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There could be someone who knows even if I don’t. Answerability judgments of three types of questions.

Conference contribution
Authors Bodil Karlsson
Carl Martin Allwood
Sandra Buratti
Published in Symposium conducted at the 6th biennal meeting of the EARLI special interest Group 16,Istanbul, Turkey.
Publication year 2014
Published at Department of Psychology
Language en
Keywords answerability judgments
Subject categories Cognitive science


In daily life and in science we face more or less answerable questions. E.g. “Is it dangerous to use a cell-phone every day or “Does this medicine have side effects?” This study examined people’s judgments of the answerability of three types of questions and if cognitive style and epistemological beliefs affect their judgments about the extent to which questions have (correct) answers. Judgments of questions’ answerability may include considerations about if the question is answerable at all, and if so, how much work it would involve to answer it. As evidenced by various environmental catastrophes, the realism of such answerability judgments, for example in societal developmental contexts, may have important consequences. 124 participants judged 50 “knowledge” questions with respect to how answerable they were by at least one living human being, on a Likert-scale from 0 % (can not be answered) to 100% (can be answered ). The battery of questions had open-ended answers. There were three types of knowledge questions, based on Smithson´s (1993) taxonomy of ignorance: 1) Certain Consensus Questions: Questions where a consensus about the answer was expected, e.g. “What is the name of the Swedish minister of foreign affairs?” 2) Absence Questions: Questions where a consensus about the answer was expected, but crucial information to know the answer was missing: e.g. “What is the area of an ellipse with the minor axis of 2 cm?” (in order to compute the area of an ellipse you need information about both the minor and the major axis). 3) Uncertain Questions: Questions where answers may not be available due to uncertainty in terms of vagueness, probability or ambiguity. E.g. “Is there a safe way to store nuclear waste?” and “How many galaxies are there in the universe?” Individual differences were measured with respect to: Beliefs about the nature of knowledge (Epistemic Beliefs), Rosenberg’s Self-esteem, Memory and Reasoning Competence Inventory Need for Cognition and Satisficers/Maximizers. The three categories of questions differed significantly in perceived answerability. The Certain Consensus Questions were perceived to be most answerable followed by the Absence Questions. Uncertain Questions were perceived to be the least answerable. Mean answerability for the various questions had the shape of a continuum ranging from about 20% for the least answerable to almost 100% for the most answerable. People with the epistemic belief in “certain knowledge”, judged the uncertain questions as more answerable. No effect was found for other individual variables. Conclusion: Participants were able to separate questions with different ignorance qualities. Consensus of extremely high answerability was found but not the opposite. Epistemic beliefs predicted answerability ratings of uncertain questions.

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