Silicon-based life was closed for being off topic.

It's possibly an astrobiology question, and was migrated from the old Astronomy.SE. In which case it is on topic by current rules. Probably. (we might want to have a more critical look into exactly which topics from Astro we have made on topic, as of now it's just the hard-to-verify "what used to be on topic is on topic").

It was reopened by five people, due to the reason above. It was closed again due to it being broad, and possibly still off topic.

What should we do with this post?

There are three points to be addressed here:

  • Should astrobiology be on topic? To what extent?
  • Does the mentioned post count as acceptable astrobiology?
  • Is the mentioned post too broad? (this point is independent of the other two)

Please be clear as to what you're addressing.

  • $\begingroup$ I'll post my own thoughts on the matter later, when I have the time, in an answer. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Mar 1 '14 at 8:45
  • $\begingroup$ This also looks like either a chemistry or biology question, not so much like physics. $\endgroup$ – Mad Scientist Mar 1 '14 at 9:08
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    $\begingroup$ It should also be taken into account, that the community already expressed its take on this question in the comments (and votes on them) there and by 5 people who know what they are talking about successfully reopening the question, which was however completely defeated and nullified by a moderator unilaterally reclosing the question directly (2 hours) after the community reopening, as can be seen from the revision history. I strongly disagree with moderators directly cancelling community moderation like this. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Mar 1 '14 at 9:12
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    $\begingroup$ Of course, 5 people also closed it. But it's a moot point for this discussion, the history of the post is not as important. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Mar 1 '14 at 9:15
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    $\begingroup$ There are three questions here, and not recognizing this fact will only lead to everyone talking cross-purposes. (1) Should this question be reopened, whatever it is? (2) Should astrobiology be explicitly on-topic? (3) Is this question actually astrobiology? If (3) is answered in the negative, than you can't answer (1) via recourse to (2), nor can your stance on (2) be rationally influenced by using (1) as a case study. $\endgroup$ – user10851 Mar 1 '14 at 9:29
  • $\begingroup$ @ChrisWhite good point, clarified $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Mar 1 '14 at 9:38
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    $\begingroup$ I think that the question should be closed. First of all, it should clarify what is considered life. Is any self-replicating machine life? It's too broad. And some parts are too speculative. $\endgroup$ – jinawee Mar 1 '14 at 10:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Manishearth: After 5 people closed it, 5 people/ reopened it, not one. $\endgroup$ – Abhimanyu Pallavi Sudhir Mar 1 '14 at 13:44

There are two things that upset me quite a bit about this business.

  • The role of moderators is to enact community consensus. When there isn't one, their role is to bring the question formally for community consideration on this meta site, so that a communal decision can be taken. A good example of what I consider successful moderator handling of such a situation is this question.

    In this particular instance, five people voted to close and five people voted to reopen. Neither of these is an indication that the question is on- or off-topic here; rather, they must be taken together as an indication that there is no consensus. Unilateral moderator action in these conditions is, I feel, out of line. This is regardless of whether the question was, or turns out to be, off-topic.

  • I simply do not see the point of closing old questions, and particularly ones which already have answers. If the motivation for that is to keep them from cluttering the front page, or out of a broken-windows approach, I believe closing them is in fact detrimental, and just brings more attention to them.

This particular question is on two gray areas but I would strongly dispute that either of them merits closure.

  • It is an astrobiology question and as such it is best answered by biologists, or possibly chemists. Indeed, if it were asked today, I would recommend direct migration to biology.se. However, this question was asked on the old astronomy beta and, having been on topic there, it should be taken as on topic here. It is now too old to be migrated, and there are very good reasons for that age limit.

    Further than that, the reason we close questions as off-topic is because they clutter and take up the attention of people who do not have the expertise to answer them. This question has two perfectly good answers that quite patently satisfied the OP and are good resources for anyone who lands on this question.

    The other reason we close questions as off-topic is so that they don't invite new questions like them which, again, clutter the front page. I do not think this question does that. Anyone looking to ask such things would more naturally ask it in the new astronomy beta. If someone does ask it here, we can simply migrate to biology or astronomy as appropriate. If we ever get inundated with those then we can rethink closing old questions which create the impression that biology is on-topic here.

  • It is indeed slightly too broad for the SE model. However, it has answers that address essentially every point raised. The reason we close questions as too broad is that they are simply unlikely to attract good answers and their broadness undermines their future usefulness. This question has attracted good answers which are short, concise and to the point. I do not think it is even a broken window, and its broadness harms no one. To put it clearly, I do not think it should be closed as too broad.

I should also note that closing astronomy-related questions sends the message that any astronomy questions are off-topic here. This goes against (1) the discussions at the time of the merger, (2) the loud objections on this meta site to the opening of the new astronomy beta, and (3) the loud objections by many phycisists on the new astronomy beta's discussion page to the reopening of a parallel site.

Having addressed this particular question, I do think that astrobiology questions have much better venues than this site. Unless the question really does involve physics, at least on the side of the astrobiology, we should point the posters to the biology, astronomy or chemistry betas, and migrate the questions there after consultation with the poster and the target site moderators. We do not get anywhere near enough of these to make the process unfeasibly long or complicated, and this should really be done on a case-by-case basis.

As for the fate of this particular question, I think it is a perfectly valid question and should not be closed, though it is arguably on the wrong site and is too old to be migrated. To keep consistency, and to satiate the moderator thirst "to show new users that there are limits to what kinds of question we accept here", I propose that the question be reopened but that the following banner be added, as a quote, to the end of the question:

Please note that astrobiology questions are typically not on topic on this site unless they address specific physics issues. If you have a similar question, please consider posting it on our Biology, Chemistry or Astronomy sister sites. For more information, please refer to the discussion on Physics Meta about this question.

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    $\begingroup$ (Just to not get mistaken) I didn't vote any posts here (as I'm in a dilemma now!). But, regarding the notice you've proposed, I feel like it's contradicting the whole point of your post. You've written, "...unless they address specific physics issues". But, that Silicon-question didn't have any physics in it, as far as I can see. So, it should be off-topic. Ah, c'mon... I could similarly ask, "1. Could the superconductive unobtanium exist? (speculation) 2. Can that be created by man?" o_O $\endgroup$ – Waffle's Crazy Peanut Mar 1 '14 at 17:57
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    $\begingroup$ @CrazyBuddy I don't really see the contradiction. As I said, it's a valid question that, if posted now, should go to one of those other sites. As it happens, it is an old question and requires special handling, which is made clear by the (slightly amended) notice. I'm afraid I don't really understand your last comment, though. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Mar 1 '14 at 19:28
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    $\begingroup$ FWIW, I agree that it should not have been unilaterally closed the second time. I'll have to think a bit more on its appropriateness. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Mar 1 '14 at 22:34
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    $\begingroup$ +1 just for that first bullet point, but the point about it being on topic on the old Astronomy site is an excellent one as well. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Mar 2 '14 at 6:04
  • $\begingroup$ Regarding the first bullet point, we are actually allowed to use the unilateral powers at our discretion, but it's best if this is confined to the objective cases (this isn't one, given the amount of disagreement). The moderators had been using unilateral powers for years just because the community hadn't stepped up. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Mar 2 '14 at 6:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Manish I presume it's the SE team's guidelines that 'allow' that. One of the reasons many of us are here is community moderation, which the team is also big on. I can only interpret the extent of mod powers as the statement in that bullet point. This is indeed consistent with a lot of discretionary action, in both objective and certain subjective places, and has been overall very well used by the mod team. However, I cannot see how any moderator actions, after such a tight close/reopen cycle, other than bringing it to meta, are consistent with community moderation or should be 'allowed'. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Mar 2 '14 at 13:57
  • $\begingroup$ @EmilioPisanty Well, if a controversial post is being brought to meta to discuss a common situation across SE is in fact to lock the post, though closing is ok too on smaller sites. This prevents further close-reopen wars till things get sorted out. In this case, dmckee thought it was objectively off topic (as far as I can tell), so he closed it. It would have been best to bring it up on meta immediately, though it's ok to expect those who wish for it to be reopened to do so. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Mar 2 '14 at 14:03
  • $\begingroup$ I reiterate that the reopen priv is usually to be used on an improved post, if it gets used otherwise it's an indication of a discrepancy, and one way of dealing with it is declaring the post off topic till meta sorts it out. And remember that mods had been using discretionary closing powers for a long time before the community stepped up -- in that sense it's allowed. The mods are allowed to use it when they feel the community has failed at the closing (which is what used to be done back en we didn't have 5VTC)-- if people disagree, they can always get it rehashed on meta. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Mar 2 '14 at 14:04
  • $\begingroup$ To be clear: We do not intend to use the unilateral power often (except perhaps on blatantly OT homework and the such which might be best closed quickly). But neither is it wrong to use it when a moderator feels that the closing system or community moderation has failed. In the past few months I don't think I've done any unilateral closing except for some homework. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Mar 2 '14 at 14:11
  • $\begingroup$ The recent discussions and events here and here including this MSO post, as well as some people continuously calling for increased moderator action despite the sufficiently active community of 3k rep users Physics SE now has, have killed my childish believe that true community moderation as I understand it is possible here. I personally see no longer any point in visiting the review queues or vote to close/reopen, etc. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Mar 3 '14 at 18:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Manish Show me an example where a mod has closed a community-reopened question without going through meta first or concurrently! In that sense, it isn't allowed. I'm not sure at all what you mean by "community moderation has failed". It cannot mean 'failed to close' because that implies an objective criterion outside of the community. If it means 'failed to close quickly enough', that is not the issue here. I can only take it to mean 'failed to reach a consensus', in which case the appropriate course of action is to take it to meta. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Mar 3 '14 at 18:13
  • $\begingroup$ @EmilioPisanty Yes, "failed to reach consensus" is one way of looking at it in this case. I agree that dmckee should have brought it up on meta, but it's not totally necessary. here's an example, with different circumstances but same base chain of events (the post was similarly old and since it was migrated it wasn't noticed). $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Mar 3 '14 at 18:35
  • $\begingroup$ I have seen quite a few more examples of this on MSO, where mods use a binding vote and expect disagreement to come to meta if there is any. But iirc a lot of it is deleted now, though I can look for more. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Mar 3 '14 at 18:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Manish SO has wildly different moderation problems and Meta practices. While an interesting parallel, I don't think it should be translated directly. It feels inconsistent to say "we've been doing this for years" and then point to SO as an example. What on Earth is wrong with a little more Meta clarity? $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Mar 3 '14 at 18:53
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    $\begingroup$ @EmilioPisanty True, though the question was whether it was allowed. Again, I disagree that it was done -- it's not the best idea for a site like this and is why I try to bring up as much as possible on meta --, but I don't feel that dmckee should get so much flak for it, that's all. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Mar 3 '14 at 18:55

It is a fundamentally interdisciplinary question. Physicists, chemists, biologists and astronomers will all have their own take on it, so it makes sense for it to be on topic for all four sites.

One could surely argue that it isn't strictly about physics (five people felt that way), but one could equally argue that it is (five people felt that way as well). It certainly isn't so blatantly obviously off topic that it requires a moderator to overrule the community's decision.

  • $\begingroup$ What about the broadness? The closing has to do with both off topic ness and broadness; it's not enough to say that it is on topic. To me, the first question itself looks extremely broad (without qualifiers defining life -- because there is no uniformly-applicable definition right now), and there are 3 more. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Mar 1 '14 at 10:05
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    $\begingroup$ The broadness is a problem - but dmckee unilaterally closed it as "off topic" after it was re-opened, suggesting he feels that that's the main problem. I could agree about the broadness, but not about the off-topicness. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Mar 1 '14 at 10:08
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    $\begingroup$ Show me the physics input that isn't, in point of fact, chemistry input. This topic has been beaten to death in many places, and I haven't seen a better answer than the one Issac Asimov wrote (which means it comes from decades ago). Indeed both of the existing answers take the same track that Dr. Asimov used. $\endgroup$ – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Mar 1 '14 at 15:06
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    $\begingroup$ @dmckee I agree with most of those points. They make it a non-great question, but they don't make it off topic. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Mar 1 '14 at 15:45

What can I say guys, I've seen this topic raised many times in many contexts (Isaac Asimov even wrote on it once), but the answers have always been chemistry answers.

Yes, it is a interesting--event fascinating topic--but interesting does not imply topicality on physics.se. Nor does utility.

We want to be able to show new users that there are limits to what kinds of question we accept here and leaving old posts open simply because they interest us, rather than because they belong works against that.

This is one I am not going to apologize for: it's a biology question and while they need interdisciplinary input that input comes almost entirely from chemistry. The broadness is a secondary issue as far as I am concern (though "Let me write a list of questions and call it a singular question" is certainly a pet peeve of mine).

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    $\begingroup$ You have blatantly overruled a community decision there, the question has just been community reopend by 5 people (who know what they are doing and talking about) 2 hours before, not cool ... ! Such things make community moderation completely pointless and no longer deserving that name. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Mar 1 '14 at 15:14
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    $\begingroup$ It is not your job as moderator to dictate what is on topic. "We" don't want to "show" new users that this type of question won't be stood for in future. The reopening shows clearly that there is no consensus on that. Even at least one of the other moderators falls outside your definition of "we". $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Mar 2 '14 at 6:06
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    $\begingroup$ Also: we're not asking you to apologise, we're asking you to undo your action. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Mar 2 '14 at 7:58
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for pointing out that this is biology, not physics. Astrobiology deals with things like "What signatures does photosynthesis imprint in planetary spectra?" or "Do we know of any organisms that could withstand the UV radiation in the habitable zone of an M dwarf?" And yes, I'm speaking as an astrophysicist. $\endgroup$ – user10851 Mar 3 '14 at 7:24

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