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
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!
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: For week 3 of our spooky Halloween series, Ben, Celestia and Pascual delve into the spooky and fascinating topic of evil clowns. Ben talks about all the different kinds of evil clowns, Celestia tells a tale of her experience with a bad clown of her own, and Pascual makes obscure pop culture references throughout. Also in this episode, Pascual breaks down a new conspiracy theory with the help of our two co-hosts. You can listen HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
Ben and Pascual kick off the 2017 New Mexico Podscape festival by musing on natural disasters and cryptids, for instance how Hurricaine Hugo in Puerto Rico helped spawned the chupacabra legend. Then, since a doomsday was recently predicted for the very day they recorded, Ben and Pascual discuss apocolypses (apocolypi?). Interpreting everything from astronomical lineups to hunting out supposed Biblical patterns, people have been predicting the end seemingly since the beginning. Ben recounts trying to interview an apocalyptic prophet one day after the doomsday he predicted, and harkens back to the 19th-century Millerites, who ended up splintering into the 7th Day Adventists after their predicted doomsday failed to show up. Then to wind up, Pascual talks about “psychic vampire repellant,” which can be yours for $28 on Gwynneth Paltrow’s website Goop. You can here it HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: Ben and Pascual first touch on last week’s Vegas shooting, particularly the misinformation that was circulated afterward—not conspiracy theories (which could be a whole show later), but rather the false assertions made by talking heads mentioning the event in service of fighting a larger social problem. While it’s understandable that people want to make legitimate points about gun violence or mental health or racism, it undermines advocacy when statements are demonstrably false. Pascual looks at messages of surprise from news outlets and does a rundown of the motives (if found) of previous shooters. Then the guys turn to el chupacabra, the Latin American beast that appeared on the cryptid scene around the early 90s. Origin stories for the vampiric creature abounded, from being an extraterrestrial set on spreading blood diseases to a secret government experiment to a foretold beast of God’s wrath. Ben brings context to the folklore, explaining how the beast was genuinely terrifying and serious to impoverished ranchers and farmers living in rural Puerto Rico, for whom losing any livestock was a crippling tragedy. The chupacabra also has the distinction of being the first monster myth spread by the internet. Slowly, the chupacabra myth morphed from a truly terrifying exotic beast never glimpsed to a more mundane creature resembling a canid, as carcasses found far and wide were said to be dead chupacabras. You can hear it HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
Here's a fun, folkloric piece I wrote a few years ago about Friday the 13th... "Speaking of weird fishermen's superstitions, there is one fish That Shall Not Be Named. Sometimes it was called "the beast," other times "the red fish," "the foul fish," or simply "the fish." Scientists may call it Oncorhynchus gorbuscha, or even Salmo salar, but under no circumstances should the fish be called by its true name: salmon." You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
I wasn’t “surprised” that the Southwest hero pilot is a woman, but I suppose many people might be. This CNN analyst claims it’s because of the images of hero pilots in movies. But if people are indeed surprised to discover that the pilot is a woman, it has more to do with statistics than sexism. It’s not so much that the public assumes that women can’t be competent and courageous, but instead that only about 6% of commercial airline pilots are female. Since 94% of pilots are men, assuming that the pilot of any given flight—whether hero or heel—is probably a man is a reasonable and valid statistical inference, not a sign of movie misinformation or gender bias. There’s unfortunately plenty of sexism in the media, but I’m not sure this is a good example... You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
For those who missed it, I was recently quoted in 'USA Today' talking about scary clowns: "It’s a mistake to ask when clowns turned bad because historically they were never really good. They’ve always had this deeply ambiguous character,” he said. “Sometimes they’re good; sometimes they’re bad. Sometimes they’re making you laugh. Other times, they’re laughing at your expense.” Radford traces bad clowns all the way to ancient Greece and connects them to court jesters and the Harlequin figure. He notes that Punch, an evil puppet who frequently smacks his partner Judy with a stick, made his first appearance in London in the 1500s. “You have this mass-murdering, baby-killing clown that’s beloved by Britons everywhere of all ages,” he said. Clowns in America had their roots in circuses and they were at first meant to amuse adults, but clowning history took a detour in the 1950s and ‘60s when the squeaky-clean Bozo and Ronald McDonald became the “quintessentially American default clowns” for kids, Radford said. The more sinister clown waited patiently for his day to shine. “Stephen King didn’t invent the evil clown. That was long before his time. But what he did was turn the coin over, if you will,” Radford said. You can read it HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
For those have asked, "Why aren't they calling it terrorism?" here's a breakdown; it depends on who "They" are, and whether you're talking about formal or informal definitions of "terrorism." My new article is a primer on the topic... In the weeks since Mark Conditt died as police closed in on him, many on social media have been asking why he was not being referred to as a terrorist or his bombings labeled “terrorism.” (The same question often arises in other high-profile crimes as well, but here I focus on Conditt’s case specifically, as each incident has its own set of particulars which may weigh more strongly for or against a terrorism label.) The issue is not terribly complicated, but it is nuanced and often counter-intuitive. Part of the confusion stems from which group you’re talking about. In other words, who’s the “they” in “Why aren’t they calling it terrorism?” Different “theys” have different answers, as we will see. One of the first things a critical thinker learns to do when hearing the phrase “They say...” is to ask: Who, exactly, is “They?” Attributing a position or statement to an anonymous, homogenous group is not only clouds the issue instead of clarifying it but often steers the conversation toward any number of fallacies (They say acupuncture has been used for thousands of years. They say that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and so on). There’s also the problem of people using different definitions of “terrorism” interchangeably. Like many words, terrorism has a legal/technical definition used for specific purposes (such as indicting a suspect on certain criminal charges) and a looser, more informal definition that laypeople use in everyday conversation. Neither definition is incorrect; they’re both valid and useful in their specific contexts. There is of course nothing unique about this; laypeople use countless terms (energy, tension, heat, etc.) in ways that are different than a physicist would use them, for example. This problem often arises in the legal arena—one in which definitions of terrorism are important. For example the lay public may consider any killing to be murder (after all, someone died), but to a district attorney there are many different types of murder, with different definitions and penalties (first-degree murder, manslaughter, negligent homicide, and so on). Language is flexible, but that flexibility can contribute to ambiguity when people don’t clearly define terms, or apply their personal, informal definitions to other contexts. So let’s distinguish between the formal and informal definitions by using Terrorism and terrorism, respectively. The Patriot Act defines domestic terrorism as an attempt to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.” (Whether one thinks that this definition is too broad or too narrow is beside the point here; law enforcement follows the laws as written.) You can read the rest HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) comes upon its one year anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen! This week, content producer (and sci-fi nerd) Celestia Ward drops in at the start of the show to discuss the purported sexist outrage against Dr. Who being recast as a female. Looking at actual percentages versus the visibility of sexist troll comments, this sci-fi outrage has many components—from a modern boogeyman aspect to a false equivalency in reporting. Then the guys welcome their first-ever guest, Andrew Torrez of the Opening Arguments podcast. Andrew shares his legal experience and answers skeptic-related questions that involve the law. Many people who pride themselves on being skeptical about pseudoscience or conspiracy theories fail to question legal myths or ignore the consensus of legal experts. During the interview we learn about the motives behind misrepresenting the McDonalds hot coffee case, the nuances of “blocking” Trump’s travel ban versus postponing it for judicial review, how the media presents mistrials versus actual acquittals, systemic problems with the cost of pursuing justice, and potential complications with widespread use of police bodycams. Ben and Andrew discuss the notion of doubt, and what constitutes reasonable doubt (to skeptics and to jurors). You can hear the episode HERE! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
So this is cool... I was recently quoted on the 'My Favorite Murder' podcast, on episode 59, talking about Lake Champlain and the alleged lake monster therein, Champ. As you may know, I researched--and explained--the most famous photo of Champ, taken in 1977 by Sandy Mansi. You can listen to the episode HERE! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
With the recent release of the third installment of the Fifty Shades of Grey series there has been considerable consternation about what effect the film (and its predecessors) will have on the public. A Christian Science Monitor story by Gloria Goodale explained "How ‘Fifty Shades of Grey' Is Contributing to Shift in Norms on Sexuality," for example, and a hilariously scathing review of the new film appeared on Pajiba.com and went viral, headlined "'50 Shades Freed' Is an Ignorant, Poisonous Anti-Feminist Hate Anthem." Dozens of other blogs and articles make similar claims, though they do not seem to have dampened its audience's ardor: the new film has brought in nearly $270 million to date. The missing logical link in these stories is in what in argumentation is called a warrant. It's a principle or chain of reasoning connecting a premise to a conclusion. For example in the statement "I see the freeway is packed, so we're probably going to miss our flight," the warrant is that traffic congestion will delay passengers getting to the airport on time. This may or may not be true--for example the traffic may clear up shortly, or the flight might also be delayed--but the warrant offers a reason or logical rationale linking a claim to its conclusion. Often the warrant is implied, such as "Four out of five doctors use our brand of pain reliever." The warrant is that most doctors would use one brand over another because of its quality or efficacy. Again, this may or may not be true; the doctors might use one the brand because it's cheaper than its competitors (or free from the pharmaceutical company) though no more effective. Understanding warrants is crucial to determining whether an argument or claim is logically sound or reasonable. People often cloak their disagreement or displeasure over a piece of work (a film, book, cartoon, etc.) with an assertion that it is not merely personally distasteful or offensive but in fact dangerous to society. Most people understand that merely saying "I don't like this film" is, quite rightly, likely to be met with a response along the lines of, "Thanks for expressing your opinion." In order to have that opinion carry more weight and garner public support, the critic often goes a step further to assert that the object of their scorn is a threat to public health or morals. It is a form of fearmongering, a technique used by manipulators for millennia. Sometimes it's a president stoking fears of Muslim or immigrant terrorists; other times it's a conservative media watchdog group complaining that, for example, Teen Vogue is encouraging America's teens to engage in anal sex. And so on. This pearl-clutching is nothing new, of course. Parents have been concerned about the harmful effects of pastimes and entertainment for centuries. Blaming entertainment media is an old tradition-in fact when Jack the Ripper was active in 1880s London, violence in the play The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was blamed for inspiring the serial murders. And the family game Twister was famously derided as "sex in a box" by a competitor who diligently (if self-interestedly) warned the public about this immoral game. This is, however, where a line becomes crossed because the critic is then in the position of making a factual claim and should offer evidence for that claim. Saying you don't like chocolate ice cream (or rap music, pornography, or anything else) merely expresses an inviolable, unfalsifiable personal preference which cannot be challenged based on any evidence: If you don't like it, you don't like it. End of story. For more see my CFI blog, HERE! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
A viral outrage story from 2016, about an Alabama pastor who allegedly said that anyone who doesn't stand for the anthem should be shot, is circulating again. It's almost certainly false, as I explained in a blog at the time... It's easy to assume the worst about people (especially those whose views you likely disagree with), but a) beware "outrage" stories, and b) give people the benefit of the doubt you'd want given to you. You can read it HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
As we approach our one-year anniversary Squaring the Strange, the podcast I co-host with Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward, I wanted to review early episodes you may have missed! Episode 6: Roswell that Ends Well First, what are we skeptical of this week? Ben discusses the rumors about a "blue whale suicide game" and how it has all the hallmarks of a classic urban legend moral panic: grooming, danger hidden under a parent's nose, specificity and localization, anxiety over new technology, and legitimization by authorities--but zero actual evidence. Pascual talks about Skin Motion, a company promoting new tattoo trend involving soundwaves (both areas of his expertise), and picks apart some misleading things about the process. Then Ben and Pascual discuss the different versions of the alleged 1947 alien saucer crash in Roswell, New Mexico, and track how this story changed from something mundane and ignored (five pounds of sticks and tinfoil) to something strange and otherworldly. Roswell is a case that calls out how important it is to seek out earliest original sources, as the space of thirty years and the rise of aliens in pop culture clearly influenced a complete turnabout in interpretation and memories--leading to a cottage industry that produced copycat stories, conspiracy theories, and even phony alien autopsy footage. This is all complicated by the fact that there really WAS a bit of a coverup at Roswell, but not of the type ufo fans want to believe. In the wrap-up, the guys discuss their fond memories of "In Search Of" and, to get really meta, read some viewer mail that discusses previous viewer mail. 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 we approach our one-year anniversary Squaring the Strange, the podcast I co-host with Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward, I wanted to review early episodes you may have missed! Episode 3: Psychics Ben and Pascual have a lively discussion about psychics this week, with an eye to how psychics have intersected with the law. Disingenuous nature of psychics as “entertainment” and the ethics of lying/performing as a psychic; claims about psychic “detectives”; psychics who have manipulated people into sexual exploitation; the undemocratic nature of a magical worldview; falsifiability and false advertising; Sylvia Browne’s well-documented wrongness; the altruistic desire to help people, even if not really helping; light sentencing psychics typically receive (case involving Lacoste heiress); shoutout to show “Shut Eye”; Gypsy and Romani curses, history, reputation; victim-blaming in psychic cases and underreporting due to embarrassment. Quick quiz, review of social media arms and Patreon. 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 was recently a guest on 'The Big Picture Science Show" with SETI astronomer Seth Shostak, discussing UFOs, government conspiracy, and so much more. You can listen to the show HERE! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
Over the new week or two I'll be posting some blurbs and reviews of my new book Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits. It is currently available as an e-book at Amazon.com and will be available in print in a few weeks (preferably at your local independent bookstore!). “Interested in the reported phenomena of ghosts and serious research into paranormal claims? Don’t count on TV shows for your paranormal knowledge. You’ll be misled about the critical concepts of investigation. Investigating Ghosts can open the eyes and minds of today’s paranormal investigators—if they dare to look. A comprehensive review of ghost hunting techniques, this volume describes the best practices of investigation that lead a useful result. Radford drills down into the modern approach to investigating haunting claims and how to correct it, covering the spectrum of viewpoints in this well-referenced volume.” --Sharon A. Hill, Science and society specialist and founder of Doubtfulnews.com 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!
Over the new week or two I'll be posting some blurbs and reviews of my new book Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits. It is currently available as an e-book at Amazon.com and will be available in print in a few weeks (preferably at your local independent bookstore!). “In the growing literature of scientific and historical examinations of fringe and paranormal practice, this book stands out. Benjamin Radford lays out in detail how ghost hunting should be done. If we are lucky, some of this might sink in.” ---Brian Regal, Kean University, author of Searching for Sasquatch: Crackpots, Eggheads, and Cryptozoology. 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 investigation into a viral news story circulating one year ago this week, about a black mall Santa reportedly deluged with racist hate. It was tragic and sad--and fictional: "The real tragedy is what was done to Larry Jefferson, whose role as the Mall of America's first black Santa has been tainted by a social media-created controversy. Instead of being remembered for bringing joy to kids he will forever be known for enduring a (fictional) deluge of racist hatred. The true story of Jefferson's stint as Santa is exactly the opposite of what most people believe: He was greeted warmly and embraced by people of all colors and faiths as the Mall of America's first black Santa." One year ago , amid the encroaching commercialization of Christmas, Black Friday sales, and annual social media grumblings about the manufactured controversy over whether "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays" is appropriate, an ugly episode of racial hatred tainted the beginning of the 2016 holiday season. It began when the Mall of America hired a jolly bearded man named Larry Jefferson as one of its Santas. Jefferson, a retired Army veteran, is black--a fact that most kids and their parents neither noticed nor cared about. The crucial issue for kids was whether a Playstation might be on its way or some Plants vs. Zombies merchandise was in the cards given the particular child's status on Santa's naughty-or-nice list. The important thing for parents was whether their kids were delighted by the Santa, and all evidence suggests that the answer was an enthusiastic Yes. "What [the children] see most of the time is this red suit and candy," Jefferson said in an interview. "[Santa represents] a good spirit. I'm just a messenger to bring hope, love, and peace to girls and boys." The fact that Santa could be African-American seemed self-evident (and either an encouraging sign or a non-issue) for all who encountered him. Few if any people at the Mall of America made any negative or racist comments. It was, after all, a self-selected group; any parents who might harbor reservations about Jefferson simply wouldn't wait in line with their kids to see him and instead go somewhere else or wait for another Santa. Like anything that involves personal choice, people who don't like something (a news outlet, brand of coffee, or anything else) will simply go somewhere else--not erupt in protest that it's available to those who want it. You can read the rest HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
I've been a huge fan of Warren Zevon for decades, and was fortunate enough to see him live a few times (and even got his autograph on a photo I took of him). Known as a highly literate songwriter, he had many books and writer friends. I learned he was dying shortly before my first book came out, and I dedicated that book to him. I also sent him a signed copy of that book, and was told by his agent he received it. I have no idea if he read it, but he likely at least looked at it--when he wasn't recording his final, Grammy-winning album "The Wind." Zevon's book collection was sold, and I wonder if mine is among them. That would be cool.
With accusations flying around about misconduct by people of various political affiliations, I'm seeing lots of accusations of hypocrisy ("Why didn't you protest when X was accused?"). Many accusations of hypocrisy, however, are false, as I noted in a recent blog, with guests Celestia N. Ward, Ian Harris, and Michael Hartwell... Hypocrisy seems to be a running theme on the news and in social media, especially in the political sphere. It seems that hardly a week goes by that one political party is not accusing the other of hypocrisy, on everything from confirming Supreme Court judges to health care reforms. When President Trump fired FBI James Comey in May, White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stated that the reaction from Democrats was "the purest form of hypocrisy" and that "Most of the people declaring war today were the very ones what were begging for Director Comey to be fired." This accusation of hypocrisy is objectively and factually incorrect; though many Democrats had criticized Comey at various times (including for his handling of Hillary Clinton's e-mail investigation shortly before the presidential election), almost none of them had in fact called for Comey to resign or be fired; the sole exception was Tennessee's Rep. Steve Cohen. In fact there was bipartisan concern over Trump's handling of the matter, as well as the varying justifications given for Comey's firing. Here is an analysis of three examples of claimed hypocrisy, followed by a brief look at the phenomenon. You can read the rest HERE! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
On a recent episode of Squaring the Strange, we have a roundtable discussion on the practical aspects of everyday life as a skeptic. Boots-on-the-ground skepticism efforts include social media presence, etiquette, and tactics; picking your battles; and knowing when you need your own little echo chamber for sanity’s sake. Keeping a salon discussion from devolving into a flame war is always the goal, but can anything be gained by out-and-out fighting? We all share some minor victories and also some pitfalls we have encountered. Check it out HERE! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
A woman in Germany has claimed she was hypnotized outside of a supermarket, put into a trance, and later woke up at home having been robbed. A March 4, 2014 Daily Mirror news article, explained that “A pair of hypnotists are being hunted by police after a victim claimed she was put in a trance before being robbed. Police in Germany are investigating a spate of crimes involving two Russian women who tell their victims they will read their fortune. In one incident 66 year-old Sarah Alexeyeva told detectives she was spoken to outside an Aldi supermarket in Elmshorn, Schleswig-Holstein. But the next thing she knew she snapped out of a trance and was sat in her armchair at home. All her jewellery and valuables had disappeared, police said.” Though such claims are unusual, they are not unheard of. According to a 2008 BBC News story, “Police in Italy have issued footage of a man who is suspected of hypnotizing supermarket checkout staff to hand over money from their cash registers. In every case, the last thing staff reportedly remember is the thief leaning over and saying: ‘Look into my eyes, before finding the till empty.” There’s a certain creepy gothic allure to the idea that a mesmerizing stranger can ask you to stare deeply into his eyes, or ask you to follow a pocketwatch swaying seductively to and fro and listen to him count backwards into a hypnotic trance. But it’s pure fiction. Hypnosis is a widely misunderstood psychological phenomenon, due largely to its depictions in popular culture and film. Many people believe that hypnosis is a way to access memories of traumatic events that have somehow been hidden or forgotten. In the book Human Memory: An Introduction to Research, Data, and Theory, Dr. Ian Neath of Purdue University notes, “The majority of studies do not find that hypnosis allows recollection of information that could not otherwise be recalled.” In fact there is a significant danger that any information or memories that may be recalled under hypnosis may be false, created accidentally by the power of suggestion. False memories elicited using hypnosis played a role in the “Satanic Panic” scare of the 1980s and 1990s in which dozens of people were falsely accused of physically and sexually abusing children. Some people even spent years and decades in prison for crimes they did not commit based on little or no evidence other than hypnosis-derived memories. Another common myth about hypnosis is that it can put someone into a helpless or suggestible trance-like state. To psychologists, however, this idea has no basis. If it were possible to simply stare deeply into a stranger’s eyes to induce a trance-like, compliant state, then it would happen all the time. Anyone with practice or skill in hypnosis could easily turn to a life of crime by walking into a bank, casting a hypnotic stare at a teller, and take whatever they like. In their book 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, psychologists Scott Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry Beyerstein debunk this popular myth: “Recent survey data show that public opinion resonates with media portrayals of hypnosis. Specifically, 77% of college students endorsed the statement that ‘hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness, quite different from normal waking consciousness.’... But research refutes these widely accepted beliefs. Hypnotized people are by no means mindless automatons.” Many psychologists believe that hypnosis is not some special altered state of consciousness, but simply a form of deep relaxation. Stage hypnosis—such as the kind seen in Las Vegas comedy acts where “suggestible” audience members get on stage and pretend to be chickens or caught in embarrassing situations—is not true clinical hypnosis but instead a combination of showmanship and participatory comedy. There is some evidence that hypnosis might be useful in addressing some behavior-related medical issues such as quitting smoking or weight loss. There may be a placebo-like effect in that a person who is highly motivated to change their habits might get a boost from believing that hypnosis is helping them. However the evidence is weak because people who seek out hypnosis for help with their problems are by definition highly motivated, and any added success rate may be due to that motivation, with or without the benefit of hypnosis. It’s not clear why a person would believe or assume that he or she had been put into a hypnotic trance when they had not. Such a belief may be due to memory loss or confusion, but there’s no reason to fear hypnotist bandits. 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!
Halloween is here, and amid the make-believe witches, ghouls, and goblins, there are supposedly real-life villains who hope to harm on children October 31. News reports and scary stories on social media leave many parents concerned about protecting children from Halloween threats. But are they real or myth? Here are five scary myths and legends about the spookiest holiday! 1) Halloween is Satanic While many people see Halloween as scary and harmless fun some people, including many fundamentalist Christians, believe that there is sinister side to the holiday. They believe that underneath the fantasy costumes and candy-dispensing traditions there lies an unseen spiritual struggle for the souls of the innocent. Christian evangelist Phil Phillips and Joan Hake Robie, in their book "Halloween and Satanism," explain that the seemingly harmless costumes (such as witches, zombies and vampires) put children's spiritual lives at risk by interesting them in supernatural occult phenomena—and, ultimately, on the road to Satanic practices. Of course it's not just Halloween that these groups are concerned about—they have in the past protested against role-playing games, heavy-metal music, and even Harry Potter books. Historically, however, there is little or no actual connection between Satanism and Halloween; for one thing the early pagan traditions that many scholars believe became part of what we now call Halloween had no concept of Devil. The idea of a Christian Satan developed much later, and therefore Halloween could not have been rooted in Satanism. 2) Beware Tainted Halloween Candy The most familiar Halloween scares involve contaminated candy, and every year, police and medical centers across the country X-ray candy collected by trick-or-treaters to check for razors, needles, or contaminants that might have been placed there by strangers intending to hurt or kill children. Scary news reports and warnings on social media claimed that dangerous candy had been found, raising fears among parents and children. Many medical centers across the country, including in Harrisburg, Penn., are offering free X-raying of candy this Halloween. This threat is essentially an urban legend. There have been only two confirmed cases of children being killed by poisoned Halloween candy, and in both cases the children were killed not in a random act by strangers but intentional murder by one of their parents. The best-known, "original" case was that of Texan Ronald Clark O'Bryan, who killed his son by lacing his Pixie Stix with cyanide in 1974. In essence he used this myth to try to cover his crime. Yet the fear continues. There have been a few instances of candy tampering over the years—and in most cases the "victim" turned out to be the culprit, children doing it as a prank or to draw attention. Last year there were a few news reports about suspected tainted candy, and police determined that the incidents were hoaxes. In Philadelphia an 11-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy in who reported finding needles in their trick-or-treat candy admitted they made up the story for attention, and a 37-year-old father claimed to have found tainted candy in his kids' loot; he later admitted it was a hoax and claimed that he put the needles in the candy to teach his kids a lesson about safety. Fortunately, parents can rest easy: Despite the ubiquitous warnings on social media, there have been no confirmed reports of anyone actually being injured or harmed by contaminated Halloween candy from strangers. 