# close/reopen wars on Mathoverflow

Sometimes one sees a situation like with this question: Cargo Cult Science in mathematics?

which goes on hold and back again a number of times. Should there be a limit to the number of such rounds? IMHO a majority should not override a substantial minority, which bothered with voting to re-open.

EDIT: I should have split this into two questions; apologies to all involved.

• one can only vote to reopen the question once. It would be good to know, just in case, whether votes to close can also be cast only once. – Dima Pasechnik Jun 25 '18 at 18:02
• This question was hardly closed randomly, and the closers are not hooligans. – Andy Putman Jun 25 '18 at 19:00
• It's not lost. You just have to look at the edit history. – Andy Putman Jun 25 '18 at 19:22
• Another comment: it's up to 11 edits. That's absurd. – Andy Putman Jun 25 '18 at 19:24
• I voted to close, but certainly not at random. Speaking of not so random behavior, the author of that question has a long history of using MO for soapboxing and advertising. Here you have an example in which he asked a question he has answered himself in a paper. That post was pushed to the front page by 31 (sic!) edits. Here he ridicules Sergeyev, which is a significant part of the current post. At some point, I give up on the presumption of good faith. – Michael Greinecker Jun 25 '18 at 20:05
• I agree with @Michael. My feeling is that at this point the author of that question is mostly using MO and MSE as platform to promote their own papers. Even with the crankiest soapboxing cranks (e.g. WM) it is easy to mistake an isolated question as a reasonable question. But when a user exhibits a pattern, these questions needs to be seem in a broader context. And for this author, this does not look good. – Asaf Karagila Jun 25 '18 at 20:55
• @MikhailKatz Everyone can follow the links I gave and decide for themselves what to make of it. If you find something I said "odious", you can of course flag it. But popularity is certainly not a reason not to close a post. There are several closed questions with a score of more than 200. – Michael Greinecker Jun 26 '18 at 9:11
• @MikhailKatz I have no principled objections, but you should have made clear in your post from the beginning that you have actually answered the question already and are just looking for further material. And 31 edits are a bit much... – Michael Greinecker Jun 26 '18 at 10:07
• @DimaPasechnik 1. The desirability of a discussion of a topic does not imply the desirability of discussing the topic on MO, which is not made for discussions and IMHO benefits from the narrower focus as a Q & A. 2. Nobody discouraged talking about one's own work. Not mentioning one's own work was the issue mentioned. – Michael Greinecker Jun 26 '18 at 12:37
• @MikhailKatz In case I haven't been clear enough: You asked about a question you have answered a few days before in a preprint without mentioning the latter fact in your post until prompted to do so. And there is a difference between mentioning ones work and using a question (!) to advertise one's own work. – Michael Greinecker Jun 26 '18 at 13:08
• Dima, there is a difference between talking about your work, and asking elaborate questions mainly for the sake of making your work visible. – Asaf Karagila Jun 26 '18 at 15:05
• @Dima: I am saying that after a person exhibits a certain type of behavior, his future actions are usually called into action (e.g. consistently put a bounty to prevent closure? All future bounties will be seen in that light). If a user shows a pattern of soapboxing, it is impossible to separate their questions from past actions. Yes, that is unfortunate, but this is reality. It works in the other direction, and we give more leeway to established users when it comes to borderline questions. Also, unlike you, I don't get notified of any comment here. So using @Asaf is necessary. – Asaf Karagila Jun 26 '18 at 16:03
• @Gil: I think that I have my fair share of experience with people that when you isolate just one thing they do, it seems fine, but in the overall picture you see the emergent properties of "totally not fine". So I refuse not to judge a question by its author. As I pointed out before, we all do that, but we mostly do it in the sense of giving more leeway to established users, even you get that preferential treatment often, and I suspect many of your open and big lists would be closed, coming form an unregistered account. And it's fine, you've earned that. But for me? Katz earned that. – Asaf Karagila Jun 27 '18 at 7:17
• @Gil: I never brought up the Cauchy question. So I don't know what to tell you. I only brought up the fact that context derived from the author is relevant to the validity of a question. This is a site for mathematicians who honestly seek the help and companion of others. It is not a site for people who try and make their research look important. And that's all I have to say about that. – Asaf Karagila Jun 27 '18 at 8:21
• @GilKalai On some level I agree with you, who posted the question should not matter here. I would have voted to close if someone else has made it. But there is a general standard on MO, which I like, that people can sometimes post things that are slightly outside the rules when the contribution is useful and made in good faith. Since the question is not closed, I gave evidence why I don't think it was made in good faith. I think I did that in an appropriate manner; it's not like I called someone a hooligan. – Michael Greinecker Jun 27 '18 at 9:32

