Over the last few years, I have been increasingly active in a few active fora online. In particular, multiple ones related to amateur astronomy and a couple related to WordPress. My participation is generally two-fold — I both learn from others and help newbies with their questions. I’ve also been active in the past in groups related to my son’s health issues, although those are often more sharing of experiences than directly helping anyone.
One thing that I am particularly good at is framing information in a way that a newbie can understand it, orient themselves to the topic, and then proceed with a rudimentary schema for processing various types of other information coming their way.
Yet what I am often struck by, and amazed at, is the completely useless advice provided by well-meaning people in the fora. I don’t mean that the information is wrong, although that happens too. I mean people who ask a question, and then when someone responds, the response is of the form “Do x.”
At first blush, that sounds helpful, doesn’t it? They asked what they should do, and somebody answered. Except they didn’t ask any questions to understand the context for the question. They didn’t say to the newbie, “Wait, what are you trying to do first? What are you looking for?”.
In astronomy circles, there is a very common opening salvo by newbies. “Hi, I’m new to the group but I’ve always been interested in astronomy. I have read a bunch of stuff online, but I’m just more confused. I want to buy a scope, and I don’t know which ones are good for newbies. Please advise.”
And invariably, within about 3 replies, someone says, “Buy a Dobsonian” and someone else says “buy binoculars”. Is that wrong advice? Maybe not.
But it’s about the equivalent of someone asking what tool to use to take apart a workbench, and someone saying a saw, another saying a screwdriver, and another saying a hammer. Are they wrong? Not really. But until we know the context of how that workbench was initially assembled, what it’s made of, and what the person intends to do with the materials afterwards, the answers are at best incomplete. As a result, they’re useless.
For astronomy, for example, telling someone to buy a Dobsonian design is about the same as telling someone to buy a sedan when looking for a car. It’s an all-round good choice, good value, a solid utility vehicle. On the other hand, if the person was looking to haul equipment around their farm, not the best of choices. Yet people will tell someone to buy a Dob without ever asking a single question about what the person is looking for, are they comfortable learning to navigate the sky manually, are they looking to get into astrophotography at some point, etc. Equally, binos are a frequent “all-round” suggestion EXCEPT it assumes that the person is able to stand still (i.e., no wobbles, no physical mobility issues) and their eyes work well in conjunction with each other and don’t have any aggressive astigmatisms or wear bifocals. If either of those is not true — i.e. for kids who can’t hold heavy binos still or seniors with different eyesight profiles — then binos might be a terrible suggestion. They are also less useful for certain types of objects (moon, planets) which are quite often VERY popular starter targets. In addition, they require manual navigation of the sky too, which might not be what the person prefers.
In WordPress, people frequently say “Get Elementor” which is a page designer. It is advertised as easy to learn, easy to use, and there is common wisdom out there to regularly say “it’s free and has lots of power”. I have been using WP for close to 10 years, and when I tried Elementor? I found it completely confusing. Plus it mucked with a bunch of my existing setup. It was an overly complicated and terrible design for a newbie who doesn’t even know what WP does or a theme is for, let alone plugins, but the common advice is to start with full page design to start?
I don’t know what it is, whether it is group think, or the dangers of underestimating stupidity in large groups, but frequently I will see people chiming in and leading the person down roads they are likely to follow, get confused, get frustrated, and end their trip before it even begins.
Equally in astronomy, there are certain types of setups that are better for astrophotography than others. While you can do visual and AP with them, they’re often not as versatile or as simple for visual. Different tools for different projects, so to speak. Yet there are people who say “Buy this equatorial mount” which is good for AP more than visual and is priced at 5x the budget the person said they had, or add this gadget, buy this upgrade, get this accessory. It is very popular for some people to randomly suggest upgrades to gear when it is someone else’s money.
Most days it’s merely puzzling. Some days it’s maddening. I’ve sometimes come to a discussion late, 40 people have already taken the person down ten different rabbitholes, I ask two simple Qs, and it turns out NONE of what the guy already went through applies to his situation. But nobody asked what the problem was, they just started throwing out generic solutions.
I feel at times it’s like the old issue of someone typing “FIRST!” when commenting on a post. Stupid and pointless. But then I feel more angry later…because in a couple of cases, the answers were SO wrong, that the person felt like they had NO choice but to give up the hobby. Because they had a budget for astronomy, for example, of $200, and some moron told them they needed to spend at least $1500 or it wasn’t even worth it to get started.
I confess that more and more, this kind of misleading “advice” just pisses me off. The person has no way of knowing the advisor is well-meaning but stupid. I’ve seen it with people trying to understand French training, HR prep for exams and interviews, or writing fiction too.
Maybe I’m cranky, but I feel like if you don’t have something actually useful to contribute, then don’t bother saying anything at all. 🙂 Others are more of the “you get what you pay for” variety. Either way, I am starting to believe in the “superficiality of the crowd” more than in their wisdom.