12

I've noticed several questions that have a similar pattern, and I'm interested to get opinions on how they should be handled or possibly improved. Basically, they are questions seeking to know if some event, statement, object etc. has ever existed/occurred. Possible forms include (but are not limited to):

  • Has ___ ever happened?
  • Did (insert political figure) ever say ___?
  • Has any country ever adopted ___ policy?

Here are a few examples of actual questions that have this form:

If whatever event/statement/policy they are asking about does in fact exist, then it's a simple enough question to answer in a concise and factual way (assuming that the answer is unambiguous, which can be a big assumption sometimes). The problem is that, assuming the affirmative answer is not true, it is difficult to answer factually because of the fundamental logical difficulty of proving that something doesn't/didn't exist.

Even in the best cases, where what is being asked about is verifiable (and not lost to history or verifiable only with classified knowledge), it might require a ridiculous amount of work to confirm. For example, if someone asked a more narrow/specific question like:

Did (insert political figure) ever issue a press release saying ___?

This is hypothetically possible to confirm if I can get the text of all of this person's press releases and search them for the relevant terms. But, this would potentially require a great deal of work on the part of the answer-er. Of course, that's assuming we want the literal inclusion of some phrase and not a more nuanced interpretation of the subject being asked about (eg. they did not literally say "___", but said something that is similar to or could be interpreted that way).

In most of these cases, the best you can do is to reason inductively by saying that because you can't find any examples of whatever was asked about, then it probably doesn't exist. While there is still room to give a high quality answer by providing context, reasoning, or other relevant information, it just seems somewhat disappointing to be perpetually unable to answer, and the question asker would likely be inclined to agree.

So, my question here is:

What have others done in this situation to provide more meaningful answers and/or what advice have you given to the question asker to help improve this type of question?

  • 4
    Leaving aside practicalities of answering, we should review how often such questions are literally just as an excuse for VTCable "pushing a specific point of view" rants. At the very least, they are easily abusable that way. – user4012 May 30 '18 at 19:36
  • 1
    @user4012 Yes, I agree that at least the ones I referenced (and most of the others I can immediately recall) seem to fall into that category. However, I do think that it's worth thinking about how to elicit better questions from someone who may be asking in good faith. If they are not, their complete unwillingness to clarify or re-frame the question are typically good indicators of a lack of good faith. I would rather waste a few seconds asking for clarification and getting an angry reply than potentially turn away a newcomer who simply worded their question in a naive manner. – Texas Red May 30 '18 at 21:09
  • To @user4012 's point, I'd like to see a few examples of this type of question which aren't either "Here's my pet theory, everyone should believe in it" or "I don't understand what you're asking." We have VTC reasons for both of those, and if there aren't any valid forms of these type of questions, then we can just use them and be done with this. – Bobson May 30 '18 at 22:08
  • @Bobson Yes, a good idea. I will try to find a few and edit my question to include some links to them. Can you clarify what you mean by "I don't understand what you're asking". Do you mean that the initial question itself is incomprehensible, or something else? – Texas Red May 30 '18 at 22:37
  • @TexasRed - I was paraphrasing the “unclear” VTC reason. The question uses terms that need definitions to be useful or in odd ways, or it’s just not clear what they would consider a valid answer. – Bobson May 30 '18 at 22:53
6

About the particular examples:

  • The first is just an awful question. A conspiracy theory about something which happened 120 years ago. It simply does not belong here.

  • The second is IMO a legitimate question.

  • The third might be a legitimate question when it would be broadened to any scholary work about the effects of anarchy and not just government-commissioned work. The limitation to government works seems counter-productive if one actually wants to know more about the effects of anarchism. The only reason to add that limitation would be if the actual intention of the question would be to prove a point "governments are a self-perpetuating corrupt system and the only reason they still exist is because they suppress anarchist thought", and questions which want to prove a point are not welcome here.

But the problem with phrasing a question as "has X ever happened?" or "does X exist?" is that it is very hard to prove a negative. So when there actually is no example for what the question is asking, then the only way to answer is "No, this didn't happen" which would then likely get downvoted because the answer author can't prove it. The only option in that case would be to leave the question unanswered. But unanswered questions aren't helpful for anyone because nobody knows if they are unanswered because there is no answer or because nobody bothered to write one.

A good way to approach a rewrite of such questions would be to take a step back and see what you actually want to know. Let's take the example

"Is there any example for an individualist anarchist society in history?"

What the author might wants to know (although I am just guessing here) is how life in an anarchist society works and how it solves various practical problems. In that case the question should be rephrased to just ask practical questions about the application of anarchist concepts. When there actually are real-world examples, then a good answers should mention them. When there are only theories how it would work, the answers would have to be based on those.

  • I agree, the three examples I initially provided were not ideal, they were just the first ones I could remember because I had seen them recently. Based on the comments to my question, I've hunted down a few more that are better examples, though I've been too busy with work this week to get around to editing my answer. Hopefully I can do that this weekend. – Texas Red Jun 1 '18 at 23:03
1

I think you just caveat the answer with "while negatives examples are exceedingly difficult to prove, adequate and careful searches did not reveal the examples you were asking". I don't see any reason why that's a bad answer if you are somewhat knowledgeable about the subject matter and know the search terms, related terms, or what the gist of the question is and how to rephrase in a manner that would appear in the press or academic journals. Otherwise just stay away from the question.

For example, there was a question about Const Amend related to the Commerce Clause. Knowing that the normal amendment process would not be followed for limiting Congressional power, I knew to look for an Article V convention, a different way to go about researching. I was able to discover such an amendment existed. This fits very nicely into your "has x ever happened" scenario. If I hadn't found it after that search, I would have totally felt okay such a thing had not gotten off the ground, did not exist.

1

I'd suggest: "Not so far as is known", perhaps with added qualifiers, such as showing that if it had happened, there would be good reasons why it would almost certainly be known. Spurious example:

Q: Did President Lincoln while in office run a four minute mile?

A: No, not so far as is known. The first person known to have run a four minute mile was Roger Bannister in 1954. Furthermore to date no one over 50 has run a four minute mile, and Lincoln assumed office when he was 52.

  • 2
    You have to be careful with this locution, although your example precludes uncertainty. Better would be "as far as my research was able to determine" – K Dog Jun 4 '18 at 21:26
-3

Open-ended questions are inherently provocative and, unless the answer is known ahead of time, they are solicitations of opinions. I've dealt with the difference between open-ended and closed-ended questions in my own plea for people to be more careful in discerning one from the other. But that plea, can also serve as a guide on what should be done about open-ended questions.

Essentially, their scope should be limited to a fixed period of time/space/amount/etc. For example, rather than asking about whether something "ever" happened, questions should be reworded to ask if the same thing happened during years XXXX-YYYY or during some known politically-relevant period (eg. Republican administration, WWII, an election campaign, etc.)

The idea here is simple. Once the question becomes specific enough, an answer such as "no, it didn't happen during this period" becomes possible.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .