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Based on the case of a question Explanation for this type of (magic-trick) suspension? (on hold) (of course not the only one).

Five people (a moderator among them) voted to close the question, which had an (accepted) answer and plus was highly up-voted (let me note in bold by members of this site) which were an order of magnitufe more than the five people.

In some brief comments with the moderator (@DavidZ) after the issue was raised (by me @NikosM, who btw did not post an answer). It was mentioned that posts may be off-topic regardless of how many up-votes they have. i replied, shortly, that certainly the people who up-voted do not consider this to be off-topic.

This seems a very serious issue here, especially when (as you can see in the screenshot below) there is no way provided for (other) members to request or vote for re-opening

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ Note that there is a way for members to nominate for reopening: physics.stackexchange.com/help/privileges/close-questions $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Aug 21 '14 at 19:16
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    $\begingroup$ @KyleKanos, there it says: "Awarded at: 3,000 reputation", i dont think it answers the issue raised here (especially with the relative magnitudes given). This alters the notion of a community (but i will not take this further right now) $\endgroup$ – Nikos M. Aug 21 '14 at 19:19
  • $\begingroup$ I know it says right there, but your premise that "there is no way provided for (other) members to request or vote for reopening" is entirely false, as evidenced by my link. $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Aug 21 '14 at 19:20
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    $\begingroup$ @KyleKanos, indeed the link provided shows there is way, unfortunately all these people (members, who have a vote in up or down) do not have access there, the issue remains $\endgroup$ – Nikos M. Aug 21 '14 at 19:22
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    $\begingroup$ @KyleKanos, in brief the issue is that regardless of reputation of a handful of people this reputation (and privilege stemming from it) does not reflect the community as it is supposed to do. Hope you see the issue here $\endgroup$ – Nikos M. Aug 21 '14 at 19:24
  • $\begingroup$ There's over 100 users who can vote to close & reopen. $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Aug 21 '14 at 19:25
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    $\begingroup$ I think the fact that people who have earned over 3k rep shows that they know what the community of this site wants. $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Aug 21 '14 at 19:26
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    $\begingroup$ @KyleKanos, let me (demonstratably) doubt this $\endgroup$ – Nikos M. Aug 21 '14 at 19:28
  • $\begingroup$ @NikosM. ok, proceed $\endgroup$ – Jim Aug 21 '14 at 19:40
  • $\begingroup$ @NikosM. being serious, I'd like it known that while it was closed as off-topic. I voted to close this as "purely opinion based". Since we cannot know for sure exactly what method is used for the illusion without the magician revealing it, the answers to "how was it done" is undoubtedly opinion-based, and thus should be closed anyway. $\endgroup$ – Jim Aug 21 '14 at 19:48
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    $\begingroup$ @Jim, i already did, the question under which your comment lies $\endgroup$ – Nikos M. Aug 21 '14 at 21:44
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    $\begingroup$ @NikosM. - thanks for bringing up an interesting topic of discussion. I hope you realize that the fact you are attracting downvotes does not mean that this is a bad question - it's just how Meta shows whether people agree with your position. I for one enjoyed learning more about how the site works from this - so cheers from me. $\endgroup$ – Floris Aug 22 '14 at 3:47
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    $\begingroup$ I'll just comment that in StackOverflow, there are closed questions with several thousand upvotes, so it's unlikely that the policy will change. $\endgroup$ – jinawee Aug 23 '14 at 18:11
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The privilege of voting to close and/or reopen is gained at 3000 reputuation. At the time of this writing, there are 132 such users, most active on the site.

The reason for restricting the privilege is that wisdom in guiding the site comes from experience. In particular, as users spend more time here, they realize that not all interesting questions belong here. This is not Quora, where anything and everything can be asked. New or very casual users do tend to vote based on the sole criterion "Did this pique my interest?" Those of us who've been around for a while know that just allowing any and all questions that pique someone's interest would dilute the quality away from our stated purpose of being "a question and answer site for active researchers, academics and students of physics and astronomy."

Note that the site guidelines even differentiate between up/downvotes and close/reopen votes. We vote to close because of off-topicness, we downvote because "This question does not show any research effort; it is unclear or not useful."

Another point to keep in mind: after 5 close votes come in, the question is closed and no more may be cast. Thus it is entirely possible, and indeed likely, that more would have voted to close than just those first 5. Furthermore, while the question is in the close vote queue, those of us who can cast such votes are given the option of voting to leave open. In this case, not enough 3k users thought the question should be left open, but that possibility does indeed exist.

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    $\begingroup$ as stated in other comment, in brief the issue is that regardless of reputation of a handful of people this reputation (and privilege stemming from it) does not reflect the community as it is supposed to do. Hope you see the issue here $\endgroup$ – Nikos M. Aug 21 '14 at 19:26
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    $\begingroup$ @NikosM. actually, you have confused me. What do you mean by "does not reflect the community as it is supposed to do"? What is it supposed to do? How is this failed? $\endgroup$ – Jim Aug 21 '14 at 19:43
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    $\begingroup$ @NikosM. Popularity is not a measure of appropriateness for the site. Can you demonstrate how many of the upvotes came from "members of the community" and not from people who saw it on the Hot list and came in to vote? We may never know, but getting a large number of votes does not indicate approval from the community per se. $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Aug 21 '14 at 19:58
  • $\begingroup$ @tpg2114 I think only registered users can upvote $\endgroup$ – Jim Aug 21 '14 at 20:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Jim Anybody with enough rep on any other site can automatically get 100 rep here. So while it may not be Joe InternetUser, there are a lot of people who can get the association bonus and upvote immediately. $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Aug 21 '14 at 20:06
  • $\begingroup$ @tpg2114, it is very easy to find out who voted the question (the SE can provide the logs), but even at this point i can demonstrate (go to the post) that at least 2 highly-reputed members provided the top-voted answers $\endgroup$ – Nikos M. Aug 21 '14 at 21:55
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    $\begingroup$ @NikosM. Your assertion that it is very easy to find out who voted the question (the SE can provide the logs) is incorrect; voting logs are never made public for very good reasons. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Aug 22 '14 at 13:11
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    $\begingroup$ To clarify exactly how many active users can vote to close, the SEDE query Users with close-vote privileges ordered by last access date does what it says on the tin. At present there are 135 such users (in the SEDE data), 100 of whom have been on the site this month (22 days). That's a sizable population of people with a lot of experience in the site and a good feel for what makes a valuable on-topic question and what ends up being a mere distraction. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Aug 22 '14 at 13:19
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I think the issue can be summed up into a single sentence (a paraphrase of DavidZ's comment):

Votes do not reflect the on-topicness of a question.

The attention the post received was because discerning the source of magic tricks is a popular topic among the populace. This question is not actually about physics, it is about determining how a magic trick is done.

