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As a site that depends on a little art as well as science, we need to have a broader definition of 'opinion-based' in my … errr… opinion.
Take an over-simplified example.

How do I get my beans softer when I boil them?
A1: Boil them for longer.
A2: Soak them for longer.

Each of these answers is based on received wisdom. We can take a guess that each answer might have its merits, but we can only accept one. Does that make it opinion-based?

So, to some real-life examples.
I'm not looking to learn a new skill; how do I make my knives better at cutting?
What would be the most versatile pan for a college/student someone short on time?

Neither of these is rocket science. Each can be answered with one or several opinions, yet the first remains open & the second swiftly closed.

I fail to see the quantifiable distinction between the two. Each could have several answers, offering different practical solutions to a question that would be run-of-the-mill without its 'special proviso' - no new skill, or only one pan. Each tightens the question quite specifically, yet each can still have several possible answers, presented by people - in whose opinion - correctly answers the question.

4
  • I do think the versatile pan one is a little tricky, because the OP's constraints push it in a kinda weird direction (pasta is not generally cooked in something that'd be referred to as a "pan") and it's kinda asking about shape and material at the same time (they mention seasoning, and "is cast iron a good idea for me" is a fairly different separate question from "can I cook all these things in a saute pan"). But reality is never perfect, soooo I'm kinda looking past that and writing a more general answer.
    – Cascabel Mod
    Oct 3, 2023 at 0:53
  • @Cascabel That seems like a good direction - I'd personally forgive the use of "pan" from someone who seems to not cook much - it doesn't surprise me that they'd use the term more broadly than someone who cooks a lot would. :)
    – Catija
    Oct 6, 2023 at 14:37
  • tbh, I don't know what else you'd cook pasta in. Would that be big enough to consider a 'billy'? I do mine in the biggest saucepan, a 2-handled 5 litre. I've never considered one of those with a dedicated insert to be worth it for once a week. but I don't know what you'd call one of those either ;)
    – Tetsujin
    Oct 6, 2023 at 14:57
  • 1
    I would imagine that “pot” is the expected term. A pan (for me, anyway) be flat and wide rather than deep and (more) narrow.
    – Catija
    Oct 7, 2023 at 2:39

3 Answers 3

5

This is something that's been discussed a lot, and which various members of the community have differing strongly held views on. I do think that despite its age, Good Subjective, Bad Subjective is a good starting place for any (re-)discussion, and I am personally broadly in favor of being somewhat more lenient than the site historically has been.

The overall goal of the site is to learn from other cooks, and I think that questions with room for differing opinions and suggestions can often have even more opportunity for learning than questions with obvious correct answers. I do also think there's sometimes a bit of a false dichotomy here, which leads to inconsistencies like you describe.

I think it's easier to be stricter; it has the appearance of consistency in what questions we allow (opinion? more than one possible answer? close it) and takes less work to enforce, despite requiring more enforcement. But I think it also means we throw out a lot of good along with the bad, and we end up leaning pretty hard on the way the question's framed - "most versatile" obviously suggests opinions, while "how do I safely chop a hot pepper?" doesn't, but both have various options which different people may prefer based on "opinion" (i.e. individual preferences/skills/contexts).


So I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest what amounts to a change in policy. It wouldn't make all questions like yours disappear - there's no clean policy for anything that never requires discussion - but I personally think the big picture would be good for the site.

To paraphrase and adapt from "Good Subjective, Bad Subjective", my suggested rough definitions, in terms of answers:

  • not too opinion-based:
    • opinions backed by reasoning and/or experience ("how" and "why")
    • sets of opinions based on differing assumptions, so that different ones may be applicable to different readers ("roast if you have time or want to develop more flavor, steam if you want quick and simple")
    • reasoning that's explicitly based on subjective but common practices ("eggs are often a breakfast food in the US")
  • too opinion-based:
    • entirely unjustified answers
    • answers primarily justified by "I like this better" ("mustard > mayo")
    • argumentative answers ("it's not pizza if you put pineapple on it")
    • discussion-y answers (uninvited "some people put salsa on their eggs!" tangents/digressions)

...and then questions are too opinion-based (or not) based on which of these things a reasonable, good-faith reader, with some understanding of how the site works, will see them as inviting. Of course, any question can receive a bad, unjustified answer, even ones with no subjectivity - that's not disqualifying. I'm in favor of assuming that all questions implicitly are requesting answers that meet overall site guidelines.

This doesn't mean that questions should be opinion-based if there's an essentially-equivalent more objective version (e.g. Catija's "is mayo or butter better for grilled cheese" versus "pros and cons of mayo vs butter for grilled cheese"); objective, specific questions are still great. But if it's impossible to get the same breadth and depth of answers by forcing a question to be objective, then a question that meets these guidelines is also great.


