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A recent question, What precautions need to be observed to create a food-safe silicone mold?, triggered my radar about a type of question that could potentially be more dangerous than helpful, and I'm hoping the community can consider how these types of questions should be handled.

This example asks what guidelines need to be followed to make a food-safe mold or part. It is basically on topic as a crafting question, and nothing really precludes it, but I'm not aware that this type of question has been asked here before, so the implications haven't been considered. Two related types of questions come to mind with the same issue:

  • How do I craft [X] so that it meets [Y] requirements for health or medical safety?
  • How do I craft a medical device to treat [X]?

On the surface, these look like crafting questions. But the purpose or driving requirements really require expertise that is outside the site scope. People without the expertise could contribute reasonable-sounding answers, but the gist of any answer is a form of medical advice or has medical implications. People without the proper training may not know what they don't know. Answers could be directly harmful, or miss critical information, and the incomplete information could be harmful.

I'm envisioning a worst-case, far-fetched scenario of a headline, "John Doe died tragically as the result of following well-intended but incorrect advice on the Arts & Crafts web site." :-) We see stories of injuries and fatalities from some of the nutty Tik Tok challenges. The risks from advice on our site are less apparent because it lacks those obvious elements of danger and absurdity.

Beyond that, the quality of the site is primarily in the quality of its content. Content outside the purview of the site's intended scope can't be reliably curated by the community.

Another aspect is that it may well be possible to provide a correct and complete answer, but it might need to be book-length, so beyond the intended scope for the site. Topics like food safety are covered by volumes of regulations and guidance. An answer could be reasonably concise by including extensive references to where to find the information externally. However, answers are intended to be self-contained and not rely on redirecting readers to external information. An answer that basically told the reader where to find the answer would be a low-quality answer. It would need to include a usable summary of the relevant scope.

There are at least five approaches to questions of this nature:

  • Make them off-topic. We don't want to encourage people going to a crafting site to get "medical advice" from Internat strangers whose relevant credentials are unknown. This is a bit of a slippery slope, and would require a good definition of what constitutes an off-topic rating for this reason.
  • Make them off-topic on the presumptive basis of being too broad to answer, properly and well, within the site's scope. If it turns out that a good concise answer is possible, a reader with that knowledge could raise an exception.
  • Leave them on-topic, but add a comment that warns/reminds readers of the dangers of relying on any answers. While this doesn't state a conclusion that any of the information is bad, it has the unfortunate censorship ring of the "disinformation" warnings appearing on some prominent social media platforms on politically or socially unfavored posts. If a thread needs to carry a safety warning, should it be part of the site's content?
  • Don't do anything special. Readers are adults, and a certain amount of common sense is required to navigate Internet advice.
  • Obviate the need for such questions by providing the basic information in another format. For example, is an existing tag. The tag infrastructure provides a potential mechanism to cover a topic at a high level, and without the requirements and limitations imposed on answers. Another option would be a FAQ thread on the subject, to which additional content could be added as the need is identified. It also might be possible to include such content in the Help section. Bear in mind that creating and validating such content would require expertise outside the site's scope.

Please weigh in with your thoughts.

3 Answers 3

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I don't think we should exclude health concerns from the scope, because "health concerns" covers a very wide range.

We've had questions about

And many more. In some cases the lack of knowledge could have severe consequences like injuries, amputations (in case of the baby blanket) or permanent health damage. Some answers are short, others have to be longer to cover all risks. None of the questions were closed as off-topic.

What distinguishes the current question about food safe silicone items? I think it's the reference to official authorities like the FDA. Anyone who ever had the pleasure of reading official standards or guidelines probably knows how many strict rules they contain and how long they can be. That would put this question into the "off topic - too broad" category in my opinion, not because of it's health topic, but because of the high demands the question makes.

If the request for FDA regulations or similar aspects were the main focus of the question, I would close them as off-topic because the actual crafting becomes secondary or even irrelevant. Same if the question was about certain chemical reactions in crafting materials, about electrical wiring in a craft project or if the crafted object was actually intended to be used as a medical device. There are other SE sites where these questions might fit, but they are certainly off-topic here on Arts&Crafts.

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  • Elmy, I totally agree with all of this in principle. I guess what concerns me relates to what motivated Matthew to ask the question. If making things food safe was simply a matter of using approved ingredients, or the "how to" was accessible to non-experts, it wouldn't be an issue. The problem is that it requires specialized knowledge and resources not readily available to a hobbyist. People without the knowledge and resources can't rely on doing it safely. As you note, good answers would likely be too broad (or advice not to try this at home). (cont'd)
    – fixer1234 Mod
    Aug 6 at 21:11
  • But could also be bad advice, and the community would lack the ability to curate it. Very specific situational questions like your examples can be within scope, and readers are likely to have dealt with it before. Similar questions on crafting a medical device would likely require medical knowledge to answer. So that seems more clearly off-topic to me (if that's to be a basis for being off-topic). I guess the bottom line is: (cont'd)
    – fixer1234 Mod
    Aug 6 at 21:12
  • at some point, the crafting aspect is secondary to specialized considerations that are generally outside the focus/purview of the site, and which could have serious consequences. Crafting something is involved, but the question is really focused on something outside the site's scope. Would we just consider that similar to: "I want to get into crafting/art. Teach me everything I need to know."?
    – fixer1234 Mod
    Aug 6 at 21:12
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    I had to think a while about this. In the end, such a question would be either "too broad" if it requires us to break down standards and regulations (which applies to the question about food safe silicone in my opinion) or just "off topic" because it's about chemistry or commercial production or FDA regulations and the crafting aspect is secondary to the question.
    – Elmy Mod
    Aug 7 at 19:21
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So, as the person seeking such information, this is just my 2¢...

People without the proper training may not know what they don't know.

Absolutely true! (Ahem: Dunning–Kruger effect — DKE — is definitely in play.) But what about people asking such questions? Leaving them in blissful ignorance of what they don't know doesn't seem like the right approach, either. In fact, that's exactly the problem I'm trying to address by asking such questions.

Obviously, I'd expect answers to include citations and/or advice for further follow-up. I'd hope it would be obvious that just taking the word of an answer author, unless that author can show relevant credentials and/or authoritative sources, is "obviously" dumb, but I wouldn't object to disclaimers to that effect.

I should also note that there are articles on such topics floating around. (This one is especially concerning, as it's from a manufacturer, has almost zero mention of caveats or precautions, and seems to imply that basically no special knowledge is needed. Now, that may be true, but without being explicit that that's the case, it feels like it's almost encouraging DKE.) That being the case, it's hard to see how providing a sort of "clearinghouse" for such information that ensures the ability of the community to provide feedback (which isn't the case for some random article on some random website!) is worse than the current situation.

Last, I'd be remiss to not point out this question (different SE, but still on SE as a whole), which is quite similar to the one that started this discussion.

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  • Thanks for weighing in. Your own reaction to the ArtResin blog mirrors the concerns I have with questions of this nature. :-) I agree with the gist of your points. My own concern is more in the implementation. Two points: 1. Yes, the information ought to be available, and it could certainly be useful to visitors here (in some form, not necessarily as Q&A). But is this the appropriate venue to provide it (is it within the site's intended scope, and can we reliably do it justice)? Your specific question was motivated by an inability to locate the information. (cont'd)
    – fixer1234 Mod
    Aug 5 at 20:04
  • But suppose you had been able to find it, and then had a technical question about what you found. Most such follow-up questions would not be on-topic to ask here. Which means that if the high-level question is on-topic, this site is, at best, capable of answering it in a superficial way, and follow-up clarification would take us down off-topic rabbit holes. (Doesn't preclude such questions, but that would be a ramification.) 2. You are obviously cognizant of what makes answers high-quality, and how much to trust online advice. (cont'd)
    – fixer1234 Mod
    Aug 5 at 20:04
  • But the vast majority of information consumers on all SE sites aren't the people who asked the questions, it's other people who find it in a search. They're the ones I'm concerned about (and includes the ones without the common sense to not engage in some of the TikTok challenges). That raises another possible strategy: allow the potentially dangerous information and let Darwin cull the gene pool. :-)
    – fixer1234 Mod
    Aug 5 at 20:05
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I agree with Elmy's answer that we should not exclude health concerns. However, this question sought to distinguish that from something a little different, and I didn't do a good enough job of making that distinction in the question. I'll try to make it clearer in this answer.

The differences are in aspects like question focus and the ability of the community to curate the information (our expectation based on the defined site scope). By "curate the information" I'm referring to things like challenging bad information, offering clarifications, posting competing or conflicting answers, and the like. Some example questions:

  • "I want to make a cutting board out of wood and apply XYZ finish. Would that be food safe?" People can look up XYZ finish to see if it's safe, and people may have experience with whether that finish breaks down. This question is focused on a specific craft project. Food-safety is a characteristic but not what defines the project (the project is crafting a cutting board). It's reasonable to expect that community members could be familiar with a particular finish and its suitability.

    I have no issues with this. Elmy's first example (food safe casting materials) is similar.

  • Elmy's candle wax example: the question is about the suitability and safety of specific additives for crafting candles. Pretty clearly on-topic, and it's reasonable to expect that community members who make candles could be familiar with the issues.

