# Freedom of speech in scientific discussions - An invitation to more tolerance in Scientific debates

I hope this post enjoys some tolerance, and don't get closed or put on hold immediately.

I believe that freedom of speech in scientific discussions is one of the key values which enriches the debates and helps the science to flourish. Freedom of speech, is perhaps a modern phrase for a little bit old value of Tolerance, or rather and outcome of tolerance, patience, and being wise. Let us remind that tolerance is not just tolerating someone who is against your point of view, and it could be aside someone who is trying to express his/her own point of view, but does not share the same language with you, or does not have the experience of yours in putting right words to his/her question.

For the people who have started discussion on MathOverFlow, let us remind that prior to this topologists used to send their questions to Don Davis's list, now called Topology Digest, along with other uses of that list, and they still do; that list was very useful in the sense it created a feeling of community among people. It was very exciting as all giants were there and though your question could be very elementary, you could ask question, and get a reply in private or public. It could be someone got more interested in the question and gets in touch with the person who asked the question, and from personal experience I know that could lead to a years long lasting collaboration. It could also happen that someone posted offensive notes, silly questions and so on. But, all of that was tolerated and handled perhaps in quiet. What it does teach us youngsters, is that by that tolerance shown by experts, you teach the youngsters how to treat people, how to tolerate and how to see good point among silly words, half-cooked ideas, so on. If someone was going to shout at that person saying that your question is off-topic or not a research question, that person perhaps was not going to ask more questions. It could be that one is not using English as his/her native language. So, it appears that sometimes, well established mathematicians as above, ask questions, but since their English is not so perfect then they are put on hold.

Actually, if you look at the put on hold' questions, you see some have put comment on them or answered them and sometimes a good load of discussion has started after that question. So, it implicitly, say that a silent majority is not in agreement with those few who feel they are in position to block people.

Let think of this. Imagine you were in Germany, in presence of Gauss, and you had the possibility of asking in German, knowing that you will be executed if someone there didn't like your question or your wording of question in German. Would you dare to ask, frankly?!?

So, I propose this question, why always $1+(-1)=0$. Who is the right person to say this is a silly question?!.

One last point, I wonder how many of the people who block people, close, or put on hold, have a good experience of teaching?! I bet there are some points that you have used a book, 5 times, to teach or say 10 times, and a students asks a question and you see that there is a point you are not quite happy with your understanding.

The history of mathematics, and recent research is full of these stories, and someone has built a theory since they were not happy with a proof.

I invite all people here to more tolerance. Just don't answer if you don't like.

## migrated from mathoverflow.netJul 4 '15 at 12:56

This question came from our site for professional mathematicians.

• I might be that a person who is posting such a question knows this, but for some reason has not classified it as elementary. – user51223 Jul 4 '15 at 12:54
• This is not a math question. – Steven Landsburg Jul 4 '15 at 12:55
• No, but very much related to the discussion that take place here! – user51223 Jul 4 '15 at 12:56
• I disagree with the inference you make: " So, it implicitly, say that a silent majority is not in agreement with those few who feel they are in position to block people." – Yemon Choi Jul 4 '15 at 13:26
• The comparison between asking here and being kicked out, and asking Gauss and being executed does not add to the question. In general, when you want people to listen you should avoid excessive drama and unnecessary comparison to executions and murder. If there's one thing that I learned in my very few years as a grad students, and the slightly longer experience being alive, is that not many professional anythings have a penchant for excessive drama, and using drama as a metaphor to drive your point home, will usually drive it over a cliff... to its death. – Asaf Karagila Jul 4 '15 at 13:53
• @AsafKaragila, that was a rather dramatic way of saying that drama is bad. Nevertheless, I agree. – Joonas Ilmavirta Jul 4 '15 at 13:58
• If someone is "blocked" because of phrasing, that is not good. But (on the other hand) if a question is "put on hold" because of phrasing, that is what "on hold" is for, and there is then an opportunity to improve the phrasing, and be removed from "hold". – Gerald Edgar Jul 4 '15 at 14:29
• @AsafKaragila Sometimes, to show the effect, an extreme example may help. – user51223 Jul 4 '15 at 14:48
• @user51223 The fact that the threat of murder would dissuade somebody from asking a question may help to show the effect of deleting somebody's question? Really? You're just being silly, and that paragraph will have alienated many people, myself included, who might have had some sympathy with some of your other points. – Jeremy Rickard Jul 5 '15 at 12:34
• @JeremyRickard. Thank you for calling my example a silly act. I think I explained above that the example is intentionally meant to be extreme in order to highlight the effect. Blocking someone is not the same as executing him/her, yet it seems to me that it has a deep effect, one the only visible and understandable acts come from words! Still, what is happening such a blocking or putting someones question, see a QUESTION, is too harsh. Do you disagree? – user51223 Jul 5 '15 at 17:32
• @user51223 I apologize. "You're just being silly" is what I would have said to you if I knew you and were speaking to you in person. It wasn't an appropriate way to address somebody I don't know on the internet. But I think your use of this "example" (example of what, I'm not sure) and your portrayal of this issue as one of "free speech" (which it isn't) was unwise if you wanted to start a debate. Far too many people in this world still live under repressive regimes that curtail their rights to express their opinions by threat of violence, and I find the trivialization of this quite offensive. – Jeremy Rickard Jul 6 '15 at 12:58
• @JeremyRickard Thank you Jeremy to think of me as a friend when you have been commenting. I didn't mean this to be a trivialisation for the issue of Free Speech' and it was meant to be about the particular place that it was posted to. Just for a moment, imagine that someone who does not have access to many experts in his/her field, say a research student doing his/her PhD in area X of Earth who is not native/fluent in English. It seems to me that with recent level of putting `high' standards, such people don't stand much of a chance whereas in old mailing list, I think, they had a chance. – user51223 Jul 6 '15 at 13:13
• @JeremyRickard and asking the right question, I think, is a kind of skill. So, people learn how and what to ask while they are welcomed and allowed to ask in such places. Actually, such a hypothetical student could be living under one of the regimes that you mentioned! So, let's try to help them to enjoy freedom, at least here! – user51223 Jul 6 '15 at 13:14

Tolerance is important for scientific debates. MathOverflow is not for scientific debates or even discussion, it is for questions and answers. The goal is, as far as I understand, to make MO a useful reservoir of high level mathematical questions and answers, since there is need for such a repository (and the possibility to contribute to building one). Allowing too free discussion or debate would make the site lose focus and become unappealing to many. Debates are to be held elsewhere. (Debates regarding MO are ok at MO meta, though.1)

MSE is allows math questions at all levels, and it is good to have it separately as Harrison Smith stated. But MSE, too, is for questions and answers, not really for discussion. This is a core principle in the StackExchange network. To discuss or debate mathematics (which is highly recommended if done in a polite fashion), you need to find a different place, either another website or a real life opportunity.

We try to be tolerant at MO as well, but it doesn't mean allowing all kinds of questions. Having high criteria for allowed content is what makes the site useful to many. In this view, I do indeed find questions about $1+(-1)=0$ not suitable here.

Oh, and many of our users are professional mathematicians who teach frequently. If a question is asked in the wrong place, it is sometimes better not to help in order to keep the place clean for the content it is dedicated for.

1 MO meta has a Q&A format, too. This format does support short discussions and debates, but not longer ones. Debating or discussing questions are tolerated here at MO meta way better than at MO main. Discussing the main site is, after all, the reason we have a meta site. If what you want is more a debate than a discussion, then I think MO meta is not the right place.

• Thank you. I think the point of having high standards, for keeping the society going forward with a better quality, is a fairly good point. But, I think the life blood of this society, is for the new comers, and they must be kept in the game. I feel blocking people, closing their question, or declassifying it, is too harsh. There might be more than 10000 followers for a topic, and a less than 10 people decide for a post to be closed, noting that, if you want to be precise, these people by no means represent the community; they are not elected. They can vote -1. – user51223 Jul 4 '15 at 15:21
• @user51223, balancing between high standards and a warm welcome to newcomers is not easy. In my experience, if someone produces good mathematical content but is not familiar with community standards, others will help. If the content is not as good, people are not as helpful. If someone disagrees with closing a post, they can vote to reopen, leave a comment explaining why the question is good, or to edit the question and improve it. This does happen and I hope it helps newcomers. Anyone in the community is free to act, and the number of active users is fairly large. – Joonas Ilmavirta Jul 4 '15 at 15:57
• It is true what you write, that MO is not intended to be a place for discussion or even to support a community (see also this elaboration by Sebastian Schacher). But compared to other SE sites, MO used to be quite welcoming to newcomers. Recently there has been an upsurge in policing on this site, at least that's my impression. – Nicolas Schmidt Jul 4 '15 at 16:25
• @NicolasSchmidt, unless I'm mistaken, the writer does not represent the StackExchange network, there are not many upvotes, and the only comment disagrees with SE not wanting communities. And MO need not fully follow the ideology behind most of SE. That aside, I don't know if there has been a change in the attitude towards newcomers. Maybe more experienced users could share their views on this? – Joonas Ilmavirta Jul 4 '15 at 16:42
• To say that the writer does not represent the Stack Exchange network is a great exercise in understatement. :-) (Them being one of the most anti-SE persons I ever came across.) – user9072 Jul 4 '15 at 17:56
• I really don't mind getting negative votes. I don't think I need to represent anybody. Yet, I think there has to be some urge in people to say what they feel might be going wrong. So, people say MO is for professionals, or for more advanced questions. I might be so, but it doesn't mean that if someone said something we don't feel to be up to standards, then that should be deleted immediately, or put on hold. It seems to me that the experts attitude which used to be in place in mailing lists, say, is missing here. This might be too harsh, but I think there is lack of tolerance here. – user51223 Jul 4 '15 at 19:49
• I think there is also a lack of social awareness. Resources like USENET groups sci.math got trashed because people took inappropriate advantage of them, some under the guise of "free speech". They have become (and may still be) festering cesspools of spam, primarily through lack of moderation. The tolerance you speak of would similarly ruin the resource that is MathOverflow. If you want debate and discussion, find a place that is suitable for it. MathOverflow is not such a place. – The Masked Avenger Jul 4 '15 at 21:59
• @NicolasSchmidt: In the past couple years there has definitely been an increase in the frequency of closed questions, and probably with it an increase in the level of hostility to the average newcomer. But this is (at least primarily) because the suitability of the average newcomer's questions has gone down as a result of MO joining the SE network and consequently being more visible to non-mathematicians. – Eric Wofsey Jul 5 '15 at 2:00
• @EricWofsey I disagree about this being the reason, not even primarily. The fact that the standards of MO increase is quiet relevant, too. Browse some old questions; well-received then, would be closed in no time now. Finally, what is also quite relevant are the new close tools, which seem to generate a lot of "tentative" close votes based purely on heuristics. – user9072 Jul 5 '15 at 10:15
• @EricWofsey Yes, I've also noticed an increase in low quality questions (and non-questions), since the integration into the SE network. I see two threats to the spirit of MO (which I still perceive to be supportive in general), both of which sustain each other. The first one would be low-quality questions asked in bad faith, i.e. trolling. The second one would be aggressive policing of questions asked in good faith, i.e. bullying. From my experience stackoverflow suffers at least from the latter problem. So let's not take the friendly spirit here at MO for granted. – Nicolas Schmidt Jul 5 '15 at 10:31
• @JoonasIlmavirta. As some mentioned earlier, what was meant to be a minimum of standard, may change during time. So, a couple of people deciding for a question which is meant to be visible for public, and public can ignore it by not answering it, is not considered with my view as an appropriate act. Example is this post which within less than hour received loads of reactions such as this. – user51223 Jul 5 '15 at 17:41

The idea of MathOverflow is to be a resource for professional mathematicians. Tolerance of elementary questions is not something to strive for [on MO], because that's what MSE is for.

EDIT: I decided to edit my answer just to say: I hope I didn't come of as hostile or dismissive. You're most certainly right that discussion is important and should be open, but I'm just saying that there's such an enormous disparity between elementary mathematics and research mathematics that it's best to separate the two, because MO and MSE get a very different flavour of questions.

• I invite you to look at the history of Don Davis's list first. Second, as I mentioned, there are some people who were blocked because of the phraing ofthe question. – user51223 Jul 4 '15 at 12:51
• "That's what MSE is for" is not in fact the reason why tolerance of elementary questions is not something to strive for here. – Steven Landsburg Jul 4 '15 at 13:12
• @StevenLandsburg sorry, I answered this on MO! – Harrison Smith Jul 4 '15 at 13:13
• Harrison Smith: by "here" I did in fact mean MO. – Steven Landsburg Jul 4 '15 at 13:19
• @StevenLandsburg ah, then what is the reason? – Harrison Smith Jul 4 '15 at 15:01
• @HarrisonSmith: The reason is that MO is not a place for elementary questions. This would be equally true if MSE did not exist. – Steven Landsburg Jul 4 '15 at 15:11

If I came to you and talked about multiperfect numbers, how important it was to study the omega function that counts prime divisors on certain forms involving primes, there is a small chance you might tolerate my utterances and perhaps engage me in discussion. More likely (especially if I time it right), you wouldn't tolerate it, and say something like "What are you doing in my bathroom in my house? Get out!"

Freedom of speech does not mean freedom to say what you want when you want and where you want. If you want what you say to be heard, you must use some social awareness in picking place, time, and topic. A brief and polite request on whether a certain subject is appropriate for MO is usually handled appropriately on meta. Your current post is not of this form.

Contrary to what another has posted, this forum (meta) is not suited for debate or even extended discussion (primarily because it is Q and A format instead of a threaded discussion format), although the community makes do with it. tea.mathoverflow.net is more suited to this posting of yours.

• Maybe I should have been more careful with my wording. I think MO meta is for questions, answers and comments, but they can have a very debating spirit. Such a spirit is not tolerated nearly as well at MO main. Brief discussions may occur through the Q&A system and especially comments, but lengthy discussions are not so natural for this system. (Anyway, I do agree with your answer.) – Joonas Ilmavirta Jul 5 '15 at 8:58
• No. If I was an expert, I think I will give you some advise or introduce you some references. If I was not an expert, I will excuse politely, and telling that I don't know about it. In any case, I think turning your face around, if you are talked to and engaged in a discussion is not suitable. But closing, and thinking that your question is silly, I probably hesitate to do so; it was quite possible that I ask questions sillier than that if I was in your place!?! – user51223 Jul 5 '15 at 17:37