We have, on this site, had some confusion/differing opinions on the matter of when a Not an Answer flag is applicable. Specifically, when someone posts something related that isn't actually an answer to the question.

It may attempt to answer (but doesn't actually give an answer). It may provide some relevant info. But... I wouldn't say that it actually provides a real answer to the question asked.

The point of this meta question is to determine whether or not such answers fall under the Not an Answer flag.

Some previous examples: (1) (2) (3)

What we can take away from those questions is that people disagree about whether or not an attempt to answer the question, even if it does not address the actual question asked, qualifies for a Not an Answer flag.

Shog9 seems to think that attempting doesn't cut it. That if it doesn't actually answer the question... well, don't go cherry picking the description. See also this comment.

But what does the Scifi.SE community think? Should we be using Not an Answer flags for answers that attempt to answer but don't actually provide an answer, no matter what the network wide policy (which can be overridden by individual community consensus), or not?

I'm aware of How do we handle answers that don't answer the question?; but see the voting on the answers there. That, in addition to the fact that that post is from 2012, prompted me to open this up for discussion again.

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    I would appreciate knowing the community consensus on this. I am particularly concerned by the view (referred to by KutuluMike in his answer to your example (1) that NAA does not apply to a post if it attempts to answer any question even if it does not attempt to answer this question. It's possible that the policy I am referring to is an SE policy that has already been overridden by this community (but if so, any new consensus should reaffirm that position). – Blackwood Oct 1 '17 at 1:03
  • @Blackwood As mentioned in this comment, there's a lot of disagreement among mods across SE about that particular point, so I'd say there's no real network-wide policy. [cont] – Rand al'Thor Mod Oct 1 '17 at 8:33
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    My view is that if you post on question A something which answers a completely different question B, then that's NaA. (This view is supported by the fact that when reviewing answers in the LQP review queue, you see the question too.) I've never encountered disagreement on SFF or taken any flak for handling flags in this way, so it seems like this site's community would agree. – Rand al'Thor Mod Oct 1 '17 at 8:33
  • @Randal'Thor - I'm having trouble reconciling that with this comment of yours. – Mithical Oct 1 '17 at 8:37
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    @Mithrandir An answer to question B isn't an attempt to answer question A (again, except in the sense that anything typed into the answer box is an attempt to answer). – Rand al'Thor Mod Oct 1 '17 at 8:40
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    To be honest, I'm not sure what the point or usefulness of this question is. Unless I'm wildly mistaken, the main disagreement isn't whether NaA flag should be used for "isn't actually an answer to the question" but rather, whether specific answers fit "isn't actually an answer to the question" criteria. - which is impossible to solve via some generic Meta rule and is largely per-post/per-voter often subjective decision. – DVK-on-Ahch-To Oct 1 '17 at 13:07
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    Possible duplicate of How do we handle answers that don't answer the question? – DVK-on-Ahch-To Oct 1 '17 at 13:12
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    I think our disagreement on this stack often comes down to deciding whether or not an answer attempts to answer the question. Not how to handle it if we decide it does/doesn't. – user31178 Oct 2 '17 at 12:11
  • Examples 1 and 3 are answers, just bad answers. And example 2 is a comment. I think an attempt at an answer is acceptable, and votes should handle it. Comments (or attempts that should be comments) get flagged. And answers that are blatantly off-topic should be flagged. – amflare Oct 2 '17 at 14:18
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    @CreationEdge Agreed on that. – Rand al'Thor Mod Oct 2 '17 at 16:46

As Shog9 notes:

That said, there's a change I would love to see to this flag text, that might make some small difference here: stop using the word "answer" to refer to both the post itself and the action of addressing the asker's problem:

This was posted as an answer, but it does not address the problem being asked about. It should possibly be an edit, a comment, another question, or deleted altogether.

And then couple that more explicitly to the default decline reason by rewording that as well:

this answer appears to address the asker's problem. Use downvotes to indicate inaccurate or entirely wrong answers. For subtle forms of abuse, choose "other" and explain the problem in detail.

I think the combination of these two changes would serve to reduce a lot of the confusion surrounding these flags, without greatly changing the implied purpose.

I thoroughly agree with Shog9 here. An answer is not just a post that takes the shape of an answer, an answer actually tries to answer the question by addressing the question.
As I've said elsewhere:

If an answer just goes off on a tangent [or if] an answer is clearly based on just the title, ignoring the body of the question [then] the answer does not address the actual question and should be flagged as Not an Answer.

An answer should address the question and try to answer it meaningfully. It should address the actual question and not just its title and it should answer it, not just spew some lines that could possibly be related to it.

If it does not, it is not an answer and should be flagged as such.

Yes, we can down vote and vote to delete, but that option is only available to high reputation users. We should encourage users that haven't reached 20k yet to participate in site moderation and we can do so by allowing them to flag answers such as these as Not an Answer.

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    "the actual question and not just its title" - isn't the title part of the question? If a question's title and body are asking slightly different things, and an answer addresses what's being asked in the title, then I wouldn't say that's NaA. (Possibly the question should be closed as unclear, but that's another issue.) – Rand al'Thor Mod Oct 1 '17 at 14:03
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    @Randal'Thor well, suppose the title reads "why was Harry Potter the master of the Elder Wand?", then an answer that says "because he disarmed Draco, whom the Wand considered its master at the time" is not an answer if the question body goes on to explain that because reasons Draco shouldn't be its master or that Harry should've disarmed him in its presence or other subtleties that do not fit in the title. Title and body do not have to contradict, but a title is necessarily shorter than the body. – SQB Oct 1 '17 at 16:09
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    @SQB I disagree. That answer would be better if it dismantled the question's arguments, but either the question is asking "why is Harry the wand's master," in which case the answer is both germane and correct, or really asking "was Draco actually the wand's master," in which case the question's title should be changed to reflect the actual question being asked. – Kevin Oct 1 '17 at 18:05
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    @Kevin perhaps it's a bad example, but the general idea that the title cannot convey all content and subtleties of the question, still stands. – SQB Oct 1 '17 at 18:19
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    In such examples, sounds like the title needs to be edited for clarity. – user31178 Oct 1 '17 at 18:33

an attempt to answer the question, even if it does not address the actual question asked

This seems like an oxymoron to me. If it doesn't address the question asked, how can it attempt to answer the question? Perhaps the confusion here simply arises from people talking at cross-purposes? I'll try to provide some illustrative examples, but I'm not sure how well I'll be able to choose them, so do leave comments if you can think of better example answers and I'll edit them in. (This kind of debate works best with concrete examples, IMO, otherwise it's hard to tell whether everyone means the same thing by vague phrases like "attempt to answer" or "does not address".)

  • "Why did Character do Thing in Story?" - "Dunno if she had any reason - maybe she just felt like it." This might potentially be VLQ, but it's not NaA because it does provide a (probably bad) answer to the question. The correctness and quality of this answer should be judged by votes.

  • "Which characters did Thing in Story?" - "I know that So-and-so did, because [...]." This is also not NaA, because it provides a partial answer to the question. It may be useful to the OP, or to someone else in compiling a full answer.

  • "What happened to Character after Event?" - "He was doing this, that, and the other before Event happened." This is NaA, because it doesn't address the actual question asked. It's only an "attempt to answer" in the sense that anything typed into the answer box is.

  • "What is the origin of Idea?" - "It's mentioned in Source." This one is borderline. On the one hand, it could be an attempt to answer by providing a possible origin; on the other hand, it could just be a comment about one instance of the idea without even thinking it might be the first. As a mod, if I saw a NaA flag on this, I'd probably leave it to be handled by community review.

Again, please comment if you can think of more useful example answers to be evaluated. The more concrete examples we can discuss, the more helpful this discussion will be.

In particular, if the OP or anyone else can provide an example of an answer which "attempts to answer the question" without "addressing the actual question asked" or "actually providing an answer", I'd very much like to see what actually falls within this grey area of apparent dispute. It's hard to have an opinion on a category of answers if you can't think of anything which might be in that category :-)

  • Re that last paragraph: I think the last case about the 'with great power' quote would fall into that, no? – Mithical Sep 30 '17 at 21:29
  • @Mithrandir How does that attempt to answer the question? – Rand al'Thor Mod Sep 30 '17 at 21:32
  • Because, while it doesn't provide the source in universe, which is what the question wanted, it did try to provide a source for it. They just apparently misunderstood the question/were trying to comment but couldn't although we can't say that for sure. – Mithical Sep 30 '17 at 21:34
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    If you misunderstood the question and answered something else instead, that's NaA in my book. (See bullet point #3 in this answer.) Otherwise we'd have e.g. people answering a doctor-who question about Captain Jack with an answer from pirates-of-the-caribbean. Such answers are useless and confusing and don't address the actual question asked. (There's disagreement among network mods about whether answers to a different question should count as NaA, but to me it's a no-brainer because anything is an answer to SOME question.) – Rand al'Thor Mod Sep 30 '17 at 21:42
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    Answering anything with "I don't know, just because." isn't an answer. Your first bullet point misses the mark for me. And I'm positive we've deleted answers because they've just been "Because it's SciFi", and the "Because they felt like it" is no better in my opinion. – user31178 Oct 1 '17 at 18:36
  • @CreationEdge I think you've misunderstood that example (evidently I chose a bad example). It's not "I don't know, just because", which might indeed be in the same category as "because it's sci-fi"; the correct answer to why a character did something might actually be "because they just felt like it" (e.g. why does Dumbledore use the names of sweets for his office passwords, or why does Doctor Who visit $randomplanetoftheweek?). As I said, in most cases it'd be a bad answer, but a plausible one whose value can be judged by up/down votes, not NaA. – Rand al'Thor Mod Oct 2 '17 at 9:25
  • I coud literally use that as the answer for any character motivation related question, because it's not an answer. – user31178 Oct 2 '17 at 12:08
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    @CreationEdge How is it not an answer? In most cases it's a wrong answer, but in a few cases it might even be the right answer. Here, I managed to find an example: this answer, despite being unsupported and downvoted, was deemed not delete-worthy and might actually be correct, as shown by Word of God in another answer. – Rand al'Thor Mod Oct 2 '17 at 12:22
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    It's a comment. The "Word of God" part you refer to isn't referenced at all in the answer, so it's idle speculation commentary, or unhelpful commentary that you'd see fit perfectly well with the "Add Comment" field. Regardless, I would exempt all such junk because you happen to come up with an outlier (which again, I still think is terrible and it not being delete worthy could simply be because we're "not aligned") – user31178 Oct 2 '17 at 16:41
  • @CreationEdge Word of God isn't a requirement for answers on this site. I agree it's a low-quality answer, due to being unsupported, but it's still an answer. (But probably the example in the 1st bullet point was poorly chosen. Any suggestions for a better one?) – Rand al'Thor Mod Oct 2 '17 at 16:47
  • Judging by some of the declined NAA flags I have received, not answering the actual question asked is just a "technical inaccuracy ".... – Skooba Oct 2 '17 at 17:08
  • According to your second bullet, I should go back and convert all my partial-answer comments into actual answers and start farming rep. 100k, here I come! – DCOPTimDowd Oct 2 '17 at 18:20
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    @DCOPTimDowd If you want to get massively downvoted and lose all your rep, sure. Note that none of this whole debate is about what makes an answer bad, or even very low quality (and hence potentially eligible for deletion), only not an answer specifically. – Rand al'Thor Mod Oct 2 '17 at 18:23
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    @DCOPTimDowd I get that you're being facetious, but for clarity's sake for other commentators... I don't think I've ever seen one of those comments as answers (in my opinion they're comments) be well-received. They're pretty universally downvoted until they're at least greyed out. The majority seems to agree they're bad, whatever else they may be. – user31178 Oct 2 '17 at 18:51
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    @DCOPTimDowd I didn't say it's okay. Not every bad (or even delete-worthy) answer is NaA, and NaA is all we're talking about here. – Rand al'Thor Mod Oct 2 '17 at 18:55

Perhaps we should look to Stack Overflow for inspiration:

Every once in a while, which some regularity, somebody on SO completely misreads a question (or is just generally confused or insane or on drugs, or whatever) and posts an answer that has absolutely nothing to do with the question. If you've been on SO for a while, you've probably seen something like this — a user asks:

Is i += f(++i); undefined behavior in C++?

and someone responds:

You need to use jQuery.click() on the checkbox.

[The question then goes on to explain that these aren't flaggable, but do tend to get a lot of declined NAA flags, and proposes changing the flag interface to discourage people from flagging such answers.]

