On July 31 of this year in Pensacola, Florida, the bodies of Voncile Smith and two of her adult sons were found. They had been murdered, by gunshot, bludgeoning with a hammer, and by the cutting of their throats. Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan quickly declared that the murders had been committed as part of a Wiccan blue moon blood ritual. Morgan claimed that the bodies had been found together in specially arranged ritual positions, and that the method of killing indicated a ritual. Morgan also asserted that the murder had been motivated by the blue moon that took place on July 31, and cited the Wiccan identity of a “person of interest” as reason to believe that the murders were part of a Wiccan ritual.
Quickly, art theorist and right wing activist Dawn Perlmutter declared that the crime was certainly a ritual murder. Perlmutter had not seen the crime scene herself, and has no professional background or education in criminal justice, but has claimed the authority of an expert in ritual murder. The national news media eagerly fed on the sensationalistic idea of a ritual murder, and repeated the claims of murderous Wiccan ritual traditions, but cooler heads noted that there is no actual tradition of ritual violence in Wicca, that blue moon ceremonies are not at all common in Wicca, that the murder almost certainly did not take place on the day of the blue moon, and that there didn’t appear to be anything ritualistic indicated by the crime as it was described by Sheriff Morgan’s office.
Yesterday, the Escambia County Sheriff’s office arrested Donald Hartung, a son of Voncile Smith and half brother of the other two murder victims, in relation to the crime. He will be charged with three counts of premeditated murder. A grand jury indictment of Donald Hartung will be sought within the next few weeks, and prosecutors will seek the death penalty.
It seems that, contrary to rumors in late August, Sheriff Morgan has not yet abandoned his belief that a Wiccan blue moon ritual was somehow responsible for the murders.
At a press conference yesterday, when asked by a reporter about his claims in August that the murders had been a ritual act of witchcraft, Morgan replied, “There were actually three prevailing theories that we were looking at, Amber, that you do in the getting together, and hopefully that will assist to the conclusion of the case. We were looking at, you know, was the DHS angle a part of, you know, a motive for this? Was the fact that Mr. Hartung was engaged in that, you know, the reason that I say that, there were some statements that he made, and there was some evidence that was found at his home that clearly indicated that tie in. That will come out, and I won’t speak to that issue… and lastly, a motive for possible financial gain. Those were the three prevailing ones that we had, and so is that still in play? Yes, it is.”
Bill Eddins, Florida State Attorney for the First Judicial Court, appears less enthusiastic about the ritual murder theory than Sheriff Morgan. When a reporter asked Eddins about investigations in to the motive for the murder, he replied, “We will review all aspects of the case as we move forward to ensure that the motive, the proper motive is addressed. There are some indications of what the motive is. Those will become clear as initial paperwork is made public. I really would not go into those at this time, but as the Sheriff said, there are two or three possibilities, and all of those will be explored and narrowed down when the case is presented in court.”
When Eddins was asked, “Are you claiming that his religion or anything like that had anything to do with?” the State Attorney replied simply, “We can’t go into that at this time.”
Once again, journalists are eagerly repeating the claim that Voncile Smith, Richard Smith and John Smith were the victims of a Wiccan murder ritual. A report by WFLA TV asserts cites the following evidence: Donald Hartung was said to own a book about Wicca, and has been described by family members as being “loosely” involved in witchcraft. Also, WFLA says, there is “the night of a blue moon, which is heavily referenced in witchcraft lore, and occurs once every three years.”
WFLA’s report doesn’t acknowledge the fact that the murder did not occur on the night of the blue moon in August. WFLA’s reporters also seem not to have actually investigated Wicca lore, which actually does not heavily reference the night of a blue moon. WFLA couldn’t even get the astronomy of the blue moon right. Blue moons don’t take place every three years. The next blue moon will happen early next year.
Sloppy journalism about this case isn’t limited to WFLA, however. The Pensacola News Journal still refers to the crime as a “ritualistic murder”, as does USA Today. Nina Golgowski wins the award for the most painfully inaccurate clickbait, with her headline for the New York Daily News: ‘Blue Moon killer’ murdered family in witchcraft-like ritual. Golgowksi arrived at her sensationalist inaccuracy by conflating yesterday’s press conference with a press conference held almost three months ago, pretending that no the critical examination of the ritual claims has happened in the meantime. She wrote, “A north Florida man slashed his family’s throats and beat them with a claw hammer as part of a ‘ritualistic killing, inspired by witchcraft, authorities said.” In fact, that’s not at all what was said at yesterday’s press conference.
WFLA’s report on the investigation yields one small bit of critical thinking: It acknowledges that Sheriff Morgan’s claim that the bodies of the murder victims had been arranged together into a ritual pattern is completely unsubstantiated. In fact, investigators tell WFLA, the murder victims were found in completely different rooms from one another. Nina Goglowski continues to perpetuate the rumor that the victims’ bodies were ritually displayed by the murderer, but that’s not actually what happened.
It’s not even certain that Donald Hartung actually considers himself Wiccan. We have a great deal more to learn about this case, and a great deal more will emerge about the Escambia County Sheriff Department’s rush to declare the crime a Wiccan blue moon cult ritual murder.
A few days ago, FBI Director James Comey got some attention when he told an audience at the University of Chicago law school that protests against racist discrimination by police have led to a spike in crime in many cities. Anti-racism protesters with video cameras have “officers reluctant to get out of their cars and do the work that controls violent crime,” Comey said, because they’re afraid that they’ll get in trouble for aggressively dealing with people engaged in criminal behavior.
These statements confused many people, because they suggest that Comey believes that police can only control criminal behavior by breaking the law themselves. After all, police who follow the law in the way they deal with suspected criminals have nothing at all to fear from being filmed as they do their jobs. It’s only when police are caught on camera breaking the law by assaulting criminal suspects or otherwise breaking the law that they can get in trouble. Comey didn’t seem to think that it would be possible for police officers to do their jobs without having free rein to violate the law with impunity.
When he shared these ideas, James Comey wasn’t speaking as if he was just making a guess or offering his own opinion. He was speaking as the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He spoke as if he was simply declaring the truth, after looking at statistical evidence that substantiated his claim.
Yesterday, Comey admitted that, in fact, he didn’t have any evidence that citizen filming of police officers had any causal relationship with increases in crime. Comey said that it was just “common sense” to think that when anti-racism protesters use cameras to record racist criminal abuses of citizens by the police, police officers will stop doing their jobs out of fear of getting in trouble.
“The honest answer is I don’t know for sure whether that’s the case,” Comey said, “but I do have a strong sense.”
A strong sense? Common sense?
What James Comey is saying is that he shouldn’t need to provide concrete evidence to support his claim that anti-racism protesters are causing a spike in crime across the country. Comey thinks we ought to just take his word for it.
Does Comey really not understand that this is the very attitude among law enforcement officials that anti-racism protesters are demonstrating against in the first place? Evidence proves that police in many regions of the United States regularly treat African-Americans as if they are criminals, even when there is no evidence of actual criminal activity taking place. Now, Comey is presuming that African-American protesters are encouraging criminal activity, even though he doesn’t have any actual evidence to support his case.
The FBI Director, of all people, ought to understand that it’s important to have evidence before making accusations against people. He ought to know that blaming citizen oversight for criminal activity is anything but common sense. If James Comey can’t come to grasp these basic ideas, it’s time for him to resign from his job.
What are you unwilling to question?
A fascinating New York Times investigation was published yesterday and fleshes out the “driving while black” meme about racial profiling with systematic data. In the four states in which car search data is systematically, tracked, the Times reports that black drivers are stopped disproportionately often, even though officers are more likely to find illegal material when searching cars with white drivers:
This is what racial discrimination looks like.
Six days ago, Donald Trump issued an alarm that New York City was about to receive a “major freeze” weeks ahead of the city’s ordinary time for a first frost. Trump suggested that the early frost was a sign that global warming isn’t really something anybody needs to worry about.
Actually, the date was only one week ahead of New York City’s usual date for a first frost.
Actually, New York City didn’t even get close to a frost that day.
Actually, New York City hasn’t had any frost at all so far this autumn, and is forecast to have daily low temperatures between 10 and 30 degrees higher than would be required even for a mild frost – even to one week after the average date for a first frost.
Donald Trump tried to use New York City weather to suggest that global warming is a hoax.
The actual data suggest that, in fact, New York City is having an autumn that is warmer than normal, not the frigid anomaly that Donald Trump tried to portray.
Of course, a few weeks in New York City doesn’t indicate much about global climate, even if Donald Trump gets it completely, horribly wrong. No, we need to look at global data to come to conclusions about global climate. It just so happens that the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration came out with a report last week indicating that “The combined average temperature over global land and ocean surfaces for September 2015 was the highest for September in the 136-year period of record, at 0.90°C (1.62°F) above the 20th century average of 15.0°C (59.0°F), surpassing the previous record set last year in 2014 by 0.12°C (0.19°F). This marks the fifth consecutive month a monthly high temperature record has been set and is the highest departure from average for any month among all 1629 months in the record that began in January 1880. The September temperature is currently increasing at an average rate of 0.06°C (0.11°F) per decade.”
If Donald Trump can’t even read a local weather forecast accurately, how can he be trusted with data in more complex contexts, such as the national economy, foreign policy, congressional relations, and global climate change?
Field experiments are an ingenious variety of study in which people (or the semblance of people) are sent into social situations. These people have been trained to act exactly the same way, and only vary in one aspect. The question of a field experiment is, how do people differ in their treatment of two people who vary in only one way? Thanks to the rise of the internet, this method has recently become more solid, as researchers have become able to send out of precisely-controlled electronic communications appearing to come from everyday people and varying in only one aspect.
In a new article published in last month’s Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Bradley Wright, Michael Wallace, Annie Scola Wisnesky and colleagues report on a field experiment they carried out in which the following e-mail message was sent to 3,113 mainline Protestant, evangelical Protestant and Catholic churches across the United States:
In the field experiment his message was altered in only two ways. First, the word “parish” was used in e-mail messages to Catholic churches. Second, the name varied. With reference to studies in which Americans have been able to distinguish some names as strongly indicating “White,” “Black,” “Latino,” or “Asian” racialized identities, the following names were inserted into e-mail messages to indicate a racial identity to the e-mail recipient:
“White” names: Scott Taylor, Greg Murphy
“Black” names: Jamal Washington, Tyrone Jefferson
“Latino” names: Carlos Garcia, José Hernandez
“Asian” names: Wen Lang-Li, Jong Soo Kim
I’ll cut right to the chase:
- On average, mainline Protestant churches responded to the e-mails sent with “White” names in 4 days, but waited 6 days to respond to e-mails with “Latino” names, waited 7 days to respond to e-mails with “Asian” names, and waited 8 days to respond to e-mails with “Black” names. These differences are statistically significant.
- Evangelical Protestant churches also responded to e-mails with “White” names most quickly on average, but the difference was not statistically significant. Notably, however, Catholic churches responded to apparently “Asian,” “Black” and “Latino” requests more quickly than they did to requests with “White” names attached.
- All varieties of church wrote longer responses to the apparently “White” requests than they did to apparently “non-White” requests. The difference was most pronounced in evangelical and mainline Protestant churches. The difference was not a statistically significant for Catholic churches.
- Very terse e-mails (one or two sentences not substantively answering questions) were more often sent in response to “non-White” requests than to “White” requests by mainline and evangelical Protestant churches. There was no statistically significant difference in the likelihood of terse responses by Catholic churches.
In short, racial discrimination in how churches respond to potential new participants persists in American Protestant churches. But such racial discrimination in religion is neither ubiquitous nor inevitable — Catholic churches appear to occur racial discrimination toward potential parishoners, at least in the ways tested by this field experiment.
It’s behind a pay wall, unfortunately, but you can read the published results of the field experiment for yourself right here.
Yesterday, the Center for Media and Democracy released a new report on the publicly-funded, privately-run and deregulated entities known as “charter schools.” The theory behind charter schools was that private entrepreneurs could run schools in communities much better than the communities themselves, if only they could A) siphon off public school funds to run, and B) be exempted from rules and regulations.
Over the past twenty years, charter schools have gotten just what they’ve asked for: money taken from public schools to work with, private administration, and significant deregulation. A few examples of findings from the Center for Media and Democracy’s report, which you can read here, indicates how that plan has worked out:
- 200 out of the 1,100 charter schools opened in California have closed their doors — an 18.2% failure rate — for reasons including financial mismanagement, lavish personal spending, violation of the law, fraud, conflict of interest, nepotism, uncredentialed teachers, dangerous conditions for students, and educational failure.
- Michigan has 297 charter schools, four out of five of which are run as for-profit businesses. 108 charter schools have closed for a combination of reasons, including losing students, obtaining poor educational results, poor financial management, tax evasion, and fraud.
- Secrecy in public spending leads to unaccountability. Despite repeated public records requests, Arizona and Florida refused to disclose charter schools receiving some of the $3.7 billion in federal funding.
- Ohio charter schools “spend more than twice as much on administration as public schools on average,” according to the report, and many receive extra federal grants on top of what they siphon out of the public school system. 17 percent of the charter schools in Ohio that received extra federal funding to support them have nevertheless failed and closed their doors. 51 percent of the charter schools in Ohio that have remained open have received a grade of D or F in the Ohio Performance Index. In contrast, the rate for public schools in Ohio is just 12 percent.
Tell me again about the charter school miracle.
From the Democratic Presidential Debate, October 13 2015:
Bernie Sanders: I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.
Hillary Clinton: Well, let me just follow-up on that, Anderson, because when I think about capitalism, I think about all the small businesses that were started because we have the opportunity and the freedom in our country for people to do that and to make a good living for themselves and their families. And I don’t think we should confuse what we have to do every so often in America, which is save capitalism from itself. And I think what Senator Sanders is saying certainly makes sense in the terms of the inequality that we have.
But we are not Denmark. I love Denmark. We are the United States of America. And it’s our job to rein in the excesses of capitalism so that it doesn’t run amok and doesn’t cause the kind of inequities we’re seeing in our economic system. But we would be making a grave mistake to turn our backs on what built the greatest middle class in the history of the world.
Does the United States have the greatest middle class in the history of the world? What have countries like Denmark, Sweden and Norway accomplished for the working people who live there? Let’s compare Denmark, Sweden and Norway to the United States:
Income Share Held by the Lowest 20%:
United States: 5.1%
Life Expectancy at Birth [Girls, Boys]:
Denmark: 82, 78
Norway: 84, 80
Sweden: 84, 80
United States: 81, 77
Rate of women who die from pregnancy or within 42 of the end of pregnancy (# per 100,000 live births):
United States: 28
Rate of children who die under the age of 5 (# per 1,000 live births):
United States: 7
Babies born to teenaged mothers aged 15-19 (births per 1,000 women aged 15-19):
United States: 24
Percent of all seats in national legislatures that are held by women:
United States: 19%
Government expenditure on education (% of GDP):
United States: 5.2%
Pupil to teacher ratio:
Denmark: not available
United States: 14
Internet users per 100 people:
United States: 87.4
Source: World Bank
Where would you prefer to live?
Something’s happening here:
People in Iowa have been suffering a deluge of political telephone calls this year. Iowa families sit down to eat dinner together, and the phone rings. Is it an emergency call from Aunt Marge? No, it’s a phone call from a telemarketer who has been paid a low wage in compensation for making as many telephone calls on behalf of Donald Trump as possible. Sitting in a cubicle, these people go through their scripts, not caring how much they interrupt people’s lives. They’re just looking to make their numbers.
Many of these phone calls have been coming from Infocision, a telemarketing firm that has its corporate headquarters in Akron, Ohio, a full day’s drive away from Iowa. These phone calls aren’t made by grassroots activists. They’re made by employees of a big corporation, and they don’t have the choice about whether to make the calls. They either make the calls promoting Donald Trump or they lose their jobs.
This telephone harassment operation is being conducted by Patriots for Trump, an operation set up by Republican scam artist Scott Mackenzie, who was found by a court to have withheld money he raised, claiming to be on behalf of political candidates. According to the FEC, Patriots for Trump just dumped $100,000.00 into Infocision’s bank accounts to pay for the telemarketing onslaught against Iowa families.
Is this vision of rude phone calls by fake activists, paid for by corrupt super PACs, organized by cold corporations from far away, what you want to see more of in the United States? If so, then Donald Trump is your candidate.