Monday 26 September 2011

Conspiring to persuade

I spent yesterday (Sunday) in London at the CFI's Conspiracy Theory Day.

My motivation for attending this event was David Aaronovitch's scheduled appearance. He's written a book on conspiracy theories and I missed out on an event last year at which he spoke. So I thought this would be a good way to catch up on what I missed.

It turns out Aaronovitch is not well and regrettably had to withdraw. Stephen Law, Provost of CFI UK, decided to fill the gap with someone from "the other side" and so we had a talk by 9/11 truther Ian R. Crane. The audience, too, comprised a fair proportion of conspiracy theorists (though I dare say not all of them care for that characterisation).

I took many photographs of the various speakers (in poor light, so they might not be good enough to display), and James O'Malley of The Pod Delusion was there to record audio of the event. Professional video cameras (on tripods, the whole bit) were also in evidence. It seems therefore that the event will be archived. I intend to write about the various talks in more detail, but for now I'll offer some brief and fairly random thoughts.

Chris French and Robert Brotherton from Goldsmith's Anomalous Psychology Research Unit, as well as Karen Douglas from the University of Kent's School of Psychology, gave accounts of research showing that conspiracy theorists differ from religionists in a fundamental way. Believers in the one true faith tend to discount all other religions as false, whereas people who buy into one particular conspiracy theory are likely to endorse several others as well. It's apparently rare for someone to believe in only one conspiracy theory while discounting all others.

Jamie Bartlett and Carl Miller talked about the fall-out from their 2010 paper "The Power of Unreason" and the role of the internet in that fall-out. All the talks were followed with Q&A sessions, during which the make-up of the audience became more apparent. Despite explicit statements by the earlier speakers that their areas of concern did not include the veracity or otherwise of the conspiracy theorists' claims, several questions focussed on such detail. This was not surprising given the audience composition — the event had been publicised and anyone was free to buy a ticket.

The final speaker was Ian R. Crane, who touched on the definition of conspiracy theory (as previous speakers had been careful to elucidate) but soon went on to present the "9/11 truth" viewpoint. Some of the characteristics described in previous talks were amply demonstrated in the style of Crane's presentation. Whereas French, Brotherton and Douglas made their points by quoting from research papers, sometimes illustrating the results on screen using graphs or lists of references, Crane had his source texts on a table next to him. This was not apparently to enable him to quote directly from those texts, but rather so that he could pick one up and wave it in the air when he mentioned it. As Bartlett and Miller had already described when they mentioned the use of evocative videos with emotional appeal, Crane's presentation relied much on theatricality.

The final session was a discussion panel with all speakers, responding to questions from the floor. It lasted only half an hour, but even in that time things got a little heated. Many questioners seemed oblivious to the idea of a "question" and tended to use their time to address the hall, much to the consternation of the organisers and the increasing impatience of an excitable audience. But on the whole it was an excellent day, and the chance to hear the other side was a welcome additional benefit. I hope David Aaronovitch gets well soon.

Here's another view of the event: