The False Promise of the Ill-formed Question

We sometimes frame a questions awkwardly, increasing the likelihood even sincere answers will miss what we need to know.

We love questions.  They shift the burden of a conversation to another.  And their expression in a conversation suggests an open mind.  Setting aside queries about the nefarious intent of another, questions usually confer a degree of status on the one who has asked them. The person putting forth the query offers evidence that they are engaged and capable of more than spouting opinions.

Let’s set aside rhetorical questions: those faux interrogatories that are tossed out with a clear answer already in mind.  “You don’t really believe the President understands how international trade works, do you?” is a representative form.  The rhetorical question is a setup that reserves most of the power of explanation for oneself, which explains why they can be so annoying to the person that has to sit through the charade.  Let’s also set aside questions that are meant to yield setups that the questioner is interested in refuting.  “sandbagging” another person is a sport few people like.

We think of genuine questions as learning tools.  We love it when a child or a curious adult seeks an explanation that will add to their expanding range of understandings.  The best of such questions are asked without guile and directed to someone who has insights we respect.

Yet it’s also possible to imagine how useless and destructive the wrong kinds of questions can be.  Some ‘perform’ interest rather than genuinely reflect it. And too many others can turn us in the wrong direction. It’s surprisingly easy to frame an issue awkwardly, making it likely any answer will miss core issues.

Consider a few samples. “Should we continue to execute persons who commit violent crimes?”  Another might be: “Do you know how Johnny scored on intelligence tests?” In different ways each question primes us to consider a subject in a way that is not very advantageous to understanding what we should know. Regarding punishments for violent crimes, is the place to start really at forms of criminal punishment? We would be smarter to discuss common causes of serious crime, such as the nation’s tattered mental health screening for those on the margins.  Regarding intelligence test scores, the more interesting probes would focus on what we now mean by “intelligence,” and whether it is measured using narrow metrics.  Conventional measures, for example, don’t really touch the crucial variable of social intelligence: how well an individual copes with new situations and individuals.

The price of not asking the right question is perpetuated ignorance. 

In a memorable 1993 speech at the National Press Club author Michael Crichton observed that reporters often ask the wrong questions, missing the chance for a more panoramic understanding of a problem.

I often think, wait a minute. The real issue isn't term limits; it's campaign finance reform. The real issue isn't whether a gasoline tax is regressive; its national security--whether we'd prefer to go back to war in the Gulf instead of reducing oil consumption by taxing it more heavily, as every other nation does. The real issue isn't whether the United States should shave have an industrial policy, it is whether the one we have--no policy is a policy--serves us well.

In addition, Crichton could have added the cliches under-prepared that journalists can trot out for any candidate to answer: no research or knowledge required.  The list is familiar a familiar one: Do they think their campaign is going well?  Why do the want to hold this office?  Or how do they feel about their low poll numbers?  This kind of “process” journalism completely ignores explorations of what a candidate thinks about key issues of the day.  They don’t require reading position papers, previous interviews or speeches.  Broadcast journalism if full of interviewers who are not true reporters: too poorly informed to know what to ask.

A thoughtful question should hold out the promise of a useful insight. But it’s easy to miss the mark, making an errant query similar to searching for Venus in the wrong corner of the night sky.