# Are stingy ratings just due to the nature of physics?

I've noticed a major difference between the physics SE and the other SE sites. People here are mean!

Comparatively, the other sites feel like a smorgasbord of up-voting. I understand that the number of up-votes is tied to the traffic itself and the number of users, but the higher frequency of the down-votes is not explained by this.

I feel like there are several workable explanations. One is that it's possible to have an answer that has a singular fact that is objectively physically incorrect, so it's hard to speak correctly without a seemingly endless stream of qualifiers. Another is that there is such a strong gradient of people with lots of experience and people with very little, but I generally don't believe this explication, and the reason is that I see so many people with lots of experience (it's not that hard to tell) with many down-voted answers.

How are other users justifying this phenomenon to themselves? One major take away I have is that the reputation number means something entirely different here than it does on other sites. Looking at the bigger picture, is physics as a topic "special"?

• I suppose I am a fairly critical person, 25 up to 7 down. Probably the main time I down vote is when people are answering questions with non-standard theories without any disclaimer saying how it is non-standard. – Benjamin Horowitz Jul 31 '11 at 16:48
• Good question. It's hard for me not to down-vote when the best answer is lagging way behind a considerably inferior answer (but not one that's bad enough that you'd downvote it even if it had fewer votes than the right answer). – Peter Shor Aug 8 '11 at 1:07

People here are mean!

Were you around for the early days of Stack Overflow? Back is those time misted days SO had a couple of strongly opinionated down-voting specialists. The current situation on physics does not seem so different to me. The moderation team is trying to hold our current crop of these guy to civil bounds, but we are not trying to dictate their evaluation of posts.

it's possible to have an answer that has a singular fact that is objectively physically incorrect

Yes, it is. Perhaps more so than on Stack Overflow.

But we also have a couple of phenomena that are much less prevalent than in programming, system administration, and the other topics that were the original Stack Exchange sites.

• Lots of enthusiastic amateurs whose whole education on the topic comes from popular books. Frankly this is a crowd that we love to have around (because we always happy to see people take an interest), but are a little wary of interacting with (because they are often very misguided; there is a limit to how much education one can pack into a comment when the intended recipient clearly has none of the mathematical preparation and is misusing the specialized vocabulary of the field).
• A small but more persistent group of people who are strongly committed to non-standard theories. And very wordy on the subject.

For what it's worth, I'll list my upvote to downvote ratio on some of the sites I'm active on:

Stack Overflow   10:1
Super User       50:1
Physics           6:1
Unix             25:1


Clearly I'm more critical here than elsewhere. I'll note that my Stack Overflow ratio is up (from 8:1) after a multiple month effort to cast more upvotes.

Part of the situation for me on physics is that without the option of casting a non-binding vote to close I have been substituting down votes on things that I was wishy-washy on closing.

• One thing I want to interject with here is that there is not a line sharply dividing those enthusiasts who read the popular books and the experts. I visited a blog of one of the users and found a post about his experience interviewing for grad school, and how people told him to NOT mention his love of "The Elegant Universe". I have similar sentiments. I would hope that the majority of that group could be interpreted as "good faith" at least. – Alan Rominger Jul 30 '11 at 18:46
• There is nothing wrong with pop-sci (I read a couple of these books a year), but people who have only that preparation do ask strange, and oddly formed questions; things that betray misunderstandings that are hard to set right in the Q&A format. – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Jul 30 '11 at 18:49
• Dmckee has pointed out that, compared to math, physics has both more crackpots and more people who get their information from popularizations (often TV rather than books). In physics, there is often also an issue that is familiar to anyone who's taught the subject, which is that students come in with strong, preconceived, informal ideas about physics (e.g., that things "naturally" slow down), and these can be extremely difficult to overcome. Although math has some counterintuitive results like the Banach-Tarski paradox, I think there's a lot more counterintuitive stuff in physics. – user4552 Aug 8 '11 at 22:45

I came to physics.se after hanging out at math.se for a while. Wow you guys are right this place is mean! I posted a nice informative answer (with links and estimated errors) -- the answer was very quickly accepted but had a minor mistake at the end. Rather than waiting for comments and then editing and correcting (which is what I have experienced at math.se) I got downvoted. This is not as fun at all!

At math.se there is meta discussion on encouraging junior members. I think a number of us tend to more easily upvote questions and answers by junior members on purpose as those come back and stick with the community (stats even available on this by Qiaochu). I have to admit I am getting no such warm fuzzy or welcoming feelings here ......

