Jun 252017
 

We are just past the 2017 summer solstice (June 20 and 21 were the longest days of the year for anyone living north of the equator), and amid the celebrations, pagan rituals, and Stonehenge treks, there were many who performed a trick seemingly unique to that day.

According to some, eggs and brooms can somehow be balanced on their ends on that day (and/or on the vernal equinox, when day and night length are about the same; and/or on the first day of Spring, take your pick). YouTube videos can be found of many people trying this quirk for themselves, mostly successfully (videos showing the trick not working are of course less popular and interesting). The British tabloid The Daily Mirror–a reliable source for unreliable, sensationalized information since 1903–offered a story about goofy beliefs about the equinox including that eggs and brooms can be balanced on that day.

 

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You can read the rest HERE.

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

Jun 132017
 

I was recently interviewed for Voice of Islam’s Drivetime radio show, discussing Orwell’s book 1984 and its relevance to 2017. The topics ranged from Big Brother mass surveillance, concerns about public privacy, and the use of doublespeak in politics (including under the current U.S. president). You can hear the interview HERE. 

 

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

May 142017
 

Hey folks! The new episode of Squaring the Strange podcast is now out, and in it you can hear Pascual Romero and I in Part 2 of the series on Jamaican ghosts and folklore (this carving below is of a Jamaican “duppy”). Listen here! https://squaringthestrange.wordpress.com/

 

Moon duppy

 

 

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

May 122017
 

Nice note from a teacher friend of mine, glad to see an article I wrote several years ago is still being read and steering people toward skepticism…

 

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

May 082017
 

How useful is the Facebook ‘Safety Check’ function during terrorism and disaster? A closer look in my CFI blog…

When the attacks in London happened, many people used Facebook’s “Safety Check” functions to alert friends and family that they were safe.

When launching the feature, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced, “When disasters happen, people need to know their loved ones are safe. It’s moments like this that being able to connect really matters.” As Wired explains, “When activated, Safety Check locates Facebook users near a disaster site through the city they list on their profile, or from where they last used the Internet. Users then receive a notification asking to confirm that they’re safe or to say that they weren’t in the affected area. Those who choose ‘safe’ generate a notification to their friends and followers, who can track how many of their friends were affected.”

I’m sure the effort is well intended, but my natural skepticism led me to wonder just how useful it really is. There are about 10 million people in London at any given time (8.5 million residents plus another 1.5 million visitors per month, roughly) and the chances that any given one of them will be harmed or killed in terrorism or a natural disaster is very remote.

You can read the rest HERE. 

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

May 052017
 

Hey folks! After co-founding and co-hosting the Parsec-winning “MonsterTalk” podcast, I’m returning with co-host Pascual Romero for “Squaring the Strange.” The show brings evidence-based analysis and commentary to a wide variety of topics, ranging from the paranormal to the political, the mysterious to the mundane. Our first month of shows is now out, please give it a listen!

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Apr 202017
 

My work has been included in the new edition of a university textbook on Abnormal Psychology. (No, I’m not a case study.) Cool!

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You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Apr 182017
 

“This photo of Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg has one convicted felon; if you immediately assumed it was Stewart, you should think again!”

mindful of stereotypes!

This meme is a wonderful lesson in prejudice and stereotypes–or at least it would be if they weren’t both convicted felons… Stay skeptical, my friends!

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Apr 122017
 

An inspirational cancer survivor widely honored (and featured in Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” video) turns out to have made up or changed important parts of her past. Now many of her supporters are feeling betrayed, accusing her of theft, faking illness, and worse. It’s a fascinating lesson in how easily people can be manipulated by tapping into popular narratives, and why critical thinking is important…

You can read the remarkable, in-depth CNN article HERE. 

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Apr 102017
 

A mysterious 310-foot-diameter crop circle that appeared in a farmer’s barley field in Chualar, Calif., as 2013 ended puzzled the public for more than a week. Echoing the sentiments of many, the field’s owner told CNN, “To be that intricate in design, it kind of baffles me as to how that was done.”Videos and photos of it went viral, and though some dismissed the crop circle as a hoax, others weren’t so sure. Some crop-circle experts wrote in-depth analyses that claimed to cleverly decode hidden meanings in the pattern, including that a bright comet would appear in the sky later in 2014…

 

You can read the whole story HERE. 

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Apr 082017
 

I was recently interviewed by Vice media about my investigation into the 1997 Pokemon Seizure case.

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I think the girl who got me a latte at my favorite coffee shop wasn’t even born when I solved that mystery…

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Mar 202017
 

While there are many factors in Trump’s rise, one of the most bizarre is his use of conspiracies. Whether the topic is voter fraud, Obama wiretapping Trump Towers, or anti-vaccination arguments, no modern politician has so successfully and routinely employed conspiracy theories as Donald Trump.

Political conspiracies, both real (Watergate) and dubious (G.W. Bush was behind the 9/11 attacks) are nothing new. In the 16th and 17th centuries, for example, during outbreaks of the bubonic plague, dozens of people in what is now Switzerland and Italy were arrested and accused of intentionally spreading the disease as part of a plot to steal from sickened, wealthy landowners.

But Trump’s endorsement of conspiracies is unprecedented in American politics. Trump enjoys flirting with fringe and extremist elements including conspiracy theorists. Trump has also appeared on the radio show of noted conspiracy advocate Alex Jones, who has repeatedly claimed that the Obama administration has faked or staged domestic shootings (including the Sandy Hook school massacre) as a pretext for confiscating American’s guns.

You can read the rest HERE.

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Mar 052017
 

My recent blog on how a faked abduction may have contributed to the mosque shooting in Quebec, and why false crime reports often target minorities…

 

Skeptics and skeptical researchers routinely encounter and investigate a wide variety false reports: False reports of Bigfoot, UFOs, miracle healings, alien abductions, psychics, illnesses, and so on. I’ve personally investigated many such reports, including of phantom clowns (see my book Bad Clowns for more), racist conspiracy theories and legends (such as the Blood Libel anti-Jewish myth and anti-Muslim stories), and more. The xenophobic archetype of the evil outsider is ancient and takes on new forms. Understanding the psychology and motivations behind false reports can be enormously helpful. Some of them are hoaxes, but many are the result of sincere mistakes, misperceptions, and other cognitive errors.

When false reports concern “unexplained” topics (faked ghost sightings or UFO photos, for example), the result is usually just wasted time and the loss of credibility of a hoaxer or its proponents. However when false reports involve real-world subjects (for lack of a better term) they often implicate minorities and can result in miscarriages of justice. False reports of crimes, for example, are often used as a weapon against minorities.

You may recall Susan Smith, the mother who in 1994 blamed an African-American man for kidnapping her children when she in fact drowned them in a lake. Or Jennifer Wilbanks, the so-called “Runaway Bride” who claimed to have been kidnapped and assaulted by a Hispanic man, but who had in fact voluntarily left her groom at the altar. Or the infamous Central Park Five case, in which five Black and Latino teenagers were arrested in 1989 for the brutal rape and assault of a white jogger in New York’s Central Park. Many people–including Donald Trump and African-American poet Sapphire (author of Push, from which the Oscar-winning film Precious was adapted)–jumped on the bandwagon falsely accusing the young men of the crime. The list goes on and on… and continues today…

The Abduction of Alyssa Langille

On Sunday January 15, a 15-year-old Canadian girl named Alyssa Langille was abducted by two men in Mississauga, near Toronto. According to news reports, “A witness said two men jumped out of a silver van at St. Barbara Blvd. and Comiskey Cres. just after 1 p.m. on Sunday. They forced the girl into the van and were last seen heading south on St. Barbara towards Derry Rd., according to the witness.” The suspects were described as a “South Asian man around 24 years old, described as tall with a thin build, and wearing an orange turban with a grey sweater with cut off sleeves and a green shirt underneath. The second was simply described as a South Asian male.” Based on that information an Amber Alert was issued, and the news media told the public to be on the lookout for these abductors and their victim.

Exactly two weeks later in the neighboring province of Quebec, a man named Alexandre Bissonnette allegedly opened fire in a mosque, killing six people and wounding eight others in what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a “terrorist attack on Muslims.”

Though the suspects in Langille’s abduction were not specifically identified as Muslim–Sikhs and other turban-wearing groups have of course been mistaken for Muslims–the South Asian nation of Indonesia has a high percentage of Muslims, and the implication was clear to Canadian audiences. In another layer of fear-fueling misinformation about minorities, Fox News falsely tweeted that the suspect in the attack was of North African heritage, specifically Moroccan. Fox News eventually removed the information after being asked to do so by Trudeau’s director of communications, Kate Purchase. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation also made the same error.

As it turns out Alyssa Langille was not in fact abducted. Her father had called police after the girl’s sister found that Alyssa had placed clothes in her bed to make it appear as though she was still sleeping in it, but she had run away. Toronto police found Alyssa in Scarborough, a district of Toronto, unharmed.

