20
$\begingroup$

[In case of hurry, please scroll down to the suggestions at the very end.]

The deletion of the Math Jokes thread (mirrors: html or pdf), most likely provoked by the meta.MO debate about some specific jokes but not supported by a majority of users, appears to be at least the second time that MO moderation decisions are being based on the perception of outward appearance. (The first, at least to my knowledge, was the deletion of a question about "what image epitomizes mathematics to you" after this image became the highest upvoted answer.)

There are good points to be made against having threads like this on MO; I agree with what seems to be the consensus about them, which is that these are bad questions, relics of a bygone age when MO was still figuring out what it wanted to be. The march of science would not be impeded if they had never been asked.

However, deleting them, in my opinion, requires better reasons than not starting them in the first place. Worse yet is my impression that the deletions are motivated not by pondering what would make MO a better forum but by an (implicit, yet rather transparent) desire to appear maximally professional, polite and smooth to the outside world. And this is not a great goal to set -- even if I assume that outside appearance is nearly as important a goal as inside usefulness (full disclosure: I don't), I believe it is too deceptive a light to steer our ship towards. Consider the likely effects of the deletion of the jokes thread: The jokes thread is no longer publicly visible. But the question debating the appropriateness of the sexual jokes therein remains visible (it's on meta, so there is far less grounds on which it could be deleted). Everyone who cannot see deleted threads is likely to conclude, on the basis of their priors and political leanings, that

  • either some really creepy jokes have stood undisputed on MathOverflow since 2009,

  • or MathOverflow has succumbed to outside pressure on a current moral panic and deleted a whole thread based on a few risqué posts.

Either of these paints MO and its governance in a worse light than the thread itself. Meanwhile, no one has stepped in to claim any actual damage from any of the deleted answers. The main forces behind the deletion seem to be "these jokes are unprofessional" and "no one cares for this thread anyway". But the slope is slippery, since we have now set an expectation that even theoretical concerns about unprofessional-looking posts will be met with deletion. Next time it may well hit closer to home, and eventually we'll have to respond with "thanks for your concerns, but our core community believes them not strong enough to delete useful content". The later this happens, the bigger the resulting shitstorm and outrage. In some circles, it is best to never become a fellow traveler, lest you become a traitor once your paths split.

What I've said before is not particularly novel and I expect disagreements to be at where to place our red lines rather than whether there should be any. But with too many different red lines, we'll eventually see the window of conversation narrow even further, since it is easier to get a question deleted than to get it undeleted (math.stackexchange is currently having a similar problem for other reasons). Thus, in the interest of common ground, here are some specific suggestions:

  1. Content that appears to be useful or interesting to a reasonable number of mathematicians (witnessed, e.g., by 10 upvotes, by 5 upvotes and appreciative comments from established users, or by citations from published literature) is not to be deleted barring very grave and specific reasons (e.g., passwords being leaked).

  2. Full thread deletion is to be reserved for threads with no redeeming value whatsoever. Answer deletion is to be reserved for answers that are so bad or unredeemable that downvotes and comments of disapproval don't help.

  3. Vague notions like "professionalism", "appropriateness" and "inclusivity" are not to inform moderation decisions until made precise with more specific arguments. Non-CW posts are to be understood, first and foremost, as statements by their original authors, not as manifestations of the "spirit of MO" whatever it might be; they are furthermore not understood to be targeted at any specific reader unless visibly declared to be targeted. Posts should not be judged on how they would look like if ripped out of context and addressed to someone they were never written for.

Feel free to comment and improve on these points. I regard upvotes as "I agree with the general idea and at least 2 of the 3 suggestions modulo minor issues" and downvotes as "this is going in the wrong direction". Eventually, we'll see if these concerns are worth separating and voting on.

$\endgroup$
  • 11
    $\begingroup$ I don't see much evidence behind the rather strong "Everyone who cannot see deleted threads is likely to conclude..." claim. For example, a reasonable alternative explanation would be "There was an old closed post that people mostly ignored, but after it became the subject of discussion, 10 people with enough points decided it wasn't worth keeping." $\endgroup$ – S. Carnahan Aug 12 at 18:41
  • 12
    $\begingroup$ @S.Carnahan: This thread has been referenced multiple times, and even the meta discussion at some point observed that one of the answers in question had 88 upvotes. The internet doesn't forget that easily. $\endgroup$ – darij grinberg Aug 12 at 18:46
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ "are motivated ... by [a]... desire to appear maximally professional, polite and smooth to the outside world" -- you don't know that's the motivation of the 10 individuals who voted to delete. $\endgroup$ – Todd Trimble Aug 12 at 20:12
  • 12
    $\begingroup$ That's right, Darij doesn't know. Just like I don't know that MathOverflow is being influenced by Social Justice Warriors with no regard to the community at large. But that is how it appears to me with the deletion of the question. And this is not the first episode to suggest that to me. $\endgroup$ – Gerhard Paseman Aug 12 at 20:29
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ @ToddTrimble: I don't know for sure, but I'm making conclusions based on the lack of other arguments presented in the meta thread. Claims of harm and exclusion have not been underpinned with evidence; a general dislike of the thread has been stated multiple times, but not confirmed to be a majority opinion; the very poster who started the thread has responded with bewilderment that it had the unintended effect of disappearing the whole question. This is supposed to be one of the most transparent places on the internet; if you have better reasons, do tell! $\endgroup$ – darij grinberg Aug 12 at 20:30
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ @ToddTrimble: Probably yes, since I have actually (mis)used the word "moderator" in the meaning of "20k+ user". However, in a way, the fact that the final vote was from a ♦ moderator makes the problem worth: it prevents undeletion by regular high-rep users. $\endgroup$ – darij grinberg Aug 12 at 20:32
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ Thank you for your edit, Darij. I would also say that "prompt deletion" is inaccurate. The joke question was actually controversial back in 2009, and the more recent discussion played out over some time; I held back from saying anything there for quite some time, and the votes to delete (prompted no doubt by the discussion) trickled in slowly. Anyway, saying "prompt deletion" creates an appearance that various parties acted rashly and dictatorially, and what with accusations of SJW being flung around, adding fuel to the fire, this doesn't seem quite fair. $\endgroup$ – Todd Trimble Aug 12 at 20:56
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ @ToddTrimble I'd just like to point out that there are no "don't delete"-votes, and that we cannot know how many people would have voted in that direction if that possibility would exist. -- So without the possibility to vote for undeletion at least after the thread had been deleted, I'm not sure how deletion can be seen as a democratic decision of the community here(?) $\endgroup$ – Stefan Kohl Aug 12 at 21:00
  • 13
    $\begingroup$ @ScottMorrison: That's sad to hear. If it was limited to the jokes thread, I wouldn't care much, but I highly suspect that this non-public moderation process will be exploited to get rid of other material in the future, material which is more on-topic and substantial than a list of jokes. After all, it seems that one moderately popular meta thread started by any outsider is sufficient to cause deletion (and if it fails, one can try again, with other arguments), while undeletion is essentially impossible unless moderators team up. I would love to be disproven on this prediction. $\endgroup$ – darij grinberg Aug 12 at 23:34
  • 10
    $\begingroup$ @ScottMorrison: I still don't understand why my comment had to be removed, and even less why the moderator who removed it decided that it's appropriate to tell me that if I want to express myself I should do it elsewhere. The next step is to tell me to write my answers on some blog post, and the step after that is simply to suspend me altogether. And I know it sounds exaggerated, because it is, and I don't expect anyone to think this way. But it sort of kinda feels that way. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Aug 12 at 23:48
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ I want to register my dissapointment that the whole question got deleted (instead of the offending answers, which would have been ok by me) and also that @ToddTrimble cast that last deletion vote thereby preventing undelete votes (which I tried to cast). $\endgroup$ – Felipe Voloch Aug 13 at 3:21
  • 15
    $\begingroup$ I went through the top 200 highest voted questions on MO (the jokes question would have been one of these). I think of all of these, the jokes question had the least to do with research math or the practice of math, and I guess was the least suited for MO. So upon reflection, I think this question was quite an anomaly, and deletion (leaving aside all other issues) was the right call. $\endgroup$ – Lucia Aug 13 at 5:33
  • 11
    $\begingroup$ @Lucia: I mostly agree with this; I don't mind the deletion of the jokes thread nearly as much as I'm worried about the precedent it sets (if not in the eyes of the mods, then at least in the eyes of outside critics, who are not likely to grasp the details and will assume they now have a veto on discussion). What I'm trying to do here is set some principles that will ensure that deletions will remain restricted to exceptional cases like this. Unfortunately, at this point I'm not sure whether the moderators are placing the distinction in the same position as me. For illustration, consider ... $\endgroup$ – darij grinberg Aug 13 at 8:44
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ ... the following critiques a concern troll could lob at mathematical answers: (1) An answer mentioning "MacMahon's Master Theorem" should be revised in terms of the connotations of the word "Master". (2) The use of "men" and "women" in matching-theoretical metaphors is outdated and exclusionary. (3) The "Carroll determinant formula" should be renamed due to strong evidence for its author's pedophilia. Each of these claims ... $\endgroup$ – darij grinberg Aug 13 at 8:51
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ @StefanKohl FWIW I left comments suggesting deletion of the whole jokes thread, and I am not a moderator, nor am I USian in background. Once again, I respect the POV that the thread should not have been deleted, I just want to counteract any narrative that the action was solely the work of a clique $\endgroup$ – Yemon Choi Aug 13 at 14:51
15
$\begingroup$

