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Recently I've noticed a very small number of questions and answers based upon an approach that has been criticised by both the mainstream, peer-reviewed scientific press and eminent physicists. The main proponent has also had at least one patent withdrawn by the US Patent and Trademark Office due to contradictions with known physical laws. As such I'm wondering if there is "best practice" on how to flag posts that use such approaches. Note I do not want to spark debate on the correctness or not of the approach, in fact in this case I don't feel qualified to participate in such an exchange. I simply want to make the more general readership, who may not be aware of the problems, know that the approach being proposed is thought to have issues by the scientific mainstream, and point them to places they can do their own research. So how best to proceed, if to proceed at all? The specific cases have not as yet caught much attention, so one simple approach is to just let them die.

I have deliberately not named or linked to the posts in question as I would prefer to keep any debate about the general issue, not the specific instance. But I can add links here if requested.

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  • $\begingroup$ There was this question on physics.SE based on a Veritasium video which discussed about a vehicle that can go downwind faster than that downwind itself. I personally feel that is a good post which is generating a discussion if the physics laws are being broken or not. $\endgroup$ Jun 18 at 11:04
  • $\begingroup$ @NilayGhosh That's fine. I have no objection to "can somebody explain this weird thing, I don't understand the physics". Often great questions. This is about questions and answers that base their theoretical underpinnings on approaches that have been strongly criticised in the mainstream literature - should we flag this criticism up? $\endgroup$
    – Ian Bush
    Jun 18 at 11:47
  • $\begingroup$ You could put a comment describing the issue under answer and flag the ans. as VLQ, if is total nonsense. $\endgroup$
    – Mithoron
    Jun 18 at 11:57
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    $\begingroup$ And this is why Physics has the 'not mainstream' close reason which seems to be absent here on Chemistry as a stand-alone reason. Likely more questions on Physics about perpetual motion machines and 'cool magnets' (and often both together), so a specific close reason was put in place. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Custer
    Jun 18 at 12:34
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You might employ different approaches to address what you consider spammy or disreputable content in either questions or answers.

With regard to questions note there are at least two guiding clauses that indicate when you might regard content as requiring modification or simply as off-topic (worthy of removal):

  1. Under "What topics can I ask about 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.
  1. Under "What does it mean if a question is "closed"?" it is explained that questions may be closed if they are opinion-based:
  • Opinion-based - discussions focused on diverse opinions are great, but they just don't fit our format well.
    Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than on facts, references, or specific expertise.
    It’s often possible to rewrite opinion-based questions to focus on a more fact-based line of questioning. If you see a way to do this, consider editing the question.

Note that the conditions above allow room for interpretation regarding what is opinion-based or personal theories (for instance, if an answer is based on a published article, what defines it as reputable?). You have every right to flag content as off-topic based on these conditions, but ideally will back the action with evidence. I would recommend adding comments where possible to explain in more detail when you think something disreputable, since it may require some research on the part of less informed people.

Answers may be flagged as spam or in need of moderator intervention, although you would ideally provide evidence for your opposition. Here it might be particularly useful since you are asking a third party to intervene.

With regard to both questions and answers, downvoting is an easy way to indicate that you have a low opinion of the content. Naturally with answers a downvote will cost you a little rep, but if you think it important enough perhaps you will regard the loss as a small gift to the community. Comments are a good way to label poor content, although these may later be flagged for deletion and are therefore an impermanent warning sign.

The specific cases have not as yet caught much attention, so one simple approach is to just let them die.

I recommend voting, commenting, and doing as you suggest (ignoring). You might follow the guidelines above and flag content (to close or remove) providing as much detail as necessary or possible. Note that the literature has been known to contain irreproducible content and we are not in particular here to perform the task of literature peer review. Many eminent scientists have been known to embrace fringe ideas from time to time, and this should not sink the value of their better contributions (although it will naturally hurt their credibility). But we can vote up or down based on evidence presented and our degree of experience.

I should also note that there is another and frequent complaint on the site, perhaps more insidious than the mere one-off reference to some obscure theory, namely semi- or fully defunct theories that are repeatedly brought up because they are ingrained in the educational curriculum. That might be more difficult to address because simpler theories are used as crutches or as educational tools to introduce more advanced material. That seems a more innocent problem, but is perhaps more serious than the occasional crackpotted sales pitch.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you, much to mull over. Yes, I agree that hybridisation^W defunct, incorrect theories used in education are a bigger problem, but I think in many cases there are now standard answers that can be linked to. Superficially attractive, left-field "common sense"proposals (I am trying to avoid words like "crackpotted") are more insidious, however - maybe I sensitive because of what is currently happening in the world. And yes eminent researchers have had their off day, and yes modern mainstream may well have seen crackpotted once. But wrong is wrong! $\endgroup$
    – Ian Bush
    Jun 18 at 9:20
  • $\begingroup$ @IanBush It might really help if you provide a concrete example. What is missing from the tools that are already available on the site? $\endgroup$
    – Buck Thorn Mod
    Jun 18 at 9:34
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    $\begingroup$ An example is the answer to chemistry.stackexchange.com/questions/149603/… I have provided a comment explaining my misgivings. My question here is to check this was the best way forward. $\endgroup$
    – Ian Bush
    Jun 18 at 9:56
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    $\begingroup$ @IanBush Uhm, I think downvoting might be enough in this case. As a mod I'd prefer to let the community decide (personally influencing only through up/downvotes). To be honest I haven't really payed much attention to the details but the theory certainly seems unconventional. Personally I would invoke Occam's razor: magnetic interactions are (orders-of-magnitude) weaker than electric, and simpler approaches suffice to explain ionization. The ref/link to a source debating the theory is helpful. It's good you bring this up and await to see of other mods have stronger opinions on the matter. $\endgroup$
    – Buck Thorn Mod
    Jun 18 at 11:52
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    $\begingroup$ I deleted the answer after reviewing one VLQ flag; @IanBush's comments (with which I agree); and in light of the accumulated -3 votes at the time. I took these 3 indicators and decided that the community had spoken and deletion was warranted. $\endgroup$
    – Todd Minehardt Mod
    Jun 18 at 15:43
  • $\begingroup$ @ToddMinehardt Yes, saw that- I guess your opinion was in fact a little stronger - and the evidence does support the action. $\endgroup$
    – Buck Thorn Mod
    Jun 18 at 15:45
  • $\begingroup$ Hi - being relatively new and on the receiving end of this deletion, I must say it would be helpful to receive some coaching rather just a "delete" with no further explanation. I also wonder whether a VLQ flag is really justified in this case. I honestly tried to a) answer the question, b) synthesize the comments by others and c) align the language with the OP's own way of thinking. Were it not for the (admittedly uncommon) reference, how would you rate the answer? I also think the absence of any other answer might inspire extra restraint in hitting the 'delete' button. $\endgroup$
    – Pallas
    Jun 18 at 19:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Pallas As you can read from the main post and other answer the problem is with use of rather dubious sources as references. I cannot go through all of your posts and evaluate the veracity of all you have written, but any statement you have attempted to support using Mills theories is open to question. We are currently evaluating how references to this specific source should be handled. I recommend (as does Todd) that you keep to mainstream explanations and references. $\endgroup$
    – Buck Thorn Mod
    Jun 20 at 8:01
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    $\begingroup$ @Pallas A one-time reference to Mills would probably have passed unnoticed, but your repeated use of this source is troubling for reasons Todd has stated. $\endgroup$
    – Buck Thorn Mod
    Jun 20 at 8:06
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While this might not be the right forum/post to address the general issue, I am of the thought that @Pallas's request in the comment thread warrants a more thorough response from me than I could write in a comment.

I do stand by my assertion that the combination of downvotes and the VLQ vote were enough to cross my threshold for taking action. I will state unequivocally that if there is community support for undeleting the answer, I will act accordingly.

You have a rather good track record here and you are a newer member. Your answers are clearly written; you have found and correctly edited some easy-to-miss mistakes at least once; you are not interacting with the community in a negative way; and you seem to be a trained scientist, based on what you have written here. So far, so good: you are in fact a solid citizen and a contributor.

So now to the why part: The problem lies with your continual citation of Randall Mills, who is widely regarded as a charlatan and a pseudoscientist, when there are myriad other sources you can cite instead. The BLP Company defrauded a lot of people - as well as federal- and state-level funding organizations - on the premise that zero-point energy can be extracted from hydrogen atoms and thus a glass of water can power the planet for the next gazillion years. Mills did not and does not just self-publish his theories: he actively seeks the investment of funds from people/institutions that don't know better, and that's a different level than being a quack with a website.

Mills' reputation precedes him, and it's not something that this community sees in a positive light. This, in turn, likely contributes to the perception of you, rightly or wrongly so (in my opinion).

Aside from the Mills "issue" there is that of perpetuating unsound science, and I specifically am referring to the answer I deleted and the accompanying post:

Did you provide an answer to a flawed question in a consistent manner? Yes. Is it your duty to inform and educate those with misconceptions? I think so. Classical analogues to spin and little magnets moving around is an answer to the question, but I feel you have the intellect and resources to answer the question while correcting the assumptions of the OP.

How you wish to proceed is up to you. Historically, this site has not been welcoming of non-mainstream theories, much less those that have been used to defraud people.

I think I speak for all of us when I state that you are welcome here and are proving yourself to be a valuable contributor.

I recommend that you put aside your personal thoughts about the validity of your canonical references and instead use ones that have stood the test of time and verification by the scientific community.

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I don't know how well this applies here, but I'll cite an example from a different site.

In Space Exploration SE there is a persistent level of so-called "Moon hoaxer" questions that in one way or another call into question the reality of spaceflight.

In Space SE meta:

Down voting and closing for off-topic or needs-details have been effective as well as often in these cases the "data" or "evidence" is some monetized YouTube conspiracy theory channel.

What is often noted is that the question tries to drive a particular answer or theory, and these questions are generally considered "low quality" in Stack Exchange.

If this becomes a chronic problem, then a similar approach might work here.

  1. Ask in meta What should our canonical "veracity of Randall Mills' theories" be to which we can close related questions?
  2. Generate in the main site a simple, clear and proper Stack Exchange question based on the results of that meta exercise. In Space SE it is How do we know the Apollo Moon landings are real?. It's a rare wiki question, is only two, carefully crafted sentences long, and has a variety of well-written answers.
  3. Close future (and past if necessary) questions as duplicates.

This process is handy as it is effective and transparent, and it also offers (moderators at least, I think) a quick way to track down historical related activity. (Moon hoaxers can be quite persistent and reappear with new user IDs)


There is also a community-specific close reason discussed in Why can't I ask my question about amateur space projects and development? also known as the "Why can't I ask about blowing myself up" making amateur rocket fuel close reason.

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Since this thread is becoming a hybrid of a general issue and a specific case where I am concerned, perhaps I may be excused for adding to the discussion. I had rather seen others intervene on some of these points, since I am obviously not a neutral party here and because I had asked for some coaching: I consider it good practise to acknowledge and accept feedback, without necessarily replying. However, I believe a few issues need addressing.

First, I would like to refer to the the code of conduct and the objective of creating a welcoming environment. Several of the commenters here have made an explicit point of doing so, which is much appreciated. We are all trying to make what we perceive as useful contributions to this community, be it through posts or through moderation. Nevertheless, inclusiveness extends to terms that feel personal even when they're applied to content. Using derogatory terms about someone's references inevitably reflects on the person that has invoked those references, and is not likely to lead to a serene discussion. It is probably not helpful to recap all the pejorative terms employed in this thread, but I do feel compelled to draw a line at the use of the word ‘fraud’.

I find it deeply unsettling and regrettable to see how lightly this term is employed, echoed and amplified as there is almost no defense possible against such an allegation; the damage is done the moment the word is written down, irrespective of whether it reflects any truth. Despite the laudable intent of the OP to generalize and tone down this thread, the term now seems to come back full swing as a central argument of why a certain reference should be avoided. My plea would be to refrain from such language altogether; this is simply not the right forum to discuss whether raising private capital for a high-risk venture is morally sound.

It would seem more appropriate here to put business issues aside, and focus on scientific aspects instead. In the specific case of Mills, his theory is unquestionably unconventional. Perhaps it is useful to clarify, however, that the author is a Harvard MD who has produced over a hundred peer-reviewed articles, many of them with co-authors. And yes, he has published in Nature, but on an unrelated subject. Most scientists ignore Mills, some are outright dismissive, but others are supportive. To cite (link to a zip file) just one : “To be able to solve a two-electron atom/ion using Dr. Mills’ Classical Physics is truly an amazing feat.” (Randy Booker, professor of physics at UNC Asheville). If I mention this, it is not to spark a debate about the merits of the theory, but simply to provide some counterbalance to the predominantly negative preceding narrative.

It is of course a valid question to what extent the community should encourage (or at least tolerate) diversity of thought; I can see the value of being somewhat conservative on this point. At the same time, especially in chemistry, there are often multiple ways of gaining understanding or going about approximate calculations. Banning or flagging any one author or method in particular, strikes me as awkward and unnecessary in many ways.

As a practical way forward, it would seem to me (in line with an earlier opinion) that the forum has the tools that allow positive, as well as critical, engagement with individual posts containing some degree of unconventional thinking, if and when they arise. On the part that I can oversee, this is hardly a large phenomenon today, and, on a personal level, I don’t see my contributions in this space growing exponentially. On the contrary, I expect them to be asymptotical since I only have a fairly narrow area where I believe my insights can make a meaningful contribution.

As to the specific answer discussed above: I’m afraid I don’t agree that the question is flawed or that unsound science is somehow being perpetuated, but I genuinely look forward to posts by others offering different insights and would appreciate seeing my answer undeleted alongside them.

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    $\begingroup$ Said source, Randy Booker, is "also an energy consultant working with Brilliant Light Power in Cranbury, New Jersey, since 2005. There he works with them on sustainable, environmentally-friendly new sources of energy." Based on this snippet which I lifted verbatim from their own website, you can hardly expect me to believe that that is an unbiased assessment. $\endgroup$
    – orthocresol Mod
    Jun 21 at 21:14

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