My new CFI blog on how our expectations can and do influence our perceptions and interpretations... Earlier this month police in Schaumberg, Illinois, responded to a call of one or more gunmen walking around a business district. According to the Chicago Tribune,"investigators determined that the purported gunman was a maintenance technician wearing a belt that held a tool resembling a gun, police said. ‘Everyone is safe. Every office is open, and officers are clearing out,' Schaumburg Police Sgt. Christy Lindhurst said shortly after noon on Tuesday.' At 10:50 a.m. police received a call of a gunman at the Woodfield Corporate Center at 200 N. Martingale Road. A ‘very heavy police presence' responded, Lindhurst said. Some businesses evacuated. Others chose to shelter in place.'" Another news report offered additional details and claimed that a second gunman had been spotted: "Schaumburg police responded about 10:50 a.m. Tuesday to a report of two men with guns. Police later reported that there was no indication that shots were fired, no firearm was found, and police say no one was injured. Police reviews video surveillance, and confirmed that the original report was incorrect. Schaumburg police say there was no threat." How do we explain this mistake? Drills, nailing guns, and other construction equipment can look like a weapon from a distance. But the item was seen in a tool belt worn by a uniformed maintenance worker. Obviously a shooter could dress in any fashion they like, but there are tens of thousands of construction and maintenance workers with equipment-laden toolbelts across the country at any given time, and very rarely are they mistaken for active shooters. There's something else at play, and it involves eyewitness perceptions. This case is reminiscent of another from four years ago. In 2013 Ohio's Oberlin College cancelled classes after someone reported spotting a person walking on campus wearing what appeared to be a Ku Klux Klan-like hooded robe at night. College officials released a statement on Monday explaining that "This event, in addition to the series of other hate-related incidents on campus, has precipitated our decision to suspend formal classes and all non-essential activities ... and gather for a series of discussions of the challenging issues that have faced our community in recent weeks." What of the uniformed Klansman spotted on campus? According to a piece on Slate.com, "Local police responded to the report, but weren't able to find anyone wearing the hard-to-miss KKK garb. They did, however, discover a female walking with a blanket wrapped around her, suggesting the very real possibility that the eyewitness was mistaken." The Chronicle-Telegram added, "Oberlin police Lt. Mike McCloskey said that authorities did find a pedestrian wrapped in a blanket. He said police interviewed another witness later in the day and that person also saw a female walking with a blanket." It's much more likely that a person on campus was wearing or carrying a light-colored blanket, coming back from a toga party, or even a prankster dressed like a ghost, instead of dressed in full Klan regalia. As The Atlantic reported, "Reports on Monday that someone was walking around the campus of Oberlin College in Ku Klux Klan regalia--for which the Ohio liberal arts college cancelled an entire day's classes--may have been a huge misunderstanding. That's the sense one gets from reading a comprehensive report published on Tuesday morning by the local paper, the Chronicle-Telegram, which traced the early-morning sighting to someone wearing a blanket: ‘Oberlin police Lt. Mike McCloskey said that authorities did find a pedestrian wrapped in a blanket. He said police interviewed another witness later in the day and that person also saw a female walking with a blanket.' But no KKK garb." But why would someone make that particular mistake? The answer lies in what psychologists call expectant attention and confirmation bias. Expectation Influences Perception Though many people assume that eyewitnesses accurately perceive, understand, and report what they experience, we are subject to several biases--and they influence us in ways we often aren't unconsciously aware of. In order to make sense of what we see (especially things we don't recognize or fully understand), the human brain looks for contextual cues; we look for what else is going on in the environment that might lead to one interpretation instead of another. One powerful influence on our perceptions is our expectations. A well-known example of this can be seen in the illustration of a duck or a rabbit. Neither answer is wrong; both interpretations are correct within their context. But the context makes all the difference. How does this apply to the Klansman seen at Oberlin College? There were at several contextual factors that led the eyewitness to associate the figure with the Klan. Most importantly, the campus had recently experienced a string of events characterized as hate crimes, with flyers and graffiti targeting African-Americans, gays, and Jews appearing on campus. The events were widely reported and triggered much discussion on campus about the presence of hate groups. Most bald men are not skinheads, and racists can come in any race, gender, or color. But the most identifiable hate group-the only one with an image that is unmistakably associated with intolerance-is the Ku Klux Klan and their distinctive hoods and robes. Secondly, the location played a role in the misidentification: The white-clad figure was not seen outside a local pizza place or library, but instead outside the Afrikan Heritage House, the building on campus most closely associated with African-Americans. It's unlikely that if the same woman had been seen outside a campus synagogue she would have been interpreted as a member of the Klan. Then there's the fact that the eyewitness probably didn't know exactly what an actual KKK outfit looks like. Real Klan robes have a distinctive, specific cut to them, and typically a cross emblem on the front. The eyewitness only caught a glimpse of the person, in low light and early in the morning. Psychological studies have shown that under such conditions, the human mind is very poor at accurately perceiving, remembering, and reporting even basic elements of the experience. Our brains often "fill in" details with what we expect to see--not necessarily what we actually see--and we tend to bias our reports accordingly. Thus a person wrapped in (or even carrying) a light-colored blanket can become a Klan outfit. The same thing happened at Woodfield Corporate Center: In the context of school and workplace shootings, anything is possible and in light of scary reports many unusual things are plausible. In an enlightening article for New York magazine, David Wallace-Wells describes being caught up in a chaotic panic caused by a false report of a gunshot in a New York airport: "When the first stampede began, my plane had just landed. It started, apparently, with a group of passengers awaiting departure in John F. Kennedy Airport Terminal 8 cheering Usain Bolt's superhuman 100-meter dash. The applause sounded like gunfire, somehow, or to someone; really, it only takes one. According to some reports, one woman screamed that she saw a gun. The cascading effect was easier to figure: When people started running, a man I met later on the tarmac said, they plowed through the metal poles strung throughout the terminal to organize lines, and the metal clacking on the tile floors sounded like gunfire. Because the clacking was caused by the crowd, wherever you were and however far you'd run already, it was always right around you. There was a second stampede, I heard some time later, in Terminal 2. I was caught up in two separate ones, genuine stampedes, both in Terminal 1. The first was in the long, narrow, low-ceilinged second-floor hallway approaching customs that was so stuffed with restless passengers that it felt like a cattle call, even before the fire alarm and the screaming and all the contradictory squeals that sent people running and yelling and barreling over each other--as well as the dropped luggage, passports, and crouched panicked women who just wanted to take shelter between their knees and hope for it, or "them," to pass. The second was later, after security guards had just hustled hundreds of us off of the tarmac directly into passport control, when a woman in a hijab appeared at the top of a flight of stairs, yelling out for a family member, it seemed, who had been separated from her in the chaos. The crowd seemed to rise up, squealing, and rush for the two small sets of double doors." Examples like this help remind us that sincere, otherwise credible eyewitnesses can often be influenced by many factors, including what they expect to see. The idea that people often incorrectly see, remember, and report what they experience is not merely theory but a proven fact; there are over 2,000 published scientific studies demonstrating it. 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. By employing critical thinking skills and focusing on what we actually see instead of jumping to conclusions we can help avoid needless fear and panic. You can read the original HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
As a professional skeptic (I know, that phrase sounds weird to me too—even after all these years—but you know what I mean) I deal with all manner of believer. Some are respectful, some are not, but the one constant is that we are approaching the topic from different viewpoints, including different standards of evidence and different ideas about what constitutes good evidence in the first place (the canard “the plural of anecdote is not evidence” often comes up). Since the general public, like the casual skeptic, doesn’t often engage in these run-of-the-mill interactions, it is useful to review them, as they provide insight into the differing worldviews. I thought about this recently when I received the following e-mail from a woman named Julia (verbatim throughout): “After watching a documentary about psychics, I really must comment on the fact that your skepticism is not only naive, but also arrogant, and actually quite rude, when clearly there is evidence for this phenomenon. Not all science has the answers; this has been proved in history, when science thought they knew everything; even calling Edison a lunatic when he invented the lightbulb. This is just one example. Please educate yourself, and come out of your little insular box, so that we can move forward. I have experienced Clairaudient, and can honestly tell you that I know more than you do. I am of normal mind, but I am not naive, arrogant, know all, or ignorant to the possiblity that just because we cannot see, smell, hear, touch something, that it does not exist. We have a physical body, and etheric body, spiritual body. If you, or any other orthodox sceptic refuse to understand this, then it is sad- for you at least. More and more scientists, psychologists- to name a few: Robert Lanza, Raymond Moody, Stuart Hameroff, have been studying this for many years, and have very interesting facts. Orthodox science will be proved wrong, even if they do not like it. The world is changing; there will be a shift in consciousness, and mindsets like yours will be left behind. I hope that you see this message, because you need to know that you do not have the answers to this Universe. Have a nice day.”
