Jun 242019
 

I've been seeing links to this news story widely shared over the past few months, about the U.S. voting against a U.N. resolution condemning Nazis. It's being shared as evidence of our current government supporting white supremacists-- except that it happened in 2016 under Obama.

Media literacy tip: Recycling old news on social media is often misleading.

Jun 212019
 

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

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

Kelley Williams-Bolar

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

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

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

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

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

Tanya McDowell

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

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

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

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

Mistake or Misinformation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jun 052019
 

My new CFI blog is out! I take a brief look at the folklore behind the genie in 'Aladdin,' and explain how Disney's "genies" came from Arabic "jinn."

With the much-hyped release of the new version of Disney’s Aladdin, I thought it would be interesting to take a brief folkloric look at genies and jinn.

Jinn (or djinn) refers to creatures that appeared in medieval Arabic folklore; they were usually depicted as threatening and free-willed—so dangerous in fact that rituals and amulets are and were used to protect against them. Though belief in jinn predates the creation of Islam, the creatures are referenced in the Koran; Allah created three types of beings from three substances: humans (made of earth); angels (made of light); and jinn (made of smokeless fire). Many Muslims around the world today believe in the literal existence of these jinn, much as many Christians around the world believe in the literal existence of angels.

In his book Legends of the Fire Spirits: Jinn and Genies from Arabia to Zanzibar researcher Robert Lebling notes 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.” Jinn are sometimes blamed for unexplained minor health scares, accidents, and misfortune. Like spirits and demons, jinn are said to be able to possess humans and can be exorcised from the human body through rituals. Jinn are believed, like ghosts, to sometimes haunt buildings, homes, and other locations. They are associated with wind and fire.

Genies, on the other hand, are the Westernized, commercialized, and often sanitized versions of the jinn, such as the genie in Aladdin. Jinn are not particularly known for their Aladdin-like wish granting (though they can be commanded to carry out tasks by those schooled in the magical arts); that aspect is much more closely aligned with genies—perhaps best known to American audiences in I Dream of Jeannie and Aladdin.

You can read the rest of the article HERE.

And for much more listen to the episode of Squaring the Strange we did on the topic; it's HERE!

Jun 042019
 

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

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

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

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

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

Apr 192019
 

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

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

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

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

Apr 182019
 

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

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

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

Apr 102019
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more on this, see my CFI blog HERE.

Mar 252019
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Media Drug Panics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 222019
 

There's a new drug craze going around, called Catnip Cocktail, allegedly the latest thing since jenkem and "bath salts." In fact I was recently interviewed by "Rolling Stone" magazine about it; 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! 

Feb 082019
 
I was recently interviewed on "Radio Wasteland" talking about evil and scary clowns, based on my award-winning book "Bad Clowns." Stop clowning around and give it a listen! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Feb 052019
 
My recent blog is about the tragic shooting of Jazmine Barnes days before New Years, and how mistaken eyewitnesses and mistaken assumptions led to the search for a non-existent racist serial killer in Houston.... On December 30, 2018, a seven-year-old Houston girl named Jazmine Barnes was killed when a gunman drove up next to the vehicle she was in and opened fire on its occupants. Her mother, LaPorsha Washington, was wounded; Jazmine was struck in the head and died on the way to the hospital. As the New Year’s celebrations went on, the police made the case a top priority, and the case made national news. The police did have some leads. Jazmine’s older sister and other witnesses offered a description of the shooter: a white male, thirties to forties, with a light beard wearing a dark hoodie and driving a red pickup truck. Police immediately issued a sketch based on that description, later followed by an image from a surveillance camera that showed the red truck driving away. The case holds several interesting lessons for skeptics, including about investigation, statistics, the reliability of eyewitnesses, confirmation bias, and finding patterns where none exist. The police began looking for suspects based on a probability profile, examining the statistically most likely suspects given the circumstances. For example most people are assaulted and murdered by someone they know, so if a person is found dead the police begin searching for suspects among relatives and acquaintances before casting a (much) wider net to include strangers. One aspect of Jazmine’s murder was especially chilling: it was seemingly random, the attack unprovoked by any known confrontation that too often escalate—such as over money, love, or something as mundane as a parking space—into violence. Given the victim profile, statistically the most likely suspect was African-American, specifically a black male; more than 80 percent of all crime involves victims and perpetrators of the same race. Whites and African Americans of course can and do attack each other, but they are the exception, not the rule. Medical professionals adopt the same tactic to rule out the more likely causes of headaches or back pain, for example, before screening for rare diseases. As they say, if you hear hoofbeats, think horses not zebras. The Serial Killer Search Despite police saying they were exploring all possibilities about the motivation, many in the community quickly attributed it to a hate crime. Houston activist Deric Muhammad held a press conference outside a Harris County Sheriff’s Office and suggested that the death of Jazmine Barnes was the work of a white supremacist serial killer. Muhammad linked the girl’s death to a previous shooting, on August 30, 2017. In that case a 21-year-old black man, A’vonta Williams, was shot by a white male driving a Ford F-150 truck. Williams survived, but police were unable to make an arrest in the case. Muhammad suggested that police incompetence (or refusal to investigate) played a role: “If A’vonta Williams’s shooter had been found, would Jazmine Barnes still be alive?” The link between the two attacks seemed not only plausible but obvious, and Muhammad invoked probability and statistics: “What are the odds that two black families were fired upon by a white male in a pickup truck within a one-year time span on the same block? We’ve got to call it what it is: Black people are being targeted in this country. Black people are being targeted in this county. Black people are being targeted in this city. We are thoroughly convinced that the killing of Jazmine Barnes was race related.” Kisshima Williams, a relative of A’vonta Williams, agreed, saying “It has to be the same person. It’s too similar.” Muhammad was not alone; Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee implored those gathered at a rally for Jazmine, “Do not be afraid to call this what it seems to be: a hate crime.” If the crime was indeed random—as it appeared to be—racism seemed a plausible explanation. The question Muhammad raised is a fair one, though the odds are difficult or impossible to calculate. The two shootings happened about six miles apart, and were in different vehicles (the 2017 shooting involved a gray, silver, or white truck pickup instead of a red one, and an AR-15 style automatic weapon instead of a handgun). You can read the rest HERE.  You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Jan 302019
 
Last week during Holocaust Remembrance Day, many memes circulated claiming that a significant number of Americans, Canadians, and Britons are Holocaust deniers, or support white supremacy. In the wake of racial incidents such as the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018, it’s natural for the public and pundits to wonder just how common anti-Semitism is. Deadly attacks on Jewish houses of worship are thankfully rare, but what about anti-Jewish belief among the general public? One often-used metric is public opinion polls about the Holocaust. In April 2018 Newsweek posted a news story titled “One-Third of Americans Don’t Believe 6 Million Jews Were Murdered During the Holocaust.” It was widely shared on social media, including Yahoo News, recently. I recently wrote about this topic for my CFI blog; you can read it HERE.   You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!     
Jan 252019
 
I recently was interviewed about my latest book, and my writing process. Here's part one of the interview:
  1. What is your elevator pitch for Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits?
Investigating Ghostsis an in-depth look at the scientific attempts to contact the dead, from historical, cultural, and folkloric perspectives. From Shakespeare to the Victorian era to modern-day ghost hunting, people have always tried to find ghosts, and this is a look at their methods and how to bring science to them. I’m open-minded but skeptical.  
  1. What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
This book is a culmination of about 20 years of research and investigation into the subject, and it’s probably one of the broadest topics I’ve written about. My previous books were often on narrower topics (such as New Mexico mysteries, the chupacabra vampire, and evil clowns) which allowed me to do a deep dive and analysis into them. But with ghosts, there’s an enormous amount of information I needed to tackle, from early ghost-based religions such as Spiritualism to ghost folklore, the psychology of a ghost experience, ghost hunting devices, ghost photos, the scientific process, and so on. In all these cases I wanted to bring something new to it, to not just copy and paste information or third-hand sources but give readers factual, science-based information. That’s why there’s eight pages of references; it’s not just a book of spooky, told-as-true ghost stories, but evidence-based analyses, including my own investigations. Even with all that, I couldn’t get everything into 320 pages.  
  1. What was your favorite part of putting this project together?
Throughout the book I describe my first-hand investigations, including many here in New Mexico. I’m not just an armchair investigator! I love to get out in the field, go to haunted locations, interview witnesses, examine evidence, and try to figure out what’s going on. So I enjoyed describing some of the investigations, for example at the KiMo theater, at the Albuquerque Press Club, courthouses in Santa Fe and Espanola, the tiny town of Cuchillo, and so on. I have also done haunted house investigations for TV shows, in Los Angeles, Jamaica, Canada, and other countries. It’s part memoir, which was fun, and I’m especially pleased it won the New Mexico/Arizona Book Award.
  1. Tell us more about the book: why you picked the topic, how long it took to write, editing cycle, etc.
Investigating Ghostsis actually a follow-up to a previous book, titled Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries, which came out in 2010. In that book I cover, well, pretty much what the title states: How to investigate—and more importantly, solve—seemingly unexplained mysteries. I cover a wide variety of phenomenon, including crop circles, lake monsters, psychic detectives, and ghosts. But I realized that ghost are so popular, and such an often-investigated phenomenon, that they really deserved their own book. There really are so many different aspects to ghost investigation (photos, experiences, so-called EVP or ghostly voices, and so on) that I couldn’t do it justice in just a chapter or a few articles. Plus I kept meeting well-intended amateur ghost hunters who were going about it in completely the wrong way—often influenced, unfortunately, by “reality” TV shows—and honestly I felt badly for them. This book is partly an attempt to help sincere ghost investigators, whether skeptic or believer, to improve their methods so that, if ghosts do exist, they can be proven. Or, by the same token, if ghosts aren’t real, we can help prove that, too. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Jan 222019
 
In my years of media and science literacy I’ve repeatedly encountered cases where people have failed to question their premises and simply forged ahead without bothering to make sure that the assumptions were grounded in fact. Premises often seem self-evident—and who wants to waste time verifying or fact-checking something that’s obvious? About six or seven years ago I was contacted by a man who wanted me to look at his research on Stonehenge. He wasn’t an archaeologist or historian, and from what I could tell had little formal training. What he did have, in apparent abundance, was enthusiasm and free time. He was interested in so-called ley lines, real or imagined—depending on your New Age inclinations—lines that connected important man-made sites around the world, including the Ghiza Pyramids, Macchu Picchu, and so on. I’d encountered his type before, usually in the context of being asked to carefully read and offer comments on (that is, praise) his theories and discoveries. And not a few paragraphs but instead reams of what might charitably be called crank literature: diagrams, explanations, and so on. I reluctantly agreed to chat with him for a few minutes to get an overview, and he began explaining how he’d always been fascinated by the stones and he showed me meticulously drawn diagrams of the exact positions of the stones and the precise angles that, he claimed, corresponded perfectly with other mysterious or significant sites on other continents and across the globe. Two particular east-facing stones, for example, just happen to point to other monuments elsewhere in Europe. He proudly noted that he’d visited Stonehenge many times over the years and kept discovering new aspects to the formation. The idea that Stonehenge was aligned in some way with celestial bodies seems perfectly plausible, but how in the world could the ancients have known about, and carefully aligned their standing stones with the exact coordinates of, the Egyptian pyramids, for example? I’d written some about Stonehenge, and later visited the site myself. I wouldn’t exactly call myself an expert on the topic, but I was conversant with the basic facts and theories.  I listened to him and looked at his maps and charts linking all the stones’ positions. Finally I asked him, “You know they moved the stones, right?’ “They moved Stonehenge?” he asked incredulously. “Well, the ancient builders moved the rocks to whereStonehenge now sits, of course. But what you see today isn’t the original formation. The standing stones have been moved around several times. There are early drawings and photos of it.” I mentioned a painting by John Constable of the stones from 1835 that showed a significantly different arrangement than what appears today. Over the millennia some stones have fallen into the soft earth, and it's not known whether they fell straight back or twisted slightly at an angle, and so on. At least a dozen of the stones were straightened and re-erected between 1900 and 1960, and early depictions of Stonehenge (such as Constable's painting) look quite different than what is seen today. Those restoring the area made an effort to give a sense of what Stonehenge might have been like thousands of years ago, but in fact no one really knows what it originally looked like—or was supposed to look like. He looked stunned. His years of work had apparently been based on calculations of the precise positions of the stones as they are today—each angle down to the degree and minute—which is not necessarily where they were when first erected. He must have known about the various reconstructions over the years but seemed to have for whatever reason assumed that each time the stones were replaced precisely as they were found. The workers were more concerned about preservation and restoration than historical accuracy; even if that were not the case, the soft Wiltshire earth had caused many of the stones to sink and shift over the thousands of years. There is simply no way to know with any certainty exactly how the stones were first arranged—at least not with the precision needed to link them with other monuments or sacred places on the same meridian around the world. Seeing his stunned deflation, I awkwardly excused myself so as not to further embarrass him, and I never heard from him again. I wasn’t trying to mock him or debunk his elaborate theories, and I’d honestly wished he’d asked me years earlier before he spent untold time and energy pursuing his analysis based on mistaken assumptions. His was an extreme example, of course, but the error of making assumptions instead of checking them is common. Because the restoration work at Stonehenge is not hidden yet not widely known, it has generated conspiracy theories. Some have even suggested that the monument dates back less than a century, created to spur tourism profits or for other unknown—and possibly nefarious—reasons. Mick West, author of Escaping the Rabbit Holeand creator of the Metabunk web site, has visited the site several times and investigated such conspiracy claims. West said “The idea that Stonehenge is a relatively modern construction is appealing to a certain type of conspiracy theorist who has fallen far down the rabbit hole. Images appearing to show the construction of Stonehenge with cranes and concrete are an intellectual delight to them. No particular reason is needed for Stonehenge to be faked, because in their mind everything is faked, and this is simply pleasant circular confirmation that they were right all along.” Stonehenge fell out of use around 1500 B.C., and has stood as a mute mystery ever since.  
Jan 202019
 
I wonder if 2019 will be the year that the History Channel finally completes its investigation into how its much-hyped 2017 special on Amelia Earhart got the story so spectacularly wrong that a half-hour Google search debunked its crack team of experts and their bogus "smoking gun" photo. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Jan 182019
 
From the archives:  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. You can read the rest HERE.    You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Jan 132019
 
In the wake of racial incidents such as the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018, it’s natural for the public and pundits to wonder just how common anti-Semitism is. Deadly attacks on Jewish houses of worship are thankfully rare, but what about anti-Jewish belief among the general public? One often-used metric is public opinion polls about the Holocaust. In April 2018 Newsweek posted a news story titled “One-Third of Americans Don’t Believe 6 Million Jews Were Murdered During the Holocaust.” It was widely shared on social media, including Yahoo News. The disturbing headline seemed to suggest that neo-Nazis are succeeding in sowing Holocaust denial among Americans. The Holocaust is the highest-profile event in history about the dangers of intolerance and anti-Semitism, and with about a third of Americans—over 100 million people—doubting a key aspect of the Holocaust, anti-Jewish sentiment seems widespread indeed. Given the potential fear and concern headlines like this can spawn, it’s worth taking a closer look at the story through the lens of media literacy and skepticism. The data came from a survey by Schoen Consulting on behalf of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, released for Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was a national study of 1,350 interviews with American adults during the last week of February 2018, with a margin of error at +/- 3%. A Closer Look If you actually read the study (available here) you realize that the Newsweek headline is misleading in several important ways. First, the phrase “don’t believe” in the headline implies doubt: that you are presented with a claim or proposition, and you state categorically that you do not believe it. However the question (number 19, if you’re following along) didn’t ask respondents what they “believe.” People were asked to estimate, or put a number on, how many Jews they thought were killed. The exact wording is “Approximately how many Jews were killed during the Holocaust?” The responses were, in order of presentation: 20 million; 6 million; 2 million; 1 million; 100,000; 25,000; Other; or Not sure.” Phrasing is important, especially in surveys. Had the question been phrased “Do you believe 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust?” then the percentage responding No would accurately capture how many doubt that six million Jews were killed. It should also be noted that there is in fact no historical consensus on the exact number of Jewish deaths in the Holocaust, but most experts believe the number is between 5 and 6 million. Had the question been phrased more accurately (by historical standards) and less precisely (by estimation standards), as in “Do you believe that about 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust?” it’s quite possible that even more people would have correctly answered that question. A closer look reveals that among American adults, the vast majority, 49%, gave the correct answer of 6 million. Six percent actually overestimated the number of Jews killed by over a factor of three (at 20 million). Note that the second-highest response, Not Sure, at 13%, means just that: they’re not sure how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Thus “Not Sure” is not a catch-all response for “None” or “An Insignificant Number” or “Surely Fewer Than 6 Million.” It could mean the person thought that the number was closer to 15 million, or 10 million, or 8 million, or some number not among those specifically listed. For all we know, many of that 13% could have accurately estimated that about 6 million Jews were killed, but weren’t confident enough in their grasp of historical facts to select that option. If that’s the case then the number who knew the correct answer could be over 60%. But we don’t know because of the way the question was worded. To be clear, this limitation doesn’t invalidate the question, or render the survey or its results flawed; it just means that we must be careful in interpreting the results—especially on a subject as important as Holocaust belief or denial. ‘Merican Ignernce? The poll does show that many Americans are wrong about various Holocaust facts (such as whether the Holocaust preceded World War II or vice-versa). How significant is this? It’s not clear. One common question in science is “Compared to what?”; in this case for example, what percentage of average Americans should we reasonably expect to know the answers? Eighty percent? Ninety percent? One hundred percent? We can all agree that ideally the answer is “higher,” but if many Americans are vague about historical events that happened in World War II, they’re not much more informed about what’s going on in modern America.  
  • September 2017 poll of 2,200 American adults for Morning Consult found that about half of Americans don’t know that people born in Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens: 54% of adults said yes; 22% said no, and 24% said they weren’t sure.
 
  • 2011 Newsweek poll found that 29% of Americans couldn’t name the then-current vice president (hopefully Joe Biden’s name recognition has improved since then).
 
  • Responses vary from year to year, but in 2014 only 36% of Americans could name the three branches of government (in 2017 it was 25% and 38% in 2011). And so on.
A 2007 survey by Kelton Research found that 80% of respondents could name the main ingredients of a McDonalds Big Mac sandwich, but fewer than 60% could recall all the Ten Commandments, and a 2010 Pew poll found that only 55% knew that the Golden Rule is not among the commandments. Exaggerating and highlighting the ignorance of Americans is a time-honored tradition, especially among journalists and comics. The Tonight Show with Jay Leno often featured man-on-the-street interviews showing passersby stumped by simple questions, and Canadian comedian Rick Mercer hosted a long-running segment on the same theme titled “Talking to Americans,” on the satirical comedy show This Hour Has 22 Minutes in which Mercer, posing as a journalist, would ask unsuspecting American tourists bizarre non-sequitur questions such as whether they supported hunting polar bears in Toronto or would like to congratulate Canada on moving its capital from Ottawa to Toronto. It’s all good flagellatory fun but obscures that fact that most Americans (that is, the statistical majority of them) are in fact fairly knowledgeable about their country and world history. Most people can answer such questions, and the fact that a minority of them can’t—or in many cases may know the correct answer just aren’t confident enough in their knowledge to commit to it on camera or to a questioner—reveals little about any uniquely American ignorance. Holocaust Denial or Innumeracy?  Part of the issue is psychological. In his book Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences, mathematician John Allen Paulos notes that people have difficulty conceiving of large numbers. When estimating, people easily slip “between millions and billions or between billions and trillions… because we too often lack an intuitive feeling for these numbers. Many educated people have little grasp for these numbers… A recent study by Drs. Kronlund and Phillips of the University of Washington showed that most doctors’ assessments of the risks of various operations, procedures, and medications (even in their own specialties) were way off the mark, often by several orders of magnitude” (p. 10). This does not excuse anyone’s errors, of course. Ideally, everyone should have a good grasp of historical and civics facts, as well as basic statistics and probability. Before concluding that Americans are dumb as rocks, keep in mind that most people (of any nationality) struggle to remember their computer passwords, much less who their representatives are. Not knowing the exact number of Jews killed during the Holocaust is not a metric of Holocaust denial or anti-Semitism, or indifference to (or ignorance of) Jewish persecution. The Newsweek headline, however, was not merely a glass-is-half-full analysis but instead a clear effort to characterize many Americans as racist, or at least grossly ignorant of the plight of the Jewish community during the Holocaust (Brown University sociologist Dan Hirschman agrees, noting in a May 8, 2018 blog that the Newsweek headline “implies that 1/3 of Americans are Holocaust deniers of some sort”). These are people who didn’t pay attention in history class and who don’t have a good grasp of large numbers—not Holocaust deniers. The survey did not suggest that underestimating the number of Jews killed was any sort of attempt at minimizing the Holocaust. If we want to know how many Americans doubt the Holocaust happened, we need look no further than question 33, which unlike question 19 is not as open-ended: 96% of respondents answered “Yes, I believe the Holocaust happened.” Three percent said they weren’t sure, and 1% of them responded that they did not believe it happened. This 1%—not the 33% suggested by Newsweek—would presumably be among the Holocaust deniers. This is not the first time that a poll about the Holocaust produced alarming numbers. In one of the most infamous examples of flawed polling, a 1992 poll conducted by the Roper organization for the American Jewish Committee found that 1 in 5 Americans doubted that the Holocaust occurred. How could 22% of Americans report being Holocaust deniers? The answer became clear when the original question was re-examined: “Does it seem possible or does it seem impossible to you that the Nazi extermination of the Jews never happened?” This awkwardly-phrased question contains a confusing double-negative which led many to report the opposite of what they believed. Embarrassed Roper officials apologized, and later polls—asking clear, unambiguous questions—found that only about 2% of Americans actually doubt the Holocaust. In fact the 2018 news headlines about the Holocaust poll could have accurately read “Holocaust Denial Drops 50%” (from 2% to 1%), but the news media emphasizes bad news. Polls and surveys can provide important information about the public’s beliefs. But to be valid, they must be based on sound methodologies, and media-literate news consumers should always look for information about the sample size, representativeness of the population, whether the participants were random or self-selected, and so on. Whether due to poorly-worded questions or an alarmist news media, reports like these leave the false impression that racism and anti-Semitism are more widespread than they really are. The recent rise in hate crimes against the Jewish community is well documented, but the recent rise in Holocaust denial is not.   This piece originally appeared on the "Skeptic Reads a Newspaper Blog" HERE.   You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Jan 112019
 
In the new episode of Squaring the Strange, we take a romp through a bunch of 2018's more memorable skeptical moments. From a new iteration of the Mechanical Turk to deadly rumors in India to a resurgence of Geocentrism, there's plenty to go around. We go over some of the more notable passings, and list some favorite episodes from the past year.   You can hear it HERE. 
Dec 042018
 
As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) has passed its anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen!     This week, our strangers start the episode with some listener mail about Ben's SWAYSO on Peter Rabbit. Our three amigos break down an article about it as well as debate the reality of how impressionable kids can really be. Then, our intrepid crew sets sail to the Indian Ocean to discover our once-extinct friend, the Coelacanth. They recall the story of the discovery of our fishy friend and also discuss the use of its story in certain cryptozoological arguments. Celestia delights us with a fun fortune cookie about a very creative individual. You can listen to it HERE.     
Nov 152018
 
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed:  Episode 74 - The Pokemon Panic. This week we start with a quick look at a dog-buys-cookies story that took Celestia down a path of searching out pet videos and, finally, reading about whether or not monkeys can be taught to understand currency. Then Ben revisits an investigation he did on the Pokemon Panic, a wave of illness that struck Tokyo children in the 1990s during an episode of the incredibly popular show--a phenomenon that was referenced again this summer as journalists warned of the strobe effects in Incredibles 2. But what are the numbers, and how exactly does photosensitive epilepsy work? And what was to blame for the thousands of children falling ill that week in Tokyo? You can here it HERE.
Nov 062018
 
  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: Human Barbie and Other Plastic Tales. First, Ben examines some disturbing consequences to child abduction rumors on a popular app in India and Mexico. Then we look at modern plastic surgery oddities and, specifically, the media myth of the Human Barbie, also known as Russian model Valeria Lukyanova. What outrageous things were said about her, and how much of the narrative can be taken as fact? We also compare her to her counterparts, namely the three men who promote themselves as "human Ken dolls."   You can listen HERE. 
Oct 302018
 
If you’ve spent any time on social media over the past few years you’ve likely seen several versions of Donald Trump’s last name. Various versions include “tr^^p,” “Strump,” and “Tr**p,” though writer Joyce Carol Oates understandably prefers the correctly-numbered-asterisk version “T***p.” Meryl Streep gave a blistering 2017 Golden Globes speech that never mentioned Trump’s name but referred to the president as “a coarse blowhard.” Others simply call him “Sin Nombre” (nameless in Spanish)—though I’d prefer “Hombre Sin Nombre” because it’s alliterative and references his infamous, inane “bad hombres” comment—though no one asked me.   For a while some people avoided using Trump’s name on Facebook because the site’s algorithms would be more likely to send political advertisements for Trump to whoever wrote about him, though as his name became ubiquitous, the algorithms became less useful. There are also various circumlocutions, such as Mad King Cheeto, Agent Orange, the Dumpster, the Orange Manatee, Hair Furor, President Bone Spurs, Donald Drumpf, Assaulter-in-chief, and “Tiny-Fingered, Cheeto-Faced, Ferret-Wearing Shitgibbon,” among others. What’s behind the refusal or reluctance to say Trump’s name? The Atlantic had a piece on this last year, noting that “When the late Gwen Ifill asked President Barack Obama why he had been avoiding saying ‘Trump,’ he replied, ‘He seems to do a good job mentioning his own name. So, I figure, you know, I will let him do his advertising for him[self]’…. Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter Bernice King shared a widely circulated list to her Facebook page offering tips for resisting Trump. The top suggestion: ‘Use his name sparingly so as not to detract from the issues.’… Given the influence Trump’s name wields, snubbing it is an attempt to withhold some of that power while staking out higher moral ground, said Jenny Lederer, an assistant professor of linguistics at San Francisco State University. ‘In his case, especially, people feel like not repeating his name is [a way of] not speaking to the brand and the value system that goes along with his political ideology.’” Naming Taboos In The Encyclopedia of Superstitions, E. and M. Radford—no relation, probably—note that “In primitive thought, a man’s name was not merely a convenient label by which he could be distinguished from others. It was an integral part of himself, as important to him as, and indeed, moreso than, his arms or legs or eyes. Knowledge of it by another gave that other power over him… These beliefs survive in the custom, once quite general, of keeping a child’s name secret from outsiders until he had been baptized. To let it be known to any stranger… was to run the risk of witchcraft” (p. 244). In the Doctor Who universe, the titular doctor’s name is unknown (except to him or her, as the case may be, and a possible wife) and never spoken aloud in the series. Often refusing to name a figure is done in deference to their awesome and potentially destructive power. The idea is that to say the name without sufficient reverence—or at all—is to risk drawing the person’s attention or wrath. In Roman Catholic exorcisms, knowing a demon’s name is considered an important part of the ritual and gives the priest power over the evil entity. Even saying the name of the Christian God is considered dangerous in some cases; hence mild exclamations such as “zounds!” were adopted from the archaic, quasi-blasphemic phrase “god’s wounds.” Similarly, in Jewish traditions the name “Yahweh” is too sacred to speak or even write, preferring the Almighty” or “our Lord”; even the word “God” is often written as “G-d.” In the Harry Potter universe the villain Voldemort is referred to as “He Who Must Not Be Named” and “You Know Who.” In British fairy folklore there is a long tradition of avoiding speaking the word “fairy” aloud. They are variously referred to as “the good folk,” the “wee folk,” or just “the folk.” To do otherwise is to invite trouble. Many or most people who refuse to use Trump’s name aren’t doing so out of reverence, of course. As the Atlantic piece notes, “When it comes to the current president, the refusal to use his name may be uniquely subversive because of the degree to which Trump has wrapped his entire worth, wealth, and fame up in those five letters.” Indeed, Trump seems remarkably impressed not only with himself but also with his own surname, which he considers to be his signature brand. But has the anti-Trump linguistic revolt done any good? Is it a form of verbal slacktivism and virtue signaling? While refusing to speak his name may seem like a tiny act of “he’s not my president” defiance, it doesn’t seem to be an issue for him. Perhaps the biggest indication that some people’s refusal to say Trump’s name isn’t bothering him is the lack of reaction, especially on social media. Trump is famously thin-skinned about real and imagined slights, and has shown no qualms about taking to Twitter to blast his critics. Yet there’s been no stream of petty, pouty invective from our commander in chief wailing about his subjects’ lack of reverence for his name. It could also be that Trump only cares about the loudest voices and (what he considers to be) his most vocal opponents, including “The Failing New York Times” and CNN, which due to journalistic editorial standards would not replace letters in Trump’s name with asterisks. As long as they spell his name right (and fully), he’s happy.
Oct 282018
 
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 Celestia dig into what makes bad documentaries bad. You can listen HERE.
Sep 252018
 
Some of you cryptozoology fans may remember when Josh Gates of Destination Truth [sic] found what he claimed to be a Yeti track, after a few days in Nepal. Here's an overview of the claims, and an update on where the track ended up... The Yeti—formerly known as the Abominable Snowman—is the Himalayan version of the American Bigfoot. Like Bigfoot, it is large, powerful, leaves strange tracks, and has never been proven to exist outside of folklore and myth. Interest in the supposed creature is fueled by occasional sighting reports and odd footprints. In 2007, Josh Gates, host of the TV series Destination Truth, claimed that he found three mysterious footprints: one full print that measured about thirteen inches long, and two partial prints. Gates said that he could not identify what made them, but that they are “very, very similar” to other strange tracks previously found in the Himalayas and attributed to the Yeti. To Gates and his television crew, this apparently seems like strong evidence for the elusive creature. The find made international news, with outlets including Reuters covering the story. Yet there is a scientific explanation for many Yeti footprints found in the Himalayas. Tracks in snow can be very difficult to interpret correctly because of the unstable nature of the medium in which they are found. Snow physically changes as the temperature varies and as sunlight hits it. This has several effects on the impression, often making the tracks of ordinary animals seem both larger and misshapen. As sunlight strikes the impression from different angles, the sides of the tracks melt unevenly. Thus a bear track made at night but found the next afternoon has been exposed to the morning sun and might change into a mysterious track with splayed toes—much like the one Gates and his crew claim to have found.   You can read the rest in my recent 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! 
Sep 152018
 
As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) has passed 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! This week we start with Celestia’s tale of having a “tongue analysis” while on a cruise, which amounted to an alt-med version of cold reading. Then we examine a critical but controversial topic: are accusers routinely disbelieved in sexual misconduct cases? Ben brings some statistics on the public’s view of high-profile accusations, and Celestia tackles data on police handling of rape reports. How true is this notion, and, more importantly, what harm does inflating such a notion cause? You can listen HERE.       
Sep 102018
 
As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) has passed 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!     First, Ben looks at current failures of intuition and psychics. Then we take a skeptical look at tour guides! Tours straddle a line between entertainment and education, and tour guides happily embellish local legends and lore as time goes on. We welcome special guest Cindy Boyer from the Landmark Society of Western New York and chat about ghost tours. Pascual confesses to teenaged transgressions, and Ben recounts an egg-balancing lesson with a tour guide in Ecuador. You can listen HERE.   
Aug 292018
 
I'm quoted in a new article about the "kill or capture" debate about Bigfoot. "The whole kill-or-capture debate wasn’t on my radar because it didn’t seem like it was an issue that was going to come up any time soon..."   How do you kill Bigfoot? “You would need a heavy-duty rifle,” according Jim Lansdale, co-founder of the Gulf Coast Bigfoot Research Organization (GCBRO). “I would suggest a 30-aught-six or better; .458 or something like that. Maybe a seven-mag’. But it’s all shot placement and you’d have to shoot him in the head. You can’t body-shoot him. They’re too big.” Lansdale has thought a lot about killing Bigfoot. He even starred in a reality show about it, called Killing Bigfoot on Destination America. In the recent cannon of Bigfoot-focused pseudoscientific backwood shows and documentaries—including Finding BigfootDiscovering Bigfoot, 10 Million Dollar Bigfoot BountyKilling Bigfoot is the only show that unapologetically promotes Bigfoot bloodlust. It follows Lansdale and the rest of the GCBRO crew as they investigate Bigfoot reports and try to put a bullet in the brain of a creature that has never been proven to exist. GCBRO has placed itself firmly on one side of a contentious debate within the cryptozoological community—should humans be allowed to wantonly slaughter Sasquatch—a creature that (if it exits) may be endangered and contain genetic wonders? But most Bigfoot seekers fall into the other camp. 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!   
Aug 252018
 
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: A Diet High in Skepticism First we hear from photographic mystery investigator Kenny Biddle, who reveals how he solved the souvenir photo mystery Ben shared back in episode 37. Then, for the second part of our New Year’s resolution series, we dive into diet myths. Ben brings some surprising statistics that go against common assumptions about how diet-obsessed Americans are. Rather than being hyper-aware of every pound, it turns out we often don’t notice weight gain (on ourselves or our children), and we rarely put much effort into losing it. Celestia reflects on how fat people, like cancer patients, are hit with a ton of “miracle” fat cures from well-meaning friends and acquaintances; and she does a deep-dive into her diet Coke and whether it actually makes people gain weight.   You can listen HERE.
Aug 202018
 
My new CFI blog on mountaineering physicist Melanie Windridge, who recently climbed Everest to promote science and encourage girls in STEM fields. I interviewed physicist Dr. Melanie Windridge, author of Aurora: In Search of the Northern Lights, last year for a Special Report on the CFI website. No armchair-ridden ivory tower egghead, Windridge is a veteran of days-long treks and wilderness expeditions. Her website features photos of her summits, and her book contains many compelling first-person adventures in Iceland, Scotland, Sweden, and Norway. “When I was doing my undergraduate work, I had no idea what I’d be doing now,” she told me. “I was doing fusion, so it was very lab-based, so it was very different for me to say I want to get out of the lab, I want to study physics in a very different domain. It’s really wonderful to see this phenomenon that really touches you on a personal, inner level…. But also to look at the science of it, and understand that the science doesn’t take away that feeling you get. It’s still magical. In fact knowing the science makes it even more incredible.” As for her book Aurora, “I didn’t want to just write a science book. I wanted to celebrate the beauty and magic of the aurora and how captivating it is, and also explore the history of Arctic exploration and the cultures there… It’s this wonderful crossover between art, history, science, culture, and landscape.”   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! 
Aug 182018
 
My new CFI blog examines a case study in online miscommunication, and offers tips on how to better understand each other on social media... I’m always fascinated by how thinking goes wrong. Given an Event A or a Factual Statement/Observation B, what are the ways in which people come to misunderstand the nature of that event or statement? Sometimes it’s the result of intentional deception or obfuscation, such as is often found in advertising or political speech. But more often it’s the result of critical thinking lapses, logical errors, or simply misunderstanding. It’s errors of interpretation, often of substituting what someone actually says for what we think they’re saying, or expecting them to say. To me, after solving a mystery or concluding an investigation one of the most important and useful questions to ask is: Why did people think it was something it wasn’t? Why did people get it wrong? In many cases where there’s written records we can fairly easily follow the chain of events and deconstruct the evolution of the idea. By understanding how thinking goes wrong—ideally taken from real-world situations instead of staid examples of informal logic taken from textbooks—we can help identify such patterns in our own thinking and hopefully improve communication. A few weeks ago on Facebook someone commented about what a disaster the Trump administration was for the environment, and as an example he specifically cited the EPA’s role in the Gold King mine spill, in which three million gallons of mine waste and tailings, including heavy metals and toxic chemicals, were accidentally released into the Animas river from an abandoned mine in southern Colorado. I pointed out that Trump wasn’t president at the time of the Gold King spill in 2015. I remember the situation well, in part because it affected my home state of New Mexico and the matter was widely reported for months. My brief comment was entirely innocuous: polite, factual, and neutral in tone. Yet, somewhat to my surprise, it was interpreted as somehow defending Trump or his disastrous environmental choices including appointing since-resigned Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA. My comment was in no way any defense of Trump, nor an indictment of the EPA under Obama; no political message was intended at all. I was simply correcting a minor factual error, just as I would if someone referenced Sydney as the capital of Australia, or thought that Breaking Bad was set and filmed in Phoenix. I had no agenda, no ulterior motive for the mention, other than to not let misinformation go uncorrected if I could spend ten seconds and type a response. As a writer I appreciate people pointing out my mistakes and errors, not only because I don’t want to misinform people but because I care about getting things right. But the interaction brought into sharp focus how many assumptions people bring to discussions, and especially ones of a political nature. The assumption seemed to be that anyone who points out a mistake is arguing for “the other side,” whatever that happens to be in the context—instead of, you know, just pointing out an error while not trying to make a point about any larger counter-argument...   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! 
Aug 152018
 
This is cool: My work with Bob Bartholomew is referenced in an article titled "Information Literacy in a Fake/False News World: An Overview of the Characteristics of Fake News and its Historical Development" in the "International Journal of Legal Information."     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! 
Aug 092018
 
It’s always a little embarrassing to miss an important birthday or anniversary, and I confess that I’ve been especially busy over the past month and overlooked an important date.
That date was about a month ago, when The History Channel suffered one of the highest-profile blows to its credibility in, well, the history of the channel. Let’s recap: 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. Here is the History Channel’s explanation of the show’s premise: “Buried in the National Archives for nearly 80 years, a newly rediscovered photo may hold the key to solving one of history’s all-time greatest mysteries. On July 2, 1937, near the end of her pioneering flight around the world, Amelia Earhart vanished somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. Most experts, including the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, believe Earhart likely ran out of fuel and crashed into the Pacific Ocean. But no trace of the aviator, navigator Fred Noonan or her twin-engine Lockheed Electra airplane were ever found, confounding historians and fueling conspiracy theories ever since. Now, new evidence has surfaced in U.S. government archives suggesting Earhart might not have crashed into the Pacific at all, but crash-landed in the Marshall Islands, was captured by the Japanese military and died while being held prisoner on the island of Saipan. According to HISTORY’s investigative special Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence, airing Sunday, July 9, retired federal agent Les Kinney scoured the National Archives for records that may have been overlooked in the search for the lost aviator. Among thousands of documents he uncovered was a photograph stamped with official Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) markings reading ‘Marshall Islands, Jaluit Atoll, Jaluit Island, Jaluit Harbor.’ In the photo, a ship can be seen towing a barge with an airplane on the back; on a nearby dock are several people. Kinney argues the photo must have been taken before 1943, as U.S. air forces conducted more than 30 bombing runs on Jaluit in 1943-44. He believes the plane on the barge is the Electra, and that two of the people on the dock are Earhart and Noonan. As part of the program’s investigation, Doug Carner, a digital forensic analyst, examined the photo and determined it was authentic and had not been manipulated, while Kent Gibson, another forensic analyst who specializes in facial recognition, said it was ‘very likely’ the individuals in it are Earhart and Noonan.” 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. Doubts were raised about that explanation before the show aired and quickly escalated afterward. The photograph was published in a 1935 Japanese-language travelogue about the islands of the South Pacific. Japanese blogger Kota Yamano found the book after searching the National Diet Library, Japan’s national library, using the term ‘Jaluit Atoll,’ the location featured in the photograph. National Geographic, perhaps with a hint of rivalry-inspired delight, noted that “In the wake of Yamano’s evidence, the History Channel and the documentary’s on-screen personalities have expressed various forms of concern and disbelief. ‘I don’t know what to say,’ says Kent Gibson, the facial-recognition expert that the History Channel hired to analyze the photograph for Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence. ‘I don’t have an explanation for why [the photograph] would show up two years early.’” Requests for additional clarification were not returned. In a July 11, 2017 statement the History Channel said that it has a team of investigators “exploring the latest developments about Amelia Earhart” and promised transparency in their findings, concluding that “Ultimately historical accuracy is most important to us and our viewers.” Erm, yes. Over a year has now passed, and apparently the History Channel’s crack team of investigators still hasn’t been able to figure out how exactly they could have been fooled. If they’d like some help, they can read my analysis of the fiasco—or maybe they should just hire the Japanese blogger for an hour’s work.
Jul 302018
 
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: I know it's the end of July but Halloween isn't far away! This week, we dissect the myths and misunderstandings that surround Halloween. From tainted candy to evil predators, our boys take a bite out of these spooky Halloween treats so you don't have to!   You can hear the show HERE.     
Jul 182018
 
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed:   Episode 39: A Diet High in Skepticism  First we hear from photographic mystery investigator Kenny Biddle, who reveals how he solved the souvenir photo mystery Ben shared back in episode 37. Then, for the second part of our New Year’s resolution series, we dive into diet myths. Ben brings some surprising statistics that go against common assumptions about how diet-obsessed Americans are. Rather than being hyper-aware of every pound, it turns out we often don’t notice weight gain (on ourselves or our children), as our notion of ideal weight shifts over time. Those of us who doknow we need to drop weight rarely put much effort into it. We touch on the “fat taboo” and how doctors are sometimes reluctant to encourage obese patients to lose weight. Celestia reflects on how fat people, like cancer patients, are hit with a ton of “miracle” fat cures from well-meaning friends and acquaintances; and she examines scapegoating diet Coke and whether that lovely brown elixir really makes people gain weight. Pascual shares some dieting experiences of his own, including ketogenic diets and swapping out soda. Filled with anecdote and self-reporting, weight loss studies are uniquely difficult to parse—which is why so many headlines give contradictory information on what works best.   You can hear the show HERE. 
Jul 152018
 
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed:  Episode 38: Bro-Science with the Credible Hulk (released December 28, 2017) TShe Credible Hulk (a.k.a. Matt) joins a very giddy Ben and Pascual to SMASH . . . er, I mean discuss different types of exercise woo. To start off, Ben recounts his investigation years ago of a ROM machine, billed as a miracle machine designed by a “modern day DaVinci” that condenses a complete workout into exactly4 minutes (for a mere $14,615). For a first category, Matt touches on the very fringe gym woo (cupping, etc.) and tells us it’s not that prevalent among serious bodybuilders, who have a vested interest in objective results. The next common pitfall the Hulk warns us about is the lure of anecdotal evidence (i.e., what the most muscular guys say works for them). A third category of gym woo comes from misunderstanding or overextrapolating from small amounts of existing data. An example of this would be the anabolic window, and Matt takes us through a biochemical tour of that concept. The fourth category Matt covers is supplement woo, which is a big topic: from marketing smoke and mirrors to digesting versus injecting, supplements can be a very confusing and expensive placebo or simply an alternate food source. Then the guys ask some questions about salty Gatorade gum, “roid rage,” shrinking testicles, juicing cadavers, blood doping, and ghosts messing up people’s drug tests.   You can listen to the show HERE. 
Jun 152018
 
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: This week, Pascual gets skeptical about the “reason for the season,” namely Jesus, competing pagan solstice holidays, and Jesus mythicism. Whether Jesus existed is one of the few things that dips into “fringe” scholarship and conspiracy theories but is also taken seriously by many skeptics. Celestia suggests an alternate holiday tradition around the goddess Inanna’s striptease as she headed to the underworld. Then we get into the importance—and difficulties—of replication in science. Ben talks about replication in skeptical investigation, namely replicating some supposedly paranormal artifact like the Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot film in order to debunk it. The problem is that some quite mundane things are impossible (or very impractical) to replicate completely, and the burden of doing so does not rest with skeptics but with those making an extraordinary claim. Mythbusters had an unfortunate side-effect, convincing many laypeople that a crude replication with poor protocols can replace the scientific method. Yet some replications can be highly effective—such as when a magician shows they can get the same result as a psychic through mere trickery. Replication is absolutely necessary to science, however, and the current “replication crisis” is a concern. Pascual goes into the Mozart effect, which was never replicated, and the industry that nevertheless blew up around it. With so few funds to replicate studies, one hope is that science reporters will develop a better sense of discerning poor protocols, and kill stories based on bad studies rather than helping them go viral.   You can listen to the show HERE! 
Jun 122018
 
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: Ben first reminds us all that the History Channel still has not made good on their promise to be transparent about their Amelia Earhart research debacle, and then the guys discuss a listener question regarding “asking questions” in a leading way. Then, for our main topic, we turn to Champ, the legendary monster said to inhabit Lake Champlain, which borders New York and Vermont. The best-known report of this monster is said to be from Samuel de Champlain himself in 1609—except it’s a falsified quote. Ben draws on his personal investigations of the legend, giving us an overview of the nineteenth century’s yellow journalism, the frequency and patterns of Champ sightings, and similarities to the UFO phenomenon. The best photographic evidence for any lake monster (after the famous Nessie photo was revealed as a hoax) was the photo of Champ taken in 1977 by Sandra Mansi. Ben talks about his interview with Mansi, his analysis of her photo, and the subsequent practical investigations he did with Joe Nickell at (and in) the lake itself. As you might expect, a few things didn’t add up, and Ben walks us through the puzzle.     You can listen to it HERE!