Aug 182017
 

Several of my Skeptical Inquirer articles are referenced in the new Indiana University Press book UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens: What Science Says, by Don Prothero and Tim Callahan, with a foreword by Michael Shermer (you can see the book HERE). I can’t want to read it!

 

51K-HMnVP8L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

 

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! 

 

 

Aug 112017
 

Episode 18: Food Evolution Documentary and Chewing the Fat on GMOs

This week on Squaring the Strange, Celestia, Pascual, and I open with a discussion on what people consider uncanny, bizarre, or strange. What takes something from implausible to downright mysterious? An understanding of statistics is one angle to consider, but ignorance of particular fields is also at work: from the World Trade Center to the pyramids to cancer remissions, people who lack the relevant technical knowledge are the ones gobsmacked by particular events or facts. Headline writers emphasize this “bizarre” aspect without providing context, leading many to jump right to conspiracy theories or supernatural explanations.

Then Celestia, back from the 2017 meeting of the Institute of Food Technologists, discusses the new GMO documentary, Food Evolution. The film was funded by IFT but director Scott Hamilton Kennedy was given complete control over topic, content, and approach, and he chose to tackle the human side of the GMO/organic controversy. Kennedy did a beautiful job bringing the human element to the forefront and takes viewers along a persuasive narrative of finding common ground and changing minds. We touch on hot button topics like GMO labeling, evil corporations like Monsanto, and patenting living organisms. We also discuss the negative feedback the movie has so far received, and the strength (or rather lack of strength) in the arguments that the anti-GMO crowd has put forth. Namely, a Huffington Post columnist supported by organic industries decries the appearance of a logo in the film’s background, and Mike Adams calls Neil deGrasse Tyson a race traitor.

Lastly, we let you know how to check for a screening of Food Evolution in your area, and give shoutouts to some online resources for anyone wanting to learn more about GMO tech.

Listen to the show HERE! 

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 

Aug 102017
 

My Skeptical Inquirer article on online predators was recently referenced in the new MIT Press book Worried About the Wrong Things: Youth, Risk, and Opportunity in the Digital World, by Prof. Jacqueline Vickery of the University of North Texas!

41sFLkmFxpL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_

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! 

Aug 062017
 

I’m quoted, along with eminent scholar Daniel C. Dennett, Ted Schick, and others, on the question of “What’s the harm in false beliefs?”

Here’s an excerpt:

False beliefs, by themselves, are not harmful. Belief is inherently harmless; believing that you can safely jump off a building isn’t a problem until you actually attempt it. It is instead the actions and decisions made based on those false beliefs that cause harm. Every human lives and dies having held countless false or unproven beliefs. Most of them are insignificant (such as, perhaps, thinking Sydney is the capital of Australia); some are profoundly personal (such as, perhaps, not knowing one was adopted); and still others are serious and life threatening. With each false belief a person sheds, they decrease their chance of being harmed by that belief in the future. Thus the harm in a given belief depends entirely on what the specific belief is. Belief in the efficacy of unproven medicine can kill; belief in psychics has cost people their life savings, and so on. There are also many indirect harms and costs to false beliefs; people have died while hunting for ghosts and looking for mythical lost treasures. Others have spent decades of their lives—and personal fortunes—searching for Atlantis, Nessie, and other myths based on unfounded beliefs. Belief in extraterrestrials did not, by itself, cause the 1997 Heaven’s Gate suicides, but it was a key element in the cult’s belief systems.

False beliefs can harm not just the deceived but others as well, for example parents who refuse their children medical care in the belief that God will heal them. I have for many years documented the harm that comes from belief in magic—not just historically but in the present day; women in India and Pakistan have been accused of witchcraft and murdered, and in East Africa albinos have had their limbs hacked off with machetes for use in magic rituals. The harm is all around us if we choose to look. Fundamentally the answer is that truth matters; what is real and accurate and true is important. An excellent forgery of a great painting is still a forgery, and whether it’s authentic or not should matter to someone who buys it. Ignorance is the default condition of mankind, with critical thinking and skepticism the best ways to fill that knowledge vacuum with information and fact upon which to make human progress.

