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UPDATE: Amber's original question has been undeleted and the new question closed as a duplicate. It looks like that new question has since been deleted (honestly, it didn't need to be this complicated...). The old question has been updated with the new question's text, so to experience the fullness of this post, you need to click the question's edit link and look at the history. 😜 Anyway...


Recently @LiveInAmbeR posted a question about how robots could detect medical issues. After a series of comments, Amber chose to delete the question. I was disappointed by that as I don't believe Amber should have done so.

Because the linked question has been deleted, you may need a minimum amount of reputation to see it. In other words, if you click the above link and the page appears blank, it's because you don't yet have enough experience on the Stack. I believe I've provided enough information to be helpful without the need to read the original post.

I do not have Amber's permission to use the post as a case study and if Amber asks I'll have this Meta post deleted, but I think it's a good case study in what weak comments can do to a question. Thanks, Amber, for granting permission.

First Comment

This seems to be about a third-party property, off-topic here.

This comment was most likely made because the question has at least the following:

Many robots in fiction have this superpower where can stare at a cake and tell you its exact chemical composition (likely using some kind of spectrometer). However, since the robots themselves don't need to eat, how can they tell that a human being is malnourished?

...

Detective Del Spooner : Human beings get hungry. Even dogs get hungry, but not you, you are just a machine. An imitation of life. Can a robot tell if a human is starving? Can a robot tell if a... human has a case of low blood sugar?

Sonny : Can you?

–That's probably how the quote went, right?

Amber did not ask a question about a 3rd-party or commercial world. Amber did refer to a common trope in Science Fiction and did use a clever bit of writing from the movie I, Robot to demonstrate the reason why the question had been asked. Amber also referred to Asimov's laws of robotics (even though they're not really germane to the question). So, the first commenter jumped to the conclusion that the question was about a commercial world and failed to realize that their comment was inappropriate. Amber's question did not violate the 3rd-party/Commercial World restriction.

Second Comment

How can a robot tell whether a person is alive? How can a robot tell whether a car needs oil? How can a non-car robot tell whether something is a car? How can a grey metal robot tell whether something is blue or yellow?

Curiously, the commenter is frankly restating the very question Amber is asking. I admit that I'm about to judge the commenter without sufficient information, but it appears the commenter was trying to point out the belief that the question, perhaps, couldn't be answered. In reality, "robots" do all those things all the time (e.g., your car knows when it needs oil...). The argument that a robot isn't a car (it's not checking it's own oil!) is the whole point of the question. Therefore, this comment suggests the commenter didn't understand the potential of the question or its value if someone could answer it, but it might have left Amber with the idea that the question was somehow unworthy.

Third comment

how can a human tell whether something is a car?

This was in response to Amber wondering why the second comment had been posted. How does a human tell whether something is a car? Well... we have a "database" of associative images that identify objects as "cars" on a sliding scale of probability depending on the quality of the pattern match. We call this "thinking." Computers do this all the time. They identify cars, faces, stock value patterns, and lots of other things. In other words, for some reason the commenter didn't realize that this ability already exists. But it might have left Amber wondering even more if the question was worthy.

Fourth Comment

The fourth comment was deleted before Amber deleted the question. I posted an observation that, as asked, there were two questions that were distinct enough that the should be separated before I cast a vote to close for asking too many questions. Amber immediately edited the question to focus on the most important issue and I deleted my comment, up-voted the response comment (and the question), and started writing an answer.

If you're thinking one of the reasons I'm writing this post is that I'm peeved I couldn't post my answer. OK, you're right. I am peeved... but I also think this issue is a very good case study that could lead to better Stack behavior.

Fifth Comment

You're making assumptions about robots based on existing fiction. There is no such thing as the first law of robotics. Something to that extent is likely to be implemented, but not at all inevitable. Similarly with robophobia.

Amber's response to this was "Not worth asking. Got it." after which Amber deleted the question. I believe that was (IMO) the wrong conclusion and the wrong action to take. This is a case of judging the backstory. Ultimately, the entire discussion in Amber's post involving the laws of robotics had nothing to do with the question. If an argument could be made in this regard, it would be that Amber didn't specify the technological level the respondents should deal with. I started writing a response because I thought today's technology was a perfectly reasonable springboard to answer the question.

