My cold got the better of me yesterday, and I felt miserable for most of the day. Today I’m doing a little better, and after rereading my post from yesterday, I suppose my fuzzy brain was a bit harsher than I meant to be on Ben Radford. I criticized Radford for attempting to debunk a British television documentary allegedly about ancient astronauts without checking the facts since the program was, in fact, not about ancient astronauts. None of the facts I presented was wrong, but my tone was probably a bit sharper than I would have written it today.
For the record, here is a link to the video of the relevant portion of “Strange Islands” from BBC’s South Pacific documentary series which Radford and UFO buff Dave Masko claimed discussed ancient astronauts on Easter Island.
The documentary clearly states that “people” were responsible for carving the statues, or moai, “in the likeness of chiefs or ancestors” less than 1,000 years ago. The program also says that “thousands of people” built the moai by carving them with stone tools.
You can almost see how a UFO believer could twist that line, but the program then blames the (human) Easter Islanders for devastating the ecology of the island by using all the trees to build moai, and it also presents the recent theory that rats were responsible for killing off the trees by eating their nuts. So, as you can see, no extraterrestrials.
That said, I had a very specific purpose for publishing my criticism online. Radford published his piece on Discovery News, the news outlet of a major media company, and his incorrect story was picked up on dozens of websites and several major world newspapers, including at least three in India. None of these other outlets fact-checked the claims either, and a combined audience numbering in the millions of potential readers were misled by a flawed claim.
Radford took me to task for publishing a critique of his piece without the courtesy of first letting him know privately about the errors I found in it, which he said forms the basis of the “proper” criticism as defined by skeptic Ray Hyman in his article “On Criticism,” specifically principle 7, which instructs the critic to assume the best of intentions on the part of the claimant until proved otherwise. I do not think I did anything less. I felt that it was important to get the facts out there quickly to stem misinformation, just as I do when ancient astronaut theorists make false claims. Even though Radford later (silently) corrected his Discovery News article, the derivative articles will be floating around the Net forever, with no indication that anything is amiss.
The question of “proper” criticism of claims is an interesting one, but it takes us into murky ethical territory that I try to stay clear of. In his article on criticism, Hyman was writing with a very specific purpose. He intended to lay the groundwork for a network of mutual support meant to forward “the common cause of explaining the skeptical agenda.” However, I’m not comfortable with restricting my criticism to promoting a fixed agenda. As I see it, facts are facts, and the truth is important even when the “home team” is the one making the mistake. I am also uncomfortable with tipping off subjects to criticisms in a published piece, something leftover, I guess, from my journalistic training. It just seems like collusion to me.
Nevertheless, Hyman’s article contains important points that have much to say about the Discovery News piece, as well as my reaction to it. Hyman wrote:
Radford, who took me to task for violating Hyman’s principle 7, admitted that he did not watch the BBC program he criticized and did not have the time or inclination to “fact-check" other reporters’ work. He based his report exclusively on a dubious article from a conspiracy-minded website, forwarded to him by a Discovery editor. As Hyman wrote in principle 3, on homework, “Do not depend upon a report in the media either for what is being claimed or for facts relevant to the claim. Try to get the specifics of the claim directly from the claimant.”
I don’t want to pick on Ben Radford. He usually does great work, and I love most of what he has written. Out of his hundreds of articles, blog posts, and books, I’ve disagreed with him, I think, three times: the Discovery News piece, his article on psychic predictions, and the antecedents of the Chupacabra. That’s not a particularly lengthy list of disagreements and criticisms.
We all make mistakes after all. I’ve had to make more than one blog post explaining an honest error. It happens. What frightens me more is the way a single mistake, however accidental, can travel around the world and be enshrined in newspaper archives and Google searches for months or years to come thanks to the copy-and-paste culture of the internet. That's why I felt it was important to get the facts out in the hope that fewer readers will believe something that isn't true.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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