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We Get Emails: JREF Involved in "Cognitive Infiltration"? PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by D.J. Grothe   

Over the last few years as head of this foundation, I and others on our team have received some spectacular emails from folks claiming we were part of a government coverup about UFOs, part of a “Big Pharma” conspiracy to keep the truth about new alternative medicine cancer cures hidden from the public, that we are all CIA operatives engaged in misinformation about the truth about psychic combatants, etc. etc. But we recently received an impressive new accusation. Someone emailed about his concerns that JREF leadership is coordinating a deliberate effort to weaken the 911 Truth movement, engaging in what Cass Sunstein has called “cognitive infiltration.”

Here is the longish email in its entirety:

Greetings JREF Leadership

 

I am emailing about some concerns I have uncovered that you may want to examine for yourselves. I have been tasked to "kick the hornet's nest" on social media websites in hopes of identifying links and activity patterns between various accounts. This has resulted in some rather alarming initial results. I am unaware of the exact means of data collection, only the variables being scrutinized. They include: account usage vs. dormant times, video comments and commentary placement(IE: liking, disliking), video uploading activity, channel commentary, subscribing, etc. All of this information is public knowledge, one can go to all accounts and clearly observe recent time stamped activities. I just want to be clear that the information I will summarize for you has been collected using a simple public information data mining program.

 

Consider this a 'shot over the bow'. Without giving you specific information, I can alert you to the patterns that lead to this email. There is an obvious link and disturbing pattern between 20-30 YouTube accounts. You could claim the pattern exists for a legitimate reason. We are all professional skeptics, so know it is impossible to convince you that anything is a certainty. However, if adding observed details and my, professionally valid version of critical thinking, most of these scrutinized accounts have proven links to the JREF forum or JREF members.

 

You could say that makes sense because you encourage the activity of debunking conspiracy, and these accounts are very active in the 911Truth arena. The disturbing portion is the pattern and precision of commentary placement. A review of the data reveals a 'team-like' approach to keeping comments made by active team members in high profile locations on each targeted video page. When/if you see the raw data analysis, to deny the precision of the patterns, is to deny basic math.

 

This leads to some questions you might seek to answer within your organization. This email will increase your lead time if you wish to investigate this possibility yourselves. Obviously, you have no control over what members of your organization chose to do as individuals. But, if this pattern of precise activity is being sponsored or encouraged by JREF leadership, you could end up with some big problems down the road.

 

"We suggest a distinctive tactic for breaking up the hard core of extremists who supply conspiracy theories: cognitive infiltration of extremist groups, whereby government agents or their allies will undermine the crippled epistemology of believers by planting doubts about the theories and stylized facts that circulate within such groups, thereby introducing beneficial cognitive diversity." Cass Sunstein

 

Would you be concerned if your organization was a potential hub for such cognitive infiltration? If this is sponsored government activity, could these members undermine the future of your organization? For all I know, you encourage and are proud of JREF's success in this area? As stated, I just stir the pot and look at the accelerated activity numbers, I'm admittedly uninformed on JREF's ultimate purpose. That's why you are getting your shot over the bow right away.

 

The skeptic in me knows if this is a JREF sponsored agenda, you aren't going to tell me anyway! So I guess all this email can do is make you aware of what has been observed and documented. If you discover a suspect group within JREF and need advice on solving the problem, I can only provide an experienced opinion. If the list of account ID's is critical for an internal investigation of your own, I could request that information be provided to you.

 

Wouldn't you prefer to fix this quietly with an "intel arbitration" versus a potentially damaging public situation? We are all allies of free and open debate. I am not your enemy. Unfortunately, it maybe time to use your skepticism and think critically about a possible JREF conspiracy. My, what a strange world this is…

 

“Too close a connection will be self-defeating if it is exposed.” Cass Sunstein

 

Thank You and Best of Luck

Robert Hanson

 

Here is my quick response:

Dear Robert Hanson:

 

Our focus at the foundation is mostly on pseudoscience and the paranormal. While this does occasionally result in some folks imagining a conspiracy between JREF and "Big Pharma" and the like, this is a first that we have been suspected of conspiring with the government to coordinate online opposition to the 911 Truth movement.

 

I've read through your email and I want to assure you that there is no coordinated activity to organize comments on YouTube nor any other website. Also, you should know that participants in the free online discussion forum hosted at randi.org are not necessarily members of the James Randi Educational Foundation (indeed, there is a very inconsiderable overlap between the two groups).

 

There is no government-sponsored activity at the JREF related to denial of or reaction to any of the 911 Truth community or posts on any website. The JREF is not involved in nor does it coordinate any "cognitive infiltration" of any online groups or movements.

 

You are seeing connections that aren't there, a problem I think may be common in the 911 Truth world.

 

Sincerely,

D.J. Grothe

 

My email elicited this response:

You should have left out the last sentence sir. Now I will be certain you sink in public spotlight! Buh bye....

 

Do not speak down to me you half-wit mind controlling little c*nt! I know goddamn well what is going on there and gave you the chance to fix it yourself!

 

Thank me

You work for me

 

To which I responded:

Please refrain from further insulting emails.

 

And, to repeat, the JREF is not involved in any "cognitive infiltration" and does not work in connection with nor on the behalf of any governmental body or individual; indeed, various governmental agencies are often the target of our skeptical work in the public interest, such as regards the use of taxpayer dollars to buy fake dowsing rods as bomb detectors (the ADE 561 and the like).

 

In my fifteen years working in skeptic education and secularist advocacy, it is a first to be called a "mind-controlling little c*nt." Because of such invective, I will not be responding to further emails by you.

 

Why am I sharing this exchange? I think it illustrates three important things about skeptics dealing with the unduly credulous.

First, what started off as a moderate back and forth about false beliefs (that the JREF is involved in a conspiracy to infiltrate the 911 Truth Movement) quickly turned into offensive insults, as is often the case in such exchanges.

Second, that no amount of new information is enough to convince some folks — despite my denial that JREF is not part of a government agenda of “cognitive infiltration” of the 911 Truth Movement, the correspondent will continue to believe otherwise; further emails he sent suggest that he feels absolutely certain that I am subservient to my government “bosses,” and that I am just engaging in “skeptic bullshit artist[ry]” and that my work for the supposed 911 governmental cover-up has finally been “found out.”

Third, this exchange and further emails reveal how someone holding a view different from this man’s is turned into more than just someone who is merely wrong, but into someone who is an great enemy, and my disagreement with him ceases being about ideas and instead about how he feels personally attacked by the disagreement: I was called “Trotsky anarchist,” and “arrogant little prick,” and asked: “You think you can get a grip in my mind?” and informed that he “could cram the skeptical minds of every person [I] have talked to about this, inside [his] brain stem,” which I will assume that he means he is a man of great intelligence, something I can’t confirm nor deny, since I don’t know the man aside from a few emails.

So, for the record again, the JREF is not part of a coordinated 911 Cover Up, nor any online effort to infiltrate the 911 Truth Movement. It is true that on the internet discussion forum we host at randi.org there are a number of popular threads on the “911 Truth” topic. But the people involved in such online discussions contribute completely independently of the JREF; indeed, JREF staff are able to participate in such discussions infrequently because of the time-constraints nonprofit professionals often face.

I am really proud of the repository of skeptic research and discussion on a wide array of important topics made by JREF Forum members over the years, but to imagine that it is some top-down coordinated effort is to connect dots that aren’t there. This is exactly what happens with conspiracy theories, along with so much other sloppy thinking: people take real information (that people discuss 911 conspiracy theories on our forum, that someone heard a scary noise or saw a light in the sky) and use their big brains to imagine connections that simply do not exist (that the JREF is part of a government cover-up agenda, that the noise was a ghost, that the light was a UFO).

While such email exchanges with conspiracy theorists and other unduly credulous can sometimes reveal a lot about the power of committed belief in the absence of good evidence, they might also suggest that sometimes even responding may not be worth it at all. Do you agree? Let us know in the comments below.

D.J. Grothe is President of the James Randi Educational Foundation and host of the podcast For Good Reason.

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Comments (34)Add Comment
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written by Willy K, April 16, 2012
You are seeing connections that aren't there, a problem I think may be common in the 911 Truth world.


You should have left out the last sentence sir. Now I will be certain you sink in public spotlight! Buh bye....
Do not speak down to me you half-wit mind controlling little c*nt! I know goddamn well what is going on there and gave you the chance to fix it yourself!
Thank me You work for me


The guys non-linear response is, IMHO, classic paranoid schizophrenia with a touch of megalomania thrown in for good measure. I'd consider it likely that he will someday be arrested for threatening violence or actually perpetrating violence.

Wouldn't you prefer to fix this quietly with an "intel arbitration" versus a potentially damaging public situation?


I would suggest that you never respond to a message that asks you to join in a conspiracy of silence. smilies/cry.gif
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written by Willy K, April 16, 2012
Didn't Michael Shermer say about the 9-11 Truthers something like "the guy with the craziest story wins."
I believe I heard him say that but I can't find the quote. Does anybody know where/when he might have said that? Thanks.
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written by krelnik, April 16, 2012
The comments about analyzing YouTube account and comment behavior remind me of an incident that happened just last week with Twitter. In that case some atheist activists fell prey to the same sort of conspiracy thinking about why their accounts were getting disabled on that service.

I wrote a blog post on Friday explaining that it is was the result a recent crackdown on spam that Twitter publicly announced before they started it. After I posted it, some of the suspended atheists accused me of being part of the conspiracy! I found it very amusing.
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written by Clairvoyant_Kyle, April 16, 2012
Dang they are onto us! Does this mean that our Tuesday meeting to eradicate the truth about 9/11 is canceled? But I already made the brownies and Agent Phillips said his wife was making apple cobbler. This is just bad timing.

Oh and to the doltish readers of this the statement above is completely sarcastic.
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written by lytrigian, April 16, 2012
I strongly suspect there's no such thing as a "moderate back and forth about ... beliefs", true or false, with any dedicated conspiracy theorist, let alone the "9-11 Truthers". The immoderacy of their beliefs is what makes them do what they do, and I have never seen one react well to contradiction.
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Paranoia
written by GusGus, April 16, 2012
Don't forget that just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that they aren't out to get you!
.
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written by MattusMaximus, April 16, 2012
I suspect that DJ's response was largely a waste of time, unless he intended it to be instructive for the purposes of informing skeptics about how "committed" some conspiracy theorists can be. From a personal standpoint, I wouldn't even waste my time responding to an email such as this.
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written by JWideman, April 16, 2012
The thing about Truthers is that they all suffer from some form of mental illness. Reasoning with them is like asking Time Cube guy what time it is.
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unfortunately, comments are necessary
written by dasirrine, April 16, 2012
In this media-saturated day and age, it's an unfortunate necessity to respond moderately to most accusations once they are made publicly. Even when it's against one's better judgment, responding with a simple public denial does more to quell the tide than ignoring the situation altogether. Nothing can be done about the extremists, but moderately-skeptical conspiracy theorists will always wonder what you have to hide if you don't at least offer the standard public statement of denial, no matter how banal the accusation.
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Tragedy
written by Chris Hunt, April 17, 2012
The really sad thing is that "truthers" think they're being skeptical when they're just being crazy.
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written by overlord624, April 17, 2012
dasirrine, an email sent privately to a representative JREF member is not a public accusation.

That said, no matter the response, the end result would have been the same. Everything but confessing to the accusations is just an attempt to cover up the truth. Silence merely indicates that the recipient is "scared because we found out the truth(tm)".
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@overlord624:
written by dasirrine, April 17, 2012
The question posed was: "It is worth responding to the overly credulous?" which is a bigger issue than "was this email public or private?" There are many who think it's not worth dignifying silliness with a response, which is how we ended up with almost half of Americans believing the earth is less than 10,000 years old.
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What's a conspiracy without the paranoia
written by drxym, April 17, 2012
The problem for 9/11 truthers is they are using a publicly available service with a comments section to promote a loose collection of mutually exclusive conspiracy theories. I am not surprised at all given the nature of their assertions, the lack of evidence (and laws of physics) to back them up that they are called out by particular individuals.

