As an example look at this

The questioner is a 13 year old according to profile, and the chosen answer is by a 13 year old. For the age group it is not a bad show, but is it appropriate for the site ? Already Jimmy has gathered negatives probably from people who have not checked the age.

The reason I answered after Jimmy360's was chosen is because the site is supposed to have a level at least of college physics. The search engines often bring up Physics.SE answers and leaving it at the level of 13 year olds seems to me not desirable.

I think I would be happier if in Physics.SE the level of physics knowledge was checked at registration and shown when one submits a question. This could be done with a user when registering, and the person given a code, a subscript, according the physics background example: "beginner" gets a _b , college level _c, graduate level _g .

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    $\begingroup$ This is just asking for people to categorically dismiss posts by some users based on, well, category or caste $\endgroup$ – Jim Apr 21 '15 at 13:50
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    $\begingroup$ While I share your thoughts about what level I'd like the questions on this site to be, what would it accomplish to show the level of the user? $\endgroup$ – ACuriousMind Apr 21 '15 at 13:50
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    $\begingroup$ User names are easily editable, so even if you could append that, they'd be able to remove it anyways. $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Apr 21 '15 at 13:53
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    $\begingroup$ I am just thinking of the level of the site. It is getting simpler since I started a few years ago. I am not asking for dismissing, but clarity. $\endgroup$ – anna v Apr 21 '15 at 14:00
  • $\begingroup$ I agree it's lagging in quality with all the young'uns posting their feelings about the way things are. But we can't start labelling them with their level of expertise, because rather than add quality that will only result in biases and other stigmatized words $\endgroup$ – Jim Apr 21 '15 at 14:15
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    $\begingroup$ @ACuriousJim I think it is worse when they get a lot of negatives for simplistic answers that are at their level of competence, then to display ab initio the level of competence of the OP. After all negative votes do the same thing, and unfairly for the young. $\endgroup$ – anna v Apr 21 '15 at 14:38
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    $\begingroup$ Okay, I encourage you to write down all the good things that will come from this. Post those in an answer or add them to the question. Then we'll ask a mother mod like Shog9 to come down and review it. My guess is that he would shoot it down immediately and do a much better job than I at explaining why it's a bad idea (because he has much more practice with doing that). But if he says it's okay, I'll be the first one to sign up for it $\endgroup$ – Jim Apr 21 '15 at 14:54
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    $\begingroup$ @ACuriousJim It is not worth the trouble to explore further as the negatives show that people do not agree that the physics background of the questioners is important. $\endgroup$ – anna v Apr 21 '15 at 15:33
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    $\begingroup$ I think the physics background of the answerers is far more important, along with the reviewers. If somebody posts a poor answer (lacking insight, knowledge, etc) it should be downvoted. Doesn't matter if the person who answered it is you or me or a 10 year old kid whose only knowledge of physics comes from watching old Road Runner cartoons. $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Apr 21 '15 at 15:41
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    $\begingroup$ @tpg2114 note in my example that there exists a subset there of young age, Q and A $\endgroup$ – anna v Apr 21 '15 at 15:49
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    $\begingroup$ I know -- but my point is I'm okay with questions coming from people without much physics knowledge (regardless of age). I am not okay with answers coming from that same group however. In the example you gave, the person asking the question didn't get negative votes (although, it wasn't a great question so he/she didn't get positive ones either). The person who answered it is getting pummeled by negative votes, not because of age but because the answer is wrong/bad. It doesn't matter if everybody involved was in graduate school or elementary school, it's just a mediocre question with a... $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Apr 21 '15 at 15:53
  • $\begingroup$ bad answer. The green checkmark doesn't mean much to anybody else when the large number of negative votes and the comments under it pretty clearly indicate to anybody else coming to the question that it's the wrong answer. That's why the system is the way it is, to make sure these exact situations indicate what is good/correct/expert from what is bad/incorrect/uneducated. $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Apr 21 '15 at 15:54
  • $\begingroup$ I realized that my answer was horribly wrong, but unfortunately, it would not let me delete it. $\endgroup$ – Jimmy360 Jun 3 '15 at 5:10
  • $\begingroup$ That being said, I don't think that I should receive fewer downvotes based on my age. If I'm wrong, downvote me into obvillion. $\endgroup$ – Jimmy360 Jun 3 '15 at 5:14
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    $\begingroup$ I know, but I'm saying in response to "Already Jimmy has gathered negatives probably from people who have not checked the age." that you should just downvote me. Downvoting someone isn't about crushing there spirits. It is about telling everyone else that the answer is wrong so that they do not believe it. $\endgroup$ – Jimmy360 Jun 3 '15 at 5:39

I have to say that I don't really want the site to be about the ``excitable school child'' demographic, but our big rule for defending against the un-serious---that they must ask conceptual questions---admits this demographic just fine. People at that level don't have the tools to do computation of any complexity so most of their questions are "conceptual".

