Good question?

Journalists and scientists don’t have that much in common. Journalists tend to live in the present, often thinking no further ahead than the next day’s headline; we’re easily distracted by a colourful quote or striking anecdote; we often jump from one field to another, becoming ‘instant experts’ after a few days’ mugging up on our new brief. But there’s one big thing we have in common – we’re here to find stuff out.

The art of asking the good question is obviously important if you’re grilling a cabinet minister on The Today Programme. But it’s just as important when you’re planning research. Do you just want to find out whether your new drug works better than nothing – or better than the other treatments already used in this field? Do you want to know what dose works best, or what the side effects may be at different doses? Your study will need to be different for each of these questions.

And it isn’t just the obvious questions. Last week I attended the Medical Journalists Association annual summer awards, where the journalists are all proper experts and no-one would dream of confusing their p value with their confidence intervals. Doctor, Private Eye columnist and comedian Dr Phil Hammond presented, reminding us of the importance of asking the awkward question, such as why mortality rates might be higher in one hospital than another. A question that Shaun Lintern, reporting for his local newspaper in the Midlands, asked about Mid Staffordshire Hospital, with startling results.

This weekend, reading the Wellcome Trust’s summer magazine, I was struck by the research of the University of Oxford’s professor of clinical neurology, Peter Rothwell. Professor Rothwell had begun by asking what happened to all the people with minor strokes who were referred to his unit, who didn’t show up for their appointments. His discovery – that most of them had undergone major, disabling strokes while waiting for their appointment – transformed the way minor strokes are viewed, and treated.

Asking good questions is a necessary first step to answering them. I always find it depressing to listen to politicians arguing, when an admission that someone doesn’t know something is pounced on as demonstration of failure. I’m happy to work in a field when, if I’m asked a question I don’t know the answer to, I can happily answer: ‘I don’t know – but I’ll try to find out.’

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