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    • CommentAuthortheojf
    • CommentTimeNov 21st 2010

    I would like to ask a (community wiki) question along the following lines, but it's the type of question that I don't much care for on MO, and so I'd like to make sure it's good before posting it. The general question is something like the title of this discussion: "What would be an ideal system through which amateur mathematicians can advertise their results and solicit feedback, and how can we set up such a thing?"

    My motivation is the recent batch of posts by HH Hannett, and in particular the following comment from :

    No, it wasn't Terry Tao. I suspect with covering 4 areas in Math that he'd be the first to admit that he's not omnipresent (yet). In defense of those at the top of the math totem pole, it seems to me from my limited skirmish, that there might be a mechanism whereby amateur ("non-PhD") contributions can get a fair shake without tieing up their time. Perhaps some sort of delegated, tiered system that a paper has to survive would be useful before it bubbles up to them? – HH Hannett 10 mins ago

    I don't think HH Hannett is trying to spam MO (although this is what he is doing): rather, he seems to honestly want some way to participate, and like many amateurs has been somewhat frustrated by the system as is.

    Now, I want to be careful about what discussion to start. My goal is not to criticize, per se, the mathematical academy as it is currently set up (nor to defend it --- that's just not the question I'd like to ask on MO). Rather, it seems that MO might be a good place to design the "delegated, tiered system that a paper has to survive would be useful before it bubbles up to [the top of the totem pole]" that HH Hannet is advocating, or something else that can solve the same problems. Maybe the answer is that peer review already does this, but maybe there are better answers?

    So, what's my point? This is meta, so I don't actually want to discuss answers to this question here. I do want to know if y'all think a question like this could be appropriate on MO, and if so, how exactly to write it and manage it so that it doesn't get out of control and/or closed (which it could easily do).

    Any ideas?

    • CommentAuthorWillieWong
    • CommentTimeNov 21st 2010

    Interpreting the FAQ strictly, I would say no. This is not a question that I think would be interesting to too many research mathematicians. Also, it is a question with no definite answer, and will most likely devolve into some sort of contentious debate and grow to have very heavy discussions.

    In fact, the problem of "designing a system" is going to be inherently involving lots of ideas and discussions, with many gives and takes and compromises, and the StackExchange platform is really not at all the best at such. A bona fide bulletin board system, a blog, a mailing list, or even USENET are all more suitable for this type of interactions. Therefore I hold my reservations on whether this question is suitable for MO.

    (On the other hand, I do find this question to be an interesting one, and would at least like to follow the discussion if it were to take place elsewhere. I just don't think it fits very well technically or in content with MathOverflow.)

    I don't like the question much either. First, as WillieWong said it is not really on-topic. However, more importantly to me, I expect that it would attract an enormous number of crank answers. Given the experience of other mathematical forums on the internet, keeping the cranks at bay is essential to the health of MO.
    • CommentAuthorgrp
    • CommentTimeNov 21st 2010
    I believe that the question as stated is not appropriate for MathOverflow. However, if the goal is to garner some interest in creating such a vehicle, I could see something like the following on meta.mathoverflow.

    User H wants to create object B for mathematical purpose C. He sets up a blog (or email address, or newsgroup) with URL Z. H then asks on meta about the appropriateness of asking for help with B (oh and by the way see Z for more info) . Many will say no, and please don't advertise B or Z again, and some will go to Z and help him. Not much harm, and no foul, as I see it.

    Gerhard "Ask Me About System Design" Paseman, 2010.11.21
    Strictly speaking there is a foul though, isn't there? Meta is for asking questions about MO, not for advertising your stuff. You seem to be saying "yes but perhaps advertising your stuff is sometimes OK" but this is not so clear to me. On the other hand, it doesn't matter at all what I think is OK because people are doing what you suggest, not on meta but on MO, and for me that is even less OK but it doesn't stop it happening.

    Definitely a question for a blog.

    • CommentAuthorgrp
    • CommentTimeNov 21st 2010
    Kevin, I do not mean to say that advertising stuff on meta.mathoverflow is OK. I am saying that asking for feedback on a mathematics related question for MathOverflow is ok. I am also saying that if a URL is included, that might generate some of the desired effect, namely directing help off meta.mathoverflow. I am also suggesting that doing this repeatedly on meta is to be frowned upon.

