As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) has passed its anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen! This week, our crew digs into health panics and what's in our food. Focusing on the notorious "pink slime", the Strangers break down the history of the hysteria and talk about how bad it really is (or isn't). Also in this episode, Ben is skeptical of the tragic tale of a Tasmanian Devil named Jasper. You can listen HERE.
As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) has passed its anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen! This week, the Strange crew chats a bit about "crisis actors" and how far people will go to link tragic events to push conspiratorial ideas. Then, the boys are joined by Sharon A. Hill, geologist and skeptic author of the new book Scientifical Americans, a look into the culture of amateur paranormal researchers. They talk a bit about the utility of the title "skeptic" and go into a discussion about her fascinating new book. You can find it HERE!
A Fox News story claims that a psychic and ghost hunter found the remains in a basement of a father who went missing 57 years ago. If you read past the headlines you find that a) the remains haven't been identified, so the bones may or may not be of that man; b) he *was last seen* in that basement; and c) he was widely rumored to have been buried in that basement. Assuming those are indeed his remains, I'm... unimpressed. Kenny Biddle looked into it and was also unimpressed: While scrolling my social media newsfeed recently, I came across an article shared by my colleague Ben Radford. The headline of a FoxNews.com story proclaimed “Psychic, Ghost Hunters Helped Long Island Man Find Dad’s Remains in 57-year-old Mystery” (Gearty 2018). This piqued my interest since I make it a hobby (almost a full-time career) of investigating such claims. So I clicked on the link to take a closer look. According to the story, “bones found in a Long Island basement were discovered after a family consulted a psychic and paranormal investigators, according to reports.”Mike Carroll, the owner of the house (which was his family home since 1955), is convinced the bones are those of his father, George Carroll. George disappeared without a trace in 1961, leaving a wife and four children behind. Carroll’s mother, Dorothy, never gave the children a “straight answer” on what had happened, only saying “he went out and just never came back.” Dorothy passed away in 1998, taking any information about their missing father with her (absent a Ouija board revelation). A missing persons report was apparently never filed, though authorities are now checking on that detail. If one only reads the headline, the reader would get the impression that a psychic and several ghost hunters teamed up and discovered the remains of Carroll’s father. However, as Radford points out in his Facebook post: “If you read past the headlines you find that a) the remains haven't been identified, so the bones may or may not be of that man; b) he *was last seen* in that basement; and c) he was widely rumored to have been buried in that basement” (Radford 2018). Radford is correct; as of this writing, it is only speculated that the remains belong to George Carroll. The Suffolk county medical examiner will be performing DNA testing on the bones. According to Suffolk Chief of Detectives Gerard Gigante, it could take months before they can determine who the bones belong to. After reading through the Fox News story, the reader would get two distinct impressions; first, ghost hunters detected an “energy” in the house, giving the reader the idea there was a spirit inhabiting the house. Second, a psychic pinpointed the burial spot without any help or hints—despite Carroll explicitly telling WABC-TV there was a family rumor that his father was buried in the basement. When one follows the links provided to other sources used to write the (FoxNews) article, we find that the psychic and ghost hunters are barely mentioned in relation to locating the remains. “The bones were discovered Halloween eve Tuesday in a spot in the basement that had been flagged by a psychic, the New York Post reports.” You can read the rest on his CFI blog HERE! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! __
For those who missed it, a recent episode of Squaring the Strange featured award-winning filmmaker Erik Kristopher Myers who joined Celestia and I to discuss Bigfoot on film. Starting with a quick analysis of the famous and most influential Bigfoot film, the Patterson-Gimlin footage, we tour the offerings since then, looking both at pop culture and the more serious efforts of a particularly litigious present-day Canadian Squatcher. Various Bigfoot and Yeti have flourished in all genres, popping up in horror films as well as children's entertainment. The creature has captured imaginations and resulted in some twisted depictions over the years. Please check it out, you can listen to it HERE! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
Distrust of the news media is, or at least seems to be, at an all time high. A recent report by Gallup and the Knight Foundation found that 42 percent of Democrats, 75 percent of independents, and 94 percent of Republicans say they have lost some trust in the media. Some, perhaps much, of the skepticism is surely deserved; journalistic failures are legion and the mistakes are very visible and often memorable, from Jayson Blair’s faked reporting at The New York Times to Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s disastrous Rolling Stone article. There are few careers in which a person is as routinely criticized, rightly or wrongly, as journalists, and many liberals share Trump’s constant refrain that the news media can’t be trusted. I often see people posting a news story on social media with some version of the editorial comment, “Why isn’t the media covering this story?” Sometimes the phrase is in ALL CAPS and sometimes it’s worded slightly differently, but the gist is the same. It’s seen as a form of news censorship. In a previous article I discussed one of the fallacies inherent in this question, that of considering “the media” as a single-minded homogenous entity, but there are other issues to unpack in this criticism. In media literacy—as in science and skepticism generally—it’s often useful to remember psychologist (and CSI Fellow) Ray Hyman’s dictum: Before trying to explain something, be sure there’s something to explain. In other words, question and verify the truth of your assumptions before making an effort to understand why those premises are true. You may find there’s nothing to explain. Here are a few recent examples of complaints about media censorship I’ve come across:
- “Waffle House in Nashville: 4 dead, 4 wounded. 29 yr old naked white male shooter stopped by 29 yr old black man. Not interesting enough to make headline news.”
- “An incel shot up a Tallahassee yoga studio yesterday, killing two women before turning the gun on himself. It didn’t even make a blip in the news cycle.”
- In 2016 a friend lamented on Facebook that the news media was systematically ignoring a high murder rate in Chicago, with a veiled suggestion that racism played a role (as most victims were African American). An internet search yielded a handful of then-recent articles about it in Illinois newspapers, which I sent to him. He then replied that yes of course Chicago papers covered it, but almost no outlets elsewhere did—at least not in any depth. Another forty seconds of Google searching found many articles about the soaring homicide rate in that city from other regions, including an in-depth series in The New York Times I’d read a few weeks earlier titled “Chicago’s Murder Problem.”
Sample Sizes: Anecdotes Aren’t DataWhy were these people—and many others—assuming that the news stories they saw weren’t being seen by others? It seemed that in many or most cases the person had done little or no research to see how widespread the coverage was (or wasn’t); they’d just assumed that since they hadn’t seen as much news coverage as they’d have expected (or thought it deserved), it wasn’t being covered adequately. This is of course a subjective judgment; I personally would like for more news stories to include skepticism and evidence-based analysis. The roots of this misperception are varied. One is the “If I don’t see it, it doesn’t exist” fallacy, a type of argument from personal experience. How does the person know that a given news story isn’t being reported? What efforts did they undertake to investigate how widely the news was being shared? These stories must have made the news somewhere; after all, that’s how they first found out about the story they’re suggesting is largely being ignored by the news media. Upon seeing the news, how long did they spend watching each media channel, checking each website, or listening to each radio station to determine whether or not the news was being covered by that outlet? A few seconds? A few minutes? An hour? Did they use any methodology in their search? Did they use a search engine to scour the internet for all major news outlets to see which carried the story, or did they just check their usual handful of regular media sources? This is essentially a sampling question, and as scientists and skeptics know, anecdotes are not data. How valid a conclusion is depends in part on how large the sample size is. Why a given breaking news story is featured on one media outlet and not another at approximately the same time depends on many factors. Of course different news organizations rarely cover breaking news in exactly the same way. A local TV news station may have staff on the scene or en route in the first minutes of an event, while national news shows are scrambling to send regional reporters. Different television stations and managers have different policies about when to break into regularly scheduled programming with breaking news. The station manager at a city’s NBC affiliate, for example, may decide that a local shooting, school lockdown, natural disaster, or other event is important enough to their audience to interrupt a soap opera, while a manager at an ABC affiliate may feel differently. Often the news story is in fact being widely covered—just not in that specific person’s social or news media circles. Part of the reason for this error is that people on social media have increasingly narrowly curated news feeds, which results in a smaller variety of stories appearing there. Both liberals and conservatives increasingly self-select those they interact with, for example by unfriending or blocking people with dissenting views and opinions. Most people get their news not directly from news organizations but from social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—mostly their news feeds and what their friends share. This creates an insular, herd mentality. There’s also an inherent quasi-conspiracy aspect to these beliefs. They often assume, without evidence, an implicit suspicion of bad faith—that news editors and journalists are actively suppressing a story because of real or apparent political implications. One suggested, perhaps facetiously, that the story “wasn’t interesting enough” for national news; another suggested that the races of those involved caused the story to be sidelined. There are countless breaking news stories each day whose lack of live updates go unnoticed. Few take to social media to complain that, for example, a car accident with multiple fatalities isn’t being covered. It’s primarily stories freighted with some social or political import that are assumed to be the subject of intentional non- or under-reporting.
First—and FalseAnother factor is impatience for instant information. Critical thinkers and media-literate audiences know that slow, accurate news is better than fast, inaccurate news. Good journalism takes time. It takes time to interview primary sources, check facts, and do due diligence. Circulating rumor and unconfirmed speculation is cheap and easy. For editors at News Organization X, the question “Why Isn’t News Organization X covering this?” is one that resonates deeply, and it’s one that helps drive down the quality of journalism. Audiences demanding the latest news and constant updates can and will turn to less credible news outlets that are happy to circulate bad information immediately and correct (or not) the wrong information later. The Gallup/Knight Foundation survey mentioned earlier titled “Indicators of News Media Trust”surveyed members of the public and asked “How important are each of the following factors in determining whether or not you trust a news organization?” The top answer, with 99 percent responding that it’s either very important or important, was “Its commitment to accuracy—not reporting stories until it verifies all the facts.” Thus we see a paradox: the public overwhelmingly understands that good, credible journalism often requires that news organizations not report a story before the facts are verified—but at the same time the public expects immediate news reporting on breaking events and criticizes the news media when they don’t see it. Ironically the early reports—the ones that the person is using to contrast with other news media that seemingly are refusing to air the story—are often the least reliable. Occasionally people offer the opposite complaint and want to know why some seemingly superfluous puff piece is being covered. Why is this news?, they indignantly demand to know, usually regarding pieces about celebrity gossip, royal births, and the like. With so many real and present dangers, why is this stuff circulating? The answer is that it’s not news, and not everything that gets shared on news or social media is news. But people on social media—ironically, including the person who shares it—are treating it as if it were important. Think of it this way: news items and memes are shared on social media precisely because we want people to notice and pay attention to them. In the same way that, as David Brinkley wrote, “The one function TV news performs very well is that when there is no news, we give it to you with the same emphasis as if there were,” the same applies to social media. The best way to stop the spread of toxic or stupid ideas is to simply not share them; it’s not to share them as widely as possible with a dismissive caption you hope is clever enough to go viral.
Catch and Kill vs. CensoredIt’s important to distinguish this form of “news censorship” from claims that certain articles may be “spiked” or prevented from being published. News outlets have at times come under pressure to bury stories. Over the past year, for example, the “catch and kill” practice of publishers keeping potentially damaging revelations from being published was widely discussed in the context of National Enquirer paying for the exclusive rights to a person’s story (for example Stormy Daniels and President Trump). The same is alleged to have happened to Playboy model Karen McDougal, according to an NPR story:
A woman who had an alleged nine-month sexual relationship with Donald Trump more than a decade ago, is speaking on the record for the first time about signing a document from an apparent Trump media ally that effectively silenced her story. Karen McDougal told reporter Ronan Farrow in a piece published Friday in The New Yorker that she regretted signing the contract with American Media Inc., National Enquirer‘s parent company. “At this point I feel I can’t talk about anything without getting into trouble,” McDougal told Farrow. “I’m afraid to even mention his name.” Farrow reports, “On August 5, 2016, McDougal signed a limited life-story rights agreement granting A.M.I. exclusive ownership of her account of any romantic, personal, or physical relationship she has ever had with any then-married man.” The Wall Street Journal first reported on the agreement in 2016, saying A.M.I., whose C.E.O and chairman, David Pecker, has called Trump “a personal friend,” paid McDougal $150,000 for the rights to her story. The magazine never published a piece about it.Those situations are very different, however, because they involve a single person’s exclusive personal or eyewitness account, usually of private conduct. A mass shooting or tragedy is a public event, and while each individual eyewitness or participant may have exclusive negotiable rights they can try to sell, the event itself is public domain; the story cannot be effectively hidden from view. Like any other news event, a publisher or editor may of course choose to limit or omit coverage in that particular publication or outlet, but that doesn’t “bury” or hide the story; it just makes the outlet look like it’s being beaten by its competition. While it’s certainly true that some news stories are buried, backburnered, or downplayed, it’s relatively uncommon in the types of stories being complained about. News organizations are far more likely to put their own misleading spin on any high-profile event such as a shooting than to pretend it didn’t happen at all. I’ve written about media biases in my book Media Mythmakers, and there are many of them. But ignoring a potential ratings bonanza such as a mass shooting is not among them. Ironically, many Democrats and liberals who ask “Why isn’t the media covering this story?” are implicitly supporting Trump’s views about the mendacity of the news media. Donald Trump has expertly exploited the idea that the news media can’t be trusted to provide accurate information, from the constant refrains of “fake news” to references of the “Failing New York Times.” Trump has enough success sowing distrust of the news media and has support from liberals. The next time you or a friend sees breaking news about some event and assume that it isn’t being covered in your preferred news media (at the time you go looking for it), keep in mind that your experience may not accurately represent what’s out there. Just because you’re not seeing it doesn’t mean it’s not there.
This piece first appeared in the CFI blog "A Skeptic Reads the Newspaper", which can be found HERE.
I'm pleased to note that my newest book Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits was a winner at this year's New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards! You can order the book from your local indie bookstore, or find it on Amazon!
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: Human Barbie and Other Plastic Tales. First, Ben examines some disturbing consequences to child abduction rumors on a popular app in India and Mexico. Then we look at modern plastic surgery oddities and, specifically, the media myth of the Human Barbie, also known as Russian model Valeria Lukyanova. What outrageous things were said about her, and how much of the narrative can be taken as fact? We also compare her to her counterparts, namely the three men who promote themselves as "human Ken dolls." You can listen HERE.
Writer Jon Silman at Oxygen has a new article out on John Wayne Gacy's role in the scary clown phenomenon, and I'm briefly quoted: Before we explore that it’s worth looking into the psychology of why clowns are scary. We spoke to Benjamin Radford, author of the book “Bad Clowns,” and he gave us his theory. “We’re comfortable with clowns in a specific context,” he said. “If we see them at a party we say ‘oh that’s great,’ but if you see a clown at night in a vacant parking lot or knocking on your door at midnight, it’s a different feeling.” You can read the whole thing HERE.
The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! The show is all about Halloween strangeness . . . We unravel the origins of a few traditions and look at "Hell Houses," the much, much, much lamer alternative to haunted houses. And a quick report from CSIcon as well as a news snippet about a graveyard dowser! Please check it out! You can here it HERE!
If you’ve spent any time on social media over the past few years you’ve likely seen several versions of Donald Trump’s last name. Various versions include “tr^^p,” “Strump,” and “Tr**p,” though writer Joyce Carol Oates understandably prefers the correctly-numbered-asterisk version “T***p.” Meryl Streep gave a blistering 2017 Golden Globes speech that never mentioned Trump’s name but referred to the president as “a coarse blowhard.” Others simply call him “Sin Nombre” (nameless in Spanish)—though I’d prefer “Hombre Sin Nombre” because it’s alliterative and references his infamous, inane “bad hombres” comment—though no one asked me. For a while some people avoided using Trump’s name on Facebook because the site’s algorithms would be more likely to send political advertisements for Trump to whoever wrote about him, though as his name became ubiquitous, the algorithms became less useful. There are also various circumlocutions, such as Mad King Cheeto, Agent Orange, the Dumpster, the Orange Manatee, Hair Furor, President Bone Spurs, Donald Drumpf, Assaulter-in-chief, and “Tiny-Fingered, Cheeto-Faced, Ferret-Wearing Shitgibbon,” among others. What’s behind the refusal or reluctance to say Trump’s name? The Atlantic had a piece on this last year, noting that “When the late Gwen Ifill asked President Barack Obama why he had been avoiding saying ‘Trump,’ he replied, ‘He seems to do a good job mentioning his own name. So, I figure, you know, I will let him do his advertising for him[self]’…. Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter Bernice King shared a widely circulated list to her Facebook page offering tips for resisting Trump. The top suggestion: ‘Use his name sparingly so as not to detract from the issues.’… Given the influence Trump’s name wields, snubbing it is an attempt to withhold some of that power while staking out higher moral ground, said Jenny Lederer, an assistant professor of linguistics at San Francisco State University. ‘In his case, especially, people feel like not repeating his name is [a way of] not speaking to the brand and the value system that goes along with his political ideology.’” Naming Taboos In The Encyclopedia of Superstitions, E. and M. Radford—no relation, probably—note that “In primitive thought, a man’s name was not merely a convenient label by which he could be distinguished from others. It was an integral part of himself, as important to him as, and indeed, moreso than, his arms or legs or eyes. Knowledge of it by another gave that other power over him… These beliefs survive in the custom, once quite general, of keeping a child’s name secret from outsiders until he had been baptized. To let it be known to any stranger… was to run the risk of witchcraft” (p. 244). In the Doctor Who universe, the titular doctor’s name is unknown (except to him or her, as the case may be, and a possible wife) and never spoken aloud in the series. Often refusing to name a figure is done in deference to their awesome and potentially destructive power. The idea is that to say the name without sufficient reverence—or at all—is to risk drawing the person’s attention or wrath. In Roman Catholic exorcisms, knowing a demon’s name is considered an important part of the ritual and gives the priest power over the evil entity. Even saying the name of the Christian God is considered dangerous in some cases; hence mild exclamations such as “zounds!” were adopted from the archaic, quasi-blasphemic phrase “god’s wounds.” Similarly, in Jewish traditions the name “Yahweh” is too sacred to speak or even write, preferring the Almighty” or “our Lord”; even the word “God” is often written as “G-d.” In the Harry Potter universe the villain Voldemort is referred to as “He Who Must Not Be Named” and “You Know Who.” In British fairy folklore there is a long tradition of avoiding speaking the word “fairy” aloud. They are variously referred to as “the good folk,” the “wee folk,” or just “the folk.” To do otherwise is to invite trouble. Many or most people who refuse to use Trump’s name aren’t doing so out of reverence, of course. As the Atlantic piece notes, “When it comes to the current president, the refusal to use his name may be uniquely subversive because of the degree to which Trump has wrapped his entire worth, wealth, and fame up in those five letters.” Indeed, Trump seems remarkably impressed not only with himself but also with his own surname, which he considers to be his signature brand. But has the anti-Trump linguistic revolt done any good? Is it a form of verbal slacktivism and virtue signaling? While refusing to speak his name may seem like a tiny act of “he’s not my president” defiance, it doesn’t seem to be an issue for him. Perhaps the biggest indication that some people’s refusal to say Trump’s name isn’t bothering him is the lack of reaction, especially on social media. Trump is famously thin-skinned about real and imagined slights, and has shown no qualms about taking to Twitter to blast his critics. Yet there’s been no stream of petty, pouty invective from our commander in chief wailing about his subjects’ lack of reverence for his name. It could also be that Trump only cares about the loudest voices and (what he considers to be) his most vocal opponents, including “The Failing New York Times” and CNN, which due to journalistic editorial standards would not replace letters in Trump’s name with asterisks. As long as they spell his name right (and fully), he’s happy.
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: This week, Ben and Celestia dig into what makes bad documentaries bad. You can listen HERE.
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: This week, Ben and Pascual dig into the legend of Kuchisake-Onna, aka the Slit-mouthed Woman. From the origins of her terrifying story to the modern day pop culture references, the guys explore every creepy detail. Also in this episode, Ben is skeptical of what makes something fictional "problematic" and just how serious the implications are. You can listen HERE.
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: This week we start with Celestia’s tale of having a “tongue analysis” while on a cruise, which amounted to an alt-med version of cold reading. Then we examine a critical but controversial topic: are accusers routinely disbelieved in sexual misconduct cases? Ben brings some statistics on the public’s view of high-profile accusations, and Celestia tackles data on police handling of rape reports. How true is this notion, and, more importantly, what harm does inflating such a notion cause? You can listen HERE.
