Mar 052020
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lack of Information

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

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

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

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

Misinformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fear of foreigners and immigrants bringing disease to the country was of course raised a few years ago when a Fox News contributor suggested without evidence that a migrant caravan from Honduras and Guatemala coming through Mexico carried leprosy, smallpox, and other dreaded diseases. This claim was quickly debunked

Disinformation and Conspiracies

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

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

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

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

How to Get, Prevent, or Cure It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) nears its three-year anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen!

Mar 022020
 

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

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

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

 

You can see the rest HERE! 

 

As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) nears its three-year anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen!

Feb 282020
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Sawyer / Moving Pictures (1981)

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

But change is

Freewill / Permanent Waves (1980)

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

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

The “Fear” Series

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

Witch Hunt / Moving Pictures (1981)

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

The vigilantes gather on
The lonely torchlit hill

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

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

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

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

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

Quick to judge,
Quick to anger
Slow to understand

Ignorance and prejudice
And fear

Walk hand in hand

Totem / Test for Echo (1996)

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

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

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

Roll the Bones / Roll the Bones (1991)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All is for the best

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

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

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

Available Light / Presto (1989)

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Feb 252020
 

As advertised, the Oscar-nominated World War I film 1917 takes place in April 1917, when two British soldiers, William Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), are rousted from a weary daytime slumber. They’re ordered to cross enemy territory (a no man’s land littered with death and decay) and deliver an urgent message to another brigade to call off an attack. It seems that the other soldiers—including the brother of one of the men—are falling into a trap set by their German enemies who have cut the lines of communication.

1917 is reminiscent of other war films such as Saving Private Ryan and Gallipoli, but I was also reminded of a Roger Waters song from his album Amused to Death titled “The Ballad of Bill Hubbard,” a spoken account by World War I veteran Alfred Razzell who describes finding a mortally injured soldier, Hubbard, on the battlefield and is forced to abandon him.

1917 is about many things, and like most films can be viewed through many prisms. It’s a war movie, of course, but it’s also about friendship, loyalty, sacrifice, and so on. But the theme I saw most clearly in 1917 was information: what it is, how it’s used, and the inherent difficulties in its transmission.

Too often in fictional entertainment information is treated as certain, easily accessed, and easily transferred. Countless films, and especially spy thrillers such as the Jason Bourne series, have scenes in which the hero needs to get some vital piece of information which is instantly produced with a few keyboard taps, in dramatic infographic fashion, usually on giant, easy-to-understand wall screens. The Star Trek Enterprise computers are notorious for this: they predict (seemingly with unerring accuracy) when, for example, a planet or ship will explode. It’s always annoyed me as a deus ex machina cheat.

I understand why screenwriters do that; they want to get the exposition and premises out of the way so we can move on with the plot. No need to question the accuracy or validity of the information; the characters—and by extension, the audience—just needs to accept it at face value and move on. (Imagine a dramatic countdown scene in which the hero fails to defuse a bomb at the last second—but it still doesn’t go off and everyone is saved simply because a wire got loose or a battery died. Such scenes, though realistic, are dramatically unsatisfying, and thus rarely if ever depicted. They’re certain to raise the ire of audiences as much as an “it was all a dream” conclusion—and for the same reasons.)

Whether it’s a character in a fantasy or horror film being told exactly what words to say or what to do when confronting some great evil at the film’s climax, as a natural skeptic, I’m often left wondering, “How exactly do you know that? Where did your information come from? Who told you that, and how do you know it’s true? What if they’re lying or just made a mistake?” (Or, in a Shakespearean context, “Um, so, MacBeth: How do you know those are prophetic witches, not just three crazy old ladies putting you on?”). Army of Darkness (1992) and The Woman in Black (2012) are two of the few movies that actually take this issue seriously.

1917 takes the matter deadly seriously, depicting the decidedly unglamorous horrors of warfare. Though the events depicted happened a century ago, the basics of war have not changed in millennia; the goal is still to defeat, maim, and kill the other bastards—often when implementing wrong or incomplete information. It’s been said that truth is the first casualty of war, though that’s not always by design. Sometimes truth (or, more broadly, true information) can’t get from those who know, to those who need to know, in time to save lives. Sometimes that’s by design, such as when enemies cut off communications (as in this case); other times the truth is hidden with encryption, such as in The Imitation Game (2014). Often it’s merely the result of chaos and miscommunication. Isolation (including isolation from information) is an effective tool for building dramatic tension; that’s why many horror films are set in remote areas out of cell phone service. When dialing 911 or just asking Siri or Alexa could presumably save the day, screenwriters need to find ways to keep the heroes vulnerable. 

The film—co-written by director Sam Mendes and dedicated to his grandfather, a veteran who “who told us the stories”—also doesn’t give much depth to the two soldiers. Blake and Schofield are given the barest of backstories, and the actors do what they can to flesh them out. The acting is good overall, but the real reason to see 1917 is the immersive and compelling filmmaking.

 

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

 

A longer version of this piece was published on my CFI blog. 

Nov 282019
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read the rest HERE!

 

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

Nov 162019
 

Around Halloween I was interviewed by Ty Bannerman on KUNM’s program “Let’s Talk New Mexico” about NM ghost stories and folklore. I discussed my KiMo theater ghost investigation, and a bit about the St. James hotel… check it out HERE! 

 

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

Sep 302019
 

There are many scientific and skeptical objections to astrology, including the fact that the constellations have shifted since astrology was devised, that many real-world tests have failed to find statistically meaningful patterns in the lives of people born under certain zodiac signs, and that there are multiple—and in fact contradictory—versions of astrology that adherents fervently believe. For more information see the Skeptoid podcast, the Skeptics Dictionary, and of course many articles for Skeptical Inquirer.

But what may be even more disturbing is astrology’s close similarity to racism. The basic premise of astrology is that people who were born at certain times and places share specific, distinguishing personality characteristics. Libras like myself, for example, are said to be diplomatic, refined, idealistic, and sociable; Cancers are emotional, sensitive, and domestic; those born under the Taurus sign are stubborn, analytical, and methodical, and so on. Hundreds of millions of people read their daily horoscopes, or at least know something about their sun signs.

Astrology and racism share many of the same ideas. For one thing, in both cases a person is being judged by factors beyond their control. Just as a person has no control over their race or skin color, they also have no control over when and where they were born. Both astrology and racial stereotypes are based on a framework of belief that basically says, “Without even meeting you, I believe something about you: I can expect this particular sort of behavior or trait (stubbornness, laziness, arrogance, etc.) from members of this particular group of people (Jews, blacks, Aries, Pisces, etc.)”

When an astrologer finds out a person’s astrological sign, he or she will bring to that experience a pre-existing list of assumptions (prejudices) about that person’s behavior, personality, and character. In both cases, the prejudices will cause people to seek out and confirm their expectations. Racists will look for examples of characteristics and behaviors in the groups they dislike, and astrologers will look for the personality traits that they believe the person will exhibit. Since people have complex personalities (all of us are lazy some of the time, caring at other times, etc.), both racists and astrologers will find evidence confirming their beliefs.

As Carl Sagan wrote, “It’s like racism or sexism: you have twelve little pigeonholes, and as soon as you type someone as a member of that particular group… you know his characteristics. It saves you the effort of getting to know him individually.” Others, of course, have noted the same thing, including The Friendly Atheist blog.

Astrology has long been used to discriminate against people. According to a job listing in in Wuhan, China, a language training company there sought qualified applicants—as along as they’re not Scorpios or Virgos. The Toronto Sun reported that Xia, a spokeswoman for the company, said that in her experience Scorpios and Virgos are often “feisty and critical.” Xia said, “I hired people with those two star signs before, and they either liked quarrelling with colleagues or they could not do the job for long.” She preferred potential applicants who were Capricorns, Libras and Pisces. To some it may seem like a bad joke, but it’s not funny to qualified applicants desperate for a job who get turned away because of the company’s credence in astrology. In 2009 an Austrian insurance company advertised, “We are looking for people over 20 for part-time jobs in sales and management with the following star signs: Capricorn, Taurus, Aquarius, Aries and Leo.”

