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Just asking questions!

“That is the question!”

Or is it? The problem with many questions nowadays lies in the motivations behind the asking.

By quoting out of context, you can usually make people appear to say whatever you want. In the case above, of course, the actual question is about life and death, but it’s impossible to know that from the part I quoted.

But what if the question itself is the problem?

Honest curiosity is at the the core of science, and the hallmark of honest curiosity is honest questions.

“The most exciting phrase in science is not ‘eureka!’ but ‘that’s funny...’”

This quote is attributed to Isaac Asimov. The attribution is rather weak, but the point is profound. Honest curiosity is what drives people to ask questions which change the world.

Now, you probably noticed that I keep using the word “honest”. That’s because we now see far too many examples of people “just asking questions” who are anything but honest. They are “just asking questions”, but ignore the answers and keep asking aggressive questions until they get an answer they “like”, or ask a question that can’t be easily answered. What happened to evidence? Credibility? Critical thinking? I’ve commented on that in the past, but keep coming back to whether the questions are honest.

An honest question is about trying to understand, not about trying to “prove” a point, particularly when you don’t even understand the point you are attempting to prove.

As an example, is it legitimate to ask about whether the COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective? Yes, but how you ask indicates whether you are being honest or not, and usually becomes clear with the follow-up questions. All of that said, it’s really not legitimate to keep asking the same questions again and again, searching for apparent “weaknesses” in the “argument” - possibly a topic for another time.

Let’s say that our friend Alice is trying to understand more about vaccines, and asks: “How do we know that the vaccine is safe and effective?” An honest answer would note that we have a process for demonstrating the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. It varies from country to country, but generally consists of basic research, then pre-clinical and animal studies, then clinical studies. Clinical studies are generally broken into phases, which confirm safety, understand dosage, learn about side-effects, and so on. In most countries, there is government oversight, and rigorous academic review by experts in the field.

Alice might follow up with a question like: “How do the studies work? And what do we do if there are problems in them?” That suggests an honest attempt to understand, and the response should note that it’s complicated, but that many countries make the information publicly available. The Canadian government, for example, provides a great deal of information, ranging from high-level overviews, down to the details of studies and their results.

Now, let’s say that Malice starts asking questions as well. The first question might be: “How can you know that the vaccine isn’t dangerous?” The question might raise a flag because it’s worded in such a way as to imply that there is evidence that the vaccine is dangerous, but we’ll let that pass, and give the same answer we gave to Alice.

Malice’s follow-up might be something like: “The government keeps changing its story. How can you know that the government isn’t lying?” Another red flag, but the response would simply be that the “story” is changing as we learn more about the virus, and that we have information coming from multiple governments, multiple non-government organizations, and many credible independent sources. Overall, these sources are consistent in their recognition that there is a virus, that it’s bad, and that the vaccines are safe and effective.

Now, it’s likely that Malice would now simply note that you are obviously deluded and that you should listen to X. This is actually where it gets interesting, since you are now expected to ignore the guidance of the consensus of experts in virology, immunology, public health, and other relevant disciplines and instead listen to one or two “experts” who rarely have any relevant expertise, or who have been discredited in some way or another. If you push back on these follow-up questions, though, Malice is likely to become defensive and say: “Hey! I’m just asking questions.”

What to do in cases like this?

Well, it depends on a number of factors. First, people who use this strategy frequently have a number of ready arguments they will throw at you. They are likely to be pure fiction, out of context, or previously debunked, but unless you are already familiar with them, you may not have a response. This will, of course, be taken as a “weakness” in your argument and a vindication of the point being made. Of course it’s nothing of the sort, but people asking questions of this sort will often pretend otherwise.

If you are having a public dialogue, engagement with people like this is often pointless. But if the person is someone close to you, it may be worth engaging with them privately, to try to understand why they believe what they believe. You might not agree, but at least you’ll gain some insight into their world-view.

And those might be questions worth asking.



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