Welcome to another episode of Point of Inquiry. I’m your host Jim Underdown, executive director of the Center for Inquiry W in Los Angeles, and Sharon, founder of the Center for Inquiry Investigations Group. OK, I should have known. I should have known.
As soon as the Corona virus became an international story, I should have known there would be tons of bad information getting out about where it came from, how it spreads, how to prevent it, et cetera, et cetera. Really, this happens with anything that becomes a large story in the public. Bad information abounds. But we’re gonna do something about that today and we’re gonna talk to Ben Radford. Ben has written numerous articles and books about all kinds of weird topics that grow out of legends and stories. So we’re going to chat a little bit about some of the ideas that are out there right now and try to keep people from freaking out about wrong information that’s floating about.
So with that, here is my conversation with writer, investigator and editor Ben Bradford. Welcome to another episode of Point of Inquiry I have on the line.
Ben Radford of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. Ben, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me on.
It’s been awhile and it should be told that I am sitting at the Center for Inquiry West on Temple Street in Los Angeles. And you are in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
I am. I am probably best known for Bugs Bunny and Breaking Bad.
Let’s talk about what you do for a second. What is your title and job with the Center for Inquiry?
Yeah, so I am a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, formerly psychotic. Of course, I am the deputy editor of Skeptic Inquirer Science magazine and have been for over two decades. I write a column for S.I called The Skeptically Inquiry, and of course I do media literacy, science literacy. And one of my main interest is in folklore. And so I do a lot of research into conspiracy theories, urban legends and misinformation.
For it written books as well.
Some of these topics I have I’ve written about a dozen books, some of which have been published by previous books and McFarland and others as well, all on a variety of things ranging from chupacabras to mass hysteria to evil clowns. And that makes some pretty desperate. It certainly does when I say it. But the running theme is critical thinking and trying to examine unusual claims from a scientific evidence based perspective.
You’re one of the leading experts, I would say, in the world. Two per cobre. And that’s not your only krip those all logical endeavors. Don’t you go to Lake Champlain?
Yeah, I mean, one of my one of my main sort of grooves, if you will, is cryptozoology in the search for mysterious creatures.
And yeah, I I’ve I’ve been to Lake Champlain looking for Nessie, as you mentioned. I did a book on the Tuba Cobre the Vampire Beast. I wrote a book titled Tracking Chupacabra. And of course, Joe Nickell and I coauthored a book titled Lake Monster Mysteries. So I’ve always I’ve always been fascinated by these mysterious creatures, partly because.
If they’re real, then there should be tangible evidence. Right. I mean, if if somebody claims to be psychic, you know, they can say, oh, I predicted this. Predicted that. And usually it’s just sort of, you know, they say stories. But if these mysterious creatures are real. There should be bodies. There should be teeth. There should there should be exhibits in the Smithsonian.
But then these things spill out into the rest of the media. And and why does that happen? Well, there’s a couple of reasons.
One, of course, is there’s a vested interest in in promoting these mysteries. And what’s interesting, if you if you go to and you talk to the people around these mysteries, as I’ve done with with Lake Okanagan, Ogopogo and Champ Lake Champlain, a lot of times, you know, the locals will sort of you know, when you ask, do you believe in it, they’ll sort of, you know, give you a sly wink and say, well, you know, I believe in green. You know, I believe it. Right. For sure.
And that’s that’s one of the ironies is that is that for the most part, the people that have spent the most time living and working on the lakes in the case of Lake Monsters, for example, they typically don’t see them. It’s you would think that if someone had grown up on the shores of Loch Ness and had lived there for 70 years, they’d say, oh yes, back in seventy eight and eighty five and twice ninety two.
But they don’t. And they’re not like spending a lot of time or energy looking for them or putting up fences or you know, a lot of this stuff is sort of light and, you know, spooky around the campfire story kind of stuff.
But when wacky stories start spreading into the population about more serious subjects, there are consequences. So let’s talk about the corona virus and share some of the misinformation that’s pouring out about where that’s coming from.
