Dogs, Doom and Dictators

Last weekend, the Bluecoat gallery in Liverpool hosted a day of events under the title Views From The Grassy Knoll. It was a mixture of talks, screenings and performances covering everything from conspiracy theories and art, to science and politics. It also included an overview of what Skepticism is by Gavin Schofield from the Greater Manchester Skeptics, which I sadly missed but which I heard was a very good talk.

The headline lecture was 2012 by Dr Bill Aitchison, a performance artist and researcher. I was lucky enough to be able to make this one, albeit fifteen minutes late, and found it a very interesting and entertaining, if strange, experience.

It’s difficult to give an overview of exactly what the lecture was about. It was technically about four or five mini-lectures spliced together. Aitchison would talk about one for a few minutes, and then at musical and visual cues from his laptop would react as if conditioned and switch to another thread. A lot of the content concerned various conspiracy theories, some well-known, some more obscure, some utterly absurd and possibly invented for the lecture itself. How much Aitchison believed any of them, if at all,  is difficult to tell. Some of the theories were obviously presented in a satirical manner, though as the whole thing was a performance piece no real grasp of Aichison’s own beliefs was possible. Not that it mattered overall. The entertainment of the talk was in entering the world of these theories and enjoying the wilful blending of fact and fiction.

The sheer range was exhilirating. Saddam Hussein turns out to have spent a lot of his time writing novels, which I was completely unaware of, and Aitchison even read out an extract from one of them. He even implied that a cover from one book, showing two tall buildings collapsing, was Hussein claiming responsibility for the attacks of 9/11. This was cross-referenced to Osama Bin Laden’s taped addresses to camera, with mention of the one where he claims responsibility for 9/11 being of particularly bad quality, with a left-handed, chubby Bin Laden instead of a right-handed, skinny one.

An actor? Who knows? The possible answers in the lecture just get weirder and weirder.

We also heard about I Ching predictions, and how China’s five mascots for the 2008 Olympics are supposed to have predicted world events, as well as a retread of Pavlov’s famous experiments with dogs (which links to Aitchison’s ‘conditioning’ schtick throughout the talk). We also had sections on the Tunguska event of 1908, and of course, the various conspiracies surrounding the supposed end of the world in 2012.

But this was nothing on the common conspiracy which Aitchison used to link all of these, which was psychic dogs. The idea is that radiation from the Tunguska explosion caused mutations in local dogs which gave them a shared psychic link, and that this link has been passed down genetically from generation to generation. As well as psychic, these dogs are also supposed to be intelligent, and not only that, but are apparently influencing world events.

In case you hadn’t guessed, this was the point in the talk where Dr Aitchison was quite clearly after laughs.

The evidence for these dogs’ Machievellian schemes? Numerous photos of world leaders with their pets: Vladimir Putin, with his trusty dog, Koni, who goes everywhere with him; Barack Obama, who suspiciously bought a new dog upon entering the White House; Clinton; even David Cameron, with his new puppy (no mention of cats, despite the fact that they always look like they know more than they’re letting on…). Of course, it’s all an evil scheme, and these dogs are part of a controlling cabal, quietly placing themselves in the homes of the movers and shakers of the world in order to influence world events. How could you deny it? All those pictures of presidents with their trusty companions sitting by their feet, hearing everything and passing it on to their psychic compadres the world over. It’s all preparation for the end of the world in 2012.

I found the talk very interesting and exhilirating, and in all honesty didn’t give a damn about whether any of the conspiracies stood up to examination. It was simply fun to immerse myself in this world of paranoia, random elements and even more random linkage. There was even a bit of new knowledge along the way (I still can’t imagine Saddam Hussein sitting down for several hours a day, churning out romantic adventure novels). It is easy to forget that skepticism for a lot of people comes out of this kind of interest. Skeptical thinking and the thought processes of conspiracy theorists are in some ways similar, in my view. Both involve trying to investigate and get to the bottom of the ‘truth’ behind things, looking for patterns and evidence. The difference is that most conspiracy theories are unintentionally blinkered. They usually miss one or more important facts, or let paranoia take it a little too far off the reality path. A lot of people who are interested in conspiracy theories end up becoming skeptics, because quite often that is where objective study of the theories will lead you. It seems like a natural progression to me. Skeptics don’t look down on conspiracy theories or silly beliefs. Quite often they’re as interested in them as the non-skeptics, it’s just that their standards for judgement have become more rigorous.

Sometimes, it seems like skepticism in the UK is mainly based around pseudoscientific or pseudomedicinal claims, rather than other areas of ‘woo’ like ghosts, UFOs or conspiracy theories. This is understandable, as it is in medicine and science that bad logic and sloppy thinking can become dangerous, so it makes sense to focus more on these areas. No-one gets hurt by someone’s belief in UFOs or who may have been on the grassy knoll (except maybe Kennedy), after all. But those less dangerous areas of woo are still part of skepticism, because they are interesting subjects in their own right. Skeptics would not go out of their way to examine extraordinary claims if they didn’t have an interest in the subject in the first place. It’s not necessarily about debunking, it’s just about getting your facts right. I would love it if reported UFO sightings turned out to be of real alien spacecraft, but unfortunately the evidence does not lean that way. Nevertheless, I keep my eye on the subject, not in order to keep seeing it debunked, but because if there is something in it, I want to know! The same applies to conspiracy theories.

There is another fact about conspiracy theories that keeps some of us skeptics coming back for more, too. They’re fun! It is great fun to enter these tapestries of fact and speculation, to examine and dissect them. It is great fun to imagine they may be true. I may not think that dogs are secretly running the world – in fact I definitely don’t – but I love the idea. It is worth remembering this sense of fun any time someone accuses you of being a killjoy or hating everything because you’re a skeptic. If anything defines a skeptic it’s enthusiasm and an interest in discovering the truth, not crushing people’s dreams. The negative stereotypes of skeptics don’t really hold up to scrutiny.

I hope anyone reading who went to the event at the Bluecoat enjoyed it as much as I did. If anyone missed it, we have a talk in May by journalist David Aaronovitch on conspiracy theories and their role in shaping modern history, which promises to be a superb evening out, so why not come along and enjoy some of that supposedly dry, ‘killjoy’ skepticism?

Hopefully see you then, if the dogs haven’t got to me…


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