In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: Ben shares a minor mystery that dropped into his lap, in the form of a photograph tucked into a used book on demonic possession. Then Ben, Pascual, and Celestia discuss logical fallacies: what they are, how they are used, and how they can help us improve our own reasoning. Skeptics hold logical fallacies near and dear, as they represent common errors that have been identified and catalogued over the eons—a blueprint for ways our thinking can go wrong. Pascual goes over the straw man fallacy, as evidenced by the “war on Christmas,” and Celestia talks about how the tu quoquefallacy has recently been popularized as “whataboutism” by John Oliver. Ben explains the non sequiturand the concept of warrants—which is the (usually implicit) part of an argument that links the evidence to the claim. Then after a quick romp through Morton’s fork and personal incredulity, we examine a recent article by Maaarten Boudry that questions the persuasive utility of fallacies. Fallacies are not a mic-drop, and identifying a fallacy does not confer an automatic argument victory (i.e. the fallacy fallacy). We as skeptics often rely on things that are technically fallacies, and conspiracy theorists can weaponize fallacies for their brand of “logic” as well. But abandoning logical fallacies altogether is throwing out the baby with the bathwater; a tempered approach, where we identify the fallacy and also put it into understandable terms, might be best. You can hear the show HERE!
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: This week, Ben and Pascual talk about the phenomenon of outrage, especially on the internet. They break down some classic outrage from the last year and even have an update on a big story from last year! Celestia also stops by with another tasty fortune cookie. You can listen HERE!
Ben opens with ruminations on why psychics are conspicuously absent from real-world crises they could help with (if their powers are real). Then Pascual looks at a purported flat-earther who will be launching himself in a homemade rocket soon. Digging into the story, he found that this fellow’s flat earth views surfaced only recently, after failed crowdfunding attempts, and it all might just be an unusual marketing ploy. Then, in our main topic, the guys look into the familiar mantra of “they want us to be divided.” Coming from both sides of the political aisle but most recently aimed at President Trump, this idea is, at its core, a conspiracy theory resting on the premise that we are all united and the government somehow gains from us being split up, uneducated, and in a state of turmoil. Just like the old canard about doctors keeping their patients unhealthy, this puts public officials in the role of doing the opposite of their job description—and within the context of a vast cabal. Incompetence, rather than organized subversive effort, is often the much more reasonable explanation for government malfeasance. But are there any people who do gain from this? Yes—foreign entities like Russia do actually organize and try to sow discord within the American population. If we are noticing divisive efforts and blaming our own government for it, then all the better for Putin. Skeptical outreach, learning how to vet sources, and critical thinking are the best weapons against this type of incursion. You can listen HERE!
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: This week Ben, Pascual, and Celestia have a roundtable discussion on the practical aspects of everyday life as a skeptic. Boots-on-the-ground skepticism efforts include social media presence, etiquette, and tactics; picking your battles; and knowing when you need your own little echo chamber for sanity’s sake. Keeping a salon discussion from devolving into a flame war is always the goal, but can anything be gained by out-and-out fighting? Ben talks about the importance in his own investigation work of listening to believers and walking the tightrope of helping them without alienating them. In real life, picking at the closely held beliefs of loved ones can be a minefield—but as skeptics, it feels wrong to go along with notions simply to get along. Finding common ground and focusing on empathy can help people gradually expand their mental framework. Pascual talks about the homeopathic remedies used by many musicians, and we discuss how sometimes just defining a term (or showing someone the fine print on a label) can do all the skeptical work for you. We all share some minor victories and also some pitfalls we have encountered. You can hear it HERE!
A nice mention of my work in the "Southside Times" recently: When my friend Kenny Biddle (Facebook—I Am Kenny Biddle) speaks, I tend to listen. When it comes to the paranormal he has both feet on the ground and is not swayed by a good ghost story. He will listen, then begin dissecting. Most paranormal investigators are swayed by such stories: encounters by common folk of their experiences. It just had to have happened! Yet, they fail to go through the dissection process themselves. This leads to a one-sided conclusion: it happened, case closed! Kenny sees things differently and when he recommends a particular author on the subject, I’m all ears. I’ve read a lot of books on the paranormal, probably more than is healthy. My new favorite guy is Benjamin Radford, a published author and writer for the Skeptical Inquirer. Kenny passed along an article from November/December of 2010 which, although now eight years old, still holds a lot of weight today. You see, things don’t change much in the paranormal community over the years. They never do! Here’s some excerpts: “Just about every ghost hunting group calls itself ‘skeptical’ or ‘scientific.’ Ghost investigations can be deceptively tricky endeavors. Very ordinary events can be, and indeed have been, mistaken for extraordinary ones, and the main challenge for any ghost investigator is separating facts from a jumble of myths, mistakes and misunderstandings. It can be very easy to accidentally create or misinterpret evidence. It’s not always clear, and investigators must be careful to weed out the red herrings and focus on the verified information.” 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!
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: To start the episode, Ben shares a tale from the road about being on the Oprah network’s Miracle Detectivesand stumbling upon a snack-food related miracle. Then in our main topic, the guys discuss Halloween scares of the past and present—not ghosts and ghouls but rather rumors and concerns that have terrified parents and the public. For instance, fundamentalists have long worried that Halloween has sinister links to Satanism and even mundane activities might pull kids into the Dark Lord’s influence. Halloween is linked to the pagan holiday of Samhain, which predates Christianity and therefore Satanism, yet the church has a long history of bristling at such competing traditions. And, ironically, many fundamentalists employ the very same recruiting tactics they accuse Satanists of using. The poisoned-candy panics seem to occur every year, flogged by the media, despite the fact that the only two cases of contaminated candy harming anyone involved the child’s own parent. Stranger danger in general is a concept to examine in light of actual statistics, and we should consider what harm we do to children by pushing a false notion of how much random people want to kill them. The poisoned-candy scares took on a racial tone when post-9-11 rumors circulated about terrorists turning to bulk candy purchases as a new tactic. Then, to wrap up, Ben and Pascual touch on sex offenders and their role in Halloween-related scares, and of course one of Ben’s specialties—scary clown panics! You can listen 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!
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: For week 3 of our spooky Halloween series, Ben, Celestia and Pascual delve into the spooky and fascinating topic of evil clowns. Ben talks about all the different kinds of evil clowns, Celestia tells a tale of her experience with a bad clown of her own, and Pascual makes obscure pop culture references throughout. Also in this episode, Pascual breaks down a new conspiracy theory with the help of our two co-hosts. You can listen 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!
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: Buckle up for part 2 of our Squaring the Strange Halloween series! This week, our spooky hosts bring us an exciting adventure into the tantalizing world of ghost sex. From celebrity spectral affairs to unwanted advances from the other side, Ben and Pascual look into the cases and the facts. You can hear 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!
Ben and Pascual kick off the 2017 New Mexico Podscape festival by musing on natural disasters and cryptids, for instance how Hurricaine Hugo in Puerto Rico helped spawned the chupacabra legend. Then, since a doomsday was recently predicted for the very day they recorded, Ben and Pascual discuss apocolypses (apocolypi?). Interpreting everything from astronomical lineups to hunting out supposed Biblical patterns, people have been predicting the end seemingly since the beginning. Ben recounts trying to interview an apocalyptic prophet one day after the doomsday he predicted, and harkens back to the 19th-century Millerites, who ended up splintering into the 7th Day Adventists after their predicted doomsday failed to show up. Then to wind up, Pascual talks about “psychic vampire repellant,” which can be yours for $28 on Gwynneth Paltrow’s website Goop. You can here 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!
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: Ben ruminates on the blowup over Trump’s NFL tweets this week, wondering why so many people (especially Trump’s critics) seem to give him more power by fueling the outrage machine, thus distracting themselves from the core issues. Owing to Trump’s clear track record of lies, exaggerations, contradictions, and impulse thoughts, perhaps the best skeptical approach is to not give his tweets any weight at all—as they do not represent legislative action, the views of most of America, or even, perhaps, Trump’s core values (if he has any). Then, for their main topic, the guys delve into conspiratorial thinking: from medieval witch hunts to the Illuminati. What factors make people more prone to fall into believing conspiracies, and what are some hallmarks of a typical conspiracy theory? Why do proponents doubt some things so strongly but swallow every point made in an amateur Youtube video? It’s also valuable to examine what exactly is taken as evidence—and if, for argument’s sake, that “evidence” is true: does it really prove the theory put forth or is it simply one small strange thing likely meaning nothing? Finally, we run through a quick history of disseminating information, from the rise of the printing press to modern day. Cranks with conspiracy notions have gone from buying back-of-magazine ads and Xeroxing pamphlets (and in one case cementing tiles down on East Coast streets) to putting up websites and starting podcasts—and, alarmingly, being interviewed by mainstream journalists and quoted by the President of the United States. You can listen 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!
Here's a fun, folkloric piece I wrote a few years ago about Friday the 13th... "Speaking of weird fishermen's superstitions, there is one fish That Shall Not Be Named. Sometimes it was called "the beast," other times "the red fish," "the foul fish," or simply "the fish." Scientists may call it Oncorhynchus gorbuscha, or even Salmo salar, but under no circumstances should the fish be called by its true name: salmon." 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 get plenty of hate mail (and the occasional death threat) so I wanted to share this nice e-mail from the grateful parent of a student whose email I responded to: "In February, my son, Braden emailed you with questions about the Chupracabra for his science research project. Your answers were very detailed and provided a great source for his project. I appreciate the time you took to respond! Many of our students never received a response, so I want you to know how much we appreciate you. Braden was excited and intrigued by your answers (as we all were). Thank you for taking the time and making a difference!" 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!
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: While Pascual tends to his offspring, Ben and Celestia discuss a recent story about a waitress being allegedly stiffed due to her pride tattoo. They go through numerous similar stories, some hoaxed, and discuss whether this is becoming a modern-day folk tale. Faked stories undercut and blur real issues, and writing a story around a mere Facebook post has become a recurring journalistic failure. Pascual steps back in for our main topic, a lively discussion on “alleged psychic” John Edward, as Ben and Celestia recount what they observed at a live performance. We go through cold reading and pivoting techniques Edward used as well as how the audience eagerly does much of the work for him, making connections and turning obvious misses into hits. There are many layers to the topic: the psychology of why people are motivated to believe, what possible benefits and harms come along with this type of ad-hoc spiritualistic life coaching, and even the sense of power a psychic feels as they sway a person or a room. Celestia confesses to a moment in college where she pretended to have psychic powers, and what she learned from that. You can hear 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!
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: This week is a departure from our typical format. Ben is busy giving a talk about UFO conspiracies at Bubonicon, the annual sci-fi and weirdness festival in Albuquerque. This year’s theme is time travel, so Pascual and Celestia take the opportunity to discuss various types of time travel and how it’s used (or misused) in fiction. We poke into what physicists have said about the possibility and reminisce about the time-travel conspiracy theories surrounding the Large Hadron Collider. We also chat with a few Bubonicaon participants to see what they have to say about their favorite time traveler. You can here 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!
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed... Ben and Pascual begin with a nod to the band Shriekback, who provided our podcast’s theme music—see them if you can, they will be touring soon! Pascual examines an ad for the positive healing energy of “arumites” and discusses different types of actual frequencies and radiation. Then Ben reads feedback from a would-be ghost hunter and runs through a list of methodological problems, and an EVP sample prompts Pascual to explain what compression does to sound. In our main topic this week, the guys discuss the phenomenon known as sleep paralysis. From the clinical descriptions (first classified as a type of seizure) to the folkloric explanations (succubus, “the old hag”) to ghostly experiences and alien abductions, sleep paralysis can be interpreted as any number of strange experiences. Ben and Pascual discuss the 2015 documentary The Nightmare and relate their own unsettling experiences with sleep paralysis. Ben recounts a recent study that categorizes three different types of sleep paralysis depending on what neural functions are impacted, and we find that sleep paralysis is something we all experience regularly as we drift into REM sleep—just, when something goes wrong, we end up consciously remembering it. Sleep paralysis is also often accompanied by feelings of dread and hallucinations, which by definition seem absolutely real to the person experiencing them. On that note, sweet dreams everyone! You can listen to 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!
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: In this “special episode,” what began as an episode on outrage turned into a compilation of several topics. First Ben discusses the History Channel’s failure to “further research” their botched examination of Amelia Earhart. On the topic of follow-up, he then recalls when the 2009 horror flick Orphan caused outrage from adoption experts, who claimed the movie would have a chilling effect on adoption rates. Yet when this effect never materialized, no one said a thing. Then Pascual reads a listener email and discusses Facebook algorithms, echo chambers, and his own personal social media practices. In a fun bit called “Tales from the Road,” Ben and Pascual share real-life experiences they’ve had involving Pinhead from Hellraiser and having one’s guitarist mistaken for a murderer, respectively. In “Ben’s Fan Mail,” we explore a reader’s question on the 1917 Miracle of the Sun in Fátima and what sort of time goes into a case investigation. Then Ben discusses a false rumor about monkeys spreading yellow fever in Brazil, leading to people killing monkeys—a dangerous rumor for the monkeys, certainly, and representative of the danger that false rumors and urban legends can pose. And speaking of danger, Ben talks about that one time he almost ran over George R.R. Martin at Bubonicon. You can here it HERE.
