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It seems to me like we have developed a problem with a particular type of answer: the answer that ignores the puzzle completely and thinks of a "creative" workaround.

What I'm talking about are two examples in particular, which I'll call "The oracle was lying!" and "Just stab them!" answers. Both of these answers ultimately completely ignore the puzzle and create extraneous answers that are ultimately completely unhelpful toward developing a solution to the obvious puzzle. These two types of answers I personally characterize as:

  • "The Oracle was lying!": The question presents a set of conditions. The answer assumes the question didn't specify all the relevant conditions, and creates new ones to fulfill the reqiuirements of the puzzle. In essence, it declares something completely new to be true, then answers the question using it. "The Oracle says..." => "The Oracle lied!"

    This answer is a serious issue because ultimately it's not answering the question at all. It's just declaring things that aren't necessarily true (and frequently there's no reason to believe they are true), then completely avoiding the puzzle using them.

  • Just stab them instead! This type of answer also totally ignores the puzzle portion of the puzzle, and instead MacGyvers a solution using the parts of the puzzle.

    "How do I get the sword on the train?" => "Kill the train operator with your sword."

    "Which door does the Prince knock on?" => "The Prince waits until she comes out in the morning, then knocks on the door."

    As above, this type of answer doesn't really answer the puzzle. Sure, it works as a solution, but it doesn't answer the question the OP asked at all.

(Side note: these answers are frequently characterized by one-line or one-sentence responses. Not always, but usually.)


It's worth mentioning that we have actually discussed this once before, to the conclusion that we shouldn't be judging whether these answers are really answers, and should downvote them for being low-quality instead.

The reason I bring this up again is that I'm not sure our old decision is sufficient anymore (though I'm but one voice among many), and here's, in brief, why:

  • I believe we can now create objective criteria which we can use to categorize action on answers
  • I think these criteria cover a smaller, more actionable subset of the problematic answers from our first discussion
  • I believe the prevalence of our questions on the Hot Questions list, and simply that our site is growing, is exacerbating this problem
  • I firmly believe that, at some point, while there is onus on the asker to foolproof their question, this only goes so far, and it's not really the OP's job to predict all the poor answers that may come in - it may not be reasonably possible, either.

Still, the previous discussion is worth reading over. If we create criteria, they must be as specific as possible, and must be as objective as possible.


So my questions to the community are:

  1. Is this analysis sufficient/complete enough to express this issue?
  2. Is it a correct analysis in the first place?
  3. What do we do about these answers?
  4. Are they even answers to what the OP was really asking? (Similar to answers against the spirit of the question)

To address possibilities for (3), I can think of the following possibilities, but these are by no means our only options:

  1. Community flags as not an answer; answers are converted to comments
  2. Community flags as not an answer; answers are just deleted
  3. Community generally agrees these answers are of low quality, and downvotes
  4. Moderators and users with privileges aggressively protect hot questions

If we opt for the deletion route, we need to figure out what, specifically, makes them not answers. We as moderators aren't here to judge the accuracy of an answer, and this is important to keep in mind. Acceptability criteria can't involve determining if the answer is actually a solution to the problem.

Do you all think this is a problem? If so, what should be done about it?

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    $\begingroup$ possible duplicate of meta.puzzling.stackexchange.com/q/1302/39? (Not closing because closing as a dup of my own post would seem a bit biased, but this seems to be asking essentially the same thing) $\endgroup$ – Doorknob Oct 23 '14 at 3:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Doorknob I considered that, actually, but I'm not sure it's a duplicate. I think the problem has grown significantly since then, and may be worth reconsidering to the point where we should be doing something more. Whether or not it's a duplicate (I'm not sure, either), I'll definitely edit in your question because it is, at the very least, important precedent. $\endgroup$ – Aza Oct 23 '14 at 3:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Doorknob I was thinking duplicate of this question. $\endgroup$ – Kevin Oct 23 '14 at 5:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Kevin Fair point. I think, however, that enumerating every single possible "loophole" is a task that would be much more difficult on Puzzling than on PPCG, if only because answers here are much more open-ended, as opposed to being limited only to code. $\endgroup$ – Doorknob Oct 23 '14 at 11:40
  • $\begingroup$ I agree that questions and answers are quite a bit sloppier here than on any other SE I have seen. Frankly I see it part if what makes Puzzling different. It always more creativity and people even invent new puzzles too... like test running. It's not one-to-one. Although again I agree maybe it's a bit too sloppy. $\endgroup$ – d'alar'cop Oct 23 '14 at 17:21
  • $\begingroup$ There is also sometimes the issue of questions where there may be no exact answers and/or where a bit of outside the box thinking is part of the answer. Such as ..."X was found dead in situation y, how could this have happened?". These are not my favorite type but they are still valid puzzles, and for these the 'smart-ass' answer is sometimes the best. $\endgroup$ – Penguino Oct 24 '14 at 0:50
  • $\begingroup$ It's be ironic if someone's answered with one if those types... "Just wait for people to stop, then solve it." or "There aren't any questions like that! Problem solved!" $\endgroup$ – warspyking Oct 27 '14 at 1:23
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    $\begingroup$ Just another question with a lot of useless answers: puzzling.stackexchange.com/questions/3451/… $\endgroup$ – Danubian Sailor Nov 3 '14 at 10:47
  • $\begingroup$ @РСТȢѸФХѾЦЧШЩЪЫЬѢѤЮѦѪѨѬѠѺѮѰѲѴ When I read the "correct" answer, it makes an assumption that is not given in the riddle. The same goes for a lot of the "useless" answers: They just make different assumptions. $\endgroup$ – Ole Tange Nov 4 '14 at 8:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Ole So the question becomes, why did the question and its answers get so many upvotes? $\endgroup$ – Aza Nov 4 '14 at 8:06
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    $\begingroup$ @Emrakul I thought that was obvious: Because people like the question and especially the creative answers. $\endgroup$ – Ole Tange Nov 4 '14 at 8:13
  • $\begingroup$ Coughs Well, this is awkward... puzzling.stackexchange.com/questions/3013/… $\endgroup$ – Damien H Apr 16 '15 at 23:34
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    $\begingroup$ Related: Should mathematics questions really be on-topic here? This kind of answers is part of what makes this site such a laughingstock. $\endgroup$ – Gilles Jul 17 '15 at 22:28
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They have a similar problem on codegolf

Briefly in answer to your questions

  • Is this analysis sufficient/complete enough to express this issue? - Yes
  • Is it a correct analysis in the first place? - Yes
  • What do we do about these answers? - Just stab them! Just kidding I'll discuss that below.
  • Are they even answers to what the OP was really asking? (Similar to answers against the spirit of the question) - Probably not!

There are a number of similarities between these sort of responses and the sort of thing they have to deal with on the codegolf site. Over there they have challenges much like here and these also attract 'clever' responses.

https://codegolf.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/1061/standard-loopholes-which-are-no-longer-funny

The first time they appear some people are mildly amused but the more you see the more tedious they become.

Of course being programmers they approached they problem as an exercise in constructing rules. The list is essentially a summary of all the things that will be considered cheating and where a Questioner thinks these sorts of answers may appear they can include a link to the loophole list to warn off anyone who may think that such a 'clever' solution is sure to be the best answer.

I'm not sure exactly how well copying this approach would work but it is an extra tool in the effort to discourage these sorts of answers. It would provide a means by which Questioners could as you aptly put it 'foolproof' their questions where applicable.

Personally I would suggest a middle ground between down voting (which I would strongly encourage more of, in the most obviously silly cases) and aggressively protecting questions (which impacts the whole community.)

I'm not without a sense of humour and seeing such 'witty' remarks in the comments feels reasonably acceptable in moderation.

Overall I would agree with your options 1 and 3 in roughly equal measure because I think with greater awareness of what constitutes a bad answer ('purely frivolous' as opposed to 'in good faith but hopelessly wrong') the burden on moderators to police answers can be shifted to the community who's greater numbers are better able to manage decision making element through down votes.

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