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We recently had a question about the cause of death of a psychology professor.

This question raised several issues. But of particular relevance for this site is whether it is on topic to ask questions about the lives of cognitive scientists. Presumably, there are many different types of such questions, which will vary in the degree to which they relate substantive knowledge produced by the academic.

However, the general question:

What rules govern when a question about the life history of a famous cognitive scientist is on topic?

  • Thanks for asking this Jeromy! I wanted to but was unable at the time I saw that question. – Josh Jul 11 '13 at 3:32
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Ofri Raviv, in his comment to the question, wrote: "[T]his site is about cognitive science, and not the history of cognitive science." His answer here aims in the same direction.

I disagree with that.

No science is cast in stone. It has been repeatedly shown for past stages in the evolution of many scientific fields, how the concepts, research questions and results of a science are dependent on social circumstances and ideologies that have grown, among other things, from that science's history. Understanding that history is one necessity for the advancement of a science.

We are dealing here with cognitive sciences in its entirety, not only with results of its research. For me, everything that helps understand and advance cognitive sciences is on topic, even when it comes to a researcher's private life. An example (that has been considered in many publications) would be how Carl Gustav Jung's romantic relationships with his patients influenced his theories and his clinical practice.

Thus, any and all aspects of a scientist's life might become a topic for a valid question here on SE, but they must be phrased that way. A question after a private aspect of a researcher's life, is clearly off-topic. A sample ontopic rephrasing of this question would be:

"How did Daniel Wegner's cancer and impending death influence and change his later research?" (this is fictitious, I have no idea what Wegner died of and if he knew he would die)

An answer to such a question would be speculative, of course, but I don't believe that empirical evidence is the only relevant information for someone interested in this field. A question and answer that intend to help understanding or prepare for future research are at the core of what I expect from this site. If I want hard evidence, I turn to Google Scholar.

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My own comments largely align with those of @what.

There is a rich history of cognitive science that should be open for discussion. This could relate to the evolution of our knowledge, changes in techniques over time, or how the context of a scientist's life influenced their research. That being said, I do think the question at the root of this discussion is almost certainly off-topic. The fact that Wegner conducted cognitive research does not make a discussion of his passing automatically relevant. Further, a question that is focused on the circumstances of that passing would be difficult to justify.

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I think that the site should keep the focus on the science itself, and not on its history or related sociology. So only questions that are directly related to the science should be on topic. Other question should perhaps go to history stack exchange site (which has a science tag).

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