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Field and Swamp: Animals and Their Habitats

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How to Ask a Good Naïve Question

You can’t study science or work in the field long before the issue of the “stupid” question comes up.   It gets quite a bit of discussion and there are at least two firmly held camps on the subject.   One person I used to work with was fond of saying, “There’s no such thing as a stupid question!” although he generally delegated the answering of work-related questions to me.  I hold a different point of view: 1) there are naïve questions (generally a positive thing) and 2) there are genuinely stupid questions (definitely bad!)  

Honorable people may disagree about the dividing line between the two, although I suspect there is general agreement about the nature of the extremes.   From my point of view, a good naïve question is likely to get the answer "No, no! You've got it all wrong!  Let me explain..."  On the other hand, a typical stupid question often elicits the response "What do you think?" or, generally sarcastically, "Howdja guess?"

My topic here, though, is much less ambitious:   how to ask a good “naïve” question and how not to provide a stupid answer to one.

Let’s go back to the basics.  Remember the old joke starting with “Why did the chicken cross the road?”   The joke is funny because the answer to this ordinary question is a stupid one: “to get to the other side.”   This answer provides no new information: it’s implied in the question.   But maybe the question, too, is stupid:  it gives too little information about the ultimate purpose of the person asking the question. 

There are many logical answers, e.g., “to escape a fox that came up behind it when it happened to be standing at the side of the road” or “it was moving in a northeasterly direction and its path crossed the road” or “chickens tend to cross any roads that they see.”  Or maybe even:  “In our experiment, we tried to find out what would motivate a chicken not to cross a road so we wouldn’t have to put up a fence by the side of the road.”  These answers are not necessarily all true or plausible, but all have a certain validity.  Each could conceivably satisfy the curiosity of the person wanting to know why a chicken crossed a road. 

To get the right answer, you have to ask some naïve questions, such as "Which chicken?"  and "Which road?"  But context is also important.  In this case, you have to let the person you’re asking know what really grabs you about this mystery.   Most people aren’t likely to be interested in what motivates a particular chicken to cross a road.  But some might be, because that chicken or that road is part of their worlds or because they see a general principle in that particular situation.  That’s when science comes into the picture. 

What about questions that the asker knows the answer to, but not necessarily the person asked?   Suppose it's an open-ended question?   In that case, how far outside the box are you allowing the answer to be?   Are you letting your own personal blinders get in the way?   Is this the Socratic method or are you dropping the person you're asking somewhere the deep blue sea?   These considerations are key to what distinguishes the "hard" sciences from the humanities, fact from tradition and fashion.

© Copyright 2008 Dorothy Pugh

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