Aug 072019
 

I recently came across a blog by a fellow cryptozoology writer, Nick Redfern, which began with a well-deserved rant about armchair debunkers. The shabby state of research into Fortean topics is widely acknowledged by skeptics—and some “believers” (for lack of a better word).

In this particular case it was unnamed “debunkers” that he vented some spleen towards: “If there’s one thing, more than any other, that annoys me in the field of paranormal research, it’s an armchair researcher of the debunking kind. Time and time again I have heard the debunkers loudly assert (often in high-pitched, whiny voices, and with their arms firmly folded) that the chupacabra simply cannot, and does not, exist.”

I should note at this point that I may be one of the “debunkers” he’s referring to, as I spent five years investigating the chupacabra; the result was my 2011 book Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore, published by the University of New Mexico Press. (For the record, I have never claimed that the chupacabra cannot exist, merely that overwhelming evidence suggests it does not.)

As to these armchair debunkers, he asks: “How do they know? Well, actually, they don’t know. Have they personally visited Puerto Rico? For the most part, no, they have not. Have they sat down opposite a witness and actually spoken to them? Nope: Hardly more than the barest occasion. What they have done is to secure their data from that bastion of truth and reliability known as the Internet…. As to why the debunkers piss me off so much, it’s not just as a result of their lazy approach and attitude. It’s because by not actually visiting the places in question, and speaking with the people on the ground, they are missing out on a wealth of untapped data that simply cannot be found by just opening Google and typing in the words ‘Puerto Rico + chupacabra.’”

I, too, share his annoyance with armchair researchers (of all stripes, especially those who monger mysteries and can’t be bothered to check facts and do more than a superficial analysis). Field investigation is indeed important, and has helped me solve countless mysteries that I would not have been able to do via laptop or from the comfort of my armchair. That’s one reason why I traveled extensively for my chupacabra research, not only in New Mexico and Texas, but also as far as the jungles of Nicaragua. I also made multiple trips to Puerto Rico, interviewing dozens of first-hand eyewitnesses and experts, doing archival research, and so on.

 

He uses the following example: “A perfect case in point: if the chupacabra is a real creature, ask the naysayers, then why did it suddenly surface out of nowhere in 1995? Well, actually, it didn’t. Yes, it did, they reply; the Internet says so. Well, yes, the Internet does say that. But try speaking to the locals [who admit] that, yes, those emotive words—chupacabra and goat-sucker—were relatively new. No one disputed that. They added, however, that blood-sucking monstrosities of vampire-like proportions had been reported across the island not just for years but for decades; at least since the 1970s.”

I’m not a fan of believing whatever “the internet” says, but in this case it’s not me believing the internet so much as the internet believing me. Tracking the Chupacabra was the first book to establish that the beast first appeared in 1995 (and why). I’m sure there are some whiny-voiced, arm-crossed pouty armchair debunkers who couldn’t find Puerto Rico on a map insisting that the chupacabra suddenly surfaced in 1995, but they’re referencing my work and conclusions, and I stand by them. There seems to be not a single printed reference to a vampiric “chupacabra” in Puerto Rico or anywhere else before 1995; the word was coined soon after the first sighting in August 1995. No one suggests that the chupacabra “surfaced out of nowhere,” as I make very clear in my research; it surfaced in that year due to several factors, most prominent among them the release of the sci-fi film Species; see chapter 7 in my book for a full explanation.

This is, however, a nuanced argument and I’m happy to explain and clarify. It’s not complicated, but does require taking a little deeper analysis.

Yes, Virginia, the Chupacabra Dates to 1995

No one disputes that vampire reports and legends are a global phenomenon; that’s why my book begins with a chapter on vampires around the world, ranging from ancient Mesopotamia to revenant vampires in Middle Ages Europe (the kind who were staked in their coffins by fearful villagers) to vampire varieties in Africa and South America. Those vampires had different characteristics and went by many different names.

These typically emerge from specific regions and locations (the likichiri in Bolivia, for example, is not the strigoi in Romania, and so on). They’re all subtypes of vampires, but they are separate and distinct; they are not the same thing, and we confuse them (or lump them together) at our peril. Thus we can accurately say that the chupacabra did indeed suddenly emerge in Puerto Rico in 1995; or, if you prefer a more technically accurate version, that “a type of vampire called the chupacabra, with several distinct characteristics associated with it, both at the time and later” was first reported in 1995.

Were there earlier (pre-1995) reports of vampires, both in Puerto Rico and around the world? Of course there were; everyone knows this. It’s not accurate to assert that because a vampire had been reported on the island before 1995, that the chupacabra, specifically, had been reported—or that they were (or must have been) the same thing. They were not.

The Vampire of Moca: Early Chupacabra?

Let us return to the example of the pre-chupacabra Puerto Rican vampire Redfern offers. The famous “vampire” cited as a predecessor to the chupacabra relates to attacks in the city of Moca in 1975 and references his time spent there with a TV crew. Redfern mentions a report of a woman clawed by “what she described as a fearful-looking beast covered in feathers,” and also “a huge, winged monster” that landed on a home’s roof. It’s all suitably dramatic, but a very different beast than the one that would be described and named some two decades later on the other side of the island—which was rarely, if ever, described as having a feather-covered body or wings (nor for that matter, was it “huge”). When I interviewed the original chupacabra eyewitness she described it as a small (three-foot) humanlike figure with long arms and legs and alienlike, wraparound eyes and spikes down its back (see illustration below); later incarnations after 2000 were canid (such as coyotes and foxes).

Chupacabra illustration by Benjamin Radford

A huge, feathered “chupacabra” does not match descriptions from 1995 (with the exception of spine spikes with featherlike striations). Plus the earlier creature already had a name: El Vampiro de Moca, the Moca Vampire. 

I had also visited Moca during my research, in the interest of leaving no vampire story unturned. There’s simply no clear link between the Vampire of Moca and the chupacabra. Not only are the descriptions different, but the Moca incident was not the first example of “mysterious” predation in Puerto Rico. Furthermore, if the Moca Vampire and the chupacabra are the same animal, then it is hard to understand the creature’s two-decade fast between meals. It makes no sense that a “goatsucker” would kill a handful of animals with perhaps a gallon of blood between them in 1975 and then vanish for twenty years before suddenly reappearing and deciding to resume its quest for blood. (As I note in Tracking the Chupacabra, a nearly identical “chupacabra-like” incidents occurred a year earlier, in 1974 Nebraska and South Dakota. Eyewitnesses reported seeing “a monster-thing,” presumably having attacked cattle and drained their blood.) He’s incorrectly lumping the two phenomenon into one.

Claiming that the chupacabra existed before 1995 merely because there were earlier vampire reports is like saying that the Fouke Monster existed before the 1950s (when it was first reported)—or that the Honey Island Swamp monster existed before 1963 (when it was first sighted)—because Bigfoot reports (allegedly) date back a century or so earlier.

This is not a pedantic “debunker” argument, but instead a key lesson in cryptozoology. In their book The Field Guide to Bigfoot, Yeti, and Other Mystery Primates Worldwide, Loren Coleman and Patrick Huyghe lament a common mistake in cryptozoological research, a “lumping problem,” that is, that myriad sightings of different, distinct creatures are lumped together under more general names such as Bigfoot or Yeti. This, they write, is a problem because it “hides a larger truth, lumps considerable differences, and just plain confuses the picture.” Lumping the chupacabra with the Moca Vampire is precisely the fundamental error Coleman and Huyghe describe.

As a comparison, Bigfoot (generically, as an unknown, hairy, bipedal hominid) reports existed before the Bigfoot-like Honey Island Swamp Monster was first reported in 1963, but that doesn’t logically mean that Honey Island Swamp Monster was described (or existed as its own entity) before 1963. The Fouke Monster can fairly be said to have first appeared in the 1950s; Mothman can fairly be said to have first appeared in 1966, and so on. For the same reason, the chupacabra can fairly be said to have first appeared in 1995. It’s not complicated.

So when I (and the internet, when it quotes me) say that the chupacabra first appeared in 1995, that is completely accurate: The chupacabra—as a specific variety of vampire unique to Puerto Rico—was first seen, named, and described in 1995. Not 1994, not 1985, not 1870. The true story of the chupacabra story is fascinating enough—involving conspiracy theories, vampires, creationists, and science fiction thrillers—without adding on myths and misinformation.

Jul 252019
 
Speaking at the Center for Inquiry, Buffalo New York.

Corporate America is ripe for scams, half-baked twaddle masquerading as insightful business advice, and dressed-up children’s books about misplaced cheese. One needs only to peruse the Business section of a local bookstore to see the never-ending parade of schemes. It’s the economic version of the Self-Help section, and there’s no shortage of self-promoting business “mavericks” hawking their unique method to improve profits and climb the corporate ladder to success. Not all of them are scams, of course, but a healthy skepticism is especially important in the business world. (For an interesting look at business fads, see Joel Best’s book Flavor of the Month: Why Smart People Fall for Fads.) 

Enter Personalysis, which “since 1975 has worked with progressive, leading, and emerging companies to develop leadership capacity, improve communication, and high performance teams” using “a powerful personality-profiling instrument that accurately captures and graphically illustrates the human assets of an organization. Personalysis takes the guesswork out of understanding people and why they do what they do. Using the data provided by our technology, people have a road map to accelerate teamwork.” 

All that sounds great (if a bit vague), but is there any substance behind the buzzwords and corporatespeak? There are a few impressed clients; the program is endorsed by Steven Sample, President of the University of Southern California: “Personalysis is a valuable tool that we have used in a variety of situations here at the University of Southern California. In 2000 we used Personalysis to help our five senior vice presidents and me better understand each other and form a more effective administrative team.” 

According to information provided by the Personalysis Corporation, the company was founded in 1975 by James R. Noland, who has “graduate degrees from Yale University and New York University [and] also worked with the New York Institute for Psychological Research.” He developed the program based largely on ideas of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Abraham Maslow. From questionnaire responses, the program gives advice on communication, cooperation, expectations, and other measures important to the business world. One distinctive feature of the Personalysis report is the Colorgraph, a visual representation of personality traits that somewhat resembles the artwork of Piet Mondrian (see Figure 1). 

A close review of Mr. Vande Voorde’s” Personalysis Summary” reveals information that seems very much like astrology, depending on the “Barnum Effect” (using generalizations that seem specific but apply to everyone) to provide the illusion of personal validity. It includes such comments as, “You need freedom to explore ideas and act,” and “You are frustrated when having to deal with repetitious details or needless bureaucracy.” This is of course in stark contrast to the rest of us, who don’t need freedom to explore ideas, and who enjoy dealing with needless bureaucracy. 

Though the Personalysis literature is heavy on testimonials, it is light on studies supporting its efficacy. The only published review  I could find of Personalysis (Gebart-Eaglemont andLeung, 1995)is quite scathing, noting “there is no clear evidence that test items were generated in a systematic manner…test reports provide test takers with very specific comments about who they are, [yet] the empirical foundation of these specific comments is quite weak. There is no information on how items were developed, and how these items were written to reflect theoretical constructs upon which the test was anchored. Also, there is no information on whether a scientific process was involved in selecting test items, [and] no information given on the characteristics of norms. The technical manual was not comprehensive and informative… the sections on reliability and validity were not written in a clear and concise manner.” 

In other words, it’s not clear how Mr. Noland developed his “scientific management tool that provides a unique assessment” of one’s personality. It may have been created using cutting-edge behavioral science research. Or Noland may have just dreamed it up over a bottle of wine. Either way, it’s a money-maker. The Basic Personalysis workshop costs $6,000, and Advanced training is available for $3,000. For $400 per hour, you can consult with a Personalysis consultant via Web-based videoconferencing. 

The basis for Mr. Noland’s expertise is unclear. Curiously, the “New York Institute for Psychological Research” where Noland claimed to have worked doesn’t seem to exist, and when I contacted the Personalysis Corporation inquiring about Mr. Noland, no one there could provide any further information on his academic background, including the years he allegedly graduated from Yale and NYU. Noland has long since retired and is no longer with the company. A search of the medical literature turned up nothing published by Noland since the 1960s, and little or nothing on the topic of behavioral science, despite the fact that Noland is cited as a “behavioral scientist.” 

As for the signature Colorgraph that is supposedly a visual representation of personality, the reviewers noted, “It is not clear why colors, instead of descriptors that might convey meanings, are used to denote personality traits.” The four-colored diagram seems more of a creative gimmick than anything based in science (“Look, that green rectangle represents my motivation to control things!”). 

The review concludes, “From a scientific perspective, Personalysis is not developed through a vigorous and systematic research process. As this point, there is not sufficient empirical evidence to support the reliability and validity of Personalysis. Test takers should use it cautiously and with reservations.” 

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 162019
 

The new episode of Squaring the Strange is about organ theft urban legends, a favorite subject of mine.

Richard Saunders of The Skeptic Zone joins us to discuss organ theft tales! The notion of waking up one day without a few organs, the biological equivalent of being pick-pocketed, has been a pernicious and persistent rumor. In the 1990s, the idea of waking up in a bathtub full of ice with an ominous note did not seem so far-fetched, and notions of rich Westerners kidnapping children from developing countries to harvest them for spare parts fuels fear and hatred to this day. Ben brings his folklore knowledge to the topic and we discuss some pop culture and news stories that have to do with organ theft. We also look at some biological and medical limitations and examine how these theft legends differ from actual organ trafficking, which is a whole different can of kidneys.

You can listen to it HERE!

Jul 142019
 

In 2011 I had just written an article for Discovery News about a bogus psychic in Long Island when a young woman named Holly Bobo went missing in Tennessee. Her abduction made national news, and I decided to monitor psychic predictions and information about her disappearance in real time (instead of the more-common after-the-fact analysis). It was revealing research that provided fodder for another article–and prompted a legal threat from a psychic! You can hear the whole story exclusively on this episode of Squaring the Strange, out now at the link HERE!

Jul 102019
 

Soon after a university cheating scandal recently broke, a meme declared that “White privilege is REAL,” and gave three examples presumably illustrating that premise. The first shows a photo of actress Felicity Huffman and states that “Feds will seek 4 months jail time for Felicity Huffman for bribing her daughter into college.” This is contrasted with two photos of African-American women, captioned with “Tanya McDowell got 12 years for sending her son to the wrong school district,” and “Kelley Williams-Bolar got 3 years and $30K fine for sending her daughters to the wrong district.”

It seems to be a sobering and damning indictment of racism in the criminal justice system (leaving aside—as this meme does—the significant differences in the crimes the women are charged with, the laws and sentencing that vary by state, and so on). But is it true? To assess the accuracy of the claims, let’s take a closer look at the cases mentioned.

Kelley Williams-Bolar

In 2007 Ohio mother Kelley Williams-Bolar wanted her daughters to enroll in the nearby Copley-Fairlawn School District. The problem was that they lived in Akron, and her children were not eligible to attend school in Copley-Fairlawn. Still, the promise of a highly-ranked school district was strong, so she falsified her address on school documents so they could be enrolled.

When school officials confronted her about the discrepancy, she asked her father, who did live within the Copley-Fairlawn district, to file additional documents stating that her children lived with him. Because school districts are funded with money paid by taxpayers within each district for residents of that district, Williams-Bolar was accused of fraud and cheating the system—an accusation she did not deny.

When caught, school officials asked her to repay the district $30,000, the value of the back tuition that her daughters had unfairly received over the years. She refused, resulting in her arrest and two convictions for records tampering. Williams-Bolar did not “get three years and a $30,000 fine” for her actions; she was sentenced to ten days in county jail, and served nine of them.

Whatever one may think of Williams-Bolar’s motivations, it’s not clear why this would be an example to contrast with “white privilege.” Given the very real and rampant racism that exists against people of color, singling this case out as a textbook example of a black woman abused by the system is curious. This is not a case where the full force of the law came down on a hapless black woman who’d committed a minor infraction.

Local authorities gave her every opportunity to avoid trouble, and in fact Ohio governor John Kasich reduced her convictions from felonies to misdemeanors specifically so that they would not jeopardize her chances of getting a teaching license—something rarely done for anyone, black or white. When asked whether she felt that she’d been treated differently by the school district or police because of her race, Williams-Bolar replied, “I cannot answer that. I just know that my situation happened for what I did…. I don’t think it happened because of the color of my skin.”

Tanya McDowell

Tanya McDowell, a 34-year-old Bridgeport, Connecticut woman, chose to send her five year old son to Brookside Elementary School despite the fact that he was ineligible to attend. McDowell was in fact sentenced to prison—but not specifically for sending her kid to the wrong school. She was charged with first-degree larceny and several counts of selling crack cocaine and marijuana. As the judge in her case noted, “This case is about the convictions for the sale of narcotics to an undercover police officer. I think you understand that because that is really the essence of what has gotten you into the predicament you find yourself today.” Thus McDowell did not in fact “get 12 years for sending her son to the wrong school district.”

McDowell faced more than 15 years in prison if convicted on all counts. She was sentenced to twelve years on drug and larceny charges, which was suspended after she served five of them. She eventually served a total of three years after being released in 2017, two years early. The sentence was not imposed upon her by a judge or jury, but was instead the result of plea deal she and her lawyer agreed to.

As with Williams-Bolar, it’s hard to see McDowell’s case as an example of excessive and harsh penalties being levied on black women by a white-biased justice system whose only crime is wanting their children to get a good education. In both of these cases those in power demonstrated sympathy and compassion, and the women didn’t serve anywhere near what was claimed. One can argue that the sentences were too harsh to begin with, but Williams-Bolar serving nine days (instead of three years) and McDowell serving three years (of a twelve year sentence for charges including drug dealing)—don’t seem to clearly demonstrate black women being harshly penalized at every turn, nor ones that starkly contrast with Felicity Huffman’s white privilege.

As of today Huffman has not been sentenced, but if she is indeed given four months of jail time (as the prosecutors recommended) then Huffman’s sentence would actually be twelve times longer than that of Williams-Bolar. Huffman’s wealthy white privilege is certainly real, but in this case it didn’t seem to have helped reduce her sentence as compared to the poorer African-American women listed. Also, it’s important to note the Huffman, like McDowell, negotiated and accepted her sentence in a plea deal, and thus would get a lighter sentence than Williams-Bolar—or one of Huffman’s wealthy white female peers who may yet be found guilty in a criminal trial, such as actress Lori Loughlin. As noted, it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison to begin with; it would be more informative to see a black woman in Huffman’s situation or a white woman in Williams-Bolar’s.

Mistake or Misinformation?

The fact that a widely-shared meme has factual errors is of course hardly surprising. Memes—especially ones with a political or social justice agenda—are often shared precisely because they generate outrage. The question is not whether white privilege is real; the question is whether the two specific examples given in this meme are valid examples by which to measure white privilege.

But even that is a red herring. Once we’ve established that the meme is false, a more interesting and important question becomes who created it in the first place, and why. After all, the false information contained in the meme was not merely a typographical error or a mistake in a date. Accurate information about both the cases of Williams-Bolar and McDowell are easy to find online; in order to get the correct spellings of the womens’ names, their photos, number and gender of children, the specific sentences and so on, it’s virtually certain that whoever created the meme saw the accurate information but intentionally chose to mischaracterize it, in not one but both cases. This wasn’t a mistake, this was intentionally misleading information spread for a political purpose; in other words it’s propaganda.

The meme (at least in the versions I saw) was uncredited, as many memes are. It’s created to be indistinguishable from any number of similar social justice memes. (This could be avoided if social media platforms required that memes be identified, either in the image itself or via metadata, by who created them. People could still create anonymous memes, of course, but they could be prevented from being seen or shared.)

Of course few people bother to fact-check the information they see. That (often thankless) task is left to journalists, media literacy educators—and sometimes skeptics. As they say, a lie can go around the world while the truth is still putting its shoes on, and nowhere is that truer than on social media. Clicking a Like or Share can take less than one second; researching and fact-checking can take hours. This is why critical thinking and media literacy are so important; they help us recognize when we are being manipulated and tricked into spreading misinformation.

One prime suspect in this case, in my opinion, is the Kremlin. It may be part of a widespread and sustained misinformation campaign to sow racial division and discord among Americans. This campaign is has been widely reported, and in 2017 I investigated a case where Russian disinformation campaigns and trolls specifically used racially charged news stories as a pretext to share misinformation and conspiracy theories (see my Special Report ‘How Russian Conspiracies Taint Social Activist ‘News’’).

Russia has been subtly manipulating well-intentioned social activists to share their viral outrage and anti-U.S. propaganda, and their attempts have become even more obvious recently. In fact such disinformation likely helped elect Trump: Part of Putin’s goal was to sow distrust of the Obama administration and outrage people into demanding a change in leadership. That Russia attempted, with varying degrees of success, to influence the presidential election in favor of Donald Trump is beyond dispute and widely accepted by the American intelligence community.

It is of course difficult for people to accept that they have embraced (and perpetuated) misinformation and manipulation—Mark Twain is said to have observed that “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled”—and that’s especially true for social justice activists sincerely trying to do good in the world by highlighting social, economic, and racial inequities. That’s one reason that Russian propaganda is so effective and insidious; it fits right in.

Some may try to justify sharing bogus information by saying that even though in this particular case the facts were wrong, it still symbolizes a very real problem and was therefore worthy of sharing if it raised awareness of the issue. This is an ends-justifies-the-means tactic often employed by those caught reporting a false story. The Trump administration adopted this position earlier in November 2017 when the President promoted discredited anti-Muslim videos via social media; his spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders acknowledged that at least some of the hateful videos Trump shared were bogus and represented events that did not happen as portrayed, but she insisted that their truth or falsity was irrelevant because they supported a “larger truth”—that Islam is a threat to the country’s security: “I’m not talking about the nature of the video,” she told reporters. “I think you’re focusing on the wrong thing. The threat is real, and that’s what the President is talking about.” Of course white privilege is real, but misinformation is misinformation regardless of who shares it, or why. There are enough real examples that people don’t need to fabricate them by comparing Huffman, Williams-Bolar and McDowell.

