When the narrative is more important than facts we get a Cargo Cult World

On the incivility of atheists: “Tom Johnson” and Exhibit A
[Via Why Evolution Is True]

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”?


This is a really good breakdown of the Tom Johnson incident which also demonstrates Ken Layne’s great comment We can fact-check your ass!

Part of the problem, as we also saw last week with the Sherrod blowup, is that many people do not want to check the facts. There is a narrative they want to push or to believe and they will take the story, facts be damned. Confirmation bias is the first refuge of the misguided and misled.

Many rationalists and scientists work very hard against this well-known form of bias. “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool.” Richard Feynman 1974

Feynman spoke those words at a commencement address in a speech called Cargo Cult Science. It discusses the sorts of magical thinking everyone wants to believe in but for which there is no evidence except our wishes.

In other words, they are lies. And he details how scientific integrity requires one to try and ignore the lies, to realize that as humans, all researchers are predisposed to believe something is true simply because they want it to be.

To get at the truth of Nature, scientists have to work hard to see through the lies in our own narratives. Science has produced a series of processes – from peer review to falsification – that help prevent the lies of our nature to corrupt the truth of Nature.

Feynman said:

We’ve learned from experience that the truth will come out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. Nature’s phenomena will agree or they’ll disagree with your theory. And, although you may gain some temporary fame and excitement, you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven’t tried to be very careful in this kind of work. And it’s this type of integrity, this kind of care not to fool yourself, that is missing to a large extent in much of the research in cargo cult science.

Many other human enterprises have no such ethic. They have no such integrity. In fact, lying seldom diminishes their reputation in the least.

Technology makes it easier to do the fact checking but also much easier to create the lies in order to strengthen an incorrect, misleading narrative. And a lot of people want to believe that incorrect, misleading narrative rather than the truth.

That is why denialism has so many practitioners. False narratives – lies and lullabies, bedtime sand just-so tories – provide the comfort that the real world does not.

They prefer a Cargo Cult World, one that is pushed by people and organizations with their own agenda. One where a simulacrum of reality is presented but where things are really all smoke and mirrors.

Lies still travel half way around the world before the truth even has its boots on (which is usually attributed to Mark Twain but was said by Charles Spurgeon in 1855 when, during a sermon he said “A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.” But, of course, the Mark Twain mistruth goes on because the narrative of Mark Twain makes more sense since few today have heard of Spurgeon.)

We can all fall prey to the seductive Siren call of a Cargo Cult World but some of us work very hard to recognize the falsehoods underlying it and strive to deal with the Real World.

I really hope that those of us focussed on the real world will not lose out to those who want to live in a world of fantasy and lies. Because, no matter how hard those people in the South Pacific tried the wooden airplanes they built never did fly. A Coke bottle is just a container for a liquid, not a boon from Above.

The real world wins in the end and we all need to recognize that.

Image: Bexx Brown-Spinelli