# Is “science-based” a meta- or otherwise-problematic tag?

is the most popular tag on this site.

Its tag wiki tells us a lot about the requirements on answers to questions, but not a lot about the questions. (Except that these questions require answers conform to certain expectations.)

This seems problematic, because "a tag is a word or a phrase that describes the topic of the question." (From the help center, emphasis mine.) Furthermore, we should "avoid using this tag as the only tag on a question." (From its tag-wiki.) This is a huge red flag for meta tags; network-wide, meta-tagging is explicitly discouraged.

Maybe this isn't a problem? Maybe it's not a meta-tag, though all signs point to the contrary? Maybe it is a meta-tag, but that's okay for some reason in this particular usage? But if we think the last is the case, Jeff's got some words for us:

I blame us, for letting these tags take root early in the history of Stack Overflow. We should have eradicated them early on to set the proper precedent. ... There's no reason [new] sites need to repeat all the mistakes we made with tagging two years ago -- we can do it better each time for each new community, and feed those improvements back into the entire network. -J. Atwood, co-founder of Stack Exchange

• How else do you propose we communicate those requirements about answers? – Shalvenay Jan 16 '17 at 3:03
• @Shalvenay This has me thinking about XY problems. Explaining the actual worldbuilding problem clearly should explicitly make clear what level of science will make for useful answers. E.g. "readers aren't finding my story about a stargate believable enough... my hero currently counts heartbeats to try to make a sundial... how can my hero make a more-accurate sundial on an alien planet" vs. "for my kids' second-grade play I need a reason the dragon would be afraid of a flashlight." – nitsua60 Jan 16 '17 at 3:17
• @Shalvenay And remember that voters are expected to make their own judgments about what will make an answer good or not. A question that explicitly states "I need answers conforming to this" is inherently poorer than a question that makes a reader think "ooh, this answer that treated the question in X way really is much more useful than this answer that treated the question in Y way." – nitsua60 Jan 16 '17 at 3:28
• @nitsua60 I acknowledge the theoretical correctness of your argument, but I observe the practical correctness of the meta tags. – SRM Jan 21 '17 at 23:37
• "I observe the correctness of the meta tags." Would you mind sharing those observations with the community? It sounds like you've got experiences/observations that would make for useful contributions to this meta. Imagine the reader three years from now, wondering why we have obvious meta tags--or the reader from another site who wants to know why our meta tags work so well! – nitsua60 Jan 22 '17 at 1:43

Is a meta-tag? Yes. Is this a problem? No. Does it have other problems? Yes.

Early on in the private beta - shortly before my time - the community decided that answers should, by default, conform to the scientific laws of the real world, a position it has continued to hold for over two years. That said, there was a need at the time to ensure that this kind of thing would actually be followed. I'm going to quote an answer by Tim B:

I introduced science-based to solve the problem of people asking scientific questions with magical answers. The culture of the site is now well enough established that I do not think it is needed any more, I've certainly not seen many magic answers to science questions recently. In other words the tag has succeeded. The question is whether the presence of the tag is still needed or whether those answers would start sneaking back in if we removed the tag.

Maybe my memory is already getting foggy, but I seem to recall a lot of questions in the early days of the public beta, continuing a trend from the private beta. In addition, humans just have a knack for ignoring the laws of nature when it comes to making fictional worlds. Perhaps that's the nature of the craft. At any rate, at first, the tag seemed to be successful.

Then it wasn't. I mean, it did mean that the ideas were maybe a bit less off-the-wall than some of the things I've seen in Star Trek, but this barrier slowly faded away into nothingness. Today, the phrase "science-based" seems to just mean that you can't use magic or handwave away too much, not that you have to use science.

Most of the time, people are okay with this, and so it wasn't really an issue if occasionally we need to go mine some handwavium to make a world a bit more logical. But that's not always the case. Sometimes, people really want something to work - at an extremely rigorous level. Hence, the tag was born, with extremely stringent requirements.

That tag has had an agonizingly turbulent existence. I can't begin to count the meta discussions we had over it, many of which seemed to involve me grumbling about some detail or another. By now, we have a working tag wiki, and (yay!) a post notice, applied manually by moderators after consulting a flowchart thingy. There was one takeaway message that I got from all of this, though: People don't care that much.

Yes, we had the critical mass - or loud and vocal group of users, if you prefer - to get some progress made in various directions, and I have yet to see any real objection to the tag. But at times, I've thought that support has been a bit lacking. I often felt like I was making a big deal out of something that perhaps only I and a handful or two of other users cared about. And so from time, to time, I wondered if it was worth it.

It's possible to get folks interested in taking a firm stance on something, but now represents what I feel is a wimpy middle ground. I was just about to write that its boundaries are blurry, but I realized that nobody ever thought about what "science-based" means. There was never a discussion like the ones going over the fine details of , and rules and usage were not formalized. I feel like we're the mice from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trying to find the Ultimate Answer: There was a big, wonderful goal in mind, but the actual specifics were never nailed down.

At the moment, I have no desire to wait ten million years however long it takes to iron those details out. Why?

1. The original purpose of the tag was completed.
2. It's still much vaguer than I would like, and it has a smaller chance of surviving a series of meta discussions a la than I have of outrunning a hungry bear.
3. There's never going to be the support to keep it doing the job that, from time to time, we wish it did.
4. It's being abused (as are some other tags1).

And so I'm taking a deep breath, and saying, quite calmly,2 $$\huge\text{Burn the tag. Burn it now.}$$ I should note one thing: I have no problem with it being a meta tag. has worked out pretty well, and it hasn't turned into the spiral o' doom that has been seen with, for instance, the tag on certain sites. So, if I may be so bold, I will disagree with Jeff Atwood insofar as I think there are cases - edge cases, mind you - where meta tags can work. I think that works on Worldbuilding Stack Exchange. I think that works on Worldbuilding Stack Exchange. Other meta tags are terrible, but these seem to stay afloat.

I'm ending this spiel before it starts rivaling The Lord of the Rings in length (though not in writing). I hope I made a case for dispatching the tag used on 22.06% of the questions on Worldbuilding Stack Exchange, via a swift whack to the head.

1 I'm looking at you, .
2 I wanted to make a Monty Python "Burn her!" reference here, but it didn't work out.

• I'd be curious, though this Q&A likely isn't the place for it, about your thoughts on what makes for a successful meta tag. I don't doubt that wisdom earned on a site like SO might be inapplicable on another site, or might even be the wrong advice for that site and its usage-patterns. What makes you suspect that's the case here? Can we hope for an HDE original meta post: "the case for a meta-tag"? – nitsua60 Jan 16 '17 at 3:32
• @nitsua60 I am by no means qualified enough to write anything on meta tags in general, just something on my own experiences with meta tags. – HDE 226868 Jan 16 '17 at 17:41
• I would generally agree...and as my baby I tend to keep track of world-building-process but I've been slacking off lately.... – James Jan 16 '17 at 19:59
• "but the actual specifics were never nailed down." I think that may be part of why it is so useful. It suggests, without demanding, that the OP wants data, but isn't a stickler about it, and if they can't get it, they'll take what they can get. It's still categorically stronger than reality-check, especially since reality-check is a yes/no question. – SRM Jan 21 '17 at 23:32
• @SRM I agree. Too much specificity can weaken a category. Certainly it gives narrows answers down to science, irrespective of what depth or how much detail is provided, and away from "magic". – a4android Jan 22 '17 at 11:49
• If "science-based" is burnt, what tag(s) would be used in its stead? I think the range of tags from "hard-science", "science-based" and now including "outdated-science" is too restrictive in terms of choices. Apart from specific science tags, eg, orbital mechanics. A combination of both broad and narrower science-related categories may be help. – a4android Jan 22 '17 at 11:58
• I can't believe you didn't link to Should we delete answers that don't meet the requirements of the hard-science tag? – a CVn Aug 15 '17 at 12:21
• This is a good opportunity to mention that hard-science is probably my favourite on all SE. I very, very strongly support hard-science (even if I don't answer it very much) – Mithrandir24601 Sep 5 '17 at 21:37

The best criteria I've yet seen for whether a tag has a purpose is to ask whether it is useful for people answering questions to use for filtering.

Can I, as a person looking for questions to answer, say "I'm an expert in X" without sounding ridiculous? For example "I'm an expert in science", "I'm an expert in hard science", "I'm an expert in weapons" all sound reasonable.

"I'm an expert in science based" sounds a bit strange, but "I'm an expert in science based subjects" sounds reasonable.

The primary purpose of tags is filtering questions to find ones that you are interested in. We have people on this site who are opposed to and completely un-interested in anything using magic. In fact I've even seen meta proposals wanting anything not based in science to be banned outright.

The science-based tags provide a way for people who are only interested in scientifically based questions to filter out those questions that are instead rooted in more magical or fantastical basis. It lets those people find the questions that they are interested in or best able to answer.

And that is the core purpose of any tag and why I believe we should keep it.

Yes it is a meta tag, in that it describes the question and makes requirements of answerers, but it is also a useful tag for people to use when searching for questions that interest them or excluding ones that do not. This makes it more than a meta tag.

• Quite agree. The problem with the phrase "I'm an expert in science based" is purely an artefact of language. Properly it should be something like "scientific" which is of or concerning science, but that doesn't seem reasonable. "I'm an expert in scientific", Again which doesn't work. It's a descriptor and doesn't need to be a noun. It is a very useful tag. What more does it need to be? – a4android Sep 4 '17 at 9:39

Let's split it.
Those questions which have only the and nothing else which is more specific should get one or more of these.