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I just saw a first post from a user asking about a C# stack trace.

It was a valid programming question for someone with little experience, yet it was marked down twice.

I've always believed that there are no stupid questions. Am I wrong?

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migrated from stackoverflow.com Aug 27 '09 at 17:10

This question came from our site for professional and enthusiast programmers.

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For the record, I believe there are stupid questions: P1: This is spaghetti sauce made with tomato and garlic. P2: What is that?!? P1: This is spaghetti sauce, made with tomato and garlic, which you put over the spaghetti to eat them. P1: What is that???? –  John the Seagull Dec 23 '08 at 11:04
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One of my favorite quotes (not sure where it came from originally, but I believe it's been repeated in Dilbert. "There's no stupid questions, only stupid people". :-) –  Brian Knoblauch Dec 23 '08 at 12:52
    
'only inquisitive idiots' is the version I recall. –  Adriano Varoli Piazza Dec 23 '08 at 13:41
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one time i asked on here, "what do you like to put in your coffee while you browse SO" or the like. That was [partly] due to my frustration of nubs posting the most buzzwordish questions on here, to try and get 'cred. –  theman_on_vista Jan 12 '09 at 14:31
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We're all stupid. Fortunately, most of us don't display our stupidity so no one notices... –  Wim ten Brink Aug 27 '09 at 18:55
    
@Brian: I first heard Mr. Garrison say that on South Park (back in the early years) but it may have been used before that. –  DisgruntledGoat Oct 23 '09 at 12:30
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The question you link to has a score of 5. Case closed? –  Daniel Daranas Dec 22 '09 at 9:37
    
It has 5 votes now, but that's after 1) it's been entirely rewritten (look at the first revision), and 2) it's been linked to from here.. –  dbr Dec 22 '09 at 13:13
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@dbr So "the system works". –  Daniel Daranas Jan 13 '10 at 11:14
    
You have assumed that the people who downvoted it did so for being a stupid question ... you have no basis for that assumption. There are plenty of valid reasons to downvote a question ... that's why the downvote button is there. And yes, there are certainly stupid questions (in fact, I think asking that is one ... but not the one you linked to). –  Jim Balter Mar 27 '13 at 18:18
    
"I've always believed that there are no stupid questions. Am I wrong?" Yes. Yes, you are. –  Jack Maney Mar 27 '13 at 21:08

25 Answers 25

A question gets kind of feeling like a "stupid question" when the answer is obvious. Again this is subjective, because the answer could be "Obvious" for lots of people (infact majority) in the community, but not really "obvious" for the OP. Hence the reason for asking question.

It can be argued that the OP is lazy to find the solution for his question, but by asking the question he is actually trying to find an answer too ;) (and risking downvotes too)

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Stupid questions still get answers, as long as they're asked in the right way.

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There are no stupid questions, only lazy posters.

Perhaps a bit blunt, but I agree with Chris's observation: if I'm going to ask the SO community to help me, the least I can do is state my problem clearly. On the other hand, if the question itself has merit but is not clear, a helpful edit provides far more value to the community than a downvote.

As others have mentioned, showing that you've put some effort into the problem yourself goes a long way, regardless of your native language or the correctness of your English. In this spirit, I've edited the post referenced by the OP.

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I think people get annoyed if you don't invest some time before you ask your question! –  Peter Gfader Apr 23 '09 at 23:50
    
But lots of people lack the experience to actually ask the questions correctly. Framing the question is 95% of the work. Which means SO is hugely limited in its ability to help people. Un-answerable questions b/c of bad phrasing should just be ignored, I don't see why sometimes the asker is "punished" through downvoting. "I'm gonna BEAT you (psychologically) till you're NOT LAZY ANYMORE!!" discouraging no? –  user2483724 Feb 20 at 21:01

There ARE stupid questions.

This is an answer to a simple question. But that doesn't help me in my very special case of kind of stupid questions.

There are stupid questions, that can be answered with just "think about it", "look at what you wrote (it contains the answer)" or "RTFM". But this answer implies that you invested some time to help the questioner to resolve its problem.

And still you will be down-voted! Even when you tell them its not polite, but true. Sometimes you help people more by not being polite.

If you are polite, you will be exploited at some point. If you are not polite, then the SO logic will ensure that you will be voted down.

You only can get a big bag of up-votes by being PC, or by being trend-whoring...

If you are real, then you are f***ed.

If you try to explain why you are real, your threads are being closed, and then you are f***ed too.

So, the intent of SO was good, but at the end its far from reality, it is just some nice bling-bling, as any other www-site. Sad, but true.

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FWIW... I have, on occasion, been extremely impolite in response to certain questions that I didn't particularly care for... and been up-voted. The trick, I think, is providing something of value in your response, whether that's value to the asker or value to the drive-by reader... –  Shog9 Dec 22 '09 at 8:41
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Having a look at your post history on SO, I have to honestly say you yourself seem part of the problem. There is no thought put into the actual answers you provided which got down-voted, and from my perception, you are trying to make the OP feel like they are idiots, rather then helping them solve the problem they are having, especially on some very well asked questions. Not everyone has the experience or knowledge to no how to ask questions correctly, nor do they necessary care, they just want to get the job done. Discouraging them by providing bad answers doesn't make the site any better –  Diago Dec 22 '09 at 8:51
    
@Shog9: Yes, true, but the value is to tell the questioner that he has just asked a stupid question or that he did not switch his brain to ON before asking. In real life nobody wants to explain that to you, in real life you will be told that you made a stupid mistake. People are polite because they get points for it and a superb reputation (well.. I want to work with a gang of extremely polite but unknown coders... but thats another discussion). –  frunsi Dec 22 '09 at 8:55
    
@Diago: NO, I read some "you're stupid" kind of answers. And my answer is not that kind. Read again please. I try to make a point, I do not care about emotions, but I care about facts. –  frunsi Dec 22 '09 at 8:57
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@frunsi. Your facts are wrong. Period. "Yes it is possible" is not an answer to a question compared to another person posting a complete answer with a working solution. That's a fact. Period. I am using one example. SO is about quality at the end of the day, and being a centralised repository of information. That is the facts. –  Diago Dec 22 '09 at 9:11
    
@Diago: You did not understand my point. Maybe my question/answer here is not well-formulated. But: YES, I answered some SO questions intentionally without giving any objective value in the post. NOT wrong facts (at least I try). You try to bend me into being someone who intentionally gives wrong answers? Is that polite??? And now we discuss quality. We are running in circles, you just won't like to understand my point. Put away your scrupulosities for a second and think about what I wrote. –  frunsi Dec 22 '09 at 17:28
    
@frunsi. To be frank, what you wrote makes absolutely no sense in context of this question, and the votes display this. Your facts are wrong, and if intentionally answers question with no objective value, then SO is not the place for you. The behavior you use is frowned upon and completely the opposite of the sites goals. Everything I said is based on facts, shown through your own usage and history on the site, open for anyone to see. Nothing in your answer is polite, so excuse me for not beating around the bush, as this is what you so clearly said you don't want. Become part of the solution. –  Diago Dec 22 '09 at 17:50
    
@frunsi: if the question is so bad that it doesn't deserve a good answer, then don't answer it! Down-vote it, flag it, or vote to close it. One of my favorite SO features is that it's possible to disable and then delete questions that (on other sites) would clutter search results and waste people's time. Don't subvert that! –  Shog9 Dec 22 '09 at 19:27

In quizzing there's a phrase

There are no easy questions, just those you know the answer to.

I agree, there are basic, simple, beginner and novice questions - but Joel and Jeff did say on the podcast that these learning points are one of the prime aims for the site, to make it into a proper top-to-bottom educational resource.

There are plenty of stupid answers though.

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I couldn't agree more –  Kieran Senior Dec 23 '08 at 10:06
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yup - there seem to be more experienced people who mark down entry level questions –  flesh Dec 23 '08 at 13:07

I think asking questions, regardless of how stupid it may seem from the outside, isn't stupid at all. Even the greatest phisophers promoted asking questions. Being humble and knowing what you don't know is - in my opinion - the key to gaining knowledge in the first place.

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And the act of answering a 'simple' question often provokes deeper thinking and results in a different perspective on an issue. –  Unsliced Dec 23 '08 at 10:07
    
being able to give easy answers to easy questions is a good skill. –  Johannes Schaub - litb Dec 23 '08 at 10:09

I think people get annoyed if you are not clear or don't take any time or effort in asking a question.

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True, making a decent effort into asking the question both fully, and clearly aids getting the correct answer –  Kieran Senior Dec 23 '08 at 10:11
    
second that. if you care enough to get an answer, you should care enough to properly ask a question. –  melaos Dec 23 '08 at 11:02
    
For those with English as a first language, but I don't think that's always the case –  johnc Dec 23 '08 at 11:03
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Even if English isn't your first language, surely it's easy to understand that "please help me" isn't as useful a subject as "I'm having trouble doing X in language Y" or whatever. I don't mind broken English - I mind people not thinking "If I were answering the question, what would I want to see?" –  Jon Skeet Dec 23 '08 at 11:05
    
Just explaining that you've tried a handful of things that haven't worked is a real step forward - it's useful for the answerer but it also proves that you're trying to help yourself and not just expecting people to plz send the codez. –  Unsliced Dec 23 '08 at 12:01
    
In my opinion, it's better to give a suggestion in the comments. Probably the one submitting the "bad" question has no idea why people are downvoting. –  Ola Eldøy Dec 23 '08 at 12:06
    
I agree that downvoting isn't useful without suggestions on how to improve a question, in situations where this is the problem. –  peacedog Dec 23 '08 at 13:22
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Even if English isn't your first language, you should at least make an attempt. You can provide a version in your native language, perhaps someone who can translate it will comment or edit, as appropriate. –  Esteban Brenes Dec 23 '08 at 16:58
    
But people can ignore those questions...I have an issue with people downvoting and discouraging questions. It's one thing to dissuade people from certain behavior, it's another to attack the person themselves. (which is what downvoting boils down to) –  user2483724 Feb 20 at 20:59

I think what qualifies as a stupid questio depends on both the person and the environment they are in. So there are stupid questions but it is not easy to determine which are stupid with out knowing more about the questioner.

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I always get annoyed by questions that are answered in every beginner’s book or tutorial. Asking these questions is a clear matter of “I don’t want to learn myself, please spoon-feed me.” Needless to say, I’m not very fond of that.

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There is still room for these kind of questions. Sometimes you can have problems with "simple" matter, the human brains continues to suprise us ;-). –  Gamecat Dec 23 '08 at 10:18
    
Probably thats why all these down votes ;-( –  Omnipotent Dec 23 '08 at 10:20
    
FAQs get their name for a reason. Doesn't imply they're stupid. –  Adriano Varoli Piazza Dec 23 '08 at 11:01
    
Answering those questions is one of SO's missions I'd say. Next time someone googles on them chances are they'll find their way here. –  PEZ Dec 23 '08 at 11:05
    
nope - you miss the point of SO –  flesh Dec 23 '08 at 13:16
    
@PEZ: exactly. Sometimes its easier to learn a concept when it's explained in a forum post type setting, rather than in a text-book setting such as a FAQ or some language documentation page. –  nbv4 Aug 27 '09 at 22:06

I wouldn't say there are stupid questions, however, there are questions that are too broadly scoped, badly written or answerable with a quick look on, say, wikipedia. Of those I only really consider the broad scope to be worthy of a down-vote, all the others are easily fixed. I also believe you should comment when you downvote to give the asker a chance to improove him-/herself.

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I believe the only "stupid" questions are "plz send me the code" questions.

Then there are the Google questions, those for which the answer can be found very easily and quickly. However, some of these questions can lead to very constructive discussions.

