All-purpose questions

by John Q on June 12, 2009

While Michèle Lamont is visiting us, and talking about cross-disciplinary comparisons and interactions, I thought I would raise a question about questions.

As background, my first “real” job was in a government research agency. Seminars were part of the process, and the norm was that senior staff would open the questions. In this context, it was almost invariably safe to ask “What are the policy implications”. That’s still true for some of the seminars I attend, but in others (economic theory, for example), such a question would be at best a faux pas, and the all-purpose question might be something like “Does this work in a monetary economy?”.

So, what are the all-purpose questions in different fields (or are there fields without such questions), and what, if anything does this reveal about those fields?



todd. 06.12.09 at 11:45 pm

In computer science we get a fair amount of, “How does this scale?” But I think most people see this as a lazy attention grab on the part of the asker. In machine learning specifically there’s often some variation on, “What can you say about how you set your priors?”


Jonathan Dursi 06.13.09 at 12:23 am

In astrophysics seminars, it’s `what about the effect of magnetic fields’ – or at least that was always a good question a few years ago; it’s a hard question, but one the questioner could always quite plausibly be genuinely interested in. Now in a lot of cases people are in fact considering magnetic fields, so it’s a little tricker.


JSE 06.13.09 at 12:34 am

Math, or at least algebraic geometry: “Does it work in characteristic p?”


Matt 06.13.09 at 12:39 am

“so what?” “Says who?” “You and what army?”
(I’m sorry- I tried to resist but couldn’t. I’m sure others had the temptation, too, so I’ve just cleared the way for more serious responses for everyone. As for my actual fields, I’m not sure, though I’ve known some people who always asked a Kant-related question in philosophy, and lawyers like the “policy implications” question pretty well, too.)


Moby Hick 06.13.09 at 12:47 am

The most all purpose question of all (exact phrasing varies):

“Why didn’t you mention my work on …”


Kenny Easwaran 06.13.09 at 1:32 am

I’ve heard stories about some guy who goes to talks at CalTech (at least in philosophy, probably in other disciplines as well) and always asks at the end, “doesn’t this rest on a confusion of weight and mass?” I heard that once the talk was actually about the history of Newton’s development of his theories, so the question was actually relevant.


Kieran Healy 06.13.09 at 1:58 am

“What are the policy implications?”

There’s a joke Youtube video about the Harvard Govt Department merging with the Kennedy School, and one of the grad students from the former has a bunch of flash cards he’s using to practice questions appropriate to his new KSG audience. They include “What are the policy implications?”, “Are there any policy implications?” and “What are the policy implications of this policy?”


Henry 06.13.09 at 2:48 am


David Kane 06.13.09 at 3:13 am

At a hedge fund or investment bank, “What is the trade?” Meaning: How can I make money from this analysis?


Jock Bowden 06.13.09 at 3:36 am

In my undergrad majors of history and economics, and minor and maths, the ephemeral questions in each were related to causation and consequence. If you wanted to lift your grade from a B- to an A, you’d then add in discontinuities. ;)


eric 06.13.09 at 4:07 am

history: “what is your source base for this?” or “what is your archive?”


giles 06.13.09 at 7:54 am

Biology: you can always ask if in vitro work applies in vivo, if in vivo cell work applies physiologically/clinically, and whether the researcher thinks the findings apply across the whole class of whatever (gene/protein/organism…) is being studied.


Liam 06.13.09 at 10:05 am

Library Science: “Yes, but will anyone actually read it?”


Martin Wisse 06.13.09 at 11:38 am

In IT projects the important question always is “what’s the effect on the deadline” and “is this on the critical path”?


dsquared 06.13.09 at 11:55 am

When I was a civil servant, you could usually buy time with “Didn’t they try something like this in Australia?”, although this presumably wouldn’t have worked for John.

(the all purpose answer was “New Zealand rather than Australia, I think”)


Richard J 06.13.09 at 12:38 pm

Iny my line of work, it’s ‘doesn’t this need to be on an arm’s length basis?’


LizardBreath 06.13.09 at 12:51 pm

It’s not quite all-purpose, but you can do a lot in litigation with asking “Is there a standing issue here?”


Miranda 06.13.09 at 1:09 pm

What about the classic, “my question is more of a comment . . .” ? It dominates my field, English.


Stuart 06.13.09 at 1:26 pm

“Do you want fries with that?”


des von bladet 06.13.09 at 2:14 pm

In my old stomping ground of applied maths it was “Have you looked into doing this in three dimensions?”.


Deliasmith 06.13.09 at 2:21 pm

Gamesmanship recommends ‘Except in the South’


Paul 06.13.09 at 2:54 pm

A friend of mine who got a Phd in biochem from Purdue told me that there was an old professor that slept through every talk, and at the end would wake up and ask “how is calcium involved in this?”. Apparently it was always a good question.


andrew potter 06.13.09 at 4:04 pm

In my graduate department, there was one professor who was notorious for always asking after a talk: “But haven’t you simply *described* the problem?”

Finally, someone had the guts to reply: “Isn’t that all we ever do in philosophy?”


Steve LaBonne 06.13.09 at 5:00 pm

In my line of work the all-purpose penny-in-the-slot cross-examination question, requiring no knowledge or preparation on the part of the defense attorney, is some variant of “how do you know the sample that incriminates my client wasn’t contaminated”? If they’re really flailing they try to find a problem with the chain of custody.

My favorite cross-examination though was in a he-said-she-said alleged sexual assault. I warned the prosecutor that introducing the totally irrelevant DNA evidence wasn’t a good move because introducing evidence that has nothing to say about the actual issue accomplishes nothing and just opens up avenues for the defense. Sure enough, all the public defender did on cross was to hold up the alleged victim’s microscopic panties- now that she had an excuse to wave them in front of the jury- and ask me if those were the panties I tested. She got the acquittal.


Tom Hurka 06.13.09 at 6:48 pm

In Philosophy the all-purpose intro is “This is only a question of clarification …,” which is of course always a lie.


dsquared 06.13.09 at 8:59 pm

Tom H, would you mind emailing me at my Crooked Timber address? I’ve got a draft post on Sri Lanka that you might want a look at.


Kent 06.14.09 at 12:32 am

I was going to say that in religious studies and philosophy, there is no single all-purpose question that you can ask, that I’m aware of. Back when I was an academic I could have used some, because often I felt too stupid to even know where to start thinking about what questions to ask.


Ahistoricality 06.14.09 at 1:17 am

History: “The origins of the problem go back further than that, though, don’t they?”


SusanC 06.14.09 at 2:34 am

“Does this suffer from the base rate fallacy?”

(Equivalents to this recently heard in seminars on everything from counter-terrorism to medical genomics).


Moby Hick 06.14.09 at 3:22 am

“I’ve got a draft post on Sri Lanka that you might want a look at.”

That would be a good way to tell a friend “Time to hit the bar” without letting everybody in the room know (which is useful it you want to hit the bar at 2pm on a Tuesday or something).


Cosma 06.14.09 at 4:02 am

“How robust are your results to changing the prior distribution?”

In biology: “What is [or: can you say more about] the role of calcium in this phenomenon?”


onymous 06.14.09 at 4:11 am

Cosma! Earlier I was thinking “I wish Cosma would show up on some blog and say something about the widely-circulated claim that the highly linear election return data from Iran implies vote-rigging”. Um, not to be demanding or anything.


Michael Mouse 06.14.09 at 12:54 pm

In social science, if someone shows a correlation, you can almost always ask about causality direction and possible third factor causes.

And all to often you can ask how many correlations they happened to calculate in the entire analysis process, and followup with “and so out of 20 or so correlations you found one significant at the 5% level … are you really sure this is robust evidence?”.

I used to regularly try the old “are you sure it’s safe to assume these Likert scales are continuous variables” but most people couldn’t understand the issue so I stopped, because it made me look silly, not them.


peter 06.14.09 at 3:50 pm

Not a seminar question, but supposedly a standard question to intimidate newcomers to High Table in the posher Oxford Colleges:

“So tell me, who is your favourite pre-War Polish logician?”


Ray Davis 06.14.09 at 10:46 pm

There was a terrifying woman who used to go to readings at East Bay bookstores to ask “What does your mother think of your book?”, no matter what the subject of the book or the health of the author’s mother. What this reveals, I guess, is that writing is a hell of a way to try to make a living.


Donald A. Coffin 06.15.09 at 5:24 pm

George Stigler’s “Conference Handbook” is, of course, the locus classicus in economics
( Justin Wolpers has offered some updaes in the Feakonomics blog ( (Wolpers, incidentally, reproduces Stiglers’ list of comments, which Stigler handily numbered, so as to reduce the amount o time spent making comments.) Strictly speaking, these are comments, not questions, but I think the point is roughly the same. For economists, though, the classic remains, “Didn’t Adam Smith say that?”


rea 06.15.09 at 8:40 pm

“So tell me, who is your favourite pre-War Polish logician?”



Matt L 06.15.09 at 10:16 pm

“So tell me, who is your favourite pre-War Polish logician?”

Depends, which war?


Matt L 06.15.09 at 10:19 pm

The best all purpose seminar question for history is, “So, what was the most interesting primary source that you looked at, but didn’t get to use in this paper?” Its a softball, but sometimes the answer is more fun than the original topic. If you’re lucky, its something weird or funny.


ajay 06.16.09 at 2:29 pm

Obligatory XKCD:


magistra 06.18.09 at 7:49 pm

“So tell me, who is your favourite pre-War Polish logician?”

Well, it depends on how you want to define Polish…


Matt 06.19.09 at 3:45 am

Another common one is “I have two questions and a comment” or some such variation. If it’s allowed to go forward it often means no one else will get to speak.

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