This is something I've seen cropping up quite a bit lately, and has made me pause and think. Sometimes questions are based on faulty or questionable premises, one such question would be this one, which is about armor for a fragile species. Feedback indicates that speed and maneuverability would take the place of armor for them.

But what is the proper way to deal with this? I remember one commentator suggested a close reason for questions based on faulty premises (although I don't think he was entirely serious or that this is a good idea). This is a Q&A site, so I think that answers should answer the question as written. I've always thought that comments were the appropriate form of notifying the asker of problems.

However, I've seen a lot of answers recently that suggest an alternate scenario. That's fine for reality-check questions, but what about others? For instance, an answer to this question about communicating with ants originally just said that people would have already been prepared for this. What is this site's position on this kind of thing?

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    $\begingroup$ Relevant on Meta.SE: this question and the two linked from it. (I'm suggesting a resource, not providing an answer.) $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Jan 3 '17 at 4:16
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    $\begingroup$ As additional resources, RPG.SE answers semi-frequently involve what they call "frame challenging", which is exactly what you're talking about here. And I've seen many answers on that site where they effectively say, "the problem isn't there, it's over there" with reasoning to explain why. These typically happen in discussions of player dynamics. $\endgroup$ – Nicol Bolas Jan 3 '17 at 4:33
  • $\begingroup$ @MonicaCellio those are some helpful questions, I'll be sure to read them. $\endgroup$ – Xandar The Zenon Jan 3 '17 at 4:37
  • $\begingroup$ Ain't I a popular doll $\endgroup$ – TrEs-2b Jan 3 '17 at 6:27
  • $\begingroup$ Related: meta.worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/2407/… $\endgroup$ – Aify Jan 5 '17 at 18:07
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    $\begingroup$ We've discussed this many many times (which is not to say it is not worth asking again). The general result to this point has been: Unless the premise is internally inconsistent we should accept the premise and answer from there. You may ALSO include why you think the question is wrong but that should not be the only thing in your answer. Additionally you can always comment and...you know...ask. $\endgroup$ – James Jan 16 '17 at 20:04

We've discussed cases before when it doesn't work that way or that's not possible are valid answers if correctly written.

I don't think it's a valid reason to close a question, but it is a valid reason to give an answer that the questioner didn't expect. You can often find that the reason they're asking the question is that they weren't thinking about the problem in the same way someone else would.

Questions are often leading towards a specific answer because the asker has tried to solve the problem in a certain way and they're here because it's not quite hanging together. Throwing something completely different into the mix could be exactly the breakthrough they need rather than what they expected to get.

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    $\begingroup$ If the OP knew what answer they wanted, they probably didn't need to ask the question in the first place. (Cue immediately self-answered question crowd roar.) So by definition, by asking a question, you are opening yourself up to whatever answer fits the criteria laid out in the question proper, whether or not that's the answer you would prefer or expected. :-) $\endgroup$ – user Jan 12 '17 at 13:21
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling, I'd offer this as an example of where the asker wanted an answer of yes and got a lot of no, a couple of which were quite damning in their wording. Even my own answer has a questionable tone. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Jan 12 '17 at 13:40
  • $\begingroup$ I remember that question from back when it was posted. I'll readily admit I haven't reread the answers and comments now, but be nice still applies even when the answer is "what you want is simply not possible". The two are orthogonal. $\endgroup$ – user Jan 12 '17 at 13:43

Here on WB, tags can be used to constrain answers.

One of the most common is reality-check. When these constrainers are used, I think it's perfectly allowable for answers to challenge the question in order for it to also be constrained by the tag.

So, a reality-check question, the question and subsequent answers should approximate something in our real life universe. If the question contains something (magic, FTL, for example), I'd think the question needs reining back.

Same goes for science-based.

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    $\begingroup$ Actually, the reality-check tag is for questions asking whether or not a particular concept is realistic in a given context. The key point here is that there must be a given context, so it's not always true that it has to approximate to our real life universe. As long as the proper context is given, it can be out of our universe. $\endgroup$ – Aify Jan 6 '17 at 17:46

I tend to like to ask about those in comments. I think often those sorts of answers are really useful because they answer a question that the OP didn't even know to ask. Other times, the OP is already far enough along in a project that they just have to say "it is what it is," and nothing but an answer to the question they asked is useful.

For example, if someone is asking about how to make some detail work out in a science fiction system which tries to game the conservation of energy law along the way, it may be very helpful to point out that not only does their system not work in our universe, but by Nother's theorem the entire class of systems they were looking at cannot work without huge consequences. It's also great for tackling mathematical problems where the problem statement is already inconsistent. It helps them not need to look in places that we know will already fail. It's easy to spin your wheels on a thousand ideas that don't work before you come across a simple clean proof that that entire chain of ideas must always fail.

For an alternative, When will uploaded minds be a reality, I have reason to believe some of the premises regarding how the technology progresses should be called into question. However, when I asked in the comments, JDługosz said such an answer wouldn't be too helpful for the story he was already writing (but it might be an interesting future question if we could ever formulate it in a not-too-broad wording)

The one real disadvantage to these sorts of answers is that they rob one of the opportunity for creativity and imagination. An answer along these lines basically says "Let me show you why my way of thinking is the only right way." In a lot of cases this is useful, but many worlds don't have to be quite as consistent as the reality we live in. If I went to two boys playing with sticks, pretending they were swords, whipped out a blade of my own and cut one in half commenting, "sticks can never be swords because they're not made of metal," I've ruined two boy's game... and what for? For all I know one boy may watch the way the sticks bend and sway and grow up to invent a new approach to composite materials because of those sticks. I may have cut genius short.

I haven't figured out the right way to judge which questions are the correct ones to raise issues about premises and which ones are not. I admit I tend to err on the side of cutting down faulty premises.


The tag indicates this.

If present, “you can’t because…” is a valid answer.

Otherwise, it’s a comment. It makes us wish for a close reason of faulty assumptions. It's also possible to change the tags to salvage the question.

  • $\begingroup$ "If present, “you can’t because…” is a valid answer." Only if the answer is truly "you can't because X" within the context of the scenario or world which is described in the question. [reality-check] does not necessarily imply "is this realistic in our real world as we know it?", it is about "is this realistic in this fantasy world which I am building?". IMO the tag wiki excerpt makes this clear in stating that the tag is for questions asking whether or not a particular concept is realistic in a given context. $\endgroup$ – user Jan 12 '17 at 13:23
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, "reality" is contextual, given by other tags and the body of the question. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jan 12 '17 at 13:57

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