Nomen Est Omen

By Edward Tenner

Names can be prophetic. Consider this account of a German privacy case by my friend John Schwartz, about a lawyer suing Wikipedia to enforce globally a German law limiting the naming even of convicted criminals after their release:

Mr. Stopp has already successfully pressured German publications to remove the killers' names from their online coverage. German editors of Wikipedia have scrubbed the names from the German-language version of the article about the victim, Walter Sedlmayr.

Now Mr. Stopp, in suits in German courts, is demanding that the Wikimedia Foundation, the American organization that runs Wikipedia, do the same with the English-language version of the article.

An injunction-seeking attorney named Mr. Stopp? Of the firm of Stopp & Stopp? Psychological researchers have found a statistically significant influence of names in choices of career. The phenomenon is called "implicit narcissism" or "implicit egotism." (Not that the firm concerned, or any other individuals with fitting names, are personally narcissistic or egotistic.) It worked for the poker champion Chris Moneymaker -- his real name, incidentally. A distinguished astrologer in India has made name change a formidable science, and the British have web sites to expedite the process.

But it's still worth remembering a point made by the Wall Street Journal's "Numbers Guy," Carl Bialik, quoting one statistician on the alleged predictive power of names:

"In very large samples like the ones here, even small differences will be judged statistically significant," Prof. [Hal] Stern [of the University of California, Irvine] says. "This means that we're confident the difference is not zero. It does not mean the difference we see is important."

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2009/11/nomen-est-omen/30187/