A couple of weeks ago, Bayblab blog requested that I join a discussion on their site regarding pseudonymous blogging. It was obvious to me given the reputation of Bayblab that this was likely an ingenuous request, but I went ahead and joined the discussion anyway.
In the course of that discussion, the question of an individual’s credentials being important came up. Very quickly, the anonymous blogger known as “Anonymous Coward” suggested that I was in favor of the idea of “appeal to authority,” which was a misrepresentation of my position. I actually wrote a reply to this in the comments section of that web site, but something went wrong and the comment disappeared (it was not moderated out of existence, the thing that went wrong may have been on my end). I did not bother re-writing the comment, and just left that discussion as it was.
Now, DrugMonkey, who is one of my fellow Sciblings, has written a post on the issue of argument from authority in which she inappropriately quote mines my statements in a rather obnoxious way, and the Bayblab bloggers are now giddily jumping up and down pointing their readers to the fray.
Well, I thought I’d take a moment to explain my position on pseudonymous blogging, and to clarify what I think about credibility and authority.
These issues are closely connected. I’m not going to respond in detail to specific comments by DrugMonkey or Bayblab, because it is my view that these folks are playing a game in which I am not interested in engaging. But the issues of pseudonymous blogging and “appeal to authority” are real and worth talking about.
Let me begin by stating as clearly as possible, so that even a moron could understand (should any morons be reading this) the following:
1) I do not care if bloggers blog without identifying themselves. I understand why someone would do this, I support the practice, and any assumption or assertion suggesting that my position on this is otherwise is incorrect. Indeed, some of my best friends are pseudonymous bloggers.
2) “Argument from authority” does not trump argument from evidence or independent argument from logic. I do not advocate appeal to authority. I do, however, put stock in ability, experience, training, and knowledge.
Pseudonymous blogging can be justified … there are reasons to do it. I’m not interested in laying out these reasons here, partly because they are very diverse. Let the individual pseudonymous bloggers explain their own reasons (many do).
However, it is also true that even here on the blogosphere we are humans, and cultural beings, with ways of interacting, transmitting and understanding meaning, and relating socially, that involve identity. This is the subject of a great deal of research and writing in the social sciences and humanities, and I need not lay it all out here. You can understand this from your own personal experience. It is very easy for a person to form a very strong negative opinion based on some set of information of another person that they do not know personally, but for most normal people, the same information is not parsed in as negative and damning a manner in reference to someone who is already known and respected, such as a friend or relative. We treat individuals we know personally differently than individuals we have never met. This applies to forming relationships as well as moderating conflict. An extreme and somewhat artificial, but useful, manifestation of this is what we think about people we have come to know well vs. “the government” or a corporation. These latter entities re not people, of course, but our relationships with them may have a similar form as our relationship with individual fellow humans. But the nameless faceless entities (institutions, etc.) do not get the same treatment as real individuals.
Based on the nature of interaction between people, one could predict that within a given sphere (such as the blogosphere) interactions with individuals whom one has met and gotten to know may be different from interactions with individuals whom one has not met (but who are identified). Interactions with individuals whom one has not met and who hide their identity (and do not even have human-like names) may be even more different.
This is certainly something that can be observed just in relation to some of the various debates and discussions that have happened on the blogosphere. For instance, Chris Mooney and I have had rather vitriolic debates on the blogosphere and in person. But we’ve also cooperated on a number of things, including Science Debate 2008 and the reporting of hurricane Sidr last year. I think that our ability to fight and get along (and go back and forth) comes in part from the fact that we see each other as identifiable individuals, and have met and had beers together, and so on. Yes, we could probably go back and forth in this manner if either one of us was pseudonymous, but we are also human beings and part of our relationship derives from the framework (!?!?) or our real, human, relationship.
My view is this: If a bloggers chooses to be pseudonymous, then they are creating a situation in which some, possibly many, of the normal, day to day ways in which the socially and culturally complex members of our species usually interact are taken out of play. For a blogger who is pseudonymous, as per my own observation, a disagreement with another blogger can sometimes be more easily turned into a relentless attack, rather than an argument or a discussion, because part of this normal modality of interaction is removed from the picture. It is not so much that individuals are hiding behind their pseudonymous lack of identity. Rather it is that anonymity gives some individuals license to maintain a level of aggression that most people would not maintain for very long.
I have been verbally attacked, sometimes for good reason (well, twice for good reason, once not) out of the blue (i.e., I didn’t start it) by three scienceblogs.com bloggers. All three were what I would consider pretty good examples of bad behavior. A blogger did not like something I wrote and made very nasty remarks on my site. In two cases, the blogger was identifiable … had a name, I could tell who this person was, etc. In those two cases, it turns out that the issue was settled fairly calmly, and in one of those cases, over the weeks following the event, that particular blogger and I were actually engaged in some important but rather private conversations that required a great deal of mutual trust. That could never have happened with a pseudonymous blogger.
In the third case, the blogger was pseudonymous. Not only pseudonymous, but a character with a limited range of personality traits. There was never a reconciliation on the blogosphere. There probably never will be. I have no negative intentions towards this individual. But in any future case where there might be an opportunity to work together on something, or have a serious conversation about something, my feeling is that this character can take a hike. Remember, this character is a false persona, created for the purpose of making a certain impact in the blogosphere, not a human being that I can deal with on any level other than as that very persona. This is a critical point, please don’t miss it: This pseudonymous blogger can be like a character in a movie or play, not a person. This individual has created a way of being that is very one dimensional and intentionally obnoxious. Why would I ever interact with this character if I did not have to? This would be distinct from a pseudonymous blogger who used a fake on line name but was just a person hiding his or her identity, where the humanity of the person shows through.
Some years ago I wrote a series of articles using a pseudonym. I will not go into the reasons why I did that here, but trust me, they are not very interesting. The character I created to do this writing was very gonzo, radically liberal politically but very PJ O’Rourke in style. Funny, edgy, obnoxious, terse, a little mean. If someone ever wrote a letter to the editor of the publication my character wrote for saying “this guy is an obnoxious twit, why don’t you fire him” I would not have responded with loathing or despondency. Jimmy (that was his first name) was not a person, but rather, a persona. I did not expect Jimmy to be treated like a person.
And now, we come to the key point regarding pseudonymous blogging: If you are a pseudonymous blogger, depending on how you do it, you should expect to be treated a little differently, sometimes much differently, than a “real” person might be, under certain circumstances. When this happens, don’t whine about it. Deal.
Now on to the “authority” bit. My argument over at Bayblab may have been more clear if that has been the topic of discussion, or if my final comment, the one that disappeared, had not disappeared.
If you read Drug Monkey’s post, you’ll see that she actually makes the argument for me, although she concludes that I am guilty of supporting the appeal to authority “logic.” There are a lot of processes in science … thinking processes … that involve experience, skill, expertise, training, and so on. Credentials can be faked, or just overblown, or bullshit. Authority in the sense of position can be gained for all sorts of bad reasons. The words “credentials” and “authority” thus cannot be used alone to characterize any aspect of an argument or a person making the argument. However, real knowledge and experience matters.
When it comes down to drawing conclusions in a scientific area, the evidence and the models used to interpret the evidence matter most. But we do not walk around all day writing the perfect text for the “Encyclopedia of Truth: Final Edition.” Rather, we interact, converse, exchange ideas and conjectures, and so on. A couple of months ago, John West gave a talk at the University of Minnesota in which he argued that Darwinism was inextricably linked to the origin and spread of eugenics. To a person who knows nothing, the argument might have been very solid. He had lots of facts, and tied them together in a coherent argument, and so on. After his argument, Mark Borrello, historian of science at the University of Minnesota had a few moments to stand up and refute West’s argument. He did so very effectively.
However, West had much more time, and many more resources (it was his talk, after all) and Borrello had only a few minutes, never had much time to prepare his response, and so on. But one got the sense during this entire talk that a) West was representing an anti-Darwinian organization (the Discovery Institute) and Borrello was a learned scholar of Darwin. It is quite possible that the plain facts and the specifics of the argument would go in favor of West, but the difference in their perspectives and thus potential bias, and the differences in their expertise, would make any reasonable individual who entered that lecture hall with no opinion or specific knowledge of the matter leave wondering if, in fact, John West was full of shit.
This hypothetical lecture attendee is not being asked to compile the entry on Darwin and Eugenics for the Encyclopedia of Everything: Final Edition. That would not be possible given this limited exposure to the relevant information. But the idea that this attendee would leave suspicious of West’s argument, and thinking “hey, that Borrello guy, he’s pretty smart … thinks quick on his feet and obviously knows what he’s talking about” is not a bad thing. Such an outcome speaks to the complexity of humans and how we interact and communicate. This is a nuance, and an important reality, that seems to be lost on some of the pseudonymous bloggers.
In conclusion, I am distrustful of, and often (but not always) dislike … as entities … pseudonymous bloggers who take on an aggressive or obnoxious persona, annoy people, then cry “no ad hominem attacks!” when someone tells them to piss off. If you are such a blogger: Piss off. Your arguments that the things you are saying are intrinsically good, or even brilliant, do not impress me. Those arguments may be true, but you are not likely to be head and shoulders above all others. You are one fish in a sea of many fish, but the other fish don’t stink. Your wisdom does not overcome your distasteful presentation.
The original thread at bayblab is here.
Drugmonkey’s post is here.
UPDATE: See Also This … PZ Myers’ Pseudonymity ≠ anonymity
UPDATE: Moran: I Prefer People Who Sign their Names to Comments and Blogs