Sep 252020
 

I recently gave a live presentation on Phantom Clown Panics for the Folklore Podcast. Cost is a reasonable £5, which supports the podcast…

Most evil clowns are fictional, but some bad clowns are reported to roam streets and parks looking for innocent children to abduct—yet seem to vanish just before police can apprehend them. Some say they are real, while others claim they are figments of imagination. They are known as phantom clowns, and were first sighted in 1981, when children in Boston reported that clowns had tried to lure them into a van with promises of candy. Other reports surfaced in other cities and in later years, with the same pattern: Parents were fearful, children were warned and police were vigilant, but despite searches and police checkpoints no evidence was ever found of their existence. They returned in the fall of 2016 when reports spread across America—and later around the globe—of these menacing clowns.

 

You can check it out HERE!

Sep 182020
 

New episode of Squaring the Strange is out! I’ve researched faked abductions for almost two decades now, and on the new show discuss patterns, motivations, and examples of people pretending they’ve been kidnapped. From the runaway bride to the McDonald’s worker who claimed a homicidal clown kept her from getting to work . . . people tell strange tales for a variety of reasons (or, for no reason at all!).

 

 

 

Check it out HERE!

Sep 152020
 

My new article is on why some progressives have recently joined conservatives and conspiracy mongers in promoting vaccination fears: “The chorus of those raising fears about vaccine safety (for whatever reason ranging from genuine fears to belief in conspiracies to virtue signaling and scoring political points) may be doing more harm than good. Vaccine hesitancy is a legitimate threat to public health, and it should go without saying that we should trust medical expertise over political promises.”

 

While some may think that protests about vaccinations are a recent phenomenon, in fact the concerns date back centuries. There was resistance to the first smallpox vaccine, created in the late 1700s by Edward Jenner. Parents and the public—unfamiliar with medicine and how vaccination works—were horrified and disgusted when they learned that the vaccine was created by taking pus from the wounds of infected cows. That procedure was effective and saved countless lives, but still the British Anti-Vaccination League was created in 1853, asserting that the smallpox vaccine was dangerous, ineffective, and an infringement on personal rights. Over 160 years later, that theme continues to resonate strongly with anti-vaccination activists. 

‘‘Millions of human lives … have been preserved by the fruits of Jenner’s genius; yet today, thousands upon thousands of men, some intelligent though designing, some intelligent though deluded, the great mass of them fanatical and ignorant, decry vaccination as not only being of no service to humanity, but positively a nuisance injurious to health and life, while millions of our fellow men are utterly ignorant of, or indifferent to the matter.” This was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1896 by Eugene Foster.

Foster’s breakdown of the reasons people reject vaccination remain salient 125 years later: “Some intelligent though designing, some intelligent though deluded, the great mass of them fanatical and ignorant.” The demographics of vaccine refusal reveal an interesting pattern: despite overwhelming scientific evidence that vaccines are safe and effective, it is the more educated parents who tend to reject them through requesting exemptions for school-age children. As Nicholas Bakalar of The New York Times notes, “Exemption percentages were generally higher in regions with higher income, higher levels of education, and predominantly white populations. In private schools, 5.43 percent of children were exempt, compared with 2.88 percent in public schools. In some suburban areas, rates of exemption were near 50 percent.”

Part of the reason the anti-vaccination theme is so persistent is that it contains a strong conspiracy theory element. The belief is that the dangers and risks of vaccines are being intentionally hidden from the public by doctors and drug companies, in collusion with the government, for big profits. Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent, in their book American Conspiracy Theories, note that “Conspiracy theories about vaccines are partially to blame for decreased rates of vaccination and an increased incidence of disease.” (For more on this see Uscinski’s recent talk “Conspiracy Theories and COVID-19”.)

Vaccine Concerns

Historically, the anti-vaccination movement has been rooted in fears of contamination as well as complaints about infringement of personal choice. Both are rooted in distrust of the government and often embraced by conservatives. A recent twist reveals educated liberals who embrace and endorse vaccination in general but reject (as-yet nonexistent) COVID-19 vaccinations, specifically under the Trump administration. 

This is partly in response to Trump’s urging of health officials to speed the vaccination development process and promising voters a vaccine by the end of the year—or, he suggested, by November 1, a few days before the presidential election. Trump believes, with some justification, that his popularity and re-election chances hinge on his visibility of getting the virus under control and ending the pandemic.

In recent weeks, many social media posts and memes have circulated among progressives that urge vaccine hesitancy, at least in the case of an eventual coronavirus treatment. Typical examples include: “I would absolutely not take a coronavirus vaccine approved and administered under a Trump administration” and “I don’t trust this administration with my health at all. I won’t be getting a vaccine if Trump is still president unless some experts can convince me that it’s safe and effective.” 

 

These fears are based on several factors including the demonstrable incompetence of the Trump administration in containing the virus and Trump’s clear efforts to politicize the disease while often undermining medical experts. Yet Donald Trump isn’t a medical doctor and has little or no role in the development of vaccines; that’s not a function of the Executive Office. Instead, the vaccine development is being done by a variety of independent medical institutions, non-profit organizations, and private pharmaceutical companies around the world, following well-established guidelines for demonstrating safety and efficacy.

All eventual COVID-19 vaccines will, by definition, have been developed (and funded) during Trump’s administration. Trump is willfully antiscience and partisan, but that doesn’t logically mean that any vaccines developed under his tenure are necessarily of dubious safety and efficacy. 

One recent article in Foreign Policy noted that “If a vaccine comes out before the election, there are very good reasons not to take it.” Of course, there’s nothing magical about the election day as a marker of vaccine safety. A vaccine made available on election day, or even a few weeks later, would be just as safe as one that came out shortly before election day. The time required to conduct the research and analyze the data is the same, and if it’s been rushed into production, then a few weeks on either side of November 3 isn’t going to be relevant. As a practical matter, of course, a vaccine wouldn’t have a single national release day or timeframe. Front-line doctors and those at highest risk, for example, would likely get a vaccine before the general population. Due to inevitable logistical vagaries and practical reasons, the vaccine would be made available to different people in different circumstances at different times. 

You can read the rest HERE! 

Aug 302020
 

Looks like there’s a new chupacabra movie coming out, from Jonás Cuarón, son of Alfonso. “The film tells the story of a teenager who visits his family in Mexico and discovers a Chupacabra hiding in his grandfather’s shed. Saving the strange creature will be the goal of the intrepid young man and his cousins.” I hope it’s better than the previous chupa movies. I mean, it can’t *not* be…

Check out the details 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 182020
 

Across America—and indeed across the world—curious designs are appearing on the landscape. The patterns have spread from back yards to churches, public parks, and even medical centers.  Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of people have created and used the designs as meditative, spiritual, and even therapeutic tools. The pattern is the labyrinth, and though present in many places and eras, they have never been so discussed, used, and revered as at the turn of the twenty-first century. What began as a New Age fad has quickly gone mainstream, with dozens of books, magazine articles, organizations, Web sites, and seminars devoted to labyrinths.

On a physical level, a labyrinth is a single-path, maze-like pattern. Unlike a maze, however, you cannot get lost in the labyrinth; there is only one path in and out. You begin at an opening at the outside, make your way to the center (the “rosette”), and go back out. The labyrinth’s simplicity is both attractive and symbolic.

On a metaphysical level, however, the labyrinth is variously described as “a single path spiritual tool that is a right brain enhancer,” (Labyrinth Society 1999); “a lens that brings our collective unconscious into focus on a personal level while at the same time aligning us with the larger forces at work in the galaxy,” and a “sacred space, a place where you can take chaos and bring it to order” (Explorations 2000). A labyrinth is a bridge “between the ancient and the modern,” and walking one is a “simultaneous spiritual-aesthetic-political act” (Schaper and Camp 2000, 151). It is, in essence, anything the user wishes it to be.

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At first glance, labyrinth walking seems like little more than a harmless, if curious, pastime. And to some degree it is: As a skeptical investigator I enjoy labyrinths for their own sake and art, completely apart from any mystical meanings. My mother even got married in a labyrinth several years ago.

But the movement also has surprising—and disturbing—anti-science and paranormal roots. New Age feminism plays a prominent role in labyrinth literature, often denigrating “rational, male-centered thinking” in favor of feminine, “intuitive” thought.

For the woman who spawned the current movement, labyrinths are more than just an interesting design; they are a tool for reconnecting both with imagination and femininity. Walking a Sacred Path frequently portrays our modern world as too rational, unimaginative, and out of touch with wisdom, and the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as the good old days of unreason when our connection to the Earth was strong and women were valued. “The labyrinth stands with a tradition that recaptures the feminine sense of the Source. It utilizes the imagination and the pattern-discerning part of our nature.…Due to the loss of the feminine, many of us are out of touch with the depths of our beings, our Source. The feminine must be enlivened and welcomed back into our male-dominated world so integration can begin to occur—between feminine and masculine, receptive and assertive, imagination and reason.” Imagination and reason are apparently seen as mutually exclusive, with our world suffering from too much rationality and too little fantasy.

It is interesting that much of the feminist-influenced theory behind the labyrinths is rooted in Sigmund Freud, whom many believe to have been quite sexist and anti-female. It was Freud, after all, who developed the theories of penis envy (that women secretly felt inferior to men, lacking a penis) and hysteria (“wandering uterus”—that women have a condition in which unconscious emotional conflicts appear as severe mental dissociation or as physical symptoms. The underlying anxiety is assumed to have been “converted” into a physical symptom, and was considered to be a female disease brought about by movement of the uterus). One labyrinth source, www.sacredwalk.com, notes that “It is important to express these [painful] feelings so that we move through this to the next place in our lives, without taking the baggage of hurt with us.” This message, common in labyrinth literature, is Freudian through and through: our current problems won’t be resolved until we deal with their causes and begin a transition. Feminists have come full circle from deriding Freud for his antiquated and sexist notions of women to embracing Freud for his insight into resolving issues for transition.

Perhaps the most influential labyrinth book is Walking a Sacred Path by Rev. Lauren Artress, who gives seminars and talks about labyrinths. Walking a Sacred Path frequently portrays our modern world as too rational, unimaginative, and out of touch with wisdom, and the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as the good old days of unreason when our connection to the Earth was strong and women were valued. Artress goes so far as to claim that women were better off in the Middle Ages: “Both the imagination and the feminine were devalued when we moved out of the Middle Ages, and in their suppression lie the seeds of our present-day spiritual hunger” (p. 111). Artress sees the labyrinth as a tool for reconnecting both with imagination and femininity. “The labyrinth stands with a tradition that recaptures the feminine sense of the Source. It utilizes the imagination and the pattern-discerning part of our nature.…Due to the loss of the feminine, many of us are out of touch with the depths of our beings, our Source. The feminine must be enlivened and welcomed back into our male-dominated world so integration can begin to occur—between feminine and masculine, receptive and assertive, imagination and reason” (p. 14).

Artress provides no evidence that spirituality was all that great to begin with, and just assumes that our forefathers were happier, more imaginative, and more spiritually connected. This sort of false nostalgia is common in today’s New Age circles, with their emphasis on “ancient wisdom,” “lost knowledge,” etc.

 

Though this paradigm is appealing to many, it is also simplistic and somewhat contradictory. Barbara G. Walker, writing in the Skeptical Inquirer, cautions against taking the male/female paradigm too far: “We [feminists] are in danger of going too far into our own brand of dualism, when we label patriarchal and bad everything that is modern/scientific, while declaring matriarchal (or natural) and good everything that is primitive/magical. At the same time, we accept with off-handed ingratitude the gifts of technology that are made available to us every day: electric light, radio, television, telephones, trains, airplanes, cars, [and] computers .…Only science, with its objective, ‘linear’ approach, could have discovered bacteria, viruses, [and] antibiotics….. Almost everything that we can claim to know with any certainty about our world has been learned through science and not by subjectivity, instinct, or insight” (Walker 1993).

Artress discusses the value of imagination at length in her book (it is one of the longest sections), and it’s clear why: Imagination is very important to experiencing the powers of the labyrinth. “The labyrinth is an evocative tool. It works through the imagination and the senses…” (Artress 1995, 97). In other words, the more imagination you have the better the labyrinth will work for you.

Artress believes that the spiritual crisis that she sees in our society is partly the result of a lack of imagination. “We are beginning to realize that Western civilization—held together by rationalism, empirical research, and man’s control of nature—is coming apart.…As we in the West learned to use our rational minds, we developed a sense of superiority that denied our intuition and imagination their rightful place among the human faculties we need to survive” (Artress 1995, 106). (Non-Western cultures might find Artress’s implication that they never learned to be rational rather insulting.)

Yet this alleged cultural (and male driven?) loss of imagination is hard to find. We are surrounded by products of the imagination: hundreds of thousands of books, films, songs, plays, role-playing games, magazines, and works of art are produced each year. From Harry Potter to Law and Order, Pokémon to personal Web sites to John Grisham novels, works of imagination are everywhere in Western culture.

Other writers see labyrinths not so much as fulfilling a void of imagination as serving as a kind of user-friendly spirituality. Donna Schaper, co-author of Labyrinths from the Outside In, believes that many people are shunning the traditional, rigid rituals of religion and “widening their claim to worship in nature—hiking a mountain, for example, rather than sitting in a designated worship space” (Artress 1995, 31). In this way, labyrinths are a more accessible path to God or enlightenment. With some caveats, labyrinth walkers can take a spiritual journey on their own terms, when they wish, how they wish, and (using portable canvas labyrinths), more or less where they wish. Perhaps responding to a desire for easy spirituality, many churches have now embraced labyrinths and some even built them on their grounds.

Anti-Science

At times the anti-science and anti-rationality rhetoric surrounding labyrinths is alarming. A blurb from an organization called Mind Body Spirit in Walking a Sacred Path states, “One strong lesson of the labyrinth is the physical realization of the continuum of life.…[I]t is clear that linear, logical thinking is no longer a roadmap we can trust.” I hope this is most decidedly not the message that most labyrinth walkers take. To dismiss logic and rationality as fundamentally untrustworthy is deeply wrongheaded and dangerous.

Artress admits that “We do not really know how or why the labyrinth works” (Artress 1995, 177). This echoes the statements made by many promoters of pseudosciences: We don’t know why they work, they just do. Yet, depending on what exactly the claim is, we do in fact know why labyrinths “work.” If you believe that walking a labyrinth (or listening to trickling water or meditating in front of a candle) will calm you, then it probably will.  There is nothing mystical about it; it’s simple psychology.

One woman quoted in Walking a Sacred Path went so far as to put her faith in the labyrinth because she doesn’t understand it: “It is precisely because I do not understand ‘how it works’ that I trust and honor it.” (Artress 1995, 11). In this view, the less you know about something the more faith you should put into it. One wonders if she uses the same strategy in selecting investments and trusting friends.

Labyrinth literature presents a dichotomy in which mazes represent the undesirable logical, rational side and labyrinths represent the intuitive, safe side. As Artress writes, “Mazes challenge the choice-making part of ourselves.…Our logic is challenged.” The labyrinth, on the other hand, “does not engage our thinking minds” (p. 52). Thus mazes, which force people to think logically and rationally, are rejected, and labyrinths, which are to be followed one way and without question or choice, are embraced. You don’t need to engage yourself at all to follow a labyrinth, and walking the path frees one from the burden of thinking.

It’s unfortunate that labyrinth devotees (and many New Agers in general) have embraced what is at its heart a patronizing, anti-feminist paradigm that dismisses critical thinking, science, and rationality.

 

References

Artress, Lauren. 1995. Walking a Sacred Path. New York: Riverhead Books.

Explorations: Visions of the past, memories of the future. 2000. Catalogue, Fall.

Labyrinth Society brochure. 1999. The Labyrinth Society Inc., New Canaan, Connecticut.

Schaper, Donna, and Carole Ann Camp. 2000. Labyrinths from the Outside In. Woodstock, Vermont: Skylight Paths Publishing.

Walker, Barbara G. 1993. Science: The feminists’ scapegoat? Skeptical Inquirer 18(1): Fall.

 

 

This piece is adapted from my article “Labyrinths: Mazes and Myths” published in Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

 

Aug 152020
 

For those who didn’t see my previous posts on so-called “cover parties,” here’s an overview: 

 

Recent rumors and news reports have circulated claiming that COVID-19 is being spread intentionally in clandestine “covid parties.” In mid-March, Kentucky governor Andy Beshear made national headlines when he stated that part of the rise in coronavirus infections in his state was due to parties in which people tried their best to get sick. 

“We are battling for the health and even the lives of our parents and our grandparents. Don’t be so callous as to intentionally go to something and expose yourself to something that can kill other people. We ought to be much better than that,” he said in a news conference. News media widely carried the story, including CNN and NPR. A press release stated that authorities were “receiving reports of Covid-19 parties occurring in our community, where non-infected people mingle with an infected person in an effort to catch the virus.”

Confirmation that the parties were not only real but spreading came in the form of reports from Washington state, where Walla Walla’s “Meghan DeBolt, director of the county’s Department of Community Health, told the Union-Bulletin that contact tracing has revealed that some people who have newly tested positive had attended parties with the idea that it might be better to get sick with the virus and get it over with,” DeBolt told The Seattle Times.  

And then just last week came news from Alabama that college students had recently organized covid parties “as a contest to see who would get the virus first, officials said. Tuscaloosa City Councilor Sonya McKinstry said students hosted the parties to intentionally infect each other with the new coronavirus, news outlets reported. McKinstry said party organizers purposely invited guests who tested positive for COVID-19. She said the students put money in a pot and whoever got COVID first would get the cash.”

So what’s going on? Is this a genuine public health threat? 

To answer the question we can look at it from different perspectives, including media literacy, critical thinking, and folklore. There are elements of journalism, rumor, conspiracy, anti-vaccination fears, and medical misinformation. 

A Closer Look

The idea of intentionally being exposed to a disease in order to become immune to it—assuming, of course, you survive it—has been around for centuries and is the premise behind inoculation and vaccination (in which small, inactive doses of a disease trigger the body to produce defenses). 

There’s an important difference, however: Vaccinations are given specifically to prevent diseases; the idea is that hopefully you won’t get the disease at all. But these covid parties are intended to make sure the person contracts the disease (for most adults it’s not clear why actually getting sick from a potentially lethal disease would be any better at one time instead of risking getting sick at another time in the future; there’s hardly a “convenient” time to be bedridden—and possibly hospitalized—for weeks).  

Part of it traces back to anti-vaccination fears, which are closely related to conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and other diseases. There was vehement resistance to the very first vaccine, created for smallpox in the late 1700s. When the public learned that the vaccine was created by taking pus from the wounds of infected cows and giving it to humans, they were disgusted by the idea; some even believed that the vaccination could actually turn people (especially children) into cows! In England, vaccination deniers formed an Anti-Vaccination League in 1853, followed by the Anti-compulsory Vaccination League in 1867. These groups claimed that the smallpox vaccine was dangerous, ineffective, and represented not only a conspiracy but an infringement on personal rights by the government and medical establishment (this may sound familiar).

Such fears over smallpox vaccination have been long since disproven—the vaccination was both safe and effective—but the distrust and fearmongering continue to this day. Before vaccines were available, some parents held “pox parties” in which kids were encouraged to play with others who had chicken pox, measles, and other childhood diseases. They were especially popular in the 1970s and 1980s, though are today often promoted by anti-vaccination groups. 

Events in which people are deliberately exposed to diseases in place of vaccinations are a bad idea for several reasons, including as noted that the whole point of getting a vaccine is that you don’t get sick in the first place.

Of course, vaccination—like any medical intervention, drug, or therapy—isn’t perfect and doesn’t offer absolute protection. Some people who are fully vaccinated will still get the disease (albeit with typically milder symptoms and for a shorter duration), and some people who don’t get vaccinated won’t get the disease anyway (for any number of reasons, ranging from a strong immune system to simply not being exposed to a contagious person). But overall, on a population level, the scientific evidence is clear and convincing that vaccines are safe and effective. In the case of COVID-19, there is as yet no available vaccine, so there’s no safe way to expose someone to the coronavirus that doesn’t endanger their health. 

You can read the rest HERE, at my Center for Inquiry blog. 

Aug 102020
 

A folklore colleague sent me a news story about the sinister-yet-fictional Blue Whale Game rumor, which is once again circulating after I and others debunked it back in 2017… I’m not going to link to it, to avoid rewarding poor journalism with clicks, but the headline is below:

 

 

As if there aren’t enough real problems to be concerned about?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s a bit of what I wrote previously: 

 

Over the past few months scary warnings have been circulating on social media asking parents, teachers, and police to beware of a hidden threat to children: a sinister online “game” that can lead to death! Some on social media have limned their reporting on the topic with appropriate skepticism, but many panicky social media posts plead for parents to take action.

Here is a typical warning: “The Blue Whale ‘suicide game’ is believed to be a hidden online social media group which its main aim is to encourage our children to kill themselves. Within the group daily task are assigned to members have to do different tasks for fifty days. They include self-harming, watching horror movies and waking up at unusual hours, but these gradually get more extreme. But on the fiftieth day, the controlling manipulators behind the game reportedly instruct the youngsters to commit suicide. Please share and warn all other parents of the dangers of this game. We do not want any deaths related to the game within the UK.”

Though a few qualifiers are dutifully included (“is believed to be” and “reportedly,” for example) the overall tone is alarmist and sensational. It’s not clear where the appellation “Blue Whale” game comes from, though some have suggested it’s linked to suicidal whale beachings. Debunking website Snopes traced the story back to a May 2016 article on a Russian news site, which “reported dozens of suicides of children in Russia during a six-month span, asserting that some of the people who had taken their lives were part of the same online game community.”

While it appears to be true that some of the teens used the same social media gaming sites, it does not logically imply that there’s any link between the deaths, nor that the site caused them. Correlation does not imply causation, and it’s more likely that depressed teens may be drawn to certain websites than it is that those websites caused their users to become depressed and/or suicidal. And, of course, on any wildly popular social media site (including Instagram, Facebook, or Pogo), a small subset of users will share common characteristics, including mental illness, simply by random chance.

And of course we talked about it on my podcast; you can listen HERE. 

 

 

Aug 032020
 

With statues being front and center in the news earlier this month, we decided to take a few tours of the stranger side of statues. From graveyard statues that take strolls when you’re not looking to spooky statues that allegedly can’t be photographed. Myths involving statues coming to life, or live people being turned to stone, is a rich vein of folklore that reaches forward even to our most recent pop culture. Ben recounts some cases he personally investigated of miraculous “weeping” statues, and then we cover statues as guerilla art pieces that appear mysteriously overnight as publicity stunts and political statements.

You can listen to it HERE! 

Jul 312020
 

New, bonus episode of Squaring the Strange is now out! We present to you a rumor roundup, talking about all sorts of weird–and sometimes harmful–nonsense that’s swirling around social media these days. A veritable cornucopia of rumor and myth, ranging from Wayfair conspiracies to Pizzagate revisited to covid parties and bogus abduction rumors at a Hawaiian Home Depot. Check it out HERE! 

 

Jul 312020
 

In a recent episode of Squaring the Strange, we take a look at Antifa this week, or rather–we take a look at HOW people are LOOKING at Antifa. Are we witnessing the birth of a modern social panic? How is Antifa used for political and social purposes? What are the actual statistics? What sort of similarities does it have to the Satanic Panic or the more recent Clown Panic? Along the way we learn the price of bricks versus hippie crystals and the best state in which to register a converted school bus. Check it out HERE!

 

Jul 282020
 

Misleading memes are a dime a dozen, to use a phrase originating in the 1800s (though today they’re not only free but available by the tens of thousands). People who spend time on social media interact with them constantly, usually in the context of reading, endorsing, and sharing them. Less often they’re refuted or mocked, and even more rarely are they critically analyzed (by folklorists, sociologists, journalists, or the like).

It’s easy to understand why: There’s so many of them. Most memes are anonymous, and could have been made by a sincere activist—or a Russian troll farm, or even an algorithm. Trying to analyze and rebut even a tiny percentage of them would be a frustrating and fruitless waste of time, but now and then I make an exception. This is because memes often resurface months or years after first circulating, so are never really gone.

It’s sometimes worthwhile to take a critical look at a popular meme, to demonstrate how we can apply critical thinking and media literacy to the claims it contains, since often those lessons can be applied to other memes as well. Regardless of the topic, there are common mistakes and logical fallacies in misleading memes. Often the memes are factually wrong—usually in service of a particular political agenda—but other times the error is more difficult to recognize because it contains a self-evident fact or truth.

Warrants and Alternative Explanations

To help distinguish valid from invalid arguments, it’s helpful to look at memes as simple claims with (clear or hidden) premises and (valid or invalid) conclusions. You may remember from a class in logic, philosophy, or debate that in its simplest form a logical argument could be a syllogism such as “If A then B.”

The link between A and B is in what in logic is called a warrant. It’s a principle or chain of reasoning connecting a premise to a conclusion. For example in the statement “I see the freeway is packed, so we’re probably going to miss our flight,” the warrant is that traffic congestion will delay passengers getting to the airport on time. This may or may not be true—for example the traffic may clear up shortly, or the flight might also be delayed—but the warrant offers a reason or logical rationale linking a claim to its conclusion.

Often the warrant is implied, such as “Four out of five doctors use our brand of pain reliever.” The warrant is that most doctors would use one brand over another because of its quality or efficacy. Again, this may or may not be true; the doctors might use one the brand because it’s cheaper than its competitors (or free from the pharmaceutical company) though no more effective. Understanding warrants is crucial to determining whether an argument or claim is logically sound or reasonable.

A second important tool of critical thinking is seeking alternative explanations for proposed causes and effects. Often memes will pose a problem or question and then offer a simple (usually simplistic) explanation, ignoring other (often more likely) explanations.

‘Learn the Difference!’

I was reminded of this when I recently saw a meme that depicted a map of North and South America, captioned in Spanish, reading: “This is America.” On the other side of a vertical line were outlines of the United States (minus Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and other U.S. territories) with the caption: “This is USA,” and below that: “LEARN THE DIFFERENCE.”

It was a curious meme and took me a few seconds to figure out what it was trying to communicate. It explicitly suggested that people didn’t know the difference between the two, which seemed unlikely. Surely anyone who’d been to elementary school knew that the U.S. was only one country among many on the continents of North and South America. The silhouetted borders of the U.S. are ubiquitous and easily recognized all over the world. It contained no link or reference to any poll or survey saying that there was significant confusion between the two. It’s possible, of course, that some people think that the U.S. covers two continents—after all, some people think that Earth is flat—but it seemed to be arguing against a mistake that few people (if any) genuinely made (this is a straw man fallacy, for those keeping track).  

So taking the meme at face value didn’t really make any sense. I suspected that the message was both different and implicit, suggesting something about American ignorance, arrogance, or nationalism. The meme had no author but may have been trying to remind Americans that there’s more to the Americas than the United States (which, again, is universally recognized), and by implication that the U.S. isn’t the most important country on both continents. With the caveat that importance is subjective and difficult to measure—though the U.S. plays a bigger role (economically, militarily, etc.) on the international stage than any other country in the Americas—I’d overall agree with the basic idea. Americans should pay more attention to issues and problems outside their borders.

American Arrogance—Or Linguistic Explanation?

But that, too, didn’t seem to quite capture what the meme was referring to; it specifically asks us to “Learn the Difference” between the Americas and the U.S. Since most people do know the difference (between the two continents and the country), it seemed to suggest that the issue was really one of labeling. Perhaps it was borne out of a pedantic irritation that most people refer to U.S. citizens as “Americans.” This is certainly true—but doesn’t logically imply that people don’t know the difference between the two.

There may be an alternative explanation: The issue isn’t one of nationalism or arrogance but instead simple linguistics. The United States of America is the only country name in the world with the word “America” in it. It’s common for countries to be known by their shorter, informal names, and citizens of those countries to be referred to by those shorter names. The full name of the country casually called Mexico is in fact “United Mexican States,” for example, and the name of the country colloquially referred to as Brazil is really “The Federative Republic of Brazil,” and so on. There’s nothing arrogant or nationalistic about shortening “the French Republic” to “France” and calling its citizens “French,” and there’s nothing wrong with anyone referring to citizens of the United States of America as “Americans.” Doing so doesn’t mean the speaker is too ignorant to know the difference between two continents and a country, or that the speaker arrogantly thinks that “America” speaks for, or represents, the entirety of North and South America.

What Does It Meme?

I don’t know what the people who created or endorsed the meme (by Liking it and Sharing it) thought that it meant, what specific message they assumed it was advocating. I suspect that most of them didn’t really give it much thought, and media literacy research bears this out. Most people don’t read past the headlines of news stories they see and share on social media. Much of what circulates on social media isn’t closely analyzed (or even read) by those sharing and commenting on them.

We do this all the time. We do it because we’re busy. We do it because we’re overloaded on information. We do it because our attention spans are short in this digital age.

Much of the time it’s not a problem; we circulate stuff we haven’t read and may not have understood even had we read it. But it does have pitfalls, including a sense of false consensus; we see memes that (apparently) have thousands or tens of thousands of Likes and Shares, and wrongly assume that such a metric reflects genuine, thoughtful endorsement (of whatever we assume it’s intended to mean).

In some cases skimming information—or assuming we know what it says merely by its headline or tone—can have dangerous consequences. To cite a recent example, it’s been reported that Russia had put out a bounty for the killing of American troops in Afghanistan. When president Trump was asked about it, he claimed that he was never told about it—despite the information appearing in at least one Presidential Daily Briefing in February 2020. It’s not clear whether Trump read the information provided to him, or just skimmed it. Of course the memes and information most people see on social media don’t contain information about compromises to national security and the deaths of American troops, but the premise is the same.

Memes, by their nature, must be simple and quickly understood (or “understood”), combining a few words with an image or two into some sort of social statement. Memes are so prevalent and popular in part because of their ambiguity; different people can look at the same meme and draw different—perhaps even opposite—conclusions about what it means, what message it’s sending. People should be aware that when a person Likes or Shares a meme they post, they may in fact completely disagree with them about what it means.

Memes aren’t inherently good or bad (though many, perhaps most, are wrong or misleading in some way), and they’re not going away any time soon. Social media makes it easy to share content (often implicitly endorsing it) while at the same time discouraging people from taking time to actually think about what that content means. Is it logical? Is it true? What does it mean? If you wouldn’t talk to a friend face-to-face and repeat something you heard from some anonymous person without being sure it was true (and that you even understood it), why would you do the same on social media?

There’s no easy solution, but critical thinking and media literacy are powerful ways to help minimize the spread of misinformation online.

 

Jul 252020
 

As if on cue! Following my recent CFI article “The Truth About Covid Parties” and Squaring the Strange podcast episode on ‘covid parties,’ titled “Tonight We’re Gonna Party Like It’s Covid 1999” there’s a news article suggesting they’ve been confirmed!

A July 10 WOAI/KABB news story from San Antonio, Texas headlined “‘I thought this was a hoax’: Patient in their 30s dies after attending COVID party,” begins: “A patient in their 30s died from the coronavirus after attending what is known as a ‘COVID party,’ according to health care officials. Chief Medical Officer of Methodist Healthcare Dr. Jane Appleby said the idea of these parties is to see if the virus is real….According to Appleby, the patient became critically ill and had a heartbreaking statement moments before death.”

Sounds pretty grim, and for more details on this covid party death we can watch an accompanying video statement by Dr. Appleby: “I don’t want to be an alarmist, and we’re just trying to share some real-world examples to help our community realize that this virus is very serious and can spread easily. I heard a heartbreaking story this week: We cared for a thirty-year-old patient at Methodist Hospital who told their nurse that they’d attended a ‘covid party.’ This is a party held by somebody diagnosed with the covid virus and the thought is that people get together and to see if the virus is real and if anyone gets infected. Just before the patient died, they looked at their nurse and said, ‘I think I made a mistake. I thought this was a hoax, but it’s not.’ This is just one example of a potentially avoidable death of a member of our community and I can’t imagine the loss of the family.”

This is not breaking news but instead classic folklore (a friend-of-a-friend or FOAF) tale presented in news media as fact. The news story and headline presents the comment “I thought this was a hoax,” implicitly attributed to Dr. Appleby. But if you actually read past the headline and watch the video, she’s quoting what she was told that an anonymous patient told his (or her) anonymous nurse—just before the patient’s death. It’s an anonymous third-hand story with nary a verifiable name or claim to be found.

The “deathbed conversion” is a classic legend trope, and the explicitly-worded rebuttal (to those who might doubt that the virus exists) is both convenient and suspicious. It’s also interesting that covid-19 and covid parties are being conflated in the journalism. According to Dr. Appleby’s anonymous informant, the goal of the party is not specifically to intentionally spread the virus (which is the explicit goal of alleged covid parties) but instead “to see if the virus is real and if anyone gets infected.” In other words the topic is less whether the “covid parties” referenced in the headline are a “hoax,” but whether the covid-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2) is itself a hoax.

It is not, and frankly it’s hard to imagine anyone who genuinely thinks that the virus is fictional and doesn’t exist. Many people believe that the extent of the pandemic has been exaggerated for political purposes by the news media and others, and other people think that the virus is less severe than often claimed, perhaps only as bad as the flu. But who in the world would think that the virus itself is a “hoax”? The answer, according to Dr. Appleby, is the patient she refers to and unnamed others who allegedly threw a party thinking that the outcome would somehow settle the question.

Dr. Appleby’s story could, of course, be true, and it’s possible that in the coming days and weeks we will learn the name of the patient who died from attending a covid party (and/or the nurse who heard the patient’s dying regrets). Note that there’s no need to offer any identifying information about the patient, thus violating HIPAA rules. The nurse who (allegedly) had the first-person discussion could come forward to discuss the incident without violating any patient confidentiality agreements. More likely, however, this is a news story reporting a rumor as fact, and if anything it reinforces, not undermines, the idea that covid parties are largely or wholly fictional.

 
Jul 222020
 

Recent rumors and news reports have circulated claiming that COVID-19 is being spread intentionally in clandestine “covid parties.” In mid-March, Kentucky governor Andy Beshear made national headlines when he stated that part of the rise in coronavirus infections in his state was due to parties in which people tried their best to get sick. 

“We are battling for the health and even the lives of our parents and our grandparents. Don’t be so callous as to intentionally go to something and expose yourself to something that can kill other people. We ought to be much better than that,” he said in a news conference. News media widely carried the story, including CNN and NPR. A press release stated that authorities were “receiving reports of Covid-19 parties occurring in our community, where non-infected people mingle with an infected person in an effort to catch the virus.”

Confirmation that the parties were not only real but spreading came in the form of reports from Washington state, where Walla Walla’s “Meghan DeBolt, director of the county’s Department of Community Health, told the Union-Bulletin that contact tracing has revealed that some people who have newly tested positive had attended parties with the idea that it might be better to get sick with the virus and get it over with,” DeBolt told The Seattle Times.  

And then just last week came news from Alabama that college students had recently organized covid parties “as a contest to see who would get the virus first, officials said. Tuscaloosa City Councilor Sonya McKinstry said students hosted the parties to intentionally infect each other with the new coronavirus, news outlets reported. McKinstry said party organizers purposely invited guests who tested positive for COVID-19. She said the students put money in a pot and whoever got COVID first would get the cash.”

So what’s going on? Is this a genuine public health threat? 

To answer the question we can look at it from different perspectives, including media literacy, critical thinking, and folklore. There are elements of journalism, rumor, conspiracy, anti-vaccination fears, and medical misinformation. 

A Closer Look

The idea of intentionally being exposed to a disease in order to become immune to it—assuming, of course, you survive it—has been around for centuries and is the premise behind inoculation and vaccination (in which small, inactive doses of a disease trigger the body to produce defenses). 

There’s an important difference, however: Vaccinations are given specifically to prevent diseases; the idea is that hopefully you won’t get the disease at all. But these covid parties are intended to make sure the person contracts the disease (for most adults it’s not clear why actually getting sick from a potentially lethal disease would be any better at one time instead of risking getting sick at another time in the future; there’s hardly a “convenient” time to be bedridden—and possibly hospitalized—for weeks).  

Part of it traces back to anti-vaccination fears, which are closely related to conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and other diseases. There was vehement resistance to the very first vaccine, created for smallpox in the late 1700s. When the public learned that the vaccine was created by taking pus from the wounds of infected cows and giving it to humans, they were disgusted by the idea; some even believed that the vaccination could actually turn people (especially children) into cows! In England, vaccination deniers formed an Anti-Vaccination League in 1853, followed by the Anti-compulsory Vaccination League in 1867. These groups claimed that the smallpox vaccine was dangerous, ineffective, and represented not only a conspiracy but an infringement on personal rights by the government and medical establishment (this may sound familiar).

Such fears over smallpox vaccination have been long since disproven—the vaccination was both safe and effective—but the distrust and fearmongering continue to this day. Before vaccines were available, some parents held “pox parties” in which kids were encouraged to play with others who had chicken pox, measles, and other childhood diseases. They were especially popular in the 1970s and 1980s, though are today often promoted by anti-vaccination groups. 

Events in which people are deliberately exposed to diseases in place of vaccinations are a bad idea for several reasons, including as noted that the whole point of getting a vaccine is that you don’t get sick in the first place.

Of course, vaccination—like any medical intervention, drug, or therapy—isn’t perfect and doesn’t offer absolute protection. Some people who are fully vaccinated will still get the disease (albeit with typically milder symptoms and for a shorter duration), and some people who don’t get vaccinated won’t get the disease anyway (for any number of reasons, ranging from a strong immune system to simply not being exposed to a contagious person). But overall, on a population level, the scientific evidence is clear and convincing that vaccines are safe and effective. In the case of COVID-19, there is as yet no available vaccine, so there’s no safe way to expose someone to the coronavirus that doesn’t endanger their health. 

A Bad Idea…

It’s also important to remember that—unlike common cold or influenza—there seems to be lingering damage to the body long after apparent recovery from COVID-19. In stark contrast to Trump’s recent claim that “99% of infections” are “totally harmless” (a statement universally disputed by medical experts), though it’s true that statistically most people recover after surviving a bout with the disease, many report debilitating aftereffects. 

As an article in Forbes noted, “rapid recovery has not been the experience of thousands—perhaps tens of thousands—of patients worldwide who’ve been classified as ‘mild cases.’ Many struggle for months with lingering Covid-19 symptoms that can be debilitating. They exhibit shortness of breath, extreme fatigue, intermittent fevers, cough, concentration issues, chest pressure, headaches, and heart palpitations, among other symptoms.” A study of 1,622 “mildly symptomatic” Covid-19 patients found that “Nearly 88% of patients reported persistent intense fatigue, while almost three out of four had continued shortness of breath. Other enduring symptoms included, among other things, chest pressure (45% of patients), headache and muscle ache (40% and 36%, respectively), elevated pulse (30%), and dizziness (29%). Perhaps the most startling finding was that 85% of the surveyed patients considered themselves healthy prior to getting Covid-19. One or more months after getting the disease, only 6% consider themselves healthy.”

