The problem with “just asking questions”

Asking questions is generally a good thing. Indeed, questions are the very foundation of science. People become scientists because they are curious and like to ask questions, and science itself is simply a systematic method for asking and answering questions. Unfortunately, the positive perception of questions often leads to people using questions as a disguise for wilful ignorance, and the phrase, “just asking questions” has been used to justify all manner of insane and illogical beliefs. The people who use this phrase are generally not actually asking questions. Rather, they are phrasing a belief as a question in an intellectually dishonest attempt to maintain the appearance on intelligence.

There are two major problems that I am going to discuss. The first is simply that not all questions are good. I fundamentally disagree with the notion that there is no such thing as a stupid question. Good questions stem naturally from known facts and evidence. In other words, they have a basis in reality. Bad questions, however, are not based on facts or evidence and instead rely on wild conjecture. Indeed, in science, hypotheses do not spring out of nowhere. Rather, they are based on the existing evidence.

Let me give an example. In my field (herpetology) there has been a fair amount of debate and discussion about the purpose of basking behavior in turtles (i.e., why do aquatic turtles come out of the water and bask on rocks and logs?). There have been many hypotheses/questions that people have looked at. For example, is it for thermoregulation (temperature)? Does it help immune functions? Does it remove parasites? Etc. All of these are good questions. They are perfectly rational things to wonder about based on our existing knowledge of biology.

Now, however, imagine a scientist asked, “Are they basking to avoid aliens that live in the water?” That would be a bad question, because it’s not based on any known facts. There is no reason to think that aliens are involved, and we’d need good evidence of the presence of aliens before it would be rational to even consider the possibility that they are involved. If a scientist asked that question at a conference, they would be laughed out of the room, and they absolutely could not justify it by saying, “I’m just asking questions. Aren’t you scientists supposed to be open-minded?” Yes, scientists should be open-minded, but being open-minded means being willing to accept new ideas when presented evidence for them. It does not mean being willing to accept or even consider the possibility of aliens influencing turtle behavior despite a lack of evidence that aliens are living in our aquatic ecosystems. Do you see the point? You can’t just say something insane that has no evidence to support it and justify it as, “just a question.” There needs to be some reasoning behind the question. There needs to be some actual evidence to make the question worth perusing in the first place.

If we apply that to current events, questions like, “where did coronavirus come from?” are fine. That’s a totally reasonable thing to ask. Even asking “is coronavirus man-made?” was not entirely unreasonable at first (see below), because there is a very real possibility of people bio-engineering viruses. However, a question like, “did Bill Gates invent coronavirus so that he could microchip everyone?” is not a good question. That is a stupid question, because there is utterly no evidence to suggest that either Gates engineered the virus or that Gates is trying to microchip people. The question, “Did Bill Murray engineer coronavirus because he enjoyed being in Zombieland and wanted to try an apocalypse in real life?” is just as valid, by which I mean, just as stupid. The fact that something is phrased as a question does not make it rational.

The second major problem with people “just asking questions” is that those questions are rarely good-faith questions being asked out of honest curiosity. Rather, they are often statements of belief that are being disguised as questions. Many (if not most) of the people asking things like, “did Bill Gates make coronavirus?” don’t actually want the answer. Rather, they are confident that they know the answer, and that’s a problem.

Asking questions is only a good idea if you are willing to accept the answers to those questions. In other words, asking a question like, “is coronavirus man-made” is fine if it is being asked out of a genuine sense of curiosity and desire for knowledge. There is nothing wrong with asking that question if you are then willing to look at the evidence and accept the answer provided by that evidence (in this case, the answer is a clear, “no, it was not man-made”). The problem is that many people asking the question won’t accept that answer. They refuse to accept the evidence, but also don’t want to admit that they are denying evidence. So, instead, they claim to be “just asking questions.”

To be clear, I don’t think most people are deliberately using the phrase “just asking questions” because they know that they are denying evidence and don’t want to look foolish. Rather, this is simply one of many cognitive traps that people fall into. Most of the people who go around justifying nonsense by saying that they are “just asking questions” probably truly think that they are being rational and are simply asking good questions. So, the point of this post is really to act as a warning. Be conscious of your views and biases, and if you find yourself “just asking questions” stop and ask yourself, “why am I asking this? Is there actual evidence to suggest that this is a good question?” Then, if you think that it is a good question, actually look at the evidence. If you aren’t willing to look at the evidence, then you are stating a belief, not a question. Once you’ve been shown the facts, it is no longer rational to keep asking the same question. Once you’ve been given the answer, your choices are either to accept it or deny it. You cannot claim to be rationally asking questions if you’ve already been given the answer to your questions and simply refuse to accept it.

Finally, it is worth explicitly stating that when I say to look at the evidence, I mean actual evidence from reputable sources. Youtube videos, conspiracy websites, outlets on either extreme of the political spectrum, someone you know on Facebook, a cherry-picked expert, etc. do not count. To quote Will Turner, “that’s not good enough.” In science, your evidence needs to come from the peer-reviewed literature, and you need to look at the entire body of literature, rather than cherry-picking, and for topics like politics and current events, you should get your information from multiple reputable news outlets. Don’t accept the first source you come across. Rather, cross-reference it using multiple other sources and see if they all say the same thing (the Media Bias Chart is a very useful tool for seeing if the sources you are using are neutral and reliable).

My point with all of this is simple. You should ask questions. You should think critically and evaluate what you are told, but your questions need to be based on known facts, and they need to be good-faith questions that are asked out of an honest curiosity. You must be willing to answer them by actually looking at evidence from reputable sources and accepting facts.

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6 Responses to The problem with “just asking questions”

  1. Creationists ask excellent questions, dealing with which have forced me to clarify my own thinking. The only trouble is, that they don’t pay any attention to the answers

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  2. Ggreybeard says:

    Good article,thank you.

    You say “In science, your evidence needs to come from the peer-reviewed literature” but it is not always possible for a lay person to source new discoveries back to scientific papers on Arxiv or other such repositories. Even when I do that, the scientific terminology precludes understanding.
    I do agree that one needs to be careful to select reputable multiple sources – but even tracking back to a university media release does not always guarantee accuracy.

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    • Roy A. Johnston says:

      Also, the ‘peer review’ process has been corrupted by politics and money. That this has and is happening is logical, because people (even scientists) do what they get rewarded to do. So, if you go against the dogma of the day, you are ridiculed & shunned. This encourages behavior modification in your work and your research. Your work may be sound and contribute signficant insight to understanding, yet fail ‘peer review’ for non-scientific reasons. This insidious creep of dogmatization and bias has put Science on very thin ice.

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      • Fallacy Man says:

        Utter bullocks. The peer-review process is certainly not perfect, but the idea that it is about money, or politics, or that you can’t publish against the “dogma of your field” is utterly ridiculous. Are you aware that scientists don’t get paid for their publications? In fact, we have to pay editorial fees in order to publish. Similarly, this notion that scientists are blindly following dogma is one of those utterly absurd accusations that is only ever made by people who don’t actually participate in science. The entire point of science is to question the accepted wisdom and make new discoveries. This is something that is drilled into young researchers throughout their training. Indeed, every scientist who was ever considered great was considered great precisely because they discredited commonly held views of their day. If I had actual evidence that anthropogenic climate change wasn’t real, vaccines were dangerous, evolution wasn’t true, or any other “dogma” was false, not only could I publish in the journal of my choosing, but I would probably get a Nobel prize, and would have guaranteed myself an honorable place in history alongside the scientific greats. No one ever gets anywhere in science by blindly following “dogma.” You have to follow new ideas and challenge the existing ones to get anywhere in science. That’s literally the job of a scientist.

        In short, you said, “people (even scientists) do what they get rewarded to do” well, in science, you get rewarded for making new discoveries and discrediting existing ideas. You absolutely do not get rewarded for blindly following dogma.

        Also, as far as the notion that the peer-review process is influenced by politics, that is pretty impossible given how the process works. Politicians have no control or influence whatsoever over it. Reviews are conducted by independent reviewers who are selected based on expertise, not political affiliation.

        Some suggested reading for you
        https://thelogicofscience.com/2016/08/29/who-reviews-scientific-papers-and-how-do-reviews-work/
        https://thelogicofscience.com/2015/03/04/peer-reviewed-literature-what-does-it-take-to-publish-a-scientific-paper/

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      In cases where you are not qualified to evaluate the original evidence, your best bet is looking at multiple credible secondary sources (like university websites, as you suggested, as well as government websites like [depending on the topic] CDC, NASA, NOAA, etc.). Basically, you want to look for a consensus among experts. If most experts are saying that X is true, then,for a lay-person, it makes sense to assume that X is most likely true. That doesn’t guarantee that X is true, but it is the logical course of action when you can’t examine the data for yourself.

      PS I wrote this post a while ago about how to access most peer-reviewed studies for free
      https://thelogicofscience.com/2019/09/17/how-to-find-and-access-peer-reviewed-studies/

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  3. Another example phrase that is misused is “Important questions remain about x…” It gives the impression that there is more uncovered “truth” and that the person asking these questions is also an expert on the topic.

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