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Jan 07 2014

Rhetorical questions, weaker arguments

A propos of nothing in particular, I’ve noticed something lately that rather surprises me. Rhetorical questions make arguments weaker. That’s an over-generalization, of course, but time and again I’ve found that any time I find myself about to ask a rhetorical question, I can usually make a much stronger statement by making it a direct affirmation. Not only does it typically produce a result that’s harder to refute, but it also tends to sharpen my own understanding of the argument I’m trying to make. Instead of leaving an open-ended absence of information, I’m forced to dig in to my own argument and understand better why I think it’s true.

I’ve noticed this especially in my discussions with believers. When I use my habitual, semi-Socratic approach, we talk circles around each other, endlessly. When I leave out the question marks, and stick to presenting my conclusions and my reasons for reaching them, I find that my opponents, if not convinced, at least end up with an uncomfortable lack of counter-arguments, and tend to bail out sooner.

Partly this may be dogmatic conditioning: they’ve been trained to believe whatever is asserted boldly and with great assurance. Also, they themselves tend to habitually use rhetorical questions themselves, and by answering those questions with reasoned, affirmative declarations, and avoiding rhetorical questions myself, the conversation gradually takes on the atmosphere of “the atheist seems to have all the answers.” That may or may not be illusory, depending on what we’re discussing and how much I really know about it, but it does have a subtle emotional impact that strengthens the presentation (at least) of my arguments.

Rhetorical questions, and the Socratic teaching method, have one flaw that makes them unsuitable for effective use in debates: they assume that the person you’re speaking to sincerely wants to understand the truth. In the absence of sincere and open inquiry, rhetorical questions merely open the door for the other person to respond with irrelevancies, dogmas, trollery, etc. What’s more, they risk creating a sense that, having responded to your question, your opponent has risen to the challenge and returned the ball to your court. Especially when the other person is discussing matters they know little about and/or haven’t really thought through, they might (and often do) assume that your argument is defeated by the mere fact that they have any answer at all for your rhetorical questions.

So don’t use them. Don’t give your opponents an easy out. Think through your arguments, and state your conclusions, with your reasons for concluding them, as simply, directly, and assertively as possible. There may occasionally be times when rhetorical questions work well, but most of the time the alternative will be more effective.

9 comments

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  1. 1
    ericblair

    An excellent argument for avoiding the use of rhetorical questions – or is it?

  2. 2
    Marcus Ranum

    Partly this may be dogmatic conditioning

    I used to work with a deeply religious man who I discovered could be fairly easily convinced of practically anything if you explained it with passion and rhythm. Once I realized that I was careful to not expose ideas to him in that particular way (when I was younger I’d get very happyexcited about geek problems and bug my eyes out and wave my arms and whatnot – now I don’t) because I thought ideas should stand on merit not delivery.

    But… Yes, it works. Further, I believe that evolutionary pressure has made Madison Ave become expert at such techniques, to the point where they bleed into popular culture. If you look at a newer James Bond movie or Fast and Furious, the camera tropes and rhythm bear a lot of resemblance to MTV videos, which evolved from advertising, not music. I believe Hollywood’s perfecting this technique explains why Michael Bay is still making movies, and eventually the population may develop a resistance to it the same way our brains learned to filter out fluttering leaves while looking for food.

  3. 3
    Michael Brew

    I ran into the pitfalls of using rhetorical questions on a believer once. It was awful. I used the old “is not stamp collecting a hobby” question to explain why atheism in and of itself is not a religion. His response? “Yeah, sounds like a fun hobby to me.” Not a trace of sarcasm in his voice. At that point I realized he was beyond reason, and he walked away, obviously thinking he’d scored one for Team Goddist.

  4. 4
    Leo Buzalsky

    Hmmm…I guess I am one to often ask questions, but I tend to often respond immediately to my question with my own answer. First, I would suspect such questions aren’t really “rhetorical” in such a case, but I would next wonder if they are much better. So, to borrow Michael’s example, I would immediately respond with a “No, no it’s not a hobby” if I were to ask the same question. What I’m aiming to do is allow the reader (as I mostly blog or interact in online forums) to think about it for themselves — because I see some people having the problem of not thinking too deeply for themselves — while also providing what I see as the answer (and leave my reasoning for the answer as well). I’m not sure how effective this actually is, though.

  5. 5
    Tony Hoffman

    I’m not sure about this. While I can understand wanting to avoid pitfalls, I can say from personal experience that reasoning accompanied with assertiveness practically never changes the mind of the believer.

    I think it’s interesting you would write this at the same time Boghossian’s book on making atheists proposes the Scoractic method as the best way to produce atheists.

    These discussions, I think, are the new topic in atheism. I think we’re all pretty much done with discussing all the obvious problems in a variety of theistic beliefs. The real question for us, I think, is how to non-coercively change the minds of the most believers, while providing a path that doesn’t introduce the opportunity for blowback, etc.

    1. 5.1
      Deacon Duncan

      Like I said, it’s an overgeneralization, but there’s enough validity to it that I think it’s worth pursuing (within reason). I wouldn’t expect to change anyone’s mind right off the bat, but as an immediate goal I think we want to avoid reinforcing wrong beliefs. If you ask me a question, I’m going to try and answer it, and even if my answer isn’t very good, psychologically I’ve reinforced my self-image as someone who defends whatever beliefs I’m defending. But if you tell me what you believe and why you believe it, there’s less of an implicit challenge, and consequently I might listen to what you have to say instead of just waiting for my turn to talk.

      Rhetorical questions have a couple more negative aspects too, now that I think more about it. One of the reasons why a rhetorical question is tempting is that it’s easier. I’m putting the burden on the other person; they are on the spot, and they’re the ones that have to think fast, instead of me. If I don’t resort to that, then I’m the one who has to think harder, but when I think harder, my case gets better. Contrariwise, it’s awfully easy for a rhetorical question to pick up an implicit “you moron!” at the end. “Oh, so do you think God is just like Hitler?” sounds a lot like, “You moron, you’re making your own God resemble Hitler!” even without the explicit insult. The target ends up on the defensive, and again experiences the psychological reinforcement that comes from acting like a defender of the faith.

      That said, I’m not arguing that rhetorical questions are always bad or that they never have any valid/valuable role to play. In a non-adverserial, non-confrontational discussion, where the other person is sincerely open to discovering things they haven’t encountered before, then definitely the Socratic method can be very effective. I’m just saying that it’s easy to be sloppy, careless, and counter-productive when using rhetorical questions, or at least it is for me, and I’m finding that consciously avoiding them seems to be improving the quality of my interactions with believers. I’m not converting them, but they’re finding out that there’s a lot of powerful, solid stuff out there in the skeptical world, and Jesus doesn’t compete very well. That’s some serious food for thought right there.

      1. John Morales

        Um, the Socratic method uses questions, but they are not rhetorical questions.

      2. Deacon Duncan

        That’s a good point, and that may also help illuminate the distinction between questions that are genuinely effective versus those that make one’s arguments weaker. We may think we’re being Socratic when we’re really only taking the easy way out. A good Socratic question is hard to come up with.

  6. 6
    Oob

    Internety types who do run-by arguments, yeah I think you’re right. However, I tend to do most of my debating with people who I know who really do sincerely want to speak of the truth. In those cases, I still fall back to Socratic method.

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