Effect Measure

One of the by-products of the brouhaha (here, here) over The Atlantic article on vaccines was some interesting issues raised by the way the Knight Science Journalism Tracker handled it (here, here). If you aren’t familiar with KSJ Tracker, it’s a site that does “peer review” of science journalism. It’s goal “is to provide a broad sampling of the past day?s science news and, where possible, of news releases or other news tips related to publication of science news in the general circulation news media, mainly of the U.S.” I don’t get a chance to read it as often as I’d like, but when I do I find it measured and informative and I enjoy seeing how things look from the perspective of professional science journalists. Now I’m not a professional science journalist but I am a professional scientist who writes for the public. I don’t write under my own name, using instead a pseudonym shared by one or more like-minded public health scientists. So when I wished to register to comment about KSJ Tracker’s post about us, I was told their policy was that all commenters had to identify themselves with real names. Thus I confined my reply to this blog.

That’s KSJ Tracker’s policy and it works for them. I have no wish here to talk them out of it (although in an exchange of emails I did make an effort). Granting that the policy is the stuff of professional journalism, the assumptions and conventions which motivate it were formed when the information and authorial landscape was far different. So it seemed like an opportunity to make some observations from a non-professional-journalist-writing-science-for-the-public point of view. But first, a convention of our own. We’ve never divulged how many Reveres there are (once we said we were a non-prime number strictly less than 5, but this is a different point in time so we aren’t making that claim now). We will say that only one writes at a time, although all writers are in a sense a composite of many influences. Having said that, for clarity I will use the first person for the remainder of this, although it represents the views of everyone writing under the name revere or Revere.

With that out of the way, there are a cluster of questions here I will try to tease out. KSJ Tracker referred to us as “anonymous bloggers.” Let me try to make a distinction not everyone will buy, but which seems relevant, a distinction between a pseudonymous blogger and an anonymous one. “Anonymous” implies there is no way to know anything about you except what you way at that moment. But the Reveres (whether one or several) have written over 3200 posts stretching over years, far more material than usually available to establish authority or reliability for a writer. The pseudonym identifies us as the same writer(s) who wrote the previous day’s post, the one before that, and so on back 5 years. Most journalists are people none of us know and whose names are only vaguely familiar. Some get by-lines but don’t work for the paper where their article is published. Many news articles don’t have by-lines. There may be editors who take an active part in shaping the content and form of major (and not so major) pieces but whose names never appear. Publishers can select or suppress topics and stories (remember that there is another meaning to “power of the press”: the power of the person who owns the printing press). I have discovered — and to show you how naive I am about the news business was shocked by it — that a very large proportion of science reporting consists of barely warmed over press releases from a corporation’s, agency’s or university’s media relations office, something rarely evident to the reader.

Compared to that, the fact that we use a pseudonym seems somewhat less important. Our work is easily checkable (and we have a reasonable reputation in the science blogs world) and there is no one between the writer and the reader. We write, edit, publish and distribute without having to get anyone else’s permission or cooperation. There is no unrevealed mediation between writer and reader that is the rule in the world of professional science journalists. If our blog post were a press release written by an unidentified press officer at NIH, good science journalists would check with independent experts. Nothing prevents reporters from doing that for pseudonymous bloggers when they are publicly involved in an issue of substantial public interest. Moreover the Reveres as a blogging entity are not unknown in the world of public health itself. We can see on our referrer log that the blog is read in health departments and government agencies nationally and internationally on a regular basis.

Still, KSJ Tracker’s reasoning is that without having my real name, there is no way for them or their readers to know how credible I am. I offered to reveal myself to KSJ Tracker if that was the issue. We considered that an unnecessary concession but we were willing to make it. However the Reveres were not willing to reveal publicly any name writing under that authorship. There are various reasons for that, not none relevant to our authority. In discussing this with KSJ Tracking I did note a delicious irony. I edit an open access journal that practices open review — the names of the reviewer are known to the authors and vice versa, and the reviews are accessible for all published papers. We believe we get better and more constructive peer review this way. Most major scientific journals upon which professional science journalists rely, however, practice blind review — the reviewers and the authors are unknown to each other. The belief is that the content should speak for itself. This means that both our position and KSJ Tracker’s are internally inconsistent. It’s something to ponder.

Finally, I’d like to make some observations about how science writing is changing. The world of professional science journalism is shrinking as print journalism and the news industry is transformed by the failure of conventional media’s business model in the Age of the Internet. The paradox is that there is more good science writing for the general public done now than ever before. The ability to be one’s own writer, editor, publisher and distributor means that a motivated scientist can reach thousands or tens of thousands of readers who may be interested in his or her own specialty. Scienceblogs.com has well trafficked sites on archaeology, volcanology, ornithology, physics, etc., etc. Maybe some of us aren’t as skilled writers as the pros (although there are bloggers whose writing I’d put up against any journalist’s), but we know the science much better and we can do and say things about it that journalists can’t. Professional journalists and reporters often complain that without the main stream media doing the grunt work we wouldn’t exist. True, if you look at my posts, they often have a recognizable style: an opening paragraph followed by a pull quote (sometimes two) from a news article. I do use news gathering agencies and reporters as a stepping off place for many posts, but much of that is style. When I write about the same scientific articles they write about I read the article and don’t depend on them for what it says. But I still like to quote their stories because I want to give them credit for what they do and I have made it a habit to give the reporter’s by-line when I source a link. I do that on purpose.

If we didn’t have free and easy access to the work of journalists and reporters would that change our blogging? Yes. We would handle less breaking news and current happenings. But we have access to the same press releases, and now via live streaming, many of the same press conferences they do. We use the same sources they do. If I wanted to take the time I could call up scientists and interview them about what their paper means. But most of the time I don’t have to because I know what it means. I have their views. They are in the paper. I can tell readers what it says and can give my own views on it. Why should you believe my version of what the paper says if you don’t know who I am? You might because you have been reading me for a long time and have found what I say reliable. You would have the same problem with most reporters or journalists, whether you know their name or not. Let me turn the question around: why should you believe the views of Dr. X. of University Y when you’ve never heard of him or her and only know their title and nothing else? There are enough examples of how experts’ opinions are shaped by things other than science. At least if you read us regularly you have a sense of what those opinions and extra-scientific commitments are. We are depressingly consistent here.

KSJ Tracker’s question about the authority of a pseudonymous blogger is a good one because it opens up a Pandora’s Box of other questions. It’s like science itself. Trying to answer one question usually leads to many new ones.

Comments

  1. #1 PalMD
    October 29, 2009

    Thank you, well said. I posted a piece on dK yesterday and several commenters were cranky about the links because they were to well-established blogs. The irony of complaining about blogs on a blog was deep.

  2. #2 Dr Aust
    October 29, 2009

    Great summary. It is worth nothing that (at least in the UK) scare stories on science (most notably vaccination) in the news pages of some of the tabloid dailies and weeklies not infrequently appear under the byline:

    “by [Name of newspaper] Reporter”

    (which one presumes means a composite effort of several news staffers)

    This makes the argument about “You should know the writer’s name to judge the credibility” even more tenuous.

    Personally I feel the internet-enabled ability of scientists like the Reveres, and of physicians, to “give us the info straight” has been of great benefit. If many of these people wish to be pseudonymous to avoid being doorstepped by the Anti-Vaccine or HIV denialist crazies, or to avoid their employers’ discomfort at having a blogger on the staff, I don’t see that dents their credibility. Not for me, anyway. In any case, internet pseudonymity is typically relative rather than absolute. If someone wants to find out who you are badly enough, they usually can, unless you have been ultra-ultra-cautious in all your On-line activity.

  3. #3 Scott Belyea
    October 29, 2009

    Interesting stuff, and I agree with much of what you say. However, there’s one bit of illogic back toward the beginning.

    “The pseudonym identifies us as the same writer(s) who wrote the previous day’s post, the one before that, and so on back 5 years.”

    No, it does not. For all I know, Revere was 3 people two years ago and is now 4 different people. It’s closer to a pseudonymous advice column in a newspaper. “Aunt Dora” could die or could be replaced in a contract dispute, and unless the newspaper chooses to tell me, I’ll never know. Or maybe the column has always been written by a group.

    On the other hand, I’m confident that a 3-year old item by Carl Zimmer was written by the same author as yesterday’s Carl Zimmer post. With “Revere,” I don’t even know if yesterday’s item was written by the same person as today’s item.

  4. #4 revere
    October 29, 2009

    Scott: I wouldn’t say it is illogical, but it does require the same kind of metaphysical assumptions one must make with all denotation: that there is an identity from moment to moment when the same name is used. What identity means is the question. The fact that we may (or may not be) multiple hands at the keyboard holds true for all writers: you have to take on faith that it is the same person each time. The same problem holds whenever you have multiple authors: one paper, more than one writer, or for an agency, like CDC or NIH. So while on its surface this seems different, we would argue that the difference relates to assumptions that are made, not to the underlying “logic” (if you want to call our argument logic; we prefer to think of them as observations).

  5. #5 perceval
    October 29, 2009

    Well, the identity of the reveres (or the number of reveres) can be established quite easily by textual analysis, if need be.

    However, all that mystery *is* intriguing. My mental picture is now of a set of Alan-Moore style public health science heroes …

    … so, I have only one question for the Reveres:

    Which one of you is Ozymandias?

  6. #6 Epinephrine
    October 29, 2009

    I’m glad to read such a thorough defense of pseudonymous blogging/posting. I’ve use my “handle” in various games through the years, on fora, and in responding to blogs. There are people IRL who know me best as “Epi,” even though we’ve met (and I’ve stayed with them, and they’ve stayed with me. While a pseudonym does hide identity, it can permit one to express things more candidly or with less chance that it will affect the organization for which you work. I happen to check Effect Measure from one of those international health departments, and I don’t want any misunderstanding about whether my comments (here or elsewhere) reflect the opinion of my employer – they don’t have anyone by the name Epi Nephron on their staff.

    Your post brings Juliet’s question to mind: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

  7. #7 Brian
    October 29, 2009

    Anonymity and pseudonymity have been an almost unmitigated disaster in cyberspace, encouraging defamation, the circulation of misinformation, prejudice, and all kinds of foolishness, that would be less frequent and more costly if bloggers had to sign their names to it. Of course, as the Brownlee and Lenzer incident shows, putting one’s name to something is not an absolute barrier to foolishness and misinformation, but at least authors must then bear the reputational costs of incompetence and misconduct.

    This blog is the exception that proves the rule about anonymous and pseudonymous blogging. Perhaps you have addressed it previously, but it is puzzling to me, as an appreciative reader, why you folks don’t sign your actual names to what you write.

  8. #8 Scicurious
    October 29, 2009

    Excellent post, Revere. I am a big fan of all y’all’s writing, however many of you there are.

  9. #9 Matthew Herper
    October 29, 2009

    I think you’re drawing a distinction without a difference, except that it’s possible to work under a pseudonym, and be known by it, without being truly anonymous. Most people know Bono as Bono, but it’s simple to find out his name is Paul Hewson.

    But I wonder how many journalists have worked under pseudonyms. It’s not common, but I don’t know whether it is forbidden. (And I am a journalist, who works under his real name.)

  10. #10 Anonymous for this...
    October 29, 2009

    Brian – see Epinephrine’s post above for “positive” reasons – like added candour – and Dr Aust’s for some “avoiding negative stuff” reasons – like dodging cyber-stalking.

    To give you a concrete example of the latter: a few years ago I got involved, under my real name, with a debate with one well-known anti-vaccine activist on someone else’s blog. After a while said person looked up my University and Department, read a bit of the Department webpage, and then started smearing me in the forum as a paid tool of Big Pharma (the “Pharma Shill” gambit) – because the Department places students in PharmaCos (among other places) for real-world work experience, or gives students achievement prizes supported by GSK, or whoever.

