I've seen this happen a few times on this site, most recently with my own question Are 20% of automobile drivers under the influence of marijuana? . Some users asked me about whether I expected an answer with respect to drivers in the United States or worldwide, and I had to admit that the claim itself did not specify a scope and that I was interested in answers from any scope (e.g. worldwide, US only, only the Center City area of Philadelphia during the week that Weed Heritage Week coincided with a Grateful Dead concert, etc.).

In general, does an ambiguity in a claim pose a problem that warrants closure (either for needs details or clarity or non-notable claim)? Should the OP choose and specify the scope that they want the community to investigate (e.g. "I know that the claim I quoted about 20% of drivers being under the influence of marijuana does not specify a geographic or temporal bound, so I am requesting an answer for Nashville, Tennessee in 1982.")?

1 Answer 1


Our first approach should be to use the definitions that the claimant meant. One of the reasons we ask for "notability" references is to give sufficient context that we can look for clues about what was intended when the claim is ambiguous or unclear (or might have been said ironically).

In your example question, I see the original claimant is writing for a Florida-based foundation, and referencing the CDC, US jobs, American Addiction Center, National Institute on Drug Abuse - all US organisations. The references are generally dated 2018-2020. So I would expect the scope of the claim to refer to the USA (perhaps focussed on Florida) in the period around 2016-2019.

If that fails to clarify, we should lean toward the steelman interpretation; given the original claimant is rarely available to clarify, we should adopt the reasonable definitions or context that makes their claim most likely to be true. [This can be taken too far - we shouldn't need to contort the definitions beyond recognition in a overambitious attempt to rescue a false claim.]

Sometimes, definitions that are used by the claimant are very different from what the lay public might expect them to be - perhaps especially when experts use a jargon term. This can result in claims where the simple answer is actually misleading to most readers. (e.g. "Yes, the Theory of Evolution is just a theory.") In such cases, pointing out how the claim may be misleading, and also answering whether it is true with the definitions understood by the lay public would improve an answer.

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