# Etiquette when answering questions from less math-oriented users

(Note: I wanted to write this after reading the discussion here about hostility towards popular questions from people with little experience in math).

The SE community is great but I would like to discuss an aspect with the answers to some questions that I have asked here, and to hear your opinion about it. I will take as an example my last question which struck me in particular. In this question, I wrote a passage about my understanding of Gödel's incompleteness theorems regarding the axiomatization of Euclidean geometry. As it turns out, my understanding had serious flaws, but the comments I got were not all enlightening. An established user with reputation over 100k, who has since deleted all his comments, said that what I wrote could just as well imply that Gödel's incompleteness theorems were equivalent to "delicious pickled gherkins". After trying to seek further clarification, his resulting comments were not much more helpful, and culminated with the following:

I have no idea why you would believe anything like that. If that was the case then the incompleteness theorem would not state that the theory has to be a first-order theory. Why on earth did we waste all this time for eight decades focusing only on first-order theories when it comes to GIT? Or maybe, just maybe, it has a lot to do with the logic that you are working in? I don't know. You tell me.

I take this up because I see experienced mathematicians make comments such as this sometimes. Is it really necessary to say things like "I have no idea why you would believe anything like that"? When I try to explain things to people who have less experience than me and they say something inaccurate, I try to make neutral statements such as "This is not entirely true because of..." (or perhaps better: "you made a mistake regarding..."). I think that doing so could lead to more friendly discourse where more learning takes place, and could therefore be beneficial in this community.

Another user answered my question "Is this accurate?" with the following:

Clearly not. Your interpretation of Gödel's completeness is very specious. This theorem only says : any first-order consistent theory admits a model.

This is completely correct as I later learned. However, I question the uses of words like "clearly", "obviously", etc, on websites such as SE. It is not clear to me that my understanding is wrong, otherwise I would not have posted the question. So "clearly" to whom? The person who answers the question? The general public? I think those are value-laden words that could often be avoided, but they are used sometimes on math-SE in answers to questions. I would like to hear your opinion about the use of such words.

(On a side node, another user later wrote an answer to my question that is, in my opinion, an ideal way to answer questions of this type. I think it's a good idea to read it for comparison to the above.)

• I think "I have no idea why you would believe anything like that" is a valid way to express that one has no idea why someone believes something. Giving an actual answer to the question can help to understand where the confusion comes from, which might be very useful or even clear everything up by itself. If you would have answered something like "I read this and this and interpreted it this way", you might have received an answer faster. It is easier to find the weak link in an invalid chain of reasoning knowing what that chain of reasoning is. Feb 24, 2014 at 9:44
• @MichaelGreinecker I agree that it can be helpful to ask why a questioner believes something. But then I think it may be better to ask simply "Why do you believe so?" or "How did you derive that?" if knowing that could help with giving a more meaningful answer. In this particular case, it seems clear to me by context that this is not the case; the answerer is expressing unnecessary frustration at me.
– Sid
Feb 24, 2014 at 10:54
• I'm certainly in favour of people avoiding the words "clearly" and "obviously" (including in books and papers!). If the statement really is clear, it can just be stated, without its clarity needing to be asserted!
– mdp
Feb 24, 2014 at 11:41
• @MattPressland I disagree. If I write "An X-space is clearly a Y-space", people know they should be able to figure the connection out with a little bit of thinking. If I write "An X-space is a Y-space", people might think there is a deep theorem connecting the two they are ignorant about. Feb 24, 2014 at 12:04
• @MichaelGreinecker You have a point - I do think of it as a rule of thumb, that can be broken with a good enough reason. I think one reason I find it frustrating is that I often see "clearly" used in your second case, because the author thought everybody should be aware of the deep theorem!
– mdp
Feb 24, 2014 at 12:08
• I deleted my comments because I was too tired to deal with you and with that discussion. I stand behind my comments, and much like you were offended by my comments (enough to write this long meta thread on the topic), I was actually greatly annoyed by your insistence that you're not mistaken. Apparently I misunderstood you; and you mistook my sarcasm as genuine insults. I could have equally written a long post about etiquette when the people you try to help insist that you're being unhelpful. I'm sorry, my energy reserves are reserved to people I don't feel attack me for trying to help them.
– Asaf Karagila Mod
Feb 24, 2014 at 12:17
• Hi @AsafKaragila. I wanted to write a thread on meta about this topic for a long time before I posted that previous question and seeing that other thread on meta encouraged me to do so. I don't regret doing so due to the positive reaction of the community. I wish you peace and goodwill in your future activity on StackExchange.
– Sid
Feb 24, 2014 at 15:24
• There is going to be some general disagreement about language. However, in my opinion, from a pedagogical standpoint one should never use the word clearly to refer to something their student or in this case question writer has explicitly stated he/she is unclear about. Feb 25, 2014 at 5:04
• @MHH: That is clearly true. Feb 25, 2014 at 7:42
• I think it's worth noticing that the “Clearly not. Your interpretation of Gödel's completeness is very specious.” answer was downvoted and criticized in comments. In that case at least, the community did its job, and I think that's the best one can reasonably expect.
– MJD
Feb 25, 2014 at 19:59
• @MJD That's true, but I think it was the result of this post. At any rate I'm really glad to see the response, SE seems like a good community.
– Sid
Feb 25, 2014 at 20:07
• @AsafKaragila It is particularly easy when you try to misunderstand.
– Sid
Feb 26, 2014 at 10:18
• @Sid It may not be a viable option for you but my solution to this particular user was to stop asking questions on SE in any one of the following tags: set-theory, elementary-set-theory, axiom-of-choice. Feb 26, 2014 at 13:27
• @AsafKaragila I don't recall ever disagreeing with a position you have taken, including in this situation, it's just that I don't think you have made yourself look very good. If it's too frustrating to deal with a student, my advice is just leave them alone and let them work things out without your help. Feb 26, 2014 at 16:06
• @MattC: And that is why I deleted my comments. But the meta thread felt to me as if it is full of personal undertones against me.
– Asaf Karagila Mod
Feb 26, 2014 at 16:49

It is impossible to give an opinion on deleted comments.

In general, I think that it would be good if everyone also participated at another stackexchange site where they are beginners and actually want the answer because you could not answer it yourself after quite some time. It is a very enlightening experience to try hard to formulate an understandable question and have it closed because of "lack of effort" or "lack of context" or "generates too many answers" when none of the answers answers your question.

• This seems to me like a great idea to gain a better perspective.
– Sid
Feb 26, 2014 at 17:33
• @Phira : I am not clear on what you are saying. Are you saying that it would be good for some people to post at a site where they don't know the answers, to develop empathy for the beginner at sites where they do have a lot of answers?
– eric
Feb 27, 2014 at 23:21
• The final sentence is gold. +1.
– zyx
Feb 28, 2014 at 5:17

Etiquette demands we be civil interlocutors. The level of respect and charity granted here should be elevated compared to the combox at a newsfeed site or comment on a Youtube video. The use of the 'it is obvious that' operator, when used in response to someone for whom it is not at all obvious, is a condescending affectation that only reflects poorly on those who wield it.

I find that people that really know their material well do not act like that. They know it well enough to understand people's confusion, and astutely clear up that confusion with an illuminating top-notch answer that makes this site so great. We have many such superlative answers at this site.

• This is not an answer. This is a rant.
– Asaf Karagila Mod
Feb 26, 2014 at 6:52
• @Asaf the topic is etiquette. This is not a programming question with a clear-cut answer, but about civility of discourse (i.e., etiquette). In the light of day, I am very happy with my answer, and have seen enough people instantiate exactly what I am talking about here, who should be embarassed, that I just hope they see this thread and consider it seriously/reflectively/humbly/maturely as humans, and not defensively/reactively/childishly. I have no horse in this race, incidentally. I have been both people.
– eric
Feb 26, 2014 at 17:25
• I don't have any horses (although I once had a horse burger... stringy, but not bad). I just said that your answer is less on topic if etiquette, and more about a rant regarding behavior of some people. I should also say that what you say is wrong, but I have no interest or intention to get into that discussion.
– Asaf Karagila Mod
Feb 26, 2014 at 17:31
• @Asaf you are taking it too personally. Step away. :)
– eric
Feb 26, 2014 at 17:39
• I am not taking your answer personally, I am making an observation and posting a comment.
– Asaf Karagila Mod
Feb 26, 2014 at 17:51
• You're both right, to some extent. Truce? =) Feb 27, 2014 at 12:28
• @AsafKaragila It certainly seems like you are taking it personally, but regardless of that discussion, I don't think it is helpful to say that someone is wrong without clarifying. If you have no interest in explaining why, comments like that are best avoided.
– Sid
Feb 27, 2014 at 14:29
• By and large I agree with the spirit of this response, but I think the choice of language ("sophomoric Peacocks") clashes with the call to civility in the first sentence.
– user64687
Feb 27, 2014 at 16:07
• @Sid: I took your question personally (and how could I not? have you read it?), but this answer, despite its backhanded insult, I didn't take personally. I don't see the benefit of your comment here. Wasn't it enough to have a public trial in the main thread, now you feel the need to throw stones at me as well?
– Asaf Karagila Mod
Feb 27, 2014 at 16:36
• @Sid, there is a standing policy on MO that anonymous users not participate in divisive discussions. I think this wise. I cannot directly volunteer Asaf in this regard, but how about if you email me and explain what you want, without the distorting lens of fifty other people watching? Feb 27, 2014 at 21:13
• Hi @WillJagy. What would you like to discuss in email? I think that I have got my point across here pretty well and I have nothing more to add. Hopefully the result of the discussion here is that people will be more sympathetic to the perspective of inexperienced users, I like Phira's answer in particular.
– Sid
Feb 27, 2014 at 21:39
• @Sid, the opportunity is for you to see the viewpoints of others. Feb 27, 2014 at 21:48
• @AsalBeagDubh yes you are right the tone was a bit much (perhaps hypocritical to talk about condescending people as 'sophomoric Peacocks'). I will take out that bit.
– eric
Feb 27, 2014 at 23:22
• @Sid, sent you a beginning email; it may go to your spam folder, of course. Meanwhile, my profile shows how to find my email addresses, the gmail one is most useful. Feb 28, 2014 at 0:10
• Let's settle this over some gherkins. Feb 28, 2014 at 2:30

I'd like to offer an insight. Of course everyone, askers and answerers, should be nice. Treat everyone like you would if you were having a face-to-face conversation. This should be obvious to anyone in this forum.

However, there are instances where bluntness is good. Bluntness, not rudeness, even if it may be perceived that way. (We only have so much control over how other people perceive our conversation.) For example, consider a user that is looking for a full-blown tutoring session, even if it is clear that this user is doing "work" according to the standards** of this site. (Take, for example, this conversation.) In this case, there is some point at which I feel the user needs to pay someone for the hand-holding (s)he is seeking. When I reach that point, I will tell the user that, well, at some point you have to think and connect the dots. How the user takes that is not my concern.

I have always said that the purpose of this site is to enjoy ourselves with the math we present each other. If there is no joy being felt, then at least one party is doing something wrong. So, if a "non-math" person comes here with a grade-related crisis expecting that one of us geniuses is going to fix everything for free, well...I have no trouble bringing daylight into that situation. In a nice way, of course.

BTW even though I have not seen Asaf's comments, I have sympathy for his position. He is much better at expressing gentle sarcasm than I am, yet it still gets classified as rudeness.

**[belly laugh]

• On a different network, someone had been answering my questions in great detail. I asked if he would like to discuss my project in a chatroom and he told me that charged \$50 dollars an hour for private tutoring. His reply was perfectly reasonable and I felt embarrassed for having even asked. Other users have been happy to "hold hands" with me and even explain things to me in private off the network for free. I have nothing but deep admiration for people like that, their involvement goes far beyond what you can expect (in fact, I think that any involvement with other people's work does).
– Sid
Feb 28, 2014 at 16:29
• @Sid: I'm glad you had those experiences. On the other hand, I do not pretend that I am here for anyone other than myself. I love solving these problems, and it's fantastic that other people happen to benefit. But when it is no longer fun, then life is too short. If others feel so altruistic, however, or just enjoy giving away services for free that they could get for money, then that's a personal decision as to how they spend their time. I view them as no better or worse than the other contributors here. Feb 28, 2014 at 16:34
• BTW, you might have a typo in that last sentence. It should be "though", I believe.
– Asaf Karagila Mod
Mar 1, 2014 at 20:03
• @AsafKaragila: yep, typo it is. Mar 1, 2014 at 20:11

When I try to explain things to people who have less experience than me and they say something inaccurate, I try to make neutral statements such as "This is not entirely true because of..." (or perhaps better: "you made a mistake regarding..."). I think that doing so could lead to more friendly discourse where more learning takes place, and could therefore be beneficial in this community.

That sounds like good advice to me. The help on What kind of behavior is expected of users? says "Be honest. Above all, be honest... Be nice... Be tolerant of others who may not know everything you know." Of course, sometimes what seems like honesty to one person might seem like intolerance to another.

I agree with the generalities of your post. But on some specifics regarding etiquette, I do not agree.

An established user with reputation over 100k, who has since deleted all his comments

I'm rarely comfortable with questions on meta that identify another user without first inviting that user to participate in a discussion on meta. And in particular, my view of the etiquette on stackexchange sites is that when someone deletes his comments, he has withdrawn them (for whatever reason) and that is the end of the matter.

By asking a question on meta identifying this user (not least by virtue of the fact you didn't delete your comments), your question is at risk of becoming a personal discussion. Your question is a very good one and doesn't need to identify any one person.

If you had wished to pursue a personal discussion you could have invited the user who upset you to chat. I have personal experience of this: someone invited me to chat recently after he objected to my rejecting a suggested edit of his, and although it started off a little awkward we resolved our differences. It's perfectly possible in conversation or indeed in a chat room to explain how you felt after someone said something that upset you and in my experience 9 times out of 10 the other person given the opportunity to understand the effect of what they said will respond sympathetically.

Another user answered my question "Is this accurate?" with the following:

I had a look at that answer. It has 3 downvotes, and comments by another user criticising the post have 10 upvotes altogether. Even though this may not have been the case when you wrote your meta question, this answer has been dealt with perfectly well by the normal mechanisms on a stackexchange site and there is no need to reference the answer here.

In summary, good question in general terms and I agree with your views in general terms, but I do not feel it is appropriate in this case at least to add extra "negative feedback" to individual users over and above the mechanisms already available on the main site which seem to be working perfectly well.

• Thank you for posting your insight. I had no desire to enter a personal discussion here, not now or then, but I wanted to post examples to clarify what I meant. Ideally it would not have been possible to identify the people in question so I'm sorry that happened, if I ever feel the need to make a similar post again I will make that impossible. (continued)
– Sid
Feb 28, 2014 at 12:39
• "I had a look at that answer. It has 3 downvotes, and comments by another user criticising the post have 10 upvotes altogether. Even though this may not have been the case when you wrote your meta question, this answer has been dealt with perfectly well by the normal mechanisms on a stackexchange site and there is no need to reference the answer here." You guessed right; the reaction to that answer happened after I posted here. Hence I felt at the time I posted in meta that it was a very good example of a less-than-ideal attitude that was not well dealt with.
– Sid
Feb 28, 2014 at 12:45
• I appreciate your comments. It's hard to ask a general q without examples (altho quotes can often be paraphrased). Re your 2nd comment, I still don't feel identifying the user is appropriate. Just downvote and move on. Or, comment on the post to say you found it upsetting. Or alert a moderator. I have personal experience of this. Some time ago on stackexchange I asked a q, got a comment saying I sounded like a "nut", and I alerted a moderator. My complaint was rejected but a >200k user expert in the area did come on and replied saying avoid personal attacks and the q was perfectly reasonable. Feb 28, 2014 at 13:02
• It seems someone has been offended by this post: I just got 6 serial downvotes on questions of mine on Math SO. Whoever it was, why not simply comment on my post or write your own answer? Feb 28, 2014 at 14:10

While I can understand the sentiments (on both sides!), please remember that we all have our sunny and our rotten days, and that will certainly show in our posts on SE. Also remember the Usenet wisdom that people in front of a keyboard tend to write what they'd never dream of saying in person, and that without the subtle clues we rely on instinctively in person-to-person contact it can be hard to distinguish between frustration at something else, sarcasm, and outright insults.

Never forget that what you write here will be read and studied carefully by generations to come. Try to show your best side, always. You owe it yourself.

• I agree with the general sentiment of your answer. I do want to point out, that the fact that I am using my real name for this website helps me a lot in saying pretty much only things that I would tell someone. If anything, I try to tone myself down on the internet (well, at least on this website... :-))
– Asaf Karagila Mod
Mar 7, 2014 at 13:50