# What constitutes an "answer" when the question is unmeaningfully vague?

I recommended deletion in review of a submission with the reason corresponding to "not an answer" (NAA) on this Q&A: What does $H\parallel ab$ mean?

This was in the "low quality posts" review queue. At least one person appears to have agreed with me, and, since it was in the review queue, I think someone before that must have flagged it.

Rob came after an added a comment, "While this post may be unsourced speculation, it is an answer to the question."

This to me is an interesting corner case. The question itself, in this case, has already been closed for lack of enough information to formulate a proper answer. Before that happened, we got the "answer" at issue, which is pretty much pure speculation as the terms have not been defined. There is some technical sense in which I agree that Rob is correct, but I question whether it's a meaningful sense in the case here. When I reviewed it, I was thinking more along the lines that there is no answer to this question because the symbols aren't defined, so anything here is NAA.

Do we really think that it's ok for any user who comes along to guess what the symbols meant here and speculate on an answer? I don't think that's what we want. Is there a different flag or category that would have been more appropriate in this case?

For contrast, I think the situation would have been different if the question had been well-formed with the terms defined. The problem here, in my opinion, is the interplay between the poorly written question and the speculative answer.

The canonical mother-meta post on the NAA flag seems to be this one: How do I properly use the "Not an Answer" flag?

Here is an earlier discussion on the NAA flag in context of Physics SE: Are we clear on what the "not an answer" flag is for?

Both of these seem to cover the primary cases, but I still think the case raised here is different and probably rarer.

• Happened to notice that this isn't completely unique. Same user, different question, and in that case, based on the comments, an answer was deleted: physics.stackexchange.com/questions/645251/… Jun 24 '21 at 16:21
• Closing a question that asks what a standard elementary mathematical notation notation means (yes, elementary - I learned what it meant in school when I was aged about 13) "because the answer is unsourced speculation" is ridiculous IMO. All it demonstrates is the ignorance of the person recommending closing the question. Jun 26 '21 at 15:25
• @alephzero This meta thread is now confusing because there are comments and answers here that refer to different versions of the original Q&A, but I can’t match yours to any version. The question was not closed for the reason that you mentioned, and the comment closest to that was put on an answer after the question was already closed. Jun 27 '21 at 3:14
• The prevailing reason for the original closure was “needs details or clarity” but I seem to remember some votes for “homework-like”. The research paper was edited into the question based on some comments on the original version of the question that have since been deleted. The answer has now also been modified with comments there also deleted. So neither question nor answer match what they are when this meta went up, and some of the context of the discussion between community and posters is now also gone. @alephzero Jun 27 '21 at 3:31
• As the answer has since been edited by @BioPhysicist, I have removed my downvote on it. Jul 4 '21 at 2:47
• Just a small remark regarding "This was in the "low quality posts" review queue. At least one person appears to have agreed with me, and, since it was in the review queue, I think someone before that must have flagged it.", note that the SE system itself can automatically flag some posts as Very Low-Quality (and thus, sometimes the flags are false positive). Considering the original revision, I believe this is the case. Jul 6 '21 at 14:48

Physics is a vast field of knowledge, using many different subfields of mathematics, each with its own conventions and symbols. Even with decades of experience in the field, it is simply impossible to master all possible physical theories and all possible formalisms and symbol conventions. This has a few trivial consequences in general and also applicable to the present issue.

On the side of the question

The OP should have clear in mind that even the apparently simplest question would be more clear by adding some context information. In the present case, the information about the research paper, and even better about the context of the research paper the notation was used, would have made a clear question. However, I would also consider the evident absence of experience of the OP about this site policy. However, in a case like this, I think we should try to help new users to improve their question skills, not repel them. It is also possible that the general knowledge about physics of the OP was not enough to allow him to understand that his question was not clear for everybody. Then, his only real responsibilities are i) not to mention immediately the research paper triggering his question and ii) not editing his question after the comments. I would say that this a typical case where, after waiting at least one day, any experienced user with editing privilege could incorporate the clarifying information into the original question.

On the side of reviewers

Here I would be sharper. Reviewers are not obliged to know everything, but I would expect more experienced users to have clear what I wrote in my introductory paragraph. This should imply that if there is any possibility that they do not master the question subtopic, they simply skip the vote on the answer. Although dubitative, the answer we are discussing is the correct answer to the original question, and I do not see how many more words would have been necessary. Voting or even classifying as NAA the answer to a question one has not understood should never happen. Unfortunately, I have the impression that this is not an isolated case.

