On anonymous comments

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Guy Fawkes mask from Wikimedia Commons, published by Kigsz under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

When you are at risk of violent reprisal by the state or organized crime, or when expressing your opinion can place your life or your career or those of your friends and family in jeopardy, then it’s legitimate to exercise caution by cloaking yourself in anonymity.  When these considerations of danger do not apply, as was the case with this recent comment and this even more recent comment on this blog, then anonymity simply amounts to failure to take responsibility for your opinions.  I see this as a form of cowardice, and frankly as reprehensible.  For this reason, as I have already mentioned, I continue to believe it would be best to filter out all anonymous comments, even when they raise interesting poiints.  (When they don’t raise interesting points they are already being rejected, but this has only happened once or twice.)

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10 thoughts on “On anonymous comments

    1. mathematicswithoutapologies Post author

      I don’t know and maybe you can tell me, whether DSM-5 has added new categories for pathological internet behavior. I do anticipate that DSM-6, whether or not it is written exclusively by human authors, will have to incorporate diagnoses of AI, humans, and intermediate forms.

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  1. Voynich

    As a junior mathematician, I do feel significantly more comfortable offering my comments here (such as they are) anonymously. Is this defensible?

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    1. mathematicswithoutapologies Post author

      You’re not hiding anything from me, and anyway I’m both scrupulously fair and perfectly harmless. And I don’t suppose you are worried about violent reprisal by the state or organized crime. I did provide an exemption for concerns about your career.

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  2. Me

    ” then anonymity simply amounts to failure to take responsibility for your opinions. ”

    Well, surely the same considerations apply to peer review. Do you also think that referees should deanonymize their reports ?

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    1. mathematicswithoutapologies Post author

      That’s also interesting, because it points to a natural misconception. Behind the misconception is a bad pun, based on the use of the same word — anonymity — to designate two quite different situations. I’m not sufficiently familiar with the history of anonymous peer review to make any positive claims, but I imagine some colleagues suppose it to be more democratic than the alternatives, because it protects a referee who doesn’t occupy a position of power from retribution by a powerful author or an author’s powerful friends. As such it’s covered by one of the legitimate exceptions mentioned in the post. Alternatively, it could be seen as a kind of social lubricant. In reality, of course, it serves to maintain a structure of power characteristic of the discipline, and as such it’s not the sort of institution on which I feel called upon to take a position — not in MWA in any case. If all publication decisions (and hiring decisions, and granting decisions) were made in public, the discipline would be different in fairly obvious ways. I’m not going to say whether it would be better or worse.

      In any case, it’s not at all the same kind of anonymity that would allow someone like the Good Pirate of a few days ago to rationalize stealing from a blind beggar.

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  3. David Roberts

    Do you draw a distinction between anonymous and pseudonymous posting? There are people on MathOverflow who are obviously good mathematicians who prefer to not reveal their identity, for one reason or another. They have a consistent name and image to uphold, even if many people cannot link that image to a flesh-and-blood person. I won’t repeat arguments here, but interested parties can find them on tea.mathoverflow.net (and possibly meta.mathoverflow.net).

    Also, some people, in particular women, have bad experiences online and wish to obscure facts about themselves; a rigorous stand on anon-/pseudonymy in all internet locations is one way to achieve this.

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    1. mathematicswithoutapologies Post author

      That’s the danger of expressing an opinion in the presence of mathematicians; one is expected to give precise definitions and to make precise distinctions. Your second paragraph should also be covered by metaphoric extension of “life and career.” (I realize I would never get away with proof by metaphoric extension in a journal article, though I’m tempted to try.) The first paragraph looks something like a defense of costume parties, but I don’t have time to check the discussion on MathOverflow to see whether there’s more to it than that.

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    2. Richard Séguin

      I might be wrong, but it seems to me that all non-anonymous comments I’ve seen on this blog are by men. If there are women commenting here, and they are all commenting anonymously, I think you have to ask yourself: why? If there are no women commenting here at all, again, I think you have to ask yourself: why?

      See Izabella Laba’s discussion of women and MathOverflow:

      https://ilaba.wordpress.com/2011/03/28/why-im-not-on-mathoverflow/#more-2360

      Right off hand, I can’t find her post explaining why she decided to disable comments on her blog.

      I recall a very heated discussion on Peter Woit’s blog about a woman mathematician that I eventually stepped into, suggesting to Woit that he needed to shut comments off. He did, and he also deleted many nasty comments. The woman was raked over the coals by both anonymous and non-anonymous comments, and it was clear that those comments were coming from men. I think that by the time he realized a blood bath was taking place, the damage was already done.

      I myself have little to worry about. I have a male name, I’m retired, and I don’t have to worry about a career.

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      1. mathematicswithoutapologies Post author

        You are wrong, but not by much. In April Emily Riehl commented on a post entitled “Souciant Laddishness” that discussed the review of MWA by Jonathan Rée; I took issue with Rée’s claim to have detected a “tolerance towards male-identified competitiveness that may shock some readers.” Both the book and the blog make frequent direct and indirect allusions to sexism in discourse about mathematics, mostly implicit, starting with the IBM Men in Modern Mathematics poster. It’s a topic to which I will return when I have time for a big discussion, and when I am convinced that women will be among the participants!

        The discussion of homotopy type theory is still the one that attracted the most comments. I think it’s fair to say that some of them were expressed in a style of male-oriented competitiveness. It’s hard for me to say whether my own comments can be characterized in the same way.

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