I have recently started using the website and I am trying to do my best with moderation. I flag questions very often, I edit posts when they can be improved, I have written a few of those "What have you tried?" comments and so on.

I know the topic has been discussed here, and forgive me if this is not appropriate as a question, just let me know and I'll delete it. I found that previous question very helpful, and it clarified some of my doubts. I'd like to ask a more specific question, which has only been touched by the previous one.

Often the people who answer bad posed questions are experienced users, with thousands and thousands of reputation. I understood these users are trusted and respected on the website. I often would like to comment on their answer saying "Why are you doing that?! This question should be closed not answered!" I have been told that when a question has accepted answers, it's more unlikely to be closed, even if the question itself, after edits and comments, is awful.

Would a comment like that be considered rude or somehow bad by the community? Most of all considering it would come from a relative new user?

P.S.: I preemptively apologize for possible horrible grammar mistakes.

  • 15
    You can try, and in fact I believe everyone should do it; but from past experiences, it's useless (a comment does nothing, while they gain reputation/satisfaction from answering these questions). Even making a comment to someone who answered a question and then voted to close it generally does nothing. The answerer generally gets defensive or ignores the comment. – Najib Idrissi Sep 1 '15 at 15:37
  • 29
    For what it's worth I think you are doing the right thing. Answering bad questions encourages more bad questions making the problem worse. But this is a divisive issue. Some think that it is a sign of help vampires and rep wh@$£s feeding each other. Others think they are still sitting in an exam, answering anything they can, and think this is natural. Yet others take the point of view that all the questions should be answered with all the skill and elegance we can muster. We also have somewhat experienced users who have simply seen even more experienced users do this, and just follow suit. – Jyrki Lahtonen Sep 1 '15 at 15:41
  • 16
    @JyrkiLahtonen the fact that they create a trend is one of the reasons I want to try to stop this from happening. Also, I think a real dedicate teacher doesn't belong to this category. Giving a ready-to-use solution to someone who doesn't even understand the question won't teach them much. Luckily (for me only) I have the most popular tags in the website (calculus and so on) blocked so I think I don't even see the worst instances of this trend. – Silvia Ghinassi Sep 1 '15 at 15:51
  • 14
    @Silvia I think you need to open your mind to the fact that there are many views on how to best employ this platform to optimally share mathematical knowledge. Be aware that some of the above comments make no sense given that many such users pay little attention to "rep" (indeed, they were just as prolific in prior non-rep forums such as sci.math). Alas, many users get so caught up in the gamification aspects of the platform that they fail to understand the true value of the site. – Bill Dubuque Sep 1 '15 at 17:08
  • 16
    I will say flat out that in my opinion there are very few understandable mathematical questions that should be closed. – Brian M. Scott Sep 1 '15 at 19:31
  • 16
    @Brian M. Scott: yet, as you know from the past, many people, including some of the hypothetical "best teachers", have argued that they do not want to participate on a site that significantly contributes towards doing other people's homework for them. This was one of the issues that was raised that the very moment this site was proposed, in fact. – Carl Mummert Sep 1 '15 at 19:49
  • 11
    @Carl: That’s their privilege. In my opinion they’re being unrealistic and not, in this context, particularly good teachers. – Brian M. Scott Sep 1 '15 at 19:50
  • 11
    "Not good" is an understatement. It is extremely despicable when users go to great lengths to prevent others from teaching, going so far as deleting many helpful answers. The site is no longer a place for unfettered teaching. (Odlyzko, NAMS). Puerile politics is well on its way to killing mathematics on this site. – Bill Dubuque Sep 1 '15 at 21:06
  • 19
    Hmm. The usual amount of soapboxing going on here. Should I join in? – Jyrki Lahtonen Sep 1 '15 at 21:49
  • 11
    I do not really get why there is so much debate in this thread about hypothetical great answers that could be given, when the request concerns how to react to existing answers (of dubious value). – quid Sep 1 '15 at 22:15
  • 24
    Glad to see another conscientious mind join the community, @SilviaGhinassi. Welcome – rschwieb Sep 2 '15 at 3:07
  • 12
    @Bill Is it necessary to go through this charade every single time? It has been explained at length multiple times how, for example, questions without context are not useful for the site, and I hope it's not necessary to explain again why opinion-based questions, or too broad questions, are also not useful; all of this regardless of the quality of the answers they attract. – Najib Idrissi Sep 4 '15 at 7:12
  • 19
    Some of the teachers and the experts left because there were too many "low-effort questions"; others have left because they were treated bad by other adamant users; and some just felt that life has more things to offer. Competitive wine tasting, for example. – Asaf Karagila Sep 4 '15 at 18:18
  • 12
    @BillDubuque in that discussion among others Arturo Magidin, a formerly highly active user of this site, explains what drove him away from this site. If you do not consider this as a relevant first-hand testimonial of what can make users leave the site I do not know what would be. – quid Sep 5 '15 at 13:58
  • 12
    @BillDubuque Obviously, they could return to comment. I am not digressing. I pointed to comments that document that some user(s) seem not to participate in the site (anymore) due to the communities too welcoming reaction to certain "low effort questions," which felt relevant in face of you saying 'I've never head of any such user who left because of "too many low-effort questions".' – quid Sep 5 '15 at 14:25
up vote 35 down vote accepted

I advise against commenting. As the cacophony of comments in this thread shows, engaging in a dispute with those users doesn't lead anywhere good.

Downvote and move on.

  • 13
    You speak the truth. – Silvia Ghinassi Sep 2 '15 at 21:45
  • 20
    Downvote the question or the answer(s)? I do not think a good answer (a good answer to a bad question, too, assuming that we may define what a "bad question" really is) should be downvoted for "political" reasons. We are doing math, after all, not sociology. – Jack D'Aurizio Sep 5 '15 at 15:51
  • 12
    @JackD'Aurizio Encouraging bad questions (by answering them) is not a useful thing to do; hence, "not useful" reason for downvoting. – user147263 Sep 5 '15 at 23:16
  • 22
    @NormalHuman: I do not agree. An answer is just an answer, every hidden "encouragement" is just a personal interpretation; I believe the real poison is to raise someone's standard to everyone's standard without an explicit agreement. – Jack D'Aurizio Sep 6 '15 at 1:49
  • 2
    @JackD'Aurizio Well spoken, Jack. – mmam Sep 7 '15 at 17:00
  • 1
    Downvote plus comment is good too. – PyRulez Sep 8 '15 at 0:46
  • 3
    When people stop complaining, that means they've given up or stopped caring. – Hurkyl Sep 14 '15 at 19:54
  • 6
    @Jack: A user who wants bad questions out of the site (for some definition of bad) does not have many options. Downvoting those questions will not discourage the askers, because they A) got what they wanted, when somebody answered, B) use a throwaway account anyway. Downvoting the answers OTOH is more effective. It may discourage the answerers, because at least some of them worry about imaginary reputation points. If enough of those answerers consequently stop answering those questions that, in turn, will make the askers turn away from this site (which is the goal here). – Jyrki Lahtonen Sep 15 '15 at 9:19
  • 4
    (cont'd) and voting is more or less by definition a political phenomenon. The correctness of a mathematical argument is not decided by popular vote. Its elegance could be judged well by peers. But users clearly cannot appreciate arguments beyond their current level of sophistication, and consequently we cannot rely on votes to determine the mathematical value of a contribution. – Jyrki Lahtonen Sep 15 '15 at 9:22
  • @JyrkiLahtonen: your point is pretty convincing, but I would add another question to the discussion - do we really need to keep such line against bad/HW questions, by installing a huge "stay away!" signal? Wouldn't be better to (at least) try to turn such questions into better ones, and to turn throwaway accounts into regular users? – Jack D'Aurizio Sep 15 '15 at 13:52
  • 2
    @Jack: More good questions is good, but who will do it? – Hurkyl Sep 15 '15 at 17:01
  • 1
    @Hurkyl: I believe anyone with the edit privilege may turn a bad question into a decent one in the vast majority of cases. – Jack D'Aurizio Sep 15 '15 at 18:20
  • 4
    @Jack: Yes, lots of people are allowed to do it, but who will actually do it? In practice,the choice is between leaving it open and closing it, because people usually won't spend that extra effort; it will take some campaigning to get people to start doing that. IIRC, the idea has only been proposed previously by the people who don't care much about keeping these questions, but the vocal defenders of these questions were wholly uninterested in the compromise, so the idea never got off the ground. – Hurkyl Sep 15 '15 at 18:55

As long as your comment is polite, I see no reason why you should not make any appropriate suggestion. However, if you feel that a question is indeed bad, and you have the requisite reputation, then it might be more appropriate to cast a close vote.

Note that the reasons that people might have answered that question will vary depending on what you define as a "bad question". What is defined as a bad question has undergone quite a bit of debate in the last year or so. One of the more recent reasons to close a question deals with the lack of context.

Although I am a moderator, what follows is simply my opinion and not necessarily that of the moderation staff.

There are bad questions and there are good questions that lack context. I fully agree that bad questions should simply be closed. However, good questions that lack context are not necessarily bad questions.

The people who have been on the site a long time, started when there was not a requirement for context. If a question was interesting, you answered it. If it seemed like a homework question, you gave a hopefully inspiring hint.

A year back, I believe due to the uncertainty as to whether questions were homework or not, the homework tag was removed. In order to close the questions that seemed like homework, questions started being closed for lack of context.

Don't get me wrong; context can be interesting as well as useful for forming an appropriate answer, or for knowing when a hint is more useful than a full answer. However, the context of a question may not be of any interest for people who look up that question in the future.

However, if a question is interesting in itself, and it seems pretty clear that the question is not a homework question, people tend to answer with or without context. After all, we are here to learn math, not necessarily learn people's backgrounds or what they have been reading.

  • 6
    @robjohn Thanks for your point of view, anyway. I just wanted to point out that I am referring to bad questions, not good ones which lack contexts. Also, the situation I am talking about is more like the following: while some users try to comment and give helpful hints, some other users arrives and post a full answer. But, again, different people have different opinions on the matter. – Silvia Ghinassi Sep 1 '15 at 17:58
  • 18
    @BillDubuque "A good teacher can transform almost any question into a good teaching opportunity." Maybe so, but plenty of answer on the site don't, which seems like a main concern judging from "Also, I think a real dedicate teacher doesn't belong to this category. Giving a ready-to-use solution to someone who doesn't even understand the question won't teach them much." – quid Sep 1 '15 at 18:03
  • 14
    @BillDubuque: Unfortunately your previous comment raises another divisive issue. We do not all agree on whether the purpose of the site is to teach mathematics or to become a repository of mathematical knowledge. Thankfully the two goals are not mutually exclusive. We probably disagree on which of these goals is more important when forming policies, but I'm fairly sure that I'm about to veer off-topic. – Jyrki Lahtonen Sep 1 '15 at 18:07
  • 7
    Agree with @Carl. IMHO the "no-context" is mostly a euphemism for "somebody-do-my-homework". And this close reason is IMVHO occasionally misapplied. It would be simpler to just disallow all homework questions, but that is also IMHO suboptimal. If only because my preference is for us to attract more math enthusiasts among upperclassmen and grad students. The math enthusiasts at all levels are welcome. Those who simply need to pass calculus and/or finite math to get their degree are better served by people who are paid to serve them. – Jyrki Lahtonen Sep 1 '15 at 20:53
  • 14
    I love it when someone claims that a certain behavior is no less than a poison to this community and the site (true or not), and then someone suggest they simply ignore it. If you had poison in your tea, you can ignore it all you want, and still get poisoned. If someone thinks that something is poisoning the site, how can they ignore it? – Asaf Karagila Sep 2 '15 at 1:16
  • 10
    @Brian: So your solution to the rising overpopulation and the famine, war and pestilence it entails is simply to ignore most of the people? I don't think it's gonna work. – Asaf Karagila Sep 2 '15 at 7:27
  • 8
    @Bill It was a pretty poor way to illustrate that then. It certainly looked like you took the same logic and used it to make a point that what some people consider to be poison is edible by other people. (I saw you edited your comment to add "Get a clue": why are you so aggressive?) – Najib Idrissi Sep 2 '15 at 12:44
  • 11
    Let me avoid all analogies. The position that the presence of some content should just be ignore by those that take issue at it, as if it were nothing, seems overly simplistic to me. If this were so easy, why do we limit the scope of the site at all? Why not let users just ask or post whatever they want: recipes, reviews of movies, stories what they did during their summer-vacation, etc. Maybe some would enjoy it. Why do we curtail users' ability to express themselves on this site freely? Everybody that might have some issue with some content: just ignore it. – quid Sep 2 '15 at 12:55
