Monday 26 September 2011

British Humanist Association Conspiracy Theory Conference

The British Humanist Association is rarely far from my thoughts, not since I awarded them a collective MBA very recently, see: The other day, at very short notice, it was announced that none other than Ian R Crane (See HPANWO Links column) would be addressing them. This was curious, I thought. It turns out that the BHA were holding a “Conspiracy Theory Day”; I looked in my diary and saw I was off-duty so bought a ticket without hesitation, see . I’m glad I did because what I enjoyed when I attended yesterday was one of the most unusual and entertaining conferences I’ve ever been to.

The one-day conference was held in a comfortable and elegant old venue, Conway Hall in London, see: . The delegates were very different from the ones I usually see at conferences. These were mostly Humanists; Humanism is a form of organized Secularism or Atheism. Rather like the term “Conspiracy Theory” that the first speakers said later on was so hard to define, so is Humanism. It’s one of these terms that gives everybody a very strong and definite feeling about what it means, but it’s very hard to put it into words. I wouldn’t call myself a Humanist and very few other people would too, but when I took their quiz, see: (13th post down) as you can see I got “mostly D’s” so technically I could be a member myself! However the authors of this quiz are perhaps being a little dishonest. It could really have consisted of only one question: Number 2: “Is there an Afterlife”. If you answer “Yes” you cannot be a Humanist, even if you choose D for every other answer. The non-existence of Life-After-Death is the lifeblood, cornerstone and raison d’etre of Humanism, not a lack of religion, or God not existing or believing in being kind to others yadda yadda yadda, it’s the absolute self-conviction that when you die that’s it! You cease to exist for all eternity. It is for this reason that I feel such pride and such elation in decorating the British Humanist Association with the MBA Bronze! It’s obvious for this reason that Humanism shares a lot of common grounds with the Skeptic Movement. Most Humanists are Skeptics and vice-versa.

I looked around the room for familiar faces and experienced a strange feeling as I saw both the conspiratorially-aware people I meet at AV, Probe and other conferences, together with the Skeptics I bump into at the various Skeptics in The Pub events I go to, see for example: . It was a very peculiar feeling to see these two aspects of my social life coming together when up till now they’ve always been in strictly separate compartments. I saw two friends I went to Exopol with, see: , and I also met up with Ian R Crane and Alex G of AV and Nick Pope; but at the same time I saw SiTP-members I knew and a few “Skeptilebrities” (A compound word I’ve invented that means a Skeptic celebrity), like James O’Malley of The Pod Delusion radio show, see: . I looked down the row of stalls and felt the hooks of cognitive dissonance tear my mental flesh as I saw Ian R Crane’s stall right next to the ones selling books by Richard Dawkins and Richard Wiseman.

I felt myself almost melt with awe and humility at the sight of Prof. Chris French coming onto the stage as the first speaker. When I think back now I can still hardly believe that I was truly in the presence of one of only two MBA Gold Laureates in the world! See: . When I finally collected my senses and recovered from the almost overwhelming emotion I was a bit disappointed to see that The Great Man was not alone on stage; he had to share it with a slim, gangly and very studious young man called Robert Brotherton. I was shocked to see that Brotherton did not kneel down and kiss the ground when addressing French, so breaking MBA protocol! It turns out that this is a colleague of Prof. French at the Anomalistic Psychology Unit at Goldsmith’s College. The two men did a double-act. At first they tried to define the term “Conspiracy Theory”. It’s one that is intuitively obvious, but hard to put into actual words. They took on the idea that David Ray Griffin always voices, that the official story of 9/11 is just another Conspiracy Theory, one in which Bin Laden conspired with Mohammed Atta et al to crash airliners into the World Trade Centre. They said that this was actually not a Conspiracy Theory because it made much more sense and had much more evidence supporting it. It didn’t rely on mantra of Conspiracy Theory, that 1: Everything is a lie, 2: Everything is intended, 3: Everything is significant. It was a "natrual collective consensus of opinion". However they, like the following speaker Karen Douglas, make the point that at the end of the day the whole issue does depend on evidence and rational inquiry. However French, Brotherton and Douglas all concentrated their speech around psychological profiling and indeed French stated in as many words: “I’m not going to debate the evidence for or against particular Conspiracy Theories; this is not the place for that.” So this event was about the psychological phenomenon of Conspiracy Theory, not any actual reason that it might exist. This was a very important admission on their part, but I don’t think they quite understood the significance of it. He repeated this rule again during his Q and A when members of the audience went up to angrily challenge him on his views. One of them was Belinda McKenzie who won lots of hearts, including my own, when she said indignantly : “I’m a conspiracy realist!", (see: ) Ironically Chris French made the statement that afternoon that I most agreed with: “There’s a lot of pseudoscience in psychology you know.” He meant it as a criticism of something Ian R Crane said, but I think it could have applied to something entirely different!

Dr Karen Douglas (See: ) came onto stage next and spoke of her own psychological studies on Conspiracy Theorists. “Why is it that people believe in these things?” she asked. She said it had a lot to do with feeling powerless and full of despair. But she also said some strange things that made no sense to me. Firstly she told us that many Conspiracists hold two or more mutually contradictory beliefs, like Bin Laden being killed many years ago and also Bin Laden still being alive. I wonder who Dr Douglas was using as the subjects of her study. I’ve never met anybody who thinks that. I know a lot of people who believe Bin Laden is still alive, and many who think he died around 2001, including myself, but never the twain have met as far as I can see. During the Q and A I went up to ask a question: “Thank you for that very interesting profile into the psychology of Conspiracy Theorists. I want to make a suggestion for a new study; if my suggestion is taken up I’d be very interested in following its progress and results. It’s a study on the psychological profile of another group of people, one called by a name whose meaning is also very easy to understand intuitively, but hard to define in actual words. That name is: Skeptic!” (I then made a false exit and came back to the mic) “... with a K!” Unfortunatly Karen Douglas answered my question literally; my ironic sarcasm went right over her head! Just imagine though, hosting a conference and saying things like: “Why do people believe in the Skeptic Movement? What comfort to they derive from it? What kind of background do they have that leads them to follow Skeptical leaders? Etc.” Now that would be a good conference to attend!

The next two speakers were a pair of skinny young men with bushy hair and beards; they looked just like the 118-118 twins, see: (My friend Richard Wright also noted their similarity in appearance to Mark Pilkington, see: . They have suffered a lot of abuse on the Internet for a scientific paper they wrote on Conspiracy Theorists. They work for DEMOS, an organization that has aroused much suspicion from people like Brian Gerrish for its links to Common Purpose and other “Fifth Column” organizations. Bartlett and Miller deny that DEMOS is anything sinister and is really a cuddly, friendly organization. I’m not convinced at all, but on the subject of abuse and hatred towards others who criticize us, I must agree. In fact I’m one of the voices that appealed for calm after the infamous U-turn by Charlie Veitch, see: .

Stephen Law, whom I met at Oxford SiTP, see: came out to introduce the last speaker Ian R Crane. He said that he was concerned when he found out that some Conspiracy Theorists had bought tickets. He thought that there could have been disruption. I actually went up and spoke to Law at the end and said jokingly: “You see, we ‘Conspiracy Theorists’ are not all disruptive are we?” In fact everybody behaved impeccably the whole day, and there were a lot of friendly interactions, as well as conflict, between the two factions in the audience. In the end this was a public conference and if anybody was that bothered they could have made it a private BHA function with tickets sold to members only. Anyway, I digress; Ian R Crane was there because Law thought it would be a good idea to have a pro-Conspiracy Theory speaker as well as all the anti ones. He was worried that the conference might become boring as the speakers “preached to the converted”. He was correct there! Ian came onto the stage and made what was arguably one of the best speeches I’ve ever seen him do. He must have been a bit nervous as this was the enemy’s lair, so to speak. However, come to think of it, he did address the Women’s Institute! See: . Ian had obviously tailor-made his speech for this specific audience. I had a feeling he’d pull some spectacular stunt and he didn’t disappoint. In the middle of his address he invited Tony Farrell up onto the stage, see: . It was a very dramatic moment and we gave him a standing ovation as he walked up to the stage from the back of the hall. Karen Douglas had spoke of the “attraction” of holding belief in Conspiracy Theory, but what was the attraction for Tony? Losing his job? Losing his income? Losing his pension, his livelihood and reputation? If I didn’t know about the Skeptic mentality any better then I’d have thought that there’d be a few flushed cheeks and darting gazes, but no such luck. During the panel discussion at the end of the conference the Skeppers kept on rationalizing and reducing. However if Ian just made one member of the audience think again...

This was a superb conference and I’m very glad I went. Thanks to Stephen Law and all the other organizers. Also thanks to the speakers, especially Ian and Tony Farrell. This may well only be Part 1 of a two-part report because at the end of the day the challenge went out for a public debate on a specific Conspiracy Theoretical detail featuring Ian and one of the Skeps from the panel. Alex G has promised to televise it on EMTV, see: . I shall look forward to that very much!

A good postscript to this report is that I had a very pleasant conversation with Nick Pope and I’m pleased to relate that he bears me no ill will for my report into his Weird 11 speech, see: If he had, however, I would not retract it.
(Edit: This event has been filmed eg: )

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ian R Crane said...

An excellent review Ben ... Once again, Thank you!

The Truth Seeker's Guide said...

Great review. Wish I could have made it.
At least the conference confirmed one thing:
Ian R Crane is fearless!
All The Best,

alex:g said...

Good stuff Ben - you captured the mood of the day well; like I said on Facebook, it was like being in the "away supporters" end of a packed-out football match. Pity we never got to chant "You're not pontificating, you're not pontificating, you're not pontificating any more!"

Ben Emlyn-Jones said...

Thanks, Ian. And you're welcome. You earned it, mate!

Ben Emlyn-Jones said...

Thanks, Carl. It was a brilliant event and I'm so glad I went along. Hope to see you at a future one of Ian's lectures.

Ben Emlyn-Jones said...

Thanks Alex. It was nice to see you again.

We could have shouted "The referee's a wanker!" But Stephen Law's not a bad bloke. At least he was willing to host an "away team" and his fears of any disruption were totally unfounded.

Ian Fantom said...

I missed the conference and have just got round to watching the videos. Looks like a good write-up.

I'm the guy who invited Demos to address 'Keep Talking' to demonstrate how 'open infiltration' would work if it became government policy. They did, and it wasn't nice. The shouting came from a group of their friends sitting straight in front of me as I chaired the meeting.

As for their report being a "scientific paper" Jamie Bartlett admitted to me after the meeting that it wasn't a scientific paper. During the meeting Carl Miller admitted that to derive the statistical correlations claimed they had used absolutely no statistical techniques whatsoever.

Having just seen Ian Crane's speech, I can say I think it's the most brilliant I've ever seen, especially considering that he was reacting to stuff presented earlier the same day.

Following the 'Keep Talking' meeting I did a write-up in my newsletter and was interviewed on No Lies Radio (

Before the meeting, I sent an analysis of their report to the ministers who were on Demos's Advisory Council, asking them if they really wanted to be associated with such a group.

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