5

Somebody posted a question that makes an assumption I disagree with or think might be wrong. How do I best inform the asker of this? Do I post a comment or an answer, or should I vote to close the question or do nothing at all?

This is called a frame challenge: I claim or suggest that the question is based on a misconception, wrong assessment of a situation, or similar. The frame set by the asker is challenged by the answer or comment I want to post.

This FAQ is mostly a set of guidelines that should give an idea of best practices and avoid unnecessary confrontation. There often is a lot of leeway, but drastic deviations will be moderated.

It is mainly based on this discussion and was further discussed here. If you want to propose changes, please ask a new question.

Table of Contents

We primarily distinguish frame challenges by what the false premise is about:

5

Misconceptions about academic procedures, norms, or similar

These misconceptions concern the very topic of this site. For example:

Assertion: You must have a PhD to submit a paper to a journal.

These are mostly free game for frame challenges. However, before challenging such an assumption, please consider that you may be wrong because academic customs vary a lot between fields, countries, etc..

5

Wrong assessments of individual experiences

Here the asker potentially wrongly assessed something that happened to them – as opposed to general facts. For example:

Assertion: The student I supervise does not take my criticism seriously.

Assertion: My paper was cited for some claim it did not make.

In these cases, we almost always lack relevant information (or it would be off-topic) and cannot make a judgement. The asker should know better than we do, and they are responsible to ensure that such an assertion is correct. Therefore frame challenges about such situations are usually not appropriate.

However, there are some exceptions, where a short and tactful caveat is appropriate:

  • The misconception is common and applies to many people in a similar situation, e.g.:

    Assertion: The referee did not thoroughly review my paper, as they misunderstood the key concept.
    Caveat: Before proceeding please consider that you are very familiar with your work and thus may not have noticed shortcomings in your explanations.

  • The asker describes in detail how they arrived at an assertion and this makes it seem unlikely that they are correct. For example:

    Assertion: My professor is not satisfied with my work, because X, Y, and Z.
    Caveat: What you describe are normal activities for a supervisor. Just by your report I would not assume that your professor is dissatisfied.

  • If the asker’s judgement should be incorrect, it may have severe consequences:

    Assertion: My professor asked me to fudge some data by applying X.
    Caveat: Please be aware that this is a serious accusation. I am not saying you are wrong, but before escalating this, please consider consulting with an expert whether applying X is really inappropriate in this situation.

In all such cases, such a caveat should not be much longer than the asker’s description of the assertion and respect the asker’s assessment instead of directly denying it.

Mind that this does not apply to questions asking us to evaluate a situation, e.g.:

My professor does X, Y, and Z. Is this normal? Does this mean that she is not satisfied with my work?

Sexism, racism, discrimination, and other traumatic events

A delicate subcategory is when the asker experienced sexism, racism, discrimination, or similar behaviour, usually towards themselves. Such events are often traumatic and denying what happened may easily add to the trauma. Moreover, we almost certainly don’t know all the details (context, tone, gestures) and thus cannot judge the situation.

In this case, the above exceptions do not apply: We can assume that the asker has already considered alternative interpretations of events and is aware of the severity of the respective accusations. At best, you may very tactfully ask for further details or assess the details if relevant for the question, e.g.:

I am sorry for your experience. To better answer your question, can you please [edit] your question to tell us whether you have any evidence of this? I understand if you do not want to go into the details; it suffices to know how much evidence you roughly have.

5

General rules of thumb

Before you write a frame challenge, see whether you can answer all of the following with yes:

  • Is the misconception central to the question? If the question can be asked as well without the misconception, it’s better to edit it out or only address it briefly. If on-topic, you can ask or suggest a separate question about it.

  • Would you write a frame challenge if the question provided fewer details?

  • Are you confident that the asker did not already consider your frame challenge?

  • Does your frame challenge actually help the asker?

  • Does your frame challenge respect the asker, in particular their expertise, privacy, and problems?

