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I asked a question "how to do X (and is it possible to do X)".

I got an answer that's basically "I don't know how to do X" (The other text is not very relevant to my particular question, but might be of interest to others). To me, it seems that the answer would be much better, if the person who wrote it, stated whether he was an expert (which would imply "X is probably very hard, if not impossible").

However, when I suggested this, this person seemed to be offended, as if I'm asking him to "defend his credentials" (I don't know him at all, so I'm not aware of any credentials to defend).

Any suggestions on how to handle this? Not just in this case, but in the future? Was I being rude?

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IMO, your question is much too theoretical/white-board-type question for Stack Overflow. I'm not surprised you're getting theoretical answers too. – Mat Aug 2 '12 at 7:05
I upvoted this meta question because it highlights the Summer of Love theme of "being nice". Your situation is a perfect example of how words that weren't intended to be rude actually were interpreted as rude. Pekka's example, starting the comment off with a disarming statement, is a good example of how to start a comment where you're asking for clarification or disagreeing with someone. – jmort253 Aug 2 '12 at 7:53
I think this is exactly why we don't allow subjective/list-of-things/what-is-the-best -type questions on SO -- "I don't know" is a perfectly valid answer to a non-objective question. "Use a different language" is also valid and not satisfying. This was a predicted problem, and the problem has already been addressed by our enforced policy barring subjective questions; nothing to see here. – Chris Aug 2 '12 at 7:53
@Mat My question is not subjective at all. I basically asked Haskell experts to write the equivalent of Java's triple loop in Haskell. Note that people have disagreed with your "close" vote. – Oleg2718281828 Aug 2 '12 at 8:25
@Oleg2718281828: I didn't say anything about subjective, and didn't vote to close it as such. – Mat Aug 2 '12 at 8:52
@Mat Sorry, a different "Mat" voted to close the original question. – Oleg2718281828 Aug 2 '12 at 8:59
@Oleg2718281828: I did vote to close, but not for not constructive. – Mat Aug 2 '12 at 8:59
@Mat it's not theoretical either. Someone commented in the original thread that the answer was a single line of Haskell, using traverse2, but couldn't be bothered to write it. – Oleg2718281828 Aug 2 '12 at 9:58
up vote 10 down vote accepted

Disclaimer: I have zero knowledge of Haskell

From the way he writes, the answerer seems to know his stuff. It seems safe to assume that when he says "I don't know how to do this" he implies "I'm an expert, I know the language inside out. I can't see a way to do it, and hence it's most, most likely impossible".

However, as you say, we are on the Internet, and misunderstandings can happen. While you were a bit blunt in your choice of words, I think it was fair of you to ask for clarification here, and the answerer should in the end swallow his pride and re-word the sentence.

What you could have done to come across more friendly:

  • Thank the answerer for his effort first. It was a considerable one; starting the conversation with what seems to be questioning his credentials was a bit blunt. You didn't do anything wrong, just a finer choice of words might have come across differently

  • We're on the Internet; try to think of possible ways to misunderstand what you say, and pre-empt them immediately. If in doubt, be too polite rather than not polite enough; the answerer went through trouble to answer your question, so he deserves being treated especially well. Situations like this are where it's okay to be a bit sycophantic ("I have no doubt you're an expert in your field, but the way you put it makes it a bit hard to tell whether you think this is a limitation to Haskell as a language? It would be great if you could clarify this bit. Thanks!")

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The actual question I see between the lines is: (You might better change the title or your question to reflect this)

Should I ask the author of an answer to my question what is his level of expertise?

And my answer to this is: it depends. On one hand, this might sound insulting as you appear to not trust the person enough. On the other hand, knowing his level of expertise might help you understand better the answer or look at it from the proper angle.

All in all, this is your choice and your full right to ask such a thing, but don't expect everyone will answer it gladly.

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It seems like this is the whole point of voting. The community would weigh in on the topic, and the best answers would move to the top. With that said, I'm not 100% sure I would trust voting in this case, which again goes back to the question's very theoretical nature. – jmort253 Aug 2 '12 at 7:43
@jmort253 Not theoretical AT ALL. One of the commentators suggested that the answer was a single line of code (using traverse2), but apparently couldn't be bothered to write it. – Oleg2718281828 Aug 2 '12 at 8:43

While I cannot judge your specific question, I feel you are right to have doubts about such answers. I see similar things happen often in the Eclipse area, where other people also answer about X not being possible, although this is just wrong (as I know a way to do X).

The reputation system may have an influence on this effect, as an unanswered question with a "no, not possible" answer is easily earned reputation. I feel this is especially bad with questions, where there are only very few real experts, but lots of people with low knowledge (just look at the Android category of questions and answers). There you will often find that voting does not remove wrong answers.

Therefore if I give an answer of "No", then I put a "probably" in the same sentence in such cases, and I give a very long and detailed answer of why I think it is not possible. That enables the person with the question to judge my answer. Adding alternative approaches (even if knowing they don't fit exactly) also helps to make the answer being judged more sound.

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