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I'm tired and grumpy, but not sleepy. Probably not a good time to exercise mod powers. So, instead, I will have a bit of a whinge here, to see if anyone else agrees with me, or has suggestions on whether it needs fixing.

Back in February, I whined on chat:

I'm bored of "Did Einstein really say" questions.

What do I mean?

Well, these questions, to start with:

It turns out, I am not just tired of Einstein quotes. There are endless alleged Gandhi quotes.

There are Hitler quotes:

There are Churchill quotes:

Then there is an assortment of random celebrities that might have said something deep once, maybe:

And there are some that are a little off-colour or vulgar:

I hate these questions. They seem to be a waste of our time, and I wish the community considered them off-topic.

To start with, they are largely unfalsifiable. How do you prove someone never said something?

Then you get into messy territory, where they wrote something similar to that idea, which might have gradually evolved and misquoted over the years. How do you decide if such a speculation is true?

But wait... There are some that, curiously, I don't find dull:

Why are these somehow okay (to me) but the others aren't?

Is it because they are about people who are still alive? Maybe a little, but that's not the whole story.

I think it is because in the initial list, I think "Oh gaaaawd. WHO CARES?" Sure, correct attribution is nice - but the outcome of the research isn't relevant to anyone, where the latter list I feel it may have some impact on people's trust, purchase decisions, voting patterns and belief systems.

The initial list isn't about skepticism. It is about giving the right attribution in a Toast Masters speech. The second list is about checking how people are trying to influenced you.

Am I alone in this feeling? Is there a clear demarcation we can use? Should I just get over the fact that not every question can be interesting to me?

7

I have quite enjoyed answering a few of them them: I learned a little more about history.

If you only want question on topics that affect purchasing decisions then you should probably outlaw questions too.

I find it especially interesting when it's a misquote, i.e. there is something like it but not exactly what's claimed.

You can ignore a topic if you don't like it.

It's true it's not "scientific" skepticism and may therefore be distant from the site's initial intent ... but the site's scope is now (imo) fairly neatly defined: any notable claim.

You're right that's a lot of them though. I wouldn't like to read them all at once!

Maybe we could "limit" them ... to no more than one per week. :-)

  • I agree with the following answer. Some are very low quality and uninteresting too, like this one... – George Chalhoub May 9 '15 at 20:40
  • I don't think there should be a limit. I agree with nomen agentis--ignore if you don't like them. If they're really poor questions, then they should be closed for that reason, not because they're quote questions. – called2voyage Sep 21 '16 at 13:12
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Some perspective from a new user... I haven't found quote questions to be affecting my enjoyment of this site. They're easy enough to ignore if I don't find them interesting (I can even put on my ignore list). Maybe it's only a mod problem, since you do have to deal with the flags, etc. no matter what. Unless mods can relieve Oddthinking from duties :)

I know people in my skeptical circle who are quite interested in promoting accurate attribution and preventing the spread of misattribution. Their idea is that misattribution leads to two things: poisoning the well (by associating a person with something that they didn't actually say), and argument from authority (by leaching the credibility of a prominent figure to support an idea, which would be wrong even if the attribution was correct). Also, answering one of these questions is an exercise in reference-finding and research. Despite my initial non-interest in a quote question, the answer is sometimes interesting nonetheless.

I see the quote questions as being part of the big-tent of skepticism. A person questioning a widely-held belief and seeking evidence for its truth is a great introduction into our community.

If you were to limit quote questions, I can't think of a limiting principle that doesn't rely on subjective interesting-ness. And, why stop at quote questions? Why are poo-in-beard questions not being limited? Why are behavioural psychology questions not being limited?

A lot of things on this site are boring, but I wouldn't say that because they are boring that "the outcome of the research isn't relevant to anyone".

  • 1
    I agree that a subjective "interestingness" criteria isn't acceptable. Part of my question was (a) whether anyone shares my intuitive dislike (for you, the answer is no) and, if so, whether anyone can see an objective definition/distinction beneath my intuitive dislike. – Oddthinking May 9 '15 at 0:26
1

I think the "dull" quote attribution questions should be off-topic.

  • Main reason: they gave absolutely nothing to do with the site's stated mission of "applying scientific skepticism". Even if they can be falsified in a convincing manner, there's nothing "science" about their scope.

  • They are trivia. As OP noted, nothing meaningful changes based on the claim's correctness. They have about the same meaningfulness as asking what color Princess Diana wore on a given day - yes, it's a fact and is answerable from facts. No there's no point in answering this on a Skeptics.SE site.

    Here's an example: Did Ralph Nader say that a pound of plutonium could cause 8 billion cancers?

    Yes, it's interesting to a political junkie who cares about Ralph Nader, I suppose. But whether that quote is truly attributed to him or not not has absolutely zero meaningfulness to the core scientific question of Plutonium toxicity, which should be the focus of questions and answers of this site.

  • They are very likely to be unanswerable in the negative (With some rare exceptions such as for a figure like Washington's caliber, where nearly 100% of their verbal output is collected, curated and published and accessible).

  • Many of them would be on-topic on other sites (Quotes for political figures, on Politics.SE; quotes for historical figures, on History.SE, quotes from Einstein etc... on STEM History.SE)


Now, some would argue that they should be on-topic, so I'd also like to explain why some of the the reasons stated for that aren't necessarily valid ones:

  • They are upvoted.

    Popularity doesn't always imply either quality, or ontopicness. For those who originated on this site from old-time StackOverflow, I have one word: Boat Programming. (the most popular questions on Stack Overflow, with trillions of upvotes, were the ultimately-offtopic, and deservedly so, "best programming joke", "programming on a boat", etc... questions.

  • They attract good quality answers.

    That is irrelevant in and out of itself. I can point to many thousands of great questions or even question topics across other SE sites, and all over internet, that attracted great quality answers. All of which for a variety of valid reasons are offtopic of Skeptics.SE

  • They are numerous.

    Again, not really a meaningful argument for making them ontopic (there are numerous other offtopic questions, both here and especially elsewhere. Or see numerous "best library" questions on SO that were deemed offtopic). Curiously, being numerous, it is actually a meaningful argument for making them offtopic, conversely - there are so many that they meaningfully dilute the site from its stated mission.

  • They help skeptics.se grow.

    There are two rebuttals here: First, it's an unproven assertion. You need to show that they are causatively sticky, especially in attracting posting users. Second, even in the unlikely even it was true and you could prove it, merely the fact that they attract users doesn't make them ontopic. Again, see all the "fun" questions on StackOverflow.

  • Just to deflect one argument about "popular existing questions": SE has a concept of a Historical Lock, meaning that the questions that are already here and populare aren't deleted or impaired in any way, only new questions are prevented. – user5341 May 8 '15 at 20:02
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I think the decision line shoudn't be whether or not it is a question, but whether or not it is a question. This plays very much into Oddthinking's original argument between the two categories of questions he listed.

But I also think that user16797's answer has a valid point, and that quote-association to (historical) figures can be used to shape a (fake) legacy and hence belongs very much into a skepticism site.

Personally, I would therefore not ban this type of questions, but heavily vote on them, depending on what category they fall into. If I down-vote, however, I would make sure to leave a comment on why. Potentially with a link to this meta-post here.

-1

That's a very well written and formatted question; but..., I highly object considering quote-questions as off-topic. It is true that they're sometimes unfalsifiable, but they are provable also on other times.

While some questions of "Did X say Y" type question aren't worthy of a skeptical claim, however, in other cases they have great notoriety.

There are at least 94 quotes questions on this website, they all seem pretty well received.

We shouldn't close them, why?

  • They are upvoted.
  • They attract good quality answers.
  • They are numerous.
  • They help skeptics.se grow.

Attribution of the quote to a person, "Benjamin Netanyahu said this" should definitively be on-topic.

Many quote questions tend to be high quality and bring value to the site; check this question.

While sometimes they are unfalsifiable, they still can be answered; I already have a question about it:

How should I answer a question about the authenticity of a quote?

ChrisW puts it this way:

If you can't find evidence for the quote it would be interesting (evidence) to find a related quote of what he actually said. Did he ever say anything like it?

Skepticism is an attitude towards knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs stated as facts, and those quote-questions are perfectly prone to skepticism.

Once, I was really curious whether Freeman Dyson said that atoms have awareness, image if that would be closed as off-topic. I wouldn't look at skeptics.se the same way I did again.

Another time, we solved the question of whether Pope Gregory IX call the Holy Fire a fraud.

On the other side, it seems that you feel huge apathy and dislike for quote questions, they seem uninteresting to you, but that should not be the reason for skeptics.se to start closing quote questions as off-topic.

You also have answered 4 quote questions:

And asked 2 questions:

It means at some point, you felt the need of asking/answering questions and answers. Imagine if your Lucretius' question about evolution and natural selection was closed as off-topic. What would you think of skeptics.se?

As a solution for your apathy and dislike, you could completely ignore those quotes and let other moderators and/or users handle them as well.

I understand that there might be low quality quote questions, but that they shouldn't be the cause for closing all quote questions.

In the end, we as a community of skeptics.se, we'd love to see this website grow and become a reputable website where skeptics gather. By closing quote-questions, which could be solved, we pushing away a number of visitors, who possibly the would go for snopes; who knows?

After all, what are quotes?

Quotations are at once mundane and sublime. Whatever the philosophical stance, country, race, or religion of their origin; whether they be serious or whimsical; whether their creators are famous or notorious, controversial or celebrated, quotations are the essence of wisdom refined to a handful of well-chosen words.

  • -1. Both because I disagree with your idea, and independently, because your methodology is wrong - "quotes" questions aren't capped at 94 you found because they aren't always tagged with "quote" tag. An extra -1 for "Tu quoque" fallacy in stating that OP answered those questions. – user5341 May 8 '15 at 19:45
  • It's okay, I can take downvotes. Most of them are tagged with the quote tag, I would say 99%. – George Chalhoub May 8 '15 at 19:58
  • Yes, the quote questions are upvoted and numerous, but if we accepted "Unlikely Animal Friends" YouTube videos they too would be upvoted and numerous. Do they help us meet our objectives though, which isn't merely to grow? – Oddthinking May 9 '15 at 0:32
  • Note: I had your Freeman Dyson question on the non-dull list, for what it is worth. – Oddthinking May 9 '15 at 0:32
  • I apologised in the comments on the question for missing my own questions; it wasn't deliberate. I would sacrifice these for the greater good. I don't think any conclusion can be drawn from the fact that I answered some questions. (I also answered the Eleanor Roosevelt question.) I suspect you'll find my answers tend to be defences against quotes that defame people. – Oddthinking May 9 '15 at 0:38
  • To clarify: Of course, my personal opinion of uninterestingness should not be (and is not) used to decide which questions stay or go. But if this question reveals that the community largely doesn't like them... – Oddthinking May 9 '15 at 1:08
  • @Oddthinking: no need to apologize, it happens. – George Chalhoub May 9 '15 at 12:29
-1

I believe that the "non-dull" quote attribution questions should be off-topic. The reasons are slightly different from the "dull" ones, however:

  • Main reason: they gave absolutely nothing to do with the site's stated mission of "applying scientific skepticism". Even if they can be falsified in a convincing manner, there's nothing "science" about their scope.

  • They are very frequently posted in what appears to be bad faith, OR (critically), achieve the same result for the readers even if it wasn't posted in bad faith:

    • Either to discredit the idea that the quote purports to support (I think it's a form of Association fallacy, but not sure of exact taxonomy of this fallacy) - basically, "Look, a bunch of people are using this false quote to support idea X! Let me popularize the fact that the quote is false as a way to discredit idea X and its supporters".