You can read the rest HERE. 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 

Aug 052017
 

The 1937 disappearance of pioneer pilot Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan in the Pacific Ocean has been the subject of continuing research, debate, and speculation—most recently in a show titled Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence.

 

AE History title card

I wrote an in-depth analysis of the show; here’s an excerpt:

 

If the photo is what it’s claimed to be, it means that the “lost” pair were alive and well on a dock in the Marshall Islands in 1937. That still doesn’t fully explain where they went after the photo was taken, and as noted the show suggests they were captured by the Japanese and died in prison on Saipan—a fact that the U.S. government knew about and covered up.

To be clear, this idea is not new and is only one of many theories put forth over the years—and widely rejected for lack of evidence. While Earhart’s precise fate remains unknown, the most widely accepted explanation is also the most mundane: they ran out of fuel and their plane crashed into the vast Pacific Ocean. In an effort to breathe life (and ratings) into a theory heavy on speculation but light on evidence, the History Channel offered what they claimed was something akin to a smoking gun: a blurry photograph of what might or might not be Earhart and Noonan.

Doubts were raised about that explanation before the show aired and quickly escalated afterward. As National Geographic explained, “New evidence indicates that the photograph was published in a 1935 Japanese-language travelogue about the islands of the South Pacific. As Japanese military history blogger Kota Yamano noted in a July 9 post, he found the book after searching the National Diet Library, Japan’s national library, using the term ‘Jaluit Atoll,’ the location featured in the photograph.”

Instead of being hidden in a secret archive deep in the guarded National Security vaults, the image popped up on the first page of search results: “His search query turned up the travelogue, The Ocean’s ‘Lifeline’: The Condition of Our South Seas, which features the ‘Earhart’ photograph on page 44. One translation of the caption describes a lively port that regularly hosted schooner races—with no mention of Earhart or Noonan to be found. Page 113 of the book indicates that the travelogue was published in October 1935.”

This of course poses a problem because the photo was published two years before Earhart’s final flight. It’s almost certainly not Earhart but even if it was, it has nothing to do with her disappearance. Displaying keen investigative acumen, Yamano said in an interview “I find it strange that the documentary makers didn’t confirm the date of the photograph or the publication in which it originally appeared. That’s the first thing they should have done.”

To be fair, the entire show does not stand or fall on the photograph’s authenticity. The show’s producers likely knew that the photo itself might not be entirely convincing and suggested that there was hard forensic evidence to support the theory: bones found on the island where Earhart supposedly died were to be subjected to genetic testing and compared to Earhart’s known relatives to prove she was on the island. As Eve Siebert noted on the July 12 episode of The Virtual Skeptics podcast, “I’m assuming that this did not actually happen because if they were able to identify bones buried on Saipan identified as Earhart’s, they really buried the lede by focusing on that blurry photograph.”

The History Channel promised viewers in a July 9 tweet that “After tonight, the story of Amelia Earhart will no longer have a question mark.” This prediction turned out to be prophetic; indeed, the single question mark has since been replaced by dozens of question marks—ranging from the integrity of the History Channel to the competence of its on-air researchers. (If it’s any consolation, the recent show almost certainly supplants a 2012 show that Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning called “one of the worst examples of television promoting pseudohistory.”)

 

You can read the rest HERE. 

 

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 

Aug 022017
 

I’m quoted in a new article about the “Blue Whale game” scare.:

On the surface, Blue Whale has all the hallmarks of a moral panic similar to other “challenges” that often scared parents, such as the choking gamepharma parties, and the fire challenge. All of these were cases where parents, local authorities, and click-hungry media outlets took either isolated incidents or rumors and turned them into full blown scares, no matter how many people were actually doing them.

Indeed, prominent skeptic Benjamin Radford wrote that Blue Whale shares many traits with classic moral panics, including “modern technology and seemingly benign personal devices as posing hidden dangers to children and teens, the threat [of] some influential evil stranger who manipulates the innocent, and an element of conspiracy theory.”

There’s also more on this in a recent episode of Squaring the Strange….

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 

Jul 302017
 

This blog is part of a series I’ve titled “Unco Junto” (after the discussion clubs founded by Benjamin Franklin) in which I offer an introductory topic essay and a handful of commenters are invited to respond in any way they see fit. The goal is to provide a forum for long-form–and hopefully provocative–analysis in a media often dominated by superficial sound bites. The entry examines the nature of hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy seems to be a running theme on the news and in social media, especially in the political sphere. It seems that hardly a week goes by that one political party is not accusing the other of hypocrisy, on everything from confirming Supreme Court judges to health care reforms. When President Trump fired FBI James Comey in May, White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stated that the reaction from Democrats was “the purest form of hypocrisy” and that “Most of the people declaring war today were the very ones what were begging for Director Comey to be fired.” This accusation of hypocrisy is objectively and factually incorrect; though many Democrats had criticized Comey at various times (including for his handling of Hillary Clinton’s e-mail investigation shortly before the presidential election), almost none of them had in fact called for Comey to resign or be fired; the sole exception was Tennessee’s Rep. Steve Cohen. In fact there was bipartisan concern over Trump’s handling of the matter, as well as the varying justifications given for Comey’s firing. Here is an analysis of three examples of claimed hypocrisy, followed by a brief look at the phenomenon.

You can find it HERE! 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 

Jul 092017
 

The latest episode of Squaring the Strange is out! This week we explore the topic of nostalgia and how a good dose of skepticism is needed in how we remember things. Pascual is skeptical about a news story regarding sperm in women’s bodies and I offer some analysis on the oft-heard question “Why aren’t they calling it Terrorism?” following certain attacks. Celestia also stops by with a fortune cookie about a much beloved figure in the skeptic world. Check it out!

 

StS facebook banner text

 

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! 

Jul 082017
 

For those who missed it, I was recently a guest on “StarTalk Radio” with Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, and the irrepressible Seth Shostak! Topics included UFOs, conspiracy theories, and whether a shortage of cow anuses on other planets is the cause of mysterious cattle mutilations.

You can listen HERE. 

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 

Jul 062017
 

Did you miss the recent episode of Squaring the Strange in which we explored the nuance of the Hans Christian Andersen classic fairy tale “The Emperors New Clothes”” You may think you remember this story, but there are some oft-overlooked twists! Also in this episode, we read a piece of fan mail and Celestia cracks into another fortune cookie!

StS facebook banner text

Listen to 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! 

Jul 042017
 

My overview article on crop circles is now up at LiveScience.com, check it out!

Crop circles — strange patterns that appear mysteriously overnight in farmers’ fields—provoke puzzlement, delight and intrigue among the press and public alike. The circles are mostly found in the United Kingdom, but have spread to dozens of countries around the world in past decades. The mystery has inspired countless books, blogs, fan groups, researchers (dubbed “cereologists”) and even Hollywood films.

Despite having been studied for decades, the question remains: Who — or what — is making them?

Find out HERE!

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 

Jun 282017
 

In my new CFI blog I examine the recent interview of conspiracist Alex Jones by NBC’s Megan Kelly…

Former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly is doing her best to establish herself as a hard-nosed journalist in recent interviews with Russian president Vladimir Putin and conspiracy peddler Alex Jones. Both shows were breathlessly hyped, and while Putin has spent decades conducting disinformation campaigns (and continues to do so; see my CSI Special Report “How Russian Conspiracies Taint Social Activist ‘News’”), the interview with Jones was the more controversial. This was due in part to Jones’s promotion of the conspiracy that the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, was a hoax.

The question of whether or not Kelly should have given Jones more of a platform for his blinkered views (or any legitimacy) is a fair one—and one she anticipated. In the program Kelly defended her decision at least partly on the grounds that Jones has some influence over the President of the United States. As I’ve noted in Skeptical Inquirer magazine and elsewhere (and in a PBS NewsHour segment), no modern politician has so successfully and routinely employed conspiracy theories as Donald Trump. Trump enjoys flirting with fringe and extremist elements including conspiracy theorists, and has appeared on Jones’s program. This is a legitimate concern, and Alex Jones, as the source of many of those conspiracies, is by extension useful to understand.

That being said, the Kelly interview generated more heat than light (or ratings, as I’ll touch on). I watched the first ten minutes of the interview—it was about as much as I could stomach—and it was exactly what I expected. Jones blustered and bluffed his way through the interview, blithely brushing aside self-evident contradictions and routinely resorting to the familiar tactic of “I’m not saying any of this is true… I’m just asking questions!” What, if anything, Jones really believes remains an uninteresting mystery and it’s unlikely the program changed any minds.

You can find 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! 

Jun 242017
 

I was recently interviewed for the website ParanormalBucket, talking about skepticism, how it’s different from debunking, approaching investigations, and some of my favorite cases!

Here’s the first question and answer:

Riley Mitchell: You have described yourself as a “science-based” paranormal investigator. Would you explain a bit about what that designation means in practice and how you go about your work?

Ben Radford: I use “science-based” to contrast with other types of investigation, most of which are subjective. There are many ways humans find out about the world around us. The most common is through personal experience; we see or hear something, learn from it, and move on. For the most part personal experience works well for everyday things like learning not to lock your keys in the car. But personal experience can sometimes mislead us, especially when dealing with things that we don’t encounter every day—such as the paranormal.

Personal perception and experience tells us that our planet revolves around us. The sun moves across the sky from east to west, while we don’t appear to be moving at all. But personal experience is of course wrong; it is instead the Earth that revolves around the sun. Science reveals that the earth we walk on is also revolving at over 1,000 miles per hour (at the equator)—contrary to personal experience. So science is very useful in offering objective analysis. Though science doesn’t have all the details, it has many of them, and those parts that scientists still don’t understand won’t be filled by the earlier “mysterious” explanations. Science is simply a way of examining the world, a very effective method of analysis and investigation. You don’t need to be a scientist to investigate unexplained mysteries, but you do need to understand the principles involved.

Science has proven itself incredibly successful in explaining and finding out about the world. If we wish to know why a certain disease strikes one person and not another, we turn to medicine instead of a witch doctor. If we wish to know how to build a bridge that can span a river, we turn to physics instead of psychics. Paranormal or “unexplained” topics are testable by science: either a psychic’s prediction comes true or it doesn’t; either ghosts exist in the real world or they don’t.

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! 

Jun 202017
 

I was interviewed last year for an article on government mind control conspiracies.

Or was I?

Find out HERE. 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 

Jun 152017
 

I was recently interviewed for Vice media’s popular Motherboard site about my investigation into the 1997 Pokemon seizure mass hysteria incident, which was published both in the Southern Medical Journal and also in Skeptical Inquirer magazine sixteen years ago this month (May/June 2001). The series is titled “Science Solved It!” and the interview can be heard HERE. 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 

Jun 132017
 

I was recently interviewed for Voice of Islam’s Drivetime radio show, discussing Orwell’s book 1984 and its relevance to 2017. The topics ranged from Big Brother mass surveillance, concerns about public privacy, and the use of doublespeak in politics (including under the current U.S. president). You can hear the interview HERE. 

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 

May 232017
 

My new CFI blog examines a case study in TV ghost hunting illogic and pseudoscience. “This show aired in 2016 when the two stars have, they claimed, a combined thirty years of ghost hunting experience. In any other career, a third of a century experience would result in demonstrably better results, but not in ghost hunting, where thirty minutes of ghost hunting experience can yield exactly the same results as thirty years.”

 

There is no one “right” way to investigate paranormal and ghost claims, except through the use of critical thinking and scientific methods. The techniques I present in my seminars and book Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries have proven themselves useful and effective in solving mysteries. They are drawn from many sources including professional investigations (such as procedures used by police detectives, FBI agents, and investigative journalists), scientific methodologies, formal and informal logic, psychology, personal experience, and other investigators-along with a dose of common sense.

Often it’s useful to provide examples of flawed investigations, and in that light I offer an analysis of a recent episode of the ghost hunting show Kindred Spirits titled “Breaking and Entering” (airdate November 18, 2016). In it former Ghost Hunters cast members Amy Bruni and Adam Berry investigate a supposedly haunted home owned by a woman named Meghan.

