Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Ongoing Nym Wars.


A decent article, but missing some points, I think.

For one, the ability to publish anonymously is tremendously important for scientists. I know, I know, science is supposed to be an open process, where due credit is claimed and given, where if one believes in one's research, one should be glad to put one's name on it. But there remains to problems: money and ideology.

In science, it is important to go wherever the results lead. One does not publish results that are wrong, nor withhold them because they are unwanted. However, if one is doing work in highly contested fields, like climate change, or environmental chemistry, or drug biochemistry, there is tremendous pressure to come up with the right results: those that the powers that be would like to see. In such cases, the availability of anonymity is crucial. Sometimes, only through anonymity can one publish results that go against the current conceptual grain without fear of reprisal.

But what about accreditation? Surely, one's results don't mean anything unless one can prove one's background, education, degrees, and credibility, right? Astonishingly, no. A well written scientific paper will describe the experimental set up in excrutiating detail. Every step, from experiment construction, insturmentation and apparatus, gathering of data, analysis, and presentation ought to be detailed and explained. At that point, it really shouldn't matter so much if one holds multiple Ivy doctorates or just a lazy day in the back yard. Results are results, and any critique with the experimental or observational set up can happen on that basis.
It is not just scientists who benefit from access to anonymity, either. There are those of us whose professional and personal lives are somewhat distinct. When I am at work, I attempt to behave in a calm, professional manner. I keep my opinions reserved to myself, especially where they may be at odds with those of my superiors, clients, and customers. But, being human, and Irish, and a philosopher by habit, I do have opinions. Sometimes I am driven to express them, but it would be infeasible for me to do so in a forum where they can be traced and attached to my professional persona.

On a regular basis these days, we are cautioned about not posting anything to a social media site that we might be embarrassed about later. And this is of course, true. But judicious use of anonymity allows for a certain amount of discretion to be exercised. Avoiding publication of photos, or unique identifying information allows a certain separation that is invaluable in the modern world.

Curse Google+ then, for their insistence on "real names" for their profiles. As if their machinery and machinations were capable of deciding on what is a real name at what is not. There are those individuals, some bearing a nom de electronique years in the making, that are forgoing participation in avoidance of being "outed".*
There is a certain arrogance in learning a person's name; a forced intimacy. We assumke that knowing a person, knowing their position in life, their state and status is the same as knowing their inner life. Yet the two are not always connected. Readers of Et In Arcadia Ego know much more about me than they might learn from my given name. Really, knowing my official persona is a masquerade of intimacy. Those who stumble upon me here, or at my new social networking account, or on any of the various online fora I frequent would do better to read my words and ponder them than to ask what my "real name" is. Even better, let's engage in a conversation, and we'll know each other better than a number of given names could say.
At a deeper level, pseudonyms are an inherent human need. We adopt various personae to mediate our interactions with the world. We choose, from moment to moment, which persona is to be shared with which others. For many, there are certain aspects of personality, or history, or intellectual life that are not to be shared with all comers. We pick and choose which to conceal and which to reveal, and it is not for any to force an unwelcome intimacy.

Each of us is unfathomable, we contain multitudes. The masks we choose to wear, and the roles we choose to play are how we converse with the world. To attempt to know someone by penetrating their persona is unthinkable, like attempting to know the entire night sky all at once.

*Incidentally, I recommend a revolt. Rather than allowing google+ to delete our profiles, I nominate that all of us unwilling to give up our anonymity adopt the pseudonym "Nicholas Bourbaki".


Googlebombing for a cause: www.minnesotangos.org

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