This is motivated by this question: Did the Irish Catholic church have slaves in Ireland as recently as 1996?

My understanding is that as far as possible skeptics is a place for learning about the facts. It is then up to the reader to make their own interpretations. The above linked question seems to fail in this regard. The discussion seems to be more about the definition of slavery than about the evidence supporting whether a specific fact is true or not.

In particular, the OP state: "I think my edit shows that I am more interested in their treatment as slaves rather than being classically defined as slaves. As MikeDunlavey said it is a very fluid term, and in my experience is rarely used in the classical definition". This is exactly the kind of overly broad question that we are trying to avoid

My personal preference would be to post an answer along the lines: "Slavery was illegal in Ireland since XXXX, but some have argued that the conditions of workers in the Magdalene Laundry were equivalent to slavery (link to reliable source arguing why this might be considered slavery). I think the question should also be closed, as any other answers are likely to be off-topic (arguing about whether the conditions should be considered slavery or not, rather than adding facts)

Does anyone have any thoughts on how to handle these kinds of questions?

  • You remind me that I drafted up an answer for this question (which, as you suggested, looked at laws and definitions, not the facts of the case). I didn't post it because it read as petty and argumentative, which wasn't my intention, and I wanted to re-draft it.
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Commented Mar 28, 2013 at 22:21

3 Answers 3


In an ideal world, the notability reference would solve this. Whoever is making the original claim would provide definitions or they would be clear through context. Now, that's not a very realistic expectation (especially with Facebook memes and the like, where we are parsing a dozen words without any context).

Where people are not using the "normal" definition of the words, it can also lead to confusion.

Side note: My favourite example of this is Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki.

Kiyosaki pushes his book with dramatic claims. E.g. the back cover claims the book will:

Challenge the belief that your house is an asset

He pooh-poohs people who believe their houses are assets.

Then, on page 54, he writes, about the dictionary definition of "asset"

Now it may make sense to trained accountants, but to the average person, it may as well be written in Mandarin. You read the words in the definition, but true comprehension is difficult. [...] "assets put money in your pocket." Nice, simple and usable.

Nice, simple and wrong.

In one fell swoop, he redefines asset to a totally unconventional definition. Suddenly, houses (and gold and silver) are not assets, by his peculiar definition.

His extraordinary claim, that he uses to entice people to buy the book resolves down to "If you change the definition of asset to exclude houses, houses are not an asset." This strikes me as a particularly pathetic use of rhetoric.

It gets worse when you start talking about people.

If the title to the question is "Is Justin Bieber a child-molester?" and an answer says "YES!" and then defines molester to include "affects music tastes in a way that won't help them become classical singers", we could argue that it is a legitimate question/answer - it defines its terms clearly in the small-print. But, in practice, it is a libel suit waiting to happen. It is giving a misleading impression to many of the readers. This site should be about removing misunderstandings, not creating them.

In the slavery in Ireland question, I objected because we were accusing living people of a crime, using a definition that was not the legal one. Whether that is actually libellous or not I will leave to the lawyers, but it feels unethical to me. It wasn't helped by a lack of a notable reference that actually made the claim, so this site became the source of the misimpressions.

Conclusion: We should be careful how far we let people come up with their own definitions. It is important to have definitions. It is sometimes necessary to let the answer specify a definition where it isn't clear in the original claim. (e.g. "Is a tomato a fruit?" That's a question best answered by sharing several competing definitions.) However, letting people stray away from the normal scientific/legal/dictionary definitions of words is likely to confuse more than it enlightens.

  • First, the purpose of the Rich Dad, Poor Dad books is to adjust your thinking about money. That will inherently include redefining terms so that you can think correctly about the topic: making money. What you might call pathetic rhetoric another might call profoundly inspired. You have to remember that he does happen to be what he claims: wealthy. On the other stuff I made a few comments on Beofett's answer that applies here as well.
    – user11643
    Commented Apr 3, 2013 at 20:11
  • I'm not sure how his alleged motivation justifies misleading people on the dust jacket. When alt-med advocates mislead about what "toxin", "chemical" or "liver-cleansing" mean, to sell books, we don't credit them as "profoundly inspired". As for whether he is what he claims -see the controversy about whether he ever had a "rich dad".
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Commented Apr 3, 2013 at 21:26
  • The point is that you are relating two things that are really apples and oranges, just like you have done again in this comment. Claiming 'x does this for your health' is much different. Medicine is science. Making money is not. One requires testing to be proven while the other can't be tested in any meaningful way at all. The flaw in the original posting is likening the simple ideas of making money of one person to the fluid, social definition of slavery.
    – user11643
    Commented Apr 3, 2013 at 21:34
  • I described a problem - non-standard definitions being misleading. I gave a concrete example to illustrate: Kiyosaki takes a clear, concrete economic term and changes it, misleading people. I applied it to Skeptics.SE: The Magdalene question takes a clear, concrete legal term and changes it, misleading people. I made an analogy to demonstrate that we are being inconsistent. We see it as a problem when people take clear and concrete medical terms, and change them, misleading people. I still stand by the equivalence of these examples, in this regard - i.e. apples to apples.
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Commented Apr 3, 2013 at 21:46

In my opinion, and from my experience on the site, these question fall under 3.5 categories:

  • The question doesn't have any merit and can't be salvaged

Those are mainly questions that are asking about definitions that make no sense in any context, for example the question "Is racism a psycho-spiritual disorder?" (https://skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/15624/is-racism-a-psycho-spiritual-disorder), since the question asks about a gibberish definition that doesn't exists anywhere except for some very fringe non scientific (woo-woo) circles, this question can be replaced by a similar question "Is racism a Gravitational-Quantum-Fishy-Radiation disorder?" or "Is racism a bhajgdjashbsa?", and can't be answered under the scope of the requirements of this site.

In these cases, the OP should be given a chance to explain and give examples for the non-understandable concept, and if they can't then closed.

  • The question is using a definition that doesn't apply to the case presented, or is too vage

Those are questions that ask "Is a crocodile greener or longer", or in a real example "Did the USSR have better tanks than Germany in WW2?" (Did the USSR have better tanks than Germany in WW2?), In those cases, once again the OP should be asked to give a more precise defenition of what they are asking, or to clerify their meaning, if an explanation doesn't come, then I think the best answer will cover all the possible sensible defenition, or just give an explantion of why this defenition isn't appropreate while trying to give an answer to the main subject.

So for the two examples, above, the crocodile answer should state that color and length can't be compared, but the average length of crocodiles is 6.1-7 meters, and the color of its skin is usually between some specific shades of green.

As for the tanks question, what I tried to show in my answer, is that tanks alone shouldn't be compared, but the whole system which operates them, which is the Army as a whole, and in the Case of WWII it's the entire nation, because tanks alone are meaningless, while providing stats for the tanks, like armament, speed and pros and cons of each side so that the question "which Tank is the fastest?" could also be answered.

  • The question uses a not very well defined definition, but is still a viable question under the dictionary or popular definitions

Here the question about the slavery in Ireland falls, and I agree here with @Beofett that the question is about the working conditions of the women in those laundries. So the answer should state what were the working conditions of the women in the laundries, and then equate it to the definition of slavery, either the common, or the dictionary. And the end conclusion can be something along the lines of

While their condition doesn't match the dictionary definition of slavery, their conditions were very bad, and could be considered by some people as slavery, or almost slavery conditions


Their conditions weren't up to the standards set by the Irish laws at that time, but they don't come close to any definition of slavery.

or even

Their conditions were in correlation with the Irish law and upheld it, so they weren't any worse than the condition of any other "lower class" worker in Ireland at the time.

(Confession: I didn't read the answer, so it may or may not be along these lines)

Another example is the answer to the question Is the Bible the most read book?, which states all the criteria it uses, all the assamption and states specificaly when it changes the defenition from the dictionary defenition to the common sence defenition:

If we expand the definition of "reading" to include listening to a live or recorded recitation, the Qur'an can claim a much larger, undocumented readership.

Lastly, the half category is:

  • Too broad for this site

One example, is a question I posted and was since deleted "Is there any truth in Feng shui", since the definition of Feng shui changes from place to place, and the claims they make are also changing and very broad, this site isn't suitable for those question.

I have encountered several other questions of this type and they were either narrowed down to a specific claim, or closed, and I think that this is the right course of action.

A conclusion:

In any case always ask for a clarification from the OP.

Always look on questions through rose glasses and try to find a claim with merit that can be answered so that the answer can teach and enlighten the OP and other readers.

If a clear definition is needed and can't be found in the question, use a common sense definition while comparing it to other possible definitions.


The question you mention, is, at its heart, about whether the claims about the general treatment of the women working in those laundries are accurate. I think the questions and concerns about the definition of the term slavery was handled quite satisfactorily in the answer: it picked a specific, generally accepted definition of the term in question, and kept the responses focused on the conditions of that specific definition.

Additionally, the OP responded to questions by providing clarification as to what they were looking for.

I see no reason this question in particular should be closed; should your fears of off-topic, argumentative answers prove justified, the simple expedient of a high-reputation user or moderator protecting the question should be sufficient.

Edit: It seems a big part of the problem with this question is about the terminology used, rather than the definition. I agree that the term "slavery" is loaded, and some of the main conditions many people associate with the term do not apply here. In this case, perhaps the best solution is to edit the question to change the terminology to what is unambiguously meant. Perhaps a change in the title to "Did the Irish Catholic keep women and children as life-long prisoners for being 'morally wayward'?" would have been a more accurate, and less sensational, description. Adding specific requests for details of process by which they were charged, whether they were granted fair trials, and what specific circumstances led to this incarceration would have clarified both what was being asked, and what would constitute a good answer.

Addressing your more general question of "how do we handle arguments about definitions": This actually comes up fairly often, from what I've seen. Usually it is handled exactly the same way it was handled here:

  • Concerns about the potential ambiguity are raised in comments
  • The OP views those concerns, and clarifies
  • The question is updated to reflect the clarification (either by the OP, or, if they only clarify in comments, another user can edit that clarification into the question)
  • Problem resolved.

If the OP does not clarify, however, then there are two options:

  • Close the question as NARQ (ambiguous)
  • Assume the intent is exactly as the OP stated, and answer, close, and/or vote as such

Generally, I believe it is fair to wait 24-48 hours before closing, to see if the OP is available and willing to respond to clarify. After that, if the question gets closed, and the OP later returns to offer clarification, the question can subsequently be re-opened.

Edit2: Regarding the concern that "no one seems to dispute this claim": According to this previous meta discussion, all that is required is for the OP to disbelieve the claim.

  • "It picked a specific, generally accepted definition of the term in question". The Magdalen Laundry situation is not what most people imagine when they think of slaves. This situation was an example of legally endorsed punishment - completely unjustifiable - but not the kind of slavery like on the cotton plantations. To be clear, definitions consist of a black area which includes situations that are clearly outside the definition, a white area where situations are clearly inside the definition and a grey area where the situation depends on the exact definition used.
    – Casebash
    Commented Mar 29, 2013 at 1:46
  • Regardless of whether you believe this counts as slavery or not, I think that this definition is clearly within the disputed area, so not a "generally accepted" definition. Plus, "the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised" may sound specific, but it really isn't. What are the "rights of ownership?" Parents can tell kids to do chores, so should they legally be considered slaves
    – Casebash
    Commented Mar 29, 2013 at 1:49
  • You're only addressing half of the situation: the OP did come and clarify what he meant, and removed any ambiguity. It seems your issue isn't really with the definition (since that was eventually provided), but with the term. I agree that's absolutely a legitimate issue, for reasons Oddthinking outlines in his answer to this meta question. I will update my answer to address your concerns about terminology, in addition to my comments about definitions.
    – Beofett
    Commented Mar 29, 2013 at 1:59
  • I think I agree with your idea that editing the title is good in these kinds of situations
    – Casebash
    Commented Mar 29, 2013 at 2:09
  • But then again, if we edited the title, it'd probably be off-topic, as no-one doubts the claim. For example, I can't post a question, "Was George Bush president of the United States?" - that isn't the spirit of the site. So it's an interesting situation. "Were there slaves is Ireland as recently as 1996?" seems to be on topic, because people will be surprised at the proposition. But editing the question to prevent arguments would prevent anyone who wants to look into this rumor from being able to find it
    – Casebash
    Commented Mar 29, 2013 at 2:19
  • That's a good point. However, the OP apparently does doubt the claim, and I found it a bit surprising until I read the details (granted, that was with the more sensationalized title). It is my understanding that there is no requirement for demonstrating notability of a counter-claim (in other words, we take it on good faith that a poster is sincere when expressing disbelief about the claim they are asking about).
    – Beofett
    Commented Mar 29, 2013 at 18:23
  • @Casebash I would think a skeptics site would be willing to ask the questions that people generally don't want to ask. Slavery is an uncomfortable topic and in the post-industrial age it's definition is changing or at least adapting. It is quite common in vernacular to say your boss treats you like a slave, for example.
    – user11643
    Commented Apr 3, 2013 at 20:02
  • 1
    @Beofett I was indeed sincere. The quote I read said "the catholic church had slaves [in 1996]." I looked into it a bit myself but thought the content would be good for skeptics so I handed the task over to the site. I think the current answer is pretty darn good and I think the arguments were actually pretty light.
    – user11643
    Commented Apr 3, 2013 at 20:05
  • 1
    @fredsbend: "I would think a skeptics site would be willing to ask the questions that people generally don't want to ask". The point of this site is to verify factual claims, avoiding interpretation so far as possible. In this case no-one seems to dispute the facts, the only point that may be in dispute is whether "slavery" is an appropriate term to use. Whether this is appropriate, however, is interpretation, which is off-topic
    – Casebash
    Commented Apr 4, 2013 at 12:24
  • @Casebash To clarify one of my previous comments, my first reaction to hearing the claim was "that has to be an exaggeration". I think it may be inaccurate to say no one disputes the facts, and, as the meta discussion I referred to before indicates, there is no requirement for disputing the facts other than the OP saying "I'm not sure I believe this"
    – Beofett
    Commented Apr 4, 2013 at 12:33

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