Questioning the Question

"Why don't you like brussel sprouts?"

How many kids have sat in confusion and frustration, struggling to answer that question, because they don't have the mental wherewithal to shoot back, "What a dumb question. How the hell should I know? Why don't you like Limburger cheese?"

Perhaps because of several decades of increasingly aggressive behavior on the part of the news media, many people seem to feel compelled to answer any question put to them, especially with television cameras thrust into their faces.

While some (too few) might occasionally decline to answer because they feel the question too intrusive, few ever bother to first make a determination as to whether the question even makes any sense.

Here's one example from a recent Pentagon briefing on the Afghani situation:

Reporter: Have you ruled out the use of additional U.S. ground forces in Kandahar?

The official in question hemmed and hawed, spit out a few sound bites, and generally failed to answer this question the way he should have. I've watched countless interviewees try to  handle the "Have you ruled out…?" question without ever throwing it back as an idiotic question not worthy of comment, to wit:

"What a dumb question. How do you think we'd come to a decision like that? Do you think someone would say, By the way, no matter what ever happens, we won't send in more troops? We don't rule anything out, ever, because we can't predict what will be necessary. I can tell you that, at the present time, we do not anticipate sending in more troops."

In other words, what's the point of trying to answer a question that makes no sense?

Last year a debate raged as to whether Tiger Woods had achieved golf's "Grand Slam" of winning all four major tournaments. That he'd won all four in a row was beyond question, but what triggered the controversy was that he'd done it across two seasons instead of in a single season. Talking heads ranted and raved about it for many weeks in nearly every newspaper, magazine and broadcast medium.

What precious few of them ever said was this: "What a dumb question. There is no official definition of a Grand Slam. A reporter made up the term many years ago. The feat was what it was, so what are we arguing about…what to call it? Call it whatever the hell you want."

After Mark McGwire hit his 70th homer, a reporter at the post-game press conference asked him, "Is this the greatest day of your life?" McGwire hemmed and hawed, but what he should have said was, "IF you want to ask a question, ask a question. Don't put words in my mouth."

On CNN's "Crossfire" talk show, the hosts all-too-frequently like to ask questions like this: "In yesterday's Washington Post, Joe Blow, who is a member of your own party — your own party! —disagreed with you on campaign finance reform. How do you explain that? He's in your own party!" I've yet to hear anyone say, "What a dumb question, Bill. There are 42 million people in my party. You want them all to agree with me?" Or, better yet, "Well, Bill, I'll tell you. Joe Blow is just plain wrong."

Instead, nearly everybody tries to squirm out of the fix they think they're in, because they take the question at face value.

Two years ago ESPN got a national debate going when they announced they were going to compile a list of the 100 greatest athletes of the 20th century, and announce them one at a time, starting with #100.

It seemed like everyone alive who'd ever watched so much as a ping pong tournament on television was taking a position on who would be #1. Conversations went a lot like this:

"Babe Ruth, because he revolutionized the game of baseball."

"Yer nuts. It was Michael Jordan, because he could carry an entire team to three championships."

"Fuhgeddaboudit. Wayne Gretsky, on account of all the records he got."

"Whadda you, kiddin' me? What about Mark Spitz? Five world records and five gold medals in one Olympics!"

"Bob Beamon, because he shattered the old long jump record by an almost impossible margin."

"Nope. It was Jim Thorpe, because he excelled in so many different sports."

"Arnold Palmer…

"Roger Bannister…"

And so on and so on. In other words, people weren't really arguing about who was the greatest athlete; they were arguing about what the criteria should be.

Because ESPN didn't define clear criteria. They just threw out the question. And instead of people saying, "Hey, what did you mean by that?" they just took it at face value and let rip with their arguments.

None of which made much sense. And when (gulp) racehorses appeared on the list along with bicyclists and soccer players, the debate began to die down as a lot of people realized that the ESPN guys were coming from a very different place and that the question as asked was fairly meaningless. How can you possibly decide between Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan unless you lay down a few guidelines?

How a question is formed has a huge impact on how the recipient perceives he's supposed to answer, often to the detriment of any useful information that might have been derived. A few years ago someone asked me, "How come there's a desert just over the pass from Los Angeles?"

That was a good question, and I strained to try to answer it: How was it possible that a place as hot and arid as Palm Springs could exist in such close proximity to such a garden spot of mild weather and lush vegetation as Los Angeles?

Then I realized that what was throwing me was the form of the question. The real question should have been, "How is it possible for a lush garden spot such as Los Angeles to exist where it does when the rest of the entire southwestern United States is one gigantic desert?"

And immediately it becomes evident that L.A.'s proximity to the ocean and the mountains separating it from Palm Springs is what makes it a non-desert.

We often don't question the question enough before we jump to answer it. The old classic is "When did you stop beating your wife?" but there are more subtle examples to which we fall prey.

A witness in a trial is asked, "Why didn't you grab a 2-by-4 from the junk pile just down the street and use the spare tire to give it leverage so you could have lifted the rear end of the car off the guy who was pinned?" The witness then struggles to come up with all sorts of reasons why he didn't do that when the fact is he just didn't think of it.

"How come you didn't remember…?"

"What was so hard about adding up four simple numbers?"

I remember in business meetings people who would repeatedly raise objections to proposed solutions to a problem. Every time we were on the verge of making a decision we'd hear, "If we do that, how do we handle Joe Blow?" So we'd go the other way, and hear, "If we do that, how do we handle [someone else]?"

Around and around we'd go, each time encountering the unanswerable "What about so-and-so?"

All because nobody wanted to say, "What a dumb question. Either way, somebody is going to be unhappy. Let's pick which one it's going to be and get on with it."

I got a survey from the Republican Party several years ago that had a question roughly along these lines: "Do you think that [deleted] should be given the chance to try to clean up the economic mess left by Democratic tax-and-spend policies?" A yes-or-no check box was provided. I remember some months later reading that this survey proved the American people were overwhelmingly in favor of Mr. [deleted] in the next election.

Never…never!…accept the results of a poll unless you see the exact questions that were asked.

Question the questions. It will save you a lot of time and sharpen your thinking.

 


from: A Practical Guide for Everyday Living, by Lee Gruenfeld
* © Copyright 1996-2001 by Steeplechase Run, Inc. - All Rights Reserved

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