I have been fascinated for a very long time about primorials and reduced residue classes.

Unfortunately, my interest regularly gets past my ability to express my questions in clear, precise, standard mathematical language.

Coursera offers a wonderful course by Keith Devlin on thinking mathematically which I found from the ads on this site!

Professor Devlin focuses on the fundamentals which touch on my interests but still does not give me the clarity of expression at which I am aiming.

Is it appropriate for me to ask questions on how best to ask questions? Or do these type of questions belong somewhere else?

Let me give an example. Recently, I was interested in the fact the number of twin primes between successive squares changes in ways that I did not expect.

I was at a loss for describing why these changes were surprising to me. I ended up with a question that was so poorly worded that 1 person asked if I knew that the twin prime conjecture was still open and another person flagged my question as NARQ.

These two folks are among the most knowledgeable and skilled of the members of MSE (judging by the quality of their answers to other questions). :-(

I would have saved everyone time and relieved their frustration if I had first asked how to ask my question.

I've also noticed that many of my questions which I am most proud of have gotten little or no comments even when I offer a bounty.

I am pretty sure that lack of clarity is the issue.

Is there a place to ask how to better express a question in terms of standard terms and in proper mathematical context? If MSE is the right place, which tag would be appropriate so everyone is clear what I am trying to do? If MSE is not the right place, is there a right place?

If there is no right place, have folks considered a question lab type area? I think that highly motivated newbies and amateurs will greatly appreciate it and the quality of questions improve as people like me get better.

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    $\begingroup$ +1. I like the attitude expressed in this question. $\endgroup$
    – Lord_Farin
    Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 19:37
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    $\begingroup$ It's a bit sad that no one has come up with an answer to this... but my best guess would be going to chat. The kind of clarification you describe is probably going to involve a game of twenty questions, i.e. a discussion, and discussions are best done in chat. $\endgroup$
    – Ixrec
    Commented Mar 29, 2015 at 9:51
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks very much for the suggestion. I haven't participated too much in the chat. I'll read up on the rules. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 29, 2015 at 10:12

1 Answer 1


I actually face the same kind of difficulty. As it hurted me a lot, I thought about it and I concluded that this phenomena is related to two broader issues of i) community definition and agreement of the SE scope and ii) inclusion/tolerance/kindness toward newbies or outsiders.

I tried to contribute to various SE forum, both by asking what I think is interesting questions and answering, in the tight scope of my knowledge, others questions. Despite the often rude answers stating that my questions were off-topic or of no interest, I persist to think that these questions are important for me simply because I thinking about those questions and I cannot find satisfactory explanation. Denying me the right to ask my questions is denying my right to exist on the public space of SE.

Let me give my opinion on the two specific points of the scope of SE and of the kindness. (digression: it is strange how some people on SE state than opinions do not have their place here, but state things like: I can (down)vote as I wish without any justification)

Scope of the forum

I acknowledge that a clear definition of the scope is essential for the effectiveness and usefulness of the forum. SE is quite good at it and have (not perfect but) interesting mechanisms to enforce it.

But at the same time, the scope of the forum is not so clear and can be interpreted differently by various actors. Many people having various background and interest must coexist and must learn to communicate with each other.

Here is an excerpt of the Mathematics help center:

Mathematics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for people studying math at any level and professionals in related fields

The meaning of this statement may be different if you are an active researcher that try to understand the foundation of the proof theory or if you are a biologist that want to learn the basics of how to work with formula (without any knowledge of their theoretical foundation) and that you are even not able to understand the notations and to ask comprehensive questions.

I would recommend not to answer a question if you do not agree with the style, nor to downvote if your are not able to justify your opinion. Here, it is more an issue about communication and not about the scientific interest of the question (which strongly depend on the personal context). Multi-contextuality issue in design of tools for heterogenous user groups is an actual challenge for both applications and theory.

Clarifying the scope of the forums and improving retroaction mechanism (more specifically taking into account multi-contextuality) appears to me to be unavoidable way to address these kind of issue. But apparently I am wrong... because I did not receive support by the SE communities on that specific point.

Kindness toward non-experts

It is well known since Ludwig Fleck's enlightening work The Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact than scientific communities are prone to generate and propagate false knowledge due to bad sociological dynamics.

Thus, being kind toward newbies and, at least, accept their ignorance is not only an opinion but an experimentally demonstrated mean to avoid errors. For example, always answering off-topic may be a sign that no one have a satisfactory answer. The same is true for formula as is is trivial or it is well known.

Accepting newbies can thus be seen as an epistemological security net. It also facilitate the detection of experts that practice bullying and play on there reputation to acquire social status. There is evidences that these person have more detrimental impact on the community. I strongly advocate against this kind of behaviour and for the implementation of penalty mechanism to eradicate them (the behaviour, not the persons ...)

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    $\begingroup$ One observes: 1. A host of people managing to ask perfectly valid questions that are almost instantly answered in a satisfactory manner; 2. Yet another disappointed user who has trouble finding their way in the SE world; 3. A suggestion for the whole community to change because of observation 2, irrespective of observation 1. One suggests: reconsideration of the presumption that poster's questions are on-topic on SE. $\endgroup$
    – Lord_Farin
    Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 15:41
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    $\begingroup$ Added to that, this answer has basically nothing to do with OP, except sharing common starting grounds. Plus, I don't think that two days of membership warrant reaching such fundamental conclusions about Maths.SE or how it operates. This is manifest from the mentioning of complete non-issues like the "propagation of false knowledge". $\endgroup$
    – Lord_Farin
    Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 15:44
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks from the constructive comments. I agree that my answer is too broad and do not respond to the question as it is phrased. But I naively though that the meta is there to "share common starting grounds". I don't say that we found false knowledge in SE.math, it was just an example of extreme adverse effect resulting from bad social dynamics in scientific community. I had in mind the example given by Fleck of anatomic painters that drew an organ that do not exist! Anyway, I just wanted to share years of experiences in various collaborative communities. SE is unique and very interesting. $\endgroup$
    – jvtrudel
    Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 22:00
  • $\begingroup$ Having said that, I do not state that all questions are on topic. For example, most of my posts are (up to now) off-topic and I try hard to fix that as @Larry do. The difficulty is that we have to learn not only the language and conventions of professional mathematics, but also the way of interacting I that community. I suggested that Larry would benefit from more empathy and that it would facilitate its learning. I also suggested, in agreement with Larry's feature request, that adding mechanism specifically devoted to help new users is a good idea. $\endgroup$
    – jvtrudel
    Commented Apr 20, 2015 at 22:23

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