I've seen questions about how to study physics or how physics should be taught being dealt with in a variety of ways. Some get downvoted, some get closed by moderators while others are even answered by moderators. Examples are:

To me, and no doubt to new users, this is confusing and I think it might hold people back from asking a particular question. As a matter of fact, this meta question was inspired by exactly such an experience: I was thinking about the course on non-linear dynamics I took this semester and how insightful it was. It got me wondering why we spend so much time in our physics curriculum linearizing everything and then hoping to capture the interesting non-linear physics through methods like perturbation theory. Non-linear dynamics should - in my opinion - at least be touched on at the Bachelor level (no idea what that level is called in countries like the US).

So I was on the verge of asking a question on this subject, probing for reasons why linearity is made so important in physics education, while there is no objective reason for nature to behave that way and indeed it rarely does (well I know one reason: we can solve linear problems analytically, non-linear problems are usually too difficult mathematically). But then I stopped and realized my question would probably be closed because it doesn't really have an objective answer.

Now, I understand that it can be hard to distinguish between an acceptable question that cannot have a truly objective answer and a question that is just effectively pointless. It's a fine line to tread. One way to solve the problem is not to tread the line at all and steer away from all such questions. Another way is to define more clearly what is allowed and what isn't. The FAQ section does a good job of this already, but it's arguable that these guidelines are not follow strictly (see the examples above). So perhaps more clarity is needed and that's why I've created this question. I'm sorry for the long intro, but here's the summary of it all: precisely what is the difference between a good question and a bad one?

Recently some questions have also been migrated to the academia beta, like this one:


Where exactly do we draw the line between their territory and ours?

After considering the answer by Larry Harson and the comments by David Zaslavsky and Manishearth, I have slightly adjusted my thoughts on the subject. (I apologize for making this question even longer, but I think it's necessary to include my own thoughts)

I think questions asking for book recommendations or methods for studying physics should probably be discouraged here. In general, questions specific to one person/situation are already discouraged as "not constructive" so that's consistent. There are other places to ask those questions.

However, a platform should exist for questions on how physics should (not) be taught. Whether or not that platform is Physics.SE remains a tough question to answer in general, but I think most of those questions are on topic. They are definitely questions that need to be asked, because the way physics is taught greatly affects both the amount of people that get interested in physics and the level of understanding that the physicists of tomorrow have. In a very significant way, it defines the direction we take in our investigation of the physical world. So for that reason, I certainly don't think we can disallow those questions in general.

On the other hand, (the most important) questions about how physics should be taught would probably spark debates, which is a good thing by itself but unfitting of this site's format. Therefore, the acceptable questions are probably

  • not purely hypothetical: "should"-questions like "Should we do B?".
  • but instead argumentably comparative: "why"-questions like "Why is A preferred over B?". (not "Why don't we do B?" since that's just a hypothetical question in disguise)

Then there are still intermediary cases with questions like "Is it realistic/useful to teach some elementary quantum mechanics at the high-school level?". This can be answered with some level of objectivity by teachers, but it doesn't really have a 'right' answer. Then again, the "why"-questions I mentioned earlier don't necessarily have one either, they're just (slightly?) less subjective than the "should"-questions.

So is a clear and consistent distinction between good and bad questions even possible? And if my above assessment constitutes a reasonable distinction, what to do with the intermediary cases?

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    $\begingroup$ Good question! Our position on education questions is kind of hard to pin down. I can tell you that currently questions of the form "How do I learn [topic]?" or "What are the prerequisites to [topic]?" tend to get closed pretty quickly. $\endgroup$
    – David Z
    Commented May 1, 2013 at 1:33
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    $\begingroup$ I don't have the time to answer this, but note that sites can have overlap regions. Just because a q is on topic for Academia doesn't mean it can be migrated -- it must be off topic for us as well. $\endgroup$ Commented May 1, 2013 at 4:24

1 Answer 1


The key sentence in what you wrote is: "But then I stopped and realized my question would probably be closed because it doesn't really have an objective answer".

So those education questions that have a realistic chance of being answered objectively should be allowed, meaning people can investigate the correctness of an answer independent of the view of the person who gave the answer in the first place. Using your example, an acceptable question would be:

What are the motives behind the teaching of linear physical models as opposed to non-linear ones?

People can then up-vote the answers given by actual teachers who can give their motives, and down-vote those who haven't a clue why, but love to see their ignorant opinion on screen.

Take a look at the questions under the education tag to get an idea of how to ask successfully here, such as mine:

Can electromagnetic momentum be introduced at pre-university level as for electromagnetic energy?

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    $\begingroup$ I've been thinking about your answer for a few days now and I certainly agree to a large extent. However, the question "does this question have a realistic chance of being answered objectively?" is unfortunately a subjective question itself, making it very hard - if not impossible - to judge each question consistently. Some clear, sharply defined guidelines would be ideal (but unlikely to be found). The problem with looking at questions under the education tag is that you often see two similar questions being treated (very) differently. $\endgroup$
    – Wouter
    Commented May 12, 2013 at 10:25
  • $\begingroup$ I was organizing my own thoughts to possibly write an answer myself, but I guess it's better to edit the question instead to incorporate those thoughts. $\endgroup$
    – Wouter
    Commented May 12, 2013 at 10:28

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