I'm really hesitant to put this on the table, but what should be done with answers that to do not contain anything of help related to the question?

Specifically I refer to this. It is not the fact of being critizised that I have a problem with, but rather the way it is brought forward, e.g. "the author erroneously assumes..."; but no evidence is given to support that claim, e.g. which definition I have overlooked or which illustrations I didn't see.

So what I would like to kindly ask whether it is compliant with MO to post answers that are void of content or clarification.

In view of Tim Campion's very helpful reply I would like to add the question of whether there is a graceful way to "undo" the damage done, i.e. would editing my MO question in a way that would render the cited answer unrelated to the new content be acceptable or would striking out the unappropriate parts be the better way to proceed?

  • $\begingroup$ I don't think your title matches well your specific example. In your specific example I think the right thing to do (before opening a meta question or flagging to moderation) would be to ask, in a comment to the answerer, to "give evidence to support their claim e.g. which definition [you] have overlooked or which illustrations [you] didn't see". $\endgroup$
    – YCor
    Commented May 10, 2021 at 8:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Ycor I had posted such comment asking for providing evidence supporting the claim that I misunderstood the paper, but didn‘t her any feedback whatsoever. I therefore deleted the comment after a while. $\endgroup$ Commented May 10, 2021 at 11:50

1 Answer 1


If you really think that an answer is "not an answer", you can always vote for it to be deleted, or flag for the moderators to delete it.

However, I think in this case you have misread the situation. It's a bit of a stretch to say that this answer is "void of content or clarification". You asked a question, and the answer points out that an implicit premise of your question is flawed. The answer is specific about which implicit premise is flawed. I haven't read your question carefully, but especially if this flawed premise invalidates the question itself, this is very much an answer. If you need further clarification or convincing that this premise is in fact flawed, you can ask for such in the comments.

On a larger scale, one should be careful when asking a question on MO of the form "I think there's a deficiency in the following paper". Mathematical etiquette suggests that you're probably better off saying "I don't understand the following part of the following paper". After all, if you are sure there is a deficiency, then MO is probably not the place to air it out -- much better to contact the author directly. (Side note: it is an unfortunate reality that sometimes errata are not published even when the author agrees there is a deficiency in their paper. However, that doesn't mean it's appropriate to ask a MO "question" simply to publicize such a deficiency.) On the other hand, if you're not sure there is a deficiency, a question suggesting that there is a deficiency always runs a definite risk of getting egg on your face if it turns out you just misunderstood. Even if it turns out your hunch is correct and there is a deficiency, your "question" might come across as a bit rude.

On the other hand, phrasing a question as "I don't understand the following part of the following paper" not only hedges against the possibility that you really just don't understand, but also has all the same benefits. That is, if it turns out your hunch is correct and there is a deficiency in the paper, it's no less likely that this will in fact be clarified by the discussion on MO, and you will still "get credit" for finding the error in the end.

This is all without even getting to LSpice's cogent observation in the comments to your question that your "question" is in many ways not really a question, and so perhaps not really suitable for MO in the first place.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you very much for your open words; I really appreciate that. I will keep it in mind for future posts. $\endgroup$ Commented May 3, 2021 at 17:51
  • $\begingroup$ @ManfredWeis I have myself run afoul of the dangers here in the past. The most obvious example which comes to mind was this one, actually on a different SE site. I did not appreciate when I first posted this question that it sounded like I was "accusing" some experimental physicists of "negligence" in their error estimates. Thankfully, somebody explicitly pointed this out to me. It actually took a couple of tries to tamp down the tone to an acceptable level. $\endgroup$
    – Tim Campion Mod
    Commented May 3, 2021 at 19:11
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ In any event, I'm just trying to pay forward some good advice I got in the past. Part of the lesson for me was that even though I didn't intend to be "accusatory" or rude, it was very easy to accidentally come across that way -- to the point that even when I was actively looking for "accusatoriness" in my question, I still missed some of it on the first try. I'm very glad that I explicitly left a comment soliciting feedback on this point, because it took somebody else looking at my revised question to see that it still sounded "accusatory". $\endgroup$
    – Tim Campion Mod
    Commented May 3, 2021 at 19:14
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ One point which came up in this experience was the following. If somebody has gone to the trouble to write a paper, and especially if they have gone through the trouble of the peer-review process, then it is always safest to assume that others (the author, at any rate) understand the paper better than you do. If you assume otherwise, then even if you turn out to be right, it will in some sense have been an "accident". So even if it later turns out that you're right, it will still have been presumptuous and insulting to have assumed so from the beginning, betraying an "arrogance of youth". $\endgroup$
    – Tim Campion Mod
    Commented May 3, 2021 at 19:20
  • $\begingroup$ It has frequently been the case that moderators convert answers into comments (on the grounds that it's potentially useful, but not an answer nor an attempt to answer). Is there a reason you're not suggesting, as a possibility, to flag to moderators to make it a comment? (rather than to delete)? (typical example: mathoverflow.net/a/60831/14094) $\endgroup$
    – YCor
    Commented May 4, 2021 at 22:48
  • $\begingroup$ @YCor good point -- that's another option. $\endgroup$
    – Tim Campion Mod
    Commented May 4, 2021 at 23:13

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