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What's a good basis to accept an answer? The clearest one is "I tried that, and it worked." Sometimes, you see an answer that is well sourced (USDA, McGee, etc) and that you can also understand, and that's pretty clear too. The two cases I'm a little unclear about are:

  1. The answer seems correct - it looks like the right answer, but I haven't tried it out yet, so I really don't know. Just wait till I do get around to trying it?

  2. I have no way of evaluating the answer - The Flaming Banana question has a pretty comprehensive answer by hobodave that has been very highly upvoted. But like Aaronut, I'm not convinced by this answer and don't really have much way to verify it (i.e. I can't cook something with a change and see if it comes out better). So what should I do in that case?

I know there's no definitive answer to either of these questions and that the real answer is: whatever you feel comfortable with. But I'm interested in a couple of other people's take on it.

  • RE: the banana question. My feelings (not suggesting a policy or anything): I'm a little annoyed that after having spent a lot of time researching the answer to that question, sifting through lots of crap, finding a video, finding reputable sources, and editing my answer, that the answer would be held to some nebulous standard of it being difficult to understand, and people not having a way to verify it. If I'm proven wrong, or if I'm even led to believe that I could possibly be wrong, I'd be the first to edit my question to indicate this, or delete it altogether. – hobodave Oct 20 '10 at 17:46
  • Yes, I know you don't mean anything personal by it, and I don't take it personally. I cannot help feeling annoyed though. – hobodave Oct 20 '10 at 17:47
  • @hobodave: This isn't a "nebulous standard." Simply put, the answer (and its sources) may or may not be correct; it's impossible to tell, because none of them actually attempt to explain the mechanism of action. A similar example is Atilla's answer in the kosher salt question. You could quite easily find a reliable source for this. But you just know something is missing, and it's very obvious what when you read Darin's answer. – Aaronut Oct 20 '10 at 18:42
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When we started this business on Stack Overflow, lo these many moons ago, it meant "this is the answer I used".

And I think that that standard works fine here for questions of the "How do I fix this problem I'm having with [dish]?", or "What is a efficient technique to accomplish [fiddly task]?" varieties.

That standard doesn't really make sense for the flaming banana, so were it mine I might leave it without an accepted answer. But if the poster really want to accept something, I think a highly voted answer that looks like a good bet will do.

  • Perfectly reasonable dmckee. – hobodave Oct 21 '10 at 17:34
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I think personal verification is a rather unrealistic standard. If we used that metric for acceptance of answers, we'd have a much lower acceptance rate. e.g. this question -- I have no realistic way of verifying either Aaronut's or Darin's answer. I don't know how to test for ethylene gas, nor do I know how to verify Darin's claims, which are backed up by McGee. At some point you really do have to trust a source. If users want to use this as a personal metric fine, but I don't think it's advisable to present this as any kind of "suggested" behavior.

I also think it is a little melodramatic to infer that we would look like fools if an accepted answer is wrong. Acceptance, as well as votes, can be changed quite simply. If an answer is given, and provides reasonably trustworthy references, there is no harm in accepting it -- even if it later turns out to be wrong. If someone who knows better comes along and points out the error, that's great; we can thank them and make corrections.

In the banana question case -- I'd speculate that the vast majority of expert chefs don't even know the answer to that offhand. If inclined, they'd likely do similar research to my own, and accept the explanation given by the reasonably trustworthy USDA and Canadian equivalent. I've seen chefs I deeply respect say things that are completely wrong on television, and in print, and I don't think them fools. They just can't be expected to have the necessary chemistry/physics background to answer some questions truly accurately.

For example, caramelization and the Maillard reaction. There is a lot of misinformation, confusion, and misquoted foo out there, even on this site. Repeating what you've heard or read from a reasonably trustworthy source does not make you a fool. It makes your sources wrong, and that's patently different.


In short, the only grounds to accept an answer are really your personal preference. If you want to accept the most upvoted, do so. If you want to accept a completely wrong answer, do so. As always, I'm firmly against any attempt at trying to regulate, or even encourage the way people use their votes and acceptance.

  • Trustworthy reference are fine (if you actually trust the references), but in the second part of your answer, the rationale seems to be that you should accept potentially wrong answers on an entirely subjective basis simply because professionals are prone to doing it too. That's essentially the is-ought problem right there and I'm very much against that way of thinking. We shouldn't mimic actions we know are negative simply because they were performed by someone we usually trust. – Aaronut Oct 20 '10 at 18:59
  • You misinterpret and misrepresent my statements. I am not advocating that anyone should do anything besides accept answers on their own personal preference. My statement was simply that there is no harm in an accepted answer turning out to be wrong; the sky will not fall. The other point I make is my wholehearted disagreement that users should only accept answers that are personally verifiable, and should not even ask questions that cannot be personally verifiable. I take great pains to be very specific with my words, please interpret my statements as written. – hobodave Oct 20 '10 at 19:06
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    In short, my problem with your answer is primarily its advocatory nature. If you wish to use those guidelines for acceptance, that's fine, and I won't fault you for it. Yet, given that these discussions do end up being pseudo-policy in a way, I do not want to enforce, encourage, suggest, or "should" anyone into voting/accepting beyond what is in the FAQ. – hobodave Oct 20 '10 at 19:17
  • Speaking of misinterpretation, does my post begin or not begin with the words "My personal feeling on this is..."? – Aaronut Oct 20 '10 at 19:56
  • I would also very much like to see what you think is an example of a good question that does not have verifiable answers, seeing as how that very criteria has started to entrench itself across the network and even within the core team as an important criteria for determining whether or not a question is too subjective (i.e. merely a poll). "Can people back their answers up?" or more explicitly "How will I identify right/wrong/good/bad answers?" is exactly the question one needs to be asking oneself before actually submitting a question. – Aaronut Oct 20 '10 at 20:02
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My personal feeling on this is that you should only accept an answer if it actually solves your problem or if you can personally verify its correctness or effectiveness.

That an answer simply "looks" right, or is highly-upvoted, are not on their own good reasons to accept an answer. Neither is peer pressure.

That said, there's another side of the coin: If somebody has contributed what appears to be a good answer that has accumulated several votes, and you don't plan to accept it, you should explain why. It's common courtesy to the person who contributed the answer. Tell them what you think the answer is missing, why it didn't work, what changes you would require in order to make it acceptable.

If you have no way of evaluating the answer then it should not be accepted. If you have no way of evaluating any answer then the question should never have been asked in the first place (not that this is the case here - I'm just pointing it out for the record).

A highly-voted-but-wrong answer can be chalked up to information cascade and herding behaviour. None of us is as dumb as all of us. But if a wrong/incomplete answer is accepted, especially by a high-ranking member of the community, then it makes it look to an outsider like we're fools, the blind leading the blind. I would rather see a slightly lower accept rate than see wrong or even questionable answers accepted.

(And in case anyone is prone to take offense at this - I am honestly not thinking about or referring to any specific answers, just answering the general question that was asked here.)

  • I disagree, and converted my lengthy comments into an answer. – hobodave Oct 20 '10 at 17:38
  • If a scientist asks a question, and the answer cannot be verified; did he really ask a question? – mfg Nov 2 '10 at 19:24

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