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Regularly, I feel that a significant part of the community closes or downvotes question because they don't fit neatly into the category of "well-presented question", while the question is still quite understandable and unambiguous. How can we expect to help users who have legitimate questions, but not the mathematical maturity to formulate their question perfectly, if we keep closing their questions for lack of mathematical maturity?


For example, today this question was closed for lacking context. However, if I put myself in the shoes of the asker, I can imagine the following:

  1. I encounter this strange thing, of the empty set being fed to a function, and I don't understand its evaluation
  2. I ask online why, and get asked to explain what it means to multiply the empty set
  3. I comment something nonsensical, because I don't understand this thing, that's why I'm asking the question
  4. My question gets downvoted and closed, because I'm unable to explain what it means to plug the empty set in the function

But the whole point of the question is to find out what it means to plug the empty set in the function: if the OP knew what it meant, they wouldn't have to ask the question, right?


As another example, I recently answered this question. It's closed again because of lack of context, however, the question contains (a) the question, (b) an attempt to prove it, and additionally (c) it's pretty clear from the question what is confusing to the OP. (as a sidenote, I'd understand the question being closed for asking two questions simultaneously, but that's not the reason that's given)

So what context is lacking here? It really feels to me like the question was closed because OP's proof attempt was unclear, but isn't that the point of asking the question?


Isn't this just a form of gatekeeping, where you only get to ask a question about mathematics if you've already learnt enough of mathematics to rigorously formulate your problem?

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    $\begingroup$ We need an EoQS for downvoters & close voters. If you downvote or vote to close a perfectly good question, you should get a message from the Moderating Team threatening suspension. $\endgroup$ Sep 5 at 23:02
  • $\begingroup$ That would simultaneously solve the weird thing where people get to vote about closure of a question in a field of study that they have no experience in whatsoever. $\endgroup$
    – Vsotvep
    Sep 5 at 23:04
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    $\begingroup$ This does not answer the entirety of your question, but the set of available closure reasons is limited and very poorly suited to this site. Thus the word "context" is over-used and abused as people try to work through the review queues. $\endgroup$ Sep 5 at 23:39
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    $\begingroup$ Please flag instances of (what, in your opinion ,is) poor reviewing in the future. I am a regular reviewer, and I've seen on multiple occasions that people lament the fact that question askers get feedback while reviewers don't. I barely receive feedback for what I do, but am very sensitive to it. I can't account for undeserved downvotes, but these can at least be cancelled instantly by an up vote, although the behaviour may be more difficult to spot and correct. The "EoQS" for close-voters is IMO in the hands of mods. I cannot see them rejecting the suggestion if there are enough flags. $\endgroup$ Sep 6 at 3:22
  • $\begingroup$ The way , for example that closure of a question itself is judged is via a popularly voted meta post (i.e. questions that lack the features presented in that post match up very well with questions that SE recommends to close), so meta posts are a way to provide global feedback to reviewers on their behaviour. I like this post very much even though it may have been asked before, because it questions the review system. We must help reviewers improve as well, if we are helping askers improve. $\endgroup$ Sep 6 at 3:33
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    $\begingroup$ You mention questions of the type: "I encounter this strange thing." In that case I would imagine the context to be where that strange thing was shown. (Hypothetically, the OP might have seen that in some assignment for a class. They add the assignment - a link to the file or an image. Answerers see what is the topic they are learning and maybe after seeing the problems, they immediately see that it is definitely just a typo. Knowing that, in this situation, $f(\emptyset)+3$ is a typo is definitely more useful to that user who is learning some basic stuff is probably more useful than... $\endgroup$ Sep 6 at 4:04
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    $\begingroup$ ... an answer saying that if natural numbers are introduced as von Neumann ordinals, then $\emptyset=0$ and the above expression could then by interpreted as $f(0)+3$. $\endgroup$ Sep 6 at 4:04
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    $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson - No. Then we get into arguing who decides if a question is "perfectly good". It occurs to me that we can vote to close a question but we can't vote to keep a question open. That seems a bit mobius strip to me. $\endgroup$ Sep 6 at 13:58
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    $\begingroup$ @stevengregory The SE folks put a different metric on it, see here and the last answer there. Then there's the thread here , which says you can leave a comment "Voting not to close" and honourably someone will "cancel" it if they wish to close by not voting to close but commenting to this effect. It mayn't work, at least one person told me they were ignored. $\endgroup$ Sep 6 at 15:08
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    $\begingroup$ @stevengregory You may not be able to vote to keep a question open, but once a question is closed, you can vote to reopen that question. $\endgroup$
    – Xander Henderson Mod
    Sep 7 at 14:50
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    $\begingroup$ @stevengregory One can vote to close a question that's open, one can vote to open a question that's closed. Perfect symmetry in what one can do. Why would you vote to open a post already open, or vote to close a post already closed? Again, perfect symmetry in that one cannot do either. :-) $\endgroup$
    – amWhy
    Sep 7 at 15:43
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    $\begingroup$ I had an issue like this in Theoretical Computer Science community. There was not a single comment under my question, but there were two downvotes. After I expressed my disappointment, I received several very angry answers, including one who said that the question was bad, because I used article "the" where he would expect "a". In the end, in rather rude form, I did get the answer I could use. These silent downvotes exist to mark "outliers": people asking questions not from a textbook. This is how I see it. $\endgroup$
    – Marina
    Sep 17 at 14:47
  • $\begingroup$ Looks like you answered your own question in the title 'clumsily formulated questions'. $\endgroup$
    – john
    Sep 18 at 17:12
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    $\begingroup$ @john Thanks for the insightful comment! I'm glad you nailed down the point I was trying to get across. $\endgroup$
    – Vsotvep
    Sep 19 at 6:45
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Isn't this just a form of gatekeeping, where you only get to ask a question about mathematics if you've already learnt enough of mathematics to rigorously formulate your problem?

This question seems to be built on some rather binary thinking: either (the question asserts) a question remains open and the asker is helped when people post answers, or the question is closed and the asker is never helped at all.

The reality is much more nuanced.

Math SE serves many goals. Two of these are (a) helping an individual asker at the moment that they ask a question and (b) helping future askers by building a repository of questions and answers. I would argue that poorly presented, confusing (and confused) questions do a great deal to hinder (b), and that (a) can often best be served in such situations by addressing an asker's concerns in the comments.

In other words, we often help askers in the comments while simultaneously closing (and ultimately deleting) their questions. Someone can get the help they need while also having their question closed.


How can we expect to help users who have legitimate questions, but not the mathematical maturity to formulate their question perfectly, if we keep closing their questions for lack of mathematical maturity?

  1. We can use the comments to suggest ways in which they can clarify their question.
  2. We can help users to turn those comments into answers.
  3. We can reassure new users that closure is not the end of the world, and that closing a question only means that they need to take some time to improve the question.
  4. We can stop immediately answering confused and muddled questions until they are clarified (my impression is that much of the rush-to-close is motivated by the fact that there is a rush-to-answer, and that answered questions are only very rarely improved---if answerers would spend more time helping askers in the comments before answering, I suspect that a lot of potential close voters would be slower to cast votes).

Frankly, I think that it is incredibly paternalistic to suggest that someone with a legitimate question should just be handed an answer because they lack the maturity to formulate that question properly. If we are really interested in teaching, then perhaps we should be using the comments to help askers to formulate their question better, and then posting answers?


In the case of If we put the empty set into a function why do we get the empty set back?, I think that we can all agree that the asker is confused. However, the asker must have been motivated to ask that question for some reason. Presumably, they are a student in some class, and they have lecture notes or a text in which it was presented that $f(\varnothing) = \varnothing$. The asker should provide that context.

Somewhere else in that text, there should be a definition of what the notation $f(A)$ means, when $A$ is a set. There are a number of comments below the question in which this definition is asked for (in one way or another). If the asker could explain what they mean, someone else (or the asker) could easily edit that into the question.

Another commenter asks "What does it mean to multiply a set by $6$?", and the asker seems at a loss to even understand why that question matters. This gives the impression that the question is so far over the asker's head that they need to take a step back and ask some more elementary question before trying to tackle the image of the empty set (that is, this is an XY Problem).

The question itself is extremely muddled and unclear, and it is not at all obvious how one might reasonably solve the asker's problem.[1] A number of people have requested clarification in the comments, and the close banner at the top of the post provides a link to this answer, which suggests adding motivation and / or a source.

The asker has been given the resources to improve their question—if they want their question reopened, they have been given a lot of good advice. If, on the other hand, they are satisfied that they have an answer, then I see no compelling reason to reopen the question, as I have difficulty seeing how, in its current form, it is likely to be useful to a future asker.

Finally, for what it is worth, the question is a duplicate many times over. For example:

Even if this particular asker's question is deleted, the answer given to the question under discussion largely duplicate answers already provided to other questions.


Regarding Order and isomorphism exercises Charles C. Pinter, (a) Math SE is not a homework proofreading service, (b) questions should be narrow and focused (that question seems to be asking about two distinct exercises), and (c) further context is required.

Regarding (a), while there is a tag, the tag wiki makes it clear that these kinds of questions should focus on the specific concerns of the asker. "Is my proof right?" is not a good question. This is further articulated in Best way of asking "check my proof" questions.

It also bears mentioning that the asker did not use the tag, which seems to indicate that they are not even aware that it exists. (I added the tag after being made aware of the question in this meta post).

Regarding (b), that question should be at least two different questions (one for each exercise.

Regarding (c), I left a comment there indicating possible avenues for improvement.


[1] For what it is worth, I think that both answers completely fail to address what I think the underlying problem is, i.e. that the asker doesn't even understand what a function is, let along how an function might act on a set (or what the image of a set under a function is). But the question is so muddled that I can't be certain that this is the underlying issue.

The fact that I diagnose the problem very differently from those who decided to answer the question indicates (to me, at least) that the question is so muddled and the underlying issue so unclear that we really need to wait for the asker to give more input before committing answers to the repository.

Context, in the form of definitions and/or a citation to a text, would likely clarify this immensely.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for your answer and for clarifying the meaning of the closure, I hadn't looked at close votes like this before, as a way to primarily help future askers to find the right question. In this context, both close votes do indeed make a lot of sense. In that case, wouldn't it be helpful to have a closure category in the form of "in its current form this question is unlikely to help future visitors, please improve bla bla"? $\endgroup$
    – Vsotvep
    Sep 6 at 1:07
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    $\begingroup$ I guess in the end, the issue that I might be having here, is rather that the stackexchange format is a bit cumbersome to generate a fruitful back-and-forth between asker and answerers, especially given that many new users don't edit their questions after having received comments, and that often the help they really need is not in the form of an answer to their question (or to the XY question), but rather some guidance in how they could tackle the problem on their own. $\endgroup$
    – Vsotvep
    Sep 6 at 1:07
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    $\begingroup$ "in its current form this question is unlikely to help future visitors, please improve bla bla" I would argue that this is implicit in for every close reason---the goal of the site is to create a repository, hence if a question is closed, it means "this is unlikely to be helpful in the future." Arguably, it would be nice if this were more explicit, but the close reasons are largely not editable on a per-site basis. $\endgroup$
    – Xander Henderson Mod
    Sep 6 at 1:10
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The tooltip for downvotes says "this question does not show any research effort; it is unclear or not useful." Not taking the time to formulate the question well often indicates a lack of research effort, definitely makes the question less clear, and wastes everyone's time because then potential answerers have to spend time deciphering the question and/or editing instead of writing answers.

There's a good article here as well on why unreadable code (or, in the context of our site, unreadable formulas) is worth a downvote as well. Quite simply, if people can't read their formulas, it makes it much harder to help, and posters should try to make it as easy as possible for people to help them (given that they're asking people to volunteer their time to help them for free).

Also, ultimately, the purpose of Stack Exchange sites (including this one) is not just to help individual OPs - it's to build a repository of high-quality Q&A in order to help everyone who's facing a similar problem.

Also:

Isn't this just a form of gatekeeping, where you only get to ask a question about mathematics if you've already learnt enough of mathematics to rigorously formulate your problem?

Certainly not - I've definitely asked questions where I was pretty confused. However, as this MSO FAQ points out, asking a good question requires you to know enough to know what you don't know. At a minimum, you have to have some sense of where you're stuck and what you don't know yet; if you aren't at the point of at least having some idea of what you're confused about, it usually indicates that more research is required.

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    $\begingroup$ In mathematics, a clumsily-formatted question certainly doesn't indicate a lack of effort. There are no formatting tools which the asker could have used, as discussed in your link. Also, the first linked question is a useful question. It's clear to answerers where the asker is stuck, and it's clear to future searchers what question is answered. (It's a duplicate, but that doesn't make it not useful.) It feels like the close-votes and negative comments are wilfully obtuse - they know why the asker is confused. $\endgroup$
    – 1Rock
    Sep 19 at 6:24
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Poorly worded questions that have some grain of interest in them get clarified either by comments (and the help/updating by OP) or downright editing. Or end up closed as duplicates.

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    $\begingroup$ This is false. I received two downvotes on my question without a single comment or answer or editing. After I made comments about it myself, I did receive the some comments. The question was even answered but in some rude form. It turned out the question was understood. One of commenters objected about my use of English articles in my question. $\endgroup$
    – Marina
    Sep 17 at 15:12

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