I've just run into a problem involving a question with an accepted answer that is demonstrably (albeit circumstantially demonstrably) untrue: Who first said "We can predict everything, except the future"?. The complication in this instance is that the question has been closed, thus effectively locking out competing answers that might be more accurate and therefore more useful to site visitors.

As long as the question and answer persist in their current states—the question closed as off topic, with a single answer given and accepted—EL&U is playing host to a kind of hermetically sealed error. Since no further answers are permitted, the most another site user can do to combat the misimpression that the accepted answer leaves is to respond to it in comments—unstable and (often) short-lived though they be. I have done so in this case, but the result isn't very satisfactory.

To his credit, the answerer clearly identifies where the longer quotation that he offers as the source of the poster's question came from: "I found this on a mailing list and someone had posted it." Nevertheless, he incautiously argues that "it appears to have been written by John Galsworthy" because "wikiquote seems to suggests his work Swan Song (1928) Pt. II, Ch. 6 for the last line."

In reality the block quote that the poster attributes to Galsworthy is a gallimaufry of sayings about the future from disparate sources (most of them unknown), concluding with a sentence from Swan Song. One of the earlier sayings in the compendium is the one that the OP was interested in tracking to its origin—so that wording receives the answerer's "done by Galsworthy" sticker too.

The simplest solution to the problem would be for moderators to delete the question and answer (if it's possible to delete questions that are closed but have accepted answers). But I'm not persuaded that this question (which was closed back in July 2012) is off topic by current site standards.

The OP asks for the source of "we can predict everything but the future" as a quotation (and uses the 'quote' tag as his tie-in to approved English Language & Usage topics). EL&U regularly fields questions that ask about the origin of sayings or expressions or proverbs or (in some cases) quotations, without rejecting them out of hand. In fact, the quote tag has the following thumbnail description: "Questions related to (semi-)famous quotations." The saying that the poster asks about seems to me to fit squarely into the area of inquiry that the 'quote' tag expressly covers.

As I write this, only 545 people have visited the page over the course of 4 years and 8 months, so civilization is unlikely to mourn its loss if the question does get deleted. Nevertheless, since our site put the misinformation out there in the first place, I think we have some responsibility not merely to erase the infamy but to correct the record.

Moreover, if one person casting about for the source of "we can predict everything but the future" came to the conclusion that it was probably written by Galsworthy, others might—by the same or similar missteps—reach the same erroneous conclusion. May we not therefore consider it an act on behalf of truth, justice, and the [adjectival form of your beloved country goes here] way to cast at least a feeble ray of light into that obscure corner where misapprehension has so long dwelt?

I recommend reopening the question so that interested people can submit better answers to it. Failing that, I recommend deleting the question. It doesn't do our site's credibility any good to entomb fatally flawed answers so that they lie rigid and authoritative in the vaults of closed questions, ready to waylay unwary solitary wanderers who may happen upon them.

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    +1 for gallimaufry, I am in favour of deleting the original question and answer for the reasons I stated below Tonepoet's answer.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 7:07
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    I think the question shouldn't be deleted, but just reopened so that users can add their own answers. The question was user1202136's original idea, not Tonepoet's. As for having accepted a "wrong" answer, we know that accepting an answer is a personal choice of the "OP" which may be, and often is, unrelated to the best or more researched answer. Plus, there is nothing wrong if the question reflects the standards of a few years ago, things evolve and I don't think it is a good reason to delete it.
    – user66974
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 7:35
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    @Mari-Lou A - better answers will attract more upvotes, and a bounty may be placed to support alternative answers. There is no real need to delete the question.
    – user66974
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 7:58
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    Those two upvotes earned by Dougvj (so far) just goes to show that some folks don't bother reading the comments. Ever. Despite Sven posting six comments, informing the OP and the answerer of their misguided ways.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 8:00
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    Is it possible to delete a question with an accepted answer? Didn't this point arise in english.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/10047/…? Reopen with a bounty seems like the best way to handle the current conundrum. The bounty could state that the accepted answer has some errors.
    – ab2
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 8:53
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    @Sven It's reopened.
    – NVZ Mod
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 12:26

2 Answers 2


I think this needs to be judged on a case by case basis to be fair and free of prejudice. However with that having been said this case shows that perhaps we should be more careful when closing questions.

