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    • CommentAuthorHJRW
    • CommentTimeAug 16th 2012 edited

    This question is currently in the middle of a close-reopen tug of war. It would be better if those involved discussed the pros and cons on meta.

    I am very concerned by this question, and also by the responses we are seeing. A year or so ago, we discussed whether or not MO should be used to discuss the merits of recent preprints here and also here. Various views were expressed, but I think there was general agreement that MO is not an appropriate venue to discuss recent preprints in detail and that authors should be treated with respect.

    Unfortunately, the responses to 104695 violate both these principles; in particular, the author has been ridiculed. I am very concerned about what this means for the culture of MO.

    As I mentioned in the comments, I suggest that the question be deleted. It might be acceptable to point out an error in a paper, but I feel that the *implied* accusation that the author of the paper is a crank is impolite, to say the least, and, in my opinion, should not belong in MO.
    • CommentAuthorEmil J
    • CommentTimeAug 16th 2012

    I agree with both HJRW and Joel Reyes Noche. The discussion of the author in the question and especially in the comments is really out of line, and I can’t see any useful purpose that its continued existence on MO could serve.

    • CommentAuthorBen Webster
    • CommentTimeAug 16th 2012 edited

    I've deleted the question. I think it obviously not in the spirit of the site and ad hominem in a way that I don't think it acceptable. I'm willing to be overruled (deleting is a reversible process) if there's a groundswell of contrary opinion, but I think this is not even border line. I'm included the text below so that it is visible to sub 10k users. I've replaced the author's name and affiliation for Google purposes.

    Today XXXX, from YYYY, posted an article claiming (quite confidently) to have proved Goldbach's 2 primes conjecture.

    I only read the beginning and am quite confident that this is nowhere near a proof. But I remember wondering many times about his work, and I remember one professor at the university of Barcelona interested in it. I always thought that his work was at least serious, if not all so (quantum) important as it was made to sound.

    Does anybody know about Prof. XXXX, and his work? Does anyone want to opine on the article about Goldbach's conjecture? Please share anything you find relevant.

    (I could not think of a better place to ask all this than here, sorry if I should have thought better.)

    EDIT: To clarify my intentions: I was mostly curious about XXXX's previous work. I remember seeing the books and wading through them, and seeing his arxiv postings, and I never read his work carefully enough to make myself an idea of its scope or importance, neither did I remember anybody commenting on it, so I was thinking this was the opportunity.

    Another remark I would like to make: Mathematicians are prompt to dismiss cranks and crankiness in general. I think there would be much to gain from understanding them: Why do people become cranks? Why can people lie on the border between crankiness and seriousness? How can we educate them? I think this could contribute to improving education, better accepting the less "normal" people, better guiding them too, helping them, not feeling rejected, not entering destructive dynamics.

    de Branges is an example that comes to mind, how he did good things, but was also a big burden on the community. Bolyai is another relevant example I believe, he did great things but also had difficulties later in his life. I think Lie started his theory as a generalization of Galois's while this intuition was mostly mistaken, if I understood correctly what J. P. Ramis said recently in a colloquium at Bordeaux. Cantor is another case. Ramanujan's life is a different but relevant example, and Atle Selberg I think criticized the education system for not supporting him -I also believe myself that states should support (most) people who are willing to work hard, even if not on any curriculum that is proposed.

    Physicists also provide lots of examples. Einstein I believe is a prime example of a researcher who struggled to motivate himself not pursuing pipe dreams. Dirac is one who seemed to better accept straightforward work, abandon too far-reaching goals, and "accept mathematics" in some sense (which I cannot make very clear now), as was Feynman. They have several famous quotes about the relationship between mathematics and physics. There are also several cultures now within physics, those who do ""straightforward"" developments of well-accepted theories, and those who reject the norm, who are radical, who defend outsider theories. Of course there are also very many cranks in the purest sense of the word.

    To lesser extents such tendencies, personality traits, are present in many researchers, people.

    But sincerely, through this question, I primarily meant to understand a bit XXXX's previous work. I was less attracted to thinking about how he leant toward crankiness, and I almost never gossip (in the sense of unfocused chat meant essentially to elicit negative emotions, to "vent out"), so if I had discussed that, it would have been with some effort to be productive and accurate.

    (With this edit I added the math-philosophy tag.)

    EDIT 2: A few references:

    Selberg on Ramanujan in this book

    About Janos Bolyai

    Quotes of Dirac

    Quotes of Feynman

    A small piece on Einstein's later work

    Wiki on de Branges

    I think in this book Halmos presents a very interesting perspective on the review process for de Branges's proof of the Bieberbach conjecture.

    I can't find a link to Ramis's colloquium. I don't think it should be very hard to find something about Lie's goal to generalize Galois theory.

