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Factual historical questions tend to concern "what" happened.

Questions concerning "why" something happened seem to almost inevitably be matters of opinion, especially if the phenomenon is complex or involves millions of people as it does 95% or time.

Given this, I wonder if it may be correct to offer site guidance that users should avoid asking "why" questions because they solicit theories and the site is not a discussion group for tossing around theories.

I would like to qualify my suggestion by saying that if the "why" question involves historiography then it be allowed. For example, if the question is "Why do historians prefer primary sources?" or something like that, then it is OK, because it goes to method. In other words, asking about the historian's rationale is on-topic, but asking about Attila the Hun's rationale is not OK (why did Attila drink too much wine? blah blah blah), its opinion.

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    I've always thought that "why" questions should be in the form of "what" historians/historiography say. – Semaphore Mar 8 '16 at 14:43
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I disagree with the notion that history is mostly about "what" and not "why". I think it's the opposite: history mostly deals with "why", supported by evidence from "what". The problem is that history deals with a specific subset of "why"; we need to be careful when dealing with a "why" question, but it doesn't mean we should rule them out immediately.

Imagine a young child asking a series of "why" questions. At first the answers are trivial, but eventually they get so hard as to be unanswerable. Good history questions are like those in the middle; on one end they are trivially answered by Wikipedia, on the other they veer into social science or philosophy. We have close reasons for them already.

Many historical sources and professional historians deal with "why"s directly. For example, Records of the Three Kingdoms contains this appraisal of Guan Yu: 然羽剛而自矜,飛暴而無恩,以短取敗,理數之常也。 That is, "Guan Yu's defeat was due to his arrogance." If someone were to ask "Why was Guan Yu defeated in Fancheng?" then there's a direct answer from a historical source.

What I'm proposing is that we go easier on "why" questions. We're already quite tough on newbies; this is understandable as it's a defense against the disproportionate amount of crackpots and amateurs we attract (guilty myself, but I'm trying to learn!) but please don't knee-jerk react when you see "why" in the question. A lot of these questions attract really poor answers, but I think we should blame the bad answers, not the question. Look at that close reason again:

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 facts, references, or specific expertise.

Let's focus on that first part, and for us this means:

  • Good answers are supported by good historical sources
  • Good answers cite the opinions of professional historians, and don't rely on personal speculation

So before you close a question using that reason, consider: do you really know the topic well, and know that there are no historical sources that address the question? Sometimes it's hard to tell a good "why" question from a bad one. Don't conclude that it's a bad one just because it's currently attracting bad answers - we have other tools for that, like the "protect" function. If you're not sure, give it a chance.

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This is not a new observation. "Why" elicits opinions and it demands book length answers. But as @T.E.D points out, it also gets us some active questions and informative answers.

I would like to find a way to update our guidance so that it encourages questions that are of general value to the community - neither too complex nor too trivial. Questions that can be answered based on historical sources and methods, and questions that don't solicit speculation and theories.

How can we craft better guidance to advise our querents and improve the quality of our questions.

  • I agree with this. The guidance should be updated to discourage why-type questions that solicit theories. – Tyler Durden Mar 8 '16 at 13:48
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    I like that old answer's treatment of "why" much better. I'd still say that it doesn't seem perfectly descriptive of how to do it properly, but it does seem like adding some coherent text on the subject and what you do know about it seems to help a "Why" question. – T.E.D. Mar 8 '16 at 15:16
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I don't think its quite that simple. We actually have had some very good (and by "very good", I mean well received in terms of views and votes) "Why" questions. For example, our current top two hottest questions of the month both have "Why" as the first word of their title. (+ 7 more on that page)

Thanks to documentation from principles or contemporaries, we can actually answer rather a lot of "Why" questions objectively. In some cases where we can't, there may be a wealth of speculation from historical experts that can be drawn upon to at least present what the leading historical theories are.

From the comments, I'm seeing a bit of a disconnect here. Here's my perspective as a moderator, and someone concerned about developing newbies into good contributors.

The purpose of our Help Center is to have a place to send new users so they can educate themselves on how to ask a question that will be well-received. So above all it needs to be descriptive of how users moderate this stack. If it fails at that task, then all the automatic links that are given upon closures are completely useless. Then those of us who care about new user development are forced to put in manual comments along with the automatic ones to tell the poor newbie how things are really moderated here. I really hate having to do that.

So if you want to make an argument that users need to quit upvoting all those popular "Why" questions and start closing them too, I'd prefer to see you do that successfully first before we talk about changing the Help Center.

  • Well, to take your example as an example, there were 11 different answers and the #1 answer listed at least 6 different "reasons", so that proves my point right there that such questions solicit theories and matters of opinion. The answer given is in no way definitive and simply lists a whole bunch of speculations and opinions, so is not in any way "objective" nor is it final. The fact that the question is "well-received" does not change that. So, should I take it from your answer that it is OK to turn the forum into a discussion group as long as the question is "popular"? That's the metric? – Tyler Durden Mar 7 '16 at 18:56
  • @TylerDurden - That's the only objective metric I have. I have my own personal beliefs about what questions and answers are good, but those have a tendency to be wildly divergent from the collective wisdom of the users here. So what I have to go by objectively is what the users here seem to like and keep open. If you'd like to argue that this judgment tends to be wrong, and we should be closing more things too, then you can. But I got the sense you were talking about clarifying our existing standards for questions, not changing them. – T.E.D. Mar 7 '16 at 19:40
  • Well, there is a standard: no questions that solicit opinions. There is even a close criteria ("Questions solicits theories or extended discussion"). Obviously the existence of that policy does not stop people from upvoting such questions. Maybe we should just change the help center guidance to "Post whatever you want, as long as it gets upvoted, you are good to go." – Tyler Durden Mar 7 '16 at 20:24
  • FWIW: 5 hours after I posted this answer, we got another of these good "Why" questions. So far it has 10 upvotes, over two thousand views, 2 very highly rated answers, and no close votes or complaints from anybody that its too subjective to be a good question. Now 3 of our top 4 questions this month start with "Why". – T.E.D. Mar 8 '16 at 14:24
  • (the link to the new why question isn't resolving correctly - it seems to drop me on the front page of the site). – Mark C. Wallace Mar 10 '16 at 13:40
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    @MarkC.Wallace - Fixed. It's now up to #2 on the monthly list, leaving all of our top 3 questions of the month "Why" questions. – T.E.D. Mar 10 '16 at 14:03
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All "what" questions are general reference IMO. Stack Exchange's true purpose is to explain the "why".

What types of questions should I avoid asking?

Some subjective questions are allowed, but “subjective” does not mean “anything goes”. All subjective questions are expected to be constructive. What does that mean?

Constructive subjective questions:

  • inspire answers that explain “why” and “how”
  • tend to have long, not short, answers
  • have a constructive, fair, and impartial tone
  • invite sharing experiences over opinions
  • insist that opinion be backed up with facts and references
  • are more than just mindless social fun

Asking why Attila drank too much is POB, until someone can link to a genetic study that shows correlative evidence that their family is predisposed to alcoholism or depression or whatever. Just because you get crap answers doesn't mean the question is. That just means it's not worded well enough to adhere to the qualifications for a subjective question.

This is simultaneously the asker's fault, and ours for not closing it until it does comply. As well as any answerer who deigns to answer questions that are off-topic as they stand. Some sites will even down vote useful and correct answers that slip themselves in before closure to discourage this behavior.

My guess as to why*, is that the post will be automatically deleted so long as there's no answer greater than +2 and it discourages people from answering such questions, at least until they are edited.

*That's how you answer why. With "because this" not with because I think that.


The tide of 1reps' questions will never cease. What we can do something about is how we heard the cattle (us). In case I wasn't clear, the point of failure is not the crappy question, it's everyone who has more than 3k rep's fault (people who can cast close votes). I'm either way off-topic or you will find this of interest on ELU:

Extraordinary spike in low-quality questions by 1 rep users

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What is chronicle. Why is history.

That may seem like a facetiously short answer, but it's actually completely serious. History is the formulation of 'why' based on analysis of facts and evidence: 'what'. Restricting oneself to what happened (if such a thing as objective facts about the historical past are possible given the nature of evidence) results in tedious and un-insightful lists.

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