I’m quoted in a new article by Russ Dobler on techniques that can fool people into thinking you’re psychic (by way of the upcoming Spider-Man movie!) for his Adventures in Poor Taste website… Check it out HERE!
I’m quoted in a new article by Russ Dobler on techniques that can fool people into thinking you’re psychic (by way of the upcoming Spider-Man movie!) for his Adventures in Poor Taste website… Check it out HERE!
My Spanish-language article on water dowsing is now out for ‘Pensar’ magazine, thanks to Alejandro Borgo for the translation!
Los tiempos de estrés social, dificultades e incertidumbre estimulan el interés en todo tipo de adivinación y profecía. El público va a ver videntes y adivinos con más frecuencia en tiempos de depresión económica que de prosperidad, tiempos de pérdida en lugar de amor. Son la naturaleza humana y el pensamiento mágico en sus diversas formas, incluidas la superstición y las conspiraciones, las que ayudan a las personas a lidiar con el estrés diario. La gente quiere estar segura de que las cosas buenas están a la vuelta de la esquina, que las fortunas mejorarán y los romances apasionados con proverbiales extraños guapos y altos están en las cartas.
Esto fue cierto durante la pandemia, pero hay otras tensiones —ambientales, como el cambio climático, incendios generalizados y una sequía duradera que ha mantenido reseco gran parte del suroeste de los Estados Unidos durante años. No es de extrañar que la gente esté cada vez más desesperada por encontrar agua.
The New York Times informó recientemente sobre un aumento en el interés y la contratación de radiestesistas (o «brujos del agua») —también llamados zahoríes o rabdomantes. Si alguna vez ha escuchado la frase «No lo harían si no funcionara», la radiestesia es una refutación perfecta. A lo largo de los siglos las personas han venerado y perpetuado prácticas a pesar de que simplemente no funcionan. La radiestesia es un ejemplo de libro de texto sobre el tema. Parte de la razón de la longevidad de la radiestesia es su versatilidad en el mundo paranormal. Se dice que la radiestesia encuentra cualquier cosa, incluidas personas desaparecidas, tuberías enterradas, depósitos de petróleo e incluso ruinas arqueológicas (ver Dowsing and Archaeology: Is There Something Underneath? —Radiestesia y arqueología: ¿Hay algo debajo?— en Skeptical Inquirer, marzo/abril de 1999).
I’m quoted in a Global News Canada article on the search for Sasquatch, talking about why the evidence for Bigfoot keeps falling short. Check it out HERE!
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Times of social stress, hardship, and uncertainty spur interest in all kinds of divination and prophecy. The public goes to see psychics and fortunetellers more often in times of economic depression than prosperity, times of loss rather than love. It’s human nature, and magical thinking in its various forms—including superstition and conspiracies—helps people cope with daily stresses. People want to be reassured that good things are just around the corner, that fortunes will improve and whirlwind romances with proverbial tall handsome strangers are in the cards. People want an edge against random chance.
This was true during the pandemic, but there are other stresses—environmental ones such as climate change, widespread fires, and an enduring drought that’s kept much of the Southwestern United States parched for years. It’s no surprise that people are getting more desperate to find water.
The New York Times recently reported a jump in interest in, and hiring of, dowsers (or “water witches”), such as Rob Thompson, who “claims that he can locate streams of water in the fractures in the earth’s bedrock, using two L-shaped rods that together resemble an old-fashioned television antenna. Amid California’s extreme drought, just a two-hour drive north of the nation’s technology capital of Silicon Valley, the water-seeking services of a man relying on two three-foot rods and a hunch are in demand. ‘This is my busiest I think I’ve ever been in my life,’ said Mr. Thompson, a third-generation water hunter with silvering hair and the lumbering gait of a bear… His busy schedule is a sign of the desperation of ranchers, vineyard owners and land managers as California reels from a crippling drought that has depleted aquifers, shrunken crops and forced some farmers to sell off their water rights.”
If you’ve ever heard the phrase “They wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work,” dowsing is a perfect rebuttal. People through the centuries have revered and perpetuated practices despite the fact that they simply do not work. Dowsing is a textbook example of this. Part of the reason for dowsing’s longevity is its versatility in the paranormal world. If we conceive of the paranormal as a tasty (but ultimately nourishment-free) meal, dowsing is a sort of all-purpose side dish. It can stand alone as a New Age endeavor when searching for water or missing jewelry, or it goes equally well with a variety of pseudoscientific main dishes, including crop circles and fortune-telling. Dowsing is said to find anything and everything, including missing persons, buried pipes, oil deposits, and even archaeological ruins (see “Dowsing and Archaeology: Is There Something Underneath?,” in Skeptical Inquirer, March/April 1999).
I most often encounter dowsers during ghost investigations. Many amateur ghost hunters use dowsing rods to search for ghosts, believing that ghosts can be detected by (or communicate through) dowsing rods. In 2007, I demonstrated dowsing for the National Geographic Channel’s Is It Real? TV series on “Ghost Ships” in response to a woman who used dowsing rods on ghost hunts.
The dowsing with which most people are familiar is water dowsing (also known as water witching or rhabdomancy), in which a person holds a Y-shaped branch or two L-shaped wire rods and walks around until he or she feels a pull on the branch or the wire rods cross, which allegedly indicates that there is water below. Often a pendulum is used, sometimes held over a map.
According to proponents, dowsing has a robust history, and its success has been known for centuries. For example, in her book Divining the Future: Prognostication From Astrology to Zoomancy, Eva Shaw writes, “In 1556, De Re Metallica, a book on metallurgy and mining written by George [sic] Agricola, discussed dowsing as an acceptable method of locating rich mineral sources.” This widely cited reference is a rather transparent example of a logical fallacy called the appeal to tradition (“It must work because people have done it for centuries”).
However it seems that the dowsing advocates didn’t actually read the book because it says exactly the opposite: Instead of endorsing dowsing, Agricola states that those seeking minerals “should not make use of an enchanted twig, because if he is prudent and skilled in the natural signs, he understands that a forked stick is of no use to him.” So even 465 years ago, dowsing was recognized as worthless.
How Dowsing ‘Works’
If you assume that dowsing works—and that is of course a huge unproven assumption— how does it work? The proposed mechanisms are as varied as the dowsers themselves. One source states that “Dowsing is possible … through the strong psychic energy radiated by the object and picked up by the [dowser]”; another confidently states that “dowsing is not weird or spooky … it is as natural as memory. In fact, some scientists believe it may well be one of memory’s forms … a vestigial memory of a survival method of searching, using senses other than the five obvious ones.” The Amazing Randi in his Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, notes that dowsers often cannot agree on even the basics of their profession: “Some instructions tell learners never to try dowsing with rubber footwear, while others insist that it helps immeasurably. Some practitioners say that when rods cross, that specifically indicates water; others say that water makes the rods diverge to 180 degrees.”
I don’t believe dowsing per se is fraudulent—that is, for the most part it’s not a scam, hoax, or intentional deception. Instead it’s a form of self-deception that often convinces others. There’s no intent to deceive, it’s more of a mistake or misunderstanding. I’ve met many dowsers over the years and without exception they have been credible, down-to-earth people. They seem sincere because they are sincere: they really believe they have this power, and have convinced themselves over and over with their results. In this way they often convince other people—especially those who haven’t researched skeptical or science-based explanations. Sometimes the dowsing rods cross or the forked twig does seem to dip—but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s water below. The cause is what in psychology is known as the ideomotor effect: unconscious movements that make the dowser think that some other mysterious force is at play. If the dowsing devices were moving independently of the dowser then this should be easily demonstrated, but it doesn’t happen.
Dowsers have been subjected to many tests over the years and have performed no better than chance under controlled conditions. There are various ways to scientifically test dowsing abilities. I have done it several times myself, and read studies done by others. The easiest is to get 20 identical 5-gallon opaque plastic buckets and (with the dowser out of sight or at another location) place a sealed gallon jug of water under one of the buckets (being careful of course not to leave any traces that might reveal where it is). The buckets should be placed 2-3 meters apart (or at whatever interval the dowser claims they can discriminate water from non-water). Have the dowser come out to the field or lot and find the water. You can do a similar experiment hiding valuables on sandy beaches in grids as well. For more on this see CFI’s Jim Underdown of the Independent Investigations Group demonstrating dowsing testing for NBC News.
The problem is that dowsers fail to demonstrate their ability in scientifically controlled experiments and tests. It also depends on what you’re looking for and where. In fact it can be difficult to disprove a dowser’s claim for the same reason: if they claim water will be found in a spot at a certain depth, they can always insist that the water is there—just that they were a bit off on the depth: It’s 50 meters, not 20 meters like they thought. In order to prove or disprove that, of course, you’d need to dig another 30 meters (possibly a difficult and expensive proposition).
And if they find water, does that mean that dowsing works? Not necessarily. In most places on Earth there’s water somewhere below the surface—maybe a few inches, maybe a few meters or more. So any dowser who says “If you dig here you’ll find water” is statistically very likely to be correct—and would be just as correct if he or she chose a spot 10 meters away in any direction, or 10 miles away. There’s also the issue of what psychologists call “confirmation bias,” also known as “remembering the hits and forgetting the misses.” People generally tend to better remember their successes than their failures, or they rationalize away their failures (“I was having an off day,” or “The sun was too hot,” etc.). Unless dowsers keep careful track of all their claims—both correct and wrong— it can be easy to misremember their success rate.
Of course when dowsers are wrong they simply point out that no one is 100% accurate all the time—doctors, mechanics, scientists, and others make mistakes, and this is of course true. But the problem with that comparison is that doctors and mechanics can reliably prove their skills most of the time; this is not true with dowsers, and in fact there is no known scientific mechanism by which a forked branch, pendulum, or two L-shaped rods could possibly “detect” water. Keep in mind that dowsers claim to be able to find a great many “hidden” objects, including missing keys, water, oil, gold, and even ghosts! This raises the interesting question of how dowsers could know what the rods are reacting to: Is it a vein of gold 20 meters below the earth, a reservoir of water 100 meters below the earth, oil shale 200 meters down, or the dead spirit of someone who died at that spot in 1973? There’s no way to know. British Petroleum and other multinational oil companies spend billions of dollars trying to locate offshore oil fields through expensive, difficult, and time-consuming sampling, computer models, and so on.
In fact in September 2015 the Royal Dutch Shell Corporation abandoned its drilling in the Alaskan waters after spending $7 billion searching fruitlessly for oil. Why would they do that if all they need is to have a dowser on hand to point them directly where to drill? Any dowser who could reliably and successfully do what they claim could easily become a multi-millionaire consulting agent. Why doesn’t it happen?
There is no science behind dowsing, and though the main harm is wasted time and effort, it can also cost lives: in 2010, modified dowsing-rod devices claimed to detect bombs were sold by a man named James McCormick to the Iraqi military. As Slate noted, “McCormick’s company was selling these fraudulent magic wands at great expense to the Iraqi government, which spent $16,500 to $60,000 each for these things, devices which might as well have been crayon boxes full of rocks. They were useless. Or, as it turns out, far worse than useless. The Iraqis were using them at military checkpoints. On Oct. 25, 2009, terrorists carrying two tons of explosives got right past the magic bomb sniffer and detonated their cargo, killing 155 people. Two months later, it happened again, with 127 people killed. Not long after, McCormick was arrested under suspicion of fraud.” In April 2013 McCormick was convicted.
The consequences of water dowsing is less dire but no less real: wasted time and effort. Still, as long as there are desperate people who need increasingly scarce resources, water witches will not be far behind.
A longer version of this piece appeared on my CFI blog; you can read it here.
A few years back I wrote a short piece on karma for the late, great, independent weekly The Alibi. There is a dark, cruel aspect to it: Everything bad that happens to you is your own fault… If you’re beaten, robbed, raped, get hit by a bus or get cancer it’s because you deserved it. It gets a New Agey warm glow, but it’s actually a very bleak worldview…
While waiting in line for coffee in Santa Fe a few years ago, I met a nice young woman. She was in her early 20s—an intelligent college student and a bit of a free spirit. While her double-
“I believe in karma,” she told me.
“Are you a Buddhist?” I asked.
She cocked her head, slightly amused. “No, why?”
“Well, karma is part of Buddhism; I just wondered if you were Buddhist. Just like if you said you were visiting Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, I’d ask if you were Muslim …”
“Oh. No, I’m not really religious, but I do think that what comes around goes around.”
She handed a $5 bill to the cashier and got back a few pennies in change. Before I could inquire further about her understanding of karma, she smiled and was gone.
I wondered if she really did believe in karma, or if she just thought she did. I suspect she embraced the superficial, pop culture version of karma, without really understanding what it is.
The word karma comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “fate, work or action.” The concept of karma varies somewhat among Buddhists, Hindus and Jainists, but the popular understanding is that karma assures that good things will happen to good people and bad things to bad people. Karma in Buddhism holds that the fate of the soul is determined by its karma, its actions. Every act—whether good or bad, no matter how insignificant—will eventually return to the person who does the act, and with equal force. So far, so good.
Most people mistakenly assume the good or bad will come back in this lifetime, but that’s not what karma says. Those who do good deeds will be rewarded in future lives, and those who do bad deeds will be punished in future lives (such as by being reborn as a lowly animal).
Karma says you deserve every moment of pain and anguish and terror in your life.
While many people say they believe in karma, most don’t really understand, or believe in, the Buddhist idea of karma. For one thing, there would no need for prisons or punishment; cosmic justice will be meted out in another realm. If people really believed in karma, they would believe that thieves and murderers will be punished in a future life, so there is no need to seek legal justice. Furthermore, karma is inextricably linked to reincarnation; in Western society anyway, the idea of being reborn as a dog or rodent in a future life doesn’t really seem very likely, nor that much of punishment.
There is a dark, cruel aspect to karma, one that is rarely discussed. Everything bad that happens to you is your own fault: the car accident that killed your loved one, the disease that ravages your body, everything. Karma says you deserve every moment of pain and anguish and terror in your life.
As Robert Carroll notes in his book The Skeptic’s Dictionary, “Karma says that everybody is getting what he or she deserves. Even the child brutalized by drugged adults deserves the horror. The mentally ill, the retarded, the homosexuals and the millions of Jews killed by the Nazis deserved it for evil they must have done in the past. The slave beaten to within a breath of death deserved it, if not for what he did today, then for what he did in some previous lifetime. Likewise for the rape victim. She is just getting what she deserves. All suffering is deserved, according to the law of karma.”
I suspect the woman in the coffee shop probably would reject the real idea of karma in favor of her own sanitized and misunderstood version. I didn’t expect her to be an expert on comparative religions, but if you claim a belief in (and support of) an idea, it implies you actually understand what you say you believe.
Calling what she believes “karma” isn’t quite right. If you don’t believe you deserve all the pain in your life, you don’t believe in karma. If you don’t believe you will be reincarnated, you don’t believe in karma. Saying you believe in karma but not these tenets is like saying you believe in Christianity but not Jesus. People can, of course, believe whatever they like and call their beliefs whatever they wish, but if they’re going to make up their own idiosyncratic idea of karma that has little or no resemblance to its true meaning, they might as well say, “I believe in framoozle.”
Furthermore, I’m not sure I trust someone whose life or actions are truly guided by karma, because I believe people are inherently good. If you think about it, the premise of karma is that people need to be threatened with cosmic retribution into good conduct: Don’t do evil, or else it will come back to you. How about just being good to others because it’s the right thing to do? Do people who believe in karma really need to be threatened into doing the right thing?
What comes around goes around. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Take your pick. I’m in favor of the golden rule, and it is certainly true that our actions guide our lives. Just don’t call it karma.
For this episode we are joined by a surprise guest, the critical thinker behind the Steak-Umms popular brand voice (aka Nathan Allebach), who talks to us about targeting misinformation as a PR strategy, managing viral posts, and the brand’s recent dustup with Neil deGrasse Tyson. Then I bring us back in time twenty years to a hot Indian summer in New Delhi, where reports of a mysterious and malevolent Monkey Man sent residents into a panic. Police and local skeptics were mobilized to combat this phantom in very different ways, as rewards, injuries, vigilante groups and media reports fueled public fear.
You can listen to it HERE!
Twenty years ago last month the capital of India was gripped in a panic. Early reports claimed that some mysterious monkey-like creature attacked many residents in New Delhi, leaving fear, scars, and ultimately even dead bodies in its wake. The Monkey Man, as it came to be known, made international news as police and news media struggled to make sense of the mysterious menace.
Sociologist Robert Bartholomew and I wrote briefly about this episode in our book Hoaxes Myths, and Manias: Why We Need Critical Thinking, but overall there has been relatively little written about it from scholarly and skeptical perspectives. On this twentieth anniversary of the panic, it seemed like a good time to revisit this case in more depth.
Descriptions of the Monkey Man varied widely, and details were often ambiguous because most of the sightings occurred at night outside in the night sky, with the creature leaping away into the darkness before anyone could get a good look at it—much less a photograph. Some people described an ape-like figure with a dark hairy body and glowing red eyes. Others described the figure as between three and six feet tall, with arms ending in sharp claws or even metal gloves, like Freddy Krueger. Some said instead that it wore a motorcycle helmet, leather jacket, and dark glasses. Most people, however, just reported seeing a shadow of something; overall, there were few first-hand sightings; instead many people described what they heard other people saying they saw.
Indian news media picked up on the story and ran with it, sensationalizing reports in the process. The most lurid and dramatic descriptions, of course, got the most attention—which in turn triggered demands from the public to be protected. Local law enforcement officials, understandably, were not sure how to handle the bizarre situation. They were used to dealing with accidents, homicides, and neighborhood disputes—not mysterious and menacing half-monkeys armed with steel claws. Inundated with panicked calls but no suspects or leads, the police soon set up special hotlines and offered a large 50,000 rupee ($1,000) reward for information leading to the capture of this monster. Though meant to generate useful leads, this financial incentive had the effect of increasing the number of crank calls and false alarms. Indeed, as news of the Monkey Man spread, there was a snowball effect; more coverage spurred more sightings, but also more attention-seeking pranks and hoaxes. Many people got in on the action, offering ever-wilder (and evidence-free) stories to an eager news media.