    I may search more references if anybody is interested, or if anyone wants to provide links on serious studies of crankiness in science, please do.

    • CommentAuthorHenry Cohn
    • CommentTimeAug 16th 2012 edited

    (written before Ben's deletion, which seems reasonable to me)

    I wouldn't go so far as to say a sentence like "All in all, this is not a serious paper" is offensive or out of line - it's an awkward truth, but it can be better to say these things explicitly than to hint at them and make people read between the lines. On the other hand, I don't see much, if any, value to discussing this on MO. There's just not much to learn: the paper does not look convincing at all, and if the community had any real hope that it solved Goldbach's conjecture, we would all know about it. (I'm not convinced MO would be the right place to discuss this even if the situation were less clear, but that's a different argument.) In this situation, it can be hard to avoid having the discussion come across as ridicule, however it was intended.

    I'm also worried about the other aspects of the question:

    1. The original question solicits comments on the mathematician's previous papers. I can sympathize, since I'm curious about that too, but there's just too much potential for this to go awry. I don't think we should be conducting public assessments of anyone's past work on MO.

    2. The question has now been broadened to include discussion of cranks and eccentricity in general. That's a fascinating topic for discussion, but it's not at all a good fit for the question/answer format of MO. Even if it were a better fit, it could be difficult to maintain a respectful, professional tone, but I think the format alone is enough to rule it out for MO.


    I support Ben's deletion. Try reading the original post with your own name in place of XXXX's.

    • CommentAuthorAngelo
    • CommentTimeAug 16th 2012 edited
    I also agree with the deletion; perhaps I should not have made the comment I made.

    As to Tom's post, well, we all make mistakes, even gross ones; but I am fairly sure that none of the regular posters here runs any risk whatsoever of reading his or her name in place of XXXX's.
    • CommentAuthorAndy Putman
    • CommentTimeAug 16th 2012 edited
    I also strongly endorse the deletion.

    I also want to make a suggestion that might be a little controversial. After the conversation in this thread has died down, I think the whole thread should be deleted. I certainly don't want this stuff to come up when XXXX's name is googled. That's just not the kind of place I want MO (or even meta.MO) to be.
    I think deletion was the correcti thing to do. I also second Andy's suggestion.
    • CommentAuthorgrp
    • CommentTimeAug 16th 2012
    I think the deletion of the post and comments is appropriate. While I agree with the sentiment of Andy's suggestion, I disagree with the suggestion itself. I could list several reasons, but I will stick with the most important: mistakes were made on both sides, and there should be some record of the process of working it out.

    I propose the following compromise. Except in one place, where it is clear and not immediately associated with being called a crank, we should replace the author's name with the word "author" or with initials of the author's name. I think this thread can do some good, even by reminding people after the fact of what was done and how to repair it, or what not to do for a third time. I do not see a need to plaster the author's name everywhere, but I also do not see a need to excise it entirely. Why else did the author post the paper anyway, if not for review and discussion?

    Gerhard "Or By Many Other Names" Paseman, 2012.08.16
    @grp : I don't think mistakes were made on both sides. Someone asked a question whose entire purpose was to expose to ridicule a mathematician (it was not apparent immediately that this was the only point, but the subsequent edits made it clear). It doesn't matter whether or not said mathematician has acted like a crank -- this is an abuse of MO. I see no purpose in leaving this discussion here. Maybe this could be justified if there had been an actual debate over MO policy, but I see nothing with broader implications in this thread that is not amply covered by existing discussions.
    • CommentAuthorHJRW
    • CommentTimeAug 16th 2012

    I agree with Andy. I'd be curious to know what mistakes grp thinks 'the other side' made.

    • CommentAuthorYemon Choi
    • CommentTimeAug 16th 2012

    I don't quite agree with Andy and H(enry?)'s reading of the OP's intentions, which I took to be a clumsily well-meant "let's discuss what I think are examples of crankery so we can get on with them more productively", viz.

    Mathematicians are prompt to dismiss cranks and crankiness in general. I think there would be much to gain from understanding them: Why do people become cranks? Why can people lie on the border between crankiness and seriousness? How can we educate them? I think this could contribute to improving education, better accepting the less "normal" people, better guiding them too, helping them, not feeling rejected, not entering destructive dynamics.

    I do agree that the effect was to stick up a sign saying "this guy is a crank" (disclosure, I effectively did something like this on g+, but that's a different setting/standard in my book) and so I agree with the deletion of the question, not least because the edits revealed a somewhat, erm, arguable take on the work of famous mathematicians.

    In contrast, I think the older question on Thompson F was just about OK since it was framed as a technical "is there an identifiable error in the proof of this claim".

    • CommentAuthorgrp
    • CommentTimeAug 16th 2012
    For purposes of clarity, I will expand on part of my post above. (I will not argue the following position; I reveal it to show more of my thinking. Feel free to disagree with it, but arguing with it will just be a waste of time.) The first mistake was made by the author in deciding to post to the arXiv before doing more vetting. That's one side. The second mistake was made by the poster in asking questions that were inappropriate for MathOverflow. That's the other side. The third mistake was made by several people who commented in fashions that HJRW is mentioning, and is a main reason for deleting the post to MathOverflow. That's the other "other side".

    (Other mistakes can be proposed and dismissed. It may have been a mistake for me to make any comment at all, no matter how well intentioned it was. Again this is for clarification, not for discussion.)

    If no one else finds any value in this thread on meta, I won't lose sleep if it is deleted. However, this type of mistake will occur again, and I think it will save time to point to this thread rather than delete it and start up a new one. I agree that this thread should be changed to allow more "search engine" respect to the author. Perhaps those in this thread who agree will edit their posts accordingly.

    Gerhard "Both Does Mean Three, Right?" Paseman, 2012.08.16

    Apropos of Andy's suggestion of the deleting the meta thread. I'm much less worried about the text existing in a meta thread rather than the site itself, since meta is much less ruthlessly search-engine optimized. One possible compromise would be disemvowelling the text of the question.

    • CommentAuthorAndy Putman
    • CommentTimeAug 16th 2012 edited
    I think I would be happy if all the names in the thread were censored. They're not really all that important for understanding what happened.

    I agree with Andy. Same with the affiliations.

    • CommentAuthorHJRW
    • CommentTimeAug 17th 2012

    Deleting names would be fine by me.


    I don't think I said anything about the OP's intentions. In #1 above, I specifically said that the responses to the question don't treat the author with respect. I think it was a bad question too, but only because of the responses it unwittingly generated. As I argued in previous threads, there have been similar questions (ones on amenability of Thompson's group F, on the Hanna Neumann Conjecture, and on property T for mapping class groups spring to mind) which were acceptable (in my opinion), mainly because each one admitted a definite answer.



    Incidentally, we had a similar problem two years ago in the forum of the Italian Mathematics Olympiad. Someone posted a link to a paper of a "non-orthodox mathematical researcher", and the users (mostly younger and less tempered than the MO people) did not spare their comments and called him a crank. Soon, the university institution that hosts the forum got a nice letter from the researcher's lawyer. The heads got scared, panicked, and decided to take down the forum "as a cautionary measure" while they considered the best course of action. The website was re-opened only a month later, and it lost many users that understandably decided to move to other online communities rather than waiting.

    So, my advice is: do not underestimate these problems, and make very, very clear the legal footprint that says that the content of their comments is owned by the users and is their own sole responsibility.

    • CommentAuthorquid
    • CommentTimeAug 17th 2012

    This is just a technical comment, as I 'retired' from participating in meta discussions:

    There is now another question related to this preprint (also closed, which I think is good; but less controversial, or so I think). A comment links to this thread, which initially was a good idea to do I think, but in the long or also rather shorter run it might run counter the original intent of the deletion or ideas of anonymisation. So perhaps one could delete this comment too, in not too much time.

    In particular, regarding the issue of visibilty I would like to point out (since sometimes I have the impression this is not so well-known), that this is not only a matter of being 'google resistant' but that the question(s) is/are only two or one (depending on how one counts) and thus at the moment the meta three or two very natural clicks away from the arXiv preprint itself (go to the arXiv page of the article then on the right it says '2 blog links' which are precisely the two MO questions; sorry for not linking there, but since I am not sure whether this would create still one more link here I prefer to avoid it).

    • CommentAuthorEmil J
    • CommentTimeAug 17th 2012

    I’ve deleted the comment with the link. The original poster of the question has been seen 54 minutes ago, hence I assume he had time enough to read the comments already.


    Please disregard my vote to undelete. I clicked on the link and, after looking at it for a split second, mistakenly decided it was, which I already knew had a substantial answer and should in no case be deleted. Oops!

    • CommentAuthorplhersh
    • CommentTimeAug 20th 2012
    A minute ago I accidentally marked Andreas Blass's comment on the new Goldbach Conjecture posting as hate speech. I assure you this was an accident, not my intent -- the iPod touch screen is just so tiny...sorry, Andreas!
    Searching for you-know-who on Google returns this thread as the fourth search result.

    I think it would be nice to have some kind of on-line forum for discussing papers, especially before they're submitted for publication. That would be a great way for authors to add value to their papers -- make the more readable and relevant. But MO seems poorly-positioned to be such a forum, especially since there's so many anonymous users who could abuse the system.

    • CommentAuthorquid
    • CommentTimeOct 3rd 2012

    One more reason to be anonymous ;D

    I have removed all instances of the author's name from the comments in this discussion. Better (5 years) late than never, I suppose.