When voting to close a question there are five options you can choose from:

Close reason selection box

The ones that interest me here are the third and fifth choices. While I don't think this is a pervasive issue, I have seen it enough that I think it warrants a discussion. It seems to me that specifically these two close reasons are applied improperly at times.

Let's start with the third one

unclear what you're asking

Please clarify your specific problem or add additional details to highlight exactly what you need. As it's currently written, it’s hard to tell exactly what you're asking. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question.

I understand this to refer to a post where you cannot see what the question being asked is. Such questions are closed because if we don't know what the question is then we can't provide good answers.

However, a question can be a clear question (i.e. we know what is being asked) but still be a bad question, an inappropriate question, or closeworthy for some other reason. In such a case I do not think this close reason should be used.

Yet I have seen questions closed with this reason that appeared (at least to me) perfectly clear. The most recent example is this question:

Are there plans to make the Iron Man title less sexist?

Granted, I know basically nothing about Marvel, but it seems to me that the question is about as clear as you can get. The title reads:

Are there plans to make the Iron Man title less sexist?

And the opening sentence reads:

Does Marvel have any plans to make the Iron Man title less gender exclusive?

These are both simple explicit yes-or-no questions. Either there are plans or there aren't. And the question even gave examples of what would be less sexist and less gender exclusive:

has Marvel indicated they will go with a more progressive mantle like Iron Person, Iron Human, or Iron Individual*?

Now, of course, there may be other issues with this question (which probably explains the 23 downvotes at the time of this writing). Some comments, both to the post and in Chat (starting here), point out some issues with the question, particularly that it might not have been asked in good faith, that it is confrontational, that the premise that the title is sexist is incorrect, etc. But to my mind none of those points make the question unclear, and thus I don't think it is proper to close it as "unclear what you're asking".

Now let's look at the fifth choice

primarily opinion-based

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.

I understand this close reason to refer to questions that are inherently subjective. For example, a question that asks who your favorite character is, or who the best character is. These questions are primarily opinion-based because they cannot be answered using objective methods. As the reason tells us, these questions cannot be based on "facts, references, or specific expertise" because concepts such as "favorite" or "best" are not subject to facts, references, or specific expertise.

However, I have seen questions closed using this reason that were not fundamentally subjective. This usually seems to happen when users think that there is not enough known information to provide an answer. Yet one could only know that there is not enough information by already knowing the answer to the question – that there is not enough information. I.e. the fact that there is not enough information to give a clear-cut answer doesn't make the question opinion-based. It means that the answer is that there is not enough information for us to give a definitive answer. Many times a question can get a good answer, even when there is no clear-cut explicit answer, by expert extrapolation from the limited amount of known facts.

It is true that if there is limited information with which to answer a question then it is probably more likely for people to post their own opinions. However, that does not make the question an opinion-seeking question. That is a problem with the answers and there are other ways to deal with it. The opinion answers can be deleted, the question can be protected, etc.

A recent example of this is:

Why are there so few bedrooms in the Burrow?

The question asks why a certain thing in Harry Potter is the way it is. Such a question can be answered objectively. You simply have to go through the Harry Potter books (and/or other Harry Potter content) and see if there is any information that can shed light on this. If no such information can be found then the answer to the question is "we don't know because not enough information about this is ever given". (In this particular case, I think there was enough information to answer the question, though of course I might be biased as it was my answer.)

I think a relatively easy (if perhaps somewhat oversimplified) test to see if a question is opinion-based would be to imagine whether the author/creator/producer would be able to answer the question if you would ask it to him/her. If they would be able to answer it then it's probably not opinion-based; if they would not be able to answer it then it probably is opinion-based. In this case, for example, if we would ask JK Rowling she could conceivably answer the question in many ways, and thus the question is not opinion-based.

If we grant that these are improper uses of the close reasons, then I see two issues:

  1. The integrity of the system is undermined.

If people are using close votes for something other than what the reason is meant for, it is possible that questions that should remain open will end up getting closed. It is also possible that users will use their votes as a personal tool to close questions they don't like or to close questions of a user they don't like. (Please note, I am not making any accusations here.)

