Apr 192019
 

I saw this meme recently, it’s a Cuban art project about exploited children. However one of the photos, bottom left, is based on an urban legend.

The artist is trying to raise awareness of child organ trafficking, but it doesn’t actually happen. I’ve researched, written about, and debunked this myth. There are organ *sales* in some countries (e.g., India and Pakistan), but they are voluntarily sold by adults.

Children’s organs are unusable by adults, so there’s no real demand for them on the black market. The irony is that this myth has actually been used to increase fear and hatred of foreigners—it’s exactly the sort of conspiracy Trump would use. It’s an interesting piece but unfortunately perpetuates harmful myths.

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 152019
 

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...

While Pascual recovers, Ben and Celestia discuss outrage over the hypothetical new product “Lady Doritos.” Then we go over Ben’s investigation of a staircase in Santa Fe 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. Upon systematic examination, and with the help of dogged historian Mary Straw Cook, Ben unravels the mystery and gives credit to a long-dead carpenter.

You can hear the show 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 302019
 

Long before TV ghost-hunting dudebros terrified of their own shadows, there was Eleanor Sidgwick, the original badass female ghostbuster. My article for Discovery News (now Seeker) on her is 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! 

Mar 252019
 

There’s a new drug panic in town, and it’s not crack or opioids. It’s catnip. 

Well, it’s called “Catnip Cocktail,” and it actually contains no catnip. It contains a non-FDA-approved blend of a variety of chemicals including caffeine and something called 1,4-BD, which allegedly metabolizes into sedative akin to RHB, a “date-rape” drug. 

Marketed as “The Ultimate Mood Enhancer for Your Dogs and Cats,” it is touted somewhat ambiguously as having “Helpful pain relieving properties,” with “Non additive [sic] ingredients” (it presumably meant to say “non-addictive”). Curiously, the websitedoes not offer testimonials of effectiveness, either from licensed veterinarians or from dogs and cats themselves. 

It’s not clear who manufactures Catnip Cocktail, but any rate for only $22.50 per bottle plus shipping you too can get your hands on the hottest new recreational drug, or pet mood stabilizer, or whatever it is. 

According to theSan Jose Mercury News, Catnip Cocktail has been linked in some way to “several incidents where police in the northern New Jersey suburb encountered alarming behavior from people who appeared to be under the influence of the little-known drug. On Thursday, the Fairfield Police Department announced that they had raided Nutrition Zone and seized 61 bottles of Catnip Cocktail, along with other contraband. ‘This is a very dangerous product and it appears its improper use is on the rise,’ Fairfield Police Chief Anthony Manna said in a statement. ‘In executing today’s search warrant, the Fairfield Police Department has sent a clear message that we will do whatever we can to assure that Catnip Cocktail does not become the next drug fad.’” 

It may be too late: The Business Insideroffered an alarmist headlinewarning that “A dangerous drug called Catnip Cocktail is on the rise—and it’s driving people mad.”

Media Drug Panics

The way this story is unfolding is reminiscent of previous “new” drug scares. In 2007 news media covered bogus news stories such as jenkem(a hallucinogenic inhalant drug made from fermented feces that, according to alarmist news stories spread by trolls, was widely used among schoolkids). And of course there’s the debunked myth ofvodka-soaked tampons(reported by otherwise reputable news media including ABC News) being used by college women trying to get drunk quickly. Then there’s the “eyeball-licking fad”of 2013, a “dangerous new trend” among Japanese schoolchildren supposedly licking each other’s eyeballs and in the process supposedly spreading the highly contagious disease pink eye. Kids today.

In 2012 Florida man Rudy Eugene was accused of attacking a homeless man and biting his victim’s face and ripping his flesh until police shot him. Rumors and news stories claimed that Eugene was high at the time on a narcotic called “bath salts” (which is not a single, specific drug but instead a group of drugs containing mephedrone). This led to wild stories about the dangers of “bath salts,” including the suggestion that it would turn users into flesh-eating zombies—buttoxicology tests later revealedthat the only drug in his system at the time was marijuana. He may or may not have used bath salts before, but he wasn’t on them at the time. 

We see this same pattern in the current “Catnip Cocktail” stories: A handful of people who were found to be acting strangely, allegedly while in possession of vials of the animal sedative, but where there’s little or no evidence (in the form of toxicology reports, for example) that they were under the influence of them. 

In fact there’s reason to be skeptical of news stories linking the arrested individuals to the drug, because police have claimed that it has effects similar to GHB, which is a depressant. Its effects include drowsiness, loss of muscle control, and slowed heartbeat. But many of the incidents where users are suspected of being on Catnip Cocktail suggest theopposite, that they’re on a stimulant: dancing, euphoria, yelling, erratic behavior, and so on.

Many drug users mix substances, making it difficult or impossible to pharmacologically determine what drug caused what effect. If a person has meth, marijuana, and Catnip Cocktail in their systems, how do we know what effect, if any, the Catnip had? We have a half-dozen or so incidents which may, or may not, be actually linked to “Catnip Cocktail.” 

