Many potential questions for Skeptics.SE are interesting because they relate to the evidence base behind government policy. I've just had one such question closed almost instantly on the grounds that Skeptics.SE shouldn't be dealing with policy questions. But the actual question was about the evidence, which is surely relevant to a skeptical analysis.

I agree that there are many policy questions that are inappropriate here. For example questions that can only be resolved by a choice of values (eg whether government should further restrict the freedoms of smokers: the issue is whether you believe that governments should force people to behave in healthy ways when only the individual suffers harm). However, other questions of policy (eg the one that triggered this question: should cycle helmets be compulsory?) can be entirely addressed with evidence (no debate about your underlying philosophy of government is required to address the harms and benefits of cycle helmets: that is a statistical or experimental question).

Moreover, the evidence base that relates to policy is surely fertile ground for skeptical analysis even when other factors obscure the bigger debate.

So my meta question is this: should we automatically close any question when it uses the word "policy" or should adopt a gentler standard that polices whether the detailed question or its answers are requesting or delivering evidence?

I'd vote for gentler policing as the site is likely to be far more useful if it becomes a place where people search for the evidence related to broader debates taking place elsewhere.

  • You missed the point it is not that the question is about policy so much as it is asking people to judge the effects of the policy. You can ask if the policy is effective, who the policy benefits (unless it is potentially anti green then it will be closed anyway), about specific claims about the benefits of the policy. But you can not ask for judgements about the goals or the policy.
    – Chad
    Oct 6 '11 at 13:01

A question about the consequences of a policy ("Does X causes Y?") would be on-topic. However, that is not what you are asking. You're asking us to make a value judge, which is subjective in nature. You're not looking for a positive claim; you're looking for a normative claim. We don't deal with normative claims.

  • Weighing up whether a policy has positive or negative consequences isn't a normative claim in itself but is a purely positive one. I guess asking whether governments should weight the balance before enacting policy is normative. But I thought that I had posed my original question so the answers would be positive (ie about the evidence) and not in any way subjective. If this is a language problem suggest a rewording.
    – matt_black
    Oct 6 '11 at 0:23
  • @matt_black: The question is whether the increased security is worth the decreased population of cyclists. That simply cannot be answered objectively. It's a trade off, and the value of each item is different from person to person. Some people will favor health and others will favor security, like some people value freedom over safety while others value safety over freedom.
    – Borror0
    Oct 6 '11 at 2:01
  • I was't asking for a subjective value here, I was asking for the objective facts (from statistical studies on the topic). My language in posing the question might not yet be right as it seems to be encouraging people to assume I'm just trolling opinion. Nobody seems to want to suggest alternatives that skeptics.SE will find useful.
    – matt_black
    Oct 6 '11 at 9:04
  • 1
    @matt_black that is not how I and it seems most others read it. On topic - Does wearing helmets save lives, Do laws requiring helments lead to a reduction in deaths? Off Topic - is it more bad to require helmets or allow people to ride with out helmets with out statuatory consequence.
    – Chad
    Oct 6 '11 at 12:53
  • @chad That is a helpful answer as it suggests the skeptics.SE way to ask the relevant question. I still think the distinction is overly subtle, but at least I can pose questions more compliant with the rules if I follow it.
    – matt_black
    Oct 6 '11 at 15:11
  • @Matt_black it really is easy. Ask for specific information about a specific claim. If you are sure they answer is it depends then it is not specific enough and get into a specific situation. Do not ask for judgements period. And nop matter what do not question any global warming science or suggest that the left could be wrong.
    – Chad
    Oct 6 '11 at 16:08
  • 1
    @matt_black: Essentially, you are asking "Which is better?" Without defining "better", that's a subjective question. If better is "increasing average life span" then you could ask "Does mandatory helmet rules increase the average life span?" where the effects of increased safety versus increased physical activity on average life span could be measured. That could be on-topic, but that is not what you are asking.
    – Borror0
    Oct 6 '11 at 18:04
  • @borrorO Also a helpful answer, thank you.
    – matt_black
    Oct 6 '11 at 18:24

I think it is widely agreed that this site will only handle notable claims. In this context a specific policy is a claim, which is perfectly on topic.

For example it's perfectly legitimate to ask whether damage-containment policies for drugs worked or not.

I assume though that you are also referring to what you are asking here. This is the very different from what you suggest above:

What is the balance of benefits and harm from governments making the wearing of cycle helmets compulsory?


But some of the answers have strayed off topic into the broader question of whether, on balance, governments should enforce their use (Some governments have enacted such laws already.) So I'm posing the broad question here so we can deal with the broad balance of benefits and harms.

Your question is in stark violation of our FAQ:

What kind of questions should I not ask here?

You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face. Chatty, open-ended questions diminish the usefulness of our site and push other questions off the front page.

I believe this adequately describes your question.

Your questions should be reasonably scoped. If you can imagine an entire book that answers your question, you’re asking too much.

I believe this also is pertinent to your question.

If your motivation for asking the question is “I would like to participate in a discussion about ______”, then you should not be asking here. However, if your motivation is “I would like others to explain ______ to me”, then you are probably OK. (Discussions are of course welcome in our real time web chat.)

I definitely think your question falls in the above category (discussion).

To prevent your question from being flagged and possibly removed, avoid asking subjective questions where …


  • we are being asked an open-ended, hypothetical question: “What if ______ happened?”

Finally I think the above applies, too.

  • OK guide me. Given that answers using statistical evidence about government policy are straying off topic on this question (skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/3692/…) exactly how should the question be posed about compulsion? There is evidence; how do we get it on skeptics.SE?
    – matt_black
    Oct 5 '11 at 19:21
  • The only off topic answer of that kind is yours, which further proves my point. This site is for genuine questions, not for discussions on topics one feels strongly about.
    – Sklivvz
    Oct 6 '11 at 7:46
  • My intent in asking the question (badly expressed perhaps) is to elicit the specific bounded evidence that exists (eg specific epidemiological studies comparing countries where helmets are compulsory to those where they are not). So demonstrably practical and answerable and not open ended. I want the referenced facts to appear somewhere not a discussion on people's opinions. If my language fails to achieve that, fix it rather than closing the question.
    – matt_black
    Oct 6 '11 at 9:16
  • @matt_black: we expressed quite clearly our concerns and they are about what you are asking and not how. We always try to salvage questions instead of closing.
    – Sklivvz
    Oct 6 '11 at 9:41
  • So is any question about compulsory cycle helmets going to get closed? So if I asked "do compulsory cycle helmets have any measurable effect on cycle safety?" would you still rule it out?
    – matt_black
    Oct 6 '11 at 10:31
  • That would be a duplicate (but OK otherwise).
    – Sklivvz
    Oct 6 '11 at 13:42
  • What is the correct procedure to move forward? Should I delete the original question and pose a new question worded as above (I don't see the duplicate).
    – matt_black
    Oct 6 '11 at 15:11
  • @mat re: dupe. We already investigated the effect of helmets. Adding compulsory does not make them more or less effective--unless you meant to investigate the effect of making helmets compulsory by law vs leaving it optional. In which case, I don't think it's either notable or interesting. Why would making helmets compulsory not improve the number of helmets worn? We already know that the more, the better...
    – Sklivvz
    Oct 7 '11 at 9:31
  • I'd be interested to see your view of the revised answer I posted on the helmet question yesterday (after removing my original).
    – matt_black
    Oct 11 '11 at 22:44

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