# Snarky comments to an elementary math question

I have an issue to some to the comments of this following question that I had answered:

https://math.stackexchange.com/questions/1168288/how-much-more-money-is-needed-to-get-to-1-2-million-if-you-have-one-million-fi/1168289#1168289

I am providing images to follow, for the under 10k rep users in case the question itself becomes deleted.

I had simply given a hint to the OP, as below:

Granted, the OP's question (see below image) is a basic subtraction problem. I'm all for helping out as much as I can, even with questions as elementary as this one. However, I am disturbed by the responses that follow my answer (see above image; e.g. "Please post only serious answers"), as well as some responses that follow the question as well.

Unsurprisingly, the OP did not take this well. After all, I too found that some of these comments were mean-spirited in nature.

My question is: Is there any way that the more experienced users can be more welcoming and supportive of new users, in general? (I say "in general" because this question wouldn't count: The OP states that she is 10 years old, which is below the minimum age of 13 years to use this site.)

Furthermore, is it "wrong" to answer elementary level questions? I gave a hint (not an answer, as some users will unfortunately debate), and accordingly I received some backlash as well in the comments to follow my answer.

Needless to say, I am a little angry at this moment, as of writing up this post. So I apologize if my tone here is off-putting.

• I think it comes across as the OP trolling - especially with her follow-up comments. I can't see a 10 year old going on MSE (or knowing about it!) for a subtraction problem over speaking to teachers/parents. In that case, I think that's where a lot of humour comes from - probably guessing the post will be deleted. I can't see what's wrong with your answer. There's not much more you can say without explicitly giving the answer. – Mike Miller Feb 28 '15 at 0:02
• Fellow math majors I knew in college didn't even know about MSE...highly doubt a 10 year old would. I agree with @MikeMiller – Daniel W. Farlow Feb 28 '15 at 6:44
• I am not sure if there is any way at all that we can help her (rude) self to subtract two numbers. This question was bad in multiple ways. The best course of action is to not answer questions like these and leave some tips for asking questions on MSE. – AvZ Feb 28 '15 at 6:54
• @dragon I wish that you would stop throwing around derogatory adjectives about other users who simply reacted appropriately to a trollish question. – Did Feb 28 '15 at 17:41
• @Did My post describes only comments left by other users, not the users themselves. – Cookie Feb 28 '15 at 18:26
• I agree that the reactions where not overly constructive. But I also think your answer is not good. Even if you do not want to do all the work you could have at least explained why one needs to subtract, that is spell out the equivalence of $a+x = b$ and $x = b-a$. Or offer some other explanation. The combination of a low-effort answer to a basic question is what I find slightly problematic here (and other places). – quid Feb 28 '15 at 18:29
• @dragon Are you yourself convinced by the distinction in your comment? Sorry but I am not and I see it as, mainly, a wordplay. – Did Feb 28 '15 at 19:00
• @Did Yes, I am convinced with what I stated in my comment. – Cookie Feb 28 '15 at 19:00
• @crash: Are you saying that a 10-year old is not capable of googling for "ask a math question"? (top result for me is MSE's "ask a question" page...) – psmears Mar 4 '15 at 13:41
• A bit late to the party here, but the MSE description reads "For people studying math at any level and professionals in related fields". Are we here to help people/receive help with mathematics or are we here to whip each other in the face with our math dicks? If someone asks a question related to mathematics, it's their first question on the site, and they don't ask their question in the desired format straight off the bat, help and educate them. If they are trolling, good luck to them. It in no way affects you negatively if you help someone, whether their question is sincere or otherwise. – Old mate Mar 6 '15 at 11:08
• @Karl: I see no reason to assume that her parents are (or for that matter are not) a better source than we are. Nor do I see how answering her question is attempting to be a resource that we are not. – Brian M. Scott Mar 7 '15 at 4:41
• @Karl: They know her, yes; however, they may or may not have any real idea of what she knows, and they may or may not have the time, energy, or willingness to help. Not all families work as one might like. I’m certainly not going refuse my help on the assumption that she has other, better sources of help just because in an ideal world she ought to have them. \\ If my second sentence misrepresents your view, you didn’t state that view very clearly: what you wrote clearly implies that answering her question is a specific instance of attempting to be a resource that we are not. – Brian M. Scott Mar 7 '15 at 19:50
• On the narrow question of who is a better source of help: a child's parents generally aren't in the classroom and don't know how the subject was taught--even parents who are strong in math (and not all are!) occasionally find their children's homework obscure. The teacher for that matter may have a blind spot to the child's real question; many smart people misunderstand questions sometimes, and why should teachers be immune from this? There is no one person who must necessarily be best able to answer such a question. – David K Mar 7 '15 at 20:23
• @crash: People's minds work in different ways. It might seem absurd to you, but plenty of people just type whatever's on their mind into Google - eg "Where can I ask a math question?" - and see where it goes. I also think you are underestimating the ability of 10-year olds to find things on the internet - MSE is hardly a secret! – psmears Mar 8 '15 at 8:49
• You guys are seriously underestimating the capabilities of today's youth. You're old. :P I am 26 (also old, compared to the youth of which I speak), and part of the first generation to grow up with the internet as we know it. For a 10 year old to figure out how to join MSE or use LaTeX is not some amazing feat of a prodigy. It is normal. Think of how you learned to use [insert age-relevant technology here] when you were younger, and think of how much more difficult it was for all of the older people to do it. – AmagicalFishy Mar 10 '15 at 15:53

I think your answer is fine - setting up the subtraction could certainly be sufficient to help someone with this problem, especially since it should be fairly clear to them where those numbers are coming from. It's clearly a serious answer. However, AvZ does raise a valid objection - but I'd read that more as a stylistic thing (best resolved by AvZ writing their own answer) than a "This answer is bad" sort of thing. Your answer is valid, though it's very short in a way some people might not like.

That said, though, I suspect that, in reality, your answer does not specifically address what confused the OP; per their comment:

I got stuck in the zero's and just got anxious and over thought the problem...

it seems that their trouble is in particular figuring out the second number. Your answer doesn't focus on this because their question doesn't - it was doomed from the start! A question like:

How much more money is needed to get to 1.2 million if you have one million fifty thousand dollars? I can see that if you need 3 dollars and have 2 dollars then you need 3-2=1 dollar, but I'm having trouble writing out the numbers in my problem.

would be a good question. Their question was not and was rightly closed.

I do, however, feel that all the comments below the post are non-constructive - "What have you tried?" is a pretty lazy way to ask someone for context when it seems fairly clear that they're not going to have an answer to that. A comment like "If you wanted 10 dollars and had 7, how would you figure out how much more you needed?" would be quite helpful (to discern if the problem is in setting things up, or not knowing the general method - or what) - and I'm sure other users could think of many other constructive comments to leave on such a post.

Arithmetic is perfectly on topic here, subject to the same requirements other questions are. This site's customs for addressing questions lacking context is often more harsh than helpful, especially towards elementary questions. It is not necessarily "wrong" to answer a question like this one, but it's probably not effort well-spent unless you can read the OP's mind.

• Thank you, @Meelo, for your comforting response. I guess all of us should think twice before answering questions like this, especially if they lack constructiveness. Furthermore, perhaps we on MSE answer so many high-level math questions that an arithmetic question is seen as anomaly. Hence, the snarky comments that the question had received. I did not understand why the user was accused of trolling, but Mike Miller's comment did somewhat convince me otherwise. – Cookie Feb 28 '15 at 1:40
• @dragon: There is a reasonable possibility that the OP was trolling, but it’s by no means certain, and some of the comments were distinctly off-putting. And while your answer does not directly address getting stuck in the zeroes (which does sound rather like a ten-year-old) — not surprising, since that problem wasn’t mentioned — it does completely straighten them out for her. Assuming that the question was genuine, you your answer probably helped; I consider it perfectly acceptable. – Brian M. Scott Mar 1 '15 at 22:46
• "What have you tried?" is a pretty lazy way to ask someone for context when it seems fairly clear that they're not going to have an answer to that. - Thank you. There's a certain point at which demanding effort is tantamount to refusing entry to people without a minimum level of math ability. – Jack M Mar 9 '15 at 11:31
• @BrianM.Scott The user has been deleted. Would that be enough to conclude that the user was, in fact, trolling us? – ghosts_in_the_code Mar 9 '15 at 15:42
• @ghosts_in_the_code: Obviously not. The user might in fact have been exactly as represented and hence underage. – Brian M. Scott Mar 9 '15 at 20:44
• I'm with @BrianM.Scott on this one, dragon, you made a reasonable call in a not-completely-clear situation (WRT trolling vs sincerity). You should feel confident that similarly styled-to-the-question responses are equally appropriate. – Adam Hughes Mar 9 '15 at 23:17