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Worldbuilding, according to most, should not be a What If? site.
However, an increasing number of questions are phrased in a "what if" way, and it's not always easy to discern if they're on-topic (building a fictional world) or what-if (asking what would happen) which is off-topic.

The culprit:

"Let's say..."

Many questions do not seem to be phrased as "in this world", but rather, "if there were a world". Instead of "in my world," it's often "pretend there were a world where..."

Does this constitute What-If? Are these questions on-topic?


Examples include

And a notable variant to discuss is "let's call"

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This seems to be primarily cases of the questioners being hesitant or diffident in the way they word the concept they are proposing for their question. Perhaps, they're having an attack of, possibly, false modesty or they're uncertain about how to put their question.

Now reading into this hesitancy that this is a way of sneaking those dreaded what-if questions in under radar seems to be, perhaps, a step too far.

For example, if the phrase "Let's say" was replaced by the straight forward "Assume etc etc." then it would be plainly obvious this phrase was the preamble to setting up the proposition upon which the question was based.

This can be best illustrated by taking this quotation and making the appropriate substitutions.

Examples include

Most effective method of creating fear? "***Assume*** a psichotic (sic) alien race..."
... What features would humans gain or lose? "***Assume*** humans lived in caves..."
Can a split personality itself have split personalities? "***Assume*** a person has..."
Time required for isolated colonists to forget about their origin "*Assume* that I have..."

I absolutely agree with SRM that imagination and knowledge [1] are necessary for questions to be on-topic, but also that are answerable. However, commonsense, logic, even educated guesswork, a capacity to reason from a given set of parameters, and all-round problem solving are essential too.

To arrive at a position where "let's say" etc etc phrases in questions are signs of what-if questions is reading to much into what are at base sloppily worded questions by questioners who are most likely lacking in self-confidence.

[1] As much as I hate to say it. Science isn't the be-all and end-all of knowledge. My whole training, education and experience as a scientist are staging a revolt at my having said so. But, yes, there are other kinds of knowledge beyond just the scientific.

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To me, any question is on-topic when it asks us to employ our imaginations as much or more as our scientific knowledge.

I use an "alternate situation" litmus test -- there has to be some aspect of the question that is not about the real world/real universe for it to be valid on Worldbuilding. Alternative history is fine -- something changed, and X occurred instead of Y. Alternative physics -- something changed, and now up is down or somesuch. Alternative whatever. But if the question is just about something that could happen in this world ("what if Earth were hit by an asteroid?" for example) then it is off-topic and should move to one of the other Stack Exchanges. "What if Earth were visited by aliens?" is something that could happen, but it is still a valid question because it lies outside the current scientific experience. We are called on to extrapolate beyond available data, not just play out a section of the game tree.

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  • $\begingroup$ I disagree. Creating a world where Earth has been hit by an asteroid and you are writing a story set in the post-apocalyptic remains is entirely on topic. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Jan 30 '17 at 10:22
  • $\begingroup$ @TimB So find out in Astronomy what happens when asteroid hits a planet (known science), then come ask us about the impact on the survivors (unknown). $\endgroup$
    – SRM
    Jan 30 '17 at 18:58
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    $\begingroup$ @srm or just ask one question here and get the answer. Why make people jump through hoops? Try hard enough and virtually any question can be sent to another site. After all impact on survivors sounds like a sociology or psychology question... or maybe outdoors or earth science... $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Jan 30 '17 at 22:43
  • $\begingroup$ @TimB expertise and search ability. You'll get more top notch answers to a physics question on Physics forum Just because of the prevelance of physicists. The second reason is to avoid duplication. That means people searching with Google shouldn't find a low quality answer on WB and miss the higher quality one on Physics. Having different SEs have focus is one of the key differentiators of SE vs other Internet sites. $\endgroup$
    – SRM
    Jan 31 '17 at 1:32
  • $\begingroup$ Stack Exchange isn't just about helping the person asking the question get an answer -- it's more about having a USABLE archive for all the future askers. $\endgroup$
    – SRM
    Jan 31 '17 at 1:39
  • $\begingroup$ So why do you want to weaken the value of this archive by spreading out the content into a number of other ones? I think you're somewhat under-estimating the physics ability of people on this forum. Specialized pure physics questions belong on physics. Physics related to building a world or of a more speculative nature may not even be accepted on physics, and is not off topic here. As a community this discussion has been had multiple times - just because something is on topic on another SE site does not make it off topic here. If it's not about worldbuilding is what makes it off topic here. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Jan 31 '17 at 9:54
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think it weakens the overall SE archive -- putting questions in the right SE is no different than getting the right tags on the questions. It's part and parcel of the same organization process. And I agree that if something is about Worldbuilding it belongs here. That's why I find this site valuable and have been participating. Where you and I disagree is on what constitutes Worldbuilding. And in my observation, the "real world scenario" questions GET BETTER ANSWERS on other SE forums. That's key to me, without denigrating the skills of anyone here. Many of us are on other SE forums. $\endgroup$
    – SRM
    Jan 31 '17 at 14:31

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