what and who

Returning to an earlier theme, and having read the comments on this follow-up post by Joe Carter, I’d like to note a couple of points many people fail to understand about online anonymity:

1) There’s an enormous difference between anonymity and pseudonymity: the person who posts or comments under a consistent pseudonym is assuming a level of responsibility for his or her words that the anonymous poster does not. Consider Yoni Appelbaum, who commented widely, but especially at The Atlantic, for a long time under the moniker “Cynic” — and thereby got himself a job blogging for The Atlantic. Everybody who read that site knew who Cynic was, could respond to him directly either in agreement or disagreement, could point out what what he said in one comment contradicted what he said in another, and so on. Any conversation with a completely anonymous poster is comparatively impoverished. Indeed, if you have ten anonymous comments you can’t know whether you’re dealing with one person or ten different people. Thus sock puppetry and the like are born.

2) People like to say that what matters is the quality of the ideas, not the person who utters them. But suppose the topic is something you don’t know much about — a subject requiring certain technical expertise — and you’re not sure how to assess the varying positions. In such a case it helps to know who is making the arguments. Consider the debate on James Fallows’s blog a few months back about the likely effects on human health of the radiation emitted by the TSA’s backscatter-radiation machines. Fallows can affirm that the writer he’s quoting is “a physics professor from a college in the East,” and while I’d like to know who he is and what college he’s employed by, even that much gives me reason to take the argument seriously. If the same argument had been presented anonymously in a comment thread, why should anyone take it seriously? why should anyone even read it? If I made the argument why should anyone pay attention?

Now, the fact that an unnamed physics professor made a set of claims did not settle the question — but knowing even a little bit about the physicist, and the qualifications of the person disagreeing with him, helps us to think more clearly about the issues raised. One of the really interesting questions raised is: What sort of scientist would be a reliable source about backscatter-radiation machines? Unless you think that on every conceivable subject one person’s opinion is as good as any other’s, or that eloquence alone counts, you need to think not just about what’s being said but also who’s saying it.

It’s not the only factor — in many cases it won’t be the most important factor — but it helps, because knowledge is good, and the more of it we have the better off we are. Even when we’re arguing online. Remember that it doesn’t count for much when Woody Allen himself (or his stand-in Alvy Singer) tells the obnoxious blowhard in the movie line that he doesn’t understand Marshall McLuhan; but when McLuhan himself shows up and weighs in. . . .

2 thoughts on “what and who

  1. I appreciate the argument you're making overall about anonymity, but I am chary about your second point, which is essentially a "pro hominem" argument. As you might guess from my wording just now, I think it tends to lead people to think that the converse, ad hominem arguments, are perfectly valid. In our modern political climate, we have too much hominem of any sort; it easily degenerates into credentialism, and I'm pretty sure that's not what you're arguing for.

    Furthermore, people who are experts and show integrity with regard to forming considered opinions do, on occasion, change their minds (as we would expect them to -no one is right 100% of the time). In fact, long observation indicates to me that we tend to miss things when we get too close to our own work (i.e., in our own area of expertise): I am a manuscript and grant consultant/editor who works with a great many biomedical researchers, and I frequently manage to point out problems or raise substantive questions that the lead author has failed to consider. It's not that they're not expert, it's just that thinking clearly requires making certain assumptions, and some of those assumptions are bound to be questionable. I'm reminded, too, of Jacques Ellul's contention that intellectuals are the most likely to be duped by propaganda….

    In the interests of maintaining pseudonymity but not anonymity, I'll provide a link to a short essay I posted on my own blog that calls into question certain common assumptions that afflict medical thinking:


    Or here, the culmination of a five-part series on the pharmaceutical industry:


  2. Wow, just wow. How overthought can this issue get? I suppose there is a useful distinction between anonymity and pseudonymity, but the long screeds in the links and comments (especially the previous entry on this topic on June 22) and the indignation ("I have utterly no use for ….") at someone wishing to retain some privacy in a mediascape full of glare just astonishes. G'head, sit and spin all you like, I guess, or maybe head outside and experience some natural light rather than the stuff coming off the screen.

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