    The Dept connections were pretty small beer money-wise, plus PERSONALLY I’ve never had a cent off Pharma in a quarter century plus in science – but I had to write a load of extra stuff DENYING I was a paid shill, explaining what the Dept’s Pharma connections described on the website were about, and fighting the personal smears.

    Basically, who needs that kind of sh*t?

    And if people are prepared to go as far as my anti-vaccine crazy did, how much farther would they go?

    The more prominent you are, the worse it gets. Paul Offit gets death threats, and has apparently had to have added personal security. Anti-vaccine activists have NAMED pro-vaccination people’s autistic kids On-line, and posted creepy stuff about them and their parents.

    I could go on.

    Now, it may be the price of being a paid journalist that you have to take this stuff if you write about a controversial topic, and you can always respond by publicly shaming the person – see e.g. Amy Wallace and the odious J.B. Handley of Generation Rescue for a recent example. But for myself, I am not professional journalist, and I don’t feel like becoming a professional crusader. So I shall be sticking with my ‘nym.

  11. #11 titmouse
    October 29, 2009

    … but at least authors must then bear the reputational costs of incompetence and misconduct.

    If the reveres were to post something poorly reasoned and unubstantiated, their personal reputations might survive. But the fine reputation of the on-line “revere” entity would be sunk.

  12. #12 BioinfoTools
    October 29, 2009

    When I started using blogs (as a commenter) I took on an alias, mainly as an exercise to see if by having an anonymous “name” others would focus on my content. In practice a number used that as a reason to doubt me, which was weird: they seemed to want to have more faith in my title than my content…

    Now I blog at ‘Code for Life’ at the New Zealand science blogs I use my real name like everyone else there. (Sciblogs is our local counterpart to this place that is the ripe old age of one month today!) So far I haven’t had the hassle Orac and others have, but then I’m a meeker soul than Orac when I try hit on a chiropractor (as I did recently) or whoever else.

  13. #13 Jon
    October 29, 2009

    Sorry, Reveres. I don’t buy it. You’re splitting hairs. Your names, your reputations are who you are. Putting that name and reputation on the line is a component of having the courage of your convictions, of standing behind what you wrote and what you believe. The ‘person’ who stands behind those beliefs now, Revere, is a fictional character.

    As long as you blog pseudo/anyonmously, you don’t deserve the same consideration as an identified blogger and you aren’t quite a legitimate journalist until you do.

    I’m a fan, I read every post you write and use your information in my work and my daily conversation. I mean no insult or harm. But I still don’t buy it.

  14. #14 revere
    October 29, 2009

    Brian: Just to add some to the others who have responded to your question. We have some very specific reasons for not conflating our blog identity with our real identities. It would not be useful for us to say what they are. But the one thing I can say is that we say pretty much the same things in our real personae that we do here on the blog (I can think of no exceptions to this and there is no opinion we have said here that we aren’t identified with in real life). However blog discourse has a particular diction that is quite different, and that difference in diction (word choice and way of expressing things) is pertinent to wanting to use a pseudonym, although not the main reason. You could say, as you did, that using a pseudonym encourages harmful and hurtful diction, and you might be right in many instances. We try not to be harmful or hurtful but it is easy to see how somebody would smart from some of the things we have said. And we can’t prevent people from taking offense at things.

    You do raise the issue of accountability for our words. We are less accountable when we use a pseudonym and also, for many people (rightly or wrongly), less credible. There were many times — and The Atlantic article and KSJ Tracker is an example — when we wished to use our real names but decided not to, because of other effects publicly associating ourselves with the blog would have. Ideally it wouldn’t matter and we could use our real names, but the world is complicated and not ideal. Considering the hours we put into producing a product we aren’t ashamed of we wish we got at least a little public credit for it. So it cuts both ways. We aren’t accountable but we also don’t get any recognition for a lot of hard work.

    Like everything else, it’s a trade-off.

  15. #15 Rich
    October 29, 2009

    The Atlantic has a long history of running dumb scince articles–exploring the unlikely possibility that mosquitos could transmit HIV, debunking hyperactivity as an actual problem in children, etc. Knight seems to attribute descrpances to what the reporters were “told”, but the level of analysis is weak interms of small number of studies versus the content of studies. Science journalism generally sucks and even this efforts seems wanting.

  16. #16 revere
    October 29, 2009

    Jon: When you say you “don’t buy it,” are you saying you don’t buy any of it or, on balance, you don’t come out where we come out? I ask this because there are a lot of issues here that have to be weighed an people can certainly weigh them differently and come out in different places. We were giving our take on it. KSJ Tracker clearly are where you are.

    But just to clear up something. I think we stated quite clearly that we weren’t professional journalists. We don’t want to be considered professional journalists. We are scientists writing about science for the general public, but that doesn’t make us journalists (not that I know exactly what a journalist is, other than someone who makes his or her living writing news; but journalists seem to make a distinction and like to differentiate themselves from reporters, so I’ll leave those kinds of fine distinctions to you). The question we raised was not whether we were journalists, but the issues that came up by (properly) not considering us journalists even though we were doing the same thing in this and many other instances as a science journalist.

    When you tell us you are a fan and use the information in your work and daily conversation, that’s good enough for us, and we appreciate it more than you can know. That kind of feedback is what a pseudonymous blogger lives for because we don’t get any other kind of credit. But to be clear: we aren’t looking to be considered journalists and we recognize that using a pseudonym (and we have reasons for doing it not related to the content) gives us less credibility. We try to make up for it by having consistently reliable information, but we do lots of other things here, too, including political opinion (remember, public health has the word public in it).

    Anyway, thanks for the kind words and we respect your demur on the substance of the post.

  17. #17 DrugMonkey
    October 29, 2009

    I like the dirty hippy story tellin’ (R)revere the best, myself…I hope that is the main public health one but I’m not too fussy.

