“Bad” questions
© 7 Aug 2017 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
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Some questions even a perfect teacher couldn’t (or wouldn’t choose to) answer.


In Sacrament meeting yesterday I was sustained1 We call the act of raising your hand to say you will support someone in their duties “‍sustaining‍” them. Confusingly, we also call the act of actually supporting them “‍sustaining‍” them. as a seminary2 Seminary refers to a daily scripture class for teenagers. A similar course, called “‍institute‍”, is provided for college-age young adults. Since we expect all members to be part of our ministry, we also expect all youth to be trained as such. teacher. One of the students I’ll be teaching next month stopped me after Sacrament meeting and asked how I will react to complicated questions: will I answer them, or will I dismiss them?

My instinct was to say “‍We’ll discuss the answers to any question,‍” but then I realized that is not always true. There are classes of questions that do not readily admit answers. Following are a few examples:

Assuming falsehood

Consider the question “‍is 103 a better number than 15?‍”. The question assumes that some numbers are better than others. To answer the question at all is to reinforce that false understanding. Even “‍they are equally good‍” reinforces the misapprehension that numbers have goodness.

Questions that I am sometimes asked which are of this type include “‍what’s the best programming language?‍”, “‍where are you from?‍”3many people can answer this easily…, and “‍I can just repent afterwards, right?‍”

Fortunately, while these questions are not generally answerable, there is often space for a productive, enlightening conversation about why they are not.

Too narrow

Consider the question “‍I know we’re not supposed to eat toxic things; is sand toxic?‍”. The question has a simple, easily provided answer (“‍no, it is not‍”) but giving that answer is likely to encourage poor decisions (eating sand) because the questioner is not considering some important truths (toxins are not the only things bad to eat). The questioner’s perspective appears to be too narrow: all of the answers allowed for by the question as posed are misleading.

Questions that I am sometimes asked which are of this type include “‍what about artificial intelligence?‍”, “‍how should I study for the exam?‍”, “‍what’s your favorite X?‍”, and “‍how many bad things can I do and still get into heaven?‍”

Broadening the perspective enough to answer these questions is often challenging, as it typically appears to the questioner that such a reply is changing the subject and refusing to answer the question.


Consider the question “‍What does it feel like to sneeze?‍” I expect all of my readers know the answer, but none of them can answer the question with anything more than vague platitudes, poor analogies, or clinical outlines. Some answers can only be learned from experience, not from teaching.

Questions that I am sometimes asked which are of this type include “‍how do you design an algorithm?‍”4 Algorithm design can be learned, but in my experience it is learned through apprenticeship, worked examples, and experience, not through description and instruction. , “‍why are you single?‍”, and “‍why do you believe in God?‍”

I have yet to hear a satisfying or enlightening answer to any of these questions. At best, you can try to indicate how the questioner can seek out a similar experience.

Too advanced

Consider the question “‍how does a tunneling electron diode work?‍”. The question is eminently answerable; physics professors the world over answer it in detail every few months. However, most of my readers probably lack most of the background information needed to understand the answer. The question is readily answered, but it is not readily answered without doing a lot of seemingly-unrelated preparatory work first. Unless, of course, you have that preparation: what is “‍too advanced‍” varies by person.

Questions that I am sometimes asked which are of this type include “‍why don’t you believe in ‘‍the singularity‍’?‍”, “‍what do you do to attract students of stereotypically non-CS groups into your class?‍”, and “‍how could God allow X to happen?‍”

When people ask these questions calmly, a calm answer like “‍you’ll need to learn X, Y, and Z to understand the answer‍” works fine: it may be disappointing, but it isn’t insulting. When these questions are asked in emotional extremity, the not-yet-knowable answer is a lot harder to take.

For you, not me

As a teacher, there are many easy-to-answer, uncomplicated questions that I will not answer, at least not yet. These include the questions I ask my students. The questions I put on exams and quizzes are gifts to my students, helping them to think and understand what they know. Giving with them their answers removes the utility of the questions.

Questions of this type are often very context-dependent; I am not finding generic examples to share.

I have not found a universal strategy for handling these questions. Sometimes “‍good question; what’s the answer?‍” works, but only if the answer’s within ready reach of the questioner. Sometimes reviewing the process for determining an answer, rather than giving an answer directly, is useful, but it can feel like a run-around. I welcome suggestions on what to do with these questions.


Consider the question “‍what will the weather be like 583 Tuesdays from now?‍”. This question is very easy to reply to, even if impossible to answer: “‍I don’t know.‍”

Questions that I am sometimes asked which are of this type include “‍will I need to know this in my job?‍”, “‍how can you not appreciate free verse?‍”, and “‍is the book of Job to be taken literally or only figuratively?‍”

While “‍I don’t know‍” is a good answer to these questions, it sometimes requires a bit of context, a clause explaining what part of the question is the tricky part or why I have chosen not to learn the answer. I have found that sometimes telling people “‍I don’t know‍” causes them to remark positively on how smart I am; why that is is one of those questions to which I don’t know the answer.

No doubt there are many more questions that cannot be readily answered besides the kinds I’ve listed above. It strikes me as slightly odd that I cannot recall ever having the various kinds of hard-to-answer questions enumerated for me before.

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