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 222021
 

The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! Part two in our four-part series on moral panics. This week we talk MUSIC, and go into the past, present, and future of (as Fresh Prince would say) parents just not understanding their kids’ music. So sit back and hear about gansta rap, Miley’s twerking, and even some far-too-jaunty Bing Crosby tunes! Check it out HERE!

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.

 

 

Aug 282021
 

From a library press release: “Benjamin Radford and Joe Nickell are considered to be among the top lake monster authorities in the world. They discuss the different types of lake monster sightings, delve into explanations for those sightings, and examine hoaxes, evidence claims, and legends surrounding the monsters. They have also conducted groundbreaking fieldwork and experiments…”

Technically true, but to be fair there are about ten times as many astronauts as “lake monster authorities.” But, hey, I’ll take it!

Aug 252021
 

I was recently a guest on the Squatch Talk show, talking about Bigfoot sightings, evidence, skepticism, and much more. It was a fun conversation, and since the host’s internet went out, we will be doing a Part 2! Check it out HERE! 

Also we briefly talked about my chupacabra book: 

 

Aug 152021
 

I’m a guest on the “Something to Sasquatch About” show! We talked about the evidence for Bigfoot, the nature of skepticism, why the 1967 Patterson/Gimlin film hasn’t been replicated, the lack of quality control in Bigfoot research, the “Bigfoot Butt Print” cast, and the time a crazy Norwegian hulk confronted me with blurry Bigfoot photos at a conference.

Check it out HERE!

 

 

Aug 132021
 

Did you hear our recent episode of Squaring the Strange? We talk a bit on the resurgence of dowsing and announce some upcoming appearances… then we sit down with guest Prof. Brian Regal, who takes us on a tour of pseudoscience and pseudohistory. Learn how confirmation bias leads to weaponizing fringe theories in order to rewrite history (and change the color of major players). Check it out HERE! 

 

Aug 102021
 

Times of social stress, hardship, and uncertainty spur interest in all kinds of divination and prophecy. The public goes to see psychics and fortunetellers more often in times of economic depression than prosperity, times of loss rather than love. It’s human nature, and magical thinking in its various forms—including superstition and conspiracies—helps people cope with daily stresses. People want to be reassured that good things are just around the corner, that fortunes will improve and whirlwind romances with proverbial tall handsome strangers are in the cards. People want an edge against random chance.

This was true during the pandemic, but there are other stresses—environmental ones such as climate change, widespread fires, and an enduring drought that’s kept much of the Southwestern United States parched for years. It’s no surprise that people are getting more desperate to find water.

The New York Times recently reported a jump in interest in, and hiring of, dowsers (or “water witches”), such as Rob Thompson, who “claims that he can locate streams of water in the fractures in the earth’s bedrock, using two L-shaped rods that together resemble an old-fashioned television antenna. Amid California’s extreme drought, just a two-hour drive north of the nation’s technology capital of Silicon Valley, the water-seeking services of a man relying on two three-foot rods and a hunch are in demand. ‘This is my busiest I think I’ve ever been in my life,’ said Mr. Thompson, a third-generation water hunter with silvering hair and the lumbering gait of a bear… His busy schedule is a sign of the desperation of ranchers, vineyard owners and land managers as California reels from a crippling drought that has depleted aquifers, shrunken crops and forced some farmers to sell off their water rights.”

If you’ve ever heard the phrase “They wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work,” dowsing is a perfect rebuttal. People through the centuries have revered and perpetuated practices despite the fact that they simply do not work. Dowsing is a textbook example of this. Part of the reason for dowsing’s longevity is its versatility in the paranormal world. If we conceive of the paranormal as a tasty (but ultimately nourishment-free) meal, dowsing is a sort of all-purpose side dish. It can stand alone as a New Age endeavor when searching for water or missing jewelry, or it goes equally well with a variety of pseudoscientific main dishes, including crop circles and fortune-telling. Dowsing is said to find anything and everything, including missing persons, buried pipes, oil deposits, and even archaeological ruins (see “Dowsing and Archaeology: Is There Something Underneath?,” in Skeptical Inquirer, March/April 1999).

I most often encounter dowsers during ghost investigations. Many amateur ghost hunters use dowsing rods to search for ghosts, believing that ghosts can be detected by (or communicate through) dowsing rods. In 2007, I demonstrated dowsing for the National Geographic Channel’s Is It Real? TV series on “Ghost Ships” in response to a woman who used dowsing rods on ghost hunts.

 

Ghost hunter using dowsing rods in Ontario, Canada. Photo by Benjamin Radford.

The dowsing with which most people are familiar is water dowsing (also known as water witching or rhabdomancy), in which a person holds a Y-shaped branch or two L-shaped wire rods and walks around until he or she feels a pull on the branch or the wire rods cross, which allegedly indicates that there is water below. Often a pendulum is used, sometimes held over a map.

According to proponents, dowsing has a robust history, and its success has been known for centuries. For example, in her book Divining the Future: Prognostication From Astrology to Zoomancy, Eva Shaw writes, “In 1556, De Re Metallica, a book on metallurgy and mining written by George [sic] Agricola, discussed dowsing as an acceptable method of locating rich mineral sources.” This widely cited reference is a rather transparent example of a logical fallacy called the appeal to tradition (“It must work because people have done it for centuries”).

Woodcut from ‘De Re Metallica’

 

However it seems that the dowsing advocates didn’t actually read the book because it says exactly the opposite: Instead of endorsing dowsing, Agricola states that those seeking minerals “should not make use of an enchanted twig, because if he is prudent and skilled in the natural signs, he understands that a forked stick is of no use to him.” So even 465 years ago, dowsing was recognized as worthless.

How Dowsing ‘Works’

If you assume that dowsing works—and that is of course a huge unproven assumption— how does it work? The proposed mechanisms are as varied as the dowsers themselves. One source states that “Dowsing is possible … through the strong psychic energy radiated by the object and picked up by the [dowser]”; another confidently states that “dowsing is not weird or spooky … it is as natural as memory. In fact, some scientists believe it may well be one of memory’s forms … a vestigial memory of a survival method of searching, using senses other than the five obvious ones.” The Amazing Randi in his Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, notes that dowsers often cannot agree on even the basics of their profession: “Some instructions tell learners never to try dowsing with rubber footwear, while others insist that it helps immeasurably. Some practitioners say that when rods cross, that specifically indicates water; others say that water makes the rods diverge to 180 degrees.”

I don’t believe dowsing per se is fraudulent—that is, for the most part it’s not a scam, hoax, or intentional deception. Instead it’s a form of self-deception that often convinces others. There’s no intent to deceive, it’s more of a mistake or misunderstanding. I’ve met many dowsers over the years and without exception they have been credible, down-to-earth people. They seem sincere because they are sincere: they really believe they have this power, and have convinced themselves over and over with their results. In this way they often convince other people—especially those who haven’t researched skeptical or science-based explanations. Sometimes the dowsing rods cross or the forked twig does seem to dip—but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s water below. The cause is what in psychology is known as the ideomotor effect: unconscious movements that make the dowser think that some other mysterious force is at play. If the dowsing devices were moving independently of the dowser then this should be easily demonstrated, but it doesn’t happen.

Testing Dowsing

Dowsers have been subjected to many tests over the years and have performed no better than chance under controlled conditions. There are various ways to scientifically test dowsing abilities. I have done it several times myself, and read studies done by others. The easiest is to get 20 identical 5-gallon opaque plastic buckets and (with the dowser out of sight or at another location) place a sealed gallon jug of water under one of the buckets (being careful of course not to leave any traces that might reveal where it is). The buckets should be placed 2-3 meters apart (or at whatever interval the dowser claims they can discriminate water from non-water). Have the dowser come out to the field or lot and find the water. You can do a similar experiment hiding valuables on sandy beaches in grids as well. For more on this see CFI’s Jim Underdown of the Independent Investigations Group demonstrating dowsing testing for NBC News.

Jim Underdown demonstrating how dowsing rods “work.”

The problem is that dowsers fail to demonstrate their ability in scientifically controlled experiments and tests. It also depends on what you’re looking for and where. In fact it can be difficult to disprove a dowser’s claim for the same reason: if they claim water will be found in a spot at a certain depth, they can always insist that the water is there—just that they were a bit off on the depth: It’s 50 meters, not 20 meters like they thought. In order to prove or disprove that, of course, you’d need to dig another 30 meters (possibly a difficult and expensive proposition).

And if they find water, does that mean that dowsing works? Not necessarily. In most places on Earth there’s water somewhere below the surface—maybe a few inches, maybe a few meters or more. So any dowser who says “If you dig here you’ll find water” is statistically very likely to be correct—and would be just as correct if he or she chose a spot 10 meters away in any direction, or 10 miles away. There’s also the issue of what psychologists call “confirmation bias,” also known as “remembering the hits and forgetting the misses.” People generally tend to better remember their successes than their failures, or they rationalize away their failures (“I was having an off day,” or “The sun was too hot,” etc.). Unless dowsers keep careful track of all their claims—both correct and wrong— it can be easy to misremember their success rate.

Of course when dowsers are wrong they simply point out that no one is 100% accurate all the time—doctors, mechanics, scientists, and others make mistakes, and this is of course true. But the problem with that comparison is that doctors and mechanics can reliably prove their skills most of the time; this is not true with dowsers, and in fact there is no known scientific mechanism by which a forked branch, pendulum, or two L-shaped rods could possibly “detect” water. Keep in mind that dowsers claim to be able to find a great many “hidden” objects, including missing keys, water, oil, gold, and even ghosts! This raises the interesting question of how dowsers could know what the rods are reacting to: Is it a vein of gold 20 meters below the earth, a reservoir of water 100 meters below the earth, oil shale 200 meters down, or the dead spirit of someone who died at that spot in 1973? There’s no way to know. British Petroleum and other multinational oil companies spend billions of dollars trying to locate offshore oil fields through expensive, difficult, and time-consuming sampling, computer models, and so on.

In fact in September 2015 the Royal Dutch Shell Corporation abandoned its drilling in the Alaskan waters after spending $7 billion searching fruitlessly for oil. Why would they do that if all they need is to have a dowser on hand to point them directly where to drill? Any dowser who could reliably and successfully do what they claim could easily become a multi-millionaire consulting agent. Why doesn’t it happen?

There is no science behind dowsing, and though the main harm is wasted time and effort, it can also cost lives: in 2010, modified dowsing-rod devices claimed to detect bombs were sold by a man named James McCormick to the Iraqi military. As Slate noted, “McCormick’s company was selling these fraudulent magic wands at great expense to the Iraqi government, which spent $16,500 to $60,000 each for these things, devices which might as well have been crayon boxes full of rocks. They were useless. Or, as it turns out, far worse than useless. The Iraqis were using them at military checkpoints. On Oct. 25, 2009, terrorists carrying two tons of explosives got right past the magic bomb sniffer and detonated their cargo, killing 155 people. Two months later, it happened again, with 127 people killed. Not long after, McCormick was arrested under suspicion of fraud.” In April 2013 McCormick was convicted.

The consequences of water dowsing is less dire but no less real: wasted time and effort. Still, as long as there are desperate people who need increasingly scarce resources, water witches will not be far behind.

 

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

 

 

Jun 302021
 

Our recent episode of Squaring the Strange had as our guest historian Jay Smith, who joins us to talk about the murderous 18th century French monster known as the Beast of Gévaudan, thought by some to be a werewolf, a hyena, or perhaps even some Frankenstein-inspired hybrid! Dozens of peasants were left dead, while Paris and the rest of the world were enthralled by the story–but what was really behind it all? Check it out HERE! 

 

Jun 022021
 

The documentary The Woman Who Loves Giraffes tells the remarkable story of a remarkable Canadian woman named Anne Innis Dagg, who first became fascinated by giraffes as a young girl upon seeing them at the Chicago Zoo. Though virtually unknown—and certainly not as recognized as some of her female contemporaries including Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey—in the early 1950s Dagg was frustrated and surprised that there was very little written about the biology and behavior of giraffes. Only 23 at the time, in 1956 Dagg decided that she would have to do the research herself. She then traveled to South Africa to study giraffes in the wild.

This would have been an impressive enough feat in its own right, but is even more remarkable when we consider the social and political climate of the time. In the 1950s young women simply didn’t do that; they were supposed to get married and raise children, not head off to Africa alone to study wild giraffes.

Dagg had applied to live and study at ranches near where giraffes roamed wild, and was roundly rejected—because, you know, it’s a dangerous area and no place for a woman! Nevertheless she persisted, and eventually a South African citrus farmer named Alexander Matthew reluctantly agreed to house her. She then spent months in the field taking extensive notes about all aspects of giraffe behavior. Her research led to writing the definitive textbook about giraffes—one that is still used and taught to this day. (She and Matthew became and remained lifelong friends.)

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

 

But The Woman Who Loves Giraffes isn’t just aboutgiraffes. Dagg’s story is also told through the prism of sexism (and, to a lesser degree, racism, insofar as her research was done in Apartheid-era South Africa). Upon her return Dagg was denied tenure at the University of Guelph in 1972 despite her original research, impeccable credentials, and articles in peer-reviewed publications. One of her professors at the time is interviewed and claims—mostly unconvincingly—that there was in fact no Old Boys Club thwarting her career and that Dagg had merely given up seeking tenure too soon.

Sadly, the impediments soured Dagg on academia and she turned to other things, including raising children and writing books about sexism and feminism. (In 2019 the University of Guelph issued a formal apology to Dagg and established a research scholarship in her name to support undergraduate women studying zoology or biodiversity.)

Dagg had assumed she’d been long forgotten, but that wasn’t in fact true. With a few parallels to the documentary Searching for Sugar Man, unbeknownst to Dagg her seminal books on giraffes were still widely read and revered in the (admittedly niche) world of giraffe experts and zoologists. The last third of The Woman Who Loves Giraffes focuses onDagg’s unlikely return to both (some semblance of) recognition and the South African ranch where she did her pioneering research some half-century earlier. It’s a bittersweet return in part because the giraffe populations have since been decimated (she notes ruefully that during her years there it hadn’t occurred to her that giraffes might ever be endangered, because they were so plentiful and beautiful). The film points out that while other African animals such as gorillas, elephants, and rhinos (quite rightly) get attention and donations, giraffes for whatever reason don’t elicit quite the same sympathy from the public and wildlife organizations (the film suggests that donations can be made to her foundation).

 

Scene from The Woman Who Loves Giraffes

Director Alison Reid masterfully combines archival footage and current interviews, and must have been delighted that Dagg had appeared on a 1965 episode of the game show To Tell the Truth, which opens the film. The Woman Who Loves Giraffes is a wonderful and inspiring story of a strong, fearless female scientist who led an astonishing life and contributed groundbreaking zoological research about these endangered animals. I’ll end with a photo of giraffes not far from where Dagg did her research; these are likely descended from the same animals that she studied a half-century ago.

Giraffes in West Africa, photo by the author.

 

 

 

May 302021
 

Four years ago this week, ‘Wonder Woman‘ was released and became a blockbuster hit. As part of a publicity stunt, the Alamo theater chain announced that it would hold “Women-only Wonder Woman screenings,” as it did with “Clowns-only ‘It’ screenings.” It was a hoax and neither happened, but the publicity was huge–until Alamo ran afoul of the law and had to apologize. Here’s the fascinating inside story of what happened.

 

You can read the full story HERE! 

May 272021
 

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

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

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

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

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

How News and Social Media Mislead

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

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

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

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

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

A Closer Look at Mass Shooters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

Mar 282021
 

This episode we talk all manner of things mer . . . mermen, mermaids, merb’ys, and many more. People love conjuring up creatures that are half human in some way (especially half sexy human), and merfolk top the list. Whether they are helpful, innocent creatures or deceptive, bloodthirsty temptresses, mermaids have been cast in many tall tales. From ancient mythology to recent docufiction, we look at various representations in history and pop culture. What do you do if you find yourself facing the notorious blue men of the of the Minch in Scotland? Or a child-eating kappa in Japan?

We learn the surprising connection between Ariel and an unrequited bisexual love from the 19th century, and we look at “real” mermaids from “The Body Found” (Discovery Channel, 2011) to “the body gaffed” (P. T. Barnum, 1842).

 

Check it out HERE! 

Mar 252021
 

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Feb 252021
 

For those who didn’t see it, in the recent episode of Squaring the Strange we talk with Bigfoot investigator Steve Kulls, who shares with us his tenets of research and then discusses his role in uncovering the Georgia Bigfoot body hoax of 2008–a tale involving a whole cast of characters involved in secrecy, corruption, and avoiding the FBI. Check it out HERE!

 

 

Feb 182021
 

The new documentary Feels Good Mandirected by Arthur Jones, tells the strange story of how an otherwise obscure and innocuous frog cartoon character became a symbol of hate. The frog in question is named Pepe, created by an unassuming, otherwise unknown and (at times frustratingly) low-key San Francisco artist named Matt Furie.  

 

What happened to Pepe is a deceptively complex question, and really understanding it requires some knowledge of media literacy, critical thinking, folklore, social media, memes, popular culture, and politics. Feels Good Man is about many things, and Jones sets the stage early in the film by introducing the audience to the concept of memes. The term, first coined by eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, refers basically to an idea or behavior that spreads between people within a culture. (Full disclosure: I know Richard, have met him several times, and we have both been guest speakers on the same conference program. Also, of course, he is a Board Member of the Center for Inquiry, publisher of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine.) 

 

Dawkins does not appear in the film, but Dr. Susan Blackmore does. She is a psychologist and author of many excellent books, the most relevant of which here is The Meme Machinewhich analyzes memes as the subject of study (memetics). In a TED talk and elsewhere, she has described and refined the idea of memes as ideas that replicate themselves from brain to brain, much like a virus, and often change in the process. (Full disclosure: I know Sue, have met her several times, and am a huge fan of her work on a wide variety of topics ranging from psi research to near-death experiences. And no, I don’t know anyone else in the film.) Some memes are images, and they’re very common on social media: The internet is full of them, ranging from adorable to wildly offensive: Captioned photos of Grumpy Cat. The Distracted Boyfriend photo. What The Most Interesting Man thinks. The anguished blonde yelling at a pissy white cat seated at a table in front of a plate of salad. Kermit the Frog sipping tea while dispensing some pithy wisdom. And so on. 

Pepe was one such meme. As is always the potential fate of anything online, the image was soon adopted (or co-opted, depending on your point of view) by others. The film meticulously charts Pepe’s transition from slacker cartoon frog to hated white supremacist and right-wing icon. It didn’t happen overnight, and Feels Good Man documents the main turning points. In 2005, Furie drew a crude-but-cute frog for a comic series he created called Boy’s Club. It was about the wacky antics of four anthropomorphic animal roommates, several of whom are stoner-slackers, and one of whom was Pepe, a bug-eyed, heavy-lipped green frog. 

In one panel of one of the cartoons Pepe looked sad, and, for whatever reason, that became a popular “sad frog” image on the notoriously toxic anonymous message site 4chan, typically populated by racists, sexists, misfits, and plenty of trolls. Trolls are people who, typically anonymously, delight in provoking arguments on the internet for their own amusement. “Nothing should be taken seriously” is the unofficial troll mantra. Trolls see themselves as taboo smashers whose real message is that the online world is populated with politically correct, easily offended ninnies who should lighten up.

In her book This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream CultureProf. Whitney Phillips notes that “Trolls are keenly aware of how their behaviors impact others, and know exactly which issues will get the greatest rise from their chosen targets. From race to class to everything in between, trolls have their fingers on all kinds of powder kegs—all the better to troll you with” (p. 35); indeed, “trolling has a way of snapping its audience to attention, either by activating emotional investment or by forwarding a claim so outrageous that one cannot help but engage in a dialogue” (p. 159).

Trolling is inherently antagonistic arguing for the sake of arguing, pissing people off simply for the fun of it. The more vile, nasty, offensive, and outrageous the comment or image, the more successful the troll is by their standards. The troll is successful in part because his or her status is, at least initially, ambiguous. Do they genuinely endorse the venom they share, or is it all a joke? Just as Pepe is ambiguous—just a sad frog, after all—so is the message he carries. 

 

Pepe’s forlorn expression resonated with legions of lonely, cynical, nihilistic, and disenfranchised slacker youth who felt alienated for whatever reason. This is nothing new, of course; a generation earlier, Beavis and Butthead had become a huge hit touching on similar themes, as did punk music a generation before that. There’s nothing new under the sun; most young people will at some point or other identify with the sneering rebel, the misunderstood outsider for whom adulthood and responsibility—not to mention civility—are unreasonably onerous demands. There’s a reason why the heroes of countless films are the nerds, punks, and outcasts while the jocks, beautiful people, and rich snobs are the Establishment enemy. In this context, it’s not surprising that Pepe became an underground icon among those who hated “the normies.” Most people who initially used and shared Pepe memes were drawn to its Rorschach-like appeal of expressing sadness or sorrow, but the many trolls among them saw the potential to push it a step further, placing Pepe in increasingly inflammatory contexts. 

Soon part of the trolls’ mischievous mission was to make the Pepe image go mainstream, such as by tricking huge celebrities into sharing or referencing their images, symbols, or messaging. Several stars, including Katy Perry, shared Pepe images, surely unaware of his increasingly toxic and hostile connotations on the darker parts of the internet. In October 2015, then-candidate Donald Trump retweeted an image of him as Pepe—much to the delight of his young supporters, many of whom were very much aware that the image was associated with everything from Nazis to pedophiles. This part of the film offers an interesting, if not wholly convincing, argument that 4chan trolls played a significant role in electing Trump. 

Pepe is only one of several similar troll memes that celebrities have unwittingly endorsed. In September 2008, for example, during an Oprah Winfrey Show about online predators, Winfrey referenced a troll meme named “9000 Penises,” allegedly written by someone online claiming to represent a group of 9,000 predators. One popular meme analysis website described the reaction: “Shortly after the episode’s airing, the ‘Over 9000 penises’ segment was quickly uploaded to YouTube, where it was identified by internet users as an obvious troll. Following much mockery, Harpo Productions, Oprah’s production company, had the video taken down and removed all references to the quote on Oprah.com.” 

Ambiguity of these signs, symbols, and messages is part of their power. In 2018 during Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, rumors circulated that that a lawyer sitting behind Kavanaugh, Zina Bash, was caught on camera flashing a white nationalism sign with the fingers of one hand as her arms crossed. Memes shared on social media “revealed the truth” about what she was doing; some took it seriously, some as a joke, while others smelled Grade-A trolling. Many wondered why the Mexican-born, half-Jewish lawyer would be signaling to the world her sympathies with white nationalists. 

When Bash did it a second time, it seemed to confirm the worst fears. However, as The Washington Post reported

Taylor Foy, a spokesperson for the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, said there was another, innocuous explanation for this second “Okay” hand sign: the signal was aimed at a judiciary staffer who fulfilled a request for the judge. Bash texted a staffer during the hearing “to request a water glass for the judge,” Foy said. “Once it arrived, she was simply communicating her thanks.” In CSPAN’s archive of the hearings, Kavanaugh turns around and speaks to Bash at one point. There’s a coffee cup, but not water glass, on the desk. Bash and the man sitting next to her appear to discuss whatever the judge said as Bash texts on her phone. About a minute later, Bash looks straight ahead and appears to mouth the word “glass.” Then, she gives the OK hand sign. Shortly after that, a water glass is brought to Kavanaugh’s desk.”

According to this explanation, it was an “okay, thanks, everything’s good” symbol, and linked to some external issue going on at the time or just before, not a sign of her support of racism. (Others in the public eye have also been accused of flashing “secret” signs, from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama and Beyonce.)  

Feels Good Man then chronicles Furie’s largely fruitless attempts to rebottle the genie. He did, after all, create the character and could easily prove that he owns the copyright to the image. But copyright only takes you so far; people can legally use and share works, especially if they change it in some way and thus make it eligible for protection under the Fair Use doctrine, which generally allows for the unlicensed use of works in cases such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Satire, for example, is generally considered to be Fair Use, which is why Weird Al Yankovic isn’t required to (though he does) seek permission from original artists when making his parody songs. When someone uses a copyrighted image to sell an item, however, that’s a different kettle of stoner frogs—as conspiracy peddler Alex Jones found out when he used Pepe in a poster he sold (the film includes excerpts of Alex Jones under oath in Furie’s successful lawsuit).

 

The story of Pepe the Frog is in some ways a microcosm of social media, including its reliance on outrage, clicks, and attention as the main metric of what’s valued. Neither truth, nor accuracy, nor fairness but what will get people to Like and Share—what will make algorithms push one meme to the top of the search engines and “Now Trending” lists, providing social currency (“internet fame”) for the creators and real currency for advertisers. It’s a race to the bottom, an appeal to what will get people riled up—but, as before, it’s nothing new. Jerry Springer and many others exploited this formula three decades ago on their talk shows. 

The paradox Furie faces is clear: the more he tries to fight the misuse of his beloved Pepe, the more attention he draws to it, and the more incentive and fodder he provides trolls to perpetuate it. On the other hand, ignoring the problem isn’t ideal either, and the film gives the sense that Furie was a bit too late in recognizing what was going on. 

Furie and the film make the argument that intent and context are important to consider when interpreting usage of these symbols. Some argue that anyone who share memes like Pepe should by default be assumed to have knowledge of the freight and meanings associated with it, thus removing the cover of plausible deniability for trolls. After all, by 2021, surely few people are unaware that Pepe became associated with hate groups (regardless of his innocuous origins or other uses). But the inherent nature of symbols is that it’s often difficult or impossible to know what others mean when they share ambiguous images (a cartoon of Pepe wearing a Nazi swastika would of course not be ambiguous, but the classic drawing of him crying is).

One argument is that trolls should not be given the benefit of the doubt when they claim they don’t really agree with the racist, sexist, or otherwise objectionable messages they create and share. The argument is that these memes and messages are so toxic and malicious that even if they are joking, the fact that they’re joking about such issues is itself problematic and evidence of—if not agreement with, at least tolerance of—the intolerable. Examples include the West Point cadets who, like Zina Bash, were accused of flashing white nationalist signs on camera during an Army-Navy football game in 2019. 

Feels Good Man makes a compelling argument that such a position doesn’t solve the problem but merely moves the crux of it one step further because the motive of the person sharing a meme still must be determined to know whether he or she is a troll. As we have seen, many troll memes are shared by presumably sincere and genuine non-trolls (such as Oprah and Katie Perry, not to mention Furie himself). Assuming that anyone using or sharing the Pepe meme is racist (or at best indifferent to racism) results in many false positives and false accusations—playing right into trolls’ hands. (A West Point investigation concluded that the cadets at the football game did not in fact make any white supremacy signs but were instead playing a common game with each other and were unaware they were on camera). The last scenes in the film reveal an interesting and surprising twist in the effort to reclaim Pepe the Frog. There’s no simple solution to the problem, and one can’t help but feel sorry for people who have a tattoo of Pepe (one is seen in the film) who are likely to be mistaken for a racist because of it. 

Pepe’s arc is unusual in some ways but typical in others. There’s no clear formula for a quirky viral hit; for every clever meme that survives and thrives in the social media ecosystem, tens of thousands dies in obscurity. There was no malicious mastermind who intentionally plucked Pepe off the couch playing video games with his buddies in Boys Club and put him in a Nazi uniform to troll, horrify, and amuse. It was instead an incremental (and partly random) series of steps and decisions by different people at different times with different agendas. Feels Good Man is a fascinating story with a few surprising twists along the way. It’s a cautionary tale about what happens when an artist loses control over his work, and an enlightening case study in how social media trolls operate. 

 

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

 

Feb 152021
 

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

As one is…. You can read it HERE. 

 

 

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

Jan 202021
 

I’m delighted to join Margaret Downey, Chip Taylor, Leonard Tramiel, Jim Underdown, Celestia Ward, Penn & Teller, Jamy Ian Swiss, Richard Saunders, Angie Mattke, Susan Gerbic, Geo Hrab, Brian Engler, and many others in offering our remembrances of our colleague, friend, and mentor, the late, great Amazing Randi in the new edition of the Freethought Society News. You can read the tributes HERE! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Toast To The Amazing One

It is not much of a stretch to say that James Randi was one of the two main inspirations for my career choice as a skeptical researcher and investigator (the other being Carl Sagan). It was 1992, and a beer shortage led me on a path that would culminate in me spending about half my life walking on fire, hunting ghosts, making crop circles, chasing monsters, and exploring the paranormal. While at the University of New Mexico that year I won an essay contest (my piece examined the role that human error played in the 1986 Chernobyl and space shuttle Challenger accidents) and as a prize, I was flown to a college town in Utah to present my paper. While there my colleagues and I decided to venture out for a few beers. Because we were unknowingly in a dry county, this turned out to be an arduous and ill-fated venture.

But in the process of going door to door and store to store, we came across a tiny used bookstore. Amid the spilling shelves of books on fruit canning and apocalyptic survival guides (Mormon bookstore staples), I found a few old copies of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. One in particular, with a purple cover article on Nostradamus, caught my eye, and that was the first time I’d seen anyone criticize the famed prognosticator. 

The author (James “The Amazing” Randi, as it turned out) offered skeptical, logical, and reasonable explanations for the prophecies’ apparent accuracy. Other paranormal and New Age topics were also discussed, giving another side to the story. Not all the explanations and arguments convinced me—I wasn’t taking the refutations as gospel, but at least I was hearing a new voice. I bought the issues and tucked them under my arm as the beer search went on, and upon returning home I subscribed to the magazine and joined the non-profit educational organization that published it (and which Randi co-founded): The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP, now CSI). Twenty years later I am the Deputy Editor of that magazine and a Research Fellow at CSI.

Since that time I have been honored and delighted to work with Randi in many capacities. It’s like growing up being a fan of the Rolling Stones, and ten years later finding yourself on tour with them and hanging out with Mick Jagger after a show. Call it balls, call it gumption, call it whatever you like: Randi has it in spades, and did long before I was born.

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

I don’t have the space to list all of Randi’s accomplishments, and couldn’t even if I wanted to. Life is short, you see, and anyway I’ve got a word limit here. However I’ll just mention a few of his projects that struck me as especially important. Project Alpha was brilliantly conceived and executed, teaching us that scientists’ knowledge and overconfidence in their abilities can be their own worst enemy. The Carlos hoax reminds us how gullible the news media can be when faced with the prospect of a sensational story. His legendary battles with Uri Geller teach us that woo-woo must be challenged whenever possible, and not remain unanswered.

While these stunts and investigations are noteworthy in their own right, to focus on them is to miss the forest for the trees, for what is perhaps most Amazing about Randi is the breadth of his life and experiences. He is far more than just a skeptic or escape artist or magician or world traveler. I remember visiting his home and seeing artifacts from trips to Peru he took decades ago. I, also, had traveled around Peru, including to the highlands he’d explored, and another common thread emerged. We even shared outrage at enemies of thought and reason: I mentioned that I was looking forward to passing water on the grave of George W. Bush, and he laughed and said he’d already done the same (or planned to, I forget) over the grave of Cotton Mather, one of the ideological architects of the Salem Witch Trials. We swapped war stories from the front lines of the skeptical movement, reminisced about old friends, and discussed the future of this strange skeptical endeavor we’ve both dedicated much of our lives to.

Like the brilliant Martin Gardner, whose work I admired and edited years, Randi is almost always unfailingly polite but that demeanor hides a sharp mind. He can lose his temper sometimes, like all of us, but he is better at suffering fools than many of us. He is patient and kind, but steadfastly refuses to brook exploitation of the innocent, especially from “grief vampires” like Sylvia Browne, with whom he’s feuded for years.

I dedicated my book Scientific Paranormal Investigation to Randi, and of course we come from a proud tradition of skeptics and investigators, from Benjamin Franklin to Harry Houdini. I am proud to count Randi as not only a mentor but a friend. Always quick with a quip or a trick, Randi has inspired millions. I don’t know anyone else who has toured with Alice Cooper, been encased in a block of ice for an hour, and exposed fraudulent faith healers like Peter Popoff. As varied and fascinating as his real accomplishments are, you have to watch out: Randi once told me he met Abraham Lincoln, and damn it, for a split second I believed him until that mischievous twinkle in his eyes reminded me to be more skeptical.

It’s not that no one else could, theoretically, have done many of Randi’s accomplishments; it’s that no one else did—and did them for the greater good with moral conviction, thoroughness, and a magician’s flair. There have always been skeptics, and there always will be—but there is only one Amazing Randi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jan 062021
 

This penultimate episode in our moral panic series starts with a discussion of the TikTok worries that interrupted schools last week as authorities braced for possible gun violence. Then we talk cinema and television from old to new, and the themes in moral panicking that jump out repeatedly — such as worrying about what the fragile minds of children or females might absorb, or copycat fears, or concerns about sex, violence, or low self-esteem. Check it out HERE!

 

Dec 302020
 

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

 

Dec 252020
 

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘Distraction’ Tactic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Importance of Due Diligence

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

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

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

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

What Happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The real tragedy in this case is what was done to Larry Jefferson, whose role as the Mall of America’s first black Santa has been tainted by this social media-created controversy. Instead of being remembered for bringing hope, love, and peace to girls and boys, he will forever be known for enduring a (fictional) deluge of bilious racist hatred.

The fact that Jefferson was bombarded by love and support from the general public (and most whites) should offer hope and comfort this holiday season. A few anonymous cranks, trolls, and racists complained on social media posts from the safety of their keyboards, but there was very little backlash–and certainly nothing resembling what the sensational headlines originally suggested.

The true story of Jefferson’s stint as Santa is diametrically the opposite of what most people believe: He was greeted warmly and embraced by people of all colors and faiths as the Mall of America’s first black Santa. I understand that “Black Santa Warmly Welcomed by Virtually Everyone” isn’t a headline that any news organization is going to see as newsworthy or eagerly promote, nor would it go viral. But it’s the truth–and the truth matters.

 

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

 

Dec 212020
 

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

 

You can listen to the episode HERE! 

 

Nov 152020
 

In 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after takeoff from Florida’s coast, an accident that laid bare not only institutional flaws in the application of high technology but also flaws in the public’s understanding of science. Many myths have emerged in the years since the accident, such as that the shuttle exploded—it didn’t, it “was torn apart as it was flung free of the other rocket components and turned broadside into the Mach 2 airstream” (Oberg 2011). Other myths remain, such as that the accident was largely a failure of technology when in fact it was largely a human-caused tragedy.

A new documentary series on Netflix titled Challenger: The Final Flight examines what led up to the accident. Through extensive archival footage and interviews with the families of the crew and engineers involved with the flight, we see a troubled agency that put political pressure above safety.

A Presidential Commission was appointed to study the Challenger shuttle accident and its causes. At first glance the culprit was a mechanical problem: the failure of small O-rings to seal on a solid rocket booster, leading to a catastrophic chain reaction. Yet the real fault for the explosion went far beyond a simple gas leak. The Rogers Commission was very critical of NASA’s procedures, finding serious flaws in the decision-making process that led to the launch.

Engineers at Morton-Thiokol, the company that made the O-rings, warned that seals failed repeated tests under the cold conditions present the morning of the Challenger launch, an unusually cold morning. Engineer Roger Boisjoly, among others, predicted that the O-rings would fail if the shuttle launched in cold weather, and notified his supervisors of this. NASA managers ignored the red flags and went ahead anyway. As tests and engineers had predicted for years, the O-rings burst and the flight—along with its seven astronauts—was doomed.

Institutional Pressures

There are so many components to space technology that, on some level, failure is guaranteed—and expected, hence the presence of redundant and backup systems. The organizations making decisions concerning the Challenger launch (including NASA, Morton Thiokol, and others) had elaborate and specific procedures to assure that accurate data was used in crucial decisions. Instead of this process working correctly, important studies (such as those showing an inverse correlation between O-ring integrity and temperature) were not passed along to those who needed the information, and middle-level decisions were circumvented, primarily for expediency.

Brian Russell of Thiokol, in his testimony before the commission, stated that he did not “realize that there was a formal launch constraint” on the issue of O-ring “blow-by” problems. In other words, he didn’t know that the issue was critical enough to affect the decision to launch. In response, commissioner Robert Rummel replied that the reason that the issue of O-ring safety had been closed out (i.e., prematurely declared resolved) by Russell was “because you don’t want to be bothered. Somebody doesn’t want to be bothered with flight-by-flight reviews, but you’re going to work on it after it’s closed out” (Rogers Commission, 143).

In other cases engineers complained of bureaucracy that impeded their ability to resolve safety issues. The Rogers Commission report quoted one memo from Thiokol engineer S.R. Stein that “We are currently being hog-tied by paperwork every time we try to accomplish anything” (Rogers Commission, 253). In his book Truth, Lies, and O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster, Allan McDonald, director of the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Motor Project at the time of the accident, notes that “In dozens of emotional talks given around the country following Challenger, Roger Boisjoly had been charging that officials played ‘fast and loose’ with the astronauts’ lives, ‘absolutely abdicating their professional responsibility’ in pressuring Thiokol to reverse its original recommendation not to launch. In Boisjoly’s view, stopping the launch of the shuttle was a ‘no-brainer,’ requiring ‘only common sense’” (p. 603).

Social Pressures

If the scientific side of the Challenger disaster was plagued with problems, the social side wasn’t much better. Physicist Richard Feynman was on the commission, and in his Appendix F to the Rogers Commission report he discussed exactly this issue, stating that he believed that the true likelihood of shuttle disaster was about 1 in 100: “Official [NASA] management… claims to believe the probability of failure is a thousand times less. One reason may be an attempt to assure the government of NASA perfection and success in order to ensure the supply of funds. The other may be that they sincerely believe it to be true, demonstrating an almost incredible lack of communication between themselves and their working engineers” (Feynman 1986).

The Challenger accident was fraught with demanding impatience; the liftoff had been delayed several times already, and Americans quickly grew tired of seeing the sleek shuttle sitting impotently on the launching pad. What was promised—and eventually delivered—was action. Society is relatively unconcerned with evaluating the goals of science. NASA administrators were under enormous pressure from both the public and the government to launch the shuttle. Ironically, had the shuttle been delayed yet again to a warmer morning the shuttle would likely have been fine, but the underlying problem still ignored.

The documentary focuses its first few episodes on Christa McAuliffe, the high school teacher who was the much-vaunted “Teacher in Space.” But she was only the highest-profile of the astronauts, overshadowing the others. Co-directors “Glen Zipper and Stephen Leckart conceived of it in 2015 while looking to make something personal. Both had seen the disaster as boys but could only remember the name of one astronaut aboard Challenger: McAuliffe. Who were the other six? The more they dug, the more they found extraordinary people: Ellison Onizuka was the first Asian American in space and Ronald McNair was the second African American. Judith Resnik was the second American woman in space and the first Jewish woman. ‘We wanted to humanize these astronauts and wanted you to know these characters and understand the human side of this whole story,’ co-director Daniel Junge said” in an Associated Press interview. Veterans Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, and Gregory Jarvis rounded out the crew.

The series includes intriguing information about how the Reagan administration pressured the investigative committee to avoid embarrassing NASA—an effort that could be fairly characterized as a coverup. It was only after information was leaked to the mainstream press by a brave engineer insider revealing that NASA had been warned about the problem that full pressure was brought to bear on the Rogers commission to get to the truth—public relations be damned. 

Institutional arrogance is revealed in the stated purpose of the space shuttle: “to provide routine, economical access to space.” NASA’s assumption that any endeavor as complex and perilous as manned space flight could ever be “routine” or “economical” reveals technological arrogance. Part of the reason that the event was so shocking to the American public is they were insulated from the risks and science. The expectation was that everything would work perfectly, as it always had before, during the previous 55 missions into space over 25 years. Like people who use their cell phones every day, they have no idea how the devices work, they just expect them to work. Yet, as Carl Sagan famously noted, “It is suicidal to create a society dependent on science and technology in which hardly anybody knows anything about science and technology.”

Society’s values play an important role in the perception of technology. We live in a society in which immediate gratification is expected, and convenience is prized. Society is impatient for change; we want and expect things to be done immediately and correctly; we don’t have time for the nuances, complexities, or caveats that are the hallmarks of science. This misunderstanding was fueled in part by NASA itself. The shuttle program was packaged and promoted by NASA and the government as a safe and patriotic venture into space. In fact NASA was so confident that they added McAuliffe on Challenger largely as a public relations tool. The other astronauts on mission 51-L had specific scientific duties; according to McAuliffe’s schedule, her role was to beam down two “lessons from space” to schools across America as an ambassador for the space program. One wonders how the mission could have been taken so lightly that they could have reserved a space for PR stunts.

