The Danger of Only Asking Questions We Expect To Be Able To Answer

The Danger of Only Asking Questions We Expect To Be Able To Answer

It is not fun to face ambiguity and questions that we don’t have any hope of answering. Humans don’t like sitting with the unknown, and we don’t like admitting that there are questions, some very important and definitive, that we simply have no way of answering. Some questions we know we cannot answer at this point, but we expect to be able to answer, and some questions there is almost certainly no hope of answering within our lifetimes, and perhaps not within the entire lifetime of our planet or sun. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still ask such questions.
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “scholars tend to ask only those questions that they can reasonably hope to answer. … Yet it is vital to ask questions for which no answers are available, otherwise we might be tempted to dismiss 60,000 of 70,0000 years of human history with the excuse that the people that lived back then did nothing of importance.”
In this quote, Harari is specifically referring to scholars who don’t ask questions about ancient humans living in times before modern tool use. Such humans didn’t leave an obvious trace through items which can be identified and discovered through archeological explorations. Their tools and items were made of organic materials that decomposed. Their major advances came in languages which were not written down and preserved. Their important contributions to human evolution were psychological and cultural, and didn’t easily leave a trace that could survive 70,000 years of weathering, continental drift, volcanic explosions, floods, and human resettlement. As a scholar, why spend time and put your career on the line investigating questions you can’t answer, knowing that you won’t produce journal articles and research presentations for your non-answers?
It is understandable why scholars don’t ask the questions they have no hope for answering, even beyond questions of early human cultures, but Harar thinks they should. By asking such questions, we remember to think about important factors that can be ignored or easily discounted. We can limit our view of history to only those things that left material imprints and traces on our planet. We can overlook details that we might otherwise find important. As an example, Harari shows how early humans still changed the world around them, primarily through hunting and the use of fire, even if the hunting often involved chasing an animal until it died of exhaustion or burning a part of a forest to force animals out of hiding. We might not find a lot of physical tools and evidence of such behavior, but the changes in the ecology and environment may be detectable. For 60,000 years early Homo Sapiens changed the planet, even though we can’t always detect how. Failing to ask questions about such humans and their cultures, questions we can’t find evidence and information to answer, means that we overlook their contributions to the changes of the planet. Failing to ask unanswerable questions means we also fail to ask questions for which we do have some hope of finding answers. It also means we ignore important areas and topics, leaving them for people who want to abuse history and science with myth and narrative that may not have a hope of actually being accurate or discarded as junk without serious minds thinking about the topic.
The Pursuit of Solid Answers

The Pursuit of Solid Answers

Human’s have egos, and that causes a lot of problems. To be clear, it is often not the ego itself that causes problems, but our feeling that we need to be right, that we need to be powerful, that we need to have important friends and connections that becomes problematic. Humans evolved in small tribes where survival often depended on being high status. Men had to be high status to pass their genes along and being high status meant that people would come to your aid if you needed help. Knowing useful things, being physically imposing, and having useful skills all contributed to make us higher status. Today, the drive for higher status is often understood as ego, and it is still with us, even if survival and evolutionary pressures toward super high status have declined.
One way in which this status and ego pursuit manifests to cause problems in our lives is in our intellectual discussions and debates. We often pursue our own ego rather than accurate knowledge and information when we are in debates. We are both signaling to our tribe and trying to dominate a conversation with our strong convictions rather than trying to have constructive discussions that help us get to correct answers.
Mary Roach writes about this phenomenon in her book Spook when discussing paranormal phenomena. She writes, “hasty assumptions serve no one. To make up one’s mind based on nothing beyond a simple summary of events – as believers and skeptics alike tend to do – does nothing to forward the pursuit of solid answers.” When we get into debates on religious topics, questions of psychic or paranormal phenomena, and complex social science questions, we often fall into reductive arguments that are mostly aimed at people who hold the same assumptions and beliefs that we already hold. We make hasty assumptions because our ego wants us to appear decisive and correct without spending time in ambiguity carefully considering the truth. The goal for us should be to become less wrong, but that is not a mindset that is generally rewarded by the ego, which for much of human evolution was rewarded by conviction and demonstrations of loyalty. Making changes so that more considerate thought is rewarded over ego-centric thought is crucial for us to move forward, but it runs against evolution, our self-interest, and what gets the most attention on social media today. Hasty assumptions may not be helpful, but they do get strong reactions and generate support among like-minded individuals.
Science and Facts

