Jun 142021
 

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:

https://zoom.us/meeting/register/tJAsceuhrT4sE9IJh6bd8Xp9vXqNT-Ib57_T?fbclid=IwAR0q13HN-t7ZASmsQLredgeIf5RJ4XHbTddJWCuKknsJON0PXa-uITi_w14

 

Jun 082021
 

For this episode we are joined by a surprise guest, the critical thinker behind the Steak-Umms popular brand voice (aka Nathan Allebach), who talks to us about targeting misinformation as a PR strategy, managing viral posts, and the brand’s recent dustup with Neil deGrasse Tyson. Then I bring us back in time twenty years to a hot Indian summer in New Delhi, where reports of a mysterious and malevolent Monkey Man sent residents into a panic. Police and local skeptics were mobilized to combat this phantom in very different ways, as rewards, injuries, vigilante groups and media reports fueled public fear.  

 

You can listen to it HERE! 

Jun 052021
 

Twenty years ago last month the capital of India was gripped in a panic. Early reports claimed that some mysterious monkey-like creature attacked many residents in New Delhi, leaving fear, scars, and ultimately even dead bodies in its wake. The Monkey Man, as it came to be known, made international news as police and news media struggled to make sense of the mysterious menace.

Sociologist Robert Bartholomew and I wrote briefly about this episode in our book Hoaxes Myths, and Manias: Why We Need Critical Thinking, but overall there has been relatively little written about it from scholarly and skeptical perspectives. On this twentieth anniversary of the panic, it seemed like a good time to revisit this case in more depth.

Descriptions of the Monkey Man varied widely, and details were often ambiguous because most of the sightings occurred at night outside in the night sky, with the creature leaping away into the darkness before anyone could get a good look at it—much less a photograph. Some people described an ape-like figure with a dark hairy body and glowing red eyes. Others described the figure as between three and six feet tall, with arms ending in sharp claws or even metal gloves, like Freddy Krueger. Some said instead that it wore a motorcycle helmet, leather jacket, and dark glasses. Most people, however, just reported seeing a shadow of something; overall, there were few first-hand sightings; instead many people described what they heard other people saying they saw.

Police report sketch

Police and the Press

Indian news media picked up on the story and ran with it, sensationalizing reports in the process. The most lurid and dramatic descriptions, of course, got the most attention—which in turn triggered demands from the public to be protected. Local law enforcement officials, understandably, were not sure how to handle the bizarre situation. They were used to dealing with accidents, homicides, and neighborhood disputes—not mysterious and menacing half-monkeys armed with steel claws. Inundated with panicked calls but no suspects or leads, the police soon set up special hotlines and offered a large 50,000 rupee ($1,000) reward for information leading to the capture of this monster. Though meant to generate useful leads, this financial incentive had the effect of increasing the number of crank calls and false alarms. Indeed, as news of the Monkey Man spread, there was a snowball effect; more coverage spurred more sightings, but also more attention-seeking pranks and hoaxes. Many people got in on the action, offering ever-wilder (and evidence-free) stories to an eager news media.

As days turned into a week and the panic increased with no arrests being made, citizens took the law into their own hands. Vigilante mobs took to patrolling the streets at night, armed with clubs, poles, and machetes. The rolling blackouts which often plague the city only added to the sense of fear and foreboding. As in other monster panics I’ve investigated including the chupacabra (in Puerto Rico) and the popobawa (in Zanzibar); there were overnight vigils and stakeouts, where armed men took turns at sentry while the others slept. Predictably and tragically, in some cases mob justice ensued and several people were attacked. The Washington Post reported that “a van driver was chased by a mob that believed him to be the Monkey Man, dragged out of his vehicle, and severely beaten. He was hospitalized with multiple fractures.”

 

Monkey Man Spotted

 

Injuries and Deaths

One of the most puzzling things about the case was that there was no real evidence of this phantom attacker. With no photographs or footprints the main forensic evidence offered in support of the attacker(s)—and implicitly refuting growing skepticism that it was all a hoax or hallucination—were injuries said to have been caused by encounters with the Monkey Man.

Indeed, evidence was offered of encounters, much of it ambiguous. Monkey Man victims showed off a variety of minor injuries and wounds—most of which were indistinguishable from bites from rats or dogs—along with rashes, scratches, and the like. To many people who saw photos and video of the injuries (widely shared in news media) it was compelling. Though it was surely true that not every Monkey Man sighting or report was accurate, for many people these disparate reports offered evidence corroboration: Unless the dozens of ostensible strangers offering (superficially) similar stories and injuries had all somehow conspired together to fake the incidents, surely there must be something to it, many people thought.

However a closer look at the injuries revealed a different story. Some people had faked injuries for medical and media attention; others reframed existing, unrelated injuries as having been due to encounters with the Monkey Man. There is not much in the published literature about this incident, though I did find one journal article in the August 2003 Indian Journal of Medical Sciences. S.K. Verma and D.K. Srivastava examined sociodemographic patterns and injuries among alleged Monkey Man victims. They found that between May 10 and 25, 397 people made calls to the police claiming to have been attacked. Of those, fifty-one cases were detailed enough for medical examination.

Two-thirds of the victims were male, and most were between twenty and thirty years old. The vast majority (94%) were from the poorest sections of the city, East Delhi and nearby, and 89% were of low socioeconomic status. Two-thirds of the victims reported that incident occurred between midnight and 6 AM. As to the nature of the wounds, about 95% of the individuals showed abrasions they attributed to the Monkey Man. As the researchers noted, “One of the most striking features observed in the injuries among these individuals was they were possible either by a blunt or a pointed object only.” About 88% had multiple linear abrasions and 11% displayed lacerations.

In addition to the mob attacks mentioned earlier, there were also dozens of serious accidental injuries caused by mobs of people trying to escape from the monster. There were fatalities as well; one man died falling off a rooftop fleeing from what he thought was the Monkey Man, and a pregnant woman fell down stairs and died panicking as well. A third man also fell off a rooftop, running in fear when he heard another man nearby panicking, shrieking in the darkness that something had pulled on his sheets as he tried to sleep. Eventually the local power company agreed to temporarily suspend rolling blackouts in some of the poorer parts of New Delhi, allowing people to sleep inside in the safety of their apartments under electric fans.

In the end the injuries offered merely the illusion of corroboration. It’s a common theme among paranormal believers, who use the (often presumed) similarities of different, disparate eyewitnesses and experiencers to argue that there must be something to it.

 

India Journal Snippet

 

Social, Cultural, and Environmental Factors

Social panics do not occur in a vacuum. In the climate of fear that swept New Delhi, people interpreted anything as a threat: Any sound in darkness or cry in the night could be interpreted as an imminent attack. It’s also important to remember the physical environment: crowded, poorly-lit sweltering rooftops during rolling blackouts. In a city of 14 million people during a heat wave of over 110 degrees Fahrenheit, the situation was ripe for misperceptions.

There was also the socioeconomic factors of illiteracy and poor education. In a situation reminiscent of the panic and fears surrounding the chupacabra in 1996-1998 Puerto Rico, most of the rumors spread among poor. New Delhi’s wealthiest residents were not sweating and exposed on dark, crowded rooftops but were at home under air conditioning—using portable generators during the blackouts. The religious aspect may also be relevant; the fact that the creature was said to be half (or more) monkey—and not some other wild animal—may be significant. Many people noted that the Monkey Man was reminiscent of Hanuman, a Hindu warrior god depicted as a monkey (or half-monkey) that leads an army…of monkeys. There are also many monkeys in and around the city, so the creature would be a familiar one to New Delhi residents.

Some took the descriptions at face value and thought it was some sort of actual half-human creature, though other explanations included an evil spirit, a robot, “a computerized creature who someone is operating with remote control”; and a terrorist who was using the panic, confusion, and police reaction as a cover for some assassination—possibly by the Pakistani intelligence services, India’s neighbor and arch-enemy.

Monkey Man and Mass Sociogenic Illness

In the final analysis the Monkey Man panic has all the hallmarks of mass sociogenic illness (MSI), or mass hysteria. Mass hysteria is often misunderstood as being an illness that sufferers are making up. In fact the symptoms are verifiable and not imaginary. The issue is instead what is causing the symptoms—whether some external environmental contaminant or instead a form of suggestion-driven social contagion.

Social contagion can easily spread from person to person in tight quarters, and especially during times of high stress and anxiety. Cases of MSI can vary widely in context and manifestation, but typically include the sudden onset of dramatic (yet clinically minor) symptoms. There are underlying psychological and/or environmental stressors, ranging from workplace discipline to boredom (in this case a heat wave). There is usually some trigger, such as an ambiguous smell, sight, or sound. A hallmark is that the phenomenon is socially contagious—that is, it is spread from person to person like a virus, usually people with whom the victim has come in close contact, such as a friend, family member, co-worker, or classmate. Mass hysterias often affect people who have a real or perceived lack of social support, such as those in poverty or subjected to regimented routine and authority (such as in schools, factories, and so on). Many cases of MSI are recognized only after the fact (and sometimes not even then), with victims often vigorously rejecting the diagnosis, assuming incorrectly that it implied that they were mentally ill or making it all up.

For as bizarre as the Monkey Man incident is, he (or it) is not alone; indeed the phenomenon is best understood as part of a larger social phenomenon known as phantom attackers. These are mysterious figures, usually male and dressed in some distinctive way, and who are seen and reported as menacing ordinary citizens in public. Examples include Spring-Heeled Jack, the mysterious dark-cloaked figure reported threatening and scaring people (mostly women and children) in London from the 1830s through the 1870s; the Phantom Slasher of Taiwan, who was reported stalking the streets of Taipei in 1956 trying to slash people (again, mostly women and children) with a razor; and the phantom clowns, reported to lurk near schools trying—thankfully in vain—to abduct children (for more see chapter 12 in my book Bad Clowns).

Though the details and descriptions vary in these cases, they have much in common, including that they all had sincere eyewitnesses who reported their encounters to police and other public safety officials; the cases were reported in the local news and residents took action to protect the public from further attempted “attacks”; the reports appeared in a given community suddenly but soon faded away with no arrest or resolution. In the end all these phantom attackers—like the Monkey Man—were thoroughly investigated and eventually determined not to have existed.

The Decline and Fall of the Monkey Man

Throughout the panic police reacted as best they could, increasing patrols and thinking that enough arrests would stop it—not because they assumed they were going to actually arrest the Monkey Man (who would likely demand a simian public defender)—but because hoaxers would finally be deterred. It was semi-successful. Police were getting hundreds of hoaxed calls, and when people were threatened with jail and fines for spreading false rumors, it did indeed curb the appeal of pranksters and copycats. Even those who were sincere in their reports had second thoughts about contacting the police without real proof or evidence. This, coupled with a strong media-influence copycat effect, became a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy when the news media started to lose interest and reported that fewer people were seeing it—which in turn led to fewer people seeing it. A few things led to the Monkey Man being less reported and by about May 20 the reports had slowed to a trickle; the whole incident lasted about two weeks, from May 10 to May 25 or so. The pattern was entirely expected to psychologists and sociologists who recognized the cause. Most cases of mass hysterias tend to be self-limiting; there’s a clear and predictable bell-shaped rise and fall in reports, usually a steep increase and an equally quick fall.

Skeptics on the Scene

Amid the chaos and panic, skeptical investigators from the Indian Rationalists Association, led by Sanal Edamaruku, tried to explain the situation and calm public fears. Though the news media were more interested sensationalism than skepticism, the organization was quoted, however briefly, in The New York Times and The Washington Post press coverage.

In the Rationalist International Bulletin Edamaruku wrote a first-hand contemporaneous account of his organization’s efforts to investigate the mystery and calm public fears: “India’s capital is looking back on two weeks of mass delusion and panic, sometimes dangerously turning into mass hysteria. The shadow of the ‘monkey man’ is still looming large over suburbs and urban villages.” Edamaruku’s actions serve as a model for on-the-ground skeptical investigation and activism: “We started to collect all information so far available and went to the affected areas to talk to people. I personally questioned at least forty persons who claimed to have seen something and hundreds who were terrified by what they had heard. We evaluated all recorded material and got some important clues.” With no photos of the creature, nor footprints, or anything else tangible, Edamaruku also assessed what little physical evidence there appeared to be: wounds allegedly made by the creature: “We went out to have a close look at the victims’ injuries, which had become something like the last bastion of the spook. We succeeded in tracing most of the known causes and were ‘disappointed’: There was not a single serious wound, only little scratches, cuts, and rubbings [rashes] which under normal circumstances would not get any attention…Interestingly there was no uniformity in them, though they were claimed to come from the same source… With every new case we were more convinced that all these injuries were self-inflicted, either deliberately or unknowingly.”

In the end Edamaruku notes that “Our lonely initiative and intervention to deflate the giant balloon of the monkey man mania has opened many eyes and minds. They have reminded the authorities of their duties and responsibilities and encouraged many scientists to play their part in educating the public. This is in my opinion one of the classical roles rationalist organizations can play, and have to play, in society.”

This is a crucial point because skeptical and rationalist organizations, investigators, and activists (and, I might add, folklorists and psychologists) fill this important—and often overlooked—niche. Many of these panics are not recognized as such at the time, and journalists play a key role in disseminating information, both good and bad, to the public. It’s vital that skeptics and their organizations such as the Indian Rationalists and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (and their many counterparts) make informed skeptical commentary and analysis available to journalists and the public.

Two decades after the Monkey Man appeared, and then disappeared just as quickly, the case remains one of the strangest examples of mass hysteria panics in modern times. With sober analysis we can hopefully learn from it and be better prepared for the next mass sociogenic panic.

 

A longer version of this piece appeared on the Center for Inquiry website; you can read it HERE!

 
 
Jun 022021
 

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.)

Scene from The Woman Who Loves Giraffes depicting Anne Dagg in the 1950s studying giraffes in South Africa.

 

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).

 

Scene from The Woman Who Loves Giraffes

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.

Giraffes in West Africa, photo by the author.

 

 

 

May 272021
 

Mass shootings are, sadly, in the news again. Across the country violence is up overall in recent months, and gun-related homicides are on the rise. From Boston to Chicago to New Orleans, as covid restrictions relax shootings increase.

The natural question is: Who is doing all the shooting, and why?

There is a popular misconception that White males, specifically, are by far the most common mass shooters. In fact, mass shooters come from across the spectrum, from White men to teenage schoolgirls to Black men and even transgendered teens. Evidence of the diversity in mass shooters is abundant; it’s a problem that has plagued America for decades and has not escaped analysis from criminologists and sociologists.

A more interesting question, from sociological and media literacy points of view, is why the misunderstanding is so common. Part of the answer likely lies in the gulf between what experts and academics know and what the public perceives. This is nothing new; laypeople often believe things that are completely the opposite of the truth. Many laypeople believe, for example, that no one would falsely confess to a crime they didn’t commit, whereas psychologists and police detectives are well aware that people can and do admit to crimes they’re innocent of (often leading to miscarriages of justice, as in the famous Central Park Five case). The public often assumes that eyewitnesses and memories are rarely mistaken, despite decades of research by Dr. Elizabeth Loftus and many others. The public (wrongly) believes that overall crime rates trend high, despite being historically low; that homicides are more common than suicides (the opposite is true), and so on. So there’s nothing unique or special about this particular erroneous assumption; it’s just one of many.

Another part of the answer is that popular fallacies tend to be perpetuated and self-replicating, especially when stereotypical assumptions are made and not questioned. For example children’s book author (and niece of Kamala Harris) Meena Harris wrongly assumed that mass shooter Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa was Caucasian in a tweet that got 6,500 Likes and 35,000 Retweets. In later correcting her error she perpetuated another, that “the majority of mass shootings in the U.S. are carried out by white men.” It’s of course common for people to comment ahead of the facts, but it was a revealing mistake that demonstrates how ingrained the assumption is. Many commenters on social media suggest that 90% to 95% of mass shooters are White, but as we will see the true number is less than half that.

How News and Social Media Mislead

Much of the answer lies in media literacy, and the perception that what the news media covers is representative of what happens. I discuss this fallacy at length in my book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us, but the key thing to recognize is that some events are more newsworthy than others, and how a news event is framed plays an important role in how it’s understood.

As I discussed in a previous series on mass shootings, the public’s (and journalists’) understanding is clouded by the fact that the topic of mass shootings is fraught, not only with political agendas but also with rampant misinformation. Facile comparisons and snarky memes dominate social media, crowding out objective, evidence-based evidence and analysis. This is effective for scoring political points but wholly counterproductive for understanding the nature of the problem and its broader issues. The public’s perception of mass shootings is heavily influenced by mass media, primarily news media and social media.

The public is understandably confused about how common mass shootings are because they get their information about such events from the media, which distorts the true nature and frequency of these attacks. Most of us, thankfully, have no direct experience with mass shootings or school shootings; they happen occasionally and result in dead bodies, trials, news coverage, and often convictions—but there are also 325 million people in America. The chance of some person, or a few dozen people, being a victim of a mass shooting somewhere in the country in any given week is nearly 100 percent, but the chance of any given specific person—say you or me—being a victim is remote.

Why do shootings seem so common? Much of the answer lies in the news media and psychology. John Ruscio, a social psychologist at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, describes “the media paradox”: The more we rely on the popular media to inform us, the more apt we are to misplace our fears. The paradox is the combined result of two biases, one inherent in the news-gathering process, the other inherent in the way our minds organize and recall information. As Ruscio explains: “For a variety of reasons—including fierce competition for our patronage within and across the various popular media outlets—potential news items are rigorously screened for their ability to captivate an audience. … The stories that do make it through this painstaking selection process are then often crafted into accounts emphasizing their concrete, personal, and emotional content. In turn, the more emotional and vivid the account is, the more likely we are to remember the information. This is the first element, the vividness bias: our minds easily remember vivid events. The second bias lies in what psychologists term the availability heuristic: our judgments of frequency and probability are heavily influenced by the ease with which we can imagine or recall instances of an event. So the more often we hear reports of plane crashes, school shootings, or train wrecks, the more often we think they occur. But the bias that selects those very events makes them appear more frequent than they really are.”

Imagine, for example, that a consumer group dedicated to travel safety established a network of correspondents in every country that reported every train and bus wreck, no matter how minor, and broadcast daily pictures. Anyone watching that broadcast would see dozens of wrecks and crashes every day, complete with mangled metal and dead bodies, and would likely grow to fear such transportation. No matter that in general trains and buses are very safe; if you screen the news to emphasize certain vivid events, accidents will seem more dangerous and common than they actually are. 

A Closer Look at Mass Shooters

Because White mass shooters tend to attract more news media coverage than do non-White shooters, it creates a misperception about mass shooter demographics, a subject I previously wrote about.

An analysis of recent mass shootings bears this out. Of the 46 mass shooters in the Gun Violence Archive database for March 2021, 2% (1) was committed by a White male; 8% (4) were committed by Hispanics; 45% (21) were committed by African Americans; and in 43%, or 20 cases, the attacker’s race is unknown.

In January 2019 I conducted an identical analysis, finding total of 25 American mass shootings. Of the 25 mass shootings in the Gun Violence Archive database, 16% (4) of them were committed by white males; 4% (1) was committed by a Hispanic man; 64% (16) were committed by African Americans; and in 16%, or 4 cases, the attacker’s race is unknown.

A year later in January 2020 I conducted an identical analysis, finding total of 25 American mass shootings. Of the 25 mass shootings in the Gun Violence Archive database for January 2020, 4% (1) of them was committed by a white male; 4% (1) was committed by a Hispanic man; 68% (17) were committed by African Americans; and in 24%, or 6 cases, the attacker’s race is unknown. All the data are publicly available for anyone who would like to review the source material or examine other months.

It’s clear from even a cursory glance at the Gun Violence Archive demographic data that White shooters are, if anything, under-represented in mass shootings. Obviously it varies by month, but in the three months sampled above, the percentage of mass shooters that were White ranged from 2% to 16% with an average of 7.3%—despite comprising about 60% of the American population.

We can compare these numbers with data in peer-reviewed publications, including a recent analysis in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, by Emma E. Fridel. Using a different dataset Fridel found that about 40% of all mass shooters (across three categories, as I described in a previous article) were White, compared with 37% Black and 23% Other/Mixed race.

Taking a closer look, of the 45 shootings in March 2021 (the above number, 46, reflects that one mass shooting, on March 18 in Oregon, had two mass shooters), only three of them got widespread news coverage. The first involved Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa, who killed ten people in a Boulder, Colorado, supermarket on March 22. The second was Robert Aaron Long, who two days later killed eight people in Atlanta Georgia; and the third was Aminadab Gaxiola Gonzalez, who on March 31 killed four in Orange, California. Of these three cases, all were taken alive. This is of course not a representative sample, but we can note a few patterns. They are all male; ethnically diverse (one White, one Hispanic, and one Middle Eastern); two of the shooters were 21; one of the three had a known history of mental illness; and two of the three had criminal records. And, of course, all three used semiautomatic weapons.

A few weeks later a sixth-grade girl in Idaho shot and wounded two students and a custodian at her middle school. The name and race of the shooter has not been released, and it’s just as well because it doesn’t matter. Knowing her demographics is unhelpful; we already know that females are much less likely than males to engage in gun violence. Most of the social media memes and comments singling out this race or that race as representing mass shooters is not only factually wrong but misses the point. It’s false that most mass shooters are White men. But even if it was true, it wouldn’t matter.

In a previous article (titled “The Futility of Race-Naming Mass Shooters”) I explained that as simplistic and satisfying as it would be, no single demographic emerges from the data as “the typical mass shooter.” It depends entirely on what type of mass shooting you’re looking at, and varies by season and region. In the end, focusing on the race of mass shooters is unhelpful; it is not predictive of who is likely to engage in gun violence.

Singling out any specific race as being dangerous or more violence-prone than others is likely to do more harm than good (and in some cases racist). Unless you’re a criminologist or social scientist it doesn’t really tell you anything useful. It doesn’t help the average person decide who to watch out for, or who to avoid. It doesn’t help police or FBI profilers predict who is a threat. The percentage of mass shooters in any demographic is vanishingly small, and the chances of being killed in a mass shooting is also small.

While race is not a useful or predictive prism through which to understand or identify mass shooters, mental illness is no better and is in many ways a distraction from the deeper issues. As with other mass shooter demographics, there is little insight to be gained by focusing on the mental health history of mass shooters. There are several reasons for this, perhaps most prominently that most mass shooters across all categories do not have a prior history of mental health treatment. 

The fact is that mentally ill people are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it. Social justice advocates may feel like they’re doing good by shining a light on the presumed disparate social diagnoses of the roots of violence, but focusing on the role mental illness (whether alone or in contrast to terrorism) plays in mass shootings only further stigmatizes a vulnerable and marginalized group.

America is diverse, and growing more diverse by the day. Predictably, mass shooters reflect that very same diversity. The first step in solving a social problem, especially one as harmful as mass shootings, is understanding its nature and separating fact from fiction. If anything, the public’s focus on the race and mental state of mass shooters distracts from a more obvious commonality: access to automatic and semi-automatic weapons. Anyone—regardless of race, gender, or mental health status—is a potential threat when they’re armed with assault weapons.

 

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

 

 

May 122021
 

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! 

 

May 032021
 

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. 

Changing Minds

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 Plandemicwhose 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

 

 

Apr 302021
 

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.

 

 

Apr 252021
 

I’m quoted in a recent Rolling Stone article about abduction rumors going viral on TikTok. It’s an interesting social media twist on an old urban legend… you can read it HERE

You can also check out the Squaring the Strange shows we did on faked abductions and on viral abduction rumors! 

 

Apr 222021
 

With the recent trials of Derek Chauvin and others, I’m seeing a common fallacy: Seemingly outrageous legal defenses are held up as evidence of how horrible American social values are. But the outrage is evidence of nothing more than a misunderstanding of the justice system, as I wrote in this 2019 piece: 

 

In an article by Bil Browning for LGBTQNation headlined “Texas Man Gets Probation after Using ‘Gay Panic’ Defense to Explain Killing his Neighbor” noted that “James Miller of Austin, Texas was found not guilty of manslaughter and murder by a jury after killing his neighbor, Daniel Spencer. After Miller used the ‘gay panic’ defense, claiming Spencer made a pass at him, the jury found him guilty of criminally negligent homicide and sentenced him to 10 years of probation.”

 

 

The murder of Daniel Spencer was a serious and tragic crime, but the headlines it spawned may mislead the public into assuming that Miller got probation because his lawyer proposed that particular claim. Examining the topic through a media literacy lens we see that it may or may not be true.

Post-Hoc Fallacies

This headline is an example of a “post hoc ergo propter hoc” (“after this, therefore because of it”) logical fallacy, and it’s common in news reports about the outcomes of trials. Defense lawyers make several arguments, including patently false and controversial ones that make headlines, in defending their clients. Just because a given argument was put forth by the defense does not mean that the result of the case (conviction, acquittal, etc.) or the penalty (30 years, probation, etc.) was due to the judge or jury believing that specific argument. In other words just because your lawyer offered some ostensibly implausible argument as part of your defense doesn’t mean that anyone believed or endorsed it.

Seemingly outrageous legal defenses make the news periodically and are held up as evidence of how backward American social values are. But the phenomenon deserves a closer look. Not only is the person making some potentially outrageous or offensive comment often in the minority, but sometimes that are obligated to make that argument even if they personally disagree with it. In many cases it’s a defense attorney for an accused individual. Lawyers are ethically and legally obligated to represent their clients to the best of their ability. In criminal defense trials that sometimes necessarily involves making unsavory claims and assertions. It’s not clear why anyone would be surprised, much less outraged, at motions or arguments made by defense attorneys on behalf of their clients.

Examples include Ethan Couch, a Texas teenager who in 2013 caused a drunk-driving accident that killed four people and seriously injured two others. His defense infamously argued that Couch suffered from “affluenza,” an imaginary condition brought about by his privileged childhood in a wealthy family in which he didn’t—and presumably couldn’t be expected to—understand the consequences of his actions. Couch was sentenced to ten years of probation, spawning outraged headlines and commentary.

Other examples include the “Twinkie defense” (in which the lawyers for Dan White, convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the killing of two people including Harvey Milk in 1979, claimed that the crime was due to underlying depression as indicated by his consumption of Hostess Twinkies); and the November 2018 acquittal of a man in Ireland whose defense lawyer, Elizabeth O’Connell, asked the jury to consider whether the alleged victim’s thong underwear indicated her interest in him. The remarks were rightly and widely denounced across Ireland, from the Parliament to social media, where photos of thongs circulated with the hashtag #ThisIsNotConsent.

A widely-shared meme on December 9, 2018 stated that “Adult Brock Turner only served 3 months for raping an unconscious woman because serving jail time would ‘ruin his life,’” and compared his sentence to the case of teenager Cyntoia Brown, who was sentenced to 51 years in jail for murder but later granted clemency and released after serving 15 years for the killing. There are of course real racial sentencing discrepancies (despite the significant differences between these two cases), but part of the message is demonstrably false.

 

The judge in Turner’s case, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky, never said that the sentence reflected a desire not to “ruin his life.” That phrase was used by Turner’s father, not the judge. Persky did indicate leniency toward Turner in sentencing, but he did not reference the infamous phrase widely attributed to him, and since Turner’s father didn’t impose the sentence on his son, it’s not correct that Turner “only served 3 months… because serving jail time would ‘ruin his life.’”

In any event the public made their displeasure with the penalty known. Judge Persky was the subject of a successful effort to have him removed from the bench; he was recalled in June 2018, the first California judge recalled in 80 years. In fact California passed a law mandating minimum sentences in sexual assault cases and minimizing judicial discretion in such cases as a direct result of the Turner sentence.

Information Gap Between Juries and the Public

Judges and juries are subject to strict, and often arcane, rules about sentencing. In many cases they have far less discretion than the layperson assumes. A murdered victim’s family may believe that nothing less than the death penalty or twenty years in prison could begin to punish a convicted defendant for their loved one’s death, but if under the law—and the specific circumstances of that case—only manslaughter or negligent homicide apply, the defendant is likely to get a far more “lenient” (but judicially appropriate) penalty. Judges and juries are neither expected nor required to explain their reasons for convictions or sentencing.

The concern and outrage in these cases may be real and legitimate, but it’s important not to mistake a legal defense strategy for an accused criminal with tacit social endorsement of that claim. In these cases it’s often assumed, rightly or wrongly, that the defense’s argument influenced the outcome of the case or sentence given by a judge or jury in the case. Often there’s no reason to believe that; the judge in Couch’s case gave no explanation for her decision nor did the Irish jury of eight men and four women. There could have been any number of reasons why the defense prevailed in these cases (compelling exculpatory evidence, eyewitness testimony, and so on), and the judgments could well have been rendered despite—not because of—the inflammatory defenses.

The public—informed not by judicial standards of evidence but incomplete and often-sensationalized media stories—assume that they understand why judges and juries render their decisions, though they rarely do. For example when Bill Cosby was convicted after a previous acquittal, many in the news media attributed the difference to the emergence of the #MeToo movement, though jurors later said it had nothing to do with their decision.

Just because one part of a person’s defense garners attention or outrage doesn’t necessarily mean it is the only, or even the most important, aspect. The arguments made by defense lawyers (much less the defendant’s parents) are not, and should not be, assumed to represent the values, opinions, or beliefs of the public at large. As is often the case, the fact that these positions spark widespread public approbation reveals just how unpopular they are.

Apr 152021
 

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).

Apr 022021
 

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! 

Mar 252021
 

I often investigate claims about psychic detectives, and last year I researched claims made by psychics in the tragic case of a missing Ohio boy in late 2020. He went missing without a trace, and several psychics gave information about where he was; what did they say and how accurate was it?

My article is now online; you and read it HERE.

You can also hear about the case on Squaring the Strange! It’s in Part 2 HERE, but also check out Part 1, with Kenny Biddle and Celestia Ward, where they investigated other disappearances; it’s HERE. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mar 222021
 

The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out, with folklorist Prof. Jeannie Banks Thomas on how folklore can help people judge questionable online claims. Seemingly legit warnings might just be a rumor or legend, and even folklorists can be fooled about what’s what. We end with a discussion of strangeness at the Denver International Airport.

Check it out HERE! 

 

Feb 182021
 

The new documentary Feels Good Mandirected 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 Machinewhich 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 CultureProf. 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. 

 

A longer version of this article appeared on my CFI blog; you can read it HERE. 

 

Feb 152021
 

I’m quoted in an article from McGill University’s Office for Science and Society on the topic of… alleged twin telepathy.

As one is…. 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! 

Feb 052021
 

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!

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 302021
 

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jan 282021
 

 I wrote an article investigating the infamous “Women-Only Wonder Woman” screenings in 2017. It was a fascinating hoax that exploited social media and social justice, reaping huge publicity and lawsuits–and an apology from the theater.

 

The long-delayed, highly-anticipated sequel to the 2017 film Wonder Woman finally hit screens last month. Wonder Woman 1984 opened to decidedly mixed reviews, but it would be hard to live up to its predecessor. The original film was a commercial and critical blockbuster hit, earning over $820 million to date and a 93% Certified Fresh rating on the film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. There were many reasons the film did well, including strong performance by Gal Gadot, a solid script, an empowering female-led cast and crew, good special effects, and so on.

Less attention has been paid to the savvy grassroots marketing of the film, which effectively harnessed social media and social justice outrage. A closer look at the situation through the lenses of media literacy and critical thinking reveal a fascinating—and fabricated—story.

The most effective advertising and marketing campaigns are those in which the audience willingly—even enthusiastically—engages with the brand. The vast majority of advertisements are ignored, many are outright mocked and some are vilified. American media consumers, having grown up in a world cluttered with commercial jingles and ads, are largely jaded and cynical.

Technology makes it easier than ever to skip over ads, and many people pay premiums for advertisement-free entertainment services. Spam filters are very efficient at diverting emailed advertisements, and phones are more adept than ever before at blocking advertisements routed by telephone (an estimated 4 to 5 billion robocalls are made each month to people in the United States, with only a tiny percentage of them—annoying as they are—reaching consumers).

But now and then advertisers strike gold, finding ways to make audiences do their work for them, sharing their memorable message on social media in ways that only billions of marketing dollars possibly could. Superbowl halftime ads, for example, generate attention and interest weeks before the event, with news media playing their role in “reporting” on the funny/shocking/cute/edgy ads that “everyone will be talking about around the office watercooler” the next day. Rarely are so many TV viewers so eager to watch television commercials.

The Superbowl only comes once a year, however, and clever marketers have found other ways to use the news media as their platform, seamlessly blending social commentary and advertising. One of the best known examples is the Dove “Real Beauty” campaign, which garnered girl-power cred—and some inevitable backlash from feminists—by emphasizing the beauty in “ordinary women.” Its (real or perceived) newsworthiness kept it in the public eye for years.

The wildly popular and much-discussed campaign was produced by Dove/Unilever, a multi-billion dollar brand. Smaller, independent companies who can’t afford such a slick campaign need to be resourceful and find cheap but effective ways to distinguish themselves from competitors; often this means guerrilla and grassroots marketing using stunts or gimmicks to gain news media attention.

Making your brand legitimately newsworthy isn’t easy, but doing so is part of many marketing strategies. Every minute of being mentioned in “news”reports—assuming the coverage is positive or at least neutral, of course—is worth far more than a comparable minute of straight-up traditional advertising or infomercials. Many people skip over, tune out, and ignore commercials, but when a company or brand is mentioned as part of the news, it garners much more active attention.

Sometimes this technique backfires, as happened in 2007 when mysterious devices promoting the Turner Cartoon Network’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force show were mistaken for bombs and caused terrorism scares in Boston and other cities. But usually such campaigns make a small blip and then quickly fade away.

One way to give your advertising campaign longevity is to piggyback it onto a topic that people already care about—and, ideally, consider themselves activists for, such as environmentalism or social justice—and let them do your work for you. Instead of creating a demand and then selling your product to fill that demand, demonstrate how your brand aligns with their pre-existing worldview and concerns, and let the social media public promote you.

Which brings us to the Alamo Draft House, a small theater chain founded in Austin, Texas, in 1997. Part of the Alamo’s appeal (and its fame) is its quirky cinemaphile focus. Patrons are not merely discouraged from talking or texting during screenings but have been removed from the theater for doing so! Toddlers are restricted to certain showings, and audience members are often encouraged to participate by dressing up for themed occasions. The chain has 40 theaters across the country, half of them in Texas.

The ‘Clowns Only’ It Screenings

In 2017, and again in 2019, the Alamo held “clowns only” screenings of the horror movie It (parts 1 and 2, respectively) featuring Pennywise the clown. Non-clowns (or at least those not dressed as clowns) were (supposedly) barred from the screenings.

As an Uproxx article noted, “Who needs nightmares when you can be traumatized by creepy-ass clowns in person? The Alamo Drafthouse is celebrating the arrival of the 2017 cinematic take on Stephen King’s It with a clown-only screening of the movie. The Austin location of the theater chain will cater to a clown-specific audience on September 9th with a special screening of It. All attendees are expected to be done up like a clown (I can count the Captain Spauldings already) and can also visit ‘an IT pre-party where we will have face-painters available for clown ‘touch-ups,’ a photo booth, raffles for prizes, and other terrifying merriment.’” A writer for GQ attended the 2019 event and noted that clown attire (such as red noses and funny hats) was available at the door for people who showed up for the screenings without the “required” clown costume.

Headlines universally described the Alamo’s “clowns only” screening—but in fact no “clowns only” policy was enforced; for example the September 9, 2017 “clown-only” screening at the Alamo merely requested that “all attendees should arrive dressed as a clown.” It was just a silly publicity stunt that got the desired national media attention. Few questioned the truth of the advertising claim or the news media’s reporting of it; after all, it’s not as if any non-clowns were upset at being excluded. A few years earlier, however, it had been an entirely different situation.

The ‘Women Only’ Wonder Woman Screenings

When it came to scaring up controversy, Pennywise had nothing on Wonder Woman. As successful as the “clowns only” screening was, the Alamo had been more successful at courting publicity and headlines in 2017 by advertising an all-female screening of Wonder Woman; not only would female patrons be the only ones be admitted according to advertising, but “Everyone working at this screening—venue staff, projectionist, and culinary team—will be female.”

Given the Alamo’s well-known strict intolerance regarding violating theater etiquette and policies, the idea that it would hold female-only screenings sounded perfectly plausible. Most people took it seriously, and misunderstood what was going on. Dozens of journalists jumped on the bandwagon, smelling a great story.

When the screenings were announced, they were greeted with widespread approval. The first screening sold out in hours, and additional screenings were slated. The stunt worked perfectly, generating controversy and sympathetic news headlines while scoring female empowerment points and endearing the theater chain to legions of fans. A handful of people complained, sparking a predictable backlash of outrage that garnered the theater millions of dollars in further free publicity.

As it turned out, however, the Alamo was joking; paying male patrons were not refused entry to any “all-female” Wonder Woman screenings. It was a clever response by Alamo, anticipating and exploiting an equally predictable social media “outrage.”

The Alamo expertly manipulated social justice activists by creating a marketing narrative in which they were the heroes, bravely battling censorship and standing up for women’s safe spaces, “girl power,” and feminism. Activists and journalists didn’t get the joke, and the Alamo laughed all the way to the bank (at least at first). In their rush to generate clickbait headlines about a company providing women refuge from our society’s rampant misogyny the news media got it wrong—not once but twice. Not only did the news and social media misunderstand whether the “women only” screenings had actually occurred, but they also misunderstood who was complaining about it and why.

Was There a Women-Only Wonder Woman Screening?

As with the “clowns only” It screenings—which encouraged clowns but did not prohibit non-clowns from attending—the “women only” Wonder Woman screening encouraged women (more specifically, “people who identify as women,” presumably signaling Alamo’s nonbinary inclusiveness) to attend but didn’t actually prohibit non-women from attending.

Not only were men not denied entry to Wonder Woman, but the stunt backfired when two complaints were made about the screenings. These complaints added fuel to the fire and amplified the narrative that imagined hordes of misogynists were throwing petulant tantrums about not being allowed to see that specific screening. The Alamo enjoyed a second wave of publicity, this one greater than the first.

Amid all the hand-waving, self-righteousness, and troll-baiting, a little detail was lost: the screenings were in fact illegal. Even though no enforced “women-only” Wonder Woman screenings took place, the Alamo’s advertisements that there would be violated the law. Austin equality codes prohibit any public accommodation (restaurants, movie theaters, bars, community centers, etc.) from limiting their services based on a variety of factors including race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on.

‘Angry Men’

Many news reports simply stated that “some men” were upset at the women-only screenings. Few, however, bothered to take a closer look at who, exactly, those “some men” were, and what specifically their complaints were. Journalists accepted the most obvious answer—and took at face value the seemingly self-evident assumption that tone-deaf misogynists were the ones making a fuss. Many journalists didn’t bother to survey the social media responses beyond simply offering screen captures of various tweets, a process guaranteed to highlight the most extreme voices and thereby exaggerate the controversy (New York Times writer Jim Rutenberg hyperbolically referred to the incident as “causing an international uproar” in his June 5, 2017, article; the Times did not respond to a request for clarification).

 

To be sure, there were plenty of tweets to choose from, and in a social media world where even innocuous cat videos can generate controversy—never mind “debates” about the color of a dress or which way toilet paper should correctly unspool—it wasn’t hard to sift out some obnoxious responses.

The mayor of Austin, for example, received a bizarre, ranting email from a Richard A. Ameduri who wrote in part, “I hope every man will boycott Austin and do what he can to diminish Austin and to cause damage to the city’s image. The theater that pandered to the sexism typical of women will, I hope, regret its decision.” The mayor gamely counter-trolled: “I am writing to alert you that your email account has been hacked by an unfortunate and unusually hostile individual. Please remedy your account’s security right away, lest this person’s uninformed and sexist rantings give you a bad name. After all, we men have to look out for each other! . . . You and I are serious men of substance with little time for the delicate sensitivities displayed by the pitiful creature who maligned your good name and sterling character by writing that abysmal email. I trust the news that your email account has been hacked does not cause you undue alarm and wish you well in securing your account.”

The rant was widely and rightly mocked, and, with Ameduri quickly and spectacularly shot down in flames, another man soon became the new face of the seemingly misogynistic anti-Wonder Woman crusade. Unlike the noisy, mostly-anonymous online trolls and Ameduri, he took it to a whole new level and actually filed a formal complaint with the city of Austin. The Alamo’s many supporters on social media greeted the news with a mix of outrage and mockery.

Who was this angry incel, this misogynist who couldn’t stand to let women have their own screening? It was a law professor in Albany, New York, named Stephen Clark. As Salon noted, Clark “explained that the promotion of the screenings didn’t sit well with him. ‘I’m a specialist in anti-discrimination law, so I was fairly certain that this was not lawful,’ he told MyStatesman. ‘If they were trying to do a gay-only Brokeback Mountain, I would feel the same way.’” (Salon writer Alessandra Maldonado, like the Alamo, denigrated Clark’s defense of anti-discrimination laws as “whining.”)

Peter Holley profiled the chief complainant for The Washington Post: “Stephen Clark almost let it slide. The theater was 2,000 miles away in Austin, and there was no chance he was going to show up there to see a movie anyway. As a gay man who considers himself sensitive to historically disadvantaged groups, there was even a part of him that saw the value of a celebratory, women-only screening of Wonder Woman. But Clark… changed his mind when he looked up Alamo Drafthouse’s Facebook page and began reading the heated exchanges between the theater’s management and the frustrated men calling the venue’s women-only events ‘discriminatory.’”

The Alamo’s snarky tone on social media in response to (what turned out to be legitimate) complaints was another calculated effort to endear itself to audiences. Alamo fueled the flames of controversy by characterizing the complaints as completely baseless, misogynistic, and malicious. Morgan Hendrix, Alamo creative manager, said that the fact that the event “has incurred the wrath of trolls only serves to deepen our belief that we’re doing something right.” Clark found that attitude “brazen” and dismissive: “I understand the reason for creating a women-only event, but the equality principle is fundamental…. There are men in Austin who would like to celebrate women’s empowerment. There are women in Austin who would like to go to this event with their gay best friend, and they can’t under this rule.”

The Washington Post added, “He alleged that the Drafthouse’s women-only event—as it was described in the theater’s advertising—discriminated against male customers based on their gender. Citing the theater’s promise to staff only women at the events, Clark also alleged that the Drafthouse was illegally engaging in employment discrimination. ‘It’s the principle of the thing,’ he told the Post, ‘I’m a gay man, and I’ve studied and taught gay rights for years. Our gay bars have long said that you do not exclude people because they’re gay or straight or transgender—you just can’t do that for any reason . . . . We have to deal with the bachelorette parties that come to the gay bar,’ he added. ‘They’re terribly disruptive, but if you forbid women from coming to a gay bar, you’re starting down a slippery slope. It’s discrimination.’”

It was of course too late for the Alamo to publicly admit that the women-only screenings were a prank, something they never really planned to enforce; they had legions of fans defending them and encouraging them on social media. It’s not clear when they realized that their actions may have been illegal, but at any rate the theater chain decided to double down. While (justifiably) flipping the bird at the (seeming) hordes of cranky basement-dwelling misogynist manbabies online who apparently couldn’t bear women having their own screenings, they also did the same to advocates who had no problem with women—but had a very real problem with gender discrimination. That would be their undoing.

Stacy Hawkins, an associate professor of law at Rutgers University who specializes in employment law, civil rights and diversity, agreed with Clark, explaining to The Washington Post that “As far as public accommodations are concerned, I can tell you in no uncertain terms that the reason this case was filed under the Austin city code is that it prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.” Hawkins noted that “the entire controversy could have been avoided with a simple tweak in the theater’s advertising. ‘Just eliminate ‘no men welcome’ language,’ she said. ‘You try to make sure you demonstrate this is an event for and about women and, most likely, men aren’t going to show up.’” It’s classic human behavior: Tell people they can’t do something, and suddenly they want to do it—just to prove a point, not because they necessarily care a whit about it. The Alamo understood this bit of psychology and deftly used it to its advantage.

A second complaint, from an Austin resident named Mingfey Fan, also argued that “the very act of advertising violated the Code . . . the discriminatory screening should not be allowed.” Fan withdrew the complaint after the Alamo addressed his complaint with respect instead of mockery, admitted it had in fact violated the law, and sent him a DVD of the film.

Mea Culpa

Once lawyers got involved, after profits had been made and publicity garnered, the Alamo decided to come clean. First it admitted that the women-only Wonder Woman screenings were a prank, something they had led people to believe they would do, but never actually did, and had in fact never planned to do: As the Dallas News reported, “The chain’s director of real estate and development, Missy Reynolds, said . . . that the theaters would not, in fact, have turned away any men who bought tickets to the screening.”

In a letter to the city, the Alamo apologized for the screenings and admitted they had made mistakes, violating Austin’s anti-discrimination laws. It read in part, “Respondent did not realize that advertising a ‘women’s-only’ screening was a violation of discrimination laws. . . . Respondent has a very strict non-discrimination policy in place, but this policy did NOT include a specific prohibition against advertising.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Alamo agreed to revise its anti-discrimination policy to comply with local ordinances, and the matter was done. When the dust had settled (and after outrage profits were reaped), with hindsight it’s clear that the imagined hordes of angry men pounding on the Alamo theater’s doors demanding to be let in to see Wonder Woman never existed except as virtual boogeymen in the skewed online world, where public perception often veers markedly from reality. The myth wasn’t created by accident or coincidence, but instead was a golem cobbled together from scraps of advertising gimmickry, social narrative, clickbait outrage, and superficial journalism.

The idea of the “clowns only” It screenings—like that of the “women only” Wonder Woman screenings—was a misleading media myth that the Alamo had no reason to correct and every incentive to promote. When a priceless publicity stunt works, you stick with it. While some may feel that the Alamo profiting from social justice was crass, others marvel at the genius of its marketing stunts. 

Social Justice-Driven Box Office

Other films in recent years have also generated free publicity (and millions of dollars) by casting themselves as somehow oppressed, or outsiders battling the status quo. Perhaps the best known example is the 2014 film The Interview, which sparked controversy when its studio, Sony Pictures, was warned not to release it—presumably at the behest of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who in the film is not only mocked but also the target of an assassination plot. Apparently giving in to censorious threats, Sony reportedly cancelled all plans to screen The Interview, on the premise that it was better that no one saw the film than anyone be injured or killed by a terrorist act at one of the screenings. This in turn led to an outpouring of public support, with moviegoers proudly announcing their determination to see the film (sometimes repeatedly), in an explicit effort to spite Kim Jong Un. Sony came under fire for caving in to terrorist threats by scuttling the film. 

However, as in the Alamo screenings, Sony’s critics were acting on—and reacting to—misinformation. As The New York Times noted, Sony never planned a total blackout of the film, as had been widely reported. They had left the choice of whether or not the screen the film to theater owners—who had chosen not to. (For more on this, see my January 7, 2015 article “Censorship and Free Speech: Did Sony Really Cancel The Interview?”)

The internet being what it is, just about any news story will inevitably bring out some contrarians and trolls. This is especially true for controversial topics such as gender, race, religion, gun control, and so on. Faux outrage, marketing stunts, and manufactroversies are nothing new, of course. But they can have real consequences when people don’t see through the deception. Tens of millions of Americans, for example, likely remember a fictional widespread misogynistic outrage at an independent theater that dared to hold Wonder Woman screenings just for women.

As is always the case, the initial outrage got widespread publicity while the second half of the story—including the fact that the Alamo admitted that its women-only Wonder Woman screening had been a hoax (and publicity stunt)—got very little attention. There are plenty of real-world, legitimate examples of widespread sexism, but the reaction to the “women only” Wonder Woman publicity stunt was not among them. Skepticism, critical thinking, and media literacy are the best defenses against being manipulated by the media.

 

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

 

Jan 252021
 

In the recent episode of Squaring the Strange we discuss the Capitol rioters, then debunk many vaccine fears including about Andrew Wakefield’s bogus MMR-autism link study and myths about Covid vaccine harms. Check it out HERE! 

 

 

Jan 232021
 

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! 

 

Jan 202021
 

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.

Randi and I, with Angie Mattke, about to go on stage at DragonCon. Photo by Susan Gerbic.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dec 302020
 

Pleased to announce that my new book ‘Big– If True: Adventures in Oddity’ is now available in paperback and Kindle. Please check it out if you feel so inclined! You can get it HERE!

 

Dec 252020
 

In a previous blog I discussed my research into an ugly episode of racial hatred that tainted the 2016 holiday season. The Mall of America hired its first African-American Santa Claus, an Army veteran named Larry Jefferson. A local newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, carried a story about it on Dec. 1. Later that night an editorial page editor for the Tribune, Scott Gillespie, tweeted: “Looks like we had to turn comments off on story about Mall of America’s first black Santa. Merry Christmas everyone!” Overnight and the next morning his tweet went viral and served as the basis for countless news stories with headlines such as “Paper Forced to Close Comments On Mall Of America’s First Black Santa Thanks to Racism” (Jezebel) and “Racists Freak Out Over Black Santa At Mall Of America” (Huffington Post).

George Takei responded the next day via Twitter: “Watching people meltdown over a black Santa in the Mall of America. ‘Santa is white!’ Well, in our internment camp he was Asian. So there.” It was also mocked by Trevor Noah on Comedy Central, and elsewhere.

Yet every major news outlet missed the real story. They failed to check facts. My research (including an interview with Gillespie) eventually revealed that the racial incident never actually occurred, and that–despite public opinion and nearly two million news articles to the contrary–the Star Tribune did not receive a single hate-filled message in the comments section of its story on Jefferson. What happened was the product of a series of misunderstandings and a lack of fact-checking, fueled in part by confirmation bias and amplified by the digital age (for a detailed look at the case see my CFI blog “The True, Heartwarming Story of the Mall of America’s Black Santa.”)

I’ve been writing about journalism errors and media literacy for two decades (including in my book Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us), and usually there’s relatively little pushback (except, perhaps, from journalists reluctant to acknowledge errors). However a curious part of this story was the criticism I received on social media for even researching it. Perhaps the best example was when I responded to a post about the initial story on a fellow skeptic’s Facebook page. She and all of her friends on the thread took the erroneous news story at face value (which didn’t surprise me, as virtually everyone did) but what did surprise me was the suggestion that trying to uncover the truth was unseemly or even “a distraction tactic.”

One person wrote, “I actually can’t believe that a self proclaimed skeptic is even having this argument in a country that just elected Donald Trump. It’s not skepticism when it disregards the proven fact that a great deal of the country, enough to elect a president, are straight up racist.” Of course I never questioned whether many or most Americans were racist. My question was very specific, clear, and about the factual basis for this one specific incident. Neither Trump’s election nor the existence of racism in America are relevant to whether or not the Tribune had to shut down its comments section in response to a deluge of hatred against a black Santa.

The ‘Distraction’ Tactic

One person wrote that me asking how many people objected to the black Santa was “a distraction tactic–now we can talk about how most people are not racist and change the subject from racism.” I was stunned. I had no idea that asking if anyone knew how many people complained would or could be construed as somehow trying to distract people (from what to what?). I replied, “Trying to quantify and understand an issue is not a ‘distraction tactic.’ I have no interest in distracting anyone from anything.’” No one–and certainly not me–was suggesting that a certain number of racists upset over a black Santa was okay or acceptable. I never suggested or implied that if it was “only” ten or twenty or a hundred, that everyone should be fine with it.

But knowing the scope of the issue does help us understand the problem: Is it really irrelevant whether there were zero, ten, or ten thousand racist commenters? If Trump can be widely (and rightly) criticized for exaggerating the crowd at his inauguration speech as “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration–period” when in fact it was several orders of magnitude smaller, why is asking how many people complained about a mall Santa so beyond the pale?

Usually when I encounter claims of investigating being a distraction in my research it was itself a distraction tactic, an attempt to head off inquiry that might debunk a claim or show that some assumption or conclusion was made in error–not unlike the Wizard of Oz pleading for Dorothy and her gang not to look behind the curtain. (“Why are you asking questions about where I suddenly got this important UFO-related document?” or “Asking for evidence of my faith healer’s miracle healings is just a distraction from his holy mission” doesn’t deter any journalist or skeptic worth his or her salt.) If a claim is valid and factual, there’s no reason why anyone would object to confirming that; as Thomas Paine noted, “It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry.”

I tried to remember where else I’d heard the phrase used, when someone who was asked about something called the questions a “distraction.” Finally I realized where that tactic had become common: In the Trump administration. When Donald Trump was asked about a leaked Access Hollywood recording of him bragging about groping women sexually, he dismissed the questions–and indeed the entire issue–as “nothing more than a distraction from the important issues we’re facing today.”

Similarly, when Vice-President Pence was asked in January 2017 about whether the Trump campaign had any contacts with Russia during the campaign, he replied, “This is all a distraction, and it’s all part of a narrative to delegitimize the election.” Others in the Trump administration (including White House spokespeople) have repeatedly waved off journalists’ questions as distractions as well.

This is not particularly surprising, but it was odd to see some of my most virulent anti-Trump friends (and Facebook Friends) using and embracing exactly the same tactics Trump does to discourage questions.

There is one important difference: In my judgment Trump and his surrogates use the tactic cynically (knowing full well that the issues and questions being asked are legitimate), while those who criticized me were using the tactic sincerely; being charitable, I have no reason to think that they realized that the black Santa story and reportage had been widely (if not universally) misunderstood. But the intention and effect were the same: An attempt to discourage someone from looking beyond the surface to see what’s really going on, and attempt to separate truth from fact.

Importance of Due Diligence

A recent news story highlights the value and importance of bringing at least some skepticism to claims: Recently a woman approached reporters at The Washington Post with a potentially explosive story: that embattled Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore had impregnated her as a teenager and forced her to have an abortion. This would of course be a potentially devastating revelation for the conservative Moore, already under fire for dating (and allegedly sexually assaulting) teenagers.

According to the Post, “In a series of interviews over two weeks, the woman [Jaime T. Phillips] shared a dramatic story about an alleged sexual relationship with Moore in 1992 that led to an abortion when she was 15. During the interviews, she repeatedly pressed Post reporters to give their opinions on the effects that her claims could have on Moore’s candidacy if she went public. The Post did not publish an article based on her unsubstantiated account. When Post reporters confronted her with inconsistencies in her story and an Internet posting that raised doubts about her motivations, she insisted that she was not working with any organization that targets journalists. Monday morning, Post reporters saw her walking into the New York offices of Project Veritas, an organization that targets the mainstream news media and left-leaning groups. The organization sets up undercover ‘stings’ that involve using false cover stories and covert video recordings meant to expose what the group says is media bias.”

The Post reporter, Beth Reinhard, “explained to Phillips that her claims would have to be fact-checked. Additionally, Reinhard asked her for documents that would corroborate or support her story.” Reinhard and the Washington Post did not ask for evidence to establish the truth of Phillips’s account because they doubted that sexual assaults occur, or that Phillips may indeed have been sexually assaulted by Moore–in fact quite the opposite, since the Post was the first to break the story and publish accusations by Moore’s accusers–but instead because they were doing their due diligence as journalists. Investigative journalists and skeptics don’t question claims and ask for evidence because they necessarily doubt what they’re being told; they do it because they want to be sure they understand the facts.

Had The Washington Post not questioned the story–or been deterred by accusations that trying to establish the truth of Phillips’s claims was some sort of “distraction” tactic–the paper’s credibility would have been damaged when Phillips’s false accusation would have quickly been revealed, and the Post’s failure to do basic research used to cast doubt on the previous women’s accusations against Moore. Martin Baron, the Post‘s executive editor, said that the false accusations were “the essence of a scheme to deceive and embarrass us. The intent by Project Veritas clearly was to publicize the conversation if we fell for the trap. Because of our customary journalistic rigor, we weren’t fooled.”

What Happened?

There are several critical thinking and media literacy failures here. Perhaps the most basic is where the burden of proof lies: with the person making the claim. In fact I wasn’t making a claim at all; I was merely asking for evidence of a widely-reported claim. I honestly had no idea how many or how few Tribune readers had complained about Jefferson, and I wouldn’t have even thought to question it if Gillespie hadn’t issued a tweet that contradicted the thesis of the then-viral news story.

The black Santa outrage story is full of assumptions, mostly about the bad intentions of other people. To the best of my knowledge I’m the only person who dug deeper into the story to uncover what really happened–and for that I was told that I was causing a “distraction” and even hints that I had some unspecified unseemly motive.

It’s also important to understand why a person’s questions are being challenged in the first place. It’s often due to tribalism and a lack of charity. CSCIOP cofounder Ray Hyman, in his influential short piece titled “Proper Criticism discusses eight principles including the principle of charity. “The principle of charity implies that, whenever there is doubt or ambiguity about a paranormal claim, we should try to resolve the ambiguity in favor of the claimant until we acquire strong reasons for not doing so. In this respect, we should carefully distinguish between being wrong and being dishonest. We often can challenge the accuracy or validity of a given paranormal claim. But rarely are we in a position to know if the claimant is deliberately lying or is self-deceived. Furthermore, we often have a choice in how to interpret or represent an opponent’s arguments. The principle tell us to convey the opponent’s position in a fair, objective, and non-emotional manner.”

To scientists, journalists, and skeptics, asking for evidence is an integral part of the process of parsing fact from fiction, true claims from false ones. If you want me to believe a claim–any claim, from advertising claims to psychic powers, conspiracy theories to the validity of repressed memories–I’m going to ask for evidence. It doesn’t mean I think (or assume) you’re wrong or lying, it just means I want a reason to believe what you tell me. This is especially true for memes and factoids shared on social media and designed to elicit outrage or scorn.

But to most people who don’t have a background in critical thinking, journalism, skepticism, or media literacy, asking for evidence is akin to a challenge to their honesty. Theirs is a world in which personal experience and anecdote are self-evidently more reliable than facts and evidence. And it’s also a world in which much of the time when claims are questioned, it’s in the context of confrontation. To a person invested in the truth of a given narrative, any information that seems to confirm that idea is much more easily seen and remembered than information contradicting the idea; that’s the principle of confirmation bias. Similarly, when a person shares information on social media it’s often because they endorse the larger message or narrative, and they get upset if that narrative is questioned or challenged. From a psychological point of view, this heuristic is often accurate: Much or most of the time when a person’s statement or claim is challenged (in informal settings or social media for example), the person asking the question does indeed have a vested interest.

The problem is when the person does encounter someone who is sincerely trying to understand an issue or get to the bottom of a question, their knee-jerk reaction is often to assume the worst about them. They are blinded by their own biases and they project those biases on others. This is especially true when the subject is controversial, such as with race, gender, or politics. To them, the only reason a person would question a claim is if they are trying to discredit that claim, or a larger narrative it’s being offered in support of.

Of course that’s not true; people should question all claims, and especially claims that conform to their pre-existing beliefs and assumptions; those are precisely the ones most likely to slip under the critical thinking radar and become incorporated into your beliefs and opinions. I question claims from across the spectrum, including those from sources I agree with. To my mind the other approach has it backwards: How do you know whether to believe a claim if you don’t question it?

My efforts to research and understand this story were borne not of any doubt that racism exists, nor that Jefferson was subjected to it, but instead of a background in media literacy and a desire to reconcile two contradictory accounts about what happened. Outrage-provoking stories on social media–especially viral ones based on a single, unconfirmed informal tweet– should concern all of us in this age of misinformation and “fake news.”

The real tragedy in this case 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 bringing hope, love, and peace to girls and boys, he will forever be known for enduring a (fictional) deluge of bilious racist hatred.

The fact that Jefferson was bombarded by love and support from the general public (and most whites) should offer hope and comfort this holiday season. A few anonymous cranks, trolls, 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 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. 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–and the truth matters.

 

A longer version of this story appeared on the Center for Inquiry blog; you can read it HERE. 
 

 

Dec 242020
 

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.

blacksantatweet

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.

Merry Christmas.

 

A longer version of this article appeared on my Center for Inquiry blog; you can read it HERE

Dec 212020
 

“This episode we discuss the otherworldly monolith that’s popped up in a remote part of Utah, and Ben shares another in his series of “used book mysteries,” this one perfectly timed for the election. For our main segment, we have a lengthy discussion with newly minted CFI fellow (and just plain jolly good fellow) Kenny Biddle. Ben and Kenny bring up some of their investigative heroes, lay out some principles of skeptical investigation, and tell us why they have a passion for digging into cold-case mysteries. Good advice to be had for anyone who wants to sharpen their investigation tool set.”

 

You can listen to the episode HERE! 

 

Dec 182020
 

In early May 2020, a YouTube video titled Plandemic was released by Mikki Willis (credited onscreen as “father/filmaker”[sic]) that featured a lengthy interview with virologist Judy Mikovits, who offered scattershot conspiracy-laden assertions about the “truth” behind the COVID-19 pandemic, prefaced by claims of having been framed for a crime (she was charged with theft in 2011) and accusations of government coverups going back decades involving various medical authorities, including Dr. Anthony Fauci. 

Willis’s voiceover gravely warned that “for exposing their deadly secrets, the minions of Big Pharma have waged war on Dr. Mikovits,” who in the film—and, not coincidentally, in her new book—bravely reveals “the plague of corruption that places all human life in danger.” 

 

Dozens of claims appeared in the twenty-six-minute video, some of which are unverifiable—as conspiracy theories tend to be. But many statements made by Mikovits have been investigated and proven to be misleading or simply false. Within weeks, the video was widely shared on social media, often by ostensibly non-conspiracy promoters who were “just asking questions.” The video was soon identified by social media platforms as containing dangerous misinformation and was subsequently removed. This in turn reinforced the idea that the views were being silenced and censored by Big Pharma, Big Tech, or some other sinister, shadowy Big. 

Questions were raised by reputable journalists for publications including The Washington Post and The Atlantic, as well as Politifact and the Center for Inquiry. For an expert and filmmaker who claim to have been censored and silenced, Mikovits and Willis were strangely silent about answering legitimate questions. 

The video was released on May 4; it’s now the week after Thanksgiving. Nearly seven months have passed since Mikovits and Willis made their claims. How have their claims and predictions held up? 

There’s a lot to unpack in the video, but given the widespread audience that Plandemic had, it’s worth revisiting some claims and taking a closer look at its basic assumptions. It’s understandable that many in the public may have found this conspiracy theory plausible in the first few months of the pandemic. After all, there was a morass of misinformation and contradictory predictions and models, along with the typical perils of incomplete information during a global pandemic. 

Simply making predictions about COVID—or anything—is easy to do. Trump, for example, claimed on February 10, 2020, that the virus “will go away in April.” It did not. On February 27, he claimed that “It’s going to disappear. One day—it’s like a miracle—it will disappear.” It may or may not eventually disappear, but so far it’s ravaged the world. Throughout the remaining months Trump repeatedly—dozens of times—claimed that the virus would just “disappear” or  “go away.” Early predictions may have been plausible, but as month after month passed and it didn’t go away, you don’t need to be a stable genius to realize that he was flat wrong. Whatever the skeptics and critics said, time is the ultimate proof: Either it happened or it didn’t, and no amount of rationalizing can salvage it. 

As I noted in an article I wrote for this page in April:

The record of wrong predictions about the coronavirus is long and grows by the hour. Around Valentine’s Day, the director of policy and emergency preparedness for the New Orleans health department, Sarah Babcock, said that Mardi Gras celebrations two weeks later should proceed, predicting that “The chance of us getting someone with coronavirus is low.” That projection was wrong, dead wrong: a month later the city would have one of the worst outbreaks of COVID-19 in the country, with correspondingly high death rates. Other projections have overestimated the scale of infections, hospitalizations, and/or deaths. …  It’s not that epidemiologists and other health officials have all the data they need to make good decisions and projections about public health and are instead carefully considering ways to fake data to deceive the public and journalists. It’s that they don’t have all the data they need to make better predictions, and as more information comes in, the projections will get more accurate. 

 

We now have the benefit of hindsight and nearly seven months of experience and evidence since the Plandemic video went viral. Does what has happened over the past seven months suggest that Mikovits and Willis were telling the truth or that they were wrong (or lying)? Mikovits and Willis offered no evidence, and refused to answer any questions about, their claims. On that basis alone, we can conclude that there’s probably something sketchy going on. Because they refused to clarify or expand on their claims, I can only go by what they said in the video. 

The video contains dozens of claims and assertions, many of which aren’t specific enough to be proven true or false. But I’ll focus on three specific, key claims: 

1) The Plandemic video claims that masks “activate” the coronavirus and that the virus is more infectious for individuals wearing masks than for those not wearing masks. 

This claim is obviously and undeniably false. We know this because there is a proven inverse correlation between mask wearing and infection rates: the more often people (both on individual and population levels) wear masks, the less likely they are to contract the virus. If wearing masks “activated” the virus (whatever that would mean), then there would be a positive correlation between mask wearing and contracting illness. 

This was obvious even in May when the Plandemic video circulated, because toward the beginning of the outbreak most people were not wearing masks; if wearing a mask made you more vulnerable to the virus, then it wouldn’t have spread. If common sense (and a background in virology) don’t tell Mikovits that masks help prevent the spread of infectious airborne diseases, there are also a raft of recent studies demonstrating it

2) The video promotes hydroxychloroquine as effective against the virus and claims that “thousands of pages of data” have demonstrated the drug’s safety and efficacy. 

In fact, controlled clinical trials of the drug have been performed; they found elevated cardiac risks, and several placebo-controlled studies found no efficacy at all. As The Washington Post noted recently:

 

The Food and Drug Administration withdrew its emergency-use authorization for hydroxychloroquine in hospitalized patients in June, concluding that safety risks, including heart problems, outweighed any potential benefits. It has also warned against using the drug in outpatient settings, saying it could cause serious heart rhythm problems. The first randomized clinical trial later found that hydroxychloroquine was no more effective than a placebo at treating covid-19 in patients who were not hospitalized.

Trump’s own top health officials have explicitly said that the drug is not effective for COVID-19 patients. Notably, when President Trump became infected with the virus, he did not take hydroxychloroquine; more on that later. That, too, has been proven false. 

3) In the Plandemic video, Mikovicz states her key premise, a conspiracy that the pandemic was “planned” with the ultimate goal “to prevent the therapies until everyone is infected, then push the vaccines.” 

There are three distinct parts here: 1) “preventing the therapies” 2) until such time as “everyone is infected” and then finally 3) “pushing the vaccines.”

 

‘Preventing the Therapies’? 

Let’s start with “preventing the therapies”: which therapies, exactly, have been “prevented” from being used in COVID patients? There’s no evidence that any effective therapies have been prevented from being used on sick patients at all, ever. 

Mikovicz doesn’t say what therapies she’s referring to, but as noted it would presumably include hydroxychloroquine, which Trump has touted as well. And when Trump was diagnosed with COVID, which therapies were used in his recovery? Not the one endorsed by Mikovicz and Plandemic but instead a completely different therapy, an experimental antibody treatment

So far three vaccines have emerged from Phase 3 trials and applied for emergency use authorization from Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were developed using messenger RNA technology, which “use a snippet of the virus’s genetic code to instruct cells to build the spike protein on the surface of the coronavirus, teaching the immune system to recognize the real thing.” The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine uses a harmless virus to deliver “to the body’s cells the genetic code for the spike protein. The cells then make a replica of the spike protein and the immune system learns to recognize the real virus.” 

The reason you haven’t heard about a vaccine or treatment developed with hydroxychloroquine is simple: There isn’t one; it doesn’t work. The drug literally failed to help patients, so it’s (quite reasonably) not in the vaccines soon to be approved. The powerful, shadowy industry that Plandemic claimed would “prevent the therapies” didn’t actually prevent any therapies, so that’s also false. 

‘Everyone Infected’? 

We can move on to the second part of the claim, that the vaccines will be held back until such time as “everyone is infected.” This is nonsensical from a scientific point of view (and it’s astonishing that Mikovicz, who claims to be a brilliant virologist, didn’t know it), but if everyone is infected, then no vaccine is needed, because those who didn’t die from the virus would have some degree of immunity—the same protection that a vaccine provides, except of course without the severe lingering health damage that infection causes.

Maybe Mikovicz was using hyperbole (again, she didn’t respond to questions, so I can’t be sure what she meant), but as of this writing 60 million people around the world have contracted the virus, and 1.4 million of them have died; in the United States alone, there are 12.5 million cases and 260,000 deaths. 

When, exactly, does Mikovicz think the vaccines will be released, and why haven’t they been already? What is the magic number of sick and dead that Plandemic’s imaginary cabal of conspirators are waiting for? How many potential buyers have to get sick and die waiting for the vaccines she thinks are (or were) ready and just waiting to be released? Even in the pretzel-logic world of conspiracies, this one is bizarre. 

‘Pushing Vaccines’?

The claims made by Mikki Willis and Judy Mikovits in Plandemic have pretty clearly been proven wrong, but for the sake of completeness, let’s address the third part of her claim, that after “everyone” (or enough, though apparently we’re not there yet) people are infected, the conspirators will begin “pushing the vaccines.”

It’s true that health experts, the government, vaccine makers, and others are promoting (or “pushing” in conspiracy talk) the vaccines, but there’s nothing nefarious about it. As The New York Times noted, “Public messaging campaigns can be instrumental in persuading people to act in a health crisis. Travel advisories kept many pregnant tourists and business travelers away from areas struggling to contain the Zika epidemic in 2016, for instance.” Nor is there anything new about it; the Ad Council (a nonprofit organization that produces, distributes, and promotes public service announcements) is preparing campaigns encouraging people to get vaccinated. The organization did the same thing in the 1950s when it encouraged the public to get polio vaccinations, and if you don’t know anyone who has gotten polio in the past fifty years, it’s due in part to organizations “pushing the vaccines.”

Why would they care whether the public is vaccinated? Not because of some sinister conspiratorial motive but because COVID is not only a public health crisis but also a social and economic one. The more people are vaccinated, the sooner the general population is healthy and not straining intensive care units in hospitals across the country and around the world. The sooner people are vaccinated, the sooner businesses and schools can reopen. It’s not complicated. 

So, yes, health experts are encouraging the public to get vaccinated, though no one is, or will be, forced to. Vaccinations have never been mandatory in the United States; even children are not forced to be vaccinated if their parents choose to home school. When COVID-19 vaccines are available, if you don’t want to get it, that’s perfectly fine. Federal agents armed with automatic weapons in one hand and a vaccine syringe in the other aren’t going to be bursting through Americans’ doors to forcibly vaccinate anyone—fevered conspiracy fantasies to the contrary. 

Mikovits and Willis have refused to answer rebuttals and faded from the spotlight, silent for nearly half a year as the virus has continued to ravage the country and globe. Perhaps the reason is simple and both immoral and horrifying: Plandemic was never about finding truth but instead a wildly successful publicity stunt for Mikovits’s book Plague of Corruption (which soon topped best-seller lists with the help of anti-vaccination activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his foundation). 

It was all part of a cynical, dangerous, and astonishingly effective advertising campaign. The millions who shared, watched, and defended the Plandemic video were unwitting dupes who promoted a book of false conspiracy theories whose core message is harmful to public health and which fueled unfounded fears of vaccines against a potentially deadly virus. Plandemic, ironically, does exactly what Mikovits and Willis accuse Big Pharma and the medical industry of doing: exploits human lives and fears for profit. 

An October 2020 article by researchers at the Drexel University Dornsife School of Public Health published in The Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review confirms that the consequences of this marketing ploy could be dire:

 

Anti-vaccine activists produced Plandemic to increase vaccine hesitancy and decrease vaccination, but their lasting impact may be that it promoted cynicism about measures meant to prevent COVID-19 spread, such as use of face masks and social distancing. Disregarding these measures threatens public health and may only serve to extend the pandemic. Stopping the spread and influence of Plandemic—and related misinformation—is in the interest of the public’s health. 

 

Whether Mikovits and Willis truly believe their claims isn’t clear, but in any event their work is done. It was never about “exposing truth” or Big Pharma conspiracies but instead cleverly manipulating people on social media (and, by proxy, national news media covering the story) to get millions of dollars in free publicity for Mikovits’s book. Who are the real “sheeple” in this story, and what damage will they have done? 

 

A longer version of this piece appeared on the Center for Inquiry “Coronavirus Resources Page”; you can read it HERE. 

Dec 162020
 

When my book “Scientific Paranormal Investigation” was published in 2010 I took out a full page ad in the T.A.P.S. (“Ghost Hunters” TV show) magazine. I figured their audience needed my book more than anyone… 😁

 

Dec 142020
 

The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! First we discuss “monolith mania” then for our main segment we bring back Dr. Leo Igwe, who has fought to protect people accused of witchcraft in Africa and elsewhere. Please check it out, you can listen to it HERE

 

Dec 072020
 

In my line of work, I routinely encounter events said to be inexplicable. They’re not merely amazing or incredible but downright unexplained. At times the topics I research are even said to be “beyond science” (whatever that would mean). These subjects—including psychic powers, crop circles, Bigfoot, ghosts, and miracles—are described as timeless mysteries that cannot be fathomed or understood: the mystery is simply too great, overwhelming all human capacity for understanding. 

Of course most or all of these mysteries have indeed been explained through careful investigation. Invariably when people call something mysterious or unknowable, it’s because they simply haven’t put in the time and effort to understand it. The world is a complex place with many variables and moving parts; deconstructing them takes time and effort. 

When I hear that ghosts are “unexplained,” I’m likely to politely and diplomatically inquire what specific aspect of ghosts the speaker finds inexplicable and what knowledge or assumptions factor into their blithe conclusion that specters are—must be—inherently beyond the capacity for human comprehension. What exactly do they think cannot be explained? A particular “spooky” photo? A creepy experience they had in an old house? Some scene in a “reality” TV ghost hunting show? Just because one person doesn’t understand something doesn’t mean it can’t be explained by someone else; typically, they’re called experts. 

I thought about this over the past few months when seeing social media posts expressing astonishment and utter incomprehension about support for Donald Trump. This appears in countless memes, usually framed by something along the lines of “I’ll never understand why people still support Trump despite X…” 




Rationalizing Trump

Explaining why Trump continues to have supporters after his repeated comments about minorities, women, the disabled, immigrants, etc., is actually pretty straightforward. It’s the same reason he doesn’t lose significant support when he makes bizarre and false comments about any number of things. His supporters offer one or more of the following reasons to overlook them: it was a joke or typical political braggadocio that doesn’t reflect his beliefs and therefore characterizing it as a sincere comment is political correctness run amok (and/or it is intentionally mischaracterized by the “fake news” media, one of countless example of how unfairly he’s treated); or that it’s a harmless mistake or misspeak (no one’s perfect after all). 

Trump greatly exaggerated the size of his inauguration? So what? He’s a politician and a showman; that’s hardly a big deal. He bragged off camera about grabbing women? So what? It’s locker room talk; men always brag to other guys about their sexual prowess; it’s unseemly but hardly a reason not to vote for him. He suggested that COVID-19 could be cured by injecting disinfectant or exposing patients to “ultraviolet or just very powerful light” and later encouraged his supporters to vote twice, once by mail and again in person? Taking it literally is disingenuous; he was obviously joking! And so on. 

Plus, as I’ve previously written, Trump is almost always right because he takes both sides of issues, declaring in one moment that he condemns white supremacists and in the next implying that he supports them. He praises his COVID-19 response team—before criticizing them hours later. He encourages Americans to vote by mail until he discourages them from doing so. When we combine this tactic with psychological factors such as confirmation bias (selectively noticing and remembering information that confirms our assumptions and beliefs while ignoring information that undermines it), it’s not difficult to understand his significant support. 


Salon and CNN recently had headlines describing more of Trump’s presidency as “unimaginable.” Dismal, depressing, or ruinous, sure … but unimaginable? Beyond the human ability to comprehend? We can imagine far-off worlds of science fiction and dragons, meeting gods and seeing other galaxies. A Trump re-election, however distasteful and ruinous, is hardly unimaginable. And it’s just this sort of catastrophizing hyperbole that his supporters point to as evidence that news media is out of touch and, well, exaggerating. Sure, they say, the past four years haven’t been great, with the pandemic and all, but they haven’t been unimaginably bad, and in fact could have been worse. 

Demystifying Trump

There’s nothing mysterious, profound, or unexplainable about Donald Trump or his support. All the information you need to understand Trump and his appeal is available with an internet connection and a few taps of a keyboard. 

It’s all there. You just have to look for it: Trump’s appeal to black votersTrump’s appeal to conservative women votersWhy many Latino voters support Trump.  Why about half of women voters cast their ballots for Trump in 2016, long after his crude and sexist remarks were well known. Why Trump appeals to evangelical Christians despite his personal history of infidelity and porn stars. And so on. 

Whatever it is that you don’t understand about Trump or his base, you can find years’ worth of solid reporting and analysis, from best-selling books to documentaries to long-form journalism.  

Not only is there no excuse not to understand the Trump phenomenon, but failing to do so is a grave error if you oppose him. To solve a problem you have to understand it. You can bet that Joe Biden’s campaign hasn’t declared Trump’s support beyond comprehension, throwing up their hands in defeat in the face of Trump’s inherently inscrutable nature and appeal. 

When it comes to continued support after Trump’s seemingly racist and misogynist comments, there’s another, more powerful rationale among his minority and women voters: The comment wasn’t a joke or hyperbole, and may in fact reveal his core values (if indeed he has core values beyond self-interest, a premise I don’t accept). But they are willing to overlook it because he advocates for other, more important issues. This is a theme that recurs over and over again: voters don’t appreciate his sexist and racist comments but don’t consider them to be disqualifying. It’s simply not a hill they’re willing to die on. They vote for Trump despite, not because of, such comments and actions. 

For some people, the “I’ll Never Understand Trump” phrase serves as a shorthand, signifying not sincere confusion but wanting those on social media to know that Trump’s words and behaviors are so aberrant, distasteful, and foreign to them that they are metaphorically beyond understanding. However, even merely as a trite rhetorical device, the idea that Trump’s support is “beyond understanding” fuels a harmful narrative about Trump and his power. 

I wrote about this several years ago in an article about people avoiding using Trump’s full name. Often refusing to name a figure is done in deference to their awesome and potentially destructive power. The idea is that to say the name without sufficient reverence—or at all—is to risk drawing the person’s attention or wrath. In Roman Catholic exorcisms, knowing a demon’s name is considered an important part of the ritual and gives the priest power over the evil entity. Even saying the name of the Christian god is considered dangerous in some cases. The Harry Potter villain Voldemort is referred to as “He Who Must Not Be Named.” In British fairy folklore there is a long tradition of avoiding speaking the word fairy aloud to avoid their wrath. Refusing to use Trump’s name, regardless of the motivation, treats him as a special case, something that is done just for him. We need not think twice about spelling out the names of ordinary people, but Trump’s name is marked as extraordinary, requiring special care and attention, either in mocking circumlocutions or avoiding it completely. 

Some of this “I’ll Never Understand Trump” messaging may be hyperbole and virtue signaling (ironically the same techniques used by Trump and his supporters), and there’s a persistent concern that understanding something bad or malicious is the same as accepting or endorsing it. We see this often in discussions about killers, when someone comments that they could understand why someone would “snap” or act out (after being victimized or abused, for example), prompting others to ask why the commenter is “defending” the criminal or crime. 

Mick West’s book Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect is instructive; in it he emphasizes the importance of listening to why conspiracy theorists believe the theories they endorse as well as understanding the psychological processes behind them. I’m not comparing Trump supporters to conspiracy believers (though there’s some demonstrable overlap, given the president’s repeated endorsement of them); instead my point is that understanding a point of view doesn’t imply agreeing with it. As Baruch Spinoza noted, “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.” From critical thinking and logical perspectives, this is completely false, of course, but that may partly explain the reluctance by many liberals to “understand” Trump and his support. 

Trump is not some uniquely inscrutable phenomenon; he is instead a banal, habitual liar, conspiracy and fear peddler, and a two-bit con man. He’s not a masterful Svengali holding some unexplained, unnatural hypnotic sway over his supporters. He’s a showman, not a shaman, and his techniques are well understood by those who choose to look at the evidence. 

By the same token, the real problem of characterizing Trump supporters as mindless zombies who have taken leave of their senses is not that it’s disrespectful but instead that it’s counterproductive. It pushes very real decision-making factors that need to be understood in order to be addressed into a black box of the unknowable. 

Thinking about Trump’s appeal in binary moral absolutes is also oversimplistic and demonstrably false: People vote because of many factors, and issues that one person thinks self-evidently disqualifies Trump may not do so for someone else. The United States is incredibly diverse, and treating women and minorities as monolithic and homogenous groups is a flawed approach. If you assume that a) Trump is self-evidently racist and sexist; and also that b) no black woman would vote for a racist, then it’s you—not the female black Trump voter—who has badly misread the situation. 

I noted that Biden’s campaign isn’t baffled by Trump at all, but neither have Democrats quite solved the puzzle more broadly. As Fareed Zakaria noted recently in The Washington Post (“Once Again, Democrats Have Misunderstood Minorities”): 

Democrats are more disappointed because they had hoped that this would be an election that resoundingly repudiated Trump and realigned politics…He won the largest percentage of the Black vote since 1996 (though he still got only about 12 percent of the Black vote). One poll indicates he won 35 percent of the Muslim vote. What happened? There are probably many answers. Partly, Democratic strategist James Carville is still right—it’s the economy, stupid… But my own interpretation of these results is informed by feelings I have always had about the Democratic Party’s ideology of multiculturalism. It lumps a wide variety of ethnic, racial and religious groups into one “minority” monolith and approaches them from a perspective that does not fit us all. That means an ideology born out of the treatment of African Americans will ring false to American immigrants and their descendants. For us, harsh treatment by White Americans is not the single searing experience that shapes our politics. Some of us are socially liberal, others conservative … Even African Americans vary much more widely on policy than one might imagine.

If you don’t like Trump and want to diminish his influence (and that of his followers), the solution is not real or feigned confusion about his appeal but instead a closer examination of its psychological and social dynamics—and maybe changing your underlying assumptions and approach.

Few things in the world are truly incomprehensible or unexplained; ghosts, miracles, and Donald Trump are certainly not among them. Biden will need to take steps to unite a seemingly fractured nation. This will require understanding—not in the sense of fuzzy forgiveness and bonhomie but in the sense of applying motivational psychology—to find common ground and determine how best to bring people together. 

 

A longer version of this article appeared on the CFI website; you can find it here. 

 
 
Nov 282020
 

Big—If True is a collection of my Skeptical Inquirer magazine columns, guiding readers on a science-based (yet open-minded) examination of 70 fascinating and mysterious topics. Drawing on two decades of first-hand research, Big—If Trueexamines dozens of mysteries including Bigfoot, reincarnation, chupacabras, Icelandic elves, mummies, conspiracy theories, UFOs, miracles, the terrifying Goat-Man, crop circles, subliminal advertising, sea serpents, wandering trees, medical mysteries, and hypnotist thieves—plus a 1990 Elvis sighting.

It’s 275 pages and has 70 illustrations. It will be available soon for order at your local bookstore or online bookseller at a list price of $26.95 (plus tax and shipping of course).