No Stupid Questions

Chauncey has left Seattle for an adventure at seminary. Thus far, I approve of his classes:


One of my professors said something yesterday that stuck with me. He said, “There are some people who say there are no stupid questions…we know this is patently untrue. However, the stupid question is not asked from ignorance on grounds of seeking understanding. The stupid question is that which is asked to make oneself seem intelligent.” We then made an informal agreement as a class to avoid such questions.

Asking questions is important; and I don’t think there should be shame or embarrassment in asking questions. If something is unclear, I think you have a duty to get understanding about it. This has been a hard thing for me to learn — and I’m still learning it. But I love asking questions and I try to make a lot of what I do about asking questions, there are very few better ways to learn.

One of the stories that has inspired me is Richard Feynman’s experience at Los Alamos. When I’m talking to young engineers, or really anybody, about asking questions, I like to recall this story. Feynman is overseeing some work at Los Alamos, helping design nuclear weapons and such:

I sat down and I told them all about neutrons, how they worked, da da, ta ta ta, there are too many neutrons together, you’ve got to keep the material apart, cadmium absorbs, and slow neutrons are more effective than fast neutrons, and yak yak — all of which was elementary stuff at Los Alamos, but they had never heard of any of it, so I appeared to be a tremendous genius to them.

The result was that they decided to set up little groups to make their own calculations to learn how to do it. They started to redesign plants, and the designers of the plants were there, the construction designers, and engineers, and chemical engineers for the new plant that was going to handle the separated material.

They told me to come back in a few months, so I came back when the engineers had finished the design of the plant. Now it was for me to look at the plant.

How do you look at a plant that isn’t built yet? I don’t know. Lieutenant Zumwalt, who was always coming around with me because I had to have an escort everywhere, takes me into this room where there are these two engineers and a loooooong table covered with a stack of blueprints representing the various floors of the proposed plant.

I took mechanical drawing when I was in school, but I am not good at reading blueprints. So they unroll the stack of blueprints and start to explain it to me, thinking I am a genius. Now, one of the things they had to avoid in the plant was accumulation. They had problems like when there’s an evaporator working, which is trying to accumulate the stuff, if the valve gets stuck or something like that and too much stuff accumulates, it’ll explode. So they explained to me that this plant is designed so that if any one valve gets stuck nothing will happen. It needs at least two valves everywhere.

Then they explain how it works. The carbon tetrachloride comes in here, the uranium nitrate from here comes in here, it goes up and down, it goes up through the floor, comes up through the pipes, coming up from the second floor, bluuuuurp — going through the stack of blueprints, down-up-down-up, talking very fast, explaining the very, very complicated chemical plant.

I’m completely dazed. Worse, I don’t know what the symbols on the blueprint mean! There is some kind of a thing that at first I think is a window. It’s a square with a little cross in the middle, all over the damn place. I think it’s a window, but no, it can’t be a window, because it isn’t always at the edge. I want to ask them what it is.

You must have been in a situation like this when you didn’t ask them right away. Right away it would have been OK. But now they’ve been talking a little bit too long. You hesitated too long. If you ask them now they’ll say, “What are you wasting my time all this time for?”

What am I going to do? I get an idea. Maybe it’s a valve. I take my finger and I put it down on one of the mysterious little crosses in the middle of one of the blueprints on page three, and I say, “What happens if this valve gets stuck?” — figuring they’re going to say, “That’s not a valve, sir, that’s a window.”

So one looks at the other and says, “Well, if that valve gets stuck –” and he goes up and down on the blueprint, up and down, the other guy goes up and down, back and forth, back and forth, and they both look at each other. They turn around to me and they open their mouths like astonished fish and say, “You’re absolutely right, sir.”

So they rolled up the blueprints and away they went and we walked out. And Mr. Zumwalt, who had been following me all the way through, said, “You’re a genius. I got the idea you were a genius when you went through the plant once and you could tell them about evaporator C-21 in building 90-207 the next morning,” he says, “but what you have just done is so fantastic I want to know how, how do you do that?”

I told him you try to find out whether it’s a valve or not.

Feynman clearly is wanting to know what that thing is! And so he asks, although in a definitively roundabout way. But he asks the question. And so should you.

Waiting and the Power and Efficacy of Good Works

People frustrate me1, it’s hard for me to even find a word that appropriately reflects my sentiment. It feels like mass ignorance.

I see so many things wrong with the world, religion included — there are so many people who do things in the name of Christ that are downright unchristian and not supported by scripture.

When I come across someone who is spewing mass ignorance, I feel vehemently obligated to correct their erroneous ways. I felt like that is my only response: tell that person they are incorrect and, if needed, show that person why they were wrong, even if doing so required excruciating proof.

This has been my Standard Operating Procedure for many years. It was a frustrating one, but it seemed like the only way. I’ve desperately wanted to find a better way. Today may be that day.

Chauncey linked to post talking about 1 Peter 2:15 (ESV): “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.”


If atheism, unreasonableness and bitterness stem from ignorance, that ignorance is as a fury, which can quickly be restrained by good works. If you argue with an atheist in his own rabid manner, you strengthen the fury of atheism. If you converse with the unreasonable by derision, the darkness of unreasonableness is increased. If you think you will overcome the embittered man with anger, you will stir up a greater fire of bitterness. A meek and good deed is like water over a fire.

I like this approach. The problem for me with telling people why they are wrong is that I end up getting all worked up as well. I may have won the battle, but I’m losing the war. This is why I like what Peter is saying, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”2

However, the flip side of this is that it often takes people a lot longer to recognize good deeds than to hear my technically correct but probably ungracious argument. I hate waiting. It’s probably one of the things I’ve had to practice the most in the last few years: being okay with waiting3.

I keep thinking back to this passage from Hustling God:

When I wake up in the morning, I can jump in the shower, grab a cup of coffee, and rush off to work to be productive. Inevitably that will destine me to a day of running. Like Jacob, I will either be running to make something happen, or running away because it didn’t happen as it was supposed to. But if sometime in the morning I become still with prayer and the words of God, then it will occur to me that all of the important things have already been accomplished today. The sun came up and the earth stayed on its axis without any help from me. The Psalms remind me of that. I have awakened to a world I did not create to receive a salvation I did not earn. The Gospels make that clear every time I read them. And I need that reminder, because there are so many temptations in the course of the day to be my own savior, which is always, always, a temptation to hurry in the wrong direction.

For me, it still really is about learning to slow down.

  1. I am “people” too, by the way 

  2. 1 Peter 2:12 (ESV)  

  3. See also: Haiti 

Age of Ignorance

I feel like this quote does a good job of capturing my feelings behind why I have no kill switch on awesome:


Widespread ignorance bordering on idiocy is our new national goal. It’s no use pretending otherwise and telling us, as Thomas Friedman did in the Times a few days ago, that educated people are the nation’s most valuable resources. Sure, they are, but do we still want them? It doesn’t look to me as if we do. The ideal citizen of a politically corrupt state, such as the one we now have, is a gullible dolt unable to tell truth from bullshit.

I’m just one person though. And my sphere of influence is only so big and so powerful. This makes me feel very sad about what our country has become. Is it too late for us to make things better? How do we make intelligence desirable?