Privileging the Question

Re­lated to: Priv­ileg­ing the Hypothesis

Re­mem­ber the ex­er­cises in crit­i­cal read­ing you did in school, where you had to look at a piece of writ­ing and step back and ask whether the au­thor was tel­ling the whole truth? If you re­ally want to be a crit­i­cal reader, it turns out you have to step back one step fur­ther, and ask not just whether the au­thor is tel­ling the truth, but why he’s writ­ing about this sub­ject at all.

-- Paul Graham

There’s an old say­ing in the pub­lic opinion busi­ness: we can’t tell peo­ple what to think, but we can tell them what to think about.

-- Doug Henwood

Many philoso­phers—par­tic­u­larly am­a­teur philoso­phers, and an­cient philoso­phers—share a dan­ger­ous in­stinct: If you give them a ques­tion, they try to an­swer it.

-- Eliezer Yudkowsky

Here are some poli­ti­cal ques­tions that seem to com­monly get dis­cussed in US me­dia: should gay mar­riage be le­gal? Should Congress pass stric­ter gun con­trol laws? Should im­mi­gra­tion policy be tight­ened or re­laxed?

Th­ese are all ex­am­ples of what I’ll call priv­ileged ques­tions (if there’s an ex­ist­ing term for this, let me know): ques­tions that some­one has un­jus­tifi­ably brought to your at­ten­tion in the same way that a priv­ileged hy­poth­e­sis un­jus­tifi­ably gets brought to your at­ten­tion. The ques­tions above are prob­a­bly not the most im­por­tant ques­tions we could be an­swer­ing right now, even in poli­tics (I’d guess that the econ­omy is more im­por­tant). Out­side of poli­tics, many LWers prob­a­bly think “what can we do about ex­is­ten­tial risks?” is one of the most im­por­tant ques­tions to an­swer, or pos­si­bly “how do we op­ti­mize char­ity?”

Why has the me­dia priv­ileged these ques­tions? I’d guess that the me­dia is in­cen­tivized to ask what­ever ques­tions will get them the most views. That’s a very differ­ent goal from ask­ing the most im­por­tant ques­tions, and is one rea­son to stop pay­ing at­ten­tion to the me­dia.

The prob­lem with priv­ileged ques­tions is that you only have so much at­ten­tion to spare. At­ten­tion paid to a ques­tion that has been priv­ileged funges against at­ten­tion you could be pay­ing to bet­ter ques­tions. Even worse, it may not feel from the in­side like any­thing is wrong: you can ap­ply all of the epistemic ra­tio­nal­ity in the world to an­swer­ing a ques­tion like “should Congress pass stric­ter gun con­trol laws?” and never once ask your­self where that ques­tion came from and whether there are bet­ter ques­tions you could be an­swer­ing in­stead.

I sus­pect this is a prob­lem in academia too. Richard Ham­ming once gave a talk in which he re­lated the fol­low­ing story:

Over on the other side of the din­ing hall was a chem­istry table. I had worked with one of the fel­lows, Dave McCall; fur­ther­more he was court­ing our sec­re­tary at the time. I went over and said, “Do you mind if I join you?” They can’t say no, so I started eat­ing with them for a while. And I started ask­ing, “What are the im­por­tant prob­lems of your field?” And af­ter a week or so, “What im­por­tant prob­lems are you work­ing on?” And af­ter some more time I came in one day and said, “If what you are do­ing is not im­por­tant, and if you don’t think it is go­ing to lead to some­thing im­por­tant, why are you at Bell Labs work­ing on it?” I wasn’t wel­comed af­ter that; I had to find some­body else to eat with!

Aca­demics an­swer ques­tions that have been priv­ileged in var­i­ous ways: per­haps the ques­tions their ad­vi­sor was in­ter­ested in, or the ques­tions they’ll most eas­ily be able to pub­lish pa­pers on. Nei­ther of these are nec­es­sar­ily well-cor­re­lated with the most im­por­tant ques­tions.

So far I’ve found one tool that helps com­bat the worst priv­ileged ques­tions, which is to ask the fol­low­ing counter-ques­tion:

What do I plan on do­ing with an an­swer to this ques­tion?

With the worst priv­ileged ques­tions I fre­quently find that the an­swer is “noth­ing,” some­times with the fol­low-up an­swer “sig­nal­ing?” That’s a bad sign. (Edit: but “noth­ing” is differ­ent from “I’m just cu­ri­ous,” say in the con­text of an in­ter­est­ing math­e­mat­i­cal or sci­en­tific ques­tion that isn’t mo­ti­vated by a prac­ti­cal con­cern. In­tel­lec­tual cu­ri­os­ity can be a use­ful heuris­tic.)

(I’ve also found the above counter-ques­tion gen­er­ally use­ful for deal­ing with ques­tions. For ex­am­ple, it’s one way to no­tice when a ques­tion should be dis­solved, and asked of some­one else it’s one way to help both of you clar­ify what they ac­tu­ally want to know.)