This is a continuation of a discussion from a comment thread elsewhere.

Here is the basic question. When I see an incorrect answer, what would you recommend that I do?

I have always assumed that what I should do is downvote an incorrect answer, and (ideally) post a comment explaining why the answer is incorrect, to help readers understand what the error was. However, apparently in doing so in at least one case, I have managed to hurt one poster's feelings and made him feel like he was under personal attack. That is not my intent, and I don't want to see that happen.

@Ninefingers has suggested that "the best course of action when you disagree with something is to use your vote (you're entitled to do that) - for minor issues (did you mean XYZ?) comments work, but otherwise propose an alternative solution." Can anyone elaborate on what this means? Does this mean: (i) if the answer is incorrect and it is a major error, then downvote, but do not post a comment (and if possible post a correct solution), (ii) if the answer is incorrect and it is a minor error, then downvote and do post a comment? Is that what the community wants me to do? If I see a major error, don't comment on it? And if the person who posted the inaccurate answer asks for an explanation of why they got downvoted, then it's better to just not answer, despite their request?

I'm happy to follow whatever the community norms are. I'm hoping someone can elaborate on what they are.

Unfortunately, cryptography is a technical subject where there are correct and incorrect answers. Incorrect answers can put security at risk -- yet incorrect answers can often be quite hard to spot. It is not uncommon for people to think they have a correct answer, without realizing that their answer is actually incorrect. The policy I have followed is that if I see an inaccuracy that I feel the question-asker (or other readers) needs to know about, I try to actively point out and correct those errors. I've assumed that it is important to post a comment explaining the error, because errors can be hard to spot until they are pointed out (and because the voting process doesn't work if only one person is aware of the subtle error in the post but doesn't tell anyone about it). In addition, if the answerer explicitly asks for comments (as in this case), I try to post them.

However, perhaps what I haven't taken into account is that it is only human to have your feelings hurt if someone tells you that your answer is incorrect. Perhaps @Ninefingers' message is that it is better to let incorrect answers stand, without trying to correct them -- in the interests of keeping the peace, it's better to stick to just downvoting, without trying to call attention to errors in the comments? That creating a welcoming and friendly atmosphere is more important than correcting every technical error? Am I interpreting this feedback correctly?

I'd welcome your thoughts on how the community wants me to handle such situations. Thank you in advance!


3 Answers 3


Thomas has effectively said what I'm trying to encourage, but just for completeness

That is not my intent, and I don't want to see that happen.

I think in this particular case you've done exactly the right thing by raising this here. Disagreements are a fact of life and unfortunately every so often, we're all going to end up in one. So hopefully this particular one is settled and thanks for doing your part to ensure it gets resolved constructively :)

So, on answers:

I understand what you're trying to do in encouraging accuracy in cryptography. It's important for this subject. However, by nature it is highly technically demanding, requiring very clear and precise communication. Intents, metaphors, ideas etc are sometimes misunderstood and sometimes misinterpreted. So sometimes disagreements will occur just because people purely aren't understanding each other.

The second problem is the nature of humans - communication and feelings. Nobody (myself included) really enjoys criticism of any kind, even if the intent is to be helpful. So giving effective criticism is a bit of an art. Coupled with the fact the internet removes non-verbal factors, like body language and facial expression, it becomes far easier to misinterpret somebody's intent.

So, I think I don't want to discourage your efforts - but I would urge caution and very careful wording. Leaving my comment was extremely difficult, as there are many factors to balance, such as not taking sides whilst ensuring we stop any potential issues quickly. I'd also advise, when you can see it potentially "going personal" to simply stop posting. That sounds a little harsh, but idea is that it means the fire isn't being fed. When conversations become unproductive it is often very very difficult to turn them around and before you know it you've got sucked in to an argument when that wasn't your intention.

