sockpuppets and fact checking, or lack thereof

Turns out that one of the stories Chris Mooney used to build his case against angry atheists ruining science education for everyone was created out of thin air by a fabulist.
sockpuppet

Fresh from once again admonishing scientists for their failings in communication, Chris Mooney managed to land his foot in the journalistic equivalent of a bear trap. You see, his ever recurring theme involves sniping at atheists and scientists who disagree with his Kumbaya approach, calling them intolerant and arrogant. So when a random commenter on his blog claimed to be a witness to belligerent harassment from atheists in academia, Chris eagerly believed him, promoting his tragic account to a full blown post and thanking him for his courage. Only one tiny little problem with the whole thing. The supposed witness, who hid under the ‘nym Tom Johnson, lest his evil, amoral, atheist colleagues go after him, turned out to be a fraud. Whoops. It kind of tends to undermine your story when you use fake sources just because they confirm your bias. How does Chris, a professional journalist, plan to wipe the giant ostrich egg off his face? By pretending he actually tried to do his due diligence and running to his favorite position in any debate: reclined on a fainting couch…

Until these revelations, I had no idea of any of this. Not only had I never checked my commenters’ IP addresses or for sock puppets before (although now I see that I should have). But moreover, when it came to “Tom Johnson,” I emailed him after his first comment, to check his identity. The response claimed to be a specific person–a specific Ph.D. candidate at a specific university and provided a university website and considerable detail about this person’s scientific career…

So someone sent Mooney a couple of links and he considers it legit? Way to go super sleuth! What’s next for our budding pop sci Sherlock Holmes? Tracking down Professor Morearti? A commenter uses sock puppets to confirm Chris’ personal biases and he promoted an unverified, single story to its own post without actually getting on the phone with the person and asking to verify all the information, then calling the university to get a good idea of whether the person in question is even there? What kind of journalism school did Chris attend? And considering how closely he’s been cozying up to Templeton, which showered him with money for all his hard work on debates about “framing,” any story in which he once again barks at atheists should probably be treated with a hefty dose of suspicion. A single comment from a random person you can’t identify shouldn’t be used as evidence for a factual point. Ever. This isn’t even Journalism 101. You should know this after your high school journalism class, much less need to have non-journalists explain it to you.

And as if to make sure to keep to his status as a smarmy, stubborn pundit, Mooney is dropping several vague hints about how there’s more to the story, and thanking his defenders who supposedly were given a private preview of some grand mystery he’s unveiling, promising to get to the bottom of the story and post a future update. Um, Chris? That whole “getting to the bottom thing?” Yeah, you kinda missed that. People already got to the bottom of the story for you and quoting this old move reporter cliché doesn’t make you look like you’re in charge. It just makes you look like an arrogant pontificator who’ll do anything not to admit he was caught with his pants down, using nonsensical, fraudulent claims to back up his personal crusade against vocal atheists. Chris, come on, what was that whole thing about building bridges and communicating? Or maybe, you’re the one who needs to learn how to communicate and build partnerships before you start giving everyone advice on how to do that while impersonating an old, wise, experienced sage?

[ story via PZ Myers ]

# politics // accommodationism / chris mooney / journalism


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