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I remember a quote from either scientist or a philosopher to the tune that "In science questions are more important than answers, because if you formulate the right question, the answer either becomes obvious or it can be worked out easily" (I repeat that from my memory, not a written source).

Can you give supporting and rejecting arguments for such a stance?

Incidentally, I can't remember the name of the scientist or philosopher behind this quote, so it would be nice if you mention that too.

  • Make sure that the question is correctly formulated sounds like something a logical atomist or a logical positivist would insist on, you might want to check around that crowd. – Alexander S King Aug 17 '16 at 17:20
  • You seem to have merged two quotes, from Nancy Willard and John Ruskin, the former is a novelist and the latter an art critic johnpaulcaponigro.com/blog/10924/18-quotes-on-questions Asking questions is certainly important, but here is another quip: a fool can ask more questions than seven wise men can answer. And there are certainly plenty of "right" scientific questions answering which is highly non-trivial. So these are those "pearls of wisdom" that may be apt in some situations but fall apart in generality, and can not form a stance. – Conifold Aug 17 '16 at 22:07
  • More properly, it would be said that questions are more important than answers, not because the right question will make right answers easy, but because wrong questions will make wrong answers temptating. – Luís Henrique Aug 18 '16 at 14:21
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I would argue that this is a false dichotomy, so arguments for and against it would be misleading.

The observation is basically an overstatement, and it is due to our current confused notion of Kuhn's three modes of science: pre-science, paradigmatic negotiation, and normal science. From his perspective, these are successive stages in a cycle, we ascend from each into the next and then occasionally fall back to the earlier one when times get tough. But in reality, I would argue that this is an overstatement: they are all taking place all the time, especially in the younger sciences.

Starting at the 'top', in 'normal science' the rules are stable. Anything that does not follow them must be worked out, logically dodged, or put aside for consideration when other results elucidate the approach.

Questions are the important thing, then, because great insight is in finding out where the rules might be hard to apply or where working out some part of the canvas of explanation in detail might allow them to be applied to an open question. If the person working there knew why he couldn't proceed, he could probably proceed. He just hasn't had the insight to diagnose some gap, and if you just ask the right question, he can answer it and move on.

But at the same time, there are positional questions where things can go either way, where each of a number of alternatives must be worked out. Most obviously, these are the basic paradigmatic questions, where we spend whole centuries assuming one answer, say continuity of substance, and then find out it really loses to another, modified atomism, which then loses to another, 'vibrational' occupation of space by empty particles. Obviously, the right answer there, or the right support for it, would save everybody a century, and that can hardly be considered unimportant.

At the same time, these fork-and-find-out questions don't only arise at paradigm crisis points. They are a part of day-to-day science that really does not get credit in the classical definition of normal science as puzzle solving. There is always value in pursuing the less-favored options inside your paradigm. Working out those details can give a reframing or alternative approach that is still within the paradigm, but broadens everyone's toolset. When you are going down those paths, answers matter. Closing tributaries or finding alternatives are done with answers, not questions.

At the same time, parts of various sciences always remain in the prescientific state. There are underlying assumptions that simply fail to make intuitive sense, or to accord with natural philosophical notions. These questions are longstanding, almost perennial, they ask themselves, so the insight is not in the asking.

There too, creative answers bring things like the duality of wave and particle, or the underlying mystery of quantum state into the realm of application. As long as 'only wave' and 'only particle' were fixed for under-analyzed philosophical reasons, the duality remained a spooky, almost religious concept. A lot is gained in creative answers like those of QFT, which attach properties in new and interesting ways, or investigations that prove the underlying philosophical alternatives consistent with one another by injecting alternative notions.

So, yes, overall normal science is normal science, and the best approach to normal science is the most productive answer to what to do next. But there are payoffs for doing the exact opposite in both of the lesser modes of inquiry.

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Going on a tangent towards the origins of science you will find that centuries ago it was called natural philosophy. Although many modern scholars for various poor reasons see a complete separation of philosophy and science historically they were very tightly coupled. It is a flawed endeavor IMHO to decouple the facts we observe about reality from the basic work of understanding the nature of knowledge. This is not to say that one can not improve without the other, but instead that each one benefits from improvements of the other.

Do you mean to ask, Which is more important: the question or the answer? If that is the question you intended I would definitely say the answer is more important based on what we understand about reality.

If you experience nothing at all, you have no context to think about anything. Even Mathematics and Logic are an abstraction of symbolic references to reality. Without having these observational experiences about reality at a very basic level you would not know the questions to ask since you would not even understand the concept of a question to begin with. Therefore everything starts with an answer through direct experience with reality. Only after you have enough experiences can you identify patterns. You are then able to identify gaps in knowledge about facts and patterns that you can articulate as questions. Therefore the answer is more important than the question to an extent. There comes a point though that enough answers are amassed that having more facts doesn't significantly improve ones overall understanding sufficiently. It requires a certain level of intellect, however if the potential intelligence exists, questions become more important, especially when you start to bleed into the interrelated domains of the sciences. Asking the right questions has more value in many circumstances, but again, that requires a certain amount of answers before you can do that.

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