Jun 242019
 

I've been seeing links to this news story widely shared over the past few months, about the U.S. voting against a U.N. resolution condemning Nazis. It's being shared as evidence of our current government supporting white supremacists-- except that it happened in 2016 under Obama.

Media literacy tip: Recycling old news on social media is often misleading.

Jun 212019
 

Soon after a university cheating scandal recently broke, a meme declared that “White privilege is REAL,” and gave three examples presumably illustrating that premise. The first shows a photo of actress Felicity Huffman and states that “Feds will seek 4 months jail time for Felicity Huffman for bribing her daughter into college.” This is contrasted with two photos of African-American women, captioned with “Tanya McDowell got 12 years for sending her son to the wrong school district,” and “Kelley Williams-Bolar got 3 years and $30K fine for sending her daughters to the wrong district.”

It seems to be a sobering and damning indictment of racism in the criminal justice system (leaving aside—as this meme does—the significant differences in the crimes the women are charged with, the laws and sentencing that vary by state, and so on). But is it true? To assess the accuracy of the claims, let’s take a closer look at the cases mentioned.

Kelley Williams-Bolar

In 2007 Ohio mother Kelley Williams-Bolar wanted her daughters to enroll in the nearby Copley-Fairlawn School District. The problem was that they lived in Akron, and her children were not eligible to attend school in Copley-Fairlawn. Still, the promise of a highly-ranked school district was strong, so she falsified her address on school documents so they could be enrolled.

When school officials confronted her about the discrepancy, she asked her father, who did live within the Copley-Fairlawn district, to file additional documents stating that her children lived with him. Because school districts are funded with money paid by taxpayers within each district for residents of that district, Williams-Bolar was accused of fraud and cheating the system—an accusation she did not deny.

When caught, school officials asked her to repay the district $30,000, the value of the back tuition that her daughters had unfairly received over the years. She refused, resulting in her arrest and two convictions for records tampering. Williams-Bolar did not “get three years and a $30,000 fine” for her actions; she was sentenced to ten days in county jail, and served nine of them.

Whatever one may think of Williams-Bolar’s motivations, it’s not clear why this would be an example to contrast with “white privilege.” Given the very real and rampant racism that exists against people of color, singling this case out as a textbook example of a black woman abused by the system is curious. This is not a case where the full force of the law came down on a hapless black woman who’d committed a minor infraction.

Local authorities gave her every opportunity to avoid trouble, and in fact Ohio governor John Kasich reduced her convictions from felonies to misdemeanors specifically so that they would not jeopardize her chances of getting a teaching license—something rarely done for anyone, black or white. When asked whether she felt that she’d been treated differently by the school district or police because of her race, Williams-Bolar replied, “I cannot answer that. I just know that my situation happened for what I did…. I don’t think it happened because of the color of my skin.”

Tanya McDowell

Tanya McDowell, a 34-year-old Bridgeport, Connecticut woman, chose to send her five year old son to Brookside Elementary School despite the fact that he was ineligible to attend. McDowell was in fact sentenced to prison—but not specifically for sending her kid to the wrong school. She was charged with first-degree larceny and several counts of selling crack cocaine and marijuana. As the judge in her case noted, “This case is about the convictions for the sale of narcotics to an undercover police officer. I think you understand that because that is really the essence of what has gotten you into the predicament you find yourself today.” Thus McDowell did not in fact “get 12 years for sending her son to the wrong school district.”

McDowell faced more than 15 years in prison if convicted on all counts. She was sentenced to twelve years on drug and larceny charges, which was suspended after she served five of them. She eventually served a total of three years after being released in 2017, two years early. The sentence was not imposed upon her by a judge or jury, but was instead the result of plea deal she and her lawyer agreed to.

As with Williams-Bolar, it’s hard to see McDowell’s case as an example of excessive and harsh penalties being levied on black women by a white-biased justice system whose only crime is wanting their children to get a good education. In both of these cases those in power demonstrated sympathy and compassion, and the women didn’t serve anywhere near what was claimed. One can argue that the sentences were too harsh to begin with, but Williams-Bolar serving nine days (instead of three years) and McDowell serving three years (of a twelve year sentence for charges including drug dealing)—don’t seem to clearly demonstrate black women being harshly penalized at every turn, nor ones that starkly contrast with Felicity Huffman’s white privilege.

As of today Huffman has not been sentenced, but if she is indeed given four months of jail time (as the prosecutors recommended) then Huffman’s sentence would actually be twelve times longer than that of Williams-Bolar. Huffman’s wealthy white privilege is certainly real, but in this case it didn’t seem to have helped reduce her sentence as compared to the poorer African-American women listed. Also, it’s important to note the Huffman, like McDowell, negotiated and accepted her sentence in a plea deal, and thus would get a lighter sentence than Williams-Bolar—or one of Huffman’s wealthy white female peers who may yet be found guilty in a criminal trial, such as actress Lori Loughlin. As noted, it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison to begin with; it would be more informative to see a black woman in Huffman’s situation or a white woman in Williams-Bolar’s.

Mistake or Misinformation?

The fact that a widely-shared meme has factual errors is of course hardly surprising. Memes—especially ones with a political or social justice agenda—are often shared precisely because they generate outrage. The question is not whether white privilege is real; the question is whether the two specific examples given in this meme are valid examples by which to measure white privilege.

But even that is a red herring. Once we’ve established that the meme is false, a more interesting and important question becomes who created it in the first place, and why. After all, the false information contained in the meme was not merely a typographical error or a mistake in a date. Accurate information about both the cases of Williams-Bolar and McDowell are easy to find online; in order to get the correct spellings of the womens’ names, their photos, number and gender of children, the specific sentences and so on, it’s virtually certain that whoever created the meme saw the accurate information but intentionally chose to mischaracterize it, in not one but both cases. This wasn’t a mistake, this was intentionally misleading information spread for a political purpose; in other words it’s propaganda.

The meme (at least in the versions I saw) was uncredited, as many memes are. It’s created to be indistinguishable from any number of similar social justice memes. (This could be avoided if social media platforms required that memes be identified, either in the image itself or via metadata, by who created them. People could still create anonymous memes, of course, but they could be prevented from being seen or shared.)

Of course few people bother to fact-check the information they see. That (often thankless) task is left to journalists, media literacy educators—and sometimes skeptics. As they say, a lie can go around the world while the truth is still putting its shoes on, and nowhere is that truer than on social media. Clicking a Like or Share can take less than one second; researching and fact-checking can take hours. This is why critical thinking and media literacy are so important; they help us recognize when we are being manipulated and tricked into spreading misinformation.

One prime suspect in this case, in my opinion, is the Kremlin. It may be part of a widespread and sustained misinformation campaign to sow racial division and discord among Americans. This campaign is has been widely reported, and in 2017 I investigated a case where Russian disinformation campaigns and trolls specifically used racially charged news stories as a pretext to share misinformation and conspiracy theories (see my Special Report ‘How Russian Conspiracies Taint Social Activist ‘News’’).

Russia has been subtly manipulating well-intentioned social activists to share their viral outrage and anti-U.S. propaganda, and their attempts have become even more obvious recently. In fact such disinformation likely helped elect Trump: Part of Putin’s goal was to sow distrust of the Obama administration and outrage people into demanding a change in leadership. That Russia attempted, with varying degrees of success, to influence the presidential election in favor of Donald Trump is beyond dispute and widely accepted by the American intelligence community.

It is of course difficult for people to accept that they have embraced (and perpetuated) misinformation and manipulation—Mark Twain is said to have observed that “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled”—and that’s especially true for social justice activists sincerely trying to do good in the world by highlighting social, economic, and racial inequities. That’s one reason that Russian propaganda is so effective and insidious; it fits right in.

Some may try to justify sharing bogus information by saying that even though in this particular case the facts were wrong, it still symbolizes a very real problem and was therefore worthy of sharing if it raised awareness of the issue. This is an ends-justifies-the-means tactic often employed by those caught reporting a false story. The Trump administration adopted this position earlier in November 2017 when the President promoted discredited anti-Muslim videos via social media; his spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders acknowledged that at least some of the hateful videos Trump shared were bogus and represented events that did not happen as portrayed, but she insisted that their truth or falsity was irrelevant because they supported a “larger truth”—that Islam is a threat to the country’s security: “I’m not talking about the nature of the video,” she told reporters. “I think you’re focusing on the wrong thing. The threat is real, and that’s what the President is talking about.” Of course white privilege is real, but misinformation is misinformation regardless of who shares it, or why. There are enough real examples that people don’t need to fabricate them by comparing Huffman, Williams-Bolar and McDowell.

Otherwise socially literate and ‘woke’ people give more thought to where their clothes are made and their coffee is sourced than to where the information they believe and share on social media comes from. Putin has many puppets, and only the highest-profile one inhabits the White House. The vast majority of the Russian disinformation army are Americans who eagerly share misleading and divisive misinformation in the guise of good.

Jun 182019
 

Distrust of the news media is, or at least seems to be, at an all time high. A recent report by Gallup and the Knight Foundation found that 42 percent of Democrats, 75 percent of independents, and 94 percent of Republicans say they have lost some trust in the media.

Some, perhaps much, of the skepticism is surely deserved; journalistic failures are legion and the mistakes are very visible and often memorable, from Jayson Blair’s faked reporting at The New York Times to Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s disastrous Rolling Stone article. There are few careers in which a person is as routinely criticized, rightly or wrongly, as journalists, and many liberals share Trump’s constant refrain that the news media can’t be trusted.

I often see people posting a news story on social media with some version of the editorial comment, “Why isn’t the media covering this story?” Sometimes the phrase is in ALL CAPS and sometimes it’s worded slightly differently, but the gist is the same. It’s seen as a form of news censorship.

In a previous article I discussed one of the fallacies inherent in this question, that of considering “the media” as a single-minded homogenous entity, but there are other issues to unpack in this criticism.

In media literacy—as in science and skepticism generally—it’s often useful to remember psychologist (and CSI Fellow) Ray Hyman’s dictum: Before trying to explain something, be sure there’s something to explain. In other words, question and verify the truth of your assumptions before making an effort to understand why those premises are true. You may find there’s nothing to explain.

Here are a few recent examples of complaints about media censorship I’ve come across:

  • “Waffle House in Nashville: 4 dead, 4 wounded. 29 yr old naked white male shooter stopped by 29 yr old black man. Not interesting enough to make headline news.”
  • “An incel shot up a Tallahassee yoga studio yesterday, killing two women before turning the gun on himself. It didn’t even make a blip in the news cycle.”

In both of these cases a quick internet search reveals that the news stories were widely reported through mainstream media (the April 22 Waffle House shooting has over 13,000 news results from all the major outlets, and the Florida shooting, which happened just in the past week, has about half that). In fact, many people soon contradicted the claim made in the original post, noting that the story was being widely reported across the country and around the world: “It made headlines here as soon as it happened,” wrote one. “Here too,” added another. “It’s the top item at CNN”; “It’s all over my TV news,” and so on.  

  • In 2016 a friend lamented on Facebook that the news media was systematically ignoring a high murder rate in Chicago, with a veiled suggestion that racism played a role (as most victims were African American). An internet search yielded a handful of then-recent articles about it in Illinois newspapers, which I sent to him. He then replied that yes of course Chicago papers covered it, but almost no outlets elsewhere did—at least not in any depth. Another forty seconds of Google searching found many articles about the soaring homicide rate in that city from other regions, including an in-depth series in The New York Times I’d read a few weeks earlier titled “Chicago’s Murder Problem.”

Sample Sizes: Anecdotes Aren’t Data

Why were these people—and many others—assuming that the news stories they saw weren’t being seen by others? It seemed that in many or most cases the person had done little or no research to see how widespread the coverage was (or wasn’t); they’d just assumed that since they hadn’t seen as much news coverage as they’d have expected (or thought it deserved), it wasn’t being covered adequately. This is of course a subjective judgment; I personally would like for more news stories to include skepticism and evidence-based analysis.

The roots of this misperception are varied. One is the “If I don’t see it, it doesn’t exist” fallacy, a type of argument from personal experience. How does the person know that a given news story isn’t being reported? What efforts did they undertake to investigate how widely the news was being shared? These stories must have made the news somewhere; after all, that’s how they first found out about the story they’re suggesting is largely being ignored by the news media.

Upon seeing the news, how long did they spend watching each media channel, checking each website, or listening to each radio station to determine whether or not the news was being covered by that outlet? A few seconds? A few minutes? An hour? Did they use any methodology in their search? Did they use a search engine to scour the internet for all major news outlets to see which carried the story, or did they just check their usual handful of regular media sources?

This is essentially a sampling question, and as scientists and skeptics know, anecdotes are not data. How valid a conclusion is depends in part on how large the sample size is.

Why a given breaking news story is featured on one media outlet and not another at approximately the same time depends on many factors. Of course different news organizations rarely cover breaking news in exactly the same way. A local TV news station may have staff on the scene or en route in the first minutes of an event, while national news shows are scrambling to send regional reporters. Different television stations and managers have different policies about when to break into regularly scheduled programming with breaking news. The station manager at a city’s NBC affiliate, for example, may decide that a local shooting, school lockdown, natural disaster, or other event is important enough to their audience to interrupt a soap opera, while a manager at an ABC affiliate may feel differently.

Often the news story is in fact being widely covered—just not in that specific person’s social or news media circles. Part of the reason for this error is that people on social media have increasingly narrowly curated news feeds, which results in a smaller variety of stories appearing there. Both liberals and conservatives increasingly self-select those they interact with, for example by unfriending or blocking people with dissenting views and opinions. Most people get their news not directly from news organizations but from social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—mostly their news feeds and what their friends share. This creates an insular, herd mentality.

There’s also an inherent quasi-conspiracy aspect to these beliefs. They often assume, without evidence, an implicit suspicion of bad faith—that news editors and journalists are actively suppressing a story because of real or apparent political implications. One suggested, perhaps facetiously, that the story “wasn’t interesting enough” for national news; another suggested that the races of those involved caused the story to be sidelined. There are countless breaking news stories each day whose lack of live updates go unnoticed. Few take to social media to complain that, for example, a car accident with multiple fatalities isn’t being covered. It’s primarily stories freighted with some social or political import that are assumed to be the subject of intentional non- or under-reporting.


First—and False

Another factor is impatience for instant information. Critical thinkers and media-literate audiences know that slow, accurate news is better than fast, inaccurate news. Good journalism takes time. It takes time to interview primary sources, check facts, and do due diligence. Circulating rumor and unconfirmed speculation is cheap and easy. For editors at News Organization X, the question “Why Isn’t News Organization X covering this?” is one that resonates deeply, and it’s one that helps drive down the quality of journalism. Audiences demanding the latest news and constant updates can and will turn to less credible news outlets that are happy to circulate bad information immediately and correct (or not) the wrong information later.

The Gallup/Knight Foundation survey mentioned earlier titled “Indicators of News Media Trust”surveyed members of the public and asked “How important are each of the following factors in determining whether or not you trust a news organization?” The top answer, with 99 percent responding that it’s either very important or important, was “Its commitment to accuracy—not reporting stories until it verifies all the facts.” Thus we see a paradox: the public overwhelmingly understands that good, credible journalism often requires that news organizations not report a story before the facts are verified—but at the same time the public expects immediate news reporting on breaking events and criticizes the news media when they don’t see it. Ironically the early reports—the ones that the person is using to contrast with other news media that seemingly are refusing to air the story—are often the least reliable.

Occasionally people offer the opposite complaint and want to know why some seemingly superfluous puff piece is being covered. Why is this news?, they indignantly demand to know, usually regarding pieces about celebrity gossip, royal births, and the like. With so many real and present dangers, why is this stuff circulating?

The answer is that it’s not news, and not everything that gets shared on news or social media is news. But people on social media—ironically, including the person who shares it—are treating it as if it were important. Think of it this way: news items and memes are shared on social media precisely because we want people to notice and pay attention to them. In the same way that, as David Brinkley wrote, “The one function TV news performs very well is that when there is no news, we give it to you with the same emphasis as if there were,” the same applies to social media. The best way to stop the spread of toxic or stupid ideas is to simply not share them; it’s not to share them as widely as possible with a dismissive caption you hope is clever enough to go viral.

Catch and Kill vs. Censored

It’s important to distinguish this form of “news censorship” from claims that certain articles may be “spiked” or prevented from being published. News outlets have at times come under pressure to bury stories. Over the past year, for example, the “catch and kill” practice of publishers keeping potentially damaging revelations from being published was widely discussed in the context of National Enquirer paying for the exclusive rights to a person’s story (for example Stormy Daniels and President Trump). The same is alleged to have happened to Playboy model Karen McDougal, according to an NPR story:

A woman who had an alleged nine-month sexual relationship with Donald Trump more than a decade ago, is speaking on the record for the first time about signing a document from an apparent Trump media ally that effectively silenced her story. Karen McDougal told reporter Ronan Farrow in a piece published Friday in The New Yorker that she regretted signing the contract with American Media Inc., National Enquirer‘s parent company. “At this point I feel I can’t talk about anything without getting into trouble,” McDougal told Farrow. “I’m afraid to even mention his name.” Farrow reports, “On August 5, 2016, McDougal signed a limited life-story rights agreement granting A.M.I. exclusive ownership of her account of any romantic, personal, or physical relationship she has ever had with any then-married man.” The Wall Street Journal first reported on the agreement in 2016, saying A.M.I., whose C.E.O and chairman, David Pecker, has called Trump “a personal friend,” paid McDougal $150,000 for the rights to her story. The magazine never published a piece about it.

Those situations are very different, however, because they involve a single person’s exclusive personal or eyewitness account, usually of private conduct. A mass shooting or tragedy is a public event, and while each individual eyewitness or participant may have exclusive negotiable rights they can try to sell, the event itself is public domain; the story cannot be effectively hidden from view.

Like any other news event, a publisher or editor may of course choose to limit or omit coverage in that particular publication or outlet, but that doesn’t “bury” or hide the story; it just makes the outlet look like it’s being beaten by its competition. While it’s certainly true that some news stories are buried, backburnered, or downplayed, it’s relatively uncommon in the types of stories being complained about. News organizations are far more likely to put their own misleading spin on any high-profile event such as a shooting than to pretend it didn’t happen at all. I’ve written about media biases in my book Media Mythmakers, and there are many of them. But ignoring a potential ratings bonanza such as a mass shooting is not among them.

Ironically, many Democrats and liberals who ask “Why isn’t the media covering this story?” are implicitly supporting Trump’s views about the mendacity of the news media. Donald Trump has expertly exploited the idea that the news media can’t be trusted to provide accurate information, from the constant refrains of “fake news” to references of the “Failing New York Times.” Trump has enough success sowing distrust of the news media and has support from liberals.

The next time you or a friend sees breaking news about some event and assume that it isn’t being covered in your preferred news media (at the time you go looking for it), keep in mind that your experience may not accurately represent what’s out there. Just because you’re not seeing it doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Jun 042019
 

My new CFI media literacy article examines the demographics of American mass shooters. Many people believe that most mass shooters are white males, but in fact it varies by type of shooting; there is no single representative or predictive demographic, other than being male: "Singling out any specific race as being dangerous—or, worse yet, highlighting rare anecdotal violent incidents as representative of larger groups—is more likely to fuel racism than help the public."

With the recent tragic attacks against Muslims in New Zealand by an Australian white supremacist, the world once again turned its attention to mass shootings. It’s a subject that has captivated America for years with little progress in understanding the nature of the problem.

The topic of mass shootings is fraught not only with political agendas but also with rampant misinformation. Facile comparisons and snarky memes dominate social media, crowding out objective, evidence-based evidence and analysis. This is effective for scoring political points but wholly counterproductive for understanding the nature of the problem and its broader issues.

The public’s perception of mass shootings is heavily influenced by mass media, primarily news media and social media. In my capacity as a media literacy educator (and author of several books on the topic, including Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us), I have in past articles for the Center for Inquiry attempted to unpack thorny and contentious social issues such as the labeling of terrorists (see, for example, my April 2, 2018, Special Report “Why ‘They’ Aren’t Calling It ‘Terrorism’–A Primer”) and the claim that “the media” isn’t covering certain news stories because of some social or political agenda (see my November 9, 2018, piece “’Why Isn’t The Media Covering This Story?’—Or Are They?”).

You can read Part 1 HERE, and Part 2 HERE.

Apr 102019
 

Recent news reports claimed that most people intentionally disrespect transgendered individuals by calling them by something other than their preferred gender pronoun. For example one piece began: “Three in five people internationally report that they would intentionally misgender a transgender person, according to a recent survey. Ipsos found that only two out of five people in Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and the United States said they would call a trans man ‘he’ and a trans woman ‘she,’ instead of misgendering them.”

Written by Jeff Taylor for LGBTQ Nation, the article’s headline is “3 in 5 People Will Deliberately Misgender a Trans Person to Show Disrespect.”

Fortunately for trans people—though unfortunately for Taylor’s journalistic credibility—it’s not true.

For clarification we can go to the original study—the LGTBQ Nation article conspicuously did not provide a link—and look at what the questions and results were. We can begin by noting that the findings of the study bear little relation to the headline. In fact the study says nothing at all about the misgendering being either “deliberate” or intended to “show disrespect.”

The results vary slightly by country and whether the subject is a transgender man or transgender woman (see the graphs below), but for example we see that in the United States, the majority of Americans (38%, the single highest response) would refer to a trans man with a masculine pronoun, while about half that percentage, 21%, would refer to the person using a feminine pronoun. A slightly larger percentage, 23%, said they didn’t know how they would refer to the person, and a minority (18%) said they would refer to the person using a gender-neutral pronoun.

It doesn’t clarify whether any misgendering is intentional. It’s a subtle distinction, but the question doesn’t ask people what pronoun they would use when addressing a transgender person, but instead “when speaking about” him or her. Thus without context we cannot know whether that usage is motivated by intent to show disrespect or simply not knowing what the hypothetical trans person’s preference is. They may misgender people accidentally, or because they are unsure of the person’s preferred address, or out of hostility, or because they simply aren’t aware of the proper etiquette.

We cannot assume, as Taylor seems to, that any response other than the pronoun that aligns with how the persons lives and dresses—such as a neutral pronoun or “I don’t know”—necessarily indicates an attempt to deliberately misgender anyone. To do so is misleading at best and fearmongering at worst.

For more on this, see my CFI blog HERE.

Apr 082019
 

On the new episode of Squaring the Strange, Celestia and I pick three personality assessment tests from psychology's past and present, doing a deep dive into their origins, what drove their popularity, and consumer's reluctance to give them up even after serious flaws emerged. Looking at phrenology, the Rorschach test, and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is a fascinating tour of how consumerism can leapfrog skepticism when it comes to a topic we all love--ourselves!

Check it out HERE!

 News  Comments Off on Squaring the Strange Ep. 89: Some Sketchy Psychological Tests
Mar 282019
 

I'm seeing a lot of confusion on social media about definitions of "terrorism" and why certain people/groups are/are not labeled "terrorists." Simplistic memes aside, the topic is a bit nuanced but worth understanding. I wrote about it last year, for those who'd like a deeper dive.

The issue is not terribly complicated, but it is nuanced and often counter-intuitive. Part of the confusion stems from which group you’re talking about. In other words, who’s the “they” in “Why aren’t they calling it terrorism?” Different “theys” have different answers, as we will see. One of the first things a critical thinker learns to do when hearing the phrase “They say...” is to ask: Who, exactly, is “They?” Attributing a position or statement to an anonymous, homogenous group is not only clouds the issue instead of clarifying it but often steers the conversation toward any number of fallacies (They say acupuncture has been used for thousands of years. They say that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and so on).

There’s also the problem of people using different definitions of “terrorism” interchangeably. Like many words, terrorism has a legal/technical definition used for specific purposes (such as indicting a suspect on certain criminal charges) and a looser, more informal definition that laypeople use in everyday conversation. Neither definition is incorrect; they’re both valid and useful in their specific contexts. There is of course nothing unique about this; laypeople use countless terms (energy, tension, heat, etc.) in ways that are different than a physicist would use them, for example. This problem often arises in the legal arena—one in which definitions of terrorism are important. For example the lay public may consider any killing to be murder (after all, someone died), but to a district attorney there are many different types of murder, with different definitions and penalties (first-degree murder, manslaughter, negligent homicide, and so on). Language is flexible, but that flexibility can contribute to ambiguity when people don’t clearly define terms, or apply their personal, informal definitions to other contexts.

So let’s distinguish between the formal and informal definitions by using Terrorism and terrorism, respectively.

The Patriot Act defines domestic terrorism as an attempt to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.” (Whether one thinks that this definition is too broad or too narrow is beside the point here; law enforcement follows the laws as written.)

As an NPR article explains, “there isn’t a federal charge of ‘domestic terrorism.’ The Patriot Act’s definition gives the Justice Department broad authority to investigate an individual or any group a suspect might be affiliated with. But the federal law doesn’t come with an actual criminal charge. To be charged with terrorism, a person has to be suspected of acting on behalf of one of nearly 60 groups that the State Department has declared a foreign terrorist organization. Some are well-known, including the Islamic State and al-Qaida, while others are far more obscure. Most, but not all, are Islamist. A person who carries out a mass attack and survives can face a range of charges, but unless the person is linked to one of the banned groups, a federal terrorism charge won’t be one of them.” This would be a formal, legal definition of Terrorism.

Of course, as the examples above illustrate, the American public rarely uses the legalistic definitions of common words such as terrorism. A friend of mine recently posted this widely-held sentiment on Facebook: “Despite it not being the legal definition, I’m completely fine with calling someone who makes an effort to scare, maim, and kill numbers of people a terrorist.” Let’s call this broader definition terrorism with a lowercase t.

With that in mind let’s break down and unpack the question: “Why aren’t they calling it terrorism?” In order to meaningfully answer that question you need to specify who you’re talking about, and which definition of terrorism you’re referring to.

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! 

You can find the rest HERE.

Mar 252019
 

There’s a new drug panic in town, and it’s not crack or opioids. It’s catnip. 

Well, it’s called “Catnip Cocktail,” and it actually contains no catnip. It contains a non-FDA-approved blend of a variety of chemicals including caffeine and something called 1,4-BD, which allegedly metabolizes into sedative akin to RHB, a “date-rape” drug. 

Marketed as “The Ultimate Mood Enhancer for Your Dogs and Cats,” it is touted somewhat ambiguously as having “Helpful pain relieving properties,” with “Non additive [sic] ingredients” (it presumably meant to say “non-addictive”). Curiously, the websitedoes not offer testimonials of effectiveness, either from licensed veterinarians or from dogs and cats themselves. 

It’s not clear who manufactures Catnip Cocktail, but any rate for only $22.50 per bottle plus shipping you too can get your hands on the hottest new recreational drug, or pet mood stabilizer, or whatever it is. 

According to theSan Jose Mercury News, Catnip Cocktail has been linked in some way to “several incidents where police in the northern New Jersey suburb encountered alarming behavior from people who appeared to be under the influence of the little-known drug. On Thursday, the Fairfield Police Department announced that they had raided Nutrition Zone and seized 61 bottles of Catnip Cocktail, along with other contraband. ‘This is a very dangerous product and it appears its improper use is on the rise,’ Fairfield Police Chief Anthony Manna said in a statement. ‘In executing today’s search warrant, the Fairfield Police Department has sent a clear message that we will do whatever we can to assure that Catnip Cocktail does not become the next drug fad.’” 

It may be too late: The Business Insideroffered an alarmist headlinewarning that “A dangerous drug called Catnip Cocktail is on the rise—and it’s driving people mad.”

Media Drug Panics

The way this story is unfolding is reminiscent of previous “new” drug scares. In 2007 news media covered bogus news stories such as jenkem(a hallucinogenic inhalant drug made from fermented feces that, according to alarmist news stories spread by trolls, was widely used among schoolkids). And of course there’s the debunked myth ofvodka-soaked tampons(reported by otherwise reputable news media including ABC News) being used by college women trying to get drunk quickly. Then there’s the “eyeball-licking fad”of 2013, a “dangerous new trend” among Japanese schoolchildren supposedly licking each other’s eyeballs and in the process supposedly spreading the highly contagious disease pink eye. Kids today.

In 2012 Florida man Rudy Eugene was accused of attacking a homeless man and biting his victim’s face and ripping his flesh until police shot him. Rumors and news stories claimed that Eugene was high at the time on a narcotic called “bath salts” (which is not a single, specific drug but instead a group of drugs containing mephedrone). This led to wild stories about the dangers of “bath salts,” including the suggestion that it would turn users into flesh-eating zombies—buttoxicology tests later revealedthat the only drug in his system at the time was marijuana. He may or may not have used bath salts before, but he wasn’t on them at the time. 

We see this same pattern in the current “Catnip Cocktail” stories: A handful of people who were found to be acting strangely, allegedly while in possession of vials of the animal sedative, but where there’s little or no evidence (in the form of toxicology reports, for example) that they were under the influence of them. 

In fact there’s reason to be skeptical of news stories linking the arrested individuals to the drug, because police have claimed that it has effects similar to GHB, which is a depressant. Its effects include drowsiness, loss of muscle control, and slowed heartbeat. But many of the incidents where users are suspected of being on Catnip Cocktail suggest theopposite, that they’re on a stimulant: dancing, euphoria, yelling, erratic behavior, and so on.

Many drug users mix substances, making it difficult or impossible to pharmacologically determine what drug caused what effect. If a person has meth, marijuana, and Catnip Cocktail in their systems, how do we know what effect, if any, the Catnip had? We have a half-dozen or so incidents which may, or may not, be actually linked to “Catnip Cocktail.” 

The “Catnip Cocktail” is being cast in news reports as a “dangerous new trend on the rise,” but again it’s hard to know how accurate that is. Without hard data about how many off-label (human) users and usages there are, there’s no way to know. If there have only been a few dozen cases of this illicit usage, then a half-dozen incidents is huge. If on the other hand there have been tens of thousands, or millions, then it’s a much smaller threat. We simply don’t have data, either in terms of drug usage or arrests, to support the claim that this is a dangerous new trend on the rise that the public need be fearful about. A handful of cases with some tangential connection to the drug doesn’t really translate into a “dangerous new fad.”

It’s entirely possible that some people are using the drug to get high—or to tryto get high, based on its reputed effects (such as those currently being hyped in news stories). In other words even if the drug has little or no real pharmacological effects in humans, there are some people who will try it anyway, looking for a cheap or new high. There are many media-created panics—usually involving some form of rumor and folklore—and Catnip Cocktail seems to be among them. 

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! 

Mar 222019
 

There's a new drug craze going around, called Catnip Cocktail, allegedly the latest thing since jenkem and "bath salts." In fact I was recently interviewed by "Rolling Stone" magazine about it; 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! 

Mar 062019
 

In the new issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine I investigate the legend that Egyptian mummies were used as fuel in locomotives, with an illustration by Celestia Ward!

Q: Today I heard a speaker repeat the story that mummies were used as fuel in British trains. I recall this was a classic legend first related by Mark Twain in The Innocents Abroad, but the speaker insisted that she thoroughly researched the subject, and it was true. Got anything on this?

--B. Dail 

A: This bit of morbid historical curiosa, suitably limned with anti-colonial themes, has been around for over a century and reported as true by a handful of writers. Discovermagazine writer LeeAundra Temescu wrote in 2006 that “During a railway expansion in Egypt in the nineteenth century, construction companies unearthed so many mummies that they used them as locomotive fuel.” This factoid inspired poet Charles Webb to write a piece titled “Mummies to Burn” for Slate.com in January 2010.

There is no evidence at all that mummies were burned in locomotives, and Dail correctly identified the origin of the myth. Cecil Adams of The Straight Dopereceived a similar query in 2002 and replied in part, “What you heard was a mangled version of a classic joke told by one of the masters of the art. But don’t feel bad—people have been falling for this one for more than 130 years.” Some people, apparently unaware of Twain’s penchant for humor and hyperbole, took his comment literally or as “reporting.” For example Joann Fletcher (2011), an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of York and part of York’s Mummy Research Group, in an article for no less an authoritative source than BBC, wrote that “Even less fortunate were those mummies exported to the U.S. for use in the papermaking industry or even, as Mark Twain reported, to be burnt as railroad fuel.” 

For more, see the current issue of Skeptical Inquirer!

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! 

Feb 282019
 

My recent blog examines a popular meme about the "true" inspiration for the Lone Ranger, an amazing lawman named Bass Reeves. I looked into it, curious to see if it was true, but soon found myself in a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories--and examining why skeptics unknowingly help share them.

Several friends of mine recently posted a meme on social media that read, “Did you know the real LONE RANGER was a BLACK MAN name BASS REEVES and yes he did live among the INDIANS, The Lone Ranger ‘could not be cast in that era as a black man, so he was made into a white man with a black mask, Now you know…”

As a teenager I met the main actor who played the Lone Ranger on television, Clayton Moore (I have his autograph somewhere). It was at a public appearance in California and during a short Q&A someone asked about the origin of the character he played. As I recall he discussed it coming from old radio serials, along with other cowboy heroes such as Tom Mix. He didn’t mention anything about the character originally being African American, though I don’t necessarily attribute any racism to that, as it was a quick question about his TV show, and he wouldn’t necessarily have done so in that forum anyway.

The claim in the meme certainly seemed plausible, and I spent a few minutes checking its accuracy. After consulting three or four credible sources I realized that the claim is partly true. The first half of the sentence is partly accurate: Bass Reeves, the black man pictured, was indeed an amazing historical figure. He was a Texas deputy marshal said to have arrested more than 3,000 people and killed over a dozen criminals, sometimes going undercover in daring exploits in Indian country. An article for History.com offers a good overview of this fascinating man.

It also concludes that “Although there is no concrete evidence that the real legend inspired the creation of one of fiction’s most well-known cowboys, ‘Bass Reeves is the closest real person to resemble the fictional Lone Ranger on the American western frontier of the nineteenth century,’ [Reeves biographer] Burton writes in Black Gun, Silver Star.”

Cinema researcher Martin Gram also debunked the claim, adding that “Proof was found that The Lone Ranger was intentionally patterned off of Robin Hood and Tom Mix…While the real life of Bass Reeves deserves to be better known, it is unfortunate that this fanciful ‘inspiration for the real life Lone Ranger character’ theory is what has brought him additional attention.”

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! 

Feb 282019
 

A nice review of my book "Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits" (now available on audiobook by the way) is now out, by Marcus Seda, and can be read on "Adventures in Poor Taste"!

Ghost and paranormal investigations were considered a “mainstream intellectual pursuit” in the mid 1800s. This was during the advent of the Spiritualism movement, a time in which the first handful of ghost and paranormal investigation clubs were formed, primarily in British academia.  The most enduring of these groups is the Society for Psychical research, which still exists.

The heirs of these clubs and societies are the ghost hunting groups that have proliferated in the English speaking world in recent decades. Many of the first modern groups took inspiration from the work of Ed and Lorraine Warren, paranormal investigators who were active from the 1970s until Ed’s death in 2006. Today’s groups seem to be taking cues from their most recent predecessors, the ones they see on television.

One could rightly assume that the time and toil spent investigating the existence of ghosts should have produced good evidence by now. With over 150 years and thousands of investigators focused on the question, surely we should have some proof or solid data that points in the direction of spectral existence, right?

Unfortunately the answer is no, we do not... 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! 


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Feb 252019
 

The new horror film The Prodigy is about an evil child, and therefore follows a fairly predictable formula. The kid starts as a bundle of joy, then bad things happen but no one wants to believe the child did them, then the terror escalates as a parent or caregiver discovers a horrifying secret that leads to a dramatic climax—and a likely sequel. The genre has a rich and very popular tradition in cinema, including Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Bad Seed (1956), Village of the Damned (1960), the Omen series (from 1976), The Good Son (1993), Orphan (2009), Hereditary (2018) and many others.

In this case the story centers on Sarah (Taylor Schilling), a mother whose young son Miles (Jackson Robert Scott) is not only oddly advanced for his age (a blessing) but also seemingly possessed (a curse). It’s not just kids, of course; many films play off the assumed childish innocence theme, including those featuring seemingly harmless dolls (Child’s Play and Puppet Master, for example). It’s an intriguing premise, but one that’s been done before and therefore the challenge for filmmakers is finding a new way to tell an old story, a way to add a new twist. The Prodigy borrows heavily from the many demonic possession movies because—well, why wouldn’t you? If The Exorcist can create sequels and a slew of imitators, why not?

But demons have been done to death, so the screenwriter changed it up a bit. We can surmise the studio pitch as something like “It’s The Omen and Child’s Play—but with a twist! It’s not the Devil that possesses the boy, but another person’s spirit!” Translating from the sacred to the secular, a few characters were swapped out but their roles remain. Sarah takes troubled eight-year-old Miles to see a psychiatrist named Jacobson, who—armed with Rorschach projective ink blots and a firm belief in both hypnosis and reincarnation—soon becomes convinced that Miles is afflicted by “an invading soul.”

In the real world these would of course raise red flags; hypnosis is not a reliable guide to recovered memories or accurate biographical information about past lives, but instead a source of freeform fantasy and subjective feelings...

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! 

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Feb 152019
 
Rob Palmer, aka "The Well-Known Skeptic" recently interviewed my Squaring the Strange co-host Celestia Ward for a Special Article on the CSICOP Website. Here's the intro:   In May 2018, Susan Gerbic published an article about her trip to New Mexico to speak about the Guerrilla Skeptics project for New Mexicans for Science and Reason, the local skeptics group. En route, she dropped by the Squaring the Strange podcast studios for a guest appearance. Susan’s article about her trip mentioned the podcast, but that was not the main topic; reading it left me with many questions. To learn more, I decided to interview one of the three people who make the podcast happen. Flipping my three-sided coin resulted in selecting cohost, content producer, and “SkeptiCrate sender-outer” Celestia Ward. Luckily—once I explained that I wasn’t just a random fan bugging her on Facebook but was a random CSI online columnist bugging her on Facebook—she happily consented to an interview. When Squaring launched as a weekly podcast in April 2017, it had just a pair of cohosts: Ben Radford and Pascual Romero. Celestia was primarily the behind-the-scenes content producer, who made only short, sporadic “appearances” with a fortune-cookie segment. Eventually she became a cohost, converting the arrangement to a triumvirate and transforming the character of the podcast.   You can read Part 1 of the interview HERE.     
Feb 052019
 
My recent blog is about the tragic shooting of Jazmine Barnes days before New Years, and how mistaken eyewitnesses and mistaken assumptions led to the search for a non-existent racist serial killer in Houston.... On December 30, 2018, a seven-year-old Houston girl named Jazmine Barnes was killed when a gunman drove up next to the vehicle she was in and opened fire on its occupants. Her mother, LaPorsha Washington, was wounded; Jazmine was struck in the head and died on the way to the hospital. As the New Year’s celebrations went on, the police made the case a top priority, and the case made national news. The police did have some leads. Jazmine’s older sister and other witnesses offered a description of the shooter: a white male, thirties to forties, with a light beard wearing a dark hoodie and driving a red pickup truck. Police immediately issued a sketch based on that description, later followed by an image from a surveillance camera that showed the red truck driving away. The case holds several interesting lessons for skeptics, including about investigation, statistics, the reliability of eyewitnesses, confirmation bias, and finding patterns where none exist. The police began looking for suspects based on a probability profile, examining the statistically most likely suspects given the circumstances. For example most people are assaulted and murdered by someone they know, so if a person is found dead the police begin searching for suspects among relatives and acquaintances before casting a (much) wider net to include strangers. One aspect of Jazmine’s murder was especially chilling: it was seemingly random, the attack unprovoked by any known confrontation that too often escalate—such as over money, love, or something as mundane as a parking space—into violence. Given the victim profile, statistically the most likely suspect was African-American, specifically a black male; more than 80 percent of all crime involves victims and perpetrators of the same race. Whites and African Americans of course can and do attack each other, but they are the exception, not the rule. Medical professionals adopt the same tactic to rule out the more likely causes of headaches or back pain, for example, before screening for rare diseases. As they say, if you hear hoofbeats, think horses not zebras. The Serial Killer Search Despite police saying they were exploring all possibilities about the motivation, many in the community quickly attributed it to a hate crime. Houston activist Deric Muhammad held a press conference outside a Harris County Sheriff’s Office and suggested that the death of Jazmine Barnes was the work of a white supremacist serial killer. Muhammad linked the girl’s death to a previous shooting, on August 30, 2017. In that case a 21-year-old black man, A’vonta Williams, was shot by a white male driving a Ford F-150 truck. Williams survived, but police were unable to make an arrest in the case. Muhammad suggested that police incompetence (or refusal to investigate) played a role: “If A’vonta Williams’s shooter had been found, would Jazmine Barnes still be alive?” The link between the two attacks seemed not only plausible but obvious, and Muhammad invoked probability and statistics: “What are the odds that two black families were fired upon by a white male in a pickup truck within a one-year time span on the same block? We’ve got to call it what it is: Black people are being targeted in this country. Black people are being targeted in this county. Black people are being targeted in this city. We are thoroughly convinced that the killing of Jazmine Barnes was race related.” Kisshima Williams, a relative of A’vonta Williams, agreed, saying “It has to be the same person. It’s too similar.” Muhammad was not alone; Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee implored those gathered at a rally for Jazmine, “Do not be afraid to call this what it seems to be: a hate crime.” If the crime was indeed random—as it appeared to be—racism seemed a plausible explanation. The question Muhammad raised is a fair one, though the odds are difficult or impossible to calculate. The two shootings happened about six miles apart, and were in different vehicles (the 2017 shooting involved a gray, silver, or white truck pickup instead of a red one, and an AR-15 style automatic weapon instead of a handgun). 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! 
Feb 022019
 
I'm a member of the SouthWest Writers group, and I'm featured in a new interview about some of my books and the process of writing...   What is your elevator pitch for Investigating Ghosts? Investigating Ghosts is an in-depth look at scientific attempts to contact the dead, from historical, cultural, and folkloric perspectives. From Shakespeare to the Victorian era to modern-day ghost hunting, people have always tried to find ghosts, and this is a look at their methods and how to bring science to them. I’m open-minded but skeptical. What unique challenges did this work pose for you? This book is a culmination of about 20 years of research and investigation into the subject, and it’s probably one of the broadest topics I’ve written about. My previous books were often on narrower topics (such as New Mexico mysteries, the chupacabra vampire, and evil clowns) which allowed me to do a deep dive and analysis into them. But with ghosts, there’s an enormous amount of information I needed to tackle, from early ghost-based religions (such as Spiritualism) to ghost folklore, the psychology of a ghost experience, ghost hunting devices, ghost photos, the scientific process, and so on. In all these cases I wanted to bring something new to it, not just copy and paste information or third-hand sources but give readers factual, science-based information. That’s why there are eight pages of references; it’s not just a book of spooky, told-as-true ghost stories, but evidence-based analyses, including my own investigations. Even with all that, I couldn’t get everything into 320 pages. What was your favorite part of putting this project together? Throughout the book I describe my firsthand investigations, including many here in New Mexico. I’m not just an armchair investigator! I love to get out in the field, go to haunted locations, interview witnesses, examine evidence, and try to figure out what’s going on. So I enjoyed describing some of the investigations, for example at the KiMo theater, the Albuquerque Press Club, courthouses in Santa Fe and Espanola, the tiny town of Cuchillo, and so on. I have also done haunted house investigations for television shows in Los Angeles, Jamaica, Canada, and other countries. It’s part memoir, which was fun, and I’m especially pleased it won the New Mexico/Arizona Book Award. You can 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, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Jan 302019
 
Last week during Holocaust Remembrance Day, many memes circulated claiming that a significant number of Americans, Canadians, and Britons are Holocaust deniers, or support white supremacy. In the wake of racial incidents such as the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018, it’s natural for the public and pundits to wonder just how common anti-Semitism is. Deadly attacks on Jewish houses of worship are thankfully rare, but what about anti-Jewish belief among the general public? One often-used metric is public opinion polls about the Holocaust. In April 2018 Newsweek posted a news story titled “One-Third of Americans Don’t Believe 6 Million Jews Were Murdered During the Holocaust.” It was widely shared on social media, including Yahoo News, recently. I recently wrote about this topic for my CFI blog; 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!     
Jan 202019
 
I wonder if 2019 will be the year that the History Channel finally completes its investigation into how its much-hyped 2017 special on Amelia Earhart got the story so spectacularly wrong that a half-hour Google search debunked its crack team of experts and their bogus "smoking gun" photo. 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! 
Jan 182019
 
From the archives:  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. 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! 
Dec 062018
 
As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) has passed its anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen!   This week, our crew digs into health panics and what's in our food. Focusing on the notorious "pink slime", the Strangers break down the history of the hysteria and talk about how bad it really is (or isn't). Also in this episode, Ben is skeptical of the tragic tale of a Tasmanian Devil named Jasper.  You can listen HERE. 
Nov 302018
 
