“False alarm” (Manufactured memories)

Head And Mind Puzzle

We all have false memories but when these surface during criminal trials, there are severe consequences. Probably the most infamous example is the McMartin preschool injustice in the mid-1980s. A few years later, advertising executive Gary Ramona spent five years in prison after his daughter was goaded by two overenthusiastic therapists into thinking he had raped her as a child.

Criminal psychologist Julia Shaw is an expert on how false memories form and is sometimes called as a defense witness. She also works with members of law enforcement and the military to suggest interrogation techniques that will make false confessions less likely.

Shaw listed several factors that cause a person to “recover” a “lost memory.” It matters who the accuser was with when the memory was recalled, what questions were asked, and what their state of mind was. Were they vulnerable to a therapist implanting a constructed memory, such as which happened in the Ramona tragedy?

It is usually telling when a traumatic memory surfaces for the first time during therapy conducted decades later. That’s what happened to Eileen Franklin, who at 29 instantaneously “recalled” in a hypnotherapy session that her father George had raped and killed her childhood friend. Subsequent recollections included vivid images and specifics of the event. She knew what type of jewelry the victim was wearing, where curves in the dirt road near the killing site were, and how dense the surrounding forest was. She also recalled that the deceased was concealed under a mattress.

However, detectives later realized that all the details she had given had appeared in newspaper accounts of the case. The only exceptions were things that Eileen had gotten wrong. For instance, the victim was found wearing two rings, not the single silver one she had recalled. She was also mistaken on the time of day it occurred. There were other inconsistencies. The mattress covering the victim was too big to fit into the Franklins’ car, which is where Eileen said her father retrieved it from. Still, Franklin was convicted, then released six years later after DNA evidence showed he could not have committed the crime.

Eileen’s case had the major tell-tale signs of false memory: Sex abuse by someone known to the victim or witness and the repressed memory being brought out during hypnotherapy or psychotherapy.

Let’s spend a little time going over these techniques. The Quad Cities’ Genesis Health System has continued its embrace of pretend alternative medicine by offering hypnotherapy, which it describes as “accessing the subconscious to rearrange the associations that drive your daily behaviors. Hypnotherapy is a treatment focusing primarily on your subconscious. Hypnosis is a natural state people slip in and out of all day long, and hypnotherapy merely takes advantage of that state to better understand the client’s mentality.”

Sounds like all this can be a post for another day. For now, we’ll let it suffice that hypnotherapy can be of limited use in a few instances, but should be avoided by someone trying to work through deep-seeded issues. Further, any “revelation” that emerges when a hypnotherapist coaxes a mentally anguished patient to dig deeper should not be the impetus to incarcerate the alleged perpetrator.

Psychotherapy, meanwhile, is defined as “the treatment of mental disorders by psychological rather than medical means.” It can be valuable and beneficial, but any spontaneous memories from 25 years ago should still not be a precursor to criminal charges.

Cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus worked with defense attorneys to get Franklin’s conviction overturned and her involvement in the case spurred her to do pioneer research into false memories.

The idea of repressed memories gained traction in the era of McMartin, Geraldo specials, and UFO abduction tales. In these and similar instances, patients were encouraged to visualize, to let their mind wander to where the therapist guided, and to use their imagination to access repressed memories. And few of them were recalling that extra yummy ice cream cone from 15 summers ago. They were dredging up trauma.

To determine how susceptible a person might be to suggestion by an authority figure, Loftus recruited 24 participants and gave each of them narratives outlining four experiences from their childhood. Three of the stories came from their parents’ recollections, while the fourth was a work of fiction. In this outlier, the subject was said to have been lost at the mall, then returned by a stranger to their parents. Participants were directed to write down as many details as they could about the four storylines. When interviewed about their recollections, some began to share the emotions they experienced while being lost and then returned. Some even detailed the rescuer’s clothing, even though none of this had happened.

One-fourth of the subjects ended up recalling this event that never occurred. Loftus stressed the importance that the other person in the room can play in false memories popping up. “The key is suggestibility,” she said. “Often, false memories develop because there’s exposure to external suggestive information. Or people can draw inferences about what might have happened.”

In such situations, persons can assume pieces to fill in the gaps. These embellishments may come from other people’s accounts, their own imagination, or their current situation.

Being convinced that one wandered from the mall’s play area in Kindergarten is one thing, but what if the accusation were of something sinister? Shaw wondered if she could get the same response when trying to convince someone they had committed a crime. Inspired by the Loftus experiment, Shaw told 30 recruits that she had received details from their acquaintances about a time in their teens when the participants had assaulted someone or stolen something. To make it more believable, Shaw included accurate biological information, such as where they were living at the time, where they normally hung out, and the name of their partner in imagined crime.

After the initial meeting, none of the participants could recall the false memory. But every night for three weeks, subjects were encouraged to spend a few minutes visualizing the event. Utilizing the techniques she knows therapists (with either well-meaning or vindictive intent) employ, Shaw eventually convinced 70 percent of the subjects they had committed this non-existent crime. All that had been required to achieve this were weaving elements of truth with consistent pressure to visualize the event.

“Killer whale” (Online suicide game)


Blue Whale is a game described, somewhat oxymoronically, as being “hidden online.” Teens who sign up for it are given a daily task, which might include cutting one’s self, watching The Ring, or doing something innocuous like sawing tree branches. On day 50, the mission is to commit suicide.

Like any good moral panic, Blue Whale hysteria employs alarmist language, lacks specifics, and offers no proof. The Origin of the Spurious claim seems to be a May 2016 article from Moscow’s Novaya Gazeta. The newspaper reported there had been scores of Russian teen suicides over six months, with some of the victims being members of an online gaming community on VK, a social networking site.

While both the specific gaming community and Blue Whale are real, there is no credible evidence for the game being the online equivalent of Jonestown. Still, the idea plays on fear of the unknown and troubled teens do commit suicide, so the narrative carries a ring of plausibility. Therefore, when a young Russian kills themselves, some media and prosecutors jump to the post hoc conclusion that Blue Whale was the cause. But many of those committing suicide may have also eaten a lot of hash browns and that doesn’t make taters the cause of self-harm.

Still, according to a Radio Free Europe report, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan are seeing “alarming Blue Whale headlines daily.” But in its investigation, RFE found no suicides that could be definitively tied to the game.

This focus concerns mental health workers because parents, teachers, and police are searching for evidence that tweens and teens played a game, as opposed to looking for signs they might be demonstrating suicidal behavior. The focus is on hashtags and web searches instead of on traits of suicidal persons, such as a loss of interest in usual activities, giving away prized possessions, a drop in grades, and excess sleeping.

The Russian kleptocracy wasn’t about to let this opportunity to oppress go to waste. It proposed legislation to tighten Internet regulation and for good measure, blamed the macabre mess on “Ukrainian nationalists.” Then in Kazakhstan, the interior minister called for a national database of social-media users. That could have some unusual consequences. “My name is Dmitri and I’m required by law to tell you that I post to Instagram.” Meanwhile in Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek police have raided schools and Internet cafes looking for signs children have cut themselves or have received Blue Whale messages on their phones.

There has even been one arrest, of Russian Filipp Budeikin, on suspicion he organized this grave game. His lawyer told reporters, “They rushed things. There was an article in the newspaper, a bit of a scandal, pressure to do something. They thought evidence against him would come out, but there has been nothing.” Indeed, this arrest appears akin to the U.S. preschool hysteria in the 1980s.

Teens take their own lives due to feelings of inadequacy, humiliation, betrayal, hopelessness, or because of conflict with family, friends, and teachers. Also factoring in can be the inability to adapt during a time of great change and questioning in their lives. All of this can be exacerbated in periods of economic crisis and social upheaval.

Russian government statistics show that 720 minors committed suicide in 2016. But those same reports revealed the primary causes to be unrequited love, family issues, mental illness, a lack of opportunity, alcoholism, and drug abuse. Just one in 200 were suspected to have any connection to social media.

Not that there is zero cause for concern. A troubled youth thinking about ending it all should avoid games fixated on death. But that’s much different than thinking Blue Whale will send a stable, happy youngster spiraling into despair.

Blue Whale is another in a long tradition of moral panics. These have included jazz and the Red Scare in the 1920s, comic books and them Commies again in the 1950s, Dungeons & Dragons and loud music in the 1980s, and Internet age hysteria, which began with alleged aspartame atrocities and continued last year with constructed clown concerns.

Mass hysteria has traditionally been fueled by quaking quartet of preachers, teachers, parents, and police, and augmenting this today is a sensationalist, shallow media. 24/7 news postings means reporters are often doing only that – reporting – and not necessarily researching or verifying. The audience is likewise clueless, as social media is the main source of news for most. This creates a cycle, as the mere existence of news reports and law enforcement warnings gives rumors an unfounded credibility.

Like most moral panics, the Blue Whale Game centers on teens and young adults accessing something that older generations are either unaware of or don’t understand. It also involves another moral panic characteristic, Stranger Danger, in this case a dark anonymous overseer leading naïve youth to their demise. But the only verified victims so far have been rational thinking and measured responses.


“From the ridiculous to the subliminal” (Hidden messages)


The origin of much pseudoscience is cloudy, but with subliminal messaging, there are two primary sources for this belief, both known and both relatively contemporary.

The first culprit was market researcher James Vicary, who in 1957 claimed to have set up a modified movie projector and inserted into films furtive messages that appeared on the screen so briefly that they could not be seen or consciously registered by the mind. Flashing for just three-thousandths of a second were exhortations to drink Coke and eat popcorn. As a control, he did this for only some of the viewings, and he reported that when the messages were flashed, popcorn sales shot up 58 percent and Coke sales increased 18 percent.

Especially with the buttered snack, these numbers represented a significant uptick and could qualify as one of the first steps in the Scientific Method, observation. This caught the notice of Harcourt Assessment, a company that distributed educational and psychological tools and resources. The company asked Vicary if he would work with it and see if the experiment could be repeated under controlled conditions. He agreed, but none of the subsequent research showed any increase in sales based on the insertion of extremely fleeting stealth advertisements. About five years after his alleged one-person experiment, Vicary conceded he had made it up in an attempt to draw customers to his marketing firm.

This left a vacuum in the one-person field of subliminal messaging proponents, so in stepped Wilson Key. He authored Subliminal Seduction in 1974 and followed with two sequels. The gist of his work is that advertisers and other entities insert secret messages into media in order to subconsciously impact viewers’ actions and spending habits. Despite his belief in the potency of these techniques, Key is apparently not using them himself. Subliminal Seduction ranks 322,215th on Amazon.

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Timothy Moore, acting on behalf of Skeptical Inquirer, read the book so you and I don’t have to. In his review, he wrote, “Key offers no scientific evidence to support the existence of subliminal images, nor does he provide any empirical documentation of their imputed effects.” Instead, Moore continued, Key is content to “cloak his claims in scientific jargon” in order to make them seem valid.

He fooled enough people that the FCC once issued an order decreeing that subliminal ads are “contrary to the public interest.” He also participated in subliminal messaging’s most prominent moment, the Judas Priest civil trial in 1990.

Key served as a pretrial witness for the plaintiff parents who asserted a secret message inserted in the Stained Class album encouraged listeners to commit suicide, a message that two teens, per the lawsuit, obeyed.

Beyond the bizarre business strategy of killing your customers, there was the issue of the supposed suicidal suggestion, “Do it.” This seems ridiculously vague. Even if “Do it” had been inserted, and then registered subconsciously by listeners, exactly what are they supposed to be doing? Eating popcorn and drinking Coke? Buying the next Judas Priest album? Playing ding dong ditch? There are a million actions listeners could undertake and be “doing it,” so it wouldn’t be limited to suicide. For that to be the case, the supposed message would need to be something like, “End it all,” “Embrace death,” or, consistent with the 1980s heavy metal panic, “Satan is calling you home.”

