I just stumbled on the Google Science Fair. The pitch is perfect:
Have you asked a question today? What did you do with it?
Did it take you somewhere new? Did it bring you here?
The Google Science Fair is an online science competition seeking curious minds from the four corners of the globe. Anybody and everybody between 13 and 18 can enter. All you need is an idea.
Geniuses are not always A-grade students. We welcome all mavericks, square-pegs and everybody who likes to ask questions. Simply upload your project here to win some life changing prizes.
Everyone has a question. What’s yours?
Now, imagine if we did something like this with social studies and civics.
But John King of CNN apparently felt it was more important to stick to the same subjects of most of the previous debates: the national debt, immigration, which candidate is the true conservative, Iran. To be fair, he tried to ask a question about which candidate believes in birth control, but never followed up (apparently anything that generates audience booing is bad for ratings?).
He did have time to ask “Define yourself using one word, Gentlemen, and one word only” and ”What is the biggest misconception about you in the public debate right now?”
If the media is the immune system of democracy, as Craig Newmark likes to say, then the act of asking questions of the powerful might be thought of as the mitochondria, the energy source that powers the immune system. A good question is one that presents its recipient with a problem that must be resolved. It may raise uncomfortable facts, or highlight a contradiction, or merely demand that its subject explain him or herself on a topic they have avoided or would prefer to not address. Good questions insist on accountability, and good questioners insist on real answers, not obfuscations.
When we as a society, and the press in particular, fail to ask good questions of those with power or those who act in our name, our immune system weakens and democracy falters. So, my question is: how can we foster the asking of more good questions?
Today there are two kinds of people who can ask questions of the powerful: those who have an investigative role as part of their job description (journalists, cops, prosecutors, judges), and ordinary citizens. I’m not sure what can be done to make our legal system ask more questions, but I do think there are some things we can do to improve the behavior of journalists and ordinary citizens.
What if we rewarded good questions with public praise, and punished dumb questions (or failures to ask) with shame? Furthermore, what if we built a supply of good questions, so professional and citizen journalists alike could draw on collective intelligence to focus attention where it might be needed? Sometimes, very useful questions are asked of the powerful by ordinary people, in part because the powerful avoid the press, in part because the professional press sometimes shies away from offending the powerful, and in part because ordinary people get occasional opportunities to ask unexpected questions.
Think of Temple University graduate student Michael Rovito, who happened to walk up to GOP VP candidate Sarah Palin while she was picking up some cheesesteaks at a restaurant in South Philadelphia. At the time Palin was avoiding all contact with the press. Rovito asked her about the situation in Pakistan and whether the U.S. should do cross-border raids from Afghanistan to stop terrorists. She said she favored such action, even though her running mate John McCain had just criticized President Obama for doing exactly that. Rovito asked Palin a good question, and received a revealing response (which was dutifully reported by the press).
At the same time, professional journalists often fail to ask good questions of powerful politicians, and instead act more like talk-show personalities seeking to keep the audience entertained. As Jay Rosen and Amanda Michel show in their new study of the 839 questions asked during the 20 Republican debates held so far this election season, there is a wide divergence as well between the topics the public is interested in and the topics professional journalists often ask during those debates. The public never asks for questions about polls or negative ads, for example, yet those questions come up frequently (13% of the total). Huge topics, like climate change, Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, education, small business, and how to prevent another economic crash came up just 23 times in all, or just about 3% of the total.
What to do? Here are three ideas for action:
1. Let’s join in with Rosen, Michel and the Studio 20 NYU class and make the hashtag #unasked into a living repository of good questions for politicians and other powerful actors. This can start simple and grow.
2. Let’s figure out how to shine a light on professional journalists who have the greatest access and watchdog their work. Good questions should be rewarded; I’ve been using the hashtag #goodqstion to share ones that I like. Truly dumb and wasteful ones (see #dianesawyerquestions or this one-minute “this or that” compilation: Elvis or Johnny Cash, John King?) often earn opprobrium on their own, but maybe there’s more we can do to shame journalists who are particularly awful in this regard.
3. Let’s reward good questions from citizens. Seriously, let’s give people like Michael Rovito prizes for sticking their necks out.
Isidore Rabi, who won the 1944 Nobel Prize winner in physics, was asked how it was that he became a scientist. His reply: “My mother made me a scientist without ever intending to. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask their child after school, So? Did you learn anything doay? But not my mother. “Izzy,” she would say, “did you ask a good question today”? That difference—asking good questions—made me become a scientist.”
That difference can also make our democracy healthier. We may not all agree on absolute truths, but if we keep asking good questions we can drive out foolishness and falsehood.
I’m often stunned by the lack of questions that adults are prepared to ask.
When you see kids go on a field trip, the questions pour out of them. Never ending, interesting, deep… even risky.
And then the resistance kicks in and we apparently lose the ability.
Is the weather the only thing you can think to ask about? A great question is one you can ask yourself, one that disturbs your status quo and scares you a little bit.
The A part is easy. We’re good at answers. Q, not so much.
A nine year old named Ari Garnick managed to ask most the Republican presidential candidates that question (with some help from his Dad). The results are here.
Are we losing the race with catastrophe?
We all live in history, and it’s surely happening right now. It’s tempting to start complaining about an inevitable national decline. But history is also tricky to examine as it’s unfolding. What I’m getting at is a bit different than the “Are We Rome” question.
Basically, I’m curious about why we can’t recognize and address (leaving aside “solve” for now) problems that are right in front of our faces, even after they have already proven catastrophic.
This problem has been a focus of mine since reporting on how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers left New Orleans exposed to Katrina with shoddy, design-error-ridden levees, and then, after this was discovered in the wake of the storm … nothing happened. No one was fired, no major reforms were passed, the political system gave a collective shrug, and the same people who screwed up were left in charge. At first, I thought this result might be idiosyncratic, an artifact of regional politics that was simply not a national priority. (Though should be one.) But this cycle – catastrophe, followed by panic, then a return to business-as-usual, paving the way to a bigger future catastrophe – is showing up repeatedly elsewhere. It was at the heart of the banking crisis and the recession. Banks, insurers and ratings agencies all screwed up magnificently, but no one was indicted or held accountable. Bankers are richer than ever. Reforms were modest and have come under sustained assault by Republicans. Or look at the entire, accountability-free zone we have constructed around military contracting and outsourcing, with Blackwater as the poster boy.
More generally, as they face unprecedented challenges, American institutions are flailing, unable to self-correct. The recent debt ceiling fight, combined with the questionable S&P downgrade, showed this destructive public-private axis at work, one in which the “grownups” we once relied on either end up humiliated (Obama) or are AWOL. There’s also the collective rush to austerity as the solution of choice to a historic economic downturn – something that most economists say axiomatically will have the exact opposite effect intended, delaying recovery and prolonging the suffering of millions. Or the political system’s collective denial about climate change: Republicans deny its existence, and Democrats have surrendered on any action.
Jay Rosen has called this a crisis of legitimacy. You might also call it institutional meltdown, the decline of credibility, the end of empiricism. I’ve written some variations onthis theme. It is certainly not restricted to America, what with the Euro hanging in the balance.
The common element here: there’s no one representing the public interest. No one appears to be in charge, there’s no “buck stops here” sign to be found. There’s also no way out: no avenue to a programmatic fix, no accountability or, and some cases, no justice. Instead, baser political forces rule, primarily money, or whoever shouts the loudest (often the same thing). These problems are a big part of what’s driving, and being driven by, the erosion of the middle class and rising income inequality. We’ve seen bottom-up responses from the Tea Party (in public policy terms, disastrous) and now the Occupy Wall Street movement. Can politics and institutions respond meaningfully to these pressures?
From Seth Godin: What good interview questions are actually trying to discover
How long are you willing to keep pushing on a good project until you give up?
How hard is it to get you to change your mind when you’re wrong?
How much do you learn from failing?
How long does it take you to learn something new?
How hard is it for you to let someone else take the lead?
How much do you care?
The rest is merely commentary, either that or they’re interviewing you for a job that’s not as good as you deserve. For those jobs, the only question they’re really focusing on is, “will she fit in around here?”