The Sciences

Tom Johnson: A Final Word

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJul 30, 2010 6:13 PM


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As I've said, I was impressed by Jerry Coyne's debunking of the story originally posted as a comment on this blog--and then regrettably elevated to greater prominence--by "Tom Johnson." Let me just add a few last points:

1) I am confident Coyne knows, as I do, "Johnson's" real identity. And I, like Coyne, have been in dialogue with his adviser, whom I originally alerted to this situation back on July 7. So I too know that "Johnson's" behavior is being investigated, and will be dealt with, through proper university channels. I think his adviser has handled things very well and am confident in this person's judgment about how to deal with the situation. 2) I don't think Johnson's original story is true as described. More on this below. 3) As I've previously said, I should never have elevated Johnson’s original comment or called it an "exhibit." I regret that I gave this story undue prominence, and I want to apologize to all who were affected by that action. 4) At the same time, it now looks like I was deceived by "Tom" in October when I contacted him to check things out. If I had been told the truth about his story at that time, the original comment would not have stood, and any issues would have been dealt with then, rather than now. 5) I think something probably did happen to "Johnson" to make him a fervent "accommodationist." But whatever the nature of that experience or experiences, it is no justification for the trumped-up original story or for his other actions—which, as we now know, included creating multiple sock puppets over a long period of time and using them to nastily trash his “New Atheist” opponents. 6) We are left with no reliable evidence of loud, boorish, confrontational public behavior by atheists at events with religious believers. Those who have problems with the "New Atheism” should not use this line of argument in their critiques, unless or until such evidence is produced.

There is a bit more to say. To quote Jean Kazez (who has been sorely and unjustly abused online over this affair): "There’s one more thing that hasn’t been cleared up. What did the student put in an email to Chris Mooney in October 2009 to make him believe his story? Obviously it will be up to Chris to explain or not explain." The answer is that I believe I was deceived about the story back in October 2009, and led to believe a falsehood. You will recall that “Johnson” originally claimed to have witnessed atheists at conservation events “mock the religious to their face, shout forced laughter at them, and call them ‘stupid,’ ‘ignorant’ and the like.” This is the story that caused such an uproar. And it was, crucially, the image of loud, public, and confrontational behavior that drew such attention. If Johnson had said something more minor—for instance, that a colleague at a conservation event had said something critical about religion to him privately, in a one-on-one fashion--it wouldn’t have been a big deal. When I emailed him back in October about his story, “Johnson” identified himself as a graduate student at a major university, and described his academic publishing record as well as his in-depth involvement in science education, outreach, and conservation activities. He included his website, and told me where to find his CV. He included his phone number. He also provided the website of the conservation group he was involved with, and the names of the religious organizations involved in the events where supposed transgressions had occurred. All the details about his identity were accurate. Despite a lie told later on about not being a graduate student—presumably because people were getting too close to his true identity--"Johnson" really was who he said he was. He could have seen precisely what he claimed to have seen. But in my view, his story has now fallen apart. Let’s examine:

1) “Johnson” told me he'd witnessed this loud public atheist misbehavior at specific events, which he had attended, involving a Baptist group and an Episcopalian organization; 2) He said that the harshest comments he'd heard had been at outreach events with the Baptist group.

There's no longer any reason to believe this. First, "Johnson" is now known to be a completely unreliable witness. On top of that, he has backed down from the original story, which claimed loud public confrontations—and we have one witness that refutes it regarding the Baptist group. More specifically:

1) In answers submitted to his adviser and shared with myself and Jerry Coyne, “Johnson” backed away from the original story, admitting there were no harsh statements about religion made “with a raised voice to a group.” He called the original story an "exaggeration." 2) Regarding the Episcopalian organization, "Johnson" said he had mistakenly mentioned it to me as a place where atheist misbehavior had occurred. Nothing of the sort described happened in connection with this group. 3) Regarding the Baptist group, "Johnson" also backed away from the claim that some sort of loud public confrontation had happened in connection with this organization. He did suggest that a "colleague" who had been with him at a 2008 event had made more minor critical remarks, but nothing on the scale originally described. Even if we were inclined believe this—and I really don’t believe anything at this point—it would not justify the much more dramatic claims of the original story. 4) Coyne has been in touch with this colleague, who says that nothing like what Johnson originally described occurred at the Baptist event; and I've also contacted this colleague to confirm the accuracy of Coyne’s assessment. In sum, it looks like there's no there there regarding the Baptist group either—at least regarding loud, public confrontations.

In conclusion, I want to thank everyone who has tried to establish and to explain the truth here: “Johnson’s” adviser and Jerry Coyne; and also TB and Jean Kazez. I still have my philosophical and tactical problems with the “New Atheism.” But I’m disturbed that someone on my “side” of this debate would do the things “Johnson” has done, painting a group as uncivil based on what is at best a serious exaggeration, while simultaneously spewing reams of incivility towards that group online, under multiple identities. There is no excuse for such behavior--and moreover, there has been a very big cost in this case to a lot of people, both in time and in grief. If there is any silver lining at all here, perhaps after working to find out the truth together about "Tom Johnson," so-called "New Atheists" and "accommodationists" might feel the inclination to be just a little bit more civil and trusting towards one another. We do have a shared commitment to the truth, and a means of discerning it—and those have won out in this case. Let’s not forget that as we carry on the argument for science and reason in the future.

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