Questions?

Questions?

There is an answer to every question. To find the answer, just ask an authority; the host of the quiz show, an encyclopedia, the Internet, a teacher, or anyone who has the answer book!).

Even with questions that do not have simple answers; such as, “What about the Ukraine and Russia?” The experts on Eastern Europe and their  colleagues will pop up several times each hour on your favorite source for news and information. In 90 seconds or fewer the expert will give us the answer. Whatever the question, someone has the answer!

Finding answers to questions is easy; whether the answer is correct is quite another matter.

It is easy to find “answers” both wrong and which caused real problems.

For example,  really important question was what caused “malarial fevers?” The question mattered because during the history of South Carolina from it’s founding through the beginning of the 20th century, lots of people were sickened and often died of malarial fevers. Fevers were specially bad in South Carolina and particularly severe during the long and torrid summers.

But for most of South Carolina’s (and the world’s) history, the question “what causes malarial fevers?” was really not a question because everybody knew the answer.  

The answer had been handed down from father to son and mother to daughter at least since the time of the Romans.

The answer: “Malarial fevers are caused by inhaling “bad” air, or as the Italians called it “mala-aria,” literally bad air.

The answer was so firmly accepted as true, that when the city of Columbia was planned in 1787, it was to be located at the top of a hill and its streets were to be extra wide (150’!) so that even a slight breeze would blow away the bad air.

The odd part of the story is that for over a thousand years, the strategy of fighting malarial fevers with fresh air showed no tangible results. People still caught malaria and died of malaria, even in well-aired and breezy houses sited on high hills.

Once we have an “answer,” we hold on to it even when there is a huge amount of evidence that it is wrong.

Answers can be deadly. Knowing the “answer” may make it less likely that people would ask the questions that might lead to better answers.

Daniel Kahneman has identified a three fallacies that occur when we jump to answers without asking enough questions.

The three fallacies:

1. WYSIATI (What You See Is All There Is); that is, there may be other factors that we have failed to notice like the prevalence of certain types of mosquitoes during the summer time when fevers are rampant. However, we  don’t look because further because we already know the answer.

2. Answering an Easier Question: We substitute an easier question to answer.  Instead of asking further, more difficult questions (like “why is the solution not working?) we pose ourselves easier question: “how do we get rid of the bad odors?”; and finally;

3. Confirmation bias: we become biased towards data that confirms what we already think we know. Since we already know the answer, the fact that the city smells even worse during the heat of the summer and fever rates increase, using carbolic acid on the street seems to be a reasonable solution.

While the textbook version of science is largely the history of the answers like “Pasteur discovered the process of fermentation” or Becquerel discovered X-Rays” a more informative way to look at science is to begin with the questions that Pasteur, Becquerel asked. The history of our understanding natural phenomena is really better told as a chain of questions, with one question leading to yet more questions. Instead, the textbook version of science is largely told as a set of answers.

Richard Feynman asserts that one of the qualities of science is that it teaches “the value of rational thought.” I think that the lesson is that rational thought begins with questions.

 

Daniel Kahnemann, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. New York, 2011.

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