Here are some comments on your suggestions and the topic in general:

  1. Professional mathematical interest in a question or an answer might well be a good necessary condition for MO but it will not make a good sufficient condition. If the unprofessional content can be cleaned away easily, the posts can and should be edited. If it cannot, then deletion is a natural way to go.

    Losing joke questions or similar is not a real loss in my opinion. If serious mathematical content is removed, there is a reason to object. Jokes should be collected someplace else (if anywhere), and reputation earned from such posts is perhaps reputation that never reflected one's mathematical contributions.

  2. If discussion arises on some post or thread and you think it is salvageable, I recommend going and salvaging it. Edit it to make it better.

    I have experience in looking at colleagues ending up at MO after a Google search and looking only at the text written there, completely ignoring votes and comments. MO is supposed to be a repository of useful knowledge, and having bad knowledge (e.g. blatantly false theorems) hinders such endeavors. Therefore bad content should be removed, not just voted down and commented on. What counts as bad is matter of taste and of never-ending discussion. I'd say unprofessional stuff is largely bad stuff (although content can be simultaneously interesting both recreationally and professionally).

    One possible criterion for badness is making MO look less attractive. We might have lost potential contributors who do not want to engage in such folly, or we might not have. And perhaps our serious content has some more weight if our content is highly curated.

  3. Notions relating to the social aspects of the field of mathematics are always vague. That is the nature of non-mathematical things. If I were to conjure up a full definition of socially acceptable jokes in a math talk, I am sure examples would be found soon indicating misjudgments in both directions.

    MO posts are addressed to people online happening to read MO, not just the OP of each question. Assuming this reader is a professional mathematician in a related field, the text should be sensible and unoffensive. These readers will keep on coming in no matter how old the post is. Therefore it is of importance to curate older content as well.

Having a welcoming and accepting social environment is important for mathematics, and that is something I think MO should help build. This social environment is largely global due to the global nature of our field, and MO is a global actor. I strongly think that a lot of mathematical talent is wasted due to potential or existing mathematicians feeling unwelcome. You are free to disagree.