It would be one thing if COVID-19 patients could expect to endure a week or two of bedridden misery and then bounce back to where they were, fully recovered and newly immune. But that’s not the case; though most of those infected eventually survive the disease, the following months of aches, fatigue, and shortness of breath are unlikely to be worth it. Far better to protect yourself than to deliberately infect yourself. 

…That Probably Doesn’t Work Anyway

In any event, “covid parties” are unlikely to be effective anyway, for logistical reasons. Assuming you have a willing and potentially infectious patient (who’s not bedridden or in a hospital), it’s impossible for non-doctors to establish the person’s viral load—that is, the amount of contagious particles in a given volume of an infected person’s fluids (such as saliva or sneeze droplets). 

The basics of transmission are pretty well understood, and universal for upper respiratory infections: coughing, sneezing, and so on. Once droplets are expelled from the patient, they can enter other people by various routes: most easily by inhalation, but also indirectly through a person touching an item (say, a doorknob or elevator button) and then carrying that to their mouth, nose, or eyes. There are other ways as well, such as food contamination (sneezing on a salad bar, for example). 

A viral load varies from person to person, and how far along they are in the disease symptoms. But researchers don’t yet fully understand the mechanisms of COVID-19 infection. Sunlight kills the virus and air currents disperse it, making outdoor contact safer than indoor exposure. The recommended social distance metric of six feet isn’t a magic number, but merely an educated guess about how close people can be and minimize the risk. That doesn’t mean that you can’t catch it from someone twenty feet away (or someone who’s now long gone), and that doesn’t mean that you’re certain to catch it if you’re closer, or even kissing. There are many, many variables involved, including health of the patient, the amount of virus the person is exposed to, for how long, and so on. The point is that even under controlled, laboratory conditions, there’s little certainty about COVD-19’s transmissibility and thus health officials will err on the side of caution. 

Anti-vaccination groups—not known for their respect of medicine, its findings, or the recommendations derived therefrom—typically resort to unproven, ad hoc infection measures, such as merely being in the same room as an infected person, or in some cases sharing lollipops for example. Most people, anti-vaxx or not, aren’t eager to eat food that strangers have coughed or sneezed on. 

Not only does being around a sick person not guarantee you’ll get sick, but of course the person may not even have COVID-19 in the first place. Many respiratory diseases can have similar symptoms; if you or your child has a cold, they’re probably infected by a rhinovirus, not a coronavirus, so you’re not doing anyone any favors by giving them a cold or flu—and not conferring any immunity to COVID-19, which was the whole point. It is a direct violation of the first rule of medicine: “First, do no harm.” 

Whether any “covid parties” were actually held, there were many accidental ones in which people became infected (and in some cases died) from attending a party with an infected person. This fact should not, however, be taken as evidence that covid parties are an effective way to catch the virus; instead, it’s a case of selection bias. The cases in which people came down with the virus after parties are ones which are of course reported in news media; parties in which people gathered during the pandemic and no one became infected (for any number of reasons, including that no one present had the virus or that precautions including wearing masks and social distancing were taken, and so on) are non-events and therefore not newsworthy or notable. There’s simply no way to know with any certainty what the chances are of any given person contracting the disease. When you add in well-documented confounding factors such as asymptomatic carriers and vagaries of testing (including incomplete testing, false positives and false negatives, and so on), the whole premise of such parties is dubious. 

Statistics, Media Literacy, and ‘Bug Chasers’

So are the covid parties “real”? It’s hard to say, and depends on what you mean by “real.” There may be a few rare, isolated cases of people getting together to do that, but in any event it’s not common nor medically sanctioned. 

It’s also important to apply media literacy to the claims: News media routinely exaggerate and sensationalize claims such as these, eager to identify the latest dangerous “hidden trend” among the reckless for their audiences. 

For example in February 2003 Rolling Stone magazine published an article about “bug chasers,” men who try to become infected with HIV/AIDS by having unprotected sex with men known to be infected. An article titled “In Search of Death” claimed that trying to become infected with AIDS was a new craze sweeping the country. It featured an interview with an anonymous man, a 32-year-old New York City resident named “Carlos,” who claimed to be one of many thousands of people intentionally spreading the deadly disease. The article not only claimed that the practice was going on, but also that it was a significant contributor to the AIDS epidemic, with a startling 25% of all new HIV infections in gay men caused by bug chasing—that is, people who wanted to get the virus. 

Gay advocacy groups and AIDS activists were outraged at the sensationalistic reporting; GLAAD issued a statement that the piece “sends a dangerous, inaccurate message that is already being exploited by the anti-gay right.” A piece in the British Medical Journal set the record straight: “Rolling Stone says that its data came from an interview with Bob Cabaj, director of behavioral health services at San Francisco’s department of public health. But immediately after the piece was published, Cabaj asserted that he never mentioned any figures on the prevalence of bug chasing. In a letter to Rolling Stone, which was forwarded to the BMJ, Cabaj wrote: ‘I did not have data, as I explained to the [Rolling Stone] author, but was saying it was probably more common than people wanted to think.’ And in an interview with Newsweek Cabaj distanced himself even further from the widely quoted prevalence data: ‘I never said that [it was 25%]. And when the fact checker called me and asked me if I said that, I said no. I said no. This is unbelievable.’” 

2006 study in the journal AIDS Education and Prevention by Christian Grov and Jeffrey Parsons of internet profiles concluded that while there are probably people who actively seek out HIV infection, they are very rare and that “a sizeable portion [of those] were not intent on spreading HIV.” That is, some non-infected gay men may seek partners of a different serostatus (i.e., HIV-infected)—but when they do, the purpose is not to get infected with the virus, nor to spread it to others. 

From a folkloric perspective these rumors can be understood as disease legends. Diane Goldstein, in her book Once Upon a Virus: AIDS Legends and Vernacular Risk Perception, notes that “The construction of the infected individual as morally deficient… occurs with regularity in relation to epidemic diseases. The more virulent diseases become, the more likely it is that certain groups and individuals will be seen as responsible for the threat on community welfare.” Goldstein discusses various false rumors circulating about people who deliberately infected others with AIDS, such as “AIDS Mary” and “AIDS Harry” stories, as well as fears about AIDS-infected needles placed in telephone coin return slots (though such rumors often resurface, this latter version is unlikely to return any time soon).

The Non-Epidemic of Covid Parties

So what about the widely-reported recent covid parties in Kentucky, Washington, and Alabama? 

Well, evidence of the coronavirus parties that Kentucky governor Andy Beshear mentioned never materialized, and Beshear never provided any follow up information or details on what, exactly, he was referring to. 

The reports from Washington state turned out to be a mistake. As The New York Times reported, “officials retracted those comments and said the so-called Covid-19 parties may have been more innocent gatherings. Meghan DeBolt, the director of community health for Walla Walla County, said county officials were learning more about the cases that have emerged from the recent social gatherings. She said they were still hearing reports of parties where infected people were present but do not have evidence that the people who became ill after the gatherings had attended out of a desire to be exposed.” In other words, young people were recklessly gathering at parties—something happening all across the country and having nothing to do with covid parties. 

The Alabama covid party story was soon debunked as well. As a refreshingly skeptical Wired article noted: “Tuscaloosa fire chief Randy Smith told the city council that his department had heard about parties ‘where students or kids would come in with known positives.’ It sounded like just a rumor, Smith said, but ‘not only did the doctors’ offices help confirm it, but the state also confirmed they had the same information.’ You’ll notice immediately that Smith didn’t say anything about people trying to get sick, let alone betting on who could do it first. So why is everyone saying that’s what happened? The notion seems to have originated with McKinstry, who shared it with ABC News after the meeting. It’s not clear whether McKinstry had a source for this idea, and she did not reply to WIRED’s request for comment. The Alabama Department of Health responded with a statement that it ‘has not been able to verify such parties have taken place.’ It’s not even clear that the fire chief had it right about kids going to parties while knowing they were sick.”

“Covid parties” made the news again in mid-July, when a doctor at a Texas hospital gave interviews to national news media that seemed to confirm the dire threat of the reckless events. A July 10 WOAI/KABB news story from San Antonio, Texas headlined “‘I thought this was a hoax’: Patient in their 30s dies after attending COVID party,” begins: “A patient in their 30s died from the coronavirus after attending what is known as a ‘COVID party,’ according to health care officials. Chief Medical Officer of Methodist Healthcare Dr. Jane Appleby said the idea of these parties is to see if the virus is real….According to Appleby, the patient became critically ill and had a heartbreaking statement moments before death.”

More details on this apparent “covid party death” appear in an accompanying video statement by Dr. Appleby: “I don’t want to be an alarmist, and we’re just trying to share some real-world examples to help our community realize that this virus is very serious and can spread easily. I heard a heartbreaking story this week: We cared for a thirty-year-old patient at Methodist Hospital who told their nurse that they’d attended a ‘covid party.’ This is a party held by somebody diagnosed with the covid virus and the thought is that people get together and to see if the virus is real and if anyone gets infected. Just before the patient died, they looked at their nurse and said, ‘I think I made a mistake. I thought this was a hoax, but it’s not.’ This is just one example of a potentially avoidable death of a member of our community and I can’t imagine the loss of the family.”

This is not breaking news but instead classic folklore (a friend-of-a-friend or FOAF) tale. The news story and headline presents the comment “I thought this was a hoax,” implicitly attributed to Dr. Appleby. But if you read past the headline and watch the video, she’s quoting what she was told that an anonymous patient told his (or her) anonymous nurse—just before the patient’s death. It’s an anonymous third-hand story with nary a verifiable name or claim to be found.

The “deathbed conversion” is a classic legend trope, and the explicitly-worded rebuttal (to those who might doubt that the virus exists) is both convenient and suspicious. It’s also interesting that covid-19 and covid parties are being conflated in the journalism. According to Dr. Appleby’s anonymous informant, the goal of the party is not specifically to intentionally spread the virus—as noted, the explicit goal of alleged covid parties—but instead “to see if the virus is real and if anyone gets infected.” In other words the topic is less whether the “covid parties” referenced in the headline are a “hoax,” but whether the covid-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2) is itself a hoax.

It’s hard to imagine anyone who genuinely thinks that the virus is fictional and doesn’t exist. Many people believe that the extent of the pandemic has been exaggerated for political purposes by the news media and others, and some think that the virus is less severe than often claimed, perhaps only as bad as the flu. But who in the world would think that the virus itself is a “hoax”? The answer, according to Dr. Appleby, is the patient she refers to and unnamed others who allegedly threw a party thinking that the outcome would somehow settle the question.

Dr. Appleby’s story could, of course, be true, and it’s possible that in the coming days and weeks we will learn the name of the patient who died from attending a covid party (and/or the nurse who heard the patient’s dying regrets). More likely, however, this is a news story reporting a rumor as fact, and if anything it reinforces, not undermines, the idea that covid parties are largely or wholly fictional.

The reports have all the typical ingredients of unfounded moral panic rumors: anonymous sources sharing stories and warnings online, soon legitimized by local officials (teachers, police, school districts, governors, etc.) who publicize the information out of an abundance of caution. Journalists eagerly run with a sensational story, and there’s little if any sober or skeptical follow-up. 

It’s only one of many concerns that cycle through news and social media on a regular basis. The alleged threats include poisoned Halloween candy, suicide-inducing online games, Satanists, caravans of diseased migrantsevil clowns, and many others. 

Covid parties, per se, are largely a media myth, but that doesn’t mean that someone, somewhere, may not be doing it or could do it. The question is not whether it’s possible, as all urban legends and rumors are inherently possible—and at least plausible enough to share. Hours after a hapless expert publicly avers that covid parties “don’t exist,” one could be arranged, thus “proving” the expert wrong. But the essence of the rumor is instead that clandestine covid parties are a Thing, being organized and sure to soon menace public health. In that regard there’s no evidence whatsoever of any covid parties.

In a world of 7.5 billion people—60% of whom are online—some tiny percentage of them will inevitably share common interests in strange, illegal, or destructive behaviors (ranging from murder for hire to sexual fetishes and even cannibalism). Of those, some small percent will get together in real life to enact them. The issue is less “Has this ever happened?” or “Could this happen?” but instead “Even if it has happened, is it a prevalent or significant threat that ordinary people should be concerned about, or take steps to prevent?” 

There are more than enough real threats and dangers associated with COVID-19; we don’t need to create new ones. Hoaxes, misinformation, and rumors can cause real harm during public health emergencies; as always, best inoculations against misinformation are critical thinking, media literacy, and skepticism.

We also devoted an episode of Squaring the Strange to the topic; you can listen HERE. 

 

A longer version of this article appeared on my CFI blog; you can find it HERE.

Jul 192020
 

A folklore colleague sent me a news story about the sinister-yet-fictional Blue Whale Game rumor, which is once again circulating after I and others debunked it back in 2017… As if there aren’t enough real problems to be concerned about?

 

My original article, from June 2017: 

Over the past few months scary warnings have been circulating on social media asking parents, teachers, and police to beware of a hidden threat to children: a sinister online “game” that can lead to death! Some on social media have limned their reporting on the topic with appropriate skepticism, but many panicky social media posts plead for parents to take action.

Here is a typical warning: “The Blue Whale ‘suicide game’ is believed to be a hidden online social media group which its main aim is to encourage our children to kill themselves. Within the group daily task are assigned to members have to do different tasks for fifty days. They include self-harming, watching horror movies and waking up at unusual hours, but these gradually get more extreme. But on the fiftieth day, the controlling manipulators behind the game reportedly instruct the youngsters to commit suicide. Please share and warn all other parents of the dangers of this game. We do not want any deaths related to the game within the UK.”

Though a few qualifiers are dutifully included (“is believed to be” and “reportedly,” for example) the overall tone is alarmist and sensational. It’s not clear where the appellation “Blue Whale” game comes from, though some have suggested it’s linked to suicidal whale beachings. Debunking website Snopes traced the story back to a May 2016 article on a Russian news site, which “reported dozens of suicides of children in Russia during a six-month span, asserting that some of the people who had taken their lives were part of the same online game community.”

While it appears to be true that some of the teens used the same social media gaming sites, it does not logically imply that there’s any link between the deaths, nor that the site caused them. Correlation does not imply causation, and it’s more likely that depressed teens may be drawn to certain websites than it is that those websites caused their users to become depressed and/or suicidal. And, of course, on any wildly popular social media site (including Instagram, Facebook, or Pogo), a small subset of users will share common characteristics, including mental illness, simply by random chance.

Real or Rumor?

There is little evidence that the game has actually caused suicides, or that it even exists.

The question is not, “Is this scary event possible?” because of course it is—anything is possible. Rumors and legends often involve things and events that people can believe might be real, might be a genuine threat to the health or safety of themselves or their loved ones. All urban legends have an element of superficial credibility about them; that’s why they are widely shared and warned about.

There is a sort of self-limiting credulity mechanism built into urban legends and what’s often called scarelore: If you hear some warning that is so outlandish and bizarre that no one would believe it, then you don’t spread it around because others will recognize the story as patently absurd and question your judgment for sharing such a silly story in the first place.

The question is instead, “Is there any evidence that this scary story is true?” and that is a very different matter. Rumors and legends are widely shared because they appeal to apparently legitimate statistics and sources—in this case seemingly specific numbers such as 130 victims—or to statements from legitimate police organizations. There is little or no evidence that the story is true, and it’s important for journalists to make sure the public knows this and not write alarmist stories that sensationalize the claims.

Moral panics such as the Blue Whale Game are part of a very old tradition. These scary media stories are very popular because they are fueled by parents’ fears and wanting to know what their kids are up to. Are seemingly innocent role-playing games and entertainment leading to unspeakable evil, in the form of Satan or even death? We saw the same fears decades ago about Dungeons and Dragons, heavy metal music, and violent video games. Now it’s online games and social media.

Indeed, the Blue Whale Game has all the hallmarks of a classic moral panic. Familiar elements and themes include:

  1. Modern technology and seemingly benign personal devices as posing hidden dangers to children and teens;
  2. In classic “Stranger Danger” fashion, the threat is some influential evil stranger who manipulates the innocent; and
  3. There is an element of conspiracy theory to these stories: it’s always a “hidden world” of anonymous evil people who apparently have nothing better to do than ask teens to do things for fifty days before (somehow) compelling them to commit suicide.

Responding to the Scare

The mere fact that news organizations and school officials comment on the rumors often lends credibility to the stories, and authorities should be careful about legitimizing these sorts of moral panics. Police, teachers, and others issue statements to address rumors but often end up legitimizing the stories and making them more credible. Parents and others who might otherwise recognize the rumors as bogus may say, “Well, I thought it was a hoax, but even the police are commenting on it, so there must be some truth to it!”

In fact, authorities will often be pressured by parents and others to address rumors and stories even if there is no evidence for them. People take a “better safe than sorry” approach to sharing these stories, and it ends up doing more harm than good if there is no underlying threat, as is the case here. It’s also common for journalists and others—even when a threat is recognized as bogus—to spin the panic into a “teachable moment” in which to remind kids about the dangers of peer influence, the perils of online predators, bullying, and so on. (A similar thing happened with last year’s scary clown panic, during which several schools were placed on lockdown due to rumors of violent clowns.)

The best way for parents to cope with these rumors is to not share them and calm their children’s fears if they hear them. Parents do not need to have a somber, serious sit-down discussion with their kids; instead it can be as simple as acknowledging the rumors and saying in passing, “You know it’s just a joke, a rumor. There’s no truth to it.” Parents should trust that their children are media savvy and smart enough not to do whatever a stranger tells them. (Parents have a hard enough time getting their teenagers to follow their rules one day at a time, so getting them to diligently follow a stranger’s increasingly bizarre instructions daily for nearly two months would be a remarkable feat indeed.)

CFI Fellow Richard Saunders, a veteran skeptic and host of the Skeptic Zone podcast, added that “One of the problems faced by the modern media is the precious little time and resources they have to do basic investigation into the validity of a story. It is more expedient for a publisher or an editor to put out the story half-baked, especially one concerning the imminent demise of beloved children, than to do thorough research.” Saunders noted that in today’s twenty-four–hour news cycle, “There are just too many other stories competing for the public attention, and their attention span is brief, especially when they get much of their news from Facebook. Competition is fierce and in order to keep up and sell newspapers, or have people read your story in any form, it is necessary to cut corners. Next week there will be another story and any controversy over the current story will be soon forgotten as yesterday’s (or last week’s) news.”

There is of course a possibility that some people (kids or adults) will take the stories seriously and try to participate in, or even create, such a game, even if it doesn’t really exist. Journalists and others in the news media can help deter such copycats by treating the topic skeptically. Journalists and police should also be careful not to confuse or attribute some genuine, unrelated suicides to the Blue Whale Game, as the Russian news source mentioned earlier apparently did. In the wake of suicides, which are sadly not uncommon among young people for a wide variety of reasons, many people will look for answers or scapegoats, including rock music, violent video games, and so on. Journalists can also help by seeking out skeptics, psychologists, and experts in folklore to help put the claims into context.

This is only the latest in a long series of similar moral panics and outrages shared on social media and aided by sensationalist news media. Often the best antidote to the Blue Whale Game and other moral panics is a healthy dose of skepticism.

