If you’ve ever listened to my podcast Skeptoid or heard me speak in person — whether you agreed with me or not — one thing that I hope you’ve taken away is my genuine enthusiasm for learning. I have the best job in the world, spending the better part of a full week immersed in a subject, a different one each week. I don’t ever remember being bored with it or running out of threads to follow. I’ve read the adventures of handlebar-mustachioed colonial Englishmen, I’ve traced the genesis of ghost stories back to their unexpected origins, I’ve gone as deep as I’ve been able into hard sciences that are all just a little bit over my head.
Since the point of all this is to distill it into a narrative that I can share, I get a lot of questions. For the most part, these come in two basic varieties. First, there are honest questions by interested people like myself who want to know more. Second, there are argumentative or rhetorical “questions” from those who disagree with my conclusions and want to prove me wrong. These are not really questions. They’re public challenges, intended to rebut. I think you know the kind of “questions” I mean. They often sound something like this:
Have you personally observed one species change into another?
How can you presume to know how physics works in other dimensions?
Since when is science determined by a majority vote?
I’m all in favor of being corrected wherever it’s due, or of having any assertions I’ve made honestly challenged. If I’m wrong, I want to know. If I don’t know something yet, I still want to know. When I ask someone a question, it’s because I want to know. But these argumentative challenges are not motivated by the desire for knowledge. Given that, I don’t consider myself obliged to answer them. If you really want to know something, I’m happy to help to the extent that I’m able. If you don’t, I’m going to spend my limited resources elsewhere.
Sometimes I’m live in front of a crowd or on the radio. And sometimes those questions will come in. Here’s what I have to say to the “questioner” who is hoping merely to trap me into revealing some weakness of what I’m presenting, because he’s absolutely married to his particular conspiracy theory or pseudoscience. (By way of example, let’s answer “Why are there no transitional fossils?”)
I don’t believe that you actually want to know that. If you did, the resources available to you are so easy to find that you’d already know if you had any genuine interest.
An argumentative question deserves a flippant answer. An honest question deserves an honest answer. There are people to whom every subject is new, and it’s entirely possible that someone may want to know about transitional fossils. It’s easy to read the tone of the person asking the question. If it’s a genuine question, I’ll answer it; if it’s out of my depth, I’ll say so and give them my best advice on how to go about learning more.
There is too much knowledge out there waiting to be discovered to spend time sparring with those who are consciously disdainful of it. My preference is to share in the excitement of those who want to learn things.
Do you want to know?