Rob Palmer, aka "The Well-Known Skeptic" recently interviewed my Squaring the Strange co-host Celestia Ward for a Special Article on the CSICOP Website. Here's the intro: In May 2018, Susan Gerbic published an article about her trip to New Mexico to speak about the Guerrilla Skeptics project for New Mexicans for Science and Reason, the local skeptics group. En route, she dropped by the Squaring the Strange podcast studios for a guest appearance. Susan’s article about her trip mentioned the podcast, but that was not the main topic; reading it left me with many questions. To learn more, I decided to interview one of the three people who make the podcast happen. Flipping my three-sided coin resulted in selecting cohost, content producer, and “SkeptiCrate sender-outer” Celestia Ward. Luckily—once I explained that I wasn’t just a random fan bugging her on Facebook but was a random CSI online columnist bugging her on Facebook—she happily consented to an interview. When Squaring launched as a weekly podcast in April 2017, it had just a pair of cohosts: Ben Radford and Pascual Romero. Celestia was primarily the behind-the-scenes content producer, who made only short, sporadic “appearances” with a fortune-cookie segment. Eventually she became a cohost, converting the arrangement to a triumvirate and transforming the character of the podcast. You can read Part 1 of the interview HERE.
My recent blog is about the tragic shooting of Jazmine Barnes days before New Years, and how mistaken eyewitnesses and mistaken assumptions led to the search for a non-existent racist serial killer in Houston.... On December 30, 2018, a seven-year-old Houston girl named Jazmine Barnes was killed when a gunman drove up next to the vehicle she was in and opened fire on its occupants. Her mother, LaPorsha Washington, was wounded; Jazmine was struck in the head and died on the way to the hospital. As the New Year’s celebrations went on, the police made the case a top priority, and the case made national news. The police did have some leads. Jazmine’s older sister and other witnesses offered a description of the shooter: a white male, thirties to forties, with a light beard wearing a dark hoodie and driving a red pickup truck. Police immediately issued a sketch based on that description, later followed by an image from a surveillance camera that showed the red truck driving away. The case holds several interesting lessons for skeptics, including about investigation, statistics, the reliability of eyewitnesses, confirmation bias, and finding patterns where none exist. The police began looking for suspects based on a probability profile, examining the statistically most likely suspects given the circumstances. For example most people are assaulted and murdered by someone they know, so if a person is found dead the police begin searching for suspects among relatives and acquaintances before casting a (much) wider net to include strangers. One aspect of Jazmine’s murder was especially chilling: it was seemingly random, the attack unprovoked by any known confrontation that too often escalate—such as over money, love, or something as mundane as a parking space—into violence. Given the victim profile, statistically the most likely suspect was African-American, specifically a black male; more than 80 percent of all crime involves victims and perpetrators of the same race. Whites and African Americans of course can and do attack each other, but they are the exception, not the rule. Medical professionals adopt the same tactic to rule out the more likely causes of headaches or back pain, for example, before screening for rare diseases. As they say, if you hear hoofbeats, think horses not zebras. The Serial Killer Search Despite police saying they were exploring all possibilities about the motivation, many in the community quickly attributed it to a hate crime. Houston activist Deric Muhammad held a press conference outside a Harris County Sheriff’s Office and suggested that the death of Jazmine Barnes was the work of a white supremacist serial killer. Muhammad linked the girl’s death to a previous shooting, on August 30, 2017. In that case a 21-year-old black man, A’vonta Williams, was shot by a white male driving a Ford F-150 truck. Williams survived, but police were unable to make an arrest in the case. Muhammad suggested that police incompetence (or refusal to investigate) played a role: “If A’vonta Williams’s shooter had been found, would Jazmine Barnes still be alive?” The link between the two attacks seemed not only plausible but obvious, and Muhammad invoked probability and statistics: “What are the odds that two black families were fired upon by a white male in a pickup truck within a one-year time span on the same block? We’ve got to call it what it is: Black people are being targeted in this country. Black people are being targeted in this county. Black people are being targeted in this city. We are thoroughly convinced that the killing of Jazmine Barnes was race related.” Kisshima Williams, a relative of A’vonta Williams, agreed, saying “It has to be the same person. It’s too similar.” Muhammad was not alone; Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee implored those gathered at a rally for Jazmine, “Do not be afraid to call this what it seems to be: a hate crime.” If the crime was indeed random—as it appeared to be—racism seemed a plausible explanation. The question Muhammad raised is a fair one, though the odds are difficult or impossible to calculate. The two shootings happened about six miles apart, and were in different vehicles (the 2017 shooting involved a gray, silver, or white truck pickup instead of a red one, and an AR-15 style automatic weapon instead of a handgun). You can read the rest HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
I'm a member of the SouthWest Writers group, and I'm featured in a new interview about some of my books and the process of writing... What is your elevator pitch for Investigating Ghosts? Investigating Ghosts is an in-depth look at scientific attempts to contact the dead, from historical, cultural, and folkloric perspectives. From Shakespeare to the Victorian era to modern-day ghost hunting, people have always tried to find ghosts, and this is a look at their methods and how to bring science to them. I’m open-minded but skeptical. What unique challenges did this work pose for you? This book is a culmination of about 20 years of research and investigation into the subject, and it’s probably one of the broadest topics I’ve written about. My previous books were often on narrower topics (such as New Mexico mysteries, the chupacabra vampire, and evil clowns) which allowed me to do a deep dive and analysis into them. But with ghosts, there’s an enormous amount of information I needed to tackle, from early ghost-based religions (such as Spiritualism) to ghost folklore, the psychology of a ghost experience, ghost hunting devices, ghost photos, the scientific process, and so on. In all these cases I wanted to bring something new to it, not just copy and paste information or third-hand sources but give readers factual, science-based information. That’s why there are eight pages of references; it’s not just a book of spooky, told-as-true ghost stories, but evidence-based analyses, including my own investigations. Even with all that, I couldn’t get everything into 320 pages. What was your favorite part of putting this project together? Throughout the book I describe my firsthand investigations, including many here in New Mexico. I’m not just an armchair investigator! I love to get out in the field, go to haunted locations, interview witnesses, examine evidence, and try to figure out what’s going on. So I enjoyed describing some of the investigations, for example at the KiMo theater, the Albuquerque Press Club, courthouses in Santa Fe and Espanola, the tiny town of Cuchillo, and so on. I have also done haunted house investigations for television shows in Los Angeles, Jamaica, Canada, and other countries. It’s part memoir, which was fun, and I’m especially pleased it won the New Mexico/Arizona Book Award. You can read the rest of the interview HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
Last week during Holocaust Remembrance Day, many memes circulated claiming that a significant number of Americans, Canadians, and Britons are Holocaust deniers, or support white supremacy. In the wake of racial incidents such as the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018, it’s natural for the public and pundits to wonder just how common anti-Semitism is. Deadly attacks on Jewish houses of worship are thankfully rare, but what about anti-Jewish belief among the general public? One often-used metric is public opinion polls about the Holocaust. In April 2018 Newsweek posted a news story titled “One-Third of Americans Don’t Believe 6 Million Jews Were Murdered During the Holocaust.” It was widely shared on social media, including Yahoo News, recently. I recently wrote about this topic for my CFI blog; you can read it HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
I wonder if 2019 will be the year that the History Channel finally completes its investigation into how its much-hyped 2017 special on Amelia Earhart got the story so spectacularly wrong that a half-hour Google search debunked its crack team of experts and their bogus "smoking gun" photo. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
From the archives: Skeptics and skeptical researchers routinely encounter and investigate a wide variety false reports: False reports of Bigfoot, UFOs, miracle healings, alien abductions, psychics, illnesses, and so on. I’ve personally investigated many such reports, including of phantom clowns (see my book Bad Clowns for more), racist conspiracy theories and legends (such as the Blood Libel anti-Jewish myth and anti-Muslim stories), and more. The xenophobic archetype of the evil outsider is ancient and takes on new forms. Understanding the psychology and motivations behind false reports can be enormously helpful. Some of them are hoaxes, but many are the result of sincere mistakes, misperceptions, and other cognitive errors. When false reports concern “unexplained” topics (faked ghost sightings or UFO photos, for example), the result is usually just wasted time and the loss of credibility of a hoaxer or its proponents. However when false reports involve real-world subjects (for lack of a better term) they often implicate minorities and can result in miscarriages of justice. False reports of crimes, for example, are often used as a weapon against minorities. You may recall Susan Smith, the mother who in 1994 blamed an African-American man for kidnapping her children when she in fact drowned them in a lake. Or Jennifer Wilbanks, the so-called “Runaway Bride” who claimed to have been kidnapped and assaulted by a Hispanic man, but who had in fact voluntarily left her groom at the altar. Or the infamous Central Park Five case, in which five Black and Latino teenagers were arrested in 1989 for the brutal rape and assault of a white jogger in New York’s Central Park. Many people–including Donald Trump and African-American poet Sapphire (author of Push, from which the Oscar-winning film Precious was adapted)–jumped on the bandwagon falsely accusing the young men of the crime. The list goes on and on… and continues today. You can read the rest HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) has passed its anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen! This week, our crew digs into health panics and what's in our food. Focusing on the notorious "pink slime", the Strangers break down the history of the hysteria and talk about how bad it really is (or isn't). Also in this episode, Ben is skeptical of the tragic tale of a Tasmanian Devil named Jasper. You can listen HERE.
A Fox News story claims that a psychic and ghost hunter found the remains in a basement of a father who went missing 57 years ago. If you read past the headlines you find that a) the remains haven't been identified, so the bones may or may not be of that man; b) he *was last seen* in that basement; and c) he was widely rumored to have been buried in that basement. Assuming those are indeed his remains, I'm... unimpressed. Kenny Biddle looked into it and was also unimpressed: While scrolling my social media newsfeed recently, I came across an article shared by my colleague Ben Radford. The headline of a FoxNews.com story proclaimed “Psychic, Ghost Hunters Helped Long Island Man Find Dad’s Remains in 57-year-old Mystery” (Gearty 2018). This piqued my interest since I make it a hobby (almost a full-time career) of investigating such claims. So I clicked on the link to take a closer look. According to the story, “bones found in a Long Island basement were discovered after a family consulted a psychic and paranormal investigators, according to reports.”Mike Carroll, the owner of the house (which was his family home since 1955), is convinced the bones are those of his father, George Carroll. George disappeared without a trace in 1961, leaving a wife and four children behind. Carroll’s mother, Dorothy, never gave the children a “straight answer” on what had happened, only saying “he went out and just never came back.” Dorothy passed away in 1998, taking any information about their missing father with her (absent a Ouija board revelation). A missing persons report was apparently never filed, though authorities are now checking on that detail. If one only reads the headline, the reader would get the impression that a psychic and several ghost hunters teamed up and discovered the remains of Carroll’s father. However, as Radford points out in his Facebook post: “If you read past the headlines you find that a) the remains haven't been identified, so the bones may or may not be of that man; b) he *was last seen* in that basement; and c) he was widely rumored to have been buried in that basement” (Radford 2018). Radford is correct; as of this writing, it is only speculated that the remains belong to George Carroll. The Suffolk county medical examiner will be performing DNA testing on the bones. According to Suffolk Chief of Detectives Gerard Gigante, it could take months before they can determine who the bones belong to. After reading through the Fox News story, the reader would get two distinct impressions; first, ghost hunters detected an “energy” in the house, giving the reader the idea there was a spirit inhabiting the house. Second, a psychic pinpointed the burial spot without any help or hints—despite Carroll explicitly telling WABC-TV there was a family rumor that his father was buried in the basement. When one follows the links provided to other sources used to write the (FoxNews) article, we find that the psychic and ghost hunters are barely mentioned in relation to locating the remains. “The bones were discovered Halloween eve Tuesday in a spot in the basement that had been flagged by a psychic, the New York Post reports.” You can read the rest on his CFI blog HERE! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! __
Distrust of the news media is, or at least seems to be, at an all time high. A recent report by Gallup and the Knight Foundation found that 42 percent of Democrats, 75 percent of independents, and 94 percent of Republicans say they have lost some trust in the media. Some, perhaps much, of the skepticism is surely deserved; journalistic failures are legion and the mistakes are very visible and often memorable, from Jayson Blair’s faked reporting at The New York Times to Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s disastrous Rolling Stone article. There are few careers in which a person is as routinely criticized, rightly or wrongly, as journalists, and many liberals share Trump’s constant refrain that the news media can’t be trusted. I often see people posting a news story on social media with some version of the editorial comment, “Why isn’t the media covering this story?” Sometimes the phrase is in ALL CAPS and sometimes it’s worded slightly differently, but the gist is the same. It’s seen as a form of news censorship. In a previous article I discussed one of the fallacies inherent in this question, that of considering “the media” as a single-minded homogenous entity, but there are other issues to unpack in this criticism. In media literacy—as in science and skepticism generally—it’s often useful to remember psychologist (and CSI Fellow) Ray Hyman’s dictum: Before trying to explain something, be sure there’s something to explain. In other words, question and verify the truth of your assumptions before making an effort to understand why those premises are true. You may find there’s nothing to explain. Here are a few recent examples of complaints about media censorship I’ve come across:
- “Waffle House in Nashville: 4 dead, 4 wounded. 29 yr old naked white male shooter stopped by 29 yr old black man. Not interesting enough to make headline news.”
- “An incel shot up a Tallahassee yoga studio yesterday, killing two women before turning the gun on himself. It didn’t even make a blip in the news cycle.”
