Asking Good Questions
Raul Kamantigue Suarez
At the end of a lecture I gave at the UP Visayas in Miagao, Iloilo, last July, an insightful
student asked “What is a good question [in science]?” I had said in my talk (and in some articles
published previously in the Philippine Star) that it is important to ask good questions in doing
scientific research. But the student’s question requires a somewhat complicated answer.
In his seminal work entitled “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, Thomas Kuhn
explains that scientists, at most times in history, do “normal science” in the context of existing
conceptual frameworks or ways of thinking, called “paradigms”. Today, inheritance is
understood in terms of DNA sequences encoding the traits in all living creatures that are handed
down from one generation to the next. The diversity of living things is understood in terms of
the mechanisms underlying evolution. The earth is understood in relation to the solar system and
the rest of the universe in terms of astrophysics. But heredity was once a complete mystery, the
idea that species evolve was heretical, as was the suggestion that the earth orbits around the sun.
So in the past, existing paradigms were different from the ones now accepted, and “paradigm
shifts” result from new observations and new ideas that lead to the abandonment of old ones,
fundamentally transforming our view of the natural world. Paradigm shifts are often turbulent
processes because communities often prefer to remain stuck in old ways of thinking even when
confronted with empirical observations contrary to them, and violently resist alternative
perspectives. Galileo, for example, was forced to retract his writings on astronomy when
presented with an invitation to a church barbeque.
Today, doing normal science means applying the scientific method, as defined by
existing paradigms, to test hypotheses experimentally or to analyze existing patterns in nature. It
means subjecting results and observation