Is MathOverflow insane?

Since my post contra MathOverflow, already five years ago, I’ve continued watching the site and enjoying many of its mathematical discussions, and seeing myself evolve a bit concerning some of my critical opinions. However, I read today with amazement the discussion that evolved from a question of Richard Stanley on the topic of gravitational waves. I applaud the question, the answer and (among the voices of reason) the comments of Lucia.

The negative comments embody the perfect distillation of the perverse puritanical hair-splitting competition known as “Is this question a good fit for MO?” (to be read in a slightly hysterical voice) that is now what I find most annoying on the site. This is not what mathematics (not even “research” mathematics, that seems to replace here the “pure” mathematics illusion of yesteryears) is about for me. I must confess to finding particularly annoying that some of the most vocal critics (e.g., the pseudonymous “quid”) seem to be people with little actual mathematical contributions and too much time to spend and to write for ever and ever on the finer points of etiquette of a web site as if it were some platonic object to protect from all interlopers.

What would Arnold think of this discussion, where “mathematicians” throw away much (he would say “most”) of the whole history, motivation and insights of their science? Would a question of Kolmogorov on what the brain looks like as graph have passed through the fourches caudines of Signor Quid?

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I am a professor of mathematics at ETH Zürich since 2008.

9 thoughts on “Is MathOverflow insane?”

  1. I’ll note that although the commentary did indeed go on for a while, the question was neither migrated nor closed (by the moderators or the community), and the question at this point has two decent answers and an unobtrusive pointer to that commentary, which has been moved off-site.

    1. Indeed, and the large number of upvotes is a clear sign that to most readers, the question and the answer are perfectly fine… so the query in the title of my post can fortunately be answered “No, MO remains quite sane.”

  2. I am not sure I understand your position on MO moderation but I think it is way to biased and strict. I have tried to ask questions which were deemed not focused enough to be left open. I wish people were just allowed to give a free, collegial opinion, even if not perfectly rigorous and to the authoritarian enjoyment of the few moderators. I have been feeling quite frustrated on MO, my interests and approach not being exactly in resonance with that of moderators.

    Paul Le Meur

  3. I remember your criticism of MO and, I am not sure why, I started to entertain the notion that perhaps you were participating in MO anonymously and, whenever some anonymous user was particularly good in Analytic Number Theory, I would wonder “is this Kowalski?”. Lucia and quid were my prime suspects. :-)

  4. Emmanuel. my personal thinking is that MO is overall a valuable site. Quid was a very valuable participant of MO and I am very sorry that he left the site.

  5. I agree with Gil. Quid’s contributions to MO were overall extremely positive, and it is too bad he left the site. I agree though that he had a tendency to spend way too much time trying to determine which questions were appropriate for the site and which were not.

    Emmanuel seems to know who Quid is in real life. I wonder how. I have no idea, for Quid or for most of the anonymous big MO posters in Number Theory.

    1. No, I don’t know who Quid is — indeed, I would have phrased this part of my post quite differently if I did, without mentioning anyone specifically.

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