 

We have also discussed the game on my podcast Squaring the Strange, which I hope you’re subscribing to! 

 

 

 

Jul 152020
 

The twin plagues of COVID-19 and racism have come to the fore globally over the past few months, and as with any such afflictions there’s a social desire to scapegoat, finding someone (or some group) to blame. Parallels between the pandemic and racism are not hard to find. Earlier this month George Clooney referred to racism as America’s “pandemic,” for which we must find a “vaccine.” Street protesters as well can be seen holding signs encouraging people to “Treat Racism Like COVID-19.” 

The two are analogous in some ways, prompting some anti-vaccination crusaders to compare themselves to pioneering Civil Rights leaders, seeing themselves as victims of social injustice who will no longer be silent. As MacKenzie Mays noted in a September 2019 piece for Politico: “A chorus of mostly white women sang the gospel song ‘We Shall Overcome’ in the California State Capitol, an anthem of the civil rights movement. Mothers rallied outside the governor’s office and marched through Capitol corridors chanting “No segregation, no discrimination, yes on education for all!’ Some wore T-shirts that read ‘Freedom Keepers.’ But this wasn’t about racial equality. In the nation’s most diverse state, protesters opposed to childhood vaccine mandates — many from affluent coastal areas — had co-opted the civil rights mantle from the 1960s, insisting that their plight is comparable to what African Americans have suffered from segregationist policies. Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove said, ‘The whole conversation around vaccinations is actually one about privilege and opportunity. It’s a personal choice. It’s a luxury to be able to have a conversation about medical exemptions and about whether or not you think your child should be vaccinated.” However passionate Jenny McCarthy is, she’s no Rosa Parks. 

Racism and Anti-Vaccination

René F. Najera, editor of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s History of Vaccines website, recently examined the cross-pollination of racism and anti-vaccination efforts, highlighting an incident that came to the attention of the California Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus (APILC), which “denounced racist online postings from anti-vaccine people. One of those people is Rob Schneider, an actor and comedian who at one time had a television series on Netflix. This is not Mr. Schneider’s first foray into the cultural discussion on vaccination … The posts denounced by APILC includes Mr. Schneider’s comparison of Richard Pan, MD, to Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China and author of several atrocities within China and the expansion of Communism around China’s sphere of influence in the post-World War 2 era. Dr. Pan is a child of Taiwanese immigrants to the United States. (This is apparently not the first time Mr. Schneider has engaged in questionable racial speech that some deem to be racist.) In another post denounced by APILC, ‘Christine Lee’ posted a photoshopped poster of members of the California Legislature who have Asian heritage. In the text of the posting, she asks several leading questions, such as ‘Notice anything else about them?’ after pointing out that they are ‘all doctors-turned-politicians.’ (The implication being that they are all of Asian descent?) The final posting being denounced is that of ‘Cathy S-R,’ a self-described ‘Doctor of Chiropractic, medical freedom supporter, informed consent, dog/cat lover.’ In her posting to Twitter, she asks Dr. Pan if he is an American citizen [and] then contradicts her initial insinuation about Dr. Pan’s citizenship by stating that Dr. Pan ‘[m]ake [his] country proud.’” 

It’s not just Asians, of course—though prejudice toward them has increased with their association with COVID-19 and its origin in Wuhan, China. University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire professor David Shih notes that “People of color have been long associated with disease and public health pandemics. In the United States alone, the history of racialization cannot be separated from the discourse of non-white bodily or mental illness … I would like to focus on black Americans, and the influential story told about them by a single man, Frederick L. Hoffman. Hoffman was an actuary for the Prudential Life Insurance Company when he published Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro (1896). The 330-page document argued that black people should not be insured because they were a greater risk for mortality compared to other racial groups. Their lower life expectancies were directly related, Hoffman explained, to inferior, inherited racial traits which promised their eventual extinction as a people. Flawed as it was and critiqued by no less than W.E.B. DuBois in its day, Hoffman’s diagnosis was widely adopted by the insurance industry and went on to shape public debate over the ‘Negro question’ … Blackness was, quite simply, a public health problem. One of the reasons why we are not talking about the anti-vaccination movement as white is because we talk about geography and social class instead. These demographic characteristics often stand in as proxies for race, which is more controversial.” 

Nevertheless, race does occasionally come to the fore. In The Kiss of Death: Contagion, Contamination, and Folklore, professor Andrea Kitta examines the characteristics of well-known “patient zeros and superspreaders” of various diseases, including Mary Mallon (“Typhoid Mary”), Amber Vinson (the Texas nurse who contracted Ebola in 2014), and Chong Pei Ling (SARS victim in 2003). Notably, “of the thirteen cases listed, only four are ‘white’” (p. 34). The perceived link between nonwhite skin and contagion is clear and helps form the basis for initiatives to close America’s borders. The fear of foreigners and immigrants bringing disease to the country was of course raised a few years ago when a Fox News contributor suggested without evidence that a migrant caravan from Honduras and Guatemala coming through Mexico carried leprosy, smallpox, and other dreaded diseases. This claim was quickly debunked. For more on COVID-19 racist conspiracies, see my previous article in this series. 

New Age, Holistic Healers, and Conspiracies

Conspiracy theories are common among alternative medicine proponents—who often portray themselves as marginalized medical professionals denied the imprimatur of mainstream medicine—and some bleed over into racism. One prominent proponent is Kelly Brogan, a “holistic psychiatrist” who has gathered a huge following online for her dangerous theories about COVID-19, made in interviews and a series of videos. 

Brogan invokes Jewish history and the Holocaust in her arguments against vaccination, “suggesting the possibility that the US government is planning to ‘link our passports with our vaccination records’ as a method of gaining ‘totalitarian governmental control not unlike the divide-and-conquer dehumanization agendas that preceded the Holocaust.’” Brogan, associated with Gwyneth Paltrow’s New Age company Goop, was found to have misstated her credentials. On her website, she claimed that she was board certified in psychiatry and psychosomatic medicine/consultation psychiatry, but a search of records found that she was not; after an investigation by The Daily Beast, Brogan quietly deleted the references to her certifications. 

On social media, Brogan has shared videos with titles such as “Vaccine Conspiracy or Racist Population Control Campaign,” a 2014 video from anti-vaccination activist Celesta McGovern reprising longstanding rumors about attempts to sterilize Africans. The claims were soon debunked on the Science-Based Medicine website but have continued to circulate widely. There are many examples of racism in medicine, but the campaign Brogan highlights is, ironically, not among them. 

Many other alternative medicine and holistic websites also promote anti-vaccination conspiracies. NaturalNews, Mike “The Health Ranger” Adams, and others, for example, have widely shared bogus “news” stories attempting to discredit mainstream science, with headlines such as “Tetanus vaccines found spiked with sterilization chemical to carry out race-based genocide against Africans.” It’s all thrown into a toxic stew of misinformation about the dangers of vaccines, GMOs, cell phones, you name it. 

Like all conspiracy theories, these rumors and stories have a superficial plausibility, and gain traction by tapping into deep-seated—and often legitimate—concerns and fears. There is of course a long and well-documented history of racism in medicine, from the Tuskegee Experiments beginning in the 1930s to disparate healthcare treatment. When two French doctors recently suggested that a tuberculosis vaccine should be tested on Africans to see if it could be effective against COVID-19, the comments were denounced as racist and relics of a colonial past by the head of the World Health Organization (WHO). “Shouldn’t we do this study in Africa, where there are no masks, no treatment, no resuscitation, a bit like some studies on AIDS, where among prostitutes, we try things, because they are exposed, and they don’t protect themselves?” asked physician Jean-Paul Mira. The WHO called the comments “appalling” and said that any WHO-led vaccine testing will follow the same standards regardless of where it’s done. 

Folklorist Patricia Turner, in her book I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture, observes that “African-American mistrust of governmental agencies is not without merit … Official disrespect for the bodies of African-Americans has a long history in this country” (p. 112). Medicalized racism is real, harmful, and a serious problem, but that doesn’t mean that any given wild conspiracy theory is true.

Brogan’s attempt to paint the medical establishment as racist is ironic given her own history of promoting conspiracy theorist David Icke—who claims among many other things that Barack Obama is a Reptilian (when not spewing racist tropes). As The New York Times noted, “Mr. Icke draws on ideas from the anti-Semitic pamphlet The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, argues that Holocaust denial should be taught in schools and that Jews are responsible for organizing anti-Semitic attacks, and calls the Talmud a racist document. In other writings, he has posited that a cabal of a child-sacrificing, bloodthirsty lizard people, many of whom are Jewish, are secretly running the world.” 

In a March 20, 2020, post, Brogan encouraged her followers to “listen through to the end [of an interview with Icke] to learn how to remain calm and manifest the impossible.” Regarding COVID-19, she states that in fact “there is potentially no such thing as the coronavirus.” Brogan seems to decry racism conspiracy when it serves her anti-vaccination purposes, and promote racism conspiracy—or at least those who do—when it suits her.

Anti-vaccination wellness influencers such as Brogan are also actively sharing conspiracy theories from far-right groups such as QAnon about COVID-19. A recent Mother Jones article found that “Some have fused wellness hoaxes and pseudoscientific homeopathic treatments with QAnon and other far-right conspiracies. One such notable influencer is Joseph Arena, a chiropractor who uses the title ‘Dr.’ and has more than 40,000 followers. Arena has pushed explicit QAnon theories about massive pedophile rings run by the deep state on his Instagram account and has directed his followers to pro-QAnon pages to find ‘the truth.’… Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai, a biology PhD [with] nearly 100,000 followers, pushes QAnon-styled conspiracies about “deep state” [including] that the coronavirus is a tool for the ‘deep state’ in ‘consolidating its Power using its protected class of Hollywood & Academic whores.’”

Plandemic 

The recent Plandemic video is laden with conspiracies and hints darkly at motivations in its attacks on Dr. Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates. For example, as to the claims made about Fauci in Plandemic, former New York police officer Mitch Danzig, notes in an article for The Jewish Journal that “The NIAID, under Fauci’s leadership since 1984, provides dozens of grants to labs researching infectious diseases. These grants weren’t awarded to work on COVID-19. Many were, however, awarded to perform work on SARS, which spread across the world in 2003. The NIAID also didn’t give the funds directly to the Wuhan Institute. The grants were given instead to the EcoHealth Alliance, which invests in health research globally that led to at least 20 research papers on pre-COVID-19 coronaviruses published over the past six years. The grant referenced in these breathless, innuendo-filled stories about Fauci also wasn’t the first awarded by the NIAID to the EcoHealth Alliance. The NIAID has been providing grants to EcoHealth Alliance to fund infectious disease research projects all over the world, including in Chinese institutes, since 2005. This ‘smoking gun’ that Fauci conspiracy theorists keep touting is about as big a ‘Nothing Burger’ as one can imagine. But it is about as demonstrative of the claim that Fauci is responsible for COVID-19 as pointing to a specific Jew being the president of CBS as ‘proof’ that the ‘Jews control the media.’ To say that these conspiracy theories about Gates and Fauci, which often are promoted by a cohort of anti-vaxxers as well as anti-Semites, are specious and baseless, is to be kind.” 

Anti-vaccination advocates are of course not alone in spreading medical misinformation for social and political purposes; anti-abortion groups have been known to spread false rumors about contraception being secretly given instead of tetanus vaccines to women in developing countries. 

The protests about race relations and reopening the country are also being shared and eagerly amplified for political purposes by America’s enemies. In a Washington Post piece, Ishaan Tharoor noted that along with American citizens watching the racial rioting and protests, “America’s putative foreign adversaries also are watching. ‘This incident is far from the first in a series of lawless conduct and unjustified violence from U.S. law enforcement,’ the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, adding to the Kremlin’s long history of pointing to human rights abuses in the United States. ‘American police commit such high-profile crimes all too often.’ Officials in Iran did the same, calling out racial injustice in America. ‘If you’re dark-skinned walking in the US, you can’t be sure you’ll be alive in the next few minutes,’ read a tweet from an account associated with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, which was accompanied by a video that detailed the horrific history of slavery in the United States. And then there was China. Already locked in a spiraling geopolitical confrontation with Washington, officials in Beijing seized on the protests to push back against the Trump administration’s assertive messaging on Hong Kong, a city whose unique autonomy is being dramatically curtailed by China.” China in particular is especially sensitive to the widespread criticism of its early handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, and its leaders may feel a sense of schadenfreude in America’s troubles. 

Who’s spurring the racial protests? Conspiracies point to any number of people, including rich Jewish businessmen such as George Soros who are allegedly hiring fake protesters. (In fact, this has been debunked.) Who’s spreading COVID-19? Rich liberals such as Bill Gates, hoping to become even richer. (In fact, this also has been debunked.)

Not all alternative medicine proponents are anti-vaccine, of course, just as not all anti-vaccination activists are conspiracy theorists, right-wing, racist, or all three. However, it’s not surprising that a Venn diagram reveals considerable overlap among the worldviews. Conspiracy is inherent in anti-vaccination belief, because Big Pharma has allegedly invested untold fortunes in keeping the “truth” about vaccines from public knowledge.

People across the political spectrum believe conspiracy theories, and they all share a common worldview, one which is fundamentally distrustful of authority and anti-establishment. All pride themselves on being independent thinkers, a special breed of “woke” folk who are smart enough to separate themselves from the sheeple and not be swayed by what “They” want you to think. Theirs is a world in which world events are part of a Master Plan orchestrated by a Jewish cabal, the Illuminati, Bill Gates, Big Pharma, or whoever else. 

Racism, conspiracy thinking, and the rejection of science are all toxic problems, made worse when combined with the chaos and uncertainty of a pandemic. Fortunately, these are all learned behaviors that can be conquered. The best inoculations against misinformation are critical thinking, media literacy, and skepticism.

 

A longer version of this piece first appeared on the Center for Inquiry’s Coronavirus Resource Page; you can find it HERE. 

Jul 122020
 

The recent episode of Squaring the Strange is out! This time around we examine the legend of snuff films–movies in which one or more of the actors are (really) killed! 

We are joined by filmmaker and encyclopedia of weird film knowledge Erik Kristopher Myers. The notion of a “snuff film” is a strange convergence of conspiracy thinking, urban legend, moral panic, and actual film trivia, and we tour the genre–or, rather, things that have been assumed part of this elusive genre–from the Manson family to Faces of Death to an early found-footage gore fest called Cannibal Holocaust. Have any real snuff films ever been uncovered, or any black market snuff rings investigated? What are the factors that play into our belief in, and fear of, these monstrous commodifications of our mortality? And how have moviemakers and underground video producers capitalized on the idea?

Check it out HERE! 

Jul 082020
 

Spree killer and ex-police officer Christopher Dorner was recently mentioned in a standup comedy piece by Dave Chapelle. If the name sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because Dorner killed four people and wounded three others in mid-February 2013, his victims including police and civilians in the Los Angeles area.

The manhunt for Dorner over the course of several days provides real-world insight into eyewitness reliability. As police tracked him down they received eyewitness reports of Dorner in dozens of places around southern California. Heavily-armed police officers descended on a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in Tarzana after a tipster said Dorner might be inside; an innocent African-American man who barely resembled Dorner was arrested and soon (thankfully) released.

Dorner was soon spotted at a Lowe’s home improvement store in Northridge, causing the store to be evacuated and a SWAT team dispatched, but he wasn’t there either; he was also reported at Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, and so on. The fact that a $1 million reward was offered for information about Dorner’s location understandably increased the public’s incentive for reporting any and all potential sightings.

The public can often be instrumental in helping find missing persons—it is how Elizabeth Smart was eventually recovered after being abducted from her Salt Lake City home in 2002. But it also leads to many false leads. In 2002 two snipers attacked the Washington, D.C., area and terrorized much of America. Based upon eyewitness descriptions, law enforcement agencies alerted the public to be on the lookout for suspects in a white van. Thousand of vehicles were stopped and searched, jamming highways for miles. The focus on a white van intensified after a shooting outside a store in suburban Virginia, when a man claimed to have seen the shooter standing next to a white van. The man later admitted that he lied to police, likely seeking media attention.

While some false sightings are reported as pranks or for attention, most are from sincere eyewitnesses trying to help out. Elvis Presley sighting jokes aside, it is a real problem for police. It is not uncommon, especially in high-profile hunts for fugitives or missing persons, for dozens or hundreds of sightings to be reported to law enforcement. Police, of course, must treat all sightings and reports as potential leads; ignoring a valid tip might cost lives.

Furthermore, because false accusations often target minorities, it’s especially dangerous. 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. More recently in Central Park there was Amy Cooper, a white woman who called 911 on black bird-watcher Christian Cooper, stating falsely that “there’s an African American threatening me and my dog.”

The many false sightings of Dorner is not unusual. One of the most famous cases of false sightings was the disappearance of a three-year-old British girl named Madeleine McCann, last seen at a resort in Portugal in May 2007. Her presumed abduction made international news, and photos of McCann circulated widely as police and the family hoped for tips from the public. This led to the girl being “sighted” in dozens of different places in Europe and around the world, from Belgium to Brazil, Australia to Africa, by eyewitnesses who reported seeing her. The case remains unsolved, though in recent weeks it’s been reported that a German man is the main suspect.

All this has implications for psychology and eyewitness reliability; if you tell people what to look for, any face or physique that is even remotely similar (large Black male, small blonde girl) can become a (false) positive identification. By some estimates, as many as one-third of eyewitness identifications in criminal cases are wrong, and nearly 200 people who were convicted of crimes based on positive eyewitness identifications were later exonerated through DNA evidence.

Dorner died in a shootout in the San Bernardino Mountains on February 12, 2013. Though he died before he could stand trial, Dorner left an extensive rambling manifesto complaining about racism, politics, and his perceived scapegoating when he reported another officer’s misconduct toward a mentally ill man. He quotes Mia Farrow and D.H. Lawrence; praises a long list of celebrities including Dave Chapelle, Bill Cosby, Tavis Smiley, and others (Charlie Sheen is “effin awesome”); he lists “THE MOST beautiful women on this planet, period” (including Jennifer Beals, Natalie Portman, Kelly Clarkson, Margaret Cho, and Queen Latifah); gives musical shout-outs (Eric Clapton, Bob Marley, Metallica, etc.); and so on. Recognizing that his mass murder spree would likely end in his death, he also lamented the fact that he would not live to see The Hangover 3.

He also addresses those he plans to kill and explains his motives: “Terminating officers because they expose a culture of lying, racism (from the academy), and excessive use of force will immediately change. The blue line will forever be severed and a cultural change will be implanted. You have awoken a sleeping giant. I am here to change and make policy. The culture of LAPD versus the community and honest/good officers needs to and will change. I am here to correct and calibrate your morale compasses to true north… I never had the opportunity to have a family of my own, I’m terminating yours. Look your wives/husbands and surviving children directly in the face and tell them the truth as to why your children are dead.”

The fact that police treatment of a mentally ill man was one of the triggers for the murder spree was not lost on many. Though it’s often claimed that the news media highlight mental illness primarily with white mass shooters and suspects, Dorner was widely described by officials and news media as mentally ill, with L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa stating that “Whatever problem [Dorner] has is mental” and February 9 Associated Press news article describing Dorner as “severely emotionally and mentally disturbed.” In fact the characterization of Dorner as mentally ill was so prominent that some even complained about it; one writer, Thandisizwe Chimurenga in the L.A. Watts Times (February 21, 2013), complained that “The Media Tried to Assassinate Chris Dorner [with descriptions] of ‘Mental Illness’.”

It is of course possible, even likely, that Dorner was both mentally ill and subjected to racial harassment in the LAPD. Given the rarity of African-American serial killers or mass shooters—let alone ones who are also police officers and leave a manifesto—it’s no wonder that Dorner is still discussed today.

 

A longer version of this piece appeared on my Center for Inquiry blog; you can read it HERE. 

Jul 052020
 

I recently gave a talk on Conspiracies 101: “Benjamin Radford discusses conspiracy theories, including the psychology of conspiracies, types of conspiracies, the history of conspiracy theories, and much more.”

You can watch it HERE. 

 

Jun 302020
 

In the new episode of Squaring the Strange, we take a look at Antifa this week, or rather–we take a look at HOW people are LOOKING at Antifa. Are we witnessing the birth of a modern social panic? How is Antifa used for political and social purposes? What are the actual statistics? What sort of similarities does it have to the Satanic Panic or the more recent Clown Panic? Along the way we learn the price of bricks versus hippie crystals and the best state in which to register a converted school bus.

 

Check it out HERE! 

Jun 202020
 

We’ve all seen it on social media, especially Facebook. Some friend, or “friend,” or friend of a “friend,” posts a news story. Because it’s social media, the story is often selected (by human nature and algorithms) for its outrage factor. Amid the kitten videos and funny or cute memes, the news stories most likely to be shared are those that push people’s buttons—sometimes good news but more often bad news, tragedies, disasters, and the obligatory political outrage du jour. 

You read the headline and may Like or Share, but in the back of your head the news story may seem vaguely familiar … didn’t that happen years ago? In a world of twenty-four-hour news, it’s hard to remember, and on some level a lot of the stories sound (or are) basically the same: Someone killed someone in a gruesome way or because of some toxic motive. Trump said something that provoked (real or feigned) outrage. Some country implemented some new law affecting minorities. And so on. Even if it happened before, it must have happened again. 

Not long ago you could be reasonably certain that news was in fact news—that is, it happened recently and was “new.” But one of the consequences of getting news filtered via social media (as more and more people do) is that news organizations are further and further removed from their audiences. On television, in newspapers, or on news websites, the information is direct; you’re reading what a journalist (who presumably has some credibility to maintain) has to say about some given topic. News editors as a rule value breaking news, not old news. Unless it’s a special case (such as an anniversary of some significant event) or a retrospective, old news very rarely appears on broadcasts or on reputable news sites except in clearly-designated archives. 

On social media, of course, news is filtered through our peers and friends. Often it’s legitimate “new news,” but increasingly it’s old news misrepresented, mistaken for, or disguised as new news. This is a media literacy challenge, because old news is often fake news and shared by well-meaning people. News sharing on social media is less about the content of that story than it is about symbolic endorsement, or what’s been called virtue signaling. Liking or Sharing a news story doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve read it—much less understand it or can intelligently discuss it—but instead it’s often used as a visual badge representing your social and political views. If you’re concerned about environmentalism, social justice, immigration, politics, or anything else you can remind everyone where you stand on the issue. It’s sort of like bumper stickers on the information superhighway.

The Epistemology of Fake News

To understand why old news is often fake news, let’s take a brief look at epistemology, or the nature of knowledge. All of science is subject to revision and further information; new studies and research may always throw “facts” into the “former facts” category.

Science does not deal in absolute certainties, and it is possible—despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary—that smoking does not cause lung cancer, for example, and that humans are not contributing to global warming. Decades of research have established a clear causative link between these variables (smoking and lung cancer, human activity and global warming), but they are not 100 percent definitive; nothing in science ever is. 

Facts are only true at a certain time and under a certain set of circumstances. But the world is constantly changing, in ways both miniscule and dramatic, thus a fact about the world is accurate as of that time. It was once a fact that there were forty-eight states in the United States, but that no longer a fact; there are now fifty (including commonwealths). It was once a fact that the capital of the African state of Rhodesia is Salisbury; but Rhodesia no longer exists, and therefore that fact is a former fact, or more accurately the fact has been slightly changed to maintain its accuracy: “The capital of Rhodesia was Salisbury” remains a true fact. 

The point is not to revel in pedantry—though I’ve been accused of doing as much—but instead to note that many facts that we have incorporated into our knowledge base have changed and may no longer be true. That Texas is south of Canada has been true my entire life, but that my friend Amy is unmarried has not (she got married a few years ago). There are countless other examples, and they show why “is” and “was” are important distinctions, especially when it comes to news stories. Rehashing old news as new blurs the line between the two, sowing unnecessary confusion about what is true and what was true at one point (but may no longer be). 

This does not at all suggest that facts are subjective, of course, or that each person (or political party) is entitled to their own facts. But keeping in mind the important caveat that many people don’t read past the headline of a given news story, we see that recycling headlines makes misleading people likely. People don’t constantly update their knowledge about the world unless they have to, and thus typically rely on old (often outdated) information. 

Samuel Arbesman discusses this issue at length in his 2012 book The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date. He notes that “Ultimately the reason errors spread is because it’s a lot easier to spread the first thing you find, or the fact that sounds correct, than to delve deeply into the literature in search of the correct fact … . Bad information can spread fast. And a first-mover advantage in information often has a pernicious effect. Whatever fact first appears … whether true or not, is very difficult to dislodge … . It’s like trying to gather dandelion seeds once they have been blown to the wind.” The best way to stop the spread of misinformation is Skepticism 101. “There is a simple remedy: Be critical before spreading information and examine it to see what is true. Too often not knowing where one’s facts came from and whether it is well-founded at all is the source of an error. We often just take things on faith.”

We all know that recycling is good in the context of natural resources, for example. Good ideas can be recycled, because, as they say, there’s nothing new under the sun, and what works (or doesn’t) at one point in time, in a specific set of circumstances, may work (or fail) at another time under a different set of circumstances. At one point, for example, developments for electric cars were prematurely proclaimed dead (as seen in the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?) but today is a growing business. News stories are a different beast. 

Recycling Bad News

The news media go out of their way to emphasize bad or alarming news (“if it bleeds, it leads”), but social media compounds the problem. For the past year or two, I’ve noticed news articles from reputable sources shared on Facebook and other social media as if they were recent. Articles from 2015 and 2016 have been revived and given a new life, often shared and spread by people who didn’t know (or care) they were recycling old news. 

This is misleading because the posts rarely if ever include the date, instead showing merely the headline and perhaps a photo and the first sentence. So when unflattering events about Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, or anyone else circulate, they are likely to take on a second or third life. Sometimes the events themselves are clearly dated (tied, for example, to election results), but it’s often political stories putting a prominent person in a bad light that tend to get recycled. A news story about a natural disaster is unlikely to get intentionally seen again, because no one benefits from fooling others into thinking that another devastating earthquake recently hit Mexico, for example. 

But a news story about a single specific incident of, for example, a Muslim group killing innocent Christians, or vice-versa, may be revived multiple times over the years, giving the illusion that the events keep occurring when in fact it may have been a one-time event. News organizations would not intentionally present past events as recent news, precisely because people assume that what they’re seeing in news feeds is both timely and important. Social media users, on the other hand, have no qualms about sharing old or misleading content if it promotes some pet social or political agenda. To conservatives, old news stories that make Obama or Clinton look bad are just as relevant and useful today as they were nearly a decade ago. To liberals, old news stories that highlight Trump’s corruption or incompetence are equally useful. (The Russians, for their part, are just happy to stir up divisiveness.)

Information can always be weaponized, but old news is by its nature often weaponized; it’s recirculated for a reason. It’s not information for the sake of knowledge; it’s information that misleads for a purpose and shared by those trying to support a greater good.

Whichever President’s Nazi U.N. Vote

To offer one example, a CBS News article titled “U.S. Votes against Anti-Nazi Resolution at U.N.” has circulated many times in recent months on Facebook, invariably accompanied by commentary about how it’s (another) example of Trump refusing to condemn Nazis and white supremacists. 

 

The news story is accurate—it’s just several years old and in fact occurred under Barack Obama. 

This opens liberals up to accusations of hypocrisy by conservatives: If voting against anti-Nazi resolutions is patently wrong, racist, and un-American, then where was the outrage when Obama did it? (This is of course a bit of a false equivalence fallacy, since Obama and Trump do not have similar histories regarding race relations—and to be fair, there are many perfectly valid reasons a country would refuse to vote for a measure that is otherwise worthy but may have unwanted attachments or obligations.) 

The point here is not to set up any false equivalence between the administration on this issue—nor, certainly, to defend Trump—but instead to illustrate how the psychological tendency toward confirmation bias can affect us. A “no” vote on an otherwise not-particularly-notable U.N. resolution takes on special social media newsworthy significance in a context and under an administration that has come under fire for similar accusations of racial insensitivity or even outright racism. In one context, it’s a non-event; in another, it’s a (in this case, false) data point in a constellation of incidents suggesting Trump’s support of white supremacy. 

News reports of racist attacks were often attributed to Trump’s influence, for example when a ninety-two-year-old Mexican man, Rodolfo Rodriguez, was attacked with a brick in Los Angeles and told to “go back to his own country.” His jaw was shattered and he suffered multiple broken ribs. I saw the story circulate in 2019 as recent news, with commentary that this was obviously a result of Trump’s latest racist comments—except that the attack had occurred over a year earlier, and the attacker was an African-American woman, Laquisha Jones. 

While it’s possible the attack was influenced by Trump, it’s unlikely and we should avoid the post hoc ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of this”) fallacy. Some ugly racial incidents clearly are, some may be, and some are not; lumping them together serves no purpose. One can certainly argue that Trump’s words and actions have encouraged racial divisiveness in America, but using that specific news article or incident as an example is simply false and misleading. 

Some may try to justify sharing bogus information by saying that even though in this particular case the facts were wrong, it still symbolizes a very real problem and was therefore worthy of sharing if it raised awareness of the issue. This is an ends-justifies-the-means tactic often employed by those caught reporting a false story. The Trump administration adopted this position earlier in November 2017 when the President promoted discredited anti-Muslim videos via social media; his spokeswoman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, acknowledged that at least some of the hateful videos Trump shared were bogus and represented events that did not happen as portrayed, but she insisted that their truth or falsity was irrelevant because they supported a “larger truth”—that Islam is a threat to the country’s security: “I’m not talking about the nature of the video,” she told reporters. “I think you’re focusing on the wrong thing. The threat is real, and that’s what the President is talking about.” There are plenty of other factually accurate news stories that could have made the same point.

The same applies to all recycled stories; the process, not the content, is the problem, and you can be sure that were a Democrat in the White House, the use of old, fake news would be just as robust. Facebook is aware of the problem and has recently introduced a small red “Breaking News” icon that appears along with (actually) new news stories, to help users distinguish new from old. 

 

 

But the ultimate responsibility lies with each social media user, who is after all the curator of their own newsfeeds. People need to take responsibility for what they share and (explicitly or tacitly) promote on social media. Every hoax or misleading meme can be stopped from going further by diligent—or even half-assed—efforts to not mislead others. It could be as simple as adding a caveat to the post such as “From 2015, and still relevant.” 

But this of course requires the person to spend a few seconds verifying the date—which is easy enough; it can be done simply by clicking on the link and noting the date, or often by merely hovering the cursor over an active URL, which often reveals the date (see below). 

 

Very few people generate new content on social media (and a significant portion of those who do are part of organized misinformation campaigns); most simply and blindly pass along whatever information they receive. In today’s misinformation-marinated world, skeptics and critical thinkers must be vigilant if they want to avoid becoming part of the problem. Otherwise socially and media literate people routinely admonish others to check their facts and demand evidence while actively share misinformation themselves. People can complain about misinformation and disinformation from Russia and biased news media all they like, but change begins at home.

 

This article first appeared at my CFI blog in 2019 and remains sadly relevant; you can find it HERE

 
Jun 162020
 

The twin plagues of COVID-19 and racism have come to the fore globally over the past few months, and as with any such afflictions there’s a social desire to scapegoat, finding someone (or some group) to blame. Parallels between the pandemic and racism are not hard to find. Earlier this month George Clooney referred to racism as America’s “pandemic,” for which we must find a “vaccine.” Street protesters as well can be seen holding signs encouraging people to “Treat Racism Like COVID-19.” 

The two are analogous in some ways, prompting some anti-vaccination crusaders to compare themselves to pioneering Civil Rights leaders, seeing themselves as victims of social injustice who will no longer be silent. As MacKenzie Mays noted in a September 2019 piece for Politico: “A chorus of mostly white women sang the gospel song ‘We Shall Overcome’ in the California State Capitol, an anthem of the civil rights movement. Mothers rallied outside the governor’s office and marched through Capitol corridors chanting “No segregation, no discrimination, yes on education for all!’ Some wore T-shirts that read ‘Freedom Keepers.’ But this wasn’t about racial equality. In the nation’s most diverse state, protesters opposed to childhood vaccine mandates — many from affluent coastal areas — had co-opted the civil rights mantle from the 1960s, insisting that their plight is comparable to what African Americans have suffered from segregationist policies. Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove said, ‘The whole conversation around vaccinations is actually one about privilege and opportunity. It’s a personal choice. It’s a luxury to be able to have a conversation about medical exemptions and about whether or not you think your child should be vaccinated.” However passionate Jenny McCarthy is, she’s no Rosa Parks. 

Racism and Anti-Vaccination

René F. Najera, editor of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s History of Vaccines website, recently examined the cross-pollination of racism and anti-vaccination efforts, highlighting an incident that came to the attention of the California Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus (APILC), which “denounced racist online postings from anti-vaccine people. One of those people is Rob Schneider, an actor and comedian who at one time had a television series on Netflix. This is not Mr. Schneider’s first foray into the cultural discussion on vaccination … The posts denounced by APILC includes Mr. Schneider’s comparison of Richard Pan, MD, to Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China and author of several atrocities within China and the expansion of Communism around China’s sphere of influence in the post-World War 2 era. Dr. Pan is a child of Taiwanese immigrants to the United States…. In another post denounced by APILC, ‘Christine Lee’ posted a photoshopped poster of members of the California Legislature who have Asian heritage. In the text of the posting, she asks several leading questions, such as ‘Notice anything else about them?’ after pointing out that they are ‘all doctors-turned-politicians.’ (The implication being that they are all of Asian descent?) The final posting being denounced is that of ‘Cathy S-R,’ a self-described ‘Doctor of Chiropractic, medical freedom supporter, informed consent, dog/cat lover.’ In her posting to Twitter, she asks Dr. Pan if he is an American citizen [and] then contradicts her initial insinuation about Dr. Pan’s citizenship by stating that Dr. Pan ‘[m]ake [his] country proud.’” 

It’s not just Asians, of course—though prejudice toward them has increased with their association with COVID-19 and its origin in Wuhan, China. University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire professor David Shih notes that “People of color have been long associated with disease and public health pandemics. In the United States alone, the history of racialization cannot be separated from the discourse of non-white bodily or mental illness … I would like to focus on black Americans, and the influential story told about them by a single man, Frederick L. Hoffman. Hoffman was an actuary for the Prudential Life Insurance Company when he published Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro (1896). The 330-page document argued that black people should not be insured because they were a greater risk for mortality compared to other racial groups. Their lower life expectancies were directly related, Hoffman explained, to inferior, inherited racial traits which promised their eventual extinction as a people. Flawed as it was and critiqued by no less than W.E.B. DuBois in its day, Hoffman’s diagnosis was widely adopted by the insurance industry and went on to shape public debate over the ‘Negro question’ … Blackness was, quite simply, a public health problem. One of the reasons why we are not talking about the anti-vaccination movement as white is because we talk about geography and social class instead. These demographic characteristics often stand in as proxies for race, which is more controversial.” 

Nevertheless, race does occasionally come to the fore. In The Kiss of Death: Contagion, Contamination, and Folklore, professor Andrea Kitta examines the characteristics of well-known “patient zeros and superspreaders” of various diseases, including Mary Mallon (“Typhoid Mary”), Amber Vinson (the Texas nurse who contracted Ebola in 2014), and Chong Pei Ling (SARS victim in 2003). Notably, “of the thirteen cases listed, only four are ‘white’” (p. 34). The perceived link between nonwhite skin and contagion is clear and helps form the basis for initiatives to close America’s borders. The fear of foreigners and immigrants bringing disease to the country was of course raised a few years ago when a Fox News contributor suggested without evidence that a migrant caravan from Honduras and Guatemala coming through Mexico carried leprosy, smallpox, and other dreaded diseases. This claim was quickly debunked. For more on COVID-19 racist conspiracies, see my previous article in this series. 

New Age, Holistic Healers, and Conspiracies

Conspiracy theories are common among alternative medicine proponents—who often portray themselves as marginalized medical professionals denied the imprimatur of mainstream medicine—and some bleed over into racism. One prominent proponent is Kelly Brogan, a “holistic psychiatrist” who has gathered a huge following online for her dangerous theories about COVID-19, made in interviews and a series of videos. 

Brogan invokes Jewish history and the Holocaust in her arguments against vaccination, “suggesting the possibility that the US government is planning to ‘link our passports with our vaccination records’ as a method of gaining ‘totalitarian governmental control not unlike the divide-and-conquer dehumanization agendas that preceded the Holocaust.’” Brogan, associated with Gwyneth Paltrow’s New Age company Goop, was found to have misstated her credentials. On her website, she claimed that she was board certified in psychiatry and psychosomatic medicine/consultation psychiatry, but a search of records found that she was not; after an investigation by The Daily Beast, Brogan quietly deleted the references to her certifications. 

On social media, Brogan has shared videos with titles such as “Vaccine Conspiracy or Racist Population Control Campaign,” a 2014 video from anti-vaccination activist Celesta McGovern reprising longstanding rumors about attempts to sterilize Africans. The claims were soon debunked on the Science-Based Medicine website but have continued to circulate widely. There are many examples of racism in medicine, but the campaign Brogan highlights is, ironically, not among them. 

Many other alternative medicine and holistic websites also promote anti-vaccination conspiracies. NaturalNews, Mike “The Health Ranger” Adams, and others, for example, have widely shared bogus “news” stories attempting to discredit mainstream science, with headlines such as “Tetanus vaccines found spiked with sterilization chemical to carry out race-based genocide against Africans.” It’s all thrown into a toxic stew of misinformation about the dangers of vaccines, GMOs, cell phones, you name it. 

Like all conspiracy theories, these rumors and stories have a superficial plausibility, and gain traction by tapping into deep-seated—and often legitimate—concerns and fears. There is of course a long and well-documented history of racism in medicine, from the Tuskegee Experiments beginning in the 1930s to disparate healthcare treatment. When two French doctors recently suggested that a tuberculosis vaccine should be tested on Africans to see if it could be effective against COVID-19, the comments were denounced as racist and relics of a colonial past by the head of the World Health Organization (WHO). “Shouldn’t we do this study in Africa, where there are no masks, no treatment, no resuscitation, a bit like some studies on AIDS, where among prostitutes, we try things, because they are exposed, and they don’t protect themselves?” asked physician Jean-Paul Mira. The WHO called the comments “appalling” and said that any WHO-led vaccine testing will follow the same standards regardless of where it’s done. 

Folklorist Patricia Turner, in her book I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture, observes that “African-American mistrust of governmental agencies is not without merit … Official disrespect for the bodies of African-Americans has a long history in this country” (p. 112). Medicalized racism is real, harmful, and a serious problem, but that doesn’t mean that any given wild conspiracy theory is true.

Brogan’s attempt to paint the medical establishment as racist is ironic given her own history of promoting conspiracy theorist David Icke—who claims among many other things that Barack Obama is a Reptilian (when not spewing racist tropes). As The New York Times noted, “Mr. Icke draws on ideas from the anti-Semitic pamphlet The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, argues that Holocaust denial should be taught in schools and that Jews are responsible for organizing anti-Semitic attacks, and calls the Talmud a racist document. In other writings, he has posited that a cabal of a child-sacrificing, bloodthirsty lizard people, many of whom are Jewish, are secretly running the world.” 

In a March 20, 2020, post, Brogan encouraged her followers to “listen through to the end [of an interview with Icke] to learn how to remain calm and manifest the impossible.” Regarding COVID-19, she states that in fact “there is potentially no such thing as the coronavirus.” Brogan seems to decry racism conspiracy when it serves her anti-vaccination purposes, and promote racism conspiracy—or at least those who do—when it suits her.

Anti-vaccination wellness influencers such as Brogan are also actively sharing conspiracy theories from far-right groups such as QAnon about COVID-19. A recent Mother Jones article found that “Some have fused wellness hoaxes and pseudoscientific homeopathic treatments with QAnon and other far-right conspiracies. One such notable influencer is Joseph Arena, a chiropractor who uses the title ‘Dr.’ and has more than 40,000 followers. Arena has pushed explicit QAnon theories about massive pedophile rings run by the deep state on his Instagram account and has directed his followers to pro-QAnon pages to find ‘the truth.’… Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai, a biology PhD [with] nearly 100,000 followers, pushes QAnon-styled conspiracies about “deep state” [including] that the coronavirus is a tool for the ‘deep state’ in ‘consolidating its Power using its protected class of Hollywood & Academic whores.’”

Plandemic 

The recent Plandemic video is laden with conspiracies and hints darkly at motivations in its attacks on Dr. Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates. For example, as to the claims made about Fauci in Plandemic, former New York police officer Mitch Danzig, notes in an article for The Jewish Journal that “The NIAID, under Fauci’s leadership since 1984, provides dozens of grants to labs researching infectious diseases. These grants weren’t awarded to work on COVID-19. Many were, however, awarded to perform work on SARS, which spread across the world in 2003. The NIAID also didn’t give the funds directly to the Wuhan Institute. The grants were given instead to the EcoHealth Alliance, which invests in health research globally that led to at least 20 research papers on pre-COVID-19 coronaviruses published over the past six years. The grant referenced in these breathless, innuendo-filled stories about Fauci also wasn’t the first awarded by the NIAID to the EcoHealth Alliance. The NIAID has been providing grants to EcoHealth Alliance to fund infectious disease research projects all over the world, including in Chinese institutes, since 2005. This ‘smoking gun’ that Fauci conspiracy theorists keep touting is about as big a ‘Nothing Burger’ as one can imagine. But it is about as demonstrative of the claim that Fauci is responsible for COVID-19 as pointing to a specific Jew being the president of CBS as ‘proof’ that the ‘Jews control the media.’ To say that these conspiracy theories about Gates and Fauci, which often are promoted by a cohort of anti-vaxxers as well as anti-Semites, are specious and baseless, is to be kind.” 

Anti-vaccination advocates are of course not alone in spreading medical misinformation for social and political purposes; anti-abortion groups have been known to spread false rumors about contraception being secretly given instead of tetanus vaccines to women in developing countries. 

The protests about race relations and reopening the country are also being shared and eagerly amplified for political purposes by America’s enemies. In a Washington Post piece, Ishaan Tharoor noted that along with American citizens watching the racial rioting and protests, “America’s putative foreign adversaries also are watching. ‘This incident is far from the first in a series of lawless conduct and unjustified violence from U.S. law enforcement,’ the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, adding to the Kremlin’s long history of pointing to human rights abuses in the United States. ‘American police commit such high-profile crimes all too often.’ Officials in Iran did the same, calling out racial injustice in America. ‘If you’re dark-skinned walking in the US, you can’t be sure you’ll be alive in the next few minutes,’ read a tweet from an account associated with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, which was accompanied by a video that detailed the horrific history of slavery in the United States. And then there was China. Already locked in a spiraling geopolitical confrontation with Washington, officials in Beijing seized on the protests to push back against the Trump administration’s assertive messaging on Hong Kong, a city whose unique autonomy is being dramatically curtailed by China.” China in particular is especially sensitive to the widespread criticism of its early handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, and its leaders may feel a sense of schadenfreude in America’s troubles. 

Who’s spurring the racial protests? Conspiracies point to any number of people, including rich Jewish businessmen such as George Soros who are allegedly hiring fake protesters. (In fact, this has been debunked.) Who’s spreading COVID-19? Rich liberals such as Bill Gates, hoping to become even richer. (In fact, this also has been debunked.)

Not all alternative medicine proponents are anti-vaccine, of course, just as not all anti-vaccination activists are conspiracy theorists, right-wing, racist, or all three. However, it’s not surprising that a Venn diagram reveals considerable overlap among the worldviews. Conspiracy is inherent in anti-vaccination belief, because Big Pharma has allegedly invested untold fortunes in keeping the “truth” about vaccines from public knowledge—despite, of course, widespread knowledge of precisely such anti-vaccination claims. 

People across the political spectrum believe conspiracy theories, and they all share a common worldview, one which is fundamentally distrustful of authority and anti-establishment. All pride themselves on being independent thinkers, a special breed of “woke” folk who are smart enough to separate themselves from the sheeple and not be swayed by what “They” want you to think. Theirs is a world in which world events are part of a Master Plan orchestrated by a Jewish cabal, the Illuminati, Bill Gates, Big Pharma, or whoever else. 

Racism, conspiracy thinking, and the rejection of science are all toxic problems, made worse when combined with the chaos and uncertainty of a pandemic. Fortunately, these are all learned behaviors that can be conquered. The best inoculations against misinformation are critical thinking, media literacy, and skepticism.

 

This is the sixth in a series of original articles on the COVID-19 pandemic by the Center for Inquiry as part of its Coronavirus Resource Center, created to help the public address the crisis with evidence-based information. A different version of this article appeared there. 

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 142020
 

In the new episode of Squaring the Strange, we are joined by filmmaker and encyclopedia of weird film knowledge Erik Kristopher Myers. The notion of a “snuff film” is a strange convergence of conspiracy thinking, urban legend, moral panic, and actual film trivia, and we tour the genre–or, rather, things that have been assumed part of this elusive genre–from the Manson family to Faces of Death to an early found-footage gore fest called Cannibal Holocaust.

Have any real snuff films ever been uncovered, or any black market snuff rings investigated? What are the factors that play into our belief in, and fear of, these monstrous commodifications of our mortality? And how have moviemakers and underground video producers capitalized on the idea?

You can listen HERE! 

 

Jun 122020
 

We talk “Murder Hornets” with invasive species expert Heidi Noora McMaster, then Noah Nez, who blogs as the Native Skeptic, brings a variety of Native American themes: crown dancers and clown / trickster figures, the noble savage trope and the myth of native homogeneity, cryptid pseudohistories, and the general commodification of native lore. And, of course, we touch on the use of taboo native legend as a basis from horror films and the recently trademarked “Skinwalker Ranch.” Check it out HERE! 

 

Jun 062020
 

Last month, a YouTube video for an (apparently) upcoming documentary titled Plandemic was released by Mikki Willis (credited onscreen as “father/filmaker” [sic]). The video features a lengthy interview with virologist Judy Mikovits, who offers scattershot conspiracy-laden assertions about the “truth” behind the COVID-19 pandemic, prefaced by claims of having been framed for a crime (she was charged with theft in 2011) and accusations of government coverups going back decades involving various medical authorities, including Dr. Anthony Fauci. Willis’s voiceover gravely warns that “for exposing their deadly secrets, the minions of Big Pharma have waged war on Dr. Mikovits,” who in the film (and in her new best-selling book the video promotes) bravely reveals “the plague of corruption that places all human life in danger.”

Dozens of claims are made in the twenty-six-minute video, some of which are unverifiable—as conspiracy theories tend to be. But many statements made by Mikovits have been investigated and proven to be misleading or simply false.

Among its claims, the video suggests that a vaccine for the virus (which of course hasn’t been developed) will be mandatory; however, no one is forced to get medical treatment. If and when a vaccine is available, federal agents armed with automatic weapons in one hand and a syringe in the other aren’t going to be bursting through doors to forcibly vaccinate anyone—paranoid conspiracy fantasies to the contrary.

It’s now been several weeks since the video was widely shared on social media, and questions have been raised by reputable journalists for publications including The Washington Post and The Atlantic, as well as Politifact. For an expert and filmmaker who claim to have been censored and silenced (with social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube removing the video for containing dangerous misinformation), Mikovits and Willis have been strangely silent about answering legitimate questions raised about their claims.

In an effort to clarify the matter, the Center for Inquiry reviewed the video and, in collaboration with researcher Dr. Paul Offit, composed a list of eight simple questions about claims made in the video. CFI contacted Mr. Willis, who agreed in writing to respond to our questions. The next day he was provided the questions below, thanked for his cooperation, and asked to reply.

1) The Plandemic video claims that face masks “activate” coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-2; what scientific evidence do you have that the virus is more infectious for individuals wearing masks than for those not wearing masks?

2) The video promotes hydroxychloroquine as effective against the virus (despite elevated cardiac risks and several placebo-controlled studies finding no efficacy at all). Instead of being ignored or suppressed by the medical establishment, controlled clinical trials of the drug have been performed. What is the “thousands of pages of data” already demonstrating the drug’s safety and efficacy referred to in the video?

3) The video claims that vaccines increase the odds of getting the virus by 36 percent, referencing a study by Dr. Greg Wolff published in the journal Vaccine. But the study did not examine SARS-CoV-2, was found to have been flawed, and in any event didn’t find that vaccines increased the risk by 36 percent. In fact, that statistic doesn’t appear anywhere in the Wolff study. Can you explain this?

4) The video claims that during the COVID-19 outbreak, beaches should be opened to the public because “You’ve got … healing microbes in the ocean and the salt water.” However, considering that bacteria don’t kill viruses, how would “healing microbes” reduce or treat coronavirus infection?

5) The video claims that COVID-19 deaths are being inflated due to medical profiteering (supposed payments of $13,000 per diagnosed patient)—yet hospitals across the country are losing money (and support staff are being laid off) because lucrative elective procedures are being cancelled or delayed due to the pandemic. How do you explain this discrepancy?

6) The video claims that the plan is “to prevent the therapies until everyone is infected, then push the vaccines.” Yet no vaccines are available, and if everyone is infected then a vaccine wouldn’t be needed. If the pandemic were part of a scheme to sell a vaccine (or force it on the public), why wouldn’t it have been developed before the virus was released and before hundreds of thousands of potential customers (sure to pay anything to stay alive) had already died? Can you clarify your logic?

7) The video refers to censorship by news media and corporate scientists, claiming that “there is [sic] no dissenting voices allowed.” If that’s true, then how did Mikovits’s books get published? And, for example, how did Dr. Andrew Wakefield publish an article in the prestigious journal Lancet in 1998 claiming a (since-discredited) link between childhood vaccines and autism? After other researchers failed to replicate the findings, the study was retracted, but how could it have been published in the first place if the medical establishment effectively silences “dissenting voices” who challenge the “agreed-upon narrative”?

8) Plandemic repeatedly emphasizes the importance of independent thinking and considering different perspectives. Did you interview anyone who challenged Mikovits’s claims, and what research did you do as a filmmaker to independently verify her claims?

The Center for Inquiry waited several days for a response and then followed up with a query asking Willis to confirm he received the questions and would be offering answers as agreed to. It’s now been nearly a week, and no response has been forthcoming from anyone featured in (or representing) the video. This article will be updated when and if substantive answers are received.

If the claims made by Mikovits and Willis in Plandemic are based in truth and facts, you’d think they would be eager to offer evidence supporting their claims. What better way to turn the tables on scientists, skeptics, and journalists than to offer a referenced, fact-based, point-by-point rebuttal to critics who offer them a platform?

The video repeatedly emphasizes the importance of “considering different points of view” and asking questions, yet offers no other points of view that contradict or undermine Mikovits. Plandemic claims the medical community has a set narrative that refuses to answer opposing voices—and instead offers its own set narrative that refuses to answer opposing voices. Plandemic made many claims, most of which have been widely debunked. We have to wonder: Where are their responses? Why are they suddenly so quiet? Why are they afraid to answer questions? What do they have to hide?

Jun 032020
 

Saw this circulating, and I’m a bit skeptical….

 

I read “I don’t like your maple” but I guess “mask” is possible. It seems to end with an ‘e’ and there may be an ‘i’ in there somewhere. If it was accompanied by a quote that would help. If it does say “mask,” I’d be curious to know what the specific mask was: did it have a Confederate flag or something offensive printed on it? “I don’t like your mask” seems oddly phrased if it’s meant to mean “I don’t like people wearing masks around me” (why would you care, and where have you been for the past month?) or “I don’t like the fact that you [servers] are wearing masks” (why would you care, or punish the employee?). And there’s no date or any other info on it. It could be legit but given its moral outrage clickbait tone I suspect there’s more to this photo; if anyone happens to see more info on this, I’d be curious…

May 312020
 

If you need a break from the cornucopia of bad news, the new episode of Squaring the Strange is out. We chat about the passing of a physicist who explored popular sports illusions, and attempting to get answers from the “Plandemic” filmmaker. Then we cover a veritable salad of flora folklore. From very old tales to modern misconceptions, we touch on the ancient Greek dryads and related myths, how to safely dig up a mandrake root, and whether or not houseplants purify the air. Check it out HERE!

 

May 222020
 

Of all the world’s cryptozoological curiosities I like the chupacabra the most. I’ve researched Bigfoot, Champ (the lake monster in Lake Champlain), along with Mothman, Lizard Man, the Kraken, and myriad monsters over my career. But the chupacabra is my favorite; I spent five years investigating and writing a book on the beast (Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore).

Quite aside from whether or not the creatures literally exist (as vampires feeding on goats, chickens, and livestock throughout the Americas), they exist in popular culture and as folkloric figures. In a previous Skeptical Inquirer article I examined how the chupacabra has been depicted in toys and figurines over time (see below), and recently I turned my attention to the chupacabra’s appearances in television and film. Depictions of the monster in movies are especially ironic, since as described in my book the first eyewitness description of the chupacabra was itself drawn from a Hollywood film, the 1995 sci-fi/horror film Species (and specifically its H.R. Giger-designed monster, Sil).

There are only a dozen or so films and direct-to-video creature features starring the chupacabra as a movie monster, and here I offer a brief look at the little-known Spanish-language gem Ahi Viene El Chupacabras (Here Comes the Chupacabra).

The film begins with an alien spaceship hovering over a city night. The special effects make the first season of TV’s Doctor Who look like Avatar, and the flying saucer resembles a boxy drone. The UFO crashes, resulting in flaming aluminum foil wreckage about the size of a television, and a weird hand reaches in from offscreen to salvage a small shiny silver purse or bag.

The titular “chupacabra” is first seen as a man in a gorilla or Bigfoot suit with bat wings under the arms and gargoyle mask, chasing some goats in the darkness. Soon however he transforms, in apparent werewolf-like fashion, into a naked middle-aged man (Alfonso Zayas, demonstrating mastery of double takes and wacky facial tics). It is in this form—aided by what seems to be a grade schooler’s version of a Star Trek tricorder contained within the silvery bag which, after typing in questions, answers his queries about strange Earth customs—that he explores Earth (or, in this case, Guadalajara, Mexico, where it was filmed).

He befriends a perpetually drunk sidekick (Cesar Bono) who informs the alien chupacabra-turned-gargoyle-faced-gorilla-turned bug-eyed man that his quest to suck the blood from goats is doomed since they are in the city, and there are no goats nearby.

Some version of a “chupacabra” stalking goats.

For reasons that are never quite explained, the chupacabra decides that virgin blood is an acceptable substitute, and hilarity ensues as the pair spend the rest of the film searching for virgins and getting into wacky mishaps such as one involving a stripper dancing to the (surely non-copyright cleared) song Spirit in the Sky.

Unbeknownst to them, two scientists (we know their profession, as they wear glasses and lab coats and navigate around dozens of beakers randomly scattered in their one-room laboratory) are on their trail. The female scientist, played by Luz Maria Guizar, is of course a sexless—and as we come to learn, virginal—nerd, until she lets her hair down and is revealed to be a ravishing beauty. In order to protect her from the creepy middle-aged perv—I mean, the bloodthirsty chupacabra—her scientist co-worker selflessly deflowers her in the final scene.

Ahi Viene El Chupacabras is a comedy, not a horror film, and doesn’t even try to take the monster seriously. Along the way we learn that the monster fears bananas (“It’s like kryptonite to Superman!” the chupacabra wails to his inebriated buddy, when confronted with the fruit). There are pratfalls, a Yakety Sax chase sequence, and so on. You get the idea.

The film is tough going for anyone who’s not a fan of campy, low-budget schlock (and/or the style of Mexican sketch comedies such as El Chavo). It is nevertheless interesting from popular culture and cryptozoological perspectives. Perhaps most importantly it’s one of the first films featuring the chupacabra as a monster. Ahi Viene El Chupacabras was released in 1996, a year before the vampiric creature was introduced to English-speaking audiences in an episode of The X-Files (see below).

Of course the film is entirely devoid of anything resembling what would come to be recognized as a chupacabra. This is likely due to several reasons including the low budget; since an actor is cheaper than a costume or monster makeup and special effects, if you have a strange monster than can assume human form for most of its screen time, you do it. The transformation theme also appears in Species, in which the alien monster, Sil, is female and portrayed in human form by Canadian model Natasha Henstridge. 

Because in 1996 the public’s conception of what a chupacabra looked like (and what it does, beyond the obvious caprine exsanguination described by its name) was in its infancy, the film’s monster resembles neither the original version seen in 1995 Puerto Rico (a bipedal, alien-looking, spikey-backed creature) nor the later (post-2000) canid versions (hairless dogs and coyotes) that came to dominate the imagery.

The film is also notable for—in what is perhaps the only other parallel to the film Species—clearly identifying the chupacabra as an extraterrestrial, and outer space as its origin. This reflects the real origin stories that circulated in Puerto Rico (and eventually throughout Latin America) following the chupacabra’s first appearance.  

I’ll examine other chupacabra-related films in future articles, so check back later. Until then, make sure your goats are secured!

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 202020
 

I spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with conspiracies and conspiracy theories. Over the years I’ve written about dozens and dozens of conspiracy theories, including the Obama birthers, the Sandy Hook shootings (for which I still receive hate e-mails), Osama bin Laden death conspiracies, claims that vaccines are attempts to poison children, 9/11 truthers, the EPA spill in the Animas river, and countless others. I’ve also participated in several panels on the subject, including a Dragon*Con panel with Virtual Skeptics podcast stalwart Bob Blaskeiweczizxczzzz.

I’m fascinated by the psychology of conspiracy thinking, why some conspiracies gain traction while other fade away, and more. One curious and often-overlooked element of conspiracy thinking is that conspiracy theorists are for the most part completely uninterested in actual, provable conspiracies.

Conspiracies are fairly common: conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to distribute illegal substances, and so on. Some conspiracies only involve two people; for example a young Boston girl found dead in June 2005 and called Baby Doe was finally identified, her mother and her mother’s boyfriend arrested in the child’s death. According to police the boyfriend killed the girl, and they both engaged in a conspiracy to cover up the murder, dispose of the body, and hide the crime.

Other conspiracies involve hundreds of people. The Iran-Contra scandal, which happened under the Ronald Reagan/George H.W. Bush administration, secretly and illegally supplied arms to Iran in exchange for American hostages, and funneled money to fighters in Nicaragua.

But these conspiracies barely merit a mention on web sites and talk radio, which leads to an interesting question: If conspiracy buffs are so concerned about conspiracy theories and the potential evil they bring, presumably they wouldn’t want to support any organizations, companies, or institutions which have engaged in conspiracies–especially conspiracies that harmed, or could harm, the public. After all, if you truly think that conspiracies are a genuine threat to your liberty, future, and indeed the country itself, you’d want to do everything in your power to not enable conspirators.

It’s not difficult to find lists of large companies involved in genuine, proven conspiracies at one time or another. Bank of America executives, for example, have been found guilty of conspiracy and sent to prison for years. The food giant Archer Daniels Midland pled guilty to conspiracy in the 1990s for working with other companies to fix the prices of an animal feed additive. ADM produces a wide range of agricultural products in many foods and consumer items ranging from cocoa powder to corn to cosmetics.

General Motors was fined $900 million for hiding faulty ignition switches. They didn’t plead guilty to formal conspiracy charges, but they did admit knowing about, and intentionally covering up, safety problems with their vehicles for years. As NBC News noted:

According to court documents, GM knew as early as 2005 that the switches were prone to moving to the “accessory” or “off” position while the cars were underway. And by the spring of 2012, GM personnel knew that the defect presented a safety hazard. In 2006, the Justice Department found, a GM engineer directed that the defective switches no longer be used, but “nothing was done at this time to remedy the cars equipped with the defective switch that were already on the road.” GM did not correct its earlier assurance that the switch posed no safety hazard, and the company did not issue a recall. GM even rejected a simple improvement to the head of the ignition key “that would have significantly reduced unexpected shutoffs at a price of less than a dollar a car,” the Justice Department said. Instead of informing safety regulators, as federal law requires, the company stalled, fearing a blow to its business, and did not recall affected cars until February 2014.”

To be clear: GM’s conspiracy was not a theoretical, abstract harm; it resulted in the deaths of at least 120 people and hundreds of injuries.

There are plenty of activists who refuse to shop at WalMart, Hobby Lobby, Chick-Fil-A, and dozens of other businesses because of the actions of their corporate owners. You might think that conspiracy theorists would organize boycotts of General Motors, Bank of America, brands that use ADM products, and dozens of other familiar brands and companies found guilty of engaging in conspiracy theories that have harmed–and in some cases even killed–people.

But these genuine, real, and proven conspiracies aren’t even on the conspiracy believers’ radar; instead they’re deeply concerned about the Illuminati, Jade Helm 15, and gubmint chemtrail programs. Tilting at windmills is much more fun.

 

 

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 162020
 

In the recent episode, we  discuss a few pandemic-related things that set off some skeptical alarms over social media this past week. Then we are joined by Southern California-based comedian and film editor Emery Emery to talk about his soon-to-be-released project with Brian Dunning. With the help of many science communicators and experts (me among them), Emery and Dunning have crafted a documentary called Science Friction, revealing the myriad ways experts have been manipulated, maligned, and misrepresented by producers of questionable documentaries. 

You can listen HERE. 

 

 

May 152020
 

With all the recent news, here’s a timely passage from a recent article I wrote:

“One element of conspiracy thinking is that those who disagree are either stupid (gullible ‘sheeple’ who believe and parrot everything they see in the ‘mainstream media’) or simply lying (experts and journalists who know the truth but are intentionally misleading the public). This ‘If You Disagree with Me, Are You Stupid or Dishonest?’ worldview has little room for uncertainty or charity and misunderstands the situation. It’s not that epidemiologists and other health officials have all the data they need to make good decisions and projections about public health and are instead carefully considering ways to fake data to deceive the public. It’s that they don’t have all the data they need to make better predictions, and as more information comes in, the advice will get more accurate.”

You can read the piece 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 142020
 

So this is cool… I’m quoted in a recent article in Rolling Stone about rumors of “coronavirus parties.” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the surface, this sounds fairly straightforward: parties where people are intentionally trying to get a potentially deadly illness? Scary! They even used a Trump-esque exclamation point to drive the point home, so you know they mean business. And to be fair, the concept of “coronavirus parties” had previously gotten ink in none other than the New York Times, in an op-ed by epidemiologist Greta Bauer referring to “rumblings” about people hosting events “where noninfected people mingle with an infected person in an effort to catch the virus.” The piece enumerates the many reasons why such parties are a bad idea, including the fact that researchers know very little about coronavirus immunity, without citing direct evidence of the existence of these parties to begin with.

There’s good reason for this, says urban folklorist Benjamin Radford: “coronavirus parties” are probably BS. “They’re a variation of older disease urban legends such as the ‘bug chaser’ stories about people trying to get AIDS,” he tells Rolling Stone, referring to a brief spate in the early-aughts when so-called “bug-chasing” parties were subject to extensive media coverage (including a controversial story by this magazine). Such stories fed into a general sense of “moral panic” over the disease, resulting in it sticking around in the public imagination regardless of the lack of supporting evidence.

You can read the piece 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 132020
 

I recently wrote a column Russ Dobler at Adventures in Poor Taste

 

When I encounter people raising questions or researching topics such as ghosts or Bigfoot, I’m often disappointed (and a bit baffled) by their seeming lack of genuine interest in establishing the truth behind these claims. They act as if the topic is urgent and important, that establishing the truth behind them is paramount and worthy of devoting lives and fortunes to, but when it comes down to implementing good practice or doing scientific research, they lose interest.

I’ve done hundreds of investigations over the years: journalistic investigations, folkloric research, paranormal investigations, and so on. Though topics have varied greatly, from mass hysteria to chupacabrasmedia literacy to psychic detectives, the common theme is that my goal is to solve the mystery and understand what’s going on. If I’m going to devote time and effort into looking into a subject, I want to take it seriously and investigate it to the best of my ability (within financial and other practical constraints).

These topics — if real — are important. If psychic powers exist, that would be incredibly important to know, and for science to understand (not to mention put to practical use finding missing persons and preventing pandemics, for example). If Bigfoot exist, that too is of legitimate interest to biologists, zoologists, and others; we’d need to understand what these animals are, where they fit into the tree of life, and how thousands of them have somehow managed to exist into the modern day leaving no physical traces of their presence.

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 102020
 

This installment finishes our discussion on three missing persons cases that Ben, Celestia, and Kenny followed in real time and tracked with psychic detective predictions on how the cases would play out. Part 2 features Ben’s examination of the Harley Dilly case, a teenager who went missing in December of 2019. The same content warning applies: we must discuss some details of the case that may be disturbing to some listeners. With these three case studies, it becomes clear how well-meaning (and sometimes not-so-well-meaning) psychics gum up the works at police departments and cause distress to the families as tragedies occur. With social media, this effect is increased with the second-wave effect as followers on social media send and resend a psychic’s prediction to authorities. 

 

You can listen HERE!

 

Apr 292020
 

There’s a natural—almost Pavlovian—tendency to follow the news closely, especially during times of emergency such as wars, terrorism, and natural disasters. People are understandably desperate for information to keep their friends and family safe, and part of that is being informed about what’s going on. 

News and social media are awash with information about the COVID-19 pandemic. But not all the information is equally valid, useful, or important. Much of what’s shared on social media about COVID-19 is false, misleading, or speculative. That’s why it’s important to get information from reputable sources such as the Center for Inquiry (CFI), not random YouTube videos, health bloggers, conspiracy theorists, and so on.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed, and science-informed laypeople are likely suffering this information overload keenly, as we absorb the firehose of information from a wide variety of sources: from the White House to the CDC, and from conspiracy cranks to Goop contributors. It’s a never ending stream—often a flood—of information, and those charged with trying to sort it out are quickly inundated. As important as news is, there is such a thing as medical TMI.

We have a Goldilocks situation when it comes to COVID-19 material. There’s too little, too much, and just the right amount of information about the COVID-19 virus in the news and social media. This sounds paradoxical until we break down each type of information. 

Types of COVID-19 Information

In thinking about the COVID-19 outbreak and the deluge of opinion, rumor, and news out there, it’s helpful to parse out the different types of information. 

1) Information that’s true

This includes the most important, practical information—how to avoid it: Wash your hands, avoid crowds, don’t touch your face, sanitize surfaces, and so on. This type of information has been proven accurate and consistent since the outbreak began. This is of course the smallest category of information: mundane but vital. 

2) Information that’s false 

Information that’s false includes a wide variety of rumors, miracle cures, misinformation, and so on. The Center for Inquiry’s COVID-19 Resource Center has been set up precisely to help journalists and the public debunk this false information. The problem is made worse by the fact that Russian disinformation organizations—which have a long and proven history of sowing false and misleading information in social media around the world, and particularly in the United States—have seized on the COVID-19. 

As CNN reported recently, “Russian state media and pro-Kremlin outlets are waging a disinformation campaign about the coronavirus pandemic to sow ‘panic and fear’ in the West, EU officials have warned. … The European Union’s External Action Service, which researches and combats disinformation online, said in an internal report that since January 22 it had recorded nearly 80 cases of disinformation about the COVID-19 outbreak linked to pro-Kremlin media. ‘The overarching aim of Kremlin disinformation is to aggravate the public health crisis in Western countries, specifically by undermining public trust in national healthcare systems—thus preventing an effective response to the outbreak,’ according to the report. … The disinformation has targeted international audiences in English, Italian, Spanish, Arabic as well as Russian and other languages, the report states. European Commission spokesperson Peter Stano said the center has seen a ‘flurry’ of disinformation about the spread of novel coronavirus over the past weeks.” 

3) Speculation, opinion, and conjecture

In times of uncertainty, prediction and speculation are rampant. Dueling projections about the outbreak vary by orders of magnitude as experts and social media pundits alike share their speculation. Of course, epidemiological models are only as good as the data that goes into them and are based on many premises, variables, and numerous unknowns. 

Wanting to accurately know the future is of course a venerable tradition. But as a recent post on Medium written by an epidemiologist noted: “Here is a simple fact: every prediction you’ve read on the numbers of COVID-19 cases or deaths is almost certainly wrong. All models are wrong. Some models are useful. It is very easy to draw a graph using an exponential curve and tell everyone that there will be 10 million cases by next Friday. It is far harder to model infectious disease epidemics with any accuracy. Stop making graphs and putting them online. Stop reading the articles by well-meaning people who have no idea what they are doing. The real experts aren’t posting random Excel graphs on twitter, because they are working flat-out to try and get a handle on the epidemic.” 

4) Information that’s true but not helpful

Finally, there’s another, less-recognized category: information that is true but not helpful on an individual level, or what might be called “trivially true.” We usually think of false information being shared as harmful—and it certainly is—but trivially true information can also be harmful to public health. Even when it’s not directly harmful, it adds to the background of noise.

News media and social media are flooded with information and speculation that—even if accurate—is of little practical use to the average person. Much of the information is not helpful, useful, actionable, or applicable to daily life. It’s like in medicine and psychology what’s called “clinical significance”: the practical importance of a treatment effect—whether it has a real, genuine, palpable, and noticeable effect on daily life. A finding may be true, may be statistically significant, but be insignificant in the real world. A new medicine may reduce pain by 5 percent but nobody would create or market it because it’s not clinically significant; a 5 percent reduction in pain isn’t useful compared to other pain relievers with better efficacy. 

One example might include photos of empty store shelves widely shared on social media, depicting the run on supplies such as sanitizer and toilet paper. The information is both true and accurate; it’s not being faked or staged. But it’s not helpful, because it leads to panic buying, social contagion, and hoarding as people perceive a threat to their welfare and turn an artificial scarcity into a real one. 

Another example is Trump’s recent reference to the COVID-19 virus as “the China virus.” Ignoring the fact that diseases aren’t named for where they emerge, we can acknowledge that it’s technically accurate that, as Trump claimed, COVID-19 was first detected in China—and also that it’s not a relevant or useful detail. It doesn’t add to the discussion or help anyone’s understanding of what the disease is or how to deal with it. If anything, referring to it by other terms such as “the China virus” or “Wuhan flu” is likely to cause confusion and even foment racism.  

Before believing or sharing information on social media, ask yourself questions such as: Is it true? Is it from a reliable source? But there are other questions to ask: Even if it may be factually true, is it helpful or useful? Does it promote unity or encourage divisiveness? Are you sharing it because it contains practical information important to people’s health? Or are you sharing it just to have something to talk about, some vehicle to share your opinions about? The signal-to-noise ratio is already skewed against useful information, being drowned out by false information, speculation, opinion, and trivially true information.  

Social Media Distancing

While self-isolating from the disease (and those who might carry it) is vital to public health, there’s a less-discussed aspect: self-distancing from social media information on the virus, which is a form of social media hygiene. Six feet is enough distance in physical space, but doesn’t apply to cyberspace where viral misinformation spreads unchecked (until it hits this site).

The analogy between disease and misinformation is apt. Just as you can be a vector for a virus if you get and spread it, you can be a vector for misinformation and fear. But you can stop it by removing yourself from it. You don’t need hourly updates on most aspects of the pandemic. Most of what you see and read isn’t relevant to you. The idea is not to ignore important and useful information about the coronavirus; in fact, it’s exactly the opposite: to better distinguish the news from the noise, the relevant from the irrelevant. 

Doctors around the world have been photographed sharing signs that say “We’re at work for you. Please stay home for us.” That’s excellent advice, but we can take it further. While at home not becoming a vector for disease, also take steps not to become a vector for misinformation. After all, doing so can have just as much of an impact on public health. 

During a time when people are isolated, it’s cathartic to vent on social media. Humans are social creatures, and we find ways to connect even when we can’t physically. Especially during a time of international crisis, it’s easy to become outraged about one or another aspect of the pandemic. Everyone has opinions about what is (or isn’t) being done, what should (or shouldn’t) be done. Everyone’s entitled to those opinions, but they should be aware that those opinions expressed on social media have consequences and may well harm others, albeit unintentionally. Just as it feels good to physically hang out with other people (but may in fact be dangerous to them), it feels good to let off steam to others in your social circles (but may be dangerous to them). Your steam makes others in your feed get steamed too, and so on. Again, it’s the disease vector analogy. 

You don’t know who will end up seeing your posts and comments (such is the nature of “viral” posts and memes), and while you may think little of it, others may be more vulnerable. Just as people take steps to protect those with compromised immune systems, it may be wise to take similar steps to protect those with compromised psychological defenses on social media—those suffering from anxiety, depression, or other issues who are especially vulnerable at this time. 

This isn’t about self-censorship; there are many ways to reach out to others and share concerns and feelings in a careful and less public way through email, direct messaging, video calls, and even—gasp—good old fashioned letters. Like anything else, people can express feelings and concerns in measured, productive ways, ways that are more (or less) likely to harm others (referring to it as “COVID-19” instead of “the Chinese virus” is one example). 

Though the public loves to blame the news media for misinformation—and deservedly so—we are less keen to see the culprit in the mirror. Many people, especially on social media, fail to recognize that they have become de facto news outlets through the stories and posts they share. The news media helps spread myriad “fake news” stories—gleefully aided by ordinary people like us. We cannot control what news organizations (or anyone else) publishes or puts online. But we can—and indeed we have an obligation to—help stop the spread of misinformation in all its forms. 

It’s overwhelming; it’s too much. In psychology there’s what’s called the Locus of Control. It basically means the things which a person has control over: themselves, their immediate family, their pets, most aspects of their lives, and so on. It’s psychologically healthy to focus on those things you can do something about. You can’t do anything about how many deaths there are in China or Italy. You can’t do anything about whether or not medical masks are being manufactured and shipped quickly enough. But you can do something about bad information online. 

It can be as simple as not forwarding, liking, or sharing that dubious news story before checking the facts, especially if that story seems crafted to encourage social outrage. The Center for Inquiry can act as a clearinghouse for accurate information about the pandemic, but it’s up to each person to heed that advice. We can help separate the truth from the myths, but we can’t force people to believe the truth. Be safe, practice social and cyber distancing, and wash your hands. 

 

This is the first in a series of original articles on the COVID-19 pandemic by the Center for Inquiry as part of its COVID-19 Resource Center, created to help the public address the crisis with evidence-based information. Please check back periodically for updates and new information. 

Apr 262020
 

There have been many pandemics throughout history, but none have taken place during such a connected time—both geographically and via social media. There’s a tendency to follow the news closely during times of emergency; especially when separated during isolation and quarantines, people are understandably desperate for information to keep their friends and family safe.

 

Overreacting and Underreacting

While scientists, doctors, nurses, epidemiologists, and others struggle to contain the disease, many are spending their self-isolating time on social media, sharing everything from useful information to dangerous misinformation to idle speculation. One thing most people can agree on is that other people and institutions aren’t handling the crisis correctly.

There’s much debate about whether Americans and governments are underreacting or overreacting to the pandemic threat. This is of course a logical fallacy, because there are some 330 million Americans, and the answer is that some Americans are doing one or the other; most Americans, however, are doing neither.

As The New York Times noted, “contrarian political leaders, ethicists and ordinary Americans have bridled at what they saw as a tendency to dismiss the complex trade-offs that the measures collectively known as ‘social distancing’ entail. Besides the financial ramifications of such policies, their concerns touch on how society’s most marginalized groups may fare and on the effect of government-enforced curfews on democratic ideals. Their questions about the current approach are distinct from those raised by some conservative activists who have suggested the virus is a politically inspired hoax, or no worse than the flu. Even in the face of a mounting coronavirus death toll, and the widespread adoption of the social distancing approach, these critics say it is important to acknowledge all the consequences of decisions intended to mitigate the virus’s spread.”

Recently the governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, joined much of the country in finally ordering citizens to stay at home to slow the spread of the disease, after suggesting that other states were unnecessarily overreacting to the threat. Kemp inexplicably claimed to have only recently learned that the virus can be spread by asymptomatic carriers—something widely known and reported by health officials for well over a month.

On social media, the issue of how and whether the threat is being exaggerated often breaks along political party lines, with conservatives seeing the danger as exaggerated or an outright hoax. There are countless examples of divisive rhetoric, and many are framing the pandemic in terms of class warfare (for example pitting the rich against the poor) or spinning the outbreak to suit other social and political agendas. It’s understandable, but not helpful. Pointing out that the wealthy universally have better access to health care than the poor is merely stating the obvious—like much pandemic information, true but unhelpful. It’s not going to prevent someone’s family member from catching the virus and not going to open schools or businesses any faster. This isn’t a time for what-about-ism or “they’re doing it too” replies; this is a time for unity and cooperation. Liberals, conservatives, independents, and everyone else would benefit from putting aside the blame-casting, demonizing rhetoric and unite against the real enemy: the COVID-19 virus that’s sickening and killing people across races and social strata.

At the same time, it’s important to recognize that the measures taken to slow the spread of the coronavirus in America and around the world—while necessary and effective—have taken a disproportionate toll on minorities. As Charles Blow wrote in The New York Times, “social distancing is a privilege …  this virus behaves like others, screeching like a heat-seeking missile toward the most vulnerable in society. And this happens not because it prefers them, but because they are more exposed, more fragile and more ill. What the vulnerable portion of society looks like varies from country to country, but in America, that vulnerability is highly intersected with race and poverty … . It is happening with poor people around the world, from New Delhi to Mexico City. If they go to work, they must often use crowded mass transportation, because low-wage workers can’t necessarily afford to own a car or call a cab.”

While each side likes to paint the other in extreme terms as under or overreacting, there’s plenty of common ground between these straw man positions. Most people are neither blithely and flagrantly ignoring medical advice (and the exceptions—such as widely maligned Spring Breakers on Florida beaches, some of whom have since been diagnosed with COVID-19—are newsworthy precisely because of their rarity) nor spending their days in masks and containment suits, terrified to go anywhere near others.

Idiots and Maniacs, Cassandras and Chicken Littles

People can take prudent precautions and still reasonably think or suspect that at least some of what’s going on in the world is an overreaction or underreaction. Policing other people’s opinions or shaming them because they’re taking the situation more (or less) seriously than we are is unhelpful. It’s like the classic George Carlin joke: “Anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac.”

Instead of seeing others as idiots and maniacs, panicky ninnies and oblivious fools, perhaps we can recognize that everyone is different. Some people are in poorer health than others; some people listen to misinformation more than others; and so on. People who were mocked online for wearing masks in public may be following their doctor’s orders; they may be sick or immunocompromised or have some other health issue that’s not apparent in the milliseconds we spend judging the situation before commenting. Or they may be ahead of the curve, with changing medical advice. Why not give them the benefit of the doubt and treat them as we’d like to be treated?

Whether people are underreacting or overreacting is a matter of opinion not fact. The truth is that we simply don’t know what will happen and how bad it will get. In many cases, we simply don’t have enough information to make accurate predictions, and when it comes to life and death topics such as disease outbreaks, the medical community wisely adopts a better-safe-than-sorry approach.

Both positions argue from a false certainty, a smugness that they know better than others do, that the Cassandras and Chicken Littles will get their comeuppance. Humans crave certainty, but science can’t offer it. Certainty is why psychic predictions such as Sylvia Browne’s (supposedly foretelling the outbreak, which I recently debunked) have such popular appeal. The same is true for conspiracy theories and religion: All offer certainty—the idea that whatever happens is being directed by hidden powers and all part of God’s plan (or the Illuminati’s schemes, take your pick).

Instead of bickering over how stupid or silly others are for however they’re reacting, it may be best to let them do their thing as long as it’s not hurting others. Polarization is a form of intolerance. Maybe this is a time to come together instead of mocking those who don’t share your opinions and fears. We all have different backgrounds and different tolerances for uncertainty.

This doesn’t mean that governments should be given license to do whatever they want, of course. Citizens differ on their opinions about everything the government does; there’s never universal agreement on anything (from gun control to education funding), and there’s no reason to assume that responses to COVID-19 would be any different. If you don’t like what measures state and federal governments are taking to stop the virus, welcome to the club. Some are of the opinion that too much is being done, while others think too little is being done. While the public noisily argue and finger point on social media, scientists around the world are working hard to develop better treatments and vaccines.

Before believing or sharing information on social media, ask yourself questions such as: Is it true? Is it from a reliable source? But also, is it helpful or useful? Does it promote unity or encourage divisiveness? Are you sharing it because it contains practical information important to people’s health? Or are you sharing it just to have something to talk about, some vehicle to share your opinions about? Be safe, practice social and cyber distancing, and wash your hands.

 

This article originally appeared as part of a series of original articles on the COVID-19 pandemic by the Center for Inquiry as part of its Coronavirus Resource Center, created to help the public address the crisis with evidence-based information. 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! 

Apr 232020
 

My article examines uncertainties in covid-19 data, from infection to death rates. While some complain that pandemic predictions have been exaggerated for social or political gain, that’s not necessarily true; journalism always exaggerates dangers, highlighting dire predictions. But models are only as good as the data that goes into them, and collecting valid data on disease is inherently difficult. People act as if they have solid data underlying their opinions, but fail to recognize that we don’t have enough information to reach valid conclusion…

You can read Part 1 Here.

 

Certainty and the Unknown Knowns

The fact that our knowledge is incomplete doesn’t mean that we don’t know anything about the virus; quite the contrary, we have a pretty good handle on the basics including how it spreads, what it does to the body, and how the average person can minimize their risk. 

Humans crave certainty and binary answers, but science can’t offer it. The truth is that we simply don’t know what will happen or how bad it will get. For many aspects of COVID-19, we don’t have enough information to make accurate predictions. In a New York Times interview, one victim of the disease reflected on the measures being taken to stop the spread of the disease: “We could look back at this time in four months and say, ‘We did the right thing’—or we could say, ‘That was silly … or we might never know.’” 

There are simply too many variables, too many factors involved. Even hindsight won’t be 20/20 but instead be seen by many through a partisan prism. We can never know alternative history or what would have happened; it’s like the concern over the “Y2K bug” two decades ago. Was it all over nothing? We don’t know because steps were taken to address the problem. 

But uncertainty has been largely ignored by pundits and social media “experts” alike who routinely discuss and debate statistics while glossing over—or entirely ignoring—the fact that much of it is speculation and guesswork, unanchored by any hard data. It’s like hotly arguing over what exact time a great-aunt’s birthday party should be on July 4, when all she knows is that she was born sometime during the summer. 

So, if we don’t know, why do people think they know or act as if they know? 

Part of this is explained by what in psychology is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect: “in many areas of life, incompetent people do not recognize—scratch that, cannot recognize—just how incompetent they are … . Logic itself almost demands this lack of self-insight: For poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack. To know how skilled or unskilled you are at using the rules of grammar, for instance, you must have a good working knowledge of those rules, an impossibility among the incompetent. Poor performers—and we are all poor performers at some things—fail to see the flaws in their thinking or the answers they lack.” 

Most people don’t know enough about epidemiology, statistics, or research design to have a good idea of how valid disease data and projections are. And of course, there’s no reason they would have any expertise in those fields, any more than the average person would be expected to have expertise in dentistry or theater. But the difference is that many people feel confident enough in their grasp of the data—or, often, confident enough in someone else’s grasp of the data, as reported via their preferred news source—to comment on it and endorse it (and often argue about it).  

Psychology of Uncertainty

Another factor is that people are uncomfortable admitting when they don’t know something or don’t have enough information to make a decision. If you’ve taken any standardized multiple-choice tests, you probably remember that some of the questions offered a tricky option, usually after three or four possibly correct specific answers. This is some version of “The answer cannot be determined from the information given.” This response (usually Option D) is designed in part to thwart guessing and to see when test-takers recognize that the question is insoluble or the premise incomplete. 

The principle applies widely in the real world. It’s difficult for many people—and especially experts, skeptics, and scientists—to admit they don’t know the answer to a question. Even if it’s outside our expertise, we often feel as if not knowing (or even not having a defensible opinion) is a sign of ignorance or failure. Real experts freely admit uncertainty about the data; Dr. Anthony Fauci has been candid about what he knows and what he doesn’t, responding for example when asked how many people could be carriers, “It’s somewhere between 25 and 50%. And trust me, that is an estimate. I don’t have any scientific data yet to say that. You know when we’ll get the scientific data? When we get those antibody tests out there.” 

Yet there are many examples in our everyday lives when we simply don’t have enough information to reach a logical or valid conclusion about a given question, and often we don’t recognize that fact. We routinely make decisions based on incomplete information, and unlike on standardized tests, in the real world of messy complexities there are not always clear-cut objectively verifiable answers to settle the matter. 

This is especially true online and in the context of a pandemic. Few people bother to chime in on social media discussions or threads to say that there’s not enough information given in the original post to reach a valid conclusion. People blithely share information and opinions without having the slightest clue as to whether it’s true or not. But recognizing that we don’t have enough information to reach a valid conclusion demonstrates a deeper and nuanced understanding of the issue. Noting that a premise needs more evidence or information to complete a logical argument and reach a valid conclusion is a form of critical thinking.

One element of conspiracy thinking is that those who disagree are either stupid (that is, gullible “sheeple” who believe and parrot everything they see in the news—usually specifically the “mainstream media” or “MSM”) or simply lying (experts and journalists across various media platforms who know the truth but are intentionally misleading the public for political or economic gain). This “If You Disagree with Me, Are You Stupid or Dishonest?” worldview has little room for uncertainty or charity and misunderstands the situation. 

The appropriate position to take on most coronavirus predictions is one of agnosticism. It’s not that epidemiologists and other health officials have all the data they need to make good decisions and projections about public health and are instead carefully considering ways to fake data to deceive the public and journalists. It’s that they don’t have all the data they need to make better predictions, and as more information comes in, the projections will get more accurate. The solution is not to vilify or demonize doctors and epidemiologists but instead to understand the limitations of science and the biases of news and social media.

 

This article first appeared at the Center for Inquiry Coronavirus Resource Page; please check it out for additional information. 

 

 

Apr 202020
 

My new article examines uncertainties in covid-19 data, from infection to death rates. While some complain that pandemic predictions have been exaggerated for social or political gain, that’s not necessarily true; journalism always exaggerates dangers, highlighting dire predictions. But models are only as good as the data that goes into them, and collecting valid data on disease is inherently difficult. People act as if they have solid data underlying their opinions, but fail to recognize that we don’t have enough information to reach valid conclusion…

 

There’s nothing quite like an international emergency—say, a global pandemic—to lay bare the gap between scientific models and the real world, between projections and speculations and what’s really going on in cities and hospitals around the world. 

A previous article discussed varieties of information about COVID-19, including information that’s true; information that’s false; information that’s trivially true (true but unhelpful); and speculation, opinion, and conjecture. Here we take a closer look at the role of uncertainty in uncertain times. 

Dueling Projections and Predictions

The record of wrong predictions about the coronavirus is long and grows by the hour. Around Valentine’s Day, the director of policy and emergency preparedness for the New Orleans health department, Sarah Babcock, said that Mardi Gras celebrations two weeks later should proceed, predicting that “The chance of us getting someone with coronavirus is low.” That projection was wrong, dead wrong: a month later the city would have one of the worst outbreaks of COVID-19 in the country, with correspondingly high death rates. Other projections have overestimated the scale of infections, hospitalizations, and/or deaths. 

It’s certainly true that many, if not most, news headlines about the virus are scary and alarmist; and that many, if not most, projections and predictions about COVID-19 are wrong to a greater or lesser degree. There’s a plague of binary thinking, and it’s circulating in many forms. One was addressed in the previous article: that of whether people are underreacting or overreacting to the virus threat. A related claim involves a quasi-conspiracy that news media and public health officials are deliberately inflating COVID-19 statistics. Some say it’s being done to make President Trump look incompetent at handling the pandemic; others say it’s being done on Trump’s behalf to justify coming draconian measures including Big Brother tracking. 

Many have suggested that media manipulation is to blame, claiming that numbers are being skewed by those with social or political agendas. There’s undoubtedly a grain of truth to that—after all, information has been weaponized for millennia—but there are more parsimonious (and less partisan) explanations for much of it, rooted in critical thinking and media literacy.

The Media Factors

In many cases, it’s not experts and researchers who skew information but instead news media who report on them. News and social media, by their nature, highlight the aberrant extremes. Propelled by human nature and algorithms, they selectively show the worst in society—the mass murders, the dangers, the cruelty, the outrages, and the disasters—and rarely profile the good. This is understandable, as bad things are inherently more newsworthy than good things.

To take one example, social media was recently flooded with photos of empty store shelves due to hoarding, and newscasts depict long lines at supermarkets. They’re real enough—but are they representative? Photos of fully stocked markets and calm shopping aren’t newsworthy or share-worthy, so they’re rarely seen (until recently when they in turn became unusual). The same happens when news media covers natural disasters; journalists (understandably) photograph and film the dozens of homes that were flooded or wrenched apart by a tornado, not the intact tens or hundreds of thousands of neighboring homes that were unscathed. This isn’t some conspiracy by the news media to emphasize the bad; it’s just the nature of journalism. But this often leads to a public who overestimates the terrible state of the world—and those in it—as well as fear and panic. 

Another problem are news stories (whether about dire predictions or promising new drugs or trends) that are reported and shared without sufficient context. An article in Health News Review discussed the problem of journalists stripping out important caveats: “Steven Woloshin, MD, co-director of the Center for Medicine and Media at The Dartmouth Institute, said journalists should view preprints [rough drafts of journal studies that have not been published nor peer-reviewed] as ‘a big red flag’ about the quality of evidence, similar to an animal study that doesn’t apply to humans or a clinical trial that lacks a control group. ‘I’m not saying the public doesn’t have the right to know this stuff,’ Woloshin said. ‘But these things are by definition preliminary. The bar should be really high’ for reporting them. In some cases, preprints have shown to be completely bogus … . Readers might not heed caveats about ‘early’ or ‘preliminary’ evidence, Woloshin said. ‘The problem is, once it gets out into the public it’s dangerous because people will assume it’s true or reliable.’”

One notable example of an unvetted COVID-19 news story circulating widely “sprung from a study that ran in a journal. The malaria medicine hydroxychloroquine, touted by President Trump as a potential ‘cure,’ gained traction based in part on a shaky study of just 42 patients in France. The study’s authors concluded that the drug, when used in combination with an antibiotic, decreased patients’ levels of the virus. However, the findings were deemed unreliable due to numerous methodological flaws. Patients were not randomized, and six who received the treatment were inappropriately dropped from the study.” Recently, a Brazilian study of the drug was stopped when some patients developed heart problems. 

Uncertainties in Models and Testing

In addition to media biases toward sensationalism and simplicity, experts and researchers often have limited information to work with, especially in predictions. There are many sources of error in the epidemiological data about COVID-19. Models are only as good as the information that goes into them; as they say: Garbage In, Garbage Out. This is not to suggest that all the data is garbage, of course, so it’s more a case of Incomplete Data In, Incomplete Data Out. As a recent article noted, “Models aren’t perfect. They can generate inaccurate predictions. They can generate highly uncertain predictions when the science is uncertain. And some models can be genuinely bad, producing useless and poorly supported predictions … .” But as to the complaint that the outbreak hasn’t been as bad as some earlier models predicted, “earlier projections showed what would happen if we didn’t adopt a strong response, while new projections show where our current path sends us. The downward revision doesn’t mean the models were bad; it means we did something.”

One example of the uncertainty of data is the number of COVID-19 deaths in New York City, one of the hardest-hit places. According to The New York Times, “the official death count numbers presented each day by the state are based on hospital data. Our most conservative understanding right now is that patients who have tested positive for the virus and die in hospitals are reflected in the state’s official death count.” 

All well and good, but “The city has a different measure: Any patient who has had a positive coronavirus test and then later dies—whether at home or in a hospital—is being counted as a coronavirus death, said Dr. Oxiris Barbot, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Health. A staggering number of people are dying at home with presumed cases of coronavirus, and it does not appear that the state has a clear mechanism for factoring those victims into official death tallies. Paramedics are not performing coronavirus tests on those they pronounce dead. Recent Fire Department policy says that death determinations on emergency calls should be made on scene rather than having paramedics take patients to nearby hospitals, where, in theory, health care workers could conduct post-mortem testing. We also don’t really know how each of the city’s dozens of hospitals and medical facilities are counting their dead. For example, if a patient who is presumed to have coronavirus is admitted to the hospital, but dies there before they can be tested, it is unclear how they might factor into the formal death tally. There aren’t really any mechanisms in place for having an immediate, efficient method to calculate the death toll during a pandemic. Normal procedures are usually abandoned quickly in such a crisis.”

People who die at home without having been tested of course won’t show up in the official numbers: “Counting the dead after most disasters—a plane crash, a hurricane, a gas explosion, a terror attack or a mass shooting, for example—is not complex. A virus raises a whole host of more complicated issues, according to Michael A.L. Balboni, who about a decade ago served as the head of the state’s public safety office. ‘A virus presents a unique set of circumstances for a cause of death, especially if the target is the elderly, because of the presence of comorbidities,’ he said—multiple conditions. For example, a person with COVID-19 may end up dying of a heart attack. ‘As the number of decedents increase,’ Mr. Balboni said, ‘so does the inaccuracy of determining a cause of death.’”

So while it might seem inconceivably Dickensian (or suspicious) to some that in 2020 quantifying something as seemingly straightforward as death is complicated, this is not evidence of deception or anyone “fudging the numbers” but instead an ordinary and predictable lack of uniform criteria and reporting standards. The international situation is even more uncertain; different countries have different guidelines, making comparisons difficult. Not all countries have the same criterion for who should be tested, for example, or even have adequate numbers of tests available. 

In fact, there’s evidence suggesting that if anything the official numbers are likely undercounting the true infections. Analysis of sewage in one metropolitan area in Massachusetts that officially has fewer than 500 confirmed cases revealed that there may be exponentially more undetected cases. 

Incomplete Testing

Some people have complained that everyone should be tested, suggesting that only rich are being tested for the virus. There’s a national shortage of tests, and in fact many in the public are being tested (about 1 percent of the public so far), but such complaints rather miss a larger point: Testing is of limited value to individuals.  

Testing should be done in a coordinated way, starting not with the general public but instead with the most seriously ill. Those patients should be quarantined until the tests come back, and if the result is positive, further measures should be taken including tracking down people who that patient may have come in contact with; in Wuhan, for example, contacts were asked to check their temperature twice a day and stay at home for two weeks. 

But testing people who may be perfectly healthy is a waste of very limited resources and testing kits; most of the world is asymptomatic for COVID-19. Screening the asymptomatic public is neither practical nor possible. Furthermore, though scientists are working on creating tests that yield faster and more accurate results, the ones so far have taken days. Because many people who carry the virus show no symptoms (or mild symptoms that mimic colds or even seasonal allergies), it’s entirely possible that a person could have been infected between the time they took the test and gotten a negative result back. So, it may have been true that a few days, or a week, earlier they hadn’t been infected, but they are now and don’t know it because they are asymptomatic or presymptomatic. The point is not that the tests are flawed or that people should be afraid, but instead that testing, by itself, is of little value to the patient because of these uncertainties. If anything, it could provide a false sense of security and put others at risk. 

As Dr. Paul Offit noted in a recent interview, testing for the virus is mainly of use to epidemiologists. “From the individual level, it doesn’t matter that much. If I have a respiratory infection, stay home. I don’t need to find out whether I have COVID-19 or not. Stay home. If somebody gets their test and they find out they have influenza, they’ll be relieved, as compared to if they have COVID-19, where they’re going to assume they’re going to die matter how old they are.” 

If you’re ill, on a practical level—unless you’re very sick or at increased risk, as mentioned above—it doesn’t really matter whether you have COVID-19 or not because a) there’s nothing you can do about it except wait it out, like any cold or flu; and b) you should take steps to protect others anyway. People should assume that they are infected and act as they would for any communicable disease: isolate, get rest, avoid unnecessary contact with others, wash hands, don’t touch your face, and so on. 

 

A version of this article appeared on the CFI Coronavirus Response Page, here.

Part 2 will be posted in a few days.

Apr 182020
 

The new episode of Squaring the Strange is now out!

We chat about various Covid-related topics and then dive into a few examples of bad or misleading polls. First we go over a couple that don’t really set off alarm bells, like whether beards are sexy or what determines people’s beer-buying habits.

Then I dissect some bad reporting on polls and surveys that relate to much more important topics like Native American discrimination or the Holocaust, and we see how a bit of media literacy on how polls can be twisted around is a vital part of anyone’s skeptical toolbox.

 

Listen HERE!