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I have been reading the posts about what defines a poor question, and I am impressed at the level of intensity of feeling in that regard, and rightly so. But there's something on my mind: while we are speaking of the importance of good questions in making this a place for attractive to math talent, we must also consider the other half of the equation: good answers.

Too often I see quickly posted, poorly-thought out recommendations which are not really answers so much as fishing for a quick upvote. "Maybe you want to try this." An example of this is here (but I think you need enough rep score to see the deleted answer of which I speak).

The danger of such answers lies in sending a trusting OP down a path of frustration and tears, because such a "solution," though plausible-sounding, is just an impulse, nothing more. That suggestion I posted was one quite obvious looking, and one I spent an hour trying to make work. I am pretty skilled at problems like the one to which I linked; imagine a student working at that? Yikes.

I am not proposing new rules by any stretch. How could I? I myself have posted plenty of poorly-thought out solutions that I have since taken down. But not once have I posted the first idea out of my head without at least working it out and being reasonably sure of a path to a solution, even if my thinking was flawed at the time. My flawed thinking should be evident in what I post.

So what I am suggesting? Maybe an addition to a moral code (if one exists here), against the dual perverse incentives of a) rep score, and b) not giving out full solutions to HW problems. I hereby beg my fellow M.SE'ers: please, do not make suggestion about a possible solution if you have not already tried it yourself. I know this may slow you down and may possibly cause the sacrifice of potential upvotes, but if we are really going to make this site something special (which I clearly think it is), the quality of our answers, as well as our questions, needs to be better. And that does not start with eliminating wrong answers (how could it?), but thoughtless answers that do potential harm.

Thanks for reading this far. May your day be a joyful one.

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    $\begingroup$ @MJD: I have, but I don't think conversion to a comment solves the problem completely. The worthless suggestion is still there. I'm asking people to change their behavior, a tall order, I know. $\endgroup$ – Ron Gordon Apr 26 '13 at 19:29
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    $\begingroup$ If an answer here sends someone in a path of frustration and tears... psychological help is in order, not a M.SE policy on answers :-/ Cutting down on dramatic language never hurts. $\endgroup$ – Mariano Suárez-Álvarez Apr 26 '13 at 19:37
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    $\begingroup$ @MarianoSuárez-Alvarez: not asking for policy, just to actually carry through your suggestions before posting them. I'm just begging, really. And, have you ever struggled through a seemingly-impossible problem? I have tutored many kids and adults, and frustration and tears is pretty normal. $\endgroup$ – Ron Gordon Apr 26 '13 at 19:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Ron I have seen analogous requests in other forums and they have had little effect. And those forums were not even motivated by rep as are SE forums. Cherry-picking FGITWs are a by-product of the SE model - which heavily employs competitive gaming principles. The only real fix is to design a better platform. One will appear (hopefully soon). $\endgroup$ – Math Gems Apr 26 '13 at 19:45
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    $\begingroup$ The borderline between the first thought that entered your head and a solution that you did not think all the way through, and turned out to be wrong, is rather wide and fuzzy. I had just posted an answer of the latter sort (I think) myself. It's there for everyone to see, no high rep needed, as another data point for the discussion. The motivation was not a hunt for rep, just a lack of time and a wish to contribute anyhow. I did work it out most of the way, but not far enough unfortunately. $\endgroup$ – Harald Hanche-Olsen Apr 26 '13 at 20:35
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    $\begingroup$ If I have a suggestion, but really don't feel like trying it myself, I post it as a comment (saying "this might work") $\endgroup$ – Justin Apr 26 '13 at 21:32
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    $\begingroup$ @gangqinlaohu: even that is an improvement. Admitting that you did not try it is at least a fair warning to the OP or anyone else that may try to use the hint. $\endgroup$ – Ron Gordon Apr 27 '13 at 7:25
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    $\begingroup$ This comment is just meant to show my support for Ron's suggestion. I agree that what he describes happens way too much. Especially since when it comes to answerers, first-come, first-served happens in the sense that the first answers always get the lot of the upvotes (which is a catalyst for hastily written answers to be posted). Gangqinlaohu's policy should be an example for everyone. $\endgroup$ – Git Gud Apr 27 '13 at 8:54
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    $\begingroup$ As far as I can tell, asking a question on meta without getting any downvote (so far) is quite a performance, +1. May you day be joyful too. $\endgroup$ – Julien Apr 27 '13 at 15:44
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    $\begingroup$ @julien: got a downvote, but it did take a while. $\endgroup$ – Ron Gordon Apr 29 '13 at 1:56
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe it's because of my comment...Well, 19/1 is still a nice ratio. $\endgroup$ – Julien Apr 29 '13 at 2:01
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    $\begingroup$ I think an educated guess or a directional pointer is often useful, even if the idea has not been properly tested. But, as others have suggested, I think the answerer should be honest and admit the situation. The worst case is an answer stated with authority and confidence that is just plain wrong. I see a few of those, but not many. I downvote them and point out the error. I don't see that much more can be done. $\endgroup$ – bubba May 4 '13 at 23:29
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If you see a bad answer, downvote it. If you really don't like it, leave a comment explaining why.

