A question, even of the simplest kind, is not and can never be unbiased…My purpose is to say that the structure of any question is as devoid of neutrality as its content. The form of a question may ease our way or pose obstacles. Or, when even slightly altered, it may generate antithetical answers, as in the case of the two priests who, being unsure if it was permissible to smoke and pray at the same time wrote to the Pope for a definitive answer. One priest phrased the question ‘Is it permissible to smoke while praying?’ and was told it is not, since prayer should be the focus of one’s whole attention; the other priest asked if it is permissible to pray while smoking and was told that it is, since it is always appropriate to pray.
-Neil Postman, Technopoly, pp. 125-126
Aside from the fact that the priest story is just funny, I think that the overall wisdom of this quote is simply helpful.
First, in my thinking, I applied this quote to the study of the Scriptures. As a student of the Bible, and as a preacher, I think this is sound wisdom for dealing with the Scriptures. Martyn Lloyd-Jones makes the point in Preaching and Preachers that a student of the Scriptures must constantly be asking questions of the text if he is to find answers; and the kind of questions we ask will largely determine the answers that we receive. John Frame makes much the same point in The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (and in his general points about Perspectivalism; if you don’t know what it is then by all means click the link). He argues, and he is absolutely right, that we cannot come to the Scriptures, or any book for that matter, as blank slates. We come with all sorts of baggage, which leads us to ask certain kinds of questions and seek certain kinds of answers. What this means practically is that we have to train ourselves to ask the right sorts of questions.
Second, in the context of Technopoly, Postman’s point is that we are not asking the right questions of technology; or we are asking the questions in such a way that we only get the answers we want. He says that we are primarily, if not only, asking, ‘What can this do for me?’ But he urges us to ask other questions, or at least to ask that initial question in a more nuanced way. Instead of only asking what something can do for us, we should be asking about trade-offs: ‘What will this thing take away from me? What will I lose in the process? What will it take away from our culture; what will the culture lose in the process? Are the gains significant enough to make the losses worth it?’
Modern education wants to teach, and put a premium on, critical thinking; but as it does so, it asks us to think critically about everything except the instruments by which we are learning: ‘Think critically about the lesson you are reading on your iPad, but don’t worry about actually thinking critically about the iPad itself.’ The only questions the modern technology industry wants us to be asking are the kinds of questions we type into a Google search bar; by no means should we ask questions about the search bar, and the effects the search bar is having on us as we use it.
If questions cannot be neutral, this does not mean that we should not ask questions, or that we should try to make our questions objective (that is futile). It means that we must learn to ask the right questions, which generally means that we should ask a lot of questions, and that those questions should come from every conceivable angle so as to cover various possible nuances. It means that we must remember that our questions are biased, which means that we will often frame questions in such a way as to get the answer we want. We must fight against this tendency.