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Something that I've noticed lately is the addition of the formula 'is it known ...' to a question which would otherwise be speculative and primarily opinion based.

The concrete example that prompted me to write this post was the question:

Is it known who is the brightest student in Harry's year after Hermione?

(My apologies once more to the OP for using you to make my point, I don't mean to pick on you, but people like examples.)

This started out life as:

Who is the brightest student in Harry's year after Hermione?

Which I voted to close as primarily opinion based because I don't think it's answerable. To be honest, though, it doesn't matter to me whether this question should be closed or not.

What I'm interested in is the fact that, as the close votes accumulated, the question was edited to read "Is it known who &c."

Disregarding whether or not this question is POB, I would like to invite consensus on whether or not questions which are, at their core, POB can be rendered on-topic by the simple addition of "is it known ..."

Personally (no disrespect to the OP, I don't want any of my questions closed either), I view this as an attempt to smuggle questions through customs and more about rules-lawyering than a serious attempt to improve the content on this site.

It doesn't materially change anything about the question, the core, POB question is left wholly intact. The possible answers remain essentially the same. One either goes from saying 'there is no cannon answer' to 'no, it isn't known', both negatives being very hard to prove. Or one goes from saying 'the answer is X and here's the proof', to 'yes, it is known, it's X and here's the proof.'

And yet, bizarrely and simultaneously, a shift in focus is effected such that "I'm not sure, but a possible candidate would be Y" technically doesn't answer the yes/no "is it known who ..." question at all, meaning existing answers may be invalidated by this simultaneously trivial and revolutionary edit.

Now at a glance that seems to be the system working, since unnecessary speculation is ostensibly precluded. But it's not really because you can still say "no cannon answer, but a possible candidate would be Y".

More to the point, let's be honest, the only reason the question was asked, and the only reason anybody ever clicked on it in the first place was the core question. And we recognise in the POB close reason that

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience

And those are the answers that people want to read and write, not "no, it isn't known, mind you I can't actually prove that it's not known, of course." Nobody really cares whether or not it is strictly true that JKR once confirmed who the 2nd brightest kid in Harry's year was - no further details. They want to know who the 2nd brightest kid in Harry's year was!

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    E.g. "what are the works that feature X?" is off-topic, but "what is the first work that features X?" appears to be a known hack [citation needed], while producing the same result (more or less). Same thing? – Gallifreyan Apr 10 '17 at 23:07
  • @Gallifreyan I think that's more to do with narrowing down a too broad question which I don't have a problem with, but I do actually think you're onto something with the comparison. I remember a too-broad harry potter question about all the spells taught in Harry Potter slipping through the net by being edited to 'what are all the spells taught in book 1'. I don't think we ever got the last 6 parts in that series, but they were very much there for the asking! :P – Au101 Apr 10 '17 at 23:09
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    "It's never been revealed" IS a valid answer to a question, even if it's difficult to prove, it can be either voted up or disputed by someone who knows better (and geeks love to "Well, actually..." if someone gives a wrong answer). It might be a good idea to rigorously prune speculation from questions of this form though. One interesting quirk... if a question has exactly the same answer as another question, it's considered a dupe, even if the questions themselves are quite distinct. Therefore, could you close every "Is it known that..." question in which it's not been revealed, as a dupe? – starpilotsix Apr 11 '17 at 1:35
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    This is known as a fig-leaf. – Valorum Apr 11 '17 at 6:50
  • @starpilotsix Oh I have no problem with the answer. It's obviously not the answer you're hoping for, but that's neither here nor there. It's a perfectly valid answer to bad POB questions and to perfectly good questions. I have no problem if the question "generates some degree of opinion based on expert experience", I have no problem if the question is nailed down, it's clear what you're looking for, any criteria are laid down, and it seems like it should be answerable. If the answer turns out to be 'It's never been revealed' that's fine I'm happy – Au101 Apr 11 '17 at 11:16
  • @starpilotsix I was hoping to demonstrate why I don't think adding 'is it known' to a question which would otherwise be POB (whether before or after it's been asked for the first time) really changes anything for the better – Au101 Apr 11 '17 at 11:17
  • Is it known? Yes it is. – Valorum Apr 11 '17 at 18:45
  • I'm upvoting this question for the phrase "simultaneously trivial and revolutionary." – MissMonicaE Apr 17 '17 at 12:34
  • @Valorum I read the question wrong the first time. I thought adding "it is known" to questions was an SFF meme or something. – tobiasvl Apr 18 '17 at 18:51
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First off, CreationEdge's answer is great and pretty much covers most of what I wanted to say.

However, having seen the linked post, I'd like to provide a somewhat tangential answer.

The problem is that you're conflating two things:

  • Is the question's core POB? (in case of the linked post, I very drastically disagree with your opinion. It wasn't POB even before the OP's edit).

  • Does adding "Is this answered in the work" to clearly POB question make it non-POB (assuming it really was POB).

    The answer to the latter one is "Yes it does, BUT the resulting question is likely a very poor question in need of improvement, even if now technically on-topic".


To understand the difference, let's look at two specific examples:

  1. Bad subjective example

    Who is the strongest in Marvel universe?

    Clearly POB, because there's no objective way of judging strength given that's applicable to every strong character.

    Is it stated in Marvel comics who is the strongest in Marvel universe?

    Clearly NOT POB (the answer is either Yes+example; or Not known+basis for that). Some people may want to close as "too broad" but that's a wholly different issue from POB-ness.

    However, given the POB issue with the core question, any "yes" answer given will probably be un-interesting because nobody in-universe likely thought out the correct strength measurement either, so it will be just as POB from in-universe standpoint (e.g. when Wolverine says "Hulk is the strongest" - Hulk isn't objectively the strongest - it's just Wolverine's opinion).

    As such, while the question was improved to the point of not being offtopic, personally I would down-vote it for being poor quality.

  2. Good subjective example

    Who is the smartest character in Hogwarts year

    Now, this isn't POB in the first place, because there's an objective way to measure that (OWLs earned; evaluation of professionals like Professors/Headpeople; specific academic achievements).

    The ONLY problem this question has is that it may attract POB answers, as @CreationEdge's post noted; because people are liable to say "well I think the Brightest is XYZ because I'm a Cedric fan". That's a problem with the answers, NOT the question.

    Now, adding "Is it known from canon" or somesuch wording, is a perfect solution to the latter problem. Not the problem of the question itself (which at its core isn't POB); but the problem of people mis-reading it as POB and answering as such.

    And, lo and behold, the question that birthed your Meta Post had the main hallmark of Good Subjective question: it generated in-depth, canon-based, great answers.

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    Thank you for coming out of semi-retirement to offer me a couple of cents :) – Au101 Apr 14 '17 at 1:11
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    @Au101 - your even managed to tempt me to offer you a main site answer :) – DVK-on-Ahch-To Apr 15 '17 at 6:02
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Yes or maybe, but that doesn't mean we have to support any POB answers that come of it.

We're a site for experts. If we want to ask experts if a certain event happened in a work, we can do that, and we do.

Here's some questions that demonstrate this. I picked some of my own, here, to not pick on anyone else:

Has Superman ever said, "Ouch!"? AKA is it known if he ever said that?

Are any of the races in Star Trek Beyond seen in other shows? AKA is it known whether they appeared elsewhere?

What were the estimated sizes of the forces in Tarmon Gai'dan? AKA is it known what the sizes were?

The first question there has the largest scope, all Superman appearances ever, and yet specific examples were found.

The Wheel of Time question is actually the one that closely matches the Harry Potter question example. The answer is "We don't definitively know, but here's our best estimates." (The difference, though, is that the books give sufficient details to make reasonable estimates).

However, all of the questions could attract low quality, POB answers. That doesn't mean they will, or that the question is necessarily POB. It may just mean we're not having experts answer, when we really do need someone more versed in the whole of the works.

And we certainly have members that are experts on works with wide amounts of material, especially our top tags.

So, I think our solution is to not target the questions which, depending on whether or not others think it's interesting may get a ton of upvotes instead of close votes. Instead, we can downvote low quality or POB answers, comment on answers asking for stronger references, and protect questions that are attracting low quality or POB answers from new users.

With those tools, we target the actual problem, the poor answers.


For the record, the is one category that's rife with questions that appear POB, but instead end up with not only definitive or well-reasoned answers but also hit Hot Network Questions. I don't think we generally have a problem with them (although I personally complain about them a lot). I know there are a lot of examples like this, but I hesitate to link to them since they're not my own (and I've found that linking to things on meta can lead to an increase of votes, up or down, on the questions themselves, and I don't want to direct downvotes on others' questions).

In this specific question about Hermione/rank, it isn't necessarily POB to begin with. We only know Hermione is first in her class because we're explicitly told, so it's possible we're told about the next student somewhere. By comparison, this question Who are the smartest 5 people (human) in the Marvel Universe?
has the problem of not framing it in a way that's used explicitly or objectively in universe (note my comment on the answer that shows that there are objective references available, but not for the scale the OP asks for).

For that Marvel question, "is it known" isn't any better because it still isn't asking about a type of reference we can be objective or expertly assumptive about. Banner is the best at Gamma radiation physics, but does that make him the smartest? Answering that is one of the issues making that question POB.

The Hogwarts thing, though, still comes down to an objective measure at its heart: who do others say is the next after Hermione. "Is it known" is pretty much just a shorthand way of saying "Do we have evidence, I don't want speculation" (which should be the default case, but sometimes we need to be clear in order to guide better answers).

  • Hmmm good answer, but I think my issue is more: If "Has Superman ever said, "Ouch!"?" is POB, then "Is it known whether Superman has ever said, "Ouch!"?" is POB. And if "Has Superman ever said, "Ouch!"?" is fine, then "Is it known whether Superman has ever said, "Ouch!"?" Or at least that's my opinion. I'm not actually that keen on closing questions as POB if I can avoid it, but if "Has Superman ever said, "Ouch!"?" is closed as POB, is "Is it known whether Superman has ever said, "Ouch!"?" a sufficient edit to get it open – Au101 Apr 11 '17 at 16:40
  • And then by extension if the question starts off as "Is it known whether Superman has ever said, "Ouch!"?" is that okay, even if "Has Superman ever said, "Ouch!"?" (which in my opinion is the real question that everyone's interested in) would have been closed as POB had it been asked – Au101 Apr 11 '17 at 16:41
  • @Au101 I updated the end of my answer to give some more context, and changed my yes to a maybe – user31178 Apr 11 '17 at 17:12
  • Thanks CreationEdge =) – Au101 Apr 11 '17 at 17:37
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I had something along these lines on SO today

Is it right to do [coding thing]?

In his case, a quick edit made it on-topic

Is it secure to do [coding thing]?

The reason why is that Is it right? is purely opinion and the problem with POB is that it promotes chit-chat because everyone has an opinion. You can't argue with secure. Either it is, or it isn't.


In the example here, the change was from

Who is the next smartest?

To

Is it known who is the next smartest?

The latter kinda works because there's an implicit fact in the question now

Who does JK Rowling think is the next smartest?

You can make your own case all you want about whom you think that person is, but you can't change whom Rowling herself thinks it is. Asking for the author/writer's opinion is entirely on topic.

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