There are very substantial differences in how question asking is viewed culturally. For example, all of the following are common:
- If no one asks a question, then no one is paying attention.
- To ask a question is disrespectful of the speaker.
- Asking a question is admitting your own ignorance.
The first view seems to be the right one for research, for several reasons.
- Research is quite hard—it’s difficult to guess how people won’t understand something in advance while preparing a presentation. Consequently, it’s very common to lose people. No worthwhile presenter wants that.
- Real understanding is precious. By asking a question, you are really declaring “I want to understand”, and everyone should respect that.
- Asking a question wakes you up. I don’t mean from “asleep” to “awake” but from “awake” to “really awake”. It’s easy to drift through something sort-of-understanding. When you ask a question, especially because you are on the spot, you will do much better.
Some of these effects might seem minor, but they accumulate over time, and their accumulation can have a big effect in terms of knowledge and understanding by the questioner as well as how well ideas are communicated. A final piece of evidence comes from checking cultural backgrounds. People with a cultural background that accepts question asking simply tend to do better in research. If this isn’t you, it’s ok. By being conscious of the need to ask questions and working up the courage to do it, you can do fine.
A reasonable default is that the time to not ask a question is when the speaker (or the environment) explicitly say “let me make progress in the talk”.