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Author Topic: How should we answer Questions  (Read 12508 times)

Offline syhprum

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How should we answer Questions
« on: 19/08/2009 14:18:15 »
I see two possibilities, firstly we should offer an answer from our own accumulated knowledge or we should hunt through the literature on the subject and try a give a definitive answer.
I think the first course makes for the more interesting forum, we should not try to emulate Google, Wiki or Bing Our answers may well be wrong initially but more informed correspondents will correct us and we will learn.
Even those who have the more correct answers will find it interesting how we formed our eccentric opinions.


 

Offline Vern

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« Reply #1 on: 19/08/2009 17:13:34 »
This is a very good concept. I sometimes answer questions with a quick answer that is wrong. It is good that more informed people can come in and correct misconceptions. It's better to have to say "yikes, I goofed", than to continue with the misconceptions.
 

lyner

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« Reply #2 on: 19/08/2009 18:06:53 »
It's always worth giving you own take on a problem. Ready made answers may not address the actual question (the useless FAQ page on the average website is a great example).
Text book presentations (the sort of stuff you get in Wiki)  are fine but they are what they are and are not 'answers'. I have very often found that someone on this Forum can state something in a way which really helps me to 'understand' something just because they have answered MY actual question and they've spotted MY problem.

btw, would wiki have an answer to this particular question?
 

Offline techmind

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« Reply #3 on: 19/08/2009 20:18:33 »
I try to indicate my degree of confidence within a reply I make.

If I state such and such then I'm very confident in it. It will normally be something I've done first-hand, or something very generally accepted and found in the major university physics textbooks or whatever, for example.

If I say "I guess that blah blah" then that's my lowest level of confidence (for example I might use that when the principle I've stated should apply, but when I'm not familiar enough with the particular case being mentioned to be sure that there isn't some bigger effect at play). "I guess" would generally be followed with a fairly broad-brush explanation.

If I say "I understand that...", or "I believe that..." then this lies further up my confidence (but the weasel words are there for a reason!).
I might say this when I think I've read something in an authoritative source and/or I've held the the view for a long time and I think it is not inconsistent with other data which I'm more sure of.
This means I'm pretty certain, but won't take offence if someone with more specific/recent/accurate knowledge corrects me.

If I do post an answer which I later realise is incorrect or seriously incomplete I do try and go back and add correction/clarification.


If the question is unclear or open to interpretation I try to raise the fact ad seek clarification and/or answer (briefly) both viable interpretations. If the question doesn't seem to make sense, then I try and cue the poster to go back a step and tell us the bigger picture - ie where the question came from.



And finally...

I sometimes become aware that I seem to have the last post on quite a few topics.
Is this because:
 - my answer says all that needs to be said?   ;D
 - I killed the discussion?   :(
 - I was simply too late to the party?   ???
 - ?

Constructive feedback is welcome.  :)
« Last Edit: 19/08/2009 20:30:21 by techmind »
 

Offline techmind

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How should we answer Questions
« Reply #4 on: 19/08/2009 21:27:51 »
And philosophical question: is the aim to generate the 'correct' answer reasonably quickly (from an 'expert'), or to stimulate active participation and discussion?

In a classroom situation, or in a meeting of friends, various lines of discussion can be explored, then tidied up and the 'correct' answer disseminated by the expert before the meeting breaks up.

On a forum, people come and go at random and the notion of 'tidying up' so no-one leaves with the wrong impression doesn't work. Well, the thread can be tidied up, but interested participants may never return to a thread to see it. I guess this is just the nature of the beast.
 

Offline turnipsock

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« Reply #5 on: 20/08/2009 00:07:25 »
I have a fair idea of the answer before I post a question as I've already googled it. This forum would die if everybody just googled things. I'm just looking for people that have a bit more insight on things, it doesn't matter if it is actually factual and the humour angle is actually better for me.
 

Offline LeeE

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« Reply #6 on: 20/08/2009 03:24:42 »
Heh - this is an interesting topic, with several aspects to it.

First of all, forums are primarily places for discussion and not for the asking and answering of general questions.  Sure, questions may be asked in the course of a discussion, to clarify or illustrate a point in the discussion, but it is the topic of discussion that is the important thing, not the clarifications or illustrations used in the discussion.

NS is a bit weird in this respect though, with its insistence on posing threads as questions, as though it were just offering an answering service.  It doesn't of course, as this thread shows.

Then there is the nature of the questions themselves.  Some of the questions asked here are simply seeking a simple answer to a straightforward question, while quite a few of the rest are down to gross, but not necessarily self imposed, ignorance and misunderstanding.  These sorts of questions don't really merit much discussion and only really need a simple and clear answer.

There are quite a few questions though, that have no clear and definitive answers and the best we can really do is to just define the question more clearly.  This is where the discussion comes in.  Everyone has their own view but, because its theirs, it's necessarily limited to only the aspects that they're aware of; the only way to get a more complete view, and thereby improve the definition of the question, is to take other people's views into consideration.

With this type of question, it can often be the case that once you've identified and defined the question properly, the answer becomes obvious.
 

Offline Don_1

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« Reply #7 on: 20/08/2009 08:04:02 »
I agree with this concept. But I do some times like to check my facts before I make a complete arse of myself, as in this thread http://www.thenakedscientists.com/forum/index.php?topic=25025.0 where I was sure the Peppered Moth was of the Geometer family, but checked up on wiki first.

Of course, even after checking the facts, I am still perfectly capable of making an arse of myself!
 

Offline Vern

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« Reply #8 on: 20/08/2009 14:50:05 »
Quote from: LeeE
NS is a bit weird in this respect though, with its insistence on posing threads as questions, as though it were just offering an answering service.  It doesn't of course, as this thread shows.
Posing thread titles as questions simply makes them more attractive to search engines. If you will notice, most threads on this forum will get listings close to the top on most search engines.
 

Offline LeeE

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« Reply #9 on: 20/08/2009 16:03:44 »
Quote from: LeeE
NS is a bit weird in this respect though, with its insistence on posing threads as questions, as though it were just offering an answering service.  It doesn't of course, as this thread shows.
Posing thread titles as questions simply makes them more attractive to search engines. If you will notice, most threads on this forum will get listings close to the top on most search engines.

But that is assigning more importance to the publication of the discussion than to the discussion itself, which seems the wrong priority to me.

If getting the most hits in search engine results for questions was the primary objective then a simple text web page consisting of nothing but questions would get most hits, but wouldn't serve any real purpose.  The value then, comes from the responses i.e. the subsequent discussion, and not from the questions themselves.  This emphasis on questions can actually be misleading too, especially when the 'question' asked is really more to do with defining the question clearly and which, once done, may make the answer obvious.

I think that even without the 'rule' of framing every thread as a question, simple questions that only require a clear explanation would still be framed as questions by the posters and the only practical difference would be threads that are trying to discover what questions should be asked, by mutual discussion, would have a more relevant title.

It's not really something I'm too bothered about though.
 

Offline rosy

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« Reply #10 on: 20/08/2009 17:08:28 »
There is something else, too, with the phrasing titles as questions thing.. it's intended to tie in with the rest of the website and with the Naked Scientist show (which is where this all starts from).

Also, it helps to force people into incorporating at least something about what the thread will (notionally) be discussing (although the capacity for the denizens of this forum to wander OT is unparalleled almost anywhere else I've encountered..).

On the original topic of how people should answer questions, I don't think the important point is whether you check your facts or speculate wildly, but that you must make clear in your post when it is you are speculating and when it is you are sure of your ground.

If the question is one with a straightforward answer, then answering with checked facts is the way forward. If it's a more speculative question, clearly speculative responses are what's called for... but even speculative responses typically require some level of background assumptions which should (ideally) be stated (and if you've looked them up the sources might as well be linked).

Either way, a giant quote from wikipedia (or anywhere else) is rarely appropriate, if people want wikipedia they can search it themselves. Short quotes and links are more readable...
 

Offline graham.d

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« Reply #11 on: 20/08/2009 17:47:48 »
I rather agree with Don_1. I don't like to make an arse of myself either (despite succeeding on occasions) but I also think I owe it to the questioner to give a full answer and not to give uneducated guesses. I really only answer to subjects I know about but even in the few areas where I would be considered reasonably knowledgeable, there are usually areas of elaboration which are worth getting factually correct rather than my spouting falsely remembered rubbish. I think the forum helps me to improve my own knowledge by forcing me not to be lazy and research areas at the edge of my knowledge or stuff I've forgotten. However, I sometimes don't do this being short of time, but I think this is a better approach, at least for me.
 

Offline Variola

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« Reply #12 on: 20/08/2009 23:27:13 »
I see two possibilities, firstly we should offer an answer from our own accumulated knowledge or we should hunt through the literature on the subject and try a give a definitive answer.
I think the first course makes for the more interesting forum, we should not try to emulate Google, Wiki or Bing Our answers may well be wrong initially but more informed correspondents will correct us and we will learn.
Even those who have the more correct answers will find it interesting how we formed our eccentric opinions.

Surely it is based on common sense? It is obvious to most that one would need to make it clear in a post if something was a reasoned guess,or based on knowledge, or drawn specifically from a site to answer a question.
Wandering off topic is the nature of forums, and the art of human communication. This is not a hard-line science forum, and neither should it be.It fills a nice niche just as it is. (No I don't have a citation for that! :D)
We have precious few contributors to this site sometimes, the more we can do to encourage posting the better.
 

Offline Variola

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« Reply #13 on: 20/08/2009 23:31:06 »
P.S Would this be better in the Guestbook or Just Chat section?
 

Offline DoctorBeaver

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« Reply #14 on: 20/08/2009 23:36:06 »

On the original topic of how people should answer questions, I don't think the important point is whether you check your facts or speculate wildly, but that you must make clear in your post when it is you are speculating and when it is you are sure of your ground.


That, of course, depends on your being fully up to date with the latest research & discoveries. What was accepted as fact just a few years ago may now have been refuted by more recent experiments/discoveries. Unless you have an RSS feed from all the research institutes, every post should begin "As far as I am aware..." or "To the best of my knowledge...". Maybe we should ask Dave to alter the forum code to stick that on the front of each reply.
 

Offline Variola

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« Reply #15 on: 20/08/2009 23:42:26 »
Quote
That, of course, depends on your being fully up to date with the latest research & discoveries. What was accepted as fact just a few years ago may now have been refuted by more recent experiments/discoveries. Unless you have an RSS feed from all the research institutes, every post should begin "As far as I am aware..." or "To the best of my knowledge...". Maybe we should ask Dave to alter the forum code to stick that on the front of each reply.


Spot on DB. I would assume most posters on here know and take that on board when reading replies, unless the member is blatantly trying assert it as unquestionable.Most of the time it is a civil and friendly exchange, the only time it isn't is when one poster decides to turn it into an intellectual peeing contest.
 

lyner

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« Reply #16 on: 21/08/2009 00:07:48 »
There are many topics which are not really 'matters of opinion', though. Examples of this are all over School Physics. Granted, there are always Relativity, Quantum Mechanics and Thermodynamics lurking in the background but it doesn't always help to bring them into simple ballistics, electronics or thermal problems. Anyone who is not 'getting it right' at that level is almost sure to be even more befuddled by introducing Higher Physics with its uncertainties. Snell's's Law or Boyle's Law can be stated pretty firmly, I think., in order to answer many questions.

People who don't know a lot of Science are not always aware of just how firmly based a lot of Scientific knowledge is and they lump it all in with Quantum Entanglement and Parallel Universes. I see no harm in the occasional forceful assertion. (If that's OK with you guys, that is)
 

Offline Variola

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« Reply #17 on: 21/08/2009 00:22:13 »
Quote
There are many topics which are not really 'matters of opinion', though

In which case, other than for ease of search, it is pointless phrasing topics as a question, if you ask a question, then it is opinions you will get. Whether that opinion is based on provable fact, or an educated guess is what is pertinent.

Quote
People who don't know a lot of Science are not always aware of just how firmly based a lot of Scientific knowledge is and they lump it all in with Quantum Entanglement and Parallel Universes. I see no harm in the occasional forceful assertion. (If that's OK with you guys, that is)

It's not really for me to comment on your assertions SC, forceful or otherwise. You can out a poster straight in an even-mannered friendly fashion. I think people do realise how entrenched science can be, and that gives them the impression of science being a creaking old machine rather than the wonder that it is. Keep things light and it can open their eyes.
Like I have said before, this is not a serious hard-line science forum, I post on one or two of those and TNS is a light relief in comparison, simply because it does attract the 'ordinary Joe with an interest in science'.
 

Offline Geezer

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« Reply #18 on: 21/08/2009 07:39:18 »
Q: How should we answer questions?

A: Very politely.

As soon as we get an urge to demonstrate our vastly superior knowledge of a subject by pointing out what we consider to be another poster's pathetic lack of knowledge, we should count to ten before we hit the Post button. It's just possible the poster knows a lot more about a subject that we are too scared to even ask about.

1  2  3  4  --- I don't have time for th
« Last Edit: 21/08/2009 07:52:54 by Geezer »
 

Offline Variola

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« Reply #19 on: 21/08/2009 10:38:42 »
Quote
As soon as we get an urge to demonstrate our vastly superior knowledge of a subject by pointing out what we consider to be another poster's pathetic lack of knowledge, we should count to ten before we hit the Post button. It's just possible the poster knows a lot more about a subject that we are too scared to even ask about.

Agreed. It is that type of behaviour that has made people reluctant to post. Keep it light.
Oneupmanship is neither attractive nor impressive and reflects the insecurity of the aggressor.
 

Offline rosy

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« Reply #20 on: 21/08/2009 11:57:42 »
I don't think we can assume that people know that we might be guessing, actually. This site has a truly alarming google ranking and with that comes a lot of drive-by visitors who may read our threads without taking on board the extent to which they are speculative.
Whilst in principle one could take the view that this is a forum just for its participants, and treat the conversations as one would an after dinner speculation on the likely behaviour of burning gases in a tube (such as occured at my house last night), infact the discussion remains on the internet "permanently" (as long as TNS carries on being awarded grants/being paid to make radio shows/whatever).

Some of the people posting on this board are active researchers or clinicians and do, infact, know what the up to the minute research says on their subject. Historically, this was a much higher percentage of total posters and so the old threads are in some cases (plus or minus the fact that they're a few years old now). So I do think it is important to be explicit (at least at the start of a discussion in any given thread), for the benefit of people who aren't familiar with the forum, to what extent you are making it up as you go along.
 

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« Reply #21 on: 23/08/2009 23:47:43 »
variola
Quote
if you ask a question, then it is opinions you will get
Not sure about that one. You could give a pretty well founded answer to a question about why the Moon faces the Earth all the time. Much less opinion and more reasoned argument there. otoh, a question about the mind could involve a lot of speculation and opinion.

Quote
I think people do realise how entrenched science can be
The word "entrenched" is a bit loaded, is it not? Buildings can be relied upon to stand up because their foundations are laid in "trenches". One man's "entrenchment" is another man's "foundation". (Or person's, if you like)

I think the way to answer a question / post depends entirely upon the actual topic. I don't think it does anyone any favours to suggest that all of Science is fair game for personal interpretation. The textbook stuff is pretty important as a launching off point.
 

Offline JnA

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« Reply #22 on: 24/08/2009 02:04:10 »
surely this is a *discussion* forum and forums have been around long enough for people to understand they are not reference points.

*insert latin phrase for taking responsibility for your own research*
 

Offline Variola

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« Reply #23 on: 24/08/2009 02:44:38 »
surely this is a *discussion* forum and forums have been around long enough for people to understand they are not reference points.

*insert latin phrase for taking responsibility for your own research*


Spot on. And not only is it a discussion forum, it also has disclaimers plastered everywhere. It does not portray itself as a serious and academic science forum either, that's not the spirit of the TNS. While information should be as accurate as possible... it is not going to mean the end of a career if it isn't.
People are not sponges, they don't need molly coddling and having everything explained to them or pointed out just how vastly wrong another forum member is.
 

Offline Geezer

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« Reply #24 on: 24/08/2009 04:21:45 »
Code: [Select]
*insert latin phrase for taking responsibility for your own research*
How about:

"TIGREM IN LACU HABEO"
 

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