A disabled veteran and former fake news huckster has squeezed $17 million out of American conservatives with a promise to “fund the wall.” The press has covered the crowdfunding campaign, and even dug a bit into his shady prior endeavors. But I can’t find a single report really analyzing how the man behind this campaign, Brian Kolfage, is benefiting personally. He’s given an audience of disaffected conservatives, frustrated by Trump’s failures, a way to buy the feeling of a successful movement. It’s an unscrupulous way to monetize irrationality and xenophobia, and it’s going to succeed even as the campaign to fund the wall fails.
(Kolfage has sued people in the past for criticizing him. With that in mind, I’ll point out the obvious: this piece shares previously reported facts about Kolfage and his campaign, as well as my opinions based on those facts. For example, the numbers below come from the linked public sources. My conclusion based on those reported facts, that Kolfage is an unscrupulous huckster, is purely my opinion. I do not have any reason to believe that he has broken any laws.)
This was a big year for conspiracy theories. They’ve staked out more space in the headlines than we used to be comfortable with and stayed long enough that we’re starting to get used to it. The energy feeding them comes from above, as Trump and other mainstream media figures find new ways to harness conspiracy theory culture, and from below, as movements like Q Anon find ways to raise their profile with cynical self-awareness.
October was particularly gruesome. While relatively benign groups were busy ginning up new conspiracy theories for the benefit of the US and Russian governments—a bizarre flipflop of their traditional hostility to mainstream power—two men made headlines in a horribly familiar way. One murdered eleven people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the other mailed more than a dozen bombs to Trump’s critics. They apparently both believed that Jews and liberals were plotting against them, and they decided to fight their imaginary enemies by slaughtering strangers.
These are two different expressions of the same basic phenomenon. Not every conspiracy theorist will act on their beliefs, and even fewer will become violent. But those extremists aren’t arising in a vacuum. They radicalize over time, after years of absorbing frantic, paranoid calls to action the culture that grows up around particularly invidious conspiracy theories. We can’t do much to control the bell end of violent extremists directly; only law enforcement is really equipped to do that, and unfortunately only after the damage has already been done. But going into the holidays and 2019, we—and that does include you, the reader—can do something to disarm the culture that radicalizes them.
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.
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 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."