My new CFI blog examines a case study in online miscommunication, and offers tips on how to better understand each other on social media... I’m always fascinated by how thinking goes wrong. Given an Event A or a Factual Statement/Observation B, what are the ways in which people come to misunderstand the nature of that event or statement? Sometimes it’s the result of intentional deception or obfuscation, such as is often found in advertising or political speech. But more often it’s the result of critical thinking lapses, logical errors, or simply misunderstanding. It’s errors of interpretation, often of substituting what someone actually says for what we think they’re saying, or expecting them to say. To me, after solving a mystery or concluding an investigation one of the most important and useful questions to ask is: Why did people think it was something it wasn’t? Why did people get it wrong? In many cases where there’s written records we can fairly easily follow the chain of events and deconstruct the evolution of the idea. By understanding how thinking goes wrong—ideally taken from real-world situations instead of staid examples of informal logic taken from textbooks—we can help identify such patterns in our own thinking and hopefully improve communication. A few weeks ago on Facebook someone commented about what a disaster the Trump administration was for the environment, and as an example he specifically cited the EPA’s role in the Gold King mine spill, in which three million gallons of mine waste and tailings, including heavy metals and toxic chemicals, were accidentally released into the Animas river from an abandoned mine in southern Colorado. I pointed out that Trump wasn’t president at the time of the Gold King spill in 2015. I remember the situation well, in part because it affected my home state of New Mexico and the matter was widely reported for months. My brief comment was entirely innocuous: polite, factual, and neutral in tone. Yet, somewhat to my surprise, it was interpreted as somehow defending Trump or his disastrous environmental choices including appointing since-resigned Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA. My comment was in no way any defense of Trump, nor an indictment of the EPA under Obama; no political message was intended at all. I was simply correcting a minor factual error, just as I would if someone referenced Sydney as the capital of Australia, or thought that Breaking Bad was set and filmed in Phoenix. I had no agenda, no ulterior motive for the mention, other than to not let misinformation go uncorrected if I could spend ten seconds and type a response. As a writer I appreciate people pointing out my mistakes and errors, not only because I don’t want to misinform people but because I care about getting things right. But the interaction brought into sharp focus how many assumptions people bring to discussions, and especially ones of a political nature. The assumption seemed to be that anyone who points out a mistake is arguing for “the other side,” whatever that happens to be in the context—instead of, you know, just pointing out an error while not trying to make a point about any larger counter-argument... You can read the rest HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
This is cool: My work with Bob Bartholomew is referenced in an article titled "Information Literacy in a Fake/False News World: An Overview of the Characteristics of Fake News and its Historical Development" in the "International Journal of Legal Information." You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
my analysis of the fiasco—or maybe they should just hire the Japanese blogger for an hour’s work.That date was about a month ago, when The History Channel suffered one of the highest-profile blows to its credibility in, well, the history of the channel. Let’s recap: The 1937 disappearance of pioneer pilot Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan in the Pacific Ocean has been the subject of continuing research, debate, and speculation—most recently in a show titled Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence. Here is the History Channel’s explanation of the show’s premise: “Buried in the National Archives for nearly 80 years, a newly rediscovered photo may hold the key to solving one of history’s all-time greatest mysteries. On July 2, 1937, near the end of her pioneering flight around the world, Amelia Earhart vanished somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. Most experts, including the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, believe Earhart likely ran out of fuel and crashed into the Pacific Ocean. But no trace of the aviator, navigator Fred Noonan or her twin-engine Lockheed Electra airplane were ever found, confounding historians and fueling conspiracy theories ever since. Now, new evidence has surfaced in U.S. government archives suggesting Earhart might not have crashed into the Pacific at all, but crash-landed in the Marshall Islands, was captured by the Japanese military and died while being held prisoner on the island of Saipan. According to HISTORY’s investigative special Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence, airing Sunday, July 9, retired federal agent Les Kinney scoured the National Archives for records that may have been overlooked in the search for the lost aviator. Among thousands of documents he uncovered was a photograph stamped with official Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) markings reading ‘Marshall Islands, Jaluit Atoll, Jaluit Island, Jaluit Harbor.’ In the photo, a ship can be seen towing a barge with an airplane on the back; on a nearby dock are several people. Kinney argues the photo must have been taken before 1943, as U.S. air forces conducted more than 30 bombing runs on Jaluit in 1943-44. He believes the plane on the barge is the Electra, and that two of the people on the dock are Earhart and Noonan. As part of the program’s investigation, Doug Carner, a digital forensic analyst, examined the photo and determined it was authentic and had not been manipulated, while Kent Gibson, another forensic analyst who specializes in facial recognition, said it was ‘very likely’ the individuals in it are Earhart and Noonan.” If the photo is what it’s claimed to be, it means that the “lost” pair were alive and well on a dock in the Marshall Islands in 1937. That still doesn’t fully explain where they went after the photo was taken, and as noted the show suggests they were captured by the Japanese and died in prison on Saipan—a fact that the U.S. government knew about and covered up. Doubts were raised about that explanation before the show aired and quickly escalated afterward. The photograph was published in a 1935 Japanese-language travelogue about the islands of the South Pacific. Japanese blogger Kota Yamano found the book after searching the National Diet Library, Japan’s national library, using the term ‘Jaluit Atoll,’ the location featured in the photograph. National Geographic, perhaps with a hint of rivalry-inspired delight, noted that “In the wake of Yamano’s evidence, the History Channel and the documentary’s on-screen personalities have expressed various forms of concern and disbelief. ‘I don’t know what to say,’ says Kent Gibson, the facial-recognition expert that the History Channel hired to analyze the photograph for Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence. ‘I don’t have an explanation for why [the photograph] would show up two years early.’” Requests for additional clarification were not returned. In a July 11, 2017 statement the History Channel said that it has a team of investigators “exploring the latest developments about Amelia Earhart” and promised transparency in their findings, concluding that “Ultimately historical accuracy is most important to us and our viewers.” Erm, yes. Over a year has now passed, and apparently the History Channel’s crack team of investigators still hasn’t been able to figure out how exactly they could have been fooled. If they’d like some help, they can read
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: I know it's the end of July but Halloween isn't far away! This week, we dissect the myths and misunderstandings that surround Halloween. From tainted candy to evil predators, our boys take a bite out of these spooky Halloween treats so you don't have to! You can hear the show HERE.
