The Error In “There Are No Stupid Questions”

A friend of mine teaches High School physics. He’s known for telling his students:

“There are no stupid questions, just stupid people asking them.”

That sounds harsh, but he’s also one of the most popular teachers at the school. I was thinking about him because of this tweet from Karen Swallow Prior:

King Solomon, early 18th C. Russian icon (Wikipedia)

The advent of the stupid question did not arise with social media, though. Solomon wrote almost 3000 years ago:

Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?”
    For it is not wise to ask such questions. (Ecclesiastes 7:10.)

Why would Solomon say this? Because living in the past can lead a person to avoid dealing with the present. That would certainly not be wise.

Unexplained Questions and Courtroom Discoveries

One of the truisms of questioning a witness in the courtroom is “Never ask a question you don’t know the answer to.” That’s a good guide for forming questions, but it’s a horrible rule to follow slavishly. The real issue is whether you care what the answer is or not.

Let’s say an issue in the case is how familiar a driver is with a particular stretch of country road. If you are the attorney defending that driver in a negligence case you might know your client had never been on the road before and the sudden curve which led immediately to a narrow bridge came as a surprise. So you ask “Had you ever driven that road before that night?” knowing the answer will help your case.

Another case might be a dispute where a business owner sues an accountant for mishandling the business’s books. The attorney representing the owner can ask the defendant “When was the last time you reviewed the bank statements?” without caring what the answer is. If the witness says she went over the statements every day, the attorney can argue that she must have seen the discrepancies but tried to cover them up; if she answers that she hadn’t reviewed them for a long time, the attorney can argue the accountant failed to carry out her fiduciary duty to the business. The answer doesn’t matter because it fits either theory of malfeasance.

Then there are the times I hear a question and have absolutely no idea why it’s being asked. Let’s say I am assigned a car vandalism case for a preliminary hearing. This is the point in the process where the prosecutor must put on sufficient evidence to show me (the judge) that there is a reason to order the defendant to stand trial. The level of proof isn’t anywhere near the standard for conviction by a jury: proof beyond a reasonable doubt. It merely needs to be enough to show there is some reason to think a crime was committed and that the accused person is a reasonable suspect. It’s a very low threshold – what the law calls a “strong suspicion” and nothing more.

The prosecutor might ask the car owner where he lives. Fair enough, I think, because that might be the location the vandalism occurred. If the next question is how long the owner lived there, I can tend to wonder what that has to do with the crime. I have learned to be patient and not ask the prosecutor why she’s asking a stupid (or in legal terminology, irrelevant) question. In fact, I’ve learned that doing so might mean that I am the one who risks asking a stupid question.

Here’s how the owner’s length of residency might turn out not only to be relevant, but crucial to connecting the crime to the person accused of committing it. The questioning might reveal that the owner had lived in that apartment complex for three years and knew the defendant as a former neighbor. The defendant is a former neighbor because he had caused so many problems in the apartments that the car’s owner complained repeatedly to the management. Eventually the defendant was evicted, and as he loaded up his truck he swore to take revenge on the car’s owner. And in describing the vandalism, the owner saw the word “revenge” scratched into the  hood of the car.

That question about length of residence doesn’t look so irrelevant any more, does it? The attorney knew all along where the questions would lead, even if the judge didn’t.

Exercising Wisdom about the End of All Things

Which brings me back to the idea of stupid questions, or rather the ability to discern whether a question is stupid or not. I’ve found that this discernment is best found in patience rather than wisdom. Waiting to see where someone is going with their questions usually reveals the relevance.

As Solomon said in the lead-up to his point on the wisdom of asking about the supposed merit of former days:

The end of a matter is better than its beginning,
    and patience is better than pride. (Ecclesiastes 7:8.)

Pride leads me to think I know all the answers, or at least that I know better questions to ask to get the answers. But I don’t, and being patient is better than giving in to my pride.

And why is the end of the matter better? Why is it foolish to ask “Why were the old days better than these?” I think it’s because the old days are not where we are headed. We’re headed to the conclusion of all things, some in the near term and some in the ultimate sense of eternity.

Let’s look at this wisdom in the sense of eternity. I’ve heard some people say they would like to return to the Garden of Eden, before sin entered the world. For two reasons I would rather look forward to the New Creation promised by Jesus. First, going back is just wishful thinking of the type Solomon warned against; we can’t go back to the Garden. Second, Solomon said the end is better than the beginning; that means the New Creation is better than the original Garden.

And all this history in between is not a string of irrelevant events. You are on the way to eternity with Jesus, even if you can’t understand how this point gets you any closer to that. Jesus knows where your life will lead and he will get you there.


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9 Responses to The Error In “There Are No Stupid Questions”

  1. Laura Droege says:

    Terrific post, Tim. I love how your thought line progressed from KSP’s tweet to the court room scenarios (which I always find fascinating) to Solomon’s wise thoughts to Jesus.

  2. I used to say “theology is great, everybody should have one.”
    Then I discovered Twitter.

  3. Jeannie Prinsen says:

    So interesting, Tim — I like hearing your thoughts on courtroom questioning. And the connection to the “good old days” question makes a lot of sense. Maybe the person asking that question is trying to express something deep in their heart which, if we listen patiently, will come to the surface and we can have a helpful conversation about it. Simply replying “That’s silly” shuts things down rather than opening them up — which isn’t conducive to good relationships.

  4. Opa Bear says:

    I liked this, Tim! The quote of Solomon’s is favorite of mine.

  5. Pastor Bob says:

    In the classroom, the only “bad” question (we have been told for many years NOT to use the word “stupid”) is the one you do not ask. A close second is if it is irrelevant.

    However, your point is valid too. Time to apply that tricky word – balance.

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