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I'm seeking input from this community with regard to a developing discussion over at Physics Stackexchange.

Background

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:

  1. Experts here don't look for insight for themselves; that's what Math Overflow is for.
  2. 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.
  3. 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
  4. 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.

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    $\begingroup$ Some things related to the question about dealing with the noise might be found in the following question and in some of the questions linked there: What can users do to improve their Math.SE experience?. $\endgroup$ – Martin Sleziak Oct 29 '13 at 6:21
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    $\begingroup$ It might be worthwhile to ask a similar question on MathOverflow's meta, since the intended purpose of MO is similar to that of physics.SE. If physics.SE is being bombarded with homework and other non-research-related questions, it might be time to investigate the possibility of a SE site for lower level questions. (Of course I cannot say whether the SE folks would accept such a proposal, but it doesn't hurt to try.) The MO old-guard should be able to shed some light on how the MO experience has changed since the creation of math.SE. $\endgroup$ – user642796 Oct 29 '13 at 9:31
  • $\begingroup$ @Arthur: If I recall correctly there was such attempt, and it failed. Theoretical Physics.SE or something like that. I might be mistaken (and I'm unable to dig through the Area 51 archives now). $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Oct 29 '13 at 10:21
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    $\begingroup$ @AsafKaragila Theoretical Physics SE did not fail, it was a very nice dedicated high-quality community with great content. The only two problems were that the SE network is not intended to support such smaller communities (even though their quality is very good), and maybe people on TP.SE should have considered to lower the bar to ask a bit (to advanced grad students for example) as the lack of new questions has alway been the weakest point. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Oct 29 '13 at 10:37
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    $\begingroup$ @Dilaton, I meant failed as a shorthand "failed to go beyond beta stage". $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Oct 29 '13 at 10:39
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    $\begingroup$ @AsafKaragila some people are therefore trying to start a new Physics Overflow outside the SE network. An Area51 proposal to start a Popular Science Stack Exchange site exists too. For both things, some work is still needed. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Oct 29 '13 at 10:42
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    $\begingroup$ @ArthurFischer I exactly agree with you. In my personal opinion, if Physics SE really cares about experts being there, it should rather look at MathOverflow who (at least until now) succeeds in doing this and take their way to moderate a high-level site as an example, instead of trying to imitate MSO and the Stack Exchange Trilogy sites. Concerning the (at least originally) targetted audience, topic, and kind of content it is much closer to MathOverflow. And Eduardo and Anna are exactly right too. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Oct 29 '13 at 10:53
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    $\begingroup$ I only really look at five or so tags, each of which has somewhere around a ninety/ten BS to real questions ratio. Among those ten percent, I find a question that I'm really interested in answering about once a week, which is usually hard enough to sate my rep jimmies till the next one pops up. The rest of the time I moderate. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Gruber Oct 29 '13 at 23:51
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    $\begingroup$ I think this is an issue on this site. $\endgroup$ – copper.hat Nov 1 '13 at 6:10
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    $\begingroup$ "Math is so much more fun than physics" - Obviously everyone here is slightly biased, but is this true for most people?(including physicists) $\endgroup$ – user85798 Nov 1 '13 at 9:11
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    $\begingroup$ There has been mounting strain here around this problem too, in the past two years. We've lost a few contributors for that reason, but to be honest, even if we retained them, the signal to noise ratio would probably still suffer. Students ability to ask poor questions will probably always outstrip the production of good solutions. Those of us who refuse to enable this behavior try to make use of all channels to give feedback to the user. $\endgroup$ – rschwieb Apr 23 '15 at 10:10

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I’ve a rather wider view of what constitutes a good (or at least acceptable) question, so I don’t have your problem. Answering an interesting question in general or set-theoretic topology that forces me to hunt up and read (or at least skim) a relatively recent paper or two provides one kind of pleasure; offering a good hint or explanation to someone who’s asked a low-level question provides another. I value both: I realized decades ago that I’m a teacher first and a mathematician second. I also have a higher opinion than you seem to have of posters’ willingness to learn: I’ve found that even those who post quite routine questions with no indication of work done can often be drawn into productive dialogue if given a push in the right direction.

If anything, I have the opposite problem: my immediate reaction to your description of Physics.SE policies, practice, and attitudes is that they would very likely push me away. Similarly, if Math.SE were a Junior MathOverflow, it would be much less attractive to me.

