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Discussion > Real names or pseudonyms?

The question of whether people should use their real names has come up a few times recently. Since it can de-rail the thread, perhaps we can discuss it here.
One reason for using real names is that it encourages a more civilised debate by making people more accountable for what they say.
What are the other arguments for and against?

Apr 4, 2012 at 6:22 PM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

I've promised Paul I will contribute to this but I'd be interested in anything anyone else has things to say on it before I do.

Apr 4, 2012 at 9:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake

A few points:

1. Just because someone posts as "Richard Drake" doesn't mean it's actually he :) Yes, I do believe you are the person who calls themselves Richard Drake in real life) A full name can be a pseudonyn just as easily as a nickname. So is your point about nicknames that you can't trace them to a real named person, or just the use of nicknames in general?

2. Some of us work in industries where expressing opinions contrary to the consensus might be job-threatening. At the moment the consultancy that I own is doing some work for a small power company, which is portraying itself as green, as all power companies are at the moment. It could be damaging to their reputation if it is discovered that people working there held anti-consensus opinions. In fact I am contractually bound not to bring that company into disrepute in any way, and this obligation extends to my personal private postings on public forums. I could choose NOT to sign my company up to such a contractual obligation on the grounds that it invades my personal privacy. I am free do do so. But I am also fond of feeding my children. My altruism doesn't extend to voluntary starvation and homelessness.

3. There is a possibility that in future, state-sponsored or mob-mentality retributions may take place. Criminalising and medicalizing 'denialism' is openly talked about in some circles in much the same way as ethnic cleaning has been talked about in other eras. I wish I could be confident that certain extreme people won't use my personal contact information to 'punish' me. I was working near Huntingdon when certain vivisection scientists were having their parent's remains dug up from graveyards by such lovely people in the name of animal welfare. The problem with the web is this stuff hangs around forever.

Just something to chew on.

Apr 5, 2012 at 12:40 PM | Unregistered CommenterTheBigYinJames

Thanks to Paul Matthews for starting this thread.

I meant to write in support of Johanna, criticised recently by Richard Drake for having criticised Paul Matthews while using a pseudonym. (Johanna, IMHO, made an entirely valid criticism of something written by PM, but that is separate issue from this one).

As I recall RD took exception to J using a pseudonym while commenting about someone who does not. As I further recall RD seemed pained that J seemed not to know - or at least to acknowledge - PM's relevant credentials. (I would cite the posts in question if I could locate them, so please correct me if I'm wrong).

My observations are:

- I agree with all three points made by TheBigYinJames

- why should any reader be expected to know the credentials of any other reader - unless these are noted in the post at issue, or are well known in the field - before posting in reply to him or her ? RD seemed to assume that J should know about PM's credentials, although these were not mentioned in the post to which J responded. I vaguely recall seeing a post some time previously that referred to PM's credentials, but didn't pay attention and indeed could very easily have missed that post entirely.

- were I to claim relevant expertise then I would expect to give my real name in order to validate that claim. I do not, so my real name has no bearing on the validity, or otherwise, of my observations on this blog.

- I have a distinctive real name, and wish to avoid any conflation by readers of my interest in climatology with the other parts of my life. I am surely not alone in that.

Apr 5, 2012 at 5:00 PM | Unregistered CommenterCassio

This is getting a bit off-topic, but johanna misrepresented what I said. I said:
" like me he's probably more interested in the science and in scientific integrity than precisely whether some law has been breached."
J said amongst other things, that I
"publicly said that adhering to FOI laws is neither here nor there in his moral universe."
This is the kind of snipy (and simply incorrect) statement that I think would occur less frequently if people used their own real names.

TBYJ makes some good points, but I think the " expressing opinions contrary to the consensus might be job-threatening " concern is overplayed. As far as I am aware we still have freedom of speech in this country, as well as laws on unfair dismissal.

Apr 5, 2012 at 5:51 PM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

Paul
I have a story to tell. A while back, I came across, and obtained damning evidence of misconduct on the part of a prominent climate scientist on a well-known climate blog. The person was using [his] real name. I decided not to do anything with it. After all, he perpetrated the act using a real name, whereas I participated using a pseudonym. Exposure of his actions would impact his reputation, even given that the transgression was a minor one. Whereas I stood in no corresponding dock myself. Nor was in a position to, nor did I have any desire to.

So yes, when you make a statement or issue a call, or make any kind of a move, that impacts another person directly, you do not do so under the cover of a pseudonym. That is what I believe.

On the other hand, when you approach an issue and contribute to its abstract corpus, or even attack individuals for their concepts, ideas, and claims, but not the person, you are ok. Anonmymity is an undeniable part of modern life, and I suspect it has always been with us. Pseudonyms and alter-egos have been recorded throughout history. Would you have read Spengler if you knew he was just a harpischordist from Bank of America given to borderline race-driven ranting? Pseudonymity focuses the mind on the matter, on the concept and the idea, and away from the person. It imposes a true egalitarianism.

If Richard Drake's exhortations were to be taken at their word, we would all have to reveal who we voted for, which political party we donated for, which causes we supported, whom we gave to charity for. Why has reasonable society equilibrated to accepting anonymity in these venues? If they were taken completely seriously, modern academic peer-review would have no leg to stand on. The underlying principle is sound - play the ball, and not the man.

Richard Drake is 'playing the man'.

It is true that pseudonymity in the internet spawn whole new breeds of living entities - 'trolls' who monopolize boards and conversations, set the tone, and influence agendas wholescale. The popularity and longevity of internet boards, unless curated and cared for in an exquisite on-going fashion, is dictated in large part by troll density. That is how it has always been.

To be fair, Richard's run-ins with mac (vis a vis Richard Betts) and other pseudonymous posters, and pseudonymous posting in general, has been a variant of what I myself put forward above. 'If you want to influence the agenda, reveal who you are'. Unfortunately though, credibility in real life derives from a mixture of power, position, puffery, money and, lastly, scientific veracity. Pseudonymising debate removes all attributes except the merit of one's idea. Why would Richard (Drake) refuse to see this?

Think, for example,...would 'mac' be able to question Betts, given that Betts is one of the top Amazon researchers/modelers in the world, has hundreds of publications to his name, is employed at the Met Office and is a lead author for the IPCC? Why would 'mac' have any credibility at all, if he revealed his true identity?

If Drake's vision is that of a blog where sundry commoners, all in their real names, coochie-coo with Richard Betts as he conducts his discussions with them, respectfully, then it is an oppressive one.

Apr 5, 2012 at 11:33 PM | Registered Commentershub

I have a distinctive real name, and wish to avoid any conflation by readers of my interest in climatology with the other parts of my life. I am surely not alone in that.

Likewise on the name. I don't hide my climate scepticism in my real life, but I don't get into arguments about it at work because I have to get along with them.

Then again, I don't pretend much expertise, so I lose little by my pseudonym not carrying much weight.

On blogs or sites where I do claim some expertise, I use my real name.

Apr 6, 2012 at 6:41 AM | Unregistered CommenterMooloo

Paul Matthews said:

This is getting a bit off-topic, but johanna misrepresented what I said. I said:
" like me he's probably more interested in the science and in scientific integrity than precisely whether some law has been breached."
J said amongst other things, that I
"publicly said that adhering to FOI laws is neither here nor there in his moral universe."
This is the kind of snipy (and simply incorrect) statement that I think would occur less frequently if people used their own real names.

_______________________________________-

I have just responded in the original thread. But, really, this is the sort of stuff one expects on RealClimate, not the Bishop's usually ethical place.

I'm afraid that no amount of wriggling can cancel out a line (of it). You said what you said. 'Just joshing', 'shouldn't be taken literally', 'out of context' etc - the excuses we hear all the time from people who have been caught out saying what they really believe. If it is not what you believe, why did you say it?

As I said in my recent post in the main thread, I really wish that I could use my name. But I can't. That said, the Bish can easily verify who I am, where I live and even what I do for a living. When one of you economically secure internet warriors agrees to pay my bills and fund my retirement, I'll be out there with the rest of you.

