Written: Oct. 7, 2018
Yesterday, someone in my wife's bible study group sent the group the following article where, Peter Beinart, a former "groupie" of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the eminent Biblical scholar, expressed his disillusionment at his former hero for not speaking up against (what to him are obviously unjust) words and deeds of some politicians that I will not name (since it is irrelevant to this opinion).
Quite by accident, the very same day, I came across this post, commenting on the Ted Hill affair, where Ted narrated how his article was officially accepted by one journal, only to have the acceptance reneged, and then was accepted and actually appeared (for three days!) in another electronic journal, and then disappeared completely, without any comment that is has been retracted.
When I read Gowers' post, something analogous to what happened to Peter Beinart, happened to me. My "religion" is mathematics, and one of my great "rabbis", or "gurus" was Tim Gowers, since in addition to his amazing mathematical depth and breadth, he also served as a "moral" leader in "meta"-mathematical issues.
While I still admire Tim's great mathematical depth and breadth, he sure did, at least in this case, disappoint me. He abdicated his [implicit] moral responsibility to integrity, objectivity and fairness, by, following a perfunctory, half-hearted, expression of disapproval of the "unacceptances", he went on a tirade against Hill's paper itself, completely trashing it, and stating that it "should not have been accepted in the first place".
As a few of the 360 responses to his blog post already pointed out, the actual merit of the paper in question is completely irrelevant to the shameful behavior of the editors. By trashing the paper he attempted to minimize the editorial injustice.
So even if Tim would have been right, and the paper is "garbage" (which it is not, it is a gem!), it was completely inappropriate to lump a meta-level discussion with an object-level discussion. In other words, he committed a grave category error.
In fairness to Tim, he later retracted most of his criticism, in a follow-up post, but then made-up new ones. But what struck me was the great arrogance that he displayed, and contempt of the editors and referees of the Mathematical Intelligencer, who did a great job (until the unfortunate bowing to political pressure) in handling it, and approved the merit of the paper. In fact, one of the associate editors of the Mathematical Intelligencer, Sergei Tabachnikov, a great mathematician and master expositor, was initially a co-author, and hence must have believed that the paper has lots of merit. So Gowers (hopefully inadvertently) also insulted Tabachnikov's mathematical judgment.
Ted Hill is also one of my great mathematical heroes (but not a moral one, he fought in the Vietnam war, and he likes to fish and hunt (shame on you!)) and what Gowers is to arithmetical progressions and to Banach spaces, Hill is to probability "toy models", Benford's Law, stopping rules and many other probability topics. Gowers abused his reputation as a great mathematician to trash a paper outside his field of expertise.
[ Igor Rivin, the NYJM editor who accepted the paper after its Intelligencer acceptance was reversed, also erred in accepting it, because Hill's paper is obviously not a good fit. Most of the articles in the NYJM are technical and utterly boring, while Hill's paper is actually very interesting. ]
One should also wonder at Ted Hill for his choice of journals. A much better place would have been the more widely-read American Mathematical Monthly and even better still, Notices of the American Mathematical Society, and a yet-better place would have been the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, where it would have caught the eyes of evolutionary biologists.
But then again, Ted, being retired, you don't need yet-another-"peer"-reviewed article to get tenure and/or promotion. You have the luxury to tell this anachronism called "peer-reviewed journals" to shove it, and just publish in the most important on-line journal, arxiv.org (that you winded-up doing anyway, but only after the debacle). But then again, perhaps you anticipated all this `controversy', and very shrewdly (being a great probability theorist) submitted to journals whose probability of bowing down to political pressure is maximal. This way your paper created a huge splash and got the attention that it deserved, and much more than it would have gotten if it would not have been "unaccepted".
It probably got at least as much attention as this breakthrough. [And it would be nice if Tim Gowers could comment on it.]
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