The delightful website Adventures in Poor Taste has a nice review of my new book Big–If True!
Check it out HERE!
The delightful website Adventures in Poor Taste has a nice review of my new book Big–If True!
Check it out HERE!
One important facet to critical thinking is recognizing (and hopefully avoiding) logical fallacies. There’s a bunch of them, and Richard Saunders has assembled a nice overview in bite-size chunks… check it out!
For those who didn’t see it, in the recent episode of Squaring the Strange we talk with Bigfoot investigator Steve Kulls, who shares with us his tenets of research and then discusses his role in uncovering the Georgia Bigfoot body hoax of 2008–a tale involving a whole cast of characters involved in secrecy, corruption, and avoiding the FBI. Check it out HERE!
The new documentary Feels Good Man, directed by Arthur Jones, tells the strange story of how an otherwise obscure and innocuous frog cartoon character became a symbol of hate. The frog in question is named Pepe, created by an unassuming, otherwise unknown and (at times frustratingly) low-key San Francisco artist named Matt Furie.
What happened to Pepe is a deceptively complex question, and really understanding it requires some knowledge of media literacy, critical thinking, folklore, social media, memes, popular culture, and politics. Feels Good Man is about many things, and Jones sets the stage early in the film by introducing the audience to the concept of memes. The term, first coined by eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, refers basically to an idea or behavior that spreads between people within a culture. (Full disclosure: I know Richard, have met him several times, and we have both been guest speakers on the same conference program. Also, of course, he is a Board Member of the Center for Inquiry, publisher of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine.)
Dawkins does not appear in the film, but Dr. Susan Blackmore does. She is a psychologist and author of many excellent books, the most relevant of which here is The Meme Machine, which analyzes memes as the subject of study (memetics). In a TED talk and elsewhere, she has described and refined the idea of memes as ideas that replicate themselves from brain to brain, much like a virus, and often change in the process. (Full disclosure: I know Sue, have met her several times, and am a huge fan of her work on a wide variety of topics ranging from psi research to near-death experiences. And no, I don’t know anyone else in the film.) Some memes are images, and they’re very common on social media: The internet is full of them, ranging from adorable to wildly offensive: Captioned photos of Grumpy Cat. The Distracted Boyfriend photo. What The Most Interesting Man thinks. The anguished blonde yelling at a pissy white cat seated at a table in front of a plate of salad. Kermit the Frog sipping tea while dispensing some pithy wisdom. And so on.
Pepe was one such meme. As is always the potential fate of anything online, the image was soon adopted (or co-opted, depending on your point of view) by others. The film meticulously charts Pepe’s transition from slacker cartoon frog to hated white supremacist and right-wing icon. It didn’t happen overnight, and Feels Good Man documents the main turning points. In 2005, Furie drew a crude-but-cute frog for a comic series he created called Boy’s Club. It was about the wacky antics of four anthropomorphic animal roommates, several of whom are stoner-slackers, and one of whom was Pepe, a bug-eyed, heavy-lipped green frog.
In one panel of one of the cartoons Pepe looked sad, and, for whatever reason, that became a popular “sad frog” image on the notoriously toxic anonymous message site 4chan, typically populated by racists, sexists, misfits, and plenty of trolls. Trolls are people who, typically anonymously, delight in provoking arguments on the internet for their own amusement. “Nothing should be taken seriously” is the unofficial troll mantra. Trolls see themselves as taboo smashers whose real message is that the online world is populated with politically correct, easily offended ninnies who should lighten up.
In her book This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture, Prof. Whitney Phillips notes that “Trolls are keenly aware of how their behaviors impact others, and know exactly which issues will get the greatest rise from their chosen targets. From race to class to everything in between, trolls have their fingers on all kinds of powder kegs—all the better to troll you with” (p. 35); indeed, “trolling has a way of snapping its audience to attention, either by activating emotional investment or by forwarding a claim so outrageous that one cannot help but engage in a dialogue” (p. 159).
Trolling is inherently antagonistic arguing for the sake of arguing, pissing people off simply for the fun of it. The more vile, nasty, offensive, and outrageous the comment or image, the more successful the troll is by their standards. The troll is successful in part because his or her status is, at least initially, ambiguous. Do they genuinely endorse the venom they share, or is it all a joke? Just as Pepe is ambiguous—just a sad frog, after all—so is the message he carries.
Pepe’s forlorn expression resonated with legions of lonely, cynical, nihilistic, and disenfranchised slacker youth who felt alienated for whatever reason. This is nothing new, of course; a generation earlier, Beavis and Butthead had become a huge hit touching on similar themes, as did punk music a generation before that. There’s nothing new under the sun; most young people will at some point or other identify with the sneering rebel, the misunderstood outsider for whom adulthood and responsibility—not to mention civility—are unreasonably onerous demands. There’s a reason why the heroes of countless films are the nerds, punks, and outcasts while the jocks, beautiful people, and rich snobs are the Establishment enemy. In this context, it’s not surprising that Pepe became an underground icon among those who hated “the normies.” Most people who initially used and shared Pepe memes were drawn to its Rorschach-like appeal of expressing sadness or sorrow, but the many trolls among them saw the potential to push it a step further, placing Pepe in increasingly inflammatory contexts.
Soon part of the trolls’ mischievous mission was to make the Pepe image go mainstream, such as by tricking huge celebrities into sharing or referencing their images, symbols, or messaging. Several stars, including Katy Perry, shared Pepe images, surely unaware of his increasingly toxic and hostile connotations on the darker parts of the internet. In October 2015, then-candidate Donald Trump retweeted an image of him as Pepe—much to the delight of his young supporters, many of whom were very much aware that the image was associated with everything from Nazis to pedophiles. This part of the film offers an interesting, if not wholly convincing, argument that 4chan trolls played a significant role in electing Trump.
Pepe is only one of several similar troll memes that celebrities have unwittingly endorsed. In September 2008, for example, during an Oprah Winfrey Show about online predators, Winfrey referenced a troll meme named “9000 Penises,” allegedly written by someone online claiming to represent a group of 9,000 predators. One popular meme analysis website described the reaction: “Shortly after the episode’s airing, the ‘Over 9000 penises’ segment was quickly uploaded to YouTube, where it was identified by internet users as an obvious troll. Following much mockery, Harpo Productions, Oprah’s production company, had the video taken down and removed all references to the quote on Oprah.com.”
Ambiguity of these signs, symbols, and messages is part of their power. In 2018 during Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, rumors circulated that that a lawyer sitting behind Kavanaugh, Zina Bash, was caught on camera flashing a white nationalism sign with the fingers of one hand as her arms crossed. Memes shared on social media “revealed the truth” about what she was doing; some took it seriously, some as a joke, while others smelled Grade-A trolling. Many wondered why the Mexican-born, half-Jewish lawyer would be signaling to the world her sympathies with white nationalists.
When Bash did it a second time, it seemed to confirm the worst fears. However, as The Washington Post reported:
Taylor Foy, a spokesperson for the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, said there was another, innocuous explanation for this second “Okay” hand sign: the signal was aimed at a judiciary staffer who fulfilled a request for the judge. Bash texted a staffer during the hearing “to request a water glass for the judge,” Foy said. “Once it arrived, she was simply communicating her thanks.” In CSPAN’s archive of the hearings, Kavanaugh turns around and speaks to Bash at one point. There’s a coffee cup, but not water glass, on the desk. Bash and the man sitting next to her appear to discuss whatever the judge said as Bash texts on her phone. About a minute later, Bash looks straight ahead and appears to mouth the word “glass.” Then, she gives the OK hand sign. Shortly after that, a water glass is brought to Kavanaugh’s desk.”
According to this explanation, it was an “okay, thanks, everything’s good” symbol, and linked to some external issue going on at the time or just before, not a sign of her support of racism. (Others in the public eye have also been accused of flashing “secret” signs, from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama and Beyonce.)
Feels Good Man then chronicles Furie’s largely fruitless attempts to rebottle the genie. He did, after all, create the character and could easily prove that he owns the copyright to the image. But copyright only takes you so far; people can legally use and share works, especially if they change it in some way and thus make it eligible for protection under the Fair Use doctrine, which generally allows for the unlicensed use of works in cases such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. Satire, for example, is generally considered to be Fair Use, which is why Weird Al Yankovic isn’t required to (though he does) seek permission from original artists when making his parody songs. When someone uses a copyrighted image to sell an item, however, that’s a different kettle of stoner frogs—as conspiracy peddler Alex Jones found out when he used Pepe in a poster he sold (the film includes excerpts of Alex Jones under oath in Furie’s successful lawsuit).
The story of Pepe the Frog is in some ways a microcosm of social media, including its reliance on outrage, clicks, and attention as the main metric of what’s valued. Neither truth, nor accuracy, nor fairness but what will get people to Like and Share—what will make algorithms push one meme to the top of the search engines and “Now Trending” lists, providing social currency (“internet fame”) for the creators and real currency for advertisers. It’s a race to the bottom, an appeal to what will get people riled up—but, as before, it’s nothing new. Jerry Springer and many others exploited this formula three decades ago on their talk shows.
The paradox Furie faces is clear: the more he tries to fight the misuse of his beloved Pepe, the more attention he draws to it, and the more incentive and fodder he provides trolls to perpetuate it. On the other hand, ignoring the problem isn’t ideal either, and the film gives the sense that Furie was a bit too late in recognizing what was going on.
Furie and the film make the argument that intent and context are important to consider when interpreting usage of these symbols. Some argue that anyone who share memes like Pepe should by default be assumed to have knowledge of the freight and meanings associated with it, thus removing the cover of plausible deniability for trolls. After all, by 2021, surely few people are unaware that Pepe became associated with hate groups (regardless of his innocuous origins or other uses). But the inherent nature of symbols is that it’s often difficult or impossible to know what others mean when they share ambiguous images (a cartoon of Pepe wearing a Nazi swastika would of course not be ambiguous, but the classic drawing of him crying is).
One argument is that trolls should not be given the benefit of the doubt when they claim they don’t really agree with the racist, sexist, or otherwise objectionable messages they create and share. The argument is that these memes and messages are so toxic and malicious that even if they are joking, the fact that they’re joking about such issues is itself problematic and evidence of—if not agreement with, at least tolerance of—the intolerable. Examples include the West Point cadets who, like Zina Bash, were accused of flashing white nationalist signs on camera during an Army-Navy football game in 2019.
Feels Good Man makes a compelling argument that such a position doesn’t solve the problem but merely moves the crux of it one step further because the motive of the person sharing a meme still must be determined to know whether he or she is a troll. As we have seen, many troll memes are shared by presumably sincere and genuine non-trolls (such as Oprah and Katie Perry, not to mention Furie himself). Assuming that anyone using or sharing the Pepe meme is racist (or at best indifferent to racism) results in many false positives and false accusations—playing right into trolls’ hands. (A West Point investigation concluded that the cadets at the football game did not in fact make any white supremacy signs but were instead playing a common game with each other and were unaware they were on camera). The last scenes in the film reveal an interesting and surprising twist in the effort to reclaim Pepe the Frog. There’s no simple solution to the problem, and one can’t help but feel sorry for people who have a tattoo of Pepe (one is seen in the film) who are likely to be mistaken for a racist because of it.
Pepe’s arc is unusual in some ways but typical in others. There’s no clear formula for a quirky viral hit; for every clever meme that survives and thrives in the social media ecosystem, tens of thousands dies in obscurity. There was no malicious mastermind who intentionally plucked Pepe off the couch playing video games with his buddies in Boys Club and put him in a Nazi uniform to troll, horrify, and amuse. It was instead an incremental (and partly random) series of steps and decisions by different people at different times with different agendas. Feels Good Man is a fascinating story with a few surprising twists along the way. It’s a cautionary tale about what happens when an artist loses control over his work, and an enlightening case study in how social media trolls operate.
I’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.
I recently had a free-ranging chat with Vito D’Amico (aka The Amazing Vito) on myriad things including the perils of Zoom masturbation, Bigfoot sex, the wanna-be “vampire” roommate of a girl he dated, why ghost beliefs can be harmful, confirmation bias, why real animals are more amazing that imaginary ones, and more. Check it out!
I’m quoted in a new CBC article on the new appearance of an old social media scare, the “knockout game” or “blackout challenge.” You can read it HERE. Non-Francophones can read it using the “Translate” button at the top right, and the rest of you can marvel at my beautiful French pronunciation. Merci!
That time I wrote a chapter in a book on vaccination controversies…
I was a recent guest on the Paracast Paranormal Radio show, talking with Gene and Randall about some of the strange cases in my new book Big-If True: Adventures in Oddity. We get into claims about UFO coverups, curses, walking trees, eHarmony, and all sorts of weirdness. Check it out HERE!
I wrote an article investigating the infamous “Women-Only Wonder Woman” screenings in 2017. It was a fascinating hoax that exploited social media and social justice, reaping huge publicity and lawsuits–and an apology from the theater.
The long-delayed, highly-anticipated sequel to the 2017 film Wonder Woman finally hit screens last month. Wonder Woman 1984 opened to decidedly mixed reviews, but it would be hard to live up to its predecessor. The original film was a commercial and critical blockbuster hit, earning over $820 million to date and a 93% Certified Fresh rating on the film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. There were many reasons the film did well, including strong performance by Gal Gadot, a solid script, an empowering female-led cast and crew, good special effects, and so on.
Less attention has been paid to the savvy grassroots marketing of the film, which effectively harnessed social media and social justice outrage. A closer look at the situation through the lenses of media literacy and critical thinking reveal a fascinating—and fabricated—story.
The most effective advertising and marketing campaigns are those in which the audience willingly—even enthusiastically—engages with the brand. The vast majority of advertisements are ignored, many are outright mocked and some are vilified. American media consumers, having grown up in a world cluttered with commercial jingles and ads, are largely jaded and cynical.
Technology makes it easier than ever to skip over ads, and many people pay premiums for advertisement-free entertainment services. Spam filters are very efficient at diverting emailed advertisements, and phones are more adept than ever before at blocking advertisements routed by telephone (an estimated 4 to 5 billion robocalls are made each month to people in the United States, with only a tiny percentage of them—annoying as they are—reaching consumers).
But now and then advertisers strike gold, finding ways to make audiences do their work for them, sharing their memorable message on social media in ways that only billions of marketing dollars possibly could. Superbowl halftime ads, for example, generate attention and interest weeks before the event, with news media playing their role in “reporting” on the funny/shocking/cute/edgy ads that “everyone will be talking about around the office watercooler” the next day. Rarely are so many TV viewers so eager to watch television commercials.
The Superbowl only comes once a year, however, and clever marketers have found other ways to use the news media as their platform, seamlessly blending social commentary and advertising. One of the best known examples is the Dove “Real Beauty” campaign, which garnered girl-power cred—and some inevitable backlash from feminists—by emphasizing the beauty in “ordinary women.” Its (real or perceived) newsworthiness kept it in the public eye for years.
The wildly popular and much-discussed campaign was produced by Dove/Unilever, a multi-billion dollar brand. Smaller, independent companies who can’t afford such a slick campaign need to be resourceful and find cheap but effective ways to distinguish themselves from competitors; often this means guerrilla and grassroots marketing using stunts or gimmicks to gain news media attention.
Making your brand legitimately newsworthy isn’t easy, but doing so is part of many marketing strategies. Every minute of being mentioned in “news”reports—assuming the coverage is positive or at least neutral, of course—is worth far more than a comparable minute of straight-up traditional advertising or infomercials. Many people skip over, tune out, and ignore commercials, but when a company or brand is mentioned as part of the news, it garners much more active attention.
Sometimes this technique backfires, as happened in 2007 when mysterious devices promoting the Turner Cartoon Network’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force show were mistaken for bombs and caused terrorism scares in Boston and other cities. But usually such campaigns make a small blip and then quickly fade away.
One way to give your advertising campaign longevity is to piggyback it onto a topic that people already care about—and, ideally, consider themselves activists for, such as environmentalism or social justice—and let them do your work for you. Instead of creating a demand and then selling your product to fill that demand, demonstrate how your brand aligns with their pre-existing worldview and concerns, and let the social media public promote you.
Which brings us to the Alamo Draft House, a small theater chain founded in Austin, Texas, in 1997. Part of the Alamo’s appeal (and its fame) is its quirky cinemaphile focus. Patrons are not merely discouraged from talking or texting during screenings but have been removed from the theater for doing so! Toddlers are restricted to certain showings, and audience members are often encouraged to participate by dressing up for themed occasions. The chain has 40 theaters across the country, half of them in Texas.
The ‘Clowns Only’ It Screenings
In 2017, and again in 2019, the Alamo held “clowns only” screenings of the horror movie It (parts 1 and 2, respectively) featuring Pennywise the clown. Non-clowns (or at least those not dressed as clowns) were (supposedly) barred from the screenings.
As an Uproxx article noted, “Who needs nightmares when you can be traumatized by creepy-ass clowns in person? The Alamo Drafthouse is celebrating the arrival of the 2017 cinematic take on Stephen King’s It with a clown-only screening of the movie. The Austin location of the theater chain will cater to a clown-specific audience on September 9th with a special screening of It. All attendees are expected to be done up like a clown (I can count the Captain Spauldings already) and can also visit ‘an IT pre-party where we will have face-painters available for clown ‘touch-ups,’ a photo booth, raffles for prizes, and other terrifying merriment.’” A writer for GQ attended the 2019 event and noted that clown attire (such as red noses and funny hats) was available at the door for people who showed up for the screenings without the “required” clown costume.
Headlines universally described the Alamo’s “clowns only” screening—but in fact no “clowns only” policy was enforced; for example the September 9, 2017 “clown-only” screening at the Alamo merely requested that “all attendees should arrive dressed as a clown.” It was just a silly publicity stunt that got the desired national media attention. Few questioned the truth of the advertising claim or the news media’s reporting of it; after all, it’s not as if any non-clowns were upset at being excluded. A few years earlier, however, it had been an entirely different situation.
The ‘Women Only’ Wonder Woman Screenings
When it came to scaring up controversy, Pennywise had nothing on Wonder Woman. As successful as the “clowns only” screening was, the Alamo had been more successful at courting publicity and headlines in 2017 by advertising an all-female screening of Wonder Woman; not only would female patrons be the only ones be admitted according to advertising, but “Everyone working at this screening—venue staff, projectionist, and culinary team—will be female.”
Given the Alamo’s well-known strict intolerance regarding violating theater etiquette and policies, the idea that it would hold female-only screenings sounded perfectly plausible. Most people took it seriously, and misunderstood what was going on. Dozens of journalists jumped on the bandwagon, smelling a great story.
When the screenings were announced, they were greeted with widespread approval. The first screening sold out in hours, and additional screenings were slated. The stunt worked perfectly, generating controversy and sympathetic news headlines while scoring female empowerment points and endearing the theater chain to legions of fans. A handful of people complained, sparking a predictable backlash of outrage that garnered the theater millions of dollars in further free publicity.
As it turned out, however, the Alamo was joking; paying male patrons were not refused entry to any “all-female” Wonder Woman screenings. It was a clever response by Alamo, anticipating and exploiting an equally predictable social media “outrage.”
The Alamo expertly manipulated social justice activists by creating a marketing narrative in which they were the heroes, bravely battling censorship and standing up for women’s safe spaces, “girl power,” and feminism. Activists and journalists didn’t get the joke, and the Alamo laughed all the way to the bank (at least at first). In their rush to generate clickbait headlines about a company providing women refuge from our society’s rampant misogyny the news media got it wrong—not once but twice. Not only did the news and social media misunderstand whether the “women only” screenings had actually occurred, but they also misunderstood who was complaining about it and why.
Was There a Women-Only Wonder Woman Screening?
As with the “clowns only” It screenings—which encouraged clowns but did not prohibit non-clowns from attending—the “women only” Wonder Woman screening encouraged women (more specifically, “people who identify as women,” presumably signaling Alamo’s nonbinary inclusiveness) to attend but didn’t actually prohibit non-women from attending.
Not only were men not denied entry to Wonder Woman, but the stunt backfired when two complaints were made about the screenings. These complaints added fuel to the fire and amplified the narrative that imagined hordes of misogynists were throwing petulant tantrums about not being allowed to see that specific screening. The Alamo enjoyed a second wave of publicity, this one greater than the first.
Amid all the hand-waving, self-righteousness, and troll-baiting, a little detail was lost: the screenings were in fact illegal. Even though no enforced “women-only” Wonder Woman screenings took place, the Alamo’s advertisements that there would be violated the law. Austin equality codes prohibit any public accommodation (restaurants, movie theaters, bars, community centers, etc.) from limiting their services based on a variety of factors including race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on.
Many news reports simply stated that “some men” were upset at the women-only screenings. Few, however, bothered to take a closer look at who, exactly, those “some men” were, and what specifically their complaints were. Journalists accepted the most obvious answer—and took at face value the seemingly self-evident assumption that tone-deaf misogynists were the ones making a fuss. Many journalists didn’t bother to survey the social media responses beyond simply offering screen captures of various tweets, a process guaranteed to highlight the most extreme voices and thereby exaggerate the controversy (New York Times writer Jim Rutenberg hyperbolically referred to the incident as “causing an international uproar” in his June 5, 2017, article; the Times did not respond to a request for clarification).
To be sure, there were plenty of tweets to choose from, and in a social media world where even innocuous cat videos can generate controversy—never mind “debates” about the color of a dress or which way toilet paper should correctly unspool—it wasn’t hard to sift out some obnoxious responses.
The mayor of Austin, for example, received a bizarre, ranting email from a Richard A. Ameduri who wrote in part, “I hope every man will boycott Austin and do what he can to diminish Austin and to cause damage to the city’s image. The theater that pandered to the sexism typical of women will, I hope, regret its decision.” The mayor gamely counter-trolled: “I am writing to alert you that your email account has been hacked by an unfortunate and unusually hostile individual. Please remedy your account’s security right away, lest this person’s uninformed and sexist rantings give you a bad name. After all, we men have to look out for each other! . . . You and I are serious men of substance with little time for the delicate sensitivities displayed by the pitiful creature who maligned your good name and sterling character by writing that abysmal email. I trust the news that your email account has been hacked does not cause you undue alarm and wish you well in securing your account.”
The rant was widely and rightly mocked, and, with Ameduri quickly and spectacularly shot down in flames, another man soon became the new face of the seemingly misogynistic anti-Wonder Woman crusade. Unlike the noisy, mostly-anonymous online trolls and Ameduri, he took it to a whole new level and actually filed a formal complaint with the city of Austin. The Alamo’s many supporters on social media greeted the news with a mix of outrage and mockery.
Who was this angry incel, this misogynist who couldn’t stand to let women have their own screening? It was a law professor in Albany, New York, named Stephen Clark. As Salon noted, Clark “explained that the promotion of the screenings didn’t sit well with him. ‘I’m a specialist in anti-discrimination law, so I was fairly certain that this was not lawful,’ he told MyStatesman. ‘If they were trying to do a gay-only Brokeback Mountain, I would feel the same way.’” (Salon writer Alessandra Maldonado, like the Alamo, denigrated Clark’s defense of anti-discrimination laws as “whining.”)
Peter Holley profiled the chief complainant for The Washington Post: “Stephen Clark almost let it slide. The theater was 2,000 miles away in Austin, and there was no chance he was going to show up there to see a movie anyway. As a gay man who considers himself sensitive to historically disadvantaged groups, there was even a part of him that saw the value of a celebratory, women-only screening of Wonder Woman. But Clark… changed his mind when he looked up Alamo Drafthouse’s Facebook page and began reading the heated exchanges between the theater’s management and the frustrated men calling the venue’s women-only events ‘discriminatory.’”
The Alamo’s snarky tone on social media in response to (what turned out to be legitimate) complaints was another calculated effort to endear itself to audiences. Alamo fueled the flames of controversy by characterizing the complaints as completely baseless, misogynistic, and malicious. Morgan Hendrix, Alamo creative manager, said that the fact that the event “has incurred the wrath of trolls only serves to deepen our belief that we’re doing something right.” Clark found that attitude “brazen” and dismissive: “I understand the reason for creating a women-only event, but the equality principle is fundamental…. There are men in Austin who would like to celebrate women’s empowerment. There are women in Austin who would like to go to this event with their gay best friend, and they can’t under this rule.”
The Washington Post added, “He alleged that the Drafthouse’s women-only event—as it was described in the theater’s advertising—discriminated against male customers based on their gender. Citing the theater’s promise to staff only women at the events, Clark also alleged that the Drafthouse was illegally engaging in employment discrimination. ‘It’s the principle of the thing,’ he told the Post, ‘I’m a gay man, and I’ve studied and taught gay rights for years. Our gay bars have long said that you do not exclude people because they’re gay or straight or transgender—you just can’t do that for any reason . . . . We have to deal with the bachelorette parties that come to the gay bar,’ he added. ‘They’re terribly disruptive, but if you forbid women from coming to a gay bar, you’re starting down a slippery slope. It’s discrimination.’”
It was of course too late for the Alamo to publicly admit that the women-only screenings were a prank, something they never really planned to enforce; they had legions of fans defending them and encouraging them on social media. It’s not clear when they realized that their actions may have been illegal, but at any rate the theater chain decided to double down. While (justifiably) flipping the bird at the (seeming) hordes of cranky basement-dwelling misogynist manbabies online who apparently couldn’t bear women having their own screenings, they also did the same to advocates who had no problem with women—but had a very real problem with gender discrimination. That would be their undoing.
Stacy Hawkins, an associate professor of law at Rutgers University who specializes in employment law, civil rights and diversity, agreed with Clark, explaining to The Washington Post that “As far as public accommodations are concerned, I can tell you in no uncertain terms that the reason this case was filed under the Austin city code is that it prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.” Hawkins noted that “the entire controversy could have been avoided with a simple tweak in the theater’s advertising. ‘Just eliminate ‘no men welcome’ language,’ she said. ‘You try to make sure you demonstrate this is an event for and about women and, most likely, men aren’t going to show up.’” It’s classic human behavior: Tell people they can’t do something, and suddenly they want to do it—just to prove a point, not because they necessarily care a whit about it. The Alamo understood this bit of psychology and deftly used it to its advantage.
A second complaint, from an Austin resident named Mingfey Fan, also argued that “the very act of advertising violated the Code . . . the discriminatory screening should not be allowed.” Fan withdrew the complaint after the Alamo addressed his complaint with respect instead of mockery, admitted it had in fact violated the law, and sent him a DVD of the film.
Once lawyers got involved, after profits had been made and publicity garnered, the Alamo decided to come clean. First it admitted that the women-only Wonder Woman screenings were a prank, something they had led people to believe they would do, but never actually did, and had in fact never planned to do: As the Dallas News reported, “The chain’s director of real estate and development, Missy Reynolds, said . . . that the theaters would not, in fact, have turned away any men who bought tickets to the screening.”
In a letter to the city, the Alamo apologized for the screenings and admitted they had made mistakes, violating Austin’s anti-discrimination laws. It read in part, “Respondent did not realize that advertising a ‘women’s-only’ screening was a violation of discrimination laws. . . . Respondent has a very strict non-discrimination policy in place, but this policy did NOT include a specific prohibition against advertising.”
The Alamo agreed to revise its anti-discrimination policy to comply with local ordinances, and the matter was done. When the dust had settled (and after outrage profits were reaped), with hindsight it’s clear that the imagined hordes of angry men pounding on the Alamo theater’s doors demanding to be let in to see Wonder Woman never existed except as virtual boogeymen in the skewed online world, where public perception often veers markedly from reality. The myth wasn’t created by accident or coincidence, but instead was a golem cobbled together from scraps of advertising gimmickry, social narrative, clickbait outrage, and superficial journalism.
The idea of the “clowns only” It screenings—like that of the “women only” Wonder Woman screenings—was a misleading media myth that the Alamo had no reason to correct and every incentive to promote. When a priceless publicity stunt works, you stick with it. While some may feel that the Alamo profiting from social justice was crass, others marvel at the genius of its marketing stunts.
Social Justice-Driven Box Office
Other films in recent years have also generated free publicity (and millions of dollars) by casting themselves as somehow oppressed, or outsiders battling the status quo. Perhaps the best known example is the 2014 film The Interview, which sparked controversy when its studio, Sony Pictures, was warned not to release it—presumably at the behest of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who in the film is not only mocked but also the target of an assassination plot. Apparently giving in to censorious threats, Sony reportedly cancelled all plans to screen The Interview, on the premise that it was better that no one saw the film than anyone be injured or killed by a terrorist act at one of the screenings. This in turn led to an outpouring of public support, with moviegoers proudly announcing their determination to see the film (sometimes repeatedly), in an explicit effort to spite Kim Jong Un. Sony came under fire for caving in to terrorist threats by scuttling the film.
However, as in the Alamo screenings, Sony’s critics were acting on—and reacting to—misinformation. As The New York Times noted, Sony never planned a total blackout of the film, as had been widely reported. They had left the choice of whether or not the screen the film to theater owners—who had chosen not to. (For more on this, see my January 7, 2015 article “Censorship and Free Speech: Did Sony Really Cancel The Interview?”)
The internet being what it is, just about any news story will inevitably bring out some contrarians and trolls. This is especially true for controversial topics such as gender, race, religion, gun control, and so on. Faux outrage, marketing stunts, and manufactroversies are nothing new, of course. But they can have real consequences when people don’t see through the deception. Tens of millions of Americans, for example, likely remember a fictional widespread misogynistic outrage at an independent theater that dared to hold Wonder Woman screenings just for women.
As is always the case, the initial outrage got widespread publicity while the second half of the story—including the fact that the Alamo admitted that its women-only Wonder Woman screening had been a hoax (and publicity stunt)—got very little attention. There are plenty of real-world, legitimate examples of widespread sexism, but the reaction to the “women only” Wonder Woman publicity stunt was not among them. Skepticism, critical thinking, and media literacy are the best defenses against being manipulated by the media.
A longer version of this article appeared on my CFI blog; you can read it here.
In the recent episode of Squaring the Strange we discuss the Capitol rioters, then debunk many vaccine fears including about Andrew Wakefield’s bogus MMR-autism link study and myths about Covid vaccine harms. Check it out HERE!
I’m delighted to join Margaret Downey, Chip Taylor, Leonard Tramiel, Jim Underdown, Celestia Ward, Penn & Teller, Jamy Ian Swiss, Richard Saunders, Angie Mattke, Susan Gerbic, Geo Hrab, Brian Engler, and many others in offering our remembrances of our colleague, friend, and mentor, the late, great Amazing Randi in the new edition of the Freethought Society News. You can read the tributes HERE!
A Toast To The Amazing One
It is not much of a stretch to say that James Randi was one of the two main inspirations for my career choice as a skeptical researcher and investigator (the other being Carl Sagan). It was 1992, and a beer shortage led me on a path that would culminate in me spending about half my life walking on fire, hunting ghosts, making crop circles, chasing monsters, and exploring the paranormal. While at the University of New Mexico that year I won an essay contest (my piece examined the role that human error played in the 1986 Chernobyl and space shuttle Challenger accidents) and as a prize, I was flown to a college town in Utah to present my paper. While there my colleagues and I decided to venture out for a few beers. Because we were unknowingly in a dry county, this turned out to be an arduous and ill-fated venture.
But in the process of going door to door and store to store, we came across a tiny used bookstore. Amid the spilling shelves of books on fruit canning and apocalyptic survival guides (Mormon bookstore staples), I found a few old copies of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. One in particular, with a purple cover article on Nostradamus, caught my eye, and that was the first time I’d seen anyone criticize the famed prognosticator.
The author (James “The Amazing” Randi, as it turned out) offered skeptical, logical, and reasonable explanations for the prophecies’ apparent accuracy. Other paranormal and New Age topics were also discussed, giving another side to the story. Not all the explanations and arguments convinced me—I wasn’t taking the refutations as gospel, but at least I was hearing a new voice. I bought the issues and tucked them under my arm as the beer search went on, and upon returning home I subscribed to the magazine and joined the non-profit educational organization that published it (and which Randi co-founded): The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP, now CSI). Twenty years later I am the Deputy Editor of that magazine and a Research Fellow at CSI.