Otherwise socially literate and ‘woke’ people give more thought to where their clothes are made and their coffee is sourced than to where the information they believe and share on social media comes from. Putin has many puppets, and only the highest-profile one inhabits the White House. The vast majority of the Russian disinformation army are Americans who eagerly share misleading and divisive misinformation in the guise of good.

You can see the original article HERE.

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

Jul 072019
 

For those who didn’t see it, special guest SciBabe recently joined us to examine Multi Level Marketing (MLM) and pyramid schemes on the new episode of Squaring the Strange. MLM crap annoys us so Celestia spent plenty of time bleeping out choice curse words!

Ben and Celestia are joined by the SciBabe, Yvette d’Entremont, to discuss the scourge of MLMs (Multilevel Marketing) companies. These organizations, some of the bordering on pyramid schemes, have a long and storied history in America. Many target women, often seeming like a good option to stay-at-home mothers eager for income and independence. But the math doesn’t tell such an optimistic story, nor does the trail of shamed failed distributors, online rants, and FTC prosecutions. You can hear this delicious and informative, ear candy HERE!

Jul 012019
 

Breathless headlines last month referred to the “FBI Investigating Bigfoot,” a clickbaity phrase if ever social media saw one, along with the promise that newly-declassified FBI files shed light on the mystery.

As intriguing and sensational as it sounds, it turns out to be much ado about nothing. I’ll summarize the story, but there’s not much to tell.

In 1976 prominent Bigfoot researcher Peter Byrne, director of the Bigfoot Information Center and Exhibition, wrote to the FBI asking if they would agree to analyze some material—specifically fifteen hairs of unknown origin, along with a bit of skin.

This got a December 15, 1976 response back from Jay Cochran, Jr., Assistant Director of the FBI’s Scientific and Technical Services Division. He explained that the FBI typically only works on criminal cases, but that “Occasionally, on a case-by-case basis, in the interest of research and scientific inquiry, we make exceptions to this general policy. With this understanding, we will examine the hairs and tissue.” A follow up letter to Byrne’s colleague Howard Curtis (dated February 24, 1977) provided the results of the examination: “the hairs are of deer family origin.”

And… that’s about it.

The FBI did not “investigate Bigfoot.” It did not deem it credible or even worthy of investigation. It agreed to use its technical expertise to analyze some unknown hairs for a respected Bigfoot researcher, which turned out to be deer.

Which, by the way, is fine with me. Though I prefer that public funds not be spent on Bigfoot research (at least until such time as more compelling evidence emerges), I have no objection to an ad hoc scientific analysis of possible Bigfoot hairs by the FBI or any crime lab. After all, that’s the only way that the creatures—if they’re real—will ever be verified. I understand that the Bigfoot believer community is desperate for scientific legitimacy, and has been for decades, but this recently-released FBI correspondence won’t provide it.

Jun 292019
 

In 2011 I had just written an article for Discovery News about a bogus psychic in Long Island when a young woman named Holly Bobo went missing in Tennessee. Her abduction made national news, and I decided to monitor psychic predictions and information about her disappearance in real time (instead of the more-common after-the-fact analysis). It was revealing research that provided fodder for another article–and prompted a legal threat from a psychic!

You can hear the whole story exclusively on the Squaring the Strange, out now!

Jun 212019
 

Soon after a university cheating scandal recently broke, a meme declared that “White privilege is REAL,” and gave three examples presumably illustrating that premise. The first shows a photo of actress Felicity Huffman and states that “Feds will seek 4 months jail time for Felicity Huffman for bribing her daughter into college.” This is contrasted with two photos of African-American women, captioned with “Tanya McDowell got 12 years for sending her son to the wrong school district,” and “Kelley Williams-Bolar got 3 years and $30K fine for sending her daughters to the wrong district.”

It seems to be a sobering and damning indictment of racism in the criminal justice system (leaving aside—as this meme does—the significant differences in the crimes the women are charged with, the laws and sentencing that vary by state, and so on). But is it true? To assess the accuracy of the claims, let’s take a closer look at the cases mentioned.

Kelley Williams-Bolar

In 2007 Ohio mother Kelley Williams-Bolar wanted her daughters to enroll in the nearby Copley-Fairlawn School District. The problem was that they lived in Akron, and her children were not eligible to attend school in Copley-Fairlawn. Still, the promise of a highly-ranked school district was strong, so she falsified her address on school documents so they could be enrolled.

When school officials confronted her about the discrepancy, she asked her father, who did live within the Copley-Fairlawn district, to file additional documents stating that her children lived with him. Because school districts are funded with money paid by taxpayers within each district for residents of that district, Williams-Bolar was accused of fraud and cheating the system—an accusation she did not deny.

When caught, school officials asked her to repay the district $30,000, the value of the back tuition that her daughters had unfairly received over the years. She refused, resulting in her arrest and two convictions for records tampering. Williams-Bolar did not “get three years and a $30,000 fine” for her actions; she was sentenced to ten days in county jail, and served nine of them.

Whatever one may think of Williams-Bolar’s motivations, it’s not clear why this would be an example to contrast with “white privilege.” Given the very real and rampant racism that exists against people of color, singling this case out as a textbook example of a black woman abused by the system is curious. This is not a case where the full force of the law came down on a hapless black woman who’d committed a minor infraction.

Local authorities gave her every opportunity to avoid trouble, and in fact Ohio governor John Kasich reduced her convictions from felonies to misdemeanors specifically so that they would not jeopardize her chances of getting a teaching license—something rarely done for anyone, black or white. When asked whether she felt that she’d been treated differently by the school district or police because of her race, Williams-Bolar replied, “I cannot answer that. I just know that my situation happened for what I did…. I don’t think it happened because of the color of my skin.”

Tanya McDowell

Tanya McDowell, a 34-year-old Bridgeport, Connecticut woman, chose to send her five year old son to Brookside Elementary School despite the fact that he was ineligible to attend. McDowell was in fact sentenced to prison—but not specifically for sending her kid to the wrong school. She was charged with first-degree larceny and several counts of selling crack cocaine and marijuana. As the judge in her case noted, “This case is about the convictions for the sale of narcotics to an undercover police officer. I think you understand that because that is really the essence of what has gotten you into the predicament you find yourself today.” Thus McDowell did not in fact “get 12 years for sending her son to the wrong school district.”

McDowell faced more than 15 years in prison if convicted on all counts. She was sentenced to twelve years on drug and larceny charges, which was suspended after she served five of them. She eventually served a total of three years after being released in 2017, two years early. The sentence was not imposed upon her by a judge or jury, but was instead the result of plea deal she and her lawyer agreed to.

As with Williams-Bolar, it’s hard to see McDowell’s case as an example of excessive and harsh penalties being levied on black women by a white-biased justice system whose only crime is wanting their children to get a good education. In both of these cases those in power demonstrated sympathy and compassion, and the women didn’t serve anywhere near what was claimed. One can argue that the sentences were too harsh to begin with, but Williams-Bolar serving nine days (instead of three years) and McDowell serving three years (of a twelve year sentence for charges including drug dealing)—don’t seem to clearly demonstrate black women being harshly penalized at every turn, nor ones that starkly contrast with Felicity Huffman’s white privilege.

As of today Huffman has not been sentenced, but if she is indeed given four months of jail time (as the prosecutors recommended) then Huffman’s sentence would actually be twelve times longer than that of Williams-Bolar. Huffman’s wealthy white privilege is certainly real, but in this case it didn’t seem to have helped reduce her sentence as compared to the poorer African-American women listed. Also, it’s important to note the Huffman, like McDowell, negotiated and accepted her sentence in a plea deal, and thus would get a lighter sentence than Williams-Bolar—or one of Huffman’s wealthy white female peers who may yet be found guilty in a criminal trial, such as actress Lori Loughlin. As noted, it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison to begin with; it would be more informative to see a black woman in Huffman’s situation or a white woman in Williams-Bolar’s.

Mistake or Misinformation?

The fact that a widely-shared meme has factual errors is of course hardly surprising. Memes—especially ones with a political or social justice agenda—are often shared precisely because they generate outrage. The question is not whether white privilege is real; the question is whether the two specific examples given in this meme are valid examples by which to measure white privilege.

But even that is a red herring. Once we’ve established that the meme is false, a more interesting and important question becomes who created it in the first place, and why. After all, the false information contained in the meme was not merely a typographical error or a mistake in a date. Accurate information about both the cases of Williams-Bolar and McDowell are easy to find online; in order to get the correct spellings of the womens’ names, their photos, number and gender of children, the specific sentences and so on, it’s virtually certain that whoever created the meme saw the accurate information but intentionally chose to mischaracterize it, in not one but both cases. This wasn’t a mistake, this was intentionally misleading information spread for a political purpose; in other words it’s propaganda.

The meme (at least in the versions I saw) was uncredited, as many memes are. It’s created to be indistinguishable from any number of similar social justice memes. (This could be avoided if social media platforms required that memes be identified, either in the image itself or via metadata, by who created them. People could still create anonymous memes, of course, but they could be prevented from being seen or shared.)

Of course few people bother to fact-check the information they see. That (often thankless) task is left to journalists, media literacy educators—and sometimes skeptics. As they say, a lie can go around the world while the truth is still putting its shoes on, and nowhere is that truer than on social media. Clicking a Like or Share can take less than one second; researching and fact-checking can take hours. This is why critical thinking and media literacy are so important; they help us recognize when we are being manipulated and tricked into spreading misinformation.

One prime suspect in this case, in my opinion, is the Kremlin. It may be part of a widespread and sustained misinformation campaign to sow racial division and discord among Americans. This campaign is has been widely reported, and in 2017 I investigated a case where Russian disinformation campaigns and trolls specifically used racially charged news stories as a pretext to share misinformation and conspiracy theories (see my Special Report ‘How Russian Conspiracies Taint Social Activist ‘News’’).

Russia has been subtly manipulating well-intentioned social activists to share their viral outrage and anti-U.S. propaganda, and their attempts have become even more obvious recently. In fact such disinformation likely helped elect Trump: Part of Putin’s goal was to sow distrust of the Obama administration and outrage people into demanding a change in leadership. That Russia attempted, with varying degrees of success, to influence the presidential election in favor of Donald Trump is beyond dispute and widely accepted by the American intelligence community.

It is of course difficult for people to accept that they have embraced (and perpetuated) misinformation and manipulation—Mark Twain is said to have observed that “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled”—and that’s especially true for social justice activists sincerely trying to do good in the world by highlighting social, economic, and racial inequities. That’s one reason that Russian propaganda is so effective and insidious; it fits right in.

Some may try to justify sharing bogus information by saying that even though in this particular case the facts were wrong, it still symbolizes a very real problem and was therefore worthy of sharing if it raised awareness of the issue. This is an ends-justifies-the-means tactic often employed by those caught reporting a false story. The Trump administration adopted this position earlier in November 2017 when the President promoted discredited anti-Muslim videos via social media; his spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders acknowledged that at least some of the hateful videos Trump shared were bogus and represented events that did not happen as portrayed, but she insisted that their truth or falsity was irrelevant because they supported a “larger truth”—that Islam is a threat to the country’s security: “I’m not talking about the nature of the video,” she told reporters. “I think you’re focusing on the wrong thing. The threat is real, and that’s what the President is talking about.” Of course white privilege is real, but misinformation is misinformation regardless of who shares it, or why. There are enough real examples that people don’t need to fabricate them by comparing Huffman, Williams-Bolar and McDowell.

Otherwise socially literate and ‘woke’ people give more thought to where their clothes are made and their coffee is sourced than to where the information they believe and share on social media comes from. Putin has many puppets, and only the highest-profile one inhabits the White House. The vast majority of the Russian disinformation army are Americans who eagerly share misleading and divisive misinformation in the guise of good.

Jun 152019
 

I was recently in Puerto Rico shooting an episode of “Expedition Unknown.”

I can’t give many details before the show airs, but here’s a photo of me with host Josh Gates interviewing an eyewitness to something weird….

Jun 092019
 

New episode of Squaring the Strange is out, thanks to Pascual and Celestia, I just bring the doughnuts. Enjoy this longer-than-usual episode with four thrilling topics! Is 5G more dangerous than Flavor Flav? Should we breed shark-cats to protect us from cancer AND bad juju? What’s the worst possible way to design a study testing ghost EVPs? And should we trust weather reports from 1917?

You can hear the show HERE!

Apr 192019
 

This week we take a quick look at the Momo challenge’s resurgence and surprisingly mainstream fall; then for our main segment we dive back into the strange, sketchy world of Ed & Lorraine Warren. These opportunistic and not-exactly-truthful storytellers are a big reason the modern horror genre looks the way it does. Erik Kristopher Myers joins us once more to go through some of their biggest “cases”: The Demon Murder Case, Amityville, and the hauntings behind the more recent Conjuring movies.

We look at what writers and other investigators who have worked with the Warrens had to say, and we examine the fallout that real-life people end up having to deal with as a result of the sensationalized tales of hauntings.

You can listen to the whole delightful episode HERE!

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!