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Recently a question was asked that followed this pattern:

  • "Factual" assertion (not specific to Christianity, but sets the context for the questions that follow)
  • Set of "Doctrinal" questions, based on the "factual" assertion

This is great, it's a good, focussed question and I responded with what I hoped was a fairly good, supported answer. My answer followed this pattern:

  • Challenge the "factual" assertion, supported by a range of non doctrine (even non Christianity) specific resources. Respected, "factual" resources, but not specific to the doctrine that was being asked about. Because some of the questions that followed were partially based on this assertion, some of these resources went some way to answering the questions before we even got onto the doctrinal bit.
  • Answer the doctrinal questions, citing a resource specific to the doctrine being asked about.

The original poster responded in comments, saying that they particularly found the first bit of my answer (challenging their "factual" assertion, citing supporting resources of course) useful. But then another user commented, saying they were concerned that I had used resources that weren't specific to the doctrine being asked about in my answer (and that therefore my answer couldn't be regarded as purely explaining the point of view of this particular doctrine).

I responded, trying to explain that I cited the opinion of experts on the "factual" matter to address that part of the question and experts on the doctrine to answer the doctrine-specific questions, but it appears the user commenting still isn't happy that I used anything other than doctrine specific resources to support my answer.

I'd therefore like to bring the matter here to get some input from the whole community about what should happen in cases like this.

  • Should questions that ask about a specific doctrine only be answered with supporting resources that originate from proponents of that doctrine?
  • If a question makes a questionable assertion of fact before asking a doctrine-specific question, is it acceptable to use non-doctrine-specific resources to challenge that factual assertion?
  • If the original poster finds part of an answer useful, is that sufficient justification for its inclusion (regardless what other users think about it)?
  • I only now noticed this discussion. I have to apologize for the original form of the question, which was very science-focused while the community considers science off-topic. – dancek Nov 11 '11 at 14:34
  • @dancek I don't think you should apologise (per my answer below). Science alone is off topic but not in a "don't touch it with a bargepole" sense. I don't think you asked anything outside the context that's appropriate for C.SE. – Waggers Nov 11 '11 at 15:13
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The original question did ask about the factual nature of the issue, so answering to that would've been correct had it stayed that way.

However, questions about science aren't on-topic here because our site's expertise isn't in virology (or any type of science), it's in answering questions about Christianity itself: i.e. questions about doctrine.

Because of that, we need to be extra careful when it comes to questions that try to ask about the science behind an issue. We're not here to debate matters of science: that's what Skeptics.SE or the other scientific sites and proposals are for. If someone wants to know the scientific origin for viruses, they ought to help get the Biology Proposal launched.

Thus, the question was substantially revised to ensure it wasn't about the scientific or factual issue and that it was specifically about the doctrinal question: "What is the origin of viruses according to Young Earth Creationists?" not "What are your thoughts about how viruses were created and do you think viruses are good?"

In the context of that question, there is no place to "challenge the factual assertion" or unsourced thoughts about viruses. They're irrelevant to answering the question: the only thing that matters is the belief of Young Earth Creationists. If one answered "Young Earth Creationists believe a turtle created viruses to combat Megazord" it'd be correct as long as the answer demonstrably shown that Young Earth Creationists, in fact, actually believe that.

That is, there's a difference between the asker finding an answer "very interesting" and an answer actually answering the question. An answer can be really interesting but still fail to answer a question adequately.

The purpose of Stack Exchange is to provide a corpus of questions and answers so that it can help people who have the same question in the future. In many ways, it doesn't really matter what the asker thinks is interesting or not: the goal is to create a question and answer pair that goes beyond the people who wrote them.

To wit, a question that's asking for information about what a group believes is answered if:

  1. The answer states what the group believes
  2. The answer backs it up with sources that show the group actually believes it

These are not unreasonable or onerous conditions: if a group believes something, it has to be documented somewhere. Did a prominent Young Earth Creationist say something about the issue? Is there a manifesto or a prominent resource for Young Earth Creationism?

If the question is unanswerable without disproving or clarifying the factual assumption of the question, that's what comments are for: to get the question improved so it can be answered within the scope of Christianity.SE.

  • Yeah, I don't get YEC questions as a set of doctrine on par with Catholicism. It's confusing mainly because Catholics are (as far as I can tell) free to believe in a literal interpretation of Genesis. There are only certain points we need to take literally (the world being about 5000 years old is not one of them). – Peter Turner Nov 2 '11 at 17:48
  • @PeterTurner I don't think every question needs to be answered with a canonical source like one might have to do for questions about Catholicism, but if a belief is associated with a group/belief like YEC, someone notable somewhere must've said it, whether that person is Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, or otherwise. – user72 Nov 2 '11 at 17:59
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I think Mark has the right idea here. It's true that the original question had an apparently incorrect factual assertion, however in this particular case, that assertion wasn't really a premise of the question (although it certainly appeared to be, by the original wording).

Had the factually incorrect portion been an actual premise (and not just an aside), then I think it might be appropriate to answer the question by pointing out the false premise (and/or down-voting the question and/or comment on the question).

Since in this case the false assertion was just an aside, I think the appropriate thing to do is to comment on the question pointing out the failure of the assertion, then provide an answer to the doctrinal question.

Having said all this, I think it would have been incredibly easy for me to fall into the same "trap" you did, and see the false assertion as a false premise, and "answer" that.

  • But I didn't "answer" (just) the false premise; I answered both. If we want to encourage new users to use the site, particularly expert users, requiring them to split their response across a comment and an answer seems a bit too strict. As long as the main question is answered, surely that's enough? – Waggers Nov 3 '11 at 9:21
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Christianity is not a stand-alone, abstract subject. Sure, there are some questions that are "pure" Christianity questions and can receive "pure" Christianity answers. But like it or not, Christianity does overlap with a wide range of other subjects, including science, history, archaeology, geography, sociology, medicine, politics,.... in fact, because Christians believe that our faith is the most fundamentally important thing of all, it would be almost impossible to find a subject that aspects of Christianity do not overlap with.

Of course that does not make explicit questions about those other subjects on topic here. But there are some areas of Christianity for which answers will need to draw on sources outside the spheres of written Christian doctrine, biblical exegesis, and Christianity-focussed facts.

The question I referred to above isn't the only example of questions that have been posted on C.SE for which the most up-voted answer used medical facts and medical research as part of the supporting evidence - this question, which was migrated to BH.SE, is another good example. (Note that the top two answers were both posted BEFORE that migration). Of course the BH.SE has slightly different rules from C.SE but the point remains - the question is on topic and the answer used knowledge from outside of theology and hermeneutics to address it.

The important things in both cases are:

  • the questions are on topic. In the virology case it's asking for a doctrinal perspective, and in the hematidrosis case it's referencing a particular verse and requesting a factual interpretation.
  • the answers address what's written in the questions. In the hematidrosis case the medical reference is all that's required; in the virology case the medical bit frames the context which helps to explain the doctrinal position, and the answer goes on to cite a resource from that particular doctrine
  • The answers provide supporting references

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