Question presented

On this site, can the pre-text/context/background to a question determine whether it is on-topic or off-topic?


In this meta question the accepted answer says that this is off-topic:

I have read that incarcerated adults in the U.S. make up roughly 1% of the adult population, and the number of adults on probation or parole is approximately 2%. I'd like to know approximately what the incarceration rate is specifically for local jails, such as county jails.

but this is on-topic:

Minister X is proposing policy Y because the incarceration rate in federal prisons is Z%. However, opponents are saying it will unfairly burden local and county jails. What is the incarceration rate in these facilities?

Question rephrased

Must questions explicitly provide a "political hook" in order to be on topic? Or is it sufficient that such a hook exists, whether explicitly stated or not?


The thing is that "how many people are incarcerated" is basically just a random trivia question, whereas the "Minister X is proposing policy Y [..] what is the incarceration rate?" is a specific political questions.

Some examples of questions that could have a "political hook":

  • How much coca-cola do people drink? Banning soda drinks is a political topic
  • How often do women use sex toys? Sexual morality has been brought up by numerous politicians
  • What's Donald Trump's favourite Beyoncé song? important question, apparently
  • ...many more...

There are many "trivia" questions you can think of that don't really relate to politics directly, but do have a "political hook" if you look hard enough. Obviously we need to draw a line somewhere.

Another problem with these sort of "just the facts ma'am"-questions have is that "X number of people are in county jails" could probably be used to prove any number of points, but that won't really explain anything as the entire matter is much more complex than that just that number.

Depending on what exactly you're asking more context on can – and should – be added to the answer(s).

To be clear, I'm hardly in favour of naked rants thinly disguised as a question, but on the other hand some context and explanation is useful because it:

  • helps set context on how to interpret this number, so that an actual political answer can be given ("conservatives typically interpret this as meaning such and such, while democrats typically think it means such and such");
  • explains the author's thinking and can be very useful to help understand the specific confusions or misunderstandings that the question's author may have.

Without this sort of context, questions can quickly become trivia or semi-nonsensical.

In this meta question the accepted answer says that this is off-topic

Well, that question is hardly "accepted". It has four upvotes and two downvotes which is hardly a "community consensus" on the matter. Personally, I wouldn't downvote or closevote this particular question, but it's not exactly a great question either.

It also seems like the sort of question that can be answered with a quick internet search, and doesn't really require any "expertise" beyond basic internet skills (I'd sooner close-vote it based on that).

  • Your first paragraph seems to be answering this meta-question with a "yes"... That context (or lack thereof) can make the same question on or off topic. Then you go on to describe a sliding scale on which at some point, context can't rescue a trivial question. Did I understand that all correctly? – K-C Apr 22 '17 at 17:21
  • I don't think framing this in a "yes/no" answer is useful @K-C. It's more complex than that. If you really want a short answer then I'd say "it depends". – Martin Tournoij Apr 22 '17 at 17:27
  • That's "yes" enough for me :) If in some circumstances, context makes the difference, that makes my position incorrect. – K-C Apr 22 '17 at 17:32

I don't think our analysis for whether a question is on-topic or off-topic should depend on whether a question gives a political hook or politics-related introduction prior to asking the question.

In the example, the two questions ask the same thing: what are the incarceration rates in particular incarceration facilities. The answer to these two questions would be exactly the same: the incarceration rates in the particular facilities.

Asking for the question author to provide political context invites biased framing, one-sided context, unreferenced assertions, strawmen when trying to present both sides of an argument, and other things that people will argue about rather than just answering the question.

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