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My understanding (based on this meta question) is that most list questions are off-topic unless the list is finite and narrow in scope.

It seems that questions asking if something exists tend to be categorized as list questions and therefore off-topic because they invite people to cite competing examples, generating a long list of possibilities with no way to determine the "correct" one.

I know asking for the first instance of a work is a surefire way to reword the question to be on-topic but it also tends to take the focus away from how closely the answer meets the question and places the focus on finding the earliest instance that maybe sorta kinda fits.

Is there a way to reword a "does this exist" question to be on-topic without asking for its first appearance? Perhaps by restricting the scope down to a smaller number of works therefore limiting the number of possible examples so it fits what the linked meta question describes?

  • If it's helpful, this is the question that was closed that prompted my curiosity: scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/177513/… – TheIronCheek Dec 27 '17 at 17:29
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    For the record, when people ask an "*What books contain x?" question, then reword it as "What is the first instance of x" so that they can weasel their way around the close vote, it makes cry inside. – Valorum Dec 27 '17 at 20:06
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    @Valorum - I agree with you. It also doesn't help the OP much because people tend to stretch the definition of "x" in order to get their earlier example to jive. No one really wins and in my opinion, the site isn't made better for it. – TheIronCheek Dec 27 '17 at 20:48
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    @Valorum - I'd imagine that the biggest reason to close those questions is because people tend to endlessly tack on an additional "Oh, and this example too!", making the answers muddy and difficult to sift through. But couldn't there be a mechanism that mods can use to make it more manageable (like restrict answering ability to low rep users or something) rather than crush the question completely? – TheIronCheek Dec 27 '17 at 20:54
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    The main problem is that these questions are trash that's better suited for Yahoo Answers. – Valorum Dec 27 '17 at 21:00
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    @Valorum - I suppose I can think of examples I'd consider trash too but isn't the highly subjective definition of trash better determined by downvotes rather than closing as off-topic? – TheIronCheek Dec 27 '17 at 21:08
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    Here's a thought, would the "Does this exist" question be received better if it was re-worded as a story-identification question? Something like, "I'm looking for a story about x. It contains details like a, b, and c." – TheIronCheek Dec 27 '17 at 21:55
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    Granted, I'm not interested in sending users with helpful intentions on a wild goose chase for something the asker isn't even sure exists but isn't that better than switching the question to an "earliest appearance" question? – TheIronCheek Dec 27 '17 at 21:59
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    That would be a colossal waste of people's time and a complete abuse of the tag – Valorum Dec 27 '17 at 22:06
  • For the record, I am a little worried this can get overapplied. I am not a fan of the inspiring question (which example most closely matches my idea) but think some historically good questions could have been closed. I don't think these should be close if: there is a short finite list (What _-wing ships are there?), the number is the point (How many GL has earth had?), OP is not looking for a list but that is the best way to answer (Can Superman reverse time? Yes he did it these times!), or OP is determining if an example contradicts existing rules (Can a handless alien join GL corps?). – kaine Dec 28 '17 at 15:42
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    @TheIronCheek: If I see anyone using story-identification for that kind of chicanery, and I'm sure that's what they're doing, I will vote to close and probably custom-flag it as an abuse of the system. – Kevin Dec 28 '17 at 22:34
  • Is scifi.stackexchange.com/q/43/4918 "the first novel set in universes where P=NP?" why you're asking about this? I'd like to mention that not every question that asks about the earliest example matching some criterium is like this. scifi.stackexchange.com/q/126687/4918 "the first telepath?" and scifi.stackexchange.com/q/93537/4918 "the first to feature a spaceship?" and scifi.stackexchange.com/q/119468/4918 "the first appearance of humanoid robots" clearly ask about Sci Fi tropes we know lots of examples of. – b_jonas Jan 8 '18 at 1:24
  • See also scifi.stackexchange.com/q/31512/4918 "When did the first back-in-time Time-Traveling Robot appear in literature?" – b_jonas Jan 11 '18 at 13:52
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No, not really.

Those sorts of questions could be closed as Too Broad, List, or Recommendation. Since two of those are in the same close reason, that tends to get picked.

The problem with them is that it is hard to say why any answer would be more right than any other answer. If I said "Yes" with one example, is that the most right answer? What if someone else found two examples? On the other hand, how do I prove a "No", I have not read every superhero story in existence, and there are many things that exist that google can't find.

So the issue here is that its a poor question for our format, and as a result it gets closed. Technically speaking, it should be closed as:

off-topic because...
This question does not appear to be about science fiction or fantasy within the scope defined in the help center.

But

Requests for lists of works or recommendations are off-topic as they do not fit our questions and answers format. Feel free to ask about people's favorites in chat.

Is close enough we don't worry about it.

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    I agree with you on the "No" scenario but in situations where 2 equally valid "Yes" answers to a question are given, shouldn't the existing upvote system work that out naturally? On SO, for example, there could be 2 equally valid ways of coding a solution to the question and the normal upvoting mechanism pushes up the answers that provide a clearer solution, explain their reasoning, and offer additional documentation for further reading. If 2 or more unique answers do that equally, they'll receive a similar number of upvotes and the OP accepts the answer that worked best for him/her. – TheIronCheek Dec 27 '17 at 20:33
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    The point isn't that the system can't handle it (indeed it can, as you point out). Its that the question doesn't lend itself to a single "most right" answer. It is the wrong kind of subjective in that it will be based on personal opinion which answer is better. – amflare Dec 27 '17 at 20:35
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    I think you (and others too apparently since this seems to be the rule of the land here) are placing too much emphasis on the examples which only serve to provide context and proof of their assertions. The completely correct answer is "Yes". That's objective and not opinion-based at all. As long as the most upvoted and accepted answer is one that contains "Yes", the only opinion-based question needing to be answered is which narrative surrounding the "Yes" is most helpful. OP's have to make that sort of a decision on almost every question asked here. – TheIronCheek Dec 27 '17 at 20:40
  • This does suggest a way to sort of re-word a question. Instead of asking about the earliest, one could ask about any other superlative parameter, such as the most or least expensive, the most or least box office or book sales revenue generated, the shortest or longest time spent, etc. Two things make a question like this answerable: First, the assumption/awareness that there is at least one example of the main concept in question, and second, the search for the superlative instance means there is one definite answer. – Todd Wilcox Dec 29 '17 at 18:46
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I suggest we risk to allow questions asking for recommendations if they are specific enough.

It would liven up the site, which lately started to resemble a poor substitute of Wikipedia, or in the case of the Tolkien questions, the Tolkien Gateway.

To provide one example here is a simple question about LoTR:

What were the “Black Pits” the orcs referred to?

the answer to this can be found in less than five seconds by a basic google search containing the keywords 'Black Pits' and 'Tolkien'. The first hit is the Tolkien Gateway:

The Black Pits were dungeons of torment under Barad-dûr. They were known to Shagrat who cursed "The Black Pits take that filthy rebel Gorbag!" after the two orc companies had had a disastrous fight in the Tower of Cirith Ungol.

The Tolkien Gateway entry also contains the references. We have maaaany similar questions in our bigger tags. To be clear, I am not proposing to get rid of these, as they seem to be very popular, and we have some quality answers to these simple questions, answers which are coherent, written by people who have an in-depth knowledge of the subject and who provide sources and additional details. There are even people who manage to write an interesting answer to questions like 'What is the name of a building where owls are kept?' (Owlery) Those answers are top-notch and very helpful to the OP, help to popularise an already popular theme, but if I want to expand the subject a bit, to ask if someone had written a parody on the life in Barad-dûr or compare fantasy books portraying Moria-style cave systems or ask for novels in which some characters speak in the black speech or in a specific elven dialect or in a new language created by the author, I am not allowed. Those questions would be closed faster than saying 'Mubull'.

Sometimes it feels SFF doesn't allow to introduce less popular authors than Tolkien or Rowling or creators like George Lucas. If I am looking for recommendations on the portrayal of a specific cyberpunk trope or a description of a space elevator in hard sci-fi books and would like some advice from people who read similar ones, then again, if I post a question, it will be very short-lived, which is a pity, as SFF could be an excellent tool for introducing less known authors and tropes.

So why the restrictive policy? In the cases mentioned OP has a specific problem and would like answers from people who have expertise on the subject.

To prevent the SFF being flooded by low-quality questions about overused and cliche tropes we could define what we consider too broad. While a question "I am looking for a book about aliens" would be indeed too broad, one asking "I am looking for a hard sci-fi novel about a spaceship crashing on a planet inhabited by intelligent ammonia-based alien life" while still would have many possible answers, hopefully will attract people who are interested in the subject and had read books on it, people capable of writing informative answers introducing the top quality books on the subject with their assessment. Answers like those would be very helpful to those interested in them, and in general good for the stack, and to prevent endless repetition of popular tropes, new questions on already existing themes could be closed as duplicates.

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    This is a terrible idea. – Valorum Dec 29 '17 at 23:12
  • @Valorum you wound me :) but i get it. Our 'ask here, I'll do your Google search for you' services seem to be excellent and popular enough, so why change our ways... – user68762 Dec 30 '17 at 6:47
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    Most things that can be directly googled get downvoted. – Valorum Dec 30 '17 at 9:09
  • @Valorum it's not always the case. But i am not here to spoil the fun of ppl answering simple questions on a beloved subject and making those answers interesting. I just wish we'd do more... – user68762 Dec 30 '17 at 10:16
  • We already have a mechanism for people to ask for recommendations, it's called "chat" – Valorum Dec 30 '17 at 11:20
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    I'm 100% behind the idea of expanding our range and having more questions about more obscure works than HP/SW/ST/LotR ... but it's easy to do that without changing any of the site rules, and in particular without allowing subjective recommendation questions. – Rand al'Thor Dec 30 '17 at 15:03
  • The question about the owlery wasn't "What do you call a building where owls are kept?" but rather "What is this interesting building?". Big difference. One question would be off-topic (and dumb) whereas the other is on-topic and mildly interesting. – Valorum Dec 30 '17 at 18:52
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As has already been pointed out, an answer of "no" is unprovable and cannot be supported by reliable sources. The only possible answer is "yes" (or no answer at all). If the question has an answer, we already know what that answer is, and if it doesn't have an answer, then we don't want it on our site because it's unanswerable.

Presumably, you don't just want the "yes." You also want an example. That changes your question from "Does [X] exist?" into "Can you show me an example of [X]?"

But that's too broad. There are probably loads of examples, and we can't very well list every one. Without any additional qualifications, every such example is an equally valid answer to the question. That makes it a list question, and thus off-topic as overly broad, as amflare has explained.

  • Downvoters: Care to explain what I did wrong? – Kevin Dec 29 '17 at 17:39
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    I downvoted this for its assessment of "no" answers. While you're right that it may be impossible to absolutely prove a negative, it's still often possible to provide good evidence for a negative. And "if it doesn't have an answer, then we don't want it on our site" is basically the opposite of our established policy. – Rand al'Thor Dec 29 '17 at 21:35
  • @Rand: That argument is nearly identical reasoning to the top voted answer. I just don't get it. – Kevin Dec 30 '17 at 5:28
  • I've lost track of the number of "unanswerable" questions I've seen with high quality answers. – Valorum Dec 31 '17 at 16:33
  • @Valorum: I'm not (currently) arguing that point. What I don't understand is how my answer materially differs from amflare's highly-upvoted answer. In fact, I nearly didn't bother posting this because I thought it was redundant. Obviously, I was wrong about that, but I still don't see where I was wrong. – Kevin Jan 1 '18 at 0:26
  • @Kevin - I'm in agreement with Rand. A "no" answer can be just as valid if appropriate references are provided showing what sources you've used to check it. – Valorum Jan 1 '18 at 0:40
  • @Valorum: Why do you persist in answering a different question from the one I asked you? – Kevin Feb 16 '18 at 18:39
  • @Kevin - You asked for reasons why you're being downvoted. Rand and I told you why. The fact that you disagree (and for the record, I didn't up or downvote your answer) is neither here nor there. You can either take the advice and let the downvotes be your guide or you can ignore me. Both are perfectly acceptable choices. – Valorum Feb 16 '18 at 19:00
  • @No, that's half the question I asked. I understand that half perfectly well. What I still don't get, and what you refuse to explain to me, is why the top answer is getting upvotes. – Kevin Feb 16 '18 at 19:03

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