There's an alarming rate of questions that are not skepticism. Rather, the user has a question about science and feels this is a good place to ask. It's very obvious in this question:

At any instant what fraction of the Sun's radiance is hitting Earth versus the enormously larger fraction that is emitted into space? I have always wanted to have this fact for curiosity's sake.

How can we prevent that from happening?

We get a lot of questions like that recently, and we are very slow at closing them which makes the situation worse. Improving the FAQ might help, but how and to what extend would it help?


  • 2
    I suppose I'm a little uncertain as to how narrow of a focus you're looking for. The poster of that question clarified how it pertained to debunking specific extrapolations from the Bible. Do all posts have to ask a question strictly intended for debunking? That will cater to an extremely narrow audience, obviously. A wider stance would allow for posts related to skepticism, if not directly in need of it. The FAQ states: If your motivation is β€œI would like others to explain ______ to me”, then you are probably OK. The link to skepticism would have to still be made explicit, obviously. Commented Mar 14, 2011 at 20:28
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    The one-dimensional voting system doesn't help either, I think, since there is clearly disagreement about what constitutes a "good" or "bad" question (or answer). Commented Mar 14, 2011 at 20:29
  • @MindDetective I think that particular post was subsequently edited to better fit. As quoted in the OP, I would agree that it was off-topic.
    – anthony137
    Commented Mar 14, 2011 at 20:38
  • @anthony I would agree with that and do feel that all questions should be tied to skepticism somehow. I was just clarifying the context in order to highlight how different perspectives will make it challenging to maintain a very narrow focus for the community. Commented Mar 14, 2011 at 20:42
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    What worries me is the tendency I've seen for questioners to start with off-topic questions, and then attempt to shoe-horn them into on-topic questions. From what I've seen, this tends to make for poor questions.
    – anthony137
    Commented Mar 14, 2011 at 20:45
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    @anthony It seems that this must stem from unclear guidelines that set expectations. I can get a sense of what BorrorO considers to be on-topic but it isn't explicitly defined in the OP and, as I quoted above, there is some wiggle room in the FAQ. Is wiggle room so bad? There is a mechanism to downvote questions AND to improve questions AND to close questions. It seems like all of these are being used, used appropriately, and this results in a site that is generally about skepticism. I get the impression that BorrorO simply envisions a narrower focus. Commented Mar 14, 2011 at 21:58

3 Answers 3


Can we do anything but educate users?

These are the options that I'm aware of:

  1. Vote to close
  2. Post a comment asking for clarification
  3. Point out that it's off-topic
  4. Invite the user to meta to give their opinion on whether it should be considered off-topic.

There will always be people who don't read the FAQ, even if it is clear. But hopefully if we hit all of those 4 points, any individual would only make such a mistake once.

(and we really need to be clear about the extent of skepticism which is acceptable. Which is a discussion for another thread).

Edit: Dogmafrog suggested an ordered list of implemention of those options. I think that's a good idea. Here's what I propose:

  1. Leave a comment diplomatically pointing out why the question is off-topic, and asking for elaboration or clarification.
  2. After 6 hours with no response (or an unsatisfactory response):
    1. If there is uncertainty about whether it should be off-topic or not (e.g., the voter isn't 100% certain, or other people disagree), start a meta question and post a link as a comment in the offending question.
    2. If there is no uncertainty, vote to close and post a link to the Closed FAQ, also pointing out in a comment that being closed doesn't mean it can't be improved and posted again.

I think this level of consideration and effort should only be necessary for new users. Experienced users and repeat offenders should know better (i.e., they should already be familiar with what 'Closed' means, and what's considered off-topic).

  • I like the idea of a set of ordered rules, and would add down vote. Could we agree on the order they're implemented, and maybe an informally agreed upon timetable? Post comment for clarification and/or point out it's off topic, wait I dunno, 6 hours?, if no improvement down vote and invite to meta, wait 6hours, if no improvement start voting to close. Naturally egregious or offensive questions would get an expedited timetable. But this way folks have 1/2 a day to respond and edit, which will hopefully not be so off-putting as snap comments like "off topic, vote to close"
    – Dogmafrog
    Commented Mar 15, 2011 at 14:26
  • @Dogmafrog: Agreed. Edited my answer accordingly. Commented Mar 15, 2011 at 23:16

the user has a question about science and feels this is a good place to ask

I am afraid this might sound a bit heretic to orthodox skeptics, but are those "general" or "popular" science questions really a bad thing? (Note: I agree the question linked is should be closed, but not because it is about popular science, but because its "payload" about ID/Creationism makes it a loaded question. What I mean are questions which might be asked on possible Popular Natural Science site.)

While there is a risk for a QA site to become too broad and unfocused, there is also another risk, and that is to be too narrow, niche. You may disagree, but seeing current Area51 stats for this site I think the second risk is currently more important to care about.

From a pedagogical point of view, I think those "curiosity" type questions are a first step about questioning about more important things. I understand such questions look silly compared to "important" questions about homeopathy, telepathy, psychopathy ... but actually they have a lot of common - answering them uses a similar method of finding reliable sources, drawing conclusions by careful logic reasoning.

  • How can you conclude that we're too niche while looking at the Area51 stats? We've been in continual and healthy growth since the site launched. We're doing better than most sites the same age.
    – Borror0
    Commented Mar 17, 2011 at 17:52
  • I am not concluding that. I think that we are closer to being niche than to being too broad, but as there are no exact criteria for that, it is a matter of opinion.
    – Suma
    Commented Mar 17, 2011 at 20:26

I suppose in a sense asking a question like this is practicing some sort of skepticism. They are searching for an answer that will increase their knowledge base and improve the way they approach other subjects of a simmilar nature? Just my opinion though (and I can't leave a comment, so sorry for making this an answer).

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    This is not about whether these questions are on topic or not. If you wish to discuss this, create a meta discussion about it. Be sure to read the previous discussions about the subject though (off-topic tag and about-faq tag).
    – Borror0
    Commented Mar 14, 2011 at 20:49

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