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but the point of stackoverflow is to create a repositiory of information so peeps don't have to google - if the answer is 'it's on google' that would be the answer to every question asked here. –  flesh Dec 23 '08 at 13:09
    
I don't completely agree with that. Of course the answer to every question (life, the universe, and everything =)) can be found on Google, but some answers require insight, experience and time, while others don't. I think those that don't don't necessarily belong on SO. –  Can Berk Güder Dec 23 '08 at 13:47
    
Unless they lead to a good discussion, that is. –  Can Berk Güder Dec 23 '08 at 13:51

No questions - that's stupid.

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I guess we should understand that, there are no stupid questions at all. Not everyone can understand what is written in the books or taught to them. You might have to explain to them the concepts in a different way.

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If they can't understand what's written, or what's taught, you don't leave much room :) Seriously: there are stupid people, as in "they can't understand $subject". Sucks, but there are. –  Adriano Varoli Piazza Dec 23 '08 at 11:03
    
@Moranar -Totally agree with Raghu. Not everyone is a Jon Skeet..and by calling some questions stupid and silly we are not helping the main purpose of SO. As Raghu rightly put it"Not everyone can understand what is written in the books or taught to them".. –  Omnipotent Dec 23 '08 at 11:38
    
...Which is what I answered to. Reread my comment. –  Adriano Varoli Piazza Dec 23 '08 at 11:47

I don't think there are any questions in themselves that are stupid. We've all failed to RTFM at one time or another; we've all misread something that in retrospect makes the answer obvious.

However, asking questions in a way that implies that you've taken no time or effort to express it clearly, or think about the problem, says, in effect, that you are devaluing the time spent by the reader in making sense of the question. This is disrespectful, and annoys people as a consequence. That said, it's good to make allowances for non-native English speakers.

Consider the difference between, for instance:

"How do you do X?"

and

"I'm trying to do X... I've looked here and here, but I don't understand Y"

The latter shows that the questioner is being specific, and is making an effort. People are more inclined to help such questioners, than when there's a suspicion that they're just being used to do someone's Google search for them.

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a question (particularly of the first type you describe) asked in the wrong place is stupid and selfish. It says "I don't care about anything else, just solve this for me". –  Adriano Varoli Piazza Dec 23 '08 at 13:03
    
+1 for that: If I see that someone invested some time already, people are more willing to help –  Peter Gfader Apr 23 '09 at 23:51

I'll give you my definition of 'stupid question' by example: I work with $framework (in php, hate away). It has, among other things, a website where people can submit tutorials on different $framework matters, and other people can comment on those.

Now, some good soul had posted a tutorial on how to make search easy in $framework. Days later, another person asks a completely unrelated question, basically 'can't do this thing, please help'. I reply with 'you're spamming here, go to this other website to ask this kind of questions, in the meantime, here's some pointers'.

Two comments later, some other guy asks, and I quote:

I m new to $framework and i don't know how to install $framework please tell me the simple to install $framework i have already installed $webserver and $database and i don't know how to install $framework in $OS can anybody tell me step by step procedure of installition because i can't understand the manual

on the same page.

So yes, I do think there are stupid questions. Or selfish.

As to why bother replying: I am very interested in the search feature :)

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The thing that annoys me is when people complain of a lack of clarity in the question, or say it is not worded well.

Not everybody in the world speaks English as a first language. Their English is probably better than your Lithuanian, or Chinese or whatever.

Do not assume that lack of great English == lack of intelligence and understanding.

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Usually, if one's not a complete tool, it's very easy to distinguish someone's who's not a native English speaker. In my answer that was not the problem: the selfishness was. –  Adriano Varoli Piazza Dec 23 '08 at 11:10
    
Bad wording != bad grammar. "Has tryed $foo andd seting $bar=false, buut still on xyz() eet throes an NotFoundException, an teh googol it founds me no thing on teht" is harder to parse, yet the intent is reasonably clear. "$x is broken, can you help me?!" is bad wording, grammar notwithstanding. –  Piskvor Dec 23 '08 at 13:00
    
Again, grammatical constructs can differ across human languages (not just computer ones!). It is not always easy to get your meaning across in a foreign language. However, perhaps I should add a caveat that as this is an English-speaking site, it could be polite to add you are a non-native speaker. –  Valerion Dec 23 '08 at 14:24
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Again, no amount of grammar translates a clear question in a language to 'plz send me codez'. We complain about the latter, not the former. –  Adriano Varoli Piazza Dec 23 '08 at 14:33

From the faq page:

detailed and specific

written clearly and simply

of interest to at least one other programmer somewhere

So asking a beginners level question should be fine as long as it is clear, and specific!

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This reminds me of an anecdote:

A university professor turns to his class after having explained a difficult subject for a length of time.

"Any questions?" he asks

There is silence in the auditorium.

"Well, come on, don't be shy! There are no stupid questions, only stupid answers!"

After a moment a voice can be heard coming from the back of the room:

"Is it true, that if I color myself green, stand with both of my feet on rails, an hold on with my hands to the wires above, I will start riding like a train?"

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The professor should answer, "For the sake of science, you should find out." –  Chip Uni Dec 22 '09 at 11:36

There once was a silly question, but I deleted it (due to popular demand).

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@GordonG The problem is that a beginner seldom has the knowledge to make a clear and concise question.

This makes me think that questions shouldn't be edited in full to clarify them: if you're asking a beginner's question, chances are that someone will ask the same again. If the original question is edited, you can't even search for it.

An example: how many people ask about -say- looping through arrays, when the actual best solution to their problem would be a map()? If you edit the text of the question, the next person wondering about looping through arrays won't find this, because he's not thinking of map() at all.

UPDATE: I was thinking of the times as n00b when I wanted to do X in a language without knowing that the best way in it was Y. This is fairly common going from -say- Perl to Python, or from procedural to functional or OO programming. Hope this makes it clearer.

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I disagree: the ability to explain is a very different skill from knowing a particular subject. To follow your looping example, it's straightforward to explain the need to find a particular value in a set, then mention that you've implemented this as an array. TITLES are more difficult! –  Adam Liss Dec 23 '08 at 13:06
    
I agree that noob questions shouldn't be edited into expert jargon. I've seen and answered several MySQL questions lately where the question should hav read "how do I pivot MySQL results", but the OP didn't say that because they didn't know what "pivot" was in database jargon, and wasn't skilled in MS/Excel. –  Peter Wooster Jan 16 '13 at 23:04

Bumper sticker: "There are no stupid questions, but there are lots of inquisitive idiots!"

(But seriously, folks... ;-)

When I was teaching I used to tell my students, "The only stupid question is the one you should have asked but were too embarrassed to do so."

On the other hand, one can ask a question very poorly.

Sometimes it isn't even clear how to answer a poorly-expressed question. And one can ask the same question over and over. And one can ask a question in a way that makes it a complaint in disguise. And, as others have pointed out, one can ask a question in a way that makes it clear that there hasn't been any serious investment of effort prior to asking someone else to solve the problem.

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This idea that 'it's a bad question if you can find it easily on google' misses the point of stackoverflow; it's supposed to be the programmers resource. If the answers to such questions are on stackoverflow, people will find it via google. It really bugs me when responses just say 'let me google that for you' - now that's a stupid answer.

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but if the answer is out there, either on SO or somewhere else findable by google, asking it instead of googling is stupid –  Javier Dec 23 '08 at 13:56
    
but that doesnt make it a stupid question... –  flesh Dec 23 '08 at 15:03

"What's the difference between a duck?" is a stupid question.

("One of its legs is both the same" is the answer... I know you were all wondering)

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One of the difficulties of asking a question sometimes is knowing the ontology used to commonly express the details. To say that someone should have googled it requires that they know the particular keywords that are necessary to index into web pages on that topic. I answered this question earlier where a quick google told me the resources available. However I knew the precise name of the concept the questioner asked about. It's the difficulty with machine search that Google still hasn't solved for us.

Until they do, we'll need real people with actual knowledge around to answer seemingly stupid questions.

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@Kezzer, I agree with you. Actually, a question is a question at all and it needs an answer (from the view of the person who ask a question), the mere fact that a person ask a question, he is thinking or he might be confused and needs another opinion or an answer.

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