26 November 2020

4. Know what it is you want to know.

What is your question? Define it.

There are two kinds of questions: Questions of state and questions of cause. Both kinds of questions can be sources for disagreement. 

1: Questions of state: The focus of questions of state may be a person (who?), a thing (what?), a point in space (where?), a point in time (when?), or a number (how many?, how much? how often?). Questions of state can often be answered by a single datum or record.

"Who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911?"
"At what temperature does water boil?"

Questions may require further definitions.

"Is climate change a fact?"
"What is meant by climate change?"

"Has the global mean surface temperature has been rising since the early 1900s?"
"What are the exact definitions of global mean surface temperature, rising, and early 1900s?"

Answers to questions of state are either true, indeterminant, or false. They may be based on conventions.

"The capital of Germany is Berlin." (true until 1949 and after 1990)
"The capital of Germany is Bonn." (true between 1949 and 1990)

2: Questions of cause: Questions of cause address often complicated causal chains of events (how?, why?). Finding answers to these questions requires logically consistent arguments and a series of independent observations. 

"Childbed fever is caused by bacterial infections."
"Human activity is the cause for climate change."

A statement of cause is valid if no observation has been made that refutes the claim of the statement. Because a cause can never be verified, it will only constitute provisional explanation.

Depending on scope and detail of the question and your prior knowledge, the process of answering may vary in duration from the few seconds it takes to google the question to a lifetime of scholarship. Whatever your commitment, an explicitly stated question at the beginning will save you grief and time later.

Keep in mind that not everything you want to know is actually known or knowable. We only have limited access to the world around us.