3) Beware Halloween Terrorists After the September 11, 2001, attacks, rumors circulated that mysterious Middle Eastern men were buying up huge quantities of candies just before Halloween. Many people were concerned that this might be part of a terrorist plot to attack America's children, and the FBI looked into the case. Prompted by the public concern over potential terrorism, the FBI acknowledged that it was investigating the cash purchase of 'large quantities' of candy from Costco stores in New Jersey. A week before Halloween, on October 22, the FBI cleared up the rumors. It was one man, not two, who had bought $15,000 worth of candy, not $35,000. The man's nationality was not revealed, so he may or may not have been Arab or dark-skinned or even had an ethnic name. As it turned out the man was a wholesaler who planned to resell the candy, and the purchase was a routine transaction that had nothing to do with terrorism. 4) Beware Sex Offenders on Halloween Though the fears over poisoned candy (whether by malicious neighbors or foreign terrorists) never materialized, the reputed Halloween evil took a new form in the 1990s: sex offenders. This scare, even more than the candy panics, was fueled by alarmist news reports and police warnings. In many states, convicted sex offenders were required not to answer the door if trick-or-treaters came by, or to report to jail overnight. In many states including Texas and Arkansas offenders were required to report to courthouses on Halloween evening for a mandatory counseling sessions. The theory behind such laws is that Halloween provides a special opportunity for sex offenders to make contact with children, or to use costumes to conceal their identities. This has been the assumption among many local politicians and police for years. Yet there is no reason to think that sex offenders pose any more of a threat to children on Halloween than at any other time. In fact, there has not been a single case of any child being molested by a convicted sex offender while trick-or-treating. A 2009 study confirmed that the public has little to fear from sex offenders on Halloween. The research, published in the September 2009 issue of Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, examined 67,307 non-family sex offenses reported to law enforcement in 30 states over nine years. The researchers wanted to determine whether or not children are in fact at any greater risk for sexual assault around Halloween: “There does not appear to be a need for alarm concerning sexual abuse on these particular days. Halloween appears to be just another autumn day where rates of sex crimes against children are concerned.” 5) Beware Scary Clowns In the wake of the recent scary clown panics across the country, several national stores including Target have removed scary clown masks from their shelves, and both kids and parents are asking children to both beware of people in clown costumes and to not wear scary clown masks. Several counties banned scary clown costumes and masks last Halloween. As one writer noted, "A Kemper County, Mississippi's Board of Supervisors voted recently to make it unlawful to wear a clown costume in public. The ban covers all ages and includes costumes, masks or makeup. The ban – which will expire the day after Halloween – comes at the request of the county sheriff... It comes after a series of reports from around the country and Alabama that spooky-looking clowns were threatening children and schools. Some of those reports were later debunked and a few led to arrests with concerns over the creepy clown phenomenon growing as Halloween approaches." Clown masks have also been banned from some New Jersey schools; as "USA Today" reported, "The West Milford Police Department has said there is no specific threat against the community. Still, there have been spotty and unsubstantiated reports on social media about people in scary clown masks lurking around township school yards in recent weeks." Fortunately so far there are no confirmed reports of children being seriously injured, abducted, or killed by anyone dressed in scary clown masks over the past few months. Most of the reports are hoaxes and copycats, usually by teenagers who have fun scaring people or seeing themselves on social media. Halloween is scary enough on its own, between overpriced candy and sugar-sated kids. The real threats to children don't involve tampered candy, Satanists, scary clowns, terrorists, or sex offenders; instead they include being hit by a car in the dark, or wearing a flammable costume, or injuring themselves while walking on curbs because they can't see out of their masks. Most kids are very safe at Halloween, and the average child is far more likely to die of a heart attack or be hit by lightning than be harmed in some Halloween-related menace.
In case you missed it, I recently appeared (along with Leo Igwe, Susan Gerbic, Eran Segev, and others) on the new episode of Richard Saunders's great podcast The Skeptic Zone. Check it out HERE! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
Now and then I review films (I have since 1994), and I thought I'd share a recent one: The new slasher film Happy Death Day follows a young woman named Tree at a Louisiana university who wakes up in a dorm room with her phone blaring “Happy Birthday” (yes, it’s her birthday) and goes about her disheveled but otherwise ordinary day sniping with nasty sorority sisters and whatnot until that evening when she’s menaced (and eventually killed) by a creeper in a giant baby mask (it’s the school mascot, apparently). Terrifying enough, but then she wakes up the next morning—or perhaps the same morning—with a sense of relief that it was all a dream. But the relief turns to déjà vu as the day is repeated, with minor variations, until the killing happens again. Tree remembers what happened the previous day, of course (otherwise there would be no film), though none of the other characters do. At some point, with the help of her friend Carter, she somehow, apparently, divines the “rules” of the loop she’s in and tries to subvert them in order to prevent her death and catch her killer. Happy Death Day is kind of like the opposite of Happy Birthday—though technically it would be Happy Birth Day, which no one says, since “birthday” is one word—and, well, I guess the real opposite would actually be something like Sad Death Night, but anyway, yeah, I’m already putting more thought into the title than co-writer/director Christopher Landon did with the plot. Equal parts Mean Girls, Groundhog Day, and Scream, Happy Death Day has some ideas for directions the script wants to go, but it doesn’t really explore them. At one point the message seems to be that Tree is maybe reliving the day so that she can see what a bitch she is and become a better person; that theme propels a few scenes until it’s abruptly abandoned and the focus turns to trying to identify her killer (as she, for unexplained reasons, comes to believe that it’s the key to getting out of this recurring time loop). Because the film’s premise isn’t anchored in any discernible rules (other than what the characters intuit—and really we as an audience should have more information than they do), it’s hard to get too involved in the nonsensical plot. For a film whose gimmick relies on repeating key scenes, the filmmakers are resourceful (if not wholly successful) at finding ways of making the repetition less annoying. For example they use different lenses, depths of focus, and so on, to show the same scenes in slight different ways. What Happy Death Day does have going for it is a bit of fun and a talented lead actress, Jessica Rothe, who glides gracefully between camp and pathos. The twist at the end is the kind that makes sense if you think about it for a moment—but only a moment, because as that turns into two or three moments you realize that it doesn’t actually make any sense at all, and that (unlike, for example, Memento or The Usual Suspects) the joke is on you for wasting energy devoting neurons to what is essentially a shaggy dog story. If this is the kind of movie that annoys you (as it often does me), caveat emptor. Watching Happy Death Day I experienced a sort of film critic’s whiplash; parts of the movie were eye-rollingly bad, but a few minutes later were surprisingly good. Just as I thought it was stuck in a one-star gear, it found its groove and was heading right for three stars (but not four). It’s funny, but not really funny enough to be a successful comedy; it’s scary, in a few spots, but also not scary enough to be a good horror film. I guess it’s best described as diverting or amusing, a passable if uninspired way to spend an hour and a half of your life. Overall I have to give Happy Death Day a tepid recommendation—as long as you know what you’re in for. 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!
Manhattan millionaire Gigi Jordan was found guilty of killing her eight-year-old autistic son in November 2014. Jordan admitted killing her son, Jude Mirra, with a lethal dose of medications in a hotel room in February 2010. However she claimed it was a mercy killing—not because her son had a poor quality of life due to autism—but because she feared that her ex-husband would get custody of the boy, and then torture and sexually abuse him, as she believed had happened for years. Since her son was unable to verbally communicate because of his disability, Jordan relied on a technique called Facilitated Communication (FC), in which another person holds the disabled person's hand as he or she types out messages on a keyboard. According to the New York Times, “She said her son first described the abuse with a few partial words and gestures, but then, in a breakthrough three months later, learned to type on a laptop and gave a detailed account, naming several other people as well.” A CNN story noted that Jordan communicated with her son through a Blackberry device; witnesses described that “Jordan held the device in one hand while supporting and possibly guiding her son's arm with the other as Jude looked away.” In this way Jordan came to believe that her son was revealing that he’d been physically and sexually abused by many people, including an ex-husband and a woman who transported him to school. Yet the mystery deepened because police found no evidence of any abuse, sexual or otherwise. Nevertheless, Jordan was convinced that her son would not lie to her about such a thing and decided to kill him instead of letting him suffer further. It’s a bizarre, tragic case, but there's another explanation for the accusations, one that does not involve an autistic child lying about sexual abuse. In the 1980s many parents of autistic children turned to Facilitated Communication, which had been claimed to help autistic individuals, and especially children, to communicate. The technique is based on the idea that an autistic child’s inability to communicate is caused not by a brain disorder but instead a muscular or nerve disorder that prevents them from producing speech (this idea is not supported by the evidence or shared by autism experts). What is needed, FC advocates claimed, are trained facilitators to help the autistic children by holding their hands, fingers, or elbows while the child typed on a keyboard or pointed to lists of letters, words, or symbols. This technique was developed in the 1970s in Australia and introduced in the United States by Douglas Biklen, a special education director at Syracuse University. In the book 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, authors Scott Lilienfed, Steven Jay Lynn, Barry Beyerstein, and John Ruscio summarize the rise and fall of facilitated communication: “In the early 1990s, shortly after FC was introduced to the United States, scores of enthusiastic facilitators reported astonishing success stories of previously uncommunicative autistic individuals typing out eloquent sentences, at times speaking of their sense of liberation upon at last being able to express their imprisoned feelings. Yet numerous controlled studies soon showed that FC was entirely a product of unintentional facilitator control over autistic children’s hands movements. Without even realizing it, facilitators were leading children's fingers to the keys. Regrettably, FC has raised false hopes among thousands of desperate parents of autistic individuals [and] led to dozens of uncorroborated accusations of sexual abuse against these parents—based entirely on typed communications that emerged with the aid of facilitators.” In other words, the abuse accusations came not from Jude Mirra but instead (presumably unconsciously) from his mother Gigi Jordan, who believed the stories, reported them to police, and eventually used them as a reason to end her son’s life. This is not the first time that the discredited technique has ruined people's lives, and it may not be the last. Despite the fact that Facilitated Communication has been widely debunked for many years the technique still has many supporters, and it received national attention in 2004 when a short film promoting it was nominated for an Academy Award. Information casting doubt on the validity of Facilitated Communication came too late for both Jude Mirra and his mother, who was found guilty of manslaughter and faces five to twenty-five years in prison. 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 recently gave a lecture on skepticism and science communication for the Physics and Astronomy department at the University of British Columbia, it was a full house and spurred an engaging Q&A! 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 emailed press release I got last week began: "PETERSBURG, Ky., Sept. 26, 2017 - Since Darwin's ‘On the Origin of Species' was published in 1859, entirely new fields of science have been born and matured-fields which hold the keys to the origin of species. With a Ph.D. in cell and developmental biology from Harvard, Dr. Nathaniel Jeanson is uniquely qualified to investigate what genetics reveals about origins, and has released his findings in the book ‘Replacing Darwin: The New Origin of Species.' Due from Master Books next month, ‘Replacing Darwin' offers a revolutionary approach to the study of origins with a potential impact as big as Darwin's." It certainly sounded potentially intriguing, so I kept reading: "'On the Origin of Species' is considered one of history's most influential books and has become the foundation of evolutionary biology. This new work asks readers to consider: If Darwin was looking at the same evidence today using modern science, would his conclusions be the same? ‘Since 1859, we've had time to reevaluate [Darwin's] picture. A global community of millions of scientists can pool their resources and build on one another's work,' Jeanson states. ‘The cumulative observations of these scientists have built an unprecedented body of knowledge on the diversity and operation of life.' In ‘Replacing Darwin,' Jeanson argues that this knowledge has rewritten the long-standing explanation for the origin of species. Though a work of scholarship, ‘Replacing Darwin' is accessible. Jeanson uses an analogy to which all readers can relate - a jigsaw puzzle - to illustrate the quest for the answer to the mystery of the origin of species. He contends that Darwin reached his conclusions with only 15 percent - or less - of the total pieces of the puzzle. In addition, Jeanson argues that Darwin tried to piece together his findings without the constraints of edge pieces and corner pieces. If an actual jigsaw puzzle were put together under these conditions, would the participants have had any chance of success?" This is where some red flags began poking up and waving around--not wildly, but just enough to raise my skeptical sense that something was amiss with this upcoming book by Harvard biologist Nathaniel Jeanson. For some reason the jigsaw puzzle struck me as odd, but I couldn't put my finger on why. I kept reading. "Jeanson's book begins its account after the publication of the first edition of Darwin's book in 1859. Several years after Darwin made his bold claims, the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel, who studied inheritance and the origin of traits, published his discoveries, which remain textbook science to this day. In the early 1900s, American scientist Walter Sutton connected chromosomes to Mendel's decades' old discoveries. The next question for the scientific community was how specifically the chromosomes contained the information for traits. The search led to DNA and James Watson's and Francis Crick's famous discovery of the double helix in 1953." So far so good; the text wasn't saying anything obviously scientifically incorrect, but it did seem to be bland and dancing around something. I just wasn't sure what... I read on: "Jeanson concludes that there is much more to be discovered in this field, with the genetics of millions of species yet to be determined and the mutation rates of each of these species to be measured." Okay, sounds right. I'm certain that no geneticist would disagree with Jeanson that "there is much more to be discovered in this field"; the same is true of virtually any scientific field. But the lede was buried in the very last two sentences: "He expects that connections will be found between many other species within a family (or genus), but that species from different families (or genera) reside in completely different puzzles sharply disconnected from one another, rather than pointing to universal common ancestry. With this new book, the scientific revolution to overturn Darwin may have begun." *Record scratch sound effect* Hold on there. What exactly does "rather than pointing to universal common ancestry" mean? The implicit answer is in the next line: "With this new book, the scientific revolution to overturn Darwin may have begun." No common ancestor? Overturning Darwin? Sounds a lot like Creationist Bullshit to me... and I realized why the jigsaw puzzle struck me as odd: it reminded me of bogus creationist analogies, such as the watchmaker analogy suggesting that a found watch must imply an intelligent designer. But there was nothing in the press release that was explicitly Christian: no references to God, or the Bible, or intelligent design. It was all very subtle, just like "teach the controversy" suckers people into thinking there's a controversy about evolution. So I looked up the publisher. It was not Harvard University Press but instead something called MasterBooks.com. A few seconds poking around the website revealed a trove of creationist pseudoscience, most of them with innocuous, sciencey-sounding titles like Earth's Catastrophic Past and Age of the Earth. But there was also an ad for "Ken Ham Books and DVDs," along with the MasterBooks "100% Faith Grower Guarantee," which--whatever that means--is almost certainly as nonsensical as it sounds. I didn't fall for this gambit, but I had to admit that the anti-science agenda was pretty well hidden. It took me about five minutes before I was sure what was really going on--and that's probably about four minutes longer than most editors and journalists will give it. Jeanson and MasterBooks are hoping that enough of them order review copies and/or pass along the information about this potentially groundbreaking book without stopping to take a closer look at it. In this age of social media and information sharing, it's more important than ever to be vigilant of misinformation. That goes for bogus news stories, but also for creationist books masquerading as cutting-edge genetic science. 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!
Hurricane Maria's devastation continues in Puerto Rico... As The New York Times reported, “Daybreak in Puerto Rico on Thursday exposed the crushing devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria — splintered homes, crumbled balconies, uprooted trees and floodwaters coursing through streets. The storm cut a path through the island on Wednesday and 100 percent of the territory remained without power. Officials predicted that it could take months to restore electricity as rescue brigades ventured out to assess the toll of death and injury. Maria had entered Puerto Rico’s southeast side on Wednesday with category 4 winds of 155 miles per hour, then lost strength, regained power Thursday and continued its furious roll northward, bringing pounding rains and heavy winds to the Dominican Republic.” Hurricanes are well known in the region, but lesser known is how another devastating storm twenty-eight years ago, Hurricane Hugo, helped spawn the world’s most famous cryptozoological vampire: the chupacabra. In 1989 Hugo killed a dozen people in Puerto Rico and devastated the island’s crops; banana and coffee exports were nearly entirely destroyed. Estimates of the damage reached $1 billion, as tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans were left homeless by the wind and flooding. The hurricane left a lasting legacy on the island, and was still very much in the Puerto Rican consciousness six years later when the chupacabra first emerged. In Puerto Rico I interviewed the original chupacabra eyewitness, Madelyne Tolentino, and asked her where she believed the monster came from. Tolentino responded, “Look, a journalist told me that El Yunque [jungle wildlife refuge in Puerto Rico, said to be the chupacabra’s origin] was allegedly closed down because of the damage caused by Hurricane Hugo. He told me that the truth was that some experiment had escaped—not monkeys or anything like that. They never found those creatures. The journalist... knows a lot about it, because he’s been researching this for a while.” This explanation, shared by the tabloid media, is widely accepted among Puerto Ricans, that the US government created the chupacabra in a secret laboratory, in a clandestine genetics experiment gone horribly wrong, a sort of Frankenstein-like conspiracy theory. As I discuss in my book Tracking the Chupacabra, there are clear and significant parallels between the chupacabra’s origin and that of the monster Sil in the 1995 film Species. Species—whose first scene is set in rural Puerto Rico—begins with a genetics experiment, led by scientist Xavier Fitch (Ben Kingsley). He has injected alien DNA sequence into human eggs; most died, but one was allowed to grow into a seemingly normal human child called Sil. But Fitch aborts the experiment when Sil begins aging at a fantastic rate, and during REM sleep, alien spikes emerge from the girl’s spine. He reluctantly decides to kill Sil, fearing that the experiment may soon grow out of control—and it does. Sil escapes the building and out into the wilderness to prey. The most popular theory about where the chupacabra might have been able to live undetected for all those years (except for rare appearances sucking goats and chickens) is in the El Yunque rainforest on the eastern end of the island. Given the thick vegetation this theory might seem plausible, except that El Yunque, though a sizeable park at 28,000 acres, is also the most popular tourist spot in Puerto Rico, attracting over one million visitors each year. That’s an average of nearly three thousand tourists walking and hiking in El Yunque every day, and more than eighty thousand each month. Yet apparently not a single tourist reported seeing, photographing, or being attacked by a chupacabra (nor, to my knowledge, finding the alleged chupacabra victim carcasses that would presumably litter the rainforest floor). It beggars belief to think that one or more chupacabras managed to live for years in such a heavily traveled area without ever being discovered or leaving traces of their existence. (The top-secret genetics lab where the chupacabra was said to have been created has never been found either.) Legends (and particularly urban legends) incorporate regionally specific and accurate place names as they evolve. For example a generic story about a woman’s tragic suicide, or the spot of a gang initiation attack, will change from place to place. The details in each local version will include specific actual locations and even reference real historical figures. This process lends credibility to the stories and legends, making them more salient and likely to be shared. Hurricane Hugo was only one of several factors that helped spawn the chupacabra legend, but the storm played a key role in the creature’s pseudohistorical folklore, the public’s understanding of where the creature came from, and why it suddenly appeared in Puerto Rico. 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 decades-old murder in one of the strangest clown-related mysteries in history may have been solved. I wrote about this odd story in my book Bad Clowns.... It happened in West Palm Beach in the spring of 1990 when a woman named Marlene Warren heard a knock on her door at 10:45 in the morning on May 26. She opened the door to find a whitefaced clown wearing a bright red nose and an orange wig. The clown greeted Warren with a wordless nod and handed her a basket of red and white carnations, along with two silver balloons. As Warren looked down at the gifts she was receiving, the clown pulled out a gun and shot her once point-blank in the mouth with either a .38 or a .357. According to Warren’s son Joseph, who saw the shooting, the clown had brown eyes and wore Army boots. The clown escaped in a white Chrysler LeBaron, which was later reported stolen and discovered abandoned. Warren died two days later in the hospital. Detectives at the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office suspected her estranged husband Michael Warren of plotting the murder, along with a brown-eyed, brown-haired woman who worked for him repossessing cars for Mr. Warren’s auto dealership. According to The Gainesville Sun, “A woman matching the description of Sheila Keen, 27, bought a clown costume, makeup, an orange wig and a red clown nose two days before the murder, according to two West Palm Beach costume store clerks who tentatively identified Keen’s photo from police files. Then, on the morning of the murder, a woman fitting Keen’s description purchased two balloons and a floral arrangement at a Publix supermarket less than a mile from Keen’s apartment, according to sheriff’s documents... The balloons and flowers match those left at the scene of the murder, according to the documents. Neighbors at Keen’s apartment complex in suburban West Palm Beach said they frequently spotted Michael Warren, the dead woman’s husband, at the complex, according to police reports.” Both Mr. Warren and Keen denied any involvement, either romantically with each other or in the death of Warren’s wife. Keen claimed that she was out looking for cars to repossess at the time Mrs. Warren was shot. News of the killer clown shook the West Palm Beach community, and a news report dated a month after the shooting noted that “local adults and children are now apprehensive of businesses that employ [clowns]. ‘Unfortunately, children are only hearing the negative side,’ said Yvonne (Sunshine the Clown) Zarza, owner of Balloons Above the Palm Beaches. ‘Normally, it’s Don’t go near a stranger. Now parents are saying, Don’t go near clowns.’” Warren stood trial in 1992 on 66 criminal counts of fraud, racketeering, and grand theft related to his business; on August 8 of that year he was convicted on over three dozen counts of fraud, grand theft, and petty theft. For decades no one was arrested or charged in the death, but earlier this week that changed: According to CBS News, “Police in Florida say they've arrested a woman accused of dressing up like a clown 27 years ago and fatally shooting the wife of her future husband. A Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office news release says 54-year-old Sheila Keen Warren was arrested Tuesday in Virginia. A Florida grand jury recently indicted her on a first-degree murder charge.” News reports suggest that DNA evidence led to Mrs. Warren’s arrest, though it’s not clear what items were recovered at the crime scene that would implicate Warren. 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 new show is out! Episode 25: Conspiracy Theories THEY Don’t Want You to Know About (released September 28, 2017) Ben ruminates on the blowup over Trump’s NFL tweets this week, wondering why so many people (especially Trump’s critics) seem to give him more power by fueling the outrage machine, thus distracting themselves from the core issues. Owing to Trump’s clear track record of lies, exaggerations, contradictions, and impulse thoughts, perhaps the best skeptical approach is to not give his tweets any weight at all—as they do not represent legislative action, the views of most of America, or even, perhaps, Trump’s core values (if he has any). Then, for their main topic, the guys delve into conspiratorial thinking: from medieval witch hunts to the Illuminati. What factors make people more prone to fall into believing conspiracies, and what are some hallmarks of a typical conspiracy theory? Why do proponents doubt some things so strongly but swallow every point made in an amateur Youtube video? It’s also valuable to examine what exactly is taken as evidence—and if, for argument’s sake, that “evidence” is true: does it really prove the theory put forth or is it simply one small strange thing likely meaning nothing? Finally, we run through a quick history of disseminating information, from the rise of the printing press to modern day. Cranks with conspiracy notions have gone from buying back-of-magazine ads and Xeroxing pamphlets (and in one case cementing tiles down on East Coast streets) to putting up websites and starting podcasts—and, alarmingly, being interviewed by mainstream journalists and quoted by the President of the United States. Squaring the Strange brings evidence-based analysis and commentary to a wide variety of topics, ranging from the paranormal to the political. Investigating ghosts. Debunking conspiracies. Dodging chupacabras. If a claim seems strange, Ben and Pascual will try to square it with the facts. Squaring the Strange is supported in part by the Center for Inquiry, a non-profit educational organization whose Mission Statement reads in part, “At the Center for Inquiry, we believe that evidence-based reasoning, in which humans work together to address common concerns, is critical for modern world civilization. Moreover, unlike many other institutions, we maintain that scientific methods and reasoning should be utilized in examining the claims of both pseudoscience and religion. We reject mysticism and blind faith. No topic should be placed off limits to scrutiny.” Listen and subscribe 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 psychic tells a TV show where to find the remains of a young mother who went missing four years ago; they go to where her psychic visions claimed the victim was and found bones. The police were called and the psychic claimed victory... until the bones were identified by scientists as non-human. If I had time/energy I'd contact the "psychic" and ask for an explanation, why she cruelly raised the hopes of the missing woman's family members to gain publicity for herself. 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!