Extra: The Importance of Earnest Questions

I don’t spend as much time on Stack Exchange as I used to, but I used to frequent the sites, and one thing that I noticed very quickly was the amount of loaded questions being thrown around. Questions like “My friend said this, but I think it’s this. I’m right, right?” came up more often than one would hope. Disregarding the fact that this directly undermines Stack Exchange’s purpose, it’s also plain dumb, since instead of hearing the actual answers presented by the majority of posters, they accept whoever purports their position first as the “proper answer”, regardless of the facts.

Another thing that I see is that when no favorable answer is presented, another analogy is presented, and then posited as valid, even though it’s not actually relevant to the question. One question I saw involved whether or not marijuana would be considered sin by the Bible, and upon a comparison to alcohol the original poster immediately recited the parable about Jesus turning water into wine, without any regard for the significance of either the points of the answer or the original parable in context. Obviously, this stems from Christianity’s Stack Exchange, but I find a lot of the more overt examples of this on there, though I’ve seen some on, say, tabletop gaming’s Stack Exchange, where the desire is to get a consenting voice in rules arbitration and take the site back to one’s GM or players as evidence.

This is, in my opinion, endemic to American scientific and intellectual canons. As a historian, I get to see several of these in my field; the most prominent of which being those that the general historical community has discounted given addition elements (for instance, the long-held belief that Troy was a mythical place without a real counterpart). We see this less in science, but the truth remains that a lot of studies are inaccurate-some of this is because our methods for research funding are often less than unbiased, since private contributors often accidentally or purposefully pressure researchers to come to certain conclusions. These studies then invalidate themselves, because they were reached under duress rather than as a legitimate scientific expression.

I’ve taken a few steps to prevent myself from asking loaded questions:

  1. Do I have a stake in the question?
  2. Have I already decided what the answer likely is?
  3. Will I accept an answer contrary to what I hope for?

The first query is sometimes deceptively difficult to understand, since as humans we like to downplay our attachment and involvement to certain things. I’ve gone to Stack Exchange to ask a rules clarification question a billion times with some previous event in mind, and while that’s not necessarily bad, it puts me into a danger zone.

The second question I must ask is if I have decided on an answer already. If this is the case, it’s better to rephrase your question and study to determine whether or not your hypothesis is true, rather than asking a broad sweeping question. This will typically result in answers that show both the way that your hypothesis is in error and the correct answer if you are wrong, and if you are correct will tend to be answered with a more in-depth examination of the subject.

The third qualification is perhaps the most important. As the example I provided before, sometimes we just aren’t willing to accept an answer that doesn’t mesh with our deeply held convictions, whether or not there’s a good reason for that. If this is the case, don’t bother asking the question at all. All it does is encourage people to pander to you, which on Stack Exchange means that you’ll be the guy who goes down in history as the one who asks a question with a set-up answer and an agenda, and it’s downright dangerous in general. There are a lot of people who will seek to gain favor with someone who asks a loaded question regardless of the potential damage their answer might cause.

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