Answering Questions: Virtue or Compulsion?

I was talking to a colleague about this blog. I mentioned worries I’ve had about email conversations with readers: worries about whether I’m communicating well, whether the readers are really understanding. For the colleague though, something else stood out:

“You sure are generous with your time.”

Am I?

I’d never really thought about it that way before. It’s not like I drop everything to respond to a comment, or a message. I leave myself a reminder, and get to it when I have time. To the extent that I have a time budget, I don’t spend it freely, I prioritize work before chatting with my readers, as nice as you folks are.

At the same time, though, I think my colleague was getting at a real difference there. It’s true that I don’t answer questions right away. But I do answer them eventually. I can’t imagine being asked a question, and just never answering it.

There are exceptions, of course. If you’re obviously just trolling, just insulting me or messing with me or asking the same question over and over, yeah I’ll skip your question. And if I don’t understand what you’re asking, there’s only so much effort I’m going to put in to try to decipher it. Even in those cases, though, I have a certain amount of regret. I have to take a deep breath and tell myself no, I can really skip this one.

On the one hand, this feels like a moral obligation, a kind of intellectual virtue. If knowledge, truth, information are good regardless of anything else, then answering questions is just straightforwardly good. People ought to know more, asking questions is how you learn, and that can’t work unless we’re willing to teach. Even if there’s something you need to keep secret, you can at least say something, if only to explain why you can’t answer. Just leaving a question hanging feels like something bad people do.

On the other hand, I think this might just be a compulsion, a weird quirk of my personality. It may even be more bad than good, an urge that makes me “waste my time”, or makes me too preoccupied with what others say, drafting responses in my head until I find release by writing them down. I think others are much more comfortable just letting a question lie, and moving on. It feels a bit like the urge to have the last word in a conversation, just more specific: if someone asks me to have the last word, I feel like I have to oblige!

I know this has to have its limits. The more famous bloggers get so many questions they can’t possibly respond to all of them. I’ve seen how people like Neil Gaiman describe responding to questions on tumblr, just opening a giant pile of unread messages, picking a few near the top, and then going back to their day. I can barely stand leaving unread messages in my email. If I got that famous, I don’t know how I’d deal with that. But I’d probably figure something out.

Am I too generous with you guys? Should people always answer questions? And does the fact that I ended this post with questions mean I’ll get more comments?

8 thoughts on “Answering Questions: Virtue or Compulsion?

  1. Ray Elberson

    I’m grateful for the time you generously spend writing this blog. I don’t always understand everything, but once in a while I learn something new or understand something better, and I’m the better for it. I’ve never asked a question, but I’ve seldom missed a blog. In regards to questions, you’ll have to figure that out for yourself. Sounds like maybe you already did.

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  2. JKMSMKJ

    Leaving a question at the end of a blog post to get more comments have never worked for me. But seems to have worked for you! 🙂
    I also do not like questions directed towards me left unanswered so I try to answer them as best as I can and on time.

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    1. Madeleine Birchfield

      As for the topic of this blog post in general:

      This blog is has a much smaller audience than some of the other physics blogs on the web, such as the blogs run by Peter Woit, Scott Aaronson, Sabine Hossenfelder before she moved to Youtube, so with the current average number of comments on your posts, I don’t really think that answering questions is a problem for this blog at this point in time.

      It would become a much bigger problem once your blog gets above a certain size. For example, back when Sabine Hoseenfelder was still active in the blogosphere, she couldn’t possibly answer every single question or respond to every single comment on her blog because there would be at least 200 comments on each blog post.

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  3. karlshak

    I appreciate your providing this blog, for me sort of as a way of vicariously reliving an active engagement with physics, and your generosity in responding to readers (and my posts when they resemble something coherent ! :-)). I’d completely understand if circumstances dictated that you had to respond more selectively or quit altogether, but am grateful while it lasts.

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  4. Dimitris Papadimitriou

    There are not many active physics blogs ( with regular posts about interesting – and, sometimes, unusual topics) with hosts that are active working physisists, so in a sense, your colleague has a point that you are quite generous with your time!
    Even for readers ( like me) who are interested in areas of physics that are not quite related with your area of expertise, most of these blog posts are very interesting and worth reading (
    even familiar topics are discussed from a different point of view, sometimes), and the questions that you answer most often are related with your main interests, and that’s understandable.
    As for the quantity of comments, it’s a common secret that has to do mostly with controversial, popular themes ( you know, QM interpretations, black hole information paradox, various QG candidate theories and the like- look at Scott Aaronson’s most popular blog posts! Talking about generosity of time!😀).

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  5. Madeleine Birchfield

    Slightly off topic from this blog post, but related to your current field of work at the intersection of QCD and gravity.

    What are your thoughts on these two papers by Alexandre Deur:
    https://link.springer.com/article/10.1140/epjc/s10052-019-7393-0
    https://link.springer.com/article/10.1140/epjc/s10052-021-08965-5
    which claim that following QCD/gravity duality and taking into account the non-perturbative effects of general relativity would yield effects similar to dark matter in galaxies and dark energy in the cosmological scale?

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    1. 4gravitons Post author

      So, Deur isn’t really using the double-copy or any other sense of QCD/gravity quality as far as I can see. The only link to QCD is that its self-interaction means that you need a non-perturbative approach to notice certain effects, and he suggests the same might be true of GR. (I think most people would not expect this kind of thing to matter because GR is so much weaker than QCD, but I guess his argument would be that the effects being reproduced are small enough to account for this.)

      Since it’s not my field, the only vague comment I can make here is that I had the impression people had already investigated this kind of thing in a properly nonperturbative framework. Numerical GR is most famous these days for LIGO waveforms, but it has been used for many things and I would have thought cosmology and galactic dynamics would have both been on that list. Maybe I’m wrong about that and Deur is the first person to look into this, but I’d be surprised anyway.

      (Although the claim that the homogeneity and isotropy assumptions are smuggling in unnecessary dark energy is a more familiar one. It’s something I’ve given air time to on this blog before (see also a continuation of the story I was forwarded recently).

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