# Blindly answering easy questions without considering whether the question satisfies MSE policy.

Here's the question which motivated me to write this question.

Inspite of being clearly mentioned in the MSE's homework policy about Avoid "no clue" questions this question was asked by the user. If the user is new, it is responsibility of other users to help them in knowing the policy of this site for asking questions.

But, instead of this, the question was simply answered without asking the OP for their attempt or what more they know about the context (may be just because the question was simple). The answer providers also include some of the highly reputed users of this site.

As quoted in the FAQ thread

It's much better to give a hint, so that the asker may find the right direction.

This statement was completely ignored and there was flow of answers given by the users one-by-one. I thought this is a matter of concern so I wrote this question to draw attention of other users in order to prevent MSE being an homework service site.

• I have faced a similar problem, but slightly worse Jun 30 '20 at 14:30
• This has been talked about many times here. The best thing to do is vote to close the question and downvote it as soon as possible. I find that calling users out for answering generally only puts them on the defensive; they have no interest in recognising what they’re doing wrong. If it’s particularly bad or done repeatedly, then it’s worth downvoting the answer and/or calling the answerer out. Also, leave a comment under the question addressing the problem. Jun 30 '20 at 16:35
• I always suggest that users judge OP by comments(that is, gauge the level/interest of the OP using comments) before answering the question, and this is usually my policy. The OP in fact responded (in Croatian : I love their accent) and said (briefly) : I tried it myself, failed and so asked the question. So yeah, people should've engaged with him but didn't, maybe because the question did have a trick, was too tempting(the usual). There was somebody who downvoted all the answers , though, probably to push the point across. Jun 30 '20 at 16:49
• I largely disagree @gen-zreadytoperish. The answerers are the key to solving this problem. An asker may be on a throw-away account, but the asker has some skin in this game. I often downvote an answer to such a question from an experienced user who should know better. Jul 1 '20 at 8:06
• @user400188, also read the question asking policy. Avoid "no-clue" questions. However, only @peter.petrov has given the answer in expected format. But, the way in which the question was asked (may be for homework) which is not obeying MSE policy should also be considered by the answer provider before answering. Jul 1 '20 at 9:58
• The policy for math SE is listed here. math.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/1803/…. It is not actually against the rules. Jul 1 '20 at 10:02
• @user400188, check out the one which I've linked in this question above. Jul 1 '20 at 10:04
• Some users are just reputation hungry, and there's no reward for supplying helpful comments. This is also quite unfortunate because often times there are sufficiently helpful comments which don't really get the recognition they deserve, while there are tons of answers with up-votes which shouldn't have any. Jul 2 '20 at 0:00
• @астонвіллаолофмэллбэрг, it's my fault for not voting to close it as a duplicate. I wasn't sure whether or not I should vote for a lack of context or for being a duplicate. I avoid discussions in languages other than English, but I' d seen the previous question by the OP and realized he isn't fluent in English, so I tried to advise him in Croatian assuming he would understand me. I can't tell if the language he replied in is Croatian, Serbian or Bosnian by that comment because it's too short. Jul 2 '20 at 12:33
• I don't object to anyone downvoting as they wish, and I think that's often a good way to handle cases where users have differing opinions about what's an acceptable question or answer. Just let the votes and downvotes handle it. But I have to say, despite the lack of context in the question OP linked to, I learned something both from reading the question and from reading the answer given by Yves Daoust. I would not want to remove this content from the site. Jul 2 '20 at 12:42
• @астон вілла олоф мэллбэрг, thank you for theadvice and support! As a student, it definitely enriches me. It's nice to both read your answers and hear you're a fanatic of Slavic languages! Jul 2 '20 at 17:35
• @Croissant good luck and i hope you become a good contributor on the site! Jul 2 '20 at 17:52
• It is odd that you claim to want to prevent Math SE from becoming a homework service site but yet posted an answer to this pure problem-statement question. Do you admit that that question is pretty much as bad as the example you gave here? Jul 4 '20 at 16:40
• @user21820: good catch! I have suffered from this problem and try to resist the temptation (sometimes by giving an approach in comments). Following rules (even those framed by oneself) requires a lot of discipline and courage and even with best intentions we sometimes falter. Jul 5 '20 at 3:40
• There is also the issue that Stackexchange moderators are delete-happy for comments. When I ask helpful comments like those suggested by the FAQ, they very often get deleted and "sent to chat" because "comments are not for discussion" Jul 7 '20 at 7:30

This really should be a comment to an answer from a now deleted account, but I want to elaborate on a point, and also get a reality check from others. So an answer it is.

Quoting

The truth is that 99% of math.stackexchange is just people repeating information they learned in some class or from reading a book or lecture notes. There is no actual difference between helping someone in algebraic topology or functional analysis and calc 1 or linear algebra besides ego. The gatekeeping of, "oh, is this question good enough for us to reply?" is nonsense. If it's below your standards, just ignore it.

The complaint seems to be that the bulk of janitorial work is directed at lower level questions (=sophomore or below) while advanced undergrad and graduate level homework questions in their opinion fall through the cracks.

Given that at least here I wanted to give more advanced questions some slack, I took this a bit personally in the sense that the accusation somewhat fits my tendencies. I thought about this, and want to share.

Yes, I have voted to put on hold at least ten times as many calculus / elementary-number-theory / combinatorics questions in comparison to higher level questions.

But this is not really such a heavy bias in my voting policies, nor those of the other CURED-activists.

• Sheer numbers. There are many more low quality questions in lower level tags. Simply because world wide there are more students at those levels.
• I'm on record for fighting duplicates with passion. The more advanced questions are much less likely to be duplicates. The number of questions at a particular level correlates with the number of people at that level in their studies, and this forms a triangle (or a pyramid) sitting on its low level base. The amount of mathematical knowledge, on the other hand, forms a tree-like structure, more like an inverted pyramid. These two factors imply that the duplication is disproportionately concentrated on the lower level tags. Given that I scan the close queue mostly for posts that PSQs as well as duplicates (particularly those likely to become fodder for FGITWs), this will make my "vote-to-close" stats look skewed towards lower level. My desire to "punish" FGITWs probably skews it further.
• If I run into a PSQ in stochastic math I will likely just click "Skip" simply because I lack the expertise to determine whether sufficient context has been given in the question. Likely many other follow similar (intellectually honest) policy, again with the net result that basic questions get more attention from the reviewers.
• But, I'm just a single reviewer. Judging from my observations the more systematic CURED-activists don't pay attention to the factors of the previous bullets. For them a PSQ is a PSQ irrespective of its level. Undoubtedly there are many other active reviewers all using their subjective criteria.

So it is not surprising at all that the net effect is that lower level questions are more likely to be put on hold by the reviewers. On the other hand, seeing this as a bias favoring deeper stuff seems misguided, when statistical explanations exist.

• Well i am suprised that you cared, their accuscation comes with no supporting data and from their profile, which is now gone, I dont see that they are active in higher level tags. Jul 9 '20 at 9:52
• From what I see in the different geometry tag, PSQ gets closed most of the time. Indeed, the situation is even better since everything happens slowly: almost no users will answer those question 3 minutes after it's posted. Jul 9 '20 at 9:57
• I really don't think this quote was the point of his answer. To me, the main point was that there's really not harm in answering "bad" questions. Jul 18 '20 at 17:10
• Hard to tell for sure, @Cronus. If that was their point, then I simply disagree strongly. Jul 18 '20 at 17:14
• Why do you disagree? Jul 18 '20 at 19:00
• @Cronus That has been explained many times. Answering bad questions begets more bad questions. We already have too much of a reputation as a homework mill. Hitting those who want to answer bad homeworks questions is the only way to stop the deterioration. Jul 18 '20 at 19:51
• Then there's also the rep game. Some users want to play by different rules, ruining it for the others. That's less serious of a problem, but cannot be ignored entirely. Jul 18 '20 at 19:54
• I guess I'd agree with you if I thought "bad questions" were really bad. But I don't. I don't see the point in forcing people to write down their efforts, or write well, or whatever. To me this site should just be for asking questions, of whatever kind, and anyone should be welcome to use it. I just enjoy answering people's questions and am happy to have mine answered. Jul 19 '20 at 6:21
• @Cronus But this site was created to become a well organized repository of knowledge. If only there were a way to resolve this. Your approach will (or has already), over time, lead to severe duplication of questions, and increases the entropy. The homework mill reputation has already turned off many of the best potential answerers. A compromise is necessary. Hence the PSQ policy that nobody likes - not even those who seek to enforce it. That's what compromises often look like. Jul 19 '20 at 6:32
• A palatable alternative would be to not allow any homework questions- Good effort, bad effort, no effort all - not allowed. Physics.SE does that and they seem to have less quarrelling (though undoubtedly there is also a vocal group there who would want to abolish the restrictions). Jul 19 '20 at 6:33
• I'm not against erasing duplicates, actually (although I do think a lot of people here mark things as duplicates way too quickly, without actually reading the question thoroughly, and often do it erroneously). But, regarding the other things, I don't see how it gets in the way of making this site a repository of knowledge. Jul 19 '20 at 6:37
• The argument has been rehashed many times in meta already. Repeating it here, in whatever form my knee-jerk reactions would do it now, is not an efficient use of our time. Just check out the related threads in meta. Jul 19 '20 at 6:41

