Why You Should Not Be Afraid to Ask an Absurd Question

Why You Should Not Be Afraid to Ask an Absurd Question

Paul Sloane 06/11/2023
Why You Should Not Be Afraid to Ask an Absurd Question

You should not be afraid to ask an absurd question because it can spark creativity, challenge assumptions, and lead to unexpected insights.

This can foster innovation and expanding our understanding of the world.

Why would you ask a question that everyone knows the answer to? The great thinker and astronomer Carl Sagan asked this question, ‘Is there life on Earth?’ But he asked it from a different perspective; from the viewpoint of an unknowing observer far outside the Earth. In December 1990, NASA’s exploratory space probe, Galileo, was due to fly past Earth. Sagan persuaded NASA to point the craft’s instruments at our planet.


Galileo delivered remarkable results. Images of Australia and Antarctica obtained as Galileo flew overhead showed no signs of civilization. But instruments measured oxygen and methane in Earth’s atmosphere, suggesting possible life. The infrared spectrum of light from Earth indicated the likely presence of vegetation. Finally radio transmissions coming from Earth suggested intellient life. “A strong case can be made that the signals are generated by an intelligent form of life on Earth,” Sagan’s team wrote, rather cheekily.

The findings were highly instructive and have shaped how we examine very distant planets for signs of life. The project is described in this article in Nature.com.


The genius Stephen Hawking asked a ridiculous question in 2009 when he sent out invitations. He asked, ‘Would you like to come to a party which has already taken place?’ He held the event. Unsurprisingly, no-one came. He subsequently sent out many invitations. They were aimed at time travellers from any period in the future. Hawking described the whole thing as an experiment which provided evidence that time travel was not possible.

Great scientists, great philosphers and great thinkers ask questions which at first glance appear absurd. But by getting us to think about things in new ways they provide valuable insights.

You should not be afraid to ask an absurd question because even seemingly absurd questions can lead to valuable scientific insights and breakthroughs. In the field of science, such questions often serve as catalysts for creative thinking and problem-solving.

Here's a scientific perspective on why this is the case:

  1. Paradigm Shifts: Throughout the history of science, many groundbreaking discoveries and paradigm shifts have originated from questions that initially appeared absurd. For example, Albert Einstein's question, "What if I could ride alongside a beam of light?" led to the development of the theory of relativity, fundamentally changing our understanding of space, time, and gravity.

  2. Exploring Boundaries: Absurd questions often push the boundaries of current knowledge. When scientists venture into the realm of the absurd, they challenge existing assumptions and explore uncharted territories, sometimes revealing new phenomena and principles.

  3. Creativity and Innovation: Absurd questions stimulate creativity and innovation. They encourage scientists to think outside the box, come up with novel hypotheses, and design experiments that may seem unconventional but ultimately yield meaningful results.

  4. Problem-Solving: Absurd questions can be reframed into more specific, answerable inquiries. When scientists tackle absurd questions systematically, they often break them down into smaller, manageable components, leading to meaningful and actionable research.

  5. Uncovering Hidden Patterns: Even if a question seems absurd on the surface, it might conceal hidden patterns or connections that, once uncovered, can lead to significant insights. Exploring these unusual connections can open up new avenues of research.

Science thrives on curiosity and the willingness to ask unconventional or absurd questions. These questions challenge the status quo, foster creativity, and can ultimately lead to scientific advancements and a deeper understanding of the natural world. As a result, embracing absurd questions is an essential part of the scientific method and a powerful tool for driving progress in various fields of study.

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Paul Sloane

Innovation Expert

Paul is a professional keynote conference speaker and expert facilitator on innovation and lateral thinking. He helps companies improve idea generation and creative leadership. His workshops transform innovation leadership skills and generate great ideas for business issues. His recent clients include Airbus, Microsoft, Unilever, Nike, Novartis and Swarovski. He has published 30 books on lateral thinking puzzles, innovation, leadership and problem solving (with over 2 million copies sold). He also acts as link presenter at conferences and facilitator at high level meetings such as a corporate advisory board. He has acted as host or MC at Awards Dinners. Previously, he was CEO of Monactive, VP International of MathSoft and UK MD of Ashton-Tate. He recently launched a series of podcast interviews entitled Insights from Successful People.

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