These sorts of questions touch on the fundamental identity of the community. What do we want to be on- and off-topic here?
Do we want to be a resource that extends to educating raw beginners? Do we choose to take on the responsibility to guide every misinformed, misguided, or confused individual that comes our way to a sound path of chemistry knowledge?
Or, not? Are we only interested, say, in questions clearly asked from some base of accurate chemical understanding, the answers to which require knowledge beyond what one would acquire in, e.g., the first year of a "typical secondary-school education"?
As well, do we want to be, among other things, a curated repository of whatever mishmash of data happens to be asked about (this molecule's enthalpy of formation, that crystal's specific heat capacity, ...)? Or, do we want to say to those asking such questions, "Sorry: Chem.SE is not a reference/handbook -- the data is out there, go find it yourself, here's where you might start looking"?
My thoughts on the particular types of questions raised by [I-square-Delta] follow.
Straightforward informational questions for which the answer turns up on the first page of search results (e.g., pulled out of thin air: "What is the specific heat of methanol?") should probably be closed with extreme prejudice. I don't see value in trying to curate a dataset of chemical properties: our format is poorly suited for doing so, and there are many other resources out there that a halfway-dedicated searcher can reach relatively easily. That said: I think a dedicated "close reason" might be warranted for this, something like "off-topic because we don't curate chemical data here". Whatever the reason given, a comment to the question with a link or two to a suitable resource seems like plenty of assistance.
(Related: some sort of reference page richly filled with links to freely available data of all sorts (NIST WebBook, etc.) would be a fantastic companion to this... even to the point of including a link to such a reference page in the above proposed new 'close reason'.)
Similarly, questions for which a careful reading of the relevant Wikipedia, ChemWiki, etc. page would provide a sufficient answer should also be closed promptly. While there may be some value in having redundancy of information at various locations around the Internet, it's soul-sucking to contemplate writing up an answer here when there's a perfectly good exposition a few clicks away. As above, a comment to the question with a link to the relevant external page seems sufficient.
Questions for which a quick search turns up the desired answer, but where it takes someone sufficiently knowledgeable in chemistry to be confident that it is the answer, should be left open. These seem like great questions & answers to have on the site, because they provide a helpful clarification of information available elsewhere. Each such question does represent a judgment call by the community, though, because the evaluation of it takes someone sufficiently knowledgeable is not an objective thing.
Questions requiring extensive searching and aggregation of information from multiple sources should obviously be left open, as these are IMO part of the key value proposition of Chem.SE: aggregating, analyzing, and reporting information from other resources to answer interesting questions.
#1 actually seems pretty cut-and-dried, but we could use a broader toolbox:
The matter of "basic questions" is more or less the same thing that I was getting at with this meta post. Despite a lot of upvotes, it didn't really get very much discussion going. <glares around>
Anyways, I've come across at least three categories of questions that I'd call "basic":
- Questions regarding material one would learn in a secondary-school chemistry class, from chemistry students who know very little because they're just starting to learn.
- Questions that are nonsensical due to being based on flawed premises, from chemistry students or others with just enough basic chemistry knowledge to make them dangerous.
- Questions that are waaaay out in left field, from non-scientists with minimal chemistry knowledge
Questions of type (1) almost always fall under homework, and I think our current policy of aggressive closure is appropriate. I have to imagine almost everyone asking these types of questions has access to an educational/academic context in which they could ask them (teacher after school, office hours, classmates, etc.), and they will be much better helped by talking to someone who can sit down with them and work with them point-by-point. There may be some small number of self-learners asking these sorts of questions as they're just starting out, and it would be nice to be able to be a resource for them, but a Chem.SE Q&A is a terrible format for such help.
Something like a 'homework help chat room' would probably be a lot more effective, but demand would probably overwhelm the community about thirty-eight seconds after such a thing was instituted. I feel like we just have to accept that such help is something we're not positioned to provide effectively. Really, linking to the relevant lecture on Khan Academy or similar is probably the best thing to do.
Questions falling under (2) are probably the ones that aggravate me the most, and I think aggressive closure is warranted. The SE Q&A format is not the right context in which to clear up someone's fundamental confusion. Given sufficient time and interest, inviting such questioners to chat is probably the best approach.
The big question in my mind is, what reason to mark in the closure dialog? 'Unclear what you're asking' is probably the closest match, but it's not a great fit because sometimes the questioner lays out a very specific thing they want to know, but it's absurd to answer the question because there's a huge hole in their understanding. I guess another alternative would be the 'low-quality' reason, but I hesitate to use it because it feels like I'd risk insulting the questioner. I would actually propose another closure reason here, something like "question is formulated on incorrect premises".
Questions of type (3) I think should generally also be aggressively closed. They are unlikely to be relevant to a broad audience, and run into a number of the same sorts of unsuitability for the SE Q&A format. We're not here to teach a full chemistry curriculum, and sometimes even just the process of explaining to a questioner why their question is absurd can require a lot of background information.
But, here again, which closure reason to use? While 'low-quality' fits like a glove, I hesitate to use it because it feels like I'd be insulting the questioner.
A further point, relevant to (2) and (3) especially, quoted from a Meta StackOverflow answer by Robert Cartaino (emphasis in original):
At the very very core of why Stack Exchange was created was to create a safe haven from much of the "random" mis-information and poor content posted on the internet. We accomplish that by assuring that all posts are vetted (and improved where warranted) by a peer group of fellow experts in the subject.
To sum up: I think that our relatively aggressive stance on closure is probably where we want to be. It may put off questioners who come asking things like the above, which is unfortunate, but in the end I don't think we or they would really be all that well served by expanding scope and attempting to answer their questions. Some of the intrinsic limitations of the SE Q&A format combine with (IMO well-chosen) boundaries defined for site-scope to make where we're at, where we want to be. I would love to have a couple of new closure reasons implemented, though.