The latest HNQ is, in my eyes, subjective:

So, how would you explain the concept of a variable to a 9 year old

(the actual question in the post, emphasis mine)

This is quite subjective. I see the 20 answers it has accumulated in 23 hours as strong indication that viewers1, who might or might not be educators at all, are the majority of the answerers.

On top of that, I can't see a way to evaluate the 15 answers that have a score of $x$, with $-3\leq x \leq 3$. If I remember the definition of list questions, this qualifies. The question doesn't exactly give some way to know which answer is better.

Unlike some other questions, (actually, at the time of writing, the question isn't tagged with that tag anyway) this one actually says quite bluntly that a possible solution

doesn't feel correct.

(emphasis not mine).

My question is an attempt to see where consensus lies today, regarding these matters.

How might such questions be treated? Are they subjective? are they good questions that need editing? Are they good as-is?

So, what are the community's thoughts on this? Let's try to reach consensus on what to do with such questions (i.e. ones that reach such a high deviation in the answers)

1I don't say users, because it's a HNQ, so some if not most of the answerers answered because they saw it in the sidebar


2 Answers 2


We've discussed the topic of list questions before, both on meta, and in chat. Generally, it seems that the consensus is that the problem with list questions is the answers they attract, not the question itself. Based on that consensus, there are two possible things we can do:

Option 1: Close list questions

This tends to be the approach across the network. This is because as sites grow, the moderation workload of dealing with the questions increases exponentially with the level of traffic. "answers have more intrinsic value than questions", and list questions almost always fail to attract those more valuable answers when they do attract those answers, they are not consistently voted up. List questions tend to have people voting on answers that are their favorites instead of answers that are actually the best answers.

For all of the above reasons, closing list questions is a common approach network-wide and would certainly solve the issue at hand.

Option 2: Establish standards and rules for answers to list questions

Since we can generally agree that the issue with list questions is the answers they attract, another possibly solution is better regulation of the answers. Regulation is challenging because typically list questions become Hot Network Questions and then attract a huge volume of low quality answers. So, if we choose to regulate those answers, we need some rules that we will enforce strictly.

I propose that we begin a policy of warnings and deletions for any answer that does not include the reasons why that answer is good. Specifically, any answer that does not include reasonable explanation of why it is a good answer should receive a standardized comment1 pointing to this meta question and then be deleted by any users who have that privilege, or get a post notice2 by a moderator, and then be deleted 6 hours after that notice if no edits have occurred.

Here's an example timeline:

  1. User posts answer without explanation
  2. User with vote to delete privileged see it -- they leave the standard comment, vote to delete, and ping a moderator in chat OR Moderator sees it -- they leave a standard comment and add a post notice. After the post notice has been added, no more delete votes should be cast.
  3. If 6 hours have passed, and the answer has not been improved, users should begin voting to delete again, or moderators should delete the answer.

This policy may sound strict, but users can always try again -- hopefully the standard comment can help users see how to write a better answer, and if not the users in chat can point answers in the right direction.

1 My recommendation for this comment would be "Please add some explanation to your answer -- answers without explanation will be deleted in accordance with the policy stated in this meta post. If you'd like to understand why your answer was deleted and how it can be improved, please ask us on meta or in chat"

2 A post notice is warning on the post which states "We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed."

  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure what I think about this, but I feel strongly that 6 hours is too short to require someone to respond to a notice. Though us site regulars may be crazy, many people aren't logged into SE 24/7. I would think that 24 hours would be a minimum number of hours. $\endgroup$
    – Ben I. Mod
    Jan 22, 2018 at 18:39
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think that 6 hours is crazy. In fact, 6 hours is important because we need to keep our site clean. One deleted answer will not stop a user from posting another, and they can also reach out in chat or on meta to have it undeleted. $\endgroup$
    – thesecretmaster Mod
    Jan 22, 2018 at 18:41
  • $\begingroup$ I think that a more important criterion for judging new answers is whether they add anything of substance to what is already there. If an answer just restates another answer it has little value. However (a) I think we already have such a rule and (b) it might be the later answer that better states an earlier on with essentially the same information. $\endgroup$
    – Buffy
    Jan 22, 2018 at 20:44
  • $\begingroup$ I'm assuming that a post "deleted" under such a policy is still on the site and visible to the OP and maybe hi rep users. If not it is problematic. If the delay is as short as 6 hours some outside communication might be necessary. Not just a ping. Users, I hope, sleep for more than 6 hours at a time. $\endgroup$
    – Buffy
    Jan 23, 2018 at 2:03
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, anything deleted is still visible to OP and to high rep users. $\endgroup$
    – thesecretmaster Mod
    Jan 23, 2018 at 4:12

Sorry, but I don't see the question as either opinion based or listy. I think that it is a perfectly objective question, though it was stated as to elicit opinion. A slightly different phrasing would be "What is the best way to introduce variables to a youngster?"

I agree that some of the answers are bad, but that is likely due to the fact that it attracted attention from a lot of people who haven't thought beyond how they were taught. It is an unfortunate characteristic of HNQs in general on this site.

I think that most people probably get the "variable = box" explanation early on and haven't, and won't, consider any other.

One of my general complaints to educators is that their students don't really need to learn everything that they have learned and certainly don't need to follow the same path to enlightenment that they followed. After all, the world has changed since they started teaching and we have actually learned how to do things better in the past half century.

In particular, and I've argued this endlessly here, students don't need to work their way through the abstraction stack from the bottom (gates, hardware) up (functional programming....). They can start at a higher level and learn how to match problem decomposition to program composition at a higher level.

But those who started lower down (matching variables to machine locations) naturally think that way and don't often want to yield that there might be a better way. I would guess that those who first learned Scheme don't have that particular flaw, though possibly others, based on how they learned themselves.

In any case, I don't see the original as asking for "all the ways that one might introduce variables", so not inherently listy.

I hesitate here to explain why the "reference" model is superior to the "box" model of variables, but will if asked. It isn't an opinion. Reasons. Because, reasons.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I totally agree -- although the phrasing of the question wasn't ideal, the problem is the answers, not the question. That's why my proposal deals with the answers instead of the question. $\endgroup$
    – thesecretmaster Mod
    Jan 22, 2018 at 18:36

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