Disclaimer:

Sources are extremely important in Judaism, as (almost) every Halacha, or Minhag (custom) has a clear source. Additionally, Judaism places sources and tradition so high, that it is considered fundamental.

The question below, is only discussing the purpose and definition of this site.

More specifically:

There is an assumption taken that in order for an answer to be valid on this site it needs a source.

In this question I will be questioning this assumption, but most importantly trying to get other perspectives (from users of this site).

Question:

I feel that there are three different types of questions asked on this site (in the context of this question/discussion).

1) A general question about judaism, or about a specific concept in judaism

Here are some examples of such a question:

Must I check the kashrut certificate every time I visit a bakery or restaurant?

What is a covenant and what are its implications?

Though a source would be really helpful, it doesn't seem necessary.

Furthermore, in some cases I feel it provides less help to the questioner, since sometimes the questioner doesn't have the ability to look up sources, because they are beginner etc.

Obviously not everyone that asks such a question is a beginner, but many times they are (and in the future, it is the type of question that beginners will look at).

2) The questioner brings a source, and has a question about the meaning of it (or a possible contradiction with something else they know)

Here is an example of such a question:

The "ben neichar" who is banned from eating the Korbon Pesach

This is a deeper question, additionally the user is showing a deeper knowledge (and skill for learning Torah), yet it doesn't seem 'necessary' to give a source, since the questioner is simply at a loss of where to begin solving his/her dilemma.

As in the first type of question, the user is not always at a loss, at the same time it doesn't seem imperative to cite a source, for it to be a good answer.

3) The questioner is asking specifically for a source, or the only way to resolve the question is through bringing a source

Here are some example of such a question:

Where can I find a list of differences between the Aleppo Codex and Ashkenazi texts?

Polyphasic Sleep and Halacha

What can I use for schach?

Even in this type of question there seems times when an answer doesn't need a source (though it really should).

This is because sometimes the questioner is looking for more info, or another perspective on the matter.

In this type of question, I feel an answer requires a source (almost) all the time, and if it doesn't include one it is not satisfactory.

Summary

I feel that most questions on this site do not require a source. The question is: should users enforce the requirement of a source (where the question doesn't need it) or not?

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"Should users enforce..." What did you have in mind? Downvoting, flagging? –  HodofHod Jan 6 '13 at 21:42
    
both, but mostly downvoting –  pzkd Jan 6 '13 at 21:44
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@IsaacMoses thanks for sharing the link - this question is (partly) based on the assumptions made in that question (and it's answers) –  pzkd Jan 6 '13 at 22:56
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@DoubleAA thanks for the link to the revision, i definitely feel there is an advantage to sharing a source (as it makes it much more accountable). –  pzkd Jan 6 '13 at 23:32

2 Answers 2

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The question states:

There is an assumption taken that in order for an answer to be valid on this site it needs a source.

This is, as I understand it, an incorrect assumption, at least precisely as stated. "Valid on this site" is potentially very strong language, suggesting that that which doesn't meet that standard is invalid and subject to deletion, or at least to community-encouraged downvoting. This is not true.1 For one thing, the FAQ doesn't say anything about sources being required in answers (though it does ask those who refer to sources to quote and cite properly). For another thing, the Meta question that directly addresses whether sources are required has answers that are all expressed in language like "should" or "better" rather than "invalid" or "will be deleted/edited."2

This distinction is significant, because it means the difference between an enforced rule and a community-endorsed ideal to be striven for, which this question's disclaimer would seem to support, at least if Judaism has something to say about the ideals of this community.

That said, I stand by the general sense of the three top answers to the previous question: Pretty much every answer should provide the best documentation of provenance possible for statements made in the answer, whether it's a link with quotation to a primary source, a rough indication that the answer comes from somewhere in a particular corpus of literature, an identification of the person the answerer heard it from, or a vague statement about the answerer's experience in the field in question. Whatever it is, it provides data for readers to evaluate the veracity of the answer, whether they be the original asker, future readers, or other Yodeyans who might impeach or improve the answer. In addition, the process of documenting sources for one's statements can help an answerer ensure that the statements are, indeed, consistent with the sources.

The practical consequences of this ideal, as I see them, are that:

  • Answerers should strive, lechatchila, to include sources in their answers.

  • Voters should take the presence or absence of sources into account along with all other important qualities of an answer when deciding whether to upvote, not vote, or downvote.

  • If other Yodeyans see an answer that's otherwise valuable but is missing a citation that they believe they can provide, consistent with the original thrust of the answer, they should consider editing it in.

I believe that this ideal, and these reasons for it, applies to all three of the types of questions outlined above:

1) A general question

Even if a question is so general that "everyone knows" the answer, the answer is still news to every reader who isn't part of this "everyone," and these readers deserve as much data as possible to evaluate the veracity of what they're reading. Even if the source is something like "I've spent my whole life in a community that practices thus," that gives readers a sense of the status of the information in the community and an expectation about how it might be verified that would be absent without this sourcing.

Note that this is not to say that such questions should be answered with only a primary-source citation. As with most questions, but even more so for these beginner-level ones, the answer should ideally contain an explanation that would be understandable to any English speaker who would be interested in the question. That it also contains a citation of a source need not detract from its accessibility, especially if the source is also introduced accessibly (e.g. with a link to the Wikipedia page about the source).

2) Delving into the meaning of a source

These questions often elicit answers that contain original or very case-specific reasoning on the answerer's part, which may not have a direct source other than the reasoning in front of us. However, generally speaking (and I challenge anyone to find a counterexample), these expositions of reasoning depend on knowledge of or assumptions about the material in question that should ideally be sourced as best as possible.3

3) Asking specifically for a source

In these cases, answers that do not provide a source are explicitly not addressing the question. Depending on the circumstances, these answers are, in fact, likely "invalid" and therefore subject to deletion, conversion to comments, or salvation through the addition of a source.


1. With the exception, as noted in the question, of the the question's third-listed type of questions. See below.

2. Unlike, for example, our FAQ statement that "Questions that appear to be requests for personal practical advice will be either edited to more general wording or closed."

3. For example, the "ben neichar" example cited in the question currently has a decent answer that would nonetheless be more valuable if sources were provided for the assumption about "Onkelos' job" and for when Onkelos wrote with respect to the development of Christianity.

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@IssacMoses thanks for sharing a fresh perspective –  pzkd Jan 7 '13 at 15:53
    
@IssacMoses regarding the "invalid" part: after seeing your thoughts i would definitely reword that, at the same time i feel i clarified my intention in the summary, and even more so answering the first comment to this question (see above) –  pzkd Jan 7 '13 at 15:55

(I see Isaac Moses has written a good answer, but I already wrote this before I saw that so I'll just post anyway for a slightly different approach.)

I disagree with the premise of your post:

There is an assumption taken that in order for an answer to be valid on this site it needs a source.

This is not true. For an answer to be valid it must answer the question.

The only official guidance (that I know of) for when to downvote is from the privilege page:

Use your downvotes whenever you encounter an egregiously sloppy, no-effort-expended post, or an answer that is clearly and perhaps dangerously incorrect.

and from the Mouseover text from the downvote arrow:

This answer is not useful.

Sources always improve a post (I disagree that they can hurt the post if the asker can't look them up; their being there makes him more comfortable with the answer by knowing others can look it up.) In many cases, asserting things without sourcing them is not useful.

However, we have many answers on this site which have high scorings but contain no sources, for example:

http://judaism.stackexchange.com/a/7111/759,
http://judaism.stackexchange.com/a/7835/759,
http://judaism.stackexchange.com/a/8802/759,
http://judaism.stackexchange.com/a/23313/759,
http://judaism.stackexchange.com/a/7905/759,
http://judaism.stackexchange.com/a/14143/759,
http://judaism.stackexchange.com/a/14769/759 (Ok that has a source, but it is grossly misinterpreted.)

and the list goes on and on. Perhaps some of these can be improved with sources. In fact most (if not, by definition, all) can. But to say that there is an assumption that an answer needs a source to be valid is a little far-fetched IMO. People upvote useful answers and have a good feeling for when a source is needed.

It is also worth noting that sources might not be always used for one's conclusion but often just as the basis of different assumptions one makes in logically arriving at that conclusion.


As for your latter question about when to enforce a (alleged) need for sources by flagging or downvoting:

If an answer does not bring a source but relies on logic or assumptions, then anyone can and should downvote if they, through their own logic or assumptions, think the answer is inaccurate, not useful etc. It is one anonymous internet user versus another, and at least one of them may be a dog.

If the answer does bring a valid source, then I believe the answer should not be downvoted if one personally disagrees with the ruling/explanation given therein (for example, if the post is more machmir/meikil than you think should be the halacha, or if you find an explanation of certain verses in Tanach to be untenable). This is to ensure that all voices get heard, and one ideological group of users does not downvote out a different ideological group. Plus, if we are all here to learn about a topic, then every valid opinion is useful and is part of the Torah tradition. The answer may, of course, still be downvoted if it misrepresents the source, doesn't answer the question etc. (There is no official policy about this AFAIK.)

And regarding flagging: flag if it needs a moderator to do something only s/he can do; don't flag if it doesn't.


Incidentally, two of your example question would be much better off with sourced answers IMO: the first one certainly because it is a question of Halacha, and the third one because it asks for an answer not for thoughts on the matter.

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thanks for your time and effort in to this answer, it definitely gave me a much better clarity in to what is (or isn't) expected on this site –  pzkd Jan 7 '13 at 15:56
    
+1 I think our two answers are generally in agreement. I particularly appreciate your guidance regarding when to downvote or not and when to flag. –  Isaac Moses Jan 7 '13 at 17:41

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