When Questions are not Questions: Asking Loaded Questions
Few people would open a water cooler conversation at work with “Boy, those Republicans/Democrats are a bunch of jerks, aren’t they?” Internet forums, however, launch precisely with these types of starters. Strange, ambiguous and off-hand queries are a feature of the territory, but the underlying problem with these “questions” stem from fuzzy thinking or forceful comments veiled as questions.
Loaded for Bear
When the interrogative is woven with “I can’t believe how anyone could think …“ or less subtle insults, the trap is set. The question is loaded. What may have appeared open-ended is tapered to a statement – agree or disagree. The person who asked is no longer probing an issue, but is likely looking to sort out allies and enemies in a comment and response turf war.
Questions Run Amok
How do questions get so messed up? Putting aside nefarious internet behavior, a lot of questions get derailed through fuzzy thinking. Whether you call them logical fallacies or bone-headedness, the mistakes are both common and not as obvious as one might wish. There are two in particular that I can’t seem to escape. The first is the appeal to the authority. It has the fancy Latin name, Argumentum ad Verecundiam, but I prefer to call it “It’s-true-because-a-smart-guy-says-so fallacy.” I fell for it myself not too long ago.
I recently wrote an article about the Chinese economy. I’m no expert on China or economics, so why did I write an article about the Chinese economy? Quite frankly, I was sick of hearing that we should all start learning Chinese. I do know a few things about language and what makes a lingua franca, but I had another reason: I think I’m right. From all I’d heard and read about China’s explosive growth and how the Chinese would be taking over the world, I developed a suspicion that many of the stories were leaving something out. While researching, I ran across a blog entry that said exactly the opposite of my view. Worse yet, when I read a short bio of the author my heart sank – the guy’s credentials were extremely impressive. It took a few minutes to realize that just because this guy was smart was no guarantee he was right. In fact, when I examined his credentials more closely, I discovered his expertise was not relevant to politics, economics or language. I still think I’m right about China.
Writing in Circles
The other type of fuzzy thinking that I bump into frequently is assuming a conclusion in the arguments. It typically goes something like this:
- Republicans are much better at running the economy.
- Democrats will tax America into the poor house.
- Obama is a Democrat.
- Therefore, Obama will tax America into the poor house.
The argument is in a sense sound, and if you already believe the conclusion it is very appealing, but the problem is, the premises and conclusion are really the same. This is “begging the question.” It does not mean “raises” or “forces” a question to be asked. It’s an easy trap because it is so compelling – it just doesn’t prove anything you didn’t already know/believe.
Ask What You Don't Know
Undoubtedly, some questions are posed by those who have a chip on their shoulder and want to pose a loaded question. Others are frustrated and seek confirmation. Though they appear to be questions (e.g. “Don’t you think …”) they only lead to yes or no responses. These leave readers puzzled: “Yes, I think we should end world hunger/stop the war/reduce the calories in hamburgers”, but they leave the reader asking, “Was that a question?” If we want to see more cogent questions, we need to ask questions that we don’t already know the answers.
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