What makes a good question? 8 qualities in 4 groups

Peter White, 2019


I. Scientifically important


Generality:  interesting across taxa and ecosystems, though the answer could be a function of this variation (if so, can this variation be incorporated in the model) or be universal (that is, true for all species or all ecosystems)


Centrality:  involves basic mechanisms, key parameters, first principles, and quantities that can be measured anywhere, and has implications for many other questions; emerges from conceptual base


II. Elegant and New


Simplicity:  Elegantly reduces complexity to first principles and fundamental drivers; isolates a few of many factors and there controls for others; “as simple as possible, but not simpler” (Einstein reflecting on Occam’s Razor)


Novelty:  Opens new doors and thus makes a break through; recasts and explains previous conflicts and provides new explanations for previously documented patterns


III. Clear


Well-reasoned and Defensible: Easily understood and defended as an argument, including clarity about assumptions, subsetting factors, and preconditions; therefore, complete as an argument


Answerability:  Formulated in a way that leads to a test and answer, whether aimed at correlation or causation; the answer can be qualitative or quantitative


IV. Solves Big Problems


Relevant:  Has broad implications for policy; results lead to policy


Criticality: Solves important problems that are critical to human well-being, biodiversity, or sustainability in the human-nature relationship