Home > Uncategorized > Citation as received wisdom

Citation as received wisdom

January 10, 2015

So I’m here at JMM, hanging out with my buddy Aaron Abrams and finagling free wifi at the Hyatt (pro tip from Jonathan Bloom: sign up to be on their gold membership plan, which is free, and as a member you get free wifi).

Aaron and I started talking about the case of MIT professor Walter Lewin, and whether his OpenCourseWorks physics lectures should or should not have been removed after he was discovered to have been a sexual harasser.

UPDATE: Here’s an article giving some idea of what Lewin did, which was basically to harass women who were taking his online class.

I’ve already asserted that it makes sense to me that they are removed, but I wasn’t happy with my explanation. I think I’ve understood it better now, and I wanted to throw it out there.

To explain it, let’s move to a more cut and dry example, or at least an older one, namely Harvard mathematician George Birkhoff. That guy was a hugely famous and powerful mathematician in his day, which was in the 1930’s. He was also a huge anti-semite, and prevented Harvard from hiring jewish mathematicians fleeing the Nazis.

When it comes to doing math, I might write a paper that uses a result he proved. Will I cite him? Personally, I would feel weird about it. Citing someone, speaking their name, is not just a mathematical shortcut, a way of avoiding proving everything from basic principles, although it is that, of course. If you have no prior knowledge about someone, you might not see that, but I’ve set it up explicitly so you see more than that.

Here’s what I see. By citing him, I am doing more than giving him credit for proving something, I’m including him in the community of mathematics, which is actually an honor. And honestly I’d rather not honor the wisdom of someone I detest.

Update: to be clear I would cite him if I needed to. I just would actively feel weird about it. I might even add a note.

Going back to Walter Lewin. Supposedly he can explain certain kinds of physics really really well. People say this, and I believe them. But of course the physics is already known, he’s not inventing something, and other people can also explain it, just not quite as well, at least right now.

Why would a given person choose to watch Lewin’s lectures instead of someone else’s lectures on the same material? Well, what is the delta between those two experiences? On the one hand, it’s a better explanation, which adds, but on the other hand, it’s the knowledge that we are honoring a man with no integrity, which subtracts. If written citation is received wisdom, then actually sitting and listening to a person is even more intimate.

For me, personally, these two opposite considerations don’t add up to a net positive. I’d rather watch someone else explain the physics.

As for MIT’s OpenCourseWorks (OCW) platform, they also had a “delta” computation to make, and they had to take into account the community they are trying to build through OCW. They want women in particular to feel welcomed to that community, and they decided that the videos’ presence made that more difficult (and it’s already difficult enough in physics). I think they made the right call.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. January 10, 2015 at 8:47 am

    The problem with this approach lies in the assumption that you can accurately divide people into good and bad categories. Persons A, B, & C that you may prefer to learn physics from may ALSO have done disreputable, offensive things at some point during their lives, but have not been caught red-handed or otherwise called out. Most of us have precious little knowledge about the personal lives and history of our professors/researchers. No one is forced to select Lewin’s lectures, but I believe they should be available as a matter of choice and non-censorship, because I believe ‘excellence’ (if that’s what his talks were) should always be accessible, regardless of source.
    Also, this idea that we somehow endorse the “whole” of an individual, by recognizing whatever positives they have contributed is wrong-headed. I strongly disagree that by “citing” someone you automatically accord them ANY sort of recognition beyond they’re being the source for some bit of information. Far worse (even unethical), in a professional context, would be failing to cite the source of an important piece of information (implying you independently derived it). Indeed, sometimes we cite people only in order to say what an example of crap their study was.


    • January 10, 2015 at 9:02 am

      In math we don’t do that. Also the lectures are available but not on OCW. So no problem there. Also it’s a personal choice sometimes of course but at other times we have a generally understood concept of bad behavior.


  2. Michael H
    January 10, 2015 at 8:48 am

    I’ve been bothered by this case for a while for two reasons.

    First, we need to separate a work from its author. A work can be great and valuable even if its author is or was an asshole, and this is no reason to stop enjoying or citing this work. Examples: Wagner’s music, Teichmüller space. If we pulled all books off the shelves that were written by assholes, there would be a lot of empty space on the shelves.

    Second, it is not clear to me whether Walter Levin was given any kind of due process, and as far as I know there hasn’t been any transparency. We have no idea what exactly he has been accused of, and he has not been convicted in a court of law. Some university administrators have just come to this decision. It is unclear to me how it is even possible in the context of a free online course to commit sexual harassment that would be so severe as to justify this kind of reaction.

