Mar 282021
 

This episode we talk all manner of things mer . . . mermen, mermaids, merb’ys, and many more. People love conjuring up creatures that are half human in some way (especially half sexy human), and merfolk top the list. Whether they are helpful, innocent creatures or deceptive, bloodthirsty temptresses, mermaids have been cast in many tall tales. From ancient mythology to recent docufiction, we look at various representations in history and pop culture. What do you do if you find yourself facing the notorious blue men of the of the Minch in Scotland? Or a child-eating kappa in Japan?

We learn the surprising connection between Ariel and an unrequited bisexual love from the 19th century, and we look at “real” mermaids from “The Body Found” (Discovery Channel, 2011) to “the body gaffed” (P. T. Barnum, 1842).

 

Check it out HERE! 

Mar 252021
 

I often investigate claims about psychic detectives, and last year I researched claims made by psychics in the tragic case of a missing Ohio boy in late 2020. He went missing without a trace, and several psychics gave information about where he was; what did they say and how accurate was it?

My article is now online; you and read it HERE.

You can also hear about the case on Squaring the Strange! It’s in Part 2 HERE, but also check out Part 1, with Kenny Biddle and Celestia Ward, where they investigated other disappearances; it’s HERE. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Feb 252021
 

For those who didn’t see it, in the recent episode of Squaring the Strange we talk with Bigfoot investigator Steve Kulls, who shares with us his tenets of research and then discusses his role in uncovering the Georgia Bigfoot body hoax of 2008–a tale involving a whole cast of characters involved in secrecy, corruption, and avoiding the FBI. Check it out HERE!

 

 

Feb 182021
 

The new documentary Feels Good Mandirected by Arthur Jones, tells the strange story of how an otherwise obscure and innocuous frog cartoon character became a symbol of hate. The frog in question is named Pepe, created by an unassuming, otherwise unknown and (at times frustratingly) low-key San Francisco artist named Matt Furie.  

 

What happened to Pepe is a deceptively complex question, and really understanding it requires some knowledge of media literacy, critical thinking, folklore, social media, memes, popular culture, and politics. Feels Good Man is about many things, and Jones sets the stage early in the film by introducing the audience to the concept of memes. The term, first coined by eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, refers basically to an idea or behavior that spreads between people within a culture. (Full disclosure: I know Richard, have met him several times, and we have both been guest speakers on the same conference program. Also, of course, he is a Board Member of the Center for Inquiry, publisher of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine.) 

 

Dawkins does not appear in the film, but Dr. Susan Blackmore does. She is a psychologist and author of many excellent books, the most relevant of which here is The Meme Machinewhich analyzes memes as the subject of study (memetics). In a TED talk and elsewhere, she has described and refined the idea of memes as ideas that replicate themselves from brain to brain, much like a virus, and often change in the process. (Full disclosure: I know Sue, have met her several times, and am a huge fan of her work on a wide variety of topics ranging from psi research to near-death experiences. And no, I don’t know anyone else in the film.) Some memes are images, and they’re very common on social media: The internet is full of them, ranging from adorable to wildly offensive: Captioned photos of Grumpy Cat. The Distracted Boyfriend photo. What The Most Interesting Man thinks. The anguished blonde yelling at a pissy white cat seated at a table in front of a plate of salad. Kermit the Frog sipping tea while dispensing some pithy wisdom. And so on. 

Pepe was one such meme. As is always the potential fate of anything online, the image was soon adopted (or co-opted, depending on your point of view) by others. The film meticulously charts Pepe’s transition from slacker cartoon frog to hated white supremacist and right-wing icon. It didn’t happen overnight, and Feels Good Man documents the main turning points. In 2005, Furie drew a crude-but-cute frog for a comic series he created called Boy’s Club. It was about the wacky antics of four anthropomorphic animal roommates, several of whom are stoner-slackers, and one of whom was Pepe, a bug-eyed, heavy-lipped green frog. 

In one panel of one of the cartoons Pepe looked sad, and, for whatever reason, that became a popular “sad frog” image on the notoriously toxic anonymous message site 4chan, typically populated by racists, sexists, misfits, and plenty of trolls. Trolls are people who, typically anonymously, delight in provoking arguments on the internet for their own amusement. “Nothing should be taken seriously” is the unofficial troll mantra. Trolls see themselves as taboo smashers whose real message is that the online world is populated with politically correct, easily offended ninnies who should lighten up.

In her book This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream CultureProf. Whitney Phillips notes that “Trolls are keenly aware of how their behaviors impact others, and know exactly which issues will get the greatest rise from their chosen targets. From race to class to everything in between, trolls have their fingers on all kinds of powder kegs—all the better to troll you with” (p. 35); indeed, “trolling has a way of snapping its audience to attention, either by activating emotional investment or by forwarding a claim so outrageous that one cannot help but engage in a dialogue” (p. 159).

Trolling is inherently antagonistic arguing for the sake of arguing, pissing people off simply for the fun of it. The more vile, nasty, offensive, and outrageous the comment or image, the more successful the troll is by their standards. The troll is successful in part because his or her status is, at least initially, ambiguous. Do they genuinely endorse the venom they share, or is it all a joke? Just as Pepe is ambiguous—just a sad frog, after all—so is the message he carries. 

 

Pepe’s forlorn expression resonated with legions of lonely, cynical, nihilistic, and disenfranchised slacker youth who felt alienated for whatever reason. This is nothing new, of course; a generation earlier, Beavis and Butthead had become a huge hit touching on similar themes, as did punk music a generation before that. There’s nothing new under the sun; most young people will at some point or other identify with the sneering rebel, the misunderstood outsider for whom adulthood and responsibility—not to mention civility—are unreasonably onerous demands. There’s a reason why the heroes of countless films are the nerds, punks, and outcasts while the jocks, beautiful people, and rich snobs are the Establishment enemy. In this context, it’s not surprising that Pepe became an underground icon among those who hated “the normies.” Most people who initially used and shared Pepe memes were drawn to its Rorschach-like appeal of expressing sadness or sorrow, but the many trolls among them saw the potential to push it a step further, placing Pepe in increasingly inflammatory contexts. 

Soon part of the trolls’ mischievous mission was to make the Pepe image go mainstream, such as by tricking huge celebrities into sharing or referencing their images, symbols, or messaging. Several stars, including Katy Perry, shared Pepe images, surely unaware of his increasingly toxic and hostile connotations on the darker parts of the internet. In October 2015, then-candidate Donald Trump retweeted an image of him as Pepe—much to the delight of his young supporters, many of whom were very much aware that the image was associated with everything from Nazis to pedophiles. This part of the film offers an interesting, if not wholly convincing, argument that 4chan trolls played a significant role in electing Trump. 

Pepe is only one of several similar troll memes that celebrities have unwittingly endorsed. In September 2008, for example, during an Oprah Winfrey Show about online predators, Winfrey referenced a troll meme named “9000 Penises,” allegedly written by someone online claiming to represent a group of 9,000 predators. One popular meme analysis website described the reaction: “Shortly after the episode’s airing, the ‘Over 9000 penises’ segment was quickly uploaded to YouTube, where it was identified by internet users as an obvious troll. Following much mockery, Harpo Productions, Oprah’s production company, had the video taken down and removed all references to the quote on Oprah.com.” 

Ambiguity of these signs, symbols, and messages is part of their power. In 2018 during Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, rumors circulated that that a lawyer sitting behind Kavanaugh, Zina Bash, was caught on camera flashing a white nationalism sign with the fingers of one hand as her arms crossed. Memes shared on social media “revealed the truth” about what she was doing; some took it seriously, some as a joke, while others smelled Grade-A trolling. Many wondered why the Mexican-born, half-Jewish lawyer would be signaling to the world her sympathies with white nationalists. 

When Bash did it a second time, it seemed to confirm the worst fears. However, as The Washington Post reported

Taylor Foy, a spokesperson for the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, said there was another, innocuous explanation for this second “Okay” hand sign: the signal was aimed at a judiciary staffer who fulfilled a request for the judge. Bash texted a staffer during the hearing “to request a water glass for the judge,” Foy said. “Once it arrived, she was simply communicating her thanks.” In CSPAN’s archive of the hearings, Kavanaugh turns around and speaks to Bash at one point. There’s a coffee cup, but not water glass, on the desk. Bash and the man sitting next to her appear to discuss whatever the judge said as Bash texts on her phone. About a minute later, Bash looks straight ahead and appears to mouth the word “glass.” Then, she gives the OK hand sign. Shortly after that, a water glass is brought to Kavanaugh’s desk.”

According to this explanation, it was an “okay, thanks, everything’s good” symbol, and linked to some external issue going on at the time or just before, not a sign of her support of racism. (Others in the public eye have also been accused of flashing “secret” signs, from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama and Beyonce.)  

Feels Good Man then chronicles Furie’s largely fruitless attempts to rebottle the genie. He did, after all, create the character and could easily prove that he owns the copyright to the image. But copyright only takes you so far; people can legally use and share works, especially if they change it in some way and thus make it eligible for protection under the Fair Use doctrine, which generally allows for the unlicensed use of works in cases such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Satire, for example, is generally considered to be Fair Use, which is why Weird Al Yankovic isn’t required to (though he does) seek permission from original artists when making his parody songs. When someone uses a copyrighted image to sell an item, however, that’s a different kettle of stoner frogs—as conspiracy peddler Alex Jones found out when he used Pepe in a poster he sold (the film includes excerpts of Alex Jones under oath in Furie’s successful lawsuit).

 

The story of Pepe the Frog is in some ways a microcosm of social media, including its reliance on outrage, clicks, and attention as the main metric of what’s valued. Neither truth, nor accuracy, nor fairness but what will get people to Like and Share—what will make algorithms push one meme to the top of the search engines and “Now Trending” lists, providing social currency (“internet fame”) for the creators and real currency for advertisers. It’s a race to the bottom, an appeal to what will get people riled up—but, as before, it’s nothing new. Jerry Springer and many others exploited this formula three decades ago on their talk shows. 

The paradox Furie faces is clear: the more he tries to fight the misuse of his beloved Pepe, the more attention he draws to it, and the more incentive and fodder he provides trolls to perpetuate it. On the other hand, ignoring the problem isn’t ideal either, and the film gives the sense that Furie was a bit too late in recognizing what was going on. 

Furie and the film make the argument that intent and context are important to consider when interpreting usage of these symbols. Some argue that anyone who share memes like Pepe should by default be assumed to have knowledge of the freight and meanings associated with it, thus removing the cover of plausible deniability for trolls. After all, by 2021, surely few people are unaware that Pepe became associated with hate groups (regardless of his innocuous origins or other uses). But the inherent nature of symbols is that it’s often difficult or impossible to know what others mean when they share ambiguous images (a cartoon of Pepe wearing a Nazi swastika would of course not be ambiguous, but the classic drawing of him crying is).

One argument is that trolls should not be given the benefit of the doubt when they claim they don’t really agree with the racist, sexist, or otherwise objectionable messages they create and share. The argument is that these memes and messages are so toxic and malicious that even if they are joking, the fact that they’re joking about such issues is itself problematic and evidence of—if not agreement with, at least tolerance of—the intolerable. Examples include the West Point cadets who, like Zina Bash, were accused of flashing white nationalist signs on camera during an Army-Navy football game in 2019. 

Feels Good Man makes a compelling argument that such a position doesn’t solve the problem but merely moves the crux of it one step further because the motive of the person sharing a meme still must be determined to know whether he or she is a troll. As we have seen, many troll memes are shared by presumably sincere and genuine non-trolls (such as Oprah and Katie Perry, not to mention Furie himself). Assuming that anyone using or sharing the Pepe meme is racist (or at best indifferent to racism) results in many false positives and false accusations—playing right into trolls’ hands. (A West Point investigation concluded that the cadets at the football game did not in fact make any white supremacy signs but were instead playing a common game with each other and were unaware they were on camera). The last scenes in the film reveal an interesting and surprising twist in the effort to reclaim Pepe the Frog. There’s no simple solution to the problem, and one can’t help but feel sorry for people who have a tattoo of Pepe (one is seen in the film) who are likely to be mistaken for a racist because of it. 

Pepe’s arc is unusual in some ways but typical in others. There’s no clear formula for a quirky viral hit; for every clever meme that survives and thrives in the social media ecosystem, tens of thousands dies in obscurity. There was no malicious mastermind who intentionally plucked Pepe off the couch playing video games with his buddies in Boys Club and put him in a Nazi uniform to troll, horrify, and amuse. It was instead an incremental (and partly random) series of steps and decisions by different people at different times with different agendas. Feels Good Man is a fascinating story with a few surprising twists along the way. It’s a cautionary tale about what happens when an artist loses control over his work, and an enlightening case study in how social media trolls operate. 

 

A longer version of this article appeared on my CFI blog; you can read it HERE. 

 

Feb 152021
 

I’m quoted in an article from McGill University’s Office for Science and Society on the topic of… alleged twin telepathy.

As one is…. You can read it HERE. 

 

 

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 202021
 

I’m delighted to join Margaret Downey, Chip Taylor, Leonard Tramiel, Jim Underdown, Celestia Ward, Penn & Teller, Jamy Ian Swiss, Richard Saunders, Angie Mattke, Susan Gerbic, Geo Hrab, Brian Engler, and many others in offering our remembrances of our colleague, friend, and mentor, the late, great Amazing Randi in the new edition of the Freethought Society News. You can read the tributes HERE! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Toast To The Amazing One

It is not much of a stretch to say that James Randi was one of the two main inspirations for my career choice as a skeptical researcher and investigator (the other being Carl Sagan). It was 1992, and a beer shortage led me on a path that would culminate in me spending about half my life walking on fire, hunting ghosts, making crop circles, chasing monsters, and exploring the paranormal. While at the University of New Mexico that year I won an essay contest (my piece examined the role that human error played in the 1986 Chernobyl and space shuttle Challenger accidents) and as a prize, I was flown to a college town in Utah to present my paper. While there my colleagues and I decided to venture out for a few beers. Because we were unknowingly in a dry county, this turned out to be an arduous and ill-fated venture.

But in the process of going door to door and store to store, we came across a tiny used bookstore. Amid the spilling shelves of books on fruit canning and apocalyptic survival guides (Mormon bookstore staples), I found a few old copies of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. One in particular, with a purple cover article on Nostradamus, caught my eye, and that was the first time I’d seen anyone criticize the famed prognosticator. 

The author (James “The Amazing” Randi, as it turned out) offered skeptical, logical, and reasonable explanations for the prophecies’ apparent accuracy. Other paranormal and New Age topics were also discussed, giving another side to the story. Not all the explanations and arguments convinced me—I wasn’t taking the refutations as gospel, but at least I was hearing a new voice. I bought the issues and tucked them under my arm as the beer search went on, and upon returning home I subscribed to the magazine and joined the non-profit educational organization that published it (and which Randi co-founded): The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP, now CSI). Twenty years later I am the Deputy Editor of that magazine and a Research Fellow at CSI.

Since that time I have been honored and delighted to work with Randi in many capacities. It’s like growing up being a fan of the Rolling Stones, and ten years later finding yourself on tour with them and hanging out with Mick Jagger after a show. Call it balls, call it gumption, call it whatever you like: Randi has it in spades, and did long before I was born.

Randi and I, with Angie Mattke, about to go on stage at DragonCon. Photo by Susan Gerbic.

I don’t have the space to list all of Randi’s accomplishments, and couldn’t even if I wanted to. Life is short, you see, and anyway I’ve got a word limit here. However I’ll just mention a few of his projects that struck me as especially important. Project Alpha was brilliantly conceived and executed, teaching us that scientists’ knowledge and overconfidence in their abilities can be their own worst enemy. The Carlos hoax reminds us how gullible the news media can be when faced with the prospect of a sensational story. His legendary battles with Uri Geller teach us that woo-woo must be challenged whenever possible, and not remain unanswered.

While these stunts and investigations are noteworthy in their own right, to focus on them is to miss the forest for the trees, for what is perhaps most Amazing about Randi is the breadth of his life and experiences. He is far more than just a skeptic or escape artist or magician or world traveler. I remember visiting his home and seeing artifacts from trips to Peru he took decades ago. I, also, had traveled around Peru, including to the highlands he’d explored, and another common thread emerged. We even shared outrage at enemies of thought and reason: I mentioned that I was looking forward to passing water on the grave of George W. Bush, and he laughed and said he’d already done the same (or planned to, I forget) over the grave of Cotton Mather, one of the ideological architects of the Salem Witch Trials. We swapped war stories from the front lines of the skeptical movement, reminisced about old friends, and discussed the future of this strange skeptical endeavor we’ve both dedicated much of our lives to.

Like the brilliant Martin Gardner, whose work I admired and edited years, Randi is almost always unfailingly polite but that demeanor hides a sharp mind. He can lose his temper sometimes, like all of us, but he is better at suffering fools than many of us. He is patient and kind, but steadfastly refuses to brook exploitation of the innocent, especially from “grief vampires” like Sylvia Browne, with whom he’s feuded for years.

I dedicated my book Scientific Paranormal Investigation to Randi, and of course we come from a proud tradition of skeptics and investigators, from Benjamin Franklin to Harry Houdini. I am proud to count Randi as not only a mentor but a friend. Always quick with a quip or a trick, Randi has inspired millions. I don’t know anyone else who has toured with Alice Cooper, been encased in a block of ice for an hour, and exposed fraudulent faith healers like Peter Popoff. As varied and fascinating as his real accomplishments are, you have to watch out: Randi once told me he met Abraham Lincoln, and damn it, for a split second I believed him until that mischievous twinkle in his eyes reminded me to be more skeptical.

It’s not that no one else could, theoretically, have done many of Randi’s accomplishments; it’s that no one else did—and did them for the greater good with moral conviction, thoroughness, and a magician’s flair. There have always been skeptics, and there always will be—but there is only one Amazing Randi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dec 302020
 

Pleased to announce that my new book ‘Big– If True: Adventures in Oddity’ is now available in paperback and Kindle. Please check it out if you feel so inclined! You can get it HERE!

 

Dec 252020
 

In a previous blog I discussed my research into an ugly episode of racial hatred that tainted the 2016 holiday season. The Mall of America hired its first African-American Santa Claus, an Army veteran named Larry Jefferson. A local newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, carried a story about it on Dec. 1. Later that night an editorial page editor for the Tribune, Scott Gillespie, tweeted: “Looks like we had to turn comments off on story about Mall of America’s first black Santa. Merry Christmas everyone!” Overnight and the next morning his tweet went viral and served as the basis for countless news stories with headlines such as “Paper Forced to Close Comments On Mall Of America’s First Black Santa Thanks to Racism” (Jezebel) and “Racists Freak Out Over Black Santa At Mall Of America” (Huffington Post).

George Takei responded the next day via Twitter: “Watching people meltdown over a black Santa in the Mall of America. ‘Santa is white!’ Well, in our internment camp he was Asian. So there.” It was also mocked by Trevor Noah on Comedy Central, and elsewhere.

Yet every major news outlet missed the real story. They failed to check facts. My research (including an interview with Gillespie) eventually revealed that the racial incident never actually occurred, and that–despite public opinion and nearly two million news articles to the contrary–the Star Tribune did not receive a single hate-filled message in the comments section of its story on Jefferson. What happened was the product of a series of misunderstandings and a lack of fact-checking, fueled in part by confirmation bias and amplified by the digital age (for a detailed look at the case see my CFI blog “The True, Heartwarming Story of the Mall of America’s Black Santa.”)

I’ve been writing about journalism errors and media literacy for two decades (including in my book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us), and usually there’s relatively little pushback (except, perhaps, from journalists reluctant to acknowledge errors). However a curious part of this story was the criticism I received on social media for even researching it. Perhaps the best example was when I responded to a post about the initial story on a fellow skeptic’s Facebook page. She and all of her friends on the thread took the erroneous news story at face value (which didn’t surprise me, as virtually everyone did) but what did surprise me was the suggestion that trying to uncover the truth was unseemly or even “a distraction tactic.”

One person wrote, “I actually can’t believe that a self proclaimed skeptic is even having this argument in a country that just elected Donald Trump. It’s not skepticism when it disregards the proven fact that a great deal of the country, enough to elect a president, are straight up racist.” Of course I never questioned whether many or most Americans were racist. My question was very specific, clear, and about the factual basis for this one specific incident. Neither Trump’s election nor the existence of racism in America are relevant to whether or not the Tribune had to shut down its comments section in response to a deluge of hatred against a black Santa.

The ‘Distraction’ Tactic

One person wrote that me asking how many people objected to the black Santa was “a distraction tactic–now we can talk about how most people are not racist and change the subject from racism.” I was stunned. I had no idea that asking if anyone knew how many people complained would or could be construed as somehow trying to distract people (from what to what?). I replied, “Trying to quantify and understand an issue is not a ‘distraction tactic.’ I have no interest in distracting anyone from anything.’” No one–and certainly not me–was suggesting that a certain number of racists upset over a black Santa was okay or acceptable. I never suggested or implied that if it was “only” ten or twenty or a hundred, that everyone should be fine with it.

But knowing the scope of the issue does help us understand the problem: Is it really irrelevant whether there were zero, ten, or ten thousand racist commenters? If Trump can be widely (and rightly) criticized for exaggerating the crowd at his inauguration speech as “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration–period” when in fact it was several orders of magnitude smaller, why is asking how many people complained about a mall Santa so beyond the pale?

Usually when I encounter claims of investigating being a distraction in my research it was itself a distraction tactic, an attempt to head off inquiry that might debunk a claim or show that some assumption or conclusion was made in error–not unlike the Wizard of Oz pleading for Dorothy and her gang not to look behind the curtain. (“Why are you asking questions about where I suddenly got this important UFO-related document?” or “Asking for evidence of my faith healer’s miracle healings is just a distraction from his holy mission” doesn’t deter any journalist or skeptic worth his or her salt.) If a claim is valid and factual, there’s no reason why anyone would object to confirming that; as Thomas Paine noted, “It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry.”

I tried to remember where else I’d heard the phrase used, when someone who was asked about something called the questions a “distraction.” Finally I realized where that tactic had become common: In the Trump administration. When Donald Trump was asked about a leaked Access Hollywood recording of him bragging about groping women sexually, he dismissed the questions–and indeed the entire issue–as “nothing more than a distraction from the important issues we’re facing today.”

Similarly, when Vice-President Pence was asked in January 2017 about whether the Trump campaign had any contacts with Russia during the campaign, he replied, “This is all a distraction, and it’s all part of a narrative to delegitimize the election.” Others in the Trump administration (including White House spokespeople) have repeatedly waved off journalists’ questions as distractions as well.

This is not particularly surprising, but it was odd to see some of my most virulent anti-Trump friends (and Facebook Friends) using and embracing exactly the same tactics Trump does to discourage questions.

There is one important difference: In my judgment Trump and his surrogates use the tactic cynically (knowing full well that the issues and questions being asked are legitimate), while those who criticized me were using the tactic sincerely; being charitable, I have no reason to think that they realized that the black Santa story and reportage had been widely (if not universally) misunderstood. But the intention and effect were the same: An attempt to discourage someone from looking beyond the surface to see what’s really going on, and attempt to separate truth from fact.

Importance of Due Diligence

A recent news story highlights the value and importance of bringing at least some skepticism to claims: Recently a woman approached reporters at The Washington Post with a potentially explosive story: that embattled Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore had impregnated her as a teenager and forced her to have an abortion. This would of course be a potentially devastating revelation for the conservative Moore, already under fire for dating (and allegedly sexually assaulting) teenagers.

According to the Post, “In a series of interviews over two weeks, the woman [Jaime T. Phillips] shared a dramatic story about an alleged sexual relationship with Moore in 1992 that led to an abortion when she was 15. During the interviews, she repeatedly pressed Post reporters to give their opinions on the effects that her claims could have on Moore’s candidacy if she went public. The Post did not publish an article based on her unsubstantiated account. When Post reporters confronted her with inconsistencies in her story and an Internet posting that raised doubts about her motivations, she insisted that she was not working with any organization that targets journalists. Monday morning, Post reporters saw her walking into the New York offices of Project Veritas, an organization that targets the mainstream news media and left-leaning groups. The organization sets up undercover ‘stings’ that involve using false cover stories and covert video recordings meant to expose what the group says is media bias.”

The Post reporter, Beth Reinhard, “explained to Phillips that her claims would have to be fact-checked. Additionally, Reinhard asked her for documents that would corroborate or support her story.” Reinhard and the Washington Post did not ask for evidence to establish the truth of Phillips’s account because they doubted that sexual assaults occur, or that Phillips may indeed have been sexually assaulted by Moore–in fact quite the opposite, since the Post was the first to break the story and publish accusations by Moore’s accusers–but instead because they were doing their due diligence as journalists. Investigative journalists and skeptics don’t question claims and ask for evidence because they necessarily doubt what they’re being told; they do it because they want to be sure they understand the facts.

Had The Washington Post not questioned the story–or been deterred by accusations that trying to establish the truth of Phillips’s claims was some sort of “distraction” tactic–the paper’s credibility would have been damaged when Phillips’s false accusation would have quickly been revealed, and the Post’s failure to do basic research used to cast doubt on the previous women’s accusations against Moore. Martin Baron, the Post‘s executive editor, said that the false accusations were “the essence of a scheme to deceive and embarrass us. The intent by Project Veritas clearly was to publicize the conversation if we fell for the trap. Because of our customary journalistic rigor, we weren’t fooled.”

What Happened?

There are several critical thinking and media literacy failures here. Perhaps the most basic is where the burden of proof lies: with the person making the claim. In fact I wasn’t making a claim at all; I was merely asking for evidence of a widely-reported claim. I honestly had no idea how many or how few Tribune readers had complained about Jefferson, and I wouldn’t have even thought to question it if Gillespie hadn’t issued a tweet that contradicted the thesis of the then-viral news story.

The black Santa outrage story is full of assumptions, mostly about the bad intentions of other people. To the best of my knowledge I’m the only person who dug deeper into the story to uncover what really happened–and for that I was told that I was causing a “distraction” and even hints that I had some unspecified unseemly motive.

It’s also important to understand why a person’s questions are being challenged in the first place. It’s often due to tribalism and a lack of charity. CSCIOP cofounder Ray Hyman, in his influential short piece titled “Proper Criticism discusses eight principles including the principle of charity. “The principle of charity implies that, whenever there is doubt or ambiguity about a paranormal claim, we should try to resolve the ambiguity in favor of the claimant until we acquire strong reasons for not doing so. In this respect, we should carefully distinguish between being wrong and being dishonest. We often can challenge the accuracy or validity of a given paranormal claim. But rarely are we in a position to know if the claimant is deliberately lying or is self-deceived. Furthermore, we often have a choice in how to interpret or represent an opponent’s arguments. The principle tell us to convey the opponent’s position in a fair, objective, and non-emotional manner.”

To scientists, journalists, and skeptics, asking for evidence is an integral part of the process of parsing fact from fiction, true claims from false ones. If you want me to believe a claim–any claim, from advertising claims to psychic powers, conspiracy theories to the validity of repressed memories–I’m going to ask for evidence. It doesn’t mean I think (or assume) you’re wrong or lying, it just means I want a reason to believe what you tell me. This is especially true for memes and factoids shared on social media and designed to elicit outrage or scorn.

But to most people who don’t have a background in critical thinking, journalism, skepticism, or media literacy, asking for evidence is akin to a challenge to their honesty. Theirs is a world in which personal experience and anecdote are self-evidently more reliable than facts and evidence. And it’s also a world in which much of the time when claims are questioned, it’s in the context of confrontation. To a person invested in the truth of a given narrative, any information that seems to confirm that idea is much more easily seen and remembered than information contradicting the idea; that’s the principle of confirmation bias. Similarly, when a person shares information on social media it’s often because they endorse the larger message or narrative, and they get upset if that narrative is questioned or challenged. From a psychological point of view, this heuristic is often accurate: Much or most of the time when a person’s statement or claim is challenged (in informal settings or social media for example), the person asking the question does indeed have a vested interest.

The problem is when the person does encounter someone who is sincerely trying to understand an issue or get to the bottom of a question, their knee-jerk reaction is often to assume the worst about them. They are blinded by their own biases and they project those biases on others. This is especially true when the subject is controversial, such as with race, gender, or politics. To them, the only reason a person would question a claim is if they are trying to discredit that claim, or a larger narrative it’s being offered in support of.

Of course that’s not true; people should question all claims, and especially claims that conform to their pre-existing beliefs and assumptions; those are precisely the ones most likely to slip under the critical thinking radar and become incorporated into your beliefs and opinions. I question claims from across the spectrum, including those from sources I agree with. To my mind the other approach has it backwards: How do you know whether to believe a claim if you don’t question it?

My efforts to research and understand this story were borne not of any doubt that racism exists, nor that Jefferson was subjected to it, but instead of a background in media literacy and a desire to reconcile two contradictory accounts about what happened. Outrage-provoking stories on social media–especially viral ones based on a single, unconfirmed informal tweet– should concern all of us in this age of misinformation and “fake news.”

The real tragedy in this case is what was done to Larry Jefferson, whose role as the Mall of America’s first black Santa has been tainted by this social media-created controversy. Instead of being remembered for bringing hope, love, and peace to girls and boys, he will forever be known for enduring a (fictional) deluge of bilious racist hatred.

The fact that Jefferson was bombarded by love and support from the general public (and most whites) should offer hope and comfort this holiday season. A few anonymous cranks, trolls, and racists complained on social media posts from the safety of their keyboards, but there was very little backlash–and certainly nothing resembling what the sensational headlines originally suggested.

The true story of Jefferson’s stint as Santa is diametrically 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. I understand that “Black Santa Warmly Welcomed by Virtually Everyone” isn’t a headline that any news organization is going to see as newsworthy or eagerly promote, nor would it go viral. But it’s the truth–and the truth matters.

 

A longer version of this story appeared on the Center for Inquiry blog; you can read it HERE. 
 

 

Dec 212020
 

“This episode we discuss the otherworldly monolith that’s popped up in a remote part of Utah, and Ben shares another in his series of “used book mysteries,” this one perfectly timed for the election. For our main segment, we have a lengthy discussion with newly minted CFI fellow (and just plain jolly good fellow) Kenny Biddle. Ben and Kenny bring up some of their investigative heroes, lay out some principles of skeptical investigation, and tell us why they have a passion for digging into cold-case mysteries. Good advice to be had for anyone who wants to sharpen their investigation tool set.”

 

You can listen to the episode HERE! 

 

Nov 152020
 

In 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after takeoff from Florida’s coast, an accident that laid bare not only institutional flaws in the application of high technology but also flaws in the public’s understanding of science. Many myths have emerged in the years since the accident, such as that the shuttle exploded—it didn’t, it “was torn apart as it was flung free of the other rocket components and turned broadside into the Mach 2 airstream” (Oberg 2011). Other myths remain, such as that the accident was largely a failure of technology when in fact it was largely a human-caused tragedy.

A new documentary series on Netflix titled Challenger: The Final Flight examines what led up to the accident. Through extensive archival footage and interviews with the families of the crew and engineers involved with the flight, we see a troubled agency that put political pressure above safety.

A Presidential Commission was appointed to study the Challenger shuttle accident and its causes. At first glance the culprit was a mechanical problem: the failure of small O-rings to seal on a solid rocket booster, leading to a catastrophic chain reaction. Yet the real fault for the explosion went far beyond a simple gas leak. The Rogers Commission was very critical of NASA’s procedures, finding serious flaws in the decision-making process that led to the launch.

Engineers at Morton-Thiokol, the company that made the O-rings, warned that seals failed repeated tests under the cold conditions present the morning of the Challenger launch, an unusually cold morning. Engineer Roger Boisjoly, among others, predicted that the O-rings would fail if the shuttle launched in cold weather, and notified his supervisors of this. NASA managers ignored the red flags and went ahead anyway. As tests and engineers had predicted for years, the O-rings burst and the flight—along with its seven astronauts—was doomed.

Institutional Pressures

There are so many components to space technology that, on some level, failure is guaranteed—and expected, hence the presence of redundant and backup systems. The organizations making decisions concerning the Challenger launch (including NASA, Morton Thiokol, and others) had elaborate and specific procedures to assure that accurate data was used in crucial decisions. Instead of this process working correctly, important studies (such as those showing an inverse correlation between O-ring integrity and temperature) were not passed along to those who needed the information, and middle-level decisions were circumvented, primarily for expediency.

Brian Russell of Thiokol, in his testimony before the commission, stated that he did not “realize that there was a formal launch constraint” on the issue of O-ring “blow-by” problems. In other words, he didn’t know that the issue was critical enough to affect the decision to launch. In response, commissioner Robert Rummel replied that the reason that the issue of O-ring safety had been closed out (i.e., prematurely declared resolved) by Russell was “because you don’t want to be bothered. Somebody doesn’t want to be bothered with flight-by-flight reviews, but you’re going to work on it after it’s closed out” (Rogers Commission, 143).

In other cases engineers complained of bureaucracy that impeded their ability to resolve safety issues. The Rogers Commission report quoted one memo from Thiokol engineer S.R. Stein that “We are currently being hog-tied by paperwork every time we try to accomplish anything” (Rogers Commission, 253). In his book Truth, Lies, and O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster, Allan McDonald, director of the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Motor Project at the time of the accident, notes that “In dozens of emotional talks given around the country following Challenger, Roger Boisjoly had been charging that officials played ‘fast and loose’ with the astronauts’ lives, ‘absolutely abdicating their professional responsibility’ in pressuring Thiokol to reverse its original recommendation not to launch. In Boisjoly’s view, stopping the launch of the shuttle was a ‘no-brainer,’ requiring ‘only common sense’” (p. 603).

Social Pressures

If the scientific side of the Challenger disaster was plagued with problems, the social side wasn’t much better. Physicist Richard Feynman was on the commission, and in his Appendix F to the Rogers Commission report he discussed exactly this issue, stating that he believed that the true likelihood of shuttle disaster was about 1 in 100: “Official [NASA] management… claims to believe the probability of failure is a thousand times less. One reason may be an attempt to assure the government of NASA perfection and success in order to ensure the supply of funds. The other may be that they sincerely believe it to be true, demonstrating an almost incredible lack of communication between themselves and their working engineers” (Feynman 1986).

The Challenger accident was fraught with demanding impatience; the liftoff had been delayed several times already, and Americans quickly grew tired of seeing the sleek shuttle sitting impotently on the launching pad. What was promised—and eventually delivered—was action. Society is relatively unconcerned with evaluating the goals of science. NASA administrators were under enormous pressure from both the public and the government to launch the shuttle. Ironically, had the shuttle been delayed yet again to a warmer morning the shuttle would likely have been fine, but the underlying problem still ignored.

The documentary focuses its first few episodes on Christa McAuliffe, the high school teacher who was the much-vaunted “Teacher in Space.” But she was only the highest-profile of the astronauts, overshadowing the others. Co-directors “Glen Zipper and Stephen Leckart conceived of it in 2015 while looking to make something personal. Both had seen the disaster as boys but could only remember the name of one astronaut aboard Challenger: McAuliffe. Who were the other six? The more they dug, the more they found extraordinary people: Ellison Onizuka was the first Asian American in space and Ronald McNair was the second African American. Judith Resnik was the second American woman in space and the first Jewish woman. ‘We wanted to humanize these astronauts and wanted you to know these characters and understand the human side of this whole story,’ co-director Daniel Junge said” in an Associated Press interview. Veterans Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, and Gregory Jarvis rounded out the crew.

The series includes intriguing information about how the Reagan administration pressured the investigative committee to avoid embarrassing NASA—an effort that could be fairly characterized as a coverup. It was only after information was leaked to the mainstream press by a brave engineer insider revealing that NASA had been warned about the problem that full pressure was brought to bear on the Rogers commission to get to the truth—public relations be damned. 

Institutional arrogance is revealed in the stated purpose of the space shuttle: “to provide routine, economical access to space.” NASA’s assumption that any endeavor as complex and perilous as manned space flight could ever be “routine” or “economical” reveals technological arrogance. Part of the reason that the event was so shocking to the American public is they were insulated from the risks and science. The expectation was that everything would work perfectly, as it always had before, during the previous 55 missions into space over 25 years. Like people who use their cell phones every day, they have no idea how the devices work, they just expect them to work. Yet, as Carl Sagan famously noted, “It is suicidal to create a society dependent on science and technology in which hardly anybody knows anything about science and technology.”

Society’s values play an important role in the perception of technology. We live in a society in which immediate gratification is expected, and convenience is prized. Society is impatient for change; we want and expect things to be done immediately and correctly; we don’t have time for the nuances, complexities, or caveats that are the hallmarks of science. This misunderstanding was fueled in part by NASA itself. The shuttle program was packaged and promoted by NASA and the government as a safe and patriotic venture into space. In fact NASA was so confident that they added McAuliffe on Challenger largely as a public relations tool. The other astronauts on mission 51-L had specific scientific duties; according to McAuliffe’s schedule, her role was to beam down two “lessons from space” to schools across America as an ambassador for the space program. One wonders how the mission could have been taken so lightly that they could have reserved a space for PR stunts.

Fueled by patriotism, a lucky streak, and NASA’s confidence, Americans were coaxed into complacency about the safety of manned space flight. Rockets and space shuttles are incredibly complex machines, with tens of thousands of important parts, all—as the grim joke goes—manufactured by the lowest bidder. Each launch takes years of preparation and hundreds of brilliant, dedicated professionals.

The shuttle program has now been retired, but the question can be asked whether it was worth the cost in dollars and human lives—or whether it should be revived. Without knowing what true risks are, it’s impossible to know. The documentary includes a defense by William Lucas, the director of NASA’s Marshall Space Center, on whose shoulders much of the blame has been laid. He insists to this day that he made the best decision he could, given the information available to him at the time from Thiokol.

NASA is not eager to admit it, but life-threatening crises and potential problems will always go hand in hand with manned space flight. Optimism should be tempered with realism about how inherently dangerous and complicated it is to put humans into space. We have not mastered space flight, and should not fool ourselves into thinking otherwise. As Feynman concluded in his report, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

References

Feynman, R. (1986). Appendix F: Personal observations on reliability of shuttle. World Spaceflight News and National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Report on the space shuttle Challenger accident. Washington, D.C.: Office of Government Publications.

McDonald, Allan, and James Hansen. (2012). Truth, Lies, and O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster. University Press of Florida.

Oberg, J. (2011). 7 myths about the Challenger shuttle disaster. NBC News. Available at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11031097/ns/technology_and_science-space/t/myths-about-challenger-shuttle-disaster/#.UFYTD44gyPA.

Rogers Commission, Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. (1986). World Spaceflight News and National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Report on the space shuttle Challenger accident. Washington, D.C.: Office of Government Publications.

 

 

A longer version of this piece appeared on my CFI website column; you can find it here. 

Oct 052020
 

News and social media are awash with information about the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately much of what’s shared on social media about COVID-19 is false, misleading, or speculative. From the White House to the CDC, conspiracy cranks to Goop contributors, it’s a never-ending flood of information, and those charged with trying to sort it out are quickly inundated. 

Among the organizations offering advice on the virus and vaccination is a 501c3 nonprofit called Children’s Health Defense, founded in 2016 by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. The Children’s Health Defense (CHD) initiative sounds unimpeachable. Who doesn’t want children to be healthy, right? It’s one of those suspiciously generic Astroturf names intended to evoke images of righteous empowerment and healthy children running through meadows. The logo is two hands cradling a globe circled by silhouettes of children holding hands. Banner headlines encourage people to “Read the Science Now.” 

But there’s a sinister side to the organization. The CHD positions itself as a science-based advocacy organization bravely fighting for justice, public health, and equality, but it has a long history of spreading misinformation.

One recent project involved a viral video that circulated in May titled Plandemic, which featured a lengthy interview with virologist Judy Mikovits. Mikovits offered scattershot conspiracy-laden assertions about the “truth” behind the pandemic, prefaced by claims of having been framed for a crime and accusations of government coverups going back decades. These supposed coverups involved various medical authorities, including Dr. Anthony Fauci. Within weeks, the video was widely shared on social media, often by people who were “just asking questions.” The video was soon identified as containing dangerous misinformation by social media platforms, including Facebook and YouTube, and removed. 

As I noted in an article at the time, Plandemic was never about finding truth but instead a wildly successful publicity stunt for both Mikovits’s book Plague of Corruption: Restoring Faith in the Promise of Science (which soon topped best-seller lists).  

And who wrote the foreword for the most popular anti-vaccination conspiracy book of the past few years? None other than Robert F. Kennedy Jr. In fact, both Kennedy’s name and Children’s Health Defense appear prominently on the medical conspiracy book cover. 

Plague of Corruption: Restoring Faith in the Promise of Science

One hallmark of anti-vaccination is that anti-vaxxers usually deny that they’re anti-vaccination. In the Plandemic video, for example, Mikovits explicitly denies she’s against vaccinations. No, no, that’s all wrong—she just wants safer vaccines, she says, ones that have been proven safe and effective (conveniently ignoring the fact that they already have). Indeed, in one CHD article casting doubt on the safety of vaccines, anti-vaccination crusader Kennedy, who spends much of his time fighting vaccination, takes umbrage at being called an “anti-vaxxer.” He considers it “bullying terminology” and “name calling.” 

This bit of intellectual dishonesty is in some ways a measure of the success of science and medicine. It means that those against vaccination recognize that many in the public are in favor of vaccination, and therefore they feel the need to vehemently deny their obvious motives. They quickly fall back on the classic conspiracy trope that “We’re just asking questions!”—ignoring, again, the fact that the questions they’re asking a) are mostly rhetorical, not factual; and b) to the extent that they are factual, have been answered, repeatedly, by scientists. It’s similar to the position taken by intelligent design creationists and 9/11 Truthers who recycle laundry lists of “Questions the ‘Experts’ Can’t Answer” when in fact they’ve simply chosen to ignore the plausible, evidence-based answers. 

Children’s Health Defense and COVID-19

In this context, it’s no surprise that Children’s Health Defense recently chose to cynically capitalize on the pandemic with the headline “From the ER to the High School Football Field, People Want the Response to Covid-19 to Be Evidence-based, not Political.” 

It’s hard to disagree with that. People do indeed, and should, want public health officials to act on evidence instead of politics. And for the most part they have, despite concerns from across the political spectrum about the safety of eventual vaccines. The accompanying article has little to do with its clickbait title and instead criticizes Dr. Anthony Fauci and others for ignoring possible treatments and encouraging the closing of schools for children’s safety. 

A glance at recent posts on the CHD website reveals a pattern. After a piece titled “Peaceful Rallies Around the World to Champion Freedom,” we have a series of curious headlines, including “The Measles Vaccine Narrative Is Collapsing,” “25 Reasons to Avoid the Gardasil Vaccine,” “The Facts About Measles,” “’Herd Immunity? A Dishonest Marketing Gimmick,” and an unfortunately unironic piece titled “Countering False Vaccine Safety Claims.” 

Even a cursory glance at the list reveals conspiracy claims, false statements, and non sequiturs. To pick just one example of many, in the rebuttal to the “false claim” that vaccines don’t cause autism, the Children’s Health Defense offers the bulleted claim that “The National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program [VICP] has paid many vaccine induced autism claims.” The text file links not, as one might expect, to a peer-reviewed medical journal study affirming the connection between vaccines and autism but instead to a sixty-four-page article in the Pace Environmental Law Review about the program and whether it’s a fair legal forum for claims. Even assuming that it’s perfectly true that the program “has paid many vaccine induced autism claims,” that doesn’t logically mean that vaccines cause autism

The question of whether vaccines cause autism is a medical issue, not a legal one. There may indeed be legal implications if a link existed, but in the world of compensation claims and liability, claims are sometimes made and paid out with little evidential basis. In some cases, for example, companies determine it’s cheaper and faster to simply pay a claim they know or suspect is false than to litigate it. The mere fact that some claims were paid for autism complaints at some point is not a logical or coherent rebuttal to the claim that vaccines cause autism—and the fact that the Children’s Health Defense presents this transparent non sequitur as such is troubling.

In 2019, The New York Times examined such claims and found that “Over the past three decades, when billions of doses of vaccines have been given to hundreds of millions of Americans, the program has compensated about 6,600 people for harm they claimed was caused by vaccines. About 70 percent of the awards have been settlements in cases in which program officials did not find sufficient evidence that vaccines were at fault.” Center for Inquiry General Counsel Nicholas Little adds, 

What I see from the law review article is that there are eighty-three claims of autism among brain damage claims compensated under VICP. The VICP is clear after the Omnibus Autism Proceeding (OAP): vaccines are not considered a cause of autism and are not compensated. … The VICP requires you to show an injury that is vaccine related, and there are “table” injuries. It seems likely these kids have both autism and suffered from vaccine-induced encephalopathy, or residual seizure disorder. But that doesn’t mean the vaccine caused the autism. Both the OAP and federal courts have been clear: There’s no evidence that vaccinations cause autism or that thimerosal causes autism. Claiming otherwise is a misrepresentation of the proceedings.

Because of the recency of the pandemic, there’s relatively little on the organization’s website specifically about the new coronavirus. However, a review of other information on related topics is revealing. Though anti-vaccination efforts appear prominently in the Children’s Health Defense literature and on its website, they serve as an umbrella for other debunked health scares, including 5G and wireless harms and water fluoridation. Oh, and they’re also upset that social media companies have labeled some of their materials as false and misleading and therefore in violation of their policies. 

Misleading and Cherry-Picked Studies

For some topics, the Children’s Health Defense does offer links to valid research—albeit largely cherry picked. This helps maintain the veneer of scientific legitimacy. In some cases, the studies are legitimate and peer reviewed; in other cases, they are clearly labeled as early drafts (for example one document from the National Toxicology Program on fluoride begins with the disclaimer “This DRAFT Monograph is distributed solely for the purpose of pre-dissemination peer review under the applicable information quality guidelines. It has not been formally disseminated by NTP. It does not represent and should not be construed to represent any NTP determination or policy.”)

Nevertheless, we can examine the original NTP document to see whether the Children’s Health Defense fairly and honestly summarized its findings. Here’s what the CHD wrote: “2019: A systematic review of 149 human studies and 339 animal studies by the U.S. National Toxicology Program concluded that ‘fluoride is presumed to be a cognitive neurodevelopmental hazard to humans.’” 

Indeed, that statement, by itself, is true and well known. The draft report states: “This conclusion is based on a consistent pattern of findings in human studies across several different populations showing that higher fluoride exposure is associated with decreased IQ or other cognitive impairments in children” (emphasis added). In other words, the dose makes the poison—a medical principle well known since the 1500s but apparently unfamiliar to Kennedy and his Children’s Health Defense writers. 

By consulting the original document, we can see that the CHD conspicuously left out the rest of the paragraph in that draft: “However, the consistency is based primarily on higher levels of fluoride exposure (i.e., >1.5 ppm in drinking water). When focusing on findings from studies with exposures in ranges typically found in the United States (i.e., approximately 0.03 to 1.5 ppm in drinking water) that can be evaluated for dose response, effects on cognitive neurodevelopment are inconsistent, and therefore unclear” (emphasis added). 

The CHD website could have accurately noted that “levels of fluoride in excess of what Americans drink is presumed to be a cognitive neurodevelopmental hazard,” but why would they? By intentionally obscuring the fact that the fluoride levels found in U.S. drinking water have not been associated with health risks, the Children’s Health Defense adopts a sensationalized, alarmist, and anti-scientific position. This is only one of several examples found in a quick spot-check of articles. 

The Menace of Mixing Myth and Medicine

Kennedy and the Children’s Health Defense have been criticized by skeptics from time to time, including by Dr. David Gorski on the Science-Based Medicine blog. The group was also the subject of recent reporting by mainstream news media, including NBC News, which examined false and misleading health claims widely circulating on social media. 

To be fair, not all the information issued by the Children’s Health Defense is wrong—and that’s part of the problem. By mixing in some legitimate health concerns (over environmental lead, mercury in fish, climate change, air pollution, pesticides, etc.) with bogus and exaggerated ones, Children’s Health Defense muddies the waters. If Kennedy’s organization either stuck to legitimate science—or to obvious New Age antiscience and alternative medicine conspiracy (e.g., David Avocado Wolfe and Natural News)—its misinformation would be easier to counter. By combining the enduring Kennedy mystique, conspiracy theories, and pseudoscience, the Children’s Health Defense is a genuine threat to public health—especially during a pandemic. 

A longer version of this piece appeared for the Center for Inquiry’s Coronavirus Resource Page; 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! 

Sep 302020
 

During the first presidential debate, moderator Chris Wallace mischaracterized Kamala Harris’s concerns about vaccinations under Trump. I wrote about it recently: “Harris did not promote any conspiracy theory; she chose her words carefully: ‘*If* the past is prologue, [scientific experts] will be muzzled. They’ll be suppressed. They will be sidelined because he’s looking at an election coming up in less than 60 days and he’s grasping for whatever he can get to pretend that he has been a leader on this issue.'”

Here’s my article on this: 

While some may think that protests about vaccinations are a recent phenomenon, in fact the concerns date back centuries. There was resistance to the first smallpox vaccine, created in the late 1700s by Edward Jenner. Parents and the public—unfamiliar with medicine and how vaccination works—were horrified and disgusted when they learned that the vaccine was created by taking pus from the wounds of infected cows. That procedure was effective and saved countless lives, but still the British Anti-Vaccination League was created in 1853, asserting that the smallpox vaccine was dangerous, ineffective, and an infringement on personal rights. Over 160 years later, that theme continues to resonate strongly with anti-vaccination activists. 

‘‘Millions of human lives … have been preserved by the fruits of Jenner’s genius; yet today, thousands upon thousands of men, some intelligent though designing, some intelligent though deluded, the great mass of them fanatical and ignorant, decry vaccination as not only being of no service to humanity, but positively a nuisance injurious to health and life, while millions of our fellow men are utterly ignorant of, or indifferent to the matter.” This was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1896 by Eugene Foster.

Foster’s breakdown of the reasons people reject vaccination remain salient 125 years later: “Some intelligent though designing, some intelligent though deluded, the great mass of them fanatical and ignorant.” The demographics of vaccine refusal reveal an interesting pattern: despite overwhelming scientific evidence that vaccines are safe and effective, it is the more educated parents who tend to reject them through requesting exemptions for school-age children. As Nicholas Bakalar of The New York Times notes, “Exemption percentages were generally higher in regions with higher income, higher levels of education, and predominantly white populations. In private schools, 5.43 percent of children were exempt, compared with 2.88 percent in public schools. In some suburban areas, rates of exemption were near 50 percent.”

Part of the reason the anti-vaccination theme is so persistent is that it contains a strong conspiracy theory element. The belief is that the dangers and risks of vaccines are being intentionally hidden from the public by doctors and drug companies, in collusion with the government, for big profits. Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent, in their book American Conspiracy Theories, note that “Conspiracy theories about vaccines are partially to blame for decreased rates of vaccination and an increased incidence of disease.” (For more on this see Uscinski’s recent talk “Conspiracy Theories and COVID-19”.)

Vaccine Concerns among Progressives

Historically, the anti-vaccination movement has been rooted in fears of contamination as well as complaints about infringement of personal choice. Both are rooted in distrust of the government and often embraced by conservatives. A recent twist reveals educated liberals who embrace and endorse vaccination in general but reject (as-yet nonexistent) COVID-19 vaccinations, specifically under the Trump administration. 

This is partly in response to Trump’s urging of health officials to speed the vaccination development process and promising voters a vaccine by the end of the year—or, he suggested, by November 1, a few days before the presidential election. Trump believes, with some justification, that his popularity and re-election chances hinge on his visibility of getting the virus under control and ending the pandemic.

In recent weeks, many social media posts and memes have circulated among progressives that urge vaccine hesitancy, at least in the case of an eventual coronavirus treatment. Typical examples include: “I would absolutely not take a coronavirus vaccine approved and administered under a Trump administration” and “I don’t trust this administration with my health at all. I won’t be getting a vaccine if Trump is still president unless some experts can convince me that it’s safe and effective.” 

 

These fears are based on several factors including the demonstrable incompetence of the Trump administration in containing the virus and Trump’s clear efforts to politicize the disease while often undermining medical experts. Yet Donald Trump isn’t a medical doctor and has little or no role in the development of vaccines; that’s not a function of the Executive Office. Instead, the vaccine development is being done by a variety of independent medical institutions, non-profit organizations, and private pharmaceutical companies around the world, following well-established guidelines for demonstrating safety and efficacy.

All eventual COVID-19 vaccines will, by definition, have been developed (and funded) during Trump’s administration. Trump is willfully antiscience and partisan, but that doesn’t logically mean that any vaccines developed under his tenure are necessarily of dubious safety and efficacy. 

One recent article in Foreign Policy noted that “If a vaccine comes out before the election, there are very good reasons not to take it.” Of course, there’s nothing magical about the election day as a marker of vaccine safety. A vaccine made available on election day, or even a few weeks later, would be just as safe as one that came out shortly before election day. The time required to conduct the research and analyze the data is the same, and if it’s been rushed into production, then a few weeks on either side of November 3 isn’t going to be relevant. As a practical matter, of course, a vaccine wouldn’t have a single national release day or timeframe. Front-line doctors and those at highest risk, for example, would likely get a vaccine before the general population. Due to inevitable logistical vagaries and practical reasons, the vaccine would be made available to different people in different circumstances at different times. 

Politics and Posturing

The larger question is why people would assume that Trump was telling the truth when he promised to have a vaccine ready so quickly. Trump and his administration have been characterized by routine falsehoods and exaggerations. On topics both insignificant and globally relevant, Trump seems incapable of telling the truth. Trump has made a laundry list of unrealistic, unachievable—and arguably unwise—goals ranging from buying Greenland to being added to Mount Rushmore to banning Twitter to building a Mexican-funded border wallThe Washington Post has catalogued over 20,000 false or misleading claims made by Trump, and The Atlantic has dedicated coverage to Trump’s extensive false and misleading claims about the coronavirus specifically

It’s curious, then, that his transparent electioneering promises and false statements about the virus are taken seriously. Overall, a recent PBS/Marist poll found that most Americans trust the information they get from, respectively, public health experts (84 percent); state and local governments (72 percent); news media (50 percent); and in last place President Trump (37 percent). 

 

If most people don’t trust Trump to give them accurate information about the virus (and polls show most people don’t), then why would they believe Trump’s campaign promise that a vaccine will (or may) be available before the election? 

If Trump had the political power to force the creation and distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine regardless of safety and efficacy, why hasn’t it already been done? America is in its eighth month of the pandemic; surely if Trump had the ability to override the process and rush out a vaccine—any vaccine, good or bad—for political benefit, he’d have done it months ago. It would appeal to his base (not to mention his ego, allowing him to crow about how he had made America great again after the evil, foreign “Wuhan flu” had attacked the country) and likely help cement a victory over Biden. If Trump could do what his critics fear he’s doing, he’d likely have done it by now.

Trump has long bragged about his popularity, power, and influence—claims that many of his critics have accepted and taken at face value. As a practical matter, the office of the president has less influence than most people assume (or fear). Even a president who has ran roughshod over many norms and usurped powers not afforded the office has been unable to implement many of his stated goals, stopped or slowed by many factors ranging from the Supreme Court to institutional inertia. Trump’s difficulty in getting his way is multiplied when dealing with private industry. 

The question is not whether the Trump administration has tried to, or even had some success in, influencing the vaccination development process or the messaging around it (for example, in one case a Trump letter had requested that state governors expedite not drug development but instead permits involved in setting up distribution sites.) The question is instead what effect, if any, it has had, or will have had, in doing so.  

We need not look far to see examples of vaccines (apparently) rushed into production based on political pressure; Vladimir Putin is a prime example. In mid-August, he announced that a vaccine for COVID-19, nicknamed Sputnik-V, had been approved after less than two months of testing on humans and that mass vaccinations would occur in October. As BBC News reported, “Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro has announced he will be asking for volunteers to test the Covid-19 vaccine developed by Russia. Russia was the first country to officially register a vaccine against the coronavirus on 11 August. But experts have questioned whether it has undergone the necessary testing. The Venezuelan government, which has received billions of dollars in loans from Russia, said it would be willing to take part in clinical trials.”

The concern raised among health officials (non-Russian ones, that is) is that the vaccine went ahead without what’s known as a larger-population study known as a Phase 3 trial, which vaccines in America and elsewhere are currently undergoing.

 

The situation in the West, and in the United States specifically, is markedly different. Not only are drug companies such as Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson actively recruiting tens of thousands of volunteers for Phase 3 trials at this moment, but they are unlikely to risk their reputations—not to mention bottom lines, through class action lawsuits—by rushing out a vaccine that’s ineffective or dangerous. In other words, they have a strong financial incentive to cover their own asses, not to cozy up to a politician who may well not even be in office in four months. There are myriad medical experts, pharmaceutical companies, and public health organizations that have far more to lose by producing a rushed ineffective (or, worse, harmful) vaccine than annoying the current president. As noted, whether Trump has been, or will be, significantly successful in influencing vaccine production to the detriment of vaccine safety remains unproven.

Fueling Vaccine Fears

MSNBC recently reported that about three in four adults around the world are willing to be immunized against COVID-19. A poll of nearly 20,000 adults from twenty-seven countries found that most would do so once a vaccine is available. “China was the most enthusiastic country with 97% of respondents indicating they would want to be vaccinated, while Russia was the least willing with only 54% interested to do so, the survey found. Still, it’s concerning that roughly one-quarter of people globally not intending to get a vaccine, said an expert from the World Economic Forum. ‘The 26% shortfall in vaccine confidence is significant enough to compromise the effectiveness of rolling out a Covid-19 vaccine,’ said Arnaud Bernaert, head of shaping the future of health and healthcare at the WEF.” 

The concern over Trump’s politicization of the vaccine can unfortunately easily be conflated with concern over the safety of the vaccine itself. Indeed this has already happened; the vaccine reluctance by some liberals hasn’t escaped the attention of right-wing pundits and news media. The conservative Daily Caller, for example, recently offered a profoundly misleading headline claiming that “Kamala Harris Promotes ‘Dangerous Conspiracy Theory’ About Coronavirus Vaccine.” 

In fact, Harris did not promote any such conspiracy theory; in an interview, she chose her words carefully: “I would not trust Donald Trump, and it would have to be a credible source of information that talks about the efficacy and the reliability of whatever he’s talking about. I will not take his word for it.”

Harris’s position is in fact mainstream; as noted, most Americans agree with her that Trump is an untrustworthy source of information about the virus and that respected public health officials should be listened to about the matter. On that note, Harris did say that “If the past is prologue, [scientific experts] will be muzzled. They’ll be suppressed. They will be sidelined because he’s looking at an election coming up in less than 60 days and he’s grasping for whatever he can get to pretend that he has been a leader on this issue when he has not.” 

In other words, if the president continues a well-documented pattern of ignoring, contradicting, or overriding medical authorities, then there is reason for concern about suppression of good science about COVID-19. Harris’s statements, while likely (and unfortunately) fueling vaccine hesitancy in this particular circumstance, hardly rise to the level of “dangerous conspiracy theory.” Harris pointedly did not say she would not take a vaccine if it were available before the election, and Joe Biden has said he’d take a vaccine as soon as it’s available. The Daily Caller piece is especially ironic given that Trump himself has repeatedly pushed misinformation and fears about vaccinations, including the long-disproven claim that vaccines cause autism. If anyone running for president can fairly be said to have a history of promoting dangerous anti-vaccination conspiracies, it’s Donald Trump. 

 

Yes, Listen to the Experts

The many who say they will put their faith in medical experts instead of Donald Trump are not engaging in conspiracy theory but instead critical thinking. And what do those experts say? 

World Health Organization Head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that “I would like to assure the public that WHO will not endorse a vaccine that’s not effective and safe.” The Surgeon General of the United States, Jerome Adams, said in a recent Senate hearing that “I’m using my bully pulpit as surgeon general to make sure the entire country understands that vaccines are safe and effective. And this COVID vaccine, I’m telling people to focus on the process over the politics and the people because the process is what will assure us that these are safe.” Joining him was Dr. Francis CollinsDirector of the National Institutes of Health, who echoed his sentiments. Federal Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn issued a statement that “We feel the urgency at the FDA just like everybody else does. We want a vaccine that is safe and effective, as soon as possible. But we’re not going to cut any corners.” 

Then there was the joint statement by the CEOs of nine vaccine makers that read in part, “We, the undersigned biopharmaceutical companies, want to make clear our on-going commitment to developing and testing potential vaccines for COVID-19 in accordance with high ethical standards and sound scientific principles,” pledging among other things to “continue to adhere to high scientific and ethical standards regarding the conduct of clinical trials and the rigor of manufacturing processes and only submit for approval or emergency use authorization after demonstrating safety and efficacy through a Phase 3 clinical study that is designed and conducted to meet requirements of expert regulatory authorities such as FDA.” Dr. Anthony Fauci, among many others, has also pledged that any eventual vaccine made available to the public will be safe and effective—and expressed doubt that it would be ready in the next few months anyway.  

Unless all these respected experts and companies are secretly colluding with Trump to falsely portray an eventual vaccine as safe—which would indeed be a remarkable conspiracy theory—we can be fairly certain that procedures are indeed being followed in vaccine development and thus fears about vaccine safety are as yet unfounded. 

There have been several acknowledged missteps by America’s public health agencies, from mixed messages about mask wearing to invalid testing kits. However, we should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water and to avoid impugning legions of career medical experts who are doing their best amid political pressure to produce a COVID-19 vaccine. A stance that “we can’t trust the experts” is not only cynical but counterproductive. We can—and indeed must—trust medical researchers even if we don’t trust the administration they labor under. 

The anti-vaccination rhetoric is also a slap in the face to those volunteers currently in Phase 3 trials for the vaccinations. Are they stupid for having signed up? Is the implication that they’ve foolishly put themselves and their loved ones at risk by taking an “unproven” vaccine? Are their lives any less important than yours or mine, or someone who might take the vaccine on, near, or months after election day? As people of color have been disproportionately hit by the pandemic, volunteers from those communities are especially needed to participate, and the messages that vaccines may be dangerous (from any source) can only do harm.

Yes, of course the vaccines being tested are by definition “unproven” when they are still in clinical trials. But that doesn’t mean that they’re likely to be harmful—just that researchers don’t have enough data, don’t have a large enough sample size, to demonstrate safety or effectiveness to the usual standard. Even if a vaccine is rushed, the likely outcome would be a less effective vaccine than is optimal, not a less safe vaccine, because of the way vaccines are developed. Vaccines using inactivated (dead) or attenuated (weakened) pathogens, for example, are very unlikely to cause harm in otherwise healthy individuals. 

Those who oppose vaccinations can always point to (or, more often, cherry-pick) isolated cases in which a vaccine was later revealed to have been harmful, rushed into production, or have rare side effects. No medical intervention is 100 percent safe or effective, and vaccines are no exception. However, the overwhelming evidence is that overall, vaccines are both safe and effective, and as of now there is little or no evidence to suggest that COVID-19 vaccines under development—regardless of when they eventually become available—are any exception. 

A far greater danger is scaring people away from getting vaccinated in the first place. The chorus of those raising fears about vaccine safety (for whatever reason ranging from genuine fears to belief in conspiracies to virtue signaling and scoring political points) may be doing more harm than good. Vaccine hesitancy is a legitimate threat to public health, and it should go without saying that we should trust medical expertise over political promises. 

Sep 152020
 

My new article is on why some progressives have recently joined conservatives and conspiracy mongers in promoting vaccination fears: “The chorus of those raising fears about vaccine safety (for whatever reason ranging from genuine fears to belief in conspiracies to virtue signaling and scoring political points) may be doing more harm than good. Vaccine hesitancy is a legitimate threat to public health, and it should go without saying that we should trust medical expertise over political promises.”

 

While some may think that protests about vaccinations are a recent phenomenon, in fact the concerns date back centuries. There was resistance to the first smallpox vaccine, created in the late 1700s by Edward Jenner. Parents and the public—unfamiliar with medicine and how vaccination works—were horrified and disgusted when they learned that the vaccine was created by taking pus from the wounds of infected cows. That procedure was effective and saved countless lives, but still the British Anti-Vaccination League was created in 1853, asserting that the smallpox vaccine was dangerous, ineffective, and an infringement on personal rights. Over 160 years later, that theme continues to resonate strongly with anti-vaccination activists. 

‘‘Millions of human lives … have been preserved by the fruits of Jenner’s genius; yet today, thousands upon thousands of men, some intelligent though designing, some intelligent though deluded, the great mass of them fanatical and ignorant, decry vaccination as not only being of no service to humanity, but positively a nuisance injurious to health and life, while millions of our fellow men are utterly ignorant of, or indifferent to the matter.” This was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1896 by Eugene Foster.

Foster’s breakdown of the reasons people reject vaccination remain salient 125 years later: “Some intelligent though designing, some intelligent though deluded, the great mass of them fanatical and ignorant.” The demographics of vaccine refusal reveal an interesting pattern: despite overwhelming scientific evidence that vaccines are safe and effective, it is the more educated parents who tend to reject them through requesting exemptions for school-age children. As Nicholas Bakalar of The New York Times notes, “Exemption percentages were generally higher in regions with higher income, higher levels of education, and predominantly white populations. In private schools, 5.43 percent of children were exempt, compared with 2.88 percent in public schools. In some suburban areas, rates of exemption were near 50 percent.”

Part of the reason the anti-vaccination theme is so persistent is that it contains a strong conspiracy theory element. The belief is that the dangers and risks of vaccines are being intentionally hidden from the public by doctors and drug companies, in collusion with the government, for big profits. Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent, in their book American Conspiracy Theories, note that “Conspiracy theories about vaccines are partially to blame for decreased rates of vaccination and an increased incidence of disease.” (For more on this see Uscinski’s recent talk “Conspiracy Theories and COVID-19”.)

Vaccine Concerns

Historically, the anti-vaccination movement has been rooted in fears of contamination as well as complaints about infringement of personal choice. Both are rooted in distrust of the government and often embraced by conservatives. A recent twist reveals educated liberals who embrace and endorse vaccination in general but reject (as-yet nonexistent) COVID-19 vaccinations, specifically under the Trump administration. 

This is partly in response to Trump’s urging of health officials to speed the vaccination development process and promising voters a vaccine by the end of the year—or, he suggested, by November 1, a few days before the presidential election. Trump believes, with some justification, that his popularity and re-election chances hinge on his visibility of getting the virus under control and ending the pandemic.

In recent weeks, many social media posts and memes have circulated among progressives that urge vaccine hesitancy, at least in the case of an eventual coronavirus treatment. Typical examples include: “I would absolutely not take a coronavirus vaccine approved and administered under a Trump administration” and “I don’t trust this administration with my health at all. I won’t be getting a vaccine if Trump is still president unless some experts can convince me that it’s safe and effective.” 

 

These fears are based on several factors including the demonstrable incompetence of the Trump administration in containing the virus and Trump’s clear efforts to politicize the disease while often undermining medical experts. Yet Donald Trump isn’t a medical doctor and has little or no role in the development of vaccines; that’s not a function of the Executive Office. Instead, the vaccine development is being done by a variety of independent medical institutions, non-profit organizations, and private pharmaceutical companies around the world, following well-established guidelines for demonstrating safety and efficacy.

All eventual COVID-19 vaccines will, by definition, have been developed (and funded) during Trump’s administration. Trump is willfully antiscience and partisan, but that doesn’t logically mean that any vaccines developed under his tenure are necessarily of dubious safety and efficacy. 

One recent article in Foreign Policy noted that “If a vaccine comes out before the election, there are very good reasons not to take it.” Of course, there’s nothing magical about the election day as a marker of vaccine safety. A vaccine made available on election day, or even a few weeks later, would be just as safe as one that came out shortly before election day. The time required to conduct the research and analyze the data is the same, and if it’s been rushed into production, then a few weeks on either side of November 3 isn’t going to be relevant. As a practical matter, of course, a vaccine wouldn’t have a single national release day or timeframe. Front-line doctors and those at highest risk, for example, would likely get a vaccine before the general population. Due to inevitable logistical vagaries and practical reasons, the vaccine would be made available to different people in different circumstances at different times. 

You can read the rest HERE! 

Aug 032020
 

With statues being front and center in the news earlier this month, we decided to take a few tours of the stranger side of statues. From graveyard statues that take strolls when you’re not looking to spooky statues that allegedly can’t be photographed. Myths involving statues coming to life, or live people being turned to stone, is a rich vein of folklore that reaches forward even to our most recent pop culture. Ben recounts some cases he personally investigated of miraculous “weeping” statues, and then we cover statues as guerilla art pieces that appear mysteriously overnight as publicity stunts and political statements.

You can listen to it HERE! 

Jul 252020
 

As if on cue! Following my recent CFI article “The Truth About Covid Parties” and Squaring the Strange podcast episode on ‘covid parties,’ titled “Tonight We’re Gonna Party Like It’s Covid 1999” there’s a news article suggesting they’ve been confirmed!

A July 10 WOAI/KABB news story from San Antonio, Texas headlined “‘I thought this was a hoax’: Patient in their 30s dies after attending COVID party,” begins: “A patient in their 30s died from the coronavirus after attending what is known as a ‘COVID party,’ according to health care officials. Chief Medical Officer of Methodist Healthcare Dr. Jane Appleby said the idea of these parties is to see if the virus is real….According to Appleby, the patient became critically ill and had a heartbreaking statement moments before death.”

Sounds pretty grim, and for more details on this covid party death we can watch an accompanying video statement by Dr. Appleby: “I don’t want to be an alarmist, and we’re just trying to share some real-world examples to help our community realize that this virus is very serious and can spread easily. I heard a heartbreaking story this week: We cared for a thirty-year-old patient at Methodist Hospital who told their nurse that they’d attended a ‘covid party.’ This is a party held by somebody diagnosed with the covid virus and the thought is that people get together and to see if the virus is real and if anyone gets infected. Just before the patient died, they looked at their nurse and said, ‘I think I made a mistake. I thought this was a hoax, but it’s not.’ This is just one example of a potentially avoidable death of a member of our community and I can’t imagine the loss of the family.”

This is not breaking news but instead classic folklore (a friend-of-a-friend or FOAF) tale presented in news media as fact. The news story and headline presents the comment “I thought this was a hoax,” implicitly attributed to Dr. Appleby. But if you actually read past the headline and watch the video, she’s quoting what she was told that an anonymous patient told his (or her) anonymous nurse—just before the patient’s death. It’s an anonymous third-hand story with nary a verifiable name or claim to be found.

The “deathbed conversion” is a classic legend trope, and the explicitly-worded rebuttal (to those who might doubt that the virus exists) is both convenient and suspicious. It’s also interesting that covid-19 and covid parties are being conflated in the journalism. According to Dr. Appleby’s anonymous informant, the goal of the party is not specifically to intentionally spread the virus (which is the explicit goal of alleged covid parties) but instead “to see if the virus is real and if anyone gets infected.” In other words the topic is less whether the “covid parties” referenced in the headline are a “hoax,” but whether the covid-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2) is itself a hoax.

It is not, and frankly it’s hard to imagine anyone who genuinely thinks that the virus is fictional and doesn’t exist. Many people believe that the extent of the pandemic has been exaggerated for political purposes by the news media and others, and other people think that the virus is less severe than often claimed, perhaps only as bad as the flu. But who in the world would think that the virus itself is a “hoax”? The answer, according to Dr. Appleby, is the patient she refers to and unnamed others who allegedly threw a party thinking that the outcome would somehow settle the question.

Dr. Appleby’s story could, of course, be true, and it’s possible that in the coming days and weeks we will learn the name of the patient who died from attending a covid party (and/or the nurse who heard the patient’s dying regrets). Note that there’s no need to offer any identifying information about the patient, thus violating HIPAA rules. The nurse who (allegedly) had the first-person discussion could come forward to discuss the incident without violating any patient confidentiality agreements. More likely, however, this is a news story reporting a rumor as fact, and if anything it reinforces, not undermines, the idea that covid parties are largely or wholly fictional.

 
Jun 302020
 

In the new episode of Squaring the Strange, we take a look at Antifa this week, or rather–we take a look at HOW people are LOOKING at Antifa. Are we witnessing the birth of a modern social panic? How is Antifa used for political and social purposes? What are the actual statistics? What sort of similarities does it have to the Satanic Panic or the more recent Clown Panic? Along the way we learn the price of bricks versus hippie crystals and the best state in which to register a converted school bus.

 

Check it out HERE! 

Jun 222020
 

Extra Ordinary, a gloriously amusing Irish romantic comedy about the supernatural, begins with the obligatory, winking tagline “Based on a true story.” The ghost hunting genre is both ripe for satire and difficult to satirize effectively because it’s so self-evidently silly. From Ghostbusters to the Wayans brothers’ A Haunted House (2013) to the Scary Movie franchise and Repossessed (1990), there’s no shortage of funny paranormal-themed fare.

Nevertheless Extra Ordinary manages to mine fresh material with a clever script and endearing actors. Maeve Higgins stars as retired-ghost-hunter-turned-driving instructor Rose Dooley, who is contacted by a man named Martin Martin (Barry Ward). He hires her to teach him how to drive but soon confesses that the help he seeks is metaphysical. It seems that the spirit of Martin’s deceased wife Bonnie still haunts their family home—and not in a quaint way (such as mysteriously appearing “pennies from Heaven” or faint nostalgic whiffs of her favorite perfume), but in an annoying way, such as bitchy criticisms written on toast or a fogged bathroom mirror. Martin and his teenager daughter are at their wits’ end and need help.

Rose, however, will have none of it. She abruptly quit the ghost guiding business (“ghost hunting” wouldn’t really describe her vocation) years ago as a teen after the death of her father Vincent in a cursed road pothole—for which she understandably blames herself. Still, sensing Martin’s desperation she faces her fears and agrees to help. The grudgingly-unretired veteran is a tired trope (I can still hear Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven growl, “I ain’t like that no more”) but Higgins pulls it off.

Rounding out the lot of bizarro characters is Christian Winter (Will Forte), a musician-turned-occult devotee who had a single hit decades ago and has decided to stage a comeback—with the help of black magic requiring a virgin sacrifice. He and his grating wife Claudia live in an old castle—because of course they do—and soon the pair’s quest for a suitable sacrifice crosses paths with Rose and Martin’s quest to exorcise his home.

As a ghost folklore researcher I happen to run in some of these circles, and yes, many of the characterizations are spot-on. There’s the painfully earnest, self-proclaimed ghost/occult expert who confidently bloviates about types of ghosts, their “rules,” motivations and so on—while unwilling to admit that it’s all opinion and speculation. Vincent, seen in flashbacks via his cheesy videotaped series “Investigating the Extraordinary,” may have been modeled after 1970s and 1980s-era ghost experts such as Hans Holzer, John Zaffis, and Ed Warren, all of whom found far more success in self-promotion than collecting evidence of ghosts.

“Listen, that you may be enlightened by my ghostly endeavours!”

Framed in part as a cheesily “informative” series of VHS tapes on ghosts, Vincent drops nuggets of learned wisdom such as, “Do you ever have nightmares after eating cheese? You might have eaten a ghost. Even the weakest ghost can possess cheese easily, due to the living bacteria in the cheese.” The line is played for laughs, but it’s only a few shades from the truth. Many people believe, for example, that ghosts can be contained in rocks and trees—that a sort of residual haunting energy is recorded, stored, and then released, triggering ghost reports. Depending on which “ghost rules” you subscribe to, it’s perfectly reasonable to think that ghosts inhabit sliced cheese. Just as one person’s faith is another’s superstition, one person’s demonic shadow person is another’s blurry dark figure in the background of a photo.

The fact that Rose abandoned her psychic ghost communication career for a driving school instructor is par for the course. Ghost hunting is not a lucrative career—those who get rich tend to be de facto actors on “reality TV” shows such as Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures, not anyone doing real investigation or research. Because of this, it’s not uncommon for ghost hunters to have perfectly mundane day jobs as cashiers or accountants, and only go ghost hunting on weekends or special occasions.

Extra Ordinary also offers insight into the psychology of ghost experiences; just as psychic mediums and “sensitive” people do in real life, Rose sees signs (or “signs”) that ghosts are acknowledging her as she goes about her daily routine. Tree branches swaying in wind are waving at her as she passes, for example, and lids on rubbish bins open and close to greet her. Seen through her—that is, a “believer”—lens, for lack of a better term, it’s all quite ordinary. They see intent and meaning behind otherwise ordinary and random events. Martin also sees them, of course, but in his case they’re unmistakably paranormal and not ambiguous phenomena.

Amid this supernatural silliness there’s genuine chemistry between Rose and Martin; they’re both charming people rediscovering the magic of romance in middle age, and Rose is uniquely qualified to help Martin with his “ex-wife-orcism.” Extra Ordinary has fun with the tropes of the genre, absurdly mixing the magical with the mundane (such as when Claudia’s loud lunch munching distracts from Christian’s otherwise super-important ritual); this is a vein mined effectively by Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which high school halls hide both vampires and their predators.

There’s sight gags aplenty, including an unfortunately exploding goat in a ritual called “the gloating.” Ghosts get a little repetitive after a while so there’s also investigations into a handful of miracles, including a weeping deer head trophy. One running joke is that Rose seems to have never heard of the films being parodies; somehow The Exorcist and Ghostbusters never made it to the local video rental stores. The genre has not been played out, and Extra Ordinary is a low-key comedy with winning performances all around.

 

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

 

Jun 202020
 

We’ve all seen it on social media, especially Facebook. Some friend, or “friend,” or friend of a “friend,” posts a news story. Because it’s social media, the story is often selected (by human nature and algorithms) for its outrage factor. Amid the kitten videos and funny or cute memes, the news stories most likely to be shared are those that push people’s buttons—sometimes good news but more often bad news, tragedies, disasters, and the obligatory political outrage du jour. 

You read the headline and may Like or Share, but in the back of your head the news story may seem vaguely familiar … didn’t that happen years ago? In a world of twenty-four-hour news, it’s hard to remember, and on some level a lot of the stories sound (or are) basically the same: Someone killed someone in a gruesome way or because of some toxic motive. Trump said something that provoked (real or feigned) outrage. Some country implemented some new law affecting minorities. And so on. Even if it happened before, it must have happened again. 

Not long ago you could be reasonably certain that news was in fact news—that is, it happened recently and was “new.” But one of the consequences of getting news filtered via social media (as more and more people do) is that news organizations are further and further removed from their audiences. On television, in newspapers, or on news websites, the information is direct; you’re reading what a journalist (who presumably has some credibility to maintain) has to say about some given topic. News editors as a rule value breaking news, not old news. Unless it’s a special case (such as an anniversary of some significant event) or a retrospective, old news very rarely appears on broadcasts or on reputable news sites except in clearly-designated archives. 

On social media, of course, news is filtered through our peers and friends. Often it’s legitimate “new news,” but increasingly it’s old news misrepresented, mistaken for, or disguised as new news. This is a media literacy challenge, because old news is often fake news and shared by well-meaning people. News sharing on social media is less about the content of that story than it is about symbolic endorsement, or what’s been called virtue signaling. Liking or Sharing a news story doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve read it—much less understand it or can intelligently discuss it—but instead it’s often used as a visual badge representing your social and political views. If you’re concerned about environmentalism, social justice, immigration, politics, or anything else you can remind everyone where you stand on the issue. It’s sort of like bumper stickers on the information superhighway.

The Epistemology of Fake News

To understand why old news is often fake news, let’s take a brief look at epistemology, or the nature of knowledge. All of science is subject to revision and further information; new studies and research may always throw “facts” into the “former facts” category.

Science does not deal in absolute certainties, and it is possible—despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary—that smoking does not cause lung cancer, for example, and that humans are not contributing to global warming. Decades of research have established a clear causative link between these variables (smoking and lung cancer, human activity and global warming), but they are not 100 percent definitive; nothing in science ever is. 

Facts are only true at a certain time and under a certain set of circumstances. But the world is constantly changing, in ways both miniscule and dramatic, thus a fact about the world is accurate as of that time. It was once a fact that there were forty-eight states in the United States, but that no longer a fact; there are now fifty (including commonwealths). It was once a fact that the capital of the African state of Rhodesia is Salisbury; but Rhodesia no longer exists, and therefore that fact is a former fact, or more accurately the fact has been slightly changed to maintain its accuracy: “The capital of Rhodesia was Salisbury” remains a true fact. 

The point is not to revel in pedantry—though I’ve been accused of doing as much—but instead to note that many facts that we have incorporated into our knowledge base have changed and may no longer be true. That Texas is south of Canada has been true my entire life, but that my friend Amy is unmarried has not (she got married a few years ago). There are countless other examples, and they show why “is” and “was” are important distinctions, especially when it comes to news stories. Rehashing old news as new blurs the line between the two, sowing unnecessary confusion about what is true and what was true at one point (but may no longer be). 

This does not at all suggest that facts are subjective, of course, or that each person (or political party) is entitled to their own facts. But keeping in mind the important caveat that many people don’t read past the headline of a given news story, we see that recycling headlines makes misleading people likely. People don’t constantly update their knowledge about the world unless they have to, and thus typically rely on old (often outdated) information. 

Samuel Arbesman discusses this issue at length in his 2012 book The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date. He notes that “Ultimately the reason errors spread is because it’s a lot easier to spread the first thing you find, or the fact that sounds correct, than to delve deeply into the literature in search of the correct fact … . Bad information can spread fast. And a first-mover advantage in information often has a pernicious effect. Whatever fact first appears … whether true or not, is very difficult to dislodge … . It’s like trying to gather dandelion seeds once they have been blown to the wind.” The best way to stop the spread of misinformation is Skepticism 101. “There is a simple remedy: Be critical before spreading information and examine it to see what is true. Too often not knowing where one’s facts came from and whether it is well-founded at all is the source of an error. We often just take things on faith.”

We all know that recycling is good in the context of natural resources, for example. Good ideas can be recycled, because, as they say, there’s nothing new under the sun, and what works (or doesn’t) at one point in time, in a specific set of circumstances, may work (or fail) at another time under a different set of circumstances. At one point, for example, developments for electric cars were prematurely proclaimed dead (as seen in the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?) but today is a growing business. News stories are a different beast. 

Recycling Bad News

The news media go out of their way to emphasize bad or alarming news (“if it bleeds, it leads”), but social media compounds the problem. For the past year or two, I’ve noticed news articles from reputable sources shared on Facebook and other social media as if they were recent. Articles from 2015 and 2016 have been revived and given a new life, often shared and spread by people who didn’t know (or care) they were recycling old news. 

This is misleading because the posts rarely if ever include the date, instead showing merely the headline and perhaps a photo and the first sentence. So when unflattering events about Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, or anyone else circulate, they are likely to take on a second or third life. Sometimes the events themselves are clearly dated (tied, for example, to election results), but it’s often political stories putting a prominent person in a bad light that tend to get recycled. A news story about a natural disaster is unlikely to get intentionally seen again, because no one benefits from fooling others into thinking that another devastating earthquake recently hit Mexico, for example. 

But a news story about a single specific incident of, for example, a Muslim group killing innocent Christians, or vice-versa, may be revived multiple times over the years, giving the illusion that the events keep occurring when in fact it may have been a one-time event. News organizations would not intentionally present past events as recent news, precisely because people assume that what they’re seeing in news feeds is both timely and important. Social media users, on the other hand, have no qualms about sharing old or misleading content if it promotes some pet social or political agenda. To conservatives, old news stories that make Obama or Clinton look bad are just as relevant and useful today as they were nearly a decade ago. To liberals, old news stories that highlight Trump’s corruption or incompetence are equally useful. (The Russians, for their part, are just happy to stir up divisiveness.)

Information can always be weaponized, but old news is by its nature often weaponized; it’s recirculated for a reason. It’s not information for the sake of knowledge; it’s information that misleads for a purpose and shared by those trying to support a greater good.

Whichever President’s Nazi U.N. Vote

To offer one example, a CBS News article titled “U.S. Votes against Anti-Nazi Resolution at U.N.” has circulated many times in recent months on Facebook, invariably accompanied by commentary about how it’s (another) example of Trump refusing to condemn Nazis and white supremacists. 

 

The news story is accurate—it’s just several years old and in fact occurred under Barack Obama. 

This opens liberals up to accusations of hypocrisy by conservatives: If voting against anti-Nazi resolutions is patently wrong, racist, and un-American, then where was the outrage when Obama did it? (This is of course a bit of a false equivalence fallacy, since Obama and Trump do not have similar histories regarding race relations—and to be fair, there are many perfectly valid reasons a country would refuse to vote for a measure that is otherwise worthy but may have unwanted attachments or obligations.) 

The point here is not to set up any false equivalence between the administration on this issue—nor, certainly, to defend Trump—but instead to illustrate how the psychological tendency toward confirmation bias can affect us. A “no” vote on an otherwise not-particularly-notable U.N. resolution takes on special social media newsworthy significance in a context and under an administration that has come under fire for similar accusations of racial insensitivity or even outright racism. In one context, it’s a non-event; in another, it’s a (in this case, false) data point in a constellation of incidents suggesting Trump’s support of white supremacy. 

News reports of racist attacks were often attributed to Trump’s influence, for example when a ninety-two-year-old Mexican man, Rodolfo Rodriguez, was attacked with a brick in Los Angeles and told to “go back to his own country.” His jaw was shattered and he suffered multiple broken ribs. I saw the story circulate in 2019 as recent news, with commentary that this was obviously a result of Trump’s latest racist comments—except that the attack had occurred over a year earlier, and the attacker was an African-American woman, Laquisha Jones. 

While it’s possible the attack was influenced by Trump, it’s unlikely and we should avoid the post hoc ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of this”) fallacy. Some ugly racial incidents clearly are, some may be, and some are not; lumping them together serves no purpose. One can certainly argue that Trump’s words and actions have encouraged racial divisiveness in America, but using that specific news article or incident as an example is simply false and misleading. 

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.” There are plenty of other factually accurate news stories that could have made the same point.

The same applies to all recycled stories; the process, not the content, is the problem, and you can be sure that were a Democrat in the White House, the use of old, fake news would be just as robust. Facebook is aware of the problem and has recently introduced a small red “Breaking News” icon that appears along with (actually) new news stories, to help users distinguish new from old. 

 

 

But the ultimate responsibility lies with each social media user, who is after all the curator of their own newsfeeds. People need to take responsibility for what they share and (explicitly or tacitly) promote on social media. Every hoax or misleading meme can be stopped from going further by diligent—or even half-assed—efforts to not mislead others. It could be as simple as adding a caveat to the post such as “From 2015, and still relevant.” 

But this of course requires the person to spend a few seconds verifying the date—which is easy enough; it can be done simply by clicking on the link and noting the date, or often by merely hovering the cursor over an active URL, which often reveals the date (see below). 

 

Very few people generate new content on social media (and a significant portion of those who do are part of organized misinformation campaigns); most simply and blindly pass along whatever information they receive. In today’s misinformation-marinated world, skeptics and critical thinkers must be vigilant if they want to avoid becoming part of the problem. Otherwise socially and media literate people routinely admonish others to check their facts and demand evidence while actively share misinformation themselves. People can complain about misinformation and disinformation from Russia and biased news media all they like, but change begins at home.

 

This article first appeared at my CFI blog in 2019 and remains sadly relevant; you can find it HERE

 
Jun 162020
 

The twin plagues of COVID-19 and racism have come to the fore globally over the past few months, and as with any such afflictions there’s a social desire to scapegoat, finding someone (or some group) to blame. Parallels between the pandemic and racism are not hard to find. Earlier this month George Clooney referred to racism as America’s “pandemic,” for which we must find a “vaccine.” Street protesters as well can be seen holding signs encouraging people to “Treat Racism Like COVID-19.” 

The two are analogous in some ways, prompting some anti-vaccination crusaders to compare themselves to pioneering Civil Rights leaders, seeing themselves as victims of social injustice who will no longer be silent. As MacKenzie Mays noted in a September 2019 piece for Politico: “A chorus of mostly white women sang the gospel song ‘We Shall Overcome’ in the California State Capitol, an anthem of the civil rights movement. Mothers rallied outside the governor’s office and marched through Capitol corridors chanting “No segregation, no discrimination, yes on education for all!’ Some wore T-shirts that read ‘Freedom Keepers.’ But this wasn’t about racial equality. In the nation’s most diverse state, protesters opposed to childhood vaccine mandates — many from affluent coastal areas — had co-opted the civil rights mantle from the 1960s, insisting that their plight is comparable to what African Americans have suffered from segregationist policies. Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove said, ‘The whole conversation around vaccinations is actually one about privilege and opportunity. It’s a personal choice. It’s a luxury to be able to have a conversation about medical exemptions and about whether or not you think your child should be vaccinated.” However passionate Jenny McCarthy is, she’s no Rosa Parks. 

Racism and Anti-Vaccination

René F. Najera, editor of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s History of Vaccines website, recently examined the cross-pollination of racism and anti-vaccination efforts, highlighting an incident that came to the attention of the California Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus (APILC), which “denounced racist online postings from anti-vaccine people. One of those people is Rob Schneider, an actor and comedian who at one time had a television series on Netflix. This is not Mr. Schneider’s first foray into the cultural discussion on vaccination … The posts denounced by APILC includes Mr. Schneider’s comparison of Richard Pan, MD, to Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China and author of several atrocities within China and the expansion of Communism around China’s sphere of influence in the post-World War 2 era. Dr. Pan is a child of Taiwanese immigrants to the United States…. In another post denounced by APILC, ‘Christine Lee’ posted a photoshopped poster of members of the California Legislature who have Asian heritage. In the text of the posting, she asks several leading questions, such as ‘Notice anything else about them?’ after pointing out that they are ‘all doctors-turned-politicians.’ (The implication being that they are all of Asian descent?) The final posting being denounced is that of ‘Cathy S-R,’ a self-described ‘Doctor of Chiropractic, medical freedom supporter, informed consent, dog/cat lover.’ In her posting to Twitter, she asks Dr. Pan if he is an American citizen [and] then contradicts her initial insinuation about Dr. Pan’s citizenship by stating that Dr. Pan ‘[m]ake [his] country proud.’” 

It’s not just Asians, of course—though prejudice toward them has increased with their association with COVID-19 and its origin in Wuhan, China. University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire professor David Shih notes that “People of color have been long associated with disease and public health pandemics. In the United States alone, the history of racialization cannot be separated from the discourse of non-white bodily or mental illness … I would like to focus on black Americans, and the influential story told about them by a single man, Frederick L. Hoffman. Hoffman was an actuary for the Prudential Life Insurance Company when he published Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro (1896). The 330-page document argued that black people should not be insured because they were a greater risk for mortality compared to other racial groups. Their lower life expectancies were directly related, Hoffman explained, to inferior, inherited racial traits which promised their eventual extinction as a people. Flawed as it was and critiqued by no less than W.E.B. DuBois in its day, Hoffman’s diagnosis was widely adopted by the insurance industry and went on to shape public debate over the ‘Negro question’ … Blackness was, quite simply, a public health problem. One of the reasons why we are not talking about the anti-vaccination movement as white is because we talk about geography and social class instead. These demographic characteristics often stand in as proxies for race, which is more controversial.” 

Nevertheless, race does occasionally come to the fore. In The Kiss of Death: Contagion, Contamination, and Folklore, professor Andrea Kitta examines the characteristics of well-known “patient zeros and superspreaders” of various diseases, including Mary Mallon (“Typhoid Mary”), Amber Vinson (the Texas nurse who contracted Ebola in 2014), and Chong Pei Ling (SARS victim in 2003). Notably, “of the thirteen cases listed, only four are ‘white’” (p. 34). The perceived link between nonwhite skin and contagion is clear and helps form the basis for initiatives to close America’s borders. The fear of foreigners and immigrants bringing disease to the country was of course raised a few years ago when a Fox News contributor suggested without evidence that a migrant caravan from Honduras and Guatemala coming through Mexico carried leprosy, smallpox, and other dreaded diseases. This claim was quickly debunked. For more on COVID-19 racist conspiracies, see my previous article in this series. 

New Age, Holistic Healers, and Conspiracies

Conspiracy theories are common among alternative medicine proponents—who often portray themselves as marginalized medical professionals denied the imprimatur of mainstream medicine—and some bleed over into racism. One prominent proponent is Kelly Brogan, a “holistic psychiatrist” who has gathered a huge following online for her dangerous theories about COVID-19, made in interviews and a series of videos. 

Brogan invokes Jewish history and the Holocaust in her arguments against vaccination, “suggesting the possibility that the US government is planning to ‘link our passports with our vaccination records’ as a method of gaining ‘totalitarian governmental control not unlike the divide-and-conquer dehumanization agendas that preceded the Holocaust.’” Brogan, associated with Gwyneth Paltrow’s New Age company Goop, was found to have misstated her credentials. On her website, she claimed that she was board certified in psychiatry and psychosomatic medicine/consultation psychiatry, but a search of records found that she was not; after an investigation by The Daily Beast, Brogan quietly deleted the references to her certifications. 

On social media, Brogan has shared videos with titles such as “Vaccine Conspiracy or Racist Population Control Campaign,” a 2014 video from anti-vaccination activist Celesta McGovern reprising longstanding rumors about attempts to sterilize Africans. The claims were soon debunked on the Science-Based Medicine website but have continued to circulate widely. There are many examples of racism in medicine, but the campaign Brogan highlights is, ironically, not among them. 

Many other alternative medicine and holistic websites also promote anti-vaccination conspiracies. NaturalNews, Mike “The Health Ranger” Adams, and others, for example, have widely shared bogus “news” stories attempting to discredit mainstream science, with headlines such as “Tetanus vaccines found spiked with sterilization chemical to carry out race-based genocide against Africans.” It’s all thrown into a toxic stew of misinformation about the dangers of vaccines, GMOs, cell phones, you name it. 

Like all conspiracy theories, these rumors and stories have a superficial plausibility, and gain traction by tapping into deep-seated—and often legitimate—concerns and fears. There is of course a long and well-documented history of racism in medicine, from the Tuskegee Experiments beginning in the 1930s to disparate healthcare treatment. When two French doctors recently suggested that a tuberculosis vaccine should be tested on Africans to see if it could be effective against COVID-19, the comments were denounced as racist and relics of a colonial past by the head of the World Health Organization (WHO). “Shouldn’t we do this study in Africa, where there are no masks, no treatment, no resuscitation, a bit like some studies on AIDS, where among prostitutes, we try things, because they are exposed, and they don’t protect themselves?” asked physician Jean-Paul Mira. The WHO called the comments “appalling” and said that any WHO-led vaccine testing will follow the same standards regardless of where it’s done. 

Folklorist Patricia Turner, in her book I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture, observes that “African-American mistrust of governmental agencies is not without merit … Official disrespect for the bodies of African-Americans has a long history in this country” (p. 112). Medicalized racism is real, harmful, and a serious problem, but that doesn’t mean that any given wild conspiracy theory is true.

Brogan’s attempt to paint the medical establishment as racist is ironic given her own history of promoting conspiracy theorist David Icke—who claims among many other things that Barack Obama is a Reptilian (when not spewing racist tropes). As The New York Times noted, “Mr. Icke draws on ideas from the anti-Semitic pamphlet The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, argues that Holocaust denial should be taught in schools and that Jews are responsible for organizing anti-Semitic attacks, and calls the Talmud a racist document. In other writings, he has posited that a cabal of a child-sacrificing, bloodthirsty lizard people, many of whom are Jewish, are secretly running the world.” 

In a March 20, 2020, post, Brogan encouraged her followers to “listen through to the end [of an interview with Icke] to learn how to remain calm and manifest the impossible.” Regarding COVID-19, she states that in fact “there is potentially no such thing as the coronavirus.” Brogan seems to decry racism conspiracy when it serves her anti-vaccination purposes, and promote racism conspiracy—or at least those who do—when it suits her.

Anti-vaccination wellness influencers such as Brogan are also actively sharing conspiracy theories from far-right groups such as QAnon about COVID-19. A recent Mother Jones article found that “Some have fused wellness hoaxes and pseudoscientific homeopathic treatments with QAnon and other far-right conspiracies. One such notable influencer is Joseph Arena, a chiropractor who uses the title ‘Dr.’ and has more than 40,000 followers. Arena has pushed explicit QAnon theories about massive pedophile rings run by the deep state on his Instagram account and has directed his followers to pro-QAnon pages to find ‘the truth.’… Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai, a biology PhD [with] nearly 100,000 followers, pushes QAnon-styled conspiracies about “deep state” [including] that the coronavirus is a tool for the ‘deep state’ in ‘consolidating its Power using its protected class of Hollywood & Academic whores.’”

Plandemic 

The recent Plandemic video is laden with conspiracies and hints darkly at motivations in its attacks on Dr. Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates. For example, as to the claims made about Fauci in Plandemic, former New York police officer Mitch Danzig, notes in an article for The Jewish Journal that “The NIAID, under Fauci’s leadership since 1984, provides dozens of grants to labs researching infectious diseases. These grants weren’t awarded to work on COVID-19. Many were, however, awarded to perform work on SARS, which spread across the world in 2003. The NIAID also didn’t give the funds directly to the Wuhan Institute. The grants were given instead to the EcoHealth Alliance, which invests in health research globally that led to at least 20 research papers on pre-COVID-19 coronaviruses published over the past six years. The grant referenced in these breathless, innuendo-filled stories about Fauci also wasn’t the first awarded by the NIAID to the EcoHealth Alliance. The NIAID has been providing grants to EcoHealth Alliance to fund infectious disease research projects all over the world, including in Chinese institutes, since 2005. This ‘smoking gun’ that Fauci conspiracy theorists keep touting is about as big a ‘Nothing Burger’ as one can imagine. But it is about as demonstrative of the claim that Fauci is responsible for COVID-19 as pointing to a specific Jew being the president of CBS as ‘proof’ that the ‘Jews control the media.’ To say that these conspiracy theories about Gates and Fauci, which often are promoted by a cohort of anti-vaxxers as well as anti-Semites, are specious and baseless, is to be kind.” 

Anti-vaccination advocates are of course not alone in spreading medical misinformation for social and political purposes; anti-abortion groups have been known to spread false rumors about contraception being secretly given instead of tetanus vaccines to women in developing countries. 

The protests about race relations and reopening the country are also being shared and eagerly amplified for political purposes by America’s enemies. In a Washington Post piece, Ishaan Tharoor noted that along with American citizens watching the racial rioting and protests, “America’s putative foreign adversaries also are watching. ‘This incident is far from the first in a series of lawless conduct and unjustified violence from U.S. law enforcement,’ the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, adding to the Kremlin’s long history of pointing to human rights abuses in the United States. ‘American police commit such high-profile crimes all too often.’ Officials in Iran did the same, calling out racial injustice in America. ‘If you’re dark-skinned walking in the US, you can’t be sure you’ll be alive in the next few minutes,’ read a tweet from an account associated with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, which was accompanied by a video that detailed the horrific history of slavery in the United States. And then there was China. Already locked in a spiraling geopolitical confrontation with Washington, officials in Beijing seized on the protests to push back against the Trump administration’s assertive messaging on Hong Kong, a city whose unique autonomy is being dramatically curtailed by China.” China in particular is especially sensitive to the widespread criticism of its early handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, and its leaders may feel a sense of schadenfreude in America’s troubles. 

Who’s spurring the racial protests? Conspiracies point to any number of people, including rich Jewish businessmen such as George Soros who are allegedly hiring fake protesters. (In fact, this has been debunked.) Who’s spreading COVID-19? Rich liberals such as Bill Gates, hoping to become even richer. (In fact, this also has been debunked.)

Not all alternative medicine proponents are anti-vaccine, of course, just as not all anti-vaccination activists are conspiracy theorists, right-wing, racist, or all three. However, it’s not surprising that a Venn diagram reveals considerable overlap among the worldviews. Conspiracy is inherent in anti-vaccination belief, because Big Pharma has allegedly invested untold fortunes in keeping the “truth” about vaccines from public knowledge—despite, of course, widespread knowledge of precisely such anti-vaccination claims. 

People across the political spectrum believe conspiracy theories, and they all share a common worldview, one which is fundamentally distrustful of authority and anti-establishment. All pride themselves on being independent thinkers, a special breed of “woke” folk who are smart enough to separate themselves from the sheeple and not be swayed by what “They” want you to think. Theirs is a world in which world events are part of a Master Plan orchestrated by a Jewish cabal, the Illuminati, Bill Gates, Big Pharma, or whoever else. 

Racism, conspiracy thinking, and the rejection of science are all toxic problems, made worse when combined with the chaos and uncertainty of a pandemic. Fortunately, these are all learned behaviors that can be conquered. The best inoculations against misinformation are critical thinking, media literacy, and skepticism.

 

This is the sixth in a series of original articles on the COVID-19 pandemic by the Center for Inquiry as part of its Coronavirus Resource Center, created to help the public address the crisis with evidence-based information. A different version of this article appeared 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! 

 

May 152020
 

With all the recent news, here’s a timely passage from a recent article I wrote:

“One element of conspiracy thinking is that those who disagree are either stupid (gullible ‘sheeple’ who believe and parrot everything they see in the ‘mainstream media’) or simply lying (experts and journalists who know the truth but are intentionally misleading the public). This ‘If You Disagree with Me, Are You Stupid or Dishonest?’ worldview has little room for uncertainty or charity and misunderstands the situation. It’s not that epidemiologists and other health officials have all the data they need to make good decisions and projections about public health and are instead carefully considering ways to fake data to deceive the public. It’s that they don’t have all the data they need to make better predictions, and as more information comes in, the advice will get more accurate.”

You can read the piece 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! 

May 142020
 

So this is cool… I’m quoted in a recent article in Rolling Stone about rumors of “coronavirus parties.” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the surface, this sounds fairly straightforward: parties where people are intentionally trying to get a potentially deadly illness? Scary! They even used a Trump-esque exclamation point to drive the point home, so you know they mean business. And to be fair, the concept of “coronavirus parties” had previously gotten ink in none other than the New York Times, in an op-ed by epidemiologist Greta Bauer referring to “rumblings” about people hosting events “where noninfected people mingle with an infected person in an effort to catch the virus.” The piece enumerates the many reasons why such parties are a bad idea, including the fact that researchers know very little about coronavirus immunity, without citing direct evidence of the existence of these parties to begin with.

There’s good reason for this, says urban folklorist Benjamin Radford: “coronavirus parties” are probably BS. “They’re a variation of older disease urban legends such as the ‘bug chaser’ stories about people trying to get AIDS,” he tells Rolling Stone, referring to a brief spate in the early-aughts when so-called “bug-chasing” parties were subject to extensive media coverage (including a controversial story by this magazine). Such stories fed into a general sense of “moral panic” over the disease, resulting in it sticking around in the public imagination regardless of the lack of supporting evidence.

You can read the piece 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! 

May 102020
 

This installment finishes our discussion on three missing persons cases that Ben, Celestia, and Kenny followed in real time and tracked with psychic detective predictions on how the cases would play out. Part 2 features Ben’s examination of the Harley Dilly case, a teenager who went missing in December of 2019. The same content warning applies: we must discuss some details of the case that may be disturbing to some listeners. With these three case studies, it becomes clear how well-meaning (and sometimes not-so-well-meaning) psychics gum up the works at police departments and cause distress to the families as tragedies occur. With social media, this effect is increased with the second-wave effect as followers on social media send and resend a psychic’s prediction to authorities. 

 

You can listen HERE!

 

May 012020
 

The current issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine features an investigation I did into a famous mystery, the Chase Vault in Barbados. Coffins were said to have mysteriously moved while sealed in the vault, attributed to curses, ghosts, flooding, and more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I visited the site twice and solved the mystery; you can read about it, and listen to our episode of Squaring the Strange: http://squaringthestrange.libsyn.com/episode-97-the-dancing…

Apr 232020
 

My article examines uncertainties in covid-19 data, from infection to death rates. While some complain that pandemic predictions have been exaggerated for social or political gain, that’s not necessarily true; journalism always exaggerates dangers, highlighting dire predictions. But models are only as good as the data that goes into them, and collecting valid data on disease is inherently difficult. People act as if they have solid data underlying their opinions, but fail to recognize that we don’t have enough information to reach valid conclusion…

You can read Part 1 Here.

 

Certainty and the Unknown Knowns

The fact that our knowledge is incomplete doesn’t mean that we don’t know anything about the virus; quite the contrary, we have a pretty good handle on the basics including how it spreads, what it does to the body, and how the average person can minimize their risk. 

Humans crave certainty and binary answers, but science can’t offer it. The truth is that we simply don’t know what will happen or how bad it will get. For many aspects of COVID-19, we don’t have enough information to make accurate predictions. In a New York Times interview, one victim of the disease reflected on the measures being taken to stop the spread of the disease: “We could look back at this time in four months and say, ‘We did the right thing’—or we could say, ‘That was silly … or we might never know.’” 

There are simply too many variables, too many factors involved. Even hindsight won’t be 20/20 but instead be seen by many through a partisan prism. We can never know alternative history or what would have happened; it’s like the concern over the “Y2K bug” two decades ago. Was it all over nothing? We don’t know because steps were taken to address the problem. 

But uncertainty has been largely ignored by pundits and social media “experts” alike who routinely discuss and debate statistics while glossing over—or entirely ignoring—the fact that much of it is speculation and guesswork, unanchored by any hard data. It’s like hotly arguing over what exact time a great-aunt’s birthday party should be on July 4, when all she knows is that she was born sometime during the summer. 

So, if we don’t know, why do people think they know or act as if they know? 

Part of this is explained by what in psychology is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect: “in many areas of life, incompetent people do not recognize—scratch that, cannot recognize—just how incompetent they are … . Logic itself almost demands this lack of self-insight: For poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack. To know how skilled or unskilled you are at using the rules of grammar, for instance, you must have a good working knowledge of those rules, an impossibility among the incompetent. Poor performers—and we are all poor performers at some things—fail to see the flaws in their thinking or the answers they lack.” 

Most people don’t know enough about epidemiology, statistics, or research design to have a good idea of how valid disease data and projections are. And of course, there’s no reason they would have any expertise in those fields, any more than the average person would be expected to have expertise in dentistry or theater. But the difference is that many people feel confident enough in their grasp of the data—or, often, confident enough in someone else’s grasp of the data, as reported via their preferred news source—to comment on it and endorse it (and often argue about it).  

Psychology of Uncertainty

Another factor is that people are uncomfortable admitting when they don’t know something or don’t have enough information to make a decision. If you’ve taken any standardized multiple-choice tests, you probably remember that some of the questions offered a tricky option, usually after three or four possibly correct specific answers. This is some version of “The answer cannot be determined from the information given.” This response (usually Option D) is designed in part to thwart guessing and to see when test-takers recognize that the question is insoluble or the premise incomplete. 

The principle applies widely in the real world. It’s difficult for many people—and especially experts, skeptics, and scientists—to admit they don’t know the answer to a question. Even if it’s outside our expertise, we often feel as if not knowing (or even not having a defensible opinion) is a sign of ignorance or failure. Real experts freely admit uncertainty about the data; Dr. Anthony Fauci has been candid about what he knows and what he doesn’t, responding for example when asked how many people could be carriers, “It’s somewhere between 25 and 50%. And trust me, that is an estimate. I don’t have any scientific data yet to say that. You know when we’ll get the scientific data? When we get those antibody tests out there.” 

Yet there are many examples in our everyday lives when we simply don’t have enough information to reach a logical or valid conclusion about a given question, and often we don’t recognize that fact. We routinely make decisions based on incomplete information, and unlike on standardized tests, in the real world of messy complexities there are not always clear-cut objectively verifiable answers to settle the matter. 

This is especially true online and in the context of a pandemic. Few people bother to chime in on social media discussions or threads to say that there’s not enough information given in the original post to reach a valid conclusion. People blithely share information and opinions without having the slightest clue as to whether it’s true or not. But recognizing that we don’t have enough information to reach a valid conclusion demonstrates a deeper and nuanced understanding of the issue. Noting that a premise needs more evidence or information to complete a logical argument and reach a valid conclusion is a form of critical thinking.

One element of conspiracy thinking is that those who disagree are either stupid (that is, gullible “sheeple” who believe and parrot everything they see in the news—usually specifically the “mainstream media” or “MSM”) or simply lying (experts and journalists across various media platforms who know the truth but are intentionally misleading the public for political or economic gain). This “If You Disagree with Me, Are You Stupid or Dishonest?” worldview has little room for uncertainty or charity and misunderstands the situation. 

The appropriate position to take on most coronavirus predictions is one of agnosticism. It’s not that epidemiologists and other health officials have all the data they need to make good decisions and projections about public health and are instead carefully considering ways to fake data to deceive the public and journalists. It’s that they don’t have all the data they need to make better predictions, and as more information comes in, the projections will get more accurate. The solution is not to vilify or demonize doctors and epidemiologists but instead to understand the limitations of science and the biases of news and social media.

 

This article first appeared at the Center for Inquiry Coronavirus Resource Page; please check it out for additional information. 

 

 

Apr 202020
 

My new article examines uncertainties in covid-19 data, from infection to death rates. While some complain that pandemic predictions have been exaggerated for social or political gain, that’s not necessarily true; journalism always exaggerates dangers, highlighting dire predictions. But models are only as good as the data that goes into them, and collecting valid data on disease is inherently difficult. People act as if they have solid data underlying their opinions, but fail to recognize that we don’t have enough information to reach valid conclusion…

 

There’s nothing quite like an international emergency—say, a global pandemic—to lay bare the gap between scientific models and the real world, between projections and speculations and what’s really going on in cities and hospitals around the world. 

A previous article discussed varieties of information about COVID-19, including information that’s true; information that’s false; information that’s trivially true (true but unhelpful); and speculation, opinion, and conjecture. Here we take a closer look at the role of uncertainty in uncertain times. 

Dueling Projections and Predictions

The record of wrong predictions about the coronavirus is long and grows by the hour. Around Valentine’s Day, the director of policy and emergency preparedness for the New Orleans health department, Sarah Babcock, said that Mardi Gras celebrations two weeks later should proceed, predicting that “The chance of us getting someone with coronavirus is low.” That projection was wrong, dead wrong: a month later the city would have one of the worst outbreaks of COVID-19 in the country, with correspondingly high death rates. Other projections have overestimated the scale of infections, hospitalizations, and/or deaths. 

It’s certainly true that many, if not most, news headlines about the virus are scary and alarmist; and that many, if not most, projections and predictions about COVID-19 are wrong to a greater or lesser degree. There’s a plague of binary thinking, and it’s circulating in many forms. One was addressed in the previous article: that of whether people are underreacting or overreacting to the virus threat. A related claim involves a quasi-conspiracy that news media and public health officials are deliberately inflating COVID-19 statistics. Some say it’s being done to make President Trump look incompetent at handling the pandemic; others say it’s being done on Trump’s behalf to justify coming draconian measures including Big Brother tracking. 

Many have suggested that media manipulation is to blame, claiming that numbers are being skewed by those with social or political agendas. There’s undoubtedly a grain of truth to that—after all, information has been weaponized for millennia—but there are more parsimonious (and less partisan) explanations for much of it, rooted in critical thinking and media literacy.

The Media Factors

In many cases, it’s not experts and researchers who skew information but instead news media who report on them. News and social media, by their nature, highlight the aberrant extremes. Propelled by human nature and algorithms, they selectively show the worst in society—the mass murders, the dangers, the cruelty, the outrages, and the disasters—and rarely profile the good. This is understandable, as bad things are inherently more newsworthy than good things.

To take one example, social media was recently flooded with photos of empty store shelves due to hoarding, and newscasts depict long lines at supermarkets. They’re real enough—but are they representative? Photos of fully stocked markets and calm shopping aren’t newsworthy or share-worthy, so they’re rarely seen (until recently when they in turn became unusual). The same happens when news media covers natural disasters; journalists (understandably) photograph and film the dozens of homes that were flooded or wrenched apart by a tornado, not the intact tens or hundreds of thousands of neighboring homes that were unscathed. This isn’t some conspiracy by the news media to emphasize the bad; it’s just the nature of journalism. But this often leads to a public who overestimates the terrible state of the world—and those in it—as well as fear and panic. 

Another problem are news stories (whether about dire predictions or promising new drugs or trends) that are reported and shared without sufficient context. An article in Health News Review discussed the problem of journalists stripping out important caveats: “Steven Woloshin, MD, co-director of the Center for Medicine and Media at The Dartmouth Institute, said journalists should view preprints [rough drafts of journal studies that have not been published nor peer-reviewed] as ‘a big red flag’ about the quality of evidence, similar to an animal study that doesn’t apply to humans or a clinical trial that lacks a control group. ‘I’m not saying the public doesn’t have the right to know this stuff,’ Woloshin said. ‘But these things are by definition preliminary. The bar should be really high’ for reporting them. In some cases, preprints have shown to be completely bogus … . Readers might not heed caveats about ‘early’ or ‘preliminary’ evidence, Woloshin said. ‘The problem is, once it gets out into the public it’s dangerous because people will assume it’s true or reliable.’”

One notable example of an unvetted COVID-19 news story circulating widely “sprung from a study that ran in a journal. The malaria medicine hydroxychloroquine, touted by President Trump as a potential ‘cure,’ gained traction based in part on a shaky study of just 42 patients in France. The study’s authors concluded that the drug, when used in combination with an antibiotic, decreased patients’ levels of the virus. However, the findings were deemed unreliable due to numerous methodological flaws. Patients were not randomized, and six who received the treatment were inappropriately dropped from the study.” Recently, a Brazilian study of the drug was stopped when some patients developed heart problems. 

Uncertainties in Models and Testing

In addition to media biases toward sensationalism and simplicity, experts and researchers often have limited information to work with, especially in predictions. There are many sources of error in the epidemiological data about COVID-19. Models are only as good as the information that goes into them; as they say: Garbage In, Garbage Out. This is not to suggest that all the data is garbage, of course, so it’s more a case of Incomplete Data In, Incomplete Data Out. As a recent article noted, “Models aren’t perfect. They can generate inaccurate predictions. They can generate highly uncertain predictions when the science is uncertain. And some models can be genuinely bad, producing useless and poorly supported predictions … .” But as to the complaint that the outbreak hasn’t been as bad as some earlier models predicted, “earlier projections showed what would happen if we didn’t adopt a strong response, while new projections show where our current path sends us. The downward revision doesn’t mean the models were bad; it means we did something.”

One example of the uncertainty of data is the number of COVID-19 deaths in New York City, one of the hardest-hit places. According to The New York Times, “the official death count numbers presented each day by the state are based on hospital data. Our most conservative understanding right now is that patients who have tested positive for the virus and die in hospitals are reflected in the state’s official death count.” 

All well and good, but “The city has a different measure: Any patient who has had a positive coronavirus test and then later dies—whether at home or in a hospital—is being counted as a coronavirus death, said Dr. Oxiris Barbot, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Health. A staggering number of people are dying at home with presumed cases of coronavirus, and it does not appear that the state has a clear mechanism for factoring those victims into official death tallies. Paramedics are not performing coronavirus tests on those they pronounce dead. Recent Fire Department policy says that death determinations on emergency calls should be made on scene rather than having paramedics take patients to nearby hospitals, where, in theory, health care workers could conduct post-mortem testing. We also don’t really know how each of the city’s dozens of hospitals and medical facilities are counting their dead. For example, if a patient who is presumed to have coronavirus is admitted to the hospital, but dies there before they can be tested, it is unclear how they might factor into the formal death tally. There aren’t really any mechanisms in place for having an immediate, efficient method to calculate the death toll during a pandemic. Normal procedures are usually abandoned quickly in such a crisis.”

People who die at home without having been tested of course won’t show up in the official numbers: “Counting the dead after most disasters—a plane crash, a hurricane, a gas explosion, a terror attack or a mass shooting, for example—is not complex. A virus raises a whole host of more complicated issues, according to Michael A.L. Balboni, who about a decade ago served as the head of the state’s public safety office. ‘A virus presents a unique set of circumstances for a cause of death, especially if the target is the elderly, because of the presence of comorbidities,’ he said—multiple conditions. For example, a person with COVID-19 may end up dying of a heart attack. ‘As the number of decedents increase,’ Mr. Balboni said, ‘so does the inaccuracy of determining a cause of death.’”

So while it might seem inconceivably Dickensian (or suspicious) to some that in 2020 quantifying something as seemingly straightforward as death is complicated, this is not evidence of deception or anyone “fudging the numbers” but instead an ordinary and predictable lack of uniform criteria and reporting standards. The international situation is even more uncertain; different countries have different guidelines, making comparisons difficult. Not all countries have the same criterion for who should be tested, for example, or even have adequate numbers of tests available. 

In fact, there’s evidence suggesting that if anything the official numbers are likely undercounting the true infections. Analysis of sewage in one metropolitan area in Massachusetts that officially has fewer than 500 confirmed cases revealed that there may be exponentially more undetected cases. 

Incomplete Testing

Some people have complained that everyone should be tested, suggesting that only rich are being tested for the virus. There’s a national shortage of tests, and in fact many in the public are being tested (about 1 percent of the public so far), but such complaints rather miss a larger point: Testing is of limited value to individuals.  

Testing should be done in a coordinated way, starting not with the general public but instead with the most seriously ill. Those patients should be quarantined until the tests come back, and if the result is positive, further measures should be taken including tracking down people who that patient may have come in contact with; in Wuhan, for example, contacts were asked to check their temperature twice a day and stay at home for two weeks. 

But testing people who may be perfectly healthy is a waste of very limited resources and testing kits; most of the world is asymptomatic for COVID-19. Screening the asymptomatic public is neither practical nor possible. Furthermore, though scientists are working on creating tests that yield faster and more accurate results, the ones so far have taken days. Because many people who carry the virus show no symptoms (or mild symptoms that mimic colds or even seasonal allergies), it’s entirely possible that a person could have been infected between the time they took the test and gotten a negative result back. So, it may have been true that a few days, or a week, earlier they hadn’t been infected, but they are now and don’t know it because they are asymptomatic or presymptomatic. The point is not that the tests are flawed or that people should be afraid, but instead that testing, by itself, is of little value to the patient because of these uncertainties. If anything, it could provide a false sense of security and put others at risk. 

As Dr. Paul Offit noted in a recent interview, testing for the virus is mainly of use to epidemiologists. “From the individual level, it doesn’t matter that much. If I have a respiratory infection, stay home. I don’t need to find out whether I have COVID-19 or not. Stay home. If somebody gets their test and they find out they have influenza, they’ll be relieved, as compared to if they have COVID-19, where they’re going to assume they’re going to die matter how old they are.” 

If you’re ill, on a practical level—unless you’re very sick or at increased risk, as mentioned above—it doesn’t really matter whether you have COVID-19 or not because a) there’s nothing you can do about it except wait it out, like any cold or flu; and b) you should take steps to protect others anyway. People should assume that they are infected and act as they would for any communicable disease: isolate, get rest, avoid unnecessary contact with others, wash hands, don’t touch your face, and so on. 

 

A version of this article appeared on the CFI Coronavirus Response Page, here.

Part 2 will be posted in a few days.

Apr 182020
 

The new episode of Squaring the Strange is now out!

We chat about various Covid-related topics and then dive into a few examples of bad or misleading polls. First we go over a couple that don’t really set off alarm bells, like whether beards are sexy or what determines people’s beer-buying habits.

Then I dissect some bad reporting on polls and surveys that relate to much more important topics like Native American discrimination or the Holocaust, and we see how a bit of media literacy on how polls can be twisted around is a vital part of anyone’s skeptical toolbox.

 

Listen HERE!

 

 

Apr 152020
 

For those who didn’t see it: A recent episode of Squaring the Strange revisited a classic mystery: The Bermuda Triangle! The Bermuda Triangle is a perennial favorite for seekers of the strange; Ben still gets calls regularly from students eager to ask him questions about this purported watery grave in the Caribbean. We look into the history of this mysterious place and a few factors that influenced its popularity. What does the Bermuda Triangle have to do with a college French class? And what does a new bit of 2020 shipwreck sleuthing have to do with the legend? The one thing the Bermuda Triangle does seem to suck in like a vortex is a kitchen sink of very weird theories, from Atlantis and UFOs to rogue tidal waves and magnetic time-space anomalies.

You can listen to it here! 

Apr 122020
 

In February a headline widely shared on social media decried poor reviews of the new film Birds of Prey and blamed it on male film critics hating the film for real or perceived feminist messages (and/or skewed expectations; it’s not clear). The article, by Sergio Pereira, was headlined “Birds of Prey: Most of the Negative Reviews Are from Men.”

The idea that the film was getting bad reviews because hordes of trolls or misogynists hated it was certainly plausible, and widely discussed for example in the case of the all-female Ghostbusters reboot a few years ago. As a media literacy educator and a film buff, I was curious to read more, and when I saw it on a friend’s Facebook wall I duly did what the writer wanted me (and everyone else) to do: I clicked on the link.

I half expected the article to contradict its own headline (a frustratingly common occurrence, even in mainstream news media stories), but in this case Pereira’s text accurately reflected its headline: “Director Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), starring Margot Robbie as the Clown Princess of Crime, debuted to a Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. While the score has dropped as more reviews pour in, the most noticeable thing is that the bulk of the negative reviews come from male reviewers. Naturally, just because the film is a first for superhero movies—because it’s written by a woman, directed by a woman and starring a mostly all-female cast—doesn’t absolve it from criticism. It deserves to be judged for both its strengths and weaknesses like any other piece of art. What is concerning, though, is how less than 10% of the negative reviews are from women.” In the article and later on Twitter Pereira attributed the negative reviews to an alleged disparity between what male film reviewers expected from the film and what they actually saw, describing it as “literally… where a bunch of fools got upset about the movie they THOUGHT it was, instead of what it ACTUALLY was.”

I was reminded of the important skeptical dictum that before trying to explain why something is the case, be sure that it is the case; in other words question your assumptions. This is a common error on social media, in journalism, and of course in everyday life. We shouldn’t just believe what people tell us—especially online. To be fair, the website was CBR.com (formerly known as Comic Book Resources) and not, for example, BBC News or The New York Times. It’s pop culture news, but news nonetheless.

Curious to see what Pereira was describing, I clicked the link to the Rotten Tomatoes listing and immediately knew that something wasn’t right. The film had a rating of 80% Fresh rating—meaning that most of the reviews were positive. In fact according to MSNBC, “The film charmed critics [and is] the third-highest rating for any movie in the DCEU, just behind Wonder Woman and Shazam.” Birds of Prey may not have lived up to its expectations, but the film was doing fairly well, and hardly bombing—because of male film reviewers or for any other reason.

I know something about film reviewing; I’ve been a film reviewer since 1994, and attended dozens of film festivals, both as an attendee and a journalist. I’ve also written and directed two short films and taken screenwriting courses. One thing I’ve noticed is that for whatever reason most film critics are male (a fact I double checked, learning that the field is about 80% male). So, doing some very basic math in my head, I knew there was something very wrong with the headline—and not just the headline, but the entire premise of Pereira’s article.

Here’s a quick calculation: Say there are 100 reviewers. 80 of them are men; 20 are not. If half of each gender give it a positive review, that’s 40 positive reviews from men and 10 from women, for a total of 50% approval (or “Fresh”) rating. If half of men (40) and 100% of the women (20) gave it a positive review, that’s a 60% Fresh rating. If three-quarters of men (60) and 100% of the women (20) gave it a positive review, that’s an 80% Fresh rating.

Birds of Prey had an 80% Fresh rating. So even if every single female reviewer gave the film a positive review—which we know didn’t happen just from a glance at the reviews on RottenTomatoes—then that means that at least three out of four men gave it a positive review. Therefore it might statistically be true that “most of the negative reviews are from men,” but the exact opposite is also true: most of the positive reviews are from men, simply because there are more male reviewers. The article’s claim that “the bulk of the negative reviews come from male reviewers” is misleading at best and factually wrong at worst.

I also thought it strange that Pereira didn’t specify which male reviewers he was talking about. By “fools” did he mean professional film critics such as Richard Roeper and Richard Brody were overwhelmingly writing scathing reviews of the film? Or did he mean reviews from random male film fans? And if the latter, how did he determine the gender of the anonymous reviewers? It was possible that his statistic was correct, but readers would need much more information about where he got his numbers. Did he take the time to gather data, create a spreadsheet, and do some calculations? Did he skim the reviews for a minute and do a rough estimate? Did he just make it up?

I was wary of assuming the burden of proof regarding this claim. After all, Sergio Pereira was the one who claimed that most of the negative reviews were by men. The burden of proof is always on the person making the claim; it’s not up to me to show he’s wrong, but up to him to show he’s right. Presumably he got that number from somewhere—but where?

I contacted Pereira via Twitter and asked him how he arrived at the calculations. He did not reply, so I later contacted CBR directly, emailing the editors with a concise, polite note saying that the headline and articles seemed to be false, and asking them for clarification: “He offers no information at all about how he determined that, nor that less than 10% of the negative reviews are from women. The RottenTomatoes website doesn’t break reviewers down by gender (though named and photos offer a clue), so Pereira would have to go through one by one to verify each reviewer’s gender. It’s also not clear whether he’s referring to Top Reviewers or All Reviewers, which are of course different datasets. I spent about 20 minutes skimming the Birds of Prey reviews and didn’t see the large gender imbalance reported in your article (and didn’t have hours to spend verifying Pereira’s numbers, which I couldn’t do anyway without knowing what criterion he used). Any clarification about Pereira’s methodology would be appreciated, thank you.”  They also did not respond.

Since neither the writer nor the editors would respond, I resignedly took a stab at trying to figure out where Pereira got his numbers. I looked at the Top Critics and did a quick analysis. I found 41 of them whose reviews appeared at the time: 26 men and 15 women. As I suspected, men had indeed written the statistical majority of both the positive and negative reviews.

Reactions

On my friend’s Facebook page where I first saw the story being shared I posted a comment noting what seemed to be an error, and offering anyone an easy way to assess whether the headline was plausible: “A quick-and-dirty way to assess whether the headline is plausible is to note that 1) 80% of film critics are male, and that 2) Birds of Prey has a 80% Fresh rating, with 230 Fresh (positive) and 59 Rotten (negative). So just glancing at it, with 80% of reviewers male, how could the film possibly have such a high rating if most of the men gave it negative reviews?”

The reactions from women on the post were interesting—and gendered: one wrote, “did you read the actual article or just the headline? #wellactually,” and “haaaaard fucking eyeroll* oh look y’all. The dude who thinks he’s smarter than the author admits its maybe a little perhaps possible that women know what they’re talking about.”

The latter comment was puzzling, since Sergio Pereira is a man. It wasn’t a man questioning whether women knew what they were talking about; it was a man questioning whether another man’s harmful stereotypes about women highlighted in his online article were true. I was reminded of the quote attributed to Mark Twain: “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them they’ve been fooled.” Much of the reaction I got was critical of me for questioning the headline and the article. I got the odd impression that some thought I was somehow defending the supposed majority male film critics who didn’t like the film, which was absurd. I hadn’t (and haven’t) seen the film and have no opinion about it, and couldn’t care less whether most of the male critics liked or didn’t like the film. My interest is as a media literacy educator and someone who’s researched misleading statistics.

To scientists, journalists, and skeptics, asking for evidence is an integral part of the process of parsing fact from fiction, true claims from false ones. If you want me to believe a claim—any claim, from advertising claims to psychic powers, conspiracy theories to the validity of repressed memories—I’m going to ask for evidence. It doesn’t mean I think (or assume) you’re wrong or lying, it just means I want a reason to believe what you tell me. This is especially true for memes and factoids shared on social media and designed to elicit outrage or scorn.

The problem is when the person does occasionally encounter someone who is sincerely trying to understand an issue or get to the bottom of a question, their knee-jerk reaction is often to assume the worst about them. They are blinded by their own biases and they project those biases on others. This is especially true when the subject is controversial, such as with race, gender, or politics. To them, the only reason a person would question a claim is if they are trying to discredit that claim, or a larger narrative it’s being offered in support of.

Of course that’s not true; people should question all claims, and especially claims that conform to their pre-existing beliefs and assumptions; those are precisely the ones most likely to slip under the critical thinking radar and become incorporated into your beliefs and opinions. I question claims from across the spectrum, including those from sources I agree with. To my mind the other approach has it backwards: How do you know whether to believe a claim if you don’t question it?

If the reviews are attributable to sexism or misogyny due to feminist themes in the script—instead of, for example, lackluster acting, clunky dialogue, lack of star power, an unpopular title (the film was renamed during its release, a very unusual marketing move), or any number of other factors unrelated to its content—then presumably that same effect would be clear in other similar films.

Ironically, another article on CBR by Nicole Sobon published a day earlier—and linked to in Sergio Pereira’s piece—offers several reasons why Birds of Prey wasn’t doing as well at the box office, and misogyny was conspicuously not among them: “Despite its critical success, the film is struggling to take flight at the box office…. One of the biggest problems with Birds of Prey was its marketing. The trailers did a great job of reintroducing Robbie’s Quinn following 2017’s Suicide Squad, but they failed to highlight the actual Birds of Prey. Also working against it was the late review embargo. It’s widely believed that when a studio is confident in its product, it will hold critics screenings about two weeks before the film’s release, with reviews following shortly afterward to buoy audience anticipation and drive ticket sales. However, Birds of Prey reviews didn’t arrive until three days before the film’s release. And, while the marketing finally fully kicked into gear by that point, for the general audience, it might’ve been too late to care. Especially when Harley Quinn’s previous big-screen appearance was in a poorly received film.”

The Cinematic Gender Divide

A gender divide in positive versus negative reviews of ostensibly feminist films (however you may want to measure that, whether by the Bechdel Test or some other way—such as an all-female cast, or female writer/directors), is eminently provable. It’s not a subject that I’ve personally researched and quantified, but since Pereira didn’t reference any of this in his article, I did some research on it.

For example Salon did a piece on gender divisions in film criticism, though not necessarily finding that it was rooted in sexism or a reaction to feminist messages: “The recent Ghostbusters reboot, directed by Paul Feig, received significantly higher scores from female critics than their male counterparts. While 79.3 percent of women who reviewed the film gave it a positive review, just 70.8 percent of male critics agreed with them. That’s a difference of 8.5 percent… In total, 84 percent of the films surveyed received more positive reviews from female reviewers than from men. The movies that showed the greatest divide included A Walk to Remember, the Nicholas Sparks adaptation; Twilight, the 2008 vampire romance; P.S. I Love You, a melodrama about a woman (Hilary Swank) grieving the loss of her partner; Divergent, the teen dystopia; and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood… Men tended to dislike Young Adult literary adaptations and most films marketed to teenage girls. Pitch Perfect, which was liked by 93.8 percent of female critics, was rated much lower by men—just 76.9 percent of male reviewers liked it.” (There was nothing supporting Pereira’s assertion that critics, male or female, didn’t like films marketed to the opposite gender because of a perceived gap between what the reviewers expected from a film versus what the film delivered.)

The phrasing “just 76.9 percent of male reviewers liked Pitch Perfect” of course invites an ambiguous comparison (how many should have liked the film? 90%? 95%? 100%?). More to the point, if over three-quarters of men liked the obviously female-driven film Pitch Perfect, that rather contradicts Pereira’s thesis. In fact Pitch Perfect has an 80% Fresh rating on RottenTomatoes—exactly the same score that Birds of Prey did. We have two female-driven films with the majority of male reviewers giving both films a positive review—yet Pereira suggests that male reviewers pilloried Birds of Prey.

Perpetuating Harmful Stereotypes

Journalists making errors and writing clickbait headlines based on those errors is nothing new, of course. I’ve written dozens of media literacy articles about this sort of thing. As I’ve discussed before, the danger is that these articles mislead people, and reinforce harmful beliefs and stereotypes. In some cases I’ve researched, misleading polls and surveys create the false impression that most Americans are Holocaust deniers—a flatly false and highly toxic belief that can only fuel fears of anti-Semitism (and possibly comfort racists). In other cases these sorts of headlines exaggerate fear and hatred of the transgender community.

As noted, Pereira’s piece could have been titled, “Birds of Prey: Most of the Positive Reviews Are from Men.” That would have empowered and encouraged women—but gotten fewer outrage clicks.

In many cases what people think other people think about the world us just as important as what they personally think. This is due to what’s called the third-person effect, or pluralistic ignorance. People are of course intimately familiar with our own likes and desires—but where do we get our information about the 99.99% of the world we don’t and can’t directly experience or evaluate? When it comes to our understanding and assumptions about the rest of the world, our sources of information quickly dwindle. Outside of a small circle of friends and family, much of the information about what others in the world think and believe comes from the media, specifically social and news media. These sources often misrepresent the outside world. Instead they distort the real world in predictable and systemic ways, always highlighting the bad and the outraged. The media magnifies tragedy, exploitation, sensationalism and bad news, and thus we assume that others embody and endorse those traits.

We’re seeing this at the moment with shortages of toilet paper and bottled water in response to Covid-19 fears. Neither are key to keeping safe or preventing the spread of the virus, yet people are reacting because other people are reacting. There’s a shortage because people believe there’s a shortage—much in the way that the Kardashians are famous for being famous. In much the same way, when news and social media exaggerate (or in some cases fabricate) examples of toxic behavior, it creates the false perception that such behavior is more pervasive (and widely accepted) than it actually is. Whether or not male film reviewers mostly hated Birds of Prey as Pereira suggestedand they didn’t—the perception that they did can itself cause harm.

I don’t think it was done intentionally or with malice. But I hope Pereira’s piece doesn’t deter an aspiring female filmmaker who may read his widely-shared column and assume that no matter how great her work is, the male-dominated film critic field will just look for ways to shut her out and keep her down merely because of her gender.

There certainly are significant and well-documented gender disparities in the film industry, on both sides of the camera, from actor pay disparity to crew hiring. But misogynist men hating on Birds of Prey simply because it’s a female-led film isn’t an example of that. I note with some irony that Pereira’s article concludes by saying that “Birds of Prey was meant to be a celebration, but it sadly experienced the same thing as every other female-driven film: a host of negativity about nothing.” That “host of negativity” is not reflected in male film reviews but instead in Sergio Pereira’s piece. His CBR article is itself perpetuating harmful stereotypes about female-driven films, which is unfortunate given the marginalization of women and minorities in comic book and gaming circles.

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

A longer version of this article appeared on my Center for Inquiry blog; you can read it here. 

Apr 082020
 

As the world enters another month dealing with the deadly coronavirus that has dominated headlines, killed hundreds, and sickened thousands, misinformation is running rampant. For many, the medical and epidemiological aspects of the outbreak are the most important and salient elements, but there are other prisms through which we can examine this public health menace. 

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

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

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

The first case was reported in late December 2019 in Wuhan, China. About a month later the Health and Human Services Department declared a U.S. public health emergency. The average person is at very low risk, and Americans are at far greater risk of getting the flu—about 10 percent of the public gets it each year.

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

Lack of Information

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

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

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

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

Misinformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disinformation and Conspiracies

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

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

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

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

How to Get, Prevent, or Cure It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

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

The Global Grapevine: Why Rumors of Terrorism, Immigration, and Trade Matter, Gary Alan Fine and Bill Ellis

The Kiss of Death: Contagion, Contamination, and Folklore, Andrea Kitta

 

 

A longer version of this article appeared in my CFI blog; you can find it here. 

Apr 052020
 

In recent weeks there’s been many rumors, myths, and misinformation about the current coronavirus pandemic, Covid-19. One of the most curious is the recent resurrection of a posthumous prediction by psychic Sylvia Browne.

In her 2008 book End of Days, Browne predicted that “In around 2020 a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments. Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.”

This led to many on social media assuming that Browne had accurately predicted the Covid-19 outbreak, and Kim Kardashian among others shared such posts, causing the book to become a best-seller once again.

There’s a lot packed into these two sentences, and I recently did a deep dive into it. First, we have an indefinite date range (“in around 2020”), which depends on how loosely you interpret the word “around,” but plausibly covers seven (or more) years. Browne predicted “A severe pneumonia-like illness,” but Covid-19 is not “a severe pneumonia-like illness” (though it can in some cases lead to pneumonia). Most of those infected (about 80 percent) have mild symptoms and recover just fine, and the disease has a mortality rate of between 2 percent and 4 percent. Browne claims it “will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes,” and Covid-19 has indeed spread throughout the globe, but Browne also says the disease she’s describing “resists all known treatments.” This does not describe Covid-19; in fact, doctors know how to treat the disease—it’s essentially the same for influenza or other similar respiratory infections. This coronavirus is not “resisting” all (or any) known treatments.

She further describes the illness: “Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.” This is false; Covid-19 has not “suddenly vanished as quickly as it arrived,” and even if it eventually does, its emergence pattern would have to be compared with other typical epidemiology data to know whether it’s “baffling.”

You can read my full piece at the link above, but basically we have a two-sentence prediction written in 2008 by a convicted felon with a long track record of failures. Half of the prediction has demonstrably not happened. The other half of the prophecy describes an infectious respiratory illness that does not resemble Covid-19 in its particulars that would supposedly happen within a few years of 2020. At best, maybe one-sixth of what she said is accurate, depending again on how much latitude you’re willing to give her in terms of dates and vague descriptions.

Browne’s 2004 Prediction

But there’s more to the story, because as it turns out Browne made at least one other similar prediction with some significant differences. I discovered this a few days ago. I have several books by Browne in my library (mostly bought at Goodwill and library sales), among them Browne’s 2004 book Prophecy: What the Future Holds for You (written with Lindsay Harrison, from Dutton Publishing).

On p. 214, I found an earlier, somewhat different version of this same prophecy. Details and exact words matter, so here’s her 2004 prediction verbatim: “By 2020 we’ll see more people than ever wearing surgical masks and rubber gloves in public, inspired by an outbreak of a severe pneumonia-like illness that attacks both the lungs and the bronchial tubes and is ruthlessly resistant to treatment. This illness will be particularly baffling in that, after causing a winter of absolute panic, it will seem to vanish completely until ten years later, making both its source and its cure that much more mysterious.” 

Comparing this to her later 2008 version (“In around 2020 a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments. Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely”) we can see a few differences. 

It’s not uncommon for writers to revise and republish their work in different forms, sometimes changing or summarizing material for different formats and purposes. But in the case of predictions, it also serves an important, albeit unrecognized, purpose: It greatly increases the chances of a prediction—or, more accurately, some version of that prediction—being retroactively “right.” It’s one thing to make a single (seemingly specific) prediction about a future event; it’s another to make several different versions of that prediction so that your followers can pick and choose which details they think better fit the situation. 

Note that the earlier prediction—which said “By 2020” (a limited, much more specific date than “In around 2020,” which as I noted spans several years)—focused on “more people than ever wearing surgical masks and rubber gloves in public,” which was “inspired by an outbreak of a severe pneumonia-like illness that attacks both the lungs and the bronchial tubes and is ruthlessly resistant to treatment.”

It’s certainly true that surgical masks (and, to a much lesser extent, gloves) are much more common today than, say, in 2019, but that’s an obvious and predictable reaction—as Browne herself admits—to the outbreak she mentions. Had Browne predicted any respiratory disease outbreak and specified that more people would not react by wearing masks and gloves, that would itself be an amazing (if nonsensical) prophecy. While we’re on the topic of self-evident revelations, note that Browne’s phrase “Both the lungs and the bronchial tubes” is redundant and nonsensical, providing only the illusion of specificity, since bronchial tubes are inside the lungs; saying “both … and” is meaningless, like saying “both the face and the nose will be affected,” or “both the West Coast and California will be affected.” Either Browne doesn’t know where bronchial tubes are, or she assumes her readers don’t.

Note that “This illness will be particularly baffling in that, after causing a winter of absolute panic, it will seem to vanish completely until ten years later, making both its source and its cure that much more mysterious” was changed to “Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.”

Note that the qualifier “after causing a winter of absolute panic” was dropped from the earlier version—which is convenient for Browne, because the widespread panic surrounding Covid-19 didn’t begin in winter but instead in mid-March. (Of course, I’m not suggesting that Browne predicted in 2008 that her 2004 prediction would be wrong and changed the phrasing!)

Another noteworthy prediction dropped in the later edition was that the disease would seem to vanish completely after ten years, “making both its source and its cure that much more mysterious.” But “seeming to vanish completely” for a decade has nothing to do with whether “its source and its cure” are mysterious. The source of the outbreak has been pretty well established: Likely a meat market in Wuhan, China. The exact source, the specific name of the very first person that first had it (and where he or she got it from), the so-called Patient Zero, may never be known—not because it’s inherently “mysterious” but merely because epidemiology is a difficult task. 

It’s not clear what Browne means by a “cure” because viruses themselves can’t be “cured,” though the diseases they lead to can be prevented with vaccination. Like the common cold, influenza, and most other contagious respiratory illnesses, people are “cured” of Covid-19 when they recover from it. In any event, neither the source nor the “cure” (whatever that would mean the context of Covid-19) are “mysterious” by medical and epidemiological standards.

Browne’s Other Predictions

After I wrote a piece about Browne’s failed predictions, I soon received hate mail from many of her fans who defended the accuracy of her prophecy and demanded that I take a closer look at her predictions. So I did; many of her predictions are set far in the future, but I did find a few dozen in her book Prophecy: What the Future Holds for You that referred to events between the time the book was published (2004) and this year. Here’s a sampling, in chronological order:

• “There will be a significant vaccine against HIV/AIDS in 2005” (p. 211).

•  “The common cold will be over with by about 2009 or 2010” (p. 204)

•  “By around 2010, law enforcement’s use of psychics will ‘come out of the closet’ and be a commonplace, widely accepted collaboration” (p. 180).

•  “By around 2010, it will be mandated that a DNA sample of every infant born in the United States is taken and recorded at the time of the baby’s birth” (p. 182).

•  “In about 2011, home security systems start becoming common … The windows are unbreakable glass, able to be opened only by the homeowner … Doors and windows will no longer have visible, traditional locks that can be picked or tampered with. Instead the security system allows access … by ‘eyeprints’” (p. 169).

•  “There won’t be a successful manned exploration of Mars until around 2012” (p. 128).

•  “In around 2012 or 2013 a coalition of five major international corporations … will combine their almost limitless resources and mobilize a vast, worldwide, ultimately successful movement to revitalize the rainforests” (p. 105).

•  “By around 2014, pills, capsules, and even most liquid medicine will be replaced by readily accessible vaporized heat and oxygen chambers that can infuse every pore of the body with the recommended medications” (p. 209). 

•  “By the year 2015 invasive surgery involving cutting and scalpels and stitches and scars will be virtually unheard of” (p. 205).

•  “Telemarketers will have long since vanished by 2015” (p. 171).

•  “To give law enforcement one more added edge, by 2015 their custom-designed high-speed vehicles will be atomically powered and capable of becoming airborne enough to fly several feet above other traffic” (p. 190).

•  “The search for extraterrestrials will ultimately end in around 2018 … because they begin stepping forward and identifying themselves to various international organizations and heads of state, particularly the United Nations, NATO, Scotland Yard, NASA, and a summit being held at Camp David” (p. 127).

•  “By the year 2020 researchers will have created a wonderful material … able to perfectly duplicate the eardrum and will be routinely implanted, to restore hearing to countless thousands … Long before 2020, blindness will become a thing of the past” (p. 203).

•  “By 2020 we’re going to see an end to the institution of marriage as we know it” (p. 255).

•  “By about 2020 we’ll see the end of the one-man presidency and the costly, seemingly perpetual cycle of presidential campaigns and elections” (p. 135). 

•  “The year 2020 will spark an amazing resurgence in the popularity of the barter system throughout the United States, with goods and services almost becoming a more common form of payment than cash” (p. 140–141).

 

There’s more—oh, so much more—but you get the idea. Hundreds of predictions, mostly wrong, vague, unverifiable, in the distant future, some right, and so on. On p. 97 of Prophecy: What the Future Holds For You Browne claims that “my accuracy rate is somewhere between 87 and 90 percent if I’m recalling correctly.” Yet another failed prediction. 

 

Mar 292020
 

The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! The first of a two-parter, in this episode Celestia and Kenny Biddle each examined recent (then-current) missing person cases and closely examined how psychic detectives “helped” (or interfered) with each. A sobering topic but we think you’ll find it enlightening. Please check it out HERE!

 

Mar 232020
 

Our recent episode of Squaring the Strange is about literary hoaxes!

I discuss some “misery memoirs,” stories of victims triumphing over incredible hardships (Spoiler: “Go Ask Alice” was fiction). Celestia discusses newspaper reports of horny bat-people on the moon, and we break down the cultural factors that contribute to the popularity and believability of hoaxes. We end with the heart-wrenching story of a literary version of Munchausen by proxy, one that moved both Oprah and Mr. Rogers. Check it out HERE! 

 

Mar 082020
 

So this is cool: I’m quoted in an article on Bigfoot in The Mountaineer: 

If you wear a size 14 shoe, chances are some of your high-school classmates called you “Bigfoot.” But that doesn’t mean you are an ape-like beast who may — or may not — just be a myth. A 1958 newspaper column began the whole thing. The Humboldt Times received a letter from a reader reporting loggers in California who had stumbled upon mysterious and excessively large footprints. The two journalists who reported the discovery treated it as a joke. But to their great surprise, the story caught on and soon spread far and wide. Bigfoot was born. Of course, reports of large beasts were not exactly new. The Tibetans had a Yeti, familiarly known as the “Abominable Snowman,” and an Indian Nation in Canada had its “Sasquatch.”

Guess what? Cochran found out the hair did not belong to Bigfoot. It was sent back to Byrne, with the conclusion it belonged to the deer family. Four decades later, the FBI declassified the “bigfoot file” about having done this analysis.“Byrne was one of the more prominent Bigfoot researchers,” said Benjamin Radford, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer magazine. “In the 1970s, Bigfoot was very popular.”

You can read the rest of the article HERE! 

 

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