Frankly, I don't think voting is an entirely appropriate approach to these kinds of things. If three out of a group of four mathematicians agree to make personal jokes about the fourth one, it is not okay. Yes, this is a true effect even with jokes that may look like harmless silliness to many — and happens frequently with the persons replaced by groups of people, with "personal joke" replaced by "joke about a (minority or weak) group". Three losing the ability to make bad jokes is a far smaller loss than one feeling unwelcome.

$\endgroup$
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ ad 1. But the posts were deleted at first! For some reason, the thread still ended up gone too. I really don't see a good reason for that other than perceived embarrassment. $\endgroup$ – darij grinberg Aug 12 at 23:29
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ "If three out of a group of four mathematicians agree to make personal jokes about the fourth one, it is not okay." None of those jokes (talking about the 4-8 answers that were the original bone of contention, not the whole thread that ended up as collateral damage) was personal; the more wide-ranging and diffuse the target of a joke is, the less do standards about its offensiveness need to apply. $\endgroup$ – darij grinberg Aug 12 at 23:31
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @darijgrinberg Fair points. I expanded the answer a little. (a) Embarrassment is actually a sound reason for moderation, as there is value in making the site look attractive for prospective contributors. (b) The example of four mathematicians needed a remark that I had failed to include. The same phenomenon happens with groups of people, e.g. with men making jokes about women. I just tried to give a minimal example. $\endgroup$ – Joonas Ilmavirta Aug 12 at 23:39
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ I think the question I refer to the most is the urban legends one. And to me that is one of the most appealing aspects of MO. It's a sense of community. I don't see why we need to adhere so strictly to some rule that there cannot be lighthearted fun on the site (outside of comments, anyway). $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Aug 13 at 7:49
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ bad content should be removed, not just voted down and commented on --- Uhm, no, that's the exact opposite of how Stack Exchange is designed. If people don't look at votes and comments and mindlessly accept what they read on the internet, that's their problem. $\endgroup$ – Federico Poloni Aug 17 at 9:50
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Also, "this is wrong so let's delete it" is a very dangerous view, in general. If something is wrong, it's better to challenge it openly and explain why it's wrong rather than censor it out of existence. $\endgroup$ – Federico Poloni Aug 17 at 10:15
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @FedericoPoloni I have enough to deal with in the real world (some of it involving trying to broker truces) without spending time arguing with people on meta.MO about issues that can boild down to personal history, philosophy, ethics, (mis)understanding of the history of intelligentsia and academia on at least two different continents, etc $\endgroup$ – Yemon Choi Aug 17 at 14:49
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ @FedericoPoloni There are sayings to the effect that BS (or even just muddled stuff) can take an order of magnitude more effort to refute/debate than to start. I am not in favour of people lobbing rhetorical hand-grenades into the (meta) MO arena just so can they indulge personal differences which have nothing to do with mathematics and the research activities/interests of mathematicians $\endgroup$ – Yemon Choi Aug 17 at 14:51
6
$\begingroup$

So, I have to ask you something.

You say that we're "catering to professional appearance" and acting on "theoretical concerns about unprofessional-looking posts" without any "actual damage."

I don't think that's true. I think that jokes like this are actually harmful. I admit that I don't have the best evidence for this, but I have evidence. I've read articles and blog posts about dirty jokes in environments that are supposed to be inclusive. What do the articles say? The jokes are harmful. I've read anecdotes from women who've heard such jokes. What do they say? The jokes are harmful. I've read various pieces of material about catcalling, and what do they say? Catcalling is harmful. These jokes are thought of as inappropriate for "polite discourse," and why is that? The only reason I can imagine is because they're harmful. These jokes are against the Stack Exchange Code of Conduct, and why is that? Again, I presume it's because they're harmful.

Do I understand how these jokes are harmful? No, I don't understand it. I don't understand general relativity, either, but other people do understand it, so I defer to them when it comes to general relativity.

You, I assume, believe that these jokes are not harmful; otherwise, I don't know why you would argue against deleting them. But my question for you is:

What's your evidence?

I honestly want to know. I want your voice to be heard and I want your opinion to be treated with respect.

$\endgroup$
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I would be happier if this were phrased as an answer rather than as an invitation to a continued exchange (just by removing the first paragraph and some of the closing sentences). I don't think the SE format works well for discussions, which is one reason why I rather miss what-at-one-stage-became-tea-dot-mathoverflow-dot-net. $\endgroup$ – Yemon Choi Aug 13 at 2:15
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Also ... I am uncomfortable with trying to figure out weighty questions such as personal ethics and political-philosophy-in-the-broader-sense on meta.mathoverflow.net. I would rather we focus on how we behave rather than what we believe. Of course Darij may actually disagree with the POV expressed in the previous sentence! so I am only speaking personally $\endgroup$ – Yemon Choi Aug 13 at 2:21
  • $\begingroup$ @YemonChoi Well, my purpose in posting this was to ask the question. If there's a better place to ask the question, or if it would be better to just not ask it at all, I'm totally fine with deleting this answer. $\endgroup$ – Tanner Swett Aug 13 at 2:41
  • 9
    $\begingroup$ One can agree, Tanner, that some of the posts in that thread were harmful, and were better deleted, while still maintaining that the thread as a whole was not harmful, and did not merit deletion. I think you may be missing that distinction. $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Aug 13 at 5:58
  • 11
    $\begingroup$ Articles and blog posts are not evidence unless they provide any; by the same reasoning, DnD would have been a major source of societal decline in the 1980s and video games in the 1990s. The press is subject to hype cycles and operates with vague terms that it re-interprets at will in strategic ways; this isn't exactly new. Even assuming that the mere presence of risqué jokes in personal communication is harmful to women or other minorities concerned, the situation at hand (where the jokes are thousands of miles removed from their readers and not targeted at anyone in particular) is hardly ... $\endgroup$ – darij grinberg Aug 13 at 8:36
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ ... comparable. When I hear an actual criticism of the jokes thread coming from a woman who actually participates in MO rather than merely sniping from the side, I'll reconsider, but for now the situation appears rather disconnected from actual issues and opinions are falling more in line with how willing people are to believe in currently fashionable paradigms. $\endgroup$ – darij grinberg Aug 13 at 8:40
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @darijgrinberg what about selection bias? Quite possibly there have been female mathematicians who might have participated, or participated more, were it not for certain things they found off-putting; didn't Elizabeth Henning leave a comment to similar effect? And I think it is somewhat closed-minded to dismiss people's concerns as "currently fashionable paradigms": you have no idea of how my own views might have been shaped by things I observed and was angered by in 1996, 2000, 2010-12, ... $\endgroup$ – Yemon Choi Aug 13 at 14:40
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson TBF I think Tanner was espousing exactly what you describe. It's people like me (well, about 7 or 8 other people like me) who thought that the thread as a whole should be deleted, in light of the arguments that have started $\endgroup$ – Yemon Choi Aug 13 at 14:48
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ @YemonChoi: The numbers suggest specific data; maybe that would make a nice blog post. (I do suspect the things that have angered you in 1996 and 2000, at least, were more serious than innuendo in untargeted jokes... these were times when there were real fish to wry.) But the speculation that all women were hurt so much by the 4 joke answers that they didn't even feel welcome to comment on it appears to be essentially devoid of evidence (exactly one woman commented on exactly one of the answers, which is in my eyes the one truly problematic joke). $\endgroup$ – darij grinberg Aug 13 at 17:13
  • 10
    $\begingroup$ Please note that, pardon the repetition, we are still beating around the bush as to the question why the whole thread "had to" be deleted. $\endgroup$ – darij grinberg Aug 13 at 17:14

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .