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I'm new here. Yesterday (my time) I answered this question. In the subsequent micro-discussion that took place in the comments, discovered that I had, in fact, misread the intent of the question, and provided an irrelevant answer. This is not the first time that I've managed something similar, despite the best of intentions.

The discussion which allowed me to understand why my answer is irrelevant was instructive, both to me and (judging by the comment-votes) others.

  1. Should I delete this answer?

  2. Is there a general policy which allows one to make "common sense" choices about such cases, where the answer may not be helpful per se but stimulates discussion which may be, may prevent others from making similar mistakes, or provide interesting context for other answers on the page?

So, (rephrased) is the ultimate editorial aim for elegant answers, or warts-and-all discussions of intermediate working? Or are there cases for both?

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    $\begingroup$ Although occasionally people delete answers because they are irretrievably wrong, a second option to consider is to improve your post through edits. The comments (usually) will remain and the editing history is available to anyone who really wants to review it. $\endgroup$ – whuber Dec 4 '14 at 13:43
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    $\begingroup$ I was a party to the particular discussion cited here. I'd support @whuber's suggestion of considering an edit rather than deletion. If you alert commenters via further comment, they in turn can choose whether to delete comments that no longer apply. $\endgroup$ – Nick Cox Dec 4 '14 at 15:09
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    $\begingroup$ Related: Protocol on deleting an answer $\endgroup$ – cardinal Dec 4 '14 at 18:28
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I don't think there should be a general policy with regard to this issue. I believe this decision should be solely the prerogative of the individual answerer. That is, you should get to choose which of the options you prefer, and should be entitled to chose differently from one thread to another or even deleting / undeleting and editing the same answer over time.

In this particular case, I think you are right that the answer is incorrect, but that the discussion in comments is illuminating and contributes to the thread. In that sense, there is perhaps a net benefit to the site for it to remain. However, I think that should be your choice and I personally would respect your choice even if you chose to delete it.

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    $\begingroup$ Just in case this needs clarifying: I don't have a problem with the community deleting some answers (non-answers, spam, etc.). I just don't think answers should have to be deleted because they are wrong. Comments & downvotes are available & appropriate actions in that case; whether to delete should be up to the OP. $\endgroup$ – gung - Reinstate Monica Dec 4 '14 at 21:49
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As another contributor to that that discussion - I would, of course, happily delete my comments if they were no longer relevant to the provided answer, but I can see that there's a benefit in the discussion as currently recorded. In cases like this, I think it should be the decision of the original answerer whether to edit or remove their post, or not. Because the discussion in the comments seems potentially educational, and future readers are unlikely to be left confused by it, there doesn't seem to be an urgent need for the answer to be removed nor for the answerer feel obliged to "fix" it in an edit.

I regret the lack of a "whoops!" button for those moments when you realise that you've posted something that contains a stupid mistake (I am speaking here in general, rather than in the case of the OP), but where if that mistake were pointed out, the answer retains value for future readers. If there was a user who posted under their real name, for instance, leaving their "not thought through" answer associated with their account might be particularly embarrassing - professional reputation etc. But if there were a virtual version of Alan Smithee on whom the disowned post could be hung, it would be possible to leave the answer hanging there without shame. Perhaps this is a somewhat playful suggestion, but in somewhat related circumstances I can remember an answer that @whuber abandoned and opened up to community wiki when he realised his method contained a flaw that he couldn't see how to fix, but felt the answer still contained enough value to persist and hoped other contributors might be able to fix the gap. I thought that was an interesting alternative to just deleting the answer.

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    $\begingroup$ That's a rather interesting idea. $\endgroup$ – Glen_b -Reinstate Monica Dec 4 '14 at 23:02
  • $\begingroup$ Aylmer Fishee, perhaps? ;-) $\endgroup$ – goangit Dec 9 '14 at 10:51
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It's really up to you what you do with your answer.

I sometimes misread questions.

Once I realize, most of the time I improve my answer in light of the new understanding. Sometimes I see that the actual question is well answered already and if mine doesn't have anything to add, and still wouldn't add much after an edit, I might delete mine. Sometimes I write a note at the top of my answer explaining what's wrong with it and then delete it (higher rep users see all deleted answers, so that's not as pointless as it sounds). Sometimes I do other things. Occasionally, where I think it might be more informative to do so (e.g. where there's a particularly enlightening comment in response to it), I choose to leave it stay as is. [And occasionally, though I intended to do something, I just forget to do anything with it.]

If you can see value in the discussion under your question (I think there is value there, but it's really up to you), you might leave it. Or you might change your answer to improve it, or you might delete it. Any of those are potentially reasonable choices. I think a good criterion would be "what leaves this question being the most useful to later readers, who have a range of abilities?".

If the question is easy to misread it might in some cases be quite beneficial to later readers to leave the answer but make clear that it is based on that misreading (since if they also misread the question they might end up there looking for just that kind of answer). [On the other hand, it might then be reasonably argued that the question should be edited.]

On the whole I think that if the question really has only one interpretation, broadly speaking the answers that stay around should respond to it, but I would not want an overly-prescriptive rule on that because sometimes there's a good deal of value in the responses to/discussion of a mistake.

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