Tom Johnson: A Final Word

By Chris Mooney | July 30, 2010 9:13 am

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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Comments (46)

  1. Hitch

    I appreciate the overall sentiment and agree with all of it. I do think there is still a little more that is poorly covered but I’ll take it to be implied in:

    “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.”

    The problem is that people were also affected in subsequent actions. People who are not TJ displayed hostility and rejection towards those who had legitimate concerns with the story at the time.

    But as said, I will take this to imply an apology for that as well, though others perhaps would have grounds to apologize (namely those who were unfriendly and unfair to those who pointed out the problem here as early as it appeared, namely when the comment was elevated).

    Finally, I would issue the following suggestion:

    *) Do not elevate single eye witness accounts as evidence how a whole group operates. It’s stereotyping. Just like a single theft of a member of a stigmatized minority does not justify the upholding of the negative stereotype of the group so is Dawkins not responsible if another person is rude, or an amorphous label such as “New Atheists” is not responsible either. So please, please stop engaging in things that are paramount to negative branding. Thank you.

    But yes, I acknowledge that your apology can be read to imply that you agree to this. I hope that is true. Your later narrative draws this into question (primarily for this formulation “unless or until such evidence is produced”), but I hope it is clear why I am concerned about this.

    Further look at how TB is trying to paint my arguments now on the earlier comment thread. [EDITED]…. I fear there is still a deep attitude problem with quite a few people who are part of this community. It’s not outright deception, but it is unfair arguing, negative labeling, branding and undercurrents of hostility.

    Just because people do not use curse words does not mean that the discourse is civil. If one cannot take ones argument for what it is but has to pepper it with negative connotations, has to try to win an argument to silence it and so forth, there is a problem that needs fixing. After all we want good scientific discourse.

    So yes I do hope there will be a shared commitment to truth but also a shared commitment to hearing each other out, take each others positions for what we articulated them to be, not for what one can spin them into. Drop stereotyping, branding, and all the rest of it. Just be nice, patient and listen. I think that’d be really great. Thank you.

  2. Hitch, Can we leave “Jean” out of it? I think enough has been said about me now. The occasional snark is about the gross overreaction to Chris and Sheril, not about the whole class of authors referred to as “new atheists.” To complain about it now, given the extreme things that have been said about me in the last three weeks, is unreasonable. I vouched for Chris because he shared the email with me, and there was simply nothing more to it. I would like to ask Chris and Sheril to screen out attacks on me, because I really have had enough.

  3. Anthony McCarthy

    While this is a definite lapse in standards of verification and needed to be addressed it’s not a unique or particularly terrible lapse. I think Chris Mooney has handled it about as ethically as could be, though I’m confident that won’t keep his enemies from trying to make more of it. No level of open apology, airing the issue, or even abject admission would be enough to forestall that. I do think it’s a good idea to keep track of what’s been said about it and to consider what was said as being the standard that various participants have chosen as one they should be expected to judged by in the future. NOT that I would guess that will be taken seriously.

    [EDITED]

  4. Well, Chris, kudos for what appears to be a genuine mea culpa. I appreciate that in this post you have unequivocally stated that nothing even remotely like what Johnson suggested has ever happened.

    Regarding your final paragraph, I feel the way forward is for both “sides” to accept the existence of the other as constructive towards a shared goal. For me personally, I do not have any issue with the “accomodationist” who says what she thinks (or thinks is tactically expedient) about science/religion compatibility. I can disagree, but hey, we all have our opinions. My big issue with some “accomodationists” is the idea that everybody has to be an accomodationist — that those, like me, who see no compatibility between science and faith, are being destructive. That we are “not helping”.

    TBH, I think both sides are helping. I happen to think the “accomodationists” are not correct, but that is a separate issue from whether I think you guys are “helping”. We need a multitude of voices — even wrong ones! ;p :)

  5. I’m confident that won’t keep his enemies from trying to make more of it. No level of open apology, airing the issue, or even abject admission would be enough to forestall that.

    FWIW, although “enemies” is a grandiose term, I would consider myself pretty much on the exact opposite “side” of Chris, and I have serious problems with his attacks on so-called New Atheism — but, I for one do feel this post was a sufficient “level of open apology”, and a reasonable “airing [of] the issue”.

