I posted a question under the "2019 Moderator Election Q&A - Question Collection" which was not that well received, apparently because it was not considered to address practical aspects of moderation. However, I posted the question because I believe I approach the topic of "question and answer quality" from an angle that I haven't seen before, namely by comparing this site to SO, and this comparison may be useful in understanding some of the problems that the definition of "question and answer quality" raises. I asked, essentially:

To what extent should a compromise be tolerated between the lofty ultimate goal of constructing an exact scientific edifice, and the practical needs of chemists in implementing knowledge, constrained by the extent and complexity of this possibly inexact knowledge? What is the benchmark for correctness?

This is admittedly a question with a philosophical (if not vague) bent, and not clearly related to the effort of moderation. It stems from what I sense is a recurring dilemma with an ambiguous definition of quality which relies heavily on (possibly partial) user judgement. I perceive that part of the issue is that to create the chemistry SE site an existing tool (the SO site) that had been developed and optimized independently around a different set of criteria was applied to the extent possible to a similar but essentially new task, like a wrench being used in the absence of a hammer to knock in a nail.

Thus I ask, more generally:

What are the key differences between the conception of "question and answer quality" on SO and this site, and in what way do these differences represent challenges, limitations, or opportunities for chemistry SE?


As this question gets downvoted without comments it is hard to get a sense of specific opinion, but it is clear that it irritates some. I know the question of quality control is repeated a little often, but I think this is a sign that the site has not matured to the point where this is under control, and that therefore it requires attention. My attempt here is to provide a fresh perspective to the extent possible, a new way to look at the "problem". Perhaps users have to learn to use the wrench and deal with it?


Chemistry is a "work in progress", generally involving inductive reasoning, and as such it addresses many questions that don't have complete answers. In addition, our answers to chemistry questions generally involve approximations (consider e.g. this one). Nature defines absolute right and wrong, a "right" answer provided by a theory that matches observation, but we often define right and wrong based on utility. In that sense, the best answer may not be strictly correct (based on our most accurate theories) but may be good enough because it can be understood by the target audience or may be useful in some practical but possibly limited sense (for instance, in a didactic sense). An answer should however still be expected to be correct within the limits imposed by any theoretical frameworks it invokes, and any deviations from exactness should be explainable on the basis of known model limitations.

Compare this to programming questions answered in the SO site, which generally do have "cut and dry" answers, where there is a straightforward measure of quality: the good answers can be implemented, they work, no "ands ifs or buts". Questions on SO can have multiple answers of possibly equal validity, and some might be optimal compared to others with regard to difficulty of implementation, complexity, application speed etc. But if they don't work as promised when implemented they are incorrect and are supposed to be downvoted.

This raises an important problem, since a working principle of the chemistry site is to replicate the spirit of the SO site in terms of encouraging "quality questions and answers", but there are potentially fundamental differences between the measurement of quality in the two sites. This is of course an issue for many sites in the SE network, but mainly for science-based ones that discourage opinion.


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