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Given the recent question here on meta about the deletion of a comment stating a political opinion on an answer which also stated a political opinion which sparked a lively debate, let me bring up the more general question:

What do people think about questions, answers, comments or discussions on aspects of politics specifically relevant to mathematicians on MathOverflow (main or meta)? -- Should they be allowed to a certain extent, under certain conditions and in certain formats, or should any politics just be considered off-topic on the site?

On the one hand, it is likely uncontroversial that there are political questions which are of specific interest to scientists in general and mathematicians in particular, and it may be interesting and beneficial to discuss them among mathematicians from all over the world. On the other, politics is something quite different than mathematics. Also, contributions on aspects of politics are likely to be more delicate to moderate than purely mathematical contributions, and they have the potential to be a source of serious dissent between people.

-- Any thoughts?

Edit (2020-08-19): Let me add a non-exhaustive(!) list of examples of aspects of politics which may be relevant in the context (in no particular order):

  • The ways universities and research are financed. -- For example, how funds are distributed, which priorities are set, how much money universities get from the state, whether students need to pay tuition fees, and so on.

  • The way copyright for scientific publications is regulated. In particular to what extent it does hinder research by restricting access of researchers to parts of the body of published literature, and whether it gives rise to unjustified profits of publishers.

  • The types and numbers of positions available to mathematicians at universities, and their distribution among the subfields of mathematics.

  • State-imposed rules for making hiring decisions at universities. For example such which say that hiring decisions must be partly based on attributes of candidates not primarily related to qualification, merits and suitability for the position in question -- such as gender, social or ethnic origin, party membership, score in the national social credit system, etc..

  • The regulation of the admission of students in mathematics. -- For example, whether it is uniform across the country or whether it differs between universities, and whether it is free for everyone, purely based on talent, or based on some kind of quota system, etc..

  • Which academic degrees do exist, and who has a say on the corresponding curricula and requirements.

  • The quality and level of the teaching of mathematics in public schools, the contents of the curricula, and whether children have access to reasonable mathematics education independent of gender, social origin, etc..

  • The role and esteem of mathematics and mathematicians in society, and what is done from the side of politics to raise (or lower) the latter.

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    $\begingroup$ Political discussions, even among friends, run the risk of misunderstandings. The situation seems particularly toxic these days, and especially in the US. A forum like MO where people don't in general know each other, or understand each other's motivations, is not suited for political discourse. If people (of any political persuasion) wish to get outraged at each other, there is always Twitter! Just my two cents. $\endgroup$ – Lucia Aug 16 at 18:14
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    $\begingroup$ I should add that I think you are right to bring up this question. It's good for people to reflect on it as a community, even if everyone individually would surely have thought of such issues. $\endgroup$ – Lucia Aug 16 at 18:19
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think anyone wants there to be political discussions here. The issue mostly seems to be what the borders of politics are. At exactly what point did Martin Hairer's question and its answers become "political"? It's just very hard to draw a clear line between what's political and what is not. (And at no stage did any of the discussion involve "politics" in the traditional sense of parties or government.) $\endgroup$ – Noah Snyder Aug 16 at 18:23
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    $\begingroup$ I don't know, Noah. The other meta question had comments that included: "Nazis", "confederates", "antifascists" (I don't know why this term would be anything other than a badge of pride, but ok), "fascists and apologists", "white supremacists." Can the discussion get any uglier? The discussion on main (moved to chat) was largely thoughtful with people trying to engage with each other. On chat I was especially heartened to read Remy's thoughtful opinion. $\endgroup$ – Lucia Aug 16 at 18:28
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    $\begingroup$ In particular, I think this question would be much clearer if you replaced "politics" with "issues related to gender and race in mathematics." $\endgroup$ – Noah Snyder Aug 16 at 18:28
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    $\begingroup$ @NoahSnyder The "issues related to gender and race in mathematics" are only one aspect of politics (though maybe one which is given particular value in the US ... ). $\endgroup$ – Stefan Kohl Aug 16 at 18:35
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    $\begingroup$ @StefanKohl: I think that's imprecise and that the imprecision is going to hurt the conversation. Other aspects of politics simply don't come up here. Furthermore, it's easy to say "politics" and "math" are separate if you're thinking of politics in the usual sense of political parties, campaigns, government policy, etc., and much harder to see the exact line when you're talking about the roles of gender and race inside mathematics. $\endgroup$ – Noah Snyder Aug 16 at 18:40
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    $\begingroup$ @NoahSnyder I think "politics relevant to mathematicians" is far more than just issues of gender and "race" (the last word put in quotes as there are no different biological races of humans -- so "race" in itself may be seen as a racist term). -- For example, is it not relevant to mathematicians how universities and research are funded, which regulations there are on types of employment contracts mathematicians can get at universities, whether people studying mathematics need to pay tuition fees, and so on? $\endgroup$ – Stefan Kohl Aug 16 at 18:54
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    $\begingroup$ Specifically, something like this page would certainly be considered "politics relevant to mathematicians": icm2022boycott.org $\endgroup$ – Stanley Yao Xiao Aug 16 at 22:01
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    $\begingroup$ Reading the site description (mathematics research) in a strict sense, and in the context where questions that relate to academia more broadly have been increasingly directed to academia.SE, I find it hard (though not impossible) to imagine questions that are actually on-topic. Any answer to this question should address why politics-related discussion/questions are more suited to here and not better on academia.SE $\endgroup$ – David Roberts Aug 17 at 0:32
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidRoberts: Martin Hairer's question seems pretty clearly much more on-topic here than at academia. $\endgroup$ – Noah Snyder Aug 17 at 18:48
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    $\begingroup$ Does an upvote on this question mean "I'm glad it was asked" (which I am) or "I think comments about politics belong on meta discussions about policy" (which I don't)? That's not to say that there are no questions in which it's relevant, but it wasn't relevant on the meta post to which you refer (which should have been only a question of policy and moderation). I think that comment thread did not reflect well on us, including specifically me and the people with whom I agree politically. $\endgroup$ – LSpice Aug 18 at 11:23
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    $\begingroup$ Typing mathematician political prisoner into Google brought up many names including José Luis Massera, Vadim Anatolyevich Yankov, Azat Miftakhov. Would this be a discussion on aspects of politics relevant to mathematicians on MathOverflow? I can see where it might fit better on academia.se, but not every mathematician is an academic – what if an industrial mathematician is held as a political prisoner? $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Aug 19 at 23:23
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    $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson If allowing those discussions is going to be used as a wedge to pry MO open to the culture war, then I propose banning those topics as well, which is unfortunate, since I think those are issues where we could find complete unity. $\endgroup$ – Harry Gindi Aug 21 at 5:13
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    $\begingroup$ @HarryGindi Not quite complete unity: we've tried it before, meta.mathoverflow.net/questions/2797/mathoverflow-user-jailed/…, and the resulting discussion discourages me from trying it again. $\endgroup$ – Todd Trimble Aug 23 at 2:04
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I think the US-style culture war is moving to Math and STEM fields. Looking at what happened in the social sciences, I can not say I am optimistic about the future, especially since mathematicians are not very well-equipped to deal with topics with such complex historical and social layers. As with most wars, there will be fanatics, heroes, tragic figures and opportunistic cowards committed to mutual destruction from both sides.

Although it might be fun as hell to watch, I would rather not watch it on MathOverflow. There are already many venues for that, this is one place where we can all indulge in the "cold, austere beauty" of Mathematics, as Rome burns.

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    $\begingroup$ A little pessimistic, but I concede that I have similar fears, and would like MO to walk back from this. $\endgroup$ – Lucia Aug 19 at 16:59
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    $\begingroup$ @Lucia: I think being slightly pessimistic is the key to happiness! (-: $\endgroup$ – Hailong Dao Aug 19 at 17:11
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    $\begingroup$ Hailong and @Lucia : speaking as a Brit, I think extensive trialling of this idea has shown that it may be necessary but it isn't sufficient :) $\endgroup$ – Yemon Choi Aug 20 at 0:02
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    $\begingroup$ @YemonChoi: yes, we need to add a certain amount of privilege. $\endgroup$ – Hailong Dao Aug 20 at 0:37
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    $\begingroup$ I'm confused by the vague and sweeping allusion "what happened in the social sciences". What did happen? (I've been conflicted about making this comment because I'm afraid it may come across as political in nature. But ultimately I think if that's the case, then the "political-ness" originates in Hailong's answer. Which may underscore the point that any position of "apoliticality" is itself a political position, often a position favoring the status quo, or else making some compromise among different political positions.) $\endgroup$ – Tim Campion Aug 23 at 14:01
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    $\begingroup$ @TimCampion: yes, I am aware that most thing we do and say have political meaning. The mere fact that we are talking about what MathOverflow should allow while billions of people are suffering from neo-colonialism, genocide, political oppression, poverty, human trafficking, etc is a political statement too. But my point is precisely that we should keep MathOverflow, a tiny insignificant corner of the internet, from being politicized (not political, as we can agree, the existence and population of MO are already results of political and social forces). $\endgroup$ – Hailong Dao Aug 23 at 15:48
  • $\begingroup$ @HailongDao Thanks for your response. Is your distinction that "'politicization' means 'open discussion of politics' while 'political' also encompasses more implicit things"? $\endgroup$ – Tim Campion Aug 23 at 16:27
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    $\begingroup$ Could you also clarify the allusion to "what happened in the social sciences"? Are we to infer something like "many social sciences have become politicized by a US-style culture war"? Is there a specific example you have in mind? $\endgroup$ – Tim Campion Aug 23 at 16:27
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    $\begingroup$ @TimCampion: I would be happy to talk more about that, but I would prefer we move the conversation to reddit (don't have an account yet, but should be easy to open one). $\endgroup$ – Hailong Dao Aug 23 at 16:48
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    $\begingroup$ In fact, I just Googled and found a thread on culture war there. This post shows that the admins there have much more experience dealing with such topic: reddit.com/r/TheMotte/comments/bdcc84/… $\endgroup$ – Hailong Dao Aug 23 at 16:55
  • $\begingroup$ It's unclear what to me what you mean by "moving the conversation to reddit", but if it helps I am /u/tcampion there. I'm troubled by the implication that if you were to be more precise about what you mean in your answer, additional moderation would be required. $\endgroup$ – Tim Campion Aug 24 at 2:41
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    $\begingroup$ @TimCampion: I was just being consistent with my point that a detailed discussion of a topic like culture wars in social science should be much better carried out on reddit than MO. You seem to be troubled a bit easily, so I no longer feel like a long conversation would be fun for either of us. Here is one example of things that I don't want to see in our community, you can probably found many other examples, and lively discussions about them, online: buzzfeednews.com/article/katiejmbaker/…. $\endgroup$ – Hailong Dao Aug 24 at 4:21
  • $\begingroup$ @HailongDao I appreciate the example. I think it clarifies your answer, as I requested initially. I'm sorry for distracting from my request for clarity with the long parenthetical in that comment. Now that you have clarified the somewhat nebulous fears you expressed in your answer, I do want to express an opinion: I feel that to some degree this line of thought allows the fear of trolls to control us, and that this is undesireable. $\endgroup$ – Tim Campion Aug 24 at 17:12
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    $\begingroup$ @TimCampion You should just not constantly be on the lookout for drama and you shouldn't try to read bad intention into everything someone says. It is precisely this attitude that makes it impossible to discuss politics anymore in universities. $\endgroup$ – user2520938 Aug 27 at 11:04
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    $\begingroup$ @user2520938 Thanks for the advice. I understand that I've come across that way, and I'm working to understand why. My current understanding is that (1) Any comment with the potential to prolong the discussion was bound to be seen as "antagonistic" in the current context, (2) my long and distracting parenthetical to my initial comment, which was meant to address (1), only exacerbated the problem, (3) I expressed my confusions about Hailong's reddit suggestion in a suboptimal way. I'm grateful to Hailong for looking past these infelicities and providing the clarification I requested. $\endgroup$ – Tim Campion Aug 27 at 16:23
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Allowing these sorts of questions would be a significant increase in scope for the site, and I don't think we're prepared to handle it.

The basic question for me is: what sorts of disputes are likely to arise within a given scope or set of rules, and what skills are required to resolve those disputes? For a site like this that depends a lot on community moderation, we can then ask: does the community have the skills to resolve these disputes? Right now the rules are tuned so that only two types of disputes can occur:

  1. Mathematical disputes: Can X prove Y? Does a thing with property Z exist? etc.
  2. Scoping disputes: Is this a question about mathematics? Is it a research question, or standard knowledge in the field?

The skillset the community needs in order to resolve these disputes is that of a mathematical researcher, and we have those in abundance. I'm sure it doesn't always go perfectly, but there's an additional layer of moderators who also have the training to deal with these sorts of issues.

If we allow questions and answers related to politics - academic or otherwise - then we're introducing a source of controversy that we do not, as a community, have the expertise and experience to deal with. A great many people here probably have informed opinions about how universities and math departments are run and so forth, but this is different from serious expertise in academic administration. (Unless there are a lot more academic administrators lurking around here than I realize.) Of course the same goes for even more controversial political matters about which we have even less built-in expertise.

So if we do want to allow this stuff, we'll either need a plan for how we will expand the community so that we have a critical mass of participants with the right skillset, or some other plan for how we will maintain high moderation standards. Otherwise we're asking for chaos.

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  • $\begingroup$ I think our moderators should be and are up to the task. The moderators on academia stackexchange seem to do a reasonable job with that site even though none of them claims serious expertise in academic administration: academia.stackexchange.com/users?tab=moderators $\endgroup$ – Matt F. Aug 21 at 17:18
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    $\begingroup$ @MattF. Most of the moderation on SE sites in general, I believe, is done by high-rep users rather than the formally elected moderators. And that community, however it is composed, has years of experience in drawing boundaries that keep the discussion civil, constructive, and on-topic - at MO it is very easy to shut down most controversial discussion since it is rarely about mathematics. On top of that, I'm not certain how many of the examples that the OP cited would be on topic there, either - they also try to limit subjective and controversial topics. $\endgroup$ – Paul Siegel Aug 21 at 19:02
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I think some political discussion is appropriate here.

For instance, I thought "how to accelerate progress in mathematical research" was a good question. As one commentator pointed out, "any serious answer would inevitably touch political and ideological issues"; and I agree: politics is relevant to some questions about mathematical research. In those cases I would find it on-topic for MathOverflow.

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I personally have nothing against political discussions as long as they do not degenerate into pointless accusations and refusing to deal with a person holding an opposite point of view, whatever this opposite point of view may be. If everybody remembers that while we are bound by the laws of the countries we live in and should try to exhibit some common sense in general, we are not obliged to share any particular viewpoint or to adhere to any particular agenda, however popular or "self-evident" to its proponents, we can discuss pretty much anything.

With that said, it is a good idea to remember that the primary purpose of MO is to facilitate a free exchange of mathematical ideas, so the option to deviate from this line should be used sparingly and only when something really burns your mind and you feel like a discussion with fellow mathematicians makes more sense than posting in academia or other fora devoted to general topics.

Just my two cents :-)

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    $\begingroup$ Once ideologies start to trump science, there is no incentive to not degenerate into accusation, shaming and ostracization. In fact, the opposite is true. $\endgroup$ – Hailong Dao Aug 20 at 0:44
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    $\begingroup$ @HailongDao "Once ideologies start to trump science, there is no incentive to not degenerate into accusation, shaming and ostracization." You mean "no incentive offered by the society as a whole"? Maybe, but you are a also a free individual who can make choices and the "society as a whole" is not the only entity that can offer "incentives", though it is a rather powerful one as far as rewards and punishments are concerned. But, of course, if too many people are eager to act out of "incentives to degenerate", we'd better discuss nothing controversial. I just don't think it is the case. $\endgroup$ – fedja Aug 20 at 0:59
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    $\begingroup$ The mentality that "all points of view are valid" is a logical fallacy that a mathematician of all people should not commit. $\endgroup$ – Stanley Yao Xiao Aug 20 at 12:19
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    $\begingroup$ @StanleyYaoXiao the mentality exhibited here is more like "any point of view is potentially valid unless the opposite has been rigorously established" $\endgroup$ – user145520 Aug 20 at 12:28
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I don't want to say anything too sweeping, but here's my perspective on the discussion of the last few days:

  1. Martin Hairer's question was on-topic.

  2. David White's answer was on-topic.

  3. The ensuing discussion in the comments, was quite long, and appropriately moved to two chatrooms. I think it's valuable for us to have these kind of conversations on MO from time to time. I think it's appropriate for such discussions to be be directed away from the main site into meta / chat when they get too long. I think that if you're not interested in such discussions, nobody is forcing you to read through them or engage in them -- you're free to ignore them!

  4. One thing which became clear from Scott Carnahan's answer to the related meta question is that moderation standards are a bit different for comments versus chat. Comments are not meant to be a place for extended discussion, so the "required signal-to-noise ratio" for a comment is higher than that for a message in chat. I think that makes chat much better-suited to discussing topics where people don't necessarily have as much common ground to work from as we're used to on MO. Again, nobody is forcing you to read or engage with such discussions -- you're free to ignore them!

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    $\begingroup$ On (4), I particularly wanted to highlight a sentence fragment from the comments which I thought offered a useful perspective: "comments on MO are not really meant as a place for liberal democratic discourse, and the standard for deletion of non-mathematical comments is quite low". ("Liberal democratic discourse" here is not out of the blue, but a response to a previous comment.) $\endgroup$ – LSpice Aug 18 at 12:41
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    $\begingroup$ While I'm not disagreeing with your answer as a whole, the approach of "If you don't want to read it, don't read it" is not helpful when it turns into a slippery slope, and the site ends up being overrun by these talks. Of course MO doesn't run the risk of this happening, we're a mostly-academics community which is really focused on one topic, but it's not a good way to approach these things, at the end of the day, when the discussion ends up as off-topic, the onus should be on those who want to partake, not those who wish to ignore it. (Again, I agree with what you're saying.) $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Aug 18 at 15:01
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    $\begingroup$ This is not the history as it happened. The comments were not moved altogether to the chat room. Instead, some, representing one side of the political conflict around this discussion, were removed, while the other were left as comments. The question here to moderators is "will that happen again?". $\endgroup$ – Joël Aug 21 at 13:58
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    $\begingroup$ @Joël Just to clarify, initially some comments were deleted by moderators after being flagged, but later it was decided to delete all the comments from the question, and restore all of them (besides certain other comments which had been voluntarily deleted by their own commenters) in chat. My (3) above refers to the final decision, not the initial one. $\endgroup$ – Tim Campion Aug 22 at 20:36
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    $\begingroup$ Sure, but will it happen again? $\endgroup$ – Joël Aug 23 at 17:38

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