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Is it in the spirit of Stack Exchange to always make a sincere attempt to interpret the OP's intentions? I believe it is.

Precision is important in maths, and where questions are imprecise it will often be helpful to address that imprecision. However I frequently see answers or comments which pick some logical fallacy or inaccuracy within a question, then to declare the question answered on the basis of it, while making apparently minimal attempt to interpret what the OP intended.

I think it's important to interpret the OP's intentions and to address the question they intend to ask, rather than some technicality. We will all have seen perhaps the stupidest example of this, in which the next number in some sequence is proposed by some method which can generate infinitely many candidates all having equal claim.

I am in favour of such stupidity attracting a waterfall of downvotes from the community.

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    $\begingroup$ I agree this is a problem. Note though that it seems to me some answerers provide such "stupidity" as you call it in good faith. They are just not competent enough to recognize the situation for what it is. Moreover, I would also insist on it being important to point out the inaccurate phrasing (yet in a comment). $\endgroup$ – quid Apr 9 '17 at 8:59
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    $\begingroup$ Related: Answers which take advantage of poor wording of the question, even when it's clear what the real question is. Some questions linked there might be of interest, too. $\endgroup$ – Martin Sleziak Apr 9 '17 at 9:05
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    $\begingroup$ @quid when provided in good faith, I would never consider it "stupidity". In the case this accepted answer describes, it is not stupidity: math.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/21126/… . What I'm referring to is... "the imperfections in this OP's notation and precision are annoying... therefore provide unhelpful answer... then argue in a disingenuous way that the answer is correct and force a lengthy debate about some point irrelevant to the intended question until blue in the teeth to prove oneself right. $\endgroup$ – samerivertwice Apr 9 '17 at 10:40
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    $\begingroup$ @user26857 that's the point of meta. This is a question. The answer may well be "No. the onus to clearly express your intentions is on the OP." But to suggest the matter's beyond discussion, I cannot agree with. $\endgroup$ – samerivertwice Apr 9 '17 at 10:42
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    $\begingroup$ Again, I agree that there are clear-cut cases. My point was just that there are superficially similar cases where the motives are different, vaguely like use Hanlon's razor. And in the opposite direction, it is also not unheard of that the "trivial" interpretation actually was the intended one. But I take it; you only want to discuss about cases where it is beyond doubt that the answer was willfully unhelpful. $\endgroup$ – quid Apr 9 '17 at 13:04
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with @quid. I would also suggest that some users cannot (yet) tell the difference between those cases. $\endgroup$ – Antonio Vargas Apr 9 '17 at 13:40
  • $\begingroup$ @AntonioVargas agreed and I agree with quid too. And I also think to answer literally can sometimes be a sincere way of eliciting the correct meaning to the question, and a correction to the question. $\endgroup$ – samerivertwice Apr 9 '17 at 13:56
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    $\begingroup$ Mind you, those "guess the next number of this sequence" are IMHO a bad example to promote your cause. Often such questions carry extramathematical baggage, and they are generally disliked. IIRC a semi-consensus was reached that such questions might be a better fit for Puzzling.SE. After a meta discussion the use of Lagrange interpolation formula to generate random continuations became a somewhat acceptable way of having "innocent" fun. $\endgroup$ – Jyrki Lahtonen Apr 9 '17 at 18:11
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    $\begingroup$ Sometimes, a question asked in good faith, is answered by an answerer in good faith, but the answerer assumes his/her interpretation as correct, before checking with the asker whether, indeed, that is how to interpreted. So first and foremost, when a question is sincerely ambiguous, I simply ask those who jump to gun in trying to answer (based on one interpretation), to comment to the asker first, and don't jump in to answer when the intention of the asker's question is unclear. $\endgroup$ – Namaste Apr 9 '17 at 20:57
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    $\begingroup$ Unless more people hold off before answering a question until after the asker has made clear what the question is (with the help of comments and commenters), this is going to be a problem: snarky answers, sincere attempts to answer a question the asker didn't ask, and\or answerers who try to cover every possible guess "If you mean $x$, then the answer is $y$. But if you mean $z$ then the answer is $a \land b \land c\land d$, Also, if you mean q, I can't help you".... Wait...! $\endgroup$ – Namaste Apr 9 '17 at 21:06
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    $\begingroup$ @amWhy: Unfortunately, some people prefer the spilled milk method. Post an answer, and worst case scenario have it downvoted. (This is what a certain user told me when I asked why not wait for clarification on a vague question...) $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Apr 11 '17 at 0:38
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    $\begingroup$ @amWhy: There's also the monumental challenge of allowing one's self to let a question to go unresolved when the questioner doesn't respond (or is otherwise uncooperative). I have some impression that's one of the main issues here; people can't stand to let a problem they think can be solved to go unsolved. $\endgroup$ – Excluded and Offended Apr 11 '17 at 17:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Hurkyl Indeed; of all the "unclear questions" I encounter on any given day, I may act on 10% of them...usually in an attempt to help the asker ask a clearer answer. Occasionally I answer such I question, because it seems very clear to me. But there are times (1% of 10 %), when I think it is most fitting to vote to put a question on hold as unclear, so that, hopefully, the asker is moved to help us help him/her. In any case, I agree that simply walking away is also an option.... But it's also true that in such a case, each unclear unanswered abandoned question clutters the site. $\endgroup$ – Namaste Apr 11 '17 at 19:15
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    $\begingroup$ I've seen two or three questions where the asker leaves out the word "nonzero," turning a very difficult problem into a trivially easy one. $\endgroup$ – Robert Soupe Apr 11 '17 at 20:21
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    $\begingroup$ Of course, there is the poster who posted a question involving some very serious misunderstandings of different bases for numbers. Three or four people attempted to correct him and he complained they hadn't answered the question. I spent some time and answered his introductory question and explained why his second question needed to be re-shaped. He got very angry because I hadn't answered his question exactly as he had posted it. I explained nicely, twice, and then flat-out told him his post was wrong. At this point I get tempted to go really rude. $\endgroup$ – victoria Apr 13 '17 at 4:27
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I think it can be helpful, in a comment, to point out that the question, as read literally, has a trivial answer. This may help the asker to understand what assumptions or requirements may be missing.

For instance, given the question:

Does there exist a topological space $X$ such that every continuous $f : X \to \mathbb{R}$ is constant?

I might comment:

Yes, you could take $X$ to be a single point, or equip $X$ with the indiscrete topology. Perhaps you meant to require that $X$ should contain at least two points and be Hausdorff?

But I would not post it as an answer; I would not claim that it answers the question; and I would not upvote such answers.

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  • $\begingroup$ Succinct, clear, and to the point! $\endgroup$ – Namaste Apr 11 '17 at 19:25
  • $\begingroup$ I agree, although I've proposed a minor edit - the trivial answer may actually be the one that's wanted. But this can be clarified in response to a comment. $\endgroup$ – samerivertwice Apr 13 '17 at 8:46
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Although I agree with the premise that we need to interpret in the best interest of the OP, your point with downvoting is debatable due to a couple of reasons:

  1. Interpreting (or, sometimes, guessing) intent takes time and should have been the OP's role.

  2. If you ask answerers to interpret, there is bound to be misinterpretation, even in good faith.

On the other hand, the benefit of interpreting is largely for:

  1. pedagogical reasons, which will likely...

  2. guide the user to clarify or provide additional context and maintain a satisfactory post.

That said,

  • It's the ultimate responsibility of the OP to clarify their exact intent.
    Appropriate flagging and review actions should be done just like on any other post.

  • The OP needs to engage with the commenters and work towards the OP's intended goal.
    In such cases, commenters should put forward constructive criticism instead of tongue-in-cheek responses.

  • When illustrating a point, balance and don't extend too far.
    Interpretation may not be agreed by all (including the OP) and might even be annoying if not properly presented. Think twice before offering interpretations. When not sure, engage with the OP!

These are my thoughts and opinions after engaging in one such recent post. I tend to enforce these three bullet points whenever I comment, ask, answer and vote.

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    $\begingroup$ I agree. It's only the deliberately disingenuous answers I'm inclined to take issue with. $\endgroup$ – samerivertwice Apr 9 '17 at 10:45
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    $\begingroup$ @RobertFrost I agree very much with FrenzyLi's answer. But when you comment and say "It's only the deliberately disingenuous answers" that you take issue with, it would help for you to describe examples in which you feel that an answer has been "deliberately disingenuous". $\endgroup$ – Namaste Apr 9 '17 at 21:13
  • $\begingroup$ @amWhy I can't do that since I can generally only ever judge the action and not the intent, but sometimes we do get a sense. I agree using Lagrange interpolation formula to generate an answer which has virtually zero chance of being the correct answer can actually be a thought-provoking lesson for the OP but there are other cases where an answer basically says "you're not allowed to discuss that on here because there are too many flaws in your question and I'm going to use those against you" $\endgroup$ – samerivertwice Apr 10 '17 at 7:28
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    $\begingroup$ RobertFrost You made a judgment about the intent of users when you wrote "I frequently see answers or comments which pick some logical fallacy or inaccuracy within a question, then to declare the question answered on the basis of it, while making apparently minimal attempt to interpret what the OP intended." That sentence reveals some judgments of intent on both the OP and such answerers. If you ---will not--- cannot provide examples of what you claim to be bad faith answers, then why ask your question, since it seems to reflect only your impression of some unidentified answerers? $\endgroup$ – Namaste Apr 11 '17 at 19:37
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I think that sincere attempt is part of what a good answer requires.

I frequently think I know what the OP intended even though it's not what the question says. If the question is otherwise reasonable (shows effort, ...) I may answer (or comment), beginning

I think you mean ... if so

sometimes, with just a hint when I think I can help the OP solve the problem her/himself.

When this strategy succeeds it helps everyone: the OP learns and the moderators have less work managing the close queue.

I (too) dislike (snarky) answers that are correct because they rely on the literal but clearly unintended meaning of the question.

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  • $\begingroup$ Why not first ask the asker, in a comment, "Is this .......... , what you mean to ask?" and then sit tight. $\endgroup$ – Namaste Apr 9 '17 at 20:59
  • $\begingroup$ I do agree with you about "snarky" answers, but they come in many shapes and sizes. $\endgroup$ – Namaste Apr 9 '17 at 21:00
  • $\begingroup$ @amWhy I do sometimes do this is a comment rather than an answer (as I say above). Which depends on how sure I am, how long the text, ... $\endgroup$ – Ethan Bolker Apr 9 '17 at 21:08
  • $\begingroup$ I get that, and I've done both, at times. And I did notice, after my first comment, that you did say that you do so in comments and/or answers. My comment wasn't about you. I have since placed a comment below the OP, where this comment of mine best belongs. $\endgroup$ – Namaste Apr 9 '17 at 21:18
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This is a tricky issue, because the person asking the question is not you.

You may think some question, as it is stated, is so trivial that it can't possibly be what the person meant. But that judgement is coming from someone with your experience and expertise — someone with much less experience and expertise may very well be stumped on this trivial issue!

Sometimes, even a person with experience and expertise just makes a mistake or overlooks the simple thing.

Recall the story about the teacher who declares something trivial, and when questioned in class takes a 30 minute break to work through things, and then comes back and announces "yes, it is trivial" and continues on.

I would estimate that at least 10% of the time I post a "disingenuous" answer, it happens to be exactly the answer the originator was looking for. And there is no harm in posting it even if the question as written is not what the poster intended, because others will still come along and answer alternative guesses as to the intention and engage in comments to try and clarify the question.


Incidentally, I get far more complaints on the flipside of this issue — when the literal interpretation looks like a 'reasonable' question to ask, but reading between the lines suggests the intended question is something else, I often get a lot of flak for trying to address the something else when everyone else is answering the 'reasonable' question.

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    $\begingroup$ @amWhy: I read it as an argument against the OP's suggestion that such answers should attract "a waterfall of downvotes from the community". $\endgroup$ – Rahul Apr 12 '17 at 4:15
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks, @Rahul. Re-reading the answer in that light has helped me understand the answer, and I agree whole-heartedly with this answer. I suspect, given my frustration in my failure to ascertain the point (I really didn't get "the point"), my first comment here looks a little "snarky", and if so, I apologize especially to Hurkyl. $\endgroup$ – Namaste Apr 13 '17 at 15:37
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Is a point of this site to help to socialize mathematics? How great is our obligation to help those learning to express themselves with mathematical precision? There is a broad spectrum of compassion within the user community. Some obvious homework questions are answered immediately. Some closed immediately. Do we want to have a site that welcomes mathematical explorers, or do we want to enforce discipline and rigor?

Most of the responders have mathematical skills, and they are stripped of social tools when a question is stripped of tone and context when encoded to a string of letters. We are reduced to inference, to guessing. Some users think poorly formed questions should be rebuffed. They may argue that condoning such behavior enforces bad habits. Some users try to add value and provide help not just for the OP, but anyone who looks at the question later.

Do we want the site diluted - or polluted - with extraneous questions? Or do we want to embrace the community at large, and accept a need for maturation? The site rewards users for removing poorly received questions. Should the reward be increased? Should the trustees of the site be entrusted to cull low value material?

The countervailing currents swirl.

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    $\begingroup$ "Do we want to have a site that welcomes mathematical explorers, or do we want to enforce discipline and rigor?" Must it be one answer at the expense of the other? Why would you ignore the possibility that this site can be both welcoming to sincere askers, and answerers, and also can insist on users, (askers and answerers) follow guide lines (relatively few basic rules), and also to steer users to mathematical rigor. So I think on that point, you're presenting a false dichotomy. $\endgroup$ – Namaste Apr 13 '17 at 19:13
  • $\begingroup$ @amWhy: The point was not clear it seems. We have choices that are in tension, and we should not frame questions for binary resolution. $\endgroup$ – dantopa Apr 13 '17 at 19:17
  • $\begingroup$ dantopa I agree with you on that, and I think you've "laid out the land" of some of the tensions about the goals of this site (or rather, the tensions in the purpose and goals between vast numbers of users of this site $\endgroup$ – Namaste Apr 13 '17 at 19:22

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