Friday, September 03, 2010

Silly questions

In my immediately previous post I wrote about Richard Dawkins’ webchat about the furore Hawking seems to have caused by saying what everyone knows anyway.  Some of this webchat was about silly questions.  Richard said that asking what is the purpose of the universe is a silly question on the grounds that there’s not the slightest reason to believe that it has a purpose.  He mentioned a few other silly questions, such as “what is the purpose of a tsunami?” to illustrate that universes aren’t the kinds of thing you can necessarily insist have a purpose and to ask the question without a decent reason is plain silly.

It seems that quite a few people object to this, insisting instead that there’s no such thing as a silly question.  I’m going to be lazy and cite only one example, which happens to be in the comments on Pharyngula, but I’ve seen others in the same vein (honest).

Posted by: kieran September 2, 2010 2:25 PM

Am I the only one who thinks there is no such thing as a "silly question" maybe it's from teaching first years when any form of comunication is amazing and should be encouraged at all costs. These would be first year college students.
Even "silly" questions can teach you alot; even if that is just the person asking it is silly. To paraphrase the NRA questions aren't silly people are!
So I'm against Richard on the "silly question" question.

This seems a decidedly silly point.  It’s really easy to think up questions that are silly:

“Why do quarks taste purple?” is silly because quarks are not the kinds of thing that can have a taste and purple is not .a taste.  The question doesn’t make sense and so is inherently silly.  “Why does the universe smell of parsley?” is also silly because the vast majority of the universe – which is not parsley – does not smell of parsley.  It’s silly to ask those questions because the answers can’t possibly be useful.

Or can they?  There are some contexts in which they might be.  For example, they might conceivably be useful in a discussion of what questions are silly or in a class about logic or debate.  Context, as ever, is important.  If you’re interviewing a politician about unemployment figures, then it would be silly to ask her whether she could prove that aliens invented toast.  Firstly she has (hopefully) never claimed that they did and holds no beliefs that toast is of extra-terrestrial origin.  Second, it wouldn’t contribute to the discussion of employment.  It’s just silly.

I’m all for encouraging and enticing children to ask questions.  I think it’s one of the most important things we can do and I despise parents and teachers who trivialise children’s questions or don’t give their full attention to trying to answer them.  As I discussed with a friend a few days ago, one thing I really hate is when a parent answers a child’s question in a zoo or museum by reading out the explanation on the plaque and pretending they knew the answer all along.  Why can’t they say “you know what, I don’t know why honey badgers are so awesome, let’s read this plaque that explains why.”  Admitting that they don’t have all the answers but showing that we can find out a lot of answers by asking the right questions is every parent’s duty.

But to say that no question is silly is demonstrably wrong.  There are a lot more silly questions than there are sensible ones.  We should encourage children to ask questions, but I’d hope we’d also help them to recognise which questions are worth asking.

Let’s not condescend to children by telling them there’s no such thing as a silly question.  Let’s encourage them to ask questions and if some of them happen to be silly, let’s react by guiding them to ask the better questions that are probably behind the silly ones.  And then saying “I don’t know…..let’s find out together.”

Also: if there’s no such thing as a silly question, then is “‘is there such a thing as a silly question?” a silly question?

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