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Sorry if this one has been discussed before; if it has, I could not find it (although it is related to several previous discussions.

If we get a question like "Does homeopathy work?", we can point to the many studies that have been done on the question.

However, there are many obviously false claims about phenomena which seem to be blatantly pseudo-scientific, but have not been scientifically studied, e.g. the recent "Can manipulating a lucid dream change the future?"

How are such questions best answered? There are several possibilities that I see:

  1. Changing the question (which was done in this case) to a more specific one: is the source quoted in this question evidence for the claim? In this case, the title of the question is still about the general claim, but the question itself (last sentence) and the (accepted) answer are about the particular evidence.

    The problem I see with this type of answer is that we do not say anything about the claim itself. In principle, you could immediately come out with the same question using another source, and ask if that provided evidence for the claim in question.

  2. Providing a detailed scientific explanation of why the purported mechanisms by which the process would work are unfeasible. The details given for the sample question might include the physiology of sleep and possible mind-body-interactions.

    This might be overkill and not good enough at the same time. I am not sure most readers who consider such phenomena possible would be interested in having that much detail; but they also might point out that the absence of a known mechanism does not disprove the reality of an effect.

  3. Giving an offhand answer. In this case, it might read simply: "There is neither scientific evidence of nor a conceivable mechanism for dreams changing the future."

    This is, of course, contrary to the policy of every answer providing evidence.

  4. No answer.

    Since there is no direct scientific evidence bearing on the claim, we cannot answer it.

So - what is the way to go?

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Option 1 is in line with the advice here that claims about the existence of an unstudied phenomenon should instead be phrased as an examination of a particular case. I prefer this option. You mention that this might result in us allowing several questions about the same phenomenon, each asking about a different example of that phenomenon, but we haven't seen that yet. Also, it seems to me that for phenomena that have not been studied extensively in the scientific literature, there are a only a small number of "best case" examples that believers find compelling.

Option 2 only helps to establish how high or low the bar is that evidence would have to overcome (e.g. if phenomenon X is true, it would mean that previously widely theories X, Y, and Z are false). That's a useful thing to consider, but, it doesn't do much to answer the question.

I agree with your criticism of Option 3 in that it would be hard to support such an answer with references.

Option 4 is also an alternative to option 1 if the question is not rephrased to focus on a particular piece of evidence. You can't really prove a negative. Based on the discussion here (same link as above), such a question might be closed as "too broad".

  • 1
    Thank you, this is helpful. My main issue with option 1 is that, on a basic level, the question is about the claim, not about the example. If I ask: "A guy in the pub told me that mammoths liked to play football with human heads to impress their ladies; is this true?", I'm not really interested in whether "a guy in the pub" is a good source for paleontological information - I want the straight dope on the issue itself. And while science has not studied this particular claim (I hope), I think we could safely say in that this is extremely unlikely, given our knowledge of mammoths and football. – P_S Jul 6 '14 at 8:38
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Either 1 or 4 depending. Is the phenomenon more notable of the specific cases? It's important to understand this in both questions and answers.

For example: "Does the Lochness monster exist?" is a question about a specific case, answering that in general dinosaurs are extinct, or that lake monsters don't exist, is a bad answer. Answers should be specifically about the case.

Another example: "Do UFOs exist?" is a general question, answering by citing a few debunked cases won't cut it, even if they are mentioned in the question. The answer should be a based on a general study.

As a general rule it's always better that the question is about the MOST NOTABLE claim, so in some cases we will want to generalize a question and other times we will need to restrict it. This will give the question the most chances to be answered.

As for the answers, the usual rules apply: only answers based of specific, pertinent facts and evidence. No theoretical answers, no unreferenced answers, no off-hand dismissals.

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I think a core consideration would be to think about whether your answer provides new information to a person reading it. If someone googles the question and finds your answer, does the person learn something new? Good answers aren't answers that tell people what they already knew about the subject beforehand.

Providing a detailed scientific explanation of why the purported mechanisms by which the process would work are unfeasible. The details given for the sample question might include the physiology of sleep and possible mind-body-interactions.

We don't know exactly how a lot of the drugs we use work. Theoretical predictions of the effects of new drugs aren't good and drugs go through clinical trials to find out the effects of drugs because it's simply not possible to know what the drug does based on reasoning about mechanisms. Absence of understanding how something works in no way implies that it doesn't work.

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