Machine Learning (Theory)


Asking questions

Tags: Research jl@ 6:02 am

There are very substantial differences in how question asking is viewed culturally. For example, all of the following are common:

  1. If no one asks a question, then no one is paying attention.
  2. To ask a question is disrespectful of the speaker.
  3. Asking a question is admitting your own ignorance.

The first view seems to be the right one for research, for several reasons.

  1. 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.
  2. Real understanding is precious. By asking a question, you are really declaring “I want to understand”, and everyone should respect that.
  3. 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”.

5 Comments to “Asking questions”
  1. Viren says:

    And if no one asks a question about the post about asking questions…?

  2. I stopped asking questions for a long time, just to risky. I and others in my department (and work) got the, “If you have to ask about that then maybe you shouldn’t be here.” type of response.

    But then I realized…if they have to respond like that, then maybe they shouldn’t be here. And now I’m back to asking questions because I really want to know!

  3. andrej says:

    I loved the Principles of Programming seminar at CMU because it was known for “shredding the speakers”. This actually meant people asked questions–and when they understood the subject really well they asked really tough questions. These days I run a research seminar on foundations of math and computer science, and I would love to have an environment like we did at CMU. But unfortunately the Slovenian academic environment is very European-like: all three points from John’s post apply. People just keep silent, even after the talk (which is not surprising as they lost the thread because they were not asking questions during the seminar). Any ideas on how to fight Euro-culture are appreciated.

  4. Pedro Silva says:


    Frankly, i would rather have a more self-conscious “Euro-culture” kind of participation than the American “ask away with no giving it any thought whatsoever before” culture. Particularly seminars are well-suited to this type of time-wasting. My experience comes from Broadcasting seminars at San Francisco State, and my wife’s thoughts on genetics seminars at UC Berkeley.

    Too much hot-air seems to be the prevailing idea at home about this subject.

  5. Dear JL

    I do tend to agree with Pedro (here above). In many of my lectures and seminars I do not have problems at all in having questions at the middle of my exposure (sometimes they are useful – they appear at the right time). However, about 98% of them are self-answered due to common-sense. The remaining 2% are indeed good questions. But, as I commonly answer, “It’s indeed a good question –could you please wait for the next slides” (By the way, at the end you should respectfully answer those people first). The problem is that this 98% share brokens rhythm. Our rhythm and the rhythm of many of our listeners. Normally, many scientific aspects and details (the evil is on details, remember) need time for exposure. And if we loose 5 minutes answering, the problem is not on the 5 minutes, the problem is that all the current flow and line of thought will be lost. So I tend to agree with final questions. But a big final and critical open-minded period for (any kind of) questions. Generally as equal as – or a twice as – my talk period. And if after the 2nd, 3rd question the speaker answers with is open-heart, being informal, simultaneously funny and humble (being serious about his own work, and from those of his many research colleagues – the body of work and conceptual ideas surrounding him), then everybody – really – will asks questions.

    From my experience, many (fortunately, not all) questions in lectures around the United States (as well as in many other countries) are done by people:

    1) that do not have patience for details, and do not understand that details can change a lot one paradigm. Many of these get surprised at the next PPT slide. I must say, that I do not really know how they feel then.

    2) even worse – by people that are not interested in any answer at all. They simple ask questions in order to increase their own status among others on the room. It seems that they not understand that this is indeed the worst thing they could do for their own “so-concerned” image.

    Those people remind me of journalists. The other 2% are simple pearls. And they can help you a lot not only on the present lecture as well as on your future research!

    Kind regards, Vitorino

    p.s. – JL: great blog, and great questions/thoughts/posts. Congratulations. Do please continue.

    ~ v.ramos, LaSEEB, IST,
    […] Interactions among many sporuliferous and ubiquitous abstractions
    may lead to increasing reality […] Vitorino Ramos, 2001.

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