Quite often I see simple questions asked and people offering answers that are clearly not going to make any sense to the OP because of the gap between the knowledge assumed by the answer, and the knowledge the OP has (as inferred from the question). Here is a case in point. This isn't an answer to the question, really. It's just someone showing off what they know that is vaguely related to the question.

Is this an acceptable practice, or should we discourage this kind of irrelevant answer by downvoting?

Please note: if you want to downvote the question, leave a comment explaining why. Disagreeing with what I suggest is not a reason to downvote the question. Even if you think my suggestion is not the right way to go, you should agree that it's worth asking the question...

  • $\begingroup$ And still no one has explained why they are downvoting this question. The answers obviously suggest that people think the practice I mention is not acceptable, but that's surely no reason for downvoting the question... $\endgroup$ – Seamus Aug 29 '10 at 20:52
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    $\begingroup$ I am guessing it has something to do with the practices described at meta.math.stackexchange.com/questions/718/…. To be sure, I do not endorse these practices (they seem needlessly confusing) and I did not downvote your question, which is a perfectly valid one. $\endgroup$ – Pete L. Clark Aug 29 '10 at 20:54
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    $\begingroup$ Ah thanks I hadn't seen that. In this case it seems to be making (what I think is) an interesting question difficult to find: meta.math.stackexchange.com/questions/740/… $\endgroup$ – Seamus Aug 29 '10 at 21:04
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    $\begingroup$ Part of why meta questions of the form "should people do x?" get downvoted is because the person asking the question often presents his own 'answer' in the question body. If you were to put your argument as an answer to a neutrally-phrased question, people who disagreed with you could downvote the answer and leave the question alone (or even vote it up). As it stands, such people can only downvote the question itself. $\endgroup$ – Larry Wang Aug 30 '10 at 20:59

Question is not only for asker — maybe someone else (e.g. someone looking for an answer for more or less the same question — but with different background) will find the answer interesting. So I think, this kind of answers is OK.

Upd.: especially since asking duplicate questions are not allowed.


If you don't understand the answer, you are not in a position to judge whether it is "unnecessarily" complicated. Mathematicians think about even simple problems in a very different way from non-mathematicians and they will naturally give answers that reflect this. As Grigory M says, this could be quite valuable to a student who stumbles upon the answer in the future and finds a sophisticated perspective that teaches him something.

If, on the other hand, the answer contains genuinely irrelevant information and nothing else, then of course you should downvote it.

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    $\begingroup$ The point is, if someone asks a simple question, they will want a simple answer. Since this is supposed to be a question and answer site, it seems that overly complex answers are unhelpful. $\endgroup$ – Seamus Aug 29 '10 at 15:13
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    $\begingroup$ @Seamus: that is only part of the point. If the only reason to ask a question was for the OP to get an answer, there would be no reason not to delete questions after they have been answered. We don't do this because questions are meant to be searched as well as answered, and the next person or next hundred people who come across a question won't have the same background as the OP. If an answer seems complicated but potentially useful to someone with different background, just don't upvote it if you prefer. $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Aug 29 '10 at 17:11
  • $\begingroup$ I have to say, I am inclined to agree with @Seamus on this one... $\endgroup$ – user16299 Jan 11 '12 at 4:54

@Seamus: I think you are undercutting your point by the particular example you cite. Certainly Arturo Magidin's answer is an actual answer to your question. It begins:

"'Permutation group' usually refers to a group that is acting (faithfully) on a set; this includes the symmetric groups (which are the groups of all permutations of the set), but also every subgroup of a symmetric group."

That's the answer to your main question. He then goes on to provide additional insight into what's the point of saying "permutation group" when every group is a permutation group. (In summary, yes, every group is isomorphic as an abstract group to a permutation group, but the same group can be realized as a permutation group in multiple ways, some of which tell you a lot about the structure of the group itself, and some of which seem not to.) This is much more than just vaguely related to the question, and Arturo is not "showing off"; he is a research mathematician in the subject of algebra who is taking time out to share some of his insight.

This is an illustration of Qiaochu's point: the OP is not necessarily in a good place to evaluate all the answers to the question. However, the system allows for multiple answers and allows you to choose the one which you like best, which then gets displayed at the top, even if it is not the most popular answer in terms of upvotes minus downvotes.

Were you actually satisfied by the answer you accepted? If so, the system worked the way it should. If not, you should unaccept the answer and clarify what more you are looking for. Note also that although some people are going to pitch answers at a higher level and/or riff on things of interest to them, others will look carefully for clues as to the OP's background and use this information to craft an answer at the right level. (I think both of these practices are valuable, and I have done both myself in answering questions.) You can certainly help out the latter people by including as much relevant information about yourself, your general math background, and your math background specific to this question. For instance, based on your reaction to Arturo's question I am guessing that you are a beginner in abstract algebra, but your question did not convey that.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for stressing that if the OP wants answers focused at some level then it is his responsibility to supply the contextual details that reveal this level (e.g. what can be assumed known, what textbooks he's using, what he's done, where he's stuck, etc). $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Aug 30 '10 at 15:13
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    $\begingroup$ Beginners in a subject aren't going to have the requisite self-awareness to adequately explain what it is they want out of a question. Also, it seems reasonable to expect that simple questions need simple answers. $\endgroup$ – Seamus Aug 30 '10 at 15:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Seamus: regarding your first sentence, this might be true up to a point, but beginners do know that they are beginners, and can say so. If someone said for instance "I'm just starting to learn subject X out of standard text Y; at the moment I'm only up to Chapter Z. How do I solve problem W using only material familiar to me?" then that would be enough to yield a suitable response. Regarding your second sentence: both of your uses of "simple" are subjective, hence the utility of multiple answers. $\endgroup$ – Pete L. Clark Aug 30 '10 at 19:00

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