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.)