I'm seeking input from this community with regard to a developing discussion over at Physics Stackexchange.
Yesterday one of our more notable users on Physics asked Have we lost the necessary critical mass of professional physicists? This put into words what I think a number of our older, higher-rep, expert users have sensed. In short, we are suffering from a dramatically decreasing signal-to-noise ratio.
These days there seem to be many low-level questions coming from people who don't really understand (or haven't thought about) what they are asking. My own observation is that they tend to fall into two categories:
- Pop-sci: people who read some pop-sci articles (fine), formulate some ideas based on them (great!), take their ideas a little too far (this is where things start to go wrong), and then develop deeply-seated yet flawed convictions about how Nature works. They ask questions, but pointing out how they are wrong just can't be done in a paragraph or two, if at all. Really they need to take physics courses, and they need to learn that while asking questions is great, one has to be patient when learning advanced subjects.
- Homework: students who bombard us with questions the moment they encounter any difficulty. They want answers, not understanding.
What's gone wrong
It seems that good, engaging physics questions are fewer and further between than ever before. To be clear, an engaging question for an expert doesn't have to be something the expert doesn't understand. Good questions are those that are fun to answer, those that provide insight to anyone who takes the time to write up a cogent explanation.
But if there is too much noise for each good question, being an active member of the community becomes a burden for the experts. This is especially true when "active" doesn't just mean "frequently answers questions," but also means "frequently goes through review queues, edits questions to improve quality, and provides comments and feedback to others to help improve the quality of posts."
Now, Physics has got the homework issue somewhat under control.1 But still one has to sift through a large amount of "I haven't thought about this much, but what's the answer?" questions to get to the good ones. Or worse yet, "I've asked this 5 times already in different forms, but I don't get the answer I expect, so I'm asking again." Many of the low-quality questions, moreover, are duplicates of things already asked.2
Where does Math come into this?
So here's what I want to know: How do the experts on this site put up with the noise? Math Stackexchange is much bigger than Physics, and it sees quite a lot of these questions that are more trouble than they're worth. Now I know there are experts here, but what I don't really know is how they find value in being members of the community. I see several possibilities:
- Experts here don't look for insight for themselves; that's what Math Overflow is for.
- The experts long ago grew too jaded to deal with editing, closing, or answering poor questions, and they just ignore them, letting them accumulate but not worrying about them.
- There is a decently sized population of users here that deal with keeping the site clean. They tirelessly look into review queues and make edits so others don't have to. This population is too small on Physics.3
- Math is so much more fun than physics, one can't help but enjoy answering any and all math questions, no matter how unwilling the OP is to learn.
So what do the experts here say? Are my guesses way off? One way or another, Physics seems to be growing, and I for one would be interested in knowing if/how Math dealt/deals with the same issues we seem to be facing.
1 We have a rather strict homework policy. If the OP can't do some work and bring to bear a conceptual issue, we close the question, and usually downvote it too. Still, closing these questions takes some work on the part of the community. On a related note, please don't migrate do-my-homework-for-me questions to Physics - we adamantly don't want them.
2 I, for one, can only get satisfaction from explaining cosmological expansion to those who haven't taken general relativity so many times before it simply becomes a chore.
3 On a related note, we are also looking into whether or not our high-rep users are exercising their powers for cleanup/moderation purposes.