I've noticed a number of occasions recently where a person makes an assumption, draws a conclusion, and then asks a very strange question. The most recent example:

I think that we need to recognize that questions like this are just bad questions. I'm not saying that all questions that feature assumptions are bad. The ones where a person explicitly asks for help in correcting false assumptions are usually quite good. I'm also not talking about weird little assumptions and errors that seem to crop up, but are tangential to the question itself. We can usually use comments to point those out.

But consider the question above. Why didn't the person ask:

Do religious people believe that you need religion to have a good moral code?

There are two possibilities:

  1. It is a loaded question, asked primarily to initiate an argument or to state a point, rather than to get an explanation.

  2. Certain assumptions lead the person to a confusing contradiction, but instead of thinking to step back and ask about the correctness of the assumptions, the person confidently asks to have the contradiction explained.

This pattern is not difficult to recognize. If you are looking for a good answer, you don't ask this type of question:

Why did you steal Joe's goldfish!? or
Where did you hide the stolen goldfish?

Instead you should ask this type of question:

Did you take Joe's goldfish? That's what I heard from Joe. Is this true?

The first type of question is just a bad question. You can't hope for productive answers by asking questions like that. I get the impression that we let questions like this slide because we hope to clear up the person's misconception. We want to say "wait! you have it all wrong! Joe's goldfish died again and he flushed it". But maybe it's best if we just close the question instead. It really was a bad question. We should expect people to pause for a moment and consider whether their assumptions, especially assumptions about other groups or teachings, are correct.

This is not about people needing to be experts before they can ask questions. You can be entirely ignorant of where the goldfish went or even what goldfish are. But there are good and bad ways to ask questions about the goldfish, and we want the good ways. Take a second to step back and consider if your assumptions might be mistaken, and then perhaps ask about them. There are no limits on the quantity of questions, but there are limits on the quality.

We touched on this issue in a much earlier meta question. What is our stance towards such questions now? Can we perhaps take a firmer stance?

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4 Answers 4

Pointing out false assumptions is a valid way to answer such questions. Example here and more recently here.

I agree that such questions are problematic, but there needs to be some balance and wisdom behind how we address individual cases.

  • As @fredsbend's post already addresses, we have our fair share of non-experts, and we can't simply expect everyone to know enough to ask good questions. We have to be willing to gently correct legitimate misunderstandings. It's an excellent opportunity to teach, and correct misconceptions.
  • On the other side of the coin, we occasionally get a new user that is simply trolling, and posting bad questions like that to "prove a point" or just to get a rise out of us. Such behavior is obviously not tolerated for long.
  • A third category is that individual that is honestly looking for answers, but refuses the help that the more experienced members try to give.

When it comes to determining the difference, it's sometimes obvious, and sometimes not. Usually the ones that are honestly confused will show that they are genuine by either accepting answers that correct their misunderstandings, or ask obviously genuine follow-up questions. Trolls just keep it up and the more we try to be patient and instructive, the worse they get.

When it comes to bad questions, particularly from new users that haven't had a chance to figure the site out yet, I still say to stick to the advice I gave here:

  • If we, who have been around the block for a while can lead by example it'll help.
  • Friendly comments to newcomers explaining the issue and pointing to the [FAQ] and FAQ questions can help as well.
  • Editing questions/answers to get them to fit the guidelines

As long as the person appears legitimately confused, and isn't obviously trolling or otherwise misbehaving, the best policy is to use the same advice we'd give a seeker in real life. Gently exhort, teach, instruct. If they then show themselves to be a troll, the response can change.

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Synopsis

We get bad questions, and we get questions that make bad assumptions. You have options to deal with bad questions, use them. You have the power to correct bad assumptions.

Bad questions

We get bad questions, and then we get questions that make bad assumptions. Bad questions should be dealt with through closure, and in particularly bad cases flagging.

Bad Assumptions

If an on topic and constructive question makes a bad assumption that does not fit the doctrinal frame they claim to represent, then it's up to the answerer to correct the assumption. This might be doable in comments, but it's preferable to just go ahead and take care of it in an answer.

If a user asks questions with assumptions meant to trap or troll

If you notice a pattern (or even a one off) of a user attempting to troll the site, or asking trap questions intentionally trying to stir up trouble, alert a mod through the flagging system immediately. Don't answer the question, don't comment, flag it, downvote it, Cast a close vote and move on.

What to do when assumptions are wrong (to you), but the OP insists they are part of his Christian doctrinal frame

If you don't share his assumptions, either answer within his assumptions or don't answer at all. We aren't here to correct bad doctrine. That's not our job. Our primary purpose here is to learn about doctrinal positions of other groups. This is an opportunity to learn how to get from point A to point B with a set of assumptions you don't share. If you're interested in the process keep an eye out, vote etc. If you're not, or you find the assumptions blasphemous, just move along.

Conclusion

There are three kinds of assumptions

  • Trolls - these are assumptions intentionally meant to cloud the issue or trap potential answerers. These are rare and should not be a first assumption.

  • Doctrinal Differences - these are assumptions that we cannot fix. If the assumption is valid in a person's frame but not yours then leave it alone or answer with that assumption in mind. This the most common assumption and should be respected and assumed first.

  • Misunderstandings of specific doctrines - these can be corrected in comments or answers. They happen from time to time, but like trolls are relatively rare.

Most of the time differing assumptions are going to be sourced at differing doctrinal perspectives. There isn't anything to correct here and the OP should be left in their bad assumptions.

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Yes, let's apply a bit more pressure to questions like this.

We can do this by leaving a comment so that others notice the issue. (I didn't even notice the problem with the question I linked above until Narnian made a comment.)

We can also do this by voting to close these questions with greater enthusiasm. Closing is not a big deal. It doesn't stop us from helping the person using comments. It doesn't stop us from re-opening if the question is fixed. But it does stop a deluge of answers (six people rushed to offer a correction before the question was closed!). And it does stop us from having to correct in our answers things that should have been much more easily corrected in the question.

Generally, I think we should prefer trying to make the person edit the question without editing it ourselves. If they can do it, then they've gained valuable experience. If they cannot, that might be because they don't yet know what they want to ask.

Ways of prompting people to ask these questions in better ways:

  • Do you actually mean to ask: "Do Christians think people need to believe in Christ before they can do anything good?" You can change this by editing your question.
  • [Describe the problem]. You might want to edit this question after reading [link] and [link].
  • Don't worry about this getting closed, that's a normal part of the site. The question became a bit too complicated to answer because it assumed that [...]. You should ask to check if that's even true!

Of course, this isn't a free pass to close any question where a person is confused or mistaken. Questions like this have a pretty recognizable form. If it seems like the answer could begin with a happy "actually, you might be surprised to learn that..." then it's almost certainly a fair question. The questions that lay out their assumptions as background and express uncertainty are often the best ones.

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ok. maybe. I am tending a bit more towards you point of view now. I think the sample suggestions for comments are quite good. I would like to see more of that in comments. I must admit that the question that sparked all this fooled me. He seemed quite genuine to me, but quickly turned argumentative. I like your distinction in the last paragraph. maybe another meta post "how to spot a troll question before the troll shows himself" to expand on that. –  fredsbend the Grinch Feb 27 '13 at 6:33

You can't tell someone ignorant of Christianity that they better study Christianity first before they ask questions here.

That makes the site self serving and does nothing for people stopping by. If we did that the only people coming in to read content would likely be Christians who already have a high knowledge on the topic. Then they would only be lead to ask more self serving questions like "What do Oneness Pentecostals think about ..." which is a real question here without an answer because it is really lame, although on topic. Even us wannbe theologians aren't interested in it.

Not trying to offend, but I think you think that Christianity fits in a neat little box, or at least it should. There are nearly 2 billion Christians and at least 1 billion opinions I would say. After that there are 4 billion who know nothing about it and half of them think they do. Thus a question like the one you quote.

"Why do you beat your wife?"

Whether you are or aren't there are real people asking that question and they deserve an answer. Perhaps I agree that we should edit the questions to say "Is it true that you beat your wife?" if it does not already exist, but that has happened to me already and I did not like it. Perhaps the ever more prevalent disclaimer is needed. "Why do you beat your wife (Assume you do)?"

On your comments:


You say: The first type of question is just a bad question. You can't hope for productive answers by asking questions like that.

The community says: 5 questions with upvotes, one with 6, and 0 on the question (1 now cuz I just upvoted). It seems the community thinks it can be answered and well at least once.


You say: It is a loaded question, asked to incite argument rather than to get an explanation.

I say: The question starts with 'Just curious' and gives the feeling that he really believes that Christians believe this in general.

The community says: Only a few comments making the same objects you are making and a few others stating that the assumption is mostly false. The OP replies 'then say so in the answers like some have done very well.'


You say: The question is based on unexamined assumptions, which should have been examined.

I say: My whole post above.


You imply: That "Do Christians believe that you need to have read the Bible before you can do any good in the world?" is the same as "Why do religious people find it hard to accept that you don't need religion to have a good moral code?"

I say: Nuh, uh. Your's forces the asker into your box of Christianity which, imo, yields a very boring and predictable answer. The original is derived from an actual concept that many non-Christians think Christians hold.


On the other meta you link to and I think makes a good summary: Wax Eagle says it great. "I'm going to move along on questions that are outside of the purview of what I consider to be the truth." You should do the same. Especially if the question is framed with "assume this" as some of mine have been that you have objected to.

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Ok. After all that I need to put at least half a foot in my mouth. Here and here he seems much less inquisitive and much more argumentative. He may be asking questions only to prove a point. –  fredsbend the Grinch Feb 26 '13 at 21:05
    
Which sucks because I think they are legitimate questions that deserve answers but we are probably going to close them now because of his attitude. –  fredsbend the Grinch Feb 26 '13 at 21:26
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We're not here to teach people about Christianity. I know that may seem odd, but we're intended as an expert Q&A site, not a novice intro. We should expect a minimum level of research. Someone who doesn't know what langauge they are coding in probably shouldn't ask a question on SO, similar standard applies here. –  wax eagle Feb 27 '13 at 17:00
    
Please don't use upvotes as a metric for question quality. They are poor indicator. –  wax eagle Feb 27 '13 at 17:02
    
And I really kinda of feel like you're taking my quote out of context. It supports opposition to this answer, but it's not really meant in the way you're taking it. For one thing, it's my stance, not site policy, and it's kind of used rudely here. It's a suggestion, not a club. –  wax eagle Feb 27 '13 at 17:16

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