Saturday, September 26, 2009

Doggerel #203: "Just Asking Questions"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

Asking questions is how we learn from others. As a scientifically-minded skeptic, I certainly don't want to discourage someone's curiosity. Unfortunately, some questions come across as dishonest. This doggerel is a common response when we call them on it.

Quite popular among conspiracy theorists, this doggerel tends to follow a session of "whack-a-mole": The questions asked are essentially about trivial details, filled with innuendo. Answering them would require attention to detail, and once answered, the conspiracy theorist will typically move to another tenuous connection. Details can be important, but conspiracy theories tend to have failings on a fundamental level: We don't need to explain why "suspicious" coincidence #592 happened if the laws of physics or simple logistics make their conspiracy untenable.

In other fields, it can often be a response to skeptical frustration: You may not realize it, but a common skeptical frustration is having to answer the same questions over and over again. We don't mean to discourage curiosity, especially since many of us used to have sympathies for your position, but it can be tiring to deal with repetition. The best thing you can do is try to maintain a tone of polite curiosity: Repetition with an air of smugness doesn't inspire our patience.

A third use as doggerel is the result of misunderstanding the importance of the questions being asked. Skeptics such as myself strive to ask fundamental questions, often just to get to a basic understanding of what someone is claiming, or for essential details about a piece of evidence we need to accept it. Some of us are fond of going the Socratic route, asking questions so that the answers might raise awareness of a key point. Take a moment to think about what's being asked of everyone.

Curiosity is a wonderful thing, but it needs tempering. More often than not, skepticism and science are about asking the right kinds of questions.


djfav said...

Glenn Beck uses this one a lot. That and "I'm just afraid that..." Yesterday at work I defaced his picture on the cover of Time. He was asking for it by sticking his tongue out at me.

Tom Foss said...

The other way I've seen "just asking questions" abused is as a way of refusing to respond to counter-questions. They make statements or questions that are loaded with claims and assumptions, and when those questions are answered or criticized, or the claims and assumptions are themselves questioned, the conspiracy nut (or whoever) backs away and says "hey, hey, I'm just asking questions."

In that way, it's very similar to "hey, I'm just playing Devil's Advocate." In other words, it's "I think you should have to provide all sorts of reasons and evidence to back up your story, but I shouldn't have to."

One point is that when skeptics ask questions, they make a point of listening to the answers.