I usually write about conspiracy theories, not for conspiracy theorists. This one is different. This is a piece for people who have been part of the Q Anon movement. Specifically, the people who are beginning to get tired of its endless empty promises, and are starting to get skeptical.
Last week, our son Ox had an adverse reaction to the MMR vaccine. I’m glad, and I’m grateful.
First, the downside. Ox came home from daycare with a fever hovering around 100° F/38° C. That’s high enough to worry first-time parents, and it was persistent. By Friday night he’d been feverish for days and couldn’t sleep. When we measured him at 103°/39°, we finally called the pediatric nurse hotline at the local children’s hospital. The nurse was cool, calm, confident, and knowledgeable, just as you expect a nurse to be. She listened to a first-time dad ramble on about his boy’s fever and then let us know that it sounded like a reaction to the MMR vaccine he’d had the week before.
It’s possible that he simply came down with a normal fever and the timing was a coincidence. A lot of reported adverse reactions to vaccines are coincidences. But his experience closely fits the profile of a known vaccine reaction. Fevers are one of the most common adverse reactions to vaccines, affecting about ten percent of kids after their MMR shots. Our experience was worse than the typical fever; Ox spiked above the usual ceiling of 103° and it lasted a little longer than the standard two days.
Ox is fine today, but I don’t want to minimize the downside. Fevers can be dangerous, of course, leading to dehydration and other serious complications. And while Ox came through just fine, he suffered. He spent a few hot, cranky days unable to sleep or eat comfortably. That hit us, too. As new and first-time parents we don’t have a lot of perspective on what’s serious and what’s not; when the baby’s feverish for that long, it’s scary and upsetting. It also disrupts our lives; we’re very busy but Ox is our priority, so when he’s sick, it’s hard to keep all the other plates spinning efficiently.
But it’s good news, over all. Ox spiked a scary fever and spend a miserable few days waiting for it to break, and I’d have him do it again in a heartbeat. Because that fever is an indication that his immune system is responding to his MMR shot, which means he’s developing a powerful, natural immune response to dangerous diseases that could leave him deaf, sterile, or even dead.
Ox suffered an adverse reaction thanks to his pediatrician and the nurses, and I’m sincerely grateful for it. They gave him a shield against pathogens that evolved specifically to attack and ravage him, and that have seriously hurt unvaccinated kids in our community. And they helped make him into a shield in turn, protecting other children through communal immunity.
To Ox’s nurses and doctors and to all the doctors and nurses giving vaccines every day: thank you. You’re standing between our child and a world of suffering, and we’ll always be grateful—even when it causes a fever.
When I heard that Mick West was publishing a book on how to help talk people out of conspiracy theories, I said a bad word. I’m writing my own book on a similar subject, and it’s frustrating to see someone else get one out first. But I also preordered it immediately. West stands out as one of the most careful and thoughtful public figures debunking conspiracy theories, and I was eager to see what he had to say on the subject. Then I realized that if I asked for a review copy, I wouldn’t have to pay for it. (Negotiation is my specialty, remember?) Now that I’ve read it, I’m thinking of ordering a hardcopy to lend out–it’s a message that deserves to be spread.
Colin and I were just interviewed on BBC Radio 4 for a commemoration of sorts. It’s been 20 years since Andrew Wakefield published his infamous paper, “Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children” alleging an MMR vaccine/colitis/autism link. This paper was retracted after Brian Deer’s and the Lancet’s investigations revealed:
-severe undisclosed conflicts of interest,
-unethical treatment of the children in the study, and
-fraudulent manipulation of data in the study.
However, the damage was done. Vaccination rates dropped not only in the UK, but in the US and worldwide. Outbreaks of vaccine preventable diseases resulted. Although Wakefield denies any part of this, his role is undeniable…especially since his advocacy against vaccinations continues to this present day.
Yesterday BBC Radio 4 aired an hour long program that explored “the continuing legacy of the anti-vaccine movement on the anniversary of one of its most notorious episodes, and explore its impact on health, on research and on culture both at home and abroad.”
The indefatigable science journalist Adam Rutherford explored the history of Wakefield’s attempts to promote the link between vaccines and adverse health effects on the program, interspersing clips of Wakefield speaking in the media with interviews by journalist Brian Deer and public health officials. In the last third of the program, he interviewed both Colin and myself about the ongoing consequences of Wakefield’s advocacy here in the United States. We discussed how Wakefield has tapped into the world of conspiracy theories and a larger movement of distrust of expertise and institutions to promote his ideas (it didn’t make the final cut in the program, but as one example Colin wrote extensively about hearing Wakefield speak on the Conspira-Sea Cruise). We talked about communication with vaccine-hesitant parents and how empathy and good scientific information spread through networks of family, friends, and community leaders can overcome fearmongering. We discussed how being new parents affects our experiences as science communicators, particularly in the realm of vaccine issues. We also spoke about our experiences going to see Andrew Wakefield’s documentary Vaxxed, and how the movie (and the anti-vaccine movement in general) spreads false, damaging, and hurtful rhetoric about persons with autism. (To the ASAN members who were protesting at the movie, I hope you get a chance to listen to this! We talked about how shamefully you were treated in response to your excellent outreach efforts).
Many thanks to Adam and Graihagh Jackson for having us on. I think it’s a fitting commemoration of a shameful incident in the history of medicine, and I hope it helps at least a little bit to push back against the harmful and wrong ideas being spread by Wakefield.
This isn’t Violent Metaphor’s usual content, but it’s not as far away as you might think. We all want to have stronger skills for detecting pseudoscience and holding legitimate science to the highest standards. One of the most important skills for doing that is discriminating between hype and fact.
When it comes to science, I can’t do that. I’m not a scientist. What I am is a negotiator. I have spent years helping clients with their negotiations through training and consulting, and I have a new company doing exactly that.
Once Donald Trump became a serious contender for president people began asking me whether he’s really as great a negotiator as he claims to be. The answer is that based on the information we have, it’s very doubtful. Just as in science, the evidence matters more than the claims.
This is relevant to science and scientists in another way, too. There are strong indications that the administration and its Congressional allies will try to limit funding for scientific research. Those cuts will probably be resolved through political negotiations. Of course Trump won’t be the only negotiator at the table, or even the only negotiator on his side of the table. Nevertheless his style of negotiation is going to heavily influence the results. He’s likely to push hard to negotiate from a position of strength, which can distort the negotiations in harmful ways. This is a short and simple analysis of how that works.
“There is evidence for being able to hang these [public officials]. I am so tired of ‘em. I’m just sick of it. I’ve had it, the Second Amendment is there for a reason.” Corey Eib, Agenda 31.
You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts–that’s the simplest, most basic credo of skepticism. Want to hold the opinion that extraterrestrial life exists out there? Great, me too. Want to insist that it built the pyramids? Now we’re talking pseudoscience.
I’ve been following a budding pseudolegal guru who’s become very frustrated and angry that his nonsense theories about citizenship and jurisdiction have yet to make him immune to the laws of the United States, where he lives. His case highlights an interesting difference between pseudoscience and pseudolaw.
Both turn on theories that don’t really fit the available facts, whether those facts relate to the building of the pyramids, the origin of species, or the text of the Fourteenth Amendment. When the theory doesn’t fit the facts, pseudoscientists and pseudolawyers both build walled gardens to protect their theories–that’s one of the crucial differences between a “pseudo” scientist or lawyer and the real thing. Those walls might be a community that doesn’t ask critical questions or conspiracy theories that provide a mechanism for disqualifying and ignoring such questions. A creationist, for example, can pretend that carbon dating proves the Earth is just 6,000 years old. And they’ll never have to emerge from their walled garden to compare that theory to the facts available to actual scientists. They can just keep reading creationist blogs and books and avoid the awkward mismatch between their beliefs and the outside world.
A pseudolawyer is in a different boat. Legal theories usually get decided in court, sooner or later. It forces a comparison between the irrational belief and reality, and exposes its flaws. That can happen with scientific and medical theories, such as when a miracle cancer cure fails to cure any cancer, but it’s less common for any individual believer to experience that. In the legal world, if you decide you’re allowed to drive without a driver’s license because you’re a special kind of super-citizen, sooner or later the system is going to force you to test that belief. And the theory is going to fail, because it’s wrong.
When those cherished, irrational beliefs fail, it’s at the end of a long and difficult process. The tribulations of trials encourage pseudolegal gurus to double down on their beliefs–they have to be truly committed to spend months litigating their beliefs, much less risk jail for them. And when the process that’s welded them more tightly to their ideology then exposes that ideology as false, the result is often going to be immense frustration and anger.
This is an exploration of one pseudolawyer’s mistaken ideas about the US Constitution, how they failed that empirical test, and how he’s responded with frustration, anger, and paranoia rather than reconsidering his own beliefs. It’s also about why just losing in court again and again and again isn’t enough to dissuade a budding guru. I’m not trying to do that with this piece, either. I don’t think it’s possible to talk such a person out of their beliefs.
But because this guru’s recent rhetoric has become extremely frantic and even he’s even suggested violence, it’s important to engage with the theories he preaches in case that helps dissuade people from falling for them. I don’t think this particular pseudolawyer is actually going to become violent, but the communities that form around such ideas can become unpredictable. (Just ask the Malheur occupiers.) So in addition to discussing those theories as a case study, at the end of this piece I’m going to outline some of the simplest and most obvious flaws with them. Engaging irrational beliefs that hurt people is, after all, the Good Fight.
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 Bronwyn Dickey‘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!
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 1 here, Day 5 Part 2 here, 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.”
I do. I hope it reaches you, Q.