• Sorry if I was the one who made you feel unwelcome. I actually undid the -1 after you fixed the mistake that I pointed out. – user4552 Aug 8 '11 at 22:15

Personally, I am downvoting only when the answer is wrong beyond repair and it is my opinion that we don't want such bogus answers around at all. If there are just technical mistakes or confusing statements that can be fixed, I point this out in comments (with possible down-vote that I remove upon correction). Do you consider this mean or do you have something else in mind?

• I am most upset when an answer is downvoted because I believe the downvoter just doesn't understand the reply. If you're using a "beyond repair" philosophy, I imagine that I wouldn't disagree with any of your downvotes. – Alan Rominger Jul 31 '11 at 15:44

I have some more thoughts to share. At the same time that I seem to get considerable down votes, I seem to get the occasional answer that I thought was absolutely nothing special, and then everybody loves it. I suppose this is the reality of democracy, but seriously, if it had been up to me to evaluate and compare my answers irrelevant of the community feedback, more than one answer with a net negative score would be in my own top 10.

I think it's very important for people to have an emotional hold on the fact that things like this will happen, which is a major reason I want to write this answer as an olive branch to other people who have felt similar things. One reason forums are good is the very fact that people can be mildly combative as well as well-reasoned and intelligent.

Since I've been paying attention to this, I notice that there is strong divergence from the ratios expressed by dmckee depending on the users. One editor in particular with >6k rep I calculate to have a up:down vote ratio of 1:4. It's important for users to recognize that such voters are out there and take it in stride.

• Without it affecting the ambition of future answers
• Without it affecting their own hostility

To share some funny stories, I notice that there are questions that are quite popular, and almost entirely devoid of up votes. For instance, the following one caught my eye. I think very significant attention was paid to giving good answers, so what happened? Maybe someone watches it and doesn't see what they came for. Maybe there are lots of up and down votes. Maybe it's just not the kind of question that leads to great answers.

Simple friction formula for a car

Out of my own answers, I am most baffled by votes on answers like the following one.

the form of a kettle

Feedback is good, but it's so easy to over analyze.

I downvote a lot, so I guess I should explain myself: there are places where you have a wrong answer accepted as correct, and with a billion up votes. I down vote and comment so that the original poster will pay attention that this is wrong, and irresponsible to leave up:

Here are some flat out wrong, ridiculously up-voted, accepted answers:

It is important to note that in physics there are objective answers, and wrong answers stick out sorely, much more than right answers.

• +1, though, I disagree that you downvote a lot. You only have 263 downvotes. – Abhimanyu Pallavi Sudhir Sep 18 '13 at 9:50

Since this came up once more, I have to say that I have only down voted once, an answer, though I have made negative comments. I guess I inherently believe in positive reinforcement rather than carrot and stick, which is the norm here.

People have down voted some of my answers too; if I cannot find a mistake, I consider them deluded :) or partisan to their own version of reality in physics, and put it down to experience.

• I've heard other people mention the divisions in physics, where some people are considered to be "fringe", but I see a division in the vision for the site as well. Wikipedia was notoriously divided on the inclusionist / deletionist line for a long time - and still is to a significant degree. People could be harshly punished for doing fantastic work for no reason other than "I don't think you should be doing this here" arguments. I think I see some of that here. – Alan Rominger Aug 7 '11 at 22:32
• It is inevitable that what physicists at large label as fringe will also appear on a physics site too, considering that the moderators are from the general physicist sample. I think that the reason labels like "fringe" are imposed is in order to economize on effort.Modern physics needs a large data base and an array of theoretical tools very time consuming. To refute the "fringe" somebody would have to work hard to understand it and get to a QED of refutation, without a publication at the end;careers depend on publications. Only somebody like Lubos who no longer cares to publish could do it. – anna v Aug 8 '11 at 4:47
• it occurred to me thinking about your comment that if this were 1905 Einstein would probably get downvoted a lot. So would most people who contributed something meaningful. – Alan Rominger Aug 17 '11 at 4:01

I don't downvote much - I think the comment interface is very useful in pointing out errors and what can be sorted in improving the question or answer. Most of my downvotes come on questions in response to a flagrant violation of the questioning rules, or a very poorly formatted or researched question, and this is mostly to attempt to correct the behavior of the questioner. It is perhaps "mean," but we work in a field where people are tasked with shooting us down all of the time, so we better get used to it.

On the other side, I don't upvote very often either. I try to limit my upvoting to only those answers which I could have answered myself. When I first starting coming to SE, it seemed like quite a lot of the questions lived in string theory or high energy particle topics, which I have not studied, and am not expert in, so except in the clearest cases, I simply do not know without substantial side research (that I do not have time to conduct!) if someone is correct or not. With physics becoming increasingly specialized, it becomes difficult to accrue points if others are not expert in your topic, and can't say with confidence if you are correct or not, and therefore don't upvote. So, presuming others think like I, this could be a reason.