It’s big in the news and has been for going on two months now. So originally it was unnamed. It was just called the Corona virus, although it’s actually a corona virus. There are many of them. Others include Saar’s and Murse. This this latest one has been dubbed G.S. the past week or so. Twenty nineteen novel Corona virus. And, you know, obviously it’s a fluid situation. And any statistics you put out in terms of its its breadth are going to be outdated within within hours. But as of now, as of the time recording, there has now been about two thousand people that have died and about seventy five thousand people worldwide infected, most of most of whom were, of course, in China.
Right. It started around Wuhan, China.
Yes, it’s already. It was first reported near the end of the near the end of last year around and move on China. And it’s it was reported and then that just blew ballooned from there. But a month later here in the U.S., there was a public health emergency was declared. And at that point, then you saw the you saw the CDC getting involved. You saw the the quarantines and things like that.
Yeah. So how scary how many cases does the CDC have to see in this country before they declare such an emergency?
Yeah, it just depends on a bunch of different factors. I mean, I don’t think there’s a certain numerical threshold.
I mean, part of it is, is how many is that? You know, how likely is it that American citizens are going to be infected about? And there’s again, there’s many factors there. In some cases, we’re talking American citizens who are in trying to and that’s that’s most of the most of the infected Americans. But, you know, it’s important to keep in mind the numbers here and keep the threat in danger.
I mean, you know, in terms of China, there’s one point four billion people there. So, you know, seventy five thousand worldwide. Sounds like a lot. It is compared to the number of people. It’s actually really small. We know that. The fact is that. Yes, it is.
It is. It is scary. It is spreading. But it’s actually much less dangerous than than either Saras or Murse either. The other two sort of prominent coronaviruses, the death rate for the twin 19 novel coronavirus is about two percent.
OK. So, you know, which if you’re part of that two percent, of course. That’s very scary and alarming. But compared to Saar’s, for example, which is 10 percent and murse, which is 35 percent now it’s far less lethal. And in its symptoms are are they’re not they’re not as sort of horrible and scary as, for example, like Ebola in which you’re actually bleeding from your orifices. In the case of the twin 19 novel coronavirus, it’s it’s a cough, a fever, you know, nausea, vomiting, maybe diarrhea.
It’s basically similar to influenza. So it’s not like people are dropping dead when they get it. So, yes, it’s serious. But in fact, of course, you know, they do. The normal influenza virus is is far more deadly and far more prevalent.
Yeah. I mean, I think our culture and probably most of the Western world doesn’t really know what like a lot of these older diseases, like the any factors, don’t know how deadly the measles was. For instance, you know, they’re they’re so concerned about the vaccines. But since, you know, we haven’t really seen the measles around the US since, what, the 70s or something. I mean, basically, I mean, in large numbers, because when I was a kid, everybody got the measles at one point or or. Yeah. We must had vaccinations, too. But, you know, lots of people got it. And it’s a nasty thing to have. And if a mom or looking at their kids with the measles, they’d say, hell yeah, I’m going to do anything. I can do it to not let them catch this. You’re comparing the corona virus to the flu, which numerically kills thousands every millions.
Yeah. Yeah. Tens of thousands. I mean, this. And against what? The things where a lot of times people they sort of equate the flu with the cold.
Well, you don’t die of a cold in this. You’re already immunocompromised. But people absolutely die of influenza. And in fact, not so long ago, almost almost a hundred years ago, there was the the influenza outbreak of 1918, which was which was very lethal. And it’s largely forgotten these days. But if you do some research on the extent of the 1918 influenza outbreak, it’s terrifying or way many million people or so. Yeah, yeah. This is this is nonsense. This is not a joke. This is this is something that people need to take seriously. And so, again, you don’t want to downplay the danger of of 19 novel coronavirus because it is literally killing people. So it is something to be concerned about. But it is you know, people need to keep the threat in perspective.
Some of the bad information about the twenty nineteen coronavirus. And that day, by the way, they they put numbers on these things because viruses mutate.
Right. It may not be quite the same next year.
Exactly, and that’s that this is accurate. It’s because of that thing we call evolution. Maybe you’ve heard of it.
