Having asked quite a few questions by now, I've noticed that I often get solutions to my questions that exceed my knowledge of mathematics. These solutions are often the ones that receive the most upvotes, and sometimes these solutions seem more appealing due to their length and often seemingly more descriptive nature.

I could, and often do, state in my question that I am attempting to solve this question with specific types and skill levels of mathematics. This approach in a way seems to limit the potential of asking a question, since solutions of all types encompass more mathematics such that when someone searches for a solution to a previously asked question, they might benefit from an specific approach given by one of the many varieties of solutions provided in a single question. Consequently, not stating for a solution of a specific nature could, in the long run, reduce the number of questions asked since there won't be questions asked for the same problem seeking an alternative solution.

  • My concerns

    1. When the first response to my question is the most upvoted solution, would it be negative in any way to accept an answer posted much later and much less popular?

    2. Should I state that I'm attempting to solve this question with a specific type and level of mathematics? If so, would it then be assumed that users can still post answers consisting of a variety of different mathematics and skill levels, as to maximize the potential of the question?

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    $\begingroup$ If you begin answering questions, you will gradually get an idea of the kind of mind-reading that goes into answering questions. $\endgroup$
    – Will Jagy
    Commented Nov 20, 2014 at 0:02
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    $\begingroup$ You can accept any answer you wish, even a wrong answer. But accepting a wrong answer might be considered a bit anti-social... $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 0:48
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    $\begingroup$ The accept vote that a question asker may use is given to you only for a reason. It's specifically so that you can say what you think is the most appropriate answer for your needs. How other people vote is essentially irrelevant (unless you want to base your accepting vote on the opinion of the majority which is also perfectly valid). $\endgroup$
    – Dan Rust
    Commented Nov 21, 2014 at 14:24
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    $\begingroup$ @WillJagy That makes me think of the times I attempted to answer questions, I purely went at it with what came to mind, not necessarily with what might be the intent/context of the OP. That being said, I've gained some insight, thank you. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 22, 2014 at 20:53
  • $\begingroup$ A related question $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 15:11
  • $\begingroup$ Also somewhat pertinent $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 15:14

3 Answers 3

  1. You can accept whatever answer you want to, whether it has been voted up, down, or sideways. I would suggest that you accept the answer that you, personally, found most helpful, while upvoting any other answers you found helpful.

  2. The more information you provide about what mathematics you do/don't know, the easier it is for others to write an answer you will find helpful. Despite your best efforts, someone may write an answer that relies on knowledge you have not yet attained. But that's a good thing --- maybe not for you, but for others who come to this site (and perhaps for you in days to come).

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    $\begingroup$ I voted this answer sideways, but it doesn't seem to show. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 20, 2014 at 8:01
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    $\begingroup$ Too bad --- it should show as $\sqrt{-1}$. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 20, 2014 at 9:24
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    $\begingroup$ So sideway votes are imaginary? This makes the voting system much more complex. $\endgroup$
    – Asaf Karagila Mod
    Commented Nov 20, 2014 at 10:09
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    $\begingroup$ @Asaf, just the latest stage in a system that never was rational. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 20, 2014 at 12:07
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    $\begingroup$ Gerry, you might even say that the system is surreal. $\endgroup$
    – Asaf Karagila Mod
    Commented Nov 22, 2014 at 17:40
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure I would want to have a purely imaginary reputation... $\endgroup$
    – David
    Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 4:31
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    $\begingroup$ What a normal way to go! $\endgroup$
    – user21820
    Commented Nov 29, 2014 at 13:29

There are two points to raise here.

  1. (Which I somewhat disagree with) this site is ultimately about having answers to questions. Not helping people. If it answers the question, then it's legitimate.

    Personally, I think that the OP should be taken into account when posting an answer, so an answer should (at least until there is a satisfactory one) accommodate the estimated knowledge of the OP.

This brings us to the second point,

  1. Lack of context. This is exactly what all the rage is when people just write down a problem without explaining what they tried, what they know or what they did. It's not always easy to estimate what the OP knows. Often (not necessarily in your case) the questions originate in homework which means that someone wrote the exercise with some specific solution in mind which is almost always something that has been taught in class. Since the majority of the users can only guess what was taught in class, the majority of the users can only suggest what they think is a reasonable solution.

    That being said, you should perhaps remember that the same applies to questions that do provide context and additional details. Since mathematics is closer to a form of art, than it is to a technical engineering, problems will often have many different solutions via different approaches (even if they are fundamentally equivalent). This means that unless we know what you know exactly, or at least suppose to know, we can't quite give an answer that hits right into your knowledge base.

What can you do about it?

Well, you can try and give a bit more context as to what you already know about the problem. You can try and give more context as to what you've tried to do to solve it, or where it came up (e.g. in this book after that theorem, or right before that other theorem; in your homework after learning about this or that; etc.) and similar things which maybe give the answerer a clue as to what you might know, or should know, to solve this problem.

Of course, knowing about a better way to solve things, using more advance techniques can be taken as nothing but a motivation as to why study higher and higher mathematics, or focus on a certain topic. So you can take those as challenges to try and understand them better, which I'm guessing, might have the best outcome.

It should also be pointed out that you are free, and should, accept the answer that has been most helpful to you. Regardless to its score. (But try to avoid accepting answers which are blatantly wrong, e.g. if they have a -5 score and several comments pointing out problems. That's usually not taken as a sign of good faith.)

  • $\begingroup$ WRT point (1), I'd say that this site is all about having good/useful answers; and the "accept answer" mechanism provides one measure of what constitutes a good or useful answer. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 2, 2014 at 20:26
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    $\begingroup$ Matt, this is why I wrote that I somewhat disagree with that point. Asking how to show that every vector space has a basis might be best answered using Zorn's lemma; but having an answer which explains how to approach that problem via transfinite recursion is not worse, and possibly better. Of course an OP with just rudimentary knowledge of set theory will not be able to comprehend it completely, but does that make the answer less useful to people that do know a bit more set theory? No, it makes it more useful. So the question is "should answers be aimed mainly to the OP or not?" [...] $\endgroup$
    – Asaf Karagila Mod
    Commented Dec 2, 2014 at 20:31
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    $\begingroup$ [...] My point of view is that ultimately a question will have at least one good answer that the OP can understand, and others which extend well beyond the tools the OP has made available. Of course, in my ideal scenario all the answers are well written, detailed in the right level, and so on. So it's not quite a realistic case; but I still think there are merits for writing a good answer which is useful to the thousands of other readers (including, perhaps, the future OP) even if it goes over the head of the OP at time of posting. $\endgroup$
    – Asaf Karagila Mod
    Commented Dec 2, 2014 at 20:33

Accept the answer which helps you most.

Use your experience of answers to improve your questions (so you get answers to future questions which help you better).

Very often the people who post answers beyond your current knowledge are trying to help you. Ask them to clarify in comments. If you have a true passion for mathematics, you will use their answers as a hook to explore further, or store away the ideas until you encounter them again - if you get the same ideas turning up several times, go for it, they are probably closer to your current understanding and interest than you imagine.


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