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: Episode 39: A Diet High in Skepticism First we hear from photographic mystery investigator Kenny Biddle, who reveals how he solved the souvenir photo mystery Ben shared back in episode 37. Then, for the second part of our New Year’s resolution series, we dive into diet myths. Ben brings some surprising statistics that go against common assumptions about how diet-obsessed Americans are. Rather than being hyper-aware of every pound, it turns out we often don’t notice weight gain (on ourselves or our children), as our notion of ideal weight shifts over time. Those of us who doknow we need to drop weight rarely put much effort into it. We touch on the “fat taboo” and how doctors are sometimes reluctant to encourage obese patients to lose weight. Celestia reflects on how fat people, like cancer patients, are hit with a ton of “miracle” fat cures from well-meaning friends and acquaintances; and she examines scapegoating diet Coke and whether that lovely brown elixir really makes people gain weight. Pascual shares some dieting experiences of his own, including ketogenic diets and swapping out soda. Filled with anecdote and self-reporting, weight loss studies are uniquely difficult to parse—which is why so many headlines give contradictory information on what works best. You can hear the show HERE.
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: Episode 38: Bro-Science with the Credible Hulk (released December 28, 2017) TShe Credible Hulk (a.k.a. Matt) joins a very giddy Ben and Pascual to SMASH . . . er, I mean discuss different types of exercise woo. To start off, Ben recounts his investigation years ago of a ROM machine, billed as a miracle machine designed by a “modern day DaVinci” that condenses a complete workout into exactly4 minutes (for a mere $14,615). For a first category, Matt touches on the very fringe gym woo (cupping, etc.) and tells us it’s not that prevalent among serious bodybuilders, who have a vested interest in objective results. The next common pitfall the Hulk warns us about is the lure of anecdotal evidence (i.e., what the most muscular guys say works for them). A third category of gym woo comes from misunderstanding or overextrapolating from small amounts of existing data. An example of this would be the anabolic window, and Matt takes us through a biochemical tour of that concept. The fourth category Matt covers is supplement woo, which is a big topic: from marketing smoke and mirrors to digesting versus injecting, supplements can be a very confusing and expensive placebo or simply an alternate food source. Then the guys ask some questions about salty Gatorade gum, “roid rage,” shrinking testicles, juicing cadavers, blood doping, and ghosts messing up people’s drug tests. You can listen to the show HERE.
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: This week, Pascual gets skeptical about the “reason for the season,” namely Jesus, competing pagan solstice holidays, and Jesus mythicism. Whether Jesus existed is one of the few things that dips into “fringe” scholarship and conspiracy theories but is also taken seriously by many skeptics. Celestia suggests an alternate holiday tradition around the goddess Inanna’s striptease as she headed to the underworld. Then we get into the importance—and difficulties—of replication in science. Ben talks about replication in skeptical investigation, namely replicating some supposedly paranormal artifact like the Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot film in order to debunk it. The problem is that some quite mundane things are impossible (or very impractical) to replicate completely, and the burden of doing so does not rest with skeptics but with those making an extraordinary claim. Mythbusters had an unfortunate side-effect, convincing many laypeople that a crude replication with poor protocols can replace the scientific method. Yet some replications can be highly effective—such as when a magician shows they can get the same result as a psychic through mere trickery. Replication is absolutely necessary to science, however, and the current “replication crisis” is a concern. Pascual goes into the Mozart effect, which was never replicated, and the industry that nevertheless blew up around it. With so few funds to replicate studies, one hope is that science reporters will develop a better sense of discerning poor protocols, and kill stories based on bad studies rather than helping them go viral. You can listen to the show HERE!
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: Ben first reminds us all that the History Channel still has not made good on their promise to be transparent about their Amelia Earhart research debacle, and then the guys discuss a listener question regarding “asking questions” in a leading way. Then, for our main topic, we turn to Champ, the legendary monster said to inhabit Lake Champlain, which borders New York and Vermont. The best-known report of this monster is said to be from Samuel de Champlain himself in 1609—except it’s a falsified quote. Ben draws on his personal investigations of the legend, giving us an overview of the nineteenth century’s yellow journalism, the frequency and patterns of Champ sightings, and similarities to the UFO phenomenon. The best photographic evidence for any lake monster (after the famous Nessie photo was revealed as a hoax) was the photo of Champ taken in 1977 by Sandra Mansi. Ben talks about his interview with Mansi, his analysis of her photo, and the subsequent practical investigations he did with Joe Nickell at (and in) the lake itself. As you might expect, a few things didn’t add up, and Ben walks us through the puzzle. You can listen to it HERE!
I recently wrote a piece for Adventures in Poor Taste with the self-evident title 'Finding Bigfoot' Celebrates 100 Episodes of Spectacle and Spectacular Failure":This Sunday, cable channel Animal Planet will air the 100th and final episode of Finding Bigfoot, a show documenting a group of people not finding Bigfoot. It’s not everyday that a television show whose premise and title is self-evidently flawed gets a chance to be celebrated, and I thought it was a good time to reflect on the elusive man-beast it references. I found a relevant quote several years ago in the Mütter Museum of anatomical and physical anomalies in Philadelphia. Written by pioneering medical investigator Stubbins Ffirth in 1804 and displayed now on a pamphlet, it said, “The interests of truth have nothing to apprehend from the keenness of investigation, and the utmost severity of human judgment.” Though the language is from 200 years ago, the message remains relevant: no theory, no bit of evidence, no argument should be immune from critical examination. Dogma hides truth, while open debate helps expose it. Cryptozoology should be about getting to the truth of what remains undiscovered. Skeptic and proponent alike need to let the mistakes, hoaxes, false theories and faulty arguments fall by the wayside, so we can get on with the real business at hand: searching for Bigfoot. Could Bigfoot exist? Absolutely. Anything is possible. But it’s also the wrong question. The question is not what is possible, but instead what is probable — in other words, what the evidence supports. Bigfoot is a convenient, culturally-understood categorization for “an unidentified large, hairy, bipedal creature.” Bigfoot is not an identification; it’s a label for an experience. 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!
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: Buckle up for part 2 of our Squaring the Strange Halloween series! This week, our spooky hosts bring us an exciting adventure into the tantalizing world of ghost sex. From celebrity spectral affairs to unwanted advances from the other side, Ben and Pascual look into the cases and the facts. You can hear it HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: Ben and Pascual first touch on last week’s Vegas shooting, particularly the misinformation that was circulated afterward—not conspiracy theories (which could be a whole show later), but rather the false assertions made by talking heads mentioning the event in service of fighting a larger social problem. While it’s understandable that people want to make legitimate points about gun violence or mental health or racism, it undermines advocacy when statements are demonstrably false. Pascual looks at messages of surprise from news outlets and does a rundown of the motives (if found) of previous shooters. Then the guys turn to el chupacabra, the Latin American beast that appeared on the cryptid scene around the early 90s. Origin stories for the vampiric creature abounded, from being an extraterrestrial set on spreading blood diseases to a secret government experiment to a foretold beast of God’s wrath. Ben brings context to the folklore, explaining how the beast was genuinely terrifying and serious to impoverished ranchers and farmers living in rural Puerto Rico, for whom losing any livestock was a crippling tragedy. The chupacabra also has the distinction of being the first monster myth spread by the internet. Slowly, the chupacabra myth morphed from a truly terrifying exotic beast never glimpsed to a more mundane creature resembling a canid, as carcasses found far and wide were said to be dead chupacabras. You can hear it HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: Ben ruminates on the blowup over Trump’s NFL tweets this week, wondering why so many people (especially Trump’s critics) seem to give him more power by fueling the outrage machine, thus distracting themselves from the core issues. Owing to Trump’s clear track record of lies, exaggerations, contradictions, and impulse thoughts, perhaps the best skeptical approach is to not give his tweets any weight at all—as they do not represent legislative action, the views of most of America, or even, perhaps, Trump’s core values (if he has any). Then, for their main topic, the guys delve into conspiratorial thinking: from medieval witch hunts to the Illuminati. What factors make people more prone to fall into believing conspiracies, and what are some hallmarks of a typical conspiracy theory? Why do proponents doubt some things so strongly but swallow every point made in an amateur Youtube video? It’s also valuable to examine what exactly is taken as evidence—and if, for argument’s sake, that “evidence” is true: does it really prove the theory put forth or is it simply one small strange thing likely meaning nothing? Finally, we run through a quick history of disseminating information, from the rise of the printing press to modern day. Cranks with conspiracy notions have gone from buying back-of-magazine ads and Xeroxing pamphlets (and in one case cementing tiles down on East Coast streets) to putting up websites and starting podcasts—and, alarmingly, being interviewed by mainstream journalists and quoted by the President of the United States. You can listen HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here's a look back at a show you might have missed: Ben begins with a primer on what folklore is and how urban legends fit into that tradition. As apocryphal tales often passed off as true, urban legends can be scary, funny, sexual, xenophobic, or serve as some kind of warning or bravery test. From the anti-Semetic blood libel legends to the killing of albinos in East Africa and modern-day witch hunts, many urban legends have caused direct danger to particular minority groups by sowing distrust and rumors of criminal behavior. In certain cultural contexts, some of these legends seem almost inevitable due to social forces. In 2014, a social media joke that salt water could cure Ebola went viral and morphed into an urban legend that resulted in deaths. These false stories are often spread by well-meaning people who believe they are doing good by passing on the information. Rumors that doctors have hidden, nefarious motives have caused many to avoid healthcare or even to perpetrate violence upon medical personnel in some parts of the world. Another way urban legends can kill is when paranormal enthusiasts end up in dangerous circumstances, like when a woman was killed on elevated train tracks while seeking the “Pope Lick Monster.” Ben has written extensively on organ theft urban legends: travelers have been killed or beaten due to rumors that Americans kidnap South American children for their organs. Lastly, we discuss the infamous Slenderman attack, which was an “ostention” (or reenacting) of a popular story from the urban legend sharing site Creepypasta. You can hear it HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! This week we have an update on a flat-earth "experiment," then we talk treasures: hiding them, hunting them, and passing along rumors of them! Treasure hunting is rife with folklore and sometimes danger. People seeking riches have trespassed, committed crimes, and even died. From murdered casino magnate Ted Binion’s buried vault to Forrest Fenn (who claims he hid a treasure you can find with clues in a poem) to Arizona’s legendary Lost Dutchman Mine and Capt. Kidd's treasure, and more. Please check it out! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
For those have asked, "Why aren't they calling it terrorism?" here's a breakdown; it depends on who "They" are, and whether you're talking about formal or informal definitions of "terrorism." My new article is a primer on the topic... In the weeks since Mark Conditt died as police closed in on him, many on social media have been asking why he was not being referred to as a terrorist or his bombings labeled “terrorism.” (The same question often arises in other high-profile crimes as well, but here I focus on Conditt’s case specifically, as each incident has its own set of particulars which may weigh more strongly for or against a terrorism label.) The issue is not terribly complicated, but it is nuanced and often counter-intuitive. Part of the confusion stems from which group you’re talking about. In other words, who’s the “they” in “Why aren’t they calling it terrorism?” Different “theys” have different answers, as we will see. One of the first things a critical thinker learns to do when hearing the phrase “They say...” is to ask: Who, exactly, is “They?” Attributing a position or statement to an anonymous, homogenous group is not only clouds the issue instead of clarifying it but often steers the conversation toward any number of fallacies (They say acupuncture has been used for thousands of years. They say that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and so on). There’s also the problem of people using different definitions of “terrorism” interchangeably. Like many words, terrorism has a legal/technical definition used for specific purposes (such as indicting a suspect on certain criminal charges) and a looser, more informal definition that laypeople use in everyday conversation. Neither definition is incorrect; they’re both valid and useful in their specific contexts. There is of course nothing unique about this; laypeople use countless terms (energy, tension, heat, etc.) in ways that are different than a physicist would use them, for example. This problem often arises in the legal arena—one in which definitions of terrorism are important. For example the lay public may consider any killing to be murder (after all, someone died), but to a district attorney there are many different types of murder, with different definitions and penalties (first-degree murder, manslaughter, negligent homicide, and so on). Language is flexible, but that flexibility can contribute to ambiguity when people don’t clearly define terms, or apply their personal, informal definitions to other contexts. So let’s distinguish between the formal and informal definitions by using Terrorism and terrorism, respectively. The Patriot Act defines domestic terrorism as an attempt to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.” (Whether one thinks that this definition is too broad or too narrow is beside the point here; law enforcement follows the laws as written.) You can read the rest HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) comes upon its one year anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen! Ben and Pascual again revisit the Blue Whale game panic and the two young people said to be the first victims of the game here in the US. The desire to find explanations for a child’s suicide, as well as confirmation bias, can lead grieving parents to wrong conclusions. Then for the main topic, Ben recounts his investigation of the Lizard Man of Scape Ore Swamp, a red-eyed, seven-foot-tall, automobile-munching cryptid allegedly dwelling near Bishopville, South Carolina. Christopher Davis, a teenager at the time, was the first to report the creature back in 1988, and his encounter is by far the gold standard—most sightings since then are merely reports of car damage attributed to the Lizard Man. Ben looks at Davis’s story and what factors lent it credibility, and whether that credibility was deserved. The details of the eye-witness account raise questions and have some testable aspects: such as seeing a blur of green reflected by red tail lights in the dark, or the speeds and distances involved with the reported pursuit. The human mind (especially after a working a long shift and having car trouble late at night) is capable of filling in details when given ambiguous input, and the Lizard Man seems a great example of this. Further, the damage to Davis’s car is not documented anywhere, and early reports claimed there was no more than a scratch on a fender—yet this aspect of the Lizard Man became a celebrated feature of the monster. You can hear the episode 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!
So this is cool... I was recently quoted on the 'My Favorite Murder' podcast, on episode 59, talking about Lake Champlain and the alleged lake monster therein, Champ. As you may know, I researched--and explained--the most famous photo of Champ, taken in 1977 by Sandy Mansi. You can listen to the episode HERE! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
For those who are interested in a primer on Atlantis, check out my article for LiveScience.com, recently updated! The idea of Atlantis — the "lost" island subcontinent often idealized as an advanced, utopian society holding wisdom that could bring world peace — has captivated dreamers, occultists and New Agers for generations. Thousands of books, magazines and websites are devoted to Atlantis, and it remains a popular topic. People have lost fortunes — and in some cases even their lives — looking for Atlantis. You can read the rest HERE! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
The film The Shape of Water received thirteen Oscar nominations and won four (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Production Design, and Best Original Score). The film follows the romance between a custodian at a secret government laboratory and a captured human-like amphibian creature. The creature's origins are not clear; he (the gender is eventually revealed in an unusually mainstream passing reference to bestiality) may be a demigod, or a member of some unknown species. Though not specifically described as a merman--the story was inspired by Creature from the Black Lagoon--the creature nonetheless shares many features of classical mermen. Merfolk are the marine version of half-human, half-animal legends that have captured human imagination for ages. Greek mythology contains stories of the god Triton, the merman messenger of the sea, and several modern religions worship mermaid goddesses to this day. Though not as well known as their comely female counterparts, there are of course mermen--and they have a fierce reputation for summoning storms, sinking ships, and drowning sailors. One especially feared group, the Blue Men of the Minch, are said to dwell in the Outer Hebrides off the coast of Scotland. They look like ordinary men (from the waist up anyway) with the exception of their blue-tinted skin and grey beards. Local lore claims that before laying siege to a ship the Blue Men often challenge its captain to a rhyming contest; if the captain is quick enough of wit and agile enough of tongue he can best the Blue Men and save his sailors from a watery grave. You can read the rest at my CFI blog HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
With the recent release of the third installment of the Fifty Shades of Grey series there has been considerable consternation about what effect the film (and its predecessors) will have on the public. A Christian Science Monitor story by Gloria Goodale explained "How ‘Fifty Shades of Grey' Is Contributing to Shift in Norms on Sexuality," for example, and a hilariously scathing review of the new film appeared on Pajiba.com and went viral, headlined "'50 Shades Freed' Is an Ignorant, Poisonous Anti-Feminist Hate Anthem." Dozens of other blogs and articles make similar claims, though they do not seem to have dampened its audience's ardor: the new film has brought in nearly $270 million to date. The missing logical link in these stories is in what in argumentation is called a warrant. It's a principle or chain of reasoning connecting a premise to a conclusion. For example in the statement "I see the freeway is packed, so we're probably going to miss our flight," the warrant is that traffic congestion will delay passengers getting to the airport on time. This may or may not be true--for example the traffic may clear up shortly, or the flight might also be delayed--but the warrant offers a reason or logical rationale linking a claim to its conclusion. Often the warrant is implied, such as "Four out of five doctors use our brand of pain reliever." The warrant is that most doctors would use one brand over another because of its quality or efficacy. Again, this may or may not be true; the doctors might use one the brand because it's cheaper than its competitors (or free from the pharmaceutical company) though no more effective. Understanding warrants is crucial to determining whether an argument or claim is logically sound or reasonable. People often cloak their disagreement or displeasure over a piece of work (a film, book, cartoon, etc.) with an assertion that it is not merely personally distasteful or offensive but in fact dangerous to society. Most people understand that merely saying "I don't like this film" is, quite rightly, likely to be met with a response along the lines of, "Thanks for expressing your opinion." In order to have that opinion carry more weight and garner public support, the critic often goes a step further to assert that the object of their scorn is a threat to public health or morals. It is a form of fearmongering, a technique used by manipulators for millennia. Sometimes it's a president stoking fears of Muslim or immigrant terrorists; other times it's a conservative media watchdog group complaining that, for example, Teen Vogue is encouraging America's teens to engage in anal sex. And so on. This pearl-clutching is nothing new, of course. Parents have been concerned about the harmful effects of pastimes and entertainment for centuries. Blaming entertainment media is an old tradition-in fact when Jack the Ripper was active in 1880s London, violence in the play The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was blamed for inspiring the serial murders. And the family game Twister was famously derided as "sex in a box" by a competitor who diligently (if self-interestedly) warned the public about this immoral game. This is, however, where a line becomes crossed because the critic is then in the position of making a factual claim and should offer evidence for that claim. Saying you don't like chocolate ice cream (or rap music, pornography, or anything else) merely expresses an inviolable, unfalsifiable personal preference which cannot be challenged based on any evidence: If you don't like it, you don't like it. End of story. For more see my CFI blog, HERE! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
A viral outrage story from 2016, about an Alabama pastor who allegedly said that anyone who doesn't stand for the anthem should be shot, is circulating again. It's almost certainly false, as I explained in a blog at the time... It's easy to assume the worst about people (especially those whose views you likely disagree with), but a) beware "outrage" stories, and b) give people the benefit of the doubt you'd want given to you. 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!
As we approach our one-year anniversary Squaring the Strange, the podcast I co-host with Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward, I wanted to review early episodes you may have missed! Episode 7: Stop, Corroborate, and Listen What are we skeptical of this week? Pascual gives us some background on MP3 sound files and talks about the flurry of headlines he's seen decrying the "end of MP3s"; in actuality, a patent is expiring and the code will now be open-source. Ben revisits the Boko Haram abductions and "Bring Back Our Girls" hashtag campaign, examining some of the complexities of Nigerian politics and terrain. Then Ben and Pascual discuss corroboration, and how much weight we, as people, as jurors, as skeptics, give to stories that are backed up by multiple reports and agreeing witnesses. Yet studies show people will lie to corroborate a story for many reasons, and certain strange categories (UFO sightings, Bigfoot, ghosts) are so hard to narrowly define that they produce an illusion of corroboration. Popular cultural phenomena also influence corroboration--since people draw upon what's on their mind to interpret ambiguous things, they can be primed to experience things a particular way (i.e. the chupacabra reports) or even change their memory after an experience happens. Ben brings up the discredited Rolling Stone rape story, where an instance of apparent corroboration was actually the result of a false accuser copying an earlier account of a real crime. Coerced confessions and lie detectors are also forms of false corroboration, and the guys discuss instances of people going to jail as a result. Lastly (fittingly so) Ben mentions near death experiences and how corroboration based on shared anatomy can take on a whole new angle and interpretation. Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! While Pascual recovers from some pulmonary nastiness, Celestia and I discuss outrage over the hypothetical new product “Lady Doritos.” Then we go over my investigation of a staircase in Santa Fe, NM, said to have been built by Saint Joseph in answer to the prayers of the Sisters of Loretto. Lacking a central support, the stairs are the focus of several legends and are said to have no scientific explanation.... If you're not a subscriber, now's your chance! You can listen to the show HERE! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
Over the new week or two I'll be posting some blurbs and reviews of my new book Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits. It is currently available as an e-book at Amazon.com and will be available in print in a few weeks (preferably at your local independent bookstore!). “In the growing literature of scientific and historical examinations of fringe and paranormal practice, this book stands out. Benjamin Radford lays out in detail how ghost hunting should be done. If we are lucky, some of this might sink in.” ---Brian Regal, Kean University, author of Searching for Sasquatch: Crackpots, Eggheads, and Cryptozoology. 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!
Maybe you've heard the news about the "secret" DoD program to find UFOs? Here's a quick take on it: Given that UFOs are literally "unidentified flying objects," the Pentagon's interest in the topic is both understandable and appropriate. After all, unknown objects over American skies could be a threat — whether their origin is Russia, North Korea or the Andromeda Galaxy. The Air Force investigated thousands of unexplained aerial reports between 1947 and 1969, eventually concluding that most of the "UFO" sightings involved clouds, stars, optical illusions, conventional aircraft or spy planes. A small percentage remained unexplained because of a lack of information. In December 2017, The New York Times reported on the existence of a secret U.S. Department of Defense program called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP). It began in 2007 and ended in 2012 when, according to Pentagon spokesman Thomas Crosson, "it was determined that there were other, higher priority issues that merited funding." Much of the program and its conclusions have not been released, and it's not clear what if any useful information came from the effort. Several short videos of military jets encountering something they couldn't identify have been released by AATIP. Already some have suggested that distant jets might be the culprit, and in the past crowdsourced research has yielded answers to seemingly inexplicable phenomena in our skies; a "mystery missile" seen off the coast of California in November 2010, for example, stumped military experts at first but was later determined to be an ordinary commercial jet plane contrail seen from an odd angle. The fact that the U.S. government had a program dedicated to researching unidentified craft and objects has caused many UFO buffs to triumphantly announce that they were right all along, that this finally proof that the wall of silence is breaking and the government coverup is cracking. There is, however, significantly less here than meets the eye. The government routinely spends money to research (and sometimes promote) topics that turn out to have little or no evidence or scientific validity. There are hundreds of federal projects that have been funded despite never having been proven valid or effective, including the Star Wars missile defense program, abstinence-only sex education, and the DARE anti-drug program. The idea that there must be some validity to the project, or else it would not have been funded or renewed is laughable. From the 1970s through the mid-1990s, the U.S. government had a secret project called Stargate, designed to explore the possibility of psychic powers and whether "remote viewers" could successfully spy on Russia during the Cold War. The research went on for about two decades, with little apparent success. Eventually, scientists who were asked to review the results concluded that psychic information was neither validated nor useful. Like AATIP, Project Stargate was soon shut down. One possible clue as to why the $22 million program might have continued despite yielding no clear evidence of extraterrestrials is the financial incentive to keep it going. The New York Times noted that "The shadowy program . ..was largely funded at the request of Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who was the Senate majority leader at the time ... Most of the money went to an aerospace research company run by a billionaire entrepreneur and longtime friend of Mr. Reid's, Robert Bigelow, who is currently working with NASA to produce expandable craft for humans to use in space." You can read the rest HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
New episode! This week, we kick off the first half of the "New Years Resolution" series where they look at woo in the gym. Just in time for your resolution, The Credible Hulk joins our hosts to walk us through some of the myths and misconceptions that run rampant in the bodybuilding/gym world. Check it out HERE! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
My investigation into a viral news story circulating one year ago this week, about a black mall Santa reportedly deluged with racist hate. It was tragic and sad--and fictional: "The real tragedy is what was done to Larry Jefferson, whose role as the Mall of America's first black Santa has been tainted by a social media-created controversy. Instead of being remembered for bringing joy to kids he will forever be known for enduring a (fictional) deluge of racist hatred. The true story of Jefferson's stint as Santa is exactly the opposite of what most people believe: He was greeted warmly and embraced by people of all colors and faiths as the Mall of America's first black Santa." One year ago , amid the encroaching commercialization of Christmas, Black Friday sales, and annual social media grumblings about the manufactured controversy over whether "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays" is appropriate, an ugly episode of racial hatred tainted the beginning of the 2016 holiday season. It began when the Mall of America hired a jolly bearded man named Larry Jefferson as one of its Santas. Jefferson, a retired Army veteran, is black--a fact that most kids and their parents neither noticed nor cared about. The crucial issue for kids was whether a Playstation might be on its way or some Plants vs. Zombies merchandise was in the cards given the particular child's status on Santa's naughty-or-nice list. The important thing for parents was whether their kids were delighted by the Santa, and all evidence suggests that the answer was an enthusiastic Yes. "What [the children] see most of the time is this red suit and candy," Jefferson said in an interview. "[Santa represents] a good spirit. I'm just a messenger to bring hope, love, and peace to girls and boys." The fact that Santa could be African-American seemed self-evident (and either an encouraging sign or a non-issue) for all who encountered him. Few if any people at the Mall of America made any negative or racist comments. It was, after all, a self-selected group; any parents who might harbor reservations about Jefferson simply wouldn't wait in line with their kids to see him and instead go somewhere else or wait for another Santa. Like anything that involves personal choice, people who don't like something (a news outlet, brand of coffee, or anything else) will simply go somewhere else--not erupt in protest that it's available to those who want it. You can read the rest HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
I was recently a guest with Kurly Tlapoyawa, an archaeologist, author, and ethnohistorian, on his podcast. His research focuses primarily on the interaction between Mesoamerica, Western Mexico, and the American Southwest. We talked about pseudohistories, including of the chupacabra and also Peru's Nazca Lines and the Ica stones. Check it out HERE! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
My new CFI blog on how our expectations can and do influence our perceptions and interpretations... Earlier this month police in Schaumberg, Illinois, responded to a call of one or more gunmen walking around a business district. According to the Chicago Tribune,"investigators determined that the purported gunman was a maintenance technician wearing a belt that held a tool resembling a gun, police said. ‘Everyone is safe. Every office is open, and officers are clearing out,' Schaumburg Police Sgt. Christy Lindhurst said shortly after noon on Tuesday.' At 10:50 a.m. police received a call of a gunman at the Woodfield Corporate Center at 200 N. Martingale Road. A ‘very heavy police presence' responded, Lindhurst said. Some businesses evacuated. Others chose to shelter in place.'" Another news report offered additional details and claimed that a second gunman had been spotted: "Schaumburg police responded about 10:50 a.m. Tuesday to a report of two men with guns. Police later reported that there was no indication that shots were fired, no firearm was found, and police say no one was injured. Police reviews video surveillance, and confirmed that the original report was incorrect. Schaumburg police say there was no threat." How do we explain this mistake? Drills, nailing guns, and other construction equipment can look like a weapon from a distance. But the item was seen in a tool belt worn by a uniformed maintenance worker. Obviously a shooter could dress in any fashion they like, but there are tens of thousands of construction and maintenance workers with equipment-laden toolbelts across the country at any given time, and very rarely are they mistaken for active shooters. There's something else at play, and it involves eyewitness perceptions. This case is reminiscent of another from four years ago. In 2013 Ohio's Oberlin College cancelled classes after someone reported spotting a person walking on campus wearing what appeared to be a Ku Klux Klan-like hooded robe at night. College officials released a statement on Monday explaining that "This event, in addition to the series of other hate-related incidents on campus, has precipitated our decision to suspend formal classes and all non-essential activities ... and gather for a series of discussions of the challenging issues that have faced our community in recent weeks." What of the uniformed Klansman spotted on campus? According to a piece on Slate.com, "Local police responded to the report, but weren't able to find anyone wearing the hard-to-miss KKK garb. They did, however, discover a female walking with a blanket wrapped around her, suggesting the very real possibility that the eyewitness was mistaken." The Chronicle-Telegram added, "Oberlin police Lt. Mike McCloskey said that authorities did find a pedestrian wrapped in a blanket. He said police interviewed another witness later in the day and that person also saw a female walking with a blanket." It's much more likely that a person on campus was wearing or carrying a light-colored blanket, coming back from a toga party, or even a prankster dressed like a ghost, instead of dressed in full Klan regalia. As The Atlantic reported, "Reports on Monday that someone was walking around the campus of Oberlin College in Ku Klux Klan regalia--for which the Ohio liberal arts college cancelled an entire day's classes--may have been a huge misunderstanding. That's the sense one gets from reading a comprehensive report published on Tuesday morning by the local paper, the Chronicle-Telegram, which traced the early-morning sighting to someone wearing a blanket: ‘Oberlin police Lt. Mike McCloskey said that authorities did find a pedestrian wrapped in a blanket. He said police interviewed another witness later in the day and that person also saw a female walking with a blanket.' But no KKK garb." But why would someone make that particular mistake? The answer lies in what psychologists call expectant attention and confirmation bias. Expectation Influences Perception Though many people assume that eyewitnesses accurately perceive, understand, and report what they experience, we are subject to several biases--and they influence us in ways we often aren't unconsciously aware of. In order to make sense of what we see (especially things we don't recognize or fully understand), the human brain looks for contextual cues; we look for what else is going on in the environment that might lead to one interpretation instead of another. One powerful influence on our perceptions is our expectations. A well-known example of this can be seen in the illustration of a duck or a rabbit. Neither answer is wrong; both interpretations are correct within their context. But the context makes all the difference. How does this apply to the Klansman seen at Oberlin College? There were at several contextual factors that led the eyewitness to associate the figure with the Klan. Most importantly, the campus had recently experienced a string of events characterized as hate crimes, with flyers and graffiti targeting African-Americans, gays, and Jews appearing on campus. The events were widely reported and triggered much discussion on campus about the presence of hate groups. Most bald men are not skinheads, and racists can come in any race, gender, or color. But the most identifiable hate group-the only one with an image that is unmistakably associated with intolerance-is the Ku Klux Klan and their distinctive hoods and robes. Secondly, the location played a role in the misidentification: The white-clad figure was not seen outside a local pizza place or library, but instead outside the Afrikan Heritage House, the building on campus most closely associated with African-Americans. It's unlikely that if the same woman had been seen outside a campus synagogue she would have been interpreted as a member of the Klan. Then there's the fact that the eyewitness probably didn't know exactly what an actual KKK outfit looks like. Real Klan robes have a distinctive, specific cut to them, and typically a cross emblem on the front. The eyewitness only caught a glimpse of the person, in low light and early in the morning. Psychological studies have shown that under such conditions, the human mind is very poor at accurately perceiving, remembering, and reporting even basic elements of the experience. Our brains often "fill in" details with what we expect to see--not necessarily what we actually see--and we tend to bias our reports accordingly. Thus a person wrapped in (or even carrying) a light-colored blanket can become a Klan outfit. The same thing happened at Woodfield Corporate Center: In the context of school and workplace shootings, anything is possible and in light of scary reports many unusual things are plausible. In an enlightening article for New York magazine, David Wallace-Wells describes being caught up in a chaotic panic caused by a false report of a gunshot in a New York airport: "When the first stampede began, my plane had just landed. It started, apparently, with a group of passengers awaiting departure in John F. Kennedy Airport Terminal 8 cheering Usain Bolt's superhuman 100-meter dash. The applause sounded like gunfire, somehow, or to someone; really, it only takes one. According to some reports, one woman screamed that she saw a gun. The cascading effect was easier to figure: When people started running, a man I met later on the tarmac said, they plowed through the metal poles strung throughout the terminal to organize lines, and the metal clacking on the tile floors sounded like gunfire. Because the clacking was caused by the crowd, wherever you were and however far you'd run already, it was always right around you. There was a second stampede, I heard some time later, in Terminal 2. I was caught up in two separate ones, genuine stampedes, both in Terminal 1. The first was in the long, narrow, low-ceilinged second-floor hallway approaching customs that was so stuffed with restless passengers that it felt like a cattle call, even before the fire alarm and the screaming and all the contradictory squeals that sent people running and yelling and barreling over each other--as well as the dropped luggage, passports, and crouched panicked women who just wanted to take shelter between their knees and hope for it, or "them," to pass. The second was later, after security guards had just hustled hundreds of us off of the tarmac directly into passport control, when a woman in a hijab appeared at the top of a flight of stairs, yelling out for a family member, it seemed, who had been separated from her in the chaos. The crowd seemed to rise up, squealing, and rush for the two small sets of double doors." Examples like this help remind us that sincere, otherwise credible eyewitnesses can often be influenced by many factors, including what they expect to see. The idea that people often incorrectly see, remember, and report what they experience is not merely theory but a proven fact; there are over 2,000 published scientific studies demonstrating it. By some estimates, as many as one-third of eyewitness identifications in criminal cases are wrong, and nearly 200 people who were convicted of crimes based on positive eyewitness identifications were later exonerated through DNA evidence. By employing critical thinking skills and focusing on what we actually see instead of jumping to conclusions we can help avoid needless fear and panic. You can read the original HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
With accusations flying around about misconduct by people of various political affiliations, I'm seeing lots of accusations of hypocrisy ("Why didn't you protest when X was accused?"). Many accusations of hypocrisy, however, are false, as I noted in a recent blog, with guests Celestia N. Ward, Ian Harris, and Michael Hartwell... Hypocrisy seems to be a running theme on the news and in social media, especially in the political sphere. It seems that hardly a week goes by that one political party is not accusing the other of hypocrisy, on everything from confirming Supreme Court judges to health care reforms. When President Trump fired FBI James Comey in May, White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stated that the reaction from Democrats was "the purest form of hypocrisy" and that "Most of the people declaring war today were the very ones what were begging for Director Comey to be fired." This accusation of hypocrisy is objectively and factually incorrect; though many Democrats had criticized Comey at various times (including for his handling of Hillary Clinton's e-mail investigation shortly before the presidential election), almost none of them had in fact called for Comey to resign or be fired; the sole exception was Tennessee's Rep. Steve Cohen. In fact there was bipartisan concern over Trump's handling of the matter, as well as the varying justifications given for Comey's firing. Here is an analysis of three examples of claimed hypocrisy, followed by a brief look at the phenomenon. You can read the rest HERE! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
Tonight on the Crypto-Kid, I return to the show to discuss my research into lake monsters, specifically Champ and the Loch Ness Monster. This is going to be a great episode, so check it out! Details below.
As a professional skeptic (I know, that phrase sounds weird to me too—even after all these years—but you know what I mean) I deal with all manner of believer. Some are respectful, some are not, but the one constant is that we are approaching the topic from different viewpoints, including different standards of evidence and different ideas about what constitutes good evidence in the first place (the canard “the plural of anecdote is not evidence” often comes up). Since the general public, like the casual skeptic, doesn’t often engage in these run-of-the-mill interactions, it is useful to review them, as they provide insight into the differing worldviews. I thought about this recently when I received the following e-mail from a woman named Julia (verbatim throughout): “After watching a documentary about psychics, I really must comment on the fact that your skepticism is not only naive, but also arrogant, and actually quite rude, when clearly there is evidence for this phenomenon. Not all science has the answers; this has been proved in history, when science thought they knew everything; even calling Edison a lunatic when he invented the lightbulb. This is just one example. Please educate yourself, and come out of your little insular box, so that we can move forward. I have experienced Clairaudient, and can honestly tell you that I know more than you do. I am of normal mind, but I am not naive, arrogant, know all, or ignorant to the possiblity that just because we cannot see, smell, hear, touch something, that it does not exist. We have a physical body, and etheric body, spiritual body. If you, or any other orthodox sceptic refuse to understand this, then it is sad- for you at least. More and more scientists, psychologists- to name a few: Robert Lanza, Raymond Moody, Stuart Hameroff, have been studying this for many years, and have very interesting facts. Orthodox science will be proved wrong, even if they do not like it. The world is changing; there will be a shift in consciousness, and mindsets like yours will be left behind. I hope that you see this message, because you need to know that you do not have the answers to this Universe. Have a nice day.”
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I will be appearing on a new 10-part series on Discovery’s Science Channel, on a show titled “Strange Evidence.” It examines bizarre and seemingly inexplicable photographs and videos. (I’m one of the guests who takes the “un” out of “unexplained.”) Will I be on the new episode, or did I end up on the cutting room floor? Find out every Tuesday night at 7 PT / 10ET! Find out more HERE! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
In case you missed it, I recently appeared (along with Leo Igwe, Susan Gerbic, Eran Segev, and others) on the new episode of Richard Saunders's great podcast The Skeptic Zone. Check it out HERE! You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
Manhattan millionaire Gigi Jordan was found guilty of killing her eight-year-old autistic son in November 2014. Jordan admitted killing her son, Jude Mirra, with a lethal dose of medications in a hotel room in February 2010. However she claimed it was a mercy killing—not because her son had a poor quality of life due to autism—but because she feared that her ex-husband would get custody of the boy, and then torture and sexually abuse him, as she believed had happened for years. Since her son was unable to verbally communicate because of his disability, Jordan relied on a technique called Facilitated Communication (FC), in which another person holds the disabled person's hand as he or she types out messages on a keyboard. According to the New York Times, “She said her son first described the abuse with a few partial words and gestures, but then, in a breakthrough three months later, learned to type on a laptop and gave a detailed account, naming several other people as well.” A CNN story noted that Jordan communicated with her son through a Blackberry device; witnesses described that “Jordan held the device in one hand while supporting and possibly guiding her son's arm with the other as Jude looked away.” In this way Jordan came to believe that her son was revealing that he’d been physically and sexually abused by many people, including an ex-husband and a woman who transported him to school. Yet the mystery deepened because police found no evidence of any abuse, sexual or otherwise. Nevertheless, Jordan was convinced that her son would not lie to her about such a thing and decided to kill him instead of letting him suffer further. It’s a bizarre, tragic case, but there's another explanation for the accusations, one that does not involve an autistic child lying about sexual abuse. In the 1980s many parents of autistic children turned to Facilitated Communication, which had been claimed to help autistic individuals, and especially children, to communicate. The technique is based on the idea that an autistic child’s inability to communicate is caused not by a brain disorder but instead a muscular or nerve disorder that prevents them from producing speech (this idea is not supported by the evidence or shared by autism experts). What is needed, FC advocates claimed, are trained facilitators to help the autistic children by holding their hands, fingers, or elbows while the child typed on a keyboard or pointed to lists of letters, words, or symbols. This technique was developed in the 1970s in Australia and introduced in the United States by Douglas Biklen, a special education director at Syracuse University. In the book 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, authors Scott Lilienfed, Steven Jay Lynn, Barry Beyerstein, and John Ruscio summarize the rise and fall of facilitated communication: “In the early 1990s, shortly after FC was introduced to the United States, scores of enthusiastic facilitators reported astonishing success stories of previously uncommunicative autistic individuals typing out eloquent sentences, at times speaking of their sense of liberation upon at last being able to express their imprisoned feelings. Yet numerous controlled studies soon showed that FC was entirely a product of unintentional facilitator control over autistic children’s hands movements. Without even realizing it, facilitators were leading children's fingers to the keys. Regrettably, FC has raised false hopes among thousands of desperate parents of autistic individuals [and] led to dozens of uncorroborated accusations of sexual abuse against these parents—based entirely on typed communications that emerged with the aid of facilitators.” In other words, the abuse accusations came not from Jude Mirra but instead (presumably unconsciously) from his mother Gigi Jordan, who believed the stories, reported them to police, and eventually used them as a reason to end her son’s life. This is not the first time that the discredited technique has ruined people's lives, and it may not be the last. Despite the fact that Facilitated Communication has been widely debunked for many years the technique still has many supporters, and it received national attention in 2004 when a short film promoting it was nominated for an Academy Award. Information casting doubt on the validity of Facilitated Communication came too late for both Jude Mirra and his mother, who was found guilty of manslaughter and faces five to twenty-five years in prison. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
The emailed press release I got last week began: "PETERSBURG, Ky., Sept. 26, 2017 - Since Darwin's ‘On the Origin of Species' was published in 1859, entirely new fields of science have been born and matured-fields which hold the keys to the origin of species. With a Ph.D. in cell and developmental biology from Harvard, Dr. Nathaniel Jeanson is uniquely qualified to investigate what genetics reveals about origins, and has released his findings in the book ‘Replacing Darwin: The New Origin of Species.' Due from Master Books next month, ‘Replacing Darwin' offers a revolutionary approach to the study of origins with a potential impact as big as Darwin's." It certainly sounded potentially intriguing, so I kept reading: "'On the Origin of Species' is considered one of history's most influential books and has become the foundation of evolutionary biology. This new work asks readers to consider: If Darwin was looking at the same evidence today using modern science, would his conclusions be the same? ‘Since 1859, we've had time to reevaluate [Darwin's] picture. A global community of millions of scientists can pool their resources and build on one another's work,' Jeanson states. ‘The cumulative observations of these scientists have built an unprecedented body of knowledge on the diversity and operation of life.' In ‘Replacing Darwin,' Jeanson argues that this knowledge has rewritten the long-standing explanation for the origin of species. Though a work of scholarship, ‘Replacing Darwin' is accessible. Jeanson uses an analogy to which all readers can relate - a jigsaw puzzle - to illustrate the quest for the answer to the mystery of the origin of species. He contends that Darwin reached his conclusions with only 15 percent - or less - of the total pieces of the puzzle. In addition, Jeanson argues that Darwin tried to piece together his findings without the constraints of edge pieces and corner pieces. If an actual jigsaw puzzle were put together under these conditions, would the participants have had any chance of success?" This is where some red flags began poking up and waving around--not wildly, but just enough to raise my skeptical sense that something was amiss with this upcoming book by Harvard biologist Nathaniel Jeanson. For some reason the jigsaw puzzle struck me as odd, but I couldn't put my finger on why. I kept reading. "Jeanson's book begins its account after the publication of the first edition of Darwin's book in 1859. Several years after Darwin made his bold claims, the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel, who studied inheritance and the origin of traits, published his discoveries, which remain textbook science to this day. In the early 1900s, American scientist Walter Sutton connected chromosomes to Mendel's decades' old discoveries. The next question for the scientific community was how specifically the chromosomes contained the information for traits. The search led to DNA and James Watson's and Francis Crick's famous discovery of the double helix in 1953." So far so good; the text wasn't saying anything obviously scientifically incorrect, but it did seem to be bland and dancing around something. I just wasn't sure what... I read on: "Jeanson concludes that there is much more to be discovered in this field, with the genetics of millions of species yet to be determined and the mutation rates of each of these species to be measured." Okay, sounds right. I'm certain that no geneticist would disagree with Jeanson that "there is much more to be discovered in this field"; the same is true of virtually any scientific field. But the lede was buried in the very last two sentences: "He expects that connections will be found between many other species within a family (or genus), but that species from different families (or genera) reside in completely different puzzles sharply disconnected from one another, rather than pointing to universal common ancestry. With this new book, the scientific revolution to overturn Darwin may have begun." *Record scratch sound effect* Hold on there. What exactly does "rather than pointing to universal common ancestry" mean? The implicit answer is in the next line: "With this new book, the scientific revolution to overturn Darwin may have begun." No common ancestor? Overturning Darwin? Sounds a lot like Creationist Bullshit to me... and I realized why the jigsaw puzzle struck me as odd: it reminded me of bogus creationist analogies, such as the watchmaker analogy suggesting that a found watch must imply an intelligent designer. But there was nothing in the press release that was explicitly Christian: no references to God, or the Bible, or intelligent design. It was all very subtle, just like "teach the controversy" suckers people into thinking there's a controversy about evolution. So I looked up the publisher. It was not Harvard University Press but instead something called MasterBooks.com. A few seconds poking around the website revealed a trove of creationist pseudoscience, most of them with innocuous, sciencey-sounding titles like Earth's Catastrophic Past and Age of the Earth. But there was also an ad for "Ken Ham Books and DVDs," along with the MasterBooks "100% Faith Grower Guarantee," which--whatever that means--is almost certainly as nonsensical as it sounds. I didn't fall for this gambit, but I had to admit that the anti-science agenda was pretty well hidden. It took me about five minutes before I was sure what was really going on--and that's probably about four minutes longer than most editors and journalists will give it. Jeanson and MasterBooks are hoping that enough of them order review copies and/or pass along the information about this potentially groundbreaking book without stopping to take a closer look at it. In this age of social media and information sharing, it's more important than ever to be vigilant of misinformation. That goes for bogus news stories, but also for creationist books masquerading as cutting-edge genetic science. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
A few years ago I wrote a piece taking a closer look at the concept of karma: "The premise of karma is that people need to be threatened with cosmic retribution into good conduct: Don’t do evil, or else it will come back to you. How about just being good to others because it’s the right thing to do?" You can read the rest HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!