In the new episode of Squaring the Strange we look back at some of our favourite episodes of 2020. I know you probably want to forget last year… but check it out anyway, we had some great shows!
In the new episode of Squaring the Strange we look back at some of our favourite episodes of 2020. I know you probably want to forget last year… but check it out anyway, we had some great shows!
I’m far too modest to mention it, but there’s a nice new review of my chupacabra book on the Adventures in Poor Taste website… you can find it HERE.
Americans, like everyone else, should ideally be more educated about history (and everything else). But no, a recent poll doesn’t reveal that a significant percentage of Americans either deny the Holocaust or are largely ignorant about it. Here’s a media literacy take on the alarming headlines...
In the wake of racial incidents such as the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018, it’s natural for the public and pundits to wonder just how common anti-Semitism is. Deadly attacks on Jewish houses of worship are thankfully rare, but what about anti-Jewish belief among the general public? One often-used metric is public opinion polls about the Holocaust.
In April 2018 Newsweek posted a news story titled “One-Third of Americans Don’t Believe 6 Million Jews Were Murdered During the Holocaust.” It was widely shared on social media, including Yahoo News.
The disturbing headline seemed to suggest that neo-Nazis are succeeding in sowing Holocaust denial among Americans. The Holocaust is the highest-profile event in history about the dangers of intolerance and anti-Semitism, and with about a third of Americans—over 100 million people—doubting a key aspect of the Holocaust, anti-Jewish sentiment seems widespread indeed.
Given the potential fear and concern headlines like this can spawn, it’s worth taking a closer look at the story through the lens of media literacy and skepticism. The data came from a survey by Schoen Consulting on behalf of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, released for Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was a national study of 1,350 interviews with American adults during the last week of February 2018, with a margin of error at +/- 3%.
A Closer Look
If you actually read the study (available here) you realize that the Newsweek headline is misleading in several important ways.
First, the phrase “don’t believe” in the headline implies doubt: that you are presented with a claim or proposition, and you state categorically that you do not believe it. However the question (number 19, if you’re following along) didn’t ask respondents what they “believe.” People were asked to estimate, or put a number on, how many Jews they thought were killed. The exact wording is “Approximately how many Jews were killed during the Holocaust?” The responses were, in order of presentation: 20 million; 6 million; 2 million; 1 million; 100,000; 25,000; Other; or Not sure.”
Phrasing is important, especially in surveys. Had the question been phrased “Do you believe 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust?” then the percentage responding No would accurately capture how many doubt that six million Jews were killed. It should also be noted that there is in fact no historical consensus on the exact number of Jewish deaths in the Holocaust, but most experts believe the number is between 5 and 6 million. Had the question been phrased more accurately (by historical standards) and less precisely (by estimation standards), as in “Do you believe that about 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust?” it’s quite possible that even more people would have correctly answered that question.
A closer look reveals that among American adults, the vast majority, 49%, gave the correct answer of 6 million. Six percent actually overestimated the number of Jews killed by over a factor of three (at 20 million). Note that the second-highest response, Not Sure, at 13%, means just that: they’re not sure how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Thus “Not Sure” is not a catch-all response for “None” or “An Insignificant Number” or “Surely Fewer Than 6 Million.” It could mean the person thought that the number was closer to 15 million, or 10 million, or 8 million, or some number not among those specifically listed.
For all we know, many of that 13% could have accurately estimated that about 6 million Jews were killed, but weren’t confident enough in their grasp of historical facts to select that option. If that’s the case then the number who knew the correct answer could be over 60%. But we don’t know because of the way the question was worded. To be clear, this limitation doesn’t invalidate the question, or render the survey or its results flawed; it just means that we must be careful in interpreting the results—especially on a subject as important as Holocaust belief or denial.
The poll does show that many Americans are wrong about various Holocaust facts (such as whether the Holocaust preceded World War II or vice-versa). How significant is this? It’s not clear. One common question in science is “Compared to what?”; in this case for example, what percentage of average Americans should we reasonably expect to know the answers? Eighty percent? Ninety percent? One hundred percent? We can all agree that ideally the answer is “higher,” but if many Americans are vague about historical events that happened in World War II, they’re not much more informed about what’s going on in modern America.
A 2007 survey by Kelton Research found that 80% of respondents could name the main ingredients of a McDonalds Big Mac sandwich, but fewer than 60% could recall all the Ten Commandments, and a 2010 Pew poll found that only 55% knew that the Golden Rule is not among the commandments.
Exaggerating and highlighting the ignorance of Americans is a time-honored tradition, especially among journalists and comics. The Tonight Show with Jay Leno often featured man-on-the-street interviews showing passersby stumped by simple questions, and Canadian comedian Rick Mercer hosted a long-running segment on the same theme titled “Talking to Americans,” on the satirical comedy show This Hour Has 22 Minutes in which Mercer, posing as a journalist, would ask unsuspecting American tourists bizarre non-sequitur questions such as whether they supported hunting polar bears in Toronto or would like to congratulate Canada on moving its capital from Ottawa to Toronto.
It’s all good flagellatory fun but obscures that fact that most Americans (that is, the statistical majority of them) are in fact fairly knowledgeable about their country and world history. Most people can answer such questions, and the fact that a minority of them can’t—or in many cases may know the correct answer just aren’t confident enough in their knowledge to commit to it on camera or to a questioner—reveals little about any uniquely American ignorance.
Holocaust Denial or Innumeracy?
Part of the issue is psychological. In his book Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences, mathematician John Allen Paulos notes that people have difficulty conceiving of large numbers. When estimating, people easily slip “between millions and billions or between billions and trillions… because we too often lack an intuitive feeling for these numbers. Many educated people have little grasp for these numbers… A recent study by Drs. Kronlund and Phillips of the University of Washington showed that most doctors’ assessments of the risks of various operations, procedures, and medications (even in their own specialties) were way off the mark, often by several orders of magnitude” (p. 10).
This does not excuse anyone’s errors, of course. Ideally, everyone should have a good grasp of historical and civics facts, as well as basic statistics and probability. Before concluding that Americans are dumb as rocks, keep in mind that most people (of any nationality) struggle to remember their computer passwords, much less who their representatives are. Not knowing the exact number of Jews killed during the Holocaust is not a metric of Holocaust denial or anti-Semitism, or indifference to (or ignorance of) Jewish persecution.
The Newsweek headline, however, was not merely a glass-is-half-full analysis but instead a clear effort to characterize many Americans as racist, or at least grossly ignorant of the plight of the Jewish community during the Holocaust (Brown University sociologist Dan Hirschman agrees, noting in a May 8, 2018 blog that the Newsweek headline “implies that 1/3 of Americans are Holocaust deniers of some sort”). These are people who didn’t pay attention in history class and who don’t have a good grasp of large numbers—not Holocaust deniers. The survey did not suggest that underestimating the number of Jews killed was any sort of attempt at minimizing the Holocaust.
If we want to know how many Americans doubt the Holocaust happened, we need look no further than question 33, which unlike question 19 is not as open-ended: 96% of respondents answered “Yes, I believe the Holocaust happened.” Three percent said they weren’t sure, and 1% of them responded that they did not believe it happened. This 1%—not the 33% suggested by Newsweek—would presumably be among the Holocaust deniers.
This is not the first time that a poll about the Holocaust produced alarming numbers. In one of the most infamous examples of flawed polling, a 1992 poll conducted by the Roper organization for the American Jewish Committee found that 1 in 5 Americans doubted that the Holocaust occurred. How could 22% of Americans report being Holocaust deniers?
The answer became clear when the original question was re-examined: “Does it seem possible or does it seem impossible to you that the Nazi extermination of the Jews never happened?” This awkwardly-phrased question contains a confusing double-negative which led many to report the opposite of what they believed. Embarrassed Roper officials apologized, and later polls—asking clear, unambiguous questions—found that only about 2% of Americans actually doubt the Holocaust. In fact the 2018 news headlines about the Holocaust poll could have accurately read “Holocaust Denial Drops 50%” (from 2% to 1%), but the news media emphasizes bad news.
Polls and surveys can provide important information about the public’s beliefs. But to be valid, they must be based on sound methodologies, and media-literate news consumers should always look for information about the sample size, representativeness of the population, whether the participants were random or self-selected, and so on. Whether due to poorly-worded questions or an alarmist news media, reports like these leave the false impression that racism and anti-Semitism are more widespread than they really are. The recent rise in hate crimes against the Jewish community is well documented, but the recent rise in Holocaust denial is not.
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.
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.
The new genre-bending film The Lighthouse is hard to describe. I’ve seen it mentioned as everything from a horror film to a dark comedy to a psychological thriller. I can’t really tell you what it is, but I can tell you what it’s about, and why you should see it.
The basics are pretty straightforward: Set in the 1800s (and probably Nova Scotia), Willem Dafoe (who’s known as an often-outstanding actor) and Robert Pattinson (who’s not) pair off as lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake and his drifter-turned-apprentice Winslow, respectively. Winslow, due to circumstances he eventually and somewhat grudgingly reveals, has signed on for a month stint alone with Wake on a tiny isolated, storm-swept island. Dafoe’s Wake is a bearded, crusty tempest, with flashing eyes and a thick brogue. Pattinson, gaunt and haunted, resembles a young Powers Boothe under a bristly black mustache.
Dafoe’s Wake is alternately sadistic, inscrutable, arguably mad, and a sad, lost soul. He has no tolerance for the teetotaling Winslow, who seems determined to work hard and follow the rules, at least long enough to earn his pay and get off the damned sea-drenched rock. Winslow is trapped (well, they both are) at least until the next monthly supply boat comes—assuming it can make it through the storm. As the story goes on we come to know more about the men, and hints of secrets each may be hiding. The claustrophobic cinematography contributes to the sense of desperation and dread.
The choice to film in black and white can come off as showy (Sin City, for example) or understated (Pi, for example), but works well in The Lighthouse. The film is as stark as the characters, and everything is extreme. The light that the lighthouse projects of course must be powerful enough to be seen for miles and is blinding up close. The foghorn as well must be heard at great distances, but is deafening nearby. Everything on the rocky clot is dangerous, or at least unpleasant, and nothing is easy.
The Lighthouse reminded me of other films which involve a psychological struggle of wills between two characters, such as Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke (1999, about a cult deprogrammer and his ward) and William Friedkin’s Bug (2006, about a drifter and the lonely woman he meets in the California desert). Films like these require strong performances, and both Dafoe and Pattinson deliver.
The Lighthouse is laden with symbolism—in fact perhaps a little too much of it—with folklore and legend helping give the script its power. The film has touches of Lovecraft and Poe (with a seagull instead of a raven as an avian portent of doom), and many threats to sanity lurk in the shadows cast by the lighthouse. Isolation is one; liquor is another. Winslow starts to have visions horrific and alluring, and sometimes both at the same time. He glimpses what he thinks is a mermaid, and comes to suspect that a seagull has it in for him (he’s probably right).
The lighthouse itself is a character, and director Robert Eggers gives it its due. We see its inner workings—the levers and chains and pulleys and coal-fired furnaces—though not necessarily its secrets. There are lighthouse fanatics, just as there are train fanatics and covered bridge fanatics, and I can see why: they’re symbolic and archaic. The film’s thunderous soundtrack works too hard to drive home the story’s beats, and could have been profitably dropped by a dozen or so decibels. If The Lighthouse suffers a bit from a murky plot, the haunting atmosphere and acting more than make up for it.
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.
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.
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.
You can read the rest HERE!
There’s a play being produced in London next month based (in some small part) on my book Investigating Ghosts!
It’s titled “A Study in Fear” and you can see the cover of my book being projected to the left of this actor in the photo below.
Unfortunately I won’t get a chance to see it performed, but I hope to meet the writer and cast during a rehearsal. For more info: https://www.facebook.com/newstagers/
I recently was interviewed about my latest book, and my writing process. Here’s part one of the interview:
Investigating Ghostsis an in-depth look at the scientific attempts to contact the dead, from historical, cultural, and folkloric perspectives. From Shakespeare to the Victorian era to modern-day ghost hunting, people have always tried to find ghosts, and this is a look at their methods and how to bring science to them. I’m open-minded but skeptical.
This book is a culmination of about 20 years of research and investigation into the subject, and it’s probably one of the broadest topics I’ve written about. My previous books were often on narrower topics (such as New Mexico mysteries, the chupacabra vampire, and evil clowns) which allowed me to do a deep dive and analysis into them. But with ghosts, there’s an enormous amount of information I needed to tackle, from early ghost-based religions such as Spiritualism to ghost folklore, the psychology of a ghost experience, ghost hunting devices, ghost photos, the scientific process, and so on. In all these cases I wanted to bring something new to it, to not just copy and paste information or third-hand sources but give readers factual, science-based information. That’s why there’s eight pages of references; it’s not just a book of spooky, told-as-true ghost stories, but evidence-based analyses, including my own investigations. Even with all that, I couldn’t get everything into 320 pages.
Throughout the book I describe my first-hand investigations, including many here in New Mexico. I’m not just an armchair investigator! I love to get out in the field, go to haunted locations, interview witnesses, examine evidence, and try to figure out what’s going on. So I enjoyed describing some of the investigations, for example at the KiMo theater, at the Albuquerque Press Club, courthouses in Santa Fe and Espanola, the tiny town of Cuchillo, and so on. I have also done haunted house investigations for TV shows, in Los Angeles, Jamaica, Canada, and other countries. It’s part memoir, which was fun, and I’m especially pleased it won the New Mexico/Arizona Book Award.
Investigating Ghostsis actually a follow-up to a previous book, titled Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries, which came out in 2010. In that book I cover, well, pretty much what the title states: How to investigate—and more importantly, solve—seemingly unexplained mysteries. I cover a wide variety of phenomenon, including crop circles, lake monsters, psychic detectives, and ghosts. But I realized that ghost are so popular, and such an often-investigated phenomenon, that they really deserved their own book. There really are so many different aspects to ghost investigation (photos, experiences, so-called EVP or ghostly voices, and so on) that I couldn’t do it justice in just a chapter or a few articles. Plus I kept meeting well-intended amateur ghost hunters who were going about it in completely the wrong way—often influenced, unfortunately, by “reality” TV shows—and honestly I felt badly for them. This book is partly an attempt to help sincere ghost investigators, whether skeptic or believer, to improve their methods so that, if ghosts do exist, they can be proven. Or, by the same token, if ghosts aren’t real, we can help prove that, too.
A nice review on Paranormal Bucket of my latest book “Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits”: “Radford offers up a critique of ghost investigation techniques in this thought-provoking volume. Rather than simply chronicling why many standard methods adopted by contemporary paranormal investigators to search for spirits have been unable to produce hard evidence of a spooky afterlife, the author meticulously diagrams what researchers might do to make their approaches to gathering evidence more likely to generate persuasive results….He is an entertaining and perceptive writer with a welcome, dry sense of humor.”
You can read the review HERE.
And the book is for sale HERE.
New episode up! Celestia and I talk about Project Blue Book, the Air Force effort to examine UFO sightings, and the upcoming History Channel series based (loosely) on it, and we wrangle F. Andrew Taylor to chat with us about his experiences as a pretend Air Force forensic artist, drawing UFO encounters at the San Diego Comic Con. Then on to the Star Trek convention in Vegas, where Celestia chats with gravity expert Dr. Erin Macdonald (of “Dr. Erin Explains the Universe”) and Dr. Angela Mattke, emergency physician and assistant director of the Skeptrack at DragonCon.
You can hear the episode HERE!
As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) comes upon its one year anniversary, I will be posting episode summaries from the past year to remind people some of the diverse topics we’ve covered on the show, ranging from ghosts to folklore to mysteries and topical skepticism. If you haven’t heard it, please give a listen!
What are we skeptical of this week? Pascual deconstructs the viral story about women supposedly absorbing DNA from the sperm of every man they have slept with, which is a wild (and possibly slut-shaming) misinterpretation of the actual study on microchimerism. Ben looks at the recent shooting at a congressional baseball practice and, specifically, the immediate calls to label it (and many other shootings) terrorism. Who is responsible for decreeing a specific attack as a terrorist act, and what constitutes terrorism? For this week’s main topic, Ben and Pascual unpack the concept of nostalgia and why it should be looked at skeptically. In reality, the “good old days” weren’t so good—they were piled high with horse dung, rampant disease, and other woes. Even in our own lives, memory tends to hang onto the best aspects of a remembered time and forget the troublesome details. A song from our youth reminds us of the best things we experienced at that time, not the problems we had. People also love to complain about their own lives and current problems, and nostalgia is a way to impose the “grass is always greener” lament across time. Marketers also tend to pair recent history with good cues in order to bring about a warm sense of nostalgia in audiences, while the media tends to overhype all the catastrophic aspects of today in order to grab attention. Politicians do this too, to great effect: Make America Great Again, anyone? Pascual breaks down how people complain about “today’s pop music” and reminds us that bad or “manufactured” pop music is hardly a new thing. Just like memories, though, we cherry-pick: it’s the best music and best films of any era that tend to be carried forward, while the mediocre or downright bad from bygone times is quickly forgotten.
You can hear the show HERE!
In the new episode of Squaring the Strange, Celestia and I square off on misleading documentaries. Far from being reliable “research,” it’s important to remember that documentaries are the vision of a particular filmmaker, and by their very nature will have a point of view. We run through the good, the bad, and the “well, you tried.” Some handy tips on spotting red flags. Please check it out HERE!
As we approach our one-year anniversary Squaring the Strange, the podcast I co-host with Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward, I wanted to review early episodes you may have missed!
Episode 10: Of Emperors and Clothes
Ben reads some of his “fan” mail, from a man in India who believes he has a method of creating ley lines remotely. After a brief explanation of what ley lines are—as much as these fuzzy energy notions can be defined, anyway—Ben and Pascual parse what exactly this well-meaning writer believes he can do, and how the ideomotor effect leads many dowsers to believe they are detecting things like water, oil, or ley lines. Then for their main topic, the guys dig into that classic Hans Christian Anderson tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” The tale has an interesting ending that many don’t remember: after the little boy calls everyone’s attention to the fact that the emperor has no clothes on, he continues to walk the parade and his chamberlains carry the train that is not there. Or, in other words, even when you speak truth to power, it continues on as before. The whole story is a tour through skeptical concepts. The king relies on second-hand accounts rather than going to the source himself, which is comparable to relying on social media posts or testimonials and anecdotes today. The concept of “invisible thread” may seem silly, but is it really so different from claims like psychic ability, homeopathic memory of water, or holistic energy adjustments? In the story, people censor their observations because of a fear of authority, of losing their jobs, and of going against the social norms. Likewise, today people shy away from stating unpopular observations or opinions because they might want to avoid public shaming on social media. Then, finally, we see the sunk-cost fallacy as the emperor and his court continue on their way.
Santa brought me a great gift:
A nice review of my book in a prominent folklore journal: “Bad Clowns is a thorough, useful survey of the history of bad, creepy, and evil clown narratives and imagery, and one that could prove a timely and accessible teaching text for undergraduate courses on contemporary legend, folklore and popular culture, or folklore and media. Bad Clowns does an outstanding job of querying why clown imagery has come to be associated with fear, crime, and violence… Ideas involving the uncomfortable intersection of childhood with adulthood, the catharsis of chaos, and the idea of a clown as a magnified cultural mirror – lurk deeper. For these questions alone, the book is worth a read.”
You can read the rest HERE.
This scene from 1600s New England depicts the use of a “courting stick,” by which young lovers could exchange whispers and sweet nothings in some privacy despite the entire family living in one room. What do you think this lad is saying to his sweetheart?
Now and then I review films (I have since 1994), and I thought I’d share a recent one:
The new slasher film Happy Death Day follows a young woman named Tree at a Louisiana university who wakes up in a dorm room with her phone blaring “Happy Birthday” (yes, it’s her birthday) and goes about her disheveled but otherwise ordinary day sniping with nasty sorority sisters and whatnot until that evening when she’s menaced (and eventually killed) by a creeper in a giant baby mask (it’s the school mascot, apparently).
Terrifying enough, but then she wakes up the next morning—or perhaps the same morning—with a sense of relief that it was all a dream. But the relief turns to déjà vu
as the day is repeated, with minor variations, until the killing happens again. Tree remembers what happened the previous day, of course (otherwise there would be no film), though none of the other characters do. At some point, with the help of her friend Carter, she somehow, apparently, divines the “rules” of the loop she’s in and tries to subvert them in order to prevent her death and catch her killer.
Happy Death Day is kind of like the opposite of Happy Birthday—though technically it would be Happy Birth Day, which no one says, since “birthday” is one word—and, well, I guess the real opposite would actually be something like Sad Death Night, but anyway, yeah, I’m already putting more thought into the title than co-writer/director Christopher Landon did with the plot.
Equal parts Mean Girls, Groundhog Day, and Scream, Happy Death Day has some ideas for directions the script wants to go, but it doesn’t really explore them. At one point the message seems to be that Tree is maybe reliving the day so that she can see what a bitch she is and become a better person; that theme propels a few scenes until it’s abruptly abandoned and the focus turns to trying to identify her killer (as she, for unexplained reasons, comes to believe that it’s the key to getting out of this recurring time loop). Because the film’s premise isn’t anchored in any discernible rules (other than what the characters intuit—and really we as an audience should have more information than they do), it’s hard to get too involved in the nonsensical plot.
For a film whose gimmick relies on repeating key scenes, the filmmakers are resourceful (if not wholly successful) at finding ways of making the repetition less annoying. For example they use different lenses, depths of focus, and so on, to show the same scenes in slight different ways. What Happy Death Day does have going for it is a bit of fun and a talented lead actress, Jessica Rothe, who glides gracefully between camp and pathos.
The twist at the end is the kind that makes sense if you think about it for a moment—but only a moment, because as that turns into two or three moments you realize that it doesn’t actually make any sense at all, and that (unlike, for example, Memento or The Usual Suspects) the joke is on you for wasting energy devoting neurons to what is essentially a shaggy dog story. If this is the kind of movie that annoys you (as it often does me), caveat emptor.
Watching Happy Death Day I experienced a sort of film critic’s whiplash; parts of the movie were eye-rollingly bad, but a few minutes later were surprisingly good. Just as I thought it was stuck in a one-star gear, it found its groove and was heading right for three stars (but not four). It’s funny, but not really funny enough to be a successful comedy; it’s scary, in a few spots, but also not scary enough to be a good horror film. I guess it’s best described as diverting or amusing, a passable if uninspired way to spend an hour and a half of your life. Overall I have to give Happy Death Day a tepid recommendation—as long as you know what you’re in for.
Genies (or jinn, as they are better known in the Arabic world) are supernatural beings with roots in ancient Mesopotamian legends. Jinn, however, are not the lamp-dwelling, wish-granting benevolent servants that Westerners know from popular culture.
The image that most Americans probably have of genies comes from the 1960s sitcom “I Dream of Jeannie” or the animated big blue Robin Williams-voiced wiseacre in Disney’s “Aladdin.” More recently, in the television adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel “American Gods,” audiences have come to know a cab-driving jinn who switches identities with an Omani salesman named Salim. (Salim had recognized the jinn from a story told to him by his grandmother).
Gaiman’s magical, shape-shifting jinn is fictional, but belief in genies is widespread. In “Legends of the Fire Spirits: Jinn and Genies from Arabia to Zanzibar” (Counterpoint Books, 2011), researcher Robert Lebling noted that “Jinn are taken seriously and regarded as real, tangible beings by a large segment of the world’s population…. They often appear humanoid or even human but possess amazing powers we lack. They can change their shapes, can fly through the air, and even can render themselves invisible.” (Lebling is also the creator of a Facebook page titled The Jinn Group, where members share jinn stories and lore.)
You can read the rest of my LiveScience.com article HERE.
A nice correction/acknowledgement from Fortean Times magazine for having quoted from my Bad Clowns book without attribution. Classy, and appreciated!
With all the recent discussion of shootings and how the news media have covered it, I thought I’d revisit a blog I wrote in 2014 about how people often misuse (and misunderstand) the phrase “the media.”
