Apr 012020
 

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. 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 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. 

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. 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. 

 

A longer version of this appeared on the Center for Inquiry site; you can find it here. 

Mar 232020
 

Our recent episode of Squaring the Strange is about literary hoaxes!

I discuss some “misery memoirs,” stories of victims triumphing over incredible hardships (Spoiler: “Go Ask Alice” was fiction). Celestia discusses newspaper reports of horny bat-people on the moon, and we break down the cultural factors that contribute to the popularity and believability of hoaxes. We end with the heart-wrenching story of a literary version of Munchausen by proxy, one that moved both Oprah and Mr. Rogers. Check it out HERE! 

 

Mar 082020
 

So this is cool: I’m quoted in an article on Bigfoot in The Mountaineer: 

If you wear a size 14 shoe, chances are some of your high-school classmates called you “Bigfoot.” But that doesn’t mean you are an ape-like beast who may — or may not — just be a myth. A 1958 newspaper column began the whole thing. The Humboldt Times received a letter from a reader reporting loggers in California who had stumbled upon mysterious and excessively large footprints. The two journalists who reported the discovery treated it as a joke. But to their great surprise, the story caught on and soon spread far and wide. Bigfoot was born. Of course, reports of large beasts were not exactly new. The Tibetans had a Yeti, familiarly known as the “Abominable Snowman,” and an Indian Nation in Canada had its “Sasquatch.”

Guess what? Cochran found out the hair did not belong to Bigfoot. It was sent back to Byrne, with the conclusion it belonged to the deer family. Four decades later, the FBI declassified the “bigfoot file” about having done this analysis.“Byrne was one of the more prominent Bigfoot researchers,” said Benjamin Radford, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer magazine. “In the 1970s, Bigfoot was very popular.”

You can read the rest of the article HERE! 

 

As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) nears its three-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!

Mar 052020
 

As the world enters its third  full month dealing with the deadly coronavirus, misinformation is running rampant. For many, the medical and epidemiological aspects of the outbreak are the most important and salient elements, but there are other prisms through which we can examine this public health menace. 

There are many facets to this outbreak, including economic damage, cultural changes, and so on. However, my interest and background is in media literacy, psychology, and folklore (including rumor, legend, and conspiracy), and my focus here is a brief overview of some of the lore surrounding the current outbreak. Before I get into the folkloric aspects of the disease, let’s review the basics of what we know so far. 

First, the name is a bit misleading; it’s a coronavirus, not the coronavirus. Coronavirus is a category of viruses; this one is dubbed “Covid-19.” Two of the best known and most deadly other coronaviruses are SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, first identified in 2003) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, identified in 2012). 

The symptoms of Covid-19 are typical of influenza and include a cough, sometimes with a fever, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea. Most (about 80 percent) of infected patients recover within a week or two, like patients with a bad cold. The other 20 percent contract severe infections such as pneumonia, sometimes leading to death. The virus Covid-19 is spreading faster than either MERS or SARS, but it’s much less deadly than either of those. The death rate for Covid-19 is 2 percent, compared to 10 percent for SARS and 35 percent for MERS. There’s no vaccine, and because it’s not bacterial, antibiotics won’t help. 

The first case was reported in late December 2019 in Wuhan, China. About a month later the Health and Human Services Department declared a U.S. public health emergency. The average person is at very low risk, and Americans are at far greater risk of getting the flu—about 10 percent of the public gets it each year. Three cruise ships and several airplanes have been quarantined. There are about a dozen confirmed cases in the U.S., and most of the infected are in China or are people who visited there. Though the number of people infected in China sounds alarming, keep in mind the country’s population of 1.4 billion. 

The information issues can be roughly broken down into three (at times overlapping) categories: 1) Lack of information; 2) Misinformation; and 3) Disinformation. 

Lack of Information

The lack of information stems from the fact that scientists are still learning about this specific virus. Much is known about it from information gathered so far (summarized above), but much remains to be learned. 

The lack of information has been complicated by a lack of transparency by the Chinese government, which has sought to stifle early alarms about it raised by doctors, including Li Wenliang, who recently died. As The New York Times reported:

On Friday, the doctor, the doctor, Li Wenliang, died after contracting the very illness he had told medical school classmates about in an online chat room, the coronavirus. He joined the more than 600 other Chinese who have died in an outbreak that has now spread across the globe. Dr. Li “had the misfortune to be infected during the fight against the novel coronavirus pneumonia epidemic, and all-out efforts to save him failed,” the Wuhan City Central Hospital said on Weibo, the Chinese social media service. Even before his death, Dr. Li had become a hero to many Chinese after word of his treatment at the hands of the authorities emerged. In early January, he was called in by both medical officials and the police, and forced to sign a statement denouncing his warning as an unfounded and illegal rumor. 

Chinese officials were slow to share information and admit the scope of the outbreak. This isn’t necessarily evidence of a conspiracy—governments are often loathe to admit bad news or potentially embarrassing or damaging information (recall that it took nearly a week for Iran to admit it had unintentionally shot down a passenger airliner over its skies in January)—but part of the Chinese government’s long standing policies of restricting news reporting and social media. Nonetheless, China’s actions have fueled anxiety and conspiracies; more on that presently. 

Misinformation

There are various types of misinformation, revolving around a handful of central concerns typical of disease rumors. In his book An Epidemic of Rumors: How Stories Shape Our Perceptions of Disease, Jon D. Lee notes:

People use certain sets of narratives to discuss the presence of illness, mediate their fears of it, come to terms with it, and otherwise incorporate its presence into their daily routines … Some of these narratives express a harsher, more paranoid view of reality than others, some are openly racist and xenophobic, and some are more concerned with issues of treatment and prevention than blame—but all revolve around a single emotion in all its many forms: fear. (169) 

As Lee mentions, one common aspect is xenophobia and contamination fears. Many reports, in news media but on social media especially, focus on the “other,” the dirty aberrant outsiders who “created” or spread the menace. Racism is a common theme in rumors and urban legends—what gross things “they” eat or do. As Prof. Andrea Kitta notes in her book The Kiss of Death: Contagion, Contamination, and Folklore

The intriguing part of disease legends is that, in addition to fear of illness, they express primarily a fear of outsiders … Patient zero [the assumed origin of the “new” disease] not only provides a scapegoat but also serves as an example to others: as long as people do not act in the same way as patient zero, they are safe. (27–28)

In the case of Covid-19, rumors have suggested that seemingly bizarre (to Americans anyway) eating habits of Chinese were to blame, specifically bats. One video circulated allegedly showing Chinese preparing bat soup, suggesting it was the cause of the outbreak, though it was later revealed to have been filmed in Palau, Micronesia. 

The idea of disease and death coming from “unclean” practices has a long history. One well known myth is that AIDS originated when someone (presumably an African man) had sex with a monkey or ape. This linked moralistic views of sexuality with the later spread of the disease, primarily among the homosexual community. More likely, however, chimps with simian immunodeficiency virus were killed and eaten for game meat, which is documented, which in turn transferred the virus to humans and spawned HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), which in turn causes AIDS. 

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

Disinformation and Conspiracies

Then there are the conspiracies, prominent among them the disease’s origin. Several are circulating, claiming for example that Covid-19 is in fact a bioweapon that has either been intentionally deployed or escaped/stolen from a secure top secret government lab. Some have claimed that it’s a plot (by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or another NGO or Big Pharma) to sell vaccines—apparently unaware that there is no vaccine available at any price. 

This is a classic conspiracy trope, evoked to explain countless bad things, ranging from chupacabras to chemtrails and diseases. This is similar to urban legends and rumors in the African American community, claiming that AIDS was created by the American government to kill blacks, or that soft drinks and foods (Tropical Fantasy soda and Church’s Fried Chicken, for example) contained ingredients that sterilized the black community (for more on this, see Patricia Turner’s book I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-America Culture.) In Pakistan and India, public health workers have been attacked and even killed trying to give polio vaccinations, rumored to be part of an American plot.

Of course such conspiracies go back centuries. As William Naphy notes in his book Plagues, Poisons, and Potions: Plague Spreading Conspiracies in the Western Alps c. 1530-1640, people were accused of intentionally spreading the bubonic plague. Most people believed that the plague was a sign of God’s wrath, a pustular and particularly punitive punishment for the sin of straying from Biblical teachings. “Early theories saw causes in: astral conjunctions, the passing of comets; unusual weather conditions … noxious exhalations from the corpses on battlefields” and so on (vii). Naphy notes that “In 1577, Claude de Rubys, one of the city’s premier orators and a rabid anti-Protestant, had openly accused the city’s Huguenots of conspiring to destroy Catholics by giving them the plague” (174). Confessions, often obtained under torture, implicated low-paid foreigners who had been hired to help plague victims and disinfect their homes. 

Other folkloric versions of intentional disease spreading include urban legends of AIDS-infected needles placed in payphone coin return slots. Indeed, that rumor was part of an older and larger tradition; as folklorist Gillian Bennett notes in her book Bodies: Sex Violence, Disease, and Death in Contemporary Legend, in Europe and elsewhere “Stories proliferated about deliberately contaminated doorknobs, light switches, and sandboxes on playgrounds” (115).

How to Get, Prevent, or Cure It

Various theories have surfaced online suggesting ways to prevent the virus. They include avoiding spicy food (which doesn’t work); eating garlic (which also doesn’t work); and drinking bleach (which really, really doesn’t work). 

In addition, there’s also something called MMS, or “miracle mineral solution,” and the word miracle in the name should be a big red flag about its efficacy. The solution is 28 percent sodium chlorite mixed in distilled water, and there are reports that it’s being sold online for $900 per gallon (or if that’s a bit pricey, you can get a four-ounce bottle for about $30).

The FDA takes a dim view of this, noting that it 

has received many reports that these products, sold online as “treatments,” have made consumers sick. The FDA first warned consumers about the products in 2010. But they are still being promoted on social media and sold online by many independent distributors. The agency strongly urges consumers not to purchase or use these products. The products are known by various names, including Miracle or Master Mineral Solution, Miracle Mineral Supplement, MMS, Chlorine Dioxide Protocol, and Water Purification Solution. When mixed according to package directions, they become a strong chemical that is used as bleach. Some distributors are making false—and dangerous—claims that Miracle Mineral Supplement mixed with citric acid is an antimicrobial, antiviral, and antibacterial liquid that is a remedy for autism, cancer, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, flu, and other conditions. 

It’s true that bleach can kill viruses—when used full strength on surfaces, not when diluted and ingested. They’re two very different things; confuse the two at your great peril. 

Folk remedies such as these are appealing because they are something that victims (and potential victims) can do—some tangible way they can take action and assume control over their own health and lives. Even if the treatment is unproven or may be just a rumor, at least they feel like they’re doing something.

There have been several false reports and rumors of outbreaks in local hospitals across the country, including in Los Angeles, Santa Clarita, and in Dallas County, Texas. In all those cases, false social media posts have needlessly alarmed the public—and in some cases spawned conspiracy theories. After all, some random, anonymous mom on Facebook shared a screen-captured Tweet from some other random person who had a friend of a friend with “insider information” about some anonymous person in a local hospital who’s dying with Covid-19—but there’s nothing in the news about it! Who are you going to believe? 

Then there’s Canadian rapper/YouTube cretin James Potok, who last week stood up near the end of his WestJet flight from Toronto to Jamaica and announced loudly to the 240 passengers that he had just come from Wuhan, China, and “I don’t feel too well.” He recorded it with a cell phone, planning to post it online as a funny publicity stunt. Flight attendants reseated him, and the plane returned to Toronto where police and medical professionals escorted him off the plane. Of course he tested negative and was promptly arrested.

When people are frightened by diseases, they cling to any information and often distrust official information. These fears are amplified by the fact that the virus is of course invisible to the eye, and the fears are fueled by ambiguity and uncertainty about who’s a threat. The incubation period for Covid-19 seems to be between two days and two weeks, during which time asymptomatic carriers could potentially infect others. The symptoms are common and indistinguishable from other viruses, except when confirmed with lab testing, which of course requires time, equipment, a doctor visit, and so on. Another factor is that people are very poor at assessing relative risk in general anyway (for example, fearing plane travel over statistically far more dangerous car travel). They often panic over alarmist media reports and underestimate their risk of more mundane threats.

The best medical advice for dealing with Covid-19: Thoroughly cook meat, wash your hands, and stay away from sick people … basically the same advice you get for avoiding any cold or airborne virus. Face masks don’t help much, unless you are putting them on people who are already sick and coughing. Most laypeople use the masks incorrectly anyway, and hoarding has led to a shortage for medical workers. 

Hoaxes, misinformation, and rumors can cause real harm during public health emergencies. When people are sick and desperately afraid of a scary disease, any information will be taken seriously by some people. False rumors can not only kill but can hinder public health efforts. The best advice is to keep threats in perspective, recognize the social functions of rumors, and heed advice from medical professionals instead of your friend’s friend on Twitter. 

Further Reading

An Epidemic of Rumors: How Stories Shape Our Perceptions of Disease, Jon D. Lee

Bodies: Sex Violence, Disease, and Death in Contemporary Legend, Gillian Bennett

I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-America Culture, Patricia Turner

Plagues, Poisons, and Potions: Plague Spreading Conspiracies in the Western Alps c. 1530-1640, William Naphy

The Global Grapevine: Why Rumors of Terrorism, Immigration, and Trade Matter, Gary Alan Fine and Bill Ellis
The Kiss of Death: Contagion, Contamination, and Folklore, Andrea Kitta

 

A different version of this article originally appeared in my blog for the Center for Inquiry; you can find it HERE. 

 

As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) nears its three-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!

Mar 032020
 

Did you catch our recent bonus episode of Squaring the Strange? I gather some myths and misinformation going round about Wuhan Coronovirus, aka Novel Coronavirus, aka “we’re all gonna die,” aka COVID-19. Then special guest Doc Dan breaks down some virus-busting science for us and talks about the public health measures in place. Check it out HERE! 

 

Mar 022020
 

I’m quoted in a new article about real estate omens and superstitions at Realtor.com! 

“An outdated kitchen and a lack of curb appeal aren’t the only things that can keep buyers from biting. When it seems like there’s just no explanation for a perfectly good home sitting on the market, you might consider other possible causes. Certain items, colors, and symbols have been thought to attract malicious forces to an otherwise peaceful abode. And while some people scoff at such beliefs, others take them seriously—and not just around Halloween.

“There are countless folkloric beliefs, and savvy homeowners are smart to acknowledge and respect such beliefs, whether they share them or not,” says Benjamin Radford, deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and co-host of the “Squaring the Strange” podcast.”

 

You can see the rest HERE! 

 

As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) nears its three-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!

Feb 282020
 

Last month Neil Peart, the drummer and main lyricist for the rock band Rush, died. He’d been living in California and privately battled brain cancer for several years. The Canadian trio (Alex Lifeson on guitar, Geddy Lee on vocals, bass, and keyboards, and Neil Peart on drums) announced they’d stopped touring in 2015, after 40 years.

As a Rush fan and a skeptic I thought it would be a good opportunity to reflect on Peart’s passing and his skepticism-infused lyrics. There are over 150 Rush songs written or co-written by Neil, and many themes can be found among them, including alienation, skepticism, libertarianism, fantasy, and humanism. The discussion here is not comprehensive; my interest here is to briefly highlight some of the more potent lyrics and songs expressing doubt, skepticism, the frailty of perception, the fallibility of knowledge, and the dangers of certainty. Peart was likely one of the most widely-read lyricists in rock and roll, on topics ranging from philosophy to humanism to science. He was, as described in The New Yorker, “wildly literate.” George Hrab is among the many skeptics who offered a memorial to Peart (as well as Geo’s initial skepticism about the news of Peart’s death, and why Peart and the band seemed relatable), on his Geologic Podcast (episode 646).

As has been written elsewhere, Rush was a polarizing band that either you “got,” or you didn’t. I’ve met people who have barely heard of them, but few who were ambivalent about them. At the risk of employing the “I liked them when they weren’t cool” trope, I’ll note that my love of the band dates back to hearing “Tom Sawyer” on the radio for the first time in 1981 and being blown away. I joined the nascent Rush Backstage Club. This was back in a day when Rush fans such as myself connected via letters; a Pen Pals section offered a dozen or so addresses for Rush fans to meet each other and share their enthusiasm, at the comfortable pace of postal delivery.

I proceeded to buy all their albums and saw them live a dozen times over the years. Most of the albums were great, a few were good, and some of the later albums (Vapor TrailsCounterparts, and Test For Echo, for example) left me a bit cold. But Rush had earned my loyalty and I’d buy anything they put out, just on principle. The most mediocre Rush song—and there are many—was usually head and shoulders above most of the other rock music I was hearing.

For much of Rush’s history Peart was the shy, retiring member. He rarely did interviews or fan meet-and-greets after concerts; that was a role that Geddy and Alex happily—or, surely, sometimes dutifully—fulfilled. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate fans or thought it was beneath him, he just didn’t enjoy it and would rather be alone, read, or plan his solo motorcycle trip to the next venue (something he often did).

But that wasn’t always the case; as a member of the Rush Backstage Club I got their newsletter in which Neil would respond to questions from fans. This was the mid-1980s, of course, long before the internet; that’s how things were done in those days. I never wrote in, partly because I didn’t know what I’d ask him if he actually responded.

The quality of the questions varied widely, ranging from the insightful to the banal. Neil typically responded in earnest, though occasionally his replies revealed a latent and understandable irritation. One got the impression that Neil didn’t suffer fools lightly, but he also recognized that Rush fans were a broad lot that included (or perhaps dominated by) nerdy, misfit teenagers and young adults, mostly male, perhaps not unlike himself as a teen in St. Catharines, Ontario. (Peart wrote about this inevitable gap between performer and audience, expert and layman, in the song Limelight.)

The three performers, lifelong friends, often made better music than bands with two or three times the number of members. Watching other, larger, bands I was often confused: What the hell are those other musicians doing? Why are there three guitarists, two keyboardists, a singer, a drummer, and some woman on a tambourine? And the backup singers? Is this a flash mob or a rock band? The answer, of course, is that none of them were Geddy, Alex, or Neil.

Peart was widely known as “The Professor” because of his intellectualism, his analytical approach to percussion, and the fact that he taught and influenced a generation of musicians. I’m not a musician, and didn’t learn drumming from him (though I did learn about some of the history and techniques from him). I’m not a lyricist and didn’t learn songwriting from him either. But we had some shared interests including the 1960s British television show The Prisoner, as evinced by some of his lyrics and his wearing of the distinctive Number Six pennyfarthing badge used in the series. The Prisoner is widely regarded as one of the most innovative and cerebral series of the 1960s—or, really, ever. Had I gotten the chance to meet him, I’d have avoided talking about drumming—or even music in general—and instead steered the conversation to shared interests such as Africa, travel, writing, belief, skepticism, and so on.

To be clear: Geddy and Alex are no slouches in the intellectual and reading departments either, the latter having been photographed reading the Christopher Hitchens classic God Is Not Great. Lee and Lifeson are enormously accomplished outside of music as well, but here I focus on Peart’s contribution as a lyricist (I hear he’s regarded as a passable drummer as well).

I’m not going to engage in extensive dives on various meanings, allegories and interpretations of the lyrics. I believe that most of the lyrics speak for themselves; one of the qualities of Peart’s writing is that it’s (usually) accessible. In a 1992 interview with Roger Catlin Peart noted that “For a lot of people, lyrics just aren’t that important. I can enjoy a band when the lyrics are shallow. But I can enjoy it more if the lyrics are good.” Here are some lyrics I find especially resonant.

Tom Sawyer / Moving Pictures (1981)

No, his mind is not for rent
To any god or government
Always hopeful, yet discontent
He knows changes aren’t permanent

But change is

Freewill / Permanent Waves (1980)

You can choose a ready guide
In some celestial voice
If you choose not to decide
You still have made a choice

You can choose from phantom fears
And kindness that can kill
I will choose a path that’s clear
I will choose free will

The “Fear” Series

Rush released four songs related to the topic of fear: Witch Hunt (Moving Pictures); The Enemy Within (Grace Under Pressure); The Weapon (Signals), and, much later, Freeze (Vapor Trails). I want to focus on Peart’s plea for reason and rationality in Witch Hunt:

Witch Hunt / Moving Pictures (1981)

The night is black
Without a moon
The air is thick and still

The vigilantes gather on
The lonely torchlit hill

Features distorted in the flickering light
The faces are twisted and grotesque
Silent and stern in the sweltering night
The mob moves like demons possessed
Quiet in conscience, calm in their right
Confident their ways are best

The righteous rise
With burning eyes
Of hatred and ill-will

Madmen fed on fear and lies
To beat, and burn, and kill

The lyrics reference xenophobia, moral guardians, moral panics, and censorship in the second half of the song:

They say there are strangers, who threaten us
In our immigrants and infidels
They say there is strangeness, too dangerous
In our theatres and bookstore shelves
That those who know what’s best for us –
Must rise and save us from ourselves

Quick to judge,
Quick to anger
Slow to understand

Ignorance and prejudice
And fear

Walk hand in hand

Totem / Test for Echo (1996)

I believe in what I see
I believe in what I hear
I believe that what I’m feeling
Changes how the world appears

In his book Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road, Peart wrote, “At the time of writing those lines [before the death of his daughter Selena], I had in mind the contradiction between a skeptic’s dismissal of anything not tangible (true agnosticism) and the entirely subjective way many people tend to view and judge the world, through the filters of ever-changing emotions and moods” (p. 79).

Angels and demons dancing in my head
Lunatics and monsters underneath my bed
Media messiahs preying on my fears
Pop culture prophets playing in my ears

Roll the Bones / Roll the Bones (1991)

Faith is cold as ice
Why are little ones born only to suffer
For the want of immunity
Or a bowl of rice?
Well, who would hold a price
On the heads of the innocent children
If there’s some immortal power
To control the dice?

We come into the world and take our chances
Fate is just the weight of circumstances

That’s the way that lady luck dances
Roll the bones

Jack, relax
Get busy with the facts
No zodiacs or almanacs
No maniacs in polyester slacks
Just the facts

Brought Up To Believe (BU2B) / Clockwork Angels (2010)

I was brought up to believe
The universe has a plan
We are only human
It’s not ours to understand

The universe has a plan
All is for the best
Some will be rewarded
And the devil take the rest

All is for the best

Believe in what we’re told
Blind men in the market
Buying what we’re sold
Believe in what we’re told
Until our final breath
While our loving Watchmaker
Loves us all to death

In a world of cut and thrust
I was always taught to trust
In a world where all must fail
Heaven’s justice will prevail

There’s one final song I’d like to mention because it captures the mission of an inquisitive, Enlightenment-fueled mind:

Available Light / Presto (1989)

All four winds together
Can’t bring the world to me
Shadows hide the play of light
So much I want to see
Chase the light around the world
I want to look at life—In the available light

The “light” Peart is talking about is the same light of reason that Carl Sagan mentioned in his (borrowed) aphorism, “It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” Peart was open about his agnosticism (some would consider it atheism) and wrote eloquently about the dangers of religion.

As an avid Rush fan I collected several tourbooks and one thing that stood out to me was how often Peart was photographed reading books. He could have been photographed drinking and partying, living the rock star life (see the accompanying artwork for pretty much any Guns N Roses album, for example). Peart was thoughtful and literate. In one album photo he poses with Aristotle’s classic Poetics, and it’s clear that it’s not done ironically. Peart didn’t grab a book to read when photographers were around; he just didn’t bother to put it down when they were. He was who he was, and he didn’t care whether he looked the part of a rock star. The band seemed down to earth, taking their music—but not themselves—too seriously (see their speech at Rush’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013 for example).

Neil Peart isn’t resting in peace or anywhere else; he’s gone but remains with us. As he said during the Hall of Fame induction, quoting Bob Dylan: “The highest purpose of art is to inspire. What else can you do for anyone but inspire them?” He and his band have inspired tens of millions of people in ways large and small. As Neil wrote, “A spirit with a vision is a dream with a mission.”

 

 

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

Feb 182020
 

I’ve investigated hundreds—probably thousands—of things in my career as a skeptic and researcher, from misleading polls to chupacabra vampire legends. Some investigations take hours or days; others take weeks or months, and a rare few take years. It all depends on the scope of the investigation and how much information you have to analyze. In some cases a mystery can’t be solved until some other information is released or revealed, such as a medical or forensics test.

However there are some mysteries that can be solved in less than a minute. This short piece offers one quick example.

I came across a “news” headline on several Facebook friend’s walls stating that “85% of People Hate Their Jobs, Gallup Poll Finds.”

It’s a false story. In this case, three clicks of a mouse, each on a different link seeking a source, led me to the origin of the myth. If you’re a slow reader, of course, it will take longer than if you can quickly skim the page or report, but with practice this could be done in just a few minutes.

The first step is a sort of skeptical sense that there’s maybe something to investigate, some claim that is false or exaggerated. After all, we see countless news stories and social media posts online daily, and the average person rarely if ever fact-checks them. One red flag is the source: where did the information come from? Is it a reputable, known news organization or is it some random website you’ve never heard of? To be clear: reputable news organizations sometimes get information wrong, and perfectly valid and accurate information often appears on obscure sites and blogs.

But in this case the information was clearly presented as a news story. It is formatted as a news headline and offers a surprising or alarming statistic from a reputable polling organization, Gallup.

When I clicked on the link I went to some site called Return to Now. The red flags popped up when the “news” article was revealed to be three years old. As I’ve written about before, old news is often fake news. But this “news” story was also uncredited. Someone wrote it, obviously, but who? A respected journalist or someone cranking out clickbait copy?

There’s no name attached to the piece, and the About section of the site isn’t any more helpful: “Return to Now is dedicated to helping humans live fully in the present, while gleaning tips on how to do so from our distant past. It’s a new kind of ‘news’ website, whose contributors are not as concerned with current events as we are with the whole of the human experience. Topics will include rewilding, primitivism, modern ‘tribal’ living, tips for getting off the grid, sustainability, natural health, peaceful parenting, and sexual and spiritual awakening.” It’s not clear what that means, though the fact that they put the word news in quote marks is revealing; I want—and readers deserve—news, not “news.”

In this case the piece offered a link to the Gallup poll it referenced. Many people would likely stop there and assume that the existence of the link meant that what the link contains had been accurately and fairly characterized. After all, someone must have at least looked at the content at that link in order to have written the sentence it contains, and the headline. Unless of course the person is lying to you, intentionally misleading their readers (or, perhaps has reading comprehension issues and badly misunderstood what it said).

If the article had not provided a link at all, that too would have been a red flag. Not everyone embeds links in their writing, but those who don’t at least provide a source or reference for their information, such as a book or published journal article. Otherwise it looks an awful lot like you’re just making it up.

In this case the click link was accurate and did work, and led me to the promised Gallup poll referenced in the headline and article. It’s a one-page blog and I skimmed it for the alleged statistic: that 85% of workers hate their jobs. It didn’t appear anywhere. Nor, for that matter, did any reference to “hate” or “hating” a job. Always be skeptical of polls and survey results reported in news pieces, and when possible consult the original reports; they often contradict the headlines they generate.

But I quickly realized that there was another prominent statistic that seemed to be the other half of the 85% figure: 15% (since 85% + 15% = 100% of a polled statistic). The Gallup poll found that 15% of the world’s one billion full-time workers “are engaged at work.”

But not being “engaged at work” is not at all the same thing as “hating your job.” You can love or hate your job, and be engaged or not engaged at it. The two measures have little or nothing to do with each other, and it’s clear that someone saw the poll and decided to mischaracterize its results and spin it into a clickbait article, recognizing that few would read a piece headlined, “15% of People Are Engaged At Work, Gallup Poll Says.”

The problem of misinformation and fake news on social media is of course made worse when people share the information without checking it. Those who share bogus stories like this are both victims of manipulation, and promoters of misinformation. It’s a good reminder to think before you share. You don’t need to invest hours fact-checking information; as this case shows in some cases you can do it in just seconds. Or better yet, avoid the problem entirely by only sharing news stories from reputable news organizations.

 

Note: This piece, originally appearing in a different form on my CFI blog, was inspired in part by a FB friend named Rich, one of those whose post caught my eye. After the quick search described above I diplomatically pointed this out to him, and Rich not only thanked me for doing the research, but quickly corrected the headline and vowed to do better. Be like Rich.

 

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

Feb 152020
 

My buddy Kenny Biddle recently did a great investigation into a new book by TV ghost hunter Zak Bagans. You can read it HERE. 

Below is an excerpt: 

I really did not want to read the book this article is about. I know that will likely give away the tone of this overall piece, but it’s just my honest reaction. When I saw the first announcements on social media that semi-celebrity Zak Bagans was releasing a new book titled Ghost Hunting for Dummies, I immediately groaned, deciding I’d pass on reviewing it. I’ve amassed quite a collection of “How to Ghost Hunt” type books since the 1990s, and I didn’t see any possibility of Bagans offering anything new—especially given his spotless track record of completely failing to find good evidence of ghosts during his decade-plus on television. At the time, I had no idea how right I’d be about that.

A close friend and colleague, Mellanie Ramsey, mentioned she was going to review the book on a podcast. After a brief conversation, she urged me to read it and participate in the podcast. I reluctantly agreed, placing an Amazon order and receiving my copy of Ghost Hunting for Dummies two days later. The book is over 400 pages and published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., under the For Dummies brand, which boasts over 2,400 titles (Wiley 2020a). The “Dummies” books are meant to “transform the hard-to-understand into easy-to-use,” according to the company’s website (Wiley 2020b).

My first impression comes from the front cover, which I found to be an overall poor design compared to the Dummies format I was used to seeing: the slanted title, a pronounced and stylized Dummies logo, and either a character with a triangle-shaped head or a photo representing the content of the book. The cover of Ghost Hunting features the title printed straight across with a much smaller and less stylized version of the Dummies logo. The word for is so small that when I showed the book to my wife, she asked “Why did you buy a book called ‘Ghost Hunting Dummies’?” The cover also features a photograph of a basement stairway and door, along with an odd photograph of Bagans with his right hand extended toward the camera, like he’s reaching out to take your money. Overall, it’s just not an attractive cover.

Inside the book, the first thing I noticed was a lack of references; there are no citations or references listed anywhere and no bibliography at the end of the book. For me, this is a red flag; references tell us where the author obtained their information, quotes, study results, and so on. When a book is supposed to be educating you on a specific topic (or in this case, multiple topics), I expect to know the source material from which the information came. However, because this is the first book from the Dummies brand that I’ve purchased, I wasn’t sure if the lack of a bibliography was the standard format. I headed over to my local Barnes & Noble store and flipped through more than forty different Dummies titles, none of which contained references. I also noticed that all of the titles I checked, from Medical Terminology to 3D Printing, were copyrighted by Wiley Publishing/John Wiley & Sons. Ghost Hunting for Dummies is instead copyrighted by Zak Bagans.

There are several indications this book was rushed into publication for the 2019 holiday season. Chief among them are the extensive number of errors: typos, misspellings, repeated words, and missing words are littered throughout the pages. Another indication of premature release comes from the lack of the classic Dummies icons. On page 2, it’s explained that “Throughout the margins of this book are small images, known as icons. These icons mark important tidbits of information” (Bagans 2020). We are presented with four icons: the Tip (a lightbulb), the Remember (hand with string tied around one finger), the Warning (triangle with exclamation point inside), and the “Zak Says” (Zak’s face), which “Highlights my [Zak’s] words of wisdom or personal experiences” (Bagans 2020, 3). Over the 426 pages, there are only thirteen icons to be found throughout: five Tips, four Remembers, three Warnings, and one “Zak Says.” I guess Bagans didn’t have much wisdom to impart upon his readers.

Throughout much of the book, Bagans displays a strong bias against skeptics and scientists, even going as far as to claim to understand scientific concepts better than actual scientists. For example, while relating why he believes human consciousness can exist outside of the body, Bagans mentions Albert Einstein’s well-known quote, “Energy cannot be created or destroyed; it can only be changed from one form to another.” Bagans follows this with, “it’s baffling why this concept is so easy to understand for a paranormal investigator but not for a mainstream scientist” (Bagans 2020, 108). It’s actually mainstream scientists who understand this and Bagans who’s confused. The answer is very simple. Ben Radford addressed this common mistake in his March/April 2012 Skeptical Inquirer column “Do Einstein’s Laws Endorse Ghosts?”:

 

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

Feb 052020
 

This week we were joined by Erik Kristopher Myers to discuss a short history of a particular sort of easter egg: the dreaded “hidden subversive element” stuck into a kids’ show or game, either by a perverse animator or a much more sinister coalition bent on corrupting the youth of America. Disney has made a cottage industry of hiding adult content in cartoons–whether real or simply rumored. And the rumors of subversive dangers in D&D both plagued and popularized the once-obscure RPG. From pareidolia to pranks to the people who wring hands over such dangers, we break down a long list of memorable legends.

You can listen to it HERE. 

Feb 032020
 

This is the second of a two-part piece. 

The recent Clint Eastwood film Richard Jewell holds interesting lessons about skepticism, media literacy, and both the obligations and difficulties of translating real events into fictional entertainment.

Reel vs. Real

The film garnered some offscreen controversy when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution issued a statement complaining about the film, specifically how it and its journalism were portrayed. They and other critics complained particularly that the film unfairly maligns Scruggs, who (in real life) co-wrote the infamous AJC newspaper article that wrongly implicated Jewell in the public’s mind based on unnamed insider information. Scruggs, who isn’t alive to respond, is depicted as sleeping with FBI agent Shaw—with whom she had a previous relationship, at least according to Wilde—in return for information about Jewell.

The AJC letter to Warner Bros. threatened legal action and read in part, “Significantly, there is no claim in Ms. Brenner’s Vanity Fair piece on which the film is based that the AJC’s reporter unethically traded sex for information. It is clear that the film’s depiction of an AJC reporter trading sex for stories is a malicious fabrication contrived to sell movie tickets.” Such a depiction, the newspaper asserts, “makes it appear that the AJC sexually exploited its staff and/or that it facilitated or condoned” such behavior.

The newspaper’s response was widely seen in the public (and by many journalists) as a full-throated defense of Scruggs’s depiction in the film as being baseless and a sexist trope fabricated by Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray to bolster the screenplay.

Richard Brody of The New Yorker writes that “It’s implied that she has sex with a source in exchange for a scoop; those who knew the real-life Scruggs deny that she did any such thing. It’s an ignominious allegation, and one that Eastwood has no business making, particularly in a movie about ignominious allegations.”

Becca Andrews, assistant news editor at Mother Jones, had a similar take: “Wilde plays Kathy Scruggs, who was, by all accounts, a hell-on-wheels shoe-leather reporter who does not appear to have any history of, say, sleeping with sources…. Despite Scruggs’ standing as a respected reporter who, to be clear, does not seem to have screwed anyone for a scoop over the course of her career, the fictional version of her in the film follows the shopworn trope.”

It all seems pretty clear cut and outrageous: the filmmakers recklessly and falsely depicted a female reporter (based on a real person, using her real name) behaving unethically, in a way that had no basis in fact.

A Closer Look

But a closer look reveals a somewhat different situation. It is true, as the AJC letter to Warner Bros. states several times, that the film was based on Brenner’s Vanity Fair article. However the letter conspicuously fails to mention that the film was not based only on Brenner’s article: There was a second source credited in the film—one which does in fact suggest that Scruggs had (or may have had) sex with her sources.

Screenwriter Ray didn’t make that detail up; one of the sources the film credits, The Suspect, by two respected journalists, Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwan, specifically refers to Scruggs’s “’reputation’ for sleeping with sources” (though not necessarily in the Jewell case specifically) according to The New York Times. Ray fictionalized and dramatized that part of the story, in the same way that all the events and characters are fictionalized to some degree. This explains why Scruggs was depicted as she was: that’s what the source material suggested.

The defense that, well, while it may be true that she was thought by colleagues to have had affairs with some of her sources—but not necessarily in that specific case—is pretty weak. It’s not as if there was no basis whatsoever for her depiction in the film, with Eastwood and Ray carelessly and maliciously manufacturing a sexist trope out of thin air. Ironically this book—the one that refers to Scruggs’s reputation for sleeping with her sources—was described by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution itself as “exhaustively researched” and “unsparing but not unfair.” It’s not clear why mentioning her reputation for sleeping with sources was “not unfair” when Alexander and Salwan did it in their (nonfiction) book about Richard Jewell, but is “false” and “extraordinarily reckless” when Ray and Eastwood did it in their (fictional) screenplay based in part on that very book.

True Stories in Fiction

The issues surrounding the portrayal of Scruggs in Richard Jewell—just like the portrayal of Jewell himself in the film—are more nuanced and complex than they first appear. Eastwood and Ray were not accused of tarnishing a dead reporter’s image by including a true-but-unseemly aspect of her real life in her fictional depiction. Nor were they accused of failing to confirm that information contained in one of their sources. Instead they were accused of completely fabricating that aspect of Scruggs’s life to sensationalize their film—which is demonstrably not true.

More fundamentally, complaints that the film isn’t the “real story” miss the point. It is not—and was never claimed to be—the “real story.” The film is not a documentary, it’s a scripted fictional narrative film (as it says on posters) “based on the true story.” (The full statement that appears in the film reads, “The film is based on actual historical events. Dialogue and certain events and characters contained in the film were created for the purposes of dramatization.”) That is, the film is based on some things that actually happened; that doesn’t mean that everything that really happened is in the film, and it doesn’t mean that everything in the film really happened. It means exactly what it says: the movie is “based on actual historical events.” Complaints about historical inaccuracy are of course very common in movies about real-life people and events.

Similar complaints were raised about Eastwood’s drama American Sniper about the film’s historical accuracy as it relates to the true story of the real-life Chris Kyle; these pedantic protests rather miss the point. Much of the “controversy” over whether it’s a 100% historically accurate account of Kyle’s life is a manufactured controversy sown of a misunderstanding, a straw man argument challenge to a strict historicity no one claimed.

In an interview with The New York Times, “Kelly McBride, a onetime police reporter who is the senior vice president of the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit organization that supports journalism, said the portrayal of Ms. Scruggs did not reflect reality” (emphasis added). It’s not clear why McBride or anyone else would believe or assume that a scripted film would “reflect reality.” There is of course no reason why fictional entertainment should necessarily accurately reflect real life–in dialogue, plot, or in any other way. Television and film are escapist entertainment, and the vast majority of characters in scripted shows and films lead far more interesting, dramatic, and glamorous lives than the audiences who watch them. While fictional cops on television shows regularly engage in gunfire and shootouts, in reality over 90% of police officers in the United States never fire their weapons at another person during the course of their career. TV doctors seem to leap from one dramatic, life-saving situation to another, while most real doctors spend their careers diagnosing the flu and filling out paperwork. I wrote about this a few years ago.

Richard Jewell is one of many “based on a true story” films currently out, including BombshellFord v. FerrariA Beautiful Day in the NeighborhoodSebergDark WatersMidwayHoney BoyHarriet, and others. Every one of these has scenes, dialogue, and events that never really happened, and characters that either never existed or existed but never did some of the specific things they’re depicted as having done on the screen.

It’s understandable for audiences to wonder what parts of the film are historically accurate and which parts aren’t, but making that distinction and parsing out exactly which characters are real and which are made up, and which incidents really happened and precisely when and how, is not the responsibility of the film or the filmmakers. The source material is clearly and fully credited and so anyone can easily see for themselves what the true story is. There are many books (such as Based on a True Story—But With More Car Chases: Fact and Fiction in 100 Favorite Movies, by Jonathan Vankin and John Whalen) and websites devoted specifically to parsing out what’s fact and what’s fiction in movies. There are also a handful of online articles comparing the true story of Richard Jewell with the fictional one.

There’s no deception going on, no effort to “trick” audiences into mistaking the film for a documentary. It is a scripted drama, with events carefully chosen for dramatic effect and dialogue written by a screenwriter and performed by actors. It’s similar in some ways to the complaint that a film adaptation of a book doesn’t follow the same story. That’s because books and films are very different media that have very different storytelling structures and demands. It’s not that one is “right” and the other is “wrong;” they’re different ways of telling roughly the same story.

Similarly, to ask “how accurate” a film is doesn’t make sense. A fictional film is not judged based on how “accurate” it is (whatever that would mean) but instead how well the story is told. Screenwriters taking dramatic license with bits and pieces of something that happened in real life in order to tell an effective story is their job. Writers can add characters, combine several real-life people into a single character, play with the chronology of events, and so on.

Ray certainly could—and arguably should—have changed the name of the character, but since in real life it was Scruggs specifically who broke the news about Jewell, and it was Scruggs specifically who in real life was rumored to have been romantically involved with sources, the decision not to do so is understandable. It’s likely, of course, that complaints would still have arisen even if her name had been changed, since Scruggs’s name is so closely connected to the real story.

The question of fictional representation is a valid and thorny one. Films and screenplays based (however loosely) on real events and people are, by definition, fictionalized and dramatized (this seems obvious, but may be more clear to me, as I have attended several screenwriting workshops taught by Hollywood screenwriters). Plots need conflict, and in stories based on things that actually happened, there will be heroes (who really existed in some form) and there will be villains (who also really existed in some form). The villains in any story will, by definition—and rightly or wrongly—typically not be happy with their depiction; villains are heroes in their own story.

The question is instead what obligations a screenwriter has to the real-life people cast in that villain role—keeping in mind of course that interesting fictional characters are a blend of hero and villain, good and bad. Heroes will have flaws and villains will have positive attributes, and may even turn out to be heroes in some cases.

You can argue that if Ray was going to suggest that Scruggs’s character slept with an FBI agent (as The Suspect suggested), that he should have confirmed it. But screenwriters, like non-fiction writers, typically don’t fact-check the sources of their sources. In other words they assume that the information in a seemingly reputable source (such as a Vanity Fair article or a well-reviewed book by the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia and a former Wall Street Journal columnist, for example), is accurate as written. If they report that Scruggs had a reputation for sleeping with sources, or hid in the back of Jewell’s lawyer’s car hoping for an interview, or met with FBI agents in a bar, or any number of other things, then the screenwriter believing that she did so—or may have done so—is not unreasonable nor malicious.

In the end, the dispute revolves around a minor plot point in a single scene, and the sexual quid pro quo is implied, not explicit. Reasonable people can disagree about whether or not Scruggs was portrayed fairly in the film (and if not, where the blame lies) as well as the ethical limits of dramatic license in portraying real historical events and figures in fictional films, but the question here is more complex than has been portrayed—about, ironically, a film with themes of rushing to judgment and binary thinking—and should not detract from what is overall a very good film.

For those interested in the real, true story of how Richard Jewell was railroaded, bullied, and misjudged—instead of the obviously fictionalized version portrayed in the film—people can consult Marie Brenner’s book Richard Jewell: And Other Tales of Heroes, Scoundrels, and Renegades, based on her 1997 Vanity Fair article; and The Suspect, mentioned above.

The Social Threat of Richard Jewell

In addition to the potential harm to Scruggs’s memory, several critics have expressed concern about presumed social consequences of the film, suggesting, for example that Richard Jewell could potentially change the way Americans think about journalism (and female journalists in particular), as well as undermine public confidence in investigative institutions such as the FBI.

There is of course a long history of fears about the consequences of fictional entertainment on society. I’ve previously written about many examples, such as the concern that the 50 Shades of Grey book and film franchise would lead to harmful real-world effects, and that the horror film Orphan, about a murderous dwarf posing as a young girl, would literally lead to a decline in international adoptions. Do heavy metal music, role-playing games, and “occult” Halloween costumes lead to Satanism and drug use? Does exposure to pornography lead to increased sexual assault? Does seeing Richard Jewell decrease trust in journalism and the FBI? All these are (or were) plausible claims to many.

The public need not turn to a fictional film—depicting events that happened nearly 25 years ago—to find reasons to be concerned with the conduct of (today’s) Federal Bureau of Investigations. Earlier this month, a story on the front page of The New York Times reported that “The Justice Department’s inspector general… painted a bleak portrait of the F.B.I. as a dysfunctional agency that severely mishandled its surveillance powers in the Russia investigation, but told lawmakers he had no evidence that the mistakes were intentional or undertaken out of political bias rather than ‘gross incompetence and negligence.’”

No one would suggest that fictional entertainment have no effect at all on society, of course—there are clear examples of copycat acts, for example—and the topic of media effects is far beyond the scope here. I’ll just note that the claim that Richard Jewell (or any other film) affects public opinions about its subjects is a testable hypothesis, and could be measured using pre- and post-exposure measures such as questionnaires. This would be an interesting topic to explore, and of course it’s much easier to simply assume that a film has a specific effects than to go to the considerable time, trouble, and expense of actually testing it. Who needs all the hassle of creating and implementing a scientific research design (and tackling thorny causation issues) when you can just baldly assert and assume that they do?

There are certainly valid reasons to criticize the film, including its treatment of Scruggs, the FBI, and Jewell himself (who is also not alive to comment or defend himself). Good films provoke conversation, and those conversations should be informed by facts and thoughtful analysis instead of knee-jerk reactions and unsupported assumptions. Richard Jewell is a moving, important, and powerful film about a rush to judge and an otherwise ordinary guy—flawed and imperfect, just like the rest of us—who was demonized by institutional indifference and a slew of well-meaning but self-serving people in power.

 

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

 

Jan 222020
 

A June 6, 2018, article from ChurchandState.org titled “Propaganda Works – 58 Percent of Republicans Believe Education Is Bad” was shared on social media by liberals and Democrats, gleeful that their assumptions about conservative anti-intellectualism had been borne out in objective, quantifiable data from a respected polling organization.

The widely-shared article states that “Fox News, like Republicans and Trump, could never succeed as an ultra-conservative propaganda outlet without an ignorant population. The only way to continue having success at propagandizing is convincing Americans that being educated and informed is detrimental to the nation and its citizens; something Fox and Republicans have been very successful at over the past two years. The idea that education is bad for the country is contrary to the belief of the Declaration of Independence’s author, Founding Father and third American President Thomas Jefferson…. Obviously, the current administration and the Republican Party it represents wholly disagrees with the concept of a well-educated citizenry, or that it is beneficial to America if the populace is educated and informed. Likely because the less educated the people are, the more electoral support Republicans enjoy and the more success Trump has as the ultimate purveyor of ‘fake news.’”

There are a few things to unpack here. The first is that, like UFO coverups, this blanket anti-education effort allegedly spans many administrations and generations. Democrat and Republican alike are allegedly participants in this institutional conspiracy. The effects of Republican education cuts would not be seen in general education levels for years—if at all—and thus any “benefit” to keeping the public ignorant would of course boost the goals of future Democratic presidents and administrations as well. If true, it’s heartening to see this common ground and shared agenda between otherwise deeply polarized political parties.

Americans are in fact better educated than at any other time in history. In July 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau revealed that 90% of Americans twenty-five and older completed at least high school—an all-time high and a remarkable increase from 24% in 1940. Education has risen dramatically in the population as a whole, across genders, races, and economic statuses. In 1940, 3.8% of women and 5.5% of men had completed four years or more of college; by 2018 it was 35.3% for women and 34.6% for men. The United States spends $706 billion on education, according to the U.S. Department of Education (2019), which comes to about $13,850 per public school student. Not only does the government provide free, mandatory grade school education, but it also offers low-interest student loans for those who wish to pursue higher education. All this is puzzling behavior for a government that wants to keep its citizens ignorant, but perhaps someone didn’t get the memo. I discussed—and debunked—this idea in my recent column in Skeptical Inquirer magazine (see “Is America a Sheeple Factory?” in the January/February 2020 issue).

The article states, “Seriously, it is beyond the pale that anyone in this country thinks education is bad for America, but nearly 60 percent of Republicans is a mind boggling number. It is not entirely unexpected, but it is stunning that they have no issue telling a pollster that they believe education is a negative for the country.”

It seems damning indeed… but did 60% of Republicans really tell pollsters that? As always, it’s best to consult original sources, and in this case we can easily look at the Pew poll to find out. The question the 2017 Pew poll asked was not “Do you believe education is bad?,” but instead “Do you believe that _____ (colleges and universities / churches / labor unions / banks / news media) have a positive or negative effect on the country?”

These are, obviously, very different measures; you can’t generalize “colleges and universities” to “education” and “having a negative effect on the country” to “bad.” If you’re going to report on how people respond to certain questions in a poll or survey, you can’t retroactively change the question—even slightly—and keep the same results. That is, in a word, misleading and dishonest. Curiously, the fact that one in five Democrats (and left-leaning independents) believed that higher education has a negative effect on the country was completely ignored. That’s a third the number of Republicans who responded that way, but still a surprisingly high rate for self-identified social progressives (depending, of course, on how they interpreted the question).

I have often written about the perils of bad journalism in reporting poll and survey results. Having researched and written about misleading polls and news articles on many topics, including hatred of transgendered people (see, for example, my article  “Do 60% Of People Misgender Trans People To Insult Them?”); Holocaust denial (see, for example, my article “Holocaust Denial Headlines: Hatred, Ignorance, Or Innumeracy?”); I also recently debunked an article by Global News reporter Josh K. Elliott who wrote an article falsely claiming that “Nearly 50% of Canadians Think Racist Thoughts Are Normal.”

A closer look at this poll finds that the most likely reason for this response is not that Republicans think education is inherently bad (as the headline suggests) but instead that colleges and universities (which is what the question asked about) are bastions of liberal politics. (The original piece eventually and briefly acknowledges that—contrary to its clickbait headline—Republicans don’t actually think education is inherently bad.)

One recent example is Tennessee senator Kerry Roberts, who on a conservative radio talk show stated that higher education should be eliminated because it would cut off the “breeding ground” of ideas, a proposal that he said would “save America.” When asked about his comments Roberts later stated that “his listeners understood it was hyperbole” and that he was “was clearly joking” in his comments that eliminating higher education would save the country from ruin. Sen. Roberts has neither proposed nor supported any legislation that would in fact eliminate higher education. He said, however, that he absolutely stood by his criticism of American liberal arts education “one hundred percent.” So it’s pretty clear both that: a) he was indeed joking about wanting to abolish higher education in America (and that his words were mischaracterized for political gain, a routine occurrence); and b) that nevertheless he does believe that colleges and universities spawn liberal beliefs anathema to his own.

There is a very real and demonstrable anti-education and anti-science streak among many conservatives, on topics ranging from creationism to medical research (see for example, Chris Mooney’s book The Republican War on Science). But this headline is not clear evidence of that.

While it may be fun for liberals and progressives to paint conservatives as inherently opposed to education, doing so creates an intellectually dishonest straw man fallacy. It is also ultimately counterproductive, obscuring the real forces behind those beliefs. If you approach the subject wrongly believing that many Republicans fundamentally disapprove of the idea of education, then you will badly misunderstand the problem. You can’t hope to meaningfully address a problem if you’re operating on flawed assumptions.

The marketplace of ideas is served when data and polls are presented honestly, and opposing views are portrayed fairly. Skepticism and media literacy are more important than ever, so check your sources—especially when you agree with the message—to avoid sharing misinformation.

 

A version of this article first appeared on my Center for Inquiry blog; you can see it HERE. 

Jan 182020
 

The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out, it’s “The Head Show!” It’s all about heads–too many and too few. Folklore about multi-headed or headless monsters, multi-headed people throughout history, beheadings, experiments on heads, and shrunken heads. Oh, and the frozen head of Walt Disney, of course. Heads up!

 

You can find it HERE!

 

Jan 122020
 

Human rights advocate Dr. Leo Igwe joins us to discuss the dangers posed by so-called “witch hunters” in his home nation of Nigeria and other parts of Africa today. He discusses the entrenched nature of magical beliefs in the region, as well as the complicated power structure that props up those who call out fellow citizens as witches. Religions brought from Europe now play into the mix, with Islam and Christianity working alongside traditional beliefs; witch hunters are often pastors or church leaders, solidifying their power further. Victims are often powerless–the elderly, disabled, or children–and once accused they must run for their lives, abandoned by family and often the state authorities as well. Dr. Igwe talks about the challenges of getting the message across to international agencies and the UN, whose members are sometimes hesitant to speak out against these atrocities for fear of seeming racist or Islamophobic, a trend Igwe decries as stifling critical debate and much-needed open dialogue.  

 

Please check out this important topic; you can listen to it HERE. 

Jan 012020
 

I have a new book out! Or at least some contributions in a new book: Imagining the End: The Apocalypse in American Pop Culture. I wrote several sections including on the Antichrist, the Mark of the Beast, the Rapture, Latter-Day Saints Prophecy, and more. 

 

You can see more about 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! 

 

 

 

Dec 282019
 

In a previous blog I discussed my research into an ugly episode of racial hatred that tainted the 2016 holiday season. The Mall of America hired its first African-American Santa Claus, an Army veteran named Larry Jefferson. A local newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, carried a story about it on Dec. 1. Later that night an editorial page editor for the Tribune, Scott Gillespie, tweeted: “Looks like we had to turn comments off on story about Mall of America’s first black Santa. Merry Christmas everyone!” Overnight and the next morning his tweet went viral and served as the basis for countless news stories with headlines such as “Paper Forced to Close Comments On Mall Of America’s First Black Santa Thanks to Racism” (Jezebel) and “Racists Freak Out Over Black Santa At Mall Of America” (Huffington Post).

George Takei responded the next day via Twitter: “Watching people meltdown over a black Santa in the Mall of America. ‘Santa is white!’ Well, in our internment camp he was Asian. So there.” It was also mocked by Trevor Noah on Comedy Central, and elsewhere.

Yet every major news outlet missed the real story. They failed to check facts. My research (including an interview with Gillespie) eventually revealed that the racial incident never actually occurred, and that–despite public opinion and nearly two million news articles to the contrary–the Star Tribune did not receive a single hate-filled message in the comments section of its story on Jefferson. What happened was the product of a series of misunderstandings and a lack of fact-checking, fueled in part by confirmation bias and amplified by the digital age (for a detailed look at the case see my CFI blog “The True, Heartwarming Story of the Mall of America’s Black Santa.”)

I’ve been writing about journalism errors and media literacy for two decades (including in my book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us), and usually there’s relatively little pushback (except, perhaps, from journalists reluctant to acknowledge errors). However a curious part of this story was the criticism I received on social media for even researching it. Perhaps the best example was when I responded to a post about the initial story on a fellow skeptic’s Facebook page. She and all of her friends on the thread took the erroneous news story at face value (which didn’t surprise me, as virtually everyone did) but what did surprise me was the suggestion that trying to uncover the truth was unseemly or even “a distraction tactic.”

One person wrote, “I actually can’t believe that a self proclaimed skeptic is even having this argument in a country that just elected Donald Trump. It’s not skepticism when it disregards the proven fact that a great deal of the country, enough to elect a president, are straight up racist.” Of course I never questioned whether many or most Americans were racist. My question was very specific, clear, and about the factual basis for this one specific incident. Neither Trump’s election nor the existence of racism in America are relevant to whether or not the Tribune had to shut down its comments section in response to a deluge of hatred against a black Santa.

The ‘Distraction’ Tactic

One person wrote that me asking how many people objected to the black Santa was “a distraction tactic–now we can talk about how most people are not racist and change the subject from racism.” I was stunned. I had no idea that asking if anyone knew how many people complained would or could be construed as somehow trying to distract people (from what to what?). I replied, “Trying to quantify and understand an issue is not a ‘distraction tactic.’ I have no interest in distracting anyone from anything.’” No one–and certainly not me–was suggesting that a certain number of racists upset over a black Santa was okay or acceptable. I never suggested or implied that if it was “only” ten or twenty or a hundred, that everyone should be fine with it.

But knowing the scope of the issue does help us understand the problem: Is it really irrelevant whether there were zero, ten, or ten thousand racist commenters? If Trump can be widely (and rightly) criticized for exaggerating the crowd at his inauguration speech as “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration–period” when in fact it was several orders of magnitude smaller, why is asking how many people complained about a mall Santa so beyond the pale?

Usually when I encounter claims of investigating being a distraction in my research it was itself a distraction tactic, an attempt to head off inquiry that might debunk a claim or show that some assumption or conclusion was made in error–not unlike the Wizard of Oz pleading for Dorothy and her gang not to look behind the curtain. (“Why are you asking questions about where I suddenly got this important UFO-related document?” or “Asking for evidence of my faith healer’s miracle healings is just a distraction from his holy mission” doesn’t deter any journalist or skeptic worth his or her salt.) If a claim is valid and factual, there’s no reason why anyone would object to confirming that; as Thomas Paine noted, “It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry.”

I tried to remember where else I’d heard the phrase used, when someone who was asked about something called the questions a “distraction.” Finally I realized where that tactic had become common: In the Trump administration. When Donald Trump was asked about a leaked Access Hollywood recording of him bragging about groping women sexually, he dismissed the questions–and indeed the entire issue–as “nothing more than a distraction from the important issues we’re facing today.”

Similarly, when Vice-President Pence was asked in January 2017 about whether the Trump campaign had any contacts with Russia during the campaign, he replied, “This is all a distraction, and it’s all part of a narrative to delegitimize the election.” Others in the Trump administration (including White House spokespeople) have repeatedly waved off journalists’ questions as distractions as well.

This is not particularly surprising, but it was odd to see some of my most virulent anti-Trump friends (and Facebook Friends) using and embracing exactly the same tactics Trump does to discourage questions.

There is one important difference: In my judgment Trump and his surrogates use the tactic cynically (knowing full well that the issues and questions being asked are legitimate), while those who criticized me were using the tactic sincerely; being charitable, I have no reason to think that they realized that the black Santa story and reportage had been widely (if not universally) misunderstood. But the intention and effect were the same: An attempt to discourage someone from looking beyond the surface to see what’s really going on, and attempt to separate truth from fact.

Importance of Due Diligence

A recent news story highlights the value and importance of bringing at least some skepticism to claims: Recently a woman approached reporters at The Washington Post with a potentially explosive story: that embattled Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore had impregnated her as a teenager and forced her to have an abortion. This would of course be a potentially devastating revelation for the conservative Moore, already under fire for dating (and allegedly sexually assaulting) teenagers.

According to the Post, “In a series of interviews over two weeks, the woman [Jaime T. Phillips] shared a dramatic story about an alleged sexual relationship with Moore in 1992 that led to an abortion when she was 15. During the interviews, she repeatedly pressed Post reporters to give their opinions on the effects that her claims could have on Moore’s candidacy if she went public. The Post did not publish an article based on her unsubstantiated account. When Post reporters confronted her with inconsistencies in her story and an Internet posting that raised doubts about her motivations, she insisted that she was not working with any organization that targets journalists. Monday morning, Post reporters saw her walking into the New York offices of Project Veritas, an organization that targets the mainstream news media and left-leaning groups. The organization sets up undercover ‘stings’ that involve using false cover stories and covert video recordings meant to expose what the group says is media bias.”

The Post reporter, Beth Reinhard, “explained to Phillips that her claims would have to be fact-checked. Additionally, Reinhard asked her for documents that would corroborate or support her story.” Reinhard and the Washington Post did not ask for evidence to establish the truth of Phillips’s account because they doubted that sexual assaults occur, or that Phillips may indeed have been sexually assaulted by Moore–in fact quite the opposite, since the Post was the first to break the story and publish accusations by Moore’s accusers–but instead because they were doing their due diligence as journalists. Investigative journalists and skeptics don’t question claims and ask for evidence because they necessarily doubt what they’re being told; they do it because they want to be sure they understand the facts.

Had The Washington Post not questioned the story–or been deterred by accusations that trying to establish the truth of Phillips’s claims was some sort of “distraction” tactic–the paper’s credibility would have been damaged when Phillips’s false accusation would have quickly been revealed, and the Post’s failure to do basic research used to cast doubt on the previous women’s accusations against Moore. Martin Baron, the Post‘s executive editor, said that the false accusations were “the essence of a scheme to deceive and embarrass us. The intent by Project Veritas clearly was to publicize the conversation if we fell for the trap. Because of our customary journalistic rigor, we weren’t fooled.”

What Happened?

There are several critical thinking and media literacy failures here. Perhaps the most basic is where the burden of proof lies: with the person making the claim. In fact I wasn’t making a claim at all; I was merely asking for evidence of a widely-reported claim. I honestly had no idea how many or how few Tribune readers had complained about Jefferson, and I wouldn’t have even thought to question it if Gillespie hadn’t issued a tweet that contradicted the thesis of the then-viral news story.

The black Santa outrage story is full of assumptions, mostly about the bad intentions of other people. To the best of my knowledge I’m the only person who dug deeper into the story to uncover what really happened–and for that I was told that I was causing a “distraction” and even hints that I had some unspecified unseemly motive.

It’s also important to understand why a person’s questions are being challenged in the first place. It’s often due to tribalism and a lack of charity. CSCIOP cofounder Ray Hyman, in his influential short piece titled “Proper Criticism discusses eight principles including the principle of charity. “The principle of charity implies that, whenever there is doubt or ambiguity about a paranormal claim, we should try to resolve the ambiguity in favor of the claimant until we acquire strong reasons for not doing so. In this respect, we should carefully distinguish between being wrong and being dishonest. We often can challenge the accuracy or validity of a given paranormal claim. But rarely are we in a position to know if the claimant is deliberately lying or is self-deceived. Furthermore, we often have a choice in how to interpret or represent an opponent’s arguments. The principle tell us to convey the opponent’s position in a fair, objective, and non-emotional manner.”

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.

But to most people who don’t have a background in critical thinking, journalism, skepticism, or media literacy, asking for evidence is akin to a challenge to their honesty. Theirs is a world in which personal experience and anecdote are self-evidently more reliable than facts and evidence. And it’s also a world in which much of the time when claims are questioned, it’s in the context of confrontation. To a person invested in the truth of a given narrative, any information that seems to confirm that idea is much more easily seen and remembered than information contradicting the idea; that’s the principle of confirmation bias. Similarly, when a person shares information on social media it’s often because they endorse the larger message or narrative, and they get upset if that narrative is questioned or challenged. From a psychological point of view, this heuristic is often accurate: Much or most of the time when a person’s statement or claim is challenged (in informal settings or social media for example), the person asking the question does indeed have a vested interest.

The problem is when the person does 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?

My efforts to research and understand this story were borne not of any doubt that racism exists, nor that Jefferson was subjected to it, but instead of a background in media literacy and a desire to reconcile two contradictory accounts about what happened. Outrage-provoking stories on social media–especially viral ones based on a single, unconfirmed informal tweet– should concern all of us in this age of misinformation and “fake news.”

The real tragedy in this case is what was done to Larry Jefferson, whose role as the Mall of America’s first black Santa has been tainted by this social media-created controversy. Instead of being remembered for bringing hope, love, and peace to girls and boys, he will forever be known for enduring a (fictional) deluge of bilious racist hatred.

The fact that Jefferson was bombarded by love and support from the general public (and most whites) should offer hope and comfort this holiday season. A few anonymous cranks, trolls, and racists complained on social media posts from the safety of their keyboards, but there was very little backlash–and certainly nothing resembling what the sensational headlines originally suggested.

The true story of Jefferson’s stint as Santa is diametrically the opposite of what most people believe: He was greeted warmly and embraced by people of all colors and faiths as the Mall of America’s first black Santa. I understand that “Black Santa Warmly Welcomed by Virtually Everyone” isn’t a headline that any news organization is going to see as newsworthy or eagerly promote, nor would it go viral. But it’s the truth–and the truth matters.

This piece appeared in a slightly different form in my Center for Inquiry blog. 

 

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

Dec 242019
 

Amid the encroaching commercialization of Christmas, Black Friday sales, and annual social media grumblings about the manufactured controversy over whether “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” is appropriate, an ugly episode of racial hatred tainted the beginning of the 2016 holiday season.

blacksantatweet

It began when the Mall of America hired a jolly bearded man named Larry Jefferson as one of its Santas. Jefferson, a retired Army veteran, is black–a fact that most kids and their parents neither noticed nor cared about. The crucial issue for kids was whether a Playstation might be on its way or some Plants vs. Zombies merchandise was in the cards given the particular child’s status on Santa’s naughty-or-nice list. The important thing for parents was whether their kids were delighted by the Santa, and all evidence suggests that the answer was an enthusiastic Yes. “What [the children] see most of the time is this red suit and candy,” Jefferson said in an interview. “[Santa represents] a good spirit. I’m just a messenger to bring hope, love, and peace to girls and boys.”

The fact that Santa could be African-American seemed self-evident (and either an encouraging sign or a non-issue) for all who encountered him. Few if any people at the Mall of America made any negative or racist comments. It was, after all, a self-selected group; any parents who might harbor reservations about Jefferson simply wouldn’t wait in line with their kids to see him and instead go somewhere else or wait for another Santa. Like anything that involves personal choice, people who don’t like something (a news outlet, brand of coffee, or anything else) will simply go somewhere else–not erupt in protest that it’s available to those who want it.

However a black Santa was a first for that particular mall, and understandably made the news. On December 1 the local newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, carried a story by Liz Sawyer titled “Mall of America Welcomes Its First Black Santa.

Scott Gillespie, the editorial page editor for the Tribune, tweeted later that night (at 9:47 PM): “Looks like we had to turn comments off on story about Mall of America’s first black Santa. Merry Christmas everyone!” The tweet’s meaning seemed both clear and disappointing: On a story that the Star Tribune posted about an African-American Santa, the racial hostility got so pervasive in the comments section that they had to put an end to it, out of respect for Jefferson and/or Star Tribune readers. He ended with a sad and sarcastic, “Merry Christmas” and sent the tweet into cyberspace.

Overnight and the next morning his tweet went viral and served as the basis for countless news stories with titles such as “Paper Forced to Close Comments On Mall Of America’s First Black Santa Thanks to Racism” (Jezebel); “Santa is WHITE. BOYCOTT Mall of America’: Online Racists Are Having a Meltdown over Mall’s Black Santa” (RawStory); “Racists Freak Out Over Black Santa At Mall Of America” (Huffington Post); “Mall of America Hires Its First Black Santa, Racists of the Internet Lose It” (Mic.com), and so on. If you spend any time on social media you get the idea. It was just another confirmation of America’s abysmal race relations.

There’s only one problem: It didn’t happen.

At 1:25 PM the following day Gillespie, after seeing the stories about the scope and nature of the racist backlash the Tribune faced, reversed himself in a follow-up tweet. Instead of “we had to turn off comments,” Gillespie stated that the commenting was never opened for that article in the first place: “Comments were not allowed based on past practice w/stories w/racial elements. Great comments on FB & Instagram, though.”

This raised some questions for me: If the comments had never been opened on the story, then how could there have been a flood of racist comments? Where did that information come from? How many racist comments did the paper actually get? Fewer than a dozen? Hundreds? Thousands? Something didn’t add up about the story, and as a media literacy educator and journalist I felt it was important to understand the genesis of this story.

It can serve as an object lesson and help the public understand the role of confirmation bias, unwarranted assumptions, and failure to apply skepticism. In this era of attacks on “fake news” it’s important to distinguish intentional misinformation from what might be simply a series of mistakes and assumptions.

While I have no doubt that the Tribune story on Jefferson would likely have been the target of some racist comments at some point, the fact remains that the main point of Gillespie’s tweet was false: the Tribune had not in fact been forced to shut down the comments on its piece about the Mall of America’s black Santa because of a deluge of racist comments. That false information was the centerpiece of the subsequent stories about the incident.

The idea that some might be upset about the topic is plausible; after all, the question of a black Santa had come up a few times in the news and social media (perhaps most notably Fox News’s Megyn Kelly’s infamous incredulity at the notion three years earlier–which she later described as an offhand jest). Racist, sexist, and otherwise obnoxious comments are common in the comments section of many articles online on any number of subjects, and are not generally newsworthy. There were of course some racists and trolls commenting on the secondary stories about the Star Tribune‘s shutting down its comment section due to racist outrage (RawStory collected about a dozen drawn from social media), but fact remains that the incident at the center of the controversy that spawned outrage across social media simply did not happen.

A few journalists added clarifications and corrections to the story after reading Gillespie’s second tweet or being contacted by him. The Huffington Post, for example, added at the bottom of its story: “CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to reflect that the Minneapolis Star Tribune‘s comment section was turned off when the story was published, not in response to negative comments.” But most journalists didn’t, and as of this writing nearly two million news articles still give a misleading take on the incident.

The secondary news reports could not, of course, quote from the original non-existent rage-filled comments section in the Star Tribune, so they began quoting from their own comments sections and those of other news media. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy, wherein the worst comments from hundreds of blogs and websites were then selected and quoted, generating another round of comments. Many people saw racist comments about the story and assumed that they had been taken from the Star Tribune page at the center of the story, and couldn’t be sure if they were responding to the original outrage or the secondary outrage generated by the first outrage. As with those drawn to see and celebrate Jefferson as the mall’s first black Santa, this was also a self-selected group of people–namely those who were attracted to a racially charged headline and had some emotional stake in the controversy, enough to read about it and comment on it.

Unpacking the Reporting

I contacted Gillespie and he kindly clarified what happened and how his tweet inadvertently caused some of the world’s most prominent news organizations to report on an ugly racial incident that never occurred.

Gillespie–whose beat is the opinion and editorial page–was at home on the evening of December 1 and decided to peruse his newspaper’s website. He saw the story about Larry Jefferson and clicked on it to see if the black Santa story was getting any comments. He noticed that there were no comments at all and assumed that the Star Tribune‘s web moderators had shut them off due to inflammatory posts, as had happened occasionally on previous stories.

Understandably irritated and dismayed, he tweeted about it and went to bed, thinking no more of it. The next day he went into work and a colleague noticed that his tweet had been widely shared (his most shared post on social media ever) and asked him about it. Gillespie then spoke with the newspaper’s web moderators, who informed him that the comments had never been turned on for that particular post–a practice at the newspaper for articles on potentially sensitive subjects such as race and politics, but also applied to many other topics that a moderator for whatever reason thinks might generate comments that may be counterproductive.

“I didn’t know why the comments were off,” he told me. “In this case I assumed we followed past practices” about removing inflammatory comments. It was a not-unreasonable assumption that in this case just happened to be wrong. Gillespie noted during our conversation that a then-breaking Star Tribune story about the death of a 2-year-old girl at a St. Paul foster home also had its commenting section disabled–presumably not in anticipation of a deluge of racist or hateful comments.

“People thought–and I can see why, since I have the title of editorial page editor–that I must know what I’m talking about [in terms of web moderation],” Gillespie said. He was commenting on a topic about his newspaper but outside his purview, and to many his tweet was interpreted as an official statement and explanation of why comments did not appear on the black Santa story.

When Gillespie realized that many (at that time dozens and, ultimately, millions) of news stories were (wrongly) reporting that the Star Tribune‘s comments section had been shut down in response to racist comments based solely on his (admittedly premature and poorly phrased) Dec. 1 tweet, he tried to get in touch with some of the journalists to correct the record (hence the Huffington Post clarification), but by that time the story had gone viral and the ship of fools had sailed. The best he could do was issue a second tweet trying to clarify the situation, which he did.

“I can see why people would jump to the conclusion they did,” he told me. Gillespie is apologetic and accepts responsibility for his role in creating the black Santa outrage story, and it seems clear that his tweet was not intended as an attempt at race-baiting for clicks.

In the spirit of Christmas maybe one lesson to take from this case is charity. Instead of assuming the worst about someone or their intentions, give them the benefit of the doubt. Assuming the worst about other people runs all through this story. Gillespie assumed that racists deluged his newspaper with racist hate, as did the public. The web moderator(s) at the Star Tribune who chose not to open the comments on the Santa story may (or may not) have assumed that they were pre-empting a deluge of racism (which may or may not have in fact followed). I myself was assumed to have unsavory and ulterior motives for even asking journalistic questions about this incident (a topic I’ll cover next week).

In the end there are no villains here (except for the relative handful of racists and trolls who predictably commented on the secondary stories). What happened was the product of a series of understandable misunderstandings and mistakes, fueled in part by confirmation bias and amplified by the digital age.

The Good News

Gillespie and I agreed that this is, when fact and fiction are separated, a good news story. As noted, Gillespie initially assumed that the newspaper’s moderators had been inundated with hostile and racist comments, and finally turned the comments off after having to wade through the flood of hateful garbage comments to find and approve the positive ones. He need not have feared, because exactly the opposite occurred: Gillespie said that the Star Tribune was instead flooded with positive comments applauding Jefferson as the Mall of America’s first black Santa (he referenced this in his Dec. 2 tweet). The tiny minority of nasty comments were drowned out by holiday cheer and goodwill toward men–of any color. He echoed Jefferson, who in a December 9 NPR interview said that the racist comments he heard were “only a small percentage” of the reaction, and he was overwhelmed by support from the community.

The fact that Jefferson was bombarded by love and support from the general public (and most whites) should offer hope and comfort. Gillespie said that he had expected people to attack and criticize the Mall of America for succumbing to political correctness, but the imagined hordes of white nationalists never appeared. A few anonymous cranks and racists complained on social media posts from the safety of their keyboards, but there was very little backlash–and certainly nothing resembling what the sensational headlines originally suggested.

The real tragedy is what was done to Larry Jefferson, whose role as the Mall of America’s first black Santa has been tainted by this social media-created controversy. Instead of being remembered for, as he said, bringing “hope, love, and peace to girls and boys,” he will forever be known for enduring a (fictional) deluge of bilious racist hatred. The true story of Jefferson’s stint as Santa is diametrically the opposite of what most people believe: He was greeted warmly and embraced by people of all colors and faiths as the Mall of America’s first black Santa.

Some may try to justify their coverage of the story by saying that even though in this particular case Jefferson was not in fact inundated with racist hate, it still symbolizes a very real problem and was therefore worthy of reporting if it raised awareness of the issue. The Trump administration adopted this tactic earlier this week 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 did not happen as portrayed and described), but 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.”

This disregard for truth has been a prominent theme in the Trump administration. Yes, some tiny minority of Muslims are terrorists; no one denies that, but that does not legitimize the sharing of bogus information as examples supposedly illustrating the problem. Similarly, yes, some tiny minority of Americans took exception to Jefferson as a black Santa, but that does not legitimize sharing false information about how a newspaper had to shut down its comments because of racist rage. There are enough real-life examples of hatred and intolerance that we need not invent new ones.

In this Grinchian and cynical ends-justifies-the-means worldview, there is no such thing as good news and the import of every event is determined by how it can be used to promote a given narrative or social agenda–truth be damned.

I understand that “Black Santa Warmly Welcomed by Virtually Everyone” isn’t a headline that any news organization is going to see as newsworthy or eagerly promote, nor would it go viral. But it’s the truth.

Merry Christmas.

 

This piece originally appeared on my Center for Inquiry blog in 2017; you can see it HERE! 

 

 

Dec 122019
 

Celestia and I are especially pleased with a recent episode of Squaring the Strange, in which we spoke to Leo Igwe, the tireless skeptic, humanist, and human rights advocate in Nigeria. His work on behalf of people persecuted as witches in sub-Saharan Africa is both daunting and vitally important. Skepticism and critical thinking can sometimes mean the difference between life and death.

Human rights advocate Dr. Leo Igwe joins us to discuss the dangers posed by so-called “witch hunters” in his home nation of Nigeria and other parts of Africa today. He discusses the entrenched nature of magical beliefs in the region, as well as the complicated power structure that props up those who call out fellow citizens as witches. Religions brought from Europe now play into the mix, with Islam and Christianity working alongside traditional beliefs; witch hunters are often pastors or church leaders, solidifying their power further. Victims are often powerless–the elderly, disabled, or children–and once accused they must run for their lives, abandoned by family and often the state authorities as well. Dr. Igwe talks about the challenges of getting the message across to international agencies and the UN, whose members are sometimes hesitant to speak out against these atrocities for fear of seeming racist or Islamophobic, a trend Igwe decries as stifling critical debate and much-needed open dialogue.  

Please check it out, you can listen HERE. 

Dec 072019
 

The issue of racism in Canada was recently brought into sharp focus when, shortly before the Canadian election, photos and videos of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in blackface and brownface emerged. They had been taken on at least three occasions in the 1990s and early 2000s. Trudeau—widely praised for his socially progressive agendas—quickly apologized and promised to do better. 

Trudeau’s repeated use of blackface (and his subsequent re-election despite public knowledge of it) angered many and left Canadians wondering just how common racism is in their country. Veteran hockey commentator Don Cherry was recently fired by Sportsnet following contentious comments about immigrants. The broadcaster issued a statement that “Following further discussions with Don Cherry after Saturday night’s broadcast, it has been decided that it is the right time for him to immediately step down. During the broadcast, he made divisive remarks that do not represent our values or what we stand for.” 

Americans—and the Trump administration specifically—are often characterized as inherently racist; New York Times writer Brent Staples, for example, wrote on Twitter (on January 12, 2018) that “Racism and xenophobia are as American as apple pie.” Whether racism and xenophobia are as Canadian as poutine is of course another question. Earlier this year, on May 21, 2019, Canadian news organization Global News reported on a survey that seemed to shed light on that question. The article was titled “Nearly 50% of Canadians Think Racist Thoughts Are Normal: Ipsos poll.” 

The article began, “Almost half of Canadians will admit to having racist thoughts, and more feel comfortable expressing them today than in years past, a new Ipsos poll reveals … The poll, conducted exclusively for Global News, found that 47 per cent of respondents thought racism was a serious problem in the country, down from 69 per cent in 1992. More than three-quarters of respondents said they were not racist, but many acknowledged having racist thoughts they did not share with others. (All of the Ipsos poll data is available online.) ‘We found that (almost) 50 per cent of Canadians believe it’s OK and actually normal to have racist thoughts,’ said Sean Simpson, vice-president of Ipsos Public Affairs.” 

Having researched and written about misleading polls and news articles on many topics, including hatred of transgendered people (see, for example, my article  “Do 60% Of People Misgender Trans People To Insult Them?”); Holocaust denial (see, for example, my article “Holocaust Denial Headlines: Hatred, Ignorance, Or Innumeracy?”); and even whether or not the public believes that Native Americans exist, something about that headline struck me as off. I didn’t necessarily doubt the statistic—racism is a serious problem in Canada, America, and elsewhere—but my journalistic skeptical sense urged a closer look. The poll was conducted between April 8 and 10, 2019, sampling 1,002 Canadian adults and had a margin of error of ±3.5 percent. 

I clicked through the link to the original poll by the Ipsos organization. Their About Us page explains that “In our world of rapid change, the need for reliable information to make confident decisions has never been greater. At Ipsos we believe our clients need more than a data supplier, they need a partner who can produce accurate and relevant information and turn it into actionable truth.” 

The Ipsos page referencing the poll displayed a large headline “Nearly half (47%) of Canadians think racism is a serious problem in Canada today, down 22 points since 1992 (69%).” Just below this, in much smaller size, was the line “Even so, almost half (49%) admit to having racist thoughts.” 

That seemed to provide a clue, as of course 49 percent may be the “nearly half” referred to in the Global News headline, but I noticed that the wording had changed: The headline stated that about half of “Canadians think racist thoughts are normal”—not that half of Canadians say they have racist thoughts. Just because you acknowledge having a racist thought does not logically mean that you think it’s “normal” or acceptable to do so; plenty of surveys and polls ask about socially and morally unacceptable behavior, ranging from infidelity to murder (a 2018 survey in Japan found that more than one in four Japanese workers admitted that the thought of killing their boss had crossed their mind on at least one occasion). 

But I know that sometimes headlines are misleading, and I assumed that the statistic was contained in the poll. Many people of course don’t read past the headline; of those who do read the full article, very few will bother to click on the link to the polling organization’s data page; even fewer will actually open the original report; of those who do, most will read only the executive summary or highlights section. Vanishingly few people—if anyone—will read the full report. 

This is understandable, as audiences naturally assume that a journalist, news organization, or pollster is accurately reporting the results of a poll or survey. If a news headline says that 40 percent of hockey fans drink beer during games or 85 percent of airplane pilots have college degrees, we assume that’s what the survey or research found. As I discuss in my media literacy book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us, that’s not always the case. 

Like a game of Telephone, each step away from the original findings may change (usually toward simplifying and/or sensationalizing) that information. Whether intentionally or accidentally, errors can creep in every time the data are explained, summarized, or “clarified.” Usually these changes are minor and go unnoticed, because of course a person would have to check the original report to catch any discrepancies. But now and then another journalist, pedant, or researcher will take the time to check and see that something’s amiss.

Because the poll is available online, I read through it. There were many questions about many facets of racism among the Canadian respondents, but I found no reference whatsoever to the statistic mentioned in the headline. I checked again and still found nothing. 

I reached out to the author of the piece, Global News Senior National Online Journalist Josh K. Elliott, and the author of the report, Sean Simpson, the Ipsos vice-president of public affairs, asking for clarifications, including which specific question item was referred to in the article. 

I wrote, in part:

I read through the original Ipsos report but was unable to find the poll results you referenced in the headline, and that Sean Simpson references in your quote. I did a document search for the specific term used, “normal,” assuming that it would appear in the survey question. I found three matches, on pages 3, 19, and 20, but in none of the cases was I able to find results suggesting that “nearly 50% of Canadians think racist thoughts are normal.”

I have been unable to find that data anywhere in the Ipsos report. The closest I could find was the statistic that half of Canadians say they sometimes have racist thoughts (Question 7). But of course just because you acknowledge having racist thoughts does not logically mean that you think it’s “normal” or acceptable to do so; plenty of surveys and polls ask about socially and morally unacceptable behavior, ranging from infidelity to murder. Question wording is of course critically important in interpreting polls and surveys, and I’m concerned that “having racist thought” was mistakenly mistranslated to “think it’s normal to have racist thought” in your piece. If that statistic appears in the Ipsos report cited, please direct me to it, either by question or page number. If that statistic does not appear in the report, please clarify where it came from. Thank you.  

After repeated inquiries, I was informed that Mr. Elliott no longer worked at that desk, but I got a response from Drew Hasselback, a copy editor at GlobalNews (and, eventually, a cursory and seemingly reluctant reply from Mr. Simpson).

I was directed to four questions that they said were used as the basis for the headline. I looked again at each of them.

• The first, Question 7.6, asks “To what extent do you agree or disagree that racism is a terrible thing?” In response, nearly nine in ten (88 percent) of Canadians agree that racism is terrible. It didn’t speak to whether Canadians think racist thoughts are normal, but if anything seemed to contradict the claim. 

• The second, Question 7.5, asked “To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following: I can confidently say that I am not racist.” Of those polled, over three quarters (78 percent) agree that they can confidently say they’re not racist. Again, this hardly suggests that racism is considered normal among the respondents, and it contradicts the reporting and the headline associated with it.

Frankly, I’m surprised the number is that high. Why might a minority of otherwise non-racist Canadians not be able to “confidently” say that they are not racist? In part because there is a presumption that everyone is racist, whether they realize it or not. This is a widely held view among many, especially progressives and liberals (it’s so common in fact that it serves as the basis for Question 7 in the poll). In other words, even if they sincerely and truly don’t consider themselves racist and have no racist thoughts ever, they would be reluctant to go so far as to state categorically and confidently to others that they are not at all racist. (You see the same issue with polls asking women if they would use the word beautiful to describe themselves; very few do, though they will call themselves prettyattractive, etc. Doing so is seen as vain, just as stating “I’m confident I’m not racist” would be considered by many to be boasting or virtue signaling.)

• The third was Question 7.3, which asks to what extent people agree or disagree with the statement, “While I sometimes think racist thoughts, I wouldn’t talk about them in public.” This, once again, does not support the news headline. It is vitally important when interpreting polls and surveys to parse out the precise question asked. Note that it is a compound question framed in a very specific way (asking about whether one would express a thought in public); the question was not “Do you sometimes think racist thoughts?” But even if it were, you cannot generalize “people sometimes do X” to “it’s normal for people to do X.” Merriam-Webster, for example, defines normal as “average” or “a widespread or usual practice.” Thus, a poll or survey question trying to capture the incidence of a normal behavior or event would use the word usually instead of sometimes

• Finally, we came Question 7.1, the only question that specifically uses the word normal and asks if Canadians agree that “It’s perfectly normal to be prejudiced against people of other races.” 

As I noted, this question and its response do not accurately capture the question of whether or not “X% of Canadians think racist thoughts are normal” (as the Global News headline reads), but even if it did, we find that the headline is still wrong. From this statistic alone, the correct headline would be “22% of Canadians think racist thoughts are normal”—which is less than half the number reported in the headline. About one in five whites and one in three minorities said that it’s normal to be prejudiced against people of other races, as did one in four men and one in five women. Instead of nearly half of Canadians thinking racism is normal, nearly 70 percent of Canadians disagreed that racial prejudice is normal

The Ipsos poll itself seems well-researched, sound, and contains important information. Unfortunately, its conclusions got mangled along the way. The question is not whether specific Canadians (such as Trudeau or Cherry) are racist but instead whether or not those views are widely held; it’s the difference between anecdote and data. 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. And, when possible, read the original research data. News reports, such as the one I’ve focused on here, leave the false impression that racism is more widespread and socially acceptable than it really is. Racism is a serious issue, and understanding its nature is vital to stemming it; indeed, as Iposos notes, “In our world of rapid change, the need for reliable information to make confident decisions has never been greater.” 

 

 

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 article has been adapted from my Center for Inquiry blog, available HERE. 

Dec 042019
 

Last month a Maine man made national news for finding tampered Halloween candy. He posted on social media that he found a needle in candy his son had bitten into. Police investigated and found he lied, hoaxing the whole thing (probably for attention).

He’s now been charged according to news reports

 

 

 

 

Nov 282019
 

I’m quoted in a new article by Rob Lea on Medium about why people see faces in everything from ghost photos to clouds to photos of the galaxy…

A collision of two galaxies of equal size 704-million-light-years from Earth has created what appears to be a ghostly visage staring through the cosmos. But, why do humans see images such as this in random data?

The haunting image of the collision that created the Arp-Madore system was captured on 19th June 2019 by the NASA/ESO operated Hubble Space Telescope.

Galactic collisions are quite common throughout the Universe — but the collision that formed Arp-Madore and its skull-like appearance is somewhat more unique. The collision in the question here was a head-on impact — if you’ll excuse the pun.

It was this violent collision that gave the system in question its striking face-like ring structure. The impact between the two galaxies also stretched the galaxies’ respective discs of gas, dust and stars outwards forming an area of intense star-formation that gives our phantom face its ‘nose,’ ‘jaws’ and other ‘facial features.’

Our phantom’s ‘eyes’ are also evidence of a rare occurrence. This glowing and penetrating stare is formed by the central bulges of the respective galaxies. The fact that they are of roughly the same size implies to astronomers that the two colliding galaxies were also of similar sizes.

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! 

Nov 202019
 

I’m quoted in a news article from Alabama.com about the Scary Clown Panic of 2016, and an Alabama woman sentenced to 10 years (later reduced to probation) for dressing as a clown and threatening to attack a school… It’s a very good overview of the topic, and a good follow-up story.

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! 

Oct 302019
 

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

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

1) Halloween is Satanic

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

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

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

2) Beware Tainted Halloween Candy

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

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

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

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

3) Beware Halloween Terrorists

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

4) Beware Sex Offenders on Halloween

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

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

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

5) Beware Scary Clowns

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

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

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

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

 

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

Oct 202019
 

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

You can find more information HERE!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Oct 182019
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to a news story,

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Oct 172019
 

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

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

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

The Dark Knight Shooting: A Closer Look

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

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

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

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

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

Enter the Joker?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psychology of Copycat Clowns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oct 082019
 

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

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

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

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

The Epistemology of Fake News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recycling Bad News

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

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

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

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

 

You can read the rest HERE!

Oct 042019
 

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

Here’s what Nerdist has to say:

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Check it out! 

 

Sep 282019
 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

Sep 252019
 

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

You can listen HERE! 

Sep 232019
 

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

Here’s an excerpt:

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

You can read the rest HERE! 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Sep 212019
 

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

 

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

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

 

Fig 1

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

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

Fig 2

Tracing the Social Media Abduction

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

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

 

A Closer Look

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

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

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

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

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

Fig 3

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

False Rumors Often Target Minorities

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

Fig 4

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

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

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

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

Sep 152019
 

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

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

 

Aug 152019
 

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

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

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

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

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

Racial Biases in Mass Shooting Coverage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

White vs. Black, Crazy vs. Terrorist?

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

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

Mental Health Tweet

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mental Health and Mass Shooters

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

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

Fridel table

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mass Shooters and the Mass Media 

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

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

As The New York Times reported:

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

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

 
Aug 122019
 

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

With the recent tragic attacks in El Paso and Dayton, the world once again turned its attention to mass shootings. It’s a subject that has captivated America for years with little progress in understanding the nature of the problem.

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

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

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

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

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

Different Types of Mass Shootings

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

 

Fridel cover ILLO
Fridel

 

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

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

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

 

Fridel table ILLO

 

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

More than 80 percent of all crime involves victims and perpetrators of the same race. Whites and African Americans of course can and do attack each other, but they are the exception, not the rule. As Lois Beckett noted in The Guardian:

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

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

Dueling Demographics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mass misinformation on mass shootings

 

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

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

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

Examining January 2019 Mass Shootings

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

GVA ILLO

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

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

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

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

Mislead meme ILLO

There Is No ‘Typical’ Mass Shooter

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

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

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

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

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

Reference

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

 

Part 3 will appear soon. 

Aug 102019
 

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

With the recent tragic attacks in Dayton and El Paso, the world once again turns its attention to mass shootings. It’s a subject that has captivated America for years, with little progress in understanding the nature of the problem.

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

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

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

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

How Common Are Mass Shootings?

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

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

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

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

So are mass shootings common or not?

Dueling Headlines

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

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

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

2015

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

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

2016

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

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

2017

mass shooting cbs headline

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

mass shooting common

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

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

Except that the numbers are misleading.

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

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

It was the 49th mass shooting of 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

WP mass shooting count
Screen capture from Ingraham article

Vice’s Mark Hay agrees:

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

Why Mass Shootings Seem More Common Than They Are

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

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

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

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

As The New York Times reported:

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

School Shootings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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