I mentioned in a past post that I would read this book. I have now read this book. This is what I think.
The important idea in this book is that you can categorize questions based on the goal you have as a questioner.
One of the big unsolved problems in being human is to verify that when one person speaks, the other person “hears”. A person can speak, and be listened to, but there are only “sketchy” ways to verify that the information is copied.
Contrast this with the physical environment. We can make copies of the wheel. We know how to take raw materials, steel and rubber, and make wheels for a car. The raw materials can be harvested from any mine or farm, and the end product will be so close to the original that it can be swapped out. It does not require a whole lot of special skill to replace. etc…it’s just changing a tire.
Ideas have a different nature. Imagine the idea like the wheel, and the mind like the car. The car inside each of our heads is not standard. It’s as if each one of us drives around in a hand-made, one-of-a-kind car. When the idea of a wheel gets into our brains, it behaves differently than a physical wheel. For one, it changes shape. The mind bends the wheel to fit to the car. Maybe it bends the car a little, too.
A major difference, though, is that, unlike the physical car and wheel, it is not obvious when a mental wheel doesn’t fit. A bad wheel in the physical world simply will not work. We know the physical wheel works or not when we try to drive the car. Or even before, if it is too big or too small, it will not fit the car in the first place. Reality is rigid, and does not tolerate imperfection in mechanical objects (within a certain scale). But the imagination is almost perfectly adaptable. The mental wheel bolts in somewhere, it gets remembered. But nothing in hard reality will let us know if it is behaving like a wheel in the mind of the listener.
Try to imagine the metaphor of a car and wheel in the mind of someone who has never seen a car, an ancient Roman for example. Rubber? Steel? But, nothing stops you from saying the words, telling the Roman about the wheel. The Roman will hear your words. The mental car does something, but it probably doesn’t do the same thing in the Roman’s mind as it does in your mind.
I try to point out in this blog that what you communicate, and what you consider to be true depends on what type of question you are asking. This means that nothing is true, and many things are true. However, strict logic does not allow this statement to be true. But, all I have done is repackaged the liar paradox: “I am lying” or “everything I say is false”.
So here is my beef. Most people think they argue from a set of facts. This is what we consider debate. It is important, because this is a structure of communication we all implicitly accept as legitimate. In politics, debates are televised. They are consequential. They sway opinion, which causes voting. Now think, even this paragraph contains zero factual evidence. I have shown you no data. Instead, I am making statements, and assuming you will accept a premise.
Like the wheel, I don’t know how the notion of debate is going to resonate in your mind. I also do not know how to verify that you believe the same things I do. I don’t know how to verify that you believe “They sway opinion, which causes voting.” Truthfully, as a social scientist, I have no idea how you would prove something like that to any level of scientific rigour. It’s not the same as the physical science. You can’t hold the equivalent of rubber or steel in your hands. The reality of it is murky.
But that is the key insight: Reality is murky.
So now, why this book is important. If you had to start somewhere, how do you think we should view questions?
Some popular concepts:
- There is no such thing as a dumb question.
- [In a conflict] Hey, I’m just asking a simple question. Or Can’t you take a simple question?
- [cross examination, like in court]: Yes or no, did you…?
My claim is that we tend to view questions as neutral. In other words, you cannot be faulted for asking a question. In practice, we behave differently. There are certain questions that are impolite. You don’t ask people you just met about their religious beliefs, their sex life, or their politics.
Now. Considering this confusion about what people tend to say about questions, and how people behave about them, it seems reasonable to believe we would have a formal curriculum about asking questions. People need to be taught which questions to ask given a specific context. But we have no such curriculum. There is no: Questions 101 at the university. There is no: Questions class in primary education. Instead, you are expected to learn about questioning via osmosis.
This book takes a basic stab in the dark at forming a curriculum of types of questions, and that is what makes it worth reading. To be honest, I didn’t care much for the book. I read it, and nothing really sparked for me. That said, I think the ideas in the book are a work of genius. I keep in mind the difficulty of explaining to a Roman about a wheel. Sesno, the author, can’t know where you are coming from, and so he is trying to package a simple idea into a package of stories. Stories help us copy ideas.
If we had such a curriculum of questions and outcomes, maybe the general level of intelligence would be higher in our society. In one sense, I feel it stands without much challenge that we benefit from mass literacy. That is, there is no controversy to say that having almost 100% of people in a society able to read and write is a good thing. It gets much more sensitive if we start to expand the basic set of mental tools out to include harder to grasp concepts. However, understanding dialectical thinking is one of the next rungs on the ladder. That is, understanding facts and truth as a volley between a questioner and a responder.
By the way, you already understand what I am talking about. It’s the same idea as the statement: Context matters. Or that some statements can be taken out of context, etc… Everyone knows this, but fail to behave as if this is true. I do mean everyone, myself included. There is something about our nature that reacts to ideas, rather than stepping back and reflecting on the source of the words. Like the wheel and the Roman.
Unfortunately, Sesno’s book is hard to communicate. It’s one thing to tell you about a wheel and a Roman. There is a good chance you have the concept of a wheel and a Roman tied to some very salient images in your mind. It’s much harder to attach simple, abstract, but novel concepts to anything in your mind with any confidence. For this reason, I can’t summarize the book for you. I lack the talent as a writer.
Writing this blog is teaching me how goddamned difficult it is to communicate. The basic problem is that some ideas rely on other ideas. I can’t verify that you know what I am talking about, so I have to guess what you know. The beauty of what Sesno is doing in this book is inventing categories, or references. If enough people had the basic reference points that Sesno describes in his book about questions, we could probably communicate a lot more efficiently.
By the way. The other odd thing about writing this blog is that I forget what I write, so then I come back and I need to remember what types of references I was going for. The stories, the visuals, like the Roman and the wheel are just as useful to my future self as they are to anyone who isn’t me trying to read this. It’s odd. It’s kind of freaky.
At any rate, here is the example on Sesno’s website for the book:
Colin Powell shows how strategic questions can define a mission and forecast success – or failure.
Turnaround expert Steve Miller employs diagnostic questions to get to the heart of a company’s problems.
NPR’s Terry Gross digs deeper with empathy questions.
Journalists Anderson Cooper and Jorge Ramos explain how they use confrontational questions to hold people accountable.
Creative questions drove a couple of techie dreamers to imagine Uber, and a young mayor to challenge history.
Karen Osborne asks mission questions to help nonprofits raise awareness – and money.
Dr. Anthony Fauci posed scientific questions to help crack the HIV/AIDS mystery.
The bolded statements are the “types” of questions people ask in different scenarios. Which…btw, these are the Telos of the questioner, aren’t they?
The way to think of this book is to consider these bolded statements like boxes. You have a goal, and it can be strategic. If that is the area you want to define, then there are useful set of questions in that box for you to use.
In other words, these are tools. The same as hammers and wrenches. They do something very mechanical. Only, instead of matter to work with it’s information. Like the Wheel and the Roman.
These tools are the next step towards a higher level of literacy. We could teach them. We could have everyone understand them. Imagine what we could do then.