• Question: How do you handle questions where you don't know the answer, or there's not a clear answer?

    Asked by 2020science to Andrew, Lindsay, Paige, Sean, Jeff on 13 Feb 2016.
    • Photo: Lindsay Hunter

      Lindsay Hunter answered on 13 Feb 2016:


      As a paleoanthropologist, I very often find myself out of my depth when it comes to a variety of questions due to my level of specialization (but if they want to know about Neandertal rib anatomy, I’m on FIRE!). My field does a good job of educating me on the basics of other areas of science, but sometimes that just isn’t good enough.

      First of all, I make it clear that I don’t know the answer, that I *am* a bit out of my depth. I acknowledge this so that I don’t unwittingly put out misinformation. However, I then usually try to work through a plausible seeming answer or hypothesis with the help of what I do know and the assistance of the internet or anyone around that is more knowledgeable.

      If there’s no clear consensus, I acknowledge that and weigh in as to how I see the issue, making it clear that others may have differing points of view. I think it’s important that the public see science as an ongoing process and conversation between scientists and the natural world. If our understanding of the facts change, then so must our answers.

    • Photo: Sean Murphy

      Sean Murphy answered on 13 Feb 2016:


      I think its really important for everyone to realize how much there is still to learn. If we look back in history and see how far human knowledge has come in a relatively short period of time and then look forward into the future and start thinking about the possibilities, then these difficult questions no longer seem like a limitation, but rather an exciting challenge.

    • Photo: Jeff Shi

      Jeff Shi answered on 13 Feb 2016:


      These are among my favorite questions, because I really get to demonstrate the power of hypothesis formulation, critical thinking, and just generally how to speculate on my feet. However, I am always careful to make sure that all of my audience knows this is actually what’s happening, and to know that even us researchers are fallible humans that are learning all the time.

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