Nov 282020
 

Big—If True is a collection of my Skeptical Inquirer magazine columns, guiding readers on a science-based (yet open-minded) examination of 70 fascinating and mysterious topics. Drawing on two decades of first-hand research, Big—If Trueexamines dozens of mysteries including Bigfoot, reincarnation, chupacabras, Icelandic elves, mummies, conspiracy theories, UFOs, miracles, the terrifying Goat-Man, crop circles, subliminal advertising, sea serpents, wandering trees, medical mysteries, and hypnotist thieves—plus a 1990 Elvis sighting.

It’s 275 pages and has 70 illustrations. It will be available soon for order at your local bookstore or online bookseller at a list price of $26.95 (plus tax and shipping of course). 

Nov 222020
 
 
As I did with previous books I’m offering the first 50 copies of my new book Big—If True for pre-sale. Big—If True is a collection of my Skeptical Inquirer magazine columns, guiding readers on a science-based (yet open-minded) examination of 70 fascinating and mysterious topics. Drawing on two decades of first-hand research, Big—If True examines dozens of mysteries including Bigfoot, reincarnation, chupacabras, Icelandic elves, mummies, conspiracy theories, UFOs, miracles, the terrifying Goat-Man, crop circles, subliminal advertising, sea serpents, wandering trees, medical mysteries, and hypnotist thieves—plus a 1990 Elvis sighting. It’s 275 pages and has 70 illustrations. It will be available soon for order at your local bookstore or online bookseller at a list price of $26.95 (plus tax and shipping of course).
 
I’m offering the first 50 copies hot off the presses, signed and numbered. Each is accompanied by a correspondingly signed and numbered 4 X 6 postcard featuring a satirical tabloid I designed that appears on the front cover of the book. It’s a silly little thing featuring photos of the first chupacabra model I bought, the first (real) shrunken head I examined, and me in the Amazon near the Ecuador/Colombia border. First orders get the lowest numbers, in case you’re into numerology…
 
The price is $28, including tax and U.S. shipping (foreign orders will be charged cheapest rate, contact me). Probably makes a great holiday gift, and if you’d like the book personally inscribed to you or a loved one—or even someone about whom you are deeply ambivalent—please note that with your order. Limit 2 per order please.
 
Gotta have it? I don’t blame you one bit! Here’s what to do: Send payment to my Paypal account (bradford@centerforinquiry.net), or snail mail the equivalent in cash, check, money order, or mint-condition chupacabra pelts to: Ben Radford, P.O. Box 3016, Corrales NM 87048.
 
Allow 3 weeks for delivery because we’re in a pandemic. Also, thanks for supporting small-press authors!
Nov 152020
 

In 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after takeoff from Florida’s coast, an accident that laid bare not only institutional flaws in the application of high technology but also flaws in the public’s understanding of science. Many myths have emerged in the years since the accident, such as that the shuttle exploded—it didn’t, it “was torn apart as it was flung free of the other rocket components and turned broadside into the Mach 2 airstream” (Oberg 2011). Other myths remain, such as that the accident was largely a failure of technology when in fact it was largely a human-caused tragedy.

A new documentary series on Netflix titled Challenger: The Final Flight examines what led up to the accident. Through extensive archival footage and interviews with the families of the crew and engineers involved with the flight, we see a troubled agency that put political pressure above safety.

A Presidential Commission was appointed to study the Challenger shuttle accident and its causes. At first glance the culprit was a mechanical problem: the failure of small O-rings to seal on a solid rocket booster, leading to a catastrophic chain reaction. Yet the real fault for the explosion went far beyond a simple gas leak. The Rogers Commission was very critical of NASA’s procedures, finding serious flaws in the decision-making process that led to the launch.

Engineers at Morton-Thiokol, the company that made the O-rings, warned that seals failed repeated tests under the cold conditions present the morning of the Challenger launch, an unusually cold morning. Engineer Roger Boisjoly, among others, predicted that the O-rings would fail if the shuttle launched in cold weather, and notified his supervisors of this. NASA managers ignored the red flags and went ahead anyway. As tests and engineers had predicted for years, the O-rings burst and the flight—along with its seven astronauts—was doomed.

Institutional Pressures

There are so many components to space technology that, on some level, failure is guaranteed—and expected, hence the presence of redundant and backup systems. The organizations making decisions concerning the Challenger launch (including NASA, Morton Thiokol, and others) had elaborate and specific procedures to assure that accurate data was used in crucial decisions. Instead of this process working correctly, important studies (such as those showing an inverse correlation between O-ring integrity and temperature) were not passed along to those who needed the information, and middle-level decisions were circumvented, primarily for expediency.

Brian Russell of Thiokol, in his testimony before the commission, stated that he did not “realize that there was a formal launch constraint” on the issue of O-ring “blow-by” problems. In other words, he didn’t know that the issue was critical enough to affect the decision to launch. In response, commissioner Robert Rummel replied that the reason that the issue of O-ring safety had been closed out (i.e., prematurely declared resolved) by Russell was “because you don’t want to be bothered. Somebody doesn’t want to be bothered with flight-by-flight reviews, but you’re going to work on it after it’s closed out” (Rogers Commission, 143).

In other cases engineers complained of bureaucracy that impeded their ability to resolve safety issues. The Rogers Commission report quoted one memo from Thiokol engineer S.R. Stein that “We are currently being hog-tied by paperwork every time we try to accomplish anything” (Rogers Commission, 253). In his book Truth, Lies, and O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster, Allan McDonald, director of the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Motor Project at the time of the accident, notes that “In dozens of emotional talks given around the country following Challenger, Roger Boisjoly had been charging that officials played ‘fast and loose’ with the astronauts’ lives, ‘absolutely abdicating their professional responsibility’ in pressuring Thiokol to reverse its original recommendation not to launch. In Boisjoly’s view, stopping the launch of the shuttle was a ‘no-brainer,’ requiring ‘only common sense’” (p. 603).

Social Pressures

If the scientific side of the Challenger disaster was plagued with problems, the social side wasn’t much better. Physicist Richard Feynman was on the commission, and in his Appendix F to the Rogers Commission report he discussed exactly this issue, stating that he believed that the true likelihood of shuttle disaster was about 1 in 100: “Official [NASA] management… claims to believe the probability of failure is a thousand times less. One reason may be an attempt to assure the government of NASA perfection and success in order to ensure the supply of funds. The other may be that they sincerely believe it to be true, demonstrating an almost incredible lack of communication between themselves and their working engineers” (Feynman 1986).

The Challenger accident was fraught with demanding impatience; the liftoff had been delayed several times already, and Americans quickly grew tired of seeing the sleek shuttle sitting impotently on the launching pad. What was promised—and eventually delivered—was action. Society is relatively unconcerned with evaluating the goals of science. NASA administrators were under enormous pressure from both the public and the government to launch the shuttle. Ironically, had the shuttle been delayed yet again to a warmer morning the shuttle would likely have been fine, but the underlying problem still ignored.

The documentary focuses its first few episodes on Christa McAuliffe, the high school teacher who was the much-vaunted “Teacher in Space.” But she was only the highest-profile of the astronauts, overshadowing the others. Co-directors “Glen Zipper and Stephen Leckart conceived of it in 2015 while looking to make something personal. Both had seen the disaster as boys but could only remember the name of one astronaut aboard Challenger: McAuliffe. Who were the other six? The more they dug, the more they found extraordinary people: Ellison Onizuka was the first Asian American in space and Ronald McNair was the second African American. Judith Resnik was the second American woman in space and the first Jewish woman. ‘We wanted to humanize these astronauts and wanted you to know these characters and understand the human side of this whole story,’ co-director Daniel Junge said” in an Associated Press interview. Veterans Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, and Gregory Jarvis rounded out the crew.

The series includes intriguing information about how the Reagan administration pressured the investigative committee to avoid embarrassing NASA—an effort that could be fairly characterized as a coverup. It was only after information was leaked to the mainstream press by a brave engineer insider revealing that NASA had been warned about the problem that full pressure was brought to bear on the Rogers commission to get to the truth—public relations be damned. 

Institutional arrogance is revealed in the stated purpose of the space shuttle: “to provide routine, economical access to space.” NASA’s assumption that any endeavor as complex and perilous as manned space flight could ever be “routine” or “economical” reveals technological arrogance. Part of the reason that the event was so shocking to the American public is they were insulated from the risks and science. The expectation was that everything would work perfectly, as it always had before, during the previous 55 missions into space over 25 years. Like people who use their cell phones every day, they have no idea how the devices work, they just expect them to work. Yet, as Carl Sagan famously noted, “It is suicidal to create a society dependent on science and technology in which hardly anybody knows anything about science and technology.”

Society’s values play an important role in the perception of technology. We live in a society in which immediate gratification is expected, and convenience is prized. Society is impatient for change; we want and expect things to be done immediately and correctly; we don’t have time for the nuances, complexities, or caveats that are the hallmarks of science. This misunderstanding was fueled in part by NASA itself. The shuttle program was packaged and promoted by NASA and the government as a safe and patriotic venture into space. In fact NASA was so confident that they added McAuliffe on Challenger largely as a public relations tool. The other astronauts on mission 51-L had specific scientific duties; according to McAuliffe’s schedule, her role was to beam down two “lessons from space” to schools across America as an ambassador for the space program. One wonders how the mission could have been taken so lightly that they could have reserved a space for PR stunts.

Fueled by patriotism, a lucky streak, and NASA’s confidence, Americans were coaxed into complacency about the safety of manned space flight. Rockets and space shuttles are incredibly complex machines, with tens of thousands of important parts, all—as the grim joke goes—manufactured by the lowest bidder. Each launch takes years of preparation and hundreds of brilliant, dedicated professionals.

The shuttle program has now been retired, but the question can be asked whether it was worth the cost in dollars and human lives—or whether it should be revived. Without knowing what true risks are, it’s impossible to know. The documentary includes a defense by William Lucas, the director of NASA’s Marshall Space Center, on whose shoulders much of the blame has been laid. He insists to this day that he made the best decision he could, given the information available to him at the time from Thiokol.

NASA is not eager to admit it, but life-threatening crises and potential problems will always go hand in hand with manned space flight. Optimism should be tempered with realism about how inherently dangerous and complicated it is to put humans into space. We have not mastered space flight, and should not fool ourselves into thinking otherwise. As Feynman concluded in his report, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

References

Feynman, R. (1986). Appendix F: Personal observations on reliability of shuttle. World Spaceflight News and National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Report on the space shuttle Challenger accident. Washington, D.C.: Office of Government Publications.

McDonald, Allan, and James Hansen. (2012). Truth, Lies, and O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster. University Press of Florida.

Oberg, J. (2011). 7 myths about the Challenger shuttle disaster. NBC News. Available at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11031097/ns/technology_and_science-space/t/myths-about-challenger-shuttle-disaster/#.UFYTD44gyPA.

Rogers Commission, Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. (1986). World Spaceflight News and National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Report on the space shuttle Challenger accident. Washington, D.C.: Office of Government Publications.

 

 

A longer version of this piece appeared on my CFI website column; you can find it here. 

Oct 212020
 

The KiMo Theater in Albuquerque is one of New Mexico’s best-known ghost stories, and has been the subject of many articles, blogs, and TV shows. After a tragic accident in the 1950s claimed the life of a young boy, it is said that his spirit returned to the theater and caused one of the most famous poltergeist occurrences in history. To this day, a shrine is left for the boy ghost, and offerings are made by performers there to assure a safe and good performance. It’s a scary, fascinating story—but did it really happen? Join folklorist and investigator Benjamin Radford as he separates fact from fiction and uncovers the true story of the KiMo Theater ghost. This presentation is based on a chapter in his 2014 book Mysterious New Mexico: Miracles, Magic, and Monsters in the Land of Enchantment.

Oct 22 6:00 PM MT

You can register here! 

 

Oct 152020
 

Americans, like everyone else, should ideally be more educated about history (and everything else). But no, a recent poll doesn’t reveal that a significant percentage of Americans either deny the Holocaust or are largely ignorant about it. Here’s a media literacy take on the alarming headlines...

 

In the wake of racial incidents such as the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018, it’s natural for the public and pundits to wonder just how common anti-Semitism is. Deadly attacks on Jewish houses of worship are thankfully rare, but what about anti-Jewish belief among the general public? One often-used metric is public opinion polls about the Holocaust.

In April 2018 Newsweek posted a news story titled “One-Third of Americans Don’t Believe 6 Million Jews Were Murdered During the Holocaust.” It was widely shared on social media, including Yahoo News.

The disturbing headline seemed to suggest that neo-Nazis are succeeding in sowing Holocaust denial among Americans. The Holocaust is the highest-profile event in history about the dangers of intolerance and anti-Semitism, and with about a third of Americans—over 100 million people—doubting a key aspect of the Holocaust, anti-Jewish sentiment seems widespread indeed.

Given the potential fear and concern headlines like this can spawn, it’s worth taking a closer look at the story through the lens of media literacy and skepticism. The data came from a survey by Schoen Consulting on behalf of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, released for Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was a national study of 1,350 interviews with American adults during the last week of February 2018, with a margin of error at +/- 3%.

A Closer Look

If you actually read the study (available here) you realize that the Newsweek headline is misleading in several important ways.

First, the phrase “don’t believe” in the headline implies doubt: that you are presented with a claim or proposition, and you state categorically that you do not believe it. However the question (number 19, if you’re following along) didn’t ask respondents what they “believe.” People were asked to estimate, or put a number on, how many Jews they thought were killed. The exact wording is “Approximately how many Jews were killed during the Holocaust?” The responses were, in order of presentation: 20 million; 6 million; 2 million; 1 million; 100,000; 25,000; Other; or Not sure.”

Phrasing is important, especially in surveys. Had the question been phrased “Do you believe 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust?” then the percentage responding No would accurately capture how many doubt that six million Jews were killed. It should also be noted that there is in fact no historical consensus on the exact number of Jewish deaths in the Holocaust, but most experts believe the number is between 5 and 6 million. Had the question been phrased more accurately (by historical standards) and less precisely (by estimation standards), as in “Do you believe that about 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust?” it’s quite possible that even more people would have correctly answered that question.

A closer look reveals that among American adults, the vast majority, 49%, gave the correct answer of 6 million. Six percent actually overestimated the number of Jews killed by over a factor of three (at 20 million). Note that the second-highest response, Not Sure, at 13%, means just that: they’re not sure how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Thus “Not Sure” is not a catch-all response for “None” or “An Insignificant Number” or “Surely Fewer Than 6 Million.” It could mean the person thought that the number was closer to 15 million, or 10 million, or 8 million, or some number not among those specifically listed.

For all we know, many of that 13% could have accurately estimated that about 6 million Jews were killed, but weren’t confident enough in their grasp of historical facts to select that option. If that’s the case then the number who knew the correct answer could be over 60%. But we don’t know because of the way the question was worded. To be clear, this limitation doesn’t invalidate the question, or render the survey or its results flawed; it just means that we must be careful in interpreting the results—especially on a subject as important as Holocaust belief or denial.

‘Merican Ignernce?

The poll does show that many Americans are wrong about various Holocaust facts (such as whether the Holocaust preceded World War II or vice-versa). How significant is this? It’s not clear. One common question in science is “Compared to what?”; in this case for example, what percentage of average Americans should we reasonably expect to know the answers? Eighty percent? Ninety percent? One hundred percent? We can all agree that ideally the answer is “higher,” but if many Americans are vague about historical events that happened in World War II, they’re not much more informed about what’s going on in modern America.

 

  • September 2017 poll of 2,200 American adults for Morning Consult found that about half of Americans don’t know that people born in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens: 54% of adults said yes; 22% said no, and 24% said they weren’t sure.

 

  • 2011 Newsweek poll found that 29% of Americans couldn’t name the then-current vice president (hopefully Joe Biden’s name recognition has improved since then).

 

  • Responses vary from year to year, but in 2014 only 36% of Americans could name the three branches of government (in 2017 it was 25% and 38% in 2011). And so on.

A 2007 survey by Kelton Research found that 80% of respondents could name the main ingredients of a McDonalds Big Mac sandwich, but fewer than 60% could recall all the Ten Commandments, and a 2010 Pew poll found that only 55% knew that the Golden Rule is not among the commandments.

Exaggerating and highlighting the ignorance of Americans is a time-honored tradition, especially among journalists and comics. The Tonight Show with Jay Leno often featured man-on-the-street interviews showing passersby stumped by simple questions, and Canadian comedian Rick Mercer hosted a long-running segment on the same theme titled “Talking to Americans,” on the satirical comedy show This Hour Has 22 Minutes in which Mercer, posing as a journalist, would ask unsuspecting American tourists bizarre non-sequitur questions such as whether they supported hunting polar bears in Toronto or would like to congratulate Canada on moving its capital from Ottawa to Toronto.

It’s all good flagellatory fun but obscures that fact that most Americans (that is, the statistical majority of them) are in fact fairly knowledgeable about their country and world history. Most people can answer such questions, and the fact that a minority of them can’t—or in many cases may know the correct answer just aren’t confident enough in their knowledge to commit to it on camera or to a questioner—reveals little about any uniquely American ignorance.

Holocaust Denial or Innumeracy?

 Part of the issue is psychological. In his book Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences, mathematician John Allen Paulos notes that people have difficulty conceiving of large numbers. When estimating, people easily slip “between millions and billions or between billions and trillions… because we too often lack an intuitive feeling for these numbers. Many educated people have little grasp for these numbers… A recent study by Drs. Kronlund and Phillips of the University of Washington showed that most doctors’ assessments of the risks of various operations, procedures, and medications (even in their own specialties) were way off the mark, often by several orders of magnitude” (p. 10).

This does not excuse anyone’s errors, of course. Ideally, everyone should have a good grasp of historical and civics facts, as well as basic statistics and probability. Before concluding that Americans are dumb as rocks, keep in mind that most people (of any nationality) struggle to remember their computer passwords, much less who their representatives are. Not knowing the exact number of Jews killed during the Holocaust is not a metric of Holocaust denial or anti-Semitism, or indifference to (or ignorance of) Jewish persecution.

The Newsweek headline, however, was not merely a glass-is-half-full analysis but instead a clear effort to characterize many Americans as racist, or at least grossly ignorant of the plight of the Jewish community during the Holocaust (Brown University sociologist Dan Hirschman agrees, noting in a May 8, 2018 blog that the Newsweek headline “implies that 1/3 of Americans are Holocaust deniers of some sort”). These are people who didn’t pay attention in history class and who don’t have a good grasp of large numbers—not Holocaust deniers. The survey did not suggest that underestimating the number of Jews killed was any sort of attempt at minimizing the Holocaust.

If we want to know how many Americans doubt the Holocaust happened, we need look no further than question 33, which unlike question 19 is not as open-ended: 96% of respondents answered “Yes, I believe the Holocaust happened.” Three percent said they weren’t sure, and 1% of them responded that they did not believe it happened. This 1%—not the 33% suggested by Newsweek—would presumably be among the Holocaust deniers.

This is not the first time that a poll about the Holocaust produced alarming numbers. In one of the most infamous examples of flawed polling, a 1992 poll conducted by the Roper organization for the American Jewish Committee found that 1 in 5 Americans doubted that the Holocaust occurred. How could 22% of Americans report being Holocaust deniers?

The answer became clear when the original question was re-examined: “Does it seem possible or does it seem impossible to you that the Nazi extermination of the Jews never happened?” This awkwardly-phrased question contains a confusing double-negative which led many to report the opposite of what they believed. Embarrassed Roper officials apologized, and later polls—asking clear, unambiguous questions—found that only about 2% of Americans actually doubt the Holocaust. In fact the 2018 news headlines about the Holocaust poll could have accurately read “Holocaust Denial Drops 50%” (from 2% to 1%), but the news media emphasizes bad news.

Polls and surveys can provide important information about the public’s beliefs. But to be valid, they must be based on sound methodologies, and media-literate news consumers should always look for information about the sample size, representativeness of the population, whether the participants were random or self-selected, and so on. Whether due to poorly-worded questions or an alarmist news media, reports like these leave the false impression that racism and anti-Semitism are more widespread than they really are. The recent rise in hate crimes against the Jewish community is well documented, but the recent rise in Holocaust denial is not.

 

 

Oct 122020
 

If you want a break from bad news: The new episode of Squaring the Strange is now out. This week we discuss the Bangladesh Toilet Ghost. Or, rather ONE OF several Bangladeshi toilet ghosts. I bring cultural and social context and a surprising history about factory work and pressures on the workers there… by the time you hear it all, you’ll think “well of COURSE there were reports of a ghost in that toilet! It makes perfect sense!”

Check it out HERE!

Oct 052020
 

News and social media are awash with information about the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately much of what’s shared on social media about COVID-19 is false, misleading, or speculative. From the White House to the CDC, conspiracy cranks to Goop contributors, it’s a never-ending flood of information, and those charged with trying to sort it out are quickly inundated. 

Among the organizations offering advice on the virus and vaccination is a 501c3 nonprofit called Children’s Health Defense, founded in 2016 by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. The Children’s Health Defense (CHD) initiative sounds unimpeachable. Who doesn’t want children to be healthy, right? It’s one of those suspiciously generic Astroturf names intended to evoke images of righteous empowerment and healthy children running through meadows. The logo is two hands cradling a globe circled by silhouettes of children holding hands. Banner headlines encourage people to “Read the Science Now.” 

But there’s a sinister side to the organization. The CHD positions itself as a science-based advocacy organization bravely fighting for justice, public health, and equality, but it has a long history of spreading misinformation.

One recent project involved a viral video that circulated in May titled Plandemic, which featured a lengthy interview with virologist Judy Mikovits. Mikovits offered scattershot conspiracy-laden assertions about the “truth” behind the pandemic, prefaced by claims of having been framed for a crime and accusations of government coverups going back decades. These supposed coverups involved various medical authorities, including Dr. Anthony Fauci. Within weeks, the video was widely shared on social media, often by people who were “just asking questions.” The video was soon identified as containing dangerous misinformation by social media platforms, including Facebook and YouTube, and removed. 

As I noted in an article at the time, Plandemic was never about finding truth but instead a wildly successful publicity stunt for both Mikovits’s book Plague of Corruption: Restoring Faith in the Promise of Science (which soon topped best-seller lists).  

And who wrote the foreword for the most popular anti-vaccination conspiracy book of the past few years? None other than Robert F. Kennedy Jr. In fact, both Kennedy’s name and Children’s Health Defense appear prominently on the medical conspiracy book cover. 

