From time to time, the best answer will be decent, but not outstanding. It answers the question, but the question could have been answered in much greater depth. That's alright. You can't win them all.
Unfortunately, at other times, the highest answer is nothing but a sorry excuse for an answer. Rather than answering the question, it describes the author's opinion on the question or, even worse, his "best guess" as to what might be the right answer.
I call these pseudo-answers, mainly because calling them low quality answers would be far too generous.
The tell-tale signs of a pseudo-answer are:
- The answer is prefaced by "This is not a complete answer, but..."
- The whole answer is less than three lines long.
- There isn't a single link in the answer or reference, and it's several paragraphs long.
- The answer starts with "This is just a guess but", "I think that", "Maybe that, "I would guess that", "In my opinion," "Personally," or any other term that suggest speculation rather than certainty.
Why this matters
As I said in the past, this site's success depends on our ability to continually produce great answers:
High quality answers are the life and blood of our site. If we continually produce high quality content, we'll attract more experts who will want to help fellow skeptics. On the other hand, if low quality dominates the site, an expert who visits the site will conclude this site is a waste of time and never come back.
Pseudo-answers go against at goal in at least three ways:
- If a question does not have any answers with a score of at least 1, and has no accepted answer, it will show up in the Unanswered Questions tab. That's right, it's not enough for a question to have answers, it has to have positively voted answers to be considered answered. An upvoted pseudo-answers might be the reason why a question has not yet received a good answer.
- Heavily upvoted pseudo-answers gives the impression that this is the kind of content we want.
- Heavily upvoted pseudo-answers may reduce the visibility of good answers. If by the time a good answer is posted there are already a few upvoted bad answers, then it's less likely the great answer will be upvoted to the top. It may stay buried under a pile of bad answers, where few will ever see it.
If our goal is high quality answers, and it is, then pseudo-answers are the enemy.
Pseudo-answers do, sometimes, make great contribution to the thread. However, Skeptics is not a forum. We are a question and answer site. Answers are meant to be answers, not replies. If you have something to add and it's not actually an answer, then write it in the comment section.
How can I help?
There are many ways to help us get rid of the pseudo-answers threat:
- Write good answers. The best way to avoid the creation of pseudo-answers on a question is to write great answers. If an user learns by reading your answer, it is much less likely that he will feel the need to post an answer of his own. If this is done constantly on each answer, new user will learn that this is the kind of answer his answer will compete with.
- Downvote them, at least down to zero. Downvoting pseudo-answers is paving the way for better, more informative answers: it makes sure that unanswered questions show up in the Unanswered Questions tab and gives more visibility to new questions.
- Leave comments on infringing answers. Downvoting sends a signal, for sure, but the lesson might not be clear. When downvoting, try to leave a comment explaining why. With luck, the author will persevere and learn from his mistake.
- Flag them. If you see a pseudo-answer, please flag it as "low quality." If moderators agree, they might convert the question into a comment, delete it, or downvote it.
- Write good questions. A well-written question helps reduce the probability of pseudo-answers being written. It's not a miracle remedy, and sometimes a well-written question will receive several poorly written questions, but putting effort into your questions never hurts!
If we work hard together, we can purge the site of pseudo-answers and the site will be much better for it.