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: First, Ben looks at current failures of intuition and psychics. Then we take a skeptical look at tour guides! Tours straddle a line between entertainment and education, and tour guides happily embellish local legends and lore as time goes on. We welcome special guest Cindy Boyer from the Landmark Society of Western New York and chat about ghost tours. Pascual confesses to teenaged transgressions, and Ben recounts an egg-balancing lesson with a tour guide in Ecuador. You can listen HERE.
Some of you cryptozoology fans may remember when Josh Gates of Destination Truth [sic] found what he claimed to be a Yeti track, after a few days in Nepal. Here's an overview of the claims, and an update on where the track ended up... The Yeti—formerly known as the Abominable Snowman—is the Himalayan version of the American Bigfoot. Like Bigfoot, it is large, powerful, leaves strange tracks, and has never been proven to exist outside of folklore and myth. Interest in the supposed creature is fueled by occasional sighting reports and odd footprints. In 2007, Josh Gates, host of the TV series Destination Truth, claimed that he found three mysterious footprints: one full print that measured about thirteen inches long, and two partial prints. Gates said that he could not identify what made them, but that they are “very, very similar” to other strange tracks previously found in the Himalayas and attributed to the Yeti. To Gates and his television crew, this apparently seems like strong evidence for the elusive creature. The find made international news, with outlets including Reuters covering the story. Yet there is a scientific explanation for many Yeti footprints found in the Himalayas. Tracks in snow can be very difficult to interpret correctly because of the unstable nature of the medium in which they are found. Snow physically changes as the temperature varies and as sunlight hits it. This has several effects on the impression, often making the tracks of ordinary animals seem both larger and misshapen. As sunlight strikes the impression from different angles, the sides of the tracks melt unevenly. Thus a bear track made at night but found the next afternoon has been exposed to the morning sun and might change into a mysterious track with splayed toes—much like the one Gates and his crew claim to have found. You can read the rest in my recent CFI blog HERE! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
A nice review on Paranormal Bucket of my latest book "Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits": "Radford offers up a critique of ghost investigation techniques in this thought-provoking volume. Rather than simply chronicling why many standard methods adopted by contemporary paranormal investigators to search for spirits have been unable to produce hard evidence of a spooky afterlife, the author meticulously diagrams what researchers might do to make their approaches to gathering evidence more likely to generate persuasive results....He is an entertaining and perceptive writer with a welcome, dry sense of humor." You can read the review HERE. And the book is for sale HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
I'm quoted in the Wikipedia entry on the TV show "Paranormal Lockdown." I call it "typical sensationalized nonsense trying to gloss over half-baked pseudoscientific investigation" and note that "Groff and Weidman are walking around a house with a camera crew, literally and figuratively in the dark. The only things they're testing are their video editor's endurance and the patience of their viewers." I'm bracing for misspelled hate mail from the show's fans... 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!
As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) has passed its one year anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen! This week we start with Celestia’s tale of having a “tongue analysis” while on a cruise, which amounted to an alt-med version of cold reading. Then we examine a critical but controversial topic: are accusers routinely disbelieved in sexual misconduct cases? Ben brings some statistics on the public’s view of high-profile accusations, and Celestia tackles data on police handling of rape reports. How true is this notion, and, more importantly, what harm does inflating such a notion cause? You can listen HERE.
As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) has passed its one year anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen! First, Ben looks at current failures of intuition and psychics. Then we take a skeptical look at tour guides! Tours straddle a line between entertainment and education, and tour guides happily embellish local legends and lore as time goes on. We welcome special guest Cindy Boyer from the Landmark Society of Western New York and chat about ghost tours. Pascual confesses to teenaged transgressions, and Ben recounts an egg-balancing lesson with a tour guide in Ecuador. You can listen HERE.
My recent blog is about how easily misunderstandings can recast allies as enemies, focusing on a recent incident at Cornell where a student misunderstood her professor's comment about her clothing, interpreting it as sexist. The student stripped to her underwear in protest; it made national news and cast the professor in a bad light, but others in the class said the student misunderstood. A lesson in the importance of being charitable to others--with a classic Emo Philips joke! I’m always fascinated by how thinking goes wrong. Sometimes it’s the result of intentional deception or obfuscation, such as is often found in advertising or political speech. But more often it’s the result of critical thinking lapses, logical errors, or simply misunderstanding. It’s errors of interpretation, often of substituting what someone actually says for what we think they’re saying, or expecting them to say. By understanding how thinking goes wrong—ideally taken from real-world situations instead of staid examples of informal logic taken from textbooks—we can help identify such patterns in our own thinking and hopefully improve communication. A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about an interaction I had on social media where a comment about whether a phrase used by actor Henry Cavill in an interview was intended literally or figuratively was badly misunderstood and somehow ended in a heated argument involving accusations of misogyny! The exchange was all the more puzzling because everyone involved in the discussion was on the same page, socially and politically, about the topic. There was no actual substantive disagreement; instead a cascade of errors and misunderstandings soon rendered the discussion futile and allies cast as enemies. I’m reminded of a famous Emo Philips joke about fundamentalist religion involving two people who have virtually identical beliefs, but after several questions one of them focuses on the tiny difference between them and in the punchline yells, “Die, heretic!” There are enough people with whom we sincerely disagree that it benefits everyone—especially in today’s divisive age—to be sure that we understand each other before concluding that allies are actually enemies. Earlier this year a high-profile example of this emerged in an academic setting... 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!
The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! This week we start with a discussion of "BlackKKlansman" and the notion of holding narrative movies "based on" real events to some imagined standard of "truth" or accuracy. Then we discuss ghost trains, the legend of Abraham Lincoln's phantom funeral train, and a dubious ghost train video I was asked to review for a TV show. Check it out HERE!
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: A Diet High in Skepticism First we hear from photographic mystery investigator Kenny Biddle, who reveals how he solved the souvenir photo mystery Ben shared back in episode 37. Then, for the second part of our New Year’s resolution series, we dive into diet myths. Ben brings some surprising statistics that go against common assumptions about how diet-obsessed Americans are. Rather than being hyper-aware of every pound, it turns out we often don’t notice weight gain (on ourselves or our children), and we rarely put much effort into losing it. Celestia reflects on how fat people, like cancer patients, are hit with a ton of “miracle” fat cures from well-meaning friends and acquaintances; and she does a deep-dive into her diet Coke and whether it actually makes people gain weight. You can listen HERE.
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: Bro-Science with the Credible Hulk As we all digest our holiday food and contemplate New Year’s resolutions, the Credible Hulk (a.k.a. Matt) joins a very giddy Ben and Pascual to SMASH . . . er, I mean discuss different types of exercise woo. To start off, Ben recounts his investigation years ago of a ROM machine, billed as a miracle machine designed by a “modern day DaVinci” that condenses a complete workout into exactly4 minutes (for a mere $14,615). For a first category, Matt touches on the very fringe gym woo (cupping, etc.) and tells us it’s not that prevalent among serious bodybuilders, who have a vested interest in objective results. The next common pitfall the Hulk warns us about is the lure of anecdotal evidence (i.e., what the most muscular guys say works for them). A third category of gym woo comes from misunderstanding or overextrapolating from small amounts of existing data. An example of this would be the anabolic window, and Matt takes us through a biochemical tour of that concept. The fourth category Matt covers is supplement woo, which is a big topic: from marketing smoke and mirrors to digesting versus injecting, supplements can be a very confusing and expensive placebo or simply an alternate food source. Then the guys ask some questions about salty Gatorade gum, “roid rage,” shrinking testicles, juicing cadavers, blood doping, and ghosts messing up people’s drug tests. You can listen HERE.
My new CFI blog on mountaineering physicist Melanie Windridge, who recently climbed Everest to promote science and encourage girls in STEM fields. I interviewed physicist Dr. Melanie Windridge, author of Aurora: In Search of the Northern Lights, last year for a Special Report on the CFI website. No armchair-ridden ivory tower egghead, Windridge is a veteran of days-long treks and wilderness expeditions. Her website features photos of her summits, and her book contains many compelling first-person adventures in Iceland, Scotland, Sweden, and Norway. “When I was doing my undergraduate work, I had no idea what I’d be doing now,” she told me. “I was doing fusion, so it was very lab-based, so it was very different for me to say I want to get out of the lab, I want to study physics in a very different domain. It’s really wonderful to see this phenomenon that really touches you on a personal, inner level…. But also to look at the science of it, and understand that the science doesn’t take away that feeling you get. It’s still magical. In fact knowing the science makes it even more incredible.” As for her book Aurora, “I didn’t want to just write a science book. I wanted to celebrate the beauty and magic of the aurora and how captivating it is, and also explore the history of Arctic exploration and the cultures there… It’s this wonderful crossover between art, history, science, culture, and landscape.” 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!
My new CFI blog examines a case study in online miscommunication, and offers tips on how to better understand each other on social media... I’m always fascinated by how thinking goes wrong. Given an Event A or a Factual Statement/Observation B, what are the ways in which people come to misunderstand the nature of that event or statement? Sometimes it’s the result of intentional deception or obfuscation, such as is often found in advertising or political speech. But more often it’s the result of critical thinking lapses, logical errors, or simply misunderstanding. It’s errors of interpretation, often of substituting what someone actually says for what we think they’re saying, or expecting them to say. To me, after solving a mystery or concluding an investigation one of the most important and useful questions to ask is: Why did people think it was something it wasn’t? Why did people get it wrong? In many cases where there’s written records we can fairly easily follow the chain of events and deconstruct the evolution of the idea. By understanding how thinking goes wrong—ideally taken from real-world situations instead of staid examples of informal logic taken from textbooks—we can help identify such patterns in our own thinking and hopefully improve communication. A few weeks ago on Facebook someone commented about what a disaster the Trump administration was for the environment, and as an example he specifically cited the EPA’s role in the Gold King mine spill, in which three million gallons of mine waste and tailings, including heavy metals and toxic chemicals, were accidentally released into the Animas river from an abandoned mine in southern Colorado. I pointed out that Trump wasn’t president at the time of the Gold King spill in 2015. I remember the situation well, in part because it affected my home state of New Mexico and the matter was widely reported for months. My brief comment was entirely innocuous: polite, factual, and neutral in tone. Yet, somewhat to my surprise, it was interpreted as somehow defending Trump or his disastrous environmental choices including appointing since-resigned Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA. My comment was in no way any defense of Trump, nor an indictment of the EPA under Obama; no political message was intended at all. I was simply correcting a minor factual error, just as I would if someone referenced Sydney as the capital of Australia, or thought that Breaking Bad was set and filmed in Phoenix. I had no agenda, no ulterior motive for the mention, other than to not let misinformation go uncorrected if I could spend ten seconds and type a response. As a writer I appreciate people pointing out my mistakes and errors, not only because I don’t want to misinform people but because I care about getting things right. But the interaction brought into sharp focus how many assumptions people bring to discussions, and especially ones of a political nature. The assumption seemed to be that anyone who points out a mistake is arguing for “the other side,” whatever that happens to be in the context—instead of, you know, just pointing out an error while not trying to make a point about any larger counter-argument... 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!
This is cool: My work with Bob Bartholomew is referenced in an article titled "Information Literacy in a Fake/False News World: An Overview of the Characteristics of Fake News and its Historical Development" in the "International Journal of Legal Information." 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!
my analysis of the fiasco—or maybe they should just hire the Japanese blogger for an hour’s work.That date was about a month ago, when The History Channel suffered one of the highest-profile blows to its credibility in, well, the history of the channel. Let’s recap: The 1937 disappearance of pioneer pilot Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan in the Pacific Ocean has been the subject of continuing research, debate, and speculation—most recently in a show titled Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence. Here is the History Channel’s explanation of the show’s premise: “Buried in the National Archives for nearly 80 years, a newly rediscovered photo may hold the key to solving one of history’s all-time greatest mysteries. On July 2, 1937, near the end of her pioneering flight around the world, Amelia Earhart vanished somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. Most experts, including the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, believe Earhart likely ran out of fuel and crashed into the Pacific Ocean. But no trace of the aviator, navigator Fred Noonan or her twin-engine Lockheed Electra airplane were ever found, confounding historians and fueling conspiracy theories ever since. Now, new evidence has surfaced in U.S. government archives suggesting Earhart might not have crashed into the Pacific at all, but crash-landed in the Marshall Islands, was captured by the Japanese military and died while being held prisoner on the island of Saipan. According to HISTORY’s investigative special Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence, airing Sunday, July 9, retired federal agent Les Kinney scoured the National Archives for records that may have been overlooked in the search for the lost aviator. Among thousands of documents he uncovered was a photograph stamped with official Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) markings reading ‘Marshall Islands, Jaluit Atoll, Jaluit Island, Jaluit Harbor.’ In the photo, a ship can be seen towing a barge with an airplane on the back; on a nearby dock are several people. Kinney argues the photo must have been taken before 1943, as U.S. air forces conducted more than 30 bombing runs on Jaluit in 1943-44. He believes the plane on the barge is the Electra, and that two of the people on the dock are Earhart and Noonan. As part of the program’s investigation, Doug Carner, a digital forensic analyst, examined the photo and determined it was authentic and had not been manipulated, while Kent Gibson, another forensic analyst who specializes in facial recognition, said it was ‘very likely’ the individuals in it are Earhart and Noonan.” If the photo is what it’s claimed to be, it means that the “lost” pair were alive and well on a dock in the Marshall Islands in 1937. That still doesn’t fully explain where they went after the photo was taken, and as noted the show suggests they were captured by the Japanese and died in prison on Saipan—a fact that the U.S. government knew about and covered up. Doubts were raised about that explanation before the show aired and quickly escalated afterward. The photograph was published in a 1935 Japanese-language travelogue about the islands of the South Pacific. Japanese blogger Kota Yamano found the book after searching the National Diet Library, Japan’s national library, using the term ‘Jaluit Atoll,’ the location featured in the photograph. National Geographic, perhaps with a hint of rivalry-inspired delight, noted that “In the wake of Yamano’s evidence, the History Channel and the documentary’s on-screen personalities have expressed various forms of concern and disbelief. ‘I don’t know what to say,’ says Kent Gibson, the facial-recognition expert that the History Channel hired to analyze the photograph for Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence. ‘I don’t have an explanation for why [the photograph] would show up two years early.’” Requests for additional clarification were not returned. In a July 11, 2017 statement the History Channel said that it has a team of investigators “exploring the latest developments about Amelia Earhart” and promised transparency in their findings, concluding that “Ultimately historical accuracy is most important to us and our viewers.” Erm, yes. Over a year has now passed, and apparently the History Channel’s crack team of investigators still hasn’t been able to figure out how exactly they could have been fooled. If they’d like some help, they can read
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: I know it's the end of July but Halloween isn't far away! This week, we dissect the myths and misunderstandings that surround Halloween. From tainted candy to evil predators, our boys take a bite out of these spooky Halloween treats so you don't have to! You can hear the show HERE.
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: This week we talked about my new book Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits! You can hear the show HERE.
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: First, Ben looks at current failures of intuition and psychics. Then we take a skeptical look at tour guides! Tours straddle a line between entertainment and education, and tour guides happily embellish local legends and lore as time goes on. We welcome special guest Cindy Boyer from the Landmark Society of Western New York and chat about ghost tours. Pascual confesses to teenaged transgressions, and Ben recounts an egg-balancing lesson with a tour guide in Ecuador. You can listen to the show HERE.
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: This week, our boys look into the nature of curses and what it takes to break a curse. From the cultural aspects to the practical applications, Ben's expertise in curses takes the listener through a journey into the weird and scary world of superstition. You can hear the show HERE.
Three kids in Lexington, Ky, said that a man wearing a black mask and dark hoodie grabbed and tried to abduct them as they were walking home one night. When police investigated the kids admitted they made up the story to explain why they were out late. How about "Sorry we lost track of time" instead of blaming a "Stranger Danger" Boogeyman, scaring a community, and wasting police resources? 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!
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: Ben shares a minor mystery that dropped into his lap, in the form of a photograph tucked into a used book on demonic possession. Then Ben, Pascual, and Celestia discuss logical fallacies: what they are, how they are used, and how they can help us improve our own reasoning. Skeptics hold logical fallacies near and dear, as they represent common errors that have been identified and catalogued over the eons—a blueprint for ways our thinking can go wrong. Pascual goes over the straw man fallacy, as evidenced by the “war on Christmas,” and Celestia talks about how the tu quoquefallacy has recently been popularized as “whataboutism” by John Oliver. Ben explains the non sequiturand the concept of warrants—which is the (usually implicit) part of an argument that links the evidence to the claim. Then after a quick romp through Morton’s fork and personal incredulity, we examine a recent article by Maaarten Boudry that questions the persuasive utility of fallacies. Fallacies are not a mic-drop, and identifying a fallacy does not confer an automatic argument victory (i.e. the fallacy fallacy). We as skeptics often rely on things that are technically fallacies, and conspiracy theorists can weaponize fallacies for their brand of “logic” as well. But abandoning logical fallacies altogether is throwing out the baby with the bathwater; a tempered approach, where we identify the fallacy and also put it into understandable terms, might be best. You can hear the show HERE!
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: This week, Pascual gets skeptical about the “reason for the season,” namely Jesus, competing pagan solstice holidays, and Jesus mythicism. Whether Jesus existed is one of the few things that dips into “fringe” scholarship and conspiracy theories but is also taken seriously by many skeptics. Celestia suggests an alternate holiday tradition around the goddess Inanna’s striptease as she headed to the underworld. Then we get into the importance—and difficulties—of replication in science. Ben talks about replication in skeptical investigation, namely replicating some supposedly paranormal artifact like the Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot film in order to debunk it. The problem is that some quite mundane things are impossible (or very impractical) to replicate completely, and the burden of doing so does not rest with skeptics but with those making an extraordinary claim. Mythbusters had an unfortunate side-effect, convincing many laypeople that a crude replication with poor protocols can replace the scientific method. Yet some replications can be highly effective—such as when a magician shows they can get the same result as a psychic through mere trickery. Replication is absolutely necessary to science, however, and the current “replication crisis” is a concern. Pascual goes into the Mozart effect, which was never replicated, and the industry that nevertheless blew up around it. With so few funds to replicate studies, one hope is that science reporters will develop a better sense of discerning poor protocols, and kill stories based on bad studies rather than helping them go viral. You can listen to the show HERE!
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: This week, Ben and Pascual talk about the phenomenon of outrage, especially on the internet. They break down some classic outrage from the last year and even have an update on a big story from last year! Celestia also stops by with another tasty fortune cookie. You can listen HERE!
Ben opens with ruminations on why psychics are conspicuously absent from real-world crises they could help with (if their powers are real). Then Pascual looks at a purported flat-earther who will be launching himself in a homemade rocket soon. Digging into the story, he found that this fellow’s flat earth views surfaced only recently, after failed crowdfunding attempts, and it all might just be an unusual marketing ploy. Then, in our main topic, the guys look into the familiar mantra of “they want us to be divided.” Coming from both sides of the political aisle but most recently aimed at President Trump, this idea is, at its core, a conspiracy theory resting on the premise that we are all united and the government somehow gains from us being split up, uneducated, and in a state of turmoil. Just like the old canard about doctors keeping their patients unhealthy, this puts public officials in the role of doing the opposite of their job description—and within the context of a vast cabal. Incompetence, rather than organized subversive effort, is often the much more reasonable explanation for government malfeasance. But are there any people who do gain from this? Yes—foreign entities like Russia do actually organize and try to sow discord within the American population. If we are noticing divisive efforts and blaming our own government for it, then all the better for Putin. Skeptical outreach, learning how to vet sources, and critical thinking are the best weapons against this type of incursion. You can listen HERE!
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: This week Ben, Pascual, and Celestia have a roundtable discussion on the practical aspects of everyday life as a skeptic. Boots-on-the-ground skepticism efforts include social media presence, etiquette, and tactics; picking your battles; and knowing when you need your own little echo chamber for sanity’s sake. Keeping a salon discussion from devolving into a flame war is always the goal, but can anything be gained by out-and-out fighting? Ben talks about the importance in his own investigation work of listening to believers and walking the tightrope of helping them without alienating them. In real life, picking at the closely held beliefs of loved ones can be a minefield—but as skeptics, it feels wrong to go along with notions simply to get along. Finding common ground and focusing on empathy can help people gradually expand their mental framework. Pascual talks about the homeopathic remedies used by many musicians, and we discuss how sometimes just defining a term (or showing someone the fine print on a label) can do all the skeptical work for you. We all share some minor victories and also some pitfalls we have encountered. You can hear it HERE!