Citation as received wisdom
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.