Science and Facts

Science helps us understand the world and answer questions about how and why things are the way they are. But this doesn’t mean science always gives us the most accurate answers possible. Quite often science seems to suggest an answer, sometimes the answer we get doesn’t really answer the question we wanted to ask, and sometimes there is just too much noise to gain any real understanding. The inability to perfectly answer every question, especially when we present science as providing clear facts when teaching science to young children, is a point of the confusion and dismissal among those who don’t want to believe the answers that science gives us.
In Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, Mary Roach writes, “Of course, science doesn’t dependably deliver truths. It is as fallible as the men and women who undertake it. Science has the answer to every question that can be asked. However, science reserves the right to change that answer should additional data become available.” The science of the afterlife (really the science of life, living, death, and dying), Roach explains, has been a science of revision. What we believe, how we conduct experiments, and how we interpret scientific results has shifted as our technology and scientific methods have progressed. The science of life and death has given us many different answers over the years as our own biases have shifted and as our data and computer processing has evolved.
The reality is that all of our scientific fields of study are incomplete. There are questions we still don’t have great answers to, and as we seek those answers, we have to reconsider older answers and beliefs. We have to study contradictions and try to understand what might be wrong with the way we have interpreted the world. What we bring to science impacts what we find, and that means that sometimes we don’t find truths, but conveniently packaged answers that reinforce what we always wanted to be true. Overtime, however, the people doing the science change, the background knowledge brought to science changes, and the way we understand the answers from science changes. It can be frustrating to those of us on the outside who want clear answers and don’t want to be abused by people who wish to deliberately mislead based on incomplete scientific knowledge. But overtime science revises itself to become more accurate and to better describe the world around us.
Nature Answers the Questions We Pose

Nature Answers the Questions We Pose

I have not read A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but I know there is a point where a character asks what’s the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, and receives a response of 42. The answer was certainly not what anyone was expecting, but it was an answer. Much of science is like the answer 42. We ask grand questions of nature and receive answers we didn’t quite expect and can’t always make sense of.
In The Book of Why Judea Pearl writes, “Nature is like a genie that answers exactly the question we pose, not necessarily the one we intend to ask.” We learn by making observations about the world. We can make predictions about what we think will happen given certain conditions and we can develop and test hypotheses, but the answers we get may not be answers to the questions we intended to ask. I frequently listen to the Don’t Panic Geocast and the hosts often talk about scientific studies that go awry because of some unexpected interaction between lights, between an experimental set-up and the sun, or because an animal happened to have messed with equipment in the field. Real results are generated, but they don’t always mean what we think they do on first look. The hosts have a frequent line that, “any instrument can be a thermometer,” to note how subtle changes in temperature can cause misleading noise in the data.
Pearl’s quote is meant to demonstrate how challenging science can be and why so much of science has taken such a long time to develop. Humans have often thought they were receiving answers to the questions they were asking, only to find out that nature was answering a different question, not the one the scientists thought they had asked. Pearl states that randomness has been one of the ways that we have gotten past nature, but writes about how counter-intuitive randomized controlled trials were when first developed. No one realized that the right question had to be asked through experimental set-ups that involved randomness. On the benefits of randomness he writes, “first, it eliminates confounder bias (it asks Nature the right question). Second, it enables the researcher to quantify his uncertainty.”
In the book, Pearl takes observations and statistical methods combined with causal insights to a level that is honestly beyond my comprehension. What is important to note, however, is that nature is not obligated to answer the questions we intend to ask. It answers questions exactly as we pose them, influenced by seemingly irrelevant factors in our experimental design. The first answer we get may not be very reliable, but randomness and statistical methods, combined as Pearl would advocate, with a solid understanding of causality, can helps us better pose our questions to nature, to be more confident that the responses we get answer the questions we meant to ask.
Quick Heuristics

Quick Heuristics

I really like the idea of heuristics. I have always thought of heuristics as short-cuts for problem solving or rules of thumb to apply to given situations to ease cognitive demand. We live in an incredibly complex world and the nature of reality cannot be deduced just by observing the world around us. For the world to get to the point where I can drink an espresso while listing to music streamed across the internet as I write a blog post, humanity collectively had to make discoveries involving microscopes, electromagnetism, and electricity, none of which were easily observable or intuitively understandable to our human ancestors.

 

To cope with a complex world and a limited ability to explore and understand that world, humans thrived through the use of heuristics. When faced with difficult problems and decisions, we substitute approximate but not exact answers. We can make a category judgement and reduce the number of decisions we have to make, taking a generalized path that will usually turn out well. Heuristics help us cope with the overwhelming complexity of the world, but they are not perfect, and they simplify the world according to the information we can observe and readily take in.

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes, “the heuristic answer is not necessarily simpler or more frugal than the original question – it is only more accessible, computed more quickly and easily. The heuristic answers are not random, and they are often approximately correct. And sometimes they are quite wrong.”

 

Heuristics are quick, which is important if you are foraging and hear a dangerous sound, if you need to pick a quick place for shelter as a storm approaches, or if you have to make quick decisions about how to behave in a small tribal group. The more fluidly and quicker a heuristic comes to mind, the more natural it will feel and the stronger people will grasp it, even if it is not true. Stories and myths contain relatable elements and extend common experiences to complex problems like how to govern an empire, understanding why storms occur, and guiding us as to how we should organize an economy. Heuristics give us short-cuts to understanding these complexities, but they are biased toward our accessible world and experiences, which means they only approximate reality, and cannot fully and accurately answer our questions. While they can get some concepts more or less correct and give us good approaches to life in general, they can also be very wrong with serious consequences for many people over many generations.
A Condescending Impulse

A Condescending Impulse

In my last few posts I have written about Johann Hari’s research into Harry Anslinger, the nation’s first Commissioner for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and what Hari learned about Anslinger and the start of the nation’s war on drugs. Anslinger held deeply racist views which he channeled into propaganda and drug policy in the Untied States. Hari was appalled by what he read, the common newspaper headlines about Anslinger’s raids from the time, and the quotes from the Commissioner himself. Writing about his research, Hari states,

 

“At times, as I read through Harry’s ever-stranger arguments, I wondered: How could a man like this have persuaded so many people? But the answers were lying there, waiting for me, in the piles of letters he received from members of he public, from senators and from presidents. They wanted to be persuaded. They wanted easy answers to complex fears. It’s tempting to feel superior – to condescend to these people – but I suspect this impulse is there in all of us. The public wanted to be told that these deep, complex problems – race, inequality, geopolitics – came down  to a few powders and pills, and if these powders and pills could be wiped from the world, these problems would disappear.” (Underlined text emphasis added by blog author)

 

We live in a complex world and we all lead busy lives that demand a lot of mental energy and attention just to keep the lights on. We hopefully figure out how to be successful and productive in our own lives, but we only ever get a single perspective on the world, our own. We want to believe that we are good people and that success in our society is entirely within the control of the individual (especially if we have become successful ourselves). When we face great uncertainty and complexity which doesn’t seem to line up with experiences of our lives or the heuristics we have developed for how we live, we seek simple answers that confirm what we want to believe. That is what Hari’s quote shows.

 

Anslinger was building a coalition of like-minded individuals with racial prejudices who wanted to be proven right. They feared drugs, and found drug users and addicts to be easy and defenseless targets. Drugs became a simple answer to the complex problems of why some people became dregs on society while others became wealthy successes.

 

Hari’s quote points out that we should recognize this, but not demonize people for it. We should acknowledge that this instinct is within all of us, and we should not fall into this condescending impulse and turn around a vilify those who are vilifying others. We must approach even our enemies and those among us who are wrong and hold dangerous beliefs with empathy. We must understand that the faults we find in them are faults that we too may have. The only way to connect and make real changes is to recognize and acknowledge these fears, and work to demonstrate how these simple answers to complex problems cannot possibly encompass all that is wrong in our societies so that we can move forward with better ideas and policies in the future.

Our Devious Minds

We now realize,” write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in their book The Elephant in the Brain, “that our brains aren’t just hapless and quirky – they’re devious. They intentionally hide information from us, helping us fabricate plausible pro-social motives to act as cover stories for our less savory agendas. As Trivers puts it: “At ever single state [of processing information] from its biased arrival, to its biased encoding, to organizing it around false logic, to misremembering and then misrepresenting it to others – the mind continually acts to distort information flow in favor of the usual goal of appearing better than one really is.

 

Recently I have been pretty fascinated by the idea that our minds don’t do a good job of perceiving reality. The quote above shows many of the points where our minds build a false sense of reality for us and where our perceptions and understanding can go astray. It is tempting to believe that we observe and recognize an objective picture of the world, but there are simply too many points where our mental conceptualization of the world can deviate from an objective reality (if that objective reality ever even exists).

 

What I have taken away from discussions and books focused on the way we think and the mistakes our brain can make is that we cannot always trust our mind. We won’t always remember things correctly and we won’t always see things as clearly as we believe. What we believe to be best and correct about the world may not be accurate. In that sense, we should doubt our beliefs and the beliefs of others constantly. We should develop processes and systems for identifying information that is reasonable and question information that aligns with our prior beliefs as much as information that contradicts our prior beliefs. We should identify key principles that are most important to us, and focus on those, rather than focus on specific and particular instances that we try to understand by filling in answers from generalizations.

Curiosity and Asking Questions

I keep coming across people who encourage curiosity. The message is that if you want to do meaningful work, to end up in an interesting place, and to have an impact on the world, you should always be curious. Searching for answers, looking around to recognize what you don’t know, and constantly learning about more and more seems to be something that the most successful people do. Questions, the advice suggests, don’t lead to answers and ends, but rather to journeys and new pathways.

 

The idea of curiosity, questions, and learning as the path rather than the destination is echoed in Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit. He quotes Sam Keen by writing, “To be on a quest is nothing more or less than to become an asker of questions.” Questions drive our actions as we search for new answers and lessons. Questions take us to new places, both physically and mentally, and broaden our understanding of the complexity of the world.

 

This quote is comforting to me as someone who enjoys esoteric knowledge and learning. My family members frequently roll their eyes when I start a sentence with, “So I was listening to a podcast…” I love learning new things and connecting dots that are not obvious and that I had not previously considered. I have seen this journey in myself lead to a greater appreciation for people who see and think differently from myself. I have ventured into areas I thought I understood, only to be shown the nuances of decision-making and the challenges of truly understanding an area. Diving into topics that we all experience but don’t all know the background of has revealed biases and forces at work that are virtually imperceptible. Living a journey fueled by curiosity feels incredibly valuable, and is something I wish people would seek out more than we seek to win arguments.

Instant Problem Solver

We all have a part of ourselves that thinks it knows the answer to every problem out there. Not just our own problems, or the problems with the work we do, or the problems with our own families and relationships, but everyone’s problems. The truth is, however, we really don’t know nearly as much as this part of our brain believes and when we try to solve everyone’s problems, we really just create bigger traffic jams. In his book The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier names this part of our brain “The Advice Monster” and he explains what happens when we let the Advice Monster run our brains.

 

“When people start talking to you about the challenge at hand, what’s essential to remember is that what they’re laying out for you is rarely the actual problem. And when you start jumping in to fix things, things go off the rails in three ways: you work on the wrong problem; you do the work your team should be doing; and the work doesn’t get done.”

 

The bottom line is that when we jump into instant problem solver mode, we usually are not being as helpful as we imagine we are. Because we are approaching the other person’s issue with our limited knowledge of what we think their problem is, we focus in the wrong direction. Instant problem solver mode solves the problem we want to solve, and not the actual problem that the other person is facing.

 

The alternative that Bungay Stanier suggests is to spend more time listening to others and see what solutions they come up with before we decide that we know what their problems are and before we decide that we know how to fix them. The instant problem solver manages to find solutions that create more work for themselves and make their day to day life a little bit more difficult. When we resist the instant problem solver urge, we let the person or team we work with identify solutions they can implement for the problems they face. The individual grows and has an opportunity to adapt a new solution, and our time remains clear for additional problem solving.

Answers Versus Questions

I read Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit about a year ago, but I still struggle to adapt his main point into my daily life. What Bungay Stanier recommends is that we ask more questions in conversations, because questions get the other person thinking in a way that develops their thoughts more thoroughly. We like to give advice and tell people the answers we think they need to hear, but our answers often fail to help the other person. Our answers come from our perspective which is limited and does not truly capture and address he issue and concerns of the other person. Questions on the other hand, encourage the other person to think more critically about what they are going through and helps them identify the right answer to the right question.

 

One of the chapters in Bungay Stanier’s book begins with a quote from Nancy Willard, “Answers are closed rooms; and questions are open doors that invite us in.” In coaching, there are two important considerations when thinking about questions versus answers. The first is that an answer doesn’t really get the person we coach to think very deeply about their problem. The second is that an answer may not actually be addressing the right question. Questions on the other hand allow the person being coached to think through the actual challenges they face and steer the conversation in the direction they need it to go. When we provide an answer, we are saying that we fully understand the other person and exactly where they are in relation to their problem, something that is impossible because we can never perfectly know another person’s challenges.

 

Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler suggest that human conversation is a way for us to signal and display our knowledge and our mental toolkit. The real value in a conversation should come from the listening side, where we take in lots of new information for almost no real cost. But in reality, we all try to talk as much as possible in conversations (for the most part) and we want what we say to be interesting and important. When this creeps into coaching, then the coaching interaction is shifted where the main goal is not to help the other person but to show off. This is why our own answers are so damaging in coaching. We are assuming we understand exactly what issue the other person faces and pushing our assumption and recommendation onto them even if they did not ask for it. The worst part is that we may be answering the completely wrong question or providing advice that doesn’t actually fit the person or their situation out of a selfish desire to be impressive.

 

Questions allow the individual to expand on their issue and better organize their thoughts. They can address the specific areas where they have challenges, and questions can guide them through the thinking process. It is hard to get used to asking questions more than providing answers, but in the long term, you allow the other person to find the right answer for themselves and their situation, and you allow them to grow and be a more self-aware individual.