I noticed a question on which an interesting misunderstanding lead to inappropriate closure.

For the moment, let's think of a question as a chain of proposals linked together through reasoning. Only by addressing an important node in the chain can a question be answered (henceforth we refer this as "killing the question").

To illustrate, we have this question. An analysis of the question structure in the chat reduced it to the following logical structure:

A: The Heisenberg uncertainty relation

B: There's a limit to the accuracy of physical measurements

X: A ---> B

C: not X

E: We should be able to observe large fluctuations by making precise measurements

D: C ---> E

We don't observe E, so by contrapositive, X is true, and so B is true.

The question boils down to asking whether D is true, even though the truth value of X is the one presented as the question. The question was then closed as a duplicate, but while the alleged duplicated questions, and the comments, address X or B, D was never addressed.

OP's follow up comment then want to tell the readers that none of the comments addressed D, however the comments that followed still only addressed X.

I think the typical fate of these questions is: D was overlooked, OP wants to clarify D, people lose patience for follow up questions and thus no extra response is given, question was effectively abandoned, result in dissatisfied OP.

That's all, just wanted to point out what I think is a somewhat common pattern of misunderstanding so we can all be aware of it.

  • $\begingroup$ I agree, it happens that questions are erroneously closed as duplicates for precisely the reason explained here. $\endgroup$
    – DanielSank
    Commented Sep 23, 2016 at 10:27
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure what the purpose of this meta post is. What is there here to discuss? I consider it obvious that one should strive to identify the "crucial" part of a question and answer that. Granted, that doesn't mean I don't occasionally fail that at. $\endgroup$
    – ACuriousMind Mod
    Commented Sep 23, 2016 at 11:12
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    $\begingroup$ The purpose of the metapost is to raise awareness that often questions get erroreously judged because answerers and closers sometimes overlooked the crucial part of the question, the phenomenon of abandoned questions, and the specific mistake is that people often tries to address only the statement that forms the question, but actually to answer the question one need to address the relevant chain of logic that lead to the question, not just the question itself, which is something that most people seemed to overlooked, as evidenced by the phenomenon being widespread in MSE and PSE $\endgroup$
    – Secret
    Commented Sep 23, 2016 at 11:33
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    $\begingroup$ I think that it mainly points out that writing good questions is hard - really really hard. Further, when facing a negative response, many OPs blame the readers, not their question. I usually try to parse out just where the OP is confused, but that is not always possible, particularly when the question is confusing itself. We only can see the question itself, we cannot see inside the OP's head. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Sep 23, 2016 at 14:01
  • $\begingroup$ @JonCuster I think (hope!) we all agree that writing good questions is hard. We also agree that some OP's may sometimes (often) blame the reader in cases where the question in unclear. That said, it's hard to see how this particular question could have been worded much better. Element D is the critical part where OP has a misunderstanding, so one might say to edit the post to just ask about D (as DavidZ suggests in his answer). However, it's not totally obvious that that's the right thing to do, and is something we could talk about in another meta post. $\endgroup$
    – DanielSank
    Commented Sep 23, 2016 at 16:59
  • $\begingroup$ @DanielSank - I'm not 100% convinced. Looking at the question, the crux is: 'it means that in principle one could make as precise measurements as one wishes by making either Δx or Δp smaller without bounds'. While it is often illuminating to take variables to, and beyond, their limits, in this case it leads you down the garden path. So, I would say that the question was not well written or well thought out. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Sep 23, 2016 at 17:05
  • $\begingroup$ @JonCuster Not well thought out? I think OP's thought process is not only understandable but shows a pretty normal understanding of the subject matter. There have been several other questions on the site asking things like whether or not measurement of a quantum particle's position causes the momentum uncertainty to go to infinity. I think questions like this are actually quite appropriate because school and books frequently neglect to explain real life considerations like finite measurement precision etc. $\endgroup$
    – DanielSank
    Commented Sep 23, 2016 at 17:45

1 Answer 1

  1. Yes, of course you're right...
  2. ...but the next step after all this is to edit the question to guide future readers to the real reason why the OP is confused. In other words, once it's been determined in the comments that the question is really about D, edit the question to ask explicitly about D, and make it clear that the proposed duplicate doesn't answer D. That latter part could be addressed like this, for example:

    I've looked at [question] and it addresses X, but it doesn't say anything about D, which is what I really want to know.

    (this would be in addition to changing the core of the question itself to ask about D, not X).

    This is usually a moderate-to-major edit, and should probably be made by the OP. But if they don't feel comfortable making the edit themselves, someone else can do the edit while coordinating with the OP so that they check it afterwards. The important thing is really that we know the poster is okay with the post-edit version of the question appearing with their name under it.

  • $\begingroup$ 1) FYI what you're suggesting here is at least controversial. I've brought up in chat (I don't remember exactly when) the idea of massively editing a post to refocus it on what OP is really confused about, and that was met with mixed reactions. 2) "The important thing is really that we know the poster is okay with the post-edit version of the question appearing with their name under it." I think the antecedent of "their" is not what you intended here. As worded, "their" refers to "the poster". $\endgroup$
    – DanielSank
    Commented Sep 23, 2016 at 16:53
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    $\begingroup$ Also, while a good step might be an edit, note that the question was closed without good reason. This is very bad for the site, in my opinion. You say "Yes, of course you're right", but this was not so obvious to those who cast close votes. So, I very much agree with Secret's decision to make this meta post to raise awareness. $\endgroup$
    – DanielSank
    Commented Sep 23, 2016 at 16:57
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @DanielSank Well, to be pedantic, it wasn't closed. It was put on hold. And questions on hold don't collect answers while the OP (or somebody else) comes along to edit it to make it good and clear. It's not fair for people to be answering questions about X and getting downvoted or ignored just for the question to be edited and come back asking for info on D. That's why on hold is a perfect response until it is edited to reflect the real question. $\endgroup$
    – tpg2114
    Commented Sep 23, 2016 at 20:39

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