My point and the reason for the case study

What you'll find in common here is that, with the exception of my own comment (which gave specific direction as to how to overcome my concern, direction that was adopted), the comments were vague complaints based on a failure to read the question from the perspective of "what's really being asked here?" The consequence of them was to lead Amber to believe that the question wasn't worth asking.

When, in fact, it was very much worth asking.

Conclusion

We all make mistakes. I've made plenty of my own. But if you, dear reader, feel inclined to leave a comment that even remotely expresses the idea that a question is inadequate, please have the moral fortitude to clearly explain what your issue is, why it's an issue, and how the OP can fix it. No users should be members of a peanut gallery.

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    $\begingroup$ This is an objective study, therefore you have my consent. I will post the same (but edited) question again in about a day or so, so you shall be peeved no longer. The old question will stay deleted. $\endgroup$ Commented May 24, 2023 at 0:43
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    $\begingroup$ @LiveInAmbeR --- If you'd like, we do have a sandbox here in Meta where you could post the question and get some actual constructive help with improving it. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Commented May 24, 2023 at 19:26
  • $\begingroup$ The question is back online, so is your link, JBH :) $\endgroup$ Commented May 24, 2023 at 22:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Tortliena True! And if Amber accepts my advice, the old question will be updated to the new question's text (the new question was closed as a duplicate of the old, deleted question. Methinks that was holding the line a bit too close for reason. And I'm not sure Amber undeleted the question. Sometimes life's too short to worry about the details.) $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented May 25, 2023 at 0:06
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    $\begingroup$ Thank you very much for posting this. This story is by no means an isolated incident, and I would love to see this kind of poor commenting occur less frequently! $\endgroup$ Commented May 30, 2023 at 21:46

3 Answers 3

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So I read the re-edited question and answered it - I think some of the comments do have a merit: In particular, this one:

"How can a robot tell whether a person is alive? How can a robot tell whether a car needs oil? How can a non-car robot tell whether something is a car? How can a grey metal robot tell whether something is blue or yellow?"

It seems to me that the commenter is posing the series of questions to lead the OP to the realization that the answer is 'Much the same way that Humans do'.

Now, is it a bit Passive Aggressive? Sure. Is it something I would comment? Probably not. Does it add to the question? In some ways I think it does.

My own answer was very much based on the idea of how would I recognize this in other humans and then putting it in terms that a Robot could use.

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    $\begingroup$ The problem I'm pointing out is that the comment's intent was left utterly unclear. You interpreted it one way that you believe is valuable. Both Amber and I interpreted it as not having thought through the reality of robots - even today. So long as differing interpretations can exist, the comment was not well written. However, I'm delighted that you supported Amber after the question was reopened. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented May 30, 2023 at 15:45
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I went back and read the original question and kinda wonder why there was any issue to begin with. Here are the two areas that seemed to raise the "more than one question" flag:

How do robots know that a person has been well fed?

If it's specialised equipment, what is the robot equipped with? If it's pre-existing senses, how does it make use of them?

To me, this is not more than one question. Clearly the second and third "questions" are just trying to help define the singular problem. It could be rephrased as:

"How do robots know that a person has been well fed? Define what equipment would be necessary and how it could be used."

I mean, that's better, but only because doing it the first way apparently confuses WB readers and makes them vote to close things unnecessarily and request edits that also aren't really necessary. It's rules lawyering. I think the other comments then just piled on the negativity to the point the asker decided it was easier to just delete the question, when the question was perfectly fine in the original posting.

I do feel like WB in particular has issues with something between snark and rules-lawyering that makes us appear unfriendly and it's not clear to me what's driving it. It's not like we are flooded daily by low quality posts and really need to raise the bar to levels of perfection, "or else". TheDemonLord's answer seems exactly right, helps to build a world, and applied just as well to the original question. All the editing and piling on didn't change the underlying question, didn't change the answer, and was unnecessary.

My real ask would be for the community to be a little more generous in wiggle room, and taking the effort to see what the asker is asking. We aren't counting question marks or proposing that the asker could just answer the question themselves. For sure we need to get people to arrange questions that are one problem at a time, and involve building a world, but this should be a fun Stack overall, with a friendly atmosphere, and it seems to me over the last couple years it has taken a dive into a handful of people looking for reasons to go "Ah ha! Your question sucks! VTC!", and under SE rules, it only takes a few people to turn a whole Stack unfriendly.

