If you didn't read the first 367 chapters, don't bother with this one. So now we have the truth about the stories "Tom Johnson" told about outrageous, nasty atheists at conservation meetings. There were conservation meetings and there were atheists, but the atheists were not outrageous or nasty. He did not hear the things he claimed to hear.
Jerry Coyne says he needed to clear this up not to protect the student from being exposed (which people have been calling for) but just to debunk the stories. He says "some people are keeping alive the idea that it contains a kernel of truth, or that something akin to that episode might really have taken place."
Just to set the record straight, not me. This is what I wrote yesterday:
The fraud in this instance (if there is one, and we don't actually know for sure) seems enormous to some people. It seems like a huge thing to leave a story out there, in doubt but not disconfirmed, that says some new atheists confront and insult religious people in person, at conservation events. Of course, it goes without saying that some atheists do confront and insult religious people in books, articles, websites, public talks, on TV, and on the radio. But if someone says "in person," that simply can't be left standing. Some people think it's worth exposing this student, no matter what the consequences for him, to get to the bottom of this. But I think that's grossly imbalanced. The difference this story makes to the image of atheists is minuscule. The difference exposure could make to the student is huge. Ethics requires us to think about that.I said that the people who were calling for exposure saw the story as "in doubt but not disconfirmed." Surely that is what many of them thought. They weren't all trying to expose the guy just to punish him...were they? They wanted conclusive disconfirmation.
So in that passage I wasn't even saying what I personally thought. Seeing the misunderstanding in comments at other blogs, I clarified the next morning--
7/25 10 am: People (elsewhere) are exercised about "not disconfirmed." No, I'm not invested in getting people to think "Tom Johnson's" obnoxious-atheists-at-conservation-meeting story may be true. My point in this post is that it doesn't matter a whole lot whether it's true. So it's not worth messing up someone's life (forever, with an internet expose that will never go away) to find out for sure But OK: people are curious. Did it happen? I think mystery student offered Chris Mooney very credible corroboration for his story in October 2009. Much of that still holds up, but some of it now seems very fishy. So (to my mind): low probability the story is true. On the other hand, I don't buy the theory that the story was so implausible on its face that Chris Mooney should have immediately dismissed all the corroboration. Even the best journalists can be duped. But I want to be cautious--I don't have access to all relevant information. I simply don't know the whole truth.Maybe that was still unclear--in fact, probably so. I did not clarify what was holding up and what was fishy and improbable, because I was trying to protect the student's identity. All the revelations in Coyne's post make it easier now to speak clearly.
Finally, about Chris Mooney. People at other blogs are saying since it turns out the "Tom Johnson" story was false, he's been discredited and I was wrong to vouch for him. What? The question about Chris, as a journalist, is just whether he did the right things, whether the October 2009 email appeared convincing, whether there were corroborating links, etc. "Due diligence" just means all that, not protecting yourself from every conceivable fraud. It does not mean spending weeks investigating an anecdote, before elevating it from comments to a blog post. It does not mean treating someone with the suspicion we all now justifiably feel toward "Tom Johnson." Good journalists get scammed. Surely this is right.