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!   SPI Cover lower res for FB   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!   images 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...   17862855_10210482455911940_5631467270778665380_n   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. 
Jan 102017
 
A crowdfunding project has helped launch a new magazine, Kazoo, to empower girls and (in part) help steer them toward STEM careers. Kazoo focuses on girls and women, according to its website: “All of our stories are either developed or inspired by top female artists, explorers, scientists, chefs, athletes, activists, writers and others. Regular features include: science experiments; comics; art projects; recipes; interviews with inspiring women from Olympic athletes to astronauts; and fun activities, like secret codes, jokes, mazes, search-and-finds and more.... It will feature some of the most powerful and inspirational women in their fields, thus giving girls a more well-rounded sense of the world and the possibilities within it.”kazoo Touted as “a magazine for girls who aren’t afraid to make some noise,” the website notes, Kazoo isn’t just for girls: boys would “probably love it, too. After all, there’s no such thing as say, girls’ science and boys’ science, or girls’ art and boys’ art. Science is science and art is art, of course. But most media that cover similar topics use boys as the default target audience, while girls are left with the burden of just ‘putting themselves in the story.’”   Founder Erin Bried explains that she and her five-year-old daughter were looking for a magazine they could enjoy together but were dissatisfied with what was available. Bried drew upon nearly twenty years of experience in high profile magazine including Self and Glamour, and in April 2016 launched a Kickstarter campaign “with hopes that other people would also be as interested in a magazine that doesn’t tell girls how to look or act, but instead inspires them to be strong, smart, fierce and, above all, true to themselves. Within 30 days, Kazoo became the most successful journalism campaign in crowdfunding history.” (Full disclosure: I contributed to Kazoo’s campaign.)   The theme of Kazoo’s most recent issue (Winter 2016/2017) is architecture, and features blueprints for making a snow fort and a bridge made of candy; a comic about the Brooklyn Bridge, a city scavenger hunt, ice science experiments, a banana bread recipe, and more. Kazoo, which carries no advertising, is only available in screen-free print form (since its pages contain art projects and puzzles) and costs $50 per year for four issues; subscriptions are available HERE.   You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
Oct 312016
 
Sharon Hill, Kenny Biddle, and I were quoted in a recent "Popular Mechanics" article on ghost hunting gadgets and pseudoscience... 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.
Sep 082016
 
I was a guest last month at New Mexico's premiere science fiction and fantasy convention, Bubonicon. I gave a talk titled Contacting the Dead: Séances From the Victorian Era To Modern Times, described below Though TV shows like Ghost Hunters have raised the profile of ghost hunting, there’s nothing new about seeking out spirits of the dead. For millennia people have tried to communicate with the deceased, using everything from chalkboards to Ouija boards to EVP (electronic voice phenomena). Focusing on the 1800s through today—including early mediums, the Spiritualist movement, and files from England’s Society for Psychical Research—writer and investigator Ben Radford discusses the theories and techniques behind attempts to speak to the dead. Fans of SF, fantasy, horror, and occult history will enjoy this informative and entertaining historical look at a century and a half of attempts to contact the afterlife.
Meeting of the Bens

Meeting of the Bens

At the autographing session I was seated next to 6-time Hugo Award winning sci-fi writer Ben Bova. We chatted for about 15 minutes; he was engaging and delightful, recounting stories of working with his friends Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and other greats of the golden age of sci-fi. Fans brought piles of his books and old magazines for him to autograph. I joked with him that having to sign so much was a penalty for being prolific and said I'd only written nine books (compared to his hundreds of credits) and he encouragingly replied, "That's nine more than most people." You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
Sep 042016
 
hqdefault "Apply directly to the forehead," infamously commanded a TV commercial for HeadOn, a pain reliever introduced in 2006 by a company called Miralus Healthcare. The product, which costs $25 and is sold in drug stores and online, claims to relieve headache and migraine pain. It is not a pill nor a solution but instead a waxy paste. Topical medicines are sometimes used to relieve local skin and muscle pains, but the idea that it could somehow relieve headache pain has aroused plenty of skepticism. According to its Amazon.com listing, “Head On Pain Reliever apply directly to the forehead. It is invisible and non greasy. Homeopathic. It's [sic] can be used as often as needed. Safe to use with other medications.”   You can read the rest at my CFI blog HERE.    You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
Aug 102016
 
  News stories last week have challenged the conventional wisdom dispensed by dentists for decades: that flossing your teeth regularly helps prevent tooth decay and gum disease. But that's not quite accurate. My article explaining why is HERE!    You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
Aug 082016
 
My recent article for Seeker (formerly Discovery News) is about the politics of vaccinations...   In medicine the benefits of childhood vaccination are widely accepted. The evidence is clear and overwhelming: vaccines do not cause autism (or any other condition), and the benefits of preventing severe diseases far outweigh the small risks of side effects. This is non-controversial, and vaccination is a staple of preventive medicine worldwide. 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.
Aug 012016
 
This is cool.. I was recently mentioned in a Forbes article on ghost hunting science and pseudoscience: There’s no shortage of retailers to provide for your spooky-seeking needs. Products marketed as “Deluxe Ghost Hunting Kit” and “Ghost Hunting Spirit Box” can be found on Amazon and Ebay...Benjamin Radford, Deputy Editor the Skeptical Inquirer, said using “ghost hunting” equipment in general might be the field’s fatal flaw, “Ghost hunters go after whatever they think is weird. There’s no way of testing for a weird feeling.” Science… life’s wet blanket. You can read the whole story HERE.  You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
Jun 282016
 
It turns out that the widely-shared claims that gays couldn't donate badly-needed blood for victims of the Orlando shootings was wrong, on at least two key points. Rumors and misinformation always circulate soon after tragedies, and it's unfortunate. People need accurate, reliable information. You can read my article HERE.   You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
Jun 252016
 
According to Google's Scholar Alert (or in my case "Scholar" alert), my work is referenced in the new book "Policing and Social Media: Social Control in an Era of New Media." Looks like a pricey textbook, but maybe I'll see it some time... new book                                             You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
Jun 102016
 
A few years ago when I was speaking at a Bigfoot conference in Idaho, I took a few of my books to sell. This is Cassie, who asked me to tell her about some monsters. She begged her parents for $10 to add to her allowance and bought my Lake Monster book. She was so excited and said it was the first book she'd ever had autographed to her. She asked how she could look for monsters and I told her to stay in school and go into science. Hopefully 15 years from now she'll track me down and tell me she's a molecular biologist!  
Cassie and my book!

Cassie and my book!

  You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
May 022016
 
I recently got an e-mail from a person who read an article I wrote about crop circles and asked if I though they might be caused by vibrational frequencies such as those seen in a Youtube video. You can read my reply HERE.   You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
Apr 012016
 
Over at the iDoubtit site, Sharon Hill has a recent blog about common fallacies that I and other skeptics hear all the time--in this case about the limits of science. 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.
Mar 252016
 
A new study finds that over half of the measles cases in the U.S. since 2000 were among unvaccinated people--and most of those were offered the vaccine but refused it. My new article on the topic is HERE.  You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
Mar 152016
 
Last month a sensational "news story" about supposedly mysterious, alien "music" heard on the dark side of the moon on the Apollo 10 mission has gone viral. HERE is the real explanation that cuts through the myths and mystery mongering...   You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
Feb 182016
 
I've gotten many positive reviews of my books over the years but this new one (for "Scientific Paranormal Investigation") is a favorite because the reader not only learned from my book but used it and applied its methods and principles to his own local mysteries. Teaching a man to fish and all that...   12647519_10207031239633690_3821719560298468661_n You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo. SPI Cover lower res for FB
Jan 222016
 
My brilliant zoologist friend Darren Naish wrote a retrospective piece for Scientific American about various interesting zoology-related news stories from last year--including a "monster mystery" I played a role in revealing. It's a fun read, check it out, you can find it HERE. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
Jan 182016
 
A recent study published in the “American Journal of Public Health” examined the demographics of California school students who had requested and received exemptions from mandatory vaccinations for nonmedical reasons. My recent article for Discovery News examines why many anti-vaccination parents are better educated than those who endorse vaccines. 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.
Jan 012016
 
For those who didn't see it earlier, I wrote a recent piece for Discovery News explaining how news stories exaggerate risks of disease, and how to understand relative vs. absolute risk in journal findings... you can read it HERE. Hopefully it will help calm some people's fears. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
Dec 282015
 
A BBC travel reporter writing a piece about Ecuador’s Sumaco biopark repeats a common myth as fact: Specifically that there is a palm tree that “walks” across the forest floor. I investigated this claim years ago, and wrote about it in both Skeptical Inquirer magazine and in a column for LiveScience.com (you can read it HERE). I politely suggested that the reporter or a BBC editor contact the “expert” quoted and ask for the source of his information (preferably a peer-reviewed botany study).12321610_10206770419833358_2213566468497522772_n
Dec 202015
 
The Italian Supreme Court finally cleared six scientists of manslaughter in a case about failing to warn residents of a 2009 earthquake. This case highlights scientists' difficulty in communicating risk to the public; 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.
Oct 212015
 
Good science requires good data, and to get valid results scientists must consider all of the evidence. If a researcher chooses to exclude some of the information available in an experiment, for example, he or she should offer a rationale for doing so. When researchers only present to the public or peers data that supports their conclusions, that’s called bad science (at best) or outright fraud (at worst). Agenda-driven pseudoscience, by contrast, often involves cherry-picking and careful selection of evidence. This happens, for example, when a psychic offers a client a list of a dozen impressive predictions but carefully omits hundreds of spectacular failures. Any psychic who makes enough predictions (especially ones of a general nature) will be correct some of the time by simple random chance. What’s needed when examining the evidence for psychic powers is the entire data set—all the predictions made, whether they turned out to be right, wrong, somewhere in the middle, or inconclusive—and establishing a success ratio. If the selection criteria are valid and the rate is significantly above random chance then it may indeed be evidence for psychic powers. I was reminded of this recently when I saw a new book by Skeptiko podcast host Alex Tsakiris with the bold and red-flag-raising title Why Science Is Wrong...About Almost Everything. In it he devotes a whole chapter to a case I researched as part of a challenge to explain the best case he could find for psychic detectives, one he’d seen on TV. I expected Alex to continue to be wrong about the case, but I didn’t expect him to tout it as a victory in his book. The case involved a psychic named Nancy Weber and her claims that she helped catch a serial killer named James Koedatich by giving police officers Jim Moore and Bill Hughes biographical details about the killer long before he was caught—details which Weber claims, and Tsakiris believes, turned out to be amazingly accurate. Koedatich killed a woman named Aimee Hoffman (at which time Weber entered the case) and later another woman. Tsakiris writes that “the investigation was quite extensive. It spanned months of work and included multiple transcribed interviews with all the key players. The conclusion was self-evident—the police detectives repeatedly corroborated psychic detective Nancy Weber’s amazing account.... Amazingly, Radford still denies this fact” (p. 90). It’s easy to mislead people through selective quotation and cherry picking evidence; even the most reasonable and sensible person can seem like an unreasonable fool if you simply omit contrary information and present one side of the story. A Bit of Skepticism When the project began I was somewhat surprised that Tsakiris assumed that “reality” TV shows such as Psychic Detectives were factually accurate (despite ads touting the show as “Not just based on a true story. It is a true story”). Having written several books about the mass media, having debunked many “based on a true story” claims made in sensational TV shows and films, and having participated on dozens of television shows, I began the case with a healthy skepticism about the truth of “reality” TV shows. Television show writers, producers, and editors routinely twist and manufacture “facts” to make a more sensational story; the goal is entertainment, not truth. I had assumed that Tsakiris was media savvy enough to realize that not everything on TV is true, but I later realized that I was mistaken. No one, including Tsakiris, Weber, Moore, or Hughes, offered any evidence whatsoever supporting their claims. The police officers’ notes are long gone and there are no other records of what Nancy Weber claims she told police. Not a single piece of paper was offered by Tsakiris or anyone else as evidence in this case. This “amazing” case rests entirely on the contradictory memories of three people from a third of a century ago, yet Tsakiris boldly offers it as an example of Why Science Is Wrong. The case is far too complex to discuss in any detail here, and my in-depth research can be found in my book Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries and in Skeptical Inquirer. However I can summarize my findings and I encourage interested readers to seek the original sources