On StackOverflow, I just found an answer that is really crossing the streams. It's very clever, and demonstrates an excellent and valuable sideways-thinking approach to tackling a problem. The question is whether the question was itself the wrong question to ask.

I commented on the answer and said as much, before receiving this response:

"the question is whether it is possible or not. Contrary to what is being said, it IS possible. It's a different question on whether it is good or not"

This is an excellent point, but I think it's too strict to think like that.

As an answerer, does one not have a sort of moral obligation to not only be a stickler for the facts, but to provide guidance on how the information should be used? In this case, to all intents and purposes, it is impossible to do what the OP wanted. Although there is a terrible clever way around it, does it really help the OP's understanding of the subject at large?

  • 3
    I tell people not to do what they seem to be planning on doing all the time. I have gained billions of Internet dollars telling people not to parse XML with regular expressions. A lot of the time, the "don't do it" answer earns you more Internet dollars than the "here's how to circumvent everything designed make life easy" answers.
    – Welbog
    Nov 18, 2009 at 16:33

2 Answers 2


I've had similar issues with answers that I've posted where the questioner asks a question that has both a direct answer and, in context, a larger answer that makes the direct answer moot. Sort of a "when I beat my wife should I use a bat or a tire iron?" -- well, the obvious and correct answer is "don't beat your wife!" It isn't directly answering the question, though. Here's a real example from yesterday. I got several downvotes for this because I wasn't answering the person's question. In my opinion, he asked the wrong question or, at least, was using the wrong metrics to evaluate the best way of doing things, and so I answered with a larger answer than was asked for.

In my view, SO is here to help educate. You need to use your judgement as to whether the person needs help figuring out which bait to use to catch the fish or needs to be told to cast the hook instead of the reel. Just be willing to take some heat though from those who want you to stick to just the facts.

  • +1 I hate saying "this is a terrible way to treat your wife" and getting downvoted (or not getting upvoted) for not answering the question. Nov 18, 2009 at 16:55
  • Although I agree, there is a difference between asking a question, and asking for advice. I can imagine myself asking the question in your link (or profiling it myself) out of idle curiosity, rather than looking for a way to speed up my javascript. IRL, I have learned to prefix such questions with "just out of curiosity, I'm not really going to do this but ...", but even then, people tell me not to do it, which is frustrating. Dec 5, 2009 at 15:55

I prefer a holistic approach - answer the question, then probe at ambiguity with a, "But if I were in that situation I would consider x, y, and z as well - depending on what else is going on, these may be valid solutions for you as well."

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