I have noticed that the responses, comments and criticisms (down-voting) of many regular users indicate that they are approaching every question as though it were a postgraduate research topic. Questions on basic Newtonian mechanics are invariably dragged into the realm of relativity. Enquiries into the fundamental characteristics of fluid flow are greeted with equations requiring a thorough understanding of calculus. Any discussion of light or waves is necessarily treated with quantum mechanics.

What is equally concerning, and undoubtedly frustrating for the original posters in these instances, is that the respondents' answers are subsequently up-voted by other users of similar educational level. The more highly educated users are naturally the more frequent ones, so their responses are consequently deemed to be the best answers in each case, but this is clearly incorrect if we value the question of the original poster.

It is not surprising to me, then, that there would appear to be disproportionately little participation from lower level users. I suspect that many arrive and leave in frustration, if not humiliation.

Any presenter, teacher, communicator should always assess his or her audience before formulating an explanation. If the concepts being presented by the original poster are introductory or fundamental, we should respond accordingly. If the original poster is clearly at school or undergraduate level, our response should be congruous with the materials covered at those levels. There is ample opportunity to discuss higher level themes related to the same topic in another post. If a post is not pitched at a level that interests us, it is our prerogative not respond.

I do not mean to suggest that there is no value in introducing more advanced topics related to a post - sometimes it is warranted - but rather that those themes should not be presented as our primary responses. Nor should we up-vote a response as such. We should take care to consider and address each question at its level and context. To use a teaching term, our responses should be learner focused.

Perhaps it is a consequence of its game format, but it would appear that too many of us treat this forum as nothing more than a competition and an opportunity to showcase our brilliance. It is hard to avoid the perception of academic arrogance amongst some of us. But this is not productive, it is not erudite, and it is not positive for the field of physics. First and foremost, we should agree to respect each member of our community by addressing their needs.

  • $\begingroup$ I don't think this is as big a problem as you suggest. My experience has been that more 'technical' responses are overwhelmingly less popular; personally, my top 10 answers have almost no equations and are all high-school level. $\endgroup$ – knzhou Jun 24 '16 at 18:20
  • $\begingroup$ I've gotten some very high-powered answers to some of my questions (usually upvoted less than a more accessible answer) but I still appreciate having them there, since I might learn more from them in the future. $\endgroup$ – knzhou Jun 24 '16 at 18:21
  • $\begingroup$ I have seen it frequently, and I have informally noted that in most cases the question is abandoned by the original poster. $\endgroup$ – POD Jun 24 '16 at 19:27
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    $\begingroup$ Can you give an example? Sometimes, it really is necessary to introduce more advanced concepts, or to say "no, you really are not prepared for this yet, come back in a few years". There's a huge layman appetite for things like string theory, for instance. $\endgroup$ – knzhou Jun 24 '16 at 19:36
  • $\begingroup$ Stack Exchange sites traditionally and consciously eschew the use of the work 'forum' to describe themselves. Not because there isn't a meaning that fits, but because Stack Overflow (the first of the Stack Exchange site) was started with the intent of being different from the run of the mill 'forum'. We don't partake of the same culture as most internet forum and that is a deliberate choice. $\endgroup$ – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Jun 24 '16 at 20:38
  • $\begingroup$ I do not wish to give specific examples in this case, since I do not want to criticise anyone directly. I only wish to argue the general idea. Suffice to say that these were situations in which I felt a simpler explanation was requested by the OP. I agree that there are circumstances in which more complex themes are necessarily part of the question, and similarly many advanced topics can be approached with simple explanations. $\endgroup$ – POD Jun 24 '16 at 20:42
  • $\begingroup$ You are making some good points, but is there a question here? If so, please could you make it clear what it is?! $\endgroup$ – sammy gerbil Jun 24 '16 at 20:45

One of the interesting feature of Stack Exchange is that answers (and questions) are intended to have a life after the original asker is satisfied and goes their own way. We're building an archive of well-answered, high-quality questions here so having each question answered at a variety of levels is purely a good thing.

  • $\begingroup$ I agree with that notion entirely. However, should a "well-answered, high-quality" necessarily mean only those which apply to erudite users? If so, the site should advertise itself as such. My argument is that a "well-answered" question is one which has, first and foremost, considered the primary audience - that is, the original poster. If one wishes to expand upon that, then that can also be valuable. As I stated, "I do not mean to suggest that there is no value in introducing more advanced topics related to a post - sometimes it is warranted..." $\endgroup$ – POD Jun 24 '16 at 20:57

I am with knzhou in asking you to provide concrete examples. Although, I appreciate your reluctance to be seen to criticise other users.

I think you are right that there is a tendency in some cases to provide excessively technical Answers. I think the motivation is that Questions (and Answers) are expected to be of benefit not only to the person posting the question but also to the broader community. There is also an innate tendency in our profession to generalise. But this sometimes conflicts with the questioner's need for a simple, specific answer pitched at his/her level.

However, again like knzhou, I don't have the impression that this is widespread or a problem for the question-poster. Regardless of how many up-votes a technical Answer gets, the OP's choice is what really counts as Best Answer to the Question actually posted. And I have seen a few embarrassing comments like "Fine, but can you explain what this means - I'm only in Grade 12."

I too notice quite a lot of abandoned questions, but not because of getting a technical response. Instead, when challenged to "show your attempt" to a bare question. To me this shows the questioner is ill-motivated, and I feel no remorse if my comment and down-vote has discouraged posting further questions.

In the same vein, I come across too many instances of what knzhou cites - lay questions about popular science topics well above the OP's ability to understand, often rather fanciful "What would happen if...?" questions. Suggesting that the OP come back after learning some basic physics may seem rude but is entirely in line with the purpose of this site : to help serious students and researchers become better physicists, not to answer every idle question about physics which anyone can possibly think of.

  • $\begingroup$ You make many good points. I agree that many lower level students simply do not put in the time. (As a high school physics teacher, I am rather well accustomed to that.) I often try to encourage them with a basic introduction, but I understand that that is not the purpose of the site. Perhaps the problem that I describe is not as widespread as it sometimes seems. It is easy to see a few examples in a row and generalise. However, the point of this post was really just to draw attention to this so that we may all be a little bit more aware of how we're approaching our responses. $\endgroup$ – POD Jun 25 '16 at 3:31

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