We've had a background of questions from these users for as long as I've been with the site, and it hasn't done us any real harm. So I'm not in a hurry to "do" something about them.

The problem here is not a "low level questioner" one, but a overeager-with-the-accept one. The OP got a basic (even superficial) answer couched in language that (s)he understood and simply accepted it because (s)he was happy. All before any other answers (or even comments) came in and before any significant voting had occurred. The current state of the answers to the question would show any reader (including the OP if (s)he looks in again) that the accepted answer has problems, but the OP didn't wait long enough to find out before hitting the Big Green Checkmark (tm).

A secondary problem is that we seem to be tolerating superficial answers in a lot of cases. Sometimes even ones that are so shallow and incomplete as to be more wrong that right. I understand the impulse---I'm guilty of not wanting to feel like an ogre because my up-to-down vote ration is hovering slightly about 2 as it is---but we may not be doing ourselves any favors by letting users think that they will be rewarded for substantially incomplete and under-researched answers.

tl;dr The best response is twofold: write good answer to basic questions and vote down superficial or incomplete answers where ever you find the on the site.

  • $\begingroup$ I will accept your conclusion since it is evident that the current flows this way. $\endgroup$ – anna v Apr 22 '15 at 4:01

Ack! I see I completely missed the chat session! This would have been an interesting topic to bring up. It looks like I only missed actual physics, though (darn!), so I still have a chance to discuss it.

Perhaps it's just me getting touchy about the age issue again, but I still am - and have always been - against the idea of judging users by their age. I'll admit that I've seen many posts (I'm ignoring the post that was brought up, actually) written by kids that are pretty bad. At the same time, I've seen grownups write a lot of really poor stuff, too. It's often tough to tell just who's behind the really crappy stuff, because in many cases they don't care enough to take any of this seriously - I'm talking about you, generic poster of crackpot theories of spam! - but I would assume that not all of them are kids; perhaps kids only constitute a small minority. We have no way of knowing.

I realize that despite Anna's use of "13-year-old" a lot in this post, and the example at hand, the meat of the question isn't about age: it's about expertise. Is there a correlation between the two? I would bet all my rep - and some of other people's, too! - that an increase in age means an increase in expertise, unless you subscribe to the view that science is a game of the young. I think we can all agree that that isn't the case, however; without calling anyone old, there are a lot of folks who are older than the rest but are incredibly knowledgeable. So there's a correlation. But in science, a correlation isn't enough. A causal relationship is what's needed to truly supply good evidence to a theory. And I think that there is one, at least at the level of kids.

Getting back on-topic, the reason I'm concerned is a little bit self-centered. Where do I fit in? The most I know about quantum mechanics isn't too far beyond E=hv (I know, it's nu, not v, but there's no MathJax on meta), and the most I know about general relativity is what a metric is. Same goes for a bunch of other branches of physics. I would absolutely have a _b for them. But I do know a lot more about astronomy than the average kid my age, and much of the stuff I read is college level. I'm not arrogant enough to give myself a full _c, but I'm probably not a _b, either. Chances are, I won't be asking _b-level questions. Where do I fit in? And for my overall physics average, what am I? A _b-and-a-quarter? And there are certain areas of astronomy I know more about than others. How do I describe that? Moreover, I won't be asking questions about quantum mechanics and general relativity, because of how much of a novice I am. In a couple of years, that could change, but for know, I'll stay away from those.

This - the difficulties arising from categorization - seems to be a large problem, especially at the beginner level - sort of. There are a variety of different levels of physics knowledge. There are those who don't have a good working knowledge of anything they're asking about, those who are studying stuff at school and sort of understand it - how do we differentiate among them? The same phenomenon is active in college (and, I'd warrant, graduate school) - a lot can change over four years.

I think the whole point of this is that there's no set way to lump a group of people together without getting extremely specific. Is that better than just blindly shoving them on Stack Exchange? Perhaps. But the quality and level of the questions themselves are probably a better indicator of what level a person is at - and they can show changes over time. I know considerably more than what I did 8 months ago (and mostly from outside Stack Exchange!). Would that be enough to take me a level up (in the _b, _c, etc. system)? Oh, dear, absolutely not. But it would certainly matter in terms of my participation on the site.

  • $\begingroup$ Good to hear from a young one :). It is true that beginners come at all ages, so the age is just in the example. Very young people can be quite good at the subject. I am trying to discuss a more formal association of physics level to user name than that in the profiles but it is clear from the responses that most people disagree. $\endgroup$ – anna v Apr 22 '15 at 3:54
  • $\begingroup$ @annav Good to hear from an expert. :-) $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Apr 22 '15 at 17:28

I was going to mention this at this afternoon's Physics Chat, but we got carried away discussing physics (entanglement) - typical! :-)

I think this raises an issue about what this site is for. I suspect our founding fathers intended the site to be like the Math Overflow, but the repeated failures of attempts to get a Physics-Overflow-a-like site going show there just isn't a big enough audience to sustain the site. We've ended up (until now - see below) somewhere around the undergrad/postgrad interface, and we've been chugging along quite happily at this level for a while. And that's good! I think many of us, including me, like reading and supplying answers at this level.

But there are a limited number of undergrad/postgrads interested in our site, especially once we've weeded out the ones who just want us to do their homework. And there is a much, much larger population of non-physicists interested enough to want a bit more than the latest Michio Kaku documentary gives them. This includes the excitable schoolchild market segment that Anna refers to. As the Physics SE becomes more widely known we're going to see more and more non-physicists, and the question is what reception we give them.

And I really don't know what is the best course. From exchanges in the chat I'm aware that some valued members of the site are completely uninterested in the, shall we say, less informed questioners. I have a lot of sympathy for this view - there is a limit to how many times I will find it interesting explaining why nothing can travel faster than light. If we get swamped by basic questions all the experts are going to get fed up and leave, and when that happens we lose the unique feature that distinguishes us from all the other physics sites on the web. On the other hand, I find the thought of saying to someone "go away, you're too ignorant to post here" is appalling (even if done politely).

I suspect the best course is just to muddle along and see what happens.


Having read dmckee's answer I think he has clearly articulated something I was thinking about but couldn't put into words.

An apparently superficial question may have a deep answer. Now I think about it, I have answered a lot of very simple questions where I thought it gave me the opportunity to explain concepts that I thought were important and interesting. The problem is not superficial questions but superficial answers.

I'm still not an enthusiastic downvoter, but I do vote to delete any answers that I don't think contribute anything useful. We should probably encourage site members to be more active at both downvoting and deleting where appropriate.

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    $\begingroup$ Well, I was just trying to formalize what some questioners already do, give a background to their level of physics. So as to gear the answers to their level and not discourage future physicists by too many negative votes. $\endgroup$ – anna v Apr 21 '15 at 18:05
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    $\begingroup$ @annav: As I say in this answer, I do not believe answer necessarily need to be geared towards the particular user that asks a question - hence I don't see value in denoting the level of users. I downvote questions if they show an utter lack of effort in trying to find the answer on their own (i.e. google the obvious phrases), or if I find them unclear in some respect. I don't think that many people downvote a question just for being basic, but obviously I can't speak for others. $\endgroup$ – ACuriousMind Apr 21 '15 at 18:38
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    $\begingroup$ The real founding fathers (i.e. people who created the first, now-defunct Physics Overflow and the Area 51 proposal) are no longer with the site AFAIK, but as long as I've been involved, this site was never intended to be the equivalent of Math Overflow, at least not in the sense of excluding anything that an active researcher wouldn't ask. But it wasn't intended to be a free-for-all of layperson-level physics questions either. I guess the goal was a site that would keep experts interested, without being limited to experts' questions. $\endgroup$ – David Z Apr 22 '15 at 5:53
  • $\begingroup$ I bet you all thought I was being facetious when I mentioned questions about travelling faster than light. Sigh. $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Apr 22 '15 at 12:35
  • $\begingroup$ Nobody thought you were being facetious, John. We're well aware of the magnitude of that particular phenomenon $\endgroup$ – Jim Apr 22 '15 at 13:17
  • $\begingroup$ I want to upvote this, but the last paragraph is not something I can really get behind, if I am interpreting it correctly. $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Apr 22 '15 at 14:33
  • $\begingroup$ @KyleKanos: can you expand on what you disagree with? The deleting bit or the downvoting bit? $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Apr 23 '15 at 9:57
  • $\begingroup$ The deleting bit. I don't think wrong answers should be deleted, just downvoted & commented. $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Apr 23 '15 at 11:44
  • $\begingroup$ There we disagree. $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Apr 23 '15 at 12:03
  • $\begingroup$ I believe the founding fathers wanted a physics equivalent of MSE, rather than MO. Still, it's pretty remarkable the wide range of people we have here from interested school kids all the way up to world class academics at Harvard/Cambridge! $\endgroup$ – Larry Harson May 2 '15 at 22:27

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