Sock Puppets and "Tom Johnson," Part II

By Chris Mooney | July 9, 2010 9:34 am

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 real person. 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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Uncategorized

Comments (112)

  1. William Furr

    Staying off the Internet is also good for getting some vitamin D.

  2. Gus Snarp

    I’m a skeptic, so I’m skeptical. But I have no choice but to take your word for it. I hope that you’ve learned a lesson too: anyone can be lying, and if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. I sincerely hope you will apply a bit better skeptical filter to unsupported anecdotes that fit your biases in the future. That’s something we can all do.

  3. Jon

    I think the party that ends up looking the worst in this whole affair is the Internet.

    Get out more and try reading something else, like books, people. The world can’t be conveyed completely in blog snippets.

  4. Jon

    You owe me a beer, William.

  5. Despite Sheril’s previous complaints about how hard it is to tell sockpuppets from IP addresses, this could have been easily sussed out at the get go if even a modicum of blog moderator elbow grease had been applied.

  6. Feynmaniac

    I’m confused.

    “Tom Johnson” claimed on here be a scientist and cited papers to you he’s published, but at the same time is “very young”.

    Also, he lying on thebuddhaisnotserious about making up “a story about being a grad. student ” and having “no experience with anything in the professional world”?

  7. Jon — I don’t know that you can blame the Internet for this. Yes, people behave badly on the Internet, and do deceptive things. But that’s because of people, not because of the Internet.

    You can find awful stuff in books, too. For instance, if you want to read something that sounds plausible to the uninitiated about Quantum Mechanics, but that is full of utter crap, look for books by Fred Alan Wolfe.

  8. It is unfortunate that Tom did all this, however:

    “He got massively, massively carried away in the blogosphere.”

    Which is true for many of your (Chris) and his (Tom’s) critics. He more than screwed, up but I think this is classic case of “Let he/she who is without sin in the blogsphere cast the first stone.” :)

    “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. And although he caused me some grief, I am more than willing to forgive him for it.”

    I think you’ve been the most mature person about this Chris. Latter commenters may rip my comment apart but we all have made serious mistakes somewhere, especially as youth. Tom *didn’t* get away with this and *is* suffering consequences but it takes a big person to admit he’s probably suffered sufficiently for the “crime” and it is time to move on.

  9. outeast

    To say ‘I don’t see how I could have suspected what was coming’ is a bit disingenuous; no, you could not have foreseen the recent revelations about sockpuppetry – but you ought really to have been more sceptical of the story itself for the very reasons that others suggested afterwards. Have you ever encountered behaviour of the type described in real life? If the story had indeed been an accurate description of real behaviour (rather than ‘a charicature’) it would have merited real outrage.

    I think you need to think very carefully about why you were willing to believe it in the first place (ie before you ever communicated with the writer) and about what that says about your own vulterability to cognitive biases. To be frank, it looks to be like you’re not facing up to this aspect of the affair – and that more than anything is what is upsetting people.

  10. TheBlackCat

    I’m confused now. I read your post twice and I am still not clear on exactly what happened. What exactly was true and what wasn’t:

    - “Tom Johnson” was the same as all the sock puppets: True/False
    - “Tom Johnson” was a grad student: True/False
    – “Tom Johnson” was the same grad student whose information you were sent: True/False
    - “Tom Johnson” had been to the conference he claims he was at: True/False
    – “Tom Johnson” had seen what he claimed he saw at said conference: True/False

  11. Jon

    Sure there are bad books. But there are definitely limitations to the Internet. And I say that as an Internet fan.

    I’ll Google up one of my favorite Kevin Drum posts on the subject:

    http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2005_11/007650.php

  12. Feynmaniac
  13. Gus Snarp

    I think it would help to provide the nature of the evidence “William” gave you for his identity, if, understandably, not the evidence itself. “William” has piled on so many layers of dishonesty that in order to effectively clear the air at this point it may take more than simply you saying that he proved to you who he is. Did he email you from his university email address? Did he provide you with a phone number that matches a phone book listing? How did he prove to you, beyond the shadow of a doubt in this very twisted case, that he is, in fact, this scientist, PhD candidate, or whatever, that he claimed to be, but said in his public confession that he is not? We don’t need to know who he is, you’re right about that, but it might be nice to know how exactly you know. And you might, on a very private, personal basis, consider whether it is appropriate to discuss his behavior with his advisor, given that a PhD candidate can be assumed to be doing research and attempting to get published, perhaps someone ought to know of his ethical problems?

  14. Gator

    So Greg got duped by a 14 year old.

    So what about the crusade against the New Athiests? What does it say that the one anecdote about horrible NA scientists cruelly taunting their martyr-like Christian colleagues was made up? (And come on, the story was pretty crappy. It makes some sense if this was a high-school or middle-school writer. Everyone has stories of being teased growing up.)

  15. Brownian

    outeast wrote:

    Have you ever encountered behaviour of the type described in real life? If the story had indeed been an accurate description of real behaviour (rather than ‘a charicature’) it would have merited real outrage.

    A man once popularised the phrase, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.
    Of course, he was no great communicator of science…

  16. José

    Who cares if he was real or not? The people profiled in expelled were real. It’s their stories that were always questionable, just as Tom Johnson’s story was always questionable. I’m assuming you’ve spent considerable time around scientists and atheists. Have you ever seen them behaving the way Tom Johnson described? Me neither.

  17. GGW

    You confirmed where he worked, what he’d published, etc. and you are saying those are still accurate. But he admits he made up the story about being a grad student. It’s fine to let him maintain his anonymity, but that part of the story is still unclear. He says he has “no experience in the professional world” but you are saying his original story “might still be accurate”. Both of those can not be true, can they?

  18. Jolo5309

    So is “Tom Johnson” a grad student or not? I am a little confused on this issue.

    When you say you “talked to Tom” did you call him on the phone or just communicate via email?

    Chris, how do you know Tom’s story might be accurate? Did he give you the name of the convention he was at, and the name of the scientist that did it? Tom, granted he is a liar, has even stated the story is a caricature.

  19. mewol

    “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. “

    I’m a little baffled as to why you’d take a debunked story and say it “might still be accurate.”

    The story can’t still be accurate if it never was accurate in the first place. And “one person’s perception” of an event is quite different from one person’s fabrication (or “caricature” if you prefer) of an event. The author of the story admitted to the fabrication. Are we to believe that he was lying when he said he made it up?

  20. Katharine

    The least we can say about your whole treatment of this is that it’s mighty clear how much your bias impacts your reporting.

  21. rrt

    “Tom” himself contradicts you, in the very quote you give, saying he made obvious errors and that no one took him seriously when he posted the story. But you did. I can believe that you really “don’t see how I could have suspected what was coming,” but that is precisely the problem. Regardless of what others may be after, I’m not looking for hara-kiri here. I would simply like to see you recognize that you might have a perspective problem that facilitated these events.

  22. @Chris Mooney: You say you have now confirmed the identity of Tom/William, but you have not been clear about how you did this. You seem to imply that you contacted the person whose website you were given by Tom/William, but you don’t say so explicitly. Could you please confirm that this is in fact what you did?

  23. TB

    Nobody got this right

    - Chris found the source to be exactly who he said he was and so found the story to be credible.
    - Detractors didn’t believe Chris and what he said about the source and doubted the commenter was a real scientist.
    - I and other commenters did believe that because the source checked out the story was credible.

    In reality, the source was exactly who Chris investigated him to be, with associations in exactly the kinds of things that could have made his original story true. It wasn’t “unsupported” and it’s not the credentials that were off, it’s the other behavior online that’s the reason we now can’t give credibility to anything from this source.

    Welcome to the internet.

    As for sock puppets, I agree with Greg Laden’s point about imposing rules after the fact. And not to minimize legitimate complaints about what happened elsewhere on the internet, nothing done here was going to stop that bad behavior. He just would have been banned on this blog.

    Chris is kicking himself in hindsight, but he did the legwork. “Tom” was something different – this was a real person. I think “Tom” wanted to get this story out and anyone can walk into a public library and get online. If he wanted to post, he would have found way.

    (Aside to @ 6. Feynmaniac: “Young” is a relative term. Every year, unfortunately, I can apply it to more and more people.)

  24. billy

    I don’t really understand this explanation. You’re saying that the things William/Tom told you about being a grad student are true–even though William/Tom said a few days ago that he made it all up? How can you say that his story “might still be accurate” when William/Tom himself says that “the story and “Tom” character are both caricatures”. This really doesn’t make any sense to me.

    So you did email his university account and he did reply? This should be a simple question that you can answer definitively.

  25. This makes no sense.

    You were given details about a real person, this Tom Johnson. But you didn’t verify that the person giving you the details was that person. That’s your failure.

    Here, this is me! There are lots and lots of details there, photos and everything. In order to accept that I’m telling you the truth, though, you have to make the essential step of connecting the details at the website to the person leaving the comment. I would have thought that would be journalism 101…but what do I know? Apparently biologists get more exercise in critical thinking than journalists do.

    You really aren’t making yourself look any better with these slo-mo revelations.

  26. gillt

    So apparently Chris, you took the initiative–after listening to the skeptics of Tom’s story–to confirm his identity.

    So why did you write a followup post calling those very skeptics the “New Atheist Comment Machine,” and stating that Tom was being attacked by them?

    Did I miss something?

  27. Will

    I’m still very confused about this story and have been since it came to light a few days ago. What I do understand is that there was an individual who had multiple identities on at least two different blogs and who caused a bunch of trouble. But I am confused as to who the person is (among those identities already given). To echo commenter #6′s question above, is the imposter (i.e. the actual individual sitting at the keyboard) an established academic with published work, or a student? Or neither?

    I’m not asking for the actual identity like name and affiliation, just the basic details so I can speculate to myself about the person’s thought process, because this is all very interesting.

  28. Tom Ames

    I also am not interested in knowing the personal identity of “Tom Johnson”. However, there seem to be some contradictions that ought to be cleared up, namely:

    Is the person behind the “Tom Johnson” persona a graduate student, or an undergrad who just completed his degree?

    Is he a practicing scientist or not? The “evidence” supplied to Chris Mooney for his identity seems to include a body of publications. And yet “Johnson” has also been described as “very young”. In addition, he claims elsewhere that he made up the grad student persona.

    Again, I’m not at all interested in hammering at this poor kid’s identity, and I don’t wish him any further grief. But there are many loose ends to this story, and I’d like to be certain that the deceptions have in fact ended before we all move on.

  29. ChrisD

    I’m probably alone in this, but I always thought “bilbo’s” posts, at least, were sorta fun. Yes, they could be trolly (as he cheerfully and repeatedly admitted) but they were often pithy, funny, and interesting.

    (I will add the caveat that my main interest here is climate matters, so my experience with him was pretty much limited to climate-related posts. Maybe he was different in other threads; I wouldn’t know.)

    But whoever he is, he’s not a bad writer. It’s rather a shame.

  30. Chris Mooney

    People seem very confused about what happened (though TB gets it).

    While I cannot publicly show the evidence in my possession, I can share it with trusted people who also respect the need to keep it private. Jean Kazez is one, and she also understands the story

    http://kazez.blogspot.com/2010/07/truth-about-tom-johnson.html

  31. Gus Snarp

    Chris, with all due respect, every time you post on this it seems you are confusing the issue further. The link you just gave to someone who has seen the evidence and “understands the story” includes this quote: “It turns out that William was lying when he said Tom Johnson was one of his sock puppets. Tom Johnson was for real, as Chris learned by checking him out thoroughly in 2009″, but that is at odds with what you’ve said above: “Further confirmation reaffirms that “William”/”Tom Johnson” is indeed who he originally said he was” and “In light of all this, there’s no reason to trust the story that “Tom Johnson” originally told on this blog” which seems to indicate that Tom Johnson is one of William’s sock puppets. This becomes more muddled all the time. Is the Tom Johnson whose comment you posted also William, et al.? Is the puppeteer behind all this the person who Tom Johnson told you he was? There are so many conflicting statements going around that it’s impossible to tell what’s going on anymore.

    And no on is asking to see the evidence. We are asking to know the nature of the evidence, since it’s still entirely unclear what’s going on.

  32. Feynmaniac

    Jean Kazez says William was a student. In your Tom Johnson posts you describe him as a scientist. Here you describe him as very young. It is confusing.

    No one wants to out his real identity, but was he an undergrad, a grad student or something else? What was his field? And why did he lie about making up an identity to you?

  33. gillt

    TB gets it because he apparently has access to confidential information none of us confused people have. Is TB one of those trusted people?

    Basic question. What did you, Chris Mooney, do to verify Tom’s identity before writing the “Example A” post? Neither you nor TB have made this at all clear, because it sounds like you didn’t do anything until after the initial post.

  34. Physicalist

    Chris, in your first description of “Tom Johnson,” you refer to him as a “scientist” and you imply that he does indeed have “colleagues” who are also scientists.

    In the above post you are apparently asserting that “Tom Johnson” has publications that you are aware of — presumably scientific publications — again strongly implying that this person is an active scientist (presumably someone with a PhD or close to getting one). You likewise tell us that the original Johnson story “might still be accurate,” which would seem to require that “Johnson” actually has scientific colleagues that he has personally observed at “CONSERVATION EVENTS” (all-caps original).

    On the other hand we have a confession from “Tom Johnson” (aka “William,” and many other handles) in which he asserts that he has “no experience with anything in the professional world” and that his story about the the described event was “obviously false.”

    This confession seems to deny the claims that Johnson/William is a scientist, that he has colleagues who are scientists, and that description of the event “might still be accurate.”

    Now, none of us is inclined to take Johnson/William at his word at this point, but given the highly implausible nature of the original claims, as well as the outlandish later behavior of this individual, most of us find it extremely unlikely that this person could reasonably be described as a “scientist” with “publications” whose original story “might still be accurate.”

    It’s rather as if you’ve reported a story from a “senior administration official,” and then the source of the story comes forward to tell us that he’s actually a janitor at Burger King. You then tell us that you’ve confirmed your source’s identity and he is indeed who you said he was.

    That’s asking for an awful lot of faith from your readers, isn’t it?

  35. GGW

    The Kazez post does not help. That post says “It turns out that William was lying when he said Tom Johnson was one of his sock puppets. ” So was Tom Johnson a sock puppet or a real person? If he was lying when he said he “made up the story about being a grad student”, then why persist in believing the rest of his story? By all means, keep his identity private. You can still explain this without revealing his true identity.

  36. Jolo5309

    Chris, I just read Jean Kazez comments and there are is a discrepancy between what you say and what she says. This is:
    Jean Kazez
    The student provided ample well-corroborated detail that made it clear he could have witnessed just what he said he’d witnessed. Granted, “William’s” credibility is zero right now, so who really knows what he witnessed? But at the time William/Tom Johnson/X sent that email, back in October 2009, his story were believable.

    Chris Mooney
    In light of all this, there’s no reason to trust the story that “Tom Johnson” originally told on this blog.

    So Jean is stating that his story could be true, you are stating there is no reason to believe.

  37. ChrisD

    So was Tom Johnson a sock puppet or a real person?

    Yes, the way it has been described up is more than a little confusing.

    My take has been that Tom Johnson is a real person, but the individual who posted here using that name was not Tom Johnson.

    I am more than willing to be corrected.

  38. What is so interesting about this whole situation is that Will/Tom/Whatever is a nobody blogger who lied on the internet. This happens every day and usually nobody cares. However, many powerful bloggers, like PZ Meyers who hold a lot of authority on the blogosphere, are putting a lot of energy in attacking this fraud and everyone associated with him/her.

    To be honest, the only reason I can think why someone uber-powerful would condescend to do an all-out-attack on some nobody pion is if this nobody pion has a message that deep down feels like a legitimate threat.

    I guess I will just speak for myself: if I was a blogger with thousands of loyal followers who were deeply committed to my message I would not waste time worrying about some fraudulent critic who used to inspire a few dozen followers, half of which may be made up… unless I was afraid of the underlying message they were spreading.

  39. Physicalist

    So Jean is stating that his story could be true, you are stating there is no reason to believe.

    No contradiction here. Mooney says it could be true too (in the above post, “It might still be accurate”); he’s just telling us that given its source there’s no reason to believe that it actually did occur.

  40. Gus Snarp

    Kazez has cleared up my question, which now seems to boil down to just what the definition of a sock puppet is. She agrees that Tom Johnson is an identity used by this same “William”, she just doesn’t consider it a sock puppet. In any case, the puppeteer is the poster of the comment in question and there’s agreement on that, which is what her wording had thrown me off on.

  41. Cake

    It does seem a bit confused…

    William says “The conference context or whatever was, as already mentioned, obviously false. 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.”

    The creator of this story says it was “obviously” false, and that his lousy fabrication was the reason why “no one” took the story seriously. We don’t know why Chris Mooney believed it was true when he published it, and even still says “it might be accurate” (while stating at the same time “there is no reason to trust the story”).

    Chris, you don’t need to go on about how you won’t publish the name of the real person William used as a cover. Everybody understands that such a person would not be involved at all. It would be very wrong to publish his name. What would be interesting is what you initially did to identify “Tom Johnson”. It looks like PZ Myers’ suspicion is right, and all that you were given was an Internet address. Why not simply say so if that was the case?

    To me, your post just obfuscates the issue further. What does this mean: “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.” Does that mean Tom Johnson did not use a real person to dupe you, but created yet another fake person? How is that a “very real” person, as you write? If that’s the case, if there never was a real person, why not publish his details in case that lie was used elsewhere, too?

    You also say: “But such criticisms are why I took the step of verifying (correctly) the identity of “Tom Johnson”. What does that mean? You verified him correctly? How can that be? He says he just made the story up.

    I’m more and more confused. Why not just be open with things?

  42. TB

    There’s really no contradiction between Jean, Chris or I. If there’s confusion, I’m guessing it’s because we’re trying not to out this person. But yes, “Tom Johnson” is the real person, and by his own admission apparently behind those other sock puppets.

    This post is an answer to that public confession. Based on what I’ve seen, that public confession was flawed.

    @ 33. gillt
    “Is TB one of those trusted people?”

    Yes, it does sound like Jean and I independently saw the same the things.

    If you’re wondering if I’m now Chris’ new BFF, no. And gilt, if ever go all Kwok/Miller over Mooney, please do me a favor: Track me down and slap some sense into me. Seriously. If you’re wondering if this changes things for me at this blog, I’ll still be reading but it probably means I’ll be commenting less. Which is fine because I could stand to spend less time on the internet.

    “Basic question. What did you, Chris Mooney, do to verify Tom’s identity before writing the “Example A” post? ”

    As Chris said here and in private, he did not check until after he elevated it. However, that’s moot because soon afterward Chris found that “Tom Johnson” is who he said he was. And he has now reconfirmed it.

  43. Jolo5309

    Physicalist
    No contradiction here. Mooney says it could be true too (in the above post, “It might still be accurate”); he’s just telling us that given its source there’s no reason to believe that it actually did occur

    So let me wrap my head around this…
    Chris says don’t believe it actually occurred but it might have? I would be wondering what his evidence is then.

    PS
    Chris, hhy not send this super top secret information to someone like PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne or Hamlet’s girlfriend? They have been critics of yours, and to shut them up you could prove to any of them that Tom/William/a whole schwack of names is a real student/scientist/not a fraud. If you only send it to those on your side (Jean Kazez and TB) there will still be questions.

    Joseph Smidt
    The bigger issue is that Chris bought the story, hook line and sinker, he then proceeded to use it as Exhibit A proving his point, now he is backtracking and making claims like “his story might be true” or “both sides may have used sockpuppets” without displaying any evidence whatsoever. Those that are skeptical of him will now be even more skeptical because he failed with Tom Johnson and now he is failing to communicate this information. As a communicator, Chris is only leaving more questions than answers.

  44. designsoda

    I’m guessing it’s because we’re trying not to out this person.

    What’s the concern here?

    A grad student/scientist (?) at a university just got caught making up a bunch of stories in order to smear outspoken atheists. His ethics are clearly busted. Will his employers/advisors be notified of this serious ethical lapse?

  45. Jon

    Joseph Smidt in 39 wins the thread…

  46. TheBlackCat

    Chris, I suspect the reason that nobody gets it is because your post is unclear. Would it be possible to just lay out the basic facts of the case, preferably in bullet-point form? Leave out the interpretation, leave out the blame, leave out the reasons, just post the simple facts.

    Then, after you have fully listed all the facts, please explain, in as much detail as you can without divulging any confidential information, how you know those facts. It might be good to also put these in bullet points, a separate set of bullets points please, since they would necessarily consist of a series of discrete steps you took to verify the facts.

    Then, after you have listed all the facts and separately listed the basis for all the facts, then you can separately do any sort of exposition you wish.

    These don’t have to be in separate blog posts, it can all be in one post, but they need to be clearly separated from each other. So to put it in scientific terms, have a results section, then a methods section, then a discussion section (I know this isn’t the normal format). As it is currently written you have your results, methods, and discussion all mixed together. There is a reason these are normally separate in the literature, as you no doubt can see a lot of people seem to have a lot of trouble untangling them when they are all mixed up like this.

  47. gillt

    Joseph Smidt: “To be honest, the only reason I can think why someone uber-powerful would condescend to do an all-out-attack on some nobody pion is if this nobody pion has a message that deep down feels like a legitimate threat. ”

    That’s some great armchair psychologizing there, but it’s certainly not the obvious explanation to conclude the legitimacy of the message despite the heap of lies that supported it.

    And by the way, what was Tom’s message; that NAs are bad for science communication? Okay, why is that? You can’t point to Tom’s story anymore so you say it’s because the people who exposed the lie are really insecure about the truth of Tom’s message, which was based on numerous lies.

  48. Screechy Monkey

    I’m somewhat indifferent on the question of whether “Tom Johnson”‘s name should be revealed. I can understand Chris’s reluctance to do so. On the other hand, the reality is that “Tom Johnson” continues to lie — even his “coming clean” about the Tom Johnson alias contains yet another lie, that the identity he provided Chris was not his. I’m not sure what the rationale for that lie was; perhaps he was hoping it would prevent Chris from revealing the name? But the only victim of that particular lie appears to be Chris, so I’m content to leave it up to him.

    Joseph Smidt@39: “To be honest, the only reason I can think why someone uber-powerful would condescend to do an all-out-attack on some nobody pion is if this nobody pion has a message that deep down feels like a legitimate threat.”

    The “struck a nerve” taunt is a cheap tactic. It’s very easy to tell someone else which smears they should ignore.

    But in this specific instance, it’s worth noting that “Tom Johnson” wasn’t just some “nobody pion” [sic] He was a nobody peon who Chris Mooney chose to give particular attention to. And while The Intersection may not draw as much traffic as Pharyngula (I assume?), it’s not an insignificant blog in terms of traffic. Nor are Chris and Sheril “nobody peons” — they’re published authors who have appeared on major network and cable television programs, among other things. And more specifically, they devoted much of a chapter in their recent book to attacking PZ.

    So even under your standards, PZ is perfectly entitled to write a blog post or two about how one fairly prominent critic of his relied on a questionable source.

    And speaking of Chris and Sheril’s book, I’m not sure that Chris is in any position to invoke the “It was just a blog post” defense given that he chose to make such a big deal in print of PZ’s blog posts.

  49. Why isn’t bilbo chiming in here? And where’s MiltonC? Gee, I miss them. . .

  50. Will

    The more I think about this entire issue, the more I think it’s been blown way out of proportion by a few individuals who hold varying degrees of contempt for Chris Mooney either personally or professionally. First, I think we all agree about one thing: Chris indeed erred in taking a single comment of unverified origin and re-publishing it as its own post. It may have been careless in terms of blogging etiquette, but I hardly think it’s a reason to question Chris’ journalistic integrity. We aren’t talking about the hallowed pages of Science or Nature here. It’s the internet, with a lowercase “i”.

    That being said, I partly agree with what Joseph Smidt said above about why everyone is freaking out about this. It seems that William/Tom is nothing more than a nobody; a troublemaker who got carried away. I am stunned at how seriously his actions and Chris’ handling of them are being taken by certain corners of the science blogosphere. It’s not as if it was a well-known blogger, politician, or public figure that utilized the sock puppets. That would have been a real story.

    The more comments I read from Chris’ audience in general, and Ophelia and PZ in particular, the more I think this wouldn’t be as big of an issue if they didn’t already have existing beef with Chris and his arguments. Those beefs are legitimate and worthy of discussion, but I think the heated rhetoric surrounding the atheist/accommodationist debate and the existing contempt for Chris Mooney (warranted or unwarranted) has caused many people to get caught up in what Jean Kazez earlier today called “a new round of a popular game called “pin something on Chris Mooney.””

    Take a step back and put this in perspective: Chris has been pissing off a bunch of atheists for the past year or so, but sticking to his guns. An individual entered the debate in a dishonest fashion and misled many people, including but not limited to one Chris Mooney. This resulted in Chris Mooney tripping up and making a mistake (re-posting a comment). In my opinion, this hardly warrants the outright hostility toward Chris in regards to this particular episode.

  51. I don’t see what’s so unclear here.

    * A grad student — who can also be described as a “scientist”, I really don’t understand why people think there’s a contradiction — told a story about atheists mistreating theists in a scientific context, a story that Chris highlighted.

    * That same grad student had been posting under a number of other identities to create a chorus of agreement — classic “sock puppet behavior.”

    * “Tom Johnson” is the “true” identity of this grad student — in that he is representing himself when he posts under that name, although it may not be his real name but an alias. (Much as GrrlScientist was an alias whose real name was not widely known for many years.) The other names he posted under were the “sock puppets” — the additional aliases created that people weren’t supposed to realize were just aliases of Tom Johnson.

    * As his sock puppet behavior came to light, it became clear that we could not trust what “Tom Johnson” said, so even though he wasn’t misrepresenting who he was, we no longer should believe the story about atheists behaving badly that he told. He does not have the credibility necessary for us to believe that story any more.

    That’s pretty much what happened, as best I can tell. I don’t see why everybody feels the need to insist that there’s obfuscation going on here.

  52. TheBlackCat

    @Rob Knop: William said he wasn’t a grad student. Was that a lie, and if so why would some lie about not being a grad student?

  53. Hitch

    “it was never any more than one person’s perception anyway”

    I think that summarized my reaction to this.

    Lesson, don’t elevate anonymous hearsay as cases to advance a perception. Ever. It was not wrong in hindsight. It was always a bad idea. Even if one verifies identities. Reason, see above.

    Basically I come down on that story never having been right, and that it’s now recognized as right is not a big gain. It should always have been recognized as such. People who took that position early were shot down. I don’t think that their concerns were false then and they are not false now, what was false was the reaction to them.

    Unfortunately I do not see that lesson learned at all, which is a shame.

  54. TB

    @52
    “William” or “Tom” was not accurate in that claim.

  55. Jon

    We actually haven’t seen bilbo or Milton C around here for a long time. I don’t think it’s changed the character of this place at all to have them gone.

  56. Mooney is a loud critic of the New Atheist who has directly accused us of unethical behavior and questioned our principles. Now it turns out that one of his noisier attacks on me and my readers was built on a flimsy foundation of lies, which he had accepted uncritically. I think questioning his probity now is entirely appropriate.

    Mooney has also claimed to be an advocate of good communication. He has not practiced what he preaches. The post up top is a perfect example of obfuscation and confusion.

    Mooney has long prioritized ‘framing’ as a way to get his message across. The New Atheists have long prioritized honesty, even when it makes audiences uncomfortable. This recent episode is a perfect example of the clash of tactics.

    We win. We aren’t going to politely let the situation fade away, because it makes the Framers squirm. Remember, courtesy isn’t our strong suit.

  57. @Rob Knop:

    “Tom Johnson” is the “true” identity of this grad student — in that he is representing himself when he posts under that name, although it may not be his real name but an alias.

    Uhm… no. He was not using the “Tom Johnson” account to represent himself, he was using it to spread lies. Or do you still think that the story about atheist scientists who “mock the religious to their face, shout forced laughter at them, and call them “stupid,” “ignorant” and the like” in any form or fashion represents a real experience of a real “Tom Johnson”?

  58. There is only one clear lesson here. See below. First, a small digression.

    Personally, I disagree with PZ and others on the identity issue. Not everyone’s identity is that obvious, and in day to day life we use a LOT of trust. It would be very easy for someone to show up at a conference with a fake name, spend several days with colleagues, and leave, everyone thinking they were that person and have faked it the whole time. All you need to do is have reasonable faked documentation and an obscure background. Doing this on the inherent would be trivially easy, especially if, for instance, the fake person pretended to be a real person in the same context as the fake person … it would then be easy to make up documentation in house to fool pretty much anyone.

    I honestly believe this is a case of people who are anti-Mooney simply not accepting Chris’s story, and people who are pro-Mooney accepting it. But do note, that there are a few people (myself included) who are not in the Mooney camp who don’t have any problem understanding that this could happen.

    In my case, and in the case of one or two other commenters above, we do know things that have not been spoken out loud. But honestly, I don’t think there’s anything in that area of information that would make the argument much more convincing.

    Indeed, one could ask if anything has been learned of the falsification part of the story. Apparently, no. Those insisting that Chris should have seen this clearly believe that they would have seen this had they been in a similar situation (and do add a bit of confirmation bias in there to make it work, because we certainly have this here). Clearly, the blogosphere is full of people who can detect this kind of fakery easily. Great. Over the next year or two lets see if that holds up.

    But none of that is the real lesson here (the one I promised you at the start of this comment). The real lesson is that there is, in fact, nothing. Nada. Zip. Nothing in real life, among people in labs, church groups, coffee shops, elsewhere, that resembles the conversation that everyone is talking about. There is not a distinction in real life between accomodationist approaches to talking about science or atheism vs. new atheists approaches. That distinction, that spectrum, only occurs on the interent, on these blogs.

    Exhibit A was Chris’s evidence that a certain kind of conversation happens. There is no Exhibit B. And now, there is no Exhibit A either.

    Much of this really is a figment of our bloggy imaginations. Of coruse, there are a lot of people on the blogosphere involved in this conversation, but not that many. PZ Myers blog is the largest blog on the planet in this area of discussion, and is only a fraction of the size of one of the more popular mutant ninja teenager what kind of music you like blogs. Joe My God is ten times larger. Most people who regularly check blogs check Gizmodo first, a couple of similar sites next, and then if they have a lot of extra time they may pay attention to this stuff. And they don’t have a lot of extra time.

    The conversations we are yelling at each other about … are just not really happening in the real world.

  59. Oh, and I’m no longer an official wikio expert (nor do I remember why my ID says that!!!). I’m resigning in a few days unless they pull the climate denialists off their list of science blogs, which they seem unable to do. Well, they ARE able, but they seem to be PRETENDING to not do it.

    Damn. I guess I’m going to have to slay that blog too.

  60. Rieux

    Jon @ 55:

    We actually haven’t seen bilbo or Milton C around here for a long time. I don’t think it’s changed the character of this place at all to have them gone.

    Of course it has: you’re now outnumbered.

  61. Feynmaniac

    Why is it never “just a blog” when things written by PZ or Pharyngulites come under criticism?

  62. gillt

    Laden:”Those insisting that Chris should have seen this clearly believe that they would have seen this had they been in a similar situation”

    So what you’re saying is you read Tom Johnson’s ever changing story and it sounded totally plausible to you, even believable. Because it sounded so believable to Chris he didn’t even both verifying it until other people started asking questions.

  63. Tom Ames

    OK, no blame, no recriminations. I would just like to know:

    1. Is “Tom Johnson” a scientist (even at the grad school level)?
    2. Does “Tom Johnson” have a body of published work?
    3. Could “Tom Johnson” have credibly attended a “CONSERVATION EVENT” (whatever that might be) in the role of a scientist?

    The answers–a simple yes or no to each–to these three simple questions would allow us observers to sort out which of William’s statements were fabrications.

    Please?

  64. Re: framing: those who claim to oppose “framing” and be in favor of “honesty” are extremely disingenuous. What they are in favor of is their own personal chosen frame. Presenting science in the frame of rigid philosophical materialism, for instance. It’s not “honesty”, it’s the frame you like. No matter how many times you tell yourselves and others that you’re just telling it straight, you’re wrong. I believe that you believe it, and that’s one of the saddest things about the whole situation– that you really think you’re just telling it straight while arguing your philosophical biases as reality.

  65. Greg — it’s true that PZ is probably ultimately irrelevant, although the fact that his brand of absolutism causes angst amongst those who want to effectively communicate science is sad enough. But there are more prominent New Atheists — Dawkins, for example — whose message is filtering into the real world, and who is putting off moderates who could be won over if they weren’t hearing the message from the science side that they have to give up religion if they really want to accept science.

  66. Sean McCorkle

    PZ @ 56

    We win.

    Depending on who is polling whom where, the fraction of US citizens who don’t think evolution is the cause of the diversity of life on Earth ranges from what, maybe 25% to 50%? Something like 30% of americans don’t know that the Earth goes around the Sun, and not the other way around. This is in a country that put men on the moon in a ten year program 40 years ago. The U.S. high energy physics program is in ruins. Most newspapers have dropped their science sections. And as far as I can tell, every time the science & education community manages to put out a creationism fire in one state or school board, there’s another flare-up in another state soon after.

    Who’s winning? How?

  67. Chris Mooney,

    Would you consider publishing the correspondence you had with “Tom Johnson” at the time while eliminating all specific identifying information? You could explain the nature of the omissions necessary to protect identities.

    I think this action would be satisfactory to critics (as much as is possible up to disclosure) while removing the possibility of unpleasant consequences for “William” in the future.

    Thanks.

  68. I disagree with Greg. I trust no one.

  69. TheBlackCat has it right. We need a timeline to sort things out. Here is version 1 of “Multisock Pileup in the Intersection”. Feel free to contribute to version 2.0 (fill in additional facts, add relevant links, put in dates, etc.).
    ————-
    Timeline of facts:
    *The Puppetmaster takes an interest in science communication and starts posting comments on blogs, including The Intersection, using multiple handles (bilbo, milton C, Tom Johnson, etc)
    *Puppetmaster posts an anecdote of atheist scientists behaving in a boorish manner
    *Others question the veracity of this story, as it seems rather implausible
    *Chris makes a blog post highlighting the Puppetmaster’s story
    *In October 2009, The Puppetmaster gives Chris information about his real-world identity (apparently that the Puppetmaster is a graduate student in the sciences)
    *??Chris independently confirms the real-world identity of the Puppetmaster??
    *The Puppetmaster starts his own blog, “You’re Not Helping”, and fills it with puppets
    *The Puppetmaster confesses to posting under multiple identities, claims he confabulated the story of the boorish atheists, and that he gave Chris a false real-world identity
    *Chris reconfirms the veracity of the Puppetmaster’s real-world identity
    *Sheril posts a week-old XKCD comic. Thanks for contributing Sheril.
    *Chris shares private info regarding the Puppetmaster with TB and Jean
    *??Chris and Jean still maintain that the story of the boorish atheists _could_ be true–or was at least very plausible in 2009??
    ———————
    Random discussion:
    I can understand why the Puppetmaster lied about his true identity in his confession. It gives him plausible deniability. If Chris rats him out, or someone else figures out who he is, he can just claim identity theft (“look, the jerk even said he wasn’t me.”). Pretty clever, actually.

    Personally, I’m fine with him remaining anonymous. Being a jerk on the internet is pretty close to being a victimless crime. He apologized and took the advice of others to leave and not come back. As far as I know, he never crossed a line by threatening people with real-world violence or anything like that.
    ———————–
    My remaining questions:
    *How and when did Chris confirm the Puppetmaster’s real-world identity?
    This is an important point that is still a bit mysterious.
    *Is there any evidence that the story of the boorish atheists is true?
    The Puppetmaster claims the story was a total fabrication. It reads like a total fabrication. How can Chris and Jean still maintain that it could be true? Is there additional evidence, or are they straight-up delusional about how people, and atheists in particular, behave in the real world?
    *What is a “conservation conference”?
    Seriously, I don’t know.
    ———————–
    a final quote from gilt:
    “You just need to understand that anecdotes from anonymous people on the internet aren’t worth much. ”
    Chris, maybe you should go write that on the blackboard a few dozen times.

  70. People should also read the comments thread of Jean Kazez’s’ post where she describes in more detail why Chris thought that the individual was who he claimed to be and why that was a reasonable conclusion. Apparently contact occurred through a university email address.

    Now, regarding Joseph’s comment @39, can I just note what absolute nonsense that is? Maybe people got annoyed because William/Tom/Bilbo/Julie et al. insulted some of them repeatedly and deeply, and deliberately went through a long-term effort to smear multiple people. There’s doesn’t need to be any truth to accusations for people to be pissed off about that.

  71. Michael

    Sorry to jump in here; I haven’t posted before. I just wanted to address a small point that Joseph Schmidt at 39 makes, and Jon echoes.

    “To be honest, the only reason I can think why someone uber-powerful would condescend to do an all-out-attack on some nobody pion is if this nobody pion has a message that deep down feels like a legitimate threat. ”

    This is exactly the situation. The “nobody peon” had a message that is indeed a serious threat: the message that scientists and atheists in general are intolerant and condescending to believers in general. This, in my own experience and by the testimony of many others here, does not seem to be the case. Even one example of such intolerance would be disturbing, as many commentators here were disturbed by Tom Johnson’s story, and it would also provide the first (I won’t say only, though I think I could) support for Chris Mooney’s position. Now, it is therefore very important whether this claim is true or not. It turned out not to be, but before then it did damage. It supported Chris, and perhaps it made the odd reader more disposed to think that scientists are intolerant. The fact that this damage was done when it was not deserved is a serious matter.

    So, I am indeed “afraid of the underlying message they were spreading”. I am afraid of the prospect of it becoming REMOTELY plausible that scientists and atheists behave in this way. So yes, that may well be why there has been such a backlash to this. Getting too close to the truth can “hit a nerve”, but unjustified slander is just as effective.

    “Unjustified slander” may be a bit harsh, however. I don’t think Chris is quite as culpable as that. He made a mistake, true. It is unfortunate that he did so on such a crucial comment, but what is more important is that he acknowledges that he made a mistake, and that said mistake may rob some of his commentary of support. In particular, it would be a gesture of good faith to unban those who may have been banned partially for their opposition to Tom’s story.

  72. Cake

    Now they are getting somewhere… Jean Kazez just said on her website that Fraud A sent an e-mail to Chris Mooney that included a link to a website, and that Chris Mooney contacted Fraud A (presumably successfully) via university e-mail. Matching information from the e-mail and the website led Chris Mooney to think his story is true. Wow, that was really hard. Why was this so secret? http://kazez.blogspot.com/2010/07/truth-about-tom-johnson.html?showComment=1278733555805#c5582790669984532900

    The problem is that this version does not line up with Fraud A’s confession on July 7. http://thebuddhaisnotserious.wordpress.com/2010/06/19/the-curious-case-of-the-youre-not-helping-blog/#comment-526

    Something is still wrong here.

  73. Cake, Is this so hard to understand? William was partly lying in his confession at “Buddha”! He dismantled the Tom Johnson story precisely because there’s so much truth in it. It gave people too many clues to his real identity. I think he will have a very hard time reappearing and admitting to this. But it’s true. Think about it. It makes perfect sense.

  74. outeast

    Isn’t the ID question a bit of a red herring?

    Chris Mooney ‘elevated’ the anecdote *before* any ID confirmation process. Now, I’m not about to raise the ‘journalistic standards’ canard: I think it was fair for Mooney to initially trust an anecdote that did not seem unlikely – to him – on the face of it.

    My concern it this: Why did Mooney find the anecdote so plausible? As a rule, people (especially educated academics, perhaps; but even ‘ordinary people’) simply do not behave so boorishly in face-to-face interaction. I’m a fairly strong atheist, and I’ve been known to be abrasive online, but in personal interaction with even the silliest Biblical literalist I’m more likely just to try and hide my cringing and change the subject than to say something rude – I’ve never even seen anyone acting in the way described in that anecdote (at least outside of the scummier English nightclubs and suchlike!).

    If I heard such an anecdote about, say, the only black person living in an all-white deep south community I would be likely to credit it. Giving it more thought I would admit that even then I should seek verification, but initially it would seem plausible to me on the face of it because it would fit my own prejudices. Clearly the (for want of a better term) ‘New Atheist sympathizers’ commenting here and elsewhere did not find this anecdote credible on the face of it; and I contend that it is not. Mooney found it thus credible, but why? Does he really think that New Atheists are so far beyond the pale, so dedicatedly antisocial, so pathological in their behaviour? And what does it mean if he does?

    I think this is something Mooney really needs to think about.

  75. Jon

    Rieux in 60.

    Of course it has: you’re now outnumbered.

    Yeah, like for the past few posts. After that though, it will be back to normal. The problem is that Chris Mooney doesn’t post all sorts of New Atheist red meat day in day out, like PZ Myers does. So the only time we get the red meat swarm that PZ keeps when PZ or someone links to us…

    Otherwise, considered over months or weeks, not days, the character of this blog is the same, with or without bilbo or Milton C.

  76. Hitch

    Jeremy Stangroom has a blog post up that summarizes what’s wrong with the debate:

    “Basically, there’s this fella called Chris Mooney, and he tortures kittens. Not literal kittens, but metaphorical kittens that have something to do with framing and accommodation and communion wafers. Anyway, torturing kittens is a bad thing, especially if you get paid by the Templeton Foundation to do it, and this really, really, really upsets those righteous defenders of all that is good and true – the New Atheists.”

    The rest of the article again proceeds to pull the most extreme statements and make the examples of the whole.

    My exception from the beginning with YNH was exactly this. This is not proper and fair arguing. It has but one ultimate goal: to paint a group, the nebulous word “New Atheists” in a bad light.

    Sadly nothing has changed. There are still plenty of people who would to the same.

    Let’s evaluate Jean’s post. She closed comments with this remark:

    “Looking over these comments one last time, I’ve noticed two interesting things:

    (1) Boy, there are a lot of juvenile people who dropped by here to insult me.

    (2) Y’all are really gullible. Your problem is that you fell in love with William. You really, really want to believe everything he told you, even though you have no independent corroboration. He said–”I made up Tom Johnson” and you think that must be true. ”

    Well I looked over the comments, and there are few insults far and between, people ask for clarification and I was among those who said that her corroboration was not credible as phrased. And being in doubt over the facts does not mean that one is “in love with” a certain person’s statements.

    But again, exaggeration to paint critics as worse than they are. Jean’s post stated out that way talking about “anti-Mooney blogs” and “schadenfreude”.

    But asking for clarification is not victimization. But playing the victim card is one old trick to stop critics, one of many rhetorical devices out there.

    I fear nothing will change. It apparently is necessary and quite sufficient to keep labeling groups in certain ways!

    Sad, because all this could have ended quite nicely and easily, by simply acknowledging the realities that did happen and anybody can go back and read, namely that people not only deserved an apology for the sock puppetry but also for falling of deaf ears when they early on said that the way a group was painted here was not fair and proper.

    But painting a group in a certain way is “OK”, so don’t expect an apology for that! I guess.

  77. Jon

    The “nobody peon” had a message that is indeed a serious threat: the message that scientists and atheists in general are intolerant and condescending to believers in general.

    I didn’t read his blog. But Chris’s message here has been that *particular* scientists, not all, and *particular* atheists, not all, have been intolerant and condescending to believers in general. I think all you have to do is read PZ Myers’ and others’ blog for a while to conclude that. The threat is that there’s a good, intelligent argument to be made against them–even by one former member of their circle. So that’s the threat. This is an attack on the heretic Chris Mooney, “Tom Johnson” otherwise wouldn’t merit attention.

  78. TB

    First, Greg Laden’s post was almost Shakespearian in its summation. It’s almost too bad it couldn’t have been the final comment.

    @ 63. Tom Ames Says:

    I’m uncomfortable with giving too much detail. As some of this is out there and in dispute though, I’ll answer these.

    “1. Is “Tom Johnson” a scientist (even at the grad school level)?”
    I would say yes.

    2. Does “Tom Johnson” have a body of published work?
    CV on his university website lists his publications.

    3. Could “Tom Johnson” have credibly attended a “CONSERVATION EVENT” (whatever that might be) in the role of a scientist?

    Yes, that is something I looked for when presented with the evidence. There were two other website addresses given for organizations outside the university.

    But, those who argue that his story COULD be true are just as mistaken as those who say the story ISN’T true. That argument is moot. “Tom” doesn’t have credibility due to his other behavior on the internet.

    @ 74 Cake
    “The problem is that this version does not line up with Fraud A’s confession on July 7.
    Something is still wrong here.”

    Look, nothing is wrong. Chris got burned by a source and he’s choosing not to burn him back. If “Tom” chooses to dispute anything Chris has claimed here, Chris would likely disclose everything he has. Has “Tom/William” done that?

    As to why Chris hasn’t outed him, yes there are considerations that this young man isn’t irredeemable – personally and professionally. But I’m mostly concerned that there are also some very serious things to be read between these final lines in Chris’ post:

    “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”

    That is not to minimize the point that @ 72. Joshua Zelinsky brings up: “There’s doesn’t need to be any truth to accusations for people to be pissed off about that.”

    I’m just saying if he can’t take the heat, we should be careful about dragging “Tom” back into the kitchen.

    @ 77. outeast Says:
    “Chris Mooney ‘elevated’ the anecdote *before* any ID confirmation process.”

    And then proceeded to confirm his identity. Outeast, your point was moot days after the “Tom” post first appeared.

  79. Tulse

    Jean wrote: “Y’all are really gullible. Your problem is that you fell in love with William. You really, really want to believe everything he told you, even though you have no independent corroboration.” without any trace of irony or self-awareness. Who was gullible? Who wanted to believe everything he said?

    “He said–”I made up Tom Johnson” and you think that must be true.”
    As best I can figure it, we are to believe that a sockpuppet lied about lying, instead of thinking that he just, well, lied.

  80. TheBlackCat

    Cake, Is this so hard to understand? William was partly lying in his confession at “Buddha”! He dismantled the Tom Johnson story precisely because there’s so much truth in it. It gave people too many clues to his real identity. I think he will have a very hard time reappearing and admitting to this. But it’s true. Think about it. It makes perfect sense.

    How, exactly? These are clues we already had. Even if it is at risk, it is no more at risk now than last year. No additional information that could help someone identify Tom/William has come to light.

    What is more, it doesn’t seem anyone had any idea that Tom was a sock puppet before he admitted it. Many knew his story was not credible, but it does not appear the possibility of him being a sock puppet was seriously considered. There were other known sock puppets, but if William had just kept his mouth shut it seems the connection between him and Tom would not have come to light in the first place. So if he was afraid that people would go after him because of his sock puppetry, then keeping quite about Tom would be the safest approach.

    So unless he really didn’t think this through in the slightest, then no I don’t think it makes any sense whatsoever.

  81. J. J. Ramsey

    TheBlackCat: “What is more, it doesn’t seem anyone had any idea that Tom was a sock puppet before he admitted it.”

    Actually, that’s not true. On The Buddha Is Not Serious blog, several commenters broached the possibility before “William” copped to it.

  82. TheBlackcat, You’re quite right that “William” should have kept his mouth shut about Tom Johnson. Maybe he was proud to have created so many sockpuppets like criminals can’t stay quiet about their crimes. Instead of staying quiet, he said Tom Johnson was just a fabrication. That way, I guess, he could get the “credit” but also stop people from finding out who he is. In fact, “William” was lying about this. (In fact, I now know there are at least two more lies in his “William” testimony.) I know it, because I have all the emails and websites I need to identify the person responsible for all of this. I think it behooves “William” to return to that Buddha blog and come clean about the lie he told about Tom Johnson. I hope he will do this. It does bother me that his reputation is staying pristine while mine is being tarnished. Yes, I wrote that for his eyes.

  83. J. J. Ramsey

    Jean: “In fact, I now know there are at least two more lies in his ‘William’ testimony.”

    I gather, though, that there is information linking “William” to “Tom Johnson” besides his comments on the Buddha blog? Did our blog host, for example, check whether bilbo and “Tom” shared IP addresses?

  84. Tom Ames

    Thank you, TB, for your clarifications. My understanding about “Tom” is that he:

    1. Is a scientist, though possibly at the grad student level
    2. Has claimed on his CV to have authored more than one published paper
    3. Could credibly have attended conservation biology meetings

    He created socks and sock-driven blogs all over the place.

    Along the way, he commented on this blog about experiences he had in real life.

    Eventually, he confessed to the sock-puppetry at TBINS. At the time, he claimed to have made up the circumstances described in his comment on the Intersection. He also “confessed” to NOT being a grad student (though this may have been done to cover his tracks).

    I can buy this story, given that there has been some back-and-forth between “Tom” and Chris.

    And yet, according to Chris, he’s “very young”. That part is still a little puzzling, even if it might be an unimportant detail.

  85. TB

    @87 Tom

    I guess you could say immature for his age, but that would describe any male above the age of one.

  86. gillt

    Black Cat: “What is more, it doesn’t seem anyone had any idea that Tom was a sock puppet before he admitted it. Many knew his story was not credible, but it does not appear the possibility of him being a sock puppet was seriously considered.”

    Early on, I made an off-the-cuff comment asking William whether Tom was one of his sock-puppets at the Buddha thread. I think it was pretty obvious that I didn’t take it seriously, but TB rushed to Tom’s defense calling me a Troll for even suggesting such a thing. When I made a more substantial suggestion later on that Tom and Milton C called themselves evolutionary biologists and how unlikely that was, TB was the only one to come to Tom’s defense again.

    It appears to me that TB took the possibility of Tom being a puppet rather seriously.

  87. Chris Mooney

    @ 86: Yes, they share IPs–several of them.

    “Bilbo” appears to be the first of the various identities on our blog, and shows up in September of 2009.

    “Johnson” shows up in October of 2009–his very first comment is the one that is now so well known.

  88. rrt

    Smartphone has been eating this, let’s see if this works any better:

    Outeast @77: Exactly. This is about the inherent plausibility of the initial story from Tom. It seems as if Chris and Co., Jean in particular, are desperately trying to make this purely about Tom’s identity. But it doesn’t matter. I don’t care if Tom is really Francis Frakking Collins; the story was fishy as heck from the start. No amount of proof of who Tom IS changes that, let alone when exactly anyone knew who Tom was.

  89. @TB in #81:

    Look, nothing is wrong. Chris got burned by a source and he’s choosing not to burn him back. If “Tom” chooses to dispute anything Chris has claimed here, Chris would likely disclose everything he has. Has “Tom/William” done that?

    Wait, what? Are you claiming that the silence of Tom/William proves that Mooney now has his real identity? Are you suggesting that Chris Mooney is keeping Tom/William silent by holding his possible outing over his head? I thought you supported Mooney?

  90. TB

    @89 gilt
    What I took seriously was the possibility that “William” might take the opportunity to confess to just about anything in just about any way suggested to deflect criticism from himself.
    And yes, that morning he took all the straws he could grasp from people like you and Paul W., gained some measure of approval and saw attention go from him to Chris.
    Oh, don’t have a hussy fit – you’re not professional interrogators and I could have guessed wrong about his mental state.
    But I didn’t guess wrong about his mental state then which is why I remain concerned about it now. I hope he’s seeking the help that’s been suggested to him.

  91. TB

    @92

    Huh? “William” is free to speak all he wants, but if he lies again about what happened between he and Chris, Chris will likely be forced to expose everything Chris was freely given in confidence to protect himself.
    In spite of the lie, Chris is still honoring that confidence.

  92. I hope Chris can clarify the only issue that bugs me right now: in this blog post (forget all that’s happened before), why did he quote the confession without contradicting the statement in the confession where the imposter denied being a grad student?

    Quoting the confession appears to indicate that Chris is telling us that we’re now learning the truth, esp because Chris is relying on confidential information.

    Other than that, I think Chris has acted reasonably, if mistakenly. I would like to see this issue clarified though.

  93. Chris Mooney

    @95 I did contradict the statement–or rather, I called it a deception: “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.”

  94. gillt

    TB: “What I took seriously was the possibility that “William” might take the opportunity to confess to just about anything in just about any way suggested to deflect criticism from himself.”

    You said nothing of the sort. Here is what you actually said:

    “Don’t think everyone who disagrees with you at the Intersection is a sock-puppet, gilt. You exhibit a lot of troll-like qualities yourself.”

    Again, irrelevant name-calling on what turned out to be a legitimate concern.

  95. Hitch

    Framing the issue. Here is how Jean does it:

    “Some are quite confused about what the issue is. It’s not whether the mystery person is generally credible. Of course he isn’t. It’s whether Chris Mooney properly vetted Tom Johnson before elevating his comment in October 2009. ”

    To me that isn’t the issue at all. The only issue is if theelevated story was true. If it was not true, and all the commenters then said that the story was not credible and never should have been elevated, were right. But they were shot down back when. They did not have hindsight or fact checking. They just had evaluation of the story. And frankly, it appears they were about right. But no concession to them at all if that was the case.

    But still until now we are basically blocked from evaluating this very point by vague hypotheticals “might still be accruate”. Either it was accurate or it wasn’t. If it wasn’t then a whole load of people deserve an apology not for anything else but how their concerns were handled when they pointed exactly that out. If the story is in fact accurate but other aspects were wrong, then the story should stand but those other aspects should be retracted.

    As it is there is a muddling of these two things, and it is rather central.

  96. TB

    @91 rrt

    It has always been a debate about identity – anything else is simply irrational belief which you are free to engage in.
    However, as I said before, those who argue that his story COULD be true are just as mistaken as those who say the story ISN’T true. That argument is moot. “Tom” doesn’t have credibility due to his other behavior on the internet.

  97. #96 Well Chris, I guess you intended to signal to readers that not all was accurate in that confession, but I didn’t pick it up – I thought you were referring to the original sockpuppeting, and neither did many/most of the other commenters on this thread.

    Given that the damage was caused by the imposter, I think it would’ve been better to be more specific. He doesn’t deserve extra protection of vague-at-best disclosure when he’s the one that burned you and the rest of the people involved in the discourse. Especially when Jean at #85 is hinting there are two more lies in the confession that haven’t been made public yet.

  98. No, it has never been an argument about identity in that sense. Right from the start, the issue was always about credibility and gullibility. The story was always implausible on its face, the guy always lacked credibility, and Chris was always gullible for believing the story so readily and putting weight on it. That hasn’t changed. All that’s changed is that there’s now independent evidence that this person is a serial liar.

  99. TB

    Typical gilt: selective quoting and misrepresentations. I also said this: ” I’ll need William to not only admit to it but provide some proof – like the email address he would have given to Mooney.”
    You didn’t quote the line that showed my suspicions about a false confession – a line posted the night before that confession took place.
    But, everyone was wrong about this guy – he is Tom, but he’s the Tom Mooney verified, not the one he confessed to in that thread.

  100. TB

    So gilt, do I get to quote things from that thread to show just how much you believed the confession of a proven liar because it appealed to your confirmation bias about Chris?
    In contrast to what I did, which was to go check all the facts no matter where the chips might have fallen.

  101. TB

    @101
    Of course it was about identity – it was the only reason it got highlighted in the first place, because it came from a scientist. It was questions relating to that identity that made Chris confirm that identity.
    Without that, then it’s all just an argument between two competing confirmation biases. And now that the person can’t be trusted based on other actions on the Internet, that’s all the argument is now. An argument that’s moot a waste of tine.

  102. Of course it was about identity – it was the only reason it got highlighted in the first place, because it came from a scientist

    So you assume that if it comes from a scientist, it must be trustworthy? Boy, were you wrong, weren’t you?

  103. TB

    Or

    A witness who is a professional with pertinent experience gives testimony about an event they could have plausibly attended.
    Now, almost a year later, that witness is discredited because of activities not connected to his professional capacity nor that event. So that testimony should be disregarded based on those questions of credibility. Aside from that, there’s no evidence to impeach that testimony on it’s face, nor is it worth the time to find others to corraborate the testimony.
    Things are right and wrong for a reason. But if you want to be in the camp that loves to indulge it’s confirmation bias against Mooney, be my guest.

  104. gillt

    TB: “So gilt, do I get to quote things from that thread to show just how much you believed the confession of a proven liar because it appealed to your confirmation bias about Chris?
    In contrast to what I did, which was to go check all the facts no matter where the chips might have fallen.”

    Sure go ahead, quote me.

    By the way, YOU didn’t do anything to prove or disprove William’s identity, in fact, you tried to squash all credible inquiries about it back when it first appeared and also just a day before it was revealed to not be credible. You’ve been on the wrong side of the truth this entire time.

  105. rrt

    “Without that, then it’s all just an argument between two competing confirmation biases.”

    Ah. I see. So it wasn’t at all possible to make any sort of initial judgement on plausibility based on the nature of the argument.

    Tell me, TB, is it EVER possible to do that? Or when Carl Sagan tells me he has an invisible dragon in his garage, is my strong doubt just “confirmation bias” too?

  106. Tom Ames

    TB wrote:

    “@87 Tom
    I guess you could say immature for his age, but that would describe any male above the age of one.”

    I’d like to suggest that if you choose to respond to people’s questions you avoid the glib jokiness, which sounds more like an evasion than an answer.

    If you want to ignore my query, fine, but please don’t think your response answers my question about whether Tom Johnson is “very young”, and if that contradicts his identity as a research scientist.

    I keep wanting to find the end to this, but all of the partial responses and weasel words make that hard to do.

  107. Katharine

    I have three questions left in this fiasco that Chris/Jean, I think, need to answer:

    1) Precisely what was William lying about and what was William telling the truth about?

    2) Approximately how old is this person, anyway? I ask because it gives some indication, I guess, of precisely how likely it was that this is a one-time incident – if they’re older, it’s more likely to happen again, I think. This has been going on for a year. (I personally have a strong suspicion that this person has some major psychological problems.)

    3) Why were the original posts regarding all this apparently deleted?

  108. GGW

    Is there a better example of confirmation bias than Mr. Mooney’s highlighting of the anonymous anecdote in the first place?

  109. Chris Mooney

    I’m now closing this thread, and my thanks to those who made thoughtful remarks above. (A large number comments were also deleted for lacking substance, making allegations without merit or evidence, etc.)

    For those with any more doubts as to what happened, let me say again that TB and Jean Kazez understand the story fully, and have done their best to un-weave this tangled web (as have I). Personally, I feel that all questions have been answered as well as they can be in light of the strong need to keep some things out of the public arena.

    If you are still angry or upset by the “Tom Johnson” story, then by all means, take it out on me. But please, leave “Tom” out of it. He got in way too deep, but I strongly believe he is sorry about what he has done–and that letting him resolve his problems offline, now, is the right thing to do.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »