Ponder Questions

A Harvard assistant dean of admissions:

You had to look for people who could come into a very competitive environment, who could still find self-esteem and who in some way, shape or form was still the best at something.

How do you figure that out?

It was never the answers they gave. It was the questions they asked. The questions give a much better clue to how a person thinks. Answers can be learned, can be rote. But itโ€™s the questions. (more)

I know many folks who consider themselves intellectuals. I guess they think that in part because if you asked them “What have you been up to lately?,” they’d tell you about books, articles, blogs, or twitter feeds that they’ve been reading. Or perhaps TED talks they’ve watched. This is why I prefer the question “What have you been thinking about lately?” And I’ll usually be a bit disappointed if the answer isn’t about a question they’ve been trying to answer.

Yes perhaps if they just mention a topic, that really stands for some questions about that topic. But often people thinking about a topic are mostly trying to find more supporting evidence for things they already believe. Less often are they taking what I consider the most productive intellectual strategy: focus on an important question where you don’t know the answer.

Once you start to think about a question, you’ll probably soon start to break it down into supporting sub-questions. Instead of asking “How can we get world peace?” you might ask “What most goes wrong when the United Nations intervenes?” or “Why do citizens on the losing sides of wars support them?” And hearing about your interesting sub-questions might just make my day. That is why I, like the Harvard admissions dean above, will be especially eager to hear that you’ve been thinking about interesting questions.

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  • Pat McGee

    How can I, a retired geezer with limited energy and resources, contribute to the long-term survival of Homo Sap.?

    I see two big issues: 1) we’re stuck on our one-and-only habitable lifeboat, and 2) we’re making it less habitable.

    • Faze

      How can I, a geezer, but not retired, with limited energy and resources, stop caring about the major issues of our day (crime, race, healthcare spending, gun control, big government, the environment) over which I have absolutely no control whatsoever, and which haven’t budged a jot in response to all my caring so passionately about them for the past 60+ years? Here are the three big issues I see:

      1.) I can actually feel my heart rate increase and skin temperature rise as I read about or contemplate the hot button issues that predictably tick off people of my age, race, gender and net worth.

      2.) I can actually feel my soul shrivel within me as I find myself hating some complete stranger in public or private life for no other reason than that he or she holds a different opinion from me on one of these issues over which neither of us has the slightest control.

      3.) I will never make any measurable contribution to the long-term survival of Homo Sap., but do I still have time to rescue my imperishable essence from the squalor of the opinion wars by developing protective habits of mind? and if so, what are those habits?

    • JW Ogden

      we’re making it less habitable

      It seems to be getting more habitable to me. After all the death rate has been falling for at least the last 200 years.

      • Pat McGee

        Hi JW. Interesting observation. Which brings up the question: how do you measure ‘habitable’? My first draft would somehow involve the resources available per capita. Of course, we really care about how we use those resources, not the resources themselves. And we’re constantly using them more efficiently to extend human lifetimes. Which supports your point. But I think we don’t correctly account for certain ‘commons’, like keeping global temperature relatively constant. If we did, we might (repeat – might) find that we’re not being more efficient at all. If true, we’re on a bad path, regardless of the current decline in death rate. In any case, I like the observation and I think it gives us all more to think about. Pat.

  • Nancy Lebovitz

    If people are rewarded at college interviews for asking interesting questions, they’ll get coached on how to do it.

    _The End of Power_ by Moises Naiim raises some interesting questions– he says that power has harder to hold on to, more subject to veto, and more likely to face surprising challengers.

  • Alexei Sadeski

    Why is the homicide rate of Illinois so much higher than that of Minnesota?

    Why do Massachusetts and Belgium have similar homicide rates to one another, yet Florida has a homicide rate (relatively) off the charts?

    And honestly, WHY do populations support losing wars? It’s bizarre. Think about the dire latter stages of WWI for the Austrian population. It’s incredible, really. Support did fall off – dramatically – eventually, but how remarkable that it took so long!

    • VV

      WHY do populations support losing wars?

      Do they? I mean, what alternative do they have?
      Not cooperating with your government in time of war, expecially if your government is losing the war, is generally considered treason and can be punished with death.

      • IMASBA

        Yeah and that’s assuming the population even knows their country is losing the war (independent critical reporting doesn’t exactly flourish in times of war).

    • Ozy111

      The first such case to come to mind offers one practical reason: Japan in WWII. It was recognized that the war was lost by 1944, but by then, the US had demanded unconditional surrender. The goal then became to just offer enough resistance to make them consider a negotiated peace that would not result in the occupation of Japan, which was explicitly called out by some kamikaze pilots as their motivation for volunteering.*

      Ultimately, they failed, but it might have helped, and indeed the war might have ended much earlier, if the US had not been so determined to obtain unconditional victory.

      *Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism

      • Trimegistus

        Maybe the Japanese should have thought of that beforehand.

  • My number one question is whether globalization will result in less diversification of our practical knowledge. Island biogeography (and Nassim Taleb) seems to imply yes, the theory of the long tail (and Kevin Kelly’s notion that no obsolete tech is ever abandoned) seem to imply the opposite.

    The same question stated differently is: does greater interconnection make mankind more or less homogenous on (choose your margin)?

    • IMASBA

      Humans can think in abstract concepts and pass knowledge to others (including the next generation) so we don’t really need physical division to maintain specializations.

      • Practical knowledge (the most important kind) is not so easy to pass on or maintain or regain once lost.

      • IMASBA

        If you’re thinking of there eventually being no one left with combat experience in a globalized peaceful world, then yes, that’s something that could happen and it would represent a loss of practical knowledge. In most cases though the loss useful knowledge could be prevented: we should for example encourage groups of volunteers to live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in several ecosystems for at least a part of their lives to make sure hunter-gatherer survival skills do not disappear (plus it could help people who have psychological problems in modern society) and we should encourage cataloging specialized knowledge of disappearing cultures, like the properties of medicinal plants in the rainforest.

  • kevinsdick

    How can we model firm decisions of what products to make, R&D to conduct, and people to hire. I have a grad degree and have reviewed the recent literature, but microeconomics still doesn’t seem to have a framework for attacking these questions.

  • Lunkwill

    What is thinking? We have lots of algorithms for approximating functions, but few that approximate the endless loop of cogitation that goes on inside our heads.

  • Do most intellectuals work that way: frame interesting abstract questions and try to get as far as possible by analysis? There’s enough biographical material around about numerous intellectuals in history to provide an answer. I think its probably a distinctive minority approach: it expresses a Monomaniacalist intellectual style. ( http://tinyurl.com/6pt9eq5 ) And note that the evidence such an approach typically considers consists of “weak clues” (which also informs about how distinctive is the style).

  • Adrian Gonzalez

    Prof. Hanson,

    I wrote a blog post about this article and Raduchel’s interview.


    Please comment – I’d like your opinion on this subject!

  • sabril

    I concur with Nancy Lebovitz. Actually I clicked on comments to make the same point.

    Once you publicize the proxy you use for assessing people, the proxy loses value.

    College admissions are so annoying in that respect. It helps a lot to game the system, and part of gaming the system is concealing the fact that you are gaming the system. So it’s a fundamentally dishonest process.

    • Nancy Lebovitz

      The interesting possibility is whether teaching people to ask good questions to make themselves look better might actually encourage them to think more clearly.

  • light reading guide

    This post reminds me of a great Peanuts gag from the early 1960s, Charlie Brown and Snoopy quietly sitting in a bucolic back yard lost in summertime thought, the first of the three four-frame pictures lead us to think “what are they thinking”, the fourth and last frame shows Charlie Brown asking Snoopy “why weren’t you born a pony?” (the insight – I decline to call it humor, out of respect for poor Snoopy’s crestfallen expression – was based on the cultural assumption that a pony is just about the best gift a child could receive, and on the fallen-state-of-humanity fact that we don’t always want to know what our friends are thinking)

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  • lemmycaution

    Good questions in this context involves:

    1) the interviewee acknowledging the expertize of the interviewer
    2) the interviewer being given the chance to pontificate on the top of their head for 15 minutes.

