Recently we had a question that was closed, and two reasons for closing it were cited. One of the reasons was that it was a "list question" and therefore not a real question or not constructive.

I'm still on the fence about whether it should be closed or not. (As of this time it's been reopened with a vote to close).

  • On the one hand, I can see why list questions can be problematic. Especially if the list can be huge, or not definitive.
  • On the other hand, if we use the concept of legal precedence, list questions have been allowed to stand throughout this site's history.

What surprised me is that we don't have a definitive Meta post or FAQ statement that handled this type of question. Having one would have avoided some debate in comments and in chat.

So, for future reference, I'm posting the question here: What is our policy for handling list questions?

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Can you clarify whether you mean "list of denomination" questions, or list questions in general? This is an issue unique to our site. The difference is important because we know that the list of denominations really is both huge and not definitive. –  Alypius Mar 4 '13 at 20:44
    
List questions, in general. –  David Stratton Mar 5 '13 at 1:58

3 Answers 3

up vote 2 down vote accepted

To quote Shog9:

["List question" is] not a definition, a condemnation, or even really a classification.

It's... Shorthand. For straw-polls, GTKYs, discussion threads and the like. Questions that are geared toward creating responses, not answers...

That's a bit abstract, so let's get concrete with a recent example: Which are some of the Non Trinitarian sects in Christianity . This is a perfectly objective question (though there's tons of variation on what counts as belief in the Trinity), so that's not the problem. But Wikipedia already has a great article on the subject. So you gotta ask, why was this question asked?

In contrast, of the 5 open questions that include the phrase "which denominations", 3 point out that searching around produced no useful results:

  1. Which denominations are considered mainstream in the UK?

    This question is asking if an official list exists, not the denominations themselves.

  2. Which denominations use the King James Version?

    Google didn't help because the King-James-only movement is cross-denominational. I like questions like this because they start with a basic misunderstanding that good answers can correct.

  3. Which denominations hold the quartodecimanist interpretation of John 19?

    This is my question and the answer seems to be none. Again, the question is based on my own misunderstanding of the issue, which is why my search turned up nothing in particular.

The other two probably ought to be closed:

  1. In which denominations is naturism unacceptable?

    This is an early question on the site and has several problems. First, it invites pontification on the question of whether going nude is a sin and second, it's really a "refute-this" in disguise. It sets up a strawman ("those who live in nudist colonies are not Christians") and invites answers to knock it over.

    To be clear, this is very much an edge case. I think it would be hard to determine who actually believes that going nude is a sin compared to who just thinks it's a bad idea or something Christians ought not to do. The problem is less that it asks for a list of denominations and more that it seeks responses.

  2. What traditions believe that a woman's relationship with God must go through some man and how do they support it from the Bible?

    I think the first half of the question isn't constructive, but the second half has some merit. Finding out why people believe that men are mediators between women and God ought to be the primary thrust of the question. If some denominations teach this and which ones, ought to be secondary.


But, I repent of using the phrase "list question". To pick up the Shog9 quote:

So if you need a quick reference for which questions should and should not be encouraged, or if you need to explain to someone why their question is being closed as "Not Constructive", linking to the FAQ is preferable to using the term "list question" as a pejorative, since it can also be applied to questions where the answer happens to be a list and questions that simply happen to have multiple (finite, objective) correct answers.

It's a bad habit and I really need to break it.

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I think I'm starting to see something here... From the FAQ, we have "every answer is equally valid: “What’s your favorite ______?” In the question that sparked this, one answer was given with a valid (after editing) list, but someone else could just have easily added another equally valid list with Christian denominations, so it would have been covered in that part of the FAQ. The fact that it was a "list question" simply is a red flag that it probably violates the FAQ in some way. As Shog9 says, it's more a discussion, not usually useful, etc. Does that sound right? –  David Stratton Mar 5 '13 at 12:12
    
@David Stratton: Precisely. Except in the case of the non-Trinitarian denominations, the best answer would be to list all such denominations, which Wikipedia does already. Qualifying it with "some" leaves it up to the answerer to pick and choose. –  Jon Ericson Mar 5 '13 at 17:18
    
@JonEricson All such denominations cannot be listed. Wikipedia has certain standards of "notability" allowing them to cut the list short, but we don't. Or are you saying that we should adopt those standards? –  Alypius Mar 5 '13 at 17:42
    
@Alypius: Well, that has been suggested. My argument is that if we are trying to duplicate the Wikipedia rules, we are doing something wrong. I know the OP didn't like the way the article was written, but that's tough. We need to focus on the sorts of questions that we can do a clearly better job answering. –  Jon Ericson Mar 5 '13 at 17:51
    
@JonEricson Just to confirm that we're on the same page about the implications of this answer: you do believe that all denominations can be listed? (If so then I'll probably end up asking "What is our list of denominations?", since I'm in the dark about how to compose such a list, as you might tell from my answer.) –  Alypius Mar 5 '13 at 18:05
    
@Alypius: I don't think it's possible to list all the variations of non-Trinitarian theology. Some might argue that christomonists are not Trinitarian. It's not really a useful category though Wikipedia makes a heroic effort to make it useful. I really wish I'd focused on those aspects of the question, rather than using the unhelpful designation "list question". :( –  Jon Ericson Mar 5 '13 at 19:31

I would say that a list question is only on-topic if it is clearly identifiable as having a clear answer (e.g. see the recent question What are the Twelve Tribes of Israel?) and the list is not going to grow in the future.

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I did some searching on other StackExchange sites, and found some policies that I think would suit us as well.

From the Sci Fi stack exchange meta site:

I see these as falling into two categories:

  • A definitive answer exists If there's a Wikipedia page that answers the question, then I think there's something that can be declared a definitive answer. In that case, it falls into the question Are Google-able questions appropriate?.

  • No definitive answer exists It's a poll, and as such, should be community wiki. Per Real Questions Have Answers, these should be closed.

We don't have the "google-able questions" guideline, so I would propose that we simply rely on one of our existing guidelines: "Is the question definitively answerable?".

This is consistent with many of our other guidelines, and agrees with the "real questions have answers" guideline for all Stack Exchange sites.

If we follow this guideline, it should be possible for providing constructive advice for getting the questions re-opened.

For example:

  • "Can you list all of the important denominations that teach X?" is problematic because the definition of "important" is subjective.
  • This can be re-phrased as "Can you list some denominations that teach X?", which is definitively answerable.

That said, the question should also be compared to existing standards:

  • If an equally valid, but completely valid/accurate list can be posted as a valid answer, this mat violate the "all answers are equally valid" issue covered in the FAQ.
  • It may violate the "there is no actual problem to be solved: “I’m curious if other people feel like I do.”" already covered in the FAQ.

In other words, list questions aren't bad in and of themselves, but the fact that a question asks for a list is like a "code smell"... Or a red flag, indicating that some other problem exists that makes it a bad fit for a Stack Exchange site.

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