The pseud debate is ever rolling #moreinvolved

Jun 19 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

If you missed it, the latest installment of #IsisVsTomasson went down last night. I couldn't watch it live, but I caught up with it this morning. We talked about the first installment two weeks ago, and this one is just as juicy. Tomasson makes a good straight guy foil for stimulating these discussions and the comments of both @Isis and @DrRubidium were typically on point.

It's already made some people think about their experiences and decide they want to share them. I'de like to focus on the first ~35min, before the discussion moved to getting more research subjects, and after in the last ~15min.

It seems like there is always someone either asking what the value of pseudanonymous voices is, or what someone using a pseud is hiding. I get the question a lot and anytime I am critical of what someone has said or written, it is always they first thing they attack. The sentiment "you wouldn't be stating your opinion like that if you were using your REAL name!" is so common I feel like I should have stock text in the about page to refer to.

Of course, that's the whole point. One of the easiest ways to silence someone is to flex a power differential - using the subtle (or not) implication that This Will Go On Your Permanent Record. As a non-tenured faculty member, I've used a pseud to separate myself from the blog for exactly the point that Isis makes in the video - I want to be known for my lab's science and not for my ramblings here. When I'm at a conference I want people to seek me out to talk about the paper we just published or the grant we just got funded, and not to discuss my feeling on overhead. That's not to say that I would not discuss anything and everything I've written here with anyone, but I don't want it to be attached to my scientific identity in the way my research is.

I am also strongly against the idea that people should judge my opinions here based on looking at my publication list or my scientific lineage. The second of two points (we'll get to the first in a minute) I want to touch on that were brought up in the last 15 minutes by @eperlste was that all discussion of science should be open and using real names. The ONLY reason why people feel strongly about this is because they want to be able to place their critics in the academic caste system and see where they stand - maybe measure the length of each other's ivy. Rather than deal with criticism of the science, alone, they want to predetermine whether to take another person seriously. Is there any wonder why pseuds are rampant when that attitude is so blatantly stated?

BUT. And a huge BUT. I could get rid of my pseud today and I doubt I would suffer much, professionally. Enough people know who I am, from colleagues to the halls of NSF, that there is very little separating my comments on the blog from my identity. But as @eperlste appears to unironically state near the 101 minute mark, "I'm a white guy, so I can get away with it!" Unlike Tomasson, who is intentionally playing the white douche (again, because he can), Ethan unapologetically and unintentionally nails the whole thing home. The whole point of the #moreinvolved tag, as I understood it, was to talk about ways in which we get more people into the folds of science. The early discussion regarding minorities mirroring those in power to conform, should make it more clear to the White Guys why so many pseuds exist and why so many people who are in the majority group are happy to associate their names to their on-line presence and think You Should Too! If only there wasn't a contractual obligation to talk about cancer research in these things, that discussion thread mightn' have been broken.

In any case, find the time to watch the video above and think about where the different perspectives are coming from. I could've watched another hour on this topic. Next time we need to make sure Isis' office stash is better stocked.

25 responses so far

  • Dr Becca says:

    Fantastic recap, PLS, especially this: The ONLY reason why people feel strongly about this is because they want to be able to place their critics in the academic caste system and see where they stand - maybe measure the length of each other's ivy. Rather than deal with criticism of the science, alone, they want to predetermine whether to take another person seriously.

    When a person says, "why won't you just tell me your real name?" what they are really saying is, "why won't you let me judge you?"

  • Bashir says:

    The main reason I continue to have a pseud is to write about things like the whole NIH Ginther "black scientist don't get grants" issue. I stand by everything I've written. I use a pseud because I am trying to avoid being labeled the "angry black guy" in my professional life. I'm not sure my career is at the point it could survive it. Don't think there isn't a cost to complaining, even if people agree with you.

    FYI, I do make some science related comments with my real name from time to time (always with a link to my CV, ya know).

  • proflikesubstance says:

    It's not surprising, we're used to taking evaluation shortcuts in science. The H-index and Specific Aims page are both different ways for busy people to try and efficiently judge a larger number of individuals in a wider arena. For some, scanning the Training section of the CV is exactly the same thing.

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    I was leery of pseudonyms for a while, because of many of the same concerns I have about anonymity. It took me a while to recognize, after seeing people with pseudonyms in action, how different they were in fact from anonymity.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Zen- you highlight the shortcut issue. You get a lot of info about someone with consistent reading and interaction. Enough to have a fair idea of what box to place them in. So it just takes longer, but it is the same process.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Indeed, I think what I like about pseuds is that it forces people to gain credibility outside of their IRL accomplishments. Readers can take or leave your opinions based on the history you've left in posts, not by your CV.

  • Thanks for the shout out dude! I'm glad you guys found some value and entertainment in the discussion!

    And, yeah. The dichotomy of white guys was interesting. I wonder how much they will review their own statements and evaluate how frequently that offered an opinion/plan versus asking for one.

  • Bakermind says:

    I suppose it is human nature to desire as much information as possible when interacting; people would prefer to see the faces of their conversation partners rather than the backs of their heads. This "shortcut" mechanism seems true... after interacting with another pseud enough... one's imagination "fills in the blanks" in one's mental picture of their conversation partner.

    Managing one identity is hard enough; I can't imagine having two. Guess I'm not cut out to be a superhero. Perhaps a supervillain instead?

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    DM: Hm. You may be right. I wasn't conceiving of it as a shortcut in evaluating people, though; it was more the principle of accountability that interested me. Anonymity can let people not be accountable. It took some time to see pseudonymity in practice to realize that people with pseudonyms can be accountable.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    Well, I lived most of my professional life in the 20th century, when people didn't have pseudonyms. I am a white boy who grew up working on my family ranch in Texas. I am an only child, so I have all those characteristics as well . I do what I do and I try to treat people right. If I think you are wrong, I will try to help you get straightened out, no matter if you are the guru. I don't have much to say in discussions of female or minority situations, because I don't walk in your shoes. If I interact personally, I'll do my best to treat you fair and square, and help you succeed.

  • Terry says:

    I started out without a psued, in part, because if I spent time blogging in a useful fashion then I'd be glad to take any credit I can get. (And I'm tenured.) But the science, and being known for it, is far more important. Having the blog distracts from being known for the science, but measured in raw units, I think my science can be better known than without the blog.

  • Also, because of the nature of my blog, part of its credibility is my identity. If I'm arguing that someone like me (a faculty member at a teaching-centered institution) can do genuine research, I have to back that up if I'm to be credible. Also, that leaves me open to be judged (because, well, I do genuine research but am not spectacular and there are far better models than myself). That's the not-small drawback.

  • Isabel says:

    The white guy is not bad looking! We do need eye candy.

    Seriously I watched a bit but didn't have time to watch the whole thing. I was hoping for some insight into scicurious' decision not to use her name but she was pretty quiet (but no mask?) I have never seen a post that wasn't about science and non-controversial.

    I understand the situation, but as a blog reader it would sure be nice to have some women use their names. In a way, it perpetuates the situation. When will the cycle be broken?

  • Mary says:

    For many reasons I started out as a pseud and ungendered blogger/nickname. My initial blogging was political, during the Bush administration. And my feelings on evolution, stem cells, and women's health might not have been that good for the health of grants we were applying for under that administration.

    And I developed a reputation among lefty bloggers with that. So it seemed a shame to shed it when evolution + stem cells wound up back on the good side (for now).

    But I also had concerns about the additional layers of abuse you get for internetting-while-female. So I kept my non-gendered persona anyway.

    Then I became increasingly distressed that there weren't women apparent in many discussions I was in. Sometimes I knew there were other women, but it wasn't obvious. So I purposefully added my female cartoon icon to sort of "come out" as female.

    I still take stands on science issues that could blow back on my employment situation (vaccines, GMOs, for example), but my identity is more of a veil from the crazy people than it is a wall from people I will have real interactions with.

    [on twitter I'm @mem_somerville]

  • Isabel says:

    Okay so you are going to accuse me of accusing you of "perpetuating the problem" ha ha whatever....

    I'll explain: what I mean is as a reader I read many science blogs and almost all the science bloggers who use their real names are men. And I wasn't going to mention this but since you are twisting my words anyway, what the hell: none of the males who do use pseuds are calling themselves names like "ScienceBoy" or Zeus the Scientist or other cutesy names, at least none that I follow, and they rarely feel the need to openly brag about how hilarious or awesome they are (they just assume it) or insist other people call them "Gods" etc. I just can't help cringing sometimes.

