On “Orac,” Isis, pseudonymity, and anonymity

And now for something completely different.

There was a time when, as a blogger, I would have been instantly aware of an incident like the one I’m about to discuss, instantly aware of it and all over it within a day. That it’s been a few days since this happened, and I remained blissfully unaware of it until yesterday tells me how much I’ve changed as a blogger since my early days. Sure, some things haven’t changed much, as anyone who reads my first post cum manifesto can see if he goes back and reads it, such as the subject matter of this blog and my commitment to science and science-based medicine. However, other things have changed. For one thing, believe it or not, I’ve mellowed. When I go back and read some of my earlier posts, I’m surprised at the level of…Insolence. There’s another change, besides my increasing specialization in writing about science-based medicine more and about other sciences, such as evolution, less. Back in the day, I used to relish a blog fight. Sure, sometimes I’ll occasionally let loose on idiots like Vox Day, but not with anywhere the frequency or intensity as in the old days. Whether this represents a maturing or mellowing (or both), I don’t know, but I do know, as I sit here and gaze at my navel, that I’m not the same blogger I was nine years ago.

Still, there must be something of my old self left, because when I heard about this incident it grabbed my interest to the point where I couldn’t blog about anything else today. I’m referring to pseudonymity. I’m referring to anonymity. I’m referring to the outing of the blogger known as Isis the Scientist by an editor of a major scientific journal in a petty act of revenge. It brought back memories of the days when maintaining my pseudonym meant a lot more to me than it does now, and the issue of remaining pseudonymous versus starting to blog under my own name was a big deal to me, a question that came up every now and then that I sometimes agonized over, when I genuinely feared being outed. Those days are long past, and I thought I knew exactly how Isis feels.

Isis, long time readers might remember, used to be part of the ScienceBlogs collective, where we rubbed elbows, blosopherically speaking, for around three or four years. Then Pepsigate happened, and lots of ScienceBloggers departed. Eventually Isis left about a year after the debacle. Whether the decimation of our ranks over that year had anything to do with it, I really don’t remember, but it’s quite likely that the takeover of the running of ScienceBlogs by National Geographic did. Whatever the reason for her departure, because I don’t read very many blogs anymore except in a targeted way (i.e., Google search-directed), I lost track of her, and I have no idea whether she read my blog anymore. Be that as it may, here’s what happened several days ago:

A couple days ago Henry Gee tweeted what he believes to be my real life identity. To address the elephant in the room, if such things are important to you, he was correct in his identification of me. But, really, what Henry did required only high school level sleuthing. Any amateur with a Cracker Jack decoder ring could have figured it out, largely because my pseud has eroded as you all have become a more important part of my life.

Who is Henry Gee? He’s only the the editor of one of the two highest impact science journals in the world, Nature. Apparently Gee and Isis had been having a bit of a feud. I knew nothing about this, and still know relatively little, having only pieced it together reading other blog posts on the incident. It doesn’t really matter, really. It justifies nothing, although apparently Gee thought it did. This is the Tweet in which he outed Isis:


Clearly, Henry Gee is a major douche. Not only did he intentionally out Isis, but he dismissed her as an “inconsequential sports physiologist.” Moreover, as Michael Eisen notes, this was not a casual attack. It was a deliberate move designed to silence her. It most likely won’t work, but the intent was very, very clear. I’ve been at the receiving end of people with such intent on multiple occasions; so I recognized it right away. Virtually the only—I repeat, only—reason people “out” pseudonymous bloggers is to try to intimidate them into silence. Sure, they’ll make up all sorts of justifications. Some will even sound noble on the surface. However, at the heart of any outing is a desire to intimidate, and this one is no exception. However, when it comes to Henry Gee, there’s no way for him to pretend that his outing Isis was about nothing more than guaranteeing that misogynist hordes would descend upon her.

All of this goes to the heart of pseudonymity on the Internet. Lots of people on blogs and Twitter post what they post under a pseudonym. It’s important here to distinguish between pseudonymous posting and anonymous posting. I post under a pseudonym, but my real identity is arguably the worst kept secret in the blogosphere. It’s so poorly kept that you can find my real name right here on this very blog if you so desire and know where to look, and only the most incompetent Googler would fail to identify me if he put even the ost minimum effort into the task. However, it was not always thus. When I first started out, I was both pseudonymous (in that I wrote under a name not my own) and anonymous in that no one knew who I really was.

I had several reasons to start out anonymously. At the time, I was an assistant professor without much experience. True, I was a breast cancer surgeon and a scientist, which accorded me some status, but I really didn’t know whether my then bosses would understand or accept my blogging. At the time, there were relatively few physicians blogging, and, to the best of my knowledge, no surgeon-scientists blogging, much less as prolifically as I did. So I chose to try to remain anonymous.