  1. When a question is closed a statement is attached to it explaining about reopening:

If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

Yet if a question was closed using an improper reason then this statement is misleading because you won't necessarily be able to reword the question in a way that pleases the close-voters.

So for those who have read this far

Is there actually such an issue? You can disagree with me about the specific examples I gave (I could give others but the post is long enough as it is and some of the other examples are my questions, so I'd rather it not seem like I'm trying to get my questions reopened) but still agree with the general point, or you can disagree entirely. Perhaps I have completely misunderstood the close reasons.

If there is such an issue, is there anything that can be done about it?

Again, this is not meant as an accusation/attack against any users, even those who voted to close the example questions. It is also not particularly about reopening any specific question. I would simply like to understand if/how others disagree with my understanding.

Note that if there is in fact a situation where a question should be closed but does not fit into any existing reason, I see several options for dealing with it that do not involve applying an incorrect reason:

  • Flag for moderator attention and specify what the problem is
  • Use the custom close reason (available under the off-topic selection) and explain why the question should be closed
  • Request a new close reason that would cover such cases (I don't know how feasible this is)
  • 1
    Might I suggest that you rephrase the title to something a bit less confrontational? When people see a title like that, they'll come here expecting a "you ****s closed my question" rant, which this isn't. – Rand al'Thor Sep 17 at 22:06
  • @Randal'Thor I was aiming for non-confrontational. Do you have any suggestions? – Alex Sep 17 at 22:07
  • @Randal'Thor I edited it. I'm not sure it fully captures the question now, but it's certainly less confrontational. – Alex Sep 17 at 22:10
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    I came across your first example in the close vote queue. I didn't think it was a good question and had my doubts that it was a serious question, but it didn't seem to meet the requirements to be closed. I ended up holding my nose and voting to keep it open. I also down voted it. – Blackwood Sep 17 at 22:14
  • My suggestion would've been more along the lines of "Are the UWYA and POB close reasons being misused for generic closeworthy questions which don't really fit any of the existing reasons?" But maybe that's too long for a title. I agree that imprecise is better than confrontational, in this context. – Rand al'Thor Sep 17 at 22:23

Yes, close reasons are sometimes misused.

In particular, some people vote to close as Primarily Opinion-Based just because the answer to the question is unknown. This occurrence is sufficiently common that we've already had several meta posts emphasising that "we don't know" answers are OK and don't make a question closeworthy. See Are answers that state "We Don't Know" acceptable? and its dupe targets.

There's also the possibility of close votes being misused as "super downvotes", i.e. people vote to close a question simply because they don't like it (a good cause for the downvote button). For example, this was a common occurrence for certain questions about "adult topics", until we re-iterated the meta consensus that such questions aren't necessarily closeworthy. See Should we have a policy on questions about adult topics in SFF? and the surrounding discussion.

How to combat incorrect close votes?

If a question has been closed incorrectly, then the answer is simple: reopen votes! And if that fails, you can post to meta asking why a specific question is seen to be against community norms. With luck, you may get a response from the close-voters, and with even more luck, either you or they may inspire a change of mind in the other.

That's not the end of the story, however. Your bullet-pointed list is asking about how to combat the use of incorrect close reasons before the question is closed. Not incorrect closure, but incorrect close reasons. Perhaps the question really should be closed, but not for the reason stated. Going through your bullet points one by one:

  • Flag for moderator attention and specify what the problem is

    Probably not. There's a flag decline reason specifically for cases where someone has raised an issue to mod attention which doesn't require mod intervention. If the question is worthy of closure, vote to close it. If it isn't, do whatever else is required (edit it, comment to explain why it's not worthy of closure, etc.)

    In very rare cases where something is going on beyond the scope of the question itself - such as your "sexist Iron Man" example, where people suspect the OP is trolling although the question itself could conceivably be genuine - it might be worth a mod flag. But not for a question which simply doesn't quite fit any of the standard close reasons.

  • Use the custom close reason (available under the off-topic selection) and explain why the question should be closed

    Yes. That's literally exactly what this functionality in the system is defined for: questions which the community feels should be closed but which don't quite fit any of the standard reasons, hence "other".

  • Request a new close reason that would cover such cases (I don't know how feasible this is)

    That wouldn't solve the problem. We're talking about edge cases here, things which don't fall under any of the existing reasons. There are always going to be some such questions, no matter how many close reasons we have. If there's a particular reason for loads of questions getting closed which doesn't fall under any of the existing close reasons, then it may be time to request a new close reason. But there are still going to be questions which don't fit any of the existing reasons, and then we're back to the same situation.

  • 1
    To be honest, I'm not sure if I've fully addressed your question here. It's late and I'm reading and writing somewhat hurriedly. – Rand al'Thor Sep 17 at 22:25
  • It's definitely a start. Particularly regarding then the answer is simple: reopen votes! I have cast 13 reopen votes but only two of the questions have been reopened. This makes me wonder if I simply have a different understanding of some of the close reasons than other users. (I could theoretically post a Meta question each time, but I think that would probably annoy people. I have brought individual questions up in Chat, but for the most part only one user really engaged a discussion.) – Alex Sep 17 at 22:32
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    Note that if a question is bad, bad, bad and has been closed for the wrong reason, I won't usually vote to reopen it. Reopening (in my own personal opinion) isn't just a purely administrative process of checking the accuracy of the close reason. Do I want to spread all the garbage back out onto the street just because it got put in the wrong recycle bin? – Valorum Sep 18 at 8:08
  • @Valorum Agreed, an explanatory comment will usually suffice in that case. I've tried to draw a distinction in this answer between incorrect closure and incorrect close reasons, but if that's not clear enough, maybe I should remove the first paragraph after the second header. – Rand al'Thor Sep 18 at 8:09
  • Also, as you've said, sometimes terrible questions are edge cases, in which case it's better to close them and worry about the aftermath than leave them up attracting flies. – Valorum Sep 18 at 8:10
  • I haven't read everything yet but the OP talks about the POB close reason. With this in mind it's probably best to mention this is also used for the FWP. – TheLethalCarrot Sep 18 at 8:13
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    @Valorum That really depends on what you mean by "terrible". Bearing in mind the difference between downvotes and close-votes. – Rand al'Thor Sep 18 at 8:13
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    @TheLethalCarrot I'm pretty sure that using POB for FWP isn't in the scope of the potential misuse the OP is talking about. Since this usage is well supported and documented on meta. – Rand al'Thor Sep 18 at 8:14
  • @Randal'Thor Sure but it is worth mentioning considering they are talking about misuse and only mention it being used for not opinion based questions. – TheLethalCarrot Sep 18 at 8:16
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    @Randal'Thor - It's a toughie. If a question so bad that it's attracting dozens of insta-downvotes, it's probably better to find a reason to close it than allow it to exist on the site. – Valorum Sep 18 at 8:18
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    @Valorum No, "dozens of downvotes" does not equal "should be closed". That's precisely the closevotes-as-super-downvotes mistake. – Rand al'Thor Sep 18 at 8:24
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    @TheLethalCarrot Technically, FWP questions are opinion-based: they're asking us to speculate on a future work about which we know nothing as yet. – Rand al'Thor Sep 18 at 8:24
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    @Randal'Thor - If a question has no redeeming features and we're keeping it on the site because it fails to meet a specific close criteria, that suggests we need to update the close reasons, not leave this crap up – Valorum Sep 18 at 8:26
  • @Randal'Thor In essence yes but the question can still be entirely objective yet about a FW but meh is your answer. – TheLethalCarrot Sep 18 at 8:27
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    @TheLethalCarrot Will be objective in the future, but is currently subjective because it requires pure guesswork. That's the essence of the FWP. – Rand al'Thor Sep 18 at 8:31

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