Plague of Corruption: Restoring Faith in the Promise of Science

One hallmark of anti-vaccination is that anti-vaxxers usually deny that they’re anti-vaccination. In the Plandemic video, for example, Mikovits explicitly denies she’s against vaccinations. No, no, that’s all wrong—she just wants safer vaccines, she says, ones that have been proven safe and effective (conveniently ignoring the fact that they already have). Indeed, in one CHD article casting doubt on the safety of vaccines, anti-vaccination crusader Kennedy, who spends much of his time fighting vaccination, takes umbrage at being called an “anti-vaxxer.” He considers it “bullying terminology” and “name calling.” 

This bit of intellectual dishonesty is in some ways a measure of the success of science and medicine. It means that those against vaccination recognize that many in the public are in favor of vaccination, and therefore they feel the need to vehemently deny their obvious motives. They quickly fall back on the classic conspiracy trope that “We’re just asking questions!”—ignoring, again, the fact that the questions they’re asking a) are mostly rhetorical, not factual; and b) to the extent that they are factual, have been answered, repeatedly, by scientists. It’s similar to the position taken by intelligent design creationists and 9/11 Truthers who recycle laundry lists of “Questions the ‘Experts’ Can’t Answer” when in fact they’ve simply chosen to ignore the plausible, evidence-based answers. 

Children’s Health Defense and COVID-19

In this context, it’s no surprise that Children’s Health Defense recently chose to cynically capitalize on the pandemic with the headline “From the ER to the High School Football Field, People Want the Response to Covid-19 to Be Evidence-based, not Political.” 

It’s hard to disagree with that. People do indeed, and should, want public health officials to act on evidence instead of politics. And for the most part they have, despite concerns from across the political spectrum about the safety of eventual vaccines. The accompanying article has little to do with its clickbait title and instead criticizes Dr. Anthony Fauci and others for ignoring possible treatments and encouraging the closing of schools for children’s safety. 

A glance at recent posts on the CHD website reveals a pattern. After a piece titled “Peaceful Rallies Around the World to Champion Freedom,” we have a series of curious headlines, including “The Measles Vaccine Narrative Is Collapsing,” “25 Reasons to Avoid the Gardasil Vaccine,” “The Facts About Measles,” “’Herd Immunity? A Dishonest Marketing Gimmick,” and an unfortunately unironic piece titled “Countering False Vaccine Safety Claims.” 

Even a cursory glance at the list reveals conspiracy claims, false statements, and non sequiturs. To pick just one example of many, in the rebuttal to the “false claim” that vaccines don’t cause autism, the Children’s Health Defense offers the bulleted claim that “The National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program [VICP] has paid many vaccine induced autism claims.” The text file links not, as one might expect, to a peer-reviewed medical journal study affirming the connection between vaccines and autism but instead to a sixty-four-page article in the Pace Environmental Law Review about the program and whether it’s a fair legal forum for claims. Even assuming that it’s perfectly true that the program “has paid many vaccine induced autism claims,” that doesn’t logically mean that vaccines cause autism

The question of whether vaccines cause autism is a medical issue, not a legal one. There may indeed be legal implications if a link existed, but in the world of compensation claims and liability, claims are sometimes made and paid out with little evidential basis. In some cases, for example, companies determine it’s cheaper and faster to simply pay a claim they know or suspect is false than to litigate it. The mere fact that some claims were paid for autism complaints at some point is not a logical or coherent rebuttal to the claim that vaccines cause autism—and the fact that the Children’s Health Defense presents this transparent non sequitur as such is troubling.

In 2019, The New York Times examined such claims and found that “Over the past three decades, when billions of doses of vaccines have been given to hundreds of millions of Americans, the program has compensated about 6,600 people for harm they claimed was caused by vaccines. About 70 percent of the awards have been settlements in cases in which program officials did not find sufficient evidence that vaccines were at fault.” Center for Inquiry General Counsel Nicholas Little adds, 

What I see from the law review article is that there are eighty-three claims of autism among brain damage claims compensated under VICP. The VICP is clear after the Omnibus Autism Proceeding (OAP): vaccines are not considered a cause of autism and are not compensated. … The VICP requires you to show an injury that is vaccine related, and there are “table” injuries. It seems likely these kids have both autism and suffered from vaccine-induced encephalopathy, or residual seizure disorder. But that doesn’t mean the vaccine caused the autism. Both the OAP and federal courts have been clear: There’s no evidence that vaccinations cause autism or that thimerosal causes autism. Claiming otherwise is a misrepresentation of the proceedings.

Because of the recency of the pandemic, there’s relatively little on the organization’s website specifically about the new coronavirus. However, a review of other information on related topics is revealing. Though anti-vaccination efforts appear prominently in the Children’s Health Defense literature and on its website, they serve as an umbrella for other debunked health scares, including 5G and wireless harms and water fluoridation. Oh, and they’re also upset that social media companies have labeled some of their materials as false and misleading and therefore in violation of their policies. 

Misleading and Cherry-Picked Studies

For some topics, the Children’s Health Defense does offer links to valid research—albeit largely cherry picked. This helps maintain the veneer of scientific legitimacy. In some cases, the studies are legitimate and peer reviewed; in other cases, they are clearly labeled as early drafts (for example one document from the National Toxicology Program on fluoride begins with the disclaimer “This DRAFT Monograph is distributed solely for the purpose of pre-dissemination peer review under the applicable information quality guidelines. It has not been formally disseminated by NTP. It does not represent and should not be construed to represent any NTP determination or policy.”)

Nevertheless, we can examine the original NTP document to see whether the Children’s Health Defense fairly and honestly summarized its findings. Here’s what the CHD wrote: “2019: A systematic review of 149 human studies and 339 animal studies by the U.S. National Toxicology Program concluded that ‘fluoride is presumed to be a cognitive neurodevelopmental hazard to humans.’” 

Indeed, that statement, by itself, is true and well known. The draft report states: “This conclusion is based on a consistent pattern of findings in human studies across several different populations showing that higher fluoride exposure is associated with decreased IQ or other cognitive impairments in children” (emphasis added). In other words, the dose makes the poison—a medical principle well known since the 1500s but apparently unfamiliar to Kennedy and his Children’s Health Defense writers. 

By consulting the original document, we can see that the CHD conspicuously left out the rest of the paragraph in that draft: “However, the consistency is based primarily on higher levels of fluoride exposure (i.e., >1.5 ppm in drinking water). When focusing on findings from studies with exposures in ranges typically found in the United States (i.e., approximately 0.03 to 1.5 ppm in drinking water) that can be evaluated for dose response, effects on cognitive neurodevelopment are inconsistent, and therefore unclear” (emphasis added). 

The CHD website could have accurately noted that “levels of fluoride in excess of what Americans drink is presumed to be a cognitive neurodevelopmental hazard,” but why would they? By intentionally obscuring the fact that the fluoride levels found in U.S. drinking water have not been associated with health risks, the Children’s Health Defense adopts a sensationalized, alarmist, and anti-scientific position. This is only one of several examples found in a quick spot-check of articles. 

The Menace of Mixing Myth and Medicine

Kennedy and the Children’s Health Defense have been criticized by skeptics from time to time, including by Dr. David Gorski on the Science-Based Medicine blog. The group was also the subject of recent reporting by mainstream news media, including NBC News, which examined false and misleading health claims widely circulating on social media. 

To be fair, not all the information issued by the Children’s Health Defense is wrong—and that’s part of the problem. By mixing in some legitimate health concerns (over environmental lead, mercury in fish, climate change, air pollution, pesticides, etc.) with bogus and exaggerated ones, Children’s Health Defense muddies the waters. If Kennedy’s organization either stuck to legitimate science—or to obvious New Age antiscience and alternative medicine conspiracy (e.g., David Avocado Wolfe and Natural News)—its misinformation would be easier to counter. By combining the enduring Kennedy mystique, conspiracy theories, and pseudoscience, the Children’s Health Defense is a genuine threat to public health—especially during a pandemic. 

A longer version of this piece appeared for the Center for Inquiry’s Coronavirus Resource Page; 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! 

Sep 302020
 

During the first presidential debate, moderator Chris Wallace mischaracterized Kamala Harris’s concerns about vaccinations under Trump. I wrote about it recently: “Harris did not promote any conspiracy theory; she chose her words carefully: ‘*If* the past is prologue, [scientific experts] will be muzzled. They’ll be suppressed. They will be sidelined because he’s looking at an election coming up in less than 60 days and he’s grasping for whatever he can get to pretend that he has been a leader on this issue.'”

Here’s my article on this: 

While some may think that protests about vaccinations are a recent phenomenon, in fact the concerns date back centuries. There was resistance to the first smallpox vaccine, created in the late 1700s by Edward Jenner. Parents and the public—unfamiliar with medicine and how vaccination works—were horrified and disgusted when they learned that the vaccine was created by taking pus from the wounds of infected cows. That procedure was effective and saved countless lives, but still the British Anti-Vaccination League was created in 1853, asserting that the smallpox vaccine was dangerous, ineffective, and an infringement on personal rights. Over 160 years later, that theme continues to resonate strongly with anti-vaccination activists. 

‘‘Millions of human lives … have been preserved by the fruits of Jenner’s genius; yet today, thousands upon thousands of men, some intelligent though designing, some intelligent though deluded, the great mass of them fanatical and ignorant, decry vaccination as not only being of no service to humanity, but positively a nuisance injurious to health and life, while millions of our fellow men are utterly ignorant of, or indifferent to the matter.” This was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1896 by Eugene Foster.

Foster’s breakdown of the reasons people reject vaccination remain salient 125 years later: “Some intelligent though designing, some intelligent though deluded, the great mass of them fanatical and ignorant.” The demographics of vaccine refusal reveal an interesting pattern: despite overwhelming scientific evidence that vaccines are safe and effective, it is the more educated parents who tend to reject them through requesting exemptions for school-age children. As Nicholas Bakalar of The New York Times notes, “Exemption percentages were generally higher in regions with higher income, higher levels of education, and predominantly white populations. In private schools, 5.43 percent of children were exempt, compared with 2.88 percent in public schools. In some suburban areas, rates of exemption were near 50 percent.”

Part of the reason the anti-vaccination theme is so persistent is that it contains a strong conspiracy theory element. The belief is that the dangers and risks of vaccines are being intentionally hidden from the public by doctors and drug companies, in collusion with the government, for big profits. Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent, in their book American Conspiracy Theories, note that “Conspiracy theories about vaccines are partially to blame for decreased rates of vaccination and an increased incidence of disease.” (For more on this see Uscinski’s recent talk “Conspiracy Theories and COVID-19”.)

Vaccine Concerns among Progressives

Historically, the anti-vaccination movement has been rooted in fears of contamination as well as complaints about infringement of personal choice. Both are rooted in distrust of the government and often embraced by conservatives. A recent twist reveals educated liberals who embrace and endorse vaccination in general but reject (as-yet nonexistent) COVID-19 vaccinations, specifically under the Trump administration. 

This is partly in response to Trump’s urging of health officials to speed the vaccination development process and promising voters a vaccine by the end of the year—or, he suggested, by November 1, a few days before the presidential election. Trump believes, with some justification, that his popularity and re-election chances hinge on his visibility of getting the virus under control and ending the pandemic.

In recent weeks, many social media posts and memes have circulated among progressives that urge vaccine hesitancy, at least in the case of an eventual coronavirus treatment. Typical examples include: “I would absolutely not take a coronavirus vaccine approved and administered under a Trump administration” and “I don’t trust this administration with my health at all. I won’t be getting a vaccine if Trump is still president unless some experts can convince me that it’s safe and effective.” 

 

These fears are based on several factors including the demonstrable incompetence of the Trump administration in containing the virus and Trump’s clear efforts to politicize the disease while often undermining medical experts. Yet Donald Trump isn’t a medical doctor and has little or no role in the development of vaccines; that’s not a function of the Executive Office. Instead, the vaccine development is being done by a variety of independent medical institutions, non-profit organizations, and private pharmaceutical companies around the world, following well-established guidelines for demonstrating safety and efficacy.

All eventual COVID-19 vaccines will, by definition, have been developed (and funded) during Trump’s administration. Trump is willfully antiscience and partisan, but that doesn’t logically mean that any vaccines developed under his tenure are necessarily of dubious safety and efficacy. 

One recent article in Foreign Policy noted that “If a vaccine comes out before the election, there are very good reasons not to take it.” Of course, there’s nothing magical about the election day as a marker of vaccine safety. A vaccine made available on election day, or even a few weeks later, would be just as safe as one that came out shortly before election day. The time required to conduct the research and analyze the data is the same, and if it’s been rushed into production, then a few weeks on either side of November 3 isn’t going to be relevant. As a practical matter, of course, a vaccine wouldn’t have a single national release day or timeframe. Front-line doctors and those at highest risk, for example, would likely get a vaccine before the general population. Due to inevitable logistical vagaries and practical reasons, the vaccine would be made available to different people in different circumstances at different times. 

Politics and Posturing

The larger question is why people would assume that Trump was telling the truth when he promised to have a vaccine ready so quickly. Trump and his administration have been characterized by routine falsehoods and exaggerations. On topics both insignificant and globally relevant, Trump seems incapable of telling the truth. Trump has made a laundry list of unrealistic, unachievable—and arguably unwise—goals ranging from buying Greenland to being added to Mount Rushmore to banning Twitter to building a Mexican-funded border wallThe Washington Post has catalogued over 20,000 false or misleading claims made by Trump, and The Atlantic has dedicated coverage to Trump’s extensive false and misleading claims about the coronavirus specifically

It’s curious, then, that his transparent electioneering promises and false statements about the virus are taken seriously. Overall, a recent PBS/Marist poll found that most Americans trust the information they get from, respectively, public health experts (84 percent); state and local governments (72 percent); news media (50 percent); and in last place President Trump (37 percent). 

 

If most people don’t trust Trump to give them accurate information about the virus (and polls show most people don’t), then why would they believe Trump’s campaign promise that a vaccine will (or may) be available before the election? 

If Trump had the political power to force the creation and distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine regardless of safety and efficacy, why hasn’t it already been done? America is in its eighth month of the pandemic; surely if Trump had the ability to override the process and rush out a vaccine—any vaccine, good or bad—for political benefit, he’d have done it months ago. It would appeal to his base (not to mention his ego, allowing him to crow about how he had made America great again after the evil, foreign “Wuhan flu” had attacked the country) and likely help cement a victory over Biden. If Trump could do what his critics fear he’s doing, he’d likely have done it by now.

Trump has long bragged about his popularity, power, and influence—claims that many of his critics have accepted and taken at face value. As a practical matter, the office of the president has less influence than most people assume (or fear). Even a president who has ran roughshod over many norms and usurped powers not afforded the office has been unable to implement many of his stated goals, stopped or slowed by many factors ranging from the Supreme Court to institutional inertia. Trump’s difficulty in getting his way is multiplied when dealing with private industry. 

The question is not whether the Trump administration has tried to, or even had some success in, influencing the vaccination development process or the messaging around it (for example, in one case a Trump letter had requested that state governors expedite not drug development but instead permits involved in setting up distribution sites.) The question is instead what effect, if any, it has had, or will have had, in doing so.  

We need not look far to see examples of vaccines (apparently) rushed into production based on political pressure; Vladimir Putin is a prime example. In mid-August, he announced that a vaccine for COVID-19, nicknamed Sputnik-V, had been approved after less than two months of testing on humans and that mass vaccinations would occur in October. As BBC News reported, “Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro has announced he will be asking for volunteers to test the Covid-19 vaccine developed by Russia. Russia was the first country to officially register a vaccine against the coronavirus on 11 August. But experts have questioned whether it has undergone the necessary testing. The Venezuelan government, which has received billions of dollars in loans from Russia, said it would be willing to take part in clinical trials.”

The concern raised among health officials (non-Russian ones, that is) is that the vaccine went ahead without what’s known as a larger-population study known as a Phase 3 trial, which vaccines in America and elsewhere are currently undergoing.

 

The situation in the West, and in the United States specifically, is markedly different. Not only are drug companies such as Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson actively recruiting tens of thousands of volunteers for Phase 3 trials at this moment, but they are unlikely to risk their reputations—not to mention bottom lines, through class action lawsuits—by rushing out a vaccine that’s ineffective or dangerous. In other words, they have a strong financial incentive to cover their own asses, not to cozy up to a politician who may well not even be in office in four months. There are myriad medical experts, pharmaceutical companies, and public health organizations that have far more to lose by producing a rushed ineffective (or, worse, harmful) vaccine than annoying the current president. As noted, whether Trump has been, or will be, significantly successful in influencing vaccine production to the detriment of vaccine safety remains unproven.

Fueling Vaccine Fears

MSNBC recently reported that about three in four adults around the world are willing to be immunized against COVID-19. A poll of nearly 20,000 adults from twenty-seven countries found that most would do so once a vaccine is available. “China was the most enthusiastic country with 97% of respondents indicating they would want to be vaccinated, while Russia was the least willing with only 54% interested to do so, the survey found. Still, it’s concerning that roughly one-quarter of people globally not intending to get a vaccine, said an expert from the World Economic Forum. ‘The 26% shortfall in vaccine confidence is significant enough to compromise the effectiveness of rolling out a Covid-19 vaccine,’ said Arnaud Bernaert, head of shaping the future of health and healthcare at the WEF.” 

The concern over Trump’s politicization of the vaccine can unfortunately easily be conflated with concern over the safety of the vaccine itself. Indeed this has already happened; the vaccine reluctance by some liberals hasn’t escaped the attention of right-wing pundits and news media. The conservative Daily Caller, for example, recently offered a profoundly misleading headline claiming that “Kamala Harris Promotes ‘Dangerous Conspiracy Theory’ About Coronavirus Vaccine.” 

In fact, Harris did not promote any such conspiracy theory; in an interview, she chose her words carefully: “I would not trust Donald Trump, and it would have to be a credible source of information that talks about the efficacy and the reliability of whatever he’s talking about. I will not take his word for it.”

Harris’s position is in fact mainstream; as noted, most Americans agree with her that Trump is an untrustworthy source of information about the virus and that respected public health officials should be listened to about the matter. On that note, Harris did say that “If the past is prologue, [scientific experts] will be muzzled. They’ll be suppressed. They will be sidelined because he’s looking at an election coming up in less than 60 days and he’s grasping for whatever he can get to pretend that he has been a leader on this issue when he has not.” 

In other words, if the president continues a well-documented pattern of ignoring, contradicting, or overriding medical authorities, then there is reason for concern about suppression of good science about COVID-19. Harris’s statements, while likely (and unfortunately) fueling vaccine hesitancy in this particular circumstance, hardly rise to the level of “dangerous conspiracy theory.” Harris pointedly did not say she would not take a vaccine if it were available before the election, and Joe Biden has said he’d take a vaccine as soon as it’s available. The Daily Caller piece is especially ironic given that Trump himself has repeatedly pushed misinformation and fears about vaccinations, including the long-disproven claim that vaccines cause autism. If anyone running for president can fairly be said to have a history of promoting dangerous anti-vaccination conspiracies, it’s Donald Trump. 

 

Yes, Listen to the Experts

The many who say they will put their faith in medical experts instead of Donald Trump are not engaging in conspiracy theory but instead critical thinking. And what do those experts say? 

World Health Organization Head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that “I would like to assure the public that WHO will not endorse a vaccine that’s not effective and safe.” The Surgeon General of the United States, Jerome Adams, said in a recent Senate hearing that “I’m using my bully pulpit as surgeon general to make sure the entire country understands that vaccines are safe and effective. And this COVID vaccine, I’m telling people to focus on the process over the politics and the people because the process is what will assure us that these are safe.” Joining him was Dr. Francis CollinsDirector of the National Institutes of Health, who echoed his sentiments. Federal Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn issued a statement that “We feel the urgency at the FDA just like everybody else does. We want a vaccine that is safe and effective, as soon as possible. But we’re not going to cut any corners.” 

Then there was the joint statement by the CEOs of nine vaccine makers that read in part, “We, the undersigned biopharmaceutical companies, want to make clear our on-going commitment to developing and testing potential vaccines for COVID-19 in accordance with high ethical standards and sound scientific principles,” pledging among other things to “continue to adhere to high scientific and ethical standards regarding the conduct of clinical trials and the rigor of manufacturing processes and only submit for approval or emergency use authorization after demonstrating safety and efficacy through a Phase 3 clinical study that is designed and conducted to meet requirements of expert regulatory authorities such as FDA.” Dr. Anthony Fauci, among many others, has also pledged that any eventual vaccine made available to the public will be safe and effective—and expressed doubt that it would be ready in the next few months anyway.  

Unless all these respected experts and companies are secretly colluding with Trump to falsely portray an eventual vaccine as safe—which would indeed be a remarkable conspiracy theory—we can be fairly certain that procedures are indeed being followed in vaccine development and thus fears about vaccine safety are as yet unfounded. 

There have been several acknowledged missteps by America’s public health agencies, from mixed messages about mask wearing to invalid testing kits. However, we should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water and to avoid impugning legions of career medical experts who are doing their best amid political pressure to produce a COVID-19 vaccine. A stance that “we can’t trust the experts” is not only cynical but counterproductive. We can—and indeed must—trust medical researchers even if we don’t trust the administration they labor under. 

The anti-vaccination rhetoric is also a slap in the face to those volunteers currently in Phase 3 trials for the vaccinations. Are they stupid for having signed up? Is the implication that they’ve foolishly put themselves and their loved ones at risk by taking an “unproven” vaccine? Are their lives any less important than yours or mine, or someone who might take the vaccine on, near, or months after election day? As people of color have been disproportionately hit by the pandemic, volunteers from those communities are especially needed to participate, and the messages that vaccines may be dangerous (from any source) can only do harm.

Yes, of course the vaccines being tested are by definition “unproven” when they are still in clinical trials. But that doesn’t mean that they’re likely to be harmful—just that researchers don’t have enough data, don’t have a large enough sample size, to demonstrate safety or effectiveness to the usual standard. Even if a vaccine is rushed, the likely outcome would be a less effective vaccine than is optimal, not a less safe vaccine, because of the way vaccines are developed. Vaccines using inactivated (dead) or attenuated (weakened) pathogens, for example, are very unlikely to cause harm in otherwise healthy individuals. 

Those who oppose vaccinations can always point to (or, more often, cherry-pick) isolated cases in which a vaccine was later revealed to have been harmful, rushed into production, or have rare side effects. No medical intervention is 100 percent safe or effective, and vaccines are no exception. However, the overwhelming evidence is that overall, vaccines are both safe and effective, and as of now there is little or no evidence to suggest that COVID-19 vaccines under development—regardless of when they eventually become available—are any exception. 

A far greater danger is scaring people away from getting vaccinated in the first place. The chorus of those raising fears about vaccine safety (for whatever reason ranging from genuine fears to belief in conspiracies to virtue signaling and scoring political points) may be doing more harm than good. Vaccine hesitancy is a legitimate threat to public health, and it should go without saying that we should trust medical expertise over political promises. 

Sep 182020
 

New episode of Squaring the Strange is out! I’ve researched faked abductions for almost two decades now, and on the new show discuss patterns, motivations, and examples of people pretending they’ve been kidnapped. From the runaway bride to the McDonald’s worker who claimed a homicidal clown kept her from getting to work . . . people tell strange tales for a variety of reasons (or, for no reason at all!).

 

 

 

Check it out HERE!

Sep 152020
 

My new article is on why some progressives have recently joined conservatives and conspiracy mongers in promoting vaccination fears: “The chorus of those raising fears about vaccine safety (for whatever reason ranging from genuine fears to belief in conspiracies to virtue signaling and scoring political points) may be doing more harm than good. Vaccine hesitancy is a legitimate threat to public health, and it should go without saying that we should trust medical expertise over political promises.”

 

While some may think that protests about vaccinations are a recent phenomenon, in fact the concerns date back centuries. There was resistance to the first smallpox vaccine, created in the late 1700s by Edward Jenner. Parents and the public—unfamiliar with medicine and how vaccination works—were horrified and disgusted when they learned that the vaccine was created by taking pus from the wounds of infected cows. That procedure was effective and saved countless lives, but still the British Anti-Vaccination League was created in 1853, asserting that the smallpox vaccine was dangerous, ineffective, and an infringement on personal rights. Over 160 years later, that theme continues to resonate strongly with anti-vaccination activists. 

‘‘Millions of human lives … have been preserved by the fruits of Jenner’s genius; yet today, thousands upon thousands of men, some intelligent though designing, some intelligent though deluded, the great mass of them fanatical and ignorant, decry vaccination as not only being of no service to humanity, but positively a nuisance injurious to health and life, while millions of our fellow men are utterly ignorant of, or indifferent to the matter.” This was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1896 by Eugene Foster.

Foster’s breakdown of the reasons people reject vaccination remain salient 125 years later: “Some intelligent though designing, some intelligent though deluded, the great mass of them fanatical and ignorant.” The demographics of vaccine refusal reveal an interesting pattern: despite overwhelming scientific evidence that vaccines are safe and effective, it is the more educated parents who tend to reject them through requesting exemptions for school-age children. As Nicholas Bakalar of The New York Times notes, “Exemption percentages were generally higher in regions with higher income, higher levels of education, and predominantly white populations. In private schools, 5.43 percent of children were exempt, compared with 2.88 percent in public schools. In some suburban areas, rates of exemption were near 50 percent.”

Part of the reason the anti-vaccination theme is so persistent is that it contains a strong conspiracy theory element. The belief is that the dangers and risks of vaccines are being intentionally hidden from the public by doctors and drug companies, in collusion with the government, for big profits. Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent, in their book American Conspiracy Theories, note that “Conspiracy theories about vaccines are partially to blame for decreased rates of vaccination and an increased incidence of disease.” (For more on this see Uscinski’s recent talk “Conspiracy Theories and COVID-19”.)

Vaccine Concerns

Historically, the anti-vaccination movement has been rooted in fears of contamination as well as complaints about infringement of personal choice. Both are rooted in distrust of the government and often embraced by conservatives. A recent twist reveals educated liberals who embrace and endorse vaccination in general but reject (as-yet nonexistent) COVID-19 vaccinations, specifically under the Trump administration. 

This is partly in response to Trump’s urging of health officials to speed the vaccination development process and promising voters a vaccine by the end of the year—or, he suggested, by November 1, a few days before the presidential election. Trump believes, with some justification, that his popularity and re-election chances hinge on his visibility of getting the virus under control and ending the pandemic.

In recent weeks, many social media posts and memes have circulated among progressives that urge vaccine hesitancy, at least in the case of an eventual coronavirus treatment. Typical examples include: “I would absolutely not take a coronavirus vaccine approved and administered under a Trump administration” and “I don’t trust this administration with my health at all. I won’t be getting a vaccine if Trump is still president unless some experts can convince me that it’s safe and effective.” 

 

These fears are based on several factors including the demonstrable incompetence of the Trump administration in containing the virus and Trump’s clear efforts to politicize the disease while often undermining medical experts. Yet Donald Trump isn’t a medical doctor and has little or no role in the development of vaccines; that’s not a function of the Executive Office. Instead, the vaccine development is being done by a variety of independent medical institutions, non-profit organizations, and private pharmaceutical companies around the world, following well-established guidelines for demonstrating safety and efficacy.

All eventual COVID-19 vaccines will, by definition, have been developed (and funded) during Trump’s administration. Trump is willfully antiscience and partisan, but that doesn’t logically mean that any vaccines developed under his tenure are necessarily of dubious safety and efficacy. 

One recent article in Foreign Policy noted that “If a vaccine comes out before the election, there are very good reasons not to take it.” Of course, there’s nothing magical about the election day as a marker of vaccine safety. A vaccine made available on election day, or even a few weeks later, would be just as safe as one that came out shortly before election day. The time required to conduct the research and analyze the data is the same, and if it’s been rushed into production, then a few weeks on either side of November 3 isn’t going to be relevant. As a practical matter, of course, a vaccine wouldn’t have a single national release day or timeframe. Front-line doctors and those at highest risk, for example, would likely get a vaccine before the general population. Due to inevitable logistical vagaries and practical reasons, the vaccine would be made available to different people in different circumstances at different times. 

You can read the rest HERE! 

Sep 052020
 

I was recently interviewed on the Dos Spookqueños show, talking about ghost investigations, New Mexico mysteries, and other weirdness. Check it out HERE! 

 

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

Aug 272020
 

Hey everyone! On September 5 I’ll be giving a live presentation on Phantom Clown Panics for Mark Norman and his delightful Folklore Podcast. It’s at 8 PM–if you’re in London, otherwise it’s early afternoon in the States. Cost is a reasonable £5, which supports the podcast…

Most evil clowns are fictional, but some bad clowns are reported to roam streets and parks looking for innocent children to abduct—yet seem to vanish just before police can apprehend them. Some say they are real, while others claim they are figments of imagination. They are known as phantom clowns, and were first sighted in 1981, when children in Boston reported that clowns had tried to lure them into a van with promises of candy. Other reports surfaced in other cities and in later years, with the same pattern: Parents were fearful, children were warned and police were vigilant, but despite searches and police checkpoints no evidence was ever found of their existence. They returned in the fall of 2016 when reports spread across America—and later around the globe—of these menacing clowns.

Join folklorist and researcher Benjamin Radford as he explains the history, causes, and nature of this bizarre phenomenon. This presentation is based on his award-winning 2016 book Bad Clowns.

You can sign up HERE!

 

Aug 052020
 

So this is very cool: Many of you may remember that I was featured in a documentary last year, “Wrinkles the Clown,” about a mysterious creepy clown in Florida who threatened (and was threatened by) kids (sometimes at their parents’ request). The director sent me a DVD of the film, signed by him–and Wrinkles himself!!😱

The website is HERE, and you can watch it streaming or buy the DVD! Check it out!

Jul 312020
 

New, bonus episode of Squaring the Strange is now out! We present to you a rumor roundup, talking about all sorts of weird–and sometimes harmful–nonsense that’s swirling around social media these days. A veritable cornucopia of rumor and myth, ranging from Wayfair conspiracies to Pizzagate revisited to covid parties and bogus abduction rumors at a Hawaiian Home Depot. Check it out HERE! 

 

Jul 312020
 

In a recent episode of Squaring the Strange, we take a look at Antifa this week, or rather–we take a look at HOW people are LOOKING at Antifa. Are we witnessing the birth of a modern social panic? How is Antifa used for political and social purposes? What are the actual statistics? What sort of similarities does it have to the Satanic Panic or the more recent Clown Panic? Along the way we learn the price of bricks versus hippie crystals and the best state in which to register a converted school bus. Check it out HERE!

 

Jul 282020
 

Misleading memes are a dime a dozen, to use a phrase originating in the 1800s (though today they’re not only free but available by the tens of thousands). People who spend time on social media interact with them constantly, usually in the context of reading, endorsing, and sharing them. Less often they’re refuted or mocked, and even more rarely are they critically analyzed (by folklorists, sociologists, journalists, or the like).

It’s easy to understand why: There’s so many of them. Most memes are anonymous, and could have been made by a sincere activist—or a Russian troll farm, or even an algorithm. Trying to analyze and rebut even a tiny percentage of them would be a frustrating and fruitless waste of time, but now and then I make an exception. This is because memes often resurface months or years after first circulating, so are never really gone.

It’s sometimes worthwhile to take a critical look at a popular meme, to demonstrate how we can apply critical thinking and media literacy to the claims it contains, since often those lessons can be applied to other memes as well. Regardless of the topic, there are common mistakes and logical fallacies in misleading memes. Often the memes are factually wrong—usually in service of a particular political agenda—but other times the error is more difficult to recognize because it contains a self-evident fact or truth.

Warrants and Alternative Explanations

To help distinguish valid from invalid arguments, it’s helpful to look at memes as simple claims with (clear or hidden) premises and (valid or invalid) conclusions. You may remember from a class in logic, philosophy, or debate that in its simplest form a logical argument could be a syllogism such as “If A then B.”

The link between A and B is in what in logic is called a warrant. It’s a principle or chain of reasoning connecting a premise to a conclusion. For example in the statement “I see the freeway is packed, so we’re probably going to miss our flight,” the warrant is that traffic congestion will delay passengers getting to the airport on time. This may or may not be true—for example the traffic may clear up shortly, or the flight might also be delayed—but the warrant offers a reason or logical rationale linking a claim to its conclusion.

Often the warrant is implied, such as “Four out of five doctors use our brand of pain reliever.” The warrant is that most doctors would use one brand over another because of its quality or efficacy. Again, this may or may not be true; the doctors might use one the brand because it’s cheaper than its competitors (or free from the pharmaceutical company) though no more effective. Understanding warrants is crucial to determining whether an argument or claim is logically sound or reasonable.

A second important tool of critical thinking is seeking alternative explanations for proposed causes and effects. Often memes will pose a problem or question and then offer a simple (usually simplistic) explanation, ignoring other (often more likely) explanations.

‘Learn the Difference!’

I was reminded of this when I recently saw a meme that depicted a map of North and South America, captioned in Spanish, reading: “This is America.” On the other side of a vertical line were outlines of the United States (minus Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and other U.S. territories) with the caption: “This is USA,” and below that: “LEARN THE DIFFERENCE.”

It was a curious meme and took me a few seconds to figure out what it was trying to communicate. It explicitly suggested that people didn’t know the difference between the two, which seemed unlikely. Surely anyone who’d been to elementary school knew that the U.S. was only one country among many on the continents of North and South America. The silhouetted borders of the U.S. are ubiquitous and easily recognized all over the world. It contained no link or reference to any poll or survey saying that there was significant confusion between the two. It’s possible, of course, that some people think that the U.S. covers two continents—after all, some people think that Earth is flat—but it seemed to be arguing against a mistake that few people (if any) genuinely made (this is a straw man fallacy, for those keeping track).  

So taking the meme at face value didn’t really make any sense. I suspected that the message was both different and implicit, suggesting something about American ignorance, arrogance, or nationalism. The meme had no author but may have been trying to remind Americans that there’s more to the Americas than the United States (which, again, is universally recognized), and by implication that the U.S. isn’t the most important country on both continents. With the caveat that importance is subjective and difficult to measure—though the U.S. plays a bigger role (economically, militarily, etc.) on the international stage than any other country in the Americas—I’d overall agree with the basic idea. Americans should pay more attention to issues and problems outside their borders.

American Arrogance—Or Linguistic Explanation?

But that, too, didn’t seem to quite capture what the meme was referring to; it specifically asks us to “Learn the Difference” between the Americas and the U.S. Since most people do know the difference (between the two continents and the country), it seemed to suggest that the issue was really one of labeling. Perhaps it was borne out of a pedantic irritation that most people refer to U.S. citizens as “Americans.” This is certainly true—but doesn’t logically imply that people don’t know the difference between the two.

There may be an alternative explanation: The issue isn’t one of nationalism or arrogance but instead simple linguistics. The United States of America is the only country name in the world with the word “America” in it. It’s common for countries to be known by their shorter, informal names, and citizens of those countries to be referred to by those shorter names. The full name of the country casually called Mexico is in fact “United Mexican States,” for example, and the name of the country colloquially referred to as Brazil is really “The Federative Republic of Brazil,” and so on. There’s nothing arrogant or nationalistic about shortening “the French Republic” to “France” and calling its citizens “French,” and there’s nothing wrong with anyone referring to citizens of the United States of America as “Americans.” Doing so doesn’t mean the speaker is too ignorant to know the difference between two continents and a country, or that the speaker arrogantly thinks that “America” speaks for, or represents, the entirety of North and South America.

What Does It Meme?

I don’t know what the people who created or endorsed the meme (by Liking it and Sharing it) thought that it meant, what specific message they assumed it was advocating. I suspect that most of them didn’t really give it much thought, and media literacy research bears this out. Most people don’t read past the headlines of news stories they see and share on social media. Much of what circulates on social media isn’t closely analyzed (or even read) by those sharing and commenting on them.

We do this all the time. We do it because we’re busy. We do it because we’re overloaded on information. We do it because our attention spans are short in this digital age.

Much of the time it’s not a problem; we circulate stuff we haven’t read and may not have understood even had we read it. But it does have pitfalls, including a sense of false consensus; we see memes that (apparently) have thousands or tens of thousands of Likes and Shares, and wrongly assume that such a metric reflects genuine, thoughtful endorsement (of whatever we assume it’s intended to mean).

In some cases skimming information—or assuming we know what it says merely by its headline or tone—can have dangerous consequences. To cite a recent example, it’s been reported that Russia had put out a bounty for the killing of American troops in Afghanistan. When president Trump was asked about it, he claimed that he was never told about it—despite the information appearing in at least one Presidential Daily Briefing in February 2020. It’s not clear whether Trump read the information provided to him, or just skimmed it. Of course the memes and information most people see on social media don’t contain information about compromises to national security and the deaths of American troops, but the premise is the same.

Memes, by their nature, must be simple and quickly understood (or “understood”), combining a few words with an image or two into some sort of social statement. Memes are so prevalent and popular in part because of their ambiguity; different people can look at the same meme and draw different—perhaps even opposite—conclusions about what it means, what message it’s sending. People should be aware that when a person Likes or Shares a meme they post, they may in fact completely disagree with them about what it means.

Memes aren’t inherently good or bad (though many, perhaps most, are wrong or misleading in some way), and they’re not going away any time soon. Social media makes it easy to share content (often implicitly endorsing it) while at the same time discouraging people from taking time to actually think about what that content means. Is it logical? Is it true? What does it mean? If you wouldn’t talk to a friend face-to-face and repeat something you heard from some anonymous person without being sure it was true (and that you even understood it), why would you do the same on social media?

There’s no easy solution, but critical thinking and media literacy are powerful ways to help minimize the spread of misinformation online.

 

Jul 252020
 

As if on cue! Following my recent CFI article “The Truth About Covid Parties” and Squaring the Strange podcast episode on ‘covid parties,’ titled “Tonight We’re Gonna Party Like It’s Covid 1999” there’s a news article suggesting they’ve been confirmed!

A July 10 WOAI/KABB news story from San Antonio, Texas headlined “‘I thought this was a hoax’: Patient in their 30s dies after attending COVID party,” begins: “A patient in their 30s died from the coronavirus after attending what is known as a ‘COVID party,’ according to health care officials. Chief Medical Officer of Methodist Healthcare Dr. Jane Appleby said the idea of these parties is to see if the virus is real….According to Appleby, the patient became critically ill and had a heartbreaking statement moments before death.”

Sounds pretty grim, and for more details on this covid party death we can watch an accompanying video statement by Dr. Appleby: “I don’t want to be an alarmist, and we’re just trying to share some real-world examples to help our community realize that this virus is very serious and can spread easily. I heard a heartbreaking story this week: We cared for a thirty-year-old patient at Methodist Hospital who told their nurse that they’d attended a ‘covid party.’ This is a party held by somebody diagnosed with the covid virus and the thought is that people get together and to see if the virus is real and if anyone gets infected. Just before the patient died, they looked at their nurse and said, ‘I think I made a mistake. I thought this was a hoax, but it’s not.’ This is just one example of a potentially avoidable death of a member of our community and I can’t imagine the loss of the family.”

This is not breaking news but instead classic folklore (a friend-of-a-friend or FOAF) tale presented in news media as fact. The news story and headline presents the comment “I thought this was a hoax,” implicitly attributed to Dr. Appleby. But if you actually read past the headline and watch the video, she’s quoting what she was told that an anonymous patient told his (or her) anonymous nurse—just before the patient’s death. It’s an anonymous third-hand story with nary a verifiable name or claim to be found.

The “deathbed conversion” is a classic legend trope, and the explicitly-worded rebuttal (to those who might doubt that the virus exists) is both convenient and suspicious. It’s also interesting that covid-19 and covid parties are being conflated in the journalism. According to Dr. Appleby’s anonymous informant, the goal of the party is not specifically to intentionally spread the virus (which is the explicit goal of alleged covid parties) but instead “to see if the virus is real and if anyone gets infected.” In other words the topic is less whether the “covid parties” referenced in the headline are a “hoax,” but whether the covid-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2) is itself a hoax.

It is not, and frankly it’s hard to imagine anyone who genuinely thinks that the virus is fictional and doesn’t exist. Many people believe that the extent of the pandemic has been exaggerated for political purposes by the news media and others, and other people think that the virus is less severe than often claimed, perhaps only as bad as the flu. But who in the world would think that the virus itself is a “hoax”? The answer, according to Dr. Appleby, is the patient she refers to and unnamed others who allegedly threw a party thinking that the outcome would somehow settle the question.

Dr. Appleby’s story could, of course, be true, and it’s possible that in the coming days and weeks we will learn the name of the patient who died from attending a covid party (and/or the nurse who heard the patient’s dying regrets). Note that there’s no need to offer any identifying information about the patient, thus violating HIPAA rules. The nurse who (allegedly) had the first-person discussion could come forward to discuss the incident without violating any patient confidentiality agreements. More likely, however, this is a news story reporting a rumor as fact, and if anything it reinforces, not undermines, the idea that covid parties are largely or wholly fictional.

 
Jul 222020
 

Recent rumors and news reports have circulated claiming that COVID-19 is being spread intentionally in clandestine “covid parties.” In mid-March, Kentucky governor Andy Beshear made national headlines when he stated that part of the rise in coronavirus infections in his state was due to parties in which people tried their best to get sick. 

“We are battling for the health and even the lives of our parents and our grandparents. Don’t be so callous as to intentionally go to something and expose yourself to something that can kill other people. We ought to be much better than that,” he said in a news conference. News media widely carried the story, including CNN and NPR. A press release stated that authorities were “receiving reports of Covid-19 parties occurring in our community, where non-infected people mingle with an infected person in an effort to catch the virus.”

Confirmation that the parties were not only real but spreading came in the form of reports from Washington state, where Walla Walla’s “Meghan DeBolt, director of the county’s Department of Community Health, told the Union-Bulletin that contact tracing has revealed that some people who have newly tested positive had attended parties with the idea that it might be better to get sick with the virus and get it over with,” DeBolt told The Seattle Times.  

And then just last week came news from Alabama that college students had recently organized covid parties “as a contest to see who would get the virus first, officials said. Tuscaloosa City Councilor Sonya McKinstry said students hosted the parties to intentionally infect each other with the new coronavirus, news outlets reported. McKinstry said party organizers purposely invited guests who tested positive for COVID-19. She said the students put money in a pot and whoever got COVID first would get the cash.”

So what’s going on? Is this a genuine public health threat? 

To answer the question we can look at it from different perspectives, including media literacy, critical thinking, and folklore. There are elements of journalism, rumor, conspiracy, anti-vaccination fears, and medical misinformation. 

A Closer Look

The idea of intentionally being exposed to a disease in order to become immune to it—assuming, of course, you survive it—has been around for centuries and is the premise behind inoculation and vaccination (in which small, inactive doses of a disease trigger the body to produce defenses). 

There’s an important difference, however: Vaccinations are given specifically to prevent diseases; the idea is that hopefully you won’t get the disease at all. But these covid parties are intended to make sure the person contracts the disease (for most adults it’s not clear why actually getting sick from a potentially lethal disease would be any better at one time instead of risking getting sick at another time in the future; there’s hardly a “convenient” time to be bedridden—and possibly hospitalized—for weeks).  

Part of it traces back to anti-vaccination fears, which are closely related to conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and other diseases. There was vehement resistance to the very first vaccine, created for smallpox in the late 1700s. When the public learned that the vaccine was created by taking pus from the wounds of infected cows and giving it to humans, they were disgusted by the idea; some even believed that the vaccination could actually turn people (especially children) into cows! In England, vaccination deniers formed an Anti-Vaccination League in 1853, followed by the Anti-compulsory Vaccination League in 1867. These groups claimed that the smallpox vaccine was dangerous, ineffective, and represented not only a conspiracy but an infringement on personal rights by the government and medical establishment (this may sound familiar).

Such fears over smallpox vaccination have been long since disproven—the vaccination was both safe and effective—but the distrust and fearmongering continue to this day. Before vaccines were available, some parents held “pox parties” in which kids were encouraged to play with others who had chicken pox, measles, and other childhood diseases. They were especially popular in the 1970s and 1980s, though are today often promoted by anti-vaccination groups. 

Events in which people are deliberately exposed to diseases in place of vaccinations are a bad idea for several reasons, including as noted that the whole point of getting a vaccine is that you don’t get sick in the first place.

Of course, vaccination—like any medical intervention, drug, or therapy—isn’t perfect and doesn’t offer absolute protection. Some people who are fully vaccinated will still get the disease (albeit with typically milder symptoms and for a shorter duration), and some people who don’t get vaccinated won’t get the disease anyway (for any number of reasons, ranging from a strong immune system to simply not being exposed to a contagious person). But overall, on a population level, the scientific evidence is clear and convincing that vaccines are safe and effective. In the case of COVID-19, there is as yet no available vaccine, so there’s no safe way to expose someone to the coronavirus that doesn’t endanger their health. 

A Bad Idea…

It’s also important to remember that—unlike common cold or influenza—there seems to be lingering damage to the body long after apparent recovery from COVID-19. In stark contrast to Trump’s recent claim that “99% of infections” are “totally harmless” (a statement universally disputed by medical experts), though it’s true that statistically most people recover after surviving a bout with the disease, many report debilitating aftereffects. 

As an article in Forbes noted, “rapid recovery has not been the experience of thousands—perhaps tens of thousands—of patients worldwide who’ve been classified as ‘mild cases.’ Many struggle for months with lingering Covid-19 symptoms that can be debilitating. They exhibit shortness of breath, extreme fatigue, intermittent fevers, cough, concentration issues, chest pressure, headaches, and heart palpitations, among other symptoms.” A study of 1,622 “mildly symptomatic” Covid-19 patients found that “Nearly 88% of patients reported persistent intense fatigue, while almost three out of four had continued shortness of breath. Other enduring symptoms included, among other things, chest pressure (45% of patients), headache and muscle ache (40% and 36%, respectively), elevated pulse (30%), and dizziness (29%). Perhaps the most startling finding was that 85% of the surveyed patients considered themselves healthy prior to getting Covid-19. One or more months after getting the disease, only 6% consider themselves healthy.”

It would be one thing if COVID-19 patients could expect to endure a week or two of bedridden misery and then bounce back to where they were, fully recovered and newly immune. But that’s not the case; though most of those infected eventually survive the disease, the following months of aches, fatigue, and shortness of breath are unlikely to be worth it. Far better to protect yourself than to deliberately infect yourself. 

…That Probably Doesn’t Work Anyway

In any event, “covid parties” are unlikely to be effective anyway, for logistical reasons. Assuming you have a willing and potentially infectious patient (who’s not bedridden or in a hospital), it’s impossible for non-doctors to establish the person’s viral load—that is, the amount of contagious particles in a given volume of an infected person’s fluids (such as saliva or sneeze droplets). 

The basics of transmission are pretty well understood, and universal for upper respiratory infections: coughing, sneezing, and so on. Once droplets are expelled from the patient, they can enter other people by various routes: most easily by inhalation, but also indirectly through a person touching an item (say, a doorknob or elevator button) and then carrying that to their mouth, nose, or eyes. There are other ways as well, such as food contamination (sneezing on a salad bar, for example). 

A viral load varies from person to person, and how far along they are in the disease symptoms. But researchers don’t yet fully understand the mechanisms of COVID-19 infection. Sunlight kills the virus and air currents disperse it, making outdoor contact safer than indoor exposure. The recommended social distance metric of six feet isn’t a magic number, but merely an educated guess about how close people can be and minimize the risk. That doesn’t mean that you can’t catch it from someone twenty feet away (or someone who’s now long gone), and that doesn’t mean that you’re certain to catch it if you’re closer, or even kissing. There are many, many variables involved, including health of the patient, the amount of virus the person is exposed to, for how long, and so on. The point is that even under controlled, laboratory conditions, there’s little certainty about COVD-19’s transmissibility and thus health officials will err on the side of caution. 

Anti-vaccination groups—not known for their respect of medicine, its findings, or the recommendations derived therefrom—typically resort to unproven, ad hoc infection measures, such as merely being in the same room as an infected person, or in some cases sharing lollipops for example. Most people, anti-vaxx or not, aren’t eager to eat food that strangers have coughed or sneezed on. 

Not only does being around a sick person not guarantee you’ll get sick, but of course the person may not even have COVID-19 in the first place. Many respiratory diseases can have similar symptoms; if you or your child has a cold, they’re probably infected by a rhinovirus, not a coronavirus, so you’re not doing anyone any favors by giving them a cold or flu—and not conferring any immunity to COVID-19, which was the whole point. It is a direct violation of the first rule of medicine: “First, do no harm.” 

Whether any “covid parties” were actually held, there were many accidental ones in which people became infected (and in some cases died) from attending a party with an infected person. This fact should not, however, be taken as evidence that covid parties are an effective way to catch the virus; instead, it’s a case of selection bias. The cases in which people came down with the virus after parties are ones which are of course reported in news media; parties in which people gathered during the pandemic and no one became infected (for any number of reasons, including that no one present had the virus or that precautions including wearing masks and social distancing were taken, and so on) are non-events and therefore not newsworthy or notable. There’s simply no way to know with any certainty what the chances are of any given person contracting the disease. When you add in well-documented confounding factors such as asymptomatic carriers and vagaries of testing (including incomplete testing, false positives and false negatives, and so on), the whole premise of such parties is dubious. 

Statistics, Media Literacy, and ‘Bug Chasers’

So are the covid parties “real”? It’s hard to say, and depends on what you mean by “real.” There may be a few rare, isolated cases of people getting together to do that, but in any event it’s not common nor medically sanctioned. 

It’s also important to apply media literacy to the claims: News media routinely exaggerate and sensationalize claims such as these, eager to identify the latest dangerous “hidden trend” among the reckless for their audiences. 

For example in February 2003 Rolling Stone magazine published an article about “bug chasers,” men who try to become infected with HIV/AIDS by having unprotected sex with men known to be infected. An article titled “In Search of Death” claimed that trying to become infected with AIDS was a new craze sweeping the country. It featured an interview with an anonymous man, a 32-year-old New York City resident named “Carlos,” who claimed to be one of many thousands of people intentionally spreading the deadly disease. The article not only claimed that the practice was going on, but also that it was a significant contributor to the AIDS epidemic, with a startling 25% of all new HIV infections in gay men caused by bug chasing—that is, people who wanted to get the virus. 

Gay advocacy groups and AIDS activists were outraged at the sensationalistic reporting; GLAAD issued a statement that the piece “sends a dangerous, inaccurate message that is already being exploited by the anti-gay right.” A piece in the British Medical Journal set the record straight: “Rolling Stone says that its data came from an interview with Bob Cabaj, director of behavioral health services at San Francisco’s department of public health. But immediately after the piece was published, Cabaj asserted that he never mentioned any figures on the prevalence of bug chasing. In a letter to Rolling Stone, which was forwarded to the BMJ, Cabaj wrote: ‘I did not have data, as I explained to the [Rolling Stone] author, but was saying it was probably more common than people wanted to think.’ And in an interview with Newsweek Cabaj distanced himself even further from the widely quoted prevalence data: ‘I never said that [it was 25%]. And when the fact checker called me and asked me if I said that, I said no. I said no. This is unbelievable.’” 

2006 study in the journal AIDS Education and Prevention by Christian Grov and Jeffrey Parsons of internet profiles concluded that while there are probably people who actively seek out HIV infection, they are very rare and that “a sizeable portion [of those] were not intent on spreading HIV.” That is, some non-infected gay men may seek partners of a different serostatus (i.e., HIV-infected)—but when they do, the purpose is not to get infected with the virus, nor to spread it to others. 

From a folkloric perspective these rumors can be understood as disease legends. Diane Goldstein, in her book Once Upon a Virus: AIDS Legends and Vernacular Risk Perception, notes that “The construction of the infected individual as morally deficient… occurs with regularity in relation to epidemic diseases. The more virulent diseases become, the more likely it is that certain groups and individuals will be seen as responsible for the threat on community welfare.” Goldstein discusses various false rumors circulating about people who deliberately infected others with AIDS, such as “AIDS Mary” and “AIDS Harry” stories, as well as fears about AIDS-infected needles placed in telephone coin return slots (though such rumors often resurface, this latter version is unlikely to return any time soon).

The Non-Epidemic of Covid Parties

So what about the widely-reported recent covid parties in Kentucky, Washington, and Alabama? 

Well, evidence of the coronavirus parties that Kentucky governor Andy Beshear mentioned never materialized, and Beshear never provided any follow up information or details on what, exactly, he was referring to. 

The reports from Washington state turned out to be a mistake. As The New York Times reported, “officials retracted those comments and said the so-called Covid-19 parties may have been more innocent gatherings. Meghan DeBolt, the director of community health for Walla Walla County, said county officials were learning more about the cases that have emerged from the recent social gatherings. She said they were still hearing reports of parties where infected people were present but do not have evidence that the people who became ill after the gatherings had attended out of a desire to be exposed.” In other words, young people were recklessly gathering at parties—something happening all across the country and having nothing to do with covid parties. 

The Alabama covid party story was soon debunked as well. As a refreshingly skeptical Wired article noted: “Tuscaloosa fire chief Randy Smith told the city council that his department had heard about parties ‘where students or kids would come in with known positives.’ It sounded like just a rumor, Smith said, but ‘not only did the doctors’ offices help confirm it, but the state also confirmed they had the same information.’ You’ll notice immediately that Smith didn’t say anything about people trying to get sick, let alone betting on who could do it first. So why is everyone saying that’s what happened? The notion seems to have originated with McKinstry, who shared it with ABC News after the meeting. It’s not clear whether McKinstry had a source for this idea, and she did not reply to WIRED’s request for comment. The Alabama Department of Health responded with a statement that it ‘has not been able to verify such parties have taken place.’ It’s not even clear that the fire chief had it right about kids going to parties while knowing they were sick.”

“Covid parties” made the news again in mid-July, when a doctor at a Texas hospital gave interviews to national news media that seemed to confirm the dire threat of the reckless events. A July 10 WOAI/KABB news story from San Antonio, Texas headlined “‘I thought this was a hoax’: Patient in their 30s dies after attending COVID party,” begins: “A patient in their 30s died from the coronavirus after attending what is known as a ‘COVID party,’ according to health care officials. Chief Medical Officer of Methodist Healthcare Dr. Jane Appleby said the idea of these parties is to see if the virus is real….According to Appleby, the patient became critically ill and had a heartbreaking statement moments before death.”

More details on this apparent “covid party death” appear in an accompanying video statement by Dr. Appleby: “I don’t want to be an alarmist, and we’re just trying to share some real-world examples to help our community realize that this virus is very serious and can spread easily. I heard a heartbreaking story this week: We cared for a thirty-year-old patient at Methodist Hospital who told their nurse that they’d attended a ‘covid party.’ This is a party held by somebody diagnosed with the covid virus and the thought is that people get together and to see if the virus is real and if anyone gets infected. Just before the patient died, they looked at their nurse and said, ‘I think I made a mistake. I thought this was a hoax, but it’s not.’ This is just one example of a potentially avoidable death of a member of our community and I can’t imagine the loss of the family.”

This is not breaking news but instead classic folklore (a friend-of-a-friend or FOAF) tale. The news story and headline presents the comment “I thought this was a hoax,” implicitly attributed to Dr. Appleby. But if you read past the headline and watch the video, she’s quoting what she was told that an anonymous patient told his (or her) anonymous nurse—just before the patient’s death. It’s an anonymous third-hand story with nary a verifiable name or claim to be found.

The “deathbed conversion” is a classic legend trope, and the explicitly-worded rebuttal (to those who might doubt that the virus exists) is both convenient and suspicious. It’s also interesting that covid-19 and covid parties are being conflated in the journalism. According to Dr. Appleby’s anonymous informant, the goal of the party is not specifically to intentionally spread the virus—as noted, the explicit goal of alleged covid parties—but instead “to see if the virus is real and if anyone gets infected.” In other words the topic is less whether the “covid parties” referenced in the headline are a “hoax,” but whether the covid-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2) is itself a hoax.

It’s hard to imagine anyone who genuinely thinks that the virus is fictional and doesn’t exist. Many people believe that the extent of the pandemic has been exaggerated for political purposes by the news media and others, and some think that the virus is less severe than often claimed, perhaps only as bad as the flu. But who in the world would think that the virus itself is a “hoax”? The answer, according to Dr. Appleby, is the patient she refers to and unnamed others who allegedly threw a party thinking that the outcome would somehow settle the question.

Dr. Appleby’s story could, of course, be true, and it’s possible that in the coming days and weeks we will learn the name of the patient who died from attending a covid party (and/or the nurse who heard the patient’s dying regrets). More likely, however, this is a news story reporting a rumor as fact, and if anything it reinforces, not undermines, the idea that covid parties are largely or wholly fictional.

The reports have all the typical ingredients of unfounded moral panic rumors: anonymous sources sharing stories and warnings online, soon legitimized by local officials (teachers, police, school districts, governors, etc.) who publicize the information out of an abundance of caution. Journalists eagerly run with a sensational story, and there’s little if any sober or skeptical follow-up. 

It’s only one of many concerns that cycle through news and social media on a regular basis. The alleged threats include poisoned Halloween candy, suicide-inducing online games, Satanists, caravans of diseased migrantsevil clowns, and many others. 

Covid parties, per se, are largely a media myth, but that doesn’t mean that someone, somewhere, may not be doing it or could do it. The question is not whether it’s possible, as all urban legends and rumors are inherently possible—and at least plausible enough to share. Hours after a hapless expert publicly avers that covid parties “don’t exist,” one could be arranged, thus “proving” the expert wrong. But the essence of the rumor is instead that clandestine covid parties are a Thing, being organized and sure to soon menace public health. In that regard there’s no evidence whatsoever of any covid parties.

In a world of 7.5 billion people—60% of whom are online—some tiny percentage of them will inevitably share common interests in strange, illegal, or destructive behaviors (ranging from murder for hire to sexual fetishes and even cannibalism). Of those, some small percent will get together in real life to enact them. The issue is less “Has this ever happened?” or “Could this happen?” but instead “Even if it has happened, is it a prevalent or significant threat that ordinary people should be concerned about, or take steps to prevent?” 

There are more than enough real threats and dangers associated with COVID-19; we don’t need to create new ones. Hoaxes, misinformation, and rumors can cause real harm during public health emergencies; as always, best inoculations against misinformation are critical thinking, media literacy, and skepticism.

We also devoted an episode of Squaring the Strange to the topic; you can listen HERE. 

 

A longer version of this article appeared on my CFI blog; you can find it HERE.

Jul 192020
 

A folklore colleague sent me a news story about the sinister-yet-fictional Blue Whale Game rumor, which is once again circulating after I and others debunked it back in 2017… As if there aren’t enough real problems to be concerned about?

 

My original article, from June 2017: 

Over the past few months scary warnings have been circulating on social media asking parents, teachers, and police to beware of a hidden threat to children: a sinister online “game” that can lead to death! Some on social media have limned their reporting on the topic with appropriate skepticism, but many panicky social media posts plead for parents to take action.

Here is a typical warning: “The Blue Whale ‘suicide game’ is believed to be a hidden online social media group which its main aim is to encourage our children to kill themselves. Within the group daily task are assigned to members have to do different tasks for fifty days. They include self-harming, watching horror movies and waking up at unusual hours, but these gradually get more extreme. But on the fiftieth day, the controlling manipulators behind the game reportedly instruct the youngsters to commit suicide. Please share and warn all other parents of the dangers of this game. We do not want any deaths related to the game within the UK.”

Though a few qualifiers are dutifully included (“is believed to be” and “reportedly,” for example) the overall tone is alarmist and sensational. It’s not clear where the appellation “Blue Whale” game comes from, though some have suggested it’s linked to suicidal whale beachings. Debunking website Snopes traced the story back to a May 2016 article on a Russian news site, which “reported dozens of suicides of children in Russia during a six-month span, asserting that some of the people who had taken their lives were part of the same online game community.”

While it appears to be true that some of the teens used the same social media gaming sites, it does not logically imply that there’s any link between the deaths, nor that the site caused them. Correlation does not imply causation, and it’s more likely that depressed teens may be drawn to certain websites than it is that those websites caused their users to become depressed and/or suicidal. And, of course, on any wildly popular social media site (including Instagram, Facebook, or Pogo), a small subset of users will share common characteristics, including mental illness, simply by random chance.

Real or Rumor?

There is little evidence that the game has actually caused suicides, or that it even exists.

The question is not, “Is this scary event possible?” because of course it is—anything is possible. Rumors and legends often involve things and events that people can believe might be real, might be a genuine threat to the health or safety of themselves or their loved ones. All urban legends have an element of superficial credibility about them; that’s why they are widely shared and warned about.

There is a sort of self-limiting credulity mechanism built into urban legends and what’s often called scarelore: If you hear some warning that is so outlandish and bizarre that no one would believe it, then you don’t spread it around because others will recognize the story as patently absurd and question your judgment for sharing such a silly story in the first place.

The question is instead, “Is there any evidence that this scary story is true?” and that is a very different matter. Rumors and legends are widely shared because they appeal to apparently legitimate statistics and sources—in this case seemingly specific numbers such as 130 victims—or to statements from legitimate police organizations. There is little or no evidence that the story is true, and it’s important for journalists to make sure the public knows this and not write alarmist stories that sensationalize the claims.

Moral panics such as the Blue Whale Game are part of a very old tradition. These scary media stories are very popular because they are fueled by parents’ fears and wanting to know what their kids are up to. Are seemingly innocent role-playing games and entertainment leading to unspeakable evil, in the form of Satan or even death? We saw the same fears decades ago about Dungeons and Dragons, heavy metal music, and violent video games. Now it’s online games and social media.

Indeed, the Blue Whale Game has all the hallmarks of a classic moral panic. Familiar elements and themes include:

  1. Modern technology and seemingly benign personal devices as posing hidden dangers to children and teens;
  2. In classic “Stranger Danger” fashion, the threat is some influential evil stranger who manipulates the innocent; and
  3. There is an element of conspiracy theory to these stories: it’s always a “hidden world” of anonymous evil people who apparently have nothing better to do than ask teens to do things for fifty days before (somehow) compelling them to commit suicide.

Responding to the Scare

The mere fact that news organizations and school officials comment on the rumors often lends credibility to the stories, and authorities should be careful about legitimizing these sorts of moral panics. Police, teachers, and others issue statements to address rumors but often end up legitimizing the stories and making them more credible. Parents and others who might otherwise recognize the rumors as bogus may say, “Well, I thought it was a hoax, but even the police are commenting on it, so there must be some truth to it!”

In fact, authorities will often be pressured by parents and others to address rumors and stories even if there is no evidence for them. People take a “better safe than sorry” approach to sharing these stories, and it ends up doing more harm than good if there is no underlying threat, as is the case here. It’s also common for journalists and others—even when a threat is recognized as bogus—to spin the panic into a “teachable moment” in which to remind kids about the dangers of peer influence, the perils of online predators, bullying, and so on. (A similar thing happened with last year’s scary clown panic, during which several schools were placed on lockdown due to rumors of violent clowns.)

The best way for parents to cope with these rumors is to not share them and calm their children’s fears if they hear them. Parents do not need to have a somber, serious sit-down discussion with their kids; instead it can be as simple as acknowledging the rumors and saying in passing, “You know it’s just a joke, a rumor. There’s no truth to it.” Parents should trust that their children are media savvy and smart enough not to do whatever a stranger tells them. (Parents have a hard enough time getting their teenagers to follow their rules one day at a time, so getting them to diligently follow a stranger’s increasingly bizarre instructions daily for nearly two months would be a remarkable feat indeed.)

CFI Fellow Richard Saunders, a veteran skeptic and host of the Skeptic Zone podcast, added that “One of the problems faced by the modern media is the precious little time and resources they have to do basic investigation into the validity of a story. It is more expedient for a publisher or an editor to put out the story half-baked, especially one concerning the imminent demise of beloved children, than to do thorough research.” Saunders noted that in today’s twenty-four–hour news cycle, “There are just too many other stories competing for the public attention, and their attention span is brief, especially when they get much of their news from Facebook. Competition is fierce and in order to keep up and sell newspapers, or have people read your story in any form, it is necessary to cut corners. Next week there will be another story and any controversy over the current story will be soon forgotten as yesterday’s (or last week’s) news.”

There is of course a possibility that some people (kids or adults) will take the stories seriously and try to participate in, or even create, such a game, even if it doesn’t really exist. Journalists and others in the news media can help deter such copycats by treating the topic skeptically. Journalists and police should also be careful not to confuse or attribute some genuine, unrelated suicides to the Blue Whale Game, as the Russian news source mentioned earlier apparently did. In the wake of suicides, which are sadly not uncommon among young people for a wide variety of reasons, many people will look for answers or scapegoats, including rock music, violent video games, and so on. Journalists can also help by seeking out skeptics, psychologists, and experts in folklore to help put the claims into context.

This is only the latest in a long series of similar moral panics and outrages shared on social media and aided by sensationalist news media. Often the best antidote to the Blue Whale Game and other moral panics is a healthy dose of skepticism.

 

We have also discussed the game on my podcast Squaring the Strange, which I hope you’re subscribing to! 

 

 

 

Jul 152020
 

The twin plagues of COVID-19 and racism have come to the fore globally over the past few months, and as with any such afflictions there’s a social desire to scapegoat, finding someone (or some group) to blame. Parallels between the pandemic and racism are not hard to find. Earlier this month George Clooney referred to racism as America’s “pandemic,” for which we must find a “vaccine.” Street protesters as well can be seen holding signs encouraging people to “Treat Racism Like COVID-19.” 

The two are analogous in some ways, prompting some anti-vaccination crusaders to compare themselves to pioneering Civil Rights leaders, seeing themselves as victims of social injustice who will no longer be silent. As MacKenzie Mays noted in a September 2019 piece for Politico: “A chorus of mostly white women sang the gospel song ‘We Shall Overcome’ in the California State Capitol, an anthem of the civil rights movement. Mothers rallied outside the governor’s office and marched through Capitol corridors chanting “No segregation, no discrimination, yes on education for all!’ Some wore T-shirts that read ‘Freedom Keepers.’ But this wasn’t about racial equality. In the nation’s most diverse state, protesters opposed to childhood vaccine mandates — many from affluent coastal areas — had co-opted the civil rights mantle from the 1960s, insisting that their plight is comparable to what African Americans have suffered from segregationist policies. Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove said, ‘The whole conversation around vaccinations is actually one about privilege and opportunity. It’s a personal choice. It’s a luxury to be able to have a conversation about medical exemptions and about whether or not you think your child should be vaccinated.” However passionate Jenny McCarthy is, she’s no Rosa Parks. 

Racism and Anti-Vaccination

René F. Najera, editor of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s History of Vaccines website, recently examined the cross-pollination of racism and anti-vaccination efforts, highlighting an incident that came to the attention of the California Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus (APILC), which “denounced racist online postings from anti-vaccine people. One of those people is Rob Schneider, an actor and comedian who at one time had a television series on Netflix. This is not Mr. Schneider’s first foray into the cultural discussion on vaccination … The posts denounced by APILC includes Mr. Schneider’s comparison of Richard Pan, MD, to Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China and author of several atrocities within China and the expansion of Communism around China’s sphere of influence in the post-World War 2 era. Dr. Pan is a child of Taiwanese immigrants to the United States. (This is apparently not the first time Mr. Schneider has engaged in questionable racial speech that some deem to be racist.) In another post denounced by APILC, ‘Christine Lee’ posted a photoshopped poster of members of the California Legislature who have Asian heritage. In the text of the posting, she asks several leading questions, such as ‘Notice anything else about them?’ after pointing out that they are ‘all doctors-turned-politicians.’ (The implication being that they are all of Asian descent?) The final posting being denounced is that of ‘Cathy S-R,’ a self-described ‘Doctor of Chiropractic, medical freedom supporter, informed consent, dog/cat lover.’ In her posting to Twitter, she asks Dr. Pan if he is an American citizen [and] then contradicts her initial insinuation about Dr. Pan’s citizenship by stating that Dr. Pan ‘[m]ake [his] country proud.’” 

