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One thing I keep running into on this site is that some questions are merely asked so that a persons opinion can be validated. I don't ever say I'm right and you're wrong when I reply to a question, but there are times I answer with a response that basically says, 'this question isn't really valid for x reason', or 'there is something more important to consider than what you're asking'.

In my mind I'm offering an answer to the fundamental validity of the question. Most times, as I guess I should expect, my answer is down voted. However, I do feel that it is important to step back sometimes and evaluate the validity of a question and the foundation it is asked on.

Is this accepted and acknowledged in the community, that some answers are 'No you can't', or 'that is not a valid question because of the premise it is asked on, because...'?

EDIT Example:

Like for instance, in parenting area if someone asks something obvious like 'How do I teach my 3 month old the alphabet'? My answer would be

  1. you can't
  2. you should not be trying to do that.

That was an obvious example, but there are other situations that are not as obvious, yet still 'you shouldn't do that or try that' may still apply or at least be a valid consideration

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    Search for the X/Y problem here, as that has everything to do with what you're talking about. – Won't Aug 14 '15 at 16:07
  • I understand the X/Y problem as it applies to a technical issue. There are other areas that are not hard science on here though. Like for instance, in parenting if someone asks something obvious like 'How do I teach my 3 month old the alphabet'? My answer would be 1) you can't and 2) you should not be trying to do that. That was an obvious example, but there are other situations that are not as obvious, but 'you shouldn't do that or try that' may still apply or at least be a valid consideration. – Adam Heeg Aug 14 '15 at 16:35
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  • I used a 3 month old in my example :) Just to be obvious. – Adam Heeg Aug 14 '15 at 17:35
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    Related: Is “Don't do it” a valid answer? – Fish Below the Ice Aug 14 '15 at 17:58
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On RPG.se we call these kinds of answers “frame challenges”, because they challenge the frame of the question. It comes up often enough that it's become a piece of local jargon.

Yeah, they're valid answers. They're more valid if you answer the surface question, and then solve the “but actually your problem is…” problem after.

However, our wisdom around frame challenges comes with one big, huge caveat: they are not guaranteed to be right or agreed with by the community. For one, you might be wrong; for two, even when right it takes a whole level more of writing and persuasion skill to pull off a frame challenge than it takes for a straightforward answer. Our experience is that frame challenges are sometimes extremely good answers, but when they're ever so slightly less than stellar, they get murdered in the voting.

So yes, they're valid answers. You can hedge your bets a tiny bit by including a preamble that directly answers the superficial question.

But like calling a trick shot in a game of pool, you increase the risk and reward when you do it. The normal voting mechanism will decide whether you've succeeded, and as always with votes, the farther you go out on a limb, the more the voting is going to be polarised.

  • I love the jargon you added, having a name for this will really help and I'm going to start using "frame challenge" going forward. – Adam Heeg Aug 14 '15 at 18:20
  • I'd like to upvote, but I don't like the excessive focus on reputation in your last paragraph. – Federico Poloni May 25 '18 at 20:16
  • @FedericoPoloni I focus on votes there (rather that rep directly), because it’s a necessary caveat. Part of our guidance at RPG.se is that following it does not come with a guarantee of voters liking the particular execution. Despite that warning, we still have had people get angry when their answer challenging the framing of a question gets downvotes, saying things like “frame challenges are allowed”, as if that should protect them from downvotes. Experience says it’s necessary to point out that this answer style has no special guarantees or official protection from voters. – SevenSidedDie May 25 '18 at 20:23
  • Maybe in 2015. Skeptics 2019 is not really tolerant of this anymore. If you don't "answer the claim and only the claim", you'll suffer for it. Downvotes, deletion, or sometimes a mod just edits out the frame challenge, leaving a skeleton of your answer. It's getting to be a drag, and as a self proclaimed professional "frame challenger", it's quite disenfranchising to see plain boring answers that are technically right, but missing the point, while knowing that if I answer with the actual point I'm going to get static for it. – fredsbend Jan 12 at 6:50
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    Makes me wonder if I'm losing it finally, or has the world gone mad ;) I had to quit a non se site last year for the same thing. – fredsbend Jan 12 at 6:51
  • Ok, I'm losing it. Someone linked here from skeptics and I thought I was still on skeptics meta. – fredsbend Jan 12 at 6:54
  • @fredsbend That’s okay! It’s good to know how things are done around the Stacks. That sounds super frustrating though. At best I can only imagine it’s a reaction to other problems, but even if so, that’s an unfortunate baby to accidentally throw out with the bathwater. – SevenSidedDie Jan 12 at 17:50
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In general, the answer to your question is "yes". In fact, I'd argue good answers should recognize and call attention to any incorrect concepts in a question. If we ignore the rhino in the china shop and only talk about how to fix the china it breaks, the china is going to keep breaking and we'll have to keep fixing it.

That being said, proving a negative is very difficult. There are certainly times when a question may seem silly or poorly founded or researched.

I recommend you start by commenting on the question to ascertain where they got the information that they have or why they believe what they're asking is possible/true. Asking someone to show their work is perfectly fine and, if they comply, it will make both the question and the answers better. It will also give you a better chance to show why their assumptions are incorrect.

Negative answers need as much if not more supporting documents when answered because you're both

  • proving them wrong (so you need sources that say why their assumptions are incorrect)
  • proving yourself correct (so you need sources that say why you are correct)

So, when you do answer, you need to:

Explain why their assumption is wrong. But don't forget to Be Nice!.

  • Do they quote some discredited studies/biased sources?
  • Do they make assumptions based on a myth/old wives' tale?
  • Is there a language barrier issue?

There are many explanations for why someone bases their question on data that may be incorrect.

Then, explain your point of view and support it with good sources. Remember that, particularly on some sites, your point of view will always be wrong to some readers. I would say that this is particularly true on sites like Parenting where you can find sources that debate just about every topic with very few definitive "answers".

In the case of some of the more subjective sites, it may be good to add an extra layer of "Be Nice" by framing your answer in a way that is very patient and respectful of differing opinions... unless they're quoting movie stars as if they were doctors.


As an example, someone recently asked (on Movies.SE) why a character in a film would wait for a loud point in a song to shoot if they have a silencer. This question is based on the fallacy (movie trope) that "silencers" make gunshots nearly inaudible when, in reality, suppressors do not actually "silence" the sound of a gunshot.

There are a couple of ways to answer this question:

  1. Only give a real-world explanation explaining that suppressors don't actually silence guns.
  2. Only give an in-world explanation for why this would happen.
  3. Only give a storytelling reason for why this would happen.
  4. Give all of the above.

Doing option one is similar to what you're talking about. It's certainly true but it doesn't necessarily actually answer the question, so it might not really help the person asking. Option two or three could each be helpful and would certainly answer the question and would probably be fine on their own... but

Doing all three in a long answer explaining the reality of how suppressors work (including videos of what suppressed guns sound like) along with an explanation for why the character might make that choice and an explanation of how suspense works both answers the question and teaches the asker (and future readers) something they may not have known.


Now, for some extremely obvious errors, it's possible the question would get closed. As an example, on English Language Learners, if someone asks a question about a quote that includes a typo, the fact of the typo is explained in the comments on the question and the question usually gets closed. But I don't think this is what you're talking about.


One other thing to remember. You say in your question

One thing I keep running into on this site is that some questions are merely asked so that a persons opinion can be validated.

If this is actually the case, this may be a non-question and it may be appropriate to close it as such. From the Don't Ask Page:

  • there is no actual problem to be solved: “I’m curious if other people feel like I do.”
  • your question is just a rant in disguise: “______ sucks, am I right?”
  • You make a good point about "negative answers need as much if not more supporting documents when answered". I wonder if moderators would delete such responses though since it changes the topic from the question to whatever the reason is behind the negative response. Some of the sites are really rampant at deleting answers and comments the moderator doesn't like. – Adam Heeg Aug 14 '15 at 17:40
  • @AdamHeeg I'm going to rewrite my answer a bit. Somehow I misread your example, likely because, as you say, three-month-old is ridiculous. – Catija Aug 14 '15 at 17:43
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Coming from the security.SE and crypto.SE communities, we routinely see variations on

I just invented the following encryption algorithm, is it secure?

without even reading the rest of the question, I know that

No, it is not, see: "Don't roll your own"

will be a perfectly valid answer. Many users will post that answer, and it gets upvotes within the security and crypto communities.

BUT the point of StackExchange is to teach and to encourage new users to become regular participants in the site, not make them feel like an outsider. As you say, if the question just exists to validate the OP's opinion, I often answer in kind with a snarky variation on "Your question is invalid", but if there seems to be a genuine desire to learn then I try to use the following techniques when answering a fundamentally flawed question:

First, try to understand the perspective from which the question was asked:

  1. What gaps in knowledge lead to the question being asked?
  2. What gaps in knowledge is the asker unaware that they have?
  3. What concepts / curiosities can you build on in your answer for positive reinforcement?

Next, build an answer.

  1. Start by addressing the question as asked, being respectful of the effort and enthusiasm that went into writing it.
  2. Move into your "However, there's an even bigger issue here ..."
  3. End by referencing the conventional wisdom, not because "I said so", but because you built up to it in your answer. (phrases like "it turns out this even has a name" are common in my answers)

These kinds of fundamentally flawed questions definitely take the most time and effort to answer, but can also be the most rewarding because you have a real chance to teach and change someone's thinking, not just post some sample code that they'll have forgotten by tomorrow.

Also, a really good "frame challenge" answer that addresses a (potentially widely-held) misconception by guiding the reader through the thought process will have a much higher chance of making it to Hot Network Questions, which is rewarding in terms of rep as well as the warm-and-fuzzies.

  • This is a great breakdown of how to write a good answer to a flawed question. :D – SevenSidedDie May 29 '18 at 15:52

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