Questioning Questions

When my children were younger, I’d sit with them and watch hours of Sesame Street. One of the recurring themes throughout the hundreds of episodes of Sesame Street we watched together was the importance of asking good questions. Or as Big Bird would say: “Asking questions is a good way of finding things out!” That sentiment has resonated throughout a book I’ve been reading. Titled Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, the book explores the art of rethinking. Written by Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania, the book challenges its readers to question their opinions and assumptions and to use questions as a way to open other people’s minds. Especially people with whom we may not agree.

Throughout the book, Grant argues that we need to approach life more like scientists. He’s not saying that we need to wear lab coats or start carrying around beakers. Instead, he says that scientists take inquisitive stances and question the world (and information) in which they encounter. Scientists also take tentative positions on topics, always awaiting more information that could challenge their beliefs or understandings. Grant compares the scientist mode to the ones that people typically take when they confront information or ideas that don’t conform to their beliefs or opinions. Rather than acting as a scientist, they take on the role of a preacher, a politician, or a prosecutor. In preacher mode, people enthusiastically espouse their beliefs despite the conflicting opinion or information. In politician mode, people campaign and lobby to win over the person sharing the dissenting view. In prosecutor mode, people lob arguments to prove the dissenter wrong and win our case. Being a scientist means adopting a different stance.

“When we’re in scientist mode, we refuse to let our ideas become ideologies. We don’t start with answers or solutions; we lead with questions and puzzles. We don’t preach from intuition; we teach from evidence. We don’t just healthy skepticism about other people’s arguments; we dare to disagree with our own arguments.”

And that’s the novel part of Adam Grant’s “be a scientist” position. He’s not just saying that we need to ask better questions of others. He’s arguing that we need to ask better questions of ourselves. We need to question our positions. We need to doubt our beliefs. We need to recognize that we may not know what we think we know.

And that requires some intellectual humility, which is something that our society doesn’t always seem to celebrate. In a recent episode of Against the Rules, Michael Lewis explored how the COVID-19 pandemic was communicated in the media. Lewis interviewed a researcher who explained that “journalists were looking for people who would say either that this is the flu or that it’s Ebola. And those were the only people you’d hear from, even though the majority of the scientific community were like ‘it’s someplace in this range’ and there’s a lot of uncertainty here. But the people who were getting platformed were the ones making the most sensational and certain claims.”

And that’s the challenge. Asking questions is a good way of finding things out, but it doesn’t always lead to compelling television. Or provide comfort during a crisis. In challenging times (like global pandemics), we want a right answer, even though the data (and the questions we need to ask) are constantly changing.

One thought on “Questioning Questions

  1. Wonderful post, Ollie. It resonated with me because just yesterday I was in a webinar with a university leader who was asked what he wishes he had done differently over the last decade or so. His answer was simple: ask more questions. This is from someone known for asking a lot questions, which just reinforces the importance of inquiry in good decision making. Your post takes this to a new level and turn that inward.

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