Another in my aperiodic, quixotic rants intended to improve the quality of H:SE posts.

I've seen a few questions on meta that resemble "why did I get a downvote?". It struck me that I can't be the only person who has a set of pet peeves that will trigger a downvote. If we explicitly list those characteristics of a question that cause our mouse to lunge for the downvote arrow, perhaps we'll reach a stronger consensus on the site we want, and some guidelines to improve questions. I'd like to reach a state where instead of hitting downvote, I can enter a comment that effectively says, "This question is like bullet #x; if you could alter it to be in line with the recommendations for bullet #x, it is more likely to get upvotes and answers, and to cause warm and happy feelings in the cockles of the moderator's hearts.

Let me explicitly note that I do not intend to disrespect anyone in the examples I've chosen below. I'm trying to illustrate a point. While each of the examples has tempted me to hit the downvote button with vigor (and possibly repeatedly), some of them are actually fine questions that I've praised elsewhere. I am critizing a feature of the question, not the value of the querent.

Please add your own pet peeves; I'll mark this community wiki. Yes, I know that this question violates my own #2. As I said, some questions tempt the downvote, but are actually fine.

Disclaimer; yes, I've said some of this before. It isn't my intent to be repetitive; I'm striving to get to a place where I'm tempted to upvote more often than I'm tempted to downvote. I hope that by changing the format of the material slightly, we can create something that will cultivate a stronger, more interesting H:SE

I've asked a handful of questions and honestly I find a lot of the reactions to them a bit arbitrary and unevenly distributed. Either the rules aren't clear, or when moderation makes a decision it's so subjective that it's hard to gauge one's own question. IMO, that's a sign that moderation is too restrictive. Maybe that's the site you want .. but if it is, I don't have the slightest clue how to word a question that meets all of the necessary criteria. – Canadian Coder May 22 '15 at 18:18

12 Answers 12

Why didn't the world community bake me a birthday cake? (or stop Mugabe, or Bush, or Chavez, or whoever)?

Example 1, Example 2

Many questions include an implicit assumption of agency that is fallacious. There is no world community - at least not a world community with an executive and a club that can be used to punish people or to bake birthday cakes. If you ask a question of the form "Why didn't X do Y?" then doublecheck to make sure that X is a real actor. Doublecheck that X has the power to do Y.

What is the consensus of historians on... (this picture of my goldfish)?

If there is in fact a secret cabal of historians that dictates opinions on history, nobody has informed me of it. This isn't actually a question, this is an invitation to debate, and not appropriate for H:SE.

How many...

Stop; don't go any further unless you think it through.. Example 1, Example 2, Example 3.

If your question begins "How many....", you're probably asking for a list, and you shouldn't ask that here. There are exceptions - "How many years did the 1812 war last?", or "How many patents did G. W. Carver have?.

Double check that you're asking for a "closed answer" - an answer, not a list. Then see if there is a way to rephrase the question so that it is really what you want. Sometimes this question is phrased as "What were the ... names of people on the Titanic?"

When did you stop beating your wife? (e.g. What is the timeframe for adam and eve?)

There are two problems with these questions. First, the timeframe isn't mentioned. If you're asking about behavior X in Roman History, the answer is generally meaningless unless you specify what period of Roman History. "What is the role of a censor in Roman government?" Depends on whether we're talking empire, republic, late empire, or June 7, 45 BCE. "Who is the Secretary of State?" Depends on which administration, and which year.

The other problem is questions that rely on assumptions - like the assumption that I beat my wife, or that I'm married. Example 1, Example 2.

Before you ask the question, first, specify a time period, and if possible an event. It is much easier to provide a comprehensive answer if you specify an event; we can research teh causes and effects of that event and discuss them intelligently. Second, doublecheck that the majority of the people accept all the assumptions. Sometimes this will cause me to eat crow; there are questions where the assumptions aren't obvious. But it is worth your while to take a moment to make sure that all the terms in your question are meaningful to the audience.

Can you evaluate the impact of Sujarkama's theory of mesonic exchange entitlements on the gross national product of the Jawethi province of Kronos under Reaganomics?

If you ask a question which relies on obscure details, without citing those details I will downvote you. If you ask a question that relies on obscure details and you cite those details, providing me the opportunity to learn something new, I will upvote you and cause fuzzy unicorns to bring you waffles.

The point of H:SE isn't to demonstrate your intellectual power & puissance; it is to get an answer to a question. If you can't be bothered to cite your sources, then there is a gravitational force drawing my mouse to the downvote button.

I've upvoted because I agree, but what this answer really needs is formatting. Right now it's almost a wall of text that's a load to read. – American Luke Jul 5 '13 at 18:27
True and helpful. I'll work on it, but I'll also accept any edit you offer. – Mark C. Wallace Jul 5 '13 at 18:30
I'm editing it now, but you'll have to add the links for your examples once I'm done (something went wrong when you posted this, there are no links at all). – Yannis Jul 5 '13 at 18:41
@Luke The edits are nearly simultaneous, I never saw your edit. – Yannis Jul 5 '13 at 18:54
Found the links to the examples... They were hiding in the question. O_o (verify that their order is correct, please) – Yannis Jul 5 '13 at 18:54
+1 for about 1/2 of this. -1 for the last bullet. "General Reference" is a recipe for disaster, and after much agnst was rightflly purged from SFF.SE. I'm not even remotely anxious to see it reinstated here, with its attendant discussions of a fully subjective "this is obvious to me" / "this is not obvious to me" – DVK Jul 8 '13 at 16:38
Not sure I understand - I believe we should downvote any question that is general reference/trivium. Are you arguing the opposite? – Mark C. Wallace Jul 8 '13 at 16:44
@DVK You are confusing closure with downvotes. "General Reference" is (was?) a close reason, this discussion is about downvotes. Downvotes are an entirely different beast. – Yannis Jul 9 '13 at 20:05
@YannisRizos - unless "Who is buried in Grant's Tomb" is a separate page on Wikipedia, I find the reason to opposed DV for it the same as the reason to oppose VTC. Being "found in a google search" on a resource that isn't universally known to be a reliable reference is not a good enough standard IMHO. – DVK Jul 9 '13 at 20:33
@DVK unless "Who is buried in Grant's Tomb" is a separate page on Wikipedia -'s_Tomb – Yannis Jul 9 '13 at 21:20
@YannisRizos - I was making a generic point :) But yes, in the case of Grant's Tomb, the answer would be "too trivial, downvote for lack of research" due to that page's existence. What gets my goat is "oh, the answer is a 3rd result in google search, on some obscure blog. You didn't do enough research". – DVK Jul 9 '13 at 21:24
@DVK Well, ok, but... how's that relevant to this Meta answer? Why are we even talking about this? There are specific examples in the answer, no reason at all to derail the discussion with vague general points. – Yannis Jul 9 '13 at 21:36

I wonder if anyone can prove I'm wrong?

"I'm wondering if, contrary to what has been accepted as History, perhaps X was the result of Z, not Y, as History has reported. Can anyone prove I'm wrong?"

A good question along such lines should be supported by a well substantiated hypothesis, not simply "I think maybe...". Such a question is virtually impossible to answer satisfactorily - generally speaking, you can't really disprove idle speculation, or a 'negative'. Such discussions are fruitless and end up going in circles.

I think it's appropriate to close such questions.


Provide references for every entity in your question.

If you ask a question about things, but don't provide references to those things or any evidence that the things exist, then you're asking an undefined question about mythological entities. "Why didn't King Arthur's servant's play Pokemon?" is the summary of this type of question.

This is a common problem on SE; SE has a legitimate expectation that you've done preliminary research before asking the question. Show that research. If you're asking about Pokemon, or Obelisks, or Soviet Watches, then show me the references. When I'm checking the references, I may spot the connections that eluded you, or I may be able to spot the reason why there is no connection. If you're asking about your thesis concerning Roman syncretism, then provide some evidence of that syncretism. Even if we all accept that the Romans were syncretic, providing the research helps focus the answers on historiography rather than hermeneutics

If you must

Before you post a question, make sure that you've provided sources for each of the assertions you make. Commenters should (politely) ask OP to provide sources/citations/evidence for questionable assumptions/assertions. Questions that cite absolutely no research should be scrutinized with an eye to improvement. We should quickly close questions that rely on pokemon.



It is common knowledge that .... knowledge isn't common

If you begin your question with an appeal to common knowledge, even if you phrase it as "it is clear" or some other phrase, you've lost credibility. Far too much of "common knowledge" is actually farce, propaganda, myth, fallacy or outright manipulation. If in fact the fact you reference is common knowledge, then it should be trivial to find a citation or reference to that common knowledge. Once you've done that, you've earned the credibility that will cause me to read the rest of the question.

Here is someone who earns my admiration by explicitly questioning common knowledge.

I've pulled this out and rewritten it somewhat to address the issues that @DVK raised concerning common knowledge & general reference. – Mark C. Wallace Jul 9 '13 at 12:31


Be very careful, you're entering dangerous ground. It is fairly difficult ask a "why" question that is a good fit for SE. "Why..." questions tend to be those that require a book to answer. They also tend to generate lots of discussion and comments, which reduce the value of SE.

If you must

If you must ask a "Why" question, please check that:

  1. There is an answer - you can imagine a clear, concise, unambiguous answer. Perhaps even state in your question how you will select an answer.
  2. Your assumptions are explicitly documented
  3. There is evidence in your question that you have done the prior research.


(please feel free to add additional examples below)

  • Why is national identity important? We (IMHO correctly) closed this question as off topic.
  • Why are so many African Nations poor? I think that if you stacked up all the books and articles written on this topic, they'd have published new ones before you finished the stack. This is a huge question! more than books, entire careers have been based on thsi
    question. This is a ** very poor** fit for SE.
  • Why is Dravidian History ignored - again, this is a book length topic, and based on a subjective opinion (that Dravidian history is ignored). It may be true that Dravidian history is igored, but there is no evidence that OP did any research beyond personal opinion.
  • Why was the US unable to win in Korea - Many books have been written to answer this question; I'm not sure that H:SE is a good venue for a real answer.
+1 for a super-excellent "If you must" section. The first pullet point (or even all) should be generalized into a separate META posting, IMHO – DVK Aug 30 '13 at 11:14
However, I disagree with some of your examples. The Korea one can be answered well by giving a concise summary of existing research (reason 1, sources; reason2: sources...) – DVK Aug 30 '13 at 11:15
Thanks - I want to revise all these into this format, with an emphasis on the "if you must"; my prior answers were more critical than constructive. I'm pondering your point on Korea; I have to think more about it. – Mark C. Wallace Aug 30 '13 at 12:24
I was wondering if asking for the consensus of historians about X, if we're allowed to ask top 2/3 contending opinions of historians about X? That is kind of subjective, but still in most cases, there would be a definitive answer (ignoring the order). The 'correct' answer would be summarizing the top 2/3 contending theories, with relative merits and demerits. One example that comes to my mind is: I remember reading that there's some contention about under what legitimate role did Augustus rule in <some year around 30 BC>. – taninamdar May 27 at 16:34
First glance, I think that is a good question. I would find the answers interesting. I think you should develop it into a new answer. – Mark C. Wallace May 27 at 16:37

Questions with no clear focus

Is this question about capitalism? Poverty? Racism? Some of the confusion arises because the community has made a heroic effort to rescue this question, but the question was somewhat muddled at the beginning. If your title doesn't match the content of the question, I will downvote. If the final question in the text doesn't match the title, I will downvote. Before you hit submit on your question, ask yourself three things (1) Does the title match the question? (2) Does the final line of text match the title? (3) Does the question contain topics that are potentially interesting, but are not relevant to this question? To be fair, it is deucedly hard to proofread our own work, but vague unfocused questions deserve a downvote.


What evidence is there that the historical individual that I'm thinking of fits a historical theory that I read one time.?

If the question relies on information that is only available to the OP, then the question shows no research effort, and I would argue is a bad fit for the site. I'm going to downvote because it is an insult to the community. Questions like this one are very likely to be consider for closure as "I'm not sure what you're asking."

If you must ask such a question.....

The great tragedy is that these questions are, in my opinion, simple to transform into valuable questions. Provide your source. If you're asking about a historical figure, provide a link to that historical figure. Not only do you vastly increase the value of the site as a reference source and learning aid, but you may disambiguate the question. There are many historical figures who are known by different names, and many that share the same name. If you're wondering about some historical theory, then provide a link to that theory. If you provide me a link to an interesting historical theory that I've never heard of, then I'll upvote your question, praise you publicly and instruct the network of telepathic goldfish to send good vibrations your way. But more importantly, if you include the relevant details in your question, you increase your chances of getting a good answer.


Jesus in India - My objection is not about religion; my object is that the question asks for evidence about a theory that (as far as we know) is only in OP's mind. "What evidence is there that Jesus visited Schenetady N.Y.? What evidence is there that Mithradates visited London?"

@Vector did some research and found what plausibly was the source that OP was thinking of, and I think that @Vector deserves multiple upvotes for rescuing the question and for research an answer. But since OP chose to ask the question as a guessing game, we don't know if that is the source, or if the OP received telepathic messages from a nearby goldfish.


This question (singer and applause) is different; @Voitcus admits that memory is the issue, and even provides some details of the research that he's done. There is even a hypothesis that we're invited (implicitly) to help prove/disprove.

Or look at The Eastern Question; @JFW takes the time to offer definitions of the terms used in the question and the context. I learned something just reading the question, which is kind of cool.


If you doubt the existing narrative, the burden is on you.

e.g. I read on Wikipedia that the Pryce baronets went extinct with the seventh baronet. Is that true?

First, thank you for having done at least some preliminary research. I appreciate that you've made an effort. That said, unless you have a reason to doubt the fact in question, why are you asking? Do you have a reason to believe that there was an eighth Pryce baronet? Are you confused about how a baronetage (or any other title) go extinct? Do you doubt the existence of the Pryce baronetage at all?

Some of those questions are valid. But if your question is just "I read X, is it true?" then you're wasting your own time, let alone mine. There are a huge number of assertions on wikipedia; we could fill up the H:SE question queue with questions about whether any given assertion is true. H:SE would wind up being a copy of Wikipedia. If your only question is whether an arbitrary assertion on wikipedia is true, then I'm going to downvote your question. If I'm having a bad day, I'm going to downvote your question, then answer it by citing the wikipedia page.

How to fix the problem

If you have a reference to a ninth baronet Pryce and you need to reconcile the statement in Wikipedia with evidence you have elsewhere then include in the question references to both bits of evidence (the Wikipedia page and whatever other evidence you have).

If you don't understand how a baronetage can go extinct, then your question isn't "is that true?", your real question is "how does a baronetage go extinct?" or "How does inheritance of a baronet work?" (that's actually a rather good question).

If you doubt the existence of the Pryce baronetage because all English titles are the invention of our reptilian overlords, then I need to know that so I can cast a close vote rather than a downvote.

If you don't understand what a baronetage is, then I suggest you do a couple of google searches before you answer, and incorporate that research into your answer.

If the assertion in Wikipedia sounds implausible to you, then I'd do a bit more research and make it explicit.

"Wikipedia says that George W. Bush and Sylvester Stallone are the same person; after all they were born on the same day, and they are both white males, given all that evidence, how can you tell the difference between them? I've done some research and I cannot find any photographs that contains both of them, but the underlying claim sounds a bit suspicious to me."

The nice thing about phrasing the question that way is that we can answer it if we can find a single photograph showing both of them, or some other irrefutable evidence that they are different people.

Questions that involve more research are less likely to get downvotes than questions that involve little or no research.


Someone once said . . . .

Or I have heard...

I will downvote any question that includes this phrase. There are two problems with this question, and I'll wish for the ability to downvote twice.

First, cite your source. It makes a big difference if the "someone" who once said is a 3rd century monk, a member of the Nazi party in 1938, Paul Krugman, or Noam Chomsky. They all have different biases; they are reliable for different classes of fact. If you don't identify the source, then we're both playing darts in the dark, potentially in an open field.

Here is a good example of a question where who said it is probably more important than what was said.

The second problem is that you have some facts; you are denying us those facts. You know who said what, but you're not supplying this information. That means you're asking me to start my research by repeating what you've already done. You're asking me to play a game where you know the rules and I don't. You may not mean to be offensive, you may have the best intentions in the world. But you're playing headgames and we're not married. You've started your question with a signal that you are not honest; am I really motivated to do research on your behalf? Do I really want to spend my time to research and write an answer only to have you say, "no, I meant someone else..."

This question is also frequently the same as the example given in the FAQ of a question NOT to ask. "your question is just a rant in disguise: “__ sucks, am I right?”. If you're looking for people to confirm your opinion, H:SE is the wrong place.

The Fix

This is simple to fix. Merely state who said what. Provide a citation if you can. Give us the clues so that we can start the research to find the answer you're really looking for.

"Disraeli said that ancient Greeks had no word for 'blue'; what color did they think the sky was?" Still tough to answer, but there is at least a starting point for research. (A good question would have cited Disraeli's claim.)


Questions that fail the "preliminary research" test

Some questions seem to have come out of a beer and pretzels' discussion with no research. I will downvote questions that indicate OP did no research. If I have time and expertise, I'll also edit the question to improve it, and when it crosses the boundary I'll remove my downvote.

How to avoid the downvote

  1. Google your question. Take a look at the top five results. If your answer is there, then your question would probably have been closed as trivial.
  2. Search H:SE. Apparently every month or so someone is compelled to ask a trivial variation about either why the US bombed Japan, or why Africa is poor; these questions are the rickroll of H:SE. If you've got a new variation of the question or something new to ask, then explicitly cite the previous question to show that you are aware that the question has been asked before, and make it clear how your question is different. If you ask a longwinded question that appears to be a duplicate of one of these two, I'm going to downvote. I probably should feel guilty about this, but to be honest, I don't.
  3. Re-read your question. Are there any terms in your question that would not be familiar to your average sixth grader? To your mother- in-law?If so, search wikipedia and include a link to the term. Yes, I'm aware that many of you loathe wikipedia with a passion that rivals a divorce settlement or the thirty years war. If you fall into that group, then provide a citation to some other source, but make it a source that someone can check. The goal in this step is to provide references to clarify your question if it isn't quite as clear in text as it is in your mind. If you think wikipedia falls short of the goal, then clarify the outstanding issues in your question. Wikipedia is our crack cocaine - it may be horrible for our health, but the first hit is free, and it just make get one of us hooked on the subject.
  4. Just as a courtesy, if you mention any people, link to that person's page on wikipedia. If you link to a country, a polticial party or any other similar group, link to their page.
  5. Re-read your question again. Have you established that you're asking about something real? Just to pick a random example, does your question assume that the Donation of Constantine is a genuine document? If your question relies on false premises, it is unlikely to result in a good question.

I believe that failure to do preliminary research is one of the reasons why our close question rate is trending in a suboptimal direction..

This is also a place where we can make one another excellent. Edit the question, include the references. Provide that gateway drug to new and interesting areas of historical research. Identify assumptiosn that need clarification in (courteous and professional) comments.


Where did Henry Brown live? - I have no evidence that Henry Brown wrote slave codes. As one of the commenters pointed out it is a bit unusual for a single person to write legislation, and if it happens, it tends to be well documented in the record.

Why did Stalin cultivate a child friendly image? There is no evidence that Stalin cultivated a child friendly image. Did he invest a great deal of resources, or did he just kiss babies? Was he friendly to all children?


Is this true that...

Questions that guide answers to only two possible options ("yes" or "no") should be avoided.

A question like this usually does not show even a minimal effort of its poster and will not provide no information for the people who will read the question and who will read answers.

As history is not technical science, we do not expect boolean logic here. The answer should provide data, that are not easy to dig out, maybe presenting complex nature of what you're asking, or vice versa - simplifying the problem you stated. The question in which you expect "yes" or "no" answer does not allow answerers to give interesting response.

The same applies to other questions that may lead to one precise, short answer:

  • when did something happen?
  • where did something happen?
  • who was the leader of...?

These questions are either obvious, or in fact show there are no commonly accepted sources or sources are contradictory. You should explain, why the information you ask is not obvious. If the problem is with sources, ask about sources, not the event itself.


Perform preliminary research and show the contrast between two or more options.

If the problem lies in contradictory sources, consider asking which one should be treated as most sure and why.

If the problem is that you heard of something, consider reading another section.

This looks somewhat similar to Mark's "Pryce baronets" answer. – T.E.D. Apr 30 '15 at 0:36
@T.E.D. maybe this one could be included there. I recently saw some "is it true" questions from the past and that is why I put it here – Voitcus Apr 30 '15 at 9:01

What would google tell me if I asked?

Before you ask the question on H:SE, enter the question in google. Check to see if there is an obvious answer. Requests for trivium are officially out of scope and will probably be closed as off topic. Example 1 Example 2.

Google is a powerful and subtle tool, and I won't criticize anyone for failing to master the full power. But if I copy the question title into a google search and the answer is in the first five results, then I feel justified in hitting the downvote button.

The problem here is that if you know how to use google, wikipedia etc well (there are many tricks - not just simple searches) sites like this become useless according to your logic because you can find out the answer to anything that way. So IMO it's better to post questions even if you can find out by other means - when you post your question, you educate others thereby who might not have thought about the question or subject at all, so google wouldn't help them. – user2590 Jul 23 '13 at 8:45
@user2590 - you're entirely correct, and before I downvote, I'll check to see if I used any standard tricks. I invoke the downvote of doom only when I copy the question title into google and find the answer in the first five results. – Mark C. Wallace Jun 6 at 17:45

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