I just noticed the question on Accidental, unplanned breakthroughs in physics which you have probably seen if you're reading this. It's attracted a lot of positive attention, but I cannot for the life of me figure out any reason it should be an appropriate question for the site. Consider these excerpts from the Help Center:

You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face. Chatty, open-ended questions diminish the usefulness of our site and push other questions off the front page.

This question is not based on an actual problem, but it is open-ended pretty much by definition.

To prevent your question from being flagged and possibly removed, avoid asking subjective questions where...

  • every answer is equally valid: “What’s your favorite ______?”
  • your answer is provided along with the question, and you expect more answers: “I use ______ for ______, what do you use?”
  • there is no actual problem to be solved: “I’m curious if other people feel like I do.”

The "breakthroughs" question hits all three of these points on the nose.

Some subjective questions are allowed, but “subjective” does not mean “anything goes”. All subjective questions are expected to be constructive. What does that mean? Constructive subjective questions:

  • inspire answers that explain “why” and “how”

This one doesn't, it's just assembling a list without any specific prompt for information.

  • tend to have long, not short, answers

Naming a breakthrough is not a long answer.

As detailed elsewhere on meta, questions with these attributes fail to increase the quality of the site at best, and actively pollute it at worst.

We do have an active discussion (in a long-term sense) on list questions, but even looking at the suggestions made in that question and answers, nothing seems to allow an all-encompassing list of breakthroughs. A common opinion is that list questions of limited scope are likely to be okay, but this is absolutely not one of those.

So here's my question, primarily to people who upvoted or reopen-voted the "breakthroughs" question: in doing so, it seems that you're suggesting we ignore fully half a page of the help center and an emerging consensus on list questions from this site itself. Why? What are your arguments that these policies don't apply to this question?

  • $\begingroup$ Are those who voted to reopen active on meta to see this, or to know of the discussions linked here? $\endgroup$
    – tpg2114
    Commented Aug 24, 2013 at 21:14
  • $\begingroup$ Hopefully so, but there's no way to actively contact the reopen voters to make them aware of this question. (I don't even know who they are.) There is a link from the main site question to meta, so if they come back to look at that question, they could find their way here. $\endgroup$
    – David Z
    Commented Aug 25, 2013 at 1:02
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    $\begingroup$ Because policies should be relaxed a bit in the favour of what the community wants sometimes . $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 25, 2013 at 5:23
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    $\begingroup$ I understand why the question has been closed (or on-holded), but I think it's unneccessary and a bit unfair that it has been locked. This way it is impossible to gauge community support (or rejection) of the question through votes. I can't even vote on comments I agree with. It seems especially unfair if one believes that there is a split between the main site and the meta site users. The main site users who don't like to argue on meta, but want to see this question open, can't even upvote it. $\endgroup$
    – jdm
    Commented Aug 25, 2013 at 12:21
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    $\begingroup$ If lots of people want to make exceptions to policies, maybe it's the policies that are the problem. $\endgroup$
    – endolith
    Commented Sep 1, 2013 at 21:16
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    $\begingroup$ @endolith I feel like a broken record on this, but... We let the majority have their way on make-a-lists for more than two years on Stack Overflow before a large fraction of the long term users and the team came around. It is because they are so popular they were damage a Q&A: it is simply more rewarding to suggest yet another list that is one adjective or restriction different from all the other list than to ask or answer a real questions with real answers. When the lists moved to Programmers.SE the main users there came to realize that most lists were bad for them, too. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 2, 2013 at 3:35
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    $\begingroup$ admittedly the question is not nec fitting into "practical, answerable questions based on problems you face" but how many of all se questions, esp as its scope expands, all about practical problems? that word seems problematic & strictly applied may not fit on many se questions. se started out as a programming site where the word made more sense but the word makes less sense on non-stackoverflow questions... also there is a question of where does the burden of proof lie? ie is the benefit of doubt given questioner or not? policy doesnt state they are reqd to explain/ describe bkg. $\endgroup$
    – vzn
    Commented Jan 18, 2015 at 23:22
  • $\begingroup$ @vzn in practice, the burden of proof is on the asker (or others acting on the asker's behalf) to show that the question is appropriate. But: after a question has been reopened, or explicitly found to be appropriate in some other manner, then the burden of proof is on whoever wants to change the current state of the question. $\endgroup$
    – David Z
    Commented Jan 19, 2015 at 0:08

2 Answers 2


It seems people are arguing that this question has the potential to elicit answers containing fairly high-level and interesting physics. Of course I agree it's interesting and enjoyable to read about accidental discoveries of important phenomena or physical principles/laws. And as pointed out in the comments to the question, such answers might indeed encourage experts to join the site (more so than, say, simple kinematics questions or copy-paste homework ones).

However, there are undoubtedly entire books devoted (completely or in part) to such discoveries. Furthermore I think the experts-argument is insufficient. Not only is it a vague way to judge whether or not a question should be allowed, I think it's far worse to undermine current policy than it is to close one question that may or may not attract good new users. Of course, if the policy changed, it could become an allowed question. So I would encourage people to focus their energy on finding a good new list policy that includes positive, interesting list questions (like this one, perhaps altered slightly) but excludes the problematic ones - instead of putting it all into battles about specific questions.

Just to be clear, I agree that certain list questions have the potential to be acceptable and attract good new users, experts. But I also believe we should not undermine current policy and instead try to improve it if possible. David is right when he points out how this specific questions fails to pass the current filter, so it should be closed. Therefore I re-iterate: please focus your energy on developing an improved lists policy. It's more difficult than semi-anarchistically fighting specific battles, but it is very important and far more useful. Lose one in the short run, save a thousand in the long.

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    $\begingroup$ I very much agree with this. In fact this question makes me question what I proposed in the good list, bad list meta-question. It clearly isn't very limited in scope, but at the same time I feel intuitively that it is a productive question. Mostly, I think, this is because the answers would provide information that's hard to find in a single place elsewhere, so the answers will form a useful resource, even if they're scattered and numerous. Of course, codifying that into a policy to propose is a bit tricky. $\endgroup$
    – N. Virgo
    Commented Aug 25, 2013 at 5:12
  • $\begingroup$ A list like the one at issue is one of those things that I think has a good home somewhere else on the internet, but not here. After all, Stack Exchange is not meant to be all things to all people. It's meant to be a site where you come to find specific questions and focused answers. Accordingly the system is optimized for those kinds of questions at the expense of others (lists/polls/subjective), and in order to keep the site in the best possible "health" I'd say we should encourage the former kind and send the latter kind elsewhere, where it's not clashing with the goals of the system. $\endgroup$
    – David Z
    Commented Aug 26, 2013 at 6:39
  • $\begingroup$ So basically @Nathaniel I'm not disagreeing with your idea that the list of answers to this question would be a useful resource - just saying that I don't think this site is the place for it. The mere fact that it's useful doesn't automatically mean we have to allow it here. $\endgroup$
    – David Z
    Commented Aug 26, 2013 at 6:40

Personally, I voted to reopen because I felt this particular question would be a valuable resource and a positive addition to the site. I understand many of your concerns and agree that it would be a blatant exception to current policy; I also agree with Wouter that communal energies are best directed to the design and implementation of a more comprehensive list policy that will not lead to site pollution.

On the other hand, I must say I am disappointed that this question was closed by moderation action and that it took this long for a moderator to bring this to meta. The review queue is by now very efficient: out of the 50 newest closed questions, 33 were closed with at least four people involved. The post was in the review queue and would have been dealt with by the community, with a woulda-coulda-shoulda outcome that's useless to speculate upon now.

Even if the question had been voted off the review queue, I would have appreciated a post like this before, or at least shortly after the moderator closure. Note that I'm not in any way advocating such discussion for all moderator actions and I speak exclusively of this question: it was a well-phrased question (if somewhat naive to the policies of this site) that attracted positive attention, in the form of upvotes and answers, and it was clear that a lot of people were watching. I feel this question was an exception enough that it warranted a more open, discussed and justified closure process. (A similar feeling may have motivated the other upvoters and reopen-voters, I think.)

There, I've said my piece. Now I'll go have a think about list question policies, instead of brooding about this.

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    $\begingroup$ Frankly when I closed it I thought---and I still think---it was an open and shut case that simply didn't need any discussion. It is a textbook example of a bikeshed list and was already accumulating a bunch of "Oooohh, I know one!" answers. I wanted to close it before more people put more effort into a question that was obviously doomed from the start. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 24, 2013 at 22:55

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