It’s not just Asians, of course—though prejudice toward them has increased with their association with COVID-19 and its origin in Wuhan, China. University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire professor David Shih notes that “People of color have been long associated with disease and public health pandemics. In the United States alone, the history of racialization cannot be separated from the discourse of non-white bodily or mental illness … I would like to focus on black Americans, and the influential story told about them by a single man, Frederick L. Hoffman. Hoffman was an actuary for the Prudential Life Insurance Company when he published Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro (1896). The 330-page document argued that black people should not be insured because they were a greater risk for mortality compared to other racial groups. Their lower life expectancies were directly related, Hoffman explained, to inferior, inherited racial traits which promised their eventual extinction as a people. Flawed as it was and critiqued by no less than W.E.B. DuBois in its day, Hoffman’s diagnosis was widely adopted by the insurance industry and went on to shape public debate over the ‘Negro question’ … Blackness was, quite simply, a public health problem. One of the reasons why we are not talking about the anti-vaccination movement as white is because we talk about geography and social class instead. These demographic characteristics often stand in as proxies for race, which is more controversial.” 

Nevertheless, race does occasionally come to the fore. In The Kiss of Death: Contagion, Contamination, and Folklore, professor Andrea Kitta examines the characteristics of well-known “patient zeros and superspreaders” of various diseases, including Mary Mallon (“Typhoid Mary”), Amber Vinson (the Texas nurse who contracted Ebola in 2014), and Chong Pei Ling (SARS victim in 2003). Notably, “of the thirteen cases listed, only four are ‘white’” (p. 34). The perceived link between nonwhite skin and contagion is clear and helps form the basis for initiatives to close America’s borders. The fear of foreigners and immigrants bringing disease to the country was of course raised a few years ago when a Fox News contributor suggested without evidence that a migrant caravan from Honduras and Guatemala coming through Mexico carried leprosy, smallpox, and other dreaded diseases. This claim was quickly debunked. For more on COVID-19 racist conspiracies, see my previous article in this series. 

New Age, Holistic Healers, and Conspiracies

Conspiracy theories are common among alternative medicine proponents—who often portray themselves as marginalized medical professionals denied the imprimatur of mainstream medicine—and some bleed over into racism. One prominent proponent is Kelly Brogan, a “holistic psychiatrist” who has gathered a huge following online for her dangerous theories about COVID-19, made in interviews and a series of videos. 

Brogan invokes Jewish history and the Holocaust in her arguments against vaccination, “suggesting the possibility that the US government is planning to ‘link our passports with our vaccination records’ as a method of gaining ‘totalitarian governmental control not unlike the divide-and-conquer dehumanization agendas that preceded the Holocaust.’” Brogan, associated with Gwyneth Paltrow’s New Age company Goop, was found to have misstated her credentials. On her website, she claimed that she was board certified in psychiatry and psychosomatic medicine/consultation psychiatry, but a search of records found that she was not; after an investigation by The Daily Beast, Brogan quietly deleted the references to her certifications. 

On social media, Brogan has shared videos with titles such as “Vaccine Conspiracy or Racist Population Control Campaign,” a 2014 video from anti-vaccination activist Celesta McGovern reprising longstanding rumors about attempts to sterilize Africans. The claims were soon debunked on the Science-Based Medicine website but have continued to circulate widely. There are many examples of racism in medicine, but the campaign Brogan highlights is, ironically, not among them. 

Many other alternative medicine and holistic websites also promote anti-vaccination conspiracies. NaturalNews, Mike “The Health Ranger” Adams, and others, for example, have widely shared bogus “news” stories attempting to discredit mainstream science, with headlines such as “Tetanus vaccines found spiked with sterilization chemical to carry out race-based genocide against Africans.” It’s all thrown into a toxic stew of misinformation about the dangers of vaccines, GMOs, cell phones, you name it. 

Like all conspiracy theories, these rumors and stories have a superficial plausibility, and gain traction by tapping into deep-seated—and often legitimate—concerns and fears. There is of course a long and well-documented history of racism in medicine, from the Tuskegee Experiments beginning in the 1930s to disparate healthcare treatment. When two French doctors recently suggested that a tuberculosis vaccine should be tested on Africans to see if it could be effective against COVID-19, the comments were denounced as racist and relics of a colonial past by the head of the World Health Organization (WHO). “Shouldn’t we do this study in Africa, where there are no masks, no treatment, no resuscitation, a bit like some studies on AIDS, where among prostitutes, we try things, because they are exposed, and they don’t protect themselves?” asked physician Jean-Paul Mira. The WHO called the comments “appalling” and said that any WHO-led vaccine testing will follow the same standards regardless of where it’s done. 

Folklorist Patricia Turner, in her book I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture, observes that “African-American mistrust of governmental agencies is not without merit … Official disrespect for the bodies of African-Americans has a long history in this country” (p. 112). Medicalized racism is real, harmful, and a serious problem, but that doesn’t mean that any given wild conspiracy theory is true.

Brogan’s attempt to paint the medical establishment as racist is ironic given her own history of promoting conspiracy theorist David Icke—who claims among many other things that Barack Obama is a Reptilian (when not spewing racist tropes). As The New York Times noted, “Mr. Icke draws on ideas from the anti-Semitic pamphlet The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, argues that Holocaust denial should be taught in schools and that Jews are responsible for organizing anti-Semitic attacks, and calls the Talmud a racist document. In other writings, he has posited that a cabal of a child-sacrificing, bloodthirsty lizard people, many of whom are Jewish, are secretly running the world.” 

In a March 20, 2020, post, Brogan encouraged her followers to “listen through to the end [of an interview with Icke] to learn how to remain calm and manifest the impossible.” Regarding COVID-19, she states that in fact “there is potentially no such thing as the coronavirus.” Brogan seems to decry racism conspiracy when it serves her anti-vaccination purposes, and promote racism conspiracy—or at least those who do—when it suits her.

Anti-vaccination wellness influencers such as Brogan are also actively sharing conspiracy theories from far-right groups such as QAnon about COVID-19. A recent Mother Jones article found that “Some have fused wellness hoaxes and pseudoscientific homeopathic treatments with QAnon and other far-right conspiracies. One such notable influencer is Joseph Arena, a chiropractor who uses the title ‘Dr.’ and has more than 40,000 followers. Arena has pushed explicit QAnon theories about massive pedophile rings run by the deep state on his Instagram account and has directed his followers to pro-QAnon pages to find ‘the truth.’… Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai, a biology PhD [with] nearly 100,000 followers, pushes QAnon-styled conspiracies about “deep state” [including] that the coronavirus is a tool for the ‘deep state’ in ‘consolidating its Power using its protected class of Hollywood & Academic whores.’”

Plandemic 

The recent Plandemic video is laden with conspiracies and hints darkly at motivations in its attacks on Dr. Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates. For example, as to the claims made about Fauci in Plandemic, former New York police officer Mitch Danzig, notes in an article for The Jewish Journal that “The NIAID, under Fauci’s leadership since 1984, provides dozens of grants to labs researching infectious diseases. These grants weren’t awarded to work on COVID-19. Many were, however, awarded to perform work on SARS, which spread across the world in 2003. The NIAID also didn’t give the funds directly to the Wuhan Institute. The grants were given instead to the EcoHealth Alliance, which invests in health research globally that led to at least 20 research papers on pre-COVID-19 coronaviruses published over the past six years. The grant referenced in these breathless, innuendo-filled stories about Fauci also wasn’t the first awarded by the NIAID to the EcoHealth Alliance. The NIAID has been providing grants to EcoHealth Alliance to fund infectious disease research projects all over the world, including in Chinese institutes, since 2005. This ‘smoking gun’ that Fauci conspiracy theorists keep touting is about as big a ‘Nothing Burger’ as one can imagine. But it is about as demonstrative of the claim that Fauci is responsible for COVID-19 as pointing to a specific Jew being the president of CBS as ‘proof’ that the ‘Jews control the media.’ To say that these conspiracy theories about Gates and Fauci, which often are promoted by a cohort of anti-vaxxers as well as anti-Semites, are specious and baseless, is to be kind.” 

Anti-vaccination advocates are of course not alone in spreading medical misinformation for social and political purposes; anti-abortion groups have been known to spread false rumors about contraception being secretly given instead of tetanus vaccines to women in developing countries. 

The protests about race relations and reopening the country are also being shared and eagerly amplified for political purposes by America’s enemies. In a Washington Post piece, Ishaan Tharoor noted that along with American citizens watching the racial rioting and protests, “America’s putative foreign adversaries also are watching. ‘This incident is far from the first in a series of lawless conduct and unjustified violence from U.S. law enforcement,’ the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, adding to the Kremlin’s long history of pointing to human rights abuses in the United States. ‘American police commit such high-profile crimes all too often.’ Officials in Iran did the same, calling out racial injustice in America. ‘If you’re dark-skinned walking in the US, you can’t be sure you’ll be alive in the next few minutes,’ read a tweet from an account associated with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, which was accompanied by a video that detailed the horrific history of slavery in the United States. And then there was China. Already locked in a spiraling geopolitical confrontation with Washington, officials in Beijing seized on the protests to push back against the Trump administration’s assertive messaging on Hong Kong, a city whose unique autonomy is being dramatically curtailed by China.” China in particular is especially sensitive to the widespread criticism of its early handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, and its leaders may feel a sense of schadenfreude in America’s troubles. 

Who’s spurring the racial protests? Conspiracies point to any number of people, including rich Jewish businessmen such as George Soros who are allegedly hiring fake protesters. (In fact, this has been debunked.) Who’s spreading COVID-19? Rich liberals such as Bill Gates, hoping to become even richer. (In fact, this also has been debunked.)

Not all alternative medicine proponents are anti-vaccine, of course, just as not all anti-vaccination activists are conspiracy theorists, right-wing, racist, or all three. However, it’s not surprising that a Venn diagram reveals considerable overlap among the worldviews. Conspiracy is inherent in anti-vaccination belief, because Big Pharma has allegedly invested untold fortunes in keeping the “truth” about vaccines from public knowledge.

People across the political spectrum believe conspiracy theories, and they all share a common worldview, one which is fundamentally distrustful of authority and anti-establishment. All pride themselves on being independent thinkers, a special breed of “woke” folk who are smart enough to separate themselves from the sheeple and not be swayed by what “They” want you to think. Theirs is a world in which world events are part of a Master Plan orchestrated by a Jewish cabal, the Illuminati, Bill Gates, Big Pharma, or whoever else. 

Racism, conspiracy thinking, and the rejection of science are all toxic problems, made worse when combined with the chaos and uncertainty of a pandemic. Fortunately, these are all learned behaviors that can be conquered. The best inoculations against misinformation are critical thinking, media literacy, and skepticism.

 

A longer version of this piece first appeared on the Center for Inquiry’s Coronavirus Resource Page; you can find it HERE. 

Jul 122020
 

The recent episode of Squaring the Strange is out! This time around we examine the legend of snuff films–movies in which one or more of the actors are (really) killed! 

We are joined by filmmaker and encyclopedia of weird film knowledge Erik Kristopher Myers. The notion of a “snuff film” is a strange convergence of conspiracy thinking, urban legend, moral panic, and actual film trivia, and we tour the genre–or, rather, things that have been assumed part of this elusive genre–from the Manson family to Faces of Death to an early found-footage gore fest called Cannibal Holocaust. Have any real snuff films ever been uncovered, or any black market snuff rings investigated? What are the factors that play into our belief in, and fear of, these monstrous commodifications of our mortality? And how have moviemakers and underground video producers capitalized on the idea?

Check it out HERE! 

Jul 082020
 

Spree killer and ex-police officer Christopher Dorner was recently mentioned in a standup comedy piece by Dave Chapelle. If the name sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because Dorner killed four people and wounded three others in mid-February 2013, his victims including police and civilians in the Los Angeles area.

The manhunt for Dorner over the course of several days provides real-world insight into eyewitness reliability. As police tracked him down they received eyewitness reports of Dorner in dozens of places around southern California. Heavily-armed police officers descended on a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in Tarzana after a tipster said Dorner might be inside; an innocent African-American man who barely resembled Dorner was arrested and soon (thankfully) released.

Dorner was soon spotted at a Lowe’s home improvement store in Northridge, causing the store to be evacuated and a SWAT team dispatched, but he wasn’t there either; he was also reported at Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, and so on. The fact that a $1 million reward was offered for information about Dorner’s location understandably increased the public’s incentive for reporting any and all potential sightings.

The public can often be instrumental in helping find missing persons—it is how Elizabeth Smart was eventually recovered after being abducted from her Salt Lake City home in 2002. But it also leads to many false leads. In 2002 two snipers attacked the Washington, D.C., area and terrorized much of America. Based upon eyewitness descriptions, law enforcement agencies alerted the public to be on the lookout for suspects in a white van. Thousand of vehicles were stopped and searched, jamming highways for miles. The focus on a white van intensified after a shooting outside a store in suburban Virginia, when a man claimed to have seen the shooter standing next to a white van. The man later admitted that he lied to police, likely seeking media attention.

While some false sightings are reported as pranks or for attention, most are from sincere eyewitnesses trying to help out. Elvis Presley sighting jokes aside, it is a real problem for police. It is not uncommon, especially in high-profile hunts for fugitives or missing persons, for dozens or hundreds of sightings to be reported to law enforcement. Police, of course, must treat all sightings and reports as potential leads; ignoring a valid tip might cost lives.

Furthermore, because false accusations often target minorities, it’s especially dangerous. You may recall Susan Smith, the mother who in 1994 blamed an African-American man for kidnapping her children when she in fact drowned them in a lake. Or Jennifer Wilbanks, the so-called “Runaway Bride” who claimed to have been kidnapped and assaulted by a Hispanic man, but who had in fact voluntarily left her groom at the altar. Or the infamous Central Park Five case, in which five Black and Latino teenagers were arrested in 1989 for the brutal rape and assault of a white jogger in New York’s Central Park. Many people—including Donald Trump and African-American poet Sapphire (author of Push, from which the Oscar-winning film Precious was adapted)—jumped on the bandwagon falsely accusing the young men of the crime. More recently in Central Park there was Amy Cooper, a white woman who called 911 on black bird-watcher Christian Cooper, stating falsely that “there’s an African American threatening me and my dog.”

The many false sightings of Dorner is not unusual. One of the most famous cases of false sightings was the disappearance of a three-year-old British girl named Madeleine McCann, last seen at a resort in Portugal in May 2007. Her presumed abduction made international news, and photos of McCann circulated widely as police and the family hoped for tips from the public. This led to the girl being “sighted” in dozens of different places in Europe and around the world, from Belgium to Brazil, Australia to Africa, by eyewitnesses who reported seeing her. The case remains unsolved, though in recent weeks it’s been reported that a German man is the main suspect.

All this has implications for psychology and eyewitness reliability; if you tell people what to look for, any face or physique that is even remotely similar (large Black male, small blonde girl) can become a (false) positive identification. By some estimates, as many as one-third of eyewitness identifications in criminal cases are wrong, and nearly 200 people who were convicted of crimes based on positive eyewitness identifications were later exonerated through DNA evidence.

Dorner died in a shootout in the San Bernardino Mountains on February 12, 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 Dave Chapelle, 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.”

The fact that police treatment of a mentally ill man was one of the triggers for the murder spree was not lost on many. Though it’s often claimed that the news media highlight mental illness primarily with white mass shooters and suspects, Dorner was widely described by officials and news media as mentally ill, with L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa stating that “Whatever problem [Dorner] has is mental” and 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’.”

It is of course possible, even likely, that Dorner was both mentally ill and subjected to racial harassment in the LAPD. Given the rarity of African-American serial killers or mass shooters—let alone ones who are also police officers and leave a manifesto—it’s no wonder that Dorner is still discussed today.

 

A longer version of this piece appeared on my Center for Inquiry blog; you can read it HERE. 

Jun 202020
 

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.

Whichever President’s Nazi U.N. Vote

To offer one example, a CBS News article titled “U.S. Votes against Anti-Nazi Resolution at U.N.” has circulated many times in recent months on Facebook, invariably accompanied by commentary about how it’s (another) example of Trump refusing to condemn Nazis and white supremacists. 

 

The news story is accurate—it’s just several years old and in fact occurred under Barack Obama. 

This opens liberals up to accusations of hypocrisy by conservatives: If voting against anti-Nazi resolutions is patently wrong, racist, and un-American, then where was the outrage when Obama did it? (This is of course a bit of a false equivalence fallacy, since Obama and Trump do not have similar histories regarding race relations—and to be fair, there are many perfectly valid reasons a country would refuse to vote for a measure that is otherwise worthy but may have unwanted attachments or obligations.) 

The point here is not to set up any false equivalence between the administration on this issue—nor, certainly, to defend Trump—but instead to illustrate how the psychological tendency toward confirmation bias can affect us. A “no” vote on an otherwise not-particularly-notable U.N. resolution takes on special social media newsworthy significance in a context and under an administration that has come under fire for similar accusations of racial insensitivity or even outright racism. In one context, it’s a non-event; in another, it’s a (in this case, false) data point in a constellation of incidents suggesting Trump’s support of white supremacy. 

News reports of racist attacks were often attributed to Trump’s influence, for example when a ninety-two-year-old Mexican man, Rodolfo Rodriguez, was attacked with a brick in Los Angeles and told to “go back to his own country.” His jaw was shattered and he suffered multiple broken ribs. I saw the story circulate in 2019 as recent news, with commentary that this was obviously a result of Trump’s latest racist comments—except that the attack had occurred over a year earlier, and the attacker was an African-American woman, Laquisha Jones. 

While it’s possible the attack was influenced by Trump, it’s unlikely and we should avoid the post hoc ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of this”) fallacy. Some ugly racial incidents clearly are, some may be, and some are not; lumping them together serves no purpose. One can certainly argue that Trump’s words and actions have encouraged racial divisiveness in America, but using that specific news article or incident as an example is simply false and misleading. 

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.” There are plenty of other factually accurate news stories that could have made the same point.

The same applies to all recycled stories; the process, not the content, is the problem, and you can be sure that were a Democrat in the White House, the use of old, fake news would be just as robust. Facebook is aware of the problem and has recently introduced a small red “Breaking News” icon that appears along with (actually) new news stories, to help users distinguish new from old. 

 

 

But the ultimate responsibility lies with each social media user, who is after all the curator of their own newsfeeds. People need to take responsibility for what they share and (explicitly or tacitly) promote on social media. Every hoax or misleading meme can be stopped from going further by diligent—or even half-assed—efforts to not mislead others. It could be as simple as adding a caveat to the post such as “From 2015, and still relevant.” 

But this of course requires the person to spend a few seconds verifying the date—which is easy enough; it can be done simply by clicking on the link and noting the date, or often by merely hovering the cursor over an active URL, which often reveals the date (see below). 

 

Very few people generate new content on social media (and a significant portion of those who do are part of organized misinformation campaigns); most simply and blindly pass along whatever information they receive. In today’s misinformation-marinated world, skeptics and critical thinkers must be vigilant if they want to avoid becoming part of the problem. Otherwise socially and media literate people routinely admonish others to check their facts and demand evidence while actively share misinformation themselves. People can complain about misinformation and disinformation from Russia and biased news media all they like, but change begins at home.

 

This article first appeared at my CFI blog in 2019 and remains sadly relevant; you can find it HERE

 
Jun 162020
 

The twin plagues of COVID-19 and racism have come to the fore globally over the past few months, and as with any such afflictions there’s a social desire to scapegoat, finding someone (or some group) to blame. Parallels between the pandemic and racism are not hard to find. Earlier this month George Clooney referred to racism as America’s “pandemic,” for which we must find a “vaccine.” Street protesters as well can be seen holding signs encouraging people to “Treat Racism Like COVID-19.” 

The two are analogous in some ways, prompting some anti-vaccination crusaders to compare themselves to pioneering Civil Rights leaders, seeing themselves as victims of social injustice who will no longer be silent. As MacKenzie Mays noted in a September 2019 piece for Politico: “A chorus of mostly white women sang the gospel song ‘We Shall Overcome’ in the California State Capitol, an anthem of the civil rights movement. Mothers rallied outside the governor’s office and marched through Capitol corridors chanting “No segregation, no discrimination, yes on education for all!’ Some wore T-shirts that read ‘Freedom Keepers.’ But this wasn’t about racial equality. In the nation’s most diverse state, protesters opposed to childhood vaccine mandates — many from affluent coastal areas — had co-opted the civil rights mantle from the 1960s, insisting that their plight is comparable to what African Americans have suffered from segregationist policies. Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove said, ‘The whole conversation around vaccinations is actually one about privilege and opportunity. It’s a personal choice. It’s a luxury to be able to have a conversation about medical exemptions and about whether or not you think your child should be vaccinated.” However passionate Jenny McCarthy is, she’s no Rosa Parks. 

Racism and Anti-Vaccination

René F. Najera, editor of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s History of Vaccines website, recently examined the cross-pollination of racism and anti-vaccination efforts, highlighting an incident that came to the attention of the California Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus (APILC), which “denounced racist online postings from anti-vaccine people. One of those people is Rob Schneider, an actor and comedian who at one time had a television series on Netflix. This is not Mr. Schneider’s first foray into the cultural discussion on vaccination … The posts denounced by APILC includes Mr. Schneider’s comparison of Richard Pan, MD, to Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China and author of several atrocities within China and the expansion of Communism around China’s sphere of influence in the post-World War 2 era. Dr. Pan is a child of Taiwanese immigrants to the United States…. In another post denounced by APILC, ‘Christine Lee’ posted a photoshopped poster of members of the California Legislature who have Asian heritage. In the text of the posting, she asks several leading questions, such as ‘Notice anything else about them?’ after pointing out that they are ‘all doctors-turned-politicians.’ (The implication being that they are all of Asian descent?) The final posting being denounced is that of ‘Cathy S-R,’ a self-described ‘Doctor of Chiropractic, medical freedom supporter, informed consent, dog/cat lover.’ In her posting to Twitter, she asks Dr. Pan if he is an American citizen [and] then contradicts her initial insinuation about Dr. Pan’s citizenship by stating that Dr. Pan ‘[m]ake [his] country proud.’” 

It’s not just Asians, of course—though prejudice toward them has increased with their association with COVID-19 and its origin in Wuhan, China. University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire professor David Shih notes that “People of color have been long associated with disease and public health pandemics. In the United States alone, the history of racialization cannot be separated from the discourse of non-white bodily or mental illness … I would like to focus on black Americans, and the influential story told about them by a single man, Frederick L. Hoffman. Hoffman was an actuary for the Prudential Life Insurance Company when he published Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro (1896). The 330-page document argued that black people should not be insured because they were a greater risk for mortality compared to other racial groups. Their lower life expectancies were directly related, Hoffman explained, to inferior, inherited racial traits which promised their eventual extinction as a people. Flawed as it was and critiqued by no less than W.E.B. DuBois in its day, Hoffman’s diagnosis was widely adopted by the insurance industry and went on to shape public debate over the ‘Negro question’ … Blackness was, quite simply, a public health problem. One of the reasons why we are not talking about the anti-vaccination movement as white is because we talk about geography and social class instead. These demographic characteristics often stand in as proxies for race, which is more controversial.” 

Nevertheless, race does occasionally come to the fore. In The Kiss of Death: Contagion, Contamination, and Folklore, professor Andrea Kitta examines the characteristics of well-known “patient zeros and superspreaders” of various diseases, including Mary Mallon (“Typhoid Mary”), Amber Vinson (the Texas nurse who contracted Ebola in 2014), and Chong Pei Ling (SARS victim in 2003). Notably, “of the thirteen cases listed, only four are ‘white’” (p. 34). The perceived link between nonwhite skin and contagion is clear and helps form the basis for initiatives to close America’s borders. The fear of foreigners and immigrants bringing disease to the country was of course raised a few years ago when a Fox News contributor suggested without evidence that a migrant caravan from Honduras and Guatemala coming through Mexico carried leprosy, smallpox, and other dreaded diseases. This claim was quickly debunked. For more on COVID-19 racist conspiracies, see my previous article in this series. 

New Age, Holistic Healers, and Conspiracies

Conspiracy theories are common among alternative medicine proponents—who often portray themselves as marginalized medical professionals denied the imprimatur of mainstream medicine—and some bleed over into racism. One prominent proponent is Kelly Brogan, a “holistic psychiatrist” who has gathered a huge following online for her dangerous theories about COVID-19, made in interviews and a series of videos. 

Brogan invokes Jewish history and the Holocaust in her arguments against vaccination, “suggesting the possibility that the US government is planning to ‘link our passports with our vaccination records’ as a method of gaining ‘totalitarian governmental control not unlike the divide-and-conquer dehumanization agendas that preceded the Holocaust.’” Brogan, associated with Gwyneth Paltrow’s New Age company Goop, was found to have misstated her credentials. On her website, she claimed that she was board certified in psychiatry and psychosomatic medicine/consultation psychiatry, but a search of records found that she was not; after an investigation by The Daily Beast, Brogan quietly deleted the references to her certifications. 

On social media, Brogan has shared videos with titles such as “Vaccine Conspiracy or Racist Population Control Campaign,” a 2014 video from anti-vaccination activist Celesta McGovern reprising longstanding rumors about attempts to sterilize Africans. The claims were soon debunked on the Science-Based Medicine website but have continued to circulate widely. There are many examples of racism in medicine, but the campaign Brogan highlights is, ironically, not among them. 

Many other alternative medicine and holistic websites also promote anti-vaccination conspiracies. NaturalNews, Mike “The Health Ranger” Adams, and others, for example, have widely shared bogus “news” stories attempting to discredit mainstream science, with headlines such as “Tetanus vaccines found spiked with sterilization chemical to carry out race-based genocide against Africans.” It’s all thrown into a toxic stew of misinformation about the dangers of vaccines, GMOs, cell phones, you name it. 

Like all conspiracy theories, these rumors and stories have a superficial plausibility, and gain traction by tapping into deep-seated—and often legitimate—concerns and fears. There is of course a long and well-documented history of racism in medicine, from the Tuskegee Experiments beginning in the 1930s to disparate healthcare treatment. When two French doctors recently suggested that a tuberculosis vaccine should be tested on Africans to see if it could be effective against COVID-19, the comments were denounced as racist and relics of a colonial past by the head of the World Health Organization (WHO). “Shouldn’t we do this study in Africa, where there are no masks, no treatment, no resuscitation, a bit like some studies on AIDS, where among prostitutes, we try things, because they are exposed, and they don’t protect themselves?” asked physician Jean-Paul Mira. The WHO called the comments “appalling” and said that any WHO-led vaccine testing will follow the same standards regardless of where it’s done. 

Folklorist Patricia Turner, in her book I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture, observes that “African-American mistrust of governmental agencies is not without merit … Official disrespect for the bodies of African-Americans has a long history in this country” (p. 112). Medicalized racism is real, harmful, and a serious problem, but that doesn’t mean that any given wild conspiracy theory is true.

Brogan’s attempt to paint the medical establishment as racist is ironic given her own history of promoting conspiracy theorist David Icke—who claims among many other things that Barack Obama is a Reptilian (when not spewing racist tropes). As The New York Times noted, “Mr. Icke draws on ideas from the anti-Semitic pamphlet The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, argues that Holocaust denial should be taught in schools and that Jews are responsible for organizing anti-Semitic attacks, and calls the Talmud a racist document. In other writings, he has posited that a cabal of a child-sacrificing, bloodthirsty lizard people, many of whom are Jewish, are secretly running the world.” 

In a March 20, 2020, post, Brogan encouraged her followers to “listen through to the end [of an interview with Icke] to learn how to remain calm and manifest the impossible.” Regarding COVID-19, she states that in fact “there is potentially no such thing as the coronavirus.” Brogan seems to decry racism conspiracy when it serves her anti-vaccination purposes, and promote racism conspiracy—or at least those who do—when it suits her.

Anti-vaccination wellness influencers such as Brogan are also actively sharing conspiracy theories from far-right groups such as QAnon about COVID-19. A recent Mother Jones article found that “Some have fused wellness hoaxes and pseudoscientific homeopathic treatments with QAnon and other far-right conspiracies. One such notable influencer is Joseph Arena, a chiropractor who uses the title ‘Dr.’ and has more than 40,000 followers. Arena has pushed explicit QAnon theories about massive pedophile rings run by the deep state on his Instagram account and has directed his followers to pro-QAnon pages to find ‘the truth.’… Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai, a biology PhD [with] nearly 100,000 followers, pushes QAnon-styled conspiracies about “deep state” [including] that the coronavirus is a tool for the ‘deep state’ in ‘consolidating its Power using its protected class of Hollywood & Academic whores.’”

Plandemic 

The recent Plandemic video is laden with conspiracies and hints darkly at motivations in its attacks on Dr. Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates. For example, as to the claims made about Fauci in Plandemic, former New York police officer Mitch Danzig, notes in an article for The Jewish Journal that “The NIAID, under Fauci’s leadership since 1984, provides dozens of grants to labs researching infectious diseases. These grants weren’t awarded to work on COVID-19. Many were, however, awarded to perform work on SARS, which spread across the world in 2003. The NIAID also didn’t give the funds directly to the Wuhan Institute. The grants were given instead to the EcoHealth Alliance, which invests in health research globally that led to at least 20 research papers on pre-COVID-19 coronaviruses published over the past six years. The grant referenced in these breathless, innuendo-filled stories about Fauci also wasn’t the first awarded by the NIAID to the EcoHealth Alliance. The NIAID has been providing grants to EcoHealth Alliance to fund infectious disease research projects all over the world, including in Chinese institutes, since 2005. This ‘smoking gun’ that Fauci conspiracy theorists keep touting is about as big a ‘Nothing Burger’ as one can imagine. But it is about as demonstrative of the claim that Fauci is responsible for COVID-19 as pointing to a specific Jew being the president of CBS as ‘proof’ that the ‘Jews control the media.’ To say that these conspiracy theories about Gates and Fauci, which often are promoted by a cohort of anti-vaxxers as well as anti-Semites, are specious and baseless, is to be kind.” 

Anti-vaccination advocates are of course not alone in spreading medical misinformation for social and political purposes; anti-abortion groups have been known to spread false rumors about contraception being secretly given instead of tetanus vaccines to women in developing countries. 

The protests about race relations and reopening the country are also being shared and eagerly amplified for political purposes by America’s enemies. In a Washington Post piece, Ishaan Tharoor noted that along with American citizens watching the racial rioting and protests, “America’s putative foreign adversaries also are watching. ‘This incident is far from the first in a series of lawless conduct and unjustified violence from U.S. law enforcement,’ the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, adding to the Kremlin’s long history of pointing to human rights abuses in the United States. ‘American police commit such high-profile crimes all too often.’ Officials in Iran did the same, calling out racial injustice in America. ‘If you’re dark-skinned walking in the US, you can’t be sure you’ll be alive in the next few minutes,’ read a tweet from an account associated with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, which was accompanied by a video that detailed the horrific history of slavery in the United States. And then there was China. Already locked in a spiraling geopolitical confrontation with Washington, officials in Beijing seized on the protests to push back against the Trump administration’s assertive messaging on Hong Kong, a city whose unique autonomy is being dramatically curtailed by China.” China in particular is especially sensitive to the widespread criticism of its early handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, and its leaders may feel a sense of schadenfreude in America’s troubles. 

Who’s spurring the racial protests? Conspiracies point to any number of people, including rich Jewish businessmen such as George Soros who are allegedly hiring fake protesters. (In fact, this has been debunked.) Who’s spreading COVID-19? Rich liberals such as Bill Gates, hoping to become even richer. (In fact, this also has been debunked.)

Not all alternative medicine proponents are anti-vaccine, of course, just as not all anti-vaccination activists are conspiracy theorists, right-wing, racist, or all three. However, it’s not surprising that a Venn diagram reveals considerable overlap among the worldviews. Conspiracy is inherent in anti-vaccination belief, because Big Pharma has allegedly invested untold fortunes in keeping the “truth” about vaccines from public knowledge—despite, of course, widespread knowledge of precisely such anti-vaccination claims. 

People across the political spectrum believe conspiracy theories, and they all share a common worldview, one which is fundamentally distrustful of authority and anti-establishment. All pride themselves on being independent thinkers, a special breed of “woke” folk who are smart enough to separate themselves from the sheeple and not be swayed by what “They” want you to think. Theirs is a world in which world events are part of a Master Plan orchestrated by a Jewish cabal, the Illuminati, Bill Gates, Big Pharma, or whoever else. 

Racism, conspiracy thinking, and the rejection of science are all toxic problems, made worse when combined with the chaos and uncertainty of a pandemic. Fortunately, these are all learned behaviors that can be conquered. The best inoculations against misinformation are critical thinking, media literacy, and skepticism.

 

This is the sixth in a series of original articles on the COVID-19 pandemic by the Center for Inquiry as part of its Coronavirus Resource Center, created to help the public address the crisis with evidence-based information. A different version of this article appeared there. 

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! 

 

Jun 062020
 

Last month, a YouTube video for an (apparently) upcoming documentary titled Plandemic was released by Mikki Willis (credited onscreen as “father/filmaker” [sic]). The video features a lengthy interview with virologist Judy Mikovits, who offers scattershot conspiracy-laden assertions about the “truth” behind the COVID-19 pandemic, prefaced by claims of having been framed for a crime (she was charged with theft in 2011) and accusations of government coverups going back decades involving various medical authorities, including Dr. Anthony Fauci. Willis’s voiceover gravely warns that “for exposing their deadly secrets, the minions of Big Pharma have waged war on Dr. Mikovits,” who in the film (and in her new best-selling book the video promotes) bravely reveals “the plague of corruption that places all human life in danger.”

Dozens of claims are made in the twenty-six-minute video, some of which are unverifiable—as conspiracy theories tend to be. But many statements made by Mikovits have been investigated and proven to be misleading or simply false.

Among its claims, the video suggests that a vaccine for the virus (which of course hasn’t been developed) will be mandatory; however, no one is forced to get medical treatment. If and when a vaccine is available, federal agents armed with automatic weapons in one hand and a syringe in the other aren’t going to be bursting through doors to forcibly vaccinate anyone—paranoid conspiracy fantasies to the contrary.

It’s now been several weeks since the video was widely shared on social media, and questions have been raised by reputable journalists for publications including The Washington Post and The Atlantic, as well as Politifact. For an expert and filmmaker who claim to have been censored and silenced (with social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube removing the video for containing dangerous misinformation), Mikovits and Willis have been strangely silent about answering legitimate questions raised about their claims.

In an effort to clarify the matter, the Center for Inquiry reviewed the video and, in collaboration with researcher Dr. Paul Offit, composed a list of eight simple questions about claims made in the video. CFI contacted Mr. Willis, who agreed in writing to respond to our questions. The next day he was provided the questions below, thanked for his cooperation, and asked to reply.

1) The Plandemic video claims that face masks “activate” coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-2; what scientific evidence do you have that the virus is more infectious for individuals wearing masks than for those not wearing masks?

2) The video promotes hydroxychloroquine as effective against the virus (despite elevated cardiac risks and several placebo-controlled studies finding no efficacy at all). Instead of being ignored or suppressed by the medical establishment, controlled clinical trials of the drug have been performed. What is the “thousands of pages of data” already demonstrating the drug’s safety and efficacy referred to in the video?

3) The video claims that vaccines increase the odds of getting the virus by 36 percent, referencing a study by Dr. Greg Wolff published in the journal Vaccine. But the study did not examine SARS-CoV-2, was found to have been flawed, and in any event didn’t find that vaccines increased the risk by 36 percent. In fact, that statistic doesn’t appear anywhere in the Wolff study. Can you explain this?

4) The video claims that during the COVID-19 outbreak, beaches should be opened to the public because “You’ve got … healing microbes in the ocean and the salt water.” However, considering that bacteria don’t kill viruses, how would “healing microbes” reduce or treat coronavirus infection?

5) The video claims that COVID-19 deaths are being inflated due to medical profiteering (supposed payments of $13,000 per diagnosed patient)—yet hospitals across the country are losing money (and support staff are being laid off) because lucrative elective procedures are being cancelled or delayed due to the pandemic. How do you explain this discrepancy?

6) The video claims that the plan is “to prevent the therapies until everyone is infected, then push the vaccines.” Yet no vaccines are available, and if everyone is infected then a vaccine wouldn’t be needed. If the pandemic were part of a scheme to sell a vaccine (or force it on the public), why wouldn’t it have been developed before the virus was released and before hundreds of thousands of potential customers (sure to pay anything to stay alive) had already died? Can you clarify your logic?

7) The video refers to censorship by news media and corporate scientists, claiming that “there is [sic] no dissenting voices allowed.” If that’s true, then how did Mikovits’s books get published? And, for example, how did Dr. Andrew Wakefield publish an article in the prestigious journal Lancet in 1998 claiming a (since-discredited) link between childhood vaccines and autism? After other researchers failed to replicate the findings, the study was retracted, but how could it have been published in the first place if the medical establishment effectively silences “dissenting voices” who challenge the “agreed-upon narrative”?

8) Plandemic repeatedly emphasizes the importance of independent thinking and considering different perspectives. Did you interview anyone who challenged Mikovits’s claims, and what research did you do as a filmmaker to independently verify her claims?

The Center for Inquiry waited several days for a response and then followed up with a query asking Willis to confirm he received the questions and would be offering answers as agreed to. It’s now been nearly a week, and no response has been forthcoming from anyone featured in (or representing) the video. This article will be updated when and if substantive answers are received.

If the claims made by Mikovits and Willis in Plandemic are based in truth and facts, you’d think they would be eager to offer evidence supporting their claims. What better way to turn the tables on scientists, skeptics, and journalists than to offer a referenced, fact-based, point-by-point rebuttal to critics who offer them a platform?

The video repeatedly emphasizes the importance of “considering different points of view” and asking questions, yet offers no other points of view that contradict or undermine Mikovits. Plandemic claims the medical community has a set narrative that refuses to answer opposing voices—and instead offers its own set narrative that refuses to answer opposing voices. Plandemic made many claims, most of which have been widely debunked. We have to wonder: Where are their responses? Why are they suddenly so quiet? Why are they afraid to answer questions? What do they have to hide?

May 162020
 

In the recent episode, we  discuss a few pandemic-related things that set off some skeptical alarms over social media this past week. Then we are joined by Southern California-based comedian and film editor Emery Emery to talk about his soon-to-be-released project with Brian Dunning. With the help of many science communicators and experts (me among them), Emery and Dunning have crafted a documentary called Science Friction, revealing the myriad ways experts have been manipulated, maligned, and misrepresented by producers of questionable documentaries. 

You can listen HERE. 

 

 

May 142020
 

So this is cool… I’m quoted in a recent article in Rolling Stone about rumors of “coronavirus parties.” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the surface, this sounds fairly straightforward: parties where people are intentionally trying to get a potentially deadly illness? Scary! They even used a Trump-esque exclamation point to drive the point home, so you know they mean business. And to be fair, the concept of “coronavirus parties” had previously gotten ink in none other than the New York Times, in an op-ed by epidemiologist Greta Bauer referring to “rumblings” about people hosting events “where noninfected people mingle with an infected person in an effort to catch the virus.” The piece enumerates the many reasons why such parties are a bad idea, including the fact that researchers know very little about coronavirus immunity, without citing direct evidence of the existence of these parties to begin with.

There’s good reason for this, says urban folklorist Benjamin Radford: “coronavirus parties” are probably BS. “They’re a variation of older disease urban legends such as the ‘bug chaser’ stories about people trying to get AIDS,” he tells Rolling Stone, referring to a brief spate in the early-aughts when so-called “bug-chasing” parties were subject to extensive media coverage (including a controversial story by this magazine). Such stories fed into a general sense of “moral panic” over the disease, resulting in it sticking around in the public imagination regardless of the lack of supporting evidence.

You can read the piece HERE. 

 

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

May 052020
 

For anyone who has been craving an episode with far less research, facts, or formality, this is the episode for you! Ben, Pascual, and Celestia, reflect on their various circumstances during the coronavirus national emergency, and then we talk about this, our third year in podcasting. We dish on past guests and future guests we have in the works, answer a couple of listener questions, and Ben quizzes Pascual about the finer points of air guitar. Enjoy the podcast–it’s almost as fun as other people!

 

Check it out HERE!

 

 

Apr 292020
 

There’s a natural—almost Pavlovian—tendency to follow the news closely, especially during times of emergency such as wars, terrorism, and natural disasters. People are understandably desperate for information to keep their friends and family safe, and part of that is being informed about what’s going on. 

News and social media are awash with information about the COVID-19 pandemic. But not all the information is equally valid, useful, or important. Much of what’s shared on social media about COVID-19 is false, misleading, or speculative. That’s why it’s important to get information from reputable sources such as the Center for Inquiry (CFI), not random YouTube videos, health bloggers, conspiracy theorists, and so on.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed, and science-informed laypeople are likely suffering this information overload keenly, as we absorb the firehose of information from a wide variety of sources: from the White House to the CDC, and from conspiracy cranks to Goop contributors. It’s a never ending stream—often a flood—of information, and those charged with trying to sort it out are quickly inundated. As important as news is, there is such a thing as medical TMI.

We have a Goldilocks situation when it comes to COVID-19 material. There’s too little, too much, and just the right amount of information about the COVID-19 virus in the news and social media. This sounds paradoxical until we break down each type of information. 

Types of COVID-19 Information

In thinking about the COVID-19 outbreak and the deluge of opinion, rumor, and news out there, it’s helpful to parse out the different types of information. 

1) Information that’s true

This includes the most important, practical information—how to avoid it: Wash your hands, avoid crowds, don’t touch your face, sanitize surfaces, and so on. This type of information has been proven accurate and consistent since the outbreak began. This is of course the smallest category of information: mundane but vital. 

2) Information that’s false 

Information that’s false includes a wide variety of rumors, miracle cures, misinformation, and so on. The Center for Inquiry’s COVID-19 Resource Center has been set up precisely to help journalists and the public debunk this false information. The problem is made worse by the fact that Russian disinformation organizations—which have a long and proven history of sowing false and misleading information in social media around the world, and particularly in the United States—have seized on the COVID-19. 

As CNN reported recently, “Russian state media and pro-Kremlin outlets are waging a disinformation campaign about the coronavirus pandemic to sow ‘panic and fear’ in the West, EU officials have warned. … The European Union’s External Action Service, which researches and combats disinformation online, said in an internal report that since January 22 it had recorded nearly 80 cases of disinformation about the COVID-19 outbreak linked to pro-Kremlin media. ‘The overarching aim of Kremlin disinformation is to aggravate the public health crisis in Western countries, specifically by undermining public trust in national healthcare systems—thus preventing an effective response to the outbreak,’ according to the report. … The disinformation has targeted international audiences in English, Italian, Spanish, Arabic as well as Russian and other languages, the report states. European Commission spokesperson Peter Stano said the center has seen a ‘flurry’ of disinformation about the spread of novel coronavirus over the past weeks.” 

3) Speculation, opinion, and conjecture

In times of uncertainty, prediction and speculation are rampant. Dueling projections about the outbreak vary by orders of magnitude as experts and social media pundits alike share their speculation. Of course, epidemiological models are only as good as the data that goes into them and are based on many premises, variables, and numerous unknowns. 

Wanting to accurately know the future is of course a venerable tradition. But as a recent post on Medium written by an epidemiologist noted: “Here is a simple fact: every prediction you’ve read on the numbers of COVID-19 cases or deaths is almost certainly wrong. All models are wrong. Some models are useful. It is very easy to draw a graph using an exponential curve and tell everyone that there will be 10 million cases by next Friday. It is far harder to model infectious disease epidemics with any accuracy. Stop making graphs and putting them online. Stop reading the articles by well-meaning people who have no idea what they are doing. The real experts aren’t posting random Excel graphs on twitter, because they are working flat-out to try and get a handle on the epidemic.” 

4) Information that’s true but not helpful

Finally, there’s another, less-recognized category: information that is true but not helpful on an individual level, or what might be called “trivially true.” We usually think of false information being shared as harmful—and it certainly is—but trivially true information can also be harmful to public health. Even when it’s not directly harmful, it adds to the background of noise.

News media and social media are flooded with information and speculation that—even if accurate—is of little practical use to the average person. Much of the information is not helpful, useful, actionable, or applicable to daily life. It’s like in medicine and psychology what’s called “clinical significance”: the practical importance of a treatment effect—whether it has a real, genuine, palpable, and noticeable effect on daily life. A finding may be true, may be statistically significant, but be insignificant in the real world. A new medicine may reduce pain by 5 percent but nobody would create or market it because it’s not clinically significant; a 5 percent reduction in pain isn’t useful compared to other pain relievers with better efficacy. 

One example might include photos of empty store shelves widely shared on social media, depicting the run on supplies such as sanitizer and toilet paper. The information is both true and accurate; it’s not being faked or staged. But it’s not helpful, because it leads to panic buying, social contagion, and hoarding as people perceive a threat to their welfare and turn an artificial scarcity into a real one. 

Another example is Trump’s recent reference to the COVID-19 virus as “the China virus.” Ignoring the fact that diseases aren’t named for where they emerge, we can acknowledge that it’s technically accurate that, as Trump claimed, COVID-19 was first detected in China—and also that it’s not a relevant or useful detail. It doesn’t add to the discussion or help anyone’s understanding of what the disease is or how to deal with it. If anything, referring to it by other terms such as “the China virus” or “Wuhan flu” is likely to cause confusion and even foment racism.  

Before believing or sharing information on social media, ask yourself questions such as: Is it true? Is it from a reliable source? But there are other questions to ask: Even if it may be factually true, is it helpful or useful? Does it promote unity or encourage divisiveness? Are you sharing it because it contains practical information important to people’s health? Or are you sharing it just to have something to talk about, some vehicle to share your opinions about? The signal-to-noise ratio is already skewed against useful information, being drowned out by false information, speculation, opinion, and trivially true information.  

Social Media Distancing

While self-isolating from the disease (and those who might carry it) is vital to public health, there’s a less-discussed aspect: self-distancing from social media information on the virus, which is a form of social media hygiene. Six feet is enough distance in physical space, but doesn’t apply to cyberspace where viral misinformation spreads unchecked (until it hits this site).

The analogy between disease and misinformation is apt. Just as you can be a vector for a virus if you get and spread it, you can be a vector for misinformation and fear. But you can stop it by removing yourself from it. You don’t need hourly updates on most aspects of the pandemic. Most of what you see and read isn’t relevant to you. The idea is not to ignore important and useful information about the coronavirus; in fact, it’s exactly the opposite: to better distinguish the news from the noise, the relevant from the irrelevant. 

Doctors around the world have been photographed sharing signs that say “We’re at work for you. Please stay home for us.” That’s excellent advice, but we can take it further. While at home not becoming a vector for disease, also take steps not to become a vector for misinformation. After all, doing so can have just as much of an impact on public health. 

During a time when people are isolated, it’s cathartic to vent on social media. Humans are social creatures, and we find ways to connect even when we can’t physically. Especially during a time of international crisis, it’s easy to become outraged about one or another aspect of the pandemic. Everyone has opinions about what is (or isn’t) being done, what should (or shouldn’t) be done. Everyone’s entitled to those opinions, but they should be aware that those opinions expressed on social media have consequences and may well harm others, albeit unintentionally. Just as it feels good to physically hang out with other people (but may in fact be dangerous to them), it feels good to let off steam to others in your social circles (but may be dangerous to them). Your steam makes others in your feed get steamed too, and so on. Again, it’s the disease vector analogy. 

You don’t know who will end up seeing your posts and comments (such is the nature of “viral” posts and memes), and while you may think little of it, others may be more vulnerable. Just as people take steps to protect those with compromised immune systems, it may be wise to take similar steps to protect those with compromised psychological defenses on social media—those suffering from anxiety, depression, or other issues who are especially vulnerable at this time. 

This isn’t about self-censorship; there are many ways to reach out to others and share concerns and feelings in a careful and less public way through email, direct messaging, video calls, and even—gasp—good old fashioned letters. Like anything else, people can express feelings and concerns in measured, productive ways, ways that are more (or less) likely to harm others (referring to it as “COVID-19” instead of “the Chinese virus” is one example). 

Though the public loves to blame the news media for misinformation—and deservedly so—we are less keen to see the culprit in the mirror. Many people, especially on social media, fail to recognize that they have become de facto news outlets through the stories and posts they share. The news media helps spread myriad “fake news” stories—gleefully aided by ordinary people like us. We cannot control what news organizations (or anyone else) publishes or puts online. But we can—and indeed we have an obligation to—help stop the spread of misinformation in all its forms. 

It’s overwhelming; it’s too much. In psychology there’s what’s called the Locus of Control. It basically means the things which a person has control over: themselves, their immediate family, their pets, most aspects of their lives, and so on. It’s psychologically healthy to focus on those things you can do something about. You can’t do anything about how many deaths there are in China or Italy. You can’t do anything about whether or not medical masks are being manufactured and shipped quickly enough. But you can do something about bad information online. 

It can be as simple as not forwarding, liking, or sharing that dubious news story before checking the facts, especially if that story seems crafted to encourage social outrage. The Center for Inquiry can act as a clearinghouse for accurate information about the pandemic, but it’s up to each person to heed that advice. We can help separate the truth from the myths, but we can’t force people to believe the truth. Be safe, practice social and cyber distancing, and wash your hands. 

 

This is the first in a series of original articles on the COVID-19 pandemic by the Center for Inquiry as part of its COVID-19 Resource Center, created to help the public address the crisis with evidence-based information. Please check back periodically for updates and new information. 

Apr 262020
 

There have been many pandemics throughout history, but none have taken place during such a connected time—both geographically and via social media. There’s a tendency to follow the news closely during times of emergency; especially when separated during isolation and quarantines, people are understandably desperate for information to keep their friends and family safe.

 

Overreacting and Underreacting

While scientists, doctors, nurses, epidemiologists, and others struggle to contain the disease, many are spending their self-isolating time on social media, sharing everything from useful information to dangerous misinformation to idle speculation. One thing most people can agree on is that other people and institutions aren’t handling the crisis correctly.

There’s much debate about whether Americans and governments are underreacting or overreacting to the pandemic threat. This is of course a logical fallacy, because there are some 330 million Americans, and the answer is that some Americans are doing one or the other; most Americans, however, are doing neither.

As The New York Times noted, “contrarian political leaders, ethicists and ordinary Americans have bridled at what they saw as a tendency to dismiss the complex trade-offs that the measures collectively known as ‘social distancing’ entail. Besides the financial ramifications of such policies, their concerns touch on how society’s most marginalized groups may fare and on the effect of government-enforced curfews on democratic ideals. Their questions about the current approach are distinct from those raised by some conservative activists who have suggested the virus is a politically inspired hoax, or no worse than the flu. Even in the face of a mounting coronavirus death toll, and the widespread adoption of the social distancing approach, these critics say it is important to acknowledge all the consequences of decisions intended to mitigate the virus’s spread.”

Recently the governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, joined much of the country in finally ordering citizens to stay at home to slow the spread of the disease, after suggesting that other states were unnecessarily overreacting to the threat. Kemp inexplicably claimed to have only recently learned that the virus can be spread by asymptomatic carriers—something widely known and reported by health officials for well over a month.

On social media, the issue of how and whether the threat is being exaggerated often breaks along political party lines, with conservatives seeing the danger as exaggerated or an outright hoax. There are countless examples of divisive rhetoric, and many are framing the pandemic in terms of class warfare (for example pitting the rich against the poor) or spinning the outbreak to suit other social and political agendas. It’s understandable, but not helpful. Pointing out that the wealthy universally have better access to health care than the poor is merely stating the obvious—like much pandemic information, true but unhelpful. It’s not going to prevent someone’s family member from catching the virus and not going to open schools or businesses any faster. This isn’t a time for what-about-ism or “they’re doing it too” replies; this is a time for unity and cooperation. Liberals, conservatives, independents, and everyone else would benefit from putting aside the blame-casting, demonizing rhetoric and unite against the real enemy: the COVID-19 virus that’s sickening and killing people across races and social strata.

At the same time, it’s important to recognize that the measures taken to slow the spread of the coronavirus in America and around the world—while necessary and effective—have taken a disproportionate toll on minorities. As Charles Blow wrote in The New York Times, “social distancing is a privilege …  this virus behaves like others, screeching like a heat-seeking missile toward the most vulnerable in society. And this happens not because it prefers them, but because they are more exposed, more fragile and more ill. What the vulnerable portion of society looks like varies from country to country, but in America, that vulnerability is highly intersected with race and poverty … . It is happening with poor people around the world, from New Delhi to Mexico City. If they go to work, they must often use crowded mass transportation, because low-wage workers can’t necessarily afford to own a car or call a cab.”

While each side likes to paint the other in extreme terms as under or overreacting, there’s plenty of common ground between these straw man positions. Most people are neither blithely and flagrantly ignoring medical advice (and the exceptions—such as widely maligned Spring Breakers on Florida beaches, some of whom have since been diagnosed with COVID-19—are newsworthy precisely because of their rarity) nor spending their days in masks and containment suits, terrified to go anywhere near others.

Idiots and Maniacs, Cassandras and Chicken Littles

People can take prudent precautions and still reasonably think or suspect that at least some of what’s going on in the world is an overreaction or underreaction. Policing other people’s opinions or shaming them because they’re taking the situation more (or less) seriously than we are is unhelpful. It’s like the classic George Carlin joke: “Anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac.”

Instead of seeing others as idiots and maniacs, panicky ninnies and oblivious fools, perhaps we can recognize that everyone is different. Some people are in poorer health than others; some people listen to misinformation more than others; and so on. People who were mocked online for wearing masks in public may be following their doctor’s orders; they may be sick or immunocompromised or have some other health issue that’s not apparent in the milliseconds we spend judging the situation before commenting. Or they may be ahead of the curve, with changing medical advice. Why not give them the benefit of the doubt and treat them as we’d like to be treated?

Whether people are underreacting or overreacting is a matter of opinion not fact. The truth is that we simply don’t know what will happen and how bad it will get. In many cases, we simply don’t have enough information to make accurate predictions, and when it comes to life and death topics such as disease outbreaks, the medical community wisely adopts a better-safe-than-sorry approach.

Both positions argue from a false certainty, a smugness that they know better than others do, that the Cassandras and Chicken Littles will get their comeuppance. Humans crave certainty, but science can’t offer it. Certainty is why psychic predictions such as Sylvia Browne’s (supposedly foretelling the outbreak, which I recently debunked) have such popular appeal. The same is true for conspiracy theories and religion: All offer certainty—the idea that whatever happens is being directed by hidden powers and all part of God’s plan (or the Illuminati’s schemes, take your pick).

Instead of bickering over how stupid or silly others are for however they’re reacting, it may be best to let them do their thing as long as it’s not hurting others. Polarization is a form of intolerance. Maybe this is a time to come together instead of mocking those who don’t share your opinions and fears. We all have different backgrounds and different tolerances for uncertainty.

This doesn’t mean that governments should be given license to do whatever they want, of course. Citizens differ on their opinions about everything the government does; there’s never universal agreement on anything (from gun control to education funding), and there’s no reason to assume that responses to COVID-19 would be any different. If you don’t like what measures state and federal governments are taking to stop the virus, welcome to the club. Some are of the opinion that too much is being done, while others think too little is being done. While the public noisily argue and finger point on social media, scientists around the world are working hard to develop better treatments and vaccines.

Before believing or sharing information on social media, ask yourself questions such as: Is it true? Is it from a reliable source? But also, is it helpful or useful? Does it promote unity or encourage divisiveness? Are you sharing it because it contains practical information important to people’s health? Or are you sharing it just to have something to talk about, some vehicle to share your opinions about? Be safe, practice social and cyber distancing, and wash your hands.

 

This article originally appeared as part of a series of original articles on the COVID-19 pandemic by the Center for Inquiry as part of its Coronavirus Resource Center, created to help the public address the crisis with evidence-based information. You can find it HERE. 

 

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

Apr 232020
 

My article examines uncertainties in covid-19 data, from infection to death rates. While some complain that pandemic predictions have been exaggerated for social or political gain, that’s not necessarily true; journalism always exaggerates dangers, highlighting dire predictions. But models are only as good as the data that goes into them, and collecting valid data on disease is inherently difficult. People act as if they have solid data underlying their opinions, but fail to recognize that we don’t have enough information to reach valid conclusion…

You can read Part 1 Here.

 

Certainty and the Unknown Knowns

The fact that our knowledge is incomplete doesn’t mean that we don’t know anything about the virus; quite the contrary, we have a pretty good handle on the basics including how it spreads, what it does to the body, and how the average person can minimize their risk. 

Humans crave certainty and binary answers, but science can’t offer it. The truth is that we simply don’t know what will happen or how bad it will get. For many aspects of COVID-19, we don’t have enough information to make accurate predictions. In a New York Times interview, one victim of the disease reflected on the measures being taken to stop the spread of the disease: “We could look back at this time in four months and say, ‘We did the right thing’—or we could say, ‘That was silly … or we might never know.’” 

There are simply too many variables, too many factors involved. Even hindsight won’t be 20/20 but instead be seen by many through a partisan prism. We can never know alternative history or what would have happened; it’s like the concern over the “Y2K bug” two decades ago. Was it all over nothing? We don’t know because steps were taken to address the problem. 

But uncertainty has been largely ignored by pundits and social media “experts” alike who routinely discuss and debate statistics while glossing over—or entirely ignoring—the fact that much of it is speculation and guesswork, unanchored by any hard data. It’s like hotly arguing over what exact time a great-aunt’s birthday party should be on July 4, when all she knows is that she was born sometime during the summer. 

So, if we don’t know, why do people think they know or act as if they know? 

Part of this is explained by what in psychology is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect: “in many areas of life, incompetent people do not recognize—scratch that, cannot recognize—just how incompetent they are … . Logic itself almost demands this lack of self-insight: For poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack. To know how skilled or unskilled you are at using the rules of grammar, for instance, you must have a good working knowledge of those rules, an impossibility among the incompetent. Poor performers—and we are all poor performers at some things—fail to see the flaws in their thinking or the answers they lack.” 

Most people don’t know enough about epidemiology, statistics, or research design to have a good idea of how valid disease data and projections are. And of course, there’s no reason they would have any expertise in those fields, any more than the average person would be expected to have expertise in dentistry or theater. But the difference is that many people feel confident enough in their grasp of the data—or, often, confident enough in someone else’s grasp of the data, as reported via their preferred news source—to comment on it and endorse it (and often argue about it).  

Psychology of Uncertainty

Another factor is that people are uncomfortable admitting when they don’t know something or don’t have enough information to make a decision. If you’ve taken any standardized multiple-choice tests, you probably remember that some of the questions offered a tricky option, usually after three or four possibly correct specific answers. This is some version of “The answer cannot be determined from the information given.” This response (usually Option D) is designed in part to thwart guessing and to see when test-takers recognize that the question is insoluble or the premise incomplete. 

The principle applies widely in the real world. It’s difficult for many people—and especially experts, skeptics, and scientists—to admit they don’t know the answer to a question. Even if it’s outside our expertise, we often feel as if not knowing (or even not having a defensible opinion) is a sign of ignorance or failure. Real experts freely admit uncertainty about the data; Dr. Anthony Fauci has been candid about what he knows and what he doesn’t, responding for example when asked how many people could be carriers, “It’s somewhere between 25 and 50%. And trust me, that is an estimate. I don’t have any scientific data yet to say that. You know when we’ll get the scientific data? When we get those antibody tests out there.” 

Yet there are many examples in our everyday lives when we simply don’t have enough information to reach a logical or valid conclusion about a given question, and often we don’t recognize that fact. We routinely make decisions based on incomplete information, and unlike on standardized tests, in the real world of messy complexities there are not always clear-cut objectively verifiable answers to settle the matter. 

This is especially true online and in the context of a pandemic. Few people bother to chime in on social media discussions or threads to say that there’s not enough information given in the original post to reach a valid conclusion. People blithely share information and opinions without having the slightest clue as to whether it’s true or not. But recognizing that we don’t have enough information to reach a valid conclusion demonstrates a deeper and nuanced understanding of the issue. Noting that a premise needs more evidence or information to complete a logical argument and reach a valid conclusion is a form of critical thinking.

One element of conspiracy thinking is that those who disagree are either stupid (that is, gullible “sheeple” who believe and parrot everything they see in the news—usually specifically the “mainstream media” or “MSM”) or simply lying (experts and journalists across various media platforms who know the truth but are intentionally misleading the public for political or economic gain). This “If You Disagree with Me, Are You Stupid or Dishonest?” worldview has little room for uncertainty or charity and misunderstands the situation. 

The appropriate position to take on most coronavirus predictions is one of agnosticism. It’s not that epidemiologists and other health officials have all the data they need to make good decisions and projections about public health and are instead carefully considering ways to fake data to deceive the public and journalists. It’s that they don’t have all the data they need to make better predictions, and as more information comes in, the projections will get more accurate. The solution is not to vilify or demonize doctors and epidemiologists but instead to understand the limitations of science and the biases of news and social media.

 

This article first appeared at the Center for Inquiry Coronavirus Resource Page; please check it out for additional information. 

 

 

Apr 202020
 

My new article examines uncertainties in covid-19 data, from infection to death rates. While some complain that pandemic predictions have been exaggerated for social or political gain, that’s not necessarily true; journalism always exaggerates dangers, highlighting dire predictions. But models are only as good as the data that goes into them, and collecting valid data on disease is inherently difficult. People act as if they have solid data underlying their opinions, but fail to recognize that we don’t have enough information to reach valid conclusion…

 

There’s nothing quite like an international emergency—say, a global pandemic—to lay bare the gap between scientific models and the real world, between projections and speculations and what’s really going on in cities and hospitals around the world. 

A previous article discussed varieties of information about COVID-19, including information that’s true; information that’s false; information that’s trivially true (true but unhelpful); and speculation, opinion, and conjecture. Here we take a closer look at the role of uncertainty in uncertain times. 

Dueling Projections and Predictions

The record of wrong predictions about the coronavirus is long and grows by the hour. Around Valentine’s Day, the director of policy and emergency preparedness for the New Orleans health department, Sarah Babcock, said that Mardi Gras celebrations two weeks later should proceed, predicting that “The chance of us getting someone with coronavirus is low.” That projection was wrong, dead wrong: a month later the city would have one of the worst outbreaks of COVID-19 in the country, with correspondingly high death rates. Other projections have overestimated the scale of infections, hospitalizations, and/or deaths. 

It’s certainly true that many, if not most, news headlines about the virus are scary and alarmist; and that many, if not most, projections and predictions about COVID-19 are wrong to a greater or lesser degree. There’s a plague of binary thinking, and it’s circulating in many forms. One was addressed in the previous article: that of whether people are underreacting or overreacting to the virus threat. A related claim involves a quasi-conspiracy that news media and public health officials are deliberately inflating COVID-19 statistics. Some say it’s being done to make President Trump look incompetent at handling the pandemic; others say it’s being done on Trump’s behalf to justify coming draconian measures including Big Brother tracking. 

Many have suggested that media manipulation is to blame, claiming that numbers are being skewed by those with social or political agendas. There’s undoubtedly a grain of truth to that—after all, information has been weaponized for millennia—but there are more parsimonious (and less partisan) explanations for much of it, rooted in critical thinking and media literacy.

The Media Factors

In many cases, it’s not experts and researchers who skew information but instead news media who report on them. News and social media, by their nature, highlight the aberrant extremes. Propelled by human nature and algorithms, they selectively show the worst in society—the mass murders, the dangers, the cruelty, the outrages, and the disasters—and rarely profile the good. This is understandable, as bad things are inherently more newsworthy than good things.

To take one example, social media was recently flooded with photos of empty store shelves due to hoarding, and newscasts depict long lines at supermarkets. They’re real enough—but are they representative? Photos of fully stocked markets and calm shopping aren’t newsworthy or share-worthy, so they’re rarely seen (until recently when they in turn became unusual). The same happens when news media covers natural disasters; journalists (understandably) photograph and film the dozens of homes that were flooded or wrenched apart by a tornado, not the intact tens or hundreds of thousands of neighboring homes that were unscathed. This isn’t some conspiracy by the news media to emphasize the bad; it’s just the nature of journalism. But this often leads to a public who overestimates the terrible state of the world—and those in it—as well as fear and panic. 

Another problem are news stories (whether about dire predictions or promising new drugs or trends) that are reported and shared without sufficient context. An article in Health News Review discussed the problem of journalists stripping out important caveats: “Steven Woloshin, MD, co-director of the Center for Medicine and Media at The Dartmouth Institute, said journalists should view preprints [rough drafts of journal studies that have not been published nor peer-reviewed] as ‘a big red flag’ about the quality of evidence, similar to an animal study that doesn’t apply to humans or a clinical trial that lacks a control group. ‘I’m not saying the public doesn’t have the right to know this stuff,’ Woloshin said. ‘But these things are by definition preliminary. The bar should be really high’ for reporting them. In some cases, preprints have shown to be completely bogus … . Readers might not heed caveats about ‘early’ or ‘preliminary’ evidence, Woloshin said. ‘The problem is, once it gets out into the public it’s dangerous because people will assume it’s true or reliable.’”

One notable example of an unvetted COVID-19 news story circulating widely “sprung from a study that ran in a journal. The malaria medicine hydroxychloroquine, touted by President Trump as a potential ‘cure,’ gained traction based in part on a shaky study of just 42 patients in France. The study’s authors concluded that the drug, when used in combination with an antibiotic, decreased patients’ levels of the virus. However, the findings were deemed unreliable due to numerous methodological flaws. Patients were not randomized, and six who received the treatment were inappropriately dropped from the study.” Recently, a Brazilian study of the drug was stopped when some patients developed heart problems. 

Uncertainties in Models and Testing

In addition to media biases toward sensationalism and simplicity, experts and researchers often have limited information to work with, especially in predictions. There are many sources of error in the epidemiological data about COVID-19. Models are only as good as the information that goes into them; as they say: Garbage In, Garbage Out. This is not to suggest that all the data is garbage, of course, so it’s more a case of Incomplete Data In, Incomplete Data Out. As a recent article noted, “Models aren’t perfect. They can generate inaccurate predictions. They can generate highly uncertain predictions when the science is uncertain. And some models can be genuinely bad, producing useless and poorly supported predictions … .” But as to the complaint that the outbreak hasn’t been as bad as some earlier models predicted, “earlier projections showed what would happen if we didn’t adopt a strong response, while new projections show where our current path sends us. The downward revision doesn’t mean the models were bad; it means we did something.”

One example of the uncertainty of data is the number of COVID-19 deaths in New York City, one of the hardest-hit places. According to The New York Times, “the official death count numbers presented each day by the state are based on hospital data. Our most conservative understanding right now is that patients who have tested positive for the virus and die in hospitals are reflected in the state’s official death count.” 

All well and good, but “The city has a different measure: Any patient who has had a positive coronavirus test and then later dies—whether at home or in a hospital—is being counted as a coronavirus death, said Dr. Oxiris Barbot, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Health. A staggering number of people are dying at home with presumed cases of coronavirus, and it does not appear that the state has a clear mechanism for factoring those victims into official death tallies. Paramedics are not performing coronavirus tests on those they pronounce dead. Recent Fire Department policy says that death determinations on emergency calls should be made on scene rather than having paramedics take patients to nearby hospitals, where, in theory, health care workers could conduct post-mortem testing. We also don’t really know how each of the city’s dozens of hospitals and medical facilities are counting their dead. For example, if a patient who is presumed to have coronavirus is admitted to the hospital, but dies there before they can be tested, it is unclear how they might factor into the formal death tally. There aren’t really any mechanisms in place for having an immediate, efficient method to calculate the death toll during a pandemic. Normal procedures are usually abandoned quickly in such a crisis.”

