I'm struggling a little bit with this site and I think I'm starting to put my finger on why. Physics is about the nature of reality, there must be (at some level) a way to say something is objectively incorrect. But the way this site works is not really about that, answers are accepted and upvoted because they match what people think (or want to believe) and it's becoming clear that a lot of highly upvoted and accepted answers can't possibly be correct. As a side-effect, the people that answered gain reputation. Whether that means they are an expert or not, it will surely be interpreted as such.

Let me be clear, I do not claim to be an expert in physics. I entered university as a physics major but later decided that it wasn't for me. I learned a lot in those years, mainly about how to evaluate whether something was a plausible explanation using logic. I mainly enjoy learning about physics as a hobby and I have great respect for those who really do it. There are some clear experts here. In fact, the main reason I post anything here is in the hopes that someone will inform me (correctly) that I am wrong. Then I learn something.

But enough about me. The thing that bothers me is that more and more I see really wrong answers being upvoted. I wouldn't really care but it would seem that this could result in this site becoming a source of disinformation. Let's say, for example, that someone creates an answer based on flat-earth nonsense and it were highly upvoted and accepted. Would that be OK? I mean, the nature of the universe is not a popularity contest. "A million Elvis fans can't be wrong" is surely a fallacy and that's especially true when it comes to physics.

This seems to happen a lot with the 'hot network questions'. I get the feeling that the actual experts around here don't want to get involved in those. I can imagine why. I'm not sure it's a good idea for the moderators to start deleting things. So we are left with, frankly, outright nonsense as answers and people who post nonsense getting reputations. This doesn't seem good to me but is that just how it's going to be? I'm trying to decide if I need to get away from this site as this trend is highly distracting. I hate watching an otherwise good resource become part of the larger movement towards the 'post-fact' age.

Is this 'just how it is' or is there a possible solution?

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    Could you link to some examples? – David Z Aug 9 at 21:11
  • @DavidZ The one I am thinking about is this: physics.stackexchange.com/questions/421895/… which isn't the best example since the most highly upvoted answer is more-or-less on the right track. I've seen other answers that revolve around buoyancy that assert that buoyancy comes from some sort of energy/power emanating from the gas in inside a balloon. – JimmyJames Aug 9 at 21:22
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    Hm, that's not really much to go on. If you can find and link some better examples, it would really improve the question. – David Z Aug 9 at 21:26
  • @DavidZ I'm probably making too much of this but I sense this trend where the self-confidence shown in the answer seems to correlate more to the votes than the actual veracity of the answer. I'll try to collect more and update as I see them. Thanks for humoring me. – JimmyJames Aug 9 at 21:27
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    If you really care about correctness on HNQ questions, pointing out why an answer is wrong in the comments can really put a damper on its upvotes, while pointing out why an answer is better than the rest really can help propel it to the top. (Both have happened to me plenty.) But it really is like trying to plug a drain with a toothpick. – knzhou Aug 9 at 22:08
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    HNQ is a different beast because most visitors can only upvote from association rep bonus (101 rep), but cannot downvote (125 rep). There are many discussions and feature requests revolving this issue, you could start from here – Andrew T. Aug 10 at 6:34
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    On the other hand, I'm not sure mods want to delete heavily upvoted wrong answers though. That's a borderline censoring and we shouldn't censor wrong answer (unless it's a blatantly nonsensical wrong answer). The best the community can do is discussed on this meta post: comment, downvote, post/upvote a better answer. – Andrew T. Aug 10 at 6:45
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    Can confirm: the mods do not want to be in the business of evaluating the correctness of answers and deleting incorrect ones. That's for the community to do. – rob Aug 10 at 18:44
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    @rob sadly, the populace of HNQ visitors screws up 'the community' w.r.t. correctness. In most their minds, as long as it was posted first, it's probably correct & deserves an upvote. Wish they'd get rid of HNQ for the science sites... – Kyle Kanos Aug 10 at 23:18
  • @KyleKanos Would that be a good feature request? I think there is a point to be made. – Norbert Schuch Aug 11 at 15:22
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    @NorbertSchuch We've been telling SE that HNQ is a harmful mechanism, as loudly as possible, for several years, without any noticeable effect. Not to say that it's not worth trying, but the hopes for such a request succeeding are pretty slim. – Emilio Pisanty Aug 11 at 16:59
  • As an example, the top-voted answer to "What makes cheese so effective at absorbing microwaves?" was why I made my first post on SE.Physics - I was in disbelief that such a hand-waving answer that was clearly incorrect would apparently be accepted. – Nat Aug 12 at 19:18
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    As an opinion, the fundamental problem with the situation it the model in which answers' fitness is determined by a democratic vote of those who happen to view it and choose to vote, moderated by their rep and the penalty for downvoting; as far as a model for correctness/insightfulness/etc. goes, it's pretty lousy. I kinda doubt that SE's planning to seriously revise its model any time soon, though I'd tend to see most alternative solution tactics (e.g., reducing the effect of HNQ) as half-measures. – Nat Aug 12 at 19:24
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    @Nat I guess part of the issue is the origins of SE in programming sites etc., where people have concrete problems with testable solutions. In that case, it is very clear what the right answer is: The one which makes things work. For science, this is often much more tricky (with the exception of homework-like problems etc.). But this is just inherent to the model, and given these issues, I feel it overall works quite well. – Norbert Schuch Aug 13 at 14:27
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    I downvoted because I think if you are going to make this sort of claim, then you really need to give some concrete examples to back it up, otherwise it comes across somewhat anecdotal/baseless. – Time4Tea Aug 13 at 19:11

I meant to write this as a comment but it turned out too long and it kind of answers the question...

Here's another example of incorrect accepted stuff: my answer to Can low-frequency electromagnetic radiation be ionizing? had a major factual inaccuracy when it was accepted. I considered deleting it once the comments pointed out the mistake, but apparently accepted answers can't be deleted. Eventually I settled with editing it, so the present version's correct, and fortunately the bad version wasn't up for too long.

Now that I think of it, the good thing somebody (maybe me) should have done in a case like that where most other answers agreed with each other was leave a comment under the question indicating that the accepted answer is incorrect, and the original author of the question can look at all the other (hopefully) correct answers and change the accepted one. Maybe it's odd to bring up myself as a perpetrator of this kind of thing but I think I learned a lesson with that one ;)

So for wrong accepted answers, it's probably good to mention to the asker that there's a doubt about the accepted answer's validity under the question, and then write a detailed contradiction under the suspicious answer.

This is, in my opinion, a perfectly valid way to use comments under questions: Is it a temporary note to the author of the question? Yes. Is it suggesting an improvement? Yes. Is it answering the question? No.

But it only works when the wrong one is accepted and when there are several other correct answers; happily, the latter is a common characteristic of HNQs.


Lastly, it does matter if answers are correct. Use comments to ask for citations.

  • I've found that comments indicating an answer, especially an accepted one, tend to stick around – Kyle Kanos Aug 11 at 14:34
  • That should read "indicating an answer is wrong". The wife asked me something and distracted me from completing a coherent thought. – Kyle Kanos Aug 11 at 16:23
  • @KyleKanos They don't get deleted, but when they're moved to chat (which is frequent, since such discussions are usually long), they are kind of hidden. – Chair Aug 12 at 9:48
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    that's not been my experience. single comments that point out why an answer is wrong don't get deleted or moved to chat while the answer remains unchanged. – Kyle Kanos Aug 12 at 11:24
  • @KyleKanos I've seen and had comments like this get swept into the chat. Typically all the comments that were added to that point are moved. And I find that if you add comments after that, they tend to be removed, at least on other sub-sites. – JimmyJames Aug 13 at 15:41
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    @JimmyJames It's a good idea to leave one comment below the moved-to-chat comment, which says that the conversation in chat is about the factual accuracy of the answer. – Chair Aug 14 at 8:09
  • @Chair Thanks, that is helpful. On other SE sites, that kind of thing can run you afoul of the moderators. – JimmyJames Aug 14 at 13:52
  • @JimmyJames Nah, a couple of days ago, I brought that up on chat and a moderator actually said that it's perfectly acceptable for users to leave one comment on the main thread below the moderator's comment: chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/message/45953161#45953161 – Chair Aug 15 at 3:01

Let's say, for example, that someone creates an answer based on flat-earth nonsense and it were highly upvoted and accepted. Would that be OK? I mean, the nature of the universe is not a popularity contest. "A million Elvis fans can't be wrong" is surely a fallacy and that's especially true when it comes to physics.

The alt-text over the upvote button says This answer is useful, so if someone actually found the nonsense post useful, they're free to upvote it. While clearly non-ideal for us, it is okay by SE standards; this is how all of the SE sites work. And, sadly, there's also a contingent of active users on this site who tend to upvote everything, especially new posts from new users, no matter how ridiculous the answer is, though this isn't a Physics.SE-only thing.

Again: clearly non-ideal for us. Answers (here & other science sites) should be upvoted because they're right, not because they were useful. But there isn't a way to enforce such a system, so plain old up-down voting is all we can do.

If you note an incorrect answer is gaining upvotes, downvote it & leave a comment as to why it is incorrect. If it's corrected, then you've done your job. If not, future readers of the post will see your argument and will hopefully downvote the answer and upvote your comment. It's been my experience that these types of comments tend not to be deleted or moved to chat.

This seems to happen a lot with the 'hot network questions'. I get the feeling that the actual experts around here don't want to get involved in those. I can imagine why. I'm not sure it's a good idea for the moderators to start deleting things. So we are left with, frankly, outright nonsense as answers and people who post nonsense getting reputations. This doesn't seem good to me but is that just how it's going to be?

Yes, the HNQ effect is terrible for the site because it draws people who upvote things that just "sound good" rather than for being right (especially if the answer as an upvote or two, the train keeps on rolling on that one). It's just something we have to deal with. Protecting the question does help deter some of these bad posts from the HNQ effect, but, again, it is something we have to accept & deal with on the SE network.

I don't think moderators unilaterally deleting posts for being "wrong" is a good idea, it's a very bad idea. These users were elected to deal with the moderation of the site (e.g., ensuring users behaved according to policy), not to be "ultimate arbiters of truth." That job is left to the community.

As I recall, users with >10k rep can only vote to delete the post if (a) it has negative score or (b) it's been flagged as low-quality. I don't know that we've deleted such a post, but you're welcome to search the low quality review history to find one. You can also try by flagging it as low quality (along with leaving a comment as to why the post is wrong) and see if that works.

Note, though, that reputation is mostly useless, so there really shouldn't be much concern over such posters of nonsense gaining too much rep. Even if they gain enough rep over the years and gain access to the review queues, they can't really damage the site. You may also be interested in reading this similar question.

I'm trying to decide if I need to get away from this site as this trend is highly distracting

Not every question will be HNQ, but there will be some. Not every answer is going to be mainstream physics. If you can't deal with either/both of these, then this site is not for you. We thank you for your contribution, though.

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    I'm curious what aspect of this answer it's considered not useful for the user who downvoted it? – Kyle Kanos Aug 12 at 20:34
  • I find it really strange that this answer has two downvotes, and would also like some insight why people disagree. It basically outlines how voting should work on SE and talks about the HNQ effects in a reasonable way. – JMac Aug 13 at 14:50
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    "Not every answer is going to be mainstream physics." Just to be clear, I don't mind non-mainstream physics and my main concern is about Newtonian questions. Relativity and quantum mechanics are fascinating but generally have limited relevance to people's daily lives. Incorrect understanding of Newtonian mechanics can have serious consequences for the layman. – JimmyJames Aug 13 at 15:49
  • @JimmyJames i can append "or correct" to it if you want, the effect is still the same: there will be things you don't like about the answers on this site. If you don't think you can handle someone being wrong on the internet and, in some sense, praised for the wrongness, you probably should find another site. – Kyle Kanos Aug 13 at 15:53
  • @JimmyJames Although I agree with the notion that we shouldn't be a community that provides false information; I think to imply it can have "serious consequences to the layman" is at best an exaggeration. If the layman is putting themselves in harms way because of a crowd-sourced answer on a site that deals with concepts, and less with the direct application of them; then that layman is likely to do the same thing by finding the bad resource somewhere else. – JMac Aug 13 at 16:00
  • I deleted a comment exchange that had gone pretty far off topic and was pushing the boundaries of our code of conduct. – David Z Aug 14 at 22:58

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