Update 7/31: here.
This post is mighty puzzling. The worst part is what we might call "the blue principle." Ophelia writes it in blue (twice) just to make sure we don't miss it.
“Journalists” are supposed to expose their “sources” if they use the journalist to perpetrate a fraud.
Suppose a journalist did think he'd been used to perpetrate a fraud (that's not necessarily what Chris Mooney thinks, of course). Should they mechanically conclude--"now I must expose the source"? Of course not. The blue principle is grossly simplistic. Journalists have to think about the nature of the fraud--how serious? All frauds are not alike. It's relevant how the source would be affected by exposure--all sorts of things are possible. In some scenarios, it might be relevant whether the source is valuable and reliable on some other matter. It might matter how old the source is, or how mentally disturbed, or how rich, or how poor...a thousand things could be relevant. So--blue principle? Nonsense.
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.
Update 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.
Update 7/25 2:30 pm: Jerry Coyne now presents evidence that the story is false, without exposing the student's identity. Maybe it will also come out how the student corroborated his story in a long, deceptive email to Chris Mooney. Stay tuned.