to decide for themselves where the truth lies. In contrast to Tsakiris’s claim that “the police detectives repeatedly corroborated psychic detective Nancy Weber’s amazing account,” a close review of their statements reveals that they contradicted virtually every specific claim Weber made about what she told them regarding Koedatich. I consulted transcripts from both the Psychic Investigators TV show and the Skeptiko podcasts, and interviewed all the principals at least once. As I reviewed the information from Sgt. Bill Hughes and Capt. Jim Moore, it became clear that their accounts differ dramatically from those of the psychic. For example: 1) Weber claims she specified that Koedatich, Aimee Hoffman’s killer, had served prison time in Florida: “He came up from Florida where he had been imprisoned for murder.” Moore agreed with Weber; Sgt. Hughes originally disputed this claim, and later changed his mind.   2) Weber claims that she specified of the killer that “his last name… begins with a K.” Both Moore and Hughes dispute her claim.   3) Weber claims that she specified that the killer’s “last name… ends in an ‘ish’[or –ich].” Neither Hughes nor Moore confirm that Weber gave them this information.   4) Weber claims that she specified that Hoffman’s killer was of Polish descent, and that “his last name is Polish.” Both Moore and Hughes dispute her claim.   5) Weber claims that she specified that “the man who did this, his first name is James.” Moore agrees with Weber, but Sgt. Hughes stated, “She didn’t have complete names for us… I do not remember the first name at all.”   As mightily as Tsakiris strains to revise the police officers’ testimony to his liking, even Nancy Weber herself acknowledged that Moore and Hughes did not corroborate key points of her story. The psychic’s explanation is that the officers—whose memory Tsakiris repeatedly defends, since his entire case rests on it—simply didn’t remember what she told them: “Yes, [Sgt. Hughes] does not recall it but... it does not mean I did not say it.” Sgt. Hughes admitted that “No information she gave led to his arrest...the case was solved by good police work.” I was also surprised that Tsakiris—despite his touted investigative thoroughness researching this case—repeatedly (and somewhat disrespectfully) managed to misspell both of the names of Koedatich’s victims. Who’s telling the truth, me or Alex? This isn’t a matter of subjective interpretation; the transcripts are available for anyone to review, and I have posted excerpts of the audio online so people can hear for themselves what the police said: http://benjaminradford.com/investigations/psychic-detective-interviews/. In his chapter on the case Tsakiris chooses to not only hide that fact that the police contradicted most of Weber’s statements, but he also did not reveal to his readers that in my research I found Koedatich in the phone book using only information that Weber claimed to have given Moore and Hughes at the time. If Tsakiris is correct and Weber is telling the truth, it is baffling that despite the police having so many specific, accurate, identifying details about Koedatich—including his first name, the first and last parts of his last name, his ethnicity, criminal record (including where he served time and for what crime) and his hometown—they were somehow unable to find and arrest him before he killed again. If I could do it with the information Weber claims she gave the police, why couldn’t Moore and Hughes? Neither Weber nor Tsakiris have offered an explanation for the apparent incompetence of their star witnesses. Tsakiris also neglects to tell his readers that I discovered Nancy Weber falsely claimed to have psychically known unpublished details about Aimee Hoffman’s murder when in fact those details had been reported on the front page of the local newspaper and in the New York Times the day after Hoffman’s body was found. This is irrefutable evidence that Weber either lied about or badly misremembered key details of the case. Tsakiris and Weber have been unable or unwilling to explain this serious lapse in her credibility. The Brave Mavericky of Alex Tsakiris Several prominent Forteans have commented on the book. Jerome Clark has a long and distinguished history of interesting research into the paranormal—his early apparent endorsement of the Cottingley Fairies hoax photograph notwithstanding—and I’ve quoted from his three-volume series Strange and Unusual Happenings several times. Biologist Rupert Sheldrake, well known for his claims about psi phenomena, including psychic dogs, contributed to the book. In his foreword to the book Rupert Sheldrake noted that “When Alex started his enquiries, he expected that the leaders of organized skepticism would have strong and persuasive arguments, but he soon found they did not... a strong ideological commitment forces them to deny all evidence that does not fit into their worldview.” Out of the thirteen chapters in the book, Sheldrake then singled out my case as an example of Tsakiris’s keen investigative skills: “I particularly enjoy the way Alex followed his enquiries wherever they led, including working with skeptic Ben Radford on an enquiry into information from psychics that helped solve crimes. When Ben questioned some of the evidence, Alex called the detectives who had been handling the cases, so that he and Ben could together clear the point up by speaking to them directly” (p. xi). Sheldrake goes on to marvel at Tsakiris’s “investigative skills, and his bravery and commitment to truth.” Jerome Clark reviewed the book in Fortean Times magazine. Of Tsakiris’s podcast—which Clark misspells as “Skeptico”— he states that “the skeptics who appear on his show are wont to complain of being ‘sandbagged’. Translated, that means they found themselves up against an interviewer who had done his homework.” Clark notes that among the big-name skeptics whose sloppy scholarship and ideological blinkers have been exposed by the wily Tsakiris is “the prominent debunker who goes to comic lengths to salvage a ‘skeptical’ claim in the face of assertions from informants (in this case law-enforcement officers) whose patience he tries as he seeks to revise their testimony to his liking.” With mixture of bemusement and mild surprise I realized that he was referring to me. I take no particular pleasure when friends—or even those I disagree with—fall for hoaxes or repeat demonstrable misinformation. I make an effort not to endorse dubious or false claims; before I reference something in an article or book I make an effort to verify its accuracy. That’s one reason why, for example, I rarely share news stories on social media unless I either have researched it myself or have taken at least some due diligence steps to affirm to my satisfaction that the claims or information contained therein are accurate. I feel badly for Sheldrake and Clark because sooner or later at least some of the people who read their comments will—out of curiosity or a desire to seek out original sources and not merely accept Tsakiris’s selective portrayal of the research—find my published work on this case and see that this pair have been misled into endorsing a one-sided and intellectually dishonest take on that investigation by a person they exalted as fair-minded and committed to truth. Why Science Is Wrong?I was more bemused than annoyed by Tsakiris’s chapter (and Sheldrake and Clark’s explicit endorsements of it) because for those who wish to do a bit of research and consult easily-available resources to verify the facts, the harm is to their reputations, not mine. Sheldrake and Clark will be the ones who, years from now, may be asked in an interview, book signing, talk, or other public event how they could have endorsed such a manifestly biased book chapter. Had they not done any research? How do they explain Tsakiris’s decision to omit the voluminous examples in which the detectives refuted Weber’s claims, and even that the psychic had been caught claiming information she read in a newspaper as having come through psychic abilities? I haven’t spoken with either Rupert Sheldrake or Jerome Clark about the matter but given that we’ve been on more or less opposite sides of the fence on many Fortean subjects for going on two decades, it seems certain that they have long ago painted me as a stubborn, closed-minded skeptic who refuses to look at evidence, and when Tsakiris offered an example supporting that assumption they were quite happy to assume it was true and highlight it as a clear example of my position. Because of cognitive biases including anchoring bias and confirmation bias, when people give us information that fits our preconceived notions and worldview, we often accept it uncritically. Those who tell us things that challenge our assumptions tend to be subjected to extra scrutiny or dismissed outright. As Sheldrake himself states on page 87 of the book, “I think there’s a tendency for people to see what they want to believe, to believe what they want to believe, to only notice evidence that fits their dogmatic point of view or their belief system. He himself is a perfect example of that.” (Here Sheldrake mistakenly refers to psychologist Richard Wiseman instead of Alex Tsakiris.) There’s irony in the daisy chain echo chamber of misinformation: this case began when Alex Tsakiris assumed, with little or no research or verification, that the Psychic Detectives TV show he saw was an accurate account of Nancy Weber’s psychic claims. Six years later Sheldrake and Clark assumed, with little or no research or verification, that Alex Tsakiris’s book chapter on the case (essentially little more than interview transcriptions) was an accurate account of Weber’s claims and the resulting investigation. The accusations against me by these three of sloppy scholarship and investigative ineptitude resulting from an ideological blindness to contrary evidence is especially rich. The conspiracy-minded among Skeptiko’s listeners may wonder if Tsakiris is not actually an undercover hardcore skeptic seeking to discredit people like Sheldrake and Clark by publishing false information to see which prominent critics endorse it without having done any research, and then exposing the deception and embarrassing them into admitting they were gullible and should have checked their facts. This double-agent scenario occurred to me, but Occam’s Razor suggests it’s unlikely. It seems more likely that Tsakiris genuinely does not understand why his “best case” for psychic detectives is a spectacular failure by any reasonable standard of evidence. Perhaps he should revisit his online boards where even many of his supporters voiced their concerns over his total reliance on the accuracy of decades-old contradictory memories. Tsakiris casts himself as a maverick groundbreaker daring to ask tough questions of pompous skeptics and puncturing the pretensions of science. He is instead following a well-trod path using a tried and true formula: Speak quickly, act confidently, attack critics, and refuse to acknowledge even obvious errors in your evidence and arguments. That’s not how science works, but it will help you fool some of the people some of the time. Science may indeed be wrong some of the time—its self-correcting mechanism is perhaps its greatest strength—but it’s Alex Tsakiris who is wrong in this case. His “best case” for psychic detectives is in fact astonishingly weak and if that is one of his marquee examples of how Science Is Wrong, then science is in far better shape than anyone dared imagine. This piece is adapted from an earlier article on the CSI website. You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
Oct 062015
 
