Tom Johnson Chapter 368

7/31: update here.

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.


Dave W. said...

Jean Kazez,

If, as you said over at Jerry Coyne's blog, you've "known all along" that "TJ's" advisor was aware of everything that TJ had been doing, why did you tell me on July 11th on "The Buddha Is Not Serious" that I was being totally unreasonable to think that reporting "TJ" to his university (without "outing" him) would be a good thing?

Why didn't you just say that his university and his advisor were already aware of "TJ's" antics? That would have ended - weeks ago! - quite a lot of the "baying for blood" that's been going on.

s. wallerstein said...

Everybody makes mistakes. Even Christopher Hitchens, so worshipped by the New Atheist set, was duped or let himself be duped by the Bush administration into supporting the disastrous and homicidal invasion of Iraq. Let me tell you, folks, the invasion of Iraq has produced a lot more real costs to real people, U.S. soldiers and civilians in Iraq (there was an article today about genetic defects in children in Iraq due to the weapons used by the U.S. to "free them") than Mooney's accomodationism.

Jean Kazez said...

Dave W., You were telling me that I should report TJ to the honor board (or some such) at his university, and I do think that's unreasonable. Faculty at other universities don't have that responsibility. It's probably not an honor code violation either.

As for the fact that I knew his adviser knew--this was something told to me in confidence. Now that it's common knowledge, I can say I knew it.

Amos--Nice example, in the sense that it helps us see the difference between saying someone was duped and saying they're to blame for having been duped. Now we know Mooney was duped. It's another matter whether he's to blame for that.

Josh L. said...

I'm having to go through some real mental contortions to read that the way you're saying it was intended to be read. But, ok, if I work hard enough, I can do it. So let's move back a sentence. What was the purpose of the parenthetical "if there is [a fraud], and we don't actually know for sure"? How are we supposed to read that?

I think it's possible you've misunderstood the motivation of at least some of the people who were calling for TJ's outing. Sure, some of them seem to be motivated by a desire for retribution, and that's not cool. But I think for some others, the desire wasn't for evidence which could convince them, but for evidence which would convince other people---the kind of people, say, who kept writing post with asides about how it hadn't actually been proven that any fraud had occurred, nudge nudge, wink wink.

In fact, I can't think of anyone calling for TJ's outing who would have characterized the situation as "in doubt but not disconfirmed". "Laughably implausible", yes; "implausible on its face and furthermore disavowed by the person who originally made the claim", sure. But not "doubtful, but not 100% disproven". The people who would have characterized it that way were the very people those calling for exposure were trying to convince.

The story isn't any more discredited in my mind today than it was yesterday, anyway. It was already pretty much maximally discredited. The only new information I have is that Coyne vouches for the existence of a person who was at a conference at which nothing like "Exhibit A" happened, which is what I'd always assumed was the case anyway.

I'm curious whether you draw any distinction between writing a blog post or book calling a group of people names and being invited by that group to a conference and calling them names to their faces. Because you seem to be making fun of the idea that outspoken atheists might take issue with someone lying about a way in which they had behaved very rudely. If you think that it's just as rude of us to confront religious beliefs in books and articles (and, let's face it, some people are going to be confronted and insulted by our very existence) as it would be to metaphorically spit in their faces at an event they'd invited us to, well, I don't know what to say about that. But if you can see how they might not be equivalent situations, can you see how we might feel that we'd been unfairly smeared, and that, no, it really shouldn't be left standing?

Dave W. said...

Jean Kazez wrote:

"Dave W., You were telling me that I should report TJ to the honor board (or some such) at his university, and I do think that's unreasonable. Faculty at other universities don't have that responsibility."

Well, I don't know what university it is we're talking about exactly (obviously), but the one that's been mentioned in relation to "TJ" does say that it's the faculty's duty to bring to light any potential student violations of the code of honor. If I were to write a set of faculty ethics guidelines, that's what I'd do, simply to help ensure that the teachers themselves don't play judge and jury, given the obvious conflicts of interest that can arise.

But the above would be moot if you aren't faculty at "TJ's" university. I was under the impression that you're just a third party who happened to be "in on" certain pieces of information. Your position as faculty at one school doesn't have much relevance to the goings-on at a separate and independent university, does it?

"It's probably not an honor code violation either."

But that's up to the university to decide, not you. The fact that you can't definitively state that "TJ" didn't violate his school's code of conduct for students means that you don't know, and so (assuming for discussion that you hadn't "known all along") you should have given the decision over to those who would know.

Or are school administrators generally such horrible people that simply being accused gets big black marks on one's permanent record even if one is cleared of all wrongdoing? That's the only reason I can see for trying to protect "TJ" from his own school.

"As for the fact that I knew his adviser knew--this was something told to me in confidence."

You're serious? "His advisor knows" are three words that needed to be kept secret? How could that have harmed anyone? There are times when keeping a secret is a bad idea. How could this one have not benefited everyone, in that most of the people who were "baying for blood" would have simply said, "oh, that's good," and moved on to other things?

After all, it's precisely the result that I wanted: "TJ" isn't outed, but has to answer to an appropriate authority anyway. And "TJ" didn't just lie to me, he tried to make me look like a liar, publicly. (My particular grievance against "TJ" has nothing directly to do with Chris Mooney.)

Jean Kazez said...

This post was a response to Ophelia's. I was expecting people to follow the link, see what she had said, then interpret me accordingly. So when I said "if there is a fraud, and we don't actually know for sure," I was responding to the fact that she seemed to think she knew for sure.

I think if we can get away from what any specific person thought, the "status" of this story, as of yesterday, was "doubtful but not disconfirmed." It was out there, not in the trash. That's all...nothing more intended.

I agree it's worse to be rude to people's faces. Calling someone "stupid" one on one is worse than calling them "stupid" in any of the other formats. So yes, I understand why people are reluctant to buy that this happened. So OK, yes, I'll but that. It's not good to leave this standing. The question was how much is it worth to get it into the trash? I think it's good it got there without the student being exposed.

I wrote the post after seeing PZ's comment (#104 or so) about how he might just "out" the student. It seemed like a good idea for someone to say "wait, is this really ethical?" That was my goal, not to perpetuate the underlying story about atheists.

Sigh. I've never been anything but an atheist. I'm not involved in any smear campaigns against atheists.

Jean Kazez said...

Dave W. My intuition is that pursuing this would not be my responsibility. It would be different if I thought there was a crime involved--I don't. It's only a code of conduct violation that's involved (if that), and it's up to each school to both define and pursue what they want in students. That's my gut feeling, anyway. Certainly accusing me of "obstruction of justice" was hyperbolic and confronational.

In any event, it's true I knew at the time that people at his univ. knew about it, so I didn't have to think about this too long. As to confidentiality--there's something about the term "his advisor" which suggests "graduate student" and I didn't think that was common knowledge. So keeping this to myself was part of not exposing him, as I'd promised.

The amount of detail out there now certainly would make it much easier for someone to identify him, but I guess he's decided to accept that.

Dave W. said...

Jean Kazez wrote:

"Dave W. My intuition is that pursuing this would not be my responsibility. It would be different if I thought there was a crime involved--I don't."

Well, that's a huge difference between you and I, then. I feel that we all have a duty to do our best to minimize antisocial behaviors whether they're criminal or not. (For example, there are plenty of ways for a parent to screw up a child, with lasting damage, that are completely legal, but if I found out one of my neighbors was doing such things, I'd feel a duty to do what I could to intervene.) I won't sit idly and justify do-nothingism (to use one of "TJ's" phrases) with "well, it's only a code of conduct violation." Those things exist for a reason, don't they?

"It's only a code of conduct violation that's involved (if that), and it's up to each school to both define and pursue what they want in students."

They can't pursue what they don't know about. They can't even decide that an infraction is so minimal they won't pursue it without knowing about it. Not reporting it took the power to pursue it (or not) out of the hands of the school (again, assuming for sake of discussion that they hadn't already known about it). How do you get to decide which course of action is best for a school you're not even affiliated with?

"That's my gut feeling, anyway. Certainly accusing me of "obstruction of justice" was hyperbolic..."

Not at all. Getting "TJ's" school to look at him was the only justice I could possibly get, and you were specifically denying it, so far as I could tell at the time.

"...and confronational."

Yes? And? I'm still interested in what you had to gain by going against what still seems to have been everyone else's interests, and it was my intent to confront you with that. Is confrontation always a bad thing, now? Does being confronted justify insults?

"In any event, it's true I knew at the time that people at his univ. knew about it, so I didn't have to think about this too long. As to confidentiality--there's something about the term "his advisor" which suggests "graduate student" and I didn't think that was common knowledge. So keeping this to myself was part of not exposing him, as I'd promised."

"TJ" had already claimed to be a graduate student, and then in his "confession" about being "TJ," he lied and said that the "graduate student" part was also a lie. So by saying "his advisor," you only would have been confirming that he'd lied about lying. Undergrad or grad is really irrelevant, anyway. Online student directories won't magically cough up his name and only his name given a list of aliases and whether or not he's got more than 120 credits.

"The amount of detail out there now certainly would make it much easier for someone to identify him..."

I don't see how. There are no more personal details "out there" about "TJ" than there were yesterday, unless one is faculty at "TJ's" school, in which case the details being talked about here and elsewhere are irrelevant.

Jean Kazez said...

"Obstructing justice" is impeding an ongoing investigation. I was doing no such thing by not reporting this student to his honor council. There was no ongoing investigation to impede.

As for some duty to report--I see this as an internal matter. Making sure that some student conforms to the internal standards set by his university is not my responsibility. I may or may not agree with those standards. I don't have any input into what they are. It's just not my problem to help other schools enforce their standards.

As to knowing about the adviser-- I was certainly under no obligation to share that fact with anyone, let alone anonymous people (like you).

End of that subject.

s. wallerstein said...

Thinking of top reporters who were duped by the Bush administration about Iraq, I recall Bob Woodward, the man who discovered Watergate. Woodward wrote a series of books lauding Bush's war policies, only to realize that he had been deceived, duped and fooled. Now, if a man of Woodward's intelligence, political knowledge and journalistic reputation lets himself be duped, the rest of us mortals can forgive ourselves if a source dupes us from time to time.

Jean Kazez said...

Speaking of watergate, I hope we can put to rest the silly idea that every story has to be corroborated by 2 eye witnesses. As far as I know, Woodward talked to Deep Throat, not Deep Throats.

People think about journalistic ethics for approximately 10 seconds and then think they're experts. It's just strange and baffling.

s. wallerstein said...

Not only did Woodward and Bernstein only use one source, but also they had no way of knowing with certainty that Deep Throat wasn't feeding them false information or half-truths in order to destroy Nixon. Deep Throat could have been an agent of the Democratic Party, of Nixon's many political enemies or even of the Soviets.

Benjamin S Nelson said...

So now we know TJ isn't a pseudonym, because nothing in the story corresponds with the facts.

Don't you think it would be appropriate to apologize for accusing people of being "gullible", of "[falling] in love with William", etc.? I don't doubt that you did what you thought was reasonable at the time. But it's also reasonable to acknowledge errors in hindsight, and try to improve your sense of due diligence as best you can in order to prevent future mistakes.

Jean Kazez said...

Are you kidding?

I think you are not actually understanding what's been revealed. TJ is perfectly real, apart from the name (yes, it's a pseudonym), and much of what he said is true. He is no wholly fabricated sock puppet. William lied about that. What is false is TJ's allegation about overhearing atheists bashing religious people. Otherwise, he is truthful both about himself and about his professional activities.

I do think people made a mistake when they trusted William's confession. They over-trusted, because they were in a feel-good conciliatory mood. "Gullible" is not a bad word for that. "Falling in love" is colorful. It's ok to write colorfully.

I find it bizarre you would imagine me in an apologetic mood this morning. Much crap was written about me in the last 12 hours. And guess what, I'm not holding my breath for the apologies!

Benjamin S Nelson said...

I definitely don't understand you. If Coyne is right, then TJ is only as real as the rest of the socks. The only clear thing we know about his identity turned out to be false -- that is, he didn't attend any relevant conference where that event happened. For most people, the substantial lie simply was his identity. Falsify the lie, you falsify the character.

All this is certainly not a contest about who ought to apologize more for what. That's shades away from a tu quoque fallacy; even if everyone else is wrong, the point is that you don't have to be. And I'm sure you'll agree that ethics is about principles and virtues, not a competition of rebukes. And as for those principles, we have commonsense obligations to veracity and non-maleficence, right?

Jean Kazez said...

I really do think you've misunderstood. A sock puppet is a fabrication, like Elmo. Sock puppets don't tell the truth about themselves. TJ told plenty of truth about himself. He just also lied about what he'd witnessed.

I don't owe anyone an apology. It really is just as simple as that.

Deepak Shetty said...

For me atleast, the problem lies in the way Chris addressed the issue when the deception was revealed. His apology amounted to "Im sorry I was deceived" instead of directing his apology to the new atheists for this specific case.
The way comments and criticism are dealt with at the intersection don't help.

s. wallerstein said...

Hello Deepak: I don't read or participate in Chris Mooney's blog.
I'm not especially interested in science or science education: I'm a humanities or a history person myself. How did I get into this mess? First of all, I've followed Jean Kazez's blogging here and formerly in the TPM blog, and while I don't always agree with her or even like her, I respect her ethical fine tuning. From the TPM blog, I also got to know one prominent New Atheist blogger, and her need to dominate, her Wille Zur Macht, her need for adulation, lead me to see her as the Ayn Rand of the New Atheism. Let's take a detour: the New Atheism began, say, 5 or 6 years ago, with a series of worthwhile, although not entirely original, books (I read Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian over 45 years ago), by Dennett (a bore), Dawkins (interesting) and Hitchens (one of the wittiest authors around), and I thank the latter two for a few hours of good reading. Dennett, Dawkins and Hitchens are no more responsible for every New Atheist blog than Karl Marx is for Stalin or Simone de Beauvoir is for every
radical feminist. However, post Dawkins and Hitchens, the New Atheists took their own path, and as Marx says, everything occurs twice, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. So we have the farce of scores of people dedicating hours and hours to finding errors in the collected works of Chris Mooney, under the pretext of journalistic ethics, but actually, because Chris dared to ban Ms. Ayn Rand reincarnated from his blog and Ms. Ayn Rand reincarnated does not accept slights. If Chris Mooney had a blog about golf and had used a dubious source, I doubt that any New Atheist would have bothered to yawn about it. If Chris Mooney had lauded Ayn Rand II in his blog, the New New Atheists (those who spend all day blogging about Mooney) would have sent him kisses. Anyway, that's how I see this mess. I imagine that you are young: the other night, looking through some old books, I chanced upon "The God that Failed," a book from the 1950's with testimonies of ex-Communists, writers who no one reads now, but who once were important: Koestler, Gide, Silone, Wright. I read Koestler's testimony. The guy writes well, has an incredible grasp of psychology, and his description of being a Communist reminds me ever so much of the New New Atheists (who should not be confused with the good old New Atheists).

Gurdur said...

Like Amos, I too find enormous parallels in politics (and in fact, one way of looking at this all is through its political dimension, which of course is probably the most relevant dimension to hand).

For me, though, the most pressing political analogy is the example of the Trotskyists, together with the abhorrent Totsykist tactics of counter-demonstrating against any Left protest, or against any trade-union strike, that they didn't like or ideologically approve of.

The sheer self-righteousness of the Trotskyists, the way in which they would trumpet they were the only True Left, the way they heaped personal abuse on other non-Trot leftists and trade-union organizers, the way they felt absolutely legitimate in using tactics of personal intimidation and abuse, the way they constantly trumpeted how it was only through them and following their orders that Heaven I mean the True Revolution could be attained ---

well now, powerfully and unpleasantly reminiscent.

Gurdur said...

I do want to say one thing, though, and that is that every cloud has a silver lining.

It was only because of all the specious fuss being kicked up ad nauseum that I found this blog, and also found the commentators Amos and Faust.

I've had a great deal of interest in reading over Jean Kazez's other blog entries. I disagree with her on a great many things, from free will to Inception to whether moral facts exist.

Nonetheless she is quite a great blogger and thinker, and the thoughts from Amos and Faust are very good value too.

So finding this all has been great for me.

Deepak Shetty said...

Your original point was that every body makes mistakes and even reputable journalists are duped. That's not the only thing under discussion. I cant quite figure out how your response addresses that, perhaps I am too young(Though my wife disagrees) to understand.

"with a series of worthwhile, although not entirely original, books"
Which is what every new atheist tries to say, that it isn't new , but this moniker has been awarded by the religious and accomodationists, perhaps you should take it up with them

"but actually, because Chris dared to ban Ms. Ayn Rand"

Really? And you know this how?

If Chris Mooney had a blog about golf and had used a dubious source, I doubt that any New Atheist would have bothered to yawn about it.
Uh yes no one would bother except golfers(who are a pretty passionate lot). Is your reasoning always this bad?

And back to the journalism thing( which Jean Kazez in a display of extremely bad judgement , in my opinion, decided to vet),
I can paraphrase Russell Blackford. If someone tells you that a martian monster is destroying the SCG in Sydney, then if your verification consists of checking that SCG exists and Sydney exists then you have a problem (comparing Mooney's incident to whistle blower incidents which by nature don't let you have multiple sources or better verification is also poor form in my opinion)

Deepak Shetty said...

@Jean Kazez

Calling someone "stupid" one on one is worse than calling them "stupid" in any of the other formats.

Interesting. I would think its the other way around. Calling someone stupid may be bad, but you get to deal with the consequences.

Jean Kazez said...

Amos, I've stopped reading B&W (my husband got tired of it and blocked my access--very clever of him), but someone told me how you've been eviscerated over there. We are finding out what Ophelia is made of, aren't we?

Anybody who's closely followed Ophelia's obsession with Mooney knows that it really is all about the banning. Don't know about the Ayn Rand analogy because I know nothing about Ayn Rand.

Her campaign against him started then and became increasingly personal and vituperative. She couldn't stop coming back to it--90 posts about Mooney in the last year! Meanwhile, he has actually moved on and written very little about atheism at The Intersection in the last year. She hasn't noticed it, but he actually thinks climate change is the great issue facing the world, not the excesses of Internet Atheists.

Speaking of the excesses--good grief. I've never seen so much bad reasoning and vindictiveness.

Anyway, Amos, I'm sorry this has happened.

Let's look at that last sentence, because it's interesting and relevant. Obviously, it's not my fault that Ophelia (and her fans--I hear they're at it as well) have attacked you, so I wouldn't dream of apologizing to you for it. But I said I'm sorry.

I think that's the sentiment Chris needed to express when he found out he'd been conned by TJ into accepting his testimony about the conservation event. It wasn't his fault. So he had no reason to apologize to anyone for it. Yet he needed to say be was sorry. And he did say he was sorry.

But how sorry did he need to be? I'm quite sorry people are targeting you, Amos, because that's a painful thing. I know it, because it's a painful thing to me to be unfairly targeted.

Did anybody ever suffer over TJ's testimony about the conservation event? No--that's absurd. They were offended, they were outraged, they were up in arms. But that's not the same as really being hurt or harmed by it. So the demand that Chris should apologize is incoherent, and so is the expectation that he should be filled with great sorrow.

Note--he goes further on the matter of TJ's sock puppetry (in a different post). He actually does apologize, which makes sense, because he does bear some level of responsibility.

So again, I can't apologize (by all means, Ophelia should), but I'm sorry, Amos--and really understand how you must feel.

amos said...

ean: Absolutely no need to apologize. When I compared Ophelia to Ayn Rand, I did not expect her to send me kisses. I'm not an Ayn Rand fan myself, but a while ago, I read a long review of a biography of Ayn Rand and her sect, and it reminded me of B & W, a group of bright (almost entirely male) people, dominated by a brilliant, but closedminded and intolerant woman, a woman needing constant adulation and confirmation from her circle of yes-men, with vicious retribution against traitors to the cause (in both cases, the cause of reason) and apostates. I hope that you are well.

Jean Kazez said...

Amos, All that stuff about apologizing vs. saying your sorry (9:48) was in reference to Deepak Shatty's comment above (7:19). That must have been puzzling.