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What to do when:

You have a problem you can not solve. You post a question to one of StackExchange sites. Describe in detail the situation which produces the problem. People start posting answers, comments, possible solutions or workarounds based on the information you provided.

After some digging you discover that your problem was originating from something completely irrelevant. The situation you described in detail was correct but had nothing to do with the problem, the answers people posted were possibly correct but had nothing to do with your problem either.

What is the recommended behavior in this situation.

  1. Post an answer explaining the situation, the root cause, the solution and select your own answer as the correct answer?
  2. Select somebody's answer which is close to your solution for your irrelevant answer in some way (if any)
  3. Select an answer that you think solves the problem in the post, if your irrelevant problem is taken out of the equation.
  4. Close the question without an answer.
share|improve this question
You should do #1. – Servy Dec 17 '12 at 15:50
select the answer which is answering the question – NullPoiиteя Dec 17 '12 at 16:12
Though I would think if you did #1 and the problem had nothing to do with the question it should get closed as 'too localized'. – TCPMAN.EXE Dec 17 '12 at 16:23
To complete what Servy and NullPointer say, don't select an answer which isn't the good answer explaining your problem. – Denys Séguret Dec 17 '12 at 16:25
@Everyone: Updated possible behavior list in the post to include people comments. – e-mre Dec 17 '12 at 17:06
#1 and flag for moderator attention as "too localized". If the real answer is off somewhere else, then there's not much that can be done, the other answers don't really help, and the info you need to answer the question wasn't in the question in the first place. – casperOne Dec 17 '12 at 17:10
@Servy I would disagree. If you posted the wrong question, and someone correctly answers your question, you should accept that answer so other users seeking the same answer can easily find it. What you shouldn't do is post an answer of your own saying you were asking the wrong question, and accept it instead. – Rachel Dec 17 '12 at 18:27
@Rachel The idea of accepting an answer is to indicate what you actually did. If you aren't using an answer you shouldn't be accepting it. If you would be in appropriate in context to post the solution used, then not accepting any answer would be appropriate. – Servy Dec 17 '12 at 18:33
@Servy I'd say that is a somewhat excessively pedantic approach. When we say "the answer that solves your problem" we mean the problem in the question, not necessarily whatever problem the OP might be having IRL. In this situation the OP will have to settle for accepting the answer that they would have used if the described problem was the only one they were facing. – Asad Saeeduddin Dec 17 '12 at 18:47
up vote 5 down vote accepted

If someone posted a correct answer to my question, I'll accept it, even if the actual problem I'm faced with isn't the question I asked.

This way, other users encountering the same problem I described in my question will be able to easily identify the answer to the question.

If comments or parts of the question are confusing because I was trying to solve the wrong problem, I'll either leave a comment on the correct answer, or add a footnote to my question to explain my mistake as well. This helps prevent users mistakenly thinking the correct answer isn't actually correct due to something I said back when I had the two problems confused.

But if my question actually does contain my problem (for example, a typo in a variable name), and the answers are incorrect for my specific question (but perhaps correct in other ways), then I'll post my own answer explaining my mistake and the solution.

The reason is that SO Questions and Answers should be reusable by other programmers facing the same problem. If the answer correctly answers the question posted, mark it as accepted. If they don't answer the question posted, post your own answer that answers the question posted, and mark it as the accepted answer :)

share|improve this answer

The situation your described in detail was correct but had nothing to do with the problem, the answers people posted were possibly correct but had nothing to do with the problem either.

Let me explicitly state the assumptions I am drawing from this:

  1. Your question in isolation, decoupled from your unrelated problem, is a complete, self contained, answerable question.
  2. One or more answers are present that correctly answer this question (regardless of whether you have further problems with your app/website/motorcycle, the problem, as described by the literal text of the question, is solved).

In the interests of benefiting the greatest number of people, you should select the one that correctly answers your question as it stands. This way people who look that question up later can find the solution to the problem you have actually posted.

Unless you significantly edit the question, the solution to the problem you were actually having is off topic. Of course, if you do significantly edit the question it wastes the time and effort of the people who correctly answered it.

Keeping this in mind, if the root problem was something entirely different, you could open a different question describing the problem and answer it yourself.

share|improve this answer
I don't think this is advisable: for one thing, if the answer doesn't solve the OP's problem, how can he be certain it solves the "question as it stands"? – David Robinson Dec 17 '12 at 16:30
@DavidRobinson True enough, but most of the chameleon questions I've come across have correct solutions to one of their problems (the one in the question), but the central issue is something else. Too often the OP either entirely changes the question or posts an answer about the irrelevant problem and accepts it. – Asad Saeeduddin Dec 17 '12 at 16:36
@Asad Which is the appropriate thing for them to do. Keep in mind the goal here is not to do whatever results in more rep for answerers, but to provide information as to what actually solved the problem. If there wasn't enough info in the OP to actually find the real problem you won't ever answer the real question, giving an answer that has correct information that's unrelated to the real problem isn't likely to help someone with the same issue as the OP. – Servy Dec 17 '12 at 17:11
@Servy The appropriate thing to do is not what results in most rep for the answerers, but in what makes the post most useful to other visitors. If someone searches "jQuery AJAX different domain" and finds a correct answer about CORS and setting the datatype to JSONP, the question has proved to be useful. If the OP posts an answer about how their PHP code was giving the wrong output, that is useful to exactly 1 person. – Asad Saeeduddin Dec 17 '12 at 17:14
@Asad The purpose of marking a post as answered is to indicate the actual solution used by the OP. If that's their solution, and no other answer indicated what they did, then they should mark their own answer. That doesn't mean that every other answer should be deleted, and if another answer contains useful information it may end up being upvoted or simply remain for the sake of a future visitor. As has been said, such a question should also be closed as "too localized". If it's a common enough issue, another less local question can be created. – Servy Dec 17 '12 at 17:17
There's nothing quite like putting a lot of thought and effort into providing a good answer for the question and then being told that not only was your effort wasted, but you don't even get the acknowledgement of an up vote. You need to acknowledge the answerers' good and expert efforts or face being seen as one of those people whose questions should just be ignored in the future. – Chris Gerken Dec 17 '12 at 17:19
@Servy Read that part I quoted before my answer. If you have a complete, self contained, answerable question, and a correct answer to that question is presented, there is no reason you cannot accept it. Why should you instead close it as TL, then open another one with the exact same content but a different underlying intention? – Asad Saeeduddin Dec 17 '12 at 17:21
@Asad It does depend on the specifics of the question, as I've said, and it depends on whether the question is asking for a specific means to an end they don't mention, only to find that means won't help them reach that end, versus a question asking how to accomplish and end and considering a specific means. The latter is usually a better question, but in this case, it would become too localized. – Servy Dec 17 '12 at 17:29
@Servy Right, but at no point am I actually advocating accepting an answer with miscellaneous true facts in it. All I am saying is, "accept the answer that correctly answers the posted question, if such an answer exists". It is entirely possible that your question isn't answerable at all, in which case none of this hypothetical scenario about "a correctly answered question that doesn't solve a problem I failed to mention" applies. – Asad Saeeduddin Dec 17 '12 at 17:36
@Asad "It is entirely possible that your question isn't answerable at all". I'd say that in this context, it's not just possible, it's very likely. And in that situation in which the question isn't answerable by anyone else, the OP should provide their solution, have it accepted, and the question should be closed. – Servy Dec 17 '12 at 17:46
@Servy That is the answer to an entirely different question, because you're looking at a different scenario from the one the OP is describing. And no, it is not in fact very likely. There are a hundred and ten different initially well asked questions out that are definitively and correctly answered, only to be ruined by have additional information added about an unrelated problem the OP was having. – Asad Saeeduddin Dec 17 '12 at 17:56

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