14
$\begingroup$

Katie's question (which, one should note, is not written seriously but precisely as a test question intended to establish policy) brings up this topic. There are a lot of mathematics websites out there, and as the blog Good Math, Bad Math demonstrates, a lot of cranks out there. MO for instance has seen a few of them, though I won't link to them. There remains the question of how to deal with them; we are likely to get questions about squaring the circle, why the reals are countable, why Godel's incompleteness theorem is false, etc. Preferably, these won't keep showing up on the front page.

Does anyone want to comment on this matter, so that we can have an official policy written here on meta?

$\endgroup$
  • 13
    $\begingroup$ Hopefully a lone crank signed up to the private beta, and is preparing their magnum opus as a post here for us to try out our protopolicy on... $\endgroup$ – Charles Stewart Jul 22 '10 at 12:16
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Seems like we have some more questionable questions: math.stackexchange.com/questions/15238/… and math.stackexchange.com/questions/14879/… $\endgroup$ – Aryabhata Dec 22 '10 at 20:59
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ Please keep the discussion here to a "meta" level and refrain from name-calling. One thing I know is that cranks do not like to be called cranks. Any discussion in which that happens tends to have the signal-to-noise ratio sink way down. $\endgroup$ – Willie Wong Dec 22 '10 at 21:32
12
$\begingroup$

If the person puts in enough effort to write what can pass as a bona fide effort at a proof, those who can might as well give it a critical reading; if the person then gets combative or cranky, flag the comment/question for moderator attention.

If the person writes something that is nonsense, or something that does not have any precise mathematical interpretation, please vote down or, if you have 3000+ reps, vote to close as "not a real question".

If the person repeatedly posts nonsense, then vote to close or flag as "spam".


An additional comment: cranks typically want attention. So don't feed the troll if you see someone posting a question about his/her (rather obviously implausible) proof of the Riemann hypothesis. That is, unless you are willing to engage in a dialogue and point out exactly what he or she did wrong, it is better to just keep your mouth shut and ignore the question. If you just ignore it, it will eventually die in obscurity. If the crank reposts the schpiel (as they are wont to do on USENET), we can close then as duplicate or spam.

$\endgroup$
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ Or perhaps Don't turn the crank. $\endgroup$ – Cam McLeman Jan 27 '12 at 14:07
12
$\begingroup$

Q & A and comments can (and should) be dealt with on their merits independent of whether the poster is a crank. I don't see a problem with questions about squaring the circle, or 3-line proofs of major theorems and conjectures. Rating and tagging and filtering should do the rest. It is a distraction to constantly focus ad hoc attention on the "cranks" or "bad users" and their postings instead of moving the discussion technology forward.

[original longer answer follows. Above short answer moved up from comments.]

I think that this site should not classify posters or postings as "mathematical cranks" any more than it seeks to classify the intelligence, mathematical ability or psychological disability of all the other users.

Because answers have a separate existence from questions, and can be linked directly, "don't feed the trolls" (quoted in the other answer from USENET days, which had more interlacing of the troll and non-troll postings) is obsolete. A crank, crackpot or troll question can lead to non-crank answers that have a separate value, such as explaining a common mistake or why the standard theory is built in a particular way. For example, the recent 0.999...8 thread had both a massively downvoted question and highly upvoted answer. If crankish posters happen to manifest antisocial behavior in comment threads or questions this can be dealt with as its own phenomenon in the same manner as for other users, without making any crankery assessments.

Not understanding mathematics, or not having a conventional understanding, is not by itself a problem on a questions site. Some of the non-crank users seem to have psychological or social problems of their own, as is inevitable in a large population. That's life. It is OK. We don't make formal or informal policies seeking to limit their presence on the site and can appreciate their mathematical contributions for whatever value those may have.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ The question is not about classifying people, but how to deal with crank questions. If you are (partly) responding to Willie's answer, please comment there rather than adding your own answer. $\endgroup$ – Aryabhata Dec 22 '10 at 22:06
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Yes I agree with you general assessment on don't feed the troll. I was more concerned in my answer about non-mathematical/tangential comments that pile up. If there is something worthwhile to say, say it in an answer. Otherwise we'll end up with long, pointless, discussiony comment threads that detract from the purpose of this website (and which replicates the USENET problems you mention in your answer). $\endgroup$ – Willie Wong Dec 22 '10 at 22:08
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @Moron: I thought I did suggest "how to deal with crank questions" : deal with the Q & A & comments on their merits independent of whether the poster is a crank. I don't see a problem with questions about squaring the circle, or 3-line proofs of major theorems and conjectures. Rating and tagging and filtering should do the rest. It is a distraction to constantly focus ad hoc attention on the "cranks" or "bad users" and their postings instead of moving the discussion technology forward. $\endgroup$ – T.. Dec 22 '10 at 22:34
  • $\begingroup$ @T..: I was mainly talking about your first paragraph. It seems that you might have interpreted the main question of the thread as pointing out who the cranks are (If not, I apologize). I was just pointing out that that was not called out by the question at all. $\endgroup$ – Aryabhata Dec 22 '10 at 22:42
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ One point worth remarking: it's a good idea to have standard answers to the questions that attract cranks, such as variations on 0.999..., anti-Cantor diagonalization, etc. I don't know if we've got standard answers to all of them yet (compare with the sci.math FAQ) but perhaps it might be wise to be proactice since it's a lot easier to compose a good Q&A in a non-crank thread than it is in one that's cranked up. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Dec 22 '10 at 22:59
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @Bill: with the way this site works (that we can close an exact duplicate), I think that, if one such question hasn't come up already, we can provide the "standard answer" once it does, and close future appearances as duplicate. $\endgroup$ – Willie Wong Dec 22 '10 at 23:01
6
$\begingroup$

I myself don't think it will be that hard. If they are asking us to evaluate their proof of trisecting the angle, we can simply close the question with a remark that it is impossible, possibly pointing out the error if it is not too long and people are so inclined. If they are asking us to evaluate their proof of the Riemann hypothesis (which, after all, is strictly possible, just extremely unlikely), we can close it with the remark that this is not the purpose of the site. We could add to the FAQ that math.SE is not here to be a proofreading website. Finally, cranks that repeatedly make false assertions in the answers can simply be downvoted heavily.

$\endgroup$
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ We might have an "assuming the impossible" close reason. $\endgroup$ – Charles Stewart Jul 22 '10 at 12:17
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @Charles Stewart: Closest would be [not a real question] - cannot be reasonably answered in its current form. $\endgroup$ – Robert Cartaino Jul 22 '10 at 17:09
  • $\begingroup$ Adding a new reason for closing is preferable IMO. But there's no need to assume in advance that it's needed - we can just wait and see. $\endgroup$ – Tomer Vromen Jul 22 '10 at 17:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Robert: Yes, that makes sense. We might want to expand the description of the close tag if many questions assume the impossible. $\endgroup$ – Charles Stewart Jul 22 '10 at 19:15
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I don't think they see themselves as cranks. However, I don't see how to stop it, but your suggestions sound okay. The "cranks" will just go elsewhere then or make a new account and try again. $\endgroup$ – Jonas Teuwen Dec 6 '10 at 13:41

You must log in to answer this question.

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