Recently posted a question about dangers of operating a thermonuclear reactor and in the opening paragraph used a little bit of narration about importance of obtaining a sustainable source of energy such as nuclear fusion because of the climate change and the human suffering caused by fossil fuel wars:

Abandoning fossil fuels and obtaining a sustainable, practically unlimited, source of energy should be a prime goal of scientific research in physics because the climate change related to use of fossil fuels threatens the very existence of this civilization, and the endless wars over oil cause immeasurable human suffering.

This was blasted and down-voted by a single user as

dominated by meaningless, tendentious, and absurd ideology (about "climate change")

and this paragraph was afterwards edited out by another user.

While it is my understanding that there is a broad consensus about the reality of climate change in the scientific community and therefore the comment was inappropriate and over the top on that level too, my basic question is if narration and subjective opinions should be allowed or even encouraged here @ Physics SE?

The way I see it, the purpose of that first paragraph of my question was to put the question in a perspective that a lot of people can relate to and that is why it made sense to have it there in the first place.

Personally, I see no harm in this approach, after all, the scientist who did most to popularize the science, like Carl Sagan, were heavy on narration and opinions and had the great ability to explain scientific concepts in terms understandable to a much wider audience than the scientific community alone. While I'm sure some purists would love that all communication here was within strict language of physics and dominated by equations and I see nothing wrong in majority of the questions being asked and answered in that manner, at the same time why would it be wrong to use some narration and subjective opinions to make the communication more interesting and approachable to people who are not physicists and cannot communicate at that level?

  • $\begingroup$ Your "question" was entirely political, and it should have just been deleted. If you want to advance either left wing or right wing primarily USA-related political positions, and pretend that material is "QA" or pretend that material is "encyclopaedic" - just go to wikipedia, that's the purpose of wikipedia. $\endgroup$ – Fattie Jun 26 '14 at 11:07

I think you should strive to avoid polemics and unrelated commentary, and stick to the science whenever possible.

Telling a story is great, but try to avoid proselytizing along the way.

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    $\begingroup$ How is mentioning mainstream science like climate change inflammatory? How is accessing a cleaner form of nuclear energy unrelated to human pollution? My impression is that a vocal minority is bullying the rest of the community here. $\endgroup$ – Sklivvz Apr 7 '11 at 22:45

The question in the title is:

Are narration and subjective opinions acceptable on Physics SE?

The answers are that any narration needs to add to the clarity of the question. So yes narration only so far as it:

  1. adds to the clarity of the physics
    scenario to be answered;
  2. clarifies the level of physics understanding of the OP;
  3. identifies the type of answer
    expected (for certain questions where this needs explaining).

Several Questions (and sometime repeated added comments) add narration that does not meet these conditions (except suggesting that the OP knowledge of physics or scientific procedure is low) and so is unhelpful and perhaps misleading to audiences who are expecting facts only.

Subject opinions should not be presented on Physics SE. This is not to be confused with the point that we all currently have subjective opinions about the value of given theories or data or the prospects of where research should go next etc. These opinions based often on our level of understanding of the inter-relationships between complex phenomena; how much physics we have actually studied etc.

For me I dont care who believes in String Theory versus LQG: or who believes in fission power, fusion power or wave energy. I just want facts from those theories in answers to questions about those theories; etc.

What causes problems also is that some questions (and the behaviour of the OP afterwards) suggest that this site is being used to promote specific idiosyncratic theories; as a general education mechanism; or as a physics and philosophy discussion group.

There may or may not be other sites for these latter topics.

  • $\begingroup$ +1 well stated, I agree. $\endgroup$ – David Z Mar 29 '11 at 16:49

Narration is fine as long as it adds some important background. But we obviously don't want off topic ramblings, not to mention ones soaked in propaganda.

It's a bit subjective decision but I hope you can distinguish between useful information -- such as why is the question interesting, either to you or to a wider audience -- and between ramblings that have only marginal association with the real question. Asking about a box sliding with friction down the hill is a fine basic question. Adding that there will be some heat generation is kind of fine if that's what you are aiming for. But starting to talk about temperature increase of the planet and then AGW and that we should ban boxes, hills and friction is not fine. I hope you get the point.

