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How should we handle questions like this (Is the Universe real or complex?)?

The question seems very blatantly to be about the work of a crank. Here is an article on Estakhr's website where he claims a conspiracy by American scientists, here is an article where he tries to explain that his made up constant gives a unified force that explains everything physics wants to know, here is an abstract with horrible linguistic issues that tries to explain that the Higgs boson doesn't do exactly what it does do, and so on. While on it's surface the question itself has nothing at all to do with the work of this crank, the blocks of paragraphs that make up the majority of the body of the question are just giving explanations of Estakhr's ideas.

The same question was asked on Physics.Stackexchange and it was closed under their "We deal with mainstream physics here. Questions about the general correctness of unpublished personal theories are off topic, although specific questions evaluating new theories in the context of established science are usually allowed," criterion. I understand the appeal to mainstream physics being something important for the functionality of that site, but of course I can see a lot of reasons why it wouldn't be that great of a/easily decidable criterion for ours. It creates an insular community, it alienates people who aren't familiar with the subject matter intimately, and it is probably not as well of a defined category in philosophy in the first place (Penrose's Gödelian arguments are rejected by the mainstream but Penrose is obviously part of the mainstream himself).

Still, I feel like it is very blatant that this question is not a genuine question in the sense that it was only asked so that the user could promote Estakhr's work (there are a lot of similar questions on Quora). In my mind, this question should absolutely be closed. It is not asked in good faith, it is about the work of a crank, and it serves only to spread those ideas. But, again, I see the issues of trying to impose some sort of 'mainstream' criterion for questions. How should this be handled? Should we adopt a similar close criterion? In this specific case, would it be better to edit out all of the mention of the crank's work that tries to motivate the question and just leave the question itself? I feel like that is a fairer compromise, since of course I cannot be 100% sure that the person asking the question is asking in bad faith, but I think that it's clearly a reasonable assumption.

  • There are some 'crank policies' on other sites, e.g.: Computer Science and Theoretical Computer Science. However, there is more to this question than merely cranks, which I'll explain in an answer. – Discrete lizard Mar 16 '18 at 11:23
  • I have the feeling that your general proposal is mostly orthogonal to the specific question on the complex universe. I think it would be better to create a separate meta question for the more general proposal. – Discrete lizard Mar 16 '18 at 12:07
  • @Discretelizard That doesn't make any sense. If I have a general question that was inspired by a specific example, how is asking the general question orthogonal to the specific example? Like, that makes genuinely no sense. This question is "How should we handle questions like x?", this is the general question. The references to the specific question are here to give specific examples. You know that if someone were to make a separate, completely general question about this topic, people would ask for examples, right? – Not_Here Mar 16 '18 at 12:25
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    I guess saying the question is orthogonal is indeed false. This applies only to my answer. Well, I think you should post it as different questions as my answer to the specific and the general are in fact orthogonal. Votes on meta are based indicate approval with policy, so what should an user do if they think my idea for this question is good, but my ideas on the general are rubbish? Of course, it makes sense to try to generalize policy and it also makes sense to motivate general policy with examples, but I think here the site design doesn't allow this efficiently with a single question. – Discrete lizard Mar 16 '18 at 12:49
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    I think the issue is simpler and is not tied to crankism, these are simply non-questions for SE. Suppose someone gives a short lecture on Hawking and then asks if the universe is chronology protected. Hawking is not a crank, but if this is a controversial conjecture in physics based on what are we supposed to answer it here? I voted to close as opinion based. – Conifold Mar 17 '18 at 4:04
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    @Conifold I'd like to add that it is also not uncommon for cranks to preface legitimate questions with an (rather trivial, for an expert) overview of related concepts and definitions. Usually, those questions are salvageable if you remove the clutter and the crank behaves constructively. The can even be valuable, in the case they're making 'nontrivial errors'. – Discrete lizard Mar 19 '18 at 8:57
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    +1 Not because I agree with your position, but you bring up a good question about how one should deal with people one doesn't agree with. – Frank Hubeny Mar 20 '18 at 15:01
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It is not asked in good faith

Stop. Assuming bad faith is a very bad idea (Even if you turn out to be correct!). There is nothing in that question that eliminates the possibility that the OP stumbled upon the crank's work and simply thinks that this is the best thing since sliced bread. I can write a long essay here on why this is a bad idea, but I don't need to, as other people have already done this.

That said, more important here is the fact that you want to edit/delete a question based on some property of the person who made the question. This isn't a good idea for many reasons (there is probably some discussion about this on meta), one being that we simply want good questions and answers. So if you feel that the 'introduction' to this 'complex universe' theory is inappropriate, but the question (in itself, ignoring who asked it) is appropriate, then you could decide to either summarize the 'introduction' or simply remove it.

While I do understand your worry that this user might contribute nothing or may even engage in harmful behavior, please give the user a chance and simply flag for moderation if you see misconduct.


That's enough for this specific question. Now, for your more general proposal, which I think can be summarized as follows:

Should we take action to prevent this site from being used to promote cranky topics?

I think that we shouldn't, unless this site gets flooded by such questions. A custom close reason is only made if it has to be used quite often. Unless you can show that there are many such questions (or have been), I think the usual quality control tools (editing, voting and normal close reasons) would be sufficient.

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Calling someone a “crank” assumes one has sufficient social mood on one’s side to bully someone. It is not a rational argument. One relies on an emotional appeal to a crowd to back one up.

This can easily backfire especially with onlookers who will not be saying anything. If you want to see this backfiring dynamic in action watch any teen movie where a high school bully is involved. Generally the audience loves to see those bullies humiliated at the end.

In some contexts calling someone a name can also lead to an harassment charge, so it is good defensive practice not to do it even when there is little risk.

Questions are opportunities and challenges. I thought philosophers would be eager for these opportunities and challenges to clarify questions and provide top-quality answers. Apparently not. The only effective way to deal with a question one does not like is to clarify it and answer it. If it is not answered here it will come up elsewhere.

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    While I like a good discussion and my views challenged as a philosopher, this site is part of the StackExchange network. This makes a lot of confinements regarding what is ok and what's not here as the ruleset of SE is above all and philosophy just happens to be the specific theme of this sub-site. I am with the comment of Conifold above: Questions like these, about "cranks" or not, are not a good fit for any SE. Not because of the particular view they represent, but because of the way they are asked. – Philip Klöcking Mar 21 '18 at 10:39
  • 100% of this answer is irrelevant to the question that I asked and the fact that you think the sum total of this is that I'm just trying to insult someone because I "don't like" their question is indicative that you have not grasped a single point that I made, nor the actual content of the original question. Your last paragraph is also a rehashing of a theme that has been done to death on this site. As Philip pointed out above, this site is an SE site. It's not a grand symposium of philosophers writing down on their scrolls of knowledge the answer to every and all questions. – Not_Here Mar 30 '18 at 9:53
  • @Not_Here You asked: How should this be handled? My answer: However, you handle it, do not call someone names and do not get emotional. Calling someone a "crank" will appear rude and hostile to some readers regardless of the merits of your arguments. As soon as you used that word, you lost the argument in their eyes. Also, avoid emotional words like "blatantly" and "absolutely", that you used above in your post. They sound desperate as if you can't provide a good reason for your position. If you want to oppose a position, stay calm. – Frank Hubeny Mar 30 '18 at 13:25
  • No, my specific question was "should we edit out the content that is irrelevant and crankerish or should we just close the question", it was not a vague and open ended "how should we handle every single aspect of the phrase 'how should we handle it'". Ergo, your harping on decorum is irrelevant. – Not_Here Mar 30 '18 at 23:02
  • The topic of how to address such people has been... well... addressed in this answer academia.stackexchange.com/questions/105236/… from DiscreteLizard after (s)he and I had a discussion about this. Image my surprise when I noticed the other answer is also from him/her :D – SK19 Apr 7 '18 at 19:47
  • @SK19 You might want to post this under Discrete Lizard's answer. In my answer, I am not interested in the definition of "crank" nor what to do with people so labeled. I don't like dismissing others by using this label against them because it is not an argument. That is what I mean by name-calling. – Frank Hubeny Apr 7 '18 at 20:14
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    @SK19 I think this is less relevant here than on Academia. Here, we don't get personal messages from 'cranks'. We just get questions and answers. We can treat potential 'cranks' the same way as other users, let their questions speak for themselves and only take action against the person if we see misconduct. (Oh and btw it is 'he', but thanks for not making hasty assumptions :) ) – Discrete lizard Apr 9 '18 at 10:29
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    @Not_Here This answer is relevant, as it suggest leaving valuations as "crankerish" completely out of the equation. – Discrete lizard Apr 9 '18 at 10:31

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