Fueled by patriotism, a lucky streak, and NASA’s confidence, Americans were coaxed into complacency about the safety of manned space flight. Rockets and space shuttles are incredibly complex machines, with tens of thousands of important parts, all—as the grim joke goes—manufactured by the lowest bidder. Each launch takes years of preparation and hundreds of brilliant, dedicated professionals.

The shuttle program has now been retired, but the question can be asked whether it was worth the cost in dollars and human lives—or whether it should be revived. Without knowing what true risks are, it’s impossible to know. The documentary includes a defense by William Lucas, the director of NASA’s Marshall Space Center, on whose shoulders much of the blame has been laid. He insists to this day that he made the best decision he could, given the information available to him at the time from Thiokol.

NASA is not eager to admit it, but life-threatening crises and potential problems will always go hand in hand with manned space flight. Optimism should be tempered with realism about how inherently dangerous and complicated it is to put humans into space. We have not mastered space flight, and should not fool ourselves into thinking otherwise. As Feynman concluded in his report, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

References

Feynman, R. (1986). Appendix F: Personal observations on reliability of shuttle. World Spaceflight News and National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Report on the space shuttle Challenger accident. Washington, D.C.: Office of Government Publications.

McDonald, Allan, and James Hansen. (2012). Truth, Lies, and O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster. University Press of Florida.

Oberg, J. (2011). 7 myths about the Challenger shuttle disaster. NBC News. Available at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11031097/ns/technology_and_science-space/t/myths-about-challenger-shuttle-disaster/#.UFYTD44gyPA.

Rogers Commission, Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. (1986). World Spaceflight News and National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Report on the space shuttle Challenger accident. Washington, D.C.: Office of Government Publications.

 

 

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

Oct 052020
 

News and social media are awash with information about the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately much of what’s shared on social media about COVID-19 is false, misleading, or speculative. From the White House to the CDC, conspiracy cranks to Goop contributors, it’s a never-ending flood of information, and those charged with trying to sort it out are quickly inundated. 

Among the organizations offering advice on the virus and vaccination is a 501c3 nonprofit called Children’s Health Defense, founded in 2016 by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. The Children’s Health Defense (CHD) initiative sounds unimpeachable. Who doesn’t want children to be healthy, right? It’s one of those suspiciously generic Astroturf names intended to evoke images of righteous empowerment and healthy children running through meadows. The logo is two hands cradling a globe circled by silhouettes of children holding hands. Banner headlines encourage people to “Read the Science Now.” 

But there’s a sinister side to the organization. The CHD positions itself as a science-based advocacy organization bravely fighting for justice, public health, and equality, but it has a long history of spreading misinformation.

One recent project involved a viral video that circulated in May titled Plandemic, which featured a lengthy interview with virologist Judy Mikovits. Mikovits offered scattershot conspiracy-laden assertions about the “truth” behind the pandemic, prefaced by claims of having been framed for a crime and accusations of government coverups going back decades. These supposed coverups involved various medical authorities, including Dr. Anthony Fauci. Within weeks, the video was widely shared on social media, often by people who were “just asking questions.” The video was soon identified as containing dangerous misinformation by social media platforms, including Facebook and YouTube, and removed. 

As I noted in an article at the time, Plandemic was never about finding truth but instead a wildly successful publicity stunt for both Mikovits’s book Plague of Corruption: Restoring Faith in the Promise of Science (which soon topped best-seller lists).  

And who wrote the foreword for the most popular anti-vaccination conspiracy book of the past few years? None other than Robert F. Kennedy Jr. In fact, both Kennedy’s name and Children’s Health Defense appear prominently on the medical conspiracy book cover. 

Plague of Corruption: Restoring Faith in the Promise of Science

One hallmark of anti-vaccination is that anti-vaxxers usually deny that they’re anti-vaccination. In the Plandemic video, for example, Mikovits explicitly denies she’s against vaccinations. No, no, that’s all wrong—she just wants safer vaccines, she says, ones that have been proven safe and effective (conveniently ignoring the fact that they already have). Indeed, in one CHD article casting doubt on the safety of vaccines, anti-vaccination crusader Kennedy, who spends much of his time fighting vaccination, takes umbrage at being called an “anti-vaxxer.” He considers it “bullying terminology” and “name calling.” 

This bit of intellectual dishonesty is in some ways a measure of the success of science and medicine. It means that those against vaccination recognize that many in the public are in favor of vaccination, and therefore they feel the need to vehemently deny their obvious motives. They quickly fall back on the classic conspiracy trope that “We’re just asking questions!”—ignoring, again, the fact that the questions they’re asking a) are mostly rhetorical, not factual; and b) to the extent that they are factual, have been answered, repeatedly, by scientists. It’s similar to the position taken by intelligent design creationists and 9/11 Truthers who recycle laundry lists of “Questions the ‘Experts’ Can’t Answer” when in fact they’ve simply chosen to ignore the plausible, evidence-based answers. 

Children’s Health Defense and COVID-19

In this context, it’s no surprise that Children’s Health Defense recently chose to cynically capitalize on the pandemic with the headline “From the ER to the High School Football Field, People Want the Response to Covid-19 to Be Evidence-based, not Political.” 

It’s hard to disagree with that. People do indeed, and should, want public health officials to act on evidence instead of politics. And for the most part they have, despite concerns from across the political spectrum about the safety of eventual vaccines. The accompanying article has little to do with its clickbait title and instead criticizes Dr. Anthony Fauci and others for ignoring possible treatments and encouraging the closing of schools for children’s safety. 

A glance at recent posts on the CHD website reveals a pattern. After a piece titled “Peaceful Rallies Around the World to Champion Freedom,” we have a series of curious headlines, including “The Measles Vaccine Narrative Is Collapsing,” “25 Reasons to Avoid the Gardasil Vaccine,” “The Facts About Measles,” “’Herd Immunity? A Dishonest Marketing Gimmick,” and an unfortunately unironic piece titled “Countering False Vaccine Safety Claims.” 

Even a cursory glance at the list reveals conspiracy claims, false statements, and non sequiturs. To pick just one example of many, in the rebuttal to the “false claim” that vaccines don’t cause autism, the Children’s Health Defense offers the bulleted claim that “The National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program [VICP] has paid many vaccine induced autism claims.” The text file links not, as one might expect, to a peer-reviewed medical journal study affirming the connection between vaccines and autism but instead to a sixty-four-page article in the Pace Environmental Law Review about the program and whether it’s a fair legal forum for claims. Even assuming that it’s perfectly true that the program “has paid many vaccine induced autism claims,” that doesn’t logically mean that vaccines cause autism

The question of whether vaccines cause autism is a medical issue, not a legal one. There may indeed be legal implications if a link existed, but in the world of compensation claims and liability, claims are sometimes made and paid out with little evidential basis. In some cases, for example, companies determine it’s cheaper and faster to simply pay a claim they know or suspect is false than to litigate it. The mere fact that some claims were paid for autism complaints at some point is not a logical or coherent rebuttal to the claim that vaccines cause autism—and the fact that the Children’s Health Defense presents this transparent non sequitur as such is troubling.

In 2019, The New York Times examined such claims and found that “Over the past three decades, when billions of doses of vaccines have been given to hundreds of millions of Americans, the program has compensated about 6,600 people for harm they claimed was caused by vaccines. About 70 percent of the awards have been settlements in cases in which program officials did not find sufficient evidence that vaccines were at fault.” Center for Inquiry General Counsel Nicholas Little adds, 

What I see from the law review article is that there are eighty-three claims of autism among brain damage claims compensated under VICP. The VICP is clear after the Omnibus Autism Proceeding (OAP): vaccines are not considered a cause of autism and are not compensated. … The VICP requires you to show an injury that is vaccine related, and there are “table” injuries. It seems likely these kids have both autism and suffered from vaccine-induced encephalopathy, or residual seizure disorder. But that doesn’t mean the vaccine caused the autism. Both the OAP and federal courts have been clear: There’s no evidence that vaccinations cause autism or that thimerosal causes autism. Claiming otherwise is a misrepresentation of the proceedings.

Because of the recency of the pandemic, there’s relatively little on the organization’s website specifically about the new coronavirus. However, a review of other information on related topics is revealing. Though anti-vaccination efforts appear prominently in the Children’s Health Defense literature and on its website, they serve as an umbrella for other debunked health scares, including 5G and wireless harms and water fluoridation. Oh, and they’re also upset that social media companies have labeled some of their materials as false and misleading and therefore in violation of their policies. 

Misleading and Cherry-Picked Studies

For some topics, the Children’s Health Defense does offer links to valid research—albeit largely cherry picked. This helps maintain the veneer of scientific legitimacy. In some cases, the studies are legitimate and peer reviewed; in other cases, they are clearly labeled as early drafts (for example one document from the National Toxicology Program on fluoride begins with the disclaimer “This DRAFT Monograph is distributed solely for the purpose of pre-dissemination peer review under the applicable information quality guidelines. It has not been formally disseminated by NTP. It does not represent and should not be construed to represent any NTP determination or policy.”)

Nevertheless, we can examine the original NTP document to see whether the Children’s Health Defense fairly and honestly summarized its findings. Here’s what the CHD wrote: “2019: A systematic review of 149 human studies and 339 animal studies by the U.S. National Toxicology Program concluded that ‘fluoride is presumed to be a cognitive neurodevelopmental hazard to humans.’” 

Indeed, that statement, by itself, is true and well known. The draft report states: “This conclusion is based on a consistent pattern of findings in human studies across several different populations showing that higher fluoride exposure is associated with decreased IQ or other cognitive impairments in children” (emphasis added). In other words, the dose makes the poison—a medical principle well known since the 1500s but apparently unfamiliar to Kennedy and his Children’s Health Defense writers. 

By consulting the original document, we can see that the CHD conspicuously left out the rest of the paragraph in that draft: “However, the consistency is based primarily on higher levels of fluoride exposure (i.e., >1.5 ppm in drinking water). When focusing on findings from studies with exposures in ranges typically found in the United States (i.e., approximately 0.03 to 1.5 ppm in drinking water) that can be evaluated for dose response, effects on cognitive neurodevelopment are inconsistent, and therefore unclear” (emphasis added). 

The CHD website could have accurately noted that “levels of fluoride in excess of what Americans drink is presumed to be a cognitive neurodevelopmental hazard,” but why would they? By intentionally obscuring the fact that the fluoride levels found in U.S. drinking water have not been associated with health risks, the Children’s Health Defense adopts a sensationalized, alarmist, and anti-scientific position. This is only one of several examples found in a quick spot-check of articles. 

The Menace of Mixing Myth and Medicine

Kennedy and the Children’s Health Defense have been criticized by skeptics from time to time, including by Dr. David Gorski on the Science-Based Medicine blog. The group was also the subject of recent reporting by mainstream news media, including NBC News, which examined false and misleading health claims widely circulating on social media. 

To be fair, not all the information issued by the Children’s Health Defense is wrong—and that’s part of the problem. By mixing in some legitimate health concerns (over environmental lead, mercury in fish, climate change, air pollution, pesticides, etc.) with bogus and exaggerated ones, Children’s Health Defense muddies the waters. If Kennedy’s organization either stuck to legitimate science—or to obvious New Age antiscience and alternative medicine conspiracy (e.g., David Avocado Wolfe and Natural News)—its misinformation would be easier to counter. By combining the enduring Kennedy mystique, conspiracy theories, and pseudoscience, the Children’s Health Defense is a genuine threat to public health—especially during a pandemic. 

A longer version of this piece appeared for the Center for Inquiry’s Coronavirus Resource Page; you can read it HERE. 

 

 

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

Sep 302020
 

During the first presidential debate, moderator Chris Wallace mischaracterized Kamala Harris’s concerns about vaccinations under Trump. I wrote about it recently: “Harris did not promote any conspiracy theory; she chose her words carefully: ‘*If* the past is prologue, [scientific experts] will be muzzled. They’ll be suppressed. They will be sidelined because he’s looking at an election coming up in less than 60 days and he’s grasping for whatever he can get to pretend that he has been a leader on this issue.'”

Here’s my article on this: 

While some may think that protests about vaccinations are a recent phenomenon, in fact the concerns date back centuries. There was resistance to the first smallpox vaccine, created in the late 1700s by Edward Jenner. Parents and the public—unfamiliar with medicine and how vaccination works—were horrified and disgusted when they learned that the vaccine was created by taking pus from the wounds of infected cows. That procedure was effective and saved countless lives, but still the British Anti-Vaccination League was created in 1853, asserting that the smallpox vaccine was dangerous, ineffective, and an infringement on personal rights. Over 160 years later, that theme continues to resonate strongly with anti-vaccination activists. 

‘‘Millions of human lives … have been preserved by the fruits of Jenner’s genius; yet today, thousands upon thousands of men, some intelligent though designing, some intelligent though deluded, the great mass of them fanatical and ignorant, decry vaccination as not only being of no service to humanity, but positively a nuisance injurious to health and life, while millions of our fellow men are utterly ignorant of, or indifferent to the matter.” This was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1896 by Eugene Foster.

Foster’s breakdown of the reasons people reject vaccination remain salient 125 years later: “Some intelligent though designing, some intelligent though deluded, the great mass of them fanatical and ignorant.” The demographics of vaccine refusal reveal an interesting pattern: despite overwhelming scientific evidence that vaccines are safe and effective, it is the more educated parents who tend to reject them through requesting exemptions for school-age children. As Nicholas Bakalar of The New York Times notes, “Exemption percentages were generally higher in regions with higher income, higher levels of education, and predominantly white populations. In private schools, 5.43 percent of children were exempt, compared with 2.88 percent in public schools. In some suburban areas, rates of exemption were near 50 percent.”

Part of the reason the anti-vaccination theme is so persistent is that it contains a strong conspiracy theory element. The belief is that the dangers and risks of vaccines are being intentionally hidden from the public by doctors and drug companies, in collusion with the government, for big profits. Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent, in their book American Conspiracy Theories, note that “Conspiracy theories about vaccines are partially to blame for decreased rates of vaccination and an increased incidence of disease.” (For more on this see Uscinski’s recent talk “Conspiracy Theories and COVID-19”.)

Vaccine Concerns among Progressives

Historically, the anti-vaccination movement has been rooted in fears of contamination as well as complaints about infringement of personal choice. Both are rooted in distrust of the government and often embraced by conservatives. A recent twist reveals educated liberals who embrace and endorse vaccination in general but reject (as-yet nonexistent) COVID-19 vaccinations, specifically under the Trump administration. 

This is partly in response to Trump’s urging of health officials to speed the vaccination development process and promising voters a vaccine by the end of the year—or, he suggested, by November 1, a few days before the presidential election. Trump believes, with some justification, that his popularity and re-election chances hinge on his visibility of getting the virus under control and ending the pandemic.

In recent weeks, many social media posts and memes have circulated among progressives that urge vaccine hesitancy, at least in the case of an eventual coronavirus treatment. Typical examples include: “I would absolutely not take a coronavirus vaccine approved and administered under a Trump administration” and “I don’t trust this administration with my health at all. I won’t be getting a vaccine if Trump is still president unless some experts can convince me that it’s safe and effective.” 

 

These fears are based on several factors including the demonstrable incompetence of the Trump administration in containing the virus and Trump’s clear efforts to politicize the disease while often undermining medical experts. Yet Donald Trump isn’t a medical doctor and has little or no role in the development of vaccines; that’s not a function of the Executive Office. Instead, the vaccine development is being done by a variety of independent medical institutions, non-profit organizations, and private pharmaceutical companies around the world, following well-established guidelines for demonstrating safety and efficacy.

All eventual COVID-19 vaccines will, by definition, have been developed (and funded) during Trump’s administration. Trump is willfully antiscience and partisan, but that doesn’t logically mean that any vaccines developed under his tenure are necessarily of dubious safety and efficacy. 

One recent article in Foreign Policy noted that “If a vaccine comes out before the election, there are very good reasons not to take it.” Of course, there’s nothing magical about the election day as a marker of vaccine safety. A vaccine made available on election day, or even a few weeks later, would be just as safe as one that came out shortly before election day. The time required to conduct the research and analyze the data is the same, and if it’s been rushed into production, then a few weeks on either side of November 3 isn’t going to be relevant. As a practical matter, of course, a vaccine wouldn’t have a single national release day or timeframe. Front-line doctors and those at highest risk, for example, would likely get a vaccine before the general population. Due to inevitable logistical vagaries and practical reasons, the vaccine would be made available to different people in different circumstances at different times. 

Politics and Posturing

The larger question is why people would assume that Trump was telling the truth when he promised to have a vaccine ready so quickly. Trump and his administration have been characterized by routine falsehoods and exaggerations. On topics both insignificant and globally relevant, Trump seems incapable of telling the truth. Trump has made a laundry list of unrealistic, unachievable—and arguably unwise—goals ranging from buying Greenland to being added to Mount Rushmore to banning Twitter to building a Mexican-funded border wallThe Washington Post has catalogued over 20,000 false or misleading claims made by Trump, and The Atlantic has dedicated coverage to Trump’s extensive false and misleading claims about the coronavirus specifically

It’s curious, then, that his transparent electioneering promises and false statements about the virus are taken seriously. Overall, a recent PBS/Marist poll found that most Americans trust the information they get from, respectively, public health experts (84 percent); state and local governments (72 percent); news media (50 percent); and in last place President Trump (37 percent). 

 

If most people don’t trust Trump to give them accurate information about the virus (and polls show most people don’t), then why would they believe Trump’s campaign promise that a vaccine will (or may) be available before the election? 

If Trump had the political power to force the creation and distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine regardless of safety and efficacy, why hasn’t it already been done? America is in its eighth month of the pandemic; surely if Trump had the ability to override the process and rush out a vaccine—any vaccine, good or bad—for political benefit, he’d have done it months ago. It would appeal to his base (not to mention his ego, allowing him to crow about how he had made America great again after the evil, foreign “Wuhan flu” had attacked the country) and likely help cement a victory over Biden. If Trump could do what his critics fear he’s doing, he’d likely have done it by now.

Trump has long bragged about his popularity, power, and influence—claims that many of his critics have accepted and taken at face value. As a practical matter, the office of the president has less influence than most people assume (or fear). Even a president who has ran roughshod over many norms and usurped powers not afforded the office has been unable to implement many of his stated goals, stopped or slowed by many factors ranging from the Supreme Court to institutional inertia. Trump’s difficulty in getting his way is multiplied when dealing with private industry. 

The question is not whether the Trump administration has tried to, or even had some success in, influencing the vaccination development process or the messaging around it (for example, in one case a Trump letter had requested that state governors expedite not drug development but instead permits involved in setting up distribution sites.) The question is instead what effect, if any, it has had, or will have had, in doing so.  

We need not look far to see examples of vaccines (apparently) rushed into production based on political pressure; Vladimir Putin is a prime example. In mid-August, he announced that a vaccine for COVID-19, nicknamed Sputnik-V, had been approved after less than two months of testing on humans and that mass vaccinations would occur in October. As BBC News reported, “Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro has announced he will be asking for volunteers to test the Covid-19 vaccine developed by Russia. Russia was the first country to officially register a vaccine against the coronavirus on 11 August. But experts have questioned whether it has undergone the necessary testing. The Venezuelan government, which has received billions of dollars in loans from Russia, said it would be willing to take part in clinical trials.”

The concern raised among health officials (non-Russian ones, that is) is that the vaccine went ahead without what’s known as a larger-population study known as a Phase 3 trial, which vaccines in America and elsewhere are currently undergoing.

 

The situation in the West, and in the United States specifically, is markedly different. Not only are drug companies such as Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson actively recruiting tens of thousands of volunteers for Phase 3 trials at this moment, but they are unlikely to risk their reputations—not to mention bottom lines, through class action lawsuits—by rushing out a vaccine that’s ineffective or dangerous. In other words, they have a strong financial incentive to cover their own asses, not to cozy up to a politician who may well not even be in office in four months. There are myriad medical experts, pharmaceutical companies, and public health organizations that have far more to lose by producing a rushed ineffective (or, worse, harmful) vaccine than annoying the current president. As noted, whether Trump has been, or will be, significantly successful in influencing vaccine production to the detriment of vaccine safety remains unproven.

Fueling Vaccine Fears

MSNBC recently reported that about three in four adults around the world are willing to be immunized against COVID-19. A poll of nearly 20,000 adults from twenty-seven countries found that most would do so once a vaccine is available. “China was the most enthusiastic country with 97% of respondents indicating they would want to be vaccinated, while Russia was the least willing with only 54% interested to do so, the survey found. Still, it’s concerning that roughly one-quarter of people globally not intending to get a vaccine, said an expert from the World Economic Forum. ‘The 26% shortfall in vaccine confidence is significant enough to compromise the effectiveness of rolling out a Covid-19 vaccine,’ said Arnaud Bernaert, head of shaping the future of health and healthcare at the WEF.” 

The concern over Trump’s politicization of the vaccine can unfortunately easily be conflated with concern over the safety of the vaccine itself. Indeed this has already happened; the vaccine reluctance by some liberals hasn’t escaped the attention of right-wing pundits and news media. The conservative Daily Caller, for example, recently offered a profoundly misleading headline claiming that “Kamala Harris Promotes ‘Dangerous Conspiracy Theory’ About Coronavirus Vaccine.” 

In fact, Harris did not promote any such conspiracy theory; in an interview, she chose her words carefully: “I would not trust Donald Trump, and it would have to be a credible source of information that talks about the efficacy and the reliability of whatever he’s talking about. I will not take his word for it.”

Harris’s position is in fact mainstream; as noted, most Americans agree with her that Trump is an untrustworthy source of information about the virus and that respected public health officials should be listened to about the matter. On that note, Harris did say that “If the past is prologue, [scientific experts] will be muzzled. They’ll be suppressed. They will be sidelined because he’s looking at an election coming up in less than 60 days and he’s grasping for whatever he can get to pretend that he has been a leader on this issue when he has not.” 

In other words, if the president continues a well-documented pattern of ignoring, contradicting, or overriding medical authorities, then there is reason for concern about suppression of good science about COVID-19. Harris’s statements, while likely (and unfortunately) fueling vaccine hesitancy in this particular circumstance, hardly rise to the level of “dangerous conspiracy theory.” Harris pointedly did not say she would not take a vaccine if it were available before the election, and Joe Biden has said he’d take a vaccine as soon as it’s available. The Daily Caller piece is especially ironic given that Trump himself has repeatedly pushed misinformation and fears about vaccinations, including the long-disproven claim that vaccines cause autism. If anyone running for president can fairly be said to have a history of promoting dangerous anti-vaccination conspiracies, it’s Donald Trump. 

 

Yes, Listen to the Experts

The many who say they will put their faith in medical experts instead of Donald Trump are not engaging in conspiracy theory but instead critical thinking. And what do those experts say? 

World Health Organization Head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that “I would like to assure the public that WHO will not endorse a vaccine that’s not effective and safe.” The Surgeon General of the United States, Jerome Adams, said in a recent Senate hearing that “I’m using my bully pulpit as surgeon general to make sure the entire country understands that vaccines are safe and effective. And this COVID vaccine, I’m telling people to focus on the process over the politics and the people because the process is what will assure us that these are safe.” Joining him was Dr. Francis CollinsDirector of the National Institutes of Health, who echoed his sentiments. Federal Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn issued a statement that “We feel the urgency at the FDA just like everybody else does. We want a vaccine that is safe and effective, as soon as possible. But we’re not going to cut any corners.” 

Then there was the joint statement by the CEOs of nine vaccine makers that read in part, “We, the undersigned biopharmaceutical companies, want to make clear our on-going commitment to developing and testing potential vaccines for COVID-19 in accordance with high ethical standards and sound scientific principles,” pledging among other things to “continue to adhere to high scientific and ethical standards regarding the conduct of clinical trials and the rigor of manufacturing processes and only submit for approval or emergency use authorization after demonstrating safety and efficacy through a Phase 3 clinical study that is designed and conducted to meet requirements of expert regulatory authorities such as FDA.” Dr. Anthony Fauci, among many others, has also pledged that any eventual vaccine made available to the public will be safe and effective—and expressed doubt that it would be ready in the next few months anyway.  

Unless all these respected experts and companies are secretly colluding with Trump to falsely portray an eventual vaccine as safe—which would indeed be a remarkable conspiracy theory—we can be fairly certain that procedures are indeed being followed in vaccine development and thus fears about vaccine safety are as yet unfounded. 

There have been several acknowledged missteps by America’s public health agencies, from mixed messages about mask wearing to invalid testing kits. However, we should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water and to avoid impugning legions of career medical experts who are doing their best amid political pressure to produce a COVID-19 vaccine. A stance that “we can’t trust the experts” is not only cynical but counterproductive. We can—and indeed must—trust medical researchers even if we don’t trust the administration they labor under. 

The anti-vaccination rhetoric is also a slap in the face to those volunteers currently in Phase 3 trials for the vaccinations. Are they stupid for having signed up? Is the implication that they’ve foolishly put themselves and their loved ones at risk by taking an “unproven” vaccine? Are their lives any less important than yours or mine, or someone who might take the vaccine on, near, or months after election day? As people of color have been disproportionately hit by the pandemic, volunteers from those communities are especially needed to participate, and the messages that vaccines may be dangerous (from any source) can only do harm.

Yes, of course the vaccines being tested are by definition “unproven” when they are still in clinical trials. But that doesn’t mean that they’re likely to be harmful—just that researchers don’t have enough data, don’t have a large enough sample size, to demonstrate safety or effectiveness to the usual standard. Even if a vaccine is rushed, the likely outcome would be a less effective vaccine than is optimal, not a less safe vaccine, because of the way vaccines are developed. Vaccines using inactivated (dead) or attenuated (weakened) pathogens, for example, are very unlikely to cause harm in otherwise healthy individuals. 

Those who oppose vaccinations can always point to (or, more often, cherry-pick) isolated cases in which a vaccine was later revealed to have been harmful, rushed into production, or have rare side effects. No medical intervention is 100 percent safe or effective, and vaccines are no exception. However, the overwhelming evidence is that overall, vaccines are both safe and effective, and as of now there is little or no evidence to suggest that COVID-19 vaccines under development—regardless of when they eventually become available—are any exception. 

A far greater danger is scaring people away from getting vaccinated in the first place. The chorus of those raising fears about vaccine safety (for whatever reason ranging from genuine fears to belief in conspiracies to virtue signaling and scoring political points) may be doing more harm than good. Vaccine hesitancy is a legitimate threat to public health, and it should go without saying that we should trust medical expertise over political promises. 

Sep 152020
 

My new article is on why some progressives have recently joined conservatives and conspiracy mongers in promoting vaccination fears: “The chorus of those raising fears about vaccine safety (for whatever reason ranging from genuine fears to belief in conspiracies to virtue signaling and scoring political points) may be doing more harm than good. Vaccine hesitancy is a legitimate threat to public health, and it should go without saying that we should trust medical expertise over political promises.”

 

While some may think that protests about vaccinations are a recent phenomenon, in fact the concerns date back centuries. There was resistance to the first smallpox vaccine, created in the late 1700s by Edward Jenner. Parents and the public—unfamiliar with medicine and how vaccination works—were horrified and disgusted when they learned that the vaccine was created by taking pus from the wounds of infected cows. That procedure was effective and saved countless lives, but still the British Anti-Vaccination League was created in 1853, asserting that the smallpox vaccine was dangerous, ineffective, and an infringement on personal rights. Over 160 years later, that theme continues to resonate strongly with anti-vaccination activists. 

‘‘Millions of human lives … have been preserved by the fruits of Jenner’s genius; yet today, thousands upon thousands of men, some intelligent though designing, some intelligent though deluded, the great mass of them fanatical and ignorant, decry vaccination as not only being of no service to humanity, but positively a nuisance injurious to health and life, while millions of our fellow men are utterly ignorant of, or indifferent to the matter.” This was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1896 by Eugene Foster.

Foster’s breakdown of the reasons people reject vaccination remain salient 125 years later: “Some intelligent though designing, some intelligent though deluded, the great mass of them fanatical and ignorant.” The demographics of vaccine refusal reveal an interesting pattern: despite overwhelming scientific evidence that vaccines are safe and effective, it is the more educated parents who tend to reject them through requesting exemptions for school-age children. As Nicholas Bakalar of The New York Times notes, “Exemption percentages were generally higher in regions with higher income, higher levels of education, and predominantly white populations. In private schools, 5.43 percent of children were exempt, compared with 2.88 percent in public schools. In some suburban areas, rates of exemption were near 50 percent.”

Part of the reason the anti-vaccination theme is so persistent is that it contains a strong conspiracy theory element. The belief is that the dangers and risks of vaccines are being intentionally hidden from the public by doctors and drug companies, in collusion with the government, for big profits. Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent, in their book American Conspiracy Theories, note that “Conspiracy theories about vaccines are partially to blame for decreased rates of vaccination and an increased incidence of disease.” (For more on this see Uscinski’s recent talk “Conspiracy Theories and COVID-19”.)

Vaccine Concerns

Historically, the anti-vaccination movement has been rooted in fears of contamination as well as complaints about infringement of personal choice. Both are rooted in distrust of the government and often embraced by conservatives. A recent twist reveals educated liberals who embrace and endorse vaccination in general but reject (as-yet nonexistent) COVID-19 vaccinations, specifically under the Trump administration. 

This is partly in response to Trump’s urging of health officials to speed the vaccination development process and promising voters a vaccine by the end of the year—or, he suggested, by November 1, a few days before the presidential election. Trump believes, with some justification, that his popularity and re-election chances hinge on his visibility of getting the virus under control and ending the pandemic.

In recent weeks, many social media posts and memes have circulated among progressives that urge vaccine hesitancy, at least in the case of an eventual coronavirus treatment. Typical examples include: “I would absolutely not take a coronavirus vaccine approved and administered under a Trump administration” and “I don’t trust this administration with my health at all. I won’t be getting a vaccine if Trump is still president unless some experts can convince me that it’s safe and effective.” 

 

These fears are based on several factors including the demonstrable incompetence of the Trump administration in containing the virus and Trump’s clear efforts to politicize the disease while often undermining medical experts. Yet Donald Trump isn’t a medical doctor and has little or no role in the development of vaccines; that’s not a function of the Executive Office. Instead, the vaccine development is being done by a variety of independent medical institutions, non-profit organizations, and private pharmaceutical companies around the world, following well-established guidelines for demonstrating safety and efficacy.

All eventual COVID-19 vaccines will, by definition, have been developed (and funded) during Trump’s administration. Trump is willfully antiscience and partisan, but that doesn’t logically mean that any vaccines developed under his tenure are necessarily of dubious safety and efficacy. 

One recent article in Foreign Policy noted that “If a vaccine comes out before the election, there are very good reasons not to take it.” Of course, there’s nothing magical about the election day as a marker of vaccine safety. A vaccine made available on election day, or even a few weeks later, would be just as safe as one that came out shortly before election day. The time required to conduct the research and analyze the data is the same, and if it’s been rushed into production, then a few weeks on either side of November 3 isn’t going to be relevant. As a practical matter, of course, a vaccine wouldn’t have a single national release day or timeframe. Front-line doctors and those at highest risk, for example, would likely get a vaccine before the general population. Due to inevitable logistical vagaries and practical reasons, the vaccine would be made available to different people in different circumstances at different times. 

You can read the rest HERE! 

Aug 032020
 

With statues being front and center in the news earlier this month, we decided to take a few tours of the stranger side of statues. From graveyard statues that take strolls when you’re not looking to spooky statues that allegedly can’t be photographed. Myths involving statues coming to life, or live people being turned to stone, is a rich vein of folklore that reaches forward even to our most recent pop culture. Ben recounts some cases he personally investigated of miraculous “weeping” statues, and then we cover statues as guerilla art pieces that appear mysteriously overnight as publicity stunts and political statements.

You can listen to it HERE! 

Jul 252020
 

As if on cue! Following my recent CFI article “The Truth About Covid Parties” and Squaring the Strange podcast episode on ‘covid parties,’ titled “Tonight We’re Gonna Party Like It’s Covid 1999” there’s a news article suggesting they’ve been confirmed!

A July 10 WOAI/KABB news story from San Antonio, Texas headlined “‘I thought this was a hoax’: Patient in their 30s dies after attending COVID party,” begins: “A patient in their 30s died from the coronavirus after attending what is known as a ‘COVID party,’ according to health care officials. Chief Medical Officer of Methodist Healthcare Dr. Jane Appleby said the idea of these parties is to see if the virus is real….According to Appleby, the patient became critically ill and had a heartbreaking statement moments before death.”

Sounds pretty grim, and for more details on this covid party death we can watch an accompanying video statement by Dr. Appleby: “I don’t want to be an alarmist, and we’re just trying to share some real-world examples to help our community realize that this virus is very serious and can spread easily. I heard a heartbreaking story this week: We cared for a thirty-year-old patient at Methodist Hospital who told their nurse that they’d attended a ‘covid party.’ This is a party held by somebody diagnosed with the covid virus and the thought is that people get together and to see if the virus is real and if anyone gets infected. Just before the patient died, they looked at their nurse and said, ‘I think I made a mistake. I thought this was a hoax, but it’s not.’ This is just one example of a potentially avoidable death of a member of our community and I can’t imagine the loss of the family.”

This is not breaking news but instead classic folklore (a friend-of-a-friend or FOAF) tale presented in news media as fact. The news story and headline presents the comment “I thought this was a hoax,” implicitly attributed to Dr. Appleby. But if you actually read past the headline and watch the video, she’s quoting what she was told that an anonymous patient told his (or her) anonymous nurse—just before the patient’s death. It’s an anonymous third-hand story with nary a verifiable name or claim to be found.

The “deathbed conversion” is a classic legend trope, and the explicitly-worded rebuttal (to those who might doubt that the virus exists) is both convenient and suspicious. It’s also interesting that covid-19 and covid parties are being conflated in the journalism. According to Dr. Appleby’s anonymous informant, the goal of the party is not specifically to intentionally spread the virus (which is the explicit goal of alleged covid parties) but instead “to see if the virus is real and if anyone gets infected.” In other words the topic is less whether the “covid parties” referenced in the headline are a “hoax,” but whether the covid-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2) is itself a hoax.

It is not, and frankly it’s hard to imagine anyone who genuinely thinks that the virus is fictional and doesn’t exist. Many people believe that the extent of the pandemic has been exaggerated for political purposes by the news media and others, and other people think that the virus is less severe than often claimed, perhaps only as bad as the flu. But who in the world would think that the virus itself is a “hoax”? The answer, according to Dr. Appleby, is the patient she refers to and unnamed others who allegedly threw a party thinking that the outcome would somehow settle the question.

Dr. Appleby’s story could, of course, be true, and it’s possible that in the coming days and weeks we will learn the name of the patient who died from attending a covid party (and/or the nurse who heard the patient’s dying regrets). Note that there’s no need to offer any identifying information about the patient, thus violating HIPAA rules. The nurse who (allegedly) had the first-person discussion could come forward to discuss the incident without violating any patient confidentiality agreements. More likely, however, this is a news story reporting a rumor as fact, and if anything it reinforces, not undermines, the idea that covid parties are largely or wholly fictional.

 
Jun 302020
 

In the new episode of Squaring the Strange, we take a look at Antifa this week, or rather–we take a look at HOW people are LOOKING at Antifa. Are we witnessing the birth of a modern social panic? How is Antifa used for political and social purposes? What are the actual statistics? What sort of similarities does it have to the Satanic Panic or the more recent Clown Panic? Along the way we learn the price of bricks versus hippie crystals and the best state in which to register a converted school bus.

 

Check it out HERE! 

Jun 222020
 

Extra Ordinary, a gloriously amusing Irish romantic comedy about the supernatural, begins with the obligatory, winking tagline “Based on a true story.” The ghost hunting genre is both ripe for satire and difficult to satirize effectively because it’s so self-evidently silly. From Ghostbusters to the Wayans brothers’ A Haunted House (2013) to the Scary Movie franchise and Repossessed (1990), there’s no shortage of funny paranormal-themed fare.

Nevertheless Extra Ordinary manages to mine fresh material with a clever script and endearing actors. Maeve Higgins stars as retired-ghost-hunter-turned-driving instructor Rose Dooley, who is contacted by a man named Martin Martin (Barry Ward). He hires her to teach him how to drive but soon confesses that the help he seeks is metaphysical. It seems that the spirit of Martin’s deceased wife Bonnie still haunts their family home—and not in a quaint way (such as mysteriously appearing “pennies from Heaven” or faint nostalgic whiffs of her favorite perfume), but in an annoying way, such as bitchy criticisms written on toast or a fogged bathroom mirror. Martin and his teenager daughter are at their wits’ end and need help.

Rose, however, will have none of it. She abruptly quit the ghost guiding business (“ghost hunting” wouldn’t really describe her vocation) years ago as a teen after the death of her father Vincent in a cursed road pothole—for which she understandably blames herself. Still, sensing Martin’s desperation she faces her fears and agrees to help. The grudgingly-unretired veteran is a tired trope (I can still hear Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven growl, “I ain’t like that no more”) but Higgins pulls it off.

Rounding out the lot of bizarro characters is Christian Winter (Will Forte), a musician-turned-occult devotee who had a single hit decades ago and has decided to stage a comeback—with the help of black magic requiring a virgin sacrifice. He and his grating wife Claudia live in an old castle—because of course they do—and soon the pair’s quest for a suitable sacrifice crosses paths with Rose and Martin’s quest to exorcise his home.

As a ghost folklore researcher I happen to run in some of these circles, and yes, many of the characterizations are spot-on. There’s the painfully earnest, self-proclaimed ghost/occult expert who confidently bloviates about types of ghosts, their “rules,” motivations and so on—while unwilling to admit that it’s all opinion and speculation. Vincent, seen in flashbacks via his cheesy videotaped series “Investigating the Extraordinary,” may have been modeled after 1970s and 1980s-era ghost experts such as Hans Holzer, John Zaffis, and Ed Warren, all of whom found far more success in self-promotion than collecting evidence of ghosts.

“Listen, that you may be enlightened by my ghostly endeavours!”

Framed in part as a cheesily “informative” series of VHS tapes on ghosts, Vincent drops nuggets of learned wisdom such as, “Do you ever have nightmares after eating cheese? You might have eaten a ghost. Even the weakest ghost can possess cheese easily, due to the living bacteria in the cheese.” The line is played for laughs, but it’s only a few shades from the truth. Many people believe, for example, that ghosts can be contained in rocks and trees—that a sort of residual haunting energy is recorded, stored, and then released, triggering ghost reports. Depending on which “ghost rules” you subscribe to, it’s perfectly reasonable to think that ghosts inhabit sliced cheese. Just as one person’s faith is another’s superstition, one person’s demonic shadow person is another’s blurry dark figure in the background of a photo.

The fact that Rose abandoned her psychic ghost communication career for a driving school instructor is par for the course. Ghost hunting is not a lucrative career—those who get rich tend to be de facto actors on “reality TV” shows such as Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures, not anyone doing real investigation or research. Because of this, it’s not uncommon for ghost hunters to have perfectly mundane day jobs as cashiers or accountants, and only go ghost hunting on weekends or special occasions.

Extra Ordinary also offers insight into the psychology of ghost experiences; just as psychic mediums and “sensitive” people do in real life, Rose sees signs (or “signs”) that ghosts are acknowledging her as she goes about her daily routine. Tree branches swaying in wind are waving at her as she passes, for example, and lids on rubbish bins open and close to greet her. Seen through her—that is, a “believer”—lens, for lack of a better term, it’s all quite ordinary. They see intent and meaning behind otherwise ordinary and random events. Martin also sees them, of course, but in his case they’re unmistakably paranormal and not ambiguous phenomena.

Amid this supernatural silliness there’s genuine chemistry between Rose and Martin; they’re both charming people rediscovering the magic of romance in middle age, and Rose is uniquely qualified to help Martin with his “ex-wife-orcism.” Extra Ordinary has fun with the tropes of the genre, absurdly mixing the magical with the mundane (such as when Claudia’s loud lunch munching distracts from Christian’s otherwise super-important ritual); this is a vein mined effectively by Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which high school halls hide both vampires and their predators.

There’s sight gags aplenty, including an unfortunately exploding goat in a ritual called “the gloating.” Ghosts get a little repetitive after a while so there’s also investigations into a handful of miracles, including a weeping deer head trophy. One running joke is that Rose seems to have never heard of the films being parodies; somehow The Exorcist and Ghostbusters never made it to the local video rental stores. The genre has not been played out, and Extra Ordinary is a low-key comedy with winning performances all around.

 

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