Another in my aperiodic, quixotic rants intended to improve the quality of H:SE posts.

I've seen a few questions on meta that resemble "why did I get a downvote?". It struck me that I can't be the only person who has a set of pet peeves that will trigger a downvote. If we explicitly list those characteristics of a question that cause our mouse to lunge for the downvote arrow, perhaps we'll reach a stronger consensus on the site we want, and some guidelines to improve questions. I'd like to reach a state where instead of hitting downvote, I can enter a comment that effectively says, "This question is like bullet #x; if you could alter it to be in line with the recommendations for bullet #x, it is more likely to get upvotes and answers, and to cause warm and happy feelings in the cockles of the moderator's hearts.

Let me explicitly note that I do not intend to disrespect anyone in the examples I've chosen below. I'm trying to illustrate a point. While each of the examples has tempted me to hit the downvote button with vigor (and possibly repeatedly), some of them are actually fine questions that I've praised elsewhere. I am criticizing a feature of the question, not the value of the querent.

Please add your own pet peeves; I'll mark this community wiki. Yes, I know that this question violates my own #2. As I said, some questions tempt the downvote, but are actually fine.

Disclaimer; yes, I've said some of this before. It isn't my intent to be repetitive; I'm striving to get to a place where I'm tempted to upvote more often than I'm tempted to downvote. I hope that by changing the format of the material slightly, we can create something that will cultivate a stronger, more interesting H:SE

Please document your preliminary research

Cite every non-trivial assertion in your question.

Don't include anything you don't want to defend.

H:SE questions have an authoritative answer

Has there ever been anything like…

How do I write a good question?

I don't understand your question

I have to read the comment string to understand the question

I will downvote any question that misuses the term genocide.

I wonder if anyone can prove I'm wrong? / You've asked us to prove a negative

If you doubt the existing narrative, the burden is on you.

Is this true that…

Is your question in scope?

It is common knowledge that … knowledge isn't common

Out of scope questions

Questions about race

Quoting known Hitler apologists and/or Holocaust deniers as your primary/only source

Reconcile title with content in body


Someone once said…

Swords were in the past, so tell me about their physics

Terms are ill defined

The question is written in the passive voice

The question relies on a false aggregation

The scope of the question makes it difficult to answer

What evidence is there that the historical individual that I'm thinking of fits a historical theory that I read one time.?

What is the consensus of historians on… ?

What would google tell me if I asked?

When did X first happen?

Why didn't the world community bake me a birthday cake? (or stop Mugabe, or Bush, or Chavez, or whoever)?

Why were the majority of the population X at the time Y ok with Z when we know that Z is wrong? Is it true that Person S from time Y really did/believed in Z??! Horrendous!


You replied in comments

  • 10
    I've asked a handful of questions and honestly I find a lot of the reactions to them a bit arbitrary and unevenly distributed. Either the rules aren't clear, or when moderation makes a decision it's so subjective that it's hard to gauge one's own question. IMO, that's a sign that moderation is too restrictive. Maybe that's the site you want .. but if it is, I don't have the slightest clue how to word a question that meets all of the necessary criteria.
    – Cdn_Dev
    Commented May 22, 2015 at 18:18
  • @MarkC.Wallace I somehow missed the ping for your comment: As the first question in my comment indicates, I know the purpose of CWs. I was and am still not sure of the purpose of this post. Is this intended to be only about questions or should DVs for answers also be covered here? If only Qs, someone like me might edit this Q, If As as well, someone like me might add an answer here… But 20 As seems like an unusual long thread already. Commented Mar 22, 2018 at 12:30
  • Thx. Much clearer to me now. As said, and assuming it's not only your predisposition, and that there will be perhaps quite a few reasons pre-canned, I think a separate "Why was the answer DV'd" would reduce the clutter substantially.. Commented Mar 22, 2018 at 13:40
  • 3
    People are just not educated on this site. Some people are nice, like the person who asked this question, but most of the people are just rude people who find joy and enlightment in downvoting other people. It's just a coward attitude, as if I was to downvote someone, I wouldn't do that without letting at least a comment, and a chance to improve the question. Stack Exchange is known to be one of the rudest community on the Internet.
    – Quidam
    Commented Apr 25, 2019 at 19:16
  • 1
    There are a lot of As to this Q by now. That is good, & complicated if we want to refer to anyone specifically in case of incoming Qs covered by the As below. Therefore, 2 suggestions: 1. refer to this meta-post in comments more often, 2. to help in navigating this post, either link directly to the A here; or even better yet, also prefix all of the As here with a short-title, or abbreviation (not least to potentially save on comment chars). [Alternative solutions for advertising this post, structure & navigation, find-help, welcome] Commented Mar 21, 2021 at 20:25
  • 2
    @LаngLаngС Nice edit.
    – justCal
    Commented Oct 11, 2021 at 19:35
  • @Quidam It's not always worth it to engage with a clearly ignorant answer.
    – cmw
    Commented Sep 22, 2023 at 2:35

36 Answers 36


Why didn't the world community bake me a birthday cake? (or stop Mugabe, or Bush, or Chavez, or whoever)?

Example 1, Example 2

Many questions include an implicit assumption of agency that is fallacious. There is no world community – at least not a world community with an executive and a club that can be used to punish people or to bake birthday cakes. If you ask a question of the form "Why didn't X do Y?" then doublecheck to make sure that X is a real actor. Doublecheck that X has the power to do Y.

How many…

Stop; don't go any further unless you think it through.. Example 1, Example 2, Example 3.

If your question begins "How many…", you're probably asking for a list, and you shouldn't ask that here. There are exceptions – "How many years did the 1812 war last?", or "How many patents did G. W. Carver have?"

Double check that you're asking for a "closed answer" – an answer, not a list. Then see if there is a way to rephrase the question so that it is really what you want. Sometimes this question is phrased as "What were the … names of people on the Titanic?"

When did you stop beating your wife? (e.g. What is the timeframe for Adam and Eve?)

There are two problems with these questions. First, the timeframe isn't mentioned. If you're asking about behavior X in Roman History, the answer is generally meaningless unless you specify what period of Roman History. "What is the role of a censor in Roman government?" Depends on whether we're talking empire, republic, late empire, or June 7, 45 BCE. "Who is the Secretary of State?" Depends on which administration, and which year.

The other problem is questions that rely on assumptions – like the assumption that I beat my wife, or that I'm married. Example 1, Example 2.

Before you ask the question, first, specify a time period, and if possible an event. It is much easier to provide a comprehensive answer if you specify an event; we can research the causes and effects of that event and discuss them intelligently. Second, doublecheck that the majority of the people accept all the assumptions. Sometimes this will cause me to eat crow; there are questions where the assumptions aren't obvious. But it is worth your while to take a moment to make sure that all the terms in your question are meaningful to the audience.

Can you evaluate the impact of Sujarkama's theory of mesonic exchange entitlements on the gross national product of the Jawethi province of Kronos under Reaganomics?

If you ask a question which relies on obscure details, without citing those details I will downvote you. If you ask a question that relies on obscure details and you cite those details, providing me the opportunity to learn something new, I will upvote you and cause fuzzy unicorns to bring you waffles.

The point of H:SE isn't to demonstrate your intellectual power & puissance; it is to get an answer to a question. If you can't be bothered to cite your sources, then there is a gravitational force drawing my mouse to the downvote button.

  • 6
    I've upvoted because I agree, but what this answer really needs is formatting. Right now it's almost a wall of text that's a load to read.
    – Luke_0
    Commented Jul 5, 2013 at 18:27
  • True and helpful. I'll work on it, but I'll also accept any edit you offer.
    – MCW Mod
    Commented Jul 5, 2013 at 18:30
  • 1
    I'm editing it now, but you'll have to add the links for your examples once I'm done (something went wrong when you posted this, there are no links at all).
    – yannis
    Commented Jul 5, 2013 at 18:41
  • @Luke The edits are nearly simultaneous, I never saw your edit.
    – yannis
    Commented Jul 5, 2013 at 18:54
  • 1
    Found the links to the examples... They were hiding in the question. O_o (verify that their order is correct, please)
    – yannis
    Commented Jul 5, 2013 at 18:54
  • +1 for about 1/2 of this. -1 for the last bullet. "General Reference" is a recipe for disaster, and after much agnst was rightflly purged from SFF.SE. I'm not even remotely anxious to see it reinstated here, with its attendant discussions of a fully subjective "this is obvious to me" / "this is not obvious to me"
    – DVK
    Commented Jul 8, 2013 at 16:38
  • 1
    Not sure I understand - I believe we should downvote any question that is general reference/trivium. Are you arguing the opposite?
    – MCW Mod
    Commented Jul 8, 2013 at 16:44
  • @DVK You are confusing closure with downvotes. "General Reference" is (was?) a close reason, this discussion is about downvotes. Downvotes are an entirely different beast.
    – yannis
    Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 20:05
  • 1
    @YannisRizos - unless "Who is buried in Grant's Tomb" is a separate page on Wikipedia, I find the reason to opposed DV for it the same as the reason to oppose VTC. Being "found in a google search" on a resource that isn't universally known to be a reliable reference is not a good enough standard IMHO.
    – DVK
    Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 20:33
  • @DVK unless "Who is buried in Grant's Tomb" is a separate page on Wikipedia - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grant's_Tomb
    – yannis
    Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 21:20
  • 2
    @YannisRizos - I was making a generic point :) But yes, in the case of Grant's Tomb, the answer would be "too trivial, downvote for lack of research" due to that page's existence. What gets my goat is "oh, the answer is a 3rd result in google search, on some obscure blog. You didn't do enough research".
    – DVK
    Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 21:24
  • 1
    @DVK Well, ok, but... how's that relevant to this Meta answer? Why are we even talking about this? There are specific examples in the answer, no reason at all to derail the discussion with vague general points.
    – yannis
    Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 21:36
  • I give up - what of note happened on June 7, 45 BCE? Commented Oct 7, 2017 at 12:48
  • "The censorship continued in existence for 421 years, from 443 BC to 22 BC, " - The discussion of the role of the censor is a bit different after 22 BCE.
    – MCW Mod
    Commented Oct 7, 2017 at 13:36
  • 7 June is my birthday, but I wasn't born in 45 BCE, despite any rumours to the contrary, so it wasn't that. ;-)
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 2:27

You've asked us to prove a negative

e.g. I wonder if anyone can prove I'm wrong?

I'm wondering if, contrary to what has been accepted as history, perhaps X was the result of Z, not Y, as history has reported. Can anyone prove I'm wrong?

A good question along such lines should be supported by a well substantiated hypothesis, not simply "I think maybe…". Such a question is virtually impossible to answer satisfactorily – generally speaking, you can't really disprove idle speculation, or a 'negative'. Such discussions are fruitless and end up going in circles. This is closely related to If you doubt the existing narrative …. It is generally an invitation to discussion of a conspiracy/alternate history theory, and therefore not in scope for H:SE.


First, provide evidence or a very strong argument for doubting the narrative. If all you have is a feeling of astonishment, then I will downvote and urge a vote to close.

Second, reformulate the question in terms of a hypothesis. What kind of evidence would confirm or refute this hypothesis. If you doubt that Henry Ford was actually a human being, or that China exists, then specify that a well attributed photograph of Henry Ford, or the existence of a US Ambassador to China would be sufficient to confirm the existing narrative, and outline the efforts you've made to find that evidence.


Cite every non-trivial assertion in your question.

If you ask a question about things (people, events, concepts, ideas, theories, etc.), it is courteous to provide a reference or citation to those things. Link to the relevant wikipedia entry if nothing else. A surprising fraction of questions can be answered by a fresh set of eyes looking at the information.

This is a common problem on SE; SE has a legitimate expectation that you've done preliminary research before asking the question. Show that research. If you're asking about Pokemon, or Obelisks, or Soviet Watches, then show me the references. When I'm checking the references, I may spot the connections that eluded you, or I may be able to spot the reason why there is no connection. If you're asking about your thesis concerning Roman syncretism, then provide some evidence of that syncretism. Even if we all accept that the Romans were syncretic, providing the research helps focus the answers on historiography rather than hermeneutics

Question based on unfounded premise

Questions are based on unfounded, suspicious or unsourced premises tend to get closed. Even if they don't get closed, they tend to accumulate a great deal of debate/discussion/argument that reduces the chance that the question will get an authoritative answer. If you want an answer to your question, cite all non-trivial assumptions. Then go ahead and cite the ones that you think are trivial, because the worst that will happen is that someone will learn something.

If you must

Before you post a question, make sure that you've provided sources for each of the assertions you make. Comments should (politely) ask OP to provide sources/citations/evidence for questionable assumptions/assertions.

Include the citations in the question; don't ask people to wade through a long comment stream to find a citation, and then to ask them to infer which noun in the question relates to the citation. You're asking people to do research on your behalf; make it easier for them.

Questions that cite absolutely no research should be scrutinized with an eye to improvement.


  • 1
    Re: Qboup: Plus you then still will get complaints about 'length', downvotes. (Perhaps not 'the worst' but common on SE & we have several examples for this type of reaction). That said: 'unfounded premise' seems incongruent with the 'fix'. UP is almost the 3rd most often found bread earner here? 1st being lack of prior research, 2nd being actual lack of reasonably easy access, and then third not understandings/misunderstandings? If not 'motivated', or really gross 'unfoundedness', No3 is actually a great opportunity a lot of times? Guess we need balance for fix & MWE approach in phrasing? Commented Oct 5, 2021 at 0:11

Please document your preliminary research

Some questions seem to have come out of a beer and pretzels' discussion with no research. Please do basic research before you post here; check Wikipedia and Google, and document that research in your question. Tell us why Google and Wikipedia fell short. Tell us what you searched on and why the results didn't answer the question. H:SE is not a Google API.

I'll downvote questions without research and questions where OP refers to research that has been done, but not cited. I am not motivated to go do research and then have OP tell me basically: "Yes, that's part of the research I've already done; you've wasted your time."

I'll also downvote questions that include the phrase "I guess"; this generally indicates that the author is writing an essay to advance a viewpoint, rather than asking a question.

Example: "I have found references that…" But OP doesn't share those references, so we're put in the position of researching things and then asking, "did you mean this? or this? or this?" H:SE is not the place for guessing games.

How to avoid the downvote

  1. Google your question. Take a look at at least the top five results.
    If your answer is there, then your question should probably have been closed as trivial.

  2. Search H:SE.
    Apparently every month or so someone is compelled to ask a trivial variation about either 'why the US bombed Japan', or 'why Africa is poor'; these questions are the rickroll of H:SE.
    If you've got a new variation of the question or something new to ask, then explicitly cite the previous question to show that you are aware that the question has been asked before, and make it clear how your question is different.
    If you ask a longwinded question that appears to be a duplicate of one of these two, I'm going to downvote.
    I probably should feel guilty about this, but to be honest, I don't.

  3. Re-read your question.
    Are there any terms in your question that would not be familiar to your average sixth grader? To your mother-in-law? If so, search Wikipedia and include a link to the term. Yes, I'm aware that many of you loathe Wikipedia with a passion that rivals a divorce settlement or the thirty years war. If you fall into that group, then provide a citation to some other source, but make it a source that someone can check. The goal in this step is to provide references to clarify your question if it isn't quite as clear in text as it is in your mind. If you think Wikipedia falls short of the goal, then clarify the outstanding issues in your question.

  4. Cite all nontrivial assertions in your question.
    Just as a courtesy, if you mention a person, link to that person's page on Wikipedia. If you link to a country, a political party or any other similar group, link to their page.

  5. If you refer to research that you've done, share that research.
    Research is not limited; if you share it, you've still got it. If you don't share your research, then you're asking me to play a guessing game, and you're really providing a huge disincentive to answering your question. If you've searched Wiki & google & standard source X, then mention that. Explain why those answers were inadequate. (Many other sites require this and will pre-emptively close your question if you don't do this; I wish we included that in our culture).

  6. Re-read your question again.
    Have you established that you're asking about something real? Just to pick a random example, does your question assume that the Donation of Constantine is a genuine document? If your question relies on false premises, it is unlikely to result in a good question.

I believe that failure to do preliminary research is one of the reasons why our close question rate is trending in a suboptimal direction..

This is also a place where we can make one another excellent. Edit the question, include the references. Provide that gateway drug to new and interesting areas of historical research. Identify assumptions that need clarification in (courteous and professional) comments.


"Where did Henry Brown live?" — I have no evidence that Henry Brown wrote slave codes. As one of the commenters pointed out it is a bit unusual for a single person to write legislation, and if it happens, it tends to be well documented in the record.

"Why did Stalin cultivate a child friendly image?" — There is no evidence that Stalin cultivated a child friendly image. Did he invest a great deal of resources, or did he just kiss babies? Was he friendly to all children?



Be very careful, you're entering dangerous ground. It is fairly difficult ask a "why" question that is a good fit for SE. "Why..." questions tend to:

  1. Require a book to answer.
  2. Generate lots of discussion and comments, which reduce the value of SE.
  3. rely on false premises.

If you must

If you must ask a "Why" question, please check that:

  1. There is an answer - you can imagine a clear, concise, unambiguous answer. Perhaps even state in your question how you will select an answer.
  2. Your assumptions are explicitly documented
  3. There is evidence in your question that you have done the prior research.


(please feel free to add additional examples below)

  • Why is national identity important? We (IMHO correctly) closed this question as off topic.
  • Why are so many African Nations poor? I think that if you stacked up all the books and articles written on this topic, they'd have published new ones before you finished the stack. This is a huge question! more than books, entire careers have been based on this question. IMHO, this is a very poor fit for SE.
  • Why is Dravidian History ignored - again, this is a book length topic, and based on a subjective opinion (that Dravidian history is ignored). It may be true that Dravidian history is igored, but there is no evidence that OP did any research beyond personal opinion.
  • Why was the US unable to win in Korea - Many books have been written to answer this question; I'm not sure that H:SE is a good venue for a real answer.

  • Why didn't anyone resist Russia's colonization of Siberia - Other empires did attempt to resist Russia's colonization.

  • Why did the Soviet Empire collapse? - Question closed in recognition that the answer is probably book length, and that such a book would promptly inspire a second book claiming that the first book was wrong, and a third book, that would argue that the first two were rubbish.....


There are a number of questions that are based on a sincere false impression - these can be answered with a frame challenge.

Framing in this context means limiting how people view a topic; challenging the frame means breaking out of those limits to look at the problem from a different perspective. Challenging the frame is usually appropriate when the asker has the XY problem (when you have problem X, and identify potential solution Y, and ask for help implementing Y instead of just asking for help with X) from ObliviousSage's comment on the previously cited frame challenge link; I think this explains it well

How do you tell the difference between a sincere, but mistaken belief (which deserves an answer and an upvote) and laziness? The former are usually backed up with details, citation and evidence of research. Other SE require that the querent attempt to solve the problem and show how the solution falls short. I think we should adopt that here.

  • +1 for a super-excellent "If you must" section. The first pullet point (or even all) should be generalized into a separate META posting, IMHO
    – DVK
    Commented Aug 30, 2013 at 11:14
  • 2
    However, I disagree with some of your examples. The Korea one can be answered well by giving a concise summary of existing research (reason 1, sources; reason2: sources...)
    – DVK
    Commented Aug 30, 2013 at 11:15
  • Thanks - I want to revise all these into this format, with an emphasis on the "if you must"; my prior answers were more critical than constructive. I'm pondering your point on Korea; I have to think more about it.
    – MCW Mod
    Commented Aug 30, 2013 at 12:24
  • 2
    I was wondering if asking for the consensus of historians about X, if we're allowed to ask top 2/3 contending opinions of historians about X? That is kind of subjective, but still in most cases, there would be a definitive answer (ignoring the order). The 'correct' answer would be summarizing the top 2/3 contending theories, with relative merits and demerits. One example that comes to my mind is: I remember reading that there's some contention about under what legitimate role did Augustus rule in <some year around 30 BC>.
    – taninamdar
    Commented May 27, 2016 at 16:34
  • First glance, I think that is a good question. I would find the answers interesting. I think you should develop it into a new answer.
    – MCW Mod
    Commented May 27, 2016 at 16:37
  • 1
    Good point. A question like "Why did the USA permit slavery?" is very broad, complex, up for debate, and a reasonable answer could take up an entire book. A more reasonable question might be "Was slavery ever legal in Pittsburgh?" or "What was the customs duty on slaves imported through the port of Alexandria, Virginia in 1785?"
    – Robert Columbia Mod
    Commented Sep 22, 2016 at 1:56
  • 1
    In the caveat "frame challenge" is left undefined. Perhaps a link to that might help here? / Seeing that what's behind that link isn't discussed on this meta: how about opening another Q here (personally prompted by me latest thrashing incurred over atom-power…) Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 15:28
  • I've added the link to frame challenge - thank you for pointing that out. If you open a new Q, I'll support it.
    – MCW Mod
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 15:45

If you doubt the existing narrative, the burden is on you.

e.g. I read on Wikipedia that the Pryce baronets went extinct with the seventh baronet. Is that true?