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  • $\begingroup$ -1 because, frankly, you're ranting about issues not involved with my post (also known as "hijacking"). In fact, it appears that you're complaining about my effort to improve Amber's post, which did not involve a VTC and which Amber accepted to avoid the possibility of a VTC. Do you have a contribution to the actual issue at hand? $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented May 30, 2023 at 15:49
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    $\begingroup$ @jbh The topic of your post is how comments can cause harm. First cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye. $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Commented May 30, 2023 at 17:50
  • $\begingroup$ :-) You might be the wrong person to quote scripture to me. You're not a new user, you're active in Meta, and I don't believe there was anything misleading about my comment. On the other hand... you didn't respond to the issue of the post, but instead borrowed the opportunity for your own soap box. I'm sure my eye has plenty of motes and beams, but it would be nice if you could focus on the issue at hand. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented May 30, 2023 at 19:01
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    $\begingroup$ @jbh I am giving feedback on the "fourth comment", which is mentioned in your post, and is the one I think most represents a frequently seen "inadequate comment" that discourages people for no benefit. "Fixing" the question mark count doesn't change the actual issue and is needlessly discouraging for askers. I'm glad you brought it up because it's been bothering me for a while. I hope your post gets people to think about it more! $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Commented May 31, 2023 at 15:47
  • $\begingroup$ You're judging a comment that you can't read? A comment that led to a productive change by the OP? Do you realize (per the Code of Conduct) that Stack Exchange has minimum standards for questions? Shouldn't providing advice about how to avoid closure be a good thing? Maybe Meta Stack Exchange would be a better place for you to debate this issue. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Jun 1, 2023 at 6:21
  • $\begingroup$ Unbelievable... Amber was happy to make the change, which brought the quesiton into conformance with the minimum standards set by Stack Exchange. Amber even approved this post and its purpose - but you're godlike abilities to read what Amber really felt about the whole situation trumps all that. Sheesh, Jamie. Have you really never wondered why people downvote your meta posts so often? Maybe, just maybe... you ought to (why should I even need to suggest this?) ask Amber about your opinion of Amber's motivation? $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Jun 2, 2023 at 1:50
  • $\begingroup$ Odd... I'm sure that when I wrote the post, Amber's reaction to the comments was the gist of the issue. Give me a moment to check what I wrote. Yup, Amber's motivations were part of the equation. But what surprises me is that without having read a word of what I wrote, or having asked Amber about the results of the comment, you're so quick to simply condemn it. Curiously, had you not taken the issue so personally, you wouldn't have posted an irrelevant response. Try helping people to adhere to the rules of Stack Exchange and you'll get fewer comments from me. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Jun 5, 2023 at 3:23
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH I think the reason Jamie's meta posts are often downvoted is because there is a small minority of highly active users that insist the site and everyone interacting with it conform to their standards, rather than the standards set by stackexchange and the community as a whole $\endgroup$
    – M S
    Commented Jun 12, 2023 at 18:29
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    $\begingroup$ @MS Yeah really why I wish we could drive more meta participation. There are a few people here who behave as if 2 votes is a quorum that has settled the matter. I don't know what the number should be, but if 30 people voted against me on a topic, well, I guess the community has spoken. When it's ending closer to the 0 votes range (likely something like 3 up and 3 down) then I don't consider the matter to have been settled at all. $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Commented Jun 12, 2023 at 21:49
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The question, like 99% of the questions posted asking "how can I make X do Y?" or "how can I justify X in a believable manner?", is a waste of bytes because it completely misses the point that X doesn't need to be explained.

Has anyone ever read Harry Potter and thought to themselves "how does the magic work?" Nope. Has anyone ever read a science-fiction novel with faster-than-light travel and asked themselves "how can they do that while violating the laws of physics"? Again, no. And yet literally every day there's a new question posted here that asks something along these lines.

If you're spending your time trying to justify why your world is the way it is, you've already failed at building it. The how of a feature of your world is an insignificant detail that people who choose to involve themselves in that world are quite honestly not going to care about. Build your world as you desire it to be, and they will come; obsess over the bits that don't matter, and nobody will care.

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    $\begingroup$ Interesting point - however, I gotta disagree - Fandoms are full of people who insist on trying to provide real-world justifications for their chosen fandom tech. Star Trek is notorious for this, as are other fandoms. Hand Waived answers are sometimes needed, but I find that these are dangerous and can lead to conflicting info. A well developed system ought to have it's own internal rules and logic - which leads it to be compelling. $\endgroup$ Commented May 26, 2023 at 21:08
  • $\begingroup$ @TheDemonLord Those are well-established fandoms with literally millions of fans. The worlds built on this site... are not. Internal rules and logic are only important if they're critical to the world's existence, and 99% of the time they aren't; they just bog down that world with unnecessary detail. In contrast, as my examples show, some of the most compelling worlds that exist in fiction are the ones that spend almost no time on the "how" - because their creators understand that good world building almost never requires "how". $\endgroup$
    – Ian Kemp
    Commented May 26, 2023 at 21:50
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    $\begingroup$ "Has anyone ever read Harry Potter and thought to themselves "how does the magic work?" Nope." there is one stack more or less dedicated to trying to untangle how the magic works. It's Sci-Fi.SE. Well, at least there are often enough questions on how things work and answers that try to explain that they these things really don't. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Commented May 26, 2023 at 21:59
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    $\begingroup$ @IanKemp 'The worlds built on this site are not' - maybe not right at this second - but they could be - and it's important for a writer to understand their world and the limits of it if they want it to be believable and interesting. I'm reminded of The Wheel of Time where Robert Jordan kept notes about each characters power levels - so that he wouldn't contradict himself. Whilst it's not always required to get into the minutiae, understanding the foundations that the world rest on is important. $\endgroup$ Commented May 26, 2023 at 22:03
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    $\begingroup$ -1 for making for the erroneous assumption that no one cares about the underlying worldbuilding. You do realise that a whole industry exists that "explains how the magic works" for just about every major property going, from Lord of the Rings and Star Trek right up to Harry Potter? Perhaps you were teleported here from Physics.SE, but in WB.SE we actually do care about these kinds of details. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Commented May 27, 2023 at 3:50
  • $\begingroup$ In fact, how does the magic work in Harry Potter was a topic thought out long before it became popular. Of course the first novel focuses on how the magic is cast in Hogwarts rather in all countries, but the simple fact you need a wand and pronounce a pseudo-roman formula shows how you can cast a spell...[...] $\endgroup$ Commented May 27, 2023 at 13:37
  • $\begingroup$ [...] For one of my old game project, thinking how the player's character sci-fi gun worked and why it was made was important : For gameplay its hyper-modularity was to promote teamplay, but world-wise it was a tool of foreign and likely hazardous planet exploration, which therefore created the need to be a Swiss-army-knife-style weapon. $\endgroup$ Commented May 27, 2023 at 13:37
  • $\begingroup$ 99.9% of the questions asked on this Stack could be closed for this reasoning. They aren't because it's up to the querent to decide whether or not any particular facet of their world requires detail. I, too, am frustrated when it seems apparent to me that the querent, in the valiant but ultimately vain effort to be as scientifically plausible as possible asks something a bit senseless (because they haven't yet the education to realize that), but that wouldn't change the possibility that the detail is needed for an important plot point... (*Continued*) $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented May 30, 2023 at 15:38
  • $\begingroup$ ... in their story. Generally, the Stack has proven intolerant to the idea of asking the OP whether or not it is important to seek those details. I've posted two Meta posts about the issue. They came (as Meta posts do) and went with barely a ripple. In the end, questions of the type you've identified will continue to be asked. My point with this post was to underscore the consequences of offering shallow, ignorant comments in the hope of inspiring people to be more thoughtful. Just to make a point, Ian... you might have missed that goal. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented May 30, 2023 at 15:40
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    $\begingroup$ I do think people use stuff like this as a sort of mental crutch. "Oh I can't go on with this until I resolve X", when X really doesn't need to be resolved at all. BUT I also think this is not our job to tell them so. They say their world needs X, they need help with X, we should either, as individuals, help them with X or choose to ignore it and move on to the next interesting thing in the queue. It's not our business to tell them what their world doesn't need. I always think it comes across as rather aggressive to tell someone they don't need the thing they asked about. $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Commented May 30, 2023 at 17:56
  • $\begingroup$ @IanKemp "that X doesn't need to be explained." its not your place to decide if person W making world Z doesnt need to explain X $\endgroup$
    – Topcode
    Commented Jun 11, 2023 at 6:59

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