It’s easy to see how Langille’s abduction would have hit a nerve, especially in Canada’s eastern provinces; as The New York Times noted, “right-wing extremism has long thrived in Canada among skinheads, white supremacists and others,” particularly in Quebec. The racist trope of the ethnic foreigner preying on young white women is particularly evocative; perhaps one of the best known cases involved Emmett Till, the African-American teenager who was lynched in Mississippi at the age of 14 in 1955 after reportedly flirting with a White woman. According to recent news reports, Till’s “accuser has recanted the most incendiary parts of her claims against him. Carolyn Bryant Donham told author Timothy B. Tyson that her long-ago allegations that Emmett grabbed her and was menacing and sexually crude toward her, ‘that part is not true.'” Indeed, defending the “honor” of White females is a longstanding theme in White nationalism.

Whether the (non)abduction of Langille partly inspired Bissonnette to attack the mosque is unknown at the moment, but it is almost certain that the social media-savvy extremist was aware that a dark-skinned turban-wearing man and his colleague were being sought in connection with the abduction–or worse–of the young blonde woman.

There is a further ironic twist to this story. Usually it is the “victim” who falsely accuses racial or ethnic minorities of their kidnapping or assault–often because it lends crediblity to their claims and plays into widely accepted negative stereotypes about those groups. In this case it turns out the eyewitness who claimed to have seen Alyssa Langille abducted by a turban-wearing man in a van was Uzma Khan, described as “a 32-year-old woman from Mississauga” Ontario, who has now been charged with public mischief for her false report and is due in court later this month.

It’s not known why Khan made the false report–perhaps it was for attention, or she misunderstood something she saw–but her decision to specify that a fictional abductor resembled a popular image of Muslims may have had results she could not have predicted. False crime reports of any kind are not only a waste of police resources and divert attention from real victims, but they can also have real-world consequences.

Feb 282017
 

I got a Google Scholar alerting me that my research on African witchcraft and superstition belief is cited in a new academic book, “Witchcraft as a Social Diagnosis.” Glad my work is helping to bring attention to the dangers and injustice of modern-day witch hunts!

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Feb 252017
 

Those times you really agree with someone, then they go off the rails… my new CFI blog:

About once or twice a month (though sometimes once or twice a week, depending on how much I’m reading at the time), I come across an article or blog that makes some important point that I agree with. Maybe it’s about the need for skepticism, or about politics, or anything else. I’m reading along, nodding in approval in paragraph after paragraph (or assertion after assertion), pleased at thinking about those it might educate.

And, just as my finger is reaching to share or like the post, I wince. The writer or commenter stumbles, making a gaffe or mistake that I can’t in good conscience implicitly endorse. It’s frustrating because I agree with the overall point, and think the comment or piece merits a wider audience.

It’s like some well-intentioned skeptic writing a piece about why the evidence for Bigfoot (or recovered memories, or alien visitation) is poor, and giving two solid, accurate reasons–followed by a third which is flat-out wrong, or an argument whose premise is embarrassingly flawed. This happens regularly enough that I’ve taken to describing it (to myself anyway) as The 10% Fail. Ninety percent of it is on target, but the last ten percent undermines the author’s credibility in some way. This issue is a common lament among professional skeptics: a well-meaning but inexperienced skeptic goes on television or gives an interview-ostensibly representing organized skepticism–in which he or she misspeaks or mangles some salient fact in the process of debunking some bogus claim, and that error is then seized upon by opponents as proof that skeptics (writ large) don’t know what they’re talking about.

I recently found an example of this, written by Andrew David Thaler of the Southern Fried Science…

Read more HERE. 

Jan 262017
 

August 8, 2014: The Shoppes at Rose Hall, Montego Bay, Jamaica

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I was done. I’d arrived at the gated tourist mini-mall about half an hour earlier, and couldn’t take any more of the servile shopkeepers shilling shelf after shelf of schlocky tchotchke of unrivalled tackiness. I didn’t need a colorful coffee mug featuring a baked (and well-endowed) rasta firing up a spliff, nor a shot glass with a slightly off-kilter outline of Jamaica, nor a Bob Marley-scented candle (don’t ask). I considered getting a bag of criminally overpriced Blue Mountain coffee, but thought the better of it when I read the fine print saying that the contents were “no less than 30% Blue Mountain coffee beans,” which by my admittedly shaky math left a lot of percentage for non-Blue Mountain beans. It was the off-season, and only a handful of sunscreen-scented tourists ran the gauntlet.

