SE is stronger and more interesting if we discourage trivial questions.

I've repeated multiple times that I will downvote and Vote to Close any question that is answered by google or by Wikipedia. I rely on help/on-topic as the basis for this assertion, "Questions answered by a simple Google search or to be found in a Wikipedia page"

@NeMo correctly raises the case where a question is answered by Wikipedia, but Wikipedia is incorrect, misleading or sufficiently incomplete that an average person would walk away with an erroneous understanding of the topic. For the record, I do not argue this point; I acknowledge that such cases exist.

My problem is one of relative weight. I think trivial questions are toxic to H:SE. H:SE relies on people practicing a fairly advanced skillset to do research on behalf of our querents. To me, the greatest danger is that we'll lose our experts because they don't want to spend their time doing a copy and paste from Wikipedia and google. I think we should permit the use of LMGTFY, although I respect the communal decision to forbid that tool. I come here to exercise my brain and my research skills, and every time I find another series of "what is 2+2?", or "What was G Washington's first name?", my enthusiasm diminishes - this is a waste of time. This is broken window theory. Trivial questions send a signal to the members that the participants of this SE are content with copy and paste, and are correspondingly less likely to provide content that is educational. Bad questions communicate something very clearly about the quality and depth of the forum. I believe that there is a Gresham's Law of questions - bad questions drive out good.

@NeMo has challenged whether I understand his point - I think I do, but I have different priorities/preferences, and while I acknowledge the truth of his point, I think that it is less important than the danger of trivial questions. (I've provided a somewhat longwinded example below) The point is that there is a class of questions where consultation of Wikipedia will result in an erroneous answer. The core question is:

Are such questions trivial?

As I understand it, @NeMo says that such questions are not trivial because the interpretation requires some skill and subtlety (perhaps my example wasn't as far off base as I first thought). Let me repeat again, I'm not saying that @NeMo is wrong. If I've said anything that indicates disrespect for @NeMo's position or person, I'll revise it.

But I disagree with him even though he may be right. I once heard an MBA assert that everything in reality can be broken down to a 2x2 matrix. In this case, the axis are "frequency" and "Importance".

I think that trivial questions are a frequent and important stain on H:SE - I occupy the Upper Left quadrant of that matrix - Frequency High, Importance High. In my opinion, questions that appear trivial but are actually complex are in lower half of the graph, probably midway between the two quadrants. They are extremely infrequent and of middling importance. Because I assign the weights this way, I think that @NeMo's concern is valid, but not actionable, while the trivial question problem is an existential threat to H:SE. I suspect that @NeMo might assign different weights to the two axis - I'm not going to put words in his mouth.

There is a second point - how easily can we recover from the two dangers.

  • Trivial questions need to be closed, closed fast and closed hard. The quality of the site relies on having interesting questions at the top front. We could just do the copy/paste exercise, but is anyone seriously going to participate in a forum full of questions of the form, "What is G. Washington's first name?" Are you going to want to participate with people who do want to engage with that?

  • there is a simple way to recover from Misleading Wikipedia questions. Let's take the worst case - someone asked a question that is closed because it appears trivial, but it is not trivial. In such a case, anyone spotting the problem can revise the problem to point out the ambiguity. "I see Hamilton born in this year here and in that year on Wikipedia - which is correct?" or "I don't understand the answers that Wikipedia provided to 'who is buried in Grant's tomb'"?

Aside: an example

Just as an example, "What color was Washington's white horse?" (turns out it isn't as good an example as I thought, because Wikipedia does not provide the expected answer, but it does provide an array of partial answers which are all wrong. ) Wikipedia provides

  • Dominant White

  • and under Horse there is a section that hints at the correct answer, but fails to actually provide the answer.

  • The white disambiguation page provides a link to White(horse)

(as documented elsewhere, my normal standard is that if the answer isn't clear in the first five responses, then the question is not trivial).

So my summary of @NeMo's point is that the question "What color is Washington's White horse?" is not, in fact trivial, because none of the answers found on Wikipedia will clearly state that the answer is "Gray" - because according to breeders, "Gray" is the color name, and "white" is a variant. (this is an example, please don't argue the example - it is a distraction from @NeMo's point.) If I spent more time I could find another example - As I recall, the date of Alexander Hamilton's birthday is frequently wrong on Wikipedia (in part because the true date is not known; Wikipedia isn't very good at discussing the unknown).

Note: While this question might be redundant with this question on the criteria for a trivial question, I'd like to explicitly examine the discussion that @NeMo and I have had in response to the question about support for new users. I hope this question is more narrowly scoped, and I don't want to continue a discussion in comments.

I think that there is some very useful commentary in the following sources:


(Apologies as this is less an answer than an extended comment)

It's probably also worth noting a distinction between a trivial question and a trivia question. To my mind, a trivial question is one where the answer is easily found and while a trivia question is one where the answer has little historical consequence or importance. Both seem to be candidates for deletion for these reasons.

A trivial question may also be a trivia question, and vice versa, but it's also possible that a trivia question might have a non-trivial answer (e.g. "what are the names of Churchill's childhood pets?") and I've seen people defend their questions based on this. However, to me, the fact that the answer is difficult to find (i.e. it's non-trivial) doesn't make it an acceptable question because the answer is still, ultimately, just trivia.

  • 1
    +1 for making the distinction. (Side note: we've at least one tag where inconsequential trivia questions are rampant.) – Denis de Bernardy Sep 30 '17 at 12:22
  • That's an interesting point, but a lot of professional historians invest a lot of time in trivia. Sticking with the Churchill theme, consider the quantity of ink spilled and the reams of paper consumed on the subject of Winston and Clementine Churchill's pet names for each other. Yes, it is trivia, but - if it wasn't also trivial to answer with a simple Google search - it would also meet the current criteria set out in help center. – sempaiscuba Oct 1 '17 at 1:44

You raise some very good points, and I agree that trivial questions should be deleted. I don't doubt that you are right about broken window theory in that regard. You might also be right about a Gresham's Law of questions, although the conversations that I've had with other researchers over the last couple of months suggest to me that there might be other reasons why experts may be unwilling to contribute on the site.

However, I'm not at all sure that I agree with your idea that:

Trivial questions need to be closed, closed fast and closed hard.

That they need to be closed (and probably deleted), I agree. But I also think that - in the case of new users - we should take the time to explain why trivial questions are off-topic. At the very least, before closing a question we should post a comment with a link to How to Ask. I suspect that everyone wants to improve the quality of questions (and answers), but I think we also want to encourage new users.

I've seen a lot of close-votes coming up in review recently where I would have liked to vote "Not yet!". I don't know exactly how long we should wait for a new user to respond to comments / criticism before closing a question, but I do feel it should probably be measured in hours, rather than minutes.

[As an aside, I'm becoming increasingly of the opinion that we should probably require that users are registered before being allowed to post on the site. I've noticed that, at least over the past few weeks, a significant percentage of trivial questions (and most of the low-quality answers) have been posted by unregistered users. Yannis mentioned that this might be possible in a discussion on chat. There are certainly pros and cons to preventing unregistered users from posting, and many of these have been pointed out on SE:Meta. I may post separately about that to start a discussion.]

Having said all that, I think that defining a "trivial question" is going to be a non-trivial problem.

It almost goes without saying that every problem is trivial if you already know the answer. However, sometimes you need to have quite specific knowledge in order to frame the question, as with this question about the standstill agreements between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. In those cases, if you have that knowledge then the question is, indeed, trivial. Otherwise, it can be really difficult to find the answer. I would argue that questions of this type should actually be encouraged, provided that they are otherwise on-topic.

Now, of course questions like "What was G Washington's first name?" are going to be caught by any reasonable test for trivia.

I think that your answer to the linked question What are the criteria for a “trivial” question? could provide a useful basis for a "trivia-test":

"If I'm not sure whether a question is trivial, I copy the question, paste it into Google and look at the first five answers. If that amount of research reveals an answer, then the question is quite probably trivial. It suggests that OP didn't do any real research before posting the question."

Ideally, I'd expand this to include "multiple mutually-corroborative answers, that aren't all copy-pasted versions of the same Wikipedia article!", but I think you've given us a good starting point.

I'm less convinced by the argument that if we get it wrong, and close a question that wasn't trivial, we can always re-open it. My experience in getting a question that was incorrectly closed re-opened hasn't exactly filled me with confidence in the process.

Because of that, I think that I may be more inclined to caution when it comes to closing questions.

In the particular case of questions that can be simply answered by reading Wikipedia articles, if I'm not already familiar with he subject matter, I'll try checking the references in the article and also searching other sites for confirmation.

If I think that if consulting Wikipedia alone would result in an erroneous answer, and if providing an accurate answer here "requires some skill and subtlety", then @NeMo is absolutely right. The question is not as trivial as it may have initially appeared, and - perhaps more importantly - we are not merely duplicating information that already exists on Wikipedia. In such cases, I think the question is probably on-topic and should not be closed.

Now, you've been using the site a lot longer than I have, and you've therefore had longer to form your opinion. I've certainly noticed some aspects about the site that concern me, and I absolutely agree that we need to tackle the issue of trivial questions. I'm just not at all sure about the best way to achieve that.

  • 2
    I think perhaps that after I've had caffeine, I'll ponder whether the solution isn't to devote some effort to the re-open part of the cycle. I seem to recall that the site has discussed that before, which means it isn't just you and I. I'm just not entirely sure how to incentivze the "revise & reopen" activity. – Mark C. Wallace Sep 30 '17 at 13:37

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