Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Severn tools for thinking #4: Answering rhetorical questions

Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.
E. E. Cummings

Everyone likes a rhetorical question, don’t they? Do they? Think about it. Try answering it. Do you think everyone really does like rhetorical questions? Some people do, but everyone? Maybe some people hate them?

You can see where this kind of thinking can take you. It might result in navel gazing, but, equally, it might help us spot some pretty flawed reasoning. Like the surely klaxon, a rhetorical question is an invitation for readers to agree, to gloss over the substance of a statement and just nod approvingly. Some rhetorical questions maybe asked for humorous effect, but others are a warning to the curious.

In Intuition Pumps, Dennett puts it like this:

Just as you should keep a sharp eye out for “surely”, you should develop a sensitivity for rhetorical questions in any argument or polemic. Why? Because, like the use of “surely”, they represent an author’s eagerness to take a short cut. A rhetorical question has a question mark at the end, but it is not meant to be answered. That is, the author doesn’t bother waiting for you to answer since the answer is so obvious that you’d be embarrassed to say it!

Here is a good habit to develop: whenever you see a rhetorical question, try – silently, to yourself – to give it an unobvious answer. If you find a good one, surprise your interlocutor by answering the question. I remember a Peanuts cartoon from years ago that nicely illustrates the tactic. Charlie Brown had just asked, rhetorically: “Who’s to say what is right and wrong here?” and Lucy responded, in the next panel: “I will.”

And it’s not just questions. Arguments are full of lazy reasoning and empty rhetoric – it’s just that the punctuation makes them easy to spot. Martin Robinson address just this kind of slap dash building of false consensus here:

Natasha Devon, the Government’s ex Mental Health ‘Tsar’ said recently that: “Time and time again over recent years young people – and the people who teach them – have spoken out about how a rigorous culture of testing and academic pressure is detrimental to their mental health… Anxiety is the fastest growing illness in under 21s. These things are not a coincidence.”

These things are not a coincidence…

Maybe they are a coincidence; maybe they’re not. What they are, of course, is a convenient narrative, and perhaps testing and academic pressure is part of the problem but other things could be too.

I’m sure you see the point. We all make overblown claims all the time – spotting rhetorical questions and pursuing the line of reasoning ad absurdum is a useful tool to help you see more clearly and think more critically.

Next up, #5 Occam’s Razor

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