# How should we identify and handle answers that exist mainly to promote unconventional theories?

On Chemistry Stack Exchange, we have a policy against questions that exists only to promote unconventional theories (see What topics can I ask about here?):

Some kinds of questions aren’t allowed here:

(…)

• Pitches for your own personal theories or work: We deal with mainstream chemistry here. Anything that couldn’t be published in a reputable journal is probably not appropriate at this site.

(…)

In particular, such theories may include (but are not limited to) the chemical aspects of conspiracy theories (such as water fluoridation, chemtrails, World Trade Center controlled demolition, or Holocaust denial), pseudoscientific theories (such as homeopathy, water memory, perpetual motion, water-fuelled car, cold fusion, or alkaline diet), and other personal ideas that are not accepted by the scientific community.

Sometimes we also get answers that give the impression that they mainly exist to promote an unconventional theory that is not accepted by the scientific community. An example of such an answer can be found here. Such answers usually attract some downvotes and a few flags. Generally, downvotes are appropriate for answers that are wrong (i.e. not in accordance with accepted theories and experiments), and flagging is a suitable way of bringing inappropriate content to the attention of the community or moderators. However, moderator intervention needs to be based on site policies or needs the backing of the community, and the current formal policy only covers questions but not answers. Hence, I feel it preferable to have community consensus before moderators act upon flags and delete answers.

Therefore, I am asking for proposals for a community guideline that clarifies how we should identify and handle answers that exist mainly to promote unconventional theories that are not accepted by the scientific community, assuming that the question tries to answer the question (i.e. “not an answer” flags are not applicable) and is not blatant spam.

Some preliminary thoughts:

• Should the existing policy for questions be extended to answers?
• Are the definitions of mainstream chemistry and reputable journal clear enough?
• Should the guideline be limited to unconventional theories or be generalized for any answers that are considered extremely wrong?
• Should such answers be deleted, or wouldn’t it be more to the point if they stay – with downvotes that clearly indicate the assessment of the community?
• Would users prefer to delete answers because downvotes on answers remove 1 reputation from the voter?
• While we are on this topic, can I please make an appeal to all readers to please vote in a way that reflects your own opinions. Do upvote answers you agree with, or downvote answers you strongly disagree with. Please don't upvote answers simply because they're posted by somebody you like, or because the author put in effort into writing it.
– orthocresol Mod
Dec 19 '16 at 14:07

After a while of thinking about it and in reflection to the comments, I'm updating this with the following proposal:

Remove the passage from the help centre, as it is a policy that is not enforced.
Keep answers that try to promote unconventional theories around and let the score indicate that they are "bad". (Delete if they do not try to actually answer the question, NAA - not an actual answer, or link-only, spam, etc..)

Original post:
My 2 yen:

Should the existing policy for questions be extended to answers?

No, not really, that's what down votes are for. I actually needed to think about this quite a bit and I'm somewhat undecided still, for reasons I try to include at the end.

Are the definitions of mainstream chemistry and reputable journal clear enough?

I don't think they are. But I also don't think they matter much. (Again, see the end of the post.) At what point is a journal reputable? When does a new idea become mainstream? It's usually when you get other scientists to understand it and support it. On SE we usually signal that with up and down votes.
I understand that we are not here to invent new things, and rather building a library of existing knowledge, easily accessible and in a more generalised language. We have the occasional question asking about a proposed synthesis

Should the guideline be limited to unconventional theories or be generalized for any answers that are considered extremely wrong?

Where is the line? Who decides that an answer is extremely wrong?
One of the worst answers that I would happy nuke from orbit happens to be one of the highest scoring answers on the site. In addition it actually does promote some strange new form of notation. (If you don't know what I am talking about, look here $*% http://chemistry.stackexchange.com/a/461$ in the source code to find a link; I just want to prevent too much meta-effect.)
How would we justify deleting such answers, who decides that? The site is about content and sometimes wrong content is equally important as right (or accepted) content. It just needs the proper indication as such and that is where the voting system comes in.

Should such answers be deleted, or wouldn’t it be more to the point if they stay – with downvotes that clearly indicate the assessment of the community?

They need to stay and be voted to oblivion for reasons stated above.

I am very much against deleting wrong answers/ answers with non-mainstream chemistry, like I outlined above. Additionally I think that one reputation penalty is not much. If you are invested in this page, within a month or two you'll be in the realm of "It hardly matters".

Lastly: Why do we need such a policy in the first place?

I can't see how voting wouldn't take care of that by itself. If a question is non-mainstream, there will be enough users giving it a negative score and probably a close vote, basically ensuring that the question will get deleted in due time.
If an answer is unconventional it will be indicated by a desperate negative score, the link in this question is case in point. At some point it becomes barely readable, it is clearly recognisable as not helpful.
As I argued before, I want these answers to stay, so I don't see a policy enabling us to delete them doing any good - and as a moderator I do not want to make this kind of decision.

Pitches for your own personal theories or work: We deal with mainstream chemistry here. Anything that couldn’t be published in a reputable journal is probably not appropriate at this site.

I don't read that as a policy in the first place. It is a gentle reminder that these questions won't get you very far and that you better not waste your time putting them up in the first place. This is especially indicated by the fuzzy choice of words: "probably not appropriate". It does not say it is off-topic in general.
I personally find such a policy superfluous, if not counterproductive. I rather debunk or myth-bust a question dealing with non-mainstream chemistry, than deleting it, leaving everybody in the unclear.
My parents said to me "there are no dumb questions", and while I not completely agree with that, I understand that a question means a stating an interest or misconception, a quest for knowledge and clarification. If a question is based on a wrong premise it needs to be clarified, probably even more carefully answered so that hoaxes and pseudo-science doesn't spread.

After Lastly: I see where such a policy could be coming from. It's from the early days of chemistry where the general scope of the site needed to still be formed. Removing such questions to not have them around for examples of how to ask questions here was important. It isn't anymore. We have a fairly well defined scope, a broad user base, and such questions will be dealt with the built-in mechanisms of the site.
In rare cases we would probably need a handle to delete a non-mainstream question. In most of these times I guess we already have another mechanism in place to deal with that. In the last instance we have to discuss this here.

I don't argue for removing the passage from the help-centre, as a discouragement it is probably effective enough and it's wording actually does not prevent any question per se. I just wouldn't interpret it as policy and certainly do not want to extend it towards answers.

• I actually think that the "policy" for questions should just be removed if we don't enforce it. We have quite a number of questions based on false, or pseudoscientific premises, which have received good answers. I don't recall any questions about severely non-mainstream stuff, but if they do appear, it's quite easy to downvote; they hit -4, get hidden from front page, and are eventually deleted as a result of inactivity. Anyway, point being, leaving an unenforced line in the help centre just opens up more potential issues in the future (meta posts asking for clarification, etc.).
– orthocresol Mod
Dec 19 '16 at 7:39
• @orthocresol I don't see how you could enforce something that is "probably not appropriate", but I am happy to get rid of that passage if that's what it takes to keep wrong and non-mainstream answers visible. Dec 19 '16 at 7:58
• Yes, precisely, we are not enforcing it - so there's no reason for it to still be there.
– orthocresol Mod
Dec 19 '16 at 8:00
• Thanks, you basically said what I would have said on the topic ^^
– Jan
Dec 19 '16 at 22:44

Anything that couldn’t be published in a reputable journal is probably not appropriate at this site.

Given that reputable journals usually require an experimental (or mathematical) proof, this might be be a way to weed out the crap.

So far, I usually

• mark them for deletion
• flag the answers (in need of moderator invention)
• flag accompanying comments, in which the claims are typically repeated ad nauseam as not constructive

Maybe, the current approach is good enough and we shouldn't overregulate things here. On the other hand, this (particularly the flagging part) does add some burden on the moderators. However, given that the weird theories aren't promoted so often, this is acceptable (from the point of view of a non-mod).

UPDATE

Should the answer stay or should it go just because one user flagged it?

It depends. When a not-an-answer is deleted, it seems to remain visible to moderator, the authors, and trusted users with a reputation large than 10,000. For most of the crap science answers, that should be good enough.

There might be some cases, where the answers refer to an inventor of pepetual motion machines or an plague-promoting (anti-vaccination) prophet with a commercial interest. Here, the answers are, at least indirectly, spam and should be removed completely.

• These things don't come by very frequently, so it probably wouldn't be too much of a burden on us. (Edit to clarify: just take this comment at face value. I just mean it is not a burden. I am not expressing any judgment on what is the right course of action to take.)
– orthocresol Mod
Dec 19 '16 at 7:35
• I just want to reiterate that: I am against deleting these answers. And when those flags come by I will only be casting a down vote (if the unconventional answer actually tries to answer. If not, it should have been a NAA flag.) Dec 19 '16 at 7:53
• The flag is not really a burden (it can even help us); however, the following decision is: Should the answer stay or should it go just because one user flagged it? This would be easier if we know the general opinion of the community, hence this meta question.
– user7951
Dec 19 '16 at 12:45
• I just want to clarify: you want to delete these questions and answers? That means they'll be still around, simply invisible to <10k users. There is no permanent deletion. Spam is locked and hidden (just not for moderators), but still accessible to any 10k user via the edit history. Dec 20 '16 at 14:37