Getting to the Pit of the Bull: Bronwen Dickey on Canines and Conspiracies

August 23, 2016

Bronwen Dickey is a contributing editor at The Oxford American, and author of Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon. Her writing can also be found in The New York Times, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Newsweek, Slate, The San Francisco Chronicle, and numerous other publications. For Dickey’s most recent piece, just published in Popular Mechanics, she embarks on the “Conspire-Sea Cruise,” giving us an inside look at what the world of a conspiracy theorist is like and what fuels the need to believe in vast, nefarious plots.

Dickey says she was inspired to report on the conspiracy cruise after working on Pit Bull, where she discovered just how strong the desire can be to ignore evidence and seek out junk science that supports one’s existing beliefs. In conversation with host Lindsay Beyerstein, Dickey looks at the paranoia that propels people towards conspiracy and compares it to the tireless fear mongering pit bull breeds are subjected to. Dickey gives a detailed account of the history and science behind pit bulls and offers a hardheaded overview of what we know about them as a breed and the contrasting ways everyday Americans view them.

This is point of inquiry for August twenty third. 2016. 

Hello and welcome to a point of inquiry. A production of the Center for and I’m your host Lindsay Beyerstein. And my guest today is journalist Bronwyn Dickie. Bronwyn has written the best cruise ship related essays since David Foster Wallace penned a supposedly fun thing I’ll Never Do Again. 

It’s called I Went On a weeklong cruise for conspiracy theorists. It ended poorly and it appears in the latest issue of Popular Mechanics. You can find a link to that story on our Web site. 

So, Bronwyn, how did you come to write a piece about a conspiracy cruise? 

Well, interestingly enough, it kind of started when I was working on my book. The book, it was kind of seven years in the making. And it was all kind of about junk science and media narratives around pitbulls. And there’s kind of a key component of that story that has to do with people who reject the science that says pitbulls fall along the same bell curve as other dogs. And there’s this kind of small, motivated group of people who believe there is a lobby, a pit bull lobby controlling the science. So it made me really interested in conspiracies, kind of ideation and conspiracy thinking. So I started looking into the research. People like Steven Lee when Dyleski I know who’s been on your show and a couple of other folks. And it really got me interested in kind of conspiracy as a community and a way of looking at the world. So when I saw that there was an entire specialty cruise for conspiracy theories, I thought, you know, this is this is a great story. I have to do it. 

And the cruise literally calls itself conspiracy with a pun in the name. And yet a lot of the cruisers are somehow sensitive about being called conspiracy theorists. Yeah. 

That was kind of a strange paradox in that everyone there self-identified as a conspiracy theorist or that or they wouldn’t have been there. 

And yet they were also very sensitive and I think probably understandably so, to the fact that the outside world does not look kindly on conspiracy theories. You know, there are jokes about tinfoil hat and UFOs and aliens and stuff. And yet there were several people in the group who very strongly believed in U.S. foes and extraterrestrials visiting Earth and things like that. So I wanted to be sensitive to that and going into the trip. And I never intended and I certainly never wanted to kind of go on a trip and and poke fun or look down on people who believed strange things. Really. I wanted to talk about belief formation and how we evaluate evidence and those kinds of things, critical thinking. 

What was the menu or the gamut of conspiracy theories represented on the cruise? 

It was absolutely everything. There were kind of two broad camps. 

There were more of a New Age camp and their interests were were things like extraterrestrials or psychic vampirism or energy work or energy field, Stargate, that kind of thing. 

And then there were people who were very I guess what you would say were kind of your quintessential conspiracy theorists who are working about vaccines, GMO, those government mind control, those kinds of things. So it was really all over the place. But one of the things that I found kind of most surprising is that with all of these beliefs that were represented in one space, I would have thought there would have been a lot of disagreement among in the group because there were so many theories at work. And these people are kind of usually thought of as being very skeptical and suspicious of everything. And yet once they were all together, they really seemed to believe everything wholesale. So there was it was really about kind of bond forming and community more than it was about testing claims. 

So there was very little interest. Sectarian conflict, surprisingly little, though. 

Towards the end of the trip, I think the the suspicious nature of the conspiracy community kind of started to make I guess, just make everyone more tense. 

You could kind of see day by day, people started to get a little more uneasy, a little more suspicious of each other. And there were a couple of key points of conflict. You know, one man adamantly denied that the Holocaust ever happened and a woman who had his grandfather or father or grandfather, I can’t remember, which had been a Holocaust survivor, was obviously very upset by that. So there were there were little kind of things like that. But really, it was more them against, quote, us, the media. That was the kind of big conflict. 

And you were there openly and telling everybody you were with Popular Mechanics as yet in the piece. 

Yes. Yeah. That was very important to me. I did not want to mislead anybody. I didn’t want anyone feeling that I was sneaking around. I really wanted to have an open conversation about this stuff. And I really was there to listen. And I wanted people to understand that. 

And what happened? Were people initially friendly and then the mood. So, Howard. 

Yes, initially I was actually I was surprised by how open and friendly the entire group was. I expected a little bit of pushback right from the beginning just because I was with a media outlet and I was with a magazine which often talks about science and junk science. So but no, everyone was really nice. Really wonderful. The first night was great. But then kind of the next morning and then and the next afternoon, things started to get really strange in that a number of presenters asked me to leave their presentations, even though the magazine had paid full fare for me to be there. It wasn’t like I got some kind of press discount. 

And two people in particular, Lynn Horowitz and Sherri Cain. Who were there to talk about a miracle frequencies? 

I think they kind of approached me and said in a very aggressive way that if I did anything to disparage them, they would dedicate themselves to exposing Popular Mechanics. And it was just as really odd to this. 

I was they were going to expose Popular Mechanics as like a government everywhere. 

I mean, and that was kind of the thing that was so wild is that especially in the case of, say, Lynn Horowitz, who is a former dentist from New Jersey who wrote a book in nineteen ninety six saying that alleging, let’s just say, alleging that the Ebola and HIV viruses were government weapons used to depopulate the planet. You look at Len. He actually has a public health degree from Harvard. And he’s a very intelligent guy and he was very personable. But it was one of these things where his pattern recognition, his kind of sense of pattern was off the charts. I mean, he saw connections between everything, everywhere. So the fact that I you know, Popular Mechanics was owned by Hearst and Hearst is somehow, you know, tied to a media conglomerate of French media conglomerate called the Legard, a group that had been on his radar as some kind of I don’t it agent of terrorism or something. That became a reason why why I was enemy number one. 

Andrew Wakefield was aboard, too. Can you tell us a bit about his performance? Sure. Yeah. 

Andrew Wakefield being aboard the cruise was one of the things that originally had made me so interested in it, because, as you know, he’s kind of the figurehead for the anti vaccine movement in both the UK and the US. 

So the fact that he was on a cruise with people who, you know, there was one man who his thing was a financial scam called commercial redemption, which alleges, you know, claims that all Americans have secret access to piles of money. Just have to find out how to get them. But this guy, Winston Shrout, said that most of his clients or many of his clients were fairies and elves. And here’s, you know, Andrew Wakefield claiming to be a man of science and he’s next to Winston Shroud or there’s, you know, a number of people on the cruise had been indicted for various things. Or, you know, there was the guy who who was talking about crop circle and extraterrestrials being in the US government and that kind of thing. 

So and yet Wakefield was not was not contradicting anything that was said by anyone. So the fact that he was in this kind of like, carnival sideshow, I think really shows how far he’s fallen and a lot of ways. 

But he had one main presentation that I attended on the first full morning of the cruise, and that was where he laid out his whole kind of the the plot for lack of a better term of what that’s his film. That would be. So all the stuff about the quote unquote, CDC whistleblower, which is not a whistleblower. 

All this stuff kind of alleging that vaccines there’s a higher risk for vaccinated African-American boys and autism, et cetera, et cetera, from MMR. That’s when he laid that out. But then after that, he was going to be showing. 

A screening of VACC, it was then called injecting lies, and he would not allow me or other journalists in to see the film. 

Wow. I was really struck by the imagery in the essay about which field was getting up and talking in front of pictures of deformed babies. And it reminded me a lot of imagery of the anti-abortion. 

You showed the photos of the thalidomide crisis that happened in the mid 20th century over in Europe. And just all kind of the whole presentation was really about fear. The messages were all about fear. He was saying things like, this is a science fiction movie. Your bodies are owned by Big Pharma. And there were people in the audience. There were young parents in the audience who were, you know, taking this very seriously. 

You show young parents slides of child, you know, children who’ve been deformed by thalidomide. And the implication is this is the kind of thing that will happen to your children if you allow them to be vaccinated. He he drew on the imagery from Tuskegee very heavily in a very manipulative way. And and it was all really unsettling. 

I guess the ultimate question is, what is it that makes people believe in conspiracy theories? 

I think that’s still a question for me, too. 

I can say, and I certainly don’t want to psychoanalyze anyone or put words in anyone now, but what I picked up when I was on the cruise was that these were, by and large, people who kind of needed something to believe in either. You know, there are a number of people who had had recent bouts of cancer or significant injuries or they had gone through some kind of trauma. And I think the fact that. The conspiracy community provides all the answers. Kind of like in a lot of ways, religion provides all the answers. And one of the things that was truly unexpected when I when I went on the cruise and spent time in this community was how much religious language there was in all of it. I thought for sure the kind of I guess the majority of the conspiracy community would reject religion as being like the ultimate conspiracy. And they kind of did in terms of organized religion. But there was so much talk about profits, about angels, about there being a battle between good and evil for the soul, the universe. It was there was so much of that that it was almost overwhelming. And so I think a lot of it is the same impulse in that, you know, if you are a person who very strongly needs to believe in something for one reason or another, you might turn to religion. And there’s like a benevolent God who’s controlling everything, or you might turn to conspiracy, in which case there’s a sinister, all powerful organization, whether it’s the builder birds or the Rothschilds or something, and they’re controlling it all. But I think I think the Impulse’s is very similar. 

But in a way, conspiracy theories are also bizarrely optimistic because they posit that the world is fundamentally good were it not marred by some identifiable specific thing like Big Pharma or. 

Yeah, I mean, I guess you could look at it that way, though. 

The weird thing about it is that there’s never any conspiracy to help the world. 

You know, it’s always the secret plot is always bad. It’s always sinister. And the people at the top in charge are always almost preternaturally capable and in agreement with each other. And it’s just is the really weird thing. 

I think when I talk to Stephen Lewandowsky, he and I had a really interesting conversation about kind of the self sealing argument and kind of the disordered cognition that goes into conspiracy stuff in that no matter what you present a conspiracy theorist with, it becomes evidence of the plot. No matter you know what it is, no matter how much it disproves their idea, they can find some way that it that it proves the idea. 

Was there anything that you saw where you thought somebody might have a germ of a good idea? 

We think I mean, I think there are in all fairness, I think there are tiny, like seeds of skepticism in some of these things that are good and normal, natural and healthy, such as, you know, I think lots of us have concerns about the way Big Pharma conducts itself in the marketplace, whether it’s the aggressive marketing or corporate control of medicine or anything like that. 

I think that’s good to be skeptical of and ask questions about where it turns into something not so good. Is where where there is a wholesale rejection of the scientific method and everyone’s in on a huge plot to kill children, something like that. Same with kind of like the GMO stuff. I think it’s good for people to know about what they’re putting in their bodies and to ask questions about bioengineering and things like that. But those questions should lead you to the experts. And it’s the experts who can kind of empower us with the scientific information that we need when it becomes, you know, GM, those aren’t natural and things that aren’t natural or bad. And no matter what you say, I’m going to reject it. And therefore, you know, there are countries that are banning genetically modified organisms. When some of those plants could really help the starvation problem know, that’s when things turn kind of ugly. But I think, you know, a little bit of that skepticism is good. It just this kind of gets out of control. 

Shifting gears to talk about your new book, Pit Bull, I was really fascinated by the idea that so many people were pseudo experts on pit, both opining outside of their area of expertize and getting themselves in trouble. Can you explain how that works? 


So I’m not sure how far back you want to go, but the whole kind of pit bull hysteria that we think of today, it got it had its roots in the 1970s when a really well-intentioned part of the animal welfare movement wanted to eradicate what was left of professional dog fighting, which wasn’t much. But the fighters that were still around were very hard to apprehend because they often moved across state lines and there were no kind of federal laws to to apprehend them. So the animal welfare movement kind of partnered with the media to make dogfighting a front page issue for American voters. 

And in doing that, instead of focusing on the dogs as victims of cruelty, they allowed people who were not scientists to wildly speculate on all kinds of scientific matters of behavior, of biology, anatomy, such as saying things that, you know, these dogs or machines they love to fight. All they can do is fight their mutants. They have, you know, crushing jaws. They have locking jaws, all kinds of things. And no one in the press kind of held anyone to account for this. 

So I think also because animal welfare in the animal sciences where we’re pretty, I wouldn’t I mean, I wouldn’t say entirely new, but they weren’t as well established as some other scientific fields that lots of people felt it was OK to call themselves, you know, a behavior expert or a behaviorist or a dog expert. 

I think most people even just kind of like in the lay community, think of themselves as knowing more about dogs than they actually do. So that became a real problem. And that’s something that’s continued to today. I mean, you see lots of people who who claim to be statistical experts on dog bites, who have absolutely no statistical background in epidemiology at all, people who who are making breed identifications of of mixed breed dogs when they’re just like some guy off the street. 

They have no idea what they’re doing. So, yeah, it’s one of those things, this controversies that everyone wanted to weigh in on and everyone considered himself an expert. 

There’s this idea that, I mean, it seems really plausible on its face that, you know, dogs are bred for certain things and that border collie will try and herd you because that’s a behavior that was bred into them, or greyhounds really will run 40 miles an hour and then sleep in alternating bursts. 

Is there any truth to the idea that pit bulls are more dangerous than the average dog because they’re bred to fight? 

No. So that’s one of the things that I think is hardest for. 

Well, to kind of one of the ideas that I think is is so entrenched because of the way we all grew up thinking about dogs and dog breeds as being, quote, bred for certain things when in reality we don’t live in a working dog culture at all. If I would be shocked if five percent of American dogs were bred to their historical working behavioral standard, we live overwhelmingly in a pet dog culture. So the idea that what a dog was, what a type of dog may have been bred for two hundred years ago, the idea that any dog that looks like that now will somehow have all those traits, it it defies everything we know about population genetics. It defies everything we know about selection pressures, unless you exert that pressure for a behavioral trait consistently over a very long period of time. You’re not going to see it in the next generation. And sometimes you won’t even see it even if you do. I mean, there’s no such thing. I think one of the trainers of the dog trainers I spoke to was adamant and she said there’s no such thing as a litter of winners. 

It’s not like installing software. Behavior is a lot more complicated than that. So today’s dogs that we call pit bulls, they’re not even one breed there for breeds. And three of the four have no ties to professional dog fighting at all. And they haven’t for a very long time, at least since the 1930s. 

So that’s many, many, many generations of dogs that have not been bred for that purpose. But it’s yet there’s this idea that, you know, a dog is bred for X because it was once said to have been bred for X, but even that is a lot more complicated. 

And there might be some infusion of selection pressures with people who are breeding dogs to fight still. But you’re saying not sure how much larger. 

I mean, that’s different, but not by any means. The majority of the dogs we call pit bulls today at all. Yeah. 

What are the statistics about where pit bulls fall in terms of their aggressiveness? And can you say a bit about what qualifies as a good statistic or a reliable statistic in a debate like this? Because there’s so much so many specious numbers floating around. 

Yeah, I mean, it’s really tough when you because, again, even the term aggression is not just like kind of pit bull isn’t one thing. Aggression isn’t one thing. 

Aggression, as the behavioral scientists I spoke with extensively were very adamant about aggression, happens in context. There’s always, you know, a time, place or reason for a dog to either defend itself or or aggress against another creature. So it’s kind of a lump it all into. 

One thing is really problematic. Usually when we’re thinking about it, we’re saying, you know, a dog biting, a human. That’s kind of what we’re what we’re talking about. But there could be, you know, 15 million reasons why why that happens. Kind of like I used the example in the book. 

The reason why humans hate each other, sometimes it’s an accident. Sometimes it’s over assault. Sometimes it’s self-defense. Sometimes it’s play. Sometimes it’s all kinds of things. So that makes knowing about kind of statistical distribution of aggression very, very, very hard to kind of suss out. Right. When when there have been some studies done in terms of owner surveys of behavior and stuff. 

Pit bulls fall well within the range of normal. 

And there’s that dog bite study that comes out every year that had something like golden retrievers and cocker spaniels way up on the top of the biting scale. I was always surprised by that. 

But it seems yeah, it’s just it’s a weird thing. And I always whenever those things come out, I always kind of shake my head a little bit only because there’s just some about that we don’t know. 

And, you know, lots of times people will be like, oh, well, it’s always small dogs that that bite the most. But look at how small dogs are handled. You know, one say if you’re a four pound Chihuahua, the world is probably a much more frightening place to you than if you’re a two hundred pound master. And people, you know, look at how kind of people interact with small dogs. 

They’re very you know, they think nothing about picking them up and dressing them in clothes and taking, you know, putting them in handbags and doing all kinds of things that, you know, I certainly wouldn’t want done to me. So I never I never liked the bite stuff is always really weird for that reason, but also that instances of bites. The only reason we even track that is because. Originally, way back when there was a concern about transmission, rabies like bite statistics were never intended to be diagnostic. 

Behavioral tools, because, as I said, there are so many reasons why a dog might bite. And yet we’ve kind of turned those statistics into we’ve kind of repurposed them in a way they were never intended to be used. 

So is it fair to say that there’s no way that nobody is even claiming to have hard numbers against pitbulls or are there numbers out there? But you think that they’re unreliable? 

Yeah, there’s absolute there’s really there’s no way because, one, we have no idea how many dogs of each type or breed there are in the United States. 

In Canada, if you’re selling a dog is a purebred, it has to be registered. So they have a much better sense of the breakdown of how many of which breed there are in Canada. But that’s not the case here. Breed clubs are vanishing, you know, in terms of popularity. I think the American Kennel Club’s registrations are less than a third of what they were a few decades ago. So we have between 77 and eighty three million dogs in the US and at any given time, only maybe 12 million of those might be registered with the breed club. 

So we just have no idea. And licensing compliance in most cities is really low as well. And a lot of places it’s in the single digits. 

So we truly have no idea what the denominator is when we’re saying, you know, this type of dog bit this percentage of the time. And if you if you want to know if something’s disproportionate, you really do have to know its proper proportion. And we just don’t know that. So that’s the biggest thing. 

But also what people call a pit bull is completely all over the map. You can’t compare, say, quote, pit bull bites to golden retriever bites because a golden retriever is one distinct breed from a closed gene pool, a, quote, pit bull. You’re talking about at least four breeds and then increasingly like what anybody wants to lumped into that category. 

So they’re lumping mixed breed dogs into that category. They’re lumping in dogs with big heads. Dogs with brindle coats. And no one is doing any verification of whether those dogs are actually pit bulls or not. So all those data are immediately suspect and should not be trusted. 

Do dog bites actually rise to the level of a serious public health problem from any breed? 

Yeah, well, I mean, I guess it depends on the word serious. 

Yes, they’re very common. So that is a burden on the health care system. Obviously, it’s very scary. Frightening, but being common doesn’t necessarily mean they’re severe. So, you know, over something like ninety five ninety seven percent of all dog bites don’t even break the skin. 

And the ones that do break the skin, it’s usually not nothing worse than like nicking yourself in a kitchen accident. So the number of really severe bites are extraordinarily small. And yet when they happen, they are absolutely all over the news. There is a complete media saturation. People go bonkers. So it gives this kind of this overall, it’s weighted in this overly emotional, irrational way. 

So is there evidence that people are more likely to label a strange dog or a dog that’s hurt them or a dog that act aggressively toward them? More likely to see that dog as a pit bull? They’re asked by a doctor or researcher. What was the dog that bit you? 

I’ve definitely heard that anecdotally, but I don’t have any specific data to support that. I have certainly heard it anecdotally that, you know, if a dog seems scared, a strange dog seems scary, seems more likely that it’s a pit bull. But unfortunately, we just don’t have any data to say that. But that is because it is a possibility. That’s something that I think doctors should always be thinking about when evaluating dog bite cases, because there have been several papers where physicians, they kind of want to make the case that pit bull bites are somehow worse. 

And yet they they don’t acknowledge that they’ve never verified what dogs were doing, the biting. It’s just whatever the person who comes into the E.D. puts on a piece of paper. So I’m certainly in my own experience, I’ve certainly traveled the country and this goes positive and negative, meaning tons of people who showed me pictures of. Pit bulls that just boggle the mind. I mean, one my favorite was this dog named Coco, who, you know, this little boy was like, here’s my pit bull. 

And the dog looked exactly like a corgi. 

You know, sometimes people don’t even know about don’t even necessarily know what their own dog is. It’s just their dog. 

You know, this topic arouses such strong passions on both sides. What has been the reaction to your book so far? 

Mostly, it has been really positive, especially from the people that I was kind of boost concerned about, people in the scientific community, people in the animal sciences, people in the skeptic community, kind of the people that I really wanted to understand what I was doing. 

They definitely got it. And the response there has been overwhelmingly great, which made me elated. 

But from those kind of core group of people who believe that these dogs should be eradicated, it has been really nasty such that at one point someone showed up to one of my readings and was so disruptive that the store had to call the police. And I had to leave through the rear exit with a police escort while photos of my home were posted online. I had to get security cameras and there was just kind of a relentless online harassment campaign for a while. Fortunately, that died down, but it was it was ugly there for a bit. 

What drives this this hatred and fear of pit bulls? I mean, why have people fixated on this particular breed to be at the expense of all other dogs that might be aggressive and are probably Majia? 

I think mostly these kinds of fears are cyclic. Well, I think what we see in society over any kind of historical period, you see the need for scapegoats when things are tense. And we’ve done that to dogs for a really long time. 

But I think the cultural climate around pitbulls, in particular in the 1980s and how racialized the rhetoric was, the fact that they were linked to, quote, crack dealers and, quote, thugs and that kind of stuff, the fact that that kind of racialized language overtook the media narrative as what has kind of caused there to be this extraordinary hatred and need to not just, you know, avoid the dogs, but to somehow exterminate them. I think very much has become a proxy for for human prejudice. 

That’s all the time we have for today. Bronwyn, thank you so much for coming on the program. Thank you so much for having me. 

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Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.