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I notice that recently I have seen quite a lot of answers flagged as not an answer that are simply "not very good answers".

Either they are answers to soft questions that I and seemingly other people do not agree with, or they are answers to hard questions that are somehow vague or even wrong.

It is my impression that a wrong answer should not fall into the category "not an answer", but should be dealt with with comments and/or downvoting.

I know that we do not always take vote and flag description absolutely literally, therefore my questoin:

Do people agree that wrong answers should not be flagged "not an answer"?

Edited to add a recent example (that is, flagged as not an answer by someone): https://math.stackexchange.com/a/653578/9325

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    $\begingroup$ It's really hard to tell without examples. In general, wrong answers shouldn't be flagged as 'not an answer', of course. But flags on some very vague hints leading nowhere (like 'Q: how to prove FLT? A: maybe you should try induction by $n$') are, IMHO, valid (correct place for such ideas is comments section)... $\endgroup$ – Grigory M Jan 28 '14 at 13:39
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    $\begingroup$ It is a good time to remind people of our faq on flagging $\endgroup$ – Willie Wong Jan 28 '14 at 14:11
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    $\begingroup$ It may be important to highlight part of the text which describes the "not an answer" flag (emphasis added): »This was posted as an answer, but it does not attempt to answer the question. It should possibly be an edit, a comment, another question, or deleted altogether.« $\endgroup$ – user642796 Jan 28 '14 at 14:38
  • $\begingroup$ I have posed this question because the actions of other people in the review queue diverge from the quoted text. I was hoping that some of them would speak up so that we can discuss this issue. $\endgroup$ – Phira Jan 28 '14 at 17:42
  • $\begingroup$ I have added a recent example, but it was by no means the only one. $\endgroup$ – Phira Jan 28 '14 at 21:33
  • $\begingroup$ @Willie: That FAQ needs to be thoroughly revised. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Jan 28 '14 at 22:01
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    $\begingroup$ Phira, I was the one who set the initial flag on your example. And I admit being way too hasty about that. The answer was extremely late, and the question and its title have different contents. I didn't read the question (well, again) because I wrongly assumed that the title is coherent with the body of the question. To the title itself, this answer is indeed not an answer, but it does answer the body of the question. Two minutes after raising that flag I realized that I made a mistake. Alas, flags cannot (yet?) be retracted, so I am forced to live with this shameful memory. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Jan 28 '14 at 22:04
  • $\begingroup$ I must say my frequency of downvoting increased once I was exposed to the 10K review queues. Also my share of "disputed" flags soared because of the long standing issue with handling invalid flags. But I do appreciate the Moderators' diligence more than ever. $\endgroup$ – hardmath Feb 2 '14 at 17:21
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The important part is that the solution makes effort to address the question that was asked.

A wrong yet relevant solution is still an answer, it's just a wrong answer. Help others to notice the incorrectness of the answer with votes and comments.

Mistakes are not always anathema, they can be useful. "Good mistakes" with explanations about the error can provide almost as much utility as a correct answer.

The "not an answer" flag should be reserved for solutions with content that is anything but an attempt at answering (such as thank-you's, comments to other posters, sports discussions, flame wars, spam, and gibberish in general.) The message you get when a "not-an-answer" flag is rejected says something pretty much along these lines.

Of course, sometimes there is a little grey area on whether or not a solution addresses the question. Flag as you see fit on those. For example, an extremely vague hint (one which is so vague as to seem nearly irrelevant) sometimes deserves a "not an answer" flag.

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I think flagging answers as "not an answer" should be exclusively to report one of

  • Answers to comments / comments to answers
  • Answers which are "bad" versions of existing answers, i.e. where it is obvious that the answer wasn't posted to enhance other (existing) answers but just for the sake of posting an answer (whatever the authors incentive may be)

Wrong answers should be penalized with a downvote and an explaining comment to allow the author to react, for example by correcting his answer or chosing to remove it.

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The example you cite certainly does at least attempt to answer the question. It should not have been flagged, definitely not as "not an answer".

That said, the line between "not an answer" and "a very poor answer" can sometimes be hard to draw, especially in cases where the "answer" seems to be answering something other than the question asked.

For example, if a question asked, say:

"In how many different ways can $n$ distinct items be arranged in a circle?"

which of the following responses would you consider an "attempt to answer the question"?

  • "It's very cold here in Finland right now."

  • "Beetles are the most diverse taxonomic order among the insects."

  • "Every continuous function from $[a,b]$ to $\mathbb R$ is bounded."

  • "An $n$-element set has $2^n$ distinct subsets."

  • "This problem can be solved using elementary combinatorics."

  • "The number of permutations of an $n$-element set is $n!$."

(Please disregard the terseness of the responses, as I wanted to keep them short for this example.)

All of those statements are true. None of them answer the question, although the last one gets close. (The correct answer, of course, is $n!/n = (n-1)!$.) Arguably, though, all of them could be attempts to answer the question — some of them would just have to be very confused or misguided attempts, if so.

On the other hand, given the current phrasing of the "not an answer" close reason, I can easily see someone flagging at least any of the first four answers above as "not an answer", because they all appear to be attempts to answer some other question than the one that was asked. Sure, those of us "in the know" might agree that such answers would be better downvoted or flagged as "very low quality" instead, but it's hard to see an NAA flag on such an answer as wrong, given that the flag description seems to support it.

(Conversely, many people who are used to reading "not an answer" as "should've been a comment" might support an NAA flag on the second-to-last answer above, even though its hypothetical — and somewhat dismissive — author might well have felt that it was all the answer the question needed.)

The fundamental problem is that there's no clear consensus on what the "not an answer" flag actually should be used for. The flag dialog says one thing, folks on meta say another thing, or possibly several contradictory things. I've even seen ♦ moderators seriously suggest that the NAA flag should not be used at all: arguably, if you feel an answer should be deleted, it's better to flag it as "very low quality", whereas if you think it should be kept but turned into a comment, it's better to use the "other" option.

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    $\begingroup$ I somewhat disagree with the MSO link against NAA flags. I think that it is a good thing if the moderators get plenty of input, rather than not getting input. By NAA flagging an answer which I think should be a comment, I expose it to plenty of other users that can either agree with me, and support that flag, or disagree with me. This, I think, can help the moderator navigate the gray areas of comment-like answers. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Jan 30 '14 at 18:55
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I agree that wrong answers should be penalized with a downvote, and I even extend this to @AlexR's "bad versions of existing answers". Often the offending one-liner sort-of answers that tempt one to use a flag NAA (not-an-answer) rather than downvote are posted by new users, with minimum rep, who either don't know the protocol or won't care about downvotes. In such cases a flag VLQ (very-low-quality) may be my preference.

Generally I give these new users/first-time posts the benefit of a Comment that assumes they were trying to Answer, and if not responded to, the downvote.

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