First, thank you for having done at least some preliminary research. I appreciate that you've made an effort. That said, unless you have a reason to doubt the fact in question, why are you asking? Do you have a reason to believe that there was an eighth Pryce baronet? Are you confused about how a baronetage (or any other title) go extinct? Do you doubt the existence of the Pryce baronetage at all?

Some of those questions are valid. But if your question is just "I read X, is it true?" then you're wasting your own time, let alone mine. There are a huge number of assertions on wikipedia; we could fill up the H:SE question queue with questions about whether any given assertion is true. H:SE would wind up being a copy of Wikipedia. If your only question is whether an arbitrary assertion on wikipedia is true, then I'm going to downvote your question. If I'm having a bad day, I'm going to downvote your question, then answer it by citing the wikipedia page.


Did Yuri Gagarin really hear a ticking sound during his journey into outer space?

I was challenged on this one recently on the grounds that a movie put words into the mouth of a real man; (leaving aside the problem that the question does not include a quote) By this principle, we can question any quote in any movie. 1776 has Thomas Jefferson writing "When in the course of human events..." is that true? Lincoln has Abe Lincoln saying "hello"... is that true? Movie X depicts John F Kennedy as a featherless biped, is that true? Book Y says that Robbert Goddard had five fingers on each hand, is that true? Unless you provide some justification, some reason, then all of these are equally absurd. Gagarin was in a tiny cockpit crammed full of electromechanical equipment and he heard a sound typical of electromechanical equipment. Where is the surprise? He was in a relatively tiny capsule exposed to extreme temperature and pressure fluctations - my house make a ticking nose when the wind blows. I'd be more surprised if he didn't hear a ticking sound; if OP had asked, "Why didn't Gagarin hear any strange noises during his space flight?" I would have started work on that question, because that would be surprising. (I'd frankly doubt it and ask for a citation, because citing every non-trivial assertion is simple courtesy). Is there a reason why hearing this sound is surprising? I have no doubt that there is - but OP hasn't told us that. If you doubt the existing narrative, you're obliged to explain why you doubt it. Asking a question here is a request for a group of strangers to exert effort on your behalf. Simple respect suggests that if it isn't obvious, that you explain why you find the existing narrative unsubstantial.

How to fix the problem

If you have a reference to a ninth baronet Pryce and you need to reconcile the statement in Wikipedia with evidence you have elsewhere then include in the question references to both bits of evidence (the Wikipedia page and whatever other evidence you have).

If you don't understand how a baronetage can go extinct, then your question isn't "is that true?", your real question is "how does a baronetage go extinct?" or "How does inheritance of a baronet work?" (that's actually a rather good question).

If Gagarin spent hours checking the ticking noise against each of the instruments in his spacecraft and measured it to ensure that it was regular and did tests to exclude other possibilities, then mention that.

If you doubt the existence of the Pryce baronetage because all English titles are the invention of our reptilian overlords, then I need to know that so I can cast a close vote rather than a downvote.

If you don't understand what a baronetage is, then I suggest you do a couple of google searches before you ask, and incorporate that research into your question.

If the assertion in Wikipedia sounds implausible to you, then I'd do a bit more research and make your doubt explicit.

"Wikipedia says that George W. Bush and Sylvester Stallone are the same person; after all they were born on the same day, and they are both white males, given all that evidence, how can you tell the difference between them? I've done some research and I cannot find any photographs that contains both of them, but the underlying claim sounds a bit suspicious to me."

The nice thing about phrasing the question that way is that we can answer it if we can find a single photograph showing both of them, or some other irrefutable evidence that they are different people.

Questions that involve more research are less likely to get downvotes than questions that involve little or no research.


Please confirm this fragile assertion - This is a great counterexample; OP's real question is to confirm or deny a fragile (single source) hypothesis. I believe this is part & parcel of the practice of history. We have to be careful not to phrase it as a source request, but rather as a request to support or rebut a hypothesis. (I'm open to discussion/commentary on this point).

  • 1
    It seems like half the questions we get are "Is it really true that.... "George Washington was a biped!!???! " " I read that Thomas Jefferson drank water - can you provide a source for that?" Between the people who challenge me on "There is no narrative!" and the people who just want to confirm every assertion that they read (but won't provide any citations themselves), I'm considering removing this. Might be that I'm just cranky - thoughts?
    – MCW Mod
    Commented Jul 27, 2017 at 14:22
  • 2
    @MarkCWallace Removing this answer ? Keep it. Questioners need to write more to explain themselves. You are 100% correct. Commented Jul 28, 2017 at 1:52

It is common knowledge that .... knowledge isn't common

If you begin your question with an appeal to common knowledge, even if you phrase it as "it is clear" or some other phrase, you've lost credibility. Far too much of "common knowledge" is actually farce, propaganda, myth, fallacy or outright manipulation. If in fact the fact you reference is common knowledge, then it should be trivial to find a citation or reference to that common knowledge. Once you've done that, you've earned the credibility that will cause me to read the rest of the question.

I will downvote any question that begins with:

  • as we know...
  • as is well known...
  • We understand that...

Here is someone who earns my admiration by explicitly questioning common knowledge.


Someone once said . . . .

Or I have heard... or I read that...

I will downvote any question that includes this phrase. This is effectively the rhetorical fallacy Appeal to Authority without going to the effort to invent the authority. There are two problems with this question, and I'll wish for the ability to downvote twice.

First, cite your source. It makes a big difference if the "someone" who once said is a 3rd century monk, a member of the Nazi party in 1938, Paul Krugman, or Noam Chomsky. They all have different biases; they are reliable for different classes of fact. If you don't identify the source, then we're both playing darts in the dark, potentially in an open field.

Here is a good example of a question where who said it is probably more important than what was said.

The second problem is that you have some facts; you are denying us those facts. You know who said what, but you're not supplying this information. That means you're asking me to start my research by repeating what you've already done. You're asking me to play a game where you know the rules and I don't. You may not mean to be offensive, you may have the best intentions in the world. But you're playing headgames and we're not married. You've started your question with a signal that you are not honest; am I really motivated to do research on your behalf? Do I really want to spend my time to research and write an answer only to have you say, "no, I meant someone else..."

Doing history without sources is like doing programming without a keyboard, or building a building without any tools.

This question is also frequently the same as the example given in the FAQ of a question NOT to ask. "your question is just a rant in disguise: “__ sucks, am I right?”. If you're looking for people to confirm your opinion, H:SE is the wrong place.

The Fix

This is simple to fix. Merely state who said what. Provide a citation if you can. Give us the clues so that we can start the research to find the answer you're really looking for.

"Disraeli said that ancient Greeks had no word for 'blue'; what color did they think the sky was?" Still tough to answer, but there is at least a starting point for research. (A good question would have cited Disraeli's claim.)

  • 1
    Is it my imagination, or is 'I have heard...' etc. on the increase? It seems to have become really common. Commented Jan 27, 2020 at 23:07

What is your question?

There is a common pattern of questions where the title is a concatenation of nouns, followed by a block of text. Participants in H:SE want to contribute, they want to solve the puzzle. The probability that they'll devote the effort and do the research is related to how clearly you express your question and how easy you make it to start the research

SE is a Q&A site. Participate by asking a question.

""Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!"" is not a question. It is a random collection of nouns.


  • Evolution of destroyers, but the title is dryer than ash and I have to read a bullet list and five paragraphs before I get to the question.

  • Is this question about capitalism? Poverty? Racism? Some of the confusion arises because the community has made a heroic effort to rescue this question, but the question was somewhat muddled at the beginning.

Make sure you're not asking an XY Question - I can't find an example right now, but I see plenty of questions that start with a clear title, (e.g. "What is the name of the first secretary of the treasury?", but the text of the question reveals that what OP really wants is to know is when the Treasury was first established as a Department, or some other fact.

How to fix this problem

  1. Edit the title of your question to be a question. Does the title end with a question mark? Is the title as clear and concise as possible?

  2. Ask yourself - if someone on the internet does hours of research to answer the question in my title, will I be happy? Is it possible to select an authoritative answer from those that will be provided?


What evidence is there that the historical individual that I'm thinking of fits a historical theory that I read one time.?

If the question relies on information that is only available to the OP, then the question shows no research effort, and I would argue is a bad fit for the site. I'm going to downvote because it is an insult to the community. Questions like this one are very likely to be consider for closure as "I'm not sure what you're asking."

If you must ask such a question.....

The great tragedy is that these questions are, in my opinion, simple to transform into valuable questions. Provide your source. If you're asking about a historical figure, provide a link to that historical figure. Not only do you vastly increase the value of the site as a reference source and learning aid, but you may disambiguate the question. There are many historical figures who are known by different names, and many that share the same name. If you're wondering about some historical theory, then provide a link to that theory. If you provide me a link to an interesting historical theory that I've never heard of, then I'll upvote your question, praise you publicly and instruct the network of telepathic goldfish to send good vibrations your way. But more importantly, if you include the relevant details in your question, you increase your chances of getting a good answer.


Jesus in India - My objection is not about religion; my object is that the question asks for evidence about a theory that (as far as we know) is only in OP's mind. "What evidence is there that Jesus visited Schenetady N.Y.? What evidence is there that Mithradates visited London?"

@Vector did some research and found what plausibly was the source that OP was thinking of, and I think that @Vector deserves multiple upvotes for rescuing the question and for research an answer. But since OP chose to ask the question as a guessing game, we don't know if that is the source, or if the OP received telepathic messages from a nearby goldfish.


This question (singer and applause) is different; @Voitcus admits that memory is the issue, and even provides some details of the research that he's done. There is even a hypothesis that we're invited (implicitly) to help prove/disprove.

Or look at The Eastern Question; @JFW takes the time to offer definitions of the terms used in the question and the context. I learned something just reading the question, which is kind of cool.


What would google tell me if I asked?

Before you ask the question on H:SE, enter the question in google. Check to see if there is an obvious answer. Requests for trivium are officially out of scope and will probably be closed as off topic.

Google is a powerful and subtle tool, and I won't criticize anyone for failing to master the full power. But if I copy the question title into a google search and the answer is in the first five results, then I feel justified in hitting the downvote button.

@Denisdebernady suggests that there are times when Gooogle has been manipulated to give misleading answers. I won't argue the point; I don't see it as statistically significant. I will continue to downvote questions that fail the "Triviality test". My goal is not to be infallible, but to cast my downvotes in a way that will improve the quality and utility of H:SE, and I think downvoting trivial questions advances that goal.

  • 2
    The problem here is that if you know how to use google, wikipedia etc well (there are many tricks - not just simple searches) sites like this become useless according to your logic because you can find out the answer to anything that way. So IMO it's better to post questions even if you can find out by other means - when you post your question, you educate others thereby who might not have thought about the question or subject at all, so google wouldn't help them.
    – user2590
    Commented Jul 23, 2013 at 8:45
  • @user2590 - you're entirely correct, and before I downvote, I'll check to see if I used any standard tricks. I invoke the downvote of doom only when I copy the question title into google and find the answer in the first five results.
    – MCW Mod
    Commented Jun 6, 2016 at 17:45
  • 5
    Unfortunately, Google sometimes gives terrible answers when asked questions. Commented Jul 28, 2017 at 14:31

Quoting known Hitler apologists and/or Holocaust deniers as your primary/only source

Questions or answers like this one which rely on the theories of Hitler apologists and/or Holocaust deniers like David Irving as their primary or only source are likely to be down-voted.

Particularly when the claim being made fails the "existing narrative" test discussed above.


Is this true that…

Questions that guide answers to only two possible options ("yes" or "no") are very frequently:

  • reductionstic
  • contain minimal research and likely will not inform or educate the H:SE community
  • a disguised personal opinion soliciting question, or a request for an argument

While history is a science, it is not technical science. We do not expect Boolean logic here. The best questions are most often those that present complex problems that need to be solved through creative use of historical sources and methods.

The same applies to other questions that may lead to one precise, short answer:

  • when did something happen?
  • where did something happen?
  • who was the leader of…?

The answers to these questions are often either rather obvious, or in fact show there are no commonly accepted sources or sources are contradictory. (there is a large set of historical questions where the answer is "we don't know; we don't have the sources, or we have insufficient sources to reach a conclusion").


  1. Perform preliminary research, and for example show the contrast between two or more options.

  2. Explain the efforts that you've made to solve the problem yourself.

  3. Explain the sources you've consulted that support or undermine each of the possible answers. If the problem lies in contradictory sources, consider asking which one should be treated as most reliable and why.

  4. If the problem is that 'you heard of something', consider reading another section.

  5. Describe the implications of either answer. What would you infer if X were true? What if X were false? What would that change in your understanding of the historical narrative?

  • 1
    This looks somewhat similar to Mark's "Pryce baronets" answer.
    – T.E.D. Mod
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 0:36
  • 1
    @T.E.D. maybe this one could be included there. I recently saw some "is it true" questions from the past and that is why I put it here
    – Voitcus
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 9:01

I will downvote any question that misuses the term genocide.

Genocide is recognized as a crime against humanity; modern cultures jointly condemn the practice. Asking or answering questions about genocide should be accompanied by clear, respectful thought. Transforming the noun genocide into a verb "genocided" is sloppy and imprecise and undermines analysis.

Every genocide is comprised of multiple acts of violence; massacres, deportation, displacement, murder and other acts of physical and moral violence. The noun can only be recognized when the verbs are studied. Genocide is a collective, persistent action. Transforming genocide into a verb reduces it to something simple and banal, which removes the horror. Stalin was wrong; the difference between murder and genocide is not the difference between a tragedy and a statistic, and confusing the two will not lead to learning or understanding.

Genocide is a crime - crimes require intent and action. Genocide is a collective crime; it is not possible for an individual to commit genocide, it requires institutions. Genocide is not an accident, it is a strategy.

I will downvote questions that treat genocide as something commonplace.

Any question that references genocide automatically (in my opinion) invokes the "higher standard" clause. Questions about genocide should be held to a higher standard and should be next to flawless. Community moderation should closed flawed questions and revise them until the community is convinced that they are more likely to lead to learning than to offense or sensationalism. These questions must be expressed precisely, must clearly outline the desired answer and should be respectful of all participants. In practice this means that the question must be expressed in academic, detached, scholarly language, and avoid lurid sensation.

My opinion: my goal in recording it is to support a clearer, more consistent moderation that nurtures the H:SE I want to participate.


Sir, this is an Arbys

Out of scope questions

A parable

Person walks into a Starbucks and says, "I'd like an appendectomy please. I don't react well to standard anesthetics, and I'm diabetic, so....."

The barista interrupted the customer, "Excuse me - I'm committed to providing the best possible customer service that I can, but this is a Starbucks, and we don't provide surgical services."

Customer replies, "I'm sorry if this is the wrong Starbucks to ask this question, but I didn't know where to ask, so I came here."

Barista replies, "The services we provide are specified on our menu, and on our website. It is fairly easy to tell that your question is not appropriate for this business. Even a cursory glimpse will reveal that there are no surgical or health care services anywhere in the store. Furthermore, it isn't that difficult to find someone who does provide health care services. Hospitals, internist, drugstores, etc.

Then the Barista mixed 5% coffee with 95% rotgut whiskey and got very very drunk. Because the world was that depressing.

If you don't know where to ask, then figure out where to ask. Read the scope of the potential SE - every one of them has a "What questions to ask here" section of the help files. At a minimum, read the scope for this site and justify why you think it might be in scope.

We try to be helpful and friendly. But only about history as defined in scope

We're not alone in this - scifi has a similar policy; SO is rather blunt,

  • 1
    I feel like in the 2 years since this was posted, the world has changed a bit, and this should perhaps be transformed into a Sir, this is an Arby's meme callout.
    – T.E.D. Mod
    Commented Mar 22, 2021 at 18:42

Is your question in scope?

Why are major streets in urban regions not build tunnel like?

If your question begins, "I dont know where this question might belong in stackexchange, so i put it in history. " then STOP and read [help]. Then check these two resources history and not history; if you cannot detect the subtle differences between those two terms, you should not post on history stack exchange.

Don't post out of scope questions

No stack exchange site is obliged to take your question because you want to ask it. You don't get to force your question on people. Your question isn't valuable because it interests you, it is valuable because it fits into the community where you are asking it.

There is an assumption that needs to be rooted out - there is no guarantee that there is a SE site for your question. You may need to propose a new SE site, you may need to take your question to Quora or Yahoo answers, or just ask it in the pub. Or - horrors - think about it on your own. You have no right to impose your question on an unwilling community. The community has gone to the effort to document their scope; if you don't read that scope you are a cad.

  • 2
    It would be amusing if we could get the posting software tweaked to refuse any question posted using the present or future tenses.
    – T.E.D. Mod
    Commented Nov 2, 2017 at 15:21

Why were the majority of the population X at the time Y ok with Z when we know that Z is wrong?
Is it true that Person S from time Y really did/believed in Z??! Horrendous!

For sake of clarity: The genocides in modern times are not an example because the people knew that killing people is not ok.

For example: Slavery. How could ancient Greeks&Romans etc. etc. live with enslaving human beings??! They all must have been thoroughly evil!

  • First problem: The person assume that humans from other epochs are really the same beings like 20/21th century humans, but only wear funny clothes. That they have a completely different background and that they even think different is not recognized at all. Every action they take must be judged against the modern standard.

  • Second problem: The person who asks the question will likely take offense to the idea that the people were really different. The amount of personal enragement equals the validity of the reproach. If person X tries to point out that there is really a difference, the only reason person X says that must be that person X wants to excuse Z!

  • Third problem: As everyone who read history knows, the people believed crap in every epoch of history. So the unfortunate deduction is that 20/21th century human beings will also believe crap and are unaware of it. So the irrevocably correct view that Z is wrong may be in fact wrong itself.

=> Downvote



If your question includes the words "Should" or "...feel..." or "...seems...", or ". . . neglected. . . " then it is very likely that your question is subjective. (There are exceptions to this rule; I'll read the question before I determine whether or not to downvote).

I will downvote subjective questions and usually vote to close.

If your question is such that most answers (or any answer) is acceptable, then I am very likely to downvote and/or Vote to Close.

How To Fix

1) Remove all subjective words. Make sure that the question that remains is objective, and can be answered authoritatively. 2) Imagine that you died tomorrow and the answer had to be selected by an eminent panel of experts who did not have the opportunity to consult with you. Could they choose an answer based on the information provided in the question??


Questions about race

"race" is not a word that has a precise meaning; it is, if you will, not a cromulent word. The vast majority of questions about race or genetics rely on assumptions that are incompatible with good historiography. Different cultures define race differently, and there is no objective definition. If you ask a question about race and don't define your terms objectively, I reserve the right to downvote.

This also applies to questions about genetics; there are fields where genetics can contribute to history - Analysis of the Saxon conquest of England, or the descendants of Ghengis Khan. But like many other technical history questions, these need to be carefully phrased. Unfortunately, there are (IMHO) too many people who want to draw invalid conclusions from genetic evidence.

These kind of questions are also often a concealed way of advancing racist ideologies that I don't believe belong on H:SE.

If you must ask a question about concepts that are tied to race or genetics:

  • Stop before you post - think about the last racist question you read, and think about the victims of that racism. Then re-read your question to ensure that you haven't inadvertently sounded like a racist fellow traveller.
  • Carefully define the terms including references to reputable scholarly sources.

Most of the questions I've seen about race and/or genetics are also trivial, and most fail the preliminary research test.

  • Are modern Greeks related to the ancient Greeks?
  • Was there interbreeding between Romans and Native Britons?

Note: I personally find these bad questions, and I'll exercise my right to downvote.

(Questions about genetics and/or ethnicity are also suspicious; I will seek a higher standard of prior research for such questions)

An unnamed pundit suggested that

So for using DNA in History analysis, the rules* would be:

1 Don't.

2 (for experts only). Don't yet.

* - with apologies to Michael A. Jackson

  • 1
    Well, I agree with you with regard to the discussion of race, genetics and history. I am not a Geneticist and claim no expertise in Genetic Science. However, ethnicity, is a different topic. Ethnicity, by the very nature of the word means, "nation" or "nationality". When discussing the ethnic origins or ethnic composition of any given civilization or society, topics, such as language, cultural customs, religious practices, as well as a culture's historical self-identification, are valid topics when evaluating the history of a particular group.
    – user26763
    Commented Oct 10, 2017 at 0:58
  • 3
    With regard to my question about "the likely ethnic origins of the Minoans", my initial and primary interest was to examine the ethnic roots of this semi-mysterious civilization. It is, for example, not implausible to suggest that the Minoans may have been of either distant Hellenic or Egyptian ethnic extraction; not necessarily based on their racial/ anthropological composition, but on certain cultural and linguistic clues that would contribute to a better understanding their ethnic origins.
    – user26763
    Commented Oct 10, 2017 at 1:03
  • So as I had stated earlier, I too, agree with the notion that asking questions or writing posts on Genetics and History without any expertise or even an intermediate knowledge of Genetics is not recommendable. But, a discussion on ethnicity, culture and history is, i believe, a valid approach.
    – user26763
    Commented Oct 10, 2017 at 1:06
  • I've reversed my downvote on that specific question.
    – MCW Mod
    Commented Oct 10, 2017 at 11:14

Swords were in the past, so tell me about their physics

History is the study of change over time, in the documentary record of the human past.

