Dear Quora: Why so many unanswerable questions?

Quora logo.Am I an optimist or a pessimist? It depends. The optimist in me thinks I have a lot to say. The pessimist counters that no one wants to hear so much negativity. Hence, one blog post per year.

The optimist in me thinks the Internet has been an enormously good thing for human knowledge and expression. The pessimist notes that uploading humanity’s collective wisdom to the cloud has revealed what foggy, uncritical thinkers we are. For example, Quora.

The fact Quora exists makes my heart soar. How cool is it that anyone anywhere can throw a vexing question into the wind and have experts on that very topic answer it?

On the other hand, who thought it was a good idea to let the stupid and the lazy reveal how ignorant they are by enabling the dissemination of unanswerable questions?

To wit — or, more precisely, too nitwit:

Q: Would I like emigrating to England?

A: No, and this is why. If you can’t spend the five minutes required to frame the question in a useful way (like telling us what you do now, what you hope to do in England, where you would be coming from, what kinds of things you like now, what kinds of things you dislike, your expectations, etc.), then you really aren’t going to like the amount of work required to: get a job there as a foreigner; get a work permit; get a work visa; find a place to live; learn how to pay your county and national taxes; get utilities turned on; get a doctor; learn to drive on the other side of the road; and the many thousands of other little things that someone needs to do to move to another country. You’ll hate that.

This person’s reply is an answer the questioner deserves, and yet for the most part people’s answers to queries such as this are earnest. Such patience is humbling. I think they all must be kindergarten teachers. For example, one of 12 others who responded to the emigration question wrote:

A. Well, that depends.

Without knowing the specifics of what you are like and what you intend to spend your time here doing, I have no idea. But I have emigrated before (not to England) so I can tell you a few things that would apply to any cross-cultural emigration: …

I wish I were as good a person. My reply to this and numerous other Quora queries would be: That’s the stupidest question I’ve ever heard. (With apologies to Bill Gates.)

Every week I get an emailed sampling of Quora questions, most of which seem to be as unanswerable as this one, or which are framed by ignorant preconception and provincialism. The sheer volume of unfiltered unthinking is astonishing. Besides the emigration question above, this week’s email included:

Q: What is the funniest mispronunciation of a word?

Q: Would life be any better if we removed Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram etc. from our lives?

Q: Why is it so common to be cold / unfriendly / antisocial in the UK?

Q: Why does American culture seem to encourage making fun of Canadians?

Q: If the U.S. police start shooting at someone, do they prefer to keep shooting until the suspect is dead so that they won’t risk a lawsuit from an injured but living suspect?

Go ahead. Try to answer those without reframing the questions.

And yet the patient, earnest answers spew forth:

A: I never had to shoot anyone, but I came really close a few times. On those occasions the last thing I was thinking about was getting sued. …

The subtext to answers like that one is: There are no stupid questions, and when you think a question is stupid, it’s nonetheless an opportunity to educate someone, probably many someones, and encourage a more nuanced view of the world. Some of us are capable of embracing that, and some of us aren’t. I come from a family with its share of impatient scientists and engineers, for whom an answer frequently is, “It’s really quite simple. You’re just too stupid to understand it.”

I am not proud of the compulsion to respond that way, but I am aware of it. So when I answer Quora questions, I have to be very selective:

Q:How do daily newspapers manage both print and online editions?

Q: What is the best way to learn the journalistic style of English writing as in AP or Reuters? Are there some sources to help me?

Q: Are multiple variations (outcomes) of stories written such that they be released quicker after the official outcome?

OK, sometimes I do answer stupid questions:

Q: An alien has just landed on the White House lawn and is taking questions. You are a reporter and may ask one question. What is your question?

A: “Could you spell your name for us?” It’s the first question at every press conference involving an unknown life form, human or otherwise, and this is the only chance to ask it before the person, or whatever it is, wanders away from the podium, pissed off. If we get nothing else right, let’s spell this entity’s name correctly.