I’m quoted in a new article by Russ Dobler on techniques that can fool people into thinking you’re psychic (by way of the upcoming Spider-Man movie!) for his Adventures in Poor Taste website… Check it out HERE!
New episode of Squaring the Strange is out! Folklorist Daisy Ahlstone shares some facts, folklore, and even furry art celebrating the thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian tiger, which was declared extinct in the 20th century. Ahlstone talks about the extreme commodification of the species, from hunting bounties to gaffed specimens to logos and travel packages luring tourists to Tasmania. Along the way we learn about endlings, necrofauna, and what genetic projects might produce someday. You can listen HERE!
For those who missed our Grand Opening of the Online Friggatriskaidekaphobia (fear of Friday the 13th) Treatment Center, it’s not too late to join the fun!
We had song, dance, puns, and a short talk by me about the psychology of superstitions, and you can watch it HERE!
I’m quoted in a Global News Canada article on the search for Sasquatch, talking about why the evidence for Bigfoot keeps falling short. Check it out HERE!
Also, please subscribe to my podcast!
From a library press release: “Benjamin Radford and Joe Nickell are considered to be among the top lake monster authorities in the world. They discuss the different types of lake monster sightings, delve into explanations for those sightings, and examine hoaxes, evidence claims, and legends surrounding the monsters. They have also conducted groundbreaking fieldwork and experiments…”
Technically true, but to be fair there are about ten times as many astronauts as “lake monster authorities.” But, hey, I’ll take it!
I was recently a guest on the Squatch Talk show, talking about Bigfoot sightings, evidence, skepticism, and much more. It was a fun conversation, and since the host’s internet went out, we will be doing a Part 2! Check it out HERE!
Also we briefly talked about my chupacabra book:
New episode of Squaring the Strange is out! We discuss the recent Snopes plagiarism revelations and put it into context, and then look at sound therapy and vibrational healing. If you’re not quite sure what “Vibrational Medicine” is, join the club! You can listen HERE!
Did you hear our recent episode of Squaring the Strange? We talk a bit on the resurgence of dowsing and announce some upcoming appearances… then we sit down with guest Prof. Brian Regal, who takes us on a tour of pseudoscience and pseudohistory. Learn how confirmation bias leads to weaponizing fringe theories in order to rewrite history (and change the color of major players). Check it out HERE!
Times of social stress, hardship, and uncertainty spur interest in all kinds of divination and prophecy. The public goes to see psychics and fortunetellers more often in times of economic depression than prosperity, times of loss rather than love. It’s human nature, and magical thinking in its various forms—including superstition and conspiracies—helps people cope with daily stresses. People want to be reassured that good things are just around the corner, that fortunes will improve and whirlwind romances with proverbial tall handsome strangers are in the cards. People want an edge against random chance.
This was true during the pandemic, but there are other stresses—environmental ones such as climate change, widespread fires, and an enduring drought that’s kept much of the Southwestern United States parched for years. It’s no surprise that people are getting more desperate to find water.
The New York Times recently reported a jump in interest in, and hiring of, dowsers (or “water witches”), such as Rob Thompson, who “claims that he can locate streams of water in the fractures in the earth’s bedrock, using two L-shaped rods that together resemble an old-fashioned television antenna. Amid California’s extreme drought, just a two-hour drive north of the nation’s technology capital of Silicon Valley, the water-seeking services of a man relying on two three-foot rods and a hunch are in demand. ‘This is my busiest I think I’ve ever been in my life,’ said Mr. Thompson, a third-generation water hunter with silvering hair and the lumbering gait of a bear… His busy schedule is a sign of the desperation of ranchers, vineyard owners and land managers as California reels from a crippling drought that has depleted aquifers, shrunken crops and forced some farmers to sell off their water rights.”
If you’ve ever heard the phrase “They wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work,” dowsing is a perfect rebuttal. People through the centuries have revered and perpetuated practices despite the fact that they simply do not work. Dowsing is a textbook example of this. Part of the reason for dowsing’s longevity is its versatility in the paranormal world. If we conceive of the paranormal as a tasty (but ultimately nourishment-free) meal, dowsing is a sort of all-purpose side dish. It can stand alone as a New Age endeavor when searching for water or missing jewelry, or it goes equally well with a variety of pseudoscientific main dishes, including crop circles and fortune-telling. Dowsing is said to find anything and everything, including missing persons, buried pipes, oil deposits, and even archaeological ruins (see “Dowsing and Archaeology: Is There Something Underneath?,” in Skeptical Inquirer, March/April 1999).
I most often encounter dowsers during ghost investigations. Many amateur ghost hunters use dowsing rods to search for ghosts, believing that ghosts can be detected by (or communicate through) dowsing rods. In 2007, I demonstrated dowsing for the National Geographic Channel’s Is It Real? TV series on “Ghost Ships” in response to a woman who used dowsing rods on ghost hunts.
The dowsing with which most people are familiar is water dowsing (also known as water witching or rhabdomancy), in which a person holds a Y-shaped branch or two L-shaped wire rods and walks around until he or she feels a pull on the branch or the wire rods cross, which allegedly indicates that there is water below. Often a pendulum is used, sometimes held over a map.
According to proponents, dowsing has a robust history, and its success has been known for centuries. For example, in her book Divining the Future: Prognostication From Astrology to Zoomancy, Eva Shaw writes, “In 1556, De Re Metallica, a book on metallurgy and mining written by George [sic] Agricola, discussed dowsing as an acceptable method of locating rich mineral sources.” This widely cited reference is a rather transparent example of a logical fallacy called the appeal to tradition (“It must work because people have done it for centuries”).
However it seems that the dowsing advocates didn’t actually read the book because it says exactly the opposite: Instead of endorsing dowsing, Agricola states that those seeking minerals “should not make use of an enchanted twig, because if he is prudent and skilled in the natural signs, he understands that a forked stick is of no use to him.” So even 465 years ago, dowsing was recognized as worthless.
How Dowsing ‘Works’
If you assume that dowsing works—and that is of course a huge unproven assumption— how does it work? The proposed mechanisms are as varied as the dowsers themselves. One source states that “Dowsing is possible … through the strong psychic energy radiated by the object and picked up by the [dowser]”; another confidently states that “dowsing is not weird or spooky … it is as natural as memory. In fact, some scientists believe it may well be one of memory’s forms … a vestigial memory of a survival method of searching, using senses other than the five obvious ones.” The Amazing Randi in his Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, notes that dowsers often cannot agree on even the basics of their profession: “Some instructions tell learners never to try dowsing with rubber footwear, while others insist that it helps immeasurably. Some practitioners say that when rods cross, that specifically indicates water; others say that water makes the rods diverge to 180 degrees.”
I don’t believe dowsing per se is fraudulent—that is, for the most part it’s not a scam, hoax, or intentional deception. Instead it’s a form of self-deception that often convinces others. There’s no intent to deceive, it’s more of a mistake or misunderstanding. I’ve met many dowsers over the years and without exception they have been credible, down-to-earth people. They seem sincere because they are sincere: they really believe they have this power, and have convinced themselves over and over with their results. In this way they often convince other people—especially those who haven’t researched skeptical or science-based explanations. Sometimes the dowsing rods cross or the forked twig does seem to dip—but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s water below. The cause is what in psychology is known as the ideomotor effect: unconscious movements that make the dowser think that some other mysterious force is at play. If the dowsing devices were moving independently of the dowser then this should be easily demonstrated, but it doesn’t happen.
Dowsers have been subjected to many tests over the years and have performed no better than chance under controlled conditions. There are various ways to scientifically test dowsing abilities. I have done it several times myself, and read studies done by others. The easiest is to get 20 identical 5-gallon opaque plastic buckets and (with the dowser out of sight or at another location) place a sealed gallon jug of water under one of the buckets (being careful of course not to leave any traces that might reveal where it is). The buckets should be placed 2-3 meters apart (or at whatever interval the dowser claims they can discriminate water from non-water). Have the dowser come out to the field or lot and find the water. You can do a similar experiment hiding valuables on sandy beaches in grids as well. For more on this see CFI’s Jim Underdown of the Independent Investigations Group demonstrating dowsing testing for NBC News.
The problem is that dowsers fail to demonstrate their ability in scientifically controlled experiments and tests. It also depends on what you’re looking for and where. In fact it can be difficult to disprove a dowser’s claim for the same reason: if they claim water will be found in a spot at a certain depth, they can always insist that the water is there—just that they were a bit off on the depth: It’s 50 meters, not 20 meters like they thought. In order to prove or disprove that, of course, you’d need to dig another 30 meters (possibly a difficult and expensive proposition).
And if they find water, does that mean that dowsing works? Not necessarily. In most places on Earth there’s water somewhere below the surface—maybe a few inches, maybe a few meters or more. So any dowser who says “If you dig here you’ll find water” is statistically very likely to be correct—and would be just as correct if he or she chose a spot 10 meters away in any direction, or 10 miles away. There’s also the issue of what psychologists call “confirmation bias,” also known as “remembering the hits and forgetting the misses.” People generally tend to better remember their successes than their failures, or they rationalize away their failures (“I was having an off day,” or “The sun was too hot,” etc.). Unless dowsers keep careful track of all their claims—both correct and wrong— it can be easy to misremember their success rate.
Of course when dowsers are wrong they simply point out that no one is 100% accurate all the time—doctors, mechanics, scientists, and others make mistakes, and this is of course true. But the problem with that comparison is that doctors and mechanics can reliably prove their skills most of the time; this is not true with dowsers, and in fact there is no known scientific mechanism by which a forked branch, pendulum, or two L-shaped rods could possibly “detect” water. Keep in mind that dowsers claim to be able to find a great many “hidden” objects, including missing keys, water, oil, gold, and even ghosts! This raises the interesting question of how dowsers could know what the rods are reacting to: Is it a vein of gold 20 meters below the earth, a reservoir of water 100 meters below the earth, oil shale 200 meters down, or the dead spirit of someone who died at that spot in 1973? There’s no way to know. British Petroleum and other multinational oil companies spend billions of dollars trying to locate offshore oil fields through expensive, difficult, and time-consuming sampling, computer models, and so on.
In fact in September 2015 the Royal Dutch Shell Corporation abandoned its drilling in the Alaskan waters after spending $7 billion searching fruitlessly for oil. Why would they do that if all they need is to have a dowser on hand to point them directly where to drill? Any dowser who could reliably and successfully do what they claim could easily become a multi-millionaire consulting agent. Why doesn’t it happen?
There is no science behind dowsing, and though the main harm is wasted time and effort, it can also cost lives: in 2010, modified dowsing-rod devices claimed to detect bombs were sold by a man named James McCormick to the Iraqi military. As Slate noted, “McCormick’s company was selling these fraudulent magic wands at great expense to the Iraqi government, which spent $16,500 to $60,000 each for these things, devices which might as well have been crayon boxes full of rocks. They were useless. Or, as it turns out, far worse than useless. The Iraqis were using them at military checkpoints. On Oct. 25, 2009, terrorists carrying two tons of explosives got right past the magic bomb sniffer and detonated their cargo, killing 155 people. Two months later, it happened again, with 127 people killed. Not long after, McCormick was arrested under suspicion of fraud.” In April 2013 McCormick was convicted.
The consequences of water dowsing is less dire but no less real: wasted time and effort. Still, as long as there are desperate people who need increasingly scarce resources, water witches will not be far behind.
A longer version of this piece appeared on my CFI blog; you can read it here.
I’m interviewed by Canada’s Global News, talking about bringing science to ghost investigations… Check it out HERE!
Our recent episode of Squaring the Strange had as our guest historian Jay Smith, who joins us to talk about the murderous 18th century French monster known as the Beast of Gévaudan, thought by some to be a werewolf, a hyena, or perhaps even some Frankenstein-inspired hybrid! Dozens of peasants were left dead, while Paris and the rest of the world were enthralled by the story–but what was really behind it all? Check it out HERE!
The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! Pascual leads us on a fun discussion of MYSTERY MUSICIANS! Celestia starts with the OG mystery musician, a dude who was rumored to live under the Paris opera house, and we look at some folklore and urban legends that arise for artists who put on disguises. Check it out HERE!
Tuesday night the 15th at 5:30 MT / 7:30 ET, I will be giving a live Zoom talk for the Rio Rancho Public Library discussing my research into the famous Hispanic vampire el chupacabra and my book “Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore.” The talk is free but you need to register, so sign up if you’re interested! Register here:
The documentary The Woman Who Loves Giraffes tells the remarkable story of a remarkable Canadian woman named Anne Innis Dagg, who first became fascinated by giraffes as a young girl upon seeing them at the Chicago Zoo. Though virtually unknown—and certainly not as recognized as some of her female contemporaries including Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey—in the early 1950s Dagg was frustrated and surprised that there was very little written about the biology and behavior of giraffes. Only 23 at the time, in 1956 Dagg decided that she would have to do the research herself. She then traveled to South Africa to study giraffes in the wild.
This would have been an impressive enough feat in its own right, but is even more remarkable when we consider the social and political climate of the time. In the 1950s young women simply didn’t do that; they were supposed to get married and raise children, not head off to Africa alone to study wild giraffes.
Dagg had applied to live and study at ranches near where giraffes roamed wild, and was roundly rejected—because, you know, it’s a dangerous area and no place for a woman! Nevertheless she persisted, and eventually a South African citrus farmer named Alexander Matthew reluctantly agreed to house her. She then spent months in the field taking extensive notes about all aspects of giraffe behavior. Her research led to writing the definitive textbook about giraffes—one that is still used and taught to this day. (She and Matthew became and remained lifelong friends.)
But The Woman Who Loves Giraffes isn’t just aboutgiraffes. Dagg’s story is also told through the prism of sexism (and, to a lesser degree, racism, insofar as her research was done in Apartheid-era South Africa). Upon her return Dagg was denied tenure at the University of Guelph in 1972 despite her original research, impeccable credentials, and articles in peer-reviewed publications. One of her professors at the time is interviewed and claims—mostly unconvincingly—that there was in fact no Old Boys Club thwarting her career and that Dagg had merely given up seeking tenure too soon.
Sadly, the impediments soured Dagg on academia and she turned to other things, including raising children and writing books about sexism and feminism. (In 2019 the University of Guelph issued a formal apology to Dagg and established a research scholarship in her name to support undergraduate women studying zoology or biodiversity.)
Dagg had assumed she’d been long forgotten, but that wasn’t in fact true. With a few parallels to the documentary Searching for Sugar Man, unbeknownst to Dagg her seminal books on giraffes were still widely read and revered in the (admittedly niche) world of giraffe experts and zoologists. The last third of The Woman Who Loves Giraffes focuses onDagg’s unlikely return to both (some semblance of) recognition and the South African ranch where she did her pioneering research some half-century earlier. It’s a bittersweet return in part because the giraffe populations have since been decimated (she notes ruefully that during her years there it hadn’t occurred to her that giraffes might ever be endangered, because they were so plentiful and beautiful). The film points out that while other African animals such as gorillas, elephants, and rhinos (quite rightly) get attention and donations, giraffes for whatever reason don’t elicit quite the same sympathy from the public and wildlife organizations (the film suggests that donations can be made to her foundation).
Director Alison Reid masterfully combines archival footage and current interviews, and must have been delighted that Dagg had appeared on a 1965 episode of the game show To Tell the Truth, which opens the film. The Woman Who Loves Giraffes is a wonderful and inspiring story of a strong, fearless female scientist who led an astonishing life and contributed groundbreaking zoological research about these endangered animals. I’ll end with a photo of giraffes not far from where Dagg did her research; these are likely descended from the same animals that she studied a half-century ago.
I’m interviewed in a ‘Superstitious Times’ piece on the inability (or unwillingness) of investigators to call out fraud and hoaxing in their own fields: “What’s happened, Radford added, was the democratization of paranormal investigators, in particular those who pursue ghosts. “My genuine concern, whether they recognize it or not, is that the enormous amount of time and effort that is being wasted on not doing good work. My point has always been, just do good research; just improve the quality of work.”
Check it out HERE!
In a recent episode of Squaring the Strange we have everything: Lil Nas X’s Satanic Shoes, a sketchy alkaline water CEO, and geologist Sharon Hill educating us about spooky geology like bottomless pits, the mysterious “Mel’s Hole,” quicksand, and hollow earth theories! Check it out HERE!
My new blog examines some myths about, and ways to address, covid vaccine hesitancy. From concerns about efficacy to the “Dirty Dozen” social media anti-vaxxers, the first step is understanding the problem; the second step is knowing your audience.
As the second April opens under the pall of the pandemic, there are about 129 million cases of COVID-19 and nearly three million deaths. The good news is that vaccines are becoming more available, and nearly three million doses are being distributed each day. So far about 97 million Americans have been vaccinated (including me). Nevertheless, vaccine hesitancy remains. Reasons for this have been explored on this site and elsewhere, but it seemed a good time to take a closer look at what’s driving it.
Some people have been deterred by the varied levels of efficacy across the COVID-19 vaccines. Pfizer, for example, is 95 percent effective; Moderna is 94 percent; Oxford/AstraZeneca is 70 percent; J&J is 66 percent, and so on (keep in mind that the data are still being collected, so the rates may change over time). This has led to some thinking that one shot is “better” than another. While it’s obviously true that higher efficacy is better than lower efficacy, that doesn’t tell the full picture. Some vaccines require a second shot, while others need just one dose. If there’s some concern about the availability for the booster shot (the person needs to return three to four weeks later), then the one-shot vaccine may be better. Some vaccines need to be kept in very cold storage and for practical reasons may not be able to be administered in tropical regions, for example.
Some people seem reluctant to get the vaccine because they somehow think that anything less than 100 percent effectiveness is problematic. The SciBabe recently corrected this idea in a Facebook post:
Fully vaccinated people are going to get infected. That’s what anything less than 100% effective means. The ‘best’ of these are about 95% effective. Which means that, give or take, 1 in 20 may get a mild case if exposed. Note, 95% effective is on par with our most effective vaccines. The measles vaccine is 97% effective. The no-longer available Lyme disease vaccine was 80% effective (and don’t you wish that was still available?). Two doses of the chickenpox vaccine is 90% effective. A full course of the polio vaccine is about 99% effective. The pertussis vaccine is 98% effective after a full course of five doses, but only 73% effective after the first dose, and immunity can wane without boosters. So why don’t we see news stories all the time about fully vaccinated people getting those diseases? Is it because there’s something “better” or more trustworthy about those older vaccines? Is there something “they’re not telling us” about the covid vaccine? No.
Plus, of course, vaccine effectiveness rates are averages, and the real-world protection varies by individual. A person with an otherwise healthy immune system may only need a 75 percent effective vaccine, while someone who is immunocompromised may need a 95 percent effective vaccine. Complicating matters, you don’t know which variants you will be exposed to, and each vaccine conveys different protection against different strains. While there are some differences between the vaccines, the fine distinctions are moot. In the end, the consensus among experts is that anyone should get the first available vaccine. Trying to second-guess your exposure (or holding out for a more effective vaccine) just increases the risk of getting COVID-19—and potentially infecting others.
It’s tempting to respond to vaccine hesitancy with snide and snark, but for those hoping to change hearts and minds a more diplomatic approach is best. Sure, there are some people who are actively and knowingly sharing misinformation about vaccines (including, notably, Russian intelligence–led troll farms and the book-promoting viral video Plandemic, whose claims I and others have debunked). However, many people have genuine concerns, for whatever reason, and the issue is complicated by a plethora of COVID-19 pseudoauthorities.
The problem is not helped by a news and social media context that exaggerates dangers of vaccination. Memes and social media posts constantly highlight the rare, minor, and expected side effects of getting vaccinated, and false (and true-but-misleading) news stories about people who suffered because of the vaccines are shared. Any medical treatment or drug—from a tooth extraction to aspirin—can have potential side effects; that’s not a reason to fear or avoid it. As a National Public Radio report noted:
The odds of dying after getting a COVID-19 vaccine are virtually nonexistent. According to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you’re three times more likely to get struck by lightning. But you might not know that from looking at your social media feed. A new NPR analysis finds that articles connecting vaccines and death have been among the most highly engaged with content online this year, going viral in a way that could hinder people’s ability to judge the true risk in getting a shot. … To date, the CDC’s reporting system has not received evidence linking any deaths directly to vaccines. And yet, on almost half of all the days so far in 2021, a story about someone dying after receiving a vaccine shot has been among the most popular vaccine-related articles on social media.
With over half a billion vaccine doses given worldwide, by random chance alone some people will have had reactions, and some of those reactions will be severe (though expected in some small percentage of patients). Highlighting the real-but-rare problems with an otherwise overwhelmingly safe and effective treatment runs a real risk of doing more harm than good. The line between raising awareness and alarmism becomes blurred, especially when activists are involved.
People who are sincerely misinformed need to be provided accurate information to battle the rampant misinformation. Shaming people into getting vaccinated is less effective than promoting the personal, social, and economic benefits of widespread vaccinations. The carrot-and-stick approach has its uses but may backfire when people feel they are being forced into it (whether they in fact are or not). Nobody likes to be told what to do, and that’s especially true for people with an underlying distrust of authority, the government, and Big Pharma.
Another effective approach is to recognize the various demographics of vaccine hesitancy and identify the specific ones. For example, polls show that Republicans and Trump supporters are less likely to be vaccinated than others. By pointing out to them that 1) the vaccines were developed during the Trump administration; 2) Trump personally vouched for their safety and efficacy; and 3) Trump himself received a COVID-19 vaccine, that will lay bare some obvious contradictions and perhaps induce some cognitive dissonance. They may still refuse the vaccine, of course, but they will likely be forced (in their own minds and on social media as well) to recognize the disparity between their professed support for Trump and rejection of “his” vaccines.
The Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), a nonprofit NGO, recently released a report titled The Disinformation Dozen: Why Platforms Must Act on Twelve Leading Online Anti-Vaxxers. As the report notes:
The Disinformation Dozen are twelve anti-vaxxers who play leading roles in spreading digital misinformation about Covid vaccines. They were selected because they have large numbers of followers, produce high volumes of anti-vaccine content or have seen rapid growth of their social media accounts in the last two months.
In previous articles for the CFI Coronavirus Resource Center, I have written in some depth about at least two of the “Disinformation Dozen,” Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Kelly Brogan. The others are Joseph Mercola, Ty and Charlene Bollinger, Sherri Tenpenny, Rizza Islam, Rashid Buttar, Erin Elizabeth, Sayer Ji, Christiane Northrup, Ben Tapper, and Kevin Jenkins.
The CCDH analysis found that about three-quarters (up to 73 percent) of the anti-vaccine content posted to Facebook originates with members of the Disinformation Dozen, and they were responsible for 65 percent of the anti-vaccination material on Facebook and Twitter between February 1 and March 16, 2021. The report urges that social media companies take action:
Social media companies must now follow their repeated promises with concrete action. Updated policies and statements hold little value unless they are strongly and consistently enforced. With the vast majority of harmful content being spread by a select number of accounts, removing those few most dangerous individuals and groups can significantly reduce the amount of disinformation being spread across platforms. The public cannot make informed decisions about their health when they are constantly inundated by disinformation and false content. By removing the source of disinformation, social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter can enable individuals to make a truly informed choice about vaccines.
Polls reveal that there’s little difference in levels of vaccine hesitancy between Blacks and Whites. A recent PBS Newshour/Marist Poll found that “73% of Black people and 70% of White people said that they either planned to get a coronavirus vaccine or had done so already; 25% of Black respondents and 28% of white respondents said they did not plan to get a shot.”
Addressing concerns about vaccine hesitancy among African Americans in a New York Times opinion piece, pediatrician and public health advocate Dr. Rhea Boyd noted that despite the large impact on Black populations and low vaccination rates,
Many are quick to blame “vaccine hesitancy” as the reason, putting the onus on Black Americans to develop better attitudes around vaccination. But this hyper-focus on hesitancy implicitly blames Black communities for their undervaccination, and it obscures opportunities to address the primary barrier to Covid-19 vaccination: access. A closer look at the data reveals that when Black people are given the opportunity, they do get vaccinated.
I explored the intersection of racism and COVID-19 vaccination (or, more accurately, anti-vaccination) agendas in a previous article, “Where Racism, Anti-Vaccination, and COVID-19 Conspiracy Meet.” While it’s true that demonstrable historical mistreatment of minorities plays a role in distrust of medical authorities, Dr. Boyd notes:
Many Black Americans need not resurrect the ghosts of the Tuskegee experiment to recall a moment in which they’ve endured medical mistreatment. As KQED recently reported, researchers say Tuskegee rarely comes up when Black people share concerns about Covid-19 vaccines. Rather, issues like racism in health care and safety concerns are cited much more often.
Thus—at least in the case of COVID-19 vaccines—while latent distrust of doctors is a factor in the African American community, it should not be seen as the main driver of vaccine hesitancy. Public health interventions are best crafted by listening to the affected populations instead of making assumptions about them or speaking on their behalf—and that’s especially true for underrepresented minorities.
There are other media approaches that might help make a difference. From a public relations and messaging standpoint, one suggestion is that news and social media move away from illustrating COVID-19 vaccinations with images or video of people getting injections—not because it’s misleading or irrelevant but instead because it’s unnecessary and may unintentionally deter people. Most people don’t enjoy getting injections of any kind, and health or strong immunity would be a better image to pair with encouragement about getting vaccinated.
We are not out of the covid pandemic yet, and each person who refuses to get vaccinated, for whatever reason, puts us one step further away from ending this outbreak. Until we have reached herd immunity, the best advice is to get vaccinated and continue wearing masks and social distancing. Yeah, it sucks—but you know what sucks even more? Infecting others and dying from COVID-19—or surviving it with long-term health effects.
During the recent trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd, an interesting—and easily overlooked—aspect related to psychology and critical thinking arose.
As MSN reported, “Derek Chauvin defense attorney Eric Nelson on Wednesday suggested in court that George Floyd could be heard saying he ‘ate too many drugs’ in audio recorded during his arrest last year. Nelson made the claim while he was questioning Los Angeles Police Department Sgt. Jody Stiger, a use-of-force expert brought in by prosecution, during cross-examination. ‘I’d like you to see if you could tell me what Mr. Floyd says in this instance,’ Nelson said before playing a clip from body camera footage captured of Chauvin restraining Floyd during the May 2020 arrest that preceded his death. It is difficult to discern what is said in the clip. ‘Did you hear what he said?’ Nelson then asked Stiger. ‘No, I couldn’t make it out,’ Stiger responded. ‘Does it sound like he says, I ate too many drugs,’ Nelson asked before again playing the footage. ‘Listen again.’”
What did Floyd really say? It’s likely we will never know. But Nelson’s transparent efforts to prime the jury into hearing that phrase may have harmed the prosecution. That’s because of what in psychology is called an anchoring effect: we tend to more easily remember, and accept, the first explanation or information we hear. If there are two or more competing explanations for something, we tend to “lock on” to the first one and disregard others. That doesn’t mean that people can’t and don’t change their minds or update their information, of course—just that in general it’s easier to lodge the first idea in someone’s head than the second or third.
In the Chauvin trial, the damage was somewhat mitigated by other witnesses offering different—and in fact contradictory—interpretations of whatever Floyd said, including “I ain’t do no drugs.” The jury, hopefully recognizing that interpretation is highly subjective and easily manipulated, will be careful not to afford that issue too much weight in their deliberations. Whatever ambiguous comment George Floyd said—in his increasingly oxygen-deprived state under former officer Derek Chauvin’s weight and knee—is less relevant than the sea of other clear evidence about the case.
The question of interpretation of ambiguous stimuli is a core concern in many skeptical investigations, from EVP (alleged “ghost voices”) to UFOs (“What’s that odd light in the sky?”) to Bigfoot and ghost sightings and photos (“What’s that weird thing in the distance?”). I can’t count the number of times I’ve had someone present me with a photo, audio, or video recording and express exasperation and incredulity that I was not seeing what was plainly obvious to them.
I diplomatically explained that while their favored interpretation was possible, it was not the only—nor even the most likely—explanation. I try to explain the phenomenon of pareidolia, how people see faces in clouds and meaningful messages in ambiguous sounds. I discuss this at length in my books Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries and Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits, but it’s often useful to see how these principles apply in real-world situations where the consequences of misinterpretation (or over-interpretation) can be dire.
Ambiguous Audio in George Zimmerman Trial
There are many real-life cases in which the meaning and significance of words have been subjected to intense legal and forensic debate. In everyday life meanings in speech are not always clear. In February of 2012 a Florida neighborhood watchman named George Zimmerman shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin. During the trial Zimmerman claimed that Martin had attacked him and that he had shot the young man in self-defense; many, however, believed that the shooting was racially motivated. Those calling for civil rights and homicide charges against Zimmerman referred to a 911 recording of a call in which he muttered “these fucking coons.” Or did he?
Other news media and audio forensic experts heard a very different phrase: “these fucking punks.” Did Zimmerman say “punks” or “coons”? The phonetic sounds are quite different (“pǝNGks” versus “kōons”), and most people would have little difficulty telling the words apart. Different experts, however, came to different conclusions. The distinction is very important: one is a general derogatory label that could refer to anyone of any race, and the other is a racial slur referring specifically to black people. How that one word was interpreted could have been key in deciding Zimmerman’s future if presented as evidence to a jury or prosecuted under hate crime laws.
After several weeks and more careful audio analysis, the prosecution concluded that Zimmerman had not in fact uttered the racial epithet; he had in fact said “punks,” just as his defense attorneys had claimed. In explaining why different well-qualified experts had come to contradictory interpretations, Florida state attorney Harry Shorstein “said [prosecutor Angela Corey’s] team probably relied on audio enhancing from the FBI or the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Shorstein called such enhancing ‘an indefinite science.’”
Audio analysis is indeed an “indefinite science”—even for experts and professionals; unlike DNA testing, audio analysis has a large measure of subjective interpretation. The more important point is this: If experienced audio experts with the police department and the FBI could not agree on what Zimmerman said in a reasonably clear audio recording (far greater than most EVP), there is little reason to put much faith in the accuracy or validity of interpretations by amateur ghost hunters with no professional training or experience.
Cursing Elmos and Reverse Speech
We do not, of course, routinely misunderstand one another in everyday conversation but it happens more frequently than most people notice. Lecturer (and former educational programs consultant for the James Randi Educational Foundation) Barbara Drescher wrote an insightful piece on this for her site ICSBSEverywhere, using the then-recent controversy over a seemingly foul-mouthed Tickle Me Elmo as an example:
I just caught a report on our local Fox News station about a couple that appeared on Good Morning New York, complaining about Elmo’s potty mouth…Notice that the segment opens with a statement of FACT — the toy has a dirty message — rather than a question about whether this might be true. This is a perfect example of how human perception is influenced by knowledge. Perception driven by expectation and belief is called “top-down” processing, whereas perception that starts with information from the senses is considered “bottom-up.” Most of our daily perception is top-down in nature.