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Regarding his methodology, Key told the court, “Science is pretty much what you can get away with…and you can get away with a great deal.” I suppose points for honesty can be given here, but this admission speaks many non-subliminal volumes about the legitimacy of the technique.

One example of both Key’s pseudoscientific language and his fabrications is the claim that the unconscious mind picks up subliminal messages at light speed. Warp speed seems cool and it’s scientific, so Key piggybacks on this and tries to make subliminal messaging seem believable. But there is no reason to think that the messages, which are not light, would travel at warp speed. And according to neurological researcher Terence Hines, the fastest brain process travels at just 40 miles per hour.

While the Judas Priest trial was an exception, most supposed spoken subliminal messages are said to be for the consumers’ benefit. Whereas subliminal messages in the visual realm were allegedly used for unethical purposes, in the auditory arena, they were said to be for assisting in weight loss, enlarging breasts, increasing libido, tobacco cessation, and even ending constipation.

While the purpose is nobler, the evidence behind it is equally scant. The mechanism for how auditory subliminal messaging would work is even more problematic than how it would with visual cues. With video, it is possible to insert words for such a brief time that they are not registered by the eye or brain. That was done in the Harcourt Assessment testing. What was never observed was evidence that the subconscious picked it up and caused the viewer to act.

Do it. Do read my blog daily.

But the auditory realm seems an even more unlikely avenue for this technique to work. Slowed down enough, a visual message would be perceived. But subliminal audio tapes feature messages below the human ear threshold with soothing music or nature sounds played over them. Moreover, the subliminal message is often accelerated or compressed so that even when its volume is increased enough to be heard, the message remains unintelligible.  

Finally, even if the message could somehow be perceived by the subconscious, there is no reason to believe this would lead to motivation. Most persons who pick up a subliminal message tape do so out of laziness, in hopes their problem will be fixed without effort. They want their issue alleviated by laying down and listening to pleasant sounds, not  by any effort on their part to reduce the number of cigarettes or doughnuts consumed.


“Disserves the label” (Food company claims)


My usual grocery store has been disappointing me lately. First it stopped carrying Old Spice. I am old enough that my aftershave’s scent should reflect my creeping geriatric status. Then they dispensed with Jewish rye bread. There are a few items where I insist that quality top budgetary concerns and this was among those few. The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread analogy doesn’t work very well here, so I’ll just say I found the Jewish rye right proper. Then the grocery store committed its greatest sin of omission by no longer carrying Peter Pan peanut butter. With the brand’s texture, smoothness, and faint saltiness, I will always be dissatisfied with any other option.

But I needed some PB for the week, so with resignation and despondency, I grabbed some Jif. When I got home, I noticed the jar had one of those annoying non-GMO labels. Toward the end of the ingredient list were soybeans, which is one of nine foods that may be sold in the U.S. after genetic modification. So it’s possible that Jif’s parent company, J.M. Smucker, made a conscious decision to bypass genetically modified soybeans for traditional ones. More likely, however, is that Jif’s ingredients have been the same for the past 30 years and the company chose to add the label to take advantage of consumers’ unjustified fears.

There are other labels on jars, cans, and wrappers that likewise are factually correct, but may be disingenuous, misleading, or instilling unnecessary worry. For instance, you may see ones proclaiming, “No added hormones.” This is relevant on beef, but no chicken or pork can be sold if the animal received hormones, so such labels are redundant and playing on consumers’ naiveté.

Whereas the previous label occasionally has legitimate uses, an “antibiotic-free” proclamation on meat is always superfluous. While farmers may give their livestock antibiotics, a legally-mandated withdrawal period ensures the animals have no antibiotic residue at the time of slaughter.

The most ubiquitous, ostentatiously trumpeted label is “organic.” This designation means more than “overpriced.” Many organic consumers think the label means pesticide-free, but it really means the pesticides may not be synthetic. Even then, there are dozens of exceptions.

Most importantly, whether the pesticide is natural or manmade has no bearing on its safety, toxicity, or effectiveness. And whether they are organic or synthetic, added pesticides constitute little of what we end up consuming. According to farmer and agriculture blogger Michelle Miller, more than 99 percent of the pesticides on our foods occur naturally within the plant. 

Going back to animals, be wary of the “cage-free” label. This is legitimate if applied to eggs, but some unscrupulous food companies decided to slap this label on their poultry meat, piggybacking on the popularity of the description on egg cartons. But again, we are dealing with a redundancy because chickens raised for meat are not caged. They may, however, be confined to a warehouse in crowded, unsafe, unsanitary conditions, so being cage-free is not necessarily synonymous with animal welfare.

Staying in the meat section, we now examine “rBST-free” claims. Bovine somatotropin is a hormone cows produce naturally, while recombinant bovine somatotropin is a synthetic version of this. When given to cows, rBST gives them a little more of a hormone they already have and helps them produce more milk. Milk from a cow that has been treated with rBST has no nutritional difference from milk that comes from a cow not treated. As to the effect on the animals, a 2014 meta-analysis published by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association showed no significant increase in mastitis or other harms.  

“Gluten-free,” as we’ve covered on this blog before, is a pointless distinction for anyone who doesn’t have celiac or a similar condition. Except for those in these categories, going gluten-free is to follow a meaningless dietary fad, and foods so labeled are no more healthy or nutritious than the gluten-filled options. In recent years, the gluten-free label has been added to many foods that have always had this distinction, only now it is supposed to mean something.

Although ethically dubious, the previous examples are all at least true. That is not the case when one sees a “chemical free” label. All matter contains chemicals, indeed that’s what chemistry is, the study of matter. Those who use the label hope those reading it will associate the word “chemical” with Chernobyl, World War I mustard gas, and train wreck spillage.

I try to avoid supporting companies that use the labels we’ve examined. The labels not only prey on unnecessary fears, they carry an implied smearing of hardworking farmers and food scientists. I just hope I never face the dilemma of having to decide what to do if I see a non-GMO label on Peter Pan.

“Shredding wheat” (Gluten hysteria)


In the mid-1940s, Dutch pediatrician Willem-Karl Dicke examined children who were suffering from diarrhea, anemia, poor appetite, abdominal pain, bloating, and stunted growth. That, plus having to deal with occupying Nazis. Rough childhood.

A couple of years later, the Netherlands experienced a shortage of bread and other foods. Consequently, most people in the country were in declining health, but the sick children Dicke had observed began to thrive. He eventually became the first person to diagnose celiac, a disease that causes an intense autoimmune reaction in the intestine, and which is traced to gluten.

So the children who had celiac, which was unknown to exist until Dicke discovered it, became pain-free and started doing better when gluten by happenstance was removed from their diet. But the idea that everyone needs to do the same is an extreme overreach. Alas, the alternative medicine and pseudoscience communities seldom fail to take advantage of extreme overreach opportunities.

The most prominent promoter of this hysteria is cardiologist William Davis, who wrote Wheat Belly. In it, Davis described wheat as a modern poison and a “Franken-grain.” However, wheat today is nearly identical to what it was when the last sabre-toothed cat was roaming about doing frightening feline stuff.

Davis commits garden variety correlation-causation errors, such as writing that 200 million Americans eat wheat daily, then noting that 100 million of them experience some type of adverse health effect. Another correlation-causation error is at the center of his thinking. Celiac sufferers are unable to tolerate gluten, but Davis flips this to assert that gluten causes celiac. If this were true, there would be far more celiac sufferers than the 3 million now in the U.S.

He also regularly embraces pseudoscience in the form of exaggerated claims such as this doozy: “Wheat has killed more people than all wars combined.” These folks must be suffering a long, painful death because in the last century, the average lifespan has more than doubled. Another exaggerated claim is that a non-celiac person can experience 24 hours of diarrhea if they eat a piece of cake. It would take your best birthday present ever to make up for that.

While Davis conducted no research, his book contains pages of endnotes that reference studies and seem to give Wheat Belly a scientific backing. However, a closer inspection reveals the medical mirage. He misuses the studies, even including ones that contradict each other in the same paragraph if it supports his agenda. Blogger and celiac sufferer Peter Bronski details examples of this.

Davis also cherry picks, such as when he fishes for studies that will support his conclusion that wheat is addictive. He asserts that if someone has a pretzel, their brain and body will demand more and more, then revolt if their need for knotted dough goes unmet. But the study he cites to support this was done on the brains of dead rats. There are no human studies suggesting the existence of wheat addiction.

Davis said his health improved after he forsook gluten and his book is full of such anecdotes. He writes of a patient who said he felt better after giving up grain and reports that is one of 2,000 such cases. But this many anecdotes does not equal one piece of data.

Maybe patients did report getting better, but they may have undertaken other lifestyle changes as well. Perhaps some had a pain that was at its greatest when gluten was exorcised, then the hurt coincidentally went away as happens with fluctuating conditions. Perhaps an equal number of patients reported no change or a worsening, but bias caused Davis to dismiss or forget these. This is why when it comes to determining evidence, we rely on double blind studies, clinical trials, and peer review, rather than anecdotes, sweeping generalizations, and trying to boost book sales.

Davis blames celiac for autism, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, heart disease, obesity, schizophrenia, epilepsy, and fibromyalgia. Many of these are common and even includes the number one killer, heart disease. Everyone is going to know someone who died from these conditions and by tying it to gluten, Davis can convince more people to commence with a French toast and linguini hiatus. But the only persons who need to give up gluten are those with celiac and possibly a few other conditions. For instance, going gluten-free may help with irritable bowel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, type one diabetes, and psoriasis.

In grand pseudoscientific tradition, Davis offers a flattering self-portrayal of a man fighting against a malevolent trio of Dr. Frankensteins, Big Ag, and complicit government agents. “I’m waging a war against misinformation in health,” he boasts.

Those who follow his advice and go anti-gluten may experience harm beyond the loss of fiber, B vitamins, and minerals. Persons who have a condition they wrongly suspect is caused by gluten will think giving up crackers and Cheerios will fix it while the real problem goes unchecked.

Those with authentic adverse reactions to gluten have mixed feelings about the hysteria. On the plus side, there are many more food options than before. Imagine trying to find a gluten-free cake mix in 1987. On the other hand, they also experience an increasing number of rolled eyes and condescending remarks from those who think they are following a misguided fad when they, for years, have been doing it out of necessity.

It’s possible that gluten may be causing conditions we don’t yet know about. And it’s possible some persons may be having a negative reaction to another wheat component. Certainly, there are some who say these situations describes their situation, though there’s no evidence for it now. There are no gluten sensitivity tests and these claims are limited to anecdotes and self-reporting. But even if this is eventually proven, that’s no reason for all of us to cut out gluten any more than we should eliminate dairy on the chance there might be undiscovered negative reaction to milk not caused by lactose. And persons certainly shouldn’t self-diagnose these conditions unless they are a gastroenterologist. 

“Rash register” (Sex offender hysteria)



I’ve always been intrigued by common misconceptions. Even 200 years after Frankenstein was published, many persons still envision the titular character as a monster instead of its creator. Probably even more common is the belief that the Catholic Church considers the Immaculate Conception to be Jesus being born to a virgin when it instead means the Church considers Mary to have been immune from Original Sin.

These misconceptions are innocuous, but there is another one that causes harm. This is the presumption that sex offenders are the most incessant and insatiable criminals. It is regularly stated that the recidivism rate of these offenders is the highest of all crimes. Politicians parrot it and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy put the number at “80 percent” when writing his majority opinion that allowed an exception to the Constitution’s ex post facto clause. Rep. Mark Foley one-upped the justice by claiming 90 percent commit the crime again. 90 percent sounds whopping, but is instead a whopper.

The truth is much different. So different that sex offenders have the second lowest recidivism rate, after murderers. This is one of those topics that’s hard to articulate because “sex offender” is the nails-on-chalkboard crime, where the mere mention of the deed gets people riled and vengeful.  

These emotions and false numbers have been used to justify a number of Constitutionally-dubious restrictions and punishments. This has included compelling admission of crimes that would seem violate the Fifth Amendment, retroactive registration that violate ex post facto protections, and post-sentence civil commitments that seem inconsistent with the Bill of Rights.

While I keep my civil liberties credentials polished, my aim here is not do quibble over the Constitutional rights of rapists. It is to point out that the numbers which are used to justify these restrictions are wrong and that in the process, harmless persons are ensnared.

Kennedy’s number came not from FBI statistics, but from a 1986 Psychology Today article he had read. The prison counselor who offered 80 percent gave no supporting documentation, and this number is far different from available statistics. Yet it is being used to justify draconian laws and is continuing to mislead the public three decades later. Kennedy’s erroneous description of a “frightening and high” recidivism rate had been quoted in 91 judicial opinions.

However, “Sex offenders are among the least likely criminals to recidivate,” wrote psychologist Timothy Fortney in the journal Sexual Offender Treatment. The numbers support Fortney’s assessment.

Reason cited a 2003 Justice Department study of 9,700 sex offenders, which found that just five percent were arrested for new sex crimes within three years of release. Two meta-analyses of studies involving 29,000 sex offenders found a recidivism rate of 14 percent after four to six years, and the numbers were 24 percent after 15 years.

This is less than other crimes, yet an assumption of recidivism is what drives mandatory minimum sentences, indefinite civil confinement, lifelong registration, residence and presence restrictions, employment bans, and passport and driver licenses that conspicuously declare the holder to be a monster.

When wrenching emotions are involved, laws are hastily passed without the usual hearings, expert testimony, or gathering of relevant information. Len Bias’ death prompted an emergency meeting of House members, after which Democrat William Hughes called for a mandatory five-year prison sentence for possessing 20 grams of crack with intent to distribute. This was an arbitrary number with no reason to think this amount of crack or resultant prison time was appropriate. Republicans countered with five grams because it was less than 20. There was no logic to any of this, it was just a moral panic played out in halls of Congress.

Speaking of which, laws named after people are usually a giveaway that they were passed in a haphazard manner without thought of consequence. Megan’s Law, for instance, created a publicly-accessible registry of those deemed sex offenders.

This created false feelings of safety and of having done something constructive. But about 90 percent of persons arrested for sex crimes are first-time offenders who would not be on any registries. Also missing will be any serial child molesters who have yet to be caught. And more than 90 percent of such crimes are committed not by strangers, but by family members and friends.

Moreover, registries sometimes serve as a vigilante’s MapQuest. Michael Mullen used a registry to find and kill two men, while Lawrence Trant failed in his attempt to do the same. William Elliot and Joseph Gray were murdered by Stephen Marshall, who was hunting his next victim when he was cornered by law enforcement officers and committed suicide.

Gray had raped a child, while Elliott at 19 had sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend. Had this encounter taken place three weeks later, it would have been legal, yet Elliott and Gray ended up on the same list. Indeed, besides false recidivism assumptions, the other major flaw in this hysteria is that the registries leave the mild and meek indistinguishable from the depraved and dangerous.

In Illinois, a 14-year-old girl stepped in front of motorist Fitzroy Barnaby. After stopping, Barnaby stepped out of his vehicle and lectured her about safety. Because he grabbed her arm while doing so, Barnaby was convicted of attempted kidnapping of a minor and is on a sex offender registery for life.

A similar permanent punishment forced a Georgia nursing home resident to move, then do so again when bus stops were added to verboten locations. She had been convicted of performing fellatio on a 15-year-old boy when she was 17.

Also on the Registry of the Reviled is 16-year-old Matthew Bandy, who was convicted of providing harmful material to a minors for showing Playboy issue to fellow high schoolers.  Bandy told Fox News, “I have to stay away from children. I cannot be around any area where there might be minors, including the mall, or the movies, or restaurants. To go to church I have to have written consent from our priest I have to sit in a pew without children.”

We know Bandy’s name because anything deemed a sex crime is an exception to laws that seal juvenile records. About one-fourth were under 14 when they did whatever they did that got them on the list, and at least one was only 10.

In 39 states, it matters not whether the crime was a pedophile digitally penetrating a 3-year-old or two teenagers having consensual relations. Just 11 of those states have Romeo & Juliet exceptions that negate registration requirements if the age difference is less than four years. Until about 25 years ago, some states had gender-specific statutory rape laws. In one beyond-absurd case, a 16-year-old California boy was convicted and spent three years on probation for having sex with his 17-year-old girlfriend. If he lives somewhere that, thanks to the Kennedy-authored ruling mandates retroactive registration, his movement is restricted for life.

According to Human Rights Watch, at least five states require registration for adult prostitution and 13 mandate registration for taking a piss outside. In Texas, sex with your first cousin or adopted sibling will get you on the same type of list that features Jerry Sandusky.

These registries are similar to the public stocks in Colonial America except it never ends and the results can be deadly. Even if not fatal, being on the list means employment, residence, and movement restrictions. The length from prohibited locations is measured as the crow flies, so even if the 1,000-foot journey includes an impassible river or highway divider with no pedestrian path, the restriction remains firm. In some cities, the restrictions are so encompassing they leave literally no place for someone on the registry to live or be. And even when the criminal has committed a genuinely bad act, these punishments hinder them from turning around their lives.

Beyond that, a person’s threat level is the same whether they reside 950 from a school or 1,050. A related shortcoming is that persons seldom commit crimes in their home. These laws are as ineffective as would be one that prevented Charles Keating from living within 1,000 feet of a Savings & Loan.

“All I got was this lousy T-shirt story” (Windshield urban legend)


Traditionally, urban legends came from an unknown source and were passed from one credulous listener to the next. Whether it was the $50 Porsche sold by a spurned spouse or a little girl embedded in the grill of a drunk driver who was unaware of his deceased passenger, there was never a name, place, or time associated with the stories, nor were such details requested.  

But today a legend may have a known starting point and might be followed with requests for proof. Conversely, it can be heard by millions of listeners within hours instead of years.

All this came together last week when a teenage Facebook poster wrote about finding a wadded-up shirt wrapped around her wiper and pinned to her car’s windshield. Ashley Hardacre found this out of place fashion piece after finishing work at Genesee Valley Mall in Flint, Mich. She promptly drove away, then warned others.

“There were two cars near me and one was running so I immediately felt uneasy and knew I couldn’t get out to get it off,” she wrote. “I knew better than to remove the shirt with cars around me so I drove over to a place where I was safe and got the shirt off.”

It would be hard to imagine a more mundane occurrence than a nearby running car in a mall parking lot. Yet, combined with the anomalous shirt, stories she had heard, and a heightened sense of either awareness or paranoia, the vehicle became part of a criminal plot with her at the center. 

Hence, the city most known for its wretched water supply was thrust back into the spotlight, with Hardacre’s post being shared nearly 100,000 times. She told CBS News her mother had warned her about criminal ploys to lure women out of their cars. “A lot of people think it is fake or it won’t happen to them,” she said. “But you can never be too safe.”

Never being too safe is a mindset that has resulted in products that protect cell phone users from brain cancer even though cell phone emissions are easily in the safe part of the EMF spectrum. It has also resulted in criminal charges for parents who let their children play in the park.

Several commenters joined Hardacre in her overreaction. A typical response was by John F, who posted, “This is a common practice for criminals who are either looking to carjack someone and unfortunately there are plenty of these type stories in bigger cities and young woman HAVE been abducted, raped and/or murdered using this type of situation.”

More often than not, police contribute to the panic, but in this case, Flint Township detective Brad Wangler downplayed the danger. “Nothing like this has ever happened before,” he said. “There have been no other incidences like this. It’s unknown as to what or why or who did this.”

Still, from now on, when Hardacre goes to her car after working until close, she will do so accompanied by mall security or police. There’s nothing wrong with added protection, but a shirt on a windshield is not a sound impetus for this beefed-up security. The overwhelming majority of assaults, rapes, and abductions are managed without enlisting the aid of a flannel fashion piece that is competing with a flyer for windshield space.

Some media sources conflated Hardacre’s story with a report from a verified sex trafficking victim. Snopes wrote that these reports made no effort to differentiate the gang rape victim’s account from the unrelated windshield caper. Some of the more irresponsible even quoted law enforcement officers who described the wrapped shirt as standard part of human trafficking.

Far from being normal procedure for conspiratorial kidnappers, the shirt turned out to be a prank, though clearly a very lame one. Not exactly on par with getting opposing fans to use placards to unknowingly announce, “WE SUCK.” Police interviewed the two men who placed the shirt and the derelict duo said they were shocked some persons found human trafficking overtones in it. Also, surveillance video shows they left an hour before Hardacre found the shirt, meaning they were not in the running car that had increased her panic.

Another difference between urban legends or yore and today is that sometimes, such as in this case, they can come to a neat, tidy close. I just wish the running automobile had been a clown car.

“Super Bull” (Human trafficking)


After scoring three points in 43 minutes, the New England Patriots exploded for 31 points in half that time and won another Super Bowl. They refused to die, a distinction they share with Super Bowl urban legends. First, it was the notion that the unofficial national holiday was also the busiest day of the year for domestic violence. Washington Post reporter Ken Ringle shot that rumor down, but now the game is falsely associated with human trafficking.

Like the myths surrounding missing children, these are topics in which persuading people can be difficult. Missing children, battered spouses, and human trafficking are some of our most serious issues and writers must choose their words carefully or risk being seen as insensitive and alienating their audience. So to be clear, human trafficking is an abomination of utmost concern – but there is a supposed tangential element of it that is being misrepresented.

The main perpetrators of the myth are politicians, sometimes aided by irresponsible reporters and law enforcement agents.

Elected and appointed leaders in host cities and states seem in their own competition for who can make the most hyperbolic statement. U.S. Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey proclaimed, “One Super Bowl after another after another has shown itself to be one of the largest events in the world where the cruelty of human trafficking goes on for several weeks.”

When he was Texas Attorney General, Greg Abbott called the game, “the largest human trafficking incident in the United States.” Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels used the issue as a literal political football when he encouraged legislators to up the fines and prison terms for convicted traffickers and stipulated, “We must do it in time for the Super Bowl.”

NGOs get in on the antsy act as well. International Justice Mission members loudly declared they would rescue trafficked women at Super Bowl XLV, then quietly hoped everyone would forget about this pronouncement when they found no such victims.

The rumor has been around for at least a decade, but a 2011 report by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women showed no evidence of any host city experiencing a spike in this activity as the Super Bowl approached.

The report is six years old, but the claims made then still hold. Examinations of arrest data in Super Bowl cities have revealed no increase in arrests for kidnapping, forced prostitution, pimping, or other charges that would be associated with human trafficking.

Most recently, Reason examined the arrest records for Harris County, Texas, during last week’s Super Bowl. The logs showed no arrests for sex trafficking, soliciting a minor, pimping, promoting prostitution, compelling prostitution, or any other charges that would suggest human traffickers were competing with football fans for hotel rooms.

Faced with this, some myth proponents consider the lack of arrests as proof that publicity about crackdowns is working. But this is similar to the tale of a man who banged a drum to keep giraffes out of the city square and cited the lack of tall ungulates as proof his plan was succeeding.

Evidence of a correlation between a city hosting both the Super Bowl and an influx of human traffickers just isn’t there. Even the one time that there seemed to be, it was the result of selective evidence and correlation-causation errors.

New Jersey authorities increased their focus on human traffickers prior to Super Bowl XLVIII, and ended up rescuing 16 children – clearly a desirable result. But this operation had taken place in areas up to 30 miles from the Meadowlands and went on for MONTHS, with the announcement strategically made during game week. This was disingenuous and it only proved that an increase in arrests for any offense in any jurisdiction will happen if that’s what authorities prioritize. If Des Moines police focus on litter reduction and funnel resources into that, there will be an uptick in citations for carelessly tossing aside Big Mac wrappers.



“Devil may scare” (Satanic Panic)


There is Sasquatch, Yeti, Nessie, and dozens of less-celebrated cryptos. But the most enduring monster whose existence has yet to be verified is Beelzebub, the devil, Lucifer, Apollyon, Satan, the Dark Lord. This many-monikered beast, unlike the rest of the monsters, is indirectly responsible for much misery.   

Now, for being the embodiment of evil, the cloven-hoofed one has never harmed anybody himself. But there have been some who committed atrocities in his name, such as Richard Ramirez who went on a spree of break-ins, rapes, and murders with an inverted pentagram tattooed on his palm. There were a few others who did similar deeds, but the most frequent Satanic byproduct are baseless accusations made against someone.

Those took place in 17th Century Salem and continue today with Pizzagate. I saw one online poster who claimed that 800,000 children are snatched each year by Satanists. She was basing the figure on information provided by the National Center for Missing and Exploited children. But she was basing the reason for their disappearance on negative evidence, wild speculation, and filling in the sizable gaps with her agenda. While about 2,000 children a day are reported missing, this figure includes children who show up 45 minutes later to announce they had taken the scenic route home from school. It includes those who got hurt while hiking and are rescued four days later. It includes runaways, children who are abandoned by their parents, and those who are kidnapped by noncustodial mothers or fathers. Just 1.4 percent of missing children are taken by strangers, and most of these kidnappers worship another deity besides Satan or no deity at all.

So even if five percent of the kidnappers were Satanists, this means that six children are year are taken by devil worshippers, not 800,000. The poster had made the preposterous claim to bolster the case for her belief in Pizzagate – a tale twisted and bizarre even by the ridiculous standards of conspiracy theorists. This theory has expanded to potentially include any pizza joint, any business adjacent to a pizza joint, and anyone who even once patronizes these establishments. All this is said to be part of a nationwide kidnapping and child rape ring, led by Lucifer his Satanic sidekicks, Hillary Clinton and John Podesta.

This is a new twist on an ancient idea. The devil figured prominently in Paradise Lost. New Testament writers blamed him for sending a herd of pigs over a cliff and for causing people to fling themselves into a fire. He even appears to win an argument with the archangel Michael over an unspecified issue regarding Moses’ corpse in Jude –  perhaps the most unhinged, bizarre, paranoid, threatening, rambling, and doomsday-desiring book in the Bible. And though it was likely due to a translation error, Satan makes one cameo in the Old Testament when God permits him to destroy Job. The horned one even takes the blame for future carnage and calamity, in Revelation.

But our focus will be relatively modern. Anton LaVey penned the Satanic Bible in the 1960s and become a cult celebrity. He played the devil in Rosemary’s Baby in the 1970s, a decade that also gave us The Exorcist, The Omen, and cattle mutilations that some pegged on Satanists.

In 1972, Mike Warnke wrote a book in which he claimed to have previously been a Satanic high priest, a position from which he witnessed mandatory blood sacrifices, ritual rape, and child abuse. A few years later, Michelle Smith wrote Michelle Remembers, in which she insisted the she recalled seeing children kept in cages, adults having fingers sliced off, and even baby sacrifices. Neither Warnke nor Smith could provide any names and were unable to lead police to any perpetrators, victims, or corpses. This set the tone for what was to come: Over-the-top claims followed by panic and sometimes false convictions, but never a capture of any felonious Satanists.  

Onto the 1980s, lowlighted by Geraldo specials and the almost-requisite inclusion of the adjective “Satanic” before the phrase “heavy metal band.” This, even though for every genuinely Satanic band like Deicide, there were 100 Judas Priests, for whom 666 was just another number. And for all the panic about devil worshippers, the damage was actually being done by child-molesting Catholic priests and Christian televangelists caught in a series of scandals.

A few wayward derelicts may have dabbled in the dark arts and performed a few silly rituals, but most were doing it for the thrill of being iconoclastic outcasts, not because they were truly evil. For instance, when I was 20, I saw a truck that had been spray painted with the slogan, “Kill For Satin.” It had been thrown on there by a hoodlum who was either linguistically-challenged or who was showing unusual fealty to smooth fabric.  

To be clear, there were about half a dozen murders attributed to demons’ minions in the 70s and 80s, but this was uncovered by means of traditional law enforcement and confessions, not from the revelations of someone privy to the inner workings of Satanic cults or from daytime talk show investigations.

On Saturday Night Live, Jon Lovitz portrayed a devil who made failed attempts at wickedness, while the Church Lady chastised her guests for being under Satan’s spell. Indeed, much of this had a comic edge to it, but there was a much darker side that featured many ruined lives. Not ruined by Satanic cult members, who killed very few, and who certainly represented a microscopic percentage of the homicidal maniacs. Rather, innocent lives were ruined by the collective hysteria of parents, press, and prosecutors. The result was the loss of freedom for innocent persons accused of kidnapping, torture, sexual abuse and murder.

This Satanic Panic was an example of a moral panic, which Blake Smith of Skeptoid defines as “a cultural event wherein people become hypervigilant to a threat to the status quo and tend to throw reason and rationality out in favor of seeking protection from the perceived threat at all costs.”

A recent moral panic example would be last year’s glut of clown sightings. Past examples include the 1920s Red Scare, which was a virtual Commie lovefest compared to the House Un-American Activities Committee and Joseph McCarthy hearings 30 years later.

With regard to the Satanic Panic, it promoted the notion that organized cults of Luciferians were clandestinely controlling childcare facilities and using their positions to molest, murder, dismember, and torment. 

The most infamous case was the McMartin Daycare trial. Judy Johnson’s 2-year-old son had a reddened rectum and trouble using the toilet, two facts which convinced her he was being molested at the daycare center. Other parents were asked to look for evidence this was happening to their children as well.

Toddlers barely old enough to talk were coached into giving the “correct” answer and, eager to please adults, did so. The paranoia was so extreme that Johnson even claimed her son had reported seeing daycare members fly about the room and many persons believed this. There were reports of secret tunnels and rail tracks beneath the daycare center that would transport the children to other buildings to be tortured and molested. Hot air balloons were offered as another means of transportation, though this would seemingly be superfluous for someone who could fly. Despite the ease with which such ideas as hot air balloon rental and subterranean transportation could be checked out, this wasn’t about logic or facts, it was about fear and revenge.

None of the McMartin defendants were convicted and some were never even formally charged, but some still spent years in jail, unable to pay the seven-figure bail amounts that were also part of the panic. It was at the time the longest, most expensive trial in U.S. history and it was all based on such notions as flying Satanic daycare workers.

This injustice was not enough to slow the paranoia. Dan and Fran Keller spent 20 years in prison after being convicted of molesting children at their daycare center in Oak Hill, Texas. Transportation again figured prominently in the case, with the victims allegedly flown out of the country to be molested in a Satanic orgy perpetrated by Mexican soldiers before being shuttled back in time to be picked up by their parents. Other claims were babies used as shark food and children being forced to watch the sacrificial slaughter of kittens and puppies. The Kellers were released when the doctor who had provided the only physical evidence at their trial recanted.

In both daycare cases, children ages 2 to 5 were asked leading questions and praised when they gave the desired response. They were even allowed to mix with each other in between giving testimonies and were encouraged to collaborate and come to shared conclusions.

A bizarre false confession led to another conviction, this time of Paul Igraham, whose daughter accused him of sexual abuse. Imgram was a committed Pentecostal who had no memory of the alleged attacks, but surmised that a demon must have seized control of him.

So when his daughter claimed to have been in ceremonies in which 25 babies were sacrificed and in which she was raped 800 times, he figured it must be true and that the devil made him do it. There was no physical evidence or other witnesses despite these horrors being allegedly being perpetrated by a large cult over many years. No matter in the era of the Satanic Panic, and Ingraham spent two decades in prison.

While these devilish tales took place in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, Pizzagate shows that the notion still has life. When it comes to getting people to act irrationally and believe the farfetched, few things can match the fear that the devil inspires. As our spray painting buddy would put it, “Satin rules!”




“Water haphazard” (Fluoridation studies)


In the mid-1940s, some U.S. cities began adding tiny amounts of fluoride to public water supplies in hopes of fighting tooth decay. John Birch types suspected this was a communist plot and some eventually considered it a danger right up there with Buddy Holly and A Catcher in the Rye (although the Society itself only formally objected to the concept of governments making unilateral health decisions for the populace).

These days, Nazis have replaced Commies as the oppressive regime most associated with fluoridated water. There are some baseless online assertions that it was used in death camps to make the captives either compliant or stupid. Politifact interviewed U.S. Holocaust Museum historian Patricia Heberer, who insisted that none of the Nazi’s infamous medical experiments involved fluoride. Even if they had, it would be fallacious thinking to declare, “Nazis were evil. Nazis used fluoridated water. Therefore fluoridated water is evil.” The specific fallacy here is one of composition, where it is asserted that something that is true as a whole is true of any part of it.   

About 75 percent of U.S. homes today receive fluoridated water. I’m unsure what Minnesota’s policy was in the late 1990s, but fluoridated water there had a powerful opponent at the time, Gov. Jesse Ventura. In an interview with Salon, Ventura gave the  obligatory Third Reich reference, followed by a more reasoned stance about health care decisions being left to the parents, before getting to his primary point. “Fluoride is the main component of Prozac! What you’ve got is people drinking Prozac-water! Prozac calms you and dumbs you down so you’re less emotional.” With a rant like that, we can be sure Ventura hadn’t had any Prozac water beforehand. But equating one ingredient in a substance with the substance itself would be like calling Ventura a glass of water since his body is about two-thirds that.  

When Politifact contacted Ventura about his source for these claims, he provided them a link to prisonplanet.com, an Alex Jones site. Jones calls fluoridated water a chemical weapon meant to depopulate, which if true serves as a shining example of government inefficiency. Since this genocide-by-faucet effort began 70 years ago, the U.S. population has increased 130 percent.

Another fluoride folly from Jones is claiming that studies have shown that fluoridated water brings downs children’s IQ. Joseph Mercola and Mike Adams have also championed this idea, which they based on a press release distributed by Fluoride Action Now. Reuters mistakenly ran the release as a news article, thus spooking more people than if it had just appeared on Natural News or InfoWars. The release claimed that a Harvard review of 42 studies showed that U.S. children exposed to fluoridated drinking water suffered lower IQs. But going beyond the exclamation points and panic over stealthy mind control, we find the review made no such claim. In fact, none of the studies were about U.S. fluoridated water.

Mercola wrote that the studies linked moderate-to-high high fluoride exposure with reduced intelligence. These conclusions were likely correct, but Mercola is playing a word game here and hoping no one notices. He used these studies to bolster his contention that fluoridated water was a danger. Yet the amount of fluoride in most U.S. drinking water is between one-half and one milligram per liter, while the studies Mercola cited were dealing with persons exposed to between 2 to 10 milligrams per liter and who also ingested fluoride from burning coal.  

So while the studies showed that children who lived in areas with high fluoride exposure had lower IQ scores than those who lived in low-exposure areas, scale and context must be considered. With regard to scale, Dr. Steven Novella said: “Most of these studies’ high-fluoride groups used concentrations many times higher than allowable limits in the United States, and many of the low-fluoride groups had concentrations in the range that is optimal by water fluoridation regulations.” This means the negative IQ impact occurred only in areas where fluoride levels were much higher than what the EPA permits.  

As far as context, none of the studies involved populations exposed to artificially-fluoridated drinking water. Instead, all the studies came from parts of China or Iran that have endemic high-fluoride well water, in addition to the burning coal.

Many chemicals are benign at low doses, harmful at medium amounts, and fatal in high concentrations. The same Mercola website that called fluoridated water a danger to children ran an article that referred to kale as “a superfood unparalleled among green leafy vegetables.”

Yet Snopes pointed out that kale contains thiocyanate, which can kill if ingested in sufficient quantities. It would be absurd to suggest that kale could kill, but no more ridiculous than asserting fluoridated water is a public health menace. To the contrary, the CDC lists it as one of the 10 Great Public Health Achievements of the 20th Century. Drink it, brush your teeth with it, wash your kale off with it, you’ll be fine.