Ask Questions That Matter

I know a lot of people who think of themselves as intellectuals. That is, they spend a substantial fraction of their free time dealing in ideas. Most of these people are mainly consumers who take in ideas, but don’t seem to do much with them, at least as far as anyone else ever sees. But others are more outward facing, talking and writing about ideas, often quite eagerly.

Oddly however, most of these idea dealers seem to define themselves mostly in terms of the answers they want to promote, instead of the questions they want to answer. Most idea-oriented Facebook status updates seem like this – saying yay for some answer they agree with. The few that deal in questions also seem to be mainly promoting them, saying yay for the sort of people who like that question.

Now yes, in addition to question-answering the world also needs some answer indexing, aggregation, and yes, sometimes even promotion. And yes, sometimes the world needs people to generate and even promote good questions. But my guess is that most intellectual progress comes from people who focus on a question to which they do not currently know the answer, and then try to answer it. Yes, people doing other things sometimes stumble on a new answer, but in general it helps to be looking in order to find.

I also know lots of academics, and they all have one or more research topics. And if you ask them they can usually phrase these topics in terms of questions they want to answer. And this is a big part of what makes academics more intellectually productive. But alas, few academics are able to articulate in much detail why it is important to the world that their questions get answered. They usually just invoke some vague associations, apparently considering it sufficient that some journal is willing to publish their answers. They seem to think it is someone else’s job to decide what questions are important. Unfortunately, most academic journal articles are answering pretty uninteresting questions.

So the important intellectual progress comes down to the rather small fraction of intellectuals who both define their focus in terms of a question, rather than an answer, and who bother to think about what questions actually matter. To these, I salute, and bow. They are the sweet thirst-quenching fount of progress.

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  • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern


    So the important intellectual progress comes down to the rather small
    fraction of intellectuals who both define their focus in terms of a
    question, rather than an answer, and who bother to think about what
    questions actually matter.

    This sounds like an empirical claim, which doesn’t necessarily follow from the previous observations. Can it be substantiated? Do great figures to whom major intellectual progress has been attributed – Isaac Newton is as good an example as any – define their focus as a specific question and think about what questions actually matter *before* they make their progress-contribution?

    Offhand, the only example I can think of for ‘an intellectual who had a specific question he sought to answer and who carefully considered which questions were most valuable’ is not scientific but literary: John Milton. Milton famously drew up a long list of possible literary topics (IIRC, contained in the Trinity Manuscript), considered them all, and settled on the specific question of “why did man fall and God permit this?” (to “justify the ways of God to men” which is surely an important topic if you believe in God), producing a major landmark in poetry & English literature, _Paradise Lost_.

  • Scrappy

    Important question: How do I raise my status by signaling a unique understanding of a problem space, while phrasing my signaling as a question to provide plausible deniability of my motive to signal?  This is an important question, because signaling is important to human evolution (obviously).

  • Rob

    Gordon Gallup and Christopher Boehm seem worthy of such salute.

  • DanielHaggard

    “So the important intellectual progress comes down to the rather small fraction of intellectuals who both define their focus in terms of a question, rather than an answer, and who bother to think about what questions actually matter.”

    To signal correctly that you belong in this group you perhaps should have written instead:”Does important intellectual progress come down to which group of people with what qualities… etc…  ?”

  • Hedonic Treader

    Some questions that are important to the world to answer:

    – How is (subjective) value encoded in the brain?
    – Are there different types of value, and if yes, are they comparable to each other (can they be traded off against each other systematically)?
    – Generalizing, what other (potential or actual) systems can be said to encode value in similar ways?
    – What is the causal relationship between adaptivity and value? Can two equally adaptive systems in equivalent competitive niches vastly differ in how much value they encode?
    – What is the maximally efficient way to create systems in states of high encoded value?

    It seems that if there are questions whose answers could be “important to the world”, then there would have to be an abstract coherent value definition to which “the world” could ascribe “importance”. If this is true, a scientific investigation into the nature and causalities of that value would be the most important question. Otherwise the notion of “important to the world” is incoherent.

    (If that unlikely condition is met, and value can be coherently formalized, my bet is that an information-theoretic abstraction of the phenomenon we call (un-)pleasantness provides the best candidate)

    • Elithrion

      I would not be at all surprised (65% expectation) if “value” turned out to be purely a folk psychology concept that did not correspond to anything in particular in the brain.

      However, that doesn’t mean that being “important to the world” is meaningless. Loosely, I’d say that a discovery/”answer” A is more important to the world than discovery B, if the world with no A is more different from the world with A than the world with no B is from the world with B (in the long term, with temporal discounting if you choose to use that).

      • Hedonic Treader

        I would not be at all surprised (65% expectation) if “value” turned out
        to be purely a folk psychology concept that did not correspond to
        anything in particular in the brain.

        Maybe the folk psychology concept of value is not precise enough to be of much scientific use. But it’s an obvious fact that coding of (subjective) good and bad exist, and it’s clear that this information must be implemented somehow. That implementation principle is a crucial scientific and philosophical question imo.

      • Elithrion

        I don’t find that obvious at all. For example, maybe the brain can only determine things like “is this desirable for me”, “is this within the social norm”, “will this make people trust me more”, and “is this fair”, for which it uses a large range of specialized heuristics. If something like that turns out to be the case, I’m not sure that any of this would really correspond to “value”, which might emerge after talking about some combination of these heuristics a lot, but which I would personally then find not very useful for making a question like “Can two equally adaptive systems in equivalent competitive niches vastly differ in how much value they encode?” meaningful.

      • Hedonic Treader

        Yes, this is a plausible objection. In that case, I’d still find it at least one of the most interesting questions of our time to find out how those specialized heuristics are implemented and if there’s a common theme to them that corresponds to an information-theoretic principle of valuation, even if it has no unifyable common currency, so to speak. I’d still want to know how the actual heuristics work, how neurons have to be wired up to create them, etc.

  • Robert Wiblin

    A good post. It would be interesting to compare the research output of seekers versus promotors. Here’s another person who explicitly looked around for the most important questions they could answer within academia and has done well out of it (Nick Bostrom): http://80000hours.org/blog/140-how-to-make-a-difference-in-research-an-interview-with-nick-bostrom

  • Jannes

    “most academic journal articles are answering pretty uninteresting questions”
    1) Answering questions is a “Selbstzweck” as we say in Germany. Answering questions is worthwhile just for the sake of working your brain, puzzeling around and satisfying curiosity. Why shouldn´t journals publish about it? Apparently there are enough people curios about the same questions.
    2) Leaving vanity and individualism behind: Does it not seem valueable to contribute to socities project of progress by answering small detailed questions?
    Let me briefly stress that matter: I suppose people are as smart and curios as in Newton´s and Einstein´s times, but in comparison to the good old days of great genius, nowadays more people have access to good education and there are more complicated questions raised everywhere. That´s why most people have to go for the small small of everydays question answering.
    3) Who decides what matters anyway? Maybe you should specify what are “interesting questions” to you. Or are you merely referring to a purely subjective gut feeling of what is an “interesting question”.

    Nonetheless: Interesting post.
    Jannes

  • Sean

    So true, and so well said. Please never stop blogging. 

  • http://blog.seliger.com jseliger

    who bother to think about what questions actually matter. To these, I
    salute, and bow. They are the sweet thirst-quenching fount of progress.

    Maybe most academics aren’t sure whether their questions matter and won’t know if they do until after the questions have been answered, or at least substantially explored. This point doesn’t disagree with yours—the key word in the section I quoted is “think”—but I still think the point worth emphasizing.

    • komponisto

      This is a very good point. Sometimes we realize the importance of a question only in hindsight. In order to gain such answers, it is necessary to use heuristics for choosing problems that may not always seem to provide adequate explicit justification. Hence the concept of intellectual “taste”, and perhaps the ultimate raison d’être of academia and institutions like it.

  • Eric Hammer

    Is there an aggregate list of open questions for most fields? Is there one in economics? It would seem like that would be a very useful tool for academics, but I am not aware of one.

  • Cournot

    “But my guess is that most intellectual progress comes from people who focus on a question to which they do not currently know the answer, and then try to answer it.”
    I don’t believe that.  I think much progress comes from work that a substantial minority believes to be true but that the majority/or the major elites are ignorant of or indifferent too.  Absent promotion and intellectual competition in whatever form, it is difficult for those ideas to make it to the top of the pile and get disseminated in a form that’s useful.  Furthermore, most groups that feel that their special answer is right will turn out to be wrong.  But again, the “median voter” in the world of ideas has no simple mechanism for selecting among these competing “truths,” hence the need for competition with a bit of self-promotion thrown in.

