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Let's say you ask a question that asks about the existence of some type of object, like a result, a document or a historical event; such as:

Whenever you ask this kind of question, there's always the possibility that the answer is going to be "what you're asking for doesn't exist". Unfortunately, if an answerer says this, it's hard to tell how credible the response is. This is a problem for both the answerer and the asker:

  • The asker is hesitant to accept the answer in case it's wrong, and they don't want to reduce the chances somebody who might actually have an example from coming forward and answering the question (e.g. accepting the answer would take it off the Unanswered list).
  • The answerer is hesitant to answer in case they're wrong, and there is actually an example that they're not aware of.

Do we need a policy to handle these cases? I can see this happening a lot. The only really satisfying way to answer such a question would be to do exhaustive research, and write an answer detailing all the places you looked, and arguing why if you didn't find it there, it probably doesn't exist. But we can't be expecting everyone to put that much time and work into every single answer or we'll never answer anything.

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Saying "that does not exist" is a perfectly acceptable answer to a question asked in good faith — that is assuming you can say so authoritatively. With any inquiry, it is entirely possible that a seemingly plausible questions simply has no solution. That in and of itself IS the answer, and saying so is helpful to anyone else who might be searching for that information.

But that's not the same thing as saying "I'm not aware of a solution." Anyone in the fields of science or math should know that an absence of evidence is not proof that something does not exist, so the community should down-vote and comment whenever they see such propositional logic. You don't need a new "policy", just a good dose of community self-moderation.

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    $\begingroup$ "By the way, 'accepting' an answer does not remove it from the 'unanswered' list. It needs an up-voted answer to be considered answered." Are you sure about this? Based on that, math.stackexchange.com/q/190602 should be listed as unanswered, but when I go to the appropriate page on the unanswered list (currently math.stackexchange.com/unanswered/tagged/…) it isn't there. It's certainly true that a negatively voted unaccepted answer won't remove the question from the unanswered list, but I've never seen an accepted answer fail to do so regardless of votes. $\endgroup$ – Logan M Nov 11 '14 at 21:55
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    $\begingroup$ @LoganMaingi No, I'm never sure which definition of "unanswered" questions we're using today. I was right at one time, but there are currently two versions of 'unanswered' in use... neither of which agree with 70,304 questions with no upvoted answers. You're right and the text is wrong — fixing it now. $\endgroup$ – Robert Cartaino Nov 11 '14 at 22:02

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