Don’t believe everything you’re told

I’ve been tactfully silent about Chris Mooney lately, but I have to murmur a few words about stories and anonymity and credulity and skepticism and how we know what to believe and what not to believe and how necessary it is to pay attention to the difference between the two.

The background is a post a few days ago quoting an anonymous commenter at The Intersection saying

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.

I saw it at the time, and was tempted to comment, but didn’t. But if I had commented I would have said that I find that anecdote highly incredible on its face (even before we get to the issues about the reliability of the witness). It just sounds stupid. It doesn’t sound like the way real people really behave in public places – it sounds like someone’s bizarro-world idea of how mean horrid nasty wicked ‘new’ atheists must behave because they’re so new and mean and wicked. It certainly doesn’t sound like the way academics behave in public gatherings with conservationists, even if the meetings are held in churches or temples or mosques. It sounds like the way children behave when they’re excited and acting up – but it does not sound like the way sane adults who have jobs in reputable universities behave.

And the commenter is in fact anonymous – but he insists that he is a biologist at “a large, well-known research university” and he expects everyone to take his word for it. But there is no reason for anyone to take his word for it, and it is not reasonable to expect people to do so, and people refused to do so. Hence Mooney’s new post on the subject today.

Last week, the New Atheist comment machine targeted the following post, in which I republished a preexisting blog comment from a scientist named “Tom Johnson” (a psuedonym). In the comment, Johnson had related how some of his New Atheist-inspired scientist colleagues had behaved toward religious folks at bridge-building conservation events. The comment obviously reflected one individual’s experience and point of view, and nothing more. But it struck me as worth highlighting, in light of my many well known concerns about the New Atheist movement.

No, that won’t quite do. The comment ‘obviously reflected’ one anonymous individual’s account of a purported experience, an experience which was implausible on its face. Chris Mooney is a professional journalist – surely he ought to know this very well indeed. Surely if someone phoned him and in a heavily disguised voice gave an avowedly false name and told an implausible story about a controversial subject – he would know that the story was not automatically reliable. Of course he would! Yet this is taken at face value, and not only that, but a group that Mooney dislikes is given a carefully offensive epithet for being skeptical about this story.

So we have a journalist, a member of a profession that is supposed to be trained to be skeptical of anonymous stories that don’t ring true, and one who has just co-written a book about science literacy. Basic science literacy surely ought to include knowing when skepticism is called for!

But mere credulity and verbal abuse (‘the New Atheist comment machine’) aren’t enough – there’s an even more sinister implication.

I’m a bit surprised how much hoopla the simple elevating of a comment into an individual post, with minimal additional commentary, has caused. Clearly, Johnson really touched a nerve. Accordingly, my post unfortunately subjected him to various attacks; fortunately his real identity remains unknown (though I am aware of it).

Geddit? Anonymous Johnson was subjected to attacks by those violent belligerent atheists, but fortunately his identity is still a secret, because otherwise those new atheists might go burn down Johnson’s house or kidnap and torture Johnson’s children or tear Johnson into little pieces while laughing their fiendish laughter.

Nasty stuff.

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