Awaiting a return shuttle back to my hotel, with the low tropical roar of the Caribbean to one side and the famous Rose Hall plantation house looming on the hill facing us, I noticed that the young woman at the boxed-in greeting/information desk was reading a romance novel.

The type didn’t surprise me—more romance novels are sold each year than all other genres combined—but I noticed that it was an American Harlequin-branded novel. I wondered if this young black Jamaican woman was relating to the blonde, Caucasian characters in the book and on the cover. After all, it’s often said that people want to see representations of themselves—their bodies and their culture—in their entertainment, spawning perennial complaints about the lack of minorities in TV shows and films. Curious, I approached the desk. She looked up, prepared to offer a canned answer about what shops were where, when the shuttles ran, or where the nearest restroom was.

Instead I pointed to the book tented before her on the desk and asked, “Do you prefer American romance novels to Jamaican ones?” She smiled and said yes. I asked if Jamaican ones were available and she said yes, but that they aren’t widely read. (The previous day I’d been in two bookstores in the nearby city, Montego Bay, looking for books on local folklore and seen a handful of locally-published books with sensuous dark-skinned covers—surrounded by rows of Fifty Shades of Grey.) She said that it wasn’t that Jamaicans preferred non-Jamaican characters or settings, nor that North American romance writers were better than locals. Instead, she said, Jamaican books are more expensive than others because they are printed elsewhere and shipped here, thus subject to import taxes and shipping. (Harlequin novels are, too, of course: except for sugar and coffee most things are imported to the island. But they’re mass-produced cheaply, and economies of scale drive up the cost of Jamaican books.)

Also, she said with a shrug, “Jamaicans don’t read.”

You read,” I noted with a smile.

“Yes, but I was forced to,” she replied. “As a girl I’d get a whoopin’ if I didn’t read. My mom had encyclopedias and she would make me read them to her, to learn.” I leaned forward on the wooden ledge, intrigued; I assumed her mother was a schoolteacher. “Was your mom a big reader?” I asked. She shook her head: “No, not at all. She didn’t finish high school. But she wanted me and the other children to learn to read, it was important.”

It was clear that the whoopin’ she referred to was not metaphorical; having spoken to a handful of Jamaicans I got the distinct impression that corporal punishment was widely practiced. She’d actually get smacked for not reading, not learning. “I love reading now,” she hastened to add. “I’m glad she made me read, I love to read the Twilight books, Harry Potter, all those.”

I was in Montego Bay for a television shoot; a producer from a show called The Dead Files (which airs on The Travel Channel) brought me out to do an on-camera interview about an investigation I’d conducted into Rose Hall, a former slave plantation said to be haunted by the ghost of Annie Palmer—the White Witch of Rose Hall. It’s one of the best-known mysteries in the Caribbean, a sordid tale of slavery, sexual perversion, voodoo magic, multiple murdered husbands, and bloody revenge. I’d done historical and on-site research solving the mystery; it can be found in Chapter 12 of my 2010 book Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries.

Back at my hotel after the shoot I’d spent the previous night reading a memoir titled Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs, who was born a slave in 1813 North Carolina and eventually escaped to freedom in 1842. It’s an unusual first-hand account of slavery during that time—rare because most slaves were illiterate; in fact in 1830 the North Carolina General Assembly passed a law making it illegal for anyone to teach a slave to read or write, and the penalty was severe: “If a white man or woman, be fined not less than one hundred dollars, nor more than two hundred dollars, or imprisoned; and if a free person of color, shall be fined, imprisoned, or whipped, at the discretion of the court, not exceeding thirty-nine lashes, nor less than twenty lashes.” As for slaves, “if any slave shall hereafter teach, or attempt to teach, any other slave to read or write, the use of figures [numbers] excepted, he or she may be carried before any justice of the peace, and on conviction thereof, shall be sentenced to receive thirty-nine lashes on his or her bare back.” Similar prohibitions enforcing slave illiteracy were found elsewhere at the time.

This practice, along with the history of slavery intimately associated with the country, was fresh in my mind as I heard the young woman tell her story. Most blacks in Jamaica are the descendants of African slaves brought to the island beginning in the 1500s by Portuguese to work on sugar plantations. I didn’t ask, but it’s very likely that her relatives—perhaps as recently as her great-grandfather—were slaves.

An irony dawned on me. The discipline meted out by a parent, of course, is very different from the discipline meted out by a slave owner. However there are parallels, and the ironic contrast of a mother giving her child a beating for not reading and improving herself was impressed upon me, especially coming from a community who in earlier days may have at one time been beaten for learning to read and write. Many American children only grudgingly learn to read and write, and after graduating high school never read for pleasure or work. They’re not illiterate; they can read food labels, government forms, bills, and day-to-day information. But beyond that, they pretty much don’t read—just as she said most Jamaicans don’t read. A generalization, to be sure, but one with more than a grain of truth to it.

I saw this first-hand years ago when I worked with the Literacy Volunteers of America teaching adults and non-native speakers to read; in most cases the clients grew up in households where reading was neither valued nor encouraged. I was fortunate to grow up in a literate home where newspapers, books, and magazines could be found, but many people do not have that benefit. I felt a strange literacy-based kinship with this young Jamaican woman and her mother. I pictured her as a young girl in their small house in the island’s rural mountains reading encyclopedias (which are written at a far higher reading level than anything you’ll find in most classrooms) aloud to her mother and siblings, tripping over the polysyllabic words—and in the priceless process learning about everything from antelopes and architecture to zoology and zymurgy. She grew up to be a bright, personable, intelligent, and well-spoken young woman.

As a reader, writer, and media literacy advocate I of course value literacy, and we were both grateful that her mother did as well—even if it took the threat of a whoopin’ to enforce it. I asked her what she wanted to do in the future, and she said she was planning to get a degree in business administration, a natural and lucrative career for a booming tourist island. I heard my hotel shuttle arriving behind me, but before I left I told her I was sure she was going to be an important and successful professional some day. She smiled confidently, sat upright in her chair, and turned back to her romance novel.

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Jan 062017
 

A classic article from the archives, in which I talk about ghost hunting ethics:

The drive from my apartment to the haunted house was about twenty minutes, but I found myself wishing it would take longer. I wanted more time to get a handle on what I was going to say, how I was going to tell the family that their house was not haunted by a demon or angry ghost. In theory, it should have been a straightforward conversation, not unlike telling a nervous child, “There’s nothing under the bed, now go to sleep.” It should have been a comforting and satisfying task for a prominent, experienced skeptical investigator. In practice, however, there were real people with real fears and real feelings, people who had been misled and lied to. And I’d probably have to lie to them again—or at least not tell them the whole truth.

You can read the rest HERE. 

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Dec 212016
 

What do Bob Dylan, Shakespeare, Eminem, Donald Trump, Sartre, Eazy-E, Amy Schumer, Roger Waters, and Simone de Beauvoir have in common? They’re all mentioned in my new Unco Junto blog on the subject of authenticity, with contributions by David Koepsell, Eve Siebert, and Bob Blaskiewicz….

 

Some have described authenticity (or lack thereof) as an important element in the current presidential race, and a characteristic that divides Donald Trump from Hillary Clinton.

The New York Times noted that “Trump… has polled as one of the most authentic candidates in this election, despite statements and behavior that might also be called brazenly inconsistent. In fact, his authenticity problem looks like the opposite of Clinton’s: Nervous Republican politicians have been trying to suggest that what they themselves call his ‘racist’ invective is merely for show. In other words, Trump’s establishment supporters seem to be hoping that his authenticity is the expedient work of a conniving opportunist. The words ‘authentic’ and ‘authenticity’ derive from the Greek ‘authentes,’ a word that can denote ‘one who acts with authority’ or ‘made by one’s own hand’…. For a long time, Americans decided that the most authentic politicians were the most likable ones. This method of appraisal wasn’t entirely frivolous. Samuel L. Popkin, the author of The Candidate, says that the interest in the personal qualities of politicians stems from legitimate concerns in a diverse democracy: ‘Are you real or not? Because you’re not like me.’ Officeholders end up having to make decisions in unforeseen situations, so we gauge their judgment based on how much we like and trust them.”

You can read the rest HERE.

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Dec 022016
 

A new article on BBC-Earth discusses my five-year investigation into the mysterious vampire beast El Chupacabra; if you’re interested in how I solved one of the world’s best-known monster mysteries, check it out HERE!

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Nov 282016
 

An excerpt from my upcoming book on ghost hunting:

It’s important to realize that apparently odd, peculiar, or strange things happen in our everyday lives—and usually pass unnoticed. The cat or dog acts strangely for no apparent reason; we discover we had more (or less) money in our pocket or purse than we remembered; we happen to look at a digital clock at 12:34, or 11:11; on a crosstown drive we seem to catch all green lights—or all red ones; keys get misplaced at an especially bad time; an old friend calls out of the blue not long after you thought about him or her; and so on. 

