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Based on the discussion here: Is xenoglossy a scientifically verified phenomenon?

It seems we no longer accept questions of the form "People believe that X exist. Do X exist?"

Instead, if you're interested in the existence of X, the question should present a specific instance Y that is claimed to be an X, and ask "People believe that Y is an X. Is Y an X?"

For example, instead of asking the broad question

"Is it true that some people can speak in languages that were not formerly known to them?"

, the question should ask something more specific like

"Is it true that Ms. Polyglot can speak in a language not formerly known to her? People claim that she did. Is that true?"

Just want to make this change explicit and open for discussion.

  • I would expand on that example a bit: Is it true that Mrs Le Polyglot can speak *French*, a language not formally known to her as is claimed [link]?" – Jamiec May 6 '14 at 7:58
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Such questions should ask whether the phenomenon is studied and recognized or not and never invite speculation or anecdotal reporting.

Asking for "any case" is troublesome for a number of reasons:

  • It only allows us to answer "yes", "no" is merely the default position. This is problematic because it does not distinguish between "not yet proven", "impossible to prove", "false".

  • It invites bad evidence. A single, documented case would be a valid answer but what would it prove? Lacking a specific large scale study done by a field specialist and peer-reviewed, the correct skeptical position is to say it doesn't prove anything, because "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence", or at least solid, non-anecdotal evidence.

A specific anecdotal answer is a valid answer when the question identifies a specific case: "did we land on the moon?" is valid because it refers to a dozen or so specific events that can be validated or disproven.

In conclusion such questions should be amended in one of two ways (whichever applies):

  1. they should be restricted to a specific case (or more, but within reason): "did ms. polyglot...?" as you suggest

  2. they should be changed not to ask for anecdotes, but field studies: "is xenoglossy a recognized medical phenomenon?". This prevents substituting speculation and anecdotes to proper strong evidence.


An open question: do we need a new close reason for this? What to do if the OP refuses to change the question so it's suitable?

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    I think "too broad" closing reason fits. – sashkello May 7 '14 at 2:34
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    Agree with too broad. – user5582 May 7 '14 at 4:56
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It seems generally agreed that questions floating about that are unlikely to be answered, in the "does X exist" category, are not especially valuable — but there are ways to improve them. In particular in such cases Skeptics.SE could add a requirement of a standard of evidence, or alternatively citing specific examples to debunk.

Flowing from a fairly lengthy but constructive chat on the topic, here is a thought that might add to the discussion, if I may quote myself:

Restricting the type of evidence is probably the better requirement, but likely to yield no responses.

So in the case of an evidentiary standard, we are no better off in the 'this question has no answers' department.

Restricting the claims to specific instances is likely to yield some answers, but there is the rather tempting follow-up: “Are these the best claims of XYZ?”

A pertinent question is which requirement ought to apply: a standard for evidence (e.g. "are there any journal articles that indicate X") or specific examples (e.g. "Is X an example of a ghost").

In reference to the original question about xenoglossia, I noted:

One distinguishing feature between the xenoglossia and the examples we have [discussed] above e.g. moon landing, dinosaurs, folding paper in half, no blue foods, is that there is no apparent or plausible theory of how xenoglossia could possibly work. Perhaps the absence of any working theory may be a useful for distinguishing claims that need a specific example and those that do not.

The caveat is that we are inviting moderators to interpret what "apparent or plausible theories" are. For example, xenoglossia is apparently the result of divine, demon, or reincarnate intervention - though those are all squarely in the supernatural category and by definition outside the scope of scientific theory.

All to say, I would agree with a restriction such as: Where there is no plausible or apparent scientific theory to explain the claim, a question must cite specific examples.

The "do/does [ghosts, demons, boogeymen, xenoglossia, gods, turtles all the way down, etc] exist" questions are generally not examined with scientific rigour. The claims are typcially waffly and the evidence unverifiable. The only way to debunk them would be to examine specific instances.

Which I say just to give air to a possible rational for choosing between requiring evidence or specific examples.

The idea behind the proposed standard is that in the absence of a theory, the only thing that can be debunked are conclusions arising out of specific instances.

Thoughts?

  • Too subjective for my liking. – William Grobman May 8 '14 at 5:57
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    @WilliamGrobman: Compared to what? At present the interpretation appears to be at the whim of moderators (which is what started this meta-thread), so a standard is by definition less subjective. In any case, do you have any suggestions on how to improve the standard? – Brian M. Hunt May 8 '14 at 17:15
  • Compared to how it should be. Your suggestion may improve the situation and still be undesirable. I like closing as too broad when unfalsafiable. – William Grobman May 8 '14 at 22:20

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