Asking the Right Questions

The quote from CP Scott, long-time editor of the (Manchester) Guardian, elegantly says ‘Comment is free, but facts are sacred.’ As a scientist I like gathering evidence, getting at the facts and so, when Paige Brown Jarreau asked me to participate in her survey of science blogs it seemed like a good idea. If you haven’t already completed her survey then perhaps now (until October 30th; now extended to November 20th) is a good time to do so. Her inducement to me, and other participants, was that from the analysis I would learn useful things such as why readers are motivated to read my blog, what they perceive I’m doing effectively in terms of content (and presumably what I’m failing at) and something about the demographics of the readership, all information suitably anonymised.

That opening quote of course implies that the facts are black and white. That may or may not be true even in such a simple task as someone ticking a box on a questionnaire. Unfortunately, when it comes to memory this most definitely isn’t always so: there are many shades of grey when trying to remember something from the past, even if only yesterday. There are also those sorts of questions that people ask that instantly make you feel guilty, forgetful or as if you’ve got the answer wrong. It can be entirely innocuous – the dentist asking me whether I’m on any medication, for instance – yet still I can end up thinking ‘was that right, did I forget something?’

Currently I seem to be being exposed to far too many interviews and, in that context I’m rarely certain I got it ‘right’ or that, even with the best of intentions, that I’m speaking the truth. Because, in some sense which no doubt the more philosophically-minded could label with some appropriate -ism one cannot speak the truth like this. Reinventing oneself 20, 30 or more years after the event, telling the questioner about things that happened in the school playground or why physics was obviously what I wanted to do when I first encountered it at 13, how much accuracy is there likely to be in that? And the more I get asked the questions the more I find ‘suitable’ answers that are liable to get stylised because they ‘work’ and yet they become a remembered reality rather than the truth.

I don’t want to be difficult. I understand that someone carrying out research for their dissertation into what makes someone successful in academic science is bound to go back to how one started out. I am quite sure that it is relevant what sort of career advice I got at school (essentially none), whether my physics teacher was qualified in physics (she was) or had I been surrounded by family members who worked in STEM (I wasn’t). Yet nevertheless it is all too easy to see how truth gets distorted. If asked whether my parents went to university the answer is no, neither of them did. Yet that masks the fact that other family members did and there was undoubtedly a view in the family that if I wanted to go to university, go I should. Saying that neither of my parents did so can give the impression I was the first in the family to participate in higher education and that was simply not so. So facts may be deeply misleading even when true.

That answer is at least is a hard fact to which I know the answer. Another recent question, in another context and another interview, was to name and describe an object which had meant a lot to me as I was progressing in my academic life. Not something associated with my research, not a person – both of which are questions I’ve had to answer before and which are comparatively easy – but an object. This question, like ‘why did you choose physics?’ doesn’t really have an answer for me. However, ‘don’t know’ I fear is not acceptable (not least because the interviewers want to illustrate it in this case, and an illustration of ‘don’t know’ might be problematic).

The example given was a fountain pen, in order to get my brain in gear, but this didn’t really kickstart any fruitful line of thought. I am still struggling to come up with something that could possibly fit the bill. I tried to reconstruct my desk at different periods of my life, to see if there was some common thread, but I’m not particularly into paperweights, gonks and mascots or pictures hanging above my workspace so that didn’t get me far. I’ve a germ of an idea which, by some stretch of the imagination might work for the purpose, but it’s not satisfactory to have to do this.

So, seeking evidence is all very well but what if the question posed is the wrong question, as I feel of the search for an object? That of course is so often what one’s research reveals. The answer does not lie in the question asked and one has to stop, think again, dream up another hypothesis and another set of experiments. It’s a challenge. It’s exciting when finally the right question is identified. But that is not how the interviewer trying to turn my life into….whatever it is they’re trying to turn it into operates.

The myth of the myth of the great (wo)man in science may lurk behind too many of the questions, implicitly assuming that dig out my bio and all will be revealed about why I made it to professor and the young woman at the lab bench next to me did not. I am not sympathetic to the idea of the ‘lone genius’ anyhow, but I also think 1000 words trying to describe me from childhood to professor is unlikely to reveal with much certainty what actually helped along the way. If I don’t know the answers, how can I respond to the questions? If they’re the wrong questions anyhow, only some dubious construction of a faint verisimilitude of me might emerge. The evidence may not help and the apparent facts be less than sacred.


Help us do science! I’ve teamed up with researcher Paige Brown Jarreau to create a survey of Athene Donald’s Blog readers (as well as 49 other blogs) during October – now running till Nov 20th. By participating, you’ll be helping me improve my own blog and contributing to SCIENCE on blog readership. For completing the survey, readers will be entered into a draw for a $50.00 Amazon gift card (100 available, or guaranteed 2 per specific blog included in this survey), plus FREE science art from Paige’s Photography for participating, as well as a chance to win a t-shirt and other perks! It should only take 10-15 minutes to complete. You can find the survey here:

Updated Oct 30 to reflect extension of survey date



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2 Responses to Asking the Right Questions

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    Thanks, Athene. I always try to give a plug to your blog (and OT blogs in general), particularly when others over-simplify complex issues. Recently that included Pauline Gagnon (CERN) who had swallowed The Guardian’s report on Sir Tim Hunt, hook, line and sinker.

    The problem that I see with these questionnaire-type surveys is their inflexibility. One might want to start off by asking some standard questions, but often the answer to a question suggests a different line of questioning and it is difficult, if not impossible, to encompass this in an automated sequence of questions.

  2. Rachel says:

    Good blog, reassuring to hear at your level, same doubts and worries about grey areas… The surveys look for something defining but it’s often a mush of tiny influences cumulative…. I’m pretty sure most men don’t think about how so much or do so much soul searching …hmm

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