At various times in the past 9 years or so, we have tried several different social conventions to resolve the dissatisfaction that arises with the existing opening and closing rules. This may not be a comprehensive list:

1. Person X with at least 3000 points would comment, "I vote to keep open", so that Person Y with at least 3000 points who wanted to close would have to comment, "I cancel X's vote" instead of actually voting to close. I think this failed because most people didn't bother to follow this convention, and other people got upset by this, etc.

2. After n reopens, the question stays open, presumably enforced by moderator fiat. I forgot how much n was, and I don't think we ever had a true consensus. On the few occasions we did try that, people definitely got upset.

One benefit of the open/close system as it currently stands is that no one with qualifying score gets denied the opportunity to make a vote at some relevant time. This sort of denial-of-voice seems to be the source of most people's frustration. The other main source of frustration seems to be people who have an answer they want to write, but can't submit to a closed question. However, there is a specific place where people can make reopen requests, and using it is much better than making lots of annoying minor edits to bump closed questions to the top in hopes of attracting 5 reopen votes.

For the most part, the questions where we encounter these problems are not precise research-level mathematics questions, which form the core of MathOverflow's mission. While I appreciate the temporal and emotional investment in crafting a question, or writing an answer to a question, I do not think questions on the frontier of appropriateness on MathOverflow need special rules.

• Overall, the present system is reasonable. I personally support an inclusive policy but there were other people who have different views. For this particular question, I found Neil's position convincing. One thing that I regard bad for MO and I think moderators should, in general, not allow, is that when a problem was closed after a close/repopen war, the winning side will go on to delete the question altogether. – Gil Kalai Jun 30 '18 at 17:13
• @GilKalai: I haven't been involved with this so far, but I think here deletion was the way to go. -- I think the valuable questions for MO are those which are (largely) uncontroversial. Keeping questions up which stir a lot of controversy causes a lot of noise without much benefit for anyone. – Stefan Kohl Jun 30 '18 at 20:20

I am profoundly opposed to the "cargo cult" question. The internet is full of places where one can indulge in the pleasures of righteous indignation by mocking the failings of others. I absolutely do not want Mathoverflow to join that sorry list. People who agree with me have every right to vote for re-closure, as many times as necessary, and I hope that they will defend the culture of the site by exercising that right.

