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We occasionally get questions with a title like "Is [Product Name] a hoax?" (or equivalently "Is [Product Name] a scam?"

Those questions tend to attract major edits. Why?

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The Problem

There are several reasons why these titles are poorly structured.

They include:

Calling for Speculation about Motivation

Wikipedia defines "hoax" as:

A hoax is a deliberately fabricated falsehood made to masquerade as truth. It is distinguishable from errors in observation or judgment, or rumors, urban legends, pseudosciences or April Fools' Day events that are passed along in good faith by believers or as jokes.

The keyword here is "deliberately". For someone to answer whether it is a hoax, they must be able to divine the intentions of the people making the claim. While judges and juries are asked to make these divinations, we strongly avoid it here because it is not something that can be referenced with empirical evidence. So, unless someone was convicted in a court, we can't answer that question.

False Dichotomy

The "Is it a hoax?" question asks us to consider only two cases - it is a hoax or it isn't a hoax. However, if we go back to the Wikipedia definition, we can see there are a number of ways in which something can be false, but not a hoax.

The more important question is whether the claim is true.

Vagueness

To readers who do not recognise the product name, there is little information in the title about whether this question is of interest to them. By including a brief version of the claim, they can understand whether this is related to one of their areas of interest or expertise.

Related to this, it isn't the product that is the claim; it is the claim about what the product can do (and/or whether it exists) that should be investigated.

Defamation

While we are given a pretty free reign by Stack Overflow Inc., about what we say, we should diligently avoid careless defamation of people. Putting aside whether is libel in the the legal sense, suggesting someone is a hoaxer before the evidence is in is... unseemly.

The Solution

If you see (or write) a question that asks "Is [Product Name] a hoax?", edit as follows:

  • Find the main claim made about the product, and summarise that in the title: e.g. "Does Product name remove stubborn stains from my chakra?"
  • Remove the words "hoax" or "scam" from the title and body. Ask if a claim is true.
  • "Does Product name remove stubborn stains from my chakra?" doesn't sound like a good example to me as there no clear empiric test of whether or not a product does this. – Christian Feb 6 '16 at 11:54
  • @Christian: Agreed. Got a better one? – Oddthinking Feb 6 '16 at 12:44

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