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At some point this site seemed to become deluged with low-quality questions and it became significantly less fun for me to participate. Since then, however, I discovered that filtering out a few tags (homework, calculus) and favoriting a few others (like algebraic topology) significantly improved my experience. One drawback is that I do miss interesting questions and my answers have become almost exclusively confined to my favorited tags.

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    $\begingroup$ This is my solution as well. As for the interesting questions outside my favorite tags, one way of exploring is to look at the top questions this week tab. This is going to be biased towards more elementary, general-audience questions, but selective filtering (I have calculus filtered out, as it's not to my taste) helps a lot; it's through this tab that I found a few delightful questions like this one this week. e: I only just noticed you wrote this two years ago. Hopefully this comment is still of use. $\endgroup$ – user98602 Apr 21 '15 at 5:59
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Mathematics is a very broad field. I'm a practicing research scientist and therefore an expert in some areas of applied math, but know next to nothing about e.g. algebraic topology. Some of the elementary questions posted here are therefore interesting to me and good practice, even though I'm sure they would be boring to domain experts.

Other times questions are extremely elementary, but so easy to answer that I figure I might as well spend the 2-3 minutes to help someone out. Questions that look boring and like they will take a lot of work to understand/answer I simply ignore.

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    $\begingroup$ +1: I like your perspective. $\endgroup$ – copper.hat Nov 1 '13 at 6:15
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How do the experts on this site put up with the noise?

I notice that this thread is missing an important category of answer:

They don't.

There are experts leaving math.stackexchange too.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for updating this question with a new answer. It looks like the others are some 2 years old and don't really reflect the more recently evolving attitudes. $\endgroup$ – rschwieb Apr 23 '15 at 16:47
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I am by no means an expert compared to some of the others here. Yet, for the limited problems I have faced regarding:

How do the experts on this site put up with the noise?

What I have done is to ignore a large number of low-level tags, such as calculus, algebra-precalculus, induction, matrices, limit, puzzle, fake-proofs, recreational-mathematics, trigonometry and so on.

In addition, I have ignored a large number of more advanced tags too, about very fine and interesting topics in mathematics, but which are for me right now uninteresting. These include linear-algebra, complex-analysis, computational-complexity, abstract-algebra, statistics, etc., etc.. This will of course vary for others.

All in all, I have almost 150 ignored tags and it works fantastically for me. True, some of the interesting stuff may be lost; but I get to focus on precisely what I want.

Ignoring a tag is only a matter of hovering the mouse over it when it appears with some question, finding the star in the popup box and clicking it twice. Do this daily and it builds up cumulatively and your experience will get exponentially more focused.

You can also start favoriting some tags. They will be displayed in highlighted boxes.

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    $\begingroup$ If you have favorited some tags, you can easily display only questions from favorited tags using filtered questions. (The link to filtered questions is available on your network profile.) This displays questions from your favorite tags from all SE sites. $\endgroup$ – Martin Sleziak Oct 29 '13 at 9:10
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    $\begingroup$ If you're ignoring abstract algebra, how is it that your most upvoted tag is abstract algebra? $\endgroup$ – Abhimanyu Pallavi Sudhir Oct 29 '13 at 10:12
  • $\begingroup$ @DImension10AbhimanyuPS: I used to be active in abstract-algebra, but later added it to ignored tags in order to focus more on more specialized topics like algebraic geometry, which I want to understand in depth. $\endgroup$ – user96815 Oct 29 '13 at 10:47
  • $\begingroup$ Focusing on what is interesting does only work, if there are still new interesting questions (and answers to older corresponding questions) coming in. Otherwise, filtering away the things not of interest will leave one with an empty set, which is among the problems Physics faces ... $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Oct 29 '13 at 11:22
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Sometimes I vote to close questions for being too elementary. It doesn't happen very often, but it does happen. The recent pushes to reduce homework questions and PSQs have given me more excuses to do this because the questions I would want to close are often of sufficiently low quality to warrant one of the new closure reasons. Those users who have also jumped on this new bandwagon sometimes help with their vote as well. Though it may not have been explicitly said, I suspect some of the root motivation for the discussions surrounding PSQs is a desire to get rid of elementary questions.

I would gladly welcome a "too elementary" closure reason, or a "go back and think about it some more" closure reason, or really a "you can probably find a video on youtube to help you" closure reason.

I realize this behavior isn't very productive. The volume and influx of new users and elementary questions is just too high for a few closures here and there to make a difference. I would love for this forum to be more expert-focused, but from what I have seen all proposals to do something about it haven't made it past stage zero here on meta. Some users ferociously defend their right to explain the value of $0!$ and evaluate limits using L'Hopital's rule.

For lack of a better option I will probably continue to cast closure votes on elementary questions.

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    $\begingroup$ I, for one, don't have a problem with elementary questions -- as long as the OP is trying to learn, I gladly welcome (and answer) them. It's the "pls answer me homework fast!!1!" sentiment among so many of them that I resent. $\endgroup$ – Lord_Farin Oct 29 '13 at 18:29
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    $\begingroup$ Right, I didn't mean to imply that everyone closing low-quality questions shared my motivation. I've edited my wording to clarify. $\endgroup$ – Antonio Vargas Oct 29 '13 at 18:32
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    $\begingroup$ I usually don't engage with the most elementary questions (basic arithmetic through a first algebra class) for two reasons: 1. I don't find most of them interesting and 2. I don't really think an online math Q&A site is the best way for such students to get help. I think they should seek help from their teachers if possible, and if not, try to develop a relationship with a tutor. I think it might be possible to do such things in chat, but unfortunately chat requires a certain amount of reputation to enter. That said, I don't vote to close them if they show the requisite effort. $\endgroup$ – dfeuer Oct 31 '13 at 23:59
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    $\begingroup$ After some more thought I think I can summarize my desires more clearly: I want to see more questions that aren't mundane textbook exercises. I want to see questions I haven't seen before a hundred times. $\endgroup$ – Antonio Vargas Nov 1 '13 at 0:45
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with this post. Very close to my own thinking/feelings. $\endgroup$ – Jyrki Lahtonen Nov 2 '13 at 18:13
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    $\begingroup$ -1 for wanting to direct people to Youtube videos. Writing has been invented; it is insulting to demand of people that they waste their time hearing some guy recite something that one would have been able to read in a tenth of the time if the guy had just bothered to write it down instead of pretending that his audience is illiterate! $\endgroup$ – Henning Makholm Nov 7 '13 at 12:46
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    $\begingroup$ And what is wrong with L'Hospital's rule, or with explaining what the value of $0!$ is? $\endgroup$ – Henning Makholm Nov 7 '13 at 12:46
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    $\begingroup$ @HenningMakholm, ...or Paul's Online Math Notes or anything Paul links... $\endgroup$ – Antonio Vargas Nov 7 '13 at 13:10
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Chris, first of all kudos for raising this issue. In my own limited experience (I can hardly find enough time to participate here though I wish I could do more), one can more or less immediately predict what is about to transpire. The posers, for the most part, fall into two categories: those who have made honest attempts toward progress on what they are asking, and those who are passing the burden of doing homework onto the experts. More often than not, the latter group reveals its intentions with a certain unpleasant type of rudeness. I've seen statements like "Prove this." and "Show all details." as if the experts are slaves to their cause. This is usually accompanied with an ingracious disappearing act. I don't believe such behavior should ever be rewarded, yet there seems to be an intrinsic structure to SE that encourages competition to do so. I also see many comments that are far more valuable to the student than the actual answers. I applaud those who make comments that begin with "Hint" or something along the lines of "Have you considered ... ?". At the same time, I have renewed faith everytime I see a student who supports his/her question with a serious attempt to solve it, and is only looking for a way past a particular stumbimg block. To me, this is what the site should be about. In short, I think much of the noise here is being generated due to an unhealthy desire to "satisfy" and "comply". Until this problem is somehow addressed, many students will keep coming here, not to learn but just to take advantage.

