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I recently flagged as "rude or offensive" the comment

As the tone should suggest, he’s a crank. It’s a hysterical screed with a few nuggets of fact surrounded by a great deal of nonsense. E.g., he may find that set theory ‘doesn’t make sense’, but a great many of us have no trouble making sense of it. – Brian M. Scott

to the question

Infinite sets don't exist!?

My complaint is very narrow: I am not arguing that the subject of the comment is right in his critique of infinite sets, only that the word "crank" is inappropriate in this context. In particular, none of the answers to the question provide evidence of crankdom, but rather disagreement over philosophy. If the comment had simply been

"He may find that set theory ‘doesn’t make sense’, but a great many of us have no trouble making sense of it."

I would have no objection.

I could also have flagged it as "not constructive/off topic" or as "too chatty". But to my mind it is the unwarranted rudeness that is the real problem here. More generally, I am quite upset that a productive mathematician is being called a crank. I don't know the subject of the comment personally, but I am familiar with his work and he is most definitely not a crank.

Comments like this reflect quite poorly on math.stackexchange and I hope not to see any more of them. What is the best way to encourage commenters to refrain from baseless accusations of crankdom? Is flagging the appropriate course of action?

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    $\begingroup$ No user was insulted. The position you consider offensive is supported by many answers with explicit details. Whether the mathematician has other valuable contributions that are unrelated or not seems to be besides the issue here. Btw: I am the one who has cleared the flag. $\endgroup$ – Michael Greinecker Jun 10 '13 at 19:18
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    $\begingroup$ I was called inept once or twice in the comments to that answer. I flagged one, and it was declined. Oh well. $\endgroup$ – user642796 Jun 10 '13 at 19:34
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelGreinecker, "The position you consider offensive is supported by many answers with explicit details. " Really? The position I consider offensive is exactly "he's a crank". As far as I can see, not one of the answers provides evidence for this. On the other hand, at least there is some evidence in the answers that he is wrong to be so negative towards infinite sets. But this is basically a matter of philosophy. He's not wrong about mathematics, and refusing to acknowledge his error, which is usually the standard for crankdom. I believe he would have a case for a libel suit in the US. $\endgroup$ – Stephen Jun 10 '13 at 20:43
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    $\begingroup$ To clarify, the case for libel would be against Brian M. Scott, not stackexchange. And I would not advise pursuing it, though not because it's not clear cut, but rather because the hassle is not worth it. $\endgroup$ – Stephen Jun 10 '13 at 21:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Steve Look at Arthur's answer for example. Also, there is a discussion between Brian and Pete on the very subject and I see no reason to censor is. Brian put his name and his reputation behind the message and I respect that. My knowledge of law is modest, but I have serious doubts this would count as libel. $\endgroup$ – Michael Greinecker Jun 10 '13 at 21:32
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelGreinecker, Well, calling a doctor a quack is the quintessential example of libel in the US. Calling a mathematician a crank is exactly analogous. I am no lawyer either, but the case seems straightforward to me. Of course, that assumes that the mathematician in question is not in fact a crank. Perhaps the issue is that you seem to be interpreting "crank" just to mean someone who is wrong about something, while its common use is as a word that applies only to people who refuse to acknowledge the error in their proof of famous conjecture X. Everyone deserves the chance to be wrong... $\endgroup$ – Stephen Jun 10 '13 at 21:46
  • $\begingroup$ ...without being called a crank. Especially when the issue is, as in this case, more philosophy than mathematics. $\endgroup$ – Stephen Jun 10 '13 at 21:48
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelGreinecker I must say that I strongly disagree with your first comment. Firstly, the fact that no user was insulted is irrelevant, courtesy should extend to everyone, not just users. Secondly, I don't think that the position itself is what was considered offensive, but the language of the comment. Had the comment been phrased along the lines of "This opinion is not generally adhered to within the wider mathematical community. While he may argue that set theory "doesn't make sense", many people have qualms about using it" then it would not have been flagged. $\endgroup$ – Tom Oldfield Jun 10 '13 at 23:55
  • $\begingroup$ @ArthurFischer, I didn't notice the comment to which you are referring---FWIW, I would flag a comment calling you "inept" if I saw it. But perhaps, being relatively new here and not all that frequent a participant, I am somewhat out of step with community norms. Given that such comments add nothing of value to the conversation (not even humor) I would have thought they should be clear cut cases for flagging and deletion. What am I missing? $\endgroup$ – Stephen Jun 11 '13 at 0:32
  • $\begingroup$ @ArthurFischer, ah, you are referring to the comment "Well, atleast you admit that you didnt read the article. But this makes you inept to answer the question. "? I agree that the use of the word "inept" there is inappropriate. Let me just point out that, at the very least, he didn't write that you are inept---so it's not quite as insulting as what Brian M. Scott wrote. $\endgroup$ – Stephen Jun 11 '13 at 0:34
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    $\begingroup$ It's a close call, in my opinion. I'd call Wildberger's article closer to the output of a troll than a crank. That said, his article certainly has a crankish tone and so Brian's characterization didn't strike me as particularly reprehensible. As has been mentioned before, a respected mathematician can still be a crank in some areas: look at the late Alexander Abian, for example. Straying out of mathematics, we also have the examples of Linus Pauling and William Shockley. In sum, my take is that Brian's post wasn't what I'd have said, but it wasn't flaggable (if that's even a word). $\endgroup$ – Rick Decker Jun 11 '13 at 1:25
  • $\begingroup$ @Rick To the best of my knowledge, none of Abian's mathematical work was ever deemed crankish. His mathematical posts on sci.math were always quite sound, and often highly valuable pedagogically. $\endgroup$ – Key Ideas Jun 11 '13 at 1:39
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    $\begingroup$ @KeyIdeas I agree, but if a professional in a particular area publishes an inflammatory article in that area, there's even more reason to view it as the output of a troll (if you're inclined to be generous) or a crank. $\endgroup$ – Rick Decker Jun 11 '13 at 1:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Steve, just in case you haven't already been told: voting in meta works a bit differently. The four downvotes simply mean that four people don't agree with what you're presenting here. (I did not vote here, as I've no horse in this race.) $\endgroup$ – J. M. is a poor mathematician Jun 11 '13 at 15:31
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    $\begingroup$ @J.M., Thanks for the explanation. Any chance I can convince you that calling a fellow mathematician a "crank" on a public forum should be discouraged however possible? $\endgroup$ – Stephen Jun 11 '13 at 15:46
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I'll answer this from a bit of an outside perspective. I'm a moderator on Skeptics where this issue was a significant concern. The topics on that site often evoke very strong reactions and it is not unusual for comments to get rather heated.

My observations are that once a comment thread starts to get personal, and the comments are more about the users than about specific issues, there is a high chance the whole thing escalates. In minor cases this just results in long and useless comment threads without direct insults. But if not caught early, some users were happy to escalate to direct insults and other suspension-worthy offenses.

You example is a special case as it wasn't directed at a user of this site, so there is a much lower chance for this to escalate. Still, this comment sparked a rather long and pretty much off-topic comment thread.

You also don't need to make such issues personal, keeping the criticism focused on the actual issues is often even more convinving. Your specific example would not lose anything by omitting the first sentence in my opinion.

In my experience, focusing on specific issues instead of people avoids a lot of moderation problems. A general rule to avoid any personal attacks makes a moderators job a lot easier, and it also makes for a much friendlier experience for all users.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your perspective! Do you have a suggested replacement for my first sentece? I will be happy to change it. $\endgroup$ – Stephen Jun 11 '13 at 15:34
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I'm cleaning up that comment thread, since it veered a bit off topic. For the sake of transparency I'm preserving the comment thread below from screen caps. (To make sure that I don't miss any comments there are some over-laps in the three images, so some comments appear more than once. My apologies if this cause any inconvenience.) (Links given in the comments are reproduced under the screen capture, in case you want to check them out.)

Page 1:

enter image description here

Brian M. Scott's link to carry out his program for trigonometry

Page 2:

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Brian M. Scott's link to Anatoly Fomenko

Page 3:

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    $\begingroup$ The only problem with this is that I keep thinking "When did I vote these comments??", and then I remember that's not my user! :-) $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Jun 19 '13 at 10:37
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    $\begingroup$ Ah, yes, I unintentionally revealed my comment votes from a few months back. It is unfortunate that one cannot undo comment votes! For what it is worth (let's not make this into my defense of my votes): I voted up Brian's comment because he said what I was thinking as a reader after reading the linked article. I then voted up Pete's comment because I realized I'd have to write a moderator message to myself if I had written what Brian wrote on a public forum. $\endgroup$ – Willie Wong Jun 19 '13 at 10:39
  • $\begingroup$ @WillieWong, Thanks very much! $\endgroup$ – Stephen Jun 19 '13 at 18:44
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It seems that flagging a comment in which (you believe) a baseless accusation of crankdom has been made is the only recourse. If the moderators doesn't agree with you, it's probably best to shrug and move on.

At the moment, this question has 3 votes to close, so I am answering it even though it doesn't seem all that helpful, just in order to have a future record. I'm making this post community wiki in case anyone with a better idea would like to chime in.

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