8

It sometimes happens that I start researching a question and find some information or source that is potentially useful, but doesn't by itself resolve the question completely. If I don't have the time or energy to continue to where I can write a complete and high-quality answer, is there a recommended way to share the information I did find? Perhaps others may be able to use it in an answer, or at least as a starting point for further research.

  • Several previous meta questions say that such "tangential answers" or "pseudo-answers" should not be posted as answers. (Not even as community wiki?)

  • As such, my habit so far has been to post them as comments instead, but earlier today such a comment was deleted by a moderator who called it a "pseudo-answer". (In that case I was able to come back later, and supplement my original note with a lot more information to create a complete answer, but sometimes I can't.)

  • Or should I just sit on my possibly useful information until I can get around to fully researching and answering the question (which may be never)?

4
  • From what I see of your answer (I never saw the comments) it is suggesting that he might not have supported it even though he signed it into law without attempting to veto it.
    – Joe W
    Nov 21 '21 at 17:57
  • 1
    @JoeW: The comments, as I recall, were (1) to provide a link to some sources about the Social Security taxation changes, and (2) to mention that the bills had bipartisan support and that this could be useful context in an answer. I didn't (and still don't) make any argument as to whether Reagan truly supported the bills or not. Nov 21 '21 at 18:03
  • The comments are now preserved in chat, where we can review exactly what happened as a case study relevant to this meta question, or contribute to it there. @JoeW
    – fredsbend Mod
    Nov 21 '21 at 19:50
  • There were 6 comments made, three by Nate, and one of me suggesting the information was already ready for the answer space.
    – fredsbend Mod
    Nov 21 '21 at 19:51
10

I disagree with tim and Oddthinking here. With tim, that the comments you made are not what comments are for, and with Oddthinking, that he deleted those comments and labeled them pseudo answers.

What are comments for?

Officially, clarification, suggestions for improvement, and minor information like a link to a related question or alert the question has been updated. Unofficially, whatever we want. Many other sites are more open with their comments, which builds culture and community, and allows constructive and engaging uses that could be interpreted as technically not intended. I like being technically right as much as the next guy, but I like sharing ideas more. That's why all of us are here in the first place.

Comments work very well for "thinking out loud"

Sometimes a question is complex. The best ones usually are. Working through the information to get to an answer doesn't have to be a personal journey. We can do that together in the comments. And after answers come through that, we can delete the comments; they will have served their purpose. When they're interesting enough, or don't seem to have a natural termination, we push them to chat.

I'd call your comments "thinking out loud". You've found some information, but haven't the confidence that alone makes a good answer. Sharing that information in a comment is useful, and in my opinion, preferred. Another user can read that, add to it, and even another can compile it into a suitable answer. We're all working towards an answer. We're sharing what we know to learn even more. It's synergistic, and the foundation of the Internet since the beginning.

Pseudo-answers aren't just "answers in comments"

Pseudo-answers are unsubstantiated truth claims, which if in an answer would be downvoted and even deleted. They are harmful because they cannot be downvoted, and as a result entice further truth claim comments to "confirm" or "contradict" them. Gone unchecked, a comment thread allowing pseudo-answers continues to grow, aggravates its participants, polarizes community opinions, obfuscates truth, and leads to less answers and more noise. Sound familiar?

I think we can all agree that a comment with a useful link is not the same as a comment making a confident yes/no statement. However, since thinking out loud necessarily moves towards an answer, the more it's done, the more the comments are like confident yes/no answers. Except they are backed by sources and facts in the previous comments. There comes that comment in every "thinking out loud" thread where it's time to make the answer, not another comment. Here's the part where I get bothered: no one actually does it. Just do it. Improvement doesn't stop at the first answer. The process continues, just in a different place and more officially.

What we should do

  • Delete unsubstantiated yes/no answers in comments.
  • Let stand comments pointing to information that can be used in an answer
  • Let stand comments speculating what an answer would/should look like.
  • Delete all "thinking out loud" comments as obsolete once the ideas and information they share are used in an answer.
  • Confidently make answers sooner rather than later, recognizing that the process continues there and is the true test of whether the information is useful.
1
  • 1
    Agreed. I left a similar comment with a link to Wikipedia to help someone else start an answer, as I was missing info on the bottom part of the claim. I think it's important to have comments like these because writing answers on Skeptics can be hard. (And when it's an unsubstantiated comment, you might consider using it to make an edit to the question, if it's notable.)
    – Laurel
    Nov 22 '21 at 16:19
1

I want to start with a dark spectre of the future I am worried about - a vision from the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.


There is a recent [perfectly innocent] question that asks about a terrible "study". I wanted to answer it, so I looked to see what the response in the literature, from peers and experts. Unfortunately, it was a little too soon for that (a few days later, and that is already changing).

What I found instead was Reddit threads from subreddits that don't have our referencing rules.

On one, people were confidently stating that the study's sample size was too small. And confidently stating that a larger sample size wouldn't help because of confounding factors. And confidently stating that vaccines doesn't reduce infections. And confidently stating that the data was cherry-picked. And confidently stating it was because of "risk compensation" (despite that theory having only limited support.

Worst of all, none of them hit on the Pure Honest Truth (my nickname for my personal unsupported conjecture about the biggest problem with this study.)

Meanwhile, another Reddit thread was substantially people trusting the terrible study.

These discussions were not converging to a single, best answer. These discussions were not converging at all.

In the marketplace of ideas these are the ones of unmerchantable quality.

In my opinion, these lightly-moderated, laissez-faire subreddits are swamps, and the signal:noise ratio is way to low to be useful.

But the good news is you don't have to agree with me. You can enjoy the cut-and-thrust of speculative opinions being argued without substance and without any way of checking them. You exercise the freedom of other users not having expectations about what you write. You can do that by going to Reddit (or any of its dozens of forum competitors) any time you like and join in.

Meanwhile, the unique selling proposition of Skeptics.SE is that we don't tolerate that nonsense. We expect all significant claims to be referenced, we expect questions and answers to be openly edited for clarity and accuracy, and we have little time for opinions and point-scoring against political opponents. As a result, the signal:noise ratio is much higher, and the site is more useful and trustworthy.

So, broadly, I don't think we should change to emulate Reddit. I disagree with that the main site is about sharing "ideas". It is about sharing substantiated facts. I, for one, don't come here to read half-baked ideas and opinions.

But that's the big picture. I think having these boundaries in the sand is important - but there is still plenty of room for discussion in Meta about exactly where these boundaries should be.


In @Fredsbend answer he argues a big distinction between pseudo-answers and reasonable comments is those that include references and those that don't.

I am using a very different definition.

Question comments, unfortunately, are placed higher on the page than even the highest ranked answer. If we get a reader of a question who is interested in an answer, and who then reads a comment and feels that they have their answer and need read no further, then that is a pseudo-answer in a comment.

Such a situation does a disservice to the people who post full answers. It doesn't allow people to correct errors (even their own), fix broken links, downvote bad comments.

It also dissuades good answers - why would I bother going to the effort of posting an answer if a comment already has dozens of upvotes?

Now, I, too, have posted comments that are references to help the next person answer it properly. (e.g. "here is a near miss" reference that does not answer the question, but maybe it can help as a template for someone to find a reference that does.") The idea of giving the next researcher a leg up makes good sense.

But a comment that is basically "The answer is 'No'. Here's a link. I don't have time to write a full answer. Someone else can do it." isn't acceptable. (It is okay not to have time to answer a question. It isn't okay to use that as an excuse to leave a half-baked pseudo-answer instead.)

Nor is a drive-by "[Link to Wikipedia]" comment.


In @Fredsbend's answer, he argues he is fine with half-answers in comments... until a point, when they become a problem that needs to be converted to an answer.

I think there are two things to be noted here.

  • We seem to agree on the spectrum and we are arguing for different points on the spectrum.
  • Moderators still seem to be involved in policing the line - but it is worse, because the line is vaguer and gets crossed later when then attention is no longer on the question. I think our best-case process - the "happy path" - should not have to involve moderators. We are here to clean up messes; we can't scale to guide every discussion. Can we have a process that doesn't need mods to step in?

@JustSomeOldMan's answer is basically the argument used by a speeder who is pulled over: "Everyone else is speeding. Why are you picking on me?" This isn't a double standard. There are limited moderator resources. You can help by flagging problem comments. They don't appear in any feed, so it is difficult to notice them all. You can help even more by not posting such comments; a mod deleting a comment is a lose-lose to everyone involved.

JustSomeOldMan accuses me (or someone who looks like me) of being stubborn, but his sole argument for being changing approaches is it is better to be free-for-all than only catch some infringers. Perhaps, then, a better description is "consistently and diligently doing their job in an inevitably under-resourced environment".

JustSomeOldMan should be less happy with Fredsbend's plan, because it is inevitably going to be less evenly policed.

So what do we do?

If we had free control over the software, we might take a leaf out of Wikipedia's book - every page has a discussion page where issues can be best thrashed out. (Wikipedia has to use an approach like this because their main pages are consensus based, where we can have competing answers.)

Perhaps the equivalent in the world of StackExchange is a chat session. Go off, away from the casual readers and build on your ideas, and come back and actually post an answer when you are ready to do so? Should we promote using the chat for this more?

  • Creating a chat session is a little tricky in the existing software - and impossible for low-rep users.
  • We could shove stray pseudo-answers off into a chat (understanding most will go there to die; they are just drive-by comments from people who don't care enough to form an actual cohesive answer).
  • Further pseudo-comments in the same comment section would have to be deleted; they can't be pushed to an existing chat session.
  • I remain uncomfortable that this will require mod attention for a happy path.

Is this a feasible plan?

5
  • I think the Covid vaccine question you've linked to highlights another issue. What to do when a questions asks a broad or hard-to-answer question in its title (like "is X true?") but the actual body of the question is (1) asserting the opposite, and (2) from a fairly narrow set of circumstances ("X is false when measured this way"). Should answers try to address (1) in its full generality or [just] refute (2) as implying something about (1)? (I could add here that in [subsequent] press interviews, the 1st author of that paper doesn't actually claim (1) is false in general...)
    – Fizz
    Nov 25 '21 at 2:08
  • And I rather strongly disagree with your aggressive comments under Bryan Krause's answer to that Q by the way.
    – Fizz
    Nov 25 '21 at 2:24
  • @Fizz: If you disagree with the analysis, please comment explain underneath those comments. But if you disagree with the tone, I think we have the notorious problem of text not conveying tone very well. If you read the comments again in an avuncular tone - firm but warm - I don't think you'll find them aggressive.
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Nov 26 '21 at 1:56
  • I've prepared a lengthy reply in a chatroom. In general, there is a spectrum, as you say, but I we're closer to each other than you think.
    – fredsbend Mod
    Dec 4 '21 at 14:48
  • 1
    @Oddthinking Just a reminder to reply to the above, since you did mention you were thinking about it.
    – fredsbend Mod
    Dec 12 '21 at 1:19
-1

Answers don't have to answer questions 100%, it's fine to post partial answers that only address part of the claim.

It should of course still fulfill the criteria for a decent answer. It should address part of the claim, and answers without references, speculative answers, and personal opinion are likely to be downvoted and deleted. [see also the top-voted answer on the pseudo-answers meta question you linked, which makes the same point about partial answers]

Pseudo-answers in comments on the other hand are not accepted (see also here) and as such may be deleted.

7
  • Well, in the Reagan question, my initial comments didn't really answer any part of the question. I had found two things: (1) a good source containing details on the taxation of Social Security, and (2) that the bills in question had had bipartisan support. I thought those might be useful to someone else writing an answer, but I did not think they were any kind of answer on their own, and I also didn't have time right away to write them into an answer. Was there any appropriate way to share them? Nov 21 '21 at 15:02
  • @NateEldredge If it doesn't answer any part of the question, them I'm afraid that it is off topic in comments as well as answer.
    – tim Mod
    Nov 21 '21 at 15:19
  • 3
    So then, anyone else who does have time to write an answer is just going to have to rediscover that information for themselves (or remain unaware of it). Seems inefficient. Nov 21 '21 at 15:58
  • @NateEldredge I mean, if it doesn't "answer any part of the question", they don't necessarily have to discover it, as a good answer could very well exist without it, right? You could always take it to chat if you feel that it would be helpful, but comments aren't really meant for this.
    – tim Mod
    Nov 21 '21 at 16:25
  • 1
    I'm not a fan of partial answers. We close questions sometimes for being too broad precisely because a complete answer would be too much for any user to make. If we've not closed the question as too broad, then we can assume any one user can make a complete answer, therefore we should hold answers accountable to be complete.
    – fredsbend Mod
    Nov 21 '21 at 20:00
  • Not that I downvote partial answers, but I rarely upvote them.
    – fredsbend Mod
    Nov 21 '21 at 20:01
  • I've replied at length under odd's answer, and in developing my thoughts, your answer came up.
    – fredsbend Mod
    Dec 4 '21 at 20:55
-3

As I see it, the problem is there’s a large double standard in enforcement. There are countless comments that are not deleted despite not falling entirely in line with policy. There are many comments that are deleted because they don’t fall in line with this policy, and even many that are deleted that do seem to fall in line. The question then becomes, what are the criteria mods are using to decide which comments to delete?

This has been a problem for years on this site, but the mods don’t seem to want to address it in any meaningful way. I feel it’s important for me note it seems there is one mod, in my opinion, who does a disproportionate amount of deleting and seems stubborn on this issue.

My opinion is the double standard has to be addressed. It will be much more difficult for mods to enforce policy in the direction of less tolerance, as they will have to basically check every comment to avoid a double-standard. Thus, pragmatically, I think the mods should be more tolerant with regard to deleting comments to loosen up this double-standard.

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