Jun 162020
 

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

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

Racism and Anti-Vaccination

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

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

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

New Age, Holistic Healers, and Conspiracies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plandemic 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Jun 062020
 

Last month, a YouTube video for an (apparently) upcoming documentary titled Plandemic was released by Mikki Willis (credited onscreen as “father/filmaker” [sic]). The video features a lengthy interview with virologist Judy Mikovits, who offers scattershot conspiracy-laden assertions about the “truth” behind the COVID-19 pandemic, prefaced by claims of having been framed for a crime (she was charged with theft in 2011) and accusations of government coverups going back decades involving various medical authorities, including Dr. Anthony Fauci. Willis’s voiceover gravely warns that “for exposing their deadly secrets, the minions of Big Pharma have waged war on Dr. Mikovits,” who in the film (and in her new best-selling book the video promotes) bravely reveals “the plague of corruption that places all human life in danger.”

Dozens of claims are made in the twenty-six-minute video, some of which are unverifiable—as conspiracy theories tend to be. But many statements made by Mikovits have been investigated and proven to be misleading or simply false.

Among its claims, the video suggests that a vaccine for the virus (which of course hasn’t been developed) will be mandatory; however, no one is forced to get medical treatment. If and when a vaccine is available, federal agents armed with automatic weapons in one hand and a syringe in the other aren’t going to be bursting through doors to forcibly vaccinate anyone—paranoid conspiracy fantasies to the contrary.

It’s now been several weeks since the video was widely shared on social media, and questions have been raised by reputable journalists for publications including The Washington Post and The Atlantic, as well as Politifact. For an expert and filmmaker who claim to have been censored and silenced (with social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube removing the video for containing dangerous misinformation), Mikovits and Willis have been strangely silent about answering legitimate questions raised about their claims.

In an effort to clarify the matter, the Center for Inquiry reviewed the video and, in collaboration with researcher Dr. Paul Offit, composed a list of eight simple questions about claims made in the video. CFI contacted Mr. Willis, who agreed in writing to respond to our questions. The next day he was provided the questions below, thanked for his cooperation, and asked to reply.

1) The Plandemic video claims that face masks “activate” coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-2; what scientific evidence do you have that the virus is more infectious for individuals wearing masks than for those not wearing masks?

2) The video promotes hydroxychloroquine as effective against the virus (despite elevated cardiac risks and several placebo-controlled studies finding no efficacy at all). Instead of being ignored or suppressed by the medical establishment, controlled clinical trials of the drug have been performed. What is the “thousands of pages of data” already demonstrating the drug’s safety and efficacy referred to in the video?

3) The video claims that vaccines increase the odds of getting the virus by 36 percent, referencing a study by Dr. Greg Wolff published in the journal Vaccine. But the study did not examine SARS-CoV-2, was found to have been flawed, and in any event didn’t find that vaccines increased the risk by 36 percent. In fact, that statistic doesn’t appear anywhere in the Wolff study. Can you explain this?

4) The video claims that during the COVID-19 outbreak, beaches should be opened to the public because “You’ve got … healing microbes in the ocean and the salt water.” However, considering that bacteria don’t kill viruses, how would “healing microbes” reduce or treat coronavirus infection?

5) The video claims that COVID-19 deaths are being inflated due to medical profiteering (supposed payments of $13,000 per diagnosed patient)—yet hospitals across the country are losing money (and support staff are being laid off) because lucrative elective procedures are being cancelled or delayed due to the pandemic. How do you explain this discrepancy?

6) The video claims that the plan is “to prevent the therapies until everyone is infected, then push the vaccines.” Yet no vaccines are available, and if everyone is infected then a vaccine wouldn’t be needed. If the pandemic were part of a scheme to sell a vaccine (or force it on the public), why wouldn’t it have been developed before the virus was released and before hundreds of thousands of potential customers (sure to pay anything to stay alive) had already died? Can you clarify your logic?

7) The video refers to censorship by news media and corporate scientists, claiming that “there is [sic] no dissenting voices allowed.” If that’s true, then how did Mikovits’s books get published? And, for example, how did Dr. Andrew Wakefield publish an article in the prestigious journal Lancet in 1998 claiming a (since-discredited) link between childhood vaccines and autism? After other researchers failed to replicate the findings, the study was retracted, but how could it have been published in the first place if the medical establishment effectively silences “dissenting voices” who challenge the “agreed-upon narrative”?

8) Plandemic repeatedly emphasizes the importance of independent thinking and considering different perspectives. Did you interview anyone who challenged Mikovits’s claims, and what research did you do as a filmmaker to independently verify her claims?

The Center for Inquiry waited several days for a response and then followed up with a query asking Willis to confirm he received the questions and would be offering answers as agreed to. It’s now been nearly a week, and no response has been forthcoming from anyone featured in (or representing) the video. This article will be updated when and if substantive answers are received.

If the claims made by Mikovits and Willis in Plandemic are based in truth and facts, you’d think they would be eager to offer evidence supporting their claims. What better way to turn the tables on scientists, skeptics, and journalists than to offer a referenced, fact-based, point-by-point rebuttal to critics who offer them a platform?

The video repeatedly emphasizes the importance of “considering different points of view” and asking questions, yet offers no other points of view that contradict or undermine Mikovits. Plandemic claims the medical community has a set narrative that refuses to answer opposing voices—and instead offers its own set narrative that refuses to answer opposing voices. Plandemic made many claims, most of which have been widely debunked. We have to wonder: Where are their responses? Why are they suddenly so quiet? Why are they afraid to answer questions? What do they have to hide?

May 152020
 

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

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

You can read the piece HERE. 

 

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

Apr 232020
 

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

You can read Part 1 Here.

 

Certainty and the Unknown Knowns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psychology of Uncertainty

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

Apr 202020
 

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

 

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

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

Dueling Projections and Predictions

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

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

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

The Media Factors

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

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

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

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

Uncertainties in Models and Testing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Incomplete Testing

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Part 2 will be posted in a few days.

Apr 082020
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lack of Information

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

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

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

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

Misinformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disinformation and Conspiracies

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

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

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

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

How to Get, Prevent, or Cure It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Apr 012020
 

There’s a natural—almost Pavlovian—tendency to follow the news closely, especially during times of emergency such as wars, terrorism, and natural disasters. People are understandably desperate for information to keep their friends and family safe, and part of that is being informed about what’s going on. 

News and social media are awash with information about the covid-19 pandemic. But not all the information is equally valid, useful, or important. It’s easy to become overwhelmed, and science-informed laypeople are likely suffering this information overload keenly, as we absorb the firehose of information from a wide variety of sources: from the White House to the CDC, and from conspiracy cranks to Goop contributors. It’s a never ending stream—often a flood—of information, and those charged with trying to sort it out are quickly inundated. As important as news is, there is such a thing as medical TMI.

We have a Goldilocks situation when it comes to covid-19 material. There’s too little, too much, and just the right amount of information about the covid-19 virus in the news and social media. This sounds paradoxical until we break down each type of information. 

Types of Covid-19 Information

In thinking about the covid-19 outbreak and the deluge of opinion, rumor, and news out there, it’s helpful to parse out the different types of information. 

1) Information that’s true

This includes the most important, practical information—how to avoid it: Wash your hands, avoid crowds, don’t touch your face, sanitize surfaces, and so on. This type of information has been proven accurate and consistent since the outbreak began. This is of course the smallest category of information: mundane but vital. 

2) Information that’s false 

Information that’s false includes a wide variety of rumors, miracle cures, misinformation, and so on. The Center for Inquiry’s Covid Resource Center has been set up precisely to help journalists and the public debunk this false information. The problem is made worse by the fact that Russian disinformation organizations—which have a long and proven history of sowing false and misleading information in social media around the world, and particularly in the United States—have seized on the covid-19. 

3) Speculation, opinion, and conjecture

In times of uncertainty, prediction and speculation are rampant. Dueling projections about the outbreak vary by orders of magnitude as experts and social media pundits alike share their speculation. Of course, epidemiological models are only as good as the data that goes into them and are based on many premises, variables, and numerous unknowns. 

Wanting to accurately know the future is of course a venerable tradition. But as a recent post on Medium written by an epidemiologist noted: “Here is a simple fact: every prediction you’ve read on the numbers of COVID-19 cases or deaths is almost certainly wrong. All models are wrong. Some models are useful. It is very easy to draw a graph using an exponential curve and tell everyone that there will be 10 million cases by next Friday. It is far harder to model infectious disease epidemics with any accuracy. Stop making graphs and putting them online. Stop reading the articles by well-meaning people who have no idea what they are doing. The real experts aren’t posting random Excel graphs on twitter, because they are working flat-out to try and get a handle on the epidemic.” 

4) Information that’s true but not helpful

Finally, there’s another, less-recognized category: information that is true but not helpful on an individual level, or what might be called “trivially true.” We usually think of false information being shared as harmful—and it certainly is—but trivially true information can also be harmful to public health. Even when it’s not directly harmful, it adds to the background of noise.

News media and social media are flooded with information and speculation that—even if accurate—is of little practical use to the average person. Much of the information is not helpful, useful, actionable, or applicable to daily life. It’s like in medicine and psychology what’s called “clinical significance”: the practical importance of a treatment effect—whether it has a real, genuine, palpable, and noticeable effect on daily life. A finding may be true, may be statistically significant, but be insignificant in the real world. A new medicine may reduce pain by 5 percent but nobody would create or market it because it’s not clinically significant; a 5 percent reduction in pain isn’t useful compared to other pain relievers with better efficacy. 

One example might include photos of empty store shelves widely shared on social media, depicting the run on supplies such as sanitizer and toilet paper. The information is both true and accurate; it’s not being faked or staged. But it’s not helpful, because it leads to panic buying, social contagion, and hoarding as people perceive a threat to their welfare and turn an artificial scarcity into a real one. 

Another example is Trump’s recent reference to the covid-19 virus as “the China virus.” Ignoring the fact that diseases aren’t named for where they emerge, we can acknowledge that it’s technically accurate that, as Trump claimed, covid-19 was first detected in China—and also that it’s not a relevant or useful detail. It doesn’t add to the discussion or help anyone’s understanding of what the disease is or how to deal with it. If anything, referring to it by other terms such as “the China virus” or “Wuhan flu” is likely to cause confusion and even foment racism.  

Before believing or sharing information on social media, ask yourself questions such as: Is it true? Is it from a reliable source? But there are other questions to ask: Even if it may be factually true, is it helpful or useful? Does it promote unity or encourage divisiveness? Are you sharing it because it contains practical information important to people’s health? Or are you sharing it just to have something to talk about, some vehicle to share your opinions about? The signal-to-noise ratio is already skewed against useful information, being drowned out by false information, speculation, opinion, and trivially true information.  

Social Media Distancing

While self-isolating from the disease (and those who might carry it) is vital to public health, there’s a less-discussed aspect: self-distancing from social media information on the virus, which is a form of social media hygiene. Six feet is enough distance in physical space, but doesn’t apply to cyberspace where viral misinformation spreads unchecked (until it hits this site).

The analogy between disease and misinformation is apt. Just as you can be a vector for a virus if you get and spread it, you can be a vector for misinformation and fear. But you can stop it by removing yourself from it. You don’t need hourly updates on most aspects of the pandemic. Most of what you see and read isn’t relevant to you. The idea is not to ignore important and useful information about the coronavirus; in fact, it’s exactly the opposite: to better distinguish the news from the noise, the relevant from the irrelevant. 

Doctors around the world have been photographed sharing signs that say “We’re at work for you. Please stay home for us.” That’s excellent advice, but we can take it further. While at home not becoming a vector for disease, also take steps not to become a vector for misinformation. After all, doing so can have just as much of an impact on public health. 

During a time when people are isolated, it’s cathartic to vent on social media. Humans are social creatures, and we find ways to connect even when we can’t physically. Especially during a time of international crisis, it’s easy to become outraged about one or another aspect of the pandemic. Everyone has opinions about what is (or isn’t) being done, what should (or shouldn’t) be done. Everyone’s entitled to those opinions, but they should be aware that those opinions expressed on social media have consequences and may well harm others, albeit unintentionally. Just as it feels good to physically hang out with other people (but may in fact be dangerous to them), it feels good to let off steam to others in your social circles (but may be dangerous to them). Your steam makes others in your feed get steamed too, and so on. Again, it’s the disease vector analogy. 

You don’t know who will end up seeing your posts and comments (such is the nature of “viral” posts and memes), and while you may think little of it, others may be more vulnerable. Just as people take steps to protect those with compromised immune systems, it may be wise to take similar steps to protect those with compromised psychological defenses on social media—those suffering from anxiety, depression, or other issues who are especially vulnerable at this time. 

This isn’t about self-censorship; there are many ways to reach out to others and share concerns and feelings in a careful and less public way through email, direct messaging, video calls, and even—gasp—good old fashioned letters. Like anything else, people can express feelings and concerns in measured, productive ways, ways that are more (or less) likely to harm others (referring to it as “covid-19” instead of “the Chinese virus” is one example). 

Though the public loves to blame the news media for misinformation—and deservedly so—we are less keen to see the culprit in the mirror. Many people, especially on social media, fail to recognize that they have become de facto news outlets through the stories and posts they share. The news media helps spread myriad “fake news” stories—gleefully aided by ordinary people like us. We cannot control what news organizations (or anyone else) publishes or puts online. But we can—and indeed we have an obligation to—help stop the spread of misinformation in all its forms. 

It’s overwhelming; it’s too much. In psychology there’s what’s called the Locus of Control. It basically means the things which a person has control over: themselves, their immediate family, their pets, most aspects of their lives, and so on. It’s psychologically healthy to focus on those things you can do something about. You can’t do anything about how many deaths there are in China or Italy. You can’t do anything about whether or not medical masks are being manufactured and shipped quickly enough. But you can do something about bad information online. 