• The correctness of the (not-a-)answer on the original question is not relevant to the meta post. Questions on the main site are supposed to stand alone, and this does not. So the meta-question is about whether an answer to an non-compliant question is an answer at all. I have no problem with the possibility that, if the question were improved, this would be a valid and possibly correct answer. In the meantime, it's is definitionally NAA for me. This Q&A has no archival value as it stands, and failure to delete this answer makes it more likely that it does not get fixed or deleted. Jun 24 '21 at 13:19
• @Brick This meta post is about the answer, in relation to a not completely clear question and to its classification as NAA. Therefore, its correctness is relevant. For me, the original question was not perfect, but still understandable, and I had no problem identifying the answer as the correct answer. What I wanted to stress above, is that people should use more often the possibility of not voting about an answer if they are not sure about the meaning of the question. Jun 24 '21 at 14:17
• Thanks for the clarification, but I think you've still missed the point. The question is whether it is an answer. If it were an answer and it were a wrong answer, then it should not be deleted. It should be downvoted perhaps (ideally by people who understood the question and why the answer was wrong, as you said). So in that regard the correctness of the answer, I maintain, is still not relevant to the meta. Now for anyone, like you, who felt the question was clear enough, then I can see why you think this particular case does constitute an answer. Jun 24 '21 at 14:27
• A key tenant of this particular review queue is that "Most of the time, the reviewer shouldn't need domain expertise to perform the review.", so that is different from what you're saying. Domain expertise may be needed to vote or comment, but determining that it is low quality generally does not. As used by SE, incorrectness is explicitly not enough to make it "low quality." The need for domain expertise to do the review, OTOH, speaks to the fact that the exemplar here is, in fact, low quality. meta.stackexchange.com/questions/155538/… Jun 24 '21 at 14:33
• @Brick I have just edited the original question, adding the information provided by the author as a comment. In its present status, the question should be clear enough to allow everybody who knows the answer to write it without ambiguity. Jun 24 '21 at 14:36
• @Brick Point 3 of the link you mention: If you are unsure about the posts quality, Skip it. I hope that this guideline will be used more often. Jun 24 '21 at 14:41
• @Brick The problem is that the paper does not define explicitly that notation. How do you think the question should be written if one does not know the answer? In some context that is quite a common and trivial notation. But I do not think everybody must know it. Instead, I think that asking for an explanation about that notation is perfectly in-topic on PSE. Do you think that asking about notation issues in physics is a violation of some site rule? Jun 24 '21 at 15:00

My personal guidelines for cases like this:

• If you think it’s a not-useful answer, it would be appropriate to downvote.

• If you think it’s a very low-quality answer, there’s a flag queue for those. If you think the post should be removed, that’s the flag to use.

If the question is “what does this notation mean,” and the response is “I think maybe it means X,” that’s absolutely an answer to the question. Partial answers should be posted as answers. Use the not-an-answer flag for posts that are new questions, misplaced comments, and the like.

• I reviewed it because it was already in the "low quality posts" queue, so I think your second bullet is circular in this case. I recommended deletion, and clicked on the option that had the comment about it not being an answer. (I see now that my post above was not precise on the terms.) Jun 23 '21 at 16:14
• @Brick I think the issue is that it is an answer though. Jun 23 '21 at 17:16
• Reading some more, I don't believe this guidance is in line with policies as applied in this case. The deletion reason selected informs the user that they should "... provide answers that don't require clarification from the asker." The answer here can only be meaningful with a clarification from the asker. In order to determine that the answer is germane enough to avoid deletion, we have to guess what the notation might mean and then make a judgement. (E.g. the different types of "wrong" at meta.stackexchange.com/questions/264293/…) Jun 23 '21 at 17:57
• @Brick Oh, interesting. My view of the review queues is different from yours, so perhaps the details of my guidance isn’t quite right. This is what I do, though. As I hinted in another comment: I have confidence that the roomba will make this issue moot in a few days, anyway.
– rob Mod
Jun 23 '21 at 21:34
• Roomba is supposed to be a fail-safe not a primary moderation tool, @rob. If you feel sure that roomba will eventually get it, then that it in itself is an argument that the reviewers who voted to delete were acting properly. That said, it's not clear at this point that it will meet the roomba criteria. As I noted on another answer, the reviewers who recommended deletion didn't downvote (why would they - that's not part of the advertised workflow in this queue), so this answer now has an artificially high (less negative than it would have been) score that might keep it live. Jun 24 '21 at 13:34
• @Brick, I strongly disagree. It's the human moderators that act as failsafes for the cases when the community reviews and the automated tools go awry. Here we have an unexpected result from the community review, but the roomba won't act for another week at least. That delay is a good thing: it gives the author of the answer time to notice this discussion and make the answer worth salvaging. My primary moderation tool is patience.
– rob Mod
Jun 24 '21 at 13:53
• “I think maybe it means X," I really do not see how this is "absolutely an answer". If someone thinks something is an answer they should check it really is before posting it as an answer. It is not other people's responsibility to cdatch their errors or do the check for them. We all make mistakes, but if you start off unsure your post is correct then you need to find out or leave it for someone who is sure to answer. I do not agree that an uncertain answer is the same as a partial answer. A partial answer should be certain about that part. That's my view, anyway. Jun 26 '21 at 17:05

It seems to me that the guidelines for determining whether a response is not an answer are quite clear; they say the text of a response is not an answer if it does not attempt to answer the question.

In those terms, the response given in the Q&A cited is patently an answer.

If you believe an answer is inappropriate because it makes unjustified assumptions about the meaning of a question, then you might downvote it with a helpful comment.