I should really be blogging about swine flu, the conspiracy theories, the daft claims to have remedies for the snoutbreak (Elderberry and vitamin C? Homeopathic mp3 files? I can hardly believe I can read advice like this), or perhaps the silly puns involved (aporkalypse, the remedies produced by Pig Pharma, parmageddon etc…) but this article by Carol Midgley caught my eye (via the HolfordWatch miniblog) so I’m writing about anonymous bloggers instead. In bemoaning the vitriolic nature of the nastier end of internet-based discussion, she inadvertently wrote something quite hilarious:
You’ll no doubt think this a bit rich coming from a journalist who spouts opinions for money. Well, yes, but at least we put our names to what we write. Our unlovely photographs sit atop the page, we have to qualify statements, check facts, our lawyers monitor what we write and beat us with a wet slipper if we mess up.
Really? I am perfectly willing to accept that newspaper lawyers are likely to make quite a considerable fuss over potentially libellous articles (although, given the number of lawsuits that some newspapers have lost, I’m not convinced that lawyers are doing this consistently – or that their advice is heeded), and I have no idea to what extent journalist qualify statements. But I do not accept that journalists have to check facts. If they had to do these things then they would be doing them. The fact that they clearly are not checking facts would suggest that this activity is not obligatory. As Nick Davies pointed out in Flat Earth News, only 12 per cent of key factual statements in mainstream British newspapers show signs of being thoroughly checked. I don’t think this figure backs up Carol Midgley’s claim that journalists have to fact-check. The implication that journalists are more accurate than bloggers because they fact-check will surely make any reader of www.badscienceblogs.net laugh heartily. (Perhaps especially those who have read this blog post.)
The other point I am going to address is that of anonymity. Midgley complains that anonymous bloggers are “chicken-hearted, craven, faceless cowards” – but is willing to make an exception for “a blogger writing about certain government dictatorships”. That’s a fairly extreme example. There are many reasons for people to blog anonymously. The blog “Education Watch” lists some of those reasons here in a piece about Marianne Mikko. Not wishing to have details of one’s identity available to every angry weirdo on the internet is one reason to blog anonymously. Making use of anonymity to blow the whistle on malpractice and corruption is another. Then there’s avoiding giving the impression that you speak for your employer. Or you may simply wish to avoid upsetting or annoying friends, family, or your employer to give but three examples. (Incidentally, the blog post on Education Watch also points out that it is what is said that is important, not who says it – playing the ball not the man, so to speak.) I agree with Midgley when she writes to suggest that “Next time you’re about to write something malicious on a website, ask yourself a question. Would you have the balls to say it to your target’s face?” I disagree with her conclusion that if you would have the balls to say it “then [you should] put your name to it. If not, hold your chicken-hearted tongue and make a cup of tea instead.”
Flat Earth News website.
Update, 22nd August 2011