Science is a Question’s Way of Making Another Question

(And Other Silly Thoughts)

“Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

When my students ask me this, I usually do the science-y thing and answer, “Why, the egg, of course! You see, according to evolution, something that wasn’t quite genetically a chicken made something that was genetically a chicken, but that chicken was in an egg first. So the egg came first. Of course, the egg had to form around the embryo, so maybe you can say the chicken came first, especially if you regard the zygote as a chicken, but that opens up a new can of worms about when it’s appropriate to call a chicken a chicken…”

And it goes on and on.

But recently it came to me that a paradigm shift of my own was in the works for how I view the purpose of science, and it had very much to do with the above analogy.

Which came first, the question or the answer? In order for this question to have any credence, one must first imagine that answers exist without the existence of its respective questions. One must also imagine that these answers are able to be unearthed and made known without the existence of its respective questions. This is a tall order for rational people; an answer implies a question.

But allow your mind to bend just a little bit: imagine answers without questions; imagine information and knowledge to be found out without the impetus of questioning. Has it ever happened? Spontaneous knowledge? I have to believe that there’s been times in human’s existence where knowledge came to us at a time when we didn’t search for it, no?

And if this has happened, it begs the idea that this answer led to a question — they usually do, if current models of inquiry hold. And there you have it — it’s possible that an answer came first!

Furthermore, if an answer came first, why not imagine that all threads of questions and answers start with an answer first? And finally, why not imagine that the seminal act of scientific inquiry was the arrival at an answer, not the asking of a question? Was the progenitor of scientific practices if fact an answer, not a question? Why not?

You may be thinking that this is a dippy, meaningless point, but it’s ramifications are quite serious. If the chicken came first, then it’s much easier argued that the egg is the chicken’s way of making another chicken — the chicken makes the egg, which turns into another chicken. BUT, if the egg came first, then the classic paradigm reversal holds — the chicken is the egg’s way of making another egg. Using the same line of thought, if answers predate questions, it can be posited that questions are an answer’s way of making another answer.

This stands on its head the point of science. I, and I assume most others, have been inculcated with the idea of science practice being where a question is answered through experimentation. The question comes first, and then the thrust of the work that a scientist does is about arriving at an answer to the question. Perhaps this is wrong — perhaps, instead, the thrust of the work a scientist does should revolve around the question. The work of the scientist, long thought to be that of finding answers, is in fact to arrive at a discovery and/or refinement of the next generation of questions. The answer is just the vehicle to achieve this; it is not the be-all. Questions, therefore, are the real endpoints of the pursuit of science, not answers. They are the fulcrums around which science pivots, not answers.

Take this a couple of steps further: imagine a life led not to find answers, but to refine questions. Imagine all of us, scientist or not, doing this in our own lives. Life no longer is the search for answers, the search for meaning. One’s own personal growth is charted by how one’s questions have changed, refined, evolved. Any answers we arrive at simply are stepping stones as we traipse across rivers of life’s experiences to get to the next question on the next shore.

I look back on my teaching career and realize that I have very few answers. Were I to judge growth by amassing my answers to questions, the assessment would have so sparse a field of data points as to render the study undefinitive. The only way I can tell I’ve grown is to look at the things that were important to me then, and now. These things come to me in the form of statements, but in all honesty they can be just as easily framed in the form of questions: “How do I teach the next unit?” has turned into, “Why teach units?”; “How do I deal with this kid?” has turned into, “What is s/he missing? How do I provide that?” I’ve come to believe recently that the assessment of question evolution is probably the most valid way of judging the trajectory of a life.

The ramifications of this type of thinking on education, especially science education, are huge. Imagine (if you’re not sick of imagining yet…) teaching scientific practices this way, where the driving force is not the answer, but the question. What does this do to your approach? What would inquiry look like? Imagine more time spent on the question than on the experiment itself… Imagine the thrust of questioning in the NGSS Science and Engineering Practices — one Practice is devoted to questioning out of eight — as it’s reciprocal — seven Practices devoted to questioning, one to finding and communicating the answer! I think that may be pushing it a bit far, but I also think it can be seen that questioning has been marginalized when it indeed may be the pivotal practice in science, and in life itself.

Finally, imagine a society of people who have been reared in public schools dedicated to the above propositions. I assert that the connection between practicing science and leading a meaningful life would strengthen — this is good for both science and life! Would we end up with more self-realized people? More dedicated to “lifelong learning”, whatever that means? A growth mindset more pervasive in society? Happier, healthier, well-balanced? I don’t know, but I’d bet on it.

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