People who die at home without having been tested of course won’t show up in the official numbers: “Counting the dead after most disasters—a plane crash, a hurricane, a gas explosion, a terror attack or a mass shooting, for example—is not complex. A virus raises a whole host of more complicated issues, according to Michael A.L. Balboni, who about a decade ago served as the head of the state’s public safety office. ‘A virus presents a unique set of circumstances for a cause of death, especially if the target is the elderly, because of the presence of comorbidities,’ he said—multiple conditions. For example, a person with COVID-19 may end up dying of a heart attack. ‘As the number of decedents increase,’ Mr. Balboni said, ‘so does the inaccuracy of determining a cause of death.’”

So while it might seem inconceivably Dickensian (or suspicious) to some that in 2020 quantifying something as seemingly straightforward as death is complicated, this is not evidence of deception or anyone “fudging the numbers” but instead an ordinary and predictable lack of uniform criteria and reporting standards. The international situation is even more uncertain; different countries have different guidelines, making comparisons difficult. Not all countries have the same criterion for who should be tested, for example, or even have adequate numbers of tests available. 

In fact, there’s evidence suggesting that if anything the official numbers are likely undercounting the true infections. Analysis of sewage in one metropolitan area in Massachusetts that officially has fewer than 500 confirmed cases revealed that there may be exponentially more undetected cases. 

Incomplete Testing

Some people have complained that everyone should be tested, suggesting that only rich are being tested for the virus. There’s a national shortage of tests, and in fact many in the public are being tested (about 1 percent of the public so far), but such complaints rather miss a larger point: Testing is of limited value to individuals.  

Testing should be done in a coordinated way, starting not with the general public but instead with the most seriously ill. Those patients should be quarantined until the tests come back, and if the result is positive, further measures should be taken including tracking down people who that patient may have come in contact with; in Wuhan, for example, contacts were asked to check their temperature twice a day and stay at home for two weeks. 

But testing people who may be perfectly healthy is a waste of very limited resources and testing kits; most of the world is asymptomatic for COVID-19. Screening the asymptomatic public is neither practical nor possible. Furthermore, though scientists are working on creating tests that yield faster and more accurate results, the ones so far have taken days. Because many people who carry the virus show no symptoms (or mild symptoms that mimic colds or even seasonal allergies), it’s entirely possible that a person could have been infected between the time they took the test and gotten a negative result back. So, it may have been true that a few days, or a week, earlier they hadn’t been infected, but they are now and don’t know it because they are asymptomatic or presymptomatic. The point is not that the tests are flawed or that people should be afraid, but instead that testing, by itself, is of little value to the patient because of these uncertainties. If anything, it could provide a false sense of security and put others at risk. 

As Dr. Paul Offit noted in a recent interview, testing for the virus is mainly of use to epidemiologists. “From the individual level, it doesn’t matter that much. If I have a respiratory infection, stay home. I don’t need to find out whether I have COVID-19 or not. Stay home. If somebody gets their test and they find out they have influenza, they’ll be relieved, as compared to if they have COVID-19, where they’re going to assume they’re going to die matter how old they are.” 

If you’re ill, on a practical level—unless you’re very sick or at increased risk, as mentioned above—it doesn’t really matter whether you have COVID-19 or not because a) there’s nothing you can do about it except wait it out, like any cold or flu; and b) you should take steps to protect others anyway. People should assume that they are infected and act as they would for any communicable disease: isolate, get rest, avoid unnecessary contact with others, wash hands, don’t touch your face, and so on. 

 

A version of this article appeared on the CFI Coronavirus Response Page, here.

Part 2 will be posted in a few days.

Apr 182020
 

The new episode of Squaring the Strange is now out!

We chat about various Covid-related topics and then dive into a few examples of bad or misleading polls. First we go over a couple that don’t really set off alarm bells, like whether beards are sexy or what determines people’s beer-buying habits.

Then I dissect some bad reporting on polls and surveys that relate to much more important topics like Native American discrimination or the Holocaust, and we see how a bit of media literacy on how polls can be twisted around is a vital part of anyone’s skeptical toolbox.

 

Listen HERE!

 

 

Apr 122020
 

In February a headline widely shared on social media decried poor reviews of the new film Birds of Prey and blamed it on male film critics hating the film for real or perceived feminist messages (and/or skewed expectations; it’s not clear). The article, by Sergio Pereira, was headlined “Birds of Prey: Most of the Negative Reviews Are from Men.”

The idea that the film was getting bad reviews because hordes of trolls or misogynists hated it was certainly plausible, and widely discussed for example in the case of the all-female Ghostbusters reboot a few years ago. As a media literacy educator and a film buff, I was curious to read more, and when I saw it on a friend’s Facebook wall I duly did what the writer wanted me (and everyone else) to do: I clicked on the link.

I half expected the article to contradict its own headline (a frustratingly common occurrence, even in mainstream news media stories), but in this case Pereira’s text accurately reflected its headline: “Director Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), starring Margot Robbie as the Clown Princess of Crime, debuted to a Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. While the score has dropped as more reviews pour in, the most noticeable thing is that the bulk of the negative reviews come from male reviewers. Naturally, just because the film is a first for superhero movies—because it’s written by a woman, directed by a woman and starring a mostly all-female cast—doesn’t absolve it from criticism. It deserves to be judged for both its strengths and weaknesses like any other piece of art. What is concerning, though, is how less than 10% of the negative reviews are from women.” In the article and later on Twitter Pereira attributed the negative reviews to an alleged disparity between what male film reviewers expected from the film and what they actually saw, describing it as “literally… where a bunch of fools got upset about the movie they THOUGHT it was, instead of what it ACTUALLY was.”

I was reminded of the important skeptical dictum that before trying to explain why something is the case, be sure that it is the case; in other words question your assumptions. This is a common error on social media, in journalism, and of course in everyday life. We shouldn’t just believe what people tell us—especially online. To be fair, the website was CBR.com (formerly known as Comic Book Resources) and not, for example, BBC News or The New York Times. It’s pop culture news, but news nonetheless.

Curious to see what Pereira was describing, I clicked the link to the Rotten Tomatoes listing and immediately knew that something wasn’t right. The film had a rating of 80% Fresh rating—meaning that most of the reviews were positive. In fact according to MSNBC, “The film charmed critics [and is] the third-highest rating for any movie in the DCEU, just behind Wonder Woman and Shazam.” Birds of Prey may not have lived up to its expectations, but the film was doing fairly well, and hardly bombing—because of male film reviewers or for any other reason.

I know something about film reviewing; I’ve been a film reviewer since 1994, and attended dozens of film festivals, both as an attendee and a journalist. I’ve also written and directed two short films and taken screenwriting courses. One thing I’ve noticed is that for whatever reason most film critics are male (a fact I double checked, learning that the field is about 80% male). So, doing some very basic math in my head, I knew there was something very wrong with the headline—and not just the headline, but the entire premise of Pereira’s article.

Here’s a quick calculation: Say there are 100 reviewers. 80 of them are men; 20 are not. If half of each gender give it a positive review, that’s 40 positive reviews from men and 10 from women, for a total of 50% approval (or “Fresh”) rating. If half of men (40) and 100% of the women (20) gave it a positive review, that’s a 60% Fresh rating. If three-quarters of men (60) and 100% of the women (20) gave it a positive review, that’s an 80% Fresh rating.

Birds of Prey had an 80% Fresh rating. So even if every single female reviewer gave the film a positive review—which we know didn’t happen just from a glance at the reviews on RottenTomatoes—then that means that at least three out of four men gave it a positive review. Therefore it might statistically be true that “most of the negative reviews are from men,” but the exact opposite is also true: most of the positive reviews are from men, simply because there are more male reviewers. The article’s claim that “the bulk of the negative reviews come from male reviewers” is misleading at best and factually wrong at worst.

I also thought it strange that Pereira didn’t specify which male reviewers he was talking about. By “fools” did he mean professional film critics such as Richard Roeper and Richard Brody were overwhelmingly writing scathing reviews of the film? Or did he mean reviews from random male film fans? And if the latter, how did he determine the gender of the anonymous reviewers? It was possible that his statistic was correct, but readers would need much more information about where he got his numbers. Did he take the time to gather data, create a spreadsheet, and do some calculations? Did he skim the reviews for a minute and do a rough estimate? Did he just make it up?

I was wary of assuming the burden of proof regarding this claim. After all, Sergio Pereira was the one who claimed that most of the negative reviews were by men. The burden of proof is always on the person making the claim; it’s not up to me to show he’s wrong, but up to him to show he’s right. Presumably he got that number from somewhere—but where?

I contacted Pereira via Twitter and asked him how he arrived at the calculations. He did not reply, so I later contacted CBR directly, emailing the editors with a concise, polite note saying that the headline and articles seemed to be false, and asking them for clarification: “He offers no information at all about how he determined that, nor that less than 10% of the negative reviews are from women. The RottenTomatoes website doesn’t break reviewers down by gender (though named and photos offer a clue), so Pereira would have to go through one by one to verify each reviewer’s gender. It’s also not clear whether he’s referring to Top Reviewers or All Reviewers, which are of course different datasets. I spent about 20 minutes skimming the Birds of Prey reviews and didn’t see the large gender imbalance reported in your article (and didn’t have hours to spend verifying Pereira’s numbers, which I couldn’t do anyway without knowing what criterion he used). Any clarification about Pereira’s methodology would be appreciated, thank you.”  They also did not respond.

Since neither the writer nor the editors would respond, I resignedly took a stab at trying to figure out where Pereira got his numbers. I looked at the Top Critics and did a quick analysis. I found 41 of them whose reviews appeared at the time: 26 men and 15 women. As I suspected, men had indeed written the statistical majority of both the positive and negative reviews.

Reactions

On my friend’s Facebook page where I first saw the story being shared I posted a comment noting what seemed to be an error, and offering anyone an easy way to assess whether the headline was plausible: “A quick-and-dirty way to assess whether the headline is plausible is to note that 1) 80% of film critics are male, and that 2) Birds of Prey has a 80% Fresh rating, with 230 Fresh (positive) and 59 Rotten (negative). So just glancing at it, with 80% of reviewers male, how could the film possibly have such a high rating if most of the men gave it negative reviews?”

The reactions from women on the post were interesting—and gendered: one wrote, “did you read the actual article or just the headline? #wellactually,” and “haaaaard fucking eyeroll* oh look y’all. The dude who thinks he’s smarter than the author admits its maybe a little perhaps possible that women know what they’re talking about.”

The latter comment was puzzling, since Sergio Pereira is a man. It wasn’t a man questioning whether women knew what they were talking about; it was a man questioning whether another man’s harmful stereotypes about women highlighted in his online article were true. I was reminded of the quote attributed to Mark Twain: “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them they’ve been fooled.” Much of the reaction I got was critical of me for questioning the headline and the article. I got the odd impression that some thought I was somehow defending the supposed majority male film critics who didn’t like the film, which was absurd. I hadn’t (and haven’t) seen the film and have no opinion about it, and couldn’t care less whether most of the male critics liked or didn’t like the film. My interest is as a media literacy educator and someone who’s researched misleading statistics.

To scientists, journalists, and skeptics, asking for evidence is an integral part of the process of parsing fact from fiction, true claims from false ones. If you want me to believe a claim—any claim, from advertising claims to psychic powers, conspiracy theories to the validity of repressed memories—I’m going to ask for evidence. It doesn’t mean I think (or assume) you’re wrong or lying, it just means I want a reason to believe what you tell me. This is especially true for memes and factoids shared on social media and designed to elicit outrage or scorn.

The problem is when the person does occasionally encounter someone who is sincerely trying to understand an issue or get to the bottom of a question, their knee-jerk reaction is often to assume the worst about them. They are blinded by their own biases and they project those biases on others. This is especially true when the subject is controversial, such as with race, gender, or politics. To them, the only reason a person would question a claim is if they are trying to discredit that claim, or a larger narrative it’s being offered in support of.

Of course that’s not true; people should question all claims, and especially claims that conform to their pre-existing beliefs and assumptions; those are precisely the ones most likely to slip under the critical thinking radar and become incorporated into your beliefs and opinions. I question claims from across the spectrum, including those from sources I agree with. To my mind the other approach has it backwards: How do you know whether to believe a claim if you don’t question it?

If the reviews are attributable to sexism or misogyny due to feminist themes in the script—instead of, for example, lackluster acting, clunky dialogue, lack of star power, an unpopular title (the film was renamed during its release, a very unusual marketing move), or any number of other factors unrelated to its content—then presumably that same effect would be clear in other similar films.

Ironically, another article on CBR by Nicole Sobon published a day earlier—and linked to in Sergio Pereira’s piece—offers several reasons why Birds of Prey wasn’t doing as well at the box office, and misogyny was conspicuously not among them: “Despite its critical success, the film is struggling to take flight at the box office…. One of the biggest problems with Birds of Prey was its marketing. The trailers did a great job of reintroducing Robbie’s Quinn following 2017’s Suicide Squad, but they failed to highlight the actual Birds of Prey. Also working against it was the late review embargo. It’s widely believed that when a studio is confident in its product, it will hold critics screenings about two weeks before the film’s release, with reviews following shortly afterward to buoy audience anticipation and drive ticket sales. However, Birds of Prey reviews didn’t arrive until three days before the film’s release. And, while the marketing finally fully kicked into gear by that point, for the general audience, it might’ve been too late to care. Especially when Harley Quinn’s previous big-screen appearance was in a poorly received film.”

The Cinematic Gender Divide

A gender divide in positive versus negative reviews of ostensibly feminist films (however you may want to measure that, whether by the Bechdel Test or some other way—such as an all-female cast, or female writer/directors), is eminently provable. It’s not a subject that I’ve personally researched and quantified, but since Pereira didn’t reference any of this in his article, I did some research on it.

For example Salon did a piece on gender divisions in film criticism, though not necessarily finding that it was rooted in sexism or a reaction to feminist messages: “The recent Ghostbusters reboot, directed by Paul Feig, received significantly higher scores from female critics than their male counterparts. While 79.3 percent of women who reviewed the film gave it a positive review, just 70.8 percent of male critics agreed with them. That’s a difference of 8.5 percent… In total, 84 percent of the films surveyed received more positive reviews from female reviewers than from men. The movies that showed the greatest divide included A Walk to Remember, the Nicholas Sparks adaptation; Twilight, the 2008 vampire romance; P.S. I Love You, a melodrama about a woman (Hilary Swank) grieving the loss of her partner; Divergent, the teen dystopia; and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood… Men tended to dislike Young Adult literary adaptations and most films marketed to teenage girls. Pitch Perfect, which was liked by 93.8 percent of female critics, was rated much lower by men—just 76.9 percent of male reviewers liked it.” (There was nothing supporting Pereira’s assertion that critics, male or female, didn’t like films marketed to the opposite gender because of a perceived gap between what the reviewers expected from a film versus what the film delivered.)

The phrasing “just 76.9 percent of male reviewers liked Pitch Perfect” of course invites an ambiguous comparison (how many should have liked the film? 90%? 95%? 100%?). More to the point, if over three-quarters of men liked the obviously female-driven film Pitch Perfect, that rather contradicts Pereira’s thesis. In fact Pitch Perfect has an 80% Fresh rating on RottenTomatoes—exactly the same score that Birds of Prey did. We have two female-driven films with the majority of male reviewers giving both films a positive review—yet Pereira suggests that male reviewers pilloried Birds of Prey.

Perpetuating Harmful Stereotypes

Journalists making errors and writing clickbait headlines based on those errors is nothing new, of course. I’ve written dozens of media literacy articles about this sort of thing. As I’ve discussed before, the danger is that these articles mislead people, and reinforce harmful beliefs and stereotypes. In some cases I’ve researched, misleading polls and surveys create the false impression that most Americans are Holocaust deniers—a flatly false and highly toxic belief that can only fuel fears of anti-Semitism (and possibly comfort racists). In other cases these sorts of headlines exaggerate fear and hatred of the transgender community.

As noted, Pereira’s piece could have been titled, “Birds of Prey: Most of the Positive Reviews Are from Men.” That would have empowered and encouraged women—but gotten fewer outrage clicks.

In many cases what people think other people think about the world us just as important as what they personally think. This is due to what’s called the third-person effect, or pluralistic ignorance. People are of course intimately familiar with our own likes and desires—but where do we get our information about the 99.99% of the world we don’t and can’t directly experience or evaluate? When it comes to our understanding and assumptions about the rest of the world, our sources of information quickly dwindle. Outside of a small circle of friends and family, much of the information about what others in the world think and believe comes from the media, specifically social and news media. These sources often misrepresent the outside world. Instead they distort the real world in predictable and systemic ways, always highlighting the bad and the outraged. The media magnifies tragedy, exploitation, sensationalism and bad news, and thus we assume that others embody and endorse those traits.

We’re seeing this at the moment with shortages of toilet paper and bottled water in response to Covid-19 fears. Neither are key to keeping safe or preventing the spread of the virus, yet people are reacting because other people are reacting. There’s a shortage because people believe there’s a shortage—much in the way that the Kardashians are famous for being famous. In much the same way, when news and social media exaggerate (or in some cases fabricate) examples of toxic behavior, it creates the false perception that such behavior is more pervasive (and widely accepted) than it actually is. Whether or not male film reviewers mostly hated Birds of Prey as Pereira suggestedand they didn’t—the perception that they did can itself cause harm.

I don’t think it was done intentionally or with malice. But I hope Pereira’s piece doesn’t deter an aspiring female filmmaker who may read his widely-shared column and assume that no matter how great her work is, the male-dominated film critic field will just look for ways to shut her out and keep her down merely because of her gender.

There certainly are significant and well-documented gender disparities in the film industry, on both sides of the camera, from actor pay disparity to crew hiring. But misogynist men hating on Birds of Prey simply because it’s a female-led film isn’t an example of that. I note with some irony that Pereira’s article concludes by saying that “Birds of Prey was meant to be a celebration, but it sadly experienced the same thing as every other female-driven film: a host of negativity about nothing.” That “host of negativity” is not reflected in male film reviews but instead in Sergio Pereira’s piece. His CBR article is itself perpetuating harmful stereotypes about female-driven films, which is unfortunate given the marginalization of women and minorities in comic book and gaming circles.

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

A longer version of this article appeared on my Center for Inquiry blog; you can read it here. 

Apr 102020
 

In recent months there’s been plenty of rumors, myths, and misinformation about the newest coronavirus pandemic, Covid-19. I’ve written several pieces on the topic, tackling both intentional and accidental bogus information. Some of the most pernicious, of course, involves misinformation about healthcare decisions (such as fake cures), but there are others.

One of the most curious is the recent resurrection of a prediction by Sylvia Browne. In her 2008 book End of Days, Browne (who died in 2013) predicted that “In around [sic] 2020 a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments. Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.”

This led to many on social media assuming that Browne had accurately predicted the Covid-19 outbreak, and no less a respected authority than Kim Kardashian shared such posts. One news writer asked, “Doesn’t it sound very similar to this novel coronavirus and the disease, Covid-19? Be it the nature of the illness, the year mentioned or the part about the resistance to treatments—the similarity with coronavirus is uncanny… Netizens are absolutely stumped with the reference of coronavirus outbreak in the book.”

While most of the commentary seems to take the proclamations about Browne’s prediction at face value, there were a few skeptics. The website Snopes did a short piece explaining the topic, giving it a rating of “Mixture” of truth and fact—which is rather generous as I’ll explain.

A Closer Look at Browne’s ‘Prediction’

Skeptics such as myself, Joe Nickell, Susan Gerbic, Massimo Polidoro, James Randi, and others have a long history of taking a closer look at psychic claims. Let’s revisit the passage in question: “In around 2020 [sic] a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments. Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.”

There’s a lot packed into these two sentences, so let’s parse this out. First, we have an indefinite date range (“in around 2020”), which depends on how loosely you interpret the word “around”: Browne doesn’t write “In 2020,” which would narrow it down to one calendar year; she writes “in around” whose grammatically awkward construction suggests to the editor in me that she (or her editor) added the word “around” in a late draft to make it more general—a typical psychic technique. What “around 2020” means varies by subjective criterion, and could plausibly include a range of plus or minus three or more years: Most people would probably agree that 2017, 2018, 2019, 2021, 2022, and 2023 are “around” 2020. Using this range we see that Browne’s spread is over seven (or more) years—well over half a decade.

So what did Browne predict would happen sometime during those years? “A severe pneumonia-like illness.” Covid-19 is not “a severe pneumonia-like illness,” though it can in some cases lead to pneumonia. Most of those infected (about 80%) have mild symptoms and recover just fine, and the disease has a mortality rate of between 2% and 4%. There are two types of coronaviruses—Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome—that “can cause severe respiratory infections,” but Covid-19 is not among them; both SARS and MERS are far more deadly.

Where will it go, according to Browne? It “will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes.” Covid-19 has now indeed spread throughout the globe, though the phrase “attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes” isn’t a prediction but merely restates any “pneumonia-like illness.”

But Browne also offers another specific characteristic of this disease, that of “resisting all known treatments.” This also does not describe Covid-19, which doesn’t “resist all known treatments”; in fact doctors know exactly how to treat (though not effectively vaccinate or quarantine, which are very different measures) the disease, and it’s essentially the same for influenza or other similar respiratory infections. There’s nothing unique about Covid-19’s resistance to treatment.

In the second sentence she further describes the illness: “Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.” This is false, at least as of now. Covid-19 has not “suddenly vanished as quickly as it arrived,” and even if it eventually does, its emergence pattern would have to be compared with other typical epidemiology data to know whether it’s “baffling.” Infectious diseases (especially ones such as respiratory illnesses) have predictable patterns, and modeling outbreaks is a whole branch of public health. Given a normal distribution (bell curve) of cases, it would not necessarily be “baffling” if the disease subsided as quickly as it arose. In fact what would be astonishing is if it did not; in other words if over the course of a week or two, the infection rates plummeted inexplicably as no new infections were reported at all. That would be an amazing psychic prediction. Furthermore note that the prediction couldn’t even be mostly validated until 2030, since it references a recurrence of the disease ten years later—a neat trick for a prediction made (or at least made public) nearly a quarter-century earlier. And as to whether it would “then disappear completely,” I suppose that could be determined true or false at some point around the end of time, so expect a follow-up piece from me then.

So we have a two-sentence prediction written in 2008 by a convicted felon with a long track record of failures. Half of the prediction (the second sentence) have demonstrably not happened. The other half of the prophecy describes an infectious respiratory illness that does not resemble Covid-19 in its particulars and that would happen within a few years of 2020. At best, maybe one-sixth of what she said is accurate, depending again on how much latitude you’re willing to give her in terms of dates and vague descriptions. Anyone who finds this prediction to be astonishingly accurate should contact me for information on a bridge I happen to have for sale. Keep in mind that in her books, television appearances, interviews, and elsewhere over the course of her career, Browne has made many thousands of predictions; the fact that this one happened to possibly, maybe, be partly right is meaningless. People love a mystery, and retrofitting vague predictions (whether from Browne, Nostradamus, or anyone else).

 

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!