It can be as simple as not forwarding, liking, or sharing that dubious news story before checking the facts, especially if that story seems crafted to encourage social outrage. We can help separate the truth from the myths, but we can’t force people to believe the truth. Be safe, practice social and cyber distancing, and wash your hands. 

 

A longer version of this appeared on the Center for Inquiry site; you can find it here. 

Mar 152020
 

I was recently editing a piece by Rob Palmer (perhaps better known as “The Well-Known Skeptic”) on the subject of misinformation he encountered in the middle of the world. Or, put another way, bogus information on the equator in Ecuador (a country named after the equator).

I had a particular interest in the topic, having visited the equator near the Colombian border and listening to a tour guide give information I knew was simply false, about several equator-related myths including egg balancing. I wrote a column about it for Skeptical Inquirer magazine (July/August 2016) and discussed it on my podcast, Squaring the Strange.

Tour guide in Ecuador balancing an egg on the equator (a feat that can be done anywhere)
The author balancing the same egg away from the equator

In the process of fact-checking something for the Palmer piece (I’ve forgotten what), I happened to come across a short article for PrevueMeetings titled “3 Strange Equator Tests to Try in Quito, Ecuador,” by a writer named Jessie Fetterling.

It featured three “tricks”: the water-funneling trick (in which water drains in opposite directions above and below the equator); the finger-pulling trick (“involves one person holding their thumb and forefinger in an O shape. On the north and south side, it’s very difficult for someone else to pry them apart. However, on the equator, that same person trying to pry them apart can do so with ease”); and last, my personal favorite, the egg balancing trick (balancing an egg upright on a nailhead). All these have been widely debunked for years, and the explanations can be found at the links above.

I generally don’t spend much time correcting errors and misinformation I find online—who’s got time for that?—but sometimes as a courtesy to the writer I’ll send them a quick note. As a writer myself, I’m well aware that anything I put out into the world (especially online) reflects on me and my scholarship. No one likes to be told they’re wrong about something, but I appreciate it when people point out an error in my articles, so that I can correct it. Unlike an opinion piece, nonfiction writers have an obligation to their readers to get facts right as best they can—especially if those readers might use that information in some way.

I noticed that the website, PrevueMeetings, is “a multi-platform brand that inspires planners by providing immersive experiential travel coverage, professional development,” and so on. I’m not fluent in corporatespeak but Fetterling’s article promoted the tricks as “fun tests for attendees visiting the famous line and its Inti Nan Solar Museum to prove they are standing at the center of the Earth. Here are three that go beyond the typical sun-dial observation (that faces upward instead of horizontal on the equator) for planners to incorporate into a team building program.”

Team building activities are great and all, but should be based on truth and facts, not myths. If anything, these could badly backfire if any of the participants have a background in science or critical thinking, because it would undermine the credibility of those who endorse these myths. If I were in a team-building program and being shown “amazing facts and feats” that were easily debunked with high school science and/or a few keystrokes, I’d frankly wonder what else the host company told us was wrong. I’d be mortified to be a team leader or team building programmer and have one or more of the participants raise their hands during a demonstration and say, “Um, I took science courses in college and I don’t think this is right…”

I decided that the best thing would be to just write a reply, since the story offered a Reply box for comments. I typed in a short, concise, polite somment and finished Palmer’s article.

I thought nothing more about it until a few weeks later it crossed my mind to see if Fetterling’s article had been corrected or updated—or at the very least that my corrective reply had posted. It had not, remaining unapproved by a moderator and unposted.

I realized that PrevueMeetings might not want to have any comments showing that an article that appeared on their site was wrong. That was their choice of course—though it seemed to defeat the purpose of allowing people to reply to the piece; maybe they only approved positive comments. Nevertheless I felt obligated to contact Fetterling to let her know—after all, as a self-described travel junkie the article has her name on it, and it’s a significant error: the entire premise was flawed. It wasn’t a matter of fixing a date or spelling, it would have to be rewritten. Better yet, it could be updated and used as a critical thinking team building exercise: “Here’s three common myths about the equator—but are they true? How can we use logic and research to prove or debunk them?”

I contacted her, via both her website and Twitter, politely noting that her information was wrong, and providing links and references in case she wanted to correct it.

I never heard back, and today the article remains exactly as it has for three years, misinforming people about “tricks” at the equator. That’s okay with me, I’ve done due diligence. But this short story explains why and how bad information is sometimes created and perpetuated.

Calling “bullshit!” isn’t always enough—unless maybe you do it loudly in front of your team-building captain as she’s cheered for balancing an egg on a nail.

 

A different version of this article originally appeared on my CFI blog; you can read it HERE!

 

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

Mar 122020
 

The recent Squaring the Strange is even more awesome than most! We talk with expert Ron Pine about the Minnesota Iceman, a “sasquatchcicle” hoax of truly epic proportions. How did a sideshow gaffe fool two prominent cryptid researchers, and make it all the way to the Smithsonian for (limited) examination? What does J. Edgar Hoover have to do with this? Or a reclusive California millionaire? Listen and find out!

 

Mar 052020
 

As the world enters its third  full month dealing with the deadly coronavirus, misinformation is running rampant. For many, the medical and epidemiological aspects of the outbreak are the most important and salient elements, but there are other prisms through which we can examine this public health menace. 

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

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

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

The first case was reported in late December 2019 in Wuhan, China. About a month later the Health and Human Services Department declared a U.S. public health emergency. The average person is at very low risk, and Americans are at far greater risk of getting the flu—about 10 percent of the public gets it each year. Three cruise ships and several airplanes have been quarantined. There are about a dozen confirmed cases in the U.S., and most of the infected are in China or are people who visited there. Though the number of people infected in China sounds alarming, keep in mind the country’s population of 1.4 billion. 

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

Lack of Information

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

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

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

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

Misinformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disinformation and Conspiracies

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

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

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

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

How to Get, Prevent, or Cure It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

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

The Global Grapevine: Why Rumors of Terrorism, Immigration, and Trade Matter, Gary Alan Fine and Bill Ellis
The Kiss of Death: Contagion, Contamination, and Folklore, Andrea Kitta

 

A different version of this article originally appeared in my blog for the Center for Inquiry; you can find it HERE. 

 

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

Feb 252020
 

As advertised, the Oscar-nominated World War I film 1917 takes place in April 1917, when two British soldiers, William Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), are rousted from a weary daytime slumber. They’re ordered to cross enemy territory (a no man’s land littered with death and decay) and deliver an urgent message to another brigade to call off an attack. It seems that the other soldiers—including the brother of one of the men—are falling into a trap set by their German enemies who have cut the lines of communication.

1917 is reminiscent of other war films such as Saving Private Ryan and Gallipoli, but I was also reminded of a Roger Waters song from his album Amused to Death titled “The Ballad of Bill Hubbard,” a spoken account by World War I veteran Alfred Razzell who describes finding a mortally injured soldier, Hubbard, on the battlefield and is forced to abandon him.

1917 is about many things, and like most films can be viewed through many prisms. It’s a war movie, of course, but it’s also about friendship, loyalty, sacrifice, and so on. But the theme I saw most clearly in 1917 was information: what it is, how it’s used, and the inherent difficulties in its transmission.

Too often in fictional entertainment information is treated as certain, easily accessed, and easily transferred. Countless films, and especially spy thrillers such as the Jason Bourne series, have scenes in which the hero needs to get some vital piece of information which is instantly produced with a few keyboard taps, in dramatic infographic fashion, usually on giant, easy-to-understand wall screens. The Star Trek Enterprise computers are notorious for this: they predict (seemingly with unerring accuracy) when, for example, a planet or ship will explode. It’s always annoyed me as a deus ex machina cheat.

I understand why screenwriters do that; they want to get the exposition and premises out of the way so we can move on with the plot. No need to question the accuracy or validity of the information; the characters—and by extension, the audience—just needs to accept it at face value and move on. (Imagine a dramatic countdown scene in which the hero fails to defuse a bomb at the last second—but it still doesn’t go off and everyone is saved simply because a wire got loose or a battery died. Such scenes, though realistic, are dramatically unsatisfying, and thus rarely if ever depicted. They’re certain to raise the ire of audiences as much as an “it was all a dream” conclusion—and for the same reasons.)

Whether it’s a character in a fantasy or horror film being told exactly what words to say or what to do when confronting some great evil at the film’s climax, as a natural skeptic, I’m often left wondering, “How exactly do you know that? Where did your information come from? Who told you that, and how do you know it’s true? What if they’re lying or just made a mistake?” (Or, in a Shakespearean context, “Um, so, MacBeth: How do you know those are prophetic witches, not just three crazy old ladies putting you on?”). Army of Darkness (1992) and The Woman in Black (2012) are two of the few movies that actually take this issue seriously.

1917 takes the matter deadly seriously, depicting the decidedly unglamorous horrors of warfare. Though the events depicted happened a century ago, the basics of war have not changed in millennia; the goal is still to defeat, maim, and kill the other bastards—often when implementing wrong or incomplete information. It’s been said that truth is the first casualty of war, though that’s not always by design. Sometimes truth (or, more broadly, true information) can’t get from those who know, to those who need to know, in time to save lives. Sometimes that’s by design, such as when enemies cut off communications (as in this case); other times the truth is hidden with encryption, such as in The Imitation Game (2014). Often it’s merely the result of chaos and miscommunication. Isolation (including isolation from information) is an effective tool for building dramatic tension; that’s why many horror films are set in remote areas out of cell phone service. When dialing 911 or just asking Siri or Alexa could presumably save the day, screenwriters need to find ways to keep the heroes vulnerable. 

The film—co-written by director Sam Mendes and dedicated to his grandfather, a veteran who “who told us the stories”—also doesn’t give much depth to the two soldiers. Blake and Schofield are given the barest of backstories, and the actors do what they can to flesh them out. The acting is good overall, but the real reason to see 1917 is the immersive and compelling filmmaking.

 

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

 

A longer version of this piece was published on my CFI blog. 

Jan 122020
 

Human rights advocate Dr. Leo Igwe joins us to discuss the dangers posed by so-called “witch hunters” in his home nation of Nigeria and other parts of Africa today. He discusses the entrenched nature of magical beliefs in the region, as well as the complicated power structure that props up those who call out fellow citizens as witches. Religions brought from Europe now play into the mix, with Islam and Christianity working alongside traditional beliefs; witch hunters are often pastors or church leaders, solidifying their power further. Victims are often powerless–the elderly, disabled, or children–and once accused they must run for their lives, abandoned by family and often the state authorities as well. Dr. Igwe talks about the challenges of getting the message across to international agencies and the UN, whose members are sometimes hesitant to speak out against these atrocities for fear of seeming racist or Islamophobic, a trend Igwe decries as stifling critical debate and much-needed open dialogue.  

 

Please check out this important topic; you can listen to it HERE. 

Sep 182019
 

For those who didn’t see it, a recent episode of Squaring the Strange featured special guest Matt Crowley and I talk about our experience at Bigfoot conferences, the rise and fall of “Bigfoot’s Butt Print” evidence, and why Matt decided that the credibility of Bigfoot research is beyond salvage. 

You can listen HERE. 

Apr 122019
 

On Squaring the Strange: Bad Cryptozoological Arguments! There’s a lot of fertile ground here that can be tilled in the name of learning how to spot bad arguments in other walks of life. Let’s look at how squatchers and lake-monster enthusiasts back up their claims and shut down skeptics (or do theyyyyy?) With a few special guests!

You can listen to the episode HERE!

Mar 222019
 

There’s a new drug craze going around, called Catnip Cocktail, allegedly the latest thing since jenkem and “bath salts.” In fact I was recently interviewed by “Rolling Stone” magazine about it; you can read it HERE.

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

Nov 152018
 

In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here’s a look back at a show you might have missed:  Episode 74 – The Pokemon Panic.

This week we start with a quick look at a dog-buys-cookies story that took Celestia down a path of searching out pet videos and, finally, reading about whether or not monkeys can be taught to understand currency. Then Ben revisits an investigation he did on the Pokemon Panic, a wave of illness that struck Tokyo children in the 1990s during an episode of the incredibly popular show–a phenomenon that was referenced again this summer as journalists warned of the strobe effects in Incredibles 2. But what are the numbers, and how exactly does photosensitive epilepsy work? And what was to blame for the thousands of children falling ill that week in Tokyo? You can here it HERE.

Sep 182018
 

I’m quoted in the Wikipedia entry on the TV show “Paranormal Lockdown.” I call it “typical sensationalized nonsense trying to gloss over half-baked pseudoscientific investigation” and note that “Groff and Weidman are walking around a house with a camera crew, literally and figuratively in the dark. The only things they’re testing are their video editor’s endurance and the patience of their viewers.” I’m bracing for misspelled hate mail from the show’s fans…

 

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

Sep 102018
 

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

 

 

First, Ben looks at current failures of intuition and psychics. Then we take a skeptical look at tour guides! Tours straddle a line between entertainment and education, and tour guides happily embellish local legends and lore as time goes on. We welcome special guest Cindy Boyer from the Landmark Society of Western New York and chat about ghost tours. Pascual confesses to teenaged transgressions, and Ben recounts an egg-balancing lesson with a tour guide in Ecuador.

You can listen HERE. 

 

Aug 292018
 

I’m quoted in a new article about the “kill or capture” debate about Bigfoot. “The whole kill-or-capture debate wasn’t on my radar because it didn’t seem like it was an issue that was going to come up any time soon…”

 

How do you kill Bigfoot?

“You would need a heavy-duty rifle,” according Jim Lansdale, co-founder of the Gulf Coast Bigfoot Research Organization (GCBRO). “I would suggest a 30-aught-six or better; .458 or something like that. Maybe a seven-mag’. But it’s all shot placement and you’d have to shoot him in the head. You can’t body-shoot him. They’re too big.”