As days turned into a week and the panic increased with no arrests being made, citizens took the law into their own hands. Vigilante mobs took to patrolling the streets at night, armed with clubs, poles, and machetes. The rolling blackouts which often plague the city only added to the sense of fear and foreboding. As in other monster panics I’ve investigated including the chupacabra (in Puerto Rico) and the popobawa (in Zanzibar); there were overnight vigils and stakeouts, where armed men took turns at sentry while the others slept. Predictably and tragically, in some cases mob justice ensued and several people were attacked. The Washington Post reported that “a van driver was chased by a mob that believed him to be the Monkey Man, dragged out of his vehicle, and severely beaten. He was hospitalized with multiple fractures.”
One of the most puzzling things about the case was that there was no real evidence of this phantom attacker. With no photographs or footprints the main forensic evidence offered in support of the attacker(s)—and implicitly refuting growing skepticism that it was all a hoax or hallucination—were injuries said to have been caused by encounters with the Monkey Man.
Indeed, evidence was offered of encounters, much of it ambiguous. Monkey Man victims showed off a variety of minor injuries and wounds—most of which were indistinguishable from bites from rats or dogs—along with rashes, scratches, and the like. To many people who saw photos and video of the injuries (widely shared in news media) it was compelling. Though it was surely true that not every Monkey Man sighting or report was accurate, for many people these disparate reports offered evidence corroboration: Unless the dozens of ostensible strangers offering (superficially) similar stories and injuries had all somehow conspired together to fake the incidents, surely there must be something to it, many people thought.
However a closer look at the injuries revealed a different story. Some people had faked injuries for medical and media attention; others reframed existing, unrelated injuries as having been due to encounters with the Monkey Man. There is not much in the published literature about this incident, though I did find one journal article in the August 2003 Indian Journal of Medical Sciences. S.K. Verma and D.K. Srivastava examined sociodemographic patterns and injuries among alleged Monkey Man victims. They found that between May 10 and 25, 397 people made calls to the police claiming to have been attacked. Of those, fifty-one cases were detailed enough for medical examination.
Two-thirds of the victims were male, and most were between twenty and thirty years old. The vast majority (94%) were from the poorest sections of the city, East Delhi and nearby, and 89% were of low socioeconomic status. Two-thirds of the victims reported that incident occurred between midnight and 6 AM. As to the nature of the wounds, about 95% of the individuals showed abrasions they attributed to the Monkey Man. As the researchers noted, “One of the most striking features observed in the injuries among these individuals was they were possible either by a blunt or a pointed object only.” About 88% had multiple linear abrasions and 11% displayed lacerations.
In addition to the mob attacks mentioned earlier, there were also dozens of serious accidental injuries caused by mobs of people trying to escape from the monster. There were fatalities as well; one man died falling off a rooftop fleeing from what he thought was the Monkey Man, and a pregnant woman fell down stairs and died panicking as well. A third man also fell off a rooftop, running in fear when he heard another man nearby panicking, shrieking in the darkness that something had pulled on his sheets as he tried to sleep. Eventually the local power company agreed to temporarily suspend rolling blackouts in some of the poorer parts of New Delhi, allowing people to sleep inside in the safety of their apartments under electric fans.
In the end the injuries offered merely the illusion of corroboration. It’s a common theme among paranormal believers, who use the (often presumed) similarities of different, disparate eyewitnesses and experiencers to argue that there must be something to it.
Social panics do not occur in a vacuum. In the climate of fear that swept New Delhi, people interpreted anything as a threat: Any sound in darkness or cry in the night could be interpreted as an imminent attack. It’s also important to remember the physical environment: crowded, poorly-lit sweltering rooftops during rolling blackouts. In a city of 14 million people during a heat wave of over 110 degrees Fahrenheit, the situation was ripe for misperceptions.
There was also the socioeconomic factors of illiteracy and poor education. In a situation reminiscent of the panic and fears surrounding the chupacabra in 1996-1998 Puerto Rico, most of the rumors spread among poor. New Delhi’s wealthiest residents were not sweating and exposed on dark, crowded rooftops but were at home under air conditioning—using portable generators during the blackouts. The religious aspect may also be relevant; the fact that the creature was said to be half (or more) monkey—and not some other wild animal—may be significant. Many people noted that the Monkey Man was reminiscent of Hanuman, a Hindu warrior god depicted as a monkey (or half-monkey) that leads an army…of monkeys. There are also many monkeys in and around the city, so the creature would be a familiar one to New Delhi residents.
Some took the descriptions at face value and thought it was some sort of actual half-human creature, though other explanations included an evil spirit, a robot, “a computerized creature who someone is operating with remote control”; and a terrorist who was using the panic, confusion, and police reaction as a cover for some assassination—possibly by the Pakistani intelligence services, India’s neighbor and arch-enemy.
In the final analysis the Monkey Man panic has all the hallmarks of mass sociogenic illness (MSI), or mass hysteria. Mass hysteria is often misunderstood as being an illness that sufferers are making up. In fact the symptoms are verifiable and not imaginary. The issue is instead what is causing the symptoms—whether some external environmental contaminant or instead a form of suggestion-driven social contagion.
Social contagion can easily spread from person to person in tight quarters, and especially during times of high stress and anxiety. Cases of MSI can vary widely in context and manifestation, but typically include the sudden onset of dramatic (yet clinically minor) symptoms. There are underlying psychological and/or environmental stressors, ranging from workplace discipline to boredom (in this case a heat wave). There is usually some trigger, such as an ambiguous smell, sight, or sound. A hallmark is that the phenomenon is socially contagious—that is, it is spread from person to person like a virus, usually people with whom the victim has come in close contact, such as a friend, family member, co-worker, or classmate. Mass hysterias often affect people who have a real or perceived lack of social support, such as those in poverty or subjected to regimented routine and authority (such as in schools, factories, and so on). Many cases of MSI are recognized only after the fact (and sometimes not even then), with victims often vigorously rejecting the diagnosis, assuming incorrectly that it implied that they were mentally ill or making it all up.
For as bizarre as the Monkey Man incident is, he (or it) is not alone; indeed the phenomenon is best understood as part of a larger social phenomenon known as phantom attackers. These are mysterious figures, usually male and dressed in some distinctive way, and who are seen and reported as menacing ordinary citizens in public. Examples include Spring-Heeled Jack, the mysterious dark-cloaked figure reported threatening and scaring people (mostly women and children) in London from the 1830s through the 1870s; the Phantom Slasher of Taiwan, who was reported stalking the streets of Taipei in 1956 trying to slash people (again, mostly women and children) with a razor; and the phantom clowns, reported to lurk near schools trying—thankfully in vain—to abduct children (for more see chapter 12 in my book Bad Clowns).
Though the details and descriptions vary in these cases, they have much in common, including that they all had sincere eyewitnesses who reported their encounters to police and other public safety officials; the cases were reported in the local news and residents took action to protect the public from further attempted “attacks”; the reports appeared in a given community suddenly but soon faded away with no arrest or resolution. In the end all these phantom attackers—like the Monkey Man—were thoroughly investigated and eventually determined not to have existed.
Throughout the panic police reacted as best they could, increasing patrols and thinking that enough arrests would stop it—not because they assumed they were going to actually arrest the Monkey Man (who would likely demand a simian public defender)—but because hoaxers would finally be deterred. It was semi-successful. Police were getting hundreds of hoaxed calls, and when people were threatened with jail and fines for spreading false rumors, it did indeed curb the appeal of pranksters and copycats. Even those who were sincere in their reports had second thoughts about contacting the police without real proof or evidence. This, coupled with a strong media-influence copycat effect, became a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy when the news media started to lose interest and reported that fewer people were seeing it—which in turn led to fewer people seeing it. A few things led to the Monkey Man being less reported and by about May 20 the reports had slowed to a trickle; the whole incident lasted about two weeks, from May 10 to May 25 or so. The pattern was entirely expected to psychologists and sociologists who recognized the cause. Most cases of mass hysterias tend to be self-limiting; there’s a clear and predictable bell-shaped rise and fall in reports, usually a steep increase and an equally quick fall.
Amid the chaos and panic, skeptical investigators from the Indian Rationalists Association, led by Sanal Edamaruku, tried to explain the situation and calm public fears. Though the news media were more interested sensationalism than skepticism, the organization was quoted, however briefly, in The New York Times and The Washington Post press coverage.
In the Rationalist International Bulletin Edamaruku wrote a first-hand contemporaneous account of his organization’s efforts to investigate the mystery and calm public fears: “India’s capital is looking back on two weeks of mass delusion and panic, sometimes dangerously turning into mass hysteria. The shadow of the ‘monkey man’ is still looming large over suburbs and urban villages.” Edamaruku’s actions serve as a model for on-the-ground skeptical investigation and activism: “We started to collect all information so far available and went to the affected areas to talk to people. I personally questioned at least forty persons who claimed to have seen something and hundreds who were terrified by what they had heard. We evaluated all recorded material and got some important clues.” With no photos of the creature, nor footprints, or anything else tangible, Edamaruku also assessed what little physical evidence there appeared to be: wounds allegedly made by the creature: “We went out to have a close look at the victims’ injuries, which had become something like the last bastion of the spook. We succeeded in tracing most of the known causes and were ‘disappointed’: There was not a single serious wound, only little scratches, cuts, and rubbings [rashes] which under normal circumstances would not get any attention…Interestingly there was no uniformity in them, though they were claimed to come from the same source… With every new case we were more convinced that all these injuries were self-inflicted, either deliberately or unknowingly.”
In the end Edamaruku notes that “Our lonely initiative and intervention to deflate the giant balloon of the monkey man mania has opened many eyes and minds. They have reminded the authorities of their duties and responsibilities and encouraged many scientists to play their part in educating the public. This is in my opinion one of the classical roles rationalist organizations can play, and have to play, in society.”
This is a crucial point because skeptical and rationalist organizations, investigators, and activists (and, I might add, folklorists and psychologists) fill this important—and often overlooked—niche. Many of these panics are not recognized as such at the time, and journalists play a key role in disseminating information, both good and bad, to the public. It’s vital that skeptics and their organizations such as the Indian Rationalists and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (and their many counterparts) make informed skeptical commentary and analysis available to journalists and the public.
Two decades after the Monkey Man appeared, and then disappeared just as quickly, the case remains one of the strangest examples of mass hysteria panics in modern times. With sober analysis we can hopefully learn from it and be better prepared for the next mass sociogenic panic.
A longer version of this piece appeared on the Center for Inquiry website; you can read it HERE!
I’m interviewed in a ‘Superstitious Times’ piece on the inability (or unwillingness) of investigators to call out fraud and hoaxing in their own fields: “What’s happened, Radford added, was the democratization of paranormal investigators, in particular those who pursue ghosts. “My genuine concern, whether they recognize it or not, is that the enormous amount of time and effort that is being wasted on not doing good work. My point has always been, just do good research; just improve the quality of work.”
Check it out HERE!
My new blog examines some myths about, and ways to address, covid vaccine hesitancy. From concerns about efficacy to the “Dirty Dozen” social media anti-vaxxers, the first step is understanding the problem; the second step is knowing your audience.
As the second April opens under the pall of the pandemic, there are about 129 million cases of COVID-19 and nearly three million deaths. The good news is that vaccines are becoming more available, and nearly three million doses are being distributed each day. So far about 97 million Americans have been vaccinated (including me). Nevertheless, vaccine hesitancy remains. Reasons for this have been explored on this site and elsewhere, but it seemed a good time to take a closer look at what’s driving it.
Some people have been deterred by the varied levels of efficacy across the COVID-19 vaccines. Pfizer, for example, is 95 percent effective; Moderna is 94 percent; Oxford/AstraZeneca is 70 percent; J&J is 66 percent, and so on (keep in mind that the data are still being collected, so the rates may change over time). This has led to some thinking that one shot is “better” than another. While it’s obviously true that higher efficacy is better than lower efficacy, that doesn’t tell the full picture. Some vaccines require a second shot, while others need just one dose. If there’s some concern about the availability for the booster shot (the person needs to return three to four weeks later), then the one-shot vaccine may be better. Some vaccines need to be kept in very cold storage and for practical reasons may not be able to be administered in tropical regions, for example.
Some people seem reluctant to get the vaccine because they somehow think that anything less than 100 percent effectiveness is problematic. The SciBabe recently corrected this idea in a Facebook post:
Fully vaccinated people are going to get infected. That’s what anything less than 100% effective means. The ‘best’ of these are about 95% effective. Which means that, give or take, 1 in 20 may get a mild case if exposed. Note, 95% effective is on par with our most effective vaccines. The measles vaccine is 97% effective. The no-longer available Lyme disease vaccine was 80% effective (and don’t you wish that was still available?). Two doses of the chickenpox vaccine is 90% effective. A full course of the polio vaccine is about 99% effective. The pertussis vaccine is 98% effective after a full course of five doses, but only 73% effective after the first dose, and immunity can wane without boosters. So why don’t we see news stories all the time about fully vaccinated people getting those diseases? Is it because there’s something “better” or more trustworthy about those older vaccines? Is there something “they’re not telling us” about the covid vaccine? No.
Plus, of course, vaccine effectiveness rates are averages, and the real-world protection varies by individual. A person with an otherwise healthy immune system may only need a 75 percent effective vaccine, while someone who is immunocompromised may need a 95 percent effective vaccine. Complicating matters, you don’t know which variants you will be exposed to, and each vaccine conveys different protection against different strains. While there are some differences between the vaccines, the fine distinctions are moot. In the end, the consensus among experts is that anyone should get the first available vaccine. Trying to second-guess your exposure (or holding out for a more effective vaccine) just increases the risk of getting COVID-19—and potentially infecting others.
It’s tempting to respond to vaccine hesitancy with snide and snark, but for those hoping to change hearts and minds a more diplomatic approach is best. Sure, there are some people who are actively and knowingly sharing misinformation about vaccines (including, notably, Russian intelligence–led troll farms and the book-promoting viral video Plandemic, whose claims I and others have debunked). However, many people have genuine concerns, for whatever reason, and the issue is complicated by a plethora of COVID-19 pseudoauthorities.
The problem is not helped by a news and social media context that exaggerates dangers of vaccination. Memes and social media posts constantly highlight the rare, minor, and expected side effects of getting vaccinated, and false (and true-but-misleading) news stories about people who suffered because of the vaccines are shared. Any medical treatment or drug—from a tooth extraction to aspirin—can have potential side effects; that’s not a reason to fear or avoid it. As a National Public Radio report noted:
The odds of dying after getting a COVID-19 vaccine are virtually nonexistent. According to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you’re three times more likely to get struck by lightning. But you might not know that from looking at your social media feed. A new NPR analysis finds that articles connecting vaccines and death have been among the most highly engaged with content online this year, going viral in a way that could hinder people’s ability to judge the true risk in getting a shot. … To date, the CDC’s reporting system has not received evidence linking any deaths directly to vaccines. And yet, on almost half of all the days so far in 2021, a story about someone dying after receiving a vaccine shot has been among the most popular vaccine-related articles on social media.
With over half a billion vaccine doses given worldwide, by random chance alone some people will have had reactions, and some of those reactions will be severe (though expected in some small percentage of patients). Highlighting the real-but-rare problems with an otherwise overwhelmingly safe and effective treatment runs a real risk of doing more harm than good. The line between raising awareness and alarmism becomes blurred, especially when activists are involved.
People who are sincerely misinformed need to be provided accurate information to battle the rampant misinformation. Shaming people into getting vaccinated is less effective than promoting the personal, social, and economic benefits of widespread vaccinations. The carrot-and-stick approach has its uses but may backfire when people feel they are being forced into it (whether they in fact are or not). Nobody likes to be told what to do, and that’s especially true for people with an underlying distrust of authority, the government, and Big Pharma.
Another effective approach is to recognize the various demographics of vaccine hesitancy and identify the specific ones. For example, polls show that Republicans and Trump supporters are less likely to be vaccinated than others. By pointing out to them that 1) the vaccines were developed during the Trump administration; 2) Trump personally vouched for their safety and efficacy; and 3) Trump himself received a COVID-19 vaccine, that will lay bare some obvious contradictions and perhaps induce some cognitive dissonance. They may still refuse the vaccine, of course, but they will likely be forced (in their own minds and on social media as well) to recognize the disparity between their professed support for Trump and rejection of “his” vaccines.
The Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), a nonprofit NGO, recently released a report titled The Disinformation Dozen: Why Platforms Must Act on Twelve Leading Online Anti-Vaxxers. As the report notes:
The Disinformation Dozen are twelve anti-vaxxers who play leading roles in spreading digital misinformation about Covid vaccines. They were selected because they have large numbers of followers, produce high volumes of anti-vaccine content or have seen rapid growth of their social media accounts in the last two months.
In previous articles for the CFI Coronavirus Resource Center, I have written in some depth about at least two of the “Disinformation Dozen,” Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Kelly Brogan. The others are Joseph Mercola, Ty and Charlene Bollinger, Sherri Tenpenny, Rizza Islam, Rashid Buttar, Erin Elizabeth, Sayer Ji, Christiane Northrup, Ben Tapper, and Kevin Jenkins.
The CCDH analysis found that about three-quarters (up to 73 percent) of the anti-vaccine content posted to Facebook originates with members of the Disinformation Dozen, and they were responsible for 65 percent of the anti-vaccination material on Facebook and Twitter between February 1 and March 16, 2021. The report urges that social media companies take action:
Social media companies must now follow their repeated promises with concrete action. Updated policies and statements hold little value unless they are strongly and consistently enforced. With the vast majority of harmful content being spread by a select number of accounts, removing those few most dangerous individuals and groups can significantly reduce the amount of disinformation being spread across platforms. The public cannot make informed decisions about their health when they are constantly inundated by disinformation and false content. By removing the source of disinformation, social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter can enable individuals to make a truly informed choice about vaccines.
Polls reveal that there’s little difference in levels of vaccine hesitancy between Blacks and Whites. A recent PBS Newshour/Marist Poll found that “73% of Black people and 70% of White people said that they either planned to get a coronavirus vaccine or had done so already; 25% of Black respondents and 28% of white respondents said they did not plan to get a shot.”