The “Catnip Cocktail” is being cast in news reports as a “dangerous new trend on the rise,” but again it’s hard to know how accurate that is. Without hard data about how many off-label (human) users and usages there are, there’s no way to know. If there have only been a few dozen cases of this illicit usage, then a half-dozen incidents is huge. If on the other hand there have been tens of thousands, or millions, then it’s a much smaller threat. We simply don’t have data, either in terms of drug usage or arrests, to support the claim that this is a dangerous new trend on the rise that the public need be fearful about. A handful of cases with some tangential connection to the drug doesn’t really translate into a “dangerous new fad.”

It’s entirely possible that some people are using the drug to get high—or to tryto get high, based on its reputed effects (such as those currently being hyped in news stories). In other words even if the drug has little or no real pharmacological effects in humans, there are some people who will try it anyway, looking for a cheap or new high. There are many media-created panics—usually involving some form of rumor and folklore—and Catnip Cocktail seems to be among them. 

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 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! 

Mar 192019
 

Thanks to Daniel Loxton for his thorough, well-written, and fair review of my award-winning book "Investigating Ghosts" in the new issue (23)4 of Skeptic magazine!


If you're interested in checking out my book, it's available on Amazon.com and elsewhere, including in audiobook format!

Mar 122019
 

This week on our show Squaring the Strange, we start by looking at a Newsweek headline that's been circulating again recently, implying that one-third of Americans doubt the death toll of the Holocaust. Then we devote our main segment to an important essay that has become both style guide and etiquette manual to skeptical writers and critics. Ray Hyman, one of the original founders of CSICOP, outlined eight principles to follow when engaging in "proper criticism" of paranormal claims. "Hyman's Proper Criticism," as it is known, applies more broadly to any topic, really, and becoming familiar with these eight lessons will make you a better human being.  

You can hear the episode HERE.

Please subscribe and consider donating!

Mar 062019
 

In the new issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine I investigate the legend that Egyptian mummies were used as fuel in locomotives, with an illustration by Celestia Ward!

Q: Today I heard a speaker repeat the story that mummies were used as fuel in British trains. I recall this was a classic legend first related by Mark Twain in The Innocents Abroad, but the speaker insisted that she thoroughly researched the subject, and it was true. Got anything on this?

--B. Dail 

A: This bit of morbid historical curiosa, suitably limned with anti-colonial themes, has been around for over a century and reported as true by a handful of writers. Discovermagazine writer LeeAundra Temescu wrote in 2006 that “During a railway expansion in Egypt in the nineteenth century, construction companies unearthed so many mummies that they used them as locomotive fuel.” This factoid inspired poet Charles Webb to write a piece titled “Mummies to Burn” for Slate.com in January 2010.

There is no evidence at all that mummies were burned in locomotives, and Dail correctly identified the origin of the myth. Cecil Adams of The Straight Dopereceived a similar query in 2002 and replied in part, “What you heard was a mangled version of a classic joke told by one of the masters of the art. But don’t feel bad—people have been falling for this one for more than 130 years.” Some people, apparently unaware of Twain’s penchant for humor and hyperbole, took his comment literally or as “reporting.” For example Joann Fletcher (2011), an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of York and part of York’s Mummy Research Group, in an article for no less an authoritative source than BBC, wrote that “Even less fortunate were those mummies exported to the U.S. for use in the papermaking industry or even, as Mark Twain reported, to be burnt as railroad fuel.” 

For more, see the current issue of Skeptical Inquirer!

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 282019
 

My recent blog examines a popular meme about the "true" inspiration for the Lone Ranger, an amazing lawman named Bass Reeves. I looked into it, curious to see if it was true, but soon found myself in a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories--and examining why skeptics unknowingly help share them.

Several friends of mine recently posted a meme on social media that read, “Did you know the real LONE RANGER was a BLACK MAN name BASS REEVES and yes he did live among the INDIANS, The Lone Ranger ‘could not be cast in that era as a black man, so he was made into a white man with a black mask, Now you know…”

As a teenager I met the main actor who played the Lone Ranger on television, Clayton Moore (I have his autograph somewhere). It was at a public appearance in California and during a short Q&A someone asked about the origin of the character he played. As I recall he discussed it coming from old radio serials, along with other cowboy heroes such as Tom Mix. He didn’t mention anything about the character originally being African American, though I don’t necessarily attribute any racism to that, as it was a quick question about his TV show, and he wouldn’t necessarily have done so in that forum anyway.

The claim in the meme certainly seemed plausible, and I spent a few minutes checking its accuracy. After consulting three or four credible sources I realized that the claim is partly true. The first half of the sentence is partly accurate: Bass Reeves, the black man pictured, was indeed an amazing historical figure. He was a Texas deputy marshal said to have arrested more than 3,000 people and killed over a dozen criminals, sometimes going undercover in daring exploits in Indian country. An article for History.com offers a good overview of this fascinating man.

It also concludes that “Although there is no concrete evidence that the real legend inspired the creation of one of fiction’s most well-known cowboys, ‘Bass Reeves is the closest real person to resemble the fictional Lone Ranger on the American western frontier of the nineteenth century,’ [Reeves biographer] Burton writes in Black Gun, Silver Star.”

