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Science is all about questions. Questions, questions, questions. We constantly interrogate nature, trying to reveal some closely-held secrets. Over the course of years, decades, and centuries, we learn to ask ever-more sophisticated questions. Building on previous generations of scientists, we can push the boundaries of human knowledge farther and farther. 

Questioning is baked into the scientific process. Which hypothesis is right? What are the error bars? What do the data suggest? Why doesn't this experiment make any sense?

Walk into any science conference. What do you find at the posters, during the talks, and in the hallways? Questions, nonstop.

It's easy to ask questions about data and results and validity and methods. That's a crucial skill to develop, both in and out of science. You don't have to be a jerk about it, of course, and certainly condescension isn't as much fun as it might feel. But you should feel empowered to ask questions and expect clear, understandable answers. If you're not satisfied, that's on them, not you.

But in all your healthy, knowledge-seeking pursuit of wisdom, be mindful of the depths. It's relatively easy, once you start, to question the surface presentation or results. It's something else entirely to question the assumptions.

We all make assumptions, all the time, in many contexts. I assume that the next time I sit in my chair to write an article, I will not fall through it. I assume that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow morning. I assume that the scientific method is a powerful tool to understand the universe.

We usually build our assumptions on vast amounts of prior experience, which saves us a lot of time, effort, and anxiety (it would be exhausting conducting a durability test for my chair every couple of hours). But therein lies their danger, and why it's useful to, well, conduct a durability test for the chair every once in a while.

Our assumptions guide our thinking before we've even begun to think. Before we've even arrived at a conclusion or result, it's already been shaped by our assumptions. This is incredibly tricky to recognize, especially in ourselves. What are we bringing to the table before we've even sat down?

These assumptions can take many forms. Did we assume that two factors ought to be connected? Did we assume that an approach that worked in the past would still be valid? Did we assume that new information fit a particular pattern? Did we assume that an answer would even exist in the first place?

It's tough to formulate questions to highlight these hidden assumptions, simply because they're so well hidden, and because we often share the exact same assumptions. But through this process, you gain a deeper understanding. A full picture. A complete sense of the problem, the answer, and the path between them.


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