- In 2016 a friend lamented on Facebook that the news media was systematically ignoring a high murder rate in Chicago, with a veiled suggestion that racism played a role (as most victims were African American). An internet search yielded a handful of then-recent articles about it in Illinois newspapers, which I sent to him. He then replied that yes of course Chicago papers covered it, but almost no outlets elsewhere did—at least not in any depth. Another forty seconds of Google searching found many articles about the soaring homicide rate in that city from other regions, including an in-depth series in The New York Times I’d read a few weeks earlier titled “Chicago’s Murder Problem.”
Sample Sizes: Anecdotes Aren’t DataWhy were these people—and many others—assuming that the news stories they saw weren’t being seen by others? It seemed that in many or most cases the person had done little or no research to see how widespread the coverage was (or wasn’t); they’d just assumed that since they hadn’t seen as much news coverage as they’d have expected (or thought it deserved), it wasn’t being covered adequately. This is of course a subjective judgment; I personally would like for more news stories to include skepticism and evidence-based analysis. The roots of this misperception are varied. One is the “If I don’t see it, it doesn’t exist” fallacy, a type of argument from personal experience. How does the person know that a given news story isn’t being reported? What efforts did they undertake to investigate how widely the news was being shared? These stories must have made the news somewhere; after all, that’s how they first found out about the story they’re suggesting is largely being ignored by the news media. Upon seeing the news, how long did they spend watching each media channel, checking each website, or listening to each radio station to determine whether or not the news was being covered by that outlet? A few seconds? A few minutes? An hour? Did they use any methodology in their search? Did they use a search engine to scour the internet for all major news outlets to see which carried the story, or did they just check their usual handful of regular media sources? This is essentially a sampling question, and as scientists and skeptics know, anecdotes are not data. How valid a conclusion is depends in part on how large the sample size is. Why a given breaking news story is featured on one media outlet and not another at approximately the same time depends on many factors. Of course different news organizations rarely cover breaking news in exactly the same way. A local TV news station may have staff on the scene or en route in the first minutes of an event, while national news shows are scrambling to send regional reporters. Different television stations and managers have different policies about when to break into regularly scheduled programming with breaking news. The station manager at a city’s NBC affiliate, for example, may decide that a local shooting, school lockdown, natural disaster, or other event is important enough to their audience to interrupt a soap opera, while a manager at an ABC affiliate may feel differently. Often the news story is in fact being widely covered—just not in that specific person’s social or news media circles. Part of the reason for this error is that people on social media have increasingly narrowly curated news feeds, which results in a smaller variety of stories appearing there. Both liberals and conservatives increasingly self-select those they interact with, for example by unfriending or blocking people with dissenting views and opinions. Most people get their news not directly from news organizations but from social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—mostly their news feeds and what their friends share. This creates an insular, herd mentality. There’s also an inherent quasi-conspiracy aspect to these beliefs. They often assume, without evidence, an implicit suspicion of bad faith—that news editors and journalists are actively suppressing a story because of real or apparent political implications. One suggested, perhaps facetiously, that the story “wasn’t interesting enough” for national news; another suggested that the races of those involved caused the story to be sidelined. There are countless breaking news stories each day whose lack of live updates go unnoticed. Few take to social media to complain that, for example, a car accident with multiple fatalities isn’t being covered. It’s primarily stories freighted with some social or political import that are assumed to be the subject of intentional non- or under-reporting.
First—and FalseAnother factor is impatience for instant information. Critical thinkers and media-literate audiences know that slow, accurate news is better than fast, inaccurate news. Good journalism takes time. It takes time to interview primary sources, check facts, and do due diligence. Circulating rumor and unconfirmed speculation is cheap and easy. For editors at News Organization X, the question “Why Isn’t News Organization X covering this?” is one that resonates deeply, and it’s one that helps drive down the quality of journalism. Audiences demanding the latest news and constant updates can and will turn to less credible news outlets that are happy to circulate bad information immediately and correct (or not) the wrong information later. The Gallup/Knight Foundation survey mentioned earlier titled “Indicators of News Media Trust”surveyed members of the public and asked “How important are each of the following factors in determining whether or not you trust a news organization?” The top answer, with 99 percent responding that it’s either very important or important, was “Its commitment to accuracy—not reporting stories until it verifies all the facts.” Thus we see a paradox: the public overwhelmingly understands that good, credible journalism often requires that news organizations not report a story before the facts are verified—but at the same time the public expects immediate news reporting on breaking events and criticizes the news media when they don’t see it. Ironically the early reports—the ones that the person is using to contrast with other news media that seemingly are refusing to air the story—are often the least reliable. Occasionally people offer the opposite complaint and want to know why some seemingly superfluous puff piece is being covered. Why is this news?, they indignantly demand to know, usually regarding pieces about celebrity gossip, royal births, and the like. With so many real and present dangers, why is this stuff circulating? The answer is that it’s not news, and not everything that gets shared on news or social media is news. But people on social media—ironically, including the person who shares it—are treating it as if it were important. Think of it this way: news items and memes are shared on social media precisely because we want people to notice and pay attention to them. In the same way that, as David Brinkley wrote, “The one function TV news performs very well is that when there is no news, we give it to you with the same emphasis as if there were,” the same applies to social media. The best way to stop the spread of toxic or stupid ideas is to simply not share them; it’s not to share them as widely as possible with a dismissive caption you hope is clever enough to go viral.
Catch and Kill vs. CensoredIt’s important to distinguish this form of “news censorship” from claims that certain articles may be “spiked” or prevented from being published. News outlets have at times come under pressure to bury stories. Over the past year, for example, the “catch and kill” practice of publishers keeping potentially damaging revelations from being published was widely discussed in the context of National Enquirer paying for the exclusive rights to a person’s story (for example Stormy Daniels and President Trump). The same is alleged to have happened to Playboy model Karen McDougal, according to an NPR story:
A woman who had an alleged nine-month sexual relationship with Donald Trump more than a decade ago, is speaking on the record for the first time about signing a document from an apparent Trump media ally that effectively silenced her story. Karen McDougal told reporter Ronan Farrow in a piece published Friday in The New Yorker that she regretted signing the contract with American Media Inc., National Enquirer‘s parent company. “At this point I feel I can’t talk about anything without getting into trouble,” McDougal told Farrow. “I’m afraid to even mention his name.” Farrow reports, “On August 5, 2016, McDougal signed a limited life-story rights agreement granting A.M.I. exclusive ownership of her account of any romantic, personal, or physical relationship she has ever had with any then-married man.” The Wall Street Journal first reported on the agreement in 2016, saying A.M.I., whose C.E.O and chairman, David Pecker, has called Trump “a personal friend,” paid McDougal $150,000 for the rights to her story. The magazine never published a piece about it.Those situations are very different, however, because they involve a single person’s exclusive personal or eyewitness account, usually of private conduct. A mass shooting or tragedy is a public event, and while each individual eyewitness or participant may have exclusive negotiable rights they can try to sell, the event itself is public domain; the story cannot be effectively hidden from view. Like any other news event, a publisher or editor may of course choose to limit or omit coverage in that particular publication or outlet, but that doesn’t “bury” or hide the story; it just makes the outlet look like it’s being beaten by its competition. While it’s certainly true that some news stories are buried, backburnered, or downplayed, it’s relatively uncommon in the types of stories being complained about. News organizations are far more likely to put their own misleading spin on any high-profile event such as a shooting than to pretend it didn’t happen at all. I’ve written about media biases in my book Media Mythmakers, and there are many of them. But ignoring a potential ratings bonanza such as a mass shooting is not among them. Ironically, many Democrats and liberals who ask “Why isn’t the media covering this story?” are implicitly supporting Trump’s views about the mendacity of the news media. Donald Trump has expertly exploited the idea that the news media can’t be trusted to provide accurate information, from the constant refrains of “fake news” to references of the “Failing New York Times.” Trump has enough success sowing distrust of the news media and has support from liberals. The next time you or a friend sees breaking news about some event and assume that it isn’t being covered in your preferred news media (at the time you go looking for it), keep in mind that your experience may not accurately represent what’s out there. Just because you’re not seeing it doesn’t mean it’s not there.
This piece first appeared in the CFI blog "A Skeptic Reads the Newspaper", which can be found HERE.
I'm pleased to note that my newest book Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits was a winner at this year's New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards! You can order the book from your local indie bookstore, or find it on Amazon!
The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! The show is all about Halloween strangeness . . . We unravel the origins of a few traditions and look at "Hell Houses," the much, much, much lamer alternative to haunted houses. And a quick report from CSIcon as well as a news snippet about a graveyard dowser! Please check it out! You can here it HERE!
If you’ve spent any time on social media over the past few years you’ve likely seen several versions of Donald Trump’s last name. Various versions include “tr^^p,” “Strump,” and “Tr**p,” though writer Joyce Carol Oates understandably prefers the correctly-numbered-asterisk version “T***p.” Meryl Streep gave a blistering 2017 Golden Globes speech that never mentioned Trump’s name but referred to the president as “a coarse blowhard.” Others simply call him “Sin Nombre” (nameless in Spanish)—though I’d prefer “Hombre Sin Nombre” because it’s alliterative and references his infamous, inane “bad hombres” comment—though no one asked me. For a while some people avoided using Trump’s name on Facebook because the site’s algorithms would be more likely to send political advertisements for Trump to whoever wrote about him, though as his name became ubiquitous, the algorithms became less useful. There are also various circumlocutions, such as Mad King Cheeto, Agent Orange, the Dumpster, the Orange Manatee, Hair Furor, President Bone Spurs, Donald Drumpf, Assaulter-in-chief, and “Tiny-Fingered, Cheeto-Faced, Ferret-Wearing Shitgibbon,” among others. What’s behind the refusal or reluctance to say Trump’s name? The Atlantic had a piece on this last year, noting that “When the late Gwen Ifill asked President Barack Obama why he had been avoiding saying ‘Trump,’ he replied, ‘He seems to do a good job mentioning his own name. So, I figure, you know, I will let him do his advertising for him[self]’…. Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter Bernice King shared a widely circulated list to her Facebook page offering tips for resisting Trump. The top suggestion: ‘Use his name sparingly so as not to detract from the issues.’… Given the influence Trump’s name wields, snubbing it is an attempt to withhold some of that power while staking out higher moral ground, said Jenny Lederer, an assistant professor of linguistics at San Francisco State University. ‘In his case, especially, people feel like not repeating his name is [a way of] not speaking to the brand and the value system that goes along with his political ideology.’” Naming Taboos In The Encyclopedia of Superstitions, E. and M. Radford—no relation, probably—note that “In primitive thought, a man’s name was not merely a convenient label by which he could be distinguished from others. It was an integral part of himself, as important to him as, and indeed, moreso than, his arms or legs or eyes. Knowledge of it by another gave that other power over him… These beliefs survive in the custom, once quite general, of keeping a child’s name secret from outsiders until he had been baptized. To let it be known to any stranger… was to run the risk of witchcraft” (p. 244). In the Doctor Who universe, the titular doctor’s name is unknown (except to him or her, as the case may be, and a possible wife) and never spoken aloud in the series. Often refusing to name a figure is done in deference to their awesome and potentially destructive power. The idea is that to say the name without sufficient reverence—or at all—is to risk drawing the person’s attention or wrath. In Roman Catholic exorcisms, knowing a demon’s name is considered an important part of the ritual and gives the priest power over the evil entity. Even saying the name of the Christian God is considered dangerous in some cases; hence mild exclamations such as “zounds!” were adopted from the archaic, quasi-blasphemic phrase “god’s wounds.” Similarly, in Jewish traditions the name “Yahweh” is too sacred to speak or even write, preferring the Almighty” or “our Lord”; even the word “God” is often written as “G-d.” In the Harry Potter universe the villain Voldemort is referred to as “He Who Must Not Be Named” and “You Know Who.” In British fairy folklore there is a long tradition of avoiding speaking the word “fairy” aloud. They are variously referred to as “the good folk,” the “wee folk,” or just “the folk.” To do otherwise is to invite trouble. Many or most people who refuse to use Trump’s name aren’t doing so out of reverence, of course. As the Atlantic piece notes, “When it comes to the current president, the refusal to use his name may be uniquely subversive because of the degree to which Trump has wrapped his entire worth, wealth, and fame up in those five letters.” Indeed, Trump seems remarkably impressed not only with himself but also with his own surname, which he considers to be his signature brand. But has the anti-Trump linguistic revolt done any good? Is it a form of verbal slacktivism and virtue signaling? While refusing to speak his name may seem like a tiny act of “he’s not my president” defiance, it doesn’t seem to be an issue for him. Perhaps the biggest indication that some people’s refusal to say Trump’s name isn’t bothering him is the lack of reaction, especially on social media. Trump is famously thin-skinned about real and imagined slights, and has shown no qualms about taking to Twitter to blast his critics. Yet there’s been no stream of petty, pouty invective from our commander in chief wailing about his subjects’ lack of reverence for his name. It could also be that Trump only cares about the loudest voices and (what he considers to be) his most vocal opponents, including “The Failing New York Times” and CNN, which due to journalistic editorial standards would not replace letters in Trump’s name with asterisks. As long as they spell his name right (and fully), he’s happy.
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: This week we start with Celestia’s tale of having a “tongue analysis” while on a cruise, which amounted to an alt-med version of cold reading. Then we examine a critical but controversial topic: are accusers routinely disbelieved in sexual misconduct cases? Ben brings some statistics on the public’s view of high-profile accusations, and Celestia tackles data on police handling of rape reports. How true is this notion, and, more importantly, what harm does inflating such a notion cause? You can listen HERE.
I wrote a piece about the Yeti for Avianca airline magazine--ahora en Español!
My new book, "Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits," is a Finalist for the New Mexico/Arizona book awards! Winners will be announced next month, but if you want to see what everyone's raving about, it's available for under $20 in ebook or paperback and the audiobook version will be out this week! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
As the country waits to see what becomes of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh pending the results of an FBI investigation, one thing has become clear: Whether or not the Senate believed Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations against Kavanaugh, most of America does. In a PBS Newshour / Marist poll taken September 22 to 24, when asked, “Who do you think is telling the truth about what happened at the party in high school?” (one-third, 32%) said they believed Ford, with just over a quarter (26%) saying they believed Kavanaugh. The remainder, 42%, said they were unsure. A more recent poll taken after the conclusion of last Thursday’s hearings found that 60% of those polled found Ford’s testimony believable, compared to only 35% of whom found Kavanaugh’s testimony believable. Another poll, from YouGov, found that 41% thought Ford was “definitely” or “probably telling the truth,” compared to 35% for Kavanaugh. About a quarter were unsure about both. There is enough ambiguity in what happened for people on either side to be unsure. The “not sure” category is probably the most honest answer in this and other similar cases, given that none of them have been fully investigated, and opinions rest on political bias, whim, news and social media reports (and not, for example, evidence offered at a criminal trial). As CNN legal analyst Page Pate noted, “I think there is a real doubt about what happened at that house 36 years ago. That doubt would prevent Judge Kavanaugh from being convicted of a crime based on these allegations. But the same doubt may be enough to keep Judge Kavanaugh off the Supreme Court.” That multiple polls show the public supports Ford over Kavanaugh may be surprising in a social media milieu where divisions are highlighted as a matter of course, but the same pattern holds true when you examine results from recent polls about sexual harassment and assault accusations. In every case the majority of people believed the accusers, and in most cases more men than women believed the accusers:
Q: Do you believe the women’s sexual assault accusations against Bill Cosby? 61% of men and 53% of women believe Cosby’s accusers. Q: Do you believe the women’s sexual accusations against Roy Moore? 56% of men and 57% of women believe Moore’s accusers.* Q: Do you believe the women’s sexual accusations against John Conyers? 63% of men and 53% of women believe Conyers’s accusers. Q: Do you believe the women’s sexual accusations against Charlie Rose? 71% of men and 66% of women believe Rose’s accusers. Q: Do you believe the women’s sexual accusations against Al Franken? 68% of men and 56% of women believe Franken’s accusers. Q: Do you believe the women’s sexual accusations against Harvey Weinstein? 70% of men and 55% of women believe Weinstein’s accusers; 2% of men and 4% of women disbelieve the accusers, the balance said not sure or didn’t have enough information to say. Q: Do you believe the women’s sexual accusations against President Trump? 45% of men and 44% of women believe Trump’s accusers; 23% of men and 14% of women disbelieve the accusers, the balance said not sure or didn’t have enough information to say. Q: Do you think that the allegations that Donald Trump made unwanted sexual advances against women are mostly true or mostly not true?** Mostly true: 61% Mostly not true: 32% No opinion: 7% *responded that the person “probably or definitely” did what they were accused of Sources: The Economist/YouGov Poll: Poll dates July 8-9, 2015, October 12-13, 2017, and November 26-28, 2017. ** CNN / SSRS poll December 14-17, 2017.Why is there a widespread belief that accusers are doubted by default? Part of it is the often-insensitive way in which accusers are treated; the hearings of both Anita Hill and Christine Ford are Exhibit A, but one can also see it in the many personal stories that have emerged in the past few weeks with hashtags such as #WhyIDidntReport. There’s also the loudness factor, in which the most belligerent people and comments (such as those by Lindsey Graham and Donald Trump, for example) are given far more attention than those by more restrained, less emotional colleagues. The most extreme voices are often the most quotable ones. The media also plays an important role. This is because the news media often engage in a sort of false equivalence or false balance, for example presenting “both sides” of an issue as equally valid, popular, or important. This often happens in topics such as in “debates” about creationism, global warming, or vaccine dangers, in which a scientist and an activist will both be presented on equal footing when in fact the evidence overwhelmingly points to one position, and the other represents a minority point of view. (For more on this see chapter 3 in my book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us.) It also happens in topics that spawn “national conversations,” especially about hot-button issues involving gender, race, and other social justice issues. The news media have a vested interest in highlighting conflict. While it certainly is true that Americans are divided about this issue—as they are about many issues—it’s not as if half of America is passionate, angry, and certain that Ford’s account is accurate and truthful, while the other half is equally passionate, angry, and certain that Kavanaugh is falsely accused. Many are unsure, and the majority tend to believe the accusers, not the accused. Of course there is more to seeking equality and justice than just believing the accusers, but it’s an essential—and to many survivors, vitally important—first step. While it’s clearly true that many women who come forward with accusations are doubted and challenged, these polls and surveys suggest that in most cases when women come forward, they are in fact believed by the most of the public. This is good news, and should be reassuring for victims who may be reluctant to report their attacks. The public is with Ford, but whether or not the FBI will uncover disqualifying information in Kavanaugh’s case remains to be seen.
In this recent show we start with a quick look at a dog-buys-cookies story that took Celestia down a path of searching out pet videos and, finally, reading about whether or not monkeys can be taught to understand currency. Then I revisit an investigation I did on the Pokemon Panic, a wave of illness that struck Tokyo children in the 1990s during an episode of the incredibly popular show--a phenomenon that was referenced again this summer as journalists warned of the strobe effects in Incredibles 2. But what are the numbers, and how exactly does photosensitive epilepsy work? And what was to blame for the thousands of children falling ill that week in Tokyo? Please check it out HERE!
As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) has passed its one year anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen! This week we start with Celestia’s tale of having a “tongue analysis” while on a cruise, which amounted to an alt-med version of cold reading. Then we examine a critical but controversial topic: are accusers routinely disbelieved in sexual misconduct cases? Ben brings some statistics on the public’s view of high-profile accusations, and Celestia tackles data on police handling of rape reports. How true is this notion, and, more importantly, what harm does inflating such a notion cause? You can listen HERE.
