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I feel the word "why" asks for an answer that gives a reason or a purpose.

Is that appropriate for a Q&A about Earth Science?

If you look at the questions on the physics SE site, I believe the occurrence of the word "why" in Question/Titles is much less frequent than here. This may be because questions are edited to encourage asking "how" or "what" or "where", rather than "why" something is the way it is.

Discouraging the over-use of the "Why" may improve the Q&A on the site by helping the questions to be more focused and encourage expert participants to answer.

I don't think a ban on the use of Why in questions is desirable. But I am thinking its overuse is a symptom of insufficient thought and research prior to writing the question. So maybe its more of a flag for a question that is in need of improvement.

For example, a particularly frustrating example was: "Why does the Earth rotate counter-clockwise?" There is just too little information there to know what is being asked, and perhaps the person asking would have come closer to their target had they been asked to rewrite it without the why. This could be done in a comment, but it should be done in a way that does not lead the questioner.

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  • $\begingroup$ Link to Why does the earth spin clockwise? $\endgroup$ – David Hammen May 8 '14 at 15:46
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    $\begingroup$ Note the wrong notion of rotation in the question. The accepted answer is the wrong answer. This is a problem. It runs contrary to the most widely accepted hypothesis regarding the formation of terrestrial planets. The basic stackexchange concept of the person posing the question being the best person to accept an answer doesn't work in the sciences. A person who asks a naively-stated question is the least likely to know what the right answer is. That's assuming there is a right answer. A lot of times in the sciences, the right answer is "we don't know yet, but that is a good question." $\endgroup$ – David Hammen May 8 '14 at 15:49
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Some why questions are acceptable. For example,

  • Why is the Earth an oblate spheroid?
  • Why does the Earth have an iron-nickel core?

These questions aren't asking the purpose of an oblate spheroid shape or of an iron-nickel core. "Why" in these contexts is just shorthand for a "what" kind of question, but where the "what" requires a lot more words:

  • What causes the Earth to take on an oblate spheroid shape?
  • What caused the Earth to differentiate so that it has an iron-nickel core?

In some cases, the "how" and "what" part of the answer may not be known or remains subject to scientific debate. The "why" part -- the conservation laws in physics (linear momentum, angular momentum, energy) and thermodynamics can readily answer "why". That's the case with those two questions. Energy and the 2nd law of thermo say "why". "How", "what" and "when" are much harder parts of the question.

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  • $\begingroup$ Your second example sort of illustrates what I was thinking about. I think the 'What' version of second question already shows more thought, and possibly research, because it contains a verb. And it at least hints at some preliminary learning about the topic of 'planetary differentiation." $\endgroup$ – Mark Rovetta May 2 '14 at 16:03
  • $\begingroup$ It's the non-experts who are inevitably going to be the ones who ask the most questions now that this is public beta. It would be nice if those non-expert asked "smart" questions. They don't. Look at most of the questions in the granddaddy site, stackoverflow.com. Most of the questions are (being nice) not "smart". We have an extra problem with this site. Experts flock to stackoverflow.com. The vast majority of the experts in programming are not in academia. Many of the experts in the earth sciences are in academia or in academic-style settings. They already have an expert site, arxiv.org. $\endgroup$ – David Hammen May 2 '14 at 16:23
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I don't think we should encourage questions that ask "what is the purpose of ..."

I don't however believe we should have a blanket ban on questions that ask "why", because the meaning of "why" in my opinion is contextual. Depending on the context, the word "why" can mean "what is the cause of?" as opposed to "what is the purpose of?". The exact interpretation will depend on the context and we should definitely encourage users to make it clear which version of "why" they are using.

In summary I support asking users to edit their "why" questions if it is not clear from the context which meaning of "why" they are using.

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  • $\begingroup$ I agree that imposing a 'blanket ban on the word why' would be a bit silly. However, I do think it can be an indication that relatively little thought went into the question. $\endgroup$ – Mark Rovetta May 2 '14 at 15:54
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    $\begingroup$ I'd go the opposite direction. It's the "what is the purpose" kinds of questions that are dubious. The "why" questions are just naively stated but can be answered expertly. Now that the site is public beta, we should be prepared to answer those "why" questions. Think about it this way, which is a better question: "What is the purpose of a hurricane?" versus "Why do hurricanes form?" $\endgroup$ – David Hammen May 2 '14 at 16:15
  • $\begingroup$ "What is the purpose of a hurricane?" is worse. "How do hurricanes form?" seems better. $\endgroup$ – Mark Rovetta May 2 '14 at 16:34
  • $\begingroup$ That "what is the purpose of a hurricane" is a far worse question was exactly my point. $\endgroup$ – David Hammen May 2 '14 at 17:44
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Thank you @David Hammen and @Geodude for your excellent answers. I do not think I could mark any answer to this as the one correct answer. But I also don't want to waste too much of other's (and my own) time on this, or leave this thread unanswered. So I'll just answer this myself with a link to this transcript which may not answer either, but is interesting.

Richard Feynman on Why Questions

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  • $\begingroup$ funnily enough when you asked the question that interview was the first thing that popped into my mind. $\endgroup$ – Kenshin May 4 '14 at 5:09

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