  • Great post … on this note (questions vs. answers), I would also recommend the short book “Ignorance: how it drives science” by Stuart Firestein

  • efalken

    Well, I wouldn’t go to an extreme, where you have ‘no clue as to the answer.’ You have suspicions, why the subject is interesting, and want to investigate them further. There’s nothing wrong with having a little hope or vested interest motivating you, as long as you remain open to the possibility you are wrong.

    The key is, if you are figuring something out, you don’t have to tell anyone you were ‘wrong’ about your original hypothesis, so it’s easier to admit. The bottom line: telling someone you respect something you’ve learned that’s new, true, and important.

  • Sam Dangremond

    Are people actually valuable?

    (I.e. is our present non-Malthusian-equilibrium an aberration or a permanent escape?)

  • The selection criterion discussed here has a lot going for it, but will add to the trend of strongly favoring doers and disfavoring knowers in academia. By knowers I here mean people who are not necessarily street-smart in terms of producing publications and generating citations, but who have near-encyclopedic knowledge of one or more domains plus the ability to make relevant connections. I believe having one or two knowers around can be very useful to a research environment, but fear that they are an endangered species.

    • Hanson’s theory would explain this phenomenon as due to the greater ease of credentialing doers. How else might it be explained? If universities are about innovation, why do they under-rate knowers?

  • the lonely paladin

    Can one even really ask a question without at least some notion of what the answer might sound like? Imagine if I walked into an Intro to Calculus class and the professor was passing out watercolors–you’d walk right out, even though you came to Calculus to learn what it was.

    Essentially, I’m trying within my own head to ask a question and not at least tentatively guess at an answer, or at least at a direction the answer will likely go.

  • Are Ponzi Schemes morally wrong if they are enabling otherwise difficult or impossible to motivate undertakings?

    • VV

      1) Generally yes, at least unless they are so obvious that one could argue that the only people so stupid and greedy to fall for them deserve it. But then, one could also argue that scamming stupid people is morally wrong.

      2) I can’t think of any.

    • What’s fundamentally bad about ponzi schemes? It’s that they’re vastly wasteful, isn’t it? Is economic inefficiency “immoral”? I can’t imagine how you would think to decide. ( http://tinyurl.com/7dcbt7y )

      If inefficiency is of the essence in evaluating ponzi schemes, then one way you might have a good ponzi scheme is when evaluating hypothetical societies where no coherent and plausible efficiency metric can be brought to bear. Case in point: Robin’s “dream time,” which has been based on what many humanists would consider (if they agreed with Robin’s prognosis) a good ponzi scheme.

      • VV

        Bubbles are not ponzi schemes. Ponzi schemes are fraudolent investment schemes where those running the system simply take money from newly recruited investors to pay off previous investors, after subtracting their own share, relying on exponential recruitment until no more investors can be recruited and the system collapses.


      • But they’re analogous. From the last section of the article you cited:

        “Bubbles are often said to be based on the “greater fool” theory. As with the Ponzi scheme, the price exceeds the intrinsic value of the item, but unlike the Ponzi scheme, there is no single person misrepresenting the intrinsic value.”

        Of course, if the criminality is what bothers someone about ponzi schemes, they wouldn’t consider bubbles “morally” relevant.

      • IMASBA

        Speculation (buying sellable stuff you don’t really want for yourself), which often leads to bubbles, is pretty useless in itself. The only “value” it adds is gauging how profitable others think it is to speculate on the product, of course this might help sincere investors a tiny bit but then again speculation is often the reason a sincere investment fails even though there’s nothing wrong with the product.

        If all the speculators in the world had real jobs we could have more value and/or shorter workweeks.

      • VV

        Economists say that speculation (arbitrage) is useful because it helps prices to track actual usage values.

        Unfortunately, from a control theory point of view, the issue isn’t that simple: excessively strong or delayed feedback signals can cause overshooting and wide oscillations (that is, bubbles).

      • IMASBA

        “Economists say that speculation (arbitrage) is useful because it helps prices to track actual usage values.”

        Like I said, it gauges how profitable others think it is to speculate on the product, so that’s a pretty circular argument for speculation economists have come up with it.

  • JW Ogden

    Seeing that a lack of trust seems to keep economies form growing, I have been trying to think of some way to make it easier to trust or how reduce the need for trust.

    I have also been trying to think of a way to convince young men to be more honest and to avoid crime.

    • VV

      Seeing that a lack of trust seems to keep economies form growing

      That seems non obvious. Do you have any reference?

      • Nathanael

        What — oh, I guess someone should publish some papers on that. It is obvious, but that doesn’t excuse the lack of publication. ๐Ÿ™‚

        A simple example is the money market funds which contained mortgage-backed securities. As long as people trusted that their contents were genuine, they “recycled” money from investors to mortgage lending. As soon as people stopped trusting them, boom, 2008 crash.

        The economy consists entirely of trust. There is actually nothing in the economy *except* trust. (Well, theft & fraud I guess.) Money is only valuable because people trust that others will take it. Contracts are only meaningful because of trust. Nobody will buy anything if they don’t trust the seller to some extent.

        I think this should be obvious, but it is probably necessary to put a bunch of empirical evidence into print.

    • IMASBA

      “I have been trying to think of some way to make it easier to trust or how reduce the need for trust.”

      Make the economy more robust (less boom-bust volatility) and have a decent safety net.

      “I have also been trying to think of a way to convince young men to be more honest and to avoid crime.”

      Have a meritocratic society with equal (as much as possible) opportunity.

      “That seems non obvious. Do you have any reference?”

      Lack of trust causes economic opportunities to not be realized (when a plumber with a broken roof and a carpenter with a leaking pipes are both sitting at home, unemployed because they don’t trust each other or a middleman).

  • Michael DC Bowen

    I’ve been thinking about the most common mistakes that atheists make about theists vis a vis the extent to which Americans (need to) believe that new ideas will make them rich, famous and/or secure in their lives. (Or that the history of thought is useless).

    I’ve also been wondering how long it will be before the laundry list of macabre side-effects for prescription drugs advertised on television really start to turn people off. Tangentially, what is the mean time between television advertisements for wonder drugs by pharma and class action lawsuit announcements.

  • rca32

    The question I’ve been thinking about recently is “Is there a better way for schools to come up with predicted grades?” In my own experience predicted grades are typically only about 50% accurate (and sometimes wildly off) yet they seem to have a huge impact on the whole secondary school experience as well as university entrance (and how teachers are viewed by educational administration). The whole process seems to be pretty much like casting of the runes (and as scientific!) I found this paper looking at predicted grades in the English system which reckons they are accurate around 50% of the time so I wonder if there is a way to improve accuracy:


    The other factor to consider is that any solution will have to be be both a) clearly better than the status quo b) easy to implement as it’s teachers that have to implement it.

    My first hypothesis is that the solution will probably involve some combination of quantitative classroom grades and qualitative attitudes towards learning (resilience, motivation etc). I would also expect that we’d probably have to add some sort of weighting for students who cope well with test pressure (the big time charlies!) as they are typically the ones who tend to underperform in class but pull out all the stops in externally assessed examinations/end of year examinations.

    Anyway, that’s my question, any answers?

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  • Nathanael

    My questions are too big. Like “How do we cause a more, rather than less, democratic outcome after the next governmental collapse?” Or “Since economies are based on trust, how do we prevent the powerful sociopaths who rise through the economy by betraying that trust from destroying the economy?”

    Questions are lovely and all but if you don’t have a place to start getting a handle on the answer, they’re not helpful.