Just asking questions

Sam Harris discusses in an episode of his podcast [1 ] the damage done by public discussions in which actors conceal their true motivation behind a series of orchestrated questions. For example, the statement “cars are responsible for climate change” is easily disguised as a series of straight, indirect or suggestive questions: “why are global temperatures rising? why are people saying CO2 emissions are responsible for rising temperatures? what is the link between CO2 emissions and rising temperatures? how much CO2 do cars emit?”

The interrogator will then dismiss accusations of hidden motives by pointing out they want to learn the truth [2], further public discourse and that they are assuming a neutral position by “just asking questions”. This is an indirect, albeit not very covert way of influencing opinion: if I asked whether you’d like an apple from a biological farm or whether worms gross you out then I just planted the idea in your mind that biological farming might be infected by pests even though I made no such statement.

Departing from Harris’ point, “just asking questions” can influence opinion in a far more subtle way when certain questions are avoided. For example, when in a public debate the moderator throws only softball questions at panellist Alice while asking panellist Bob tough questions, Alice lacks the opportunity to display her acumen and might come across as unqualified.

The mental picture I have of “avoiding questions” in the “just asking questions” game is that of an airbrush painting on a canvas that is partially concealed with cardboard shapes. Even though each question taken by its own seems innocent, all questions taken together reveal a pattern that is hard to ignore; the idea is planted.

An area covered with paint from an airbrush; a disc has been left out and is blank.

Concluding, I personally think that in a world where we want to deal with each other fairly and transparently, questions cannot disguise the interrogator’s motivation and thus no attempt towards that end should be made.


[1] Sam Harris – Ask Me Anything #17


[2] Socratic method

[3] Global climate objectives fall short without nuclear power in the mix: UNECE


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