  • Exciting discussion PLS, thanks for you support!! Being called eye candy --that was a first!! Maybe that's the point of this "masquerade ball:" to learn from changing the roles around. Lack of a sense of humor, rigid power dynamics are unhealthy. Switching it up, taking a swig of whisky and listening to the lady in the squid hat or mask...feels good and true. There is, it feels to me, an important value to this exercise. Taking risks is scary but important. Communication in fear--of disapproval, of retribution by the institution--suffers and is incomplete and two-dimensional. Many in the dominant culture already feel safe. But for many, there are thoughts, politics, off-color jokes, outlandish opinions that we may need some cover to express.

    isis taught me an important thing about psueds--you can't just say whatever the hell you want (as I tended to do when I started). A pseud needs to build and maintain a reputation. And that reputation is separate from, but is a reflection of your real life reputation. So let your hair down a little... but be respectful, don't be rude or obnoxious. I'm trying. I'll listen more, and endeavor to learn from you (odd and) marvelous people.

  • Isabel says:

    Oh and please don't misquote me again if you decide to go with that for your next topic. 🙂 I said very clearly that I understand the concept, I do the same as a commentor (though with more vulnerability since you see my info and IP address which bloggers have abused from time to time) for personal or political writing. And yes, the different aspects of our lives cross over, we all have many facets etc, but if you are just blogging science, or science 90% of the time, and doing an excellent job of it like Sci, I think the white dudes may have a point. As a woman of color, I get it, but I honestly don't get it in Sci's case. How would it hurt her career? She is doing great work and blogging for Scientific American. I read her blog frequently and have never noticed any trolls. If they are there she must be quick at deleting them. I would just like to see one or two women's names out there with top bloggers like Ed Yong.

    Although the cute guy was kind of annoying at times in the video (in an endearing way) I sometimes agree that it is useful to listen to what the privileged are telling us. And no, we don't know all that already. They have not had our experience and we have not had their experience of being powerful. I have often had the experience that powerful males were helpful to me in my life for just that reason- why throw their experience away? Use it!

  • Isabel says:

    It's complicated Michael - some people have been rude and obnoxious to me for my views (including mocking me, mocking groups of people and revealing my location) from the cover of their supposed lack of privilege. Women of color and others can definitely be assholes also. Yes, we are all in this together and humor is an extremely important ingredient. Hope you got that I was joking (mostly) about the eye candy.

  • Isabel says:

    Oh, I see, you did get it - changing the roles around.

  • Isis the Scientist says:

    Arikia Millikan, Rebecca Skloot, Jennifer Oullette, Maryn McKenna, Danielle Lee, Deborah Blum...

    That's only a short list. There may not be parity, but lets not discount everyone other than Ed Yong...

  • drugmonkey says:

    I am deeply wounded you don't "follow" any "cutesy" male pseuds, Isabel.

  • Isabel says:

    Now that you mention it Drugmonkey is a cute pseud.

    I checked those out again Isis in case I missed something, but Deborah Blum is the only one I've read consistently and like most of your examples she posts relatively infrequently (5 posts since 4/29). Maryn McKenna averages 6 posts/month for the last 3 months. Yes, there are hundreds of bloggers out there, male and female. When it comes to people who use their real names it seems the really compelling, well-known blogs that have frequent posts and lively comment threads do tend to be written by males. At least from my perspective.

    I will say I got pretty caught up in DN Lee's blog, which I haven't looked at in ages. I'm not sure why it seems so compelling to me now, maybe it has just evolved. Nice mix of science, field work, travel observations, current events, with lots of great photos, sad to see once again few comments. I will start reading her more often.

  • scicurious says:

    Isabel: thanks for the compliments. 🙂 I actually revealed my real name a while ago...

    So...I really am out there. I stayed behind the pseud for a long time due to professional, as opposed to personal reasons. But it turned out to also be a good opportunity to build a brand and to build trust, and gave a me a lot of practice at being a professional on the internet. I feel it's been extremely useful.

  • Isabel says:

    Oh okay I didn't realize that - thanks for the link and explanation, makes sense.

  • Neuroskeptic says:

    I'm a pseudonymous white guy. My being pseudonymous has nothing to do with my gender or race though. Many people assume I'm male, some make no assumption; no-one has ever (to my knowledge) assumed I'm female however - even though, statistically, in the branch of neuroscience I work in, over half of reseachers are female. But no-one ever assumes that I am... what that says about gender stereotypes I'm not sure.

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