As far as I understood it (so far), Skeptics.SE is essentially about science in the broadest meaning of the term, or rather, for answering questions about "pseudoscience and biased results". Ref. Has "Skepticism" been defined.

I've seen plenty of "loaded" question in the past, where the claim hidden (or not so hidden) behind the questioned claim was about attacking or defending political agendas, to the point where it was difficult to judge whether the question was really about finding the (scientific) truth, or more about disseminating a "truth", if you get my meaning.

We have, as one possible bullet point explanation for a Vote to Close / Off Topic, the text that "questions about unresolved current events and issues currently under investigation by a court of law, government, or other similar investigative body are off-topic because there is insufficient data for a meaningful answer".

This question for example is at best an attempt to refute a slanderous accusation. At worst it's echoing the (unproven) accusation for publicity (which it still does even if the OP meant well). In neither case does "science" have anything to do with it.

In the comment thread on this question/answer -- by the same user -- @ChrisW expressed his concern that...

...some people might want to use/abuse this forum as a wall on which mud sticks.

This is basically what I am worried about.

I, personally, think that we should have a stronger response still to this type of question ("did X say Y", "did X do Y"), one that ends with the deletion of the question. I can already flag a question for moderator attention, but would such a call to moderation find some kind of consensus?

Or have I misunderstood the purpose of Skeptics.SE and News / Politics questions devoid of science background are actually welcome here?

| |
  • 4
    I very much welcome this post. Although skepticism isn't exclusively about 'science' we as a site shall for sure not take part in these feeding frenzies of current events. Problem is: once the media circus is out of town, nobody is interested in 'old news' anymore (if it wasn't resolved in the meantime anyway). I do vote accordingly. Should we formulate some kind of a quarantine period? – LаngLаngС Sep 24 '19 at 13:13
  • 1
    @LangLangC: I am not sure what you are aiming for. My personal preference would be a stronger moderation of the site towards scientific questions and away from the associated political agenda pushing in general, and the outright deletion of "did X do Y" or "did X say Y". – DevSolar Sep 24 '19 at 13:17
  • For the scope here 'science' should not be understood as STEM-only, but explicitly include all other 'sciences' (including political or communications s.) and then quite a bit of other stuff previously handled well here (say: "applied skepticism"?). But 'yesterday allegedly dog-bit-man' type for the political news section is just a tedious chore, to clean up. I thought you meant mainly that we let that slide too much? The linked example cannot fly here, present tense political fight in the news. If ever one was OT, you found it. Are there (many) more of this type now left open and UVed? – LаngLаngС Sep 24 '19 at 13:30
  • 1
    @LangLangC: Not so much worried about the past ("Did Hillary delete Emails" or whatever), more worried about the mudslinging that is inevitably befall us in the upcoming 2020 US presidential elections campaign (of which the linked issue is probably already a part), or the UK general election for that matter. I'd like to see that kind of stuff dealt with extreme prejudice -- for both sides of the argument. Talking about science (in the widest sense), yes. Verifying / disseminating the latest slander on the political opposition, no. – DevSolar Sep 24 '19 at 13:52
  • I think that for many political events it is important that there is some time for the cards to fall into place so "dog bites man?" Might not include all the relevant facts (man bit dog first) so I think a mandatory waiting period for non-STEM questions like 3 months should be enough, no point in making it longer. – Borgh Sep 25 '19 at 7:55
  • @Borgh: My question goes further; I personally consider "dog bites man?" to be generally OT for this site and am asking whether that is indeed consensus, or whether I am mistaken. I understood this site to be about "do 85% of dogs bite men", if you allow me to expand your metaphor. Individual dogs and their actions are for the press, and possibly a court. – DevSolar Sep 25 '19 at 7:59
  • You sound like in comments you want to target "politician said dumb thing" questions. Is that right, or is that all? We've discussed it a bit, of which my preference is that we make explicit what "notable" means regarding quotes. Contrary to punditry assertions, not everything a politician says is notable and worth discussing. – fredsbend Sep 25 '19 at 16:28
  • However, in post you sound like you want to talk about empirical science only, as that's how I understand "scientific skepticism" as a term, and want all else deleted with extreme prejudice. As such, I've downvoted the post. My preference is that we fixate on that too much already, and would rather that we foster and use a skeptic philosophy in all answering, which 'empiricism' is only a subset. The 'theoretical answers' rule is part of the problem. – fredsbend Sep 25 '19 at 16:30
  • @DevSolar Your most recent comment is ambiguous. "OT" is "on topic" or "off topic"? I guess context tells me off topic? – fredsbend Sep 25 '19 at 16:39
  • @fredsbend Off-topic, correct. And excuse the ambiguity, that was a brainfart from me. -- The issue came to my intention in the context of a question echoing an unproven allegation that could be construed as a jab at an upcoming presidential candidate, and I am afraid that the trend of populist politics in recent years could lead to this side losing even more in quality. I found no better line to draw than the "science" line. I understand that many good past questions fall outside these limits, but I think that line has to be drawn somewhere. Do you have a better suggestion as answer? – DevSolar Sep 25 '19 at 16:52
  • @DevSolar Oh, certainly, 2016 was a serious bane on this site and interesting, lasting, quality questions and answers suffered and because less frequent. I completely agree there's a problem and we can expect it intensifying over the next year. However, I think there is some usefulness to having that line outside of empiricism. I have some thoughts and will attempt an answer when I get some time. Hopefully later today. – fredsbend Sep 25 '19 at 16:55
  • @DevSolar I'm reviewing some meta things and found I never did follow up with you. How do you feel about a temporary ban on some or all politics, until we feel like we can figure it out? With the 2020 election bearing down on us soon, and 2020 in general becoming a rather inflamed year, I feel the need to halt political topics aggressively, at least temporarily. I'd rather we don't draw at the "science" line and all else be damned, but do agree it's hard to find a clear path for that line elsewhere. – fredsbend Jun 19 at 23:00
  • LOL, your highest scoring tag is donald-trump. – fredsbend Jun 19 at 23:01
  • @fredsbend Donald is a very easy target, and a popular one... as for the politics, I think a well-formulated community-specific close reason would be the best way forward. I am however not invested enough at the moment, for personal reasons, to come up with a draft of my own. – DevSolar Jun 20 at 11:01

