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I seem to have gotten into a minor argument in the comments of this question. My position is that this question is too broad as written and that the relevant Wikipedia articles already constitute a thorough answer both to the question of "what is X?" and the question of "where can I learn more about X?"

If the OP had been more specific either about something that confused him in the Wikipedia articles or about something he was looking for in references (physical intuition, for example), that would have been fine. But I think allowing a question as broad as this question in its current form is unproductive.

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Like Qiaochu, I don't think the question linked was a very good question. I agree with T. that we should not categorically reject "What is X" questions, but in this particular case even mentioning some more detailed motivation ("I am asking this question because i am finding them everywhere." Where is this everywhere?) or a better description of what resources he has consulted and why they were unsatisfactory would make it much easier to target the answer to the questioner.

I think it can be frustrating to have written a long answer only to find out one mis-judged the mathematical sophistication of the questioner and ended up posting something that is either completely trivial for the person who asked the question or went completely over his head.

(I also share some of Pete's misgivings about the comments written by Rajesh D. But he did make one interesting point: for a relatively new user to the Math.SE culture, the fact that we encourage "constructive criticism" of questions [through down-votes and simultaneously suggesting improvements] may seem bizarre. Perhaps this point should be better explained in the FAQ?)

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    $\begingroup$ On MathOverflow, there have been a lot of people confused when their questions were closed (especially when they were mathematicians). . $\endgroup$ – Akhil Mathew Dec 2 '10 at 8:06
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Dear Qiaochu,

I think you are blameless in this matter. I believe that some of user Rajesh D's comments are borderline inappropriate: especially, accusing someone (i.e., you) on a Q&A site of "knowing everything" is just bizarre, and it seems ungracious when this person (along with many others, including me) has spent time in the past giving correct, helpful, patient answers to this user's questions.

It may be worth a moderator's time to examine this user's recent comments and consider contacting him privately.

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    $\begingroup$ I think we need a slogan like "hard users make hard cases". There will be particular users who stress the system but relying on special-case interventions and policies as the fix seems less useful than generic structural adjustments, the need for which we learn from the high stress cases. For example, I would much rather see an [exposition-request] tag than a policy on what-is-X, or determinations of how much questioners "should" have been able to extract from Wikipedia before posting. $\endgroup$ – T.. Nov 30 '10 at 18:10
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My preference is for overly broad questions to be discouraged in the FAQ, and in a potential "How to Ask" page if we get one. Actually forbidding them (e.g., in the sense of having a policy on automatic closure) may not be practical, partly because there will not be agreement on where the line to overly broad is crossed or even universal agreement that such questions are inappropriate here. However, if such questions are explicitly discouraged in the FAQ along with some description of what constitutes an "overly broad" question, it should at least cut down on the amount of explanation and discussion required in the comments.

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Content restrictions on questions that are clearly mathematics-related would only encumber the site. A string of directives such as (e.g.) "what is X (forbidden)"; "algebra homework: ALLOW"; "statistics from newspaper: DENY"; "research: redirect to MathOverflow" -- seems to be very dependent on the preferences of a small sample of the user population at a given time, and the population itself changes. The more invariant criterion is whether the question pertains to mathematics, or has some mathematical content. If so, that should be enough.

If too many what-is-X questions appear, and the rating mechanisms cannot keep pace (or be improved), there are always objective tags that could be applied and are computable from the question, such as [exposition-request]. If there is nothing objectively wrong with the question, and ratings don't limit its visibility, maybe there is no problem.

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    $\begingroup$ I guess "policy" was the wrong word. I just want to know if people agree with me that such questions should be discouraged, whether that discouragement take place formally or informally. $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Nov 30 '10 at 17:52
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    $\begingroup$ Understood. The words "policy" and "allowing a question" suggested a formal approach. I like the idea of structural discouragement using tags, or rating questions along additional dimensions beyond the overall like-or-dislike axis. $\endgroup$ – T.. Nov 30 '10 at 18:15
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(EDITED IN LIGHT OF COMMENTS BELOW)

I think that one of the things that makes math-SE so special is that mathematicians of many levels of experience are welcomed.

It's really important to me that we welcome people like Rajesh to our math-SE community, and unless a poster demonstrates clear "troll" behavior and will not change this behavior, we should work with them on an individual basis. I personally can understand his confusion, it reminds me of myself as an undergraduate; but this is clearly a poorly stated question. I think "What is X" or "where can I learn about X" is a standard novice type question, and in and of itself I do not believe this should be grounds for closing a question.

This question is not only about "what is X" questions, it's also about how to deal with a person who takes constructive criticism personally, and I think it's good for the community to close poorly stated questions and continue to give tough critical comments, these types of comments are more valuable for a student than trying to indulge their confusion, in my opinion.

I don't see any problem with a "what is X" question/a request for references, and I don't see that as the main issue which led to the contentious comments. The main problem that I see is that this question is overly broad, and should be divided into individual posts (for archiving purposes), and that he did not seem to do enough research on google/wiki.

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  • $\begingroup$ Dear Matt, could you link to the thread on MO in which you had the impression of being "kicked off"? While most mathematicians certainly don't want to be interrupted by questions of no interest to them while at work (which I think is the right context to view MO in), they wouldn't normally rudely throw someone out of their office. But the internet is a tricky place, when it comes to fine nuances in the tone. If you browse meta.MO, you will see that people do discuss, how to turn people away as politely as possible, without spending unreasonable amounts of time at it. $\endgroup$ – Alex B. Dec 4 '10 at 6:59
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    $\begingroup$ By the way, Qiaochu is not a professional, but an important part of the MO-community. More on topic: Qiaochu wrote "Why haven't you consulted the Wikipedia articles first" (emphasis added by me). He didn't turn the poster away, he just pointed out that he should have put it some work himself, before posting. I think that it's a very good idea to promote such a culture and it has nothing to do with discriminating against any level of knowledge. "Working with them on an individual basis" was precisely what Qiaochu tried (but alas failed at, due to the unresponsiveness of the poster). $\endgroup$ – Alex B. Dec 4 '10 at 7:04
  • $\begingroup$ @ Alex Bartel: Here is the link. The quote is "Matt, based on your history I think unfortunately MO is not the right place for the types of questions you have" I took this to heart and when I first came to math-SE I took a lot of advice from the user's on here and I suppose if I had the right question I am much better prepared to post it on MO. I think what Qiaochu did in this case was fine, I am trying to stress the need for a balance btwn being nice and being demanding teachers. $\endgroup$ – Matt Calhoun Dec 4 '10 at 8:00
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks! For some reason, the user search doesn't produce your account. I had a look at your attempts to post on MO and I would say that the reception you received was as courteous as they get. Most of your questions were even answered, despite people feeling that they didn't belong on MO. The comment that recommended you to come here was also polite. So I don't quite see how the MO community deserves your attribute of "distinctly unwelcoming". It's like if somebody asked a qn about psychology here and people politely directed him elsewhere, pointing out the faq, while also answering the qn. $\endgroup$ – Alex B. Dec 4 '10 at 8:16
  • $\begingroup$ I may have been too harsh in my characterization of MO, and I think you have made several very valid points about the comments I received, but to be honest that's how I feel emotionally about it! Just take a look at the front page of MO on any day and you will find closed questions that if asked on SE would receive a totally different response. Sometimes eager students like Rajesh will make posts like he did because they are enthusiastic, and I think it would hurt SE to obsess over rules with these types of users to the degree they do on MO. $\endgroup$ – Matt Calhoun Dec 4 '10 at 9:01
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    $\begingroup$ "Just take a look at the front page of MO on any day and you will find closed questions that if asked on SE would receive a totally different response." Indeed. That is a reflection on the inability of internet users to find out about the purpose of a site before contributing, and nothing else. That's not a reason for MO to change it's mission, since there are plenty of other sites around, e.g. this one. As a rational person, you should take more care to separate your emotions from the facts, especially when reciting the course of events and making possibly unjustified allegations. $\endgroup$ – Alex B. Dec 4 '10 at 9:11
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    $\begingroup$ Also, if by "obsess over rules" you mean Qiaochu's post, then that's yet another unjustified claim. To point out the obvious (that one should peruse the most obvious sources like google and wikipedia before requesting the personalised time and effort of people you don't know) is anything but to obsess over rules. Anyway, there was no rule quoted in the whole correspondence with Rajesh. $\endgroup$ – Alex B. Dec 4 '10 at 9:13
  • $\begingroup$ I fully support Qiaochu's (and others) response to Rajesh's post. I have tried to outline the reasons why I like his response: it is welcoming, informative, and also critical in an instructive way. I don't think we need a policy of rejecting "what is X" questions at all, because that is a common thing people will ask and I would consider that policy to be "rules obsessive". We should however have a policy of closing questions which ask too many things at the same time, simply for archiving purposes. $\endgroup$ – Matt Calhoun Dec 4 '10 at 9:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Matt Calhoun: I don't see any sense in which you were "kicked off of" MathOverflow. On the one hand, you still have three active accounts on that site. On the other hand, you point to a comment from a user (not a moderator or site administrator) suggesting that this site may not be a good match from you. That's a far cry from being kicked off the site. If I am not missing any factual information here, I would appreciate it if you would modify your answer so as not to make this claim. $\endgroup$ – Pete L. Clark Dec 4 '10 at 9:39
  • $\begingroup$ @Pete L. Clark: Edited, sorry to everyone if I offended you! I thought my reaction was a common one, so I was a little surprised by your comments and will not make these types of statements again. $\endgroup$ – Matt Calhoun Dec 4 '10 at 9:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Matt Calhoun: I'm not offended. I just think a distinction should be made between emotions/reactions and facts. I'm sorry if you felt as though you were kicked off MO, but that's not the same as it actually happening. Right? $\endgroup$ – Pete L. Clark Dec 4 '10 at 11:57
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    $\begingroup$ @Pete L. Clark@ I really regret making this post because I didn't want to get into this type of argument with anyone. You are right that I was not "kicked off" MO, and I realize now it was poor judgment of me to characterize these events that way (self ban I suppose is more accurate). I think closing a question and then engaging in a comment war can cause emotional reactions in people whether we like it or not; and I was trying to use my personal experience to make a point about how the way I was treated on MO left me with a negative experience, which I thought was relevant. $\endgroup$ – Matt Calhoun Dec 4 '10 at 15:22

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