I doubt that this question should have been closed for being off topic according to the scope defined by community standards in the help center in the first place, because Etymology has always been an applicable topic for this website as far as I know, we have been defining etymology as the origin of words and phrases since 2011 and the question in question was asked in 2012.

Also, although the original question did not prove its research, the fact that the only provided answer is wrong and received positive reception vaguely serves the same purpose as the research requirement. The maladies gen. ref. seeks to prevent do not apply and shows that the question was not easily answerable using the sort of "commonly available resources" that are mentioned in the present close reason text:

Please include the research you've done, or consider if your question suits our English Language Learners site better. Questions that can be answered using commonly-available references are off-topic.

Misattributions are often found within the sort of resources that are designed to handle this topic too.

Sadly the question shows little effort, which is something the other users might not support but the intent is clear enough from the basic question that we can fix it up easily with some superficial edits that make it look nice, without changing the intention at all. Including a few examples of the sort of unattributed contemporary sources people might see commonly around the internet would make it look much more presentable than it appears at a glance. [I just went ahead and tried to gussy it up a little myself.]

I agree with you in this case Sven. I think we should work to reopen this question.

  • @Mari-LouA Yeah, I know. That is the adulting thing about it. We'd need moderator intervention, and I'm not even sure if it's fair to delete the existing content on the sole basis that we don't like the accepted answer. Mods. aren't allowed to unaccept. I also think it's fairer to vote against the wrong answer, than it is to remove it, esp. since the users have other contributions. However with that having been said, thank you for the compliment. I restricted my search results for that effect. Would you mind posting a competing answer so we can determine which solution the community prefers?
    – Tonepoet
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 7:34
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    You do realize that since you bumped the question with your edit, which I think was actually a good one but jumped the gun, has earned the erroneous answerer another two upvotes.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 7:49
  • +1 for the edit you made which contributed to the question being reopened. I would have appreciated some input by the mods but the community took the initiative. Bravi everyone. I was wrong in suggesting the post ought to be deleted.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 12, 2017 at 6:18
  • How dare you edit it to add research the OP never performed? How does that help the OP?!? Commented Apr 13, 2017 at 0:31
  • @curiousdannii First, it is not strictly falsified. Those are related links and resources that corroborate a claim that O.P. made in revision 1 of the post, which merely clarifies a statement. Second, even if the research was falsified, it does not change the meaning of the post, it does not answer the question, and it does not make the question seem harder to answer than it really was, so I do not see the harm in it. Third, I made the edit A.S.A.P. so that everybody voting to open could review it. Fourth, O.P. is long gone. There's more, but comments are restricted. Would you like to chat?
    – Tonepoet
    Commented Apr 13, 2017 at 0:43
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    @Tonepoet I think your edit was harmless but it reflects a disturbing allowance many people in this community have to falsify research purely so that questions can be opened. It was a crap question with a crap answer. You should have written your own question with your own research and Sven should have answered that. The purpose of this site is to help the OPs find answers to their questions. There is never a need to invent research for an OP in order to keep their questions open. If you like a question enough, ask it yourself with your own research! Commented Apr 13, 2017 at 0:53
  • @curiousdannii This is somewhat difficult to do in the comments, which aren't designed to facilitate extended discussion. I've made a chatroom.
    – Tonepoet
    Commented Apr 13, 2017 at 1:51
  • My comments become obsolete when the question remained opened (I argued that a new question be asked) and the OP who had not replied to Sven's several comments pointing out the error and inexactitude in the accepted answer, suddenly woke up and accepted a much better answer.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 13, 2017 at 5:34
  • If users could upvote this answer so the community bot doesn't bump this post again in August... September... October....
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 13, 2017 at 5:37
  • If users could upvote this answer, so the community bot doesn't bump this post again in September... October... November...
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Aug 12, 2017 at 5:46
  • I agree with the answer text, but certainly not the way the question was re-opened by the poster (I agree with @curiousdannii on this point) so I can't upvote it as that might be seen as supportive of such actions.
    – Alok
    Commented Aug 12, 2017 at 14:01
  • @Mari-LouA As much as I would like for my answer to gain votes, I don't think that's a good reason to vote for my answer even if it gets bumped every month into the year 3017 because votes are supposed to indicate agreement with quality answers, and more importantly, votes set policy on meta. I'm not sure if the same could be said of acceptance though, so if accepted answers prevent posts from being bumped, maybe Sven could accept this one? I mean, I think that this answer helped influence influenced what actually happened at the very least, since it was voted on favorably before reopening.
    – Tonepoet
    Commented Aug 12, 2017 at 14:23
  • @Mari-LouA - It got bumped again!
    – AndyT
    Commented Sep 20, 2017 at 15:17
  • @AndyT I'm like Cassandra, I tell people stuff but they never listen :P Did you UV tonepoet's answer? Good! Maybe we won't see this post in October... November... December...
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Sep 20, 2017 at 15:20
  • Sigh, if my answer did not receive a vote for it, I might have suggested that perhaps somebody should create a dummy answer for us to up-vote to stop this "status completed" question from being bumped to the top. Now I'm not quite sure if this vote indicates agreement, or if it simply exists to prevent this post from being bumped... Just for the record, it was +3/-3 before, and +4/-3 now...
    – Tonepoet
    Commented Sep 20, 2017 at 15:21