Because things evolve, human life evolves. You know, assuming you’re not a creationist, that’s how that works. And that’s it. That’s exactly why they need to have new vaccines every year, because it works. One year doesn’t hardly work the following year because they evolve and they come to, in some cases, become drug resistant. So Doug is exactly right.
Well, some of the bad information about Corona virus comes starts with where people got this in the first place. Right. There was animal human transfer at some point, we think.
Yeah. That there’s a there’s a couple sort of varieties of the corona virus misinformation. And as as I mentioned and as we talked about, I’ve been sort of tracking this because it’s one of my interests, partly because, you know, the sorts of things that skeptics do investigate. You know, you can you can sort of say, oh, well, who really cares if people believe we land on the moon or not? You know, who really cares if people think there’s a big foot or spacecraft or brutes? But in in in many cases, pretty when it comes to health and medicine, what people believe absolutely matters. And it can it can literally be life and death. And so this is sort of that’s one of reasons why I spend time on it, is because it’s it’s important. It’s sort of it’s a rejoinder to people say, oh, well, you know, who really cares? People believe it. No. It actually does matter. And particularly with medical things, misinformation can be deadly. And this folds in, as I mentioned, with with with folklore and legends and rumors and conspiracy theories. So there’s a couple of different varieties. So the first type is when people are freaking out over a new disease or even a seemingly new disease, even if it’s sort of resurgence of a known one. One of the first things that people come up with is, well, where did it come from? Right. It’s a natural question. Right. Like, well, this this wasn’t here six months ago and it’s suddenly killing, you know, two thousand people around the world. Where the hell did this come from? And of course, epidemiologists do their best to try and figure that out. Right.
That’s that’s what you have to do. You have to figure out, you know, who’s symptomatic, who’s asymptomatic. You know, how can we trace this? Because that’s how you that’s how you continue.
It’s not about blaming people. It’s about figuring out how this mechanism is working.
Exactly. But unfortunately for the layperson, it is about blaming right to an epidemiologist, finding out where this came from isn’t as you said, it’s not about blaming, it’s not about trying to say, oh, these are bad people. These are dirty people. It’s about saying who got this and why? But unfortunately, because the nature of the Internet and social media and rumors, a lot of times it can fuel this sort of xenophobia. And this this goes back. And this is this is a well-known folklore circles. So you can look at contamination legends, other urban legends, for example, about there’s a famous one called the Mexican Patch. You know that one? I don’t. Well, I’ll just I’ll just I’ll give you the stripped down version of the story, but it’s basically the stories of of an upper class woman, usually from Los Angeles or San Diego, goes to goes to Mexico, Taiwan or somewhere, and is having a good time. And she sees this or doorbell dogs that she hasn’t seen before. They’re just so cute. And. But some of they seem to be sort of not well-fed. And she’s like, oh, this is adorable. So she she sneaks one and she takes you smuggle back to her her pristine but mansion in the States. And she shows it to her friends, says, look at this adorable dog that I found. And of course, it’s a rat. Right. So that’s that’s the that’s the twist is her friends, her upper crust friends are horrified that she she adopted and brought home this this thing that she thinks is this cute little dog. It turns out to be a scary and there and it’s just one example of many sort of urban legends that have this sort of contamination fear.
Right. So the the the lesson in that particular one, among others, is, of course, that, you know, that the people down there and by down there in this case, of course, we’re talking Mexico. Well, there was that there’s a couple of lessons. One, of course, is that the the upper crust woman is so out of touch that she doesn’t recognize the indictment of the educational system right there.
Exactly. So. So part of his mocking the the upper crust white, rich white lady. The other part is, is sort of the the subtext is the dangers of going down there and and, you know, and mixing with the contaminated. And of course, there’s a long history of this. I mean, you can you can look at there were there were in fifteen hundred Europe, for example, there were people that were accused of intentionally spreading the bubonic plague.
The usually non Catholics, there were stories circulated by Catholics that that that these these are these foreigners were going from place to place, intentionally spreading the plague. And of course, that that wasn’t true at all. And in the case of the coronavirus, as you mentioned, one of the one of the stories that’s been circulating is that this came from sort of dirty Chinese eating. So culinary habits. So there was a rumor circulated early on that the coronavirus had come from bad soup. And everyone’s like, well, gross. Right. Who eats bad soup? Well, some people do. It’s actually not very common in China. It’s not it’s not a sort of typical classic Chinese food. But again, the the message there is well, you’ll look at these weird, crazy, exotic things that these these dirty Chinese are eating. Well, there was a video circulated that showed a woman preparing that soup.
It turned out to be from Pulau Polynesia. So there was a video that was purported and claimed to be, oh, you know, look at this woman eating this bad soup.
This is so disgusting. And, you know, this is, you know, could this be the beginning of this virus? It is true that that so far epidemiologists believe that it probably did start in a war on meat market.
So an annual meat markets all over the world in wolf or anywhere else in the world. They’re kind of gross places.
You’ve got eating things that a lot of Americans would find unappetizing, to say the least. Say would exactly rules this sort of looking down on whatever they’re doing over there?
Exactly. And so, yeah, so for a lot of Americans, well, this is this is gross. And as as we touched on earlier, it brings in this like who we can blame them. Look at, look at look at this weird, disgusting thing they’re doing. But the fact is that this particular virus, it could have just as easily occurred anywhere else. It just happened to be Will on China, we believe. But there’s nothing unique to there’s nothing inherently dirty or disgusting or dangerous about it. And that’s when the problems and again, you see this you see this theme. For example, you may remember in in 2018, there was a there was the migrant caravan was was was was being touted as this this terrible danger. Right. Bye bye. Donald Trump on Fox News. And there was a Fox News contributor that referred to the Central American migrants as a plague ridden disease. People coming up from from Nicaraguans into America who had Tirico closest HIV leprosy.
One of the ironies and first of all, just to be crystal clear, it wasn’t true at all. These were these were not hoards of migrants coming here to infect, you know, these these Americans.
But second of all, in many cases, the countries that these people come from actually have higher vaccination rates than the states.
Now. Yeah, well, it’s it’s classic demonizing a group for one reason or another, and now it’s it’s just using the disease as an excuse.
So it’s hard to take a step back. So one of the concerns was where did it come from? And so one one variant of that or one strain of that, that rumor or stories was that it was came from this this filthy third world place that spawned this.
The second version of that is basically a conspiracy theory.
Basically, the idea is that it was a sort of a bio weapon, the escape from a secure lab. And that’s the it’s a sort of classic, you know, Frankenstein, you know, science gone awry. Right. And again, this folds back into urban legends and conspiracy series that have circulated for decades. In the in the 60s and 70s, for example, there were urban legends about how in the black community that AIDS was created by the government trying to sterilize black people. That or in some cases, it was some of the food or drinks, for example, topical fancy soda or church’s fried chicken was said by some to to be contaminated by sterilizing agents that were intentionally circulated by by the government.
So part of the part of the reason these rumors are so difficult to to tackle is that in many cases there’s a grain of truth to it. Right. I mean, you know, it is absolutely true that the US government has has a long history, including the including the Tuskegee experiments and many others of of mistreating and demonizing and using the black communities. Right. And so so that very real history, that very real and shameful history can be used as a base. If people say, well, they did this, then why? Why is it so, so ridiculous and implausible to think that maybe AIDS was created by the U.S. government to to kill the black community?
Not such a big leap at all with the syphilis experiments and everything else. You can open door wide open for confirmation bias. Absolutely. I heard something about pangolins, which I didn’t know existed until fairly recently.
Yeah. So. So, again, as of now, you know, we they have not been able to isolate it to a specific cause. They may or may not be able to do that. The fact is that science is limited. Right. We we don’t know everything. And the simple fact is that we may never know exactly where it came from. But but again, one of the original ideas was, was Bhatt’s.
The more recent twist was that maybe it came from pangolins, which is a a really pretty adorable, cute and unfortunately endangered largely because of belief in traditional Chinese medicine creature. It looks sort of like an armadillo. And there’s there there’s some there’s some suspicion that pangolins have were the source of this maybe either killing or eating them or or using their body parts. And if there’s a if there’s a silver lining in this and I don’t mean is just there is.
