At the risk of this being the very thing I'm kind of moaning about, I'm wondering what others think of the general quality of BioSE questions?

My contributions to SE outside of Bio are mostly programming, and a 'poor' question there tends to be a 'write my code for me' type situation, which is pretty easily responded to. So, it's possible other SEs have just as many poor questions and I'm not on the right fora to see it.

Nevertheless, BioSE seems especially plagued by questions which are often axiomatically wrong, or based on pseudoscience, science fiction or just a deep lack of understanding.

Is there something to be taken from this? Is the public understanding of biology significantly worse or more prone to 'urban legends' than other sciences (and SE topics?)

Some examples:

Is creation of a new human species, a good idea? (a very grandiose, broad, and subjective topic)

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    $\begingroup$ Scientific stacks are unlike the others. A related scientific stack is CogSci. The percentage of rock-bottom poor questions on CogSci is substantially higher than here. Of those poor questions, the fraction of problematic, rude and insulting posts are again substantially higher over at CogSci than here. Nonetheless, yes, the question level and especially the prior research effort is poor at Bio too. But overall it's not too bad here. We have lost some of the vigilance we had when we were still in beta. That's for sure. So over time we may have become a bit slack on closing questions. $\endgroup$
    – AliceD Mod
    Commented Aug 6, 2017 at 6:29
  • $\begingroup$ As a side note, the linked question is closed. $\endgroup$
    – AliceD Mod
    Commented Aug 6, 2017 at 6:30
  • $\begingroup$ A similar post addressed this issue at a more basic level here $\endgroup$
    – AliceD Mod
    Commented Aug 6, 2017 at 6:32
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    $\begingroup$ The quality of questions is really quite poor. Even though this is ostensibly "a question and answer site for biology researchers, academics, and students.", we attract and tolerate a lot of questions/nonsense from laypeople about anything remotely related to life. This site doesn't seem to have a very clear vision and thus moderation is rather inconsistent (myself included). Meta participation is also very poor which makes identifying and addressing problems difficult. C'est la vie. $\endgroup$
    – canadianer
    Commented Aug 8, 2017 at 18:48
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    $\begingroup$ I would be interested in a dedicated site for "Molecular Biology and Biochemistry" (and perhaps all major subfields; there are already CogSci, Health and Bioinformatics sites) but I expect activity would be lacking. $\endgroup$
    – canadianer
    Commented Aug 8, 2017 at 18:56
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    $\begingroup$ A mol bio type one would be good, but it'd be going head-to-head with Research Gate and the like (even though that isn't particularly good, it has the user base). For anything where advice on protocols is needed, I think SE as a Q&A forum just isn't the right format. That sort of information fares best as a Wiki like openwetware. $\endgroup$
    – Joe Healey
    Commented Aug 8, 2017 at 18:59
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    $\begingroup$ I think this is a pretty opinion-based question so might get closed at some point, but FWIW I do think this is a bit of an issue with Biology.SE. I'd prefer some way to encourage technical questions by academic biologists, whether it's within the existing SE or by branching something off, but I don't know what the solution is. Related question here, which triggered some interesting discussion: biology.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/3439/… $\endgroup$
    – arboviral
    Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 11:20
  • $\begingroup$ I agree it's opinion based to an extent, not least because I was asking for others opinions, though I think it's also objective - there are many unquestionably poor topics raised on here. I guess the reason you don't get many academic questions is because we would usually go straight to papers rather than SE! $\endgroup$
    – Joe Healey
    Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 11:27

3 Answers 3


Biology is extremely influential

It is easy for a science and tech savy person to overweight the technological impact of, say, computer science, and down weight the social impact of biology.

The science book often considered as the most influential of all times is On the origin of species (see TheGuardian for example).

Among the most influential science books of the past 50 or so years many are popular biology books. Consider this website for example. Among the 10 most influential science books, 6 of them are directly about biology, 2 of them are about Environmentalism but written by biologists, one is about math and one is about physics.

As a consequence, Biology.SE receives a lot of lay questions.

Biology is not as scary as physics is!

A physicist meeting someone in the street:

  • I am a physicist
  • Wow... you must be so smart

A biologist meeting someone in the street:

  • I am a biologist
  • Oh.... I like birds too!

By personal experience, it feels true to me that biologists tend to have less knowledge in math and quantitative sciences than physicists (particularly obvious among first year Bachelor degree students). This is almost paradoxical as much of modern statistics has been invented by biologists. Many chemists I know seemed to be pretty bad programmer and statisticians though (no offense to chemists).

The point I am trying to make is that biology tend to scare less. This is great when the goal is to educate a large audience. It can be an issue as some people may assume that they know best because they watched a 10 minutes BBC emission.

Evolution for example, is typically one of these subjects where laymen may quickly assume they know everything there is to know. It has happen to me a few times to face OPs that assume they know a whole lot about evolution while they don't. Of course, the first step in learning is often realizing what we don't understand, so it makes everything more complicated.

"It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so." Mark Twain


Religious extremists are often very opinion-based when it comes to science. Of course, many creationists will fail to accept some elements of physics such as the big bang theory but I think that most of deep physics is far enough from many people everyday life and intuition that the clash is less important than with evolutionary biology. Not to forget that the modern evolutionary synthesis makes a great deal at explaining the selection pressures behind behaviour which obviously deeply touches people in their own identity and may create clashes with an essentialist philosophy.

On Biology.SE, we even have the chance of having an anti-evolution spammer who asked about 10 times the same question about nylonase! Btw, I just realized it is a common "creationist argument" (see Nylon-eating bacteria and creationism)

Biology has a big impact on the economy and on ethics

I think that biology is particularly prone to yield some laymen to confound ethics and politics within their post. The typical subject on which opinion-based question come up are about GMO.

Of course, other fields of science have a big impact on the economy.

Fuzzy definition of biology

Of course, no science is perfectly, non arbitrarily defined. There is a fuzzy boundary between math and computer science, between chemistry and biology, between geology and physics, between chemistry and physics, and probably between pretty much any two fields of science.

Biology is the science of life. This may make it feel to some that any subject of medicine, psychology, archeology and civilisation studies, veterinary sciences, agriculture, pest control, gardening and climate science would fall within this category.

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    $\begingroup$ Where are you finding these bird lovers?? I thought the typical greeting for a biologist was "oh let me tell you about my health problems I bet you know what's happening/can solve them!" $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 21:41
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    $\begingroup$ Hey! I like birds! $\endgroup$
    – canadianer
    Commented Aug 20, 2017 at 15:56

To answer to the example provided : you said it yourself, it's a subjective topic, so don't even try to find if it's answerable in a post or not, close as being a subjective post those don't belong to SE's sites.

I am not from your site but since we compare with SO, there are in fact currently 2 distinct problems that people complains about and eventually mix up in SO :

  • Homework/give me ze code/unsearched questions -> close
  • Novice yet valid and on-topic question (novice in the field, or SO) -> no close if not duplicate.

The distinction between them is really important because when SO started, some people where definitively more novice than expert, however as the time passed and they grew more expert, they end up finding novice questions quite boring and start to complain about the fact that they're few "interesting" (expert) question drown in a lot of "boring" (novice) ones but if you would check the oldest post you will find that they're definitively a lot more novice question even at that time, with sometimes quite unexpected lengthy answers.

I remember some post written by an old member (in meta.SO or meta.SE) as an answer to some others old users complaining that they have an hard time to find interesting answer to dig through. Basically what he said is that if the question is written well enough to fit on the site and you just don't like it : MOVE ON.

If some of you know workplace.SE you may have noticed that some users are really good at rewritten interesting yet poorly worded/rant/partly off topic question to make it not only fully on-topic but really interesting. That's because they're able to understand sometimes what is the real question than the OP have but isn't able to put properly.

You have the right to edit questions, and it's not only for grammar and tag fixes.

The very important part of my answer is the following :

  • Novice AND on-topic questions.

It's up to the community to define when a question is too broad, too specific, unclear, off topic.

I myself didn't asked pretty much any "novice question" on SO, but I have google them quite a lot when starting something new and end up on ... SO!

Note : on SO the close review queue is always between 7 and 10k.

  • $\begingroup$ +1. A question I asked when new to the Bio SE was Why isn't a virus alive?. At the time, in a smaller community, it was well-received. Today, this wouldn't receive nearly as much attention even if it was allowed to stay open. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 13:44

I also am a member of other SEs, having come here from StackOverflow and joined English Language and Usage as a diversion. My impression of StackOverflow is that there are fewer poor questions, but that may be because I don’t peruse the contents but only use it to search for answers to problems or post questions myself. Occasionally I post answers to questions I had myself when none of the answers worked for me and I found a better one.

Both SE Biology and SE EL&U seem to have been set up to get high-level academic Q&As and instead are plagued with low quality questions from students wanting their homework done or just trying to grapple with poor teaching in the third world. EL&U is beset by questions from non-English speakers, even though a separate site exists for English Language Learners. SE Biology also has a dual personality, the most popular questions being on identification of furry animals and plants, which probably encourages descriptive, general and basic questions in molecular areas.

So what is to be done? As some may be aware, I am a “hard-line, close poor questions quickly” guy. However there do not seem to be enough bad cops like me to work this properly, and, even without the encouragement I frown on, the number of students in Asia struggling with education suggests that it is a losing battle.

This is an answer to the question, but not a solution to the problem.

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    $\begingroup$ I think "...that may be because I don’t peruse the contents but only use it to search for answers to problems or post questions myself" is a key about StackOverflow. Large amounts of crap questions are posted there as well, which you don't see if you don't follow the incoming questions on the home page continuously (which few people do at SO). And since they have more active users on most tags/topics, bad questions are usually weeded out. What you find at SO (often through google searches for specific problems) are therefore normally questions and answers of higher quality. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 13:17
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    $\begingroup$ "My impression of StackOverflow is that there are fewer poor questions" you haven't seen the never-ending Close Vote review queue over there... $\endgroup$
    – Andrew T.
    Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 7:01
  • $\begingroup$ @AndrewT. — You may well be right, and I'm nowhere near being able to look at them. However I'd be interested in their relationship to the overall number of posts. On English Language & Usage I had to work to bring it down from 100 odd to 20-30 per day, whereas here there are never more than 5. EL&U is much busier than Biology, but SO must be way off scale. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 19:06
  • $\begingroup$ "the most popular questions being on identification of furry animals and plants" - I think this is mostly a completely separate issue that comes from the relatively small community we have here, which means it is greatly influenced by the hot questions. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 20:41

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