When afraid, alarmed, or psychologically primed to the idea that something unusual and unknown is going on, our sensitivity to anything odd or out of the ordinary goes up, and things that we would otherwise ignore (or perhaps not even notice) can take on added significance. Common occurrences such as flickering lights, dead batteries, unexplained but fleeting unease, computer crashes, blurry sections in photographs, video glitches, and so on can be, and have been, claimed as possible evidence for ghosts. Not only does this unconscious psychological bias lead us to pay attention to such mundane mysteries, but it also imbues them with added significance, making them much easier to remember. A flashlight that happens to go out during a power failure will be soon forgotten, but a flashlight that happens to go out in a dramatic moment when a ghost hunter is asking for a sign from an invisible spirit will be remembered for a lifetime…

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Nov 252016
 

In case you missed my recent appearance on the “Big Picture Science” show talking about aliens and UFOs, it’s HERE!

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Nov 232016
 

In my latest blog I and three guests examine the nature of “authenticity,” which played a role in Donald Trump’s election. But what is authenticity, and why do we value it?

The New York Times noted that “Trump… has polled as one of the most authentic candidates in this election, despite statements and behavior that might also be called brazenly inconsistent. In fact, his authenticity problem looks like the opposite of Clinton’s: Nervous Republican politicians have been trying to suggest that what they themselves call his ‘racist’ invective is merely for show. In other words, Trump’s establishment supporters seem to be hoping that his authenticity is the expedient work of a conniving opportunist. The words ‘authentic’ and ‘authenticity’ derive from the Greek ‘authentes,’ a word that can denote ‘one who acts with authority’ or ‘made by one’s own hand’…. For a long time, Americans decided that the most authentic politicians were the most likable ones. This method of appraisal wasn’t entirely frivolous…”

You can read the rest HERE. 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Nov 152016
 

Batman’ has vowed to stop the scary clowns! (No, really–kind of.) In my CFI blog I take a closer look at what drives copycats.

The rash of scary clown reports that have plagued America over the past two months have recently spread to other continents including Australia and Europe. It’s gotten so bad that schools in the United States and Canada have been put on lockdown, and Ronald McDonald has (temporarily) been put on ice. According to Yahoo News, “Seems the scary clown craze is not only in America. There is an issue with people dressing up and frightening people in England, but they pissed off the wrong person: Batman. Someone in Cumbria, located in North West England, has been chasing off those dressed as clowns in the hopes of making children feel safe, according to The Telegraph.”

As I discuss in my new book Bad Clowns, This is not the first time that a costumed real-life superhero, of sorts, has come to the rescue of people in clown peril… You can read the rest HERE. 

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

 

Nov 082016
 

Reporter Mike Balsamo has an error in his Associated Press story about clowns: Aurora Colo. theater shooter James Holmes did not in fact dress up as the Joker during his attack (as I explain in my “Bad Clowns” book, pp. 115-119 and also in this CFI blog).

 

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There are other errors as well, including that The Joker’s hair is green, not red, and it refers to “working clown John Wayne Gacy.” Gacy did not work as a clown, he was a building contractor who volunteered as a clown on a few occasions but was not a professional clown.

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Oct 312016
 

Sharon Hill, Kenny Biddle, and I were quoted in a recent “Popular Mechanics” article on ghost hunting gadgets and pseudoscience… You can read it HERE. 

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Oct 302016
 

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

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

1) Halloween is Satanic

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

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

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

2) Beware Tainted Halloween Candy

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

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

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

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

3) Beware Halloween Terrorists

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

4) Beware Sex Offenders on Halloween

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

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

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

5) Beware Scary Clowns

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

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

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

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

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Oct 222016
 

Donald Trump’s recent comments about the prospect of a rigged election and widespread voter fraud should he lose have taken his conspiracy theories to a new level.

Political conspiracies are nothing new, and date back millennia–the Roman Empire was rife with intrigue and plots--but Trump’s endorsement of conspiracies is unprecedented in American politics. No modern politician has so successfully and routinely employed conspiracy theories as Trump.

Trump has implicitly or explicitly endorsed several prominent conspiracy theories, including about the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. When asked about it during a media interview Trump responded, “I’m hearing it’s a big topic… They say they found a pillow on his face, which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow.” (In fact Scalia died of natural causes, a pillow was not found over his face, and his family was aware he’d been ill for some time.)

Trump has also endorsed several explicitly anti-science conspiracy theories including that childhood vaccines cause autism, and that global warming is a hoax (tweeting on Nov. 6, 2012 that “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive”). Trump’s best known conspiracy theory, however, involves questions about President Obama’s birthplace, which was of course a clear challenge to his legitimacy as president under the Constitution.

But recently Trump took a new tack. Vanity Fair noted last week that “Donald Trump is once again down in the polls, and like clockwork, the Republican nominee has resumed warning his supporters that ‘Crooked Hillary’ and her allies will steal the election. His latest theory as to how the vast left-wing conspiracy will cheat him out of the White House? Undocumented immigrants, Trump says, are receiving fast-tracked U.S. citizenship so they can vote for Hillary Clinton in November.”

Trump has trafficked in many conspiracy theories for years, but this is one is different. Here’s why.

By employing this specific type of conspiracy theory Trump sets up a no-lose situation for himself (and those who endorse him). Trump has called into question the legitimacy of the very foundation of a representative democracy: voting.

A conspiracy about the prospect of voter fraud in case of Trump’s loss resonates personally and emotionally with ordinary voters in a way that other conspiracies will not: Not everyone cares whether or not Obama was born in the United States, and even fewer likely care about the exact circumstances of Justice Scalia’s death. But voting is a different matter: it is the people’s voice and right, and everyone wants their voice heard. As US District Judge Mark Walker ruled recently, “No right is more precious than having a voice in our elections.”

Voter fraud is not unheard of in elections around the world, of course, and while some voter fraud is possible, rigging an entire American election would be virtually impossible as a practical matter. There are simply too many independent machines to alter all of them, and in any event even if Trump’s claim was true, there are not enough recently-minted citizen migrants to significantly alter voting patterns across the country.

The voter fraud conspiracy is especially insidious because it cannot be conclusively disproven. Any investigations that find no truth to the allegations can simply and easily be dismissed as whitewashes and cover-ups. The nature of conspiracy theory is such that any evidence that contradicts or undermines the theory is assumed to itself be part of that that cover up. In this way conspiracy theories are self-perpetuating and what in science is called non-falsifiable; that is, they cannot be proven wrong.

It’s not clear whether Trump himself genuinely believes that conspiracy–after all, if he is certain that the system is fatally rigged against him, why bother to continue?–or if it’s just one of his trademark bluffs and blusters. If Trump loses the election in November, there will be some people-perhaps thousands, perhaps millions-who harbor some doubt about the legitimacy of the outcome. And that can indeed undermine confidence in the country.

Oct 142016
 

Tonight I will be giving a presentation to the Albuquerque Science Fiction Society titled “Contacting the Dead: Séances From the Victorian Era To Modern Times.” It is the same talk I gave to wide acclaim at this year’s packed Bubonicon conference:

“Though TV shows like Ghost Hunters have raised the profile of ghost hunting, there’s nothing new about seeking out spirits of the dead. For millennia people have tried to communicate with the deceased, using everything from chalkboards to Ouija boards to EVP (electronic voice phenomena). Focusing on the 1800s through today—including early mediums, the Spiritualist movement, and files from England’s Society for Psychical Research—writer and investigator Ben Radford discusses the theories and techniques behind attempts to speak to the dead. Fans of SF, fantasy, horror, and occult history will enjoy this informative and entertaining historical look at a century and a half of attempts to contact the afterlife.”

The event will be held at 7:30 at the St. Andrew Presbyterian Church, 5301 Ponderosa Ave NE in Albuquerque, off of San Mateo. There’s a $2 fee for non-members. If you’re in the area, come on out for this fun and informative talk!

Sep 302016
 

I’m quoted in a recent piece on The Daily Beast, talking about government (sorry, gubmint) mind control conspiracies. You can read it HERE! 

 

“They’re looking for shielding materials, garments, fabrics, metals, paints, and meters for measuring, but oftentimes they can’t really articulate what they’re trying to shield from or trying to measure,” said DeToffol.

That’s because none of what these people are trying to protect against actually exists, says Benjamin Radford, a fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, a New York think tank that promotes science-based reasoning. Further, this sort of “thought broadcasting”—which is known among conspiracy theorists as “Remote Neural Monitoring,” or “RNM”—is a classicmanifestation of paranoid schizophrenia, says Dr. Michael Sacks, an attending psychiatrist at NewYork Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center.

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Sep 042016
 

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“Apply directly to the forehead,” infamously commanded a TV commercial for HeadOn, a pain reliever introduced in 2006 by a company called Miralus Healthcare. The product, which costs $25 and is sold in drug stores and online, claims to relieve headache and migraine pain. It is not a pill nor a solution but instead a waxy paste. Topical medicines are sometimes used to relieve local skin and muscle pains, but the idea that it could somehow relieve headache pain has aroused plenty of skepticism. According to its Amazon.com listing, “Head On Pain Reliever apply directly to the forehead. It is invisible and non greasy. Homeopathic. It’s [sic] can be used as often as needed. Safe to use with other medications.”

 

You can read the rest at my CFI blog HERE. 

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Sep 022016
 

Creepy clowns have recently been reported in Greenville, S.C., allegedly luring children into the woods behind a block of apartments. It’s scary and alarming — but whether they’re real is another matter. Most of the handful of reports are from children, though a few are from adults. No one has actually been harmed or even touched. The children believe the clowns live in a house located near a pond at the end of a trail in the woods, though when police investigated they saw no signs of suspicious activity or anyone dressed as a clown….

You can read the rest of the story HERE. 

And, of course, you can read more about this mysterious menace in my new book Bad Clowns!

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You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Aug 202016
 

An excerpt from my upcoming book on ghost investigation:

“The quantity and variety of alleged spirit images has exploded over the years, but the quality of the evidence remains as disappointingly ambiguous as ever. Some are shadowy, human-like figures; others are flash reflections of light appearing as round white spots dubbed “orbs”. Some ghosts are reported to look and act exactly like living, real people, with their true nature only being revealed when they suddenly vanish or walk through a wall. If those accounts are to be credited, then logically and theoretically there could be tens of millions of ghost photos that are not recognized as such—strangers in crowds or backgrounds in public areas could presumably include ghosts. If these spirits are visually indistinguishable from ordinary people as some eyewitnesses claim, then any photo which contains one or more people whose identity (and therefore status as alive or dead) is not conclusively known could include a ghost. I’m not suggesting this is the case, of course, but merely noting the practical complications that this view of ghosts implies…”

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Aug 152016
 

My article on Seeker (formerly Discovery News) is about the tragic legacy of fake bomb detectors in Iraq… check it out! After years of equipping important security checkpoints throughout Iraq with non-functioning bomb detectors, the Iraqi government has finally banned their use… You can read the rest HERE.

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Aug 112016
 

As you may know, in 2001 I helped solve the mystery of the bizarre 1997 Pokémon seizure incident. I wrote an article that became a cover story in Fortean Times and co-authored a medical journal article about it. I revisit the puzzling case in my new Seeker article:

Only those living under a rock or on a self-imposed news and social media quarantine could fail to have heard about the latest fad sweeping the world: Pokémon Go. The game app uses geolocation features that allow users to view a virtual Pokémon-populated virtual world through their phone’s camera. The goal is to “capture” the digital creatures (“Gotta catch ’em all” is the game’s slogan) and use them to train and battle for virtual territory.

The game has become enormously popular, with millions of people around the world playing the game since its July 6 launch. It’s been credited with getting slothful video game players out for fresh air and exercise—and even sparking romance.

While for most it’s harmless fun, reports have emerged of various pickles that Pokémon players face, and in a recent Seeker piece Aylssa Danigelis listed ten hazards of virtual reality gaming, including trespassing arrests, car crashes, falling or tripping due to inattention, and robberies.

You can read the rest HERE. 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Aug 082016
 

My recent article for Seeker (formerly Discovery News) is about the politics of vaccinations…

 

In medicine the benefits of childhood vaccination are widely accepted. The evidence is clear and overwhelming: vaccines do not cause autism (or any other condition), and the benefits of preventing severe diseases far outweigh the small risks of side effects. This is non-controversial, and vaccination is a staple of preventive medicine worldwide.

You can read the rest HERE

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Aug 032016
 

A dowser I was testing once proudly noted (partway through the trials) that so far he had successfully found water at a significantly higher rate than would be expected by random chance (20% instead of 5%). I pointed out that performing better than random chance was a pretty low bar and asked him if he would be eager to hire a doctor, architect, or mechanic who—like him—was wrong 80% of the time. He just glared at me and said my negative attitude was interfering with his powers.

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Aug 012016
 

This is cool.. I was recently mentioned in a Forbes article on ghost hunting science and pseudoscience:

There’s no shortage of retailers to provide for your spooky-seeking needs. Products marketed as “Deluxe Ghost Hunting Kit” and “Ghost Hunting Spirit Box” can be found on Amazon and Ebay…Benjamin Radford, Deputy Editor the Skeptical Inquirer, said using “ghost hunting” equipment in general might be the field’s fatal flaw, “Ghost hunters go after whatever they think is weird. There’s no way of testing for a weird feeling.” Science… life’s wet blanket.

You can read the whole story HERE. 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.