TikTok generates multiple scare lore stories about flagged cars

Always keen to hear about the latest “weird news”, I noticed a trend in 2020 where young women (typically) were reporting that their cars were moderately vandalized in busy parking lots. On the video social media app TikTok, they interpreted these events as a signal that they were being targeted for abduction by sex traffickers or for general harm.

The typical scenario is that a young woman leaves her car in the parking lot of a busy store. When she returns, she notices something unusual on the car that captures her attention and may delay her from getting in and driving away. A while later, she realizes that this must have been a tactic to tag her car and, ultimately, herself, as a target. She posts this warning on TikTok emphasizing her conclusion that, had she delayed any longer in assessing the vandalism or trying to remove the object(s), she would have been a victim.

Social media claims are not “news”

With this post, I’m starting a list of claims that I hear about in the news. I don’t use TikTok, so I’m going by what rises to the point of popularity where news outlets will report on it. Unfortunately, many news outlets find it acceptable to simply repeat social media items as “news” without validating the claim or doing any investigation whatsoever. This has the effect of propagating the claim. Even if the claim is later debunked, the fact that it has been repeated ends up reinforcing the basic initial claim and, therefore, more people will likely hear about and choose to believe it. They might also take up valuable police time by reporting nonsense claims.

“Better safe than sorry,” they might say, and think they are doing a good dead by recirculating a bogus claim to everyone they know. The harm in this is that we can end up being afraid of the wrong things. We become scared that someone is hiding under the car, waiting to slash our ankles. Or that a white, unmarked van is carrying nefarious guys trying to grab us and sell us into the sex trade. That kind of unwarranted fear does not empower us. Accurate knowledge is empowering. Fear mongering is harmful to society. These rumors spread uncontrollably on social media and have come to be known as “scare lore” – folklore that promotes fear.

Don’t spread the rumor about zip ties on car handles. It’s bogus.

Zip Ties

Zip ties or plastic ties are found mysteriously attached to part of your car. The rumor that zip ties on cars or mailboxes meant you were a target started around 2018 on social media, apparently in Texas.

From 2019:

TikTok user Makaila, @ohokaygirl, posted a video Sunday, detailing the tactic she first heard about through her mom. She says human traffickers are tying zip ties to car mirrors in an attempt to distract girls who are alone so that they can take them. The video has amassed over 700,000 likes.

“This is really important and we should spread the word immediately,” she says in the video.  “This is a new thing that is being done.”

Daily Dot

Various police departments have tried to squash these viral warnings by publicly saying they are invalid. Police specialists also noted that sex traffickers don’t use these open tactics but are active in online, anonymous forums or through word of mouth.

A later iteration shows zip ties connecting adjacent door handles. This is just a prank.

Twisted wire or string on door handle

In a variation of the zip tie warning, a few people have claimed to find string or wire attached to their car door handles. The reasoning, so they claim, is that the wire or string attracts your attention long enough to be accosted by an abductor. I’ve found NO indication that this scenario has ever happened. If someone knows that it FOR SURE has happened, send me the news report. Everyone should be vigilant when exposed in a remote area. There is little reason for concern when you are in a busy area where cell phones and surveillance cameras can capture criminal activity. At this point, there is just as much reason to suspect that people are doing this activity deliberately just to create a panic because the rumor is so prevalent. Maybe these have even been hoaxed for TikTok videos. Controversial or scary information will get more clicks than debunking or straight news. So, rumor-mongering is good for attention.

Back in 2019, Facebook was tagged for promoting the bogus claim that a rose left in a door handle was part of a sex trafficking plot in Kentucky. Either the rose, they claimed, was to get the driver off her guard or, in a really imaginative scheme, it was coated with chemicals that made the sniffer pass out. One can think of several more plausible and non-nefarious reasons why a rose would appear in a door handle. I would not be surprised if this version shows up on TikTok eventually, if it hasn’t already. It’s bound to happen and be grouped into this social media-generated panic.

White stickers

An early urban legend about marking cars occurred at least since 2017. The police who looked into the claim that small white stickers are markers for trafficking said that car dealers sometimes mark cars like this for their inventory purposes. It’s not done by strangers.

A sheriff in Louisiana noted that a local company used small, white, rectangular stickers to track which vehicles have been photographed.

“We have received calls from several concerned citizens after finding a sticker on their vehicle after reading the rumor on social media,” said Sheriff Webre. “The reality is the sticker or dot is inconspicuous enough that you likely haven’t noticed it.”

These particular stickers are weatherproof and water-resistant, which means they would likely remain on the vehicle even after several washings.

WVUE Fox 8

Again, it’s far more likely that this was a simple mistake by a car owner that got overblown, not some elaborate nationwide scheme. It’s hard to perceive a useful purpose for a little white sticker in relation to a serious and dramatic crime.

Water bottle left on hood

From February 2021, the story goes that a plastic water bottle is left on your car in order to make you get out to remove it, which leaves you vulnerable to abduction. This is one of the more silly claims and it’s hard to believe TikTokers get worked up about it. It simply isn’t a logical plan to lure victims. The woman who reported this incident seems to overreact but she claims to have been first approached by a stranger that made her uneasy. Then, she noticed the water bottle on her car and connected the two possibly unrelated events into an elaborate story.

Sadly, an unintended result of these warnings may be to scare women into being less independent and taking away their agency through fear of violence.

Melted cheese

Posted in May 2021, this one, so far, is the most ridiculous. In what was clearly a prank, a woman who was obviously well-primed by frequent, spurious claims of potential crimes, became very concerned when she found cheese slices on her car after exiting from church on a Sunday. She told her audience that suspicious men in a white van watched as she and her friends cleaned off the cheese. She feared that if she had tried to do this by herself, they would have accosted her. [Source]

This cheesy car prank is not new. In 2020, vandalism was reported in Texas where a car was covered in several slices of processed cheese food. This article notes that it was likely in response to ANOTHER TikTok viral idea – the #cheesechallenge – where nasty tricksters get their jollies out of being assholes.

While the TikTok warning above was done with great seriousness, the poster just sounded silly. She tied together three completely unrelated things – cheese on her car, a white van, and fear of abduction – into a dramatic but unreasonable scenario.

‘1F’ on the back window

In January, 2021, a TikTok user reported that “1F” was written in the snow covering her garbage bin. This reinvigorated the bogus idea that such labeling on cars or other places signifies that the person is vulnerable and targeted for kidnapping. An early social media guess circulated that “1F” was a tag for “one female” and a “1B” indicated “one baby”. This was made-up without basis in fact. Often, friend of a friend stories (FOAF) were passed along that could not be verified, but people tend to take these stories very seriously because they sound plausible.

The Polaris Project, an organization helping victims and survivors of human trafficking, has the following information regarding these rumors on their website:

Rumor: Traffickers use zip-ties or mark vehicles with coded letters and numbers (1F/1B) as a way to target or abduct their victims.

Reality: Rumors about the use of zip ties or marking of vehicles by traffickers have been proven to be false. One of the most pervasive myths about human trafficking is that it always – or often – involves kidnapping or otherwise physically forcing someone into a situation. In reality, most human traffickers use psychological means such as tricking, defrauding, manipulating or threatening victims into providing commercial sex or exploitative labor. Traffickers also rarely target victims they don’t know. What we’ve seen through our work over the years is that many survivors have actually been trafficked by people they know – romantic partners, family members, acquaintances, etc.

Polaris Project

Conclusion

Car tagging rumors have repeatedly been show to be false, mistakes, exaggerations, or hoaxes. Following the pattern of the typical urban legend warnings – like those for gang assaults, kidnapping, or worse – these stories were never substantiated as genuine. The threats sounded real enough because these fears were already propagating in society and we made connections where there really were none. The real explanation was almost certainly more mundane – it’s not that uncommon for someone to be a jerk and mess with your car.

It’s not that people do not ever get abducted from parking lots. Certainly, kidnapping, sexual assault, rape, and murder does occur, but the details in these widespread warnings are not accurate; these are not the usual way a crime is perpetrated. A person who promotes these warnings is making an unsubstantiated assumption as to the cause of the “vandalism”. The underlying theme is the fear of human trafficking. This fear has been bolstered by all forms of media in the past few years due to a few scary stories, but mainly by misrepresenting statistics for runaways, abducted children, and immigrant exploitation. Passing along baseless warnings may seem like one is doing a good deed “just to be safe” but it’s bad for society. Don’t do it.

Seen a new TikTok targeting claim? Link it in the comments.

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Examining the Mentor ghost child video

A news article out of Mentor, Ohio attracted my attention this past week. The article claimed that local residents were observing strange, “mysterious” incidents and reporting them on their neighborhood Facebook page. Then, on the night of March 10, someone called the police. The police report was real. The local news station obtained a copy of a front door camera recording that showed what appears at first glance to be a child-sized person running from a house towards a wooded area on the right side of the screen. The timestamp showed no date but a time of 10:16 PM. 

The article itself suggests that this thing in the video may be a ghost, which is the primary reason I came upon it. I don’t think you can capture a ghost on camera (or in any other way) but the video was interesting and the article was more intriguing than typically awful “ghosts caught on camera” for several other reasons.

First, here is the text of the article.* It’s important to note what information is and isn’t provided: 


The Haunting of Lake County? Mentor residents spot “ghosts” in security and doorbell footage

Whether you believe in ghosts and spirits or not, many people find the topic to be interesting and entertaining, especially in Mentor, Ohio.

Author: Kelly Matter, Hope Sloop

Published: 3:19 PM EDT March 22, 2021

MENTOR, Ohio — Do you believe in ghosts? 

It’s a question that many Lake County residents have found themselves asking over the past few weeks due to “supernatural haunts” caught on video. 

In recent weeks, members in Mentor, Ohio Facebook groups have posted videos and images of a “mysterious” object or person. This mysterious image appears to be all white and moving very quickly. WKYC was able to obtain some of those images and videos from residents.

3News spoke with officials from the Mentor Police Department and were even able to retrieve the police report based on information that was sent.

In the report, it states that police officers were dispatched on March 10 around 10:40 p.m., to the area of Bellflower Elementary in reference to a suspicious incident. 

The caller reported seeing a 7-year-old girl running northbound in the area. As one officer approached Wyatt’s Greenhouse, he spotted a child fitting the description from the caller. 

“I was surprised by what I saw, the person appeared to be a small child, running rather erect and too quickly for a child,” the report says. 

When the officer got out of the vehicle to try and catch the child, nobody was in the area. The officer continued along the building expecting to see a child crying, or scared, but still no signs of anyone.

Multiple other departments were searching the area and had no luck finding a child. After the search, the responding officer checked the dashcam video and found no child on the dashcam video, which was saved as an “investigative encounter.”

Shortly after trying to find the child on foot and the use of a K9, the drone team was deployed to search the responding area and did not locate anything suspicious.

Is it really ghosts? Could it just be young pranksters? Who knows!

This video clip did not have ads and repeats the section in question which is really helpful. I could not get a clear clip from WKYN piece to embed.

The article, or its content, was repeated on multiple websites with an emphasis on the paranormal aspect. I searched for other information but was not able to find more details. Let’s examine the article itself: it’s vague and somewhat confusing. Does the video relate to the police incident directly? We are given some local features but not precise details. Did the police question the neighbors on this night? What did they find? What about the other incidents and videos mentioned? These obvious questions go unanswered.

As I said, I don’t think this is a ghost, but it is a bit weird. The police incident occurred on a Wednesday night, after 10PM, which is an odd time for a child to be running around. There were reasonable grounds to take this report seriously. The video shows a figure with what appears to be bare legs – maybe the person was wearing shorts or a skirt/dress. Yet, the upper body is not distinguishable. Resolution is lost likely because the camera is far away and the subject is in low light conditions. Such devices are not meant to capture this kind of movement. Because of what are almost certainly artifacts from the recording process that distort the object, we can’t get the degree of detail needed to see what it really is. This lack of detail, and perhaps video compression distortion, will lead some people who are predisposed to believe in supernatural events to suggest it’s a ghost, not a corporeal being. Promotion of the supernatural angle made the clip go viral.

Weirdly, the upper body is not distinguishable.

People reading this story will typically assume this is all there is to it and make their conclusion based on what they are given in line with their preexisting worldview. So, some will say it’s a spooky video showing a ghost child (which is the trending view) and others say it’s just a person (so why is this news?). Yet others say it’s a moth, or a reflection, or something else mundane. After covering weird news for seven years on Doubtful News, I know very well that media outlets get things wrong or leave important facts out more often than not. Mostly, they don’t do any investigation at all but just report what they are told. In this case, at least they had a potentially related police report  – a bit of evidence that added credibility to the ghost idea but created more questions while providing no answers.

I was curious about what the video really showed and if these ubiquitous doorbell cameras often capture ambiguous events that can be interpreted as paranormal. (Yes, they do. Some also appear to be deliberately staged.) Also, what if it is a child in the video? It’s might be concerning that a child would be speeding through yards at this time of night. Ghost theories aside, I wanted to know what this was and why it looked strange.

If this was MY video, I would not be giving it to the news before I did some very obvious and basic tests. First, I’d find out if this was someone from that nearby house. If not, I would try to recreate the event at the same time of night by having a person run the same path and compare the two videos to see how the camera represented a person of known size and speed.

From the clues in the article, I was able to go on Google maps street view and actually located the site within about 5 minutes of searching. I was able to match up the mailbox, landscaping and driveway of the house and turned the view across the street. I don’t want to give the address here because, understandably, the residents would not want people poking around their street and properties. But here is the view from the street looking towards the area of the video. Unfortunately, these dudes in the Silverado passed by the Google cam.

Notice a few interesting things here. First, the sidewalk ends here. There is a worn area in the grass along the edge of the treeline where the figure in the video appeared. There is a clearing in the direction the object went. And, there is a rock-lined culvert nearby that is close to the road. The culvert appears to lead to a stream or wet area with nearby walking paths near the school. But there is no logical path that would lead to the side of the grey house. There is a logical path that comes out on a road past the culvert on the far right. So, if this figure is a person, he/she has cut close to this house from what looks like a public area. If this was a jogger, that would be odd to cut through a yard. And, it would be reasonable to think such a person (or another jogger) would have been caught on camera before doing a similar thing making it seem less weird. However, what I’m missing here is local context and photos more recent than 2 years ago. I’d bet that the answer is mundane so it’s unusual to see such a big deal made out of it.

I’m at a loss to find out more information for several reasons: I’m not local. I don’t have the time or inclination to contact the police for their report (it’s not readily available online), and I don’t have access, nor do I think I deserve access, to the private neighborhood Facebook group to see these other videos. So, I contacted the local paranormal society, gave them the address, and asked if they could check out the location. Maybe they could see if there was a reasonable explanation for someone to be running this way and if a jogger was to blame for the hubbub. Maybe they could do some measurements. It appeared they had not done anything with such a tasty case that had dropped right into their lap. They responded that they are checking it out. Sure, sure.

I’m posting this for two reasons. First, perhaps someone local might see it and provide the additional info I seek. As I said, the story is popular and the information is only from that single source. I’m interested in why these stories spread like they do. Second, no one seems to have thought about this incident in a more critical way. So, perhaps that might be appreciated. It took very little time to look up some basic facts. This might be a good reminder that when we are presented with sensational news stories, we should always be skeptical. Think about what’s been left out or what deliberate spin was put on it for what reason. These articles get clicks, and they normalize ideas about so-called paranormal events occurring around us. As usual, the evidence is poor and unchecked. It is extremely unlikely this is anything more unusual than a person running through the neighborhood.

Finally, what about the cop who said he saw a running child? I don’t think this is too weird. He was investigating a report of child. (Presumably he was, it’s not altogether clear)  Therefore, he may have seen something vague and interpreted it in that way as he was focused on that idea. He was motivated to observe something strange and so he fulfilled this intent in his own mind. It’s not so surprising that the claims were taken seriously enough to call out dogs, a drone, and other police departments. I hope this is a lesson to the police too who are not above reporting their personal interpretations instead of just the facts.

Mentor has their own local ghost lore. Several strange incidents seem to have been strung together into this haunt-themed narrative. Taken collectively, the situation shows that we very easily fall into traps of assuming certain things happened for definitive reasons when they actually are heavily dependent on our personal interpretations. Just like one commenter on the video certainly sees a ghost child but the next commenter chastises the gullible people who see something other than a running person, it’s all a matter of perspective.

Many people really really want it to be a ghost, so that’s as far as they will go to investigate. Time and repetition turn it into a legend. The truth is lost.

If you have additional information on this incident, please contact me directly. I’d love to hear from you. 

*I have copied the text because these pieces often disappear from the internet or go behind a pay wall. For purposes of examining the details presented, I needed to cite the entire piece.

Toy tiger

Fake tiger tales and other plush hoaxes

Police in the Steyning area of West Sussex, England, were called to a public park on the evening of July 23, 2020 to respond to a report of a big cat on the loose. The Horsham police were likely familiar with the popular idea that large, non-native, “alien big cats” are roaming the UK. Hundreds of reports have been made across Britain alone in the past few years. Many areas have their own local “beasts” that many people believe are real and dangerous. But, hard evidence is scant.

All we know of this latest report is based on a tweet from the police.

The police found a specimen of a “black panther” except it was a stuffed toy. It’s not clear if a hoaxer called in this report on purpose or if someone had mistaken the toy for a real animal.

It would not be the first time that authorities discovered plush animals misinterpreted to be living large cats. In my several years of covering odd stories for Doubtful News, I’d come across several similar incidents. One can bet it won’t be the last, either.

In 2013, local tales of big cats in Essex seemed to be confirmed when officials driving through Epping Forest saw a large black panther perched in a tree.

Epping Forest cat. The Independent. December 12, 2013.

Someone had placed the discarded toy in the position as a joke. The location is known for illegal dumping.

More frequently, replicas of tigers are mistaken as genuine. I found many such stories. On the same day as the Essex plush panther, “someone” reported a tiger in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada. When a news crew arrived, a tiger toy was perched on a stroller.

BC tiger. Global News, July 23, 2020.

I suppose it’s possible that a very credulous person could have thought this was real in these upside-down days, but come on!

In 2011, in Hedge End, Southhampton, England, police consulted zoo personnel and prepared a tranquilizer dart after several people reported a white tiger on the loose. Observers had viewed the animal through a zoom lens and were convinced it was the real deal. Before the police could take action, the toy blew over in the wind and it was clear they’d been fooled. What wasn’t clear was who did it. The incident caused public fear and some wasted emergency efforts.

Hampshire police released this photo of the Hedge End fake tiger. (The Guardian online May 22, 2011)

A farmer in Aberdeenshire, Scotland called police after he saw a tiger near his cows. Police mobilized, but after 45 minutes of observation, the animal failed to move and the farmer concluded it was just a toy. He didn’t know who had put it there. (The Telegraph, February 6, 2018)

Scotland tiger, from Facebook February 2018.

Here is a more realistic case. In 2015 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, an animal control officer responded to a report of a tiger in a backyard. As he peered into the yard, he viewed a scene he saw as all too real and shocking. A small tiger, facing away from him, was lying in the yard. He called for backup.

Michigan toy tiger. ABC 27 News May 29, 2015

It was only when another officer arrived that they realized the animal was just a toy. No one lived at the vacant property so it’s unclear if this was a deliberate hoax. “I can’t blame the caller because it had me,” the officer said.

A month prior to that, a caller to emergency services in Camas, Washington reported he’d seen a live Bengal tiger with some teens. The 911 caller was convinced that it was NOT a toy as it was “wagging its tail”. “The more I think about it, it seems pretty dangerous,” the caller added. “At first I thought, well it must be a big stuffed animal and then it started moving and it wasn’t stuffed.” You can listen to the call where he says he thought it perhaps their pet and was concerned about laws against such dangerous animals. After joking around with it by the car, the kids tied it to the roof and drove off. Many drivers who passed them had honked and laughed about the rooftop hitchhiker. Offices then flagged them down.

Washington tiger. Good Morning America, June 10, 2015.

Another lifelike toy tiger placed on the roof of an abandoned hotel caused traffic trouble in Humble, Texas, near Houston in 2012. The Houston Fire Department said they received calls about the animal and responded, only to find it was a toy. They removed it to avoid further trouble. (ABCNews Jan 19, 2012)

There is something about tigers, it seems. One of my favorite misidentification stories is from 2018 when NYPD responded to a call from Harlem saying a tiger was on the loose. It turned out to be a raccoon.

The lesson to be learned here is that our observation skills are just not that good. When we get an initial thought about what we see, our brain then fills in details to support that idea. Sometimes, we see things that just aren’t there and even inanimate objects can become alive. These incidents are not infrequent, noted by the handful examples above. There are countless more cases of misidentification that occur every day. Yet, people still think they know what they saw. This does not bode well for the claims that people see unusual creatures, or UFOs, or apparitions. Mistakes and misinterpretations must always be a primary consideration before jumping to any more exotic possibilities.

Update March 2022: Police in Oldham, England respond to a call about a tiger loose in a neighborhood garden that was actually a stuffed toy.

Legitimizing ghost research: Scientism, sensitives, and cultural authority

As I wrote yesterday, sociologists and ethnographers are paying greater attention to paranormal communities. I commented on Bader’s analysis of Bigfoot seeking groups and their mix of naturalistic and paranormalist views among participants. Perhaps separation rather than mix may be more apt. The observation of different camps within a paranormal field is not new but since Bigfoot as an area of study is newer than ghosts, it’s worth a remark to explain why some will ignore or denigrate others in the same community even though they have a fringe topic interest in common. In a new essay collection related to the Supernatural in Society conference I mentioned yesterday, Marc Eaton contributed a piece describing a similar split in the ghost hunting community [1]. Not only does this parallel the Bigfoot community in several ways but it was interesting because Eaton focuses on his interpretation of scientism as prevalent and investigators who work at “being sciencey” (my words, not his) as a way of legitimizing their work. Unfortunately, Eaton doesn’t cite my preceding work that overlaps a lot with his observations but I’ll see if I can reach him to introduce it. Meanwhile, I must reiterate a few of his observations and quibble with a few others.

Eaton begins his article titled “Paranormal Investigation: The Scientist and the Sensitive” in the compilation edited by himself and Waskul by suggesting that orthodox religious participation is dwindling, losing to the popularity of more democratic and personal spiritualism practices. This correlation seems well established and, I agree, a key component in the rise in paranormal topics in the media. He sees paranormal investigators (I use the umbrella term “ARIGs” – amateur research and investigation groups – to encompass cryptozoologists and ufologists) as located at the intersection of this individualized spirituality and the adoption of scientism.

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Please don’t call me a Skeptic

Several people have asked me to explain why I now reject “Skeptic” to describe myself. In short, the label is limiting and is overwrought with mistaken assumptions of being elitist, arrogant, and closed-minded. Unfortunately, being labeled a Skeptic sends a signal to some to tune out what I might say by default because of the association with having a dismissive, know-it-all attitude, defeating any efforts at meaningful exchange over questionable claims.

The philosophy and process of scientific skepticism should be the unifying connection for the network of people who label themselves “Skeptics” and who participate in the associated activities and behaviors. I can’t see a clear mission or positive coherent message that unites Skeptics. This ongoing problem worsened in the past 10 years, reaching its low about 5 years ago with scandal, factions, and boycotts in what appeared to me to be a failure in leadership. Read More »

Reactions to the Darwin Awards post: Really? These are your responses?

When you express any feelings and opinions online, no matter if girded by references and logic, you will have those commenters who must disagree, sometimes with colorful words and sentiment and often without substance. I think some people just look for ways to mouth off on Facebook when the rest of us just don’t bother to say anything. I sort of expected that my post “Why the Darwin Awards Must Die,” expressing the faulty premise of the Darwin Awards and my great dislike of them, would not be a popular sentiment. I was not in praise of it, but clearly against it and that would annoy its fans.Read More »

Human sacrifice at CERN? It’s not a joke when bizarre claims are taken seriously

Reaction has been varied regarding a video seemingly depicting a human sacrifice on the grounds of CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, the location of the Large Hadron Collider and cutting edge particle physics research. Some people are chuckling at the spoof while others see it confirming their dark suspicions and sinister worldview. As a science advocate who knows that people all too readily subscribe to truly outrageous ideas about how the world works, I’m angry at these participants who were clearly CLUELESS about the damage they could do to the beleaguered reputation of big science.

Take a look at the video.Read More »

Psychical Research President states scientific disbelief in psi is “pathological”

coverPNRWhat a very strange “President’s Letter” is in Issue 77 of the Paranormal Review published by the Society of Psychical Research (Winter 2016). I read and re-read it trying to make heads or tales out of Dr. Poynton’s meaning and assertions. He seems to despise the application of reason and questioning, wishing the stodgy “pathological” scientists and skeptics would just BELIEVE already since the evidence for psi is as plain as day.

Fortunately, you can view the letter here (scroll down a bit past the editorial). Take a read and see what you think.

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You (didn’t) WIN: Jackpot scams from the car dealer

I’m usually pretty good at spotting the “small print” on gimmick mailers and promotional contests. The latest one from a local car dealership was well-hidden. I looked and looked. Got out my hand-lens and scanned the tiny print in the margins. Hmm. This one was sneaky.

Mail flyers from car dealers that say you’ve won cash or prizes are bogus ploys to get you to come to the business. This one, from Brenner Pre-Owned in Harrisburg, PA and addressed to “Future Customer”, contained a scratch-off ticket. Some contain “keys” that you bring into the dealer to try for a new car.

Alright, I’ll play. [Put on skeptical spectacles]

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End of an era: the last Skeptic’s Dictionary newsletter

rtc2014Dr. Robert T. Carroll created the Skeptic’s Dictionary – a source I have used for, oh gosh, over 10 years now. I was upset to hear of Bob’s serious illness. I consider Skepdic.com to be a PRIMARY go to source for skeptical reference. With nearly 800 entries, I have, by default, linked to his site for topics I reference in my blog posts.  Bob has just released his last newsletter to the email list of subscribers. John Renish has been assisting since his diagnosis in May 2014 with stage IV pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer.

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The State of the Science: Parapsychology (Book Review)

In October of last year I wrote a blog post about a review of a new parapsychology compendium. Finally, I’ve gotten to read the entire book referenced for myself, cover to cover, 400+ pages.

cardena coverParapsychology: A Handbook for the 21st Century (2015) edited by Etzel Cardeña, John Palmer, David Marcusson-Clavertz

It took about 7 weeks to get through the whole thing. I took copious notes, as I always do, to help me remember and understand. But why do this? Most people have zero interest in academic parapsychology. They can’t even explain what it is or why I might pay any mind to it. Most of my skeptic friends dismiss it outright. I’ve been interested in professional and amateur endeavors in this subject area for 20 years. There are two main reasons why I spent so much time crawling through this book:

  1. I wanted to see what they have to offer. What is the state of the science? Where has it been? Where is it going? What is the feel of the academic scene? What do they consider important? What does the future of parapsychology look like?
  2. I have been working on amateur research and investigation groups and it was necessary to consult an expert source in order to compare to professional standards. In both respects, this book was incredibly helpful and perfect for that need.

An academic book like this is not well suited for a typical review. You can scan the contents online. So, perhaps the most useful thing I can do is to explain what I derived from the information provided as a person educated in science with a great interest in the scientific and popular aspects of this particular field. It’s an outsider’s view, certainly, but as the book itself alludes, there really aren’t that many insiders. If this book can compel me to be motivated about parapsychology research, it’s a real prize.

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Trust No One: All news is doubtful

My main project, Doubtful News is on hiatus right now. (Update 22-Jan-2016: We’re back.) Honestly, it’s because I don’t have the motivation to keep up with the onslaught of questionable claims that are in the media. Twice this week, I was reminded by others of the following: 1. I am not alone in this and, 2. We are foolish to rely on the media for accurate information.

DN was designed to reach the “Googler”, the curious, the smart searcher. I wanted to show that there was more to these stories than just “they’re fake”. Early on, it was clear that DN could be a full-time job for me. In fact, it could be work for half a dozen people. But it wouldn’t make a profit because I was opposed to plastering the site with crappy ads.

After four years, I noticed a few things.

By covering news on ghosts, UFOs, Bigfoot and the general paranormal I saw that these very poorly done, sometimes obviously hoaxed pieces came mainly from tabloids like The Daily Mail, The Sun, The Mirror and Huffington Post. Several reputable news sites would pick them up because they were great click-bait. They were like pre-packaged fast food snacks – devoid of nutritional value, pure filler, really not part of a healthy news diet. But for some, this is their main news feed.Read More »

Media as ‘medium’: Review of Paranormal Media and the good and bad of ghost hunting

It’s not news that the paranormal is mainstream, which is ironic since we commonly understand the paranormal to be events that are NOT normal yet the discussion about it is an everyday occurrence. If you follow TV ghost hunters or paranormal researchers, “evidence” is all around us. So much for it being all that “extraordinary”.

51m9mZYRf4L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Annette Hill (no relation) is a professor of media and communication in the U.K. Her book, Paranormal Media, provides support for the conclusion that the paranormal as a field of inquiry is variable, pliable, irreducibly complex, and dependent on context to the point that we have trouble even defining it for study.

The volume contains interesting ideas, particularly with regards to reality paranormal television and the role of skepticism. Her findings derive from a study she conducted of 70 interviewees (in the U.K.) regarding paranormal depiction in the media. Also included was a section on “magic” with some mixed feelings on Derren Brown, but my interest was in the revelation of a more nuanced meaning behind ghost hunting shows and the activities of amateur paranormal researchers.

In my previous work examining amateur research and investigation groups (ARIGs), it was indisputable that their personal experiences were the impetus for their interest in the paranormal and prompted them to find out more. Also clear was the influence of paranormal television shows, whether they were expository or “reality” types. The importance placed on experiences was a strong theme throughout this book.

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“True Jersey” NJ.com published a stinker of a story on the Jersey Devil

They might want to reconsider this tagline.
They might want to reconsider this tagline.

A paranormal investigator who writes a column called Paranormal Corner for NJ.com broke a story this weekend that was both a coup for web hits and an utter disaster for her credibility.

Kelly Roncace received an email with a photo of what the sender said was the Jersey Devil. The JD is one of the most iconic American legends dating back to colonial times. The story in a nutshell is that a woman gave birth to a cursed baby who turned into a monster unlike any biological creature. It supposedly haunts the Pine Barren woodlands of New Jersey to this day. Great myth! For many and various reason, it’s clearly a MYTH and not factual.

Roncace set up the story by relating the legend and noting that many people still claim to see it.

“For more than 200 years, people living in or passing through New Jersey’s Pinelands have reported seeing a strange, winged creature that has come to be known as the Jersey Devil.

There are tons of stories about the monster, and thousands of witnesses who claim they have encountered it.

Late Tuesday night, I received an email from a reader who recently became one of those witnesses.”

What did she do next? She had to verify his sincerity:

Before I could write about his experience and print the photo, I had to be sure he was sincere.

“Yes, I swear it’s not Photoshopped or a staged thing,” Black responded when I asked if he was willing to let me use his name and state that the photo he sent was not manipulated in any way. “People have said it’s fake, but it’s not. I’m honestly just looking for an explanation for what I saw.”

Why not be sure he was not pulling your leg?

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Houdini. Skeptic. (Book Review)

magician spiritsHarry Houdini needs no introduction, but there are several facts that people do not know about this consummate skeptic. That makes this book a must for everyone interested in psychics and paranormal claims. Just the Introduction to this great book floored me. How much we needed Houdini at the time. How much we STILL need a Houdini today.

Houdini was open-minded. He admitted he wanted to believe. He strove to learn if the possibility that one could communicate with the dead was real. In an attempt to convince himself, he had compacts with 14 people for post-death communication. He was sorely disappointed that none ever reached beyond the grave to give him evidence he needed. Meanwhile the “mystifier of mystifiers” (a term disgustingly co-opted by Uri Geller, the unimpressive psychic performer) met all the most famous mediums of his time to test this elusive idea.

“Gladly I would embrace Spiritualism if it could prove its claims, but I am not willing to be deluded by fraudulent impostors of so called psychics…”

In this book, he outlines his adventures with them, how he learned their secrets, and how he applied his knowledge of the tricks the mind can play. He was part of the initial era of psychical research.Read More »

100 Things Popular Science Thinks Science Got Wrong, but Didn’t Quite

I was in the grocery checkout line a few weeks ago. I sometimes scan the magazine rack impulse grabs but never buy them. This week, the crop circle cover photo of a special edition of Popular Science caught my attention: Mistakes and Hoaxes – 100 Things Science Got Wrong

PopSci

What did science get wrong about crop circles? “Science” (be wary of the tone of generality used in the title) never assumed there was anything worthwhile about crop circles. They were a man-made (and quite nifty) phenomenon. Thumbing through the issue, I saw pages about phrenology, cigarettes are good for you, bloodletting, humans evolved from apes, and so on – topics that may appear to have once had scientific backing. But several other standard hoaxes were cited in the list – spirit photography, alien autopsy, Loch Ness Monster, King Tut’s curse…

So, it was a mishmash of rejected thinking, errors, and hoaxes but not everything had to do with science. Lots of these “myths” were popular in the public or the media but gained zero traction as legitimate science. I bought it to see how these popular myths (if not popular “science”) were treated. It was a mixed bag.

The issue, considered a Time Inc. Book, priced at $13.99 is a snazzy coffee table edition. Each “myth” takes up one page or less. It’s well illustrated and a casual read for those who are not specialists in science. I would recommend it to those who find science stuff interesting but don’t have a formal background in it. As with typical “popular science”, specialists will find plenty of nits to pick in the text. But overall, it’s not flawed except in the egregiously wrong title. There was no introduction or editor’s note, the content started immediately with Myth #1: Neutrinos Are Faster Than Light – a legitimate story that described how an experiment went awry. Read More »

Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see – Book review

bhBroadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News

by A. Brad Schwartz, 2015

“Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see.” – Poe

This quote is the frontispiece to this book. Hits me right in my skeptical soul. I run Doubtful News, a site that deals daily with questionable claims in news media. I don’t like fake news. But the story of War of the Worlds, Orson Welles’s historic radio drama that was said to cause a National panic, was NOT fake news, nor was it a panic.

It was perceived as fake news; it was always intended to be a drama, nothing more. What surprisingly spiraled from it is at the core of this book. The story of the National panic over a Martian invasion was what turned out to be fake. The US ended up with a giant storm about censorship and media trust in a time of uncertainty and change.

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Neutrality and the wood ape report

It’s very difficult to be truly neutral. In most situations, you can only get somewhere by taking a side and exploring it. Last week’s hubbub regarding the Wood Ape report that I posted on Doubtful News was illustrative of a number of different issues that arise when attempting to learn more about and assess an extraordinary claim.

My approach to the report, which you can read here, is one of interest and openness. To me, having seen probably hundreds of poorly done “reports” by amateur paranormal investigators (ARIGs) and obvious and ridiculous hoaxes, this one was not of those. If we expect claims to be supported, and we ask for higher quality, then my view is we should not dismiss out of hand the product when we get it.

It was clear that this approach annoyed several Bigfoot Skeptics (for lack of a better term) – namely ones who follow Doubtful News who were disappointed in the lack of strong tone – and a few people from the former JREF forum (now International Skeptics) who have known me as a one who will dig into the nonsense such as that of Melba Ketchum (an OBVIOUS and embarrassingly awful presentation of pseudoscience).

Several people misunderstood my approach. I have gained much information and understanding by not being hostile or dismissive to those on the metaphorical “other side of the fence”. I’m not out to debunk Sasquatch. I wish to understand what people are experiencing and why they conclude this creature is real. Some commenters do not share that goal and thus had a problem with the post and perhaps my cordialness towards Brian Brown, host of the Bigfoot Show podcast and a NAWAC researcher who co-authored the report.

I feel that there is something to be explained in this Area X (Oklahoma) event. What is happening? Is it an elaborate hoax on the investigators from people launching rocks at the cabin in Area X? Is the land owner pursuing a monetary agenda? Are the participants promoting a scenario that will be turned into a profit making venture such as tourism, TV show or a movie? Is this a case of poltergeist activity perceived by the researchers? There are pretty much limitless possibilities to apply.

Asking “what’s going on here?” is not limiting the view, it is aiming the inquiry at the large target. Language of neutrality is difficult. No matter how I try, there still will be some bend in the framework I use. I may have framed it in a way that suggested belief or led credence to the group or belief; it was not the intent to advocate for the existence of wood apes.

What has come out of this exposure?

I expected pushback but not quite like this.  Some opinions were asinine, unsupported, and conspiratorial – very UNskeptical indeed. But I concede that the framing of the piece may have been in such a way as to feel like a betrayal to those who thought I was more concrete in my nonbelief than I really am. So, I can understand if the harsh comments were a result of feeling that I was promoting the claim. Please consider that examining the claim is NOT promotion of the claim. I did not say it was any sort of proof or even good evidence.

The exposure did result in some people suggesting that there were potential shenanigans going on. But yet didn’t provide evidence for this. To assume that the reality was not as published means I would be accusing the researchers of exaggeration, deception, and, at the extreme, fraud. If they are f***ing with me than I will likely find out eventually and say so, thus putting them far back from whatever ground they could gain. I have no reason to suspect they are doing that. While I’ve lost faith in humans many times, I’m not ready to assume people who have previously been honorable are deliberately suddenly and drastically dishonest. It does not follow. (You can observe my interaction with Brian Brown on this episode of the Bigfoot Show).

I did contact Brian again to address the suggestions that there is something unscrupulous going on.

Is there money involved?

“We are a 501(c)3 and we operate using the funds we generate from member dues and any donations from interested outsiders. We do have a button on our website and a page dedicated to generating those donations, but that’s about it. We don’t make very many explicit appeals for donations from interested outsiders. Also, we have nothing to sell. No “product.” There has been discussion within the group of staging crowd-sourced fundraising campaigns for specific things (like more thermal cameras, for example) and we have toyed with the idea of things like t-shirt sales, but we haven’t pursued those things to date and I’m personally wary of doing anything that makes it appear as though we’re trying to profit from our work. 100% of our income (the vast majority of which is from member dues) goes into furthering our research. This year, for example, we purchased new communication equipment. Also, things like the tremendous amount of small lithium-ion batteries we chew through in a summer.”

So, their donations or support goes back into the research efforts.

What is the potential you are being hoaxed?

“We pay the owners a relatively small amount annually to be on their property for such extended periods (it’s not uncommon in Oklahoma for property owners to receive modest lease payments from hunters and such). We also contribute to the upkeep of the structures as there is a fair amount of wear and tear from all those people staying there over months at a time. However, we are most often not accompanied by the owners. They are only present over a few times of the year and a handful of weekends during the summer months. Is there a motive to hoax? I suppose the only answer to that is to weigh the effort that would be necessary against the benefit of doing so. It just doesn’t make any sense from that perspective.”

One commenter mentioned that locals heard the gunshots so it’s not a “remote” area. However, another, non-NAWAC, skeptical researcher assured me that it is remote and that hoaxing just does not make sense. Brian did not know of any residents within several miles since they have explored the area thoroughly in the 15 or so years they have been active there.

“Of course, this is Oklahoma we’re talking about and there are lots of guns and people who enjoy using them. While we rarely hear gunshots from others, it’s happened. Lots of people shoot guns around there.”

There were allegations made that Brian is in marketing and so, should not be trusted. (Poisoning the well attempt?) He responds:

“I’m in marketing, yep. Without making any attempt to try and raise anyone’s opinion of marketers in general, all I can say is I use my abilities to ensure the group is as well-presented to the public as possible. The NAWAC is filled with serious people trying to do serious things in a field littered with those it’s impossible to take seriously. It’s a daunting “branding” challenge, to be sure. Am I promoting the existence of the animal? Yes, 100%. I know they’re real and I know their habitat is threatened and I’d very much like to see them recognized and protected. Also, I take the mission of our group seriously, especially the part about education.”

So, yes, Brian does have an agenda to show Bigfoots are real. That is the largest flaw in the foundation of the report, but it does not prevent the researchers from pursuing the falsification of the events in this particular location. If they are being harassed by people or other animals, they will attempt to show that so as to not be seen a promoting a false claim which would be embarrassing and at odds with their goals. The report, he notes, was meant to not be sensational. It’s well known that it’s very hard to be taken seriously in a field loaded with jokers.

On the podcast The Bigfoot Show, they did mention the idea of a fictional movie about Bigfoot. It’s not a stretch to make this dramatic wood ape attack scenario into a movie reminiscent of The Legend of Boggy Creek. So, in the back of my head, and knowing the viability of viral marketing, I could entertain the possibility that this is a setup for such a project.

Brian says:

“On the BFS we have discussed doing, essentially, a video version of the show (though that idea is pretty much dead at this time). […] At no time was the idea of bringing cameras to [Area] X considered by me (though Herriott may have suggested it on the show) nor would I ever involve the group like that. In fact, the NAWAC routinely turns down appeals by television producers (Finding Bigfoot in particular about 50 times — their producers apparently don’t talk to one another much).”

This didn’t exactly answer my question about this being part of a media scheme. So, I leave all possibilities open.

As I said before, but not everyone accepts, I’ve no dog in this fight, I just want to know what’s going on. I’m on the skeptic side of the fence but it does not mean I can’t peer over to the other side to see what’s brewing. Being in the center means on some days I make one side unhappy and on the other day I make the other side unhappy. So be it.

A ruse by any other name still stinks

As one who runs a website about weird news, it’s been a crazy start to the year. A number of hoaxes proliferating around the media the first week of this year. They are passed on almost with the same respect as actual news. If you resolve to do anything this year, resolve to doubt the news when it sounds too outrageous or too weird to be true. Because it’s probably not.

There are too many urban legends and popular rumors going around to follow at any one time, but let’s take a quick look at some of the major hoaxes that recently created hype in the media.

Made for TV hoaxes

Not counting the Punk’d and Candid Camera-type practical joke setups that are humorous (if rather mean), several television programs aim their hoaxes at the public, making them realistic, and keeping the background a secret as the bizarre video goes viral across the web.

In July, in Whitstable, Kent, U.K, a video from a medicine shop’s closed circuit television showed a man surprised by a falling box. But before the fall, the camera captures the box defying gravity, levitating off the shelf, hanging there for a moment, then dropping.

Was this paranormal activity? (There were obvious signs that it was not.) It was such a fun video that it was passed around extensively. Finally, in December, it was revealed as a hoax for a TV show. The reveal happened on a broadcast that did not get good ratings. Most people may still assume the video was actual evidence for paranormal activity.

The case of the glowing squid-like mystery creature in Bristol harbor, also in the U.K., didn’t hang on quite as long. People in the harbor sounded amazed to see and film a bright, pulsating animal that did not look like a machine. It looked like something out of this world!

The prank was released on YouTube as part of a marketing stunt by UKTV’s entertainment channel, Watch, to launch the show “The Happenings”. I really wanted that bioluminescent beastie to be real.

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Imagineering cryptids: The Cryptozoologicon (Book review)

It’s not been the best year for the fans of real live cryptids. Not only did we NOT find Bigfoot again, we had a better explanation for the Yeti, and Sasquatch DNA samples that were a bust (Sykes) or a joke (Ketchum). The book Abominable Science inserted itself as the premier scholarly book on the topic. Unfortunately for the “knowers,” who have an indestructible belief that the mysterious creatures are out there, their evidence and conviction clearly suggest otherwise. Serious scholarly researchers are happy to have that excellent resource and now we have another lovely skeptical and highly entertaining book to add to our collection. The Cryptozoologicon by Naish, Conway and Kosmen. It is unique with brand-new original artwork and imaginative writing. I loved it. But then again, I would…

“Cryptozoologicon” means the Book of Names of Hidden Animals. This is Volume One. More volumes are possibly on the way (at least one more). The authors seemed to have great fun with this one.

The introduction is cryptozoology in a nutshell, with a smart, skeptical, scholarly point of view – the kind I prefer. Each entry is a summary of what is known or conjectured about the cryptid. Then the authors crank up the fictional biology to 11 and even push the limits of popular cryptozoo-ers (1), while remaining generally within the confines of zoology, to indulge in descriptions and illustrations of the proposed animals.

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