Sep 102022
 

Interesting article in Psychology Today by my colleague and co-author Bob Bartholomew, about the strange case of a phantom cat killer in New Zealand…

 

One feature of human psychology is that people tend to see what they expect to see. As meaning-oriented beings, we are wired to interpret information patterns that reflect our expectations and beliefs. A prominent example is a face on Mars–which turned out to be a mound of shifting soil.

Another illustration is the curious case of Maria Rubio of Port Arthur, New Mexico, who, in 1977, became convinced she saw the face of Jesus in her tortilla. This process also aids in the creation of moral panics–exaggerated threats to the social order by a malevolent actor. Moral panics are heavy on rumors and hearsay and light on facts.

Take the case of New Zealand’s Raglan Cat Killer. For a decade, citizens have read stories and watched TV reports of a serial cat killer on the loose in the rural town of Raglan. A group, Stop the Cat Killer, was even formed, and a blog was created under the heading The Raglan Ripper. In 2014 near the height of the panic, residents began flying flags with a cat and crossbones symbol and the words “Stop Raglan Cat Killer” (Harry, 2014). A conspicuous aspect of this case has stood out over the years: no culprit has ever been identified despite living in an age of phone cameras and surveillance video. Furthermore, police have found no evidence of a cat killer…

 

You can read the rest HERE.

Aug 252022
 

In the wake of the July verdict in the dueling defamation lawsuits between actors Amber Heard and Johnny Depp, there was of course much punditry, commentary, and crystal gazing. It was seen not merely as an outcome of one trial between two often-toxic celebrities but a harbinger of social trends to come.

New York Times staff editor Spencer Bokat-Lindell wrote a piece titled “Is the #MeToo Movement Dying?” in which he noted that the trial “has been read as a low-water mark for the movement: After and even before the jury found last week that each had defamed the other, awarding $2 million in damages to Heard and $10 million to Depp, commentators were declaring ‘the death’ and ‘the end’ of #MeToo.” Rolling Stone magazine added: “’This is basically the end of MeToo,’ Dr. Jessica Taylor, a psychologist, forensic psychology Ph.D., and author of two books on misogyny and abuse, tells Rolling Stone. ‘It’s the death of the whole movement.’”

Conservative news media also joined in the chorus; as Media Matters noted, “After the verdict was announced, Fox News gleefully celebrated the supposed end of the #MeToo movement. In the minutes after the news broke, anchor Martha MacCallum declared, ‘This puts a bit of a stake in the heart of the notion that you believe all women.’ On The Five, co-host Greg Gutfeld sniped that Heard had ‘used the #MeToo movement and now she’s betrayed the #MeToo movement. You can’t believe all women, is basically what this case is saying.’”

However, it seems that pundits on both sides of the issue got it wrong—as they often do.

The verdict was about the claims and evidence in that case specifically, and there’s little evidence suggesting that it would (or will) be a death knell for the movement. I described this phenomenon as the Ubiquitous Referenda in my new book, America the Fearful: Media and the Marketing of National Panics:

It seems that these days most news national and world events are treated as important bellwethers or referenda about the state of our country and the state of the world. This is partly why activists on all sides feel the need to characterize events as a clear step toward social destruction. For example in early 2016 predictions were made that if Trump was elected his sexism and misogyny would influence a generation of young American men and lead to increases of sexual harassment and assault.

Every politically or socially charged news event is framed as a decisive moment where the misguided must be corrected, others must be shown the error of their ways. We jump from week to week, hearing about mistreated airline passengers or people saying mean things about celebrities. The barbarians are at the gates again today, everything is outrageous, everything is crucial, and all dutiful Americans should once again gather along the virtual parapets to loudly remind ourselves (and those misguided souls on the other side) that we publicly denounce them.

There are several problems with this approach. First, it seems to assume, without evidence, that American culture itself is fragile and hinges on some event, that if these incidents are not strongly and widely denounced then American society will self-evidently come to see these things (sexism, racism, sexual assault) as socially sanctioned and acceptable or “normal.” A popular headline for op-eds is, indeed, “This Is Not Normal,” as well-intentioned critics remind readers about some abnormal aspect of their lives against which they should remain vigilant. The fact is that people are not nearly as easily influenced as widely believed (and especially as advertisers would have us believe, as described later); we should know how hard it is to convince people of anything—even when we have facts and science on our side.

The idea that America is on a powderkeg, on a razor’s edge and about to explode into riots and wars based on gender, politics, or race. Ironically, it’s often fringe right-wingers—those who obsess over and interpret each real or perceived racial injustice through some blinkered prism—who are most likely to believe that America is a small step from cultural revolution.

When a Ku Klux Klan rally was scheduled for downtown Dayton, Ohio, in May 2019, Rabbi Ari Ballaban, director of Dayton’s Jewish Community Relations Council, was quoted in local news media warning of unrest and violence, stating that “Courthouse Square will be a powder keg.” Those expecting blood in the streets and race riots need not have feared; a grand total of nine people showed up for the racist rally. They were dwarfed by the estimated 500 to 600 counter-protesters of all races and colors, many shouting slogans and holding signs such as “You Are Not Welcome Here,” “Refugees Welcome, Racists Go Home,” and “Injustice Anywhere Is a Threat to Justice Everywhere.” Local businesses displayed signs such as “Get your hatin’ out of Dayton” and “fucKKK off.” There are many other examples, but for a country as deeply racist as America is said to be, the vast majority of Americans seem to be doing their best to denounce racism and intolerance at every turn. The rabbi, like many others, had overestimated the support that the Klan had locally.

It’s very difficult to get individual people to change their behaviors, even when they are given explicit information on what to do and how to do it. There’s no mystery about how to lose weight or quit smoking, but few people do. People, like ships, have difficulty changing direction; inertia and routine (physical as well as mental) keep us doing the same things, even when we know we shouldn’t. Countries, that is, collectives of hundreds of millions of people, change even more slowly. Institutional reforms take years or decades, not weeks or months—a point often missed by those who demand immediate social and justice reforms. 

For some reason people who are comfortably stuck in their own ways and worldviews assume that other people—They of the third-person effect—are on the precipice of changing their minds (for the worse, of course) should they be exposed to “wrong” ideas. They are in danger of adopting sexist behavior because of Game of Thrones or the optional female voices available for Siri and Alexa, or going down the rabbit hole of violence because of violent video games or movies.  

There’s also outrage fatigue to consider; when everything is a crisis, nothing is a crisis. When people spend their days looking for (real or imagined) things to be outraged about, it muddies the waters and makes it hard to distinguish real problems from manufactured ones, serious issues with a high potential for real harm from others with a much lower potential for some inchoate, potential harm. Just as atmospheric smog takes a toll on the health of both people and societies, fear smog takes a collective toll on psychological and social health.

Part of this is the fear that the unwashed masses, the semi-fictional “They” who aren’t as enlightened as you and I, will be easily swayed and misunderstand the situation: If we don’t make it clear that Trump’s sexism is unacceptable, They (high school kids? young men?) will think it’s okay and America will have a generation of rapists and misogynists. If we don’t make it clear that racist marchers are unacceptable, They (non-racists or those on the fence about whether to be racist?) will think it’s okay and America will sow a generation of Nazis.

The good news is there’s little or no good evidence for this assumption. Most of these are testable claims: either sexual assaults go up in the months and years following Trump’s election, or they don’t (they didn’t). Critics might argue an essentially unfalsifiable claim, that their protests prevented or minimized the harm (i.e., if Trump hadn’t been universally condemned for his remarks about grabbing women, he would have had more influence, or if the Virginia and Ohio racists hadn’t been drowned out by counter-protestors and a deluge of mockery and bad press, they would have gotten more recruits). It’s possible, though doubtful—and of course we will never know, precisely because all these things have been widely condemned by most Americans.

This rationalization is reminiscent of doomsday cults, who, when confronted with the fact that the world did not end as they had predicted, claim that their dire prophecy, along with the resulting awareness campaigns and vigilant prayers, had saved the day. The doomsday cultists then pat themselves on the backs, because, after all, they just saved the world—and no one can prove otherwise. As Trump’s presidency ended we have not seen a jump in Americans who think sexually assaulting women is acceptable. Nor was there a surge in membership to white nationalist organizations after people saw the Charlottesville rally and said, “Wow, those guys are right and make sense!” Instead, virtually all the news coverage about it has been negative—as it always is.

Are there exceptions? Of course. Out of hundreds of millions of Americans, a few will see some Klan rally, ignore the overwhelming social criticism of it, and join up. Similarly it’s possible (though unlikely) that a few women may in fact be deterred from reporting their assaults because it took so long for Bill Cosby to be convicted, and that some trolling dudebro will cite Trump when he’s arrested for grabbing his date’s crotch. These are the rare exceptions, not the rule, and the amount of energy directed to these specific events (as opposed to the larger issues—sexism, racism, etc., which are valid and real but hardly represented by these events) is wildly disproportionate to the threat.

Protesting can bring about change, and that’s valuable. But over-protesting undermines its effectiveness, and saturating our airwaves (or social media feeds) with the worst elements of society as if they are representative of America insults those who have worked so hard to bring about the progress we should celebrate and emulate. There’s also an element of virtue signaling and pageantry in today’s clever protest march signs and hashtag activism, of course. The point is not that people shouldn’t protest things they find offensive or wrong (do whatever you want), but instead that there are dangers and pitfalls in how people are approaching it. There are real, legitimate watershed moments in American history (Roe v. Wade and its overturning, Obama’s election, George Floyd’s death, etc.) but we lose our ability to spot these moments if we are feeding ourselves a daily diet of outrage.

Whether the Heard/Depp verdict truly is the nail in the #MeToo coffin—as both progressives and conservatives have claimed—remains to be seen, but it seems unlikely. For years, polls and survey have found that the American public overwhelmingly does believe women when they come forward with claims of abuse. Whether Americans supported Heard, Depp, or were indifferent, the verdict is likely to have little effect on real victims coming forward.

For more on this, see my book America the Fearful, and check out my recent lecture for Skeptical Inquirer Presents.

Aug 082022
 

False abuse claims are, sadly, being used to settle grudges: “The partner of Vanessa Wilson, the former Aurora, Colorado police chief, was charged with filing a fabricated child sex abuse report. Robin Niceta anonymously called Arapahoe County social services on Jan. 28 ‘to falsely report that Aurora Councilwoman Danielle Jurinsky was sexually abusing Jurinsky’s two-year-old son.’ The call prompted a 2-week investigation. After finding that the claims were false, investigators traced the tip to Niceta’s phone.”

 

Aug 022022
 

For those who didn’t see it: I was a recent guest on ‘New Mexico Living’, talking about my new book ‘America the Fearful: Media and the Marketing of National Panics.’ You can watch the short interview HERE!

 

Jul 232022
 

In the wake of the recent verdict in the dueling defamation lawsuits between actors Amber Heard and Johnny Depp, there was of course much punditry, commentary, and crystal gazing. It was seen not merely as an outcome of one trial between two often-toxic celebrities but a harbinger of social trends to come.

New York Times staff editor Spencer Bokat-Lindell wrote a piece titled “Is the #MeToo Movement Dying?” in which he noted that the trial “has been read as a low-water mark for the movement: After and even before the jury found last week that each had defamed the other, awarding $2 million in damages to Heard and $10 million to Depp, commentators were declaring ‘the death’ and ‘the end’ of #MeToo.” Rolling Stone magazine added: “’This is basically the end of MeToo,’ Dr. Jessica Taylor, a psychologist, forensic psychology Ph.D., and author of two books on misogyny and abuse, tells Rolling Stone. ‘It’s the death of the whole movement.’”

Conservative news media also joined in the chorus; as Media Matters noted, “After the verdict was announced, Fox News gleefully celebrated the supposed end of the #MeToo movement. In the minutes after the news broke, anchor Martha MacCallum declared, ‘This puts a bit of a stake in the heart of the notion that you believe all women.’ On The Five, co-host Greg Gutfeld sniped that Heard had ‘used the #MeToo movement and now she’s betrayed the #MeToo movement. You can’t believe all women, is basically what this case is saying.’”

However, it seems that pundits on both sides of the issue got it wrong—as they often do.

The verdict was about the claims and evidence in that case specifically, and there’s little evidence suggesting that it would (or will) be a death knell for the movement. I described this phenomenon as the Ubiquitous Referenda in my new book, America the Fearful: Media and the Marketing of National Panics:

It seems that these days most news national and world events are treated as important bellwethers or referenda about the state of our country and the state of the world. This is partly why activists on all sides feel the need to characterize events as a clear step toward social destruction. For example in early 2016 predictions were made that if Trump was elected his sexism and misogyny would influence a generation of young American men and lead to increases of sexual harassment and assault.

Every politically or socially charged news event is framed as a decisive moment where the misguided must be corrected, others must be shown the error of their ways. We jump from week to week, hearing about mistreated airline passengers or people saying mean things about celebrities. The barbarians are at the gates again today, everything is outrageous, everything is crucial, and all dutiful Americans should once again gather along the virtual parapets to loudly remind ourselves (and those misguided souls on the other side) that we publicly denounce them.

There are several problems with this approach. First, it seems to assume, without evidence, that American culture itself is fragile and hinges on some event, that if these incidents are not strongly and widely denounced then American society will self-evidently come to see these things (sexism, racism, sexual assault) as socially sanctioned and acceptable or “normal.” A popular headline for op-eds is, indeed, “This Is Not Normal,” as well-intentioned critics remind readers about some abnormal aspect of their lives against which they should remain vigilant. The fact is that people are not nearly as easily influenced as widely believed (and especially as advertisers would have us believe, as described later); we should know how hard it is to convince people of anything—even when we have facts and science on our side.

The idea that America is on a powderkeg, on a razor’s edge and about to explode into riots and wars based on gender, politics, or race. Ironically, it’s often fringe right-wingers—those who obsess over and interpret each real or perceived racial injustice through some blinkered prism—who are most likely to believe that America is a small step from cultural revolution.

When a Ku Klux Klan rally was scheduled for downtown Dayton, Ohio, in May 2019, Rabbi Ari Ballaban, director of Dayton’s Jewish Community Relations Council, was quoted in local news media warning of unrest and violence, stating that “Courthouse Square will be a powder keg.” Those expecting blood in the streets and race riots need not have feared; a grand total of nine people showed up for the racist rally. They were dwarfed by the estimated 500 to 600 counter-protesters of all races and colors, many shouting slogans and holding signs such as “You Are Not Welcome Here,” “Refugees Welcome, Racists Go Home,” and “Injustice Anywhere Is a Threat to Justice Everywhere.” Local businesses displayed signs such as “Get your hatin’ out of Dayton” and “fucKKK off.” There are many other examples, but for a country as deeply racist as America is said to be, the vast majority of Americans seem to be doing their best to denounce racism and intolerance at every turn. The rabbi, like many others, had overestimated the support that the Klan had locally.

It’s very difficult to get individual people to change their behaviors, even when they are given explicit information on what to do and how to do it. There’s no mystery about how to lose weight or quit smoking, but few people do. People, like ships, have difficulty changing direction; inertia and routine (physical as well as mental) keep us doing the same things, even when we know we shouldn’t. Countries, that is, collectives of hundreds of millions of people, change even more slowly. Institutional reforms take years or decades, not weeks or months—a point often missed by those who demand immediate social and justice reforms. 

For some reason people who are comfortably stuck in their own ways and worldviews assume that other people—They of the third-person effect—are on the precipice of changing their minds (for the worse, of course) should they be exposed to “wrong” ideas. They are in danger of adopting sexist behavior because of Game of Thrones or the optional female voices available for Siri and Alexa, or going down the rabbit hole of violence because of violent video games or movies.  

There’s also outrage fatigue to consider; when everything is a crisis, nothing is a crisis. When people spend their days looking for (real or imagined) things to be outraged about, it muddies the waters and makes it hard to distinguish real problems from manufactured ones, serious issues with a high potential for real harm from others with a much lower potential for some inchoate, potential harm. Just as atmospheric smog takes a toll on the health of both people and societies, fear smog takes a collective toll on psychological and social health.

Part of this is the fear that the unwashed masses, the semi-fictional “They” who aren’t as enlightened as you and I, will be easily swayed and misunderstand the situation: If we don’t make it clear that Trump’s sexism is unacceptable, They (high school kids? young men?) will think it’s okay and America will have a generation of rapists and misogynists. If we don’t make it clear that racist marchers are unacceptable, They (non-racists or those on the fence about whether to be racist?) will think it’s okay and America will sow a generation of Nazis.

The good news is there’s little or no good evidence for this assumption. Most of these are testable claims: either sexual assaults go up in the months and years following Trump’s election, or they don’t (they didn’t). Critics might argue an essentially unfalsifiable claim, that their protests prevented or minimized the harm (i.e., if Trump hadn’t been universally condemned for his remarks about grabbing women, he would have had more influence, or if the Virginia and Ohio racists hadn’t been drowned out by counter-protestors and a deluge of mockery and bad press, they would have gotten more recruits). It’s possible, though doubtful—and of course we will never know, precisely because all these things have been widely condemned by most Americans.

This rationalization is reminiscent of doomsday cults, who, when confronted with the fact that the world did not end as they had predicted, claim that their dire prophecy, along with the resulting awareness campaigns and vigilant prayers, had saved the day. The doomsday cultists then pat themselves on the backs, because, after all, they just saved the world—and no one can prove otherwise. As Trump’s presidency ended we have not seen a jump in Americans who think sexually assaulting women is acceptable. Nor was there a surge in membership to white nationalist organizations after people saw the Charlottesville rally and said, “Wow, those guys are right and make sense!” Instead, virtually all the news coverage about it has been negative—as it always is.

Are there exceptions? Of course. Out of hundreds of millions of Americans, a few will see some Klan rally, ignore the overwhelming social criticism of it, and join up. Similarly it’s possible (though unlikely) that a few women may in fact be deterred from reporting their assaults because it took so long for Bill Cosby to be convicted, and that some trolling dudebro will cite Trump when he’s arrested for grabbing his date’s crotch. These are the rare exceptions, not the rule, and the amount of energy directed to these specific events (as opposed to the larger issues—sexism, racism, etc., which are valid and real but hardly represented by these events) is wildly disproportionate to the threat.

Protesting can bring about change, and that’s valuable. But over-protesting undermines its effectiveness, and saturating our airwaves (or social media feeds) with the worst elements of society as if they are representative of America insults those who have worked so hard to bring about the progress we should celebrate and emulate. There’s also an element of virtue signaling and pageantry in today’s clever protest march signs and hashtag activism, of course. The point is not that people shouldn’t protest things they find offensive or wrong (do whatever you want), but instead that there are dangers and pitfalls in how people are approaching it. There are real, legitimate watershed moments in American history (Roe v. Wade and its overturning, Obama’s election, George Floyd’s death, etc.) but we lose our ability to spot these moments if we are feeding ourselves a daily diet of outrage.

Whether the Heard/Depp verdict truly is the nail in the #MeToo coffin—as both progressives and conservatives have claimed—remains to be seen, but it seems unlikely. For years, polls and survey have found that the American public overwhelmingly does believe women when they come forward with claims of abuse. Whether Americans supported Heard, Depp, or were indifferent, the verdict is likely to have little effect on real victims coming forward.

For more on this, see my book America the Fearful, and check out my recent lecture for Skeptical Inquirer Presents.

May 082022
 

The long-awaited documentary SCIENCE FRICTION, which is pretty good despite my involvement, is now available on Prime Video! It’s about how scientists are deceptively edited on TV, and available now on Amazon Prime and Tubi, find it at https://www.amazon.com/gp/video/detail/B09RQFWJ4L, Add to Watchlist or buy or rent it, then you can see it on your Prime TV app.

Check it out!

Apr 182022
 

I’m delighted to have contributed a chapter in this new book on the folklore of monsters! I haven’t read it yet but many of the other authors are brilliant friends and colleagues, and I’m looking forward to it.

Mining a mountain of folklore publications, North American Monsters unearths decades of notable monster research. Nineteen folkloristic case studies from the last half-century examine legendary monsters in their native habitats, focusing on ostensibly living creatures bound to specific geographic locales.

A diverse cast of scholars contemplate these alluring creatures, feared and beloved by the communities that host them—the Jersey Devil gliding over the Pine Barrens, Lieby wriggling through Lake Lieberman, Char-Man stalking the Ojai Valley, and many, many more. Embracing local stories, beliefs, and traditions while neither promoting nor debunking, North American Monsters aspires to revive scholarly interest in local legendary monsters and creatures and to encourage folkloristic monster legend sleuthing.

 

More info HERE!

Apr 122022
 

A few years ago I investigated and solved a mystery that stumped both conspiracy theorists (not hard to do) and a noted science educator (more difficult). Why did eyewitness video of a nightclub shooting contradict eyewitness accounts?

 

On November 7, 2018, a shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, California, by former Marine Ian David Long left nearly a dozen people dead, including the shooter. 

One victim, Sgt. Ron Helus, it was revealed recently, was killed not by Long but instead “friendly fire” from another police officer’s gun in the chaos. Dozens more were injured, mostly while escaping the club.

It was the latest horrific mass shooting, and Dann Broadbent, a science communicator, writer, and cohost of A Science Enthusiast podcast, examined it on his website. Broadbent wrote, “It was the 307th mass shooting this year (today is the 312th day of this year, too). This is our new normal. We consider ourselves to be better than the rest of the world, yet we have more gun violence per capita than any other developed country in the world.”

There are a few things we could unpack in this comment. In a future article I’ll examine the seeming epidemic of mass shootings, but in a previous column I wrote about concerns that Americans are numb, that mass shootings are becoming so routine and “the new normal” that citizens have lost their ability to be outraged.

What caught my eye was this comment: “I watched videos of the shooting last night. I heard the gunshots. But I didn’t hear people screaming, because we as a society now know that in an active shooter situation, you don’t scream because that draws extra attention to you. You get down, and look for ways to get out as quickly as possible.”

That seemed like a strange—and improbable—aspect of the attacks. No one screamed as a self-described “insane” maniac shot people in the nightclub? Everyone was silent (well, as silent as a country music nightclub would be) and careful not to yell or make a noise lest he or she draw attention?

After the attack had begun, of course, the circumstances would change. Potential victims hiding and staying silent in the presence of enemies with weapons is nothing new; it’s been a defensive tactic for millennia and was described in accounts of the Columbine school shootings in 1999. But perhaps in today’s world where shootings seem common, people in the Borderline Bar really did have the savvy and self-control to keep silent during the attack.

I didn’t follow the news coverage that closely, but I saw and read many interviews with survivors, none of whom mentioned an eerie silence from the killer’s potential victims.

Instead they described chaos: people yelling, screaming, and shouting. One victim, Bryce Colvard, described his friends shouting at him to get down; another student, Teylor Whittler, said that during the shooting “Everyone just yelled, ‘Run, he’s coming!’” and so on. Multiple news reports described victims screaming and yelling.

It got me wondering why someone would think or assume that the club’s victims were silent during such a terrifying scene. Where did that odd bit of misinformation come from? Broadbent referenced his source: the video he watched of the shooting in which “I didn’t hear people screaming …You can watch one of the videos yourself, but I must warn you that it’s extremely disturbing.”

Tale of the Tape

I watched the one-minute video he linked to, posted (and presumably taken) by Dallas Knapp on Instagram, from inside the club. Loud gunfire can be clearly heard, as can breaking glass and some indistinct sounds.

The video is dark and unclear; at first glance I had initially thought it was taken outside the club. It shows a chaotic scene and a dark, empty dance floor. A man is seen in the background, but it’s not clear if it’s the shooter, a victim, or a police officer. The cameraman turns and runs, exiting the building moments later.

Chicago’s ABC 7 News described the video: “The video shows what appears to be a semi-empty dance floor as a man dressed in dark clothing is behind a counter-like wall and shooting. About 10 gunshots are heard in the video. The man taking the video runs out of the venue and yells, ‘Guys, run, he’s coming out this door!’ Several people are heard screaming in the distance.”

It’s not just Broadbent of A Science Enthusiast who remarked on the video and noted there was something odd about it. In fact, myriad conspiracy theorists watched the same video and suggested that the shooting was a hoax, a “false flag” operation. A sampling of these opinions can be found in the responses to the video linked to within a CNN report:

  • “I don’t see anyone except one man not running but casually behind in the next room and the camera man. There would be people running all over the place and people on the ground.”
  • “THE ROOM WAS EMPTY!!! LET THAT SINK IN PEOPLE!!! YOU ARE BEING PLAYED!!!”
  • “You’re telling me a club with hundreds of people and an active shooter was quiet enough for the microphone to CLEARLY pick up the sounds of glass breaking and not be drowned out by the sounds of panic?”
  • “Either THAT VIDEO was staged independently of the actual incident where people may have truly been injured or it’s ALL bullshit.”
  • “WTF did I just watch? A video of an empty bar and then audio of gunshots. What happened to the 100s of people who were supposedly partying and line dancing? Where was all the mayhem that ensued afterwards? What, no one screaming? No one diving for cover on the floor. No stampede for the doorways and no one throwing chairs through windows? Oh my how horrific this video is indeed. It seems to contradict the eyewitness accounts. I’m calling BS.”

The last conspiracy poster’s comment reflects Broadbent’s observation: “What, no one screaming? … It seems to contradict the eyewitness accounts.” It’s a fair and accurate statement, so what can we make of it?

The Video versus the Victims: What’s Going On?

We can examine this through the lens of critical thinking, science, and skepticism. On one hand we have dozens of eyewitnesses who described the horror they saw and heard, including shouting and screaming; on the other hand, we have a short, ambiguous video clip that, superficially, seems to contradict them.

In fact there’s no contradiction: Eyewitnesses, such as Holden Harrah interviewed on the Today Show, stated that Long appeared at the door and immediately began shooting people. News reports state that the attacker fired at least sixty rounds; of those, about nine or ten can be heard in the video. Thus, we are seeing about one-sixth of the number of shots fired, with the balance coming before and/or after the video was recorded.

The dance floor is largely (or entirely) empty when the video was recorded because by that point the shooting had been going on for some time; it only takes a few seconds to clear a small dance floor. The room is very dark, and no victims can be seen; if there are any, they’re hiding behind tables or are in other rooms or are already outside. It’s true that in that video clip there’s no loud screaming, since the place is mostly empty at that point; few if any of the fifty or so patrons originally in the main room were left. There were reportedly about 200 people on the premises, including cooks, staff, people in other rooms, etc., most of whom fled in other directions and never directly encountered the shooter; the video depicts Knapp moving from the dance floor to the exit in seconds.

No music can be heard in the clip either—not because no music was being played that night at the nightclub but because the music, like the screaming, ceased soon after the shooting began. There’s nothing unusual or suspicious about it. We would not expect to hear people screaming in that room for the same reason we would not expect to see a full dance floor.

It’s like watching video taken by a driver after a car accident and finding it curious or suspicious that the footage doesn’t show the entire event before the cars collided. Why would it? Just because we don’t see some specific aspect of an event in a short video clip of that event doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

Conspiracy theorists find it suspicious that more videos of the shooting have not been made public. It seems likely that most of the victims that night were too busy running or hiding to pull out their cell phones and record the events; that one person did isn’t particularly surprising.

There are likely additional videos from police body cameras and security systems that have been reviewed by police but may not be made public. Since the suspect is dead, there will be no criminal trial and no necessary reason to release them.