    Moreover, a lot of new work can be offshoots of answers to general questions that you already believe where the details haven’t been fully worked out.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

    Isn’t this something you’ve already figured out, Robin? The academic disciplines are for raising the status of academics, not for creating knowledge. From this it more or less follows that most research doesn’t foster intellectual progress and that to make progress you must think about the questions rather than unthinkingly plucking at what’s around or thinkingly pursuing status–to the small extent that we’re capable of avoiding such behavior.

  • Jonathan White

    Robin talks about the “sweet thirst-quenching fount of progress”, but he fails to define what is good. Because of that, he is led to two erroneous conclusions: 1) Only interesting questions can matter; 2) All that matters is progress. 

    Let me offer a counterexample which addresses both these: Let us start with a definition of good which is ingrained in any baby. Life is good. Death is bad. Thus, a baby’s cry of hunger is really a statement and a question: “My life matters to me. Does my life matter to anyone else?” No one would vote-up a recording of the cry of a baby on Quora — not only is it uninteresting, but it is actually painful to listen to. And if someone did vote it up, what could possibly be the progress on the answer. The bulk of life throughout time has answered with the affirmative “Yes.” But, if all must be sacrificed to the “sweet thirst-quenching fount of progress,” then to progress from “Yes” to “No”, we must unlearn the definition of good. We would have progress, but life itself would cease. 

    Robin laments that not enough questioners ask why an answer matters. I’d like to posit that the questioners don’t ask why, because subconsciously they already know the answer. They fully believe that the world will be “more good” with the answer than without. The question for all of us to ask is what is good and who is it good for? Only with this standard will we be able to say if a question is worth answering.

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  • stevesailer

    The most realistic way to make intellectual progress is not through an attitude of sheer disinterestedness, but through an attitude of sportsmanlike competitiveness. Take your answers (in Hegel’s terms, the thesis) into the arena and seek out the best arguments against them (the antithesis). You probably won’t change your mind completely, but you should try to force yourself to come up with a synthesis that is superior to the thesis and antithesis.

    • http://www.facebook.com/peterdjones63 Peter David Jones

       Good grief, hardly anyone changes their mind about anything ever.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ srdiamond

      Exactly right, even to the Hegel point.

      But no one considers the obvious question: how does this relate to Robin Hanson’s intellectual work?

      Robin seldom defends the importance of his research, and he favors research on EMs over prediction markets (apparently, judged by his choice of book to author). He seems guided more by his interests than his sense of importance. (Unfortunately, he rarely seeks out the best arguments against his views.)

      It seems there are at least three paths to choice of research topic. 1) Pursue status; 2) Pursue what’s important; and 3) Pursue your personal intellectual interests.

      Most researchers follow 1 (this is an oversimplification, of course, researchers being complex beings); Robert Wiblin followed 2) when he choice a biology major because he determined that was where he could most benefit … whatever set of “beings” he hopes to; Robin follows 3 (although, as often, he advocates 2)–for other intellectuals). I think 3 is actually the best choice–if and only if you cultivate rather than fall into far-mode interests and values.

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        I have no idea how you get the impression that I don’t think my research topics are very important. I do; they are.

  • http://www.facebook.com/peterdjones63 Peter David Jones

     Hugely influential factor that’s been omitted: funding. Cancer is more important than the common cold. Cures for cancer get vastly more funding than cures for the common cold.

  • Arch1

    I suspect that if you look at people who do a lot of interdisciplinary work, you will find that they tend to be more focused on the value of the answers they are seeking than the average academic.  It’s harderto use peer acceptance as a proxy for value when there are few peers who understand or care about one’s work.

  • http://isomorphismes.tumblr.com/ isomorphisms

    Yes, saying “I’m an algebraic topologist” or “an analyst” does seem to be more about the approach taken to solve problems than the questions asked. But I think “development economist” is a label based on questions.

    In my opinion ∃ serious incentives to limit one’s question and answer styles within the academic economics framework.

  • Josiah L

    Wouldn’t progress be non-quenching? Otherwise it would cease to fluctuate. But this is less helpful.

    Too much of my own intellectual discourse is spent agreeing or disagreeing with people’s positions, rather than seeking out the deep questions (often enough non-existent or poorly articulated) which drive us to want a position in the first.

    I admire thinkers insofar as they are willing to, as Wittgenstein mentions in the introduction to ‘Philosophical Investigations’, pursue a method of thinking and constantly evaluate it, then having used the ladder to reach a new standpoint, kick the ladder away and ask if the location is meaningful. And if so, how?

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