Addressing concerns about vaccine hesitancy among African Americans in a New York Times opinion piece, pediatrician and public health advocate Dr. Rhea Boyd noted that despite the large impact on Black populations and low vaccination rates,
Many are quick to blame “vaccine hesitancy” as the reason, putting the onus on Black Americans to develop better attitudes around vaccination. But this hyper-focus on hesitancy implicitly blames Black communities for their undervaccination, and it obscures opportunities to address the primary barrier to Covid-19 vaccination: access. A closer look at the data reveals that when Black people are given the opportunity, they do get vaccinated.
I explored the intersection of racism and COVID-19 vaccination (or, more accurately, anti-vaccination) agendas in a previous article, “Where Racism, Anti-Vaccination, and COVID-19 Conspiracy Meet.” While it’s true that demonstrable historical mistreatment of minorities plays a role in distrust of medical authorities, Dr. Boyd notes:
Many Black Americans need not resurrect the ghosts of the Tuskegee experiment to recall a moment in which they’ve endured medical mistreatment. As KQED recently reported, researchers say Tuskegee rarely comes up when Black people share concerns about Covid-19 vaccines. Rather, issues like racism in health care and safety concerns are cited much more often.
Thus—at least in the case of COVID-19 vaccines—while latent distrust of doctors is a factor in the African American community, it should not be seen as the main driver of vaccine hesitancy. Public health interventions are best crafted by listening to the affected populations instead of making assumptions about them or speaking on their behalf—and that’s especially true for underrepresented minorities.
There are other media approaches that might help make a difference. From a public relations and messaging standpoint, one suggestion is that news and social media move away from illustrating COVID-19 vaccinations with images or video of people getting injections—not because it’s misleading or irrelevant but instead because it’s unnecessary and may unintentionally deter people. Most people don’t enjoy getting injections of any kind, and health or strong immunity would be a better image to pair with encouragement about getting vaccinated.
We are not out of the covid pandemic yet, and each person who refuses to get vaccinated, for whatever reason, puts us one step further away from ending this outbreak. Until we have reached herd immunity, the best advice is to get vaccinated and continue wearing masks and social distancing. Yeah, it sucks—but you know what sucks even more? Infecting others and dying from COVID-19—or surviving it with long-term health effects.
During the recent trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd, an interesting—and easily overlooked—aspect related to psychology and critical thinking arose.
As MSN reported, “Derek Chauvin defense attorney Eric Nelson on Wednesday suggested in court that George Floyd could be heard saying he ‘ate too many drugs’ in audio recorded during his arrest last year. Nelson made the claim while he was questioning Los Angeles Police Department Sgt. Jody Stiger, a use-of-force expert brought in by prosecution, during cross-examination. ‘I’d like you to see if you could tell me what Mr. Floyd says in this instance,’ Nelson said before playing a clip from body camera footage captured of Chauvin restraining Floyd during the May 2020 arrest that preceded his death. It is difficult to discern what is said in the clip. ‘Did you hear what he said?’ Nelson then asked Stiger. ‘No, I couldn’t make it out,’ Stiger responded. ‘Does it sound like he says, I ate too many drugs,’ Nelson asked before again playing the footage. ‘Listen again.’”
What did Floyd really say? It’s likely we will never know. But Nelson’s transparent efforts to prime the jury into hearing that phrase may have harmed the prosecution. That’s because of what in psychology is called an anchoring effect: we tend to more easily remember, and accept, the first explanation or information we hear. If there are two or more competing explanations for something, we tend to “lock on” to the first one and disregard others. That doesn’t mean that people can’t and don’t change their minds or update their information, of course—just that in general it’s easier to lodge the first idea in someone’s head than the second or third.
In the Chauvin trial, the damage was somewhat mitigated by other witnesses offering different—and in fact contradictory—interpretations of whatever Floyd said, including “I ain’t do no drugs.” The jury, hopefully recognizing that interpretation is highly subjective and easily manipulated, will be careful not to afford that issue too much weight in their deliberations. Whatever ambiguous comment George Floyd said—in his increasingly oxygen-deprived state under former officer Derek Chauvin’s weight and knee—is less relevant than the sea of other clear evidence about the case.
The question of interpretation of ambiguous stimuli is a core concern in many skeptical investigations, from EVP (alleged “ghost voices”) to UFOs (“What’s that odd light in the sky?”) to Bigfoot and ghost sightings and photos (“What’s that weird thing in the distance?”). I can’t count the number of times I’ve had someone present me with a photo, audio, or video recording and express exasperation and incredulity that I was not seeing what was plainly obvious to them.
I diplomatically explained that while their favored interpretation was possible, it was not the only—nor even the most likely—explanation. I try to explain the phenomenon of pareidolia, how people see faces in clouds and meaningful messages in ambiguous sounds. I discuss this at length in my books Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries and Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits, but it’s often useful to see how these principles apply in real-world situations where the consequences of misinterpretation (or over-interpretation) can be dire.
Ambiguous Audio in George Zimmerman Trial
There are many real-life cases in which the meaning and significance of words have been subjected to intense legal and forensic debate. In everyday life meanings in speech are not always clear. In February of 2012 a Florida neighborhood watchman named George Zimmerman shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin. During the trial Zimmerman claimed that Martin had attacked him and that he had shot the young man in self-defense; many, however, believed that the shooting was racially motivated. Those calling for civil rights and homicide charges against Zimmerman referred to a 911 recording of a call in which he muttered “these fucking coons.” Or did he?
Other news media and audio forensic experts heard a very different phrase: “these fucking punks.” Did Zimmerman say “punks” or “coons”? The phonetic sounds are quite different (“pǝNGks” versus “kōons”), and most people would have little difficulty telling the words apart. Different experts, however, came to different conclusions. The distinction is very important: one is a general derogatory label that could refer to anyone of any race, and the other is a racial slur referring specifically to black people. How that one word was interpreted could have been key in deciding Zimmerman’s future if presented as evidence to a jury or prosecuted under hate crime laws.
After several weeks and more careful audio analysis, the prosecution concluded that Zimmerman had not in fact uttered the racial epithet; he had in fact said “punks,” just as his defense attorneys had claimed. In explaining why different well-qualified experts had come to contradictory interpretations, Florida state attorney Harry Shorstein “said [prosecutor Angela Corey’s] team probably relied on audio enhancing from the FBI or the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Shorstein called such enhancing ‘an indefinite science.’”
Audio analysis is indeed an “indefinite science”—even for experts and professionals; unlike DNA testing, audio analysis has a large measure of subjective interpretation. The more important point is this: If experienced audio experts with the police department and the FBI could not agree on what Zimmerman said in a reasonably clear audio recording (far greater than most EVP), there is little reason to put much faith in the accuracy or validity of interpretations by amateur ghost hunters with no professional training or experience.
Cursing Elmos and Reverse Speech
We do not, of course, routinely misunderstand one another in everyday conversation but it happens more frequently than most people notice. Lecturer (and former educational programs consultant for the James Randi Educational Foundation) Barbara Drescher wrote an insightful piece on this for her site ICSBSEverywhere, using the then-recent controversy over a seemingly foul-mouthed Tickle Me Elmo as an example:
I just caught a report on our local Fox News station about a couple that appeared on Good Morning New York, complaining about Elmo’s potty mouth…Notice that the segment opens with a statement of FACT — the toy has a dirty message — rather than a question about whether this might be true. This is a perfect example of how human perception is influenced by knowledge. Perception driven by expectation and belief is called “top-down” processing, whereas perception that starts with information from the senses is considered “bottom-up.” Most of our daily perception is top-down in nature.
In many of my classes, I demonstrate this by playing music clips backwards. Some claim that these clips have “hidden messages.” Everyone from the Beatles to Queen to Eminem to Britney Spears has been accused of it. An entire website is devoted to the study of what David John Oates calls the greatest discovery of all time: Reverse Speech. He even sells training courses and other products (surprise, surprise). Oates claims that our unconscious is revealing itself through our speech and that these messages can be heard if we listen to recordings of this speech backwards. He spends countless hours listening to audio recordings of politicians, celebrities, and music — listening for anything that sounds like English and documenting it. Sometimes the audio must be slowed down before one can perceive the message.
It’s always important not to over-interpret evidence, of any kind. We all bring our personal experiences, expectations, and assumptions to bear on everything we experience and remember. It’s not inherently good nor bad—it’s just how the human brain works. But the first step to minimizing the problem is recognizing the psychological and social contexts, the prisms through which we interpret and understand the world. And the best way to do that, of course, is through skepticism and critical thinking.
With the recent trials of Derek Chauvin and others, I’m seeing a common fallacy: Seemingly outrageous legal defenses are held up as evidence of how horrible American social values are. But the outrage is evidence of nothing more than a misunderstanding of the justice system, as I wrote in this 2019 piece:
In an article by Bil Browning for LGBTQNation headlined “Texas Man Gets Probation after Using ‘Gay Panic’ Defense to Explain Killing his Neighbor” noted that “James Miller of Austin, Texas was found not guilty of manslaughter and murder by a jury after killing his neighbor, Daniel Spencer. After Miller used the ‘gay panic’ defense, claiming Spencer made a pass at him, the jury found him guilty of criminally negligent homicide and sentenced him to 10 years of probation.”
The murder of Daniel Spencer was a serious and tragic crime, but the headlines it spawned may mislead the public into assuming that Miller got probation because his lawyer proposed that particular claim. Examining the topic through a media literacy lens we see that it may or may not be true.
This headline is an example of a “post hoc ergo propter hoc” (“after this, therefore because of it”) logical fallacy, and it’s common in news reports about the outcomes of trials. Defense lawyers make several arguments, including patently false and controversial ones that make headlines, in defending their clients. Just because a given argument was put forth by the defense does not mean that the result of the case (conviction, acquittal, etc.) or the penalty (30 years, probation, etc.) was due to the judge or jury believing that specific argument. In other words just because your lawyer offered some ostensibly implausible argument as part of your defense doesn’t mean that anyone believed or endorsed it.
Seemingly outrageous legal defenses make the news periodically and are held up as evidence of how backward American social values are. But the phenomenon deserves a closer look. Not only is the person making some potentially outrageous or offensive comment often in the minority, but sometimes that are obligated to make that argument even if they personally disagree with it. In many cases it’s a defense attorney for an accused individual. Lawyers are ethically and legally obligated to represent their clients to the best of their ability. In criminal defense trials that sometimes necessarily involves making unsavory claims and assertions. It’s not clear why anyone would be surprised, much less outraged, at motions or arguments made by defense attorneys on behalf of their clients.
Examples include Ethan Couch, a Texas teenager who in 2013 caused a drunk-driving accident that killed four people and seriously injured two others. His defense infamously argued that Couch suffered from “affluenza,” an imaginary condition brought about by his privileged childhood in a wealthy family in which he didn’t—and presumably couldn’t be expected to—understand the consequences of his actions. Couch was sentenced to ten years of probation, spawning outraged headlines and commentary.
Other examples include the “Twinkie defense” (in which the lawyers for Dan White, convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the killing of two people including Harvey Milk in 1979, claimed that the crime was due to underlying depression as indicated by his consumption of Hostess Twinkies); and the November 2018 acquittal of a man in Ireland whose defense lawyer, Elizabeth O’Connell, asked the jury to consider whether the alleged victim’s thong underwear indicated her interest in him. The remarks were rightly and widely denounced across Ireland, from the Parliament to social media, where photos of thongs circulated with the hashtag #ThisIsNotConsent.
A widely-shared meme on December 9, 2018 stated that “Adult Brock Turner only served 3 months for raping an unconscious woman because serving jail time would ‘ruin his life,’” and compared his sentence to the case of teenager Cyntoia Brown, who was sentenced to 51 years in jail for murder but later granted clemency and released after serving 15 years for the killing. There are of course real racial sentencing discrepancies (despite the significant differences between these two cases), but part of the message is demonstrably false.
The judge in Turner’s case, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky, never said that the sentence reflected a desire not to “ruin his life.” That phrase was used by Turner’s father, not the judge. Persky did indicate leniency toward Turner in sentencing, but he did not reference the infamous phrase widely attributed to him, and since Turner’s father didn’t impose the sentence on his son, it’s not correct that Turner “only served 3 months… because serving jail time would ‘ruin his life.’”
In any event the public made their displeasure with the penalty known. Judge Persky was the subject of a successful effort to have him removed from the bench; he was recalled in June 2018, the first California judge recalled in 80 years. In fact California passed a law mandating minimum sentences in sexual assault cases and minimizing judicial discretion in such cases as a direct result of the Turner sentence.
Information Gap Between Juries and the Public
Judges and juries are subject to strict, and often arcane, rules about sentencing. In many cases they have far less discretion than the layperson assumes. A murdered victim’s family may believe that nothing less than the death penalty or twenty years in prison could begin to punish a convicted defendant for their loved one’s death, but if under the law—and the specific circumstances of that case—only manslaughter or negligent homicide apply, the defendant is likely to get a far more “lenient” (but judicially appropriate) penalty. Judges and juries are neither expected nor required to explain their reasons for convictions or sentencing.
The concern and outrage in these cases may be real and legitimate, but it’s important not to mistake a legal defense strategy for an accused criminal with tacit social endorsement of that claim. In these cases it’s often assumed, rightly or wrongly, that the defense’s argument influenced the outcome of the case or sentence given by a judge or jury in the case. Often there’s no reason to believe that; the judge in Couch’s case gave no explanation for her decision nor did the Irish jury of eight men and four women. There could have been any number of reasons why the defense prevailed in these cases (compelling exculpatory evidence, eyewitness testimony, and so on), and the judgments could well have been rendered despite—not because of—the inflammatory defenses.
The public—informed not by judicial standards of evidence but incomplete and often-sensationalized media stories—assume that they understand why judges and juries render their decisions, though they rarely do. For example when Bill Cosby was convicted after a previous acquittal, many in the news media attributed the difference to the emergence of the #MeToo movement, though jurors later said it had nothing to do with their decision.
Just because one part of a person’s defense garners attention or outrage doesn’t necessarily mean it is the only, or even the most important, aspect. The arguments made by defense lawyers (much less the defendant’s parents) are not, and should not be, assumed to represent the values, opinions, or beliefs of the public at large. As is often the case, the fact that these positions spark widespread public approbation reveals just how unpopular they are.
The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out, with folklorist Prof. Jeannie Banks Thomas on how folklore can help people judge questionable online claims. Seemingly legit warnings might just be a rumor or legend, and even folklorists can be fooled about what’s what. We end with a discussion of strangeness at the Denver International Airport.
Check it out HERE!
One important facet to critical thinking is recognizing (and hopefully avoiding) logical fallacies. There’s a bunch of them, and Richard Saunders has assembled a nice overview in bite-size chunks… check it out!
The new documentary Feels Good Man, directed by Arthur Jones, tells the strange story of how an otherwise obscure and innocuous frog cartoon character became a symbol of hate. The frog in question is named Pepe, created by an unassuming, otherwise unknown and (at times frustratingly) low-key San Francisco artist named Matt Furie.
What happened to Pepe is a deceptively complex question, and really understanding it requires some knowledge of media literacy, critical thinking, folklore, social media, memes, popular culture, and politics. Feels Good Man is about many things, and Jones sets the stage early in the film by introducing the audience to the concept of memes. The term, first coined by eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, refers basically to an idea or behavior that spreads between people within a culture. (Full disclosure: I know Richard, have met him several times, and we have both been guest speakers on the same conference program. Also, of course, he is a Board Member of the Center for Inquiry, publisher of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine.)
Dawkins does not appear in the film, but Dr. Susan Blackmore does. She is a psychologist and author of many excellent books, the most relevant of which here is The Meme Machine, which analyzes memes as the subject of study (memetics). In a TED talk and elsewhere, she has described and refined the idea of memes as ideas that replicate themselves from brain to brain, much like a virus, and often change in the process. (Full disclosure: I know Sue, have met her several times, and am a huge fan of her work on a wide variety of topics ranging from psi research to near-death experiences. And no, I don’t know anyone else in the film.) Some memes are images, and they’re very common on social media: The internet is full of them, ranging from adorable to wildly offensive: Captioned photos of Grumpy Cat. The Distracted Boyfriend photo. What The Most Interesting Man thinks. The anguished blonde yelling at a pissy white cat seated at a table in front of a plate of salad. Kermit the Frog sipping tea while dispensing some pithy wisdom. And so on.
Pepe was one such meme. As is always the potential fate of anything online, the image was soon adopted (or co-opted, depending on your point of view) by others. The film meticulously charts Pepe’s transition from slacker cartoon frog to hated white supremacist and right-wing icon. It didn’t happen overnight, and Feels Good Man documents the main turning points. In 2005, Furie drew a crude-but-cute frog for a comic series he created called Boy’s Club. It was about the wacky antics of four anthropomorphic animal roommates, several of whom are stoner-slackers, and one of whom was Pepe, a bug-eyed, heavy-lipped green frog.
In one panel of one of the cartoons Pepe looked sad, and, for whatever reason, that became a popular “sad frog” image on the notoriously toxic anonymous message site 4chan, typically populated by racists, sexists, misfits, and plenty of trolls. Trolls are people who, typically anonymously, delight in provoking arguments on the internet for their own amusement. “Nothing should be taken seriously” is the unofficial troll mantra. Trolls see themselves as taboo smashers whose real message is that the online world is populated with politically correct, easily offended ninnies who should lighten up.
In her book This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture, Prof. Whitney Phillips notes that “Trolls are keenly aware of how their behaviors impact others, and know exactly which issues will get the greatest rise from their chosen targets. From race to class to everything in between, trolls have their fingers on all kinds of powder kegs—all the better to troll you with” (p. 35); indeed, “trolling has a way of snapping its audience to attention, either by activating emotional investment or by forwarding a claim so outrageous that one cannot help but engage in a dialogue” (p. 159).
Trolling is inherently antagonistic arguing for the sake of arguing, pissing people off simply for the fun of it. The more vile, nasty, offensive, and outrageous the comment or image, the more successful the troll is by their standards. The troll is successful in part because his or her status is, at least initially, ambiguous. Do they genuinely endorse the venom they share, or is it all a joke? Just as Pepe is ambiguous—just a sad frog, after all—so is the message he carries.
Pepe’s forlorn expression resonated with legions of lonely, cynical, nihilistic, and disenfranchised slacker youth who felt alienated for whatever reason. This is nothing new, of course; a generation earlier, Beavis and Butthead had become a huge hit touching on similar themes, as did punk music a generation before that. There’s nothing new under the sun; most young people will at some point or other identify with the sneering rebel, the misunderstood outsider for whom adulthood and responsibility—not to mention civility—are unreasonably onerous demands. There’s a reason why the heroes of countless films are the nerds, punks, and outcasts while the jocks, beautiful people, and rich snobs are the Establishment enemy. In this context, it’s not surprising that Pepe became an underground icon among those who hated “the normies.” Most people who initially used and shared Pepe memes were drawn to its Rorschach-like appeal of expressing sadness or sorrow, but the many trolls among them saw the potential to push it a step further, placing Pepe in increasingly inflammatory contexts.
Soon part of the trolls’ mischievous mission was to make the Pepe image go mainstream, such as by tricking huge celebrities into sharing or referencing their images, symbols, or messaging. Several stars, including Katy Perry, shared Pepe images, surely unaware of his increasingly toxic and hostile connotations on the darker parts of the internet. In October 2015, then-candidate Donald Trump retweeted an image of him as Pepe—much to the delight of his young supporters, many of whom were very much aware that the image was associated with everything from Nazis to pedophiles. This part of the film offers an interesting, if not wholly convincing, argument that 4chan trolls played a significant role in electing Trump.
Pepe is only one of several similar troll memes that celebrities have unwittingly endorsed. In September 2008, for example, during an Oprah Winfrey Show about online predators, Winfrey referenced a troll meme named “9000 Penises,” allegedly written by someone online claiming to represent a group of 9,000 predators. One popular meme analysis website described the reaction: “Shortly after the episode’s airing, the ‘Over 9000 penises’ segment was quickly uploaded to YouTube, where it was identified by internet users as an obvious troll. Following much mockery, Harpo Productions, Oprah’s production company, had the video taken down and removed all references to the quote on Oprah.com.”
Ambiguity of these signs, symbols, and messages is part of their power. In 2018 during Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, rumors circulated that that a lawyer sitting behind Kavanaugh, Zina Bash, was caught on camera flashing a white nationalism sign with the fingers of one hand as her arms crossed. Memes shared on social media “revealed the truth” about what she was doing; some took it seriously, some as a joke, while others smelled Grade-A trolling. Many wondered why the Mexican-born, half-Jewish lawyer would be signaling to the world her sympathies with white nationalists.
When Bash did it a second time, it seemed to confirm the worst fears. However, as The Washington Post reported:
Taylor Foy, a spokesperson for the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, said there was another, innocuous explanation for this second “Okay” hand sign: the signal was aimed at a judiciary staffer who fulfilled a request for the judge. Bash texted a staffer during the hearing “to request a water glass for the judge,” Foy said. “Once it arrived, she was simply communicating her thanks.” In CSPAN’s archive of the hearings, Kavanaugh turns around and speaks to Bash at one point. There’s a coffee cup, but not water glass, on the desk. Bash and the man sitting next to her appear to discuss whatever the judge said as Bash texts on her phone. About a minute later, Bash looks straight ahead and appears to mouth the word “glass.” Then, she gives the OK hand sign. Shortly after that, a water glass is brought to Kavanaugh’s desk.”
According to this explanation, it was an “okay, thanks, everything’s good” symbol, and linked to some external issue going on at the time or just before, not a sign of her support of racism. (Others in the public eye have also been accused of flashing “secret” signs, from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama and Beyonce.)
Feels Good Man then chronicles Furie’s largely fruitless attempts to rebottle the genie. He did, after all, create the character and could easily prove that he owns the copyright to the image. But copyright only takes you so far; people can legally use and share works, especially if they change it in some way and thus make it eligible for protection under the Fair Use doctrine, which generally allows for the unlicensed use of works in cases such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Satire, for example, is generally considered to be Fair Use, which is why Weird Al Yankovic isn’t required to (though he does) seek permission from original artists when making his parody songs. When someone uses a copyrighted image to sell an item, however, that’s a different kettle of stoner frogs—as conspiracy peddler Alex Jones found out when he used Pepe in a poster he sold (the film includes excerpts of Alex Jones under oath in Furie’s successful lawsuit).
The story of Pepe the Frog is in some ways a microcosm of social media, including its reliance on outrage, clicks, and attention as the main metric of what’s valued. Neither truth, nor accuracy, nor fairness but what will get people to Like and Share—what will make algorithms push one meme to the top of the search engines and “Now Trending” lists, providing social currency (“internet fame”) for the creators and real currency for advertisers. It’s a race to the bottom, an appeal to what will get people riled up—but, as before, it’s nothing new. Jerry Springer and many others exploited this formula three decades ago on their talk shows.
The paradox Furie faces is clear: the more he tries to fight the misuse of his beloved Pepe, the more attention he draws to it, and the more incentive and fodder he provides trolls to perpetuate it. On the other hand, ignoring the problem isn’t ideal either, and the film gives the sense that Furie was a bit too late in recognizing what was going on.
Furie and the film make the argument that intent and context are important to consider when interpreting usage of these symbols. Some argue that anyone who share memes like Pepe should by default be assumed to have knowledge of the freight and meanings associated with it, thus removing the cover of plausible deniability for trolls. After all, by 2021, surely few people are unaware that Pepe became associated with hate groups (regardless of his innocuous origins or other uses). But the inherent nature of symbols is that it’s often difficult or impossible to know what others mean when they share ambiguous images (a cartoon of Pepe wearing a Nazi swastika would of course not be ambiguous, but the classic drawing of him crying is).
One argument is that trolls should not be given the benefit of the doubt when they claim they don’t really agree with the racist, sexist, or otherwise objectionable messages they create and share. The argument is that these memes and messages are so toxic and malicious that even if they are joking, the fact that they’re joking about such issues is itself problematic and evidence of—if not agreement with, at least tolerance of—the intolerable. Examples include the West Point cadets who, like Zina Bash, were accused of flashing white nationalist signs on camera during an Army-Navy football game in 2019.
Feels Good Man makes a compelling argument that such a position doesn’t solve the problem but merely moves the crux of it one step further because the motive of the person sharing a meme still must be determined to know whether he or she is a troll. As we have seen, many troll memes are shared by presumably sincere and genuine non-trolls (such as Oprah and Katie Perry, not to mention Furie himself). Assuming that anyone using or sharing the Pepe meme is racist (or at best indifferent to racism) results in many false positives and false accusations—playing right into trolls’ hands. (A West Point investigation concluded that the cadets at the football game did not in fact make any white supremacy signs but were instead playing a common game with each other and were unaware they were on camera). The last scenes in the film reveal an interesting and surprising twist in the effort to reclaim Pepe the Frog. There’s no simple solution to the problem, and one can’t help but feel sorry for people who have a tattoo of Pepe (one is seen in the film) who are likely to be mistaken for a racist because of it.
Pepe’s arc is unusual in some ways but typical in others. There’s no clear formula for a quirky viral hit; for every clever meme that survives and thrives in the social media ecosystem, tens of thousands dies in obscurity. There was no malicious mastermind who intentionally plucked Pepe off the couch playing video games with his buddies in Boys Club and put him in a Nazi uniform to troll, horrify, and amuse. It was instead an incremental (and partly random) series of steps and decisions by different people at different times with different agendas. Feels Good Man is a fascinating story with a few surprising twists along the way. It’s a cautionary tale about what happens when an artist loses control over his work, and an enlightening case study in how social media trolls operate.
I’m quoted in an article from McGill University’s Office for Science and Society on the topic of… alleged twin telepathy.
As one is…. You can read it HERE.
In early May 2020, a YouTube video titled Plandemic was released by Mikki Willis (credited onscreen as “father/filmaker”[sic]) that featured a lengthy interview with virologist Judy Mikovits, who offered scattershot conspiracy-laden assertions about the “truth” behind the COVID-19 pandemic, prefaced by claims of having been framed for a crime (she was charged with theft in 2011) and accusations of government coverups going back decades involving various medical authorities, including Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Willis’s voiceover gravely warned that “for exposing their deadly secrets, the minions of Big Pharma have waged war on Dr. Mikovits,” who in the film—and, not coincidentally, in her new book—bravely reveals “the plague of corruption that places all human life in danger.”
Dozens of claims appeared in the twenty-six-minute video, some of which are unverifiable—as conspiracy theories tend to be. But many statements made by Mikovits have been investigated and proven to be misleading or simply false. Within weeks, the video was widely shared on social media, often by ostensibly non-conspiracy promoters who were “just asking questions.” The video was soon identified by social media platforms as containing dangerous misinformation and was subsequently removed. This in turn reinforced the idea that the views were being silenced and censored by Big Pharma, Big Tech, or some other sinister, shadowy Big.
Questions were raised by reputable journalists for publications including The Washington Post and The Atlantic, as well as Politifact and the Center for Inquiry. For an expert and filmmaker who claim to have been censored and silenced, Mikovits and Willis were strangely silent about answering legitimate questions.
The video was released on May 4; it’s now the week after Thanksgiving. Nearly seven months have passed since Mikovits and Willis made their claims. How have their claims and predictions held up?
There’s a lot to unpack in the video, but given the widespread audience that Plandemic had, it’s worth revisiting some claims and taking a closer look at its basic assumptions. It’s understandable that many in the public may have found this conspiracy theory plausible in the first few months of the pandemic. After all, there was a morass of misinformation and contradictory predictions and models, along with the typical perils of incomplete information during a global pandemic.
Simply making predictions about COVID—or anything—is easy to do. Trump, for example, claimed on February 10, 2020, that the virus “will go away in April.” It did not. On February 27, he claimed that “It’s going to disappear. One day—it’s like a miracle—it will disappear.” It may or may not eventually disappear, but so far it’s ravaged the world. Throughout the remaining months Trump repeatedly—dozens of times—claimed that the virus would just “disappear” or “go away.” Early predictions may have been plausible, but as month after month passed and it didn’t go away, you don’t need to be a stable genius to realize that he was flat wrong. Whatever the skeptics and critics said, time is the ultimate proof: Either it happened or it didn’t, and no amount of rationalizing can salvage it.
As I noted in an article I wrote for this page in April:
The record of wrong predictions about the coronavirus is long and grows by the hour. Around Valentine’s Day, the director of policy and emergency preparedness for the New Orleans health department, Sarah Babcock, said that Mardi Gras celebrations two weeks later should proceed, predicting that “The chance of us getting someone with coronavirus is low.” That projection was wrong, dead wrong: a month later the city would have one of the worst outbreaks of COVID-19 in the country, with correspondingly high death rates. Other projections have overestimated the scale of infections, hospitalizations, and/or deaths. … It’s not that epidemiologists and other health officials have all the data they need to make good decisions and projections about public health and are instead carefully considering ways to fake data to deceive the public and journalists. It’s that they don’t have all the data they need to make better predictions, and as more information comes in, the projections will get more accurate.
We now have the benefit of hindsight and nearly seven months of experience and evidence since the Plandemic video went viral. Does what has happened over the past seven months suggest that Mikovits and Willis were telling the truth or that they were wrong (or lying)? Mikovits and Willis offered no evidence, and refused to answer any questions about, their claims. On that basis alone, we can conclude that there’s probably something sketchy going on. Because they refused to clarify or expand on their claims, I can only go by what they said in the video.
The video contains dozens of claims and assertions, many of which aren’t specific enough to be proven true or false. But I’ll focus on three specific, key claims:
1) The Plandemic video claims that masks “activate” the coronavirus and that the virus is more infectious for individuals wearing masks than for those not wearing masks.
This claim is obviously and undeniably false. We know this because there is a proven inverse correlation between mask wearing and infection rates: the more often people (both on individual and population levels) wear masks, the less likely they are to contract the virus. If wearing masks “activated” the virus (whatever that would mean), then there would be a positive correlation between mask wearing and contracting illness.
This was obvious even in May when the Plandemic video circulated, because toward the beginning of the outbreak most people were not wearing masks; if wearing a mask made you more vulnerable to the virus, then it wouldn’t have spread. If common sense (and a background in virology) don’t tell Mikovits that masks help prevent the spread of infectious airborne diseases, there are also a raft of recent studies demonstrating it.
2) The video promotes hydroxychloroquine as effective against the virus and claims that “thousands of pages of data” have demonstrated the drug’s safety and efficacy.
In fact, controlled clinical trials of the drug have been performed; they found elevated cardiac risks, and several placebo-controlled studies found no efficacy at all. As The Washington Post noted recently:
The Food and Drug Administration withdrew its emergency-use authorization for hydroxychloroquine in hospitalized patients in June, concluding that safety risks, including heart problems, outweighed any potential benefits. It has also warned against using the drug in outpatient settings, saying it could cause serious heart rhythm problems. The first randomized clinical trial later found that hydroxychloroquine was no more effective than a placebo at treating covid-19 in patients who were not hospitalized.
Trump’s own top health officials have explicitly said that the drug is not effective for COVID-19 patients. Notably, when President Trump became infected with the virus, he did not take hydroxychloroquine; more on that later. That, too, has been proven false.
3) In the Plandemic video, Mikovicz states her key premise, a conspiracy that the pandemic was “planned” with the ultimate goal “to prevent the therapies until everyone is infected, then push the vaccines.”
There are three distinct parts here: 1) “preventing the therapies” 2) until such time as “everyone is infected” and then finally 3) “pushing the vaccines.”
Let’s start with “preventing the therapies”: which therapies, exactly, have been “prevented” from being used in COVID patients? There’s no evidence that any effective therapies have been prevented from being used on sick patients at all, ever.
Mikovicz doesn’t say what therapies she’s referring to, but as noted it would presumably include hydroxychloroquine, which Trump has touted as well. And when Trump was diagnosed with COVID, which therapies were used in his recovery? Not the one endorsed by Mikovicz and Plandemic but instead a completely different therapy, an experimental antibody treatment.
So far three vaccines have emerged from Phase 3 trials and applied for emergency use authorization from Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were developed using messenger RNA technology, which “use a snippet of the virus’s genetic code to instruct cells to build the spike protein on the surface of the coronavirus, teaching the immune system to recognize the real thing.” The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine uses a harmless virus to deliver “to the body’s cells the genetic code for the spike protein. The cells then make a replica of the spike protein and the immune system learns to recognize the real virus.”
The reason you haven’t heard about a vaccine or treatment developed with hydroxychloroquine is simple: There isn’t one; it doesn’t work. The drug literally failed to help patients, so it’s (quite reasonably) not in the vaccines soon to be approved. The powerful, shadowy industry that Plandemic claimed would “prevent the therapies” didn’t actually prevent any therapies, so that’s also false.
We can move on to the second part of the claim, that the vaccines will be held back until such time as “everyone is infected.” This is nonsensical from a scientific point of view (and it’s astonishing that Mikovicz, who claims to be a brilliant virologist, didn’t know it), but if everyone is infected, then no vaccine is needed, because those who didn’t die from the virus would have some degree of immunity—the same protection that a vaccine provides, except of course without the severe lingering health damage that infection causes.
Maybe Mikovicz was using hyperbole (again, she didn’t respond to questions, so I can’t be sure what she meant), but as of this writing 60 million people around the world have contracted the virus, and 1.4 million of them have died; in the United States alone, there are 12.5 million cases and 260,000 deaths.
When, exactly, does Mikovicz think the vaccines will be released, and why haven’t they been already? What is the magic number of sick and dead that Plandemic’s imaginary cabal of conspirators are waiting for? How many potential buyers have to get sick and die waiting for the vaccines she thinks are (or were) ready and just waiting to be released? Even in the pretzel-logic world of conspiracies, this one is bizarre.
The claims made by Mikki Willis and Judy Mikovits in Plandemic have pretty clearly been proven wrong, but for the sake of completeness, let’s address the third part of her claim, that after “everyone” (or enough, though apparently we’re not there yet) people are infected, the conspirators will begin “pushing the vaccines.”
It’s true that health experts, the government, vaccine makers, and others are promoting (or “pushing” in conspiracy talk) the vaccines, but there’s nothing nefarious about it. As The New York Times noted, “Public messaging campaigns can be instrumental in persuading people to act in a health crisis. Travel advisories kept many pregnant tourists and business travelers away from areas struggling to contain the Zika epidemic in 2016, for instance.” Nor is there anything new about it; the Ad Council (a nonprofit organization that produces, distributes, and promotes public service announcements) is preparing campaigns encouraging people to get vaccinated. The organization did the same thing in the 1950s when it encouraged the public to get polio vaccinations, and if you don’t know anyone who has gotten polio in the past fifty years, it’s due in part to organizations “pushing the vaccines.”
Why would they care whether the public is vaccinated? Not because of some sinister conspiratorial motive but because COVID is not only a public health crisis but also a social and economic one. The more people are vaccinated, the sooner the general population is healthy and not straining intensive care units in hospitals across the country and around the world. The sooner people are vaccinated, the sooner businesses and schools can reopen. It’s not complicated.
So, yes, health experts are encouraging the public to get vaccinated, though no one is, or will be, forced to. Vaccinations have never been mandatory in the United States; even children are not forced to be vaccinated if their parents choose to home school. When COVID-19 vaccines are available, if you don’t want to get it, that’s perfectly fine. Federal agents armed with automatic weapons in one hand and a vaccine syringe in the other aren’t going to be bursting through Americans’ doors to forcibly vaccinate anyone—fevered conspiracy fantasies to the contrary.
Mikovits and Willis have refused to answer rebuttals and faded from the spotlight, silent for nearly half a year as the virus has continued to ravage the country and globe. Perhaps the reason is simple and both immoral and horrifying: Plandemic was never about finding truth but instead a wildly successful publicity stunt for Mikovits’s book Plague of Corruption (which soon topped best-seller lists with the help of anti-vaccination activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his foundation).
It was all part of a cynical, dangerous, and astonishingly effective advertising campaign. The millions who shared, watched, and defended the Plandemic video were unwitting dupes who promoted a book of false conspiracy theories whose core message is harmful to public health and which fueled unfounded fears of vaccines against a potentially deadly virus. Plandemic, ironically, does exactly what Mikovits and Willis accuse Big Pharma and the medical industry of doing: exploits human lives and fears for profit.
An October 2020 article by researchers at the Drexel University Dornsife School of Public Health published in The Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review confirms that the consequences of this marketing ploy could be dire:
Anti-vaccine activists produced Plandemic to increase vaccine hesitancy and decrease vaccination, but their lasting impact may be that it promoted cynicism about measures meant to prevent COVID-19 spread, such as use of face masks and social distancing. Disregarding these measures threatens public health and may only serve to extend the pandemic. Stopping the spread and influence of Plandemic—and related misinformation—is in the interest of the public’s health.
Whether Mikovits and Willis truly believe their claims isn’t clear, but in any event their work is done. It was never about “exposing truth” or Big Pharma conspiracies but instead cleverly manipulating people on social media (and, by proxy, national news media covering the story) to get millions of dollars in free publicity for Mikovits’s book. Who are the real “sheeple” in this story, and what damage will they have done?
A longer version of this piece appeared on the Center for Inquiry “Coronavirus Resources Page”; you can read it HERE.
When my book “Scientific Paranormal Investigation” was published in 2010 I took out a full page ad in the T.A.P.S. (“Ghost Hunters” TV show) magazine. I figured their audience needed my book more than anyone…
The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! First we discuss “monolith mania” then for our main segment we bring back Dr. Leo Igwe, who has fought to protect people accused of witchcraft in Africa and elsewhere. Please check it out, you can listen to it HERE.
In my line of work, I routinely encounter events said to be inexplicable. They’re not merely amazing or incredible but downright unexplained. At times the topics I research are even said to be “beyond science” (whatever that would mean). These subjects—including psychic powers, crop circles, Bigfoot, ghosts, and miracles—are described as timeless mysteries that cannot be fathomed or understood: the mystery is simply too great, overwhelming all human capacity for understanding.
Of course most or all of these mysteries have indeed been explained through careful investigation. Invariably when people call something mysterious or unknowable, it’s because they simply haven’t put in the time and effort to understand it. The world is a complex place with many variables and moving parts; deconstructing them takes time and effort.
When I hear that ghosts are “unexplained,” I’m likely to politely and diplomatically inquire what specific aspect of ghosts the speaker finds inexplicable and what knowledge or assumptions factor into their blithe conclusion that specters are—must be—inherently beyond the capacity for human comprehension. What exactly do they think cannot be explained? A particular “spooky” photo? A creepy experience they had in an old house? Some scene in a “reality” TV ghost hunting show? Just because one person doesn’t understand something doesn’t mean it can’t be explained by someone else; typically, they’re called experts.
I thought about this over the past few months when seeing social media posts expressing astonishment and utter incomprehension about support for Donald Trump. This appears in countless memes, usually framed by something along the lines of “I’ll never understand why people still support Trump despite X…”
Explaining why Trump continues to have supporters after his repeated comments about minorities, women, the disabled, immigrants, etc., is actually pretty straightforward. It’s the same reason he doesn’t lose significant support when he makes bizarre and false comments about any number of things. His supporters offer one or more of the following reasons to overlook them: it was a joke or typical political braggadocio that doesn’t reflect his beliefs and therefore characterizing it as a sincere comment is political correctness run amok (and/or it is intentionally mischaracterized by the “fake news” media, one of countless example of how unfairly he’s treated); or that it’s a harmless mistake or misspeak (no one’s perfect after all).
Trump greatly exaggerated the size of his inauguration? So what? He’s a politician and a showman; that’s hardly a big deal. He bragged off camera about grabbing women? So what? It’s locker room talk; men always brag to other guys about their sexual prowess; it’s unseemly but hardly a reason not to vote for him. He suggested that COVID-19 could be cured by injecting disinfectant or exposing patients to “ultraviolet or just very powerful light” and later encouraged his supporters to vote twice, once by mail and again in person? Taking it literally is disingenuous; he was obviously joking! And so on.
Plus, as I’ve previously written, Trump is almost always right because he takes both sides of issues, declaring in one moment that he condemns white supremacists and in the next implying that he supports them. He praises his COVID-19 response team—before criticizing them hours later. He encourages Americans to vote by mail until he discourages them from doing so. When we combine this tactic with psychological factors such as confirmation bias (selectively noticing and remembering information that confirms our assumptions and beliefs while ignoring information that undermines it), it’s not difficult to understand his significant support.
Salon and CNN recently had headlines describing more of Trump’s presidency as “unimaginable.” Dismal, depressing, or ruinous, sure … but unimaginable? Beyond the human ability to comprehend? We can imagine far-off worlds of science fiction and dragons, meeting gods and seeing other galaxies. A Trump re-election, however distasteful and ruinous, is hardly unimaginable. And it’s just this sort of catastrophizing hyperbole that his supporters point to as evidence that news media is out of touch and, well, exaggerating. Sure, they say, the past four years haven’t been great, with the pandemic and all, but they haven’t been unimaginably bad, and in fact could have been worse.
There’s nothing mysterious, profound, or unexplainable about Donald Trump or his support. All the information you need to understand Trump and his appeal is available with an internet connection and a few taps of a keyboard.
It’s all there. You just have to look for it: Trump’s appeal to black voters. Trump’s appeal to conservative women voters. Why many Latino voters support Trump. Why about half of women voters cast their ballots for Trump in 2016, long after his crude and sexist remarks were well known. Why Trump appeals to evangelical Christians despite his personal history of infidelity and porn stars. And so on.
Whatever it is that you don’t understand about Trump or his base, you can find years’ worth of solid reporting and analysis, from best-selling books to documentaries to long-form journalism.
Not only is there no excuse not to understand the Trump phenomenon, but failing to do so is a grave error if you oppose him. To solve a problem you have to understand it. You can bet that Joe Biden’s campaign hasn’t declared Trump’s support beyond comprehension, throwing up their hands in defeat in the face of Trump’s inherently inscrutable nature and appeal.
When it comes to continued support after Trump’s seemingly racist and misogynist comments, there’s another, more powerful rationale among his minority and women voters: The comment wasn’t a joke or hyperbole, and may in fact reveal his core values (if indeed he has core values beyond self-interest, a premise I don’t accept). But they are willing to overlook it because he advocates for other, more important issues. This is a theme that recurs over and over again: voters don’t appreciate his sexist and racist comments but don’t consider them to be disqualifying. It’s simply not a hill they’re willing to die on. They vote for Trump despite, not because of, such comments and actions.
For some people, the “I’ll Never Understand Trump” phrase serves as a shorthand, signifying not sincere confusion but wanting those on social media to know that Trump’s words and behaviors are so aberrant, distasteful, and foreign to them that they are metaphorically beyond understanding. However, even merely as a trite rhetorical device, the idea that Trump’s support is “beyond understanding” fuels a harmful narrative about Trump and his power.
I wrote about this several years ago in an article about people avoiding using Trump’s full name. Often refusing to name a figure is done in deference to their awesome and potentially destructive power. The idea is that to say the name without sufficient reverence—or at all—is to risk drawing the person’s attention or wrath. In Roman Catholic exorcisms, knowing a demon’s name is considered an important part of the ritual and gives the priest power over the evil entity. Even saying the name of the Christian god is considered dangerous in some cases. The Harry Potter villain Voldemort is referred to as “He Who Must Not Be Named.” In British fairy folklore there is a long tradition of avoiding speaking the word fairy aloud to avoid their wrath. Refusing to use Trump’s name, regardless of the motivation, treats him as a special case, something that is done just for him. We need not think twice about spelling out the names of ordinary people, but Trump’s name is marked as extraordinary, requiring special care and attention, either in mocking circumlocutions or avoiding it completely.
Some of this “I’ll Never Understand Trump” messaging may be hyperbole and virtue signaling (ironically the same techniques used by Trump and his supporters), and there’s a persistent concern that understanding something bad or malicious is the same as accepting or endorsing it. We see this often in discussions about killers, when someone comments that they could understand why someone would “snap” or act out (after being victimized or abused, for example), prompting others to ask why the commenter is “defending” the criminal or crime.
Mick West’s book Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect is instructive; in it he emphasizes the importance of listening to why conspiracy theorists believe the theories they endorse as well as understanding the psychological processes behind them. I’m not comparing Trump supporters to conspiracy believers (though there’s some demonstrable overlap, given the president’s repeated endorsement of them); instead my point is that understanding a point of view doesn’t imply agreeing with it. As Baruch Spinoza noted, “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.” From critical thinking and logical perspectives, this is completely false, of course, but that may partly explain the reluctance by many liberals to “understand” Trump and his support.
Trump is not some uniquely inscrutable phenomenon; he is instead a banal, habitual liar, conspiracy and fear peddler, and a two-bit con man. He’s not a masterful Svengali holding some unexplained, unnatural hypnotic sway over his supporters. He’s a showman, not a shaman, and his techniques are well understood by those who choose to look at the evidence.
By the same token, the real problem of characterizing Trump supporters as mindless zombies who have taken leave of their senses is not that it’s disrespectful but instead that it’s counterproductive. It pushes very real decision-making factors that need to be understood in order to be addressed into a black box of the unknowable.
Thinking about Trump’s appeal in binary moral absolutes is also oversimplistic and demonstrably false: People vote because of many factors, and issues that one person thinks self-evidently disqualifies Trump may not do so for someone else. The United States is incredibly diverse, and treating women and minorities as monolithic and homogenous groups is a flawed approach. If you assume that a) Trump is self-evidently racist and sexist; and also that b) no black woman would vote for a racist, then it’s you—not the female black Trump voter—who has badly misread the situation.
I noted that Biden’s campaign isn’t baffled by Trump at all, but neither have Democrats quite solved the puzzle more broadly. As Fareed Zakaria noted recently in The Washington Post (“Once Again, Democrats Have Misunderstood Minorities”):
Democrats are more disappointed because they had hoped that this would be an election that resoundingly repudiated Trump and realigned politics…He won the largest percentage of the Black vote since 1996 (though he still got only about 12 percent of the Black vote). One poll indicates he won 35 percent of the Muslim vote. What happened? There are probably many answers. Partly, Democratic strategist James Carville is still right—it’s the economy, stupid… But my own interpretation of these results is informed by feelings I have always had about the Democratic Party’s ideology of multiculturalism. It lumps a wide variety of ethnic, racial and religious groups into one “minority” monolith and approaches them from a perspective that does not fit us all. That means an ideology born out of the treatment of African Americans will ring false to American immigrants and their descendants. For us, harsh treatment by White Americans is not the single searing experience that shapes our politics. Some of us are socially liberal, others conservative … Even African Americans vary much more widely on policy than one might imagine.
If you don’t like Trump and want to diminish his influence (and that of his followers), the solution is not real or feigned confusion about his appeal but instead a closer examination of its psychological and social dynamics—and maybe changing your underlying assumptions and approach.
Few things in the world are truly incomprehensible or unexplained; ghosts, miracles, and Donald Trump are certainly not among them. Biden will need to take steps to unite a seemingly fractured nation. This will require understanding—not in the sense of fuzzy forgiveness and bonhomie but in the sense of applying motivational psychology—to find common ground and determine how best to bring people together.
A longer version of this article appeared on the CFI website; you can find it here.
It seems I’m quoted in a new article on conspiracy theories, including Covid-19 and QAnon. (Or at least that’s what I *want* you to think…)
You can check it out HERE!
New episode of Squaring the Strange! Pascual takes the helm and steers us into some weird audio territory… We use a few pop music lawsuits as a jumping-off point to examine what originality even IS when it comes to creativity and how to put music together. Is a “flavor” of music protected as intellectual property? What do modern composers borrow from much older operas or Gregorian chants? What about alien music? “Tune” in to find out!
Watch Professor LeAnne Flaherty interview Jim Underdown, Kenny Biddle, and I for her Brooklyn College parapsychology class… We talk about ghost investigations, psychic detectives, critical thinking, testing claims, and much more…
You can see it HERE!
I’m a guest on the new The Next Truth show, talking about skeptical and scientific approaches to ghost investigation.
You can listen to it HERE!
Americans, like everyone else, should ideally be more educated about history (and everything else). But no, a recent poll doesn’t reveal that a significant percentage of Americans either deny the Holocaust or are largely ignorant about it. Here’s a media literacy take on the alarming headlines...
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.
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.
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.
If you want a break from bad news: The new episode of Squaring the Strange is now out. This week we discuss the Bangladesh Toilet Ghost. Or, rather ONE OF several Bangladeshi toilet ghosts. I bring cultural and social context and a surprising history about factory work and pressures on the workers there… by the time you hear it all, you’ll think “well of COURSE there were reports of a ghost in that toilet! It makes perfect sense!”
Check it out HERE!
News and social media are awash with information about the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately much of what’s shared on social media about COVID-19 is false, misleading, or speculative. From the White House to the CDC, conspiracy cranks to Goop contributors, it’s a never-ending flood of information, and those charged with trying to sort it out are quickly inundated.
Among the organizations offering advice on the virus and vaccination is a 501c3 nonprofit called Children’s Health Defense, founded in 2016 by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. The Children’s Health Defense (CHD) initiative sounds unimpeachable. Who doesn’t want children to be healthy, right? It’s one of those suspiciously generic Astroturf names intended to evoke images of righteous empowerment and healthy children running through meadows. The logo is two hands cradling a globe circled by silhouettes of children holding hands. Banner headlines encourage people to “Read the Science Now.”
But there’s a sinister side to the organization. The CHD positions itself as a science-based advocacy organization bravely fighting for justice, public health, and equality, but it has a long history of spreading misinformation.
One recent project involved a viral video that circulated in May titled Plandemic, which featured a lengthy interview with virologist Judy Mikovits. Mikovits offered scattershot conspiracy-laden assertions about the “truth” behind the pandemic, prefaced by claims of having been framed for a crime and accusations of government coverups going back decades. These supposed coverups involved various medical authorities, including Dr. Anthony Fauci. Within weeks, the video was widely shared on social media, often by people who were “just asking questions.” The video was soon identified as containing dangerous misinformation by social media platforms, including Facebook and YouTube, and removed.
As I noted in an article at the time, Plandemic was never about finding truth but instead a wildly successful publicity stunt for both Mikovits’s book Plague of Corruption: Restoring Faith in the Promise of Science (which soon topped best-seller lists).
And who wrote the foreword for the most popular anti-vaccination conspiracy book of the past few years? None other than Robert F. Kennedy Jr. In fact, both Kennedy’s name and Children’s Health Defense appear prominently on the medical conspiracy book cover.
One hallmark of anti-vaccination is that anti-vaxxers usually deny that they’re anti-vaccination. In the Plandemic video, for example, Mikovits explicitly denies she’s against vaccinations. No, no, that’s all wrong—she just wants safer vaccines, she says, ones that have been proven safe and effective (conveniently ignoring the fact that they already have). Indeed, in one CHD article casting doubt on the safety of vaccines, anti-vaccination crusader Kennedy, who spends much of his time fighting vaccination, takes umbrage at being called an “anti-vaxxer.” He considers it “bullying terminology” and “name calling.”
This bit of intellectual dishonesty is in some ways a measure of the success of science and medicine. It means that those against vaccination recognize that many in the public are in favor of vaccination, and therefore they feel the need to vehemently deny their obvious motives. They quickly fall back on the classic conspiracy trope that “We’re just asking questions!”—ignoring, again, the fact that the questions they’re asking a) are mostly rhetorical, not factual; and b) to the extent that they are factual, have been answered, repeatedly, by scientists. It’s similar to the position taken by intelligent design creationists and 9/11 Truthers who recycle laundry lists of “Questions the ‘Experts’ Can’t Answer” when in fact they’ve simply chosen to ignore the plausible, evidence-based answers.
In this context, it’s no surprise that Children’s Health Defense recently chose to cynically capitalize on the pandemic with the headline “From the ER to the High School Football Field, People Want the Response to Covid-19 to Be Evidence-based, not Political.”
It’s hard to disagree with that. People do indeed, and should, want public health officials to act on evidence instead of politics. And for the most part they have, despite concerns from across the political spectrum about the safety of eventual vaccines. The accompanying article has little to do with its clickbait title and instead criticizes Dr. Anthony Fauci and others for ignoring possible treatments and encouraging the closing of schools for children’s safety.
A glance at recent posts on the CHD website reveals a pattern. After a piece titled “Peaceful Rallies Around the World to Champion Freedom,” we have a series of curious headlines, including “The Measles Vaccine Narrative Is Collapsing,” “25 Reasons to Avoid the Gardasil Vaccine,” “The Facts About Measles,” “’Herd Immunity? A Dishonest Marketing Gimmick,” and an unfortunately unironic piece titled “Countering False Vaccine Safety Claims.”
Even a cursory glance at the list reveals conspiracy claims, false statements, and non sequiturs. To pick just one example of many, in the rebuttal to the “false claim” that vaccines don’t cause autism, the Children’s Health Defense offers the bulleted claim that “The National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program [VICP] has paid many vaccine induced autism claims.” The text file links not, as one might expect, to a peer-reviewed medical journal study affirming the connection between vaccines and autism but instead to a sixty-four-page article in the Pace Environmental Law Review about the program and whether it’s a fair legal forum for claims. Even assuming that it’s perfectly true that the program “has paid many vaccine induced autism claims,” that doesn’t logically mean that vaccines cause autism.
The question of whether vaccines cause autism is a medical issue, not a legal one. There may indeed be legal implications if a link existed, but in the world of compensation claims and liability, claims are sometimes made and paid out with little evidential basis. In some cases, for example, companies determine it’s cheaper and faster to simply pay a claim they know or suspect is false than to litigate it. The mere fact that some claims were paid for autism complaints at some point is not a logical or coherent rebuttal to the claim that vaccines cause autism—and the fact that the Children’s Health Defense presents this transparent non sequitur as such is troubling.
In 2019, The New York Times examined such claims and found that “Over the past three decades, when billions of doses of vaccines have been given to hundreds of millions of Americans, the program has compensated about 6,600 people for harm they claimed was caused by vaccines. About 70 percent of the awards have been settlements in cases in which program officials did not find sufficient evidence that vaccines were at fault.” Center for Inquiry General Counsel Nicholas Little adds,
What I see from the law review article is that there are eighty-three claims of autism among brain damage claims compensated under VICP. The VICP is clear after the Omnibus Autism Proceeding (OAP): vaccines are not considered a cause of autism and are not compensated. … The VICP requires you to show an injury that is vaccine related, and there are “table” injuries. It seems likely these kids have both autism and suffered from vaccine-induced encephalopathy, or residual seizure disorder. But that doesn’t mean the vaccine caused the autism. Both the OAP and federal courts have been clear: There’s no evidence that vaccinations cause autism or that thimerosal causes autism. Claiming otherwise is a misrepresentation of the proceedings.
Because of the recency of the pandemic, there’s relatively little on the organization’s website specifically about the new coronavirus. However, a review of other information on related topics is revealing. Though anti-vaccination efforts appear prominently in the Children’s Health Defense literature and on its website, they serve as an umbrella for other debunked health scares, including 5G and wireless harms and water fluoridation. Oh, and they’re also upset that social media companies have labeled some of their materials as false and misleading and therefore in violation of their policies.
For some topics, the Children’s Health Defense does offer links to valid research—albeit largely cherry picked. This helps maintain the veneer of scientific legitimacy. In some cases, the studies are legitimate and peer reviewed; in other cases, they are clearly labeled as early drafts (for example one document from the National Toxicology Program on fluoride begins with the disclaimer “This DRAFT Monograph is distributed solely for the purpose of pre-dissemination peer review under the applicable information quality guidelines. It has not been formally disseminated by NTP. It does not represent and should not be construed to represent any NTP determination or policy.”)
Nevertheless, we can examine the original NTP document to see whether the Children’s Health Defense fairly and honestly summarized its findings. Here’s what the CHD wrote: “2019: A systematic review of 149 human studies and 339 animal studies by the U.S. National Toxicology Program concluded that ‘fluoride is presumed to be a cognitive neurodevelopmental hazard to humans.’”
Indeed, that statement, by itself, is true and well known. The draft report states: “This conclusion is based on a consistent pattern of findings in human studies across several different populations showing that higher fluoride exposure is associated with decreased IQ or other cognitive impairments in children” (emphasis added). In other words, the dose makes the poison—a medical principle well known since the 1500s but apparently unfamiliar to Kennedy and his Children’s Health Defense writers.
By consulting the original document, we can see that the CHD conspicuously left out the rest of the paragraph in that draft: “However, the consistency is based primarily on higher levels of fluoride exposure (i.e., >1.5 ppm in drinking water). When focusing on findings from studies with exposures in ranges typically found in the United States (i.e., approximately 0.03 to 1.5 ppm in drinking water) that can be evaluated for dose response, effects on cognitive neurodevelopment are inconsistent, and therefore unclear” (emphasis added).
The CHD website could have accurately noted that “levels of fluoride in excess of what Americans drink is presumed to be a cognitive neurodevelopmental hazard,” but why would they? By intentionally obscuring the fact that the fluoride levels found in U.S. drinking water have not been associated with health risks, the Children’s Health Defense adopts a sensationalized, alarmist, and anti-scientific position. This is only one of several examples found in a quick spot-check of articles.
Kennedy and the Children’s Health Defense have been criticized by skeptics from time to time, including by Dr. David Gorski on the Science-Based Medicine blog. The group was also the subject of recent reporting by mainstream news media, including NBC News, which examined false and misleading health claims widely circulating on social media.
To be fair, not all the information issued by the Children’s Health Defense is wrong—and that’s part of the problem. By mixing in some legitimate health concerns (over environmental lead, mercury in fish, climate change, air pollution, pesticides, etc.) with bogus and exaggerated ones, Children’s Health Defense muddies the waters. If Kennedy’s organization either stuck to legitimate science—or to obvious New Age antiscience and alternative medicine conspiracy (e.g., David Avocado Wolfe and Natural News)—its misinformation would be easier to counter. By combining the enduring Kennedy mystique, conspiracy theories, and pseudoscience, the Children’s Health Defense is a genuine threat to public health—especially during a pandemic.
One of the most celebrated American naturalist/explorers was George K. Cherrie (1865–1948), who in his 1930 book Dark Trails: Adventures of a Naturalist (G.P. Putnam’s Sons) wrote about his adventures, primarily in Central and South America.
Cherrie engaged in many expeditions, perhaps most famously accompanying Theodore Roosevelt on his nearly-disastrous 1913–1914 jungle descent of Brazil’s Rio da Dúvida (“River of Doubt,” later renamed the Roosevelt River).
Dark Trails provides a fascinating first-hand look at a prominent explorer’s enthnographic, botanical, and zoological studies. Cherrie’s memoir reflects a generally hard-nosed skepticism one would expect to find in a man of science. For example in a section where he recounts being a witness to faith healing among a South American tribe, Cherrie could be channeling the Amazing Randi half a century later: “Of course it was a piece of crude prestidigitation. But the widespread success of such charlantry testifies to the high value of mental suggestion; on the other hand, suggestion of evil [e.g., a curse] works with equal efficacy” (p. 48-49).
Amid the interesting anecdotes of exploration and scientific enterprise, Cherrie also speculates on various bizarre topics including ghost beliefs and superstitions—even, at one point, seeming to tacitly endorse what to modern eyes is clearly a version of the Vanishing Hitchhiker urban legend. In a chapter titled “Death and After Death,” Cherrie recounts for his readers a bizarre encounter with the seemingly supernatural in which he was personally involved. I quote it here at length to give readers the full, fascinating context:
“The native is always in a receptive state of mind toward supernatural things. At the slightest provocation he concludes that the Spirit of Evil is about. One summer night I reached Caicara, a tiny village nearly surrounded by jungle… We had the usual reception committee of barking dogs, naked and half-naked children and indolent natives. Some of the women had brought chickens and fruit for sale.”
As it happened Cherrie recognized in this speck of a Venezuelan jungle village “a previous acquaintance of mine, a local trader, a half-caste European who had gone native” and welcomed him. Cherrie writes,
“He led the way up a smooth path to the village, followed by a motley procession. The trader and I dined outside, waited on by his native wife who, despite an untidy one-piece costume, served us with a delicious dinner. Over our coffee I described my journey and spoke of my work collecting animals, birds, and other creatures. “Just at present I am especially interested in night-flying insects,” I told him. “There are an abundance of these, but they are not always the ones I want.”
“Not even with your light?” he asked. He had seen me using a lantern as a lure for insects on a previous occasion.
“Yes, I use my lantern, but somehow it doesn’t always serve to attract the things I want.”
For a few moments my friend seemed engrossed in deep thought. Then suddenly he sprang to his feet and with true Latin enthusiasm, exclaimed: “I have it!”
He led me by the arm to the corner of the garden from which we had a view of a rocky hillside. The entrance to the path leading to the summit was about two hundred yards away across the plaza in front of the village church. In the haze of the twilight I could see near the summit of the hill what looked like a low white cloud. “The graveyard,” whispered the trader.
Then I remembered the local cemetery was on top of the hill and that it was surrounded by a white-washed adobe wall about ten feet high. “Why not try your lantern on that?”
Instantly I saw what he meant. If I could illuminate a section of the white wall it would attract multitudes of insects and when they flew within the rays of my lamp I should have them silhouetted against the white wall beyond. In this way I could identify and capture just the specimens I wanted. The trader reminded me at the same time that the villagers didn’t make it a practice to visit the cemetery at night. So there was little likelihood that I would be disturbed.
On the following night I set out just after dark, using a flashlight to follow the winding trail that led up to the burying ground. I took with me my insect net, cyanide bottles, containers of various sorts, and a large three-burner lamp which I had fastened inside a box with a reflector behind it. It was like an automobile lamp, the light being visible only from directly in front. [This is a version of the magic lantern images that entertained audiences decades before film was invented.]
When I had reached the wall it was an easy task to prop the lantern up on an old stump and light its wicks as a beacon for the moths, beetles and scores of other insects which I hoped to capture. I was not disappointed with results. Scarcely had I turned up the first wick when I heard a buzz and, turning my head, received a stinging blow in the face. It was a head-on collision with a mole cricket! Of course I could have done my collecting by picking up such specimens as flew into the lamp if I had simply turned its rays out toward the tangled thicket about me. But this would have been a slow and unsatisfactory method and have left my choice largely to chance.
My attention was fixed on the adobe wall in front of me. Rays from powerful lantern illuminated a white disk on the wall fully ten feet in diameter. Between the lantern and the disk, a distance of from fifteen to twenty feet, was a cone of light sharply defined against the blackness of the night. Within a few seconds this cone became populated with hundreds of flying, buzzing, circling, darting insects. Could I have magnified the size of the little animals and by some magic reduced their relative speed, I should have gazed upon a graceful dance of bodies which varied both in size and color.
For some time I made no effort to use my net. The endless procession of whirling little bodies fascinated me. Only when a beautiful big moth circled lazily into the light and his wing-spread was shadowed large against the white wall behind him, did I make a wide sweep with my net and begin the real work of the evening.
The simplicity and fruitfulness of my device seemed to hypnotize me. Fatigue of the day’s labors fell away. In my enthusiasm I felt as if I could go on swinging my net all night long. I could not get my specimens into the containers fast enough. In fact, my gyrations, for all their clumsiness and mediocre speed, where on the order of those described by the insects themselves. Little by little I gave up the proper technique of insect netting. The graceful sweeps and twists with which I normally tried to imprison the insects in flight gave way to wild lunges and gnomelike jumps. Never in my life had I spent so riotous a time at collecting. When fatigue did come it came with a rush. I had lost all account of time. I was not even sure what I had collected. In any event, I felt it was the most successful evening’s work with insects I had ever spent. Having extinguished my lantern, I made my way slowly back to my lodgings and dropped contentedly into my hammock.
The sun was just breaking through the mist over the river when I awakened. But instead of the sun’s rays awakening me, it was the sound of many footsteps and excited voices outside my door. Sliding out of my hammock, I hurried over to a hole in the wall that gave a view of the street. What I saw was a surprise to me. The somnolent little village had suddenly come to life. Little groups of excited, gesticulating people held my astonished gaze. My first thought was another revolution. The only thing the setting lacked was a “general” on horseback.
My morning coffee came, also my host, accompanied by an old man whom I recognized as one of the important elders of the settlement. The look on my host’s face was a curious mixture of emotions which I could not decipher. After bidding me good morning he turned to the old man and began a colloquy something like this: “You say the whole village is in a panic?”
“Yes. The place has lost its peace for the first time since the great plague.”
“And why should the people be so distressed?”
The old man excitedly related the terrible details. “It was late when we saw the first light,” he said. “This light could only have been that of the Evil One. No man’s torch was ever so bright. It illuminated only one spot and that on the wall about the sainted dead. In its gleam danced many demons. One would disappear and another quickly take its place. Only devils from hell ever danced so fearfully.”
“How large would you say this demon was?” asked my host.
“Oh, of colossal size; with very long arms and legs.”
“Did he have a tail?”
“Opinion is divided. Some say they saw it plainly. Others not.”
After a good deal of cross-examination the trader permitted the old man to go. Then he turned to me with a laugh, saying: “So you’re a devil—nay, a whole pack of devils!” He caught his breath presently. “With a tail!” he laughed. But of a sudden he became serious, and warned me not to admit that I had had anything to do with the phenomenon. He explained that if I succeeded in convincing the villagers I had been up at the cemetery the night before they would also be convinced that I was in league with Satan himself, and so not to be trusted. As violence to a white man on some such pretext was a not unheard-of occurrence I was glad to take advantage of his advice and keep silent.”
Cherrie’s choice to remain silent about the true nature of the phantasmagorical sight was a wise one. Mob-led killings of suspected witches (and others assumed to be in league with the Devil) continue to the present day in countries around the world, including Brazil, Pakistan, and Nigeria. One wonders what beliefs and legends Cherrie’s nocturnal entomological antics may have accidentally spawned in the region; it would be fascinating to return to Caicara and interview local elders about the colossal, long-limbed and tailed demon seen dancing with swarming demons in an unholy hellish light in a cemetery a century ago…
A longer version of this piece first appeared on my CFI blog; you can read it HERE.
In case you missed my appearance on the TV show “Cheddar Reveals” talking about dragons and other monster folklore, you can watch it HERE!
I recently gave a live presentation on Phantom Clown Panics for the Folklore Podcast. Cost is a reasonable £5, which supports the podcast…
Most evil clowns are fictional, but some bad clowns are reported to roam streets and parks looking for innocent children to abduct—yet seem to vanish just before police can apprehend them. Some say they are real, while others claim they are figments of imagination. They are known as phantom clowns, and were first sighted in 1981, when children in Boston reported that clowns had tried to lure them into a van with promises of candy. Other reports surfaced in other cities and in later years, with the same pattern: Parents were fearful, children were warned and police were vigilant, but despite searches and police checkpoints no evidence was ever found of their existence. They returned in the fall of 2016 when reports spread across America—and later around the globe—of these menacing clowns.
You can check it out HERE!
New episode of Squaring the Strange is out! I’ve researched faked abductions for almost two decades now, and on the new show discuss patterns, motivations, and examples of people pretending they’ve been kidnapped. From the runaway bride to the McDonald’s worker who claimed a homicidal clown kept her from getting to work . . . people tell strange tales for a variety of reasons (or, for no reason at all!).
Check it out HERE!
My new article is on why some progressives have recently joined conservatives and conspiracy mongers in promoting vaccination fears: “The chorus of those raising fears about vaccine safety (for whatever reason ranging from genuine fears to belief in conspiracies to virtue signaling and scoring political points) may be doing more harm than good. Vaccine hesitancy is a legitimate threat to public health, and it should go without saying that we should trust medical expertise over political promises.”
While some may think that protests about vaccinations are a recent phenomenon, in fact the concerns date back centuries. There was resistance to the first smallpox vaccine, created in the late 1700s by Edward Jenner. Parents and the public—unfamiliar with medicine and how vaccination works—were horrified and disgusted when they learned that the vaccine was created by taking pus from the wounds of infected cows. That procedure was effective and saved countless lives, but still the British Anti-Vaccination League was created in 1853, asserting that the smallpox vaccine was dangerous, ineffective, and an infringement on personal rights. Over 160 years later, that theme continues to resonate strongly with anti-vaccination activists.
‘‘Millions of human lives … have been preserved by the fruits of Jenner’s genius; yet today, thousands upon thousands of men, some intelligent though designing, some intelligent though deluded, the great mass of them fanatical and ignorant, decry vaccination as not only being of no service to humanity, but positively a nuisance injurious to health and life, while millions of our fellow men are utterly ignorant of, or indifferent to the matter.” This was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1896 by Eugene Foster.
Foster’s breakdown of the reasons people reject vaccination remain salient 125 years later: “Some intelligent though designing, some intelligent though deluded, the great mass of them fanatical and ignorant.” The demographics of vaccine refusal reveal an interesting pattern: despite overwhelming scientific evidence that vaccines are safe and effective, it is the more educated parents who tend to reject them through requesting exemptions for school-age children. As Nicholas Bakalar of The New York Times notes, “Exemption percentages were generally higher in regions with higher income, higher levels of education, and predominantly white populations. In private schools, 5.43 percent of children were exempt, compared with 2.88 percent in public schools. In some suburban areas, rates of exemption were near 50 percent.”
Part of the reason the anti-vaccination theme is so persistent is that it contains a strong conspiracy theory element. The belief is that the dangers and risks of vaccines are being intentionally hidden from the public by doctors and drug companies, in collusion with the government, for big profits. Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent, in their book American Conspiracy Theories, note that “Conspiracy theories about vaccines are partially to blame for decreased rates of vaccination and an increased incidence of disease.” (For more on this see Uscinski’s recent talk “Conspiracy Theories and COVID-19”.)
Historically, the anti-vaccination movement has been rooted in fears of contamination as well as complaints about infringement of personal choice. Both are rooted in distrust of the government and often embraced by conservatives. A recent twist reveals educated liberals who embrace and endorse vaccination in general but reject (as-yet nonexistent) COVID-19 vaccinations, specifically under the Trump administration.
This is partly in response to Trump’s urging of health officials to speed the vaccination development process and promising voters a vaccine by the end of the year—or, he suggested, by November 1, a few days before the presidential election. Trump believes, with some justification, that his popularity and re-election chances hinge on his visibility of getting the virus under control and ending the pandemic.
In recent weeks, many social media posts and memes have circulated among progressives that urge vaccine hesitancy, at least in the case of an eventual coronavirus treatment. Typical examples include: “I would absolutely not take a coronavirus vaccine approved and administered under a Trump administration” and “I don’t trust this administration with my health at all. I won’t be getting a vaccine if Trump is still president unless some experts can convince me that it’s safe and effective.”
These fears are based on several factors including the demonstrable incompetence of the Trump administration in containing the virus and Trump’s clear efforts to politicize the disease while often undermining medical experts. Yet Donald Trump isn’t a medical doctor and has little or no role in the development of vaccines; that’s not a function of the Executive Office. Instead, the vaccine development is being done by a variety of independent medical institutions, non-profit organizations, and private pharmaceutical companies around the world, following well-established guidelines for demonstrating safety and efficacy.
All eventual COVID-19 vaccines will, by definition, have been developed (and funded) during Trump’s administration. Trump is willfully antiscience and partisan, but that doesn’t logically mean that any vaccines developed under his tenure are necessarily of dubious safety and efficacy.
One recent article in Foreign Policy noted that “If a vaccine comes out before the election, there are very good reasons not to take it.” Of course, there’s nothing magical about the election day as a marker of vaccine safety. A vaccine made available on election day, or even a few weeks later, would be just as safe as one that came out shortly before election day. The time required to conduct the research and analyze the data is the same, and if it’s been rushed into production, then a few weeks on either side of November 3 isn’t going to be relevant. As a practical matter, of course, a vaccine wouldn’t have a single national release day or timeframe. Front-line doctors and those at highest risk, for example, would likely get a vaccine before the general population. Due to inevitable logistical vagaries and practical reasons, the vaccine would be made available to different people in different circumstances at different times.
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Across America—and indeed across the world—curious designs are appearing on the landscape. The patterns have spread from back yards to churches, public parks, and even medical centers. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of people have created and used the designs as meditative, spiritual, and even therapeutic tools. The pattern is the labyrinth, and though present in many places and eras, they have never been so discussed, used, and revered as at the turn of the twenty-first century. What began as a New Age fad has quickly gone mainstream, with dozens of books, magazine articles, organizations, Web sites, and seminars devoted to labyrinths.
On a physical level, a labyrinth is a single-path, maze-like pattern. Unlike a maze, however, you cannot get lost in the labyrinth; there is only one path in and out. You begin at an opening at the outside, make your way to the center (the “rosette”), and go back out. The labyrinth’s simplicity is both attractive and symbolic.
On a metaphysical level, however, the labyrinth is variously described as “a single path spiritual tool that is a right brain enhancer,” (Labyrinth Society 1999); “a lens that brings our collective unconscious into focus on a personal level while at the same time aligning us with the larger forces at work in the galaxy,” and a “sacred space, a place where you can take chaos and bring it to order” (Explorations 2000). A labyrinth is a bridge “between the ancient and the modern,” and walking one is a “simultaneous spiritual-aesthetic-political act” (Schaper and Camp 2000, 151). It is, in essence, anything the user wishes it to be.
At first glance, labyrinth walking seems like little more than a harmless, if curious, pastime. And to some degree it is: As a skeptical investigator I enjoy labyrinths for their own sake and art, completely apart from any mystical meanings. My mother even got married in a labyrinth several years ago.
But the movement also has surprising—and disturbing—anti-science and paranormal roots. New Age feminism plays a prominent role in labyrinth literature, often denigrating “rational, male-centered thinking” in favor of feminine, “intuitive” thought.
For the woman who spawned the current movement, labyrinths are more than just an interesting design; they are a tool for reconnecting both with imagination and femininity. Walking a Sacred Path frequently portrays our modern world as too rational, unimaginative, and out of touch with wisdom, and the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as the good old days of unreason when our connection to the Earth was strong and women were valued. “The labyrinth stands with a tradition that recaptures the feminine sense of the Source. It utilizes the imagination and the pattern-discerning part of our nature.…Due to the loss of the feminine, many of us are out of touch with the depths of our beings, our Source. The feminine must be enlivened and welcomed back into our male-dominated world so integration can begin to occur—between feminine and masculine, receptive and assertive, imagination and reason.” Imagination and reason are apparently seen as mutually exclusive, with our world suffering from too much rationality and too little fantasy.
It is interesting that much of the feminist-influenced theory behind the labyrinths is rooted in Sigmund Freud, whom many believe to have been quite sexist and anti-female. It was Freud, after all, who developed the theories of penis envy (that women secretly felt inferior to men, lacking a penis) and hysteria (“wandering uterus”—that women have a condition in which unconscious emotional conflicts appear as severe mental dissociation or as physical symptoms. The underlying anxiety is assumed to have been “converted” into a physical symptom, and was considered to be a female disease brought about by movement of the uterus). One labyrinth source, www.sacredwalk.com, notes that “It is important to express these [painful] feelings so that we move through this to the next place in our lives, without taking the baggage of hurt with us.” This message, common in labyrinth literature, is Freudian through and through: our current problems won’t be resolved until we deal with their causes and begin a transition. Feminists have come full circle from deriding Freud for his antiquated and sexist notions of women to embracing Freud for his insight into resolving issues for transition.
Perhaps the most influential labyrinth book is Walking a Sacred Path by Rev. Lauren Artress, who gives seminars and talks about labyrinths. Walking a Sacred Path frequently portrays our modern world as too rational, unimaginative, and out of touch with wisdom, and the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as the good old days of unreason when our connection to the Earth was strong and women were valued. Artress goes so far as to claim that women were better off in the Middle Ages: “Both the imagination and the feminine were devalued when we moved out of the Middle Ages, and in their suppression lie the seeds of our present-day spiritual hunger” (p. 111). Artress sees the labyrinth as a tool for reconnecting both with imagination and femininity. “The labyrinth stands with a tradition that recaptures the feminine sense of the Source. It utilizes the imagination and the pattern-discerning part of our nature.…Due to the loss of the feminine, many of us are out of touch with the depths of our beings, our Source. The feminine must be enlivened and welcomed back into our male-dominated world so integration can begin to occur—between feminine and masculine, receptive and assertive, imagination and reason” (p. 14).
Artress provides no evidence that spirituality was all that great to begin with, and just assumes that our forefathers were happier, more imaginative, and more spiritually connected. This sort of false nostalgia is common in today’s New Age circles, with their emphasis on “ancient wisdom,” “lost knowledge,” etc.
Though this paradigm is appealing to many, it is also simplistic and somewhat contradictory. Barbara G. Walker, writing in the Skeptical Inquirer, cautions against taking the male/female paradigm too far: “We [feminists] are in danger of going too far into our own brand of dualism, when we label patriarchal and bad everything that is modern/scientific, while declaring matriarchal (or natural) and good everything that is primitive/magical. At the same time, we accept with off-handed ingratitude the gifts of technology that are made available to us every day: electric light, radio, television, telephones, trains, airplanes, cars, [and] computers .…Only science, with its objective, ‘linear’ approach, could have discovered bacteria, viruses, [and] antibiotics….. Almost everything that we can claim to know with any certainty about our world has been learned through science and not by subjectivity, instinct, or insight” (Walker 1993).
Artress discusses the value of imagination at length in her book (it is one of the longest sections), and it’s clear why: Imagination is very important to experiencing the powers of the labyrinth. “The labyrinth is an evocative tool. It works through the imagination and the senses…” (Artress 1995, 97). In other words, the more imagination you have the better the labyrinth will work for you.
Artress believes that the spiritual crisis that she sees in our society is partly the result of a lack of imagination. “We are beginning to realize that Western civilization—held together by rationalism, empirical research, and man’s control of nature—is coming apart.…As we in the West learned to use our rational minds, we developed a sense of superiority that denied our intuition and imagination their rightful place among the human faculties we need to survive” (Artress 1995, 106). (Non-Western cultures might find Artress’s implication that they never learned to be rational rather insulting.)
Yet this alleged cultural (and male driven?) loss of imagination is hard to find. We are surrounded by products of the imagination: hundreds of thousands of books, films, songs, plays, role-playing games, magazines, and works of art are produced each year. From Harry Potter to Law and Order, Pokémon to personal Web sites to John Grisham novels, works of imagination are everywhere in Western culture.
Other writers see labyrinths not so much as fulfilling a void of imagination as serving as a kind of user-friendly spirituality. Donna Schaper, co-author of Labyrinths from the Outside In, believes that many people are shunning the traditional, rigid rituals of religion and “widening their claim to worship in nature—hiking a mountain, for example, rather than sitting in a designated worship space” (Artress 1995, 31). In this way, labyrinths are a more accessible path to God or enlightenment. With some caveats, labyrinth walkers can take a spiritual journey on their own terms, when they wish, how they wish, and (using portable canvas labyrinths), more or less where they wish. Perhaps responding to a desire for easy spirituality, many churches have now embraced labyrinths and some even built them on their grounds.
At times the anti-science and anti-rationality rhetoric surrounding labyrinths is alarming. A blurb from an organization called Mind Body Spirit in Walking a Sacred Path states, “One strong lesson of the labyrinth is the physical realization of the continuum of life.…[I]t is clear that linear, logical thinking is no longer a roadmap we can trust.” I hope this is most decidedly not the message that most labyrinth walkers take. To dismiss logic and rationality as fundamentally untrustworthy is deeply wrongheaded and dangerous.
Artress admits that “We do not really know how or why the labyrinth works” (Artress 1995, 177). This echoes the statements made by many promoters of pseudosciences: We don’t know why they work, they just do. Yet, depending on what exactly the claim is, we do in fact know why labyrinths “work.” If you believe that walking a labyrinth (or listening to trickling water or meditating in front of a candle) will calm you, then it probably will. There is nothing mystical about it; it’s simple psychology.
One woman quoted in Walking a Sacred Path went so far as to put her faith in the labyrinth because she doesn’t understand it: “It is precisely because I do not understand ‘how it works’ that I trust and honor it.” (Artress 1995, 11). In this view, the less you know about something the more faith you should put into it. One wonders if she uses the same strategy in selecting investments and trusting friends.
Labyrinth literature presents a dichotomy in which mazes represent the undesirable logical, rational side and labyrinths represent the intuitive, safe side. As Artress writes, “Mazes challenge the choice-making part of ourselves.…Our logic is challenged.” The labyrinth, on the other hand, “does not engage our thinking minds” (p. 52). Thus mazes, which force people to think logically and rationally, are rejected, and labyrinths, which are to be followed one way and without question or choice, are embraced. You don’t need to engage yourself at all to follow a labyrinth, and walking the path frees one from the burden of thinking.
It’s unfortunate that labyrinth devotees (and many New Agers in general) have embraced what is at its heart a patronizing, anti-feminist paradigm that dismisses critical thinking, science, and rationality.
Artress, Lauren. 1995. Walking a Sacred Path. New York: Riverhead Books.
Explorations: Visions of the past, memories of the future. 2000. Catalogue, Fall.
Labyrinth Society brochure. 1999. The Labyrinth Society Inc., New Canaan, Connecticut.
Schaper, Donna, and Carole Ann Camp. 2000. Labyrinths from the Outside In. Woodstock, Vermont: Skylight Paths Publishing.
Walker, Barbara G. 1993. Science: The feminists’ scapegoat? Skeptical Inquirer 18(1): Fall.
This piece is adapted from my article “Labyrinths: Mazes and Myths” published in Skeptical Inquirer magazine.
In a recent episode of Squaring the Strange, we take a look at Antifa this week, or rather–we take a look at HOW people are LOOKING at Antifa. Are we witnessing the birth of a modern social panic? How is Antifa used for political and social purposes? What are the actual statistics? What sort of similarities does it have to the Satanic Panic or the more recent Clown Panic? Along the way we learn the price of bricks versus hippie crystals and the best state in which to register a converted school bus. Check it out HERE!
Misleading memes are a dime a dozen, to use a phrase originating in the 1800s (though today they’re not only free but available by the tens of thousands). People who spend time on social media interact with them constantly, usually in the context of reading, endorsing, and sharing them. Less often they’re refuted or mocked, and even more rarely are they critically analyzed (by folklorists, sociologists, journalists, or the like).
It’s easy to understand why: There’s so many of them. Most memes are anonymous, and could have been made by a sincere activist—or a Russian troll farm, or even an algorithm. Trying to analyze and rebut even a tiny percentage of them would be a frustrating and fruitless waste of time, but now and then I make an exception. This is because memes often resurface months or years after first circulating, so are never really gone.
It’s sometimes worthwhile to take a critical look at a popular meme, to demonstrate how we can apply critical thinking and media literacy to the claims it contains, since often those lessons can be applied to other memes as well. Regardless of the topic, there are common mistakes and logical fallacies in misleading memes. Often the memes are factually wrong—usually in service of a particular political agenda—but other times the error is more difficult to recognize because it contains a self-evident fact or truth.
Warrants and Alternative Explanations
To help distinguish valid from invalid arguments, it’s helpful to look at memes as simple claims with (clear or hidden) premises and (valid or invalid) conclusions. You may remember from a class in logic, philosophy, or debate that in its simplest form a logical argument could be a syllogism such as “If A then B.”
The link between A and B is in what in logic is called a warrant. It’s a principle or chain of reasoning connecting a premise to a conclusion. For example in the statement “I see the freeway is packed, so we’re probably going to miss our flight,” the warrant is that traffic congestion will delay passengers getting to the airport on time. This may or may not be true—for example the traffic may clear up shortly, or the flight might also be delayed—but the warrant offers a reason or logical rationale linking a claim to its conclusion.
Often the warrant is implied, such as “Four out of five doctors use our brand of pain reliever.” The warrant is that most doctors would use one brand over another because of its quality or efficacy. Again, this may or may not be true; the doctors might use one the brand because it’s cheaper than its competitors (or free from the pharmaceutical company) though no more effective. Understanding warrants is crucial to determining whether an argument or claim is logically sound or reasonable.
A second important tool of critical thinking is seeking alternative explanations for proposed causes and effects. Often memes will pose a problem or question and then offer a simple (usually simplistic) explanation, ignoring other (often more likely) explanations.
‘Learn the Difference!’
I was reminded of this when I recently saw a meme that depicted a map of North and South America, captioned in Spanish, reading: “This is America.” On the other side of a vertical line were outlines of the United States (minus Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and other U.S. territories) with the caption: “This is USA,” and below that: “LEARN THE DIFFERENCE.”
It was a curious meme and took me a few seconds to figure out what it was trying to communicate. It explicitly suggested that people didn’t know the difference between the two, which seemed unlikely. Surely anyone who’d been to elementary school knew that the U.S. was only one country among many on the continents of North and South America. The silhouetted borders of the U.S. are ubiquitous and easily recognized all over the world. It contained no link or reference to any poll or survey saying that there was significant confusion between the two. It’s possible, of course, that some people think that the U.S. covers two continents—after all, some people think that Earth is flat—but it seemed to be arguing against a mistake that few people (if any) genuinely made (this is a straw man fallacy, for those keeping track).
So taking the meme at face value didn’t really make any sense. I suspected that the message was both different and implicit, suggesting something about American ignorance, arrogance, or nationalism. The meme had no author but may have been trying to remind Americans that there’s more to the Americas than the United States (which, again, is universally recognized), and by implication that the U.S. isn’t the most important country on both continents. With the caveat that importance is subjective and difficult to measure—though the U.S. plays a bigger role (economically, militarily, etc.) on the international stage than any other country in the Americas—I’d overall agree with the basic idea. Americans should pay more attention to issues and problems outside their borders.
American Arrogance—Or Linguistic Explanation?
But that, too, didn’t seem to quite capture what the meme was referring to; it specifically asks us to “Learn the Difference” between the Americas and the U.S. Since most people do know the difference (between the two continents and the country), it seemed to suggest that the issue was really one of labeling. Perhaps it was borne out of a pedantic irritation that most people refer to U.S. citizens as “Americans.” This is certainly true—but doesn’t logically imply that people don’t know the difference between the two.
There may be an alternative explanation: The issue isn’t one of nationalism or arrogance but instead simple linguistics. The United States of America is the only country name in the world with the word “America” in it. It’s common for countries to be known by their shorter, informal names, and citizens of those countries to be referred to by those shorter names. The full name of the country casually called Mexico is in fact “United Mexican States,” for example, and the name of the country colloquially referred to as Brazil is really “The Federative Republic of Brazil,” and so on. There’s nothing arrogant or nationalistic about shortening “the French Republic” to “France” and calling its citizens “French,” and there’s nothing wrong with anyone referring to citizens of the United States of America as “Americans.” Doing so doesn’t mean the speaker is too ignorant to know the difference between two continents and a country, or that the speaker arrogantly thinks that “America” speaks for, or represents, the entirety of North and South America.
What Does It Meme?
I don’t know what the people who created or endorsed the meme (by Liking it and Sharing it) thought that it meant, what specific message they assumed it was advocating. I suspect that most of them didn’t really give it much thought, and media literacy research bears this out. Most people don’t read past the headlines of news stories they see and share on social media. Much of what circulates on social media isn’t closely analyzed (or even read) by those sharing and commenting on them.
We do this all the time. We do it because we’re busy. We do it because we’re overloaded on information. We do it because our attention spans are short in this digital age.
Much of the time it’s not a problem; we circulate stuff we haven’t read and may not have understood even had we read it. But it does have pitfalls, including a sense of false consensus; we see memes that (apparently) have thousands or tens of thousands of Likes and Shares, and wrongly assume that such a metric reflects genuine, thoughtful endorsement (of whatever we assume it’s intended to mean).
In some cases skimming information—or assuming we know what it says merely by its headline or tone—can have dangerous consequences. To cite a recent example, it’s been reported that Russia had put out a bounty for the killing of American troops in Afghanistan. When president Trump was asked about it, he claimed that he was never told about it—despite the information appearing in at least one Presidential Daily Briefing in February 2020. It’s not clear whether Trump read the information provided to him, or just skimmed it. Of course the memes and information most people see on social media don’t contain information about compromises to national security and the deaths of American troops, but the premise is the same.
Memes, by their nature, must be simple and quickly understood (or “understood”), combining a few words with an image or two into some sort of social statement. Memes are so prevalent and popular in part because of their ambiguity; different people can look at the same meme and draw different—perhaps even opposite—conclusions about what it means, what message it’s sending. People should be aware that when a person Likes or Shares a meme they post, they may in fact completely disagree with them about what it means.
Memes aren’t inherently good or bad (though many, perhaps most, are wrong or misleading in some way), and they’re not going away any time soon. Social media makes it easy to share content (often implicitly endorsing it) while at the same time discouraging people from taking time to actually think about what that content means. Is it logical? Is it true? What does it mean? If you wouldn’t talk to a friend face-to-face and repeat something you heard from some anonymous person without being sure it was true (and that you even understood it), why would you do the same on social media?
There’s no easy solution, but critical thinking and media literacy are powerful ways to help minimize the spread of misinformation online.
The twin plagues of COVID-19 and racism have come to the fore globally over the past few months, and as with any such afflictions there’s a social desire to scapegoat, finding someone (or some group) to blame. Parallels between the pandemic and racism are not hard to find. Earlier this month George Clooney referred to racism as America’s “pandemic,” for which we must find a “vaccine.” Street protesters as well can be seen holding signs encouraging people to “Treat Racism Like COVID-19.”
The two are analogous in some ways, prompting some anti-vaccination crusaders to compare themselves to pioneering Civil Rights leaders, seeing themselves as victims of social injustice who will no longer be silent. As MacKenzie Mays noted in a September 2019 piece for Politico: “A chorus of mostly white women sang the gospel song ‘We Shall Overcome’ in the California State Capitol, an anthem of the civil rights movement. Mothers rallied outside the governor’s office and marched through Capitol corridors chanting “No segregation, no discrimination, yes on education for all!’ Some wore T-shirts that read ‘Freedom Keepers.’ But this wasn’t about racial equality. In the nation’s most diverse state, protesters opposed to childhood vaccine mandates — many from affluent coastal areas — had co-opted the civil rights mantle from the 1960s, insisting that their plight is comparable to what African Americans have suffered from segregationist policies. Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove said, ‘The whole conversation around vaccinations is actually one about privilege and opportunity. It’s a personal choice. It’s a luxury to be able to have a conversation about medical exemptions and about whether or not you think your child should be vaccinated.” However passionate Jenny McCarthy is, she’s no Rosa Parks.
René F. Najera, editor of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s History of Vaccines website, recently examined the cross-pollination of racism and anti-vaccination efforts, highlighting an incident that came to the attention of the California Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus (APILC), which “denounced racist online postings from anti-vaccine people. One of those people is Rob Schneider, an actor and comedian who at one time had a television series on Netflix. This is not Mr. Schneider’s first foray into the cultural discussion on vaccination … The posts denounced by APILC includes Mr. Schneider’s comparison of Richard Pan, MD, to Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China and author of several atrocities within China and the expansion of Communism around China’s sphere of influence in the post-World War 2 era. Dr. Pan is a child of Taiwanese immigrants to the United States. (This is apparently not the first time Mr. Schneider has engaged in questionable racial speech that some deem to be racist.) In another post denounced by APILC, ‘Christine Lee’ posted a photoshopped poster of members of the California Legislature who have Asian heritage. In the text of the posting, she asks several leading questions, such as ‘Notice anything else about them?’ after pointing out that they are ‘all doctors-turned-politicians.’ (The implication being that they are all of Asian descent?) The final posting being denounced is that of ‘Cathy S-R,’ a self-described ‘Doctor of Chiropractic, medical freedom supporter, informed consent, dog/cat lover.’ In her posting to Twitter, she asks Dr. Pan if he is an American citizen [and] then contradicts her initial insinuation about Dr. Pan’s citizenship by stating that Dr. Pan ‘[m]ake [his] country proud.’”
It’s not just Asians, of course—though prejudice toward them has increased with their association with COVID-19 and its origin in Wuhan, China. University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire professor David Shih notes that “People of color have been long associated with disease and public health pandemics. In the United States alone, the history of racialization cannot be separated from the discourse of non-white bodily or mental illness … I would like to focus on black Americans, and the influential story told about them by a single man, Frederick L. Hoffman. Hoffman was an actuary for the Prudential Life Insurance Company when he published Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro (1896). The 330-page document argued that black people should not be insured because they were a greater risk for mortality compared to other racial groups. Their lower life expectancies were directly related, Hoffman explained, to inferior, inherited racial traits which promised their eventual extinction as a people. Flawed as it was and critiqued by no less than W.E.B. DuBois in its day, Hoffman’s diagnosis was widely adopted by the insurance industry and went on to shape public debate over the ‘Negro question’ … Blackness was, quite simply, a public health problem. One of the reasons why we are not talking about the anti-vaccination movement as white is because we talk about geography and social class instead. These demographic characteristics often stand in as proxies for race, which is more controversial.”
Nevertheless, race does occasionally come to the fore. In The Kiss of Death: Contagion, Contamination, and Folklore, professor Andrea Kitta examines the characteristics of well-known “patient zeros and superspreaders” of various diseases, including Mary Mallon (“Typhoid Mary”), Amber Vinson (the Texas nurse who contracted Ebola in 2014), and Chong Pei Ling (SARS victim in 2003). Notably, “of the thirteen cases listed, only four are ‘white’” (p. 34). The perceived link between nonwhite skin and contagion is clear and helps form the basis for initiatives to close America’s borders. 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. For more on COVID-19 racist conspiracies, see my previous article in this series.
Conspiracy theories are common among alternative medicine proponents—who often portray themselves as marginalized medical professionals denied the imprimatur of mainstream medicine—and some bleed over into racism. One prominent proponent is Kelly Brogan, a “holistic psychiatrist” who has gathered a huge following online for her dangerous theories about COVID-19, made in interviews and a series of videos.
Brogan invokes Jewish history and the Holocaust in her arguments against vaccination, “suggesting the possibility that the US government is planning to ‘link our passports with our vaccination records’ as a method of gaining ‘totalitarian governmental control not unlike the divide-and-conquer dehumanization agendas that preceded the Holocaust.’” Brogan, associated with Gwyneth Paltrow’s New Age company Goop, was found to have misstated her credentials. On her website, she claimed that she was board certified in psychiatry and psychosomatic medicine/consultation psychiatry, but a search of records found that she was not; after an investigation by The Daily Beast, Brogan quietly deleted the references to her certifications.
On social media, Brogan has shared videos with titles such as “Vaccine Conspiracy or Racist Population Control Campaign,” a 2014 video from anti-vaccination activist Celesta McGovern reprising longstanding rumors about attempts to sterilize Africans. The claims were soon debunked on the Science-Based Medicine website but have continued to circulate widely. There are many examples of racism in medicine, but the campaign Brogan highlights is, ironically, not among them.
Many other alternative medicine and holistic websites also promote anti-vaccination conspiracies. NaturalNews, Mike “The Health Ranger” Adams, and others, for example, have widely shared bogus “news” stories attempting to discredit mainstream science, with headlines such as “Tetanus vaccines found spiked with sterilization chemical to carry out race-based genocide against Africans.” It’s all thrown into a toxic stew of misinformation about the dangers of vaccines, GMOs, cell phones, you name it.
Like all conspiracy theories, these rumors and stories have a superficial plausibility, and gain traction by tapping into deep-seated—and often legitimate—concerns and fears. There is of course a long and well-documented history of racism in medicine, from the Tuskegee Experiments beginning in the 1930s to disparate healthcare treatment. When two French doctors recently suggested that a tuberculosis vaccine should be tested on Africans to see if it could be effective against COVID-19, the comments were denounced as racist and relics of a colonial past by the head of the World Health Organization (WHO). “Shouldn’t we do this study in Africa, where there are no masks, no treatment, no resuscitation, a bit like some studies on AIDS, where among prostitutes, we try things, because they are exposed, and they don’t protect themselves?” asked physician Jean-Paul Mira. The WHO called the comments “appalling” and said that any WHO-led vaccine testing will follow the same standards regardless of where it’s done.
Folklorist Patricia Turner, in her book I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture, observes that “African-American mistrust of governmental agencies is not without merit … Official disrespect for the bodies of African-Americans has a long history in this country” (p. 112). Medicalized racism is real, harmful, and a serious problem, but that doesn’t mean that any given wild conspiracy theory is true.
Brogan’s attempt to paint the medical establishment as racist is ironic given her own history of promoting conspiracy theorist David Icke—who claims among many other things that Barack Obama is a Reptilian (when not spewing racist tropes). As The New York Times noted, “Mr. Icke draws on ideas from the anti-Semitic pamphlet The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, argues that Holocaust denial should be taught in schools and that Jews are responsible for organizing anti-Semitic attacks, and calls the Talmud a racist document. In other writings, he has posited that a cabal of a child-sacrificing, bloodthirsty lizard people, many of whom are Jewish, are secretly running the world.”
In a March 20, 2020, post, Brogan encouraged her followers to “listen through to the end [of an interview with Icke] to learn how to remain calm and manifest the impossible.” Regarding COVID-19, she states that in fact “there is potentially no such thing as the coronavirus.” Brogan seems to decry racism conspiracy when it serves her anti-vaccination purposes, and promote racism conspiracy—or at least those who do—when it suits her.
Anti-vaccination wellness influencers such as Brogan are also actively sharing conspiracy theories from far-right groups such as QAnon about COVID-19. A recent Mother Jones article found that “Some have fused wellness hoaxes and pseudoscientific homeopathic treatments with QAnon and other far-right conspiracies. One such notable influencer is Joseph Arena, a chiropractor who uses the title ‘Dr.’ and has more than 40,000 followers. Arena has pushed explicit QAnon theories about massive pedophile rings run by the deep state on his Instagram account and has directed his followers to pro-QAnon pages to find ‘the truth.’… Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai, a biology PhD [with] nearly 100,000 followers, pushes QAnon-styled conspiracies about “deep state” [including] that the coronavirus is a tool for the ‘deep state’ in ‘consolidating its Power using its protected class of Hollywood & Academic whores.’”
The recent Plandemic video is laden with conspiracies and hints darkly at motivations in its attacks on Dr. Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates. For example, as to the claims made about Fauci in Plandemic, former New York police officer Mitch Danzig, notes in an article for The Jewish Journal that “The NIAID, under Fauci’s leadership since 1984, provides dozens of grants to labs researching infectious diseases. These grants weren’t awarded to work on COVID-19. Many were, however, awarded to perform work on SARS, which spread across the world in 2003. The NIAID also didn’t give the funds directly to the Wuhan Institute. The grants were given instead to the EcoHealth Alliance, which invests in health research globally that led to at least 20 research papers on pre-COVID-19 coronaviruses published over the past six years. The grant referenced in these breathless, innuendo-filled stories about Fauci also wasn’t the first awarded by the NIAID to the EcoHealth Alliance. The NIAID has been providing grants to EcoHealth Alliance to fund infectious disease research projects all over the world, including in Chinese institutes, since 2005. This ‘smoking gun’ that Fauci conspiracy theorists keep touting is about as big a ‘Nothing Burger’ as one can imagine. But it is about as demonstrative of the claim that Fauci is responsible for COVID-19 as pointing to a specific Jew being the president of CBS as ‘proof’ that the ‘Jews control the media.’ To say that these conspiracy theories about Gates and Fauci, which often are promoted by a cohort of anti-vaxxers as well as anti-Semites, are specious and baseless, is to be kind.”
Anti-vaccination advocates are of course not alone in spreading medical misinformation for social and political purposes; anti-abortion groups have been known to spread false rumors about contraception being secretly given instead of tetanus vaccines to women in developing countries.
The protests about race relations and reopening the country are also being shared and eagerly amplified for political purposes by America’s enemies. In a Washington Post piece, Ishaan Tharoor noted that along with American citizens watching the racial rioting and protests, “America’s putative foreign adversaries also are watching. ‘This incident is far from the first in a series of lawless conduct and unjustified violence from U.S. law enforcement,’ the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, adding to the Kremlin’s long history of pointing to human rights abuses in the United States. ‘American police commit such high-profile crimes all too often.’ Officials in Iran did the same, calling out racial injustice in America. ‘If you’re dark-skinned walking in the US, you can’t be sure you’ll be alive in the next few minutes,’ read a tweet from an account associated with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, which was accompanied by a video that detailed the horrific history of slavery in the United States. And then there was China. Already locked in a spiraling geopolitical confrontation with Washington, officials in Beijing seized on the protests to push back against the Trump administration’s assertive messaging on Hong Kong, a city whose unique autonomy is being dramatically curtailed by China.” China in particular is especially sensitive to the widespread criticism of its early handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, and its leaders may feel a sense of schadenfreude in America’s troubles.
Who’s spurring the racial protests? Conspiracies point to any number of people, including rich Jewish businessmen such as George Soros who are allegedly hiring fake protesters. (In fact, this has been debunked.) Who’s spreading COVID-19? Rich liberals such as Bill Gates, hoping to become even richer. (In fact, this also has been debunked.)
Not all alternative medicine proponents are anti-vaccine, of course, just as not all anti-vaccination activists are conspiracy theorists, right-wing, racist, or all three. However, it’s not surprising that a Venn diagram reveals considerable overlap among the worldviews. Conspiracy is inherent in anti-vaccination belief, because Big Pharma has allegedly invested untold fortunes in keeping the “truth” about vaccines from public knowledge.
People across the political spectrum believe conspiracy theories, and they all share a common worldview, one which is fundamentally distrustful of authority and anti-establishment. All pride themselves on being independent thinkers, a special breed of “woke” folk who are smart enough to separate themselves from the sheeple and not be swayed by what “They” want you to think. Theirs is a world in which world events are part of a Master Plan orchestrated by a Jewish cabal, the Illuminati, Bill Gates, Big Pharma, or whoever else.
Racism, conspiracy thinking, and the rejection of science are all toxic problems, made worse when combined with the chaos and uncertainty of a pandemic. Fortunately, these are all learned behaviors that can be conquered. The best inoculations against misinformation are critical thinking, media literacy, and skepticism.
A longer version of this piece first appeared on the Center for Inquiry’s Coronavirus Resource Page; you can find it HERE.
Spree killer and ex-police officer Christopher Dorner was recently mentioned in a standup comedy piece by Dave Chapelle. If the name sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because Dorner killed four people and wounded three others in mid-February 2013, his victims including police and civilians in the Los Angeles area.
The manhunt for Dorner over the course of several days provides real-world insight into eyewitness reliability. As police tracked him down they received eyewitness reports of Dorner in dozens of places around southern California. Heavily-armed police officers descended on a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in Tarzana after a tipster said Dorner might be inside; an innocent African-American man who barely resembled Dorner was arrested and soon (thankfully) released.
Dorner was soon spotted at a Lowe’s home improvement store in Northridge, causing the store to be evacuated and a SWAT team dispatched, but he wasn’t there either; he was also reported at Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, and so on. The fact that a $1 million reward was offered for information about Dorner’s location understandably increased the public’s incentive for reporting any and all potential sightings.
The public can often be instrumental in helping find missing persons—it is how Elizabeth Smart was eventually recovered after being abducted from her Salt Lake City home in 2002. But it also leads to many false leads. In 2002 two snipers attacked the Washington, D.C., area and terrorized much of America. Based upon eyewitness descriptions, law enforcement agencies alerted the public to be on the lookout for suspects in a white van. Thousand of vehicles were stopped and searched, jamming highways for miles. The focus on a white van intensified after a shooting outside a store in suburban Virginia, when a man claimed to have seen the shooter standing next to a white van. The man later admitted that he lied to police, likely seeking media attention.
While some false sightings are reported as pranks or for attention, most are from sincere eyewitnesses trying to help out. Elvis Presley sighting jokes aside, it is a real problem for police. It is not uncommon, especially in high-profile hunts for fugitives or missing persons, for dozens or hundreds of sightings to be reported to law enforcement. Police, of course, must treat all sightings and reports as potential leads; ignoring a valid tip might cost lives.
Furthermore, because false accusations often target minorities, it’s especially dangerous. You may recall Susan Smith, the mother who in 1994 blamed an African-American man for kidnapping her children when she in fact drowned them in a lake. Or Jennifer Wilbanks, the so-called “Runaway Bride” who claimed to have been kidnapped and assaulted by a Hispanic man, but who had in fact voluntarily left her groom at the altar. Or the infamous Central Park Five case, in which five Black and Latino teenagers were arrested in 1989 for the brutal rape and assault of a white jogger in New York’s Central Park. Many people—including Donald Trump and African-American poet Sapphire (author of Push, from which the Oscar-winning film Precious was adapted)—jumped on the bandwagon falsely accusing the young men of the crime. More recently in Central Park there was Amy Cooper, a white woman who called 911 on black bird-watcher Christian Cooper, stating falsely that “there’s an African American threatening me and my dog.”
The many false sightings of Dorner is not unusual. One of the most famous cases of false sightings was the disappearance of a three-year-old British girl named Madeleine McCann, last seen at a resort in Portugal in May 2007. Her presumed abduction made international news, and photos of McCann circulated widely as police and the family hoped for tips from the public. This led to the girl being “sighted” in dozens of different places in Europe and around the world, from Belgium to Brazil, Australia to Africa, by eyewitnesses who reported seeing her. The case remains unsolved, though in recent weeks it’s been reported that a German man is the main suspect.
All this has implications for psychology and eyewitness reliability; if you tell people what to look for, any face or physique that is even remotely similar (large Black male, small blonde girl) can become a (false) positive identification. By some estimates, as many as one-third of eyewitness identifications in criminal cases are wrong, and nearly 200 people who were convicted of crimes based on positive eyewitness identifications were later exonerated through DNA evidence.
Dorner died in a shootout in the San Bernardino Mountains on February 12, 2013. Though he died before he could stand trial, Dorner left an extensive rambling manifesto complaining about racism, politics, and his perceived scapegoating when he reported another officer’s misconduct toward a mentally ill man. He quotes Mia Farrow and D.H. Lawrence; praises a long list of celebrities including Dave Chapelle, Bill Cosby, Tavis Smiley, and others (Charlie Sheen is “effin awesome”); he lists “THE MOST beautiful women on this planet, period” (including Jennifer Beals, Natalie Portman, Kelly Clarkson, Margaret Cho, and Queen Latifah); gives musical shout-outs (Eric Clapton, Bob Marley, Metallica, etc.); and so on. Recognizing that his mass murder spree would likely end in his death, he also lamented the fact that he would not live to see The Hangover 3.
He also addresses those he plans to kill and explains his motives: “Terminating officers because they expose a culture of lying, racism (from the academy), and excessive use of force will immediately change. The blue line will forever be severed and a cultural change will be implanted. You have awoken a sleeping giant. I am here to change and make policy. The culture of LAPD versus the community and honest/good officers needs to and will change. I am here to correct and calibrate your morale compasses to true north… I never had the opportunity to have a family of my own, I’m terminating yours. Look your wives/husbands and surviving children directly in the face and tell them the truth as to why your children are dead.”
The fact that police treatment of a mentally ill man was one of the triggers for the murder spree was not lost on many. Though it’s often claimed that the news media highlight mental illness primarily with white mass shooters and suspects, Dorner was widely described by officials and news media as mentally ill, with L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa stating that “Whatever problem [Dorner] has is mental” and February 9 Associated Press news article describing Dorner as “severely emotionally and mentally disturbed.” In fact the characterization of Dorner as mentally ill was so prominent that some even complained about it; one writer, Thandisizwe Chimurenga in the L.A. Watts Times (February 21, 2013), complained that “The Media Tried to Assassinate Chris Dorner [with descriptions] of ‘Mental Illness’.”
It is of course possible, even likely, that Dorner was both mentally ill and subjected to racial harassment in the LAPD. Given the rarity of African-American serial killers or mass shooters—let alone ones who are also police officers and leave a manifesto—it’s no wonder that Dorner is still discussed today.
A longer version of this piece appeared on my Center for Inquiry blog; you can read it HERE.
I recently gave a talk on Conspiracies 101: “Benjamin Radford discusses conspiracy theories, including the psychology of conspiracies, types of conspiracies, the history of conspiracy theories, and much more.”
You can watch it HERE.