Five types of shitty question askers

Tyler Cowen blogged about this today, so I better publish this piece, which I wrote two months ago, when I was really fed up with bad question askers after the ITAB trip, but it never made its way onto the Forum. Here it is, verbatim. Five Types of Question Askers to Avoid Kevin Burke Pot, meet kettle:
  • The person who just wants the speaker to confirm something that they already believe. You can tell this type because they ask leading yes or no questions. "Do you believe that global warming is going to destroy our way of living?"
  • The person who just wants to show off how much they know to everyone else. You can tell this type because they start off their question talking about something they did last year, or by mentioning some news story or obscure point. When there are only two people left in the room who are paying attention to the answer, this question asker has done their job. "I did a research project on abortions in China last year, and I just wanted to know what you think is going to happen when the policy in Sichuan province changes next year," or "I traveled to your native country last year, and had the chance to meet rural politician X, what do you think him?"
  • The question rambler. In the face of silence, many people become nervous and feel the need to continue speaking. They ask a perfectly good question, then try to justify the question and discuss what they think, then discuss what they think the speaker will say, with a few "um"s sprinkled in for good measure, until she's been speaking for a minute or more and the speaker is confused.
  • The activist who launches into a three minute long diatribe, which the speaker won't touch because it would force her to accept the activist's false premise. These come in two flavors: the disjointed activist who has spent his fair share of time wearing a sandwich board and standing on the corner of Telegraph and Bancroft, and the kind who are generally in tune with "Barack Obama is a Muslim who is working with the Islamic high command. In three days he's going to suspend the government and turn everything over to the Saudi's. How do you plan to respond?"
  • The person who asks a factual question that has an easy answer on Wikipedia, or in the syllabus. Usually, this question asker steps forward when everyone's packing up their things and the teacher asks, "Are there any more questions?"
Fortunately, there are good remedies for these types of dumb questions. The first one is to raise the price of asking a question. Because you're using everyone's time by asking one, asking a question generates a negative externality, so charging $1 per question is not unreasonable. If $1 is steep, pool together money with people at your table. Since you're using their time by asking the question, if they don't want to contribute money to hear the answer that's probably a good sign that your question's not very good. We can also remove the ability of people to signal when they ask questions by having everyone who wants to ask a question write it down and then pass their question two to three seats to the left. Alternatively, we can present all questions to the speaker, and ask the speaker to answer the ones he or she feels like answering. Furthermore, if you're ever up in front of an audience and someone asks a bad question, be polite, but curt.

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One thought on “Five types of shitty question askers

  1. Andy McKenzie

    Disagree about the curtness. I think one key to being a good speaker is giving interesting answers to bad questions. If someone answers a fact-based question, for example, you can respond by basically answering the question and then going off for a bit about some interesting tidbits about this fact or what its implications are.


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