# Why are people such jerks about imprecise questions?

I've noticed a proliferation of people posting snarky answers or comments on question's that have poor phrasing or terminology, which annoys me, as it serves only to drive away new, and potentially valuable, users.

For instance on this question it is obvious, at least to me, that the original poster was looking for non-trivial examples. Instead what they got was an avalanche of posters making zero effort, trivial, non-answers. Additionally, people were in general not very nice in the comments, acting as though they are infinitely smarter than the original poster, despite completely misrepresenting their question.

While this is only a specific example, I have seen this play out over and over, and it serves only to harm the site. Shouldn't people be properly answering, editing, or even flagging (if appropriate) these kinds of questions? Wouldn't that be a better use of time than adding to the pool of pointless answers out of spite?

I mean, it says right on the tour page that the site is "for people studying math at any level." I just don't understand how this community can claim such great inclusivity, while simultaneously humiliating new users' questions. If this site is intended for only incredibly difficult problems, that is one thing, but for a site that claims to be "[building] a library of detailed answers to every question about math." Come on.

• There are occasions, when zero-effort answers proliferate even though a good answer can be given. But you picked a bad example to prove your point. All the examples (at least of the type known to me and apparently to all the other users on the site) just happen to be of that lazy-ass type! The asker may have been hoping to see an example stating that $\log n-\pi^{7/5}$ is rational for some integer $n$ or something like that. But no such example is known! So in this case the answerers gave the best possible answers they could muster. – Jyrki Lahtonen Apr 7 '15 at 6:12
• Not forgetting that the ability to generate "trivial" (counter)examples is a very useful skill in math :-) – Jyrki Lahtonen Apr 7 '15 at 6:14
• @JyrkiLahtonen I guess my point is that the fact there are no possible examples of that form is actually interesting, and that the asker never got an answer like that is a little sad. Especially considering he was a new user to. I do agree it was probably a bad example though, considering all the down votes. (As an aside that the user in question has thousands of reputation on other stackoverflow sites, with questions like: security.stackexchange.com/questions/71171/…, so it just seems silly to turn him off like this...) – Others Apr 7 '15 at 6:41
• It might be argued that any possible example is of that type. If it turns out one day that $\pi-e$ is rational, this just shows that $\pi=e+q$ for some $q\in\mathbb Q$, so we have the "trivial" $(e+q)-e=q$ again. Can the difference of two "profoundly different" irrational numbers be rational? Well, then they wouldn't be profoundly different. So the question seems to be something like: "are there any surprising identities between seemingly different numbers?" Isn't producing such identities one of the basic tasks of mathematics? – Dejan Govc Apr 7 '15 at 10:38
• The site is for mathematics at all levels. But the example you gave is just a poorly-written question. If the person did not want trivial examples it would be easy to exclude them when writing the question. Just because the mathematics is at a lower level does not mean that the question must be written in an unclear, hurried, or incomplete manner. It would be perfectly possible to write a well-written question about the same topic, about the same "level" of mathematics. There are well-written and poorly-written questions at all levels of mathematics. – Carl Mummert Apr 7 '15 at 11:24
• More on the question being a bad example: the question asked is a popular 'brain teaser'; you'd be surprised how many people can't find the 'trivial' answers to it or other similar questions. – Hurkyl Apr 7 '15 at 14:00
• Also, the easiest way to have a collection of worthless stuff is to keep absolutely everything out of fear of missing something worthwhile. A diamond is pretty. A pile of sludge with two diamonds buried underneath is not. – Hurkyl Apr 7 '15 at 14:03
• More on the question being a bad example, I posit that formulating a nontrivial question in the same 'spirit' of the question asked is a highly nontrivial exercise. – Hurkyl Apr 7 '15 at 14:09
• @Others While I can see why the answer "mathematicians do not know of any 'interesting' examples" is (pardon the repetition) interesting, it's also one that fewer people are qualified to make. I doubt that most of the people posting $\sqrt{2} - \sqrt{2} = 0$ or the like keep abreast with the newest developments in transcendental number theory (though I could be wrong). – Strants Apr 11 '15 at 22:54

• "I've noticed a proliferation of people posting snarky answers or comments on question's that have poor phrasing or terminology...it serves only to drive away new, and potentially valuable, users."

I speak for myself, but I doubt I am alone in saying that I know who is on this site to understand a particular issue and learn from our answers, and who is here to either get someone to do their homework for them, or to pose as a misunderstood math genius. The former never get snark and are ably, in fact, zealously, helped out here. That is why we continue to get lots of new users. The latter, well..., I'm not sure how such users can be labeled as "valuable."

• "For instance on this question it is obvious, at least to me, that the original poster was looking for non-trivial examples. Instead what they got was an avalanche of posters making zero effort, trivial, non-answers."

The answers are a clear reflection of the question. Look, the person asking the question is expected to put as much time and effort into asking the question as you seem to expect the people answering the questions put into their answers. It's only fair.

• "Shouldn't people be properly answering, editing, or even flagging (if appropriate) these kinds of questions? Wouldn't that be a better use of time than adding to the pool of pointless answers out of spite?"

People edit and improve questions when there seems to be a point. Other questions get the answers they deserve. If there is truly abusive behavior, then by all means flag a moderator. I promise you, though, that your example shows no such behavior on part of the answerers.

• "I just don't understand how this community can claim such great inclusivity, while simultaneously humiliating new users' questions. "

You call it humiliation. I call it learning. A forum like this can serve as a rude awakening to people whose thinking is muddled, lazy, wrong, or worst of all, not even wrong. This may not be pleasant, but upon reflection should serve the recipient well if they are serious about learning how to pose questions in mathematics.

• "Come on."

You took the words right out of my mouth. Here's a tip: if you don't like the answers you got to a question, then ask yourself what's wrong with the question, not those who are answering it.

• To refute your points one by one: One) This was clearly not a homework question, if you read it carefully it seems more of a mathematical curiosity than anything. Two) The answers on this post in particular are blatantly less effort that the question, at least the question has nice formatting. Three) I don't understand the point in just not being nice. Wouldn't someone learn better if someone, I don't know, explained it to them? Four) It isn't my question... Anyway, up voted for the contribution. – Others Apr 7 '15 at 5:47
• "... or to pose as a misunderstood math genius." Maybe that's a bit extreme, but the OP did not really understand the topic. Thus, the lousy question. BTW if you disagree with me, you should downvote. – Ron Gordon Apr 7 '15 at 5:49
• "I've got a new winner strategy, ask about something I don't know the answer to to appear a genius when I someone else answers it." I just don't see the logic to it. Also, I have yet to see a question that didn't involve some misunderstanding, that's part of the fun of stack exchange, learning! – Others Apr 7 '15 at 5:52
• @Others: on that, I agree. But in this case the misunderstanding caused some answers that were probably not what the OP wanted. That's not snark, that's people telling the OP that there are holes in the question. The OP may then ask a new question that fixes the holes. (S)he may like the response. – Ron Gordon Apr 7 '15 at 5:54
• Shouldn't pointing out holes be comments? Shouldn't we ask the op to edit their question instead of reposting? Why is it valuable to make people face humiliation, not for lack of effort, but for lack of preciseness? – Others Apr 7 '15 at 5:57
• Why is it on the answerers to read the mind of an OP whom they have never met before? And, humiliation? Again, flag a moderator if there is truly boorish behavior. But if someone is humiliated by getting a precise answer to their question, then it's not the answerer being a jerk. – Ron Gordon Apr 7 '15 at 6:00
• I see your point about mind reading, but again, I think clarification in the comments would be infinitely better. I can't imagine this particular user will ever post again, seeing as they received literally no adequate answer to their question (as I imagine they know the properties of addition and subtraction). I'd just like to see a growing user base, not one that pushes out newcomers for no good reason. – Others Apr 7 '15 at 6:05
• People on this site, especially on meta, have little patience for questions that have semantical problems or that point out problems with themselves, i.e. this question. We find it easy to fix a syntax problem, but if there is a nuanced problem with the question, we'd rather shove it in the Op's face than give them benifit of the doubt. Questions that critizize or challenge community standards are generally downvoted. Questions that try to preempt stupid answers are also downvoted. Questions that are to advanced are ignored or downvoted, bounties try to fix this. – Zach466920 Apr 7 '15 at 17:48
• Despite our egocentric perspective, this site is not above pettiness. It is still a website on the internet. Enough said? – Zach466920 Apr 7 '15 at 17:49
• @Zach466920: silly me, I thought this was a finishing school. That, or a monastery. – Ron Gordon Apr 7 '15 at 17:54
• @RonGordon this about our community's bad habit of giving trivial answers to non-trivial questions. You can give an insightful answer in a snarky way. You shouldn't give a snarky answer in a snarky way, its trivial and already known. People that use this site for its question answering abilities, most meta-stack users excluded, want insight into their problems. Most people who use this site for trivia puzzles, want to answer in the shortest way possible, because they think its more elegant. – Zach466920 Apr 7 '15 at 18:55
• What ends up happening is that the two sides end up talking right past right another and we end up with the more powerful group holding an apparently useless conversation in a bias environment. – Zach466920 Apr 7 '15 at 18:55

While I agree that on the given question the comment were a little rude, the answers were superb.