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: This week Ben, Celestia, and Pascual open with a discussion on what people consider uncanny, bizarre, or strange. What takes something from implausible to downright mysterious? An understanding of statistics is one angle to consider, but ignorance of particular fields is also at work: from the World Trade Center to the pyramids to cancer remissions, people who lack the relevant technical knowledge are the ones gobsmacked by particular events or facts. Headline writers emphasize this “bizarre” aspect without providing context, leading many to jump right to conspiracy theories or supernatural explanations. Then Celestia, back from the 2017 meeting of the Institute of Food Technologists, discusses the new GMO documentary, Food Evolution. The film was funded by IFT but director Scott Hamilton Kennedy was given complete control over topic, content, and approach, and he chose to tackle the human side of the GMO/organic controversy. You can hear the show HERE.
As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) comes upon its one year anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen! What are we skeptical of this week? Pascual deconstructs the viral story about women supposedly absorbing DNA from the sperm of every man they have slept with, which is a wild (and possibly slut-shaming) misinterpretation of the actual study on microchimerism. Ben looks at the recent shooting at a congressional baseball practice and, specifically, the immediate calls to label it (and many other shootings) terrorism. Who is responsible for decreeing a specific attack as a terrorist act, and what constitutes terrorism? For this week’s main topic, Ben and Pascual unpack the concept of nostalgia and why it should be looked at skeptically. In reality, the “good old days” weren’t so good—they were piled high with horse dung, rampant disease, and other woes. Even in our own lives, memory tends to hang onto the best aspects of a remembered time and forget the troublesome details. A song from our youth reminds us of the best things we experienced at that time, not the problems we had. People also love to complain about their own lives and current problems, and nostalgia is a way to impose the “grass is always greener” lament across time. Marketers also tend to pair recent history with good cues in order to bring about a warm sense of nostalgia in audiences, while the media tends to overhype all the catastrophic aspects of today in order to grab attention. Politicians do this too, to great effect: Make America Great Again, anyone? Pascual breaks down how people complain about “today’s pop music” and reminds us that bad or “manufactured” pop music is hardly a new thing. Just like memories, though, we cherry-pick: it’s the best music and best films of any era that tend to be carried forward, while the mediocre or downright bad from bygone times is quickly forgotten. You can hear the show 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!
For those who are interested in a primer on Atlantis, check out my article for LiveScience.com, recently updated! The idea of Atlantis — the "lost" island subcontinent often idealized as an advanced, utopian society holding wisdom that could bring world peace — has captivated dreamers, occultists and New Agers for generations. Thousands of books, magazines and websites are devoted to Atlantis, and it remains a popular topic. People have lost fortunes — and in some cases even their lives — looking for Atlantis. 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!
Here's a look back at past episodes of Squaring the Strange that you might have missed... Episode 11: Gambling Superstitions with Celestia Pascual’s skeptical radar was triggered this week by a mysterious “sea monster” that washed up on an Indonesian beach. The guys unpack this whale of a story and cover carcass decomposition, experts versus “confused locals,” and the power of mysterious things to grab headlines. For today’s main topic Ben and Pascual are joined by content producer Celestia Ward, who lives in Las Vegas and has seen quite a few gambling superstitions in action. She shares a list of superstitions based on Asian ideas and folklore, some based on mob legends, and one story known to many Vegas locals that allegedly cost a major casino many millions of dollars. We look at how the gaming industry does their homework on these superstitions and other cultural factors in an effort to make gamblers from all over the world feel comfortable. Casinos seem to have missing floors--not only that frequently disappearing floor 13 but also in some cases floors that start with 4, which is a bad-luck number in China. A few of these superstitions are based on similar sounding words or a sense of feng shui, while others seem to have evolved from assuming some kind of predatory behavior or marketing tricks on the part of the house. Other legends, like the “dead man’s hand” held by Wild Bill Hickock or the bad luck imbued in fifty dollar bills, are connected to violent deaths. In the 1990s, the MGM Hotel and Casino refurbished its newly built frontage, and word around town was that it was because Asians believed entering a place “through the mouth of a lion” was very bad luck, and so the large lion-head hotel entrance had been keeping business away. The hotel itself does not admit to this, and there are hints of what seems like a cover-up, but the story has become so ingrained in Las Vegas history by residents and ex-employees that it’s taken as fact by most longtime locals. You can listen to the episode HERE!
With the recent release of the third installment of the Fifty Shades of Grey series there has been considerable consternation about what effect the film (and its predecessors) will have on the public. A Christian Science Monitor story by Gloria Goodale explained "How ‘Fifty Shades of Grey' Is Contributing to Shift in Norms on Sexuality," for example, and a hilariously scathing review of the new film appeared on Pajiba.com and went viral, headlined "'50 Shades Freed' Is an Ignorant, Poisonous Anti-Feminist Hate Anthem." Dozens of other blogs and articles make similar claims, though they do not seem to have dampened its audience's ardor: the new film has brought in nearly $270 million to date. The missing logical link in these stories is in what in argumentation 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. People often cloak their disagreement or displeasure over a piece of work (a film, book, cartoon, etc.) with an assertion that it is not merely personally distasteful or offensive but in fact dangerous to society. Most people understand that merely saying "I don't like this film" is, quite rightly, likely to be met with a response along the lines of, "Thanks for expressing your opinion." In order to have that opinion carry more weight and garner public support, the critic often goes a step further to assert that the object of their scorn is a threat to public health or morals. It is a form of fearmongering, a technique used by manipulators for millennia. Sometimes it's a president stoking fears of Muslim or immigrant terrorists; other times it's a conservative media watchdog group complaining that, for example, Teen Vogue is encouraging America's teens to engage in anal sex. And so on. This pearl-clutching is nothing new, of course. Parents have been concerned about the harmful effects of pastimes and entertainment for centuries. Blaming entertainment media is an old tradition-in fact when Jack the Ripper was active in 1880s London, violence in the play The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was blamed for inspiring the serial murders. And the family game Twister was famously derided as "sex in a box" by a competitor who diligently (if self-interestedly) warned the public about this immoral game. This is, however, where a line becomes crossed because the critic is then in the position of making a factual claim and should offer evidence for that claim. Saying you don't like chocolate ice cream (or rap music, pornography, or anything else) merely expresses an inviolable, unfalsifiable personal preference which cannot be challenged based on any evidence: If you don't like it, you don't like it. End of story. For more see my CFI blog, HERE! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
As we approach our one-year anniversary Squaring the Strange, the podcast I co-host with Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward, I wanted to review early episodes you may have missed! Episode 10: Of Emperors and Clothes Ben reads some of his “fan” mail, from a man in India who believes he has a method of creating ley lines remotely. After a brief explanation of what ley lines are—as much as these fuzzy energy notions can be defined, anyway—Ben and Pascual parse what exactly this well-meaning writer believes he can do, and how the ideomotor effect leads many dowsers to believe they are detecting things like water, oil, or ley lines. Then for their main topic, the guys dig into that classic Hans Christian Anderson tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” The tale has an interesting ending that many don’t remember: after the little boy calls everyone’s attention to the fact that the emperor has no clothes on, he continues to walk the parade and his chamberlains carry the train that is not there. Or, in other words, even when you speak truth to power, it continues on as before. The whole story is a tour through skeptical concepts. The king relies on second-hand accounts rather than going to the source himself, which is comparable to relying on social media posts or testimonials and anecdotes today. The concept of “invisible thread” may seem silly, but is it really so different from claims like psychic ability, homeopathic memory of water, or holistic energy adjustments? In the story, people censor their observations because of a fear of authority, of losing their jobs, and of going against the social norms. Likewise, today people shy away from stating unpopular observations or opinions because they might want to avoid public shaming on social media. Then, finally, we see the sunk-cost fallacy as the emperor and his court continue on their way. 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 we approach our one-year anniversary Squaring the Strange, the podcast I co-host with Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward, I wanted to review early episodes you may have missed! Episode 9: Until the Light Takes Us On the skeptic radar this week, Ben brings us a disturbing story about foreigners allegedly abducting girls in South Africa. No abductions actually took place, but the power of parental fears coupled with xenophobia and rumors on social media resulted in looting and vandalism. Then, after a pedantic discussion on illegible band logos, Ben and Pascual dive into Until the Light Takes Us, a documentary about Norwegiean black metal during the early 1990s. As the Satanic Panic took hold in the US, in Norway the overtly anti-Christian metal scene was propelled to international news as leader of the “black circle” Varg Vikernes was convicted for arson and murder after several churches were burned down. The media was quick to affix Satanism as a motive, though Vikernes himself said he burned the churches down for Odin, which was in line with the stated pagan beliefs of those in the movement. In Norway, as in America, things not connected to Satanism were quickly branded as such for consumption by the masses and to fit with the current moral panic. Pascual shares some insider insight on the Satanic Panic—including how some bands capitalized on it and how some young fans flocked to the shock effect it offered. 