# How should we deal with “sob stories”/gaming the system?

There are many questions where someone posts something along the lines of "my 4 year old daughter conjectured that: (math a 4 year old would obviously not know)". There was one recently where they asked about "their 8th grade homework" and they were obviously not in 8th grade, but of course it became a HNQ (hot network question) and received a lot of upvotes. I saw one recently where they added "I asked my teacher and they wouldn't help me".

Of course it is possible that a teacher wouldn't help a student, or your 4 year old daughter could conjecture something in category theory, or you can be an 8th grader. But it sits very wrong with me that all you have to do to get lots of upvotes/help/etc. is just add a one line sob story even if it's transparent.

How do we stop people from gaming the system with sob stories?

• If you can't beat 'em, join 'em? – Misha Lavrov Apr 2 '18 at 19:35
• Meh, I think this is a pretty rare issue IMHO. Besides, there is so much variability in terms of the age at which people learn things that it is very difficult to say a student "obviously not in 8th grade." I think a heavy handed treatment can do a lot of damage in terms of stifling curiosity, and that damage isn't commensurate with the issue. – user296602 Apr 2 '18 at 19:35
• I disagree with @user296602. There is a whole spectrum of sob stories, and when they are successful in getting rep, it merely encourages them and others to keep on the game. Also, the claimed 8th grader had asked most of their questions without such a claim, and only recently did they change their profile and add "8th grade" and each and every of their subsequent questions. So I think not only is this NOT a rare issue, the question addresses a real problem on MSE, and manifests along a spectrum from whining to outright pretense. – Namaste Apr 2 '18 at 20:13
• @amWhy Perhaps the asker really is an eighth grader whose teacher couldn't or wouldn't answer the question, and they're looking for insight into some mathematics that they thought was cool. I'd like to assume good intentions from the asker; after all, not everyone is here just to rack up as many points as possible. I really couldn't care less if they end up with a couple extra upvotes (or extra downvotes) for that reason. I think the much bigger issue is the tendency of HNQ to skew voting on otherwise low-quality questions. – user296602 Apr 2 '18 at 22:10
• I have the same concern as you, @user296602 about HNQ's. – Namaste Apr 2 '18 at 22:16
• I agree there is an issue here. And I too felt that in the last couple of weeks there has been more "attempts to score" than previously (I even mentioned it here as the second and third easiest way to obtain gold badges on the site). I don't know if these questions are all bad. Some of them are absolutely awful, but others really do a nice service to remind the people on the SE network—and the rest of the internet—that mathematics can be really beautiful, and not just boring equations that nobody cares about (especially not mathematicians). – Asaf Karagila Apr 3 '18 at 0:19
• @amWhy: I personally took linear algebra in seventh grade, and an abstract algebra course during high school. So it's certainly not impossible for questions on those subjects to be asked at that age. (especially if the asker just encountered the subject incidentally or via self study rather than a formal course as I did) – Hurkyl Apr 3 '18 at 2:54
• I think it is best to mention the personal details in profile page and not repeat the fact that one is an 8th grader or perhaps just a toddler in questions. That being said it is perfectly fine to state that an answer at a particular level of mathematical maturity is desired. Thus for example I don't even know the bare minimum of complex analysis and sometimes state that answers based on real analysis/calculus are desired. – Paramanand Singh Apr 3 '18 at 7:43
• An underused feature of math.SE is that you can edit other people's question. So simply remove the useless info, clean up the formatting and tags if necessary, and voilà. However, trying to prevent people from gaming the system is a bit of a dead end – this whole website is designed like a game where you earn points, bonuses, trophies... – Najib Idrissi Apr 3 '18 at 8:34
• A (sort of) theorem of Gödel ... If math.se is sufficiently powerful to talk about $\mathbb N$, then no matter what checks you have, it will still be possible to game the system. – GEdgar Apr 3 '18 at 13:42
• @Najib: I wish it were so easy. Often people will rollback and fight you over the content and style of their question. And sometimes, truth be told, removing the "fluff" leaves you with an odd question without context. – Asaf Karagila Apr 3 '18 at 14:54
• And people on MSE have a real fetish for this! Proof: Create a fake account, write something as: "Hello, I am a $1$ second old girl and I think the nontrivial zeros of ❤$(t)$ have real part equal to $\frac{1}{2}$ and I discovered it by myself. I asked the doula but she couldn't help me!" - Instantly, there will be thousands of upvotes! – Billy Rubina Apr 3 '18 at 23:45
• @NajibIdrissi For better or for worse, "I am on eight-grade" or "My daughter came up with this" may be relevant context ( related ). – Aloizio Macedo Apr 4 '18 at 3:32
• Also, I think it is a bit unrealistic and/or unfair to say that people who are asking are "gaming the system". From a quick search with "daughter", the most voted posts were by people who had that only question. I don't think that a few isolated people with 2k rep and only one question is relevant whatsoever. However, the answerers are another thing altogether. But there are a lot of other singularities that attract attention maybe unfairly. These are points out of the curve that I simply don't see as something which should be treated in some way other than "that sucks... oh well". – Aloizio Macedo Apr 4 '18 at 3:51
• @ZacharySelk I don't know the specific example(s?) you have in mind, but you also talk generally in the question and I find it inconsistent that a person which posts only one question ever is gaming the system for rep. They may want to "show off" their relative, or "brag about" something, but (in general) I don't think this is actively gaming the system (even though it is annoying). If someone is objectively doing that as you claim, why not flag the question? – Aloizio Macedo Apr 4 '18 at 15:58

I don't agree that this is that serious of a problem. Both in the sense of Aloizio Macedo's analysis that many(most?) of these people don't seem to be "gaming the system" as they don't even return to the site, and in the sense of Robert Soupe's answer where it doesn't really matter if someone has a lot of SE reputation. I do agree that it can set bad precedents so I don't think it should be ignored entirely.

Suggested Process:

Here's the process I suggest. Edit the answer to remove or reword the "extra" context. Add a comment explaining why you made the changes if you like. Do not "call out" the OP at this point. If the changes are reverted by the OP or the "extra" context is edited back in and you believe this is an attempt to "game the system" flag the question for moderator attention. Here you can include evidence that they are lying or whatever. The moderators can decide what to do then. Presumably, if they agree that it is "gaming the system" they would edit the question to some appropriate form and lock it, or take further action against the user if this is a pattern.

Rationale:

That's it. What follows is my rationale for this process.

I agree with B. Goddard that it is usually better to encourage the OP to make their own edits but that relies on three things: 1) good faith on the OP's part, 2) that the OP knows what changes are needed, and 3) that having the text stand as-is is acceptable. The last concern is the primary reason I recommend editing immediately. As an analogy, if the question contained obscenities, I would edit them out immediately, not try to convince the OP to edit them out. The premise of this meta question is that the "sob stories" draw inappropriate up-votes. As long as the "sob stories" remain, more inappropriate up-votes will occur.

Part of the mindset here is the problem is how the questions are presented, not whether or not the claims are true or whether the OP is intentionally "gaming the system". I'm pretty sure moderators don't want to be in the position of determining whether some user does or does not have a 4 year-old child. Nor do we want comments filled with arguments. This also sends the wrong message that the "sob story" would be acceptable as long as it's true which is not the case. Similarly, we don't want edit wars. Certainly, if you notice a user who continues to post such questions despite feedback, then bring it up to a moderator like you would any other attempt to "game the system", but the individual questions stand on their own.

As for a Too Much Information (TMI) close reason. This makes no sense to me. Ignoring technical barriers to this and queue lengths, this reason to close would be unlike all the others. The commonality that the current close reasons have is that the community can't fix the question without quite possibly changing it from what the OP intends. Only the OP can. TMI is the exact opposite of this. The community is best positioned to recognize which information is Too Much Information and is empowered to remove it without needing the OP's involvement. It's much harder for someone new to the site to know what is Too Much Information, and frankly the larger problem is the lack of context provided by many new users.

So if I tell people that my 10-year-old daughter, who is stricken with some rare, usually fatal illness, came up with an interesting mathematical conjecture, my post will get lots of upvotes and I will get some money as a direct result of that?

No, I'll just get a bunch of Internet points.

Or are you concerned about a slippery slope scenario in which the site gets bogged down in sob stories? It might become a legitimate but ultimately short term nuisance.

Most likely it'll just remain an occasional nuisance. Here are some suggestions, some more applicable to some situations than others:

• Express your skepticism in a comment or answer. Trouble with this one is you might come across a jerk.
• Downvote. You don't have to justify it and you can take the hit to your points. Or is there even a hit for downvoting questions? Your downvote might just be enough to knock the question off the hot network questions list.
• Edit the question to take out the irrelevant personal stuff. Like in my soon to be hot network question, I spend a couple of paragraphs explaining how my 10-year-old wants to be a Marine helo pilot, but alas, that will never happen on account of her moderate to severe neurofibromatosis! Only then do I start talking about her conjecture about prime numbers in field tower extensions.
• Close the question. Of course this is a valid option only if there is a valid reason to close the question. But that's a whole other topic.

Oh, and don't worry about my soon to be hot network question, I've decided not to post it after all. Turns out my daughter doesn't have NF, I just misdiagnosed her after reading a couple of WebMD pages.

• Oh, the last paragraph was a total relief. Wish your daughter well. When I was 10, I didn't even know what a prime number is. Having a conjecture at this age is a sign of pure geniusness. – polfosol Apr 9 '18 at 11:44
• @polfosol Thank you. She does know prime numbers, but, um, field tower extensions... I'm not sure, given that I don't understand them all that well myself. – Robert Soupe Apr 10 '18 at 3:35
• There's no rep penalty for downvoting questions. Also, if you don't really understand field tower extensions yourself, how can you be sure that your daughter does or doesnt? ;-) – David Richerby Apr 16 '18 at 15:43

I am confused about why this is considered an issue. I am new to this StackExchange, so it's possible there's context specific to this SE I'm missing but I agree with Robert Soupe's position, though I think his answer could have been more "eloquently" presented.

I mentioned in a comment to B. Goddard's answer that more context is in general better. Not just for people attempting to answer the question but also for search engines and Stack Exchange to find relevant results. If someone says they're in 8th grade, that means any answer should take into account what they would or wouldn't know on the subject. (Though I think requiring more information than "8th grade" is a good idea, because 8th grade can mean different things in different countries and not all 8th graders are taking the same level of math).

There are two primary possibilities when someone claims they are in 8th grade and in both of them it really shouldn't matter:

• They are not.
• They are.

# They are not \$age If they are not, I don't really see how it makes a difference. A bad question is still a bad question and a good question and a good question is still a good question. We already have a way to deal with bad questions: downvotes and edits. And if a bad question ends up with lots of reputation, the only people really at fault are the people who upvoted it. And I find it unlikely people would upvote bad questions just because they include 4 year olds. And questions showing up on other SE sites shouldn't really have much of an effect. Voting up questions and answers requires 15 rep, reaching this level would mean the user either received 15 rep on the Math SE site or 100 rep on any other SE site. Either way, a user would either be familiar with acceptable conduct on this SE site or somewhat familiar with what is and isn't acceptable on Stack Exchange network sites as a whole. It also of course ensures they likely aren't a bot, but I don't think there's much of a motivation for that anyway that wouldn't already include breaking other rules. If you have hard proof that someone is lying (i.e. a post to the parenting SE proving where they contradict the existence of their 2 year old) then absolutely call them out on it in the comments or on meta and downvote them. But unless you actually have proof of someone lying, I feel you should typically assume good faith, even if their claims are highly unlikely. While a 4 year old might not understand advanced math, it's possible something they said made their parent realize something, and they just neglected to include that. # They are \$age

I also don't think this situation should be much of a concern. To use the example mentioned by @B.Goddard, if an 8th grader has a question regarding a why their solution to an impossible problem is incorrect, they likely are pretty interested and eager to study math, and it's probably best not to actively discourage them. In the case of angle trisection that B.Goddard used as an example, it's possible they misunderstood part of the problem due to a bad or oversimplified explanation. If their question is original, it's valuable even if trivial and if their question is a duplicate, it should be flagged as such.

The Stack Exchange network already has a somewhat negative reputation for how it treats novices. While I don't expect every experienced user is obligated to take their time to answer novice questions, I also don't think it's acceptable for experienced users to actively discourage new users. A novice user today might someday end up as a valuable contributor to this site, another site on the network, or mathematics as a whole.

• You are really talking without any observations about the "They are not $age" part. Especially the second paragraph about outsider-voting. – Asaf Karagila Apr 9 '18 at 21:03 Perhaps we should add a "TMI" button on the Close Vote pane. I get annoyed when someone begins their question with a paragraph explaining why they're not really stupid for the question they're about to ask: "I'm only in 8th grade." (Would an 8th-grader say "only"?) "While I got straight A's in calculus, I've been out of school for a while and I don't really use calculus in my 7-figure, high-powered, super-technical job..." "I've been studying derivatives of polynomials and I stumbled upon...." When we vote to close, there would be a radio button that says, "The question contains too much irrelevant information." And after the question is closed, the little pink box would say "These people voted to close because TMI. The question could be re-opened if it is edited to contain only the relevant information." It's an error to post too little: "I solved an equation and got$x=\sqrt{5}\$ what did I do wrong?"

So I think it ought to be an error to post too much. And we help the asker with his critical thinking skills by pushing him to be precise and relevant.

• If a question has irrelevant information, you should just edit it out. As Aloizio Macedo pointed out in the comments, this context can be relevant, but you can still edit the wording if it bothers you. If the question is asking if all polynomials have roots, then knowing the OP is in 8th grade is helpful to get appropriate answers. If the question is about motivic cohomology, then knowing the OP is in 8th grade is irrelevant even if true because they are not a typical 8th grader. "8th grade" is a proxy for specifying what background the OP has. – Derek Elkins Apr 7 '18 at 12:54
• @DerekElkins You seem to ignore that some of us want to help the posters improve. If I do the editing, the OP learns nothing. If we push the OP to do the editing, he has to critic his own work, figure out what we mean and then implement. He improves is analytic skills this way. – B. Goddard Apr 7 '18 at 13:07
• First, they will probably notice that their question was edited. Second, you can comment on why you made the edit and give advice for the future. Third, closing voting because they had irrelevant information is a rather aggressive means of "critiquing". Fourth, the context of the question is about text that is causing a "problem". Encouraging the OP to edit their question doesn't solve the problem in a timely manner (if it works at all). If we assume, as the question does, that this is intentional, then the OP isn't going to be interested, though closing is more appropriate then. – Derek Elkins Apr 7 '18 at 14:03
• @DerekElkins You're not making any sense. I don't think you know the difference between empowering and enabling. The tail is wagging the dog. – B. Goddard Apr 7 '18 at 14:07
• If the wording is the only problem and a simple edit solves the problem, voting to close is a waste of other users' time and waste of site resources in general: 3-6 others users has to review the close votes, and if it is closed and edited, another 3-5 users have to review the reopen votes. – user99914 Apr 7 '18 at 19:32
• And the close vote queue is so long, that questions in the queue might not be reviewed (see here) so please think twice before voting: another (possibly worst) questions might not be dealt with because of that. – user99914 Apr 7 '18 at 19:34
• @JohnMa I can think of two users who, if they were banned, the close-vote queue would be 1/3 as long. But "wording" wasn't the problem in the OP. It's the sob story and a method for scoring points. – B. Goddard Apr 7 '18 at 19:42
• I'm new here, but I strongly oppose making this a viable reason for voting to close. Closing questions due to "TMI" may lead to users later including too little information by default. If a user is a novice, it's entirely possible that they're also asking the wrong question and that extra context may very well reveal that. If it's excessive, it can be edited out by other concerned users. I also concur with what others say regarding this making the review excessively long. – Rob Rose Apr 8 '18 at 21:06
• I ran out of space in the other comment, but there's also the additional meta benefit of more context providing more information for search engines and Stack Exchange's duplicate question search. This means that a user who hopefully searches for their answer first will be more likely to find their answer. Saving people the trouble of closing a duplicate question. – Rob Rose Apr 8 '18 at 21:08
• @RobRose I don't think you're distinguishing between "extra context" and something that is not context at all. I'm all for leaving bad English in a post, because it helps gauge the asker. I'm all for saying "This is from my 8th grade homework." That's context. The complaint here is against "I'm only in 8th grade and I've figured out how to trisect an angle." I don't think newbies are going to be aware that they might violate TMI. (They sure don't seem to be aware of the other rules.) – B. Goddard Apr 8 '18 at 21:14
• @B.Goddard Perhaps a better change than would be to close "naive proof" questions that don't have a specific question regarding it. I could definitely see an 8th grader being confused about why angle trisection is impossible, as the proof of impossibility requires abstract algebra and field extensions, something an 8th grader couldn't be expected to know. And any answer of why it's impossible would have to take into account their level of expertise. – Rob Rose Apr 8 '18 at 21:26
• Also I feel an 8th grader would definitely use the word "only", as they may recognize that most people here are more experienced. – Rob Rose Apr 8 '18 at 21:30