I’ve asked a question recently which got completely mis-interpreted by everyone, despite my repeated attempts to clarify.

This is the second time I’m seeing a highly upvoted answer which answers a different question but at the same time confuses others into thinking that the question is being addressed.

The first time was discussed here.

Something needs to be done about this. This is damaging to the site’s reputation as a place of reason and logic. This kind of fallacy is to be expected from Yahoo Answers; it cannot be acceptable here. Worst of all, I am powerless to do anything about it. The answer about cigarettes is still out there, and is a top-10 hit for "smoke single cigarette" on Google. I did do the one thing I can and am supposed to do, but this didn’t fix the problem.

What are everyone’s thoughts about this?

One possible solution is to change the question so that it matches the answer. I do think that’s rather disrespectful of the asker, however. Another possibility is to "close" off-topic answers like we close off-topic questions. Lastly, we could just delete the whole thread; I’m certainly considering doing that to my misinterpreted question about Coca-Cola. One thing we can’t do, in my opinion, is leave them as-is.

List of examples:

  • As a result of this post, both of the questions had the problem fixed; one by rewriting the question and one by deleting the answer, which I think is a good thing. Just thought I’d mention for anyone who sees this at a later stage and can’t figure out what I was talking about.
    – RomanSt
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 17:30
  • "completely mis-interpreted"? recipe versus composition is not "completely mis-interpreted". If the composition is already secret so is the recipe, because the first is the major element of the later. Your meta question is fine as a general one but you are blowing your example a little out of proportion. You should see also the other side: It is very hard to answer a vague question "correctly" and people asking such risk to waste the time of the answerer. Commented Apr 8, 2012 at 20:10
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    @MartinScharrer The composition is a result of a recipe. The same composition can be achieved by several different recipes. Most importantly, knowing the composition does not explain how one would copy the composition from scratch. Think of something as simple as aluminum: it’s composition is trivial, and yet the multiple recipes for making it are pretty tricky and can in fact be secret despite the known composition (99.99...% Al).
    – RomanSt
    Commented Apr 9, 2012 at 16:08

3 Answers 3


Since Oddthinking addressed the problem with the question you cite as example, I'll keep my own answer to what to do when the community has mistakenly upvoted an answer that does not answer the question.

Flag the offending answer.

Stack Exchange moderators are, before anything else, exception handlers. We are there for cases like this. If you see a question with grave problems that cannot be fixed easily by non-moderators, the solution is either to flag it so we can intervene.

  • Be honest: Would you have intervened in the Coca-Cola case if he had flagged the answer, and if so, in what way would you have intervened?
    – Timwi
    Commented Mar 25, 2012 at 13:22
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    @Timwi: I would have intervened, but not in the way he would have asked me to. Oddthinking's post does a good job of explaining how I would have intervened if he had flagged the answer in question. The flag is a signal of a problem, but we are not required to pick the flagger's pet solution.
    – Borror0
    Commented Mar 25, 2012 at 14:04
  • Do you also consider that closing the question fixes the problem? And the fact that it’s a top Google hit does not spread mis-information?
    – RomanSt
    Commented Mar 25, 2012 at 15:40
  • @Borror0 I’ve updated both questions to match the answers. Unfortunately the latter one requires moderation - hope the edit makes it through.
    – RomanSt
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 13:48
  • @Borror0: You evaded my question. In what way would you have intervened? Would you have edited the question to match the answer?
    – Timwi
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 14:16
  • @Timwi: I didn't avoid the question. By referring you to Oddthinking's post, I clearly meant that I would have edited the question to match the answer, in this specific case.
    – Borror0
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 14:35
  • The agreement appears to be that the question should be edited to match the answer, where the answer is good enough to warrant this.
    – RomanSt
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 15:23

This is not an example of a growing trend that needs to be addressed, for the sake of the site's ongoing reputation.

This is simply a poor question - which is hovering confusingly close to a good one.

You are right, it shouldn't be left as is. So, I have closed it. I want to edit it to make it the good question that it almost is, but it's not worth it if that is going to trigger a huge meta-discussion. I'd rather just leave it closed and move on to other questions.

I've explained the problem twice in the comments. Alas, I haven't succeeded in communicating the issue. I will try one last time.

You do NOT cite any references to show notability of the question. This is causing problems.

  • Is the recipe of Coca-Cola a carefully guarded trade-secret?

This isn't the question you asked, but... it is a sensible question, and it is a widely-known claim. I didn't challenge the original question for lack of notability precisely because it was so well-known, and I assumed (like the answerer and probably the people who voted up the question) that this is what you were referring to.

  • Has anyone ever chemically-analysed Coca-Cola to find its chemical composition, without the recipe?

This is the question you tried to ask, but... it isn't notable. I know of no-one claiming that they have done it and of no-one who is claiming that it is impossible.

Note: Given the apparent ambiguity in the common understanding of the terms, I would like to see any such claims, if they are cited, are clearly referring to the chemical composition and not simply the recipe (a trade-secret) or the ingredients (which are listed on the can; at least in some jurisdictions).

