Stupid Questions

I’ve been slacking off, I realize this. I shall indeed return to a more regular posting schedule…later! For now, I want to delve into a topic that has been nagging at me since reading someone’s Facebook status update on the subject.

That image, while blatantly satirical and cynical, offers quite a lot more insights that are subtle. The status I read went as follows:

[Jane] has made a pact with [Joe] that our New Year’s resolution will be “Not answering dumb questions.”

As an aside, let me begin by saying that I am taking all possible avenues to keep this entry from becoming a rant. Rather, I want to point out the assumptions made in and problems with this statement, and suggest viable alternatives. I suppose there’s really no way to explain myself out of those who would choose to view this as me getting up on my high horse – you are certainly entitled to your opinions – but to those who are undecided I ask only that you withhold opinion until you’ve finished reading.


The biggest problem with this statement is that it’s grossly naïve. What’s wrong with dumb questions? Why shouldn’t they be answered? What’s the motivation for leaving them unanswered? How does one respond instead? Not only are these questions explicitly unanswered, but their implicit answers are likely the reasons for this statement’s naïvete.

For example, giving possible answers:

“Dumb questions are pointless to answer; it won’t fix anything.” Now you’re making the assumption the person asking them is dumb as well. Which is it – the person or the question? Or both? Or are you just too lazy and impatient to deal with someone who may just not be as mentally agile as you?

“I would respond by telling them it’s a dumb question.” I’ll give you points here for at least engaging in a dialog, even if it’s still rather one-sided. At least you’re giving your reasons for refusing to answer, and maybe the person who asked the original question can then rephrase it in a way that meets your high standards of approval.

The other huge problem is that it makes the definition of “dumb” purely subjective. Think about it: to Bill Gates, we’re all dirt poor plebeians; to the 99.99999999999999999999999% of the physical universe on which humans have absolutely no impact, it wouldn’t mean a hill of beans if Earth vanished in a brilliant fireball tomorrow; to the illiterate cotton farmer in Turkmenistan, America is a meaningless footnote that exists only in the rumor mill.

Who are you to say what is dumb and what isn’t? Does the nature of a question make it dumb or not dumb, or does the person asking weigh into the equation as well? If a question is asked by someone who works exceptionally hard but just happened to miss a relatively simple detail, would that be less dumb than the exact same question asked by someone who has a reputation for slacking off? If the question is leading, are you more likely to consider it dumb if you disagree with it? If a gifted and brilliant mathematician had to squeeze in one last semester of poetry in order to graduate, would you consider a question about the basics of iambic pentameter dumb?


The picture itself might be specific to the sciences, but its applicability extends far beyond the academic realm.

As a graduate student with quite a bit of tutoring, teaching assistantships, and general Q&A under his belt, I will certainly be the first to admit that being asked “is Java compiled or interpreted?” 30 times in the space of a few hours can chip away at one’s sanity. While it does help to keep in mind that most of those were asked honestly, it should go without saying that some people who asked them were lazy bums who didn’t show up to lecture, didn’t come to recitation, and expected me – the TA – to do their work for them.

This brings me to my point: the definition of a “dumb question” has almost nothing whatsoever to do with its content or the content of its answer; rather, it has almost entirely to do with why the question was asked in the first place.

And therein lies the rub. We cannot know the “why” explicitly, so we approximate implicitly by way of reputation, or content of question/answer, or some other metric that we may not even be actively aware of at the time. Statistically speaking, human beings royally suck at approximating, so the end result is the original statement: naïvete which is just as bad, if not worse, as the questions this person is actively seeking to avoid.

The solution is, as with most things, to keep an open mind. Be aware of your assumptions, and for Pete’s sake, don’t throw blanket generalizations around. They’re always, always wrong.

(did u c wut I just did thar?)

About Shannon Quinn

Oh hai!
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4 Responses to Stupid Questions

  1. eksith says:

    “is Java compiled or interpreted”

    What a dumb question!
    Clearly it’s roasted and ground.

  2. Elli says:

    Thank you. I needed to read this because I’m one of those jerks out there that get pissed off when I think someone is being stupid and wasting my time. I actually went looking for a different way to look at the situation when it comes up. So thanks for the viewpoint. Cheers.

    • magsol says:

      I’m glad I could help 🙂 But keep in mind this is the blind leading the blind; there’s significant evidence in this blog alone to show that a few well-chosen questions on very specific topics can set me off, too. 😛

      Thanks for your comment!

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