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    $\begingroup$ Much better: if you see an incorrect answer, leave a comment explaining what’s wrong with it, whether you downvote or not. Downvotes without accompanying comments are distinctly unhelpful. (I do not think that downvotes serve any purpose that isn’t better served by comments, so I refuse to downvote on the main site, but even those who don’t share this view should be able to see that comments are more informative than mere downvotes.) If you see an answer that you merely don’t like, consider whether someone else might find it useful. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Apr 27 '13 at 3:52
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    $\begingroup$ Downvotes take less time. Sometimes people are too busy to leave a comment. A small amount of information is better than no information. $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Apr 27 '13 at 3:54
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    $\begingroup$ Haste is no excuse; if you haven’t enough time to leave a comment, you very likely haven’t enough time to form a considered judgement in the first place. And the information that some unidentified person didn’t like an answer is pretty nearly worthless. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Apr 27 '13 at 3:57
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    $\begingroup$ Disagree, but I have no interest in having an argument with you. $\endgroup$ – Qiaochu Yuan Apr 27 '13 at 4:13
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    $\begingroup$ I am with Brian Scott. If you downvote something, comment and explain why. Part of this process is to make educate users on how to best participate on this site. $\endgroup$ – ncmathsadist Apr 27 '13 at 12:06
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    $\begingroup$ @BrianM.Scott: well said. $\endgroup$ – Ron Gordon Apr 27 '13 at 15:38
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    $\begingroup$ @BrianM.Scott well said [2] $\endgroup$ – user42912 Apr 28 '13 at 21:06
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    $\begingroup$ I disagree inasmuch as downvotes are not principally for your benefit, they are for the benefit of other people seeing your work. Comments make downvotes much more helpful, but are not essential. $\endgroup$ – Ben Millwood Apr 29 '13 at 16:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Ben: There is very little real information in the fact that some unidentified person didn’t like an answer for some unknown reason. A comment, whether by itself or explaining a downvote, is far more useful to other people as well as to the author. It’s not especially unusual for perfectly good answers to be downvoted. $\endgroup$ – Brian M. Scott Apr 29 '13 at 19:08
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    $\begingroup$ @Brian: There isn't much information if one random person upvotes either. There is information when five people downvote something (without there being upvotes). $\endgroup$ – Excluded and Offended Apr 30 '13 at 6:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Hurkyl: with apologies to Tolstoy: Upvotes are all alike; every downvote is unhappy in its own way. $\endgroup$ – Ron Gordon Apr 30 '13 at 18:12
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    $\begingroup$ An unexplained downvote doesn't have much value, but it has some. It suggests that there is not unanimous agreement on the quality of the answer. It says "beware". I can think a lot faster than I can type, so sometimes a downvote is all I have time for. $\endgroup$ – bubba May 4 '13 at 23:33

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