3

Misconceptions about off-topic aspects

Typically this is about the content of academic research or teaching, but it may also be other off-topic things. For example:

Assertion: My newly developed method that makes a very good guess whether a number is prime topples modern cryptography.

Whether such statements are correct is off-topic here. If such an off-topic aspect is central to a question, the question should likely be closed or migrated. You can advise the author to ask about the subject matter on another site or comment why you flag/vote to close the question. However, if you want to discuss this off-topic material, do it in chat; discussion in the comments or answers will likely be deleted.

For example, you can write in response to the above assertion:

  • In does not matter for this question, but as I understand it, you misassess the impact of your method. I strongly suggest that you ask on Cryptography SE about this.

  • I think there is a crucial flaw in the your cryptographic reasoning. I would like to discuss it with you in this chatroom.

  • The impact of your discovery on cryptography is off-topic here, but you may be able to ask about it on Cryptography SE.

However, please do not write why you think that the asker’s statement is wrong as this will start a discussion.

2
  • This one's hard for me to support as-is. Is dealing/pointing out crank behavior impossible? Are there examples of this kind of issue that resulted in valuable answers? Oct 8 at 0:18
  • @DanielR.Collins: Please see my edit. You are welcome to point out problems, but please do not discuss them in the comments. Experience says that it at best leads to something much better done in a chat room. This question is an example where discussions about the factual accuracy of an example cluttered an otherwise valid question.
    – Wrzlprmft Mod
    Oct 8 at 7:05
1

Wrong goal (XY problem)

The asker wants to achieve X and thinks doing Y helps them to do this, so they ask how to do Y. However, Y is not a good way to achieve X.

Most often, we can only suspect an XY problem, since the asker doesn’t talk about X, but only about their outlandish goal Y. In this case, we can only tactfully inquire what the asker wants:

Can you please elaborate why you want to do this, so we can provide better answers? I may be wrong, but this feels like an XY problem.

If X is detailed, you can suggest alternative ways to achieve it, as long as the focus is helping the asker.

22
  • -1 I'm really not fond of XY-challenges, as in my experience they most frequently derail the Q&A process (into a discussion of issues the OP never even discussed initially). In many cases there are reasons of privacy, focus, generality, etc. that caused the OP to not detail motivation X. The XY analysis sort of made sense on the tech Q&A Stack Overflow, but I don't find it useful for other non-technical SE sites. Oct 8 at 0:16
  • In many cases there are reasons of privacy, focus, generality, etc. that caused the OP to not detail motivation X – While that also happens, OPs who do this are usually aware of what they are doing and often state this, in which case the general rule “Are you confident that the asker did not already consider your frame challenge?” applies. However we get a good share of questions where there is no such awareness and the only way to make progress is that the asker reveals the X to their Y. […]
    – Wrzlprmft Mod
    Oct 8 at 7:36
  • […] For a blatant example, consider: How to publish eight academic papers quickly (one week)? (no further details given). With all that being said, if you want to propose that we do not do XY challenges at all, please start a new meta discussion, bearing in mind what has been discussed here. This FAQ is mostly supposed to reflect consensus and is not the best place to discuss it.
    – Wrzlprmft Mod
    Oct 8 at 7:36
  • Well, I'm downvoting as a member of the community because I don't support such a finding, and explaining why. That linked example seems off-the-rails because (a) it's deleted, (b) no XY-frame-challenge answer was given, etc. Acting like a meta post that currently has one positive vote point is a "consensus" is disingenuous and downright damaging. And acting like explaining a downvote is out-of-bounds is completely nonsensical for this site. Oct 8 at 12:47
  • @DanielR.Collins: As said in the answer, most frame challenges don’t specify the Y, so you cannot give frame-challenge answers, so I don’t see a contradiction here. Also, I intentionally chose a deleted question to avoid drawing negative attention to a live question here. Moreover, I expect that most questions based on XY questions get closed and roomba-deleted.
    – Wrzlprmft Mod
    Oct 8 at 15:04
  • Acting like a meta post that currently has one positive vote point is a "consensus" is disingenuous and downright damaging. – This FAQ is the result of two iterations of discussion and feedback (1, 2), which it what I refer to as the consensus. — And acting like explaining a downvote is out-of-bounds is completely nonsensical for this site. – That was not my intention. I merely wanted to say that this is not the best place to further your cause.
    – Wrzlprmft Mod
    Oct 8 at 15:05
  • You're sending me down a rabbit-hole of more and more meta discussions which you claim incorrectly to support an opinion that you wrote. The original/earliest linked "discussion" has literally no reference to XY problems whatsoever -- that's something you inserted into a "summary" which itself got no positive responses that I can see. It's extremely off-putting that you create these "policies" from whole cloth yourself and then claim they represent "community consensus". Oct 8 at 15:13
  • I think that is a little unfair. Before this policy came out, Wrzlprmft wrote a proposal and left it there for a few weeks for public comment (and this proposal itself was based on several earlier meta discussions). The proposal got a few upvotes, no suggestions for improvements, and the suggestion that it be discarded completely (from Anonymous Physicist) was downvoted. I didn't see anyone who tried to contribute to this policy and was shut out.
    – cag51 Mod
    Oct 8 at 18:17
  • 1
    I find it rather off-putting when people decide not to do any of the work during the lengthy process of brainstorming and writing policies, but then are full of criticism of the result. That said: our policies are always open to revisions; if you have a suggestion, the best place to propose it would probably be in a new meta post (since the policy has already been promulgated).
    – cag51 Mod
    Oct 8 at 18:17
  • @cag51: Is this not the meta post with the policy discussion? This is the first time I've seen it. Should I have not downvoted, not left a comment explaining the downvote? Mods are taking enforcement actions pointing to here as the new policy, but now you're claiming this is not the place to evaluate the policy? Oct 9 at 14:33
  • @DanielR.Collins: No, this is not the place to discuss or evaluate policy. Discussion and evaluation happened here and here to establish the status quo captured in this FAQ. The rationale behind this process is that otherwise we have a lot of case-specific discussions and other badly generalisable meta posts that make it difficult to discern the status quo of policy and do not cover some relevant aspects. This FAQ avoids this by capturing a clear status quo in single place. […]
    – Wrzlprmft Mod
    Oct 9 at 21:08
  • […] However, it is not a good point for discussion or voting on policy due to its format, being based on previous discussions, bad visibility, etc. Hence the request to use a new meta question to discuss changes to the policy reflected in this FAQ. — Should I have not downvoted, not left a comment explaining the downvote? – You are free to do these things and I would even consider this a good way to explore the arguments and clarify misunderstandings before making a new meta question. However, it’s not the best way to achieve a policy change.
    – Wrzlprmft Mod
    Oct 9 at 21:09
  • @Wrzlprmft: But those posts you linked to are both now closed as duplicates with a link sending the reader back here. (!) Oct 9 at 22:54
  • 2
    @DanielR.Collins: It is common practice to host FAQs on meta and to not use those to discuss and establish policy. (Sometimes regular meta questions are elevated to FAQs, but you still wouldn’t challenge policies there.) Answers competing for votes over several years doesn’t work, in particular in sectioned FAQs. Often FAQs are proposed as they are by a user, but here we moderators wanted to collect perspectives first. I did not elevate the final draft to FAQ because it did receive other answers and there was a desire to make this a sectioned FAQ.
    – Wrzlprmft Mod
    Oct 11 at 5:23
  • 2
    @DanielR.Collins: you can't reasonably expect normal users to either be aware of it, or have time to interface with it. – The one procedural aspect a casual user needs to know at this point is stated in the question: “If you want to propose changes, please ask a new question.” If you ask me, it is actually one of the advantages of the process that users do not need to know all past meta posts on a subject and there is a clear agenda or function for each meta question.
    – Wrzlprmft Mod
    Oct 11 at 14:05

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .