Jun 1, 2015

Questioning Questions

If a spammer and a politician managed to have a child the result could be a loaded question. Questions are as explosive as an IED. They are as slippery as goose shit in a canebrake. They are as misleading as a dating profile. Questions are the best way to tell a convincing lie that I know of.

Let's start off with a simple question:

Why is granite gray?

When you read that question what was your first reaction? Give yourself a brownie point if the first thing you thought was along the lines of "is granite gray?" Give yourself two brownie points if you thought something like "all granite is not gray". You get no brownie points if you immediately started to try to figure out why granite is gray.

All granite is not gray. I live in Texas. I live not far from the Capitol of Texas which is made of granite. The Texas state Capitol building is pink.... Yes, really, the Capitol of Texas and many other state buildings are made of a pink granite found in Texas. 

Granite is not always gray. Some granite is gray, some is white, some is pink. There are many different colors of granite.

So, if you didn't get any brownie points what happened? Well, maybe you just thought that granite is gray. But, maybe it is because the question contains a lie and you fell for it. If you take the question apart it contains the words "granite is gray" not exactly in that order. But, the meaning is clear. I could have phrased the question like this "Granite is gray, why?" Same words, same meaning, different word order.

Why are questions so good at hiding lies? Maybe it is because we have been taught by years of being questioned in school to accept that questions can be trusted. After all, our teachers are not supposed to lie to us.  Maybe questions are so good at hiding lies because our minds skip right past analyzing the question and jump right into answering the question. It doesn't really matter why questions make such effective lies. It matters that we know what they can do and learn to defend against them.

(I run into questions every day that are lies. They are often being asked, and answered, on TV news shows. Makes for a lot of laughs if you are watching for them.)

I'm sure, well at least I hope, that y'all would never be fooled by a question of the form "Hey Joe, are you still beating your wife?" Those words "are you still" and words like them seem like a lead in to a statment of fact. After all, they assert that it is a fact that in the past you did what ever comes next in the question. So the question "Hey Joe, do you still go fishing every Sunday?" has exactly the same form as the previous question, the one that says you beat your wife. I bet Joe would much rather you tell everyone in earshot that he goes fishing on Sunday than that he beats his wife. 

In both the question about granite and the question about wife beating the invalid questions have the same structure as a valid question. But my two examples are lies. 

The most dangerous thing about false questions isn't that they may be directed at you, but that you might just overhear the question and take the lie it contains as truth. After all, you learned a lot in school by listening to the teacher ask questions. And, you have heard millions (maybe more, maybe less) perfectly valid questions in your life. We trust questions to be valid.

Questions are an easy way to slip a lie past an uncritical mind.

I hope it is obvious that I am not the first person to notice this fact about questions. I suspect I am not even the billionth person to notice this problem. Zen Buddhism contains an entire system for training people not to be confused by tricks of language. The system is call koan study. Two koans are so well known in the US that they are treated as jokes; they have even been covered on the Simpsons. I do not feel I'm giving anything away by talking about the famous pair:
  1. What is the sound of one hand clapping?
  2. If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, does it make a sound?
I love asking a classroom full of students the one hand clapping question. The responses fall into several distinct groups. One group yells out "it is some kind of swishing noise". (If you can tell me where that answer comes from I would love to know.) The second group have seen the Simpsons episode where Bart answers the question by clapping his fingers into the palm of his hand. That group will stand there and try to make a clapping sound with their fingers and palms. The third group starts making a clapping motion with one hand. That group gets a very puzzled look on their faces. The last group gets a very hard expression, that group is obviously angry. That group calls the administration and complains that I am wasting their time. That group assumes they know what they need to learn, but they rarely seem to learn very much.

The "one hand clapping" question is just like the question "why is granite gray". It starts out by telling you a lie dressed up as a fact. It says that one hand can clap. It does that by asking you what a one handed clap sounds like. Since one hand clapping makes a sound, the koan tells you that it does, you must be able to figure out what that sound is. Right? No. There is a slight problem, a subtle lie has been slipped in. You see, it takes two hands to make a clap. A one handed clap is not a real thing.

That koan comes from an old Chinese saying, a saying I already said:

It takes two hands to make a clap.

This koan is so bad it isn't even wrong. It gets you to accept an idea that is absurd. But, at least half of an average class will sit there and wave their hands back and forth trying to hear the sound of one hand clapping. They have been completely taken in by the lie in the question. The rest of the class has accepted one of several popular, but false, answers to the question. 

Why were students willing to accept a false answer to a question? Well, the first thing to consider is that all their answers sound sort of reasonable so why not accept them? But, the question makes no sense. How can a false answer seem reasonable? If you accept the question as being a real question that pretty much destroys any mental defense against accepting a ridiculous answer as true. The problem is that most of us deep down inside accept the idea that every question must have an answer. To put it another way:

The existence of a question implies the existence of an answer.

Folks, that is simply not true. But as far as I can tell we all pretty much live by that lie. The truth is that the answer may not have been found yet. Or, the question may simply be invalid. It is much better to realize that an answer does not yet exist or that a question is not a question at all than it is to believe a false answer to any question. But, we do it all the time. 

The existence of a question does not imply the existence of an answer.

I would hate to have to admit how long it took me to figure out that koan. So, I won't.

The next koan on the list is the famous "tree falling in the woods" question. This is much more subtle than the "one hand clap" question. It can be claimed that it is not a lie at all. But, it is not what it appears to be. For a detailed discussion of the question look it up in wikipedia

This koan has the appearance of a simple yes or no question. But it isn't that at all. This question explores the difference between physics and perception and even the basis of reality. Even in its simplest interpretation the answer depends on your definition of the word "sound". Do not ever expect another person to share your exact definition of any word or phrase. You can't even claim that we both see the same color we both call blue. Our retinas are different.

If you believe the physical definition of sound you were told some time in grade school you will say that "Of course it makes a sound". A tree falling down must cause sound waves to be generated and therefore the answer is an unequivocal yes.

If you are of a more philosophical point of view, perhaps you are a psychologist, a neuroscientist, or even a poet, you may say that sound is the mental experience of perceiving those physical waves in the air. To you sound is the way you experience the physical, not the physical itself. In that case the answer is an unequivocal no.

Let's take a jump off the deep end for a moment and assume that you are a friend of Schrodinger and love his cat. Well, in that case you have to ask if there was no observer has the tree actually fallen? Is it really in a superposition of states in which it exists in all possible states between standing and falling? We can't actually say it has fallen until someone goes and looks. If we don't know if it has fallen then no matter what our favorite definition of the word "sound" we have to say that we can not answer the question.

This seemingly simple yes/not question seems to have a lot of answers. My experience is that most of the yes/no questions I've been asked had more than two answers. The possible answers include "yes", "no", "maybe", "I don't know", "I don't care", and "would you mind defining that word?". 

The "I don't know" answer actually breaks down into subcategories:

  1. I don't know but I believe I can find out.
    This question can be solved by a trip to a library or a quick google search.
  2. I don't know and nobody seems to know but with enough work we might be able to find out.
    This is the OMG I found a topic for my Ph.D thesis type of question. If it is good enough you might make a whole career out of this one question.
  3. I don't know but it has been proven that no one can answer that kind of question.
    These are the proving a negative, Russell's tea pot, kind of questions.
I suspect I have fallen short of listing all the possible answers by at least a few thousand, if not more.

I think that the most dangerous thing about invalid yes/no questions is that they are a form of brain washing. Once you have answered "yes" to such a question you have made up your mind. You have committed yourself to the idea that the one and only true answer to the question is "yes" and you stop looking for or considering any information that contradicts your simple answer. The same thing happens if we say "no". Once you have picked an answer it becomes very hard to ever change your answer or to even consider anything that contradicts your point of view. Answering an invalid yes/no question is like shutting the doors of your mind. (Of course, this doesn't apply to valid questions like "you want a beer?".)

It seems that we humans have a deep flaw that makes us uncomfortable with unanswered questions. That flaw makes us vulnerable to truly awful answers just so we can have an answer, any answer. We can be lead to believe almost anything by the use of carefully constructed invalid questions. An invalid question is like dividing by zero in a mathematical proof. Once you sneak in a division by zero you can easily prove that 1 = 2. Invalid, bullshit, questions can be used to convince people of all sorts of crazy ideas. 


  1. This would be a good lecture subject for school. But it might lead to actual thinking and reduce attendance. Apply this to the political events it would be chaos. They don't answer questions anyway, just say a few words and launch into the subject they were prepared to deliver a sermon on.

    Procrastinate Now!

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