I recall a time many moons ago when I first started my graduate journey at Duke. I was doing one of my final rotations before joining a thesis lab, and I was sitting in a lab meeting where the group was discussing a particular surface marker on immune cells. Apparently this marker (long since forgot which one) could be cleaved and the "shedding" effect led to normal immune function. So silly young me who didn't know asked, "So what happens if you can't cleave it?" At that point one of the research professors said, "Well that's a stupid question" but in a way that was more bemused than malicious, as it turns out that was the thesis project for the postdoc in the lab who was training me. Other than the part where I probably should have known that was her entire project for like six years, I had stumbled upon my first "stupid" question that actually led to tangible answers that contributed to our understanding of science. Not that I actually did the work here, mind you, but someone else also asked that question and decided to answer it for themselves. I've long since forgotten the mechanism or the phenotype of the mouse that couldn't shed that marker, but the core memory stuck with me and shaped the way I approached students and education, because while questions might seem dumb, they at least always make you think.
Ask a Stupid Question Day!
Even as a workforce professional after my teaching days (officially, anyway) were done, I kept the mantra of "there are no stupid questions" because I didn't want to discourage people from speaking their mind and asking for clarity if they were confused about something. It's kind of funny that there is now even an unofficial "holiday" of sorts, Ask a Stupid Question Day, which has mysterious origins but most sources agree that teachers started the movement to encourage their students to keep asking questions, no matter how dumb it may be perceived. You probably know the feeling well, as certain peers or mentors who may lack tact or awareness might make you feel ridiculed or embarrassed for asking an innocent question that, to them as more experienced or expert than you, may take for granted as gospel.
Asking questions is the natural state of humanity, because we are always curious about whether we can do something or go somewhere. Questions like, "What happens if I do (insert act here)?" or "How do I get there?" are the driving force behind drug screens and exploration. I do like the modified mantra by this author to acknowledge that some questions are dumb, but that they should still be encouraged, because dumb questions can also enact positive change. Just because a question seems "dumb" or "stupid" on the surface doesn't make it so, because it takes courage and curiosity to ask a question that seems simple, but may have an underlying complexity to it. If nothing else, dumb and stupid questions, particularly from scientists, are great for comedic effect, and forming a good science dad joke takes a certain level of skill, wouldn't you agree?
Science is Full of Stupid Questions
If the Ig Nobel Prizes are any indicator, even formal science is built off of absurdity. Much of the knowledge that we take for granted now started with someone wondering what that is or why it does that. And before we can get to the point of asking a "smart" question, we might first have to ask many "stupid" questions to get the ball rolling. Sometimes, those "stupid" questions can help you figure out a different approach to solving a scientific problem. Maybe a "stupid" question also inspires you to ask more, better questions that aren't so stupid after all.
One example that I thought of is the historic discovery of penicillin, which probably would have happened eventually if Sir Alexander Fleming had just said, "Well, this experiment is ruined," and thrown those moldy plates away. Many scientists probably would have just considered the experiment a failure and went on with something else, but on that fateful day, Fleming decided to ask what was going on with the lack of bacteria growth where the mold had spread, an act that most people probably would have considered to be stupid. The simple act of asking, "What's going on here?" led to a key weapon against bacterial infection that saved potentially billions, both in the battlefield and in the regular doctor offices around the world. Alas now we have bacterial antibiotic resistance problems, but that's a story for another day with another set of stupid questions to help us through it.
A celebration of stupid questions happens every year in the Ig Nobel awards, where many academic fields are recognized for absurd research that initially makes us laugh, and then makes us think a bit more and could potentially lead to a better understanding of science and the humanities, despite the folly. In that list of "greatest" Ig Nobels, I can point to myriad pet owners asking, "What is it, boy?" to their small mammalian friend when they bark or meow, and so there is some utility in the Ig Nobel winners trying to analyze feline speech patterns. I wager it's because he's hungry or wants to play and not that Timmy fell down the well again, by the way.
Don't Stifle Your Creativity
The next time you run into an obstacle, whether it is from an inflexible thesis committee or a review board, just consider that perhaps your instinct in asking those initial "stupid" questions was correct. Your intrigue is part of the fuel that drives innovation and discovery, no matter if it is trying to make an actual Iron Spider suit or wondering what would happen if you actually nuke a city. It's good to get out of your comfort zone and try something new, even if it started with something everyone else thought was stupid. After all, if the detractors had their way, we'd still think that the sun revolved around the Earth, and that would actually be pretty stupid.
Not only should you not be afraid to ask those questions, you should encourage others to ask more questions as well. If nothing else, you'll get a great conversation and some science jokes out of it!