Personally, I think this is just another (if more attractive) incarnation of the "wrong answers must be deleted" heresy that I battle against constantly (and more canonical sources, including Jeff Atwood, have pronounced anathema on many SE sites). The correct response to an incorrect post is to downvote and (if you find proof of error) to comment with a link; both are still possible, and if two people downvote any future archaeologists will discover that, though the OP thoughtlessly accepted this answer, the wiser heads of ELU disapproved it; that is the way a Stack is supposed to work.

If the question can be brought up to standard, it can of course be re-opened and re-answered. But personally I will take a lot of convincing that it is not Primarily Opinion-Based: does anybody really believe that "We can predict anything except the future" has a single identifiable source before which nobody ever expressed the thought and since which every use since has been a quotation?

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    I agree that wrong answers don't always need to be deleted. But I disagree that important information, like corrections of the single answer to a question, should be relegated to comments. Mari-Lou A pointed out that somehow, two people decided to upvote the wrong answer even after Sven left a comment beneath it explaining that it was wrong. You shouldn't count on people reading comments. If you don't think it's acceptable to reopen a question for this reason, I think the best course of action would be to delete the question or to edit the answer.
    – herisson
    Commented Apr 12, 2017 at 23:15
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    @sumelic: actually. Sven left a comment explaining why he thought it was wrong If that is a good reason to delete a post, the whole Stack Exchange model needs rethinking. Commented Apr 13, 2017 at 8:29
  • How is this question more opinion based than literally any other etymology question? It is not asking us to determine who thought up the concept first, which would be impossible in any case, just the quotation. Also, even if the exact author can not be attributed, we can at least elect a likely candidate by reasoning which instance of the quotation is the earliest. P.O.B. basically means every answer is more or less equally valid by any objective measure; not this question lacks a perfect answer. Evidence can show that some guesses are better than others here.
    – Tonepoet
    Commented Apr 13, 2017 at 9:08
  • Without some explanation regarding this, I have to vote against the answer. I opine that the question adheres to the Back It Up! principle described in Good Subjective; Bad Subjective article linked in the help center, which is the only thing that gives our site merit to S.E. Also, while I agree wrong answers should not always be deleted, but this answer does not proffer a sufficient remedy remedy to the problem that the situation posed, esp. since the comments are meant to be temporary, and were not working anyway.
    – Tonepoet
    Commented Apr 14, 2017 at 21:42

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