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I am a new user to skeptics (1 day!) and found the forum rules to be very restrictive and frustrating. Luckily, I was able to quickly pass my trial by fire, so now I have some reputation and am able to participate as a second-class (or perhaps third class) member of the community. However, I imagine that a lot of prospective users are shut out by the restrictions and are frustrated by the bad/inapplicable advice on the FAQ and new user pages. So, I would like to know how a new user is supposed to start participating in this community.

From what I can tell, a new user can only participate in three ways:

  1. Ask a question
  2. Answer a question
  3. Propose an edit to a question

Importantly, a new user cannot leave comments. They can't even participate in Meta in order to ask for explanations.

So given that new users have these restrictions, how are they supposed to participate in a way that they can learn the community norms and gain enough reputation to lift the restrictions?

  1. Asking a question does not seem like a good way for a user to get started (unless they came to the site with a question already in mind). Asking a good question is difficult, and bad or redundant questions just clutter up the site and distract other users. Questions are the most prominent feature on the site -- it seems like a bad idea for visitors to be inundated in the muddled, redundant, and frivolous questions that will be produced by new users if this is the primary way for them to participate. Likewise, it is discouraging for a user to have their question shot down or deleted because they did not understand how this community works.

  2. Providing an answer is not a great path to participation either. As I quickly found out, this site has very high standards for acceptable answers. My first attempt to answer a question was quickly down-voted to oblivion. This was very discouraging, since it implies that new users are only allowed to participate if they make an extraordinary effort to provide a thoroughly documented answer to a question (or are lucky enough to come across a question for which they can quickly provide a good answer, as I was).

    Some proponents of these high standards assert that "low quality" (i.e. partial) answers should be placed in the comments ... but new users cannot comment.

    Even more discouraging, most of the questions did not merit substantial effort, since they are not framed clearly. The natural response to this problem would be to ask for clarification in the comments, but that is not allowed for new users.

  3. Proposing edits seems to be the appropriate way for new users to participate. They can slowly gain the reputation needed to unlock other privileges and expand their participation. More importantly, this will guide them through the system and encourage them to think about what makes a good question and answer. It also recruits them for what may be the most important task on a large site -- cleaning up and organizing the mess that accumulates (rather than contributing to the mess).

I'm not proposing that new users be banned from asking or answering questions, only that they be guided to the activity of editing questions and answers as a way to contribute and learn how the community works without making massive time commitment. I'm still not aware of any outlet by which new users can communicate useful information that doesn't fall into the narrow constraints of question/answer/edit. Along these lines, I think that the discussions of community norms should bear in mind that new users are banned from commenting, and therefore comments should not be suggested as the solution for situations that new users would find themselves in.

So, to be very clear about my question: Is there any way for a new, casual user to participate in a casual manner?

I have not found a good answer at any of the following pages. I only now found the systematic description of what rights are tied to reputation, but it fails to mention when the right to propose edits kicks in (at the beginning):

At no point does the website tell new users "you are not allowed to do many of the things that we suggest that you do". It is very frustrating to be put in that position. What is a reasonable way for a newbie to get his 50 reputation points?

  • Based on my experience with StackOverflow, I get the impression that this problem arises from the extreme stringency that this community applies to answers. I have some ideas on how this could be addressed, but I will keep them to myself until I hear what the community has already come up with. – adam.r Nov 23 '13 at 1:51
  • One clarification: comments are not to be used for low quality or partial answers. – user5582 Nov 23 '13 at 2:50
  • @Articuno: The post "pseudo-answers are the enemy" explicitly asserts that such answers should be placed in comments: "If you have something to add and it's not actually an answer, then write it in the comment section." Another thing that is sure to confuse newbies is that many people make authoritative assertions such as yours, sometimes linking to pages such as the "pseudo-answer" page. It's not clear if these assertions have any authority in the community, or are simply personal opinion. – adam.r Nov 23 '13 at 4:01
  • The official description of the comments privige doesn't include partial answers or pseudo-answers as comments. Also, as per Oddthinking's answer here, "We discourage using comments as a mechanism to avoid the more rigorous expectations of answers". – user5582 Nov 23 '13 at 7:29
  • @Articuno: thanks for the reference. As I spend more time around here, I'm sure I'll come to learn whose comments tend to reflect the official policies (and where to find those policies for myself). Can you point me to the proper location to discuss these policies. As a professional scientist, I am baffled by these policies that seem to prohibit collaborative problem solving. But I'll see how they work here. – adam.r Nov 23 '13 at 7:49
  • Just so my answer isn't misunderstood - it was particularly addressed at people making assertions about the correct answer in comments, without references. Some people have used comments as a way of avoiding having to support their claims. That's different to providing a partial (but referenced) answer in comments. – Oddthinking Nov 23 '13 at 12:16
  • Ah, so pseudo-answer: not in comments. Partial referenced answer: in comments? I know there's no rule and this is just a minor point. So maybe this doesn't matter. My main point was that the commenting system isn't some huge thing to be missing out on for low rep members. – user5582 Nov 23 '13 at 16:47
  • Also, I think new users can leave comments on their own questions or own answers. @Oddthinking Is that correct? – user5582 Nov 23 '13 at 20:06
  • @Oddthinking - yes they can. But my point is that posting is a fairly advanced activity, and not what new users should be directed to (since they probably won't do it correctly) – adam.r Nov 23 '13 at 21:09
  • @Articuno: From what I've seen, the comments are used for a lot of the core activities of the site, not just for things that are the domain of experienced users (such as reminding people about community guidelines). Given that reality, new users are being excluded from normal participation in the site. Maybe the solution is to get reputable users to stop using comments for these purposes. But as the "pseudo-answer" post showed, many experienced users rely on comments to participate in ways that are ideally suited for new users. – adam.r Nov 23 '13 at 21:14
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Welcome to the community, Adam!

I think that most of your question was already well answered by the community moderators. I would like to provide a little bit of further context to explain why we choose the rules to be as restrictive as they are.

One of the basic tenants of StackExchange sites is to be exclusive and not inclusive. We do not want "general interest" sites, accompanied by general interest communities. The way we roll is to have expert communities.

Because of this, all the rules are set up to make it easy for an expert but hard for a beginner to answer. We still make it easy for a beginner to ask a question.

Also, you may notice, that we are not a forum. We do not wish to be one, or be identified as such. We are a network of community-editable questions-and-answers sites. For this reason users are directed by privileges and badges to ...ask, answer or edit posts. The reason why we require reputation to comment, and provide no reputation for them, is because fundamentally we do not want to people to engage in long debates as forums do. We want everyone to focus on the more important tasks.

So, what can you do to earn reputation?

  1. If you are genuinely interested in understanding if a claim is supported by evidence, you can ask a question. This does not require anything, but a real, answerable claim. As OddThinking suggests, there's plenty thereof. No particular expertise is required, beyond understanding what constitutes a notable claim.

  2. If you are already an expert skeptic, you can provide an answer. In most cases anyone can. Yes, you are required to look at the evidence and provide references because that's what scientific skepticism is about. It's what makes this site different from a "popular science" site or a "general interest" site.

In other words, we are a community of experts in skeptically investigating claims. There is no requirement for people to hold degrees or be scientists, or historians. What are required are good critical thinking skills, and some google-fu to find references.

Don't be put off by it, as long as you display genuine interest in the matter, this community is extremely welcoming for new members and I am sure there's plenty of people that can help you get started in researching answers if you have some specific question you want to ask.

Finally, let's look at the reputation requirements of privileges. Keep in mind that a question upvote is 5 and an answer upvote is 10 reputation.

  1. 15 rep you can start up voting yourself. This is to ensure upvotes are given by people with a minimal knowledge of the site, while keeping the requirement as low as possible to allow a lot of voting to happen

  2. 20 rep you can participate in chat and get advice on how to proceed further

  3. 50 rep you can comment everywhere (you can always comment on your own posts!). Comments are to suggest improvement on posts only (not for partial answers!). In order to suggest an improvement, you need some minimal experience in the site, no?

At this point (5-10 up votes received) you can perform all basic operations on the site. Most of the other privileges are about community moderation, for example the ability to close questions, accessing review queues, accepting edits and so on.

For context: it took you one answer and less than two hours to achieve this level of reputation. It's not that hard :-)

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Adam, welcome to Skeptics. :) I totally understand your frustration. I know that it may seem counter intuitive that you can leave answers before you can leave comments. However, I think there is a reason for that (I don't know since I wasn't involved in the website launch, so this is supposition on my part). You really must put forth the effort to provide an answer that will indeed meed the standards to get an upvote. I know that is probably a bit frustrating to a new user here that an answer will be in line with a research paper. However, that is the way it is structured. Once you have seen the amount of effort that goes into a good answer, then the contributions of comments are an unlocked privilege. I know most people tend to use comments as a more informal discussion area. However, here at skeptics, even in the comments section, if someone puts forth a claim, they need to back it up with some sort of a citation.

For your particular case, I took a look at your first answer that was deleted, and the second answer you provided. You sort of set yourself up on the first one by stating in the first sentence, "The following answer is based on general biological knowledge, without reference to any documented measurements". That's a big red flag that may get your answer downvoted on principle, even if it is factually correct.

You did provide another answer later that did have a reference, and it has received upvotes. One suggestion to improve that answer is to quote or highlight relevant parts of your citation. That will merit additional upvotes from the community, and also protect your answer from linkrot.

I know this particular corner of StackExchange is different and we actually embrace that. I know it may be more frustrating for the casual user/contributor, but I think it is necessary due to the nature of the questions. Yes, we do endeavour to keep the questions of the quality that the answers are deserving of research to fully answer them in the manner we expect, but sometimes a question may be difficult to frame in that way.

All I can say is that I encourage you to keep contributing to the community, and eventually I think you will have the freedom to spread your wings a bit more. StackExchange is based on that system, in more than just the skeptics community. We just are a bit more demanding and nit picky. That said, I hope we aren't any less friendly. :) (Except me personally against creationists, but that's a whole other debate!)

  • Larian: thanks for the warm welcome. Could you clarify one of the rules relating to reputation (so that I can correct my post). At what point can a person propose edits to existing questions? That is not listed on the Privileges pages, and I don't remember when I first noticed that option. I think that is an excellent way for a newcomer to get started -- it allows them to contribute the site with nothing more than clear thinking, and it is overseen by experienced members. – adam.r Nov 23 '13 at 3:52
  • @Adam.r: Oh, my understanding of that was that, once you were registered, you could propose edits immediately (and hence why it doesn't appear as a privilege.) Is that not immediately available? – Oddthinking Nov 23 '13 at 12:19
  • @adam.r I think that any user can propose edits: see this answer for further details. – ChrisW Nov 23 '13 at 14:38
  • @Oddthinking : I just figured out that new users come in with 1 reputation, which gets them the right to edit, along with posting questions and answers. The right to edit is not listed in the privileges (but posting questions and answers is)... that's why I wasn't sure when it kicked in. I'll modify the question to indicate that editing is allowed. – adam.r Nov 23 '13 at 20:40
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    @Oddthinking et al. Everyone can edit (even anonymous users). – Sklivvz Nov 25 '13 at 11:14
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I want to start by expressing sympathy. I think you are right that there are some restrictive challenges to new users. Thank you for sticking with it.

Then I want to directly address your question:

Is there any way for a new, casual user to gain enough reputation so that they participate in a casual manner?

Yes.

  • The (IMHO) easy way: Submit a couple of interesting questions about notable claims you've heard. The amount of extraordinary claims out there is immense. Spend 30 minutes on Facebook and you should have some ideas.

  • The harder way: Submit some well-referenced answers to unanswered questions.

  • An alternative way: Find a question with several not-quite-good enough answers, and come up with a higher quality answer that merges them all together. Requires less rapid-research skills, but more analytical skills.


Now, let me address the more fundamental issues here. I think there are three separate areas of concern:

  1. Hurdles put up by the very task of writing definitive answers to questions - i.e. science is hard, let's go shopping.
  2. Hurdles put up by the StackExchange system - i.e. no comments permitted.
  3. Hurdles put up by the community.

The first hurdle I think is the hardest for the new user to meet.

I do feel for the new users (and we get several every day - but I don't think you are one of them) who have had no exposure to critical thinking, constructing a logical argument and providing references. Their answers may be passionate, but they are poorly constructed, and then are generally downvoted and/or deleted.

We try to welcome them into the fold - see the common "Welcome to Skeptics" comment. However, the sheer numbers sometimes swamp us, so not everyone gets this message. Also, a single document is unlikely to persuade a hardened woo-follower to start thinking critically. (It does seem to have cut down the complaints, so I consider that Welcome document a success.)

But despite the difficulty this provides for many first-timers, this is the hurdle I am least apologetic about. We want high-quality answers. We want definitive answers. We want empirically-supported answers. Achieving that takes effort and some research skills.

I think we tend to be fairly generous in editing, reformatting and otherwise cleaning up answers. However, they need to have a sound basis in logic and evidence. I don't want to step away from that, because I am proud of the results we achieve.

(Another issue that makes it tricky: the easier questions tend to be answered quickly.)

The second hurdle is a little out of our control (i.e. can't be directly solved by the Skeptics.SE community).

I suspect one reason for not allowing comments is to avoid spam. (We used to also have a limit of two URLs per answer for new users, which was a bigger problem.) The other reason is to encourage people to use the site for Q&A, not side-chats. I'm not sure our friendly StackExchange overlords are likely to change that soon, but you could ask on http://meta.stackoverflow.com. I do wonder how many people we lose, frustrated by the inability to comment. (I also wonder how much noise would be added if we removed such a restriction.)

We also have limited control over the About page (although I checked and it does mention the need for 50 rep to comment.)

The third hurdle is the most insidious. As a community matures, it tends to have more and more in-jokes, more and more unwritten rules, more and more ways of measuring new-comers up and finding them not as good as the existing ones. This is something I think we need to actively work to avoid.

Community standards should be easily discoverable and followable, and they should be justified.

[Personal soap-box issue: I detest the trend for organisations that grow to a large size to have their mission slowly perverted to 'ensure the organisation survives and grows further' rather than 'use the strength of the large organisation to achieve the organisation's original goal'.]

This is where I turn to you as a new user and say 'Which rules were hard to learn? Which rules are inadequately justified and don't seem worthwhile?' It is easy to forget what it was like to be a newbie - especially when things have changed since then.

Also: I wonder if the distinction between meta.skeptics discussion questions and official meta.skeptics FAQ questions is clear. (I wrote a FAQ about it.)

So, in summary:

  • Thanks for sticking to it.
  • It is hard to write good-quality answers; that's life.
  • But if we are making it harder than it needs to be, we're all ears. If you can give some specific feedback, it would help.
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If you have 200 reputation earned on another StackExchange site (e.g. StackOverflow), then as a new user you start with +100 on any other site you join -- this answer says,

you associate accounts of two or more Stack Exchange network sites, and at least one of those accounts already has 200 or more reputation: +100 on each site (awarded a maximum of one time per site)

So after you earn 200 on Skeptics, you shouldn't have this same trouble again on other site you may join in future (for example if you subsequently join Biology.SE).

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You forgot one very simple way to earn rep - propose edits to tag wiki's of which we have quite a number without any wiki.

I mention because I just saw a comment of yours on an edit which says "Just found the intelligence tag" - which has no tag wiki!

Oh, and welcome to Skeptics from me too :)

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