Jennifer and I saw Vaxxed in Kansas City on June 11, along with her sister Julie. We have a lot of observations and thoughts about the movie, so we’ll probably be doing several articles discussing the film itself, the audience’s reaction to it, the protestors, our responses, and a lot more. Jenny’s post is here, and covers some of what happened after and as we left the movie.
My first, strong reaction was that very few people leaving the movie would have any idea what happened with the “CDC Whistleblower.” The audience left knowing next to nothing about the events it’s supposedly about; I confirmed that by talking to people afterwards, and they had very little grasp on the facts.
That’s no surprise. The movie is propaganda—it’s not educational, it’s manipulative and inflammatory. We can’t fact-check every statement or point out every strategic omission in the movie, so here are some simple and obvious illustrations of how it deceives audiences.
To fans of the movie who have seen it: I don’t expect this will change your mind. I don’t think much of anything would, really; I asked people on the ConspiraSea Cruise what evidence would change their minds, and not a single person could describe evidence that would persuaded them they were wrong. (Even Wakefield gave me a roundabout, evasive response.) Doesn’t that sound like ideology to you? Even if this doesn’t change your mind, I hope it makes you think. Do you know what William Thompson really thinks about vaccines? Or about Wakefield or Hooker? Do you know what data the CDC supposedly destroyed, or whether anyone has ever found any actual problems with the study it performed? Do you know what other independent organizations have found the same thing the CDC did—a total lack of any causal connection between vaccines and autism? Most fans of the movie don’t know anything about these subjects. If it leaves you scared and angry but misinformed, doesn’t that make it propaganda? And if you think it did leave you informed, well, see how many of these facts you actually knew.
This is an index to our posts relating to my experiences on the ConspiraSea Cruise. Eventually we’ll convert this to a permanent page and keep it updated with new pieces and media coverage. Look forward to more indices as well, covering major Violent Metaphors topics.
In January 2016, I attended the seminar-at-sea for conspiracy theorists as background research for my book, tentatively titled “The Good Fight.” Supporters generously helped offset the costs of my attendance by contributing to my crowdfunding campaign, which explains a bit of my methodology–in short, I went to listen, not to argue or disrupt.
The ConspiraSea Posts
I wrote a series of posts covering the details of the cruise, one per day:
Day One: A Skeptic on the ConspiraSea Cruise An explanation of the project and an introduction to each of the conspiracy theorists presenting on the cruise.
Day Two: Reverse the Constitutional Polarity of the Baryonic Trustee Matrix: Legal Gibberish on the ConspiraSea Cruise Pseudolaw, the pinstriped cousin of pseudoscience. And a quick end to my plan to withhold all criticism until after the cruise, as I see some exceptionally objectionable nonsense foisted off on an unsuspecting crowd by two speakers under indictment for serious federal crimes.
Day three: Nothing to Fear How cruisegoers reacted to me, and how I reacted to them.
Day Four: Troubled Waters A showcase of angry paranoia, as some of the conspiracy theorists misbehave.
Day Five Part One: I Just Can’t Do Another Nautical Pun Continuing the story of an alarming and bizarre confrontation, and beginning the story of Andrew Wakefield’s angry lecture to me.
Day 5 Part Two: I Took the Bait Andrew Wakefield, having failed to draw in the actual journalists, springs his trap on me and reveals a core of anger under his work to suppress vaccination rates.
Day 6: You Know Who Exposes Real Conspiracies? The Media. Profiling Andrew Wakefield, Jeffrey Smith, Leonard Horowitz, Sherri Kane, and their attempts to protect their various conspiracy theories from public scrutiny.
Day 7: I Failed A personal plea to one particular conference attendee, who very nearly fell afoul of the pseudolegal nonsense being preached by Sean David Morton–a self-proclaimed legal warrior who knows how to beat the system, but got arrested by federal agents immediately upon leaving the cruise and is currently awaiting trial on serious fraud charges.
Bonus: An Interview with Andrew Wakefield In which Andrew Wakefield grants a personal interview, and we fact-check his claims. They do not do well.
As I write additional pieces relevant to the ConspiraSea Cruise, we’ll link them here as well.
The ConspiraSea Cruise itself got plenty of media coverage, as did my book project and the series of blog posts above. We’ve collected some links here and again we’ll update them when we have something to add.
Anna Merlan of Jezebel wrote a brilliant piece that captured the who/what/where/when/why as well as the overall feel of the cruise. (Check out the art, too–every section heading is a dainty masterpiece.) We’re eagerly awaiting BronwynDickey‘s piece in Popular Mechanics, which should be out soon with photography from the supremely talented Dina Litovsky.
Aeon Magazine asked me to write a piece about pseudolaw, which is not as widely understood as pseudoscience. It lead to an interesting discussion in the comments about which is more dangerous, a question I’m not sure can be answered.
Wired Magazine interviewed me for a great piece that again resulted in energetic comments, a few of which demonstrated the kind of feverish paranoia that drives conspiracy theories.
Factor, a Spanish-language blog, interviewed me for a couple of pieces about the ConspiraSea Cruise. Writing about me, they said: Colin es un amor: un pacifista del escepticismo. It’s a lovely summary of my philosophy, and I try to live up to it every day.
Kylie Sturgess and I talked for an episode of the Token Skeptic podcast; it was a conversation between her home base in Australia and my hotel room in Copenhagen about a cruise from Los Angeles to Mexico. International intrigue!
Nothing yet, and it’s hardly my focus. We have had a serious inquiry about the film/TV rights, though. They’re still available. Personally I suggest casting Vincent D’Onofrio as the noble, humble, brave, heroic writer. Or maybe Peter Weller.
And the Far Out
If you write about conspiracy theorists, sooner or later someone’s going to call for your “indictment for genocide by prosecutors at the International Criminal Court.” And sure enough, a couple of the people we profiled pounded out not one but several feverish attacks on my “criminal psychopathology and moral turpitude” and “obese darkness.” We appreciate the publicity, even if it’s completely inaccurate and completely goofy.
Vaxxed, the anti-vaccine documentary made by a team of anti-vaccine activists (but curiously, no vaccine experts) has come and gone and come again. Other people have written extensively about what happened, some with lots of facts and some with raging, paranoid fantasies. As the movie is likely to disappear into relative obscurity soon, let’s take this chance to explore some lessons learned from the last couple of weeks—some for vaccine opponents, and some for mainstream science and health advocates.
Update: The filmmakers have added Q&A sessions at the 5:45 p.m. shows on April 1 and 2, and the 3:30 p.m. show on April 3. So I can reinstate my recommendation! Go see it. Ask critical, but not disruptive, questions. What data was actually deleted? If the movie omits Thompson’s strong support for vaccination, why? (Remember that Thompson, the guy whose phone calls underlie the whole movie, made a point to declare publicly, “I want to be absolutely clear that I believe vaccines have saved and continue to save countless lives. I would never suggest that any parent avoid vaccinating children of any race. Vaccines prevent serious diseases, and the risks associated with their administration are vastly outweighed by their individual and societal benefits.“) Why rely on a computer scientist instead of an epidemiologist for the science in the movie? Why was Hooker’s study retracted by the journal in which he originally published it, and why did that journal declare that it has “serious concerns about the validity of [Hooker’s] conclusions“?
The people behind Vaxxed made a movie because their claims wither and die when they’re exposed to actual critical discussion. They want to create the appearance of a discussion, without any of the messy facts. Show up. Provide context for their propaganda. Even one person can make a difference, either by asking questions at the discussion panel or by reporting back on what those questions and answers were.
So if you can attend, please also record the discussion panel afterwards. (Not the movie itself, you’ll get kicked out.) The outside world would love to hear how conspiracy theorists feast on a film like this. The first press conference, before the film even aired, already devolved into “GMOs, chemtrails, and fluoride.” We can’t be there, so we’d love to hear your observations and thoughts!
And at ~43:00, a woman in the audience starts talking about the dangers of "GMOs, chemtrails, and fluoride."
Andrew Wakefield and I were both on the ConspiraSea Cruise in January 2016. By the last full day of the cruise, we’d had a few encounters ranging from standing in the same line for coffee to a fairly tense exchange during one of his lectures. I asked Wakefield after that lecture if he would answer a few questions regarding the so-called “CDC Whistleblower.” He consented, and this is the interview that resulted. Wakefield was aware that I was recording and that I am a critic of his position on vaccines and autism; he did not refuse to answer any of my questions.
This transcript is my own work, and I welcome any corrections. I’ve edited it slightly to make it more readable and remove irrelevant dialog. I have also added parenthetical comments to note where a statement is inaudible on the recording, which is not of high quality, and provide my best guess at what was said in a few places. I have not changed the substance of any question or answer.
Wakefield answered several questions before I turned the recording on. According to my memory and my notes, I asked him questions about the Thompson documents such as what specific deviations there were from the approved study plan (as he had alleged such deviations in two lectures). He referred me generally to his letter of October 2014, written with Brian Hooker and attorney James Moody, and directed to the federal Office of Research Integrity. He indicated both that he had documents from Thompson at the time he wrote that letter, and that Congressman Posey subsequently received additional documents from Thompson. At that point I began the recording.
I am not an expert in the documents Wakefield discussed. So in order to provide context for these answers, we have asked Matt Carey of Left Brain Right Brain to provide commentary. Carey is a published scientist, a parent of an autistic child, and extremely familiar with the Thompson documents. He has written an in-depth analysis of the Thompson documents and was able to provide an important counterpoint to Wakefield’s claims. Please read that excellent analysis prior to this interview if you are not familiar with the affair. The questions and answers will make little sense without context.
My questions are in black, Wakefield’s answers are in red, and Carey’s comments are in green. We welcome your own comments as well.
This is Day Seven, the last in my seven-day series of updates from or about the ConspiraSea Cruise. You can read Day 1 here, Day 2 here , Day 3 here, Day 4 here, Day 5 Part 1here, Day 5 Part 2here, Day 6 here, and an explanation for what I was doing here. We’ll have an index page up soon collecting these and future pieces. This is the last of the seven-day series, but not my last post about conspiracy theories. We’ll be posting an exclusive interview with Andrew Wakefield soon, and then I have a number of analytical pieces planned for future updates.
This is the most difficult of the ConspiraSea articles I’ve written. I have to confess a very personal and frustrating failure. I made just one serious attempt to persuade someone on the cruise to reject some very bad and dangerous advice. This was contrary to my “do not interfere” policy, but I couldn’t just stand by and watch someone’s future ruined by charlatans. And unlike many attendees, whose minds were made up before they ever boarded the boat, this person claimed to be persuadable and actively sought out my advice. I don’t know for certain whether I could have changed their mind, only that I didn’t. I hope this piece and the news in it reach that person, and I hope it’s not too late.
I can’t give you any details about the person I’m writing this for. I promised them anonymity, and I seriously considered not writing this at all. But if I don’t, then I have no way to reach them and give them an important update. And it’s important to show how dangerous some conspiracy theories can be; I have some responsibility to the people like this person who might be persuaded to make safer, better decisions. I’ll call that person Q, to protect their privacy while still telling a coherent story. Because this piece isn’t just for Q, but anyone in the same situation or who’s just curious about whether pseudolaw is as dangerous as pseudoscience or pseudomedicine.
As far as everyone but the two of us are concerned, this is what Q looks like:
Q’s age, race, gender, nationality, profession, education, marital status, shoe size, politics, military service—all of that is irrelevant. All you need to know is that Q is a human being. And Q’s future is in real danger because of the advice two pseudolegal gurus were selling on the ConspiraSea Cruise. Specifically, Q took advice from a dangerously incompetent and ignorant “attorney in law,” Sean David Morton. A man whom Q trusted. A man who never told Q that not long before the cruise began, he’d been indicted on serious criminal charges. Q probably has no idea that he was arrested by the IRS Criminal Investigation Division as soon as he got off the boat, or that he’s now facing over six hundred years of jail time for doing the same sort of things he advised his audiences to try for themselves.
I don’t know Q’s full name and I don’t have any way to make contact. And I’m sure there are other people from the cruise who are in the same situation, about to implement some of the horrible ideas they got from Morton. So I’ve asked the ConspiraSea Cruise organizers to notify attendees of these developments. I think they need to know that one of the lecturers who gave them legal advice is facing enormous criminal liability for taking his own medicine. I suggested they simply send out a request for prayers and good thoughts on Morton’s behalf in light of his recent legal issues. I thought that would be a decent compromise because people like Q would be put on alert, and cruise organizers wouldn’t have to explicitly criticize one of their guests. They’ve refused. The person I wrote to, whom I believe to be a personal friend of the guru in question, responded only, “I have no comment to make about Sean David Morton.”
This is Day Six in my seven-day series of updates from or about the ConspiraSea Cruise. You can read Day 1 here, Day 2 here , Day 3 here, Day 4 here, Day 5 Part 1 here, Day 5 Part 2 here, and an explanation for what I was doing here. We’ll have an index page up soon collecting these and future pieces.
Day Six was tough for me personally. The main reason is something I’ll write about for Day Seven, but it didn’t help that the seas were particularly high. I’d become seasick on a small-boat excursion the day before (thanks to Michael Badnarik who offered good advice for dealing with it) and even though the cruise ship was mostly very stable, my memories of the Saturday lectures feel like they’re covered with a thin, greasy film.
It also didn’t help that the first session of the day was listening to Winston Shrout give well-meaning people really terrible advice about how to handle their mortgages. That definitely added to my queasiness. I don’t know much about real estate, but I’m pretty sure that the Vatican hasn’t just released the necessary money to pay off everyone’s mortgages. And I’m pretty sure that Winston Shrout wasn’t involved in a multi-trillion dollar transaction that would have done the same thing if HSBC hadn’t sabotaged him. And I’m pretty sure that referring people to NESARA is, at best, a waste of their time. But more about pseudo-law on Day 7. Continue reading →
Colin here, taking over the job Jennifer’s graciously been doing by editing and posting my own writing. I’m no longer on the ConspiraSea Cruise doing research for a book on irrational beliefs. Now I’m home (briefly) and writing up my experiences. This is a fuller explanation of what happened on the fifth day. You can read Day 1 here, Day 2 here , Day 3 here, Day 4 here, Day 5 Part 1 here, and an explanation for what I was doing here.
I have just one more full day to go, then a very personal post about the very last morning of the cruise. I want to move forward quickly because we aren’t done after that. In the future I’ll write in more detail about individual presentations and my thoughts about what the conference has to teach us about irrational ideologies and the debates around those beliefs.
In the last post, I explained how I wound up as the primary audience of a long, angry lecture by Andy Wakefield. Here’s a much more detailed explanation of what happened, and some thoughts on why it happened and why it matters.
And I apologize in advance for the fishing puns. Honestly, I tried to stop.
Just a few more days until the Conspiracy Cruise sets sail! Thanks to the support of everyone who backed my crowdfunding campaign I’ll be on board to conduct interviews and attend lectures by people like Andrew Wakefield, Winston Shrout, Nick Begich and Sherri Tenpenny.
The seminar schedule includes panels like Whistleblowing in the Public Interest (Andy Wakefield), Are GMOs and Roundup Causing Disease in Millions?, Vaccinations: Do You Really Know What’s Coming Through That Needle?, Conspiracy of the Court System, Conspiracy to Steal Your Body and Soul, Divine Wizardry, Competing Theories of Autism: Vaccines vs. Glyphosate (Roundup) Herbicide, Astral Possession, Psychic Vampirism, and Exorcism, How to Control the World with Mind Machines, All That Glitters Is Not God: Dangers of Psychic Roulette, and a Controlled Opposition Panel Discussion: Solutions to Psyops and Censorship with Wakefield and others.
I’ll try to post a nightly summary of each day’s events, but the seminar schedule and connectivity issues might keep me from doing that. If so, I’ll just post the nightly summaries in a batch once we’re back on shore. And I’ll write up a longer piece summarizing my thoughts on the conference as a whole. I’ll be posting everything here, and I hope you’ll share the links and leave your comments! In the long run my aim is to start conversations about these ideas, and this is a great way to do it.
In the meantime, please drop me a line with any suggestions or questions. I’ve already had some great suggestions for questions to ask (things like, “What’s your research methodology?”) and I’m happy to hear more. You can email them directly to me, or leave it as a comment here. I won’t be very responsive next week, as the ship isn’t a very connected environment, but I’ll respond as quickly as I can.
Some people have asked about whether it’s OK to share these posts, and if the cruise organizers will figure out who I am and why I’m there. It’s absolutely OK! And of course they’ll figure it out–I’ve been totally honest about this all along, and I don’t intend to change that. There’s no cover identities or secret agendas. I doubt anyone will care; the whole point of the seminar is to talk about their beliefs, after all, and I’m not going to be doing anything disruptive or disrespectful.
So get ready to peek behind the curtain! Bring a friend by sharing a link to Violent Metaphors or the crowdfunding campaign (donations gratefully accepted through Sunday). The most helpful thing you can do is join the conversation once the seminar is underway and the updates start going up.
A large, diverse conference of people with very unusual beliefs is coming up. I want to attend as research for my book and blog posts on Violent Metaphors. Tickets are expensive, so we’re trying to keep costs down with a little crowdfunding. Please visit http://www.gofundme.com/ss29jrfk to donate if you can. If you can’t donate, just sharing the link is incredibly helpful. Pitch in, and let’s lay the groundwork for a deep discussion of far-out ideas next year! The following post is our original crowdfunding appeal.
Do you believe in acupuncture, alien abductions, ancient aliens, chi, crop circles, entity possession, “forbidden archaeology” or “forbidden religion,” homeopathy, near-death experiences, occult Nazi super-weapons, Planet X, poisoned vaccines, spiritual channeling, the new world order, or illegal immigrants from Zeta Reticuli? Do you go to bed worrying about the New World Order, the Vatican, the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, NASA, the WHO, the CDC, the UN, space aliens and/or demons conspiring against you and all right-thinking people? And are you convinced that the world is ruled from the Bohemian Grove, a secret bunker under the Denver airport, Bilderberg meetings, the Council on Foreign Relations, Buckingham Palace, alien worlds or other dimensions?
Probably not, or at least probably not all of it. But thousands of people do believe those things, and other things stranger than you can imagine. This January, dozens of experts these fields will gather together on a cruise ship called the Ruby Princess. It’s called, honestly and cleverly enough, the Conspira-Sea Cruise. They’ll spend seven days explaining, discussing, and even demonstrating their beliefs. Some of them are fairly famous, like Andy Wakefield and Sherri Tenpenny, who will be sharing their theories on vaccines. Others are relatively obscure, like Laura Magdalene Eisenhower, great-granddaughter of the former president, who claims to have been recruited for a secret Mars colonization effort and that stargates began opening around the Earth in 2012. For a full week, conspiracy theorists, dreamers, and snake-oil salesmen of every stripe will be preaching and peddling their wares.
I want to be there. You can help make that happen by visiting our Go Fund Me site: http://www.gofundme.com/ss29jrfk. We’re nearly halfway there!
Communicating science to people who aren’t scientists is very hard to do well. Nassim Taleb should be very good at it, based on his enormous book sales and even more enormous opinion of his own skills. But we all have our demons, and Taleb has succumbed to his. Rather than encouraging a healthy discussion about science, he’s picked a side and declared all-out war on the people who disagree with him. Taleb even admits that his strategy is to prevent conversations from happening by abusing and insulting people who question him, and encouraging his followers to join in. What’s the point of that strategy? It doesn’t help communicate science, resolve legitimate questions about the facts, or even address the supposedly evil motives of his critics. All it really does is feel good. Nassim Taleb has chosen self-gratification over real engagement. Let’s talk about why that’s unproductive and unethical.