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Follow-up to CYLOR Disclaimer

Now that Mi Yodeya has launched, I'd like to renew the request for a more-pervasive placement of our "professional advice" disclaimer. Currently, the following disclaimer is shown, in red, on the sidebar for new users only:

Like Wikipedia, this site makes no guarantee of validity, and does not offer professional (particularly rabbinic) advice. Treat information you find here as if it came from a crowd of your friends.

It is also in our FAQ and in the pop-up summary for the tag (on the main site).

On the old mi.yodeya, this disclaimer was shown, in red, at the top of every page, to address an issue that is very important to members of this community. The three places in which it's included now represent, as far as I'm concerned, a half-measure that doesn't go far enough to make it clear to all users that they should not treat this site as their Rabbi.

Now that we've launched, I'd like to re-submit our request to make this disclaimer more pervasive on the site. Whatever code is developed to support this request could likely be used on other Stack Exchange sites that serve communities in which qualified professional advisers play a role, as indicated by the popularity of the general requests I posted on MSO and on Area51 Discuss.

Here are some alternative implementations to consider:

  • A dismissible banner that comes up at the beginning of every visit to the site.

  • A dismissible banner that comes up whenever a question with the tag is loaded.

  • A dismissible banner that comes up the first time per visit that a question with the tag is loaded.

  • Disclaimer auto-inserted, in red, at the bottom of any question with the tag.

  • Similarly, a post notice with the disclaimer in it is automatically added to questions with the tag.

  • (Complementary measure, not full alternative) Disclaimer added to the "How to Ask" sidebar on the Ask a Question page.

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I have two objections, one practical, the other philosophical.

Practically, dismissible banners are both annoying and ineffective. They seem like a gimmick designed by the American legal system as a way to create Maximum Deniability in a court of law ("But, your honor, he clicked on the agreement!"), not a genuine Jewish way to provide education.

I've never seen a Shulchan Aruch with a printed disclaimer warning you not to use it to paskin. I'm sure when it was first published there was some consternation but there does not appear to be any mainstream belief that Shulchan Aruch per se should carry disclaimers, only that people should be independently educated not to paskin by it. And once they understand this rule, that's enough, you don't have to remind them every time they open the book. At some point the repetition will cause people to just ignore what you're saying.

I would much rather see those participants in this site who are concerned with this issue learn to phrase their questions and answers in a way that is consistent with their personal beliefs. If you feel like a question is asking for a psak and this bothers you, reply with an answer that says "This is not a definitive answer, for which you should consult your rabbi, but:

  • the mishnah torah says
  • rabbi ploni holds
  • many posekim hold
  • I heard in a shiur once
  • etc..."

In this way you encourage participants of this site to write the disclaimer into any answers for which it applies, which will be impossible to ignore by the readers, and thus be substantially more effective than a click-through disclaimer.

Philosophically, encouraging users of this site to ask their rabbi for piskei halacha is but one of many halachot that we could take it upon ourselves to encourage. We could take it upon ourselves to encourage people to avoid the site on Shabbat, we could take it upon ourselves to encourage people to daven mincha if we calculate that based on their time zone it's time for mincha, etc. etc. Why dafka the mitzvah of aseh lecha rav is the one that we need to force people to click through an agreement instead of any of these others is not clear to me, and indeed I would go so far as to argue that the very principle of aseh lecha rav means that we shouldn't be attempting to impose specific religious practice on anyone, including (recursively) the religious practice of consulting a local orthodox rabbi for all matters of personal practice.

  • Tagging status-declined, then.... – msh210 May 29 '12 at 19:04
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    +1 only for you practical issue which I agree with. As for your second point, it seems to me that you are looking at it the wrong way. You have presented Isaac's request as parallel to any other effort to encourage a certain Jewish practice. But I don't think this is simply 'us' trying to encourage 'them' to keep the 'mitzva' of 'asei lecha rav'. The reason 'we' are being extra careful about this issue is because of the underlying reasons for that 'mitzva': the dangers of misapplication and the limitation on contributors. I dont think I need to give examples of those two for you to understand, – Double AA May 29 '12 at 19:05
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    ...but suffice to say that to answer a real Halachik quandary, one needs to be sufficiently trained in the relevant laws and fully aware of all the nuances of the situation. Many users on the site may not qualify for the former, and certainly none qualify for the latter. Our CYLR policy is designed not just for the benefit of the asker (that s/he can get an appropriate response) but for the benefit of the responders as well, who don't want to be on-the-line for their ideas. I think it allows for more creative and original ideas than many would put forth if they thought they were the last word. – Double AA May 29 '12 at 19:05
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    Finally, your example of Mincha is not relevant as the site itself is not being used for the 'misdeed'. As for Shabbat, I believe that has been discussed here before (see judaism.stackexchange.com/q/2671/759 and linked questions), but I still think that actively answering someone's question may be more of an issue, especially (as above) when they might (unintentionally) misuse the information. – Double AA May 29 '12 at 19:09
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    1) I agree that dismissible banners may not be the ideal medium for this sort of warning, which is why I suggested a few others. That's at the level of implementation details. 2) SE does all kinds of other things to promote Q&A that is maximally constructive, including having a "How to Ask" page in the first place. This is along similar lines. 3) The whole point of this is not to dictate an aspect of Halachic behavior to readers but to be perfectly honest and clear about what we're offering. We are not trying to be the Shulchan Aruch, which was, in fact, an authoritative work; ... – Isaac Moses May 29 '12 at 20:38
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    (3 cont) ... we are a crowd of Internet friends. I have seen people come onto this site thinking it was something it's not, and I'm certain that that's the tip of the iceberg that I haven't seen. 4) We do indeed do our best to let people know on a case-by-case basis what the mission of the site is and what it isn't, but that's how we reach that tip of the iceberg we do see - particular askers and as @DoubleAA suggested answerers, not all the other readers who make up the majority of consumers of any SE content. – Isaac Moses May 29 '12 at 20:45
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    5) To your philosophical point, I come back to my #3 above. This is not simply a special case of trying to coerce a certain Halachic behavior, for two reasons: a) It's not trying to coerce a behavior at all; it's just being honest about what we offer. See how I've worded the disclaimer. b) It's not a special case, since this goes to the core of what we're offering. We're offering Q&A which is similar in form to authoritative, personalized, responsa, so it would be natural to mistake it for such even though in fact, that's what it isn't. By bordering on this realm, even accidentally, ... – Isaac Moses May 29 '12 at 20:49
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    (5 cont) ... we take a big responsibility on ourselves. To shoulder that responsibility without care would be hubris. We're not doing that. However, there are degrees in the care we could take, and I feel that there's a hole in our existing measures that deserves to be filled, in the name of honesty, clarity, and responsibility for our product. – Isaac Moses May 29 '12 at 20:52
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I see now that two other SE communities, Health and Law, have professional advice disclaimers in the top-right corners of their front pages:

"Health Stack Exchange is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for individualized diagnosis and treatment by a qualified healthcare provider. Communications on Health Stack Exchange are not privileged communications and do not create a doctor-patient relationship." "Law Stack Exchange is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for individualized advice from a qualified legal practitioner. Communications on Law Stack Exchange are not privileged communications and do not create an attorney-client relationship."

This would seem to be the right place to put our disclaimer.

The text of our disclaimer should be what we already have in our Tour, as that's the product of years of slow evolution and community scrutiny:

Like any library, Mi Yodeya offers tons of great information, but does not offer personalized, professional advice, and does not take the place of seeking such advice from your rabbi.

As documented in this post, its comments, and many other posts on Meta and on Mi Yodeya going back to the very beginnings of the community, such a disclaimer would address an ongoing discomfort that experts on Judaism have with posting answers about Jewish law on a public Q&A site - that their responses will be interpreted as or substituted for personal, professional advice.

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