I recently answered a one-line question. This question appears to have (very modestly) polarized the Bio.SE community: it has been up- and down-voted once each (not counting my upvote just now). My answer has been upvoted five times and downvoted twice as of now.

Position one

A comment by @David I think summarizes why some people are opposed to both my answer and the question- the motivation seems to be that people shouldn't be asking certain kinds of questions, or that some questions don't merit more than a brisk comment-as-answer, based on criteria like whether the asker has looked at the tutorial. My interpretation of this view: there is an algorithm that we use to exclude bad questions, regardless of considerations about question content. (I'll leave aside for the moment what that algorithm is or should be.)

Position Two

On the other hand, I think that the question is a good example something that is obvious to people who know a bit of biology and non-obvious to people who don't. From my perspective, it is therefore a high-value question, even though it doesn't necessarily meet other "good question" criteria like having sources or whatever, and the user is obviously new to SE.


The user did give it a "homework" tag, which is IMO better than a lot of such questions.

Notably, the question is not "answer my problem set for me", but "here is a thing my teacher said that doesn't seem to be supported, why do they say this?"

The former is obviously not a good question, the latter I would argue can be a good question. (One potentially relevant meta question w/r/t this is here.)

Actual questions

1) Are there substantive arguments one way or the other that I'm not summarizing here?

2) Are there any policies for questions where there's this kind of evident disagreement in the community regarding whether a question (or answer) is worthwhile?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Although David emphasized the tour aspect, I think that's probably not the central argument. For this particular question, a more socratic approach like mgkrebbs' comment is probably a better approach pedagogically; I've certainly left similar comments on other questions and then closed them or asked OP to self-answer once they've figured it out (they usually just disappear, unfortunately). That said, this is not really the SE model...we've struggled a lot here with negotiating between pedagogy and the SE model. It's been hard to develop policies that a majority can agree with. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Apr 19, 2020 at 21:17

2 Answers 2


I'll avoid addressing your two sub-questions because I think your answer is perfectly alright, and I wouldn't overthink it.

We have a few conscientious users here who are sticklers and vote/answer based on their stickler tendencies, and that is most often a good thing. It's an organic way to balance between solid future-proof answers and good pedagogy, as Bryan already mentioned. In other words, we're encouraging learning and building a nice compendium of Q&As at the same time. I know I'm a stickler sometimes and I like to answer and comment often because the avenues for answering (or pedagogy, for that matter!) haven't been exhausted. I think most reasonable people would agree that parallel answers coming from an ecologist, a biophysicist, a physiologist and a high school teacher can be idiosyncratic and altogether much more insightful. That's just the nature of biology and how it spans different scales, considerations and foci.

Let's take your linked question as an example. Between you and mgkrebbs' comment, you've covered all the bases that need to be covered. Both candle analogy and your answer explain and resolve the question in their own elegant ways; having it both ways is more optimal in my opinion. I think comments aren't indexed, so your answer is still primary, which suitably fulfills the purpose of this SE. Don't worry about the upvotes and downvotes, you've not violated any policies or good practice guidelines. You've also kept the answer reasonably simple and jargon-free given that the questioner was probably a curious child. Good answer.

tl;dr all good in the hood

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, I'm glad that at least from some points of view this is a non-issue. I'm less worried about whether my behavior was correct (obviously I think it was!), I'm more concerned that there seem to be fundamental disagreements to some extent about the purpose of the site. Maybe that isn't an issue per se and everything gets worked out in the end. I'm going to have to ruminate a bit and decide whether I agree it's all good in the hood, but I appreciate the optimistic viewpoint! $\endgroup$ May 13, 2020 at 20:30

I would like to add here an inter-community perspective, which might be a bit too long to be added as a comment.

There are striking difference between different stack exchange communities in how they treat "simple" or "stupid" questions:

  • Some communities behave as clubs for experts/professionals (with a PhD and potentially a life-long career in the field behind them), dismissing out of hand anything that does not meet the high standard they are used to - dismissing by downvoting, closing the questions, or simply giving answers too hard to understand. Linguistics community is one such example.
  • Other communities, such as physics and cross validated (statistics) allow for a wide range of questions, very often originating from the students only entering the field, and looking for explanation of basic concepts. It is worth noting that these communities also have guidelines to dismiss the questions that can be easily answered using textbooks, the questions that clearly do not belong to the field, and the questions that are too speculative.
  • Finally, there is the original stack overflow, where even the questions about a basic command syntax can be asked and considered as meriting an answer, although one can get punished for asking too many questions that are not interesting to the community.

The amount of traffic seems to be the most obvious consequences of such attitudes: some communities get a few questions a week, some dozens of questions a day, and the hundreds of questions on stack overflow are simply hard to follow consistently.

I personally find more interesting the communities where no questions are off limits, which is probably due to my interdisciplinary background, and my putting greater value on understanding the fundamentals rather than on encyclopedic knowledge. However, it is clear that there are no generally accepted views on this issue, nor a universal Stack Exchange policy.

  • $\begingroup$ There is also the fourth type of community which seemingly arbitrarily closes some beginner-level and/or poorly researched questions while leaving others open. $\endgroup$
    – canadianer
    Dec 7, 2020 at 16:25

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