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How much, if any, controversy must surround a claim in order for it to be on topic here?

I've heard this worded as requiring that the question present a "real problem".

What is our test for determining whether a question presents a real problem, or that there exists doubt as to the claim's truth?

Until now, I had understood our notability requirement to be one-way (only requiring that the claim be believed by a bunch of adults). Is it also a requirement that a bunch of adults also believe the claim to be false (or are withholding belief)?

  • How is this question different from meta.skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/1406/… ? – Andrew Grimm Aug 14 '14 at 8:01
  • @AndrewGrimm because that one said " If the OP, in good faith, claims that they do not believe a claim, we shouldn't demand evidence that their view-point is notable, even if it flies in the face of scientific consensus" but we haven't been acting that way lately. I thought it important to clarify what the standard today is. It turns out it has changed. – user5582 Aug 14 '14 at 8:29
  • We should only demand evidence of notability in one direction, and accept genuine disbelief of the claim by the OP as being sufficiently notable in the other. -- If you're talking about the Robin Williams question, it failed this simple test. The OP obviously had no genuine disbelief of the claim. – Flimzy Aug 14 '14 at 10:04
  • @flimzy it also said that simply witholding belief is sufficient, since that is a credible skeptical attitude. Regardless, you have no idea what the OPs belief was at the time they set out to research their answer. If you mean that self-answers in the positive primae facie demonstrate that the OP has no disbelief of the claim at the time of its asking, then we must not allow any self-answers that verify the claims truth. – user5582 Aug 14 '14 at 10:13
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    @Articuno: You are right, of course. The OP could have had a genuine doubt, then after self-answering, he could have misrepresented his intentions in comments, only to make it appear that his intention was reputation farming. – Flimzy Aug 14 '14 at 10:17
  • FWIW, I think "controversy" was being used in the sense of "contention, strife, or argument.", rather than implying polemical or lurid argument. The key point is that there can be no skepticism without there being some grounds for contention. Without grounds for contention it isn't skepticism, but mere contrariness. – Dikran Marsupial Aug 14 '14 at 14:52
  • An alternate view is that deciding a question's ontopicness based on whether there is grounds for contention is begging the question. If there is no grounds for contention, that would make a good answer, not a good reason to close. – user5582 Aug 14 '14 at 20:53
  • There being a good definitive answer to a question is something that all SE forums should desire, however what is it that make skepticsSE distinct from all of the others, the clue is in the title, it should deal with questions where skepticim is involved, and there is no skepticism where there is no contention. There is no "begging the question" involved. – Dikran Marsupial Aug 15 '14 at 11:13
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We don't have any formal requirement that a claim must be controversial to be on-topic here.

But that is not because we think that any claim is on-topic, but mostly because defining the boundary here is almost impossible. There really is not much purpose in asking about a claim that nobody actually disbelieves. We implicitly assume that there is some reason to be skeptical about the claim.

If anyone has a good idea how to put this into a useful rule for our site, I'd be interested. But I personally don't think that requiring proof of controversy can work as a rule on this site, even though I think that a certain amount of controversy is required to make a good question.

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From our help center, with my emphasis:

To prevent your question from being flagged and possibly removed, avoid asking subjective questions where …

  • every answer is equally valid: “What’s your favorite ______?”
  • your answer is provided along with the question, and you expect more answers: “I use ______ > * for ______, what do you use?”
  • there is no actual problem to be solved: “I’m curious if other people feel like I do.”
  • you are asking an open-ended, hypothetical question: “What if ______ happened?”
  • your question is just a rant in disguise: “______ sucks, am I right?”

Rants and questions that do not present a believable concern should be closed. It's up to the asker to come and present their case in a way that convinces the community that a question is honest and worth investing the time to answer.

We normally do not have steadfast rules for closing questions: we have criteria. Criteria are open ended, and that's fine. For example notability is a soft criterion on purpose.

So: if you think that a question is a rant, or that it is not genuinely about a problem... vote to close. The system is fully reversible and takes more than one vote, it automatically corrects for personal biases.

  • The notability criteria can actually expressed in a sentence though. The "actual problem" criteria hasnt been put in a sentence even.. Its not that its fuzzy. Its that it hasnt been stated. – user5582 Aug 13 '14 at 20:39
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    "Does gravity exist?" would be closed on sight, and nobody would complain. It seems to me that people know what this criterion is. – Sklivvz Aug 13 '14 at 20:41
  • Wow.. Present one case thats firmly on one side of the line and you think that demonstrates that people know the criterion? I dont. fabian doesnt. – user5582 Aug 13 '14 at 20:42
  • The criterion is "we should close questions that present no actual problem to be solved" – Sklivvz Aug 13 '14 at 20:43
  • The other is "We should close questions that are just rants in disguise" – Sklivvz Aug 13 '14 at 20:44
  • The criterion for deciding if there is no actual problem is that there is no actual problem... Seems to be begging the question. – user5582 Aug 13 '14 at 20:44
  • "The notability criteria can actually expressed in a sentence though. The "actual problem" criteria hasnt been put in a sentence even.. Its not that its fuzzy. Its that it hasnt been stated. " - I gave you the criteria stated as sentences as you originally asked. You are now asking more criteria, but I won't give them to you. This is what I mean by fuzzy. I can give you examples (which I did). – Sklivvz Aug 13 '14 at 20:46
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    @Sklivvz I'm reasonably sure that there is some group that doubts gravity. I don't think we actually disagree, but I would put the major point on a question being in bad faith, and not on a lack of controvery. This is an even more vague criterion, but I don't think we can avoid the vagueness in this case. – Mad Scientist Aug 13 '14 at 20:48
  • "I'm reasonably sure that there is some group that doubts gravity." I wouldn't be surprised. – Sklivvz Aug 13 '14 at 21:02
  • @Sklivvz i'm not asking more criteria. My question all along was what is the criteria by which we decide that "there is no actual problem to be solved".. I just had worded it slightly differently in the question. – user5582 Aug 14 '14 at 21:17
  • @Articuno you are effectively asking what is the criteria by which we apply the criteria I've just proposed. – Sklivvz Aug 14 '14 at 21:49
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To take another example, should I vote to close a question like Has ISIS forced 1500 Yezidis and Christians into sexual slavery? if I suspect the claim is probably true, and if I suspect that the OP too doesn't much doubt the claim?

No, I don't think I should vote to close it: IMO such behaviour if encouraged/condoned could be undesirable censorship and argument.

However I also respect Sklivvz reasoning on this topic: I suspect I wouldn't mind if moderators very occasionally decided the close questions because of a lack of any reasonable or notable doubt (i.e. I might condone vote-to-close behaviour from others that I probably wouldn't want to practice myself).

  • To be clear, that question seems to definitely be justified by a reasonable doubt, as many ISIS claim are actually false. – Sklivvz Aug 14 '14 at 0:32
  • You believe that question is justified by reasonable doubt, which is OK. I mentioned that question to give a real example, of a question which I wouldn't feel comfortable about voting to close even if I didn't really doubt it myself, and even if I felt I had reason to suspect that the OP doesn't totally doubt it either. – ChrisW Aug 14 '14 at 0:39
  • I was agreeing with you. – Sklivvz Aug 14 '14 at 0:40
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I'd say that there just needs to be some reason to think that there is genuinely more than one answer to the question. For instance I could as "is the moon made of green cheese?". Now clearly some people have said that the moon is made of green cheese (as a fanciful belief), so it is a claim that has been made, but it would be very silly indeed to have any genuine skepticism whether the moon is actually made out of green cheese. So I would say this is not an appropriate question for skeptcsSE.

In the specific case of the question that I suspect generated this question, it is possible that Robin Williams was murdered, rather than having committed suicide, but is there any evidence to suggest that his death is anything other than suicide? I'd say "no", the sheriff's report says nothing that casts any doubt on the question, and the only reason they don't give it as the official cause of death is that there is a protocol to be adhered to. The question gave no reason to suggest it was anything other than suicide and the TMZ report did not claim that this was the official cause of death. So where is the substance?

How could this question be answered to say "no Robin Williams did not die from suicide" what references could we give to cast doubt on the current view that it was suicide?

  • I'm not sure I agree. For example a question like, "Doctors recommend chemotherapy for some cancers. Is there evidence that chemotherapy can be beneficial?" ought to be on-topic, IMO, even if there were no credible sites/claims that chemotherapy is not or is never beneficial. Do you want people to be able to use this site as a learning/research resource for general/any scientific topics? Or, only for topics that are controversial? – ChrisW Aug 14 '14 at 13:58
  • The problem there is the wording of the question, you only need to be able to demonstrate a single case where chemotherapy was beneficial for the answer to be trivially (but not very educationally) true. As worded, there is indeed no controversy/skepticism. A better wording would be "is there evidence that chemotherapy is generally beneficial". As chemotherapy is essentially the meidcal use of toxic material, there is good reason a-priori to doubt whether it is generally beneficial, and hence skepticism is reasonable. – Dikran Marsupial Aug 14 '14 at 14:03
  • More importantly, to argue against "chemotherapy can be beneficial" you would need to provide evidence to show that there is no case in recorded medical history where it was beneficial, which is clearly an unreasonable expectation, even if it actually were true. Also I suspect there are more appropriate forums for the learning/research role than skepticsSE, even within SE. – Dikran Marsupial Aug 14 '14 at 14:05
  • IMO an answer should reveal the extent/limits to which chemotherapy is likely to be or has been beneficial, when/assuming cases where it is recommended by a doctor. My point though was that it needn't IMO be a controversial topic: someone might be naturally curious (for more information) or naturally cautious (wanting a second opinion) and therefore (even if not exactly skeptical or doubting of the claim) wanting to avail themselves of this site to get further/better evidence. – ChrisW Aug 14 '14 at 14:10
  • IMO the important difference between "chemotherapy" and "all the details of Robin William's suicide" is not whether the claim is controversial, but whether the information is respectful or scandalous, and whether it's in the public/community interest to detail it here. – ChrisW Aug 14 '14 at 14:21
  • The question as posed does not reveal the extent/limits though, that is the problem. "controversy" only means that there is prolonged debate, it doesn't mean that it is animated or hostile debate or even interesting debate. Perhaps not the best choice of word, but IIRC it wasn't me that introduced it. We started off with what is scientific skepticism, and for me it requires the reasonable plausibility of more than one answer to the question. – Dikran Marsupial Aug 14 '14 at 14:46
  • I did point out that in the (now deleted) comments to the original question (IIRC) that it was in poor taste. – Dikran Marsupial Aug 14 '14 at 14:47

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