I encountered an arcpy question, which I answered, that was riddled with problems because the asker lacked a basic understanding of arcgis tools and workflows. At first glance, it seemed like a legitimate python question. The asker posted a chunk of somewhat obscure code with a resulting error message, and asked for help with his code. After struggling to understand the problem for a while, I eventually concluded: 1) this is totally the wrong approach to this spatial problem, and 2) you don’t even know how to use arcgis tools correctly. For example, the user was attempting to use the arcpy.Merge_management tool to populate a field in a dataset with a python list. Insanity! A two second google search will reveal that this is not how to use Merge.

I answered this question, basically recommending that the user learn how to use arcgis tools and workflows, before incorrectly concealing them in complicated python code. Now, I’m wondering if I made a mistake by answering. Maybe I should have flagged the question as “off-topic” instead. I think it’s harder sometimes to detect bogus questions when they’re wrapped in legitimate looking code. What’s the best practice for handling these questions? Is there a flag for, “Your approach is totally bogus”?

What if the user had instead asked:

Q. “Why isn’t the merge too working to populate my feature class field?”

A. Why are you using ArcGIS if you can’t figure out how to look up what common tools do?

How do you convey to the asker that their entire approach is off, even if the question is technically on-point?

  • I removed the specific example that I previously cited. Some new information came to light with that particular question that no longer makes it a good example. Still, I appreciate feedback on how to handle future cases.
    – Priscilla
    Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 4:10

2 Answers 2


If I had thought that this question needed to be closed I would have voted for that.

If I had sufficient time to donate to trying to understand the asker's application rather than focussing in trying to clarify their specific question (which seemed to be not far from answerable) then I may have done that, but probably not, because as I commented on the question:

Our volunteers are usually happy to try and help debug code snippets but your code and its context is your responsibility.

Rather than occasionally bending over backwards to try and extricate details of the bigger picture, and ignoring many other bite-sized well-written questions in the process, I prefer to donate my time to trying to get more questions into an answerable state, so that more users can get what they come for i.e. answers to their questions posted, which in turns means many more site visitors can also derive that same benefit without needing to ask their question.

If you think that the entire approach being used by a question asker is off, then you are always free to offer an answer that suggests/recommends an alternative. If you are right you'll probably be rewarded by an accept tick and upvotes. However, unless such advice is both right and offered in a way that does not seem condescending, then you will also risk downvotes.

  • 1
    Thanks for your response. Apologies if I offended you with my question. I was in no way commenting on your moderating that particular question. I really appreciate your answer here.
    – Priscilla
    Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 4:08
  • @Priscilla No need to apologize - your question here just gave good opportunity to explain the approach I took on that example question and discuss alternatives.
    – PolyGeo Mod
    Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 4:24

It is important to remember that we all floundered with Python at one time or another and empathy goes a long way. In situations like this, it is best to help the OP clarify their question by including comments that help pare down the problem to its most simple form. I see that @PolyGeo did a good job trying to isolate the problem via the comments. Down voting a question can also be helpful if you believe the question is fundamentally flawed--sometimes a down vote helps spur positive edits.

I would be more inclined to close as "Unclear what your asking" rather than "Off topic" if the comments are unable to make any significant improvements.

  • 2
    I agree with this approach. I think it's a good question to ask, but I think that if the effort for a thorough question is there, it's good to start with clarifying questions rather than closing
    – nicksan
    Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 0:46

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