Apr 152017
 

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

 

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

Apr 102017
 

A mysterious 310-foot-diameter crop circle that appeared in a farmer’s barley field in Chualar, Calif., as 2013 ended puzzled the public for more than a week. Echoing the sentiments of many, the field’s owner told CNN, “To be that intricate in design, it kind of baffles me as to how that was done.”Videos and photos of it went viral, and though some dismissed the crop circle as a hoax, others weren’t so sure. Some crop-circle experts wrote in-depth analyses that claimed to cleverly decode hidden meanings in the pattern, including that a bright comet would appear in the sky later in 2014…

 

You can read the whole story HERE. 

 

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

Apr 052017
 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Mar 152017
 

For centuries rumors circulated about an ancient lost city—not Atlantis but a “White City” of immense wealth hidden in the Honduran jungles of Central America. Myths of treasure and every imaginable curse run rampant—but the fact that the city existed somewhere out in the jungles was widely accepted by Hondurans.

I attended a talk by Doug Preston, about his research and new book The Lost City of the Monkey God—at Albuquerque’s historic KiMo theater, whose resident ghost I investigated and debunked several years ago (as described in the first chapter of my book Mysterious New Mexico)—and followed up with a telephone interview, excerpted here.

Radford: You seem to have a knack for finding yourself in the middle of fascinating mysteries and real-life adventures, between the deadly jungles of The Lost City and The Monster of Florence, where you’re tangling with a serial killer. Most writers lead a fairly sedentary life—why are you different?

Preston: “Well I think it’s probably a little bit of stupidity there [laughing]. I find myself falling into my own stories, like with The Monster of Florence I started off thinking I was writing a story about these long-ago crimes in Florence, these serial killings, but all of a sudden we [Preston and his co-author Mario Spezi] got pulled in by the police investigation, and pretty soon I was being interrogated as a suspect… it was really crazy.”

 

Radford: As you talk about in the book, finding the Lost City came at a great cost, both in terms of the expedition, your health, and other factors. Can you talk about what went into finding it?

Preston: “The legend of the Lost City did talk about the city being cursed, that all who went in there would become sick and die, and so forth. And of course I completely dismissed those legends. Well it turns out that part of the legend is kind of based on the truth, and that is that the valley is a hotzone of disease, and two-thirds of the expedition came down with this really serious tropical disease called mucocutaneous leishmaniasis. It’s incurable, I’ll have it for the rest of my life, and it’s really quite an awful disease. But I’m getting excellent treatment.”

 

Radford: You talk about some of the myths and legends surrounding the city; where did they come from?

Preston: “These legends and stories really date back about 500 years to the time of Cortez. He wrote a famous letter in 1526 while he was in Honduras to the emperor Charles V and reported that he’d heard very reliable information of a wonderful and rich civilization in the interior of Honduras, very wealthy and rich an advanced culture, and ever since then there have been legends and stories about this lost city, sometimes called the White City, Ciudad Blanca, sometimes called the Lost City of the Monkey God, somewhere in these mountains. A number of people have looked for it, and some have actually died in the search…Like most legends, it’s based on the truth, it’s based on the fact that there was a great civilization in this area that actually built more than one city.”

 

Radford: Let me touch on some of the challenges to writers and science popularizers when reporting a story such as this. There’s always a tension between wanting to communicate complex ideas in science, anthropology, archaeology, and so on to the public, but not overly sensationalize them. You touch on that in your book, expressing a bit of reluctance about calling it a “lost city” in the vein of Indiana Jones, but in the end you have to get people’s attention.

Preston: “Well, this is something that you as a science journalist know about very well… As you mentioned, you have to strike a balance between writing a heavy and scientific tome which nobody will read except scientists, or going too much in the other direction and writing something that’s so frivolous and non-factual that you’ve really done a very great disservice to the science. I try to occupy the middle ground. Everything in the book is accurate, nothing is made up, everything has been very carefully vetted—but it is exciting, this is a sensational discovery…. As for using language like the ‘lost city,’ well it is a city and it is lost! I know some archaeologists have said, ‘Oh, that’s just Indiana Jones hype’ but in fact it isn’t hype. It is actually real and it is quite exciting, and I want to convey that excitement to the reader without burdening them with a lot of scientific jargon.”

 

Read the rest of the interview HERE.

 

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

Mar 052017
 

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

 

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

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

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

The Abduction of Alyssa Langille

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feb 282017
 

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

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Feb 222017
 

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

 

Bad Clowns FT review

Jan 232017
 

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

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

 

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

Jan 102017
 

A crowdfunding project has helped launch a new magazine, Kazoo, to empower girls and (in part) help steer them toward STEM careers. Kazoo focuses on girls and women, according to its website: “All of our stories are either developed or inspired by top female artists, explorers, scientists, chefs, athletes, activists, writers and others. Regular features include: science experiments; comics; art projects; recipes; interviews with inspiring women from Olympic athletes to astronauts; and fun activities, like secret codes, jokes, mazes, search-and-finds and more…. It will feature some of the most powerful and inspirational women in their fields, thus giving girls a more well-rounded sense of the world and the possibilities within it.”kazoo

Touted as “a magazine for girls who aren’t afraid to make some noise,” the website notes, Kazoo isn’t just for girls: boys would “probably love it, too. After all, there’s no such thing as say, girls’ science and boys’ science, or girls’ art and boys’ art. Science is science and art is art, of course. But most media that cover similar topics use boys as the default target audience, while girls are left with the burden of just ‘putting themselves in the story.’”

 

Founder Erin Bried explains that she and her five-year-old daughter were looking for a magazine they could enjoy together but were dissatisfied with what was available. Bried drew upon nearly twenty years of experience in high profile magazine including Self and Glamour, and in April 2016 launched a Kickstarter campaign “with hopes that other people would also be as interested in a magazine that doesn’t tell girls how to look or act, but instead inspires them to be strong, smart, fierce and, above all, true to themselves. Within 30 days, Kazoo became the most successful journalism campaign in crowdfunding history.” (Full disclosure: I contributed to Kazoo’s campaign.)

 

The theme of Kazoo’s most recent issue (Winter 2016/2017) is architecture, and features blueprints for making a snow fort and a bridge made of candy; a comic about the Brooklyn Bridge, a city scavenger hunt, ice science experiments, a banana bread recipe, and more. Kazoo, which carries no advertising, is only available in screen-free print form (since its pages contain art projects and puzzles) and costs $50 per year for four issues; subscriptions are available HERE.

 

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

Dec 302016
 

My book “Bad Clowns” was recently mentioned in the London Review of Books, and quoted in this piece on internet trolls…. you can read the piece HERE.

 

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

Dec 212016
 

What do Bob Dylan, Shakespeare, Eminem, Donald Trump, Sartre, Eazy-E, Amy Schumer, Roger Waters, and Simone de Beauvoir have in common? They’re all mentioned in my new Unco Junto blog on the subject of authenticity, with contributions by David Koepsell, Eve Siebert, and Bob Blaskiewicz….

 

Some have described authenticity (or lack thereof) as an important element in the current presidential race, and a characteristic that divides Donald Trump from Hillary Clinton.

The New York Times noted that “Trump… has polled as one of the most authentic candidates in this election, despite statements and behavior that might also be called brazenly inconsistent. In fact, his authenticity problem looks like the opposite of Clinton’s: Nervous Republican politicians have been trying to suggest that what they themselves call his ‘racist’ invective is merely for show. In other words, Trump’s establishment supporters seem to be hoping that his authenticity is the expedient work of a conniving opportunist. The words ‘authentic’ and ‘authenticity’ derive from the Greek ‘authentes,’ a word that can denote ‘one who acts with authority’ or ‘made by one’s own hand’…. For a long time, Americans decided that the most authentic politicians were the most likable ones. This method of appraisal wasn’t entirely frivolous. Samuel L. Popkin, the author of The Candidate, says that the interest in the personal qualities of politicians stems from legitimate concerns in a diverse democracy: ‘Are you real or not? Because you’re not like me.’ Officeholders end up having to make decisions in unforeseen situations, so we gauge their judgment based on how much we like and trust them.”

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.

Dec 052016
 

“We seek evidence that confirms our pre-existing psychological biases and ignore or downplay evidence that does not. It’s undeniable that many racists and sexists supported Trump, but the fact that Trump was elected does not logically imply that many or most Americans share his views, and decrying that “The racists won” or “Misogyny won” is misguided, inaccurate, divisive, and perhaps most of all, unhelpful in moving forward.”

(…)

“We can shake our heads and wonder why so many Americans fell for it this election, but in fact there’s little mystery. This implicit idea that America is somehow better or more enlightened than other countries is not only historically wrong but feeds on and fuels the same sentiment that Trump tapped into. If you harbor some jingoistic notion of American voter superiority, then you not only have a poor grasp of psychology and political history, but you also share more in common with Trump than you realize.”

(…)

“As Steven Pinker noted in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, overall things are getting better for the world, not worse, by many measures including poverty, crime, warfare, education, and sexism. Michael Shermer, in his book The Moral Arc, extends that argument and discusses moral progress as well; if he’s right then Trump is on the losing side of history anyway.”

You can read the rest HERE. 

Nov 252016
 

In case you missed my recent appearance on the “Big Picture Science” show talking about aliens and UFOs, it’s HERE!

 

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

Nov 232016
 

In my latest blog I and three guests examine the nature of “authenticity,” which played a role in Donald Trump’s election. But what is authenticity, and why do we value it?

The New York Times noted that “Trump… has polled as one of the most authentic candidates in this election, despite statements and behavior that might also be called brazenly inconsistent. In fact, his authenticity problem looks like the opposite of Clinton’s: Nervous Republican politicians have been trying to suggest that what they themselves call his ‘racist’ invective is merely for show. In other words, Trump’s establishment supporters seem to be hoping that his authenticity is the expedient work of a conniving opportunist. The words ‘authentic’ and ‘authenticity’ derive from the Greek ‘authentes,’ a word that can denote ‘one who acts with authority’ or ‘made by one’s own hand’…. For a long time, Americans decided that the most authentic politicians were the most likable ones. This method of appraisal wasn’t entirely frivolous…”

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.

Nov 082016
 

Reporter Mike Balsamo has an error in his Associated Press story about clowns: Aurora Colo. theater shooter James Holmes did not in fact dress up as the Joker during his attack (as I explain in my “Bad Clowns” book, pp. 115-119 and also in this CFI blog).

 

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There are other errors as well, including that The Joker’s hair is green, not red, and it refers to “working clown John Wayne Gacy.” Gacy did not work as a clown, he was a building contractor who volunteered as a clown on a few occasions but was not a professional clown.

 

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

Oct 302016
 

Halloween is just around the corner, 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.

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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 session.

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 have banned scary clown costumes and masks this 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.

 

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

Oct 132016
 

I was recently interviewed by a Spanish journalist about the clown scares sweeping the country; here’s an excerpt:

Q: What is your opinion on the recent sightings of terrifying clowns in the United States and other countries? 

A: The scary clown panic has spread across the country to dozens of states and even internationally, fueled by hoaxes, copycats, pranksters, rumors, and social media. The creepy clown panic became so serious that it was addressed in an October 4 White House briefing!

Q: Why is this phenomenon occurring right now?

A: There are several reasons why this scare clown panic is happening now. The most important is probably the effect of social media. People see these scary/funny clown photos on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. and get inspired to dress as a clown and participate in the scares. Plus, of course, the news media is reporting these stories a lot.
Q: What could be the motivation of those people who dress as clowns to scare people?

A: Most of them are doing it for fun and attention, they want to make the news—but do it safely and anonymously, without facing any consequences. Even if the police come, there is very little they can do since dressing as a clown is not illegal. There are a handful of reports of minor injuries, but nothing serious, no abductions or murders by these hoaxers. After all, if you really want to assault or injure somebody, you don’t need to dress as a clown to do it!
Q: According to your book Bad Clowns, why is the clown in all societies and cultures?

A: The clown character, historically and culturally, has always been an ambiguous person—neither good nor bad, but sometimes either or both. The clown is a trickster figure, as is the Devil, of course, so there has always been an element of the unexpected, the scary or threatening in the clown. But the type of clown most people are familiar with these days is of course the good, happy clown. So these scary clowns subvert that idea, and that’s one reason they are so interesting and compelling.
Q: According to your book, why are many people afraid of clowns?

A: There are several reasons why people are scared of clowns, but one is that clowns are masked, and people are uneasy around masked strangers—for obvious reasons! Plus, the makeup is often garish and exaggerated, which looks okay from a distance (for example from the seats in a circus), but looks scary close up.

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Sep 182016
 

Bad Clowns, by Benjamin Radford, blends humor, investigation, and scholarship to reveal what is behind the clown’s dark smile. This book describes the history of bad clowns, why clowns go bad, and why many people fear them. Going beyond familiar clowns such as the Joker, Krusty, John Wayne Gacy, and Stephen King’s Pennywise, it also features bizarre, lesser-known stories of weird clown antics including Bozo obscenity, Ronald McDonald haters, killer clowns, phantom-clown abductors, evil-clown panics, sex clowns, carnival clowns, troll clowns, and much more.

 

For my history of evil clowns, see my Utne piece HERE. 

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

Sep 162016
 

Earlier this week a story spread widely on social media about an Alabama pastor, Allen Joyner, who allegedly told a high school football game crowd he was announcing for that people who don’t stand for the national anthem should be killed.

In a Facebook post, a woman named Denise Crowley-Whitfield wrote “the announcer audibly spoke the words that millions of Americans are thinking. He said, ‘If you don’t want to stand for the National Anthem, you can line up over there by the fence and let our military personnel that a few shots at you since they’re taking shots for you.'”

According to Crowley-Whitfield, his statement was greeted with wild applause from the crowd at McKenzie High School, much to the horror of people who believe in the First Amendment and support NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s recent decision not to stand for the anthem. It was a ready-made viral outrage story highlighting religious bigotry and misplaced patriotism.

The pastor, however, claims he was misquoted… You can read the whole story HERE.

 

 

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

Sep 102016
 

I got a Google Scholar alert telling me that my work has been cited in a research paper titled “Human Error: Crucial Failure in Nuclear Accidents.” As an undergraduate in UNM’s General Honors program, I wrote an award-winning essay analyzing the role of human error in the space shuttle Challenger accident and the Chernobyl nuclear accident (both in 1986). In sum, though both were widely considered technological failures, they were actually caused by human error and failure to follow safety procedures.

 

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

Sep 082016
 

I was a guest last month at New Mexico’s premiere science fiction and fantasy convention, Bubonicon. I gave a talk titled Contacting the Dead: Séances From the Victorian Era To Modern Times, described below

Though TV shows like Ghost Hunters have raised the profile of ghost hunting, there’s nothing new about seeking out spirits of the dead. For millennia people have tried to communicate with the deceased, using everything from chalkboards to Ouija boards to EVP (electronic voice phenomena). Focusing on the 1800s through today—including early mediums, the Spiritualist movement, and files from England’s Society for Psychical Research—writer and investigator Ben Radford discusses the theories and techniques behind attempts to speak to the dead. Fans of SF, fantasy, horror, and occult history will enjoy this informative and entertaining historical look at a century and a half of attempts to contact the afterlife.

Meeting of the Bens

Meeting of the Bens

At the autographing session I was seated next to 6-time Hugo Award winning sci-fi writer Ben Bova. We chatted for about 15 minutes; he was engaging and delightful, recounting stories of working with his friends Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and other greats of the golden age of sci-fi. Fans brought piles of his books and old magazines for him to autograph. I joked with him that having to sign so much was a penalty for being prolific and said I’d only written nine books (compared to his hundreds of credits) and he encouragingly replied, “That’s nine more than most people.”

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

Sep 062016
 

A few thoughts on the recent furor over a pro football player refusing to stand for the National Anthem. I couldn’t care less what Colin Kaepernick does and don’t question his right to protest as he sees fit. But I do find it bizarre that he believes that standing for the anthem somehow implies that he personally and necessarily shows pride in the flag, the country, or its character, for the same reason that I don’t believe that when people recite the Pledge of Allegiance they truly think or believe that by doing so, they are offering their “allegiance” to a flag or the country for which it stands. Children and adults who recite the Pledge don’t—either implicitly or explicitly—personally endorse the statement affirming that America actually provides “liberty and justice for all,” nor do they assert that our nation is indivisible (or, for that matter, that it exists under the Christian god).

Instead, like the National Anthem, it’s a custom largely devoid of significance; it’s not actually an oath of fealty or assertion of support from a citizen to a state. “This country stands for freedom, liberty, justice for all—and it’s not happening for all right now,” Kaepernick said—apparently lamenting that an unachievable, aspirational statement had not come to fruition in the real world. 

I’m fine with his protest, and my issue has nothing to do with disrespecting the country or the flag but instead the strange premise that standing for the anthem implies personally endorsing its content or asserting that the country’s ideals are being met; I’ve never heard that before, and don’t know of any logical basis for that assumption. I’ve also not seen anyone explain this reasoning, but will be curious to see if anyone does.

Sep 022016
 

Creepy clowns have recently been reported in Greenville, S.C., allegedly luring children into the woods behind a block of apartments. It’s scary and alarming — but whether they’re real is another matter. Most of the handful of reports are from children, though a few are from adults. No one has actually been harmed or even touched. The children believe the clowns live in a house located near a pond at the end of a trail in the woods, though when police investigated they saw no signs of suspicious activity or anyone dressed as a clown….

You can read the rest of the story HERE. 

And, of course, you can read more about this mysterious menace in my new book Bad Clowns!

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

Aug 152016
 

My article on Seeker (formerly Discovery News) is about the tragic legacy of fake bomb detectors in Iraq… check it out! After years of equipping important security checkpoints throughout Iraq with non-functioning bomb detectors, the Iraqi government has finally banned their use… 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.

Aug 102016
 

 

News stories last week have challenged the conventional wisdom dispensed by dentists for decades: that flossing your teeth regularly helps prevent tooth decay and gum disease. But that’s not quite accurate. My article explaining why is HERE! 

 

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

Aug 082016
 

My recent article for Seeker (formerly Discovery News) is about the politics of vaccinations…

 

In medicine the benefits of childhood vaccination are widely accepted. The evidence is clear and overwhelming: vaccines do not cause autism (or any other condition), and the benefits of preventing severe diseases far outweigh the small risks of side effects. This is non-controversial, and vaccination is a staple of preventive medicine worldwide.

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.

Jul 282016
 

My new article on a viral ghost photo claimed to show an accident victim’s soul leaving his body is now out:

A photo taken at the scene of a fatal motorcycle crash in Kentucky has gone viral, with many claiming they can see the accident victim’s spirit leaving his body. The image, showing what seems to be a gray or white vertical form in the air above two ambulances, was photographed and shared on social media by Kentucky resident Saul Vazquez….

You can read the whole piece HERE. 

 

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

Jul 252016
 

About three or four times each year I get an e-mail (or, more rarely, a phone call or handwritten letter in block writing) from someone who wants me to read and carefully evaluate their amazing manifesto, usually involving some quasi-mystical “scientific” theory they’ve been working on for years (or decades). They are usually sincere, self-taught laypeople with no real academic education who are sure they’ve figured out universal truths that mainstream scientists are too blind to see, and say that the nuances of their genius can only be revealed by reading 300+ pages of their explanations and diagrams. I usually ignore them but I recently skimmed one and replied…

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

Jul 082016
 

So this is cool: I’m quoted in a new Yahoo News piece on the mystery of spontaneous human combustion; 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.

Jun 282016
 

It turns out that the widely-shared claims that gays couldn’t donate badly-needed blood for victims of the Orlando shootings was wrong, on at least two key points. Rumors and misinformation always circulate soon after tragedies, and it’s unfortunate. People need accurate, reliable information. You can read my article HERE.

 

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

Jun 252016
 

According to Google’s Scholar Alert (or in my case “Scholar” alert), my work is referenced in the new book “Policing and Social Media: Social Control in an Era of New Media.” Looks like a pricey textbook, but maybe I’ll see it some time…

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

Jun 232016
 

A standup comic doing explicitly skeptical material on a regular basis as part of his act is unusual– and I interviewed him about his career. 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.

Jun 212016
 

The new horror film The Conjuring 2 is, like its predecessor, supposedly based on the “true case files of Ed and Lorraine Warren,” a real-life married pair of self-styled demonologists involved (however peripherally) in several high-profile haunted house reports, mostly in the 1970s and 1980s. It reunites writer/director James Wan with Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, reprising their roles as Ed and Lorraine Warren, respectively.

The first Conjuring film was set at a rural Rhode Island farmhouse in 1971, but this new film begins with a wholly unrelated–and far more famous–case, that of murderer Butch DeFeo who killed his family in their Amityville, New York, home. The killings really happened, and DeFeo’s defense lawyer famously tried to claim that DeFeo should be found not guilty because ghosts made him do it. The jury saw right through this flimsiest of Devil-made-me-do-it defenses but the Warrens did not, taking Butch DeFeo at his word that some unseen evil lurked in the house and compelled him to kill. The heavily fictionalized story was later made into a novel by Jay Anson and spawned a popular horror film franchise…. You can read the rest at my CFI blog HERE. 

 

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