The science of asking real questions | Inquirer Opinion

The science of asking real questions

/ 04:20 AM December 14, 2022

The first lesson that I teach in my research classes has to do with asking questions properly. By this, I mean teaching students how to ask questions that have to do with unearthing insight rather than proving their prior notions right.

Asking genuine questions is not easy: students have to read a lot of research, walk through a logical process that intertwines philosophy with the social sciences, and work with theories that are often densely, even obscurely described. In some cases, my students have to design interviews and focus group discussions, where every single question they ask must arise from their theoretical framework and/or reading of previous research, while still allowing their participants to speak candidly.

Asking questions is a skill. What we ask exposes what we expect about other people, what biases we hold about their position and duty, how we regard our position in the world.


The questions posed by lawmakers during the Commission on Appointments hearing with Dr. Renato Solidum Jr., now secretary of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), revealed how much our lawmakers belittle and misunderstand their duties and constituents.


“Can the materials that we use to make rockets also be used to make holes in volcanoes so that we can keep volcanoes from exploding?” one lawmaker asked.

On the surface, pundits might bemoan the lack of science education. A deeper look tells us that this lawmaker thinks that the job of a department secretary is to micromanage research projects, rather than manage people in order for a research agenda to prosper. It is a question that reduces the job of secretary to mere knowledge of a field rather than insight into the field’s cross-disciplinary, multisectoral connections.


“Can we make a pill for poor, hungry Filipinos, like astronaut food?” another lawmaker inquired.

It’s the question that someone asks when they don’t want to exert effort to solve complex issues such as poverty, and want something to just push into people to make the problem go away. Such lawmakers have neither the mental nor emotional capacity for systems-thinking-derived problem-solving that requires a nuanced understanding of the social structures that perpetuate poverty.

Never mind poorly implemented laws, unfair hiring practices, unsystematic education systems, and bad transportation. Give us a pill. How convenient.

“What do you watch on Netflix? Shouldn’t you watch documentaries about how other countries developed through science and technology?” a lawmaker asked and implied.

This was perhaps the most irritating question of all because it oversimplified the role of media and the nature of people’s decision-making. It was a cheap question because it assumes that people are simply brainless vessels into which information can be fed. No surprise, however, because this framing of people works to the advantage of lawmakers who want docile, obedient citizens.

The hearing gave us insight into how lawmakers want the world to work. Apparently, our taxes go to lawmakers whose version of a shared future involves the creation of speedy solutions, with minimum effort and maximum credit to the government, all for citizens who accept authority without question.

We are not such citizens, and there are better questions that could have been asked during the hearing.

What programs will you create to improve our country’s research output? How might these programs be integrated into our education system so that we can have a long-term research pipeline?

What are the research priorities of the DOST in the near term? The long term? What research will you continue and why? Discontinue and why?

How will you carry out transdisciplinary research, especially for wicked problems such as climate change, food security, water security, and mobility? We need all our researchers from the bench and social sciences on equal footing to make the most efficient use of funds. How will you get researchers to cooperate with one another?

You shouldn’t assume people are stupid. Farmers can solve problems together. Lechon was being asked about by drunken buddies.

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