Asking and Answering Better Questions

Questions make up a large part of any conversation and the way we ask them may elicit different answers from the person we are talking to even if the questions are about the same thing.

Recently I was reading polls about America’s affirmative action and whether people thought it was a  good thing or not. The interesting thing is that polled Americans were asked a question 2 different ways and received 2 different answers.

Caveat: Affirmative action is complicated and I don’t claim to understand it. What I do know is that it plays a role for minorities in college admissions. Colleges can take race into account in order to “create a diverse learning environment for their students“ which has resulted in some minorities being admitted to college with lower SAT scores and receiving more scholarships.

1. Take race into account in college admissions?
Overall 28% of polled Americans think race should be considered.

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2. Do you generally favour or oppose affirmative action programs for racial minorities?
Overall 58% of polled Americans think race should be considered.

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A 30% (nearly double) difference from basically the same question. There could be many reasons for the large gap in opinions. Perhaps some people don’t know what affirmative action actually is. But what I’m interested in is what it might tell us about the way a question is asked and how that makes a difference. Whether one wants to elicit a specific answer from someone or really make sure they are understanding what they are being asked will come down to the way we phrase our questions. Some questions are so insufficiently defined that they don’t warrant an answer without context or further explanation. An example of such as question is “Do you believe in equality?”. What does this mean? It means whatever the questioner happens to think it means but it could mean any of the below and more as well.

  • Do you believe that equality is a real thing?
  • Do you believe that equality exists?
  • Do you believe in equality of opportunity?
  • Do you believe in equality of outcome?
  • Do you believe people shoud be treated equally, regardless of differences?
  • Do you believe in equality of all species?

We should note that in most conversations the context should be well established before such questions are asked but a lot of questions remain loaded whether intentionally or not and this question can’t possibly be answered without further inquiry.

What separates a better question from an inadequate one? We can say for sure that asking a question as objectively as possible should be important, leaving out certain words or terminology and describing the topic might also be as important. For example:

Vague: Do you believe in equality?
Specific: Do you believe that people should have equal opportunity, regardless of race, sex, age or ethnicity?

VagueDo you think studying epistemology is a good idea?
Specific: Do you think studying knowledge, how we know what we know, and concepts of truth, belief and justification is a good idea?

Vague: Do you think it is a good idea to obfuscate?
Specific: Do you think it is a good idea to intentionally make a concept difficult to understand?

The second question requires more effort but how much more confident can we be that the person being questioned actually understands what they are being asked? We can ask questions in a way that is clear and understood or we can ask them in a way that has the person being questioned always asking “what do you mean?”. Whenever I hear this phrase I consider it a failure on my part to express my ideas in a clear and concise way.

I don’t think we should leave out words or terminology from our vocabulary in order to make life easier for everybody else. This is up to you to judge and is often a case by case issue. There is no harm in making your ideas clear by leaving out fancy words.

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” – Albert Einstein 

We should also understand that certain terminology might come with a bias. One need only mention the German football team to a Brazilian fan during the world cup or just say the word conservative to a self described liberal (or vice versa) to realise how much automatic bias is at play in some people’s responses.

The same ideas also apply when you are being asked questions. Make sure your questioner is being precise in what they are asking. It’s fashionable to label someone with a generalised term so that one may apply all their existing biases for that term to that individual. Some of this can be avoided by simply not answering vague generalised questions and forcing the questioner to be specific about what they want to know.

Next time you think someone has given you a stupid answer perhaps have a look at the way you phrased your question. And next time you want to ask someone a question will ask them in a vague lazily way, or will you ask them in a way that leaves them with absolutely no doubt as to what you mean?

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