For my own part I enjoy posting the odd comment to some of the crazier videos I've run across on YouTube just to see the reaction. It's been a while since I've bothered with truthers though. They tend to be impervious to reason and extremely vocal so it's almost a waste of time to bother with them.
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written by Baloney, April 17, 2012
Evidence, shmevidence -- we want the Truuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuth!
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You are all unwittingly conspiring with BigGov.
written by Peebs, April 17, 2012
But there is a complicated reason for this.

The Chemtrails left by the aircraft before they missed/hit the towers

(Sorry, it's my first ever attempt at starting a conspiracy theory and I haven't ironed out the details yet).

But anyway, YOU HAVE TO PROVE I'M WRONG!
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written by Frodis, April 17, 2012
I think if there is anything we can take from this is that there will be no 'cognitive infiltration' of any kind in Robert Hanson! smilies/cheesy.gif
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written by Carlo Parcelli, April 17, 2012
I have been aware of cognitive infiltration for decades. Why do you think Ezra Pound was locked up in St. Elizabeth's until his death while John Hinckley gets weekend furloughs? Joan Retallack inexplicably gets grant after grant from the government for her "poetry" while the two towers collapse at the speed of gravity and a former governor is NOT punched out in a SEAL bar in California? If people would only heed the Canaanite Gospel much would be clear.

The biggest cognitive infiltration of the twentieth century was Marion David Pettie and The Finders. CIA or counterculture? No one was ever sure. Mr. Grothe's correspondent appears to be engaged in witchhunt as enlightenment, finding Morgellon's everywhere he scratches.

All that being said, I don't know if I want white America to remember or forget that Jesus Christ was the first non-violent revolutionary (talk about cognitive infiltration!) but Master Chief eventually had to clean up the mess as best he could.
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Worth it?
written by kurtoli2, April 18, 2012
Frankly, it seems like I'm getting less tolerant of the conspiracy theorists as I get older, and hopefully wiser. It doesn't seem as though there's any value in engaging in debate with individuals like that when as you say, they're not going to change their stance anyway. It seems that if you do anything short of completely agreeing with them and just admit they're totally on target with their claims, any debate no matter how diplomatic will just end up reinforcing their behavior.

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Misinformed versus thought disordered
written by PsyberDave, April 18, 2012
I partly agree with the first post. I take exception with the comment regarding violence. While I do think this person exhibits features of paranoid delusion, it is not true that he is particularly disposed to violence. Schizophrenics(and I am not saying that Robert is one), are generally not violent. Even paranoid schizophrenics who think the CIA is listening to their thoughts don't usually take up arms.

That said, I don't think that what we are dealing with here is a merely misinformed person (something we all are on various subjects). These emails seem like delusion and thought disorder. The difference between a true believer and a thought disordered person is that theoretically, a true believer could be presented with facts they had not be exposed to previously and consider them against what they have already, and perhaps change their mind or perhaps soften their position (I'm not saying it is easy). But with a delusion, no pile of evidence will change their position one bit. Now, there may be overlap with some zealous religious thought, which a mental health professional would be hesitant to count as delusion, but it is too nuanced to try to go into here.

Anyway, the bottom line I would say is that I think it is a mistake to take this man's thoughts and lump them in with the rest of a larger movement as if his thoughts were representative of their thinking style. There are people with poor critical thinking skills and poor information sources and then there are people with thought disorder. They may come to similar conclusions, but I think it is useful to think about the two as being separate groups.
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written by Willy K, April 18, 2012
PsyberDave said
...it is not true that he is particularly disposed to violence.
How could you know this? Do you know him personally? I consider the guys response to D.J. as extreme anger. If I was face to face with that guy I would not feel safe! smilies/cry.gif
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written by popsaw, April 18, 2012
My reply to the email would have been...
"Yes , the jig is up, you have found out that the JREF organization is hub for such cognitive infiltration and we are sponsored by the government, what are you going to do about it?"


