Jun 052019
 

My new CFI blog is out! I take a brief look at the folklore behind the genie in 'Aladdin,' and explain how Disney's "genies" came from Arabic "jinn."

With the much-hyped release of the new version of Disney’s Aladdin, I thought it would be interesting to take a brief folkloric look at genies and jinn.

Jinn (or djinn) refers to creatures that appeared in medieval Arabic folklore; they were usually depicted as threatening and free-willed—so dangerous in fact that rituals and amulets are and were used to protect against them. Though belief in jinn predates the creation of Islam, the creatures are referenced in the Koran; Allah created three types of beings from three substances: humans (made of earth); angels (made of light); and jinn (made of smokeless fire). Many Muslims around the world today believe in the literal existence of these jinn, much as many Christians around the world believe in the literal existence of angels.

In his book Legends of the Fire Spirits: Jinn and Genies from Arabia to Zanzibar researcher Robert Lebling notes that “jinn are taken seriously and regarded as real, tangible beings by a large segment of the world’s population…. They often appear humanoid or even human but possess amazing powers we lack. They can change their shapes, can fly through the air, and even can render themselves invisible.” Jinn are sometimes blamed for unexplained minor health scares, accidents, and misfortune. Like spirits and demons, jinn are said to be able to possess humans and can be exorcised from the human body through rituals. Jinn are believed, like ghosts, to sometimes haunt buildings, homes, and other locations. They are associated with wind and fire.

Genies, on the other hand, are the Westernized, commercialized, and often sanitized versions of the jinn, such as the genie in Aladdin. Jinn are not particularly known for their Aladdin-like wish granting (though they can be commanded to carry out tasks by those schooled in the magical arts); that aspect is much more closely aligned with genies—perhaps best known to American audiences in I Dream of Jeannie and Aladdin.

You can read the rest of the article HERE.

And for much more listen to the episode of Squaring the Strange we did on the topic; it's HERE!

Jun 042019
 

My new CFI media literacy article examines the demographics of American mass shooters. Many people believe that most mass shooters are white males, but in fact it varies by type of shooting; there is no single representative or predictive demographic, other than being male: "Singling out any specific race as being dangerous—or, worse yet, highlighting rare anecdotal violent incidents as representative of larger groups—is more likely to fuel racism than help the public."

With the recent tragic attacks against Muslims in New Zealand by an Australian white supremacist, the world once again turned its attention to mass shootings. It’s a subject that has captivated America for years with little progress in understanding the nature of the problem.

The topic of mass shootings is fraught not only with political agendas but also with rampant misinformation. Facile comparisons and snarky memes dominate social media, crowding out objective, evidence-based evidence and analysis. This is effective for scoring political points but wholly counterproductive for understanding the nature of the problem and its broader issues.

The public’s perception of mass shootings is heavily influenced by mass media, primarily news media and social media. In my capacity as a media literacy educator (and author of several books on the topic, including Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us), I have in past articles for the Center for Inquiry attempted to unpack thorny and contentious social issues such as the labeling of terrorists (see, for example, my April 2, 2018, Special Report “Why ‘They’ Aren’t Calling It ‘Terrorism’–A Primer”) and the claim that “the media” isn’t covering certain news stories because of some social or political agenda (see my November 9, 2018, piece “’Why Isn’t The Media Covering This Story?’—Or Are They?”).

You can read Part 1 HERE, and Part 2 HERE.

Apr 192019
 

This week we take a quick look at the Momo challenge's resurgence and surprisingly mainstream fall; then for our main segment we dive back into the strange, sketchy world of Ed & Lorraine Warren. These opportunistic and not-exactly-truthful storytellers are a big reason the modern horror genre looks the way it does. Erik Kristopher Myers joins us once more to go through some of their biggest "cases": The Demon Murder Case, Amityville, and the hauntings behind the more recent Conjuring movies.

We look at what writers and other investigators who have worked with the Warrens had to say, and we examine the fallout that real-life people end up having to deal with as a result of the sensationalized tales of hauntings.

You can listen to the whole delightful episode HERE!

Apr 192019
 

I saw this meme recently, it’s a Cuban art project about exploited children. However one of the photos, bottom left, is based on an urban legend.

The artist is trying to raise awareness of child organ trafficking, but it doesn’t actually happen. I’ve researched, written about, and debunked this myth. There are organ *sales* in some countries (e.g., India and Pakistan), but they are voluntarily sold by adults.

Children’s organs are unusable by adults, so there’s no real demand for them on the black market. The irony is that this myth has actually been used to increase fear and hatred of foreigners—it’s exactly the sort of conspiracy Trump would use. It’s an interesting piece but unfortunately perpetuates harmful myths.

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 182019
 

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 dig into the legend of Kuchisake-Onna, aka the Slit-mouthed Woman. From the origins of her terrifying story to the modern day pop culture references, the guys explore every creepy detail.

Also in this episode, Ben is skeptical of what makes something fictional "problematic" and just how serious the implications are. You can hear the episode HERE!

Apr 102019
 

Recent news reports claimed that most people intentionally disrespect transgendered individuals by calling them by something other than their preferred gender pronoun. For example one piece began: “Three in five people internationally report that they would intentionally misgender a transgender person, according to a recent survey. Ipsos found that only two out of five people in Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and the United States said they would call a trans man ‘he’ and a trans woman ‘she,’ instead of misgendering them.”

Written by Jeff Taylor for LGBTQ Nation, the article’s headline is “3 in 5 People Will Deliberately Misgender a Trans Person to Show Disrespect.”

Fortunately for trans people—though unfortunately for Taylor’s journalistic credibility—it’s not true.

For clarification we can go to the original study—the LGTBQ Nation article conspicuously did not provide a link—and look at what the questions and results were. We can begin by noting that the findings of the study bear little relation to the headline. In fact the study says nothing at all about the misgendering being either “deliberate” or intended to “show disrespect.”

The results vary slightly by country and whether the subject is a transgender man or transgender woman (see the graphs below), but for example we see that in the United States, the majority of Americans (38%, the single highest response) would refer to a trans man with a masculine pronoun, while about half that percentage, 21%, would refer to the person using a feminine pronoun. A slightly larger percentage, 23%, said they didn’t know how they would refer to the person, and a minority (18%) said they would refer to the person using a gender-neutral pronoun.

It doesn’t clarify whether any misgendering is intentional. It’s a subtle distinction, but the question doesn’t ask people what pronoun they would use when addressing a transgender person, but instead “when speaking about” him or her. Thus without context we cannot know whether that usage is motivated by intent to show disrespect or simply not knowing what the hypothetical trans person’s preference is. They may misgender people accidentally, or because they are unsure of the person’s preferred address, or out of hostility, or because they simply aren’t aware of the proper etiquette.

We cannot assume, as Taylor seems to, that any response other than the pronoun that aligns with how the persons lives and dresses—such as a neutral pronoun or “I don’t know”—necessarily indicates an attempt to deliberately misgender anyone. To do so is misleading at best and fearmongering at worst.

For more on this, see my CFI blog HERE.

Mar 282019
 

I'm seeing a lot of confusion on social media about definitions of "terrorism" and why certain people/groups are/are not labeled "terrorists." Simplistic memes aside, the topic is a bit nuanced but worth understanding. I wrote about it last year, for those who'd like a deeper dive.

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.)

As an NPR article explains, “there isn’t a federal charge of ‘domestic terrorism.’ The Patriot Act’s definition gives the Justice Department broad authority to investigate an individual or any group a suspect might be affiliated with. But the federal law doesn’t come with an actual criminal charge. To be charged with terrorism, a person has to be suspected of acting on behalf of one of nearly 60 groups that the State Department has declared a foreign terrorist organization. Some are well-known, including the Islamic State and al-Qaida, while others are far more obscure. Most, but not all, are Islamist. A person who carries out a mass attack and survives can face a range of charges, but unless the person is linked to one of the banned groups, a federal terrorism charge won’t be one of them.” This would be a formal, legal definition of Terrorism.

Of course, as the examples above illustrate, the American public rarely uses the legalistic definitions of common words such as terrorism. A friend of mine recently posted this widely-held sentiment on Facebook: “Despite it not being the legal definition, I’m completely fine with calling someone who makes an effort to scare, maim, and kill numbers of people a terrorist.” Let’s call this broader definition terrorism with a lowercase t.

With that in mind let’s break down and unpack the question: “Why aren’t they calling it terrorism?” In order to meaningfully answer that question you need to specify who you’re talking about, and which definition of terrorism you’re referring to.

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! 

You can find the rest HERE.

Mar 252019
 

There’s a new drug panic in town, and it’s not crack or opioids. It’s catnip. 

Well, it’s called “Catnip Cocktail,” and it actually contains no catnip. It contains a non-FDA-approved blend of a variety of chemicals including caffeine and something called 1,4-BD, which allegedly metabolizes into sedative akin to RHB, a “date-rape” drug. 

Marketed as “The Ultimate Mood Enhancer for Your Dogs and Cats,” it is touted somewhat ambiguously as having “Helpful pain relieving properties,” with “Non additive [sic] ingredients” (it presumably meant to say “non-addictive”). Curiously, the websitedoes not offer testimonials of effectiveness, either from licensed veterinarians or from dogs and cats themselves. 

It’s not clear who manufactures Catnip Cocktail, but any rate for only $22.50 per bottle plus shipping you too can get your hands on the hottest new recreational drug, or pet mood stabilizer, or whatever it is. 

According to theSan Jose Mercury News, Catnip Cocktail has been linked in some way to “several incidents where police in the northern New Jersey suburb encountered alarming behavior from people who appeared to be under the influence of the little-known drug. On Thursday, the Fairfield Police Department announced that they had raided Nutrition Zone and seized 61 bottles of Catnip Cocktail, along with other contraband. ‘This is a very dangerous product and it appears its improper use is on the rise,’ Fairfield Police Chief Anthony Manna said in a statement. ‘In executing today’s search warrant, the Fairfield Police Department has sent a clear message that we will do whatever we can to assure that Catnip Cocktail does not become the next drug fad.’” 

It may be too late: The Business Insideroffered an alarmist headlinewarning that “A dangerous drug called Catnip Cocktail is on the rise—and it’s driving people mad.”

Media Drug Panics

The way this story is unfolding is reminiscent of previous “new” drug scares. In 2007 news media covered bogus news stories such as jenkem(a hallucinogenic inhalant drug made from fermented feces that, according to alarmist news stories spread by trolls, was widely used among schoolkids). And of course there’s the debunked myth ofvodka-soaked tampons(reported by otherwise reputable news media including ABC News) being used by college women trying to get drunk quickly. Then there’s the “eyeball-licking fad”of 2013, a “dangerous new trend” among Japanese schoolchildren supposedly licking each other’s eyeballs and in the process supposedly spreading the highly contagious disease pink eye. Kids today.

In 2012 Florida man Rudy Eugene was accused of attacking a homeless man and biting his victim’s face and ripping his flesh until police shot him. Rumors and news stories claimed that Eugene was high at the time on a narcotic called “bath salts” (which is not a single, specific drug but instead a group of drugs containing mephedrone). This led to wild stories about the dangers of “bath salts,” including the suggestion that it would turn users into flesh-eating zombies—buttoxicology tests later revealedthat the only drug in his system at the time was marijuana. He may or may not have used bath salts before, but he wasn’t on them at the time. 

We see this same pattern in the current “Catnip Cocktail” stories: A handful of people who were found to be acting strangely, allegedly while in possession of vials of the animal sedative, but where there’s little or no evidence (in the form of toxicology reports, for example) that they were under the influence of them. 

In fact there’s reason to be skeptical of news stories linking the arrested individuals to the drug, because police have claimed that it has effects similar to GHB, which is a depressant. Its effects include drowsiness, loss of muscle control, and slowed heartbeat. But many of the incidents where users are suspected of being on Catnip Cocktail suggest theopposite, that they’re on a stimulant: dancing, euphoria, yelling, erratic behavior, and so on.

Many drug users mix substances, making it difficult or impossible to pharmacologically determine what drug caused what effect. If a person has meth, marijuana, and Catnip Cocktail in their systems, how do we know what effect, if any, the Catnip had? We have a half-dozen or so incidents which may, or may not, be actually linked to “Catnip Cocktail.” 

The “Catnip Cocktail” is being cast in news reports as a “dangerous new trend on the rise,” but again it’s hard to know how accurate that is. Without hard data about how many off-label (human) users and usages there are, there’s no way to know. If there have only been a few dozen cases of this illicit usage, then a half-dozen incidents is huge. If on the other hand there have been tens of thousands, or millions, then it’s a much smaller threat. We simply don’t have data, either in terms of drug usage or arrests, to support the claim that this is a dangerous new trend on the rise that the public need be fearful about. A handful of cases with some tangential connection to the drug doesn’t really translate into a “dangerous new fad.”

It’s entirely possible that some people are using the drug to get high—or to tryto get high, based on its reputed effects (such as those currently being hyped in news stories). In other words even if the drug has little or no real pharmacological effects in humans, there are some people who will try it anyway, looking for a cheap or new high. There are many media-created panics—usually involving some form of rumor and folklore—and Catnip Cocktail seems to be among them. 

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 222019
 

There's a new drug craze going around, called Catnip Cocktail, allegedly the latest thing since jenkem and "bath salts." In fact I was recently interviewed by "Rolling Stone" magazine about it; 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! 

Mar 122019
 

This week on our show Squaring the Strange, we start by looking at a Newsweek headline that's been circulating again recently, implying that one-third of Americans doubt the death toll of the Holocaust. Then we devote our main segment to an important essay that has become both style guide and etiquette manual to skeptical writers and critics. Ray Hyman, one of the original founders of CSICOP, outlined eight principles to follow when engaging in "proper criticism" of paranormal claims. "Hyman's Proper Criticism," as it is known, applies more broadly to any topic, really, and becoming familiar with these eight lessons will make you a better human being.  

You can hear the episode HERE.

Please subscribe and consider donating!

Mar 062019
 

In the new issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine I investigate the legend that Egyptian mummies were used as fuel in locomotives, with an illustration by Celestia Ward!

Q: Today I heard a speaker repeat the story that mummies were used as fuel in British trains. I recall this was a classic legend first related by Mark Twain in The Innocents Abroad, but the speaker insisted that she thoroughly researched the subject, and it was true. Got anything on this?

--B. Dail 

A: This bit of morbid historical curiosa, suitably limned with anti-colonial themes, has been around for over a century and reported as true by a handful of writers. Discovermagazine writer LeeAundra Temescu wrote in 2006 that “During a railway expansion in Egypt in the nineteenth century, construction companies unearthed so many mummies that they used them as locomotive fuel.” This factoid inspired poet Charles Webb to write a piece titled “Mummies to Burn” for Slate.com in January 2010.

There is no evidence at all that mummies were burned in locomotives, and Dail correctly identified the origin of the myth. Cecil Adams of The Straight Dopereceived a similar query in 2002 and replied in part, “What you heard was a mangled version of a classic joke told by one of the masters of the art. But don’t feel bad—people have been falling for this one for more than 130 years.” Some people, apparently unaware of Twain’s penchant for humor and hyperbole, took his comment literally or as “reporting.” For example Joann Fletcher (2011), an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of York and part of York’s Mummy Research Group, in an article for no less an authoritative source than BBC, wrote that “Even less fortunate were those mummies exported to the U.S. for use in the papermaking industry or even, as Mark Twain reported, to be burnt as railroad fuel.” 

For more, see the current issue of Skeptical Inquirer!

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 022019
 

On a recent episode of Squaring the Strange, we start with a discussion of assumptions about media stories you may have heard. Then we move on to miracle oils and ointments, including snake oil, witch ointment, essential oils, Lorenzo's oil, and CBD oil. What's the lure behind easy, supposed panaceas in the form of some kind of concentrated oil that are rumored to cure everything? Please check it out!

You can listen HERE, or better yet subscribe on iTunes or elsewhere!

Feb 282019
 

My recent blog examines a popular meme about the "true" inspiration for the Lone Ranger, an amazing lawman named Bass Reeves. I looked into it, curious to see if it was true, but soon found myself in a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories--and examining why skeptics unknowingly help share them.

Several friends of mine recently posted a meme on social media that read, “Did you know the real LONE RANGER was a BLACK MAN name BASS REEVES and yes he did live among the INDIANS, The Lone Ranger ‘could not be cast in that era as a black man, so he was made into a white man with a black mask, Now you know…”

As a teenager I met the main actor who played the Lone Ranger on television, Clayton Moore (I have his autograph somewhere). It was at a public appearance in California and during a short Q&A someone asked about the origin of the character he played. As I recall he discussed it coming from old radio serials, along with other cowboy heroes such as Tom Mix. He didn’t mention anything about the character originally being African American, though I don’t necessarily attribute any racism to that, as it was a quick question about his TV show, and he wouldn’t necessarily have done so in that forum anyway.

The claim in the meme certainly seemed plausible, and I spent a few minutes checking its accuracy. After consulting three or four credible sources I realized that the claim is partly true. The first half of the sentence is partly accurate: Bass Reeves, the black man pictured, was indeed an amazing historical figure. He was a Texas deputy marshal said to have arrested more than 3,000 people and killed over a dozen criminals, sometimes going undercover in daring exploits in Indian country. An article for History.com offers a good overview of this fascinating man.

It also concludes that “Although there is no concrete evidence that the real legend inspired the creation of one of fiction’s most well-known cowboys, ‘Bass Reeves is the closest real person to resemble the fictional Lone Ranger on the American western frontier of the nineteenth century,’ [Reeves biographer] Burton writes in Black Gun, Silver Star.”

Cinema researcher Martin Gram also debunked the claim, adding that “Proof was found that The Lone Ranger was intentionally patterned off of Robin Hood and Tom Mix…While the real life of Bass Reeves deserves to be better known, it is unfortunate that this fanciful ‘inspiration for the real life Lone Ranger character’ theory is what has brought him additional attention.”

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! 

Feb 052019
 
My recent blog is about the tragic shooting of Jazmine Barnes days before New Years, and how mistaken eyewitnesses and mistaken assumptions led to the search for a non-existent racist serial killer in Houston.... On December 30, 2018, a seven-year-old Houston girl named Jazmine Barnes was killed when a gunman drove up next to the vehicle she was in and opened fire on its occupants. Her mother, LaPorsha Washington, was wounded; Jazmine was struck in the head and died on the way to the hospital. As the New Year’s celebrations went on, the police made the case a top priority, and the case made national news. The police did have some leads. Jazmine’s older sister and other witnesses offered a description of the shooter: a white male, thirties to forties, with a light beard wearing a dark hoodie and driving a red pickup truck. Police immediately issued a sketch based on that description, later followed by an image from a surveillance camera that showed the red truck driving away. The case holds several interesting lessons for skeptics, including about investigation, statistics, the reliability of eyewitnesses, confirmation bias, and finding patterns where none exist. The police began looking for suspects based on a probability profile, examining the statistically most likely suspects given the circumstances. For example most people are assaulted and murdered by someone they know, so if a person is found dead the police begin searching for suspects among relatives and acquaintances before casting a (much) wider net to include strangers. One aspect of Jazmine’s murder was especially chilling: it was seemingly random, the attack unprovoked by any known confrontation that too often escalate—such as over money, love, or something as mundane as a parking space—into violence. Given the victim profile, statistically the most likely suspect was African-American, specifically a black male; more than 80 percent of all crime involves victims and perpetrators of the same race. Whites and African Americans of course can and do attack each other, but they are the exception, not the rule. Medical professionals adopt the same tactic to rule out the more likely causes of headaches or back pain, for example, before screening for rare diseases. As they say, if you hear hoofbeats, think horses not zebras. The Serial Killer Search Despite police saying they were exploring all possibilities about the motivation, many in the community quickly attributed it to a hate crime. Houston activist Deric Muhammad held a press conference outside a Harris County Sheriff’s Office and suggested that the death of Jazmine Barnes was the work of a white supremacist serial killer. Muhammad linked the girl’s death to a previous shooting, on August 30, 2017. In that case a 21-year-old black man, A’vonta Williams, was shot by a white male driving a Ford F-150 truck. Williams survived, but police were unable to make an arrest in the case. Muhammad suggested that police incompetence (or refusal to investigate) played a role: “If A’vonta Williams’s shooter had been found, would Jazmine Barnes still be alive?” The link between the two attacks seemed not only plausible but obvious, and Muhammad invoked probability and statistics: “What are the odds that two black families were fired upon by a white male in a pickup truck within a one-year time span on the same block? We’ve got to call it what it is: Black people are being targeted in this country. Black people are being targeted in this county. Black people are being targeted in this city. We are thoroughly convinced that the killing of Jazmine Barnes was race related.” Kisshima Williams, a relative of A’vonta Williams, agreed, saying “It has to be the same person. It’s too similar.” Muhammad was not alone; Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee implored those gathered at a rally for Jazmine, “Do not be afraid to call this what it seems to be: a hate crime.” If the crime was indeed random—as it appeared to be—racism seemed a plausible explanation. The question Muhammad raised is a fair one, though the odds are difficult or impossible to calculate. The two shootings happened about six miles apart, and were in different vehicles (the 2017 shooting involved a gray, silver, or white truck pickup instead of a red one, and an AR-15 style automatic weapon instead of a handgun). 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! 
Jan 302019
 
Last week during Holocaust Remembrance Day, many memes circulated claiming that a significant number of Americans, Canadians, and Britons are Holocaust deniers, or support white supremacy. In the wake of racial incidents such as the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018, it’s natural for the public and pundits to wonder just how common anti-Semitism is. Deadly attacks on Jewish houses of worship are thankfully rare, but what about anti-Jewish belief among the general public? One often-used metric is public opinion polls about the Holocaust. In April 2018 Newsweek posted a news story titled “One-Third of Americans Don’t Believe 6 Million Jews Were Murdered During the Holocaust.” It was widely shared on social media, including Yahoo News, recently. I recently wrote about this topic for my CFI blog; 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!     
Jan 252019
 
I recently was interviewed about my latest book, and my writing process. Here's part one of the interview:
  1. What is your elevator pitch for Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits?
Investigating Ghostsis an in-depth look at the scientific attempts to contact the dead, from historical, cultural, and folkloric perspectives. From Shakespeare to the Victorian era to modern-day ghost hunting, people have always tried to find ghosts, and this is a look at their methods and how to bring science to them. I’m open-minded but skeptical.  
  1. What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
This book is a culmination of about 20 years of research and investigation into the subject, and it’s probably one of the broadest topics I’ve written about. My previous books were often on narrower topics (such as New Mexico mysteries, the chupacabra vampire, and evil clowns) which allowed me to do a deep dive and analysis into them. But with ghosts, there’s an enormous amount of information I needed to tackle, from early ghost-based religions such as Spiritualism to ghost folklore, the psychology of a ghost experience, ghost hunting devices, ghost photos, the scientific process, and so on. In all these cases I wanted to bring something new to it, to not just copy and paste information or third-hand sources but give readers factual, science-based information. That’s why there’s eight pages of references; it’s not just a book of spooky, told-as-true ghost stories, but evidence-based analyses, including my own investigations. Even with all that, I couldn’t get everything into 320 pages.  
  1. What was your favorite part of putting this project together?
Throughout the book I describe my first-hand investigations, including many here in New Mexico. I’m not just an armchair investigator! I love to get out in the field, go to haunted locations, interview witnesses, examine evidence, and try to figure out what’s going on. So I enjoyed describing some of the investigations, for example at the KiMo theater, at the Albuquerque Press Club, courthouses in Santa Fe and Espanola, the tiny town of Cuchillo, and so on. I have also done haunted house investigations for TV shows, in Los Angeles, Jamaica, Canada, and other countries. It’s part memoir, which was fun, and I’m especially pleased it won the New Mexico/Arizona Book Award.
  1. Tell us more about the book: why you picked the topic, how long it took to write, editing cycle, etc.
Investigating Ghostsis actually a follow-up to a previous book, titled Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries, which came out in 2010. In that book I cover, well, pretty much what the title states: How to investigate—and more importantly, solve—seemingly unexplained mysteries. I cover a wide variety of phenomenon, including crop circles, lake monsters, psychic detectives, and ghosts. But I realized that ghost are so popular, and such an often-investigated phenomenon, that they really deserved their own book. There really are so many different aspects to ghost investigation (photos, experiences, so-called EVP or ghostly voices, and so on) that I couldn’t do it justice in just a chapter or a few articles. Plus I kept meeting well-intended amateur ghost hunters who were going about it in completely the wrong way—often influenced, unfortunately, by “reality” TV shows—and honestly I felt badly for them. This book is partly an attempt to help sincere ghost investigators, whether skeptic or believer, to improve their methods so that, if ghosts do exist, they can be proven. Or, by the same token, if ghosts aren’t real, we can help prove that, too. 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 222019
 
In my years of media and science literacy I’ve repeatedly encountered cases where people have failed to question their premises and simply forged ahead without bothering to make sure that the assumptions were grounded in fact. Premises often seem self-evident—and who wants to waste time verifying or fact-checking something that’s obvious? About six or seven years ago I was contacted by a man who wanted me to look at his research on Stonehenge. He wasn’t an archaeologist or historian, and from what I could tell had little formal training. What he did have, in apparent abundance, was enthusiasm and free time. He was interested in so-called ley lines, real or imagined—depending on your New Age inclinations—lines that connected important man-made sites around the world, including the Ghiza Pyramids, Macchu Picchu, and so on. I’d encountered his type before, usually in the context of being asked to carefully read and offer comments on (that is, praise) his theories and discoveries. And not a few paragraphs but instead reams of what might charitably be called crank literature: diagrams, explanations, and so on. I reluctantly agreed to chat with him for a few minutes to get an overview, and he began explaining how he’d always been fascinated by the stones and he showed me meticulously drawn diagrams of the exact positions of the stones and the precise angles that, he claimed, corresponded perfectly with other mysterious or significant sites on other continents and across the globe. Two particular east-facing stones, for example, just happen to point to other monuments elsewhere in Europe. He proudly noted that he’d visited Stonehenge many times over the years and kept discovering new aspects to the formation. The idea that Stonehenge was aligned in some way with celestial bodies seems perfectly plausible, but how in the world could the ancients have known about, and carefully aligned their standing stones with the exact coordinates of, the Egyptian pyramids, for example? I’d written some about Stonehenge, and later visited the site myself. I wouldn’t exactly call myself an expert on the topic, but I was conversant with the basic facts and theories.  I listened to him and looked at his maps and charts linking all the stones’ positions. Finally I asked him, “You know they moved the stones, right?’ “They moved Stonehenge?” he asked incredulously. “Well, the ancient builders moved the rocks to whereStonehenge now sits, of course. But what you see today isn’t the original formation. The standing stones have been moved around several times. There are early drawings and photos of it.” I mentioned a painting by John Constable of the stones from 1835 that showed a significantly different arrangement than what appears today. Over the millennia some stones have fallen into the soft earth, and it's not known whether they fell straight back or twisted slightly at an angle, and so on. At least a dozen of the stones were straightened and re-erected between 1900 and 1960, and early depictions of Stonehenge (such as Constable's painting) look quite different than what is seen today. Those restoring the area made an effort to give a sense of what Stonehenge might have been like thousands of years ago, but in fact no one really knows what it originally looked like—or was supposed to look like. He looked stunned. His years of work had apparently been based on calculations of the precise positions of the stones as they are today—each angle down to the degree and minute—which is not necessarily where they were when first erected. He must have known about the various reconstructions over the years but seemed to have for whatever reason assumed that each time the stones were replaced precisely as they were found. The workers were more concerned about preservation and restoration than historical accuracy; even if that were not the case, the soft Wiltshire earth had caused many of the stones to sink and shift over the thousands of years. There is simply no way to know with any certainty exactly how the stones were first arranged—at least not with the precision needed to link them with other monuments or sacred places on the same meridian around the world. Seeing his stunned deflation, I awkwardly excused myself so as not to further embarrass him, and I never heard from him again. I wasn’t trying to mock him or debunk his elaborate theories, and I’d honestly wished he’d asked me years earlier before he spent untold time and energy pursuing his analysis based on mistaken assumptions. His was an extreme example, of course, but the error of making assumptions instead of checking them is common. Because the restoration work at Stonehenge is not hidden yet not widely known, it has generated conspiracy theories. Some have even suggested that the monument dates back less than a century, created to spur tourism profits or for other unknown—and possibly nefarious—reasons. Mick West, author of Escaping the Rabbit Holeand creator of the Metabunk web site, has visited the site several times and investigated such conspiracy claims. West said “The idea that Stonehenge is a relatively modern construction is appealing to a certain type of conspiracy theorist who has fallen far down the rabbit hole. Images appearing to show the construction of Stonehenge with cranes and concrete are an intellectual delight to them. No particular reason is needed for Stonehenge to be faked, because in their mind everything is faked, and this is simply pleasant circular confirmation that they were right all along.” Stonehenge fell out of use around 1500 B.C., and has stood as a mute mystery ever since.  
Jan 202019
 
I wonder if 2019 will be the year that the History Channel finally completes its investigation into how its much-hyped 2017 special on Amelia Earhart got the story so spectacularly wrong that a half-hour Google search debunked its crack team of experts and their bogus "smoking gun" photo. 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 182019
 
From the archives:  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. 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! 
Jan 152019
 
I was recently a guest on #TheSupernaturalSymposium, Justin Brown interviewed me, psychic Tiffaney Mason and paranormal investigator Mike Ricksecker in an effort to create a panel of experienced individuals in their field of work to discuss the origins of a haunting. Why do many people experience and report hauntings? What causes them? Is it the mind playing tricks or is it supernatural? We will take a closer look and discuss the topic and air out the opinions of this very diverse panel in order to understand the controversial nature of hauntings so we can find ways to bridge the gap between conflicting viewpoints and strengthen the paranormal community. Will we find common ground? You can watch 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! 
Jan 132019
 
In the wake of racial incidents such as the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018, it’s natural for the public and pundits to wonder just how common anti-Semitism is. Deadly attacks on Jewish houses of worship are thankfully rare, but what about anti-Jewish belief among the general public? One often-used metric is public opinion polls about the Holocaust. In April 2018 Newsweek posted a news story titled “One-Third of Americans Don’t Believe 6 Million Jews Were Murdered During the Holocaust.” It was widely shared on social media, including Yahoo News. The disturbing headline seemed to suggest that neo-Nazis are succeeding in sowing Holocaust denial among Americans. The Holocaust is the highest-profile event in history about the dangers of intolerance and anti-Semitism, and with about a third of Americans—over 100 million people—doubting a key aspect of the Holocaust, anti-Jewish sentiment seems widespread indeed. Given the potential fear and concern headlines like this can spawn, it’s worth taking a closer look at the story through the lens of media literacy and skepticism. The data came from a survey by Schoen Consulting on behalf of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, released for Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was a national study of 1,350 interviews with American adults during the last week of February 2018, with a margin of error at +/- 3%. A Closer Look If you actually read the study (available here) you realize that the Newsweek headline is misleading in several important ways. First, the phrase “don’t believe” in the headline implies doubt: that you are presented with a claim or proposition, and you state categorically that you do not believe it. However the question (number 19, if you’re following along) didn’t ask respondents what they “believe.” People were asked to estimate, or put a number on, how many Jews they thought were killed. The exact wording is “Approximately how many Jews were killed during the Holocaust?” The responses were, in order of presentation: 20 million; 6 million; 2 million; 1 million; 100,000; 25,000; Other; or Not sure.” Phrasing is important, especially in surveys. Had the question been phrased “Do you believe 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust?” then the percentage responding No would accurately capture how many doubt that six million Jews were killed. It should also be noted that there is in fact no historical consensus on the exact number of Jewish deaths in the Holocaust, but most experts believe the number is between 5 and 6 million. Had the question been phrased more accurately (by historical standards) and less precisely (by estimation standards), as in “Do you believe that about 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust?” it’s quite possible that even more people would have correctly answered that question. A closer look reveals that among American adults, the vast majority, 49%, gave the correct answer of 6 million. Six percent actually overestimated the number of Jews killed by over a factor of three (at 20 million). Note that the second-highest response, Not Sure, at 13%, means just that: they’re not sure how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Thus “Not Sure” is not a catch-all response for “None” or “An Insignificant Number” or “Surely Fewer Than 6 Million.” It could mean the person thought that the number was closer to 15 million, or 10 million, or 8 million, or some number not among those specifically listed. For all we know, many of that 13% could have accurately estimated that about 6 million Jews were killed, but weren’t confident enough in their grasp of historical facts to select that option. If that’s the case then the number who knew the correct answer could be over 60%. But we don’t know because of the way the question was worded. To be clear, this limitation doesn’t invalidate the question, or render the survey or its results flawed; it just means that we must be careful in interpreting the results—especially on a subject as important as Holocaust belief or denial. ‘Merican Ignernce? The poll does show that many Americans are wrong about various Holocaust facts (such as whether the Holocaust preceded World War II or vice-versa). How significant is this? It’s not clear. One common question in science is “Compared to what?”; in this case for example, what percentage of average Americans should we reasonably expect to know the answers? Eighty percent? Ninety percent? One hundred percent? We can all agree that ideally the answer is “higher,” but if many Americans are vague about historical events that happened in World War II, they’re not much more informed about what’s going on in modern America.  
  • September 2017 poll of 2,200 American adults for Morning Consult found that about half of Americans don’t know that people born in Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens: 54% of adults said yes; 22% said no, and 24% said they weren’t sure.
 
  • 2011 Newsweek poll found that 29% of Americans couldn’t name the then-current vice president (hopefully Joe Biden’s name recognition has improved since then).
 
  • Responses vary from year to year, but in 2014 only 36% of Americans could name the three branches of government (in 2017 it was 25% and 38% in 2011). And so on.
A 2007 survey by Kelton Research found that 80% of respondents could name the main ingredients of a McDonalds Big Mac sandwich, but fewer than 60% could recall all the Ten Commandments, and a 2010 Pew poll found that only 55% knew that the Golden Rule is not among the commandments. Exaggerating and highlighting the ignorance of Americans is a time-honored tradition, especially among journalists and comics. The Tonight Show with Jay Leno often featured man-on-the-street interviews showing passersby stumped by simple questions, and Canadian comedian Rick Mercer hosted a long-running segment on the same theme titled “Talking to Americans,” on the satirical comedy show This Hour Has 22 Minutes in which Mercer, posing as a journalist, would ask unsuspecting American tourists bizarre non-sequitur questions such as whether they supported hunting polar bears in Toronto or would like to congratulate Canada on moving its capital from Ottawa to Toronto. It’s all good flagellatory fun but obscures that fact that most Americans (that is, the statistical majority of them) are in fact fairly knowledgeable about their country and world history. Most people can answer such questions, and the fact that a minority of them can’t—or in many cases may know the correct answer just aren’t confident enough in their knowledge to commit to it on camera or to a questioner—reveals little about any uniquely American ignorance. Holocaust Denial or Innumeracy?  Part of the issue is psychological. In his book Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences, mathematician John Allen Paulos notes that people have difficulty conceiving of large numbers. When estimating, people easily slip “between millions and billions or between billions and trillions… because we too often lack an intuitive feeling for these numbers. Many educated people have little grasp for these numbers… A recent study by Drs. Kronlund and Phillips of the University of Washington showed that most doctors’ assessments of the risks of various operations, procedures, and medications (even in their own specialties) were way off the mark, often by several orders of magnitude” (p. 10). This does not excuse anyone’s errors, of course. Ideally, everyone should have a good grasp of historical and civics facts, as well as basic statistics and probability. Before concluding that Americans are dumb as rocks, keep in mind that most people (of any nationality) struggle to remember their computer passwords, much less who their representatives are. Not knowing the exact number of Jews killed during the Holocaust is not a metric of Holocaust denial or anti-Semitism, or indifference to (or ignorance of) Jewish persecution. The Newsweek headline, however, was not merely a glass-is-half-full analysis but instead a clear effort to characterize many Americans as racist, or at least grossly ignorant of the plight of the Jewish community during the Holocaust (Brown University sociologist Dan Hirschman agrees, noting in a May 8, 2018 blog that the Newsweek headline “implies that 1/3 of Americans are Holocaust deniers of some sort”). These are people who didn’t pay attention in history class and who don’t have a good grasp of large numbers—not Holocaust deniers. The survey did not suggest that underestimating the number of Jews killed was any sort of attempt at minimizing the Holocaust. If we want to know how many Americans doubt the Holocaust happened, we need look no further than question 33, which unlike question 19 is not as open-ended: 96% of respondents answered “Yes, I believe the Holocaust happened.” Three percent said they weren’t sure, and 1% of them responded that they did not believe it happened. This 1%—not the 33% suggested by Newsweek—would presumably be among the Holocaust deniers. This is not the first time that a poll about the Holocaust produced alarming numbers. In one of the most infamous examples of flawed polling, a 1992 poll conducted by the Roper organization for the American Jewish Committee found that 1 in 5 Americans doubted that the Holocaust occurred. How could 22% of Americans report being Holocaust deniers? The answer became clear when the original question was re-examined: “Does it seem possible or does it seem impossible to you that the Nazi extermination of the Jews never happened?” This awkwardly-phrased question contains a confusing double-negative which led many to report the opposite of what they believed. Embarrassed Roper officials apologized, and later polls—asking clear, unambiguous questions—found that only about 2% of Americans actually doubt the Holocaust. In fact the 2018 news headlines about the Holocaust poll could have accurately read “Holocaust Denial Drops 50%” (from 2% to 1%), but the news media emphasizes bad news. Polls and surveys can provide important information about the public’s beliefs. But to be valid, they must be based on sound methodologies, and media-literate news consumers should always look for information about the sample size, representativeness of the population, whether the participants were random or self-selected, and so on. Whether due to poorly-worded questions or an alarmist news media, reports like these leave the false impression that racism and anti-Semitism are more widespread than they really are. The recent rise in hate crimes against the Jewish community is well documented, but the recent rise in Holocaust denial is not.   This piece originally appeared on the "Skeptic Reads a Newspaper 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! 
Dec 062018
 
As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) has passed its 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, our crew digs into health panics and what's in our food. Focusing on the notorious "pink slime", the Strangers break down the history of the hysteria and talk about how bad it really is (or isn't). Also in this episode, Ben is skeptical of the tragic tale of a Tasmanian Devil named Jasper.  You can listen HERE. 
Dec 022018
 
As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) has passed its 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, the Strange crew chats a bit about "crisis actors" and how far people will go to link tragic events to push conspiratorial ideas. Then, the boys are joined by Sharon A. Hill, geologist and skeptic author of the new book Scientifical Americans, a look into the culture of amateur paranormal researchers. They talk a bit about the utility of the title "skeptic" and go into a discussion about her fascinating new book. You can find it HERE!     
Nov 302018
 
A Fox News story claims that a psychic and ghost hunter found the remains in a basement of a father who went missing 57 years ago. If you read past the headlines you find that a) the remains haven't been identified, so the bones may or may not be of that man; b) he *was last seen* in that basement; and c) he was widely rumored to have been buried in that basement. Assuming those are indeed his remains, I'm... unimpressed. Kenny Biddle looked into it and was also unimpressed: While scrolling my social media newsfeed recently, I came across an article shared by my colleague Ben Radford. The headline of a FoxNews.com story proclaimed “Psychic, Ghost Hunters Helped Long Island Man Find Dad’s Remains in 57-year-old Mystery” (Gearty 2018). This piqued my interest since I make it a hobby (almost a full-time career) of investigating such claims. So I clicked on the link to take a closer look. According to the story, “bones found in a Long Island basement were discovered after a family consulted a psychic and paranormal investigators, according to reports.”Mike Carroll, the owner of the house (which was his family home since 1955), is convinced the bones are those of his father, George Carroll. George disappeared without a trace in 1961, leaving a wife and four children behind. Carroll’s mother, Dorothy, never gave the children a “straight answer” on what had happened, only saying “he went out and just never came back.” Dorothy passed away in 1998, taking any information about their missing father with her (absent a Ouija board revelation). A missing persons report was apparently never filed, though authorities are now checking on that detail. If one only reads the headline, the reader would get the impression that a psychic and several ghost hunters teamed up and discovered the remains of Carroll’s father. However, as Radford points out in his Facebook post: “If you read past the headlines you find that a) the remains haven't been identified, so the bones may or may not be of that man; b) he *was last seen* in that basement; and c) he was widely rumored to have been buried in that basement” (Radford 2018). Radford is correct; as of this writing, it is only speculated that the remains belong to George Carroll. The Suffolk county medical examiner will be performing DNA testing on the bones. According to Suffolk Chief of Detectives Gerard Gigante, it could take months before they can determine who the bones belong to. After reading through the Fox News story, the reader would get two distinct impressions; first, ghost hunters detected an “energy” in the house, giving the reader the idea there was a spirit inhabiting the house. Second, a psychic pinpointed the burial spot without any help or hints—despite Carroll explicitly telling WABC-TV there was a family rumor that his father was buried in the basement. When one follows the links provided to other sources used to write the (FoxNews) article, we find that the psychic and ghost hunters are barely mentioned in relation to locating the remains. “The bones were discovered Halloween eve Tuesday in a spot in the basement that had been flagged by a psychic, the New York Post reports.” You can read the rest on his 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!    __
Nov 282018
 
For those who missed it, a recent episode of Squaring the Strange featured award-winning filmmaker Erik Kristopher Myers who joined Celestia and I to discuss Bigfoot on film. Starting with a quick analysis of the famous and most influential Bigfoot film, the Patterson-Gimlin footage, we tour the offerings since then, looking both at pop culture and the more serious efforts of a particularly litigious present-day Canadian Squatcher. Various Bigfoot and Yeti have flourished in all genres, popping up in horror films as well as children's entertainment. The creature has captured imaginations and resulted in some twisted depictions over the years.   Please check it out, you can 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! 
Nov 252018
 
Distrust of the news media is, or at least seems to be, at an all time high. A recent report by Gallup and the Knight Foundation found that 42 percent of Democrats, 75 percent of independents, and 94 percent of Republicans say they have lost some trust in the media. Some, perhaps much, of the skepticism is surely deserved; journalistic failures are legion and the mistakes are very visible and often memorable, from Jayson Blair’s faked reporting at The New York Times to Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s disastrous Rolling Stone article. There are few careers in which a person is as routinely criticized, rightly or wrongly, as journalists, and many liberals share Trump’s constant refrain that the news media can’t be trusted. I often see people posting a news story on social media with some version of the editorial comment, “Why isn’t the media covering this story?” Sometimes the phrase is in ALL CAPS and sometimes it’s worded slightly differently, but the gist is the same. It’s seen as a form of news censorship. In a previous article I discussed one of the fallacies inherent in this question, that of considering “the media” as a single-minded homogenous entity, but there are other issues to unpack in this criticism. In media literacy—as in science and skepticism generally—it’s often useful to remember psychologist (and CSI Fellow) Ray Hyman’s dictum: Before trying to explain something, be sure there’s something to explain. In other words, question and verify the truth of your assumptions before making an effort to understand why those premises are true. You may find there’s nothing to explain. Here are a few recent examples of complaints about media censorship I’ve come across:
  • “Waffle House in Nashville: 4 dead, 4 wounded. 29 yr old naked white male shooter stopped by 29 yr old black man. Not interesting enough to make headline news.”
  • “An incel shot up a Tallahassee yoga studio yesterday, killing two women before turning the gun on himself. It didn’t even make a blip in the news cycle.”
In both of these cases a quick internet search reveals that the news stories were widely reported through mainstream media (the April 22 Waffle House shooting has over 13,000 news results from all the major outlets, and the Florida shooting, which happened just in the past week, has about half that). In fact, many people soon contradicted the claim made in the original post, noting that the story was being widely reported across the country and around the world: “It made headlines here as soon as it happened,” wrote one. “Here too,” added another. “It’s the top item at CNN”; “It’s all over my TV news,” and so on.
  • In 2016 a friend lamented on Facebook that the news media was systematically ignoring a high murder rate in Chicago, with a veiled suggestion that racism played a role (as most victims were African American). An internet search yielded a handful of then-recent articles about it in Illinois newspapers, which I sent to him. He then replied that yes of course Chicago papers covered it, but almost no outlets elsewhere did—at least not in any depth. Another forty seconds of Google searching found many articles about the soaring homicide rate in that city from other regions, including an in-depth series in The New York Times I’d read a few weeks earlier titled “Chicago’s Murder Problem.”

Sample Sizes: Anecdotes Aren’t Data

Why were these people—and many others—assuming that the news stories they saw weren’t being seen by others? It seemed that in many or most cases the person had done little or no research to see how widespread the coverage was (or wasn’t); they’d just assumed that since they hadn’t seen as much news coverage as they’d have expected (or thought it deserved), it wasn’t being covered adequately. This is of course a subjective judgment; I personally would like for more news stories to include skepticism and evidence-based analysis. The roots of this misperception are varied. One is the “If I don’t see it, it doesn’t exist” fallacy, a type of argument from personal experience. How does the person know that a given news story isn’t being reported? What efforts did they undertake to investigate how widely the news was being shared? These stories must have made the news somewhere; after all, that’s how they first found out about the story they’re suggesting is largely being ignored by the news media. Upon seeing the news, how long did they spend watching each media channel, checking each website, or listening to each radio station to determine whether or not the news was being covered by that outlet? A few seconds? A few minutes? An hour? Did they use any methodology in their search? Did they use a search engine to scour the internet for all major news outlets to see which carried the story, or did they just check their usual handful of regular media sources? This is essentially a sampling question, and as scientists and skeptics know, anecdotes are not data. How valid a conclusion is depends in part on how large the sample size is. Why a given breaking news story is featured on one media outlet and not another at approximately the same time depends on many factors. Of course different news organizations rarely cover breaking news in exactly the same way. A local TV news station may have staff on the scene or en route in the first minutes of an event, while national news shows are scrambling to send regional reporters. Different television stations and managers have different policies about when to break into regularly scheduled programming with breaking news. The station manager at a city’s NBC affiliate, for example, may decide that a local shooting, school lockdown, natural disaster, or other event is important enough to their audience to interrupt a soap opera, while a manager at an ABC affiliate may feel differently. Often the news story is in fact being widely covered—just not in that specific person’s social or news media circles. Part of the reason for this error is that people on social media have increasingly narrowly curated news feeds, which results in a smaller variety of stories appearing there. Both liberals and conservatives increasingly self-select those they interact with, for example by unfriending or blocking people with dissenting views and opinions. Most people get their news not directly from news organizations but from social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—mostly their news feeds and what their friends share. This creates an insular, herd mentality. There’s also an inherent quasi-conspiracy aspect to these beliefs. They often assume, without evidence, an implicit suspicion of bad faith—that news editors and journalists are actively suppressing a story because of real or apparent political implications. One suggested, perhaps facetiously, that the story “wasn’t interesting enough” for national news; another suggested that the races of those involved caused the story to be sidelined. There are countless breaking news stories each day whose lack of live updates go unnoticed. Few take to social media to complain that, for example, a car accident with multiple fatalities isn’t being covered. It’s primarily stories freighted with some social or political import that are assumed to be the subject of intentional non- or under-reporting.  

First—and False

Another factor is impatience for instant information. Critical thinkers and media-literate audiences know that slow, accurate news is better than fast, inaccurate news. Good journalism takes time. It takes time to interview primary sources, check facts, and do due diligence. Circulating rumor and unconfirmed speculation is cheap and easy. For editors at News Organization X, the question “Why Isn’t News Organization X covering this?” is one that resonates deeply, and it’s one that helps drive down the quality of journalism. Audiences demanding the latest news and constant updates can and will turn to less credible news outlets that are happy to circulate bad information immediately and correct (or not) the wrong information later. The Gallup/Knight Foundation survey mentioned earlier titled “Indicators of News Media Trust”surveyed members of the public and asked “How important are each of the following factors in determining whether or not you trust a news organization?” The top answer, with 99 percent responding that it’s either very important or important, was “Its commitment to accuracy—not reporting stories until it verifies all the facts.” Thus we see a paradox: the public overwhelmingly understands that good, credible journalism often requires that news organizations not report a story before the facts are verified—but at the same time the public expects immediate news reporting on breaking events and criticizes the news media when they don’t see it. Ironically the early reports—the ones that the person is using to contrast with other news media that seemingly are refusing to air the story—are often the least reliable. Occasionally people offer the opposite complaint and want to know why some seemingly superfluous puff piece is being covered. Why is this news?, they indignantly demand to know, usually regarding pieces about celebrity gossip, royal births, and the like. With so many real and present dangers, why is this stuff circulating? The answer is that it’s not news, and not everything that gets shared on news or social media is news. But people on social media—ironically, including the person who shares it—are treating it as if it were important. Think of it this way: news items and memes are shared on social media precisely because we want people to notice and pay attention to them. In the same way that, as David Brinkley wrote, “The one function TV news performs very well is that when there is no news, we give it to you with the same emphasis as if there were,” the same applies to social media. The best way to stop the spread of toxic or stupid ideas is to simply not share them; it’s not to share them as widely as possible with a dismissive caption you hope is clever enough to go viral.  

Catch and Kill vs. Censored

It’s important to distinguish this form of “news censorship” from claims that certain articles may be “spiked” or prevented from being published. News outlets have at times come under pressure to bury stories. Over the past year, for example, the “catch and kill” practice of publishers keeping potentially damaging revelations from being published was widely discussed in the context of National Enquirer paying for the exclusive rights to a person’s story (for example Stormy Daniels and President Trump). The same is alleged to have happened to Playboy model Karen McDougal, according to an NPR story:  
A woman who had an alleged nine-month sexual relationship with Donald Trump more than a decade ago, is speaking on the record for the first time about signing a document from an apparent Trump media ally that effectively silenced her story. Karen McDougal told reporter Ronan Farrow in a piece published Friday in The New Yorker that she regretted signing the contract with American Media Inc., National Enquirer‘s parent company. “At this point I feel I can’t talk about anything without getting into trouble,” McDougal told Farrow. “I’m afraid to even mention his name.” Farrow reports, “On August 5, 2016, McDougal signed a limited life-story rights agreement granting A.M.I. exclusive ownership of her account of any romantic, personal, or physical relationship she has ever had with any then-married man.” The Wall Street Journal first reported on the agreement in 2016, saying A.M.I., whose C.E.O and chairman, David Pecker, has called Trump “a personal friend,” paid McDougal $150,000 for the rights to her story. The magazine never published a piece about it.
  Those situations are very different, however, because they involve a single person’s exclusive personal or eyewitness account, usually of private conduct. A mass shooting or tragedy is a public event, and while each individual eyewitness or participant may have exclusive negotiable rights they can try to sell, the event itself is public domain; the story cannot be effectively hidden from view. Like any other news event, a publisher or editor may of course choose to limit or omit coverage in that particular publication or outlet, but that doesn’t “bury” or hide the story; it just makes the outlet look like it’s being beaten by its competition. While it’s certainly true that some news stories are buried, backburnered, or downplayed, it’s relatively uncommon in the types of stories being complained about. News organizations are far more likely to put their own misleading spin on any high-profile event such as a shooting than to pretend it didn’t happen at all. I’ve written about media biases in my book Media Mythmakers, and there are many of them. But ignoring a potential ratings bonanza such as a mass shooting is not among them. Ironically, many Democrats and liberals who ask “Why isn’t the media covering this story?” are implicitly supporting Trump’s views about the mendacity of the news media. Donald Trump has expertly exploited the idea that the news media can’t be trusted to provide accurate information, from the constant refrains of “fake news” to references of the “Failing New York Times.” Trump has enough success sowing distrust of the news media and has support from liberals. The next time you or a friend sees breaking news about some event and assume that it isn’t being covered in your preferred news media (at the time you go looking for it), keep in mind that your experience may not accurately represent what’s out there. Just because you’re not seeing it doesn’t mean it’s not there.  
This piece first appeared in the CFI blog "A Skeptic Reads the Newspaper", which can be found HERE. 
Nov 192018
 
I'm pleased to note that my newest book Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits was a winner at this year's New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards!   You can order the book from your local indie bookstore, or find it on Amazon!      
Nov 062018
 
  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: Human Barbie and Other Plastic Tales. First, Ben examines some disturbing consequences to child abduction rumors on a popular app in India and Mexico. Then we look at modern plastic surgery oddities and, specifically, the media myth of the Human Barbie, also known as Russian model Valeria Lukyanova. What outrageous things were said about her, and how much of the narrative can be taken as fact? We also compare her to her counterparts, namely the three men who promote themselves as "human Ken dolls."   You can listen HERE. 
Nov 032018
 
Writer Jon Silman at Oxygen has a new article out on John Wayne Gacy's role in the scary clown phenomenon, and I'm briefly quoted:   Before we explore that it’s worth looking into the psychology of why clowns are scary. We spoke to Benjamin Radford, author of the book “Bad Clowns,” and he gave us his theory. “We’re comfortable with clowns in a specific context,” he said. “If we see them at a party we say ‘oh that’s great,’ but if you see a clown at night in a vacant parking lot or knocking on your door at midnight, it’s a different feeling.” You can read the whole thing HERE. 
Oct 312018
 
The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! The show is all about Halloween strangeness . . . We unravel the origins of a few traditions and look at "Hell Houses," the much, much, much lamer alternative to haunted houses. And a quick report from CSIcon as well as a news snippet about a graveyard dowser! Please check it out!     You can here it HERE! 
Oct 302018
 
If you’ve spent any time on social media over the past few years you’ve likely seen several versions of Donald Trump’s last name. Various versions include “tr^^p,” “Strump,” and “Tr**p,” though writer Joyce Carol Oates understandably prefers the correctly-numbered-asterisk version “T***p.” Meryl Streep gave a blistering 2017 Golden Globes speech that never mentioned Trump’s name but referred to the president as “a coarse blowhard.” Others simply call him “Sin Nombre” (nameless in Spanish)—though I’d prefer “Hombre Sin Nombre” because it’s alliterative and references his infamous, inane “bad hombres” comment—though no one asked me.   For a while some people avoided using Trump’s name on Facebook because the site’s algorithms would be more likely to send political advertisements for Trump to whoever wrote about him, though as his name became ubiquitous, the algorithms became less useful. There are also various circumlocutions, such as Mad King Cheeto, Agent Orange, the Dumpster, the Orange Manatee, Hair Furor, President Bone Spurs, Donald Drumpf, Assaulter-in-chief, and “Tiny-Fingered, Cheeto-Faced, Ferret-Wearing Shitgibbon,” among others. What’s behind the refusal or reluctance to say Trump’s name? The Atlantic had a piece on this last year, noting that “When the late Gwen Ifill asked President Barack Obama why he had been avoiding saying ‘Trump,’ he replied, ‘He seems to do a good job mentioning his own name. So, I figure, you know, I will let him do his advertising for him[self]’…. Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter Bernice King shared a widely circulated list to her Facebook page offering tips for resisting Trump. The top suggestion: ‘Use his name sparingly so as not to detract from the issues.’… Given the influence Trump’s name wields, snubbing it is an attempt to withhold some of that power while staking out higher moral ground, said Jenny Lederer, an assistant professor of linguistics at San Francisco State University. ‘In his case, especially, people feel like not repeating his name is [a way of] not speaking to the brand and the value system that goes along with his political ideology.’” Naming Taboos In The Encyclopedia of Superstitions, E. and M. Radford—no relation, probably—note that “In primitive thought, a man’s name was not merely a convenient label by which he could be distinguished from others. It was an integral part of himself, as important to him as, and indeed, moreso than, his arms or legs or eyes. Knowledge of it by another gave that other power over him… These beliefs survive in the custom, once quite general, of keeping a child’s name secret from outsiders until he had been baptized. To let it be known to any stranger… was to run the risk of witchcraft” (p. 244). In the Doctor Who universe, the titular doctor’s name is unknown (except to him or her, as the case may be, and a possible wife) and never spoken aloud in the series. Often refusing to name a figure is done in deference to their awesome and potentially destructive power. The idea is that to say the name without sufficient reverence—or at all—is to risk drawing the person’s attention or wrath. In Roman Catholic exorcisms, knowing a demon’s name is considered an important part of the ritual and gives the priest power over the evil entity. Even saying the name of the Christian God is considered dangerous in some cases; hence mild exclamations such as “zounds!” were adopted from the archaic, quasi-blasphemic phrase “god’s wounds.” Similarly, in Jewish traditions the name “Yahweh” is too sacred to speak or even write, preferring the Almighty” or “our Lord”; even the word “God” is often written as “G-d.” In the Harry Potter universe the villain Voldemort is referred to as “He Who Must Not Be Named” and “You Know Who.” In British fairy folklore there is a long tradition of avoiding speaking the word “fairy” aloud. They are variously referred to as “the good folk,” the “wee folk,” or just “the folk.” To do otherwise is to invite trouble. Many or most people who refuse to use Trump’s name aren’t doing so out of reverence, of course. As the Atlantic piece notes, “When it comes to the current president, the refusal to use his name may be uniquely subversive because of the degree to which Trump has wrapped his entire worth, wealth, and fame up in those five letters.” Indeed, Trump seems remarkably impressed not only with himself but also with his own surname, which he considers to be his signature brand. But has the anti-Trump linguistic revolt done any good? Is it a form of verbal slacktivism and virtue signaling? While refusing to speak his name may seem like a tiny act of “he’s not my president” defiance, it doesn’t seem to be an issue for him. Perhaps the biggest indication that some people’s refusal to say Trump’s name isn’t bothering him is the lack of reaction, especially on social media. Trump is famously thin-skinned about real and imagined slights, and has shown no qualms about taking to Twitter to blast his critics. Yet there’s been no stream of petty, pouty invective from our commander in chief wailing about his subjects’ lack of reverence for his name. It could also be that Trump only cares about the loudest voices and (what he considers to be) his most vocal opponents, including “The Failing New York Times” and CNN, which due to journalistic editorial standards would not replace letters in Trump’s name with asterisks. As long as they spell his name right (and fully), he’s happy.
Oct 282018
 
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 Celestia dig into what makes bad documentaries bad. You can listen HERE.
Oct 222018
 
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 dig into the legend of Kuchisake-Onna, aka the Slit-mouthed Woman. From the origins of her terrifying story to the modern day pop culture references, the guys explore every creepy detail. Also in this episode, Ben is skeptical of what makes something fictional "problematic" and just how serious the implications are.   You can listen HERE. 
Oct 182018
 
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 we start with Celestia’s tale of having a “tongue analysis” while on a cruise, which amounted to an alt-med version of cold reading. Then we examine a critical but controversial topic: are accusers routinely disbelieved in sexual misconduct cases? Ben brings some statistics on the public’s view of high-profile accusations, and Celestia tackles data on police handling of rape reports. How true is this notion, and, more importantly, what harm does inflating such a notion cause?   You can listen HERE. 
Oct 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:   First, Ben looks at current failures of intuition and psychics. Then we take a skeptical look at tour guides! Tours straddle a line between entertainment and education, and tour guides happily embellish local legends and lore as time goes on. We welcome special guest Cindy Boyer from the Landmark Society of Western New York and chat about ghost tours. Pascual confesses to teenaged transgressions, and Ben recounts an egg-balancing lesson with a tour guide in Ecuador. You can listen HERE. 
Sep 252018
 
Some of you cryptozoology fans may remember when Josh Gates of Destination Truth [sic] found what he claimed to be a Yeti track, after a few days in Nepal. Here's an overview of the claims, and an update on where the track ended up... The Yeti—formerly known as the Abominable Snowman—is the Himalayan version of the American Bigfoot. Like Bigfoot, it is large, powerful, leaves strange tracks, and has never been proven to exist outside of folklore and myth. Interest in the supposed creature is fueled by occasional sighting reports and odd footprints. In 2007, Josh Gates, host of the TV series Destination Truth, claimed that he found three mysterious footprints: one full print that measured about thirteen inches long, and two partial prints. Gates said that he could not identify what made them, but that they are “very, very similar” to other strange tracks previously found in the Himalayas and attributed to the Yeti. To Gates and his television crew, this apparently seems like strong evidence for the elusive creature. The find made international news, with outlets including Reuters covering the story. Yet there is a scientific explanation for many Yeti footprints found in the Himalayas. Tracks in snow can be very difficult to interpret correctly because of the unstable nature of the medium in which they are found. Snow physically changes as the temperature varies and as sunlight hits it. This has several effects on the impression, often making the tracks of ordinary animals seem both larger and misshapen. As sunlight strikes the impression from different angles, the sides of the tracks melt unevenly. Thus a bear track made at night but found the next afternoon has been exposed to the morning sun and might change into a mysterious track with splayed toes—much like the one Gates and his crew claim to have found.   You can read the rest in my recent 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! 
Sep 202018
 
A nice review on Paranormal Bucket of my latest book "Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits": "Radford offers up a critique of ghost investigation techniques in this thought-provoking volume. Rather than simply chronicling why many standard methods adopted by contemporary paranormal investigators to search for spirits have been unable to produce hard evidence of a spooky afterlife, the author meticulously diagrams what researchers might do to make their approaches to gathering evidence more likely to generate persuasive results....He is an entertaining and perceptive writer with a welcome, dry sense of humor." You can read the review HERE.  And the book is for sale 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!