Sunday, January 1, 2012

How not to ask a scientific question

Science Vs Politics series.

There is a real skill when it comes to asking questions. Science has nailed it, in fact the entire method behind science is based on asking good questions. Politicians however, still have some room for improvement.

There are many ways to ask a question. My 2 year old daughter asks a lot of questions, all the time. This is her way of learning about the world. Her questions are great questions for their purpose but wouldn't hold up in a microbiology lab or in question time. "Mr. Speaker, What you doing?"

Indigenous Australians asked question, only when they were ready to do so. This method of questioning works very well for them. It is how they get most of their information. If you don't know something, there is probably a good reason for it, so wait until you are told!

Here is a great example of a skeptics opinion of what a great question is. PZ Meyers in this case, writes an open letter to a 9-year old girl in order to prepare her better for asking good questions. In short, his advice is this. Don't ask questions you know the answer to, ask a question where you will learn something!

As mentioned before, most scientists, are pretty flash at this. Think Julius Sumner Miller, and his great catch phrase. "Why is it so?" Perfect, this is a great question, and almost unlimited to how much you can learn with this question. Jump to question time in the lower house now, and the situation is very different. From what I have seen, and what is reported to us, none of these questions follow any good definition of a good question.

I have characterised the questions I see in question time into a few groups:
  • Provocative
  • Loaded
  • Unanswerable
  • 9-year old question
Provocative question wil not get an answer but a response. Remember back in the day when you would purposely annoy your brother oir sister in order to get a response, you weren't looking for an intelligent answer, you just wanted them to snap! "Why does the Govermnent refuse to...blah, blah, blah?" falls into this category.

Loaded questions really have nothing in them except for emotion and bias. A loaded question will never get a satisfactory response, it will leave the responder feel like they have dodged a bullet and the questioner feel like their question has not been answered. for example, "When will the minister stop deceiving and lying to the Australian people and blah, blah, blah...?

Unanswerable questions, are designed to be unanswerable in order to make the responder look silly either by a pathetic response or no response at all. "Can the government guarantee that no jobs will be lost in the blah, blah blah?" This questions can simply not be answered, so when an answer is given, it is not an answer to the question asked. In this case the questioner can use the favourite line, "The government doesn't know what they are talking about." It is best for all involved if no answer is given. Both sides win. No stupid answer is given, therefore no misinterpretation or embarrassment, and the questioner can use their other favourite, loaded, line " The Government refused to comment" and getting some cheap points.

The 9-year old question is similar to the one asked in the article referred to earlier. They are kids questions asked by adults who know better. Things like "What was the government thinking when blah, blah blah..."

If we could only install some good questioning techniques into the so-called question time. I'd love to see some thoughtful, well placed, questions that can actually be classed as questions, rather than insults or cheap points scoring. A question is not to make a point, a question is to learn something. I haven't learn that much recently from question time!