You Don’t Need No Fancy Math or Nuthin’

(Update: Peter Woit responds in comments, and is quite the gentleman. A textbook case of Internet Jiu-jitsu. Curses, foiled again!)

Over at Jacques Distler‘s place, a discussion is boiling over the trackback policy of According to Jacques, arXiv’s current policy restricts trackbacks to the blogs of persons who are “active researchers”. This raises a couple of problems. First, the criterion of “active researchers” is slippery at best.

Second, a mathematician at Columbia named Peter Woit is upset because he is not on the approved trackbacks list. Woit is a vocal critic of string theory, and he has tangled with a number of high-energy physicists, including Jacques, over this issue. Physicist Chad Orzel had this to say:

When you get down to it, I’m with Sean Carroll on this: Peter Woit’s criticisms of string theory often border on the unhinged, but he’s not a complete crackpot. He has strong opinions, and expresses them strongly, but then, there are well-known and apparently respected string theorists who make Woit look like Miss Manners when it comes to interacting with those they don’t agree with. There’s no reasonable basis for banning Woit on the grounds of general jackassery.

The line between “gadfly” and “crackpot” is a fine one. And it raises the question: do we who are outside the field even have a chance of figuring out whether Woit is getting a fair shake? Just as an example, here’s an old discussion between Jacques and Peter (warning: acromonious math exchange). Amazing stuff, eh? I couldn’t have followed that even when I was at the top of my game — and certainly not now, when my physics knowledge has decayed back to early undergraduate levels. (Never mind physics, I can’t even remember the fundamentals of sed. Jesus.)

Now, you might think that given the rarified nature of the subject, we laypersons would have no way to determine who, if anyone, has crossed the line. Silly you! This is the Blogosphere! We can pass judgments about anyone and anything. It turns out that for this case, you don’t need any mathematics. Here’s Woit responding to one of the commenters at Chad Orzel’s site:

Aaron, Since I gather that your job depends on Jacques’s good will, you might want to consider that you have no credibility here arguing his side of this case.

Case closed! Crackpot and jackass.

On a more serious note, the arXiv folks are faced with these two unpleasant options:

  • Shut off trackbacks entirely. This would be an easy choice if trackbacks had devolved into uselessness, but according to Jacques, the great majority of the trackbacks arXiv receives actually are useful and informative.

  • Have some sort of trackback moderation policy. Which means playing into the hands of the conspiracy theorists. You can always try to modify the moderation system to make it more “fair”, but the hardcore trolls will never be satisfied.

The sad truth is that by the time a site is routinely receiving more than fifty comments per post, the comments section has always devolved into a cesspool. Always. The sole exception is Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s Making Light, and that’s only because Patrick and Teresa have been ruthless about disemvowelling trolls from the beginning. Endure endless cries of arbitrariness and censorship, or shut off direct feedback entirely? I don’t envy arXiv their choice.