I'm noticing building support for the idea of removing the "math problem" close reason. It's come up in discussion on meta, and has been brought up in chat a few times.

I can definitely see where support for removing this close reason would come from. Those questions which are truly off-topic can simply be marked with the "off topic" close reason; math-related questions would (should?) be segregated by quality through voting rather than by close reason. I'm also growing increasingly convinced that it is acting as a means of introducing unintentional favoritism into the system, and I can see the argument that the close reason is doing more harm than good as a result.

I'm still on the fence about removing the close reason entirely, though. Still, looking back at the original reasoning for rendering math "problems" off-topic, it looks to me like the problem could be solved with downvotes alone, and that a close reason might not have been necessary.

Should we remove this close reason? If so, how do we, as a community, handle the quality of math problems and math puzzles (wherever the distinction, if it exists, may lie) going forward?

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    $\begingroup$ I vote yes, mostly because it seems like we have trouble staying consistent with enforcement of it, or at least strongly give the impression that we are inconsistent with the enforcement of it. $\endgroup$ Jun 1 '16 at 19:54
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    $\begingroup$ I like having it... it produces a custom notification that, when VtCed, lets the poster know that they oughtn't be posting textbook-style math problems on here. It's clear and concise and sends a specific message that's easily understood and followed. $\endgroup$ Jun 1 '16 at 20:08
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    $\begingroup$ Arguments for using math as a close criterion tend to be logical. Cases where math closures have improved this site can no doubt be found. This improvement is insignificant, though, amid the influx of off-the-cuff puzzles that dilute this site Misguided closures are much more significant, regrettable even, and have been documented. $\endgroup$
    – humn
    Jun 1 '16 at 23:23
  • $\begingroup$ @humn: When that puzzle was originally posted, it was significantly different. It was edited heavily before its reopening - I think both the closing and the reopening were perfectly reasonable. $\endgroup$
    – Deusovi Mod
    Jun 1 '16 at 23:47
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    $\begingroup$ I admit, @Deusovi, to not knowing just how a math closure looks to a puzzle's poser. Does it always say something like "on hold for a few days"? Even if so, at least we should take a careful look at the wording so that the poser will feel more encouraged to revise their presentation. Something about the current system seems to be quite dispiriting, certainly to me as a math (and just about every other kind of) puzzle lover. $\endgroup$
    – humn
    Jun 2 '16 at 0:12
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    $\begingroup$ @humn: I think all closures besides duplicates give the "on hold" message for the first week before switching to "closed". (Even then, I agree that if we decide to keep it, rewriting the math problem close reason to be less discouraging to users would definitely be a good idea.) $\endgroup$
    – Deusovi Mod
    Jun 2 '16 at 0:16

No. I don't think we should. We get things that are blatantly homework fairly frequently, and taking away that close reason would only mean that we'd use the custom close reason option to close the questions anyway.

That being said, I do think we need to more precisely define what a "math problem" as opposed to a "math puzzle" is. The reason for all this talk about removing the close option is that we are not treating new users in the same way as we treat experienced users - we are much stricter towards newbies, and that could be fixed with a precise definition of the distinction between problem and puzzle. My working definition is this:

A math puzzle must:

  • not require that the solvers have advanced mathematical knowledge (anything beyond very basic calculus and number theory)

  • be more than plain calculation

  • not require heavy calculation (unless tagged )

and most importantly,

  • require some insight that makes the problem easier to solve

Anything that does not fit these restrictions (within reason) I typically VTC as a math problem. (Note that this would rule out several puzzles that have been accepted here in the past: it's up to you all to decide whether that is a good thing.)

Some prime (heh) examples of good math puzzles are 100 Prisoners' Names in Boxes, Placing 2x1 dominoes on a chessboard with two corners removed, and A secret polynomial. I think we can all agree that these should stay open. On the other side of the problem-puzzle spectrum, this policy (or a similar one, refined by community consensus) would rule out the questions that we most often use the close reason for. If we can make our rules more precise, then there's no need to remove the reason.

  • $\begingroup$ Advanced mathematical knowledge could be permitted if there is something in the puzzle that could lead the reader to discover the technique without requiring that they already know it. $\endgroup$
    – Gordon K
    Jun 1 '16 at 20:19
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    $\begingroup$ @GordonK: Depends on what you mean - the technique should be intuitive once solved without preexisting knowledge of advanced mathematics, though. $\endgroup$
    – Deusovi Mod
    Jun 1 '16 at 20:23
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    $\begingroup$ @gordonk I disagree until I see an example, since I can't think of a single advanced math topic it would be possible to understand without years of prerequisite schooling. $\endgroup$ Jun 1 '16 at 20:25
  • $\begingroup$ @question_asker I was envisaging someone posting a puzzle that might, for example, rely on knowing (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayes'_theorem) but giving sufficient hints for non-mathematicians to find it. This is, however, probably quite a rare example of something that isn't too complex for non-mathematicians to understand (myself included). $\endgroup$
    – Gordon K
    Jun 1 '16 at 22:19
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    $\begingroup$ Why should we not be kind towards knowledge of advanced mathematics? The question of puzzles requiring specialized knowledge has come up previously on meta, and I don't think it's ever been suggested that they should be disallowed. It seems clear enough to me that, while one might be justified in downvotes, close voting such questions in the absence of any policy is a bit extreme. $\endgroup$ Jun 1 '16 at 23:45
  • $\begingroup$ Just math, of all things? The criteria outlined here could be applied with good intention much more broadly. Singling out math provokes human fallibility in at least two ways: 1) Objectiveness is limited as we don't consider how the same criteria apply to other puzzle subjects that we might happen to enjoy more. 2) Math puzzles become focal points for displaced frustration caused by other unappreciated puzzles that don't have a specific close button. $\endgroup$
    – humn
    Jun 1 '16 at 23:48
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    $\begingroup$ @Milo: No question should require highly advanced techniques. We're not being unkind towards knowledge of it, just saying that questions that require it are not "puzzles". Specialized information is okay, since it can easily be looked up: if someone made a puzzle based on advanced mathematical trivia, I would have no problem with it. But specialized knowledge of the mathematics itself can make the solution inaccessible even after it's known: in my opinion, puzzles' solutions should be easily understandable by the layman. $\endgroup$
    – Deusovi Mod
    Jun 1 '16 at 23:52
  • $\begingroup$ @humn: I agree that these critera could be applied to many other types of puzzles. I'm not against mathematics - I'm actually hoping to become a math professor! But math is the easiest thing to mistake for a puzzle when it's not: you'd never see someone asking "Analyze this poem by Robert Frost" or "Describe the ramifications of the Treaty of Paris". Math is (IMO) the most puzzly academic subject, so the confusion is more frequent. (That's why we need to have this discussion in the first place!) $\endgroup$
    – Deusovi Mod
    Jun 1 '16 at 23:59
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    $\begingroup$ (To clarify my earlier comments to @Milo and humn: Puzzles that use mathematical trivia are fine, just like puzzles that use artistic/literary/musical trivia. Even if it's trivia related to a very advanced area, I have no problem with it - the issue is when you need to know, say, fluid dynamics, chemical engineering, or category theory to solve a puzzle. The issue isn't specific to mathematics, it's just most common with it - this policy would hopefully eliminate both highly overspecialized puzzles and the typical math homework we get sometimes.) $\endgroup$
    – Deusovi Mod
    Jun 2 '16 at 0:06
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    $\begingroup$ This makes an interesting point, but it's a point that I think goes beyond mathematics. For example, I could create a technical computing puzzle that would likely be arcane to someone not familiar with computers. Would/should that render it off-topic? $\endgroup$
    – user20
    Jun 2 '16 at 1:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Emrakul: Depends on the type of knowledge. If it's just trivia that could be Googled, then I'd be fine with it. If it requires significant understanding of the inner workings of a specific computer, then it would probably be too obscure to count as a puzzle. $\endgroup$
    – Deusovi Mod
    Jun 2 '16 at 6:03
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    $\begingroup$ "advanced mathematical knowledge" will never be clear. 1) It will be different for every one. If someone does not understand probabilities should he VtC every puzzle that involves probability ? I don't think so ! 2) The level of math require to solve a problem is not always clear before the problem is solved. 3) We will have this situation where people who consider it too hard will vote to close and people who consider it easy will vote to re-open. Difficulty is really opinion based and I think we should use upvote / downvote to express opinion. $\endgroup$
    – Fabich
    Jun 2 '16 at 8:57
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    $\begingroup$ @Lordofdark Yeah, this is definitely worth considering. This is a big part of why I think we need to abandon the VTC reason. $\endgroup$ Jun 2 '16 at 11:06


Some Puzzling stalwarts have mentioned in chats that they both:

  • Regularly vote to close mathematical “problems.”

  • Are mathematicians.

Is this a pattern? If so, it seems both:

  • Puzzling. Why would someone who enjoys mathematics, as do I, not enjoy its presentation, by someone else who enjoys mathematics, for enjoyment by others? Echoes: Mathematical problems are inherently puzzles; very rarely does someone try to cheat a homework assignment here, isn’t that what Mathematics SE is for?

  • Unfair. It only takes a handful of unimpressed experts to deny an enjoyable taste of structured mathematics for many others. Echoes: Downvoting and commenting are much more appropriate measures for expressing boredom; restricting mathematical puzzles does not improve the site for many visitors, mainly just for those who vote to close.

Original post

Yes, mathematical problem closure should be discontinued in its current form,
and no, its intent should not be abandoned.

1. At the very least, the hold/close message should be revised from its, well, crude, present form:

This question is off-topic as it appears to be a mathematics problem, as opposed to a mathematical puzzle. For more info, see "Are math-textbook-style problems on topic?" on meta.


  • As in rude. “This question is off-topic” can be an unwelcoming slap in the face to a novice puzzle pos(t)er. We do not need to haze newcomers.

  • As in unrefined. The word problem is unnecessarily ambiguous. And the claim that a question is off topic is inconsistent with the explanation that the question appears to be a mathematics problem.

  • As in incomplete. The linked Meta post offers no suggestions on how to improve the presentation of a mathematics-oriented puzzle. That was never its purpose. At best, it provides some examples that could serve as morals, none of rehabilitation, a handful of barely-acknowledged abstractions, some comments that might or might not help, and a link or two that lead to more of the same.

Here is a first pass at a better rejection message, also crude at the moment but less rude. It could, for one thing, benefit from an even more encouraging tone. Please help by editing or adding alternatives.

This post appears to be more of a drill an exercise  [problem didn't seem specific enough]  than a puzzle. For ideas on how to present it as a puzzle, please see ____[same link as now until we devise a question specifically for this?]____.

2. The criteria could be broadened to include all drill-like puzzles, regardless of relative frequencies. The example above allows for this. To single out “mathematics” provokes human fallibility:

  • Objectivity is limited as we don't consider how the same criteria apply to other puzzle subjects that we might happen to enjoy more or, even, care about less.

  • Mathematical puzzles can become focal points for displaced frustration caused by other unappreciated puzzles that don't have specific close buttons.

  • Some newcomers have been chased here from Mathematics SE for presenting what have been perceived as puzzles. Need we add insult to injury?

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    $\begingroup$ I don't know if it's a U.S.- or regionally-exclusive term, but "exercise" might be a valid word choice as well. My only concern is: will this change solve the problems with objectivity and nepotism that were raised in the original discussion? $\endgroup$
    – user20
    Jun 2 '16 at 10:01
  • $\begingroup$ Wish I'd thought of "exercise" in the first place, @Emrakul, now edited in $\endgroup$
    – humn
    Jun 2 '16 at 10:53

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