• I would upvote this 100 times if I could. – Andy Putman Jun 26 '18 at 13:34
• then MO should forbid history of maths questions, in fact I would be happy if there was a separate venue on SE for this topic. – Dima Pasechnik Jun 26 '18 at 13:49
• There is a history of science and mathematics forum. Unfortunately, (if we are to take the post at face value), the question of Mikhail Katz does not belong there either. Gerhard "May Look Into Reclose Option" Paseman, 2018.06.26. – Gerhard Paseman Jun 26 '18 at 14:18
• Usually, I dont like open/close wars and I usually suggest that people will be tolerant to questions thay do not like and on several occasions I voted to open questions that I did not upvote but felt that they need to stay open. In this particular case, Neil raised a valid concern: that the answers may mainly shame and mock some individuals. (I had some similar concerns about the notion of "Cargo Cult" but Mikhail explained me that this is a widely used and accepted notion.) I think that Neil point is valuable. @MikhailKatz what is your response? – Gil Kalai Jun 27 '18 at 6:09
• @DimaPasechnik In my view History of math questions are very valuable for MO. I dont see how you infer from Neil's answer anything against history of math questions. – Gil Kalai Jun 27 '18 at 6:16
• Dima, it is not impossible to seperate and in any case Niel's concern is that here "shaming" and "mocking" are central. (This is not just matter of word choice.) Indeed mentioning and understanding errors is important both in mathematics itself and in history of mathematics. – Gil Kalai Jun 27 '18 at 8:00
• @DimaPasechnik Even though this is not explicit in the current answer, I'm pretty sure there is a major difference between writing negative things about Pythagoras and people who are still alive. – Michael Greinecker Jun 27 '18 at 11:25
• @MichaelGreinecker - one may say that writing negative things about people who are no longer alive is not good, as they cannot respond to you in any way. So this is all very much a question of taste and cultural upbringing. E.g. someone who grew up under an oppressive, intolerant to critics, regime would either never criticise anyone openly, or to the contrary, take pride in criticising anyone whom they see as deserving critique. I still remember the chair (Dutch, if it matters) of a conference session attempting to cut me short as I pointed out a methodological gap in a presentation. – Dima Pasechnik Jun 27 '18 at 12:34
• @MichaelGreinecker - and he commented to me later on that "this is not to be said" or something along these lines. So the next step would be to start to put on hold posts pointing at errors in papers of living mathematicians, just cause they would be upset? – Dima Pasechnik Jun 27 '18 at 12:40
• @DimaPasechnik I don't think one gets into trouble here for pointing out that someone made a methodological gap. That is far away from "cargo cult science". Of course, this doesn't differentiate between current math research and history. Or do you think nowadays math is about timeless truth, but fifty years ago math was mostly about politics and power? – Michael Greinecker Jun 27 '18 at 12:43
• Pointing out mistakes is not the same thing as "mocking the failings of others".@DimaPasechnik – Michael Greinecker Jun 27 '18 at 12:45
• @MichaelGreinecker there is a difference between honest mistakes and deliberate riding on a mistake. As we know that from a falsehood one can derive anything, so it suffices to insert one wrong lemma somewhere and go on building a beautiful (or not so beautiful) career. E.g. there was a Clay scholar who was forced to retract all the publications that got him that post, and to leave maths. This half-killed the area he was active in, too. Are we supposed to be quiet about it, as to not hurt his feelings? – Dima Pasechnik Jun 27 '18 at 13:25
• @DimaPasechnik If someone has a question related to that work, it is of course appropriate to point out that the work is flawed. But MO is not retraction watch, it is a Q&A site for research math. – Michael Greinecker Jun 27 '18 at 13:33
• @MichaelGreinecker - I certainly think that maths is getting more and more about grant money, fashion ("everyone is doing X nowadays, we should also do X, or die" attitude), politics and power, than science :-( – Dima Pasechnik Jun 27 '18 at 13:51
• @Dima: If I were to ask questions for the sole purpose of my papers ending up in the answers, written by my coauthors, and if I were to edit and bump these posts regularly, so I can claim that my research is always on the front page of MO, then I would be using this website in a very insincere way. Wouldn't I? Again, you think in a very naive way, about mentioning your research in an answer, or writing a follow up question related to your work. That much is fine. Working very hard to make sure that your research is visible to people on the front page, however... Not as fine. – Asaf Karagila Jun 27 '18 at 16:23

One can always flag a question for moderator attention, use the flag to point out to the moderators that an open/close war is in progress, and ask for moderator intervention. In my (limited) experience, moderators will wait a while to see whether things settle down of their own accord, but will take some action if it gets to the point where they reckon enough's enough.

"Should there be a limit to the number of such rounds?" I reckon it's better to leave it up to the discretion of the moderators, than to specify a one-size-fits-all limit.

For the reasons that others have described, I think that the existence of this question is damaging to MO. There have already been nasty speculations in the comments threads about the characters of various people. I have thus not only (previously) voted to close it, but I have also voted to delete the question. I urge others to do likewise.

• The question before us is, "Should there be a limit to the number of such rounds?" This is not an answer to that question. – Gerry Myerson Jun 27 '18 at 23:46
• @GerryMyerson: True, but most of the other answers also solely address the merits of this specific question, so this seems to me like the logical place to put this answer. – Andy Putman Jun 28 '18 at 0:16
• @Gerry Myerson: unlike on the main site, I have always thought that the purpose of meta is often to discuss, rather than just answer a question. – Carl Mummert Jun 28 '18 at 2:09
• @Carl, sure, but to discuss what? To discuss whether there should be a limit to the number of open/close rounds? Sure. To discuss whether one specific question should be open/closed/deleted? That's a different issue, which could be discussed in response to a different question. – Gerry Myerson Jun 28 '18 at 2:50
• Would it be possible to split the question into two? Cause different answers answer different parts of the question. Dima "I just cannot stay on topic" Pasechnik. – Dima Pasechnik Jun 28 '18 at 7:21
• @GerryMyerson: I think you are being too rigid and literal with the rules. I agree that on the main site answers should generally strictly address the question at hand (though there are times when I infer from context other questions that the asker really wants to know and answer them); however, on meta the tradition is that discussions are more freewheeling. – Andy Putman Jun 28 '18 at 14:36
• @DimaPasechnik: See my previous comment to Gerry. – Andy Putman Jun 28 '18 at 14:36
• I'm amused that the comment I made here is meeting a very different reception than the exact same comment I made on Dima's answer, even though (to my way of thinking) the two comments were equally justified/unjustified. – Gerry Myerson Jun 28 '18 at 21:37
• @GerryMyerson I think it makes sense to have higher demands for the one asking the question to stick to the actual question- given they could have asked whatever they wanted. – Michael Greinecker Jun 29 '18 at 9:31
• In my view, deleting the question is unreasonable. – Gil Kalai Jun 30 '18 at 14:57
• @GilKalai Unfortunately my attention during the past few days was deflected by matters lying outside MO, but now having reviewed the matter some more, I find the question deeply problematic and do not find community-moderated deletion unreasonable. If I were to put the question in stark terms, it might be: what are some examples of outright incompetency or charlatanism that somehow passed through the filter of peer review? (It didn't appear to me that the author wanted examples of ordinary mistakes a mathematician might make.) It should be obvious why such a question is problematic. – Todd Trimble Jul 1 '18 at 4:30
• @GilKalai: While I agree that in normal circumstances there is no need to delete closed questions, this is an exceptional case. Let me spell out my concerns more explicitly. One of my colleagues shares an unusual last name with a notorious crank (but is not related to him). Someone brought this up in the comments. Since people were actively paying attention, this was eventually deleted. But if the question is closed but not deleted, then inevitably in the future someone will leave a similarly slanderous comment, and no one will be paying attention enough to notice. (continued) – Andy Putman Jul 1 '18 at 15:59
• This kind of thing can be extremely damaging to someone’s career — MO questions are highly ranked on google, so the question will show up when someone’s name is googled. Given this danger, I cannot see any alternative to deleting this question. Slander, mean-spirited rumors and gossip, etc are completely inappropriate for MO. – Andy Putman Jul 1 '18 at 16:04
• @DimaPasechnik: Yes, but this particular question is asking for inappropriate comments. As far as the link on zentrallblat, my guess is that it is an automatic trackback to MO questions that link to the particular review. Saying that it is a judgement by the editors of ZB that this is a valuable question is grasping at straws to justify a blatantly inappropriate post. – Andy Putman Jul 2 '18 at 14:08
• @Dima: Yeah, for example zbmath.org/?q=an:0589.03033 was definitely written long before MathOverflow existed. – Asaf Karagila Jul 3 '18 at 1:21

To me, the value of the question we talk about is that it is (well, formulated perhaps in too strong words, and all that) very much relevant to well-being of mathematics as a science.

Cargo cults (deliberate attempts to create a pseudo-area and build up a career on it) are quite damaging: they suck up funding, they kill/damage adjacent honest research areas, they damage community morale.

Having a list of such cults available on MO looks useful to me.

• The question before us is, "Should there be a limit to the number of such rounds?" This is not an answer to that question. – Gerry Myerson Jun 27 '18 at 23:47
• I agree - it was poorly formulated in the beginning. Mea culpa. – Dima Pasechnik Jun 28 '18 at 7:22
• So in other words, under this reading, the question becomes: what are some examples of charlatanism that somehow passed the filter of peer review? This type of question is really problematic. In comments at the main site you had referred to the case of a mathematician-turned-politician where you offered an opinion that in some of his work he was not being intellectually honest -- quite a serious charge, and really not fit for MO. I'm not a lawyer, but this type of thing potentially opens up legal liabilities. – Todd Trimble Jul 1 '18 at 4:46
• @ToddTrimble This type of thing does indeed potentially open up liabilities, and this is yet another insidious effect of sustained charlatanism. While I entirely agree that MO is not the place to call out such behavior, my own experience leads me to wonder if there is any socially allowed forum, or if we are meant to tolerate (or even indulge) a certain amount of system-gaming for some higher purpose. – Adam Epstein Jul 1 '18 at 11:19
• @AdamEpstein I'm afraid I have no good answer to that question, alas. – Todd Trimble Jul 1 '18 at 14:19