to out or not to out, that is the question…

July 26, 2010

You may recall that not too long ago, Chris Mooney found himself in a world of journalistic hurt after a story he so eagerly used to bash the supposed incivility of vocal atheists turned out to be a complete fabrication by a reader fond of using sockpuppets. Basically, the commenter in question had a short lived blog called You’re Not Helping which primarily focused on telling people like PZ, Ophelia Benson and Jerry Coyne how horrible they were for daring to call out accommodationist shenanigans and how they were holding back unbelievers with their frankness. To support his little crusade, he fed Mooney a story about how he and his colleagues at an unnamed research university were being derided and mocked by obnoxious atheists for willing to extend a hand to believers, and Chris, looking for something with which to smear New Atheists, eagerly swallowed up the tale and promoted it to a blog post. Well, now the truth caught up with him and the culprit has been found.

Aside from Mooney’s numerous failings in proper journalistic fact checking detailed in the first link, we have to wonder whether it’s such a good idea to out the commenter who started it all, especially when some of those involved in the story actually know his name. On the one hand, some are saying that what he did was just a cry for attention that should’ve been ignored, and if Mooney actually did his fact checking every once in a while rather than just bicker with new atheists for a chance at Templeton’s cash, this story would’ve never come up in the first place. Others take a harsher view; since the commenter in question, going by the pseudonym Tom Johnson for his tall tale, committed an ethical fraud, he should be outed on these grounds alone. And even his graduate adviser is actually considering whether his sockpuppetry and potential use of his school’s name for Mooney’s inept attempts at fact-checking are reasons for a disciplinary action. Obviously, they say, he should be held accountable for lying to the public especially because his college wasn’t explicitly named in the affair and it’s unlikely he would be facing any punishment from his institution.

So what should we do about “Tom,” and how much of a part did he play in Mooney’s anti-atheist posts? I think we shouldn’t necessarily out him since causing enough of a ruckus to get hauled in front of his advisers for his unethical actions could very well scare him straight. In fact, his quite willful admission on the web already seems to be a step in the right direction. Should someone start spreading the same anti-atheist tall tales, we know where to find him. The real fault, I’d argue, lies with Chris. Someone who claims to be a real journalist with a serious education in the subject should know that there will be readers and commenters who’ll try their best to provoke you, or use your blog as a vehicle for attracting attention to themselves. It’s up to writers to be aware of that fact, check their sources thoroughly, and avoid using anecdotes from some unnamed, unverified person on the web as evidence of anything. Chris should be ashamed of himself because combined with his lavish Templeton fellowship and this incident, we can see his true colors, and those colors aren’t pretty. And if Chris was actually a serious journalist, “Tom” would’ve remained a random concern troll who liked to back his own words with sockpuppets, smoke and mirrors, rather than the catalyst of a nasty incident.

[ illustration by Jonathan Burton ]

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  • You will, perhaps, pardon me for a baseless statement made only through gut feelings, but “Tom Johnson” was not only well known by Mooney, he was tasked by Mooney to do what he did.

    If you’re reading the comments on Why Evolution is True, you’ll notice that there’s a curious trail of assertions from Mooney and Kazez, mostly pointed out by Ophelia Benson, that contradict one another. Moreover, this would give Mooney every reason to be muddying the trail and trying to shrug off the evidence that he failed rudimentary blog management (much less anything remotely resembling “journalism”.) His standpoint, which relates awfully closely to what the Templeton Foundation tries to promote, was hurting for evidence, and he was being ripped apart for it. It helps explain why he was such an idiot for promoting a blatantly fictitious account as “evidence.”

    As for outing? I’m all for it. The sock puppet spread a lot of malicious statements around, only some of which have been removed from the web. You can take the standpoint that “it’s only the internet,” which is a bit fatuous, or you can take the opposite stance that web rumors can have a damaging effect. Either way, he gets exactly what he dished out.

    As Scote and Paul W. said in the comments at WEIT, punishment is not about either getting caught or confessing, but comes in addition to them. And I’m not convinced that his graduate adviser(s) feel they have anything whatsoever to do with this case. This isn’t a simple mistake, or horsing around on the internet to troll responses – this was a concerted, time-consuming effort to promote false information, often at the expense of others with much higher reputations. Take the hood off.

  • Greg Fish

    “Tom Johnson” was not only well known by Mooney, he was tasked by Mooney to do what he did.

    I think that’s not a road down which we need to travel. Mooney and Kazez certainly do have an anti-atheist agenda and they dearly want to believe the fantasy they were fed because it plays right into their biases, which is why they’re using negative evidence and arguing that we can’t disprove “Tom’s” story even though he made it so blatantly obvious that he lied, Chris and Jean are better off just taking their verbal lumps rather than trying to defend themselves in such a pathetic manner.

    It’s disgraceful enough that Mooney and his fans descended into the realm of those conspiracy theorists who see alien influences all around us and counter questions about the quality of their evidence with “well you can’t prove that there no aliens here on our planet!” To say that “Tom” was a plant with no evidence in the matter will only play into the same type of fallacy.

    … this was a concerted, time-consuming effort to promote false information, often at the expense of others with much higher reputations.

    Obviously, because if it weren’t and if Mooney pulled his head out of his own fumes, learned how to dial a phone, and confirm his sources, we never would’ve heard of it in the first place. But the fact of the matter is that those with much higher reputations know who he is now and should he ever slip again, they can instantly kill his shot at any legitimate academic career. He’s officially on notice now.

    And again, the problem lies with two-faced accommodationists who talk about how building bridges and making friends is so important out of one side of their mouths while falling for fairy tales and slathering atheists in verbal abuse with the other. Our sockpuppeteer was just a pawn in their campaign, who also happened to be a first class weasel and is now probably cowering as he waits if the other shoe drops.

  • reggie


    *shakes head in disgust*