Bill Dubuque said:

Remark that there are plenty of MO users that could provide very useful advice from their prior experiences in forums at this level, e.g. sci.math. Surely MU will encounter analogous problems. For example. moderation is much trickier at this lower level since it attracts questions from all sorts of fringes of the mathematical community, e.g all sorts of crackpot theories, numerology, and other pseudo-mathematical topics. One has to be very careful to design a policy that makes precisely clear what is on-topic in order to avoid attracting such cancerous discussions. Such factors played a large role in the demise of sci.math after it got much wider exposure due to various factors (endless September; usenet web interfaces: mathforum, Google Groups, etc). Sci.math still manages to limp along only because many usenet newsreaders provide strong filtering capabilities that allow one to easily ignore most of the garbage. But MU will have no such feature, right?

That said, I think it would be wise to create a widely-advertised meta MU thread to solicit advise from users of such similar forums.

This is quite relevant to the discussions we've been having. Bill Dubuque has been participating in online mathematics boards since before the internet, and I think that his warnings should be taken seriously.

With that, I have created the thread that Bill suggested. If anyone has any experiences to share, please do so in answers or comments.

  • 8
    $\begingroup$ At the moment, I am actually more worried about trolls $\endgroup$ – Casebash Jul 25 '10 at 1:48
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ That's a bit silly. I mean, they're mythical creatures like goblins or ponies. $\endgroup$ – 97832123 Jul 25 '10 at 2:14

I think that crackpot theories, numerology, etc. should be closed without hesitation, since this is a website about mathematics. It is not a site about debunking crackpot theories. For an explanation for why numerology is pseudo-mathematics, people asking such questions can easily be referred to Mark Chu-Carroll's blog, for instance.

Regardless of the merits of Harry's abrasive approach, he is right that math.SE needs a quality control system. MO has been so successful at attracting top mathematicians from around the world because the site is primarily about research questions. Many other forums tend to get overrun by spammy stuff if one is not careful.

Granted, we're not trying to bring Terry Tao over here, but we would like the site to be of interest to students of mathematics at a reasonable level (say, at least high school), serious users of mathematics from other fields, and people from other fields. In other words, I don't think that the purpose of math.SE is to be like MO (or SO) but for worse questions. Rather, just for questions at a different level.

So, for instance, I'd argue that flamewars on math.SE should be strictly prohibited. If people want to argue (not in a personal manner), they should do it on meta instead. I do like, however, the policy of MO of prohibiting arguments on meta unless one uses one's full name. This is one way to keep math.SE clean.

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ although the full-name deterrent is probably weaker when it's far less clear that what you write on this site has an impact on how the small, tight-knit group of people in your (perhaps future) profession think of you. Without that, it just appeals to some more nebulous psychological thing. Agree with this overall though. $\endgroup$ – Jamie Banks Jul 24 '10 at 23:31

There's still some disagreement on, essentially, how strict to make the homework policy, but more clear to me is that we have near-consensus that the only questions that should be closed are the genuinely bad ones--and we have similar ideas, most of us, on what constitutes bad.

Given that, I think it remains for us in private beta to finalize our first version of the FAQ, agree on tags, and seed lots more questions in each of the mentioned broad categories of question type we'd welcome (applied math/modeling, contest math, and more things on both ends - lower pre-college and closer to upper-division undergrad, including homework-type questions we think are fine). This last is perhaps the hardest to do, but will give the strongest signal on what we're about to those who would make quality contributions but aren't sure they're interested, given the homework etc. questions that will surface en masse.

I'd also ask that we put up more honest questions of the type we'd truly want to see, instead of focusing on taking on various personas to see how various questions should be dealt with. The public beta will provide lots of questions that will test our policies, with far more range than our poor imaginations and acting abilities have thus far handled. The questions we do want are the ones that won't take care of themselves.

The discussion on what's appropriate and how to deal with various problems will continue through public beta and beyond. If it's a mess at first, we'll probably mostly agree that it's a mess (we have more disagreement on whether it will be than what a mess looks like), and I think we have several people here willing to spend a fair bit of time monitoring and moderating the site in its very early stages--not that we have this kind of time to put into it in the long run, but more work now will make for less work--and the site's continuing existence and utility--later.

Those who are skeptical at how bad questions can get will see examples of what those who feel the need to warn mean, and will adjust their expectations accordingly--or they won't see those, and that won't happen, more's the better. Those who are worried will have a real live example of something that's not exactly MO but looks like it'll work all right anyway, and can breath a sigh of relief and focus on good questions and answers--or their worst fears will come true and they can go into damage control mode, which is already what they are bracing for.

Though it doesn't entirely jive with my previous answer, I don't think there are so many decidable policy issues at stake for the moment. It's hard to do, but we really do need to mostly wait and see--just having braced ourselves for the range of unexpected or unwanted things that could come to pass.

Thanks to Kaestur, Jonathan and several others who've helped me clarify what I think about all this coherently and refocused me away from certain needlessly hypothetical policy questions.

  • $\begingroup$ Maybe this has already been written, but might be useful to have example homework questions that are ok. I feel like the questions like "solve x for me" are going to be easy to spot, but legitimate questions might not be. $\endgroup$ – Jonathan Fischoff Jul 24 '10 at 23:08
  • $\begingroup$ good point; edited to reflect that. $\endgroup$ – Jamie Banks Jul 24 '10 at 23:28
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe this will point out my idiocy, but I have been asking questions that I want to see answered... $\endgroup$ – BBischof Jul 25 '10 at 2:29
  • $\begingroup$ haha BBischof, I didn't mean nobody was. I've asked a few myself. But there has been a lot of seeding too, and some users are almost exclusively seeding at the moment. $\endgroup$ – Jamie Banks Jul 25 '10 at 2:55

The problems with unranked forums are why SO has been successful. However, SO still is not perfect, and this site will not be perfect either.

We can always vote things down. Will there be crackpot theories? Yes, but they will get voted down immediately.

So far things are not turning out Bill Dubuque has said, so I am not worried.

This whole line of thinking reminds me of when I was in college and all my professors were freaking out about Wikipedia. "Anyone crazy person couldn't have written the article." And they do, but is sum of the parts that matter, not one bad apple.

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @Jonathan: It would be premature to conclude anything based on the activity in private beta. The user base is completely different. $\endgroup$ – Larry Wang Jul 24 '10 at 22:23
  • $\begingroup$ Jonathan, your argument is extremely weak. I submit the following for your review: if the community here is taken over by idiots, then such questions will not be closed. Over at MO, such users are kept perpetually at near-zero reputation because of active moderation by professional mathematicians. I can guarantee you that if we did not clean out such people at the beginning, MO could have easily been overrun. $\endgroup$ – 97832123 Jul 24 '10 at 22:27
  • $\begingroup$ I wouldn't say the data means nothing, but no you can't conclude yet. $\endgroup$ – Jonathan Fischoff Jul 24 '10 at 22:27
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, except in the "wider mathematical community", it's 90% bad apples. $\endgroup$ – 97832123 Jul 24 '10 at 22:31
  • $\begingroup$ @97832123 Show me the data. $\endgroup$ – Jonathan Fischoff Jul 24 '10 at 22:40
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Look at any math forum other than MO. If you can correctly determine the value of mathematical content, you will see that the vast majority of content on such boards is trash. $\endgroup$ – 97832123 Jul 24 '10 at 22:46
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Jonathan, I appreciate the sentiment, but that's a little bit unfair. How about, over 50% of high school seniors in New York never pass the Math A Regents, a standardized test testing basic algebraic manipulation skills, number sense and plane geometry definitions. Lots more info in that vein is around. $\endgroup$ – Jamie Banks Jul 24 '10 at 22:49
  • $\begingroup$ I didn't think we were talking ignorance. I thought were talking about being disruptive, or am I splitting hairs? $\endgroup$ – Jonathan Fischoff Jul 24 '10 at 22:52
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @Katie: I would think such students would have the most to gain from a site like this one. You mentioned in your moderator nomination that you have also taught before. Surely you would not forbid your failing students from asking you questions? $\endgroup$ – Larry Wang Jul 24 '10 at 23:00
  • $\begingroup$ nonono, of course not. But they'd need help formulating them, I'd need help figuring them out, and we'd both benefit from someone having thought out where each of our difficulties might be and how to work through the frustration. And that was probably a bad statistic to pull, apologies. I was thinking of disruptive more than anything, and I guess in my head that statistic is correlated more with learning environment and people who have stopped caring, become actively against math/learning, or become desperate more than anything else... $\endgroup$ – Jamie Banks Jul 24 '10 at 23:10
  • $\begingroup$ ...the point stands that there are loads of "disruptive" students, though--in large part, IMO, because of the same conditions that contribute to the "ignorance". I apologize for not thinking through the connection in my head better to explain. But yes, I think I'd be more willing to work with an unwilling or abrasive student in the classroom than here: it's easier to get through in person over the long term than with strangers asking isolated questions. But as I think about it more, for the same reasons I've given that the situations are different I'm less worried about ill will as a problem. $\endgroup$ – Jamie Banks Jul 24 '10 at 23:18
  • $\begingroup$ also, see my more recent answer for how I'm thinking about all this a little differently now. $\endgroup$ – Jamie Banks Jul 24 '10 at 23:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Katie: The main difference is that when you are dealing with someone like that in person, it's just you. Here, the community and the system both support that goal. I think that if people learn that they get upvotes and helpful answers when they ask questions properly, and get their questions closed with suggestions for improvement when they don't, they will either ask better questions, or they will go elsewhere. When people see high-rep users respond to faulty questions appropriately and get upvoted for it, they will do the same. We need to make sure this happens. $\endgroup$ – Larry Wang Jul 24 '10 at 23:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Katie First let me say, when I read the entirety of your comments, I do not feel at odds with your view. I just happen to like discussion :). It takes motivation to even ask a question on a site like this. You have to log on, formulate it, etc, risk getting called idiot, etc. The point being, the students that are not motivated to do math, are not likely to come here. $\endgroup$ – Jonathan Fischoff Jul 24 '10 at 23:24
  • $\begingroup$ yeah, @Jonathan--I've been realizing that more. I think I'm just itching to see how our predictions will actually pan out, and in the mean time needing discussion so that I can get the stupid ideas out of my head and move on (kind of like how math works most of the time :) ) And we do basically agree--when has that ever made things better? ;) $\endgroup$ – Jamie Banks Jul 24 '10 at 23:26

I don't have a good answer yet for the larger issue, but I think there are a few kinds of crackpot questions we can explicitly address our policy towards in the FAQ, and close immediately. Numerology, claimed proofs of X famous open problem, and the other things explicitly mentioned by Bill Dubuque above all fall into that category.

Who else can we go to for experience-based advice on these sorts of math forums? I'm not terribly familiar with who's deeply involved in these forums, except in the cases of MO and AoPS.

I would also like to hear more detail from those familiar with SO about why they think the SO way will adapt itself well enough to a math forum. I'm still on the fence about this one. While Harry's way of saying it has been inflammatory, I do agree with him on the need to address, in particular, the much greater number of people who are studying math unwillingly and looking for help without putting in their own effort than I believe is true for programming.

Come to think of it, we could probably take lessons from a lot of what has been written about pre-college math education, which is inundated with this very problem. We have a more easily defended prerogative to give up on ornery students quickly, but I have a lot of sympathy for people who may come wanting to be convinced that they're wrong that math sucks.

  • $\begingroup$ Katie: I remember you asking that question before, and I am sad to say that I still haven't had time to address it completely. If you could be more specific about what you would like to know, I can probably answer you more quickly: I try to organize my thoughts before writing something, and the scope of the question increases the time by an order of n! :( $\endgroup$ – Larry Wang Jul 24 '10 at 22:06
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ well, one answer is that I'd be happy to hear anything about your SO experience that you think bears on math.SE. I don't know enough about SO to ask a better question, in some sense. But I can formulate the stated concern more specifically: Many, many, many more people take calculus and college algebra in college than take programming. People who fail math lose opportunities to do medicine, engineering, any science major, business, etc. At the pre-college level, math is the thing people are tested on most, and that is the most crucial school subject to their future prospects. $\endgroup$ – Jamie Banks Jul 24 '10 at 22:11
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Given all that, I (and Harry, though I cringe to potentially put words in his mouth) worry that we'll be inundated with not only clear crackpot questions, but questions wanting an answer that can be used verbatim, silly proclamations on some subset of {math's worth, the latest abuse of math by pop math writers, how much math people suck...} or even "hate mail" type things or asking for short cuts (perhaps software or other websites to do their HW for them, if we're too stubborn to.) Such an inundation will sink math.SE, and it's not unlikely in my mind, not without strong measures against it. $\endgroup$ – Jamie Banks Jul 24 '10 at 22:15
  • $\begingroup$ @Katie: I hope that your own experiment here showed you that crackpot questions will quickly be voted down and closed. And this was in the private beta, with relatively few users. Questions that are clearly inflammatory or wolfram-able will get similar treatment. Questions that are common will be reposted far less often thanks to the automatic duplicate detection. Of course, some people will ignore this, and their questions will instead get closed by high-rep users as exact duplicates. $\endgroup$ – Larry Wang Jul 24 '10 at 22:20
  • $\begingroup$ @Kaestur: I think the issue here is that MO and SO experience are being treated as though they have the same importance. The difference is that most people on SO have never been math students, while people on obviously have been. I think I can say without appearing too arrogant that my experience in the mathematical community is significantly more relevant to math.SE than your programming experience is. Imagine that the tables were turned for a moment, and they were opening up a "baby-SO" (whether or not they would is a different question). $\endgroup$ – 97832123 Jul 24 '10 at 22:22
  • $\begingroup$ Imagine then that I came and claimed to be on equal footing in terms of experience with active SO users simply because I use MO. This would be laughable. That, I submit, would be arrogance. $\endgroup$ – 97832123 Jul 24 '10 at 22:22
  • $\begingroup$ @Katie: If people come asking for an answer to a homework assignment, I believe responsible users will behave as BBischof, Charles, and I have outlined in the "how to deal with homework" meta question. In the end, I'm sure it will happen that people will come to cheat on their homework and will leave satisfied, and that will be a shame. The bigger we are, the more that it will happen. But if we have many more people asking and answering good questions, even hw, it will hardly kill the site. $\endgroup$ – Larry Wang Jul 24 '10 at 22:28
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Kaestur: What makes you think that more and more people will be answering and asking good questions? Experience tells me that the opposite will be true. $\endgroup$ – 97832123 Jul 24 '10 at 22:33
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Katie: In general, the idea behind StackOverflow was not to build a system that would keep out bad users, because that is impossible. Instead, it was hoped, and proven correct that an open system would draw in so many good users that any misbehavior could be instantly punished or corrected, and would be drowned out by the slew of valuable content anyways. Of course, for this to work, we do need to draw in all those good users. I think that the questions and answers posted so far on this site are a good start towards doing that, but we still have a long way to go. $\endgroup$ – Larry Wang Jul 24 '10 at 22:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Katie: One of the main points that Jeff and Joel credited their success to was that they already had a large following of experts on their blogs, which meant that they did not start with two people and an empty site, but rather with a community of knowledgeable people asking each other interesting questions. This is the stage math.stackexchange is in now. Which is not to say that we shouldn't be bringing in as many other math enthusiasts as we can - we still should! $\endgroup$ – Larry Wang Jul 24 '10 at 22:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Kaestur: You're taking SO's success to be a proof of the model, but if you look at MO's success, a completely different model also worked very well. You're also ignoring whether or not the success of a model is dependent on the target audience of a specific site. You're a statistician. What are your conclusions worth if you haven't conducted research to rule out confounding factors? Another point, MO is currently playing the role of the expert-reservoir for this site. However, the experts here are being drowned out by random people from other communities. $\endgroup$ – 97832123 Jul 24 '10 at 22:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Katie: On a somewhat separate point, I disagree that those who may come here because they think 'math sucks, but I have to do it anyway' are beyond help. It is up to us, the people who actually care about and enjoy math, to convince them otherwise, and I think an important step towards doing that is leaving behind the paranoid assumption that everyone else out there is a lazy cheater. As I added to the propsed faq on how to answer homework questions, nothing reinforces someone's hatred of math like being treated with derision by a bunch of math experts. $\endgroup$ – Larry Wang Jul 24 '10 at 22:44
  • $\begingroup$ right, let me de-emphasize "keeping out bad users"--I know that's impossible. I guess, actually, my question is more one of advertising, better addressed on the other thread, than anything else. I just know of tons and tons of people who would eagerly misuse this site, and not so many (just by the volume of the former) who would come and ask good questions of the kind you're describing for the beginning of SO. Though I think the MO connection will help, we need more of the kind of users you describe fast to buttress against the bad users. $\endgroup$ – Jamie Banks Jul 24 '10 at 22:45
  • $\begingroup$ It's worth remarking that there are max ~20 people asking questions here at the moment, out of the 100+ formally signed up. It's hard to find people to put time into a new untested project, harder if it looks to be sinking already. (so let's get the word out! Those who know their way around it might start with the math blagosphere.) $\endgroup$ – Jamie Banks Jul 24 '10 at 22:47
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Katie, why can't we keep out bad users? MO has done it successfully for almost a year. The point isn't to make it so bad questions can't be asked. The point is to make it so bad questions don't get votes up. This is easy to do when the majority of the people on your site have a pretty good idea of what kinds of mathematical content have value, but the fact is that the highest-rep users do not necessarily have the most knowledge. (cf Justin L, for example). I think that the amount of reputation needed to vote up a question should be raised to avoid bad users gaining power. $\endgroup$ – 97832123 Jul 24 '10 at 22:51

You must log in to answer this question.