That phase of my blogging career didn’t last very long. Within six months of my starting the original incarnation of my blog, a cancer quack by the name of William P. O’Neill, incensed that I had linked to Australian skeptic Peter Bowditch’s Anus Maximus Award, dug into my identity. Part of this was my fault in that I didn’t really select the most “bulletproof” pseudonym. It was an alias I had used on Usenet (look it up, kids) in the past, and there existed some very early posts in my Usenet tenure (from the late 1990s!) that linked the pseudonym to the real name. So O’Neill must have found one of those posts. He tracked me down to my job and, consistent with the purpose of “outing” any pseudonymous blogger, immediately put the information to use to try to intimidate me to silence, sending threats to me, my cancer center director, my department chair (who, alas, died suddenly a couple of years ago), and my division chief. I was terrified. I really was. Fortunately, I learned that none of them really cared, and, in fact, my department chair out and out called O’Neill a cowardly bully in a conversation we had at a departmental function.

A few months later, an antivaccine-sympathetic businessman named Pat Sullivan posted the first post outing me. Again, I was really disturbed by this development. Again, nothing bad happened. Things were fairly quiet on the pseudonym/outing front for the next couple of years, at least until the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism came into existence. Bloggers there made it a point to launch broadsides at me every so often, almost always with my real name in the title, the better to try to poison my Google reputation. Even our old friend Dr. Jay Gordon joined in, and, in fact, used to bemoan my use of a pseudonym. Yes, I was the Emily Willingham and Dorit Reiss of my day, Professor Reiss being the most popular target these days of the antivaccine movement, an accomplishment for which I offer my most sincere congratulations to her. It means she’s effective.

Over the years, like Isis, my anonymity degraded to the point where my pseudonym felt more like a pen name or a stage name, where everyone knew my real identity, than it did like any sort of actual protection. I cared less and less about the linking of Orac to my real name. Many were the times that I considered dropping the pseudonym altogether. I think I kept it out of sheer cussedness and Insolence, more than anything else. That, and I love the persona of Orac and being known by the name of a supercomputer featured on an obscure (in this country) British science fiction show popular over 30 years ago. So the ‘nym Orac stands, much like Gallifrey. Besides, I think it provides an air of mystery for antivaccinationists, cranks, and quacks to penetrate and then feel good about themselves when they do, amusing me in the process whenever a new one appears in the comments or in another blog trumpeting to the world my identity.

So why do I care about this enough to do all this uncharacteristic navel gazing after so long not visiting such topics? I think it’s because of the change in my attitudes towards certain aspects of pseudonymity. First, however, I should point out that I do understand the problems with pseudonymity and anonymity. People say things they wouldn’t normally say. They make attacks, thinking themselves immune to retaliation. They behave in ways that they would never behave in real life facing the person they’re attacking. Anonymous commenters can can infest comment threads and turn them into cesspits of nastiness, misogyny, and racism. Even here, periodically anonymous trolls will wander through and cause a comment thread to degenerate, mainly because I really dislike moderating and use only the lightest touch in doing so. On the other hand, there are several legitimate reasons a blogger might want to try to maintain anonymity, including one’s workplace frowning on blogging (the reason I chose at first to remain anonymous, not knowing at the time that I was mistaken about my workplace, which, while not supportive, was not hostile to blogging); you want to keep your blog distinct from your work (another reason I chose); you want to be judged on what you say, not who you are (another reason I chose); or you’re blogging about something that could bring attacks on you (a common reason).

There’s also another reason, described by Michael Eisen, after first noting that he’s also tangled with Isis:

If our conflicts had existed in the “real world” where I’m a reasonably well known, male tenured UC Berkeley professor and HHMI Investigator and she’s a young, female, Latina woman at the beginning of her research career, the deck is stacked against her. Whatever the forum, odds are I’m going to come out ahead, not because I’m right, but because that’s just the way this world works. And I think we can all agree that this is a very bad thing. This kind of power imbalance is toxic and distorting. It infuses every interaction. The worst part of it is obvious – it serves to keep people who start down, down. But it also gives people on the other side the false sense that they are right. It prevents them from learning and growing.

But when my interlocutor is anonymous, the balance of power shifts. Not completely. But it does shift. And it was enough, I think, to fundamentally change the way the conversations ended. And that was a good thing. I know I’m not going to convince many people that they should embrace this feeling of discomfort – this loss of power. But I hope, at least, people can appreciate why some amongst us feel so strongly about protecting this tool in their arsenal, and why what Gee did is more fundamental and reprehensible than the settling of a grudge.

That’s why Larry Moran is so clueless in his rejection of anonymity, dismissing it as toxic and attacking people who try to explain to him why his attitude is hopelessly out of touch, blithely dismissing pseudonymous bloggers by saying he doesn’t think he follows any blogger whose identity isn’t known to him, while pontificating on how he feels uneasy about not knowing a blogger’s name. One wonders if he follows me. Probably not. Be that as it may, he says he is “well aware of the fact that it’s a lot easier for a tenured professor to say this than for someone who is in a much more vulnerable position,” but then says he’s uncomfortable living in a society that “accepts the idea that you will be punished for your opinion and sets up ways of permitting people to say whatever they want without having to face any consequences.” Of course, this utterly misses the point. It’s not about not facing “any consequences.” It’s about not facing really bad consequences far out of proportion to the controversy of what they say. Meanwhile, Moran retreats to the excuse that he thinks that the contribution of pseudonymous bloggers is “being exaggerated and the downside of anonymity (pseudo-anonymity) is being ignored” without citing any evidence or examples, just his unsupported opinion while asking pseudonymous commenters, “Why do you hide behind a pseudonym?”

Moran also seems blissfully unaware of (or in denial about) one thing that I’ve only just come to realize over the last couple of years. There’s a significant difference between being a woman expressing her opinion and a man doing the same. Don’t get me wrong; being a man doesn’t somehow magically inoculate me from abuse. I have attacks published about me on a fairly regular basis. I’ve even had, on a couple of occasions, random death threats. Back in 2010, antivaccinationists tried to get me fired from my job through an e-mail and letter campaign to my university’s leadership and board of governors over a nonexistent “conflict of interest.” Fans of Stanislaw Burzynski have called my cancer center director to complain about me and one even called my state medical board to lodge a formal complaint against me. (It was promptly investigated and dismissed.)

However, as nasty as the attacks get against me, they pale in comparison to the sorts of misogynistic attacks that female bloggers suffer on a regular basis, the kinds of attacks Isis and others receive. I should have been more aware of this, given that I’ve blogged about such attacks before; for example, when Amy Wallace wrote an article critical of the antivaccine movement, and J.B. Handley implied that Paul Offit had slipped her a date rape drug. Indeed, Amy Wallace recently discussed these sorts of attacks against female journalists in the New York Times opinion piece. Amanda Hess wrote a similar article in which she described the experience of harassment directed at female journalists:

I dragged myself out of bed and opened my laptop. A few hours earlier, someone going by the username “headlessfemalepig” had sent me seven tweets. “I see you are physically not very attractive. Figured,” the first said. Then: “You suck a lot of drunk and drug fucked guys cocks.” As a female journalist who writes about sex (among other things), none of this feedback was particularly out of the ordinary. But this guy took it to another level: “I am 36 years old, I did 12 years for ‘manslaughter’, I killed a woman, like you, who decided to make fun of guys cocks.” And then: “Happy to say we live in the same state. Im looking you up, and when I find you, im going to rape you and remove your head.” There was more, but the final tweet summed it up: “You are going to die and I am the one who is going to kill you. I promise you this.”

I’ve suffered a lot of harassment because of my nine year mission to try to counter pseudoscience and misinformation. Like PZ, I’ve even “earned” a blog and a Facebook page whose sole purpose seems to be to attack me. Unfortunately, I remain disappointed that the cranks at AoA didn’t see fit to Photoshop me into the picture of the Thanksgiving celebration with Paul Offit, Amy Wallace, and others who oppose the antivaccine movement preparing to feast on a baby. I’ve never had rape threats or speculation about my genitals (for example) directed at me, and the couple of death threats I received were not the least bit credible They were more along the lines of “I’m going to kill you,” without that level of detail and implied planning or harassment at my job. Female bloggers and journalists deal with what I deal with. They get the harassment at work, the personal attacks, the intentional poisoning of their Google reputations, all of which seem to increase exponentially with a blogger’s effectiveness in combatting pseudoscience and quackery. However, they also endure the added “bonus” of nasty sexualized verbal assaults day in and day out in addition to the usual run-of-the-mill attacks and harassment that cranks dish out.

All of this brings me back to my original point, with a twist. Cranks focus on the person more than the facts and science. Their first reaction to criticism is to attack the person. That’s why pseudonymous bloggers posting science-based deconstructions of their quackery drive them crazy. Because they can’t defend themselves based on science and facts, their first defense is to attack the person, often at work, in order to intimidate their critics into silence. Pseudonymity is an imperfect, but not ineffective, defense mechanism to make such attacks more difficult. Look, I get it. Isis could be kind of a jerk at times. So could I, and, to a lesser extent than in the past, I still can. So what? What Henry Gee did was not about what Isis wrote. Rather, it was about putting an “uppity” woman in her place by intimidating her into silence. The same sort of behavior is directed at men. I’ve experienced it. What I appreciate now that I didn’t appreciate then, even as recently as a year or two ago, is how much worse it is for women. Henry Gee was either oblivious or quite aware of the consequences of his action: Opening up Isis’ “meatspace” life to all the vicious misogynistic trolls that infest the Internet.