“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” This little “proverb for paranoids” — the third of five in “Gravity’s Rainbow,” a book by Thomas Pynchon — succinctly points out a crucial element of all critical thinking: There are right and wrong questions to ask of this world, and knowing which is which makes all the difference. In fact, it’s the very essence of critical thinking.

Just as right and wrong answers exist for many questions, so do right and wrong. And yet this fact is rarely acknowledged, discussed or entertained with the exception of conmen and congressmen. Worse still, there are those who would have us believe that all knowledge is relative and that any way of gathering it is as justifiable as any other. This is wrong both in its diagnosis and prognosis of the situation — not all opinions are valid.

Those who might think that I’m perhaps too dismissive of other positions or unfairly characterizing what it means to be relativistic in this context must, at the very least, be claiming that my opinion is in some way wrong.

That’s fine. It might be. And that’s the point.

I can be wrong. I have been wrong. I’m probably wrong about at least a couple dozen things in my life at this very moment, and some of them may even be espoused in some of what I write here. But these are things I can correct by asking and being asked the right questions. In a very real sense, the casting away of incorrect opinions is the surest method for being less wrong, and, hopefully, being more correct.

To this end, the importance of questioning far outweighs that of facts. Facts without context are meaningless, but questions without purpose are wasteful. An orphaned fact often does little to distract us from matters at hand: Whether Franklin D. Roosevelt was the 32nd or 33rd president of the United States won’t typically deter conversations about the modern relevance of the New Deal’s policies. Moreover, facts are easily amenable to objective arbitration: We can plug numbers into calculators, look up quotes and pinpoint dates. Facts can be known with or without calling upon our critical-thinking skills.

The same is not true of asking questions. Asking questions is at base all there is to our critical thinking skills. If our thinking didn’t require rigor there would be no motivation to question any part of it. Therefore, the very nature of critical thinking stems from the fact that we’re questioning our reasoning in an effort to be less wrong and vicariously more right.

But just as not all opinions are valid and not all facts are relevant, not all modes of inquiry are created equal. Somewhere between the incredulous silence of complete complacency and the incessant, bottomless ‘whys’ of a child who has long stopped listening to proffered answers lies an optimal balance of questioning and acceptance, knowing and not knowing.

Unlike a fact without context, a question, however ill-posed, is liable to hijack our cognitive apparatuses. Questions spark investigations, and send our minds off searching for solutions, looking for reasons and figuring out new questions to ask. Our brains were equipped long ago to be pattern-seekers. To seek a pattern means to ask what pattern may exist and go about finding it. We can go beyond this base level of thinking by asking further, “How might we go about finding that pattern?” or, “How will I know if a pattern is meaningful?”

Questions are the filters we use to separate signal from noise. If we fail to recognize that this sort of positive inquiry is the process of extracting meaningful information from an otherwise incoherent mess, we will fail to avail ourselves of our most effective means of figuring out the world around us.

So, “Where have I gone wrong?” is a more powerful question than “What facts have I gotten wrong?” because it encapsulates a broader context of thinking as a process of analysis and not merely as a recitation of facts.

However, let us remember that this can all be wrong. And the only way any of us can ever know is by knowing the right questions to ask.

Barry Belmont can be reached at belmont@umich.edu

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