As a longtime media and science literacy educator (as well as author of Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us), I regularly see “the media” blamed (and rarely praised) for any number of ills, some justified but many not. The phrase “the media” appears regularly and continually in public discourse-often as the subject of blame or derision: “the media” is said to incite violence, to inflame racial hatred, to manipulate consumers through advertising, and so on. “The media” is said to push an impossible beauty ideal on American women leading to an epidemic of eating disorders; violence in entertainment media such as video games is blamed for real-life violence, and so on. This is nothing new; blaming “the 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.
You can read my CFI blog HERE.
Looks like my new book “Bad Clowns” even made it to the Wikipedia page on clowns. Very cool! If you haven’t read it yet, there’s still a few copies left at your local independent bookstore, or at Amazon.com!
You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.
The idea that people can levitate under certain circumstances has been discussed for centuries despite a noticeable lack of people flying around. I interviewed Michael Grosso, the author of a new book on the topic, for my new blog… Check it out HERE!
I was recently sent a review copy of a new book titled The Man Who Could Fly: St. Joseph of Copertino and the Mystery of Levitation. The accompanying press release included the following summary: “St. Joseph of Copertino [1603-1663] began having mystical visions at the age of seven, but it was not until he began practicing his faith as a Franciscan priest that he realized the full potential of his mind’s power over his body-he was able to levitate. Throughout his priesthood St. Joseph became famous for frequent levitations that were observed on hundreds of occasions and by thousands of witnesses, including many skeptics. Michael Grosso delves into the biography of the saint to explore the many strange phenomena that surrounded his life and develops potential physical explanations for some of the most astounding manifestations of his religious ecstasy. Grosso draws upon contemporary explorations into cognition, the relationship between the human mind and body, and the scientifically recorded effects of meditation and other transcendent practices to reveal the implications of St. Joseph’s experiences and abilities.”…
You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.
My book Mysterious New Mexico that was featured on the front page of Wikipedia for 12 hours last week received 1,950 page views. Most of those views were not from the skeptic community, so great outreach!
You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.
My brilliant zoologist friend Darren Naish wrote a retrospective piece for Scientific American about various interesting zoology-related news stories from last year–including a “monster mystery” I played a role in revealing. It’s a fun read, check it out, you can find it HERE.
M. Night Shyamalan’s new film The Visit has a fairy tale feel to it as Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and her younger brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are sent off to visit their estranged maternal grandparents in a big, isolated house while their single mother takes a much-needed weeklong cruise… Read my whole review HERE.
I recently read Candice Miller’s book The River of Doubt, about Theodore Roosevelt’s 1914 exploration of an unknown river in the Brazilian Amazon. It’s a fascinating story of adventure, misadventure, murder, and more. In the book I also found an excellent real-life example of one of my favorite logical fallacies:post hoc ergo propter hoc, also called faulty causation. Read more HERE.
The Gift starts, as many films do, with the story of young married couple Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) who move into a new neighborhood. They recently came from Chicago to Los Angeles, lured by the promise of a job promotion for him and some down time for her following a battle with depression…
You can read the whole review in my CFI blog HERE.
The Attorneys General of several states recently announced a crackdown on unsafe herbal supplements…. you can read more HERE.
ISIS terrorists have apparently beheaded at least one of their two Japanese hostages taken weeks ago. Last year I wrote an article about why terror groups cut their victims’ heads off. Gruesome but interesting, you can read it HERE.
The terrorist group ISIS threatened to kill two Japanese citizens unless their government pays a huge ransom. They did not, and at least one was beheaded. Last year I wrote a piece for Discovery News about the politics of paying for hostages… you can read it HERE.
Censorship and free speech: Was Sony going to shelve The Interview last month because of terror threats? Most people think so.
But a closer look suggests that might not be true; you can read it HERE.
My new CFI blog on the bizarre, misogynistic mess that is Disney’s “Into the Woods.” You can read it HERE.
The first and only book on the film Falling Down, by Prof. Jude Davies of the University of Winchester, quotes my interview with the screenwriter and refers to my “very useful fan site.” You can find the book HERE.
In my many years of writing articles and occasionally fact-checking news media reports (see, for example, much of my book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us), I’m continually baffled by the defensive stance that people often take when you fact-check their statistics. People often assume that if you’re checking their facts that you must be against them or what they’re trying to do. HERE is a follow-up about the film Miss Representation…