October 14, 2006

What was the question?

There's a classic type of question that linguists, logicians, and lawyers often talk about; it's what's commonly called a loaded question. Here at Language Log Plaza some of the senior staffers like to play "the loaded question game" with the new interns. A favorite example of a question from the game is some variation on the following:

Have you stopped acting like an idiot yet?

The problem with loaded questions, linguistically-speaking, is that they are loaded with a potentially damaging presupposition, a hidden assertion that makes the question inappropriate if that presupposition happens to be false. The presupposition in this case is that the intern being addressed in the question has acted like an idiot in the past. If it's not true that the intern has acted like an idiot in the past, then the question is inappropriate; the intern cannot answer the question with a simple "yes" or "no" without also allowing that the presupposition is true. In short, answering a loaded question without major qualifications might be taken as an admission of guilt.

Now keep in mind that questions themselves, even loaded ones, are neither true nor false. The only thing that can be true or false about a question is any presupposition that the question carries, which really only becomes an issue if and when the question is answered. So even though you can get caught off-guard by a loaded question -- for example, while you're nervously answering a barrage of questions from senior Language Loggers or from a lawyer while you're on a witness stand -- you can always qualify your answer or not answer the question in the first place. (I'm no legal expert, but I'd be surprised if a judge would require that you answer a loaded question with no qualification whatsoever. The senior Language Log staffers require unqualified answers from the interns, but that's just because it makes the loaded question game more fun.)

Even if a question itself doesn't appear to be loaded, however, I would still warn all Language Log readers to be on their guard. Presuppositions are everywhere, just waiting for you to be tangled up in their webs. Consider, for example, this story about a survey recently given to parents of students at an elementary school in Jackson, MS. I haven't seen the survey itself, but I gather that the relevant question was something along the lines of "Would you like to get involved with the P.T.A.?" Nothing wrong with that presupposition-wise, right? Several answer-options for how to get involved were apparently provided, like a multiple-choice exam. For parents who can't afford to get involved, or who just don't want to, the answer-option provided was this one:

"No, I do not want to get involved. I want my children to be thieves, drug addicts and prostitutes."

This answer is loaded with not just one but two presuppositions, and so selecting it allows that those presuppositions are true. One of the presuppositions is that there is a positive correlation between non-participation in the P.T.A. and kids becoming thieves, drug addicts and prostitutes. The other is that anyone who chooses not to be involved in the P.T.A. does so because they want their kids to be thieves, drug addicts and prostitutes. The first presupposition may very well be true, though I doubt there's any hard evidence one way or the other. The second, more damaging presupposition is very likely 100% false, however, and so I for one applaud the school administration for taking steps to ensure that something like this doesn't happen again.

Members of the P.T.A. appear to be unrepentant. The survey apparently also included "information on how parent involvement could help in the success of their children", and P.T.A. members say that "the comment in question was included to also encourage parents to view, [sic] and act upon that information." The P.T.A. president, Dr. David Gatlin, says that "he didn't mean to offend anybody, but doesn't see anything wrong with the language he used, meant to grab people's attention."

Dr. Gatlin, you're welcome to come by the Plaza to play the loaded question game with our interns anytime. Just call first to see if we're in.

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at October 14, 2006 07:21 PM