15
$\begingroup$

Having a small comment-debate about this question. All I can find in What topics can I ask about here? is that this site is for

[questions about] biology and closely related fields, including ... general questions about biological concepts ...

The only topics that are explicitly flagged as off-topic are philosophical/ethical and personal medical questions (opinion-based and overly broad questions are also off-topic, but I don't think this question fails either of those tests).

(As a population biologist, I personally consider epidemiology to be part of "biology and closely related fields" and thus consider epidemiological questions to be on-topic, but I'm fine if that's not the consensus. For some reason :-) epidemiology seems to be a pretty hot topic at the moment ...)

$\endgroup$
3
  • $\begingroup$ I generally find it unsatisfactory when people post on meta because their questions have been voted off-topic, but it seems something of an over-reaction to post here because one person has expressed the view that your question is off-topic. It is worth reminding you (and the wolf pack at my back) that SE Biology requires five votes from (the limited number in our case) members with sufficient privilege to rule a question off-topic, and at the moment your question has only one such vote — mine. So there is already a mechanism to determine whether questions are off-topic. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Mar 18 '20 at 22:25
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ OK. I was honestly curious. I also think this is a timely question because there is a flood of epidemiology questions. If I hear on Meta that there is a consensus that epidemiology is off topic, then I would proceed to help out with the task of downvoting/voting to close these questions as off-topic. $\endgroup$
    – Ben Bolker
    Mar 18 '20 at 22:36
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I would say that I do appreciate the calm, rational and dispassionate way that you have approached this discussion. Your participation in this site is clearly valuable. One of our problems is attracting experience professional scientists. But that has been discussed before. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Mar 19 '20 at 22:59
17
$\begingroup$

In my opinion, yes, epidemiology can be on-topic because epidemiology has an interdisciplinary relationship with biology. Existing tags as a mark for what is on-topic can sometimes be misleading, but the presence and use of suggests that at minimum some epidemiology questions are appropriate.

The sentence in the on topic page that applies most is:

Questions on interdisciplinary subjects like bioinformatics are also welcome, as long as they focus on the biological part of the subject.

Bioinformatics is called out specifically, but the phrase is "like bioinformatics"; I would argue that epidemiology is indeed like bioinformatics in relation to the rest of biology.

Like in other fields where there may be overlap with other sites, some questions in epidemiology might be better asked at CrossValidated or MedicalSciences, but that doesn't necessarily make them off-topic here.

I looked for other discussion of epidemiology on Meta, and there hasn't been all that much. One answer here I would mostly agree with, though the boundaries may be fuzzy:

Epidemiology: Biological questions? On-topic. Medical questions? Likely off-topic. Analysis questions? Off-topic. Some questions about the implications of this results? On-topic.

We have typically been averse to strictly software questions, despite the possibility that these could be broadly interpreted as related to "techniques in a biological or biochemical laboratory". I would recommend that questions about epidemiology that can be considered questions about software or programming ("how do I model these epidemiological data in R?") are not on-topic (see also Biology.SE's place now Bioinformatics.SE is in beta), but questions about concepts in epidemiology are.

$\endgroup$
1
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I think part of the reason we see these questions here is that medical science SE, where they would be much more squarely on-topic, is rather lacking in participants giving answers on such topics... So maybe, just maybe, gently nudge some of the virology answer-posters here to watch some covid etc. tags over there too. $\endgroup$
    – Fizz
    Mar 19 '20 at 18:43
-2
$\begingroup$

It is a common misconception — in some cases used as subterfuge — that whether or not a question is on-topic or not can be determined by a discussion on Meta as to whether questions about such-and-such a subject are or are not on topic. To find out what subjects in biology are on topic one needs to consult the Tour which lists:

  • general questions about biological concepts
  • questions about the biological mechanisms behind medical conditions
  • questions about techniques in a biological or biochemical laboratory

Questions of the following types, even though on the acceptable topics listed above, can still be off-topic:

  • Anything not directly related to biology, such as personal medical questions.
  • Philosophical or ethical questions related to biology
  • Questions that are primarily opinion-based
  • Questions with too many possible answers or that would require an extremely long answer

This is repeated and slightly elaborated on in this Help, and types of questions to avoid asking are described in this Help.

One should also bear in mind that the supposed objective of the site is to “build a library of detailed answers to every question about biology”, and, although this is actually Stack Exchange boiler plate, it emphasizes that the focus is on questions that have value beyond the moment. That is one of the reasons why I regard the question quoted as off-topic: “Where are we right now between scenario A and scenario B?” can have no lasting value.

I can imagine a question on epidemiology being on topic if the question relates to the biological content — the mechanism of spread, the reasons for the plateau and fall etc. However something that is purely mathematics or statistics does not fill this bill. Questions of this sort are better posted to SE Medical Sciences or Statistics, where they can be appraised by a more expert audience.

Hence my answer to the question is:

The area of subject matter cannot establish that a question is on-topic (although it can indicate whether it is off-topic, e.g. about physics rather than biology). Some questions about Epidemiology my be considered to be about biology, although many will not. Such questions may still be off-topic if they violate other criteria, such as soliciting discussion or opinion.

$\endgroup$
17
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ I agree with some parts and disagree with other parts of this ... (1) There are plenty of gray areas in the definition; I already discussed most of the "not covered" criteria in my question (not "opinion based" or "too many answers", as I didn't think they applied. Where better than Meta to discuss edge cases? $\endgroup$
    – Ben Bolker
    Mar 13 '20 at 17:35
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ (2) I agree that a better title for my question would be "is this question about epidemiology on topic?" (maybe I'll edit it), and that epi is partly on- and partly off-topic for Biology SE. (3) I agree that in the strict sense the question ("where are we between A and B?") might not be on-topic, but a slightly broader reading of the question ("how do we account for asymptomatic and mild cases in assessing CFR of coronavirus?") would be (and no, this is not a question about mathematics or statistics ...) $\endgroup$
    – Ben Bolker
    Mar 13 '20 at 17:39
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I'm sorry, but this is a deep misunderstanding of the SE model. Meta is the authoritative source and not the help pages which are static. Meta is where we (as in all sites across SE) hash out policy, and especially what is and is not on topic. The hep pages are very hard to update, most cannot be edited by mods, so meta is the main avenue for defining a site's scope. As a general rule, if the consensus on meta disagrees with the help center, then meta is right. $\endgroup$
    – terdon
    Mar 17 '20 at 18:29
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @terdon — Chapter and verse please. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Mar 17 '20 at 20:18
  • $\begingroup$ @david only my several years being active on multiple SE sites and having been a moderator on three of them. Meta is where scope is decided, and scope is always decided by the community and not by the company who write the help pages. Some help pages can be edited by mods and I have done so in response to meta discussions, for example. $\endgroup$
    – terdon
    Mar 17 '20 at 21:26
  • $\begingroup$ @terdon Is there a good reason the help pages are hard to edit? It seems like that is something mods should be able to do after scope is defined in meta. $\endgroup$
    – canadianer
    Mar 17 '20 at 23:08
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @terdon — I’m sorry but I need to see an actual statement of Stack Exchange policy in relation to Meta in black and white. Otherwise I ask you to withdraw. The privileges of Mods and the way they choose to exercise them are another matter entirely. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Mar 17 '20 at 23:17
  • $\begingroup$ @canadianer no reason I know but most are not editable. Of course, the main exception to that is in fact the "help/on-topic" page which can be edited by mods. Usually to update it following Meta discussions. $\endgroup$
    – terdon
    Mar 18 '20 at 9:24
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @David I'm sorry but since you're the one making the claim that the hep is somehow the end all and be all on the site, something that goes completely against experience across all of SE, the onus is on you to prove your point. I know that policy is formed on meta because that's how it's been done for more than a decade across hundreds of sites. If you think that's not the case, or if you somehow believe that the company would have the final word (why? These are sites "run by us, for us", that's the tagline and always has been) on scope, you will have to find some evidence for that claim. $\endgroup$
    – terdon
    Mar 18 '20 at 9:27
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Also, the only statements I could give you are meta discussions on the main meta. But that's how the sites work! That's where site policies are hashed out. So if you're starting with the premise that Meta is not where policy is decided, you will presumably reject any evidence I can offer. In case you won't: How do we make changes to a site's scope?, for example. And also the dozens and dozens of meta discussions on site scope across the network: google.com/… $\endgroup$
    – terdon
    Mar 18 '20 at 9:31
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @terdon Once again I would ask you to read what I wrote. I did not claim that Help was the be all and end all. I first quoted what is stated in the Tour, which is what new users read (or are supposed to read) when they encounter the site. This states what the current policy of the site is and nothing can be more authoritative than that. Likewise the Tour refers users to the Help Center for " more in-depth information on the site". Yes, the policy can be changed. But that has to be done by the mods. The response to any question on meta does not constitute a change of policy. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Mar 18 '20 at 22:19
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @David I'm sorry but no. Meta is the authoritative source. That's how scope is defined originally (for example, I was until recently a mod on the new beta site Bioinformatics and we hashed out our scope on Meta, like every other site), and that's how scope changes are implemented. And when the help center or tour (which are controlled by the company who don't define nor even understand the specific scopes of each site) are out of sync with Meta, then it is Meta that takes precedence. And Mods can most certainly not change scope by themselves! Only Meta consensus can. $\endgroup$
    – terdon
    Mar 19 '20 at 9:15
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @David Everyone active on a site, not just the thieves, can participate in Meta. I wish there were more participants on the smaller site metas to make them more authoritative, but it's not easy to force people. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Mar 19 '20 at 16:48
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I’m somewhat confused. The one help center page that explicitly is designed to outline what is off topic (or on topic) is editable by moderators. This one: biology.stackexchange.com/help/on-topic $\endgroup$
    – Catija StaffMod
    Mar 19 '20 at 20:30
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @BryanKrause — I don't want to prolong this discussion here. I posted what I thought were two measured and reasonable responses that seemed appropriate for Meta and felt I had to reply to unsubstantiated assertions that accompanied unreasonable downvoting. A separate question about Meta would allow the topic to be explored rationally, although it might be wise to allow the dust to settle. Hard cases make bad law. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Mar 19 '20 at 22:56
-3
$\begingroup$

In this (second) answer I would like to address the general problems associated with extending the scope of a SE site to an area it does not currently cover or appear to cover, and the specific problems with Epidemiology.

There is currently popular support for questions on Epidemiology to a greater extent than is defined in the scope of the site, laid out in my other answer. This is primarily (the poster excepted) from those who seek answers to questions about the current coronavirus pandemic. However, for such questions to be useful on this site there must be experts who are able to answer them. The poster is an epidemiologist, who is keen to answer such questions, but one specialist in a field is not enough. In order for the SE model to work, there must be other specialists to cast votes to give credence to his answers. Furthermore, there is a danger that answers will not only come from experts such as him, but from those who wish to convert this into a discussion forum. In the current circumstances this could well result in SE Biology being a repository of misinformation, providing oxygen to rumours, snake oil merchants and conspiracy theorists.

I would suggest that the Poster consider whether he would be better directing his efforts to a site like SE Medical Sciences, the remit of which is more obviously relevant to such questions and where one would expect to find more experts in this area to answer questions.

$\endgroup$
1
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ Frankly, this is true of almost every area that questions are posted on here - we're simply a small community. A lot of the questions are at a undergraduate textbook level, such that many of us can answer those even if they are outside our primary expertise. Those at a higher level are much more difficult to answer, and hardly even get asked. I assure you, MedicalSciences is even smaller than here, and I'm not aware of many (any?) epidemiologists that frequent that stack, either. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause Mod
    Mar 17 '20 at 20:05

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .