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The Sciences

Sock Puppets and "Tom Johnson," Part II

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJuly 9, 2010 6:34 PM


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Okay, so here is the second post. Preface: It seems a lot of people are confused (and rightly so) about whether "Tom Johnson" is or isn't who I thought he was after checking his identity. This may be in part because my alarmed and shocked post on Wednesday was less than perfectly clear. However, at the same time, there has been much leaping to conclusions about what happened here, and much assuming of the worst. Well, much--although not all--will be revealed....

* * * * * *

"Tom Johnson." Back in October, "Tom Johnson" posted a personal story on this blog as a comment. And then I did something that, if I'd known one tenth of what I know now, I would not have done: I gave it some added attention. More specifically, I elevated

the comment into an individual post and later thanked

"Tom" for sharing it. I had no problem doing this at the time. It was just a blog post, and I had no reason to think there was anything fishy going on. And I did note that the story was "one individual’s experience and point of view, and nothing more." Granted, "Johnson" was on my side of the so-called New Atheist/accommodationist issue. However, after some questioned his original story, I took the step of confirming his identity, as this individual provided great detail about who he was, where he worked, what he'd published, and much else. While I am not going to share any of this detail for very good reasons (see below), I will say that there was quite a lot of it. It would have been a very calculated attempt to deceive me if it was all made up. So I was satisfied--and that's where things stood, for a pretty good while. Little did I know they would get a lot more complicated.

* * * * *

On Wednesday came the revelation

that "Johnson" was also "bilbo," "milton c," "You're Not Helping," and so forth. I felt pretty outraged, and that's not all. You see, along with this latest confession, "William"/"Johnson"/"bilbo" also directly contradicted the information I'd been provided in October about his identity:

When Chris contacted me, I made up a story about being a grad. student as an explanation about where the story came from because I didn’t want the Tom character to get exposed as false. As Paul W. said above, some of the stuff I said as Tom and how I said it should make it glaringly obvious in hindsight that I have no experience with anything in the professional world, and that the story and “Tom” character are both caricatures. That’s probably why no one took the story seriously anyway when I said it months ago.

Given the information in my possession, reading this was quite a shock. And initially, I feared this story was about to grow even more scandalous. You see, if the story I'd received from "Tom" back in October was fabricated, then the issues here would have moved far beyond sock-puppeting. We might also have been dealing with impersonation or even identity theft. Remember, I'd been given details about a very realperson. If that person was not our "Tom Johnson," it didn't simply mean I'd been deceived. It also meant I had a responsibility to let the real person know that someone was going around using his or her name and identity. Well, I waited to post this until I was confident that this last fear--thankfully--isn't true. Further confirmation reaffirms that "William"/"Tom Johnson" is indeed who he originally said he was. And this was always the most likely reality by far--although I understandably found myself questioning it for a while this week. I sincerely hope the claim above from "William"/"Tom" was his very last deception–and that he has learned a deep, deep lesson from all of this.

* * * * * *

In light of all this, there's no reason to trust the story that "Tom Johnson" originally told

on this blog. It might still be accurate, and it was never any more than one person's perception anyway. But one cannot trust its source in light of subsequent behavior. That is why, with the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had not given the comment any added attention--even in a blog post, and even after ascertaining (correctly) the author's true identity. And I apologize for this mistake--I wish I had been more skeptical, though I don't see how I could have suspected what was coming. I suppose that as punishment for what "Tom" did to deceive me and many others, I could now out him, embarrass him, etc. But that's not what I'm going to do; I do not believe such a step is at all justified by what has happened. I talked to "Tom" on Wednesday, and again yesterday, and have decided that the guy is suffering more than enough from what he has done. He doesn't need me publishing his identity to the world. He's very young, and he has made some very large mistakes, but it does sound like he realizes this, and that he is sorry. He got massively, massively carried away in the blogosphere. And although he caused me some grief, I am more than willing to forgive him for it. (Although if he makes up anything else, or if it turns out that I have been further deceived in any way, I reserve the right to change this position.) There are those who think I should have known what was going on, or sniffed all this out sooner. It is certainly true that some promptly expressed skepticism about Tom's tale, and claimed I was falling for a questionable story due to my own biases. But such criticisms are why I took the step of verifying (correctly) the identity of "Tom Johnson." That wasn't the problem; the problem was the other things he was up to, or would soon be up to. However, I had no reason at the time to suspect he was beginning an increasingly elaborate career of sock puppetry. (According to our logs, "bilbo" appeared about a month before "Tom Johnson.") So to conclude: I, and Sheril, were certainly deceived by comments posted on the Intersection. I'm sorry we didn't catch on to what was really happening before now, and we're going to take action to prevent that in the future. And as for "Tom": You've seen the consequences of wading in deeper and deeper, getting more and more over your head, trying to support one falsehood with another. Now, you need to very deliberately take the opposite path. Now is the time to stay off the Internet, to be with friends and family, to reflect on what has happened, and to eventually get past it all--which I'm confident you can do with time.

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