Lansdale has thought a lot about killing Bigfoot. He even starred in a reality show about it, called Killing Bigfoot on Destination America. In the recent cannon of Bigfoot-focused pseudoscientific backwood shows and documentaries—including Finding BigfootDiscovering Bigfoot, 10 Million Dollar Bigfoot BountyKilling Bigfoot is the only show that unapologetically promotes Bigfoot bloodlust. It follows Lansdale and the rest of the GCBRO crew as they investigate Bigfoot reports and try to put a bullet in the brain of a creature that has never been proven to exist.

GCBRO has placed itself firmly on one side of a contentious debate within the cryptozoological community—should humans be allowed to wantonly slaughter Sasquatch—a creature that (if it exits) may be endangered and contain genetic wonders?

But most Bigfoot seekers fall into the other camp.

You can read the rest HERE. 

 

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

 

Aug 222018
 

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:

Bro-Science with the Credible Hulk 

As we all digest our holiday food and contemplate New Year’s resolutions, the 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 HERE. 

Aug 202018
 

My new CFI blog on mountaineering physicist Melanie Windridge, who recently climbed Everest to promote science and encourage girls in STEM fields.

I interviewed physicist Dr. Melanie Windridge, author of Aurora: In Search of the Northern Lights, last year for a Special Report on the CFI website.

No armchair-ridden ivory tower egghead, Windridge is a veteran of days-long treks and wilderness expeditions. Her website features photos of her summits, and her book contains many compelling first-person adventures in Iceland, Scotland, Sweden, and Norway. “When I was doing my undergraduate work, I had no idea what I’d be doing now,” she told me. “I was doing fusion, so it was very lab-based, so it was very different for me to say I want to get out of the lab, I want to study physics in a very different domain. It’s really wonderful to see this phenomenon that really touches you on a personal, inner level…. But also to look at the science of it, and understand that the science doesn’t take away that feeling you get. It’s still magical. In fact knowing the science makes it even more incredible.”

As for her book Aurora, “I didn’t want to just write a science book. I wanted to celebrate the beauty and magic of the aurora and how captivating it is, and also explore the history of Arctic exploration and the cultures there… It’s this wonderful crossover between art, history, science, culture, and landscape.”

 

You can read the rest HERE. 

 

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

Jul 152018
 

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

 Episode 38: Bro-Science with the Credible Hulk (released December 28, 2017)

TShe Credible Hulk (a.k.a. Matt) joins a very giddy Ben and Pascual to SMASH . . . er, I mean discuss different types of exercise woo. To start off, Ben recounts his investigation years ago of a ROM machine, billed as a miracle machine designed by a “modern day DaVinci” that condenses a complete workout into exactly4 minutes (for a mere $14,615). For a first category, Matt touches on the very fringe gym woo (cupping, etc.) and tells us it’s not that prevalent among serious bodybuilders, who have a vested interest in objective results. The next common pitfall the Hulk warns us about is the lure of anecdotal evidence (i.e., what the most muscular guys say works for them). A third category of gym woo comes from misunderstanding or overextrapolating from small amounts of existing data. An example of this would be the anabolic window, and Matt takes us through a biochemical tour of that concept. The fourth category Matt covers is supplement woo, which is a big topic: from marketing smoke and mirrors to digesting versus injecting, supplements can be a very confusing and expensive placebo or simply an alternate food source. Then the guys ask some questions about salty Gatorade gum, “roid rage,” shrinking testicles, juicing cadavers, blood doping, and ghosts messing up people’s drug tests.

 

You can listen to the show HERE. 

Jun 172018
 

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

 

Ben shares a minor mystery that dropped into his lap, in the form of a photograph tucked into a used book on demonic possession. Then Ben, Pascual, and Celestia discuss logical fallacies: what they are, how they are used, and how they can help us improve our own reasoning. Skeptics hold logical fallacies near and dear, as they represent common errors that have been identified and catalogued over the eons—a blueprint for ways our thinking can go wrong. Pascual goes over the straw man fallacy, as evidenced by the “war on Christmas,” and Celestia talks about how the tu quoquefallacy has recently been popularized as “whataboutism” by John Oliver. Ben explains the non sequiturand the concept of warrants—which is the (usually implicit) part of an argument that links the evidence to the claim. Then after a quick romp through Morton’s fork and personal incredulity, we examine a recent article by Maaarten Boudry that questions the persuasive utility of fallacies. Fallacies are not a mic-drop, and identifying a fallacy does not confer an automatic argument victory (i.e. the fallacy fallacy). We as skeptics often rely on things that are technically fallacies, and conspiracy theorists can weaponize fallacies for their brand of “logic” as well. But abandoning logical fallacies altogether is throwing out the baby with the bathwater; a tempered approach, where we identify the fallacy and also put it into understandable terms, might be best.

 

 

You can hear the show HERE! 

 

 

Jun 152018
 

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

This week, Pascual gets skeptical about the “reason for the season,” namely Jesus, competing pagan solstice holidays, and Jesus mythicism. Whether Jesus existed is one of the few things that dips into “fringe” scholarship and conspiracy theories but is also taken seriously by many skeptics. Celestia suggests an alternate holiday tradition around the goddess Inanna’s striptease as she headed to the underworld. Then we get into the importance—and difficulties—of replication in science. Ben talks about replication in skeptical investigation, namely replicating some supposedly paranormal artifact like the Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot film in order to debunk it. The problem is that some quite mundane things are impossible (or very impractical) to replicate completely, and the burden of doing so does not rest with skeptics but with those making an extraordinary claim. Mythbusters had an unfortunate side-effect, convincing many laypeople that a crude replication with poor protocols can replace the scientific method. Yet some replications can be highly effective—such as when a magician shows they can get the same result as a psychic through mere trickery. Replication is absolutely necessary to science, however, and the current “replication crisis” is a concern. Pascual goes into the Mozart effect, which was never replicated, and the industry that nevertheless blew up around it. With so few funds to replicate studies, one hope is that science reporters will develop a better sense of discerning poor protocols, and kill stories based on bad studies rather than helping them go viral.

 

You can listen to the show HERE! 

Mar 102018
 

Check out last week’s episode of Squaring the Strange! Celestia talks about the facial recognition errors involved in the “Crisis Actor” conspiracies, and then Pascual and I talk with Sharon Hill about skepticism and her new book on amateur paranormal groups, “Scientifical Americans.” Join me in pitying the fools who miss this one!

You can listen to it HERE!

 

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

Feb 152018
 

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! 

Jan 022018
 

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! 

Dec 292017
 

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! 

Nov 182017
 

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.”

  • • •

 

I couldn’t tell if the closing pleasantry was sincere, sarcastic, or merely a polite formality, but in any event I felt compelled to reply:

“Hello Julia, and thanks for reaching out to me, good to hear from you. You don’t state which documentary you recently saw about psychics, or whether I was featured in it, so I can’t know exactly what information you’re referring to.

In any event I’m not sure why you consider my skepticism about psychic powers to be “arrogant” or “rude.” I would never suggest that you (or anyone else) is arrogant or rude merely because you believe something different than I do. I celebrate the beautiful diversity of opinions and do not feel that others must believe the same things I do (or share my opinions on) science, religion, life, or anything else. We may disagree about whether there is evidence for a given proposition or claim, but I don’t feel that you are “naive, arrogant, and rude” for not sharing my beliefs. I find such intolerance disappointing but of course I respect your opinion.

I quite agree that science does not have all the answers; indeed that’s a hallmark of science! Scientists keep trying to learn about our world and use scientific methods to experiment and test hypotheses. But I’m puzzled by the example you give: “even calling Edison a lunatic when he invented the lightbulb.” I was not aware that scientists called Edison a lunatic for inventing the lightbulb; from my understanding scientists such as Humphry Davy had been developing incandescent lights since the late 1700s, and the idea of an electric lightbulb was widely accepted by scientists throughout the world in the 1800s, including by many of Edison’s contemporaries. Edison’s problem was not that scientists thought he was crazy for using electric current to light homes, but instead that the existing filaments burned out too quickly to be useful. Of course I may be mistaken, and as you have asked me to “please educate yourself,” I would appreciate any correction or clarification you can offer about the example you gave.

The same goes for evidence for psychics; you claim to hear voices and while that may be true it is of course not something that I can research. When you ask me to educate myself, what specifically would you suggest I educate myself about? Are there certain scientific studies you believe prove that psychic powers exist?

I’m familiar with claims made by Moody (I’ve read several of his books, including Life After Life, about near-death experience and reincarnation), but I’m not aware of any research or published works by him about psychic abilities. I’m less familiar with Robert Lanza, but a quick internet search reveals no experiments or research testing or proving the existence of psychic powers. However I am more familiar with Stuart Hameroff, who appeared in the widely-discredited New Age film What the Bleep Do We Know, along with several other scientists who stated that their comments were taken of context. Like Lanza, Hameroff has not offered, and has never claimed to offer, evidence of psychic powers that I can find.

So when you write “please educate yourself, and come out of your little insular box,” I am willing to do so, but I need to know what it is you believe I should educate myself about. You cited three people, none of whom are (or even claim to be) experts on the validity of psychic powers. I can’t educate myself about your personal experience or beliefs/opinions (everyone’s are different, subjective, and equally valid), so I’ll need to know what education you have that I don’t, that would clarify the issue.

I’m also curious why you believe that my desire for scientific evidence for psychics is preventing progress; you wrote “Please educate yourself… so that we can move forward.” How is my lack of belief in psychic powers preventing people (or society) from moving forward? Does psychic power require universal belief in its efficacy, or the assent of skeptics? I don’t understand what you mean, so if you could clarify that would be helpful.

It’s always struck me as odd (and a bit sad and cynical) that when someone disagrees with me about a topic I’ve researched and written about, I’m often accused of being ignorant, arrogant, and (often wilfully) misinformed. In contrast, I don’t assume that about other people when I’m exposed to new ideas or different opinions. I don’t assume that the other person is stupid, ignorant, or intentionally spreading misinformation.

Instead I believe that perhaps we simply have different information, or spoke to different people, or had different experiences. No one can know everything about everything, and inevitably some people are better informed about some topics than others. Experts are one example, but writers and researchers, as well, tend to be better informed about the topic on which they’re writing than laypersons, if for no other reason that they’ve spent considerable time (certainly hours, but often days or weeks) specifically looking into it, seeing the various claims, contacting experts on both sides, etc.

Instead of taking such a hostile, “us versus them” position, I believe people can have an honest difference of opinion without one or the other necessarily being stupid or arrogant. But that’s just my approach.”

  • • •

Julia wrote back a day or two later:

“Hello Ben- thank you for your insightful message, and apologies for the name calling. Not something I make a habit of. Please do not take it personally. I just hope that more and more people become enlightened, and a shift in consciousness will take place- as has been predicted. Those who have experienced something spiritual; who have a faith (not talking about religion), and like me, who have had a profuound, tangible experience- which, by the way, I do actually question still, purely because we(experiencers) also tend to try and rationalise everything, but cannot because our experience was so real- both visually, and audibly, are the ones with the truth, I feel. Surely those who have really seen, heard something beyond our five senses, are the ones who know the truth. Scientists studying consciousness/life after death, have now ben able to prove that consciousness does in fact continue for 3 minutes after the brain has shut down: LIFE after death has been “confirmed” by scientists who have discovered consciousness continues even once a person has died.

We all have Auras- including animals. We all have a soul. The outer layers beyond the physical body. Intuition, a knowing. Prayers being answered time and time again. Coincidence is one thing, but what I am taliking about it something different. It can be difficult to explain to someone who has never experienced anything, and I do respect your opinion, and what you say, but all I am saying is that those who have experienced something beyond the physical senses is proof surely.

Animals (cats and dogs for sure) are definately in tune with something beyond the physical. If someone is highly sensitive/empathetic they tend to be on a higher vibration meaning that they are more likely to experience something spiritual. The consistancy in NDE’s, and other phenomena is interesting also. I do not believe everything I hear from others, so I guess I do have some scepticism, or to put in better words, I am not gullible, because there are alot of crazy people out there, but one can normally distinguish between what sounds realistic or not. I do look for consistancy in peoples experiences, and prohecies etc about afterlife, and it is nice when there is a consistant explanation as with NDE’s. Anyway, I hope I make some sense, and even though I may not have answered all your questions, hopefully I’ve covered some of it. Take care.”

  • • •

I appreciated the apology but noted that she ignored most of what I’d asked and discussed with her. She made a claim about Thomas Edison, and when I politely asked her for evidence or to explain what she meant, she chose not to (I assume because she realized she was wrong and had misunderstood or misapplied the Edison anecdote). I was neither offended nor surprised, but it seemed to demonstrate a tacit disregard for the truth, or at least an unwillingness to admit error. There was also no engagement with my ready admission that science doesn’t have all the answers, and other points. I was engaging with her respectfully and on her own terms.

In replying to her request to educate myself, I asked her—quite sincerely—what specifically I should educate myself about, what topics or research or experts I should consult in order to understand her position or be better informed, since the ones she mentioned had little or nothing to do with the topic. Once again I got no response; instead of directing me to a book, journal article, or other resources that had apparently informed her opinion, she referred vaguely to auras, prayers, personal experience, and so on.

In sum, I had politely asked a firm believer—who’d specifically requested that I educate myself—for information and sources upon which to do so, and was ignored. Sensing that the fruitfulness of the dialogue had reached the point of diminishing returns, I replied:

  • • •

Hello Julia,

Yes, I’m aware that a new age of global enlightenment has been predicted and promised for decades (most prominently in the 1970s and 1980s) and earlier (with Edgar Cayce and even the Spiritualists, if I’m not mistaken). It’s a common belief, that the Truth will be revealed just around the corner. I’ve seen it written by UFO experts in magazines from the 1950s and 1960s, who say that any day now our space brothers will come down from the stars and usher in an age of peace (or that the global UFO government coverup is about to end). I’ve heard it from apocalyptic and Biblical End Times authors who for decades have assured their followers (and anyone else who will listen) that Judgment Day is imminent. I’ve seen it in psi researchers, Bigfoot believers, and in countless other paranormal, occult, or “unexplained” subjects, that there’s so much clear evidence that surely any day now the general public will just understand what they understand and we’ll all be on the same page. You (and they) may be right, but so far they’ve all been wrong.

You wrote that “LIFE after death has been ‘confirmed’ by scientists who have discovered consciousness continues even once a person has died,” and you asked me to do some research and educate myself. I would respectfully suggest to you that I have educated myself on the topic: I’ve read several books on the topic (pro and con, skeptic and believer), and spoken with or interviewed several people who have researched it including Gary Schwartz. I’ve read books by Kenneth Ring, Raymond Moody, Ian Stevenson, Chris Carter, etc. on their claims for reincarnation and life after death. To get a balanced view I’ve also read books by G.M. Woerlee, Susan Blackmore, and Paul Edwards on their analyses/criticisms of NDE and reincarnation claims and research. My skepticism is borne not of ignorance about the subject, but knowledge of it.

Let me ask you this: Have you educated yourself about the topic? Have you read any books that critically examine or analyze the claims, or have you limited your research to only one side of the story? Critical thinking (and determining what’s true about the world) often requires that we be open minded and engage in ideas, evidence, and opinions that are contrary to ours. We don’t have to, of course, but a willingness and tolerance for different ideas is important, I believe.

We clearly have different approaches to evidence and different opinions on these topics. I’m certainly not going to talk you out of your beliefs, and would not even try. However I can tell you with certainty that there is a whole world of open-minded, legitimate, and evidence-based analysis of auras, life after death, NDEs, ghosts, psychic powers, and so on. Whether you choose to seek them out or engage with them with an open mind and open heart is another matter, but the material is available. If you’d like more information there’s an excellent free resource online called the Skeptics Dictionary; you can find it at http://www.skepdic.com/. It has short, readable entries and a good bibliography for further reading or research. If you have specific areas you’re interested in, let me know and I’d be happy to select a few of the most credible sources of information.”

That’s all I could do.

 

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! 

Nov 152017
 

As a teenager I was fascinated by books about the strange and mysterious world around us. In the summer I’d walk to the local used bookstore and pull out a handful of crumpled allowance dollars to scoop up some old paperbacks from the Fifties. Along with Doc Savage and Tom Swift pulp novels, I’d pick up some “true mystery” books. In particular I recall buying several books by Frank Edwards, with titles like Stranger Than Science. Inside I found a banquet of odd and mysterious stories and phenomena, spilling from page after yellowed page.

These weren’t ghost stories, or silly pulp fiction novels; these were, as the cover blurb read, “Astounding stories of strange events! All authentic —all absolutely true!” I loved these snippets of mystery, of supernatural coincidences, prophecy, terrifying creatures, and all other manner of oddity. They had titles like, “The Invisible Fangs” and “The Girl Who Lived Twice” and “A Voice From The Dead?” A blurb on the cover from the Colorado Springs Free Press called it a “fascinating collection of weird, fully-documented stories taken from life that modern science is powerless to explain!”

Yet the assertion that the stories were “fully documented” was perhaps the strangest claim in the book, since none of Edwards’ stories cited sources, references, or in fact any documentation whatsoever! The “science cannot explain” line was quite popular, and also appeared on many other similar books, such as Rupert T. Gould’s 1965 book Oddities, subtitled “Mysterious, true events science cannot explain!” I pictured worried scientists—imagined as balding men in horn-rimmed glasses and white lab coats—huddled together chain-smoking and fretting about the mysteries they couldn’t explain.

A few years ago when researching the famous Coral Castle in Florida I came across this claim repeatedly. In Homestead, not far from Miami and off the South Dixie Highway, sits the world-famous structure. Though not really a castle—and not really made of coral—it is nonetheless an amazing achievement. More than 1,000 tons of the sedimentary rock was quarried and sculpted into a variety of shapes, including slab walls, tables, chairs, a crescent moon, a water fountain and a sundial.

“You are about to see an engineering marvel that has been compared with Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Egypt,” touts an information sheet available at the site. Many sources claim that the castle, originally called Rock Gate Park, is scientifically inexplicable. According to the attraction’s website, “Coral Castle has baffled scientists, engineers and scholars since its opening in 1923.”

Despite researching information about the site, I was unable to find any references to all the baffled scientists. Who were they? When were they there? What were their credentials? What exactly did they test or examine that left them perplexed? When I put these questions to the staff at the Coral Castle I got baffled if bemused shrugs. How can you boldly claim that scientists can’t explain it, if you have no record of any scientists actually trying to explain it? They may or may not be able to, but unless they have made a sincere effort you can’t honestly claim that they failed.

I was recently reminded of this when I was contacted via Twitter by someone with the handle “Ninel Kulagina Fans.” They wrote “In 50 years, no magician has replicated the filmed 1967 Kulagina/Naumpv macro telekinesis demonstrations under the same observer conditions.”

I promptly and politely replied: “Which magicians tried, where, and when?” It was a sincere and simple request: I was told unequivocally that “no magician has replicated the telekinesis demonstrations under the same observer conditions,” and in order to determine the validity of that claim I’d need to know more about the times that magicians had tried and failed to replicate said experiments. The afternoon came and went without a reply, so the next day I repeated my request: “So: Which magicians tried, where, and when? Still waiting for a response.”

Eventually the fan (or fans) of Ninel Kulagina realized that I was serious and asking for evidence of their claim. Instead of the names of one or more magicians who had tried to “replicate the filmed 1967 Kulagina/Naumpv macro telekinesis demonstrations under the same observer conditions” (along with the dates, published research on the topic describing the experimental conditions, etc.) I got the following reply: “Doesn’t say ‘tried.’ A success by a magician would require a famous parapsychologist, science film crew. No reports in 50 years of success.”

This answer—and its tacit admission—was quite revealing: The person admitted up front that no magicians had even attempted to replicate those telekinesis demonstrations under the same conditions (or any other, for that matter).

It certainly is true that skeptical magicians (most prominently my colleague James Randi, as well as other including Ray Hyman, Banachek, and Dan Korem) have tried to replicate alleged claims of telekinesis by performers such as Uri Geller, James Hydrick, and others; the magicians were successful in those attempts—but only because they tried in the first place!

Kulagina’s claims have been analyzed and discussed by many skeptical researchers including Randi, Martin Gardner, and Massimo Polidoro. Stating that no magician has replicated a specific telekinesis performance is only meaningful if one has attempted to do so but failed—which is the false conclusion implied in the tweet by Ninel Kulagina Fans. We don’t know whether or not a professional magician could replicate Kulagina’s performance because it hasn’t been done, and there’s no reason to think that the magician would fail.

I responded with a final reply: “So you’re claiming that X has never happened, yet acknowledge that X has never been attempted. Do you see the faulty logic there?” Fans of Ninel Kulagina responded, “I see a red herring or avoiding the issue fallacy or both. As you know, Randi et al have simulated, but not under same conditions. Thanks.”

The red herring claim was especially rich, but at any rate I’m still waiting for any Kulagina supporters to provide the name(s) of the professional magician(s) who tried to replicate Kulagina’s effects, where and when these attempted replications took place, under what conditions or controls, under whose supervision, etc. If and when those are provided (and validated) I’ll be happy to concede that no magician has replicated the Kulagina demonstrations under the same conditions.

When it comes to claims of baffled scientists and skeptics, there’s a simple lesson to remember: “Can’t” isn’t the same as “didn’t try.”

Oct 252017
 

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! 

Oct 112017
 

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! 

 

Sep 042017
 

The publisher of my book “Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries” tells me that orders for that book have shot up 60% in the past few weeks, and wondered why. Then I remembered that several college and university professors use my book as a classroom text. Thanks to all those teachers for using my work to spread critical thinking to students!

 

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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! 

Jul 152017
 

I’ve been asked to write an entry for an upcoming pop culture/academic book on aspects of the apocalypse. The subject: One of my favorite movies of the 1980s: “The Road Warrior.” More details as they become available!

 

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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! 

Jul 042017
 

My overview article on crop circles is now up at LiveScience.com, check it out!

Crop circles — strange patterns that appear mysteriously overnight in farmers’ fields—provoke puzzlement, delight and intrigue among the press and public alike. The circles are mostly found in the United Kingdom, but have spread to dozens of countries around the world in past decades. The mystery has inspired countless books, blogs, fan groups, researchers (dubbed “cereologists”) and even Hollywood films.

Despite having been studied for decades, the question remains: Who — or what — is making them?

Find 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! 

May 122017
 

Nice note from a teacher friend of mine, glad to see an article I wrote several years ago is still being read and steering people toward skepticism…

 

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

Mar 152017
 

For centuries rumors circulated about an ancient lost city—not Atlantis but a “White City” of immense wealth hidden in the Honduran jungles of Central America. Myths of treasure and every imaginable curse run rampant—but the fact that the city existed somewhere out in the jungles was widely accepted by Hondurans.

I attended a talk by Doug Preston, about his research and new book The Lost City of the Monkey God—at Albuquerque’s historic KiMo theater, whose resident ghost I investigated and debunked several years ago (as described in the first chapter of my book Mysterious New Mexico)—and followed up with a telephone interview, excerpted here.

Radford: You seem to have a knack for finding yourself in the middle of fascinating mysteries and real-life adventures, between the deadly jungles of The Lost City and The Monster of Florence, where you’re tangling with a serial killer. Most writers lead a fairly sedentary life—why are you different?

Preston: “Well I think it’s probably a little bit of stupidity there [laughing]. I find myself falling into my own stories, like with The Monster of Florence I started off thinking I was writing a story about these long-ago crimes in Florence, these serial killings, but all of a sudden we [Preston and his co-author Mario Spezi] got pulled in by the police investigation, and pretty soon I was being interrogated as a suspect… it was really crazy.”

 

Radford: As you talk about in the book, finding the Lost City came at a great cost, both in terms of the expedition, your health, and other factors. Can you talk about what went into finding it?

Preston: “The legend of the Lost City did talk about the city being cursed, that all who went in there would become sick and die, and so forth. And of course I completely dismissed those legends. Well it turns out that part of the legend is kind of based on the truth, and that is that the valley is a hotzone of disease, and two-thirds of the expedition came down with this really serious tropical disease called mucocutaneous leishmaniasis. It’s incurable, I’ll have it for the rest of my life, and it’s really quite an awful disease. But I’m getting excellent treatment.”

 

Radford: You talk about some of the myths and legends surrounding the city; where did they come from?

Preston: “These legends and stories really date back about 500 years to the time of Cortez. He wrote a famous letter in 1526 while he was in Honduras to the emperor Charles V and reported that he’d heard very reliable information of a wonderful and rich civilization in the interior of Honduras, very wealthy and rich an advanced culture, and ever since then there have been legends and stories about this lost city, sometimes called the White City, Ciudad Blanca, sometimes called the Lost City of the Monkey God, somewhere in these mountains. A number of people have looked for it, and some have actually died in the search…Like most legends, it’s based on the truth, it’s based on the fact that there was a great civilization in this area that actually built more than one city.”

 

Radford: Let me touch on some of the challenges to writers and science popularizers when reporting a story such as this. There’s always a tension between wanting to communicate complex ideas in science, anthropology, archaeology, and so on to the public, but not overly sensationalize them. You touch on that in your book, expressing a bit of reluctance about calling it a “lost city” in the vein of Indiana Jones, but in the end you have to get people’s attention.

Preston: “Well, this is something that you as a science journalist know about very well… As you mentioned, you have to strike a balance between writing a heavy and scientific tome which nobody will read except scientists, or going too much in the other direction and writing something that’s so frivolous and non-factual that you’ve really done a very great disservice to the science. I try to occupy the middle ground. Everything in the book is accurate, nothing is made up, everything has been very carefully vetted—but it is exciting, this is a sensational discovery…. As for using language like the ‘lost city,’ well it is a city and it is lost! I know some archaeologists have said, ‘Oh, that’s just Indiana Jones hype’ but in fact it isn’t hype. It is actually real and it is quite exciting, and I want to convey that excitement to the reader without burdening them with a lot of scientific jargon.”

 

Read the rest of the interview HERE.

 

You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.

Feb 252017
 

Those times you really agree with someone, then they go off the rails… my new CFI blog:

About once or twice a month (though sometimes once or twice a week, depending on how much I’m reading at the time), I come across an article or blog that makes some important point that I agree with. Maybe it’s about the need for skepticism, or about politics, or anything else. I’m reading along, nodding in approval in paragraph after paragraph (or assertion after assertion), pleased at thinking about those it might educate.

And, just as my finger is reaching to share or like the post, I wince. The writer or commenter stumbles, making a gaffe or mistake that I can’t in good conscience implicitly endorse. It’s frustrating because I agree with the overall point, and think the comment or piece merits a wider audience.

It’s like some well-intentioned skeptic writing a piece about why the evidence for Bigfoot (or recovered memories, or alien visitation) is poor, and giving two solid, accurate reasons–followed by a third which is flat-out wrong, or an argument whose premise is embarrassingly flawed. This happens regularly enough that I’ve taken to describing it (to myself anyway) as The 10% Fail. Ninety percent of it is on target, but the last ten percent undermines the author’s credibility in some way. This issue is a common lament among professional skeptics: a well-meaning but inexperienced skeptic goes on television or gives an interview-ostensibly representing organized skepticism–in which he or she misspeaks or mangles some salient fact in the process of debunking some bogus claim, and that error is then seized upon by opponents as proof that skeptics (writ large) don’t know what they’re talking about.

I recently found an example of this, written by Andrew David Thaler of the Southern Fried Science…

Read more HERE.