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We get occasional questions from people with no aviation or engineering knowledge, who have a "great" idea about how aircraft should work differently, whether it's issuing parachutes to passengers, putting CRTs in the cockpit to defeat laser strikes, or anaesthetising passengers.

They tend to go the same way. They get downvoted mercilessly, someone explains in the comments why it's a bad idea (or why it's a good idea but infeasible for non-obvious engineering reasons), and then the questioner says "but what if ...?"

To me, this last part is the sign that the questioner is not really asking a question, but looking for a discussion. From the "help center":

If your motivation for asking the question is “I would like to participate in a discussion about ______”, then you should not be asking here.

Should we have a specific policy about these "armchair engineering" questions? At the moment, it seems pretty random whether they get closed as "unclear what you're asking" or left open, and they almost always get a negative score, and they often lead to several low-quality follow-up questions (the laser strikes series of "questions" being a prime example). I think the current situation is unfair to new visitors, because they don't know what to expect from the site, so they have no reason to expect a negative situation; and unhelpful to the regulars, who come for serious questions from aviators and enthusiasts, but find a front page full of unanswerable questions.

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    $\begingroup$ I've seen this string of downvotes, attempts to save the question by changing it and making it more complex, then leading to several follow-up questions on other SE sites as well. However we have to be careful not to close a question just because it's dumb and make a policy that clearly differentiates between questions like "why do military planes use turbojets instead of high-bypass turbofans" and "why don't military planes use nuclear rockets". $\endgroup$ – Cody P Mar 5 '18 at 15:50
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    $\begingroup$ People asking “would this work” is how we learn and advance our knowledge. Please don’t discourage it! The question isn’t normally the problem, as you say, it’s more new users wanting a discussion or not wording questions well. We need to stop the negativity of this site and work on helping people to ask better questions. That said, some lately seem un-helpable. $\endgroup$ – Notts90 supports Monica Mar 5 '18 at 18:00
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    $\begingroup$ This also isn't unique to this SE site. Security SE, for example, has lots of naive "why not" proposals that don't make sense to an expert and are looking for peer-review, not an answer to a question. $\endgroup$ – Cody P Mar 7 '18 at 19:36
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I personally don't see much of a problem with "Would X work?" or "Why don't we do X?" questions as long as the asker is honestly looking for the answer to that question. The problem is that, in many of those cases, the asker is more trying to promote their "great new idea" rather than honestly ask whether it's useful or feasible.

For example, the question could be (and probably has been) asked why most aircraft don't use onboard solar panels for power. This is a perfectly reasonable question with a perfectly reasonable answer based on sound engineering and physics principles. Such questions are not a problem, IMO, unless the asker is actually trying to evangelize for solar-powered airplanes instead of honestly wondering why they aren't commonly used and accepting the answer. In the cases of those who are not honestly seeking an answer, I think closing the question as off-topic or "unclear what you're asking" is appropriate.

Not already knowing the answer to something is fine and, indeed, is the whole point of having Q&A sites. We wouldn't need them if we all already knew the answers. Where the problem comes in is when they're not actually honestly asking a question, but rather (ab)using the Q&A platform as an evangelism platform for their "awesome new idea."

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"Would X work?" is essentially the same as "Why don't we have X?", which is often a legitimate question because as you said yourself above, there may be "non-obvious engineering reasons" that a non-expert won't know. I can't see how questions like that should be systematically closed or sent to another site as a matter of general policy. Engineering is a crucial part of aviation and there's nothing wrong with asking hypothetical questions; that's often a good way to uncover things that you hadn't considered before (but someone else might have).

If you provide an answer and the person asks for discussion or tries to change the terms of the question then refer them to the tour or the help center, or maybe invite them to chat. Discussion just isn't how this site works, and there's no reason to indulge people or get sucked into huge comment trails.

In fact, as far as I can see, we already have all the tools to deal with questions like this:

  • If the core question is potentially useful, edit it to make it clearer. I've removed large parts of questions before to get at the main point
  • If the question is off-topic - including asking for discussion! - then vote to close (preferably with a comment, but that's up to you)
  • If the question is unclear or even incoherent, downvote (again, a comment would be helpful)

It's worth remembering that we've been in this situation before and the chat and meta comments at that time were noticeably more positive and welcoming than they are now. This question was positively received, for example, but if you think that all hypothetical engineering questions should be off-topic then it would be closed today.

If someone persists in asking poor questions then just keep editing/closing/downvoting and providing suggestions on how the person can improve. StackExchange has features to deal with people who don't make an effort, and we've seen them in action here before too. You have no obligation to do anything with any question here so if you aren't willing or able to spend time on certain questions (or users) then feel free to ignore them completely.

Personally I'd rather have to deal with the problem of too many questions of dubious quality than with not enough questions of any quality.

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    $\begingroup$ I agree with your comments. Also, "Would X work?" is similar to "Is there a feasible flight control design that would allow flaps to be more effective at low speed?" (e.g. how about drooping ailerons). Anyway, when we shut down questions because someone gets excited about "armchair engineering" we are loosing sight of the benefits of responding to a question that may look a bit like a discussion topic just because of wording. $\endgroup$ – 757toga Mar 6 '18 at 15:49
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My proposal is to use one of our precious off-topic reasons to make these questions specifically off-topic, to explain this (and the reasons) in our topic guidance, and to close these questions when they occur, without waiting for them to turn into endless discussions.

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    $\begingroup$ I agree with this 100%. Could you perhaps update this answer to include the text you think should be used? Or even perhaps create a chat room to discuss if this gets community support. $\endgroup$ – Jamiec Mar 5 '18 at 8:32
  • $\begingroup$ I agree with this. Any question "why don't we do X" can be asked as "How does the conventional way of doing X work and why is it done that way" which is a way better question. $\endgroup$ – Sanchises Mar 5 '18 at 20:02
  • $\begingroup$ You have my support, not sure how to help you with this. $\endgroup$ – KorvinStarmast Mar 12 '18 at 16:20

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