Sunday, January 15, 2017

"Great Question"

Two flatulent practices relating to the posing of questions  have characterized political discourse in recent years, to the disbenefit of the polity.

(1)  Particularly associated with Donald Rumsfeld, though the maneuver antedates him, is posing ‘questions’ to oneself and immediately answering them.  Thus, let P and Q be propositions:  instead of saying simply

P.  Not-Q

the rhetorician draws it out into a monologue masquerading as a dialogue:

Is P true?  Sure it is!  Is Q true?   Absolutely not!

The advantages to the speaker are:

(a)  He gets to choose the ‘questions’, irrespective of whether anyone is interested in them or whether anyone would phrase the question in that manner.   As a result, they are invariably softball ‘questions’.
(b)  He gets to dwell in a bubble of his own voice.  Reporters, voters, maiden aunts, all fade into a kind of Meinongian subsistence;  and the Dialectic collapses to a trivial instantiation in the palaver of a single man.

Disadvantages to the audience include:

(c)  There is usually a substantive concern whether some proposition P be true, or what to do about it, or the like.   Yet by this slight-of-tongue, the bloviator poses instead some verbally related but substantively etiolated variant P-prime, and addresses that instead, thereby providing no real information or analysis, but leaving the impression that he has addressed P.
(d)  You have to listen to twice as much verbiage as for a straightforward “P” -- ten pounds of rhetoric in a five-pound bag.  And in time it gets freaking annoying.

(2)   In politically pre-sanitized settings like “town-halls” and related social Spectacles, an array of voters, carefully selected to represent each of the pressure groups to be pandered to, is permitted to pose a simple-minded, vaguely worded question, thus pushing a given button on the candidate’s library of prerecorded on-message speechlets.   But in a new development, the politician moves to snuggle-up to said Potemkin voter, with an enthusastic

   “Great question !!”

before launching in to her canned response.

The practice, repeated ad nauseam  (cf. SNL’s parody of Hillary Clinton’s use of this and similar maneuvers, in their satire of the Presidential ‘debates’), is distressing  even apart from its smarminess.    For the sort of low-info voter who most needs to be buttered-up and flattered, is least in position to actually pose a “great question”, or even a probing or pointed one.    Nor will, say, a scientist giving carefully-prepared, expert testimony on a complex subject  be patronized from the Congressional panel with a “Great question!”   The domains of “Great question!” and great questions, are virtually mutually exclusive.

Note:  The catchphrase “Great question!” is characteristically contemporary;  but the maneuvre is of longer date.   Speaking to a group,

Nixon would react to the most elementary question  as if he was hearing it for the first time.  He would ponder a bit, congratulate the questioner on his originality,  then give the answer he had given  hundreds of times before,  complete with some figures and a quotation,  as the citizen listened  in utter awe.
-- Stephen Ambrose, Nixon: the Triumph of a Politician 1962-1972 (1989), p. 139


And now, by an unhallowed congressus of these two tricks -- by Beelzebub out of Medusa -- comes the Great Rhetorical Question.  One came up this morning on NPR.

A Republican senator was touting Trump’s intention to
(i)  Increase spending (e.g. on infrastructure and defense)
(ii) Decrease taxes,
(iii) Holding down the deficit.

Now, this nation has been down that road many times before, both in speechifying and in practice;  so apart from the apparent logical incompatibility among those three desiderata, there is a track-record here, for anyone who cares to examine it.   That, however, is beyond the capacity of most pop journalists practicing today, as well as the attention-span of the average voter.    The substitute for critical inquiry, is a mere statement of undifferentiated unwillingness to be convinced -- the lazy-man’s lo-cal substitute for genuine skepticism (anatomized here).   In this case, the reporter’s Clarence-Darrow move was simply to ask, again, how (i)-(iii) might cohere.   But the politician was ready for it:

“Yes -- How can we address the problem of doing the things that need to be done, while holding the line on the deficit, without addressing the question of Entitlements? -- Great question!”

That may or may not be a Great Question, but the reporter had not posed it;  the rhetorician was congratulating himself.   And in so doing, bait-and-switched the subject from the incompatibility of (i)-(iii) to the problem of those pesky Entitlements.  A perfectly legitimate subject of debate, but here snuck-in via a side door.


The considerations above  recall to mind  what, for Europeans, must be the original Potemkin-“question” scam:  to wit, the Socratic dialogue.

The scenario has been solemnly sanctified,  countless times  over many years decades centuries.  The method has been dignified with the title  maieutic (etymologically relating to widwifery), whereby the savant or solon, by adroit interrogation, draws forth from the naïve listener (like a tapeworm from the bowel) innate knowledge  such that all might marvel that he hath.

As a build-up, this is terrific, only… You actually read the texts, and what you see is Socrates holding forth, more or less commendably, and harvesting the plaudits of uncomprehending minions or yes-men.

Thus, a demonstration of the Urysohn Metrization Theorem, via the Socratic method.

Socrates:  Let us, therefore, consider any topological space whatsoever, so that it have a countable basis.  You agree?

Minion: Sho’ nuff, boss!

Socrates: And may we not further stipulate, that said space be regular?  -- Surely that is not too much to ask!

Minion: True dat, Socrates!!

Socrates:  Whence it follows that, our space being regular, for any point thereof, we may define a continuous function  positive at that point, but vanishing outside of a neighborhood of that point. -- You agree?

Minion: Word up dawg, Socrates !!!!

Socrates: Whereupon we may plainly see, that by defining an infinite series of functions from said space, to …

(Socrates drones on;  the minion dozes, but his snores are taken as assent.)

Socrates: Whereupon we may plainly see, that our original space may be smoothly embedded into the countably-infinite Cartesian-product of the cube, which we earlier (you do recall this, don’t you, minion?) proved to be metrizable.  This metric is inherited by our embedded space in the subspace topology, thus proving the theorem.

Minion:  U da man, Socrates !!!

Socrates (beaming upon the evidently innate insight of his pupil):  Great answer !!!

Note:   We have it on good authority from the memoirs of Oxford dons, that any tutor who attempts to apply the Socratic “method” to draw wisdom out of the maws of wool-gathering undergraduates, comes up empty.


  1. . . . and there is never and real answer to anything.

  2. I liked this essay a lot. It reminded me of another rhetorical fallacy which has always annoyed me, but for which I no longer remember the logical operators for correctly formalizing it into a logical proposition. It’s usually in the form of a statement alleging that consequence (Q) followed because agent (x) "allowed" or "permitted" cause (P) to happen.

    It tends to appear in arguments that sound like this: "The company fired you because YOU allowed it and its executives to bully and walk all over you." Or in a more rabble-rousing context: "The levees and flood walls failed because the Army Corp of Engineers and the various levee boards in New Orleans did not adequately maintain them."

    It's a structure that allows the person using it to ascribe fault to someone or something by obscuring causality. Because in both of the examples above the facts of what happened could be reduced to:

    (i.) If P then Q.
    (ii.) P
    (iii.) Therefore Q.

    "If the company fires you, you're unemployed. The company fired you. You're unemployed." or "If the levees and flood walls fail with advent of Hurricane Katrina, then much of New Orleans will be flooded. The levees failed, much of New Orleans was flooded."

    However, the rhetorician turns this on its head and alleges that P was only "true" because random variable (x) "permitted" or "allowed" P to happen, whether intentionally or unintentionally.