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September 11th, 2020

The cliche is that there’s no such thing as a dumb question.  The intent behind this is rather wholesome and even cute: it’s to encourage people (generally young students who have somehow lost their childhood superpower of asking a constant stream of questions) to pipe up when they don’t understand something.  The tribalistic tendencies of of the human mind in a group clearly exert a new force with the onset of puberty, and likely much earlier.


Think back to one of these instances, when a teacher or professor has made some point and you feel clueless and look around wondering if everyone else understood what went straight over your head.  There has often been that outlier who doesn’t give a hoot about shame or embarrassment and raises a hand to ask what feels like a dumb question, and of course it turns out that everyone had the same dumb question on their mind because no one understood what the teacher was saying.  How grateful are we when that individual, devoid of fear asks a question we ourselves have?


It seems that the only thing more unsettling than being confused is being visibly confused in front of other people.  It’s an experience of being an outcast, but in the worst possible way, because you also don’t understand what’s going on.  Being an outcast with a mission can be fun because you become a rebel with a cause, convinced that everyone else has the wrong perspective.  But the experience of confusion is an instance of no perspective.  Quite literally.  When we don’t understand a subject, it’s as though it’s invisible.  We can’t see how the pieces go together.  We don’t just lack perspective, it feels as if there isn’t a perspective at all.  


The flip side of course is to take the dumb question to an even greater extreme: to ask a question that is even more open ended and “dumb” than you feel inclined to ask.  Not only is it possible you’ll have the silent gratitude of someone also listening, but it opens up the person who attempts to answer the question to speak more broadly about the topic which opens up the serendipitous opportunity they may mention a detail that augments what you actually do understand in an important way.  And on top of this, it broadens the field for more specific, future questions.


The descriptor ‘dumb’ for a question is really an indication of where people think group knowledge is on a given topic.  But of course this is always relative.  We don’t, or shouldn’t think of a child’s question as dumb because a child is far, far less likely to have had experience of previous understanding.  And yet we hold ourselves and often other people to far higher standards despite the same circumstance of having little to no pervious experience or understanding.


The lesson of the dumb question isn’t that there are no dumb questions but that questions communicate implicitly differing levels of understanding, and both as the person asking or answering questions, we can manipulate the portrayal of these levels to other people to great benefit, either to gain greater understanding or to reorient the playing field so that everyone is on the same page.

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Podcast Ep. 880: Dumb Question

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