20

For example:

These questions are about extraordinary stories (which are thus likely to attract viewers and votes) that are at least on the edge of plausibilty. In both example cases, there are some details which are fishy and leave the impression that the asker is not really as familiar with academia as they claim to be.

Now the help center states:

You should only ask practical […] questions based on actual problems that you face.

which would make these questions officially closeworthy, if the situations are indeed made up. Also, as these questions are naturally attracting a considerable amount of votes and views, they could be part of a scheme to game the system. On the other hand, it’s impossible to determine with high confidence whether these situations are really made up.

Thus I ask:

  • What should we do about such questions?
  • If we should close them, what is a good way to determine the plausibility threshold?
  • 2
    I'm still scratching my head over what exactly someone would hope to gain by posting clickbait. Inflate their reputation so they can post spam later on? But the spam would be flagged and deleted pretty much immediately in spite of high reputation. So: why would a troll attempt to "game the system" in this way? – S. Kolassa - Reinstate Monica Dec 7 '15 at 14:31
  • @StephanKolassa: There are more things you can do with reputation, e.g., if this was created by a sockpuppet, it could serve for vote fraud. – Wrzlprmft Dec 7 '15 at 14:39
  • 1
    Someone sets up five accounts for sockpuppetry, posts one clickbait question from each account, and then proceeds to cast fraudulent votes from each of the clickbaited sockpuppets... sounds like a lot of work to me. I don't see how this would have enough of an impact to justify specific interventions. (And if the sockpuppets voted serially, this would likely be detected and reversed.) – S. Kolassa - Reinstate Monica Dec 7 '15 at 14:48
  • @StephanKolassa: Sure, there are flaws, but the culprit may not be aware of them. Also, one central problem of exploits is that you can never know/predict all of them. – Wrzlprmft Dec 7 '15 at 14:53
  • 1
    Sure. I'm just still unsure whether this is an exploit... mainly because I don't see anything to be exploited... – S. Kolassa - Reinstate Monica Dec 7 '15 at 15:36
  • @StephanKolassa I can't really see a bonus there, and weirdly, I can't really see a malus, either. Usually exploits that are hard to understand involve delivering a malus to a site, host, user, etc. instead of gaining a bonus for anyone. In this case... just make SE seem less credible? Anyone who knows the system understands it already. They may simply be cases of people flattering themselves or engaging in the ancient tradition of fantastical storytelling. No idea. – zxq9 Dec 7 '15 at 15:58
  • 3
    I asked a question on possible motivations for such activities on Community Building. – Wrzlprmft Dec 7 '15 at 20:28
  • I assume the second question is a genuine, but very misguided, question, and is not trolling. – Andrew Grimm Dec 14 '15 at 6:12
  • 1
    @StephanKolassa Some people just enjoy seeing other people getting riled up, there doesn't need to be a material incentive (reputation etc). See Internet troll, flamebaiting, Hit-and-run posting... (That last link seems especially relevant here.) – user9646 Dec 17 '15 at 14:55
  • @AndrewGrimm: It's not trolling, but it is deliberate self-delusion, and don't be surprised that it still flourishes today in the midst of modern society. It is similar to how members of a cult suppress their awareness that their cult cherishes false beliefs (and often detrimental practices), and so only a small minority actually leave. – user21820 Jul 5 '16 at 13:06
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I think that some people here are perhaps a bit overly skeptical about what exists out there in academia. (I know that my own eyes have widened quite a bit in the time I've spent on this site.) I think that many posters here are quite confused / distressed either about academia in general or about their specific issues. It is clearly also the case that people are writing from all over the world, and sometimes there are serious language issues and/or cultural differences in play.

The fact that (say) graduate students can be quite confused, even to the extent of not correctly understanding the basic facts of their situation, is unfortunately quite recognizable to me from my real world academic experience. So many times I have seen students troubled because they are getting contradictory information / advice from different faculty members. When I talk to the faculty members, very often the contradiction disappears. Clearly a lot of students are not comfortable asking "What do you mean?" and similar basic clarifying questions, so they can live in quite counterfactual worlds. (This describes me as a student, by the way.)

In particular I find the second question quite believable. I think that if I were to meet the OP in real life and could brush aside linguistic differences, the way I would describe his situation would be quite different from the way he has described it, but I find the overall sentiments very sincere.

The first question is a bit different: it's a highly unusual situation combined with an OP who doesn't sound like a faculty member and thesis advisor to me. I stayed away from it because it seemed, if true, to be too exceptional to be worth wading into.

Anyway, I agree with @jakebeal: we don't have to believe that the OP is in the situation s/he claims in order to accept the question. We have to believe that the question is a useful one for others in academia. Hypothetical or bizarre questions can be silly or bait for arguments, but not necessarily so: sometimes they elicit very interesting and useful answers.

By the way, I have always found the SE-wide policy

You should only ask practical […] questions based on actual problems that you face.

to be off-center enough not to take too seriously. In sites based on branches of academia like mathematics or philosophy, what is a "practical question" or an "actual problem"? I take this to mean that people asking questions should be asking them in good faith and out of a sincere desire to know the answer. I would urge others not to read too much more into this than that.

  • 1
    In particular I find the second question quite believable. – Fun fact: Now that I have access to moderator tools, I can confirm that both questions were made up by the same person. – Wrzlprmft Jun 9 at 15:53
14

These sorts of questions do not worry me too much, for the following reason: we judge questions here based on whether they are likely to have durable value to others, not based on whether the original poster is likely to find the answer valuable. Thus, it doesn't really matter all that much whether the OP is sane or real (I think more of this is crazy than trolling, personally). Instead, it matters whether we think the question is interesting and answerable. If it's interesting and answerable, we keep it; if not, we close it. Strange and inappropriate origins of questions can still produce good answers, and that's the real measure of a question in my view.

  • Hopefully we don't start seeing more of them, though. Personally, I'm a bit worried that clickbait-y questions will start becoming more popular across all stack exchange sites as they become increasingly popular. It seems to happen to every online community that becomes too large. – Matthew Dec 16 '15 at 18:55
8

I can recommend you apply one or more of the following strategies:

  • Downvote them. If they seem unlikely to be true and not useful to the site, downvote them. If trollers find that their questions are downvoted, eventually they will get the message and move on.

  • If the troll-question is covered by an existing question, vote to close it as a duplicate of the existing question.

  • Ask a new question that is a more reasonable, generalization of the troll-question. Choose a new question that will actually be useful and that gets at the heart of the troll-question, but without the silly click-bait dramatics. Then, once your new question gets answers, vote to close the troll-question as a duplicate of the new question. This way, you have improved the site by posting a new, useful question that might be useful to others.

  • Do nothing. Move on, and answer some other question.

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