If you’ve not heard of the “Tom Johnson” affair, or aren’t interested in it, you’ll want to skip this post, which I offer simply to bring some clarity to a confusing situation.
On October 22 of last year, Chris Mooney put up a post at The Intersection called “Counterproductive attacks on religion—exhibit A.” The “exhibit” was an excerpt from an earlier comment on that website by someone named “Tom Johnson.” Johnson claimed that he was a biologist who had gone to “conservation events” (that is, outreach meetings designed to educate people about conservation), and that atheists had behaved very badly at these events, yelling and screaming at religious people for their faith and thereby turning them off. Mooney elevated Johnson’s comment to a full post to buttress Mooney’s frequent assertion that “new atheists,” through their stridency, thoughtlessness, and lack of respect for others, were hurting their cause by driving people away from science.
“Tom Johnson” said he was a scientist working at a large, well-known research university. The fact that he would not fully identify himself, or reveal details about the “conservation event,” excited a good deal of speculation and rancor at various websites. The situation was further exacerbated when it turned out that “Tom Johnson” had also created an anonymous website called “You’re Not Helping,” which excoriated various atheist bloggers, including myself, for their counterproductive messages. “Johnson” was then caught engaging in “sock-puppetry” (making mutually supportive comments under a variety of names) on not only his own website, but on other blogs like The Intersection and even here. Chastened, he took down the You’re Not Helping website and confessed to sock-puppetry.
All of this led to an explosion of interest, acrimony, and accusation among several websites. One post, at The Buddha is Not Serious, is followed by 826 comments! Despite “Tom Johnson’s” confession and apology, questions remain. Who is he? Under how many names did he post, and who are these sock puppets? How much truth was there in his description of the “conservation event” that became Mooney’s “Exhibit A”?
“Tom Johnson” (hereafter “TJ”) remains anonymous, though his identity is apparently known by Mooney, Jean Kazez, and others. For a few weeks I have known it as well, as I am friends with some of the principals in this case. In return for my promise not to reveal TJ’s real name, I have been party to some of the details of the situation presented as “Exhibit A.” I have also questioned the other person who was supposedly involved in that “conservation event.” I have spoken to TJ’s advisor (Johnson is a graduate student at a university in the South), and have learned more of the details from that person. TJ has apologized to me by email for his actions, and says he will be apologizing to others soon. His advisor and his university are looking at his actions to see if any formal academic transgressions occurred.
I am as certain of TJ’s identity, then, as I can be. The purpose of this post is not to “out” him. I personally don’t care much if his identity becomes public, but I want to honor my agreement to not divulge his name. What I would like to do is to clear up, insofar as I can, what happened at the event known as “Exhibit A.” I want to concentrate on this episode because, despite TJ’s confession that his story of atheist mockery was “obviously false,” some people are keeping alive the idea that it contains a kernel of truth, or that something akin to that episode might really have taken place. And indeed, it would reflect poorly on atheist scientists if they habitually engaged in overt verbal mockery of religious people at outreach events. Further, because much of the controversy about the “Tom Johnson” affair centers on how much truth there really was in “Exhibit A,” I want to give my appraisal of what really happened.
I am putting up this post with the assent of TJ’s advisor, who has read it in advance. TJ also knows that I will be making this post, though I have not shown it to him in advance.
Let me first post the relevant comments by TJ so you can see his claims (he’s admitted that he’s male). All misspellings and typos are in the originals.
The comment by TJ at The Intersection that was labeled “Exhibit A”:
Many of my colleagues are fans of Dawkins, PZ, and their ilk and make a point AT CONSERVATION EVENTS to mock the religious to their face, shout forced laughter at them, and call them “stupid,” “ignorant” and the like – and these are events hosted by religious moderates where we’ve been ASKED to attend. They think it’s the way to be a good scientist, after all.
So what do you think happens when you spit in someone’s face, mock them openly, figuratively throw them to the ground and kick dirt in their face – and then ask “now we really need your help!!”? When my colleagues do this, you can watch the attention visibly disappear from the crowd when you finally start talking about conservation and real science.
That’s the problem with the blogosphere – you can say all the extreme, controversial things you want without consequences. But when your readers start echoing those things to the public (the people that science desperately needs to translate research to action), I’m afraid the consequences are rather severe.
But I’m an atheist that sees the value in working with the moderately religious instead of against them – especially when they are the ones who extend a hand first. I don’t give credence to their belief or agree with them; I often have lengthy discussions with ministers and others at the events like the one mentioned in this original post where I will tell the believers that I disagree with them…but I do it without laughing loudly at them, making it my job to mock their belief, or calling them “ignorant.”
Another TJ comment on the thread:
The organization I work for is a large, well-known research university (I won’t say which or name names as I don’t want to go down that road). We go to events representing the university, and many (most, actually) of the events we go to are ones in which we are specifically invited because we advertise ourselves as providing educational scientific outreach. (We also advertise about the need for scientists to work with diverse audiences but, as you can probably guess, that claim leaves much to be desired.)
Personally, I go into these events viewing them as a chance to reach out to groups that may not always get goood exposure to scientific topics. The state that I happen to work in is miserably lacking in scientific awareness, so these events are a great chance to “spread the word” in a way that doesn’t put the public off to science further. What happens, however, is that my collegaues turn the purpose of the events from spreading scientific knowledge to ppromoting atheism (by only bashing religion). As I told Anna K. later in the comment that brought on this post, these collegaues of mine act like they’re gearing up for battle on the way to the events, saying things like “this is our chance to tell these religious bimbos off.” When we get there, however, there’s no battle. Instead there a bunch of normal people who happen to go to church who are looking to help and instead get laughed at and mocked for an hour.
I’d like to say that the superiors in this case would chastise such behavior, but in reality, the superiors are part of the group partaking in it. I can’t stress enough how the writings of PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne (especially) are quoted by them when they’re gearing up for a “fight” or discussing their behavior with you. The sentiment that religious moderates are no better than a creationist comes up frequently (a common theme on Jerry’s blog), as does the sentiment that NOT showing vitriol is somehow really just giving support to religion (another common theme). I get frequently told that I’m a ‘bad atheist’ because I’m not willing to figuratively spit in the face of everyone I meet who is religious. Honestly, I’m more interested in being a good scientist.
One more addendum to what I just previously posted. What makes you doubt that I’m telling the truth? I apologize for not videotaping the incidents in question, nor my discussions with my colleagues (as that’s what it would apparently take to turn off the automatic doubt machine), but I can assure you that what I’m commenting on here is true and not truth exaggerated by hyperbole.
It is your responsibility, as the ones accusing me of lying, to prove so. The burden of proof rests on the accuser. I’m not trying to start a smear campaign; I am simply reporting what I have seen as an example (yes, even an anecdotal one) of New Atheist vitriol missing the mark (badly) when it comes to scientific issues and the public which, unless I’m mistaken, is a common focus of discussion on the value of this kind of rhetoric.
And, finally, TJ’s confession at The Buddha is Not Serious:
As mentioned earlier, I posted most often as “milton c.” and “bilbo.” I also appeared as “seminatrix” and “philip jr.,” and I believe I posted as “petra” on the value of science blogs thread. My posting under multiple names on the intersection was much like YNH: out-of-context sniping and trying to make a chorus of agreement when I was challenged. It all happened, I guess, because I let my emotions get the best of me, like on YNH [the "You're Not Helping' website]. I honestly don’t think Chris and Sheril ever noticed the similarities in IP address, since I never heard from them other than what they posted in comments.
“Tom Johnson” was also another alias, although his story was loosely based on things I had heard other general students say. 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. I’ve never had any contact with Chris or Sheril or anyone else in the blogosphere outside of that instance, and that’s the truth.
I don’t know how to make things right, but I want to. I don’t expect forgiveness from anyone because, as I said with YNH, I acted like an immature, self-interested jerk. There’s no excuse for it. Perhaps the best thing in light of all this is a permanent ban from the Intersection or discoverblogs in general. That’s something I would accept, even though I promise not to blog or comment again anywhere. Period. I’m not going to take the advice of others from earlier and blog again in the future. I don’t deserve to. I did everyone at the intersection wrong, including Chris and Sheril, and I apologize.
Now, what really happened? After hearing from TJ, talking at length to his advisor, who has queried him in detail, and hearing from the person at the “conservation event” who was said to loudly deride the faithful to their faces, I conclude the following:
- The incident known as “Exhibit A” did not happen as described. TJ has admitted as much already, so this is not news.
- Despite TJ’s avowal that he “made up a story about being a grad. student as an explanation about where the story came from,” he is a graduate student.
- There was indeed one (and only one) “conservation event” at which Tom and a graduate-school colleague participated—an outreach event involving a Baptist organization—but there was no laughter at religious people, no mockery of their views to their faces, no accusations of stupidity. As far as I can determine, there was not a single sign of disrespect toward the faithful evinced by TJ’s colleague, who is an atheist.
- TJ’s assertion that his “superiors are part of the group” that publicly mocked the faithful at conservation events is false. This did not happen. His “superior” (whom I take to be his advisor) did not and does not sanction that behavior—which of course did not even occur—at outreach events.
- The episodes of mockery and derision supposedly directed toward religious people at this and other events—for TJ implied that there was more than one episode—were complete fictions concocted by TJ, fictions apparently based on various conversations he had had with atheists and agnostics both before and during his tenure as a graduate student. These private conversations were then amalgamated into a fantasy scenario that was passed off as a real public episode.
I’m not foolish enough to think that these conclusions will quell all the ferment on the internet. But I hope they at least do something to settle the issue of “Exhibit A,” which everyone agreed from the outset was an anecdote. We know now that this anecdote is not only false, but doesn’t even contain a kernel of truth. Or, if there is a kernel of truth, it is just this: that TJ and some atheists had private talks about the compatibility of science and religion and the ways to improve science education, and that those atheists frankly and forthrightly conveyed their views to him. This is hardly newsworthy, and it would be grossly misleading to tout this non-event as an example of the stridency and incivility of atheists.
If, after this, “Tom Johnson” wants to claim that there is more to his story than just a fabrication based on private conversations, then it is incumbent on him to finally reveal who he is, and to give names and dates to buttress his claims about the public misbehavior of atheists.