Recently I've seen a couple of questions, specifically this one and this one, that were relatively low level for what I've seen up to now in the site. Basically both questions were just asking for some basic arithmetic operations to be checked or performed.

I reviewed the FAQ and it states that Mathematics - Stack Exchange is for people studying mathematics at any level and professionals in related fields.

I flagged both questions as being too localized, but now I'm wondering if such questions should be allowed in the site or not, and if there's some sort of consensus about what should be a lower bound to the level of questions that can be asked, given the opening sentence of the FAQ, which I quoted above.

In particular, I wouldn't like to see such questions in the site, but that's just my personal opinion and I would like to see what others think about it.

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    $\begingroup$ Very similar to the second example you mention is math.stackexchange.com/questions/32598, asked by the same user. $\endgroup$
    – Did
    Commented Apr 12, 2011 at 20:27
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    $\begingroup$ I think the reason these low-level questions stand out is not because they are at too low a level for the site, but rather because they are poor quality questions which should be closed anyway. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 13, 2011 at 2:19
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    $\begingroup$ More specifically about the three examples posted so far, perhaps we need to put a question about order of arithmetic operations in our list of commonly asked questions? $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 13, 2011 at 10:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Willie I think that would be a good idea. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 13, 2011 at 21:03
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    $\begingroup$ Yet another BEDMAS question $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 15, 2011 at 23:37
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    $\begingroup$ @Willie Yes, is it just my perception, or is the number of such questions increasing lately? Maybe it is indeed time to include one question about the order of arithmetic operations in "The List" as you suggest. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 16, 2011 at 0:28

4 Answers 4


As you say, since its inception, the stated purpose of the site has been "Mathematics - Stack Exchange is for people studying mathematics at any level and professionals in related fields." I don't see any ambiguity or room for interpretation here: to me it seems pretty clear that a question cannot be of too low a level mathematically to be suitable for this site.

Note though that in the last sentence I included (and italicized) "mathematically". Any good Q&A site will need to enforce standards on how questions are posed and formatted, minimum due diligence on the part of the questioners, and so forth. If someone asks "What is $7+13-19-206$?" it is not a bad question because the math is at too low a level. It is a bad question because they are not asking for anything that will help out anyone besides them, and because it shows their ignorance of the capabilities of the machine they are using (the internet!): in fact if you cut and paste this question into google, it will tell you the answer.

If someone asks a well-crafted question about elementary school level mathematics that is not obviously answered by a cursory internet search and has not been asked before on this site, to me it seems clear that this should be okay. After all there is another SE-type site where mathematical elitism is the order of the day (I say it like it might be a bad thing, but of course I don't mean that); why would math.SE want to compete with MathOverflow?

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    $\begingroup$ +1. Unfortunately it is likely that people asking lower-level questions are going to be younger and therefore less capable of crafting good questions due to lack of maturity, writing experience, etc. What I wonder (although this is of course unenforceable) is whether there should be a lower bound to the age of a user. I have had to delete posts from 12- or 13-year-olds who clearly need more experience in using a site like this... $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 13, 2011 at 6:27
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    $\begingroup$ @Qiaochu: The TOS of the SE sites explicitly requires users to be at least 13 y.o. But it is not like anyone actually reads it.... -grumble grumble- $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 13, 2011 at 10:34
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    $\begingroup$ I wonder how the user's age(s) were found out; my experience with moderating sites is that there are people who ought to have known better and still write like some overstaying kindergartner... and, yes, most people on the Internet are too cool to read FAQs or TOSs. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 14, 2011 at 1:18
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    $\begingroup$ @QiaochuYuan Coming to this very late, I feel very strongly that picking an arbitrary age cut-off (except for legal purposes) would be absurd. As a child I had to fight absurdly hard to get access to appropriate math classes (being told, for example, that I was not neurologically ready for algebra, whatever that means), and I would hate to put someone else in that position here. $\endgroup$
    – dfeuer
    Commented Nov 29, 2013 at 4:02
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    $\begingroup$ I realize this is old but it was just linked elsewhere, you say: ' "Mathematics - Stack Exchange is for people studying mathematics at any level and professionals in related fields." I don't see any ambiguity or room for interpretation here: to me it seems pretty clear that a question cannot be of too low a level mathematically to be suitable for this site.' I disagree with this completely. To me the most natural interpretation of the site's target audience clearly does suggest a lower bound. Thus, there is at least ambiguity. $\endgroup$
    – quid Mod
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 18:44
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    $\begingroup$ My interpretation of this is that "studying mathematics" makes reference to higher education or at the least a serious involvement with the subject. Granted this is arguable. Yet, further note that if no lower level was implied by the first part there'd be no point to adding "professionals in related fields." If the first part means the site is for everything (and thus everybody), it makes no sense at all to say in addition that it is for "professionals in related fields." To me the description suggests it is broadly for undergraduate (and above) students and professionals in related fields. $\endgroup$
    – quid Mod
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 18:53
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    $\begingroup$ To avoid a misunderstanding my comments are intended purely as being about the interpretation of the quoted phrase. Not about what is or should be the current policy of the site. $\endgroup$
    – quid Mod
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 18:56

Mathematics has a reputation of being unwelcoming, unforgiving, hard, and scary among most people. (Especially where I live, the USA.) I find this very unfortunate. On the one hand, laziness is to blame, students, even individuals sometimes don't put in enough time or effort to even come close to understanding even basic math-- As soon as the question is asked their first reaction is to give up. In fact, I think this is the primary cause of the problem.

However, a contributing factor is the very real, hostility beginners and newcomers face when interacting with mathematics enthusiasts and aspiring professionals.

If I had a dollar for every time I have see one person deliberately (or inadvertently) make another feel inferior and stupid using mathematics I would be very very rich.

I think any new user should be able to ask as simple as a question as they wish-- from the responses they will get a better idea of what is and what isn't 'doing enough work' on their end to merit community attention... they will also learn that this is not a homework help site. They may, in fact, grow to be excellent contributors.

(If you don't think this is possible I have seen many counterexamples. )

If they abuse the site we will remember and stop responding.

Yes, I do think think these questions should be closed, but I don't like the idea of a "lower bound" since it is not so much the content, but the way the questioner presents it that matters. And if they are closed we should be nice about it-- ie.

"Hey, James, you should take a look at some of the other questions to get a better idea of the way we share ideas here. More general question are looked on more favorable that particular ones since we are building a resource that we hope will be useful to many people... not just one person doing one problem."

I think we should be gentle and welcoming, in general-- and if the new person gets a little help before the question fades away so much the better.

In fact, we could have some kind of "close later" queue for things that we don't want clogging up the DB. This is not Yahoo Answers, after all.

  • $\begingroup$ Two points about the last paragraph: (a) I think you mean "queue", not "cue". (b) Given that, I'm afraid I still don't quite see what you mean by that paragraph, can you explain a bit more? (BTW, I agree with the first half of your post.) $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 12, 2011 at 23:28
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, yes "queue" duh. OK. What I'm saying is some questions should be closed right away. Like that same day... others could be 'marked for deletion' (clearly) not appear on the front page, but still hang around for a day or two, so the new user can soak in whatever people say. $\endgroup$
    – futurebird
    Commented Apr 12, 2011 at 23:48
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    $\begingroup$ But if it does not appear on the front page, how can other users see it and make constructive comments? $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 13, 2011 at 10:35
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for the "if I had a dollar sentence". My own thoughts exactly. And I'd give you another +1 for "we should be gentle and welcoming" if I could. $\endgroup$
    – bubba
    Commented Apr 30, 2017 at 10:14

I'm a computer science undergraduate but I've always found mathematics to be difficult. This year I had a lot more free time (year abroad) and so I've seized the chance go back and study all the way from elementary mathematics up to university-level mathematics. Currently I'm at UK A-level standard, which is just under university-level mathematics. I have had to self-teach myself everything and as such this forum has been absolutely invaluable.

Surely most mathematicians would be pleased to see someone who finds mathematics to be a big challenge take the (rather difficult) task of trying to become at least proficient at the art? This website is a wonderful way to make this possible. Every question I have asked has been responded to with complete friendliness and encouragement. Very largely thanks to this website I am discovering that I actually quite enjoy mathematics and I'm starting to feel quite confident.

I always take care that any questions I ask are well written, not easily answerable via other means and worded so that they will help other maths newbies. As long as newbies do this, isn't this a good thing? Isn't that what the website is for? Isn't that one of the wonderful uses of the Internet?

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    $\begingroup$ I don't think that this question is about cases such as yours. Have another look at the links in the original post. The issue, as many answerers have already stated, is not with the level of mathematics involved, but with the amount of work put in by the OP. $\endgroup$
    – Alex B.
    Commented Apr 14, 2011 at 2:31

I agree that we should discourage such questions.

Such questions are actually adding noise to the content we have here. Allowing those would only be detrimental to this site (imagine hundreds of such questions asking to compute an expression which can easily be fed to a calculator).

If they rephrase the question as, this is what I did, but I get this, while the answer is supposed to be this, where did I go wrong etc, then such questions would be fine.

I would say we downvote, leave a comment to OP (possibly to this thread) and close the question as too localized.


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