Apr 6, 2012 at 6:45 AM | Unregistered Commenterjohanna

I agree with pretty much everything Shub writes, including his disagreement with Richard Drake. When the only way people can disagree with you is by representing you as holding views which you yourself find ridiculous, I think it's a bit of a warning sign.

In fact what I've been putting forward for a while on Bishop Hill is a middle way between two views which I consider extreme:

1. The status quo where the pseudonymous enjoy equal rights with those using real names
2. A radical departure where only real names are allowed.

Paul Matthews has recently taken part in a forum where rule 2 is adopted and he reports that he's well impressed with the results. I think this real world data should be taken very seriously. A young company called Facebook broke the mould on the internet in demanding real names for all its users a few years back. I don't know if they've done anything since - anyone heard of them? Growing at all? Worth any money?

But I'm not arguing for the Facebook policy here. I'm arguing that we should encourage people to use real names more - but not demand it in all cases. How do we encourage that change? That's the big question.

Apr 6, 2012 at 11:12 AM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake

I just want to add something new. A simple observation.

We should not forget that this blog is what it is because of the contributors. BH generally keeps his ego in pocket and keeps out of the discussion.

Could this blog be in a better position? Possibly. However, it certainly could be a lot worse.

The blog is focused and direct.

By using pseudonyms there are benefits. They are part of why this blog is a good one,

Brevity: A pseudonym removes much of the need to encase your argument in "accepted" debating English.As long as what you say add value, you do not have to make an investment in appearing to be "cultured". This does reduce the word count.
Losing Face: Losing face is not so much of an issue. Therefore you do not get huge sprawling justifications, trying to regain apparent loss of face.
Hand grenades: "hand grenades" can be lobbed at the right moment. Nothing wrong with that, if they add value, enliven the debate and also put a few egos in check.

This blog as it stands is function of the last few years.

However, it is noticeable that the blog is changing. Its intellectual content is increasing. Also, I generally only post when I think I can add something, not just confirm what others have said now or in the past. I am finding less reason to post.

That is one of the reasons why I am considering coming out of the closet, just to approach the issue from a different angle. My reasons for not are simply a distrust of strident greenies.

Apr 6, 2012 at 12:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterJiminy Cricket

Paul Matthews said:

TBYJ makes some good points, but I think the " expressing opinions contrary to the consensus might be job-threatening " concern is overplayed. As far as I am aware we still have freedom of speech in this country, as well as laws on unfair dismissal.

In my particular case it wouldn't be a case of unfair dismissal, my company is under contract, which they do not have to extend if they see fit, or if I give them any reason to be embarrassed about using my services. If a bank stops using a cleaning service company because the director of that company says something in public to embarrass the bank, then that's just business. If a power company stops using my IT service company consultancy services because the MD of that company (moi) holds views which are antithetical to the stated aims of the company, then that's just business.

So I'm using a pseudonym for commercial reasons. I'm not that well hidden, I bet it would take you clever people 15 minutes to get my real name from a web search. I'm just not telegraphing my presence here in case it hurts business :)

Apr 6, 2012 at 6:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterTheBigYinJames

Heh.

"
When the only way people can disagree with you is by representing you as holding views which you yourself find ridiculous, I think it's a bit of a warning sign.
"

Richard, I don't agree with you. I don't think a midlle way is a good idea, nor do I think that people who are anonymous 'enjoying' 'equal rights' is in any way 'extreme'.

I have a Facebook account as 'Shub Niggurath'.

Apr 6, 2012 at 9:28 PM | Registered Commentershub

Shub, I don't appreciate you misrepresenting me, then showing no interest in the fact you've done. Because the way you represented my views earlier would cause anyone reading who believed you to think less of me. And you don't pay the same price the other way around. Do you think that's fair? If you think it's unfair do you think the answer is for people like Paul and myself to adopt a pseudonym too? Do you think that it would be better for everyone on this blog to use a pseudonym? If not, why not?

