Ask TON: Dumb Questions


Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. (Click here to see previous installments.)

Today’s question: I’ve heard people say it’s important not to be afraid to ask “dumb” questions. What is your favorite “dumb” interview question when interviewing scientists? What has gotten you the most useful results?

Freelance science journalist Christie Aschwanden:
  • I usually start an interview by asking a really basic question. For instance, let’s say I’m writing about epigenetics. I might ask the researcher, “What exactly is epigenetics? How would you explain the concept to someone at a dinner party?”
  • I always try to start with an easy question (that I know the answer to) just to give the source some space to warm up. For the first five minutes or so, I don’t try too hard to control the interview. I want them to spit out their talking points first thing so that they can relax.
  • If they seem hostile to my question (this stupid journalist doesn’t even know what the term epigenetics means!) I’ll explain, “I know the answer, but I also know that you can do a much better job of explaining it than I can, and I’d rather quote you.”
  • Another standard questions is, “Why is this research important?” I usually already know the answer to this one too, but it usually yields some quotable information that can put things into context.
  • Sometimes I’ll ask, “What made you decide to study this in the first place?” This question usually leads to some interesting backstory and color.
  • Throughout the interview, I try to talk as little as possible. The more I talk, the less material I get. When I know a lot about a subject, it’s really tempting to show the source how much I understand. It’s a good way to gain the source’s trust, but a really bad way to get good quotes.
  • Of course, I always end the interview with, “What did I neglect to ask you? Is there anything I’m missing?”
Freelance science journalist Ed Yong:
  • This isn’t a question, but I find genuine expressions of joy or wonder really get people to open up. The odd “Wow! That’s incredible” can really change the entire course of an interview—it says, “You and me? We’re on the same page. Now, tell me of the coolness.” Obviously, that’s not appropriate if you’re doing an investigation or writing something critical, but when you cover a beat like science, it’s not hard to find moments where such interjections can be genuinely delivered.
  • I also like questions that get at the process of doing research, which so often gets left out in favour of some grand practical speculations. I find that “Was that hard to do? It *sounds* hard to do” gets better material than “What are the implications for people?”
Science writer and editor Hillary Rosner:
  • I don’t have a specific dumb question that I always ask, but I do think it’s important generally to not take for granted that you understand what the scientist is saying or that readers will. So I will often ask for clarification multiple times—“So what you’re saying is…” or “What does that mean, exactly?” or “Can you explain that in simpler terms?” Scientists who are used to talking to the press or used to discussing their work for a general audience tend to have great metaphors on hand, but I find that even those who are a bit less practiced have useful and simple ways of thinking about their work—it can just take a bit more effort to coax it out of them.
  • Asking scientists to explain how they got interested in their current research topic almost always yields fascinating stories, and it’s also a good way to break the ice.
  • I also tend to make jokes, which probably make me look dumber than I’d like to think I am—but it can humanize things and also put the scientist at ease. Of course, if they don’t have a sense of humor or don’t find my joke funny, it can backfire. But even then, they may take pity on me and tell me something really good as a result.

 

Photo at top by Alexander Henning Drachmann via Flickr.

 

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14 Responses to “Ask TON: Dumb Questions”

  1. Daniel J. Andrews says:

    These are also good tips/questions for making small-talk at office parties/functions/get-togethers (something many of us have difficulty with).

  2. Carol Morton says:

    These are good. I also like to ask what question they were originally asking and how the research actually progressed. Sometimes, I explain, it happens in the logical, linear order as written in the paper, but there are often more interesting twists and turns and dead ends.

    I’ve also become fascinated, especially in biology, about when and how researchers knew what they had found. The heavy lifting seems to come in the thinking, with experiments there to carry the narrative.

  3. Dan Ferber says:

    Lots of good advice here. To get backstory, I also ask, “How did you get interested in this topic.” To get deeper backstory on the source, if needed: “How did you get into this field?” Sometimes when the source is meandering and I’m confused and need to cut to the chase, I ask, “What’s new and important about this study?” They usually get to the point. To get to the broader implications, if any, I might ask, “What does this discovery mean for x,” where x is medicine, conservation, policy, etc. I also try out metaphors on sources if they haven’t already given me good ones.

  4. Lisa Grossman says:

    My favorite closing question is, “Is there anything you would have asked yourself if you were doing the interview?” Sometimes they come up empty, but sometimes it brings out surprising details or big-picture questions I never would have thought of. And if nothing else, it usually makes the researcher chuckle.

    • I always ask this question too. Sometimes it works very well, but sometimes it totally backfires, and the scientist looks at me like “do you really want me to do your job for you???”

  5. “I know this will sound like a dumb question, but what exactly is the new part here?” Gets the source to clarify, helps me avoid overstating the results; doesn’t necessarily yield a great quote, but keeps me out of hot water! Best asked late in the interview, after source is convinced that my IQ is at least measured in double-digits…

  6. David Chandler says:

    One question that always seems so dumb that I almost never ask it, but am often very grateful when somebody else does ask it at a press conference, is something along the lines of “How did you feel when you first saw this new result?” It almost makes me cringe when it’s asked (usually by a TV reporter — no offense to TV reporters), but it’s amazing how often it actually results in a useful anecdote.

    • Mason Inman says:

      My version of the “How did you feel?” question is to say “Were you surprised at your results?”

      A few scientists seem to take offense, as if being surprised by their results would mean that they were just randomly casting about, not sure of what they’d get. But most scientists aren’t like that. This question only gets me something useful maybe a third of the time—but when it does, it’s usually something really interesting, because they explain how they felt, and most importantly *why* they were surprised. That usually brings up some background material, but only what’s most relevant to putting the new finding in context.

  7. Raj Mukhopadhyay says:

    I usually open the conversation with “How did you get interested in this topic?”. Sometimes I get the response “Well, that’s what NIH funded me to do” but on occasion I get a gem of a response. I remember I had to write about a journal article that described a new diagnostic sensor for Crohn’s disease. The paper was written in a dry, straightforward scientific style. But when I asked the researcher why this topic was of interest to her lab as my opening question, she simply said, “My daughter has Crohn’s disease.” The next thing I knew I was hearing a story of a mom witnessing her daughter’s ordeals and deciding to use her technical expertise to help her daughter and other sufferers of Crohn’s disease. It totally turned around the story I had originally outlined in my head.

  8. Paul Muhlrad says:

    I once began an interview with a cancer researcher by asking “Why haven’t we cured cancer yet? We know so much about it.” Now, I had prepared my interview subject with a prior email so that he’d know I was a molecular biologist. I knew full well the answer to that question, but tossed it to him as a softball so I could get his quotes on just how complicated cancer biology is. Unfortunately, my softball smacked him in the knee:

    Him: You’re a friend, right?
    Me: I’m a friend.
    Him: That’s a stupid question!

    I laughed, and assured him I knew the answer to the question. By the end of the very long (and great) interview, he apologized and thanked me for “sticking with it after my obnoxious answer to your first question.”

  9. Jim Handman says:

    On our radio program, the best questions come when we pick up on something the scientist says in passing, which is not in the paper.

    Scientist: “So we painted the bedbug’s penis with different scents ..”
    Us: “Wait a minute, how the hell do you paint a bedbug penis?”
    (real example – answer: with a very small paintbrush)

    Scientist: “So we attached a GPS device to the back of the cricket…”
    Us: “How the hell do you do that? What do you use, Superglue?”
    (also real example – answer: yes)

  10. Ed Yong says:

    Oh and to add to my two above, on a few occasions, I’ve resorted to a straightforward: “Could you explain that to me as you might to a rather thick child.”

  11. Adam says:

    I agree with Christie’s question on ‘why did you study this in the first place?’ – everyone likes to talk about their work, and you might just get some interesting personal touches to your story.

    It’s good to get an interviewee to situate their research on a timescale. Eg, ‘your innate immune response research is interesting, but if there are 100 steps to the HIV vaccine, which number step are you standing on?’

    I’m not a scientist by background, which means I can play dumb very authentically (most of the time it’s not even playing!). Thus: ‘I studied literature. So what does all this stuff about methyl groups and histone wrapping actually mean?’ Use your background to help you in any way.

    … related to that, it’s also decent to try out metaphors on interviewees. ‘OK, so the neutrino is breaking the cosmic speed limit, right? Is that fair?’

    Gives you more confidence that you’ve understood and that the interviewee will be happy with your eventual angle on the research.

  12. Carl Zimmer says:

    I like to ask, “So why didn’t anyone discover this before?” Readers get a hindsight-distorted view of science, so it’s good to address their misconceptions straight off.

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