    It is true that this post does not retroactively convince me that “Chris Mooney has handled it about as ethically as could be,” but in order to do that he’d have to go back in time :D I can’t speak for others on the New Atheist “side”, but I’m about as satisfied with this post as is still possible given what has already transpired…

  6. Chris Mooney

    Hitch,
    Your post has been edited. Jean has taken a beating that I think is unjustified and it will not continue here.

  7. Jon

    I find the whole story disturbing too. I’d be interested in hearing “Tom Johnson’s” motivations for doing what he did.

    However useful the Internet is for getting information, it has tons of drawbacks. The way new atheism works on the innertubes shows this in spades. I’m thinking of PZ’s argument a while back that since he has a swarm of commenters, that makes him on the right side of an issue, when really, it may be he’s just best at attracting eyeballs, because he’s good at creating a spectacle and shedding more heat than light.

    Check out this column by a reporter at the New York Times:

    But the bloggers’ eek-a-mouse posturing wasn’t the most striking part of the affair. Instead, it was the weird vindictiveness of many of the most prominent blogs. The stilted and seething tone of some of the defection posts sent me into the ScienceBlogs archives, where I expected to find original insights into science by writers who stress that they are part of, in the blogger Dave Munger’s words, “the most influential science blogging network in the world.” And while I found interesting stuff here and there, I also discovered that ScienceBlogs has become preoccupied with trivia, name-calling and saber rattling. Maybe that’s why the ScienceBlogs ship started to sink…

    Clearly I’ve been out of some loop for too long, but does everyone take for granted now that science sites are where graduate students, researchers, doctors and the “skeptical community” go not to interpret data or review experiments but to chip off one-liners, promote their books and jeer at smokers, fat people and churchgoers? And can anyone who still enjoys this class-inflected bloodsport tell me why it has to happen under the banner of science?

    Hammering away at an ideology, substituting stridency for contemplation, pummeling its enemies in absentia: ScienceBlogs has become Fox News for the religion-baiting, peak-oil crowd. Though Myers and other science bloggers boast that they can be jerky in the service of anti-charlatanism, that’s not what’s bothersome about them. What’s bothersome is that the site is misleading. It’s not science by scientists, not even remotely; it’s science blogging by science bloggers. And science blogging, apparently, is a form of redundant and effortfully incendiary rhetoric that draws bad-faith moral authority from the word “science” and from occasional invocations of “peer-reviewed” thises and thats.

    Under cover of intellectual rigor, the science bloggers — or many of the most visible ones, anyway — prosecute agendas so charged with bigotry that it doesn’t take a pun-happy French critic or a rapier-witted Cambridge atheist to call this whole ScienceBlogs enterprise what it is, or has become: class-war claptrap.

    I have some thoughts about what I put in bold above (I hope to get to them in a while…)

  8. Jackson

    This statement is framed as if Chris Mooney thinks there IS evidence if we just dig deep enough:

    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.

    One shouldn’t generalize on the basis of one example anyway.

  9. Ken Pidcock

    From the Virginia Heffernan post Jon cites:

    And while I found interesting stuff here and there, I also discovered that ScienceBlogs has become preoccupied with trivia, name-calling and saber rattling.

    Here and there? Actually, it’s the trivia, etc that one has to dig through ScienceBlogs to find if one does not know where to look for it. So Heffernan’s readers, more interested in media than science, now have the understanding that science bloggers are mostly petty misanthropes. It’s like if I pointed to Ward Churchill to explain cultural studies.

  10. Thanny

    You missed the primary reason for disbelieving the entire story: it was blatantly false on its face, and no reasonable person would have granted it a shred of credence to begin with.

  11. bad Jim

    Jon, didn’t you notice that the Times reporter ends with this:

    For science that’s accessible but credible, steer clear of polarizing hatefests like atheist or eco-apocalypse blogs. Instead, check out scientificamerican.com, discovermagazine.com and Anthony Watts’s blog, Watts Up With That?

    This very perspicacious critic recommends a global warming denier. Charming.

    I supposed I’m countering an argument from authority with an ad hominem. So be it. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but three lefts do.

  12. Anthony McCarthy

    We are left with no reliable evidence of loud, boorish, confrontational public behavior by atheists at events with religious believers. Jackson

    “At events” would depend on what you mean by “events”. I’ve heard boorish, confrontational behavior by atheists going back to when I was a teenager, some atheists are boorish and confrontational about religion. Or are you suggesting that they’re all just little angels?

    “Public behavior”, the fad begun by Sam Harris, quickly joined in by Ricard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, PZ Myers et al is a call to be confrontational in attacking religious beliefs and the people who believe them, in public. Instead of focusing on the word “loud” how about deliberately in your face.

  13. J. J. Ramsey

    Thanny: “You missed the primary reason for disbelieving the entire story: it was blatantly false on its face”

    That’s always been the weakest argument against “Tom Johnson.” Look at the way PZ Myers has been an Internet provocateur over the years, caricaturing the target audience of accommodationists being “pious twits” and “little old ladies who faint at the sight of monkeys.”Or a certain matter about a communion wafer that–even if seen as positive–was a calculated effort to rile up Catholics that was an insult even to Catholics who thought Webster Cook got a raw deal. Or how PZ Myers created a straw man of Michael DeDora’s position about separation of church and state barring teachers from singling out particular religious beliefs as “myths,” just so he could call DeDora a “witless wanker,” and even went as far as to call the Center for Free Inquiry the “Church of Fatuous Incompetence.” The idea that this sort of Internet obnoxiousness directed at the religious and suspected “fellow travelers” could spill over into real life is hardly implausible.

  14. Paco

    Chris, I’ve been reading your writings for over five years and am a great fan of your early work.

    But your role in bashing those with a “commitment to the truth, and a means of discerning it” can’t be whitewashed with this tactical apology. Have you truly learned nothing?

    The overlapping-but-not-identical scientific, atheist, and skeptical communities are filled with people who are *obsessed* about getting things right. To the point of checking their sources, doubting themselves constantly, but finally venturing their best shots *in defense of the truth*. I choose that last phrase carefully, because truth and reason do need defending.

    Those who have done their homework should be forgiven for getting heated in attacking falsehoods. The only civilities I expect, for my friends and for my opponents, are that arguments be taken seriously, while being supported or demolished, and that unsubstantiated accusations and ad hominem (as well as ad feminam) attacks — the kind aimed at removing honest contributors — be rooted out.

    (An aside about labels, and what I mean by “falsehoods”. I’ve come back around to the old-fashioned label of “secular humanist” for myself. I really have no beef with religions, so long as they have no special standing nor get-out-of-argument-free card. It’s not how people worship the divine that bugs me, it’s whether they then claim authority out of thin air.)

    To paraphrase a quote that’s as old as I am: ridicule in the defense of truth is no vice, and civility in the pursuit of liars is no virtue.

  15. J. J. Ramsey

    FYI, Jon, Tim Lambert at Deltoid pointed out several problems in the column that you quoted, including a misrepresentation of GrrlScientist and a complaint about Mark Hoofnagle taking a swipe at denialists of antibiotics. Neither of those bloggers is one that I’d call “strident.”

  16. Jon

    bad Jim– That material is under a different headline. Is it by the author? (If it is, I’ll agree that it sheds a different light on the piece…)

  17. Jon

    Actually, if it *is* a subtle right wing argument, that makes it even more interesting. Accusations of elite class war on “real Americans” is what the right does for a living, e.g., “they’re coming for your Bibles, your hard earned money, your pickup trucks,” etc. The conservative movement was built on this kind of thing–a kind of cultural class warfare. So my bet is they’d love it if the science/atheist blogger thing got big, they’d use it as a culture war distraction.

  18. i’m rather sketchy on the fine-grained details of this controversy, though i know of what happened in broad strokes. but let me say that the amount of energy, time and effort going into what really is internecine disputation is kind of disconcerting. there are creationists on the religious right, and now scienceblogs.com is being attacked by a writer in the new york times magazine who seems to exhibit a soft-spot for climate & public health denialism. from the “outside” it looks like things have gotten super-personal, and i can totally understand why it’s not productive to just wonder if perhaps people should just “drop it” and move on.

  19. Ken Pidcock

    The idea that this sort of Internet obnoxiousness directed at the religious and suspected “fellow travelers” could spill over into real life is hardly implausible.

    I’m going to take you to have meant …is not completely implausible. Had the story been about a lone 18 year old Pharyngula fan at a screening of Expelled, perhaps. But the story was about a group of scientists who had voluntarily participated in an outreach event. And the presentation wasn’t, “Could this have happened?” It was, “Isn’t this just what we’d expect?” No, it isn’t.

  20. Chris Mooney

    in some ways the Heffernan article is noteworthy, in the sense that it shows what the outside world/mainstream media thinks of something like scienceblogs. but it is totally undermined by the anti-climate stuff

  21. I was pretty irritated by this whole kerfuffle (I’m one of those clairvoyant folks who claims to have smelled bullshit from the moment I first read TJ’s recollections), but I appreciate the candor with which Chris has handled it. A lesser blogger would have shrugged it off, or got in a pissing match with his critics about the minutiae of what happened. Chris has owned it, like an adult.

  22. Anthony McCarthy

    Had the story been about a lone 18 year old Pharyngula fan Ken Pidcock

    Why a Pharyngula fan? Why not the proprietor of the blog who is hardly civil? Or Coyne, or a myriad of other new atheist bloggers who are explicitly rude and insulting to religious believers? They publish rude things about religious scientists on their blogs and in their other writing and public discourse. And loud derision has been known to happen at public meetings of scientists, for example:

    “Over the decades, attempts by non-traditionalists to introduce new thinking into the study
    of evolution have met with either stony silence or rancorous derision. Goldschmidt, Gould, and proponents of Lamarckian inheritance can still raise hackles, even posthumously
    (“Goldschmidt is a bum!” echoed around the lecture theatre at a recent scientific meeting, 44 years after his death. See Stephen Jay Gould’s essay The Uses of Heresy: An Introduction to Richard Goldschmidt’s “The Material Basis of Evolution” at the beginning of the 1982 reprint of Goldschmidt’s book for descriptions of similar sentiments
    expressed in an earlier era.) ”

    http://article.pubs.nrc-cnrc.gc.ca/RPAS/rpv?hm=HInit&journal=gen&volume=46&calyLang=eng&afpf=g03-115.pdf

    It wouldn’t surprise me at all if there have been occasions when the things typed hastily on some of the Scienceblogs were voiced in gatherings of scientists, especially if you include the social sciences in it, just as I wouldn’t be surprised to hear of people slamming atheists at a gathering of creationists pretending to be doing science.

  23. Jon

    Heffernan now says the Watts blog reference was a mistake:

    One regret: the Watts blog. Virtually everyone who emailed me pointed out that it’s as axe-grinding as anything out there. I linked to it because has a lively voice; it’s detail-oriented and seemingly not snide; and, above all, it has some beautiful images I’d never seen before. I’m a stranger to the debates on science blogs, so I frankly didn’t recognize the weatherspeak on the blog as “denialist”; I didn’t even know about denialism. I’m don’t endorse the views on the Watts blog, and I’m extremely sorry the recommendation seemed ideological.

  24. Jon

    Paco: The overlapping-but-not-identical scientific, atheist, and skeptical communities are filled with people who are *obsessed* about getting things right. To the point of checking their sources, doubting themselves constantly, but finally venturing their best shots *in defense of the truth*. I choose that last phrase carefully, because truth and reason do need defending.

    They *appear* to be defending the truth, right? But I think this goes to the point of what Heffernan is talking about when she says “pummeling enemies in absentia.” I’m generalizing, but on scienceblogs we see a lot of dealing with philosophical questions filtered only through the physical sciences. Many science bloggers and all the new atheist authors I’ve read do very little encouraging of readers to do syntopical reading on the questions they deal with. For instance, what differing assumptions lead recent philosophers like Jurgen Habermas, Richard Rorty, and Charles Taylor to reach very different conclusions about religion than, say, Daniel Dennett does? The fact that different assumptions are never discussed leads readers to assume that there *are* no different assumptions worth discussing. The resulting conversation starts to look like the one Ann Coulter creates with her screeds against “libruls”–there’s no conceivable dialog worth having, just strident monologue.

    What do I mean by different assumptions? Let’s look at an important one–differing ideas of the importance of the divide between the study of nature (Naturwissenschaften) and studying mind and culture (Geisteswissenschaften). Dennett thinks this distinction is without import, and even that Naturwissenschaften should replace all things Geisteswissenschaften:

    http://tinyurl.com/254xh4a

    First of all, if you read the whole section it has all the intellectual firepower of a freaking pop gun. I found myself trying to come up for air during most of what I read thinking, “you’re a philosopher, um, ever heard of ethics?” During the whole thing I kept hearing the theme to the Jetsons in the background. Oh wow, the future looks bright, if only we could get our little Faustian hands on the workings of peoples’ brains. Even his prose is weak, IMHO.

    Now of the philosophers I listed above, the anti-Dennett would be Charles Taylor. Charles Taylor believes in a very strong human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften) to the point where he is an advocate of culture, and perhaps related to the fact that “Religion is one ot culture’s many forms — perhaps its most important, and certainly its most persistent,” as Alan Wolfe puts it, Taylor became a liberal Roman Catholic. (See more from Alan Wolfe on Clifford Geertz’s take on culture.)

    Anyway, in contrast to Daniel Dennett, take a look at the views of Charles Taylor:

    http://tinyurl.com/2b6gar2

    http://tinyurl.com/27x23vt

    By the way, I’ve heard bloggers and commenters talk about “accomodationism” and “argument ad accomdatum” as if were only in reaction to movement atheism, when in fact, Taylor has been making his arguments since the late 60’s, which I think is longer than Dennett has been at it with his.

    But back to the point of what I think is superficiality in Dennett’s philosophical views. Let’s look at Max Webers famous thoughts on modern “disenchantment”:

    http://www.philocrites.com/essays/weber.html

    Forget for a second whether you agree with a lot of what this author of this particular author is saying. Who do you think could give you a more satisfying, well thought out set of reflections on Weber’s “Disenchantment”? Just about all of the new atheists I’ve read couldn’t hold a candle to Taylor on subjects like this.

  25. Jon

    And on the subject of “substituting stridency for contemplation.” Lets look at some recent threads on Jerry Coyne’s blog. They deal with the concept of “free will” (and it’s actually quite relevant to what I said above, because it highlights the confusion and philosophical controversy you can get into surrounding Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften.)

    In thread #1, someone dogmatically and aggressively (and I think ridiculously) opines “Free will is an illusion. Get over it.

    But this thread on the following day is much more thoughtful and sheds much more light than heat–why? Because people are much less interested in stridently opining– they’re actually curious and not trying to dogmatically force an outcome:

    I wasn’t so sure about those previous “free will” threads, but this one seems to have a lot of thoughtful comments all around. Thanks folks, your inquisitive minds are keeping mine entertained.

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is because the thread was chilled out enough for there to be *dialectic and reflection* on the thread, which often doesn’t happen in online science forums. (And interestingly, the picture of decisionmaking, free will, and personhood discussed in this thread actually seems a lot closer to Charles Taylor’s picture of mind than Dennett’s–briefly, that the human mind is more of an expressive as opposed to a computational type of thing).

    Anyway, this all was all hastily typed. Like most people, I don’t want to spend the whole weekend writing blog comments, even ones on interesting subjects…

  26. Jon

    By the way, for the record, I once read Derrida for 5 minutes and couldn’t go any longer and I’ve found what few post modernists I’ve ever read tedious.

  27. Jon

    One more thing about being “obsessed with getting the truth, etc.” There’s a famous quote by Montaigne: “there is an Abecedarian ignorance that precedes knowledge, and a doctoral ignorance that comes after it. ”

    You can know a ton of information about something, and actually be more ignorant for it, if it gives you the wrong general picture.

  28. Anthony McCarthy

    I don’t think anyone knows what “post modernism” is. In its most commonly used context it means, “I don’t like that idea” or, more accurately, “I don’t like him”.

    “Free will is an illusion”. What is an illusion is that science could possibly deal with something like free will because of the problems of “will” being freed of the restraints of causality. I’d like someone to tell me how science would detect or test for something except within a network of causal relationships. For science to hold that things outside the possible scope of its competence and abilities “doesn’t exist” is absurd.

  29. Jon

    Eh, just read through again what I posted above. Not sure how successful I was. But the main thing is that the kinds of questions new atheists are asking are *philosophical* questions. If you want the serious answers to these questions, they’re not only in science experiments, but in philosophy, and inquiry in the tradition of the liberal arts.

    *Hackers and Painters* guy Paul Graham has an essay that’s relevant here:

    Politics, like religion, is a topic where there’s no threshold of expertise for expressing an opinion. All you need is strong convictions.

    Do religion and politics have something in common that explains this similarity? One possible explanation is that they deal with questions that have no definite answers, so there’s no back pressure on people’s opinions. Since no one can be proven wrong, every opinion is equally valid, and sensing this, everyone lets fly with theirs.

    But this isn’t true. There are certainly some political questions that have definite answers, like how much a new government policy will cost. But the more precise political questions suffer the same fate as the vaguer ones.

    I think what religion and politics have in common is that they become part of people’s identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that’s part of their identity.

    The thing is that there *are* answers to be found in the disciplines of philosophy and study of religion–there is “back pressure.” But that’s not the kind of inquiry that New Atheists are interested in. They’re interested in identifying as “science people”, and in particular, they’re into expressing those identities.

  30. Gus Snarp

    What’s funny about this to me is that I was sort of on the fence on this whole “New Atheist”/”Accommodationist” (I hate both those labels) debate when the Tom Johnson comment became a blog post. I read that and felt immediately that it was highly unlikely to be true. I’ve never seen behavior like that. I’ve only heard atheists make strong comments on blogs and forums. I found it inconceivable that scientists at an environmental and educational gathering would ridicule people about religion. It was in fact, so entirely absurd that as soon as I read it here I pretty much determined that the side that engaged in such obvious falsehoods to make their case was not the side for me. Yes, the Tom Johnson comment that has now been decisively proven false convinced me – that I side with the “New Atheists”.

  31. Anthony McCarthy

    I’ve never seen behavior like that. I’ve only heard atheists make strong comments on blogs and forums.

    You didn’t know my dear old Latin teacher, obviously. Though I was very fond of him and revere his memory, I remember a number of meetings which included diversions flowing from his practiced button pushing. He wasn’t a “new atheist”, having gone on well before they arose but he was hardly the only person of the atheist persuasion who I’ve met copying that obnoxious habit of all true believers.

    I would suggest a book I browsed once called 2000 Years of Disbelief, not because I was convinced it was entirely credible or accurate, I wasn’t, but it is certainly an indication that in your face atheism has a relatively long history which has been touted by atheists in support of atheism. To deny that is not credible.

  32. “Free will is an illusion”. What is an illusion is that science could possibly deal with something like free will because of the problems of “will” being freed of the restraints of causality.

    You can’t just assert that “‘will [is] freed of the restraints of causality”. Why would it?

    You know, I think it’s an illusion that science could possibly deal with some like global warming, because of the problems “warming” being freed of the restraints of empericism. Right? If we’re just asserting that various things get to be supernatural, why not?

  33. Jon

    James– This was a key point I was trying to make above: You can easily make the case that human experience, characterized by “sovereignty of the will, responsibility for actions, a capacity to subject everything to thinking and to resist everything within the fortress of freedom of his/her own person” is different from the natural sciences:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilhelm_Dilthey#The_Distinction_between_the_Natural_Sciences_and_the_Human_Sciences

    Even if you were to find the minute mechanisms that, say, determine (even crudely) how people make decisions (I highly doubt it’s as easy as certain people think), it’s bound to be really complex and easily misunderstood and/or misapplied (potentially maliciously, potentially uncomprehendingly or incompetently), so how useful would it be as a means toward ends we’d want to see come about?

  34. Anthony McCarthy

    James, like it or not, that’s what “free will” is asserted to be. It has been asserted and I assert that science can’t deal with that or any other proposal that falls outside of causality. That it might drive materialists up a wall that people believe those ideas doesn’t mean that science can do what science cannot do.

    Global warming is a manifestation of the physical universe. It is very complex but it is not a phenomenon that falls outside of a very measurable causal network. Warming or cooling or temperature stasis couldn’t be measured if it did.

  35. 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.

    Quite wrong. There is nothing in this prolonged episode of unjustifiable distortions and gullibility by accommodationists to incline me to be more trusting towards them. Entirely the opposite, actually.

  36. TB

    @ 32 Gus

    I’ll take your word for it that you were on the fence about this before and are not now because of the TJ issue.

    I appreciate that you’re angry about the whole affair, but I would recommend you reconsider due to the idea that the “untrue on its face” argument isn’t valid. I say that because your comment and others’ makes me think that some don’t quite understand what it meant for TJ to “be who he said he was.”

    This wasn’t an empty anecdote or an argument from authority, this was what I would call an “argument de Guillotine.”

    And at that time a year ago, that means:

    – If TJ was telling the truth, Chris would keep his identity a secret because TJ was – at least – telling an unflattering story about his coworkers and work environment, and – at most – telling a story that could have resulted in disciplinary action against the people involved. It could have also hurt TJ in that there could have been repercussions to airing arguably private dirty laundry publicly.

    – If TJ was lying, that would hurt Chris’ reputation. In order to protect his own credibility, Chris would have to disavow TJ and use that personal information to contact those people and that workplace and reveal the deception publicly, thereby compromising TJ’s career. Essentially, having enough information to be holding a guillotine over TJ’s professional neck.

    That’s what lent credibility to the story then and why the argument that it wasn’t true on its face doesn’t work from any of the arguments I saw then or now. It’s difficult to believe someone in that position put their career on the line for a lie in a blog post. And someone willing to enter into that kind of agreement gains some measure of credibility.

    We now know Chris wasn’t dealing with a rational actor: TJ was lying and inexplicably did put his career on the line for that lie. Chris reluctantly had to let the guillotine start falling.

    We also now know that Chris contacted the person’s advisor/supervisor on the day he found out about the deception (or if you didn’t know that, you know that now). In other words, the guillotine began to fall immediately – maybe not the way some online commenters wanted it to, but it did fall.

    I know Chris has apologized for elevating the comment and feels regret for it but in my view he was burned by a source and victims don’t apologize for being victimized.

    But as far as being dishonest or even careless, I don’t think that describes Chris’ role in this affair. Not with the information he had to use against TJ.

    So I would ask you reconsider your position – TJ hurt a lot of people on both sides of this issue and I don’t think they should be blamed for TJ’s faults.

  37. J. J. Ramsey

    Mooney:

    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. [emphasis mine]

    Myers:

    There is nothing in this prolonged episode of unjustifiable distortions and gullibility by accommodationists to incline me to be more trusting towards them.

    Maybe not more trusting, but if you had been more civil, if you hadn’t gone out of your way to be nasty and abusive (and at times done so at the expense of the truth, rather than in service of it), the story of Tom Johnson would have been far less believable.

  38. Anthony McCarthy

    I have the feeling that no one here was expecting the people criticized in UA would be “inclined” to express trust to its authors. Call me skeptical but I wasn’t waiting for that.

  39. Jon

    If Chris woke up and tripped over his shoes, PZ would be commenting with faux concern that this burns his reputational bridges, etc.

  40. Jon

    By the way, we have all the ingredients of McCarthyism: guilt by association, accusations of fellow travelling/appeasement, the substitution of sensationalism and anger in place of real discourse…

  41. Anthony McCarthy

    Just for the record, I’m more closely related to Mary McCarthy than either Joseph or Eugene McCarthy.

  42. Jon

    No relation to Tailgunner Joe?

    Mary McCarthy was a prof at my alma mater, but I never took a class with her. She assigned like 20 Russian novels in a single semester, which seemed brutal if not impossible. She was very old and I remember her tooling around campus in one of those senior citizen scooter things…

  43. Anthony McCarthy

    I never met her but she was, by all reports, a real experience.

  44. Jon

    One thing I do remember about her is that she was always smiling.

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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.

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