But if there is if people if Chinese particularly are scared of killing pangolins because they’re they believe that they’ll get this disease, it might. It might. It is sort of a weird, twisty way. Be good. Not not that not the disease itself is good, but that the that belief that that mistaken belief might actually help see this endangered species, because they these animals are being poached and some of them are used for what is a virility treatments or.
Yeah. And again, it’s. Yeah. And it’s part of a much broader problem. Right.
There’s there there are tiger tiger bones, for example. There are tigers that are being killed for their bones. Their rhinoceros is is a perfect example of, you know, of an animal that is is near extinction. That’s some types are extinct or nearly extinct. They’re being killed for their horns because somebody oftentimes in Asian markets believe that that the horns can cure impotence or heart disease or cancer or things like that. And so there’s a there’s a real danger to these sorts of beliefs.
I read on Snopes something about a professor who was allegedly arrested for giving bad information to hear about this guy at Harvard, Charles Lieber.
Yeah. I don’t know that much about that particular cases is I read up a little bit on it and I couldn’t really make heads or tails. You hit me on it. Some connection to Wolverine, but yeah, yeah, yeah. I don’t know that much about that specific case. I you know, one of the one of the drivers of the misinformation in this case is that, of course, the Chinese government is notoriously censor. Right. That’s a problem. And it’s not necessarily because the Chinese government is engaging in a conspiracy to to cover it up or to hide me. It is this. Well, you can’t. It’s always been that way. I mean, that’s that’s what the Chinese government does. This is well known for this. And it’s done this for decades. And so. But one of the consequences of that is that in their attempts to to stifle the free flow of information, often for political purposes, it also breeds these conspiracy theories that that, you know, they’re they’re trying to you. They’re not telling us everything or maybe they have a vaccine or this is all these sorts of things. And, you know, keep in mind that the governments have a an understandable reluctance to to admit fault and or even real or imagined fault. You can think, for example, a while back when Iran shot down the Ukrainian passenger airline. Right. Right. There was there was clear evidence that this happened. Irrefutable evidence. And yet, for several days, I think almost a week, they they denied it. They just flat out denied it. Eventually, they admitted to it. But again, it wasn’t because they were trying to engage in some official cover up against conspiracy. It was because they they made a mistake and they recognize that was a grave mistake and they didn’t want to come forward with it. So that doesn’t excuse it, but it does sort of give a different shade to it. That is not necessarily some huge conspiracy to to hide information politically about something as dangerous as the corona virus.
Do you think there is any legitimate reason for limiting or couching the information that goes out there, like, for instance, of people worry about spreading panic?
That’s a good question. I mean, it’s always there. There’s lots of moving parts here. No. One, of course, epidemiologist and the CDC and the GBI, Joe and others, they they don’t. They literally don’t know what. They don’t have all the information. Right. And so it’s not as if they have a piece, paper and firm that has all the correct information and they’re intentionally omitting some. So in many cases, the the the officials themselves, the experts themselves, they’re working on fragmentary information anyway because of any number of factors, because a slow reporting of of of of of disease cases in some cases. There have been there’s been cases where the testing kits were faulty, where people, you know, took it, took the novel Corona Virus tests and it came back OK. And it was a false positive. And that sort of thing. So I think it’s a sticky situation. Right, because in some cases, you want to be transparent with with the public and governments because you don’t want to even appear to be hiding anything else. On the other hand, unfortunately, to be on social media, the nature of rumors and legends is such that even technically correct information can be twisted, taken out of context and spun into something that’s not true. And so it’s you know, it’s a fair question. Say, OK, well, if you know X is true, there may be cases where you probably actually shouldn’t tell that to the public because people online, rumor mongers, conspiracy theories, whoever else may try and intentionally or otherwise twisted into a misperception. Aside from the concerns about where to come from, the other the other, of course, big question as well. How do you get it? How do you prevent it? And how do you cure it? And that opens up the other Pandora’s box of misinformation. So you’ve got people who know information online saying that you can avoid spicy foods. While I live in New Mexico. You cannot and should not avoid spicy food. That’s it. That’s not an option for New Mexican green chili and everything. Some people say you’re avoiding eating garlic or eating garlic, but like it’s vampires or something. One of the rumors that circulating online is something called M.S. or Miracle Mineral Solution can kill the virus. And there is a grain of truth to that. And this this gets back to what we’re talking about a second go in terms of should you tell people that? So here’s what’s going on. So there’s this MMR stuff. It’s been sold for many years. Steve Nivola has written about it on science based medicine. It’s been a sort of a thorn in the side of skeptics and medical doctors for a long time. And it’s being repurposed as a sort of preventative or a cure for for the virus. And it’s basically 28 percent solution. Sodium chloride in distilled water. It’s being sold for like 30, 40 dollars for a four ounce vile. So it’s ridiculously expensive and it’s basically bleach that the media has a big responsibility in.
How they explain these things to people.
That’s why I’m always glad to to see, you know, scientists and medical doctors coming in and talking to the media. And that’s one reason I’m really glad you brought me on to talk about this on the show, is because the other angle to this is, is folklore. It’s rumors. It’s urban legends. It’s it’s misinformation. And that oftentimes gets it gets lost in all the concerns about, you know, whether you should wear face masks or wash your hands, though, or, you know, quarantines. All that’s important. But underlying that is, is myths and misinformation, which is essentially an issue of sociology and folklore. And so that’s I’m only glad when I see folklorists in the media who are talking about this because it provides an angle into it that oftentimes gets lost.
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, you mentioned the face mask, guys. I see people even before the coronavirus as I see people wearing face masks on the street in Los Angeles. Fairly often. And, you know, well, L.A. is on the edge of desert area and it’s it’s certainly a dusty town. I think you can you know, you would have some benefit for filtering out a few grains of dust. Sure. Going to keep a virus out of your lungs.
Yeah. I mean, with again, with face masks. Again, this goes back to a grain of truth to it.
So the fact is that face masks, as often used by the lay public, don’t do much. It’s it’s better than nothing, arguably, but it is as a practical matter. They’re not useful. They’re most useful for putting on people who are already infected to keep to keep them from coughing and spreading it or else. But again, so, you know, if you want to wear a face mask, you know, knock yourself out. But the fact is, it’s not going to do much for you that you’re far better off just washing your hands, disinfecting surfaces before you touch, before you touch them, put it on airplanes, in public places. You know, don’t like toilet seats.
The usual stuff from your lips to the makers at 3:00 that produces a facemask. Well, this has been fascinating. Thanks for the set of warnings. And it’s funny how that how, you know, you think of folklore as something that, you know, something that happened in the fifteen hundreds. But here we are right now and it’s being generated as we speak.
It is. And, you know, it’s understandable, right. I mean, anytime you have a public health threat, whether it’s exaggerated by the by the news and social media or not, you have people that are going to be concerned. And there’s always gonna be this undercurrent of distrust of the official story or governments or, you know, did they create this or what are they hiding, that sort of thing. And and one of the one of the important things that these rumors provide in many cases is a false certainty by a clear of ambiguity. Right. So people want to know what you know, what’s going on with this virus, what’s happening. They turn on the news and and the often see, you know, CDC or medical officials who are saying, well, we don’t we don’t fully know. I mean, we have our guesses. This what we know so far. And and lay people get frustrated that they don’t want your guesses. I don’t want, you know, your projections. I to know. I would give me concrete binary yes or no information and medicine can’t usually do that, unfortunately.
And so a lot of times people will turn to these these folk remedies or these these these online rumors or meems or things like that, because it provides a false certainty about, well, here’s what you just, you know, drink this bleach solution or eat garlic or whatever it is. And unfortunately, a lot of times the the the real quality medical information gets lost.
They’re just going to have they want a sense of security and it’s just not available yet. People are just going to have to be a little patient and let the scientific and medical world figure out what’s happening.
Yeah. Listen to doctors and epidemiologists and people in charge. You know, they may not have all the answers, but they sure as hell have better answers than some random person you saw on Twitter.
Ben Radford, thanks for being on the show. You’ve been a great help. I’m going to throw away the box of three masks I just bought. Thanks for being on the show and keep up with all the good work out, skeptical Inquirer and your writing and everything else.
Thank you very much. I appreciate it. And keep up the good work yourself.
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