There are Plenty of Stupid Questions

… and even more thoughtless answers.

It seems like there are two sides to the ‘stupid question’ coin: The ‘infer’ side, and the ‘imply’ side.

Side 1: infer

You’re afraid that people will infer that you’re an idiot.

Sometimes you feel like an idiot and fear that asking your question will expose your ignorance to everyone within earshot, sealing your fate as a hopeless, unrecoverable loser.

Obviously, when I say you, I actually mean me.

Questions that arise out of this place of deep angst are rarely stupid. They may be inarticulate and poorly stated, but most of the time they contain a seed which can be gently coaxed into a serviceable question, and which may lead to a valuable and constructive answer.

Some examples of good questions in this category:

I don’t get it, I keep seeing this params thing, but what does it have to do with the database?

This is an excellent question. It’s not a glib question by any means, but it provides a starting point for figuring out where things got stuck. Some thought has gone into this, but some dots are simply not connecting.

For some reason the person asking the question got the idea that params and databases are linked in some way, and this idea is getting in the way of finding out what the params actually are about.

I’ve had really good conversations come out of questions like this.

What do you mean by ‘base 8’?

This is more than a request for a definition of terms.

It’s quite likely that the person asking the question has learned arithmetic by rote, and has never spent any time pondering prime factors or what math would look like for aliens who have only 8 digits.

We can try backing up and talking about the ones place and the tens place, and maybe how 64 would be a round number if we only had 6 fingers and 2 thumbs, and how primes are prime on all planets.

That may work, or we may need to find another approach. The question itself is a good one.

Would you help me debug this? The error message says that there’s no matching route, but I’ve defined it right here!

Error messages are often useful starting points for questions, provided that the person wants to understand why the error happened rather than just move on as quickly as possible.

If you’re confused by an error message then it’s likely that there’s a misconception involved. You might have an unhelpful mental model of how something works, or you may have been cargo-culting a technique from an online tutorial, and now you’re at the point where you need to understand how the pieces fit together.

All of these things are just instances of things you don’t know yet, and today is your lucky day, because you’re about to learn about them.

Side 2: imply

The response to your question implies that you’re an idiot.

Sometimes you ask someone a question that you thought was perfectly reasonable, and their reaction suggests that you’re an idiot.

It’s quite possible that you actually just are an inquisitive idiot, in which case there’s not much I can say to make it better.

That said, I think that it’s quite unlikely that the core of the problem is your ignorance itself.

If this person is consistently contemptuous, then the solution is to stop asking this person questions. It’s not you, it’s them.

However, if you get this response fairly consistently across the board and you feel that your questions really aren’t dumb, then maybe you need to check yourself.

First, establish whether or not your question truly is a stupid question.

Stupid questions fall into the category of ‘easily verifiable, typically by looking it up’. Stupid questions are lazy questions. If you waste people’s time asking them, they are less likely to want to help you with genuinely difficult questions.

The mode of information retrieval could be a search engine, FAQ, README, or some other relevant source. The resident expert is not a relevant source (see “Stupid Questions”, above).

If you have done this and are still stuck, then congratulations: you probably don’t have a stupid question.

Now that you’ve spent time thinking about this and searching for answers, you will have a slew of useful terms and concepts that you can use to rephrase your question.

Asking good questions is a very useful and surprisingly non-trivial skill. It’s something you can practice.

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