Ask Not For A Better Answer, Ask A Better Question

Conservatively, I figure I've responded to well over 10,000 e-mails since establishing an online presence back in 1995, and I've learned something about questions along the way. When I was a kid, I remember teachers trying to convince children that there's no such thing as a stupid question, which goes a long way towards explaining what went wrong with education in this country (see my detailed plan for education reform). But from the standpoint of somebody looking for answers online, the issue is less one of stupid questions, like, "How do I write a bestseller" than one of uninformed questions, like, "Where's the cheapest place to get a book printed."

The new answer engine, Wolfram Alpha, has been getting a lot of attention in the press for their one-stop shopping. Wolfram users posing a narrow range of questions, primarily mathematical in nature, can get an answer as opposed to a link to a page that may to address the question. If Wolfram, or an advanced version of Google, Ask, Yahoo or Live eventually adopts this approach to more general questions, it will result in a lot of very bad answers. The challenge for people seeking answers online is not that the information doesn't exist or that Google can't find it. The challenge is that people who don't already know the answer can rarely do a good job formulating a question.

It's easy to understand why a new self publisher would assume that the first step to starting a profitable publishing business would be to hook up with the cheapest printer. It's also easy to understand why after writing extensively about why printing cost is less important than the overall cost of getting books into distribution, I would get a little frustrated that people who claim to have done their homework keep asking. And while you'd think that all these years of answering questions would have taught me to quickly recognize a faker, some people are such accomplished liars that it takes quite a few back-and-forth e-mails to figure it out. It's extremely annoying to write a detailed response to a sophisticated question only to find the person who asked was just repeating a question from another source in an attempt to look intelligent. In reality, asking questions with technical terms or references that you don't understand is the best way to arrive at the wrong answer.

If Wolfram was smart enough to parse and understand the question, "Why isn't my self published book selling?" and if it had access to Neilsen Bookscan data, it might look at the derivative of the sales curve for the rate of change and estimate a projected rate of sales. The answer will likely be, "Your book is selling within the normal parameters for a self published book." While such an answer might cheer the heart of an author with a bruised ego, it isn't go to help sell more books. A similarly innocent question might be, "What can I do to sell more books." A really sharp answer engine could come up with a whole variety of answers, like "Make a personal appearance on Oprah," "Start a marketing campaign," or "Lower the price." Does anybody believe those answers are actually useful?

Unfortunately, a "smart" answer engine with enough access to data could come up with very precise answer to the question, "Where's the cheapest place to get a book printed?" And after two weeks or a month, the lucky publisher who asked the question would end up with a garage full of books that, if he could find a distributor to take them, would result in a financial loss on every copy sold. So much for, "I know what I'm doing, just answer my simple question."

There's only one way to ask smart questions, and that's to educate yourself in the subject area until you reach the level of understanding required to ask smart questions. Too many people figure that the fastest path to knowledge is to find somebody who knows more than they do and to ask a lot of questions. Unfortunately, that's not an education, it's an open guru test. School teachers don't assign homework out of pure sadism. It's only through hands-on experience solving problems, writing essays, reading books, etc, that the educational process really takes place. Asking a lot of questions is no replacement for learning, you may as well use my universal answer guide on your next standardized test.


Anonymous said...

Many moons ago when I was trained - we had to learn how to conduct a 'reference interview' - that is, how to get a person asking a question to reveal what they really wanted. Unfortunately, I refined this activity to such a fine art the Spanish Inquisiton would have been proud.
I also developed the technique of asking very pointed questions - never successfully answered by anyone I've asked because their bluster just doesn't allow for it. Pretty much my experience of certain search query results, I have to say.

Morris Rosenthal said...


One fascinating part of owning a website is looking at the search queries in the server stats or Google Analytics that bring people to your site. Out of the 5,000 or so queries that bring people to my site each day, there are always some verystrange ones. Of course, if you figure that at least one in a hundred people are pretty on tilt, it's to be expected:-)


ifastudent said...

thanks for your ideas on learning.

Morris Rosenthal said...


I really think I nailed it in my flowchart. I'm sorry it never went viral, maybe I should do a video:-)


Anonymous said...

"maybe I should do a video:-)"

Maybe you should. We hardly ever see you these days. We keep coming back looking for our friend but he's never there.