What do people think of this?

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  • 2
    One of the issues I run into with opinion-based that I don't see represented in this answer is that it gets used a lot when editing the question is maybe the better option. For example, "What's the best coating when making grilled cheese, butter or mayonnaise?" That comes across as asking for an opinion but can be easily reframed as "What are the pros/cons of different coating options when making grilled cheese, particularly butter and mayonnaise?" While some sites may not have the time for such adjustments, I think SA does, so I'd definitely include that in my recommendations. :)
    – Catija
    Oct 6, 2023 at 14:29
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    I think that's sort of a special case; in the interesting cases, the OP hasn't narrowed it down to two/few specific options so edits like that are difficult or more for appearances than impact. ("What are the pros and cons of different kinds of pans for use as the only pan?" -- I dunno, you're probably better off just asking what people think is good and letting them explain why.) I added a reminder, but I don't think I've seen as much trouble with those as with the genuinely opinion-based questions.
    – Cascabel Mod
    Oct 7, 2023 at 1:11
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    @Cascabel I think you're correct that we sometimes use "opinion-based" when we should be using "needs details" or "too broad".
    – FuzzyChef
    Dec 4, 2023 at 19:14
1

I'm going to specifically address those two questions, and why one is opinion-based and the other is not.

I'm not looking to learn a new skill; how do I make my knives better at cutting?

This question asks for a method on how to do something. Methods suggested are easily verifiable by the OP. The method accepted does not need to be the "best" method, as long as it meets the OP's criteria -- which happen to be very clearly spelled out.

What would be the most versatile pan for a college/student someone short on time?

This question asks for "the best" of something that's in a very crowded, competitive field (cookware). It compounds that problem by not giving clear criteria. Each answerer would therefore have their own opinion on "the best" which would not be ever clearly testable by the OP or anyone else. I could easily have written 6 different answers to that question, justifying each with different made-up criteria.

Had it been entirely up to me, I would have see if the OP could edit the question into one that was actually answerable by adding additional criteria. I do feel that we were a bit too quick to close it as opinion-based. However, as written, that question definitely is opinion-based.

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  • 1
    The "best"-based portions of this seem like they're skating by on a technicality - everyone wants answers to propose what they think is the "best" by some standard, and each answer's author is putting forward what they think is the best idea. One person was just explicit about it. Seems like the real criteron you're proposing is the number of possible answers.
    – Cascabel Mod
    Oct 4, 2023 at 22:53
  • 1
    No -- it's the "impossibility of a verifiable answer". In this case, it's primarily due to a lack of qualifying criteria. This question could have been asked to different ways: "What is the best pan": opinion-based, unanswerable "What one cheap pan will allow me to cook these five dishes.": answerable, not opinion-based.
    – FuzzyChef
    Oct 4, 2023 at 23:19
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    "The best" is pretty much irrelevant unless it's the only criterion given, in which case the question should be closed.
    – FuzzyChef
    Oct 4, 2023 at 23:21
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    Okay, sure - as written, not taking into account the clarifications elicited by the comments, it's not good. I'd personally say the issue with it is that it's unclear/broad, though, given that clarification is what fixes it, not a fundamental change to the nature of the question.
    – Cascabel Mod
    Oct 5, 2023 at 2:11
  • Well, generally, we close "broad" questions as "opinion-based". Like I said, I would have tried to get more clarity on that specific question if I'd been the first person to get to it.
    – FuzzyChef
    Oct 5, 2023 at 2:19
  • A good criterion for evaluating questions that ask for "the best" is: is it still a question if you edit out "the best"? If not, then it's opinion-based. Kind of like "in history" or "in a restaurant".
    – FuzzyChef
    Oct 5, 2023 at 2:20
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    You seem to have taken two questions asking very similar things & artificially injected 'best' into the one you don't like, as justification. I see no practical difference between questions asking for zero-skill knife sharpening & one-pan cooking. Each requires the answerer to come up with what they think is most suitable… or 'best'. I still fail to see, and this has been my argument right from the start, the quantifiable distinction.
    – Tetsujin
    Oct 5, 2023 at 16:55
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    Tetsujin: you are doing the thing where you reject everything anyone else says as invalid and simply repeat your original argument. It's not an effective way to persuade anyone.
    – FuzzyChef
    Oct 5, 2023 at 21:02
  • …and you're doing the thing where you attack the questioner rather than the question. It's not an effective way to persuade anyone.
    – Tetsujin
    Oct 6, 2023 at 8:08
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    Why would you close broad questions as opinion based when there's a close reason for broad? "Needs more focus" is the "too broad" close reason of yore (I'm aware that people are confused about this, so if you were, that's fine). That said, in this case I'd personally be more likely to close as needs details but both have the same end result - getting the user to add more to the question so that it can be effectively answered.
    – Catija
    Oct 6, 2023 at 14:33
  • @Catija I wouldn't say that we are closing broad questions as opinion-based, but if FuzzyChef perceives it this way, then we either fail at this, or there are so many questions which are both, that it produces the wrong impression. For me, "too broad" means that either a proper explanation would be a book-length answer, or that the OP has packed multiple questions in a single post.
    – rumtscho Mod
    Oct 13, 2023 at 14:51
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    FuzzyChef, the OP is still free to add more criteria and ask how different pans rate on them, although that would be a very difficult line to walk. In the end, such attempts tend to either result in too many possible answers, or none. More importantly, the wording doesn't sound like the OP wanted this. They seem to already have found a lot of information, feeling overwhelmed, and asking us to make a choice for them - and if the question is edited into a form suitable for us, we would add to their information overload, instead of resolving their "just tell me which pan to buy" problem.
    – rumtscho Mod
    Oct 13, 2023 at 15:04
  • @rumtscho Yep, that's when I use too broad, too. :)
    – Catija
    Oct 13, 2023 at 15:26
-1

Ideally, the definition of "opinion based" should be applied very literally. Questions whose answer is objectively true should stay open. Questions whose answer depends on who is doing the answering should be closed by this criterion. Example questions:

  • "Does sugar dissolve in water?" - this is an objective question. If one person says "yes" and the other "no", one of them must be wrong. It's a question about objective reality, and a single true answer can be found through empirical observations.
  • "What is the tastiest topping for pizza?" - this is opinion-based. If person A says "ham" and the other "mushrooms", nobody is wrong. Each possible answer is correct for the person answering it, but is not universally valid.

Opinion-based questions have proven bad for the network because they tend to lead to one of the following outcomes:

  • flame wars. Imagine a question like "are German knives better than Japanese knives". This tends to generate few answers, but heated arguments and lots of upvotes on both sides, plus some vitriol, endless comment discussions, and if somebody takes the time to read the info produced, they are none the wiser.
  • big lists. The "tastiest topping" question would likely create that style - at some point, we would likely have 2-3 pages of answers, each mentioning a different topping. The OP might have wanted somebody to help them make a decision, but the result turns out to be a bewildering laundry list of all possible options, some of them posted multiple times across different answers, and the upvote pattern favoring oldest answers.
  • answers that are confidently written, highly convincing, and wrong. This is usually when a question is asked in an area governed by localized cultural preferences. For example, look around our questions about cooking rice - pretty much every time somebody mentiones cooking rice with the "add lots of water and drain later" method, the post garners comments saying "you're doing it wrong, you should never add that much water" from people who have never used anything but the "steam with a little water" method. In reality, both methods work well, it just happens that our predominantly US audience has little knowledge of the draining one.

Now, we don't live in a black-and-white world, and objectivity comes on a spectrum. Then it becomes a matter of judgement what to do with questions that are somewhere in the middle. The best criterion is to anticipate when a question is likely to generate unwanted answers like the above. If not, it's left as-is. If yes, we try to come up with a closely related wording which would not produce any problems, and edit the question. If that fails, we close. I see this as complementary to Cascabel's answer: generally, we aim to close "bad subjective" questions and leave open "good subjective" questions. Do we reach that goal? The answer is also opinion-based \-.-/


Now to the two questions you give in the example. I would say that both fall more in the middle of the spectrum than on one end. And yet one was closed and one left open. Why?

The knives sharpening question has a small set of possible answers. One can basically invest the time to learn to sharpen their knives manually, purchase a tool that flattens the learning curve, or bring their knives to a professional sharpener. The preference for one of the three is indeed subjective. But it's very likely that somebody answering the question will be able to give a neutral comparison between these three and thus assist the OP in their decision making. Also, it's not just a "how should I sharpen my knives" question, but asks answerers to evaluate the solutions on a single criterion, "simplicity". This isn't a perfectly objective criterion, but I think it can be estimated reasonably well.

The pan question has a much larger set of possible answers. Pans come in many sizes, materials and shapes. Their usefulness also overlaps a lot - most pans are very versatile. And it also depends on what cuisine one prefers - if somebody doesn't cook Asian, they won't care if the pan would also double as a wok substitute. So looking for a true "most versatile" pan, which is truly the most versatile choice for every single cook, is likely futile. At the same time, it's unlikely to produce a single (or a few) neutral answer that compares the advantages and disadvantages of each possible choice with each other, since there are so many possibilities.

Also, to be very honest - your own answer was one of the reasons (although not the main one) I decided to vote to close the pans question. It looked like the first step towards producing a big-list style of question. Sometimes it's the answers which reveal how to best deal with the question, because 1) they show how the community is likely to interpret the question, and 2) once somebody has an example in front of them, they are more likely to think of a similar example and answer in the same vein. So, once the first person has recommended a type of pan, it's very likely that the second person will also recommend a type of pan. And the third, then the fifth, the fifteenth... and that's exactly what we don't want to happen.

There is an additional subtlety here. When a question is in the middle of the subjectivity spectrum, the best we can do is to answer to the degree to which something objective can be said, without giving a pseudo-authoritative answers to questions which actually don't have an authoritative answer. So, if the tone of the question indicates that the OP is planning to make the final choice, and is asking for additional information to help that choice, we are more likely to leave it open. In the pans question case, I interpreted the question as the OP wanting us to make a choice and tell them the result. That was another reason to close this specific question.


As a short vignette, we recently had a very illustrative old question bumped up: A proper way to cook Mi Goreng noodles?. I would consider the title of the question to be too opinion-based, and thus closable. For pretty much everybody, their favorite method of cooking noodles is the proper way of cooking noodles! On reading the text, it turns out that the OP is asking about something very well defined: their own method produces soggy noodles, and they want to troubleshoot the sogginess. The question was left open, and 12 years later, it has 11 answers. One of them actually addresses the sogginess; ten are simply somebody's favorite method of cooking Mi goreng noodles.

In retrospect, I think that a much better solution would have been to reword the title, while leaving the question body untouched and the question open. That might have produced better answers about sogginess, and most likely wouldn't have goaded people into posting the unnecessary "my favorite way" answers.

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  • I really appreciate the detail you go into here - what I'd wonder is whether you'd say that additional details to the pans question (such as what you mention in your answer) could lead to a question that's narrow enough to leave open? In my mind this seems similar to how Software Recs requires details about your OS, products you've considered and dismissed, specific features or other requirements (e.g. price) before the question is considered answerable. I know product recommendations are often not a good fit and it's easy for this sort of question to veer into product recommendations.
    – Catija
    Oct 13, 2023 at 15:40
  • @Catija In principle, this sounds good. In practice, it turns out to be very difficult to achieve. Almost always, one ends up with either "too many possible answers" or "no possible answer". I know that it works for Software Recs, but they have a different situation. 1) Their users are highly aware of how to prevent bad answer patterns, because it's the only type of question the site gets, and they know how to deal with it. 2) In the software world, there are few distinct programs that are perfect substitutes. Even if you look at something like Open Office and Libre Office, which were...
    – rumtscho Mod
    Oct 17, 2023 at 8:05
  • ... forks, they start accumulating distinct features such that they don't duplicate each other. With pans, there are hundreds of models which are practically indistinguishable from each other, or differ only cosmetically. 3) There are some more complex products in cooking, like stand mixers, which might have difference between brands. But unlike software, which tends to have free trials and be easily installable, you'll basically never meet a person who's tried all the major brands of stand mixer and can compare them. So I don't think their model will work for us in general. The best we...
    – rumtscho Mod
    Oct 17, 2023 at 8:09
  • ... can do in such cases is to reword into a different, but related question: "What should I look for in a ___ ". This tends to produce helpful information for somebody not knowing what features are interesting in a complex product, and which ones are marketing fluff. Even if we contorted ourselves to try to do more than that, we would never be as useful as other information sources such as equipment tests by consumer organizations, online shop reviews, unpacking videos, and reading the user manual before buying.
    – rumtscho Mod
    Oct 17, 2023 at 8:13
  • As a note on the particular pan question which started the discussion: I don't think we can help the OP here. They clearly don't have a "needle in the haystack" problem, but a "donkey going hungry between a hundred haystacks" problem. We - and the whole network - has never been a good place for the second kind of problem.
    – rumtscho Mod
    Oct 17, 2023 at 8:17
  • This can be read a couple ways, and based on the way you vote on questions, I suspect it's the more literal one that you open with: "Questions whose answer depends on who is doing the answering should be closed by this criterion." (The other way is with more gray area as you allude to later.) I get where you're coming from, but I don't think that leads to the best outcomes for the community: it throws out good subjective questions along with the bad, and the network has broadly moved toward closing questions that are too opinion-based, rather than questions that are at all opinon-based.
    – Cascabel Mod
    Oct 17, 2023 at 18:21
  • Even the close reason itself is less strict than you are: it asks for "fact-based" answers, not purely factual answers. It's very consistent with the "good subjective" ideas of writing questions that include an opinion about the overall decision, but which base that opinion on facts (including reasoning and experience).
    – Cascabel Mod
    Oct 17, 2023 at 18:23

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