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How to ask and how to answer?

  1. Sep 11, 2013 #1

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    I have seen several times that people, including myself, ask a question because they want to know the answer. These questions might not allways be formulated correctly, maybe overdone, maybe the question is overcomplicated - reason: We ask because we don't allways know how to ask or what to ask for, and not allways see the most simplified version of that question..

    Some replies from mentors sometimes seem arrogant, and sometimes it seems the mentor gets cranky because the question is incorrectly asked. As if it was better if the person who ask, knows the answer already, and know precisely what to ask for, and know precisely how to simplify the question into the least common dominator. Well, that is not allways happening. Sorry, I am one of those persons.

    Some questions are taken REALLY literally. Say I ask: "If I put a piece of 100 grams iron on the desk and heat it up to 1000 degrees Celcius. How much energy has been absorbed by the iron piece?" (And ofcourse you will quote this example and say that there is no such question like that in this forum).
    The answer might go like this: "Your desk will burn up, therfor the experiment is not possible. Please formulate the question simpler so anyone can understand what you are experimenting with. And remember that the burning wood your desk are made of will complicate the analysis".

    Most of the times it seems obvious what a person asks for, but the answers are often based on the details that has nothing to do with the actual question. The question about how far light can travel through air. Say it travels the distance between New York and Moscow. How faint will the light be at last. The answer goes like this: "The curvature of the Earth will not make it possible to observe or measure....or the light source and the observer must be very tall, but then there is no atmosphere at that hight...".

    To me it seems obvious what these questions is all about.

    How can you NOT understand, or at least have the imagination to sort out the not so important details and instead pick out the essence of the actual question?

    This might not be a very big problem, but it is there.

    OK, that was my blow out for today. No offense. I appreciate your knowhow, REALLY.

    Vidar
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 11, 2013 #2
    Much of the time the replies are in effort to get the original poster to think more about their situation. Often the exercise of making ones question more coherent is useful in answering the question itself. Its kind of like the socratic method. If the student asks a poorly worded question you answer with, "what do you mean by this?" or "why do you think that is relevant at all?". After a few rounds the answer may present itself naturally to the student.
     
  4. Sep 11, 2013 #3

    Office_Shredder

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    I actually agree, it's not endemic but occassionally it seems people will post replies that only confuse the issue instead of clarifying
     
  5. Sep 11, 2013 #4

    ZapperZ

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    Or maybe you misunderstood the intention. We try to teach you how to fish, rather than just giving you the fish!

    https://www.physicsforums.com/blog.php?b=2683 [Broken]

    I'd like to see specific examples here, so cite the exact threads. If not, we're just debating about "what ifs" and "I read that.."

    I, on the other hand, can cite you at least two examples on why things are NOT as easy as it appears, especially if you have enough knowledge. The first example is a classic "When did you stop beating your wife?" question:

    https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=620629

    Do you think the question is THAT trivial to address? Are we at fault if we ask the OP to actually figure out why we can't simply answer that question?

    Second example: when the OP simply refuses to provide the needed references to support his/her claim:

    https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=704518

    One simply cannot answer such question when the starting premise (anode=electron source) is wrong! Were we being difficult in trying to ask the OP to produce a source and to correct that error BEFORE we could answer the question?

    There are many other questions in which is APPEARS to be trivial and simple. But one important point that many posters forget to mention in the level of understanding that they have! Many of these questions often have other things associated with them, and some of us are really unclear if these complexities etc. need to be taken into account.

    But in others, we just simply do not give the answer. Rather, we try to guide the person to see what he/she already knows, and then BUILD on top of that! It is the proper way to learn! Unfortunately, some people think that we're being difficult, and somehow do not see the value in learning how to fish.

    Here is MY TAKE on how to ask questions on PF:

    https://www.physicsforums.com/blog.php?b=4079 [Broken]

    Zz.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  6. Sep 11, 2013 #5

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    @ZapperZ:
    You nailed it pretty well there. Some funny (but educational), some obvious, but still a couple of things I would like to question:
    I assume that a question like "If I travel at the speed of light, what do I see?" is asked from a person who genuinely believes he can travel at the speed of light, or maybe he posed a hypothetical question. Big difference, and both has pretty innocent intentions, but not allowed to ask (???). So "...incorrect/inaccurate understanding of physics" means from my point of view (And personal opinions doesn't count here) "You didn't pass the test in order to ask questions here". That is how I think about that.

    Because: "In other words, both questions made assumptions that something else has happened. They are not asking for the validity of that something else, but rather, they are extrapolating and asking a question as a result of that something else. This is exactly what I meant by a question that is based on a speculation or incorrect understanding of physics."
    This is the point I feel the mentors some times are missing the message. As you assumed that the person who asked already knew he was asking for an impossible answer - if he did knew, he wouldn't be asking. That is my point.

    Vidar
     
  7. Sep 11, 2013 #6

    mfb

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    Often, the thread opener is not aware of important complications. Answering the question as he meantit can be worse than not answering at all, or it can be completely impossible.

    "What would happen if we would travel at the speed of light" is a common example. There is no good answer to that question. Within special relativity, there is no answer at all. To make any predictions for some experiment, you would need a theory that allows that experiment. As you can guess, those questions do not come together with such a theory.

    "Which power do I need to heat 1m^3 of air to temperature X within time Y" is another recent example. It is easy to answer - the result is a very lower number. But the user that asked the question had a practical realization in mind, and there you cannot neglect the heat capacity of the walls. Just giving the value for the air would lead to a broken design.

    And that is exactly the reason why questions don't always get direct answers.
     
  8. Sep 11, 2013 #7

    ZapperZ

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    But you're missing my point here.

    If we tell that person "look, you need to go back and examine your starting premise here, which is that you've already assumed that you CAN travel at the speed of light!", then someone like you will come along and accuse us of avoiding the question, or not giving him/her a direct answer!

    The point is, we can't answer that question directly, or as simply as that person expected. And often, we try to tell him/her why! We simply don't just dismiss it. But it is an example why a question that many who don't understand physics think is a SIMPLE one, when it is not!

    No one here is tell you that you can't ask that question. But the question here is, will an education in why the question can't be answered be dismissed as not answering the question?

    Zz.
     
  9. Sep 11, 2013 #8

    Nugatory

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    Often, although it's not the answer that the poster was hoping for, there is no valid extrapolation from the initial premise. In that case, we aren't missing the point when we answer that the premise is invalid so the question cannot be answered.

    Other times, we can guess which question was actually intended. For example, sometimes an "If I were traveling at the speed of light what happens..." question can be satisfied with an answer for speeds very close to but slightly less than that of light. Then it is appropriate to say that "the question cannot be answered as asked, but here's what I think you're looking for". However, question-guessing is harder than it looks :smile:
     
  10. Sep 11, 2013 #9

    Vanadium 50

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    Yes it is. And the evidence is that we're not very good at it. We have many examples of threads of the form:

    1. OP: [confused question]
    2. A: That was unclear; can you clarify it?
    3. B: He means XXX
    4. C: No, he means YYY
    5. D: No, he means ZZZ
    6. B: ZZZ makes no sense; it's XXX
    7. OP: Actually, it's WWW
    8. D: OK, maybe it's not ZZZ. But then it's surely YYY.
    And so on ... to infinity and beyond!

    Makes me want to break out the banhammer.
     
  11. Sep 11, 2013 #10
    Found it!

    banhammer.png
     
  12. Sep 11, 2013 #11

    reenmachine

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    Not sure if it applies to every situation but here's a thread I created last spring:

    https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=682199

    I received a lot of help in it , so perhaps you could just give it a quick check and use it as an exemple of a thread that worked for the OP (me in that case).

    I asked a very general question and as you can see in my opening post I didn't have a clue until I received help.
     
  13. Sep 12, 2013 #12

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    Thanks a lot for all clearifications! I believe my consern is answered in such detail that I now feel that I fully understand your intentions when answering to an impossible question, or any question for that matter. Thank you all :-)

    Vidar
     
  14. Sep 12, 2013 #13

    UltrafastPED

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    I have noticed this as well. I have also noticed overly pedantic answers, and answers that assume a specialized graduate knowledge when the question was asked at a high school level.

    Every question deserves a thoughtful and polite answer. Apparently some of the mentors/admins have had neither children nor students!
     
  15. Sep 12, 2013 #14

    D H

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    No, they don't. Three examples, with questions that don't deserve a thoughtful and polite answer in bold:
    • Are you ready for some football?
      Link to this illegal site
      Link to that illegal site
      Link to yet another illegal site


    • Do you suffer from blah-blah-blah syndrome?
      Come to my site, www.miracle_cure_for_blah_blah_blah_syndrome.com [Broken] and see how we can cure your problem, instantly!

    • I'm stuck trying to solve these problems.
      Scanned image from textbook
      Can you do my homework for me?

    We mentors try hard to make it so the membership at large doesn't even see posts belonging to first two types of questions that don't deserve an answer. The third is also against our rules, but we don't instantly ban the person who made that "do my homework for me" request. We simply ask them to follow the homework template.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  16. Sep 12, 2013 #15

    ZapperZ

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    Actually, I tend to see this being done more often by the general members of our forum. If you don't believe me, look for several threads in which I personally have asked members of the forum to WAIT until the OP comes back and clarify not only the question, but also to what extent he/she can understand. In fact, this happens so often that, out of my frustration, I posted this blog a long time ago!

    https://www.physicsforums.com/blog.php?b=2679 [Broken]

    The problem has always been that the originator of the question typically neglect one of my most basic guidelines for posting a question here, which is to reveal the level at which they can understand. Again, there are many instances in which a seemingly "simple" question aren't that simple, especially when there are hints in the question that maybe the OP is aiming for something more complex.

    Moral of the story: This issue isn't new. It is something us Mentors have had to deal with for quite a while. But it is also misleading to accuse this behavior only on the side of the Mentors. In fact, this is more often done by the general membership instead, and it is something that we have been trying to handle continually.

    Zz.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  17. Sep 12, 2013 #16

    Low-Q

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    D H,

    The two first examples looks much like suspicious ads, an attemt to guide forum members into something fishy. Such members often post one post, and they leave the forum. This is a problem on many forums. Threads like that are often not answered at all, and I would recommend every member not to enter threads of this nature. I don't think these examples are relevant to the question asked by UltrafastPED. This is nitpicking, don't you think?

    The last, and third, question is more relevant. A lazy person who do not want to learn. Ofcourse such a person genuinely wants you to do the homework for him. Using common sense would be the appropriate approach in that case, imo.

    Vidar
     
  18. Sep 13, 2013 #17

    Chronos

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    Actually, a 'simple' answer usually confuses the OP. Like any good lawyer, a scientist will reflexively preface an answer with 'it depends'. Everything is predicated by axioms, which renders hardly any simple question 'simple'. They often feel the need to explain the assumptions involved, which can turn a sentence into an essay [like lawyers, they get paid by the word].
     
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