    Nice description of the issue but I am not a big fan of too much emphasis on the pseud/anon difference because it tries to claim a sort of authority from the pseud’s track record. This is fine if you are into that but I think one of the best things about *anonymous* commenting is that the argument rests on the text. This gets away from readers or listeners layering on (at least one set of) assumptions. Sure they can speculate about why you are anonymous and what that says about your message but their confidence has to be lower than when they know something about your identity.

  18. #18 Catte Nappe
    October 29, 2009

    Just as I come to trust certain people over time, based on their words and actions, I decide how “credible” a source of information is based on experience over time.

    Whether you collectively called yourself “revere”, or chose to label your posts individually as coming from thing1, thing2, thing3…..etc. “Effect Measure” is a source of information that I largely trust, and a source of opinions that I find interesting. Likewise, in a press release from the CDC I don’t know who collected the information or penned the words – and it might have been several people. I do know “who” the CDC is and I have r eason to trust much of their information, but also know they are going to couch it in terms that serves their agenda – thus their opinions are also interesting.

  19. #19 BostonERDoc
    October 29, 2009

    Stay anonymous. I bet some of you have an association with entities that would not you discuss certain things in the detail and clarity this blog provides if you were not anonymous. Frankly giving your names would compromise the info we get here. I also get the feeling from the replies on this blog that their are plenty of public health folks in high positions who provide regular info that would not otherwise be given if they listed their name. Heck, I am more cheeky as BostonERDoc than if I was required to provide my name and my hospital and academic affiliation would tell me to shut it down.

  20. #20 Phila
    October 29, 2009

    Most journalists are people none of us know and whose names are only vaguely familiar. Some get by-lines but don’t work for the paper where their article is published.

    Excellent point. And of course, this is even more true of, say, WSJ editorialists. But for some reason, professional complaints about anonymity never seem to get applied to them.

  21. #21 Dr Aust
    October 29, 2009

    putting one’s name to something is not an absolute barrier to foolishness and misinformation, but at least authors must then bear the reputational costs of incompetence and misconduct.

    As titmouse already pointed out up above, if the blog publishes something flagrantly incompetent, the blog loses its reputation, which is all the blog has.

    And re. misconduct – as I already pointed out, Internet pseudonymity (and anonymity) is relative, not absolute – a bit like drug selectivity (feeble pharmacology reference).

    I don’t know about the US, but in the UK there is no doubt anonymous bloggers can be sued. If you posted a ton of malicious lies about someone, and they sued, there is a good chance a court in Europe would tell your ISP to reveal your identity even if a half-decent internet sleuth couldn’t work it out. Under US law I suspect (though I would be interested to hear from any US law-savvy readers) the ISP would not be forced to reveal your identity – but like I said, one can often piece the writer’s identity together from what people say about themselves.

    We had a celebrated recent case in the UK where a serving cop (a detective) wrote an excellent pseudonymous blog called “Night Jack” about his work (it was so good it won a national writing prize). A national newspaper reporter put together all the clues the cop/writer had inadvertently left and worked out his identity. The paper proposed to publish the guy’s identity, and the courts refused to stop them (i.e. the court ruled that the writer’s “right to privacy” did not confer a right to blog anonymously.)

    The result was that the blog disappeared permanently.

  22. #22 Scott Belyea
    October 29, 2009

    Well, we’ll just have to disagree and leave it at that, I suspect. I continue to feel that you’re overstating your case and making things more cut and dried than they actually are.

    Case in point …

    “…same kind of metaphysical assumptions one must make with all denotation: that there is an identity from moment to moment when the same name is used. What identity means is the question. ”

    This fuzzes up the distinction between the “identity” of a person, and some sort of “group identity.” Current example – is the person who commented on my comment the same person who wrote the original item? I have no idea.

    “The fact that we may (or may not be) multiple hands at the keyboard holds true for all writers: you have to take on faith that it is the same person each time. ”

    This makes little sense to me. To use my previous example, Carl Zimmer is Carl Zimmer. Revere is only Revere in a fuzzy group sense. And as I suggested, it’s an intrigiung question where the 2009 Revere is in any sense the same as the 2007 Revere.

    “The same problem holds whenever you have multiple authors: one paper, more than one writer,…”

    Again, I suggest that the logic is weak. If I see two multiple author papers published 3 years apart with the same set of author names on each, I’m confident that it’s the same people. With Revere, I just don’t know.

    I think that the overall effect of pseudonymity/anonymity on the net has been negative. There are certainly exceptions, and your blog is one of them. However, I continue to dislike anonymity and to be uneasy about pseudonymity.

  23. #23 Phila
    October 29, 2009

    Anonymity and pseudonymity have been an almost unmitigated disaster in cyberspace, encouraging defamation, the circulation of misinformation, prejudice, and all kinds of foolishness, that would be less frequent and more costly if bloggers had to sign their names to it.

    Claims of “unmitigated disaster” are more convincing if you can point to specific examples. Personally, I’d argue that it’s bogus authority that does the most to spread misinformation. For instance, George Will can lie his ass off, and call most of the world’s climatologists dupes and liars, without suffering any professional consequences at all. And unlike Revere, he doesn’t have a comments field in which you can engage with him and receive a reply to your complaints. Pseudonyms aside, there’s more accountability and interaction and transparency here than you’ll find on plenty of sites where people aren’t pseudonymous.

  24. #24 Paul Raeburn
    October 29, 2009

    I’m the writer at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker who had the email exchanges with one or more Reveres.

    I’m glad one of them took the time to write this thoughtful post. But I think it misses the point.

    The issue is not one of credibility; it’s one of responsibility. We do best as people and as citizens when we stand behind what we say.

    Revere, or one of them, told me in his emails that he uses language on the blog that he does not use professionally. He said he described one official as “spineless” on the blog, but in public said that official’s work was inadequate, if I’m remembering correctly. (The emails are on my computer at home.)

    That’s not fair. To be a little too cute about it, I think it’s spineless to call somebody spineless anonymously–and then not be willing to say that publicly and stand behind it.

    On the matter of ironies, this blog requires commenters to use a name and email address. Which, unlike Revere, I’m happy to do.

    Cheers.
    Paul Raeburn

  25. #25 BG
    October 29, 2009

    Even after reading this post I am not clear on why a group of individuals needs to use one identity to write about science for the public.

    I understand the arguments for using a pseudonym and have no problem with that, but not for keeping secret which or how many people write for the blog.

    I strongly dislike the one identity for the group, I feel it really disconnects me from the author.

    However, I do very much appreciate the information and discussions and I thank you very much for taking the time to write the blog.

  26. #26 Epinephrine
    October 29, 2009

    @Paul Raeburn

    On the matter of ironies, this blog requires commenters to use a name and email address. Which, unlike Revere, I’m happy to do.

    It may come as a complete surprise to you, Paul, but my name isn’t actually Epinephrine. Also, there is no way for the site to verify the name you provided really belongs to you, so your clumsy jab misses the point completely.

    Yes, the blog requires that you minimally provide a term by which you can be called (a “name”, as it were) and an email address that can be used to identify you, lest another try to pass themselves off as you (I seem to recall fake Dr. Jay Gordons appearing, for example, but the fakes can be identified by the non-matching email addresses.)

    This doesn’t necessitate any identification of a person, but does allow for a reliability – that posts by a given pseudonym really are posts by the person who claims that name.

    Revere, or one of them, told me in his emails that he uses language on the blog that he does not use professionally. He said he described one official as “spineless” on the blog, but in public said that official’s work was inadequate, if I’m remembering correctly. (The emails are on my computer at home.)
    That’s not fair.

    To be a little too cute about it, I think it’s spineless to call somebody spineless anonymously–and then not be willing to say that publicly and stand behind it.

    I think that it’d be nice if the world was one in which everyone could state their true feelings without fear of reprisals or without bringing harm to their organization (which may not share their opinions, but the distinction is lost on many), but it simply isn’t the case.

    There are times when someone needs to be called spineless, and I’m glad that there is someone willing to call attention to spinelessness, whether it’s pseudonymously or not. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, all that is necessary for the spineless to triumph is for polite people to say nothing.

  27. #27 revere
    October 29, 2009

    Paul: You omitted some of what I said about the “spineless” language (which I referred to as diction). First, that’s the language I used here to describe what I elsewhere said was a failure to fight for public health. It was word choice. And the part you omitted was that I wasn’t concerned for myself, but for my students, colleagues and institution who are not responsible for what one of the faculty says on a blog but could easily be held responsible for it anyway. I know that you aren’t at the computer with the email on it, and now, since you have your name attached to it, I guess you’ll have to be accountable. In reality, though, I don’t hold you accountable when we are involved in this kind of back and forth. I recognize the realities of all of our lives and make allowances.

    Regarding the name/email “irony”, I was quite willing to provide KSJ Tracking with my name (revere) and email (it’s listed here on the blog). As others pointed out, if you weren’t Paul Raeburn I wouldn’t have any way of knowing it (nor would I care).

    BG: As others have pointed out, finding out the electronic identity of a blogger isn’t that difficult. It is more difficult to know whose hands are at what keyboard, however. By using one name, we have some small bit of added protection. We know that’s a trade-off, but one we are willing to make.

  28. #28 DemFromCT
    October 29, 2009

    Interesting discussion, and with a history. there is ineed a diostinction between pseudonymous and anonymous (I write all over the net as DemFromCT, always me). The discussion split the library sciences world a few years back (see here, here and here.) Over on the political blogging side, it’s still an issue, but less so as folks get used to the idea. Over the years it hasn’t stopped me from being invited to various and sundry conferences or getting various and sundry interviews. So it goes.

  29. #29 Phila
    October 29, 2009

    That’s not fair. To be a little too cute about it, I think it’s spineless to call somebody spineless anonymously–and then not be willing to say that publicly and stand behind it.

    Very typically, this argument ignores the issue of relative power, and the fact that it’s not always wielded ethically, and the fact that public arguments are often “won” by whoever has the bigger megaphone or the more unhinged fan base (cf. Michelle Malkin). It’s pleasant to pretend that we’re debating rules of engagement on a level playing-field with impartial referees. But we’re not, as the last eight years should’ve demonstrated to anyone who was paying attention.

    The bottom line is that an insistence on real names would have a chilling effect on people from all walks of life, and result in less participation, less debate, less dissent, and so forth. Which makes it anti-democratic, ultimately. And that’s a lot more worrisome to me than any of the alleged problems with pseudonymous bloggers.

    This stance is also problematic because it implies that someone like George Will or Steven Milloy is more honest or trustworthy than Revere, which I think is pretty obviously not the case. What really matters is the accuracy and quality of one’s argument, and I wouldn’t be very impressed with yours no matter whose name was signed to it.

  30. #30 neilh
    October 29, 2009

    Aha! Just as I suspected. You are a collective.

    REVERE: You are BORG.

  31. #31 Coriolis
    October 29, 2009

    “The issue is not one of credibility; it’s one of responsibility. We do best as people and as citizens when we stand behind what we say.”

    So effectively what you want is that the revere’s be responsible for their writing, in other words that if they say something stupid, they suffer for it in their professional career, or perhaps personal lives. It seems however from your writing that you aren’t very clear on the fact that this is the trade off involved in pseudonymous blogging. It’s true that the revere’s professional lives will not suffer if they say something stupid, but they also will also get no credit if they do provide excellent information. This isn’t a situation where they get all the upside and none of the downside. It is simply an arrangement whereby their pseudonymous blogging is disconnected from their personal careers, and career-wise they get nothing out of it.

    And considering that by and large there is no reason why a professional scientist would consider blogging as a way to advance his/her career, I’m glad that some people choose to do so and inform those of us who are unfamiliar with their discipline. Whether they reveal their name or not is beside the point – in either case I would have to make a judgement as to whether I trust their writing.

    To the point that Drugmonkey makes about anonymity vs. pseudonymity – since there is a limited amount of time in the day it is impossible for us to sort through everything that is said on a particular topic purely by reading through all the arguments and making our decisions purely on the arguments. Just think about what would happen if all commentary on vaccines let’s say was done only by indistinguishable anonymous sources – it would take a ridiculous amount of time to sort through all the stuff that’s being said. You have to have a better way to sort it. It’s much better to have particular sources which then can establish or ruin their credibility by their writing. Whether those sources are identified by their real-world names or pseudonyms is than largely irrelevant as revere argues in his post.

  32. #32 antipodean
    October 29, 2009

    I certainly have no problems with the Revere’s pseudonymity. But that’s because they write well and with consideration in a field I have some knowledge in (although usually not nearly as much as the pseud does). So the brand “Revere” means something to me. It’s trustworthy and the collective clearly has quality control that is superior to most other sources of information.

    The issue I have is with pseuds being abused or hidden behind by absolute nutters (including some on sciblogs). But the Revere’s aren’t in this category.

  33. #33 Phila
    October 29, 2009

    So effectively what you want is that the revere’s be responsible for their writing, in other words that if they say something stupid, they suffer for it in their professional career, or perhaps personal lives.

    It doesn’t even have to be stupid. It just has to make the wrong person feel angry or threatened.

    I admire PZ Myers for putting himself on the line as much as he does, even if I don’t always agree with him, but I can also see why some people might not want to deal with the constant stream of death threats he gets, to say nothing of the occasional attacks on his family and the ongoing harassment of his employers. Insisting that people must pay the “price” for free speech in this way is, again, totally anti-democratic, IMO.

    BTW, I just read an anonymous editorial on climate change legislation from a West Virginian newspaper, which begins “‘Consider the source’ always has been good advice,” and goes on to complain about the “conflicts of interest” on the pro-legislation side of the argument.

    Who wrote it? Couldn’t tell ya. What connection, if any, does the author have to the mining industry? Beats me. What other conflicts of interest might be influencing this editorial on conflicts of interest? God only knows.

    And yet, people who whine about anonymous/pseudonymous bloggers seldom complain about unsigned editorials, even though they tend to have more influence and authority than most blog posts, and to be less responsive to corrections and criticisms. Funny how that works.

  34. #34 Isis the Scientist
    October 29, 2009

    Excellent post, Brothers/Sisters Revere. The difference between pseudonymity and anonymity is subtle to some, but not unimportant.

    For me I think it is very interesting that people think I write with absolutely no accountability. There are a ton of people who know who Dr. Isis is. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you know, but it also means that my actions do have consequences.

  35. #35 David B
    October 29, 2009

    I have never stumbled upon this blog before – I found it now because there was a link to it when I refreshed Pharyngula.

    I was very impressed with the OP, which was well argued and made a lot of sense to me.

    I look forward to checking out this blog many times in the future.

    Off to look at some archive posts now.

    David B

  36. #36 Greg Laden
    October 29, 2009

    Well put, this post will become part of the cannon of stuff we point to.

    One small item to mention: If pseudonymous is what you say it is and anonymous means what you say it means (and I’m happy to adopt those conventions) then we can no longer use “anonymous” as a qualifier for “pseudonymous.” This qualifier is needed to distinguish between pseudos with a generally known identity from those with a secret identity, a distinction that is not trivial.

    Perhaps there could be “identified pseudonymous” and “unidentified pseudonymous”

    Joh[13]: What you say is technically true, for anyone who wants it to be true. A newspaper can decide to not cite “Revere” and a different newspaper can decide to do so, just as an journalist or research can decide to not cite or use, say, wikipedia or the local chapter of “We Love Bigfoot” when doing a zoology piece, but to site the wizened old ranger without a PhD who knows everything about the bears one is writing about.

    The point being this: When using sources, there are some good guidelines. Peer reviewed sources are usually of a certain quality in a certain field, certain journals are respected, others more iffy, and so on. But in the complex often nuanced world of research, sources are analyzed by the research (and this includes both journalists and scholars) individually and reassessed as used.

    Revere may be a sham, a scoundrel, a lier. Probably not. If Revere has a blog post of a certain quality, it is what it is, and it will be evaluated for what it is by any researcher. It is not what you assume it would be because you can’t look them up in the phone book. If the evaluation of a source is done entirely on reputation, that fact should be mentioned. “I was not able to verify this finding, but it was writen by a highly respected person so we’ll use it” or “I was not able to verify this finding and it was written by a know kook so we should take it with a few grains of salt.” A ‘fact’ (or whatever) that is well known and re-stated independently by five or six sources that seem reasonable where each instance is properly documented and argued becomes little more than a footnote. In other words, the best journalism and scholarship is often a discussion of the sources as much as it is a discussion of the issues at hand.

    Some source that is a name with an office and a job and an address and a picture in the big frame in the lobby has about the same chance at being a sham, a scoundrel, a lier. But also probably not.

    Oh, and there may be a not so subtle reason that they are called Revere. The government in charge at the time would have been happy to hang Revere by the neck because he did not go along with their policies. I doubt that our Revere’s are wanted by King George, but what we might be witnessing here is excellence (though sometimes with too much snark, maybe) rising above mediocrity, or candor that cuts through … something more Orwellian.

  37. #37 Paula
    October 29, 2009

    Having done journalism for many years, both under my own name and under pseudonyms, I find lots of strong reasons for using the latter (not to go into gory details, but the midnight phonecalls while a fresh, young, woman reporter hoping her work might help end a war were not forgettable). The reveres’ point strikes home with me. As for “identity” and its “continuance” in print (or online), the reveres’ posts have a specific tone and their responses to comments a specific (and unusual in the blogosphere) warmth that carries a definite identity indeed.

  38. #38 revere
    October 29, 2009

    Dr. Isis/Greg (I know shoehorning you into the same response might be uncomfortable; I I feel like a heel for doing it by I am solely responsible. I deserve a good lacing or at least a tongue lashing. I won’t do it again. It’s the last time.): Anyway. The distinction Greg makes doesn’t quite work. Like Dr. Isis there are those who know (or are pretty sure they know) who one of the reveres is, even if they may not be sure if they know everything or if they are right. And probably quite a few who are right about some or all of it. It’s not a state secret, just a policy we don’t conflate our real world identities with our online ones. Anyone who writes under a pseudonym for long periods of time will also tell you the pseudonymous personality isn’t exactly the same as the real one and revere/Revere is distinct from any of the hands that bring him/her/them/it into existence. Strange but true. The “real” revere/Revere doesn’t exist anymore. He died in 1818.

  39. #39 Paula
    October 29, 2009

    Sorry to hijack this thread offtarget, so to speak, but can anyone reply to these 3 questions from the “when to use antivirals” post/thread before it goes off with October into the ether?Thanks! Here:
    19. . .
    I thought that was one of the main reasons to start antivirals. Sure you want to shorten the length of illness, but stopping / slowing the chance of it spiraling into “ventilator time” was a given for me.
    Posted by: gilmore | October 26, 2009 9:32 AM
    20
    Re: Matt’s Oct. 25 remark re antivirals, “that antiviral treatment does not appear to reduce complications including hospitalization or death”–thank you, Gilmore, I too wonder, and am wondering when Matt is going to provide us a reply on this. Matt?
    Posted by: Paula | October 27, 2009 9:00 PM
    21
    Isnt’ the purpose of the antiviral to stop the virus from reproducing thus not getting anyworse than it already is?????
    Posted by: carla | October 28, 2009 1:57 PM

  40. #40 Isis the Scientist
    October 29, 2009

    Revere, you might be callus, you heel, but I still heart you!!!

  41. #41 revere
    October 29, 2009

    Paula: I try to reply to as many comments as I can, although a lot of readers here are very knowledgeable and if I wait a little they usually get answered by someone else. One thing you can tell about revere is that he/she/it/them are lazy. Now to the questions:

    all the antivirals that work for this virus work by preventing it from leaving the host cell it has just infected. So it can get in, replicate by the billions and get just outside, but it remains stuck to the cell it just infected because the viral enzyme that cuts it loose is neuriminidase (the N part of the H/N terminology). Tamiflu, Relenza (and now i.v., peramivir) are neuriminidase inhibitors. So it doesn’t kill the virus but it prevents it from spreading in the host. It works but not slam dunk like we think of with antibiotics where one minute your kid looks like hell and a few hours after starting on amoxicillin she’s running around the house.

    But the pre-pandemic data indicated it reduces the length of symptoms and their severity in many or most people, although not by a huge amount. However the word coming out of the clinical folks treating swine flu is that prompt treatment in critically ill patients is making a difference. So that’s the current bottom line as of now. It works for this and its use can be critical. Matt never responded for a source and I think the reason is there is none.

  42. #42 Greg Laden
    October 29, 2009

    Revere[38] Well, that’s an idea worth kicking around. Or at least, we can get a toehold on it for now. The distinction may have problems, and you may need to fix that, but if I recall correctly from the discussions at Science Online 09, there are people who are absolutely clear that they think perfect anonymity in their pseudonym is possible, desirable, that they have it now, etc. Having the right terminology is important so in a conversation like that someone like Bora (who is identified Pseudo) can stand up during a session and remind everyone that there are people present who’s meatland identity should not be revealed despite anyones sense that it is already known/could be known etc.

    Subtleties and messiness have never stopped language from working before!

    Oh, and you can put me in Isis’s shoes any time you want!

    (Which could be an insult if she knew how big my feet are, but it was not intended as one.)

  43. #43 raven
    October 29, 2009

    There are a lot of reasons to use an alias online. If people don’t want to read pseudonymous writings, fine don’t read them.

    Not least, for controversial subjects that xian religious cultists don’t like, death threats are ubiquitous and the norm. IIRC, PZ Myers can get up to 100 a day.

    As well as being felonies, most death threats aren’t too serious. OTOH, xian terrorists occasionally assassinate people, mostly MDs.

    Long ago I posted using a real name. Death threats, long conversations with law enforcement, and the arrest and indictment by the FBI of two slime molds convinced me to never do it again.

  44. #44 Paula
    October 29, 2009

    Thanks, Revere. This answers my own, and presumably Carla’s and Gilmore’s, questions. And probably why no source (per Matt), yes. See, this is what I meant about the reveres having a continous identity defined in part by its warmth. (Certainly not by “laziness.”)

  45. #45 kimw
    October 29, 2009

    Although I’ve always been alerted that there is at least more than one Revere, now I will inevitably pay more attention to stylistic differences in order to discover just how many.

    If I revered anything, it would be the Revere(s) blog. But reverence is usually not conducive to thought. As a non-scientist, but a person slightly literate in medical matters as a disability examiner, this blog was a great find compared to the usual science tripe put out by journalists who do no groundwork and merely quote sources. I have even learned how to evaluate the statistics of a scientific study through this blog.

    The Reveres post sound reasoning, past studies with an examination of how evidence-based those studies were, and intelligent references when they gird their loins and make the occasional pronouncement. I loved the post on the efficacy of hand-washing in combating the spread of influenza. But because it did not rubber stamp the recommendations coming out of the CDC, I can certainly understand why they wish to remain anonymous.

    Also, they are progressive in their political views, and for all that Obama was elected, to advocate for the Third World and our own poverty in this country is not overly popular, particularly within the much more conservative medical community (most doctors’ blogs are screeds against any form of universal health care here).

    They also seem to be atheists and post against pernicious religious influences, which can also be quite dangerous in this nation. Lagniappe separate from their science posts. PZ Myers is certainly putting up the good fight, but he doesn’t seem to have much time to do more than post and reply to religious issues anymore, while Effect Measure has become the go-to public health blog. They keep their politics and their science in separate posts.

    I recommend the Reveres to other members of the lay public who really want to know what’s happening in this H1N1 season. For science that looks at facts without flinching, science without spin, science derived from an understanding of sources rather than a regurgitation of what has been quoted.

  46. #46 Monado, FCD
    October 29, 2009

    The untouchables!

    I like to think that I have a modest blogging identity, take it or leave it.

  47. #47 miso
    October 30, 2009

    The anonymity of Revere is illogical if they are merely sharing their wisdom, but is convenient if they are the mouth-piece of corporate interests.

    How is that pro-Tamiflu bias working out?

  48. #48 gyrfalcon
    October 30, 2009

    Newcomer to this blog, and immediately a big, big fan.

    Two quick secondary points. First, it’s sort of fascinating to see this whole pseudo/anon wrangle playing out because it’s one that the political blogs went through with great intensity several years ago and have long since resolved. Obviously, it’s slightly trickier in the science world, but the same general principles and arguments apply. Not to worry. KJS Tracker is just behind the times and struggling with the new world, but they’ll get it and catch up eventually.

    Secondly, taking off from Paula’s comment, for women the whole question of pseud/anonimity is a great deal more important, unfortunately, than it is for men, and it’s an issue that has to be taken seriously if women are to be a part of the on-line discussion.

    We’ve already had a couple of really scary incidents of women political bloggers in the last few years having been identified, located and stalked, so it’s not just paranoia.

    For myself, I don’t much like the idea of a group all posting under one name. I like to know “who” I’m reading and maybe arguing with. I understand the reasons for it and I can live with it, but fwiw, it does for me take the pseudonymity a bit too far into near-anonymity for comfort.

    But so carry on. Reveres and commenters alike here are of an extraordinary caliber of expertise, good sense and clear writing. Thank you.

  49. #49 BioinfoTools
    October 30, 2009

    I realise this is a different situation, but as a counterpoint to the discussion, in a recent blog post where I criticized a chiropractor (see link above if you’re curious), I let them be pseudo-anonymous in order to encourage people to focus on the claims made. He’s only pseudo-anonymous as it’s quite straight-forward to locate him from the article.

    Once you have placed yourself or others in that position, I think it ought to be respected, it’s really just a matter of personal choice. There are advantages and disadvantages either way as others here have pointed out.

    @39: (Wrote this before I saw R’s reply, but I’ll let it stand seeing it’ll affirm R’s words.) Depends on the particular antiviral. If you’re talking about Tamiflu or Relenza, they reduce the spread of infection within the body by preventing most of the replicated virus in a cell being released to infect new cells.

  50. #50 Douglas Watts
    October 30, 2009

    KSJ Tracker’s question about the authority of a pseudonymous blogger is a good one because it opens up a Pandora’s Box of other questions. It’s like science itself.

    Well, not really. In science, you have to use your real name and address on the paper that you are submitting for publication.

    So it’s sort of completely the opposite.

  51. #51 fp
    October 30, 2009

    Those who object to the pseudonymity of the Reveres might want to ponder the role of the Federalist by the collective pseudonym Publius in the ratification and continued interpretation of the Constitution.

  52. #52 caia
    October 30, 2009

    I suppose one could argue that the Reveres, or any pseudonymous bloggers, might be total frauds; might actually be farting-higher-than-their-bottoms undergrads, or goatherders doing it for the lulz, or janitors who’d never been in a lab but to clean it. And I suppose it’s theoretically possible that such identities could be outed, and we’d all be shocked and outraged at being duped for all these years.

    And yet, there is so much that they’ve written, and all of it is and has been subject to the scrutiny and disagreement of commenters, some of whom are also scientists. Not to mention, their pre-SciBlogs writing was clearly correct enough to warrant an invitation to blog here. So it’s highly unlikely that they’re talking nonsense, even if we’re all free to disagree with their conclusions.

    And ultimately, as individuals, we have no way of knowing for certain that even “real names” are real. Someone could run a blog under real names, Dr. Marvin Q. Smith and Dr. Juanita T. Jones of BigName U…. and years later, we might discover that they were both luddites who never checked their email, and were shocked when they were finally told their janitor was running a blog under their names. A guy named “Crawford Killian” runs a flu blog, and he claims to be a novelist and retired professor, but I’ve never tracked down his former employer to be sure he is who he says he is. Some things we just take on faith.

    And incidentally, while I have no reason to suppose the KSJ Trackers are among them, in the past few years so many “real” journalists have faced absolutely no consequences for being utterly wrong about everything, except insofar as they are considered “serious people” and offered still higher positions, that I find a journalist lecturing a scientist about accountability and consequences for what one’s written somewhere between hilarious and tragic.

  53. #53 revere
    October 30, 2009

    Doug #50: Revere: KSJ Tracker’s question about the authority of a pseudonymous blogger is a good one because it opens up a Pandora’s Box of other questions. It’s like science itself.

    Well, not really. In science, you have to use your real name and address on the paper that you are submitting for publication.

    So it’s sort of completely the opposite.

    Two things. When someone says something is like something else, they don’t necessarily mean in every single respect. If two fraternal twins were very alike but one were left handed and the other right handed, would you say they were “completely different”?

    Second, there is nothing about science that says you have to use your real name. I am editor-in-chief of a peer reviewed journal that gets a fair number of manuscripts from the developing world. Authors have emails, names and affiliations. We send the submitted papers out to experts for peer review and decide to publish or not depending on what reviewers say and our own judgment about the value of the paper to our readers. We don’t check the names and affiliations. As caia said (#52), most of science and almost all of life rests mainly on trust and confidence that certain things are true even though we have no personal knowledge of them.

    Regarding the group versus single pseudonym, we have never said revere/Revere must be several people, only that it may or may not be several people. Whether it is or isn’t is one of our protections. But the example of the Federalist (thanks fp @51) is one I didn’t think of but hits the mark.

  54. #54 Phila
    October 30, 2009

    We’ve already had a couple of really scary incidents of women political bloggers in the last few years having been identified, located and stalked, so it’s not just paranoia.

    This is absolutely right, and an excellent point.

  55. #55 titmouse
    October 31, 2009

    Paranoid patients. Fundamentalist employers. Fair game Scientologists.

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