42
$\begingroup$

There are some users who specialize in asking PSQs (crude problem statement questions). According to all the discussions about PSQs, it seems that a vast majority of users think these should be closed. Unfortunately, MSE as a whole is absolutely not consistent about it. To begin with me, for the reasons I mention below.

1 - There was this user specialized in usually non-trivial and interesting topological PSQs, yielding instructive answers from the local topology specialist: lost. There was also this user specialized in challenging integrals and series PSQs: no longer active. Next one? Maybe this user who has been posting a lot of PSQ unusual inequalities in the past months. A lot of them were well received at first, but it seems that it is no longer the case. Etc...

2 - Trivial PSQs like "how to solve this limit with l'Hospital" or "how to prove that this set of vectors is linearly independent" still abound and get many simultaneous fully detailed answers within a minute. I had no opinion about that when I started my activity here. But I have read all the discussions about homework issues and I agree MSE should not be known as a place to get your homework quickly done for free. As a result, I started by the end of april to answer about five to ten times fewer questions than I used to since january.

3 - One thing I like a lot about MSE is that everyone can find answers in this nice and readable environment (unlike those from older forums) to a lot of standard questions. Especially via a google search.

4 - Not very long ago, I chose to answer in detail two functional analysis PSQs, because they were standard facts that could be easily found elsewhere anyway. In the first case, both the question and my answer were upvoted a couple of times. In the second very similar case, both the question and my answer were immediately downvoted, and the question closed as off-topic. And it seems that you can't even kindly ask to discuss the issue.

I really don't care about losing the trivial Q/As of type 2. I care more about losing PSQ's of type 1. In view of 3 and 4, my opinion is that it is a good thing if MSE helps collect standard proofs of standard facts, since it makes them easily and pleasantly accessible in a modern way. I really don't regret the time when I had to find such answers in the relevant books.

Questions: a) Does MSE really gain or lose something when such specific users specialized in interesting PSQs cease their activity? b) What could be done to increase the consistency of the treatment of PSQs on MSE? c) Shouldn't we treat separately interesting PSQs that have an answer in books or are well-known folklore, and the average isolated homework PSQs in elementary linear algebra or calculus?

$\endgroup$
  • 27
    $\begingroup$ What is the problem with PSQ? Cant you just choose to NOT answer? I dont understand why some small majority think they have the right to rob OTHER people from answering. $\endgroup$ – Grandmaster Jul 11 '13 at 19:20
  • 15
    $\begingroup$ Trivial homework problems are fine as long as the poster takes some time to explain their thoughts or at least uses proper grammar and $\LaTeX$. I also have no issue with interesting problems that are just the problem statement. In fact, I'd rather the question not be cluttered with useless things "I don't know how to solve this," or "This is not homework," and I'd rather site policies not force people posing questions that are clearly not homework to put this kind of boilerplate clutter on their questions. The real problem is the mass of no effort trivial homework questions. $\endgroup$ – Potato Jul 11 '13 at 20:34
  • 32
    $\begingroup$ I also do not understand why people get so riled up about questions phrased in the imperative. (This seems to account for part of the PSQ hate.) It absolutely astounds me. Questions are phrased in the imperative in most textbooks, and no one gets mad about it here. Does anyone really feel that they are being ordered around by their textbook? It's just convention, and a good one at that. It makes things more concise by avoiding the need for useless fluff like "Here is a problem I am having trouble with." $\endgroup$ – Potato Jul 11 '13 at 20:40
  • 13
    $\begingroup$ (Certainly, there are some problem users that order people around. I've seen a handful. But the majority of people who phrase questions in the imperative here do so because it is standard mathematical practice, and they inevitably get a bunch of snide and unproductive comments.) $\endgroup$ – Potato Jul 11 '13 at 20:44
  • 13
    $\begingroup$ I think one of the most serious flaws in the new anti-PSQ general policy is that it is against what SE is intended for. $\endgroup$ – Git Gud Jul 11 '13 at 22:29
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ SE let some pointless rules in vBulletin forums go (eg Have only one account, Register and activate your account before posting, only mods can edit posts). But SE has lower security than vBulletin forums so some users prefer to leave it because they have to accept the cultural matrix developed by a minority of bold users. (The election process does not help democracy in SE because elected moderators cannot change anything or do anything new). I think the main SE policy is "Ask-A-Question-Get-Answers". PSQ is a question. $\endgroup$ – user79193 Jul 12 '13 at 1:00
  • 22
    $\begingroup$ @Potato: Considering the number of posters for whom English is a second (or third, fourth, whatever) language, it’s not really reasonable to demand proper grammar. I’m more than willing to try to dig out the meaning for someone whose English is clearly limited. I also have no problem with new users who don’t (yet) know any $\LaTeX$: if they make a reasonable effort to write unambiguous expressions, I’m perfectly willing to pretty them up. (I answered mathematics questions in the flat ASCII environment of Usenet for years.) $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Jul 12 '13 at 7:04
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @julien Correct me if I am wrong, but I think the following link could be example of type 1 in your post. I won't discuss my opinion on the current matter much, but I will say that I really enjoy seeing problems from that particular user. And those cannot be homework in a sane classroom. $\endgroup$ – Prism Jul 12 '13 at 8:37
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ My personal issue with "PSQs" is that it is rare that simply typing out a solution is helpful. I would much rather the OP said what they had tried and where they got stuck so I could, you know, help them. $\endgroup$ – user1729 Jul 12 '13 at 8:40
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ It is kind of interesting to compare these two posts: this and this. Both of them are PSQs, and they involve inequalities of three variables (of the olympiad type). And they are similar too. (They both have condition $abc=1$). But one of them has -2 votes (and currently closed) and another has +2 votes and has an accepted answer, at the time of this writing. How does one explain this discrepancy? $\endgroup$ – Prism Jul 12 '13 at 9:00
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ People come, people go, all the time, for all sorts of reasons. Do you have any evidence that anyone whose questions you like has left because his/her questions got closed as PSQ? $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Jul 12 '13 at 10:23
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Prism One is a year older than the other one, and community attitudes change over time. Although you could probably find two questions posted at the same time with a similar discrepancy. I think that responses to such questions are quite (although not completely) consistent at any given time though. $\endgroup$ – mdp Jul 12 '13 at 10:39
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @MattPressland "Quite consistent"? Do I really need to add 50 links in my question to trivial no effort (other than "I tried but I did not get anywhere", "could you help me solve this?", "I did (whatever nonsense) and it did not work", or just "Prove...bla") homework questions who received (often several) detailed answers in the past month? $\endgroup$ – Julien Jul 12 '13 at 12:32
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ I agree that only trivial homework PSQs should be closed (as I said in my campaign) for exactly these reasons. The community must show discretion when closing these type of questions. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Gruber Jul 12 '13 at 16:18
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I anonymously posted a PSQ just to see what would happen. I got two good answers and no backlash (yet). The problem wasn't even interesting. I guess things are changing are little? $\endgroup$ – Potato Jul 12 '13 at 22:34
35
$\begingroup$

I know what you mean, and I never could understand the sometimes outward hostility directed toward these individuals. I got the feeling that these folks were simply interested in challenging integrals, sums, what-have-you and they occasionally generated very intense discussions. I see a lot less of that lately and I think we are missing out a little by not having such PSQs being posed here.

What can be done to treat these folks more consistently? How do we get a democracy to get behind a single idea? Yikes - the intense feelings expressed here about anything homework-seeming (which the PSQs described above are not) are enough to drive a shy newcomer away. The thing is - it is obvious that some PSQs are not homework. Are we going to assume that some sadistic prof is going to pose this as HW? Maybe we should at least recognize these and welcome them rather than robotically hurl "why are you posing this problem?" type interrogations in response.

So I guess I answered your third question: yes, of course we should treat these cases very differently. Will there be borderline cases? Of course. But at the end, better to trust the OP that it isn't HW - we aren't the 22nd Precinct, after all.

$\endgroup$
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ That's a great one: I'll add it to my integral calculus exam monday ;). $\endgroup$ – Julien Jul 11 '13 at 20:16
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ @julien: Glad I don't have you as a prof. $\endgroup$ – Ron Gordon Jul 11 '13 at 20:17
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ Was kidding of course! But if I had a student with your integration skills, I would take the opportunity to add integrals I can't compute in bonus questions, since I could not ask them on MSE as PSQs. $\endgroup$ – Julien Jul 11 '13 at 20:21
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ Lack of effort is only part of my beef with the PSQ. Lack of source is just as important. If a problem is too hard to be homework, maybe it comes from some ongoing competition, some take-home final, some entrance exam. I want to know where the problem comes from. $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Jul 12 '13 at 10:26
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson Many problems have no clear source, and interesting PSQs seem to come from teachers or friends. And cheaters can just lie about the source anyway. I try to include the source whenever I can, especially if the problem is from a textbook, but any strict requirement seems unreasonable. $\endgroup$ – Potato Jul 12 '13 at 16:19
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ "Competitions, on the other hand, do present a problem, although I have yet to see something like that being put here." Ron, if you are saying you haven't seen any (ongoing) competition problems posted to m.se, I can tell you, I've seen several. There was even a meta thread about them. $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Jul 13 '13 at 2:16
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Brian, it's not paranoia if they're really out to get you. You do remember, don't you, when you doubted ongoing contest problems survived long here, and I showed you one ongoing contest problem that was posted twice in a month, and not caught until a month later (too late!), when it was posted for a third time by someone who identified it as a problem from a recently completed contest? $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Jul 14 '13 at 6:03
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ @Gerry: Compared with the seriousness of the problem, it’s paranoia. And on more than one occasion the tone of your demands for irrelevant information has literally made me cringe. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Jul 14 '13 at 6:12
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @Brian, your willingness to post answers to certain questions has made me cringe, too, so I guess we're even. $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Jul 14 '13 at 6:15
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson I'm not sure grilling askers about their sources does anything about the problem, though. Any serious cheater would just give a fake source. $\endgroup$ – Potato Jul 14 '13 at 21:31
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson: in case it hasn't been clear, I have been talking about people who have posed difficult integrals and sums from books. In this narrow field in which I have held considerable interest, I have not come across competition questions. Of course I have seen such questions elsewhere. Again, I am of the mindset, innocent until proven guilty, and am here to answer questions, not to assess arbitrary levels of effort. There are some awful cases, and I do say something there, but mostly, I just find it better to trust by default. $\endgroup$ – Ron Gordon Jul 14 '13 at 21:53
  • 15
    $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson I am the world's fourth-largest crop and provide sustenance for hundreds of millions of people. I demand my views be taken seriously. $\endgroup$ – Potato Jul 14 '13 at 23:36
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson: no, of course not, but does every poster know that's what you want them to do? You of course have every right to pose the question. I think our concern, however, is that perhaps we have given these guys the impression that we do not want them around, when in fact some of us definitely do. $\endgroup$ – Ron Gordon Jul 15 '13 at 0:43
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @Ron, no, evidently many posters don't know that I want them to source their problems --- that's why I ask them for the source. But then you don't want the poster "to be met with an automatic interrogation", so where does that leave me? $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Jul 15 '13 at 3:18
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson I like the fact that you take the time to explain your views and that your actions are consistent. $\endgroup$ – Julien Jul 17 '13 at 15:26
21
$\begingroup$

c) Shouldn't we treat separately interesting PSQs that have an answer in books or are well-known folklore, and the average isolated homework PSQs in elementary linear algebra or calculus?

Yes, we should (and most of the time, already do). Whether or not a question should be answered is not a matter of mere style of the person posting the question. The mathematical nature of the questions is at least as important (I think, much more important). There is a difference between localized PSQs such as computing a particular limit with L'H, and broadly useful PSQs such as

Prove that a first-order Sobolev space is a lattice.

I hold this to be self-evident that in this day and age, typing the quoted sentence into a search engine should bring up (as a top result) a complete and clear proof of the result, published under a Creative Commons license. Such knowledge should not be locked in a $150 book published by Springer-Verlag, or in an article available for download for $39.99 plus tax. I sincerely hope that mathematicians will eventually ditch publisher contracts in favor of self-published CC-licensed books. But for those of us unable or unwilling to write an entire CC-licensed book, SE platform may be the best knowledge-sharing tool available at present.

I am concerned that some users may be prevented from sharing their knowledge merely by other users' preference for a particular style of questions. My suggestion to julien and others: when you come across a closed (non-duplicate, unanswered) question to which you have a good answer, consider posting a (possibly, better worded) version of this question yourself, with instant self-answer. You can add a link in a comment under the closed question, if you wish. (By the way, question A cannot be closed as a duplicate of question B unless B has an upvoted or accepted answer.)

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I couldn't agree more. $\endgroup$ – Julien Jul 12 '13 at 15:18
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I totally agree. $\endgroup$ – Potato Jul 12 '13 at 16:29
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Actually, this also succinctly states my (personal) problem with the sheer wall of no-motivation three-variable inequalities that got mentioned in the main post. Perhaps it's a lack of mathematical maturity on my part, but they seem hopelessly localized to me; one or two help to illustrate the basic techniques for solving such problems, but beyond that point it becomes a matter of 'find the specific function(s) that will let you transform the terms of the inequality into some more standard form', and I just don't see the applicability. $\endgroup$ – Steven Stadnicki Jul 13 '13 at 19:02
  • $\begingroup$ They feel like the mathematical equivalent of 'mate in N' chess problems: each one is an interesting bite-sized nugget, but they're removed from the discipline itself, and while a 'how do I solve chess problems' question would be a reasonable fit for the chess SE, for instance, more than a handful of 'how do I solve this mate problem' posts start to fall rapidly under 'too localized'. $\endgroup$ – Steven Stadnicki Jul 13 '13 at 19:03
  • $\begingroup$ @StevenStadnicki Honestly, I added the third example some time after I had written that I would miss such questions. I find it interesting to see one of these every now and then, just to see if I would be able to solve it (and usually I can't, I am very weak on inequalities, which is why I like to see some, sometimes). But I don't pay attention to all of them... $\endgroup$ – Julien Jul 13 '13 at 20:24
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @StevenStadnicki A certain subset of people seem to like them for reasons I do not understand. I say let them have their fun. I don't upvote them, but I don't downvote them either. $\endgroup$ – Potato Jul 13 '13 at 22:08
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @Steven: So what? What concern is it of yours? If you aren’t interested, it’s easy enough to ignore them. I usually do, though occasionally I look out of curiosity, my relationship with inequalities being much like julien’s. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Jul 14 '13 at 5:05
  • $\begingroup$ It would be great to have a blog just as other SE sites. Some sort of 'cannonical detailed/nice answers' to questions like the one in your example would be a good source of blog posts. $\endgroup$ – leo Jul 18 '13 at 23:20
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Out of curiosity, I have just divided the number of votes (996) you have cast according to your profile on main by the number of days (23) of its existence. I get 43.3ish. How is this possible? This seems to contradict your name and the daily limit. $\endgroup$ – Julien Jul 30 '13 at 23:47
3
$\begingroup$

Personally I would like an on hold reason along the lines of that suggested in: https://math.meta.stackexchange.com/a/9958/25159

