Dumb questions

Everybody hesitates to ask dumb questions for fear that everybody else will turn around and ask (silently), “Who let him in here?” But then somebody asks one, and everybody else snickers, and everybody quotes the answer to that question. Homer Bigart, war correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune and The New York Times, made a whole career of asking dumb questions.

Here’s a dumb question: What’s a dumb question?

A dumb question is one so basic that nobody else asks it. Everybody assumes that everybody knows the answer, or nobody thinks of the question in the first place.

Pavilion X

My second career is based on asking dumb questions, which I find easy because I want to know the answers. I asked one two weeks ago at a panel on the architecture of the University of Virginia. Richard Guy Wilson, a Thomas Jefferson specialist, was describing the restoration of the “parapets” on Pavilion X to an audience of architects, faculty members, and restoration specialists. During the question period, I asked what parapets are used for, and the whole audience burst out laughing. Later, I asked why they found the question funny, and they all said they either didn’t know what a parapet was, or what it was for. An audience of experts sat there not knowing something that basic, but feared to ask. Several of them thanked me later.

(By the way, a parapet is a wall around a roof or balcony.)

Here’s one of my favorite dumb questions. Let’s say an Air Force general is praising the accuracy of his bombers, bragging about the percentage of hits. So you ask him to define a “hit.” Everybody in the room gives you “the look.” If you had asked that question just after World War II, the answer might have been “Only 14 to 20 percent of the [8th Air Force’s] bombs fell within one thousand feet of the aiming point.” (Kenneth P. Werrell: Death from the Heavens. A History of Strategic Bombing).

A reporter friend of mine asked the president of a Florida junior college to define “Junior College.” He replied that no one had ever asked him that, and gave a definition that opened up a whole realm of information she had not imagined.

Dumb questions have a startling effect on interview subjects. They’re usually taken aback, and rarely have a prepared answer. So you get a fresh, unrehearsed, and often honest reply, which leads to rich follow-up questions.

The most powerful dumb question I know is “Why?” Just ask it, smile, and sit back and wait.

[What’s your favorite dumb question?]

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Published in: on October 5, 2009 at 10:15 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Here are two statements I heard recently regarding quotes in stories. Please give me your thoughts on the two quotes:

    “A cardinal rule: Never introduce new information or concept in a quote.”

    “Set up a quote with a reverse-reengineered softball question.”

  2. Thanks, MDW. I think I disagree with both of them. 1. Quotes are information, and they can introduce new stuff perfectly well. 2. Not sure what this means. If it means, make up a question responding to a quote as if it were dialogue, I think that looks like fiction. Or if it means ask the question in such a way as to generate the response you want, that’s okay, as long as it’s not making a statement and getting the source to agree with it, and then publishing it as a quote. In general, I resist cardinal rules.


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