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.)