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How do we handle questions when the asker's problem is that they are confused or proceeding under a misconception?

Most often the asker can't write a self-aware statement of the actual problem because lacking that self-awareness is their problem in the first place. Sometimes the question is logically inconsistent or otherwise demonstrates clearly what their underlying problem is, but the explicit question is something we can't answer.

(Assume for the sake of this discussion that the asker's confusion is the problem, and therefore no amount of nicely asking for clarification will result in a clarified question. If that assumption is wrong for a certain question, it's not a question that has this problem and it will get clarified fine. My only concern is dealing with the questions that do have this problem.)

These questions are an odd special case of poorly-framed or XY Problem questions. In a normal question with an XY assumption, we can use comments to tease our their real, underlying problem. In this type of question though, we can't: misunderstanding their problem is their problem. They don't have an underlying problem they can clarify for us, because the problem they're having will stop existing when their confusion is removed.

The friction comes from there being two possible reactions our experts can have:

  • "Aha! You have demonstrated your misconception quite clearly, and now let me untangle your conceptual knot." These users will want to answer the question.
  • "What the hell, this question doesn't make any sense." These users will vote to close/hold the question.

The answering users will annoy the closing users, because we all know quite well that we shouldn't answer bad questions. The closing users will annoy the answering users, because solving the obvious problem isn't hard at all and the OP can always ask a solid follow-up question after they've been enlightened.

Possibly, resolving their confusion in comments is a solution... but this is effectively using comments to answer the question to those who think that "misunderstanding their problem is the problem". Since the users who see the confusion know better than to answer in comments, they won't (they'll just answer). Meanwhile the users who don't see the confusion are, for that very reason, less likely to ask useful clarifying questions.

Should these questions be closed as unclear? This may save the site from conflict that we are better off avoiding, even if we could in theory help this person. Attempting to clarify in comments will either not work (and the question will remain closed), or end up answering-in-comments (and find out that there's no other question worth reopening for). Permanently consigning questions from confused askers to the trash bin may be justified. If this is what we decide, then users tempted to answer will know to "answer" in comments to remove the confusion.

Should these questions remain open to allow answers? One or more of the answers is likely to solve their problem by correcting the misconception, at the expense of some of the answers guessing wrong in some particulars. The votes on such answers are likely to reflect more on the guesses of the community about the nature of the confusion, than on the fitness to their exact confusion-problem. Helping a thoroughly-confused asker may be worth hosting low-quality questions (as the downvote arrow is for). If this is what we decide, then we'll be able to point to this decision to ward off well-meaning but interfering close votes.


Related reading is, How do we handle a desire to challenge the frame of a question? This problem is related, but distinct in that this type of framing problem is caused when the asker's problem is why they're unable to reframe their problem.

A possible example of a question of this type:

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Do what we do best: solve their problem to the best of our ability. From my experience we can sort these questions into three categories.

1. Their question is incomprehensible or really does not have an answer as posed.

These should get closed as unclear, naturally. We should try our best to coax something comprehensible and answerable out of them.

2. They're confused but we don't notice and the question seems totally legit.

These ones by definition don't actually get sorted into this bucket. They probably get answered.

3. They're confused and it's obvious. They've asked a question, but to really solve their problem requires poking at the confusion underneath.

Answer it. Answer their question at face value, then poke at the confusion underneath: show them what they're confused about and unravel their confusion for them. Solve their problem on every level. That's what we do here: we don't answer questions blindly, we solve problems.

We actually answer a lot of questions from category #3 already! A typical example is we'll get a person asking if a certain D&D spell or power named Foo will do Bar, because if so they're going to use it to do Whatsit — but we know that Foo won't let them do Whatsit anyway, and they've overlooked or misunderstood something. In this case we tell them whether Foo does Bar, then tell them Foo won't let them do Whatsit and why. Sometimes we even suggest things that will actually do Whatsit instead!

For this category I'll stress it's important to do both things: answer their question as asked, and unravel their confusion.

What about here?

In the case of the book/equipment question: we either close it as #1, or we can answer it at face value then pick apart their confusion to resolve that too as #3. It's been in a state of flux between both for a while.

In its current state it probably counts as #3: we can tell them what books we need. The answer will probably be none, which answers the question. Then we pick apart the confusion: they require none because the group they join will have books to share, and they haven't worked out what edition they want to play yet anyway. They can go join a group, receive help and guidance from those people, then figure out what they need for themself later (possibly nothing).

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    \$\begingroup\$ This sums my original thinking quite nicely, thank you. "We actually answer a lot of questions from category #3 already!" That point was a large part of my motivation for bringing this up: I couldn't figure out why some confused questions get forcefully closed when most go unchallenged and get answered without problems. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Apr 24 '14 at 21:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ -1 the entire reason for "on hold as unclear" is for this. If someone can't "use their words" enough to get unconfused with comment and/or chat discussion, why do we want their question? To confuse later posters with a bunch of confusing questions with maybe-correct answers? \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk - Justice for Monica Jul 28 '14 at 0:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mxyzplk Does his category #1 adequately describe the questions that should be closed? He does put more (perhaps too much) weight on the "don't close" part of the answer, but after rereading it a few times, he seems to be saying that questions that can't be answered at face value should be closed. That is, among cases where the asker is too confused to ask a good question, stupid questions should be answered, and non-questions should be closed. \$\endgroup\$ – Brilliand Aug 18 '14 at 6:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ Not in my opinion; as is already clear I don't think answers are the best place for a grand unravelling session of a person's manifold misconceptions. That usually requires dialogue and/or stabbing in the dark, both of which make for crap answers. Close the Q and use comments/chat for that. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk - Justice for Monica Aug 18 '14 at 12:31
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I'm going to come down on the side of putting these on hold as unclear.

The reasons for this are manifold, but the primary ones are that if the OP is genuinely confused, we do them a disservice by allowing people to try to answer their problem at face value.

Yes, some folks are going to come in and show them their error, but they aren't actually answering the question that's being asked. That's a pretty clear sign that the question is unanswerable and should be closed as "Unclear what you are trying to ask"

Similar to our discussion about challenging the frame, the guidance there is answer the question first, then challenge the frame. If answering the question first is impossible, then we should vote to close and show the OP the error of the frame.

And yes. Comments are the right tool for this job. Close the question, and then use a comment to show the OP how the frame is incorrect, point it out, if they (or another user) can salvage the frame, then the question can be reopened, or reasked with the appropriate frame. If they cannot, then the question simply remains closed.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1, closing and eliciting clarification in comments is the correct approach and it's what "on hold" is for. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk - Justice for Monica Apr 22 '14 at 22:03

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