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    $\begingroup$ If a poser sticks around to ask for clarification, that's pretty much a (+1) from me, and a vote to reopen if applicable. $\endgroup$ – The Chaz 2.0 Nov 1 '13 at 1:46
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    $\begingroup$ Of course you’ve seen Prove so-and-so and Show all details in questions: these questions are pretty clearly quoted verbatim, closely paraphrased, or straightforwardly translated from a foreign original. Your interpretation of this as rudeness is unreasonable. To many students this is the language in which mathematics questions are asked. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Nov 1 '13 at 16:15
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    $\begingroup$ @Brian, sorry but that's not what I'm referring to ... at all. $\endgroup$ – Doc Nov 2 '13 at 1:22
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    $\begingroup$ I don’t know how else the sentence I’ve seen statements like ... can be interpreted. Perhaps you could clarify. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Nov 2 '13 at 3:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Brian, I'm fully okay with the imperative voice when used in the context of a particular problem statement. I also understand that many OP's are stating textbook problems verbatim, and this is actually good practice in that it ensures accuracy. But I think we can all recognize when statements such as "Prove it" or "Show details" are not of this garden variety. I think we can all agree that no problem statement would ever include a remark like "Prove this by Nov 3rd." I have to admit that my answer failed miserably to address this distinction, so I'm grateful that you pointed it out to me. $\endgroup$ – Doc Nov 2 '13 at 15:48
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    $\begingroup$ @Doc: Ah, okay. I tend to give show details the benefit of the doubt as being possibly part of the statement of the assignment. The ones that mention time limits I simply ignore; whether it’s cluelessness or desperation, I feel a little sorry for them. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Nov 3 '13 at 6:02
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I use three layers of defense against noise:

  1. A filter which shows only the questions that have one of my favorite tags.
  2. Out of those, I look only on the questions with no answer. (The filter has a tab for those).
  3. Out of those, I skip the most recent questions (top of the first page of result).

This leaves me with questions that were on the site for at least 24 hours, have one of my tags, and have no answer yet. As a side effect, I sometimes answer a question not because it's particularly interesting, but because answering is the easiest way to get it off my list.


As an aside, I suspect that more expert users could be retained if SE made it easier for users to adjust their level of involvement. Something like this:

By the scope

☐ show all questions
☐ except those with ignored tags
☑ only those with favorite tags 

By the degree of completeness

☐ all questions
☐ without an accepted answer
☑ without an upvoted or accepted answer
☐ without answers 
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    $\begingroup$ I downvoted this. You are, of course, entitled to take whatever measure you see fit to protect yourself from the noise. I fully support that. I just very strongly oppose spreading the idea of ignoring threads with upvoted answers. My timezone means that I cannot answer questions in US prime time. So when I wake up there usually already are upvoted (even if not complete) answers on many a question, where I feel I have something interesting to add. So if this practice became widespread, then my answers would not be read by anyone. $\endgroup$ – Jyrki Lahtonen Nov 2 '13 at 18:27
  • $\begingroup$ It's not all gloom though. I frequent some low traffic tags, where people are used to waiting a full day or two. $\endgroup$ – Jyrki Lahtonen Nov 2 '13 at 18:32
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Wow, I got a lot of downvotes there... Seriously guys every time somebody asks a homework question on math.se people jump on it, because we all love doing homework problems. Our love of doing people's homework for them is a backbone of this site. I really don't think the same thing is true in physics.

If I had to guess I'd say that at least 50% of the activity here is generated on questions that are clearly homework problems.

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    $\begingroup$ The backbone of this site... More like flies around certain byproducts. $\endgroup$ – user147263 Apr 24 '15 at 4:29
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    $\begingroup$ What type of miserable **** would want to do someone else's homework for them? $\endgroup$ – apnorton Apr 24 '15 at 7:24
  • $\begingroup$ I think even in the most egregious examples of this you're confusing 'eager to do people's homework for them' with 'eager to teach'. Many of the people here love teaching mathematics and will take opportunities to do so. $\endgroup$ – Steven Stadnicki Apr 25 '15 at 16:24
  • $\begingroup$ When I answer people's homework questions, it's because I like doing the problems. Math problem solving clubs are common in the real world - people just like doing these things. You don't have groups of people getting together to do physics homework problems just for fun. $\endgroup$ – Sam Clearman Apr 25 '15 at 19:12
  • $\begingroup$ Why do you think the IMO is so much better known than the IPhO? Why do you think there's no physics equivalent to the Putnam? Etc $\endgroup$ – Sam Clearman Apr 25 '15 at 20:21
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There might be some truth to option 4. I think most people get into physics because they are trying to understand / discover things about the universe. On the other hand, most (or at least, many) people get into math basically because they like doing homework problems.

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    $\begingroup$ "most (or at least, many) people get into math basically because they like doing homework problems" Riiight. $\endgroup$ – Najib Idrissi Apr 21 '15 at 7:24

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