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!
That time I explained why Obama could not be both Muslim AND the Antichrist: "According to Scripture, the Antichrist will try to deceive the public by claiming to work on God's behalf. He will be pretending to do God's work while instead furthering his own diabolical agenda. But President Obama has never implicitly nor explicitly claimed to God's work; his presidency has been fairly secular. George W. Bush, on the other hand, repeatedly invoked God and claimed that God wanted him to be president.... 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!
The publisher of my book "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries" tells me that orders for that book have shot up 60% in the past few weeks, and wondered why. Then I remembered that several college and university professors use my book as a classroom text. Thanks to all those teachers for using my work to spread critical thinking to students! 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 will be speaking at Bubonicon, New Mexico’s premiere fantasy/sci fi convention; on Friday night August 25 I will be giving a presentation on “New Mexico’s UFO Conspiracies” and handing out sample issues of Skeptical Inquirer. We will also be recording an episode of Squaring the Strange, so look for my co-hosts Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward! This year's Bubonicon 49 runs August 25-27, and the theme is time travel. There's plenty of authors, experts, and costumed fun. Come check it out! 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!
Several of my Skeptical Inquirer articles are referenced in the new Indiana University Press book UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens: What Science Says, by Don Prothero and Tim Callahan, with a foreword by Michael Shermer (you can see the book HERE). I can't want to read it! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
I'm quoted in the August 2017 Journal of Law and Social Deviance on the topic of evil clowns, which was the topic of a popular CSI Special Report last year. You can read the law journal article HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
The 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. I wrote an in-depth analysis of the show; here's an excerpt: 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. To be clear, this idea is not new and is only one of many theories put forth over the years—and widely rejected for lack of evidence. While Earhart’s precise fate remains unknown, the most widely accepted explanation is also the most mundane: they ran out of fuel and their plane crashed into the vast Pacific Ocean. In an effort to breathe life (and ratings) into a theory heavy on speculation but light on evidence, the History Channel offered what they claimed was something akin to a smoking gun: a blurry photograph of what might or might not be Earhart and Noonan. Doubts were raised about that explanation before the show aired and quickly escalated afterward. As National Geographic explained, “New evidence indicates that the photograph was published in a 1935 Japanese-language travelogue about the islands of the South Pacific. As Japanese military history blogger Kota Yamano noted in a July 9 post, he found the book after searching the National Diet Library, Japan’s national library, using the term ‘Jaluit Atoll,’ the location featured in the photograph.” Instead of being hidden in a secret archive deep in the guarded National Security vaults, the image popped up on the first page of search results: “His search query turned up the travelogue, The Ocean's ‘Lifeline’: The Condition of Our South Seas, which features the ‘Earhart’ photograph on page 44. One translation of the caption describes a lively port that regularly hosted schooner races—with no mention of Earhart or Noonan to be found. Page 113 of the book indicates that the travelogue was published in October 1935.” This of course poses a problem because the photo was published two years before Earhart’s final flight. It’s almost certainly not Earhart but even if it was, it has nothing to do with her disappearance. Displaying keen investigative acumen, Yamano said in an interview “I find it strange that the documentary makers didn’t confirm the date of the photograph or the publication in which it originally appeared. That’s the first thing they should have done.” To be fair, the entire show does not stand or fall on the photograph’s authenticity. The show’s producers likely knew that the photo itself might not be entirely convincing and suggested that there was hard forensic evidence to support the theory: bones found on the island where Earhart supposedly died were to be subjected to genetic testing and compared to Earhart’s known relatives to prove she was on the island. As Eve Siebert noted on the July 12 episode of The Virtual Skeptics podcast, “I’m assuming that this did not actually happen because if they were able to identify bones buried on Saipan identified as Earhart’s, they really buried the lede by focusing on that blurry photograph.” The History Channel promised viewers in a July 9 tweet that “After tonight, the story of Amelia Earhart will no longer have a question mark.” This prediction turned out to be prophetic; indeed, the single question mark has since been replaced by dozens of question marks—ranging from the integrity of the History Channel to the competence of its on-air researchers. (If it’s any consolation, the recent show almost certainly supplants a 2012 show that Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning called “one of the worst examples of television promoting pseudohistory.”) 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'm quoted in a new article about the "Blue Whale game" scare.: On the surface, Blue Whale has all the hallmarks of a moral panic similar to other "challenges" that often scared parents, such as the choking game, pharma parties, and the fire challenge. All of these were cases where parents, local authorities, and click-hungry media outlets took either isolated incidents or rumors and turned them into full blown scares, no matter how many people were actually doing them. Indeed, prominent skeptic Benjamin Radford wrote that Blue Whale shares many traits with classic moral panics, including "modern technology and seemingly benign personal devices as posing hidden dangers to children and teens, the threat [of] some influential evil stranger who manipulates the innocent, and an element of conspiracy theory." There's also more on this in a recent episode of Squaring the Strange.... 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 blog is part of a series I've titled "Unco Junto" (after the discussion clubs founded by Benjamin Franklin) in which I offer an introductory topic essay and a handful of commenters are invited to respond in any way they see fit. The goal is to provide a forum for long-form--and hopefully provocative--analysis in a media often dominated by superficial sound bites. The entry examines the nature of hypocrisy. 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 find it HERE! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
In case you missed it, this week on Squaring the Strange Pascual and I discuss the value of being pedantic. I discuss some new developments in the "Blue Whale" urban legend/moral panic, and Pascual takes some sketchy claims about sunscreen and cancer to task. As always, Celestia drops in for another awesome fortune cookie. For our Patrons, we've included a bonus segment at the end of the episode about the recent Amelia Earhart "lost evidence." 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!
I've been asked to write an entry for an upcoming pop culture/academic book on aspects of the apocalypse. The subject: One of my favorite movies of the 1980s: "The Road Warrior." More details as they become available! 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 a guest on "StarTalk Radio" with Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, and the irrepressible Seth Shostak! Topics included UFOs, conspiracy theories, and whether a shortage of cow anuses on other planets is the cause of mysterious cattle mutilations. 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!
I'm quoted in "The Christian Post" about an article I wrote on the "Blue Whale Game" suicide rumor/urban legend/moral panic... 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!
The new episode of Squaring the Strange, in which special guest Celestia N. Ward joins Pascual and I to talk about gambling superstitions, is out! Now in English, for your enhanced listening pleasure! You can hear it HERE, or you can here it HEAR. 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!
Following up on my book Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore, I have occasionally written about varied speculativepseudohistories of the chupacabra, and indeed the subject is ripe for conjecture. In a blog titled "The Secret Prehistory of the Chupacabra," Jason Colavito writes that "the chupacabra name derives from 2,300 years of European and American traditions about nocturnal creatures that prey on livestock. And it all started with a small, completely harmless little bird." Colavito notes, correctly in my estimation, that "The first chupacabra was not a monster, nor was it a vampire. Originally, the goatsucker was so named not because the creature sucked blood like a vampire but because it sucked milk directly from the teat. The legend originates in a story told about the European nightjar (genus Caprimulgus), a smallish, nocturnal, and insectivorous bird that inexplicably developed a bad reputation, earning it the name ‘goatsucker.' The first author to record this story is Aristotle, in his History of Animals, written around 350 BCE." So far so good; we agree that a small bird named chupacabra--like a great many birds around the world including owls, ravens, doves, etc.--had folkloric associations, in this case that it suckled goat milk. Where we part ways is in seeing clear links between the subject of my book and the bird of lore. I briefly discuss the goatsucker bird in the first chapter of my book (see page 4). The chupacabra monster is very specifically a vampire: it sucks blood from its victims. The "goat sucker" bird that shares its name instead sucks milk from goats, which is a different theme--there are few reports of surviving chupacabra victims, as the monster's actions are typically said to be lethal. Also the word chupacabra (as specifically describing the subject of my book) was, from all indications referred specifically to rumors of goats being killed and drained of blood in rural Puerto Rico, not to the milk-drinking whippoorwill bird. The best evidence is that the word chupacabra was first coined by San Juan-based radio deejay Silverio Pérez in late 1995 live while commenting on then-circulating rumors and tabloid stories about strange attacks on the island. I have been unable to find any pre-1995 references to a blood-sucking chupacabra in Puerto Rico or anywhere else--despite a standing $1,000 reward for any verifiable, published pre-1990s reference to a vampiric chupacabra--and Colavito offers none. Colavito does an admirable job of tracing the linguistic lineage: "The name, in its now-obsolete Spanish form chotacabra, was in common use in Spanish America (including Puerto Rico) from at least the nineteenth century (and probably many centuries earlier), changing to chupacabra in the twentieth century when the older Spanish verb chotar (to suck) became obsolete and gave way to the newer synonym chupar... the nightjar is native to Puerto Rico, and I have been able to find printed references to the bird on the island as ‘chotacabra' dating back to at least 1948....The change from the obsolete form chotacabra to the modern form chupacabra, reflecting changes in colloquial Spanish, masked the connection, leading to recent claims that the word did not exist prior to 1995." Colavito does not account for (or glosses over) the notable absence of chupacabra (as referring to the now-familiar vampiric monster, not the bird) between the time that "chotar" became "chupar" and the eve of this century. You can read the rest HERE. And Colavito's response is 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 was recently interviewed for Vice media’s popular Motherboard site about my investigation into the 1997 Pokemon seizure mass hysteria incident, which was published both in the Southern Medical Journal and also in Skeptical Inquirer magazine sixteen years ago this month (May/June 2001). The series is titled “Science Solved It!” and the interview can be heard 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 was recently interviewed for Voice of Islam’s Drivetime radio show, discussing Orwell’s book 1984 and its relevance to 2017. The topics ranged from Big Brother mass surveillance, concerns about public privacy, and the use of doublespeak in politics (including under the current U.S. president). 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, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
I was recently interviewed about George Orwell's book 1984 and its relevance to today's world, including concerns over Big Brother, privacy, and "doublespeak." You can hear the show at this link (my segment starts around the 9 minute mark), and we will also be touching on this topic in a future episode of Squaring the Strange, so be sure to listen!
A new podcast cohosted by Pascual Romero and myself, Squaring the Strange brings evidence-based analysis and commentary to a wide variety of topics, ranging from the paranormal to the political, the mysterious to the mundane. Investigating ghosts. Debunking conspiracies. Tracking chupacabras. Calling shenanigans where appropriate.... If a claim seems strange, we will try to square it with the facts. Not just another “skeptical” podcast talking about current events, Squaring the Strange goes deeper. It’s a show about critical thinking and evidence-based analysis, using science and logic to examine the world around us. Listeners will learn about psychology, myths, hoaxes, folklore, science, and all the things that add up to strange experiences—both real and unreal. The show is produced by Pascual Romero, with Celestia Ward as content producer and featuring me as understudy to the assistant co-associate content producer. You can listen to Squaring the Strange on iTunes and find us on Facebook, Twitter (at @SquaringStrange), and elsewhere on social media. The program is 100% volunteer; if you’d like to help support Squaring the Strange, please consider contributing to our Patreon account or leave us a review! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
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.
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.