I made the decision recently to force the ownership of each object on this site to be visible to guests. Among other things, people were playing with the "date" and "author" fields on articles a wee bit too much. It was funny, appropriate, and also counter-productive (in my opinion) to the overall mission of this site. But did I make a good decision? Ensis agreed with me but, respectfully, that doesn't mean much.
Several questions are answered by knowing something about the author of a particular bit of text (or other information):
- Has this author seemed honest in the past?
- Has this author demonstrated a particular bias that I should know about?
- Can I contact this author for follow-up information?
- Is the author a trusted source of information on this topic; does he or she have the required authority in this field?
- Is there an emerging pattern throughout the articles that can either help me understand the author or his or her current article?
- Do I know anything about this author outside of the context of these articles that would help me do the same?
- Does the author's real or assumed name reveal anything about the author?
- Can the author be held accountable for misrepresentations, especially libel or slander?
- Does knowing anything about the author make it more likely that I will disagree with him or her on a matter of principle rather than what is literally contained in the article?
We can adopt several schemes for tracing authors: we could let every article be entirely independent; we could allow users to trace a series of articles by the same author with no other identifying information; we could do the same now including some sort of pseudonym; we could for authors to make their verifiable names (and other contact information) public, attached to every article.
Does an article's credibility depend solely on the author? When logic is the primary focus of an article rather than facts (in the form of statistics or other researchable data) then it seems that trusting the author is important. After all, he or she could be slowly leading you astray with small fallacies. Logic, in its pure form, is verifiable. You can (easily) spot mistakes and point them out, without any information about the source of these errors.
When facts are involved, everyone wants references. Lots of references. Obviously, the number of references matters. Few people will take the time, however, to verify all the sources mentioned, or to do their own research to see if the selection is fair and representative of the opinion of the authoritative body of research. After all, quoting old texts without mentioning recent research may "prove" your point for a while, but it's not necessarily honest. If an author has gathered his or her own data, such as interviews, documents, or personal observation, readers may want to contact the author of an article for more information, original documents, or other extended information. Not having this ability seriously damages the credibility of the article as a whole.
When outrageous claims are made, such as direct accusations or conspiracy theories, the availability of the author for questioning is of extreme importance to readers. Surely, the facts (if any) mentioned can be checked independently, slowly. The logic can be verified by careful examination. But the willingness to put your name on a bit of public text is a mark of honor: you stand by your statements and are willing to take the (likely dire) consequences for doing so. Without this home-made seal of approval, readers are likely to classify your claims as those of an "anonymous coward." From the safety of anonymity, you can strike at your enemies with impunity. You can do so often too -- anonymous comments are likely to be much more common than signed ones.
It is easy, however, to misuse this information. Just today, I saw several instances of abuse: using past comments by a source of an announcement as "proof" that new announcements were simply unreliable, accusations against intent rather than content, taunting of "anonymous cowards" by logged-in users making otherwise useless comments, or even blatant disregard for content posted by users with "obscene" usernames ... In a sense, forcing everyone to be anonymous might cure us of our desire to attack people and their motives rather than their words and their sources. Regardless of the source of our information, our duty as readers (and audience in general) is to be skeptical and attempt to independently verify what we hear or read. We may never get it right, though: our own bias may very well cloud our judgement, sources may be out of our reach, or we may simply run out of time. If an article is signed with a (seemingly) real name, do you not feel you're likely to trust its contents a bit more? In your rush to get good information, will you trust the "brave" few who will put their names where mouths are? Will we ignore those other "cowards" who might attempt to eliminate any ambiguity by posting content by itself, with no strings (or names) attached?
There is some honor, at least, to anonymity. Believing that your statements can stand on their own, forcing readers to trust you not on who you are (or claim to be) but on your claims ... there's something, I think, to be said for doing this. "Anonymous coward" is the chant of the cowards in the crowd with nothing better to say; it is a simple way of dismissing potentially valuable information or claims based on that information. Anonymity may result in slander becoming a part of everyday news, with no credibility nor accountability; it's painful for malicious lies to be spread about you. On equal grounds, however, can slander and libel not be fought effectively by their targets? Signed names are a liability for their owners: lawsuits, prison, torture, or even kidnappings and assassinations may result. There is likely no need to remind you that in some nations, anonymity is required if you wish to publish more than one article in a lifetime. Should those people be required to sign their names as proof of their commitment to a cause?
Some things are safe to say only as an anonymous contributor. Some things are best said anonymously, to give readers only one thing to think about: content. Even with a name, would you have verified the information, or simply trusted it (or not) instinctively? What is in the best interests of the information and its target? Can you be trusted not to dismiss arguments out of hand simply based on their author?
In the end, it all comes down to personal responsibility, restraint, ethics in each of us. We have very little of any of these. Perhaps, under the circumstances, anonymity matters very little? We'll find ways of applying our bias regardless. We fear change, and we fear change-inducing data.