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 fifth day’s report. You can read Day 1 here, Day 2 here , Day 3 here, Day 4 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
So that was the state of affairs going into Friday. I was generally aware of what happened, as were a lot of people on the boat; the reporters made it pretty clear that Thursday’s events were bizarre and alarming. As I’ve said, I haven’t ever felt unsafe on this ship. But I also haven’t been ambushed in any sessions, had anyone pop up by surprise, or been singled out and yelled at. (With one exception, which we’ll come to—and even that wasn’t in a threatening context.) I know the journalists have asked organizers whether they’ll be safe, and there’s been some discussion of having security available if it happens again. I would be surprised if it were necessary—but not quite as surprised as I would have been on Wednesday.
On Friday afternoon by chance I was again talking to Badnarik, getting some advice about managing seasickness. (All better now.) We were even standing outside the same room we’d been in on Thursday, when I heard yelling from the same room it had come from then. I didn’t dawdle this time and headed straight over, but when I got there it took a while to figure out what the hell was going on. As far as I can tell, Horowitz and Kane had downloaded some material about the publication the writer/photographer team is working for. Maybe past articles or Wikipedia pages, I’m not sure. Whatever it was, they were very, very upset. Horowitz in particular was livid, and getting in lots of people’s faces.
The journalists retired around the corner to talk to one of the organizers about (I presume) security issues. Horowitz might have followed them, except that one of the people he was shouting at was the gentleman I wrote about in Days One and Three. (In Day One I mentioned that I ate dinner with him; by Day Three he was promising his Facebook community he’d “personally engage” me and tell other people on the boat what I’m “up to.” He’s done both.) He blocked Horowitz and tried to calm him down, defending the journalists without hesitation. It looked to me like there was a little shoving, although I’m not sure—it all happened pretty fast—and Horowitz offered for the two of them to go up to the gym deck. I assume he meant so they could fight it out, at which point I think at that point the cruise ship staff would have stepped in to either stop it or impose a cover charge. They’re good at making money here.
So again, an alarming and bizarre confrontation. At least one of the reporters is concerned about her physical safety after this one, and I don’t blame her. Even though this kind of anger is the exception rather than the rule, even among the outspoken and strident speakers, it’s concerning that it happened at all. It only takes one person to do something terrible, after all. The participants for the most part seem very unhappy about these events. I haven’t spoken to everyone so it’s likely in a group this size there are some who support the outbursts, but again that would be the exception to what seems like a pretty common rule: these people are here to listen, not pick fights. That there are exceptions among the speakers is perhaps not as surprising as I’d like it to be.
Turbulent Wake: Another Nautical Pun, I’m Very Sorry
Now here’s where I come in. I walked up just as the reporters were walking around the corner to talk to seminar organizers, and the antivaxer gentleman (he’s asked not to be named) was standing up to Horowitz. This is all happening outside one of the conference rooms, so I was a little surprised to see Andy Wakefield walk by. He hasn’t been making many appearances at the sessions that don’t involve him. I’d forgotten that there had been a schedule change, and he was set to repeat a popular lecture he’d given earlier in the week.
We’d been warned that Wakefield and Jeffrey Smith, the anti-GMO demagogue, didn’t want media at some of these events, so I was surprised again that he made a point of inviting the journalists into his session. He stated several times that they were welcome, then asked them to come in and attend the presentation. He really wanted them in there. But they thought, as did I, that it was a repeat of the session they’d already attended. So they elected to see a different presentation, one about mind control machines.
I don’t know whether Wakefield knew that I was writing about the conference or not, but apparently I’m media now—a very odd feeling for me—so I felt invited and went on in.
Wakefield began by expressing some disappointment that the journalists hadn’t come. Then he asked if there were any media in the room, and I volunteered that I’m writing a book and that I’m here writing for Violent Metaphors. (Hi Andy, if you’re reading this.) When asked if Jennifer has a particular view on vaccines, I shared that we’re both pro-vaccine and that neither of us believes that vaccines cause autism. Let’s take a moment to observe that these are by far prevalent views not only among laypeople, but experts as well.
Wakefield wasn’t unhappy that I was there, but I wasn’t the fish he wanted to catch. He mentioned again that he wished the journalists were there, and said that he “wanted to ask them some questions.” Not in private, apparently, but in front of an audience primed for drama and spectacle. He had prepared an article someone had given to him, published previously by one of the publications with reporters here. Not any of the journalists’ prior work, just a years-old article about “junk science.” The article said critical things about Wakefield’s work in the Lancet and as far as I can tell he wanted to use it to depose the journalists—who, again, didn’t write it but I’m sure would have been happy to talk to him in private. Or maybe even in public if he’d asked them to join him in a conversation rather than trying to lure them into a session to be ambushed.
Well, if Wakefield couldn’t get real journalists, he at least had me. He started by asking me to share with the audience if I’d read the Lancet paper myself, and thus began a long, uncomfortable period for me being the focal point of an angry speech.
I’ll have to tell that story in another update. (If I try to fit everything in, I’ll never get to see any of today’s events). I mostly wanted to share some of the events of the last couple of days as they revolved around the journalists on board, especially since social media is already sharing stories about tense times on the boat. (Some of that comes from me, but also from the conspiracy theorists on board writing on Facebook.) And I don’t really have any big conclusions to draw. The story’s not done. And it won’t really ever be done, because this conference is just one part of a much longer conversation between the mainstream and passionate, marginalized, largely irrational ideologies rooted in conspiracy theories.
I’m comfortable with one conclusion at least, because it’s one I had already formed: the people attending this conference are our friends and neighbors. The Global Alchemist? The crop circle guy? I’ve talked to both of them, and frankly they’re both people you’d love to have a drink with. Probably some of the people you do have drinks with, or work with, or spend the holidays with, share their odd ideas. And the anti-vaxers? Them too. Yes, their beliefs can be harmful or even lethal to children. Yes, I go around and around in my head wondering how those facts relate to each other. I can’t resolve it in any way other than to say that the boat contains multitudes, and so does every person on the boat.
Not everything is sweetness and light. The treatment of the reporters is inexcusable. But virtually no one is trying to excuse it.