Questions and answers are meant to be clearly expressed and referenced. This should be immune to cognitive bias, in all but extreme examples.

But I feel that every other interaction on this subsite (a least) is implicated by cognitive biases, both at the individual and group level. What do you think could be done to counteract these biases?

I'm asking this question because I've asked questions before which have left me doubting that anything I say makes sense sense -- at all.

  • 2
    Unless we subject every submission, be it a question, answer, or comment, to an infeasible (and frustrating) vetting process, I don't see how this is possible. Your proposal would also render the site inaccessible to virtually everyone if we were to be strict. I agree that objectivity in argument is paramount, but it's also impractical on this forum. Even rigorously peer-reviewed journals don't manage that with consistency.
    – commando
    Nov 24, 2016 at 4:50

3 Answers 3


Openness has a boundary when it conflicts with the very purpose of a stackexchange.

In all seriousness, when looking something up in a SE, I do not want to read narratives or opinions, but questions and answers that have some kind of factual background. And the facts in philosophy happen to be books, fragments, letters and articles, so that is what we should build both questions and answers on.

And I think you are to some extend right, this would reduce the danger of cognitive bias. But it does not prevent it (as there are several different readings for every philosopher out there, although I personally do not get how this could ever happen) and the big question remains wether the sheer amount of moderation and direct influence by moderators really is what we want. In the end, it should be the community that corrects itself via votes. Problem being: It doesn't. The blabla questions and answers have thousands of views and hundreds of votes, while most of the good ones barely make it to 100 views.

However, changing this through great effort by the moderator team (for which nobody pays them and they would have to endure much hate while given little support) may reduce popularity among some people and especially laymen, but the current status clearly prevents this site from gaining popularity among more experienced students and professionals, of which it would profit the most imho.

Why? Well, point one for me is that I honestly doubt that the special problems I ask can be answered here! Because both a look at some question titles and looking for certain philosopher's tags and the Q/A ratio and quality will make me doubt and out of experience. Point two, which is intertwined: People in academics chronically suffer under lack of time. I am myself contributing because I see it as a little exercise in fields I am interested in anyways and it is a mean for my procrastination.

Now normally if you are short of time, you would need to have the certainty that it is worth to contribute because you get something back out of it. But if 99% of the question are (certainly) philosophical, but not at the actuality and depth you need (postgrad philosophers need to do something NEW on texts with contemporary sources), you think twice. If you have to dig up sources basic and nevertheless specific enough because questions are overly broad for properly answering it (according to the standards you got used to!), it also is just not worth it.

This is not arrogance or snobbishness...it is mere necessity. Once the community of professionals is big enough to perpetuate and self-sustain the level of mutual benefit, everything's fine. After that point, spare time can be invested into more general or basic questions by them as well. But to be honest, my main benefits are mostly procrastination and nurturing my slightly narcisstic parts at the moment. In some rare moments it is remembering stuff I almost forgot or precising certain readings of specific concepts, which is fine. But is it worth it digging through pages of questions about basic logic, naming of fallacies, the existence of God and wether it is wrong to kill babies? In case, I will rather write an email to a fellow researcher and meet them for a coffee...

I, personally, have no problem in having a process of forming a question/answer, i.e. helping through comments to let them rest on a factual basis. It's just that I all too often sit there and ask myself: Seriously? or Again? while upvotes pop up out of nowhere.

Regarding your network question in particular - I just reread it and realised that the answer does not really answer it. That's actually not your fault, it is shabby reading on our side (I explicitely include myself here). It totally makes sense to ask wether ideas similar to Hegel's Geist are discussed in recent philosophy. But I see no problem with cognitive bias there...

  • "The blabla questions and answers have ...hundreds of votes". I'd be very interested to hear some examples of this kind of behaviour. In the time I've been reading this site I've generally found the opposite, the most highly voted answers are usually from the very experienced experts with high reputations providing quotes and citations from philosophers. Some seem to get at least one vote before I've even finished reading their answer! The extremely opinionated seem to get quite consistently down-voted, with only one or two exceptions to quite specific types of question.
    – Isaacson
    Dec 1, 2016 at 10:11
  • @Isaacson you can sort the questions by votes (philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions?sort=votes) and review for yourself. My takeaway from doing this is that Philip took some rhetorical liberties in describing the votes/views situation while describing a feature (soft/qualitative questions getting a fair bit of attention) that he sees in the activity on this site.
    – Dave
    Dec 2, 2016 at 4:01
  • @Dave Unless I can also sort questions by "Philip's-idea-of-blabla-ness" then I don't think looking for myself is going help me understand where Philip is coming from. Also, one unfortunately cannot sort questions by votes given to the answers, which was one of Philip's points above. Keelan has swiftly asked me to back up my assertion that many members would like an objective and thriving site, so I'm sure he will shortly be doing the same for Philip's assertion that "blabla questions and answers have thousands of views and hundreds of votes" and I will no doubt have my query answered anyway.
    – Isaacson
    Dec 2, 2016 at 8:12
  • @Isaacson did you do check the questions sorted by vote (I even provided the link!)? If you had you have seen that the highest voted question ever has only 141 votes, and the counts go down quickly after that, so it is clear that Philip is exaggerating the # of votes/# of views, and thus there are no literal examples of the phenomenon he described. My impression from scanning the highly active questions, it seems to be a mixed bag.
    – Dave
    Dec 2, 2016 at 14:13
  • @Isaacson I am obviously ranting a bit and exaggerating for the sake of making a point clear. One thing to be kept in mind regarding the link is the age of the question btw. Thank you for your understanding of it and stepping in, Dave
    – Philip Klöcking Mod
    Dec 2, 2016 at 14:18
  • @Philip I think you've misinterpreted my comment, I'm not actually asking for several hundred examples to back up your claim to the letter, I just don't really see any quantity of answers by low rep users of a "blabla" nature getting high votes, so I was wondering if you could point me to a couple of examples, that's all.
    – Isaacson
    Dec 2, 2016 at 16:05
  • 1
    @Isaacson: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/29632/… philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/38542/… philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/38942/… This is the direction I think of...questions without any framework/reference, answers that start with "Not a terribly philosophical answer here..." and provide not a single reference and get 25 votes...
    – Philip Klöcking Mod
    Dec 2, 2016 at 16:11
  • @Philip Sorry, still not quite following you, the answers to the first question begin with answers that are really well rooted in philosophical texts with citations and quotes (one answer is even your own), the second is of a slightly less well cited nature but is on logic and so need less by way of quotes from sources, either way two of the top three answers are from two of the highest rep users. That leaves just one example that is, indeed not very sourced in the philosophical canon, but at least restricts it's investigation to a particular philosophical school, as advised in the help pages.
    – Isaacson
    Dec 2, 2016 at 16:27
  • Notwithstanding the examples (thanks for the effort, by the way) I'm still not sure I understand how their existence "berefts this site from popularity among students and professionals". As I mention in my answer below, are professional philosophers really that snobbish that they can't stand one or two slightly wishy-washy questions on the whole site? The ones I've worked with certainly aren't.
    – Isaacson
    Dec 2, 2016 at 16:29
  • @Isaacson: tried to make the point comprehendable, see edit
    – Philip Klöcking Mod
    Dec 2, 2016 at 17:04
  • @Philip Thanks again for the work, I hope I'm not the only one benefiting from your efforts at clarification. The trouble I'm having now is that you seem to be saying that there's not enough professional philosophers on PhilSE because there's not enough professional philosophers on PhilSE. Also, with the greatest respect, I'm still sensing a bit of snobbishness (not you personally, but reflected onto the professional community). Professionals are too busy to scroll down a page of questions to find one they might be interested in answering? It takes about 30 seconds to read all the headers.
    – Isaacson
    Dec 3, 2016 at 8:14

Isn't the wish to control or not to control expression to limit cognitive bias a cognitive bias? Some folks like safety and others feel stifled by rules.

Then the only logical answer is 'nothing can really be done'.

So this is not really a reasonable goal to pursue. There is no bright line between simply genuinely holding a position and having a cognitive bias. The writer has chosen which tradition(s) in which to frame his answer, or has been led to his question, with the prejudice of his entire experience.

IMHO all we can really hope for is to cultivate openness in the readers.

That is a goal that I can see us actually working on. There are a lot of folks who fail to give consideration to answers, or who attack them out of hand, or with too much force because they have long ago decided to disagree with all related positions, and not because they can actually see a genuine weakness present.


This is part of a problem which seems to arise often in Meta. There is a theory that many members of the SE adhere to, that we can have an objectively accurate and thriving site. I don't see how these two things can both be possible, given the user base.

The theory is that we pursue objective accuracy, but the only really objectively answerable question would be of the sort "What did philosopher X say?" to which the answer would be "He said this (insert quote)" any interpretation or application of what was said to any more nuanced a question becomes subjective opinion, as Philip Klocking points out in his answer, "there are several different readings for every philosopher out there" (although I do not share his failure to understand how this could be, given the considerable and often deliberate circumlocution in philosophical texts).

A glance through the recent questions will show that the SE simply does not have a user base wanting that kind of answer, and this is hardly surprising. Professional philosophers have other professional philosophers to ask, students have their tutors and an extensive library. We're left with mainly amateurs. What's more, very few of them want simply to know what was said, they want some insight into what it means. This is, of course subjective, but no more so than programmers over at Stack Overflow offering different versions of the "best" solution to a particular software problem, and SO works just fine, in fact it's the model site.

Furthermore there are no restrictions on asking factually-based questions or providing completely objective answers. The idea that this will put experts off is either an insult to the experts or frighteningly true. Are expert philosophers really so snobbish that they can't bear to on the same site as someone asking a slightly plebish question, or giving a less than doctorate standard answer? I sincerely hope not. Generally , questions on this site (of the sort we're talking about here) get; a couple of references to relevant wikipedia or SEP articles in the comments, an answer outlining the positions of the relevant philosophical schools, an slightly more opinionated answer favouring one school and occasionally a very opinionated answer promoting a personal philosophy followed by a discussion in comments migrated to chat. The questioner can take their pick, the community can (and does) vote, I don't see the problem with this.

The only aspect which I think is likely to have a negative impact on users is, exactly as Jobermark points out, if people are not genuinely open to each other's answers and the honest sense of inquiry in most questions. The trouble is I think we each have a different view of what that openness would look like, but it's something work working towards.

  • Please provide references for your claims about "many members" in the first two paragraphs; I have the feeling this is not really what people here are saying.
    – user2953
    Dec 1, 2016 at 23:20
  • Para 4, first sentence: Is this a statement about the Phil. SE or about SO?
    – Dave
    Dec 2, 2016 at 4:05
  • @Keelan Unless I'm misunderstanding your request you're asking me to back up the fact that many members would like to see an objective and thriving site? Which of those two objectives do you think is unsupported in the Phil SE community, objectivity or wanting the site to thrive? Or are you suggesting that no-one supports both? If you could give me a little more clarity regarding what it is about the claim you're needing some support for if that's OK, then I can work on referencing it accordingly, I wouldn't want to waste time trawling through Meta questions to verify the wrong claim.
    – Isaacson
    Dec 2, 2016 at 8:21
  • @Dave "...there are no restrictions on asking factually-based questions or providing completely objective answers." I'm pretty sure that would apply to either, no?
    – Isaacson
    Dec 2, 2016 at 8:23
  • @Isaacson I can't tell whether you are trying to describe the actual state of affairs on SO, or the desired state of affairs here (or there).
    – Dave
    Dec 2, 2016 at 14:07
  • I am asking for references for (1) people claiming that this site can be objectively accurate and thriving, and (2) the very narrow view of objectivity described in your second paragraph.
    – user2953
    Dec 2, 2016 at 14:59
  • @Keelan "Stack Exchange sites are Q&A sites. They only work well with well-defined, objectively answerable questions. To a question "What do you think about ...?" any answer is equally valid. This is described on the How to ask page:" from here (meta.philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/3247/…) -- recieved 4 upvotes.
    – Dave
    Dec 2, 2016 at 15:31
  • There are more similar questions back in Meta, but I not sure what the best way to search for them are. To me, these discussions flow from a need to ensure that we have a large enough pool of people with actual expertise (as oppose to dilettantes like myself) for the site to thrive. If I recall correctly, virmaior is the strongest (currently active) voice advocating the idea that attracting people with expertise requires keeping the focus well within the domain of rigorous (possibly academic) philosophy.
    – Dave
    Dec 2, 2016 at 15:37
  • For my part, I'm mostly motivated by a strict, perhaps overly dogmatic, concept of what constitutes a good SE site: questions should be focused and have essentially one "right" answer, otherwise the site devolves into Quora or Yahoo Answers.
    – Dave
    Dec 2, 2016 at 15:43
  • @Keelan potentially relevant past discussion meta.philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/2820/… (that you participated in!)
    – Dave
    Dec 2, 2016 at 15:52
  • @Keelan There's this one for example in which you give the example ..."Objective: what philosopher says P?". This question, or rather the answers to it, or this one, but these are all really obvious ones so I feel I'm still missing the point of what you're asking here.
    – Isaacson
    Dec 2, 2016 at 16:12
  • @Keelan Likewise, I'm afraid, with the second part of your comment, I'm not sure how I would reference my view of what objective means. I could quote from a dictionary, but I'm sure that's not what you mean. I can only answer that I see objective as something which can be verified, subjective as something which two people might reasonably hold a different opinion on. Any interpretation of a philosophical text other than a direct quote would therefore be subjective.
    – Isaacson
    Dec 2, 2016 at 16:44
  • @Dave & Isaacson: all these references are where people give examples of the prototypical objective answer. You (i.e. Isaacson) make it seem as though these posters think that that is the only type of answer that can be allowed here, which, as far as I can recall, is a very uncommon position here.
    – user2953
    Dec 2, 2016 at 20:39
  • @Keelan Except for one answer (that was basically, I find the content on the site too subjective) all of this discussion meta.philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/2820/… is about how to tailor otherwise overly subjective questions into more objective ones while continuing to grow the site. The contributors are all people (including you) who, in my estimation, have demonstrated care and competence regarding the site, and as such seem to be representative of the "core participants", at least for the time it was posted.
    – Dave
    Dec 2, 2016 at 20:56
  • @Dave I'm not saying this is an altogether wrong representation of those viewpoints. I just have the impression that Isaacson is presenting it overly narrow.
    – user2953
    Dec 2, 2016 at 21:43

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