Randy Cohen's ethics column in tomorrow's New York Times Magazine features two letters, both of them signed with first and last names. Michael Grimaldi, from Kansas City, Missouri, has a question about his wife and a utility pole; Allison Moule, from Broomfield, Colorado, wants to know why first-class passengers are allowed to get through airport security faster than everyone else. It is pretty typical Ethicist fare, in other words—except that tomorrow's column marks the first time in more than three months that both letter-writers have allowed Cohen to print their full names. Last week, in fact, both people went anonymous, and the week before that, as well.
Indeed, ever since February, when Cohen admitted to accidentally outing an Alabama creative writing teacher who had requested anonymity, there seems to have been a sharp increase in the number of Ethicist letters running under "name withheld." Have people grown wary of the Ethicist? Or is everyone just getting more private on account of the Google? Intrigued, we asked Cohen if he'd noticed the trend, and then did our own tally comparison.
First, Cohen, in an e-mail sent May 21st:
I've not done a count, but my sense of it matches yours: there seem to be more people lately asking that their queries run 'name withheld.' I can't be certain why this is, but I don't connect it to any particular person or event in the press. Rather, I feel that when readers see other queries run this way, they [tend?] to request it. Everything accelerates. But who knows?
The short answer is no one! But, we thought: maybe there is some science we could do? Resolved, we fired up the old Lexis Nexis machine and compared the 11 week-period after the incident with Wendy Rawlings came to light, and the eight weeks prior to and including the issue in which her letter first appeared.
After doing some number-crunching based on the letters printed (not very scientific, since the Ethicist gets hundreds a week that don't go anywhere), we can conclude that change truly is afoot: in the eleven weeks since Cohen's apologetic correction ran on March 11th, there have been six letters with full attributions and 16 anonymous ones (including people who just gave their initials). By comparison, the eleven weeks before the correction—March 4th through Dec. 17th—carried 11 with full names and 13 anonymous ones (same deal re: initials; also, this includes the one Rawlings sent, since she did, after all, ask for anonymity). That's a 45% plunge in bravery (right??), even if the anonymity quotient has stayed more or less constant. That's what we've got for you. Everything accelerates.