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 we approach our one-year anniversary Squaring the Strange, the podcast I co-host with Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward, I wanted to review early episodes you may have missed! Episode 7: Stop, Corroborate, and Listen What are we skeptical of this week? Pascual gives us some background on MP3 sound files and talks about the flurry of headlines he's seen decrying the "end of MP3s"; in actuality, a patent is expiring and the code will now be open-source. Ben revisits the Boko Haram abductions and "Bring Back Our Girls" hashtag campaign, examining some of the complexities of Nigerian politics and terrain. Then Ben and Pascual discuss corroboration, and how much weight we, as people, as jurors, as skeptics, give to stories that are backed up by multiple reports and agreeing witnesses. Yet studies show people will lie to corroborate a story for many reasons, and certain strange categories (UFO sightings, Bigfoot, ghosts) are so hard to narrowly define that they produce an illusion of corroboration. Popular cultural phenomena also influence corroboration--since people draw upon what's on their mind to interpret ambiguous things, they can be primed to experience things a particular way (i.e. the chupacabra reports) or even change their memory after an experience happens. Ben brings up the discredited Rolling Stone rape story, where an instance of apparent corroboration was actually the result of a false accuser copying an earlier account of a real crime. Coerced confessions and lie detectors are also forms of false corroboration, and the guys discuss instances of people going to jail as a result. Lastly (fittingly so) Ben mentions near death experiences and how corroboration based on shared anatomy can take on a whole new angle and interpretation. Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
As we approach our one-year anniversary Squaring the Strange, the podcast I co-host with Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward, I wanted to review early episodes you may have missed! Episode 6: Roswell that Ends Well First, what are we skeptical of this week? Ben discusses the rumors about a "blue whale suicide game" and how it has all the hallmarks of a classic urban legend moral panic: grooming, danger hidden under a parent's nose, specificity and localization, anxiety over new technology, and legitimization by authorities--but zero actual evidence. Pascual talks about Skin Motion, a company promoting new tattoo trend involving soundwaves (both areas of his expertise), and picks apart some misleading things about the process. Then Ben and Pascual discuss the different versions of the alleged 1947 alien saucer crash in Roswell, New Mexico, and track how this story changed from something mundane and ignored (five pounds of sticks and tinfoil) to something strange and otherworldly. Roswell is a case that calls out how important it is to seek out earliest original sources, as the space of thirty years and the rise of aliens in pop culture clearly influenced a complete turnabout in interpretation and memories--leading to a cottage industry that produced copycat stories, conspiracy theories, and even phony alien autopsy footage. This is all complicated by the fact that there really WAS a bit of a coverup at Roswell, but not of the type ufo fans want to believe. In the wrap-up, the guys discuss their fond memories of "In Search Of" and, to get really meta, read some viewer mail that discusses previous viewer mail. 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 we approach our one-year anniversary Squaring the Strange, the podcast I co-host with Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward, I wanted to review early episodes you may have missed! Episode 4: The White Witch of Rose Hall Listener question: poltergeists! This week, as the first part in a two-part series on Jamaican folklore, Ben and Pascual (mostly Ben) discuss the white witch of Rose Hall. Reputed to be one of the most haunted locations in the Caribbean, this mansion nestled high on a hill outside Montego Bay was once home to a white woman named Annie Palmer. Legends of her misdeeds range from husband-killing to demonic orgies to slave torture and curses. Ben traces the story backward, through local legends, a gothic bodice-ripping horror novel "based on true events," and decades-old newspaper reports. We learn about the guiding principles and stumbling blocks involved in investigating a mystery like this "on location." Ben weighs evidence (as well as nonevidence such as photo artifacts and testimonials from tourists, ghost hunters, and psychics), and we see how abolitionism helped amplify the story. Ben and Pascual mention the Patreon and tease next week's episode, as well as the promise of some Jamaican goodies for a patron giveaway! 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!
If you like folklore and legends--and have even a passing interest in ghosts or ghost investigation--check out my appearance on Mark Norman's always-excellent "Folklore Podcast!" We discuss the (often unrecognized) role of ghostlore in modern ghost hunting, where ghost hunters go wrong, and much more! You can listen 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!
Over the new week or two I'll be posting some blurbs and reviews of my new book Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits. It is currently available as an e-book at Amazon.com and will be available in print in a few weeks (preferably at your local independent bookstore!). “Finally! A textbook of investigation technique that comes at the subject from a sensible, scientific perspective without being patronizing. Radford employs his years of experience and knowledge to fine effect. Forget EMF meters and voice recorders. The only thing you need in your toolkit is this book.” --Mark Norman, author of Black Dog Folklore and creator of The Folklore Podcast 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!
Over the new week or two I'll be posting some blurbs and reviews of my new book Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits. It is currently available as an e-book at Amazon.com and will be available in print in a few weeks (preferably at your local independent bookstore!). “Radford pulls no punches as he investigates paranormal investigations, from popular TV series to famous self proclaimed investigators throughout history. He breaks down the pseudoscience of what we call the ‘paranormal’ and tries to look past the glitz and glamour of the current popularity and find something, anything that provides proof of the existence of ghosts.” --Dave Schrader host of BEYOND the DARKNESS and Coast to Coast AM 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!
Over the new week or two I'll be posting some blurbs and reviews of my new book Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits. It is currently available as an e-book at Amazon.com and will be available in print in a few weeks (preferably at your local independent bookstore!). “This book presents a combination of the excitement and emotional tingle typically provided by ghost stories, a critical analysis of the reliability and scientific value of such accounts, an explanation of how ghost experiences can occur even if ghosts do not exist, and a prescription for how any future ghost research should properly be conducted. The author is an open-minded skeptic on the subject, and ghost hunter and skeptic alike will learn from his clear-headed analysis. This book is highly recommended both for anyone with a serious interest in ghostly phenomena and for readers who simply enjoy reading about ghosts.” --Prof. James Alcock, PhD, Department of Psychology, York University 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!
New episode! This week, we kick off the first half of the "New Years Resolution" series where they look at woo in the gym. Just in time for your resolution, The Credible Hulk joins our hosts to walk us through some of the myths and misconceptions that run rampant in the bodybuilding/gym world. Check it out HERE! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
My investigation into a viral news story circulating one year ago this week, about a black mall Santa reportedly deluged with racist hate. It was tragic and sad--and fictional: "The real tragedy is what was done to Larry Jefferson, whose role as the Mall of America's first black Santa has been tainted by a social media-created controversy. Instead of being remembered for bringing joy to kids he will forever be known for enduring a (fictional) deluge of racist hatred. The true story of Jefferson's stint as Santa is exactly the opposite of what most people believe: He was greeted warmly and embraced by people of all colors and faiths as the Mall of America's first black Santa." One year ago , amid the encroaching commercialization of Christmas, Black Friday sales, and annual social media grumblings about the manufactured controversy over whether "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays" is appropriate, an ugly episode of racial hatred tainted the beginning of the 2016 holiday season. It began when the Mall of America hired a jolly bearded man named Larry Jefferson as one of its Santas. Jefferson, a retired Army veteran, is black--a fact that most kids and their parents neither noticed nor cared about. The crucial issue for kids was whether a Playstation might be on its way or some Plants vs. Zombies merchandise was in the cards given the particular child's status on Santa's naughty-or-nice list. The important thing for parents was whether their kids were delighted by the Santa, and all evidence suggests that the answer was an enthusiastic Yes. "What [the children] see most of the time is this red suit and candy," Jefferson said in an interview. "[Santa represents] a good spirit. I'm just a messenger to bring hope, love, and peace to girls and boys." The fact that Santa could be African-American seemed self-evident (and either an encouraging sign or a non-issue) for all who encountered him. Few if any people at the Mall of America made any negative or racist comments. It was, after all, a self-selected group; any parents who might harbor reservations about Jefferson simply wouldn't wait in line with their kids to see him and instead go somewhere else or wait for another Santa. Like anything that involves personal choice, people who don't like something (a news outlet, brand of coffee, or anything else) will simply go somewhere else--not erupt in protest that it's available to those who want it. 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 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.