The new episode of our podcast Squaring the Strange is out! This time we discuss a short list of purported deathbed confessions. The last words of a consequential figure can be hijacked or twisted to fit agenda — or, sometimes, it’s not just the words that are made up, it’s the person too. From cautionary tales to urban legends, deathbed confessions are a peculiar branch of the folklore tree. There are also very real deathbed confessions that have solved mysteries, revealed crimes, or reversed a long-held position. Check it out!
I’m delighted to have contributed a chapter in this new book on the folklore of monsters! I haven’t read it yet but many of the other authors are brilliant friends and colleagues, and I’m looking forward to it. I also did the cover art!
New episode of Squaring the Strange is now out! After a brief discussion on the recent jailbreak (rock break?) of a Japanese nine-tailed fox demon and some thoughts on war rumors we talk about people who think they can talk to animals. Or people who think their animal can talk to them — psychically, of course.
Not the most compelling cover art, but I’m quoted in this new book from the Belgrade Institute for Literature and Arts. The subject, of all things, is my research into the Pokemon seizure panic of 1997.
The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! This week we discuss an old Satanic Panic dog learning some new tricks. Televangelist Bob Larson has turned to giving remote exorcisms via Skype and Zoom these past few years, and we speak with two people who have endured such events, as both participant and audience. JD Sword wrote a recent article about his strange (and underwhelming) experience with Larson exorcising a doll (or not), and Alisa Yang has turned her exorcism into a short-form documentary called “Sleeping with the Devil,” available on Vimeo now.
If—like most people—you’ve ever searched Wikipedia for skeptical topics, or looked there for topic covered by organized skepticism, chances are you’ve probably read some of Susan Gerbic’s work. She’s a (very) active member of the Center for Inquiry and the Independent Investigations Group. She’s also one of the driving forces behind trying to bring skepticism, balance, and critical thinking to the world’s most-used reference. In 2011 she responded to e-mailed questions from a secret bunker somewhere in California; this interview revisits that time, with a few updates. You can hear more from Susan on the podcast I co-host, Squaring the Strange, as well as YouTube. Susan and her colleagues have also garnered significant attention from the mainstream news media, including Wired, Medium, The New York Times magazine, and other places.
BR: What’s your background?
SG: Born and raised in Salinas, California, the youngest child of a youngest child. Professional portrait photographer for three decades, I specialize in people who do not want their portrait taken—which means the very young and the old and cranky.
I was four classes away from a Masters degree in American History when I quit college in 2004, it was either the Graduate degree or a long-distance relationship with skeptic Mark Edward (author of Psychic Blues: Confessions of a Conflicted Medium) who lived 6 hours away. I have two grown sons, Caspian, and my younger son Stirling who attends all the skeptical functions with me.
Raised Southern Baptist, I never heard the word atheist until I was in my late teens, once I found out there were other people who felt like I did, I read everything I could on the subject. Discovered skepticism as a community in 2000 while looking for a topic for a college paper. Attended a small gathering in San Jose, met Carol and Ben Baumgartner, Dr. Wallace Sampson, Dr. Jere Lipps and was hooked. Went to the Skeptic Toolbox in Eugene, Oregon that August and felt like I found my people! I’m officially a skeptical junkie, just waiting for the paperwork to prove it [I’ve been promised by those at CFI that it’s on its way and should be there soon–BR].
I’m the co-founder of Monterey County Skeptics which is a social group that hang out together. Being in the L.A. Area so much with Mark we both got involved with the Independent Investigations Group (IIG) for a while, but I’ve been busy with more since then.
BR: Do you think Wikipedia is really one of the main battlegrounds for skepticism?
SG: Yes I do, and I think I can prove it with numbers—skeptics like numbers. Podcasts, lectures, blogs etc. are all wonderful and needed as it builds a stronger skeptical community. They also introduce us to more and more outlets that we can explore. But with a few exceptions we are still preaching to the choir.
We still have to have investigations and video media to release to the public. It is like an ecosystem all the different parts working together. Wikipedia is where it all comes together. We know how many people are accessing Wikipedia pages, we can compare those numbers to the amount of hits an article on the same topic is generating when it comes from a personal website or blog. The numbers are staggering and varied, but generally Wiki hits outnumber articles every time.
Look, we also know that people rarely change their mind when someone is yelling at them telling them how stupid they are. Most of us skeptics have been believers on some level, we should know better. What people need is reasoned discussions and the ability to do their own research. They are going to go to a neutral site to do so, and Wikipedia is waiting for them. When they have looked over the page and hyperlinked to all the pages linked, they are better able to change their mind.
BR: What about projects like SkeptiWiki, which is devoted solely to skeptical content? Do you think that’s useful?
SG: I don’t think I have ever used that site, and almost never heard it referred to. We need neutral sites. The public is trying to understand a topic and they can tell from the name that it is one-sided. All that talent would be better used editing in a place that the public are already going to. I have no idea what the numbers would be comparing them, but I can image that there is little use trying to fight something as successful and powerful as Wikipedia. Why not use it to our advantage?
BR: How is Wikipedia structured and administered?
SG: All volunteers working towards creating a living, breathing encyclopedia, that’s pretty awesome I think. They have their own rules and language that take time getting used to. I’m totally self taught, I’ve tried reading the instructions on how to edit and it’s like reading a tech manual. I ask people for help, and look at well authored pages, copy what I like and paste into the page I’m editing. Change it to reflect the person/topic I’m working on, and I’m done.
BR: How is the Wikipedia content judged?
SG: Mainly peer reviewed. Some editors are considered higher level than others, but for the most part I’ve had little problem with the edits they have reverted. You can’t take it personally, we are creating a better encyclopedia which must be the main goal. If you are having problems with an editor then step back and try to see what is really the problem, usually you can work through it. There is a process for peer-arbitration which I’ve threatened someone with but never used. Once you get a bunch of edits under your belt you can start editing with confidence. Be bold, cite everything and usually people leave you alone.
BR: What have been some of the main challenges to injecting skepticism into Wikipedia?
SG: Probably only time. There is so much to be done, and people are always telling me “good job!” which is nice to hear, but what I badly need is help editing. Kudos are nice, but help is better. The project is that important. The tips and ideas I give on my blog are from copy/paste/save types of edits, to fixing grammar, to rewording blurbs to more advanced items.
BR: Obviously some skeptical content will upset people, such as psychics who rely on the general public not knowing about their track record of failure. What sort of opposition have you seen? Can you give a few examples?
SG: I have had almost no contact with anyone upset about my edits. I do see some frustrated comments people have left in the discussion area of pages—almost all from believers upset that their favorite psychic’s page is not balanced. Wikipedia is not balanced, you will never see a citation about the earth being flat on the “Earth” Wiki page. Nor will you see anything about a moon landing hoax on NASA’s page. Just cited fact after cited fact.
[Convicted felon] Sylvia Browne’s page is a great example that I discuss in my blog, believers do not always understand that you can’t post opinions and stories, it has to be cited, and neutral. Over and over people complain that there isn’t anything about how Browne “helps people” and is “a wonderful person”. They say that the only thing that the editors ever show is Browne’s failures. I love it when I read the editors respond that if they will find her successes in print (not her book) that can be substantiated then we will gladly post it on her page. Usually we never hear from that believer again, one man said he would find the evidence, but it would mean long months in the library, but he will eventually find proof for us. We are still waiting, the exchange can be read on Sylvia’s discussion page. Great reading, BTW.
Psychics themselves have rarely if ever commented or edited their own page. It’s a losing battle, they have to show proof of their claims and that isn’t likely to hold up to review. Personally I think they would rather the believers not go to Wikipedia to see what is there. I’m sure they downplay the site if it is mentioned to them.
BR: What topics have you tackled?
SG: All have been in some way associated with the skeptic movement. Tim Farley (who started me on this project) believes that an editor should not stick to one topic all the time, he suggests editing your home town page and other places so you don’t get a reputation amongst editors for having a “cause.” I’m all over the place so much that there is no pattern to see unless the editor looks closely at my edits—which I doubt they will do.
My “hit list” is pretty long but needs to be a lot longer. I’ve done UFO’s, Power Balance, ghost hunting sites, most of the psychics and anything else that attracts my attention. I’m very interested in beefing up all the pages of our skeptical spokespeople. This is a sub-project of Guerrilla Skepticism that I call “We Got Your Wiki Back!”. The main idea is to remember we are not improving Wikipedia for the skeptical choir, our audience is the public. When they access our spokespeople’s pages they should find well-written, well sourced information. How can we expect others to respect our spokespeople if we don’t respect them enough to maintain their Wikipedia pages?
BR: What mysterious or paranormal topics get the most controversy?
SG: Usually it comes in waves. When a page is vandalized over and over, there is a protection put on the page that anonymous editors cannot edit. The Scientologist page is the first one that comes to mind, I believe that many of the positive edits happening there were traced to Scientology headquarters, and there was a stop to that (plus some bad publicity for them). The astrology page is really getting hit lately, believers just can’t allow the already determined consistence wording to remain. They keep fussing with the definition, then editors have to change it back and tell them not to change it again. Along comes another believer who changes it again…and on and on.
BR: Many people use Wikipedia but don’t feel tech savvy enough to become editors or contributors. What is the actual process to edit pages? Can you give a short introduction to show people the basics?
SG: Start by opening a Wikipedia account. Read my blog for ideas and tips, or go to pages and click around. In time you will get comfortable finding misspelled words and bad grammar. You fix things by clicking on the “edit” page. Make simple changes and at the bottom of the edit page you will see the tabs for “preview page” “save” “watch this page” and an area to comment. First “preview” your change, if it looks okay then write in the comment area what you just did “corrected spelling” or “added a period”, click “watch this page” so that you will be notified on your “watch list” if there is a change to the page. Then when you are sure you have done all this correctly, click save.
You will know when you are ready to try more difficult changes. I learned to go to a well-written page, click edit, copy the area that I know I wanted to duplicate elsewhere. If you want to write a blurb about a SI article you just read, start by opening a word document somewhere so you can just play with what you are doing. Write your two or three sentences you think will neutrally reflect the article. Copy a <ref> citation from some other page that you know was done correctly. Paste that into the word document you are using. Change the citation that you know does not apply to your new citation. For example the date the article was published, as well as the name of the article will need to be changed in the new edit. Once you are completely happy with the blurb and reference, paste it into the Wiki page. Follow the directions in the paragraph above.
I would love to mentor anyone interested in learning how to edit. If anyone wants to watch me edit and learn that way, please contact me! You can find GSoW on Twitter.
A different version of this interview appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine.
In the news: Moms gathering to scream out their pandemic frustrations. Psychotherapist Arthur Janov believed that neuroses are caused by childhood pain and could be relieved by re-experiencing it through crying and screaming. A huge fad in the 1970s, the idea of “screaming out” anger has a pop culture, superficial appeal, but little basis in science. It’s performative “therapy” ineffective at best and harmful at worst, not shown to improve mental health. Any benefit comes from the group support, not the screaming itself…
Sneak preview of the upcoming issue of ‘Skeptical Inquirer’ science magazine! Cover illustration by my friend and Squaring the Strange co-host Celestia Ward, look for it on newsstands and in your mailbox in 2 weeks!
Our last Squaring the Strange episode of 2021 is out, and unlike other podcasts, we are giving you fresh episodes… even a BONUS episode like this one, well ahead of our usual biweekly schedule. Our final episode of the moral panic series deals with panics surrounding literature and comics. From the big boss battle between Bill Gaines and Fredric Wertham to the murders attributed to Catcher in the Rye, we go through some historical examples… as well as the philosophy behind worries our forefathers had about how literature might affect “weaker minds.” Get your fainting couches and/or swear jars out and enjoy, you can listen HERE.
In 2016, before COVID and 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 holiday season.
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.
The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! Part two in our four-part series on moral panics. This week we talk MUSIC, and go into the past, present, and future of (as Fresh Prince would say) parents just not understanding their kids’ music. So sit back and hear about gansta rap, Miley’s twerking, and even some far-too-jaunty Bing Crosby tunes! Check it out HERE!
One of the pleasures of my job (along with random stranger hate mail) is seeing where my research is referenced. I’m mentioned in a new book, “Encountering the Sovereign Other: Indigenous Science Fiction.” I haven’t read it yet but it definitely looks interesting…
For those who didn’t see it: New episode of Squaring the Strange is out, the first in our series on Moral Panics. This week we look at games: it’s not just first-person-shooters that have caused parents and social guardians to wring their hands and ask “will no one think of the children?” Your grandparents worried authorities when they turned to the vile pursuits of pinball, and their grandparents were paying with Ouija boards without a single care about demons or ghosts.
New episode of Squaring the Strange is out! First Tim Mendham from the Australian Skeptics pops in for a quick visit, then we sit down for a discussion with Vegas magicians Matt Donnelly, R.J. Owens, and Vinny Grosso. Each of them has a perspective on magic and skepticism. It’s a fun and fascinating talk, available via your auditory input channels! Check it out HERE!
I’m quoted in a new article by Russ Dobler on techniques that can fool people into thinking you’re psychic (by way of the upcoming Spider-Man movie!) for his Adventures in Poor Taste website… Check it out HERE!
My Spanish-language article on water dowsing is now out for ‘Pensar’ magazine, thanks to Alejandro Borgo for the translation!
Los tiempos de estrés social, dificultades e incertidumbre estimulan el interés en todo tipo de adivinación y profecía. El público va a ver videntes y adivinos con más frecuencia en tiempos de depresión económica que de prosperidad, tiempos de pérdida en lugar de amor. Son la naturaleza humana y el pensamiento mágico en sus diversas formas, incluidas la superstición y las conspiraciones, las que ayudan a las personas a lidiar con el estrés diario. La gente quiere estar segura de que las cosas buenas están a la vuelta de la esquina, que las fortunas mejorarán y los romances apasionados con proverbiales extraños guapos y altos están en las cartas.
Esto fue cierto durante la pandemia, pero hay otras tensiones —ambientales, como el cambio climático, incendios generalizados y una sequía duradera que ha mantenido reseco gran parte del suroeste de los Estados Unidos durante años. No es de extrañar que la gente esté cada vez más desesperada por encontrar agua.
The New York Times informó recientemente sobre un aumento en el interés y la contratación de radiestesistas (o «brujos del agua») —también llamados zahoríes o rabdomantes. Si alguna vez ha escuchado la frase «No lo harían si no funcionara», la radiestesia es una refutación perfecta. A lo largo de los siglos las personas han venerado y perpetuado prácticas a pesar de que simplemente no funcionan. La radiestesia es un ejemplo de libro de texto sobre el tema. Parte de la razón de la longevidad de la radiestesia es su versatilidad en el mundo paranormal. Se dice que la radiestesia encuentra cualquier cosa, incluidas personas desaparecidas, tuberías enterradas, depósitos de petróleo e incluso ruinas arqueológicas (ver Dowsing and Archaeology: Is There Something Underneath?—Radiestesia y arqueología: ¿Hay algo debajo?— en Skeptical Inquirer, marzo/abril de 1999).
Times of social stress, hardship, and uncertainty spur interest in all kinds of divination and prophecy. The public goes to see psychics and fortunetellers more often in times of economic depression than prosperity, times of loss rather than love. It’s human nature, and magical thinking in its various forms—including superstition and conspiracies—helps people cope with daily stresses. People want to be reassured that good things are just around the corner, that fortunes will improve and whirlwind romances with proverbial tall handsome strangers are in the cards. People want an edge against random chance.
This was true during the pandemic, but there are other stresses—environmental ones such as climate change, widespread fires, and an enduring drought that’s kept much of the Southwestern United States parched for years. It’s no surprise that people are getting more desperate to find water.
The New York Times recently reported a jump in interest in, and hiring of, dowsers (or “water witches”), such as Rob Thompson, who “claims that he can locate streams of water in the fractures in the earth’s bedrock, using two L-shaped rods that together resemble an old-fashioned television antenna. Amid California’s extreme drought, just a two-hour drive north of the nation’s technology capital of Silicon Valley, the water-seeking services of a man relying on two three-foot rods and a hunch are in demand. ‘This is my busiest I think I’ve ever been in my life,’ said Mr. Thompson, a third-generation water hunter with silvering hair and the lumbering gait of a bear… His busy schedule is a sign of the desperation of ranchers, vineyard owners and land managers as California reels from a crippling drought that has depleted aquifers, shrunken crops and forced some farmers to sell off their water rights.”
If you’ve ever heard the phrase “They wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work,” dowsing is a perfect rebuttal. People through the centuries have revered and perpetuated practices despite the fact that they simply do not work. Dowsing is a textbook example of this. Part of the reason for dowsing’s longevity is its versatility in the paranormal world. If we conceive of the paranormal as a tasty (but ultimately nourishment-free) meal, dowsing is a sort of all-purpose side dish. It can stand alone as a New Age endeavor when searching for water or missing jewelry, or it goes equally well with a variety of pseudoscientific main dishes, including crop circles and fortune-telling. Dowsing is said to find anything and everything, including missing persons, buried pipes, oil deposits, and even archaeological ruins (see “Dowsing and Archaeology: Is There Something Underneath?,” in Skeptical Inquirer, March/April 1999).
I most often encounter dowsers during ghost investigations. Many amateur ghost hunters use dowsing rods to search for ghosts, believing that ghosts can be detected by (or communicate through) dowsing rods. In 2007, I demonstrated dowsing for the National Geographic Channel’s Is It Real?TV series on “Ghost Ships” in response to a woman who used dowsing rods on ghost hunts.
The dowsing with which most people are familiar is water dowsing (also known as water witching or rhabdomancy), in which a person holds a Y-shaped branch or two L-shaped wire rods and walks around until he or she feels a pull on the branch or the wire rods cross, which allegedly indicates that there is water below. Often a pendulum is used, sometimes held over a map.
According to proponents, dowsing has a robust history, and its success has been known for centuries. For example, in her book Divining the Future: Prognostication From Astrology to Zoomancy, Eva Shaw writes, “In 1556, De Re Metallica, a book on metallurgy and mining written by George [sic] Agricola, discussed dowsing as an acceptable method of locating rich mineral sources.” This widely cited reference is a rather transparent example of a logical fallacy called the appeal to tradition (“It must work because people have done it for centuries”).
However it seems that the dowsing advocates didn’t actually read the book because it says exactly the opposite: Instead of endorsing dowsing, Agricola states that those seeking minerals “should not make use of an enchanted twig, because if he is prudent and skilled in the natural signs, he understands that a forked stick is of no use to him.” So even 465 years ago, dowsing was recognized as worthless.
How Dowsing ‘Works’
If you assume that dowsing works—and that is of course a huge unproven assumption— how does it work? The proposed mechanisms are as varied as the dowsers themselves. One source states that “Dowsing is possible … through the strong psychic energy radiated by the object and picked up by the [dowser]”; another confidently states that “dowsing is not weird or spooky … it is as natural as memory. In fact, some scientists believe it may well be one of memory’s forms … a vestigial memory of a survival method of searching, using senses other than the five obvious ones.” The Amazing Randi in his Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, notes that dowsers often cannot agree on even the basics of their profession: “Some instructions tell learners never to try dowsing with rubber footwear, while others insist that it helps immeasurably. Some practitioners say that when rods cross, that specifically indicates water; others say that water makes the rods diverge to 180 degrees.”
I don’t believe dowsing per se is fraudulent—that is, for the most part it’s not a scam, hoax, or intentional deception. Instead it’s a form of self-deception that often convinces others. There’s no intent to deceive, it’s more of a mistake or misunderstanding. I’ve met many dowsers over the years and without exception they have been credible, down-to-earth people. They seem sincere because they are sincere: they really believe they have this power, and have convinced themselves over and over with their results. In this way they often convince other people—especially those who haven’t researched skeptical or science-based explanations. Sometimes the dowsing rods cross or the forked twig does seem to dip—but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s water below. The cause is what in psychology is known as the ideomotor effect: unconscious movements that make the dowser think that some other mysterious force is at play. If the dowsing devices were moving independently of the dowser then this should be easily demonstrated, but it doesn’t happen.
Dowsers have been subjected to many tests over the years and have performed no better than chance under controlled conditions. There are various ways to scientifically test dowsing abilities. I have done it several times myself, and read studies done by others. The easiest is to get 20 identical 5-gallon opaque plastic buckets and (with the dowser out of sight or at another location) place a sealed gallon jug of water under one of the buckets (being careful of course not to leave any traces that might reveal where it is). The buckets should be placed 2-3 meters apart (or at whatever interval the dowser claims they can discriminate water from non-water). Have the dowser come out to the field or lot and find the water. You can do a similar experiment hiding valuables on sandy beaches in grids as well. For more on this see CFI’s Jim Underdown of the Independent Investigations Group demonstrating dowsing testing for NBC News.
The problem is that dowsers fail to demonstrate their ability in scientifically controlled experiments and tests. It also depends on what you’re looking for and where. In fact it can be difficult to disprove a dowser’s claim for the same reason: if they claim water will be found in a spot at a certain depth, they can always insist that the water is there—just that they were a bit off on the depth: It’s 50 meters, not 20 meters like they thought. In order to prove or disprove that, of course, you’d need to dig another 30 meters (possibly a difficult and expensive proposition).
And if they find water, does that mean that dowsing works? Not necessarily. In most places on Earth there’s water somewhere below the surface—maybe a few inches, maybe a few meters or more. So any dowser who says “If you dig here you’ll find water” is statistically very likely to be correct—and would be just as correct if he or she chose a spot 10 meters away in any direction, or 10 miles away. There’s also the issue of what psychologists call “confirmation bias,” also known as “remembering the hits and forgetting the misses.” People generally tend to better remember their successes than their failures, or they rationalize away their failures (“I was having an off day,” or “The sun was too hot,” etc.). Unless dowsers keep careful track of all their claims—both correct and wrong— it can be easy to misremember their success rate.
Of course when dowsers are wrong they simply point out that no one is 100% accurate all the time—doctors, mechanics, scientists, and others make mistakes, and this is of course true. But the problem with that comparison is that doctors and mechanics can reliably prove their skills most of the time; this is not true with dowsers, and in fact there is no known scientific mechanism by which a forked branch, pendulum, or two L-shaped rods could possibly “detect” water. Keep in mind that dowsers claim to be able to find a great many “hidden” objects, including missing keys, water, oil, gold, and even ghosts! This raises the interesting question of how dowsers could know what the rods are reacting to: Is it a vein of gold 20 meters below the earth, a reservoir of water 100 meters below the earth, oil shale 200 meters down, or the dead spirit of someone who died at that spot in 1973? There’s no way to know. British Petroleum and other multinational oil companies spend billions of dollars trying to locate offshore oil fields through expensive, difficult, and time-consuming sampling, computer models, and so on.
In fact in September 2015 the Royal Dutch Shell Corporation abandoned its drilling in the Alaskan waters after spending $7 billion searching fruitlessly for oil. Why would they do that if all they need is to have a dowser on hand to point them directly where to drill? Any dowser who could reliably and successfully do what they claim could easily become a multi-millionaire consulting agent. Why doesn’t it happen?
There is no science behind dowsing, and though the main harm is wasted time and effort, it can also cost lives: in 2010, modified dowsing-rod devices claimed to detect bombs were sold by a man named James McCormick to the Iraqi military. As Slate noted, “McCormick’s company was selling these fraudulent magic wands at great expense to the Iraqi government, which spent $16,500 to $60,000 each for these things, devices which might as well have been crayon boxes full of rocks. They were useless. Or, as it turns out, far worse than useless. The Iraqis were using them at military checkpoints. On Oct. 25, 2009, terrorists carrying two tons of explosives got right past the magic bomb sniffer and detonated their cargo, killing 155 people. Two months later, it happened again, with 127 people killed. Not long after, McCormick was arrested under suspicion of fraud.” In April 2013 McCormick was convicted.
The consequences of water dowsing is less dire but no less real: wasted time and effort. Still, as long as there are desperate people who need increasingly scarce resources, water witches will not be far behind.
A longer version of this piece appeared on my CFI blog; you can read it here.
A few years back I wrote a short piece on karma for the late, great, independent weekly The Alibi. There is a dark, cruel aspect to it: Everything bad that happens to you is your own fault… If you’re beaten, robbed, raped, get hit by a bus or get cancer it’s because you deserved it. It gets a New Agey warm glow, but it’s actually a very bleak worldview…
While waiting in line for coffee in Santa Fe a few years ago, I met a nice young woman. She was in her early 20s—an intelligent college student and a bit of a free spirit. While her double-mocha-soy-something was being made, we struck up a brief conversation. I don’t know what prompted the talk—perhaps it was one of those nuggets of wisdom printed on the cups—but we briefly discussed beliefs.
“I believe in karma,” she told me.
“Are you a Buddhist?” I asked.
She cocked her head, slightly amused. “No, why?”
“Well, karma is part of Buddhism; I just wondered if you were Buddhist. Just like if you said you were visiting Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, I’d ask if you were Muslim …”
“Oh. No, I’m not really religious, but I do think that what comes around goes around.”
She handed a $5 bill to the cashier and got back a few pennies in change. Before I could inquire further about her understanding of karma, she smiled and was gone.
I wondered if she really did believe in karma, or if she just thought she did. I suspect she embraced the superficial, pop culture version of karma, without really understanding what it is.
The word karma comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “fate, work or action.” The concept of karma varies somewhat among Buddhists, Hindus and Jainists, but the popular understanding is that karma assures that good things will happen to good people and bad things to bad people. Karma in Buddhism holds that the fate of the soul is determined by its karma, its actions. Every act—whether good or bad, no matter how insignificant—will eventually return to the person who does the act, and with equal force. So far, so good.
Most people mistakenly assume the good or bad will come back in this lifetime, but that’s not what karma says. Those who do good deeds will be rewarded in future lives, and those who do bad deeds will be punished in future lives (such as by being reborn as a lowly animal).
Karma says you deserve every moment of pain and anguish and terror in your life.
While many people say they believe in karma, most don’t really understand, or believe in, the Buddhist idea of karma. For one thing, there would no need for prisons or punishment; cosmic justice will be meted out in another realm. If people really believed in karma, they would believe that thieves and murderers will be punished in a future life, so there is no need to seek legal justice. Furthermore, karma is inextricably linked to reincarnation; in Western society anyway, the idea of being reborn as a dog or rodent in a future life doesn’t really seem very likely, nor that much of punishment.
There is a dark, cruel aspect to karma, one that is rarely discussed. Everything bad that happens to you is your own fault: the car accident that killed your loved one, the disease that ravages your body, everything. Karma says you deserve every moment of pain and anguish and terror in your life.
As Robert Carroll notes in his book The Skeptic’s Dictionary, “Karma says that everybody is getting what he or she deserves. Even the child brutalized by drugged adults deserves the horror. The mentally ill, the retarded, the homosexuals and the millions of Jews killed by the Nazis deserved it for evil they must have done in the past. The slave beaten to within a breath of death deserved it, if not for what he did today, then for what he did in some previous lifetime. Likewise for the rape victim. She is just getting what she deserves. All suffering is deserved, according to the law of karma.”
I suspect the woman in the coffee shop probably would reject the real idea of karma in favor of her own sanitized and misunderstood version. I didn’t expect her to be an expert on comparative religions, but if you claim a belief in (and support of) an idea, it implies you actually understand what you say you believe.
Calling what she believes “karma” isn’t quite right. If you don’t believe you deserve all the pain in your life, you don’t believe in karma. If you don’t believe you will be reincarnated, you don’t believe in karma. Saying you believe in karma but not these tenets is like saying you believe in Christianity but not Jesus. People can, of course, believe whatever they like and call their beliefs whatever they wish, but if they’re going to make up their own idiosyncratic idea of karma that has little or no resemblance to its true meaning, they might as well say, “I believe in framoozle.”
Furthermore, I’m not sure I trust someone whose life or actions are truly guided by karma, because I believe people are inherently good. If you think about it, the premise of karma is that people need to be threatened with cosmic retribution into good conduct: Don’t do evil, or else it will come back to you. How about just being good to others because it’s the right thing to do? Do people who believe in karma really need to be threatened into doing the right thing?
What comes around goes around. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Take your pick. I’m in favor of the golden rule, and it is certainly true that our actions guide our lives. Just don’t call it karma.
For this episode we are joined by a surprise guest, the critical thinker behind the Steak-Umms popular brand voice (aka Nathan Allebach), who talks to us about targeting misinformation as a PR strategy, managing viral posts, and the brand’s recent dustup with Neil deGrasse Tyson. Then I bring us back in time twenty years to a hot Indian summer in New Delhi, where reports of a mysterious and malevolent Monkey Man sent residents into a panic. Police and local skeptics were mobilized to combat this phantom in very different ways, as rewards, injuries, vigilante groups and media reports fueled public fear.
Twenty years ago last month the capital of India was gripped in a panic. Early reports claimed that some mysterious monkey-like creature attacked many residents in New Delhi, leaving fear, scars, and ultimately even dead bodies in its wake. The Monkey Man, as it came to be known, made international news as police and news media struggled to make sense of the mysterious menace.
Sociologist Robert Bartholomew and I wrote briefly about this episode in our bookHoaxes Myths, and Manias: Why We Need Critical Thinking, but overall there has been relatively little written about it from scholarly and skeptical perspectives. On this twentieth anniversary of the panic, it seemed like a good time to revisit this case in more depth.
Descriptions of the Monkey Man varied widely, and details were often ambiguous because most of the sightings occurred at night outside in the night sky, with the creature leaping away into the darkness before anyone could get a good look at it—much less a photograph. Some people described an ape-like figure with a dark hairy body and glowing red eyes. Others described the figure as between three and six feet tall, with arms ending in sharp claws or even metal gloves, like Freddy Krueger. Some said instead that it wore a motorcycle helmet, leather jacket, and dark glasses. Most people, however, just reported seeing a shadow of something; overall, there were few first-hand sightings; instead many people described what they heard other people saying they saw.
Police and the Press
Indian news media picked up on the story and ran with it, sensationalizing reports in the process. The most lurid and dramatic descriptions, of course, got the most attention—which in turn triggered demands from the public to be protected. Local law enforcement officials, understandably, were not sure how to handle the bizarre situation. They were used to dealing with accidents, homicides, and neighborhood disputes—not mysterious and menacing half-monkeys armed with steel claws. Inundated with panicked calls but no suspects or leads, the police soon set up special hotlines and offered a large 50,000 rupee ($1,000) reward for information leading to the capture of this monster. Though meant to generate useful leads, this financial incentive had the effect of increasing the number of crank calls and false alarms. Indeed, as news of the Monkey Man spread, there was a snowball effect; more coverage spurred more sightings, but also more attention-seeking pranks and hoaxes. Many people got in on the action, offering ever-wilder (and evidence-free) stories to an eager news media.
As days turned into a week and the panic increased with no arrests being made, citizens took the law into their own hands. Vigilante mobs took to patrolling the streets at night, armed with clubs, poles, and machetes. The rolling blackouts which often plague the city only added to the sense of fear and foreboding. As in other monster panics I’ve investigated including the chupacabra (in Puerto Rico) and the popobawa (in Zanzibar); there were overnight vigils and stakeouts, where armed men took turns at sentry while the others slept. Predictably and tragically, in some cases mob justice ensued and several people were attacked. The Washington Post reported that “a van driver was chased by a mob that believed him to be the Monkey Man, dragged out of his vehicle, and severely beaten. He was hospitalized with multiple fractures.”
Injuries and Deaths
One of the most puzzling things about the case was that there was no real evidence of this phantom attacker. With no photographs or footprints the main forensic evidence offered in support of the attacker(s)—and implicitly refuting growing skepticism that it was all a hoax or hallucination—were injuries said to have been caused by encounters with the Monkey Man.
Indeed, evidence was offered of encounters, much of it ambiguous. Monkey Man victims showed off a variety of minor injuries and wounds—most of which were indistinguishable from bites from rats or dogs—along with rashes, scratches, and the like. To many people who saw photos and video of the injuries (widely shared in news media) it was compelling. Though it was surely true that not every Monkey Man sighting or report was accurate, for many people these disparate reports offered evidence corroboration: Unless the dozens of ostensible strangers offering (superficially) similar stories and injuries had all somehow conspired together to fake the incidents, surely there must be something to it, many people thought.
However a closer look at the injuries revealed a different story. Some people had faked injuries for medical and media attention; others reframed existing, unrelated injuries as having been due to encounters with the Monkey Man. There is not much in the published literature about this incident, though I did find one journal article in the August 2003 Indian Journal of Medical Sciences. S.K. Verma and D.K. Srivastava examined sociodemographic patterns and injuries among alleged Monkey Man victims. They found that between May 10 and 25, 397 people made calls to the police claiming to have been attacked. Of those, fifty-one cases were detailed enough for medical examination.
Two-thirds of the victims were male, and most were between twenty and thirty years old. The vast majority (94%) were from the poorest sections of the city, East Delhi and nearby, and 89% were of low socioeconomic status. Two-thirds of the victims reported that incident occurred between midnight and 6 AM. As to the nature of the wounds, about 95% of the individuals showed abrasions they attributed to the Monkey Man. As the researchers noted, “One of the most striking features observed in the injuries among these individuals was they were possible either by a blunt or a pointed object only.” About 88% had multiple linear abrasions and 11% displayed lacerations.
In addition to the mob attacks mentioned earlier, there were also dozens of serious accidental injuries caused by mobs of people trying to escape from the monster. There were fatalities as well; one man died falling off a rooftop fleeing from what he thought was the Monkey Man, and a pregnant woman fell down stairs and died panicking as well. A third man also fell off a rooftop, running in fear when he heard another man nearby panicking, shrieking in the darkness that something had pulled on his sheets as he tried to sleep. Eventually the local power company agreed to temporarily suspend rolling blackouts in some of the poorer parts of New Delhi, allowing people to sleep inside in the safety of their apartments under electric fans.
In the end the injuries offered merely the illusion of corroboration. It’s a common theme among paranormal believers, who use the (often presumed) similarities of different, disparate eyewitnesses and experiencers to argue that there must be something to it.
Social, Cultural, and Environmental Factors
Social panics do not occur in a vacuum. In the climate of fear that swept New Delhi, people interpreted anything as a threat: Any sound in darkness or cry in the night could be interpreted as an imminent attack. It’s also important to remember the physical environment: crowded, poorly-lit sweltering rooftops during rolling blackouts. In a city of 14 million people during a heat wave of over 110 degrees Fahrenheit, the situation was ripe for misperceptions.
There was also the socioeconomic factors of illiteracy and poor education. In a situation reminiscent of the panic and fears surrounding the chupacabra in 1996-1998 Puerto Rico, most of the rumors spread among poor. New Delhi’s wealthiest residents were not sweating and exposed on dark, crowded rooftops but were at home under air conditioning—using portable generators during the blackouts. The religious aspect may also be relevant; the fact that the creature was said to be half (or more) monkey—and not some other wild animal—may be significant. Many people noted that the Monkey Man was reminiscent of Hanuman, a Hindu warrior god depicted as a monkey (or half-monkey) that leads an army…of monkeys. There are also many monkeys in and around the city, so the creature would be a familiar one to New Delhi residents.
Some took the descriptions at face value and thought it was some sort of actual half-human creature, though other explanations included an evil spirit, a robot, “a computerized creature who someone is operating with remote control”; and a terrorist who was using the panic, confusion, and police reaction as a cover for some assassination—possibly by the Pakistani intelligence services, India’s neighbor and arch-enemy.
Monkey Man and Mass Sociogenic Illness
In the final analysis the Monkey Man panic has all the hallmarks of mass sociogenic illness (MSI), or mass hysteria. Mass hysteria is often misunderstood as being an illness that sufferers are making up. In fact the symptoms are verifiable and not imaginary. The issue is instead what is causing the symptoms—whether some external environmental contaminant or instead a form of suggestion-driven social contagion.
Social contagion can easily spread from person to person in tight quarters, and especially during times of high stress and anxiety. Cases of MSI can vary widely in context and manifestation, but typically include the sudden onset of dramatic (yet clinically minor) symptoms. There are underlying psychological and/or environmental stressors, ranging from workplace discipline to boredom (in this case a heat wave). There is usually some trigger, such as an ambiguous smell, sight, or sound. A hallmark is that the phenomenon is socially contagious—that is, it is spread from person to person like a virus, usually people with whom the victim has come in close contact, such as a friend, family member, co-worker, or classmate. Mass hysterias often affect people who have a real or perceived lack of social support, such as those in poverty or subjected to regimented routine and authority (such as in schools, factories, and so on). Many cases of MSI are recognized only after the fact (and sometimes not even then), with victims often vigorously rejecting the diagnosis, assuming incorrectly that it implied that they were mentally ill or making it all up.
For as bizarre as the Monkey Man incident is, he (or it) is not alone; indeed the phenomenon is best understood as part of a larger social phenomenon known as phantom attackers. These are mysterious figures, usually male and dressed in some distinctive way, and who are seen and reported as menacing ordinary citizens in public. Examples include Spring-Heeled Jack, the mysterious dark-cloaked figure reported threatening and scaring people (mostly women and children) in London from the 1830s through the 1870s; the Phantom Slasher of Taiwan, who was reported stalking the streets of Taipei in 1956 trying to slash people (again, mostly women and children) with a razor; and the phantom clowns, reported to lurk near schools trying—thankfully in vain—to abduct children (for more see chapter 12 in my book Bad Clowns).
Though the details and descriptions vary in these cases, they have much in common, including that they all had sincere eyewitnesses who reported their encounters to police and other public safety officials; the cases were reported in the local news and residents took action to protect the public from further attempted “attacks”; the reports appeared in a given community suddenly but soon faded away with no arrest or resolution. In the end all these phantom attackers—like the Monkey Man—were thoroughly investigated and eventually determined not to have existed.
The Decline and Fall of the Monkey Man
Throughout the panic police reacted as best they could, increasing patrols and thinking that enough arrests would stop it—not because they assumed they were going to actually arrest the Monkey Man (who would likely demand a simian public defender)—but because hoaxers would finally be deterred. It was semi-successful. Police were getting hundreds of hoaxed calls, and when people were threatened with jail and fines for spreading false rumors, it did indeed curb the appeal of pranksters and copycats. Even those who were sincere in their reports had second thoughts about contacting the police without real proof or evidence. This, coupled with a strong media-influence copycat effect, became a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy when the news media started to lose interest and reported that fewer people were seeing it—which in turn led to fewer people seeing it. A few things led to the Monkey Man being less reported and by about May 20 the reports had slowed to a trickle; the whole incident lasted about two weeks, from May 10 to May 25 or so. The pattern was entirely expected to psychologists and sociologists who recognized the cause. Most cases of mass hysterias tend to be self-limiting; there’s a clear and predictable bell-shaped rise and fall in reports, usually a steep increase and an equally quick fall.
Skeptics on the Scene
Amid the chaos and panic, skeptical investigators from the Indian Rationalists Association, led by Sanal Edamaruku, tried to explain the situation and calm public fears. Though the news media were more interested sensationalism than skepticism, the organization was quoted, however briefly, in The New York Times and The Washington Post press coverage.
In the Rationalist International Bulletin Edamaruku wrote a first-hand contemporaneous account of his organization’s efforts to investigate the mystery and calm public fears: “India’s capital is looking back on two weeks of mass delusion and panic, sometimes dangerously turning into mass hysteria. The shadow of the ‘monkey man’ is still looming large over suburbs and urban villages.” Edamaruku’s actions serve as a model for on-the-ground skeptical investigation and activism: “We started to collect all information so far available and went to the affected areas to talk to people. I personally questioned at least forty persons who claimed to have seen something and hundreds who were terrified by what they had heard. We evaluated all recorded material and got some important clues.” With no photos of the creature, nor footprints, or anything else tangible, Edamaruku also assessed what little physical evidence there appeared to be: wounds allegedly made by the creature: “We went out to have a close look at the victims’ injuries, which had become something like the last bastion of the spook. We succeeded in tracing most of the known causes and were ‘disappointed’: There was not a single serious wound, only little scratches, cuts, and rubbings [rashes] which under normal circumstances would not get any attention…Interestingly there was no uniformity in them, though they were claimed to come from the same source… With every new case we were more convinced that all these injuries were self-inflicted, either deliberately or unknowingly.”
In the end Edamaruku notes that “Our lonely initiative and intervention to deflate the giant balloon of the monkey man mania has opened many eyes and minds. They have reminded the authorities of their duties and responsibilities and encouraged many scientists to play their part in educating the public. This is in my opinion one of the classical roles rationalist organizations can play, and have to play, in society.”
This is a crucial point because skeptical and rationalist organizations, investigators, and activists (and, I might add, folklorists and psychologists) fill this important—and often overlooked—niche. Many of these panics are not recognized as such at the time, and journalists play a key role in disseminating information, both good and bad, to the public. It’s vital that skeptics and their organizations such as the Indian Rationalists and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (and their many counterparts) make informed skeptical commentary and analysis available to journalists and the public.
Two decades after the Monkey Man appeared, and then disappeared just as quickly, the case remains one of the strangest examples of mass hysteria panics in modern times. With sober analysis we can hopefully learn from it and be better prepared for the next mass sociogenic panic.
A longer version of this piece appeared on the Center for Inquiry website; you can read it HERE!
I’m interviewed in a ‘Superstitious Times’ piece on the inability (or unwillingness) of investigators to call out fraud and hoaxing in their own fields: “What’s happened, Radford added, was the democratization of paranormal investigators, in particular those who pursue ghosts. “My genuine concern, whether they recognize it or not, is that the enormous amount of time and effort that is being wasted on not doing good work. My point has always been, just do good research; just improve the quality of work.”
My new blog examines some myths about, and ways to address, covid vaccine hesitancy. From concerns about efficacy to the “Dirty Dozen” social media anti-vaxxers, the first step is understanding the problem; the second step is knowing your audience.
As the second April opens under the pall of the pandemic, there are about 129 million cases of COVID-19 and nearly three million deaths. The good news is that vaccines are becoming more available, and nearly three million doses are being distributed each day. So far about 97 million Americans have been vaccinated (including me). Nevertheless, vaccine hesitancy remains. Reasons for this have been explored on this site and elsewhere, but it seemed a good time to take a closer look at what’s driving it.
Some people have been deterred by the varied levels of efficacy across the COVID-19 vaccines. Pfizer, for example, is 95 percent effective; Moderna is 94 percent; Oxford/AstraZeneca is 70 percent; J&J is 66 percent, and so on (keep in mind that the data are still being collected, so the rates may change over time). This has led to some thinking that one shot is “better” than another. While it’s obviously true that higher efficacy is better than lower efficacy, that doesn’t tell the full picture. Some vaccines require a second shot, while others need just one dose. If there’s some concern about the availability for the booster shot (the person needs to return three to four weeks later), then the one-shot vaccine may be better. Some vaccines need to be kept in very cold storage and for practical reasons may not be able to be administered in tropical regions, for example.
Fully vaccinated people are going to get infected. That’s what anything less than 100% effective means. The ‘best’ of these are about 95% effective. Which means that, give or take, 1 in 20 may get a mild case if exposed. Note, 95% effective is on par with our most effective vaccines. The measles vaccine is 97% effective. The no-longer available Lyme disease vaccine was 80% effective (and don’t you wish that was still available?). Two doses of the chickenpox vaccine is 90% effective. A full course of the polio vaccine is about 99% effective. The pertussis vaccine is 98% effective after a full course of five doses, but only 73% effective after the first dose, and immunity can wane without boosters. So why don’t we see news stories all the time about fully vaccinated people getting those diseases? Is it because there’s something “better” or more trustworthy about those older vaccines? Is there something “they’re not telling us” about the covid vaccine? No.
Plus, of course, vaccine effectiveness rates are averages, and the real-world protection varies by individual. A person with an otherwise healthy immune system may only need a 75 percent effective vaccine, while someone who is immunocompromised may need a 95 percent effective vaccine. Complicating matters, you don’t know which variants you will be exposed to, and each vaccine conveys different protection against different strains. While there are some differences between the vaccines, the fine distinctions are moot. In the end, the consensus among experts is that anyone should get the first available vaccine. Trying to second-guess your exposure (or holding out for a more effective vaccine) just increases the risk of getting COVID-19—and potentially infecting others.
It’s tempting to respond to vaccine hesitancy with snide and snark, but for those hoping to change hearts and minds a more diplomatic approach is best. Sure, there are some people who are actively and knowingly sharing misinformation about vaccines (including, notably, Russian intelligence–led troll farms and the book-promoting viral video Plandemic, whose claims I and others have debunked). However, many people have genuine concerns, for whatever reason, and the issue is complicated by a plethora of COVID-19 pseudoauthorities.
The problem is not helped by a news and social media context that exaggerates dangers of vaccination. Memes and social media posts constantly highlight the rare, minor, and expected side effects of getting vaccinated, and false (and true-but-misleading) news stories about people who suffered because of the vaccines are shared. Any medical treatment or drug—from a tooth extraction to aspirin—can have potential side effects; that’s not a reason to fear or avoid it. As a National Public Radio report noted:
The odds of dying after getting a COVID-19 vaccine are virtually nonexistent. According to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you’re three times more likely to get struck by lightning. But you might not know that from looking at your social media feed. A new NPR analysis finds that articles connecting vaccines and death have been among the most highly engaged with content online this year, going viral in a way that could hinder people’s ability to judge the true risk in getting a shot. … To date, the CDC’s reporting system has not received evidence linking any deaths directly to vaccines. And yet, on almost half of all the days so far in 2021, a story about someone dying after receiving a vaccine shot has been among the most popular vaccine-related articles on social media.
With over half a billion vaccine doses given worldwide, by random chance alone some people will have had reactions, and some of those reactions will be severe (though expected in some small percentage of patients). Highlighting the real-but-rare problems with an otherwise overwhelmingly safe and effective treatment runs a real risk of doing more harm than good. The line between raising awareness and alarmism becomes blurred, especially when activists are involved.
People who are sincerely misinformed need to be provided accurate information to battle the rampant misinformation. Shaming people into getting vaccinated is less effective than promoting the personal, social, and economic benefits of widespread vaccinations. The carrot-and-stick approach has its uses but may backfire when people feel they are being forced into it (whether they in fact are or not). Nobody likes to be told what to do, and that’s especially true for people with an underlying distrust of authority, the government, and Big Pharma.
Another effective approach is to recognize the various demographics of vaccine hesitancy and identify the specific ones. For example, polls show that Republicans and Trump supporters are less likely to be vaccinated than others. By pointing out to them that 1) the vaccines were developed during the Trump administration; 2) Trump personally vouched for their safety and efficacy; and 3) Trump himself received a COVID-19 vaccine, that will lay bare some obvious contradictions and perhaps induce some cognitive dissonance. They may still refuse the vaccine, of course, but they will likely be forced (in their own minds and on social media as well) to recognize the disparity between their professed support for Trump and rejection of “his” vaccines.
The Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), a nonprofit NGO, recently released a report titled The Disinformation Dozen: Why Platforms Must Act on Twelve Leading Online Anti-Vaxxers. As the report notes:
The Disinformation Dozen are twelve anti-vaxxers who play leading roles in spreading digital misinformation about Covid vaccines. They were selected because they have large numbers of followers, produce high volumes of anti-vaccine content or have seen rapid growth of their social media accounts in the last two months.
In previous articles for the CFI Coronavirus Resource Center, I have written in some depth about at least two of the “Disinformation Dozen,” Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Kelly Brogan. The others are Joseph Mercola, Ty and Charlene Bollinger, Sherri Tenpenny, Rizza Islam, Rashid Buttar, Erin Elizabeth, Sayer Ji, Christiane Northrup, Ben Tapper, and Kevin Jenkins.
The CCDH analysis found that about three-quarters (up to 73 percent) of the anti-vaccine content posted to Facebook originates with members of the Disinformation Dozen, and they were responsible for 65 percent of the anti-vaccination material on Facebook and Twitter between February 1 and March 16, 2021. The report urges that social media companies take action:
Social media companies must now follow their repeated promises with concrete action. Updated policies and statements hold little value unless they are strongly and consistently enforced. With the vast majority of harmful content being spread by a select number of accounts, removing those few most dangerous individuals and groups can significantly reduce the amount of disinformation being spread across platforms. The public cannot make informed decisions about their health when they are constantly inundated by disinformation and false content. By removing the source of disinformation, social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter can enable individuals to make a truly informed choice about vaccines.
Polls reveal that there’s little difference in levels of vaccine hesitancy between Blacks and Whites. A recent PBS Newshour/Marist Poll found that “73% of Black people and 70% of White people said that they either planned to get a coronavirus vaccine or had done so already; 25% of Black respondents and 28% of white respondents said they did not plan to get a shot.”
Addressing concerns about vaccine hesitancy among African Americans in a New York Timesopinion piece, pediatrician and public health advocateDr. Rhea Boyd noted that despite the large impact on Black populations and low vaccination rates,
Many are quick to blame “vaccine hesitancy” as the reason, putting the onus on Black Americans to develop better attitudes around vaccination. But this hyper-focus on hesitancy implicitly blames Black communities for their undervaccination, and it obscures opportunities to address the primary barrier to Covid-19 vaccination: access. A closer look at the data reveals that when Black people are given the opportunity, they do get vaccinated.
I explored the intersection of racism and COVID-19 vaccination (or, more accurately, anti-vaccination) agendas in a previous article, “Where Racism, Anti-Vaccination, and COVID-19 Conspiracy Meet.” While it’s true that demonstrable historical mistreatment of minorities plays a role in distrust of medical authorities, Dr. Boyd notes:
Many Black Americans need not resurrect the ghosts of the Tuskegee experiment to recall a moment in which they’ve endured medical mistreatment. As KQED recently reported, researchers say Tuskegee rarely comes up when Black people share concerns about Covid-19 vaccines. Rather, issues like racism in health care and safety concerns are cited much more often.
Thus—at least in the case of COVID-19 vaccines—while latent distrust of doctors is a factor in the African American community, it should not be seen as the main driver of vaccine hesitancy. Public health interventions are best crafted by listeningto the affected populations instead of making assumptions about them or speaking on their behalf—and that’s especially true for underrepresented minorities.
There are other media approaches that might help make a difference. From a public relations and messaging standpoint, one suggestion is that news and social media move away from illustrating COVID-19 vaccinations with images or video of people getting injections—not because it’s misleading or irrelevant but instead because it’s unnecessary and may unintentionally deter people. Most people don’t enjoy getting injections of any kind, and health or strong immunity would be a better image to pair with encouragement about getting vaccinated.
We are not out of the covid pandemic yet, and each person who refuses to get vaccinated, for whatever reason, puts us one step further away from ending this outbreak. Until we have reached herd immunity, the best advice is to get vaccinated and continue wearing masks and social distancing. Yeah, it sucks—but you know what sucks even more? Infecting others and dying from COVID-19—or surviving it with long-term health effects.
During the recent trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd, an interesting—and easily overlooked—aspect related to psychology and critical thinking arose.
As MSN reported, “Derek Chauvin defense attorney Eric Nelson on Wednesday suggested in court that George Floyd could be heard saying he ‘ate too many drugs’ in audio recorded during his arrest last year. Nelson made the claim while he was questioning Los Angeles Police Department Sgt. Jody Stiger, a use-of-force expert brought in by prosecution, during cross-examination. ‘I’d like you to see if you could tell me what Mr. Floyd says in this instance,’ Nelson said before playing a clip from body camera footage captured of Chauvin restraining Floyd during the May 2020 arrest that preceded his death. It is difficult to discern what is said in the clip. ‘Did you hear what he said?’ Nelson then asked Stiger. ‘No, I couldn’t make it out,’ Stiger responded. ‘Does it sound like he says, I ate too many drugs,’ Nelson asked before again playing the footage. ‘Listen again.’”
What did Floyd really say? It’s likely we will never know. But Nelson’s transparent efforts to prime the jury into hearing that phrase may have harmed the prosecution. That’s because of what in psychology is called an anchoring effect: we tend to more easily remember, and accept, the first explanation or information we hear. If there are two or more competing explanations for something, we tend to “lock on” to the first one and disregard others. That doesn’t mean that people can’t and don’t change their minds or update their information, of course—just that in general it’s easier to lodge the first idea in someone’s head than the second or third.
In the Chauvin trial, the damage was somewhat mitigated by other witnesses offering different—and in fact contradictory—interpretations of whatever Floyd said, including “I ain’t do no drugs.” The jury, hopefully recognizing that interpretation is highly subjective and easily manipulated, will be careful not to afford that issue too much weight in their deliberations. Whatever ambiguous comment George Floyd said—in his increasingly oxygen-deprived state under former officer Derek Chauvin’s weight and knee—is less relevant than the sea of other clear evidence about the case.
The question of interpretation of ambiguous stimuli is a core concern in many skeptical investigations, from EVP (alleged “ghost voices”) to UFOs (“What’s that odd light in the sky?”) to Bigfoot and ghost sightings and photos (“What’s that weird thing in the distance?”). I can’t count the number of times I’ve had someone present me with a photo, audio, or video recording and express exasperation and incredulity that I was not seeing what was plainly obvious to them.
I diplomatically explained that while their favored interpretation was possible, it was not the only—nor even the most likely—explanation. I try to explain the phenomenon of pareidolia, how people see faces in clouds and meaningful messages in ambiguous sounds. I discuss this at length in my books Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries and Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits, but it’s often useful to see how these principles apply in real-world situations where the consequences of misinterpretation (or over-interpretation) can be dire.
Ambiguous Audio in George Zimmerman Trial
There are many real-life cases in which the meaning and significance of words have been subjected to intense legal and forensic debate. In everyday life meanings in speech are not always clear. In February of 2012 a Florida neighborhood watchman named George Zimmerman shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin. During the trial Zimmerman claimed that Martin had attacked him and that he had shot the young man in self-defense; many, however, believed that the shooting was racially motivated. Those calling for civil rights and homicide charges against Zimmerman referred to a 911 recording of a call in which he muttered “these fucking coons.” Or did he?
Other news media and audio forensic experts heard a very different phrase: “these fucking punks.” Did Zimmerman say “punks” or “coons”? The phonetic sounds are quite different (“pǝNGks” versus “kōons”), and most people would have little difficulty telling the words apart. Different experts, however, came to different conclusions. The distinction is very important: one is a general derogatory label that could refer to anyone of any race, and the other is a racial slur referring specifically to black people. How that one word was interpreted could have been key in deciding Zimmerman’s future if presented as evidence to a jury or prosecuted under hate crime laws.
After several weeks and more careful audio analysis, the prosecution concluded that Zimmerman had not in fact uttered the racial epithet; he had in fact said “punks,” just as his defense attorneys had claimed. In explaining why different well-qualified experts had come to contradictory interpretations, Florida state attorney Harry Shorstein “said [prosecutor Angela Corey’s] team probably relied on audio enhancing from the FBI or the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Shorstein called such enhancing ‘an indefinite science.’”
Audio analysis is indeed an “indefinite science”—even for experts and professionals; unlike DNA testing, audio analysis has a large measure of subjective interpretation. The more important point is this: If experienced audio experts with the police department and the FBI could not agree on what Zimmerman said in a reasonably clear audio recording (far greater than most EVP), there is little reason to put much faith in the accuracy or validity of interpretations by amateur ghost hunters with no professional training or experience.
Cursing Elmos and Reverse Speech
We do not, of course, routinely misunderstand one another in everyday conversation but it happens more frequently than most people notice. Lecturer (and former educational programs consultant for the James Randi Educational Foundation) Barbara Drescher wrote an insightful piece on this for her site ICSBSEverywhere, using the then-recent controversy over a seemingly foul-mouthed Tickle Me Elmo as an example:
I just caught a report on our local Fox News station about a couple that appeared on Good Morning New York, complaining about Elmo’s potty mouth…Notice that the segment opens with a statement of FACT — the toy has a dirty message — rather than a question about whether this might be true. This is a perfect example of how human perception is influenced by knowledge. Perception driven by expectation and belief is called “top-down” processing, whereas perception that starts with information from the senses is considered “bottom-up.” Most of our daily perception is top-down in nature.
In many of my classes, I demonstrate this by playing music clips backwards. Some claim that these clips have “hidden messages.” Everyone from the Beatles to Queen to Eminem to Britney Spears has been accused of it. An entire website is devoted to the study of what David John Oates calls the greatest discovery of all time: Reverse Speech. He even sells training courses and other products (surprise, surprise). Oates claims that our unconscious is revealing itself through our speech and that these messages can be heard if we listen to recordings of this speech backwards. He spends countless hours listening to audio recordings of politicians, celebrities, and music — listening for anything that sounds like English and documenting it. Sometimes the audio must be slowed down before one can perceive the message.
It’s always important not to over-interpret evidence, of any kind. We all bring our personal experiences, expectations, and assumptions to bear on everything we experience and remember. It’s not inherently good nor bad—it’s just how the human brain works. But the first step to minimizing the problem is recognizing the psychological and social contexts, the prisms through which we interpret and understand the world. And the best way to do that, of course, is through skepticism and critical thinking.
With the recent trials of Derek Chauvin and others, I’m seeing a common fallacy: Seemingly outrageous legal defenses are held up as evidence of how horrible American social values are. But the outrage is evidence of nothing more than a misunderstanding of the justice system, as I wrote in this 2019 piece:
In an article by Bil Browning for LGBTQNation headlined “Texas Man Gets Probation after Using ‘Gay Panic’ Defense to Explain Killing his Neighbor” noted that “James Miller of Austin, Texas was found not guilty of manslaughter and murder by a jury after killing his neighbor, Daniel Spencer. After Miller used the ‘gay panic’ defense, claiming Spencer made a pass at him, the jury found him guilty of criminally negligent homicide and sentenced him to 10 years of probation.”
The murder of Daniel Spencer was a serious and tragic crime, but the headlines it spawned may mislead the public into assuming that Miller got probation because his lawyer proposed that particular claim. Examining the topic through a media literacy lens we see that it may or may not be true.
This headline is an example of a “post hoc ergo propter hoc” (“after this, therefore because of it”) logical fallacy, and it’s common in news reports about the outcomes of trials. Defense lawyers make several arguments, including patently false and controversial ones that make headlines, in defending their clients. Just because a given argument was put forth by the defense does not mean that the result of the case (conviction, acquittal, etc.) or the penalty (30 years, probation, etc.) was due to the judge or jury believing that specific argument. In other words just because your lawyer offered some ostensibly implausible argument as part of your defense doesn’t mean that anyone believed or endorsed it.
Seemingly outrageous legal defenses make the news periodically and are held up as evidence of how backward American social values are. But the phenomenon deserves a closer look. Not only is the person making some potentially outrageous or offensive comment often in the minority, but sometimes that are obligated to make that argument even if they personally disagree with it. In many cases it’s a defense attorney for an accused individual. Lawyers are ethically and legally obligated to represent their clients to the best of their ability. In criminal defense trials that sometimes necessarily involves making unsavory claims and assertions. It’s not clear why anyone would be surprised, much less outraged, at motions or arguments made by defense attorneys on behalf of their clients.
Examples include Ethan Couch, a Texas teenager who in 2013 caused a drunk-driving accident that killed four people and seriously injured two others. His defense infamously argued that Couch suffered from “affluenza,” an imaginary condition brought about by his privileged childhood in a wealthy family in which he didn’t—and presumably couldn’t be expected to—understand the consequences of his actions. Couch was sentenced to ten years of probation, spawning outraged headlines and commentary.
Other examples include the “Twinkie defense” (in which the lawyers for Dan White, convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the killing of two people including Harvey Milk in 1979, claimed that the crime was due to underlying depression as indicated by his consumption of Hostess Twinkies); and the November 2018 acquittal of a man in Ireland whose defense lawyer, Elizabeth O’Connell, asked the jury to consider whether the alleged victim’s thong underwear indicated her interest in him. The remarks were rightly and widely denounced across Ireland, from the Parliament to social media, where photos of thongs circulated with the hashtag #ThisIsNotConsent.
A widely-shared meme on December 9, 2018 stated that “Adult Brock Turner only served 3 months for raping an unconscious woman because serving jail time would ‘ruin his life,’” and compared his sentence to the case of teenager Cyntoia Brown, who was sentenced to 51 years in jail for murder but later granted clemency and released after serving 15 years for the killing. There are of course real racial sentencing discrepancies (despite the significant differences between these two cases), but part of the message is demonstrably false.
The judge in Turner’s case, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky, never said that the sentence reflected a desire not to “ruin his life.” That phrase was used by Turner’s father, not the judge. Persky did indicate leniency toward Turner in sentencing, but he did not reference the infamous phrase widely attributed to him, and since Turner’s father didn’t impose the sentence on his son, it’s not correct that Turner “only served 3 months… because serving jail time would ‘ruin his life.’”
In any event the public made their displeasure with the penalty known. Judge Persky was the subject of a successful effort to have him removed from the bench; he was recalled in June 2018, the first California judge recalled in 80 years. In fact California passed a law mandating minimum sentences in sexual assault cases and minimizing judicial discretion in such cases as a direct result of the Turner sentence.
Information Gap Between Juries and the Public
Judges and juries are subject to strict, and often arcane, rules about sentencing. In many cases they have far less discretion than the layperson assumes. A murdered victim’s family may believe that nothing less than the death penalty or twenty years in prison could begin to punish a convicted defendant for their loved one’s death, but if under the law—and the specific circumstances of that case—only manslaughter or negligent homicide apply, the defendant is likely to get a far more “lenient” (but judicially appropriate) penalty. Judges and juries are neither expected nor required to explain their reasons for convictions or sentencing.
The concern and outrage in these cases may be real and legitimate, but it’s important not to mistake a legal defense strategy for an accused criminal with tacit social endorsement of that claim. In these cases it’s often assumed, rightly or wrongly, that the defense’s argument influenced the outcome of the case or sentence given by a judge or jury in the case. Often there’s no reason to believe that; the judge in Couch’s case gave no explanation for her decision nor did the Irish jury of eight men and four women. There could have been any number of reasons why the defense prevailed in these cases (compelling exculpatory evidence, eyewitness testimony, and so on), and the judgments could well have been rendered despite—not because of—the inflammatory defenses.
The public—informed not by judicial standards of evidence but incomplete and often-sensationalized media stories—assume that they understand why judges and juries render their decisions, though they rarely do. For example when Bill Cosby was convicted after a previous acquittal, many in the news media attributed the difference to the emergence of the #MeToo movement, though jurors later said it had nothing to do with their decision.
Just because one part of a person’s defense garners attention or outrage doesn’t necessarily mean it is the only, or even the most important, aspect. The arguments made by defense lawyers (much less the defendant’s parents) are not, and should not be, assumed to represent the values, opinions, or beliefs of the public at large. As is often the case, the fact that these positions spark widespread public approbation reveals just how unpopular they are.
My friend andSquaring the Strangeco-host Celestia Ward recently interviewed the great Richard Wiseman about his new skeptical comic Hocus Pocus for the Adventures in Poor Taste site… check it out HERE!
The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out, with folklorist Prof. Jeannie Banks Thomas on how folklore can help people judge questionable online claims. Seemingly legit warnings might just be a rumor or legend, and even folklorists can be fooled about what’s what. We end with a discussion of strangeness at the Denver International Airport.
One important facet to critical thinking is recognizing (and hopefully avoiding) logical fallacies. There’s a bunch of them, and Richard Saunders has assembled a nice overview in bite-size chunks… check it out!
The new documentary Feels Good Man, directed by Arthur Jones, tells the strange story of how an otherwise obscure and innocuous frog cartoon character became a symbol of hate. The frog in question is named Pepe, created by an unassuming, otherwise unknown and (at times frustratingly) low-key San Francisco artist named Matt Furie.
What happened to Pepe is a deceptively complex question, and really understanding it requires some knowledge of media literacy, critical thinking, folklore, social media, memes, popular culture, and politics. Feels Good Man is about many things, and Jones sets the stage early in the film by introducing the audience to the concept of memes. The term, first coined by eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, refers basically to an idea or behavior that spreads between people within a culture. (Full disclosure: I know Richard, have met him several times, and we have both been guest speakers on the same conference program. Also, of course, he is a Board Member of the Center for Inquiry, publisher of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine.)
Dawkins does not appear in the film, but Dr. Susan Blackmore does. She is a psychologist and author of many excellent books, the most relevant of which here is The Meme Machine, which analyzes memes as the subject of study (memetics). In a TED talk and elsewhere, she has described and refined the idea of memes as ideas that replicate themselves from brain to brain, much like a virus, and often change in the process. (Full disclosure: I know Sue, have met her several times, and am a huge fan of her work on a wide variety of topics ranging from psi research to near-death experiences. And no, I don’t know anyone else in the film.) Some memes are images, and they’re very common on social media: The internet is full of them, ranging from adorable to wildly offensive: Captioned photos of Grumpy Cat. The Distracted Boyfriend photo. What The Most Interesting Man thinks. The anguished blonde yelling at a pissy white cat seated at a table in front of a plate of salad. Kermit the Frog sipping tea while dispensing some pithy wisdom. And so on.
Pepe was one such meme. As is always the potential fate of anything online, the image was soon adopted (or co-opted, depending on your point of view) by others. The film meticulously charts Pepe’s transition from slacker cartoon frog to hated white supremacist and right-wing icon. It didn’t happen overnight, and Feels Good Man documents the main turning points. In 2005, Furie drew a crude-but-cute frog for a comic series he created called Boy’s Club. It was about the wacky antics of four anthropomorphic animal roommates, several of whom are stoner-slackers, and one of whom was Pepe, a bug-eyed, heavy-lipped green frog.
In one panel of one of the cartoons Pepe looked sad, and, for whatever reason, that became a popular “sad frog” image on the notoriously toxic anonymous message site 4chan, typically populated by racists, sexists, misfits, and plenty of trolls. Trolls are people who, typically anonymously, delight in provoking arguments on the internet for their own amusement. “Nothing should be taken seriously” is the unofficial troll mantra. Trolls see themselves as taboo smashers whose real message is that the online world is populated with politically correct, easily offended ninnies who should lighten up.
In her book This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture, Prof. Whitney Phillips notes that “Trolls are keenly aware of how their behaviors impact others, and know exactly which issues will get the greatest rise from their chosen targets. From race to class to everything in between, trolls have their fingers on all kinds of powder kegs—all the better to troll you with” (p. 35); indeed, “trolling has a way of snapping its audience to attention, either by activating emotional investment or by forwarding a claim so outrageous that one cannot help but engage in a dialogue” (p. 159).
Trolling is inherently antagonistic arguing for the sake of arguing, pissing people off simply for the fun of it. The more vile, nasty, offensive, and outrageous the comment or image, the more successful the troll is by their standards. The troll is successful in part because his or her status is, at least initially, ambiguous. Do they genuinely endorse the venom they share, or is it all a joke? Just as Pepe is ambiguous—just a sad frog, after all—so is the message he carries.
Pepe’s forlorn expression resonated with legions of lonely, cynical, nihilistic, and disenfranchised slacker youth who felt alienated for whatever reason. This is nothing new, of course; a generation earlier, Beavis and Butthead had become a huge hit touching on similar themes, as did punk music a generation before that. There’s nothing new under the sun; most young people will at some point or other identify with the sneering rebel, the misunderstood outsider for whom adulthood and responsibility—not to mention civility—are unreasonably onerous demands. There’s a reason why the heroes of countless films are the nerds, punks, and outcasts while the jocks, beautiful people, and rich snobs are the Establishment enemy. In this context, it’s not surprising that Pepe became an underground icon among those who hated “the normies.” Most people who initially used and shared Pepe memes were drawn to its Rorschach-like appeal of expressing sadness or sorrow, but the many trolls among them saw the potential to push it a step further, placing Pepe in increasingly inflammatory contexts.
Soon part of the trolls’ mischievous mission was to make the Pepe image go mainstream, such as by tricking huge celebrities into sharing or referencing their images, symbols, or messaging. Several stars, including Katy Perry, shared Pepe images, surely unaware of his increasingly toxic and hostile connotations on the darker parts of the internet. In October 2015, then-candidate Donald Trump retweeted an image of him as Pepe—much to the delight of his young supporters, many of whom were very much aware that the image was associated with everything from Nazis to pedophiles. This part of the film offers an interesting, if not wholly convincing, argument that 4chan trolls played a significant role in electing Trump.
Pepe is only one of several similar troll memes that celebrities have unwittingly endorsed. In September 2008, for example, during an Oprah Winfrey Show about online predators, Winfrey referenced a troll meme named “9000 Penises,” allegedly written by someone online claiming to represent a group of 9,000 predators. One popular meme analysis website described the reaction: “Shortly after the episode’s airing, the ‘Over 9000 penises’ segment was quickly uploaded to YouTube, where it was identified by internet users as an obvious troll. Following much mockery, Harpo Productions, Oprah’s production company, had the video taken down and removed all references to the quote on Oprah.com.”
Ambiguity of these signs, symbols, and messages is part of their power. In 2018 during Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, rumors circulated that that a lawyer sitting behind Kavanaugh, Zina Bash, was caught on camera flashing a white nationalism sign with the fingers of one hand as her arms crossed. Memes shared on social media “revealed the truth” about what she was doing; some took it seriously, some as a joke, while others smelled Grade-A trolling. Many wondered why the Mexican-born, half-Jewish lawyer would be signaling to the world her sympathies with white nationalists.
Taylor Foy, a spokesperson for the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, said there was another, innocuous explanation for this second “Okay” hand sign: the signal was aimed at a judiciary staffer who fulfilled a request for the judge. Bash texted a staffer during the hearing “to request a water glass for the judge,” Foy said. “Once it arrived, she was simply communicating her thanks.” In CSPAN’s archive of the hearings, Kavanaugh turns around and speaks to Bash at one point. There’s a coffee cup, but not water glass, on the desk. Bash and the man sitting next to her appear to discuss whatever the judge said as Bash texts on her phone. About a minute later, Bash looks straight ahead and appears to mouth the word “glass.” Then, she gives the OK hand sign. Shortly after that, a water glass is brought to Kavanaugh’s desk.”
According to this explanation, it was an “okay, thanks, everything’s good” symbol, and linked to some external issue going on at the time or just before, not a sign of her support of racism. (Others in the public eye have also been accused of flashing “secret” signs, from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama and Beyonce.)
Feels Good Man then chronicles Furie’s largely fruitless attempts to rebottle the genie. He did, after all, create the character and could easily prove that he owns the copyright to the image. But copyright only takes you so far; people can legally use and share works, especially if they change it in some way and thus make it eligible for protection under the Fair Use doctrine, which generally allows for the unlicensed use of works in cases such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Satire, for example, is generally considered to be Fair Use, which is why Weird Al Yankovic isn’t required to (though he does) seek permission from original artists when making his parody songs. When someone uses a copyrighted image to sell an item, however, that’s a different kettle of stoner frogs—as conspiracy peddler Alex Jones found out when he used Pepe in a poster he sold (the film includes excerpts of Alex Jones under oath in Furie’s successful lawsuit).
The story of Pepe the Frog is in some ways a microcosm of social media, including its reliance on outrage, clicks, and attention as the main metric of what’s valued. Neither truth, nor accuracy, nor fairness but what will get people to Like and Share—what will make algorithms push one meme to the top of the search engines and “Now Trending” lists, providing social currency (“internet fame”) for the creators and real currency for advertisers. It’s a race to the bottom, an appeal to what will get people riled up—but, as before, it’s nothing new. Jerry Springer and many others exploited this formula three decades ago on their talk shows.
The paradox Furie faces is clear: the more he tries to fight the misuse of his beloved Pepe, the more attention he draws to it, and the more incentive and fodder he provides trolls to perpetuate it. On the other hand, ignoring the problem isn’t ideal either, and the film gives the sense that Furie was a bit too late in recognizing what was going on.
Furie and the film make the argument that intent and context are important to consider when interpreting usage of these symbols. Some argue that anyone who share memes like Pepe should by default be assumed to have knowledge of the freight and meanings associated with it, thus removing the cover of plausible deniability for trolls. After all, by 2021, surely few people are unaware that Pepe became associated with hate groups (regardless of his innocuous origins or other uses). But the inherent nature of symbols is that it’s often difficult or impossible to know what others mean when they share ambiguous images (a cartoon of Pepe wearing a Nazi swastika would of course not be ambiguous, but the classic drawing of him crying is).
One argument is that trolls should not be given the benefit of the doubt when they claim they don’t really agree with the racist, sexist, or otherwise objectionable messages they create and share. The argument is that these memes and messages are so toxic and malicious that even if they are joking, the fact that they’re joking about such issues is itself problematic and evidence of—if not agreement with, at least tolerance of—the intolerable. Examples include the West Point cadets who, like Zina Bash, were accused of flashing white nationalist signs on camera during an Army-Navy football game in 2019.
Feels Good Man makes a compelling argument that such a position doesn’t solve the problem but merely moves the crux of it one step further because the motive of the person sharing a meme still must be determined to know whether he or she is a troll. As we have seen, many troll memes are shared by presumably sincere and genuine non-trolls (such as Oprah and Katie Perry, not to mention Furie himself). Assuming that anyone using or sharing the Pepe meme is racist (or at best indifferent to racism) results in many false positives and false accusations—playing right into trolls’ hands. (A West Point investigation concluded that the cadets at the football game did not in fact make any white supremacy signs but were instead playing a common game with each other and were unaware they were on camera). The last scenes in the film reveal an interesting and surprising twist in the effort to reclaim Pepe the Frog. There’s no simple solution to the problem, and one can’t help but feel sorry for people who have a tattoo of Pepe (one is seen in the film) who are likely to be mistaken for a racist because of it.
Pepe’s arc is unusual in some ways but typical in others. There’s no clear formula for a quirky viral hit; for every clever meme that survives and thrives in the social media ecosystem, tens of thousands dies in obscurity. There was no malicious mastermind who intentionally plucked Pepe off the couch playing video games with his buddies in Boys Club and put him in a Nazi uniform to troll, horrify, and amuse. It was instead an incremental (and partly random) series of steps and decisions by different people at different times with different agendas. Feels Good Man is a fascinating story with a few surprising twists along the way. It’s a cautionary tale about what happens when an artist loses control over his work, and an enlightening case study in how social media trolls operate.
A longer version of this article appeared on my CFI blog; you can read it HERE.
This penultimate episode in our moral panic series starts with a discussion of the TikTok worries that interrupted schools last week as authorities braced for possible gun violence. Then we talk cinema and television from old to new, and the themes in moral panicking that jump out repeatedly — such as worrying about what the fragile minds of children or females might absorb, or copycat fears, or concerns about sex, violence, or low self-esteem. Check it out HERE!
In early May 2020, a YouTube video titled Plandemic was released by Mikki Willis (credited onscreen as “father/filmaker”[sic]) that featured a lengthy interview with virologist Judy Mikovits, who offered scattershot conspiracy-laden assertions about the “truth” behind the COVID-19 pandemic, prefaced by claims of having been framed for a crime (she was charged with theft in 2011) and accusations of government coverups going back decades involving various medical authorities, including Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Willis’s voiceover gravely warned that “for exposing their deadly secrets, the minions of Big Pharma have waged war on Dr. Mikovits,” who in the film—and, not coincidentally, in her new book—bravely reveals “the plague of corruption that places all human life in danger.”
Dozens of claims appeared in the twenty-six-minute video, some of which are unverifiable—as conspiracy theories tend to be. But many statements made by Mikovits have been investigated and proven to be misleading or simply false. Within weeks, the video was widely shared on social media, often by ostensibly non-conspiracy promoters who were “just asking questions.” The video was soon identified by social media platforms as containing dangerous misinformation and was subsequently removed. This in turn reinforced the idea that the views were being silenced and censored by Big Pharma, Big Tech, or some other sinister, shadowy Big.
Questions were raised by reputable journalists for publications including The Washington Post and The Atlantic, as well as Politifact and the Center for Inquiry. For an expert and filmmaker who claim to have been censored and silenced, Mikovits and Willis were strangely silent about answering legitimate questions.
The video was released on May 4; it’s now the week after Thanksgiving. Nearly seven months have passed since Mikovits and Willis made their claims. How have their claims and predictions held up?
There’s a lot to unpack in the video, but given the widespread audience that Plandemic had, it’s worth revisiting some claims and taking a closer look at its basic assumptions. It’s understandable that many in the public may have found this conspiracy theory plausible in the first few months of the pandemic. After all, there was a morass of misinformation and contradictory predictions and models, along with the typical perils of incomplete information during a global pandemic.
Simply making predictions about COVID—or anything—is easy to do. Trump, for example, claimed on February 10, 2020, that the virus “will go away in April.” It did not. On February 27, he claimed that “It’s going to disappear. One day—it’s like a miracle—it will disappear.” It may or may not eventually disappear, but so far it’s ravaged the world. Throughout the remaining months Trump repeatedly—dozens of times—claimed that the virus would just “disappear” or “go away.” Early predictions may have been plausible, but as month after month passed and it didn’t go away, you don’t need to be a stable genius to realize that he was flat wrong. Whatever the skeptics and critics said, time is the ultimate proof: Either it happened or it didn’t, and no amount of rationalizing can salvage it.
The record of wrong predictions about the coronavirus is long and grows by the hour. Around Valentine’s Day, the director of policy and emergency preparedness for the New Orleans health department, Sarah Babcock, said that Mardi Gras celebrations two weeks later should proceed, predicting that “The chance of us getting someone with coronavirus is low.” That projection was wrong, dead wrong: a month later the city would have one of the worst outbreaks of COVID-19 in the country, with correspondingly high death rates. Other projections have overestimated the scale of infections, hospitalizations, and/or deaths. … It’s not that epidemiologists and other health officials have all the data they need to make good decisions and projections about public health and are instead carefully considering ways to fake data to deceive the public and journalists. It’s that they don’t have all the data they need to make better predictions, and as more information comes in, the projections will get more accurate.
We now have the benefit of hindsight and nearly seven months of experience and evidence since the Plandemic video went viral. Does what has happened over the past seven months suggest that Mikovits and Willis were telling the truth or that they were wrong (or lying)? Mikovits and Willis offered no evidence, and refused to answer any questions about, their claims. On that basis alone, we can conclude that there’s probably something sketchy going on. Because they refused to clarify or expand on their claims, I can only go by what they said in the video.
The video contains dozens of claims and assertions, many of which aren’t specific enough to be proven true or false. But I’ll focus on three specific, key claims:
1) The Plandemic video claims that masks “activate” the coronavirus and that the virus is more infectious for individuals wearing masks than for those not wearing masks.
This claim is obviously and undeniably false. We know this because there is a proven inverse correlation between mask wearing and infection rates: the moreoften people (both on individual and population levels) wear masks, the less likely they are to contract the virus. If wearing masks “activated” the virus (whatever that would mean), then there would be a positive correlation between mask wearing and contracting illness.
This was obvious even in May when the Plandemic video circulated, because toward the beginning of the outbreak most people were not wearing masks; if wearing a mask made you more vulnerable to the virus, then it wouldn’t have spread. If common sense (and a background in virology) don’t tell Mikovits that masks help prevent the spread of infectious airborne diseases, there are also a raft of recent studies demonstrating it.
2) The video promotes hydroxychloroquine as effective against the virus and claims that “thousands of pages of data” have demonstrated the drug’s safety and efficacy.
In fact, controlled clinical trials of the drug have been performed; they found elevated cardiac risks, and several placebo-controlled studies found no efficacy at all. As The Washington Postnoted recently:
The Food and Drug Administration withdrew its emergency-use authorization for hydroxychloroquine in hospitalized patients in June, concluding that safety risks, including heart problems, outweighed any potential benefits. It has also warned against using the drug in outpatient settings, saying it could cause serious heart rhythm problems. The first randomized clinical trial later found that hydroxychloroquine was no more effective than a placebo at treating covid-19 in patients who were not hospitalized.
Trump’s own top health officials have explicitly said that the drug is not effective for COVID-19 patients. Notably, when President Trump became infected with the virus, he did not take hydroxychloroquine; more on that later. That, too, has been proven false.
3) In the Plandemic video, Mikovicz states her key premise, a conspiracy that the pandemic was “planned” with the ultimate goal “to prevent the therapies until everyone is infected, then push the vaccines.”
There are three distinct parts here: 1) “preventing the therapies” 2) until such time as “everyone is infected” and then finally 3) “pushing the vaccines.”
‘Preventing the Therapies’?
Let’s start with “preventing the therapies”: which therapies, exactly, have been “prevented” from being used in COVID patients? There’s no evidence that any effective therapies have been prevented from being used on sick patients at all, ever.
Mikovicz doesn’t say what therapies she’s referring to, but as noted it would presumably include hydroxychloroquine, which Trump has touted as well. And when Trump was diagnosed with COVID, which therapies were used in his recovery? Not the one endorsed by Mikovicz and Plandemic but instead a completely different therapy, an experimental antibody treatment.
So far three vaccines have emerged from Phase 3 trials and applied for emergency use authorization from Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were developed using messenger RNA technology, which “use a snippet of the virus’s genetic code to instruct cells to build the spike protein on the surface of the coronavirus, teaching the immune system to recognize the real thing.” The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine uses a harmless virus to deliver “to the body’s cells the genetic code for the spike protein. The cells then make a replica of the spike protein and the immune system learns to recognize the real virus.”
The reason you haven’t heard about a vaccine or treatment developed with hydroxychloroquine is simple: There isn’t one; it doesn’t work.The drug literally failed to help patients, so it’s (quite reasonably) not in the vaccines soon to be approved. The powerful, shadowy industry that Plandemic claimed would “prevent the therapies” didn’t actually prevent any therapies, so that’s also false.
We can move on to the second part of the claim, that the vaccines will be held back until such time as “everyone is infected.” This is nonsensical from a scientific point of view (and it’s astonishing that Mikovicz, who claims to be a brilliant virologist, didn’t know it), but if everyone is infected, then no vaccine is needed, because those who didn’t die from the virus would have some degree of immunity—the same protection that a vaccine provides, except of course without the severe lingering health damage that infection causes.
MaybeMikovicz was using hyperbole (again, she didn’t respond to questions, so I can’t be sure what she meant), but as of this writing 60 million people around the world have contracted the virus, and 1.4 million of them have died; in the United States alone, there are 12.5 million cases and 260,000 deaths.
When, exactly, does Mikovicz think the vaccines will be released, and why haven’t they been already? What is the magic number of sick and dead that Plandemic’s imaginary cabal of conspirators are waiting for? How many potential buyers have to get sick and die waiting for the vaccines she thinks are (or were) ready and just waiting to be released? Even in the pretzel-logic world of conspiracies, this one is bizarre.
The claims made by Mikki Willis and Judy Mikovits in Plandemic have pretty clearly been proven wrong, but for the sake of completeness, let’s address the third part of her claim, that after “everyone” (or enough, though apparently we’re not there yet) people are infected, the conspirators will begin “pushing the vaccines.”
It’s true that health experts, the government, vaccine makers, and others are promoting (or “pushing” in conspiracy talk) the vaccines, but there’s nothing nefarious about it. As The New York Times noted, “Public messaging campaigns can be instrumental in persuading people to act in a health crisis. Travel advisories kept many pregnant tourists and business travelers away from areas struggling to contain the Zika epidemic in 2016, for instance.” Nor is there anything new about it; the Ad Council (a nonprofit organization that produces, distributes, and promotes public service announcements) is preparing campaigns encouraging people to get vaccinated. The organization did the same thing in the 1950s when it encouraged the public to get polio vaccinations, and if you don’t know anyone who has gotten polio in the past fifty years, it’s due in part to organizations “pushing the vaccines.”
Why would they care whether the public is vaccinated? Not because of some sinister conspiratorial motive but because COVID is not only a public health crisis but also a social and economic one. The more people are vaccinated, the sooner the general population is healthy and not straining intensive care units in hospitals across the country and around the world. The sooner people are vaccinated, the sooner businesses and schools can reopen. It’s not complicated.
So, yes, health experts are encouraging the public to get vaccinated, though no one is, or will be, forced to. Vaccinations have never been mandatory in the United States; even children are not forced to be vaccinated if their parents choose to home school. When COVID-19 vaccines are available, if you don’t want to get it, that’s perfectly fine. Federal agents armed with automatic weapons in one hand and a vaccine syringe in the other aren’t going to be bursting through Americans’ doors to forcibly vaccinate anyone—fevered conspiracy fantasies to the contrary.
Mikovits and Willis have refused to answer rebuttals and faded from the spotlight, silent for nearly half a year as the virus has continued to ravage the country and globe. Perhaps the reason is simple and both immoral and horrifying: Plandemic was never about finding truth but instead a wildly successful publicity stunt for Mikovits’s book Plague of Corruption (which soon topped best-seller lists with the help of anti-vaccination activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his foundation).
It was all part of a cynical, dangerous, and astonishingly effective advertising campaign. The millions who shared, watched, and defended the Plandemic video were unwitting dupes who promoted a book of false conspiracy theories whose core message is harmful to public health and which fueled unfounded fears of vaccines against a potentially deadly virus. Plandemic, ironically, does exactly what Mikovits and Willis accuse Big Pharma and the medical industry of doing: exploits human lives and fears for profit.
An October 2020 article by researchers at the Drexel University Dornsife School of Public Health published in The Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review confirms that the consequences of this marketing ploy could be dire:
Anti-vaccine activists produced Plandemic to increase vaccine hesitancy and decrease vaccination, but their lasting impact may be that it promoted cynicism about measures meant to prevent COVID-19 spread, such as use of face masks and social distancing. Disregarding these measures threatens public health and may only serve to extend the pandemic. Stopping the spread and influence of Plandemic—and related misinformation—is in the interest of the public’s health.
Whether Mikovits and Willis truly believe their claims isn’t clear, but in any event their work is done. It was never about “exposing truth” or Big Pharma conspiracies but instead cleverly manipulating people on social media (and, by proxy, national news media covering the story) to get millions of dollars in free publicity for Mikovits’s book. Who are the real “sheeple” in this story, and what damage will they have done?
A longer version of this piece appeared on the Center for Inquiry “Coronavirus Resources Page”; you can read it HERE.
When my book “Scientific Paranormal Investigation” was published in 2010 I took out a full page ad in the T.A.P.S. (“Ghost Hunters” TV show) magazine. I figured their audience needed my book more than anyone…
The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! First we discuss “monolith mania” then for our main segment we bring back Dr. Leo Igwe, who has fought to protect people accused of witchcraft in Africa and elsewhere. Please check it out, you can listen to it HERE.
In my line of work, I routinely encounter events said to be inexplicable. They’re not merely amazing or incredible but downright unexplained. At times the topics I research are even said to be “beyond science” (whatever that would mean). These subjects—including psychic powers, crop circles, Bigfoot, ghosts, and miracles—are described as timeless mysteries that cannot be fathomed or understood: the mystery is simply too great, overwhelming all human capacity for understanding.
Of course most or all of these mysteries have indeed been explained through careful investigation. Invariably when people call something mysterious or unknowable, it’s because they simply haven’t put in the time and effort to understand it. The world is a complex place with many variables and moving parts; deconstructing them takes time and effort.
When I hear that ghosts are “unexplained,” I’m likely to politely and diplomatically inquire what specific aspect of ghosts the speaker finds inexplicable and what knowledge or assumptions factor into their blithe conclusion that specters are—must be—inherently beyond the capacity for human comprehension. What exactly do they think cannot be explained? A particular “spooky” photo? A creepy experience they had in an old house? Some scene in a “reality” TV ghost hunting show? Just because one person doesn’t understand something doesn’t mean it can’t be explained by someone else; typically, they’re called experts.
I thought about this over the past few months when seeing social media posts expressing astonishment and utter incomprehension about support for Donald Trump. This appears in countless memes, usually framed by something along the lines of “I’ll never understand why people still support Trump despite X…”
Explaining why Trump continues to have supporters after his repeated comments about minorities, women, the disabled, immigrants, etc., is actually pretty straightforward. It’s the same reason he doesn’t lose significant support when he makes bizarre and false comments about any number of things. His supporters offer one or more of the following reasons to overlook them: it was a joke or typical political braggadocio that doesn’t reflect his beliefs and therefore characterizing it as a sincere comment is political correctness run amok (and/or it is intentionally mischaracterized by the “fake news” media, one of countless example of how unfairly he’s treated); or that it’s a harmless mistake or misspeak (no one’s perfect after all).
Trump greatly exaggerated the size of his inauguration? So what? He’s a politician and a showman; that’s hardly a big deal. He bragged off camera about grabbing women? So what? It’s locker room talk; men always brag to other guys about their sexual prowess; it’s unseemly but hardly a reason not to vote for him. He suggested that COVID-19 could be cured by injecting disinfectant or exposing patients to “ultraviolet or just very powerful light” and later encouraged his supporters to vote twice, once by mail and again in person? Taking it literally is disingenuous; he was obviously joking! And so on.
Plus, as I’ve previously written, Trump is almost always right because he takes both sides of issues, declaring in one moment that he condemns white supremacists and in the next implying that he supports them. He praises his COVID-19 response team—before criticizing them hours later. He encourages Americans to vote by mail until he discourages them from doing so. When we combine this tactic with psychological factors such as confirmation bias (selectively noticing and remembering information that confirms our assumptions and beliefs while ignoring information that undermines it), it’s not difficult to understand his significant support.
Salon and CNN recently had headlines describing more of Trump’s presidency as “unimaginable.” Dismal, depressing, or ruinous, sure … but unimaginable? Beyond the human ability to comprehend? We can imagine far-off worlds of science fiction and dragons, meeting gods and seeing other galaxies. A Trump re-election, however distasteful and ruinous, is hardly unimaginable. And it’s just this sort of catastrophizing hyperbole that his supporters point to as evidence that news media is out of touch and, well, exaggerating. Sure, they say, the past four years haven’t been great, with the pandemic and all, but they haven’t been unimaginably bad, and in fact could have been worse.
There’s nothing mysterious, profound, or unexplainable about Donald Trump or his support. All the information you need to understand Trump and his appeal is available with an internet connection and a few taps of a keyboard.
Whatever it is that you don’t understand about Trump or his base, you can find years’ worth of solid reporting and analysis, from best-selling books to documentaries to long-form journalism.
Not only is there no excuse not to understand the Trump phenomenon, but failing to do so is a grave error if you oppose him. To solve a problem you have to understand it. You can bet that Joe Biden’s campaign hasn’t declared Trump’s support beyond comprehension, throwing up their hands in defeat in the face of Trump’s inherently inscrutable nature and appeal.
When it comes to continued support after Trump’s seemingly racist and misogynist comments, there’s another, more powerful rationale among his minority and women voters: The comment wasn’t a joke or hyperbole, and may in fact reveal his core values (if indeed he has core values beyond self-interest, a premise I don’t accept). But they are willing to overlook it because he advocates for other, more important issues. This is a theme that recurs over and over again: voters don’t appreciate his sexist and racist comments but don’t consider them to be disqualifying. It’s simply not a hill they’re willing to die on. They vote for Trump despite, not because of, such comments and actions.
For some people, the “I’ll Never Understand Trump” phrase serves as a shorthand, signifying not sincere confusion but wanting those on social media to know that Trump’s words and behaviors are so aberrant, distasteful, and foreign to them that they are metaphorically beyond understanding. However, even merely as a trite rhetorical device, the idea that Trump’s support is “beyond understanding” fuels a harmful narrative about Trump and his power.
I wrote about this several years ago in an article about people avoiding using Trump’s full name. Often refusing to name a figure is done in deference to their awesome and potentially destructive power. The idea is that to say the name without sufficient reverence—or at all—is to risk drawing the person’s attention or wrath. In Roman Catholic exorcisms, knowing a demon’s name is considered an important part of the ritual and gives the priest power over the evil entity. Even saying the name of the Christian god is considered dangerous in some cases. The Harry Potter villain Voldemort is referred to as “He Who Must Not Be Named.” In British fairy folklore there is a long tradition of avoiding speaking the word fairy aloud to avoid their wrath. Refusing to use Trump’s name, regardless of the motivation, treats him as a special case, something that is done just for him. We need not think twice about spelling out the names of ordinary people, but Trump’s name is marked as extraordinary, requiring special care and attention, either in mocking circumlocutions or avoiding it completely.
Some of this “I’ll Never Understand Trump” messaging may be hyperbole and virtue signaling (ironically the same techniques used by Trump and his supporters), and there’s a persistent concern that understanding something bad or malicious is the same as accepting or endorsing it. We see this often in discussions about killers, when someone comments that they could understand why someone would “snap” or act out (after being victimized or abused, for example), prompting others to ask why the commenter is “defending” the criminal or crime.
Mick West’s book Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect is instructive; in it he emphasizes the importance of listening to why conspiracy theorists believe the theories they endorse as well as understanding the psychological processes behind them. I’m not comparing Trump supporters to conspiracy believers (though there’s some demonstrable overlap, given the president’s repeated endorsement of them); instead my point is that understanding a point of view doesn’t imply agreeing with it. As Baruch Spinoza noted, “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.” From critical thinking and logical perspectives, this is completely false, of course, but that may partly explain the reluctance by many liberals to “understand” Trump and his support.
Trump is not some uniquely inscrutable phenomenon; he is instead a banal, habitual liar, conspiracy and fear peddler, and a two-bit con man. He’s not a masterful Svengali holding some unexplained, unnatural hypnotic sway over his supporters. He’s a showman, not a shaman, and his techniques are well understood by those who choose to look at the evidence.
By the same token, the real problem of characterizing Trump supporters as mindless zombies who have taken leave of their senses is not that it’s disrespectful but instead that it’s counterproductive. It pushes very real decision-making factors that need to be understood in order to be addressed into a black box of the unknowable.
Thinking about Trump’s appeal in binary moral absolutes is also oversimplistic and demonstrably false: People vote because of many factors, and issues that one person thinks self-evidently disqualifies Trump may not do so for someone else. The United States is incredibly diverse, and treating women and minorities as monolithic and homogenous groups is a flawed approach. If you assume that a) Trump is self-evidently racist and sexist; and also that b) no black woman would vote for a racist, then it’s you—not the female black Trump voter—who has badly misread the situation.
I noted that Biden’s campaign isn’t baffled by Trump at all, but neither have Democrats quite solved the puzzle more broadly. As Fareed Zakaria noted recently in The Washington Post (“Once Again, Democrats Have Misunderstood Minorities”):
Democrats are more disappointed because they had hoped that this would be an election that resoundingly repudiated Trump and realigned politics…He won the largest percentage of the Black vote since 1996 (though he still got only about 12 percent of the Black vote). One poll indicates he won 35 percent of the Muslim vote. What happened? There are probably many answers. Partly, Democratic strategist James Carville is still right—it’s the economy, stupid… But my own interpretation of these results is informed by feelings I have always had about the Democratic Party’s ideology of multiculturalism. It lumps a wide variety of ethnic, racial and religious groups into one “minority” monolith and approaches them from a perspective that does not fit us all. That means an ideology born out of the treatment of African Americans will ring false to American immigrants and their descendants. For us, harsh treatment by White Americans is not the single searing experience that shapes our politics. Some of us are socially liberal, others conservative … Even African Americans vary much more widely on policy than one might imagine.
If you don’t like Trump and want to diminish his influence (and that of his followers), the solution is not real or feigned confusion about his appeal but instead a closer examination of its psychological and social dynamics—and maybe changing your underlying assumptions and approach.
Few things in the world are truly incomprehensible or unexplained; ghosts, miracles, and Donald Trump are certainly not among them. Biden will need to take steps to unite a seemingly fractured nation. This will require understanding—not in the sense of fuzzy forgiveness and bonhomie but in the sense of applying motivational psychology—to find common ground and determine how best to bring people together.
A longer version of this article appeared on the CFI website; you can find it here.