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I just asked this question which, predictably, caused some discussion on whether such questions are allowed. It was rightly pointed out that such discussion should be had in general on meta.

So here it is: does History.SE have a policy against softer questions, or against questions with more than one answer? What about questions that specifically ask for more than one answer?

If there is, as the mods seem to suggest, such a policy, should there be? I would say that my question provides a good use case for when such questions can be a useful resource, as well as a fun exercise. I'd also argue that the SE format is well suited to such questions: in particular the voting mechanism can help to sort through a large volume of decent answers, to find the few real gems.

This purpose is not served by chats or forums. Like all SE questions, the aim is to create a presistent resource, that people can add to or benefit from over a large period of time.

I'm not really active in this community, so I don't have strong feelings either way, but I thought I could create the meta topic at least.

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I oppose open ended questions - they inspire discourse, not answers. I view this as a educational resource, not a discussion forum.

My experience is that open ended questions on H:SE seem to be strange attractors for definitions. It may be that historians approach open ended questions as an invitation to discuss the meaning and interpretation of every word in the question, or it may be that there is a class of poor questions that tend to require both rigorous exploration of the terms and also lists of answers.

If we permit open ended questions, then I would encourage someone to propose some criteria/tests/common attributes of good open ended questions.

If I were to ask "Please provide a list of good open-ended history questions." with the body clarifying that "good" means that each question:

  • Can be answered
  • Has more than 1 correct answer, and there is general consensus that the answers are appropriate
  • Can be addressed by historical sources and methods (it is a valid history question).
  • Is nontrivial
  • Is not opinion based,

What would happen?

However I am willing to be wrong.

  • I agree that there are questions that are to unspecific, or even rhetorical, to be answered. However, that does not preclude questions with multiple valid answers (from a handful to a list of a hundred). Like these, for instance. Such questions elicit no more discussion than single-answer questions. – Peter Oct 20 '15 at 17:27
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    I think that one of the problems with 'big list' questions is that the individual answers (i.e. list items) are very often trivial, being served by a link to the corresponding wikipedia page and a sentence or two on how that applies to the question. Which renders the list as simply an extended search function over wikipedia. – Steve Bird Oct 22 '15 at 5:49
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Here are some examples of valuable, open ended, multi-answer questions.

  1. Have there been instances in history when a queen consort had an affair, and no one got hurt?
  2. What was the earliest confirmed religious artifact in human history
    • Technically a single answer question, but these questions tend to get resolved by people posting the earliest they can think of. Yes, you could have a long discussion about the definition of "religious", but you could also just post a list of candidates and each individual reader find the answer that fits their terms.
  3. Examples of two mutually contradictory historical theories/narratives, that have later been resolved by fresh evidence.
  4. Teaching aids: Common student misconceptions, and how to approach them.
  5. Which technologies were invented by South American nations?
  6. Historical hoaxes that were believed for a long time.
  7. Examples of actions taken by a nation-state that were truly altruistic, ie. genuinely not in its own direct self-interest.
    • Again, you could quibble about how to determine a nation's self interest, or you could canvas for answers, just try to find the most convincing case, rather than an absolute truth. (I admit, I can see this one inciting some discussion).

Some single-answer softer questions for good measure:

  1. How do historians prove theories about the motivations of famous people?
    • The methods of historical research have always been very mysterious to me. I'd love to read some first-hand explanations.
  2. Were working class people at the time shocked by Henry VIII's secession from Rome?
  3. How serious was Roman religion compared to Christianity? Did they really "believe" in all the gods the way that Christians believe in theirs?
  4. Why is Christopher Columbus credited for “discovering” America?

I'm sure you can pick any of these out and disagree with them. I'm not necessarily saying that all should be allowed, just that some of them could become interesting resources, which means that the rule shouldn't be black-and-white, at least.

  • I'm not sure what "softer questions" means (is this a Maths.SE thing?) but based on your examples, they seem to be quite accepted as on topic for History. As for your list examples, I don't think the second one counts: while many people might post as early a date as they can think of, ultimately only one answer will have the earliest. H.SE generally has no problems with questions that elicit multiple attempts at answering. Its questions that have too many answers to easily count that tend to be rejected here - best example: Which technologies were invented by South American nations? – Semaphore Oct 21 '15 at 4:23
  • What are the criteria that bound a "good open ended question" vs a "bad open ended question? (Very good list of sample questions; as you predict, I dislike some of them, but I recognize the value of the sample set. Thank you) – Mark C. Wallace Oct 21 '15 at 11:43
  • @MarkC.Wallace I'm not sure. At least in part, that should be decided on a case-by-case basis. I think some inspiration can be found at other SE sites, like workplace, academia and worldbuilding, where they have many open-ended, opinion-based questions. I think the mod's job is ultimately one of prediction: will this question get valuable answers with relatively low discussion, or will it descend into anarchy. – Peter Oct 21 '15 at 12:22
  • My experience is that 'case by case' leads to extensive discussion, and considerable frustration on the part of new users; I think there should be guidance that permits new users to succeed without being subject to the comment-gauntlet. – Mark C. Wallace Oct 21 '15 at 12:25
  • @Semaphore I'm not sure what the definition is either. I guess at Maths.SE they usually have very specific questions, with very clear single answers, so it's obvious what constitutes a soft question. I think they're usually questions asking for advice, interpretations, a bit more towards discussion, but still with clear answerability. – Peter Oct 21 '15 at 12:26
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    @MarkC.Wallace I see your point. It's a classic issue really, follow the letter of the law and people get frustrated that you don't use common sense, have ambiguous rules and people get frustrated with the unpredictability. I certainly agree that we need clear guidelines that new users can quickly understand. – Peter Oct 21 '15 at 12:37
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    Speaking of clear rules, I don't think the current guidelines provide a basis for closing questions with many multiple answers. – Peter Oct 21 '15 at 12:38
  • I really don't it's useful to compare History to sites on wildly different subject matters. Most questions worth asking in History are not going to be "very specific ... with very clear single answers" since this discipline is about interpreting historical records and evidences. At the same time, this also sets History apart from sites like Workplace, Academia and especially Worldbuilding which seem inherently open ended and opinion based. – Semaphore Oct 21 '15 at 12:42
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    @Peter Those guidelines are unfortunately quite out of sync with the community. – Semaphore Oct 21 '15 at 12:44
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    @Semaphore - Care to propose a modification (either here or in a new topic) to sync them back up? – T.E.D. Oct 23 '15 at 1:49

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