In January of 2019, student Conner Brown attended a guest lecture by a Professor Susan Athey at the University of Stanford Graduate School. She gave a presentation to his “Evolution of Finance” class titled “Blockchain and the Future of Finance.” According to Brown, the presentation contained “multiple misstatements” about Bitcoin and its fundamentals.
After the presentation, Brown was dissatisfied with how Bitcoin was referenced by Athey during the lecture to a room comprised (mostly) of people who were unfamiliar with the fundamental concepts behind the technology. This prompted him to write an email to the Stanford Graduate School Board, expressing his concerns.
Brown says that the only response he has received from the university thus far is an email stating, “We will get back to you on this.” That’s when he posted his complaint on Twitter.
What She Got Wrong
Athey, who Brown told Bitcoin Magazine is also slated to teach an entire course at Stanford next semester called “Cryptocurrencies,” claimed that not only is Bitcoin “controlled by a small group of miners in China,” but that it also “wastes electricity by stealing from rivers to solve useless math problems.” Athey also mentioned that bitcoin is “secured economically and not cryptographically.”
In her presentation degrading the first digital, decentralized currency, Athey drew comparisons to what she considered a better solution in Ripple’s technology, using XRP. Specifically, she cited exchange rate volatility, trust issues with exchanges, and long transaction times as drawbacks to using Bitcoin (stating that, subsequently, exchanges needed to buy bitcoin). Athey then, according to her presentation, explained how Ripple’s XRP, xRapid API, and overall consensus mechanism provide an alternative that is faster, cheaper, more secure, and more energy friendly than Bitcoin.
In protest, Brown composed a letter addressed to the Graduate School of Business, expressing his thoughts that certain statements about Bitcoin should have been subject to “high caliber discussion and peer review.”
In addressing Athey’s claims against Bitcoin, Brown properly explained where Athey missed key concepts.
Addressing her claim on mining centralization by a small group in China, Brown explained that Athey was conflating mining nodes with full nodes and had used this misrepresentation to position Ripple as a better alternative to Bitcoin. He also countered by explaining that miners often compile their resources together in a mining pool, but there are many individual miners in these pools and not one entity can completely control Bitcoin.
To Athey’s claim that Bitcoin is secured economically and not cryptographically, Brown pointed out that she is once again conflating two different things: Stealing funds by cracking the encryption of the wallet and using mining power to 51% attack a network.
Conflict of Interest?
As the matter came to light on Twitter, it was pointed out that Athey was welcomed to the Ripple Labs Board of Directors back in April 2014, where she still maintains an active role. When Nic Carter asked on Twitter if Athey had made any disclosure before her presentation, she replied directly: “Five minute verbal introduction discussing my background in the space — no way to miss it!”
Whether or not Athey had any ill-intent in her presentation, Brown told Bitcoin Magazine that is not what mattered to him.
“It concerns me that my classmates’ first introduction to Bitcoin contained severe factual errors along with strong anti-Bitcoin rhetoric. The academy is not a place for marketing, but rigorously testing ideas. If a professor has a potential conflict of interest, they should be held to the highest standards of scrutiny and peer review.
“That being said, Bitcoin is a creature of the internet. Its properties are difficult for academics to appreciate due to its deeply interdisciplinary and evolutionary nature. This makes it difficult for developing a curriculum because of the siloed design of academic disciplines and the slow pace of the peer review process. The internet will always be the best place to pursue a Bitcoin education.”