Adventures in Ethics and Science

This week, the National Review Online’s media blogger revealed the secret identity of dKos blogger Armando, who says that this unwanted decloaking probably means he will no longer blog.

While I’m not heavy into the political end of the blogosphere (until someone can provide me with more than 24 hours per day), Armando’s story resonates with me because one of my favorite science bloggers, BotanicalGirl, had to stop blogging when members of her department became aware of her blog. So I’ve been thinking a lot about blogging anonymously versus blogging under one’s own name, not just in terms of the costs and benefits for the blogger, but also in terms of what the readers are getting out of (or reading into) the blog.

First, it should be obvious to readers that I am blogging under my own name (for who would make up a name like “Stemwedel”?) and, for that matter, my own face. My day job at San Jose State University isn’t a secret. I’m rather more guarded with details about my family, but that’s because this is my blog, where I express my views; my family members shouldn’t be held responsible for those views. I used to blog as “Dr. Free-Ride”, but given that the original incarnation of this blog was started for a class I teach, and that it was linked from my (non-anonymous) class webpages, I had no reason to believe my identity was secret from anyone who was willing to dig a little. Indeed, the information in my profile specified my identity pretty uniquely to anyone running in philosophy of science circles (chemistry + philosophy + San Jose = Stemwedel), and years of watching the Law and Order franchise have persuaded me that folks with the right technical know-how can probably shake loose almost any blogger’s identity.

So, I entered blogging with the idea that anything I posted was something I’d have to be ready to stand behind, not only in cyberspace but also in the three-dimensional world.

At the same time, I completely understand the desire of other bloggers to keep their real-life identities secret. Some of them work for organizations that are much more conscious of the effects that conversations about certain controversial issues (about politics, policy, etc.) might have on clients or funders. Some of them prefer to have impermeable walls between their work lives and their blogging activities. Some of them are blogging about intensely personal issues — issues which may include stuff going on in their work lives.

In other words, for many who blog anonymously, blogging under real names could have bad consequences for an employer, for the blogger in his/her capacity as an employee, or for the blogger in his/her personal life.

But if my Law and Order induced paranoia is right, and there is a real possibility that these bloggers could be outed, wouldn’t it be better if anonymous bloggers just stopped blogging?

My general answer to this is a resounding, NO!, though I suppose there might be particular instances in which the risks are great enough that a prudent blogger would have to pull the plug.

As I discussed in an earlier post about people who blog about science, blogging seems to fulfil needs that, a lot of times, aren’t easily fulfilled elsewhere:

In many ways, authoring a “journal” blog strikes me as consistent with an impulse towards building objective knowledge. The anecdotes bloggers share about difficult advisors, cranky machinery, treacherous competitors, and such, are often the subject of blog entries because they’re so unbelievable. Writing about such experiences in an environment where others can comment is a way to find out whether it’s just you, or whether this kind of stuff happens to other scientists who are reading your blog. This is the same principle that drives scientists to compare notes about experimental systems and to try to reproduce each other’s experiments: If I’m the only one who sees this, it might all be in my head, but if others are seeing this too, it’s really there. A paper diary doesn’t offer this kind of sounding board — nor does a blog without any commenting readers. So, even if some of the science “journal” bloggers would prefer to keep a relatively low profile, they need to have some visibility.

Blogging can create a safe space for people to talk about their subjective experience of a workplace or a community — their hopes, their fears, the challenging behavior of people with whom they work or live, etc.

As well, a blog may be a safe place to explore ideas that you fear might not go over so well in your work or school environment (e.g., this university’s anti-cheating measures just don’t work, tenure might be what’s wrong with this place, peer review needs a serious overhaul, etc.). On a blog, you can put out the ideas (plus your arguments in defense of them) and let them sink or swim on their own merits — not on the basis of the power and reputation of the person suggesting them. In a perfect world, people in the workplace would always respond to your ideas rather than, say, retalliating against you for voicing them. (It doesn’t even need to be retalliation; sometimes people just start discounting you if you voice an idea that doesn’t fit with their assumptions.) We’re not in that perfecty world yet. While we’re working that direction, blogs fill a need.