  • Elmy's example of safety equipment for working with epoxy is about how to safely craft with epoxy. Pretty clearly on-topic, and information that community members who work with epoxy are likely to be familiar with. The last example regarding toxic fumes from melting acrylic is similar.

Contrast those with an example like this:

  • "I want to make a device out of silicone that goes in your nose to treat medical condition [X]. What characteristics does it need?" Overlook the fact that this hypothetical example is poorly constructed (overly broad and ill-defined). The crafting aspect is just incidental; the focus is on creating a medical treatment.

    Answering the question requires medical knowledge about condition [X], the workings of the human body, possible side effects, safety and compatibility requirements of the materials, how the person's other conditions and medications might interact, etc. All of that is off-topic for the site, even though it would be a crafting project.

    Most readers would be unaware of missing critical considerations or bad information in answers, making the thread more dangerous that useful. We might coincidentally have some members who are also medical professionals, but there would be no expectation that the user base of the site should have the knowledge to curate the information. That's the kind of question I'm concerned about.

The food-safety question that initiated this thread seems to have some of the same characteristics. The expertise of the community is in crafting, not food safety. In the practice of crafting, some members are likely to have dealt with particular examples of food-safety requirements, and acquired specific use-case knowledge. But general expertise in food safety is not an expectation on an arts and crafts site. In Elmy's examples, health or safety was incidental to crafting, rather than crafting being incidental to what is fundamentally a health or safety question.

So take a question like, "I want to start making various stuff out of silicone. What do I need to do to ensure that the results are food-safe?" Again, overlook the overly-broad way I paraphrased the example. Answering that requires general expertise in food safety, or familiarity with the relevant food-safety regulations. Crafting is just incidental to the question; it isn't about a specific project or a specific food-safety risk. It's not something we would expect our user base to be able to curate.

So I would see questions like Elmy's examples as on-topic, but my two examples immediately above as off-topic. To implement it as a policy, though, would require some rigorous and clear guidelines that explain what makes those cases off-topic (it would have to do a better job than I did in writing this Meta question).

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  • The problem here is that you assume what the community does and doesn't know. And as the saying goes, by assuming you make an ass out of you and me. Who says that there isn't an FDA auditor browsing this site and willing to answer the question? Or someone in the silicone industry? If there isn't, the question will remain unanswered, just like any other highly specific question we lack experts for. What makes a question off-topic should only be the question itself, not the assumed answer or the assumes (lack of) knowledge of the community.
    – Elmy Mod
    Aug 8 at 13:38
  • @Elmy, for something that is clearly within the site's bailiwick, I agree that it isn't off-topic if someone doesn't know the answer. I'm considering the other direction--allowing something tangential. I think in general, we should err in the direction of including tangential content. One consideration is the old saying, "It's all fun and games until somebody gets their eye poked out." If someone asks, "Will this finish hold up to my cat scratching it?", the clawing ability of cats isn't within the site scope, but there are lots of community members who could answer it, (cont'd)
    – fixer1234 Mod
    Aug 8 at 17:20
  • and the content is "fun and games". If someone asks, "How do I make silicone plates and utensils guaranteed not to harm my family, friends, and me if we use them with our food?", that's its own separate subject area that's tangential to the site, and more in the "getting your eye poked out" category. Such things shouldn't automatically get excluded just because of the potential danger, but that's when another aspect of topicality becomes important--the ability of the community to curate the information. That's different criteria, and we should err in the other direction. (cont'd)
    – fixer1234 Mod
    Aug 8 at 17:20
  • It isn't so much whether someone might eventually come along who can curate it, its whether we can reasonably expect the community to be able to curate it based on the defined site scope (what expertise would practitioners commonly have). The danger isn't in not getting an answer, it's in getting answers that look reasonable but they're wrong, and people could get harmed by following it. It might even make sense in this case to assess inclusion by the current user base (which is the opposite of what we normally do). (cont'd)
    – fixer1234 Mod
    Aug 8 at 17:21
  • If there happens to be a member or two with the expertise to either reliably answer or curate answers, I'd be more inclined to include it. But I think you nailed it with your comment on your own answer. This is probably already covered by either being too broad or simply off-topic. Guess I was looking for a way to more clearly define whether edge cases should be judged on-topic.
    – fixer1234 Mod
    Aug 8 at 17:21
  • In my experience, trying to over-specify corner cases only leads to a single closed question before the over-specific rule is forgotten again. And most of the time there already is a rule that applies, but I'm the first one to admit that I don't always remember it.
    – Elmy Mod
    Aug 8 at 18:44

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