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As a teenager I was fascinated by books about the strange and mysterious world around us. In the summer I’d walk to the local used bookstore and pull out a handful of crumpled allowance dollars to scoop up some old paperbacks from the Fifties. Along with Doc Savage and Tom Swift pulp novels, I’d pick up some “true mystery” books. In particular I recall buying several books by Frank Edwards, with titles like Stranger Than Science. Inside I found a banquet of odd and mysterious stories and phenomena, spilling from page after yellowed page. These weren’t ghost stories, or silly pulp fiction novels; these were, as the cover blurb read, “Astounding stories of strange events! All authentic —all absolutely true!” I loved these snippets of mystery, of supernatural coincidences, prophecy, terrifying creatures, and all other manner of oddity. They had titles like, “The Invisible Fangs” and “The Girl Who Lived Twice” and “A Voice From The Dead?” A blurb on the cover from the Colorado Springs Free Press called it a “fascinating collection of weird, fully-documented stories taken from life that modern science is powerless to explain!” Yet the assertion that the stories were “fully documented” was perhaps the strangest claim in the book, since none of Edwards’ stories cited sources, references, or in fact any documentation whatsoever! The “science cannot explain” line was quite popular, and also appeared on many other similar books, such as Rupert T. Gould’s 1965 book Oddities, subtitled “Mysterious, true events science cannot explain!” I pictured worried scientists—imagined as balding men in horn-rimmed glasses and white lab coats—huddled together chain-smoking and fretting about the mysteries they couldn’t explain. A few years ago when researching the famous Coral Castle in Florida I came across this claim repeatedly. In Homestead, not far from Miami and off the South Dixie Highway, sits the world-famous structure. Though not really a castle—and not really made of coral—it is nonetheless an amazing achievement. More than 1,000 tons of the sedimentary rock was quarried and sculpted into a variety of shapes, including slab walls, tables, chairs, a crescent moon, a water fountain and a sundial. “You are about to see an engineering marvel that has been compared with Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Egypt,” touts an information sheet available at the site. Many sources claim that the castle, originally called Rock Gate Park, is scientifically inexplicable. According to the attraction’s website, “Coral Castle has baffled scientists, engineers and scholars since its opening in 1923.” Despite researching information about the site, I was unable to find any references to all the baffled scientists. Who were they? When were they there? What were their credentials? What exactly did they test or examine that left them perplexed? When I put these questions to the staff at the Coral Castle I got baffled if bemused shrugs. How can you boldly claim that scientists can’t explain it, if you have no record of any scientists actually trying to explain it? They may or may not be able to, but unless they have made a sincere effort you can’t honestly claim that they failed. I was recently reminded of this when I was contacted via Twitter by someone with the handle “Ninel Kulagina Fans.” They wrote “In 50 years, no magician has replicated the filmed 1967 Kulagina/Naumpv macro telekinesis demonstrations under the same observer conditions.” I promptly and politely replied: “Which magicians tried, where, and when?” It was a sincere and simple request: I was told unequivocally that “no magician has replicated the telekinesis demonstrations under the same observer conditions,” and in order to determine the validity of that claim I’d need to know more about the times that magicians had tried and failed to replicate said experiments. The afternoon came and went without a reply, so the next day I repeated my request: “So: Which magicians tried, where, and when? Still waiting for a response.” Eventually the fan (or fans) of Ninel Kulagina realized that I was serious and asking for evidence of their claim. Instead of the names of one or more magicians who had tried to “replicate the filmed 1967 Kulagina/Naumpv macro telekinesis demonstrations under the same observer conditions” (along with the dates, published research on the topic describing the experimental conditions, etc.) I got the following reply: “Doesn’t say ‘tried.’ A success by a magician would require a famous parapsychologist, science film crew. No reports in 50 years of success.” This answer—and its tacit admission—was quite revealing: The person admitted up front that no magicians had even attempted to replicate those telekinesis demonstrations under the same conditions (or any other, for that matter). It certainly is true that skeptical magicians (most prominently my colleague James Randi, as well as other including Ray Hyman, Banachek, and Dan Korem) have tried to replicate alleged claims of telekinesis by performers such as Uri Geller, James Hydrick, and others; the magicians were successful in those attempts—but only because they tried in the first place! Kulagina’s claims have been analyzed and discussed by many skeptical researchers including Randi, Martin Gardner, and Massimo Polidoro. Stating that no magician has replicated a specific telekinesis performance is only meaningful if one has attempted to do so but failed—which is the false conclusion implied in the tweet by Ninel Kulagina Fans. We don’t know whether or not a professional magician could replicate Kulagina’s performance because it hasn’t been done, and there’s no reason to think that the magician would fail. I responded with a final reply: “So you’re claiming that X has never happened, yet acknowledge that X has never been attempted. Do you see the faulty logic there?” Fans of Ninel Kulagina responded, “I see a red herring or avoiding the issue fallacy or both. As you know, Randi et al have simulated, but not under same conditions. Thanks.” The red herring claim was especially rich, but at any rate I’m still waiting for any Kulagina supporters to provide the name(s) of the professional magician(s) who tried to replicate Kulagina’s effects, where and when these attempted replications took place, under what conditions or controls, under whose supervision, etc. If and when those are provided (and validated) I’ll be happy to concede that no magician has replicated the Kulagina demonstrations under the same conditions. When it comes to claims of baffled scientists and skeptics, there’s a simple lesson to remember: “Can’t” isn’t the same as “didn’t try.”
