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I was sad this morning to see Gil Kalai's great question about the role of rigor closed for being too broad. I was even sadder this afternoon when Prof. Kalai's narrower follow-up question, was also closed for being too broad. The question also got some downvotes and, in my mind, unnecessarily condescending comments,

To be (slightly) flippant about it, why the concentration on math?

The original question was put on hold as being too broad, yet here you are again with a subset of that question that is certainly going to be closed for the same reason. You're somehow not getting the message being sent to you. This sort of question just won't be acceptable. I'd suggest you go to the physicsforum.com where they may allow such loose questions.

My first reaction is that it's a shame an extremely knowledgeable and capable mathematics professor is getting condescended to by people who only know the undergraduate curriculum or less, and that this might have something to do with the loss of knowledgeable users from this site.

My second reaction is that I don't agree with the 'too broad' criterion. I got hooked on Phys.SE in the first place by the great answers to 'too broad' questions. If you look through the top questions of all time, almost all of the ones about general theory (i.e. excluding 'everyday-life' tags) are closed as too broad, or would be under the current criterion. The answers I am most proud of are all teetering on the edge of 'too broad'. I would bet that if you took a random 10k+ user and subtracted off the HNQ spam, the same would be true of their top answers.

Put simply, I think questions that are "too broad" provide enormous value to the site and the physics community at large, and the only negative about them is that they're justifiably hard to answer. Why not rethink this closure criterion?

Edit: it looks like I'm hitting some prescriptivist/descriptivist divide here. To be clear, I'm not asking what the current policy is. I'm proposing we change it.

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    $\begingroup$ If it's not "too broad" then it's surely "opinion-based." Asking for a list of "most important" anythings in physics is going to be entirely in the eye of the beholder. And usually quite long. $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Feb 12 '18 at 17:51
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    $\begingroup$ No, we expect questions to be sufficiently narrow that it can be addressed in a reasonable space. If you're asking for something that doesn't satisfy that criteria (i.e., a list based question), it should be closed. $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Feb 12 '18 at 18:43
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    $\begingroup$ not fond of the "too broad" close criteria. is SE trying to reject questions with potential for too many answers? but then suppose that a broad question lies around with no answers. but you also might take a clue in that SE is not really very concerned about "big picture" type questions/ thinking even though they can be among the most important questions asked. encourage those who have those types of questions to show up in Physics Chat for discussion! & maybe some collective policy push. we also have a very popular open chat speaker session & assure you thered be a big audience for Kalai! $\endgroup$ – vzn Feb 12 '18 at 18:49
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    $\begingroup$ The question is fascinating because different people have varying notions of “rigour”, of “delay”, or place the line (of varying thickness and blur) between mathematics and physics at different places. It is also because of these that it is IMO too broad, at least for this site. $\endgroup$ – ZeroTheHero Feb 13 '18 at 2:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Gilkalai The first comment quoted is mine, and although I definitely didn't intend it as condescending, my sincere apologies to the OP as I can see now how it comes across that way. I haven't intentionally mocked anyone on this site, but all I can say is, for this case, I sincerely apologize for writing before thinking. It's time I packed my bags for a while and learnt more physics, knzhou has pretty much called it correctly. $\endgroup$ – user184990 Feb 17 '18 at 0:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Countto10 I wasn't really pointing at your comment, though. While I did think it was a bit rude to ask a math professor 'why the concentration on math?' the other comment was far worse. $\endgroup$ – knzhou Feb 17 '18 at 12:07
  • $\begingroup$ @knzhou Hi, I never ever look at profiles, I try to answer based on the question alone. Which means I screwed up on this one, no question. I will delete my comment, it's something for the chat room more than here. I will still be reading your answers though, I have nothing but respect for people like yourself, with more talent than I, but who also have put the work in to learn far more than I ever will. The site does need more "heavyweights" though, I agree on that. The homework stuff may be putting them off, (and the answers from people at my level, sorry couldn't resist:). All the best $\endgroup$ – user184990 Feb 17 '18 at 12:18
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Under the current policy, the "Role of rigor" post is as broad as it gets, and should be closed. It would be hypocritical to do otherwise; we should treat all posts equally, even if they are popular or come from knowledgeable users. In legal terms, laws are to be obeyed whether you agree with them or not. You first debate the law, and only when it changes you may act as you wanted. If you do otherwise, you get fined (or go to jail). Society cannot possibly work if everyone is going to ignore the established order when they find it inconvenient.

That being said, I believe it would be useful to reevaluate the current policy. If we agree it should be relaxed, then the "Role of rigor" post could be reopened. Until we do that, I really don't understand why people voted to reopen it. For what it's worth, I also found the post interesting, and I also believe it could be useful to relax the "too broad" policy a bit. But, again, under the current policy that post is to be closed; we closed posts that were much more specific (but had less upvotes/worse answers).

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    $\begingroup$ Closing and opening questions isn't nearly as fixed as law. It's organic, like language is -- you might as well ask why the darn kids are using a word wrong when we haven't all gotten together to decide to change the dictionary entry. You change language by using it and you change policy by actions (and by soapboxing on meta, like I am now). Basically, I am in favor of changing the policy entirely. I don't want ad hoc exceptions for knowledgeable users, but I will admit seeing people mock Prof. Kalai gave me motivation to post this. $\endgroup$ – knzhou Feb 12 '18 at 18:05
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    $\begingroup$ @knzhou 1) sure, it's not law. It was merely an analogy, my main point being: anarchism is not the solution. First, let us discuss things here; only then, let us act accordingly. Doing something against the policy, even if you believe it's the correct thing to do, is only going to cause chaos. 2) Yes, I agree the comments were over the line. But using such comments to justify reopen votes is ridiculous: next time I see a closed post that I like, should I just post mean comments and wait for people to reopen it? $\endgroup$ – AccidentalFourierTransform Feb 12 '18 at 18:11
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    $\begingroup$ At the end of the day the site is what we choose to make it. That's the whole point of having site users do the voting rather than leave everything to the mods. If we as a group decide to leave the question open then site policy is, by definition, to leave the question open. Consistency is the mark of a blinkered mind :-) $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Feb 12 '18 at 18:12
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    $\begingroup$ 1) I don't think I was going against the policy, because if the question got reopened, then the people wanted it open. :P And a site is nothing more than a group of people! 2) Okay okay, I just wanted a little more emotional impact in my post. It's not because it's Prof. Kalai. I would support the same thing in principle if the question were posted by 'user81748'. $\endgroup$ – knzhou Feb 12 '18 at 18:14
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    $\begingroup$ It's more complicated than that. What if I only wanted to see QFT posts, and started to downvote everything else? What if I managed to convince three or more people to do the same? That would be a complete disaster for the site. Doing things just because that's what you want, and justifying your behaviour by others doing the same, is not in general a wise or useful philosophy. Sure, the site is what we want it to be. But that does not mean I can do whatever I want, and wait and see if others will complain. We should try and reach a consensus on what we want the site to be to begint with. $\endgroup$ – AccidentalFourierTransform Feb 12 '18 at 18:18
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    $\begingroup$ @AccidentalFourierTransform I contend that people are already doing this: in the close queue I regularly come across questions I feel shouldn’t be closed even under the current interpretation of the policy. So demanding consensus for opening but not closing is, in my mind, a symmetry breaking for no good reason! (And I contend there is a consensus on the value of broad questions: you, me, and John are all on the same side here!) $\endgroup$ – knzhou Feb 12 '18 at 18:44
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    $\begingroup$ @knzhou So you are saying that you can break the rules as long as others break them as well? You realise that this is not, once again, a wise or useful philosophy? If you see a closed question that should be reopened, vote accordingly; and if it doesn't get reopened eventually, come here to meta and let us discuss the case. But voting to reopen posts that should be closed is not going to undo the closure of posts that should be left open... (FWIW: yes, list questions from other sites are quite fun to read; perhaps we should have those here, but that not what I want to discuss here). $\endgroup$ – AccidentalFourierTransform Feb 12 '18 at 18:50
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    $\begingroup$ Hi @AccidentalFourierTransforml you wrote "Under the current policy" - can you quote the wording of the policy. It is useful to know what is the precise "law" we are talking about. $\endgroup$ – Gil Kalai Feb 15 '18 at 7:09
  • $\begingroup$ Hi @GilKalai, you can find a summary here: physics.stackexchange.com/help/dont-ask $\endgroup$ – AccidentalFourierTransform Feb 15 '18 at 14:09
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    $\begingroup$ Hi @AFT, I don't see anything there or in the linked page on what is "on-topic" that justify the strong claim about "current policy" or "established order" (especially with the aadded legal philosophy). In fact, the exemplary question "What is the relation between renormalization in physics and divergent series in mathematics?" is quite similar in spirit to the question about rigor. (I agree that I could have split the question into four, or to further narrow them a little. However, for what it's worth, the question was well accepted, and did not lead to too many answers.) $\endgroup$ – Gil Kalai Feb 15 '18 at 18:57
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    $\begingroup$ Actually, laws are also changed when people refuse to follow them and juries refuse to convict - repeated jury nullification can lead to laws being struck down. Furthermore, there are many laws that are utterly not enforced because they're flat out idiotic and it's become practice not to enforce them. There's also plenty of cases where many people don't think twice to break laws even if they are enforced because they're not enforced well, and so it becomes culturally 'acceptable' - these things range from things like parking infractions and speeding to streaming movies illegally. $\endgroup$ – Steven Armstrong Feb 19 '18 at 7:14
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The original question was asked six years ago on the old Theoretical Physics site and indeed the connection between physics and mathematics was more natural for that site compared to a general physics Q/A site. Similar questions were very successful on MathOverflow. Although it was originally tagged "big list" question it attracted four good answers. It seems that readers found the question and answers useful.

Since the closing massage suggested to edit the question to make it less broad, I tried to make it less broad by splitting it into two questions. It is probably a good opportunity to think about the "too broad" policy, and also about a policy of closing old questions based on current policy.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – dmckee Feb 17 '18 at 18:53
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I think we need to be a bit cautious with this sort of question because it doesn't suit the avowed aim of the site i.e. to become a reference site for physicists. I find the question interesting, and I'd guess most of us do to some extent, but it's not the sort of question where the answer is ever likely to help a physicist trying to get on with the everyday job of doing (or learning) physics.

As it happens my reopen vote was the fifth so the question is now open, but whether the question is closed or not wouldn't keep me awake at night. It's not as though a six year old question is suddenly going to attract lots of answers. In fact I'd question whether it's really worth re-examining questions of this sort of vintage. After six years does it really matter? With the Close queue up to 87 pending questions there are better targets for people to aim at.

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    $\begingroup$ To the last paragraph: the impact is on new questions that might be closed as too broad. (Also, the older ones still get plenty of views.) Math.SE doesn’t close such questions as much, and I regularly see new, broad questions with great answers there. $\endgroup$ – knzhou Feb 12 '18 at 17:30
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    $\begingroup$ @knzhou actually I didn't think it was too broad. If I was going to VTC it would be as off topic not too broad. $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Feb 12 '18 at 17:33
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    $\begingroup$ To the first paragraph: other SE sites can and do violate this rule to allow broad questions. So it’s not purely a matter of SE policy — it’s a choice, and I know which side I prefer! In fact, I would be willing to bet almost all active users enjoy these questions more than most others. $\endgroup$ – knzhou Feb 12 '18 at 17:33
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    $\begingroup$ @knzhou as far as know there is no SE policy on the matter and it's left up to the individual sites to decide what they consider too broad. While I kind of agree with your point of view I'm not sure that what I prefer is a good argument. $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Feb 12 '18 at 18:10
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    $\begingroup$ True! It's not just what I prefer, but what people in general do; so far nobody in this Q/A has said they dislike such questions. Hopefully in a week the vote counts will answer this. $\endgroup$ – knzhou Feb 12 '18 at 18:16
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    $\begingroup$ @knzhou well the question is open again now, and unless there are five people who care enough about a six year old question to VTC it again the question will remain open. If you're one of the five people considering voting to close it then, please, haven't you got anything better to do? :-) $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Feb 12 '18 at 18:21
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I don't think there's a need to change the "too broad" policy.

Although broad questions can be interesting, and spark some good points; I think their very nature can present real problems here.

Duplication for example, could be a real problem with these questions. If part of the broad scope is answered somewhere else; then having it part of another question duplicates efforts and just in general makes things more messy.

I also think that by having very broad questions, there's serious risk of lower quality answers. You may receive good parts for some answers, but there could be pieces of information missing; and more likelihood that a different answer covers some other part of the question better.

Basically; having broad topics risks spreading out answers into multiple broad questions; and diluting apparently quality; because a "good" answer to a question might have trouble addressing all aspects of the question well.

Instead; having more focused questions (that can even build on each other), keeps the information compartmentalized; so that the high quality answers are all-around good answers to the questions.

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    $\begingroup$ To play the devils advocate: if what you say is true, why do big lists work just fine in other SE sites? $\endgroup$ – AccidentalFourierTransform Feb 12 '18 at 19:23
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    $\begingroup$ @AccidentalFourierTransform A "big list" isn't necessarily the same as "Too broad". I think I would need a more concrete example of what you're talking about though. "List of all x that conform to y" wouldn't necessarily be too broad. I'm not sure if they would be on topic in general though; because it would be non-conceptual. I guess I can't really picture what a "big list" that relates to concepts in physics would even look like (beyond perhaps something opinion based such as "What were the most important concepts in X?"). $\endgroup$ – JMac Feb 12 '18 at 19:28
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    $\begingroup$ Some examples: mathoverflow.net/questions?sort=votes Most of these posts would be closed as "too broad"/"opinion based" here, but they are welcome there, and people don't seem to agree with you that these questions "present real problems". My question is: why is physics different from math.OF (or is it)? (Again: I'm not saying I fully disagree with you, but I'm not sure I fully agree either; I'm trying to make up my mind) $\endgroup$ – AccidentalFourierTransform Feb 12 '18 at 19:32
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    $\begingroup$ @AccidentalFourierTransform Those are "single answer" type problems though. I wouldn't really have a problem with that here either. They aren't looking for answers to 4 different questions; they want 4 different answers to the same question. If we adopted the '1 answer per post - vote to see what comes on top' system, that seems to work fine. That's not really what this meta question seemed to focus on; so my answer doesn't really have anything to do with that. $\endgroup$ – JMac Feb 12 '18 at 19:38
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    $\begingroup$ Hmm perhaps that's the problem: there is some kind of miscommunication here: "too broad" could either mean "a post with many questions" or "a post that expects many answers". The "role of rigor" post is a bit of both: it has many sub-questions, and each of them asks for many different examples. I guess we all agree that posts with many questions should be closed, but perhaps we don't all agree that posts that ask for many examples should be closed as well. $\endgroup$ – AccidentalFourierTransform Feb 12 '18 at 19:42
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    $\begingroup$ @AccidentalFourierTransform The second criterion is not just that it expects too many answers, but also that it doesn't provide a basis for choosing a single answer to be correct. $\endgroup$ – David Z Feb 12 '18 at 19:54
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidZ yep, I agree. That kind of questions are in principle welcome on the rest of SE's. I think it could be useful to reevaluate our stance on them, right? (although, to be honest, I don't know what I think myself; do I really believe such questions are useful? they are fun indeed, but so are sports and we don't discuss that here...) $\endgroup$ – AccidentalFourierTransform Feb 12 '18 at 19:58
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    $\begingroup$ @AccidentalFourierTransform That kind of question isn't supposed to be welcome on the rest of the network. Different sites are more or less strict about it, and you might find them being more or less well received depending on the nature of the community. Anyway, as far as reevaluating our stance, I'm all for that as long as "reevaluate" doesn't mean "change" - that is, we have to keep in mind maintaining the status quo as an option. $\endgroup$ – David Z Feb 12 '18 at 23:11
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    $\begingroup$ @AccidentalFourierTransform I think that goes back to what the purpose of the site is, and while StackOverflow is clearly meant to help practicing programmers in the course of their day-to-day work, the same can't be said of many other SEs. How would you fit Puzzling or Worldbuilding in that mould? Do real philosophers actually go to Philosophy.SE during their jobs, or Apple engineers to Ask Different? $\endgroup$ – knzhou Feb 13 '18 at 11:44
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    $\begingroup$ @AccidentalFourierTransform I've always seen Phys.SE as more like those sites: a platform to educate the public and a playground for fun discussion. If a practicing physicist needs to know some obscure thing about NNNLO QCD calculations they're not going to find it here, they already know where to go. $\endgroup$ – knzhou Feb 13 '18 at 11:47

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