In many of my classes, I demonstrate this by playing music clips backwards. Some claim that these clips have “hidden messages.” Everyone from the Beatles to Queen to Eminem to Britney Spears has been accused of it. An entire website is devoted to the study of what David John Oates calls the greatest discovery of all time: Reverse Speech. He even sells training courses and other products (surprise, surprise). Oates claims that our unconscious is revealing itself through our speech and that these messages can be heard if we listen to recordings of this speech backwards. He spends countless hours listening to audio recordings of politicians, celebrities, and music — listening for anything that sounds like English and documenting it. Sometimes the audio must be slowed down before one can perceive the message.
It’s always important not to over-interpret evidence, of any kind. We all bring our personal experiences, expectations, and assumptions to bear on everything we experience and remember. It’s not inherently good nor bad—it’s just how the human brain works. But the first step to minimizing the problem is recognizing the psychological and social contexts, the prisms through which we interpret and understand the world. And the best way to do that, of course, is through skepticism and critical thinking.
New episode of Squaring the Strange is out! This week I look into a TikTok rumor of abductions at Target, and then we tackle the Beast! That is, the Mark of the Beast and the Number of the Beast. We talk of pimples and witch-prickers, the 1970s rise of 666 as a taboo number, and how many mundane things have been cast in the shadow of the Antichrist! Check it out HERE… IF YOU DARE!
I’ve been asked a few times if I’ve ever appeared on “Coast To Coast AM,” and always said no. So I was surprised to discover I had, back in 2018. I’d totally forgotten about it. I never talked to Art Bell but if I had I’d have reminded him about his role in the Heaven’s Gate suicide tragedy (and of course never been invited back, but oh well).
There’s a lovely review of my new book Big-If True: Adventures in Oddity at AIPTComics: “The perfect book for anyone that loves diving into mysteries or enjoys a good investigation. It’s a very quick read, easily broken up into chapters, or even chunks at a time. Radford writes plainly and clearly; there are a few large concepts, but nothing that really requires a lot of in-depth scientific knowledge. Radford does an excellent job at introducing topics readers may not have heard of before, with all topics and explanations accessible to all readers.”
Read it HERE!
A recent episode of Squaring the Strange is about CRANKS, and why they really grind our gears. Sit back for a little history of crankery, with emphasis on notable cranks from decades past–and even a few from right now! Check it out!
The delightful website Adventures in Poor Taste has a nice review of my new book Big–If True!
Check it out HERE!
For those who didn’t see it, in the recent episode of Squaring the Strange we talk with Bigfoot investigator Steve Kulls, who shares with us his tenets of research and then discusses his role in uncovering the Georgia Bigfoot body hoax of 2008–a tale involving a whole cast of characters involved in secrecy, corruption, and avoiding the FBI. Check it out HERE!
The new documentary Feels Good Man, directed by Arthur Jones, tells the strange story of how an otherwise obscure and innocuous frog cartoon character became a symbol of hate. The frog in question is named Pepe, created by an unassuming, otherwise unknown and (at times frustratingly) low-key San Francisco artist named Matt Furie.
What happened to Pepe is a deceptively complex question, and really understanding it requires some knowledge of media literacy, critical thinking, folklore, social media, memes, popular culture, and politics. Feels Good Man is about many things, and Jones sets the stage early in the film by introducing the audience to the concept of memes. The term, first coined by eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, refers basically to an idea or behavior that spreads between people within a culture. (Full disclosure: I know Richard, have met him several times, and we have both been guest speakers on the same conference program. Also, of course, he is a Board Member of the Center for Inquiry, publisher of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine.)
Dawkins does not appear in the film, but Dr. Susan Blackmore does. She is a psychologist and author of many excellent books, the most relevant of which here is The Meme Machine, which analyzes memes as the subject of study (memetics). In a TED talk and elsewhere, she has described and refined the idea of memes as ideas that replicate themselves from brain to brain, much like a virus, and often change in the process. (Full disclosure: I know Sue, have met her several times, and am a huge fan of her work on a wide variety of topics ranging from psi research to near-death experiences. And no, I don’t know anyone else in the film.) Some memes are images, and they’re very common on social media: The internet is full of them, ranging from adorable to wildly offensive: Captioned photos of Grumpy Cat. The Distracted Boyfriend photo. What The Most Interesting Man thinks. The anguished blonde yelling at a pissy white cat seated at a table in front of a plate of salad. Kermit the Frog sipping tea while dispensing some pithy wisdom. And so on.
Pepe was one such meme. As is always the potential fate of anything online, the image was soon adopted (or co-opted, depending on your point of view) by others. The film meticulously charts Pepe’s transition from slacker cartoon frog to hated white supremacist and right-wing icon. It didn’t happen overnight, and Feels Good Man documents the main turning points. In 2005, Furie drew a crude-but-cute frog for a comic series he created called Boy’s Club. It was about the wacky antics of four anthropomorphic animal roommates, several of whom are stoner-slackers, and one of whom was Pepe, a bug-eyed, heavy-lipped green frog.
In one panel of one of the cartoons Pepe looked sad, and, for whatever reason, that became a popular “sad frog” image on the notoriously toxic anonymous message site 4chan, typically populated by racists, sexists, misfits, and plenty of trolls. Trolls are people who, typically anonymously, delight in provoking arguments on the internet for their own amusement. “Nothing should be taken seriously” is the unofficial troll mantra. Trolls see themselves as taboo smashers whose real message is that the online world is populated with politically correct, easily offended ninnies who should lighten up.
In her book This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture, Prof. Whitney Phillips notes that “Trolls are keenly aware of how their behaviors impact others, and know exactly which issues will get the greatest rise from their chosen targets. From race to class to everything in between, trolls have their fingers on all kinds of powder kegs—all the better to troll you with” (p. 35); indeed, “trolling has a way of snapping its audience to attention, either by activating emotional investment or by forwarding a claim so outrageous that one cannot help but engage in a dialogue” (p. 159).
Trolling is inherently antagonistic arguing for the sake of arguing, pissing people off simply for the fun of it. The more vile, nasty, offensive, and outrageous the comment or image, the more successful the troll is by their standards. The troll is successful in part because his or her status is, at least initially, ambiguous. Do they genuinely endorse the venom they share, or is it all a joke? Just as Pepe is ambiguous—just a sad frog, after all—so is the message he carries.
Pepe’s forlorn expression resonated with legions of lonely, cynical, nihilistic, and disenfranchised slacker youth who felt alienated for whatever reason. This is nothing new, of course; a generation earlier, Beavis and Butthead had become a huge hit touching on similar themes, as did punk music a generation before that. There’s nothing new under the sun; most young people will at some point or other identify with the sneering rebel, the misunderstood outsider for whom adulthood and responsibility—not to mention civility—are unreasonably onerous demands. There’s a reason why the heroes of countless films are the nerds, punks, and outcasts while the jocks, beautiful people, and rich snobs are the Establishment enemy. In this context, it’s not surprising that Pepe became an underground icon among those who hated “the normies.” Most people who initially used and shared Pepe memes were drawn to its Rorschach-like appeal of expressing sadness or sorrow, but the many trolls among them saw the potential to push it a step further, placing Pepe in increasingly inflammatory contexts.
Soon part of the trolls’ mischievous mission was to make the Pepe image go mainstream, such as by tricking huge celebrities into sharing or referencing their images, symbols, or messaging. Several stars, including Katy Perry, shared Pepe images, surely unaware of his increasingly toxic and hostile connotations on the darker parts of the internet. In October 2015, then-candidate Donald Trump retweeted an image of him as Pepe—much to the delight of his young supporters, many of whom were very much aware that the image was associated with everything from Nazis to pedophiles. This part of the film offers an interesting, if not wholly convincing, argument that 4chan trolls played a significant role in electing Trump.
Pepe is only one of several similar troll memes that celebrities have unwittingly endorsed. In September 2008, for example, during an Oprah Winfrey Show about online predators, Winfrey referenced a troll meme named “9000 Penises,” allegedly written by someone online claiming to represent a group of 9,000 predators. One popular meme analysis website described the reaction: “Shortly after the episode’s airing, the ‘Over 9000 penises’ segment was quickly uploaded to YouTube, where it was identified by internet users as an obvious troll. Following much mockery, Harpo Productions, Oprah’s production company, had the video taken down and removed all references to the quote on Oprah.com.”
Ambiguity of these signs, symbols, and messages is part of their power. In 2018 during Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, rumors circulated that that a lawyer sitting behind Kavanaugh, Zina Bash, was caught on camera flashing a white nationalism sign with the fingers of one hand as her arms crossed. Memes shared on social media “revealed the truth” about what she was doing; some took it seriously, some as a joke, while others smelled Grade-A trolling. Many wondered why the Mexican-born, half-Jewish lawyer would be signaling to the world her sympathies with white nationalists.
When Bash did it a second time, it seemed to confirm the worst fears. However, as The Washington Post reported:
Taylor Foy, a spokesperson for the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, said there was another, innocuous explanation for this second “Okay” hand sign: the signal was aimed at a judiciary staffer who fulfilled a request for the judge. Bash texted a staffer during the hearing “to request a water glass for the judge,” Foy said. “Once it arrived, she was simply communicating her thanks.” In CSPAN’s archive of the hearings, Kavanaugh turns around and speaks to Bash at one point. There’s a coffee cup, but not water glass, on the desk. Bash and the man sitting next to her appear to discuss whatever the judge said as Bash texts on her phone. About a minute later, Bash looks straight ahead and appears to mouth the word “glass.” Then, she gives the OK hand sign. Shortly after that, a water glass is brought to Kavanaugh’s desk.”
According to this explanation, it was an “okay, thanks, everything’s good” symbol, and linked to some external issue going on at the time or just before, not a sign of her support of racism. (Others in the public eye have also been accused of flashing “secret” signs, from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama and Beyonce.)
Feels Good Man then chronicles Furie’s largely fruitless attempts to rebottle the genie. He did, after all, create the character and could easily prove that he owns the copyright to the image. But copyright only takes you so far; people can legally use and share works, especially if they change it in some way and thus make it eligible for protection under the Fair Use doctrine, which generally allows for the unlicensed use of works in cases such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Satire, for example, is generally considered to be Fair Use, which is why Weird Al Yankovic isn’t required to (though he does) seek permission from original artists when making his parody songs. When someone uses a copyrighted image to sell an item, however, that’s a different kettle of stoner frogs—as conspiracy peddler Alex Jones found out when he used Pepe in a poster he sold (the film includes excerpts of Alex Jones under oath in Furie’s successful lawsuit).
The story of Pepe the Frog is in some ways a microcosm of social media, including its reliance on outrage, clicks, and attention as the main metric of what’s valued. Neither truth, nor accuracy, nor fairness but what will get people to Like and Share—what will make algorithms push one meme to the top of the search engines and “Now Trending” lists, providing social currency (“internet fame”) for the creators and real currency for advertisers. It’s a race to the bottom, an appeal to what will get people riled up—but, as before, it’s nothing new. Jerry Springer and many others exploited this formula three decades ago on their talk shows.
The paradox Furie faces is clear: the more he tries to fight the misuse of his beloved Pepe, the more attention he draws to it, and the more incentive and fodder he provides trolls to perpetuate it. On the other hand, ignoring the problem isn’t ideal either, and the film gives the sense that Furie was a bit too late in recognizing what was going on.
Furie and the film make the argument that intent and context are important to consider when interpreting usage of these symbols. Some argue that anyone who share memes like Pepe should by default be assumed to have knowledge of the freight and meanings associated with it, thus removing the cover of plausible deniability for trolls. After all, by 2021, surely few people are unaware that Pepe became associated with hate groups (regardless of his innocuous origins or other uses). But the inherent nature of symbols is that it’s often difficult or impossible to know what others mean when they share ambiguous images (a cartoon of Pepe wearing a Nazi swastika would of course not be ambiguous, but the classic drawing of him crying is).
One argument is that trolls should not be given the benefit of the doubt when they claim they don’t really agree with the racist, sexist, or otherwise objectionable messages they create and share. The argument is that these memes and messages are so toxic and malicious that even if they are joking, the fact that they’re joking about such issues is itself problematic and evidence of—if not agreement with, at least tolerance of—the intolerable. Examples include the West Point cadets who, like Zina Bash, were accused of flashing white nationalist signs on camera during an Army-Navy football game in 2019.
Feels Good Man makes a compelling argument that such a position doesn’t solve the problem but merely moves the crux of it one step further because the motive of the person sharing a meme still must be determined to know whether he or she is a troll. As we have seen, many troll memes are shared by presumably sincere and genuine non-trolls (such as Oprah and Katie Perry, not to mention Furie himself). Assuming that anyone using or sharing the Pepe meme is racist (or at best indifferent to racism) results in many false positives and false accusations—playing right into trolls’ hands. (A West Point investigation concluded that the cadets at the football game did not in fact make any white supremacy signs but were instead playing a common game with each other and were unaware they were on camera). The last scenes in the film reveal an interesting and surprising twist in the effort to reclaim Pepe the Frog. There’s no simple solution to the problem, and one can’t help but feel sorry for people who have a tattoo of Pepe (one is seen in the film) who are likely to be mistaken for a racist because of it.
Pepe’s arc is unusual in some ways but typical in others. There’s no clear formula for a quirky viral hit; for every clever meme that survives and thrives in the social media ecosystem, tens of thousands dies in obscurity. There was no malicious mastermind who intentionally plucked Pepe off the couch playing video games with his buddies in Boys Club and put him in a Nazi uniform to troll, horrify, and amuse. It was instead an incremental (and partly random) series of steps and decisions by different people at different times with different agendas. Feels Good Man is a fascinating story with a few surprising twists along the way. It’s a cautionary tale about what happens when an artist loses control over his work, and an enlightening case study in how social media trolls operate.
I recently had a free-ranging chat with Vito D’Amico (aka The Amazing Vito) on myriad things including the perils of Zoom masturbation, Bigfoot sex, the wanna-be “vampire” roommate of a girl he dated, why ghost beliefs can be harmful, confirmation bias, why real animals are more amazing that imaginary ones, and more. Check it out!
I’m quoted in a new CBC article on the new appearance of an old social media scare, the “knockout game” or “blackout challenge.” You can read it HERE. Non-Francophones can read it using the “Translate” button at the top right, and the rest of you can marvel at my beautiful French pronunciation. Merci!
I was a recent guest on the Paracast Paranormal Radio show, talking with Gene and Randall about some of the strange cases in my new book Big-If True: Adventures in Oddity. We get into claims about UFO coverups, curses, walking trees, eHarmony, and all sorts of weirdness. Check it out HERE!
I’m a guest on the Passport podcast, talking about scary clowns, fear of clowns, and miscellaneous clown weirdness.
Paris: The Serious Business of Clowning Around
Clowns: freaky, funny or downright mystifying? This week, we tread the boards of the French capital and dive into the city’s age-old love affair with this very distinct form of theatrics.Paris has been an epicentre for performance artistry since the 1800s, but today the face of clowning and the circus look and feel very different. These days, clowning is cutthroat – demanding, grueling, and for some in the industry, a dying art that few can master. Besides a look at some of Paris’ most competitive clown schools, we also delve into the dark side of clowns and how pop culture has given us more than we bargained for beneath all that grease paint and innocent smiles: coulrophobia – the fear of clowns.
Check it out HERE!
I’m delighted to join Margaret Downey, Chip Taylor, Leonard Tramiel, Jim Underdown, Celestia Ward, Penn & Teller, Jamy Ian Swiss, Richard Saunders, Angie Mattke, Susan Gerbic, Geo Hrab, Brian Engler, and many others in offering our remembrances of our colleague, friend, and mentor, the late, great Amazing Randi in the new edition of the Freethought Society News. You can read the tributes HERE!
A Toast To The Amazing One
It is not much of a stretch to say that James Randi was one of the two main inspirations for my career choice as a skeptical researcher and investigator (the other being Carl Sagan). It was 1992, and a beer shortage led me on a path that would culminate in me spending about half my life walking on fire, hunting ghosts, making crop circles, chasing monsters, and exploring the paranormal. While at the University of New Mexico that year I won an essay contest (my piece examined the role that human error played in the 1986 Chernobyl and space shuttle Challenger accidents) and as a prize, I was flown to a college town in Utah to present my paper. While there my colleagues and I decided to venture out for a few beers. Because we were unknowingly in a dry county, this turned out to be an arduous and ill-fated venture.
But in the process of going door to door and store to store, we came across a tiny used bookstore. Amid the spilling shelves of books on fruit canning and apocalyptic survival guides (Mormon bookstore staples), I found a few old copies of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. One in particular, with a purple cover article on Nostradamus, caught my eye, and that was the first time I’d seen anyone criticize the famed prognosticator.
The author (James “The Amazing” Randi, as it turned out) offered skeptical, logical, and reasonable explanations for the prophecies’ apparent accuracy. Other paranormal and New Age topics were also discussed, giving another side to the story. Not all the explanations and arguments convinced me—I wasn’t taking the refutations as gospel, but at least I was hearing a new voice. I bought the issues and tucked them under my arm as the beer search went on, and upon returning home I subscribed to the magazine and joined the non-profit educational organization that published it (and which Randi co-founded): The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP, now CSI). Twenty years later I am the Deputy Editor of that magazine and a Research Fellow at CSI.
Since that time I have been honored and delighted to work with Randi in many capacities. It’s like growing up being a fan of the Rolling Stones, and ten years later finding yourself on tour with them and hanging out with Mick Jagger after a show. Call it balls, call it gumption, call it whatever you like: Randi has it in spades, and did long before I was born.
I don’t have the space to list all of Randi’s accomplishments, and couldn’t even if I wanted to. Life is short, you see, and anyway I’ve got a word limit here. However I’ll just mention a few of his projects that struck me as especially important. Project Alpha was brilliantly conceived and executed, teaching us that scientists’ knowledge and overconfidence in their abilities can be their own worst enemy. The Carlos hoax reminds us how gullible the news media can be when faced with the prospect of a sensational story. His legendary battles with Uri Geller teach us that woo-woo must be challenged whenever possible, and not remain unanswered.
While these stunts and investigations are noteworthy in their own right, to focus on them is to miss the forest for the trees, for what is perhaps most Amazing about Randi is the breadth of his life and experiences. He is far more than just a skeptic or escape artist or magician or world traveler. I remember visiting his home and seeing artifacts from trips to Peru he took decades ago. I, also, had traveled around Peru, including to the highlands he’d explored, and another common thread emerged. We even shared outrage at enemies of thought and reason: I mentioned that I was looking forward to passing water on the grave of George W. Bush, and he laughed and said he’d already done the same (or planned to, I forget) over the grave of Cotton Mather, one of the ideological architects of the Salem Witch Trials. We swapped war stories from the front lines of the skeptical movement, reminisced about old friends, and discussed the future of this strange skeptical endeavor we’ve both dedicated much of our lives to.
Like the brilliant Martin Gardner, whose work I admired and edited years, Randi is almost always unfailingly polite but that demeanor hides a sharp mind. He can lose his temper sometimes, like all of us, but he is better at suffering fools than many of us. He is patient and kind, but steadfastly refuses to brook exploitation of the innocent, especially from “grief vampires” like Sylvia Browne, with whom he’s feuded for years.
I dedicated my book Scientific Paranormal Investigation to Randi, and of course we come from a proud tradition of skeptics and investigators, from Benjamin Franklin to Harry Houdini. I am proud to count Randi as not only a mentor but a friend. Always quick with a quip or a trick, Randi has inspired millions. I don’t know anyone else who has toured with Alice Cooper, been encased in a block of ice for an hour, and exposed fraudulent faith healers like Peter Popoff. As varied and fascinating as his real accomplishments are, you have to watch out: Randi once told me he met Abraham Lincoln, and damn it, for a split second I believed him until that mischievous twinkle in his eyes reminded me to be more skeptical.
It’s not that no one else could, theoretically, have done many of Randi’s accomplishments; it’s that no one else did—and did them for the greater good with moral conviction, thoroughness, and a magician’s flair. There have always been skeptics, and there always will be—but there is only one Amazing Randi.
One of the fun things about writing for Discovery News was that my editors were great and I could sometimes sneak in a touch of satire. I recently revisited an article I wrote on the Bloody Mary legend and was pleased to see that my disclaimer is still there.
Back before the pandemic, amid the encroaching commercialization of Christmas, Black Friday sales, and annual social media grumblings about the manufactured controversy over whether “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” is appropriate, an ugly episode of racial hatred tainted the beginning of the 2016 holiday season.
It began when the Mall of America hired a jolly bearded man named Larry Jefferson as one of its Santas. Jefferson, a retired Army veteran, is black–a fact that most kids and their parents neither noticed nor cared about. The crucial issue for kids was whether a Playstation might be on its way or some Plants vs. Zombies merchandise was in the cards given the particular child’s status on Santa’s naughty-or-nice list. The important thing for parents was whether their kids were delighted by the Santa, and all evidence suggests that the answer was an enthusiastic Yes. “What [the children] see most of the time is this red suit and candy,” Jefferson said in an interview. “[Santa represents] a good spirit. I’m just a messenger to bring hope, love, and peace to girls and boys.”
The fact that Santa could be African-American seemed self-evident (and either an encouraging sign or a non-issue) for all who encountered him. Few if any people at the Mall of America made any negative or racist comments. It was, after all, a self-selected group; any parents who might harbor reservations about Jefferson simply wouldn’t wait in line with their kids to see him and instead go somewhere else or wait for another Santa. Like anything that involves personal choice, people who don’t like something (a news outlet, brand of coffee, or anything else) will simply go somewhere else–not erupt in protest that it’s available to those who want it.
However a black Santa was a first for that particular mall, and understandably made the news. On December 1 the local newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, carried a story by Liz Sawyer titled “Mall of America Welcomes Its First Black Santa.”
Scott Gillespie, the editorial page editor for the Tribune, tweeted later that night (at 9:47 PM): “Looks like we had to turn comments off on story about Mall of America’s first black Santa. Merry Christmas everyone!” The tweet’s meaning seemed both clear and disappointing: On a story that the Star Tribune posted about an African-American Santa, the racial hostility got so pervasive in the comments section that they had to put an end to it, out of respect for Jefferson and/or Star Tribune readers. He ended with a sad and sarcastic, “Merry Christmas” and sent the tweet into cyberspace.
Overnight and the next morning his tweet went viral and served as the basis for countless news stories with titles such as “Paper Forced to Close Comments On Mall Of America’s First Black Santa Thanks to Racism” (Jezebel); “Santa is WHITE. BOYCOTT Mall of America’: Online Racists Are Having a Meltdown over Mall’s Black Santa” (RawStory); “Racists Freak Out Over Black Santa At Mall Of America” (Huffington Post); “Mall of America Hires Its First Black Santa, Racists of the Internet Lose It” (Mic.com), and so on. If you spend any time on social media you get the idea. It was just another confirmation of America’s abysmal race relations.
There’s only one problem: It didn’t happen.
At 1:25 PM the following day Gillespie, after seeing the stories about the scope and nature of the racist backlash the Tribune faced, reversed himself in a follow-up tweet. Instead of “we had to turn off comments,” Gillespie stated that the commenting was never opened for that article in the first place: “Comments were not allowed based on past practice w/stories w/racial elements. Great comments on FB & Instagram, though.”
This raised some questions for me: If the comments had never been opened on the story, then how could there have been a flood of racist comments? Where did that information come from? How many racist comments did the paper actually get? Fewer than a dozen? Hundreds? Thousands? Something didn’t add up about the story, and as a media literacy educator and journalist I felt it was important to understand the genesis of this story.
It can serve as an object lesson and help the public understand the role of confirmation bias, unwarranted assumptions, and failure to apply skepticism. In this era of attacks on “fake news” it’s important to distinguish intentional misinformation from what might be simply a series of mistakes and assumptions.
While I have no doubt that the Tribune story on Jefferson would likely have been the target of some racist comments at some point, the fact remains that the main point of Gillespie’s tweet was false: the Tribune had not in fact been forced to shut down the comments on its piece about the Mall of America’s black Santa because of a deluge of racist comments. That false information was the centerpiece of the subsequent stories about the incident.
The idea that some might be upset about the topic is plausible; after all, the question of a black Santa had come up a few times in the news and social media (perhaps most notably Fox News’s Megyn Kelly’s infamous incredulity at the notion three years earlier–which she later described as an offhand jest). Racist, sexist, and otherwise obnoxious comments are common in the comments section of many articles online on any number of subjects, and are not generally newsworthy. There were of course some racists and trolls commenting on the secondary stories about the Star Tribune‘s shutting down its comment section due to racist outrage (RawStory collected about a dozen drawn from social media), but fact remains that the incident at the center of the controversy that spawned outrage across social media simply did not happen.
A few journalists added clarifications and corrections to the story after reading Gillespie’s second tweet or being contacted by him. The Huffington Post, for example, added at the bottom of its story: “CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to reflect that the Minneapolis Star Tribune‘s comment section was turned off when the story was published, not in response to negative comments.” But most journalists didn’t, and as of this writing nearly two million news articles still give a misleading take on the incident.
The secondary news reports could not, of course, quote from the original non-existent rage-filled comments section in the Star Tribune, so they began quoting from their own comments sections and those of other news media. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy, wherein the worst comments from hundreds of blogs and websites were then selected and quoted, generating another round of comments. Many people saw racist comments about the story and assumed that they had been taken from the Star Tribune page at the center of the story, and couldn’t be sure if they were responding to the original outrage or the secondary outrage generated by the first outrage. As with those drawn to see and celebrate Jefferson as the mall’s first black Santa, this was also a self-selected group of people–namely those who were attracted to a racially charged headline and had some emotional stake in the controversy, enough to read about it and comment on it.
Unpacking the Reporting
I contacted Gillespie and he kindly clarified what happened and how his tweet inadvertently caused some of the world’s most prominent news organizations to report on an ugly racial incident that never occurred.
Gillespie–whose beat is the opinion and editorial page–was at home on the evening of December 1 and decided to peruse his newspaper’s website. He saw the story about Larry Jefferson and clicked on it to see if the black Santa story was getting any comments. He noticed that there were no comments at all and assumed that the Star Tribune‘s web moderators had shut them off due to inflammatory posts, as had happened occasionally on previous stories.
Understandably irritated and dismayed, he tweeted about it and went to bed, thinking no more of it. The next day he went into work and a colleague noticed that his tweet had been widely shared (his most shared post on social media ever) and asked him about it. Gillespie then spoke with the newspaper’s web moderators, who informed him that the comments had never been turned on for that particular post–a practice at the newspaper for articles on potentially sensitive subjects such as race and politics, but also applied to many other topics that a moderator for whatever reason thinks might generate comments that may be counterproductive.
“I didn’t know why the comments were off,” he told me. “In this case I assumed we followed past practices” about removing inflammatory comments. It was a not-unreasonable assumption that in this case just happened to be wrong. Gillespie noted during our conversation that a then-breaking Star Tribune story about the death of a 2-year-old girl at a St. Paul foster home also had its commenting section disabled–presumably not in anticipation of a deluge of racist or hateful comments.
“People thought–and I can see why, since I have the title of editorial page editor–that I must know what I’m talking about [in terms of web moderation],” Gillespie said. He was commenting on a topic about his newspaper but outside his purview, and to many his tweet was interpreted as an official statement and explanation of why comments did not appear on the black Santa story.
When Gillespie realized that many (at that time dozens and, ultimately, millions) of news stories were (wrongly) reporting that the Star Tribune‘s comments section had been shut down in response to racist comments based solely on his (admittedly premature and poorly phrased) Dec. 1 tweet, he tried to get in touch with some of the journalists to correct the record (hence the Huffington Post clarification), but by that time the story had gone viral and the ship of fools had sailed. The best he could do was issue a second tweet trying to clarify the situation, which he did.
“I can see why people would jump to the conclusion they did,” he told me. Gillespie is apologetic and accepts responsibility for his role in creating the black Santa outrage story, and it seems clear that his tweet was not intended as an attempt at race-baiting for clicks.
In the spirit of Christmas maybe one lesson to take from this case is charity. Instead of assuming the worst about someone or their intentions, give them the benefit of the doubt. Assuming the worst about other people runs all through this story. Gillespie assumed that racists deluged his newspaper with racist hate, as did the public. The web moderator(s) at the Star Tribune who chose not to open the comments on the Santa story may (or may not) have assumed that they were pre-empting a deluge of racism (which may or may not have in fact followed). I myself was assumed to have unsavory and ulterior motives for even asking journalistic questions about this incident (a topic I’ll cover next week).
In the end there are no villains here (except for the relative handful of racists and trolls who predictably commented on the secondary stories). What happened was the product of a series of understandable misunderstandings and mistakes, fueled in part by confirmation bias and amplified by the digital age.
The Good News
Gillespie and I agreed that this is, when fact and fiction are separated, a good news story. As noted, Gillespie initially assumed that the newspaper’s moderators had been inundated with hostile and racist comments, and finally turned the comments off after having to wade through the flood of hateful garbage comments to find and approve the positive ones. He need not have feared, because exactly the opposite occurred: Gillespie said that the Star Tribune was instead flooded with positive comments applauding Jefferson as the Mall of America’s first black Santa (he referenced this in his Dec. 2 tweet). The tiny minority of nasty comments were drowned out by holiday cheer and goodwill toward men–of any color. He echoed Jefferson, who in a December 9 NPR interview said that the racist comments he heard were “only a small percentage” of the reaction, and he was overwhelmed by support from the community.
The fact that Jefferson was bombarded by love and support from the general public (and most whites) should offer hope and comfort. Gillespie said that he had expected people to attack and criticize the Mall of America for succumbing to political correctness, but the imagined hordes of white nationalists never appeared. A few anonymous cranks and racists complained on social media posts from the safety of their keyboards, but there was very little backlash–and certainly nothing resembling what the sensational headlines originally suggested.
The real tragedy is what was done to Larry Jefferson, whose role as the Mall of America’s first black Santa has been tainted by this social media-created controversy. Instead of being remembered for, as he said, bringing “hope, love, and peace to girls and boys,” he will forever be known for enduring a (fictional) deluge of bilious racist hatred. The true story of Jefferson’s stint as Santa is diametrically the opposite of what most people believe: He was greeted warmly and embraced by people of all colors and faiths as the Mall of America’s first black Santa.
Some may try to justify their coverage of the story by saying that even though in this particular case Jefferson was not in fact inundated with racist hate, it still symbolizes a very real problem and was therefore worthy of reporting if it raised awareness of the issue. The Trump administration adopted this tactic earlier this week 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 did not happen as portrayed and described), but 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.”
This disregard for truth has been a prominent theme in the Trump administration. Yes, some tiny minority of Muslims are terrorists; no one denies that, but that does not legitimize the sharing of bogus information as examples supposedly illustrating the problem. Similarly, yes, some tiny minority of Americans took exception to Jefferson as a black Santa, but that does not legitimize sharing false information about how a newspaper had to shut down its comments because of racist rage. There are enough real-life examples of hatred and intolerance that we need not invent new ones.
In this Grinchian and cynical ends-justifies-the-means worldview, there is no such thing as good news and the import of every event is determined by how it can be used to promote a given narrative or social agenda–truth be damned.
I understand that “Black Santa Warmly Welcomed by Virtually Everyone” isn’t a headline that any news organization is going to see as newsworthy or eagerly promote, nor would it go viral. But it’s the truth.
A longer version of this article appeared on my Center for Inquiry blog; you can read it HERE.