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There is a classic example of a question based on bad assumptions: "Have you stopped beating your wife yet?" when you do not have a wife or, if you do, have never beaten her. What is the correct answer to such a question? Zen koans give us the answer "mu" -- an answer that unasks a bad question.

We have several questions that are based on bad assumptions (the latest) (a better example). I've wanted a new close reason regularly, both on Worldbuilding and other forums, for "Closed: question relies a false assumption."

Is it possible to add new reasons for closing questions? If so, would people support adding that as a reason?

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  • $\begingroup$ @a4android I think that the other question is a perfect example of a bad assumption question... his question opened (before editing) with a phrase similar to "because cryogenics is impossible"... implying that he wanted cryo but couldn't have it. Digging into alternatives isn't useful if cryo is the answer and we have good answers suggesting how to do it. $\endgroup$ – SRM Dec 31 '16 at 22:01
  • $\begingroup$ I believe that the proper way to deal with bad assumptions is to comment on correction and downvote. There are plenty of terrible questions on this site. Most of them have received the downvoting scorn they deserve. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Jan 5 '17 at 16:15
  • $\begingroup$ The post from Nicol Bolas below about using "Unclear" makes a good point. I'm accepting that as guidance, at least for me, going forward. $\endgroup$ – SRM Jan 5 '17 at 17:23
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Let's take a look at your example question. You say that it's based on a false assumption. Presumably, the false assumption that cryogenic suspension "lacks a good scientific explanation." My response is this:

So what?

What does it really matter if the OP believes that cryogenic suspension is a reasonable scientific justification or not? The OP's fundamental question is about alternatives to it. Why the OP is seeking alternatives is completely irrelevant?

If the OP had taken out that one line, there would be no assumption that you feel is invalid. That line is merely background and motivation.

The question seems like it can generate creative or interesting answers. These answers can be used by people regardless of whether they agree with the OP's "bad assumptions" or not.

How does closing questions like these make the site better?


What if y2k was possible?

This is more indicative of a problem, but it ultimately remains one we already have the power to solve: close it as "Unclear".

A question with such an assumption is self-contradictory. Or contradictory with the OP's understanding of reality. Either way, it's not clear what the OP wants because the OP is mistaken about some aspect of reality. So close it as such.

I'm against making a close option specifically for this because some people might use it on questions like the first one, where it would be entirely inappropriate. The kinds of questions where this close reason would apply are not common enough to need one specifically for it.

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  • $\begingroup$ Here's a better example: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/66567/… $\endgroup$ – SRM Jan 4 '17 at 4:22
  • $\begingroup$ @SRM: See edit. $\endgroup$ – Nicol Bolas Jan 4 '17 at 5:18
  • $\begingroup$ Nicol, many questions on WB are absolutely clearly about impossible worlds or situations that are contrary to quotidian reality. Some of those deviations from reality are actually possible but didn't happen. Otherwise why are we building? That said I agree with you about not making this a criterion for closure. The trouble is in agreeing (and disagreeing) about what assumptions are false. $\endgroup$ – a4android Jan 4 '17 at 7:42
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    $\begingroup$ @a4android: The contradictions with reality that I'm talking about aren't doing things we know are impossible. They're questions where reality doesn't work the way the user thinks. Like if you ask a question about what might happen if the US goes off the gold standard or some such. $\endgroup$ – Nicol Bolas Jan 4 '17 at 14:38
  • $\begingroup$ Yes. Bolas gets what I'm saying. But "Unclear" isn't right. I don't want a clarification. It's clear what is being asked. The question is flawed. $\endgroup$ – SRM Jan 5 '17 at 0:00
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    $\begingroup$ @SRM: "Unclear" is perfectly valid for closing a question when the question has an inherent contradiction. On SO, we get contradictory questions sometimes, and the resolution is either to answer with an explanation of the contradiction or to close as unclear. And yes, we want a clarification; once the OP has been informed of the contradiction in their question, they can choose to reformulate it. Or just leave it there. $\endgroup$ – Nicol Bolas Jan 5 '17 at 0:43
  • $\begingroup$ Ok, I'll use that in the future, Sir Dragon. $\endgroup$ – SRM Jan 5 '17 at 1:18
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    $\begingroup$ @NicolBolas Ah! Now this makes sense. Most evolution questions fall in the category of the OP or the answerers of not knowing enough biology to understand evolution doesn't work like that. Unfortunately, many questions fall into this category. I like the idea of explaining the contradiction in an answer rather closing as unclear. This will enable Ops to improve their questions. Often unclear means the closer hasn't read the question carefully. $\endgroup$ – a4android Jan 5 '17 at 3:06
  • $\begingroup$ @SRM See my comment to Nicol Bolas. $\endgroup$ – a4android Jan 5 '17 at 3:07
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Inevitably WB will get questions based on false assumptions and all sorts of sloppy thinking. Any question about the evolution of space whales or space-based lifeforms is almost certainly guaranteed to get steam pouring of out my ears. Many WBers will throw the book at anyone who dares ask about any possibility of faster-than-light travel or communication. It's guaranteed grounds for closure.

Both are common tropes of science-fiction of science-fiction worldbuilding. I prefer to look away and let the questions be answered. WB SE allows questions about magic and gods, are these based on false assumptions? Certainly they are poorly supported by empirical evidence.

The real problem with closing questions based on false assumptions is how do any of us when for absolute certainty when a set of assumptions are false? My call on what is a false assumption will be different from yours, and vice versa. What if what we call a false assumption is based on knowledge beyond what WBers know to be true?

Early in my time on WB I saw a question closed as opinion-based. The question could have been answered because there is an obscure area of theoretical physics that deals with exactly the subject of the question. If there was a false assumption closure rule it could have been shut down with that too.

What about the circumstances when an OP wants to ask about an otherwise impossible piece of worldbuilding. For example, how to conceptually construct a flat earth or a hollow earth. And why not? This is worldbuilding after all and if we can't work with the impossible, what are we left with? Probably, very little.

As an exercise try running through recently asked questions and make a list of how make false assumptions, i.e., assumptions that are contrary to quotidian reality. Once you've done that, ask yourself whose version of reality are we going to stick with. Certainly not mine, I'd want to close down space whales. (OK. I wouldn't actually, but I do prefer to look away from them.)

For me personally, many of the best questions I've come across on WB SE involved subjects or concepts my first reaction was that's completely ridiculous, then the cogwheels slowly started to turn and my thinking stirred as I found myself contemplating what I had thought absurd or impossible. Being made to think is the first task of any worldbuilder.

Also, in my opinion it should take more knowledge and careful argument to justify why an assumption is false than would be required to answer any question. A good answer to any question based on what, the answerer thinks is false, will be to disabuse the OP of their assumption(s) and point them in the direction of better ideas.

Arguing about which assumptions are false or not is quite likely to endanger this site's nice policy. Perhaps it would be more sensible not to go there.

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  • $\begingroup$ Isn't that the point of both requiring 5 to close and being able to reopen after discussion and editing? $\endgroup$ – SRM Dec 31 '16 at 21:34
  • $\begingroup$ Here's a better example: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/66567/… $\endgroup$ – SRM Jan 4 '17 at 4:23
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry, @SRM, this seems like a legit, alternative history scenario. The answers indicate it was very possible. So I don't get how this is an example of false assumptions. I'm trying to be difficult. Frankly most space whale questions have false assumptions galore, but worldbuilding will engage with impossible worlds & scenarios. I think it comes with the territory. More bad questions here are poorly worded or ineptly thought out. Finding ways of fixing them would be great for the questioners & WB. $\endgroup$ – a4android Jan 4 '17 at 6:10
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    $\begingroup$ His question explicitly claims the Y2K bug wasn't possible. It WAS possible. His question is asking about changes to computers needed to make that a real bug, but no changes are needed. He makes an assumption as his starting point that just isn't valid. $\endgroup$ – SRM Jan 4 '17 at 23:58
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    $\begingroup$ @SRM Many times people confuse the possible with what did or did not happen. As the OP did in this case. The answers corrected that error. Closing the question in case like this, would be draconian. While correcting the mistake either in answers or comments is a better strategy. $\endgroup$ – a4android Jan 5 '17 at 3:25
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This isn't a terrible suggestion but I would have concerns with it being executed well.

I also think that answers that address false assumptions are very very valuable for the people asking questions.

I have asked more than one question based on a flawed understanding of the topic I was asking about. After all if I completely understood the topic I wouldn't be asking a question. Being told that my understanding was flawed is very valuable because it keeps me from making mistakes that my audience (were it to actually exist) would see and dislike.

So while I get the intent of your idea and its not bad, overall I would vote not to do this.

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All questions make assumptions, normally the OP completely misses them too, I know I do. "Bad" assumptions are what comments are for, to fine tune the question and allow the people trying to answer to get inside the implicit assumptions that the OP can't initially see and create a clear picture. Furthermore what a small group sees as a poor line of logic based on bad assumptions may make all the sense in the world to many other users and it only takes a few people who see a question in that particular light to shut it down even when the majority would prefer to engage with it.

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