Oct 302019
 

Halloween is coming up soon, and amid the make-believe witches, ghouls, and goblins, there are supposedly real-life villains who hope to harm on children October 31. News reports and scary stories on social media leave many parents concerned about protecting children from Halloween threats.

But are they real or myth? Here are five scary myths and legends about the spookiest holiday

1) Halloween is Satanic

While many people see Halloween as scary and harmless fun some people, including many fundamentalist Christians, believe that there is sinister side to the holiday. They believe that underneath the fantasy costumes and candy-dispensing traditions there lies an unseen spiritual struggle for the souls of the innocent.

Christian evangelist Phil Phillips and Joan Hake Robie, in their book “Halloween and Satanism,” explain that the seemingly harmless costumes (such as witches, zombies and vampires) put children’s spiritual lives at risk by interesting them in supernatural occult phenomena–and, ultimately, on the road to Satanic practices. Of course it’s not just Halloween that these groups are concerned about–they have in the past protested against role-playing games, heavy-metal music, and even Harry Potter books.

Historically, however, there is little or no actual connection between Satanism and Halloween; for one thing the early pagan traditions that many scholars believe became part of what we now call Halloween had no concept of Devil. The idea of a Christian Satan developed much later, and therefore Halloween could not have been rooted in Satanism.

2) Beware Tainted Halloween Candy

The most familiar Halloween scares involve contaminated candy, and every year, police and medical centers across the country X-ray candy collected by trick-or-treaters to check for razors, needles, or contaminants that might have been placed there by strangers intending to hurt or kill children. Scary news reports and warnings on social media claimed that dangerous candy had been found, raising fears among parents and children. Many medical centers across the country,including in Harrisburg, Penn., are offering free X-raying of candy this Halloween.

This threat is essentially an urban legend. There have been only two confirmed cases of children being killed by poisoned Halloween candy, and in both cases the children were killed not in a random act by strangers but intentional murder by one of their parents. The best-known, “original” case was that of Texan Ronald Clark O’Bryan, who killed his son by lacing his Pixie Stix with cyanide in 1974. In essence he used this myth to try to cover his crime.

Yet the fear continues. There have been a few instances of candy tampering over the years-and in most cases the “victim” turned out to be the culprit, children doing it as a prank or to draw attention. Last year there were a few news reports about suspected tainted candy, and police determined that the incidents were hoaxes. In Philadelphia an 11-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy in who reported finding needles in their trick-or-treat candy admitted they made up the story for attention, and a 37-year-old father claimed to have found tainted candy in his kids’ loot; he later admitted it was a hoax and claimed that he put the needles in the candy to teach his kids a lesson about safety.

Fortunately, parents can rest easy: Despite the ubiquitous warnings on social media, there have been no confirmed reports of anyone actually being injured or harmed by contaminated Halloween candy from strangers.

3) Beware Halloween Terrorists

After the September 11, 2001, attacks, rumors circulated that mysterious Middle Eastern men were buying up huge quantities of candies just before Halloween. Many people were concerned that this might be part of a terrorist plot to attack America’s children, and the FBI looked into the case.Prompted by the public concern over potential terrorism, the FBI acknowledged that it was investigating the cash purchase of ‘large quantities’ of candy from Costco stores in New Jersey. A week before Halloween, on October 22, the FBI cleared up the rumors. It was one man, not two, who had bought $15,000 worth of candy, not $35,000. The man’s nationality was not revealed, so he may or may not have been Arab or dark-skinned or even had an ethnic name. As it turned out the man was a wholesaler who planned to resell the candy, and the purchase was a routine transaction that had nothing to do with terrorism.

4) Beware Sex Offenders on Halloween

Though the fears over poisoned candy (whether by malicious neighbors or foreign terrorists) never materialized, the reputed Halloween evil took a new form in the 1990s: sex offenders. This scare, even more than the candy panics, was fueled by alarmist news reports and police warnings. In many states, convicted sex offenders were required not to answer the door if trick-or-treaters came by, or to report to jail overnight. In many states including Texas and Arkansas offenders were required to report to courthouses on Halloween evening for a mandatory counseling session.

The theory behind such laws is that Halloween provides a special opportunity for sex offenders to make contact with children, or to use costumes to conceal their identities. This has been the assumption among many local politicians and police for years. Yet there is no reason to think that sex offenders pose any more of a threat to children on Halloween than at any other time. In fact, there has not been a single case of any child being molested by a convicted sex offender while trick-or-treating.

A 2009 study confirmed that the public has little to fear from sex offenders on Halloween. The research, published in the September 2009 issue of Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, examined 67,307 non-family sex offenses reported to law enforcement in 30 states over nine years. The researchers wanted to determine whether or not children are in fact at any greater risk for sexual assault around Halloween: “There does not appear to be a need for alarm concerning sexual abuse on these particular days. Halloween appears to be just another autumn day where rates of sex crimes against children are concerned.”

5) Beware Scary Clowns

In the wake of the scary clown panics across the country, several national stores including Target have removed scary clown masks from their shelves, and both kids and parents are asking children to both beware of people in clown costumes and to not wear scary clown masks. Several counties have banned scary clown costumes and masks this Halloween. As one writer noted, “A Kemper County, Mississippi’s Board of Supervisors voted recently to make it unlawful to wear a clown costume in public. The ban covers all ages and includes costumes, masks or makeup. The ban –which will expire the day after Halloween –comes at the request of the county sheriff… It comes after a series of reports from around the country and Alabama that spooky-looking clowns were threatening children and schools. Some of those reports were later debunked and a few led to arrests with concerns over the creepy clown phenomenon growing as Halloween approaches.”

Clown masks have also been banned from some New Jersey schools; as “USA Today” reported, “The West Milford Police Department has said there is no specific threat against the community. Still, there have been spotty and unsubstantiated reports on social media about people in scary clown masks lurking around township school yards in recent weeks.”

Fortunately so far there are no confirmed reports of children being seriously injured, abducted, or killed by anyone dressed in scary clown masks over the past few months. Most of the reports are hoaxes and copycats, usually by teenagers who have fun scaring people or seeing themselves on social media.

Halloween is scary enough on its own, between overpriced candy and sugar-sated kids.  The real threats to children don’t involve tampered candy, Satanists, scary clowns, terrorists, or sex offenders; instead they include being hit by a car in the dark, or wearing a flammable costume, or injuring themselves while walking on curbs because they can’t see out of their masks. Most kids are very safe at Halloween, and the average child is far more likely to die of a heart attack or be hit by lightning than be harmed in some Halloween-related menace.

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 

Oct 202019
 

 I’ll be giving a talk at the La Farge library in Santa Fe on “Ghosts of New Mexico,” so if you’re free stop by and learn about some Land of Enchantment folklore and spookiness!

You can find more information 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! 

Oct 182019
 

Earlier this year a West Virginia mother called 911 to report that an Arab man tried to abduct her five-year-old daughter at a mall. Police and mall security arrested the man (an engineer from Egypt who spoke little English), but surveillance footage showed no abduction attempt, nor even any interaction between the man and the girl. The mother was arrested for making a false report, and her trial date has now been set.

You can read my original article on it below and HERE. 

Social and news media have unfortunately seen a rise in two distinct toxic phenomena over the past year or so.

The first is a steady stream of white women calling police on minorities minding their own business in public spaces, in dozens of cases including a Starbucks, a public park, swimming pools, streetcorners, and the common area of university housing.

The second is a series of false rumors of child abductions, both across the United States and around the world; for more on this see my piece “Social Media-Fueled Child Abduction Rumors Lead to Killings” in the January/February 2019 issue of Skeptical Inquirer.

For example in June 2018, Joshua Hatley, a Kansas man, posted a message on Facebook with information claiming a black woman attempted to abduct his child at a local Walmart. Police first heard about the incident not from the panicked mother or father but instead from concerned citizens who shared the urgent warning on Facebook over 11,000 times and wanting to know if their children were also in danger. Police investigated the attempted abduction and reviewed the store’s surveillance camera footage but were unable to find any attempted abduction at all. Detectives showed the footage to Hatley, who eventually admitted that he hadn’t personally witnessed the incident—that it was reported to him by his sister-in-law. As more and more questions arose, police became concerned about the woman photographed and publicly accused on social media of trying to abduct a child. For more on this see my blog on the topic. 

Another recent incident with lessons about eyewitness testimony, social media rumor, and racial bias has surfaced. Santana Renee Adams, 24, a mother in Barboursville, West Virginia, called 911 to report that an Egyptian man tried to abduct her five-year-old daughter at a mall.

According to a news story,

“WSAZ reported that 54-year-old Mohamed Fathy Hussein Zayan, of Alexandria, Egypt, tried to grab the young girl by her hair while at an Old Navy store inside the mall at around 6 pm on Monday. The girl ‘dropped to the floor with the male still pulling her away,’ prompting the child’s mother to pull out a handgun and warning Zayan to let her daughter go. Zayan subsequently let go of the girl and ran out of the store into the mall. The Barboursville Police, who were called to the scene following the incident, said that a short time later, deputies and mall security spotted the 54-year-old walking near the food court area in the mall. After the mother confirmed that he was the man who tried to nab her daughter, the deputies moved in and arrested him.”

 

Police, however, could find no witnesses to the incident, and there were inconsistencies in Adams’s statements about the incident when they interviewed her a second time. After being confronted by police with inconsistencies, Adams conceded that what she interpreted as an attempted abduction may in fact have simply been a cultural misunderstanding… He had maybe simply touched her daughter on the head—instead of grabbing it and throwing her to the floor as she’d described—in a display that, while inappropriate, was neither an assault or an attempt at an abduction.

However that, too, was a lie. Zayan’s attorney, Michelle Protzman, reviewed security footage obtained from Old Navy and found “absolutely no evidence that Zayan touched the girl.” In fact Zayan and the girl weren’t even near each other in the store—and furthermore the mother was not seen pulling out a gun, as she’d claimed. Video surveillance showed Adams and Zayan walking out of the store, calmly and seemingly unperturbed, about half a minute apart and walking in opposite directions. Soon after that, however, Adams apparently—and retroactively—decided that the foreign man had (a few minutes earlier) tried to abduct her daughter, and called police.

The accused man is an engineer employed at a local construction job and speaks little English. After Zayan’s mug shot and the accusations against him were shared widely on news and social media, the charges were eventually dropped. “Instead of caring about facts and caring about evidence and the truth, I think the court of public opinion and social media don’t care about innocent until proven guilty and everyone jumps right on as soon as somebody makes an accusation,” Protzman said.

So we have an innocent Muslim man who never even touched the girl being falsely accused of an attempted kidnapping by the girl’s mother. Why would anyone—especially a mother—make up a false accusation of attempted abduction against a total stranger?

It’s not clear; the motivation could be racism, a misunderstanding caused by drugs or mental illness, or maybe just a desire to get attention and sympathy by casting herself as a heroic mom bravely brandishing a gun in defending her child from a stranger abduction (on social media she was hailed as a hero and as an example of why guns are needed when in public).

Whatever the motivation, last week Adams was arrested for filing a false report, a misdemeanor. Most people who make false accusations are not charged; of those who are charged, most are dismissed (the Jussie Smollett case being a recent example); and of those that are not dismissed, the penalties are usually very light, such as a fine or probation.

Though false accusations (of all crimes) are rare, they are especially egregious when they are used as a weapon against minorities, and a measure of skepticism is always important when facts don’t add up.

 

Oct 172019
 

Late last month police and parents expressed concern over the film Joker, and its possible influence on unhinged people. As ABC News reported, “The soon-to-be released psychological thriller Joker starring Oscar-nominated actor Joaquin Phoenix has prompted a ‘credible potential mass shooting’ threat on a movie theater somewhere in the United States, military officials warned in a memorandum issued this week. The alarming notice was sent out on Monday by military officials at Fort Sills Army base in Oklahoma, and was based on intelligence gathered by the FBI from the ‘disturbing and very specific’ chatter of alleged extremists on the dark web, officials said.”

It’s not just the FBI that’s concerned. As CNN reported, “A group of people whose loved ones witnessed or were killed in 2012’s Aurora theater shooting are calling on Warner Bros. to help combat gun violence as the studio prepares to release its rated-R comic book film Joker. In a letter addressed to Warner Bros. CEO Ann Sarnoff and obtained by CNN, five family members and friends of victims of the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado ask the studio to ‘use your massive platform and influence to join us in our fight to build safer communities with fewer guns … . Over the last several weeks, large American employers from Walmart to CVS have announced that they are going to lean into gun safety. We are calling on you to be a part of the growing chorus of corporate leaders who understand that they have a social responsibility to keep us all safe.’” 

The studio responded, in part, that “Warner Bros. believes that one of the functions of storytelling is to provoke difficult conversations around complex issues. Make no mistake: neither the fictional character Joker, nor the film, is an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind. It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero.”

The Dark Knight Shooting: A Closer Look

The Aurora, Colorado, killings are widely—but mistakenly—thought to have been inspired by the Joker character. On July 20, 2012, James Holmes opened fire at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, killing twelve people and injuring dozens more. He showed up, apparently in costume, as many others did for a midnight premiere screening of the much-anticipated Batman film The Dark Knight Rises.

The question immediately turned to motive: What would make a former university student commit such a horrific crime? The answer seemed obvious to many, and in the hours and weeks following the massacre, the news media was abuzz with speculation that the dazed-looking Holmes had been inspired to kill by the Batman film where he executed his rampage. Many in the public, including journalists, pundits, and even some police officials assumed that there was a clear connection to either the Batman film or its characters. Media critics in particular used the shooting as an opportunity to criticize violent entertainment: Did fictional shootings, killing, and mayhem involving clowns lead to real-life tragedy? 

The rampant speculation focused on several key pieces of evidence. It’s easy to see why people would jump to the conclusion that the film and the massacre were related, but it’s equally clear that the film itself did not inspire Holmes. The attack had been planned for months, starting long before the film had released; the audience he was part of, and that he fired on, was seeing the first screening of the film. 

Therefore, The Dark Knight Rises could not have inspired his violent shooting, because Holmes himself had not even seen it. The speculation then changed from suggesting that the film had inspired the killing to the idea that the film’s villain, Bane, had been his inspiration. Even though Holmes could not have seen the film, trailers and publicity photos had been published showing Batman’s nemesis, and he might have seen those and modeled Bane’s murderous actions and garb.

Holmes was dressed in a bulletproof vest and a riot helmet at the time of his attack, along with a gas mask; in the film, Bane also wears bulletproof armor and breathes through a mask (though not a gas mask). It could be seen as a case of a real-life fan dressing like a movie villain, or it could merely be a case of dressing appropriately for the plan of attack: if a person is planning to be in a shootout and use of a gas or smoke grenade, then a bulletproof vest and a gas mask are logical equipment for the purpose and have nothing to do with Bane. Still, the connection was far from clear, and the news media finally settled on a different, and seemingly much more likely, Batman villain: the Joker. 

Enter the Joker?

The speculation that James Holmes was inspired to kill in imitation of the famous fictional murderous clown rested on two pieces of evidence: the fact that Holmes had dyed his hair red or orange; and a claim made in news reports that just before he opened fire Holmes shouted “I am the Joker!” New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly stated at a press conference that “it clearly looks like a deranged individual. He had his hair painted red, he said he was ‘The Joker,’ obviously the enemy of Batman.” Such commentary launched a media frenzy; the New York Daily News stated that “the flame-haired freak accused of staging the Dark Knight movie massacre may have drawn inspiration from a twisted and even darker cinematic take on the classic Batman story…The 24-year-old accused mass murderer dyed his hair and declared he was the Joker—Batman’s arch-enemy—when was arrested shortly after the massacre.” An ABC News story added yet another element, “While there has been no indication as to the motives of James Holmes … new evidence suggests that he was inspired by the Batman series of comic books and/or movies. Law enforcement sources confirmed to ABC News that Holmes said ‘I am the Joker’ when apprehended by authorities. His hair was painted red [and] Holmes also booby-trapped his apartment, a favorite technique of the Joker.” 

DC Comics was of course aghast that their most famous fictional villain might have inspired a real-life mass murderer and immediately issued press releases expressing their condolences and outrage. The film’s opening was delayed, and Batman actor Christian Bale visited hospitalized shooting victims. It seemed to many that a real-life killer had indeed adopted an evil clown’s persona to carry out his crimes. 

However as the weeks and months passed, what at first glance seemed like a clear-cut case of a mass murderer playing the Joker turned out to be far weaker than assumed. The claim that Holmes was inspired by the Joker would be much stronger if, for example, he had worn a Joker costume (which are relatively inexpensive and easily available), or if he had been in clown makeup. He did not wear the Joker’s costume or any makeup at all. 

What about Holmes’s dyed hair? For many people that was a clear imitation of the Joker—but what the news media missed is that the Joker doesn’t have red hair. Neither Joker in the films (played by Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger) had red or orange hair: the Joker’s hair is—and always has been—green. If Holmes was imitating the Joker, he seems to have done a very poor job of it, neglecting to adopt the character’s makeup, hair color, costume, or any other characteristic of the iconic villain. In fact, Holmes didn’t use any part of the Joker’s image in the attack.

But what about the numerous reports stating that Holmes explicitly claimed to be the Joker? As John Miller reported on the CBS show Face the Nation, that initial claim “turned out not to be true.” In fact, Miller noted, “Every single witness that [the police] have spoken to, and that we [CBS News] have spoken to, has said that he did not say a word, he just opened fire. And in fact he was wearing a gas mask with a movie going on in the background so had he actually elected to say anything, no one would have heard him anyway.” Holmes never claimed to be the Joker or even invoked the character. 

Part of the confusion may have stemmed from a news report around the same time. There actually was a gunman who claimed to have shouted, “I am the Joker! I’m gonna load my guns and blow everybody up” in late July 2012. But it was a man named Neil Prescott, who threatened to shoot his coworkers in a mass attack at Pitney Bowes plant in Washington, D.C., one week after the Aurora theater attack on July 27. Ironically, this bit of information linking a Batman villain to a threat of mass killings also turned out to be a reporting error; news reports later clarified that Prescott referred to himself as “a joker”—not The Joker: he was not dressed like the villain, nor was there any connection to Batman. 

Claims about the Joker being an inspiration for Holmes’s massacre gradually faded as it became clear that the connection was little more than a media-created myth. There was no mention at all of the Joker during Holmes’s criminal trial in 2015; no Joker references surfaced despite extensive psychological examinations and investigations into the killer’s past and motives. Nor was the Joker mentioned in notebook diaries kept by Holmes as he wrote down his plans to kill as many people as he could—not in imitation of any clown but because of what he described as his “lifelong hatred of mankind.” Holmes pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and was sentenced to life in prison in August 2015. 

It is of course possible that someone might dress up as a clown and attack a screening of Joker (or any other film), but it would not be a true copycat crime of any Joker attack, because there never was an attack on a theater (or anywhere else) by anyone in a Joker or clown costume to mimic. There have been a handful of theater shootings, including a July 2015 incident in which a man named John Houser attacked the audience at a Louisiana screening of Trainwreck. But without some obvious referent to one of those shootings, there would be no reason to think it was a copycat crime.

Psychology of Copycat Clowns

As I discuss in my book Bad Clowns (University of New Mexico Press, 2016), there is a long history of people dressing as clowns to scare people or make viral videos. Shortly before Halloween 2013, a man was seen and photographed prowling the streets of Northampton, U.K., at night. The clown, dubbed “The Northampton Clown,” did not harass or attack anyone but seemed content to cause creepy consternation (and sometimes pose for photos, which were shared widely on social media). Other scary clowns emerged, including the Staten Island Clown in 2014, later revealed to be a publicity stunt for a horror film. Most of these scary clown reports are hoaxes, rumors, and copycats. But why would anyone—much less dozens of people—dress up as a clown to scare people?

For most of the copycat clowns, the prank is a high-yield, low-risk stunt: If he or she is successful, their photo or video will go viral and be included in news coverage; if unsuccessful, the clown will simply be ignored or, at most, arrested for a minor crime such as loitering or menacing. Scaring people out walking at night is not a high-priority crime. Most of the cases are people who are inspired by news stories of previous scary clown pranksters or reports. Many do it for fun or attention, and anyone reporting a clown sighting (real or fake) amid the national coverage is guaranteed a place on the local news, if not national attention. 

Threatening clowns are nothing new either: In September and October 2016, schools across the country were threatened by clowns. Responses to the threats—many of them originating (or shared) on social media—resulted in increased police patrols and in some cases full lockdowns. For example, police in Flomaton, Alabama, investigated what were deemed credible threats to students at the local high school that were shared via social media. A total of about 700 students at Flomaton High School and nearby Flomaton Elementary School were told to shelter in place while the schools, following protocol, were placed on lockdown for much of the day while dozens of police and other law enforcement officers searched the grounds for threats. The threats had originated from two Facebook accounts, “FLOMO KLOWN” and “Shoota Cllown”; the digital trail led FBI investigators to one adult and two teens. Twenty-two year old Makayla Smith was arrested for making a terroristic threat while posting as an evil clown and sentenced to five years of probation.

Despite the panic and concern, there were no reports of any clowns—or anyone dressed as a clown—actually shooting up schools. Many other cases turned out to be hoaxes and in some cases both adults and schoolchildren admitted to making up stories of seeing threatening clowns. An Ohio woman called police to report that she’d been attacked by a knife-wielding clown who jumped over a fence and cut her hand. Police investigated the report but found no evidence of any attack, and the woman admitted that she faked the attack as an excuse for why she was late for her job at McDonald’s.

As of today (weeks after the film opened) the feared threats never materialized, but it’s not surprising that authorities would take it seriously. Any other time reports of threatening clowns would likely have been ignored or dismissed, but these copycat clown incidents came at a time when very real terroristic threats and school shootings are in the news. Parents can take comfort that no clowns are actually trying to abduct or harm kids—not a single credible report has surfaced of any child being hurt or even touched by a threatening clown, nor have any Joker figures killed anyone. Still, police understandably err on the side of caution, deciding it’s better to be safe than sorry. 

We also discussed this on a recent episode of Squaring the Strange. 

This article first appeared on my CFI blog, which can be found HERE.

Oct 082019
 

We’ve all seen it on social media, especially Facebook. Some friend, or “friend,” or friend of a “friend,” posts a news story. Because it’s social media, the story is often selected (by human nature and algorithms) for its outrage factor. Amid the kitten videos and funny or cute memes, the news stories most likely to be shared are those that push people’s buttons—sometimes good news but more often bad news, tragedies, disasters, and the obligatory political outrage du jour. 

You read the headline and may Like or Share, but in the back of your head the news story may seem vaguely familiar … didn’t that happen years ago? In a world of twenty-four-hour news, it’s hard to remember, and on some level a lot of the stories sound (or are) basically the same: Someone killed someone in a gruesome way or because of some toxic motive. Trump said something that provoked (real or feigned) outrage. Some country implemented some new law affecting minorities. And so on. Even if it happened before, it must have happened again. 

Not long ago you could be reasonably certain that news was in fact news—that is, it happened recently and was “new.” But one of the consequences of getting news filtered via social media (as more and more people do) is that news organizations are further and further removed from their audiences. On television, in newspapers, or on news websites, the information is direct; you’re reading what a journalist (who presumably has some credibility to maintain) has to say about some given topic. News editors as a rule value breaking news, not old news. Unless it’s a special case (such as an anniversary of some significant event) or a retrospective, old news very rarely appears on broadcasts or on reputable news sites except in clearly-designated archives. 

On social media, of course, news is filtered through our peers and friends. Often it’s legitimate “new news,” but increasingly it’s old news misrepresented, mistaken for, or disguised as new news. This is a media literacy challenge, because old news is often fake news and shared by well-meaning people. News sharing on social media is less about the content of that story than it is about symbolic endorsement, or what’s been called virtue signaling. Liking or Sharing a news story doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve read it—much less understand it or can intelligently discuss it—but instead it’s often used as a visual badge representing your social and political views. If you’re concerned about environmentalism, social justice, immigration, politics, or anything else you can remind everyone where you stand on the issue. It’s sort of like bumper stickers on the information superhighway.

The Epistemology of Fake News

To understand why old news is often fake news, let’s take a brief look at epistemology, or the nature of knowledge. All of science is subject to revision and further information; new studies and research may always throw “facts” into the “former facts” category.

Science does not deal in absolute certainties, and it is possible—despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary—that smoking does not cause lung cancer, for example, and that humans are not contributing to global warming. Decades of research have established a clear causative link between these variables (smoking and lung cancer, human activity and global warming), but they are not 100 percent definitive; nothing in science ever is. 

Facts are only true at a certain time and under a certain set of circumstances. But the world is constantly changing, in ways both miniscule and dramatic, thus a fact about the world is accurate as of that time. It was once a fact that there were forty-eight states in the United States, but that no longer a fact; there are now fifty (including commonwealths). It was once a fact that the capital of the African state of Rhodesia is Salisbury; but Rhodesia no longer exists, and therefore that fact is a former fact, or more accurately the fact has been slightly changed to maintain its accuracy: “The capital of Rhodesia was Salisbury” remains a true fact. 

The point is not to revel in pedantry—though I’ve been accused of doing as much—but instead to note that many facts that we have incorporated into our knowledge base have changed and may no longer be true. That Texas is south of Canada has been true my entire life, but that my friend Amy is unmarried has not (she got married a few years ago). There are countless other examples, and they show why “is” and “was” are important distinctions, especially when it comes to news stories. Rehashing old news as new blurs the line between the two, sowing unnecessary confusion about what is true and what was true at one point (but may no longer be). 

This does not at all suggest that facts are subjective, of course, or that each person (or political party) is entitled to their own facts. But keeping in mind the important caveat that many people don’t read past the headline of a given news story, we see that recycling headlines makes misleading people likely. People don’t constantly update their knowledge about the world unless they have to, and thus typically rely on old (often outdated) information. 

Samuel Arbesman discusses this issue at length in his 2012 book The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date. He notes that “Ultimately the reason errors spread is because it’s a lot easier to spread the first thing you find, or the fact that sounds correct, than to delve deeply into the literature in search of the correct fact … . Bad information can spread fast. And a first-mover advantage in information often has a pernicious effect. Whatever fact first appears … whether true or not, is very difficult to dislodge … . It’s like trying to gather dandelion seeds once they have been blown to the wind.” The best way to stop the spread of misinformation is Skepticism 101. “There is a simple remedy: Be critical before spreading information and examine it to see what is true. Too often not knowing where one’s facts came from and whether it is well-founded at all is the source of an error. We often just take things on faith.”

We all know that recycling is good in the context of natural resources, for example. Good ideas can be recycled, because, as they say, there’s nothing new under the sun, and what works (or doesn’t) at one point in time, in a specific set of circumstances, may work (or fail) at another time under a different set of circumstances. At one point, for example, developments for electric cars were prematurely proclaimed dead (as seen in the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?) but today is a growing business. News stories are a different beast. 

Recycling Bad News

The news media go out of their way to emphasize bad or alarming news (“if it bleeds, it leads”), but social media compounds the problem. For the past year or two, I’ve noticed news articles from reputable sources shared on Facebook and other social media as if they were recent. Articles from 2015 and 2016 have been revived and given a new life, often shared and spread by people who didn’t know (or care) they were recycling old news. 

This is misleading because the posts rarely if ever include the date, instead showing merely the headline and perhaps a photo and the first sentence. So when unflattering events about Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, or anyone else circulate, they are likely to take on a second or third life. Sometimes the events themselves are clearly dated (tied, for example, to election results), but it’s often political stories putting a prominent person in a bad light that tend to get recycled. A news story about a natural disaster is unlikely to get intentionally seen again, because no one benefits from fooling others into thinking that another devastating earthquake recently hit Mexico, for example. 

But a news story about a single specific incident of, for example, a Muslim group killing innocent Christians, or vice-versa, may be revived multiple times over the years, giving the illusion that the events keep occurring when in fact it may have been a one-time event. News organizations would not intentionally present past events as recent news, precisely because people assume that what they’re seeing in news feeds is both timely and important. Social media users, on the other hand, have no qualms about sharing old or misleading content if it promotes some pet social or political agenda. To conservatives, old news stories that make Obama or Clinton look bad are just as relevant and useful today as they were nearly a decade ago. To liberals, old news stories that highlight Trump’s corruption or incompetence are equally useful. (The Russians, for their part, are just happy to stir up divisiveness.)

Information can always be weaponized, but old news is by its nature often weaponized; it’s recirculated for a reason. It’s not information for the sake of knowledge; it’s information that misleads for a purpose and shared by those trying to support a greater good.

 

You can read the rest HERE!

Oct 042019
 

So this is cool: I appear in a new documentary film titled “Wrinkles the Clown,” about a creepy clown in Florida who scares kids (often at their parents’ request). It’s a fascinating, weird story, and you can hear my voice in the official trailer (link in story below). The film will be released Oct. 4 in theaters and streaming, so look for it this weekend!

Here’s what Nerdist has to say:

Between It Chapter Two and the upcoming Joker, it is safe to say creepy clowns are having a moment again. Thanks to Deadline, we’ve learned about a new documentary about a real life terrifying clown that has been haunting the nightmares of kids for years. Wrinkles The Clown is all about a Florida clown who found a whole new career being hired by parents to scare the crap out of their misbehaving kids. Well, we hope the kids were misbehaving, or else this is just plain mean.

You can see the first trailer for Wrinkles The Clown down below:

Wrinkles first rose to internet fame several years back. It all started when a grainy low-resolution video of a terrifying clown slowly coming out from underneath a child’s bed was posted on YouTube. It quickly went viral, and suddenly the legend of Wrinkles the Clown was born. There were Wrinkles sightings across the state of Florida, freaking locals out. And kids calling what they believed to be Wrinkles’ phone number and seeing if he’d pick up became a rite of passage, much like saying “Bloody Mary” five times in front of a mirror was for previous generations. Only in this case, Wrinkles actually was a real guy.

This new documentary from filmmaker Michael Beach Nichols explores the man behind the terrifying mask, a man who inspired a wave of copycat “creepy clown sightings” all across America not long after. It will explores how quickly urban legends can take hold in the age of YouTube and social media. Even as such, things are easier to debunk as hoaxes than ever before… 

 

 

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! 

Check it out! 

 

Sep 282019
 

There’s a play being produced in London next month based (in some small part) on my book Investigating Ghosts!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s titled “A Study in Fear” and you can see the cover of my book being projected to the left of this actor in the photo below.

Unfortunately I won’t get a chance to see it performed, but I hope to meet the writer and cast during a rehearsal. For more info: https://www.facebook.com/newstagers/

 

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! 

Sep 252019
 

The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! First we talk with Dr. Hans House about infectious diseases (flu, ebola, measles, etc.), as well as how to deal with vaccine deniers. Then we’re joined by Kenny Biddle to talk about faked credentials, and I talk about an undercover investigation I did exposing a Canadian college professor who faked his diploma!

You can listen HERE! 

Sep 232019
 

I’m quoted in a new article on ghost investigation and different psychological explanations for ghostly experiences. 

Here’s an excerpt:

Despite decades of testing, there is no scientific proof of the existence of ghosts. Part of that is because no one can agree on what a ghost is, exactly. Are they material? Or invisible? Are they human souls? Or some kind of energy? As LiveScience’s Benjamin Radford writes, “With so many basic contradictory theories — and so little science brought to bear on the topic — it’s not surprising that despite the efforts of thousands of ghost hunters on television and elsewhere for decades, not a single piece of hard evidence of ghosts has been found.”

You can read the rest HERE! 

For those interested, I wrote a chapter on Psychology of the Ghost Experience in my book Investigating Ghosts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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! 

Sep 212019
 

How a fictional missing girl led to a massive police search that terrified a community. My recent article takes a closer look at a recent child abduction rumor and panic in England…

 

A mother recently claimed in a Facebook post that an eight-year-old girl had been abducted by two men in a white van in Felling, England, and asked those in her neighborhood to be on alert. It understandably caused alarm—despite the fact that the victim did not exist. 

Rumors about the kidnapping were widely shared on social media; for example, one post began with the requisite plea for viral status: “XXXXX URGENT SHARE SHARE SHARE XXXXX: A 7-year-old girl has been kidnap from outside of the church next to Carl gills in Felling, Gateshead. Police have helicopters and officers in the area. She is wearing black leggings and pink purple top hair is blonde brown. She has been taken by two men in a white van. Registration is for a black car but it is a white van using false plates  AP04 USH” 

 

Fig 1

Indeed, thirty police officers swarmed the area in cars and helicopters looking for the missing girl but found nothing. Police spent hours reviewing CCTV footage from the area—England is the most heavily surveilled country in the world, with four to six million CCTV cameras in public places—and saw no abduction or even any attempted abduction. Even more puzzling, no children were reported missing from the area.

While police investigated, social media buzzed with thoughts and prayers for the girl and her (nonexistent) distraught family, with hundreds of sentiments such as “Hope she’s found soon” and “I hate this world and the horrid people who live in it.” 

Fig 2

Tracing the Social Media Abduction

The incident is an interesting one from folkloric and investigational points of view and merits a brief analysis. Reporting from The ChronicleLive website is especially useful, as it provides a rough timeline of its coverage

  • “There is a police presence in the area and widespread reports circulating on social media about a young girl being ‘kidnapped’ in a van outside a church near Coldwell Street.”
  • “One man told us: ‘I’ve been told they’re looking for an eight year old girl who has gone missing.’ Most people don’t seem to know what has happened but many reference a post on Facebook which claims a girl was kidnapped from near the Felling Methodist Church… A mother finishing her shopping said: ‘We don’t know what’s happened, just hearsay about a little girl. The police seem to be talking to people.’” 
  • “The police then released a brief statement: ‘Police are carrying out enquiries after reports of a suspicious incident in Gateshead. At about 8.15pm police received a report of a girl being forced into a white van on Coldwell Street, Felling.’”
  • “Duty Inspector Pete Dedes spoke to the crowd: ‘We have 30 officers actively looking behind the scenes, more doing community reassurance. We are trying to get to the bottom of this. At present there is not a child reported missing in the Northumbria Police area’ Minutes later the police clarify the vehicle they’re searching for, in response to a query: he said there had been rumours of a black car, but that their report had been about a white van.” 
  • “Gina Willison says police have taken CCTV from her newsagents’ shop. She’s one of the many people who have been really shaken up by this. She said: ‘I’ve got a son myself and I texted his dad saying Don’t even let him into the garden—feels like you’re not safe on your own doorstep. On the one hand I hope to god it’s a hoax, but on the other hand if it is a hoax it’s sick.’”
  • “Rumours are flying at the scene and on social media; there are some people online claiming they know someone who saw what happened, others say they’ve heard that the girl who was reported to be ‘abducted’ has been found. It’s a panicky atmosphere at the scene and people are desperate to know what has happened, but no one does yet. We’ll update you as soon as we know anything concrete and official, but in the meantime an extensive police investigation remains ongoing and it is important to continue to note that no child has been confirmed as missing at this stage. We are reporting only what has been confirmed from official sources and will continue to do so.” 

 

A Closer Look

The mother who posted the item, Angela Wilson, eventually admitted to police that she didn’t know if anyone had been abducted or not but had merely repeated what her young daughter told her: “My child was outside playing with three friends, they all thought they saw, or heard, an abduction…. She didn’t see it herself, but that she heard the screaming.” 

Thus screaming was interpreted as an abduction. Shouting and yelling children are of course common in playgrounds, parks, and anywhere else children gather to play, and the mere sound of a scream—if indeed it was a scream—would not necessarily indicate that anything bad was going on. A shriek of terror can sound exactly like a shriek of glee. But Wilson’s daughter and her friends duly mentioned it to her, and she in turn took to social media to warn others. 

This solves one mystery but raises additional questions: If the children didn’t actually see any abduction—or even anything that could have been mistaken for an abduction such as perhaps a man putting his tantruming child into a vehicle—then how could they (or anyone else) have described the girl or her abductors and their vehicle? A shriek may or may not indicate an abduction, but it doesn’t offer any description. 

It’s not clear who introduced the “black leggings and pink purple top” and “blonde brown hair” descriptions, much less the license plate number of the abducting vehicle. Thankfully it seems that no actual specific person was falsely accused in this incident—though it does happen; more on that later—but what if that license plate happened to be registered to a van (especially a white or black one) and a mob surrounded its presumed pedophilic, child-snatching occupants? 

While some people (including journalists) recognized that much of what was circulating was unverified rumor, misleading news headlines seemed to officially confirm that a kidnapping had indeed occurred, regardless of whether the particulars were correct. For example, one headline read “Police Confirm Report of ‘Girl Being Forced Into Van’ On Street,” which surely led many readers to believe that the abduction they’d been hearing about had been “confirmed.” Yet a closer reading notes merely that the police “confirmed” that they were investigating the incident (which frankly was obvious from the police presence)—not affirming that it happened. 

Fig 3

 

Once the report was determined to be false, a predictable mixture of relief and anger flooded social media. The abduction (seemingly validated by headlines and the very public police presence) had caused considerable alarm in the community, and the news that evil men in vans weren’t lurking in the neighborhood to snatch children was widely welcomed. But others criticized Wilson for lying or perpetrating a hoax. As is often the case, people fell into the false-choice fallacy of assuming that the abduction either a) was real and had happened more or less as described or b) that someone was intentionally lying about it or hoaxing. Yet there is a third option—one that’s more common than either of the others: a misperception or misunderstanding, amplified and twisted by social media. 

It’s interesting to note that no one involved felt they had done anything wrong. The daughter and her friends were, understandably, not punished for making a false report. Wilson received some criticism on social media for her role but defended her actions: “We were all very worried, obviously I’ve panicked and, thinking I’m doing a good thing, put it on Facebook, because at that time I was convinced it had happened. Imagine if something had happened and I hadn’t done anything. I wouldn’t have been able to forgive myself… I didn’t expect it to get out of hand so quickly… I’m not lying, I would not make that up, it would be absolutely sick for somebody to do that. I’ve got my own children, I was doing what I thought was right, any mother would do the same. We were out in the back lane searching like everybody else.”

Wilson’s error was not in reporting it to police (apparently she herself did not contact the police with the report; someone else who had seen her post on social media decided to do it for her) but instead in posting the warning on social media, essentially circumventing proper investigational procedures. Rumors and gossip have always circulated informally, outside official channels of information; the fact that it now appears in typed words on a smartphone or computer screen instead of whispered over a backyard fence or a round of beers lends it undeserved credibility—and gives it an unprecedented potential audience. Had there been an actual abduction, Wilson’s actions would likely have hindered the effort to recover the little girl because police had to dedicate resources to pursuing spurious reports, rumors, and dead ends. 

At each stage people justified their lack of skepticism by erring on the side of caution; even those who had some reason to doubt that anyone had been kidnapped likely took a “better safe than sorry” approach, seeing no harm in sharing the information on social media—and potentially saving a girl’s life if the information was true and the right person happened to see it and be in the right place at the right time. 

But like all social media posts, people should exercise critical thinking and judgment before sharing information. Some of it may be true, but often seemingly credible information—especially “breaking news updates” about child abductions—is false and in many cases has led to innocent people being accused or even attacked by vigilantes. In 2018 and 2019, dozens of people were killed in India when mobs set upon suspected child abductors they’d been warned about in bogus messages on social media (for more on this, see my article “Social Media–Fueled Child Abduction Rumors Lead to Killings” in the January/February 2019 issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine). The ChronicleLive newspaper, to its credit, recognized that much of the information being circulated was either rumor, unverified, or flat-out false and stated as much. 

In classic rumor and moral panic pattern, the specifics of the story constantly changed, sometimes by the minute. Was it a white van or a black sedan? Was it one or two men? Were the men white in a white van, or black in a white van, or white men in a white sedan, or black men in a black sedan? Such crucial details can and do easily become confused: urgency, not accuracy, is the mandate in such circumstances. Fact-checking be damned, we’ve got vans of child-snatching pedophiles to be alert for, and often one scapegoat looks as good as the next. 

 

False Rumors Often Target Minorities

False rumors of child abductions have become increasingly common over the past few years as more and more people turn to social media to share warnings. 

Fig 4

Unfortunately these false warnings often target racial and religious minorities. In June 2018, a Kansas man posted a message on Facebook with information claiming that an African American woman had attempted to abduct his child at a local Walmart. When contacted by police and shown video evidence that nothing had happened, he admitted that he hadn’t personally witnessed the attempted kidnapping he described but was merely reporting what his wife had told him about what his sister-in-law had told her about what she claimed she saw. This game of rumor telephone might be cute in a classroom but had real consequences: photos of the falsely accused African American (and her vehicle) were widely shared on social media, branding her as a potential child abductor (or worse). 

A year later, in April 2019, a mother called 911 to report that an Egyptian man had tried to abduct her five-year-old daughter at a mall in West Virginia. The man, Mohamed Fathy Hussein Zayan, was confronted at gunpoint by police and mall security and arrested. Further investigation and review of video surveillance revealed that Zayan had never even touched the girl, much less tried to abduct her. Thus an innocent Muslim man who never even touched the girl was falsely accused of an attempted kidnapping by the girl’s Caucasian mother. There are countless other examples, but it’s important to recognize the harm that false reports can do to innocent people, and especially people of color. 

There are many other cases, and these are not isolated incidents. Despite common “Stranger Danger” warnings, child abductions are very rare. Not only are children rarely kidnapped, but the vast majority of abductions are carried out by one of the child’s parents, relatives, or a caregiver. The image of white vans carrying men (people of color or otherwise) lurking around town to abduct kids is more of a social Boogeyman than a reality, and false abduction rumors only fuel fear and panic. As always, the best defense against misinformation is skepticism and media literacy. 

Adapted from my CFI blog “A Skeptic Reads the Newspaper.”

Sep 152019
 

Squaring the Strange time! This started off as a little bonus mini-episode where we have a little roundtable about some frustrating patterns of thought we have spotted on social media and other types of public discourse; some have actual fallacy names, some don’t necessarily have a label. Lo and behold, once we got chatting it turned into a regular length episode.

Just a bit less formal. Hope you enjoy; you can listen HERE! 

 

Aug 152019
 

This is part three of a three-part series. You can read the rest of the series here.

Mass shootings have 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 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?”). 

In this three-part series I focus on myths about mass shootings in America specifically. My focus is not on the politics of gun control or criminology but instead misinformation and media literacy, specifically as it is spread through news and social media (“the media” in this article). A comprehensive analysis of the phenomenology of mass shootings is beyond the scope of this short article series; my goal is to help separate facts from common myths about mass shootings so that the public can better understand the true nature of the problem. 

In Part 1 of this series, I tackled the nature and frequency of mass shootings; in Part 2, I examined the demographics of mass shooters. Here I conclude with an overview and examination of how we can apply media literacy and critical thinking to mass shooting statistics.  

Racial Biases in Mass Shooting Coverage

We can begin by noting a racial disparity in the amount of attention that mass shootings get, especially on social media. As described in Part 2, many or most victims of mass shootings are African American, yet the shootings that tend to receive the greatest coverage involve white victims—and usually a white perpetrator (statistically most killers and their victims are of the same race). 

This disparity is the result of several factors. The first is that there is not a single type of “mass shooting” but instead three types (familicides, felony, and public mass killings), each with their own distinct patterns (see Part 2). Because of sensationalist and alarmist news media coverage, only the rarest type, the public mass shooting, is often thought of by the public as a “mass shooting.” There are of course several reasons for this, including the relatively high body count; twenty people killed in a single shooting will generate far more media coverage than four people dead. 

As described in Part 1, this is because of what social psychologist John Ruscio calls “the media paradox”: The more we rely on the popular media to inform us, the more apt we are to misplace our fears. The paradox is the combined result of two biases, one inherent in the news-gathering process, the other inherent in the way our minds organize and recall information. The more emotional and vivid the account is, the more likely we are to remember the information. This is the first element, the vividness bias: Our minds easily remember vivid events such as horrific school shootings and mass murders. The second bias lies in what psychologists term the availability heuristic: Our judgments of frequency and probability are heavily influenced by the ease with which we can imagine or recall instances of an event. So the more often we hear reports of plane crashes, school shootings, or train wrecks, the more often we think they occur. 

The bias that selects those very events makes them appear more frequent than they really are. But such shootings are relatively rare, while far more common “ordinary” (e.g., family and felony) mass murders largely pass under the radar. Omar Mateen killing forty-nine people in a nightclub made international news for months, but ten other murderers in ten different cities (each killing four or five people in domestic incidents or drive-by shootings) over the course of a month won’t make national news.  

Compounding this bias, mass shootings with white victims tend to get more attention, both from journalists and those on social media, than those with victims who are people of color. This is a well-known pattern and explains why the public is quicker to react to a missing young blonde girl than a missing young black girl (for more on this, see my book Media Mythmakers). Such shootings also tend to be among the most notable and dramatic, such as the Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz, Thousand Oaks nightclub shooter Ian Long, and others. This perception is intentionally amplified by memes attempting to debunk a real or perceived media and social bias that systematically downplays shootings by white males and highlights shootings by minorities. 

But if we care about people of color and what violence is doing to our communities, we need to pay attention to their deaths too. Unfortunately there seems to be a cultural blindness; perhaps it makes white people uncomfortable to discuss mass shootings that overwhelmingly victimize black people. The bulk of violent crime is not black on white or white on black but instead white on white and black on black—the opposite of what racists often suggest. 

Among the recent examples of public mass shootings with victims of color whose murders got far less media coverage than those of white killers:

  • At a mass shooting at a Maryland Rite Aid warehouse on September 20, 2018, six people were attacked by coworker Snochia Moseley, three of them killed. Most of the victims were minorities and foreigners, including people from Nepal, the Dominican Republic, and Nigeria. 
  • Serial shooter Aaron Saucedo killed nine people and wounded three others in mass shootings in Phoenix, Arizona, in July and August 2016; his victims were mostly people of color. 

White vs. Black, Crazy vs. Terrorist?

In recent years a common criticism of the news media is that Caucasian mass shooters are described (by journalists, police, and others) as mentally ill (implying perhaps sympathy or an excuse, though it’s not clear that such a designation absolves any responsibility in the public’s mind) while people of color are deemed to be terrorists

One specific meme, adapted from a Family Guy episode, depicts with dark humor a skin color guide—held, notably, by a white hand—describing how to determine whether a given suspect should be considered either “mentally disturbed” or, alternately, a “terrorist.” This binary distinction implies that it refers specifically to high-profile violent acts such as mass shootings or bombings. (Of course the meme contains a false-choice fallacy; mass shooters may be widely described as neither or both. This is perhaps taking the meme too literally, though it presumably accurately reflects a widespread belief about an important social truth, otherwise it wouldn’t be widely shared.)

Mental Health Tweet

 

Elsewhere I explore the truths and myths behind why a given act may be designated as terrorism; I note that in many cases white attackers are indeed labeled terrorists by journalists, police, and others. It’s also true that white mass shooters are often described as mentally ill.

But how accurate is this specific disparity? Are white mass shooters typically described as mentally ill while black ones are instead typically “terrorists”? Despite gaining widespread currency on social media, it seems no one has researched this specific question, though I endeavored to quantify the issue. 

In 2013, Diamond Sharp, a writer for the African American publication The Root, assembled a list of “Rare Gunmen: Black Mass Shooters.” She listed the following seven black mass shooters. 

1) Colin Ferguson attacked commuters on a Long Island train in 1993, killing six people and injuring nineteen others with a 9 mm handgun. Not only was he widely described in news reports as mentally ill, but his lawyers claimed he was not guilty by reason of insanity. 

2) Omar Thornton shot and killed eight former coworkers at a Connecticut distribution center before turning a gun on himself in 2010; it was the deadliest workplace mass shooting in Connecticut history. A forensic psychologist commenting on the shooting stated that such attacks occur “because of longstanding psychological or characterological disorders.” 

3) Mass shooter Maurice Clemmons killed four police officers in Parkland, Washington, in 2009. He had a long history of violence, including sexual assault on a child and burglary. He was described in news reports as mentally ill, at one point telling psychologists that he suffered from hallucinations, including “people drinking blood and people eating babies, and lawless on the streets, like people were cannibals.” 

4) Aurora, Colorado, mass shooter Nathan Dunlap shot five employees at a restaurant, killing one of them, in December 1993. Dunlap was reported in the news media as having suffered from mental illness and was diagnosed at age fourteen with a mood disorder. Dunlap was sentenced to death in 1996 and in his appeal complained that his lawyer had not fully emphasized his mental illness. 

5) and 6) John Allen Muhammad, perhaps America’s best-known mass shooter, was better known as the Beltway Sniper. Along with accomplice John Lee Malvo, Muhammad killed ten people over the course of three weeks in 2002. Because of the terror that the killings caused, he was charged with terrorism. He was also publically described by his attorneys and the news media as mentally ill, though he was ruled competent enough to stand trial in March 2006. As reported in the Chicago Tribune (December 12, 2003) and elsewhere, psychiatrists testified that Malvo was also mentally ill and not guilty by reason of insanity.

7) The final black mass shooter on The Root’s list is Christopher Dorner, a Los Angeles police officer who attacked seven people, killing four and wounding three others in February 2013. Though he died before he could stand trial, Dorner left an extensive rambling manifesto complaining about racism, politics, and his perceived scapegoating when he reported another officer’s misconduct toward a mentally ill man. He quotes Mia Farrow and D.H. Lawrence; praises a long list of celebrities including Chris Matthews, Bill Cosby, Tavis Smiley, and others (Charlie Sheen is “effin awesome”); he lists “THE MOST beautiful women on this planet, period” (including Jennifer Beals, Natalie Portman, Kelly Clarkson, Margaret Cho, and Queen Latifah); gives musical shout-outs (Eric Clapton, Bob Marley, Metallica, etc.); and so on. Recognizing that his mass murder spree would likely end in his death, he also lamented the fact that he would not live to see The Hangover 3

He also addresses those he plans to kill and explains his motives: 

Terminating officers because they expose a culture of lying, racism (from the academy), and excessive use of force will immediately change. The blue line will forever be severed and a cultural change will be implanted. You have awoken a sleeping giant. I am here to change and make policy. The culture of LAPD versus the community and honest/good officers needs to and will change. I am here to correct and calibrate your morale compasses to true north …. I never had the opportunity to have a family of my own, I’m terminating yours. Look your wives/husbands and surviving children directly in the face and tell them the truth as to why your children are dead. 

Dorner was widely described by officials and news media as mentally ill, with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa stating that “Whatever problem [Dorner] has is mental” and a February 9 Associated Press news article describing Dorner as “severely emotionally and mentally disturbed.” In fact the characterization of Dorner as mentally ill was so prominent that some even complained about it; one writer, Thandisizwe Chimurenga in the L.A. Watts Times (February 21, 2013), complained that “The Media Tried to Assassinate Chris Dorner [with descriptions] of ‘Mental Illness.’” 

Of course white mass shooters are also widely described as being mentally ill, which is hardly surprising considering that public mass murder is an inherently abhorrent and irrational act, and anyone—regardless of race—who commits it is immediately and understandably suspected of not being in his right mind. We can easily conceive of an escalating fight over a specific beef resulting in a single death, but there is no valid reason or justification to kill multiple innocent people. 

It’s notable that 100 percent of the African American mass shooters profiled in The Root article were publicly described in mainstream news media—often by police officials, family members, and sometimes even the shooters themselves—as being mentally ill. I, of course, don’t suggest that the list is representative or comprehensive; it only includes shooters as of 2013 (though given the rarity of black public mass shooters overall, it’s unlikely that there are a significant number of exceptions), but it seems a reasonable representative sampling of the public mass shooter demographic. 

A review of more recent examples reflects the same pattern. Aaron Alexis, a mass shooter who killed twelve people and wounded three others at the Washington Navy Yard in 2013, was widely reported to have suffered from mental illness, including schizophrenia and hearing voices. Radee Labeeb Prince, who killed three people and injured three others in Aberdeen, Maryland, in 2017, was widely described in the news media as being mentally unstable. His half-sister was quoted describing him as angry, paranoid, and “a psychopath” who should have been committed to a mental health facility. DeWayne Craddock, a Virginia Beach man who killed twelve people at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center in June 2019, was described in The New York Times as having recently mentally “snapped.” 

An African American woman, Shana Decree, and her daughter Dominique killed five family members in February 2019; news media, including USA Today, referenced the elder Decree’s mental health issues, including hearing voices urging suicide. Gary Martin walked into a warehouse in Aurora, Illinois, in February 2019, opening fire on five coworkers and wounding another five police officers. He died in the shootout; the Chicago Tribune, among other news media, reported his history of mental illness. Mass shooter Snochia Moseley, mentioned earlier, was widely reported in news media, including the Baltimore Sun, to have been diagnosed with mental illness in 2016. 

This is not an exhaustive list, but even a cursory review demonstrates that African Americans and other minority mass shooters are indeed often described in the news media as having mental illness issues, viral memes to the contrary notwithstanding. 

This does not, of course, suggest that news coverage is race-blind. As I noted earlier, many studies have found, for example, that journalists are more likely to describe a white mass shooter as coming from a good environment (evoking a bogus and biased “What went wrong?” narrative) while describing African American ones as being inherently more dangerous and “bad.” My argument here is specifically that when it comes to labeling mass shooters as either terrorists or suffering from mental illness, despite popular belief there’s little clear difference between the races. 

The simple fact is that most mass shooters, regardless of race, are described as mentally ill (assuming of course they are and sometimes even if they’re not). Even if further research found that white shooters are more often described as having a history of mental problems than minorities, it would hardly be surprising. Whites are more likely than blacks to get quality healthcare, including mental health care and screenings, which in turn makes whites more likely to have been diagnosed and treated for mental illnesses. In other words, it’s not that mental illness is necessarily overrepresented in white shooters (or media coverage of them) but instead that whites are more likely than blacks to have benefitted from the privilege of a healthcare system that would have caught or treated the problems. Racial bias can be discerned in the system—just not in some ways many people assume.

Mental Health and Mass Shooters

Mental illness is heavily stigmatized and not seen as a moral absolution; the widely publicized mental health problems of mass murderers such as Stephen Paddock did not elicit sympathy from the victims or anyone else. The idea that police authorities or journalists selectively disclose or emphasize the mental illness history of whites to make them sympathetic or somehow excuse their crimes has no clear basis in fact. 

The focus on mental illness as an important factor in mass shootings is in many ways a distraction from the deeper issues. As with other mass shooter demographics (see Part 2), there is little insight to be gained by focusing on the mental health history of mass shooters. There are several reasons for this, perhaps most prominently that most mass shooters across all categories do not have a prior history of mental health treatment. Contrary to popular perception, most mass shootings have a reasonably clear motive; in the two most common categories described by Fridel (see Part 2), family and felony mass murders, are rooted in personal grievances (divorce, custody battles, etc.) and criminal activity (drive-by shootings, drug deals, etc.). 

Fridel table

For felony mass murders, just under 2 percent of the offenders had such a history; for family mass murders the number rises to 16 percent, and about a third of public mass murderers had received mental health treatment. This means, of course, that two-thirds of them did not. One study (see Vossekuil et al. 2002 in Further Reading at end of article) found that only a third of mass shooters ever received a mental health evaluation, and 17 percent had been diagnosed with a mental disorder. The researchers also found that most mass shooters had no history of prior violent or criminal behavior. 

Again we see how focusing on the exceptional anecdote misleads us. Several mass and school shooters had suspected or diagnosed mental deficiencies. Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook Elementary School killer, was said to have had Asperger’s syndrome, as did Christopher Harper-Mercer, who killed nine at an Oregon community college in 2016.

The fact is that mentally ill people are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it. Social justice advocates may feel like they’re doing good by shining a light on the presumed disparate social diagnoses of the roots of violence, but focusing on the role mental illness (whether alone or in contrast to terrorism) plays in mass shootings only further stigmatizes a vulnerable and marginalized group. 

Going Postal (Or Not): Fabricating ‘Trends’ from Statistical Noise

Not long ago the focus was less on mental health than career choice—specifically working at the Post Office. As we have seen, the news media play an important role in shaping the public’s perceptions, especially of risk. One example is the phrase “going postal,” which began as a dark humor slang phrase and was soon popularized by prominent newspapers in 1993, including the Los Angeles Times and the St. Petersburg Times. Though there have only been about a dozen cases of Postal Service workers killing themselves, coworkers, or others over the years, the phrase came to represent any workplace killing. 

It’s important to keep the numbers in perspective; at any given time the United States Postal Service employs over a half million people full time, including clerks, drivers, delivery personnel, and managers. In addition there are part-time workers, contractors, and others hired during the holidays. The list of current and former post office employees reaches into the millions, and some tiny percentage of those will be involved in homicides simply by random chance. 

A 2000 “Report of the United States Postal Service Commission on a Safe and Secure Workplace” examined the relative risk of working at the post office and found that its employees were in fact one-third less likely to be killed at work than those in other jobs. In fact, “Of the 15 instances of post office homicide between 1986 and 1989, only four were judged to be purely work-related. Fourteen of the killers had problems such as substance abuse, mental illness, a violent past, or a criminal record.” The commission’s chairman, Joseph A. Califano, Jr., noted in the report that “‘Going postal’ is a myth, a bad rap. Postal workers are no more likely to physically assault, sexually harass, or verbally abuse their coworkers than employees in the national workforce.” 

Curiously, the once-common phrase “going postal” has largely faded from public parlance. It’s almost as if the spate of shootings at post offices and among postal workers was an anomaly, a statistical quirk instead of a genuine trend. The criminologists and statisticians were right all along, while the journalists who blithely cobbled anecdotes together onto the next “terrifying trend” were wrong. At the time the threat of a postal worker “going postal” was taken very seriously and was not recognized as statistical noise. It was only with time and closer analysis that the true nature of this threat was revealed.  

Mass Shooters and the Mass Media 

One of the most influential—yet least-discussed—commonalities among public mass shooters is the role that the media play. Perhaps the most reliable predictor of future mass shootings is … media coverage of past mass shootings. Researchers have found that mass shootings (as well as the threat of mass shootings) are strongly correlated with earlier recent mass shootings—typically within two weeks. Thus part of the solution, ironically, is restraint in covering and promoting the stories on social media. In recent years, police and politicians have begun to recognize this effect and take steps toward trying to stem the influence of mass shooters. 

In June 2019, after DeWayne Craddock killed a dozen people in Virginia Beach, the police chief refused to repeat the shooter’s name. “We’re going to mention his name once, and then he will be forever referred to as ‘the suspect,’” Chief James Cervera said at a press conference. Though there is no national policy on denying shooters the fame they crave (at least in some small measure), other law enforcement officials have done the same, as did New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardernfollowing a horrific mass shooting at mosques in the capital of Christchurch in March 2019. 

As The New York Times reported:

Explicit evidence of “fame seeking” exists for nearly half of the deadliest mass shootings since 2010, according to Adam Lankford, a criminology professor at the University of Alabama, who presented his data at a National Science Foundation workshop in April. His research found that 90 percent of high-fatality shootings have some circumstantial evidence of a desire for attention. “The evidence supporting these types of strategies is stronger than ever before because we have more cases and more data,” Dr. Lankford said. “And law enforcement is also increasingly desperate to do something that would make a difference.” 

In the end, mass shootings will continue. Perhaps one day, through a blend of legislation, media restraint by journalists (who refuse to name killers and sensationalize their crimes) and social media users (who refuse to create and perpetuate agenda-drive myths and misinformation about mass shootings), or some other measure, they will decrease. But until then the best antidote to the fear and misinformation is critical thinking and media literacy. 

Further Reading

Adams, Cecil. 2007. Are U.S. Postal Service workers more likely to ‘go postal’? The Straight Dope(March 9). Available at https://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2697/going-postal/. 
 
Beckett, Lois. 2016. Most victims of US mass shootings are black, data analysis finds. The Guardian(May 23). Available at https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/may/23/mass-shootings-tracker-analysis-us-gun-control-reddit. 
 
Blinder, Alan, Amy Harmon, and Richard Oppel Jr. 2019. Virginia officials will not utter name of ‘the 13th person.’ The New York Times (June 4): A15. 
 
Cai, Weiyi, and Jugal Patel. 2019. A half-century of school shootings like Sandy Hook, Columbine, and Parkland. The New York Times (May 11). Available at https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/05/11/us/school-shootings-united-states.html.
 
Duxbury, Scott, Laura Frizzell, and Sade Lindsay. 2018. Mental illness, the media, and the moral politics of mass violence. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 55(6): 766–797.
 
Emery, David. 2018. How many school shootings have taken place so far in 2018? Snopes.com (February 16). Available at https://www.snopes.com/news/2018/02/16/how-many-school-shootings-in-2018/. 
 
Engber, Daniel. 2017. Mass shooters aren’t disproportionately white. Slate.com (October 6). Available at https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2017/10/what-the-white-mass-shooter-myth-gets-right-and-wrong-about-killers-demographics.html. 
 
Hay, Mark. 2017. What I learned tracking every mass shooting in America and Europe in 2016. Vice.com (January 3). Available at https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/bmn438/what-i-learned-tracking-every-mass-shooting-in-america-and-europe-in-2016

Ingraham, Christopher. 2016. We have three different definitions of ‘mass shooting’ and we probably need more. The Washington Post (February 26). Available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/02/26/we-have-three-different-definitions-of-mass-shooting-and-we-probably-need-more/. 

Vossekuil, B., R.A. Fein, M. Reddy, et al. 2002. The Final
Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of
School Attacks in the United States. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Secret Service and
U.S. Department of Education.

 
Aug 122019
 

This is part two of a three-part series. You can read the rest of the series here.

With the recent tragic attacks in El Paso and Dayton, 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?”).

In this three-part series I focus on myths about mass shootings in America, as they represent a common concern. My focus is not on the politics of gun control or criminology but instead misinformation and media literacy, specifically as it is spread through news and social media (“the media” in this article). A comprehensive analysis of the phenomenology of mass shootings is beyond the scope of this short article series; my goal is to help separate facts from myths about mass shootings so that the public can better understand the true nature of the problem.

Specifically, in this series I tackle 1) the nature and frequency of mass shootings, 2) the demographics of mass shooters, concluding with 3) applying media literacy to mass shooting statistics. You can find Part 1 here.

In this part, I examine truths and myths about the demographics of mass shooters. In the previous article I discussed why mass shootings statistics can be contradictory and confusing, especially because of differing definitions of what constitutes a mass shooting (for example numbers of victims involved).

Different Types of Mass Shootings

Just as there are differing definitions of mass shootings, there are different types of mass shootings. One recent analysis by Emma Fridel in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence (discussed in more depth later) identified the three most common types of mass shootings: Family killings, felony killings, and public mass killings.

 

Fridel cover ILLO
Fridel

 

  • Familicides represent the most common form of mass murder and are principally defined by a close victim-offender relationship. Perpetrators are typically White, middle-aged males who target their spouse or intimate partner, children, and other relatives (Fridel 2017, 3).
  • Felony killings are distinguished by motive. Murder is used to achieve some primary criminal objective, typically involving financial gain. … Due to their general lack of sensationalism, felony killings are not widely publicized despite representing the second largest category of mass murder. Perpetrators of felony mass murders tend to be young black or Hispanic males with extensive criminal records (Fridel 2017, 7).
  • Despite their extreme visibility, public mass killings account for the smallest proportion of all mass murders. Formally, these incidents are defined by attack location. Public mass killers are a heterogeneous group and are frequently delineated into several subtypes. Public murderers are often stereotyped as middle-aged white men who have suffered a series of failures in different areas of life, though some research indicates a disproportionate number of immigrants commit public massacres (Fridel 2017, 5). These public mass shootings are what most people (wrongly) consider as typical of mass shootings.

Fridel found that blacks commit twice as many felony mass shootings as whites (50.49 percent versus 22.33 percent), so it’s not surprising that blacks are overrepresented in this group:

In most instances, the murders serve to eliminate witnesses of a robbery, drug crime, or gang-related attack. Due to their general lack of sensationalism, felony killings are not widely publicized despite representing the second largest category of mass murder (Krouse & Richardson, 2015). Perpetrators of felony mass murders tend to be young Black or Hispanic males with extensive criminal records (Lankford, 2016b). With frequent ties to the drug trade or gangs, they operate in pairs or small groups in urban areas (Fox & Levin, 2015; Petee et al., 1997). As the primary purpose of murder is to cover up another crime, felony killers leave few survivors and generally claim four or five victims on average, similar to family killers (Duwe, 2007). … As with homicide in general, most victims are the same race as the offender(s). [References can be found in the original article.]

 

Fridel table ILLO

 

One of the highest-profile recent mass shootings was a felony killing, the murder of a young African American girl, Jazmine Barnes. On December 30, 2018, the seven-year-old Houston girl 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. The investigation carried over into the new year as the public and police searched desperately for her killers. Harris County Sheriff’s Office announced that Eric Black Jr., a twenty-year-old black man, had been arrested for the shooting. Black admitted to being the driver in the car, while Larry Woodruffe—also a black man in his twenties—fired the fatal shots into the Barnes’s vehicle. It was a gang-related drive-by shooting, and the pair had mistaken Washington’s vehicle for their intended target.

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. As Lois Beckett noted in The Guardian:

A new analysis of 358 mass shootings in America in 2015 found that three-quarters of the victims whose race could be identified were black. Roughly a third of the incidents with known circumstances were drive-by shootings or were identified by law enforcement as gang-related. Another third were sparked by arguments, often among people who were drunk or high. The analysis, conducted by the New York Times with data collected by Reddit’s mass shooting tracker and the Gun Violence Archive, used law enforcement reports on shootings that left four or more people injured or dead in 2015. Few of the incidents resembled the kinds of planned massacres in schools, churches and movie theaters that have attracted intense media and political attention. Instead, the analysis, defined purely by the number of victims injured, revealed that many were part of the broader burden of everyday gun violence on economically struggling neighborhoods. … Many gang-related mass shootings began as fights over small incidents of perceived disrespect.

As noted, truly random violence (involving mass murder or otherwise) is quite rare; shootings almost always emerge from personal conflicts and grievances, between friends, lovers, coworkers, and so on.  

Dueling Demographics

But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Many news headlines suggest instead that white males account for most mass shootings. Newsweek, for instance, ran a story with the headline, “White men have committed more mass shootings than any other group.”

Politifact examined this claim and found it be technically true, with some important caveats:

Newsweek based its claim on data from Mother Jones, which defines a public mass shooting as an incident in which the motive appeared to be indiscriminate killing and a lone gunman took the lives of at least three people. Under this definition, Mother Jones found that non-Hispanic white men have been responsible for 54 percent of mass shootings since August 1982. Another tally, with a longer timeline and a different definition of mass shooting, found non-Hispanic white men make up 63 percent of these attacks. Under both definitions and datasets, white men have committed more mass shootings than any other ethnicity group. Newsweek’s claim is literally accurate. But it’s worth noting the imprecision of this data, and the percentage of mass shootings by white men is lower than their share of the male population, according to Mother Jones.

It’s also important to note that the Newsweek and Mother Jones analysis only examined one of the three types of mass shootings—public mass killings—which also happens to be the rarest type, though the kind most conforming to social assumptions and expectations.

Despite the widespread perception that mass shooters are overwhelmingly white males, researchers have found that white men are not overrepresented among mass shooters. In other words, white men are no more likely than other male demographic to engage in a mass shooting. Daniel Engber, writing for Slatenoted that mass shooters are not disproportionately white male. He writes that “the notion that white men of privilege are disproportionately represented among mass shooters—indeed, that they make up ‘nearly all’ of them—is a myth.” A widely referenced analysis by Mother Jones (mentioned earlier) found that “white people weren’t overrepresented among mass shooters. The media outlet had found that roughly 70 percent of the shooters in mass killings were white—certainly a majority. But according to Census Bureau estimates for 2012, whites accounted for 73.9 percent of all Americans.” In other words, there are more white men in America than there are Asian, black, or Hispanic men, and therefore there are more white shooters. This, too, is unremarkable and expected, though the nuance is lost on many who claim, for example, that “90% of mass shootings are committed by whites.”

The Slate article goes into some detail about differing statistical analyses, and I recommend it for an insightful glimpse into just how different methodologies—each as valid as the next—can result in different numbers. In the end, Engber notes:

The whites-are-overrepresented-among-mass-shooters meme does serve a useful purpose in that it helps displace another myth about mass shootings: that they’re most often perpetrated by angry immigrants from travel-banned countries, and that nothing is more dangerous to America that the scourge of Islamic terrorism. … These are worthy ends, but we shouldn’t have to build another myth to reach them.”

In other words, as skeptics and critical thinkers know, debunking a myth with another myth is a problematic path. We can all agree that mass shootings are a serious social problem—and that the threat posed by immigrants and Muslims are often greatly exaggerated—without fabricating factoids about how common white (or black) male mass shooters are. It’s not a zero-sum game.

Men in general and across cultures commit more violence than women do—whether in the context of a mass shooting or a fistfight—so that’s no surprise. Beyond that, the collective data suggest that, across all three types of mass shootings, the races commit mass shootings at about what we’d expect based on their representative demographics. No single race emerges as an obvious mass shooter threat.

Nevertheless, some memes circulating on social media go so far as to claim that white males are solely responsible for mass shootings; one from Occupy Democrats circulating in July 2018 claimed “154 mass shootings this year and not one committed by a black man or an illegal alien. Let that sink in.” It’s a bold and damning claim—and it’s also completely false.

 

Mass misinformation on mass shootings

 

As we saw in the first article in this series, there is no single universal definition of “mass shooting,” so there is not a single “correct” number of mass shootings in America. As with “school shooting,” it depends on how you count them. Do you mean armed adults or teenagers showing up at a school with the intent to kill students, or do you mean a police officer’s accidental weapon discharge after hours in an empty college parking lot in which no one was injured? Or gunfire at a bar near campus in a drunken altercation?

Looking at school shootings specifically, a recent New York Times analysis identified 111 cases since 1970 “that met the F.B.I.’s definition for an active-shooter scenario, in which an assailant is actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people, on school property or inside school buildings. It excluded episodes that fit more typical patterns of gun violence such as targeted attacks, gang shootings and suicides.” It also excluded incidents at colleges and universities.

It found that the majority of shooters were young white males (average age about fifteen), many of them current or former students of the schools where they opened fire. The analysis noted that such “active shooter” incidents, though generating much media coverage, “account for only a small fraction of the episodes of gun violence that children experience in American schools. Other cases might include a student showing off a gun to friends in the hallway, the accidental discharge of a school resource officer’s gun, or a gang-related drive-by shooting at a school bus stop.”

Examining January 2019 Mass Shootings

To independently investigate a limited sample of mass shooter demographics, I chose a widely referenced database, the Gun Violence Archive. The Gun Violence Archive (GVA) is “an online archive of gun violence incidents collected from over 2,500 media, law enforcement, government and commercial sources daily in an effort to provide near-real time data about the results of gun violence. GVA is an independent data collection and research group with no affiliation with any advocacy organization.” I chose GVA for several reasons: it is continually updated and provides not just a summary of incidents but links to original news reports, which can be analyzed for additional information about locations, circumstances, demographics, and so on. In addition, the GVA is open-sourced, so anyone can easily confirm the results.

GVA ILLO

A full year of mass shootings would be too many to quickly and efficiently analyze, so I chose the most recent full month (in this case, January 2019), which would presumably be fairly representative of other months. The crime rates for many specific offenses vary by season (for example, summer nights provide more hours of social interactions—and by extension robberies and assaults—than winter nights), but there seemed no reason why the number and nature of mass shootings in January, for example, would be dramatically different than those in March or May. (Should other researchers believe that month was unrepresentative for some reason I welcome similar analyses of other months or the full year.)

I found a total of twenty-seven American mass shootings in January 2019. Of those, two were home invasion shootings in Houston, Texas: one in which several would-be robbers breaking into a home were shot by the homeowner, and the second when police raided the wrong house and came under fire from the (innocent) occupants within. Neither of these fit the typical image of a “mass shooter” threat or categories, so both were omitted from the dataset, bringing the total to twenty-five. I read news reports about the incidents and recorded when the race of the suspect was mentioned. There were four categories: white, black, other (Hispanic, Asian, etc.), and unknown.

Of the twenty-five mass shootings in the Gun Violence Archive database for January 2019, 16 percent (four) of them were committed by white males; 4 percent (one) was committed by a Hispanic man; 64 percent (sixteen) were committed by African Americans; and in 16 percent, or four cases, the attacker’s race is unknown. As described by Fridel, most of these incidents fell into the felony and familicide categories, and the profile of perpetrators seems to track well with those demographics.

Interestingly, a meme circulating January 27, 2019, highlighted three mass shooters that month—all of whom were white males, in fact three of the four that month. They were likely chosen to make a specific political point—in service of debunking myths about “dangerous” immigrants and minorities—but they were cherry picked and not representative of mass shooters generally. Thus, it’s not surprising why social media users are misled; they are seeing intentionally misleading information.

Mislead meme ILLO

There Is No ‘Typical’ Mass Shooter

There is no single accurate profile of a mass shooter. It really depends on what type of mass shooting you’re talking about. Several of the highest-profile mass shootings in recent memory (the rare “public mass killing” category) were committed by white males, such as the 2017 Las Vegas attack by Stephen Paddock. But much beyond that, the stereotype breaks down; Muslim man Omar Mateen killed forty-nine people at a Florida nightclub in 2016 on behalf of a terrorism group; white male Adam Lanza killed twenty-seven people in 2012 at an elementary school, though Asian student Seung-Hui Cho killed thirty-two people on the Virginia Tech campus in 2007. And so on.

The New York Times noted that “As convenient as it would be, there is no one-size-fits-all profile of who carries out mass shootings in the United States. About the only thing almost all of them have in common is that they are men. But those men come from varying backgrounds, with different mental health diagnoses and criminal histories.” Mass shootings with white victims tend to get more attention, both from journalists and those on social media, than those with victims who are people of color. This is a well-known pattern and explains why the public is quicker to react to a missing young blonde girl than a missing young black girl (for more on this see my book Media Mythmakers).

Focusing on the statistically rare but high-profile mass shootings makes for sensational news coverage and concern but doesn’t address far greater dangers. Similarly, focusing on the handful of high-profile mass shootings in which dozens are killed at a time—or for that matter serial killers, who prey on multiple victims over months, years, or decades—doesn’t help the public determine their individual risk. Any one of us could be killed at any moment by a mass shooter or serial killer, but the chances of it happening are so remote that it’s pointless to worry about, and there’s not much we can do to prevent it anyway.

The question of the “typical mass shooter profile” is a red herring. As simplistic and satisfying as it would be, no single demographic emerges from the data as “the typical mass shooter.” It depends on what type of mass shooting you’re looking at, but in any event, focusing on the race or gender of mass shooters is not helpful for the general public; it is not predictive of who is likely to engage in gun violence. 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. Unless you’re a criminologist or social scientist aggregating data, it doesn’t really tell you anything useful. It doesn’t help you decide who to watch out for and who to avoid. The percentage of mass shooters in any demographic is vanishingly small, and the chances of being killed in a mass shooting is even smaller.

In the last of this series I’ll examine the ways in which media literacy and critical thinking can help the public sort fact from fiction regarding mass shootings.

Reference

Fridel, Emma E. 2017. A multivariate comparison of family, felony, and public mass murders in the United States. Journal of Interpersonal Violence (November 1).

 

Part 3 will appear soon. 

Aug 102019
 

This is the first part of a three-part series examining mass shootings from a critical thinking and media literacy perspective.

With the recent tragic attacks in Dayton and El Paso, the world once again turns 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?”).

In this three-part series, I will focus on myths about mass shootings in America specifically. My focus is not on the politics of gun control or criminology but instead misinformation and media literacy, specifically spread through news and social media (“the media” in this article). A comprehensive analysis of the phenomenology of mass shootings is beyond the scope of this short article series; my goal is to help separate facts from myths about mass shootings so that the public can better understand the true nature of the problem.

Specifically, in this series I will tackle 1) the nature and frequency of mass shootings, 2) the demographics of mass shooters, and concluding with 3) applying media literacy to mass shooting statistics. As with any topic, the best place to start is with definitions, so I will begin by taking a closer look at the nature and frequency of mass shootings.

How Common Are Mass Shootings?

Mass shootings, and especially the subset of shootings at schools, are often portrayed in the media as “horrifyingly common” and “the new normal.” Sarcastic phrases and memes such as “another day, another school shooting” reinforce the idea that they happen all the time. Following many outrages—ranging from school shootings to real or perceived un-American actions by Donald Trump and others—it’s common to hear concerns that Americans are “numb” to terrors and that the transgressions are becoming so routine and “normal” that citizens have lost their ability to be outraged.

However, the reaction to school shootings suggests that Americans are anything but numb or indifferent to the violence. People do not protest against events, situations, and conditions that they consider normal or ones that they are numb to. Protests and boycotts have become common following school shootings (whether those have resulted in political action is another question).

The concern that Americans are numb to violence is widespread and often shared on social and news media. It’s a common claim among pundits and politicians. For example, in an October 1, 2015, speech shortly after a shooting in Eugene, Oregon, President Obama said that given the frequency of mass shootings, people had “become numb to this. … And what’s become routine, of course, is the response of those who oppose any kind of common-sense gun legislation.”

The Washington Post followed up two months later with an article titled “President Obama’s Right: Americans Might Be Growing Numb to Mass Shootings. Here’s Why.” The piece explores a few reasons a steady stream of violence could desensitize the public. The author, Colby Itkowitz, did himself no favors by referencing dubious and discredited theories about the influence of video game violence on real-world violence (Donald Trump was widely and rightly ridiculed for suggesting just such a link).

So are mass shootings common or not?

Dueling Headlines

The public is understandably confused about how common mass shootings are because they get their information about such events from the media, which distorts the true nature and frequency of these attacks.

Most of us, thankfully, have no direct experience with mass shootings or school shootings; they happen occasionally and result in dead bodies, trials, news coverage, and often convictions—but there are also 325 million people in America. The chance of some person, or a few dozen people, being a victim of a mass shooting somewhere in the country on any given day is nearly 100 percent, but the chance of any given specific person—say you or me—being a victim is remote.

Let’s briefly sample prominent headlines from the past few years describing the frequency of mass shootings.

2015

The Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham wrote on August 26, 2015, that “We’re now averaging more than one mass shooting per day in 2015.” The New York Times headlined on December 2, 2015, “How often do mass shootings occur? On average, every day, records show.”

The verdict: about one each day, or 365 per year.

2016

In 2016 The Economist, using information from Mother Jones, determined that there were fifty mass shootings through June 2016, which would come to about 100 for the year. Mark Hay, a writer for Vice.com, tracked American mass shootings for 2016 and concluded it was over three times as many, 370. (Note that the Pulse nightclub shooting, which occurred in 2016, is treated as a single mass shooting despite its then-unprecedented number of victims.)

The verdict: between one every third day to one each day, or 100 to 370 per year.

2017

mass shooting cbs headline

A CBS News headline from October 2, 2017, by Graham Kates stated “Report: U.S. averages nearly one mass shooting per day so far in 2017.” Newsweek’s John Haltiwanger echoed the statistic the same day with the headline “There’s a mass shooting almost every day in the U.S.”

mass shooting common

The verdict: about one each day, or 365 per year.

Which brings us to last year, when on November 29, Meghan Keneally of ABC News noted that “2018 has seen more than 1 mass shooting per month in the US.” This is of course startlingly good news. It means that mass shootings dropped by about 70 percent from the previous years, from about 365 per year to about thirteen per year.

Except that the numbers are misleading.

The Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham, who had reported in 2015 that mass shootings were happening about once a day, revisited the subject the following year, taking a closer look at the numbers. He offered an insightful analysis:

On Thursday, a gunman shot and killed three people and injured 14 more in Hesston, Kan., before he was killed by police.

It was the 49th mass shooting of 2016.

No scratch that, it was the 33rd mass shooting.

Actually, wait: It was only the second mass shooting this year, and it barely made the cut.

It’s said that the Inuit people have 50 words for snow. Sometimes it seems like Americans have nearly as many definitions for “mass shooting.” Which definition is correct? They all are—it just depends on what you want to measure.

Limiting mass shootings in this way is useful because it tends to filter out all but the big, headline-grabbing incidents that most people think of when they think “mass shooting”: Kalamazoo, Charleston, Umpqua.

But the definition omits a number of shootings that many reasonable people would consider a mass shooting. The man who shot up a theater in Lafayette, La., last summer killed only two people and wounded nine others—not a mass shooting, per Mother Jones’ definition. The killing of three people and shooting of 16 others at Fort Hood in 2014 isn’t included because not enough people died. Ditto the rampage at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic last year.

WP mass shooting count
Screen capture from Ingraham article

Vice’s Mark Hay agrees:

It seem that many mass shootings are an extension of other types of violence. Some of the bloodiest stem from domestic violence incidents, while some of the most common occur in the tight confines of nightclubs or just outside their doors. Many more stem from drive-bys or other street or home shootings, frequently pegged as gang related but often just interpersonal conflicts carried out on an opportunistic basis (often on holidays and weekends when people are out and about—and perhaps angry and liquored up) and made disproportionally deadly by the spray-and-pray style and culture of much of our gun violence. Only a few incidents fall under the indiscriminate rampage category, with which we often associate mass shootings in the US … Yet the only mass shootings that regularly grab our attention and drive national conversations are the indiscriminate public rampages. And when we talk about them, we focus on the perpetrators … This focus makes sense. Humans are drawn to the unusual—news isn’t news unless there’s something new about it, and common forms of gun violence don’t hack it compared to boogeymen we can project all our fears onto. However this focus has a nasty habit, in many jurisdictions, of increasing gun sales and loosening gun laws, and may in fact contribute to the ongoing increase in rampage shootings by giving perpetrators the infamy so many seem to be seeking.

Why Mass Shootings Seem More Common Than They Are

Why do shootings seem so common? Much of the answer lies in the news media and psychology. John Ruscio, a social psychologist at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, describes “the media paradox”: The more we rely on the popular media to inform us, the more apt we are to misplace our fears. The paradox is the combined result of two biases, one inherent in the news-gathering process, the other inherent in the way our minds organize and recall information. As Ruscio explains:

For a variety of reasons—including fierce competition for our patronage within and across the various popular media outlets—potential news items are rigorously screened for their ability to captivate an audience. … The stories that do make it through this painstaking selection process are then often crafted into accounts emphasizing their concrete, personal, and emotional content.

In turn, the more emotional and vivid the account is, the more likely we are to remember the information. This is the first element, the vividness bias: our minds easily remember vivid events. The second bias lies in what psychologists term the availability heuristic: our judgments of frequency and probability are heavily influenced by the ease with which we can imagine or recall instances of an event. So the more often we hear reports of plane crashes, school shootings, or train wrecks, the more often we think they occur. But the bias that selects those very events makes them appear more frequent than they really are.

Imagine, for example, that a consumer group dedicated to travel safety established a network of correspondents in every country that reported every train and bus wreck, no matter how minor, and broadcast daily pictures. Anyone watching that broadcast would see dozens of wrecks and crashes every day, complete with mangled metal and dead bodies, and would likely grow to fear such transportation. No matter that in general trains and buses are very safe; if you screen the news to emphasize certain vivid events, accidents will seem more dangerous and common than they actually are. That explains, in part, why many people fear flying even though they know that statistically it’s one of the safest modes of transport. Though crashes are very rare, the vividness and emotion of seeing dramatic footage of crashed planes drowns out the rational knowledge of statistical safety.

As The New York Times reported:

James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, said his research showed the number of such shootings has roughly held steady in recent decades. He said that if analysts added a single year, 2014, and looked at four-year intervals instead of five-year intervals, the average number of annual mass shootings actually declined slightly from 2011 to 2014, compared with the previous four-year period. … While the numbers shift from year to year, there has been no discernible trend in the numbers or in the characteristics of the assailants, said Professor Fox, who is also a co-author of Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder. “The only increase has been in fear, and in the perception of an increase,” he said. “A lot of that has been because of the nature of media coverage.”

School Shootings

Another aspect of the phenomenon is that people see (and share) misleading statistics. For example, a widely shared meme circulating in mid-February 2018 stated that there had been eighteen “school shootings” so far in 2018. This may help explain the sentiment that Americans have gotten used to these school shootings or have become “numb” to them. It’s easy to think that when you hear an alarming statistic like “a dozen school shootings already this year,” and you’re wondering why you didn’t hear about more of them or how so many shootings could have escaped your attention or not had more emotional impact on you.

Both USA Today and a researcher for the Snopes website investigated and debunked the claim of eighteen school shootings, noting that:

When we looked into it, we found that although all the incidents involved the firing of weapons on school grounds, some bore little resemblance to what most of us would think of when we hear that a school shooting has taken place. Two were solely suicides, for example (one of which Everytown retracted on 15 February after the Washington Post pointed out that it occurred at a school that had been closed for several months). Three involved the accidental firing of a weapon. Eight resulted in no injuries. Only seven were intentional shootings that occurred during normal school hours.

When we examine this feeling, however, the fact that such a meme can elicit this (intended) effect undermines the notion of our numbness: the meme’s message is startling—as it was designed to be—because viewers are alarmed when confronted with the fact that so many shootings escaped their notice. This meme would have no effect at all if, indeed, viewers did not care about shootings. It would be met with a shrug and scrolled past rather than induce self-reflection. Instead, the meme caused many to wonder how they missed so many important news events—but did they?