Since that time I have been honored and delighted to work with Randi in many capacities. It’s like growing up being a fan of the Rolling Stones, and ten years later finding yourself on tour with them and hanging out with Mick Jagger after a show. Call it balls, call it gumption, call it whatever you like: Randi has it in spades, and did long before I was born.
I don’t have the space to list all of Randi’s accomplishments, and couldn’t even if I wanted to. Life is short, you see, and anyway I’ve got a word limit here. However I’ll just mention a few of his projects that struck me as especially important. Project Alpha was brilliantly conceived and executed, teaching us that scientists’ knowledge and overconfidence in their abilities can be their own worst enemy. The Carlos hoax reminds us how gullible the news media can be when faced with the prospect of a sensational story. His legendary battles with Uri Geller teach us that woo-woo must be challenged whenever possible, and not remain unanswered.
While these stunts and investigations are noteworthy in their own right, to focus on them is to miss the forest for the trees, for what is perhaps most Amazing about Randi is the breadth of his life and experiences. He is far more than just a skeptic or escape artist or magician or world traveler. I remember visiting his home and seeing artifacts from trips to Peru he took decades ago. I, also, had traveled around Peru, including to the highlands he’d explored, and another common thread emerged. We even shared outrage at enemies of thought and reason: I mentioned that I was looking forward to passing water on the grave of George W. Bush, and he laughed and said he’d already done the same (or planned to, I forget) over the grave of Cotton Mather, one of the ideological architects of the Salem Witch Trials. We swapped war stories from the front lines of the skeptical movement, reminisced about old friends, and discussed the future of this strange skeptical endeavor we’ve both dedicated much of our lives to.
Like the brilliant Martin Gardner, whose work I admired and edited years, Randi is almost always unfailingly polite but that demeanor hides a sharp mind. He can lose his temper sometimes, like all of us, but he is better at suffering fools than many of us. He is patient and kind, but steadfastly refuses to brook exploitation of the innocent, especially from “grief vampires” like Sylvia Browne, with whom he’s feuded for years.
I dedicated my book Scientific Paranormal Investigation to Randi, and of course we come from a proud tradition of skeptics and investigators, from Benjamin Franklin to Harry Houdini. I am proud to count Randi as not only a mentor but a friend. Always quick with a quip or a trick, Randi has inspired millions. I don’t know anyone else who has toured with Alice Cooper, been encased in a block of ice for an hour, and exposed fraudulent faith healers like Peter Popoff. As varied and fascinating as his real accomplishments are, you have to watch out: Randi once told me he met Abraham Lincoln, and damn it, for a split second I believed him until that mischievous twinkle in his eyes reminded me to be more skeptical.
It’s not that no one else could, theoretically, have done many of Randi’s accomplishments; it’s that no one else did—and did them for the greater good with moral conviction, thoroughness, and a magician’s flair. There have always been skeptics, and there always will be—but there is only one Amazing Randi.
In the new episode of Squaring the Strange we look back at some of our favourite episodes of 2020. I know you probably want to forget last year… but check it out anyway, we had some great shows!
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!
One of the fun things about writing for Discovery News was that my editors were great and I could sometimes sneak in a touch of satire. I recently revisited an article I wrote on the Bloody Mary legend and was pleased to see that my disclaimer is still there.
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.”
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.
Back before the pandemic, amid the encroaching commercialization of Christmas, Black Friday sales, and annual social media grumblings about the manufactured controversy over whether “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” is appropriate, an ugly episode of racial hatred tainted the beginning of the 2016 holiday season.
It began when the Mall of America hired a jolly bearded man named Larry Jefferson as one of its Santas. Jefferson, a retired Army veteran, is black–a fact that most kids and their parents neither noticed nor cared about. The crucial issue for kids was whether a Playstation might be on its way or some Plants vs. Zombies merchandise was in the cards given the particular child’s status on Santa’s naughty-or-nice list. The important thing for parents was whether their kids were delighted by the Santa, and all evidence suggests that the answer was an enthusiastic Yes. “What [the children] see most of the time is this red suit and candy,” Jefferson said in an interview. “[Santa represents] a good spirit. I’m just a messenger to bring hope, love, and peace to girls and boys.”
The fact that Santa could be African-American seemed self-evident (and either an encouraging sign or a non-issue) for all who encountered him. Few if any people at the Mall of America made any negative or racist comments. It was, after all, a self-selected group; any parents who might harbor reservations about Jefferson simply wouldn’t wait in line with their kids to see him and instead go somewhere else or wait for another Santa. Like anything that involves personal choice, people who don’t like something (a news outlet, brand of coffee, or anything else) will simply go somewhere else–not erupt in protest that it’s available to those who want it.
However a black Santa was a first for that particular mall, and understandably made the news. On December 1 the local newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, carried a story by Liz Sawyer titled “Mall of America Welcomes Its First Black Santa.”
Scott Gillespie, the editorial page editor for the Tribune, tweeted later that night (at 9:47 PM): “Looks like we had to turn comments off on story about Mall of America’s first black Santa. Merry Christmas everyone!” The tweet’s meaning seemed both clear and disappointing: On a story that the Star Tribune posted about an African-American Santa, the racial hostility got so pervasive in the comments section that they had to put an end to it, out of respect for Jefferson and/or Star Tribune readers. He ended with a sad and sarcastic, “Merry Christmas” and sent the tweet into cyberspace.
Overnight and the next morning his tweet went viral and served as the basis for countless news stories with titles such as “Paper Forced to Close Comments On Mall Of America’s First Black Santa Thanks to Racism” (Jezebel); “Santa is WHITE. BOYCOTT Mall of America’: Online Racists Are Having a Meltdown over Mall’s Black Santa” (RawStory); “Racists Freak Out Over Black Santa At Mall Of America” (Huffington Post); “Mall of America Hires Its First Black Santa, Racists of the Internet Lose It” (Mic.com), and so on. If you spend any time on social media you get the idea. It was just another confirmation of America’s abysmal race relations.
There’s only one problem: It didn’t happen.
At 1:25 PM the following day Gillespie, after seeing the stories about the scope and nature of the racist backlash the Tribune faced, reversed himself in a follow-up tweet. Instead of “we had to turn off comments,” Gillespie stated that the commenting was never opened for that article in the first place: “Comments were not allowed based on past practice w/stories w/racial elements. Great comments on FB & Instagram, though.”
This raised some questions for me: If the comments had never been opened on the story, then how could there have been a flood of racist comments? Where did that information come from? How many racist comments did the paper actually get? Fewer than a dozen? Hundreds? Thousands? Something didn’t add up about the story, and as a media literacy educator and journalist I felt it was important to understand the genesis of this story.
It can serve as an object lesson and help the public understand the role of confirmation bias, unwarranted assumptions, and failure to apply skepticism. In this era of attacks on “fake news” it’s important to distinguish intentional misinformation from what might be simply a series of mistakes and assumptions.
While I have no doubt that the Tribune story on Jefferson would likely have been the target of some racist comments at some point, the fact remains that the main point of Gillespie’s tweet was false: the Tribune had not in fact been forced to shut down the comments on its piece about the Mall of America’s black Santa because of a deluge of racist comments. That false information was the centerpiece of the subsequent stories about the incident.
The idea that some might be upset about the topic is plausible; after all, the question of a black Santa had come up a few times in the news and social media (perhaps most notably Fox News’s Megyn Kelly’s infamous incredulity at the notion three years earlier–which she later described as an offhand jest). Racist, sexist, and otherwise obnoxious comments are common in the comments section of many articles online on any number of subjects, and are not generally newsworthy. There were of course some racists and trolls commenting on the secondary stories about the Star Tribune‘s shutting down its comment section due to racist outrage (RawStory collected about a dozen drawn from social media), but fact remains that the incident at the center of the controversy that spawned outrage across social media simply did not happen.
A few journalists added clarifications and corrections to the story after reading Gillespie’s second tweet or being contacted by him. The Huffington Post, for example, added at the bottom of its story: “CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to reflect that the Minneapolis Star Tribune‘s comment section was turned off when the story was published, not in response to negative comments.” But most journalists didn’t, and as of this writing nearly two million news articles still give a misleading take on the incident.
The secondary news reports could not, of course, quote from the original non-existent rage-filled comments section in the Star Tribune, so they began quoting from their own comments sections and those of other news media. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy, wherein the worst comments from hundreds of blogs and websites were then selected and quoted, generating another round of comments. Many people saw racist comments about the story and assumed that they had been taken from the Star Tribune page at the center of the story, and couldn’t be sure if they were responding to the original outrage or the secondary outrage generated by the first outrage. As with those drawn to see and celebrate Jefferson as the mall’s first black Santa, this was also a self-selected group of people–namely those who were attracted to a racially charged headline and had some emotional stake in the controversy, enough to read about it and comment on it.
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.
Gillespie and I agreed that this is, when fact and fiction are separated, a good news story. As noted, Gillespie initially assumed that the newspaper’s moderators had been inundated with hostile and racist comments, and finally turned the comments off after having to wade through the flood of hateful garbage comments to find and approve the positive ones. He need not have feared, because exactly the opposite occurred: Gillespie said that the Star Tribune was instead flooded with positive comments applauding Jefferson as the Mall of America’s first black Santa (he referenced this in his Dec. 2 tweet). The tiny minority of nasty comments were drowned out by holiday cheer and goodwill toward men–of any color. He echoed Jefferson, who in a December 9 NPR interview said that the racist comments he heard were “only a small percentage” of the reaction, and he was overwhelmed by support from the community.
The fact that Jefferson was bombarded by love and support from the general public (and most whites) should offer hope and comfort. Gillespie said that he had expected people to attack and criticize the Mall of America for succumbing to political correctness, but the imagined hordes of white nationalists never appeared. A few anonymous cranks and racists complained on social media posts from the safety of their keyboards, but there was very little backlash–and certainly nothing resembling what the sensational headlines originally suggested.
The real tragedy is what was done to Larry Jefferson, whose role as the Mall of America’s first black Santa has been tainted by this social media-created controversy. Instead of being remembered for, as he said, bringing “hope, love, and peace to girls and boys,” he will forever be known for enduring a (fictional) deluge of bilious racist hatred. The true story of Jefferson’s stint as Santa is diametrically the opposite of what most people believe: He was greeted warmly and embraced by people of all colors and faiths as the Mall of America’s first black Santa.
Some may try to justify their coverage of the story by saying that even though in this particular case Jefferson was not in fact inundated with racist hate, it still symbolizes a very real problem and was therefore worthy of reporting if it raised awareness of the issue. The Trump administration adopted this tactic earlier this week when the President promoted discredited anti-Muslim videos via social media; his spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders acknowledged that at least some of the hateful videos Trump shared were bogus (and did not happen as portrayed and described), but insisted that their truth or falsity was irrelevant because they supported a “larger truth”–that Islam is a threat to the country’s security: “I’m not talking about the nature of the video,” she told reporters. “I think you’re focusing on the wrong thing. The threat is real, and that’s what the President is talking about.”
This disregard for truth has been a prominent theme in the Trump administration. Yes, some tiny minority of Muslims are terrorists; no one denies that, but that does not legitimize the sharing of bogus information as examples supposedly illustrating the problem. Similarly, yes, some tiny minority of Americans took exception to Jefferson as a black Santa, but that does not legitimize sharing false information about how a newspaper had to shut down its comments because of racist rage. There are enough real-life examples of hatred and intolerance that we need not invent new ones.
In this Grinchian and cynical ends-justifies-the-means worldview, there is no such thing as good news and the import of every event is determined by how it can be used to promote a given narrative or social agenda–truth be damned.
I understand that “Black Santa Warmly Welcomed by Virtually Everyone” isn’t a headline that any news organization is going to see as newsworthy or eagerly promote, nor would it go viral. But it’s the truth.
A longer version of this article appeared on my Center for Inquiry blog; you can read it HERE.
“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!
In early May 2020, a YouTube video titled Plandemic was released by Mikki Willis (credited onscreen as “father/filmaker”[sic]) that featured a lengthy interview with virologist Judy Mikovits, who offered scattershot conspiracy-laden assertions about the “truth” behind the COVID-19 pandemic, prefaced by claims of having been framed for a crime (she was charged with theft in 2011) and accusations of government coverups going back decades involving various medical authorities, including Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Willis’s voiceover gravely warned that “for exposing their deadly secrets, the minions of Big Pharma have waged war on Dr. Mikovits,” who in the film—and, not coincidentally, in her new book—bravely reveals “the plague of corruption that places all human life in danger.”
Dozens of claims appeared in the twenty-six-minute video, some of which are unverifiable—as conspiracy theories tend to be. But many statements made by Mikovits have been investigated and proven to be misleading or simply false. Within weeks, the video was widely shared on social media, often by ostensibly non-conspiracy promoters who were “just asking questions.” The video was soon identified by social media platforms as containing dangerous misinformation and was subsequently removed. This in turn reinforced the idea that the views were being silenced and censored by Big Pharma, Big Tech, or some other sinister, shadowy Big.
Questions were raised by reputable journalists for publications including The Washington Post and The Atlantic, as well as Politifact and the Center for Inquiry. For an expert and filmmaker who claim to have been censored and silenced, Mikovits and Willis were strangely silent about answering legitimate questions.
The video was released on May 4; it’s now the week after Thanksgiving. Nearly seven months have passed since Mikovits and Willis made their claims. How have their claims and predictions held up?
There’s a lot to unpack in the video, but given the widespread audience that Plandemic had, it’s worth revisiting some claims and taking a closer look at its basic assumptions. It’s understandable that many in the public may have found this conspiracy theory plausible in the first few months of the pandemic. After all, there was a morass of misinformation and contradictory predictions and models, along with the typical perils of incomplete information during a global pandemic.
Simply making predictions about COVID—or anything—is easy to do. Trump, for example, claimed on February 10, 2020, that the virus “will go away in April.” It did not. On February 27, he claimed that “It’s going to disappear. One day—it’s like a miracle—it will disappear.” It may or may not eventually disappear, but so far it’s ravaged the world. Throughout the remaining months Trump repeatedly—dozens of times—claimed that the virus would just “disappear” or “go away.” Early predictions may have been plausible, but as month after month passed and it didn’t go away, you don’t need to be a stable genius to realize that he was flat wrong. Whatever the skeptics and critics said, time is the ultimate proof: Either it happened or it didn’t, and no amount of rationalizing can salvage it.
As I noted in an article I wrote for this page in April:
The record of wrong predictions about the coronavirus is long and grows by the hour. Around Valentine’s Day, the director of policy and emergency preparedness for the New Orleans health department, Sarah Babcock, said that Mardi Gras celebrations two weeks later should proceed, predicting that “The chance of us getting someone with coronavirus is low.” That projection was wrong, dead wrong: a month later the city would have one of the worst outbreaks of COVID-19 in the country, with correspondingly high death rates. Other projections have overestimated the scale of infections, hospitalizations, and/or deaths. … It’s not that epidemiologists and other health officials have all the data they need to make good decisions and projections about public health and are instead carefully considering ways to fake data to deceive the public and journalists. It’s that they don’t have all the data they need to make better predictions, and as more information comes in, the projections will get more accurate.
We now have the benefit of hindsight and nearly seven months of experience and evidence since the Plandemic video went viral. Does what has happened over the past seven months suggest that Mikovits and Willis were telling the truth or that they were wrong (or lying)? Mikovits and Willis offered no evidence, and refused to answer any questions about, their claims. On that basis alone, we can conclude that there’s probably something sketchy going on. Because they refused to clarify or expand on their claims, I can only go by what they said in the video.
The video contains dozens of claims and assertions, many of which aren’t specific enough to be proven true or false. But I’ll focus on three specific, key claims:
1) The Plandemic video claims that masks “activate” the coronavirus and that the virus is more infectious for individuals wearing masks than for those not wearing masks.
This claim is obviously and undeniably false. We know this because there is a proven inverse correlation between mask wearing and infection rates: the more often people (both on individual and population levels) wear masks, the less likely they are to contract the virus. If wearing masks “activated” the virus (whatever that would mean), then there would be a positive correlation between mask wearing and contracting illness.
This was obvious even in May when the Plandemic video circulated, because toward the beginning of the outbreak most people were not wearing masks; if wearing a mask made you more vulnerable to the virus, then it wouldn’t have spread. If common sense (and a background in virology) don’t tell Mikovits that masks help prevent the spread of infectious airborne diseases, there are also a raft of recent studies demonstrating it.
2) The video promotes hydroxychloroquine as effective against the virus and claims that “thousands of pages of data” have demonstrated the drug’s safety and efficacy.
In fact, controlled clinical trials of the drug have been performed; they found elevated cardiac risks, and several placebo-controlled studies found no efficacy at all. As The Washington Post noted recently:
The Food and Drug Administration withdrew its emergency-use authorization for hydroxychloroquine in hospitalized patients in June, concluding that safety risks, including heart problems, outweighed any potential benefits. It has also warned against using the drug in outpatient settings, saying it could cause serious heart rhythm problems. The first randomized clinical trial later found that hydroxychloroquine was no more effective than a placebo at treating covid-19 in patients who were not hospitalized.
Trump’s own top health officials have explicitly said that the drug is not effective for COVID-19 patients. Notably, when President Trump became infected with the virus, he did not take hydroxychloroquine; more on that later. That, too, has been proven false.
3) In the Plandemic video, Mikovicz states her key premise, a conspiracy that the pandemic was “planned” with the ultimate goal “to prevent the therapies until everyone is infected, then push the vaccines.”
There are three distinct parts here: 1) “preventing the therapies” 2) until such time as “everyone is infected” and then finally 3) “pushing the vaccines.”
Let’s start with “preventing the therapies”: which therapies, exactly, have been “prevented” from being used in COVID patients? There’s no evidence that any effective therapies have been prevented from being used on sick patients at all, ever.
Mikovicz doesn’t say what therapies she’s referring to, but as noted it would presumably include hydroxychloroquine, which Trump has touted as well. And when Trump was diagnosed with COVID, which therapies were used in his recovery? Not the one endorsed by Mikovicz and Plandemic but instead a completely different therapy, an experimental antibody treatment.
So far three vaccines have emerged from Phase 3 trials and applied for emergency use authorization from Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were developed using messenger RNA technology, which “use a snippet of the virus’s genetic code to instruct cells to build the spike protein on the surface of the coronavirus, teaching the immune system to recognize the real thing.” The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine uses a harmless virus to deliver “to the body’s cells the genetic code for the spike protein. The cells then make a replica of the spike protein and the immune system learns to recognize the real virus.”
The reason you haven’t heard about a vaccine or treatment developed with hydroxychloroquine is simple: There isn’t one; it doesn’t work. The drug literally failed to help patients, so it’s (quite reasonably) not in the vaccines soon to be approved. The powerful, shadowy industry that Plandemic claimed would “prevent the therapies” didn’t actually prevent any therapies, so that’s also false.
We can move on to the second part of the claim, that the vaccines will be held back until such time as “everyone is infected.” This is nonsensical from a scientific point of view (and it’s astonishing that Mikovicz, who claims to be a brilliant virologist, didn’t know it), but if everyone is infected, then no vaccine is needed, because those who didn’t die from the virus would have some degree of immunity—the same protection that a vaccine provides, except of course without the severe lingering health damage that infection causes.
Maybe Mikovicz was using hyperbole (again, she didn’t respond to questions, so I can’t be sure what she meant), but as of this writing 60 million people around the world have contracted the virus, and 1.4 million of them have died; in the United States alone, there are 12.5 million cases and 260,000 deaths.
When, exactly, does Mikovicz think the vaccines will be released, and why haven’t they been already? What is the magic number of sick and dead that Plandemic’s imaginary cabal of conspirators are waiting for? How many potential buyers have to get sick and die waiting for the vaccines she thinks are (or were) ready and just waiting to be released? Even in the pretzel-logic world of conspiracies, this one is bizarre.
The claims made by Mikki Willis and Judy Mikovits in Plandemic have pretty clearly been proven wrong, but for the sake of completeness, let’s address the third part of her claim, that after “everyone” (or enough, though apparently we’re not there yet) people are infected, the conspirators will begin “pushing the vaccines.”
It’s true that health experts, the government, vaccine makers, and others are promoting (or “pushing” in conspiracy talk) the vaccines, but there’s nothing nefarious about it. As The New York Times noted, “Public messaging campaigns can be instrumental in persuading people to act in a health crisis. Travel advisories kept many pregnant tourists and business travelers away from areas struggling to contain the Zika epidemic in 2016, for instance.” Nor is there anything new about it; the Ad Council (a nonprofit organization that produces, distributes, and promotes public service announcements) is preparing campaigns encouraging people to get vaccinated. The organization did the same thing in the 1950s when it encouraged the public to get polio vaccinations, and if you don’t know anyone who has gotten polio in the past fifty years, it’s due in part to organizations “pushing the vaccines.”
Why would they care whether the public is vaccinated? Not because of some sinister conspiratorial motive but because COVID is not only a public health crisis but also a social and economic one. The more people are vaccinated, the sooner the general population is healthy and not straining intensive care units in hospitals across the country and around the world. The sooner people are vaccinated, the sooner businesses and schools can reopen. It’s not complicated.
So, yes, health experts are encouraging the public to get vaccinated, though no one is, or will be, forced to. Vaccinations have never been mandatory in the United States; even children are not forced to be vaccinated if their parents choose to home school. When COVID-19 vaccines are available, if you don’t want to get it, that’s perfectly fine. Federal agents armed with automatic weapons in one hand and a vaccine syringe in the other aren’t going to be bursting through Americans’ doors to forcibly vaccinate anyone—fevered conspiracy fantasies to the contrary.
Mikovits and Willis have refused to answer rebuttals and faded from the spotlight, silent for nearly half a year as the virus has continued to ravage the country and globe. Perhaps the reason is simple and both immoral and horrifying: Plandemic was never about finding truth but instead a wildly successful publicity stunt for Mikovits’s book Plague of Corruption (which soon topped best-seller lists with the help of anti-vaccination activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his foundation).
It was all part of a cynical, dangerous, and astonishingly effective advertising campaign. The millions who shared, watched, and defended the Plandemic video were unwitting dupes who promoted a book of false conspiracy theories whose core message is harmful to public health and which fueled unfounded fears of vaccines against a potentially deadly virus. Plandemic, ironically, does exactly what Mikovits and Willis accuse Big Pharma and the medical industry of doing: exploits human lives and fears for profit.
An October 2020 article by researchers at the Drexel University Dornsife School of Public Health published in The Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review confirms that the consequences of this marketing ploy could be dire:
Anti-vaccine activists produced Plandemic to increase vaccine hesitancy and decrease vaccination, but their lasting impact may be that it promoted cynicism about measures meant to prevent COVID-19 spread, such as use of face masks and social distancing. Disregarding these measures threatens public health and may only serve to extend the pandemic. Stopping the spread and influence of Plandemic—and related misinformation—is in the interest of the public’s health.
Whether Mikovits and Willis truly believe their claims isn’t clear, but in any event their work is done. It was never about “exposing truth” or Big Pharma conspiracies but instead cleverly manipulating people on social media (and, by proxy, national news media covering the story) to get millions of dollars in free publicity for Mikovits’s book. Who are the real “sheeple” in this story, and what damage will they have done?
A longer version of this piece appeared on the Center for Inquiry “Coronavirus Resources Page”; you can read it HERE.
When my book “Scientific Paranormal Investigation” was published in 2010 I took out a full page ad in the T.A.P.S. (“Ghost Hunters” TV show) magazine. I figured their audience needed my book more than anyone…
The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! First we discuss “monolith mania” then for our main segment we bring back Dr. Leo Igwe, who has fought to protect people accused of witchcraft in Africa and elsewhere. Please check it out, you can listen to it HERE.
In my line of work, I routinely encounter events said to be inexplicable. They’re not merely amazing or incredible but downright unexplained. At times the topics I research are even said to be “beyond science” (whatever that would mean). These subjects—including psychic powers, crop circles, Bigfoot, ghosts, and miracles—are described as timeless mysteries that cannot be fathomed or understood: the mystery is simply too great, overwhelming all human capacity for understanding.
Of course most or all of these mysteries have indeed been explained through careful investigation. Invariably when people call something mysterious or unknowable, it’s because they simply haven’t put in the time and effort to understand it. The world is a complex place with many variables and moving parts; deconstructing them takes time and effort.
When I hear that ghosts are “unexplained,” I’m likely to politely and diplomatically inquire what specific aspect of ghosts the speaker finds inexplicable and what knowledge or assumptions factor into their blithe conclusion that specters are—must be—inherently beyond the capacity for human comprehension. What exactly do they think cannot be explained? A particular “spooky” photo? A creepy experience they had in an old house? Some scene in a “reality” TV ghost hunting show? Just because one person doesn’t understand something doesn’t mean it can’t be explained by someone else; typically, they’re called experts.
I thought about this over the past few months when seeing social media posts expressing astonishment and utter incomprehension about support for Donald Trump. This appears in countless memes, usually framed by something along the lines of “I’ll never understand why people still support Trump despite X…”
Explaining why Trump continues to have supporters after his repeated comments about minorities, women, the disabled, immigrants, etc., is actually pretty straightforward. It’s the same reason he doesn’t lose significant support when he makes bizarre and false comments about any number of things. His supporters offer one or more of the following reasons to overlook them: it was a joke or typical political braggadocio that doesn’t reflect his beliefs and therefore characterizing it as a sincere comment is political correctness run amok (and/or it is intentionally mischaracterized by the “fake news” media, one of countless example of how unfairly he’s treated); or that it’s a harmless mistake or misspeak (no one’s perfect after all).
Trump greatly exaggerated the size of his inauguration? So what? He’s a politician and a showman; that’s hardly a big deal. He bragged off camera about grabbing women? So what? It’s locker room talk; men always brag to other guys about their sexual prowess; it’s unseemly but hardly a reason not to vote for him. He suggested that COVID-19 could be cured by injecting disinfectant or exposing patients to “ultraviolet or just very powerful light” and later encouraged his supporters to vote twice, once by mail and again in person? Taking it literally is disingenuous; he was obviously joking! And so on.
Plus, as I’ve previously written, Trump is almost always right because he takes both sides of issues, declaring in one moment that he condemns white supremacists and in the next implying that he supports them. He praises his COVID-19 response team—before criticizing them hours later. He encourages Americans to vote by mail until he discourages them from doing so. When we combine this tactic with psychological factors such as confirmation bias (selectively noticing and remembering information that confirms our assumptions and beliefs while ignoring information that undermines it), it’s not difficult to understand his significant support.
Salon and CNN recently had headlines describing more of Trump’s presidency as “unimaginable.” Dismal, depressing, or ruinous, sure … but unimaginable? Beyond the human ability to comprehend? We can imagine far-off worlds of science fiction and dragons, meeting gods and seeing other galaxies. A Trump re-election, however distasteful and ruinous, is hardly unimaginable. And it’s just this sort of catastrophizing hyperbole that his supporters point to as evidence that news media is out of touch and, well, exaggerating. Sure, they say, the past four years haven’t been great, with the pandemic and all, but they haven’t been unimaginably bad, and in fact could have been worse.
There’s nothing mysterious, profound, or unexplainable about Donald Trump or his support. All the information you need to understand Trump and his appeal is available with an internet connection and a few taps of a keyboard.
It’s all there. You just have to look for it: Trump’s appeal to black voters. Trump’s appeal to conservative women voters. Why many Latino voters support Trump. Why about half of women voters cast their ballots for Trump in 2016, long after his crude and sexist remarks were well known. Why Trump appeals to evangelical Christians despite his personal history of infidelity and porn stars. And so on.
Whatever it is that you don’t understand about Trump or his base, you can find years’ worth of solid reporting and analysis, from best-selling books to documentaries to long-form journalism.
Not only is there no excuse not to understand the Trump phenomenon, but failing to do so is a grave error if you oppose him. To solve a problem you have to understand it. You can bet that Joe Biden’s campaign hasn’t declared Trump’s support beyond comprehension, throwing up their hands in defeat in the face of Trump’s inherently inscrutable nature and appeal.
When it comes to continued support after Trump’s seemingly racist and misogynist comments, there’s another, more powerful rationale among his minority and women voters: The comment wasn’t a joke or hyperbole, and may in fact reveal his core values (if indeed he has core values beyond self-interest, a premise I don’t accept). But they are willing to overlook it because he advocates for other, more important issues. This is a theme that recurs over and over again: voters don’t appreciate his sexist and racist comments but don’t consider them to be disqualifying. It’s simply not a hill they’re willing to die on. They vote for Trump despite, not because of, such comments and actions.
For some people, the “I’ll Never Understand Trump” phrase serves as a shorthand, signifying not sincere confusion but wanting those on social media to know that Trump’s words and behaviors are so aberrant, distasteful, and foreign to them that they are metaphorically beyond understanding. However, even merely as a trite rhetorical device, the idea that Trump’s support is “beyond understanding” fuels a harmful narrative about Trump and his power.
I wrote about this several years ago in an article about people avoiding using Trump’s full name. Often refusing to name a figure is done in deference to their awesome and potentially destructive power. The idea is that to say the name without sufficient reverence—or at all—is to risk drawing the person’s attention or wrath. In Roman Catholic exorcisms, knowing a demon’s name is considered an important part of the ritual and gives the priest power over the evil entity. Even saying the name of the Christian god is considered dangerous in some cases. The Harry Potter villain Voldemort is referred to as “He Who Must Not Be Named.” In British fairy folklore there is a long tradition of avoiding speaking the word fairy aloud to avoid their wrath. Refusing to use Trump’s name, regardless of the motivation, treats him as a special case, something that is done just for him. We need not think twice about spelling out the names of ordinary people, but Trump’s name is marked as extraordinary, requiring special care and attention, either in mocking circumlocutions or avoiding it completely.
Some of this “I’ll Never Understand Trump” messaging may be hyperbole and virtue signaling (ironically the same techniques used by Trump and his supporters), and there’s a persistent concern that understanding something bad or malicious is the same as accepting or endorsing it. We see this often in discussions about killers, when someone comments that they could understand why someone would “snap” or act out (after being victimized or abused, for example), prompting others to ask why the commenter is “defending” the criminal or crime.
Mick West’s book Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect is instructive; in it he emphasizes the importance of listening to why conspiracy theorists believe the theories they endorse as well as understanding the psychological processes behind them. I’m not comparing Trump supporters to conspiracy believers (though there’s some demonstrable overlap, given the president’s repeated endorsement of them); instead my point is that understanding a point of view doesn’t imply agreeing with it. As Baruch Spinoza noted, “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.” From critical thinking and logical perspectives, this is completely false, of course, but that may partly explain the reluctance by many liberals to “understand” Trump and his support.
Trump is not some uniquely inscrutable phenomenon; he is instead a banal, habitual liar, conspiracy and fear peddler, and a two-bit con man. He’s not a masterful Svengali holding some unexplained, unnatural hypnotic sway over his supporters. He’s a showman, not a shaman, and his techniques are well understood by those who choose to look at the evidence.
By the same token, the real problem of characterizing Trump supporters as mindless zombies who have taken leave of their senses is not that it’s disrespectful but instead that it’s counterproductive. It pushes very real decision-making factors that need to be understood in order to be addressed into a black box of the unknowable.
Thinking about Trump’s appeal in binary moral absolutes is also oversimplistic and demonstrably false: People vote because of many factors, and issues that one person thinks self-evidently disqualifies Trump may not do so for someone else. The United States is incredibly diverse, and treating women and minorities as monolithic and homogenous groups is a flawed approach. If you assume that a) Trump is self-evidently racist and sexist; and also that b) no black woman would vote for a racist, then it’s you—not the female black Trump voter—who has badly misread the situation.
I noted that Biden’s campaign isn’t baffled by Trump at all, but neither have Democrats quite solved the puzzle more broadly. As Fareed Zakaria noted recently in The Washington Post (“Once Again, Democrats Have Misunderstood Minorities”):
Democrats are more disappointed because they had hoped that this would be an election that resoundingly repudiated Trump and realigned politics…He won the largest percentage of the Black vote since 1996 (though he still got only about 12 percent of the Black vote). One poll indicates he won 35 percent of the Muslim vote. What happened? There are probably many answers. Partly, Democratic strategist James Carville is still right—it’s the economy, stupid… But my own interpretation of these results is informed by feelings I have always had about the Democratic Party’s ideology of multiculturalism. It lumps a wide variety of ethnic, racial and religious groups into one “minority” monolith and approaches them from a perspective that does not fit us all. That means an ideology born out of the treatment of African Americans will ring false to American immigrants and their descendants. For us, harsh treatment by White Americans is not the single searing experience that shapes our politics. Some of us are socially liberal, others conservative … Even African Americans vary much more widely on policy than one might imagine.
If you don’t like Trump and want to diminish his influence (and that of his followers), the solution is not real or feigned confusion about his appeal but instead a closer examination of its psychological and social dynamics—and maybe changing your underlying assumptions and approach.
Few things in the world are truly incomprehensible or unexplained; ghosts, miracles, and Donald Trump are certainly not among them. Biden will need to take steps to unite a seemingly fractured nation. This will require understanding—not in the sense of fuzzy forgiveness and bonhomie but in the sense of applying motivational psychology—to find common ground and determine how best to bring people together.
A longer version of this article appeared on the CFI website; you can find it here.
For a episode of Squaring the Strange we have a discussion on the legendary “Ghost Army” of WWII. These very alive flesh-and-blood soldiers were plucked from art schools and theater groups, and their very dangerous job was to hoax their way across Europe and put on elaborate ruses. Joining us is Col. Francis Park, Ph.D., a military historian who can bring us perspective on the tactical use of fraud versus force.
Check it out HERE!
It seems I’m quoted in a new article on conspiracy theories, including Covid-19 and QAnon. (Or at least that’s what I *want* you to think…)
You can check it out HERE!
Big—If True is a collection of my Skeptical Inquirer magazine columns, guiding readers on a science-based (yet open-minded) examination of 70 fascinating and mysterious topics. Drawing on two decades of first-hand research, Big—If Trueexamines dozens of mysteries including Bigfoot, reincarnation, chupacabras, Icelandic elves, mummies, conspiracy theories, UFOs, miracles, the terrifying Goat-Man, crop circles, subliminal advertising, sea serpents, wandering trees, medical mysteries, and hypnotist thieves—plus a 1990 Elvis sighting.
It’s 275 pages and has 70 illustrations. It will be available soon for order at your local bookstore or online bookseller at a list price of $26.95 (plus tax and shipping of course).
New episode of Squaring the Strange! Pascual takes the helm and steers us into some weird audio territory… We use a few pop music lawsuits as a jumping-off point to examine what originality even IS when it comes to creativity and how to put music together. Is a “flavor” of music protected as intellectual property? What do modern composers borrow from much older operas or Gregorian chants? What about alien music? “Tune” in to find out!
I’m far too modest to mention it, but there’s a nice new review of my chupacabra book on the Adventures in Poor Taste website… you can find it HERE.
Watch Professor LeAnne Flaherty interview Jim Underdown, Kenny Biddle, and I for her Brooklyn College parapsychology class… We talk about ghost investigations, psychic detectives, critical thinking, testing claims, and much more…
You can see it HERE!
I’m giving a talk soon: Contacting the Dead: Seances from the Victorian Era to Modern Times.
Though TV shows like Ghost Hunters have raised the profile of ghost hunting, there’s nothing new about seeking out spirits of the dead. For millennia people have tried to communicate with the deceased, using everything from chalkboards to Ouija boards to EVP (electronic voice phenomena). Focusing on the 1800s through today—including early mediums, the Spiritualist movement, and files from England’s Society for Psychical Research—writer and investigator Ben Radford discusses the theories and techniques behind attempts to speak to the dead. Fans of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and history will enjoy this informative and entertaining historical look at a century and a half of attempts to contact the afterlife.
Wednesday, October 28th, 2020 at 6:00 p.m. MT
You can register HERE!
The KiMo Theater in Albuquerque is one of New Mexico’s best-known ghost stories, and has been the subject of many articles, blogs, and TV shows. After a tragic accident in the 1950s claimed the life of a young boy, it is said that his spirit returned to the theater and caused one of the most famous poltergeist occurrences in history. To this day, a shrine is left for the boy ghost, and offerings are made by performers there to assure a safe and good performance. It’s a scary, fascinating story—but did it really happen? Join folklorist and investigator Benjamin Radford as he separates fact from fiction and uncovers the true story of the KiMo Theater ghost. This presentation is based on a chapter in his 2014 book Mysterious New Mexico: Miracles, Magic, and Monsters in the Land of Enchantment.
Oct 22 6:00 PM MT
You can register here!
I’m a guest on the new The Next Truth show, talking about skeptical and scientific approaches to ghost investigation.
You can listen to it HERE!
Americans, like everyone else, should ideally be more educated about history (and everything else). But no, a recent poll doesn’t reveal that a significant percentage of Americans either deny the Holocaust or are largely ignorant about it. Here’s a media literacy take on the alarming headlines...
In the wake of racial incidents such as the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018, it’s natural for the public and pundits to wonder just how common anti-Semitism is. Deadly attacks on Jewish houses of worship are thankfully rare, but what about anti-Jewish belief among the general public? One often-used metric is public opinion polls about the Holocaust.
In April 2018 Newsweek posted a news story titled “One-Third of Americans Don’t Believe 6 Million Jews Were Murdered During the Holocaust.” It was widely shared on social media, including Yahoo News.
The disturbing headline seemed to suggest that neo-Nazis are succeeding in sowing Holocaust denial among Americans. The Holocaust is the highest-profile event in history about the dangers of intolerance and anti-Semitism, and with about a third of Americans—over 100 million people—doubting a key aspect of the Holocaust, anti-Jewish sentiment seems widespread indeed.
Given the potential fear and concern headlines like this can spawn, it’s worth taking a closer look at the story through the lens of media literacy and skepticism. The data came from a survey by Schoen Consulting on behalf of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, released for Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was a national study of 1,350 interviews with American adults during the last week of February 2018, with a margin of error at +/- 3%.
A Closer Look
If you actually read the study (available here) you realize that the Newsweek headline is misleading in several important ways.
First, the phrase “don’t believe” in the headline implies doubt: that you are presented with a claim or proposition, and you state categorically that you do not believe it. However the question (number 19, if you’re following along) didn’t ask respondents what they “believe.” People were asked to estimate, or put a number on, how many Jews they thought were killed. The exact wording is “Approximately how many Jews were killed during the Holocaust?” The responses were, in order of presentation: 20 million; 6 million; 2 million; 1 million; 100,000; 25,000; Other; or Not sure.”
Phrasing is important, especially in surveys. Had the question been phrased “Do you believe 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust?” then the percentage responding No would accurately capture how many doubt that six million Jews were killed. It should also be noted that there is in fact no historical consensus on the exact number of Jewish deaths in the Holocaust, but most experts believe the number is between 5 and 6 million. Had the question been phrased more accurately (by historical standards) and less precisely (by estimation standards), as in “Do you believe that about 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust?” it’s quite possible that even more people would have correctly answered that question.
A closer look reveals that among American adults, the vast majority, 49%, gave the correct answer of 6 million. Six percent actually overestimated the number of Jews killed by over a factor of three (at 20 million). Note that the second-highest response, Not Sure, at 13%, means just that: they’re not sure how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Thus “Not Sure” is not a catch-all response for “None” or “An Insignificant Number” or “Surely Fewer Than 6 Million.” It could mean the person thought that the number was closer to 15 million, or 10 million, or 8 million, or some number not among those specifically listed.
For all we know, many of that 13% could have accurately estimated that about 6 million Jews were killed, but weren’t confident enough in their grasp of historical facts to select that option. If that’s the case then the number who knew the correct answer could be over 60%. But we don’t know because of the way the question was worded. To be clear, this limitation doesn’t invalidate the question, or render the survey or its results flawed; it just means that we must be careful in interpreting the results—especially on a subject as important as Holocaust belief or denial.
The poll does show that many Americans are wrong about various Holocaust facts (such as whether the Holocaust preceded World War II or vice-versa). How significant is this? It’s not clear. One common question in science is “Compared to what?”; in this case for example, what percentage of average Americans should we reasonably expect to know the answers? Eighty percent? Ninety percent? One hundred percent? We can all agree that ideally the answer is “higher,” but if many Americans are vague about historical events that happened in World War II, they’re not much more informed about what’s going on in modern America.
A 2007 survey by Kelton Research found that 80% of respondents could name the main ingredients of a McDonalds Big Mac sandwich, but fewer than 60% could recall all the Ten Commandments, and a 2010 Pew poll found that only 55% knew that the Golden Rule is not among the commandments.
Exaggerating and highlighting the ignorance of Americans is a time-honored tradition, especially among journalists and comics. The Tonight Show with Jay Leno often featured man-on-the-street interviews showing passersby stumped by simple questions, and Canadian comedian Rick Mercer hosted a long-running segment on the same theme titled “Talking to Americans,” on the satirical comedy show This Hour Has 22 Minutes in which Mercer, posing as a journalist, would ask unsuspecting American tourists bizarre non-sequitur questions such as whether they supported hunting polar bears in Toronto or would like to congratulate Canada on moving its capital from Ottawa to Toronto.
It’s all good flagellatory fun but obscures that fact that most Americans (that is, the statistical majority of them) are in fact fairly knowledgeable about their country and world history. Most people can answer such questions, and the fact that a minority of them can’t—or in many cases may know the correct answer just aren’t confident enough in their knowledge to commit to it on camera or to a questioner—reveals little about any uniquely American ignorance.
Holocaust Denial or Innumeracy?
Part of the issue is psychological. In his book Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences, mathematician John Allen Paulos notes that people have difficulty conceiving of large numbers. When estimating, people easily slip “between millions and billions or between billions and trillions… because we too often lack an intuitive feeling for these numbers. Many educated people have little grasp for these numbers… A recent study by Drs. Kronlund and Phillips of the University of Washington showed that most doctors’ assessments of the risks of various operations, procedures, and medications (even in their own specialties) were way off the mark, often by several orders of magnitude” (p. 10).
This does not excuse anyone’s errors, of course. Ideally, everyone should have a good grasp of historical and civics facts, as well as basic statistics and probability. Before concluding that Americans are dumb as rocks, keep in mind that most people (of any nationality) struggle to remember their computer passwords, much less who their representatives are. Not knowing the exact number of Jews killed during the Holocaust is not a metric of Holocaust denial or anti-Semitism, or indifference to (or ignorance of) Jewish persecution.
The Newsweek headline, however, was not merely a glass-is-half-full analysis but instead a clear effort to characterize many Americans as racist, or at least grossly ignorant of the plight of the Jewish community during the Holocaust (Brown University sociologist Dan Hirschman agrees, noting in a May 8, 2018 blog that the Newsweek headline “implies that 1/3 of Americans are Holocaust deniers of some sort”). These are people who didn’t pay attention in history class and who don’t have a good grasp of large numbers—not Holocaust deniers. The survey did not suggest that underestimating the number of Jews killed was any sort of attempt at minimizing the Holocaust.
If we want to know how many Americans doubt the Holocaust happened, we need look no further than question 33, which unlike question 19 is not as open-ended: 96% of respondents answered “Yes, I believe the Holocaust happened.” Three percent said they weren’t sure, and 1% of them responded that they did not believe it happened. This 1%—not the 33% suggested by Newsweek—would presumably be among the Holocaust deniers.
This is not the first time that a poll about the Holocaust produced alarming numbers. In one of the most infamous examples of flawed polling, a 1992 poll conducted by the Roper organization for the American Jewish Committee found that 1 in 5 Americans doubted that the Holocaust occurred. How could 22% of Americans report being Holocaust deniers?
The answer became clear when the original question was re-examined: “Does it seem possible or does it seem impossible to you that the Nazi extermination of the Jews never happened?” This awkwardly-phrased question contains a confusing double-negative which led many to report the opposite of what they believed. Embarrassed Roper officials apologized, and later polls—asking clear, unambiguous questions—found that only about 2% of Americans actually doubt the Holocaust. In fact the 2018 news headlines about the Holocaust poll could have accurately read “Holocaust Denial Drops 50%” (from 2% to 1%), but the news media emphasizes bad news.
Polls and surveys can provide important information about the public’s beliefs. But to be valid, they must be based on sound methodologies, and media-literate news consumers should always look for information about the sample size, representativeness of the population, whether the participants were random or self-selected, and so on. Whether due to poorly-worded questions or an alarmist news media, reports like these leave the false impression that racism and anti-Semitism are more widespread than they really are. The recent rise in hate crimes against the Jewish community is well documented, but the recent rise in Holocaust denial is not.
If you want a break from bad news: The new episode of Squaring the Strange is now out. This week we discuss the Bangladesh Toilet Ghost. Or, rather ONE OF several Bangladeshi toilet ghosts. I bring cultural and social context and a surprising history about factory work and pressures on the workers there… by the time you hear it all, you’ll think “well of COURSE there were reports of a ghost in that toilet! It makes perfect sense!”
Check it out HERE!
My podcasty co-host Celestia and I were recently interviewed on a podcast called Unexplained Inc., on skepticism, investigation, Squaring the Strange, and other oddness. You can listen HERE!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One of the most celebrated American naturalist/explorers was George K. Cherrie (1865–1948), who in his 1930 book Dark Trails: Adventures of a Naturalist (G.P. Putnam’s Sons) wrote about his adventures, primarily in Central and South America.
Cherrie engaged in many expeditions, perhaps most famously accompanying Theodore Roosevelt on his nearly-disastrous 1913–1914 jungle descent of Brazil’s Rio da Dúvida (“River of Doubt,” later renamed the Roosevelt River).
Dark Trails provides a fascinating first-hand look at a prominent explorer’s enthnographic, botanical, and zoological studies. Cherrie’s memoir reflects a generally hard-nosed skepticism one would expect to find in a man of science. For example in a section where he recounts being a witness to faith healing among a South American tribe, Cherrie could be channeling the Amazing Randi half a century later: “Of course it was a piece of crude prestidigitation. But the widespread success of such charlantry testifies to the high value of mental suggestion; on the other hand, suggestion of evil [e.g., a curse] works with equal efficacy” (p. 48-49).
Amid the interesting anecdotes of exploration and scientific enterprise, Cherrie also speculates on various bizarre topics including ghost beliefs and superstitions—even, at one point, seeming to tacitly endorse what to modern eyes is clearly a version of the Vanishing Hitchhiker urban legend. In a chapter titled “Death and After Death,” Cherrie recounts for his readers a bizarre encounter with the seemingly supernatural in which he was personally involved. I quote it here at length to give readers the full, fascinating context:
“The native is always in a receptive state of mind toward supernatural things. At the slightest provocation he concludes that the Spirit of Evil is about. One summer night I reached Caicara, a tiny village nearly surrounded by jungle… We had the usual reception committee of barking dogs, naked and half-naked children and indolent natives. Some of the women had brought chickens and fruit for sale.”
As it happened Cherrie recognized in this speck of a Venezuelan jungle village “a previous acquaintance of mine, a local trader, a half-caste European who had gone native” and welcomed him. Cherrie writes,
“He led the way up a smooth path to the village, followed by a motley procession. The trader and I dined outside, waited on by his native wife who, despite an untidy one-piece costume, served us with a delicious dinner. Over our coffee I described my journey and spoke of my work collecting animals, birds, and other creatures. “Just at present I am especially interested in night-flying insects,” I told him. “There are an abundance of these, but they are not always the ones I want.”
“Not even with your light?” he asked. He had seen me using a lantern as a lure for insects on a previous occasion.
“Yes, I use my lantern, but somehow it doesn’t always serve to attract the things I want.”
For a few moments my friend seemed engrossed in deep thought. Then suddenly he sprang to his feet and with true Latin enthusiasm, exclaimed: “I have it!”
He led me by the arm to the corner of the garden from which we had a view of a rocky hillside. The entrance to the path leading to the summit was about two hundred yards away across the plaza in front of the village church. In the haze of the twilight I could see near the summit of the hill what looked like a low white cloud. “The graveyard,” whispered the trader.
Then I remembered the local cemetery was on top of the hill and that it was surrounded by a white-washed adobe wall about ten feet high. “Why not try your lantern on that?”
Instantly I saw what he meant. If I could illuminate a section of the white wall it would attract multitudes of insects and when they flew within the rays of my lamp I should have them silhouetted against the white wall beyond. In this way I could identify and capture just the specimens I wanted. The trader reminded me at the same time that the villagers didn’t make it a practice to visit the cemetery at night. So there was little likelihood that I would be disturbed.
On the following night I set out just after dark, using a flashlight to follow the winding trail that led up to the burying ground. I took with me my insect net, cyanide bottles, containers of various sorts, and a large three-burner lamp which I had fastened inside a box with a reflector behind it. It was like an automobile lamp, the light being visible only from directly in front. [This is a version of the magic lantern images that entertained audiences decades before film was invented.]
When I had reached the wall it was an easy task to prop the lantern up on an old stump and light its wicks as a beacon for the moths, beetles and scores of other insects which I hoped to capture. I was not disappointed with results. Scarcely had I turned up the first wick when I heard a buzz and, turning my head, received a stinging blow in the face. It was a head-on collision with a mole cricket! Of course I could have done my collecting by picking up such specimens as flew into the lamp if I had simply turned its rays out toward the tangled thicket about me. But this would have been a slow and unsatisfactory method and have left my choice largely to chance.
My attention was fixed on the adobe wall in front of me. Rays from powerful lantern illuminated a white disk on the wall fully ten feet in diameter. Between the lantern and the disk, a distance of from fifteen to twenty feet, was a cone of light sharply defined against the blackness of the night. Within a few seconds this cone became populated with hundreds of flying, buzzing, circling, darting insects. Could I have magnified the size of the little animals and by some magic reduced their relative speed, I should have gazed upon a graceful dance of bodies which varied both in size and color.
For some time I made no effort to use my net. The endless procession of whirling little bodies fascinated me. Only when a beautiful big moth circled lazily into the light and his wing-spread was shadowed large against the white wall behind him, did I make a wide sweep with my net and begin the real work of the evening.
The simplicity and fruitfulness of my device seemed to hypnotize me. Fatigue of the day’s labors fell away. In my enthusiasm I felt as if I could go on swinging my net all night long. I could not get my specimens into the containers fast enough. In fact, my gyrations, for all their clumsiness and mediocre speed, where on the order of those described by the insects themselves. Little by little I gave up the proper technique of insect netting. The graceful sweeps and twists with which I normally tried to imprison the insects in flight gave way to wild lunges and gnomelike jumps. Never in my life had I spent so riotous a time at collecting. When fatigue did come it came with a rush. I had lost all account of time. I was not even sure what I had collected. In any event, I felt it was the most successful evening’s work with insects I had ever spent. Having extinguished my lantern, I made my way slowly back to my lodgings and dropped contentedly into my hammock.
The sun was just breaking through the mist over the river when I awakened. But instead of the sun’s rays awakening me, it was the sound of many footsteps and excited voices outside my door. Sliding out of my hammock, I hurried over to a hole in the wall that gave a view of the street. What I saw was a surprise to me. The somnolent little village had suddenly come to life. Little groups of excited, gesticulating people held my astonished gaze. My first thought was another revolution. The only thing the setting lacked was a “general” on horseback.
My morning coffee came, also my host, accompanied by an old man whom I recognized as one of the important elders of the settlement. The look on my host’s face was a curious mixture of emotions which I could not decipher. After bidding me good morning he turned to the old man and began a colloquy something like this: “You say the whole village is in a panic?”
“Yes. The place has lost its peace for the first time since the great plague.”
“And why should the people be so distressed?”
The old man excitedly related the terrible details. “It was late when we saw the first light,” he said. “This light could only have been that of the Evil One. No man’s torch was ever so bright. It illuminated only one spot and that on the wall about the sainted dead. In its gleam danced many demons. One would disappear and another quickly take its place. Only devils from hell ever danced so fearfully.”
“How large would you say this demon was?” asked my host.
“Oh, of colossal size; with very long arms and legs.”
“Did he have a tail?”
“Opinion is divided. Some say they saw it plainly. Others not.”
After a good deal of cross-examination the trader permitted the old man to go. Then he turned to me with a laugh, saying: “So you’re a devil—nay, a whole pack of devils!” He caught his breath presently. “With a tail!” he laughed. But of a sudden he became serious, and warned me not to admit that I had had anything to do with the phenomenon. He explained that if I succeeded in convincing the villagers I had been up at the cemetery the night before they would also be convinced that I was in league with Satan himself, and so not to be trusted. As violence to a white man on some such pretext was a not unheard-of occurrence I was glad to take advantage of his advice and keep silent.”
Cherrie’s choice to remain silent about the true nature of the phantasmagorical sight was a wise one. Mob-led killings of suspected witches (and others assumed to be in league with the Devil) continue to the present day in countries around the world, including Brazil, Pakistan, and Nigeria. One wonders what beliefs and legends Cherrie’s nocturnal entomological antics may have accidentally spawned in the region; it would be fascinating to return to Caicara and interview local elders about the colossal, long-limbed and tailed demon seen dancing with swarming demons in an unholy hellish light in a cemetery a century ago…
A longer version of this piece first appeared on my CFI blog; you can read it HERE.
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”.)
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.
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 wall. The 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.
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.
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 Collins, Director 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.