Sincere Bullshit

I didn’t speak out for a long time but hearing the Skinheads speak was like thunder coming to my brain. And I said ‘Sonia this is why you have to speak out for the people who didn’t make it.’

Those are the words of Sonia Warshawski, a Holocaust survivor and subject of a documentary (Big Sonia). Now 92 years old, she was 13 years old when World War II began. Her father and brother were taken away and her young sister escaped while she and her mother were sent to a concentration camp. All of her family was killed except her sister who hid with others in the forest.

It would be shocking to have someone deny that reality, not only because it is so personal but as history goes there are few events more well documented. This is the territory explored by Kurt Andersen in Fantasyland. And as he makes clear, this isn’t a new phenomenon. America has always been this way, a land of dreams, of fantasies and fictions, a vast canvass to project upon. Europeans were looking for utopian societies, Edenic savages, and demonic wilderness in America before they even got here. “But did it matter whether it was authentic or not?”, asks Karl Ove Knausgård (as quoted by Andersen). “Hadn’t this country been built on the promise of avoiding this very question?”

When I hear alt-righters, Trump supporters, and other similar types, I suspect they don’t believe or disbelieve much of what they claim. Most people want to be told a story, specifically a story that makes sense of the world. For some, the Holocaust is too immense to be made sense of and so it must be denied. It isn’t an issue of true or false, rather sincerity or bullshit. In On Bullshit, Harry Frankfurt makes this distinction and explains that sincerity is unconcerned with truth in the world or what is true for others for it is about being true to yourself, being true to your belief system and ideological worldview, true to the story that you tell yourself. It’s about belief disconnected from all else, the cozy and comforting constraints of the moral imagination.

We live in a society overflowing with bullshit, not to say this is a new state of affairs. What has changed, as far as I can tell, is simply we’ve become overly sensitive to it. Travel and media have forced us into contact with more diverse people, cultures, and stories. With so many claims of truth, the war of rhetoric is won through sincerity of belief and story. It is a psychological defense against the onslaught of an overwhelming and dangerous world, as we perceive it in our fear-ridden condition. This phenomenon of bullshit is most blatant among reactionaries. That is because the reactionary by nature is more sensitive, that is what turned them reactionary in the first place. The liberal-minded have more tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty, stress and anxiety, but we all have our limits. It’s useful looking at extreme examples, though, for it clarifies the dynamic. So, let me share such an example.

I struggled to make sense of this when I spent a long period visiting the human biodiversity (HBD) blogosphere. As alt-right reactionaries go, racist HBDers present themselves as rational and factually-oriented, as if they were a part of the reality-based community. But it quickly becomes apparent how narrow is their knowledge, how limited their curiosity. It was impossible to have a meaningful debate because I knew the basis of their claims while they didn’t know the basis of mine. Hence, it was a continuous one-sided interaction. HBD ends up being nothing more than a series of just-so stories. The point is that HBDers feel conviction in what they believe or at least act as if they have conviction, a difference that might not make a difference. The point is to make a story feel real by performing the role of a true believer. But it goes beyond this, since they don’t want to be taken as just another group of true believers.

There is one particular HBDer who I had some respect for. She is the cream of the crop among HBDers. And she has a certain amount of intellectual humility or so I thought, until I came to realize that it too was probably a pose to throw off critics. I eventually got the sense that she doesn’t take seriously even her own doubts and hedging, as it is a way of avoiding responsibility for what she promotes. She presents herself as merely speculating, offering morally neutral scientific hypotheses, implying that she can’t be blamed for any consequences of her beliefs in the real world. Others do take her beliefs seriously and she has been a highly influential person. It is because people like her online that we have powerful people like Robert Mercer, Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, etc. When I confronted her about this, she defended herself by denying she supports or promotes any specific policy. She pretends to be an apolitical, objective researcher and so she can’t be blamed for what others do. I doubt she believes this nor that she is necessarily lying either. It is irrelevant to the role she plays in being sincere. The story told is the important part and that story takes on a life of its own.

It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around this. Debates and rhetoric are games to be played, but they are serious games to be played with the seriousness of a child playing make-believe. Trump has immense power, but what gives him persuasive influence obviously has nothing to do with truth. Even his own supporters admit that he is a liar and won’t actually do much of anything he promised. That isn’t the point. What Trump does do is tell a story that makes sense of the world, to be a wrecking ball of outrage that smashes against the facade of politics, a better story to replace what came before. It isn’t mere anarchism but the force of declaring something with all sincerity. Trump was raised in the church of Norman Vincent Peale, the famous positive thinking minister. For Trump, he learned from an early age to assert whatever comforting story made himself look good and feel good, no matter the evidence to the contrary and the consequences to others. Then he made sure to surround himself by people who would never contradict him. He is the ultimate confidence man. The con-man has to first con himself.

Let me be clear, though. I want to emphasize that this can be found across the political spectrum. One of the greatest bullshitters who has gained power was Bill Clinton (with the financial support from Trump, by the way). He did more than any other president in United States history to push the political spectrum toward the far right. And having learned from him, Hillary Clinton has always played to the crowd telling them whatever they want to hear. No rational, informed person can take the Clintons seriously in most of what they say. The same goes for Barack Obama, the affable false prophet of hope and change.

The only point that matters to the true believers is that the rhetoric, the stories make them feel good. It is of no concern the millions of people (mostly poor brown people, US citizens and foreigners) oppressed and harmed, imprisoned and killed by the policies promoted and supported by the Clinton Democrats and the Obama administration. Those people simply aren’t real in the moral imagination of the (pseudo-)liberal class. And the moral imagination never has to do with anything so minor as objective facts. All that is required is to be told stories from an authority figure, inspiring speeches about the good that is being done or will be done. People want to be told that they are good people, that they are on the right side of history. Story trumps all else and, in America, story runs deep.

If everyone who claimed to know the Holocaust was real took it seriously, it really never would happen again — yet the reality is that multiple genocides have happened since and these good people have continued to do nothing. Even the Jews in Israel persecute and ghettoize the Palestinians, as happened to them in the buildup toward the Holocaust, with no lesson learned or insight gained. The story of Holocaust, if anything, justifies all else and so the victim becomes the victimizer. But if the majority of Israelis believed their own Holocaust story, they would be overwhelmed with a sense of shame and hypocrisy. A story is to be told and believed, whether to expose or hide the truth.

As people deny the Holocaust, there are also those who deny climate change. But even for those who claim to believe the truth, they don’t act as though they genuinely believe. The majority, when asked by pollsters, state that climate change is real. Yet the looming devastation threatens an unimaginable apocalypse. We don’t have the psychological and cognitive capacity to deal with it and so we don’t. We go on living our lives as though nothing has changed or ever will change. The dominant narrative of our society, that of progress is too powerful for it to be contradicted by mere facts. We know and don’t know, the very soul of our humanity ripped apart in a collective state of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

It’s not about believing in any particular truth claim. The power underlying the moral imagination is belief in belief itself. We seek to ‘will’ our preferred reality into existence. No story gains a hold on the collective psyche without the force of sincerity behind it. We live in a world of bullshit, but utterly sincere bullshit. We tell ourselves what we believe we must. Otherwise, we fear we would fall into despair. And maybe we are right about that. But we need to fall into despair, to admit the dark truths all around us. If there is any possibility of hope, it passes first through darkness.

Driven by fear, our sincerity is insincere, our pose is pretense. Ever more sincerity won’t save us. As Harry Frankfurt puts it, “sincerity itself is bullshit.” We don’t need another inspiring speech, pep talk, or story told with full confidence. What we need is harsh truth and the courageous persistence of those who will speak it.

Trolling Democracy

I had a week that was both frustrating and interesting. I made a New Year’s resolution to break my habit of wasting time on commenting elsewhere, including on my own social media. It can make me feel drained and dirty.

It’s a hard habit to break, though. I was drawn in by some fake reviews on Amazon. Dishonesty really really bothers me. I know they are trolls, but they represent so much of what is wrong with our society. I do see them as a genuine threat to what little democracy we have, as they make public debate nearly impossible. Their only purpose is to obfuscate the issues and derail discussion.

Still, it wasn’t an entire waste of time. I made a fascinating discovery. It fascinates me, anyway. One of these fake reviewers, Johan RF, must have a lot of time on his hand and he has learned how to game the Amazon system. I’ve been studying him and tracking down his activities across the web. But before I get to that, let me discuss the book reviews that got my attention.

I was reading a sample of a book about psychology and perception in relation to climate change. It is Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life by Kari Marie Norgaard. Be smarter than me by skipping the Amazon reviews and just go straight to reading the book. It is one of the more recent books that looks at the human side of the issue.

At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it. I had other books on climate change that I had yet to read. But the human aspect was on my mind (because after all I’m human and my concern is accordingly biased). So, that is what led me to look at the reviews, to see if they would tip me toward getting a copy of the book. In this case, I will give the fake reviews credit for helping me decide. They made me all the more curious. Sometimes fake reviews have that effect on me.

I even left comments in response to some of the fake reviewers explaining that they had convinced me to buy the book. That was when the fun began. About a third of the reviews are critical, four out of eleven. One of the critical reviews is genuine and only moderately critical with a three star rating. The others are all one stars and, of course, they are dismissive while refusing to actually review the book itself. Two of these reviews are by a William Beahan and someone ironically calling themself Realist. The third is by the aforementioned Johan RF, and that is the troll that got my goat, so to speak.

There is a perverse side of my personality that almost enjoys engaging trolls. I had a troll on a blog post recently who threatened to make my life a living hell. He told me he knew who my family was and where I lived. My response was to tell him to stop by for coffee sometime and I’d personally introduce him to my family. He stopped bothering me at that point. The internet has given me a thick skin. I have more important things to get excited about than mentally disturbed people online. Unhappy people sometimes feel inclined to try to make other people unhappy. It sucks for them and everyone involved, but it usually isn’t anything of great concern. That kind of troll just needs a kindly pat on the head to send them on their way.

Johan RF, however, is a more intriguing species of troll. He somehow kept getting my comments deleted, not all of them but many. I’m not sure how he was doing it. He somehow knew how to game the system in getting the bots to delete comments. When that failed, he simply deleted his entire review and reposted it. This he did several times. I just kept putting my comments back up. I think he finally gave up on trying to censer and silence me, but he was almost as persistent as me.

In interacting with Johan RF, my first response was amusement, then frustration, and after that grim determination. I checked out all of his other reviews and I commented further. I was testing the water to see how he would respond. I began to see a pattern to his behavior and I adapted to it. If it was a game he wanted to play, I can go along with that for a time. Once my curiosity is piqued, I go into obsessive mode.

Who is this person? That is always the question. Names often mean nothing online.

In a comment under one of his reviews for Hoggan’s Climate Cover-Up, he stated that, “For the record I am a scientist. I believe humans are putting molecules into the atmosphere that may well indeed have an impact on climate. I am also a statistician and in that realm it is very easy to identify a HUGE hole in the man-made-climate change assumptions and claims being made.” He made a similar statement in a review of Mann’s The Hocky Stick and the Climate Wars: “I am just a scientist who likes rigour and adherement to basic principles of scientific investigation.”

I doubt any of that is true. His grasp of science appears to be slim to none. He even goes so far as to claim an author of a book (Haydn Washington, Climate Change Denial) is a “non-scientist,” when in reality that author has almost four decades of scientific experience. Ya know, typical troll behavior.

The thing is this guy is prolific. He has quite a few  reviews posted on multiple Amazon sites. Here are his Amazon profiles for the United States, Canada, and United Kingdom.

I would have been at a dead end, if I hadn’t come across someone speculating about Johan RF’s identity. It is from the Scott Mandia’s blog Global Warming: Man or Myth?, in the post Anthony Watts’ Minions Attack Mike Mann and Make Mockery of Amazon Review Process. There is a several year old comment by Lamna nasus:

.. JrF ‘Jonny old boy’.. jonathan frodsham.. same person/activist?.. JrF is definitely fond of leaving very low rating, ad hom filled reviews of AGW publications on Amazon at any rate.. also didn’t like being challenged over being the same ‘jonny old boy’ Climate Change Denier who frequently posted comments on Richard Black’s Blog at the BBC.. JrF has admitted changing his identity details on Amazon on a frequent basis (currently using Johan RF)..appears he or a supporter recently (10.09.12) threw a hissy fit and had all comments on his review of Mann’s book and identity removed from Amazon.. gotta love that Wingnut dedication to freedom of speech.. interesting that another Denier suddenly throws a necropost at this thread…

That is such an intriguing comment. I wish there had been some links offered or something. Still, it was a lead.

There apparently used to be an Amazon profile of JrF “Jonny old boy.” Michael E. Mann has an old Facebook post with an image with a dead link to a review by JrF “Jonny old boy.” Further down in the comments, Mann says that, “the guy has replaced his old review w/ an even more dishonest revised review, and apparently Amazon resets the ratings–which seems absurd. Could use some more attention.” That fits the profile of Johan RF who does the same thing, replacing old reviews with new ones (he did this to me several times, but I noticed others complaining about the same thing at some of his other reviews).

That doesn’t prove they are the same person. Even so, others apparently have made this connection.

Adam Siegel, at the Get Energy Smart! NOW! blog, has something of interest at one of his posts, Amazon-ian challenge: what is the right thing to do?. In that post, he shows a review of JrF “Jonny old boy,” but when you click on the name it goes to Johan RF’s Amazon profile. The specific review is found as a screenshot at Scott Mandia’s post, which Siegel discusses. Here is the image:

1 Star Reviewer Shows His Lack of Understanding of Basics

Over at the Skeptical Science Forum, there is a discussion (LIVE NOW – Mike Mann’s hockey stick book now live at Amazon so post your reviews!), also from several years ago. The last comment is by Tom Smerling:

Just for fun….and as a sign of how things are trending over at Amazon…

The long-time record holder for “most helpful” one-star review (below) first appeared on Feb 8 and by Feb 12 was scoring about 50% “helpful” (that high in trollville).

But the author (“JrF” aka “Jonny Feese”) deleted his own post, and reposted the same review on Feb 13.

In doing so, he inadventantly, but helpfully, created a controlled experiment.

Now his post’s second incarnation, instead of scoring 50%, is running …9%. In fact, he’s gone from first to last among the 1-star crowd: in fact, it’s now the #1 least helpful review of all 65+.

It just shows how the tide has shifted. 🙂

P.S. Gotta love that headline. . .

————-

4 of 44 people found the following review helpful:
1.0 out of 5 stars i did read this and thinks its poor. I am allowed to think this., February 13, 2012
By
JrF “Jonny old boy” (UK) – See all my reviews
This review is from: The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines (Hardcover)
Had to repost this review after abuse from AGW nutters.

Like Siegel, the name JrF “Jonny old boy” is linked to the Amazon profile of Johan RF. I’m not sure if that means that it always has been the same profile, but the username changed. Can someone change the name of their profile while maintaining the profile itself with all the reviews? I don’t know, as I’ve never tried. Smerling also throws out the name Jonny Feese, but I have no idea where that name comes from and websearches weren’t helpful.

To return to the comment by Lamna nasus, the other name that popped up was that of Jonathan Frodsham. There is a JB Frodsham with a blog and a Youtube account, both of which show an interest in climate change. A jb frodsham left a comment at Watts Up With That? (WUWT), and at the same post there is also a comment by jonny old boy. Another post at the same blog has comments by jonathan frodsham and jonny old boy.

Those two WUWT posts are the only two results that come up in a websearch for those two names. I’m not sure what that might mean. By himself, I was able to get a lot more results to come up with variations of Frodsham: Jonathan Frodsham, J Frodsham, JB Frodsham, etc. The last is most interesting, in that it could easily be connected to JrF “Jonny old boy.” Along with Johan RF, all of these names are some combination of ‘J’ and ‘F’, sometimes with ‘B’ as well (or all three letters).

I noticed a comment by jonathan frodsham (at JoNova):

“Can you give me a hand?? This guy is calling me a shit eating denialist. There are a some real swine here:”

Following that, there is a link to an Amazon discussion. When you follow that link, it goes directly to comments by a Realist. In one comment, Realist calls himself Jo-the-former-Green. Other commenters refer to him as JB Frodsham or some shortened version of it, such as JBF. The other commenters all somehow seem to know who he is. If you go to some reviews by Realist, the comments also refer to him as Frodsham, and Realist always responds when called that name.

When I saw Jonathan Frodsham going as Realist, I began to see a connection. As I mentioned earlier, I first came across Johan RF on his review of Norsgaard’s Living in Denial. I remembered that Realist also had a one star review of the same book, and Johan RF (AKA JrF “Jonny old boy”) left a comment there in response to me.

It’s interesting to compare the two reviewers, including Johan RF’s profiles at the Amazon sites of other countries. There is at least one other book that both of them review. Their reviews fit the same basic profile. The style of writing and the sentence structure has some similarities.

They both always write very short reviews, often a single paragraph. They have a preference for non-standard usage of commas as a way of connecting two separate sentences or sentence fragments: Johan RF writes “not sure why , maybe because the author accepts spin as fact” and Realist writes “This woman is dangerous, she want to get rid of democracy and freedom.” Of course, they both tend to give either one or five star ratings to books on climatology. And, of course, in their negative reviews they attack the author’s credibility and dismiss them.

The main difference is that Johan RF less often capitalizes words and more often uses elipses (whereas Realist uses normal capitalization and rarely uses elipses, not at all in most reviews), but those are easy superficial things to change to make the reviewers seem more like different people. If he has managed to maintain multiple sockpuppet accounts, I’m sure he has done so by creating some basic rules for writing for each one, rules that would be easy to remember and implement.

Assuming that were the case, you might think at some point he’d slip up or that Amazon would eventually see a pattern. Still, I know that Johan RF is a somewhat clever guy, at least in terms of learning how to manipulate the system to get comments deleted and such. Looking at Johan RF’s other reviews, there are some where he maybe slips out of persona and writes more like Realist, with words capitalized and sentences ended with periods.

Let me give one other example of similarity. Realist likes to use the word ‘rubbish’, even in reviews not about books (in a review of anti-virus software, he calls it “absolute rubbish”). His review of Living in Denial is simply titled as “Rubbish.”

I must admit that I don’t hear that word used a lot, at least as an American, but Realist claims to be from Australia. By the way, Johan RF claims to be from London (AKA JrF “Jonny old boy” from UK). Johan RF uses ‘rubbish’ a lot in his reviews at the Amazon sites for UK, Canada, and Australia, although maybe not as much in his reviews at the US Amazon site.

Is Johan RF (AKA JrF “Jonny old boy”) and Realist (AKA Jonathan/JB Frodsham) really the same person? It would be hard to absolutely prove it without an open admission of guilt, but the gathered evidence could be interpreted as indicating a connection of some sort. That could mean they are the same individual with multiple sockpuppets. Otherwise, it could simply be two people who are in the same internet social circle and happen to think and write in a similar fashion. Either is possible.

Anyway, trolls are fascinating creatures, especially those of this variety. These aren’t just your average denialists. They have (or he has) brought contrarianism and obfuscation to the level of an art form. To this kind of person, everything is a game to be won at all costs. Defeating the enemy is more important than winning the truth.

It makes me wonder if such people simply have too much time on their hands. Or is someone paying them to distort the issues, derail debate, and drop the ratings of climate change books? In recent years, a couple of books were published about the highly organized and well-funded corporate campaign against science (or rather public debate of science): Doubt is Their Product (2008) by David Michaels and Merchants of Doubt (2010) by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway—the latter writing:

“Small numbers of people can have large, negative impacts, especially if they are organised, determined and have access to power.”

The manipulation of Amazon ratings is just a tip of the melting iceberg. The full effect of this kind of activity undermines democracy itself by making informed public debate almost impossible. It filters into mainstream media, given voice by pundits and politicians alike. And then it gets repeated endlessly by the disinformed public.

* * * *

(In case anyone is interested, I do have screenshots of most things mentioned in this post: reviews, posts, comments, etc. I figured that, as I went to so much trouble to research this, I better document it all. Johan RF showed that he has a habit of deleting things. So, if some of it does get deleted and anyone wants to see what it was, just ask me and I’ll offer you the screenshot.)

Skeptics & Debunkers

C. P. Snow

The Two Cultures

Science Wars

Sociology of Scientific Knowledge


2/15 3/15 4/15 5/15 6/15 7/15 8/15 9/15 10/15 11/15 12/15 13/15 14/15 15/15 

Charles Fort

The Book of the Damned



2/12 3/12 4/12 5/12 6/12 7/12 8/12 9/12 10/12 11/12 12/12

Jacques Vallée


2/4 3/4 4/4

Robert Anton Wilson

The New Inquisition


Rupert Sheldrake

Richard Dawkins comes to call

He dismissed all research on the subject out of hand. […] “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

“This depends on what you regard as extraordinary”, I replied. “Most people say they have experienced telepathy, especially in connection with telephone calls. In that sense, telepathy is ordinary. The claim that most people are deluded about their own experience is extraordinary. Where is the extraordinary evidence for that?”

He produced no evidence at all, apart from generic arguments about the fallibility of human judgment. He assumed that people want to believe in “the paranormal” because of wishful thinking.

We then agreed that controlled experiments were necessary. I said that this was why I had actually been doing such experiments, including tests to find out if people really could tell who was calling them on the telephone when the caller was selected at random. The results were far above the chance level.

The previous week I had sent Richard copies of some of my papers, published in peer-reviewed journals, so that he could look at the data.

Richard seemed uneasy and said, “I’m don’t want to discuss evidence”. “Why not?” I asked. “There isn’t time. It’s too complicated. And that’s not what this programme is about.” The camera stopped.

George P. Hansen

Magicians Who Endorsed Psychic Phenomena

CSICOP and the Skeptics: An Overview

CSICOP to CSI: the Stigma of the Paranormal

Has CSICOP Lost the Thirty Years’ War?
Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3, Pt. 4, Pt. 5, Pt. 6

Marcello Truzzi

Skeptics

Pseudoskepticism

Pyrrhonism

SCEPCOP

Closeminded Science

Scientism

Parapsychology, Anomalies, Science, Skepticism, and CSICOP

Parapsychology, [Marcello] Truzzi contends as a sociologist, is more tough-minded than many other academic fields, yet paradoxically, it remains a fringe subject.  “Parapsychologists really want to play the game by the proper statistical rules,” he expounds. “They’re very staid. They thought they could convince these sceptics but the sceptics keep raising the goalposts. It’s ironic, because real psychic researchers are very committed to doing real science, more than a lot of people in science are. Yet they get rejected, while we can be slipshod in psychology and sociology and economics and get away with it. We’re not painted as the witchdoctors, but they are.”  Jonathon Margolis in Uri Geller: Magician or Mystic?
 
“. . . members of the scientific community often judge the parapsychological claims without firsthand knowledge of the experimental evidence. Very few of the scientific critics have examined even one of the many experimental reports on psychic phenomena. Even fewer, if any, have examined the bulk of the parapsychological literature…. Consequently, parapsychologists have justification for their complaint that the scientific community is dismissing their claims without a fair hearing. . . .” Ray Hyman

 “I call them scoffers, not skeptics,” says Marcello Truzzi, director of the Center of Scientific Anomalies Research at Eastern Michigan University.

Truzzi, who studies what he calls protoscience, was a founding member of the world’s oldest and most respected skeptic society, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). But Truzzi says he withdrew after growing disillusioned with the group’s research methods.

“They tend to block honest inquiry, in my opinion,” he asserts. “Most of them are not agnostic toward claims of the paranormal; they are out to knock them.”

Truzzi says that some of the CSICOP researchers set the bar of proof outrageously high when it comes to the study of the paranormal. “When an experiment of the paranormal meets their requirements, then they move the goal posts,” he says. “Then, if the experiment is reputable, they say it’s a mere anomaly.”  Tanya Barrientos in  The Paranormal? Pshaw!

“The most ardent skeptics enjoy their skepticism as long as it does not encroach upon their most cherished beliefs. Then incredulity flies out the window. . . . It is easy, even fun to challenge others’ beliefs, when we are smug in our certainty about our own. But when ours are challenged, it takes great patience and ego strength to listen with an unjaundiced ear.” Michael Shermer in A Skeptical Manifesto
 
“. . . the same scientific mind-set that thrives on high precision and critical thinking is also extremely adept at forming clever rationalizations that get in the way of progress. In extreme cases, these rationalizations have prevented psi research from taking place at all. Ironically, the very same skeptics who have attempted to block psi research through the use of rhetoric and ridicule have also been responsible for perpetuating the many popular myths associated with psychic phenomena. If serious scientists are prevented from investigating claims of psi out of fear for their reputations, then who is left to conduct these investigations? Extreme skeptics? No, because the fact is that most extremists do not conduct research, they specialize in criticism. Extreme believers? No, because they are usually not interested in conducting rigorous scientific studies. Dean Radin in The Conscious Universe, p. 206-207
 
“There are three broad approaches to anomaly studies. . . . The second common approach is what critics usually call the debunkers’ approach. This is the main attitude of the orthodox scientific community towards anomaly claims. It is characterized by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). “Whatever is claimed is nothing but … something else.” Seemingly anomalous phenomena are denied first and sometimes investigated only second. Like the Fortean the debunker is not concerned with the full explanation. Whereas the Fortean types don’t want explanations, the debunkers don’t need them as they believe they have already them.”  Marcello Truzzi in Reflections on the Reception of Unconventional Claims in Science
“Despite years of attempts to study paranormal phenomena, there’s been a scientific iron curtain raised against serious research on these experiences.” Andrew Greeley in The “Impossible”:  It’s Happening
 
“In 1819, Ernst Chladni reflected back on his struggles for the recognition of meteorites. While the Enlightenment, the 18th century intellectual movement that examined accepted doctrines of the time, had brought certain benefits, he felt it also brought with it certain intellectual problems. Now scientists ‘thought it necessary to throw away or reject as error anything that did not conform to a self-constructed model.’ The very success of scientific experiment and theory had led to a misplaced confidence that what was real was already within the circle of science. What was outside, therefore, what did not conform to scientists’ theories, could be dismissed by invoking scientific authority and by ignoring or ridiculing observations not supported by it.”  Ron Westrum in The Blind Eye of Science
 
“New data and discordant, anomalous, or bizarre experiences or facts can destroy the best explanations. Thus we cannot say with absolute confidence that the data and theories of parapsychology must be false because they contradict the existing body of physical [scientific] theory.” Paul Kurtz in The Transcendental Temptation

Denialism & Anti-intellectualism (AGW)

In a recent post I mentioned a discussion I was having with a rightwinger in the comments section of an Amazon.com book review.  The person seemed somewhat reasonable and intelligent, but didn’t offer much evidence to support his arguments.  I’m fine with that as long as someone isn’t making extreme claims and that is where I finally took issue with this person.  I explained, in one of my comments, my criticism of the anti-intellectualism that has become popular with some conservatives, and then this person provides a perfect example of this rightwing anti-intellectualism.

I wanted to use this example because it’s too easy to think of anti-intellectual types as backwards and stupid.  That may sometimes be the case, but not always.  The particular person in question, although no intellectual giant, is able to present himself in a reasonable manner in most of his comments.  He can put together a coherent thought and articulate it with some clarity.  He does even offer some meager evidence.  However, his response to my evidence seems perplexing from a rational perspective.

My comment:

There was a study done in 2009 at University of Illinois by Peter Doran and Kendall Zimmerman which appeared in the January 19 publication Eos, Transactions, American Geophysical Union. From around the world, 3,146 earth scientists were surveyed which included experts in academia and government research centers.

The questions were checked by a polling expert to ensure there was no bias. There were two questions that are directly relevant to our. One question was about whether the mean global temperatures had risen since before the 1800s. And another question was about whether human activity had been a significant factor in changing mean global temperatures.

Around 90% of scientists thought that mean global temperatures had risen and 82% thought human activity was a significant factor. Just considering climatologists who are active in research, 97.4% thought human activity was a significant factor. Even petrolium geologists were almost evenly split with only 54% disagreeing with the majority of climatologists.

Doran also noted recent poll data about public opinion. Gallup poll shows 58% of the public agrees with climatologists that human activity contributes to global warming. However, most Americans are misinformed about actual scientific consensus. Only 52% think most scientists agree that temperature is rising and only 47% think most scientists agree that human activity is contributing. However, a World Bank international survey found that most people in most countries thought that scientists agree that climate change is an urgent problem that is understood well enough that action needs to be taken.

From the Wikipedia article “Climate change consensus” (with cited and linked sources):

“The majority of climate scientists agree that global warming is primarily caused by human activities such as fossil fuel burning and deforestation. The conclusion that global warming is mainly caused by human activity and will continue if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced has been endorsed by more than 75 scientific societies and academies of science, including all of the national academies of science of the major industrialized countries. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Meteorological Society, the International Union for Quaternary Research, and the Joint Science Academies of the major industrialized and developing nations explicitly use the word “consensus” when referring to this conclusion.””

And:

“A 2004 essay by Naomi Oreskes in the journal Science reported a survey of 928 abstracts of peer-reviewed papers related to global climate change in the ISI database. Oreskes claimed that “Remarkably, none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position. … This analysis shows that scientists publishing in the peer-reviewed literature agree with IPCC, the National Academy of Sciences, and the public statements of their professional societies.” Benny Peiser claimed to have found flaws in Oreskes’ work, but his attempted refutation is disputed and has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal. Peiser later withdrew parts of his criticism, also commenting that “the overwhelming majority of climatologists is agreed that the current warming period is mostly due to human impact. However, this majority consensus is far from unanimous.””

The other person’s response:

Sorry Steele; the science just isn’t there. You think it is because there is a conspiracy of sorts. It’s not a deal where everyone set down and plotted, but the ball got rolling and everyone jumped on for their own gain. And there is a leftist move to redistribute wealth this way. Gore has multiplied his wealth many, many times just since promoting this issue. He has a vested interest and if he was a government official would probably be violating conflict of interest. As Dr. Gray says its all ocean currents. He also says the CO2 is good for the plants as we know from biology class. There are many scientists against this and many more who won’t speak out because of political correctness. Oh well, the left has only a few months left in power. Still haven’t read all your stuff; I’ll get back to you.

I only listed part of the data that shows consensus among climatologists.  A survey of the data is presented in the Wikipedia article “Scientific opinion on climate change“.  A number of respected organizations have referred to scientific opinion on this issue as a consensus: American Association for the Advancement of Science, US National Academy of Sciences,  American Meteorological Society, Network of African Science Academies, International Union for Quaternary Research, and Australian Coral Reef Society.

It takes some major balls for a non-scientist to deny the consensus of thousands of scientists who are experts in the field of climatology.  The climatologists who are the most active researchers are in fact the ones who show the highest agreement, but even the non-active scientists agree (and so presumably they aren’t receiving funding to bias their opinions).  The person I was having the discussion with obviously hadn’t really considered the science in any depth and possibly thinks that scientists are part of the liberal elite trying to take over the world.

It’s fine if you have criticisms (assuming they’re based on critical thinking).  Scientists can be wrong and the scientific method takes into account the errors of individual scientists.  That is why we have peer-review, but the meta-analysis of the peer-review articles also shows support for anthropogenic global warming.  Scientific consensus is based on the known facts.  Some of those facts may turn out to be wrong or misinterpreted, and if that were to happen then scientific consensus would change.  But it’s the worst kind of anti-intellectualism to dismiss both the known facts and the scientific concensus because they disagree with your preconceived ideology.

There are intelligent criticisms.  As an example of a slightly more intelligent discussion between two skeptical non-scientists, watch the following video:

The obvious weakness of that discussion is that neither person is a climatologists or even a scientist.  The person being interviewed is a journalist and does seem to be at least somewhat informed.  It’s fair to criticize specific measurements and how accurate they might be.  It’s fair to criticize how large the actual effect is on climate.  Most climatologists aren’t fear-mongering about the end of the world.  Even though there is a concensus about anthropogenic global warming, many scientists debate and disagree about the exact mechanism of global warming, the exact influence of human activity, and the exact influence on the climate in the near future.  Nonetheless, the consensus remains.

The major failing of the discussion in the above video is that it doesn’t take into account the 97% of experts who do support anthropogenic global warming.  It isn’t clear how much the journalist disagrees with the consensus itself or merely the conclusions extrapolated from that conclusion.  I don’t understand the science well enough to fully understand the data he is referring to.  All I know for sure is that only 3% of experts are skeptical about anthropogenic global warming.  I think it’s fairly weak when skeptics refer to scientists within that 3% in order to “disprove” the conclusions of the 97%.  If this non-expert journalist disagrees with 97% of expert scientists, then I think I’ll go with the consensus of the experts.

A maybe more important failing of global warming skepticism in general is that it supports the dismissal of the global problems we face.  Even if humans don’t cause global warming and even if global warming doesn’t exist at all, we still are destroying entire ecosystems and poisoning ourselves.  If you’re concerned about the issue of diseases, poverty, and human rights, then you should be concerned about pollution and environmental destruction.  You can argue about the policies that should be implemented, but to ignore the problems themselves is insane.

Skepticism is good as all scientists strive to be skeptical.  There, however, has been a failure of our education system and a failure of our media in teaching intelligent skepticism.  I heard an interview on public radio with one of the scientists involved with Climategate.  I thought the scientist was fairly humble and defended the science in a reasonable manner.  The scientist pointed out an important issue.  The media has failed in explaining the actual science of climatology.  The reporters weak response was “So, you’re attacking the messenger.”  The scientists was correct.  The media just likes conflict and often does little to resolve conflict by intelligent reporting.  The problem is most reporters don’t understand science to any great degree.  Reporting done about science by a non-scientist isn’t likely to have much depth of analysis.

There is even support for the allegation that the media and the education system aren’t informing the public.  I thought it quite significant that the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming is so extremely high and yet most Americans don’t think there is a scientific consensus.  How does such a disconnect happen between public opinion and scientific knowledge?  Furthermore, even when I’ve presented this data to global warming denialists, they act as if it’s of no significance what most scientific experts think.  I’ve even seen a denialist claim that consensus has nothing to do with science and therefore the 3% of dissenting scientific opinion is somehow equal to or greater than the 97% of scientific consensus.  So, if there is any scientist who disagrees with a consensus, then that consensus automatically becomes false and anyone who promotes it is morally inferior for supposedly trying to silence the minority who disagrees.  The faulty logic of this style of thinking not only is a failure of public education in teaching critical thinking skills but also a failure in teaching the scientific method.

This post was more about the issue of anti-intellectualism than climatology, but if you want to read more about the issue of global warming and Climategate I’ve written about it previously:

Climate Change, Scandalous E-mails, and Wendell Berry

Climatology and Conspiracy Theorists

Head in the Sand Syndrome

And some reasonable videos showing the scientific support of anthropogenic global warming:

Climatology and Conspiracy Theorists

If you’re a person who prefers intelligent analysis over conspiracy theorizing, then check out this blog post about quote mining code

Let me be straight about the facts. 

The e-mails were supposedly stolen by hackers, but all of the e-mails haven’t yet been confirmed as authentic.  There is an investigation in determining their authenticity.  Assuming they’re authentic, the investigation will also determine precisely what was written in what context and what was the intended meaning of the comments (see above linked post for some preliminary analysis).  As such, the scientists in question are innocent until proven guilty.  Libelous attacks by climate change contrarians (what some call ‘denialists’) should be ignored.

Furthermore, I’ve so far seen no evidence that anything stated in the e-mailes contradicts or undermines the entire field of climatology.  The allegations are directed at a small number of scientists and all of the e-mails came from just one organization.  Assuming the allegations are true, it would be conspiracy theorizing to assume that these few scientists have enough control of the entire climatology field to alter all of the data in the world or that there is a secret cabal of climatologists controlling all research and publications. 

It is only fair and rational to ignore the conspiracy theories, but let us consider the implications of the more reasonable allegations against the specific scientists in question.  Even if we dismiss the data from these few scientists, there still is plenty of data from other sources that confirms the exact same conclusions of these scientists.  The consensus of climatologists includes scientists from all over the world including many highly respected scientists.  If anyone plans on trying to attack every climatologist in the world and dismiss all climatology research ever done, I’d love to see them try.

I think it’s time that people look at the facts instead of trying to run away from them.  Just my humble opinion.