This question was "put on hold" because it was "unclear" that what I am asking. I was asked to define what I mean by "natural".

Same happened with this question. I had to define the word "loyal".

Both of these questions are being asked on around, understood and have different answers. I cited the links where same questions were asked (some are science blogs, sites). How much definitions are needed on this site to make it a clear question? What kind of terms need to be defined?

3 Answers 3


Exact quotes

As long as you have presented an exact quote of a notable claim, you don't need to define the terms in the claim. If the claim contains terms that appear ambiguous, so be it.

It is up to the answer to reasonably interpret the terms using context and expert opinion/practice, ideally in a sense that is generous to the claim.

We should not close questions simply because a few of us (or even all of us) don't know how a particular term would be operationally defined or empirically tested. Many lay-terms may have well-accepted analogues as field-specific terms-of-art and operational definitions that would be difficult to find without expertise in the field.

It is fine if a question goes unanswered for a long time.

Without an exact quote

If you are summarizing a notable claim without using an exact quote, then it may be you that is introducing ambiguity or misunderstanding, so in that case, it is important to be precise, and to clarify when commenters as for clarification, but your introduced precision shouldn't change the claim so that it no longer matches that which is believed by a bunch of people.

  • If someone asks if colorless green ideas sleep furiously, the correct response is to close it. There is a spectrum with a line arbitrarily drawn somewhere. I think "are dogs loyal" falls clearly on the "not scientifically meaningful" side.
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Commented May 26, 2015 at 19:58
  • FYI here is a list of some of the claims which Oddthinking was in favour of.
    – ChrisW
    Commented May 26, 2015 at 20:07

I think you are seeing a pattern where there isn't one.

In the recent question about babies and swimming, it wasn't closed for being unclear about definitions. As I just posted in a comment, before seeing this meta-question:

It was an unclear question because all of the references you gave denied that babies can really swim. None of them made the claim that you were skeptical about, so it wasn't clear where you were getting that idea.

I could have equally closed it as Off Topic, because it didn't contain a notable claim. That has now been remedied. The question is currently open.

There is a question in the comments about what it means to be a "natural" swimmer, and another one distinguishing between swimming and the diving reflex.

Why is this relevant? Well, I haven't answered the question, but I predict it is going to be a dull discussion of definitions - that babies cannot keep their heads above water, cannot move themselves through the water and cannot completely prevent themselves from drowning. They often make what appears to be paddling movements, they can hold their breathe/slow their heart which increases their chance of survival, and they probably have a high fat-muscle ratio which promotes floating. Whether that can be fairly called "swimming" isn't a question of empirical evidence. It is a question of what the various words mean. (To paraphrase Dijsktra's analogy: Deciding whether submarines can swim isn't terribly relevant.)

I base this almost entirely on the references provided in the question, which aren't very definitive, so I am keeping my mind open that someone will post an answer that doesn't match my expectations.

Meanwhile, the question about whether dogs are loyal was a train-wreck, and remains closed. It remains totally unclear what the question means. How would we empirically test for loyalty?

You did attempt to define loyal, but it didn't help the question. If you define a dog's loyalty by the fact it follows its owner, and you observe it follows its owner, then by your definition, the dog is loyal.

The link you eventually posted claiming it had the answer didn't seem to address the issue in the slightest.

  • @nomenagentis: While I am skeptical of your premise (that canine ethologists use the term "loyalty"), remember that the question wasn't deleted, merely closed. Such a user could use their specific knowledge edit the question into something that was testable. The biggest snafus on Skeptics.SE are consistently when an unclear question gets an answer based on an unexpected understanding. Once it has an answer, it is much, much harder to fix without someone getting upset. So, there is a pressure to put unclear questions on hold quickly.
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Commented May 26, 2015 at 19:05
  • If someone asks a question "do we use only 10% of our brain" you should have closed it because it can not be tested. But if you don't because you 'understand' what is being asked, makes it biased unfair decision. SE community is worldwide, but if a moderator closes it because it is unclear for him than that is unfair. Commented May 27, 2015 at 16:27
  • Your hypothetical is a poor example; it can be tested. The dog loyalty question wasn't closed because I was entirely ignorant of what any of the words meant, and closed it because I was too lazy to use a dictionary. It was closed because even a very basic understanding of ethology reveals it is vague and meaningless question. I could spent more time tearing it down piece by piece, but I would rather someone - perhaps someone who thinks there is an actual answer - came in and fixed it.
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 17:05
  • Why this survived? skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/4458/…? Commented Jun 6, 2015 at 20:37
  • Only reason I can find is that you missed it and OP got his answer. Commented Jun 6, 2015 at 20:56
  • @LifeH2O: I'd suggest reading this and this to see if you can find other reasons. I'm trying to avoid taking the bait and listing all the flaws I see in the loyalty question further, because I am not sure that would be a productive exercise. Will it help get better questions in the future?
    – Oddthinking Mod
    Commented Jun 7, 2015 at 2:47

Not much.

  • In general, if someone else makes a notable claim, such as, "You have to farble the greezer", then you can ask the question "Is it true that you have to farble the greezer? What's the evidence?" without defining/explaining what the claim means.

    People who answer the question must explain the claim they're answering, or justify/explain how there's a relationship between their answer and the claim, if that isn't clear.

    The policy of this site is that the questioner is not required to understand/explain the claim they're questioning.

    In fact, to some extent you're forbidden to invent your own idiosyncratic definition/interpretation of the claim. If you did you might be required to show that that interpretation of the claim is "notable" i.e. that significantly many other people use the same interpretation/definition.

  • In the question about babies swimming, DVK asked you to explain "natural", however that's not the reason why Oddthinking closed the question. The reason why it was closed is because you're asking whether they can swim, whereas none of the claims you quoted actually claim that they can swim.

  • In the question about dogs, you were trying to invent/specify your own definition of loyalty i.e. "loyal to an owner as opposed to loyal to a source of food". If you'd just asked, "Is it true that dogs are man's best friend?" then maybe that would have been on-topic (because it's questioning a notable claim) and you wouldn't have had to define it. I'm not sure but that might still be unanswerable though, as "too broad" or "too subjective/opinion-based".

  • "questioner is not required to understand/explain the claim they're questioning" means that I was wrong from the beginning in trying to explain. In the second question I was forced to define the word loyal. They would have asked me to cite the claim of this friendship and even define what I mean by best friend. Commented May 26, 2015 at 13:36
  • 1
    I do think the policy is that you're not required to understand/explain the claim. So long as your question is whether the claim is true, it's up to you to identify the claim in question, but not up to you to define it.
    – ChrisW
    Commented May 26, 2015 at 18:40
  • Maybe you want to clarify one thing. The asker should not define the terms. The claim should be definite enough to be answerable. Thus, adding a definition never helps. Choosing a better example of the claim probably does.
    – Sklivvz
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 10:20
  • @Sklivvz Maybe you would like to clarify that: I'm not sure I can. As far as I know, any claim is on-topic if it's notable and falsifiable, even if it's vague.
    – ChrisW
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 10:27
  • @ChrisW surely "falsifiable" implies "definite enough"!? :-)
    – Sklivvz
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 10:32
  • @Sklivvz Isn't "Russel's teapot" is pretty definite (though not falsifiable), and likewise "the invisible dragon in my back yard"?
    – ChrisW
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 11:45
  • @ChrisW "falsifiable -> definite" doesn't mean that "not falsifiable -> not definite", it implies the opposite verse: "not definite -> not falsifiable". "not falsifiable -> not definite" is true only if "definite -> falsifiable", which is easily proven false.
    – Sklivvz
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 11:51
  • @Sklivvz A category of topic which I know to be off-topic are the topics which are definite-but-not-falsifiable. I don't know whether the same is true (that they're definitely off-topic) for claims which are vague or not-very-well-defined.
    – ChrisW
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 11:57
  • 2
    @Sklivvz If you think it's true that claims which are vague or not-very-well-defined are off-topic, then does that explain why people sometimes use a comment after a question to ask, "What does foo mean?" Instead of asking (because the asker should not define the terms) should people who don't understand the claim or who think it's in the least ambiguous should just vote to close as unclear? So, no, I don't understand (can't explain) the policy that you were inviting me to clarify.
    – ChrisW
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 13:26
  • Claims can be unfalsifiable because they are not well defined. In such cases, the questions need to be closed. If they are simply vague, but falsifiable, then the questions are probably fine from that point of view. I don't know what people mean when they say "define x". In some cases, they probably mean "without a definition of x, this is unfalsifiable", in some others "unanswerable", in others they are simply being (incorrectly) precise. People say many things in comments, but they are not always clear or even correct in their assumptions.
    – Sklivvz
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 13:29

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