Nothing to fear: ConspiraSea cruise day 3

Colin is currently on the ConspiraSea Cruise doing research for a book on irrational beliefs. He is emailing summaries of each day’s experiences to me for posting here on Violent Metaphors. This is the third day’s report. You can find the first day’s report here, the second day’s report here, the fourth day’s report here, the fifth day’s report (part 1) here, day 5 (part 2) here , and an explanation for what he is doing here. If you would like to give him questions or advice, please comment on this post–I’ll make sure he sees it. –Jennifer

Today’s post will be relatively short, for a few reasons. Primarily it’s because even though I’m on a cruise ship, this is exhausting! Everything starts around 8 am and ends around 10 pm. The ship is full of amenities—bars, restaurants, minigolf, swimming pools, hot tubs, saunas, a library, coffee shops, massages, shopping, comedy shows, movie theaters, and god know what else. I don’t, because I haven’t used any of those things except a couple of restaurants, a coffee shop, and the treadmill. I’m not complaining, though, because the important stuff is here. I’m meeting fascinating people, and that’s not a euphemism. For the most part, the people here are pleasant and engaging and well worth getting to know.

So far my conversations with the other attendees have been, without exception, quite pleasant. We expected a lot of paranoia at a conspiracy theory conference, but it hasn’t been an issue. The only paranoid reaction I’ve seen so far came from outside the ship. Googling a man I met at dinner on the first day, I saw someone had posted a copy of my first update to his Facebook wall and asked, “What is this stalker doing on the cruise?” The idea that I’m a stalker cropped up on Twitter also. I think it’s fair to call that paranoia, given how careful we’ve been to be open and not disruptive. I publicly crowdfunded the ticket, wrote blog articles about my plans for the cruise, and communicated with the organizers a little bit prior to departure. I’ve also made sure to tell everyone who talks to me that I’m a skeptic, and passed out plenty of cards with URLs for this blog and my book. And other than my questions to Shrout, which I saved until after his talk was over, I haven’t done anything but sit and listen. (Well, other than loan a presentation remote to a couple of speakers who needed one.)

I was disappointed by my dinner companion’s response. Rather than explaining any of this to his correspondent, he responded that he would “be sure to let everyone else know what [I] was up to.” It’s odd that he would think he needs to do that, since he heard me explain myself on the very first day and has watched me in multiple sessions since then listening civilly and politely. I even helped him fix some of Sherri Tenpenny’s AV issues with an adapter I carry in my bag, and loaned my presentation remote to another speaker. (I give a lot of presentations for work, and carry the basics in my briefcase.) His correspondent on Facebook doesn’t know that. She hears that he’s going to “personally engage” me and it validates her fear that I’m stalking the participants. The result is more paranoia and less understanding.

Meanwhile, discussions with the other attendees are going swimmingly. As I said earlier, I won’t identify anyone unless they’re a public figure or have given me permission. Broadly, I’ve had some wonderful conversations with people I’d never get to meet otherwise. The context of the conference encourages these little talks, and helps us discuss even very polarizing subjects (vaccines, religion, politics, etc.) in a laid back and productive way. One woman told me that she could read the energy from a photograph of my dog that I carry around, and could tell that Alu’s a beloved and happy pup; I don’t believe in energy readings, but so what? She was right. And she was sweet and kind. Similarly, I spent a little time with Laura Eisenhower the other day. I still find her beliefs incomprehensible, but she herself struck me as a caring and lovely woman.

The beloved and happy pup

Tonight I had dinner with a gentleman who’s a big believer in Zecharia Sitchin‘s work on Nibiru, and a fan of one of the pseudolegal “scholars” I criticized in my last piece. (For a fantastic discussion of this subject from the perspective of an astronomer, check out the Exposing PseudoAstronomy series on Planet X, starting here–Jennifer).   We had a very pleasant conversation about both of those things, including why we disagree. Our beliefs on science, religion, and politics appear to be diametrically opposite. Neither one of us is likely to ever persuade the other on those fronts. Yet we had a fun time, a relaxed conversation, and said good night as friends.

As I’ve said before, that’s the point of this project. Certainly I want to learn more about conspiracy theorists and irrational ideas, but it’s also to do some good in the world by pushing back against harmful and false ideologies. Stalking people and being disruptive is no way to accomplish either goal. Forming relationships, even temporary ones, is. We aren’t going to interfere with the messages on display here, even the horribly misguided ones like Shrout’s. I want people to meet a skeptic and realize that we’re decent people, and that we realize they can be decent people too.

If I have any worries about the conspiracy theorists on board, it’s that they understand that sympathetic skeptics are bad for business. It’s possible that demonizing us will seem like a good strategy for deepening the divide—and the divide is an important part of protecting the conspiracy theory community from facts that threaten their beliefs. Fear is the primary message on display here: be afraid of vaccines, be afraid of GMOs, be afraid of science, be afraid of the government, be afraid of aliens, be afraid of lawyers, and be afraid of skeptics. I’ll be very happy with my progress this week if just my dinner companions go home understanding that the last is nothing to be afraid of; it’s the first step to resolving their fears about the rest.



33 thoughts on “Nothing to fear: ConspiraSea cruise day 3

  1. c0nc0rdance January 28, 2016 / 9:37 am

    I feel that it’s not a magical ability to tell that your dog is a beloved and happy pup from that picture. He’s not exactly a closed book.

    • Colin February 1, 2016 / 6:42 pm

      The book says, “BALL!”

  2. Chris Hickie January 28, 2016 / 9:53 am

    For people with a fear of stalkers, I would think 7 days on a cruise ship a bad choice.

  3. Jennifer Raff January 28, 2016 / 11:44 am

    Colin, what is your sense of the motivations of the presenters? Do you think they’re aware that their ideas and recommendations are dodgy (I’m particularly thinking of the “legal expert”), but are deliberately conning people? Or do they genuinely believe that they’re right? Is there bad intent, or misguided belief at work here? Does one respond differently depending on the motives?

    • Colin February 1, 2016 / 6:44 pm

      I know less about that than I did before I got on the boat. Some of the easy answers I thought I had are probably wrong. For example, I thought Shrout must be a pure con man, given how obviously false his words are. But he obviously believed enough of it to stop paying his taxes. I think probably the truth is somewhere in the middle, and probably for all of them. (For all of us, period, perhaps?)

  4. Philip Madeley January 29, 2016 / 9:33 am

    Skeptic “a person inclined to question or doubt all accepted opinions.” I would think that doubting vaccines would make one a skeptic rather than accepting them as truth. I consider myself a skeptic of Vaccines, GMOs, Pharmaceuticals.

    • Jennifer Raff January 29, 2016 / 9:34 am

      What kind of evidence would you find persuasive?

      • gewisn February 4, 2016 / 11:04 pm


    • Chris January 29, 2016 / 1:31 pm

      I am very doubtful about the economics of treating a vaccine preventable diseases versus the cost of the vaccine. I do not understand why prevention would be more costly. Could you convince me that is better to treat measles, which has a about a one in ten hospitalization rate, than to give two MMR doses?

      Please provide evidence equivalent to PubMed ID 15106102 and 8855680. Thank you.

    • VaccineTruth January 29, 2016 / 5:08 pm

      “Vaccines work” (and similar pro-vaccine information) is not simply an opinion. It has been verified repeatedly by research and is confirmed by the evidence.

      Someone who rejects overwhelming evidence is something other than a skeptic

        • Jennifer Raff January 30, 2016 / 8:11 am

          So what evidence would convince you to change your mind on these issues? For example, I just did an exercise with my students yesterday where we figured out what kinds of evidence would convince us that the earth is actually flat. And we came up with a pretty good list.

          If one can’t articulate what would change his or her mind on scientific questions than he or she is not a skeptic, but an ideologue.

          • MrKettle February 10, 2016 / 5:24 pm

            What evidence would convince you that the overall body of scientific thought is actually a phase of ideology that we are passing through just like all the phases of human history?

            I actually need this answer.. thanks!

            • Jennifer Raff February 10, 2016 / 5:32 pm

              Hmm. If we’re talking in a general sense, then the evidence that would convince me that scientific thinking is purely ideological, not a method for accurately understanding the physical world would be twofold.

              1) Failure to replicate research findings.

              2) Failure of theory across the board to have any predictive power. I use the word “theory” in its technical usage in scientific writing, not in the vernacular sense of “hunch” or “guess”. I can elaborate on the second point if you want (I think the first is fairly clear).

              Now, what’s your answer?

        • Chris January 30, 2016 / 11:51 am

          Only of reality and evidence. Again, please explain to me with evidence why it is better to let a child get sick because the treatment would be cheaper than prevention.

  5. Olivia January 29, 2016 / 2:23 pm

    I have been enjoying this series and am a fan of Jennifer’s blog in general. I’m not a scientist, but I do love and appreciate it. I’m a counselor, new to the field, and love the mysteries of the human mind and behavior. I like the question about the motives of the speakers and their level of awareness of how they sound to others. I’m wondering if some of them believe their claims are more true/legitimate than some of the other presenters on the ship. Does tenpenny, for example, look around, hear some of the outlandish statements of other presenters and experience any level of dissonance? Perhaps thinking to herself, “What am I doing here? who have I become? Am I doing the right thing?”
    Also, I think you’re right, Colin, about establishing personal relationships with others to resolve their fears of you and your ideas/beliefs. Something that I have learned in my practice is that facts don’t change behavior; meaningful, personal connection is far more effective. (though I wonder if learning that you are trying to resolve their fears of you will be seen as a conspiracy to weasel them out of their current practices)

    • Colin February 1, 2016 / 6:50 pm

      None of them would say so outright, but yes, I thing some of the presenters were unhappy to be sharing the stage with people they thought were outlandish. Wakefield skipped the last panel presentation, for example, which kept him from being photographed in the same company as a man who presented himself as the third-dimensional delegate to the Galactic Round Table. (Although I don’t know if that’s why he was absent, he may have simply been tired.) Smith, the anti-GMO crusader, also seemed eager to limit his connection to some of the other presenters. My impression at the last panel was that he sat in the audience, rather than at the front of the room with the more far-out speakers. Again, I can’t promise that’s why he did it.

      I asked Wakefield a question along those lines. He essentially said he wouldn’t speculate one way or the other about ideas he hasn’t studied, and he hasn’t studied any of the more unusual notions on display.

      “though I wonder if learning that you are trying to resolve their fears of you will be seen as a conspiracy to weasel them out of their current practices”

      There was some of that, but not very much. Mostly I learned that those relationships take a lot longer than a week to build.

  6. Robert L. January 30, 2016 / 8:58 am

    Dear Colin,
    I have found this blog and your interesting reports on this exceptional sea cruise through a link in an article on

    I think it is very amazing and fascinating that some people are ready to spend their time and their money to attend such an event.

    While reading your reports I got some questions for which I did not find answers (and I apologize if the answers are already given and these questions would constrain you to repeat what you have already stated.

    Were you able to figure out how many people registered and attend this “Conspira-Sea cruise”?
    Do you have any idea of the social and educational background of the attendees? I would expect that persons who are ready to spend their money to attend such a cruise are people who earn or have enough money so that I would think they belong at least to the middle-class. I would also think that they have some education, i.e. they did not stop their educational path after the elementary school or even secondary school.

    While I appreciate your intention to try to convince some of the attendees to change their minds I seriously doubt about your chances to succeed in this mission. But then I maybe need to keep in mind William the Silent’s quote: “One need not hope in order to undertake, nor succeed in order to persevere”.

    @ Jennifer : Your entire website is very interesting and I have bookmarked it. I will certainly come back to read more of its content (I apologize for my broken English, but as you have certainly noticed I am not a native English speaker).

    • Jennifer Raff January 30, 2016 / 9:13 am

      Thank you very much for commenting! Your English is certainly much better than my French :). I just read the article and learned a new word: la complosphère, which is marvelous. I wish English had an equivalent term.

    • Colin February 1, 2016 / 6:50 pm

      Thanks for this–the quotation, in particular, inspired me in the piece I’m currently writing. I’m very grateful.

  7. Robert L. January 30, 2016 / 9:31 am

    Well, Jennifer, I am happy to hear that you find the word “complotosphère” marvelous and that you would like to have an English equivalent. Usually it’s French which borrows words or expressions from English or other languages… 😉

  8. sterngardfriegen January 30, 2016 / 10:48 am

    Thanks for what is developing into a fascinating series. I use this pseudonym because I’ve found people in the CT world (primarily the birthers) to be dangerous people. Like you I’m a Harvard Law grad (1971). I follow such conspiracy theorists as birthers and sovereign citizens on http://www.thefogbow,com which featured your series today. And I’ve actively litigated against some of these people.

    Would you say that the people who go on these cruises and seem to fall for these wacky ideas are desperate people? You want to create relationships with them, but in my career I have found them to be totally irrational and immune to the truth. The only relationships I could possibly create are adversarial. They deal with lawyers much the same way the Bundys deal with authority.

    • Colin February 1, 2016 / 6:54 pm

      There wasn’t much hostility to lawyers that I saw–at least, not directed at me. (Although one person did shout out, as Wakefield asked me a question in one session, “He’s a lawyer!”)

      I will say that I think I failed to keep anyone from falling into the clutches of the pseudolegal con men. I’m writing about that now.

      I’m not sure that the approach was wrong, though. A more adversarial approach would certainly have failed, and this way I hope I’ve planted some seeds that will sprout in time. But as I have no way of knowing that, it’s just a matter, ironically, of faith.

  9. Travis February 10, 2016 / 10:38 am

    What percentage do you think the presenters really believe what they’re saying and what percentage understand the mechanics of the conspiracy culture being a scam that they can profit from?

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