Dumb questions

Yesterday’s Dilbert:

There are dumb questions. There are even several different kinds of dumb questions.

The pointy-haired boss’s question is borderline dumb. It reveals a profound failure on the boss’s part to understand relevant basic things; the question is how far you’re willing to go to fix so deep a lack of understanding. (In this case, for Dilbert, not any distance at all — but then the boss probably doesn’t actually need to have the answer to his question to do his work. It’s an idle dumb question.)

The boss’s question is one that betrays ignorance or misunderstanding, especially a stubborn holding on to flawed conceptualizations and presuppositions. In a classroom situation, when the course has devoted considerable time and energy to correcting such misunderstandings, it’s dispiriting to have a student ask a question of this sort. But, still, it’s worth it to know about the misunderstanding, maybe to have one more bash at it — in class, if it seems that the questioner isn’t the only one with this misunderstanding, in a one-on-one otherwise.

A very different sort of dumb question is the course-gaming question: most famously, “Will this be on the final?” or, even worse, “Is this important?”

Then there’s yet another kind of dumb question, of a sort that Kim Darnell and I chatted about after the Dilbert cartoon came out. Here’s what happens: you, the instructor, explains some important point in the current material, maybe explaining it in several different ways or explicitly identifying the point as a key concept, and then a student asks about the very point you have just made, as if you hadn’t said anything.

I’ve been reflecting on the phenomenon, and my guess is that it’s an instance of a common phenomenon of conversation, in which a listener is inattentive to a speaker because the listener’s attention is focused elsewhere; women stereotypically complain about this effect in their male partners. In an extreme case, the listener is mulling over the very thing that the speaker is talking about, but has “tuned the speaker out”.

So, in a unit on statistics, you get to (arithmetic) means, medians, and modes. It’s the topic for today’s class. You explain means vs. medians to the students, with engaging examples. Meanwhile, one of your students has been mentally mulling over measures of central tendency (though probably not in exactly those terms), and when you get to asking “Any questions?”, the student asks, “How are the mean and median different?”

From your point of view, that’s a phenomenally dumb question, since you’ve just answered it. But the student literally wasn’t listening; they were busy working up to formulating their question.

I’m still not sure what the best response is.


One Response to “Dumb questions”

  1. John Baker Says:

    I agree that there are dumb questions. However, the pointy-headed boss’s question is not dumb at all. It’s a very smart and insightful question. Dilbert would probably know this, although he is so disrespectful to his boss that he might act as if it were dumb.

    The answer is that the zeroes and ones don’t go anywhere, usually. Depending on the operating system and the precise command used, typically the file is simply removed from the file allocation table. The space previously taken by the file is then available to be overwritten. This has significant consequences for file recovery and system security.

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