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It has often been said that there is no such thing as a dumb question. And yet - perhaps due only to inattention, lack of sleep, or hunger - otherwise brilliant people sometimes manage to ask some pretty inane questions during talks. ("Yes, but how does the rover manage to drive around on the moon in the first place - shouldn't it just fall back down to Earth?") Or worse: make false or bizarre assertions. ("I don't see how your thrusters can possibly provide enough lift, given that the moon is made out of cheese!")

Question: How do you answer these kinds of questions in a way that makes everyone feel good about the interaction?

There are sort of three parties to consider here: yourself, the person asking the question, and the rest of the audience. You could, for instance, amuse and satiate the rest of the audience by poking fun at the person ("True, but why would you want to leave a paradise made of cheese?"). Humor might win over the audience, but the person who asked the question will spend the rest of the time ignoring the talk and thinking about how little he likes you. In contrast, you don't want to pander ("Ah, interesting point - I didn't realize the moon was made of cheese. Is it Gruyère or some kind of Stilton?") because, although the person asking the question now feels respected, the rest of the audience thinks you're a schmuck.

Perhaps the question could be re-phrased as:

Question: how do you convince someone they're mistaken without making them feel stupid? (And what if they're stubborn?)

This situation is especially delicate if the question-asker is an established and respected member of your field (since their questions and opinions will automatically carry some weight and authority)---or worse, a person interviewing you for a job! I'm interested in both external tactics (i.e., what do you say?) as well as internal strategies (i.e., how do you put yourself in a mindset where you're unlikely to react with rude or snarky answers in the first place)?

Thanks!

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What about answering by this famous title: "Surely you're joking Mr. Questioner"? –  Vahid Shirbisheh Feb 16 at 20:15
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@VahidShirbisheh But that's a response to a dumb answer! :-) (It was somebody's response to Feynman after she offered him cream or lemon in his tea and he asked for both.) –  David Richerby Feb 16 at 21:30
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First, make sure that it is actually a dumb question! Especially if it's from an established member of your field - it's unlikely that they would ask a dumb question, so you should consider the possibility that (a) you've misheard or misunderstood their question (ask for clarification) or (b) you don't know as much about your topic as you think you do. In either case, avoid being sarcastic or mean - if you are mean, and their question is not dumb, then you look stupid. If their question is in fact dumb, then at least don't look stupid, but you still look unpleasant. –  Chris Taylor Feb 16 at 23:05
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It might help to specify the kind of talk in question. One reacts differently to: undergraduate non-majors, undergraduate majors, graduate students, a colloquium-type audience, an audience of people whom you hope will become your colleagues... –  Pete L. Clark Feb 17 at 2:33
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@ChrisTaylor Or even, the question makes perfect sense with a single word replaced with another, and they just said the wrong word. It happens to me pretty regularly, and takes a moment before I catch it. (The most recent one was emphatically saying "tilde" (the ~ character) when I meant to be saying "caret" (^ character), and was even using my finger to make the shape of a caret!) –  Izkata Feb 17 at 16:59

17 Answers 17

up vote 71 down vote accepted

If somebody asks a dumb question, they're not going to feel good about the interaction whatever happens. If possible, get them back on the right track but avoid saying anything that could be interpreted as sarcasm and move on as quickly as possible.

The most likely thing is either that the questioner has missed something obvious or misunderstood something you said. So, in your first example, just point out that the rover is held there by the moon's gravity and move on. They're going to be embarrassed to have missed something so simple so it's important that you don't make them feel any worse about it; at least they'll probably understand the rest of your talk, now. In the far less common case of somebody making an assertion based on something that just isn't true, point out that the thing isn't true ("Well, the moon isn't made of cheese.") and move on. If they want to debate the point, offer to discuss it after the talk but don't let them derail you: everyone else in the room, you included, came for a talk about your thruster design, not an argument about whether the moon is a dairy product.

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+1 for the "polite but assertive" approach. –  wjl Feb 17 at 18:58

We are in full agreement that there are in fact dumb (or, more accurately, non-productive) questions, and I do not think that it is your responsibility as a speaker to make the asker of the question feel better about himself to the expense of the rest of the audience.

When this sort of thing happens to me, I try to answer accurately, politely and to the point as I see it, just as I would try to answer any other question:

Q: "I don't see how your the thrusters can possibly provide enough lift, given that the moon is made out of cheese!"

A: "I am afraid we have to disagree on the assumptions here. In my experience, the moon is likely not made out of cheese, hence this is somewhat of a non-issue in practice."

I would do the same if giving an interview talk. In that case, I would assume that the asker is likely just testing me. Rambling on, evading, or taking the suggestion seriously might actually be perceived as a negative in that case.

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Since the OP specifically mentions the case of job talks and none of the other answers do, let me concentrate on that in my answer.

1) In a job talk, unless you specifically know otherwise, you should assume that everyone in the audience is someone who could have a direct hand in hiring you.

In the job talk I gave at my current university, a graduate student asked me a question about the arithmetic of Fano varieties. I began my response by carefully explaining what a Fano variety was and then quickly moving on to say that things like the circle method worked when the variety was "sufficiently Fano" in a certain precise sense. By the end of the day I learned that the person who asked me the question was not actually a graduate student but rather a youthful-looking tenured professor in algebraic geometry. In other words, she had forgotten more about Fano varieties than I would ever learn. Nevertheless, despite the fact that my answer was pitched a little too low for her, it did answer her question in a helpful and not condescending way, so she found my more-careful-than-necessary explanation more charming than offensive, and she joined me for lunch the next day. After I accepted the job, she quickly became one of my closest colleagues.

Corollary to 1: In a job talk, you cannot afford to answer anyone's question in a way which pokes fun at them with the hope of gaining points with the rest of the audience. The one person who got snubbed will remember that at the hiring meeting more than everyone else put together.

2) In any talk [i.e., a one-shot performance, unlike a course] you need to answer any single question in a way which keeps the overall talk on track. You don't want to spend more than a minute answering any single question, even if you know the answer and are happy to give it.

Thus you need to answer all questions in a globally efficient way. Since the question is about "stupid questions", I presume this means questions that you know the answer to. (If you don't know the answer to a question in a talk, probably the best strategy is to clearly acknowledge that in the moment you do not have an ideal answer, but that you'll think about it and be happy to get back to the questioner later on. It is tempting to stop short and wrestle with the question a bit -- this shows some positive traits, especially if you come out with the answer -- but it violates rule 2) above.) Moreover a "stupid question" is probably one for which the answer will not be enlightening to the rest of the audience, anticipate something that will come up later, or otherwise be worth spending much time on.

So I think the best way to answer a "stupid question" in a job talk is: directly, politely, and quickly. E.g.:

"Assuming I've heard and understood you correctly, the answer to your question is X. I'd be happy to elaborate, but I think it won't be so relevant to what I want to talk about today, so can we take this up after the talk?"

Note that this phrasing creates a polite amount of reasonable doubt that a stupid question was asked after all.

If all goes well, the questioner will drop the point and you can move on. Unfortunately, especially if the questioner is a high-status faculty member in the department, they may not want to drop it. In this case you should ask them to repeat the question, and you should take another crack at answering it, then say something like "And now I really feel like I need to move on, so that I can get through what I came here to say. But please feel free to talk to me about it afterwards."

Let me also say that I know a few "big dogs" who ask stupid questions that I have trouble believing are actually sincerely stupid questions. In other words, it is not unheard of that someone "plays dumb" during a job talk. I do not condone this behavior -- on the one hand, an interview is a two-way street and the would-be employers should be modelling their best future behavior just like the would-be employees, and on the other hand it is not so clear to me what constitutes a good response to such bad behavior so I'm not sure what they're hoping to gain (I hope it's not just trying to derail candidates that they have already decided they don't like: how ogrish) -- but I have seen it happen. But the above strategy is designed to combat this type of question as well: you want to give little to no offense but become minimally derailed.

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Re: he vs she, have you considered the singular they. Personally I find the use of "she" just as jarring as "he" when the gender is unknown –  Richard Tingle Feb 17 at 9:58
    
PeteL.Clark, to be consistent with the topic of the original discussion, I would have addressed @trutheality's comments about your irrelevant gender references "directly, politely, and quickly"... –  Mike Feb 18 at 18:35
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@mike, while we're on topic, your comment is a good example of a thinly veiled insult, something you should avoid in a professional talk. –  trutheality Feb 18 at 20:36

This might work better if you are a non-native english speaker. You could try repeating the question: "If I understood you correctly, you are asking me whether the moon is made out of cheese?". This could give the asker the chance to snap back into reality. If he confirms, then all is permitted.

If you are a non-native speaker, you should be given at least one free chance to be repeated a question without annoying the audience :)

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This approach is perfectly fine for native speakers of whatever language this exchange occurs in. It is perfectly legit to ask the clarifying question back to the questioner on a "serious" question. Why not here? –  Ben Norris Feb 17 at 3:17

The problem with dumb questions is their ability to make you stop in your tracks with your mouth open, when you're supposed to be the hardened professional. Its not a good look.

I've spoken on IT subjects to some reasonably large crowds of paying attendees.

Here's what I do to avoid the deer-in-the-headlights effect that weird questions can have.

I immediately respond to the question, by acknowledging it. That puts me back in control of the room, and makes my mouth shut (instead of hanging open in amazement) and gets the folks in the room looking at me instead of the questioner.

To respond I tell them what I think of the question, but I use these two euphemisms or code-words:

Instead of saying a question is

crazy, insane, stupid, or barking mad

say its

intriguing

And instead of saying a question is

pointless, inane, destructive, or insulting

say its

interesting

To get this down you have to practise it. Use your colleagues as guinea pigs when you practise your talk, and ask them to come up with some stupid questions so you can ace these "code word" responses.

Tell your close friends, work associates and fellow speakers how you will use these euphemisms or code words (interesting and intriguing), and then when they hear you say

"OK, that is an interesting question"

they'll know you mean

"WHY WOULD YOU SAY SUCH A THING - ARE YOU MAD!"

You can get some back-up then. If you're really heating up with a flush of horror, and losing it up there, your friends in the know can come and rescue you by chiming in with something.

Let's say, even after that you've got nothing. You've played for time with the response above, saying the question is "Intriguing", but the question is so off the wall you still have no way to answer it.

Now what you can do since you have got control of the floor again, is you can go back to the audience with it.

"Show of hands - who here has an IT security plan for cosmic rays?" 

Be careful. You don't want the audience to laugh at the guy, so make it clear you're taking the question seriously, or at least semi-seriously.

The result you're looking for is that others see the question as low priority. Then you can offer to "take it offline" and speak to the questioner after you get off the stage.

By the way, don't worry that the intriguing and interesting code words will become known and you'll be seen as not being sincere. Its a bit of an "in joke" and if folks know it they can have a bit of a chuckle with you.

Its still about the most polite way I know to say something is a bit mad, without really offending people.

Hope it helps.

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IBM took it seriously: "The results of case studies on four different memory chips show that cosmic rays are an important source of the ionizing radiation that causes soft errors." –  Cees Timmerman Feb 17 at 14:02
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And that's why you must respect those who ask questions you think are dumb. They may know something you do not. –  user26732 Feb 17 at 15:10

Two useful responses are (1) to ask to rephrase/elaborate the question, and (2) to ask to discuss the issue after the talk.

Both of those

  • Give them time to think about their question a little more.
  • Give you time to hear them out and figure out why they asked that question.

Discussing the issue after the talk has the added advantage of preventing anyone from getting embarrassed in front of a large audience.

This also addresses the "mindset" issue: the question might seem stupid only because it is asked in a profoundly stupid way. If you leave open the possibility that you misunderstood the question, a lot of embarrassment can be avoided on both sides.

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"There are [almost] always three sides to a disagreement, your side, the other person's side, and the right side which is somewhere in the middle." Loosely paraphrased from a talk by Napoleon Hill.

Assume that it is your fault (something that you said or did not say) that lead the person in the wrong direction.

"The earths gravitational field is of no significance at this stage of the expedition; this is one of the factors that allow for the possibility of prolonged exploration and experimentation."

"The surface of the moon has a terrain that is very similar to some places on earth and through careful analysis and experimental data our team has concluded that the thrusters will achieve between 7 and 8 thrust juice on each of the potential launch sites."

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Ben Franklin puzzled over how to disagree with other members of Congress in a manner that would not alienate others - especially when the facts were on his side . He had discovered that, simply by changing a few phrases, he came closer to that goal than he could have imagined. Instead of saying, for instance, "All scientific knowledge clearly rejects that assertion", you avoid the direct disagreement entirely by saying "It is my considered opinion, and I believe, from what I have studied on the subject, that the moon's surface is composed of quite different material. If you feel you have new knowledge on the subject, please get together with me after the presentation. I'd be very happy to discuss this subject with you."

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Just answer the question. You will spend less brainpower and not waste time.

Question: "Given that there are 24 letters in the American alphabet, why does "l" come before "a"?

Answer: [If I understand your references[context] properly][As far as I know] , there are actually 26 letters in the American English alphabet. "A" actually comes before "L," at least as far as I've learned in [give reference.]"

Then just move on like nothing happened. Because nothing has.

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I'd say to try to think up of a "smarter" question that is related, but more difficult, and answer their dumb question in the context of answering the smarter one. It would allow everyone to move forward feeling good, and the person that asked the question would be grateful for it.

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I think you could improve this answer by adding an example to show how to answer the silly question in the context of answering the smarter one. –  starsplusplus Feb 17 at 9:23
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One of the above examples of a silly question was, "given that there are 24 letters in the alphabet, why does L come before A"? You could answer, "the question of how we count letters of the alphabet is actually quite tricky. Most people say 26 in the standard English alphabet. But those who have to learn these from a non-Western tradition point out that there are actually 52, because you must learn both upper case and lower case forms. But this isn't correct either, because some upper case forms are the same as lower case forms, except for their size, such as the letter 's'. –  user26732 Feb 17 at 15:02
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Those who write in Arabic point out that they avoid this problem by having only 24 letter forms, but this isn't correct either, because the shape of the letter can change based on where it's found in the word. So sometimes what seems to be a simple question is actually quite complex. We can perhaps discuss the order of the letters another time." –  user26732 Feb 17 at 15:03

Sometimes you can avoid humiliation for the person who ask the question by pretending they mean something else than the obvious, like they're using a metaphor or hyperbole. For example, you could start an answer to the question about the thrusters by saying:

"I assume when you say that the moon is made of cheese, you are in fact referring to the dust filled craters where the soil composition is indeed as soft as a cheddar cheese."

And then you can continue answering about the physics of lifting off a rocket from a soft soil. This way the asker rather gains credit from the public for his amusing way to ask the question, instead of being humiliated.

Likewise in the question about the rover, you can answer about the problems of traction based propulsion on a low gravity body, pretending that's what the asker wanted to ask all along. In this case, you'd probably get some weird looks, but when the person who asks the question is indeed a well respected member of the scientific society, everybody in the audience will assume there's some kind of "high level" joke going on and they're just missing the point.

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This also avoids the possibility that you both insulted them and misunderstood their question. (Now you just misunderstood, but neither of you looks foolish.) –  Jeremy Stein Feb 19 at 0:44

There is only one way to answer all questions (other than obvious "joking" ones): Answer it seriously, just like you would a "smart" question.


I must share with you guys a question I heard asked at a cooking class. After the chef went through the quantities of a simple recipe, a student asked:

How do you make less?

The chef paused briefly (the stupid question light was clearly "on"), but answered it properly:

You add less ingredients. Keep the proportions the same, say half of everything.

ie, he answered it "seriously".

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There are many nice answers already to OP; however this will attempt to answer the related question that was not asked:

How do you recognize that a question you've been asked is "dumb"?

The answer is that you can't. While the question may in fact be dumb, it is also possible that the question is very good and you have misunderstood or misheard it. Perhaps the question you thought was about the moon rover falling back to Earth was actually about the moon rover falling over due to its testing having been conducted back on Earth.

As the other answers have shown, there is no really satisfying way to answer a dumb question, so better to assume that the question is not dumb and rather that you have failed to understand it. My advice is to say that you're having trouble understanding the question, and asking the poser to give you more clarification after the conclusion of the talk.

If indeed it's a dumb question and everyone in the room (but one person) knows it, this defuses the public situation and lets you deal with the poser in private. If you have misunderstood a good question, this allows you to discover this in private rather than embarrassing yourself. And if it's an off-the-wall question that could be either good or bad, this allows those people not interested (i.e. everyone) to leave and not have to endure the exchange.

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For job talks and exams, another point to consider when formulating an answer to a "dumb" question is that the question posed by one attendee may in fact be a jab at another attendee. On my committee I had two faculty members that, putting it lightly, did not get along with each other. During my prelim and defense, I had to tread carefully when responding to questions from either of these two individuals in an effort to "keep the peace."

... as well as internal strategies (i.e., how do you put yourself in a mindset where you're unlikely to react with rude or snarky answers in the first place)

In this case, my internal strategy suggestion would be to keep in mind that the question may not be what it seems, e.g. may not be "dumb," as I explained above.

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OK, so let's say I consider this. Now how should I answer the question? How should that affect how I answer? –  D.W. Feb 18 at 1:34
    
@D.W. I elaborated a bit more. –  Mad Jack Feb 18 at 2:50

Your intent is to not make them feel dumb. You need to assume every question is real, regardless of what it is, and so you won't be surprised by anything anyone says.

The first step would be to repeat it back to them. Maybe you thought they said something like "How does the Rover not fall to the Earth?" when they really said "How does the Rover befall on the Earth?" Two very different questions but they sound somewhat similar, and the second question is a little less dumb (despite being strangely worded). Assuming you heard it right, this will allow the user to hear the question again, which might spark them to think about it and say "oops! Never mind!" and laugh it off.

If you did hear it correctly and they're still curious, simply answer it like you would any other question. Don't just outright say "Gravity." and then move on, instead explain the moon's gravitational acceleration and how that affects the Rover's ability to move. If they ask about the moon being made of cheese, explain what the moon's surface is made up of instead of saying "It's not made of cheese." Saying something along the lines of "The moon's surface is a composite of.... This provides a solid base for the Rover, and allows the thrusters to work as expected." would be much better for the student's ego, and provide extra information.

Everyone has asked a stupid question in their lifetime, and you have to think about how you would want to be treated in that situation. If your professor laughed about it, along with the rest of the class, you'll feel not only extremely embarrassed but upset that your question wasn't answered. Having a realistic answer that not only helps you to understand the content better will eliminate embarrassment and cause the students to not be scared to ask questions in the future.

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Carl Sagan was a master of this. He would look at the person kindly, with interest, and answer politely and to the point. 'It has been show that the moon possesses its own gravity well and that holds the rover to it.' or 'It has been shown that the moon is not in fact green cheese, but is made of off rocks and minerals not so different from the earth'. etc.

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Simple: Tell them the facts.

If they've committed a simple slip of the mind, they will accept your correction. Everyone else will recognize it for what it was and—hopefully—be tolerant of the kind of error they could just as easily have committed themselves. (If the questioner is surrounded by nasty jerks, you can't fix that. Even more not-so when considering the format and time constraints of a Q&A session.)

If they persist in their error and they hold a fringe view, offer to debate them after the formal Q&A. If they persist in their error and they're a substantial minority (or more), announce that you will give priority to any question about something else, but proceed to debate them.

In that way, those not interested in the debate will know that you want to satisfy them, while those interested in the debate know that you're not just ignoring them.

If you debate the questioner(s), good debating manners apply:

  1. Clearly state your own position and how you arrive at it.
  2. Demonstrate that you listen to the opposing side by reflecting their arguments back to them.
  3. Try to narrow down the scope of disagreement; in particular, try to find any root disagreements which could be the cause of subsequent disagreements.

(For example, if they disagree with you about whether 2+2=4, they may start from the premise that whatever Big Brother says is true. If you know that, you can skip all arithmetical arguments.)

If you keep narrowing the scope of the disagreement, the discussion must sooner or later come to a point where the two sides look at the same evidence and arguments and come to two different conclusions. At that point, I think everyone will have learned what is possible to learn from the discussion, and so it's appropriate to move on.

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