March 19, 2015

Becoming a Question Artist

By Carl Gustafson

“In re mathematica ars proponendi quaestionem pluris facienda est quam solvendi.” – Georg Cantor

Just when you thought Latin was a dead language…

If I were to ask you a question, how would you answer it? …Did you just tell yourself, “well, Self, that depends on the type of question!”? Good. You’re awake! Let’s be more specific.

Here is the question: What did Georg Cantor just say to the world?

Since I assume that you already answered this question, how exactly did you go about answering it? There are possibly thousands or millions of strategies by which to conquer translation and interpretation of Georg’s statement…Did you phone a friend who took Latin in college? Did you download Google Translate and hope that Latin is an option (you’re in luck!)? Did you take night classes in Latin and after hundreds of hours of exhausting rote memorization and repetition, expand your vocabulary to a point where you finally understand Georg’s statement? If so, I am impressed at your…um…dedication (?). Did you read to the end of this paragraph and realize that I translated it for you at the bottom of the page? You have chosen...Wisely. Option D people, can we be friends and can you protect me from Option C people who now want me dead? Thanks!

The art of asking questions. Georg really has some great advice that applies well to biomedical research, or nearly any other research for that matter. If the question we are addressing is a complete waste of time or already thoroughly answered, then even if we solve it, there may be no benefit. Identifying the best question, the most impactful, meaningful question is of great importance. Let’s assume you can pose a powerful question.

How will you answer this question? This is your method. Your assay. The daily grind and dirty work that you will struggle with and push through to discover the true answer to that question. Through murky nights and groggy mornings your caffeine-powered brain will mine the pieces of this answer from the cavernous vaults of data you produce. Nearly as important as your question, your method will often determine the outcome of your question. If you just invested two years of effort taking night classes in Latin in order to translate Georg’s claim, you are now one year, 364 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes and 45 seconds behind the person who Googled it. Unless, of course, it is a leap year. Regardless, your “How” just wasted your excellently posed question.

I contend that the How is at least as important as the Question. The very existence of an assay, a tool or method by which to answer the question, is of principal importance. Subsequently, being skilled in identifying the most efficient and effective way to address imposing questions is priceless. Developing the knowledge and intuition necessary to convincingly solve a puzzle and convince others of its solution is an indispensable skill that is vital for effective contribution within any field. It is important to realize that there are countless questions that simply cannot be answered properly because no precise means to scientifically answer that question has yet been discovered. Maybe Georg assumed that “Is this question currently answerable?” was included in the thought processes of Question Artists. Our ability to answer questions significantly cripples our ability to ask relevant questions. A critical lack of time machines, instruments for detection of divine beings, and warp-capable space ships are notable limitations in our scientific Question Answering powers. Other, more reasonable and less fun examples can be found (particularly from historical scientists whose genius was later realized), but I hope you get the point. This is why methods journals exist. It is extremely valuable to find new ways to answer previously difficult or impossible questions.

Why does this matter? Well, I could tell you that I just spent three frustrating weeks working with a time-consuming in vitro assay only to discover that it could not (and did not) properly answer my question. But that would only be 85% of the truth (and 100% of the whining). I could also persuade you that I often fear that the purpose of my life is simply to serve as a warning to others. But that would only be 5% of the truth (and 100% of the paranoia). I would rather tell you that in the course of my doctoral work, I have realized that identifying an efficient and powerful way to answer a question is often just as important as the question itself. Naturally, that is only 10% of the truth. The better answer, though, is that Georg was right all along. “How”, at its most atomic level, must itself be a question.

“In mathematics, the art of asking questions is more valuable than solving problems.” – Georg Cantor

Carl Gustafson is a doctoral candidate and 3rd-year Ph.D. student in Dr. Michael Yaszemski's laboratory.

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