It’s important to understand that the number reflects a very broad definition of “school shooting.” When you look at the breakdown of “school shootings,” you realize that many were not incidents you’re likely to have heard about on national news or really cared about if you had: a suicide in a school parking lot, a gun that accidentally went off into a wall, a school bus window shot out with no injuries, etc. The phrase, as defined by the organization Everytown for Gun Safety—whose statistics are widely quoted—includes not only active shooters targeting students at school (i.e., what most people think of when they hear that phrase) but also accidents, suicides, events that didn’t happen at a school, non-injury incidents, and so on. People shouldn’t feel badly that they don’t remember details of events they likely never heard about.

Some have suggested that it doesn’t matter whether there were one, three, eleven, or twenty shootings at schools or cities over the first two months of 2018; “even one is too many.” This is a common retort, but it is misguided; quantifying a threat is important to understanding it. That’s the position that Trump has taken on many threats to make Americans fearful, including attacks by Muslim extremists, and that’s the basis for his statements such as Mexicans are “bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Framing the scenario dishonestly as “one Mexican rapist is too many” clouds the issue rather than clarifying it with reliable data (such as the fact that immigrants are far less likely to commit a serious crime than natural-born Americans). Putting threats in perspective is one role of journalists and skeptics. A first step in trying to address or solve a problem is determining its scope and nature.

In Part 2 of this series I will examine the different types of mass shootings and the demographics of mass shooters.

Jul 182019
 

It was a bold and brash attack on innocent girls that outraged the world and spawned unprecedented online activism: Boko Haram, an extremist Muslim group in Nigeria, abducted about 276 schoolgirls from a rural secondary school in the town of Chibok on April 14, 2014.

Since that time about half have been recovered, and over 100 remain missing despite an international outcry and hundreds of celebrities demanding that the group #Bringbackourgirls. Despite the presence of advisors and special forces troops from countries including the United States, Canada, England, and France, the location of the kidnapped girls remains unknown—or if it is known, it has been deemed too difficult a location to stage a successful rescue mission.

Though the Chibok girls got international attention, they were not the only victims. As The New York Times Magazine described, many thousands of boys were also abducted and conscripted into Boko Haram’s ranks, forced to pillage, shoot innocent people, and at times behead their victims. Missing girls typically get more media attention than missing boys, and this was no exception.

Bringing Back Our Girls and Boys

So what happened? How has Boko Haram been able to defy a half-dozen of the most powerful nations in the world for half a decade? There are several reasons.

First, rooting out the group has been much more difficult than American and Nigerian officials expected. The region where the captives were taken is remote and vast—including the rugged Sambisa Forest where surveillance drones are of little use—and where the Nigerian government has limited influence. Many also blamed Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan for not accepting international assistance sooner.

Second, the limits of hashtag activism became apparent; sharing outrage on social media felt empowering to many shortly after the abduction but did not translate into any real effect. The collective outrage of the Western world was irrelevant to Boko Haram, who reveled in the attention and recognition. Celebrities including Justin Timberlake, Sean Penn, and Bradley Cooper joined the campaign; Timberlake, for example, tweeted an image holding signs that said “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls”—a well-intended effort based on the dubious premise that militant Muslim terrorists can be shamed into questioning their masculinity by wealthy American actors and pop stars.

First Lady Michele Obama was one of many prominent celebrities to embrace the cause, and the fact that the wife of the most powerful man in the world addressed the group in a viral May 7 photo posted to social media asking for the return of its hostages gave Boko Haram legitimacy it sought.

The online community soon lost interest when positive results weren’t forthcoming. As days turned to weeks and months to years, the demand to Bring Back Our Girls faded. Most of those who initially shared the pleas on social media soon moved on to other causes and other concerns, including ALS water dunkings and outrage over the police shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri. Other important international news stories took precedence.

Third, political and ethical pressures have prevented the return of the kidnapped girls. There have been several opportunities to bring back the captives, but none of them were politically viable for Nigeria and the United States. For example one option would be to simply buy the girls back from Boko Haram, since they were captured to be sold as slaves. While this would safely reunite the girls with their families and achieve a peaceful end to this hostage situation, this would put both countries in the position of participating in the slave trade and trafficking of humans—which of course is illegal and morally abhorrent.

American officials could reframe the situation to avoid the slavery aspect by simply referring to the girls as “hostages” (regardless of what Boko Haram wishes to call them), and proceed to negotiate for their release, as governments around the world often do (whether they publicly acknowledge it or not). Informal overtures were made to Boko Haram about the possibility of making a deal for the girls’ return. Some have expressed outrage at the practice, saying it encourages kidnapping and rewards terrorism, but the simple fact is that governments negotiate with terrorists all the time while officially denying it. The reason is simple: if a group has hostages you want returned alive and unharmed, there are very few options. Like it or not, the best way to get the desired outcome is to negotiate the release of hostages. Anything else, including—and especially—an armed military attack is likely to leave dozens of people (both terrorists and hostages) dead, which the government will likely be blamed for.

Not only has Boko Haram refused to release its hostages as demanded, but their power has grown. Abductions and attacks have continued; as a CNN timeline shows, the group’s power remains. The Obama administration was understandably distracted by serious conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Russia, and elsewhere, and the Boko Haram hostage situation created a very thorny political and ethical dilemma that the Trump administration has shown no appetite for tackling. The parents of the kidnapped girls, of course, don’t care whether Nigeria and the Western countries set political precedents or appear to appease terrorists or buy slaves. They just want their children returned.

You can see the original version of this article HERE.

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 

Jul 102019
 

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.

You can see the original article HERE.

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 

Jul 072019
 

For those who didn’t see it, special guest SciBabe recently joined us to examine Multi Level Marketing (MLM) and pyramid schemes on the new episode of Squaring the Strange. MLM crap annoys us so Celestia spent plenty of time bleeping out choice curse words!

Ben and Celestia are joined by the SciBabe, Yvette d’Entremont, to discuss the scourge of MLMs (Multilevel Marketing) companies. These organizations, some of the bordering on pyramid schemes, have a long and storied history in America. Many target women, often seeming like a good option to stay-at-home mothers eager for income and independence. But the math doesn’t tell such an optimistic story, nor does the trail of shamed failed distributors, online rants, and FTC prosecutions. You can hear this delicious and informative, ear candy HERE!

Jul 032019
 

It was a bold and brash attack on innocent girls that outraged the world and spawned unprecedented online activism: Boko Haram, an extremist Muslim group in Nigeria, abducted about 276 schoolgirls from a rural secondary school in the town of Chibok on April 14, 2014.

Since that time about half have been recovered, and over 100 remain missing despite an international outcry and hundreds of celebrities demanding that the group #Bringbackourgirls. Despite the presence of advisors and special forces troops from countries including the United States, Canada, England, and France, the location of the kidnapped girls remains unknown—or if it is known, it has been deemed too difficult a location to stage a successful rescue mission.

Though the Chibok girls got international attention, they were not the only victims. As The New York Times Magazine described, many thousands of boys were also abducted and conscripted into Boko Haram’s ranks, forced to pillage, shoot innocent people, and at times behead their victims. Missing girls typically get more media attention than missing boys, and this was no exception.

Bringing Back Our Girls and Boys

So what happened? How has Boko Haram been able to defy a half-dozen of the most powerful nations in the world for half a decade? There are several reasons.

First, rooting out the group has been much more difficult than American and Nigerian officials expected. The region where the captives were taken is remote and vast—including the rugged Sambisa Forest where surveillance drones are of little use—and where the Nigerian government has limited influence. Many also blamed Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan for not accepting international assistance sooner.

Second, the limits of hashtag activism became apparent; sharing outrage on social media felt empowering to many shortly after the abduction but did not translate into any real effect. The collective outrage of the Western world was irrelevant to Boko Haram, who reveled in the attention and recognition. Celebrities including Justin Timberlake, Sean Penn, and Bradley Cooper joined the campaign; Timberlake, for example, tweeted an image holding signs that said “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls”—a well-intended effort based on the dubious premise that militant Muslim terrorists can be shamed into questioning their masculinity by wealthy American actors and pop stars.

First Lady Michele Obama was one of many prominent celebrities to embrace the cause, and the fact that the wife of the most powerful man in the world addressed the group in a viral May 7 photo posted to social media asking for the return of its hostages gave Boko Haram legitimacy it sought.

The online community soon lost interest when positive results weren’t forthcoming. As days turned to weeks and months to years, the demand to Bring Back Our Girls faded. Most of those who initially shared the pleas on social media soon moved on to other causes and other concerns, including ALS water dunkings and outrage over the police shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri. Other important international news stories took precedence.

Third, political and ethical pressures have prevented the return of the kidnapped girls. There have been several opportunities to bring back the captives, but none of them were politically viable for Nigeria and the United States. For example one option would be to simply buy the girls back from Boko Haram, since they were captured to be sold as slaves. While this would safely reunite the girls with their families and achieve a peaceful end to this hostage situation, this would put both countries in the position of participating in the slave trade and trafficking of humans—which of course is illegal and morally abhorrent.

American officials could reframe the situation to avoid the slavery aspect by simply referring to the girls as “hostages” (regardless of what Boko Haram wishes to call them), and proceed to negotiate for their release, as governments around the world often do (whether they publicly acknowledge it or not). Informal overtures were made to Boko Haram about the possibility of making a deal for the girls’ return. Some have expressed outrage at the practice, saying it encourages kidnapping and rewards terrorism, but the simple fact is that governments negotiate with terrorists all the time while officially denying it. The reason is simple: if a group has hostages you want returned alive and unharmed, there are very few options. Like it or not, the best way to get the desired outcome is to negotiate the release of hostages. Anything else, including—and especially—an armed military attack is likely to leave dozens of people (both terrorists and hostages) dead, which the government will likely be blamed for.

Not only has Boko Haram refused to release its hostages as demanded, but their power has grown. Abductions and attacks have continued; as a CNN timeline shows, the group’s power remains. The Obama administration was understandably distracted by serious conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Russia, and elsewhere, and the Boko Haram hostage situation created a very thorny political and ethical dilemma that the Trump administration has shown no appetite for tackling. The parents of the kidnapped girls, of course, don’t care whether Nigeria and the Western countries set political precedents or appear to appease terrorists or buy slaves. They just want their children returned.

Jul 012019
 

Breathless headlines last month referred to the “FBI Investigating Bigfoot,” a clickbaity phrase if ever social media saw one, along with the promise that newly-declassified FBI files shed light on the mystery.

As intriguing and sensational as it sounds, it turns out to be much ado about nothing. I’ll summarize the story, but there’s not much to tell.

In 1976 prominent Bigfoot researcher Peter Byrne, director of the Bigfoot Information Center and Exhibition, wrote to the FBI asking if they would agree to analyze some material—specifically fifteen hairs of unknown origin, along with a bit of skin.

This got a December 15, 1976 response back from Jay Cochran, Jr., Assistant Director of the FBI’s Scientific and Technical Services Division. He explained that the FBI typically only works on criminal cases, but that “Occasionally, on a case-by-case basis, in the interest of research and scientific inquiry, we make exceptions to this general policy. With this understanding, we will examine the hairs and tissue.” A follow up letter to Byrne’s colleague Howard Curtis (dated February 24, 1977) provided the results of the examination: “the hairs are of deer family origin.”

And… that’s about it.

The FBI did not “investigate Bigfoot.” It did not deem it credible or even worthy of investigation. It agreed to use its technical expertise to analyze some unknown hairs for a respected Bigfoot researcher, which turned out to be deer.

Which, by the way, is fine with me. Though I prefer that public funds not be spent on Bigfoot research (at least until such time as more compelling evidence emerges), I have no objection to an ad hoc scientific analysis of possible Bigfoot hairs by the FBI or any crime lab. After all, that’s the only way that the creatures—if they’re real—will ever be verified. I understand that the Bigfoot believer community is desperate for scientific legitimacy, and has been for decades, but this recently-released FBI correspondence won’t provide it.

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.

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Jun 152019
 

I was recently in Puerto Rico shooting an episode of “Expedition Unknown.”

I can’t give many details before the show airs, but here’s a photo of me with host Josh Gates interviewing an eyewitness to something weird….

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!

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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! 


 News  Comments Off on Adventures in Poor Taste Reviews ‘Investigating Ghosts’
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! 

 News  Comments Off on The Prodigy: A Skeptical Film Review
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!