-- Meta Stack Overflow

So, in other words, SO's policy is very simple: If it looks like an answer, it is an answer, no matter how ridiculous it may in fact be. The NAA flag is then relegated to, for the most part, new users who mistakenly use the answer box for something other than an answer ("thanks", "me too", "what about X?", etc., basically the same stuff that protecting a question is supposed to block). It also sees some use for clearing out link-only answers, especially when highly upvoted by well-meaning users. But that's about it; you can't NAA-flag an answer that looks like an answer, even if it's answering a different question entirely!

This rule has the advantage that their moderators do not need to know anything about the broad range of technologies which are on-topic at Stack Overflow. It is also very straightforward to evaluate and does not tend to generate endless arguments over whether or not an answer "addresses" the problem. A major disadvantage is that answers which are truly irrelevant cannot be flagged; they must be downvoted and then delete-voted instead. In my opinion, this is an acceptable tradeoff: I very rarely see contentious arguments over flag handling on MSO, and SO has enough experienced users on the larger tags that these answers don't last very long anyway. I believe these principles also apply to SFF (in particular, our site moderation is far too politicized right now, IMHO). Therefore:

I propose we adopt Stack Overflow's policy verbatim. Anything which looks like an answer should not be flagged as NAA, even if blatantly irrelevant to the question. Use downvotes and delete-votes instead.

Ridiculous answers are, of course, ridiculous, and should continue to be downvoted and deleted. The only thing that would change is that moderators would step back and let the community do those things on their own.

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    Downvotes? Fair enough, but I would appreciate some explanation of why you disagree, and in particular how you feel about the tradeoff I have identified. – Kevin Oct 1 '17 at 7:02
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    My downvote is because I disagree with you – Valorum Oct 1 '17 at 7:40
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    "our site moderation is far too politicized right now, IMHO" - are you referring to the recent kerfuffle over a political answer, or something more general? – Rand al'Thor Mod Oct 1 '17 at 8:24
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    I downvoted because I disagree with this answer. If it's blatantly unrelated to the question it is in my opinion not an answer. – Mithical Oct 1 '17 at 8:35
  • @Rand: I feel like I see a fight like that about once a month, and frankly I'm tired of it. – Kevin Oct 1 '17 at 15:59
  • @Valorum: I'm trying to specifically understand why our site needs a different policy from SO. Can you help me figure that out? – Kevin Oct 1 '17 at 16:02
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    @Kevin - You've said it yourself "no matter how ridiculous it may in fact be." - We don't need to allow crap to exist – Valorum Oct 1 '17 at 17:18
  • @Valorum: I am not proposing that we do, only that we use a different tool to fight it. – Kevin Oct 1 '17 at 17:47
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    DV'd. We have some stellar contributors on this stack, people who provide well-researched answers. Allowing very low quality content, 'ridiculous' answers as you called them negates their efforts, as it makes all SFF look ridiculous. Imagine asking a scientist to contribute to a journal which also publishes the 'research' of dr. Ignoramus Quack on the connection between global warming and lack of pirates. It is not a valid research, as some of the answers given are not valid answers and should be flagged accordingly :NaA. – user68762 Oct 1 '17 at 18:25
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    I think our needs are different because it's easier to hide non answers if you merely include enough keywords from the work in question. On SO you get people reading answers because they have that specific problem right now, and they're more critical of the technical accuracy. Here, many of our community and readers and reading out of leisure, often on topics they aren't interested in. So, we need different stewardship policies. – user31178 Oct 1 '17 at 18:41
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    I'm aware of the policy on various SE sites that a "not an answer" flag should be declined if the post is an answer to any question even if it it clearly not an answer to this question. I strongly disagree with that policy and would not like to see it adopted here. – Blackwood Oct 1 '17 at 19:56
  • @Kevin Now imagine if it was your job to have to deal with all those fights every time ;-) – Rand al'Thor Mod Oct 2 '17 at 9:20
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    I think we have a hard enough time keeping answers focused and on-topic without allowing all answers to all questions. If someone misunderstands the question, fine, but to draw comparisons between two completely different universes is more than likely not going to help anybody and make the entire stack look sloppy. – DCOPTimDowd Oct 2 '17 at 18:36

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