    Should we burn an author’s books whenever they are plausibly accused of sexual harrassment? That would be a big step backward for civilization.


    • January 10, 2015 at 9:06 am

      I am not suggesting we ignore the scientific breakthroughs of assholes.


      • Michael H
        January 10, 2015 at 9:19 am

        If I read you correctly, you are suggesting that we not cite assholes who make scientific breakthroughs. But it is difficult to make use of scientific results without citations. (“Someone proved this, but I don’t want to say his name because he was an asshole. Just trust me that someone did it.”) And you are suggesting that we suppress certain works created by assholes, which many people find valuable, even if they cannot be called “scientific breakthroughs”.


  3. January 10, 2015 at 9:04 am

    One thing that MIT could have done was keeping the lecture archives (on OCW — I am not talking about MITX, which is interactive) and, at the same time, distancing themselves from their author in a bold red warning message.


  4. Jesse Chapman
    January 10, 2015 at 9:11 am

    I am a fan of your blog, but I just don’t get this position. Richard Feynman is the obvious test case here: mega womanizer, brilliant science explainer. Do you maintain your position in that case? Delete the Feynman lectures on physics?

    Good explanations by “bad” people can help “good” people.


  5. January 10, 2015 at 9:14 am

    One thing that MIT could have done was keeping the lecture archives (on OCW — I am not talking about MITX, which is interactive) and, at the same time, distancing themselves from their author in a bold red warning message. This would be the best of both worlds, and most importantly it would have prevented the ridiculous outcome that reddit’s MRAs (at least temporarily) became the “heros of the day” by mirroring the lectures. (Imagine having to go to stormfront.org to read Birkhoff’s lectures because academic hosters have been too “hygienic”!) More importantly, it would have flown in the face of these days’ corporate risk-aversion ideology, which holds that the best way to respond to any crisis is either ignoring it and pretending that it doesn’t exist or frantically removing any traces of one’s involvement and connection to it. Which, I guess, is why this road was not taken.

    I agree with Shecky: citation is *not* viewed as a sign of association, confirmation or even acceptance in literature. Well, at least not by me. (For what it’s worth, one of the theorems in the subject I am working on is named after an alleged pedophile.)


  6. January 10, 2015 at 9:59 am

    I entirely agree with the earlier posters on the question of citing Birkhoff. If you’re citing a theorem proven by BIrkhoff, you need to cite Birkhoff. If you cite a paper of Heisenberg or or a book of Heidegger. f you need to refer to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, you call it “the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle” and if you need to refer to Heisenberg’s concept of DaSein, you call it “”Heisenberg’s concept of DaSein”. First, people, whatever else they have done, are entitled to the credit for their work. Second and much more importantly, its important information for your readers to know where the theorem or idea comes from. I

    Sometimes you have a choice: the same theorem has been proven by someone else as well, or it’s so well known that you don’t have to cite at all. In that case, you can choose not to cite people you disapprove of. But if those don’t apply, which they often don’t, then one has to follow the rules for citation. This is scholarship/science, not Facebook.


    • January 10, 2015 at 10:29 am

      Sorry, the second sentence got garbled. It should read, “If you use an idea or fact you got from a paper by Heisenberg or a book of Heideggger, you have to cite Heisenberg or Heidegger.”


  7. January 10, 2015 at 10:02 am

    If you use someone’s results how can you not cite them? That’s a kind of dishonesty too.


  8. Josh
    January 10, 2015 at 10:29 am

    I feel like the case against Lewin being on OCW, (which you write in your last paragraph) is far, far stronger than the case against citing bad people. I’m comfortable with doing the calculus and deciding that the negative effect that come from continuing to have lauded, highly advertised work by somebody who you praised and later found out to be a sexual harasser is not worth the trade off. But desiring not to not cite bad people in fear of honoring them seems really strange to me. If citing somebodies work is honoring them, isn’t studying there work and it’s descendants and adding to the field of knowledge they started honoring them even more. I don’t think, especially in hard science, there’s any reason to study fields other than ergodic theory because Birkhoff was awful, I don’t think there’s something morally better about studying general relativity than quantum mechanics because Heisenberg was a Nazi and Einstein stood up for civil rights. I’m not trying to make a strawman, I would guess you don’t think which fields of math/science people should go into should be a function of which fields had more Nazis as founders. But I’m finding it really hard to reconcile why if citing somebody would be considered honoring them, how dedicating yourself to extending their life’s work isn’t honoring them several orders of magnitude more. Am I missing some obvious subtlety here?


    • January 10, 2015 at 10:39 am

      Sorry, I didn’t mean I wouldn’t cite those people, only that I’d feel bad about it. It is only intellectually honest to do so, but I meant to focus on the regret I’d feel whilst doing so.

      On Sat, Jan 10, 2015 at 10:29 AM, mathbabe wrote:



      • January 10, 2015 at 12:44 pm

        I find it weird to regret being honest. What exactly is your reasoning for the regret?


  9. Gary cornell
    January 10, 2015 at 10:43 am

    IT would certainly be better if people chose their names more carefully and perhaps even tried to change them if information on the person came up later: Do Teichmuller spaces really need to be named after him?

    The problem is once named, they are hard to change – which isn’t to say that if say Thurston or someone equally important had decided to call them “Isotopy spaces” say, that name wouldn’t have caught on and Teichmuller’s name would be a little less prominent in the community.


    • January 10, 2015 at 12:43 pm

      You really want to lose all the irony of the name “Grothendieck-Teichmüller space”? 🙂


  10. DJ
    January 10, 2015 at 11:29 am

    At what point does it remain justified to hold past generations to modern standards of decency? For example, Charles Darwin was horribly racist and sexist by modern standards, but if I were working in a relevant field (which admittedly I’m not), I would have zero qualms about citing him, or including him in the scientific community. It would not feel weird or bad to me in the least. To me, different eras belong in different categories.

    While obviously not as extreme, Birkhoff and Lewin and all these people under discussion are old. There is a generational gap. I think it is fair to ask whether they fall in the gray area. In Lewin’s case, it is particularly hard to judge, since no details of his case have been released. We are simply asked to trust the judgment of MIT administrators who have knowledge. Well, I was an MIT student, and honestly, I don’t really trust the MIT administrators. I’d like to judge for myself, and be able to form my own “era-adjusted judgment” so to speak.


  11. Min
    January 10, 2015 at 11:52 am

    As for citing someone from 80 years ago, I think that the old adage applies: “Give the Devil his due.” No one is perfect, and no deed is perfect. Can we learn something from people we detest? Sure.

    Lewin is another matter. I support MIT’s decision to remove his lectures, while admitting its drawbacks. MIT had an important statement to make, and made it. And it was important to make that statement now.


  12. Bobito
    January 10, 2015 at 12:10 pm

    A few comments about Birkhoff.
    1. His attitude towards women was worse than his attitude towards Jews. His anti-Jewish sentiments neither succeeded in keeping Jews out of Harvard math, not were particularly unusual in the US in the later 1930s (on the contrary, they were common) (at the time, Harvard had quotas to keep down the number of Jewish students, as it does now, unofficially of course, with Asian students). He definitely thought women could not do math, said so, and acted on it (I know this from several first hand accounts).
    2. I don’t know what Lewin did, but it’s worse than what Birkhoff did (as far as I know). There’s a huge difference between harboring anti-Jewish sentiments and acting on them. Lewin apparently actually committed some sort of attack/assault/invasion. As far as I know Bikhoff never did anything of the sort. (He’s no Richard Feynman, as another commenter has pointed out).
    3. We all cite Teichmuller who was a nazi. (Also Bieberbach, etc.).
    4. Not citing someone because you find them repulsive is completely unethical. The purpose of citation is twofold – 1. to guide others to the original sources of ideas so they can review them themselves and 2. to give credit to the originators of the ideas. It would be terribly unethical to not do these things because you loathe the originator of the ideas. It is comparable to refusing to testify against one’s criminal family member. Ted Kazcynski’s brother (who turned him in) did something deeply moral.
    5. If you didn’t cite all the people you ought to detest (rather than just the ones you know about), you would have to cut down your citations a lot.

    People terribly flawed in one way can do something very beautiful in another context. It’s hard to accept, but it’s better to accept it and not confuse the physicist with the physics.


    • January 10, 2015 at 8:43 pm

      I respectfully disagree with your sentiments about Birkhoff vs Lewin. You write, “I don’t know what Lewin did,” and I believe you. Then you write, “Lewin apparently actually committed some sort of attack/assault/invasion.” Well either you know or you don’t know. The reality is that most of us don’t know because MIT administrators have kept it under the wraps. From the little that I know from what I’ve heard from MIT Parents and MIT Parents of Alums, is that what he did was totally inappropriate but was NOT in the realm of an attack, assault, or invasion. But like I said, neither one of us really knows.

      However, with respect to Birkhoff, no one denies his right to harbor anti-Jewish sentiments, or anti-any-group, but from what I’ve read he did ACT upon it, by working feverishly to deny positions to Jewish mathematicians and scientists fleeing probable death in Nazi Germany. It’s not about his sentiments, but about his actions.


      • Bobito
        January 12, 2015 at 7:41 am

        @abekohen: I know that institutions like MIT don’t expunge famous professors like Lewin without some real evidence of something fairly serious. By “attack/invasion” maybe you and I understand something different; I certainly don’t mean a physical assault – here if one reads between the lines it’s clear Lewin did something online …

        As for Birkhoff, it’s not all my intention to defend him, and on further reflection I think you’re right that I was too forgiving. I simply wanted to point out that his attitudes towards women were also terrible, although this receives less publicity. Probably it was wrong to say he did not act, when apparently he did. That’s a mistake. I looked in the Nadis&Yau book and they paint a grim picture of his behavior. It is important to realize that his attitudes were common at the time (and later) in the US, something many in the US don’t like to admit.


      • Bobito
        January 23, 2015 at 3:49 am

        @abekohen: I realize now that I was confusing Birkhoff son with Birkhoff father. I have no firsthand knowledge of how the father felt about women doing math, nor do my remarks about the relative strength of this anti-Jewish and anti-woman sentiment make sense, because I was comparing two different people.


  13. Donna R. DFini
    January 10, 2015 at 1:04 pm

    Hi…and his son was a bigot. I’d hired a black woman for the front office earlier in my 24-1/2 years there 🙂 and she, evidently, had told him not to be a baby about something; he being in tantrum mode. He then complained to me about my ‘Black Friend’ and we had a quiet conversation about behavior toward staff. Another time, apropos of nothing, in the Xerox room he mention that immigrants were like ants…he’d fit right in in some Tea Parties. One more anecdote. Not sure you remember I worked at Stanford for most of my pre-Harvard years. One of my friends was Prof Milton Van Dyke (and his family; still in touch with his widow. One of their triplet boys went to Harvard, one Yale, don’t remember where the 3rd went..all daughter Lorena’s age and we were in the birthing div of Stanford Hosp at the same time too). His older daughter was a Tennis pro (almost) and hated it at Hvd and returned to CA…anyway. Milton’s Dept of Aero&Astro was where I was an administrator before coming East after my then husband got his PhD. there)

    Some years later when I was staying at Milt & Sylvia’s home on a visit, he told me this story: When he was a young student at CIT, one advisor was Von Karmen. He was invited to lunch and was very nervous that he would show proper European manners, etc. A housekeeper let him in and he and VK had a pleasant lunch chatting about this and that. After a ‘proper time’ Milt took his leave and was a bit down the path when VK suddenly shouted out from the doorway “That G (it could have been GDamn, but wasn’t) Birkhoff set mathematics back 100 years.” GB had not been discussed and no further comment was made, nor was it referred to later. Bizarre..One could think that it was because of his blocking appts of refugees from Europe and Russia. Zariski one in point who later made it ‘in’ to Harvard after shunting around, but not with equal treatment from what I gather. Just talked to his daughter this week, so this is more than a rumor…though all this not under discussion for years. Zariski first made it to Italy from USSR…and married the bright & charming Italian university student Yolle, whom he met there in the context of her agreeing to give him Italian lessons. I wouldn’t suggest quoting that to anyone at large, but the Von Karmen should be ‘safe’ 🙂 [In general. Stanford was and is more liberal/egalitarian with staff and faculty than is Harvard.] Madame Dr Flugge-Lotz came there, escaping Germany, in the field of Mechanical Engg . I’m sure she’d have a Google comment too, as does Milton…who, when I knew him, was very sophisticated, liberal, & fluent in French with many friends there..including journalists. Glad he isn’t here to see the news in France. Milton died of Parkinson’s disease.

    One of your quiet fans, (luckily for you; when I get going….;-) )


    ps I have wifi if you every get to the hill towns of western ma (~30 min from UMass-Amherst) …No gold membership plan alas. Enjoy the warmth in Texas…6 degrees here.


  14. January 10, 2015 at 1:33 pm

    Dear Cathy,

    Even though you seem to have hit a wall of complete opposition, we still love you!

    The underlying problem is that hero worship and devil revulsion are such common habits. We should expect people to be both flawed and inconsistent and not set ourselves up for gave disappointment when people we admire do something bad (or miss the gems of insight that are mixed amidst filth).

    Also, what would happen if you added this to your citations: I use this person’s work, but I detest them? Maybe also give your reason why.


    • January 10, 2015 at 2:34 pm

      No I feel the love. I don’t even think we really disagree. Just that I meant to invoke a feeling in order to say something and since I was somewhat sloppy doing it, everyone is focused on that. I realize of course that people are complicated and never 100% awesome. But instead of ignoring the yucky stuff I think we should think about it.

      Good idea about the added note!


    • KCd
      January 10, 2015 at 4:32 pm

      That is sort what the editors of Teichmueller’s collected works did. The book itself was a sign of how important his mathematical work was, not only because it was a volume of collected works, but because without it some of his most famous articles would be very hard to find since so few libraries subscribed to Deutsche Mathematik. At the end of the introduction the editors write that as much as they respected his mathematics, “his non-mathematical life is another matter,” or something to that effect (I do not have it in front of me).


  15. Gary cornell
    January 10, 2015 at 3:06 pm

    You can maintain intellectual integrity while still maintaining a boycott at least partially by whenever possible, cite the result in a textbook rather than the original paper, or if necessary cite the paper without naming the author in the body text. For example “See [1] rather than Teichmuller’s paper [1].


    • January 10, 2015 at 4:19 pm

      I love this idea!

      On Sat, Jan 10, 2015 at 3:06 PM, mathbabe wrote:



      • Aaron Lercher
        January 14, 2015 at 3:31 pm

        Mathematical citation culture favors this, in a way that citation culture in other disciplines might not.
        In MathSciNet the top 10 highest cited publications in each subject category are almost all books. Mostly these are textbooks.
        This seems fairly clear not to be the case in other sciences. But this is not entirely clear, since only mathematics has its own database that counts citations to both books and articles.
        The function of citations in math, I think, is somewhat different from that in other sciences.


  16. Fred Dashiell
    January 10, 2015 at 4:04 pm

    You need to cite the Birkhoff paper. In doing so, you are not honoring the author. You are simply giving the source of your idea instead of leaving it unspecified, which by default may mean you claim credit, which is unethical.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. January 10, 2015 at 8:47 pm

    As I’ve written previously, I’m torn on this issue for precisely the same reason that I’m torn about Wagner’s music.

    As for the “delta” computation, which I like, perhaps because you are so strong mathematically and physics must be a breeze for you, your assessment of “delta” is highly biased vis-a-vis others struggling to understand physics.


  18. Auros
    January 11, 2015 at 12:33 am

    “Update: to be clear I would cite him if I needed to. I just would actively feel weird about it. I might even add a note.”

    A little like the asterisk one needs to put next to a citation of any “achievment” in baseball during the era of rampant steroid use?


  19. Matilde Marcolli
    January 11, 2015 at 10:24 am

    is it an honor to be included in the community of mathematicians? personally, I do not wish to be considered part of it


  20. Chris Woodward
    January 12, 2015 at 12:25 pm

    I enjoyed reading the comments here. I’m surprised no one yet mentioned Euclid, who was credibly mentioned for owning slaves (as in the famous quote about learning geometry: “Give him a coin if he must profit from what he learns”, supposedly spoken to his slave.) Maybe we could think of another name for Euclidean geometry? (Or should we add an asterisk? Or we supposed to excuse him because “everyone owned slaves back then”?) I also appreciated Matilde Marcolli’s sentiment.


  21. January 12, 2015 at 5:31 pm

    Here’s a potential solution:

    Disemvowel their name when you cite their work.

    It makes the work still findable, and it still gives their work the credit it deserves.


  22. January 13, 2015 at 6:57 am

    Seems like video lectures and results/ proofs are not really equivalent. A series of video lectures invites you to have a rapport with the lecturer. That’s kind of intrinsic to its functioning A proof, theorem or result just is, in some sense – it’s entirely separate from its creator. So I’d take down Lewin’s lectures, but wouldn’t feel especially weird when citing Birkhoff or (far more likely) explaining Pearon’s correlation coefficient or Galton and regression, just because of their inventors’ role in eugenics and consequent influence on both Nazism and American anti-miscegenation.

    In the case of Lewin, it does seem especially important to remove the lectures as he allegedly harassed a student taking one of his online courses, so there’s a sense in which he was using his online presence for the purpose of grooming. Whenever there’s a serious allegation about a teacher in the classroom, the teacher must be completely removed from the classroom until such time as the teacher’s name is cleared for the protection of students – in this case removing the lectures from MIT’s online presence seems to just be a natural outcome of this last.


  23. ashwin1729
    January 15, 2015 at 12:33 am

    When the harrassement takes place online via social networking sites,it can be easily avoided by ignoring the harrasser,unlike in a real-life case where the victim defintely got to complain the authority.Lewin’s case strongly suggests that the victim had purposefully continued getting harrassed just to get Lewin fired from the Institution.At least,this is what it looks like when MIT hasn’t yet made public more details of the harrassement.


    • January 15, 2015 at 7:07 am

      Talk about blaming the victim!


    • January 15, 2015 at 8:42 am

      Not true. If the victim is taking the course for a certificate (or credit), she cannot ignore the perpetrator. And even if she isn’t, harassment is harassment.

      With that said it is unfortunate that the MIT administration hasn’t made any of the facts public, which can be done without disclosing the identity of the victim. As much as I love MIT, I love transparency even more.

      Liked by 1 person

  24. January 15, 2015 at 5:27 pm

    From reading the comments, it looks like people are seeing this as a totally binary issue: “I would never watch an asshole give a lecture” vs. “I would watch anyone lecture well.” As you wrote, Cathy, there’s a delta. If there’s exactly one person in the world capable of explaining physics to people who need to learn physics, then of course you learn the physics. But once you have a choice among teachers (or authors to cite for relevant results), you can do the delta calculation and decide not to learn from a bigot and instead learn from someone else.

    My own argument would be slightly different: Lectures on a public platform are intended to present the material to the public (not just the public the lecturer thinks “should” or “can” learn the material). Having a lecturer who is known to be biased against a segment of his students is a breach of that educational contract. Even if Lewin’s lectures aren’t manifestly chauvinistic, his pedagogy is affected by his opinions on who should be in his audience (rather than the reality of who *is* in the audience). Good teaching is about helping the students you serve make connections, and part of that is respect for the students as people. And learning is subjective, and it requires trust in the teacher. I would have trouble learning from someone if I knew he viewed women as objects to be harassed. Even if Lewin had a lot of enthusiasm for the subject, I’d feel like I wasn’t supposed to be accessing that enthusiasm, or that it was directed at others, not me.


    • January 15, 2015 at 5:29 pm

      Well said Courtney!


    • DJ
      January 15, 2015 at 6:15 pm

      But what if the amount of the delta is different for different people? As you said, learning is subjective. What is a clear decision for one person may not be so clear-cut for another person. Yet, by removing the lectures, MIT deprives people of that decision. They have every right to do that, and may even be right to do so (I can’t say for sure, because I don’t know what he did), but I lament the loss.

      People not from MIT might not understand the magnitude of the delta involved. It’s not just that he teaches physics “really really well” as Cathy wrote. That’s an understatement. He’s a transcendental, generational talent when it comes to teaching, on the level of Feynman, if not above.


      • January 16, 2015 at 6:41 pm

        There’s no reason he can’t put his lectures up on youtube if he wants to truly have a public platform (sure, maybe he needs to record new ones, but that’s doable). Since MIT is an institute that serves students of all kinds, I think they made the right call.


        • January 17, 2015 at 6:40 pm

          How can you know they made the right call when we have no information on what actually transpired? Why the opaqueness of the whole process? Now, don’t get me wrong, as a parent of an MIT alumna, I love the school, but should I trust the administration without transparency? Absolutely not. Two names come to mind: Elizabeth Shin and Aaron Swartz. Few people would agree that MIT administration did the right thing with respect to either one of them.

          As to youtube, I’m sure he can, but ultimately I must ask who is being punished MORE by not having his course(s) on MIT’s website? The professor or potential students? Given what others have described as his unique ability to make physics understandable, it sounds like the students are being punished. And while MIT serves “students of all kinds” students are in a better position to decide whether or not to watch his online course(s) if MIT does not take away their choice.

          OTOH, if MIT administration were to shine some light on what actually transpired, then, and only then, I might agree with their decision.


  25. Shecky R
    January 15, 2015 at 7:04 pm

    Wasn’t planning to re-enter this fray, but again I’m troubled by the constant assumption that if person A is bad (Lewin), the other options, B,C, and D are automatically “better” choices… they may be WORSE! Their full private lives simply not yet exposed.
    People listen to great science communicators like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Cox, and Bill Nye (as examples) because they are good at what they do… must we now FULLY investigate their personal/private histories before recommending them or listening to them? FEW of us will ever emerge glowing under application of a truly rigorous ethical yardstick.


  26. warrack
    January 17, 2015 at 9:13 am

    Birkhoff was notorious for his remark that American mathematicians should watch out for themselves to avoid becoming “hewers of wood and carriers of water”. But was he really “a huge anti-semite”? Stanislaw Ulam, who was Jewish, devotes quite a bit of space to Birkhoff in his autobiography, including an argument he had with him about his attitude towards foreign mathematicans. However Birkhoff was very helpful and supportive of Ulam, getting him in to the Society of Fellows at Harvard, helping him get a job at Wisconsin, and even subbing for him in class when he had job interviews.


  27. Bridget
    January 23, 2015 at 2:35 pm

    Did you see today’s Inside Higher Ed article (http://bit.ly/1y6QZ5u) about Lewin? I hadn’t before realized that he used the MOOC itself as a vehicle for harassment.


  28. January 23, 2015 at 11:04 pm

    Now that some information about the allegations is out, it does indeed look really awful, and it seems perfectly correct for MIT to cut ties with Lewin. However I still think the videos should stay up, and I don’t buy the “delta” argument. One could similarly justify burning the books of any person you consider (rightly or not) to be bad, by arguing that there are many similar books available and so we can do without this person’s books. But a society in which someone’s books are burned whenever they fall out of favor (for good reason or not) is not one I want to be a part of. Perhaps in calculating the “delta” one should consider the fact that the precedent set by an action may cause much greater harm than the action itself.


    • DJ
      January 23, 2015 at 11:26 pm

      Well, I changed my mind after the details came out. I think that if the online lectures are contributing to enabling harassment (which they are), then MIT has to take them down.

      Of course, they should go right back up after he dies, which shouldn’t take very long given his age.


      • January 23, 2015 at 11:57 pm

        I don’t know. Any popular author could do the same thing, finding victims in an online fan club.


        • DJ
          January 24, 2015 at 12:13 am

          Among other differences, publishers of popular books are not generally subject to the legal requirements of FERPA and Title IX.


  29. January 24, 2015 at 12:59 am

    There are also interesting legal questions there, since a MOOC seems to be somewhere in between a university course and a book. Personally I think a MOOC is more like a book. But regardless of the law, I would like to understand what is the right thing to do, and what are the moral reasons for it. If a popular author harasses his or her fans, what should one do about it? And how does that differ from the present case?


    • DJ
      January 24, 2015 at 1:19 am

      I find it difficult to make a proper comparison because the definition of harassment is quite context-sensitive. Many activities between consenting adults that would ordinarily be quite legal in everyday life become harassment when a student-teacher relationship is involved. Lewin is (apparently) not facing any criminal charges, because he broke no laws, but he certainly violated the ethical requirements of his position. (I assume here that the details given in the story are true, and all evidence available to me indicates they are.)

      If an author did the same thing to a fan, I would do nothing. The fan can just walk away.


  30. January 24, 2015 at 1:33 am

    I completely agree (accepting the article as true, which I am willing to do) that Lewin violated the ethical requirements of his position, and I said at the beginning that I think it was correct for MIT to sever ties with him. I think we just disagree about what should be done with the videos. I can understand the reasons for taking them down, but I am still uncomfortable about this.


    • January 25, 2015 at 7:53 pm

      I really would like to see some disclosure by MIT itself. Air out what really happened. Air out how many complainants. It would be a tragedy if this story follows the path of Rolling Stone and UVA. No woman should be harassed. And abusers should be punished. No reason for MIT to not be open about the issue(s).

      Some of the comments in The Tech are on point. Not all, though.


      “It is no longer possible to reach Walter Lewin through his MIT email because it was removed as part of his punishment for sexual harassment. Given that fact, how can Peter Fisher claim that keeping the courses on line presents a danger? No one has claimed that the lectures themselves are in the least inappropriate. To the contrary, there has been an outcry about the loss of this rich educational resource.”


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