A Fox News story claims that a psychic and ghost hunter found the remains in a basement of a father who went missing 57 years ago. If you read past the headlines you find that a) the remains haven't been identified, so the bones may or may not be of that man; b) he *was last seen* in that basement; and c) he was widely rumored to have been buried in that basement. Assuming those are indeed his remains, I'm... unimpressed. Kenny Biddle looked into it and was also unimpressed: While scrolling my social media newsfeed recently, I came across an article shared by my colleague Ben Radford. The headline of a FoxNews.com story proclaimed “Psychic, Ghost Hunters Helped Long Island Man Find Dad’s Remains in 57-year-old Mystery” (Gearty 2018). This piqued my interest since I make it a hobby (almost a full-time career) of investigating such claims. So I clicked on the link to take a closer look. According to the story, “bones found in a Long Island basement were discovered after a family consulted a psychic and paranormal investigators, according to reports.”Mike Carroll, the owner of the house (which was his family home since 1955), is convinced the bones are those of his father, George Carroll. George disappeared without a trace in 1961, leaving a wife and four children behind. Carroll’s mother, Dorothy, never gave the children a “straight answer” on what had happened, only saying “he went out and just never came back.” Dorothy passed away in 1998, taking any information about their missing father with her (absent a Ouija board revelation). A missing persons report was apparently never filed, though authorities are now checking on that detail. If one only reads the headline, the reader would get the impression that a psychic and several ghost hunters teamed up and discovered the remains of Carroll’s father. However, as Radford points out in his Facebook post: “If you read past the headlines you find that a) the remains haven't been identified, so the bones may or may not be of that man; b) he *was last seen* in that basement; and c) he was widely rumored to have been buried in that basement” (Radford 2018). Radford is correct; as of this writing, it is only speculated that the remains belong to George Carroll. The Suffolk county medical examiner will be performing DNA testing on the bones. According to Suffolk Chief of Detectives Gerard Gigante, it could take months before they can determine who the bones belong to. After reading through the Fox News story, the reader would get two distinct impressions; first, ghost hunters detected an “energy” in the house, giving the reader the idea there was a spirit inhabiting the house. Second, a psychic pinpointed the burial spot without any help or hints—despite Carroll explicitly telling WABC-TV there was a family rumor that his father was buried in the basement. When one follows the links provided to other sources used to write the (FoxNews) article, we find that the psychic and ghost hunters are barely mentioned in relation to locating the remains. “The bones were discovered Halloween eve Tuesday in a spot in the basement that had been flagged by a psychic, the New York Post reports.” You can read the rest on his CFI blog HERE!   You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!    __
Nov 252018
 
Distrust of the news media is, or at least seems to be, at an all time high. A recent report by Gallup and the Knight Foundation found that 42 percent of Democrats, 75 percent of independents, and 94 percent of Republicans say they have lost some trust in the media. Some, perhaps much, of the skepticism is surely deserved; journalistic failures are legion and the mistakes are very visible and often memorable, from Jayson Blair’s faked reporting at The New York Times to Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s disastrous Rolling Stone article. There are few careers in which a person is as routinely criticized, rightly or wrongly, as journalists, and many liberals share Trump’s constant refrain that the news media can’t be trusted. I often see people posting a news story on social media with some version of the editorial comment, “Why isn’t the media covering this story?” Sometimes the phrase is in ALL CAPS and sometimes it’s worded slightly differently, but the gist is the same. It’s seen as a form of news censorship. In a previous article I discussed one of the fallacies inherent in this question, that of considering “the media” as a single-minded homogenous entity, but there are other issues to unpack in this criticism. In media literacy—as in science and skepticism generally—it’s often useful to remember psychologist (and CSI Fellow) Ray Hyman’s dictum: Before trying to explain something, be sure there’s something to explain. In other words, question and verify the truth of your assumptions before making an effort to understand why those premises are true. You may find there’s nothing to explain. Here are a few recent examples of complaints about media censorship I’ve come across:
  • “Waffle House in Nashville: 4 dead, 4 wounded. 29 yr old naked white male shooter stopped by 29 yr old black man. Not interesting enough to make headline news.”
  • “An incel shot up a Tallahassee yoga studio yesterday, killing two women before turning the gun on himself. It didn’t even make a blip in the news cycle.”
In both of these cases a quick internet search reveals that the news stories were widely reported through mainstream media (the April 22 Waffle House shooting has over 13,000 news results from all the major outlets, and the Florida shooting, which happened just in the past week, has about half that). In fact, many people soon contradicted the claim made in the original post, noting that the story was being widely reported across the country and around the world: “It made headlines here as soon as it happened,” wrote one. “Here too,” added another. “It’s the top item at CNN”; “It’s all over my TV news,” and so on.
  • In 2016 a friend lamented on Facebook that the news media was systematically ignoring a high murder rate in Chicago, with a veiled suggestion that racism played a role (as most victims were African American). An internet search yielded a handful of then-recent articles about it in Illinois newspapers, which I sent to him. He then replied that yes of course Chicago papers covered it, but almost no outlets elsewhere did—at least not in any depth. Another forty seconds of Google searching found many articles about the soaring homicide rate in that city from other regions, including an in-depth series in The New York Times I’d read a few weeks earlier titled “Chicago’s Murder Problem.”

Sample Sizes: Anecdotes Aren’t Data

Why were these people—and many others—assuming that the news stories they saw weren’t being seen by others? It seemed that in many or most cases the person had done little or no research to see how widespread the coverage was (or wasn’t); they’d just assumed that since they hadn’t seen as much news coverage as they’d have expected (or thought it deserved), it wasn’t being covered adequately. This is of course a subjective judgment; I personally would like for more news stories to include skepticism and evidence-based analysis. The roots of this misperception are varied. One is the “If I don’t see it, it doesn’t exist” fallacy, a type of argument from personal experience. How does the person know that a given news story isn’t being reported? What efforts did they undertake to investigate how widely the news was being shared? These stories must have made the news somewhere; after all, that’s how they first found out about the story they’re suggesting is largely being ignored by the news media. Upon seeing the news, how long did they spend watching each media channel, checking each website, or listening to each radio station to determine whether or not the news was being covered by that outlet? A few seconds? A few minutes? An hour? Did they use any methodology in their search? Did they use a search engine to scour the internet for all major news outlets to see which carried the story, or did they just check their usual handful of regular media sources? This is essentially a sampling question, and as scientists and skeptics know, anecdotes are not data. How valid a conclusion is depends in part on how large the sample size is. Why a given breaking news story is featured on one media outlet and not another at approximately the same time depends on many factors. Of course different news organizations rarely cover breaking news in exactly the same way. A local TV news station may have staff on the scene or en route in the first minutes of an event, while national news shows are scrambling to send regional reporters. Different television stations and managers have different policies about when to break into regularly scheduled programming with breaking news. The station manager at a city’s NBC affiliate, for example, may decide that a local shooting, school lockdown, natural disaster, or other event is important enough to their audience to interrupt a soap opera, while a manager at an ABC affiliate may feel differently. Often the news story is in fact being widely covered—just not in that specific person’s social or news media circles. Part of the reason for this error is that people on social media have increasingly narrowly curated news feeds, which results in a smaller variety of stories appearing there. Both liberals and conservatives increasingly self-select those they interact with, for example by unfriending or blocking people with dissenting views and opinions. Most people get their news not directly from news organizations but from social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—mostly their news feeds and what their friends share. This creates an insular, herd mentality. There’s also an inherent quasi-conspiracy aspect to these beliefs. They often assume, without evidence, an implicit suspicion of bad faith—that news editors and journalists are actively suppressing a story because of real or apparent political implications. One suggested, perhaps facetiously, that the story “wasn’t interesting enough” for national news; another suggested that the races of those involved caused the story to be sidelined. There are countless breaking news stories each day whose lack of live updates go unnoticed. Few take to social media to complain that, for example, a car accident with multiple fatalities isn’t being covered. It’s primarily stories freighted with some social or political import that are assumed to be the subject of intentional non- or under-reporting.  

First—and False

Another factor is impatience for instant information. Critical thinkers and media-literate audiences know that slow, accurate news is better than fast, inaccurate news. Good journalism takes time. It takes time to interview primary sources, check facts, and do due diligence. Circulating rumor and unconfirmed speculation is cheap and easy. For editors at News Organization X, the question “Why Isn’t News Organization X covering this?” is one that resonates deeply, and it’s one that helps drive down the quality of journalism. Audiences demanding the latest news and constant updates can and will turn to less credible news outlets that are happy to circulate bad information immediately and correct (or not) the wrong information later. The Gallup/Knight Foundation survey mentioned earlier titled “Indicators of News Media Trust”surveyed members of the public and asked “How important are each of the following factors in determining whether or not you trust a news organization?” The top answer, with 99 percent responding that it’s either very important or important, was “Its commitment to accuracy—not reporting stories until it verifies all the facts.” Thus we see a paradox: the public overwhelmingly understands that good, credible journalism often requires that news organizations not report a story before the facts are verified—but at the same time the public expects immediate news reporting on breaking events and criticizes the news media when they don’t see it. Ironically the early reports—the ones that the person is using to contrast with other news media that seemingly are refusing to air the story—are often the least reliable. Occasionally people offer the opposite complaint and want to know why some seemingly superfluous puff piece is being covered. Why is this news?, they indignantly demand to know, usually regarding pieces about celebrity gossip, royal births, and the like. With so many real and present dangers, why is this stuff circulating? The answer is that it’s not news, and not everything that gets shared on news or social media is news. But people on social media—ironically, including the person who shares it—are treating it as if it were important. Think of it this way: news items and memes are shared on social media precisely because we want people to notice and pay attention to them. In the same way that, as David Brinkley wrote, “The one function TV news performs very well is that when there is no news, we give it to you with the same emphasis as if there were,” the same applies to social media. The best way to stop the spread of toxic or stupid ideas is to simply not share them; it’s not to share them as widely as possible with a dismissive caption you hope is clever enough to go viral.  

Catch and Kill vs. Censored

It’s important to distinguish this form of “news censorship” from claims that certain articles may be “spiked” or prevented from being published. News outlets have at times come under pressure to bury stories. Over the past year, for example, the “catch and kill” practice of publishers keeping potentially damaging revelations from being published was widely discussed in the context of National Enquirer paying for the exclusive rights to a person’s story (for example Stormy Daniels and President Trump). The same is alleged to have happened to Playboy model Karen McDougal, according to an NPR story:  
A woman who had an alleged nine-month sexual relationship with Donald Trump more than a decade ago, is speaking on the record for the first time about signing a document from an apparent Trump media ally that effectively silenced her story. Karen McDougal told reporter Ronan Farrow in a piece published Friday in The New Yorker that she regretted signing the contract with American Media Inc., National Enquirer‘s parent company. “At this point I feel I can’t talk about anything without getting into trouble,” McDougal told Farrow. “I’m afraid to even mention his name.” Farrow reports, “On August 5, 2016, McDougal signed a limited life-story rights agreement granting A.M.I. exclusive ownership of her account of any romantic, personal, or physical relationship she has ever had with any then-married man.” The Wall Street Journal first reported on the agreement in 2016, saying A.M.I., whose C.E.O and chairman, David Pecker, has called Trump “a personal friend,” paid McDougal $150,000 for the rights to her story. The magazine never published a piece about it.
  Those situations are very different, however, because they involve a single person’s exclusive personal or eyewitness account, usually of private conduct. A mass shooting or tragedy is a public event, and while each individual eyewitness or participant may have exclusive negotiable rights they can try to sell, the event itself is public domain; the story cannot be effectively hidden from view. Like any other news event, a publisher or editor may of course choose to limit or omit coverage in that particular publication or outlet, but that doesn’t “bury” or hide the story; it just makes the outlet look like it’s being beaten by its competition. While it’s certainly true that some news stories are buried, backburnered, or downplayed, it’s relatively uncommon in the types of stories being complained about. News organizations are far more likely to put their own misleading spin on any high-profile event such as a shooting than to pretend it didn’t happen at all. I’ve written about media biases in my book Media Mythmakers, and there are many of them. But ignoring a potential ratings bonanza such as a mass shooting is not among them. Ironically, many Democrats and liberals who ask “Why isn’t the media covering this story?” are implicitly supporting Trump’s views about the mendacity of the news media. Donald Trump has expertly exploited the idea that the news media can’t be trusted to provide accurate information, from the constant refrains of “fake news” to references of the “Failing New York Times.” Trump has enough success sowing distrust of the news media and has support from liberals. The next time you or a friend sees breaking news about some event and assume that it isn’t being covered in your preferred news media (at the time you go looking for it), keep in mind that your experience may not accurately represent what’s out there. Just because you’re not seeing it doesn’t mean it’s not there.  
This piece first appeared in the CFI blog "A Skeptic Reads the Newspaper", which can be found HERE. 
Nov 192018
 
I'm pleased to note that my newest book Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits was a winner at this year's New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards!   You can order the book from your local indie bookstore, or find it on Amazon!      
Oct 312018
 
The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! The show is all about Halloween strangeness . . . We unravel the origins of a few traditions and look at "Hell Houses," the much, much, much lamer alternative to haunted houses. And a quick report from CSIcon as well as a news snippet about a graveyard dowser! Please check it out!     You can here it HERE! 
Oct 302018
 
If you’ve spent any time on social media over the past few years you’ve likely seen several versions of Donald Trump’s last name. Various versions include “tr^^p,” “Strump,” and “Tr**p,” though writer Joyce Carol Oates understandably prefers the correctly-numbered-asterisk version “T***p.” Meryl Streep gave a blistering 2017 Golden Globes speech that never mentioned Trump’s name but referred to the president as “a coarse blowhard.” Others simply call him “Sin Nombre” (nameless in Spanish)—though I’d prefer “Hombre Sin Nombre” because it’s alliterative and references his infamous, inane “bad hombres” comment—though no one asked me.   For a while some people avoided using Trump’s name on Facebook because the site’s algorithms would be more likely to send political advertisements for Trump to whoever wrote about him, though as his name became ubiquitous, the algorithms became less useful. There are also various circumlocutions, such as Mad King Cheeto, Agent Orange, the Dumpster, the Orange Manatee, Hair Furor, President Bone Spurs, Donald Drumpf, Assaulter-in-chief, and “Tiny-Fingered, Cheeto-Faced, Ferret-Wearing Shitgibbon,” among others. What’s behind the refusal or reluctance to say Trump’s name? The Atlantic had a piece on this last year, noting that “When the late Gwen Ifill asked President Barack Obama why he had been avoiding saying ‘Trump,’ he replied, ‘He seems to do a good job mentioning his own name. So, I figure, you know, I will let him do his advertising for him[self]’…. Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter Bernice King shared a widely circulated list to her Facebook page offering tips for resisting Trump. The top suggestion: ‘Use his name sparingly so as not to detract from the issues.’… Given the influence Trump’s name wields, snubbing it is an attempt to withhold some of that power while staking out higher moral ground, said Jenny Lederer, an assistant professor of linguistics at San Francisco State University. ‘In his case, especially, people feel like not repeating his name is [a way of] not speaking to the brand and the value system that goes along with his political ideology.’” Naming Taboos In The Encyclopedia of Superstitions, E. and M. Radford—no relation, probably—note that “In primitive thought, a man’s name was not merely a convenient label by which he could be distinguished from others. It was an integral part of himself, as important to him as, and indeed, moreso than, his arms or legs or eyes. Knowledge of it by another gave that other power over him… These beliefs survive in the custom, once quite general, of keeping a child’s name secret from outsiders until he had been baptized. To let it be known to any stranger… was to run the risk of witchcraft” (p. 244). In the Doctor Who universe, the titular doctor’s name is unknown (except to him or her, as the case may be, and a possible wife) and never spoken aloud in the series. Often refusing to name a figure is done in deference to their awesome and potentially destructive power. The idea is that to say the name without sufficient reverence—or at all—is to risk drawing the person’s attention or wrath. In Roman Catholic exorcisms, knowing a demon’s name is considered an important part of the ritual and gives the priest power over the evil entity. Even saying the name of the Christian God is considered dangerous in some cases; hence mild exclamations such as “zounds!” were adopted from the archaic, quasi-blasphemic phrase “god’s wounds.” Similarly, in Jewish traditions the name “Yahweh” is too sacred to speak or even write, preferring the Almighty” or “our Lord”; even the word “God” is often written as “G-d.” In the Harry Potter universe the villain Voldemort is referred to as “He Who Must Not Be Named” and “You Know Who.” In British fairy folklore there is a long tradition of avoiding speaking the word “fairy” aloud. They are variously referred to as “the good folk,” the “wee folk,” or just “the folk.” To do otherwise is to invite trouble. Many or most people who refuse to use Trump’s name aren’t doing so out of reverence, of course. As the Atlantic piece notes, “When it comes to the current president, the refusal to use his name may be uniquely subversive because of the degree to which Trump has wrapped his entire worth, wealth, and fame up in those five letters.” Indeed, Trump seems remarkably impressed not only with himself but also with his own surname, which he considers to be his signature brand. But has the anti-Trump linguistic revolt done any good? Is it a form of verbal slacktivism and virtue signaling? While refusing to speak his name may seem like a tiny act of “he’s not my president” defiance, it doesn’t seem to be an issue for him. Perhaps the biggest indication that some people’s refusal to say Trump’s name isn’t bothering him is the lack of reaction, especially on social media. Trump is famously thin-skinned about real and imagined slights, and has shown no qualms about taking to Twitter to blast his critics. Yet there’s been no stream of petty, pouty invective from our commander in chief wailing about his subjects’ lack of reverence for his name. It could also be that Trump only cares about the loudest voices and (what he considers to be) his most vocal opponents, including “The Failing New York Times” and CNN, which due to journalistic editorial standards would not replace letters in Trump’s name with asterisks. As long as they spell his name right (and fully), he’s happy.
Oct 182018
 
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed:    This week we start with Celestia’s tale of having a “tongue analysis” while on a cruise, which amounted to an alt-med version of cold reading. Then we examine a critical but controversial topic: are accusers routinely disbelieved in sexual misconduct cases? Ben brings some statistics on the public’s view of high-profile accusations, and Celestia tackles data on police handling of rape reports. How true is this notion, and, more importantly, what harm does inflating such a notion cause?   You can listen HERE. 
Oct 082018
 
My new book, "Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits," is a Finalist for the New Mexico/Arizona book awards! Winners will be announced next month, but if you want to see what everyone's raving about, it's available for under $20 in ebook or paperback and the audiobook version will be out this week!     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! 
Oct 052018
 
As the country waits to see what becomes of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh pending the results of an FBI investigation, one thing has become clear: Whether or not the Senate believed Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations against Kavanaugh, most of America does. In a PBS Newshour / Marist poll taken September 22 to 24, when asked, “Who do you think is telling the truth about what happened at the party in high school?” (one-third, 32%) said they believed Ford, with just over a quarter (26%) saying they believed Kavanaugh. The remainder, 42%, said they were unsure. A more recent poll taken after the conclusion of last Thursday’s hearings found that 60% of those polled found Ford’s testimony believable, compared to only 35% of whom found Kavanaugh’s testimony believable. Another poll, from YouGov, found that 41% thought Ford was “definitely” or “probably telling the truth,” compared to 35% for Kavanaugh. About a quarter were unsure about both. There is enough ambiguity in what happened for people on either side to be unsure. The “not sure” category is probably the most honest answer in this and other similar cases, given that none of them have been fully investigated, and opinions rest on political bias, whim, news and social media reports (and not, for example, evidence offered at a criminal trial). As CNN legal analyst Page Pate noted, “I think there is a real doubt about what happened at that house 36 years ago. That doubt would prevent Judge Kavanaugh from being convicted of a crime based on these allegations. But the same doubt may be enough to keep Judge Kavanaugh off the Supreme Court.” That multiple polls show the public supports Ford over Kavanaugh may be surprising in a social media milieu where divisions are highlighted as a matter of course, but the same pattern holds true when you examine results from recent polls about sexual harassment and assault accusations. In every case the majority of people believed the accusers, and in most cases more men than women believed the accusers:
Q: Do you believe the women’s sexual assault accusations against Bill Cosby? 61% of men and 53% of women believe Cosby’s accusers.   Q: Do you believe the women’s sexual accusations against Roy Moore? 56% of men and 57% of women believe Moore’s accusers.*   Q: Do you believe the women’s sexual accusations against John Conyers? 63% of men and 53% of women believe Conyers’s accusers.   Q: Do you believe the women’s sexual accusations against Charlie Rose? 71% of men and 66% of women believe Rose’s accusers.   Q: Do you believe the women’s sexual accusations against Al Franken? 68% of men and 56% of women believe Franken’s accusers.   Q: Do you believe the women’s sexual accusations against Harvey Weinstein? 70% of men and 55% of women believe Weinstein’s accusers; 2% of men and 4% of women disbelieve the accusers, the balance said not sure or didn’t have enough information to say.   Q: Do you believe the women’s sexual accusations against President Trump? 45% of men and 44% of women believe Trump’s accusers; 23% of men and 14% of women disbelieve the accusers, the balance said not sure or didn’t have enough information to say.   Q: Do you think that the allegations that Donald Trump made unwanted sexual advances against women are mostly true or mostly not true?** Mostly true: 61% Mostly not true: 32% No opinion: 7%   *responded that the person “probably or definitely” did what they were accused of Sources: The Economist/YouGov Poll: Poll dates July 8-9, 2015, October 12-13, 2017, and November 26-28, 2017. ** CNN / SSRS poll December 14-17, 2017.
  Why is there a widespread belief that accusers are doubted by default? Part of it is the often-insensitive way in which accusers are treated; the hearings of both Anita Hill and Christine Ford are Exhibit A, but one can also see it in the many personal stories that have emerged in the past few weeks with hashtags such as #WhyIDidntReport. There’s also the loudness factor, in which the most belligerent people and comments (such as those by Lindsey Graham and Donald Trump, for example) are given far more attention than those by more restrained, less emotional colleagues. The most extreme voices are often the most quotable ones. The media also plays an important role. This is because the news media often engage in a sort of false equivalence or false balance, for example presenting “both sides” of an issue as equally valid, popular, or important. This often happens in topics such as in “debates” about creationism, global warming, or vaccine dangers, in which a scientist and an activist will both be presented on equal footing when in fact the evidence overwhelmingly points to one position, and the other represents a minority point of view. (For more on this see chapter 3 in my book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us.) It also happens in topics that spawn “national conversations,” especially about hot-button issues involving gender, race, and other social justice issues. The news media have a vested interest in highlighting conflict. While it certainly is true that Americans are divided about this issue—as they are about many issues—it’s not as if half of America is passionate, angry, and certain that Ford’s account is accurate and truthful, while the other half is equally passionate, angry, and certain that Kavanaugh is falsely accused. Many are unsure, and the majority tend to believe the accusers, not the accused. Of course there is more to seeking equality and justice than just believing the accusers, but it’s an essential—and to many survivors, vitally important—first step. While it’s clearly true that many women who come forward with accusations are doubted and challenged, these polls and surveys suggest that in most cases when women come forward, they are in fact believed by the most of the public. This is good news, and should be reassuring for victims who may be reluctant to report their attacks. The public is with Ford, but whether or not the FBI will uncover disqualifying information in Kavanaugh’s case remains to be seen.
Sep 222018
 
In this recent show we start with a quick look at a dog-buys-cookies story that took Celestia down a path of searching out pet videos and, finally, reading about whether or not monkeys can be taught to understand currency. Then I revisit an investigation I did on the Pokemon Panic, a wave of illness that struck Tokyo children in the 1990s during an episode of the incredibly popular show--a phenomenon that was referenced again this summer as journalists warned of the strobe effects in Incredibles 2. But what are the numbers, and how exactly does photosensitive epilepsy work? And what was to blame for the thousands of children falling ill that week in Tokyo? Please check it out HERE! 
Sep 152018
 
As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) has passed its one year anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen! This week we start with Celestia’s tale of having a “tongue analysis” while on a cruise, which amounted to an alt-med version of cold reading. Then we examine a critical but controversial topic: are accusers routinely disbelieved in sexual misconduct cases? Ben brings some statistics on the public’s view of high-profile accusations, and Celestia tackles data on police handling of rape reports. How true is this notion, and, more importantly, what harm does inflating such a notion cause? You can listen HERE.       
Sep 052018
 
My recent blog is about how easily misunderstandings can recast allies as enemies, focusing on a recent incident at Cornell where a student misunderstood her professor's comment about her clothing, interpreting it as sexist. The student stripped to her underwear in protest; it made national news and cast the professor in a bad light, but others in the class said the student misunderstood. A lesson in the importance of being charitable to others--with a classic Emo Philips joke!   I’m always fascinated by how thinking goes wrong. Sometimes it’s the result of intentional deception or obfuscation, such as is often found in advertising or political speech. But more often it’s the result of critical thinking lapses, logical errors, or simply misunderstanding. It’s errors of interpretation, often of substituting what someone actually says for what we think they’re saying, or expecting them to say. By understanding how thinking goes wrong—ideally taken from real-world situations instead of staid examples of informal logic taken from textbooks—we can help identify such patterns in our own thinking and hopefully improve communication. A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about an interaction I had on social media where a comment about whether a phrase used by actor Henry Cavill in an interview was intended literally or figuratively was badly misunderstood and somehow ended in a heated argument involving accusations of misogyny! The exchange was all the more puzzling because everyone involved in the discussion was on the same page, socially and politically, about the topic. There was no actual substantive disagreement; instead a cascade of errors and misunderstandings soon rendered the discussion futile and allies cast as enemies. I’m reminded of a famous Emo Philips joke about fundamentalist religion involving two people who have virtually identical beliefs, but after several questions one of them focuses on the tiny difference between them and in the punchline yells, “Die, heretic!” There are enough people with whom we sincerely disagree that it benefits everyone—especially in today’s divisive age—to be sure that we understand each other before concluding that allies are actually enemies. Earlier this year a high-profile example of this emerged in an academic setting... You can read the rest HERE.  You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Aug 312018
 
This is neat: I'm quoted in a new Smithsonian article about belief in Bigfoot! You can find it in the print magazine, or HERE.    You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Aug 252018
 
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: A Diet High in Skepticism First we hear from photographic mystery investigator Kenny Biddle, who reveals how he solved the souvenir photo mystery Ben shared back in episode 37. Then, for the second part of our New Year’s resolution series, we dive into diet myths. Ben brings some surprising statistics that go against common assumptions about how diet-obsessed Americans are. Rather than being hyper-aware of every pound, it turns out we often don’t notice weight gain (on ourselves or our children), and we rarely put much effort into losing it. Celestia reflects on how fat people, like cancer patients, are hit with a ton of “miracle” fat cures from well-meaning friends and acquaintances; and she does a deep-dive into her diet Coke and whether it actually makes people gain weight.   You can listen HERE.
Aug 202018
 
My new CFI blog on mountaineering physicist Melanie Windridge, who recently climbed Everest to promote science and encourage girls in STEM fields. I interviewed physicist Dr. Melanie Windridge, author of Aurora: In Search of the Northern Lights, last year for a Special Report on the CFI website. No armchair-ridden ivory tower egghead, Windridge is a veteran of days-long treks and wilderness expeditions. Her website features photos of her summits, and her book contains many compelling first-person adventures in Iceland, Scotland, Sweden, and Norway. “When I was doing my undergraduate work, I had no idea what I’d be doing now,” she told me. “I was doing fusion, so it was very lab-based, so it was very different for me to say I want to get out of the lab, I want to study physics in a very different domain. It’s really wonderful to see this phenomenon that really touches you on a personal, inner level…. But also to look at the science of it, and understand that the science doesn’t take away that feeling you get. It’s still magical. In fact knowing the science makes it even more incredible.” As for her book Aurora, “I didn’t want to just write a science book. I wanted to celebrate the beauty and magic of the aurora and how captivating it is, and also explore the history of Arctic exploration and the cultures there… It’s this wonderful crossover between art, history, science, culture, and landscape.”   You can read the rest HERE.    You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!