I think this question conflates several different issues which makes it more difficult to answer.

Are we all about science?

As far as I understood it (so far), Skeptics.SE is essentially about science in the broadest meaning of the term, or rather, for answering questions about "pseudoscience and biased results".

I think focussing it around "science" is the wrong emphasis. Absolutely, many of the questions are about scientific topics, and we apply many of the techniques of science in coming up with answer [but not all scientific approaches are acceptable here - particularly, original research is deliberately limited.]

Instead, I would focus on the phrase "scientific skepticism", which Wikipedia describes as "an epistemological position in which one questions the veracity of claims lacking empirical evidence".

We don't do science here. We report on the empirical evidence that other people have found. That empirical evidence may be to support (or refute) claims about classical science topics, but it might also be used for claims that are not directly in the domain of science.

Examples of on-topic sciency questions:

Examples of on-topic non-sciency questions:

Should quote questions be on-topic?

At one far edge of the non-sciency questions are the "Did this author/politician/celebrity say this thing?" questions.

They are (only) answerable with empirical evidence and references, so they fit our approach, but they aren't about scientific hypotheses. There has been a lot of suggestions that they be limited or removed:

I asked the May 2015 question, and based on the comments and answers, I was convinced I was in the minority. These questions have been considered on-topic from the beginning, and remain so.

Should issues from today's newspaper headlines be left open?

This is a separate issue.

Where there is an unsubstantiated allegation in the media, and the journalists are rushing to find the answer and be the first to report it, there is nothing that Skeptics.SE can do. We don't have an army of investigative journalists that can interview people. We don't have an army of detectives with badges that can search premises. We don't have an army of prosecutors that can compel people to answer questions at risk of perjury. We don't have an impartial jury to decide on issues of fact.

Such questions are closed until they can be answered by referring to other sources (by which time the OP will probably find the answers have already appeared in the media).

Are "loaded" questions on-topic?

A loaded question is one which presupposes a controversial assumption.

There are several approaches here:

  • These can be answered by pointing out the false assumption behind the question - but be careful that you aren't simply dodging the question.
  • It may be possible to be edited to be about the assumption itself.
  • It might be appropriate to close the question - especially if the loaded claim is coming from the OP and isn't widely believed.

Are slanderous questions on-topic?

Generally the advice is to defer the controversial issues of whether a question violates the law to Stack Exchange staff.

These questions can be edited to make it clearer that the claim in the questions is unsubstantiated and likely untrue (unless an answer substantiates it!)

Should we be afraid that repeating a claim in a question will serve to promulgate the claim?


I originally wrote here:

I think so, yes. It continues to concern me that debunking here might not serve the purpose of changing the minds of people who believe in falsehoods. There are studies [citation-needed] showing that an article stating a false claim and then debunking it can actually backfire and reinforce the claim. There are techniques [citation-needed] that are recommended to journalists to identify a claim is false before stating it that this site does not follow.

But I was challenged in a comment to actually fill in those [citation-needed].

Here are some sources for the "Backfire Effect" I was describing:

But it seems that there has been some newer evidence that suggests it isn't common!

It is late, and I haven't evaluated these articles properly yet, but I remain excited that the depressing concept of the Backfire Effect might not be as bad as I thought.

This is the "mud sticks" issue, and it isn't limited to claims about politicians. It is a concern, and the solution isn't clear.

Once a user asked a question about a claim about a celebrity that I thought was rather offensive and perhaps defamatory. I didn't close the question, but I made a comment (actually, I think it was in chat, but I don't recall clearly) expressing displeasure at the question, only to feel chastised when the user pointed out that he also found the claim offensive and was really hoping for a clear debunking. Within 24 hours, he had an accepted answer that showed the claim was unsubstantiated. I have tried to learn my lesson from that, and not assumed that every post about a nasty personal claim is actually intended as an attack on the subject.


In each section I describe how we are currently dealing with such questions. This is "how it is", but not necessarily how it "should' be. That is up to the community to decide.

| |
  • Thank you for this well-written answer, which clarifies a couple of points I was unsure about (perhaps part of the reason why the question isn't more to-the-point). It certainly gives a reference point from which to operate. – DevSolar Oct 8 '19 at 13:59
  • Would you like to add a citation about "claim debunking backfiring"? – LаngLаngС Oct 8 '19 at 14:43
  • 1
    @LangLangC: Have edited, and was surprised by what I found. – Oddthinking Oct 8 '19 at 15:03

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .