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I made several comments in several places in this thread, which IMO were on topic and not chatty. They were substantive comments. One was an explanation of why I downvoted the question. One was an explanation of a downvote I gave on an answer. I remember that the comment on the question had already received an upvote. Why was substantive discussion deleted without explanation?

Robert Cartaino wrote this:

Comments are here to ask clarification or to help improve the post. But when comments veer into a chatroom-style debates and obliquely-related discourse, it's time to take it to a chat room or another more-appropriate forum. Thanks. – Robert Cartaino

This does not seem to me like sufficient explanation. I don't know what else was deleted, but my own comments were not "chatroom-style" or "obliquely-related."

I appreciate the friendly tone of this SE site, but one can go overboard by creating the impression that contributing to the site is not valued just because the contribution may be a minority view. This thread is on a social topic and is going to be inherently controversial.

I suppose that many theists believe that the use of a word like "spiritually" is sufficiently inclusive that everyone will feel like it's a warm, fuzzy, noncontroversial thing. But it's in fact a value-laden term, just as much as "Christian." I doubt that anyone would have felt comfortable if the question had asked how to make math more Christian. "Spiritual" is just a broader, more wishy-washy term that still values nonrational belief systems over rational ones. I don't think it's appropriate to allow discussion of how to use mathematics to promote a nonrational belief system, while deleting any attempts to protest that mathematics should not be prostituted to this purpose.

One of the shared values of SE is that people are expected to explain downvotes. I think it's therefore particularly problematic to delete comments that explain downvotes.

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    $\begingroup$ possible duplicate of Can we be respectful? $\endgroup$ – Brian Rushton Apr 2 '14 at 16:21
  • $\begingroup$ Personally I like Brian's question and all positive/negative comments about it. Also I think it is Ben's undeniable right to explain his reasons about his down-votes to question and its answers. (e.g. Ken's answer and possibly my answer) Would you please explain more about your reasons here, Ben? $\endgroup$ – user230 Apr 2 '14 at 17:21
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    $\begingroup$ @BrianRushton I feel while strongly related it is not a duplicate. So while I think the link is very helpful I would prefer we leave this open too. $\endgroup$ – quid Apr 2 '14 at 17:55
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I was involved in this. First, let me illustrate the situation by a rough analogy. Second, I will explain in detail what precisely happened, as it is slightly complex due to the set being new. Finally, some more commentary.

An imaginary situation

Suppose somebody asks:

'How do I deal with a group size of 150 students in a calculus course?'

Then somebody comments:

'Why not teach in smaller groups?'

To me this comment feels unnecessary. While it is far from offensive or anything like this, it does not really add much, does not answer or clarify the question, yet somebody might get annoyed. Or even if not somebdoy just might reply something, perhaps even agreeing, and somebody else joins in and so on creating 'noise'. And, if one really wanted to know if splitting the group could be an option or why things are as they are one could and should ask directly.

This is an example of a comment that in is 'not constructive'; this is a reason to flag, and then they are reviewed and possibly removed by moderators. At least this is commmon practice on many sites (though not on all, see below).

The reason for deleting comments in the present case was also mainly just this, nothing dramatic, merely standard general clean-up. Now the details.

The rough timeline

  • Some comments on the thread got flagged, but only as 'not constructive' (see Can we be respectful? for context and public source).

  • Robert Cartaino thus 'sweeps away' almost all comments on question as a quick routine procedure very common on some SE sites and explains he did so. [Note we had no moderators for the site then.]

  • I notice that this cleaning even affected a reply to the two remaining comments, and ask Rober Cartaino to restore this. This did not happen; I stronlgy assumed simply because he likely gets 1001 notifications all the time.

  • The sites gets moderators (including me).

  • I protect the question. I notice there are some more flags on comments on answers. I handle them via deletion, and explain in a comment on Can we be respectful? why I did this.

  • I undelete the comment I wanted undeleted. Answer questions by Saint George, clean up some of my comments and move on. (Or rather I think I undeleted afterwards as I had an issue with the interface at first.)

Some comments Let me first recap the reason for my deletions.

It was first of all for consistent handling of flags on this one thread and, second, since I am of the opinion the comments were actually not constructive, being somewhere between off-topic in the sense of unrelated and rhetorical/provocative.

Yet, I admit I would have (personally) preferred we had had a collective discussion about how much comment deletion we want in general before that (since different sites have very different standards and this already frequently caused hard feelings on various sites). Still I felt we should finish this one thread in a consistent way. (Also these deletions would be reversible.)

To give an actual example (I hope noone minds this being reposted, let me know if you feel differently): On Ken W. Smith answer you commented

Aren't we going to talk about atheist mathematicians such as Russell, Clifford, Erdős, Markov, Tarski, and Zariski? Russell, for example, was known for the "Russell's teapot" argument for atheism.

This is somewhat like my example. It is rhetorical, and feels somewhere between unrelated and unfocused. And, even, contrary to what you assert I do consider this as rather to the chatty end; you ask a question that feels designed to produce a reaction (and to start a conversation). What is the actual point you want to make?

Do you think it would be a better idea to achieve the given goal there to mention them? Do you think readers are unaware of the existence of atheist mathematicians and need to be informed about this? Do you consider it as genuinely/in all contexts problematic to only mention 'one side of it'?

Each of this might even be legitimate (though perhaps not all necessary). Yet if you really feel the need to point out one or all of these or still something else, I think you should be direct and not rhetorical regarding what you mean. (Now, on meta, you were more direct. I think had you said just this, in a slightly nicer tone, the comments would still be around.)

Moreover, I think on this site (I think I would have another opinion for other sites) it will be a good idea to have the policy of not questioning the details of context that is sketched in questions too much, especially not if it is presented in a rather neutral way and is rather out of control of OP, as in the present case. (Sure, there can be exceptions, but generally speaking. Conversely, I also would not want people using the context to promote some view too much, thus the restriction to neutral. But I think this 'neutral' was the case here.)

I hope this clears up the situation a bit. But I feel there is/will be more need for discussion to figure out on which "style" we want to settle.

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    $\begingroup$ I especially like the "smaller groups" example at the end. Commenting should be for improving the discussion of the question at hand, within the context in which it is asked. $\endgroup$ – Brendan W. Sullivan Apr 2 '14 at 19:24
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    $\begingroup$ Excellently said, thanks. You might consider actually moving the really good example at the end of your post up higher in the post! $\endgroup$ – Chris Cunningham Apr 2 '14 at 19:46
  • $\begingroup$ @ChrisCunningham this is a good idea and I did it. Thanks for the suggestion and the feedback to both. $\endgroup$ – quid Apr 2 '14 at 22:33
  • $\begingroup$ @BenjaminDickman yes. thanks for the heads up. Actually I do not even know a word 'weeps' (will check what it means). I meant to use 'sweeps' since I think this is really what happened somehow (it is possible and common to delete all comments at once and to undelete perhpas some that should stay, as opposed to delete one-by-one). I meant to convey this by the 'sweeps' so that it is better understood that it is often really not even "against" each comment that is deleted specifically; merely the general "comment dust" is "swept away" $\endgroup$ – quid Apr 2 '14 at 23:36
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    $\begingroup$ Let me to defend @BenCrowell comment "Aren't we going to talk about atheist mathematicians such as Russell, Clifford, Erdős, Markov, Tarski, and Zariski? Russell, for example, was known for the "Russell's teapot" argument for atheism." It could be useful to let both questioner (Brian) and answerer (Ken) know that an approach based on examples of religious mathematicians could cause some dual reactions among students and bring (more) examples of atheist mathematicians in discussion. Note that it seems possible that a student says Ben's comment as a response to Brian's approach in class. $\endgroup$ – user230 Apr 3 '14 at 10:43
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    $\begingroup$ @SaintGeorg the main problem with the comment is its precise formulation. I am not a native speaker of English so I am not well placed to explain this, but the grammatical construction "Aren't we going to [something]?" is the problem. It is not an 'honest' question it is a rhetorical question, and wants to express something like "You/We should do [something]" or "You/We would better do [something]" in somewhat unfriendly and dismissive tone. I would consider a student asking the question in this precise form as quite discrespectful, but they could ask "Are we going to...?". $\endgroup$ – quid Apr 3 '14 at 14:08
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    $\begingroup$ @SaintGeorg Similarly, I consider a comment: "Would you include mention of atheist mathematicians in the presentation?" as alright, even "In my opinion, in such a discussion atheist mathematicians would have to be mentioned, too." would be quite a bit better than what we have. The precise way the comment is phrase is not good in my opinion as it is dismissive and unclear. As I tried to explain I would consider various reformulations of it as legitimate comments. Yet the current one seems willfully designed to be provocative. In my mind the main problem here is really the intent to provoke. $\endgroup$ – quid Apr 3 '14 at 14:16
  • $\begingroup$ I see what you want to say. It is really reasonable. $\endgroup$ – user230 Apr 3 '14 at 15:24
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    $\begingroup$ I support restoring the highlighted Russell comment. This comment seems totally on-point to me, and the arguments provided for deleting it are rather weak. $\endgroup$ – JDH Apr 4 '14 at 12:41
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    $\begingroup$ @JDH Thank you for your opinion. In which way does the comment add value? And, why is this (possibly existing) addition of value best achieved by this precise comment? (Note that I outlined several ways of making similar/related points that I would consider as acceptable. If one of them could be used instead it would seem simpler to just go ahead doing one of them.) $\endgroup$ – quid Apr 4 '14 at 13:23
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    $\begingroup$ Well, we don't delete comments just because there are alternative ways to make the same remark in a slightly better way. The comment added value by making the point, which is an important point to make in my opinion in the context of the question, that there are numerous atheist mathematicians, and indeed many have been quite prominent in both areas. This point tends to undercut the premise of the answer in question. The comment was neither uncivil nor offensive, and my opinion is that you should restore it. $\endgroup$ – JDH Apr 4 '14 at 17:56
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    $\begingroup$ @JDH if you consider it as important, please feel free to record the point you make in your comment here, as a comment on said answer. (If you want, I can even do it.) Your opinion on the matter of deletion of this comment will inform my future practice and/or general discussion I intend to start. However, I do not intend to undelete this particular comment as I still do not see any compelling reason for doing so, while I see various reasons to keep it deleted, such as (local) consistency which as said waas a main motivation for me deleting it in the first place. $\endgroup$ – quid Apr 4 '14 at 18:57
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I wrote the question, and to me the point was that my employer had asked me to include spirituality into my course, and that it was a reasonable request, because I had accepted employment at a religious university. So the question really was, "I have a reasonable request from my employer that I have difficulty fulfilling. How can I fulfill it?"

In that more narrow scope, I feel that the question is acceptable for all people regardless of their beliefs; everyone has had unusual requests from employers. While I did not flag any comments or hear more from Robert Cartaino, my impression is that all comments were deleted because they were not focused on this more narrow version of the question, and instead were focused on mathematics' connection with religion in general.

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    $\begingroup$ I agree that it's a good question that belongs on this site. It should be ok to have a question related to a controversial topic as long as the question itself isn't trying to start an argument. $\endgroup$ – Jim Belk Apr 3 '14 at 3:10
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As is hopefully clear from the question Can we be respectful?, I flagged your comments as "Not Constructive". MadScientist's comment on that meta question sums up why I did so:

The huge problem is that one not-really-offensive but non-constructive comment is very likely to draw an at least borderline offensive comment from the opposing side, and then the cycle continues.

Let me address your points:

One was an explanation of why I downvoted the question. One was an explanation of a downvote I gave on an answer.

That was most certainly not made explicit in the comments. None of them started with "I'm downvoting this because ..." or even the shorthand "(-1) because ...". There was nothing in them to link the comment to the downvote. The comments did not make this any clearer since they did not address the actual question or the actual answer.

one can go overboard by creating the impression that contributing to the site is not valued just because the contribution may be a minority view.

This is one of the key differences between how it would seem you view SE sites and how I do. Comments are not contributions. Questions and Answers are contributions. Comments are there as a way of polishing the questions and answers. Long comment discussions are specifically discouraged. Now, this is frequently abused - I do so myself - but nevertheless, the goal of the SE network is to build up a resource of useful questions and answers, not as a forum for discussion.

I suppose that many theists believe that the use of a word like "spiritually" is sufficiently inclusive that everyone will feel like it's a warm, fuzzy, noncontroversial thing.

No, actually. I can't stand the word. However, that's irrelevant. My understanding from the question was that the word "spriritually" was handed down from "on high" (ie the University authorities). So attacking that word was definitely not constructive.

I don't think it's appropriate to allow discussion of how to use mathematics to promote a nonrational belief system, while deleting any attempts to protest that mathematics should not be prostituted to this purpose.

And here's the key. I completely agree with you. It is inappropriate to allow discussion of how to use mathematics to promote a nonrational belief system. Not that I consider my belief system to be nonrational, but that's by-the-by.

However, this question was not asking for such a discussion. It was "How do I fulfil this requirement?". Any discussion as to the reasonableness of that requirement is irrelevant because the requirement exists and is not going to go away.

Summing up, I felt that you had misunderstood the question and were leaving comments based on that misunderstanding which, in the context of the actual question, were non-constructive. So I flagged them.

I was not engaged in silencing anyone (see how easy it is to post something inflamatory? Jim's post is trying to be conciliatory but that last sentence riles me). I was engaged in ensuring that the focus of that page was on the specific question asked, and not on an irrelevant discussion which would not achieve anything other than to enrage people. I have engaged in such discussions on the internet before and not only do they not go anywhere, they also end up spoiling the place where they occur. I will happily debate the nature of mathematics and religion in a pub (or nearest equivalent) but not on the internet.

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    $\begingroup$ I think one can contribute with comments. (This comment here may not be such an example, but commenting about my comment on commenting seems appropriate for meta.) $\endgroup$ – Benjamin Dickman Apr 4 '14 at 9:20
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    $\begingroup$ @BenjaminDickman That's what I meant when I talked about abusing the system. Yes, there are contributions that are comments. But comments are not intended to be regarded as contributions by SE and so if you leave a contribution as a comment then you should be aware that it is secondary (indeed, it may not even be visible on first viewing). $\endgroup$ – Loop Space Apr 7 '14 at 7:08
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I'd just to chime in here and mention that I support Robert Cartaino's actions, and I agree with most of quid's answer. There is one thing in Ben Crowell's post that troubles me, that I'd like to respond to myself:

I appreciate the friendly tone of this SE site, but one can go overboard by creating the impression that contributing to the site is not valued just because the contribution may be a minority view. This thread is on a social topic and is going to be inherently controversial.

I want to emphasize that all contributions to this site are valued as long as they constructive for the purpose of the site, i.e. asking and answering questions. I understand how the deletion of the comments might strike you as being related to your expressing a "minority view", but that simply isn't the case.

Indeed, I myself am about as atheist as they come, and Brian Rushton's question makes me uncomfortable for the same reason that it makes you uncomfortable. Mind you, I think it's a good question -- clear and specific, relevant for a segment of our community, and so forth -- but the premise behind it makes me a little bit queasy. (This is not to disparage Brian Rushton. In fact, I think all of Brian's contributions to this site have been excellent.)

However, despite my discomfort with the question and my own personal views about religion, I absolutely agree with Robert Cartaino's actions. The problem with your comment isn't that anyone disagrees with what you said -- I imagine that some agree and some disagree. The problem is that the comment section for Brian Rushton's question isn't the right place to discuss it. Actually, this entire website isn't the right place to discuss it. Conversations about religion or politics are antithetical to the purpose of this site, which is to give high-quality, reasonably objective answers to interesting questions about mathematics education. There's simply no way to fulfill that purpose in the midst of a giant argument about religion.

Now, it's true that Brian Rushton's question already raised the issue of religion. I imagine in the future that we may have other questions that raise other contentious issues, including sexism, racism, global politics, climate change and sustainability, evolution, and so forth. Whenever such a question is asked, I think everyone's goal should be to steer clear of arguing about the hot-button issue, and instead try to focus on the question itself and how to answer it fairly. It's up to the moderators to enforce this, and I think Robert Cartaino made the right call here, even if the result was that some members of the community were unfairly silenced.

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I agree with Brian. The question was not about our views regarding spirituality and mathmatics, but about a specific pedagogical situation: what to do if you are emplyed in such an institution. Your comments were simply off-topic.

The same applies if the question asks for making mathematics more muslim, christian, or whatever church is in the position to own a school or college.

As I assume seeing your views, you will never get employed in such an institution, and then, of course, you do not have this problem. Maybe on the contrary: in many state institutions you are prohibited to express such values.

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