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    $\begingroup$ (this answers a previous comment as well) do you know how reputation is earned? You do, then you do know the reputation is earned by posting answers and questions (and people voting in the context of these answers and questions). Now tell me, how does this, legitimately make one able to interpret the intents and on-topicness of the community (as a whole) on other topics??? $\endgroup$ – Nikos M. Aug 21 '14 at 21:40
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    $\begingroup$ what troubles me most though, is not that. It is the fact that you (and others here) do not seem to be troubled at all, by these situations. $\endgroup$ – Nikos M. Aug 21 '14 at 21:47
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    $\begingroup$ @NikosM. Troubled by what situations? That 5 people agreed to close it, while (potentially) numerous people did not vote to keep it open, and that 5 people with enough reputation do not agree on reopening it? It still has 0 reopen votes. There is a system of checks and balances in place, and it's working the way the site intends it to work. $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Aug 21 '14 at 22:00
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    $\begingroup$ @tpg2114, your comment is already answered by my 1st comment under this answer $\endgroup$ – Nikos M. Aug 21 '14 at 22:01
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    $\begingroup$ @NikosM. That higher reputation allows people to determine the intent, as evidenced by the ability to cast votes? Thats's what troubles you? I look at it like GRE scores -- it may not exactly predict somebody's IQ, but statistically it does correlate. Those with high rep counts typically have been around, and typically are involved on the Meta site, and typically know the policies well, and typically have been involved in writing and discussing them. Are there exceptions? Sure. But that's why it takes 5 and not 1. And why it can be undone. $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Aug 21 '14 at 22:04
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    $\begingroup$ @tpg2114, what are you talking about?? Did you actually make an analogy between people interpreting the intents of a community with looking at someone's GRE scores? please $\endgroup$ – Nikos M. Aug 21 '14 at 22:07
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    $\begingroup$ @NikosM. I made a comparison between an arbitrary score and what it is trying to measure by proxy. Isn't that precisely what we look at when we see a "reputation score" and an individual's ability to moderate the community? $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Aug 21 '14 at 22:08
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    $\begingroup$ @NikosM.: After 8k+ rep earned here on Physics, I'm well aware of how rep is earned. I'd argue that the community is made up of the people who continuously contribute to this site. People who are one-and-done (possibly a majority of users on this site, definitely on larger sites such as SO), I would argue, are not part of the community because they want a quick answer and don't have a vested interest in the well-being of this site. Those that continuously do contribute do have a vested interest. $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Aug 21 '14 at 23:57
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    $\begingroup$ You understand though, that this easily gets turned around into a minority controlling a majority (to the detriment of the well-being of the site)? To the point, the issue raised is not about one-and-done people (as you may see in the example post and me here), who do not even have a vote!! One should also recognise that most of his rep is by those people (who are not considered part of the community). Many people can have vested interest given the chance. It is a make-believe argument (as is the rep, since its source is not even recognised). $\endgroup$ – Nikos M. Aug 22 '14 at 0:18
  • $\begingroup$ @NikosM.: Except the minority are not all in agreement about everything. That's why there's the checks-and-balances of the voting to close & reopen queues. This model works for about 100 sites on a variety of topics. Given the statistics of the overwhelming success of the StackExchange model, I would strongly suggest that your opinion is not at all backed up by facts whereas my position is backed by hundreds of pieces of evidence. $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Aug 22 '14 at 0:24
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    $\begingroup$ Kyle, i can very easily point you to links all over the internet from people having bad experience in SE sites (google around). So this gives me plenty of data to back up. But, to your surprise maybe, i will agree that the sites do work. It seems they work for someone else though. $\endgroup$ – Nikos M. Aug 22 '14 at 0:28
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    $\begingroup$ Ok, so can we get back to the point here? You say there is no issue? Is my understanding of your stance correct? $\endgroup$ – Nikos M. Aug 22 '14 at 0:36
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    $\begingroup$ Ok i wanted to be sure. Of course i disagree and problems are indeed discovered (for example this post), but it seems they either get ignored or buried under the carpet. This is confirmation bias. i will not post another comment (at least on this answer) $\endgroup$ – Nikos M. Aug 22 '14 at 0:40
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    $\begingroup$ Ad hominem, ad hominem, circumvent the facts. please. $\endgroup$ – Nikos M. Aug 22 '14 at 0:55
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    $\begingroup$ Factual yes, did i say otherwise. Yet the issue is still circumvented. It is not about a specific post (and i am not the author). Did you actually read the post? It is about how a handful of people circumventing an order of magniude more people. And in this you did not provide an answer or alternative. So lets stick to the topic and not steer it. $\endgroup$ – Nikos M. Aug 22 '14 at 1:02
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I would like to argue that the question (as phrased in the last paragraph) had a clear physics-based character:

So the question is : Is this related to the electrical charge of a magnet or a cheap trick ?

The first answer that was posted (which got 33 votes as of the time I write this) exposed it as "most likely a cheap trick" - but this was speculation, and I agree could be argued as off topic for the site (because not about the physics of the situation).

At the same time, I would argue that the answer which I posted (17 votes at the time of writing) explores the physics of the question: "could this be done with electrical charges or with magnets?" The community seems to believe that I did an OK job estimating whether this could be done, and rewarded me with a rep-cap day...

If an answer such as mine had not been posted after a day or two, I could understand the question being closed; but as it is, I have sympathy for Nikos's position that this seems like a strange decision.

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    $\begingroup$ If the question were asking whether it would be possible to achieve the produced effect using electromagnetism, I'd consider it closer to being on topic for us, especially if it presented some attempts to figure it out and asked about a conceptual issue within those attempts. But it didn't ask those things; it asked how the trick was done. $\endgroup$ – David Z Aug 22 '14 at 3:24
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidZ - we read the question differently. I saw a genuine question "is there physics here or was it a trick". You know the site better than I do and I am happy to abide by your judgment. Moderating a bunch of physicists and wannabe-physicists can't be an easy task - I'm not going to try to make it harder for you. $\endgroup$ – Floris Aug 22 '14 at 3:26
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    $\begingroup$ Ah, well here I'm speaking as an experienced user, not as a moderator - in other words, you shouldn't consider what I say here a judgment that you must abide by, only as part of an ongoing discussion. I guess my view is that questions which just ask "is there physics here" are not the kinds of questions we should consider on topic. $\endgroup$ – David Z Aug 22 '14 at 3:29
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidZ - I think I see your point. Let me rephrase the question ever so slightly: "I observed this phenomenon. Is there a physical explanation for this based on the factors I am observing, or are my observations incomplete / insufficient to draw a conclusion?" - would that still be off topic? Because that's kind-of what was happening here... with a suspicion of "yeah, you are not seeing the whole picture". $\endgroup$ – Floris Aug 22 '14 at 3:35
  • $\begingroup$ I would still consider that off topic. Basically I think the question needs to be more specific, and demonstrate more effort (and, typically, more knowledge of physics) by the OP, than just asking if a physical explanation exists. $\endgroup$ – David Z Aug 22 '14 at 3:37
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    $\begingroup$ As Olin Lanthrop says in his answer (just posted), requiring people to know the answer when they post the question is defeating the purpose of the site. On the other hand, this OP was honest enough to say he was not a physicist, so he came to us for help... I would like to think that we welcome enquiring minds. Well - I have said my bit. $\endgroup$ – Floris Aug 22 '14 at 3:39
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    $\begingroup$ Indeed, I wouldn't expect posters to know the answers before asking the question, but I do think they should know enough to ask something better than just whether a physical explanation exists without any idea of what it might be. $\endgroup$ – David Z Aug 22 '14 at 3:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Floris please edit a (badly written) question when you think a subtle rephrasing or something like that can bring out the physics character in it! I feel that this can prevent a lot of discussions like these. Especially in you, I see the ability to turn a bad question into a great (and on-topic) one! $\endgroup$ – Danu Aug 22 '14 at 17:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Danu - I have done that from time to time. I appreciate the compliment and the encouragement to keep doing so. $\endgroup$ – Floris Aug 22 '14 at 19:24
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I agree that popularity and on-topicness are orthogonal, but in this case I think the question as asked was reasonably enough on topic. There is perhaps a valid issue due to all answers would necessarily be speculation, but that doesn't take away from the physicsness.

Technically the question is how a trick was done, which you can argue is off topic if you really want to on the grounds of speculation. However, with the minor modification of asking whether the physics of magnetism or electrostatics could be applied to create the observed effect, it would be clearly on topic. This was what the asker was asking, and what Floris answered in a excellent way.

Think of how this question would have been perceived if indeed electric or magnetic fields turned out to be plasible explanations. I doubt there would have been much objection. It seems unfair that we are closing a honest question only because the answer turned out not to require much physics. However, the asker didn't know that, this being essentially his question. Those that closed the question are basically requiring the asker to have known the answer to the question and thereby know it was off topic.

I think the question was therefore reasonable. If my answer, which didn't contain any real physics, were the only one after a couple of days or so, I could see the point in closing the question and have it eventually be automatically purged from the site. However, we ended up with a great discussion of the physics that showed how the observed phenomenon could not be the result of magnetic and electric fields. That seems just as valid to me as the same physics analisys in a different situation showing that it is possible. A negative result is still a valid and useful result. It's still good physics analisys whether the result shows something is or isn't possible.

What if the question instead showed a photograph of one of those pens being suspended in air in a special pen holder, and the question asked how that was done? I doubt anyone would feel that was off topic. Floris' answer would be almost the same, except this time the numbers would show that magnetic fields could indeed explain the observed phenomena.

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  • $\begingroup$ Spectacularly good answer. Wholeheartedly agree with you. $\endgroup$ – Floris Aug 22 '14 at 3:37
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    $\begingroup$ My only objection to this is that we vote to close questions, not answers. So an off-topic question that draws out a physics-based answer doesn't make the whole thing on-topic in my book. Whether something should stay open or not should depend solely on the content of the question and not on the answers (and really not on the comments either since those are not permanent). $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Aug 22 '14 at 3:38
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    $\begingroup$ I actually would consider that question about the pen off topic for the same reasons. We've had questions like that in the past, which I never really felt strongly enough about to unilaterally close, but I don't particularly like them for this site either. $\endgroup$ – David Z Aug 22 '14 at 3:41
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    $\begingroup$ @tpg2114 - sometimes a question becomes good because of the answer. The entirety of the discussions (question plus answers) makes this site fascinating. Recall the "mass of a coin based on its sound" question? The question was quite poor - but the back and forth in the answers made it a bit of a legend. $\endgroup$ – Floris Aug 22 '14 at 3:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Floris Bad and off-topic are two different things. There can be a well-researched, brilliantly posed question that is still off-topic. And there can be a confusing, poorly researched question that is on-topic. I agree answers can change the quality of the entire thread, but not the appropriateness... That could just be me though. $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Aug 22 '14 at 3:43
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidZ - I was always drawn to physics because I "see physics everywhere": so for me the question "how does that work" is intimately related to my experience of physics as a subject and a life long source of inspiration. The floating pen would be a favorite question for me - not one to close. Personal preference. $\endgroup$ – Floris Aug 22 '14 at 3:44
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    $\begingroup$ @tpg: I disagree that answers can't change whether the entire question and its answers aren't worth keeping on this site. In any case, asking essentially can magnetic fields explain this observed phenomenon?, is a valid question in its own right, whether the answer turns out to be yes or no. $\endgroup$ – Olin Lathrop Aug 22 '14 at 3:47
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    $\begingroup$ @Floris certainly I see your point. I agree that physics is everywhere, and there are lots of things that involve physics that one probably wouldn't consider part of the academic study of physics. But I think if we open this site up to questions about those things, it starts to turn into a general "how things work" Q&A site, and I think most people would agree with me that that's not what we want to be. So it makes sense to restrict the kinds of questions we entertain more tightly than just being about things that involve physics, or about physical explanations of things. $\endgroup$ – David Z Aug 22 '14 at 3:47
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidZ - that makes a very clear distinction, and I respect that. Thank you for clearing this up - I think we're back on the same page. $\endgroup$ – Floris Aug 22 '14 at 3:49
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    $\begingroup$ @OlinLathrop Again I think there's some conflation of "interesting" with "on-topic." There's a lot of really interesting things that get asked here that I wouldn't want to disappear into the internet void, but they just aren't a fit for this site. I think this question is one of those things. The question is interesting, the answer is interesting, but ultimately it's not on-topic for this site. But like I've said elsewhere here, this is why things take 5 votes to close and can be undone with 5 votes to open. Checks and balances. $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Aug 22 '14 at 3:50
  • $\begingroup$ i agree, plus i would like to point out, the fact that in similar discussions about how tricks work, there are actual physicists involved and not people from other scientific fields, this contributes to the on-topicness of the question in question (which is not exactly the point of this meta but tangential to it) $\endgroup$ – Nikos M. Aug 22 '14 at 12:21
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidZ, i certainly see the point in your comment. And it could be valid if the title of this site was not physics but academic physics or mainstream physics (as i have already pointed elsewhere on meta). As such under the general term "physics" and the policy you are stating, it becomes quite problematic, as it gives the impression that only academic physics (in the strict sense) is physics, which i disagree $\endgroup$ – Nikos M. Aug 22 '14 at 12:26
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    $\begingroup$ @NikosM.: This is not a "how things work" site, it's a physics concepts site. There was a proposal for Popular Science that (I think) would have gladly accepted questions of this nature; it ultimately failed to garner any support and was recently closed. $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Aug 22 '14 at 13:07
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    $\begingroup$ @NikosM.: Given that the title of the site is "Physics StackExchange," I am unsure how one could read that and think it means "How Stuff Works." There are plenty of questions that are closed for a variety of reasons. If you think any of them have been wrongly closed, present an actual argument (on Meta.Physics.SE) as to why it should be re-opened, rather than just sitting on it and whining about them being closed. $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Aug 22 '14 at 16:17
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    $\begingroup$ @KyleKanos, wow, that was harsh. It completely obliterated any argumemts and the actual topic of this discussion (on this meta post). $\endgroup$ – Nikos M. Aug 22 '14 at 16:43
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As I said in my comment, regardless of whether or not people liked the question in question, and regardless of its on-topicness, the question should still have been closed as having been primarily opinion based. A magician's illusions can be explained by physics, but first one needs to know exactly how an illusion is performed. So without the magician revealing his secrets (and I'm led to believe there's a common saying indicating they generally don't), we can only speculate what possible methods are used to enact the illusion. This means that any answers would be based on the answerer's opinion of what possible methods were used. And although very liked, questions whose answers are primarily based on opinion are not a good fit for the site and should be closed

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    $\begingroup$ Jim i will have to disagree on this (regardless of the other comments) about the question in question (and this is a topic in itself). i myself pointed this in the comments of the question in question and i myself provided a youtube link where the magician reveals the trick (contd..) $\endgroup$ – Nikos M. Aug 21 '14 at 21:34
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    $\begingroup$ (cont), apart from that, a physical explanation was requested and indeed one was given based on facts and physical reasoning, this makes it on-topic and not opinion-based (in the current use of the term) , regardless if the specific trick may be produced by other means as well $\endgroup$ – Nikos M. Aug 21 '14 at 21:36

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