Today this post on math.stackexchange was trending on the internet and Hacker News.


I was enjoying this discussion about how people learn math, on a site about math, which has no clear answer. its about pedagogy and psychology of education, but only tangentially about math. Not only does it have lots of votes and 'favorites' its also widely read about the public.

I really feel like such a question would be closed quickly on this site. The moderators are always citing the guidelines as if they have no choice in the matter or as if they were only one reasonable way to read them. But the site is only slowly starting to get more members and the new members seem to be discouraged more readily than else where.

Why the educational mission of biology can't be included in a site about biology is really beyond me. Its the public who pays for most of the work, and its the public who, if not informed about biology may cause many of the animals on earth to disappear.

Why can't the policy be more accommodating to naive questions and the general attitude be to help bring questions into acceptable form as opposed to just closing them or down/outvoting them?

Examples of questions closed:

too "open ended": https://biology.stackexchange.com/questions/3295/which-free-videos-with-3d-animations-simulating-protein-processes-are-there

"This will result in a discussion" https://biology.stackexchange.com/questions/4977/why-genetics-rd-advances-so-slowly

"no clear biological scope" - the diffusion of oxygen in air vs water has no biological scope - that's uncharitable to say the least and fairly overreaching Is it true that oxygen has a diffusion rate in air 10,000 times greater than in water?

but my point is, this site does not suffer fools, whereas more successful stackexchange sites are more welcoming to beginners and people who just want to learn something. not sure what advantages, if any goes along with that.

  • $\begingroup$ What are some examples of questions that you think should have remained open? $\endgroup$
    – kmm
    Jun 11, 2013 at 0:58
  • $\begingroup$ see amended above. $\endgroup$
    – shigeta
    Jun 11, 2013 at 6:55
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ These changes to vote to close will be live in a couple of days on the site, hopefully that will go some of the way to helping users see closure as something that isn't terminal. I know it's not closely related to the issues you're raising but it's an interesting read. $\endgroup$
    – Rory M
    Jun 12, 2013 at 23:49

2 Answers 2


You're touching on a lot of points, and almost every example in your posts needs a different explanation.

You're right that I would have likely closed a question like the one on Math.SE, but then MSE also seems conflicted about it as it has gone through one close-reopen cycle already.

The fundamental issue to me with questions that are only related to biology, but not about biology itself is one of answer quality. We're experts in biology, but not necessarily in education. This potentially means worse answers as they'll likely come from amateur educators, and also potentially misleading voting on the answers as the community here might lack the knowledge to distinguish good from bad answers.

I remember an example from somewhere else in the SE network, a question that was migrated to Security.SE. On the original site it received a heavily upvoted answer, and after it was migrated the users on Security.SE pointed out that this answer was just plain wrong. Nobody detected that on the original site, and the community just voted for what looked like a good answer, but missed the important details.

This issue is the main reason why I strongly support focusing the site on biology as a topic. But that does not mean that any interdisciplinary questions are off-topic here. Biology touches on many different fields, and pure chemistry and physics questions can be on-topic here if they have biological relevance. There is also a wide array of questions about tools biologists use, which are also on-topic here.

The rules are not set in stone and the community can change them if it wants to. But I don't think that this site is very different in moderation compared to most SE sites, though Math.SE is certainly an outlier and has some rather different rules.

  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure that your estimate of the statistics are accurate. stackoverflow routinely has discussions, highly cited opinions, amateurs, and more interesting posts that might have also closed here. Could it also be that our site is in the bottom quartile for pedantism and over-regulation? There are also more authoritative places for biology reference than this site. There are more than one right kind of stackexchange site. And if I may, inflexibility and rigidity is not rigor; increasing public engagement is not stooping. $\endgroup$
    – shigeta
    Jun 11, 2013 at 12:43
  • $\begingroup$ SO has changed significantly over time, your impression might be based on older questions that would not be allowed today. Our moderation is not stricter than SO. $\endgroup$ Jun 11, 2013 at 13:03
  • $\begingroup$ I posted a beginner question last year, it did get closed but then reopened. Finding the discussion more rationalism than evidence driven. $\endgroup$
    – shigeta
    Jun 11, 2013 at 19:38

The Area51 for biology shows only an "okay" 86% proportion of questions answered and only an "okay" 1.5 answers per question. In other words there seem to be more questions on this site than answering capacity. The number of daily visitors and number of moderators are, however, classified as excellent.

I guess the weak answering capacity comes with similarly low capacity to improve questions.

Thus a lower question-improving activity together with the usual rigour of moderation may result in a higher proportion of questions closed before improving. So the problem looks to me as a compromise between question quality and quantity: should moderators tolerate poorer questions that could be improved when there is no one to improve them?

The solution may be adapting the moderation practices, generally increasing answering activity, or specifically encouraging answerers to improve weak questions. The resource biology.SE is abundant with is the large number of visitors - maybe they should be targeted and encouraged to improve and answer the questions they can.


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