A few years ago a shark researcher offered a new theory about what might be behind some of the world’s famous lake monsters. Bruce Wright, a senior scientist at the Aleutian Pribilof Island Association, wrote an article for the Alaska Dispatch newspaper that proposed an interesting idea: “For years, legendary tales from Scotland and Western Alaska described large animals or monsters thought to live in Loch Ness and Lake Iliamna. But evidence has been mounting that the Loch Ness and Lake Iliamna monsters may, in fact, be sleeper sharks.” Wright suggests that the sharks, which can reach 20 feet long and weigh more than 4 tons, might migrate through rivers and into lakes and be mistaken for monsters. The Lake Iliamna monster (known as Illie) is said to resemble a whale or a seal and be between 10 and 20 feet long. There have been fewer than a half dozen sightings of Illie since it was first seen in 1942. The best known American lake monster is not said to be in Alaska but instead in Lake Champlain, which forms the border between Vermont and New York. “Champ,” as the creature is called, has allegedly been seen by hundreds of witnesses and is anywhere between 10 and 187 feet long, has one or more humps, and is gray, black, dark green or other colors. The best evidence for Champ—in fact, for any lake monster—was a 1977 photo taken by a woman named Sandra Mansi showing what appeared to be a dark head and hump in the lake. Later investigation by myself and Joe Nickell revealed that the object was a floating log that looked serpentine from a certain angle. While Wright’s hypothesis is interesting, there are many problems with his theory, including the fact that both Ness and Iliamna are freshwater lakes, while Pacific sleeper sharks, as their name suggests, inhabit saltwater oceans. Some saltwater animals can adapt to brackish or fresh water (freshwater bull sharks and dolphins, for example), but there are no known freshwater sleeper sharks. Another problem with Wright’s shark-as-lake monster theory is that, despite his suggestion that “the monsters’ shape and colors usually match that of sleeper sharks,” in fact most descriptions of the monsters in Ness and Iliamna bear little resemblance to sleeper sharks. Many eyewitnesses suggest that the unknown aquatic monster in Loch Ness resembles a long-extinct dinosaur-like marine reptile called the plesiosaur. As for Lake Iliamna, at least one eyewitness reported that Illie had a prominent (3-foot-high) dorsal fin, while sleeper sharks have very low-profile dorsal fins, barely a bump on the back. Researcher Matthew Bille interviewed Illie eyewitnesses for his book Shadows of Existence: Discoveries and Speculations in Zoology, and believes that the most likely explanation for the monster is not a sleeper shark but instead a white sturgeon, which can grow more than 20 feet long: “the appearance of the White sturgeon-gray to brown in color, with huge heads and long cylindrical bodies—appears to match most Iliamna accounts.” Indeed, it would not be the first time that sturgeon have been mistaken for monsters. Bille notes that “Iliamna has 15 times the volume of Loch Ness. At the same time, it must be admitted there is no physical or film evidence for unknown creatures of any kind.” Such conclusions do not deter Wright; in fact he plans to organize field expeditions to Lake Iliamna and Loch Ness, hoping to find and tag any sleeper sharks he may find there. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
A snake-handling preacher who survived nine previous bites succumbed to his final, fatal bite in Kentucky in early February 2014. As CNN reported on February 18, “A Kentucky pastor who starred in a reality show about snake-handling in church has died—of a snakebite. Jamie Coots died Saturday evening after refusing to be treated, Middlesboro police said. On Snake Salvation, the ardent Pentecostal believer said that he believed that a passage in the Bible suggests poisonous snakebites will not harm believers as long as they are anointed by God.” Evangelical preachers like Coots not only handle venomous snakes but also engage in other dangerous activities such as drinking poison. They base their faith on Biblical verses in Mark 16: “And these signs will follow those who believe: in My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” Pastor Coots and his followers are Biblical literalists, believing that each and every word in the Bible is the true and inerrant word of God. This is a position that Bill Nye “The Science Guy” took creationist Ken Ham to task about during their January 2014 debate when Nye described the Bible as “verses translated into English over thirty centuries.” Even assuming that God wrote the Bible through men, all that copying and translating, Nye noted, leaves many opportunity for errors to creep into the verses. Thus the Mark 16 reference to snakes may simply be a metaphor, part of a well-known tradition of depicting Satan or evil in the form of serpents. Many evangelicals, however, take it literally. The premise behind snake handling is to demonstrate their faith, both to themselves and as an inspiration to others, by doing something dangerous. It just happens to be serpents because of a bible passage, but in theory the same ritual role could be fulfilled by drunk bullfighting or playing Russian roulette. Seeking medical attention for a snake bite is seen as a lack of faith in God’s ability to heal, a belief that can also be found in other religions including Christian Scientists and Scientologists. In many cases children have even died because their devout parents refused to take them to a doctor. Coots, though well-known because of his high-profile status on a popular television show, is far from alone in this practice. Though not common (and in fact illegal in many places), snake handling at evangelical events occurs on a regular basis. It’s not clear how many people have died from it—since official numbers are not kept and only high-profile deaths such as Coots are likely to make the news—but the victims likely number in the hundreds. Many wonder what effect Coots’s death will have on his followers. The most likely answer, surprisingly, is none. Their religious belief is what in logic is called non-falsifiable; that is, it can't be proven wrong or false. No matter the outcome of snake handling, it’s God’s will: if he gets bitten and dies, it’s fine because God called him home and it was his time to pass, and if he doesn’t get bit (or survives the bite) it’s because God protected him. It’s framed as win-win situation, so no matter the outcome it reinforces their religious beliefs. In fact it would be more surprising if Coots’s followers’ faith was shaken: After all, the whole point of serpent handling is about affirmation of faith; for them to lose faith because of what happened to him would be the ultimate betrayal. It’s not clear whether Jamie Coots’s son, Little Cody, will keep up the snake-handling tradition that killed his father, but it seems likely. In 2012 another well-known Pentecostal serpent handler, Mack Wolford, was killed in his West Virginia church after being fatally bitten by one of his snakes. Wolford’s father was also a snake handler, and he, also, was killed by a snake in 1983. Many greeted this news incredulously: Didn’t he learn a lesson from this? The answer is that of course he did; he just learned a lesson that’s different than most non-Evangelicals would take from this tragedy. Not that God wanted Wolford to die—and surely not that God doesn’t exist and left Wolford to his own devices when handling venomous snakes—but instead that Wolford’s faith was rewarded in heaven. While some have found dark humor in the irony of Coots’s death, the fact is that religious beliefs, like all other beliefs, have consequences. Coots, like religious zealots of all stripes, was willing to stake his life on the power of his faith, and he did. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
Halloween is here, and amid the make-believe witches, ghouls, and goblins, there are supposedly real-life villains who hope to harm on children October 31. News reports and scary stories on social media leave many parents concerned about protecting children from Halloween threats. But are they real or myth? Here are five scary myths and legends about the spookiest holiday! 1) Halloween is Satanic While many people see Halloween as scary and harmless fun some people, including many fundamentalist Christians, believe that there is sinister side to the holiday. They believe that underneath the fantasy costumes and candy-dispensing traditions there lies an unseen spiritual struggle for the souls of the innocent. Christian evangelist Phil Phillips and Joan Hake Robie, in their book "Halloween and Satanism," explain that the seemingly harmless costumes (such as witches, zombies and vampires) put children's spiritual lives at risk by interesting them in supernatural occult phenomena—and, ultimately, on the road to Satanic practices. Of course it's not just Halloween that these groups are concerned about—they have in the past protested against role-playing games, heavy-metal music, and even Harry Potter books. Historically, however, there is little or no actual connection between Satanism and Halloween; for one thing the early pagan traditions that many scholars believe became part of what we now call Halloween had no concept of Devil. The idea of a Christian Satan developed much later, and therefore Halloween could not have been rooted in Satanism. 2) Beware Tainted Halloween Candy The most familiar Halloween scares involve contaminated candy, and every year, police and medical centers across the country X-ray candy collected by trick-or-treaters to check for razors, needles, or contaminants that might have been placed there by strangers intending to hurt or kill children. Scary news reports and warnings on social media claimed that dangerous candy had been found, raising fears among parents and children. Many medical centers across the country, including in Harrisburg, Penn., are offering free X-raying of candy this Halloween. This threat is essentially an urban legend. There have been only two confirmed cases of children being killed by poisoned Halloween candy, and in both cases the children were killed not in a random act by strangers but intentional murder by one of their parents. The best-known, "original" case was that of Texan Ronald Clark O'Bryan, who killed his son by lacing his Pixie Stix with cyanide in 1974. In essence he used this myth to try to cover his crime. Yet the fear continues. There have been a few instances of candy tampering over the years—and in most cases the "victim" turned out to be the culprit, children doing it as a prank or to draw attention. Last year there were a few news reports about suspected tainted candy, and police determined that the incidents were hoaxes. In Philadelphia an 11-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy in who reported finding needles in their trick-or-treat candy admitted they made up the story for attention, and a 37-year-old father claimed to have found tainted candy in his kids' loot; he later admitted it was a hoax and claimed that he put the needles in the candy to teach his kids a lesson about safety. Fortunately, parents can rest easy: Despite the ubiquitous warnings on social media, there have been no confirmed reports of anyone actually being injured or harmed by contaminated Halloween candy from strangers. 3) Beware Halloween Terrorists After the September 11, 2001, attacks, rumors circulated that mysterious Middle Eastern men were buying up huge quantities of candies just before Halloween. Many people were concerned that this might be part of a terrorist plot to attack America's children, and the FBI looked into the case. Prompted by the public concern over potential terrorism, the FBI acknowledged that it was investigating the cash purchase of 'large quantities' of candy from Costco stores in New Jersey. A week before Halloween, on October 22, the FBI cleared up the rumors. It was one man, not two, who had bought $15,000 worth of candy, not $35,000. The man's nationality was not revealed, so he may or may not have been Arab or dark-skinned or even had an ethnic name. As it turned out the man was a wholesaler who planned to resell the candy, and the purchase was a routine transaction that had nothing to do with terrorism. 4) Beware Sex Offenders on Halloween Though the fears over poisoned candy (whether by malicious neighbors or foreign terrorists) never materialized, the reputed Halloween evil took a new form in the 1990s: sex offenders. This scare, even more than the candy panics, was fueled by alarmist news reports and police warnings. In many states, convicted sex offenders were required not to answer the door if trick-or-treaters came by, or to report to jail overnight. In many states including Texas and Arkansas offenders were required to report to courthouses on Halloween evening for a mandatory counseling sessions. The theory behind such laws is that Halloween provides a special opportunity for sex offenders to make contact with children, or to use costumes to conceal their identities. This has been the assumption among many local politicians and police for years. Yet there is no reason to think that sex offenders pose any more of a threat to children on Halloween than at any other time. In fact, there has not been a single case of any child being molested by a convicted sex offender while trick-or-treating. A 2009 study confirmed that the public has little to fear from sex offenders on Halloween. The research, published in the September 2009 issue of Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, examined 67,307 non-family sex offenses reported to law enforcement in 30 states over nine years. The researchers wanted to determine whether or not children are in fact at any greater risk for sexual assault around Halloween: “There does not appear to be a need for alarm concerning sexual abuse on these particular days. Halloween appears to be just another autumn day where rates of sex crimes against children are concerned.” 5) Beware Scary Clowns In the wake of the recent scary clown panics across the country, several national stores including Target have removed scary clown masks from their shelves, and both kids and parents are asking children to both beware of people in clown costumes and to not wear scary clown masks. Several counties banned scary clown costumes and masks last Halloween. As one writer noted, "A Kemper County, Mississippi's Board of Supervisors voted recently to make it unlawful to wear a clown costume in public. The ban covers all ages and includes costumes, masks or makeup. The ban – which will expire the day after Halloween – comes at the request of the county sheriff... It comes after a series of reports from around the country and Alabama that spooky-looking clowns were threatening children and schools. Some of those reports were later debunked and a few led to arrests with concerns over the creepy clown phenomenon growing as Halloween approaches." Clown masks have also been banned from some New Jersey schools; as "USA Today" reported, "The West Milford Police Department has said there is no specific threat against the community. Still, there have been spotty and unsubstantiated reports on social media about people in scary clown masks lurking around township school yards in recent weeks." Fortunately so far there are no confirmed reports of children being seriously injured, abducted, or killed by anyone dressed in scary clown masks over the past few months. Most of the reports are hoaxes and copycats, usually by teenagers who have fun scaring people or seeing themselves on social media. Halloween is scary enough on its own, between overpriced candy and sugar-sated kids. The real threats to children don't involve tampered candy, Satanists, scary clowns, terrorists, or sex offenders; instead they include being hit by a car in the dark, or wearing a flammable costume, or injuring themselves while walking on curbs because they can't see out of their masks. Most kids are very safe at Halloween, and the average child is far more likely to die of a heart attack or be hit by lightning than be harmed in some Halloween-related menace.
Episode 27 of Squaring the Strange is up! To begin our creepy Halloween lineup, Pascual and I talk about the world's best-known cryptozoological vampire, el chupacabra! The beast has lost its bite over the years, but we go back to the late 1990s when it terrified many in Puerto Rico and elsewhere... HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!We also talk briefly media coverage of the Vegas shooting, and as usual, a two-minute skeptical fortune cookie! You can listen to it
I will be appearing on a new 10-part series on Discovery’s Science Channel, on a show titled “Strange Evidence.” It examines bizarre and seemingly inexplicable photographs and videos. (I’m one of the guests who takes the “un” out of “unexplained.”) Will I be on the new episode, or did I end up on the cutting room floor? Find out every Tuesday night at 7 PT / 10ET! Find out more HERE! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
Now and then I review films (I have since 1994), and I thought I'd share a recent one: The new slasher film Happy Death Day follows a young woman named Tree at a Louisiana university who wakes up in a dorm room with her phone blaring “Happy Birthday” (yes, it’s her birthday) and goes about her disheveled but otherwise ordinary day sniping with nasty sorority sisters and whatnot until that evening when she’s menaced (and eventually killed) by a creeper in a giant baby mask (it’s the school mascot, apparently). Terrifying enough, but then she wakes up the next morning—or perhaps the same morning—with a sense of relief that it was all a dream. But the relief turns to déjà vu as the day is repeated, with minor variations, until the killing happens again. Tree remembers what happened the previous day, of course (otherwise there would be no film), though none of the other characters do. At some point, with the help of her friend Carter, she somehow, apparently, divines the “rules” of the loop she’s in and tries to subvert them in order to prevent her death and catch her killer. Happy Death Day is kind of like the opposite of Happy Birthday—though technically it would be Happy Birth Day, which no one says, since “birthday” is one word—and, well, I guess the real opposite would actually be something like Sad Death Night, but anyway, yeah, I’m already putting more thought into the title than co-writer/director Christopher Landon did with the plot. Equal parts Mean Girls, Groundhog Day, and Scream, Happy Death Day has some ideas for directions the script wants to go, but it doesn’t really explore them. At one point the message seems to be that Tree is maybe reliving the day so that she can see what a bitch she is and become a better person; that theme propels a few scenes until it’s abruptly abandoned and the focus turns to trying to identify her killer (as she, for unexplained reasons, comes to believe that it’s the key to getting out of this recurring time loop). Because the film’s premise isn’t anchored in any discernible rules (other than what the characters intuit—and really we as an audience should have more information than they do), it’s hard to get too involved in the nonsensical plot. For a film whose gimmick relies on repeating key scenes, the filmmakers are resourceful (if not wholly successful) at finding ways of making the repetition less annoying. For example they use different lenses, depths of focus, and so on, to show the same scenes in slight different ways. What Happy Death Day does have going for it is a bit of fun and a talented lead actress, Jessica Rothe, who glides gracefully between camp and pathos. The twist at the end is the kind that makes sense if you think about it for a moment—but only a moment, because as that turns into two or three moments you realize that it doesn’t actually make any sense at all, and that (unlike, for example, Memento or The Usual Suspects) the joke is on you for wasting energy devoting neurons to what is essentially a shaggy dog story. If this is the kind of movie that annoys you (as it often does me), caveat emptor. Watching Happy Death Day I experienced a sort of film critic’s whiplash; parts of the movie were eye-rollingly bad, but a few minutes later were surprisingly good. Just as I thought it was stuck in a one-star gear, it found its groove and was heading right for three stars (but not four). It’s funny, but not really funny enough to be a successful comedy; it’s scary, in a few spots, but also not scary enough to be a good horror film. I guess it’s best described as diverting or amusing, a passable if uninspired way to spend an hour and a half of your life. Overall I have to give Happy Death Day a tepid recommendation—as long as you know what you’re in for. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
Manhattan millionaire Gigi Jordan was found guilty of killing her eight-year-old autistic son in November 2014. Jordan admitted killing her son, Jude Mirra, with a lethal dose of medications in a hotel room in February 2010. However she claimed it was a mercy killing—not because her son had a poor quality of life due to autism—but because she feared that her ex-husband would get custody of the boy, and then torture and sexually abuse him, as she believed had happened for years. Since her son was unable to verbally communicate because of his disability, Jordan relied on a technique called Facilitated Communication (FC), in which another person holds the disabled person's hand as he or she types out messages on a keyboard. According to the New York Times, “She said her son first described the abuse with a few partial words and gestures, but then, in a breakthrough three months later, learned to type on a laptop and gave a detailed account, naming several other people as well.” A CNN story noted that Jordan communicated with her son through a Blackberry device; witnesses described that “Jordan held the device in one hand while supporting and possibly guiding her son's arm with the other as Jude looked away.” In this way Jordan came to believe that her son was revealing that he’d been physically and sexually abused by many people, including an ex-husband and a woman who transported him to school. Yet the mystery deepened because police found no evidence of any abuse, sexual or otherwise. Nevertheless, Jordan was convinced that her son would not lie to her about such a thing and decided to kill him instead of letting him suffer further. It’s a bizarre, tragic case, but there's another explanation for the accusations, one that does not involve an autistic child lying about sexual abuse. In the 1980s many parents of autistic children turned to Facilitated Communication, which had been claimed to help autistic individuals, and especially children, to communicate. The technique is based on the idea that an autistic child’s inability to communicate is caused not by a brain disorder but instead a muscular or nerve disorder that prevents them from producing speech (this idea is not supported by the evidence or shared by autism experts). What is needed, FC advocates claimed, are trained facilitators to help the autistic children by holding their hands, fingers, or elbows while the child typed on a keyboard or pointed to lists of letters, words, or symbols. This technique was developed in the 1970s in Australia and introduced in the United States by Douglas Biklen, a special education director at Syracuse University. In the book 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, authors Scott Lilienfed, Steven Jay Lynn, Barry Beyerstein, and John Ruscio summarize the rise and fall of facilitated communication: “In the early 1990s, shortly after FC was introduced to the United States, scores of enthusiastic facilitators reported astonishing success stories of previously uncommunicative autistic individuals typing out eloquent sentences, at times speaking of their sense of liberation upon at last being able to express their imprisoned feelings. Yet numerous controlled studies soon showed that FC was entirely a product of unintentional facilitator control over autistic children’s hands movements. Without even realizing it, facilitators were leading children's fingers to the keys. Regrettably, FC has raised false hopes among thousands of desperate parents of autistic individuals [and] led to dozens of uncorroborated accusations of sexual abuse against these parents—based entirely on typed communications that emerged with the aid of facilitators.” In other words, the abuse accusations came not from Jude Mirra but instead (presumably unconsciously) from his mother Gigi Jordan, who believed the stories, reported them to police, and eventually used them as a reason to end her son’s life. This is not the first time that the discredited technique has ruined people's lives, and it may not be the last. Despite the fact that Facilitated Communication has been widely debunked for many years the technique still has many supporters, and it received national attention in 2004 when a short film promoting it was nominated for an Academy Award. Information casting doubt on the validity of Facilitated Communication came too late for both Jude Mirra and his mother, who was found guilty of manslaughter and faces five to twenty-five years in prison. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
That time I explained why Obama could not be both Muslim AND the Antichrist: "According to Scripture, the Antichrist will try to deceive the public by claiming to work on God's behalf. He will be pretending to do God's work while instead furthering his own diabolical agenda. But President Obama has never implicitly nor explicitly claimed to God's work; his presidency has been fairly secular. George W. Bush, on the other hand, repeatedly invoked God and claimed that God wanted him to be president.... You can read it HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
A few years ago I wrote a piece taking a closer look at the concept of karma: "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?" You can read the rest HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
My new blog on the ethics of spirit mediumship... Usually when people think of ghostly communication it's in a positive or benign light. Ghost hunters, for example, often speak of helping lost souls "cross over" after getting information from the spirits, and mediums such as John Edward and the late convicted felon Sylvia Browne often offer ostensibly reassuring messages from dead loved ones. Whether the communication can be proven to have a ghostly origin is of course up for debate, but in many cases there can be real harm done, especially when the dead are not generic stereotypes (a Confederate soldier, for example) but once-living people. I have discussed this issue in several of my articles and investigations, including in the haunted KiMo Theater in New Mexico and Rose Hall Plantation of Montego Bay, Jamaica. In those cases, specific once-living people's family names have been tainted by their later inclusion into ghost stories. You can read the rest HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
Many believe that a mere glance or stare can cause harm (or even death) to others. My article on folklore the Evil Eye is now out! Everyone gets a dirty look now and then, and we usually think little of it (especially if we deserved it). For most of us it is soon shrugged off, but in many places belief in "the evil eye" is taken very seriously, and requires immediate action to avoid harm. The evil eye is a human look believed to cause harm to someone or something. The supernatural harm may come in the form of a minor misfortune, or more serious disease, injury — even death. Folklorist Alan Dundes, in his edited volume "The Evil Eye: A Casebook" notes that "the victim's good fortune, good health, or good looks — or unguarded comments about them — invite or provoke an attack by someone with the evil eye ... Symptoms of illness caused by the evil eye include loss of appetite, excessive yawning, hiccups, vomiting and fever. If the object attacked is a cow, its milk may dry up; if a plant or fruit tree, it may suddenly wither and die." You can read the rest HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
I'm quoted, along with eminent scholar Daniel C. Dennett, Ted Schick, and others, on the question of "What's the harm in false beliefs?" Here's an excerpt: False beliefs, by themselves, are not harmful. Belief is inherently harmless; believing that you can safely jump off a building isn’t a problem until you actually attempt it. It is instead the actions and decisions made based on those false beliefs that cause harm. Every human lives and dies having held countless false or unproven beliefs. Most of them are insignificant (such as, perhaps, thinking Sydney is the capital of Australia); some are profoundly personal (such as, perhaps, not knowing one was adopted); and still others are serious and life threatening. With each false belief a person sheds, they decrease their chance of being harmed by that belief in the future. Thus the harm in a given belief depends entirely on what the specific belief is. Belief in the efficacy of unproven medicine can kill; belief in psychics has cost people their life savings, and so on. There are also many indirect harms and costs to false beliefs; people have died while hunting for ghosts and looking for mythical lost treasures. Others have spent decades of their lives—and personal fortunes—searching for Atlantis, Nessie, and other myths based on unfounded beliefs. Belief in extraterrestrials did not, by itself, cause the 1997 Heaven’s Gate suicides, but it was a key element in the cult’s belief systems. False beliefs can harm not just the deceived but others as well, for example parents who refuse their children medical care in the belief that God will heal them. I have for many years documented the harm that comes from belief in magic—not just historically but in the present day; women in India and Pakistan have been accused of witchcraft and murdered, and in East Africa albinos have had their limbs hacked off with machetes for use in magic rituals. The harm is all around us if we choose to look. Fundamentally the answer is that truth matters; what is real and accurate and true is important. An excellent forgery of a great painting is still a forgery, and whether it’s authentic or not should matter to someone who buys it. Ignorance is the default condition of mankind, with critical thinking and skepticism the best ways to fill that knowledge vacuum with information and fact upon which to make human progress. You can read the rest HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
The 1937 disappearance of pioneer pilot Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan in the Pacific Ocean has been the subject of continuing research, debate, and speculation—most recently in a show titled Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence. I wrote an in-depth analysis of the show; here's an excerpt: If the photo is what it’s claimed to be, it means that the “lost” pair were alive and well on a dock in the Marshall Islands in 1937. That still doesn’t fully explain where they went after the photo was taken, and as noted the show suggests they were captured by the Japanese and died in prison on Saipan—a fact that the U.S. government knew about and covered up. To be clear, this idea is not new and is only one of many theories put forth over the years—and widely rejected for lack of evidence. While Earhart’s precise fate remains unknown, the most widely accepted explanation is also the most mundane: they ran out of fuel and their plane crashed into the vast Pacific Ocean. In an effort to breathe life (and ratings) into a theory heavy on speculation but light on evidence, the History Channel offered what they claimed was something akin to a smoking gun: a blurry photograph of what might or might not be Earhart and Noonan. Doubts were raised about that explanation before the show aired and quickly escalated afterward. As National Geographic explained, “New evidence indicates that the photograph was published in a 1935 Japanese-language travelogue about the islands of the South Pacific. As Japanese military history blogger Kota Yamano noted in a July 9 post, he found the book after searching the National Diet Library, Japan’s national library, using the term ‘Jaluit Atoll,’ the location featured in the photograph.” Instead of being hidden in a secret archive deep in the guarded National Security vaults, the image popped up on the first page of search results: “His search query turned up the travelogue, The Ocean's ‘Lifeline’: The Condition of Our South Seas, which features the ‘Earhart’ photograph on page 44. One translation of the caption describes a lively port that regularly hosted schooner races—with no mention of Earhart or Noonan to be found. Page 113 of the book indicates that the travelogue was published in October 1935.” This of course poses a problem because the photo was published two years before Earhart’s final flight. It’s almost certainly not Earhart but even if it was, it has nothing to do with her disappearance. Displaying keen investigative acumen, Yamano said in an interview “I find it strange that the documentary makers didn’t confirm the date of the photograph or the publication in which it originally appeared. That’s the first thing they should have done.” To be fair, the entire show does not stand or fall on the photograph’s authenticity. The show’s producers likely knew that the photo itself might not be entirely convincing and suggested that there was hard forensic evidence to support the theory: bones found on the island where Earhart supposedly died were to be subjected to genetic testing and compared to Earhart’s known relatives to prove she was on the island. As Eve Siebert noted on the July 12 episode of The Virtual Skeptics podcast, “I’m assuming that this did not actually happen because if they were able to identify bones buried on Saipan identified as Earhart’s, they really buried the lede by focusing on that blurry photograph.” The History Channel promised viewers in a July 9 tweet that “After tonight, the story of Amelia Earhart will no longer have a question mark.” This prediction turned out to be prophetic; indeed, the single question mark has since been replaced by dozens of question marks—ranging from the integrity of the History Channel to the competence of its on-air researchers. (If it’s any consolation, the recent show almost certainly supplants a 2012 show that Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning called “one of the worst examples of television promoting pseudohistory.”) You can read the rest HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
I'm quoted in a new article about the "Blue Whale game" scare.: On the surface, Blue Whale has all the hallmarks of a moral panic similar to other "challenges" that often scared parents, such as the choking game, pharma parties, and the fire challenge. All of these were cases where parents, local authorities, and click-hungry media outlets took either isolated incidents or rumors and turned them into full blown scares, no matter how many people were actually doing them. Indeed, prominent skeptic Benjamin Radford wrote that Blue Whale shares many traits with classic moral panics, including "modern technology and seemingly benign personal devices as posing hidden dangers to children and teens, the threat [of] some influential evil stranger who manipulates the innocent, and an element of conspiracy theory." There's also more on this in a recent episode of Squaring the Strange.... You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
Genies (or jinn, as they are better known in the Arabic world) are supernatural beings with roots in ancient Mesopotamian legends. Jinn, however, are not the lamp-dwelling, wish-granting benevolent servants that Westerners know from popular culture. The image that most Americans probably have of genies comes from the 1960s sitcom "I Dream of Jeannie" or the animated big blue Robin Williams-voiced wiseacre in Disney's "Aladdin." More recently, in the television adaptation of Neil Gaiman's 2001 novel "American Gods," audiences have come to know a cab-driving jinn who switches identities with an Omani salesman named Salim. (Salim had recognized the jinn from a story told to him by his grandmother). Gaiman's magical, shape-shifting jinn is fictional, but belief in genies is widespread. In "Legends of the Fire Spirits: Jinn and Genies from Arabia to Zanzibar" (Counterpoint Books, 2011), researcher Robert Lebling noted that "Jinn are taken seriously and regarded as real, tangible beings by a large segment of the world's population.... They often appear humanoid or even human but possess amazing powers we lack. They can change their shapes, can fly through the air, and even can render themselves invisible." (Lebling is also the creator of a Facebook page titled The Jinn Group, where members share jinn stories and lore.) You can read the rest of my LiveScience.com article HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
I'm quoted in "The Christian Post" about an article I wrote on the "Blue Whale Game" suicide rumor/urban legend/moral panic... You can read it HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
We are just past the 2017 summer solstice (June 20 and 21 were the longest days of the year for anyone living north of the equator), and amid the celebrations, pagan rituals, and Stonehenge treks, there were many who performed a trick seemingly unique to that day. According to some, eggs and brooms can somehow be balanced on their ends on that day (and/or on the vernal equinox, when day and night length are about the same; and/or on the first day of Spring, take your pick). YouTube videos can be found of many people trying this quirk for themselves, mostly successfully (videos showing the trick not working are of course less popular and interesting). The British tabloid The Daily Mirror--a reliable source for unreliable, sensationalized information since 1903--offered a story about goofy beliefs about the equinox including that eggs and brooms can be balanced on that day. You can read the rest HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
I was recently interviewed for Voice of Islam’s Drivetime radio show, discussing Orwell’s book 1984 and its relevance to 2017. The topics ranged from Big Brother mass surveillance, concerns about public privacy, and the use of doublespeak in politics (including under the current U.S. president). You can hear the interview HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
Hey folks! The new episode of Squaring the Strange podcast is now out, and in it you can hear Pascual Romero and I in Part 2 of the series on Jamaican ghosts and folklore (this carving below is of a Jamaican "duppy"). Listen here! https://squaringthestrange.wordpress.com/ You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
Nice note from a teacher friend of mine, glad to see an article I wrote several years ago is still being read and steering people toward skepticism... You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
How useful is the Facebook 'Safety Check' function during terrorism and disaster? A closer look in my CFI blog... When the attacks in London happened, many people used Facebook's "Safety Check" functions to alert friends and family that they were safe. When launching the feature, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced, "When disasters happen, people need to know their loved ones are safe. It's moments like this that being able to connect really matters." As Wired explains, "When activated, Safety Check locates Facebook users near a disaster site through the city they list on their profile, or from where they last used the Internet. Users then receive a notification asking to confirm that they're safe or to say that they weren't in the affected area. Those who choose ‘safe' generate a notification to their friends and followers, who can track how many of their friends were affected." I'm sure the effort is well intended, but my natural skepticism led me to wonder just how useful it really is. There are about 10 million people in London at any given time (8.5 million residents plus another 1.5 million visitors per month, roughly) and the chances that any given one of them will be harmed or killed in terrorism or a natural disaster is very remote. You can read the rest HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
Hey folks! After co-founding and co-hosting the Parsec-winning "MonsterTalk" podcast, I'm returning with co-host Pascual Romero for "Squaring the Strange." The show brings evidence-based analysis and commentary to a wide variety of topics, ranging from the paranormal to the political, the mysterious to the mundane. Our first month of shows is now out, please give it a listen!
My work has been included in the new edition of a university textbook on Abnormal Psychology. (No, I'm not a case study.) Cool! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
"This photo of Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg has one convicted felon; if you immediately assumed it was Stewart, you should think again!" This meme is a wonderful lesson in prejudice and stereotypes--or at least it would be if they weren't both convicted felons... Stay skeptical, my friends! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
An inspirational cancer survivor widely honored (and featured in Beyoncé's "Lemonade" video) turns out to have made up or changed important parts of her past. Now many of her supporters are feeling betrayed, accusing her of theft, faking illness, and worse. It's a fascinating lesson in how easily people can be manipulated by tapping into popular narratives, and why critical thinking is important... You can read the remarkable, in-depth CNN article HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
A mysterious 310-foot-diameter crop circle that appeared in a farmer's barley field in Chualar, Calif., as 2013 ended puzzled the public for more than a week. Echoing the sentiments of many, the field's owner told CNN, "To be that intricate in design, it kind of baffles me as to how that was done."Videos and photos of it went viral, and though some dismissed the crop circle as a hoax, others weren't so sure. Some crop-circle experts wrote in-depth analyses that claimed to cleverly decode hidden meanings in the pattern, including that a bright comet would appear in the sky later in 2014... You can read the whole story HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
I was recently interviewed by Vice media about my investigation into the 1997 Pokemon Seizure case. I think the girl who got me a latte at my favorite coffee shop wasn't even born when I solved that mystery... You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
While there are many factors in Trump’s rise, one of the most bizarre is his use of conspiracies. Whether the topic is voter fraud, Obama wiretapping Trump Towers, or anti-vaccination arguments, no modern politician has so successfully and routinely employed conspiracy theories as Donald Trump.
Political conspiracies, both real (Watergate) and dubious (G.W. Bush was behind the 9/11 attacks) are nothing new. In the 16th and 17th centuries, for example, during outbreaks of the bubonic plague, dozens of people in what is now Switzerland and Italy were arrested and accused of intentionally spreading the disease as part of a plot to steal from sickened, wealthy landowners.You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
But Trump’s endorsement of conspiracies is unprecedented in American politics. Trump enjoys flirting with fringe and extremist elements including conspiracy theorists. Trump has also appeared on the radio show of noted conspiracy advocate Alex Jones, who has repeatedly claimed that the Obama administration has faked or staged domestic shootings (including the Sandy Hook school massacre) as a pretext for confiscating American’s guns.You can read the rest HERE.
My recent blog on how a faked abduction may have contributed to the mosque shooting in Quebec, and why false crime reports often target minorities... Skeptics and skeptical researchers routinely encounter and investigate a wide variety false reports: False reports of Bigfoot, UFOs, miracle healings, alien abductions, psychics, illnesses, and so on. I've personally investigated many such reports, including of phantom clowns (see my book Bad Clowns for more), racist conspiracy theories and legends (such as the Blood Libel anti-Jewish myth and anti-Muslim stories), and more. The xenophobic archetype of the evil outsider is ancient and takes on new forms. Understanding the psychology and motivations behind false reports can be enormously helpful. Some of them are hoaxes, but many are the result of sincere mistakes, misperceptions, and other cognitive errors. When false reports concern "unexplained" topics (faked ghost sightings or UFO photos, for example), the result is usually just wasted time and the loss of credibility of a hoaxer or its proponents. However when false reports involve real-world subjects (for lack of a better term) they often implicate minorities and can result in miscarriages of justice. False reports of crimes, for example, are often used as a weapon against minorities. You may recall Susan Smith, the mother who in 1994 blamed an African-American man for kidnapping her children when she in fact drowned them in a lake. Or Jennifer Wilbanks, the so-called "Runaway Bride" who claimed to have been kidnapped and assaulted by a Hispanic man, but who had in fact voluntarily left her groom at the altar. Or the infamous Central Park Five case, in which five Black and Latino teenagers were arrested in 1989 for the brutal rape and assault of a white jogger in New York's Central Park. Many people--including Donald Trump and African-American poet Sapphire (author of Push, from which the Oscar-winning film Precious was adapted)--jumped on the bandwagon falsely accusing the young men of the crime. The list goes on and on... and continues today... The Abduction of Alyssa Langille On Sunday January 15, a 15-year-old Canadian girl named Alyssa Langille was abducted by two men in Mississauga, near Toronto. According to news reports, "A witness said two men jumped out of a silver van at St. Barbara Blvd. and Comiskey Cres. just after 1 p.m. on Sunday. They forced the girl into the van and were last seen heading south on St. Barbara towards Derry Rd., according to the witness." The suspects were described as a "South Asian man around 24 years old, described as tall with a thin build, and wearing an orange turban with a grey sweater with cut off sleeves and a green shirt underneath. The second was simply described as a South Asian male." Based on that information an Amber Alert was issued, and the news media told the public to be on the lookout for these abductors and their victim. Exactly two weeks later in the neighboring province of Quebec, a man named Alexandre Bissonnette allegedly opened fire in a mosque, killing six people and wounding eight others in what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a "terrorist attack on Muslims." Though the suspects in Langille's abduction were not specifically identified as Muslim--Sikhs and other turban-wearing groups have of course been mistaken for Muslims--the South Asian nation of Indonesia has a high percentage of Muslims, and the implication was clear to Canadian audiences. In another layer of fear-fueling misinformation about minorities, Fox News falsely tweeted that the suspect in the attack was of North African heritage, specifically Moroccan. Fox News eventually removed the information after being asked to do so by Trudeau's director of communications, Kate Purchase. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation also made the same error. As it turns out Alyssa Langille was not in fact abducted. Her father had called police after the girl's sister found that Alyssa had placed clothes in her bed to make it appear as though she was still sleeping in it, but she had run away. Toronto police found Alyssa in Scarborough, a district of Toronto, unharmed. It's easy to see how Langille's abduction would have hit a nerve, especially in Canada's eastern provinces; as The New York Times noted, "right-wing extremism has long thrived in Canada among skinheads, white supremacists and others," particularly in Quebec. The racist trope of the ethnic foreigner preying on young white women is particularly evocative; perhaps one of the best known cases involved Emmett Till, the African-American teenager who was lynched in Mississippi at the age of 14 in 1955 after reportedly flirting with a White woman. According to recent news reports, Till's "accuser has recanted the most incendiary parts of her claims against him. Carolyn Bryant Donham told author Timothy B. Tyson that her long-ago allegations that Emmett grabbed her and was menacing and sexually crude toward her, ‘that part is not true.'" Indeed, defending the "honor" of White females is a longstanding theme in White nationalism. Whether the (non)abduction of Langille partly inspired Bissonnette to attack the mosque is unknown at the moment, but it is almost certain that the social media-savvy extremist was aware that a dark-skinned turban-wearing man and his colleague were being sought in connection with the abduction--or worse--of the young blonde woman. There is a further ironic twist to this story. Usually it is the "victim" who falsely accuses racial or ethnic minorities of their kidnapping or assault--often because it lends crediblity to their claims and plays into widely accepted negative stereotypes about those groups. In this case it turns out the eyewitness who claimed to have seen Alyssa Langille abducted by a turban-wearing man in a van was Uzma Khan, described as "a 32-year-old woman from Mississauga" Ontario, who has now been charged with public mischief for her false report and is due in court later this month. It's not known why Khan made the false report--perhaps it was for attention, or she misunderstood something she saw--but her decision to specify that a fictional abductor resembled a popular image of Muslims may have had results she could not have predicted. False crime reports of any kind are not only a waste of police resources and divert attention from real victims, but they can also have real-world consequences.
A nice correction/acknowledgement from Fortean Times magazine for having quoted from my Bad Clowns book without attribution. Classy, and appreciated!
I got a Google Scholar alerting me that my research on African witchcraft and superstition belief is cited in a new academic book, "Witchcraft as a Social Diagnosis." Glad my work is helping to bring attention to the dangers and injustice of modern-day witch hunts!
Those times you really agree with someone, then they go off the rails... my new CFI blog: About once or twice a month (though sometimes once or twice a week, depending on how much I'm reading at the time), I come across an article or blog that makes some important point that I agree with. Maybe it's about the need for skepticism, or about politics, or anything else. I'm reading along, nodding in approval in paragraph after paragraph (or assertion after assertion), pleased at thinking about those it might educate. And, just as my finger is reaching to share or like the post, I wince. The writer or commenter stumbles, making a gaffe or mistake that I can't in good conscience implicitly endorse. It's frustrating because I agree with the overall point, and think the comment or piece merits a wider audience. It's like some well-intentioned skeptic writing a piece about why the evidence for Bigfoot (or recovered memories, or alien visitation) is poor, and giving two solid, accurate reasons--followed by a third which is flat-out wrong, or an argument whose premise is embarrassingly flawed. This happens regularly enough that I've taken to describing it (to myself anyway) as The 10% Fail. Ninety percent of it is on target, but the last ten percent undermines the author's credibility in some way. This issue is a common lament among professional skeptics: a well-meaning but inexperienced skeptic goes on television or gives an interview-ostensibly representing organized skepticism--in which he or she misspeaks or mangles some salient fact in the process of debunking some bogus claim, and that error is then seized upon by opponents as proof that skeptics (writ large) don't know what they're talking about. I recently found an example of this, written by Andrew David Thaler of the Southern Fried Science... Read more HERE.
August 8, 2014: The Shoppes at Rose Hall, Montego Bay, Jamaica I was done. I’d arrived at the gated tourist mini-mall about half an hour earlier, and couldn’t take any more of the servile shopkeepers shilling shelf after shelf of schlocky tchotchke of unrivalled tackiness. I didn’t need a colorful coffee mug featuring a baked (and well-endowed) rasta firing up a spliff, nor a shot glass with a slightly off-kilter outline of Jamaica, nor a Bob Marley-scented candle (don’t ask). I considered getting a bag of criminally overpriced Blue Mountain coffee, but thought the better of it when I read the fine print saying that the contents were “no less than 30% Blue Mountain coffee beans,” which by my admittedly shaky math left a lot of percentage for non-Blue Mountain beans. It was the off-season, and only a handful of sunscreen-scented tourists ran the gauntlet. Awaiting a return shuttle back to my hotel, with the low tropical roar of the Caribbean to one side and the famous Rose Hall plantation house looming on the hill facing us, I noticed that the young woman at the boxed-in greeting/information desk was reading a romance novel. The type didn’t surprise me—more romance novels are sold each year than all other genres combined—but I noticed that it was an American Harlequin-branded novel. I wondered if this young black Jamaican woman was relating to the blonde, Caucasian characters in the book and on the cover. After all, it’s often said that people want to see representations of themselves—their bodies and their culture—in their entertainment, spawning perennial complaints about the lack of minorities in TV shows and films. Curious, I approached the desk. She looked up, prepared to offer a canned answer about what shops were where, when the shuttles ran, or where the nearest restroom was. Instead I pointed to the book tented before her on the desk and asked, “Do you prefer American romance novels to Jamaican ones?” She smiled and said yes. I asked if Jamaican ones were available and she said yes, but that they aren’t widely read. (The previous day I’d been in two bookstores in the nearby city, Montego Bay, looking for books on local folklore and seen a handful of locally-published books with sensuous dark-skinned covers—surrounded by rows of Fifty Shades of Grey.) She said that it wasn’t that Jamaicans preferred non-Jamaican characters or settings, nor that North American romance writers were better than locals. Instead, she said, Jamaican books are more expensive than others because they are printed elsewhere and shipped here, thus subject to import taxes and shipping. (Harlequin novels are, too, of course: except for sugar and coffee most things are imported to the island. But they’re mass-produced cheaply, and economies of scale drive up the cost of Jamaican books.) Also, she said with a shrug, “Jamaicans don’t read.” “You read,” I noted with a smile. “Yes, but I was forced to,” she replied. “As a girl I’d get a whoopin’ if I didn’t read. My mom had encyclopedias and she would make me read them to her, to learn.” I leaned forward on the wooden ledge, intrigued; I assumed her mother was a schoolteacher. “Was your mom a big reader?” I asked. She shook her head: “No, not at all. She didn’t finish high school. But she wanted me and the other children to learn to read, it was important.” It was clear that the whoopin’ she referred to was not metaphorical; having spoken to a handful of Jamaicans I got the distinct impression that corporal punishment was widely practiced. She’d actually get smacked for not reading, not learning. “I love reading now,” she hastened to add. “I’m glad she made me read, I love to read the Twilight books, Harry Potter, all those.” I was in Montego Bay for a television shoot; a producer from a show called The Dead Files (which airs on The Travel Channel) brought me out to do an on-camera interview about an investigation I’d conducted into Rose Hall, a former slave plantation said to be haunted by the ghost of Annie Palmer—the White Witch of Rose Hall. It’s one of the best-known mysteries in the Caribbean, a sordid tale of slavery, sexual perversion, voodoo magic, multiple murdered husbands, and bloody revenge. I’d done historical and on-site research solving the mystery; it can be found in Chapter 12 of my 2010 book Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries. Back at my hotel after the shoot I’d spent the previous night reading a memoir titled Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs, who was born a slave in 1813 North Carolina and eventually escaped to freedom in 1842. It’s an unusual first-hand account of slavery during that time—rare because most slaves were illiterate; in fact in 1830 the North Carolina General Assembly passed a law making it illegal for anyone to teach a slave to read or write, and the penalty was severe: “If a white man or woman, be fined not less than one hundred dollars, nor more than two hundred dollars, or imprisoned; and if a free person of color, shall be fined, imprisoned, or whipped, at the discretion of the court, not exceeding thirty-nine lashes, nor less than twenty lashes.” As for slaves, “if any slave shall hereafter teach, or attempt to teach, any other slave to read or write, the use of figures [numbers] excepted, he or she may be carried before any justice of the peace, and on conviction thereof, shall be sentenced to receive thirty-nine lashes on his or her bare back.” Similar prohibitions enforcing slave illiteracy were found elsewhere at the time. This practice, along with the history of slavery intimately associated with the country, was fresh in my mind as I heard the young woman tell her story. Most blacks in Jamaica are the descendants of African slaves brought to the island beginning in the 1500s by Portuguese to work on sugar plantations. I didn’t ask, but it’s very likely that her relatives—perhaps as recently as her great-grandfather—were slaves. An irony dawned on me. The discipline meted out by a parent, of course, is very different from the discipline meted out by a slave owner. However there are parallels, and the ironic contrast of a mother giving her child a beating for not reading and improving herself was impressed upon me, especially coming from a community who in earlier days may have at one time been beaten for learning to read and write. Many American children only grudgingly learn to read and write, and after graduating high school never read for pleasure or work. They’re not illiterate; they can read food labels, government forms, bills, and day-to-day information. But beyond that, they pretty much don’t read—just as she said most Jamaicans don’t read. A generalization, to be sure, but one with more than a grain of truth to it. I saw this first-hand years ago when I worked with the Literacy Volunteers of America teaching adults and non-native speakers to read; in most cases the clients grew up in households where reading was neither valued nor encouraged. I was fortunate to grow up in a literate home where newspapers, books, and magazines could be found, but many people do not have that benefit. I felt a strange literacy-based kinship with this young Jamaican woman and her mother. I pictured her as a young girl in their small house in the island’s rural mountains reading encyclopedias (which are written at a far higher reading level than anything you’ll find in most classrooms) aloud to her mother and siblings, tripping over the polysyllabic words—and in the priceless process learning about everything from antelopes and architecture to zoology and zymurgy. She grew up to be a bright, personable, intelligent, and well-spoken young woman. As a reader, writer, and media literacy advocate I of course value literacy, and we were both grateful that her mother did as well—even if it took the threat of a whoopin’ to enforce it. I asked her what she wanted to do in the future, and she said she was planning to get a degree in business administration, a natural and lucrative career for a booming tourist island. I heard my hotel shuttle arriving behind me, but before I left I told her I was sure she was going to be an important and successful professional some day. She smiled confidently, sat upright in her chair, and turned back to her romance novel. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.