A Good Question Is More Important Than The Right Answer

I write answers on Quora, so I get emails from the site asking me to answer specific questions. At lot of the questions are valuable, but the way they are asked leaves a lot to be desired. In fact, its been a clinic for me in how not to write questions, and in realizing what an important skill asking good questions is, and understanding just how few people have had a chance to develop that skill.

A lot of times poor questions are good questions which have been poorly written. It takes a lot of skill as a writer to write a clear question so that someone can answer it! One big issue is assuming that people share your premises about a question. Probably my least favorite kind of question to answer is “Why didn’t X happen?” or “Why isn’t X a Y?”. Since I answer questions about Papua New Guinea I’ve gotten a few “Why doesn’t PNG become part of Indonesia?” or “Why don’t hunter gatherers settle down?” These are hard questions to answer because the asker has a whole theory in their head about how the world works, a theory which is challenged by what actually occurs in the world. Their question arises when the world and their theory of it is out of step.

Questions like these are hard to answer because you don’t know what the asker’s premise is, so you can’t explain to them where the fault in their logic lies. The shortest answer is really just “why would X?” Which is a way of saying: Why do you believe your presumption holds true, given the existence of disconfirming evidence? A better way to ask the question is “Given the many political and economic benefits of being part of Indonesia, why hasn’t PNG joined Indonesia instead of remaining its own country.” At least that way you can tell what presumptions are at work in the asker’s question.

I — and I think most teachers — are fond of saying that a good question is better than a correct answer. Being able to ask good questions enables growth, imagination, and learning. It builds community by creating dialogue. It also helps me answer your question on Quora! So my advice, if anyone should care to take it, is that you educate yourself about the world, don’t forget to educate your capacity to learn. Asking clear questions with explicit premises, hopefully in a positive (“why”) rather than a negative (“why not”) form is, to me at least, a very important skill.