I'm sure I'm not the only one who regrets Ben Crowell's decision to become unactive on PSE. He stated the reason for his departure in this post addressing the ratio of professional physicist users to beginners, pop-sci philosophers and other 'lower level users'. A big part of that reason seems to have been that he finds himself "spending my time on the site in unenjoyable activities like arguing with angry and belligerent beginners about friction and Newton's third law".

While I can sympathize, I feel like this is something everyone determines for themselves. You don't have to argue about these topics with these users. Then again, it is alarming that these discussions seem to have become more frequent, also in my experience (which, granted, is not as long-term as Ben Crowell's).

Now, an idea popped up in my head which might help restore the balance somewhat or at least halt the dilution of the uranium-235 in Ben's analogy. It might also be unrealistic, but I wanted to bounce this idea off the community and see what everyone thinks. Who knows, perhaps it sparks a new, better idea in someone else's head. So here it comes.

It's still pretty much a vague idea, but perhaps an entry exam of some sort can help. Not to increase the number of experts per se, but to decrease the number of pop-sci philosophers and no-effort homework posters. Nothing too fancy or long, just a single question requiring a certain level of insight.

Or perhaps a couple of questions requiring varying levels of insight/knowledge. Still not taking too much time or long calculations though, that will decrease the number of new users on all levels of expertise. But their answers to these few questions can then be used to roughly assert the level of the new user and perhaps award a badge corresponding to this level. This way the inquiry ('exam') sort of seems worth the trouble (little more than without the badge anyway) and other users can also more easily determine on roughly what level to answer this new user's question and to what degree to trust their answers.

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    $\begingroup$ Interesting idea. But I suppose this will really limit potential discussion. Also, how do you suggest that an entry test will only be PSE specific? I guess such a thing will also have to be integrated with other SE sites. Moreover, do you have any exam questions in mind for this? $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 28, 2013 at 13:55
  • $\begingroup$ @shortstheory I agree it's not very concrete yet. Honestly, I have no clue how this would be implemented (be it PSE specific or network-wide). Other people more knowledgeable and capable than me in that area would have to answer that. About possible questions: I realize that's very tricky and the idea probably lives and dies with our capability of finding just the right questions. I don't currently have the opportunity to spend a lot of time thinking them up, but I wanted to share the idea already anyway. $\endgroup$
    – Wouter
    Commented Oct 28, 2013 at 14:04
  • $\begingroup$ If my schedule clears up a bit in a few weeks time, I might be able to make some suggestions. But in the mean time, feel free to make your own. That's part of why I posted this now already: I may not have the time right now, but others might... $\endgroup$
    – Wouter
    Commented Oct 28, 2013 at 14:06
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    $\begingroup$ If you don't have to register in order to ask questions, an exam would be a higher restriction. $\endgroup$
    – jinawee
    Commented Oct 28, 2013 at 14:31

3 Answers 3


On the outset it sounds like a good idea, however there's a problem:

  • We do regularly get good low-level conceptual questions, and some good pop-sci questions. While these are no substitute for expert questions, we should not actively put them down by making the OPs unwelcome. The proposal seems to make the site insular "Physicists only, please".
  • What level questions can we ask? Just to give an example, if we ask basic newton's laws of motion questions, we will still have the folks who ask rotational dynamics questions. If we ask them questions of that level, we prematurely exclude many who would otherwise have asked a good question. Of course, this can be fixed with your "varied level" proposal.
  • I doubt SE would be amenable to a change that denies certain users a the ability to participate on the site before they even post anything. Most of the prevention mechanisms on SE are to allow people to post almost anything but have the community quickly dispatch unwanted stuff (via closing). This one contradicts that. Instead, if we focus on getting rid of the bad questions quickly and on not entertaining beginner theorists who think they are the next Einstein, we may manage to keep the signal/noise ratio in check.
  • We might even lose possible new experts this way. Most people want site registration to be as hassle-free as possible. I myself would never have joined if the site started asking me questions first; I would have taken my questions/answers to Quora or PhysicsForums. You see, while good questions come from those willing to put effort into them, if they have an easier way out which requires less effort but, on the outset, seems to lead to comparable results, they will take it.

I'd like to also note that Math.SE allows homework questions and still has a good amount of high level questions and experts. They've been around longer than us, if they've not been hurt by this model; I don't see why we can't do better by reducing the number of HW.

  • $\begingroup$ How about we introduce a test for new users who repeatedly ask silly HW questions without doing any research? If they fail the test, their accounts can be suspended, and their rep and questions can be deleted. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 28, 2013 at 14:16
  • $\begingroup$ I thought about some of your objections when coming up with the idea. (that's also how I first came to the varied level proposal) Part of the discussion that I want to spark is whether we could find a balance that allows the benefits of such a system to outweigh the hassle. Meaning, I am aware that there are issues with it, but can we work around those issues or are they truly too big? I would start by making the questions fun, humorous, quirky, anything to make the new user feel more like they are playing a little game while they wait for their registration to complete than doing an exam. $\endgroup$
    – Wouter
    Commented Oct 28, 2013 at 14:17
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    $\begingroup$ @shortstheory If they repeatedly ask silly HW questions why not suspend them immediately? $\endgroup$
    – jinawee
    Commented Oct 28, 2013 at 14:18
  • $\begingroup$ I mean suspend permanently. Harsh, just as most of SE's rule are. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 28, 2013 at 14:20
  • $\begingroup$ @shortstheory We already warn and later suspend users who continue to post HW despite being told not to. And permanent suspensions are not available to mods. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 28, 2013 at 14:58
  • $\begingroup$ @Wouter I ... don't think that's possible. Most good new users come here out of curiosity and sometimes because they have a question. Those who have come out of curiosity will just decide to go somewhere else; there's no particular reason they'd want to stay here a priori (basically, most good new users don't know about the site). The ones who have questions; well, again, they can find better places. As for expert users, they usually have their own circles to ask questions in, so even that doesn't apply. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 28, 2013 at 15:02
  • $\begingroup$ @shortstheory, in theory the mods could issue a very-long suspension that would be effectively permanent. But I'm not sure we really have a problem with repeat help vampires. It seems to me to be more an issue of one-time, drive-by help vampires. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 28, 2013 at 22:22
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    $\begingroup$ @colin That is correct. I think we've had only one repeat vampire after suspension (we warn at 3 and suspend at 4, usually) $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 3:54

The first thing StackExchange mentions at Help Centre is "Anybody can ask a question".

Also, at http://stackexchange.com/:

Our Q & A site are free and open to everyone

At StackExchange, the focus is on the questions and answers, not on the people. We judge each question or answer on its own, not the person asking it (aside from their reputation).

Votes are the method by which to rate the quality of a question or answer.

Don't get bogged down by "homework" style questions; just downvote, flag, and move on.

  • $\begingroup$ The last sentence says it all. That's my approach. $\endgroup$
    – tpg2114
    Commented Oct 28, 2013 at 15:05
  • $\begingroup$ Yea, but they shouldnt be allowed to answer, vote, edit, comment, vandalize and ruin. $\endgroup$
    – user27799
    Commented Oct 29, 2013 at 0:32

The problem identified is that some users don't enjoy tedious discussions with "pop-sci philosophers and no-effort homework posters."

The obvious and easy solution is don't do it then. Do the things you do like!

The proposed solution, that we reject the successful SE model, is impracticable and, in any case, unwarranted.


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