First, let's dispose of the hypotheticality aspect. The response to Charlie Brumbaugh's Meta question about hypothetical questions was that there is nothing wrong with hypothetical questions, per se.

The glacier question showed TGO at its best. The question, which first asserted, in boldface, that the glacier was unavoidable was clarified under probing by several users as an unavoidable feature on a discretionary recreational hike. Experts on glacier travel then weighed in and agreed that the hike proposed by the OP was too dangerous for a young child. A similar response happened with an earlier question. (At what age (and strength and skill level) these expeditions would have been OK was not addressed.)

Small Digression: The OP is a father proud of his strong, intelligent, skillful daughter and wants to see her become outstanding in the outdoors. I applaud that. (With a father that believes in her and physical confidence from meeting outdoor challenges, she may be better prepared to deal with loathsome creatures that crawl out from under rocks indoors.)

In contrast, I don't think we handled the impalement question as well as we could have. Again, the hypothetical nature is not the problem. A lot of issues were raised in comments, and a user raised a medical red flag, which we ignored. On glacier travel, we listened to our experts; on the impalement question, we did not have that level of expertise. I contributed to the problem: I edited a question on a subject I knew nothing about.

What, if anything, to do? What lesson to take from these questions?

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    Wow, this is a great example of a meta post! Thank you for asking it, and in such a considerate manner! Nov 4, 2017 at 20:33

3 Answers 3


Thinking back on it, I think that what should have happened on the impalement question is that it should have been flagged for a moderator to come and move the comments and tell people that if they want to argue about whether or not its on-topic they should take it to meta or chat.

Basically, a new user happened by and asked a question and it immediately became a flashpoint for a lot of different things including, (from the comments)

  • Does it have to be a real problem (whatever that means) to be on topic?

    From the tour. "Real problems or questions that you’ve encountered."

  • Are hypothetical questions on topic?

    That is why hypothetical questions don't work here.

    Given that it was an actual occurrence and not a contrived "what if" I voted to reopen.

    really bad question (obviously hypothetical and hardly very insightful)

  • Are medical questions on topic?

    So we went from discussing some health questions being on topic or not to this?

  • How much editing is good

    its not up to the people answering to edit or interpret or modify the question to better suit their answer.

Obviously people have opinions on whether those factors make a question off or on topic, and we had discussed at least three of them on meta before hand.

But its not fair to the new user to argue that question out in the comment section of their first question.

It especially not fair because I don't know that anyone could point to preexisting questions or meta posts that would declare the question off-topic.

On the other hand I can find lots of medical and hypothetical and not real questions on the site. I can even find a question where the user who said that this question didn't work because it was hypothetical arguing for this other hypothetical question.

I don't have a problem closing a users first question as off-topic, but we should be able to point to a pre-existing reason for closing it or discuss whether or not its on or off topic elsewhere and then document it on meta.

How would you feel if people told you your first question was off-topic because of reasons that you would only know about if you had been a member of the site for a long time?

Edit: Something else I just thought of.

No single person gets to decide what is and what is not on topic. Each user can have an opinion and advocate for that position, but at the end of the day the community is the one who decides what is and what is not on topic.

If the community through voting and practice has decided that health related topics in the outdoors are on-topic and that we don't have to strictly abide by the "real problem" rule , then it doesn't seem quite right to bring up those reasons again as a reason to close.

Any single user may not agree with the community, but at the end of the day, we are better off accepting the results of the community. Otherwise, the debates will never end.

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    It's definitely wrong to argue things out in comments but that should be all users. "New" includes both "new to TGO" and "new to SE." The impalement OP has been active at many SE sites for over 6 yrs. Each site is different, so technically he was new here. (This was his 2nd post here, his 1st was an answer.) We, myself included, may have chased an experienced SE user away from TGO, which is bad in its own way, and has its own set of repercussions. Nov 5, 2017 at 22:31
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    @Sue It should be all users, but its especially unfair to a new user. Anecdotally, I think this happens more to new users. My subjective analysis is that some people have become "nicer" the more rep I have. Nov 5, 2017 at 23:14
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    @CharlieBrumbaugh I think people acting nicer as you gain rep is a consequence of seeing your contributions enough that people develop a connection with you sort of like friendship even though you've never met. Also new people see your rep and think "well this guy must know what he's talking about because he has rep." Those factors combine to increase your social capital and therefore people act/seem nicer or more deferent.
    – Erik
    Nov 6, 2017 at 18:45
  • @Erik I was thinking more of how some of the older users will jump on a new persons question and try to shut it down. That seems to happen less and less the more rep one has. I was also thinking of how the number of rude comments and single downvotes has decreased for me. (now I get single downvotes on most of what I write, but no rude comments) Nov 7, 2017 at 2:06
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    In the main, I think I'd agree with @CharlieBrumbaugh here - we should have rapidly taken the discussion to chat. We have to balance doing that, though, as if we move comments too quickly the community gets upset at us mods :-) So we usually either wait for the automatic move to chat flag at 20 comments, or for someone to manually flag for us to look at.
    – Rory Alsop Mod
    Nov 9, 2017 at 11:21
  • @Rory Alsop, it's good to know that people get upset with mods if you move comments too fast. Not only should we flag them sooner, but we should leave a note on the post that we're doing so. That way people won't think mods interfered too soon. I actually left a comment to the OP of the impalement question that I was going to flag you, but it was much too late by then! I also didn't know how many messages it took to trigger the automatic move. In the impalement question, it was actually more in the range of 30. Nov 10, 2017 at 1:59
  • To all who want to know, the link to "comments" in this answer goes to the chat room where they landed. I'm also going to post it here for people just reading this discussion. @Liam added a link to this meta post in that chat room, which I think is helpful. Nov 10, 2017 at 2:09
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    An opposing view point on 'chased a user away'. IMHO In the interest of the long term its better to set and maintain a high standard of questions and answers than worry about offending and loosing one user and polluting the site with trivia and pointless QA's. The internet is littered with large quantities of answers to every question, SE was setup as a way to provide quality answers. Do we want to become just another 'yahoo answers'
    – user5330
    Nov 12, 2017 at 6:51
  • @mattnz In the long term view of the site, having bad question for 24 hours until someone edits it to be a high quality question is inconsequential. How would someone in the years to come see that it was a bad question to start with? I don't think brand new users are looking at the first iteration of a question via the edit history as an example of what to ask. Nov 12, 2017 at 15:46

This is only a partial answer to my question. What I learned:

(1) We should persist in asking for clarification if we sense something "wrong" about a question. We did that on the glacier question, and the OP was responsive and made a major modification to his question.

(2) I should not edit a question on a topic about which I know nothing, as I did on the impalement question, particularly if there are comments that should be addressed (e.g., the comments of @Erik vanDoren). I edited only to incorporate some of the OP's comments into his Q, and to improve the organization of the Q. I thus made the Q more plausible. That is fine if one knows something about the topic, not fine if one does not. I still know nothing about the topic, but I feel uneasy about how that question about life or death was handled.

  • I upvoted this because I appreciate the way you wrote it, and I hope you'll continue to flesh it out. I have a partial opinion too, so maybe I should write it and then add as I feel led. Nov 17, 2017 at 23:48
  • Please don't feel too bad about yourself (take it from someone who feels bad about herself much of the time!). Everything you did to both questions was meant to be helpful, with not the least bit of malice. I appreciate that you have the courage to come in here and make yourself this vulnerable. There are lessons to be learned from this and it was brave of you to raise the issue. I wish more people participated in meta, but it's being read, even though it doesn't have many answers. Nov 17, 2017 at 23:51
  • @Sue Go ahead with your partial answer -- or long comment If you prefer. As for KMC, if someone wants to downvote -- I don't mind. Actually, KMC was probably the only semi-palatable thing the climbers could digest at very high altitude -- flavored sugar, a simple carb.
    – ab2
    Nov 17, 2017 at 23:53

I don't agree there is nothing wrong hypothetical.

The two questions do not compare. One is a real father, daughter, glacier, and a peak. It is real as in a real decision the OP is making.

The second question was not just hypothetical it was contrived.

An unidentified victim 3 days in with very little detail and the question kept changing. First it was undefined "well stocked" first aid kit and then a strange first aid kit. First it was cannot get help in time and then changed to what to do before going for help.

Three days in with you have a well set-up campsite and plenty of easily accessible food and water.

How do you have plenty of easily accessible food three days in?

I believe the way to handle it to ask for clarification and if not provided then don't answer. The very first comment was level of medical training that was never answered.

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    The glacier question started out as hypothetical; persistent questioning revealed that it was not hypothetical. The impalement question was not only hypothetical, which I consider not a problem, but implausible, dragged barely to the verge of plausibility by the background and made to seem better than it was by my edit, which I regret.
    – ab2
    Nov 17, 2017 at 19:26

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