Thursday, October 16, 2008

Is it because you're stupid or because you're ignorant?

(audio only)

(h/t to casey)

Howard Stern sent Sal to do a man-on-the-street bit. It's pretty funny. But it doesn't say as much about the voters or their ignorance of policies as it does about the power of a question to trigger a presupposition.

An important point: It's unfair to point this accusation only at black voters. Ask voters of all races supporting either candidate questions like this and you'll get similar results.

When I heard the first question I didn't catch on immediately to what happened. And believe it or not I'm a reasonably smart fellow. I know the difference between pro-life and pro-choice but when someone asks if I support Obama "because he's pro-life" I might very likely hear it as pro-choice. Remember the old gag that asks Where do you bury the survivors? It doesn't work because of ignorance. It works because of cooperative principles.

In the next interview it doesn't sound to me like the person answering the question is taking a stance on stem-cell research. It sounds more like he's taking a stance alongside Obama on a phrase that he doesn't quite understand

Q: Are you for Obama or McCain?
A: Obama.
Q: OK. And why not McCain?
A: Well I just don't agree with some of his…you know…policies. No.
Q: Now Obama says that he's anti stem-cell research. How do you feel about that?
A: I…I believe that's…I wouldn't do that either. An—…I'm anti stem-cell…yeah

He's obviously not anti stem-cell. We kinda need those to become...well, everything. But it sounds like an issue that he doesn't quite get.

I'm not just trying to defend these interviewees. These are embarrassing exchanges. And it sounds like their grasp of the issues is a bit light. But I suggest that their willingness to agree to some of the statements is largely due to the pragmatic conventions in discourse. Questions that begin "is it because X" presuppose that X is true. The same way that a yes/no question can easily trap you into answering in a way that accepts an unfair presupposition. One old standard example is did you stop beating your wife? If I answer either yes or no I've simply affirmed the unstated condition: that at some point I did beat my wife.

The episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, Coast to Coast Big Mouth shows Laura Petrie (Mary Tyler Moore) getting caught by just such a question. I have to go by memory here: talk-show host, Johnny Patrick asks Laura if Alan Brady (Carl Reiner) ever takes off his toupee. I can't remember if she answers yes or no, but it doesn't matter. [Update: Elizabeth's comment sounds about right. 'Oh no, he wears it all the time' sounds just like Laura Petrie.] The form of the question presupposes that Brady wears a toupee. Laura then takes this to mean that Patrick knows about Brady being bald. And she answers accordingly.

There's always the option of responding without agreeing to the premise of the question: 'neither' or 'I've never beat my wife' or 'he doesn't wear a toupee' or 'Obama isn't pro-life' are fair responses. It's just not clear that you'll need to resort to this when you're being interviewed by someone that you assume is asking a felicitous question.


  1. Now, that's gotcha journalism.

    Insofar as it's journalism at all, of course.

  2. As I recall, Laura's answer was "oh no, he wears it all the time."


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