No Stupid Questions, No Wrong Answers

Wednesday is usually fiction day around here, but President’s Day weekend threw off my schedule; so you’re getting a half-assed Monday sort of piece instead.

Two of my pet peeves: the dictums that “there are no wrong answers” and that “there are no stupid questions”. These are usually used in classroom or group instruction settings to encourage people to ask and answer questions without being self-conscious. That’s a good thing; and I’m sure that people who use these statements do so with good will. The problem is, they are both wrong.

I’ll take the second one first, because it’s less egregious. There are many ways to ask stupid questions.

If you’re asking the question to disrupt the class, it’s a stupid question.

If you’re asking the question to show off, it’s a stupid question.

One might say, there are no stupid questions, provided that you’re asking the question because you really want to know the answer, and the question is pertinent to the discussion. Of course, this is what is usually meant; only my sense of logical contrariness leads me to complain about it.

The statement “there are no wrong answers” is both worse and more insidious. In many domains (e.g., mathematics, science) it’s simply untrue, and that raises the hackles of my sense of logical contrariness all by itself. It’s more usually heard when the group leader is asking about the experiences of the group members, as in, “What’s your favorite thing to eat? Come, come, there are no wrong answers.” But even here, it isn’t strictly true.

If your answer is a lie, it’s the wrong answer.

If your answer is mistaken, it’s the wrong answer.

But, you might say, the group leader is simply trying to get a sense of what people think, before going on to say something about the topic. The actual answers don’t matter that much. But of course they matter; if they don’t matter, then the group leader is asking a stupid question. (See above.)

But that’s not what really frosts me. What gets me is when the group leader asks a question about a matter of fact (or, in a religious context, about a point of doctrine or a point of theology), and then says, “There are no wrong answers.” And in this case, any answer that doesn’t accord with the truth is a wrong answer.

I’ve actually heard people do this. I’m sure what they really mean is, “I want to hear what you think; don’t worry about whether you’re right or not.” What I worry about is that the group members will hear, “Your current understanding is just fine.” That’s true if you’re asking about favorite foods, or other personal matters. It’s simply wrong when you’re discussing eternal verities.

(Am I being needlessly pedantic here? Well, yeah. It’s a fair cop.)

Any non-stupid questions? (There are wrong answers.)

Of Brute Facts and Uncle Andrew
Steven Brust on Being at Peace with Yourself
Leo Marks on Deciphering Mangled Codes
Review: Between Silk and Cyanide
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  • Rebecca Fuentes

    I just about gave my principal a heart attack when I told my 7th graders there really were stupid questions, including the ones you cite above. Also, if I had answered the question two or three times already and they had missed the answer because they weren’t paying attention, it was a stupid question. If the answer was written on the board, it wasn’t just a stupid question, it was lazy.
    I think people like to say there are no wrong answers when discussing personal beliefs because we’ve had it pounded into us that we are being judgmental if we tell someone their belief is wrong.

  • Jennifer Allen

    And what, may I ask, is an ‘eternal verity’?

    • Will Duquette

      An unchanging truth. 2+2=4 no matter who you are or what you think about it. In a religious context, dogmas of the religion would be eternal verities.

  • Theodore Seeber

    I think you are exactly right. And we’re so afraid of being judgemental, that the misunderstandings you point out are not only likely, but common.