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Volume 21, Issue 32;   August 11, 2021: Many "Stupid" Questions Aren't

Many "Stupid" Questions Aren't


Occasionally someone asks a question that causes us to think, "Now that's a stupid question." Rarely is that assessment correct. Knowing what alternatives are possible can help us respond more effectively in the moment.
Main Reading Room of the U.S. Library of Congress

Main Reading Room of the U.S. Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. View from above showing researcher desks. Photo courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.

Assessing the value of someone else's question can be risky business. Risk is elevated whenever you find yourself thinking, "What a stupid question." That's a danger sign because very few of the people you work with are actually stupid. If you find yourself thinking along those lines, you could be in the trouble zone. Just to be clear, to be stupid is to be rash, reckless, irresponsible, foolish, unintelligent, and so on. Truly stupid people don't last long in the organizations where readers of this blog work.

If stupid questions are rare, one might wonder, what are those questions people ask that so many others regard as stupid? Having in mind the possibility that a seemingly stupid question might be something else can be helpful when framing responses to what so many people regard as stupid questions.

Here's a little catalog of some of the kinds of questions that many classify reflexively as "stupid."

Information-seeking questions
Information-seeking questions are, um, requests for information. The information sought can be a definition of a term, or the name of a concept, or the nature of the relationships among concepts. It can be a request for an explanation of the justification of a step in a proof or argument. It can be simple data, like the age of the oldest redwood tree.
To regard these questions as stupid is to dismiss the possibility that there is a flaw in our information distribution process. Somehow the asker didn't receive — or forgot — the information the asker is now seeking. Personal negligence or stupidity isn't the only possible explanation. These questions might actually be evidence of defects in the information distribution functions of the organization.
Lazy questions
These are questions that the askers could have answered with just a little bit of effort on their own. For example, suppose our public library has eliminated daily fines for overdue items, and instead suspends privileges for borrowers with outstanding overdue items. A lazy question might be, "What's the daily fine for overdue books?" It's a lazy question because that information might be readily available on the library Web site.
There is Having in mind the possibility that
a seemingly stupid question might
be something else can be helpful
when framing responses to what so
many regard as stupid questions
an exception. The effort required to find an answer might be very small, but if the asker doesn't know the technique for finding the answer, or if the asker lacks the resources necessary to apply that technique, then the scale of effort required is irrelevant. What might seem to be a lazy question might not be. For example, a question whose answer Google can provide isn't a lazy question when the asker doesn't have access to the Internet.
So for someone who can use Google, asking the age of the oldest redwood tree is a lazy question. (At this point, I suspect that some of you feel an urge to find the answer right now. Resist.)
Naïve questions
Naïve questions appear in at least two flavors. Explicitly naïve questions ask for fundamental definitions, relationships, or whats or whys. Implicitly naïve questions are those in which the asker is unaware that the answer to one or more explicitly naïve questions would be necessary for understanding the reply to the implicitly naïve question.
Asking why our library suspends borrowing privileges of borrowers who have outstanding overdue items is then an explicitly naïve question. Asking why our library web site doesn't have a daily fine posted for overdue items is an implicitly naïve question.
Misinformed, disinformed or disinforming questions
These are questions one or more of the premises of which are false. In misinformed or disinformed questions, somehow the asker has acquired an incorrect perspective regarding the circumstances that he or she is inquiring about.
Continuing with the example of our public library overdue policy, suppose our library has eliminated all overdue fines. Then a misinformed question might be, "Why are library fines so much higher for books than they are for videos?"
One subset of misinformed questions might be called disinformed questions. These are questions for which the innocently duped asker is relying on falsehoods that were knowingly created and distributed by people or agents intent on spreading disinformation.
A separate subset of not-stupid questions might be called disinforming questions. Although they take the form of questions, the "asker" isn't actually seeking an answer. The asker instead is using the form of a question to spread disinformation that the asker knows well is disinformation.

When someone asks questions like those identified in this little catalog, responding by answering in a straightforward manner is safer than castigating the askers for asking them. But even straightforward answers carry risks. Some possibilities:

  • You misunderstood the question because it matched something else you've been pondering of late
  • You don't know enough about the situation that precipitated the question
  • What you think you know about that situation is incorrect
  • The question was ill posed and your interpretation of it is unfortunately inappropriate

Clearly there are more possible reasons why answering in a straightforward manner can be risky. But there is a way to manage these risks. Taking your time usually helps. When someone poses a question that your inner voice tells you is "stupid," instead of responding, first breathe. Then say something like, "Good question, tell me more," or "Hmm, say more" or even "<straightforward answer>, but perhaps I misunderstood the question." Go to top Top  Next issue: The Major Annoyance of Mini-Digressions  Next Issue

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