Research team examines structure of good questions

We often say, “There’s no such thing as a bad question,” but Walter Sinnott-Armstrong isn’t so sure. He and a team of researchers have just been awarded a grant to determine which questions promote fruitful dialogue. The central premise of the study is that the right questions in the right contexts can alter civic discourse in ways that promote intellectual humility and thus more constructive participation.

The team’s research agenda is twofold: First, they aim to determine which kinds of questions are best at promoting humility and communication. Some questions and contexts make people more aware of what they don’t know and more open to other perspectives. On the other hand, divisive issues are often discussed in ways that only spur more defensiveness and intellectual rigidity. The team is eager to parse these differences to advance research on civic dialogue as well as to offer strategies to a wider public.

The research team, clockwise from top left: Jordan Carpenter, Aaron Ancell, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, and Jesse Summers
Second, they will explore potential effects of living in a society in which being asked the right kinds of questions is a normal part of life. In many venues, it’s considered impolite to discuss contentious issues with strangers. If we only engage in serious discussions with those who are familiar to us (and who are more likely to agree with us), then our sense of the landscape of ideas becomes warped. We may then imagine people who disagree with us in uncharitable or incomplete ways. In the process, we harden our positions, believing we have better information than we do, and ultimately make the work of deliberative democracy much harder. The research team suspects that changing norms of when and how we discuss challenging topics can promote the formation of a public that is more humble, curious, informed, and open-minded: precisely the kind of populace we need to overcome the current political polarization.

The team, consisting of Co-principal investigator Sinnott-Armstrong, Co-Principal Investigator Jesse Summers, MADLab Postdoctoral Fellow Jordan Carpenter, and Philosophy PhD candidate Aaron Ancell begins work this summer. They will also team up with Professor David Malone (Program in Education) and a team of undergraduates for a Bass Connections project in the fall.