Although the term “opinion-based” is hard to find in the Help Center, it seems to be widely considered an undesirable quality for a question or answer. The problem is, what is not opinion-based? Plato insisted on an absolute disjunct between knowledge and opinion (even or especially correct opinion), but in so doing he set the bar for knowledge so high that he himself invariably failed to clear it. Rhetoricians, from his own contemporary and rival Isocrates down to Wayne Booth, have called the distinction sharply in question. In Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent, Booth uses as an example the proposition that the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice is ironical (“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”). That proposition cannot be scientifically proven; and yet for the MLA to come out against it as a body would, he says, be more startling than for a comparable body of the world’s physicists to declare the hitherto accepted laws of physics overthrown. In his Philosophy of Rhetoric, George Campbell shows that even the composition or perusal of an algebraic proof requires faith in one’s own memory, and notes that the composer is likely to ask a fellow algebraist for an opinion before publishing.

In my own profession of teaching composition, specifically argument, I often encounter the notion, among novice teachers under my supervision, that for an academic argument paper to be “opinion-based” is a Bad Thing. I have found that position puzzling too.

Has the community really considered the epistemological underpinnings of this apparent consensus?

  • Voted to close as any answer will be primarily opinion-based ;) (no I didn't) – Frank May 26 '14 at 16:46
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    Note that what is deprecated is questions which prompt not answers which express opinion but answers based on opinion. An answer which expresses an opinion and is based on relevant evidence may be highly admired and of great value; but an answer based solely on the answerer's opinion is worthless. Users here have become, through painful experience, pretty adept at spotting questions which prompt answers for which concrete evidence cannot be adduced. – StoneyB May 26 '14 at 18:24
  • What do you mean by 'really' in "Has the community really considered...?". Do you mean 'really really' or just 'really a lot'? – Mitch May 27 '14 at 13:08
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    Perhaps you would prefer "sufficiently," Mitch? @StoneyB : The distinction between an answerer's own opinion and relevant evidence may very easily come down to nothing more than the distinction between an answerer's own opinion and someone else's concurrent opinion. – Brian Donovan May 27 '14 at 16:30
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    I personally think that "Primarily Opinion-Based" is far overused on certain language sites. Its purpose is to get rid of questions like "What's your favorite color?" or "What book should I read next?" It's explicitly reserved for "chatty, open-ended questions that diminish the usefulness of our site". – snailboat May 27 '14 at 21:24
  • It is really sad that a new user with an English background asks a question, and that question is downvoted because certain people don't like the topic ever being brought up. Brian - welcome to the site! – RyeɃreḁd May 28 '14 at 6:41
  • Thanks; I'll live, and I myself haven't even had a question or answer suppressed on the basis in question. – Brian Donovan May 28 '14 at 15:59

What is wrong with “Opinion-Based”?

The main goal in closing questions is to eliminate "unhelpful" or "unconstructive" questions. When a reason such as "opinion-based" is specified, that reason is explaining how the question is unhelpful or pointless. That does not imply that all "opinion-based" questions are inherently off-topic.

The relevant part of the FAQ, by the way, does offer a handful of examples that can help you determine which "opinion-based" questions are good or bad matches for the site. Here is are the notes on "good" subjective questions:

Some subjective questions are allowed, but “subjective” does not mean “anything goes”. All subjective questions are expected to be constructive. What does that mean? Constructive subjective questions:

  • inspire answers that explain “why” and “how”
  • tend to have long, not short, answers
  • have a constructive, fair, and impartial tone
  • invite sharing experiences over opinions
  • insist that opinion be backed up with facts and references
  • are more than just mindless social fun

To explicitly address your other two questions:

The problem is, what is not opinion-based?

This isn't actually the right question. The right question is, "Which opinion-based questions are bad?" The above linked FAQ answers this question.

Has the community really considered the epistemological underpinnings of this apparent consensus?

The community doesn't give a flip about epistemological issues. They simply want to close unconstructive questions and providing a close reason makes it easier for askers to determine why their question was voted as being unconstructive.

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    Can we get stats on who has voted to close questions as Primarily Opinion Based? Until we have that your use of the word "community" is far to broad and liberal. What if 7 people casted 80% of those votes? Is the community closing them or those 7 people? – RyeɃreḁd May 27 '14 at 22:15
  • My use of the word "community" is merely referring to the ELU process that ends with a bunch of closed questions. It wasn't intended to be a statement of unity. -- As for stats, we can see (a) who voted to close a question as long as that question was eventually closed but not deleted and (b) what the close reason was for a closed question. Unfortunately, this doesn't mean that everyone who voted to close a question agreed on the reason. It also isn't a trivial query to build so unless I find it already built, I'm not bothering to look up this data. It isn't really that related to my point. – MrHen May 27 '14 at 23:31
  • Your point is that it is a process of ELU. Well what if it were a small group closing these out? We all know it is harder to get a question reopened than closed. So while you may have good points about what questions should be kept, there is nothing indicating that there is due process on questions or that your premises are being upheld by the "community". – RyeɃreḁd May 28 '14 at 6:38
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    @RyeɃreḁd: The TLDR is (a) the FAQ addresses good versus bad opinion questions (b) questions that are closed are closed because they are considered unhelpful or unconstructive by enough people (c) nothing about this entire topic is related to epistemological issues. The original asker committed a hasty generalization fallacy by assuming that all opinion-based questions are bad because some opinion-based questions are bad. My use of the word "community" was simply because it was the word they used. – MrHen May 28 '14 at 12:05
  • @RyeɃreḁd: Also, it isn't extremely interesting even if it were just a small group closing these out. The way Stack Exchange works, such a group is perfectly capable of closing questions without issue. Until evidence exists to suggest there is such a group, I don't understand the point of bringing it up. Go find evidence of some anti-opinion-based question close vote brigade and we can discuss the issue further. – MrHen May 28 '14 at 12:07

Think of the site as the world and the users as countries. The mods and the heavy users are your United Nations, but other smaller countries get a vote too, sometimes.

Well now imagine if every time a person brought a question to the world it could be vetoed on 5 votes. Well I (acting like the islands of the Bahamas) have had a few questions closed as primarily opinion based because China, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, and so on decide that my free speech should not be expressed. To live I quit posting my questions or they will detain me. They know I pose little threat and can be cast off as stoned or stupid.

Now some users (Easter island in size) may pose a question that slips through the G10 Summit. But it is no accident. They are watching. If "they" think they can groom this user as a devotee, then pass the questions through. If the user has something interesting to trade, pass them through. Even if this user nation has no one that speaks English.

You can try to do a stealth operation and pose the question on the weekend or in the dark of night. Be weary of making the question too good. They will see the hits and come after you. Get your feet wet with something pedantic if you go this route.

Remember it only takes 5 to close so there must be politicking on your part. You must sit down and break bread if you want to submit into the grey area of Primarily Opinion Based. This is like the gray area that nations use for Threat Alerts and Weapons of Mass Destruction. It is an excuse most of the time to control you. And having intelligence, having background in the English language, and use that intelligence on your job... well you have threat on your forehead.

Now what is funny is that Primarily Opinion Based questions are 100% closed based on the opinions of these nations. They will tell you that your questions are full of conjecture but that is it. You will mention that there are 10 questions on the home page that are just as opinion based. They will say then they should be closed too. They won't be. They voted to close yours. And the world turns.

  • So cynical! Dude, the sun'll come out tomorrow! – Mitch May 27 '14 at 16:22
  • @Mitch - I hope you read it in jest. Always sunny in my world. – RyeɃreḁd May 27 '14 at 16:30
  • This brings to mind a lot of late 20th-century sociological stuff about the status hierarchies manifest in boys' play. This community had already reminded me of that, though. Yet having noted this early, I was pleasantly surprised that it was not, after all, a sausage fest(urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=sausage+fest). – Brian Donovan May 27 '14 at 16:39
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    Not always it takes five votes to close, sometimes the vote of one mod is sufficient to close a question, but five votes are always needed to reopen a question. – Mari-Lou A May 27 '14 at 17:53
  • @Mari-LouA - yes, nuked. I saw the red button pressed on a couple of questions today. – RyeɃreḁd May 27 '14 at 19:55

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