Squaring the Skeptic with Celestia Ward (Part 2)

Rob Palmer

The cohosts of Squaring the Strange at work on their podcast.

In part 1 of this article, Celestia and I discussed her background, the origin and format of the Squaring the Strange podcast, as well as her ascendency to her current cohosting position. In part 2, we continue our conversation.

Rob Palmer: Let’s talk about some specific topics of interest to me that you’ve covered on the podcast. What would you like to say about the History Channel and their techniques and journalistic integrity?

Celestia Ward: [Laughter] Their journalistic what? I don’t think they’ve heard of that. And it’s not just our podcast. Every skeptic out there understands that the History Channel is not a channel you watch to learn history … it’s the channel you watch to find out how aliens built the pyramids. I know people who bought into this just by watching documentaries on the History Channel. It makes sense, you know. Ancient astronauts! I actually think this is a good thing because the History Channel is becoming known, not just in skeptical circles but in the wide world, as the place you go to watch stuff like that. There’s a meme with the guy with funny hair from there: “I’m not saying it’s aliens, but it’s aliens.”

With the History Channel, the thing that has really gotten under [Ben Radford’s] skin is the Amelia Earhart debacle—where they publicized a “just unearthed” photograph that they claimed was Amelia Earhart after her crash. They claimed that she was captured by the Japanese [and they made an entire documentary out of this]. But it was just the back of some person, probably a woman who kind of had hair like Amelia Earhart. Within a half hour of the documentary airing, somebody online looked it up and found the photo in a book of photographs with a date showing it was taken three years before Earhart even made her flight.

Palmer: And I remember you guys discussing this in detail on the podcast after the hoax was revealed.

Ward: Yes. After that documentary had aired, and after it was debunked, and only after the History Channel was widely made fun of, they promised to look into it and find out the “real story behind the photograph.” And they said they would be transparent about their findings, but they never made another peep about it. This is what gets Ben. When somebody in a media position promises to look into something and get back with their findings, but what they really mean is, “We’re going to brush this under the rug as if it never happened.” That is what makes Ben shake his fists.

Palmer: For the record, how long has it been that History Channel management has not come forward with what they discovered in their investigation (if they even did one)?

Ward: Ben just recently mentioned this on the podcast. I believe July was the one-year anniversary.

Palmer: I guess it’s just such a difficult thing to dig into that they just can’t manage to figure out what went wrong. I have to tell you that after you guys talked about this on the podcast, the Guerrilla Skeptics team added what you guys talked about—regarding the History Channel making that promise and then never following up—to two Wikipedia articles: the one about the faux documentary and to the History Channel article itself (in the section: “Discredited Amelia Earhart documentary”). As of now, criticism of this “cover-up” remains for all to read on Wikipedia. One other intersection of Wikipedia, the Guerrilla Skeptics (GSoW), and your podcast that comes to mind is the Blue Whale Game. Talk about this “game” please.

Ward: One of the things that happens on the show sometimes is that I make fun of Ben for being so pedantic, and we play off each other that way. But this was one instance where a good dose of pedantry really paid off in a way that helps humanity. Ben locked onto the Blue Whale Game as being an urban legend early on. He did a lot of research and published his findings. He dug into it like the first-class researcher he is and found that all the supposed news reports of children who committed suicide while subscribed to this mysterious game were concocted after the fact by parents who were looking for some sort of reason and found little hints, such as a drawing of a whale in somebody’s bedroom.

The thing is that the whole notion of the Blue Whale Game rests on the premise that this kid, who is the victim, is engaging with a social media game that eventually talks him or her into committing suicide. And yet they’re not finding any records of such things on kids’ computers or phones or anything like that. And a lot of these stories came from places such as Russia or South America where it’s impossible to really verify the details. So those stories wind up being repeated by lazy journalists here who attribute a [local] suicide to what was going on (supposedly) in Russia. They’re not checking; they’re just repeating rumors that they’re hearing. So, rumors turn into news, and news turns into a panic, and you have the Blue Whale Game.

So Ben dissected this on a couple of our episodes and he also gave a talk about it at a folklore conference in Brussels last year. That [this is not real] is incredibly important to know if you’re parents of a child. And panics like that don’t help anybody. They don’t help parents. If somebody’s child is depressed, the parent shouldn’t be ignoring signs of depression or mental illness and then blame [a suicide] on the Blue Whale Game. Or they could be overly worried that there are all these things out there to get their children. That muddles a parent-child relationship in many ways, including posthumously.

Just like Susan Gerbic fights against the grief vampires, I view this as just another dangerous thing that people believe in. These urban legends really befoul the memory of a young person who has tragically committed suicide. This puts unnecessary fear into parents and may distract them from what’s really going on with the kid. Yes, there are real dangers that parents have to worry about, but if every alarm bell goes off because there are all these fake dangers you worry about, this can take away from your effectiveness as a parent.

Palmer: I think this was a great example of synergy in the skeptical movement! Ben researched the Blue Whale Game and published about it. Then you folks discussed it on the podcast. That directly led to the Guerrilla Skeptics (GSoW) team learning about the topic and changing the Wikipedia article about the game from claiming it was a real thing to correctly describing it as an urban legend. And it turns out this article has had almost two million pageviews in the past year, increasing at about five thousand views per day. So that enormous number of people (hopefully including some journalists) now get the actual truth about this important topic instead of reading about, and spreading, a baseless fear.

Ward: That is fantastic. Sometimes you just push over the right domino! And you guys get all the credit for realizing that this was a hot topic and that fixing Wikipedia could benefit a lot of people who use that as their first source of information. So, thank you! Thank you for the activism that you guys do! We’re just getting together and bitching about stuff for an hour every week.

Palmer: Often, parents and even prospective parents find themselves bombarded with child rearing advice, much of it being woo based. Has this started in your case? And if so, how do you deal with it? [As we did this interview, Celestia was just weeks from the arrival of her baby, who has since arrived happy and healthy.]

Ward: Well, my friends know me well enough that no one has approached me to see if I want to sell essential oils. For some reason, a lot of moms decide to stay at home and sell essential oils. And yeah, there are mommy blogs and Facebook groups. And even now [before the birth] I’ve been tagged in a bunch of parenting support groups and stuff like that. What I’ve learned—I can’t really speak to motherhood yet, but I have helped raise stepchildren—but as far as this new beginning that I’m dealing with, yeah, there’s a lot of worry. You worry about choosing the right things, you worry about nutrition, you worry about exercise, you worry about all the things that can go wrong. Genetically, you worry about everything. And that’s when people get vulnerable. Parents who have already worried about ten million things that could harm their children don’t need fake things like the blue whale game. When you’re vulnerable, a bunch of bullshit creeps in. I worry about stuff.

One of the nice bits of advice I got from one of the OBs I’ve been seeing is: “You make the best decision you can with the information you have. And time only moves forward.” What I’ve done to make myself feel less worried is educating myself on the statistics. And I’m not going to be staying up at night worrying if I made the right decision.

Let’s look at the age group. Let’s look at the chances of this. Let’s look at the chances of that, and you use math to decide what the best choice is. I don’t have an altar to math. I don’t pray to math. But math makes me feel a lot better when I’m making a decision, even if I wind up not having the results that I want. I know that I made the correct decision based on statistics, statistics that are based on the best science available. You don’t want to look at Goop and make a decision based on what’s there.

Palmer: But the problem is, of course, that is exactly what many parents do. They look at sites like Goop to get what they think is good information! The Science Moms documentary is about this very subject. I saw the premier at CSICon 2017 and was so impressed that, as part of the GSoW project, I wrote a Wikipedia article for it. Have you seen the film yet? It’s definitely worth a viewing for any mother-to-be.

Ward: I feel bad but I have not yet … but it is on my list. I am a big fan of Kavin Senapathy!

[Science Moms is a 2017 film about mothers who advocate for science-based decision-making regarding parenting—sort of the anti-Goop. Kavin is a science communicator and is featured in the documentary as one of the moms. By the way, the twenty-eight-minute film is available free on YouTube.]

Palmer: How does your skepticism go over with your family and personal friends?

Ward: In fact, right now everyone in my family is a skeptic … but the deal is, my father was a chiropractor. For a brief period of time I got conscripted to help at his office in his practice. I was about ten, but I looked like I was about fifteen. So as a kid, I just kind of observed this stuff, and my job was pretty much washing towels and filing things.

And I saw some of the stuff that went on and passed as “medicine.” There was the one thing he actually did to me as well, where he tested for allergies by laying a patient down on a table and putting a piece of cotton on their belly, and then putting different substances on the cotton. And somebody held a pair of magnets to either side of their neck, a red and a blue magnet, and then he would measure their legs to see which of the substances made one go out of alignment. So, at the age of ten, that “How the hell would this ever work?” thought that’s going through your head now was going through my head! He tried to explain it to me, but I said, “This doesn’t make any sense!” Other conversations we had were similar, so it’s a good thing he wasn’t heavily involved in our bringing-up, because I and my siblings all wound-up pretty skeptical.

Chiropractic woo is something that has always made me roll my eyes. Nonetheless, I can’t have prolonged conversations about chiropractors with some of my friends. They’re personally involved with their chiropractors; they’ve been going to them for years. You can’t give them data that counteracts their experiences without it putting up a huge emotional wall. So, I am not able to discuss it effectively with them. I do want to say that chiropractic is a spectrum. There are guys who do spinal manipulation, and physical therapy, and massage, and what they’re doing is beneficial. And then there’s guys who want to crack newborns’ spines, and prescribe herbs, and put magnets on your neck.

Palmer: How about your online friends?

Ward: That’s a whole different story. I go to caricature conventions, and I go to a lot of online art groups. So, in the whole realm of people who are artists, you get a whole bunch of wacko loons. But you also get a lot of logical thinkers. It seems like all the good artists I know all seem to be skeptical thinkers, whereas the people who think they’re good artists, but really kind of suck, they tend to be the more woo believer type.

So, I have had some online tangles with people I know from the art world, and I try to be very civil. There is one fellow cartoonist who is an absolute believer in chemtrails. It really bothered him; he was very paranoid about feeling like he was being poisoned. I was like, “I could give you some information that might make you feel better.” I tried reasoning with him for a good long while, but then he threw my name and photo on the global chem trails forum where people started to call me a disinformation agent who should be killed. I didn’t wind up getting any actual death threats sent to me, but I saw on Facebook that he had posted this. I found it and said, “What the hell?” and he immediately unfriended and blocked me. Things like that give you a window into how easily some people get this misguided belief. I tried with him and did not succeed.

But in many other Facebook threads I have tried to provide a voice of reason and scientific comfort to people who are really down a wrong path. And I have a lot of fellow artist friends back me up. There’s a core group of three or four of us where if somebody on the caricature network I belong to starts spouting something, it will be one of the three or four of us who will say “but actually …” It feels good to be able to work in tandem with people who can help sway somebody away from a wrong belief, and oftentimes it works out nicely.

Celestia in her Starfleet finest at the annual Creation Entertainment Star Trek convention in Las Vegas.

Palmer: I noticed from your Facebook page that you had gone to the recent Star Trek con where you were doing caricatures, and you were dressed to the hilt in a Starfleet uniform. Very impressive by the way! So, I perceive that there’s an overlap in the skeptic and sci-fi fan community. Is that your perception as well?

Ward: Well, it’s not a one-to-one ratio, but there’s definitely an overlap on that Venn diagram. I’ve not put any degree of study into this, but my hypothesis is that a lot of people who end up as skeptics as adults had an interest in the possibilities of science—what science can do—when they were younger. It started at a really early age by watching Star Wars or Star Trek or some form of sci-fi where science was at a completely different place than it is right now in the real world on Earth. So, for some people that interest grows into a career in science. For others, like me, it got me part of the way there, were I wound-up taking a year and a half of pre-med and then went in a completely different direction. I fully admit I did not have the wherewithal to become a biomedical PhD, or a climate scientist, or a PhD of any sort. But from a layperson’s perspective, I can still enjoy picking apart bad science fiction—as well as bad science journalism. I appreciate the sci-fi that has really good science consulting behind it and manages to teach a few lessons in the process.

I want to again thank Celestia for her time. Visit her website, her caricature blog, and the Squaring the Strange homepage.

Acknowledgements: As with part 1, a special thank you goes to Paula Serrano for suggesting several of the questions I put to Celestia. And thank you again, Celestia, for using your copyediting superpowers to polish this article and make it shine.

Rob Palmer

Rob Palmer has had a diverse career in engineering, having worked as a spacecraft designer, an aerospace project engineer, a computer programmer, and a software systems engineer. Rob became a skeptical activist when he joined the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia team in 2016, and began writing for Skeptical Inquirer in 2018. Rob can be contacted at TheWellKnownSkeptic@gmail.com Like Rob's Facebook page to get notified when his articles are published.