Cordial Deconstruction

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Ask a Stupid Question…

Posted by Karl Withakay on October 29, 2009

I like to read skeptic and critical thinking blogs partly because I like to see how others have gone about the process of Deconstructing fallacious logic and bogus claims.  I came across a post today on The Gotham Skeptic, Official blog of NYC Skeptics, titled, “Thank You, Mrs. Walkman: OR How I Won a Drunken Argument with Seventh Grade Logic” about a discussion that the post author, The Quixotic Man got into while in a bar, and while reading it, it occurred to me there was a small problem with the chain of reasoning used in the discussion.

Here’s the part of the post that is the subject of my Deconstruction,

“Let’s say I ask a stupid question,” he says to me. “What do I get?”

I initially fight just falling into a commonly used expression, but eventually I relent.  “A stupid answer,” I say.

“Okay,” responds Mr. Euro-Twit. “So if I ask a smart question…”

He pauses, waiting for me to fill in the rest of the statement. “That’s not mathematically valid,” I reply. This throws him. I continue, “Well…. You’re negating an if->then statement. According to mathematical logic, you need to reverse the terms.” A quizzical look back, “When you negate ‘If you ask a stupid question, you get a stupid answer’ you get ‘If you get a smart answer, you asked a smart question,’ not vice-versa.”

Quixotic Man’s logic is basically sound, except that he and the other man were both operating from an erroneous assumed premise, that if you ask a stupid question, that you necessarily receive a stupid answer.

It is possible to reply to a stupid question with an intelligent, well thought out answer or response. The online skeptic community routinely answers stupid questions with intelligent answers every day, often ones intentionally designed to illustrate exactly how stupid the question was in the first place.

The assumption that a reply or answer to a stupid question must itself be stupid is false.  From a strictly Boolean perspective,  the possible outcomes from asking a stupid question are:

A.)  You receive a stupid answer

B.)  You do not receive a stupid answer

Both possible outcomes are equally possible and valid.  Possibility B includes a whole subset of potential outcomes including no answer, an intelligent reply, a punch in the face, etc.

I think it’s important when engaging in logical arguments to remember to examine all initial premises and assumptions to ensure they are valid.  If your initial premise is false, all the logic and reasoning in the world after that won’t really matter.

This is not a negative criticism of The Quixotic Man or his post.  I don’t have enough patience to read blogs I don’t enjoy.  The flaw in the discussion detailed caught my eye, and I needed something worthy of Cordially Deconstructing this week since Fringe is not on due to the World Series.


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