Just now an answer of mine was closed with reference to the "No theoretical answers" rule.

I have a big problem with that, because this implicates that Skeptics SE operate on the on the "It's just a theory" way of thinking about science and scientific theory.

The issue rests here:

answering via a purely theoretical model is inappropriate

Well let me bring some examples of theoretical models:

  • Gravity is a theoretical model
  • Disease-carrying germs is a theoretical model
  • Atoms is a theoretical model

Essentially the rule says that if we reference gravity, germs or atoms as scientific theories, we are not allowed to answer, which is exactly what happened to my answer.

Everywhere else when skeptic matters are discussed, people jump at the chance to point out that "It's just a theory" is a flawed way of arguing; that the colloquial term "theory" is more akin to "an unconfirmed hypothesis" while in scientific terms a "theory" is the highest status that a claim can achieve.

So I am asking: what is considered a "theory" on Skeptics SE? What does the wording "purely theoretical" actually mean?


I have a big problem with that, because this implicates that Skeptics SE operate on the on the "It's just a theory" way of thinking about science and scientific theory.

We categorically do not subscribe to that school of thought. Au contraire.

We want answers to be specifically about the question, backed by factual evidence and ideally not on a model. Compare answering a question on global warming based on the temperature prediction of a climate model versus an actual measurement--both are valid but an actual measurement is much stronger evidence.

What we disallow is answers where the OP builds up a personal theory (or a personal model) instead of sticking to available evidence.

In particular, your latest answer which got deleted was quite a philosophical digression on "what is a model and what are atoms", but presented no evidence.

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    "OP builds up a personal theory (or a personal model)...". Two things: 1) I agree that this that you just described does not belong on Skeptics SE. 2) Change the wording of the rule. Do not call it "theory"/"theorerical". Call it "speculation", or "speculative answers". As you said here now: skeptics categorically do not subscribe to the "it's just a theory" mode of thinking. But to then have a rule that says "theories not allowed" is just begging for confusion and conflict. Do not mix the colloquial term "theory" with the scientific one. Write the rule with unambiguous wording. – MichaelK Feb 13 '18 at 13:08
  • @MichaelK the word "theoretical" is correct because unfortunately in science the term is also used ambiguously for hypothetical models (e.g. "string theory" is more correctly "a hypothesis" and is not allowed here). We also disallow "armchair science" answers which we call theoretical (e.g. to "does it takes thirty seconds to fall down the empire state building?" answer by making the calculation, "assuming there's no friction", etc. etc.). It's the counterpart to "empyrical" – Sklivvz Feb 13 '18 at 13:36
  • That the term is used in an ambiguous manner in scientific circles does not solve the problem: the ambiguity. The rule is fuzzy and unclear because of this. Replace the term with an unambiguous ditto. – MichaelK Feb 13 '18 at 13:40
  • Can't change it now, just like "Notable claim", "theoretical answer" means more than just those two words do on this site and arguably elsewhere. It's pretty cliquey I guess but at least there are examples and explanations – daniel Feb 14 '18 at 13:01
  • Sometimes an answer based on a model is all that is available. Nobody has ever timed someone falling down the Empire State Building. To answer the question we have to calculate it based on other information, something that is actually pretty easy to do. Obviously a good one would also take air resistance into account. However I would absolutely oppose any idea that such a calculation was an invalid answer purely because nobody had ever timed a fall from the Empire State. – DJClayworth Feb 19 '18 at 18:01
  • @DJClayworth how long does it take for a coin to fall down the empire state building? A paper airplane? A feather? It's only easy if you don't know better. That's the underlying problem with theoretical stuff. People who don't know the subject think hard stuff is easy and vote up bad answers all the time. – Sklivvz Feb 19 '18 at 22:43
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    The solution to that is to vote up the good ones and vote down the bad ones. – DJClayworth Feb 19 '18 at 23:06

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