In the limited number of questions I have asked on Stack Exchange, I have had several comments and answers that are not answering my question, but are instead saying that I should be asking something else.

The most recent example is at Increment Guid in C#, which basically asks how to increment the value of a GUID variable by 1. In the comments, user "atlaste" explains why this may be a bad idea, and that some people use dedicated hardware for similar things, but nothing relating to my question or its phrasing.

I understand this in general -- in my own life I find that when people come to me with a question, I often want to better understand where they are coming from to make sure my answer really fits their problem. I see this partly as a way to reduce the risk of miscommunication, and partly to reduce the risk that the person did not think the problem through.

But it is my predisposition to think that in a Stack Exchange site, we should assume that the questioner knows at least approximately what they want. Because even if the question was not the best for that one person, the answer should apply to the question so that future users will find this question and answer to be useful.

So my question is, to what level is it acceptable to dispute the premise of the question that is being asked?

This is related to What is the XY problem?, but I believe slightly different. Seeing this as the "XY Problem" assumes that you have that problem. Here I am asking, "To what extent is it okay to assume that the question is an instance of the XY Problem?"

Here is a (somewhat ludicrous) example of a problem, with background, and the question I could ask at the end of it.

  1. I want to have a pretty house
  2. I decide that pretty is "feng shui", with all those crazy rules and oblique lines
  3. I want to rebuild my garage to have oblong walls
  4. I decide to do this be hand, and use a sledgehammer to rip the walls apart
  5. I injure my back by doing this with no training
  6. I ask the question: "What is the right way to use a sledgehammer so that it does not hurt your back?"

Now if you want to apply the "XY Problem" here, you could question many things. And the more details I give of the background problem, the more you could question the premise.

  • Why did I use manual sledgehammer instead of some "power" hammer
  • Why did I try to use a sledgehammer without formal training -- go get some real training instead
  • Why did I use a sledgehammer myself -- go pay a contractor instead
  • Why did I use a sledgehammer at all, instead of a saw
  • Why don't I just buy a new house instead
  • Why do I like "feng shui"
  • Why should houses be pretty

In my opinion, you cannot go all the way back up the stack; it is ridiculous to do so. So is it ever okay to debate the premise? How do you know how far is okay to go?


1 Answer 1


we should assume that the questioner knows at least approximately what they want

Stack Overflow gets so many low quality "beginner" questions (oh, hey, it's September again) that I don't think this is a valid assumption.

Questioning the reasons for doing something one way is good for a variety of reasons:

  • Helps clarify the problem, which may have been unclear due to missed details
  • Helps explain why such a problem is invalid (ie. you are using a method completely incorrectly)
  • Helps to explain multiple possible ways of accomplishing a solution

It's also very possible that the person asking the question thinks they know what they want, but after having a discussion with a more knowledgeable user learns they were incorrect. Part of the "professional" aspect of Stack Exchange is being able to have such discussions and learn that the route your were considering is not optimal.

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