In Lit.SE's activity so far, I've noticed a type of posts I think of as Conjecture Questions -- posts that define a thesis or a proposition, and their question to the site is, "can you confirm or disprove this?".
Some common forms as examples:
- Is [Character] gay?
- Was [Author] inspired by [Thing]?
- Was [Book] the first to use [Trope/Technique]?
--but conjecture questions can be pretty much anything, as long as some thesis is being proposed. For example, I think of my "Could the perpetrator in [Book] be other than what the book clearly implies?" as a conjecture question, since it offers a thesis that runs counter to a straightforward reading of the book.
The Problem With Conjecture
Conjecture is the bread and butter of literary analysis -- finding interesting readings and interpretations and connections. Literary conjecture is clearly on-topic.
However, I feel there's a problem with conjecture questions, with conjecture Q&A, as I see them on the site so far. It's something like this:
- Poor conjecture questions are extremely easy to ask. Any supposition, no matter how groundless or uninformed, can be phrased as a conjecture question. Additionally, conjecture questions can be extremely unclear is what it is that they are proposing -- for example, what is actually being requested by an "Is [Character] gay?" question?
- Poor conjecture questions can be unclear on what they're looking for, and have prompted answers explaining what the conjecture even is, or could be, or should be. This makes sense if, wanting to give a substantial answer beyond "your conjecture is wrong," the answerer needs to seek some version of the conjecture that can at least be debated.
- Poor conjecture questions make the site look amateurish. In bulk, conjecture questions that seem self-evidently groundless and uninformed, make the site look very bad - like a site for literary conspiracy theorists. Raising wild suppositions, in the hopes that someone will do something with them. Even if the poor ones get excellent "No, there is no support for this proposition," the site is still littered with posts going "Is this random idea correct?" "No.".
Poor conjecture questions are hard to tell apart from good ones. Literary analyses can turn black into white, and back again. While it is easy to say "In my opinion, your conjecture is entirely unsupported by the text," it is very difficult to say "--and nobody else can possibly draw a connection either." It's always conceivable you're missing something. This makes it difficult to vote to close or downvote a conjecture question -- what if it's a great question, what if it might get an excellent answer, and you just aren't seeing it?
And that works both ways. People can ask about conjecture that makes a lot of sense, but without explaining why -- after all, supporting or disproving the conjecture is what the answer is supposed to do. But bystanders who don't know the answer, can mistake these as being just as arbitrary and baseless as the poor type of conjecture question.
Based on the posts I've seen so far, I think this is a concern we should address. Happily, we have an excellent example in a sister site, which also had to deal with questions going "I have a theory, is it true?" -- at Skeptics.SE.
Skeptic.SE and Notability
Skeptics.SE's site intro explains:
One area that is tricky for new users who ask questions, is that we aren't that interested in spending effort researching answers to ideas that no-one actually believes. We want to confirm or disprove real claims that many people think are true. Therefore, we ask that questions address notable claims.
"Notable claims," on Skeptics.SE, means demonstrating that a claim is believed by many, and/or believed by somebody notable. (Note: this is not the method I'm proposing for us. :) )
I found this explanation extremely clear, and ringing some familiar bells:
There are several reasons for the requirement for notability.
We don't want to waste our time on claims invented by a couple of drunk guys at a bar. "My buddy reckons a tiger could beat a hippopotamus in a fight."
For that reason, we are looking for "notable" claims. Ideally, notable means believed by a significant number of people, but we also commonly use a short-cut. If you can find someone famous saying it, we assume that lots of people have heard it and a significant number believe it.
We get many questions by people who haven't understood the claim properly. They have misunderstood it - perhaps failed to see that it was satire. We like to be able to confirm the claim is being seriously made, and it is as described, so we don't spend effort writing arguments against straw men.
If we get bogged down in debates about definitions, having some context that we can use to root out what the original claimant meant by the claim can be helpful.
You can read their Notability FAQ for more details and related discussions.
I find Skeptics.SE's issues with notability to be extremely similar to our issues with unsupported conjecture. The assumption that something can be meaningfully discussed, on the grounds that somebody has asked to discuss it, can drag us towards overanalyzing trivialities -- or, just a bunch of "actually, that's pretty uninteresting" answers.
Proposal: Explain support explicitly
Skeptics.SE uses notability, but I don't think that's what we want -- people coming up with new, original suggestions is fantastic for literary discussions.
What I do want to see is explicit support. If you are offering a conjecture to be evaluated by the community, I want to understand why this conjecture should be taken seriously.
Support can be many things. It can be references from the text, or things others have said about it, or details about the author's life. I don't think we can place any limits on what might constitute support. But there needs to be something.
There's one immediate objection: If OP can support their conjecture, what do they need to ask for?
And my answer, as much as I have one, is: OP doesn't need to support that their conjecture is correct. But they should support that it's worth considering; that there's a question here with actual substance.
And this gives us a critical benefit: once support is made explicit, it becomes much easier for the community to assess. If I can tell what the conjecture is based on, I can tell whether it's a solidly-grounded conjecture. If it's based on statements by others, I can get a better sense of what they said and what they meant. If I know what the OP is keying on to, I'm much more able to address what he's actually asking about.
So that's what I would propose: Questions of conjecture, that do not explicitly offer support for their conjecture, should be closed. I would go so far as to suggest this be a site-specific close reason - something along the lines of:
Questions requesting the proof or disproof of a claim, are required to demonstrate what support for the claim is already known, or context for why the question is being asked.
Note that I am not proposing we define or limit what "support" should consist of. Insufficient support would not be cause to close a question - complete absence of support would be, or not being able to tell what OP considers the support for his question. Once we know what support OP is relying on, we can upvote or downvote intelligently.
This gives us the following clear guideline:
- No support mentioned, or is it insufficiently clear what is meant to be the support for the conjecture? Vote to close.
- Support is clearly outlined, and you think it's lousy support? On topic. Downvote, comment, complain in chat about how Lit.SE is going to the dogs.
Pros and Cons
This proposal comes with an immediate price tag: it makes it harder to write questions, and it gives the community a new guideline we need to moderate and enforce. It also puts the question of "What do you mean by 'support'? What constitutes 'good' support?" front and center, as something we need to tackle anew with practically every question of this type. This can make our site less intuitive and welcoming to newcomers, as there will be additional, non-obvious rules for them to learn.
All that being said, I suspect we're going to be paying that price anyway. My impression so far is the Conjecture Questions with no support are already met with mixed reactions -- some enthusiastic, some disapproving -- and that subsequent improvements to the question body, universally, have the OP adding context and support. In other words, it's a rule of thumb that these questions are improved by adding context/support - we're going to be suggesting people add those anyway. We're going to be dealing with these questions and these issues.
Making the requirement explicit, establishing this as community policy, will give us a solid structure to offer OPs, and make the community's guidance clearer.