 

Read more HERE.

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 

May 172017
 

My Skeptical Inquirer column about the purported links between EMF fields and ghosts is now online!

Many ghost hunters, including the T.A.P.S. team on the television show Ghost Hunters, use EMF detectors to search for electromagnetic fields because they believe that intense magnetic fields can create hallucinations, which in turn might create the illusion of ghosts. The basis for this theory comes primarily from research done by a Canadian cognitive neuroscientist, Michael Persinger. He found that hallucinations (such as out-of-body experiences) could be triggered by stimulating specific areas of the brain with fixed wavelength patterns of high-level electromagnetic fields…

You can read the rest HERE.

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 

May 122017
 

Nice note from a teacher friend of mine, glad to see an article I wrote several years ago is still being read and steering people toward skepticism…

 

17862855_10210482455911940_5631467270778665380_n

 

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 082017
 

How useful is the Facebook ‘Safety Check’ function during terrorism and disaster? A closer look in my CFI blog…

When the attacks in London happened, many people used Facebook’s “Safety Check” functions to alert friends and family that they were safe.

When launching the feature, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced, “When disasters happen, people need to know their loved ones are safe. It’s moments like this that being able to connect really matters.” As Wired explains, “When activated, Safety Check locates Facebook users near a disaster site through the city they list on their profile, or from where they last used the Internet. Users then receive a notification asking to confirm that they’re safe or to say that they weren’t in the affected area. Those who choose ‘safe’ generate a notification to their friends and followers, who can track how many of their friends were affected.”

I’m sure the effort is well intended, but my natural skepticism led me to wonder just how useful it really is. There are about 10 million people in London at any given time (8.5 million residents plus another 1.5 million visitors per month, roughly) and the chances that any given one of them will be harmed or killed in terrorism or a natural disaster is very remote.

You can read the rest HERE. 

 

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

Apr 302017
 

I recently recorded an in-studio segment with Shabam!, a new science podcast for kids. My role: explaining skepticism, and how to think critically and evaluate claims:

Shabam! is a new type of science show that blends fictional stories with real science. If you love science but hate those awkward scientist interviews that involve graphs and confusing metaphors, you’re in luck. First off, Shabam! is an audio program – so no graphs. And second, through the magic of sound effects and music, you’ll hear stories that reveal the awesomeness in the world around us – like cellphones and vaccinations.

In season one, our main story is about three kids separated from their parents during a Zombie apocalypse. Over the course of 10 episodes we follow their quest to reunite with their families. But their experience leads us to another conclusion – that there’s a lot of science all around us that we take for granted.

And finally, you may be wondering whether we’ve added silly songs and jokes to make up for the fact that we can’t show you graphs. Yes we have. Also, we only interview cool scientists who aren’t awkward, which means the whole family can enjoy it!

 

I’ll let you know when it’s out!

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

Apr 202017
 

My work has been included in the new edition of a university textbook on Abnormal Psychology. (No, I’m not a case study.) Cool!

41FJcFxOraL._SX412_BO1,204,203,200_

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

Apr 182017
 

“This photo of Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg has one convicted felon; if you immediately assumed it was Stewart, you should think again!”

mindful of stereotypes!

This meme is a wonderful lesson in prejudice and stereotypes–or at least it would be if they weren’t both convicted felons… Stay skeptical, my friends!

 

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

Apr 152017
 

I was recently a guest on the NPR affiliate WAMU in D.C., “The Kojo Nnamdi Show”, talking about the role of skepticism and media literacy in recent rumors of child abductions. You can hear the interview HERE. 

 

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

Apr 122017
 

An inspirational cancer survivor widely honored (and featured in Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” video) turns out to have made up or changed important parts of her past. Now many of her supporters are feeling betrayed, accusing her of theft, faking illness, and worse. It’s a fascinating lesson in how easily people can be manipulated by tapping into popular narratives, and why critical thinking is important…

You can read the remarkable, in-depth CNN article HERE. 

 

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

Apr 082017
 

I was recently interviewed by Vice media about my investigation into the 1997 Pokemon Seizure case.

IMG_0739

I think the girl who got me a latte at my favorite coffee shop wasn’t even born when I solved that mystery…

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

Apr 052017
 

A Memphis mother calls police saying that her baby son was kidnapped by a Black man who stole her car. An Amber Alert was issued; police dogs, helicopters, and searchers scoured the area for hours–and find that her baby was never missing.

Skeptics and skeptical researchers routinely encounter and investigate a wide variety false reports: False reports of Bigfoot, UFOs, miracle healings, alien abductions, psychics, illnesses, and so on. I’ve personally investigated many such reports, including of phantom clowns (see my book Bad Clowns for more), racist conspiracy theories and legends (such as the Blood Libel anti-Jewish myth and anti-Muslim stories), and more. The xenophobic archetype of the evil outsider is ancient and takes on new forms. Understanding the psychology and motivations behind false reports can be enormously helpful. Some of them are hoaxes, but many are the result of sincere mistakes, misperceptions, and other cognitive errors.

When false reports concern “unexplained” topics (faked ghost sightings or UFO photos, for example), the result is usually just wasted time and the loss of credibility of a hoaxer or its proponents. However when false reports involve real-world subjects (for lack of a better term) they often implicate minorities and can result in miscarriages of justice. False reports of crimes, for example, are often used as a weapon against minorities.

You may recall Susan Smith, the mother who in 1994 blamed an African-American man for kidnapping her children when she in fact drowned them in a lake. Or Jennifer Wilbanks, the so-called “Runaway Bride” who claimed to have been kidnapped and assaulted by a Hispanic man, but who had in fact voluntarily left her groom at the altar. Or the infamous Central Park Five case, in which five Black and Latino teenagers were arrested in 1989 for the brutal rape and assault of a white jogger in New York’s Central Park. Many people–including Donald Trump and African-American poet Sapphire (author of Push, from which the Oscar-winning film Precious was adapted)–jumped on the bandwagon falsely accusing the young men of the crime. The list goes on and on… and continues today.

For a more in-depth analysis see my CFI blog HERE. 

 

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

 

Mar 252017
 

My recent interview on NPR about UFOs and aliens, opposite Leslie Kean, George Noory, and others, is now out. It’s not a bad show, but if you want to hear some skepticism, start about 40 minutes in… you can listen HERE.

From the Colin McEnroe show:

UFOs have been reported in America since the 1600s. And in all that time our government has largely dismissed the objects as being of Earthly origin. But this culture of dismissal in the U.S. is not indicative of how sightings are handled around the world. Some foreign governments readily discuss the possibility of extraterrestrials having visited Earth, and others go so far as to openly support the possibility.

As reports of UFO sightings in America have skyrocketed since the 1940’s, we ask why the phenomenon isn’t given a more serious look. We’ll examine some of the most compelling cases of all time and ask what it is about these unidentified objects that captivates the imaginations of so many. This hour we speak with believers and skeptics about UFO’s.

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

Mar 202017
 

While there are many factors in Trump’s rise, one of the most bizarre is his use of conspiracies. Whether the topic is voter fraud, Obama wiretapping Trump Towers, or anti-vaccination arguments, no modern politician has so successfully and routinely employed conspiracy theories as Donald Trump.

Political conspiracies, both real (Watergate) and dubious (G.W. Bush was behind the 9/11 attacks) are nothing new. In the 16th and 17th centuries, for example, during outbreaks of the bubonic plague, dozens of people in what is now Switzerland and Italy were arrested and accused of intentionally spreading the disease as part of a plot to steal from sickened, wealthy landowners.

But Trump’s endorsement of conspiracies is unprecedented in American politics. Trump enjoys flirting with fringe and extremist elements including conspiracy theorists. Trump has also appeared on the radio show of noted conspiracy advocate Alex Jones, who has repeatedly claimed that the Obama administration has faked or staged domestic shootings (including the Sandy Hook school massacre) as a pretext for confiscating American’s guns.

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.

Mar 112017
 

From a review of my book Bad Clowns in Fortean Times magazine (Issue 349): “Benjamin Radford shows in his masterful survey that bad clowns have always been with us…. This is not a dry or scholarly read, and there’s a lot of welcome debunking. Bad Clowns moves colorfully and quickly, thanks to Radford’s acerbic wit. Verdict: A clown car just stuffed with insight and wit. 8 out of 10.”

Not bad!

Bad Clowns small

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

Mar 052017
 

My recent blog on how a faked abduction may have contributed to the mosque shooting in Quebec, and why false crime reports often target minorities…

 

Skeptics and skeptical researchers routinely encounter and investigate a wide variety false reports: False reports of Bigfoot, UFOs, miracle healings, alien abductions, psychics, illnesses, and so on. I’ve personally investigated many such reports, including of phantom clowns (see my book Bad Clowns for more), racist conspiracy theories and legends (such as the Blood Libel anti-Jewish myth and anti-Muslim stories), and more. The xenophobic archetype of the evil outsider is ancient and takes on new forms. Understanding the psychology and motivations behind false reports can be enormously helpful. Some of them are hoaxes, but many are the result of sincere mistakes, misperceptions, and other cognitive errors.

When false reports concern “unexplained” topics (faked ghost sightings or UFO photos, for example), the result is usually just wasted time and the loss of credibility of a hoaxer or its proponents. However when false reports involve real-world subjects (for lack of a better term) they often implicate minorities and can result in miscarriages of justice. False reports of crimes, for example, are often used as a weapon against minorities.

You may recall Susan Smith, the mother who in 1994 blamed an African-American man for kidnapping her children when she in fact drowned them in a lake. Or Jennifer Wilbanks, the so-called “Runaway Bride” who claimed to have been kidnapped and assaulted by a Hispanic man, but who had in fact voluntarily left her groom at the altar. Or the infamous Central Park Five case, in which five Black and Latino teenagers were arrested in 1989 for the brutal rape and assault of a white jogger in New York’s Central Park. Many people–including Donald Trump and African-American poet Sapphire (author of Push, from which the Oscar-winning film Precious was adapted)–jumped on the bandwagon falsely accusing the young men of the crime. The list goes on and on… and continues today…

The Abduction of Alyssa Langille

On Sunday January 15, a 15-year-old Canadian girl named Alyssa Langille was abducted by two men in Mississauga, near Toronto. According to news reports, “A witness said two men jumped out of a silver van at St. Barbara Blvd. and Comiskey Cres. just after 1 p.m. on Sunday. They forced the girl into the van and were last seen heading south on St. Barbara towards Derry Rd., according to the witness.” The suspects were described as a “South Asian man around 24 years old, described as tall with a thin build, and wearing an orange turban with a grey sweater with cut off sleeves and a green shirt underneath. The second was simply described as a South Asian male.” Based on that information an Amber Alert was issued, and the news media told the public to be on the lookout for these abductors and their victim.

Exactly two weeks later in the neighboring province of Quebec, a man named Alexandre Bissonnette allegedly opened fire in a mosque, killing six people and wounding eight others in what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a “terrorist attack on Muslims.”

Though the suspects in Langille’s abduction were not specifically identified as Muslim–Sikhs and other turban-wearing groups have of course been mistaken for Muslims–the South Asian nation of Indonesia has a high percentage of Muslims, and the implication was clear to Canadian audiences. In another layer of fear-fueling misinformation about minorities, Fox News falsely tweeted that the suspect in the attack was of North African heritage, specifically Moroccan. Fox News eventually removed the information after being asked to do so by Trudeau’s director of communications, Kate Purchase. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation also made the same error.

As it turns out Alyssa Langille was not in fact abducted. Her father had called police after the girl’s sister found that Alyssa had placed clothes in her bed to make it appear as though she was still sleeping in it, but she had run away. Toronto police found Alyssa in Scarborough, a district of Toronto, unharmed.

It’s easy to see how Langille’s abduction would have hit a nerve, especially in Canada’s eastern provinces; as The New York Times noted, “right-wing extremism has long thrived in Canada among skinheads, white supremacists and others,” particularly in Quebec. The racist trope of the ethnic foreigner preying on young white women is particularly evocative; perhaps one of the best known cases involved Emmett Till, the African-American teenager who was lynched in Mississippi at the age of 14 in 1955 after reportedly flirting with a White woman. According to recent news reports, Till’s “accuser has recanted the most incendiary parts of her claims against him. Carolyn Bryant Donham told author Timothy B. Tyson that her long-ago allegations that Emmett grabbed her and was menacing and sexually crude toward her, ‘that part is not true.'” Indeed, defending the “honor” of White females is a longstanding theme in White nationalism.

Whether the (non)abduction of Langille partly inspired Bissonnette to attack the mosque is unknown at the moment, but it is almost certain that the social media-savvy extremist was aware that a dark-skinned turban-wearing man and his colleague were being sought in connection with the abduction–or worse–of the young blonde woman.

There is a further ironic twist to this story. Usually it is the “victim” who falsely accuses racial or ethnic minorities of their kidnapping or assault–often because it lends crediblity to their claims and plays into widely accepted negative stereotypes about those groups. In this case it turns out the eyewitness who claimed to have seen Alyssa Langille abducted by a turban-wearing man in a van was Uzma Khan, described as “a 32-year-old woman from Mississauga” Ontario, who has now been charged with public mischief for her false report and is due in court later this month.

It’s not known why Khan made the false report–perhaps it was for attention, or she misunderstood something she saw–but her decision to specify that a fictional abductor resembled a popular image of Muslims may have had results she could not have predicted. False crime reports of any kind are not only a waste of police resources and divert attention from real victims, but they can also have real-world consequences.

Feb 282017
 

I got a Google Scholar alerting me that my research on African witchcraft and superstition belief is cited in a new academic book, “Witchcraft as a Social Diagnosis.” Glad my work is helping to bring attention to the dangers and injustice of modern-day witch hunts!

16406896_10209957829916618_9012068555534851240_n

Feb 252017
 

Those times you really agree with someone, then they go off the rails… my new CFI blog:

About once or twice a month (though sometimes once or twice a week, depending on how much I’m reading at the time), I come across an article or blog that makes some important point that I agree with. Maybe it’s about the need for skepticism, or about politics, or anything else. I’m reading along, nodding in approval in paragraph after paragraph (or assertion after assertion), pleased at thinking about those it might educate.

And, just as my finger is reaching to share or like the post, I wince. The writer or commenter stumbles, making a gaffe or mistake that I can’t in good conscience implicitly endorse. It’s frustrating because I agree with the overall point, and think the comment or piece merits a wider audience.

It’s like some well-intentioned skeptic writing a piece about why the evidence for Bigfoot (or recovered memories, or alien visitation) is poor, and giving two solid, accurate reasons–followed by a third which is flat-out wrong, or an argument whose premise is embarrassingly flawed. This happens regularly enough that I’ve taken to describing it (to myself anyway) as The 10% Fail. Ninety percent of it is on target, but the last ten percent undermines the author’s credibility in some way. This issue is a common lament among professional skeptics: a well-meaning but inexperienced skeptic goes on television or gives an interview-ostensibly representing organized skepticism–in which he or she misspeaks or mangles some salient fact in the process of debunking some bogus claim, and that error is then seized upon by opponents as proof that skeptics (writ large) don’t know what they’re talking about.

I recently found an example of this, written by Andrew David Thaler of the Southern Fried Science…

Read more HERE. 

Jan 262017
 

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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 232017
 

A new horror film titled The Bye Bye Man scared up $16 million in box office sales over the past week. The film is based on the chapter “The Bridge to Body Island” in Robert Damon Schneck’s nonfiction book The President’s Vampire (reissued last year as The Bye Bye Man, complete with the obligatory cover teaser “Now a terrifying motion picture!”).

the-bye-bye-man-poster-099178297d2f630b

Intrigued by the topic, I read the book and interviewed the author. Our conversation covered a wide range of topics, from alien abductees to Charles Fort’s disappointingly lax scholarship (see Schneck’s chapter “The President’s Vampire” for more), but we soon chatted about the monstrous creation he helped usher to the big screen… you can read my Special Report HERE.

 

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

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.