12 November 2020

1.3. Define your question.

There are two types of questions: Questions of occurrence and questions of cause. 

Both types of questions can be settled by observation and/or experiment. Answers to both types of questions are either true, indeterminant, or false. Both types of questions can be sources for disagreement and for manipulation. 

1: Questions of occurrence: A question of occurrence investigates the details of an event or a circumstance.  

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

"Who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1911?"
"What is the discipline for which Marie Curie received the Nobel Prize in 1911?"
"When did Marie Curie receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry?"
"How many Nobel Prizes did Marie Curie receive?"

"Which countries share a border with Austria?"
"At what temperature does water boil?"
"When did the United Kingdom leave the European Union?"
"How many people were murdered in the Rwandan genocide?"

Questions of occurrence allow comparisons to investigate similarities and differences between repeated occurrences. 

"What is the fraction of female Nobel laureates?"
"Which city has a more annual rainfall, Salzburg or Vancouver?"
"What is the spatial distribution of red kangaroos in Australia?"
"Which inauguration of a United States president had the highest attendance?"

Comparison of occurrences may reveal organizational patterns (e.g. male/female, low income/high income, juveniles/adults), spatial patterns (e.g. uniformity, randomness, clustering) and/or temporal patterns (e.g. constancy, growth, cyclicity).  

Keep in mind that the absence of something (unicorns, god, aliens, the deep state) cannot be proven in principle. Consequently, conspiracy theories can never be fully proven false. 

2: Questions of cause: Occurrences are the outcomes of processes. A question of cause investigates the causes of an event or circumstance (why?) and the mechanisms involved in the causal chain of events (how?). 

"What is the cause for childbed fever?"
"What is the cause for climate change?"
"How does the internal combustion engine work?"
"How do vaccines work?"

Answers to questions of occurrence and questions of cause may depend on conventions or may require further definitions.

"The capital of Germany is Berlin." -- True until 1949 and after 1990.
"The capital of Germany is Bonn." -- True between 1949 and 1990.

"Is climate change a fact?" -- What do you mean by climate change?
"Can poverty cause cancer?" -- What do you mean by cause?

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 several lifetimes of scholarship. Whatever your commitment, an explicitly stated question at the beginning of your investigation clarifies what information you must collect in order to answer the question. This will save you grief and time later.

Awareness of the type of question you ask also clarifies descriptions and explanations. In his book The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin (1859) failed to properly distinguish between establishing the change of species over time and the cause for the change (Simpson 1963), the former a question of occurrence, the latter a question of cause. This may have contributed to a judgement by Hardin (1960) that: "Darwin was not one to impose premature clarity on his writing."

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


Shortly after actress Betty White's death on 31 Dec 2021, people opposed to CoViD vaccinations started suggesting that she had died of the CoViD vaccine booster shot (Lee 2022).

Question: Did the CoViD vaccine booster shot cause Ms. White to die? 

First, we must establish answers regarding questions of occurrence:

Question: Did Ms. White die?
Answer: Yes.

Question: Did Ms. White receive a CoViD vaccine booster shot?
Answer: No. 

With that there is no need to investigate the question of cause. We can label the rumours around Ms. White's death as misinforming or even disinforming.