On the value of pseudonyms

Our new Scienceblogs overlords sure have great timing with their new pseudonymous blogging rules. For those who haven’t run across that yet, National Geographic has decided to eliminate pseudonyms and force everyone with a blog remaining here (which is already dwindling) to blog under their real names. Meanwhile, out here in the real world, there’s a new unfortunate case study (short version: “EpiGate”) showing how blogging under one’s real name can lead to serious threats and potential loss of employment, among other things.

I blog under my own name (obviously), but if I were starting out now, I probably wouldn’t make that choice again. There are a lot of things I would love to write about on here, but can’t–or won’t–for a variety of reasons. For one, I’m untenured and would like to stay gainfully employed, and ideally even promoted and tenured this academic year, so it’s difficult for me to talk about some of the more “slice of life” stuff on here. Even talking about being a woman in science and balancing work and personal issues (oh, there are so many stories I could tell there…) is kind of walking a fine line. I don’t necessarily want people who google me for my science to come across posts on my kids’ latest exploits, or various personal drama that might make for great blog posts, but also make it weird for external reviewers trying to fairly evaluate me, for instance. Second, I don’t enjoy being harassed. Long-time readers will note that it’s rare that I write about HIV denial, even though that was such a main topic of this blog once-upon-a-time that it even culminated in a journal article. It’s just tiring to be harassed personally by deniers–and even moreso to have my colleagues and administration bullied.

And this is just what’s happened to my colleague, EpiRen. He managed to tick off an online bully; said bully then called EpiRen’s superiors, who gave him a choice between his blogging and his employment. Not surprisingly, EpiRen eventually ended up pulling his public blog and Twitter feed, to the detriment of anyone who wanted a good source of public health information on the internets.

There’s an active discussion regarding the differences between blogging science as a scientist, and blogging as a journalist under one’s real name. A journalist’s job is to write for the public; a scientist’s, honestly, is not–and so if National Geographic is serious about wanting to keep good scientists in their lineup (and others have noted that, truly, they likely don’t give a shit), their decision to disallow pseudonymous blogging is shooting themselves in the foot. There are many valid reasons why a scientist may not want to be publicly identified on their blog–does that really make the information any less valid? Does NG really think that someone who may carry out experimental work with animals, and discuss animal research on their blog using a ‘nym, would really choose their blogging hobby over their livelihood and–potentially–their family’s safety? There are animal rights and anti-vaccine extremists to worry about; Carl Zimmer even points out recent threats aimed at Chronic Fatigue Syndrome researchers who have reached conclusions that some patients didn’t like or agree with. Who can blame many scientists for wanting badly to share their work and insights with the general public, but doing so in a way that disassociates those posts from their “real life” identity?

These things aren’t just theoretical. HIV denier Andrew Maniotis showed up, unannounced, at my work office one day a few years ago. The recently-arrested “David Mabus” showed up at an atheist convention. While using a pseudonym doesn’t always protect you–certainly many pseuds have been outed by those willing to do the detective work–it at least offers you some measure of protection from threats, both online and off.

NG claims to have listened to reasons for blogging under a pseudonym, but have made this decision as a way to “establish best practices” in the industry. Well, I call shenanigans. They’re freaking National Geographic–they can set the curve, and establish best practices by allowing (hey, even encouraging!) quality pseud bloggers. After all, would Carl Zimmer and Ed Yong be any less awesome if they were instead known as ParasiteGuy and RocketMan?

It’s not a freaking spider bite

Over at White Coat Underground, Pal has the post that I’ve been meaning to write. Earlier this summer, a family member posted on Facebook that a friend of her daughter was nursing a “nasty spider bite” that she got while camping in Michigan. Her post claimed it was a Brown Recluse bite. Being my usually buttinski self, I posted and told her that it was really, really unlikely to be a brown recluse bite, and that the friend-of-the-daughter-of-the-relative should hie thee to her physician and get the “bite” checked out. I told her that rather than a spider bite, it could be a Staph infection and may require antibiotics.

Now, I should note that few people in my family really “get” just what it is that I do, and even fewer of them realize that I spend my days researching bacterial infections, and that Staph in particular is my specialty. So I didn’t take it personally when she pooh-poohed my suggestion and told me I had no idea what I was talking about, and that FOTDOTR’s doctor had already seen the bite and proclaimed it to be due to a brown recluse. Okay, whatever, northern Michigan is completely the wrong place to get a bite from one of these critters and many research papers say the same thing–that “spider bites” usually aren’t bites at all. I pointed this out (and linked some Google images of supposed spider bites in comparison to Staph infection images) and then left the conversation.

A day later, relative posted an update in the thread–FOTDOTR ended up going back to the doctor as the “bite” was getting worse. As I suspected, she had now officially been diagnosed with a staph infection–and yet they were still trying to determine “what kind of spider bit her.” A few hours later, relative asked “What is MRSA? FOTDOTR was just diagnosed with that from the spider bite.”

This is when I started pulling out my hair, since I’d linked info about MRSA several days prior by this point. There was no spider bite, damn it!

Anyway, FOTDOTR got treatment (though relative probably still believes it’s from a spider bite) and I know at least a few people on the thread now may at least think “staph” when someone says “spider bite”–so overall, a good ending.

Pal notes:

Despite this widespread belief, most “spider bites” in my part of the country [Michigan, ahem–TS] aren’t caused by spiders, and probably aren’t bites at all. (The feared “brown recluse” does not live naturally in my part of the country, although importations have been reported. They do not generally survive through the winter.) The distinction is important for a few reasons. First, many of us are guilty of wanton arachnicide propelled by our unwarranted fears. Second, many “bites” are probably bacterial infections and should be treated properly. Finally, there’s my own bias that we shouldn’t assume things that aren’t so.