Questions are central to being a scientist. The scientific method starts by observing the natural world and then asking questions to figure out why things are they way they are. Because so much is already known, a lot of these questions can be answered by teachers, scientific articles, or the internet (with a generic warning about being cautious about what you find online). Invariably, you will bump up against a wall where nothing more is known. In graduate school, we were challenged as scientists to find where there is a hole in the scientific knowledge, develop a hypothesis to explain what might fill this hole and then ask even more questions, through experimentation, to fill the hole. But questions aren’t just important for a graduate student, They are important for everyone. The reason that you’re reading this blog is to get your questions answered, and to better understand science and your health. You life depends on your scientific literacy and your willingness to ask questions (as so aptly written about it this Slate article).
I want to help you gain confidence asking questions, so I’m going to start with my trials and tribulations in graduate school because I often felt inadequate at asking questions. That may sound ridiculous to you, but as a young scientist at a world-renowned research institution, asking questions served one of three purposes: 1. It helped you better understand something, 2. It helped the person you were questioning by adding something insightful to the conversation or 3. It made yourself look smart (or look like a smart ass) by asking a question that will baffle the person you’re asking.
I was usually really good at asking questions to better understand something. I was completely okay and confident that I didn’t know everything. In fact, I may have been a bit too okay with not knowing things, to the point that I wouldn’t trust my thoughts and ideas when talking to other scientists (more on that later). My absolute favorite example of my young inquisitive mind is what I now affectionately refer to as the “dinosaur question”. In our neuroscience class we were talking about vision and how the rods and cones of the eye connected to the brain to form images. My most pressing question was “If all we have left of dinosaurs is their skulls – so no idea of their rods and cones and neurons – why do we know that some dinosaurs could only see movement”. Now this truly baffled my instructors until one of them finally asked me, “what evidence do you have for this piece of information” and I confidently responded “Jurassic Park!”. Although the question may have been a bit dumb, I think it’s important to ask all of the questions you have since they are all learning experiences (even if it in the end, you don’t get an answer about dinosaurs)
As for the second type of questions – the insightful question – when asked in a gracious and truly inquisitive tone, can help clarify someone’s research, help them think of something they haven’t thought of before, or help make a connection between something new an interesting. These are fabulous questions leading to new trains of thought and opening up fascinating conversations. These were a challenge when I first started as a scientist because I didn’t have a lot of background knowledge that I could bring to the table. Not only that, I lacked the confidence to speak up when I thought I had an interesting idea to add to the conversation. It was only after hearing the exact same question or insight that I was going to ask, asked by someone else enough times that I gained the confidence to finally chime in.
The third type of question is my least favorite. I’m sure that this isn’t just done by scientists, but far too often people ask a question where the main intent is to make yourself look smart. And in the meantime, you end up making yourself look mean-spirited and the person your questioning feel bad. Now don’t get me wrong – there are times when someone really doesn’t know what they are talking about and probably some serious questioning is needed, but it’s the spirit in which this is approached that makes all the difference.
So why am I writing a whole blog post about asking questions? My goal is to help empower you by giving you answers to your questions through my blog posts, to provide you with information that will give you more confidence to ask more questions to your doctor, to your colleagues, or to me (and your question may even be featured on my blog!), and to help you in your path toward science literacy. Remember, at one time, we are all asking dinosaur questions or aren’t confident enough to speak up, but there is no such thing as a stupid question so ask away!