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This question was inspired by Did Michael Jackson sexually abuse children? as some moderators discussed the question with the OP in comments and suggested that perhaps Skeptics can not replace the trial process and there should be some meta discussion before attempting to answer the question.

However, the accusations in the Jackson case are no worse than those in (Is there systemic sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests?), which is answered. In fact, as Jackson is dead the potential for damage would seem to be less than the damage for an existing organization that holds itself out as religious and charitable and takes in donations.

Factual truth and legal status can diverge -- a murderer or rapist could be found not guilty at trial -- when in fact they committed the crime -- because the prosecution did not meet the burden of proof at criminal trial (which is "beyond a reasonable doubt" in the USA), or perhaps be immune from prosecution and never face trial (e.g. Did the US government have prior knowledge of 9/11?)

Also related: Did Lee Harvey Oswald kill John F. Kennedy?

Unposted, but forseeable:

  • Did American football player/celebrity OJ Simpson kill his ex-wife Nicole Simpson? (He was found not guilty at criminal trial but found liable for her death at civil trial because in part of the lower burden of proof at civil trial "preponderance of the evidence", i.e. more likely than not. Later he wrote a book titled "If I did it")
  • Did President Bush commit war crimes by lying to the American people about Iraqi WMDs to gather support for an unjust war and by permitting torture?
  • Did an American TV Preacher have his first sexual encounter with his own mother in an outhouse? This was a hoax, but clarifying a hoax is generally on topic and this example in particular illustrates the futility of prosecuting an opponent for slander in the US if you are a public figure Falwell v Flynt Trial Archive at UMKC

It may be that no blanket policy is needed.

But I can imagine Stack Exchange Inc being concerned about the possibility for defamation charges. In the USA, such discussion of public figures tends to be common. However, as @Oddthinking and @Flimzy point out, it seems that discussion here would have to be limited to what can be documented and cited, and a number of talented professionals in law and law enforcement will have looked at the evidence. It may boil down to second guessing a jury without sitting in a trial for days, or weeks as the jury did.

Wikipedia has a policy for Category:Living People to avoid defamation and inaccuracy.

On the other hand, the fact that some of these have been asked and answered suggests that at least some questions in the area of infamous crimes/allegations are on topic.

Should there be some kind of policy to guide topicality or should these handled case-by-case?

  • I don't necessarily concur with what you say about "the potential for damage": IMO because Michael Jackson has family and friends, therefore his having died doesn't necessarily make people's statements less hurtful (but maybe you're trying to make a statement about quantity of financial damage). – ChrisW Dec 19 '13 at 11:18
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I find questions about topics that are under the jurisdictions of courts to be troublesome. I don't believe I have ever used that as an excuse to close them, but I have got myself on the wrong side of OPs by challenging them, and I tend to avoid trying to answer them.

To address why, let me take a tangent.


There are many different systems used by people to ascertain the truth. For example,

  • Mathematics and Logic
  • Science
  • Studying religious texts
  • Legal systems
  • Studying historical records
  • Philosophy
  • Poetry
  • Astrology
  • Prayer and Meditation
  • Personal Revelation
  • Investigative journalism
  • Authority

The participants here tend to be big fans of science, and where the spheres overlap, I think there is a good argument for preferring scientific conclusions over others. I think some of the methods I listed above are of limited value.

However, sometimes we get questions clearly outside of the sphere of science and in the sphere of other methods of truth finding.

I suspect any of these question - even if not officially "off-topic" - would be poorly served by the Skeptics.SE community.

  • Is Pythagoras' theorem really true? - Ask the mathematicians.
  • Is it illegal to make a backup of your credit-card? - Ask the lawyers.
  • Was Jesus born on Dec 25th? - Ask the biblical scholars.
  • Did Michael Jackson, who was acquitted of any serious crime, commit a serious crime? - Ask the legal system.

Yes, courts have different rules of evidence to science. (Can you believe they rely on eye-witness reports?!)

Yes, courts have different rules for peer-review. (Twelve or thirteen cherry-picked knuckleheads rather than two or three cherry-picked experts.)

Yes, courts have different rules for accepting an hypothesis. (e.g. beyond reasonable doubt rather than p < 0.05.)

However, ultimately courts are designed to find facts. They have greater resources than we do. They are philosophically biased against false positives for guilt, leading to plenty of false negatives, which is appropriate given the domain.

I remember, as a young adult, expressing my view of a reported court case in front of a relative who was a lawyer. She disabused me of the idea that I had enough information to form an opinion. She explained that the court had certainly seen a lot more evidence than was reported in the newspaper I had read, and that, in court, unlike the newspaper, both sides had had the opportunity to put their cases forward. I've tried to remember that lesson.

So, when it comes to legal cases, I tend to defer to the decisions of the court.

Yes, courts make mistakes, but trying to second-guess the court here seems a bit arrogant over our abilities to do better, unless there is some really quite extraordinary evidence available.


That doesn't mean I dislike all legal questions. The question "Was Michael Jackson acquitted?" seems right in our wheel-house.

Here's a similar example: Did this US judge rule that poker is a game of skill and not chance?


The issue of defamation has come up before:

Note there are two issues:

I suggest that, day-to-day, we should be more focussed on avoiding the latter.

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Skeptics is not really about finding the truth, but examining the evidence. In other words, we rely on available evidence, and the scientific method, to approximate the truth, with varying levels of confidence.

This is the expected outcome of our scientific approach.

A court of justice tries to reach a verdict, which is not necessarily the truth either. It's a case strong enough to either send someone to jail or to send them on their way. In the case of Michael Jackson, they decided to acquit him after reviewing the evidence. This is something we, skeptics, can use as evidence. In other words, the verdict is evidence.

Another form of evidence would be any controversy around the verdict, or lack thereof. Again we can describe the controversy without taking part in it.

Unfortunately, neither of these pieces of evidence are likely to satisfy the OP.

So, we will not be able to answer such a question convincingly. There's little primary evidence we can gather or are qualified to judge. There's only secondary evidence (trial, eventual controversy) which we can describe, but they can't really answer "Did he do that?" to the level of accuracy that the OP likely is expecting.

Therefore

As a matter of policy, I propose that such questions be answered by presenting the evidence (trial verdicts, serious controversies on the verdicts) without trying to give a yes/no answer, as the closest approximation we can get to answering the question fully. Furthermore if the OP is unhappy, they can be pointed here for further explanation.

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Such questions can be (but, are not necessarily) on topic; for example I asked a question about Nelson Mandela: which was popular and (perhaps more importantly) answerable. As is usual for any answer here, the evidence (i.e. references) presented in those answers came from the public record: they included references to the statements and judgments made in court trials.

I don't expect that answers can (or should) do better than summarize publicly-available information: but that's normal for any type of question.

Some questions might tempt opinionated, illogical, and/or multiple answers (e.g. your hypothetical question about President Bush's actions); but again that risk is associated with many other topics too.

People who ask these questions should beware that Skeptics can't manufacture evidence which doesn't exist. Some people ask questions about the workings of the Secret Service[s], or for example "who used poison gas in Syria?" Skeptics can and should try to provide a non-biased view of the topic, presenting evidence from both sides where relevant and credible; but some (on-topic) questions must remain unanswered.

Should there be some kind of policy to guide topicality or should these handled case-by-case?

IMO the current policy is:

  • Be liberal about accepting questions
  • Be strict about accepting answers

On a case-by-case basis, moderators and/or other users might vote to close (put on hold) a question if it's phrased in various ways which can make it unanswerable (e.g. unclear, too broad, too subjective).


I Am Not A Lawyer so I will not try to answer the 'possibility for defamation charges' part of your question.

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