    Strictly speaking, such behaviour is less of a foul than other recent posts on meta. For example, I would have suggested that AndrewL's recent post blatantly advertising his blog was inappropriate, and should be deleted; I didn't because I feared the response to that even more. However, if AndrewL had proposed a question for posting on MO, and slipped in the blog URL, that would have been preferable to what he did, and might have even gained hime a few readers. It might have even been helpful for MathOverflow by giving AndrewL a small audience and
    enough to do without having him try to do it on MathOverflow.

    Gerhard "Ask Me About System Design" Paseman, 2010.11.21
    I am an amateur myself, but I support Willie Wong and Andy Putman's responses. I feel MO is working as it should, but I would hate to see it become another sci.math overrun with spam and nonsense. The issue of helping amateurs find a place in mathematics is valid, but in general I think the answer is for amateurs to go back to school and continue on with their course work.
    • CommentAuthortheojf
    • CommentTimeNov 21st 2010

    Hi all,

    Your comments all make very valid and correct points, and I won't try to create such a question. (Is why I asked it here, after all: I wasn't so sure about the appropriateness myself.)


    I just want to object that my comment (which gave rise to the response quoted in the original post) has been deleted, possibly after being flagged by sufficiently many people as spam(?). The line between "amateur number theorist" and "crank" is very fine indeed. I guess "amateur" is not really the most accurate word here --- I'm talking about the inability to correctly use the standard syntax of mathematics, the failure to differentiate between results which are "deep" and those which are not, the lack of knowledge of past methods and approaches, and the hubris associated with thinking one can solve some major conjecture on one's own without any deep knowledge of the subject. This doesn't seem to be a very high bar to pass, and it certainly doesn't require one to be a "professional" mathematician (plenty of undergraduates post on MO without any problems), but I think that any question which doesn't reach clearly beyond this level should be vigorously closed, if MO doesn't want to continue on the road towards sci.math.

    Dear Frictionless,

    The level on MO has been remarkably stable, and I don't think it's fair to say that it's even on the road towards sci.math. There's no shortage of people here who would have a problem with closing large numbers of threads.


    @Frictionless: I think that you will find that the reason your comment was deleted (I did not flag for deletion, by the way; although I did upvote Steven Gubkin's now-orphaned response to it) was because it was an ad hominem assault on the OP and inappropriate to the level of discourse we strive to on MO. I completely agree with the closure (and I'll even vote for deletion) of that question for the reasons you mention. That is the appropriate course of action on MO; insulting the OP is not.

    @Jose, I won't protest too much, because the comment was snarky at best, but I still believe in the point I was trying to make: cranks who send their unsolicited proofs of the twin prime conjecture (or RH, or Fermat...) to real mathematicians are a net waste of time to mathematics. I meant only to imply that the OP (who claimed (they think!) to have proven the twin prime conjecture) has most likely produced something of zero worth to mathematics. I would class that as dismissive, rude, and elitist rather than an "ad hominem assault". But cranks are like bed bugs --- once they get inside, they are very hard to get rid of. Perhaps simply closing such questions will stem the tide - I hope you are right!
    • CommentAuthorHarry Gindi
    • CommentTimeNov 21st 2010 edited

    @Frictionless: One of the strong points of the SE model is that everyone with sufficiently many points can vote to close, edit, retag, etc. Also, the moderators can suspend people who continue to post garbage, and they have done it before.

    The issue would be if cranks were able to gain moderation powers, but I can't see that happening unless people start voting them up (rather than down).

    @Frictionless : I certainly don't disagree with the point you are making, and I periodically get the urge to be sarcastic with the cranks that pop up on MO and elsewhere (in fact, I've left a couple of biting comments that I later came to regret and thus deleted). However, I think it is best for MO to just quietly close/delete the questions and take the professional high road. It's the same kind of thing I do with cranky emails I get. I suppose I could yell at their authors for wasting my time, but it's both more professional and a better use of my time to just delete them.

    Frictionless- Believe me when I say that we all want to keep MO crank free, and that as moderators, we are prepared to serious measures to do this (and have done so in the past). But insulting people is not a serious measure; it's just insulting.

    I really would not worry about cranks somehow obtaining power over the site; Anton (if I remember correctly, he's the one with the actual finger on the moderator-creation button, even though moderators will be elected from now on) has too many dictatorial powers for things to get really out of hand, and I doubt it would come to that given the active and serious user base.

    • CommentAuthortheojf
    • CommentTimeNov 23rd 2010

    See also .


    Theo- I see that as a very different kind of question. I wasn't super-fond of it, but mostly because it seemed like a request for a pep talk, rather than an actual question. It wasn't really a "crank" question; knowing how and where to submit papers is really hard, and many of us would like advice on it, quite reasonably, I think.


    I didn't like that second question (hence my casting the final vote to close). It wasn't really even asking for advice, more for reassurance. The person already had advice from someone far better placed to make a judgement on the matter, and who on MO was really going to say, "No, you should submit to Not-Really-Very-Good-Journal."? So "Not a real question", really.

    I have to say that I have been extremely impressed by the speed with which inappropriate questions have been closed. That being said I despise the level of arrogance that Frictionless described, it is very frustrating and I understand the sentiment of the comment that was made. I think closing the questions is best, and it is done remarkably well.

    Maybe I should ask if someone has a brief word of advice for dealing with cranks? (other than completely ignoring them which is probably the best advice, although hard to follow)
    • CommentAuthorAndy Putman
    • CommentTimeNov 24th 2010 edited
    @Sean : Engaging with cranks is a very bad idea. Delete their emails. Throw away their letters. If they show up at your office, immediately remember an appointment across campus. Etc.

    The educator in you might feel an urge to carefully explain to them where their arguments fail and what not. However, they never listen, and if they think they have an audience or if you give them an ounce of encouragement, then they will never leave.
    There was an amusing book written some time back, A Budget of Trisections by Underwood Dudley, which gives some idea of what cranks and dealing with them are like. Dudley seemed genuinely interested in the phenomenon, but if you're not and you value your time, do not engage!
    See also Dudley's more recent book, Mathematical Cranks.

    Indeed, I find mathematical crankery an intensely fascinating subject, but I am glad we have people like Dudley around that are actually interested in spending time on the cranks and communicating the results. (I first heard of his work through his article What to do when the trisector comes in the Mathematical Intellegencer. That was ages ago.)

    I find the air of elitism on this thread to be disturbing and sad. I have wanted to be, I have tried to be a mathematician my entire life, but first and foremost I am a social activist. I care about people. To me mathematics is a human enterprise, yet too many mathematician seem to feel that they owe nothing to humanity. Like virtually everyone involved in mathematics, I've had my share of dealings with "cranks". As a person with Asperger's, my unbridled zeal for mathematics has caused me to act like a crank on occasion and I feel remorse for this. I applaud Dudley and his book Mathematical Cranks, I think it is fantastic that at least one person had the curiosity to investigate and document this phenomena. What bother's me is I feel too many mathematicians act like they were conferred with a degree in psychoanalysis while displaying zero psychological curiosity. I seems to me that every time a group of humans are reduced to single pejorative word that trouble is surely around the corner. If this thread represents what it means to be a mathematician then I'm afraid that the practice of mathematics has lost a piece of its heart and soul. If there is no room for compassion and humanity in mathematics then I clearly do not belong here.
    • CommentAuthorAlex Bartel
    • CommentTimeNov 25th 2010 edited

    @Daniel Geisler It's not that people here claim to understand "cranks", so your statement that "mathematicians act like they were conferred with a degree in psychoanalysis while displaying zero psychological curiosity" is unjustified. In fact, mathematicians, like most people, are curious about lots of things, but have no time to pursue almost any of their interests sufficiently seriously.

    Having said that, I also resent some of the more elitist statements on this thread. It seems to me that "not professional mathematicians doing mathematics" and "cranks" is being used almost synonimously, which is rather insulting towards the amateur mathematicians here. For example, I don't quite see how the thread mentioned by Theo Johnson-Freyd fits into the discussion. This meta thread started as a discussion about how to tell cranks from non-cranks and that seems a non-issue in the linked question. The only connection I see is that the OP is not a professional mathematician.

    Regarding that thread itself, while I agree that the OP likely received more sensible advice from the professional mathematician who has read his work than he could expect from this site, I can totally understand his desire to ask a wider audience. I do think that "how do I avoid looking like a crank if I sincerely believe that I'm not one" is a valid question and that a community of professional mathematicians is the only body qualified to give a definitive answer, since they are the ones who will put the stamp "crank" on the work (or won't, as the case may be). I agree with Ben Webster's assessment of the question and if the MO-community decides that MO is not for providing encouragement to non-academics, then that's fine by me. But if the thread was closed "to keep the cranks at bay", then I would find that misguided.


    @Daniel: With your post coming right after mine I get the feeling that it is my post, in particular, that you object to. If this is so, I am puzzled. To make it clear, one thing that professional and amateur mathematicians have in common is that they do make mistakes, and they accept it when mistakes are pointed out to them (though it may take a bit of back and forth before they're convinced). The cranks, on the other hand, never admit a mistake, except perhaps a peripheral one. This is one of the defining characteristics of a crank, as I understand the word.

    Re compassion, I can certainly feel compassion for cranks, for they waste not only our time but their own, often massive quantities of it. But there is nothing in the training of professional mathematcians that enables us to deal with cranks and help them overcome their problems. Some of us may have some natural talent for it, but others don't, and if you fall into the latter category (as I do) then trying to avoid contact seems to me a good strategy. Personally, I get intensely frustrated when I feel unable to communicate with someone in a meaningful fashion, and I am sure this frustration will show. I am possibly even doing that person a service by avoiding him (most cranks seem to be male).

    Whoa! This discussion has taken an unfortunate turn, and I feel as if I'm one of the ones that the 'elitism' charge is being directed at.

    Daniel, my belief is in line with Alex's: unless you (the generic 'you' here) *is* professionally qualified in psychotherapy of some sort, it's probably not a good idea to try to engage with so-called "cranks", because you don't really know what you are doing in trying to "help". So it's more an observation that mathematicians by and large aren't trained in psychoanalysis, opposite to the suggestion that we act as if we *are qualified.

    "Crank" *is* kind of an ugly or demeaning word, isn't it? But I don't know of a substitute word to use to refer to the syndrome described in Dudley's books (he uses the same word).

    This thread seems to have been kicked off by sean tilson when he asked what to do about cranks, and I personally made no association between that word and amateur mathematicians -- I took the word to mean what it means. [In fact, I am strictly speaking not a professional mathematician, i.e., I'm not being paid to think about the mathematics that I love, although I was a professional for a number of years -- so I guess that makes me an "amateur" myself, certainly so in the etymological sense: "lover of mathematics".] Anyway, people who work in mathematics, physics, logic, etc. generally recognize (by the symptoms) "cranks", and if any of those people conflate that with "amateur", well, shame on them! Has this happened here?

    (By the way, I appreciate your mentioning the Asperger's. My nine-year-old son is "on the spectrum" too. I find it's very helpful to be open about these things.)
    Thanks for your responses folks. Maybe it would have been more appropriate if I had started a new thread with my concerns. I am frustrated with what I see are some broad trends in the mathematics community, I wasn't really commenting on any of the individuals on this thread. I was set off by the series of comments on cranks. I'm not wild about the word crank, but I use it myself and certainly have encountered the phenomena. But what what we are talking about is a complex issue relating to humans and we need to be careful not to confuse people with simple mathematical objects like points. The word crank can strip away all the human characteristics of a person reducing them to a single bit of information. I don't see how this practice can ultimately be good for the advancement of either mathematics or humanity.
    • CommentAuthorMariano
    • CommentTimeNov 25th 2010

    The word crank can strip away all the human characteristics of a person reducing them to a single bit of information.

    But the word tall can have the same effect if it is used in that way... No one here (nor anywhere, I think) uses crank to refer to more than a facet of some people's personality and actions, without ignoring that the crank may have other sides.

    But in so far as their behaviour is when doing cranky stuff, well, they are cranks. What do you want people to use to refer to them in that particular capacity of them?

    • CommentAuthorWill Jagy
    • CommentTimeNov 25th 2010
    To give a little perspective, I wrote to Daniel on November 9, originally about discomfort over answers being posted for the "indefinite sum" and "half-iteration" problems that lacked convergence proofs for some infinite sums. As a result, a simple feature of partial sums for the Newton method has been identified, showing that it is simply unsuitable for, say, a half iterate for sin x, or anything periodic, as there is a nonzero linear coefficient that disappears only with the infinite sum. Further, a method due to Jean Ecalle (1974)
    has been unscrambled. Daniel is most of the way to a complete answer for that problem. If he is ever satisfied with the matter, the result will be a post on that question with a graph of, say, a half iterate for e^x - 1 for, say, -3 < x < 5, that is analytic on the positive real line and on the negative real line but only C^infinity at the origin. The same method readily gives other fractional or general iterates, f_s(x) with f_0(x) = x and f_1(x) = e^x - 1, in between f_s(f_t(x))=f_{s+t}(x). The overall setup (not the numerical method) is in Milnor's book, Dynamics in One Complex Variable.
    *However, they never listen, and if they think they have an audience or if you give them an ounce of encouragement, then they will never leave.*

    You don't always know the first time that it is a crank. So you respond, trying to be helpful. And even one response may be enough to switch him to the "never leave" mode. One crank I am still hearing from 20 years later --- for example I was recently invited to become his Facebook friend.
    • CommentAuthorsean tilson
    • CommentTimeNov 28th 2010 edited
    I did not mean to start any turmoil. I certainly think of myself as an amateur mathematician at most, and not always a crank. Although, I did practice certain behavior that I would consider "cranky", I would like to think I grew out of it. Who knows? I feel that I have dealt with a few cranks and my initial reaction is to go at it with them. Here is a borderline example: one guy called and asked what kind of computer he would need to study the digits of pi and if he should go to He called in to a tutoring center I worked at several years ago, and eventually people felt that I should talk to him. My thoughts were to try and help him see that this was not a reasonable expenditure of his time. Maybe I was wrong, but I certainly was offended. I find the attitude of most "cranks" insulting, this takes time and work. I was once a lay person, and still am to a large extent.

    I get really frustrated with situations involving cranks, and I think that math is a beautiful thing that everyone should love. But how can you appreciate it without knowing anything about it? And to claim to appreciate it demeans the knowledge of those who do understand it and the work they did to get where they are.

    The above is just an attempt to explain where I was and am coming from. It is not by any means an accusation of anyone as being less than a contributing member of the mathematical community.
    • CommentAuthormike3
    • CommentTimeNov 28th 2010
    (Hello. I'm new here, by the way. I just wanted to offer some comments/ask some questions on this.)

    "one guy called and asked what kind of computer he would need to study the digits of pi and if he should go to He called in to a tutoring center I worked at several years ago, and eventually people felt that I should talk to him. My thoughts were to try and help him see that this was not a reasonable expenditure of his time. Maybe I was wrong, but I certainly was offended. I find the attitude of most "cranks" insulting, this takes time and work. I was once a lay person, and still am to a large extent."

    Why would you want him to go and do something else, when that's his "problem", and if he likes doing it, why is that *bad* for him to do? Maybe if your service wasn't intended to provide such things, then I could see not wanting him to annoy it or something, but stopping him fro going with something he likes? That seems wrong.

    "I get really frustrated with situations involving cranks, and I think that math is a beautiful thing that everyone should love. But how can you appreciate it without knowing anything about it? And to claim to appreciate it demeans the knowledge of those who do understand it and the work they did to get where they are."

    So then if your knowledge is incomplete or "amateur", then it's *wrong* and *harmful* to "love" the subject and claim so? That seems like a whole different ball of wax from what I usually associate with true "crankery", which is where you arrogantly go and push some wrong theory, claim or "result" in spite of every argument posed against it, willfully refusing to listen, consider, or understand the arguments of the opponents of said theory. And it seems to do more harm than it would good, since love is often needed or important to motivate someone to become an expert in the first place.
    • CommentAuthorsean tilson
    • CommentTimeNov 28th 2010 edited
    I guess it is a bit arrogant to say that I felt it was a waste of his time, but that is how I felt. To clarify, I was an undergraduate working at a tutoring center provided by the math department. The main office forwarded the question to us. There are lots of details that I have forgotten, and a few i haven't mentioned, but my main impression was that he had just gotten done watching "Pi" or some such thing.

    I would say that he does not know if he likes doing it since he hadn't yet started, and it sounded he was willing to pay a lot of money out to start working on this project. I assumed that he envisioned some sort of glory would be in store for him when, not if, he found some pattern.

    My advisor has many times pointed out that my ideas are ill-founded or not well formed or inappropriate. This seems to me to be a very crucial part of mathematics. There is criticism and there are bad ideas. As a student, I would rather know if something is worth spending six months on ahead of time, even if I might be disappointed to find out that my idea is bad.

    As to your second point, I am frequently very unclear. I believe all knowledge is incomplete, but that it is possible for people to love things all the same. I think you are right in saying that what I described is a bit far from run of the mill crankery. I was lumping in some non-crank but equally frustrating experiences I have had that reminded me of my earlier and "crankier" days.

    It seems very obvious to me now that my previous comment was an unwise one to post. My initial goal was to explain where i was coming from in asking my question, not throw another log on the fire.

    Is deleting my post the right thing to do at this point? I am typically in favor of leaving things documented so that people will understand or at least have context for mike3's points. please feel free to email me at first initial last name @
    • CommentAuthormike3
    • CommentTimeNov 28th 2010
    @sean tilson: Thank you for your answer.