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I propose that there ought to be a way for the mods of a site to put up a prominent disclaimer that shows up on every page and makes it clear that the site does not offer professional services.

For example, on mi.yodeya, the SE 1.0 site that was the starting point for Judaism.SE, the header of every page contained the following in bold red:

Like Wikipedia, mi.yodeya makes no guarantee of validity, and does not offer professional (particularly rabbinic) advice. Treat mi.yodeya information like it came from a crowd of your friends.

This disclaimer was the most prominent mechanism used on mi.yodeya to address a concern that many on the site felt very strongly about: that it is inappropriate to turn to a crowd-sourced website instead of to a qualified rabbi for personal, practical advice about implementing Jewish practices, and that a Q&A site would naturally attract people seeking such advice. In fact, this has been a real issue from time to time.

When mi.yodeya migrated into Judaism.SE, we no longer had the ability to insert this disclaimer into our header, even though doing so was a very popular request on our meta almost immediately after migration. Instead, the disclaimer is on the sidebar for new users only and in the FAQ.

It seems to me that it would be more appropriate to bring this sort of disclaimer back in a prominent place for all readers, and further, it seems that there are a number of other existing or proposed SE sites that could use a similar feature:

  • The new Christianity.SE site is similarly dealing with the problem of people seeking pastoral advice on their site. There has also been discussion about this sort of issue with respect to the proposed Islam site.

  • It seems to me that Personal Finance and Money ought to make it clear that it's not offering professional financial advice, both to warn people against acting on what they heard from a crowd and to limit its liability.

  • Even more so, the proposed sites for Medicine and various legal areas could be significantly liable (morally and legally) if they don't make it clear that they're not offering professional advice. In fact, people have already indicated, in the discussion section for a couple of these proposals, the need for such a disclaimer.

I'm not just suggesting this as a pro-forma legal cover against liability, like the email footer Jeff quotes. In fact, I'm not 100% certain of how legal liability applies or could be mitigated. My main concern is that Q&A sites in realms where authoritative advice properly comes from accredited professionals will tend to create situations in which authoritative-sounding advice is offered irresponsibly and acted on improperly. Therefore, askers and readers should be reminded "don't act on everything you read on the Internet," and answerers should be reminded to exercise due humility.

At Judaism.SE, we consider ourselves to be taking on a great responsibility when we say anything about Judaism for public consumption and when we provide a forum for people to do so. To the degree that the potential for would-be professional advice is solicited, offered, or acted upon through our site, we feel that responsibility even more. I get the sense, from the materials linked above, that people in the Christianity.SE, medical and legal communities feel similarly. Given that this type of strong concern is shared by multiple SE communities but is foreign to others, including the programming mothership, I think it makes sense to address it with a feature that can be controlled from within each community.

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While I understand the motivation for your proposal, I think having such a banner on every page would be distracting and take up valuable screen space. Perhaps it could be toned down a little in some way that still gets the message across to new visitors? –  hammar Sep 2 '11 at 3:05
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@hammar I'm certainly open to alternative design ideas. However, I feel strongly that restricting the visibility to new users would be insufficient, since people can lose their "new user" status very quickly and either not notice or forget about the disclaimer. –  Isaac Moses Sep 2 '11 at 3:07
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Good point. Maybe showing it on the first visit per day or something would be sufficient. –  hammar Sep 2 '11 at 3:09
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Other than in the site header, other places where this sort of disclaimer could be useful would be on the pages where a user submits a question or answer. –  Isaac Moses Sep 2 '11 at 14:01
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+1. FWIW, Personal Finance and Money had such a disclaimer in the footer of every page, when it was operating as basicallymoney.com under the Stack Exchange 1.0 model. It read as follows: "Absolutely no warranty is provided in relation to the fitness, completeness, suitability, or accuracy of information on this site. Consider seeking professional advice specific to your situation before you make important financial or legal decisions." Refer to web.archive.org/web/20100327043918/http://… –  Chris W. Rea Sep 3 '11 at 0:48
    
@chris there is a notice in the footer of wordpress.stackexchange.com and apple.stackexchange.com about trademarks. –  Jeff Atwood Sep 16 '11 at 10:09
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This is also a concern on the Laws and Legal Questions proposal (not yet launched). See Disclaimer to make it clear that the site isn't offering professional advice –  Kevin Vermeer Jan 6 '12 at 18:09

1 Answer 1

Doesn't this already exist for all new users?

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Try it yourself in Chrome's Incognito Mode (or equivalent).

I'm pretty heavily against any "disclaimers" that appear prominently on every page, since they are just noise and will get read past anyway -- like those crazy email footers people put on their emails:

This e-mail and its attachments are solely for the use of the intended recipient(s). If they have come to you in error you must take no action based on them, nor must you copy or communicate them to anyone. Please notify us immediately and delete this communication. Please note that Dewey Cheatem & Howe LLP monitors e-mails sent or received. Further communication will signify your consent to this.

As a community moderator, you can of course click "edit" on your /faq and edit such disclaimers into the top of your /faq if you absolutely feel you must.

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Yes, as I said, they were ad-hocced in for new users on Judaism.SE, but this text is only editable by SE staff, so we'd have to work through you to change it, and any other site would have to work through you to get it. Also, "new user" status does not tend to last very long, so many users will tend to either not notice or forget the disclaimer. –  Isaac Moses Sep 2 '11 at 12:51
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More to the point, I'm not just suggesting this as a pro-forma legal cover against liability, like the email footer you quote. I really think that Q&A sites in realms where authoritative advice properly comes from accredited professionals will tend to create situations in which authoritative-sounding advice is offered improperly. Therefore, askers and readers should be reminded "don't act on everything you read on the Internet," and answerers should be reminded to exercise due humility. –  Isaac Moses Sep 2 '11 at 12:54
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Please take a look at the paragraphs I've added to the question. This isn't a strong concern for the programming community you're most familiar with (outside of Therac-25 programmers, I guess), but it's something that people in my and some other communities take extremely seriously. –  Isaac Moses Sep 2 '11 at 13:59
    
What about the banner at the top of the screen (the one that welcomes you to the site and tells you when you earn badges)? Would showing something like that once to new users be a good idea? –  uɐɯsO uɐɥʇɐN Sep 2 '11 at 14:00
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@George Again, showing something once to new users is something, but has limited impact. Moving the disclaimer out of the sidebar to a click-to-dismiss message would probably make it more likely that the new users would at least notice it once. That plus perhaps notices on the question and answer submission pages could be sufficient. –  Isaac Moses Sep 2 '11 at 14:05
    
How does the disclaimer legally absolve the site of anything? This is the Internets, you can only trust what you find as far as you can throw it. –  user7116 Sep 2 '11 at 14:11
    
@sixlettervariables, Thanks for pointing this out. I edited the question to emphasize the fact that legal absolution is not my main concern. I'm more concerned with taking moral responsibility for the material we facilitate the publication of wherever it could have a real impact on people's lives. –  Isaac Moses Sep 2 '11 at 15:11
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@Issac: I guess (as an accredited health care provider and a human factors nut) my experience is you can put warnings, labels, disclaimers wherever you want but someone will ignore it and blame you anyways. All it ends up being is noise which makes no change to the status quo. Their addition does not automagically ensure authors and readers exercise any scruples at all. I think it places a false sense of security where none exists--nor will ever exist--as you're relying on free will. –  user7116 Sep 2 '11 at 15:44
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@sixlettervariables, "Someone," or "everyone"? Of course, there will always be people who do the wrong thing. I'm proposing to reduce the number of such people by proactively making it very clear what the site they're visiting is and is not for. I've seen more than once people coming in expect that they've found an oracle for professional advice. I'll never know how many came with such an assumption, saw our original disclaimer, and correct their assumption, but even a small number could make the disclaimer worthwhile, given the gravity of some of the material being dealt with. –  Isaac Moses Sep 2 '11 at 15:50
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@Isaac: I can say that SO makes numerous attempts to coerce users into asking questions well suited for the community, yet inappropriate questions are asked without fail. Bold red text could be everywhere and there would be no change. Yet, if you feel it helps people stay on the "right moral track", I don't think I can dissuade you. –  user7116 Sep 2 '11 at 18:33
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@sixlettervariables: 1) SO makes coercion attempts for aspects that are relevant to SO, but not for the professional advice pitfall. I'm asking to add this issue to the list for sites on which it's relevant. 2) I'm not just worried about pre-empting ill-suited questions and answers; I'm also interested in warning readers about misusing information they see on a site. Clearly, there's no foolproof solution to this, but I think that a prominent warning is helpful and in order. –  Isaac Moses Sep 13 '11 at 16:04

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