In fact just recently, after a protracted legal battle by journalists at The Hartford Courantpolice released documentation about Adam Lanza, the shooter in the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre—six years after the conspiracy-laden event.

Authorities are not legally obligated to release any and all information about a crime simply to satisfy the morbidly curious and conspiracy theorists. (And, of course, such videos will not satisfy the conspiracy minded: “Yeah, so if this is real, why wasn’t this video released right away? FAKE!!!”)

Anyone can make mistaken assumptions; we all do it. It’s not a question of believing the victims or believing the video; we can do both if we examine the evidence closely—and we must be careful not to create contradictions where none exist, because those are the building blocks of conspiracies.

 

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

 

 

 

Mar 282022
 

Review of Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist’s Library

By Matt Bille

The subject of cryptozoology, like many Fortean fields, is plagued by poor scholarship. This is not a dig at the topic, but merely an undeniable and unfortunate fact. Whether the subject is psychics, or ghosts, or anything else, there is no shortage of information on these topics, but what’s needed is not merely information but good, valid, well-researched information. There is a huge difference between some random blogger’s opinions of the existence of Bigfoot, and, for example, organized, published research by noted, credible researchers such as John Green, Jeff Meldrum, Karl Shuker, or Daniel Perez. Cryptozoology is a big tent, and for any given cryptid there will be a variety of sources and researchers; for lake monsters, for example, one might look for noted researchers such as John Kirk, Roy Mackal, Loren Coleman, Michel Meurger, or Peter Costello (or even, I might modestly add, Joe Nickell and myself).

Of course for every one of these people there are dozens or hundreds of others who have also written on the same topic. The point is not to create or enforce some arbitrary cutoff for who is or is not a good scholar or careful researcher—though hopefully that would become apparent in the process—but instead to give the casual reader some guide to it all.

In many cases it’s simply plagiarized, cut-and-pasted material from elsewhere. About ten years ago while reviewing a cryptozoological topic I stumbled across huge swaths of a popular book that had simply been lifted from internet sources: The Element Encyclopedia of Vampires: An A – Z of the Undead, by Theresa Cheung and published by an otherwise reputable house, HarperCollins. It became clear that Cheung “wrote” many entries her book by merely typing a subject name into Google and then cutting and pasting paragraphs from the top three or four hits, changing a few words, and then submitting it as her own work. (For more on my investigation see my article “Investigating Plagiarism in New Age Books” in the July/August 2013 issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine). My colleague Kenny Biddle exposed similar plagiarism issue with the Zak Bagans book—or, rather, the book attributed to Bagans—Ghost-Hunting For Dummies.

I mention this because just as one of the chief challenges for cryptozoologists is trying to separate the wheat from the chaff, the hoaxes from the good evidence, the same challenge applies to scholarly researchers. There’s no central authority making any attempt to hold evidence to any scientific evidential standard. In scientific research, there is some semblance of gatekeeping (imperfect as it is), partly because researchers are held professionally accountable for mistakes. For example, if the editor of a top medical journal publishes highly dubious (or even outright hoaxed) research, he or she can expect significant opprobrium, including calls to resign. There is no analogous position in Bigfoot research; a handful of journals have attempted to impose some scholarly standards on the research, including Cryptozoology: Interdisciplinary Journal of the International Society of Cryptozoology (1982–1996). But most of what passes for cryptozoological research appears in blogs, New Age books, and social media posts with little or no quality control or outside input (much less skeptical commentary).

This is one reason why Matt Bille’s book Of Books and Beasts is useful, providing some token effort at quality control and a sense of what’s useful. As the back cover notes, “Science writer and cryptozoology researcher Matt Bille offers 400 reviews of significant books in cryptozoology, supporting sciences like biology, and cryptozoological fiction. Matt’s selections, based on 45 years of reading and writing on zoology and cryptozoology, favor reliable science and history, providing an essential foundation for enthusiasts and skeptics alike. The search for unknown animals starts here.” I have several of his cryptozoology-related books, my favorite of which is Shadows of ExistenceDiscoveries and Speculations in Zoology.

The book is a delight to peruse, and offers excellent capsule descriptions on hundreds of books and sources that had flown under my—and surely most people’s—radar. It is sprinkled with quotes and occasionally whimsical “Matt’s Musings,” brief commentary set off in italics. The book is culled primarily from book reviews written over the decades for the Exotic Zoology newsletter, his blog, and other sources. The entries, which range from a few sentences to a few pages, are engaging and concise, and occasionally point to updated or reissued volumes. The book is divided into four sections: Cryptozoology Books; Related Sciences; Crypto-Fiction; and A Marvelous Miscellany.

My main reservation about Of Books and Beasts is not Bille’s writing style nor expertise but instead the book’s purpose and scope. When eager authors ask me for book writing advice I first ask them to identify their audience and tell me how the book will serve that audience. What will they get from it? How will it help them? Why should they pick up that book instead of another, similar title by a different author? What, specifically, are they bringing to the project that makes it worth their (often considerable) time to write, and more importantly their readers’ time to read?

This reader’s perspective was an issue I repeatedly returned to reading Of Books and Beasts. Bille is candid about the scope of the material in the book, offering many broad caveats about why books were left out. Some are fairly understandable and straightforward, such as including only books in English, original editions, and under a century old. He reviews only books he’s personally read; omitted most (but not all) of the state-specific titles (e.g., Monsters of Missouri); and skipped over annuals published by periodicals. But he also “passed over or culled many of the Sasquatch and Loch Ness books because they’d overwhelm this entire book,” with no indication given about which books are omitted, or why (other than that the sheer quantity of them, regardless of their quality, would render them unmanageable). If Bille was not interested in (or didn’t read about) a particular cryptid, no matter how popular—say, Mothman, thunderbirds, or the chupacabra—then they may merit only a passing mention, if they appear at all.

I understand that the book is not meant to be, and cannot be, definitive or exhaustive, and I’m sympathetic to his plea of “too many books” (p. x) but this speaks to a basic problem in the scope of the book. You can’t write a dictionary and arbitrarily omit some words merely because including them would be too cumbersome, in the same way that you can’t offer a book on the fifty states and leave out a few because the task became overwhelming. For the same reason you can’t offer a seemingly authoritative book on the cryptozoological literature and leave out swaths of material. I suspect that George Eberhart and Michael Newton, authors of the two main cryptozoology encyclopedias, encountered the same issue. It’s a monumental task, if done correctly, to write informative entries, along with references, for hundreds of reputed cryptids.

For a book whose subtitle promises cryptozoology, surprisingly little of the book is dedicated to cryptozoology per se; only the first section (about 125 pages) deals with, in order: A Basic Library of Cryptozoology, Primates, Land Animals, Lake and Sea Creatures, and Others. This raises the venerable questions of demarcation in cryptozoology, which can profitably be approached from many different angles including eyewitness accounts, folklore, and so on. The second half of the book covers a much broader scope, from evolution to paleontology to fiction involving cryptids and monsters. These are all arguably within the purview—but again so are folklore, eyewitness testimony, forensics, and so on, all of which are absent here. This is not Bille’s fault, of course, and there’s no particular reason he would have reviewed books on those topics. But it does limit the book’s utility for its intended audience, who likely would have preferred a broader selection of core cryptozoology books. The review copy I was provided had nearly thirty pages of unnumbered indices—containing only lists of authors but no corresponding page numbers—which made it very difficult to use as a reference, though I was told that later editions would have a numbered index.

The book is best understood and appreciated as a well-read cryptozoology researcher’s interesting (albeit idiosyncratic and limited) thoughts and reviews of books he’s read on the topic of cryptozoology. The book walks a fine—and occasionally crossed—line between straight book review and commentary about the topics under review; despite Bille’s note in the afterword that “I’ve avoided offering my opinions in the various cryptids as much as I can,” his opinion on many come though clearly. This is not a criticism, and in fact if anything I would have welcomed a section at the end of each chapter (instead of at the end of each review, which would quickly become repetitive) on his learned take on the topics. After all, he has read more cryptozoology books than most of us (even in the field) ever will, so he’s in a great position to do so. Nevertheless, that material can be found in his other books, including Shadows of Existence, as noted above. For what it is, overall Of Books and Beasts is an informative and entertaining collection of one noted cryptozoologist’s book reviews.

 

 

Mar 182022
 

I’m delighted to have contributed a chapter in this new book on the folklore of monsters! I haven’t read it yet but many of the other authors are brilliant friends and colleagues, and I’m looking forward to it. I also did the cover art!

Check it out HERE!

Mar 162022
 

New episode of Squaring the Strange is now out! After a brief discussion on the recent jailbreak (rock break?) of a Japanese nine-tailed fox demon and some thoughts on war rumors we talk about people who think they can talk to animals. Or people who think their animal can talk to them — psychically, of course.

Yes, it’s Pet Psychics and Psychic Pets time… check it out!

 

Mar 142022
 

Kenny Biddle and I wrote articles on the true story behind “The Entity” 1982 horror film. We were challenged in an episode of the Three Tortured Souls show by a guy who complained that we weren’t being fair to the original paranormal researcher, Barry Taff, upon whose work the film was loosely based. Taff did an astonishingly bad investigation job, which his defender basically admitted, but said that the original research (somewhere in a CA storage unit) would prove us wrong.

Kenny and I offered to pay to have the research located and analyzed, but we never heard back..

 

Mar 032022
 

My buddy Jim Underdown asks some pointed questions about recent news that a priest’s wrong spoken word during baptisms jeopardized souls: “Fr. Andres Arango has jeopardized the everlasting souls of (presumably) hundreds of parishioners who were baptized by him — and potentially sent them hell bound. If your church is telling you that a random error by someone else is putting your eternity in jeopardy, then they’re out of their minds and it’s time to move on. Enough is enough.”

 

Check it out HERE!

Feb 282022
 

Not the most compelling cover art, but I’m quoted in this new book from the Belgrade Institute for Literature and Arts. The subject, of all things, is my research into the Pokemon seizure panic of 1997.

 

Check it out HERE! 

 

Feb 202022
 

The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! This week we discuss an old Satanic Panic dog learning some new tricks. Televangelist Bob Larson has turned to giving remote exorcisms via Skype and Zoom these past few years, and we speak with two people who have endured such events, as both participant and audience. JD Sword wrote a recent article about his strange (and underwhelming) experience with Larson exorcising a doll (or not), and Alisa Yang has turned her exorcism into a short-form documentary called “Sleeping with the Devil,” available on Vimeo now.

Check it out! 

 

Feb 152022
 

If—like most people—you’ve ever searched Wikipedia for skeptical topics, or looked there for topic covered by organized skepticism, chances are you’ve probably read some of Susan Gerbic’s work. She’s a (very) active member of the Center for Inquiry and the Independent Investigations Group. She’s also one of the driving forces behind trying to bring skepticism, balance, and critical thinking to the world’s most-used reference. In 2011 she responded to e-mailed questions from a secret bunker somewhere in California; this interview revisits that time, with a few updates. You can hear more from Susan on the podcast I co-host, Squaring the Strange, as well as YouTube. Susan and her colleagues have also garnered significant attention from the mainstream news media, including WiredMediumThe New York Times magazine, and other places.

BR: What’s your background?

SG: Born and raised in Salinas, California, the youngest child of a youngest child. Professional portrait photographer for three decades, I specialize in people who do not want their portrait taken—which means the very young and the old and cranky. 

I was four classes away from a Masters degree in American History when I quit college in 2004, it was either the Graduate degree or a long-distance relationship with skeptic Mark Edward (author of Psychic Blues: Confessions of a Conflicted Medium) who lived 6 hours away.  I have two grown sons, Caspian, and my younger son Stirling who attends all the skeptical functions with me.

Raised Southern Baptist, I never heard the word atheist until I was in my late teens, once I found out there were other people who felt like I did, I read everything I could on the subject.  Discovered skepticism as a community in 2000 while looking for a topic for a college paper.  Attended a small gathering in San Jose, met Carol and Ben Baumgartner, Dr. Wallace Sampson, Dr. Jere Lipps and was hooked.  Went to the Skeptic Toolbox in Eugene, Oregon that August and felt like I found my people! I’m officially a skeptical junkie, just waiting for the paperwork to prove it [I’ve been promised by those at CFI that it’s on its way and should be there soon–BR].

I’m the co-founder of Monterey County Skeptics which is a social group that hang out together.  Being in the L.A. Area so much with Mark we both got involved with the Independent Investigations Group (IIG) for a while, but I’ve been busy with more since then.

BR: Do you think Wikipedia is really one of the main battlegrounds for skepticism?

SG: Yes I do, and I think I can prove it with numbers—skeptics like numbers. Podcasts, lectures, blogs etc. are all wonderful and needed as it builds a stronger skeptical community.  They also introduce us to more and more outlets that we can explore. But with a few exceptions we are still preaching to the choir.  

We still have to have investigations and video media to release to the public.  It is like an ecosystem all the different parts working together.  Wikipedia is where it all comes together.  We know how many people are accessing Wikipedia pages, we can compare those numbers to the amount of hits an article on the same topic is generating when it comes from a personal website or blog.  The numbers are staggering and varied, but generally Wiki hits outnumber articles every time. 

Look, we also know that people rarely change their mind when someone is yelling at them telling them how stupid they are.  Most of us skeptics have been believers on some level, we should know better.  What people need is reasoned discussions and the ability to do their own research.  They are going to go to a neutral site to do so, and Wikipedia is waiting for them.  When they have looked over the page and hyperlinked to all the pages linked, they are better able to change their mind. 

 

BR: What about projects like SkeptiWiki, which is devoted solely to skeptical content? Do you think that’s useful?

SG: I don’t think I have ever used that site, and almost never heard it referred to. We need neutral sites. The public is trying to understand a topic and they can tell from the name that it is one-sided.  All that talent would be better used editing in a place that the public are already going to. I have no idea what the numbers would be comparing them, but I can image that there is little use trying to fight something as successful and powerful as Wikipedia. Why not use it to our advantage?

BR: How is Wikipedia structured and administered?

SG: All volunteers working towards creating a living, breathing encyclopedia, that’s pretty awesome I think.  They have their own rules and language that take time getting used to.  I’m totally self taught, I’ve tried reading the instructions on how to edit and it’s like reading a tech manual.  I ask people for help, and look at well authored pages, copy what I like and paste into the page I’m editing.  Change it to reflect the person/topic I’m working on, and I’m done.

BR: How is the Wikipedia content judged?

SG: Mainly peer reviewed.  Some editors are considered higher level than others, but for the most part I’ve had little problem with the edits they have reverted.  You can’t take it personally, we are creating a better encyclopedia which must be the main goal.  If you are having problems with an editor then step back and try to see what is really the problem, usually you can work through it.  There is a process for peer-arbitration which I’ve threatened someone with but never used.  Once you get a bunch of edits under your belt you can start editing with confidence.  Be bold, cite everything and usually people leave you alone.

BR: What have been some of the main challenges to injecting skepticism into Wikipedia?

SG: Probably only time.  There is so much to be done, and people are always telling me “good job!” which is nice to hear, but what I badly need is help editing. Kudos are nice, but help is better. The project is that important.  The tips and ideas I give on my blog are from copy/paste/save types of edits, to fixing grammar, to rewording blurbs to more advanced items. 

BR: Obviously some skeptical content will upset people, such as psychics who rely on the general public not knowing about their track record of failure. What sort of opposition have you seen? Can you give a few examples?

SG: I have had almost no contact with anyone upset about my edits.  I do see some frustrated comments people have left in the discussion area of pages—almost all from believers upset that their favorite psychic’s page is not balanced.  Wikipedia is not balanced, you will never see a citation about the earth being flat on the “Earth” Wiki page.  Nor will you see anything about a moon landing hoax on NASA’s page.  Just cited fact after cited fact. 

[Convicted felon] Sylvia Browne’s page is a great example that I discuss in my blog, believers do not always understand that you can’t post opinions and stories, it has to be cited, and neutral.  Over and over people complain that there isn’t anything about how Browne “helps people” and is “a wonderful person”.  They say that the only thing that the editors ever show is Browne’s failures.  I love it when I read the editors respond that if they will find her successes in print (not her book) that can be substantiated then we will gladly post it on her page.  Usually we never hear from that believer again, one man said he would find the evidence, but it would mean long months in the library, but he will eventually find proof for us.  We are still waiting, the exchange can be read on Sylvia’s discussion page.  Great reading, BTW. 

Psychics themselves have rarely if ever commented or edited their own page. It’s a losing battle, they have to show proof of their claims and that isn’t likely to hold up to review.  Personally I think they would rather the believers not go to Wikipedia to see what is there.  I’m sure they downplay the site if it is mentioned to them. 

BR: What topics have you tackled?

SG: All have been in some way associated with the skeptic movement.  Tim Farley (who started me on this project) believes that an editor should not stick to one topic all the time, he suggests editing your home town page and other places so you don’t get a reputation amongst editors for having a “cause.”  I’m all over the place so much that there is no pattern to see unless the editor looks closely at my edits—which I doubt they will do. 

My “hit list” is pretty long but needs to be a lot longer.  I’ve done UFO’s, Power Balance, ghost hunting sites, most of the psychics and anything else that attracts my attention. I’m very interested in beefing up all the pages of our skeptical spokespeople.  This is a sub-project of Guerrilla Skepticism that I call “We Got Your Wiki Back!”.  The main idea is to remember we are not improving Wikipedia for the skeptical choir, our audience is the public.  When they access our spokespeople’s pages they should find well-written, well sourced information.  How can we expect others to respect our spokespeople if we don’t respect them enough to maintain their Wikipedia pages? 

BR: What mysterious or paranormal topics get the most controversy?

SG: Usually it comes in waves.  When a page is vandalized over and over, there is a protection put on the page that anonymous editors cannot edit.  The Scientologist page is the first one that comes to mind, I believe that many of the positive edits happening there were traced to Scientology headquarters, and there was a stop to that (plus some bad publicity for them).  The astrology page is really getting hit lately, believers just can’t allow the already determined consistence wording to remain.  They keep fussing with the definition, then editors have to change it back and tell them not to change it again.  Along comes another believer who changes it again…and on and on. 

BR: Many people use Wikipedia but don’t feel tech savvy enough to become editors or contributors. What is the actual process to edit pages? Can you give a short introduction to show people the basics?

SG: Start by opening a Wikipedia account.  Read my blog for ideas and tips, or go to pages and click around.  In time you will get comfortable finding misspelled words and bad grammar.  You fix things by clicking on the “edit” page.  Make simple changes and at the bottom of the edit page you will see the tabs for “preview page” “save” “watch this page” and an area to comment.  First “preview” your change, if it looks okay then write in the comment area what you just did “corrected spelling” or “added a period”, click “watch this page” so that you will be notified on your “watch list” if there is a change to the page.  Then when you are sure you have done all this correctly, click save. 

You will know when you are ready to try more difficult changes.  I learned to go to a well-written page, click edit, copy the area that I know I wanted to duplicate elsewhere.  If you want to write a blurb about a SI article you just read, start by opening a word document somewhere so you can just play with what you are doing.  Write your two or three sentences you think will neutrally reflect the article.  Copy a <ref> citation from some other page that you know was done correctly.  Paste that into the word document you are using.  Change the citation that you know does not apply to your new citation.  For example the date the article was published, as well as the name of the article will need to be changed in the new edit.  Once you are completely happy with the blurb and reference, paste it into the Wiki page.  Follow the directions in the paragraph above. 

I would love to mentor anyone interested in learning how to edit. If anyone wants to watch me edit and learn that way, please contact me! You can find GSoW on Twitter.

 

A different version of this interview appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

 

 

Feb 102022
 

In the news: Moms gathering to scream out their pandemic frustrations. Psychotherapist Arthur Janov believed that neuroses are caused by childhood pain and could be relieved by re-experiencing it through crying and screaming. A huge fad in the 1970s, the idea of “screaming out” anger has a pop culture, superficial appeal, but little basis in science. It’s performative “therapy” ineffective at best and harmful at worst, not shown to improve mental health. Any benefit comes from the group support, not the screaming itself…

Jan 152022
 

So this is cool: I’m quoted in Rolling Stone encouraging people to, quote, “Stop Falling for Made-Up TikTok Moral Panics!”

Check it out HERE! 

 

Also, don’t forget to check out my podcast, Squaring the Strange! 

 

Jan 112022
 

I’m quoted in a news article in the Spanish-language newspaper Clarin on the social and cultural drivers of witchcraft, including at Salem: “Más allá del mito: Las Brujas de Salem, la verdad de la ciencia a 330 años.”

¡Léelo ahora!

 

 

Dec 292021
 

House of Gucci tells the true story of the iconic Italian fashion family. The film follows the rise and fall of Guccis (and soon-to-be-Guccis) from 1978 to the 1990s. You can track the era by the hairstyles and cars, as well as Christmas gifts (such as Simon and Teddy Ruxpin). Along the way there’s plenty of melodrama.

Full disclosure: I am no one’s idea of a fashion follower, and I know even less about high-end fashion such as Gucci. Though the film is based on a book of the same title, and by extension a true story, I had no idea what to expect. I vaguely remembered that there was some assassination, or attempted murder involved in the story, but I wasn’t sure who the victim was, so I went into House of Gucci with a clean slate.

Lady Gaga plays Patrizia Reggiani, a middle-class, possible gold digger who marries into the Gucci family via nerdy lawyer Maurizio (Adam Driver), much to the evident dismay of his father Rudolfo. The dramatic dichotomy is set early on: the indecisive, studious Maurizio and the impulsive, passionate, manipulative go-getter Patrizia. The meet cute between them is too long and too cloying by half (I suspect to pad out Lady Gaga’s screen time). Gaga’s giggly character, though annoying and one-note at first, eventually wins over both Maurizio and the audience.

The film is filled with excellent performances, perhaps most prominent among them Lady Gaga. She effectively conveys a range of emotions, ranging from vulnerability to guile. Driver is good as her husband, though often so passive it’s not clear he has much to do in the role. Jeremy Irons has a small but savory part as Rodolfo, brother of Aldo Gucci (Al Pacino). Pacino can do this role in his sleep but, to his credit, decided to show up and not phone it in. Maurizio’s cousin Paolo, played with commitment by Jared Leto, is a talentless oaf with delusions of grandeur largely inspired by his own last name. Yes, Leto’s performance is over the top, but it fits the film. The film is slightly unhinged, but then again the family is unhinged, and the story is unhinged. These are, for the most part, awful people and their fortunes and foibles are writ large.

The Guccis, not surprisingly, embraced the ethos of Leona Helmsley, Donald Trump, and others that only stupid people pay taxes. This is par for the golf course, but sometimes the law catches up with even the rich—just ask Wesley Snipes and Martha Stewart—and sure enough soon the Guccis are swimming in debt and ducking police raids. As if that’s not enough, Patrizia’s marriage is soon on the rocks, and she means to keep it together.

The film follows Patrizia as she unravels into scheming, obsession, and revenge, seeking weaknesses in the family dynamic to exploit for her own purposes. About halfway through the film an important subplot emerges as Patrizia seeks out guidance from a TV psychic named Pina Auriemma. The fortuneteller, played by Salma Hayek, soon become an accomplice to murder (“We’ve run out of spells, it’s time for something stronger,” one says) and soon Patrizia’s husband was dead.

This is perhaps the most interesting role, at least to me as a skeptic, because while psychics often run afoul of the law—despite being rarely prosecuted—they rarely are involved in murders. Auriemma was not only a close friend and confidant of Patrizia, but she also had underworld connection to Benedetto Ceraulo, Ivano Savioni and Orazio Cicala, Sicilian assassins. Patrizia paid them about $300,000 to kill Maurizio, which they did on March 27, 1995. The plan fell apart two years later when anonymous tip led police to wiretap their telephones and they were recorded discussing the killing. Auriemma eventually confessed, which led to the hitmen confessing as well and revealing Patrizia’s role in the killing, eventually leading to her conviction in 1998; she was sentenced to 29 years in prison and served 16 before being released in 2014. Auriemma was sentenced to 25 years and served just over half before her release.

For all the genuine drama and melodrama, the film seems curiously unfocused. The cast are interesting—and Irons and Leto, especially, are a delight to watch. But House of Gucci is perhaps excessive in its excesses. It’s about a backstabbing power struggle in the Gucci family. It’s about a scorned woman who seeks revenge. It’s about the cutthroat world of high fashion in the 1980s. It’s about two and a half hours long, and it either needed more or less Lady Gaga, depending on which way the story wanted to go. It would have been a stronger film (with a tighter plot) had the filmmakers figured out which story they most wanted to tell and stuck with it.

Dec 242021
 

In 2016, before COVID and 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 holiday season.

 

It began when the Mall of America hired a jolly bearded man named Larry Jefferson as one of its Santas. Jefferson, a retired Army veteran, is black–a fact that most kids and their parents neither noticed nor cared about. The crucial issue for kids was whether a Playstation might be on its way or some Plants vs. Zombies merchandise was in the cards given the particular child’s status on Santa’s naughty-or-nice list. The important thing for parents was whether their kids were delighted by the Santa, and all evidence suggests that the answer was an enthusiastic Yes. “What [the children] see most of the time is this red suit and candy,” Jefferson said in an interview. “[Santa represents] a good spirit. I’m just a messenger to bring hope, love, and peace to girls and boys.”

The fact that Santa could be African-American seemed self-evident (and either an encouraging sign or a non-issue) for all who encountered him. Few if any people at the Mall of America made any negative or racist comments. It was, after all, a self-selected group; any parents who might harbor reservations about Jefferson simply wouldn’t wait in line with their kids to see him and instead go somewhere else or wait for another Santa. Like anything that involves personal choice, people who don’t like something (a news outlet, brand of coffee, or anything else) will simply go somewhere else–not erupt in protest that it’s available to those who want it.

However a black Santa was a first for that particular mall, and understandably made the news. On December 1 the local newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, carried a story by Liz Sawyer titled “Mall of America Welcomes Its First Black Santa.

Scott Gillespie, the editorial page editor for the Tribune, tweeted later that night (at 9:47 PM): “Looks like we had to turn comments off on story about Mall of America’s first black Santa. Merry Christmas everyone!” The tweet’s meaning seemed both clear and disappointing: On a story that the Star Tribune posted about an African-American Santa, the racial hostility got so pervasive in the comments section that they had to put an end to it, out of respect for Jefferson and/or Star Tribune readers. He ended with a sad and sarcastic, “Merry Christmas” and sent the tweet into cyberspace.

Overnight and the next morning his tweet went viral and served as the basis for countless news stories with titles such as “Paper Forced to Close Comments On Mall Of America’s First Black Santa Thanks to Racism” (Jezebel); “Santa is WHITE. BOYCOTT Mall of America’: Online Racists Are Having a Meltdown over Mall’s Black Santa” (RawStory); “Racists Freak Out Over Black Santa At Mall Of America” (Huffington Post); “Mall of America Hires Its First Black Santa, Racists of the Internet Lose It” (Mic.com), and so on. If you spend any time on social media you get the idea. It was just another confirmation of America’s abysmal race relations.

 

There’s only one problem: It didn’t happen.

