By: Robin Hanson
Overcoming Bias, January 22, 2013
I know a lot of people who think of themselves as intellectuals. That is, they spend a substantial fraction of their free time dealing in ideas. Most of these people are mainly consumers who take in ideas, but don’t seem to do much with them, at least as far as anyone else ever sees. But others are more outward facing, talking and writing about ideas, often quite eagerly.
Oddly however, most of these idea dealers seem to define themselves mostly in terms of the answers they want to promote, instead of the questions they want to answer. Most idea-oriented Facebook status updates seem like this – saying yay for some answer they agree with. The few that deal in questions also seem to be mainly promoting them, saying yay for the sort of people who like that question.
Now yes, in addition to question-answering the world also needs some answer indexing, aggregation, and yes, sometimes even promotion. And yes, sometimes the world needs people to generate and even promote good questions. But my guess is that most intellectual progress comes from people who focus on a question to which they do not currently know the answer, and then try to answer it. Yes, people doing other things sometimes stumble on a new answer, but in general it helps to be looking in order to find.
I also know lots of academics, and they all have one or more research topics. And if you ask them they can usually phrase these topics in terms of questions they want to answer. And this is a big part of what makes academics more intellectually productive. But alas, few academics are able to articulate in much detail why it is important to the world that their questions get answered. They usually just invoke some vague associations, apparently considering it sufficient that some journal is willing to publish their answers. They seem to think it is someone else’s job to decide what questions are important. Unfortunately, most academic journal articles are answering pretty uninteresting questions.
So the important intellectual progress comes down to the rather small fraction of intellectuals who both define their focus in terms of a question, rather than an answer, and who bother to think about what questions actually matter. To these, I salute, and bow. They are the sweet thirst-quenching fount of progress.