This would be in lieu of any official policy which tries to define precisely what level of effort should be displayed in a question. As I've said before, there are certain questions for which I think the asker would benefit significantly from not recieving a full, detailed answer, particularly one which doesn't explain the thought process that led to it, until I can see what their thoughts are on the problem - in particular, I can then be sure that they've actually spent some time thinking about the problem at all and aren't simply rushing to meet a homework deadline. (My reasons for wanting to prevent such answers are explained at some length at https://math.meta.stackexchange.com/a/9065/25159). There is a large overlap between such questions and PSQs, but they aren't one and the same. For example, I think I would be more likely to want to prevent such answers to a conceptual question (we get lots about undergraduate linear algebra that fall into this category) where the asker is more likely to have a conceptual problem, whereas I'm happier for questions that ask how to compute a difficult integral to remain open (particularly as "providing thoughts" in this case is most likely to just lead to a huge list of algebraic manipulations that didn't go anywhere).

I may also be more lenient towards higher level questions, but this is more of a grey area and depends very much on the question. For example if it's clearly at grad level I don't really have to worry too much about whether the asker needs help with problem solving abilities, and I think it's more likely that they specifically chose to leave out context because they thought it would be noise. (Although at least in the tags that I follow, it is very rare to see a grad level question asked without context, which I find telling).

The point of using the closure reason is that it requires 4 other users to make the same judgement - I wouldn't like to assume my judgement on these matters is flawless (it isn't). I think it's worth noting that this still weights things in favour of answerers (which isn't necessarily bad) as it takes 5 users to decide such a question should be put on hold, but any single user can provide the kind of full complete answer that I want to avoid without needing any kind of consensus at all.

As an aside, it may also be worth getting feedback from users of the other scientific SE sites. In my understanding (please correct me if I'm wrong), math.SE is the only such site that permits unmotivated problem statements as questions.

To relate this to your three questions - I don't really have a good answer to a), but I think this approach may help with b), and tries to allow for the fact that different users may have different answers to c).

Your questions are also slightly skewed and ignore certain opportunity costs. For example, at the moment there is no way I would recommend or even mention the existence of MSE to my students, because I think too many of them would use it to avoid doing real work on hard problems, and the MSE community wouldn't stop them. It's possible (although I don't know how likely) that a tougher line on these questions would result in more users joining the site and asking good questions.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you, your point of view is interesting. I've heard physics.se does not tolerate homework. But for the users I had in mind in 1, this was absolutely no homework, just curiosity and interest in seeing a solution of a given problem/statement. And there was no need for any more context, it was clear enough. $\endgroup$ – Julien Jul 12 '13 at 12:44
  • $\begingroup$ @julien Trying to distinguish them is certainly difficult (although as I mention in the earlier answer of mine I link to, it's not just about homework or not for me - if the question has been set by a lecturer or the author of a textbook to get students to think about certain things, then I don't think complete answers are helpful until the student has spent some time playing around). My hope is that because closing takes 5 users, the differences in opinion in the grey areas might be averaged out a little. $\endgroup$ – mdp Jul 12 '13 at 12:49
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The sentence "math.SE is the only such site that permits..." brings to mind conversations that College Deans tend to have with Math Department chairs. "Your department is the only science department that does / does not..." My opinion is that usually it's the math department who does it right. $\endgroup$ – 40 votes Jul 12 '13 at 15:20
  • $\begingroup$ @40votes In this case (as I think I've been pretty clear) I don't agree, but there may be a happier medium between closing them all or closing none. However, my point was more that if we're trying to talk about the pros and cons of closing such questions, it might be helpful to get input from people who are active on sites where it is policy to close them, as well as from this site where it isn't. $\endgroup$ – mdp Jul 12 '13 at 22:07
  • $\begingroup$ I think that you’re doing your students a considerable disservice. Had I been aware of MSE before I retired, I’d certainly have mentioned it to my students. Of course if you’re using homework as a significant graded component in low-level courses, MSE could conceivably pose a problem, but that’s not the fault of MSE. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Jul 14 '13 at 5:09
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I don’t think that differences of opinion in the grey areas are being averaged out: I think that they’re being exacerbated. In the last few weeks there are certain names that I’ve grown accustomed to seeing on what I consider unnecessary or ridiculously premature closures, and in response I routinely vote to reopen such questions, provided that they’re intelligible and haven’t been identified as duplicates, ‘live’ competition problems, or the like. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Jul 14 '13 at 5:15
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @BrianM.Scott We don't use homework as a graded component in the courses that I teach. It is frustrating that the internet makes it harder to do that, because some students have serious problems with formal exams. I can just see first hand that many of the students kid themselves into thinking they've understood something when they read a complete answer, so I'd rather they learn through a dialogue that encourages them to do more of the thinking. Some MSE users (including yourself) give very good answers that encourage this, but usually a "model" solution shows up too. $\endgroup$ – mdp Jul 14 '13 at 11:59
  • $\begingroup$ @BrianM.Scott You may well be right that the averaging isn't working, because 5 still isn't very many. I don't pretend my proposed "solution" is ideal, but I have reasons to prefer it over others I can think of. $\endgroup$ – mdp Jul 14 '13 at 12:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Matt: I certainly understand about students who have problems with formal exams: I once had a student spend about $20$ minutes throwing up in the women’s restroom shortly after the beginning of a final exam. Fortunately, she trusted me enough talk to me about the problem, and I was able to arrange for her to take it at my house, in my then-wife’s office, a day or so later. Apparently the setting was informal enough to make a difference; she did okay. And yes, I certainly realize that this is not a universal solution! I actually did use approximately weekly graded homework ... $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Jul 15 '13 at 8:13
  • $\begingroup$ ... in that course, typically $4$ to $6$ problems requiring some explanation as well as some computation, but enrolment was limited to about $25$, so I could comment extensively on each problem on each paper if necessary. The same goes for the upper-division courses that I taught. I never collected homework if I couldn’t give significant feedback, and I was never willing to kill myself to do that for large classes; I did assign quite a lot, though, and talk about it if people had questions. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Jul 15 '13 at 8:20
  • $\begingroup$ @Matt: I’d also much rather get students engaged in a dialogue (and to be honest, I’m pleasantly surprised by how often I do), but ultimately it’s the student’s choice. And even copying out a pat answer isn’t going to result in less learning than simply throwing in the towel. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Jul 15 '13 at 8:24
  • $\begingroup$ @BrianM.Scott Thanks for the detail, that may well come in useful if I ever run a course myself! I completely agree with your last sentence. With respect to not recommending MSE to my students, they are fortunate in that there is a lot of learning support at the university that I think is more likely to encourage them to discuss the problems - if there was less I'd be more likely to recommend MSE. (The other reason which I didn't really think about before, but perhaps should have, is that I'm just a TA, and the course convenor may object). $\endgroup$ – mdp Jul 15 '13 at 8:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Matt: Good learning support makes a huge difference; my university had it only in my last few years there, at which point I ended up spending my nominal office hours (and then some) in the Math Tutoring Centre. (Non sequitur: Am I right in remembering that the Univ. of Bath is up on a hill? I was only ever in Bath once or twice, but I know that one of my runs took me onto the campus, and I’m pretty sure that I remember climbing to get there.) $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Jul 15 '13 at 8:58
  • $\begingroup$ @BrianM.Scott That is correct - I've got a lot fitter since I moved here! $\endgroup$ – mdp Jul 15 '13 at 9:12
  • $\begingroup$ I was just thinking about basically the same idea the other day, and coming from spending the vast majority of my math help time on a site that basically threatens a financial penalty for repeatedly asking for full solutions to homework problems without providing work, this sounds like a fine middle-ground. $\endgroup$ – Mark S. Dec 31 '13 at 3:33

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .