As a junior economics reporter, I was once given an assignment that terrified me. I was asked to write a story about an economic concept that I didn’t really understand. No one else from my team was around. Googling it got me more confused. At exactly the same time, Martin Wolf, the FT’s chief economics commentator, passed by my desk. I took a deep breath and asked her. He explained it clearly in a few sentences, and if he thought I was stupid for asking, he never made me feel that way.
Since then, I’ve been a big believer in asking “silly” questions, by which I mean questions that you’re afraid will make you stupid. But I worry that it is a dying art.
Of course, it’s never been easy. Lecturers have always found that the best questions from students, which they worry about may be difficult but are actually very useful, come during breaks or on walks between buildings after the lecture is over. .
When teaching moved online after the pandemic began, those opportunities disappeared. But many educators and instructors find that online tools actually make it easier for some students to ask about things that confuse them. Suddenly, they could type questions into chat boxes or send direct messages to lecturers, instead of having to raise their hand and ask in front of everyone.
Platforms like Mentimeter add an extra layer of comfort by allowing students to ask questions anonymously. Some academics have now integrated these online tools into their face-to-face lectures, so that students can continue to ask questions without revealing their identity.
There is clearly some value in this. I sometimes moderate audience Q&A sessions at events, and a handful of the same confident talkers can dominate. The ability for audience members to submit questions by text attracts a more diverse group of people who might otherwise remain silent.
But what if we are also missing something? The more we use technology to shield ourselves from the discomfort of asking questions, the more we dread doing it face-to-face. One academic told me that most of her students are “really ready for it” but too nervous to take “that last step”. He was so frustrated by the silence in the lecture that he brought his child’s soft ball and told them: “I’ll throw it out and whoever catches it will have to ask me a question. Any questions.” He says he saw the ball like it was a hand grenade.
Yet asking someone a question face-to-face can be the best way to make sure you really understand something. I have occasionally asked people to sketch for me as well. It matters if your job involves clear communication – otherwise you may end up rehashing technical terms because you don’t have the confidence to put them in plain language.
As one beloved journalism handbook of mine says, you should be able to “call a spade a spade” rather than “get someone from Harvard to declare it a long-lasting personal earthmoving implement.” Journalists don’t always manage it (me included).
A recent review of the fairness of the BBC’s coverage of some economic issues found that “many journalists lack an understanding of basic economics or lack the confidence to report it”. The authors of the review were also “troubled by how many people said they did not understand the coverage”.
Being afraid to ask “stupid” questions can make you pretend you know more than you do, which makes you more vulnerable to bluffing, bullshitting, and cheating. To take one example: While artificial intelligence is making huge strides in some areas, companies are also buying a lot of commercial products that computer science professor Arvind Narayanan calls “AI snake oil”.
A study published in 2021 asked participants to rank their knowledge of a set of words on a five-point scale from “never heard of it” to “know it well, understand the concept”. Some of the terms were genuine; others were fake. The study found that people who were more willing to chatter about their own information were more likely to chatter about others, too.
I know not everyone is lucky enough to have Martin Wolf wandering by their desk. But take it from someone who asks questions for a living: most people really don’t mind being asked something “silly”. If they do, it’s probably because they don’t really understand it themselves, or they have something to hide. In this sense, you learn something useful either way.