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Often when questions on Biology SE ask “why” the answers indicate that there is ambiguity whether the question is asking for a mechanistic/factual answer or asking how one can rationalize a phenomenon. For example, the hormone glucagon does not affect skeletal muscle. If someone asks why one can provide a factual mechanistic answer “muscle does not possess the receptor for glucagon in its membrane” or a philosophical/rationalizing answer “because the muscle’s requirement for glucose is not determined by availability but by requirement for contraction” (or something of this sort). The latter type of question is quite valid to help one make sense of biology, but will always be subject to a certain amount of debate. Confusion in the meaning of “why” can lead to acrimony and people will criticize the question as having an unknowable answer.

It would seem better if questions made it clear what they were after, but of course many (most) do not. I therefore ask whether…

Those of us with editorial privileges should try to improve the situation by checking what the questioner means and then editing questions to make it clear whether “why?” is asking for a factual/descriptive/mechanistic answer or whether it is asking “how can one rationalize the fact that?

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