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    $\begingroup$ @Marek, IMO, bringing up temperature increase of the planet while discussing box sliding friction is absurd and bringing up climate change while talking about fossil fuels is not, so no, I don't really get the point... Do you think that paragraph was acceptable within that question or not? $\endgroup$ – Dean Kuga Mar 28 '11 at 18:37
  • $\begingroup$ @kzen: bringing up climate change when talking about thermonuclear reactors is the same as bringing it in when talking about box sliding. Is that any clearer? $\endgroup$ – Marek Mar 28 '11 at 20:31
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    $\begingroup$ -1 for rambling and also for the ridiculous claim that thermonuclear reactors are in the same category as box-sliding-on-surface problems. $\endgroup$ – Deepak Vaid Mar 29 '11 at 8:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Deepak: I don't see where I ramble. Could you be a bit explicit? Also, thermonuclear reactors definitely are in the same category for the purposes of introducing climate change propaganda. $\endgroup$ – Marek Mar 29 '11 at 8:26
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    $\begingroup$ "climate change propaganda"? what propaganda? you mean "climate change reality"? or do you prefer to reside outside the so-called reality-based community? $\endgroup$ – Deepak Vaid Mar 29 '11 at 8:29
  • $\begingroup$ @Deepak: I don't want to get into flamewar on climate change. The point is, bringing in climate change discussion is absolutely off topic to any problem from classical mechanics, thermodynamics, or nuclear physics. Wouldn't you agree? $\endgroup$ – Marek Mar 29 '11 at 8:34
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    $\begingroup$ In general, yes. But its hard to completely shut out reality in any forum. And when you're talking of "thermonuclear power plants" then all the associated benefits and risks to human populations automatically come into play. Again, this should not be interpreted as a license to "proselytize". But there really was nothing debatable in @kzen's statement. It was even redundant like saying "the sky is blue". But yes, let's save our flames for when the real war begins ;) $\endgroup$ – Deepak Vaid Mar 29 '11 at 8:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Deepak: yes, saying "the sky is blue" in the discussion of thermonuclear reactors is about as relevant too :) $\endgroup$ – Marek Mar 29 '11 at 9:19

Well... no. Kind of.

There are a couple of reasons that I would say extended narration and subjective assertions are discouraged. Physics is a quantitative, logical subject: in the course of developing the science, we go to a great deal of trouble to pose questions in an objective manner and also to answer them in an objective manner. This is why we use math, so that we can reach conclusions that aren't dependent on the biases or preconceptions of the person doing the thinking. Besides, most subjective, opinion-based questions don't work very well within the SE model. As the FAQ says, "we prefer questions that can be answered, not just discussed."

Now, you might point out that the subjectivity of your first paragraph had little to do with the question you were asking - in other words, you weren't asking a subjective question, just offering up some opinions to motivate it. Yes, but an extended introduction in which you assert your opinion doesn't really contribute anything to the question. It's a question about hydrogen fusion, and there's no need to reference climate change to justify asking about fusion reactors. Plenty of people here, including especially the kinds of people who would take an interest in your question, find fusion power interesting on its own merits.

Basically, I fully agree that the edit that removed your introduction helped make the question more focused, and I would think so even if it hadn't generated any controversy. (That doesn't mean you did anything wrong, by the way. Most people have a tendency to write more than they need to. It's difficult to tell that you're doing so when you're looking at your own writing; I'm sure the majority of questions on the site could benefit from being "trimmed" by someone other than the original poster.)

why would it be wrong to use some narration and subjective opinions to make the communication more interesting and approachable to people who are not physicists and cannot communicate at that level?

While there is certainly something to be said for not getting bogged down in math, keep in mind that this is a site mainly targeted at people who are interested in physics, enough to put in a bit of work to communicate using the language of the field. Besides, it's not necessary to be subjective to capture people's interest.


Dear Kzen,

I am not prone to blast people but at the same time I do also hold strong opinions about the specific "the climate change related to use of fossil fuels threatens the very existence of this civilization," statement . I had appended a comment in my answer, and then deleted it when this paragraph was deleted.

I am not the only physicist who has delved into this famous anthropogenic global warming that has morphed into "climate change" ( as if the climate is ever stable) and is going into "climate disruption". The past three years I have read up in depth on the subject, and am convinced that the whole thing is a red herring as far as the "anthropogenic" goes, and a lot is missing from the so called "climate science" . Evidently there was a second physicist with the same opinions and probably many more might have chimed in if it had not been changed. This is not a place for climate wars.

I think it behooves us as scientists on a science site to be as succinct and minimal in the formulation of our problems, to aid in getting an answer. Controversial opinions stated as acceptable premises by all will tend to create reactions. Physicists do not do physics by consensus.

That said, introduction to difficult subjects is always useful, imo.

  • $\begingroup$ @Anna, I respect your position but please let me know if, based on your in depth research of the subject, you do not accept as a scientific fact that CO2 levels since the beginning of industrial revolution raised 35%? $\endgroup$ – Dean Kuga Mar 28 '11 at 18:54
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    $\begingroup$ I do have some doubts about the universality of measurements and the "well distributed dogma"(, Keeling is an author in most publications), but yes, CO2 has gone up. What is basically in question is the effect on climate, which is minimal by any real physics measurements. Correlation is not causation. That temperatures were going up for twenty years while CO2 was going up, does not mean that CO2 raised the temperature. Temperatures are stable the past ten years or more, and CO2 is still merrily going up. $\endgroup$ – anna v Mar 28 '11 at 19:19
  • $\begingroup$ Temperatures are stable the past ten years or more ... a temperature change of 0.36 deg F per decade from the period between 1980 and 2010 link. So while the CO_2 has been going merrily up so is are global temperature averages. $\endgroup$ – Deepak Vaid Mar 29 '11 at 9:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Deepak, right but correlation still doesn't imply causation and I am sure you could find many similar graphs if you looked for them in the past data; these fluctuations are just bound to happen. In any case, let's not turn this thread into a CC war (perhaps a little late for that though...). $\endgroup$ – Marek Mar 29 '11 at 9:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Marek right. There are blogs where one can discuss this without cluttering up a physics site. Like wattsupwiththat.com ( don't know how to make links in comments).@Deepak there is no doubt that there is a stasis in temperatures since 1998 from most temperature studies other then NASA. NASA plots are so much massaged that are not credible. Just there to push AGW of Hansen. This from Lucia has more credibility rankexploits.com/musings/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/… . If one only had the last 15 years, there would be no rise. $\endgroup$ – anna v Mar 29 '11 at 10:00
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    $\begingroup$ Right. Of course. NASA data is not credible. What would you find credible - the ESA, ISRO, collapse of the Antarctic ice sheet, the de-icing of Greenland, increased frequencies and strengths of hurricanes which is directly related to sea surface temperature rise? Anyhow that's all I have to say. $\endgroup$ – Deepak Vaid Mar 29 '11 at 10:35

IMHO an analogy with food would of help here. Every question with its set of answers is like a dish prepared by the contributions of my cooks. Someone baked the crust, someone made the tomato sauce and a third person brought the anchovies (ok, ew :L). But the point in life is not just to eat healthy dishes. They should also have some taste and, if possible, flair. Without spice, without taste, cooking would be as empty and banal as life without music or movies.

Similarly questions and answers without some element of humor, wit, story-telling and other emotional flourishes are akin to boiled potatoes. Healthy and great for breakfast on occasion and when sick but add a little discussion, some context and even some amount of philosophizing and those boiled potatoes become something you ate at Applebee's [context: Applebee's is an American restaurant chain where I had my first black russian.]

So, by all means, discuss and converse and debate. But try to put some effort into your philosophizing and poetics so that this pot-luck we call physics.SE satisfies and nourishes one and all inquiring minds.

  • $\begingroup$ I don't see how is this any different from my answer, so +1 :) $\endgroup$ – Marek Mar 29 '11 at 8:36
  • $\begingroup$ Good sport, old chap! $\endgroup$ – Deepak Vaid Mar 29 '11 at 8:55
  • $\begingroup$ -1 for that pointless story about Applebee's. (kidding! but in all seriousness, Applbee's is gross.) $\endgroup$ – wsc Mar 30 '11 at 3:14

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