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“Just asking questions”: How healthy skepticism morphed into toxic denialism

Media provocateurs and conspiracy theorists insist that they're "just asking questions." No, they aren’t.
just asking questions
Credit: dvulikaia / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • Carl Sagan and George Carlin were proponents of healthy skepticism. But what would they make of today's world, in which basic facts and reality itself are up for debate?
  • The phrase "just asking questions" is often used by people who claim to be critical thinkers. On the contrary, they are facilitating the spread of misinformation and acting like conspiracy theorists.
  • Like consuming alcohol, asking questions should be done so responsibly.

The late comedian George Carlin is having a cultural moment these days (including a new HBO documentary about him). If Carlin had a single rallying cry, it was: “Question everything.” He once remarked, “Nobody questions things in this country anymore,” adding that many Americans were too quick to accept what they were being told by advertisers, politicians, or religious institutions. “Don’t just teach children to read,” Carlin advised parents. “Teach them to question everything they read.”

That message has long resonated with me because I, too, am a big believer in the power of questioning. I have written three books on the subject and have shared my thoughts on inquiry with the U.S. Army, NASA, and here at Big Think. Often when I talk about questioning, I cite Carlin’s mantra — and sometimes pair it with this quote from another hero of mine, the astronomer Carl Sagan: “If we’re not willing to ask skeptical questions… then we are up for grabs for the next charlatan, political or religious, who comes ambling along.”

Carlin and Sagan make for an odd couple, but each, in his own way, was a champion of critical thinking. And each was saying, in effect, that you couldn’t be a critical thinker unless you were willing to ask challenging, skeptical questions.

“Just asking questions”

But lately, I find myself wondering what Carlin and Sagan might make of today’s world, in which so many people do seem to be asking skeptical questions, about pretty much everything. From vaccine effectiveness to election results to climate change, large swaths of the population are questioning what they are being told by supposed experts, such as scientists. A smaller but growing number of people at the fringes are going still further, questioning what seems to be objective reality: Did that school shooting really happen? How do we know for sure?

Of course, cranks and conspiracy theorists have always posed outrageous questions to whoever would listen, but today, such questions are being aired by influential media pundits and podcasters, with millions soaking it up. For example, as the Russian invasion of Ukraine became imminent, one cable TV host suggested the whole thing might be an elaborate diversionary tactic cooked up by the U.S. government. “Was this a ruse?” she asked her viewers.

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In fact, there is so much of this type of provocative questioning going on that Urban Dictionary has a term for it: “JAQing off,” which is defined as “the act of asking leading questions to influence your audience, then hiding behind the defense that you’re Just Asking Questions.”

To a “questionologist” like myself, all of this can be pretty disheartening. I have always thought of questioning as a tool of learning and discovery — one that helps us dig deep to get at the truth. But these days, it seems the tool is just as apt to be used to sow doubt, muddy the waters, and even to deny reality. All of which raises the question: Is “question everything” really such a good idea, after all?

Question responsibly

After grappling with this question, here is where I come down: We still should abide by Carlin’s rule and be willing to question everything. No subject — not even sensitive or controversial ones — should be off-limits. But if we recognize that the mere phrasing of an idea as an interrogative can have a powerful influence on the people around us, then it seems reasonable to suggest that all of us should try to question responsibly.

How might one define “responsible questioning”? Here’s my own highly subjective view: I think as we ask challenging, skeptical questions of the world around us, particularly in these polarizing times, we should always endeavor to do so with (1) an open mind, (2) a healthy respect for facts, and (3) consideration for other people’s feelings. Let’s discuss each.

First, many people these days equate questioning with critical thinking. I’m asking skeptical questions about what the government or news media is telling me, so that proves that I’m a critical thinker!

While it’s true that critical thinking is partly about scrutinizing claims, it also demands that one’s questions be open and balanced. True critical thinkers are constantly asking themselves, Am I fairly considering all sides of this issue? Am I open to new information that may conflict with my own views? Someone who is asking skeptical questions but only in one direction — namely, to support or defend a particular point of view — is engaging in what the Foundation for Critical Thinking calls “weak-sense critical thinking.”

Second, questioning facts is fair game. (Scientists do it!) But, it is crucial to understand that the burden of proof is on the questioner who is challenging the predominant evidence. The philosopher Bertrand Russell famously analogized that if someone claims that there is a teapot, too small to be seen, circling the sun, then it is up to the claimant to furnish the proof — as opposed to expecting others to prove that a teapot isn’t circling the sun. Denialists and conspiracy theorists often pose “invisible teapot questions” (What if the whole U.S. election was an elaborate fraud?), and then act as if their uninformed, speculative questions demand that someone else provide answers.

Finally, it’s worth noting that how you ask questions — your tone and language — does matter. Questioning can come off as confrontational, even when done with the best of intentions. But it gets worse when one uses the question as a rhetorical device for arguing or criticizing. (What were you thinking? How could any intelligent person believe such a thing?)

One way to avoid asking such off-putting questions is to start by asking yourself: Is my question really a question? Or is it more of a statement posing as a question? Only ask questions if you’re curious and want to learn something — and make sure that you’re open to whatever answer comes back, whether it confirms your thinking or challenges it. Because if you’re not asking questions this way, then you’re probably just “JAQing off.”


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