Of course, astrologers are not necessarily racists. But the belief systems underlying both viewpoints are identical: prejudging individuals based on general beliefs about a group. If we do not assume that African-Americans are lazy, Arabs are terrorists, or Asians are scholastic geniuses, why would we assume that Cancers are emotional, Aries are born leaders, or Geminis are optimistic non-conformists? People should be judged as unique, individual persons, not based on what arbitrary group they belong to. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., a person should be judged not by the color of their skin—nor the date and time of their birth—but by the content of their character.

I wrote about this topic for Discovery News in 2011, and it caused quite a stir. It generated a then-new record for the number of comments (I even received a t-shirt from my editors in honor of the occasion; see below).

In honor of over 100 comments, most of them cranky.

Astrologers, as you can imagine, were not happy with me either. One responded:

The deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, Benjamin Radford penned an article entitled “How Astrology is like Racism.” He justifies this claim by arguing that people use astrology to classify individuals according to stereotypes based on their Star Sign (Sun Sign) and therefore “a person is being judged by factors beyond their control” … Radford’s claim rests on a belief that people are being judged. However, modern astrologers don’t consider signs, planets or even horoscopes to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Certainly some horoscopes are more challenging than others, but this can drive a person towards a successful and fulfilling life.

After a weak-sauce and largely strawmanned rebuttal (sample: “Astrologers do not make moral judgements or assumptions about people based on their birth data”—I never claimed they did), the article turned ad hominem:

“And who is Benjamin Radford? The deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer self-styled ‘science’ magazine and a so-called ‘Research Fellow’ with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (formerly CSICOP). The Skeptical Inquirer is simply not scientific and copying the term ‘research fellow’ could seem like a ploy to make this vigilante operation look more ‘sciency’ and their eyes respectable. A research fellow is an academic research position at a university and CSI is not an academic body or even a research institution. CSI abandoned all attempts at scientific research after their disastrous investigation into the work of Michel Gauquelin that ended up supporting astrology. They later wisely dropped the word ‘scientific’ from their name (previously CSICOP) to become Committee for Skeptical Investigation. So their focus is not on critical thinking and research, but on preaching and promoting their beliefs. Is it appropriate for a senior member of a predominantly male and almost exclusively white sceptical group (CSI/CSICOP) to use the “racist card” to justify his personal beliefs? This seems hypocritical when the sceptical movement has been widely criticised for being sexist and patriarchal. Distancing themselves from this type of unfounded nonsense would help to clean up their collective act and from the author a retraction and an apology to all those who have suffered and still suffer from racial abuse for trying to hijack and downgrade racism.

Yeah, I think I hit a nerve.

But all the hand waving and goalpost moving in the world will not erase the parallels between racism and astrology.

 

You can see the original article on the CFI website HERE. 

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

Sep 152019
 

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

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

 

Sep 122019
 

One common claim about Donald Trump is that he often says and does things not only for effect, but with the specific goal of distracting the public and news media from something else he wants to keep hidden. The claims have circulated for years, especially on social media; for example one Facebook post recently stated that “Trump’s quixotic attacks on immigrant children, Denmark, and American Jews are horrible, but even though we can’t ignore them, they are obviously meant to distract.”

While possible—anything is possible—it wasn’t clear what Trump’s statements and actions are “obviously” meant to distract the public or the news media from. While not a formal conspiracy theory, the claim demonstrates classic conspiracy thinking: that there must be some hidden agenda, some “real” reason why something happens, in this case why Trump would crack down on immigrants, pick a fight with Denmark, and opine that American Jews who didn’t support him were “disloyal.” (By implication this comment might suggest that Trump’s statements, positions, and actions were insincere and didn’t reflect his true values but were merely a shiny decoy.)

The claim essentially posits or assumes a correlation between Trump’s often wild, news-making statements and actions, and the existence of some potentially unsavory act or news story that does (or might potentially) involve Trump in some way. The claim is typically stated as a self-evident matter of fact, that “obviously” some devious (if transparent) distraction tactic is afoot. The idea merits a critical media literacy analysis, so let’s take a closer look.

First let’s examine Trump’s comments and actions. Virtually every statement or Tweet Trump issues is arguably newsworthy (whether that is in fact true has been the subject of legitimate journalistic debate).

 

Trump’s statements are notable and reported on for many reasons, chief among them that 1) they reflect formal, official positions by the United States government; or 2) they’re factually and demonstrably false, misleading, or exaggerated; or 3) they’re bizarre, non-sequitur, and/or petty personal attacks. The news media rarely reported on the last two categories of statements by previous presidents for the simple reason that those presidents rarely made them. Therefore the sheer number of newsworthy statements by Trump are far higher than in the past—coming in some cases on a daily basis—and thus represent a huge pool of statements that could potentially be seen as having been issued as part of some distraction strategy.

Against this backdrop we have the second part of the equation, events and issues that are potentially (personally or politically) embarrassing or damaging to Trump. Once again we find a deep well of material. The Trump presidency—and arguably most of Trump’s adult life—has been characterized by a constant stream of realized and potential scandals of every conceivable type, including sexual abuse allegations, collusion with Russia, concerns about his mental health, obstruction of justice, hiring criminal or unfit officials for his administration, misogynistic comments, nepotism, taxpayer Secret Service expenses for his family’s travel, bankruptcies, dubious “bone spur” draft deferrals, mocking Sen. John McCain (even in death), racist and antisemitic statements, and dozens more. Many of these were not one-time issues but have dogged Trump for years.

What the “distraction tactic” theorists are asking us to do is connect one or more of Trump’s thousands of “newsworthy” statements (which ones? Take your pick) with one or more of Trumps hundreds of real, apparent, or potential scandals (which ones? Take your pick) and see that the former is being used to somehow distract from the latter.

Seeing hidden connections and causes is a common logical fallacy with a Latin name: post hoc ergo propter hoc (Latin for “after this, therefore because of it”). Because the human mind seeks connections, people often misattribute causes, thinking that “B happened after A did, so A must have caused B.” It makes sense, and it’s often true—but not always. It’s like saying “roosters crow before the sun rises, so the roosters must have made the sun rise.” Like a conspiracy theory, claims about the Trump Distraction Plan are not falsifiable and can’t be disproven.

The fact that Trump did or said something newsworthy (or outrageous) at the same time that some real or potential scandal looms over him is meaningless since he has always been mired in scandal, even before he was elected. Anything he says or does can be plausibly contrasted with some other contemporaneous issue he might conceivably want to distract from.

It’s important to note that if this indeed part of Trump’s master plan, it’s largely failing. Journalists tend to be a pretty savvy lot, and news organizations can cover more than one story at a time. The idea that there is a single spotlight that “the news media” train on a specific topic to the exclusion of other news stories is absurd. It’s true that a single reporter can usually only work on one story at a time, and that if a journalist is writing a piece about Trump’s offer to buy Greenland for example, he or she is not at the same time writing an in-depth piece about the effect that Trump’s trade war has on the American economy. That’s why newsrooms employ more than one reporter, in some cases dozens of them. Even if a reporter at a given organization is temporarily being tied up on some red herring “distraction” issue, there are many others who are working on reporting whatever topics are presumably being distracted from; it’s not an either/or proposition. (I previously wrote about the common—and often mistaken—complaint that “the media isn’t covering” a given story).

This is not to say that politicians and others never try to bury bad news behind even worse news or hope to distract or diminish the public’s attention. It’s a well-known tactic, and one reason why press offices often release bad news on Fridays. As Slate noted, “Investors and journalists have long complained that companies release bad news—a failed product trial, a recall, a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation—on Fridays, particularly after the market closes. The Friday release is a transparent attempt to evade fallout by burying bad news ahead of the weekend…. Why do companies try to bury the news on Friday? Whether you’re a press aide to a senator or an investor relations official, there’s a natural psychological tendency to take steps to ensure that good news is trumpeted loudly while bad news is whispered sotto voce. In addition, when things are going poorly at a company, executives tend to focus on strategies that will get them through the next few days, the next quarter, and the next year—in that order. If that means buying a few days’ reprieve with a Friday release, they’ll do it.”

But choosing what day to release information that will come out sooner or later is not the same as Trump issuing some false or bizarro comment that he knows will be covered in the hopes that it would somehow distract from some other topic he hopes will not be covered. There was even an infamous case of a British government advisor who suggested that the days after the September 11, 2001, attacks would be a good time to issue unpopular statements because the attacks would dominate the news coverage. This, also, was not a case of a person or government creating an intentional “distraction” from something else it was involved in.

It’s also worth noting that the Trump Distraction theory implicitly assumes that whatever
Trump is distracting from is worse than what he’s drawing attention to. But the fact is that Trump is widely criticized–and even mocked–for many of his alleged “distraction tactics.” His recent comments about Denmark and Jews have drawn widespread jokes and scathing attacks, including from Jewish groups who explicitly called them anti-Semitic. Whatever Trump would be trying to distract from, this hardly seems to be a winning strategy.

Of course it’s possible that Trump has, at some point, said something outrageous solely for the purpose of distracting from some other story. But there’s no evidence that it’s done routinely as part of some strategy by a political mastermind. He has a long history of lies, outlandish actions, and wild conspiracies. The principle of Occam’s Razor suggests that the simpler explanation is more likely to be the correct one: Trump’s wild statements are the result of pathology and impulse, not a considered strategy of social distraction.

 

Adapted from my Center for Inquiry blog A Skeptic Reads the Newspaper 

Aug 122019
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Different Types of Mass Shootings

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

 

Fridel cover ILLO
Fridel

 

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

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

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

 

Fridel table ILLO

 

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

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

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

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

Dueling Demographics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mass misinformation on mass shootings

 

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

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

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

Examining January 2019 Mass Shootings

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

GVA ILLO

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

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

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

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

Mislead meme ILLO

There Is No ‘Typical’ Mass Shooter

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

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

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

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

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

Reference

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

 

Part 3 will appear soon. 

Jul 252019
 
Speaking at the Center for Inquiry, Buffalo New York.

Corporate America is ripe for scams, half-baked twaddle masquerading as insightful business advice, and dressed-up children’s books about misplaced cheese. One needs only to peruse the Business section of a local bookstore to see the never-ending parade of schemes. It’s the economic version of the Self-Help section, and there’s no shortage of self-promoting business “mavericks” hawking their unique method to improve profits and climb the corporate ladder to success. Not all of them are scams, of course, but a healthy skepticism is especially important in the business world. (For an interesting look at business fads, see Joel Best’s book Flavor of the Month: Why Smart People Fall for Fads.) 

Enter Personalysis, which “since 1975 has worked with progressive, leading, and emerging companies to develop leadership capacity, improve communication, and high performance teams” using “a powerful personality-profiling instrument that accurately captures and graphically illustrates the human assets of an organization. Personalysis takes the guesswork out of understanding people and why they do what they do. Using the data provided by our technology, people have a road map to accelerate teamwork.” 

All that sounds great (if a bit vague), but is there any substance behind the buzzwords and corporatespeak? There are a few impressed clients; the program is endorsed by Steven Sample, President of the University of Southern California: “Personalysis is a valuable tool that we have used in a variety of situations here at the University of Southern California. In 2000 we used Personalysis to help our five senior vice presidents and me better understand each other and form a more effective administrative team.” 

According to information provided by the Personalysis Corporation, the company was founded in 1975 by James R. Noland, who has “graduate degrees from Yale University and New York University [and] also worked with the New York Institute for Psychological Research.” He developed the program based largely on ideas of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Abraham Maslow. From questionnaire responses, the program gives advice on communication, cooperation, expectations, and other measures important to the business world. One distinctive feature of the Personalysis report is the Colorgraph, a visual representation of personality traits that somewhat resembles the artwork of Piet Mondrian (see Figure 1). 

A close review of Mr. Vande Voorde’s” Personalysis Summary” reveals information that seems very much like astrology, depending on the “Barnum Effect” (using generalizations that seem specific but apply to everyone) to provide the illusion of personal validity. It includes such comments as, “You need freedom to explore ideas and act,” and “You are frustrated when having to deal with repetitious details or needless bureaucracy.” This is of course in stark contrast to the rest of us, who don’t need freedom to explore ideas, and who enjoy dealing with needless bureaucracy. 

Though the Personalysis literature is heavy on testimonials, it is light on studies supporting its efficacy. The only published review  I could find of Personalysis (Gebart-Eaglemont andLeung, 1995)is quite scathing, noting “there is no clear evidence that test items were generated in a systematic manner…test reports provide test takers with very specific comments about who they are, [yet] the empirical foundation of these specific comments is quite weak. There is no information on how items were developed, and how these items were written to reflect theoretical constructs upon which the test was anchored. Also, there is no information on whether a scientific process was involved in selecting test items, [and] no information given on the characteristics of norms. The technical manual was not comprehensive and informative… the sections on reliability and validity were not written in a clear and concise manner.” 

In other words, it’s not clear how Mr. Noland developed his “scientific management tool that provides a unique assessment” of one’s personality. It may have been created using cutting-edge behavioral science research. Or Noland may have just dreamed it up over a bottle of wine. Either way, it’s a money-maker. The Basic Personalysis workshop costs $6,000, and Advanced training is available for $3,000. For $400 per hour, you can consult with a Personalysis consultant via Web-based videoconferencing. 

The basis for Mr. Noland’s expertise is unclear. Curiously, the “New York Institute for Psychological Research” where Noland claimed to have worked doesn’t seem to exist, and when I contacted the Personalysis Corporation inquiring about Mr. Noland, no one there could provide any further information on his academic background, including the years he allegedly graduated from Yale and NYU. Noland has long since retired and is no longer with the company. A search of the medical literature turned up nothing published by Noland since the 1960s, and little or nothing on the topic of behavioral science, despite the fact that Noland is cited as a “behavioral scientist.” 

As for the signature Colorgraph that is supposedly a visual representation of personality, the reviewers noted, “It is not clear why colors, instead of descriptors that might convey meanings, are used to denote personality traits.” The four-colored diagram seems more of a creative gimmick than anything based in science (“Look, that green rectangle represents my motivation to control things!”). 

The review concludes, “From a scientific perspective, Personalysis is not developed through a vigorous and systematic research process. As this point, there is not sufficient empirical evidence to support the reliability and validity of Personalysis. Test takers should use it cautiously and with reservations.” 

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! 

Jul 102019
 

Soon after a university cheating scandal recently broke, a meme declared that “White privilege is REAL,” and gave three examples presumably illustrating that premise. The first shows a photo of actress Felicity Huffman and states that “Feds will seek 4 months jail time for Felicity Huffman for bribing her daughter into college.” This is contrasted with two photos of African-American women, captioned with “Tanya McDowell got 12 years for sending her son to the wrong school district,” and “Kelley Williams-Bolar got 3 years and $30K fine for sending her daughters to the wrong district.”

It seems to be a sobering and damning indictment of racism in the criminal justice system (leaving aside—as this meme does—the significant differences in the crimes the women are charged with, the laws and sentencing that vary by state, and so on). But is it true? To assess the accuracy of the claims, let’s take a closer look at the cases mentioned.

Kelley Williams-Bolar

In 2007 Ohio mother Kelley Williams-Bolar wanted her daughters to enroll in the nearby Copley-Fairlawn School District. The problem was that they lived in Akron, and her children were not eligible to attend school in Copley-Fairlawn. Still, the promise of a highly-ranked school district was strong, so she falsified her address on school documents so they could be enrolled.

When school officials confronted her about the discrepancy, she asked her father, who did live within the Copley-Fairlawn district, to file additional documents stating that her children lived with him. Because school districts are funded with money paid by taxpayers within each district for residents of that district, Williams-Bolar was accused of fraud and cheating the system—an accusation she did not deny.

When caught, school officials asked her to repay the district $30,000, the value of the back tuition that her daughters had unfairly received over the years. She refused, resulting in her arrest and two convictions for records tampering. Williams-Bolar did not “get three years and a $30,000 fine” for her actions; she was sentenced to ten days in county jail, and served nine of them.

Whatever one may think of Williams-Bolar’s motivations, it’s not clear why this would be an example to contrast with “white privilege.” Given the very real and rampant racism that exists against people of color, singling this case out as a textbook example of a black woman abused by the system is curious. This is not a case where the full force of the law came down on a hapless black woman who’d committed a minor infraction.

Local authorities gave her every opportunity to avoid trouble, and in fact Ohio governor John Kasich reduced her convictions from felonies to misdemeanors specifically so that they would not jeopardize her chances of getting a teaching license—something rarely done for anyone, black or white. When asked whether she felt that she’d been treated differently by the school district or police because of her race, Williams-Bolar replied, “I cannot answer that. I just know that my situation happened for what I did…. I don’t think it happened because of the color of my skin.”

Tanya McDowell

Tanya McDowell, a 34-year-old Bridgeport, Connecticut woman, chose to send her five year old son to Brookside Elementary School despite the fact that he was ineligible to attend. McDowell was in fact sentenced to prison—but not specifically for sending her kid to the wrong school. She was charged with first-degree larceny and several counts of selling crack cocaine and marijuana. As the judge in her case noted, “This case is about the convictions for the sale of narcotics to an undercover police officer. I think you understand that because that is really the essence of what has gotten you into the predicament you find yourself today.” Thus McDowell did not in fact “get 12 years for sending her son to the wrong school district.”

McDowell faced more than 15 years in prison if convicted on all counts. She was sentenced to twelve years on drug and larceny charges, which was suspended after she served five of them. She eventually served a total of three years after being released in 2017, two years early. The sentence was not imposed upon her by a judge or jury, but was instead the result of plea deal she and her lawyer agreed to.

As with Williams-Bolar, it’s hard to see McDowell’s case as an example of excessive and harsh penalties being levied on black women by a white-biased justice system whose only crime is wanting their children to get a good education. In both of these cases those in power demonstrated sympathy and compassion, and the women didn’t serve anywhere near what was claimed. One can argue that the sentences were too harsh to begin with, but Williams-Bolar serving nine days (instead of three years) and McDowell serving three years (of a twelve year sentence for charges including drug dealing)—don’t seem to clearly demonstrate black women being harshly penalized at every turn, nor ones that starkly contrast with Felicity Huffman’s white privilege.

As of today Huffman has not been sentenced, but if she is indeed given four months of jail time (as the prosecutors recommended) then Huffman’s sentence would actually be twelve times longer than that of Williams-Bolar. Huffman’s wealthy white privilege is certainly real, but in this case it didn’t seem to have helped reduce her sentence as compared to the poorer African-American women listed. Also, it’s important to note the Huffman, like McDowell, negotiated and accepted her sentence in a plea deal, and thus would get a lighter sentence than Williams-Bolar—or one of Huffman’s wealthy white female peers who may yet be found guilty in a criminal trial, such as actress Lori Loughlin. As noted, it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison to begin with; it would be more informative to see a black woman in Huffman’s situation or a white woman in Williams-Bolar’s.

Mistake or Misinformation?

The fact that a widely-shared meme has factual errors is of course hardly surprising. Memes—especially ones with a political or social justice agenda—are often shared precisely because they generate outrage. The question is not whether white privilege is real; the question is whether the two specific examples given in this meme are valid examples by which to measure white privilege.

But even that is a red herring. Once we’ve established that the meme is false, a more interesting and important question becomes who created it in the first place, and why. After all, the false information contained in the meme was not merely a typographical error or a mistake in a date. Accurate information about both the cases of Williams-Bolar and McDowell are easy to find online; in order to get the correct spellings of the womens’ names, their photos, number and gender of children, the specific sentences and so on, it’s virtually certain that whoever created the meme saw the accurate information but intentionally chose to mischaracterize it, in not one but both cases. This wasn’t a mistake, this was intentionally misleading information spread for a political purpose; in other words it’s propaganda.

The meme (at least in the versions I saw) was uncredited, as many memes are. It’s created to be indistinguishable from any number of similar social justice memes. (This could be avoided if social media platforms required that memes be identified, either in the image itself or via metadata, by who created them. People could still create anonymous memes, of course, but they could be prevented from being seen or shared.)

Of course few people bother to fact-check the information they see. That (often thankless) task is left to journalists, media literacy educators—and sometimes skeptics. As they say, a lie can go around the world while the truth is still putting its shoes on, and nowhere is that truer than on social media. Clicking a Like or Share can take less than one second; researching and fact-checking can take hours. This is why critical thinking and media literacy are so important; they help us recognize when we are being manipulated and tricked into spreading misinformation.

One prime suspect in this case, in my opinion, is the Kremlin. It may be part of a widespread and sustained misinformation campaign to sow racial division and discord among Americans. This campaign is has been widely reported, and in 2017 I investigated a case where Russian disinformation campaigns and trolls specifically used racially charged news stories as a pretext to share misinformation and conspiracy theories (see my Special Report ‘How Russian Conspiracies Taint Social Activist ‘News’’).

Russia has been subtly manipulating well-intentioned social activists to share their viral outrage and anti-U.S. propaganda, and their attempts have become even more obvious recently. In fact such disinformation likely helped elect Trump: Part of Putin’s goal was to sow distrust of the Obama administration and outrage people into demanding a change in leadership. That Russia attempted, with varying degrees of success, to influence the presidential election in favor of Donald Trump is beyond dispute and widely accepted by the American intelligence community.

It is of course difficult for people to accept that they have embraced (and perpetuated) misinformation and manipulation—Mark Twain is said to have observed that “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled”—and that’s especially true for social justice activists sincerely trying to do good in the world by highlighting social, economic, and racial inequities. That’s one reason that Russian propaganda is so effective and insidious; it fits right in.

Some may try to justify sharing bogus information by saying that even though in this particular case the facts were wrong, it still symbolizes a very real problem and was therefore worthy of sharing if it raised awareness of the issue. This is an ends-justifies-the-means tactic often employed by those caught reporting a false story. The Trump administration adopted this position earlier in November 2017 when the President promoted discredited anti-Muslim videos via social media; his spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders acknowledged that at least some of the hateful videos Trump shared were bogus and represented events that did not happen as portrayed, but she insisted that their truth or falsity was irrelevant because they supported a “larger truth”—that Islam is a threat to the country’s security: “I’m not talking about the nature of the video,” she told reporters. “I think you’re focusing on the wrong thing. The threat is real, and that’s what the President is talking about.” Of course white privilege is real, but misinformation is misinformation regardless of who shares it, or why. There are enough real examples that people don’t need to fabricate them by comparing Huffman, Williams-Bolar and McDowell.

Otherwise socially literate and ‘woke’ people give more thought to where their clothes are made and their coffee is sourced than to where the information they believe and share on social media comes from. Putin has many puppets, and only the highest-profile one inhabits the White House. The vast majority of the Russian disinformation army are Americans who eagerly share misleading and divisive misinformation in the guise of good.

You can see the original article 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 292019
 

In 2011 I had just written an article for Discovery News about a bogus psychic in Long Island when a young woman named Holly Bobo went missing in Tennessee. Her abduction made national news, and I decided to monitor psychic predictions and information about her disappearance in real time (instead of the more-common after-the-fact analysis). It was revealing research that provided fodder for another article–and prompted a legal threat from a psychic!

You can hear the whole story exclusively on the Squaring the Strange, out now!

Jun 042019
 

My new CFI media literacy article examines the demographics of American mass shooters. Many people believe that most mass shooters are white males, but in fact it varies by type of shooting; there is no single representative or predictive demographic, other than being male: “Singling out any specific race as being dangerous—or, worse yet, highlighting rare anecdotal violent incidents as representative of larger groups—is more likely to fuel racism than help the public.”

With the recent tragic attacks against Muslims in New Zealand by an Australian white supremacist, the world once again turned its attention to mass shootings. It’s a subject that has captivated America for years with little progress in understanding the nature of the problem.

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

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

You can read Part 1 HERE, and Part 2 HERE.

Apr 192019
 

This week we take a quick look at the Momo challenge’s resurgence and surprisingly mainstream fall; then for our main segment we dive back into the strange, sketchy world of Ed & Lorraine Warren. These opportunistic and not-exactly-truthful storytellers are a big reason the modern horror genre looks the way it does. Erik Kristopher Myers joins us once more to go through some of their biggest “cases”: The Demon Murder Case, Amityville, and the hauntings behind the more recent Conjuring movies.

We look at what writers and other investigators who have worked with the Warrens had to say, and we examine the fallout that real-life people end up having to deal with as a result of the sensationalized tales of hauntings.

You can listen to the whole delightful episode HERE!

Apr 192019
 

I saw this meme recently, it’s a Cuban art project about exploited children. However one of the photos, bottom left, is based on an urban legend.

The artist is trying to raise awareness of child organ trafficking, but it doesn’t actually happen. I’ve researched, written about, and debunked this myth. There are organ *sales* in some countries (e.g., India and Pakistan), but they are voluntarily sold by adults.

Children’s organs are unusable by adults, so there’s no real demand for them on the black market. The irony is that this myth has actually been used to increase fear and hatred of foreigners—it’s exactly the sort of conspiracy Trump would use. It’s an interesting piece but unfortunately perpetuates harmful myths.

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

Apr 182019
 

In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here’s a look back at a show you might have missed…

This week, Ben and Pascual dig into the legend of Kuchisake-Onna, aka the Slit-mouthed Woman. From the origins of her terrifying story to the modern day pop culture references, the guys explore every creepy detail.

Also in this episode, Ben is skeptical of what makes something fictional “problematic” and just how serious the implications are. You can hear the episode HERE!

Apr 102019
 

Recent news reports claimed that most people intentionally disrespect transgendered individuals by calling them by something other than their preferred gender pronoun. For example one piece began: “Three in five people internationally report that they would intentionally misgender a transgender person, according to a recent survey. Ipsos found that only two out of five people in Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and the United States said they would call a trans man ‘he’ and a trans woman ‘she,’ instead of misgendering them.”

Written by Jeff Taylor for LGBTQ Nation, the article’s headline is “3 in 5 People Will Deliberately Misgender a Trans Person to Show Disrespect.”

Fortunately for trans people—though unfortunately for Taylor’s journalistic credibility—it’s not true.

For clarification we can go to the original study—the LGTBQ Nation article conspicuously did not provide a link—and look at what the questions and results were. We can begin by noting that the findings of the study bear little relation to the headline. In fact the study says nothing at all about the misgendering being either “deliberate” or intended to “show disrespect.”

The results vary slightly by country and whether the subject is a transgender man or transgender woman (see the graphs below), but for example we see that in the United States, the majority of Americans (38%, the single highest response) would refer to a trans man with a masculine pronoun, while about half that percentage, 21%, would refer to the person using a feminine pronoun. A slightly larger percentage, 23%, said they didn’t know how they would refer to the person, and a minority (18%) said they would refer to the person using a gender-neutral pronoun.

It doesn’t clarify whether any misgendering is intentional. It’s a subtle distinction, but the question doesn’t ask people what pronoun they would use when addressing a transgender person, but instead “when speaking about” him or her. Thus without context we cannot know whether that usage is motivated by intent to show disrespect or simply not knowing what the hypothetical trans person’s preference is. They may misgender people accidentally, or because they are unsure of the person’s preferred address, or out of hostility, or because they simply aren’t aware of the proper etiquette.

We cannot assume, as Taylor seems to, that any response other than the pronoun that aligns with how the persons lives and dresses—such as a neutral pronoun or “I don’t know”—necessarily indicates an attempt to deliberately misgender anyone. To do so is misleading at best and fearmongering at worst.

For more on this, see my CFI blog HERE.

Mar 282019
 

I’m seeing a lot of confusion on social media about definitions of “terrorism” and why certain people/groups are/are not labeled “terrorists.” Simplistic memes aside, the topic is a bit nuanced but worth understanding. I wrote about it last year, for those who’d like a deeper dive.

The issue is not terribly complicated, but it is nuanced and often counter-intuitive. Part of the confusion stems from which group you’re talking about. In other words, who’s the “they” in “Why aren’t they calling it terrorism?” Different “theys” have different answers, as we will see. One of the first things a critical thinker learns to do when hearing the phrase “They say…” is to ask: Who, exactly, is “They?” Attributing a position or statement to an anonymous, homogenous group is not only clouds the issue instead of clarifying it but often steers the conversation toward any number of fallacies (They say acupuncture has been used for thousands of years. They say that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and so on).

There’s also the problem of people using different definitions of “terrorism” interchangeably. Like many words, terrorism has a legal/technical definition used for specific purposes (such as indicting a suspect on certain criminal charges) and a looser, more informal definition that laypeople use in everyday conversation. Neither definition is incorrect; they’re both valid and useful in their specific contexts. There is of course nothing unique about this; laypeople use countless terms (energy, tension, heat, etc.) in ways that are different than a physicist would use them, for example. This problem often arises in the legal arena—one in which definitions of terrorism are important. For example the lay public may consider any killing to be murder (after all, someone died), but to a district attorney there are many different types of murder, with different definitions and penalties (first-degree murder, manslaughter, negligent homicide, and so on). Language is flexible, but that flexibility can contribute to ambiguity when people don’t clearly define terms, or apply their personal, informal definitions to other contexts.

So let’s distinguish between the formal and informal definitions by using Terrorism and terrorism, respectively.

The Patriot Act defines domestic terrorism as an attempt to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.” (Whether one thinks that this definition is too broad or too narrow is beside the point here; law enforcement follows the laws as written.)

As an NPR article explains, “there isn’t a federal charge of ‘domestic terrorism.’ The Patriot Act’s definition gives the Justice Department broad authority to investigate an individual or any group a suspect might be affiliated with. But the federal law doesn’t come with an actual criminal charge. To be charged with terrorism, a person has to be suspected of acting on behalf of one of nearly 60 groups that the State Department has declared a foreign terrorist organization. Some are well-known, including the Islamic State and al-Qaida, while others are far more obscure. Most, but not all, are Islamist. A person who carries out a mass attack and survives can face a range of charges, but unless the person is linked to one of the banned groups, a federal terrorism charge won’t be one of them.” This would be a formal, legal definition of Terrorism.

Of course, as the examples above illustrate, the American public rarely uses the legalistic definitions of common words such as terrorism. A friend of mine recently posted this widely-held sentiment on Facebook: “Despite it not being the legal definition, I’m completely fine with calling someone who makes an effort to scare, maim, and kill numbers of people a terrorist.” Let’s call this broader definition terrorism with a lowercase t.

With that in mind let’s break down and unpack the question: “Why aren’t they calling it terrorism?” In order to meaningfully answer that question you need to specify who you’re talking about, and which definition of terrorism you’re referring to.

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! 

You can find the rest HERE.

Mar 252019
 

There’s a new drug panic in town, and it’s not crack or opioids. It’s catnip. 

Well, it’s called “Catnip Cocktail,” and it actually contains no catnip. It contains a non-FDA-approved blend of a variety of chemicals including caffeine and something called 1,4-BD, which allegedly metabolizes into sedative akin to RHB, a “date-rape” drug. 

Marketed as “The Ultimate Mood Enhancer for Your Dogs and Cats,” it is touted somewhat ambiguously as having “Helpful pain relieving properties,” with “Non additive [sic] ingredients” (it presumably meant to say “non-addictive”). Curiously, the websitedoes not offer testimonials of effectiveness, either from licensed veterinarians or from dogs and cats themselves. 

It’s not clear who manufactures Catnip Cocktail, but any rate for only $22.50 per bottle plus shipping you too can get your hands on the hottest new recreational drug, or pet mood stabilizer, or whatever it is. 

According to theSan Jose Mercury News, Catnip Cocktail has been linked in some way to “several incidents where police in the northern New Jersey suburb encountered alarming behavior from people who appeared to be under the influence of the little-known drug. On Thursday, the Fairfield Police Department announced that they had raided Nutrition Zone and seized 61 bottles of Catnip Cocktail, along with other contraband. ‘This is a very dangerous product and it appears its improper use is on the rise,’ Fairfield Police Chief Anthony Manna said in a statement. ‘In executing today’s search warrant, the Fairfield Police Department has sent a clear message that we will do whatever we can to assure that Catnip Cocktail does not become the next drug fad.’” 

It may be too late: The Business Insideroffered an alarmist headlinewarning that “A dangerous drug called Catnip Cocktail is on the rise—and it’s driving people mad.”

Media Drug Panics

The way this story is unfolding is reminiscent of previous “new” drug scares. In 2007 news media covered bogus news stories such as jenkem(a hallucinogenic inhalant drug made from fermented feces that, according to alarmist news stories spread by trolls, was widely used among schoolkids). And of course there’s the debunked myth ofvodka-soaked tampons(reported by otherwise reputable news media including ABC News) being used by college women trying to get drunk quickly. Then there’s the “eyeball-licking fad”of 2013, a “dangerous new trend” among Japanese schoolchildren supposedly licking each other’s eyeballs and in the process supposedly spreading the highly contagious disease pink eye. Kids today.

In 2012 Florida man Rudy Eugene was accused of attacking a homeless man and biting his victim’s face and ripping his flesh until police shot him. Rumors and news stories claimed that Eugene was high at the time on a narcotic called “bath salts” (which is not a single, specific drug but instead a group of drugs containing mephedrone). This led to wild stories about the dangers of “bath salts,” including the suggestion that it would turn users into flesh-eating zombies—buttoxicology tests later revealedthat the only drug in his system at the time was marijuana. He may or may not have used bath salts before, but he wasn’t on them at the time. 

We see this same pattern in the current “Catnip Cocktail” stories: A handful of people who were found to be acting strangely, allegedly while in possession of vials of the animal sedative, but where there’s little or no evidence (in the form of toxicology reports, for example) that they were under the influence of them. 

In fact there’s reason to be skeptical of news stories linking the arrested individuals to the drug, because police have claimed that it has effects similar to GHB, which is a depressant. Its effects include drowsiness, loss of muscle control, and slowed heartbeat. But many of the incidents where users are suspected of being on Catnip Cocktail suggest theopposite, that they’re on a stimulant: dancing, euphoria, yelling, erratic behavior, and so on.

Many drug users mix substances, making it difficult or impossible to pharmacologically determine what drug caused what effect. If a person has meth, marijuana, and Catnip Cocktail in their systems, how do we know what effect, if any, the Catnip had? We have a half-dozen or so incidents which may, or may not, be actually linked to “Catnip Cocktail.” 

The “Catnip Cocktail” is being cast in news reports as a “dangerous new trend on the rise,” but again it’s hard to know how accurate that is. Without hard data about how many off-label (human) users and usages there are, there’s no way to know. If there have only been a few dozen cases of this illicit usage, then a half-dozen incidents is huge. If on the other hand there have been tens of thousands, or millions, then it’s a much smaller threat. We simply don’t have data, either in terms of drug usage or arrests, to support the claim that this is a dangerous new trend on the rise that the public need be fearful about. A handful of cases with some tangential connection to the drug doesn’t really translate into a “dangerous new fad.”

It’s entirely possible that some people are using the drug to get high—or to tryto get high, based on its reputed effects (such as those currently being hyped in news stories). In other words even if the drug has little or no real pharmacological effects in humans, there are some people who will try it anyway, looking for a cheap or new high. There are many media-created panics—usually involving some form of rumor and folklore—and Catnip Cocktail seems to be among them. 

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! 

Mar 122019
 

This week on our show Squaring the Strange, we start by looking at a Newsweek headline that’s been circulating again recently, implying that one-third of Americans doubt the death toll of the Holocaust. Then we devote our main segment to an important essay that has become both style guide and etiquette manual to skeptical writers and critics. Ray Hyman, one of the original founders of CSICOP, outlined eight principles to follow when engaging in “proper criticism” of paranormal claims. “Hyman’s Proper Criticism,” as it is known, applies more broadly to any topic, really, and becoming familiar with these eight lessons will make you a better human being.  

You can hear the episode HERE.

Please subscribe and consider donating!

Feb 282019
 

My recent blog examines a popular meme about the “true” inspiration for the Lone Ranger, an amazing lawman named Bass Reeves. I looked into it, curious to see if it was true, but soon found myself in a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories–and examining why skeptics unknowingly help share them.

Several friends of mine recently posted a meme on social media that read, “Did you know the real LONE RANGER was a BLACK MAN name BASS REEVES and yes he did live among the INDIANS, The Lone Ranger ‘could not be cast in that era as a black man, so he was made into a white man with a black mask, Now you know…”

As a teenager I met the main actor who played the Lone Ranger on television, Clayton Moore (I have his autograph somewhere). It was at a public appearance in California and during a short Q&A someone asked about the origin of the character he played. As I recall he discussed it coming from old radio serials, along with other cowboy heroes such as Tom Mix. He didn’t mention anything about the character originally being African American, though I don’t necessarily attribute any racism to that, as it was a quick question about his TV show, and he wouldn’t necessarily have done so in that forum anyway.

The claim in the meme certainly seemed plausible, and I spent a few minutes checking its accuracy. After consulting three or four credible sources I realized that the claim is partly true. The first half of the sentence is partly accurate: Bass Reeves, the black man pictured, was indeed an amazing historical figure. He was a Texas deputy marshal said to have arrested more than 3,000 people and killed over a dozen criminals, sometimes going undercover in daring exploits in Indian country. An article for History.com offers a good overview of this fascinating man.

It also concludes that “Although there is no concrete evidence that the real legend inspired the creation of one of fiction’s most well-known cowboys, ‘Bass Reeves is the closest real person to resemble the fictional Lone Ranger on the American western frontier of the nineteenth century,’ [Reeves biographer] Burton writes in Black Gun, Silver Star.”

Cinema researcher Martin Gram also debunked the claim, adding that “Proof was found that The Lone Ranger was intentionally patterned off of Robin Hood and Tom Mix…While the real life of Bass Reeves deserves to be better known, it is unfortunate that this fanciful ‘inspiration for the real life Lone Ranger character’ theory is what has brought him additional attention.”

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! 

Feb 052019
 

My recent blog is about the tragic shooting of Jazmine Barnes days before New Years, and how mistaken eyewitnesses and mistaken assumptions led to the search for a non-existent racist serial killer in Houston….

On December 30, 2018, a seven-year-old Houston girl named Jazmine Barnes was killed when a gunman drove up next to the vehicle she was in and opened fire on its occupants. Her mother, LaPorsha Washington, was wounded; Jazmine was struck in the head and died on the way to the hospital.

As the New Year’s celebrations went on, the police made the case a top priority, and the case made national news. The police did have some leads. Jazmine’s older sister and other witnesses offered a description of the shooter: a white male, thirties to forties, with a light beard wearing a dark hoodie and driving a red pickup truck. Police immediately issued a sketch based on that description, later followed by an image from a surveillance camera that showed the red truck driving away.

The case holds several interesting lessons for skeptics, including about investigation, statistics, the reliability of eyewitnesses, confirmation bias, and finding patterns where none exist.

The police began looking for suspects based on a probability profile, examining the statistically most likely suspects given the circumstances. For example most people are assaulted and murdered by someone they know, so if a person is found dead the police begin searching for suspects among relatives and acquaintances before casting a (much) wider net to include strangers. One aspect of Jazmine’s murder was especially chilling: it was seemingly random, the attack unprovoked by any known confrontation that too often escalate—such as over money, love, or something as mundane as a parking space—into violence.

Given the victim profile, statistically the most likely suspect was African-American, specifically a black male; more than 80 percent of all crime involves victims and perpetrators of the same race. Whites and African Americans of course can and do attack each other, but they are the exception, not the rule. Medical professionals adopt the same tactic to rule out the more likely causes of headaches or back pain, for example, before screening for rare diseases. As they say, if you hear hoofbeats, think horses not zebras.

The Serial Killer Search

Despite police saying they were exploring all possibilities about the motivation, many in the community quickly attributed it to a hate crime. Houston activist Deric Muhammad held a press conference outside a Harris County Sheriff’s Office and suggested that the death of Jazmine Barnes was the work of a white supremacist serial killer.

Muhammad linked the girl’s death to a previous shooting, on August 30, 2017. In that case a 21-year-old black man, A’vonta Williams, was shot by a white male driving a Ford F-150 truck. Williams survived, but police were unable to make an arrest in the case.

Muhammad suggested that police incompetence (or refusal to investigate) played a role: “If A’vonta Williams’s shooter had been found, would Jazmine Barnes still be alive?” The link between the two attacks seemed not only plausible but obvious, and Muhammad invoked probability and statistics: “What are the odds that two black families were fired upon by a white male in a pickup truck within a one-year time span on the same block? We’ve got to call it what it is: Black people are being targeted in this country. Black people are being targeted in this county. Black people are being targeted in this city. We are thoroughly convinced that the killing of Jazmine Barnes was race related.” Kisshima Williams, a relative of A’vonta Williams, agreed, saying “It has to be the same person. It’s too similar.” Muhammad was not alone; Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee implored those gathered at a rally for Jazmine, “Do not be afraid to call this what it seems to be: a hate crime.” If the crime was indeed random—as it appeared to be—racism seemed a plausible explanation.

The question Muhammad raised is a fair one, though the odds are difficult or impossible to calculate. The two shootings happened about six miles apart, and were in different vehicles (the 2017 shooting involved a gray, silver, or white truck pickup instead of a red one, and an AR-15 style automatic weapon instead of a handgun).

You can read the rest HERE. 

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

Jan 302019
 

Last week during Holocaust Remembrance Day, many memes circulated claiming that a significant number of Americans, Canadians, and Britons are Holocaust deniers, or support white supremacy.

In the wake of racial incidents such as the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018, it’s natural for the public and pundits to wonder just how common anti-Semitism is. Deadly attacks on Jewish houses of worship are thankfully rare, but what about anti-Jewish belief among the general public? One often-used metric is public opinion polls about the Holocaust. In April 2018 Newsweek posted a news story titled “One-Third of Americans Don’t Believe 6 Million Jews Were Murdered During the Holocaust.” It was widely shared on social media, including Yahoo News, recently.

I recently wrote about this topic for my CFI blog; you can read it HERE.

 

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

 

 

Jan 222019
 

In my years of media and science literacy I’ve repeatedly encountered cases where people have failed to question their premises and simply forged ahead without bothering to make sure that the assumptions were grounded in fact. Premises often seem self-evident—and who wants to waste time verifying or fact-checking something that’s obvious?

About six or seven years ago I was contacted by a man who wanted me to look at his research on Stonehenge. He wasn’t an archaeologist or historian, and from what I could tell had little formal training. What he did have, in apparent abundance, was enthusiasm and free time. He was interested in so-called ley lines, real or imagined—depending on your New Age inclinations—lines that connected important man-made sites around the world, including the Ghiza Pyramids, Macchu Picchu, and so on.

I’d encountered his type before, usually in the context of being asked to carefully read and offer comments on (that is, praise) his theories and discoveries. And not a few paragraphs but instead reams of what might charitably be called crank literature: diagrams, explanations, and so on.

I reluctantly agreed to chat with him for a few minutes to get an overview, and he began explaining how he’d always been fascinated by the stones and he showed me meticulously drawn diagrams of the exact positions of the stones and the precise angles that, he claimed, corresponded perfectly with other mysterious or significant sites on other continents and across the globe. Two particular east-facing stones, for example, just happen to point to other monuments elsewhere in Europe. He proudly noted that he’d visited Stonehenge many times over the years and kept discovering new aspects to the formation. The idea that Stonehenge was aligned in some way with celestial bodies seems perfectly plausible, but how in the world could the ancients have known about, and carefully aligned their standing stones with the exact coordinates of, the Egyptian pyramids, for example?

I’d written some about Stonehenge, and later visited the site myself. I wouldn’t exactly call myself an expert on the topic, but I was conversant with the basic facts and theories.  I listened to him and looked at his maps and charts linking all the stones’ positions. Finally I asked him, “You know they moved the stones, right?’

They moved Stonehenge?” he asked incredulously.

“Well, the ancient builders moved the rocks to whereStonehenge now sits, of course. But what you see today isn’t the original formation. The standing stones have been moved around several times. There are early drawings and photos of it.” I mentioned a painting by John Constable of the stones from 1835 that showed a significantly different arrangement than what appears today. Over the millennia some stones have fallen into the soft earth, and it’s not known whether they fell straight back or twisted slightly at an angle, and so on. At least a dozen of the stones were straightened and re-erected between 1900 and 1960, and early depictions of Stonehenge (such as Constable’s painting) look quite different than what is seen today. Those restoring the area made an effort to give a sense of what Stonehenge might have been like thousands of years ago, but in fact no one really knows what it originally looked like—or was supposed to look like.

He looked stunned. His years of work had apparently been based on calculations of the precise positions of the stones as they are today—each angle down to the degree and minute—which is not necessarily where they were when first erected. He must have known about the various reconstructions over the years but seemed to have for whatever reason assumed that each time the stones were replaced precisely as they were found. The workers were more concerned about preservation and restoration than historical accuracy; even if that were not the case, the soft Wiltshire earth had caused many of the stones to sink and shift over the thousands of years. There is simply no way to know with any certainty exactly how the stones were first arranged—at least not with the precision needed to link them with other monuments or sacred places on the same meridian around the world.

Seeing his stunned deflation, I awkwardly excused myself so as not to further embarrass him, and I never heard from him again. I wasn’t trying to mock him or debunk his elaborate theories, and I’d honestly wished he’d asked me years earlier before he spent untold time and energy pursuing his analysis based on mistaken assumptions. His was an extreme example, of course, but the error of making assumptions instead of checking them is common.

Because the restoration work at Stonehenge is not hidden yet not widely known, it has generated conspiracy theories. Some have even suggested that the monument dates back less than a century, created to spur tourism profits or for other unknown—and possibly nefarious—reasons. Mick West, author of Escaping the Rabbit Holeand creator of the Metabunk web site, has visited the site several times and investigated such conspiracy claims. West said “The idea that Stonehenge is a relatively modern construction is appealing to a certain type of conspiracy theorist who has fallen far down the rabbit hole. Images appearing to show the construction of Stonehenge with cranes and concrete are an intellectual delight to them. No particular reason is needed for Stonehenge to be faked, because in their mind everything is faked, and this is simply pleasant circular confirmation that they were right all along.” Stonehenge fell out of use around 1500 B.C., and has stood as a mute mystery ever since.

 

Jan 152019
 

I was recently a guest on #TheSupernaturalSymposium, Justin Brown interviewed me, psychic Tiffaney Mason and paranormal investigator Mike Ricksecker in an effort to create a panel of experienced individuals in their field of work to discuss the origins of a haunting. Why do many people experience and report hauntings? What causes them? Is it the mind playing tricks or is it supernatural? We will take a closer look and discuss the topic and air out the opinions of this very diverse panel in order to understand the controversial nature of hauntings so we can find ways to bridge the gap between conflicting viewpoints and strengthen the paranormal community. Will we find common ground?

You can watch it HERE. 

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

Jan 132019
 

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

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

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

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

A Closer Look

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

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

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

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

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

‘Merican Ignernce?

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

Holocaust Denial or Innumeracy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

This piece originally appeared on the “Skeptic Reads a Newspaper Blog” HERE.

 

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

Dec 082018
 

As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) has passed its anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen!

 

 

First, Pascual is skeptical of mutating astronaut DNA, and looks closely at the media misinterpretation of a recent NASA press release. Then the gang discusses various ways that folklore is used to control behavior—a trick used on children and sometimes on the general public, too. We look closely at the Hispanic ghost La Llorona, a frightening tale that keeps children away from flood-prone river banks in New Mexico, and then some of her even scarier cousins, the Japanese kappa, who seem to have a fixation on human butts and cucumbers. Then all the way up in Iceland we meet the Yule cat, who eats children that don’t wear their new Christmas sweaters—but also teaches a host of other lessons.

You can listen to it HERE.

 

 

Dec 062018
 

As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) has passed its anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen!

 

This week, our crew digs into health panics and what’s in our food. Focusing on the notorious “pink slime”, the Strangers break down the history of the hysteria and talk about how bad it really is (or isn’t). Also in this episode, Ben is skeptical of the tragic tale of a Tasmanian Devil named Jasper.  You can listen HERE. 

Dec 022018
 

As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) has passed its anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen!

 

This week, the Strange crew chats a bit about “crisis actors” and how far people will go to link tragic events to push conspiratorial ideas. Then, the boys are joined by Sharon A. Hill, geologist and skeptic author of the new book Scientifical Americans, a look into the culture of amateur paranormal researchers. They talk a bit about the utility of the title “skeptic” and go into a discussion about her fascinating new book.

You can find it HERE! 

 

 

Nov 032018
 

Writer Jon Silman at Oxygen has a new article out on John Wayne Gacy’s role in the scary clown phenomenon, and I’m briefly quoted:

 

Before we explore that it’s worth looking into the psychology of why clowns are scary. We spoke to Benjamin Radford, author of the book “Bad Clowns,” and he gave us his theory. “We’re comfortable with clowns in a specific context,” he said. “If we see them at a party we say ‘oh that’s great,’ but if you see a clown at night in a vacant parking lot or knocking on your door at midnight, it’s a different feeling.”

You can read the whole thing HERE. 

Oct 302018
 

If you’ve spent any time on social media over the past few years you’ve likely seen several versions of Donald Trump’s last name. Various versions include “tr^^p,” “Strump,” and “Tr**p,” though writer Joyce Carol Oates understandably prefers the correctly-numbered-asterisk version “T***p.”

Meryl Streep gave a blistering 2017 Golden Globes speech that never mentioned Trump’s name but referred to the president as “a coarse blowhard.”

Others simply call him “Sin Nombre” (nameless in Spanish)—though I’d prefer “Hombre Sin Nombre” because it’s alliterative and references his infamous, inane “bad hombres” comment—though no one asked me.

 

For a while some people avoided using Trump’s name on Facebook because the site’s algorithms would be more likely to send political advertisements for Trump to whoever wrote about him, though as his name became ubiquitous, the algorithms became less useful.

There are also various circumlocutions, such as Mad King Cheeto, Agent Orange, the Dumpster, the Orange Manatee, Hair Furor, President Bone Spurs, Donald Drumpf, Assaulter-in-chief, and “Tiny-Fingered, Cheeto-Faced, Ferret-Wearing Shitgibbon,” among others.

What’s behind the refusal or reluctance to say Trump’s name?

The Atlantic had a piece on this last year, noting that “When the late Gwen Ifill asked President Barack Obama why he had been avoiding saying ‘Trump,’ he replied, ‘He seems to do a good job mentioning his own name. So, I figure, you know, I will let him do his advertising for him[self]’…. Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter Bernice King shared a widely circulated list to her Facebook page offering tips for resisting Trump. The top suggestion: ‘Use his name sparingly so as not to detract from the issues.’… Given the influence Trump’s name wields, snubbing it is an attempt to withhold some of that power while staking out higher moral ground, said Jenny Lederer, an assistant professor of linguistics at San Francisco State University. ‘In his case, especially, people feel like not repeating his name is [a way of] not speaking to the brand and the value system that goes along with his political ideology.’”

Naming Taboos

In The Encyclopedia of Superstitions, E. and M. Radford—no relation, probably—note that “In primitive thought, a man’s name was not merely a convenient label by which he could be distinguished from others. It was an integral part of himself, as important to him as, and indeed, moreso than, his arms or legs or eyes. Knowledge of it by another gave that other power over him… These beliefs survive in the custom, once quite general, of keeping a child’s name secret from outsiders until he had been baptized. To let it be known to any stranger… was to run the risk of witchcraft” (p. 244). In the Doctor Who universe, the titular doctor’s name is unknown (except to him or her, as the case may be, and a possible wife) and never spoken aloud in the series.

Often refusing to name a figure is done in deference to their awesome and potentially destructive power. The idea is that to say the name without sufficient reverence—or at all—is to risk drawing the person’s attention or wrath. In Roman Catholic exorcisms, knowing a demon’s name is considered an important part of the ritual and gives the priest power over the evil entity. Even saying the name of the Christian God is considered dangerous in some cases; hence mild exclamations such as “zounds!” were adopted from the archaic, quasi-blasphemic phrase “god’s wounds.” Similarly, in Jewish traditions the name “Yahweh” is too sacred to speak or even write, preferring the Almighty” or “our Lord”; even the word “God” is often written as “G-d.”

In the Harry Potter universe the villain Voldemort is referred to as “He Who Must Not Be Named” and “You Know Who.” In British fairy folklore there is a long tradition of avoiding speaking the word “fairy” aloud. They are variously referred to as “the good folk,” the “wee folk,” or just “the folk.” To do otherwise is to invite trouble.

Many or most people who refuse to use Trump’s name aren’t doing so out of reverence, of course. As the Atlantic piece notes, “When it comes to the current president, the refusal to use his name may be uniquely subversive because of the degree to which Trump has wrapped his entire worth, wealth, and fame up in those five letters.” Indeed, Trump seems remarkably impressed not only with himself but also with his own surname, which he considers to be his signature brand.

But has the anti-Trump linguistic revolt done any good? Is it a form of verbal slacktivism and virtue signaling? While refusing to speak his name may seem like a tiny act of “he’s not my president” defiance, it doesn’t seem to be an issue for him. Perhaps the biggest indication that some people’s refusal to say Trump’s name isn’t bothering him is the lack of reaction, especially on social media. Trump is famously thin-skinned about real and imagined slights, and has shown no qualms about taking to Twitter to blast his critics. Yet there’s been no stream of petty, pouty invective from our commander in chief wailing about his subjects’ lack of reverence for his name.

It could also be that Trump only cares about the loudest voices and (what he considers to be) his most vocal opponents, including “The Failing New York Times” and CNN, which due to journalistic editorial standards would not replace letters in Trump’s name with asterisks. As long as they spell his name right (and fully), he’s happy.

Oct 222018
 

In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here’s a look back at a show you might have missed: 

 

This week, Ben and Pascual dig into the legend of Kuchisake-Onna, aka the Slit-mouthed Woman. From the origins of her terrifying story to the modern day pop culture references, the guys explore every creepy detail. Also in this episode, Ben is skeptical of what makes something fictional “problematic” and just how serious the implications are.

 

You can listen HERE. 

Oct 182018
 

In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here’s a look back at a show you might have missed: 

 

This week we start with Celestia’s tale of having a “tongue analysis” while on a cruise, which amounted to an alt-med version of cold reading. Then we examine a critical but controversial topic: are accusers routinely disbelieved in sexual misconduct cases? Ben brings some statistics on the public’s view of high-profile accusations, and Celestia tackles data on police handling of rape reports. How true is this notion, and, more importantly, what harm does inflating such a notion cause?

 

You can listen HERE. 

Oct 152018
 

In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here’s a look back at a show you might have missed:

 

First, Ben looks at current failures of intuition and psychics. Then we take a skeptical look at tour guides! Tours straddle a line between entertainment and education, and tour guides happily embellish local legends and lore as time goes on. We welcome special guest Cindy Boyer from the Landmark Society of Western New York and chat about ghost tours. Pascual confesses to teenaged transgressions, and Ben recounts an egg-balancing lesson with a tour guide in Ecuador. You can listen HERE. 

Oct 122018
 

In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here’s a look back at a show you might have missed:

This week, we look into the nature of curses and what it takes to break a curse. From the cultural aspects to the practical applications, we take the listener through a journey into the weird and scary world of superstition.

You can listen HERE. 

Sep 302018
 

In this week’s episode we started with an announcement and then a look at a Bridezilla tale and a psychic mountain lion encounter. Then Ben, Celestia, and Pascual discuss skeptical burnout, a phenomenon that hits almost every skeptic at some point. What makes us susceptible to this kind of exhaustion, and how can we best fight against it? We all share some stories and outlooks.

 

You can hear the show HERE.