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written by Xiphos, April 18, 2012
So any guess on who "tasked" that nutter with "research" in the first place?
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written by peterwbarber, April 19, 2012
Government cannot conspire to do anything. Now some people in government may be able to, but we need names. Oh! That’s right. Agent Phillips.
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@Xiphos
written by Baloney, April 19, 2012
Xiphos,

He was tasked by a secret, government-sponsored cognitive intelligence agency.
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Insert Conspiracy Here
written by Geminize, April 19, 2012
I just had a similar exchange regarding water fluoridation on a friend's Facebook thread. I was the only one to link to sources to back up my position. The more I calmly presented my opinion and the facts that supported them, the less coherent some of the other commenters became with their claims and accusations. I had hoped to enjoy the discussion, but it quickly degraded to the point that there was no point. smilies/sad.gif I made a graceful exit, but have not heard back from my friend who started the thread.
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Ah, you are your own proof
written by William, April 19, 2012
...the JREF is not involved in any "cognitive infiltration" and does not work in connection with nor on the behalf of any governmental body or individual...


Which is exactly what one who was involved in cognitive infiltration would say. You just proved you are!
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written by FrankH, April 19, 2012
Which is exactly what one who was involved in cognitive infiltration would say. You just proved you are!

Exactly.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MRDA_(slang)
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written by popsaw, April 19, 2012
"Which is exactly what one involved in cognitive infiltration would say. You just proved you are! "

Strange notion of proof right there!
It is also exactly what one not involved in cognitive infiltration would say.
I suppose people need a diversion in these austere times but the 'professional conpiracy theorists brigade'© really do set themselves up for ridicule.
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But, wait a minute...
written by trviscelli, April 20, 2012
The first e-mail accuses the JREF of undermining "the crippled epistemology of believers by planting doubts about the theories and stylized facts that circulate within such [conspiracy] groups".

Umm...isn't this a good thing?
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written by bml, April 20, 2012
The letter writer used "simple public information data mining program" to find the conspiracy.

Isn't he aware that the publicly available data mining programs are created by the enemy to give false information so that the groups fighting for the truth go after the wrong people and the real culprits remain hidden. This way, these groups will destroy each other allowing the enemy to step in and take complete control.




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If same Robert Hanson, then he has emailed threats before.
written by drwfishesman, April 20, 2012
If same Robert Hanson that goes by truthbadger, then he emailed a threat to Greg Gutfeld from the show Red Eye on Fox News on January 26, 2012.

Found in the middle of other madness in this blog.

http://growingentityofrighteousness.blogspot.com/2012/01/mass-media-bitch-slap.html
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Lamest conspiracy ever
written by Bruce Gee, April 23, 2012
The best part of this email was imagining a sinister 9/11 government agency lord telling his minions "Oh no! Our foes the truthers have put up a devastating account of our nefarious murder plot on Youtube! Go, my minions, and use your internet skillz to snuff the bright light of their inquiry by every means at your disposal! If necessary, you are even authorized to...manipulate your comments placement!!!!!!"

I mean, we're talking about the Youtube Comments section here, which is to rational discourse as the Sahara is to ice cream. Youtube Comments, where "u r dushbag" is considered witty repartee. Any conspiracy that devotes its resources to messing around with Youtube Comments is definitely the LAMEST CONSPIRACY EVER.
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One Vote for "Nicely Done"
written by Jim Shaver, April 23, 2012
D.J., for what it's worth, in my humble opinion, I think you handled this particular situation appropriately. If you have the time to make a reasoned, calm, and succinct reply to someone who may not at first obviously be a lunatic, and assuming you are not already inundated with these types of emails, I think it is proper to do so. Then for cases in which the true, vitriolic nature of the would-be correspondent is revealed, simply state that you will communicate with him no further.
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Well done
written by stag, April 23, 2012
You handled it with grace and dignity. He looked really really bad, and came off looking delusional. I am sure it was not his intention to come off looking like a wild eyed lunatic, yet...he did!
Hopefully he will read this comment, and think "gee, they think I am a paranoid (rhymes with pluck) with delusions, I better calm down, and be more polite in my replies."
Yeah. That'll happen.

You will face a lot more threats from this guy...don't forget, this is just a "shot across the bow". He is entering into a flame war. He will attempt to use junk science and loud obnoxious language to get himself a forum to try to "expose the JREF". He won't go away. Unless we simply reply to all his emails and posts with a resounding "prove it, or shut up".
But I fear he won't.

So yeah, in MY opinion, you did it the right way.

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