I flagged an answer because it does not answer the question asked. The flag option I selected states:

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

An anonymous moderator rejected my intervention as follows:

declined - Flags should not be used to indicate technical inaccuracies, but only to make moderators aware of content that requires their intervention. This looks like an answer to me, so I'm not deleting it.

I never claimed that I flagged the answer "to indicate technical inaccuracies". The flag option I selected is there to mark answers as not answering the question. So it may be the case that the answer I flagged is an answer, but certainly not to the question.

Now, the question Is Science about Truth or Adequate Models? concerns anti-realism in philosophy of science and the following was asked:

Is it the general view amongst philosophers of science that science isn't about truth but rather adequately predictive models and therefore it doesn't make sense to speak of a scientific theory as true so much as an adequate model of the evidence?

Is this the general consensus amongst philosophers of science or one of a number of different viewpoints still debated (and if the latter, what is this viewpoint called)?

The answer I flagged makes two points:

  1. It quotes Bachelard quoting someone else as saying:

    science is about association of things but also and even more association of minds

  2. It reports that Wittgenstein said

    It is the adequation of the meaning we give to what we observe, with the rest of our system of though, that makes it scientific, rational

I can't see how this answer even remotely touches the topic of the question (namely anti-realism in philosophy of science) and can therefore be considered an answer to the questions in any way. It seems to me a text book example for the flag option I selected.

Can a moderator explain according to which (loose) criteria this answer might be an answer to the question asked? And, more importantly, according to which (loose) criteria a given answer might not be considered an answer to a given question?

  • 1
    I was not the original moderator to respond to your flag, but I can say what I would have done. There are many sorts of ways in which each SE community self-regulates. I think the most important way that the community indicates that an answer isn't acceptable is by downvoting it. In a similar fashion, I would have to have a very good reason for removing an upvoted answer from a question. I notice that the linked question has no downvotes nor comments. Both of these should be attempted before trying to remove the question. And as others seem to have found the question useful enough to... – davidlowryduda Mar 9 '12 at 5:00
  • ... upvote it, I can see no reason to remove it. With respect to your question - I admit that it's relationship is a bit tangential. But I would say that it touches on part of the essence of the question, and I can see how people would find it to be a reasonable answer. – davidlowryduda Mar 9 '12 at 5:01
  • @mixedmath OK, I understand the point that on SE what is considered to be an answer is for the community to decide. I don't have downvoting capability yet, so I thought flagging would be the way to go. I will refrain from flagging from now on and wait for the possibility to downvote. Thanks. – DBK Mar 9 '12 at 5:14
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    Yes, what mixedmath said is correct. I wasn't the mod who declined the flag either but I agree also that while the answer provided doesn't directly answer the question, it touches up it enough to warrant not deleting it entirely, especially as some people apparently found it useful. Downvoting and most importantly constructive comments on answers is the best way to go for this kind of stuff. Deleting is usually reserved for the worst of the worst such as spam posts, obvious trolling, etc. – stoicfury Mar 9 '12 at 6:17
  • Just by the way, I've been reading a lot of your recent contributions to the site and have been very impressed. I'm glad you're participating by way of contributing answers and by way of trying to clean up and otherwise improve the site. I don't mean to discourage you from doing any of that. Don't let a flag that has been rejected discourage you from continuing to do what you're doing. That's really the only way we have to provide feedback. And in asking this question ("Why?"), you've done exactly the right thing again. In case my answer seems harsh, I don't mean it that way. – Cody Gray Mar 11 '12 at 9:17
  • @Cody No problem at all, I am actually impressed by the way every concern expressed, even by new users, is addressed by moderators thoroughly and with extensive answers. Thanks for that, it really helps. – DBK Mar 11 '12 at 11:38
up vote 2 down vote accepted

I'm the moderator that rejected your flag, in case you want to put a name with the action (maintaining my anonymity was not my choice; apparently the system does that for us automatically).

Why did you reject this flag?

I stand by my original rejection reason:

Flags should not be used to indicate technical inaccuracies, but only to make moderators aware of content that requires their intervention. This looks like an answer to me, so I'm not deleting it.

Calling your attention to the explanatory text below the "not an answer" flag option, it says:

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

So I'm curious, which one of those did you think applied to the answer you flagged? Basically, the only thing moderators can do with a flagged answer beyond what a regular user can already do is delete it. Regular users can already downvote answers, [suggest] edits, and leave comments. The only privilege that is unique to moderators is single-click delete power (and, related to that, the ability to delete an answer and automatically convert it to a comment). And obviously, I think that with such great power should come great responsibility. I did not (and still don't) think that answer deserved to be one-click deleted by a moderator, and I don't have any other options available to me when processing flags.

Compounding matters further, posts that are deleted by a moderator are implicitly "locked", meaning that neither the person who originally posted it nor any other members of the community with sufficient privileges are able to vote to undelete it. Only a moderator is able to undelete posts that have been deleted by a moderator. Thus, I think it would be unfair for a moderator to step in and delete an answer in cases like this one where it's ambiguous or subjective whether that answer actually answers the question. The person whose answer gets deleted has very little recourse against such an action, and I don't think that's fair to a person who posted an answer in good faith.

This is what I meant when I said that flags should only be used "to make moderators aware of content that requires their intervention". The Stack Exchange model is one of community moderation, where the users essentially police themselves and each other. The standard theory of moderation that we follow is essentially that diamond (♦) moderators should do as little as possible. If regular members of the community can take action without heavy-handed moderator intervention, then all the better. We try to only step in when we're absolutely required—when our special powers beyond those held by regular community members are needed to resolve the issue. As I mentioned above, in this case, I didn't think deletion was the right approach, so I declined to act on the flag.

Moderators are not charged with judging the veracity or technical merit of answers. That's what I meant by "flags should not be used to indicate technical inaccuracies". All of the justifications you present in the question may be perfectly correct, but were they were not provided to me along with your flag (and the fact that there is no mechanism by which to do so is entirely by-design) and they should not have any bearing on my decision to act upon a flag. Essentially, you're calling upon a moderator to judge whether or not they agree with an answer, and that's simply outside of our job description. This may seem like a bit of a cop-out, but it's absolutely necessary as a policy. Otherwise, we end up with a dangerously slippery slope.

The system just isn't designed for moderators to judge the correctness of answers. We're not even required to be experts on every specific domain. I might know a lot about some types of philosophy, but I don't know everything about all types of philosophy. And good thing, because you wouldn't be able to find anyone who meets that description. I simply don't know enough about the subject matter of that particular question/answer to be able to judge the correctness or applicability of that answer on a technical level, and I don't think it would be fair for me to do so if I did have the requisite knowledge! Imagine how easily this would turn into moderators deleting answers because they disagreed with the poster's interpretation of Nietzsche or Heidegger. Then you have a whole new set of problems that are far worse than a handful of technically inaccurate answers hanging around on the site.

In fact, the Q&A system employed by the Stack Exchange network sites is designed in large part around solving this very problem, without requiring any moderator intervention. Unlike a traditional forum, we allow users to vote on answers. Those votes indicate whether the voter found the answer useful or helpful, and whether they think the answer is correct. The highest-ranked answers float to the top where they can be conveniently found, and the lowest-ranked answers float to the bottom. My experience indicates that this system works exceptionally well for filtering content and differentiating pearls from sand. In this case, the answer in question had received 2 upvotes from other members of the community, so obviously they thought the answer was useful.

But probably the key word in my rejection explanation was that the answer in question looked like an answer to me. In other words, beyond its technical validity, there was no reason for me to assume that it did not answer the question as it purported.

Okay, I get it. So what is the "not an answer" flag really for?

The "not an answer" flag is intended to be used for really cut-and-dried cases. For example:

  • Things that should have been posted as a comment rather than an answer
  • Things that should have been asked as a new question, not posted as an answer to an existing question
  • New information/updates that should be edited into the original question
  • Attempts by the asker to reply to individual answers or ask for clarification
  • Anything that reflects a general misunderstanding of the Stack Exchange Q&A model (such as from people who are more familiar with traditional online forums)
  • Spam, rants, personal attacks, etc.

The blog post announcing the introduction of the current flagging system might be worth a read, too.

I see. So when flagging is inappropriate, what else can I do when I come across an incorrect or technically invalid answer?

As others have pointed out in the comments, if you want to express disagreement with the merits of an answer, you can take one or all of the following approaches:

  1. Downvote the answer.
  2. Leave a comment on the answer, explaining what is incorrect about the answer and how it might be improved.
  3. Post a new answer of your own, referencing the original answer, explaining why it is incorrect, and providing the correct answer to the question (as you see it).
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    "I'm curious, which one of those did you think applied to the answer you flagged?" I see your point. I acted on the first part ("it does not answer the question"), because I took this to refer to off-topic answers (i.e. in regard to content), while the flag concerns the correct form in which the content should appear. I really didn't have in mind any of the options (edit, a comment, another question, or deleted altogether) and I took the flag as a substitute to downvoting, which it isn't. I see now that the correct way of proceeding is a downvote and a comment to explain the downvote. – DBK Mar 11 '12 at 11:35

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