This question title is misleading: "Is public transport worse than cars?"

The actual question text is,

"... told me that public transport (buses, trains and so on) are less efficient than individual cars. ... an average car doing 35 mpg ..."

The top-voted answer replies, "Yes, public transportation appears to be worse than cars" and it then goes on to talk about BTUs per passenger mile.

In another forum I would edit a title to match the question, but here the title is important to the original woo. So:

  • Would you prefer to edit the title to match the question, for example (less popular and attention-grabbing):

    Are buses less fuel-efficient than cars, given the current average vehicle occupancy rates?

  • Or, keep the original title but accept answers which address that title, along the lines of:

    Notwithstanding the average occupancy, buses are better than cars for several other reasons, as follows (list of other reasons: social, economic, urban planning).

-Edit to reply to the first comment-

Would you be okay replacing "worse" with "less efficient"? I admit I have having a bit of trouble understanding the problem.

I'm having trouble understanding your comment:

  • You don't understand how a title can be misleading?
  • You don't understand why this particular title is misleading?
  • You don't understand why I'm puzzled about what to do about it?

How a title can be misleading.

Let me try another hypothetical example, more extreme in order to illustrate the point (and let's assume for the sake of this example that there is a case to be made against slavery).

  • Question title: Is slavery better than freedom?
  • Question text: My friend told me that slaves are treated quite well by their owners, and don't have the hassle of having to manage their own property.
  • Answer: Yes, slavery is better than freedom! Extensive studies show that (because slaves are expensive) it's in owners' interests to keep them healthy: so, to that extent it's true that slaves are generally not mistreated. It's also true that, because a slave is property, he or she cannot own property.

How this title is of that category.

"Good" and "Average fuel efficiency" are not the same thing.

There are arguments other than the "average fuel efficiency" which are worth mentioning if you really want to consider whether "public transport is worse than cars"; for example:

  • Peak capacity (public transport reduces rush-hour traffic)
  • Parking (leave the car at home)
  • Urban density (because of the above, cities can be denser than they could be if people only used their own cars); and urban density enables a ton of other efficiencies
  • Social benefits (school kids, the working poor, senior citizens can travel without owning a private car, having a chauffeur, or paying for taxis)

Why I'm puzzled about what to do about it

If this place is supposed to be like myth-busters then the original misleading title is part of the myth ("Public transport is worse than cars because of low occupancy and high fuel costs during off-peak hours") ... which implies that one shouldn't change the title.

On the other hand, answering the title instead of (or as well as) answering the question leaves you open to charges that you're not answering the question.

But answering the question text without challenging the question title implies that you've bought in to the premise that's implied by the title.

  • Would you be okay replacing "worse" with "less efficient"? I admit I have having a bit of trouble understanding the problem. – MrHen Jun 22 '11 at 20:21
  • At the very least, "worse" could easily be altered to be something like "higher carbon footprint/emissions" or "less efficient." – Hendy Jun 23 '11 at 0:55
  • The other problem with changing the title is that the current title is scandalous (attention-grabbing, interesting, fun). Changing the title would make it less sensational (I'm using these words loosely). – ChrisW Jun 23 '11 at 2:17
  • @MrHen I edited my answer in reply to your comment. – ChrisW Jun 23 '11 at 3:41
  • @Hendy That's my question: in general, can/should the original title just be changed? Or are the questions on this forum meant to include (for example) some extraordinary and perhaps slightly dodgy assumptions? – ChrisW Jun 23 '11 at 3:45

First, let me check I have understood your concerns, by summarising them in my own words.

  • You don't like people using words like "better", "worse" and "good" without qualification, because they have different meanings in different contexts.
  • Titles have very little context, so these words should not be used.
  • If they are used, it becomes difficult to know whether to answer using the definition provided in the question (i.e. address the question) or your own definition of the words (i.e. address the title).

My answer:

  • Questions asking about "better"/"worse"/"good"/"bad" are often subjective, and out of scope. However, sometimes "better" is objectively defined.
  • Sometimes the meaning of "better" is completely clear from context (e.g. "Is the lifetime of fluoroescent tubes better than incandescent bulbs?") and requires no further definition.
  • Titles should not mislead; if you think they do, edit them.
  • However, it isn't reasonable to expect all terms in the title to be defined in the title. It is acceptable to define them in the question.

Now, let me answer this in a slightly different, more extensive, form, in the hope it can be the basis for a FAQ question one day.

What Makes A Good Title?

  • Primarily, a title should help the reader decide whether they can answer the question or are interested in the answers of others.
  • A title should be concise. This allows people can read many of them quickly.
  • The title should match the question.
  • Unclear terms in the title should be avoided, but if necessary, terms should be defined in the question. (It may be acceptable to state that you are unclear on the definition.)
  • A title should be in the form of a question. It tends to focus the question onto a particular claim. (This might just be a personal preference, but I find it easier to skim through the list when all the entries have a similar structure.)
  • Between the title and the tags, keywords relating to the question should appear. This helps search-engines and people looking for known questions in a list.
  • Ideally, the title should be inviting. People will find the site more interesting to peruse if the topics we discuss sound interesting. At the same time, it shouldn't detract from other questions by using tricks to grab attention without merit.
  • 1
    To be honest, I'm cool with a title being slightly misleading if,in exchange, it is eye-catching and concise (whereas a "proper" title would be rather long and would be far less eye-catching). – Borror0 Jun 26 '11 at 8:13
  • @Borror0, I agree. There's a tension there between the demands to be being inviting/eye-catching and to not be unclear/too long/misleading. Either extreme is undesirable. I hope my answer explains the different forces. – Oddthinking Jun 26 '11 at 14:53
  • 1
    "First, let me check I have understood your concerns" - My first concern (about it's being misleading) was the generalising: from a single anecdote ("It happened once, so generally it always happens"); from a single cohort ("Healthy people don't benefit from restricted salt intake, so generally no one does"); or from a single metric ("Buses are less fuel efficient than cars, so generally public transport is worse than private automobiles"). – ChrisW Jun 28 '11 at 1:32
  • @ChrisW, I think we have broad consensus that single anecdotes are poor evidence (except as non-extraordinary counter-examples to "All X are Y" claims) and that extrapolating broadly from a limited cohort without justification is dangerous. Defining "better" from a single metric is something that I hope my answer addresses. – Oddthinking Jun 28 '11 at 1:46

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