Wikipedia talk:Reference desk

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Are all questions about the human body requests for medical advice?[edit]

On 11 April a User posted the following question on the Science Reference Desk: I wonder if taking a multivitamin with peanut butter will inhibit absorption of the vitamins since it is so thick and will get stuck in it, is this accurate? I chew up the multivitamin. See the diff

At least one very sound answer was given in reply. See the diff. Sadly, User Baseball Bugs considered the question was a request for medical advice. BB terminated the discussion and hid the question and its answers from the view of other readers of the Science Desk. See the diff.

BB’s action raises a question: Are all questions about the human body requests for medical advice? Or is it possible use the Science Desk to post a question about the human body without that question being construed as a request for medical advice? I think the answer is "Yes, it is possible to ask a question about the human body without it being a request for medical advice."

If I am wrong and if questions about the human body are requests for medical advice, Wikipedia’s advice at WP:MEDICAL should be significantly altered to make this advice more open and more honest. Dolphin (t) 13:35, 13 April 2018 (UTC)

Nope, just those that ask about a proper course of action regarding one's medical condition. Saying "By what mechanism does this medicine work in the body" is probably fine, saying "should I eat this food with this medicine and what will happen to me if I do" is not. Note that requests for advice do not need to be phrased in the first person. Questions about "asking for a friend" or "just curious" rationales, or using words like "someone" in place of "I" do not obviate requests for advice, and such breaching experiments are frowned upon. --Jayron32 13:48, 13 April 2018 (UTC)
A medical student asking for references for a research paper on whether or not different foods affects absorption of vitamins (chewed or swallowed) is using the refdesk for exactly what it was intended for. However, we really have no idea why anyone asks any question, but assuming good faith, we can make cautious guesses from their phrasing. If someone phrases the question "should I chew my vitamins? is it OK to take them with peanut butter?" then we're not really in any position to imagine it's a medical student looking for a reference. If someone phrases it "is there any information on whether taking a vitamin with food (such as peanut butter) will inhibit absorption, especially if the vitamin is chewed?" -- then it's a hypothetical and "not" medical advice.
If we were to update WP:MEDICAL to be more "honest," we'd have it say "phrase your requests for medical advice as requests for references because we legally cannot give out medical advice." But that presents a bit of a legal contradiction, so we don't do that just like we don't ask where/how editors get copies of their sources. Ian.thomson (talk) 14:07, 13 April 2018 (UTC)
  • There is a perennial two-fold problem with enforcing RD guidelines (unlikely to change after a disingenuous talk page thread with a strawman title).
Part of the problem is that some rules are a fairly thin line. For example, here, I would speculate that had the sentence I chew up the multivitamin been dropped from the original request, it would not have been considered a request for medical advice (at least without a follow-up question asking why the question was asked). Short of radically changing the RD guidelines (which I do not see happening, either because of the political feasibility or because of the lack of obvious alternatives), this will never be fully solved.
There is another part to the problem, though, which I believe to be solvable. It is the culture of enforcers and counter-enforcers and the associated bickering (the current thread, of course, is an example of that; the problem is not that some people see the rules as more comprehensive than others, but that either side will aggressively push their interpretation). That is purely negative, because it does not even produce a sound jurisprudence about what should or should not be closed and what is debatable. Exhibit A is the recent "god" thread which I closed almost three days after it was opened and where seven regular contributors had left their opinions (the problem is not that said opinions were meritless, but that the thread clearly and obviously failed the RD guidelines and should have been closed much sooner; I venture the toxicity of rule enforcement discouraged others from doing so). TigraanClick here to contact me 14:15, 13 April 2018 (UTC)
It's weird, however, that an innocent general interest question about how digestion works is fine, but if you happen to mention what inspired you to ask the question (as one does), then it's strictly forbidden.
It makes things into an unfriendly minefield of rules that newcomers can't be expected to know.
The currently enforced rules are the results of awkward compromises between the regulars, and not really any self-evident truth about what is or is not medical advice.
(However, I'll admit I don't have a suggestion on a way forward that doesn't result in either bitter disputes, or more absurd compromises.) ApLundell (talk) 22:22, 13 April 2018 (UTC)
If the user Matt Deres wants to unbox that question, I would certainly not object. ←Baseball Bugs What's up, Doc? carrots→ 00:50, 14 April 2018 (UTC)
LOL, I certainly don't, but that's hardly a fair standard :-). The way I interpret these things is like this: we shouldn't give advice of any kind, ever. This isn't the advice desk. However, being a hardcase about that would just be stultifying and there'd be all kinds of grey areas anyway. Where I try to draw the line is broadly in accordance with the RD's guideline that we do not offer advice that is regulated, like medical and legal advice. (And, to be fair, I don't think our guidelines go far enough; I've seen some advice regarding chemical and electrical interactions that made my hair stand on end, but I knew they were technically "okay" per the guidelines (just terribly risky) and so I kept silent). With this specific item, asking about the interaction between foods and drugs is perfectly fine (and full of interesting stuff), but asking about whether something is healthful to that person is clearly a request for advice regarding treatment, which is forbidden by our guidelines here. Matt Deres (talk) 23:58, 14 April 2018 (UTC)
I boxed it up on your implicit recommendation, which I agree with. Anytime someone asks whether it's OK to do this, that or the other thing regarding their own bodily well-being, the only proper advice we can ethically give is, "If you're concerned, see your doctor." ←Baseball Bugs What's up, Doc? carrots→ 00:24, 15 April 2018 (UTC)
There are two overriding and unbreachable principles to take into account, which are a) the medical marketplace has a powerful lobby, and b) lobbyists always win. Any attempt to stand for some kind of academic common sense will only lead to yet another tedious and massive effort to have the Refdesk banned; indeed, it can only be a matter of time before Wikipedia as a whole is banned for failing to fit into the appropriate character of the corporate marketplace of ideas. Inherently, they come with price tags. It doesn't matter at all that there isn't actually a market in questions about vitamins; nor that even, say, a certain woman I know who spent $8000 a year on insurance and cancer can expect to be hustled out of a doctor's office with barely 15 minutes of total consultation so that she never seems to know what medicines she is supposed to take when, let alone gets a chance to ask about anything interesting. The point is, the tawdry reality of corporate doctors-for-hire needs to be covered up with a Hollywood veil of the Responsible Physician to whom one turns for every little thing, even though you will never really have the chance to. It's our duty, to fit into the capitalist order, to ensure people do not get advice here, there, or anywhere, and do what everyone else does, and guesses at random. Wnt (talk) 03:01, 15 April 2018 (UTC)
No one here is qualified to give medical advice. As to your complaints about the medical profession, Wikipedia is not the place to "right great wrongs". ←Baseball Bugs What's up, Doc? carrots→ 03:42, 15 April 2018 (UTC)
My thanks to all who have posted a reply on this thread. Your replies have helped me gain a better view of the situation.
My current thoughts are along these lines. Wikipedia understandably cannot condone medical advice being posted on the Reference Desks. Wikipedia’s position on the matter is given at WP:MEDICAL where it says WIKIPEDIA DOES NOT GIVE MEDICAL ADVICE.
Wikipedia may object to answers given on the Reference Desks if those answers constitute medical advice. However, Wikipedia does not object to the question. If a thread is to be hidden it must be because at least one of the answers constitutes medical advice. A thread should not be hidden simply because someone objects to the question.
By the time BB boxed the thread, several answers to the question had been given. BB could have attempted to justify his action by reference to those answers, explaining how they constituted medical advice. Instead, he justified boxing the thread by pointing to Matt Deres’s objection to the question. (Wikipedia cannot object to the question, especially as it is innocent and asked in good faith.)
Unless someone can point to one of the answers and persuasively argue that it constitutes medical advice, the thread should be unboxed. Wikipedia has no objection to the question so should not use the question as grounds for censorship. Dolphin (t) 11:56, 15 April 2018 (UTC)
The question was a request for medical advice. As such, it was potentially subject to deletion. Would you have preferred that I deleted it? ←Baseball Bugs What's up, Doc? carrots→ 15:13, 15 April 2018 (UTC)
So your idea of persuasive argument is: "X is true because...I say it's true." Very impressive. ―Mandruss  15:20, 15 April 2018 (UTC)
No, Matt Deres said it was true, and I agreed. He can unbox it if he wants to. But he's already said no. ←Baseball Bugs What's up, Doc? carrots→ 15:28, 15 April 2018 (UTC)
@Dolphin51: We have a note at the top of each refdesk that says "We don't answer (and may remove) questions that require medical diagnosis or legal advice." Wikipedia does object to the question if it is asking for medical (or legal) advice. Ian.thomson (talk) 15:50, 15 April 2018 (UTC)
Ian.thomson is paraphrasing what is stated at the top of each refdesk when he says “... if it is asking for medical ... advice ...” It actually says “... questions that require medical diagnosis ...” On this thread, no-one has suggested that the original question requires medical diagnosis; and none of the answers looks anything like a medical diagnosis.
There have been a couple of suggestions that the question is asking for medical advice but I don’t see anything to substantiate the notion that a question will be removed if it is “asking for medical advice.”
My earlier post can now be interpreted that if a question clearly and uncontroversially requires medical diagnosis it can be removed. If a question does not clearly require medical diagnosis, or the nature of the question is controversial, people should wait and see what sort of answer is being supplied. If the answers don’t constitute medical advice, the question shouldn’t be removed, at least not until medical advice comes on the scene. Similarly, if a mature thread is to be hidden, the person taking action must be able to point at the answers and argue persuasively that one or more of these answers constitute medical advice. BB has not offered any substantive explanation as to why he boxed the thread. He hasn’t made any attempt to point to an answer that constitutes medical advice; nor has he made any attempt to argue that the question requires medical diagnosis.
If I am wrong, someone will be able to point at one of the answers and argue persuasively that it is medical advice, or is based on a medical diagnosis.
I think some of us are making useful observations and gaining valuable insights by analysing the issues raised in this thread. Dolphin (t) 12:13, 16 April 2018 (UTC)

User:Dolphin51, I am assuming good faith with both hands at this point. I am certain that it was mere carelessness that caused you to set up a ridiculous straw man argument as the title for this section and to forget to ping Bugs or myself or anyone else who took part in that thread and to now cause your vision to blur after reading half of the relevant sentence from our guidelines. I'll quote it directly here: "The reference desk is not a place to seek professional advice on medical or legal matters, and responses that could be construed as such must not be given. Any question that solicits a diagnosis, a prognosis, or a suggested treatment is a request for medical advice." (emphases in original). The key word there in this regard is treatment; providing advice regarding treatment is considered medical advice. Matt Deres (talk) 14:49, 16 April 2018 (UTC)

I don't think you're assuming good faith at all. ApLundell (talk) 23:38, 16 April 2018 (UTC)
Dolphin may well be acting in good faith. He's simply got it wrong.Baseball Bugs What's up, Doc? carrots→ 00:08, 17 April 2018 (UTC)
Well if you say so, it must be true. Thanks for clearing that up! ApLundell (talk) 02:04, 17 April 2018 (UTC)
I and several others say it's true. And you're welcome. ←Baseball Bugs What's up, Doc? carrots→ 02:10, 17 April 2018 (UTC)
Nonetheless, a multivitamin is not a drug but a nutritional supplement. It is not prescribed for a disease but purchased at whim by a consumer. Failure to take it will not cause harm, failure to take it correctly will not usually do harm, unless you shove the pill somewhere very creative. This argument will be won the way that all arguments everywhere in the world are won, based on blustering warnings and the fact that might is right, but it has nothing to do with the meaningless text of Wikipedia policies. Wnt (talk) 14:50, 17 April 2018 (UTC)

Hi Matt Deres. Thanks for assuming good faith, and for providing the quote. I hadn’t seen those words before but I went looking and found them at WP:RD/G/M. The brief sentence I quoted is the full extent of what is written at the top of the Science Ref Desk.

On 13 April I pinged Baseball Bugs because he is the User who actually boxed (censored) the thread. I concede that, on that occasion, I didn’t ping anyone else.

I also concede that the title I gave the section is a straw man. Whether it is ridiculous or attention-getting is in the eye of the beholder. However, be careful not to say too much on the subject of the straw man because I and others are likely to say to ourselves “Despite the many hundreds of words Dolphin has written on this thread, the criticism coming from Matt Deres is primarily about the title Dolphin gave to the thread at the time he started it.”

A view I have expressed a couple of times is that if a question is clearly or uncontroversially in breach of the guidelines WP provides to people thinking of posting a question, someone should take action against that question. But if the unreasonableness of the question is unclear, or the view that it is unreasonable is likely to be controversial, no action should be taken against the question. Instead, we should wait and see what sort of answer comes along. Taking action against this question about multivitamins and peanut butter was bound to prove controversial - take a look at the length of this thread after only four days! That proves it is controversial.

Baseball Bugs has struggled to explain why he boxed the thread but it appears to have been based on your view of the question. I don’t recall either you or BB attempting to take account of the actual answers provided up to the time of censorship, even though multiple answers are available. If none of the answers constitutes medical advice, what is the risk in leaving the thread unboxed?

The guidelines say much against answers that constitute medical advice, and they advise how to take action against an answer that constitutes such advice; but the guidelines say almost nothing about censoring a question that might, arguably, bring forth medical advice. So can you quote what part of the guidelines you are relying upon when you advocate boxing (censoring) the whole thread, including multiple answers, because of your objection to the original question? Dolphin (t) 15:42, 17 April 2018 (UTC)

I haven't struggled at all. Matt Deres said it's a request for medical advice, and I agreed and immediately boxed it. Boxing it is not censorship. Deleting and rev-del'ing it would be censorship. If Matt or Ian want to revert my boxing of it, that's fine. And if multivitamins are not a "drug", then why do they appear on my doctor's list of medications that I take? Wnt's hatred of the medical profession is well-known. And I take the supplement because a doctor told me to. I'll take my doctor's word over Wnt's anytime. ←Baseball Bugs What's up, Doc? carrots→ 19:54, 17 April 2018 (UTC)

Hi Baseball Bugs. Thanks for your prompt reply.

Matt Deres led me to some comprehensive and useful guidance material at WP:RD/G/M. This guidance material includes (in bold text):

All reference desk editors are volunteer contributors who are subject to existing Wikipedia guidelines, …
  • Comment: Those of us who edit on the reference desks are subject to existing Wikipedia guidelines.

These guidelines also contain very detailed guidance regarding questions that may be asking for medical advice:

Dealing with questions asking for medical advice: Generally speaking, answers are more likely to be sanctioned than questions.
The purpose is to minimise disruption: editors disagree over whether a question is seeking medical advice, and removing the whole question is discouraging for new contributors.
Therefore, most of the time, the responsibility lies with responders not to give medical advice, regardless of the question.
When answering a question that appears to be soliciting medical advice, outright removal of the question is discouraged.
Although removal of questions is discouraged, …

I have looked carefully at all these guidelines and come to the conclusion that Wikipedia’s action in boxing the thread called “Peanut butter” is inconsistent with the guidelines.

I notice that on 14th April you wrote that you would not object to the thread being unboxed, provided the user Matt Deres agrees. You boxed the thread and you alone are responsible for your actions. Agreement by Matt Deres or anyone else cannot be made a pre-requisite for Wikipedia to act consistently with its own guidelines.

People posting questions on the Reference Desks, and Users answering those questions, are entitled to assume that Wikipedia will respect its own guidelines and act consistently with them. It is my opinion that boxing of the thread called “Peanut butter” was not consistent with Wikipedia’s own guidelines so I will remove the boxing. Dolphin (t) 13:06, 18 April 2018 (UTC)

I have unboxed the thread. See the diff. Dolphin (t) 13:16, 18 April 2018 (UTC)
Why is your opinion superior to everyone else's? ←Baseball Bugs What's up, Doc? carrots→ 13:26, 18 April 2018 (UTC)
Nowhere did I say my opinion was superior to everyone else's. It is my opinion that action needed to be taken to right a wrong that was an embarrassment to Wikipedia. WP:BOLD encourages me to do so. Dolphin (t) 13:31, 18 April 2018 (UTC)
How is enforcement of the "no medical advice" rule an "embarrassment" to Wikipedia? ←Baseball Bugs What's up, Doc? carrots→ 17:47, 18 April 2018 (UTC)
Wikipedia publishes guidelines about editing the Reference Desks in general, and in particular on the subject of medical advice. Wikipedia gives an undertaking to act at all times in accordance with its guidelines, and expects all Users who edit on the Reference Desks to respect those guidelines. If boxing of the thread titled “Peanut butter” was not done in accordance with Wikipedia’s published guidelines, that would be an embarrassment to Wikipedia.
Wikipedia is readily able to create new guidelines and amend existing ones. If the Reference Desk community finds that a set of guidelines is inadequate or unreasonable, that community can discuss the matter, find consensus and amend the guidelines. It isn’t appropriate for Users to work around the guidelines or ignore them.
If you find the guidelines at WP:RD/G/M don’t match your vision of how the “no medical advice rule” should operate, I encourage you to raise the matter on Wikipedia talk:Reference desk/Guidelines/Medical advice and present your case for the guidelines to be amended. Dolphin (t) 04:14, 19 April 2018 (UTC)
I'm on the same page as at least three editors here. Maybe it's you that needs to take that advice. ←Baseball Bugs What's up, Doc? carrots→ 05:16, 19 April 2018 (UTC)
The question is not a medical question as it refers to multivitamins and not to some disease or a set of symptoms of the OP for which treatment or diagnosis is asked. Many people use multivitamins, and while they may be prescribed in case of certain diseases, it's not regarded as a medicine. Also the official medical advice that doctors are instructed to give is that multivitamins are a waste of money. So, if we would give medical advice here, we would say that the OP should not worry about absorption, because he/she is going to excrete whatever is absorbed anyway. Count Iblis (talk) 01:17, 20 April 2018 (UTC)
My doctor considers multivitamins to be a type of medication. And I'll take his word over any random, uninformed opinion here. ←Baseball Bugs What's up, Doc? carrots→ 02:13, 20 April 2018 (UTC)
But it's not typically used as medication. Anything besides prescription drugs can be a type of medication for certain patients. Diet, exercise, mental relaxation exercises, taking a vacation, it can all play a role in some healing process. Should we then close down a question on the Ref Desk about hotel bookings just because in theory it could be related to the OP having medical issues for which rest in the form of vacation has been prescribed and if that were the case the OP should consult his/her doctor? Count Iblis (talk) 02:36, 20 April 2018 (UTC)

Question removed[edit]

I removed a question that was a request for debate over ethics. Ian.thomson (talk) 19:58, 16 April 2018 (UTC)

It's a justifiable removal. The OP could have easily used Google to find various opinions on it. ←Baseball Bugs What's up, Doc? carrots→ 00:07, 17 April 2018 (UTC)
I agree the question was inappropriate, though I thought we generally boxed those up rather than removed them? Since the user was blocked (for block evasion), I guess it's just semantics. Matt Deres (talk) 01:00, 17 April 2018 (UTC)
That was a couple of years ago. Hard to know for sure if it's the same actual guy. ←Baseball Bugs What's up, Doc? carrots→ 01:41, 17 April 2018 (UTC)