Asking questions

Asking questions

By Matt James

We’ve all seen and experienced it. Children are natural born question askers, they are constantly asking questions! But as we grow and mature in life, do we run the risk of forgetting to question and instead merely accept the ideas and ways of thinking that have gone before? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?

Over recent months I have been giving time to think afresh about the role of questions and the art of questioning in helping to further the conversation surrounding advances in new technologies. This short article will no doubt lead to a more substantial and rigorous paper in the coming months but at this early stage I wanted to share some of my reflections.

Very often the West’s angle on the bioethics conversation has been marked by a focus on persuasion, logical and rational argument, approaches which are not typically followed in other parts of the world which pay much greater time and attention to reflective questioning, stories and observation. Certainly a common trait amongst policy groups within the ‘Westminster village’ is the need to be the source of “answers” to widely agreed problems. Measuring success is based on how effective their arguments are in helping to affect policy change.

In contrast to this I have found Socrates’ words poignant. When asked what his greatest accomplishment was, he replied “I taught men to question” (Marquardt 2005: 29). Clearly articulating a point of view confidently and arguing from a place of conviction are both necessary elements of debate, but when that approach quickly takes us to a point where we have (or at least appear to have) all the answers, it can stifle meaningful dialogue and the opportunity to achieve new points of consensus and fresh thinking to problems.

This is particularly important as we consider the challenges posed by new technologies which affect the global community. In mentioning a global perspective, I think not only in terms of different ethnic cultures but also in terms of different disciplinary cultures. If we are to effectively attract and engage not only people from our own culture but also cross culturally, we need to return to how the art of questioning can enhance the conversation.

I see four main reasons why asking questions are key to achieving this:

(1) Asking questions establishes a point of contact

When one party comes to the conversation with a clearly defined response to an issue it does not make it easy to reason and debate. It is certainly good to have some ideas to draw upon and give some initial shape to the conversation topic, but to kick start discussion by asking a question helps to say “I don’t have all the answers”. It invites participation, opinion and input.

Many of the issues arising from advances in new technologies require fresh thinking and responses to the challenges they represent. A simple “yes, it’s great” or “no, it’s wrong” will not suffice. Rather than falling into the trap of pursuing well entrenched lines of argument which have previously framed discussion, identifying what the key questions and which need to be asked in relation to advances in new technologies helps to establish consensus on what the agenda for debate should be.

(2) Asking questions can help to stimulate fresh thinking

Asking questions as opposed to setting out an opinion can help to arouse interest in a subject and invite others to join together in an active quest for new ideas.

Many new technologies, such as synthetic biology, nanotechnology, 3D printing are presenting us with opportunities to do things previously unimaginable. Talk of uncertainty and the fear of the unknown can help to shut down and stifle innovation. Asking questions that we really don’t have the answers to might be seen to only feed this uncertainty and prohibit the conversation from progressing. However questions that can’t be answered tend to be far more interesting than questions that can be answered. More often than not new technologies are transforming our understanding of aspects of life and human anthropology in ways we previously may not have considered. Rather than perceiving advances in technology as purely the domain of science and technology, we begin to realise it touches upon other areas of life as well: ethics, philosophy, sociology, law, governance, history. The list goes on. Are there theories or research findings from other areas of life that might suggest answers?

Questions have been described as “….merely launching pads for further exploration, places to prepare for the creation of new and more insightful questions” (Christensen 1991:93). Could it be that engaging in the art of asking questions we might find some new perspectives and ideas to help answer the tough questions?

(3) Asking questions can help to draw in others

Questioning can provide opportunity to invite others to join in the search for answers. While issues of plagiarism are important I think one of the challenges we face for the future is getting the balance between respect for ideas and the free flow and exchange of ideas which can be the seedbed for creativity. I find it interesting that through much of my educational life group work was looked upon suspiciously while independent learning was championed to a far greater extent. Since entering the world of work, I have found group collaboration and partnership are seemingly the buzz words for success! Anyone familiar with grant applications will know any sign of working with other organisations and entities will make a positive impact on any proposals being made.

Developing a knowledge network helps to bring people together in the pursuit of new ideas. Thinkers such as Ray Kurzweil of a pro–transhumanist ilke may wax lyrical of the thought of “one great inter–connected world brain,” but through partnering together the capacity of my brain to tap into the best and the brightest, and offer my perspectives and opinion is something more incredible.

I have come to the conclusion my best contacts and connections have arisen from simply spending time with people and allowing connections to emerge and flourish naturally. Bioethics does not have the rights on ethics. I have come to realise there are a great many ethically minded scientists, sociologists, engineers and technologists who are keen to talk and think about the same issues as the “bioethicists” are. Both parties could be better off for talking with each other.

One of BioCentre’s values is that we welcome all articulate voices, and learn from them, and let them shape our common conversation. So often it is from the extremes that the best questions come, even if those on the extremes do not have the answers. At the same time those with the answers are not always asking the right questions!

(4) Asking questions cultivates personal reflection

Being asked a question and thinking through a response gives opportunity for us to reflect on our own personal views and opinions. This is not to imply that this process helps to shake us from our convictions and cause us to doubt what we think. It could do this, helping to expose the basis of our decisions and opinions which we may not be comfortable with, but at the same time it might also help to enhance and sharpen our thinking as we share our responses and enter into dialogue. Questioning and being questioned allows us to think through our ideas and to challenge and test our perceptions.

When we are awash with news and information coming at us from all manner of different sources the danger is to slip into ‘group think’ mode. Much is being talked about in terms of big data and corresponding “data deluge”. Big data refers to datasets whose size is beyond the ability of typical database software tools to capture, store, manage and analyse. In this increasingly digitalised world in which we live, our day to day activities – communicating, browsing, buying, sharing and searching – is helping to create vast sums and detailed trails of data. It is undeniable that tracking and interpreting this data has already started and will only continue to transform business, government, science and everyday life.

As ever, there is a great potential for good through it use so long as we continue to be its master and not the other way round; the common challenge to all of us as we live out our lives in the 21st century. Howe do we move from a place where we are overwhelmed by vast amounts of data to following a path marked by understanding and interpretation, generating fresh ideas and thinking, to arrive at a place where collective wisdom and assessment can be applied and choices finally made? The answer may well be found in developing the art of questioning and asking the right questions to help guide and direct us along such a path.



Christensen, C.R., D.A. Garvin, A. Sweet (ed). 1991. Education for Judgement: The artistry of discussion leadership. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Marquardt, M. 2005. Leading with questions: How leaders find the right solutions by knowing what to ask. San Francisco: Jossey–Bass.






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