To use a metaphor, in my mind SE is like a debating theatre. Questions are the topic, answers are points made by each "side" of the debate and votes are applause. Comments are to me side remarks made on the edge of the theatre between a small group of individuals. Ultimately, sometimes its better to make a stellar point in front of everyone (i.e. a complete answer) than to try to resolve it in the wings.

The reason I encourage this is that it is less personal (comments notify users they're @ ed) and also a constructive way to put all your thoughts down and get the communication right. Does the "wisdom of the crowds" always work? No, of course not, much like any democratic system, it is very much imperfect, but I think more often than not, the votes will bear you out if you are right.

Now, you could leave a comment highlighting your new answer underneath the answer you feel is wrong. That works, but again, avoid getting "sucked in" if you can possibly help it. Again, you need very careful wording so as to deliver the right message.

On votes

On the subject of encouraging people to explain downvotes there isn't much consensus. I've personally learnt from downvote comments, but I think sometimes leaving a comment explaining your downvote causes the opposite reaction to what was intended to be a helpful hint. For a really good discussion on this, read Shog9's thoughts on the subject.

So, I think I agree with Shog9. I'm not going to say don't comment - comment if you want to, I can see both sides, but be careful doing it.

I should point out at this point for the benefit of anyone who is new to StackExchange that downvoting has been subject to abuse in the past, including serial downvoting. See this answer to a question where a user realised they'd been serial-downvoted. Essentially, if user A in a fit of rage downvotes every post of user B, when run, the abuse script will nullify all those votes. So if you get involved and do so constructively and in good faith and a user takes it out on you, the system will protect you.


Downvoting wrong answers is what you are supposed to do with your votes. When you downvote, it is considered polite to add a comment explaining why you downvote. Most authors of wrong answers will take the hint and correct their answers. It is unavoidable that a few will react emotionally and may even try to retaliate in a most childish way. C'est la vie. The risks of such an occurrence can be lowered by using diplomatic skills in the comment: in a nutshell, the more negative a comment is, the coldest it should be. Talk like a soviet droid. Because it cannot be a personal attack if it seems to emanate from someone totally devoid of any personality...

There is no requirement that you comment when you downvote. Sometimes it can be predicted, with great accuracy, that the answer's author will never take the hint, and instead will shout at whoever comments on His great answer; in that case, just downvote.

What @Ninefingers was suggesting is that in case the answer you downvote is well beyond any salvation, you can post another competing answer, which hopefully will be upvoted and bubble up higher than the offending post. This is mostly orthogonal to the question of whether you shall comment or not your downvotes.

Editing the offending answer to add a banner, saying that the answer is all wrong, is technically feasible, but much frowned upon; don't do it. Even if well-intentioned, this kind of thing can only escalate into full-scale warfare. That's possibly the most "sacred" thing in the stackexchange network: each author is master of his posts. Third party edits should be typographical only.


Pointing out errors (or asking for clarifications) is what comments are for. In the best case, then the errors are corrected, and the comment can be deleted afterwards. (Feel free to flag such comments as "obsolete" after they are incorporated into the post.)

Contrary to Thomas I think non-typographic edits to an answer are not totally taboo: If the answerer didn't come back for some time, and the problem seems to be easy to fix with an edit (without completely changing the spirit of the answer), go ahead and fix it. (Adding a this answer is wrong banner is not a fix.) If the answer owner reverts such an edit, let it be, don't start an edit war.

That said, the FAQ says explicitely:

Civility is required at all times; rudeness will not be tolerated. Be nice.

Some of your comments could be read as less nice than they could have been, which the authors of the corresponding post could have seen as an attack. (My view might be a bit skewed here, since you are (after me) the user with the most comments, as far as I can tell. I also didn't find any dubious examples just now.)

So, maybe one way to avoid this problem: Before submitting a comment (especially one pointing out mistakes), read it again, and think if it could be said in a nicer tone.

As said by Thomas, posting an own answer is independent of commenting an existing one. But it is often preferable to adding long comment threads to another answer, if the information in this comments can also be used to directly answer the question instead of only to point out errors.


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