But there’s a risk inherent in filling that need, even online and anonymously. As I wrote in my earlier post:

Obviously, if you need to get stuff off your chest about crappy ways you’ve been treated by other scientists — especially those who have control over whether you get to be an author on the paper, whether your dissertation goes through, whether you get good letters of recommendation — it’s safer to do this anonymously. But blogging about specifics of the kinds of science you do … makes it easier for those reading your blog to figure out who you really are. And that’s a problem if those readers include some of the people you’ve been venting about or their pals.

Whenever you’re brave enough to bring one of your ideas out of your head and communicate it to someone else, there’s a risk. Being free to speak your mind doesn’t mean others won’t exercise their freedom to react to what you say. Fair-minded people ought to keep those reactions within certain bounds (including not misrepresenting what has been said for the purposes of getting someone fired, doing one’s darndest to respond to the substance of what was said, etc.), but some of the people listening aren’t fair-minded. Indeed, some of the people listening may be jerks. It doesn’t mean you should just shut up, or not try to create safer spaces for speaking up. But you may have to be ready to roll when the road gets bumpier than you expected it to be.

I have a crazy optimism that the pockets of free exchange in the blogosphere may seep back into the three-dimensional world and have positive effects. Part of this flows from the evidence of real regard I’ve seen people show each other here — even in the middle of heated disagreements. Even if you don’t know the true identity of the person writing a post, you know the ideas are coming from a real person — which means you can feel real empathy for that person. You care whether things in his or her life are going well or badly. Maybe we can care this way because all the blogger wants from us is for us to read his or her story and comment if we’re moved to do so.

There was an academic blog I used to read that I enjoyed quite a lot. I had to stop, though, when it became apparent that the (anonymous) blogger was married to someone that I knew. (What clinched it was a post about a social occasion that I attended.) To keep reading the blog would have felt, to me, like a violation of the blogger’s trust — from real life, I knew certain details about the blogger that had not been revealed to the blog’s readers, and from the blog, I knew certain details about the blogger’s life that had not been revealed to the blogger’s real-life friends and acquaintances. Caring about the blogger (and the real-life person) meant I had to respect the walls of separation the blogger had erected. People who maliciously “out” anonymous bloggers don’t respect those walls, or the needs of the bloggers who erect them. Nor, I suspect, do they respect the notion that people’s ideas can be discussed as distinct from their work performance, or character, or value as a human being.

I have disagreed with a great deal of what Armando wrote at dKos, but I’m sympathetic to his plight and I hope that the repercussions of his blogging for his professional life are minimal.

Comments

  1. #1 boojieboy
    June 8, 2006

    “But if my Law and Order induced paranoia is right, and there is a real possibility that these bloggers could be outed, wouldn’t it be better if anonymous bloggers just stopped blogging?”

    I like to draw a parallel between anonymous bloggers and early American pamphleteers who obscured their identities behind pseudonyms. Two in particular were Hamilton and Franklin, so I think anonymous bloggers can count themselves in good company.

    So the answer I would give to your question would be HELL NO.

  2. #2 Bill Hooker
    June 8, 2006

    There’s another issue to hand: Spruiell claims that Armando was not especially careful to hide his identity. If you want to be anonymous, do some work and BE anonymous — don’t rely on security by (weak) obscurity and then whine when someone points to the information you let out. (Note that Spruiell refuses to give links, so he might well be lying.)

  3. #3 Janne
    June 8, 2006

    I think the easiest, safest, most reliable way to erect a wall between your professional and private life is to, well, not mix them. I have a blog (written mostly for friends and relatives), and i made a conscious decision from the outset that my work-related activities would not be a subject at any point. There are some real conflicts of interest inherent win blogging about your workplace, and since I write as a way to get away from work, it suited me fine to exclude it from the blog.

  4. #4 Abel PharmBoy
    June 9, 2006

    On the other hand, it’s an entirely different thing to blog about the workplace vs. one’s general research area for the sake of general public & professional science education.

    I’ve taken the latter approach because I don’t get to press the flesh with interested learners as often now as in my previous job. The blog is my hobby, much like the volunteer evening lectures I’ve given in my community for 10 yrs – what has amazed me is that I can barely fill a 40-seat seminar room with a talk on my narrow and technical research area but have no problem filling a 400-seat auditorium for a talk on the truth about herbal medicines. Similarly, I am certain that the number of regular readers at my blog far exceeds regular readers of my professional publications. (Makes me think it would be great to have a SiteMeter link to the PubMed page for each of my papers, though!).

    I specifically don’t blog about workplace politics or anything that would present a conflict of interest for me or my colleagues. If I blog about a person, it is usually only to promote, recognize, or memorialize them. I do, however, make an exception for the current executive officer of the US and where administration policies disrupt and infiltrate the scientific process.

    But the main reason I blog with a thinly-veiled nym is that my employer does not yet have a blogging policy, despite my repeated queries and offers to assist in drafting one. Plus, I just really like my pseudonym.

    This post has gotten me thinking, however, about how blogging with a nym might make my educational comments seem somehow less authoritative than if I blogged under my real name where my credentials could be vetted. Good fodder for a new post.

    P.S. to Janet: I’m still heartbroken about the case of BotanicalGirl and feel that she should be joining me at the launch of newbie SBers today. It was her advice and encouragement that helped me decide I really wanted to blog – very much a case of the student teaching the professor, a common m.o. in my professional life.

  5. #5 David Harmon
    June 9, 2006

    As previously noted, none of the issues involved are particularly new. As far as the general practicality of anonymity is concerned, this is a basic issue of general security. Rather than ramble, I refer you to Bruce Schneier at http://www.schneier.com — check out some of his essays, and Crypto-Gram issues.

    In this context, the upshot is that concerted effort by a defender can make it very difficult to break a given secret, but if the attacker has either sufficient resources or an “inside connection”, any secret can be broken. That’s not an argument that anonymity is futile, just a warning that “sometimes the dragon wins”. Also, it is not paranoia to realize that even if you don’t have any current enemies, one may well appear in the future, especially if some people don’t like what you’re saying.

    Note that I’m currently looking at the problem from the other end: I’m considering starting a blog, but if I try to go anonymously, I’ll have issues with collecting and reworking/ republishing of the arguments I’ve been leaving on *other* blogger’s comment boards, under my real name.

  6. #6 David Harmon
    June 9, 2006

    Oh, and just to confuse the issue, I’ve got another reason to want a handle: Last time I Googled myself, I made a rather depressing discovery: I have a namesake working at the Smithsonian [drool!], who has authored a couple of books on ecology (one of my own major interests). The fellow seems older than me, and certainly has a more advanced career in science (not to mention a wife and kids… [sniffle]) He didn’t seem to be too active online, but that was a year or two ago….

  7. #7 Kyle
    June 9, 2006

    Hmm, after reading this post I have no idea in what capacity I want to blog when I move from the private world to be a grad student… and frankly I have a vague urge not to blog about it at all. Somehow that seems as not what you intended.

    I can’t decide if the way I’ve been blogging (which is anonymously, but with enough clues anyone could figure out who I am) is the best choice or just plain stupid. I really wish I could just blog ad nauseum, and it actually upsets me a bit that we have to consider the possibility of our blog being used against us.

    I could just ask people at the graduate school, but what if they say to end it? Usually I have a feel for things like this, but right now I’m stumped.

  8. #8 Ann
    June 11, 2006

    The most extreme case impacting livelyhood of a familly is that of Kim DuToit

    Very sad saga of strong opinion type person.

    HE HAD TO DISAPPEAR for a few weeks but came back with a SANITIZED blog.

    Ann Þ