    • Or (ironically), the opposite approach - to try and discredit an idea by popularizing a claim which pushes Reductio ad Hitlerum fallacy. Example.

    • To discredit a person by popularizing a quote that is hard to disprove, but makes them look bad. Example

    • To popularize a random dumb (or simply inartful) thing someone said, in hopes of help discredit that person by giving more publicity to that person's dumb statement. Example.

    • To popularize a statement that is more bad in modern sensibilities than in the time it was stated, to help discredit that person by publicizing said quote out of context. Historian's fallacy. Example

    • To popularize an idea that the (clearly true) quote supports under Appeal to Authority (especially moral authority). Example, Example.

      Ironically, this one can have both negative effects at once - to popularize a bad idea under Appeal to Authority (for those revering Ghandi) and to discredit Ghandi under "A dumb thing someone said" bullet above, to people revering vaccinations. As noted above, the intent of the OP isn't even important here, merely the effect of using Skeptics.SE to popularize the quote.

    • Or, simply as a way of popularizing an idea that the quote states, without much relevance of whether attribution is true or false. Example.

  • As with the dull variety, they are very likely to be unanswerable in the negative (With some rare exceptions such as for a figure like Washington's caliber, where nearly 100% of their verbal output is collected, curated and published and accessible).

  • As with the dull variety, nany of them would be on-topic on other sites (Quotes for political figures, on Politics.SE; quotes for historical figures, on History.SE, quotes from Einstein etc... on STEM History.SE).

  • Main reason: they gave absolutely nothing to do with the site's stated mission of "applying scientific skepticism". Even if they can be falsified in a convincing manner, there's nothing "science" about their scope. But so are photograph questions (see your answer on here). Does that mean we shouldn't include photograph questions? – George Chalhoub May 8 '15 at 20:05
  • @georgechalhoub - Sadly for your comment's intended argument, yes it does mean just that. There's no incoherency here. There may be a weak argument that the technical process of proving a photograph fake is more of a "sciency" thing, but by and large, I would be in favor of making them offtopic as well. – user5341 May 8 '15 at 20:13
  • What about this question: Are there more open jobs than available developers? There's nothing "scientific" in the scope of this question, should we make it off-topic too? – George Chalhoub May 8 '15 at 20:21
  • @georgechalhoub - this can be (marginally, by pulling its ears) claimed to be about economics, and thus, economics being a science, be ontopic. However, I'm not wedded to this question - for all I care, it can go to Programmers.SE. And this comes from someone who's actually highly interested in both the question and its answers :) Having said that, what does that question have to do with OP's proposal? It's NOT about a quote attribution but about a claim's content – user5341 May 8 '15 at 20:28
  • Hmm. Economics is not an experimental science and cannot be. "Natural" experiments and "quasi" experiments are not in fact experiments. So, going with your logic, we should not allow any economics questions. Oh, and the saudi fatwa question should be closed also, not scientific. Also, we shoul close any governmental politics questions because there is nothing scientific about them. Also, the Red Cross question: Does the Red Cross sell $2.1 billion worth of blood annually?. Also should be closed. – George Chalhoub May 8 '15 at 20:42
  • @georgechalhoub - your assertion that economics cannot be done via experimental scientific method is wrong. Admittedly, it's harder to do the experiments right. I would recommend Freakonomics podcast/blog for many interesting examples. – user5341 May 8 '15 at 20:47
  • @georgechalhoub - YES! YES! 100% of government/political questions should be offtopic since - unlike economics - most of political science isn't actually science. – user5341 May 8 '15 at 20:48
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    Then you're advocating of closing 50% of questions of skeptics.se. – George Chalhoub May 8 '15 at 20:57
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    @georgechalhoub - and? – user5341 May 8 '15 at 21:37

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