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What do academicians need to keep in mind when they are conversing with a fellow researcher whom they do not think highly of? I was reminded of A Beautiful Mind, where Nash (Crowe) says the following:

I imagine you're getting quite used to miscalculation. I've read your preprints... both of them. The one on Nazi ciphers... and the other one on nonlinear equations... and I am supremely confident that there is not a single seminal or innovative idea in either one of them.

This is as forthright as it could possibly get! Suppose there is a situation where you have read a paper in some detail, and are sure that it is not just worth its salt. If you happen to strike a conversation with the author about the work itself, how do you go about it? How do tactful researchers react to this situation?

1 Answer 1

For a published departure from conventional scientific professional etiquette, see the survey article “Mathematics and the Internet: A Source of Enormous Confusion and Great Potential,” in which Walter Willinger, David Alderson, and John C. Doyle criticize scale-invariant network models of the Internet. The article is unusual for its polemic, insulting tone. While it is not unusual for researchers to insult other researchers in private conversation, it is unusual to see this in print. Its authors spare no opportunity to criticize their competition, as well as mathematicians and physicists generally, whom they regard as foppish, insular ivory tower aesthetes, whose nostrils are unacquainted with the bracing scent of an expertly soldered electrical connection.

The authors deploy a literary reference to insult their competition:

“What about replacing power-laws by the somewhat more plausible assumption of high variability in node degrees? While the answer of the scale-free modeling approach consists of tweaks to the PA mechanism to enforce an exponential cut-off of the power-law node degree distribution at the upper tail, the engineering-based approach demystifies high-variability in node degrees altogether by identifying its root cause in the form of high variability in end-user bandwidth demands (see [33] for details). In view of such a simple physical explanation of the origins of node degree variability in the Internet’s router-level topology, Strogatz’ question, paraphrasing Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “… power-law scaling, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?” [52] has a resounding affirmative answer.”

The authors seem to suggest by this literary reference, which would not be lost on readers of the AMS Notices, that a model of the internet that predicts a power law node degree distribution is a “tale told by an idiot.”

The authors suggest that mathematicians and physicists must get their hands dirty, do some engineering and then contemplate the authors’ HOT models of Internet connectivity, which they assert, will be more mathematically interesting “… and certainly more relevant and hence more rewarding than that of the scale-free models of the PA type.” This sentence combines a dubious claim about what mathematicians should find interesting with a swipe at scale-free preferential attachment models of the Internet.

The authors conclude with these remarks:

“In this article, the Internet has served as a clear case study, but the issues discussed apply more generally and are even more pertinent in contexts of biology and social systems, where measurement is inherently more difficult and more error prone. … Although the Internet story may seem all too obvious in retrospect, managing to avoid the same mistakes in the context of next generation network science remains an open challenge. The consequences of repeating such errors in the context of, say, biology are potentially much more grave and would reflect poorly on mathematics as a discipline.”

Why would mathematics be at fault? The authors do not cite the literature on the independent history of debate over the applicability of power law models in biology and the social sciences, e.g., A Brief History of Generative Models for Power Law and Lognormal Distributions by Mitzenmacher.

Again I mention this as an unusual example in print of what appears to me to be a departure from conventional scientific etiquette.