The truth is that 99% of math.stackexchange is just people repeating information they learned in some class or from reading a book or lecture notes. There is no actual difference between helping someone in algebraic topology or functional analysis and calc 1 or linear algebra besides ego. The gatekeeping of, "oh, is this question good enough for us to reply?" is nonsense. If it's below your standards, just ignore it.

• If the primary goal of Math SE were to provide one-on-one help to individual users, I would agree with you. However, that is not the model on which the site runs. Instead, the goal is to help users to get answers, primarily through searching. Having large numbers of low-quality and duplicate questions clouds the search results and makes it that much harder to find what one is actually looking for. Answering a particular no-context PSQ might help that one asker, but it may also go on to harm many future questioners.
– Xander Henderson Mod
Jul 1 '20 at 17:20
• From Atwood's blog: "Passively searching and reading highly ranked Stack Overflow answers as they appear in web search results is arguably the primary goal of Stack Overflow. If Stack Overflow is working like it's supposed to, 98% of programmers should get all the answers they need from reading search result pages and wouldn't need to ask or answer a single question in their entire careers. This is a good thing! Great, even!"
– Xander Henderson Mod
Jul 1 '20 at 17:21
• @XanderHenderson I know what the theoretical model is, and I don't think it works in practice for math. Most users are not around long enough to be socialized into your utopia to use it correctly on your terms, like pro or semi-pro programmers. They just want to know what the MLE of their weird contrived stats problem is, or whether a particular set of vectors is linearly independent, or whatever.
– user762914
Jul 1 '20 at 19:04
• @XanderHenderson If you want things to be closer to your utopia and you don't want to gate the ability to ask questions based on reputation, the next best solution is to allow users with a high enough rep to merge questions and answers ex post to prune the database and make it more searchable. Instead of playing these silly games with potential users of the site and closing their questions, just fix the problem ex post and merge all the redundant questions together.
– user762914
Jul 1 '20 at 19:06
• I completely disagree with your statement "I know what the theoretical model is, and I don't think it works in practice for math. Most users are not around long enough to be socialized into your utopia to use it correctly on your terms, like pro or semi-pro programmers." For a counter example, look at Physics. They have a very strict "no homework" policy, and manage to maintain a good signal-to-noise ratio.
– Xander Henderson Mod
Jul 1 '20 at 19:22
• Regarding giving high XP users more power, let us be realistic: many of those users got their reputation by answering large numbers of poor questions. They currently have the power to close questions as duplicates, but rarely do so. What makes you think that they would bother to use increased powers?
– Xander Henderson Mod
Jul 1 '20 at 19:22
• That being said, your initial question was "why don't you just ignore low-quality questions?" I gave you an answer: low-quality question/answer pairs pollute the database and make the site harder for everyone else to use. I think that experienced users who encourage such questions by answering them are a much larger problem than the transient newbies who ask poor questions, but closing such questions is one of the few tools we have.
– Xander Henderson Mod
Jul 1 '20 at 19:24
• @B.Goddard You are somehow conflating the classroom, where professors and TAs are expected to provide tailored, one-on-one interaction in order to teach individual students, with SE, where the goal is to build a database where askers can help themselves. Regarding your last comment, if you are dissatisfied with the corporate overlords, you are always free to leave.
– Xander Henderson Mod
Jul 2 '20 at 17:54
• @Renard Alternative theory: the same people recognize the value of the rules they're enforcing and how it will prevent the site from becoming a big bin of crap. I know your version appeals to all the armchair psychologists out there, but Occam's razor says this alternative theory is simpler, IMO. Jul 2 '20 at 18:26
• Renard, you apparently seem to want this site to be a Yahoo Answers lookalike. Citing the founder again. "StackExchange is a Wiki first". Jul 2 '20 at 19:23
• @B.Goddard ". I am asserting that I don't care what SE's stated goals are, because those goals are misguided." That means that you are part of the problem rather than part of the solution. We have too many users thinking they have the right to act as they please as it is. The policies Xander and others are defending were formed as compromises. It is not ideal to anyone, but that's how compromises often look like. Would you prefer a site were homework questions are simply forbidden? Jul 2 '20 at 19:29
• FWIW I'm not blaming the novices. I am blaming the answerers who fall for the incentives. Initially (like 8-9 years ago) I wanted the higher level questions get treated differently. But they don't. The rules are the same for high scool trig and algebraic geometry. Jul 2 '20 at 19:59
• @Renard I thought that was a pretty accurate paraphrase of your answer, … just to provide the perspective of someone who wasn't participating in this discussion. Jul 3 '20 at 0:39
• ...(a) there are simply fewer people who study higher-level mathematics (most undergraduate students in the US have to take some college level mathematics, including calculus; only a small percentage of undergrads take advanced mathematics; even fewer go on to grad school), and (b) students studying higher-level mathematics are generally a little older, more mathematically mature, and likely to have had some experience writing mathematics; as such, they are more likely to pose their questions welll.
– Xander Henderson Mod
Jul 3 '20 at 16:37
• (2) Several people, including myself, understood your statements to mean "99% of stackexchange is regurgitation for ego's sake". If one person misunderstands you, fine, they might not have been reading carefully. If several people misunderstand you, it might be worth your time to rephrase your comment in order to ensure that you are not misunderstood.
– Xander Henderson Mod
Jul 3 '20 at 16:40

Maybe an alternative opinion: answering such questions is fine, but if they aren't a useful question to future users of site, then they should also be downvoted and closed too, and eventually deleted. The answerer can do all of this. Then OP gets whatever level of help the answerer has energy for, and the post doesn't make it tougher to find useful questions on the site, and doesn't provide a bad example for future question-askers.

Of course actually giving such users help might attract more of them, making more work for the vigilant mods and CURED-saders, but I'm skeptical of the intensity of this effect. Like, I can't imagine naïve students looking for homework help find this site via word-of-mouth from peers who've gotten help asking homework questions here before; they probably just Google their exercise and find similar stuff already on MathSE. So, I mean, as long as these questions get removed, I don't think answering them will flood the site with folks asking homework questions, turning MathSE into homework-answering service.

• I don't think answering them will flood the site with folks asking homework questions I'd argue that that is exactly what happens. As long PSQs are answered, people will make throwaway accounts to ask them.
– Alexander Gruber Mod
Jul 3 '20 at 15:09
• @AlexanderGruber I mean, I haven't seen any evidence supporting your claim or mine. Do we have any? Does anyone want to start interviewing the students just asking for their homework to be done? Asking them how they found MathSE, are they repeat offenders, etc. Jul 3 '20 at 15:28
• +1 I think you make some good points here. Word-of-mouth is not, in my experience, how these askers come to the site. In fact, when I do overhear some word-of-mouth about this site with my students, it's always very much negative. The net effect of our policy and its enforcement appears to be to convince students that we are openly hostile to anyone with undergrad-level knowledge or lower, which I'd accept from mathoverflow, but not from the "question and answer site for people studying math at any level". Jul 4 '20 at 4:15
• My friend, who is an associate professor, finds this site hostile too when he asked his research level question. I dont think this is peculiar to lower level questions.@theo. Jul 4 '20 at 14:38
• Jul 5 '20 at 2:33
• There is plenty of evidence supporting @AlexanderGruber's claim. I am sure that the moderators can easily dig up hundreds from user flags of PSQ sockpuppetry if they had nothing better to do. And that is just those that get caught. You also know that most cheaters will deny cheating, so what's the point of asking them? Jul 5 '20 at 4:41
• @TheoBendit: In my opinion all that matters is that students who actually want to learn mathematics find Math SE a beneficial place to learn. I don't care how many mathematics majors who don't want to learn mathematics criticize Math SE. Also, there is an inherent sample bias in looking at students who come to Math SE to ask how to solve their homework, because most students who want to learn don't lazily copy-paste their question into google to find solutions! I came across Math SE by accident myself, as I wasn't looking for homework help. Jul 5 '20 at 4:56