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Pseudo-answers are partial answers, which are mere speculation or irony or an addition to someone else's answer.

Pseudo-answers do, sometimes, make great contribution to the thread. However, Physics is not a forum. We are a question and answer site. Answers are meant to be answers, not replies. If you have something to add and it's not actually an answer, then write it in the comment section.

Why this matters

This site's success depends on our ability to continually produce great answers:

High quality answers are the life and blood of our site. If we continually produce high quality content, we'll attract more experts who will want to help fellow physicists. On the other hand, if low quality dominates the site, an expert who visits the site will conclude this site is a waste of time and never come back.

Pseudo-answers go against at goal in at least three ways:

  1. If a question does not have any answers with a score of at least 1, and has no accepted answer, it will show up in the Unanswered Questions tab. That's right, it's not enough for a question to have answers, it has to have positively voted answers to be considered answered. An upvoted pseudo-answers might be the reason why a question has not yet received a good answer.
  2. Heavily upvoted pseudo-answers gives the impression that this is the kind of content we want.
  3. Heavily upvoted pseudo-answers may reduce the visibility of good answers. If by the time a good answer is posted there are already a few upvoted bad answers, then it's less likely the great answer will be upvoted to the top. It may stay buried under a pile of bad answers, where few will ever see it.

If our goal is high quality answers, and it is, then pseudo-answers are the enemy.

The tell-tale signs of a possible pseudo-answer are:

  1. The answerer refers to other answers like "In addition to what Alice said...", or "Referring to Bob's answer..."
  2. The answer is prefaced by "This is not a complete answer, but..."
  3. The whole answer is less than three lines long.
  4. The answer starts with "This is just a guess but", "I think that", "Maybe that, "I would guess that", "In my opinion," "Personally," or any other term that suggest speculation rather than certainty.

How can I help?

There are many ways to help us get rid of the pseudo-answers threat:

  1. Write good, complete answers. The best way to avoid the creation of pseudo-answers on a question is to write great answers. If an user learns by reading your answer, it is much less likely that he will feel the need to post an answer of his own. If this is done constantly on each answer, a new user will learn that this is the kind of answer his answer will compete with.
  2. Downvote them, at least down to zero. Downvoting pseudo-answers is paving the way for better, more informative answers: it makes sure that unanswered questions show up in the Unanswered Questions tab and gives more visibility to new questions.
  3. Leave comments on infringing answers. Downvoting sends a signal, for sure, but the lesson might not be clear. When downvoting, try to leave a comment explaining why. With luck, the author will persevere and learn from his mistake.
  4. Flag them. If you see a pseudo-answer, please flag it as "low quality." If moderators agree, they might convert the question into a comment, delete it, or downvote it.
  5. Write good questions. A well-written question helps reduce the probability of pseudo-answers being written. It's not a miracle remedy, and sometimes a well-written question will receive several poorly written questions, but putting effort into your questions never hurts!

If we work hard together, we can purge the site of pseudo-answers and the site will be much better for it.


Post freely adapted from here, where it lead to much rejoicing and puppy unicorns.

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In general, I agree with you that there are such things as pseudo-answers which don't belong on the site.

But based on my experience here, I think this is not as big of an issue on physics.SE as I imagine it is on Skeptics. In particular:

  • The answerer refers to other answers like "In addition to what Alice said...", or "Referring to Bob's answer..."

Physics is collaborative. It's perfectly valid to build off someone else's answer, in the same way that you might build off a paper, blog post, or Wikipedia page (by citing it). We've produced a lot more thorough information that way than we could otherwise. In fact, based on experience I consider this a sign of a good answer, as long as the original answer being referenced is also good and the new answer adds something substantive to it.

Here's an example from my own experience: What is needed to claim the discovery of the Higgs boson?

  • The answer is prefaced by "This is not a complete answer, but..."

This could go either way. It's often difficult for one person to cover an issue completely, and I consider it a good sign when they recognize that and point out that there is more to be done, leaving an opening for someone else to come in and complete the explanation (either by editing the existing answer, or posting a new answer that builds on it).

  • The whole answer is less than three lines long.

Agreed, that is probably a sign of a bad answer. (Or perhaps a sign of a bad question.)

  • The answer starts with "This is just a guess but", "I think that", "Maybe that, "I would guess that", "In my opinion," "Personally," or any other term that suggest speculation rather than certainty.

For "In my opinion" or "Personally," I agree. But for other phrases, it depends to some extent on who's guessing. A good physicist knows how to extrapolate new information from what he or she knows, without stepping over the line into unfounded speculation. So even an educated guess or a tentative thought can be good information, if it comes from someone who knows what they're doing. It's common knowledge that scientists make mistakes sometimes, and it will help our site when people disclose their level of certainty (or uncertainty) in the conclusions they're drawing - kind of like the verbal version of error bars.

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    $\begingroup$ Very much what I was going to write. I'm particularly with you on the matter of "extending" answers which provide detailed explanation of and calculation related to special cases that the original author didn't cover. $\endgroup$ – dmckee Apr 9 '11 at 18:12
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    $\begingroup$ I very much disagree with extending. It's exactly the opposite as SE sites are meant to operate. $\endgroup$ – Sklivvz Apr 9 '11 at 21:08
  • $\begingroup$ I share Sklivvz scepticism about your last paragraph, but then again I prefer someone clearly indicates a statement goes beyond their certainty instead of claiming speculation to be exact science $\endgroup$ – Tobias Kienzler Apr 10 '11 at 8:29
  • $\begingroup$ I should write an independent answer extending David's :), since this came up on the sidebar . @Sklivvz I agree with you that pseudo answers should be avoided but also t I agree with David that the true usefulness of the site will come from a research environment, which includes questions and uncertainties and faces problems head on but maybe not completely. I have often "extended" with my answer because I find that the place is dominated by theoreticians, which is fine, but they tend to be too theoretical and have to be grounded to data. $\endgroup$ – anna v Jul 2 '11 at 14:23

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