Apr 6, 2012 at 10:14 PM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake

I agree absolutely with Shub. I thought I had a pretty good grasp of moral and ethical matters, which is one of the reasons that I so thoroughly appreciated and enjoyed the HSI, which lays out some pretty stunning 'bad behaviour' in the creation of Mann's 'Hockey stick' and is a complimentary motivation for my avid readership of blogs such as Bishop Hill, WUWT, Climate Audit, Judith Curry's blog and others which promote good science and ethical behaviour, plus excellent discussion in the comments, but Richard's take on pseudonymity has me somewhat baffled. My own view is that the ideas and views expressed are the important thing and not the name tacked on to them. I really dislike bad manners and as I grew up in and have recently returned to New Zealand where frequent use ( and often the overuse) of metaphor derived from the game of Rugby Union is common, I see 'playing the man and not the ball' as very poor manners indeed.

Apr 7, 2012 at 5:22 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlexander K

Richard,
We agree on many things. The one thing that might have irked you, from my previous post is me saying "Richard is playing the man". Beyond that, if there is anything else, I wouldn't know because you are being cryptic.

I'd rather that you not take that remark personally, and perhaps, by being figurative, I may have risked inaccuracy. I am not saying you 'play the man'. I am only saying there are several situations where anonymity is perfectly fine, and, requiring anonymity to be abolished from these situations would actually cause harm.

Take the example of modern peer-review. The editor and the reviewer know the author, and the reviewer is anonymous to the author. Do you believe this to be a bad arrangement?

If an author wants to know who his reviewers are, he is 'playing the man'. That is what I wanted to say.

I think anonymity is a great source of variety, and energy in the climate debate. You can see my views on this expressed well early in time here. Whether everyone uses it or not, is a different question, but I think we should welcome anonymity.

Apr 7, 2012 at 6:04 AM | Registered Commentershub

Good morning Shub. And a hat tip to Alexander K, who has said some things that in due course I'd like to respond to. The same to TheBigYinJames. I can't respond all at once, for this subject is darned difficult. But if the threesome concerned were Steve McIntyre, Jonathan Jones and Barry Woods I know I wouldn't feel the same difficulty. And there's no reason that someone using a real name might not want to write exactly as you do, at least in theory (except for testimony about why you use a pseudonym). Pseudonymity is a complicator, a major timewaster. Especially when you take into account those who use it the worst. Let me start then on Climate Etc, with my turning up to support Steve Mosher on this in February last year, then Steve returning the compliment in August.

Those who use pseudonymity badly have become an astronomically large timewaster in the online world that I resent. But there is much in the world that is not exactly how I want it. Where does the balance lie on this matter?

This is what bothered me Shub:

If Richard Drake's exhortations were to be taken at their word, we would all have to reveal who we voted for, which political party we donated for, which causes we supported, whom we gave to charity for. Why has reasonable society equilibrated to accepting anonymity in these venues? If they were taken completely seriously, modern academic peer-review would have no leg to stand on. The underlying principle is sound - play the ball, and not the man.

Richard Drake is 'playing the man'.

The first sentence was the main thing I had in mind when I said that someone reading would think less of me. And it happens to be totally untrue. So not just defamation but libel. But don't worry, my lawyers aren't going to turn pseudo-sleuths. I use it for illustration only. (And I haven't yet read your link. Step at a time. If anyone has the energy I can probably keep going on this subject for about six months elapsed. Darned difficult, as I've already said.)

Apr 7, 2012 at 8:39 AM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake

Those who use pseudonymity badly have become an astronomically large timewaster in the online world that I resent. But there is much in the world that is not exactly how I want it. Where does the balance lie on this matter?

This blog though is not a science blog. I am not sure what it is but a science blog it is not. It is a "pamphleteer" blog? Pamphlets were often anonymous.

Pseudonyms do a have personality. Good bad or indifferent. Richard you are clearly motivated on this :). Are you the best arbiter of "badly"?

I dislike "cool" art but Banksy seems to have gained a reputation (deserved or otherwise.) Are you campaigning to turn the blog into your image? Nothing wrong with that. But it does appear from a moral viewpoint somewhat and morals are relative. Perhaps you should describe why the blog (not WUWT, not CA) would be improved?

Pamphleteering was rough and tumble. My worry is that your proposals would sanitise this blog.

My experience of people who spot bullshit is that they are direct in their opinions, and isn't this essentially a "bullshit" sniffing blog?

Apr 7, 2012 at 9:39 AM | Unregistered CommenterJiminy Cricket

J Cricket: this I see as a touchy-feely response based on a romanticised historical analogy. It doesn't get anywhere near the mark compared to what I wrote to 'thingsbreak' on Climate Etc, for example. I am 100% for being empirical on this, not just touchy-feely, and that means dealing with the data that blows away our cosy illusions.

I'm not just thinking of Bishop Hill but CA, WUWT and Judith's. With Steve's wonderful moderation of CA the original benchmark and, quite rightly, deeply influential. I intended to talk all about that in due course. I have pages of notes on this from the last few years. I am passionate about it and there are reasons for that. But that doesn't mean I'm wrong any more than it means I'm right. And note that I'm not proposing that everyone should become as I am. I have explicitly said (and have done from the moment I started to contribute in earnest on CA in November 2009, after reading it from some years before that) that I accept some pseudonymity is beneficial on climate blogs, for the greater good. Bender on CA has always been my canonical example. And I have thought long and hard about this area generally since 1999. But here I restrict myself to the needs of climate blogs. And this is early stage, blue-sky thinking, not immediate prescriptions for McIntyre, Watts, Curry and Montford. Just shootin' the breeze :)

Apr 7, 2012 at 10:48 AM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake

Richard, I am really puzzled as to your real objection to pseudonyms. If everyone here knew who I am, that knowledge would not further the general level or content on this blog one iota, or change anyone's view about anything. I am a slightly reclusive retired educator who still works in the classroom from time to time and as an artist, married with grown and gone adult offspring and with a fair number of grandkids scattered about the world. Not only does my pseudonym ensure that my occasional employment remains secure, it also protects other members of my family. I think you will find, if you check my contributions to this blog, that my opinions are fairly mild but I do object to bullying of any kind and I see many green journalists and activists as, essentially, bullies. I generally enjoy your contributions here on the Bish's territory and on other blogs, but I feel (rightly or wrongly) that your current passion for us all to use our real names and your advocacy for that is getting awfully close to bullying.

Apr 7, 2012 at 10:50 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlexander K

I think I mostly agree with Richard, and indeed my switch from a pseudonym was partly motivated by his frequent lectures on this topic. But frequent they are, and as lectures they come across much of the time - so perhaps it is not surprising that people get offended on occasion, Richard?

Also, your attitude is not a black or white one, so it gets misunderstood, and occasionally misrepresented, perhaps for rhetorical reasons. I sometimes think misunderstanding is the biggest problem on blogs, not pseudonyms. E.g. Johanna clearly did misunderstand Paul, and still seems to. Clue: Paul is not saying FOI violations are OK. Period.

I guess it is the lack of all the other cues to meaning that help lead to so much of it. But then, live conversations also lead to misunderstandings. And on balance we seem to get along nevertheless, at BH and elsewhere.

Happy Easter to all.

Apr 7, 2012 at 10:51 AM | Unregistered CommenterJeremy Harvey

Lectures? Pompous? Frequent? How dare you sir. (Someone else said pompous a while back but it hurt so I included it.)

Trouble is, I don't see any other way of coming across if one talks about this. But that's not to do with me (whose humility is legendary, not least to myself) but people's inability to see beyond their own situation to the greater good. That sounds pompous but it's essential on this subject (and on many others). Alexander K has just given a classic example: I talk about taking into account all the data, including all the worst examples of the use of pseudonymity on climate blogs and he at once comes back with:

Richard, I am really puzzled as to your real objection to pseudonyms. If everyone here knew who I am, that knowledge would not further the general level or content on this blog one iota ...

Now that might just be relevant if Alexander K and one other person were using a pseudonym on climate blogs worldwide. But by my estimate it's a few more than that. I do want to look at specific edge cases, from bender to BBD - all the time being corrected by others as to the overall stats or the general case. But one good-hearted person's testimony is useless on whether pseudonymity as a whole is currently good or bad - or whether it is treated optimally by blog communities and moderators (which is the question I am really raising, having accepted that some pseudonymity is a fact of life in these quarters).

People will have to up their game a notch to interact in a way I find useful. I know that sounds massively pompous but there we go. Jeremy though has I hope put to bed one of the stupidest blind alleys we could have gone down: Johanna's misrepresentation of Paul Matthews and inability to admit it. Thanks greatly for that small mercy.

Apr 7, 2012 at 11:55 AM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake

"And a hat tip to Alexander K, who has said some things that in due course I'd like to respond to. The same to TheBigYinJames. I can't respond all at once, for this subject is darned difficult. But if the threesome concerned were Steve McIntyre, Jonathan Jones and Barry Woods I know I wouldn't feel the same difficulty."

You are saying that you would take what I said seriously and give it more time, if I used my real name?

II
"The first sentence was the main thing I had in mind when I said that someone reading would think less of me. And it happens to be totally untrue. So not just defamation but libel."

Are you for real?

What I did was a argumentum reductio ad absurdum. I need not imply for it to be 'true' for its rhetorical effect.

A person using his real name wants to send his lawyers behind anonymous online commenters who engage in a discussion with him. Reminds me why I wanted to use a pseudonym in the first place.

Apr 7, 2012 at 3:37 PM | Unregistered Commentershub

Shub, it was fallacious reductio ad absurdum because I wasn't trying to ban pseudonymity on Bishop Hill as you then thought and I greatly value the western tradition of secret ballots. What you wrote was damaging to my reputation and based on untruths - defamation and libel. All you had to do was say sorry for that and we were away. But that was too much for you.

Your inability to deal with this - and Johanna's inability to admit to her misrepresentation of Paul Matthews - gives the lie to wonderfully opposite-to-the-truth idea that because people write pseudonymously they do so with less ego. That's one of the funniest ideas - and there are many - that has been said in defence of the practice.

I agree with you on one thing - all this will confirm you in your determination to remain pseudonymous. But I never set out to change that. What I set out to change was the culture in which such pseudonymity was practiced. I wouldn't think you're doing yourself any favours in that regard.

I should add that I am enormously grateful for those who've thought about this issue and switched from a pseudonym to their real name, partly because of and partly no doubt despite the pompous way I've written on the subject! Paul and Jeremy are part of that happy throng. And if anyone is interested, take a look where the real names dominated debate is now happening: Twitter. For example, Paul Matthews sharing something from the Climategate 2 emails with Andrew, Josh, Barry Woods, Richard Betts and Tamsin Edwards two days ago. I've been watching how Andrew has increasingly engaged in important debate with the 'other side' not within discussion threads on Bishop Hill but 'over there' in the tweet-o-sphere where pseudonymity is in practice far reduced. This is what is already happening. I write what I do here to bring about change that would make it much more likely to happen in threads here too.

Apr 7, 2012 at 4:24 PM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake

You think twitter is a decent medium for debate? Because it is not pseudonymous? Non sequitur, if so. Twitter is in any case inadequate for debate, it is used because people of both sides hang out there in order to pump their message across. You cannot drag them here, but you can challenge them where they are. Saving the case where commenters use their anonymity in order to defame and insult, there is little to object to in those of us who have no claim to authority using a pseudonym. It forces the rest to engage with the text, not the person. That's all I want, I don't need 'You are just an art historian/carpenter/mining engineer/accountant/oxfordshire housewife' getting in the way.

Not that anybody DOES engage with my text. I ask questions and I don't even know whether they are stupid questions or not.

Apr 7, 2012 at 5:45 PM | Unregistered CommenterRhoda

Richard
You assume too many things. For the record, I have no idea about the Paul M johanna fracas and what happened there. I missed that discussion. When I saw Paul's discussion thread, I contributed to say what was on my mind stemming from other episodes, de novo.

I am no one to be standing in the way of alliances or bridges between various British entities in the climate debate. Nor will I do so. If you think your mission is to drive away contributors and be left only with those who agree with you on anonymity, with whom you build alliances with the Met office, then so be it.

Apr 7, 2012 at 5:51 PM | Unregistered CommenterShub