Cinema researcher Martin Gram also debunked the claim, adding that “Proof was found that The Lone Ranger was intentionally patterned off of Robin Hood and Tom Mix…While the real life of Bass Reeves deserves to be better known, it is unfortunate that this fanciful ‘inspiration for the real life Lone Ranger character’ theory is what has brought him additional attention.”

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! 

Feb 182019
 
Rob Palmer, aka "The Well-Known Skeptic" recently interviewed my Squaring the Strange co-host Celestia Ward for a Special Article on the CSICOP Website. Here's the intro:   In May 2018, Susan Gerbic published an article about her trip to New Mexico to speak about the Guerrilla Skeptics project for New Mexicans for Science and Reason, the local skeptics group. En route, she dropped by the Squaring the Strange podcast studios for a guest appearance. Susan’s article about her trip mentioned the podcast, but that was not the main topic; reading it left me with many questions. To learn more, I decided to interview one of the three people who make the podcast happen. Flipping my three-sided coin resulted in selecting cohost, content producer, and “SkeptiCrate sender-outer” Celestia Ward. Luckily—once I explained that I wasn’t just a random fan bugging her on Facebook but was a random CSI online columnist bugging her on Facebook—she happily consented to an interview. When Squaring launched as a weekly podcast in April 2017, it had just a pair of cohosts: Ben Radford and Pascual Romero. Celestia was primarily the behind-the-scenes content producer, who made only short, sporadic “appearances” with a fortune-cookie segment. Eventually she became a cohost, converting the arrangement to a triumvirate and transforming the character of the podcast.   You can read Part  2 of the interview HERE.     
Feb 122019
 
In case you missed it, episode 84 of "Squaring the Strange"  begins with a look at (non)investigation by an unnamed Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, then dive into the murky waters of Lake Okanagan in search of Canada's most famous lake monster, Ogopogo! Please check it out!    
Feb 082019
 
I was recently interviewed on "Radio Wasteland" talking about evil and scary clowns, based on my award-winning book "Bad Clowns." Stop clowning around and give it a listen! 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 222019
 
In my years of media and science literacy I’ve repeatedly encountered cases where people have failed to question their premises and simply forged ahead without bothering to make sure that the assumptions were grounded in fact. Premises often seem self-evident—and who wants to waste time verifying or fact-checking something that’s obvious? About six or seven years ago I was contacted by a man who wanted me to look at his research on Stonehenge. He wasn’t an archaeologist or historian, and from what I could tell had little formal training. What he did have, in apparent abundance, was enthusiasm and free time. He was interested in so-called ley lines, real or imagined—depending on your New Age inclinations—lines that connected important man-made sites around the world, including the Ghiza Pyramids, Macchu Picchu, and so on. I’d encountered his type before, usually in the context of being asked to carefully read and offer comments on (that is, praise) his theories and discoveries. And not a few paragraphs but instead reams of what might charitably be called crank literature: diagrams, explanations, and so on. I reluctantly agreed to chat with him for a few minutes to get an overview, and he began explaining how he’d always been fascinated by the stones and he showed me meticulously drawn diagrams of the exact positions of the stones and the precise angles that, he claimed, corresponded perfectly with other mysterious or significant sites on other continents and across the globe. Two particular east-facing stones, for example, just happen to point to other monuments elsewhere in Europe. He proudly noted that he’d visited Stonehenge many times over the years and kept discovering new aspects to the formation. The idea that Stonehenge was aligned in some way with celestial bodies seems perfectly plausible, but how in the world could the ancients have known about, and carefully aligned their standing stones with the exact coordinates of, the Egyptian pyramids, for example? I’d written some about Stonehenge, and later visited the site myself. I wouldn’t exactly call myself an expert on the topic, but I was conversant with the basic facts and theories.  I listened to him and looked at his maps and charts linking all the stones’ positions. Finally I asked him, “You know they moved the stones, right?’ “They moved Stonehenge?” he asked incredulously. “Well, the ancient builders moved the rocks to whereStonehenge now sits, of course. But what you see today isn’t the original formation. The standing stones have been moved around several times. There are early drawings and photos of it.” I mentioned a painting by John Constable of the stones from 1835 that showed a significantly different arrangement than what appears today. Over the millennia some stones have fallen into the soft earth, and it's not known whether they fell straight back or twisted slightly at an angle, and so on. At least a dozen of the stones were straightened and re-erected between 1900 and 1960, and early depictions of Stonehenge (such as Constable's painting) look quite different than what is seen today. Those restoring the area made an effort to give a sense of what Stonehenge might have been like thousands of years ago, but in fact no one really knows what it originally looked like—or was supposed to look like. He looked stunned. His years of work had apparently been based on calculations of the precise positions of the stones as they are today—each angle down to the degree and minute—which is not necessarily where they were when first erected. He must have known about the various reconstructions over the years but seemed to have for whatever reason assumed that each time the stones were replaced precisely as they were found. The workers were more concerned about preservation and restoration than historical accuracy; even if that were not the case, the soft Wiltshire earth had caused many of the stones to sink and shift over the thousands of years. There is simply no way to know with any certainty exactly how the stones were first arranged—at least not with the precision needed to link them with other monuments or sacred places on the same meridian around the world. Seeing his stunned deflation, I awkwardly excused myself so as not to further embarrass him, and I never heard from him again. I wasn’t trying to mock him or debunk his elaborate theories, and I’d honestly wished he’d asked me years earlier before he spent untold time and energy pursuing his analysis based on mistaken assumptions. His was an extreme example, of course, but the error of making assumptions instead of checking them is common. Because the restoration work at Stonehenge is not hidden yet not widely known, it has generated conspiracy theories. Some have even suggested that the monument dates back less than a century, created to spur tourism profits or for other unknown—and possibly nefarious—reasons. Mick West, author of Escaping the Rabbit Holeand creator of the Metabunk web site, has visited the site several times and investigated such conspiracy claims. West said “The idea that Stonehenge is a relatively modern construction is appealing to a certain type of conspiracy theorist who has fallen far down the rabbit hole. Images appearing to show the construction of Stonehenge with cranes and concrete are an intellectual delight to them. No particular reason is needed for Stonehenge to be faked, because in their mind everything is faked, and this is simply pleasant circular confirmation that they were right all along.” Stonehenge fell out of use around 1500 B.C., and has stood as a mute mystery ever since.  
Jan 202019
 
I wonder if 2019 will be the year that the History Channel finally completes its investigation into how its much-hyped 2017 special on Amelia Earhart got the story so spectacularly wrong that a half-hour Google search debunked its crack team of experts and their bogus "smoking gun" photo. 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 152019
 
I was recently a guest on #TheSupernaturalSymposium, Justin Brown interviewed me, psychic Tiffaney Mason and paranormal investigator Mike Ricksecker in an effort to create a panel of experienced individuals in their field of work to discuss the origins of a haunting. Why do many people experience and report hauntings? What causes them? Is it the mind playing tricks or is it supernatural? We will take a closer look and discuss the topic and air out the opinions of this very diverse panel in order to understand the controversial nature of hauntings so we can find ways to bridge the gap between conflicting viewpoints and strengthen the paranormal community. Will we find common ground? You can watch it HERE.  You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Jan 132019
 
In the wake of racial incidents such as the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018, it’s natural for the public and pundits to wonder just how common anti-Semitism is. Deadly attacks on Jewish houses of worship are thankfully rare, but what about anti-Jewish belief among the general public? One often-used metric is public opinion polls about the Holocaust. In April 2018 Newsweek posted a news story titled “One-Third of Americans Don’t Believe 6 Million Jews Were Murdered During the Holocaust.” It was widely shared on social media, including Yahoo News. The disturbing headline seemed to suggest that neo-Nazis are succeeding in sowing Holocaust denial among Americans. The Holocaust is the highest-profile event in history about the dangers of intolerance and anti-Semitism, and with about a third of Americans—over 100 million people—doubting a key aspect of the Holocaust, anti-Jewish sentiment seems widespread indeed. Given the potential fear and concern headlines like this can spawn, it’s worth taking a closer look at the story through the lens of media literacy and skepticism. The data came from a survey by Schoen Consulting on behalf of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, released for Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was a national study of 1,350 interviews with American adults during the last week of February 2018, with a margin of error at +/- 3%. A Closer Look If you actually read the study (available here) you realize that the Newsweek headline is misleading in several important ways. First, the phrase “don’t believe” in the headline implies doubt: that you are presented with a claim or proposition, and you state categorically that you do not believe it. However the question (number 19, if you’re following along) didn’t ask respondents what they “believe.” People were asked to estimate, or put a number on, how many Jews they thought were killed. The exact wording is “Approximately how many Jews were killed during the Holocaust?” The responses were, in order of presentation: 20 million; 6 million; 2 million; 1 million; 100,000; 25,000; Other; or Not sure.” Phrasing is important, especially in surveys. Had the question been phrased “Do you believe 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust?” then the percentage responding No would accurately capture how many doubt that six million Jews were killed. It should also be noted that there is in fact no historical consensus on the exact number of Jewish deaths in the Holocaust, but most experts believe the number is between 5 and 6 million. Had the question been phrased more accurately (by historical standards) and less precisely (by estimation standards), as in “Do you believe that about 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust?” it’s quite possible that even more people would have correctly answered that question. A closer look reveals that among American adults, the vast majority, 49%, gave the correct answer of 6 million. Six percent actually overestimated the number of Jews killed by over a factor of three (at 20 million). Note that the second-highest response, Not Sure, at 13%, means just that: they’re not sure how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Thus “Not Sure” is not a catch-all response for “None” or “An Insignificant Number” or “Surely Fewer Than 6 Million.” It could mean the person thought that the number was closer to 15 million, or 10 million, or 8 million, or some number not among those specifically listed. For all we know, many of that 13% could have accurately estimated that about 6 million Jews were killed, but weren’t confident enough in their grasp of historical facts to select that option. If that’s the case then the number who knew the correct answer could be over 60%. But we don’t know because of the way the question was worded. To be clear, this limitation doesn’t invalidate the question, or render the survey or its results flawed; it just means that we must be careful in interpreting the results—especially on a subject as important as Holocaust belief or denial. ‘Merican Ignernce? The poll does show that many Americans are wrong about various Holocaust facts (such as whether the Holocaust preceded World War II or vice-versa). How significant is this? It’s not clear. One common question in science is “Compared to what?”; in this case for example, what percentage of average Americans should we reasonably expect to know the answers? Eighty percent? Ninety percent? One hundred percent? We can all agree that ideally the answer is “higher,” but if many Americans are vague about historical events that happened in World War II, they’re not much more informed about what’s going on in modern America.  
  • September 2017 poll of 2,200 American adults for Morning Consult found that about half of Americans don’t know that people born in Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens: 54% of adults said yes; 22% said no, and 24% said they weren’t sure.
 
  • 2011 Newsweek poll found that 29% of Americans couldn’t name the then-current vice president (hopefully Joe Biden’s name recognition has improved since then).
 
  • Responses vary from year to year, but in 2014 only 36% of Americans could name the three branches of government (in 2017 it was 25% and 38% in 2011). And so on.
A 2007 survey by Kelton Research found that 80% of respondents could name the main ingredients of a McDonalds Big Mac sandwich, but fewer than 60% could recall all the Ten Commandments, and a 2010 Pew poll found that only 55% knew that the Golden Rule is not among the commandments. Exaggerating and highlighting the ignorance of Americans is a time-honored tradition, especially among journalists and comics. The Tonight Show with Jay Leno often featured man-on-the-street interviews showing passersby stumped by simple questions, and Canadian comedian Rick Mercer hosted a long-running segment on the same theme titled “Talking to Americans,” on the satirical comedy show This Hour Has 22 Minutes in which Mercer, posing as a journalist, would ask unsuspecting American tourists bizarre non-sequitur questions such as whether they supported hunting polar bears in Toronto or would like to congratulate Canada on moving its capital from Ottawa to Toronto. It’s all good flagellatory fun but obscures that fact that most Americans (that is, the statistical majority of them) are in fact fairly knowledgeable about their country and world history. Most people can answer such questions, and the fact that a minority of them can’t—or in many cases may know the correct answer just aren’t confident enough in their knowledge to commit to it on camera or to a questioner—reveals little about any uniquely American ignorance. Holocaust Denial or Innumeracy?  Part of the issue is psychological. In his book Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences, mathematician John Allen Paulos notes that people have difficulty conceiving of large numbers. When estimating, people easily slip “between millions and billions or between billions and trillions… because we too often lack an intuitive feeling for these numbers. Many educated people have little grasp for these numbers… A recent study by Drs. Kronlund and Phillips of the University of Washington showed that most doctors’ assessments of the risks of various operations, procedures, and medications (even in their own specialties) were way off the mark, often by several orders of magnitude” (p. 10). This does not excuse anyone’s errors, of course. Ideally, everyone should have a good grasp of historical and civics facts, as well as basic statistics and probability. Before concluding that Americans are dumb as rocks, keep in mind that most people (of any nationality) struggle to remember their computer passwords, much less who their representatives are. Not knowing the exact number of Jews killed during the Holocaust is not a metric of Holocaust denial or anti-Semitism, or indifference to (or ignorance of) Jewish persecution. The Newsweek headline, however, was not merely a glass-is-half-full analysis but instead a clear effort to characterize many Americans as racist, or at least grossly ignorant of the plight of the Jewish community during the Holocaust (Brown University sociologist Dan Hirschman agrees, noting in a May 8, 2018 blog that the Newsweek headline “implies that 1/3 of Americans are Holocaust deniers of some sort”). These are people who didn’t pay attention in history class and who don’t have a good grasp of large numbers—not Holocaust deniers. The survey did not suggest that underestimating the number of Jews killed was any sort of attempt at minimizing the Holocaust. If we want to know how many Americans doubt the Holocaust happened, we need look no further than question 33, which unlike question 19 is not as open-ended: 96% of respondents answered “Yes, I believe the Holocaust happened.” Three percent said they weren’t sure, and 1% of them responded that they did not believe it happened. This 1%—not the 33% suggested by Newsweek—would presumably be among the Holocaust deniers. This is not the first time that a poll about the Holocaust produced alarming numbers. In one of the most infamous examples of flawed polling, a 1992 poll conducted by the Roper organization for the American Jewish Committee found that 1 in 5 Americans doubted that the Holocaust occurred. How could 22% of Americans report being Holocaust deniers? The answer became clear when the original question was re-examined: “Does it seem possible or does it seem impossible to you that the Nazi extermination of the Jews never happened?” This awkwardly-phrased question contains a confusing double-negative which led many to report the opposite of what they believed. Embarrassed Roper officials apologized, and later polls—asking clear, unambiguous questions—found that only about 2% of Americans actually doubt the Holocaust. In fact the 2018 news headlines about the Holocaust poll could have accurately read “Holocaust Denial Drops 50%” (from 2% to 1%), but the news media emphasizes bad news. Polls and surveys can provide important information about the public’s beliefs. But to be valid, they must be based on sound methodologies, and media-literate news consumers should always look for information about the sample size, representativeness of the population, whether the participants were random or self-selected, and so on. Whether due to poorly-worded questions or an alarmist news media, reports like these leave the false impression that racism and anti-Semitism are more widespread than they really are. The recent rise in hate crimes against the Jewish community is well documented, but the recent rise in Holocaust denial is not.   This piece originally appeared on the "Skeptic Reads a Newspaper Blog" HERE.   You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Jan 112019
 