My recent blog is about how easily misunderstandings can recast allies as enemies, focusing on a recent incident at Cornell where a student misunderstood her professor's comment about her clothing, interpreting it as sexist. The student stripped to her underwear in protest; it made national news and cast the professor in a bad light, but others in the class said the student misunderstood. A lesson in the importance of being charitable to others--with a classic Emo Philips joke! I’m always fascinated by how thinking goes wrong. Sometimes it’s the result of intentional deception or obfuscation, such as is often found in advertising or political speech. But more often it’s the result of critical thinking lapses, logical errors, or simply misunderstanding. It’s errors of interpretation, often of substituting what someone actually says for what we think they’re saying, or expecting them to say. By understanding how thinking goes wrong—ideally taken from real-world situations instead of staid examples of informal logic taken from textbooks—we can help identify such patterns in our own thinking and hopefully improve communication. A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about an interaction I had on social media where a comment about whether a phrase used by actor Henry Cavill in an interview was intended literally or figuratively was badly misunderstood and somehow ended in a heated argument involving accusations of misogyny! The exchange was all the more puzzling because everyone involved in the discussion was on the same page, socially and politically, about the topic. There was no actual substantive disagreement; instead a cascade of errors and misunderstandings soon rendered the discussion futile and allies cast as enemies. I’m reminded of a famous Emo Philips joke about fundamentalist religion involving two people who have virtually identical beliefs, but after several questions one of them focuses on the tiny difference between them and in the punchline yells, “Die, heretic!” There are enough people with whom we sincerely disagree that it benefits everyone—especially in today’s divisive age—to be sure that we understand each other before concluding that allies are actually enemies. Earlier this year a high-profile example of this emerged in an academic setting... You can read the rest HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: A Diet High in Skepticism First we hear from photographic mystery investigator Kenny Biddle, who reveals how he solved the souvenir photo mystery Ben shared back in episode 37. Then, for the second part of our New Year’s resolution series, we dive into diet myths. Ben brings some surprising statistics that go against common assumptions about how diet-obsessed Americans are. Rather than being hyper-aware of every pound, it turns out we often don’t notice weight gain (on ourselves or our children), and we rarely put much effort into losing it. Celestia reflects on how fat people, like cancer patients, are hit with a ton of “miracle” fat cures from well-meaning friends and acquaintances; and she does a deep-dive into her diet Coke and whether it actually makes people gain weight. You can listen HERE.
My new CFI blog on mountaineering physicist Melanie Windridge, who recently climbed Everest to promote science and encourage girls in STEM fields. I interviewed physicist Dr. Melanie Windridge, author of Aurora: In Search of the Northern Lights, last year for a Special Report on the CFI website. No armchair-ridden ivory tower egghead, Windridge is a veteran of days-long treks and wilderness expeditions. Her website features photos of her summits, and her book contains many compelling first-person adventures in Iceland, Scotland, Sweden, and Norway. “When I was doing my undergraduate work, I had no idea what I’d be doing now,” she told me. “I was doing fusion, so it was very lab-based, so it was very different for me to say I want to get out of the lab, I want to study physics in a very different domain. It’s really wonderful to see this phenomenon that really touches you on a personal, inner level…. But also to look at the science of it, and understand that the science doesn’t take away that feeling you get. It’s still magical. In fact knowing the science makes it even more incredible.” As for her book Aurora, “I didn’t want to just write a science book. I wanted to celebrate the beauty and magic of the aurora and how captivating it is, and also explore the history of Arctic exploration and the cultures there… It’s this wonderful crossover between art, history, science, culture, and landscape.” You can read the rest HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
My new CFI blog examines a case study in online miscommunication, and offers tips on how to better understand each other on social media... I’m always fascinated by how thinking goes wrong. Given an Event A or a Factual Statement/Observation B, what are the ways in which people come to misunderstand the nature of that event or statement? Sometimes it’s the result of intentional deception or obfuscation, such as is often found in advertising or political speech. But more often it’s the result of critical thinking lapses, logical errors, or simply misunderstanding. It’s errors of interpretation, often of substituting what someone actually says for what we think they’re saying, or expecting them to say. To me, after solving a mystery or concluding an investigation one of the most important and useful questions to ask is: Why did people think it was something it wasn’t? Why did people get it wrong? In many cases where there’s written records we can fairly easily follow the chain of events and deconstruct the evolution of the idea. By understanding how thinking goes wrong—ideally taken from real-world situations instead of staid examples of informal logic taken from textbooks—we can help identify such patterns in our own thinking and hopefully improve communication. A few weeks ago on Facebook someone commented about what a disaster the Trump administration was for the environment, and as an example he specifically cited the EPA’s role in the Gold King mine spill, in which three million gallons of mine waste and tailings, including heavy metals and toxic chemicals, were accidentally released into the Animas river from an abandoned mine in southern Colorado. I pointed out that Trump wasn’t president at the time of the Gold King spill in 2015. I remember the situation well, in part because it affected my home state of New Mexico and the matter was widely reported for months. My brief comment was entirely innocuous: polite, factual, and neutral in tone. Yet, somewhat to my surprise, it was interpreted as somehow defending Trump or his disastrous environmental choices including appointing since-resigned Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA. My comment was in no way any defense of Trump, nor an indictment of the EPA under Obama; no political message was intended at all. I was simply correcting a minor factual error, just as I would if someone referenced Sydney as the capital of Australia, or thought that Breaking Bad was set and filmed in Phoenix. I had no agenda, no ulterior motive for the mention, other than to not let misinformation go uncorrected if I could spend ten seconds and type a response. As a writer I appreciate people pointing out my mistakes and errors, not only because I don’t want to misinform people but because I care about getting things right. But the interaction brought into sharp focus how many assumptions people bring to discussions, and especially ones of a political nature. The assumption seemed to be that anyone who points out a mistake is arguing for “the other side,” whatever that happens to be in the context—instead of, you know, just pointing out an error while not trying to make a point about any larger counter-argument... You can read the rest HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
This is cool: My work with Bob Bartholomew is referenced in an article titled "Information Literacy in a Fake/False News World: An Overview of the Characteristics of Fake News and its Historical Development" in the "International Journal of Legal Information." 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!
my analysis of the fiasco—or maybe they should just hire the Japanese blogger for an hour’s work.That date was about a month ago, when The History Channel suffered one of the highest-profile blows to its credibility in, well, the history of the channel. Let’s recap: The 1937 disappearance of pioneer pilot Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan in the Pacific Ocean has been the subject of continuing research, debate, and speculation—most recently in a show titled Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence. Here is the History Channel’s explanation of the show’s premise: “Buried in the National Archives for nearly 80 years, a newly rediscovered photo may hold the key to solving one of history’s all-time greatest mysteries. On July 2, 1937, near the end of her pioneering flight around the world, Amelia Earhart vanished somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. Most experts, including the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, believe Earhart likely ran out of fuel and crashed into the Pacific Ocean. But no trace of the aviator, navigator Fred Noonan or her twin-engine Lockheed Electra airplane were ever found, confounding historians and fueling conspiracy theories ever since. Now, new evidence has surfaced in U.S. government archives suggesting Earhart might not have crashed into the Pacific at all, but crash-landed in the Marshall Islands, was captured by the Japanese military and died while being held prisoner on the island of Saipan. According to HISTORY’s investigative special Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence, airing Sunday, July 9, retired federal agent Les Kinney scoured the National Archives for records that may have been overlooked in the search for the lost aviator. Among thousands of documents he uncovered was a photograph stamped with official Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) markings reading ‘Marshall Islands, Jaluit Atoll, Jaluit Island, Jaluit Harbor.’ In the photo, a ship can be seen towing a barge with an airplane on the back; on a nearby dock are several people. Kinney argues the photo must have been taken before 1943, as U.S. air forces conducted more than 30 bombing runs on Jaluit in 1943-44. He believes the plane on the barge is the Electra, and that two of the people on the dock are Earhart and Noonan. As part of the program’s investigation, Doug Carner, a digital forensic analyst, examined the photo and determined it was authentic and had not been manipulated, while Kent Gibson, another forensic analyst who specializes in facial recognition, said it was ‘very likely’ the individuals in it are Earhart and Noonan.” If the photo is what it’s claimed to be, it means that the “lost” pair were alive and well on a dock in the Marshall Islands in 1937. That still doesn’t fully explain where they went after the photo was taken, and as noted the show suggests they were captured by the Japanese and died in prison on Saipan—a fact that the U.S. government knew about and covered up. Doubts were raised about that explanation before the show aired and quickly escalated afterward. The photograph was published in a 1935 Japanese-language travelogue about the islands of the South Pacific. Japanese blogger Kota Yamano found the book after searching the National Diet Library, Japan’s national library, using the term ‘Jaluit Atoll,’ the location featured in the photograph. National Geographic, perhaps with a hint of rivalry-inspired delight, noted that “In the wake of Yamano’s evidence, the History Channel and the documentary’s on-screen personalities have expressed various forms of concern and disbelief. ‘I don’t know what to say,’ says Kent Gibson, the facial-recognition expert that the History Channel hired to analyze the photograph for Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence. ‘I don’t have an explanation for why [the photograph] would show up two years early.’” Requests for additional clarification were not returned. In a July 11, 2017 statement the History Channel said that it has a team of investigators “exploring the latest developments about Amelia Earhart” and promised transparency in their findings, concluding that “Ultimately historical accuracy is most important to us and our viewers.” Erm, yes. Over a year has now passed, and apparently the History Channel’s crack team of investigators still hasn’t been able to figure out how exactly they could have been fooled. If they’d like some help, they can read
Three kids in Lexington, Ky, said that a man wearing a black mask and dark hoodie grabbed and tried to abduct them as they were walking home one night. When police investigated the kids admitted they made up the story to explain why they were out late. How about "Sorry we lost track of time" instead of blaming a "Stranger Danger" Boogeyman, scaring a community, and wasting police resources? 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!
Ben opens with ruminations on why psychics are conspicuously absent from real-world crises they could help with (if their powers are real). Then Pascual looks at a purported flat-earther who will be launching himself in a homemade rocket soon. Digging into the story, he found that this fellow’s flat earth views surfaced only recently, after failed crowdfunding attempts, and it all might just be an unusual marketing ploy. Then, in our main topic, the guys look into the familiar mantra of “they want us to be divided.” Coming from both sides of the political aisle but most recently aimed at President Trump, this idea is, at its core, a conspiracy theory resting on the premise that we are all united and the government somehow gains from us being split up, uneducated, and in a state of turmoil. Just like the old canard about doctors keeping their patients unhealthy, this puts public officials in the role of doing the opposite of their job description—and within the context of a vast cabal. Incompetence, rather than organized subversive effort, is often the much more reasonable explanation for government malfeasance. But are there any people who do gain from this? Yes—foreign entities like Russia do actually organize and try to sow discord within the American population. If we are noticing divisive efforts and blaming our own government for it, then all the better for Putin. Skeptical outreach, learning how to vet sources, and critical thinking are the best weapons against this type of incursion. You can listen HERE!
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: For week 3 of our spooky Halloween series, Ben, Celestia and Pascual delve into the spooky and fascinating topic of evil clowns. Ben talks about all the different kinds of evil clowns, Celestia tells a tale of her experience with a bad clown of her own, and Pascual makes obscure pop culture references throughout. Also in this episode, Pascual breaks down a new conspiracy theory with the help of our two co-hosts. You can listen HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
Ben and Pascual kick off the 2017 New Mexico Podscape festival by musing on natural disasters and cryptids, for instance how Hurricaine Hugo in Puerto Rico helped spawned the chupacabra legend. Then, since a doomsday was recently predicted for the very day they recorded, Ben and Pascual discuss apocolypses (apocolypi?). Interpreting everything from astronomical lineups to hunting out supposed Biblical patterns, people have been predicting the end seemingly since the beginning. Ben recounts trying to interview an apocalyptic prophet one day after the doomsday he predicted, and harkens back to the 19th-century Millerites, who ended up splintering into the 7th Day Adventists after their predicted doomsday failed to show up. Then to wind up, Pascual talks about “psychic vampire repellant,” which can be yours for $28 on Gwynneth Paltrow’s website Goop. You can here it HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: Ben and Pascual first touch on last week’s Vegas shooting, particularly the misinformation that was circulated afterward—not conspiracy theories (which could be a whole show later), but rather the false assertions made by talking heads mentioning the event in service of fighting a larger social problem. While it’s understandable that people want to make legitimate points about gun violence or mental health or racism, it undermines advocacy when statements are demonstrably false. Pascual looks at messages of surprise from news outlets and does a rundown of the motives (if found) of previous shooters. Then the guys turn to el chupacabra, the Latin American beast that appeared on the cryptid scene around the early 90s. Origin stories for the vampiric creature abounded, from being an extraterrestrial set on spreading blood diseases to a secret government experiment to a foretold beast of God’s wrath. Ben brings context to the folklore, explaining how the beast was genuinely terrifying and serious to impoverished ranchers and farmers living in rural Puerto Rico, for whom losing any livestock was a crippling tragedy. The chupacabra also has the distinction of being the first monster myth spread by the internet. Slowly, the chupacabra myth morphed from a truly terrifying exotic beast never glimpsed to a more mundane creature resembling a canid, as carcasses found far and wide were said to be dead chupacabras. You can hear 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!
Here's a fun, folkloric piece I wrote a few years ago about Friday the 13th... "Speaking of weird fishermen's superstitions, there is one fish That Shall Not Be Named. Sometimes it was called "the beast," other times "the red fish," "the foul fish," or simply "the fish." Scientists may call it Oncorhynchus gorbuscha, or even Salmo salar, but under no circumstances should the fish be called by its true name: salmon." You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
I wasn’t “surprised” that the Southwest hero pilot is a woman, but I suppose many people might be. This CNN analyst claims it’s because of the images of hero pilots in movies. But if people are indeed surprised to discover that the pilot is a woman, it has more to do with statistics than sexism. It’s not so much that the public assumes that women can’t be competent and courageous, but instead that only about 6% of commercial airline pilots are female. Since 94% of pilots are men, assuming that the pilot of any given flight—whether hero or heel—is probably a man is a reasonable and valid statistical inference, not a sign of movie misinformation or gender bias. There’s unfortunately plenty of sexism in the media, but I’m not sure this is a good example... You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
For those who missed it, I was recently quoted in 'USA Today' talking about scary clowns: "It’s a mistake to ask when clowns turned bad because historically they were never really good. They’ve always had this deeply ambiguous character,” he said. “Sometimes they’re good; sometimes they’re bad. Sometimes they’re making you laugh. Other times, they’re laughing at your expense.” Radford traces bad clowns all the way to ancient Greece and connects them to court jesters and the Harlequin figure. He notes that Punch, an evil puppet who frequently smacks his partner Judy with a stick, made his first appearance in London in the 1500s. “You have this mass-murdering, baby-killing clown that’s beloved by Britons everywhere of all ages,” he said. Clowns in America had their roots in circuses and they were at first meant to amuse adults, but clowning history took a detour in the 1950s and ‘60s when the squeaky-clean Bozo and Ronald McDonald became the “quintessentially American default clowns” for kids, Radford said. The more sinister clown waited patiently for his day to shine. “Stephen King didn’t invent the evil clown. That was long before his time. But what he did was turn the coin over, if you will,” Radford said. 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!
For those have asked, "Why aren't they calling it terrorism?" here's a breakdown; it depends on who "They" are, and whether you're talking about formal or informal definitions of "terrorism." My new article is a primer on the topic... In the weeks since Mark Conditt died as police closed in on him, many on social media have been asking why he was not being referred to as a terrorist or his bombings labeled “terrorism.” (The same question often arises in other high-profile crimes as well, but here I focus on Conditt’s case specifically, as each incident has its own set of particulars which may weigh more strongly for or against a terrorism label.) The issue is not terribly complicated, but it is nuanced and often counter-intuitive. Part of the confusion stems from which group you’re talking about. In other words, who’s the “they” in “Why aren’t they calling it terrorism?” Different “theys” have different answers, as we will see. One of the first things a critical thinker learns to do when hearing the phrase “They say...” is to ask: Who, exactly, is “They?” Attributing a position or statement to an anonymous, homogenous group is not only clouds the issue instead of clarifying it but often steers the conversation toward any number of fallacies (They say acupuncture has been used for thousands of years. They say that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and so on). There’s also the problem of people using different definitions of “terrorism” interchangeably. Like many words, terrorism has a legal/technical definition used for specific purposes (such as indicting a suspect on certain criminal charges) and a looser, more informal definition that laypeople use in everyday conversation. Neither definition is incorrect; they’re both valid and useful in their specific contexts. There is of course nothing unique about this; laypeople use countless terms (energy, tension, heat, etc.) in ways that are different than a physicist would use them, for example. This problem often arises in the legal arena—one in which definitions of terrorism are important. For example the lay public may consider any killing to be murder (after all, someone died), but to a district attorney there are many different types of murder, with different definitions and penalties (first-degree murder, manslaughter, negligent homicide, and so on). Language is flexible, but that flexibility can contribute to ambiguity when people don’t clearly define terms, or apply their personal, informal definitions to other contexts. So let’s distinguish between the formal and informal definitions by using Terrorism and terrorism, respectively. The Patriot Act defines domestic terrorism as an attempt to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.” (Whether one thinks that this definition is too broad or too narrow is beside the point here; law enforcement follows the laws as written.) You can read the rest HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) comes upon its one year anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen! This week, content producer (and sci-fi nerd) Celestia Ward drops in at the start of the show to discuss the purported sexist outrage against Dr. Who being recast as a female. Looking at actual percentages versus the visibility of sexist troll comments, this sci-fi outrage has many components—from a modern boogeyman aspect to a false equivalency in reporting. Then the guys welcome their first-ever guest, Andrew Torrez of the Opening Arguments podcast. Andrew shares his legal experience and answers skeptic-related questions that involve the law. Many people who pride themselves on being skeptical about pseudoscience or conspiracy theories fail to question legal myths or ignore the consensus of legal experts. During the interview we learn about the motives behind misrepresenting the McDonalds hot coffee case, the nuances of “blocking” Trump’s travel ban versus postponing it for judicial review, how the media presents mistrials versus actual acquittals, systemic problems with the cost of pursuing justice, and potential complications with widespread use of police bodycams. Ben and Andrew discuss the notion of doubt, and what constitutes reasonable doubt (to skeptics and to jurors). You can hear the episode 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!
So this is cool... I was recently quoted on the 'My Favorite Murder' podcast, on episode 59, talking about Lake Champlain and the alleged lake monster therein, Champ. As you may know, I researched--and explained--the most famous photo of Champ, taken in 1977 by Sandy Mansi. You can listen to the episode 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!
With the recent release of the third installment of the Fifty Shades of Grey series there has been considerable consternation about what effect the film (and its predecessors) will have on the public. A Christian Science Monitor story by Gloria Goodale explained "How ‘Fifty Shades of Grey' Is Contributing to Shift in Norms on Sexuality," for example, and a hilariously scathing review of the new film appeared on Pajiba.com and went viral, headlined "'50 Shades Freed' Is an Ignorant, Poisonous Anti-Feminist Hate Anthem." Dozens of other blogs and articles make similar claims, though they do not seem to have dampened its audience's ardor: the new film has brought in nearly $270 million to date. The missing logical link in these stories is in what in argumentation 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. People often cloak their disagreement or displeasure over a piece of work (a film, book, cartoon, etc.) with an assertion that it is not merely personally distasteful or offensive but in fact dangerous to society. Most people understand that merely saying "I don't like this film" is, quite rightly, likely to be met with a response along the lines of, "Thanks for expressing your opinion." In order to have that opinion carry more weight and garner public support, the critic often goes a step further to assert that the object of their scorn is a threat to public health or morals. It is a form of fearmongering, a technique used by manipulators for millennia. Sometimes it's a president stoking fears of Muslim or immigrant terrorists; other times it's a conservative media watchdog group complaining that, for example, Teen Vogue is encouraging America's teens to engage in anal sex. And so on. This pearl-clutching is nothing new, of course. Parents have been concerned about the harmful effects of pastimes and entertainment for centuries. Blaming entertainment media is an old tradition-in fact when Jack the Ripper was active in 1880s London, violence in the play The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was blamed for inspiring the serial murders. And the family game Twister was famously derided as "sex in a box" by a competitor who diligently (if self-interestedly) warned the public about this immoral game. This is, however, where a line becomes crossed because the critic is then in the position of making a factual claim and should offer evidence for that claim. Saying you don't like chocolate ice cream (or rap music, pornography, or anything else) merely expresses an inviolable, unfalsifiable personal preference which cannot be challenged based on any evidence: If you don't like it, you don't like it. End of story. For more see my CFI blog, HERE! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!