Without those claims, this is just a question of idle curiosity. It is out-of-scope, and should be closed.

If we had a mission statement, it would be something like: To find where people are making false claims and correcting them to help others find the truth (or showing that surprisingly claims are actually true - that's fun too!)

The question you want to ask doesn't fit that mission. The question you almost asked does.

I'd love to edit the question back to the recipe one. It is an urban legend that turns out to be surprisingly true. It would make a good question for posterity. However, it seems you won't be satisfied with that, so I haven't made the edit. I've just closed an out-of-scope question.

  • How do you define notable?
    – Timwi
    Commented Mar 25, 2012 at 13:18
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    @Timwi: It's vaguely defined as "claim widely believed or believed by public figures." A non-exhaustive list of acceptable proofs of notability include newspaper article, statements by public figures, list of several unrelated online sources repeating the same claim and highly upvoted reddit posts or comments.
    – Borror0
    Commented Mar 25, 2012 at 14:11
  • You have succeeded in communicating the issue. However, closing the question does not fix the problem. It needs to be either deleted, or a different question needs to be put in its place, to match the answer. While I can delete my own question, I’m not sure what to do about the other one.
    – RomanSt
    Commented Mar 25, 2012 at 15:38
  • For example: "Does smoking a single cigarette measurably harm your body?" "Well, it causes known carcinogens in your body, so yes [it measurably harms your body]" (zero evidence that the harm is measurable). This goes against your very own (suggested) mission statement.
    – RomanSt
    Commented Mar 25, 2012 at 16:18
  • @Romkyns - I would change it to the is the recipe a secret. It is a good question as Oddthinking notes. So take one for the community edit it to that question. The ingredients that go into the composition are part of the recipe that is secret. So yes recipe is secret. The actual ingredients that go into the recipe are secret except where they are required to be disclosed by the FDA.
    – Chad
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 12:27
  • @Chad Fine. Edited. For the sake of the rest of the internet, rather than the community, because the community doesn’t seem to care about deleting misinformation.
    – RomanSt
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 13:44
  • @Romkyns - That was a childish edit. I was really trying to help answer your question. Now i do not care.
    – Chad
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 13:52
  • @Chad: I don’t think it was a childish edit, but if you think so, then the community’s reaction to (and handling of) this case is also childish. Nobody acknowledged the problem, nobody here seems to worry when this site clearly helps the spread of misinformation, and then everyone is surprised when romkyns points out that that is what’s happening. He is clearly doing it in an effort to improve the overall quality of the information on the site, even if only in small steps (the biggest steps he can make on this draconian site).
    – Timwi
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 14:15
  • @Timwi - I actually voted to close the question early on. There was no notable claim to support what he was asking for. But instead I went and i pulled together links that showed the recipe was a secret. The ingredients are a subset of the superset that is the recipe that is secret. I even pointed out that some of it was disclosed because it was required.
    – Chad
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 14:16
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    @Chad: Were you the author of the answer? I can’t check because the answer appears to have been deleted. If you were, why did you post an answer if you knew it didn’t address the question? That is what started this whole controversy...
    – Timwi
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 14:30
  • @Timwi - I did try to address the question. The OP did not like the answer. I guess he wanted to see "No here are the ingredients." but that is not the case... I have deleted the answer... hoping the OP will now delete the question.
    – Chad
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 14:33
  • I’ve accepted the other answer because it’s easier to see what the agreement reached was. (Namely, if the answer is good enough and the question is bad enough, edit the question to match the answer).
    – RomanSt
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 15:24
  • @romkyns: I am sorry that is the message you took away. I explained that it wasn't the situation here three times; I am not inclined to explain again.
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 15:26
  • @Chad I attempted to delete the question, but I was unable to (probably because it was closed). I appreciate that you provided your answer in good faith, but I hope you can see that the net effect of this is misleading. I think it’s better to close an off-topic question than to answer one that wasn’t asked.
    – RomanSt
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 15:29
  • @Oddthinking That’s confusing... you explicitly stated that the question was poor, the answer was good, and that you’d love to edit the question. All I’m saying is let’s do this question editing if this happens again. (or delete the answer, which someone has now done to the cigarette question, yay)
    – RomanSt
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 15:39

Down-voting an answer the OP thinks does not addressing his/her question is not the only thing he/she can do and should never be the only thing anyway. You should definitely comment on the answer and state clearly why it doesn't address the question. In some causes it should be appropriate to ask the poster to delete his/her answer.

One thing which can be done to avoid this situation is of course to write clear questions in the first place. Clearly state what the question is about, at best more than once, e.g. add a summary at the end, and avoid any ambiguity. If you fear it can be misunderstood with something similar, then explicitly state so and say what the question is not about as well. If there is a similar existing question, link to it and state why it is not a duplicate.

  • I appreciate your advice. I wonder if there was a way to write this particular question more clearly though; I tried pretty hard... It seems that people assume they know what you’re asking from a couple of keywords, and don’t pay attention, no matter how carefully you phrase it.
    – RomanSt
    Commented Apr 9, 2012 at 16:05

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