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You may be familiar with the XY problem. Basically, a person asks how to use X to solve Y, when in fact X isn't the right way to solve Y at all. This can lead to a lot of wasted time for those trying to help. Simply asking how to solve Y is in these situations a more appropriate question.

This problem is common in help desk scenarios, but also Q&A boards such as these. In fact, it's so common that it has created another problem, one that I am calling the "Why X?" or YX problem. The YX problem is this:

  1. User A asks how to do X.
  2. User B, presupposing that User A is suffering from the XY problem, asks "Why X?" rather than answering the question.

Having used such Q&A boards for over 15 years now, often to get help on specific coding or math questions, I have come across this issue time and again. Usually I'm trying to implement a complex piece of software. With years of experience of both the algorithm and programming, I'm pretty confident with my general design choices, but might need some help with some of the finer technical details (I'm an Engineer, not a Computer Scientist). In an attempt to make my question both answerable by and applicable to the largest number of people, and also in a frankly vain attempt to avoid the YX problem, I remove as much detail of my particular problem as possible, simplifying it into the most bare bones MWE I can. Often I get some great answers, but equally often I get answers of the form:

  • Why are you trying to do X?
  • You probably don't need to do X.
  • Doing X will cause Y, which you don't want.
  • You should do Z instead.

If I get sucked into providing more detail, I get yet more suggestions and questions, and this repeats until we're finally at the point where everybody understands that all the different approaches they've suggested aren't suitable for my use case. However, by this point the conversation has been completely sidetracked from addressing X. This is a real shame for several reasons: the question isn't answered, a lot of time (mine and others') is wasted, and while the question is well asked and easy to find in a web search, the answer is a load of mostly unrelated garbage. My new approach is to simply say I'm curious about the question at hand, and would like to stick with it. However, it would also be useful to have a pithy label with which to name what's going on, and put a stop to it.

So, in a shameless bid to coin this phrase, I'd like to ask the following questions:

  • Do you experience, see others experiencing, or perhaps are guilty of creating, what I've called the YX problem?
  • Do you think it's a problem?
  • Do you have suggestions for how it can be avoided?
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  • 2
    @ThomasMarkov Not saying I agree with the OP, but isn't that what the discussion tag is for?
    – Daedalus
    Nov 16 at 23:13
  • 2
    @ThomasMarkov I've updated the post with some concrete questions that I hope you agree elicit a constructive debate. My post now feels very similar in style to this highly liked one: Fastest Gun in the West Problem
    – user664303
    Nov 16 at 23:22
  • 3
    Does this answer your question? Is it okay to dispute the premise of a question?, What is the XY problem?
    – Rob
    Nov 17 at 0:26
  • 3
    Just a general statement, but the standard of what types of discussion questions are accepted here has changed over time. As an example, joke questions were allowed here back in 2009-2011, but ones posted today are quickly closed and deleted. Nov 17 at 0:46
  • 4
    Its called a frame challenge and often it has value. Sometimes people need to be told you can't pick a lock with a banana.
    – Journeyman Geek Mod
    Nov 17 at 3:25
  • Weird reason to close: the first duplicate suggestion is clearly different. The second question has itself been closed, so not further answers can be given.
    – user664303
    Nov 17 at 10:22
  • @Rob "What is the XY problem" is obviously an entirely separate question. "Is it okay to dispute the the premise of a question?" is indeed the same, but has been closed, precluding the addition of any further answers.
    – user664303
    Nov 17 at 10:25
  • @JourneymanGeek Your comment feels like an answer. I would make the counter argument. If you believe a lock cannot be picked with a banana, simply don't answer. If you believe it's impossible, follow the question, and wait to see if anyone who has some experience on the subject can provide a solution. Don't shut down the question because you believe it can't be answered. You might be wrong.
    – user664303
    Nov 17 at 10:28
  • "... asks "Why X?" rather than answering the question.", with no answer it's NAA; with an answer disputing the premise can be fair, if the proposed solution is clearly preferable. --- Here at MSE there's many ways to close, and leniency with duplicates. We can "shut down the question" (that's what closing is for) and you can edit instead of commenting, to improve your question and dispute our argument. --- It's not for the closers to defend their actions, it's for the asker (OP) to defend poorly researched questions or unpopular new spins on frequently proposed old issues, that are closed.
    – Rob
    Nov 17 at 10:35
  • @Rob Here you're answering the question. Why close the question if you think it's worth answering? I can make plenty of counter arguments to your answer, but the comments to the question don't seem the right place. I'm sad to hear that closers don't feel they need to justify their actions.
    – user664303
    Nov 17 at 10:48
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    I'm very comfortable being a dissenting voice sharing an unpopular viewpoint. I say what I believe is right, in this case that "framing challenges" is in fact not useful, at least not in the way that I have experienced. What makes me feel uncomfortable is that this community thinks it's good to shut down unpopular views. And I'm not pitching for free speech here. I just think you can't change the consensus view (which might be wrong), if the consensus view cannot be challenged. Basically you're halting progress. Like the church silencing Galileo's claim the Earth revolves around the sun.
    – user664303
    Nov 17 at 11:06
  • @Rob Or do a better job. You claim my question is similar to "What is the XY problem?". I actually reference this concept in my post, and directly address why what I'm describing is different. How should I reword a question that is entirely clear on how it's different from the thing you think it's a duplicate of? It seems that in the system you describe, there is no accounting for obvious mistakes by people closing the question. The presumption is that they're necessarily right, and the question must be reworded.
    – user664303
    Nov 17 at 15:30
  • 1
    @ShadowTheKidWizard Thank you for underlining my point.
    – user664303
    Nov 17 at 15:32
  • To answer your last comment my automated closing message clearly (you did research?) says that the reason I chose is "Is it okay to dispute the premise of a question?".
    – Rob
    Nov 17 at 16:52

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