- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Name that blogger

A lengthy quarrel between “publius,” a pseudonymous liberal lawyer who blogs at Obsidian Wings and Ed Whelan of the National Review blog Bench Memos (http://bench.nationalreview.com/) over the Sonia Sotomayor nomination turned particularly nasty at week’s end, with Mr. Whelan “outing” his liberal antagonist and prompting a widespread Internet debate about netiquette, the ethics of outing and anonymous blogging.

Mr. Whelan explained his reasoning as “[in] the course of a typically confused post yesterday, Publius embraces the idiotic charge … that I’m ‘essentially a legal hitman’ who ‘pores over [a nominee’s] record, finds some trivial fact that, when distorted and taken totally out of context, makes that person look like some sort of extremist.’”

“I’m amused to learn that I was wrong about publius’s lack of legal education. I’ve been reliably informed that publius is in fact the pseudonym of law professor John F. Blevins of the South Texas College of Law.”

In a post titled “Stay Classy Ed Whelan,” Publius confirmed his identity and said he “blogged under a pseudonym largely for private and professional reasons. Professionally, I’ve heard that pre-tenure blogging (particularly on politics) can cause problems. And before that, I was a lawyer with real clients.” Mr. Blevins also cited his identity as a teacher, potential disapproval by a conservative family, and the chance their professional lives might suffer by association.

Seemingly every lawyer with a blog then weighed in. The liberal sites were predictably critical of Mr. Whelan, but there was a real split among conservative-leaning sites.

Law professor Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit said he had sympathy for a professional need for pseudonyms, but “if you appoint yourself someone’s anonymous blogging nemesis, you can probably expect to be outed.” But Steve Dillard of Southern Appeal took the opposite tack, calling it “poor form” and calling on Mr. Whelan to apologize because “this kind of disproportionate response to harsh criticism is, quite frankly, beneath him.”

Jonathan Adler, a formerly anonymous blogger at the Volokh Conspiracy, agreed and defended the general practice.

“In my view — and I’m hardly a disinterested party, given my own history — pseudonymous blogging can enrich the academic and policy blogosphere. While it enables some to hurl reckless charges and gross epithets, it also facilitates the engagement of more individuals in on-line discussion and debate. There are many understandable reasons why intelligent and knowledgeable people in various fields are reluctant to blog under their own name.”

A Sunday afternoon post at Hot Air, which included a poll on “When is it OK to ‘out’ anonymous bloggers?,” had more than 640 comments within just 24 hours. Of more than 5,600 votes as of 1 p.m. Monday, the most popular of the five responses was “When they commit a crime, slander/libel, or out someone else,” with 53 percent.

UPDATE:

Late Monday night, Mr. Whelan apologized for his outing, saying he had “sent him an e-mail setting forth my apology for my uncharitable conduct. As I stated in that e-mail, I realize that, unfortunately, it is impossible for me to undo my ill-considered disclosure of his identity. For that reason, I recognize that Publius may understandably regard my apology as inadequate.” Early Tuesday morning, Publius accepted the apology and said the matter was closed.

Gaffe game

Speaking of Hot Air polls, the latest “Obamateurism of the week” poll has these choices, all linked at the site. These are the contenders for the biggest gaffe made by President Obama the previous week:

• Urban legends about hackers blacking out major cities

• Democracy cannot be “hoisted” on countries.

• “If you actually took the number of Muslim Americans, we’d be one of the largest Muslim countries in the world.”

• Obama not willing to do “flashy fundraiser” for Hillary [Rodham Clinton] during economic crisis, but did for [Harry] Reid

• Islamic tolerance during the Inquisition period in … Cordoba?

There’s still time to vote, but the Muslim American quote appears to be the runaway winner, with 81 percent of the more than 4,500 by Monday afternoon.

Bankrupt dust-up

Elizabeth Warren of Harvard University published a study last week purporting to show that rising cost of medical care and gaps in insurance are driving people into bankruptcy. Her findings, widely reported in a score of mainstream media outlets, were that medical expenses contribute to 70 percent of bankruptcies, versus 50 percent in 2001 and just 8 percent in 1981.

Color Megan McArdle of the Atlantic unimpressed, in a series of posts at her eponymous site, beginning with one titled “Elizabeth Warren and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad, Utterly Misleading Bankruptcy Study.”

Miss McArdle, who describes herself as “the world’s tallest female econoblogger,” made myriad criticisms of the study, some of which reach into details of social-science methodology, but her conclusion was blunt: “Warren and her co-authors have obscured important and obvious facts that call the integrity of the work into serious question … this is particularly troubling because Elizabeth Warren is now in charge of overseeing the TARP program for Congress. What other inconvenient facts is she shielding us from?”

Among her criticisms:

• Most of the people whom the study described as having been driven into bankruptcy by medical bills did not describe their situations that way: “It’s hard to believe that more than half of people who have been pushed into bankruptcy by a medical issue don’t understand this fact.”

• The number of medical-caused bankruptcies actually declined in the 2000s, though the overall number of bankruptcies fell so much faster that medical-bankruptcies still constituted a larger share of the (much) smaller number: “Had their paper done the basic arithmetic, readers would easily have seen that their own numbers imply a decrease in medical bankruptcies, from about 750,000 [in 2001] to slightly over 500,000 [in 2007]. Yet their paper does not merely ignore this fact; it uses language that seems deliberately designed to conceal it.”

Over the next day, Miss McArdle published five reader letters, mostly critical of the study and at least two from social scientists. None were from the study’s authors.

Compiled by Victor Morton. He can be reached at vmorton@washingtontimes.com

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