Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Intersection wasn't helped either

It seems that a 'Tom Johnson' whom Chris Mooney used in his attacks against anti-accommodationists/new atheists was non other than the guy behind You're Not Helping. Wow.


  1. Isn't this an inverse "argument from authority"? Unless the arguments depended on that person being a PhD student in science, they stand or fall even if stated by a sockpuppet. So either he's right that these things happen and are negative, or he's wrong. Whether or not he presented it dishonestly is not the point.

    And the more key question here is: why would that sort of deception be used to make him seem more credible? If a PhD science student saying this is more credible than a PhD philosophy student, what does that say?

  2. I'm not sure I agree. In an argument I reckon you have a duty to be fair to your opponents and to look for the truth. If you too readily accept the testimony of someone whom you don't perform easy checking upon as it suits your argument then you've hardly sought the truth or been fair to the opposition. At least it seems that way.

  3. But that only counts if the background of the person you quote matters to the truth of the point. So, if the point raised is something that you can check independently of the person who raises it, then even if the person who raised it is the most dishonest and hypocritical person in the world who lies about almost everything it doesn't matter; the point is verifiable regardless of what you think of that person.

    For example, if the person said "The sky is blue", jokes aside no one will really doubt that; we know that that's the truth.

    So, if someone said that, say, they saw P.Z. Myers kick a puppy and there's no other evidence for it, then, yeah, checking out the background or at least taking the evidence with a grain of salt is warranted. But if they say "Look at P.Z. Myers' blog to see how rude and disrespectful he is!", who cares who said it? You can check that out yourself and make your own evaluation.

    Now, the case you quote here fits kinda in-between. Yeah, part of it is the seemingly personal report of someone about what his colleagues do. But on the other hand Chris Mooney seems only to be saying that that sort of thing shouldn't be done. It doesn't really do much against his point if that case probably isn't true (but does mean that we would need some evidence of that sort of behaviour).

  4. I've just read Mooney's 2nd post on this and I'm lost as to what happened. 'William' said Tom Johnson was a sock puppet and the story didn't happen, but Mooney says he's a real person and it did. I think, but it's confusing.

    I think the point you're making (tell me if I'm off base) is a little more that what 'William' described happens all the time and thus it doesn't matter if 'William' wasn't an actual example. Is that what you mean?

  5. No, it's more that unless the point that's being made critically depends on the qualities of the person or the honesty of the person, then it doesn't get invalidated if the person who made the point is revealed to be not as they should be.

    Mooney's case is a bit gray since it does seem that the personal experience of people mocking religious moderates in what should be polite debates adds some force to the arguments. But on the other hand Mooney's big point seems to be that people shouldn't do that. That shouldn't change just because one account of that happening didn't happen.

  6. verbose,

    We're talking about a first-hand account of new atheist wrong-doing, not a general theoretical argument about ethical debate. Yes, the credibility of the witness matters.

  7. Um, I get that, Daniel. That's why I said that this one is a gray area. The personal background is relevant because a lot of the credibility of the point is based on the personal example. However, Mooney's point seems to be that that sort of thing happening is bad, and at most that that sort of reaction or personal experience can follow from the views of some of the "New Atheists". That point is in no way impacted by that example possibly being false.

    The first reactions to that example from the people Mooney targetted should have been:

    1)Yes, doing that would be wrong.
    2) However, that's not what happens in general.

    And so, when the person's dishonesty was discovered, all they'd have to say is "See? 2!" ... as long as they accepted 1) first. If they didn't accept 1), then they've placed themselves outside of the scope of being offended by the invented story; it's clear that they didn't see anything wrong with the example and so would support it if it did happen, which is another argument. And, again, this dishonesty only helps support their argument of 2).

    So, then, what need is there of demands for apologies? What should Mooney apologize for? He should reveal the deception and admit that that piece of evidence isn't valid, and if that's all he has admit that he doesn't really have a case, but that's about as far as it goes, no?

    Mostly, it's the ignoring of the main point -- this thing is bad and can be justified by what some New Atheists say -- in light of this example being at best dubious that's irritating me. And the risk that people are saying that if he wasn't really a scientist, we shouldn't take what he said seriously just because he wasn't a scientist (although, on further reflection, that doesn't seem to be the case)