Why stupid questions are important

"What’s the main thing one learns visiting Asia?"  That’s the first question that comes to my mind when reading Megan McArdle’s travel thoughts from Vietnam (one example here, note it is my stupid question, not hers, another more humorous example here).  Almost every word in the question is stupid — "main"?, "thing"? — or it is easy to point out that Asia is a huge, diverse and many-splendored place.

We nonetheless do most of our thinking in terms of stupid questions, whether we like it or not.  It is important to turn stupid questions to our advantage, because in fact that is the main thing we’ve got.  While visiting Asia I have learned:

1. Population density really can simply crush the environment, and such density is a more common state of mankind than even a New Jersey boy might imagine,

2. Asians are in general far, far friendlier in their home environs, which is perhaps a question of emotional security,

3. It is possible to have billions of people, and massive stretches of land, both urban and rural, with virtually no major problems of street crime (what is in fact the most dangerous Asian country to wander around in?), and

4. A mere collective act of will could make the food better in many, many (non-Asian) countries.

I might have read these points in books, but I would not have learned them had I not been to Asia and asked myself some stupid questions.  Most of all I’m impressed by just how much population density matters.


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