Sowing the seeds of doubt

The previous post in the THINQ series addressed the main characteristics and leverages of each question category (Trivial, Hard, Impossible, and Nonsense), along with some examples of questions that fit within them. What happens next? In the context of the THINQ approach, when participants share the questions they came up with, highlight the fact that it is not always evident to which category a question belongs. Sometimes, a seemingly simple question may in fact be impossible to answer, or a nonsensical one may be interesting and intriguing. There are even cases where a question might belong in the cross-section between two categories.

Overall, participants should understand that the categorization is used merely as a thinking aid (and not as an end in itself), to evoke the prolific generation of questions with diverse focus and content. The value lies in the process and not in the results. It is the questions that are important – not the categories they belong to.

This is a point where knowledge is creatively discussed and constructed. The facilitator needs to be well prepared to address this issue and playfully guide the group through alternative categorizations, sparking creativity thinking. 

How to do it

  • When a suitable question comes up, pause the presentation, and raise your concerns. Then, initiate a brief group discussion about its “proper” categorization.
  • Prepare some sample questions beforehand that showcase this fact. For example:

Question: How many grains of sand are on earth’s beaches?

Initially, this seems like a question that is Impossible to answer. But, using math, Jason Marshall, PhD (aka The Math Dude) estimated that there are about 5 sextillion grains. Of course, the number is not precise and could be way off, but provides an overall picture. Thus, this question could be labeled as “Hard to answer”.

Question: Which are more dangerous, sharks or sandcastles?

This question sounds rather absurd, thus belonging to the Nonsense category. But, according to a 2007 article in The Guardian, people falling into holes dug in the sand had accounted for more fatalities in the US since 1990 than shark attacks – 16 as opposed to 12. Thus, it turns out to be a Trivial question.

Question: Can we run out of sand?

This also sounds like a Nonsense question, but the truth is that it is both easy to answer and quite interesting. According to the BBC, the world is facing a shortage of sand, since it is the most-consumed natural resource on the planet besides water. About 50 billion tonnes of sand are used yearly by the construction industry and, by the way, desert sand is completely useless. 

Question: How do bicycles work?

Taking into account mankind’s astonishing accomplishments of physics, clearly, this should be a Trivial question. Still, according to a research paper in the Science journal, we simply don’t know what keeps a riderless moving bike on its wheels, even if pushed from the side.

Categories may change through time

The category to which a question belongs may change through time as scientific knowledge develops and cultural beliefs change. Take, for example, the simple question: “How old is the earth?

• According to Aristotle the earth had existed eternally, thus our question would be deemed as irrelevant or, Nonsense.
• In Medieval Europe, knowledge was based upon the Bible. Therefore people believed the Earth was only a few thousand years old. Actually, in 1645, Bishop Usher from Ireland studied the family lists in the Bible and stated that the Earth must have been created on October 26th 4004 BC. In this case, our question would be thought as Trivial.
• In the 18th century, James Hutton noted that Hadrian’s Wall had not been eroded very much, even though it had been there for over 1000 years.  He argued that the Earth was far older than the prevailing belief of the time (this would be considered blasphemous at the time). But he did not know how to calculate its age. Therefore, our question would be Impossible to answer.
• For the next 100 years, several scientists would ask the same “simple” question over and over again, starting with Lord Kelvin who calculated the Earth’s age to be between 20 million and 400 million years and arriving to the present where the currently agreed age is 4.54 billion years, with an error range of 50 million years. For all these scientists, our question turned out to be rather Hard to answer. And of course, this may still change…

An anecdote: “Because the answers have changed”

When Albert Einstein was teaching at Princeton, it was the end of the semester and he had to prepare the exam papers. When his teaching assistant came to pick them up, he noticed that they looked exactly the same as the ones that Einstein had set the year before, and thought that there must have been some mix-up. Einstein’s answer surprised him…

The teaching assistant exclaimed, “But, this is the same exam you gave last year!” “Yes it is.” Einstein replied. “But how can you give the same exam two years in a row?” the assistant asked. “Because the answers have changed”, Einstein replied.
“Because the answers have changed.”

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Dimitris is a Principal Researcher at the Institute of Computer Science of the Foundation for Research and Technology - Hellas (FORTH). He specializes in Human-Computer Interaction and also holds a Certificate of Competency for the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT). Since 2014, he develops and delivers workshops and events that introduce the concepts and practice of design, creativity and creative thinking to children, parents, teachers and the general public. Up to now, he has run more than 55 workshops in 5 countries with a total of about 3500 participants.

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