Following up with this discussion, I'd like to get the community's opinion on whether you think we should allow questions that are overly broad, poorly defined, lack any real scope, and are essentially unanswerable in the way that they are formed.

I think, on the face of it, most veteran/expert users have no problem with closing these types of questions, as they lead to debate and personal, unsupported and opinionated discussion 95% of the time. That said, the questions themselves aren't necessarily impossible to answer; it's just unreasonable to conjure up an answer most of the time. For example, the question Can sport be an art? clearly fails to meet scope and definition criteria, but an answer could be provided that offered examples and readings of philosophy papers on art, definitions that some have used, some examples opinions of philosophers on sports, and a discussion as to whether sports meets the various definitions of the provided philosophers. It would really have to be a somewhat lengthy answer because the OP did not provide definition or scope, so the answer would have to provide that for them, in addition to an actual answer. As such, it would (by our current standards) fall under "cannot be reasonably answered in it's current form".

However, if the community was willing to step up and provide focus for the OP either by editing the question, or providing these lengthy answers required to adequately address questions like these, we might be able to find a way to allow these questions in the future. It really depends on the community, and how much you're willing to do. I can tell you though, it looks bad on the community (and the moderators) when we have tons of open questions like these which are never answered (or poorly answered). The self-evaluation we had a few months ago revealed some areas we could improve in, and allowing these types of questions without adequately handling them (either by the community stepping up to fix the question / provide a strong and thorough answer, or closing them) makes our site look sloppy and pushes us further away from our chances of getting out of Beta.

If you want my personal opinion, I honestly don't think we have a large enough or consistent enough userbase to have something like this work. We are growing, but we're not there yet. But since the question was raised I thought we could discuss it now with the people we do have, and perhaps revisit it in the future if we have to.

Anyone else have any thoughts or ideas on this?

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    Chat and meta are already here, and more optimal for supporting revision/rescoping/reformulation than the main page. I'm just not sure what adopting this policy would actually mean -- as you indicate we already have a backlog of borderline questions... – Joseph Weissman Jul 18 '12 at 19:43
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    particulary about the sport-art question, what bothers me is that, since it is broad and does not bring up philosphical concepts, people answering it have the tendency of not giving a answer more elaborated than the question itself - people answer saying it is art or not and do not define what they mean with "art" - I commented many times on that and people just don't care. I find these answers useless, from a philosophical perspective. My guess is, if the question is sloppy, probably the answers will be as well - if the question gets improved, people will be more careful about the answers. – Tames Jul 20 '12 at 22:07

I have only had a limited exposure to SE, but I suspect there is a kind of question that should be taken to be as valid here which would be more dubious over at, say, stackoverflow. I'm referring to questions that ask for the community to delineate the philosophical landscape on a certain topic.

The question you have alluded to (the status of sports as art) is like this: a good (collection of) answers would provide pointers to the (probably scarce) relevant literature. On the other hand, as you rightly imply, a good answer would probably not be one in which one speculates about what prominent philosophers would have thought of the topic, or engages in an exercise about what would transpire about the topic from different definitions of art, or of sports.

An example of such an open question, and the proof that there can be interesting and useful answers may be found at my earlier Meta question.

In summary, I advocate for not taking questions such as these as borderline at all -- even if the analogous questions would be at best borderline at other SE sites.

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    particulary about the sport-art question, what bothers me is that, since it is broad and does not bring up philosphical concepts, people answering it have the tendency of not giving a answer more elaborated than the question itself - people answer saying it is art or not and do not define what they mean with "art" - I commented many times on that and people just don't care. I find these answers useless, from a philosophical perspective. My guess is, if the question is sloppy, probably the answers will be as well - if the question gets improved, people will be more careful about the answers. – Tames Jul 20 '12 at 22:07
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    @Tames I agree completely, and that's exactly part of the thinking behind closing a question to allow for revisions before a slew of unfocused answers hits. People just need to recognize that closing isn't permanent. It's just a "hey, fix up this question a bit so we can get better answers" notice. If only we could change the wording on the question titles from "[closed]" to "[in progress]" or something... – stoicfury Jul 21 '12 at 17:17
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    @stoicfury yes, I agree with you, I think that might be helpful. I like "in progress", another possibility could be "temporarily closed". Maybe the "closed" message could change (if this is possible), to something as "needs improvement" instead of "not constructive"? :/ Do people who get questions closed make contact with you or they usually give up? Do you have some statistics on this? (how often a closed question is improved and opens again) – Tames Jul 21 '12 at 18:45
  • @Tames, yes, I think I'd be more comfortable with a more constructive message instead of "closed -- not a real question" or some such. Is that even a possibility, though? I have no idea how responsive upstream is... – Schiphol Jul 21 '12 at 23:15
  • @Tames Anyway, regarding your first comment: there is a philosophy of sports, and a number (albeit small) of academic philosophers publishing about this. There is, in fact, an Association for the philosophy of sports :) In the perfect Phil.SE someone would be well versed on this (admittedly arcane) topic, and would provide an interesting reply. – Schiphol Jul 21 '12 at 23:17
  • @Schiphol oh, I didn't know that... anyway, I guess this didn't show up in the question/answers. I'm not saying this could not become a good question, I think almost every question has the potential of being a good one, but we depend on getting a comment from someone who understands a bit about the subject. As for myself, I'm not willing to do a major research on some unknown topic only to try to rephrase a bad question unless I'm really greatly interested on the subject. We should have some support from the person asking it, if s/he is interested on that, s/he should help to improve it. – Tames Jul 21 '12 at 23:27
  • We don't have any hard statistics on this, but I'd say that less than 20% of closed questions from newcomers are ever edited/improved by the OP. – stoicfury Jul 23 '12 at 21:29

So, after some reflection -- and note these are just thoughts in response, not necessarily a yea or nay vote on the proposed policy -- I think some of this might be addressed by a more engaged "canonical" questions policy.

Borderline questions like the one about whether sport is an art strike me as similar to other speculative questions, like about whether we are awake or dreaming, or whether mathematical form and functions are 'real' and so on. So, in perhaps 'narrow' cases anyway, historically we have allowed many such big-picture questions. Now, we could perhaps argue for a long while over whether this was problematic -- and meta-participants may recall we already have -- so it would be maybe somewhat redundant to rehash that entire debate here; my point would be that we might want to start thinking about such borderline questions a little differently: as potential candidates for cleanup, and in certain cases canonicalization.

In the past we have manually organized a canonicalization process for repeated series of borderline questions on the same issue. You formulated the concern and answered it as neutrally and specifically as possible, and then we merged in all the other instances of the question.

Now I do think we should work with questioners as intensively as possible in order to opimize existing questions before pulling out the canonicalization gun; logistically it really makes the most sense when there are a lot of perhaps slightly-differing formulations of the same underlying problem, and existing answers are entirely cross-applicable.

One important point I want to make here is that I think it is constructive to ask more general or more speculative questions as long as they are precise, neutral, reasonably-scoped and contextualized. Many of what I consider some of the most important and valuable questions are in this category; I think we're missing part of our mission if we don't provide high-quality answers to both fundamental and more sophisticated concerns.

Finally, and just in passing, perhaps especially in philosophy it can be difficult to judge the distance between a fundamental and a sophisticated concern, so I think at the very least we need to be generous to a fault in how we read questions: make sure we actively seek to understand it entirely and provide help in some form; maybe the question as formulated is relatively unproblematic and can be cleaned up -- or perhaps the problems are so extensive we may want to isolate a critical issue and formulate a clearer, more neutral question in order to address the concern.


Sometimes the person asking the question could really use some comments to make it better - it helps, and we may be educating people to make good use of SE, and sometimes good things emerge from otherwise sloppy questions. What bothers me the most is when the person asking does not care to answer to the comments and doesn't seem to be willing to work on the question. I get the impression that the person did not care enough to do basic research and was expecting to get an easy answer from an expert. If that doesn't happen, the person simply leaves it like that, because a person acting in such a pattern does not care about what we are working on around here, s/he seems only to be looking for a free service. I think the judgment on whether keeping a question or not should consider if there is a compromise from the person asking it.

  • As you know, all questions which are subject to closure have comments with regard to how to improve the question, often long before it is closed. Since questions can still be edited while closed there should be no consideration necessary (in the way you recommend). If the person does in fact come back and edit the question, it will be reopened; if they do not, it will properly remain closed and we won't have to hunt for it as it gets pushed off the front page in order to close it again... – stoicfury Jul 20 '12 at 5:16
  • @stoicfury yes... so what is the problem then? perhaps I didn't get to the point of the discussion, as I'm not a mod, I'm not sure how this works – Tames Jul 20 '12 at 6:28
  • The community has some flexibility in determining the scope of questions that are allowed on the site. Currently, questions which are overly broad and poorly defined, such as "is sports an art?" or "are video games art?" are usually closed; Schiphol suggested that it might be better if they aren't closed (either right away or at all), and particularly if it's a newcomer to the website. Theoretically, if the entire community in fact wanted to extend newcomers some special privilege, or if we wanted to accept these vague questions, we could. That's what the discussion is about. :) – stoicfury Jul 20 '12 at 21:39
  • @stoicfury why was "video game as art" closed before the "sports as art" question? Besides that, why should newcomers have some sort of privilege? What do you want to achieve with that? – Tames Jul 20 '12 at 22:02
  • @Tames it was me who proposed extending a different treatment to newcomers. My worry is that, if people is not familiar with the SE way of doing things, a question closed too soon, or a failure to understand why a moderator acted in this or that way could scare who would otherwise be perfectly useful contributors to the site. – Schiphol Jul 21 '12 at 2:40
  • @Tames - The two questions are very similar and act as a case study. One was closed relatively quickly and the other I didn't bother to close for a few days. The open question received about 3 answers, but they aren't the kind of answers we are looking for on a Q&A site like this. We expect answers (for the most part) to cite specific references and expertise. Of course, you can't always do this, but random armchair musings are never good alternatives. This one example lacks statistical conclusion validity, but it shows in this case that waiting did not change the final outcome. – stoicfury Jul 21 '12 at 17:11
  • @stoicfury I see. I find this a little unfair, as both had the same problems, and possibly the second one came up inspired by the first, but I see your point in maintaining to observe the outcome. – Tames Jul 21 '12 at 18:34

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