Saturday, May 1, 2010

Questions with No Answers

I live-tweeted while watching the webcast of "Big Ideas, Busy People" on Friday, April 23. "Big Ideas, Busy People" was a brand new event during the Cambridge Science Festival where ten lecturers presented 5-minute presentations with a 5-minute question and answer session afterwards. It was a perfect event to live-tweet, as that helped me remember the many points made that evening. It was definitely easy to get lost in a concept, and then lose track of the presentation. I wanted to blog a post-festival write-up of this event right away, but then I attended "Lunch with a Laureate" on Monday, April 30th. Robert Merton, the 1997 Nobel Prize winner in Economics, was speaking.

So many ideas were thrown out during both events that I feel I might end up condensing too much if I try to write a post-festival blog post from my notes. My tweets are still available from "Big Ideas, Busy People," and the recorded event will soon be available at MIT World. Merton's talk should also be fed online. Since both events will be available electronically, it might be futile to try to summarize them. Thus, I decided it would be more useful to discuss asking questions at public events.

I noticed audience members seemed frustrated at either event if the speaker couldn't give a direct answer. With all the questions that the speakers were asked, I don't blame them for not answering overly-specific questions with little relevance to their research. For example, Merton's research, which won him the Nobel Prize, is largely related to options pricing modeling and derivatives. However, Merton was asked a very specific question by an audience member, "What do you think should be done with investing in China?" Merton prefaced his answer, "when you win the Nobel Prize, people expect you have answers on everything; I have ideas that doesn't mean they're right." This was a polite way for him to avoid saying too much, since his idea was just an opinion, not necessarily based on all the facts.

A similarly overly-specific question happened at "Big Idea, Busy People," when Professor Mark Hauser was unable to answer a question on whether or not Amy Bishop was evil. He did not even follow the court case, and he reminded the audience that he was not a clinician and thus unable to professionally make those judgments.

I was always taught and firmly believe there is no such thing as a stupid question. However, some questions are best not asked at a large events that are under time-constraints. At both events I attended, others were dying to pose questions that possibly could be answered.

This reminds me of a time, I attended a review session for a class, and the teacher responded to a question with the line, "this is not going to be tested." The student persisted with her question, even given the response, and the whole class stayed an extra hour as a result. We lost valuable time that could've been spent learning concepts of relevance to the test. The student's question was meant for Office Hours, where students can ask general questions one-on-one with the instructor, and it was not appropriate for a Review Session, where the sole purpose is to prepare for an upcoming test. If a question doesn't have relevance to the audience, especially in timed-events, it's better to move on. This may sound rude, but the intentions are not to offend the questioners. It's to give others the opportunity to ask their questions.

Good questions at these events are concise and to the point. As John Durant put it in the beginning of "Big Ideas, Busy People," questions should be twitter-style contributions (i.e. 140 characters) with a question mark at the end. Specific questions are harder to answer. The best indication your question is too specific is when you have to preface it with lengthy remarks so the audience can follow along. You can still ask questions relevant to your curiosity without telling the audience your life story and why you want to know the answer. If concise and relevant, the speaker should be able to answer the question quickly. An example of a good question happened at "Big Ideas, Busy People" when a ten-year old asked a question about string theory and 11 dimensions; Lisa Randall, the speaker, was able to answer the ten-year old's question in less than a minute because it was concise. Another way to ask good questions is when the professor hints he or she wants the question. Lisa Randall told the audience to ask her about Brain World, a universe that goes beyond 3-dimensions, and when someone did, she was thrilled to discuss it.

It's exciting to see esteemed professors give insightful lectures. This excitement comes with responsibility though as it's also important to be considerate of those around you when asking your questions. When there's only five-minutes to answer questions, you should really be asking questions that the professor can answer briefly and wants to answer.

"Big Ideas for Busy People" and "Lunch with a Laureate" are throught-provoking events where audience members ask many questions. Sometimes, questions with no answers are better to be debated amongst friends. After watching Mark Hauser speak on, "what is evil," I found myself asking my friends whether or not they thought bullies were evil after watching the Simpson's on a Sunday evening. This sparked a long, insightful discussion that a 10-minute limit would've drastically hindered. If you didn't get your question answered at the event, try asking your friends: you might end up surprised at how much you can learn from just talking to others.

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