Sunday, 6 April 2014

The Power of Asking

Asking questions is so simple, yet it is not used nearly enough. By posing a question upon hearing some claim, one will learn something new. More precisely, it will be one of three things:
  1. The other person has a good answer. In this case, one learns something about what is discussed.
  2. The other person has a bad answer. In this case, one might point this out to him and he may revise what he had hitherto thought on the topic.
  3. The other person has a bad answer or even no answer. In this case, one can point it out and, if no revision occurs, one is safe to think the other person a fraud.
The best questions are, I think, the ones demanding either a mechanism to back up what was said, or evidence in support of it (including the nature of the evidence so one might judge how believable it is). Except for the risk of appearing a little bit ignorant, (politely) asking questions of this character in no way imperils one's status in front of others and the potential benefits are vast: simply wanting to know stuff can hardly be bad socially as long as one is polite, and getting to learn new things is clearly privately desirable.
Frequently in public debates, questions are not asked, particularly not questions of my preferred variety. In lieu of questions, there are attacks on the other person or re-statements of what was said before. Perhaps this happens because the expected retort will insult the asker's intelligence, or perhaps they do not want listeners to hear a potentially very good answer. Not always and everywhere, of course, but this happens a depressingly large fraction of the time I come across such debates. (So I do not watch or attend very many of them.) When this happens, what might have been a Socratic dialogue has turned into something quite ugly. I think in such cases one can conclude that the people involved are not interested in truth but in advancing some agenda of their own.
Off the top of my head, here are just some issues in which basic questions can go a long way. The questioned claims may be right or wrong, and I have some tentative answers of my own, but I mention them because I find that there is typically extremely little substance in public discussions about them:
  • Why is territorial expansion by one country to be feared by its neighbours? What is the mechanism? What is the evidence?
  • Why should we expect men and women to be equally well-represented in most or every occupation, and to earn exactly as much in these occupations? Again, mechanism? Evidence?
  • Why is domestic poverty more important to address than poverty in very poor countries?
  • Why is it a civic duty to vote?
Lastly, an analogue to the Golden Rule also applies for asking questions: The questions you are asked by others - and by yourself - you should treat as seriously as you expect others to treat the questions you ask them.

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