In a thread on the main site someone said very elementary questions are off topic

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It looks like someone upvoted his comment so maybe he's right. Around that same time @gung told me to be cautious answering the question so I asked him/her about this matter and the response was

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So apparently there's some disagreement on this.

Are very elementary questions off topic and, if so, what is the definition of very elementary?

Edit: Here is a follow-up comment from Dr. Michael Chernick in response to what I said above:

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    $\begingroup$ Elementary questions are fine. I think MichaelChernick is wrong. "Too elementary" is not among our closing reasons. The thread you are talking about (stats.stackexchange.com/questions/259388) was closed as off-topic because it's a "self-study" question (i.e. about a routine textbook/coursework exercise) that does not conform to our guidelines. See the closing reason under that question. $\endgroup$
    – amoeba
    Feb 1, 2017 at 18:48
  • $\begingroup$ Yes I read the closing reason but I also know there could be multiple and one (maybe arbitrarily) gets chosen sometimes. $\endgroup$ Feb 1, 2017 at 18:50
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    $\begingroup$ I wonder what closure reason MichaelChernick chose. Because it is technically not possible to vote to close as off-topic as too elementary. $\endgroup$
    – amoeba
    Feb 1, 2017 at 18:51
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    $\begingroup$ @ameoba, let's not get lost in the weeds, as the question is about whether or not very elementary questions are off topic, not what criteria was selected for a specific question. Also Michael did clarify his position in that thread (see edit) $\endgroup$ Feb 1, 2017 at 18:52
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    $\begingroup$ @amoeba, FTR, he closed as off topic & added that comment as his reason. Someone else subsequently chose that as their close reason, which automatically added a +1 to the comment. I, & 2 others, voted to close as a self-study question. Since that got the majority vote, it is displayed as the final reason. $\endgroup$ Feb 1, 2017 at 18:57
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    $\begingroup$ Let's not reduce this to the false dichotomy "Should we close it, or leave open and give complete answers?" The middle-ground is "Give hints about how to approach it, not complete answers. $\endgroup$
    – smci
    Feb 2, 2017 at 8:48
  • $\begingroup$ @smci The site forces this dichotomy on us. Either a post is closed or open. How one chooses to answer is largely a separate question. $\endgroup$
    – whuber Mod
    Feb 16, 2017 at 16:16

2 Answers 2


To my mind, elementary is too slippery a criterion for closing. I don't doubt there are many questions that are elementary for @MichaelChernick that would be over my head, and I don't necessarily think they should be closed. Below the pictured comment, he replies,

Elementary questions are likely to have been answered many times in possible duplicates.

That seems true, but in my opinion it is incumbent on him to find those duplicates and close the question in that more specific, and more specifically relevant, manner.

I am sympathetic that duplicates can be hard to find. I often suspect there should be a duplicate, but can't find one and don't end up voting to close, or even post another answer that may cover material already covered elsewhere. It is hard to say that that strategy is always better. Nonetheless, I don't think 'too elementary' is a justifiable close reason.

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    $\begingroup$ I agree. I add a side-comment. Lack of research effort is a criterion for downvoting and a really elementary question that shows no sign that someone has even tried to read about a very basic method will often be downvoted and/or ignored. The converse can be true: they are often very easy and quick to answer. But, as said, that doesn't make that question off-topic, which is the only issue here. $\endgroup$
    – Nick Cox
    Feb 1, 2017 at 19:54
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    $\begingroup$ From the perspective of a budding PhD student, I loved having access to some "elementary questions" on stack exchange as it gave me the ability to try to answer some questions and hone my knowledge of the material. I definitely think these should be on topic. Also, the more "elementary" something is the harder it can be sometimes to find a clear and concise answer to (as it is often being hand waved away as being too "elementary"). $\endgroup$
    – bdeonovic
    Feb 5, 2017 at 19:01
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    $\begingroup$ If a duplicate so hard to find that an experienced user can't find it, readers won't find it and therefore the question has no duplicates for any practical purpose, and there is no reason to close. $\endgroup$
    – Pere
    Feb 10, 2017 at 21:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Pere I take a different view, although I think it's in a similar spirit. If a duplicate is hard to find but genuinely is a duplicate, then we definitely should close one of the two questions. That (a) leaves both questions available for searching while (b) creating a link to the answer thread. That is valuable information. Leaving duplicates open in separate threads only creates a disjointed set of answers: some in one place, some in another. One of the aims of SE is to curate such collections of closely related material by unifying it. Closure is a key tool to do that. $\endgroup$
    – whuber Mod
    Feb 16, 2017 at 16:09
  1. Elementary questions are on topic, and in no way form a basis for closure. It doesn't matter how elementary a question might seem, as long as it fulfills our other criteria for being on topic.

  2. Elementary questions are somewhat more likely to fail some of those other criteria - for example

    • they're more likely to be duplicates

    • they're more likely to have not been adequately researched (many basic questions are easily answered via Wikipedia, internet search engines and so on).

    • they're perhaps slightly more likely to be asked in an unclear or overly broad way

  3. Such questions only fail those criteria by actually failing those criteria directly, not by implication. Which is to repeat, being elementary is not a criterion for closure, or even for discouraging a question.

  4. Numerous discussions here on meta, in chat and in comments under elementary questions clearly establish that the general mood is to encourage well-asked elementary questions, not discourage them.

In short, gung is quite right in the original discussion. CrossValidated welcomes and has always welcomed supposedly elementary questions (while some people do have objections to elementary questions on various grounds, that has not been the general opinion any time I've seen it discussed).

Sometimes answering a good elementary question is a way that's both reasonably accurate and helps readers likely to wonder about an elementary but perhaps fundamental question can be extremely difficult.

This is one reason why I have frequently objected to labelling or characterizing questions as basic - whether by the OP or someone else in the body of the question, in the title, via tags or in some other way: the question might seem simple but that doesn't imply that a suitable answer is. Many deep and subtle questions are much easier to ask - so seem "simple" - than they are to answer.

So I won't define what's elementary or very elementary, largely because I don't think it's useful to do so. We don't need to draw the distinction except in so far as it informs the style of our answers (we want to reach our audience). That distinction can be entirely internal as one writes an answer ("I should answer this question in a basic way, and offer some intuitive motivation for it" -- if you want to see examples of that, I particularly recommend some of whuber's answers to basic questions).

Some users won't like dealing with very elementary questions, and that's absolutely fine. The easy option is to ignore them.

I think that even answering the elementary questions which have fairly elementary answers can be good practice -- finding better ways to explain the basic ideas is something that's an important part of our discipline, because statistical thinking doesn't come very naturally to humans (it's not something we have good intuition about). We need to do a lot better than many elementary texts do on this -- they frequently either fail to be correct* or they fail to provide any suitable intuition/motivation for a correct discussion (few beginner students gain much motivation from a purely algebraic argument for example).

I don't always choose to answer elementary questions, but I certainly don't see answering elementary questions as a waste of time (as long as they're not duplicates and so on). The overwhelming majority of the people who read the site -- including many who never post -- will not have much statistical background and so answers to the most elementary questions will have a much wider audience. My most popular answers are almost all to relatively simple questions (though usually with enough meat underlying them to require a fairly detailed answer). It's surprising how often I learn something in answering one.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 totally agree, especially with the last paragraph -- I feel exactly the same. $\endgroup$
    – Tim
    Feb 3, 2017 at 12:42
  • $\begingroup$ About Wikipedia, very often Wikipedia is not a good place to answer elementary questions about basic topics, because articles on such basic topics are not elementary. $\endgroup$
    – Pere
    Feb 10, 2017 at 21:48
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    $\begingroup$ @Pere While some Wikipedia articles do get quite technical, often the opening few sentences of an article on a basic topic will answer many common, simple questions directly. Many times I have pointed to the first or second sentence of a Wikipedia article on the topic of a post, which contains a complete, correct answer, and which very often shows up in its entirety as the first or second hit when typing the posted question-title into google. When not answered there, they're frequently in the "definition" section of the article, which is often in the second screenful $\endgroup$
    – Glen_b
    Feb 10, 2017 at 23:22
  • $\begingroup$ @Glen_b Probably we both are right depending on the article. Most elementary questions can be answered by Wikipedia but not all of them for elementary level readers. $\endgroup$
    – Pere
    Feb 10, 2017 at 23:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Pere It might help to distinguish between "basic" and "elementary." Synonyms of the former include fundamental, while the latter connotes simple, routine, and easily answerable. Without question we should maintain threads on basic questions. If a question truly is elementary, then it (by definition) has simple non-technical answers. Technical answers to elementary questions, although possible, typically serve only as a way for experts to preen a little (or, more charitably, as a mechanism to ground abstract concepts in simple, readily-checked cases). $\endgroup$
    – whuber Mod
    Feb 16, 2017 at 16:15

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