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The following question is currently under a temporary lock, and I expect it to be closed soon.

https://skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/28146/what-are-the-rates-of-mass-shootings-in-various-developed-countries

Should a question with 80 upvotes, and with answers with over 140 upvotes between them be treated in such way?

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    +1 for using meta to look for other user opinions. – ChrisW Jun 24 '15 at 20:08
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    The title can be easily fixed. The other alleged problems with the question are yet to be demonstrated. – curiousdannii Jun 25 '15 at 8:16
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The question

According to the banner, the question is locked because there's "dispute over the content".

I don't see how it's possible that the question's content is disputed, because the question...

  • References and quotes a notable claim
  • Asks whether the claim is true

...and so I don't see how the content (or format) of the question can be disputed. The question asked, "How true is that assertion?", which is the canonical question.

The claim

So, if not the question, perhaps you're alleging that the claim is vague?

Based on their comments and/or answers some (other) people seem to imply that the claim is ambiguous, or that it means something other than what I think it means; or that the claim is unfair or something in some way (e.g. comments have said "confirmation bias", "lying by omission", etc.): for example that answers ought to include (or perhaps ought to be allowed to include) statistics about knives, and/or gun violence in which people are wounded even if not killed, or etc.

I don't think that's sufficient reason to close the question: i.e. some users' disagreeing about the meaning of the claim (i.e. listing other ways in which the claim could be interpreted) isn't of itself sufficient reason for declaring the claim off-topic.

One requirement is that a claim be "notable": which we define as "believed by people". So IMO if people believe something as a result of the claim, then it's notable.

If different people believe different things as a result of the claim, then it's still notable, and answers which address any or all of those beliefs are on-topic.

The answers

IMO there's enough context in the speech to more-or-less clearly define exactly what the claim is. But even if different answers have different interpretations, all they need to do is say what their interpretation is, together with their answer, and allow voting (etc.) do the rest.

I'd be inclined to downvote an answer for misinterpreting the question, only if doesn't interpret the question at all (i.e. explain what meaning it's addressing), or if its interpretation isn't even slightly plausible (i.e. is too far-fetched to be "useful").

I'm not glued to the notion that we must always all be certain of claims' One True Meaning and then prove whether the claim is True or False (and if we cannot, then pack up the ball and go home). Instead I hope that answers are an opportunity for users to show relevant evidence from different sources, to inform readers who are interested in learning more about the subject/reality/world that's being discussed.

Conclusion

Alleged ambiguity is not a fault of the question (and any actual ambiguity in this claim is not IMO severe enough to warrant the topic's being closed), because it's not up to the question to understand and define what the claim is, instead it's up to the answers to specify how they interpret the claim they're answering.

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    "neither the question nor the claim are ambiguous". Are you sure? The meanings of the terms "this type", "mass violence", "advanced countries", "mass shootings" have all been debated, and have lead to different answers and different opinions. – George Chalhoub Jun 24 '15 at 20:50
  • The question of "What are the rates of mass shootings in various developed countries?" is off-topic. Where is the notable claim here? – George Chalhoub Jun 24 '15 at 20:50
  • @GeorgeChalhoub Given that (or assuming that) the claim is "mass shooting happen more frequently here than elsewhere", I see "What are the rates of mass shootings?" as synonymous with "What is the evidence, what are the facts or numbers, which are associated with (i.e. which justify or falsify) this claim?" So I don't see the title as not matching the claim. – ChrisW Jun 24 '15 at 20:52
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    @GeorgeChalhoub "Are you sure?" Well that is my opinion, and maybe I ought to know. The precise definitions of some of the terms are debatable or disputable, but that's almost always true (of spoken or political text). For example, the speech says, "shooting involving multiple victims": you could debate whether "multiple" means "more than one" or "more than two"; or whether "victim" means "killed" or "killed or wounded"; but IMO it's precise (unambiguous) enough to exclude knives or bombs, etc. – ChrisW Jun 24 '15 at 21:12
  • mass violence == violence caused by a mass of people or towards a mass of people; not the same as mass murder (one murder of many people). See: dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/mass – Sklivvz Jun 24 '15 at 21:30
  • @Sklivvz Thanks for pointing that out, I guess. Are you saying that "mass violence" can only target a specific "mass" and that because the identity of the "mass" isn't specified in the speech therefore this isn't a defined/testable claim? Are you also saying that (targeted) meaning of "mass violence" is what Obama meant (in context, in his speech) and widely understood (not just the technical dictionary definition)? Are you saying that it must be towards a "mass" of people which cannot include the common "mass murder" definition, i.e. the "mass" cannot be "the innocent citizenry in general"? – ChrisW Jun 24 '15 at 21:48
  • There are two feasible but different interpretations of what Obama said (mine and yours). We don't know what he meant, so it's ambiguous. I think (IMO) the best interpretation is "this type of widespread violence" not "this type of mass murders". I've never heard "mass murders" be referred to as "mass violence". – Sklivvz Jun 24 '15 at 21:52
  • @Sklivvz It's not unheard of; e.g. Growing numb to mass violence is a title in the 2013 Chicago Tribune referring to the mass shooting (by one shooter) in Navy Yard. It's true that the scholarly use of "mass violence" is more likely to be "by a mass" than "towards a dozen". – ChrisW Jun 24 '15 at 22:03
  • @Sklivvz On the plus side I've just understood why you thought that "all gun deaths" was a relevant answer: you interpreted "mass violence" as meaning "the general carnage" or "the set of all deaths". – ChrisW Jun 24 '15 at 22:12
  • I thought that was one possible interpretation, yes. It seems obvious that that's related to the number of circulating guns, so it makes sense. – Sklivvz Jun 24 '15 at 22:13
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    @Sklivvz Fair enough. I was focused on "Any shooting involving multiple victims is a tragedy"; but maybe he could have been also making a statement about the bigger picture, using the opportunity (a mass murder) to talk about gun prevalence/violence/control in general. I'd prefer an extra sentence in your answer explaining why you think the numbers you quoted are the topic of the claim, but now that I understand (accept) your reasoning I can reverse my downvote. It hadn't even occurred to me that, in context, "mass violence" might not refer to "mass shooting (by one shooter)" or "mass murder". – ChrisW Jun 24 '15 at 22:27
  • This discussion is getting sidetracked and too personal, please just focus on the issue. – Mad Scientist Jun 25 '15 at 18:57
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So here is my suggestion for fixing this.

  1. The question is poor. True, but it's not irretrievable. So let's fix it. The question doesn't have to cover all possible interpretation of Obama's statement, just the ones the questioner find plausible. So let's discard the ridiculous "there has never been a mass shooting outside the US" interpretation and ask about the frequency.
  2. If that is done, I'm prepared to revise my answer to cover both possible methods of doing the frequency comparison - agglomerating the countries, or looking at each country individually. I'll probably still explain why I think mine is better, but I'll cover both. Frankly I was expecting someone to post an answer doing the calculations the other way, to complement mine, so that people could express their preference and criticize both - but since that isn't going to happen, one answer that looks at both would be better. I might even be prepared to admit that the truth of the OP assertion depends on which approach you prefer.

Here is my first draft for a question that I think would work:

Do mass shootings happen more frequently in the US than other countries?

President Obama said this: "But let’s be clear: at some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency.

While there have been different interpretations of this, let's discount the naive and easily falisfiable one that "Mass shootings never happen outside the US" and focus on the more sensible interpretation. There have also been a number of interpretations of "this type of mass violence", but for this question let's restrict it to "mass killings of strangers with guns". So:

"Do mass shootings happen more significantly frequently in the US than in other countries?"

Feedback welcome.

  • My disagreement is that I thought it was an invariable 'rule', that an OP (and therefore a question) is not required to understand a claim; they're required to identify (e.g. to reference) but not required to explain the claim; in fact they're not even permitted to interpret the claim (e.g. a question is not allowed to ask, "Obama said 'foo' which I reckon means that he hates kittens. Is it true that Obama hates kittens?"). Therefore IMO, while there may be something (yet to be determined) that makes the claim unsuitable as a topic, nothing is wrong with the question: it cannot be improved. – ChrisW Jun 25 '15 at 17:44
  • The one exception is when the source is clearly making several claims simultaneously: then the question may (or should) identify which the several claims it's asking about. I don't think that's applicable here because allegedly/superficially Obama was only making one claim. – ChrisW Jun 25 '15 at 17:46
  • Practically I foresee that your proposal might merely move the disagreement/comments from the answers to the question: if the question defines/interprets the claim then comments might complain that, "That's not what Obama meant when he said that." For that reason, IMO questions should reference but not interpret the claim, and answers should state there interpretation of the claim (and IMO it's OK to have several answers with several interpretations, if there are several ways to interpret the claim). – ChrisW Jun 25 '15 at 17:50
  • So I think that the kind of claim this is, that's causing a problem, is "a claim which says A, which according to site's users could be interpreted as A1 or A2 or A3." IMO such a claim ought to be permitted, by allowing answers to address (i.e. present evidence related to) any or all of those possibilities. – ChrisW Jun 25 '15 at 18:01
  • That won't work because you are interpreting the claim. Let's limit questions to what has been actually said, and to statements which are precise enough to be disprovable, this is our agreed scope. – Sklivvz Jun 25 '15 at 18:02
  • @ChrisW Polifacts thinks that Obama made two claims. I think it's reasonable to ask to fact-check only the second of those. – DJClayworth Jun 25 '15 at 18:09
  • @Sklivvz See above for why I think we can ask about only the 'second' claim. I'd be prepared not to try to interpret "this type of mass violence" in the question if you think that would make it more legitimate. – DJClayworth Jun 25 '15 at 18:12
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    @Sklivvz That won't work because you are interpreting the claim I don't understand what you're saying there. IMO every person is always necessarily "interpreting the claim". Interpreting is what you do when you make sense of language, when you translate sights (written alphabet) or spoken sounds to words, when you put those words in context, and relate that to the world you know, etc. What I was saying is that IMO a question isn't allowed to impose its own interpretation on a claim, whereas answers should and must. – ChrisW Jun 25 '15 at 18:35
  • I mean, dj is endorsing a specific set of semantics in the question. "Obama said X: if he meant Y would he be right?" is asking a "what if..." question. – Sklivvz Jun 25 '15 at 19:17
  • @Sklivvz I think it's useful and part of clarifying the claim to identify semantics. For example a claim might say "Global warming isn't a threat", then an answer might say "If they mean 'not a threat this year' then blah1 blah2 blah3; but if they mean 'not a threat within our lifetime' then blah4 blah5 blah6; but if they mean 'not a threat this century' then blah7 blah8 blah9." IMO real claims (especially questionable claims) might be rarely totally explicit and well-defined in every aspect, therefore that it's vital that answer be permitted (even expected) to define/refine them further. – ChrisW Jun 25 '15 at 19:38
  • @chrisw agreed for an answer, but it doesn't work if it's done in the question. The answers had different problems IMO. – Sklivvz Jun 25 '15 at 19:50
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    @Sklivvz Oh, so this comment of yours saying "that won't work" was addressing DJClayworth's answer which says "The question doesn't have to cover all possible interpretation of Obama's statement"; your comment was not addressing, not disagreeing with (in fact, is agreeing with) my previous comments which were saying much the same thing (i.e. saying that fixing the question to interpret the claim isn't the right answer). Sorry I didn't understand that sooner, I should have. – ChrisW Jun 25 '15 at 19:56
  • @ChrisW indeed, I should have mentioned DJ directly, but he's the OP. – Sklivvz Jun 25 '15 at 20:06
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I got what I wanted out of the question. Moderators have already edited the question, so I am comfortable with any moderator editing the question in a way they deem acceptable where they would open the question again.

I expected an argumentative discussion since the topic is so complex, but I got what I wanted from the answers and comments: a few views of incidents and fatalities sliced up a couple of ways and a look on raw gun death.

The argument will rage on (gun death numbers include suicide and lawful homicides; Israel is a 1st world country with greater mass violence; etc), but I got a lot of what I was looking for. I have a preference that the question be re-opened in case someone else has some insight to give. And I applaud the moderators for their work keeping the noise down on such a sensitive, political, and controversial topic.

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This question has received a large number of upvotes, because it is politically interesting in the aftermath of the shooting in Charleston.

However, the questions and answers have been a disaster area, perhaps partly because it is a political football and has attracted users from outside our normal voting base who understand our standards. There have been (what I suspect is) a record number of flags against the questions and answers. There have been dozens of comments that have been deleted, and the top answers violate our community standards.


Why is the question a disaster area?

In particular:

  • The title of the question doesn't match the claim.
  • The claim is vaaaague. The meanings of the terms "this type", "mass violence", "advanced countries", "mass shootings" have all been debated, and have lead to different answers and different opinions.
  • In fact the statement isn't even internally consistent: "X doesn't happen elsewhere" and "X doesn't happen this frequently elsewhere" is either tautological or the first sentence is meant to be tempered to the second. (Politifact says the White House says the second intepretation is true, but Politifact doesn't seem to accept it.)

This question should be closed as "Unclear what you are asking", because Obama's statement was not clear enough to have a truth value. It is not True. It is not False. It is vague.

I want to stop this disaster from unfolding further, but I want another mod/the community to check my working before closing such an upvoted question, so I have temporarily locked it while people get a chance to read this.


Why are the answers a disaster area?

DJClayworth's top answer is based on Original Research. If I had seen it earlier, it would have simply been deleted. Unfortunately, by the time I first read it, it already had 80 upvotes, and I felt compelled by the community voting not to delete it. That figure is now 120. OVER A HUNDRED UPVOTES on an answer that violates one of our basic rules? Sigh.

Why do we have such a rule? Well the 80+ (deleted and non-deleted comments) give us a clue. Everyone started (perhaps reasonably?) bickering over definitions (is Norway in Europe?), pointing out errors in calculations, debating conclusions.

Meanwhile, the limited amount of actual data made any conclusion difficult to support.

David Mulder's second top answer started making the same sorts of errors, but it was caught faster, and identified as Original Research which just lead to the Why-only-pick-on-me? defence, which was the point I felt we had gone too far, and I needed to step in despite the high upvotes.

Hatchet's third highest answer was much better, in that it pointed to a third-party analysis by experts. Frankly, I was totally unimpressed by the quality of the third-party analysis (With so few data points, we need some better idea of error bars and whether there was a significant difference between the different rates. I dare say two shootings in Norway is insufficient to conclude Norway has a higher underlying base rate.)

Sklivvz's answer looked at all gun deaths. It is debatable whether that is what was intended by Obama.


In conclusion, I had some trepidation about closing a question and answers with so many upvotes, so I have taken the unusual action of locking the question and posting this meta-question before I take action.

But it is only the upvotes that have made me feel this way. The content itself frankly isn't worth saving. It doesn't advance the political discussion about gun control and, more importantly, it doesn't make the Internet a better place.

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    Hatchet's answer quotes Politifact which is all over the place about it being false, except true, except false. – Oddthinking Jun 24 '15 at 19:19
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    -1 I upvoted hatchet's answer for quoting published study: that answer is IMO proof that the question is answerable. I didn't vote at all on DJClayworth's because I thought it doesn't meet moderators' rules, but in my opinion it's a useful answer and not original research (it quotes others' research AND explains its applying those numbers as an answer to this question). Your final "doesn't make the internet a better place" is mere opinion, a way of saying "I don't like this"; instead IMO the question should stay open, not because I "like" it, but because it abides by our rules/standards. – ChrisW Jun 24 '15 at 19:31
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    My answer is a simple calculation made by adding up some figures in a table. If that's "original research" then half the answers on this site are original research. – DJClayworth Jun 24 '15 at 19:38
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    This reads like you are trying to set up a policy of "If the moderators don't think the answer is very good, delete it". My memory of the fundamental precepts of StackExchange is "good answers will be upvoted and bad ones will be downvoted". – DJClayworth Jun 24 '15 at 19:45
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    @DJClayworth I think that policy was established on this site long ago: on this site, a moderator deletes answers which in their opinion don't abide by the/their rules, even if the question is popular (upvoted). Apparently such questions were/are also flagged by users. – ChrisW Jun 24 '15 at 19:55
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    Are you arguing that the "content isn't worth saving" because "it doesn't advance the political discussion about gun control"? I thought we were satisfied to ask smaller questions, to have smaller requirements, i.e. "Is it a claim, is the claim notable, and is the question asking whether the claim is true?" – ChrisW Jun 24 '15 at 20:21
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    @DJClayworth: I reject that it was a simple adding of numbers, as shown by the huge arguments afterwards about your methodology for selecting the numbers. I reject that adding numbers is the appropriate or sufficient statistical analysis for this question. I reject that the adding was simple, because there were mistakes in even that. – Oddthinking Jun 25 '15 at 1:39
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    @ChrisW: While I am frustrated that the opportunity to look skeptically at one of America's biggest political questions quickly devolved into arguing over the grammar and definitions, that wasn't the main reason. I argue it doesn't make the Internet a better place, because I think someone researching an answer would be better off if this question did NOT appear at the top of their search results. – Oddthinking Jun 25 '15 at 1:45
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    @Oddthinking Are you locking it because of "wrong answers", or because of "wrong question", or because of "too many comments"? If it's because of the question, what is the attribute of the question that makes it wrong: too broad? too subjective? too recent? too political? too American-political? If it were true that the question should have been closed by users during its first 40 minutes, what characteristic of the question did I miss? – ChrisW Jun 25 '15 at 8:10
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    At the moment IMO I couldn't close it if I wanted to: I see no justification for closing it, it's absolutely on-topic, and closing it just because I didn't like it or something would be, I don't know, an abuse of my vote-to-close: I couldn't justify it. So what should be my excuse/reason for closing such a question in future? – ChrisW Jun 25 '15 at 8:12
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    While I can see how Obama's claim could be thought of as vague I don't think it is. His second sentence is clarifying his first. "This kind of mass violence" = "Frequent mass violence" – curiousdannii Jun 25 '15 at 8:13
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    Unfortunately I must ignore this comment which you addressed to me because I don't understand it: it seems to me a circular definition. You say you think "it doesn't make the Internet a better place" because you think "someone researching an answer would be better off if this question did NOT appear" ... but why do you think that, i.e. what's wrong with this question? – ChrisW Jun 25 '15 at 9:01
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    @Sklivvz IMO I cannot (or should not) close a question for no reason. In order to close, I would need a reason. For example you recently invented/identified a new reason-to-close, i.e. "recent news still under investigation": and all questions in that (defined) category can now be (and are) closed. What specific objectionable category does this question belong to? I could not have voted to close it as "unclear", "too broad", or "opinion-based" because I didn't think it was. Also I will not downvote every answer which you would judge to be "OR". – ChrisW Jun 25 '15 at 14:52
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    @Sklivvz So am I right in saying that the comments are the problem? The symptom, the sickness, the disease? Would sweeping it under the rug, i.e. banishing all comments to chat, leaving only Q+A (and votes, and a link to a chat room) on the main site be a sufficiently neat+clean solution that doesn't involve too much work for moderators? Or is that impossible, because SE software doesn't provide a mechanism to do that (e.g. permitting new answer but not permitting new comments) without excessive moderator intervention? Or is that useless because it's not the comments that are the problem? – ChrisW Jun 25 '15 at 14:57
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    a sign that there is probably a problem Yes, probably a problem: but actually (having looked) I haven't seen/identified a specific problem. Might this be some edge case: attracts smoke without being on fire, a.k.a. invites disagreement without being off-topic? I don't think the number of comments is the actual problem Are you saying that if on inspection there is no clear problem with the question, then the comments themselves are not sufficient reason to close the topic ... or, saying that such comments are sufficient evidence that there must be some kind of problem with the question? – ChrisW Jun 25 '15 at 18:12

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