  • 11
    @BrianM.Scott Let is not get hung up on this tangent. Let me just redact the claim about analogies. On the rest, your choice of words speaks for itself. The site has some scope, and I think most agree there is some point in having some scope and enforcing this. Where exactly one draws the line is a question one might reasonable disagree about, but your "merely ignore it" is overly simplistic. – quid Sep 2 '15 at 19:17
  • 10
    @Brian: What quid said in the last comment hits the nail on the head (with another nail, if you follow the conventions set by Futurama). My point, in that strained analogy, was that MSE is now a large site. We need to treat it as such. Ignoring problems that seem to be harder and harder to ignore is not a solution. Or in other words, ignoring your problems never solves them. At best you can hope for them to solve themselves, but this is not this kind of problem, I fear. – Asaf Karagila Sep 2 '15 at 19:27
  • 7
    @quid: I disagree. I find it no harder to ignore I need an answer ASAP than to ignore a question on differential geometry, a subject about which I know nothing. The basic line is very simple: the question should be mathematical and understandable. The most important refinement is Is it a duplicate?, not so much to save effort as to make more of the available answers readily accessible. There are perhaps a few other useful refinements, but for the most part anything else is imposition of an arbitrary prejudice that restricts the choices of other answerers. – Brian M. Scott Sep 2 '15 at 19:30
  • 6
    @Brian: The only way to ignore something which seems to be more and more commonplace is to reduce participation in the site. And I'm more than sure that you're not suggesting that anyone leaves the site. But in effect, this is what's going to happen when wading through the muck becomes too difficult. – Asaf Karagila Sep 2 '15 at 20:06
  • 13
    Ignoring bad content is as easy as ignoring what Bill calls the deletion squad. No, ignoring the deletion squad is easier because those people do not restrict your freedom to post in any way whatsoever. I turned away from sci.math because it was, as an unmoderated site, overrun by Cantor-disprovers and other crackpots. This is moderated. And we damn well are not going to allow this to be overrun by users dumping their loads here. – Jyrki Lahtonen Sep 2 '15 at 20:35
  • 9
    @BrianM.Scott I have no problem with "The basic line is very simple: the question should be mathematical and understandable." in itself, I would even consider it as a reasonable stance, with the understanding that this is your/an opinion what is/should be the scope of the site. I cannot follow "for the most part anything else is imposition of an arbitrary prejudice" though. – quid Sep 2 '15 at 22:17
  • 7
    Conversely, some others might think it'd be better to have a math-site restricted to undergraduate and above. I cannot find anything objectionable in this, or any of the opinions I listed. In my mind how to develop the site(s) is a question of practicality, efficience, and preference. Yet not something set in stone. – quid Sep 2 '15 at 22:18

I think that the reason to ask "Why are you doing this when the question should be closed" presumes that your assessment of what should be allowed is better than that of others. Those who, with great experience, answer these question have probably actually thought about it before doing so. I certainly have. So to answer your actual question: go ahead and write the comment if you like. I probably will ignore it.

A little more detail. From your comments, you seem to feel that answering HW questions promotes bad behavior, but I don't believe it. Others think it makes it hard to teach math classes and evaluate students accurately, and I don't believe that, either. My basis for that view is based on data:

If answering homework questions encourages more of them, why aren't there tons of people who've done nothing but ask HW questions, since many apparent HW questions, without context, do get answered?

I suspect that most September HW questions come from people who rapidly realize that if they can't handle the first HW assignment, they should drop the course (or get a tutor, or ...) and quickly disappear. That's a win-win situation: they get some help, but it turns out to not be the help they thought they wanted. They wanted to know how to compute a sum, but in reading the answer, discover that they really need help in choosing a course of study, because doing stuff like this is way over their head.

We have an amazingly high signal-to-noise ratio here. I recently answered a question that was badly phrased and lacked context, and which sounded, at first blush, like a HW question. @robjohn read the question so quickly that he saw the question he expected rather than the one that was (badly) asked [and I loved his answer to that question!]. Others did similar things. But we could have all downvoted it because it sounded like an attempt to get an answer to HW problem, written by someone not very good at writing math, and that would have been a pity. As it turned out, it got refined into a pretty decent question with a somewhat interesting answer.

Short summary: I think we're doing fine, and our response to HW questions probably doesn't matter one tiny bit in the big picture. It certainly doesn't matter to me, even though I teach math classes now and then.

  • 6
    Instead of worrying about the big picture, we could just worry about little ol' math.se. – user642796 Sep 14 '15 at 19:57
  • 9
    "why aren't there tons of people who've done nothing but ask HW questions": talk about a loaded question! There are tons of people who do nothing but ask HW questions! – Najib Idrissi Sep 15 '15 at 7:16
  • 2
    No, there really aren't. There are in early Sept. each year, but mostly it's pretty decent. Show me five users who asked questions yesterday, and who have more than ten HW questions in the last year, and I'll start to change my mind. That should be easy if there are so many of them. Instead, I claim most fade out really fast, and learn, from their questions and the answers, that they're really not cut out for this. – John Hughes Sep 15 '15 at 11:13
  • 4
    @JohnHughes: I have to say I agree with you on almost all the line, and I am quite surprised your reply got downvoted so hard, in favour of a more punitive attitude towards newcomers. – Jack D'Aurizio Sep 15 '15 at 13:48
  • Thanks, Jack. I'm used to others not agreeing with me. And if someone wants to show evidence that my claim --- that serial-hw-questioners are rare --- is wrong, I'll even be willing to alter my views. But I'm glad to find that we mostly agree. – John Hughes Sep 15 '15 at 14:36
  • 1
    One more question for the doubters: in what way does not answering HW questions actually dissuades the questions? Do you imagine that the kid taking Algebra II really sits down and reads through a few hundred old questions and says "Wow, the ones that sound like HW don't seem to have answers!" Of course not. That kid just asks the question and hopes. Maybe it keeps that kid from asking a second question, but again...are there really a lot of serial HW-question-askers? To paraphrase Cuba Gooding, Jr.: Show me the data! – John Hughes Sep 15 '15 at 14:39
  • 3
    @JohnHughes Most of these users are using throwaway accounts, so finding one that's been active for a year and has asked 10 questions is going to be hard... RE: last comment, have you spoken with people in real-life about math.SE? "Oh, that site where you can get your HW done for you?" is the most common response. If a user arrives on the site, sees the front page only has reasonable questions (because the bad ones have been closed and deleted), and the people around him/her haven't told him/her "hey you know what, go on this site to get your HW done for free", the situation will get better. – Najib Idrissi Sep 15 '15 at 14:45
  • 1
    I have spoken to people about it. Mostly they know about stackoverflow in some form, and the only one that had actual knowledge of MSE said, "Oh, one of my Ph.D. students got help with just the step he was stuck on for one of the theorems in his dissertation, and actually thanked and cited MSE." It's true that right now, 8 of the 15 questions on the first page are HW, but it's also the start of September. As for "throwaway accounts," creating an MSE account per question seems like ... kind of a high barrier to entry. I suppose you and I will continue to believe what we want to believe. :) – John Hughes Sep 15 '15 at 15:19
  • 7
    @John You don't need to create an account to ask a question here. You can just type your question, and provide an email address (I think the address you provide need not even be real or valid, but if you don't provide a valid email address you "own", losing your cookie will lose you the access to the unregistered "account" you asked from). It's not a particularly high barrier. We have a few instances of users who have created a lot of unregistered accounts, each for one or a few questions, used so long until the cookie was cleared, then the next account was created. Not even ill-intentioned. – Daniel Fischer Sep 15 '15 at 20:35
  • 5
    They just didn't care, since creating a new unregistered account is so easy. – Daniel Fischer Sep 15 '15 at 20:36

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .