. Because the clacking was caused by the crowd, wherever you were and however far you'd run already, it was always right around you. There was a second stampede, I heard some time later, in Terminal 2. I was caught up in two separate ones, genuine stampedes, both in Terminal 1. The first was in the long, narrow, low-ceilinged second-floor hallway approaching customs that was so stuffed with restless passengers that it felt like a cattle call, even before the fire alarm and the screaming and all the contradictory squeals that sent people running and yelling and barreling over each other--as well as the dropped luggage, passports, and crouched panicked women who just wanted to take shelter between their knees and hope for it, or "them," to pass. The second was later, after security guards had just hustled hundreds of us off of the tarmac directly into passport control, when a woman in a hijab appeared at the top of a flight of stairs, yelling out for a family member, it seemed, who had been separated from her in the chaos. The crowd seemed to rise up, squealing, and rush for the two small sets of double doors." Examples like this help remind us that sincere, otherwise credible eyewitnesses can often be influenced by many factors, including what they expect to see. The idea that people often incorrectly see, remember, and report what they experience is not merely theory but a proven fact; there are over 2,000 published scientific studies demonstrating it. By some estimates, as many as one-third of eyewitness identifications in criminal cases are wrong, and nearly 200 people who were convicted of crimes based on positive eyewitness identifications were later exonerated through DNA evidence. By employing critical thinking skills and focusing on what we actually see instead of jumping to conclusions we can help avoid needless fear and panic.   You can read the original HERE.    You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Dec 022017
 
With accusations flying around about misconduct by people of various political affiliations, I'm seeing lots of accusations of hypocrisy ("Why didn't you protest when X was accused?"). Many accusations of hypocrisy, however, are false, as I noted in a recent blog, with guests Celestia N. WardIan Harris, and Michael Hartwell... Hypocrisy seems to be a running theme on the news and in social media, especially in the political sphere. It seems that hardly a week goes by that one political party is not accusing the other of hypocrisy, on everything from confirming Supreme Court judges to health care reforms. When President Trump fired FBI James Comey in May, White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stated that the reaction from Democrats was "the purest form of hypocrisy" and that "Most of the people declaring war today were the very ones what were begging for Director Comey to be fired." This accusation of hypocrisy is objectively and factually incorrect; though many Democrats had criticized Comey at various times (including for his handling of Hillary Clinton's e-mail investigation shortly before the presidential election), almost none of them had in fact called for Comey to resign or be fired; the sole exception was Tennessee's Rep. Steve Cohen. In fact there was bipartisan concern over Trump's handling of the matter, as well as the varying justifications given for Comey's firing. Here is an analysis of three examples of claimed hypocrisy, followed by a brief look at the phenomenon. You can read the rest HERE!    You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Nov 262017
 
On a recent episode of Squaring the Strange, we have a roundtable discussion on the practical aspects of everyday life as a skeptic. Boots-on-the-ground skepticism efforts include social media presence, etiquette, and tactics; picking your battles; and knowing when you need your own little echo chamber for sanity’s sake. Keeping a salon discussion from devolving into a flame war is always the goal, but can anything be gained by out-and-out fighting? We all share some minor victories and also some pitfalls we have encountered. Check it out HERE!    You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Nov 152017
 
As a teenager I was fascinated by books about the strange and mysterious world around us. In the summer I’d walk to the local used bookstore and pull out a handful of crumpled allowance dollars to scoop up some old paperbacks from the Fifties. Along with Doc Savage and Tom Swift pulp novels, I’d pick up some “true mystery” books. In particular I recall buying several books by Frank Edwards, with titles like Stranger Than Science. Inside I found a banquet of odd and mysterious stories and phenomena, spilling from page after yellowed page. These weren’t ghost stories, or silly pulp fiction novels; these were, as the cover blurb read, “Astounding stories of strange events! All authentic —all absolutely true!” I loved these snippets of mystery, of supernatural coincidences, prophecy, terrifying creatures, and all other manner of oddity. They had titles like, “The Invisible Fangs” and “The Girl Who Lived Twice” and “A Voice From The Dead?” A blurb on the cover from the Colorado Springs Free Press called it a “fascinating collection of weird, fully-documented stories taken from life that modern science is powerless to explain!” Yet the assertion that the stories were “fully documented” was perhaps the strangest claim in the book, since none of Edwards’ stories cited sources, references, or in fact any documentation whatsoever! The “science cannot explain” line was quite popular, and also appeared on many other similar books, such as Rupert T. Gould’s 1965 book Oddities, subtitled “Mysterious, true events science cannot explain!” I pictured worried scientists—imagined as balding men in horn-rimmed glasses and white lab coats—huddled together chain-smoking and fretting about the mysteries they couldn’t explain. A few years ago when researching the famous Coral Castle in Florida I came across this claim repeatedly. In Homestead, not far from Miami and off the South Dixie Highway, sits the world-famous structure. Though not really a castle—and not really made of coral—it is nonetheless an amazing achievement. More than 1,000 tons of the sedimentary rock was quarried and sculpted into a variety of shapes, including slab walls, tables, chairs, a crescent moon, a water fountain and a sundial. “You are about to see an engineering marvel that has been compared with Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Egypt,” touts an information sheet available at the site. Many sources claim that the castle, originally called Rock Gate Park, is scientifically inexplicable. According to the attraction’s website, “Coral Castle has baffled scientists, engineers and scholars since its opening in 1923.” Despite researching information about the site, I was unable to find any references to all the baffled scientists. Who were they? When were they there? What were their credentials? What exactly did they test or examine that left them perplexed? When I put these questions to the staff at the Coral Castle I got baffled if bemused shrugs. How can you boldly claim that scientists can’t explain it, if you have no record of any scientists actually trying to explain it? They may or may not be able to, but unless they have made a sincere effort you can’t honestly claim that they failed. I was recently reminded of this when I was contacted via Twitter by someone with the handle “Ninel Kulagina Fans.” They wrote “In 50 years, no magician has replicated the filmed 1967 Kulagina/Naumpv macro telekinesis demonstrations under the same observer conditions.” I promptly and politely replied: “Which magicians tried, where, and when?” It was a sincere and simple request: I was told unequivocally that “no magician has replicated the telekinesis demonstrations under the same observer conditions,” and in order to determine the validity of that claim I’d need to know more about the times that magicians had tried and failed to replicate said experiments. The afternoon came and went without a reply, so the next day I repeated my request: “So: Which magicians tried, where, and when? Still waiting for a response.” Eventually the fan (or fans) of Ninel Kulagina realized that I was serious and asking for evidence of their claim. Instead of the names of one or more magicians who had tried to “replicate the filmed 1967 Kulagina/Naumpv macro telekinesis demonstrations under the same observer conditions” (along with the dates, published research on the topic describing the experimental conditions, etc.) I got the following reply: “Doesn’t say ‘tried.’ A success by a magician would require a famous parapsychologist, science film crew. No reports in 50 years of success.” This answer—and its tacit admission—was quite revealing: The person admitted up front that no magicians had even attempted to replicate those telekinesis demonstrations under the same conditions (or any other, for that matter). It certainly is true that skeptical magicians (most prominently my colleague James Randi, as well as other including Ray Hyman, Banachek, and Dan Korem) have tried to replicate alleged claims of telekinesis by performers such as Uri Geller, James Hydrick, and others; the magicians were successful in those attempts—but only because they tried in the first place! Kulagina’s claims have been analyzed and discussed by many skeptical researchers including Randi, Martin Gardner, and Massimo Polidoro. Stating that no magician has replicated a specific telekinesis performance is only meaningful if one has attempted to do so but failed—which is the false conclusion implied in the tweet by Ninel Kulagina Fans. We don’t know whether or not a professional magician could replicate Kulagina’s performance because it hasn’t been done, and there’s no reason to think that the magician would fail. I responded with a final reply: “So you’re claiming that X has never happened, yet acknowledge that X has never been attempted. Do you see the faulty logic there?” Fans of Ninel Kulagina responded, “I see a red herring or avoiding the issue fallacy or both. As you know, Randi et al have simulated, but not under same conditions. Thanks.” The red herring claim was especially rich, but at any rate I’m still waiting for any Kulagina supporters to provide the name(s) of the professional magician(s) who tried to replicate Kulagina’s effects, where and when these attempted replications took place, under what conditions or controls, under whose supervision, etc. If and when those are provided (and validated) I’ll be happy to concede that no magician has replicated the Kulagina demonstrations under the same conditions. When it comes to claims of baffled scientists and skeptics, there’s a simple lesson to remember: “Can’t” isn’t the same as “didn’t try.”
Oct 312017
 
Halloween is here, 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. 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 sessions. 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 banned scary clown costumes and masks last 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.