There are stupid questions

I haven’t watched the Ham with cheese on Nye debate yet – it’s a pretty low priority on my list of things to do – but there’s a Buzzfeed post by Matt Stropera that’s gone viral showing creationists holding up questions for the other side (Stropera’s term, not mine).

You probably won’t be surprised to find out that the questions are uniformly stupid (some aren’t even questions at all, like #10: I believe in the Big Bang Theory… God said BANG and it happened!). Numerous atheists have answered them already, of course, and responses range from pithy to probably pointlessly nice.

We could argue until we go hoarse over whether it’s worthwhile to bother answering these questions or these people, and if so what tone we should take. But the answer to that depends on what your strategic goals are and what tactics are most effective at achieving those goals – which is not something that can be concluded by mere debate (but then, evolution vs. creationism can’t be concluded by mere debate, and yet…).

What I think is beyond argument, though, is that these are stupid questions.

Now, you may have heard that old canard: “There are no stupid questions.” Well, that’s a stupid statement. The truth is there are stupid questions, and lo, there’s a sample of 22 of them for you. (Well, 20. #10 and #12 are not questions.)

But what makes questions stupid?

It is not the people asking them, or even their beliefs. Whatever your feelings about creationists, it’s certainly possible for a creationist to ask intelligent questions about evolution.

It’s also not mere ignorance. The platitude about there being “no stupid questions” is based on the idea that if you really don’t understand something, and you really want to, then no question you ask is stupid. You may laugh about the question later, once you understand things better, but if you’re sincere when you’re asking it, it is not stupid. Making mistakes is part of the learning process. Even misguided questions – questions based on a false preconception that cannot be answered without first clearing up the misconception – are not stupid, if you’re really sincere about learning. You’ll simply be told that the question itself is malformed, and you’ll learn from that.

The key is right there: sincerity. No sincerely asked question is stupid, under any circumstances. That means a question asked with honest intention to learn something is always okay. Ignorance is not a sin, and if you’re sincerely interested in learning, it is a necessary step on your path.

Those questions asked by the creationists are not sincere. They aren’t really interested in gaining new knowledge. They are asking questions they have been coached to ask that they think are “gotcha” questions that illustrate imaginary “flaws” in the theory of evolution by natural selection. (They don’t of course – they only illustrate the askers’ ignorance, and the fact that they’ve been coached by creationist propaganda.)

Creationists and theists in general have been coached to go out and ask these questions, not to learn anything, but just to annoy scientists and atheists. They’re coached to fake sincerity, and some fake it better than others (see the variation in the questions, for example). The “brains” in those circles – such as they are – know quite well that we are fully capable of answering all of them, even if many of them require explaining how the question itself is misguided, but that’s not the point. The point is to make believers feel intellectually smug and armed, and to drown scientists and atheists in a flood of the same stupid questions asked over and over and over – all while the answers are never once heeded. And when we finally get fed up with it all, they’ll accuse us of not being able to answer the questions (or just of being “angry”).

Many of us are fascinated by science and knowledge, and thrilled at the possibility of sharing what we’ve learned, and the wonders we’ve seen. We’re primed suckers for this tactic. Just take a look at Phil Plait falling for it hook, line and sinker (unless, of course, he’s simply faking it, but it’s hard to tell with Dr. “Don’t be a dick”).

I’m not going to tell you whether you should answer these kinds of questions, or what tone you should take when answering them. For now, I’m just going to point out that they’re stupid questions. They’re not worthy of respectful consideration – though you may choose to fake interest in answering them for strategic reasons (and why not, they’re faking interest in learning the answers, after all). These are not misguided people who really need help finding the straight and narrow path. These are people using a ploy, and don’t think they’re not smart enough to realize that’s what they’re doing – they don’t seriously expect answers, or even want them.

One thought on “There are stupid questions

  1. I think a stupid question is one that doesn’t make sense given the questioner’s knowledge of the topic. In other words, a stupid question is one that the person really should know better than to ask. By that standard a question can be both stupid and sincere, but it would be rude and mean-spirited to give someone a hard time for asking such a question.

    I think you’re right to classify most of those creationist questions as “gotcha” questions, or in other words arguments (bad ones, in this case) that happen to take the form of questions. No doubt the “brains” of the movement do indeed know that science and philosophy have solid and frequently deployed answers, but my guess is that at least a significant percentage of the people actually holding up those signs probably don’t. There’s little point in shouting answers across the vastness of the internet, unless one has a high-profile platform to shout from, but in my experience patient dialogue with creationists can sometimes get them to abandon or at least moderate their positions (by moving along the continuum from “God did it in six days!” to “all right, it took billions of years and was mostly driven by natural selection, but God nudged it in the right direction at critical moments”).

    The process of bringing creationists around is admittedly slow and uncertain, though. In my opinion the main benefits of answering creationist questions are laying out the answers for any third parties who happen to be in a position to hear or see them, and upholding respectful dialogue as a norm. Of course, there are plenty of situations in which there are good reasons not to engage, but I think there should be a presumption in favour of engagement when feasible.

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