I was in the middle of answering this newly asked question when it was deleted by the author. It had been up for 30 minutes.

I can't read the OP's mind, but I suspect the question was closed because challenges were being made to the back story. To wit, the OP's premise of using current or near-future nuclear weaponry would not result in 90% deaths.

The problem, of course, is that such an observation is fundamentally irrelevant. The OP's question was how long it would take for the world to recover to some specified conditions after the event?


It's something of a tradition on Worldbuilding.SE to challenge the back story to a question. So much so that I've occasionally recommended that an OP remove the back story completely so that people would stop challenging it and focus on the question the OP actually asked. That, unfortunately, results in people complaining that the back story wasn't provided, as if the back story was more important than the question.

In most cases, I think, the challenges are provided in a way that's beneficial to the OP. Something along the lines of "as you work through this issue, you might want to consider the following weakness in your back story." But I don't believe that happened in the referenced case. And it's unreasonable to believe the brand-spanking new user (literally!) could possibly understand the culture and rules of the site.

Result? The OP deleted the question. I voted to undelete it.

My Question(s)...

What should be our site's policy for handling issues involving the back story to a question?

  • Should we flag comments that fail to remind the OP that the observation is just that, an observation, and not an issue for the question itself and not at all a reason to edit or delete the question?

  • Should we judge the back story equally with the OP's actual question? In other words, if we believe the back story can't support the question, is it permissible to ignore the question and vote/comment based only on the back story?

  • Is there an in-between compromise I'm not seeing?

My Opinion

I've been frustrated over the years by users who believe the back story is equally important with the question. Frankly (and simplistically for the purposes of this presentation), "How long would it take for Earth civilizations to recover to [this end condition] given [this starting condition]" shouldn't have any discussion based on the backstory used to establish [this starting condition] at all. Who cares if the nuclear arsenal available to us today is insufficient for achieving a 90% mortality rate?

Honestly, how many of us have grown up with the concept of "the world's nuclear arsenal can destroy the world X times over!" I don't know the OP's age and expecting them to realize that no arsenal would be used to evenly blanket the Earth might be a massive presumption.

I consider this issue an extension of the site's unwritten and too-often-used culture of assuming that whatever science we know today is the heaven-written truth, ineffable and immutable, and that there will never be more science or better science in the future. (I'm on a bit of a rant, but I know too many people who boisterously proclaim their atheism and disdain for religion — all the while treating science with the same blind faith they accuse the followers of religion of having.) The OP tried to make it clear that his proposal was for the near future (2070-2080).

Considering that 99.9% of the world's technology was invented in the last 150 years and that 99.9% of the worlds nuclear technology was invented in the last 100 years — the assumption that a nuclear arsenal 50–60 years from now couldn't kill 90% of the inhabitants is hubris bordering on rampant arrogance.

Consequently, my opinion is that I have little patience for driving away a new user for something as inane as a theoretical weakness in the back story.

<Rant mode: off><grateful for patience mode: on>


Comments made about this answer led me to what I believe is a really great way to help people know when it's appropriate to challenge the backstory.

  • Remember to address the question, not the backstory. Unless you're sure the reason for the question will change the answer, focus only on the question and enjoy the creativity of the backstory.

An example of a backstory that shouldn't be challenged (except, perhaps, in comments)

Q: On my world the atmosphere is tainted such that it appears bright magenta during the day. My question is this: how would seafarers navigate during the day?

A Frame Challenge suggesting that what makes the sky magenta affects the answer would be specious in that it's true the OP hadn't defined what caused the atmosphere to be magenta, but it's actually irrelevant to the question. The color of the sky does not affect sea navigation.

An example of a backstory that could be challenged

Q: On my world the atmosphere is tainted such that it appears bright magenta during the day. My question is this: what color would the horizon be with the setting sun?

A Frame Challenge would be appropriate for this second example because what causes the sky to appear magenta during the day could affect the color of the sky when the sun sets. (It should be noted that it would be more appropriate to ask in comments for additional details including what makes the sky magenta... but an appropriate Frame Challenge could suggest that it's impossible to have an inhabitable world with a magenta sky, so asking the question is irrelevant.)

  • $\begingroup$ I think if you state that underlying premises are wrong, but then comment as such and answer the question as written, you can't go wrong. Or, you can challenge the premise and propose an alternative as close as possible, then answer how things would be based on that. At worst, you'll get downvoted. At best, you give the OP a different direction to take things that gets them to the goal they seek. I'm not sure you can stop this crowd from nit-picking, though. For some of these stack exchanges, I won't even give answers because they rip apart anyone who doesn't publish a research paper first. $\endgroup$ – DWKraus Sep 7 '20 at 22:06
  • $\begingroup$ @DWKraus part of my problem is that 99% of the time the challenge is based solely on what we believe to be true science today, which is remarkably short-sighted from the perspective of every second of history up to the moment anyone reads this comment. But more to the point, unless the OP is asking us to judge the back story, focusing on the back story is simply distracting. Individuals may think they're doing the OP a favor, but in the example linked above, it led to a second person jumping in on the back story discussion and driving the OP away. What value the challenge then? $\endgroup$ – JBH Sep 7 '20 at 23:22
  • $\begingroup$ I can't really challenge your statement, only that I don't think there is much that will change people. And the degree of freedom is better here than at other sites. Probably the OP needs to specify not to challenge the underlying assumptions, or have a thick skin about criticism, but that's asking a lot from a new contributor. $\endgroup$ – DWKraus Sep 7 '20 at 23:40
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    $\begingroup$ @DWKraus As you said, that's asking a lot from a new user. Asking for a policy statement from the community allows us to train existing users in preferred behavior. Honestly, challenging the back story is a "degree of freedom" that's cruel. People go to so much effort to ask a question only to have the part that matters the least chewed up and spat out. That's not a useful degree of freedom. $\endgroup$ – JBH Sep 7 '20 at 23:47
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    $\begingroup$ To be honest, most of the time the backstories I see add nothing useful. I fee the urge to remove such backstories when I see them. $\endgroup$ – The Square-Cube Law Sep 8 '20 at 19:14

My opinion on this event is fairly simple and straightforward:

I think we too often rely on Science As We Know It to be the end-all be-all of measures by which we view, critique, understand, and answer every question in this forum.

We have a lot of very intelligent, very science oriented (science almost to the point of dogmatic faith) people here and it's long been an observation of mine that these individuals especially and our Company as a whole (and I've done this too, from time to time!) tend to approach all questions through the lens of real world understanding.

I hold that we tend to forget sometimes that this is all about fiction. We almost never know what the OP's perspective is: are they writing fantasy, or myth, or fairy story, or quasiVictorian mystery, or pseudoscientific adventure? Are they working on a magical world (hard or soft magic; integral or ephemeral), or a scifi world (hard or soft scifi; rigid or lax compliance), or the real world itself?

We can't approach all these kinds of worlds with the same hammer. We need to, I think, be a little more creative. Sometimes I think we need also to be more open and perhaps more willing to offer an answer even if we don't have all the data.

To take the query at hand: if I were to answer, I would (most likely) ignore AlexP's entirely correct, but also in a key way beside the point challenges. Simply because the question isn't "are there enough weapons to do what I want" but rather "this is the Situation; and this is the Background; now I need help with an Assessment and a Recommendation as to timeframe". What I mean by this is okay, this is the fictional world the OP has constructed, and here is the problem the OP is facing: now, how can I apply my real world knowledge in combination with my creativity and in combination with my understanding that it's the ultimate narrative that is important here in order to help the OP through my response?

Very simple.

To answer your question (finally!): it is always appropriate to challenge an OP's assumptions, BUT we always need to adjust our perspective and our approach to the background type and the individual question at hand.


You've put together a complex story, you're proud of it, you've come here requesting help on Part A. Someone tears apart your story on Part B. The downsides of this are:

  • It can be very demotivational. You've put a lot of effort into this. "THERE'S NO WAY THIS COULD EVEN HAPPEN! DO YOUR RESEARCH!" would feel like a gut punch.
  • It discourages concise questions. New users see peoples questions being ripped apart on backstory, so they try to pre-empt this and expand their questions to explain lots of backstory so avoid the scenario being torn down.

Giving feedback that "this wont work" is very useful, but care needs to be taken in how you write it so as to not offend.

I try to go "This wont work, because X. But assume we can get past X somehow (maybe Y?), Z will happen."


Sometimes I find a back story is too unrealistic*, that it becomes jaring, and means the answer to the core of the question would therefore also feel unrealistic.

So what I tend to do, is point out the issues and come up with a plausible alternative backstory, then I can provide a realistic and plausible answer to their core question.

It is easy, lazy and often times disrespectful and rude, to just shoot down an idea. Legalized trolling if you will. Sure sometimes justified. But most of the time you can't see the value for the trollishness. Good questions and answers are more important than the ego (getting pumped up, by pushing others down) of the person answering.

If someone doesn't have the time to provide useful help to OP, then why are they answering?!?

So in this specific case, provide a political or scientific reason why there would be sufficient nukes, and then answering OPs reconstruction question.

* Having an implausible plot element, has spoiled so many SciFi movies for me, which a simple change would have made right.


A mentionned asker's answer

Jumped from my bear hibernation question to this meta-discussion through a comment.

I'll give my answer as a new worldbuilding stack-exchange user -and new stack-user in general, not accounting reading posts-, on the experience I had regarding all this. So please bear in mind that I don't know all stacky's inner workings, nor do I have an objective point of view. That's not my objective here anyway.

Personal context

To stay humble like a bumblebee, I don't have a lot of experience in world-building; it's neither my job nor I have a bachelor in litterature. Having strong ties with games however, I am more of a jack-of-all-trade, with knowledge in all that relates to it, be it game design, art or science stuffies, being a champion of none.

In games, one's suspension of disbelief has quite a large margin of tolerance, like in regards to physics (double air jumps, checked!), medecine (instant health pack, checked!). In other words, it's fine if things don't stick together perfectly in most games. Moreover, I am more interested in making stories for a younger -but not fool- audience, who doesn't necessarily care for the factual science data adults live with. This gives an idea of what I aim for, in general.

My experience

After having checked the water's temperature through a first question, and received useful comments on how to improve it (and later ones), I went onto something truly important to me, and posted my second question about these bear men and unattended farmlands.

As I found my first answer and comment to my question, I quickly noticed that something was amiss. Indeed, I didn't know for sure that well-fed bears may not hibernate at that time, and seeing people focusing on this made me wonder if my question was correctly written. Because I didn't have the time, I left and let this thought flow to settle things down in my mind.

When I came back laty later in the day, I saw JBH's comments on the frame challenge answer and following my question's comments. This is then that I realized that what I wanted is not to change my bear race, as the answer led me indirectly to. And therefore I changed my posture on the subject, answering to two comments flows at once and even telling twice in the main one that I changed the question.

How I feel now

I feel like this hibernation issue went much, much too far. What I wanted was stated in 2 sentences about food production, which was in the title too, and because I missed out a detail out of a whole question, everybody (or I felt like it was everybody) argued more on whether answers should tell that no, this food situation won't happen at all in the first place.

I feel kind of bad.

Bad for me of course, because I spent (some) time refocusing the subject and didn't get my answer as easily it could have been, but also because my story has been waived away on a single fact, which, if I haven't learned at receiving really harsh opinions, may have made me falter.

But also for the people who wasted time, thinking they helped me by discussing on this subject. It was, from my point of view, a loss of time after the third comment came in, because all was said and done about it. Aside of not having a "reality check" tag, noone on stackys knew for sure how coherent my world needs to be in regard to science. Actually, I take back some of that. Even if my needs were really high, in true truly truth, neither me nor the people immersed in my world would break their suspension of disbelief just because bears don't actually hibernate every year! If it did, then it would shatter in million pieces as soon as one of them started to speak! And anyhow, that's not what I want, that's not the world I want to convey my stories with!

My answer to this meta-discussion

Before leaping like a mad horse onto cactuses, ask yourself how realistic the world needs to be regarding to tags, world's genre and the question. It could be useful to ask that if it's not clear at all. This need should serve as your goal. Then compare with how much your frame challenge breaks this need.

Now, on the how to :

  • If you can still say "ok this is the context X, but I think some changes is needed to have a point in answering the question", then the challenge should either be mentionned partially in an answer ("Ok, know that you have problem X related to the question here, but if X is resolved one way or another, then we can say this..."), or as a question in comment.
  • If you can only say "Given this context X, it's really impossible to have Y appear in the first place", then you cannot answer the question and need clarification or rework. Therefore, this should be done in a comment.

If you have a doubt between the two, then ask yourself those two questions : Are you feeling you are cheating your way out from the question? If you were told this world context in a story, would you break your suspension of disbelief? In other words, would it make you raise your biggest eyebrow and say "Wait, how is that even possible!"? Answering "yes" to the first question and/or "no" to the second means the question is probably answerable.

On a final note : it is nicer to wonder what the asker wish while putting down the challenge. This is especially true with newcomers, because they're less prone to affirm their position. Putting it as an affirmation -especially as a stack's answer- is very assertive, because you mean by that that "you know your thing" rather than "you're not sure that answering with this will help you". Having received the two, I can tell this changes the feeling.

  • $\begingroup$ Well said, Tortliena, and thank you for joining us in Meta. It's rare for new users to speak up here and greatly appreciated that you did. $\endgroup$ – JBH Nov 10 '20 at 0:15

I would say that a harsh critique of the backstory is normally not necessary. The OP sets the criteria, and it is our job when answering to answer as though the backstory is true... with one exception, Hard-Science tags.

JBH makes a good point in his comment by saying, how you go about handling this should be based on the user's experience. If the user is an experienced member of our community (someone with several thousand reputation points) then it is reasonable to assume that they know when and how to use the hard-science tag in which case, you should just go ahead and challenge the backstory. But since newer users do often interpret it as a "hard science fiction" tag, it would make more sense to challenge the tag than the backstory in this case.

Lastly, (and this is really the most important part I think we could all do better on), don't assume that you have a better understanding of the science at play than anyone who will come after you. When challenging scientific limitations, it is best to use less absolute language like, "I do not believe that a nuclear war fought with currently available weapons could result in more than 90% of all life on Earth being wiped out...". In this case, there are citable models for nuclear war that can cause this much loss of life through environmental damage factors like lack of precipitation, ozone depletion, and the Oxygen depletion of the Oceans.

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    $\begingroup$ 100% of all new users, who do not read tag wikis and never can be expected to, use the hard-science tag inappropriately, thinking it means "hard science fiction" (a genre of science fiction) and not "you have to absolutely prove your answer." The existence of that tag should not be a license to challenge the back story unless it's an experienced user (IMO rep >= 15k). Until then, it's the use of the hard-science tag that should be challenged. $\endgroup$ – JBH Sep 9 '20 at 17:29
  • $\begingroup$ I 100% agree. Hard-Science is a harsh mistress that newcomers simply can't be expected to understand. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Sep 9 '20 at 18:50
  • $\begingroup$ Well, the "Hard Science" tag merely requires that the answer be backed up by "equations, empirical evidence, scientific papers, other citations, etc" It doesn't say anywhere that those equations, evidences, scientific papers and so forth must exist within the real world. $\endgroup$ – elemtilas Sep 10 '20 at 12:40
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    $\begingroup$ This is such an arrogant assumption that newer users do not know how to use the hard-science tag or 'simply can't be expected to understand' it. If this is indeed the case, it is not their fault, though. You should write better tag descriptions. I also want to point out that reputation does not reflect expertise. It reflects the popularity of answers. I was reading this stack for years, and it is my observation that upvotes do not necessarily correlate with a deep understanding of the topic. A 'common sense' answer relying on familiar tropes and rubbish science can be the most popular one. $\endgroup$ – Otkin Sep 10 '20 at 19:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Otkin I believe that is why JBH goes with such a high rep when it comes to benefit of the doubt. A 500 rep person might understand the tag or a person with 5k rep might not, but someone with 15k rep has generally been around long enough to be familiar with when and where to use most of the common tags. I don't think anyone is saying lower rep users should misuse tags, just that rep can loosely inform if the breakdown in communication probably happened at point A or B. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Sep 10 '20 at 21:11

It was me who was "challenging" the back story.

Except I wasn't challenging the back story.

The question was of the form "people are doing X causing Y effect; how long will the effect last?" The problem was that doing X would not have effect Y; in order for the question to be answerable, just as JBH says, it is irrelevant what people were doing: what is relevant are the prevailing conditions when effect Y occurred.

My comment was:

A nuclear war fought with currently available weapons will not result in "more than 90% of all life on Earth being wiped out". Not even close. What this means is that the war assumed by the question will be fought with weapons of which we have no idea. In order for the question to be answerable you need to explain what those weapons do.

I was asking the querent to clarify what the weapons do, not how they work, or why they were used.

I was not asking to invent the weapons, only to describe their effect.

I was not asking to justify the end result of using them.

I'm at a loss understanding how my comment was not asking for the "starting condition", as JBH says, from where to estimate the duration of the recovery.

The original poster of the question in question explicitly insisted in their comment that the war "would be fought with much larger arsenals including both fission and fusion bombs". No new science or technology. Just larger arsenals.

Aside, about that rant-inducing faith in science

First of all, I see no conflict between science and religion. Science is about the material; religion is about the spiritual. The two don't mix, and don't have anything substantial to say about each other's sphere. Science can and does study religion as a phenomenon in the real world; religion can always override science in the spiritual world. They are no more in conflict with each other than they are in conflict with literary theory.

As for the practicalities, it is easy:

  • Thermodynamics rules; it is too beautiful to be challenged.

  • Classical mechanics and classical electromagnetism are set in stone in the situations where they apply.

  • Materials science is in rapid evolution; the rest of the physics sets hard boundaries, but within those boundaries wonderful discoveries can be made any time.

  • Special relativity is predicated on the assumption that all laws of physics are the same in all inertial frames of reference: and the rest is just math. Challenging it implies either challenging the basic assumption, or coming up with a new mathematical solution: as avid readers of science fiction, we all hope that one or the other challenge will eventually prevail.

  • General relativity might be wrong; we just have as yet no idea in what way it might be wrong.

  • Quantum physics is undoubtedly true in its observations, but its usual mathematical formulation may be off. As, lo and behold, there do indeed exist alternative mathematical formulations of quantum physics, some more philosophically palatable than others.

  • We already know that general relativity and quantum physics cannot be both true; hence the search for an elusive theory of everything, reminding us amateurs of the last glorious days of alchemy.

  • Natural evolution by common descent with modifications is simply an observation of how things are. How exactly it happens is a matter of on-going research; the mathematics of population genetics is fascinating, but biology is notoriously wet and messy; hopefully, real soon now a new elegant synthesis will replace the dusty mid-20th century Modern Synthesis of Mayr, Dobzhansky et al.

  • Economics, psychology, sociology, and other such fields of inquiry are pretty much at a pre-scientific level of development and there isn't anything to have faith in.

  • $\begingroup$ So I did not see the original question, but I am at a loss to understand how a sufficient quantity of nuclear weaponry could not result in 90% of life being wiped out. You just quoted them saying that it would be "with much larger arsenals", without specifying a number, so "as large as sufficient to wipe out 90% of life" would be the answer. And asking someone to invent new weapons, which is what you have to do in order to describe their effect, can certainly be quite discouraging for someone who was asking about something different entirely. $\endgroup$ – KeizerHarm Sep 10 '20 at 17:44
  • $\begingroup$ @KeizerHarm: Much larger arsenals are still supposed to be arsenals, aren't they? That is, stocks of weapons built by various states. No, it is not conceivable that the states of this world will somehow accumulate enough atomic bombs to wipe out nine tenths of the life on Earth; not even remotely close. Sorry. And describing the effects of a weapon is very very much easier than inventing that weapon; as a canonical example, consider the Martian death rays in H. G. Wells's War of the Worlds; or do you consider that Mr. Wells actually invented a death ray, and somehow his invention was lost? $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 10 '20 at 18:22
  • $\begingroup$ You seem to be extremely sure that states would not build large enough nuclear stockpiles to wipe out 90% of life. You keep repeating "not even remotely close". But on what facts are you basing that confidence? I think it takes a lot more than 500 characters to establish that nations would never ever have those quantities of nukes. I imagine that it would require a calculation of the stockpile required for that effect, and something about the motivation of nations to keep nukes. Next time share that as an answer! That's infinitely more useful than a comment that sounds baseless. $\endgroup$ – KeizerHarm Sep 10 '20 at 18:31
  • $\begingroup$ And that is putting beside the fact that your issue is with the backstory, because you cannot conceive that nations would accumulate enough atomic bombs. Well, the manner in which the bombs were accumulated is part of the backstory. It is not relevant to the matter of how long the Earth would take to recover from a nuclear holocaust wiping out the specified fraction of life. $\endgroup$ – KeizerHarm Sep 10 '20 at 18:34
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    $\begingroup$ While I agree with most of what you wrote I think that you are being way too dismissive of social sciences. If your statement reflects the general attitude of this stack it is no wonder that people tend to avoid questions related to social and cultural aspects of their worlds. $\endgroup$ – Otkin Sep 10 '20 at 19:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Otkin: I am not dismissive of the fields of study of economics, psychology, sociology and so on; I am fascinated by them. All I said is that they are currently at a pre-scientific level of development, and they are. It's only in recent times that people have tried to force them to conform to the mold of science. Maybe those fields of study are not meant to be sciences; after all, not all knowledge is scientific: in fact, most knowledge is not articulated in a scientific theory. I don't see anybody forcing literary theory to be a science, or being unhappy that musicology is not scientific. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 10 '20 at 19:45
  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps this is not what you had in mind, but you sound dismissive when you write 'there isn't anything to have faith in'. Could you also define 'scientific knowledge'. $\endgroup$ – Otkin Sep 10 '20 at 19:56
  • $\begingroup$ @Otkin: Scientific knowledge is knowledge gained through the scientific method. And yes, there is nothing to have faith in, any more than there is anything to have faith in literary theory, musicology, art criticism and so on. The knowledge in those fields consists in some elementary mathematics plus long lists of point observations, some of them being even correct, enveloped in what is essentially literary discourse. Quite often, beautiful and convincing literary discourse, constituting an essential aspect of western culture. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 10 '20 at 20:47
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    $\begingroup$ As I said, very dismissive with a hint of condescending, my favourite flavours :) I believe a couple of years ago you and I had a bit more elaborate discussion on this topic (I lost old credentials, so I have to post from a new account). $\endgroup$ – Otkin Sep 12 '20 at 0:31

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