Lately I've asked several questions related to my bachelor's thesis, because my advisor is on vacation and I want to finish it asap. My "philosophy" is to always provide what I've done so far or my thoughts on the question I'm asking. Sometimes however I can provide neither, in which case I say up front that I have no idea how to begin or what to read to find clues. As I indicated in a question I asked here in meta, I'm perfectly fine with questions of curiosity where the person asking lacks the background to investigate his question himself, but in that case they should say so and not just pose their question as is.

However it doesn't seem as obvious for others to do this. Who are these people? Well, most, I suppose, are people who've asked only one question, or are young (asking about calculus) and so can perhaps be excused from (of?) their poor "behavior" on account of that. What's strange is that quite a few of those who copy a question straight out of a book and write nothing else are people with reputation in the hundreds, what I'd call good reputation. How is that possible? Am I a stern individual who think these people should have their questions massively down-voted?

I suppose one could argue that inconsiderately asked questions which receive an answer will still help others struggling with the same question and so are acceptable, but I'm talking here only about the response the asker should be getting - he shouldn't be having a reputation score in the hundreds. Again, how can they have so good reputation? It seems unreasonable to me that the same person would ask good questions sometimes and crap questions other times.

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    $\begingroup$ Reputation in mere hundreds isn't that big by StackExchange standards. I would not take it as an indication of the person's aptitude. (Hope this is better, @MarianoSuárez-Alvarez). $\endgroup$
    – 40 votes
    Jul 25, 2013 at 23:14
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    $\begingroup$ There is a serious divide among regulars on m.se. There are those who think any copy-paste question showing no independent effort should be closed and deleted on sight. There are those who think any question that is comprehensible and mathematical should be welcomed and, if possible, answered, copy-paste or not. And then there are people at every point on the spectrum between those two extremes. There is no consensus, and no voice from on high to impose a point of view, so we each do as we think right. $\endgroup$ Jul 26, 2013 at 9:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Gerry: Judges 17:6. $\endgroup$
    – Asaf Karagila Mod
    Jul 26, 2013 at 14:08
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    $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson: Does "there are people at every point on the spectrum between those two extremes" imply uncountably many users? $\endgroup$
    – Isaac
    Jul 26, 2013 at 22:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Isaac, many users are indeed unaccountable, but a spectrum can be countable, yea, even finite. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spectrum_of_a_matrix $\endgroup$ Jul 26, 2013 at 22:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Asaf, plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose, n'est-ce pas? $\endgroup$ Jul 26, 2013 at 23:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Gerry: True dat. $\endgroup$
    – Asaf Karagila Mod
    Jul 26, 2013 at 23:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Isaac: An interesting question. I rather feel that my own approach to PSQs comes from a continuous distribution of different approaches, and each encounter with a question of this type forces the waveform to collapse to one observable state among a discrete set of possible values - not unlike Schrödinger's cat. Will our collective density functions fill up the continuum? I dunno. $\endgroup$ Jul 27, 2013 at 11:46
  • $\begingroup$ I would be more worried if persons with good reputation poorly answering questions. $\endgroup$ Aug 3, 2013 at 6:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Erik- They be excused FOR their poor behavior. $\endgroup$
    – aarbee
    Aug 3, 2013 at 17:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Erik WRT 'excused from (of?) their poor "behavior"', You can just say 'excused their poor behaviour' ;-) $\endgroup$ Aug 3, 2013 at 20:37

2 Answers 2


It seems unreasonable to me that the same person would ask good questions sometimes and crap questions other times.

As user "40 votes" says, this happens. I would put it much more strongly: it happens to everyone who is thinking about mathematics and asking sufficiently many of the questions that come to mind. It is fun (for us; less so for them) to collect examples of stupid questions asked by world-class mathematicians. Probably my favorite (which I got from J. Milne's webpage) is that Andre Weil attended a lecture during the golden age of the classification of finite simple groups. The lecturer was saying that he suspected the existence of a finite simple group of a certain particular order. Weil asked whether there could be more than one simple group of that order. The lecturer allowed that that was indeed possible, so far as he knew. Weil followed up by asking if there could be infinitely many!

On the other hand, asking good questions is certainly a skill. In my opinion it is one of the more important skills of a research mathematician and also rather underemphasized. (It sounds immodest, but I would be disingenous not to say that I believe that I possess this skill more than most, and conversely I think it is probably my greatest strength as a mathematician.) To me, if you are asking good questions and trying to answer them, then you almost cannot be stopped from doing respectable mathematical research. It follows that the most exciting aspect of a site like this one is the existence of a community of people asking good questions and the intellectual progress that comes from that.

But I see a lot of people here who clearly really want to learn and do mathematics, and they are really trying to exploit this site (in a good way; others might say "utilize", but I hate that word) by asking lots of questions and seeing what they get in return...but in many cases most of the questions they are asking are not in fact very good in the sense of opening up fruitful avenues of further inquiry.

Part of me wants to teach people how to ask good questions, but that is hard to do. It is also potentially very obnoxious to reply to a question with "No, no. Your question is actually rather silly. You would have done better to ask, for instance,...." so I don't do that very often. Sometimes I try to model good behavior by including in my answers various perturbations of the question (sometimes along with answers, sometimes not) which I think are much "better". I would be interested in suggestions about how to do more in this regard.

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    $\begingroup$ Thank you for the answer, I appreciate what you're saying. But I think you misunderstand what I mean by good and bad questions (or I don't understand the connection): By a good question I mean "I'm trying to integrate this function and have tried such and such methods but nothing works, could someone please give me a hint?", by a bad one I mean "Integrate such and such." With these definitions, asking good questions has nothing to do with skill, but with courtesy. I mean, don't park your bike outside my garage and expect me to fix it, ring the bell and tell me what's wrong and you need help. $\endgroup$ Jul 26, 2013 at 2:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Erik: I think I probably did misunderstand your question, or at least I interpreted it in a way that fit into a rant I wanted to make. $\endgroup$ Jul 26, 2013 at 3:03
  • $\begingroup$ Anecdote about Weil is hilarious! By the way, there is MO thread that addresses this particular phenomenon. $\endgroup$
    – Prism
    Jul 26, 2013 at 21:23
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    $\begingroup$ "and they are really trying to exploit this site (in a good way; others might say "utilize", but I hate that word)" … what about use? $\endgroup$
    – celtschk
    Jul 30, 2013 at 18:31
  • $\begingroup$ So I wonder: how can one go about improving their skill at this very important skill? Especially when you say it is so "underemphasized". And, hard as it may be to teach, if "most" are not learning it sufficiently (you say yours is "better than most" -- is there an implication that what "most" have is inadequate?), then there's clearly something wrong in how research math skills (perhaps good research skills in general?) are being taught, no? I.e. somebody needs to teach it. $\endgroup$ Aug 3, 2013 at 6:59
  • $\begingroup$ @mike4ty4: No, I did not mean to imply that "most" people (whatever set we are ranging over) are inadequate there. You should rather interpret the statement as one of personal hubris. But could we do more to teach this kind of skill? Yes. Are some people trying to do so? Yes. I am, for instance (not just here...). And there are others. $\endgroup$ Aug 4, 2013 at 9:45

how can they have so good reputation? How is that possible?

If you click any user's display name, you will find their profile page, with the complete list of questions and answers, sortable by score. This will tell you exactly* how they acquired their reputation.

(*) Technically speaking, reputation is also acquired from suggested edits, bounties, accepting answers, and SE association bonus. But upvotes on answers and questions are the primary source of it.

Am I a stern individual who think these people should have their questions massively down-voted?

It is certainly your right to think that some questions should be downvoted. When/if you acquire 125 points, you'll be able to vote on questions either way, as you see fit.

It seems unreasonable to me that the same person would ask good questions sometimes and crap questions other times.

It happens, though. Both here and in Real World.


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