Today, we got the question Seasoning refuses to stick to carbon steel pan. Tried various techniques. The OP insists that he read our earlier questions on the same topic, but his is not a duplicate, because it still doesn't work for him.

This is not an isolated case. Last year we had the same situation about fish sticking to a stainless steel pan, although I can't find the question right now. I have seen it happen, but with less awareness of duplicate problems, for macarons.

What is common in these cases is the pattern:

  1. There is a task which is quite difficult to get right and requires skill.
  2. The site gets a question which asks outright for proper instructions about how to do it, plus a handful of other questions which are not an exact duplicate but are related to somebody failing the task. The main question is popular and gets good answers.
  3. A user tries it, reads the older questions, fails.
  4. The user posts new question saying "I followed the instructions and I failed, now tell me how to do it right. But don't close as a duplicate because the older question didn't help".

The crux of the matter here is that it is not a matter of following instructions, but a matter of skill. The instructions are of course necessary, but they are not sufficient. There is a skill to be learned. Having your fish not stick to the pan is a matter of perceiving with all senses what is going on in your pan, and reacting intuitively to the tiniest sign of trouble without being able to express in words how you recognized it.

This kind of skill is just like throwing darts or walking on a slackline. No matter how much somebody tries to describe the process in words, the only way to get to it is to fail dozens of times before you get the bullseye or your legs stop shaking. But the people asking it are not aware of that. They keep asking for better instructions, because those in the older question "don't work".

I certainly have sympathy for their predicament. There are a lot of things in the kitchen which don't work that way, and can be done well the first time round with a good recipe. Before knowing how to do it right, the OP cannot tell if they are failing because of missing skills or because of bad instructions.

Closing this kind of question feels like a very unfriendly thing to do, especially when contrasted with the dozens of users who ask duplicates without checking if we already have the question. At the same time, keeping the question open has all the downsides of having a duplicate around, and does not really help the OP.

The OPs themselves are likely to misunderstand the closure. They feel that they have been diligent in their research, and in the past I have had discussions where they think that I was the one who misunderstood them. They are convinced that all they need are better instructions, and are resentful that the closure prevents them from getting those.

What can we do to prevent this kind of misunderstanding? How do we close the question while helping the OP to make the necessary mental shift and realize the real challenge of their situation?

  • 2
    How confident are you that it's purely a matter of skill, and there's nothing more to say about what specific parts of the process could've gone wrong, what to focus on in practicing, and so on? – Cascabel Sep 24 '16 at 17:27
  • @jefromi That's a problem which I had mentioned in an earlier draft and then removed because it is already quite long. But yes, it is a valid concern. Funnily, I am pretty certain of it now for the carbon steel, but didn't know it years ago, and tried to find it out: cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/24520. What I got was a bunch of non-answers, reiterating everybody's favorite tecnnique but not addressing the actual question. Anyway, good heuristics for actually recognizing the situation should be part of the solution. – rumtscho Sep 24 '16 at 17:32
  • I don't agree with dismissing the OP as lacking skill. The pan may be contaminated or not the material he thinks it is. – paparazzo Sep 27 '16 at 16:02

This seems reasonably straight forward. To allow a closely-related ("duplicate") question, the author would have to clearly demonstrate where/how their situation is different from the original question (i.e. problem statement). They may even refer to the original solution and clearly describe where their solution-trials veered off from the answer there… and then ask about that.

I can appreciate the frustration of not being allowed to simply repeat the question again and hoping for a different answer… but saying, "I tried that but it didn't work" does not necessarily mean they have a different problem. It simply means that original thread does not (yet) have the definitive answer that comprehensively solves the issue at hand.

How to draw attention to the original thread to get more comprehensive answers is a different issue — perhaps the author can ask for clarification (comment) to improve the post — but please do not continuously "split the conversation" by allowing the same question to be asked over and over until someone stumbles into an answer that works. A Stack Exchange thread is supposed to be THE authoritative answer to the topic at hand. We're a bit like Wikipedia in that respect — a highly focused, granular entry in a collaborative wiki in a Q&A format. So if the "article" is not complete, you fix it; but simply creating an identical entry and hoping to get different results is not how this works.

They are convinced that all they need are better instructions

Then perhaps they have a different question in that.

Help them get more focused on where those instructions run awry. Do they actually have a different problem? Or a more granular question about a step? A problem with technique? If the answer did not work, they can ask for clarification in the comments; that is how answers get improved. But if it's a matter of improving a skill, have them ask about that.

Help them find that different approach/question or it is simply a duplicate.

  • Your suggestion looks good at a first glance, but I don't quite understand how to apply it. How to focus on where the instructions run awry, if they did not run awry? "if it is a matter of improving a skill, have them ask about that" - what is there to ask about improving a skill? How do you get somebody to ask about improving a skill if that somebody has not realized that it is a matter of skill as opposed to bad instructions? How does the community decide that it is a matter of skill as opposed to bad instructions, if not by upvoting and downvoting answers? – rumtscho Aug 8 '17 at 12:08

After some more discussion has happened elsewhere, I'll document the results.

The question of "Why did technique X not work when I tried it" is slightly different from the question "how do I do technique X". Sometimes the answer is "because it requires a skill you have not yet achieved" and sometimes it is "you deviated in an important step". Others convinced me that 1) a closure should not depend on asserting that it is skill-based (because that could be wrong) and 2) even in the skill-based cases, the information that it is skill based, and maybe some additional info on what success markers to look for can be valuable.

So the agreement now (which was applied to the linked question) is to allow such questions, as long as they describe in detail what was tried. Then "try again until it works" should be considered an appropriate answer, and voted up and down according to whether the community thinks that it is indeed a matter of practice only.

The future will show if this works in reality, or if people start misusing these questions for posting other kinds of answers, but for now it shouldn't produce too many true duplicates.


The question then actually is "how can result ABC, or something equivalent to it, be achieved without having the skill, or tools, or talent for technique XYZ which is commonly used to achieve ABC?" - or "I would like to approach technique XYZ without having all the skills/knowlegde background or tools that instructions for technique XYZ usually assume. What is important to know/learn and/or what are the workarounds?"

These are very valid questions.

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