Being that it’s election season, the time-dishonored tactic of making arguments by “just asking questions” has been popular lately, in the pages of this newspaper as well as the official ballot guide for the Nov. 3 election.
Any savvy reader of election guides knows very well that the admonition, “DON’T BE FOOLED!” often precedes foolishness and attempts to hoodwink the voter.
If the person making the argument is warning you against tomfoolery, why, they wouldn’t do that very thing, would they?
Of course they would, and do. Often in the form of faux questions that supply their own answers.
The questions range from repeated, misleading and alarmist questions recklessly associating arsenic and dioxin with our drinking water, to purported curiosity about a “$3,000 to $5,000” fire station window sign (which cost $70, but was donated at no cost to Arcata Fire), to ballot arguments that feign honest inquiry over fire department finances while slipping in made-up “alternative facts” as added freight.
Asking questions is the basis of journalism and justice, science and spirituality alike. The curiosity from which questions spring isn’t just a sign of intelligence, it’s vital to societal survival and evolution.
After all these years, recent experience with elected decisionmakers has raised questions we wish we’d asked them as candidates. And this season, we’ll be posing those hard-learned questions to the candidates.
All that is why abusing the inquiry process by framing arguments as questions for the purpose of sowing fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) has to be called out for the contemptible tactic it is.
“Just asking questions (also known as JAQing off) is a way of attempting to make wild accusations acceptable (and hopefully not legally actionable) by framing them as questions rather than statements,” writes RationalWiki. “It shifts the burden of proof to one’s opponent... one can pull out one single odd piece of evidence and force the opponent to explain why the evidence is wrong.”
Clever rhetoricians with a weak case can bulk it up by spraying out FUD-filled questions with the aim of poisoning the conversation, neutralizing opposition via death by a thousand cuts.
The explanations require vastly more time and detail to make, may be nuanced and require a much longer attention span than the simple, sticky-yet-slimy stealth accusation.
Continues RationalWiki, “The tactic is closely related to loaded questions or leading questions (which are usually employed when using it), Gish Gallops (when asking a huge number of rapid-fire questions without regard for the answers) and Argumentum ad nauseam (when asking the same question over and over in an attempt to overwhelm refutations).”
Answers become irrelevant, as does the weakness or extremity of the questioner’s position. “Additionally, this tactic is a way for a crank to escape the burden of proof behind extraordinary claims,” observes the website. “In some cases, it also helps hide the nebulousness or absurdity of the questioner’s own views.” Questioning and skepticism are essential partners. But skepticism is also big pals with plausibility – that which survives the inquiry process.
Mining those nuggets is the whole point of skeptical questioning, especially when you experience the excitement of the findings changing your mind.
“Asking questions is only a good idea if you are willing to accept the answers to those questions, observes The Logic of Science. “You should ask questions. You should think critically and evaluate what you are told, but your questions need to be based on known facts, and they need to be good-faith questions that are asked out of an honest curiosity. You must be willing to answer them by actually looking at evidence from reputable sources and accepting facts.”