At 1:25 PM the following day Gillespie, after seeing the stories about the scope and nature of the racist backlash the Tribune faced, reversed himself in a follow-up tweet. Instead of “we had to turn off comments,” Gillespie stated that the commenting was never opened for that article in the first place: “Comments were not allowed based on past practice w/stories w/racial elements. Great comments on FB & Instagram, though.”

This raised some questions for me: If the comments had never been opened on the story, then how could there have been a flood of racist comments? Where did that information come from? How many racist comments did the paper actually get? Fewer than a dozen? Hundreds? Thousands? Something didn’t add up about the story, and as a media literacy educator and journalist I felt it was important to understand the genesis of this story.

It can serve as an object lesson and help the public understand the role of confirmation bias, unwarranted assumptions, and failure to apply skepticism. In this era of attacks on “fake news” it’s important to distinguish intentional misinformation from what might be simply a series of mistakes and assumptions.

While I have no doubt that the Tribune story on Jefferson would likely have been the target of some racist comments at some point, the fact remains that the main point of Gillespie’s tweet was false: the Tribune had not in fact been forced to shut down the comments on its piece about the Mall of America’s black Santa because of a deluge of racist comments. That false information was the centerpiece of the subsequent stories about the incident.

The idea that some might be upset about the topic is plausible; after all, the question of a black Santa had come up a few times in the news and social media (perhaps most notably Fox News’s Megyn Kelly’s infamous incredulity at the notion three years earlier–which she later described as an offhand jest). Racist, sexist, and otherwise obnoxious comments are common in the comments section of many articles online on any number of subjects, and are not generally newsworthy. There were of course some racists and trolls commenting on the secondary stories about the Star Tribune‘s shutting down its comment section due to racist outrage (RawStory collected about a dozen drawn from social media), but fact remains that the incident at the center of the controversy that spawned outrage across social media simply did not happen.

A few journalists added clarifications and corrections to the story after reading Gillespie’s second tweet or being contacted by him. The Huffington Post, for example, added at the bottom of its story: “CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to reflect that the Minneapolis Star Tribune‘s comment section was turned off when the story was published, not in response to negative comments.” But most journalists didn’t, and as of this writing nearly two million news articles still give a misleading take on the incident.

The secondary news reports could not, of course, quote from the original non-existent rage-filled comments section in the Star Tribune, so they began quoting from their own comments sections and those of other news media. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy, wherein the worst comments from hundreds of blogs and websites were then selected and quoted, generating another round of comments. Many people saw racist comments about the story and assumed that they had been taken from the Star Tribune page at the center of the story, and couldn’t be sure if they were responding to the original outrage or the secondary outrage generated by the first outrage. As with those drawn to see and celebrate Jefferson as the mall’s first black Santa, this was also a self-selected group of people–namely those who were attracted to a racially charged headline and had some emotional stake in the controversy, enough to read about it and comment on it.

Unpacking the Reporting

I contacted Gillespie and he kindly clarified what happened and how his tweet inadvertently caused some of the world’s most prominent news organizations to report on an ugly racial incident that never occurred.

Gillespie–whose beat is the opinion and editorial page–was at home on the evening of December 1 and decided to peruse his newspaper’s website. He saw the story about Larry Jefferson and clicked on it to see if the black Santa story was getting any comments. He noticed that there were no comments at all and assumed that the Star Tribune‘s web moderators had shut them off due to inflammatory posts, as had happened occasionally on previous stories.

Understandably irritated and dismayed, he tweeted about it and went to bed, thinking no more of it. The next day he went into work and a colleague noticed that his tweet had been widely shared (his most shared post on social media ever) and asked him about it. Gillespie then spoke with the newspaper’s web moderators, who informed him that the comments had never been turned on for that particular post–a practice at the newspaper for articles on potentially sensitive subjects such as race and politics, but also applied to many other topics that a moderator for whatever reason thinks might generate comments that may be counterproductive.

“I didn’t know why the comments were off,” he told me. “In this case I assumed we followed past practices” about removing inflammatory comments. It was a not-unreasonable assumption that in this case just happened to be wrong. Gillespie noted during our conversation that a then-breaking Star Tribune story about the death of a 2-year-old girl at a St. Paul foster home also had its commenting section disabled–presumably not in anticipation of a deluge of racist or hateful comments.

“People thought–and I can see why, since I have the title of editorial page editor–that I must know what I’m talking about [in terms of web moderation],” Gillespie said. He was commenting on a topic about his newspaper but outside his purview, and to many his tweet was interpreted as an official statement and explanation of why comments did not appear on the black Santa story.

When Gillespie realized that many (at that time dozens and, ultimately, millions) of news stories were (wrongly) reporting that the Star Tribune‘s comments section had been shut down in response to racist comments based solely on his (admittedly premature and poorly phrased) Dec. 1 tweet, he tried to get in touch with some of the journalists to correct the record (hence the Huffington Post clarification), but by that time the story had gone viral and the ship of fools had sailed. The best he could do was issue a second tweet trying to clarify the situation, which he did.

“I can see why people would jump to the conclusion they did,” he told me. Gillespie is apologetic and accepts responsibility for his role in creating the black Santa outrage story, and it seems clear that his tweet was not intended as an attempt at race-baiting for clicks.

In the spirit of Christmas maybe one lesson to take from this case is charity. Instead of assuming the worst about someone or their intentions, give them the benefit of the doubt. Assuming the worst about other people runs all through this story. Gillespie assumed that racists deluged his newspaper with racist hate, as did the public. The web moderator(s) at the Star Tribune who chose not to open the comments on the Santa story may (or may not) have assumed that they were pre-empting a deluge of racism (which may or may not have in fact followed). I myself was assumed to have unsavory and ulterior motives for even asking journalistic questions about this incident (a topic I’ll cover next week).

In the end there are no villains here (except for the relative handful of racists and trolls who predictably commented on the secondary stories). What happened was the product of a series of understandable misunderstandings and mistakes, fueled in part by confirmation bias and amplified by the digital age.

The Good News

Gillespie and I agreed that this is, when fact and fiction are separated, a good news story. As noted, Gillespie initially assumed that the newspaper’s moderators had been inundated with hostile and racist comments, and finally turned the comments off after having to wade through the flood of hateful garbage comments to find and approve the positive ones. He need not have feared, because exactly the opposite occurred: Gillespie said that the Star Tribune was instead flooded with positive comments applauding Jefferson as the Mall of America’s first black Santa (he referenced this in his Dec. 2 tweet). The tiny minority of nasty comments were drowned out by holiday cheer and goodwill toward men–of any color. He echoed Jefferson, who in a December 9 NPR interview said that the racist comments he heard were “only a small percentage” of the reaction, and he was overwhelmed by support from the community.

The fact that Jefferson was bombarded by love and support from the general public (and most whites) should offer hope and comfort. Gillespie said that he had expected people to attack and criticize the Mall of America for succumbing to political correctness, but the imagined hordes of white nationalists never appeared. A few anonymous cranks and racists complained on social media posts from the safety of their keyboards, but there was very little backlash–and certainly nothing resembling what the sensational headlines originally suggested.

The real tragedy is what was done to Larry Jefferson, whose role as the Mall of America’s first black Santa has been tainted by this social media-created controversy. Instead of being remembered for, as he said, bringing “hope, love, and peace to girls and boys,” he will forever be known for enduring a (fictional) deluge of bilious racist hatred. The true story of Jefferson’s stint as Santa is diametrically the opposite of what most people believe: He was greeted warmly and embraced by people of all colors and faiths as the Mall of America’s first black Santa.

Some may try to justify their coverage of the story by saying that even though in this particular case Jefferson was not in fact inundated with racist hate, it still symbolizes a very real problem and was therefore worthy of reporting if it raised awareness of the issue. The Trump administration adopted this tactic earlier this week when the President promoted discredited anti-Muslim videos via social media; his spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders acknowledged that at least some of the hateful videos Trump shared were bogus (and did not happen as portrayed and described), but insisted that their truth or falsity was irrelevant because they supported a “larger truth”–that Islam is a threat to the country’s security: “I’m not talking about the nature of the video,” she told reporters. “I think you’re focusing on the wrong thing. The threat is real, and that’s what the President is talking about.”

This disregard for truth has been a prominent theme in the Trump administration. Yes, some tiny minority of Muslims are terrorists; no one denies that, but that does not legitimize the sharing of bogus information as examples supposedly illustrating the problem. Similarly, yes, some tiny minority of Americans took exception to Jefferson as a black Santa, but that does not legitimize sharing false information about how a newspaper had to shut down its comments because of racist rage. There are enough real-life examples of hatred and intolerance that we need not invent new ones.

In this Grinchian and cynical ends-justifies-the-means worldview, there is no such thing as good news and the import of every event is determined by how it can be used to promote a given narrative or social agenda–truth be damned.

I understand that “Black Santa Warmly Welcomed by Virtually Everyone” isn’t a headline that any news organization is going to see as newsworthy or eagerly promote, nor would it go viral. But it’s the truth.

Merry Christmas.

Dec 192021
 

Colorado Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert sent this weird fear-mongering tweet.

It’s wrong on several levels: 1) she’s confusing missing *children* with reports; 2) “missing” doesn’t imply abducted, and most are runaways who return within hours; 3) “the media” isn’t reporting on it because they know how to read statistics and it’s a non-story.

Also, “enlies” isn’t even a word.

Dec 152021
 

One of the pleasures of my job (along with random stranger hate mail) is seeing where my research is referenced. I’m mentioned in a new book, “Encountering the Sovereign Other: Indigenous Science Fiction.” I haven’t read it yet but it definitely looks interesting…

 

Dec 082021
 

For those who didn’t see it: New episode of Squaring the Strange is out, the first in our series on Moral Panics. This week we look at games: it’s not just first-person-shooters that have caused parents and social guardians to wring their hands and ask “will no one think of the children?” Your grandparents worried authorities when they turned to the vile pursuits of pinball, and their grandparents were paying with Ouija boards without a single care about demons or ghosts.

Check it out! 

 

Nov 302021
 

This month is the anniversary of one of the highest profile—and best documented—UFO reports in modern American history, with hundreds of eyewitnesses and reasonably clear (albeit nevertheless ambiguous) video footage. Despite the (at-least-temporarily) unidentified flying object making international news, the incident has been largely forgotten and ignored by the UFO community, precisely because it was conclusively debunked. It holds no interest to them and only serves as a lesson in eyewitness misperception. There is little to gain from UFO believers revisiting the case, but it holds important lessons for skeptics and critical thinkers.

On Monday evening November 8, 2010, something flew in the skies approximately 35 miles off the California coast. Dramatic video of an (apparent) missile streaking into the sky near Los Angeles was captured by a KCBS television news helicopter cameraman and widely studied. The rocket-like contrail rose like an arced pillar in the sunset, unusually wide at base and narrow at top, seeming to rise vertically in the air. Navy and Air Force officials denied that they launched any missiles in the area at the time, and said they were investigating the incident. The Internet was soon abuzz with conspiracy theories about who might have launched it, and for what purpose.

These theories included UFOs; a secret missile launch (China was widely suggested); government testing of chemtrails; a publicity stunt for alien-themed TV show; a secret military launch from nearby San Nicolas Island, often used by the Air Force; and so on. (The “explanation” that it was a launch from a Chinese submarine raised even more questions than answers: What’s a Chinese sub doing only a few miles from California?)

CNN suggested it might be a North Korean missile, while on CBS News former Deputy Secretary of Defense, Robert Ellsworth, suggested it was a missile after all—but an American one: “It could be a test-firing of an ICBM from a submarine… to demonstrate, mainly to Asia, that we can do that.” For the conspiracy theorists who insist that the missile was some sort of secret government test, this explanation collapses under the weight of its own illogic. Why would the government launch a “secret” missile only 35 miles from Los Angeles, and that would be obvious to anyone looking in the skies?

Veteran UFO researcher and former Skeptical Inquirer columnist Robert Sheaffer was among the first to offer an explanation: “As surprising as it may sound, the object seems to have been simply an aircraft contrail, with tricks of perspective making it look like a missile flying away from you, when in fact it was an aircraft flying toward you. It depends on an effect of perspective. The aircraft’s path must be directly toward, or away from, the observer. Second, even though the contrail is five miles above the ground, as it recedes into the distance it appears to touch the ground, because of the curvature of the earth. As shown by the daytime photo of the vertical contrail on ContrailsScience.com, we know that the aircraft that made it was not flying straight up like a rocket, but when seen directly straight-on, that is what it looks like. And for viewers a few miles away, getting a different perspective, all they see is an ordinary-looking slanted contrail.”

This explained many aspects of the sighting, including the fact that according to the Federal Aviation Administration, radar in the area did not reveal any fast-moving unidentified targets. Furthermore, pilots in the area did not report any unusual sightings, which would make sense, since from their perspective the jet’s contrail would not appear strange. Furthermore, Sheaffer noted, this is not the first time that a contrail has been mistaken for a missile launch; an identical missile-like jet contrail was reported south of Los Angeles on December 31, 2009.

 

 

Mick West of Metabunk was also quick on the case, and offered a detailed analysis to several journalists. To the best of my knowledge, Robert, Mick and I were the first prominent skeptics to offer a plausible explanation when I wrote about it for Discovery News (now rebranded as Seeker); Mick and I later discussed our work on the case on my podcast, Squaring the Strange.

But some were skeptical of the skeptics. Bill Sweetman, of Aviation Week, was quoted as noting (correctly) that the plume seen in the footage was more characteristic of missile. The reporter who filmed it, Gil Leyvas, said in interviews that he’d seen countless plane contrails during his long career and insisted he’d never seen anything like it. From The New York Times: “Mr. Leyvas said that he had never seen an airplane contrail that resembled the contrails on Nov. 4 and Nov. 8. In fact, while he was recording the contrail on Nov. 8, he briefly panned the camera away when he saw a second contrail in the distance, only to discover that the second one had been caused by a jetliner. ‘There was no comparison at all’ between the two, he said, because the mysterious one was several times bigger. He added, ‘The video speaks for itself.’” Physicist Michio Kaku went on Good Morning America and refuted the idea that it was an airplane contrail (more on that shortly).

It took another day for the government to complete its investigation. When they did, Pentagon spokesman Col. David Lapan noted, “With all the information that we have gathered over the last day and a half about this condensation trail off the coast of southern California on Monday night, both within the Department of Defense and other U.S. government agencies, we have no evidence to suggest that this was anything other than a contrail caused by an aircraft.”

Despite these plausible explanations the “mystery missile” video was irresistible to television outlets across the country, which were playing the clip incessantly. Locally, KCBS noted in one segment that “it even looks as if there is some sort of rocket separation” shown on the tape. The mystery deepened when some people reported hearing the rumbling of a missile launch just before it was sighted.

Soon after my article was published on Discovery News piece, commenters were, of course, dismissing me as a shill trying to cover something up. My editor, Ian O’Neill, and I replied with a follow-up piece where I even more clearly laid out the evidence:

Let’s look at the evidence comparing the contrail explanation to the missile theory.

1) According to the Federal Aviation Administration, radar in the area did not reveal any fast-moving unknown targets. A missile would have been picked up on radar, while a jet would not have been flagged as unusual.

2) No trace of the alleged missile has been seen falling into the water off the coast of Los Angeles, nor has the missile or any part of it been recovered; it seems to have simply vanished into the sky. If the contrail was created by a plane, of course, no falling missile would be seen nor found.

3) The object seen in the video moves like a jet, not a rocket. As Michio Kaku, a physics professor at City University of New York noted on Good Morning America, “The trail seems to change direction. Ballistic missiles don’t do that. It doesn’t accelerate. Ballistic missiles accelerate up to 18,000 miles per hour, this is traveling at a constant velocity.” While missiles accelerate greatly during launch, aircraft typically maintain a constant cruising speed once they have reached the desired altitude—exactly as the videotape shows.

4) There is no record of any missiles being fired at the location and time of the sighting, while there are records of commercial jets in the area at the time. One blogger, Liem Bahneman, has identified the route and flight number as US Airways Flight 808 from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Phoenix, Arizona.

5) Perhaps most damaging to the missile theory, the only people who saw (and recorded) the mysterious phenomenon were in one television helicopter videotaping the sunset. None of the nearly 4 million people living in Los Angeles noticed the “missile” launch, and pilots flying in the area reported seeing nothing unusual—and certainly not a missile being launched. This is very strong evidence that the phenomenon was only unusual from one unique perspective; that is, people looking at the same thing from different distances and angles recognized what it was, or didn’t think it was strange. This supports the jet theory and discredits the missile theory.

In the end, the “mystery missile” was indeed exactly what Mick, Robert, and I said it was from the beginning: an airplane contrail (Flight 808) seen from an odd angle. The case provides an interesting case study in social contagion, the psychology of expectant attention (also known as psychological priming), and how people can misinterpret ambiguous sights and sound as confirming their expectations. The people who claimed to hear the rumbling of a distant rocket launch likely weren’t lying or hallucinating; instead they simply reinterpreted ordinary ambient sounds in light of the “missile” launch they believed they’d witnessed. The same goes for the local news analysis that claimed to see “some sort of rocket separation.” There was no rocket separation because there was no rocket; instead people saw what they were expecting to see. This is of course the same principle underlying many reports of ghosts, Bigfoot, UFOs, and other phenomenon.

In any event the conspiracies failed for another reason: there would be no reason for officials to hide or cover up the launch; missiles and satellites are routinely launched from the California coast. All the Pentagon would have to do is issue a statement telling the public that it was a planned launch, and the issue would go away. Maybe we can’t always believe the “official explanation,” but when it fits the facts, we should.

There is an understandable eagerness to opine ahead of the facts, as Michio Kaku, Robert Ellsworth, and many others did. Many took the fact that the original eyewitness who saw and filmed it, Gil Leyvas, didn’t recognize it despite having seen hundreds of contrails as evidence that it must be something else. This principle should be kept in mind when UFO believers state boldly that experienced pilots would obviously be able to recognize a plane, planet, balloon, or any other mundane thing in the sky. Possibly, but not necessarily; after all, that’s why they’re called Unidentified Flying Objects.

 

 

Nov 282021
 

I recently presented a talk, “Folklore and Public Health: Partners in Mitigating Medical Misinformation,” for a webinar on Contemporary Legends and Pandemic Lore, put on by the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research in association with Mahatma Gandhi University in India. Nice to be able to apply critical thinking and skepticism to public health issues!