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On a recent thread about condensation forming over the wing on landing, one of the (now deleted) answers was entirely believable, was grounded in an accurate observation of physics, but happened to be simply wrong (cold fuel in the wings). Other answers and comments gave the correct answer and (somewhat) pointed out why this particular answer was not actually the correct mechanism behind the condensation observed in the original question.

To my mind, that's a good learning point for others -- to say that yes, the wing being cold DOES cause condensation when the aircraft is sitting, but it's not that but this other dynamic at work creating the visible condensation during approach and landing. Of course, that learning point is lost if the answer is deleted. (A good comment on why this particular mechanism wasn't at work would have been helpful for the learning process too -- more so, I'd have thought, than deleting the answer.)

What's the best way to balance out the desire to have accurate answers, with the learning that can occur when people can see a good thought that happens to be wrong in this case, coupled with the explanation of why "that" isn't actually correct?

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Interesting question. My opinion is that we're here to answer questions correctly and I can see some problems with leaving incorrect answers there:

  • They're a distraction from the correct answers; they take up space on the page and it may not be immediately obviously to readers - especially less informed ones - that they're wrong
  • Where do you put the 'meta-explanation' that "answer #1 is right, but answer #2 is interesting because it shows a common misunderstanding"? In yet another answer?
  • If incorrect answers have value, then one logical conclusion is that we should upvote them too, to make sure they aren't ignored. I can't see that ending well, and it subverts the entire mechanism of upvoting answers that actually answer the question asked.

I think the simple, obvious solution is - when it's useful - to edit the good/correct answer to include whatever information is useful from the wrong one. It could be something like this:

Note that it's a common misconception that X is a result of Y; as I've explained, the real cause is Z but because Y often occurs in the same atmospheric conditions as Z, people confuse them.

That provides useful information without the need for a second, incorrect answer.

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    $\begingroup$ Downvotes should be used (as they are elsewhere on the network) to indicate wrongness. A sufficiently downvoted answer is grayed out, and this at once reduces distraction and indicates, even more than the low/negative score, that the answer is wrong. And while wrong answers do have value, it's of the "don't-delete" bare minimum, not the "don't-downvote", much less "upvote", amount. $\endgroup$ – Nathan Tuggy May 3 '15 at 22:24
  • $\begingroup$ Editing the correct answer to include addressing the specific misconception is fine, but not always necessary. $\endgroup$ – Nathan Tuggy May 3 '15 at 22:25
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    $\begingroup$ Note that the help center specifically says that answers that are incorrect should be down voted. Note however, that the help center does not say to delete it because of this. $\endgroup$ – Lnafziger May 14 '15 at 18:23
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I believe that answers like the one in your example are going to be inevitably downvoted and deleted. This is what typically happens to answers that are not accurate or do not answer the question.

If such a post happens to touch on a point that would be useful to discuss, then it needs to find a place in an answer. Ideally, the person originally posting the incorrect answer should edit it to explain why the original version is not correct. If this does not happen, there are a few other options for how this could be done:

  • If short enough, the incorrect answer could be converted to a comment on the question or answer
    • Otherwise, the answer will probably be deleted for being incorrect, which is what happened here
  • Someone edits an existing answer to address this point (preferably the owner of the post)
  • Someone posts a new answer to address this point

I do think that a lot of helpful things get deleted by the owners or others when they realize it is wrong or not as good as other answers. If they went to the trouble to post it in the first place, it may still be worth an explanation. If they are not willing to explain further, then someone else should be. Popular questions have no problem attracting many additional answers, but not all questions get enough attention for people to go to that much trouble.

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I don't agree that this answer, or others like it, are informative. In the context of the question (and answers are always in the context of the question), it is actively misleading. If you think it contains facts that would be meaningful in the context of a different question, then ask that question and offer it as an answer, but it should be removed from where it does not belong.

@pondlife has a valid point with regard to fallacies: if there is a widespread fallacy concerning the question, that is worth refuting (even if it has not (yet) been mentioned in the question, an answer or a comment), but there is no point in giving a fallacy exposure if it is just one person's misunderstanding.

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