In the new episode of Squaring the Strange, we take a romp through a bunch of 2018's more memorable skeptical moments. From a new iteration of the Mechanical Turk to deadly rumors in India to a resurgence of Geocentrism, there's plenty to go around. We go over some of the more notable passings, and list some favorite episodes from the past year.   You can hear it HERE. 
Dec 082018
 
As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) has passed its 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, Pascual is skeptical of mutating astronaut DNA, and looks closely at the media misinterpretation of a recent NASA press release. Then the gang discusses various ways that folklore is used to control behavior—a trick used on children and sometimes on the general public, too. We look closely at the Hispanic ghost La Llorona, a frightening tale that keeps children away from flood-prone river banks in New Mexico, and then some of her even scarier cousins, the Japanese kappa, who seem to have a fixation on human butts and cucumbers. Then all the way up in Iceland we meet the Yule cat, who eats children that don’t wear their new Christmas sweaters—but also teaches a host of other lessons. You can listen to it HERE.    
Dec 062018
 
As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) has passed its 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!   This week, our crew digs into health panics and what's in our food. Focusing on the notorious "pink slime", the Strangers break down the history of the hysteria and talk about how bad it really is (or isn't). Also in this episode, Ben is skeptical of the tragic tale of a Tasmanian Devil named Jasper.  You can listen HERE. 
Dec 022018
 
As my awesome podcast Squaring the Strange (co-hosted by Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward) has passed its 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!   This week, the Strange crew chats a bit about "crisis actors" and how far people will go to link tragic events to push conspiratorial ideas. Then, the boys are joined by Sharon A. Hill, geologist and skeptic author of the new book Scientifical Americans, a look into the culture of amateur paranormal researchers. They talk a bit about the utility of the title "skeptic" and go into a discussion about her fascinating new book. You can find it HERE!     
Nov 192018
 
I'm pleased to note that my newest book Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits was a winner at this year's New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards!   You can order the book from your local indie bookstore, or find it on Amazon!      
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.
Nov 062018
 
  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: Human Barbie and Other Plastic Tales. First, Ben examines some disturbing consequences to child abduction rumors on a popular app in India and Mexico. Then we look at modern plastic surgery oddities and, specifically, the media myth of the Human Barbie, also known as Russian model Valeria Lukyanova. What outrageous things were said about her, and how much of the narrative can be taken as fact? We also compare her to her counterparts, namely the three men who promote themselves as "human Ken dolls."   You can listen HERE. 
Oct 312018
 
The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! The show is all about Halloween strangeness . . . We unravel the origins of a few traditions and look at "Hell Houses," the much, much, much lamer alternative to haunted houses. And a quick report from CSIcon as well as a news snippet about a graveyard dowser! Please check it out!     You can here it HERE! 
Oct 282018
 
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, Ben and Celestia dig into what makes bad documentaries bad. You can listen HERE.
Oct 182018
 
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:  While Pascual recovers, Ben and Celestia discuss outrage over the hypothetical new product “Lady Doritos.” Then we go over Ben’s investigation of a staircase in Santa Fe 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. Upon systematic examination, and with the help of dogged historian Mary Straw Cook, Ben unravels the mystery and gives credit to a long-dead carpenter.   You can listen HERE.  
Oct 122018
 
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, we look into the nature of curses and what it takes to break a curse. From the cultural aspects to the practical applications, we take the listener through a journey into the weird and scary world of superstition. You can listen HERE. 
Oct 082018
 
My new book, "Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits," is a Finalist for the New Mexico/Arizona book awards! Winners will be announced next month, but if you want to see what everyone's raving about, it's available for under $20 in ebook or paperback and the audiobook version will be out this week!     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 302018
 
In this week's episode we started with an announcement and then a look at a Bridezilla tale and a psychic mountain lion encounter. Then Ben, Celestia, and Pascual discuss skeptical burnout, a phenomenon that hits almost every skeptic at some point. What makes us susceptible to this kind of exhaustion, and how can we best fight against it? We all share some stories and outlooks.   You can hear the show HERE.
Sep 282018
 
Skeptics and psychologists often point out the fallibility of eyewitness testimony, though the general public continues to put great stock in it. It seems so self-evident that personal experience is a reliable guide to the world that when something “unexplained” happens, people often assume that the event must truly be mysterious. There’s nothing wrong with personal experiences, but by themselves they are not proof or evidence of anything except that the person experienced something they didn’t understand or couldn’t immediately explain. Most people who report such experiences are being truthful (i.e., not hoaxing), but being truthful is not the same as being accurate. They may be completely sincere and honest, and simply wrong. In order for a person to accurately and fully report an experience, they must do four basic things correctly: 1) they must correctly perceive the phenomena; 2) they must correctly interpret the phenomena; 3) they must correctly recall the phenomena; and 4) they must accurately describe the phenomena. Example: A man on a boat in a lake sees something big and dark rise out of the water. When he gets to shore, he tells his wife he saw a lake monster. Maybe he did; maybe he didn’t, but some questions must be asked: 1) How accurate is his perception? How good is his vision? What were the lighting conditions: bright daylight, dusk, or nighttime? How far away was it? Ten feet? 100 yards? A quarter mile? 2) How good is his interpretation? Why did he interpret what he saw as specifically a lake monster, instead of a fish, or a wave, or a sunken log? Did it have characteristics that convinced him it could not be something ordinary? Were there any other factors that might influence his interpretation or judgment (for example, alcohol or other drugs, health problems such as diabetes, exhaustion, etc.)? Had he reported seeing the monster before, or been told about the creature? Was he actively searching for the monster, or doing some other activity such as fishing? 3) How good is his recollection? Did the incident happen just minutes or hours earlier? Or was it reported weeks, months, or even years later? Does he have any memory problems? Has he told the same story before? If so, are the accounts different? The more often a person repeats a story, the more likely it is to have been embellished; details creep in or drop out over time. 4) How good is his ability to adequately report or describe his experience? How extensive is his vocabulary? Does he speak the same language as the person he’s reporting his experience to? Is he too frightened to speak? Are there any other factors that might affect his ability to fully communicate or articulate what he explained? The same basic questions apply to all eyewitness experiences regardless of context. Note that an eyewitnesses’ account can only be considered completely valid if the person is not affected by factors such as these. If he clearly sees the object, correctly identifies it at the time, but can’t correctly recall or describe it later, then the sighting is compromised. If any part of the chain breaks down, if any one of these steps is dubious or missing, then there will be serious errors and mistakes in what is reported. Misreporting a UFO or Bigfoot will likely have few consequences, except perhaps for the eyewitness’s credibility. But in many real-life cases, such mistakes can be deadly. The Tragedy of John Crawford Faulty eyewitness testimony led to the deaths of two people in an Ohio Walmart in August of this year. An article in The Guardian explains: “Police had repeatedly been told via a customer on the line to a 911 dispatcher that John Crawford III was pointing the gun at shoppers and may have loaded it with bullets.” Crawford had picked up an air rifle from a shelf and wandered the store, the gun in one hand and cell phone in the other. Ronald Ritchie who was in the store and called 911, told the dispatcher at about 8:30 PM that “He’s, like, pointing it at people.” Police officers responded, and when one called back to confirm that the suspect was pointing a gun, the dispatcher confirmed: “Yes, that’s what the caller says, he’s pointing it at people.” Ritchie stayed on the line for several minutes, describing to the 911 operator what Crawford was doing from a safe distance: “He looked like he was trying to load it.” From the Guardian piece: “This, too, was relayed to the officers as they arrived at the store. About 55 seconds later, Angela Williams entered the pets aisle with two of her young children… Ritchie told the dispatcher: ‘He just pointed it at, like, two children.’ Forty seconds later, the dispatcher asked: ‘You said he pointed it at a couple of kids?’ Ritchie replied: ‘Right.’” Crawford was immediately confronted by two police officers and shot dead; in the chaos Williams suffered a fatal heart attack. Later investigation revealed that the eyewitness in this case was wrong in several key details. Video footage of the encounter, later released to the public, shows that Ritchie’s descriptions of Crawford’s actions were inaccurate. He was indeed carrying a rifle in one hand but with the benefit of hindsight and an elevated security camera vantagepoint we know that he was not pointing it at any children or threatening other customers. What Ritchie saw—or thought he saw, or claimed he saw—is another matter. It’s unclear whether racism played a role in the eyewitness description; Ritchie is white and Crawford was black though there’s no evidence that Ritchie intentionally exaggerated the threat to police. As Snopes.com noted, “A judge later ruled that sufficient grounds existed to charge Ritchie with raising false alarms, but Hamilton County special prosecutor Mark Piepmeier declined to proceed, deciding that the evidence was not clear that Ritchie knew his descriptions of Crawford’s movements and actions were factually inaccurate.” Reports of shootings at Walmarts across the country are not uncommon, occurring, for example, in Philadelphia in August 2018; Amarillo, Texas in June 2016; Tumwater, Washington in June 2018; Denver, Colorado in November 2017; Clinton, Utah in June 2018, and others. Whether the shooting was justified or not, the role of the original eyewitness played a crucial part in the deaths. The case was referred to a grand jury, which declined to indict the police officer who shot Crawford. The public safety mantra “If you see something, say something” is good advice but psychologists know that especially in times of stress and surprise—as would happen when being in the presence of a suspected or confirmed shooting situation—people misperceive and misunderstand things. Countless cases prove this point. For example there’s the case of the D.C. snipers who killed ten people and badly injured three others in October 2002. Police were baffled by the killings, though an apparent break in the case came when several eyewitnesses described the shooter: A white man driving a late-model white van or box truck. Based on these multiple eyewitness descriptions, police stopped white vans along the Capital Beltway hoping to stop the killer. Yet when the snipers were caught, it was clear that the sincere, believable eyewitnesses with no reason to lie or exaggerate were completely wrong. Instead of a single white man driving a white box truck, the murders were committed by two Black men driving a dark blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice. In that case, the eyewitness testimony likely cost human lives: Police had in fact noted the Chevrolet at several of the crime scenes but did not stop or check out the car because the police and public were focused on the non-existent white van reported by eyewitnesses. Eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful conviction in America. Of the more than 200 people exonerated by way of DNA evidence in the US, over 75% were wrongfully convicted because of eyewitness mistakes. Indeed, according to the Innocence Project, “While eyewitness testimony can be persuasive evidence before a judge or jury, 30 years of strong social science research has proven that eyewitness identification is often unreliable. Research shows that the human mind is not like a tape recorder; we neither record events exactly as we see them, nor recall them like a tape that has been rewound. Instead, witness memory is like any other evidence at a crime scene; it must be preserved carefully and retrieved methodically, or it can be contaminated.” Often in criminal cases there’s a strong and understandable desire to believe the victim. No one wants to question or challenge a person who has obviously undergone a horrible experience—but it must be done. That eyewitness reports are often very unreliable is not news to psychologists or experienced police detectives, but the general public is often unduly impressed with an eyewitness who says, “I know what I saw, and I saw him do it.” Maybe, maybe not. And it’s not just in crimes: many people who believe in Bigfoot, UFOs, and ghosts put great faith in eyewitness reports—especially sightings by police officers and others in authority. Yet the evidence is clear and uncontested: people are not good eyewitnesses, and often sincerely claim to see things they did not.   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 252018
 
Some of you cryptozoology fans may remember when Josh Gates of Destination Truth [sic] found what he claimed to be a Yeti track, after a few days in Nepal. Here's an overview of the claims, and an update on where the track ended up... The Yeti—formerly known as the Abominable Snowman—is the Himalayan version of the American Bigfoot. Like Bigfoot, it is large, powerful, leaves strange tracks, and has never been proven to exist outside of folklore and myth. Interest in the supposed creature is fueled by occasional sighting reports and odd footprints. In 2007, Josh Gates, host of the TV series Destination Truth, claimed that he found three mysterious footprints: one full print that measured about thirteen inches long, and two partial prints. Gates said that he could not identify what made them, but that they are “very, very similar” to other strange tracks previously found in the Himalayas and attributed to the Yeti. To Gates and his television crew, this apparently seems like strong evidence for the elusive creature. The find made international news, with outlets including Reuters covering the story. Yet there is a scientific explanation for many Yeti footprints found in the Himalayas. Tracks in snow can be very difficult to interpret correctly because of the unstable nature of the medium in which they are found. Snow physically changes as the temperature varies and as sunlight hits it. This has several effects on the impression, often making the tracks of ordinary animals seem both larger and misshapen. As sunlight strikes the impression from different angles, the sides of the tracks melt unevenly. Thus a bear track made at night but found the next afternoon has been exposed to the morning sun and might change into a mysterious track with splayed toes—much like the one Gates and his crew claim to have found.   You can read the rest in my recent CFI blog HERE!   You can find more on me and my work with a search for "Benjamin Radford" (not "Ben Radford") on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange! 
Sep 222018
 
In this recent show 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 I revisit an investigation I 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? Please check it out HERE! 
Sep 202018
 
A nice review on Paranormal Bucket of my latest book "Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits": "Radford offers up a critique of ghost investigation techniques in this thought-provoking volume. Rather than simply chronicling why many standard methods adopted by contemporary paranormal investigators to search for spirits have been unable to produce hard evidence of a spooky afterlife, the author meticulously diagrams what researchers might do to make their approaches to gathering evidence more likely to generate persuasive results....He is an entertaining and perceptive writer with a welcome, dry sense of humor." You can read the review HERE.  And the book is for sale HERE.    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 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.   
Sep 052018
 
My recent blog is about how easily misunderstandings can recast allies as enemies, focusing on a recent incident at Cornell where a student misunderstood her professor's comment about her clothing, interpreting it as sexist. The student stripped to her underwear in protest; it made national news and cast the professor in a bad light, but others in the class said the student misunderstood. A lesson in the importance of being charitable to others--with a classic Emo Philips joke!   I’m always fascinated by how thinking goes wrong. Sometimes it’s the result of intentional deception or obfuscation, such as is often found in advertising or political speech. But more often it’s the result of critical thinking lapses, logical errors, or simply misunderstanding. It’s errors of interpretation, often of substituting what someone actually says for what we think they’re saying, or expecting them to say. By understanding how thinking goes wrong—ideally taken from real-world situations instead of staid examples of informal logic taken from textbooks—we can help identify such patterns in our own thinking and hopefully improve communication. A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about an interaction I had on social media where a comment about whether a phrase used by actor Henry Cavill in an interview was intended literally or figuratively was badly misunderstood and somehow ended in a heated argument involving accusations of misogyny! The exchange was all the more puzzling because everyone involved in the discussion was on the same page, socially and politically, about the topic. There was no actual substantive disagreement; instead a cascade of errors and misunderstandings soon rendered the discussion futile and allies cast as enemies. I’m reminded of a famous Emo Philips joke about fundamentalist religion involving two people who have virtually identical beliefs, but after several questions one of them focuses on the tiny difference between them and in the punchline yells, “Die, heretic!” There are enough people with whom we sincerely disagree that it benefits everyone—especially in today’s divisive age—to be sure that we understand each other before concluding that allies are actually enemies. Earlier this year a high-profile example of this emerged in an academic setting... 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 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!