We don't do metallurgy Or psychology Or physics

Yes your object of interest was in the past. This doesn't mean it was documented, it also doesn't make your question about change over time as discovered through that documentation.

  • Well, as a trained physicist I might be tempted to do a little physics in pursuit of my hobby - history. Commented Dec 31, 2019 at 13:58

I have to read the comment string to understand the question

If I have to read a comment string to understand your question, I am significantly less likely to do the research to answer the question. (I may or may not downvote you depending on how egregious the comment string is). SE is not a place for discussion. Discussion is fun; we all like a discussion. But there are places online where you can have a discussion. SE is for questions and answers.

If you want an answer to your question, make it easy to understand the question. If you want someone to exert effort/labor/research to provide you new knowledge, then don't impose obstacles to the process.

Every comment added to a question raises the chance that the question will be flagged for excessive comments, at which point the comments may all be migrated to chat. That means that all that clarification is no longer visible to the question. That makes it much harder to understand your question, to research your question and to answer your question. Unless, of course, you edit the clarifications into the question.

The revision history of the question illustrates how a question came to be in the format it is; comments are the wrong solution to that problem.

Comments are barn cats

In short: Avoid replying in comments

Questions should contain all the information to answer the question.

Comments ask for clarification of the question.

Clarifications should be edited into the question.

How to fix the problem

Edit the question to include everything in the comments; flag the comments for deletion.

Pretend that replying to a comment will result in a $20.00 donation to the charity you least like. Pretend that you'll be charged a nickel for every character you type in a comment.


Don't include anything you don't want to defend.

I think it's common for governments to make false flags against small groups, but has it ever happened the other way?

The first half of that sentence is undeniably true. OP holds that opinion. but is it important to the question? DO you want to defend it?

You should be prepared to defend with research any assertion in your question. If you don't want to defend it, leave it out.

Even more important in this case, the assertion is utterly irrelevant to the question.

To Fix

"Has a small group ever attempted a false flag operation against a government?"

That question stands along (false flag should be cited) and nobody is going to get distracted arguing about whether the government is the oppressor or the oppressed.


Has there ever been anything like...

Yes. There has, and I'm going to downvote you just for asking. There is nothing new under the sun. The eternal recurrence of the same. If you are asking about something that is truly novel, then good for you. BUt the majority of questions of this type are really requests for pub discussion.

How to fix the problem

First, make sure that you've clearly defined what you're asking about. "Has there ever been like" is an open prompt - a request for a creative writing exercise. "Has there ever been a 10% rise in a stock market followed by an 11% drop?" is a history question. It is precise and answerable.

Second, cite your nontrivial assertions If you're asking about an oil boom, reference the oil boom. Define the oil boom and support it with definitions. What is it about the oil boom that you think is unique? Global trade in liquids (no - whale oil)? Dominance of extractive industry (no - a thousand times over - my favorite example is guano)? Commodity based economies (no - dutch disease). If you don't specify what it is you think is unique, then I will downvote you hard and smile while doing so. Because every possible answer is equally valid. Has there ever been anything like X? Yes, my aunt edna is exactly like X! You can't prove I'm wrong; you can't even assert that I'm wrong, because if you don't provide definition of the phenomena or a way to measure it, then I can pick any measure, including gematria or horoscopes.

H:SE is a place to learn, not a place to discuss.

This rant brought to you by a deficit of caffeine and analgesics.


When did X first happen?

Yes, this is imprecise; but in this case I think we need to immediately translate this in our minds to When is the first recorded evidence of x?.

This is a problem that is not a problem. Fussing over the difference between "first happened" and "first recorded evidence" doesn't really advance history, and doesn't create the kind of site that I want to support. It is tempting to be distracted by the distinction, and I expect that someone will call me on it sometime. But it isn't productive; the meaning can easily be inferred.

_Are there other examples of phrases that we should automatically translate?

  • 1
    I am LMAO thinking about how much fun you had (probably) setting the record for most answers to one's one question. Seventeen if I have not lost count. Great job! Commented Jan 25, 2019 at 22:53

You replied in comments

I feel justified in downvoting your question if you reply in comments. Comments are intended to:

  • Request clarification from the author;
  • Leave constructive criticism that guides the author in improving the post;
  • Add relevant but minor or transient information to a post (e.g. a link to a related question, or an alert to the author that the question has been updated). how to moderate comments

In the general case, comments request clarification and the OP should edit the question to provide clarification.

Why am I such a jerk about comments?

  • StackExchange discourages long comment strings

  • Comments are barn cats

  • Comments reduce the chance that anyone will answer your question -When you bury information that is critical to understanding the question in a comment string, it makes it difficult to understand the question, difficult to research the question and difficult to answer the question. Move that information into the question.

  • The question should be self-contained; it should contain all the information needed to understand, research and answer the question.

How to fix the problem

Edit the question. Make sure the question stands alone.

  • 2
    Somehow I'd think that not all replies are bad. Only those that are chatty (etc) or those that contain critical info, that is not also added to the Q (in time, swiftly)? Sometimes a commentator might need an explanation (that's then perhaps less relelvant to the Q itself) or a ping (with that info also added to the Q, not ideal but seems common practice). But the Fix still stands, of course. Commented May 30, 2019 at 21:48

Wanted to store a reference to How do I write a good question? on another site that describes how to write a good question. I admire this and wish I had thought to phrase all my ranting in the positive.

How to write good questions

A high-quality question is specific not just to increase the chances of a good answer, but also so that others can quickly determine if the question is applicable to their problem. Great answers are clear, accurate, relevant, and complete. Anyone who finds the answer should be able to leverage it, not just the original asker. The questions and answers that are created and refined on the platform become a common good, shared and ideally beneficial to anyone who visits the site. Theresa Dietrich in State of the stack


Reconcile title with content in body

The question in the title is different from the question as phrased in the body. Please edit to clarify. This will help to ensure the answer matches the intended question.

I'm aware that this technically is seldom a reason for a downvote; it is very unlikely that I or anyone else will downvote your question solely for ambiguous phrasing of the query. But this provides a convenient repository for advice to improve questions.

  • 1
    The addendum seems strange: if title and body question are not in agreement, then this makes the question often "unclear", which in turn is a reason to DV? Good titles are hard to write & sometimes the differences are negligible (eg: no need for exact repetition, though sometimes it seems ppl do not read either title or body, merely one of both?), but often title & body ask quite or even entirely different questions, or are in contradiction, opposed to each other? 'Match title and body to ask one clear question' should be on every checklist for 'the fix'/editing? Commented Jul 26, 2022 at 11:08
  • 1
    Agree - on both points. Yes, we could vote to close as unclear; I'm trying to find a way to offer more constructive criticism. I'm also trying to set this up so that we can drop the link into the question at the precise location of the inconsistency - precise feedback. Also agree that the difference is negligible, in which case, I'd take no action.
    – MCW Mod
    Commented Jul 26, 2022 at 12:54

The question is written in the passive voice

I won't actually downvote every question written in the passive voice, but I want to call attention to the pattern.

Questions of the form

Why is X considered Y?

represent an inherent problem. who considers X to be Y? History, like most sciences, is about constructing models to answer questions. Historians construct models & theories to fit the evidence in the hope of providing greater insight to some set of questions.

The question "Why is X considered Y", conceals who considers X to be Y and under what conditions and in what model. If the historian advocating this theory is a specialist in women's history, then the model may not be the ideal model to understand an economic issue. Similarly, if the question is about gender roles, then Marxist economic models might not be appropriate. If the historian who advanced the notion that X is considered Y is a Whig historian, then we need to consider certain biases.

This is closely related to the secret cabal of historians problem and to the Attribute all nontrivial assertions problem.

The solution is relatively simple. Attribute all attestation. Revise the question to "Why does Author Z consider X to be Y?"

  • 2
    Titles might get away with sth like that sometimes, if pressured for length? Solution: At least do the 'simple thing' and include that in the body text of the Q? // Are these all the probs you see with 'passive voice'? (bet there are more, apart from pure style, to actual content issues they foster?) Commented Sep 14, 2021 at 0:11
  • I have many more issues with passive voice, but I'm trying to limit my feral ranting. I seriously considered the edit you suggest, but I can't figure out how to phrase it in a way that is going to be clear advice. There is an art to writing an simple, clear active voice question.
    – MCW Mod
    Commented Sep 14, 2021 at 12:10

The question relies on a false aggregation

More precisely, albeit less tersely, the question aggregates groups in a way that the answer is going to be misleading and perhaps misinformative. Not necessarily wrong, but not right.

For example1:

  • Did Europeans benefit from the scramble for Africa?
  • Did polytheistic religions believe that other pantheons existed?

Let's examine each of these in turn

Did Europeans benefit from the scramble for Africa

"Europeans" conceals more than it reveals. Substitute other aggregates e.g. or "people with O+ blood" – the statistical correlation won't advance our understanding of history unless there is some theory that links the agency of the aggregate to the outcome. This may seem like a nitpick, but I think the ambiguity that results hampers our understanding of history. What if the question were "Did European women benefit from investment in Africa?" – the difference in agency between "European women" and "Europeans" significantly changes the question.

There exists a politically inclined cluster of historians who would challenge this on "European economic elites" vs "Europeans" - That particular classification doesn't help me to understand history; I suspect that the underlying models are misleading and pejorative as often as not, but if the analysis is carried out rigorously, it is probably better than "Europeans"

It might be interesting to rephrase the question as "What segments of European civilization benefited most from the scramble for Africa?" – examine the benefits from the Scramble for Africa(SfA), and trying different demographic models to see how closely they tie to economic benefits, and then constructing a theory that would explain that, and then trying to test the predictive value of that theory. Were the benefits of SfA more closely correlated with economic or political elites?

Did polytheistic religions believe that other pantheons existed?

First off, polytheistic is a misleading term; as discussed in Britannica, there are multiple underlying assumptions, Internal vs external, intellectual vs cultural, etc. Religion belief is a complex topic and Wallaces N'th corollary3 to Whited's first law 2 applies. Let's look at a couple of examples:4

  • Romans vs Egyptians – the Roman (polytheistic) embraced/enclosed the Egyptian pantheon. Romans worshiped foreign gods. Worship of foreign gods might have been a cultural disadvantage, but was not punished directly.

  • Romans vs Greeks – The Roman (polytheistic) religion directly incorporated Greek gods, treating them as equivalencies

  • Romans vs Jews/Christians – The Romans punished those of a different religion (perhaps because of incompatible religion, perhaps because they violated social order, perhaps because the foreign cult was exclusionary in a way that was incompatible with the Roman worship and governance; this is complicated and I'm not going to explain why (at least not successfully), I'm just going to offer it as an example.

  • Shinto vs Buddhism, vs Confucianism – I lack the scholarship to discuss this fully, but these three religions strike different social accords in different cultures and different times in Asia/South Asia. I believe there are times when they conflict violently, but for the majority of time they work in harmony.

  • Egyptian Henotheism – This is one of my favorite words; I understand the fundamental theory is narrowly supported by few scholars and may be flawed, but it represents a different approach between polytheistic religions.

The point is that different particular polytheistic religions deal differently with different particular polytheistic religions at different places and times. Aggregating them together and treating all Polytheistic religions as the same will lead to a misunderstanding of religion and religious conflict.

I've got a very limited background, but I think religious conflict is more influenced by particular details (ritual, political engagement, etc.) than by the single variable "polytheistic/non-polytheistic", even if we were to come up with some kind of authoritative definition of that variable.

  1. As usual, I do not intend to criticize the authors of these questions; I'm merely citing them as illustrative examples.
  2. "It's more complicated than that"
  3. "making complex things simple can make them wrong" – this is a corollary to "Everything should be as simple as possible but no simpler", and a counterargument against Box's law of Models. The point is that all analysis is based on assumptions and models; choosing the wrong model will lead to misleading or wrong outcomes.
  4. These are all vastly oversimplified and not sourced; these are illustrative examples. I have neither the time nor the scholarship to do the topics justice, but I think they suffice to illustrate the point.

The scope of the question makes it difficult to answer

There are assumptions baked into your question - or perhaps simply unclear in your question - that make answers complicated. Questions with ambiguous scope are difficult to answer - few H:SE members can provide authoritative answers that include Jomon era Asia and late formative Mesoamerica. If the intent of the question includes both (and everything in between), then it is probably inappropriate to H:SE.


This question includes assumptions that are common in the current day, but are not universally accepted in the historical period.

This is closely relate to two other anti-patterns

The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there. L.P. Hartley

Some questions are difficult to answer because any responsible answer would require a thorough explanation of concepts that are common today, but utterly alien to the time period in question. The modern era has a very different perspective on concepts like slavery or religion.

This is an opportunity for comments to ask the OP to clarify the assumptions or to adjust the way the question is asked.


The question appears to ask about human history, but is based on assumptions that apply only to historical Europe. If the question is scoped to all of human history, the answer will almost inevitably be so broad as to require a book length answer (and therefore be out of scope for H:SE).

This is an opportunity for comments to clarify if OP is asking for a book length survey of human history, or if scoping the question to a particular culture, (or geography, or time) would yield a satisfactory answer.

_This is a draft answer; I'm still working on this, and contributions are welcome. The core is that we're looking for opportunities for the community to identify and refine questions.

  • Given that this is again descriptive of 'found behaviour', and therefore presumably accurate: I would pretty much resent users downvoting based on criteria of "too difficult" or 'we have (currently? presumably?) no-one capable for that here'. The latter being an arbitrary and quasi prejudiced canon of what others might achieve. The 'difficult' part however is indeed much clearer with presentism/anachronistic/ahistorical perspectives explained (as is here; but I'd suggest a more precise word would also help; ideas? not 'difficult' but 'Scope too wide'?) Plus: a 'howto-fix' for each example? Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 14:38
  • 1
    Spot on! That's why I marked it draft. I'm exploring a new approach that I'm having trouble articulating clearly. I'm trying to get away from downvoting, and try to help the community to identify questions that represent an opportunity for assistance. if I can help people to locate those opportunities for edit, I'll go back through and rewrite this whole Q&A section, changing it from "Why did I get a downvote?", revising it to "How could I improve this question?"
    – MCW Mod
    Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 15:06

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