From the Radford Files archives:   2012 Disaster Film Contains Pro-Science Themes   The recent big-budget Hollywood blockbuster disaster film 2012, directed by Roland Emmerich, depicts a global catastrophe and flood. John Cusack stars as a divorced Los Angeles writer who wants to reunite with his family, and ends up going (almost literally) to the ends of the earth to save them. At the same time in Washington D.C., a geologist discovers that the earth’s unsettled tectonic plates will cause havoc. Soon the whole world is enveloped in chaos and destruction.   Though 2012 is not a great film, it does have some interesting pro-science aspects that skeptics should appreciate. While John Cusack is the lead star, the hero of the film is really a black scientist, Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Helmsley is the president’s chief science advisor, and it is he who first discovers the impending danger. The film somewhat realistically portrays the difficulties of scientific uncertainty—how sure do you have to be to sound the alarm? This is not an academic question, and arises in discussions of scientific prediction on a wide range of topics ranging from asteroid impacts to global warming.   Not only is the scientist the hero, he is also the film’s major moral compass. There are no evil, white lab-coated scientists in 2012, there are only scientists doing their best to save humanity (and a few nerds thrown in for good measure). 2012 is a completely humanistic disaster film; the catastrophes are not the work of angry gods, nor magic spells, but nature itself. The film shows prayer failing miserably to stop the destruction (even the Pope in the Vatican gets smacked away; Emmerich told me he originally wanted to show Mecca being destroyed, but didn’t want to risk offending Muslims). In the end it is science that saves the day. These are wonderful pro-science depictions that I’d hope to see in more films; it’s a shame to see them buried in a well-meaning but bloated disaster film like 2012.         This piece originally appeared in the Briefs Briefs column in the September 2009 Skeptical Briefs newsletter.   You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo.
Sep 042015
 
A journalism researcher named Craig Silverman published a report on best practices for debunking online misinformation in journalism and the skeptical community: “I recently completed a fellowship with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism that saw me study how news organizations handle online rumors and unverified claims. I also examined best practices for debunking online misinformation. This research is collected in a detailed report called “Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content: How News Websites Spread (and Debunk) Online Rumors, Unverified Claims and Misinformation.” Below is a report excerpt that offers a look at current debunking efforts in journalism, and among the skeptic community...” In the report we find this nice quadruple-play complimenting my work, that of Skeptical Inquirer and CSI, as well as my Prometheus book Media Mythmakers. “Benjamin Radford, also a scientific investigator, echoed this: “Of course often a mystery is debunked when it is explained, but I try to remain open-minded about the subjects.” Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine and a research fellow with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, a nonprofit educational organization. He has written many books on skepticism, myths, and paranormal investigation, including (fittingly) Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us.”
Aug 302015
 
Benjamin Radford Skeptics often encounter—or are cornered by—people making all sorts of claims. Most of them, such as those tested by me, Jim Underdown of CFI-West, the JREF, and others, are sincere people. They are very rarely hoaxers or liars but instead well-intentioned people who genuinely believe they have special abilities, or have discovered some important secret of the universe. When I encounter these people I try to be as respectful and polite as possible. Ignoring them, or even worse, mocking them, is both cruel and unnecessary. Sometimes there’s much to be learned from engaging such people, in terms of psychology and understanding where mistakes happen. Earlier this month I got an e-mail out of the blue from a foreign person whose message simply read, “I send a letter and an attachment.” Normally such an abrupt email would be deleted—pro-tip: that’s not the best way to submit an article for publication—but I opened it and read it. It was about 20 pages on dowsing, in which the writer claimed that a dowsing pendulum moved through some as-yet unknown “radiation” that he was studying. I saw what seemed to be a mistaken assumption on the first page, one upon which the remaining 19 pages of theory and writings relied upon to be valid. Willing to look at his work but wanting to help him nip the error in the bud, I wrote to him “Thank you for your submission on dowsing. I began to review your article but found it confusing after the first page, and here is why: It's not clear why you are attributing the pendulum movement to a form of radiation instead of the ordinary anatomical muscle twitches and tension associated with fingers, wrists, elbows, arms, and so on. If you could clarify that perhaps I could better evaluate your paper. all best, Benjamin Radford”   He got back to me about a week later: “I am sorry for the delay, but I do not know English and had to use a text translator, and these things take time. If the dowser detects by means of a wand or a pendulum a water reservoir underground, some kind of radiation from this water must affect him. As an electronic engineer, dealing with radiocommunication, propagation of electro-magnetic waves for over 40 years, I was mostly interested in searching for this radiation. My article concerns the methodology of searching this radiation, however I do not deal in it with phenomena in which this mysterious radiation, by an influence on a human, forces the pendulum to move in his hands. Perhaps I will write an article on that topic. In physics, there are four basic forces of interaction on matter. Vocationally, during the entire period of my work experience, I have dealt with technical measurement of electro-magnetic radiation. I could not believe in what was being said in radiesthesia, that there is some kind of additional unknown radiation. And I was right. Radiation of neutral hydrogen at the frequency of 1420 MHz is responsible for radiesthetic phenomena, known for many years, particularly in radioastronomy. It is observed and measured by means of two large parabolic antennas of the diameter of dishes above 15 meters. Science has accused me of identifying the type of this radiation with a pendulum. They say that if I had measured it, it would have been a different story. Namely, measurement over an underground water reservoir would have to be done locally with a small antenna, e.g. a half-wave dipole of a several-million smaller power gain from the parabolic antennas. So far, I have not had a measurement receiver of such sensitivity. Even if somebody was able to locally measure the radiation, nobody would believe that it was responsible for the phenomenon of radiesthesia. Its identification can only be done by a human acting as a sensor, through his extraordinary sensitivity for this kind of radiation, and that is what I have done.”   I reviewed his response and replied,   “Thank you for getting back to me. My question is very simple: you wrote that "If the dowser detects by means of a wand or a pendulum a water reservoir underground, some kind of radiation from this water must affect him." It's not clear why you are attributing the pendulum movement to a form of radiation instead of the ordinary anatomical muscle twitches and tension associated with fingers, wrists, elbows, arms, and so on. In other words, it is virtually impossible to hold a pendulum completely still for very long, and this is because of the ordinary movements of the body (breathing, arm muscles, etc.). So I don't understand upon what scientific basis you are assuming that any radiation is involved in causing the pendulum to move. If you could clarify that perhaps I could better evaluate your paper. all best, Ben Radford” About a week later I got the following reply: “From the physics lessons, we know that the pendulum is a mechanical resonance oscillator with simple harmonic motion, and if it moves continuously when held between fingers then it must also be subject to a certain enforcing force of periodic variability through the human body. And if it is so then there must occur a frequency synchronicity of some kind between the both frequencies or else the pendulum cannot move. A child on a swing must be pushed in pace with the rhythm of the movements of the swing or else, if the pushing movements are random, the child won’t swing. However, the vibration of the finger muscles, the hand or other parts of the body are completely coincidental and even if they oscillate the pendulum its vibrations will fast disappear; it is not going to be a continuous movement, unless someone intentionally moves his hand so as to enforce the oscillation of the pendulum for prolonged time, but then this would be a cheating. By changing the frequency of the pendulum (we have no control over a change in the frequency of the gravitational field) we can observe how the pendulum adjusts itself (in a better or worse way) to the frequency of the field, the manifestation of which is a change of the shapes plotted by the pendulum in the space. Obviously, the latter would not happen if we use an ordinary pendulum: a weight on a thread where the thread is held at a different point each time. Such a pendulum is unsuitable for serious research. In my pendulum, the weight is screwed on a steel wire (like a nut on a bolt) and the entire pendulum is suspended in a special grip on the blade of a steel pin. Obviously, the muscle tensions of individual parts of the human body cause pendulum movements, however such a movement is coincidental and only interferes with the measurements, it is regarded as an interference impeding the measurement itself. On the other hand, it is the micro vibrations of the skin (epidermis) of the fingers: the thumb and the index finger, in which the pendulum is held, that give the appropriate periodic movement to the pendulum and the direction of the movement, caused by the influence of the variable gravitational field of the surrounding. The measurement of the distribution of the field is very burdensome; it consists in the transferring the pendulum from a point to a point and stopping at each point so that the vibrations of the pendulum become stabilized, which takes approximately three (3) minutes. In order to be able to find a point where the field strength equals zero and the pendulum does not move at all, the pendulum must be set in the space with an accuracy of a few milimetres. My pendulum is quite heavy (approx. 50 gram), it would be difficult to hold it at specific point with such an exactness, and this is why it is suspended on a thin thread on a special stand (the photograph is attached). A pendulum synchronised with the sought field moves in a single vertical plane with constant direction. Obviously, the direction of the plane is different at different points. The direction of the plane of the movement of the pendulum in the gravitational field of the surroundings is the only and the base measurement done using my pendulum. The plane is always perpendicular to the vector of the magnetic field of the sought radiation which is polarised horizontally in the space above the surface of the Earth. Therefore, we know its situation at the points of measurement, and, consequently, its special distribution.” With all due respect to this person—who I think really does believe he’s onto something—I still didn’t get what he was saying. It wasn’t an English translation issue, we just weren’t talking about the same things. I replied, “Thank you for your response. You noted that “The vibration of the finger muscles, the hand or other parts of the body are completely coincidental... Obviously, the muscle tensions of individual parts of the human body cause pendulum movements, however such a movement is coincidental and only interferes with the measurements, it is regarded as an interference impeding the measurement itself.” I understand that you believe that the muscle movements cannot account for the pendulum movements, but I do not understand why you believe this to be so: What is the basis or reason you say it is “coincidental”? Can you provide any citations or references to studies showing this? Or have you done any experiments that rule out muscle movement as the sole source for pendulum oscillations? I am not trying to be negative or difficult, but I sincerely don’t understand why you believe muscles cannot account entirely for the pendulum movement. You must show that the pendulum moves with no muscle movement at all... Thank you, Benjamin Radford” I await his response and hope that if it comes, it doesn’t simply send us around in circles...