Why Ask?

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You could have learned a lot by watching U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) questioning Michael Cohen during the public hearing before the House Oversight Committee this week (video is widely available). And there’s quite a bit to comment on following the appearance of Trump’s number one fixer. Today I want to focus on the quality of the questions put forward in the hearing.

We saw a lot of lawyers ask really bad questions, as we did during the Kavanaugh hearings. I noticed that many of the committee members do not seem to understand what questions are supposed to do. A real danger in these situations is asking the wrong questions. And we saw loads of examples of the wrong questions during the public hearing. Until AOC got her turn.

The day-long interview with Cohen consisted of lots of rhetorical and leading questions. Rhetorical questions aren’t actually questions; they are a statement with a question mark tacked on at the end. “Isn’t it true that you paid off Stormy Daniels?” simply confirms information we already know (that, yes, it is true). Obviously, Cohen’s opponents wanted to be sure everyone knows he’s a convicted liar who was involved in unsavory and illegal activities. Once this fact has been established in an open hearing though, there’s little need to return to it over and over again, unless you want to appear to be using the questions in a self-serving manner or in an effort to harm the other person—and those are the two biggest drawbacks of rhetorical questioning. Those two motives don’t play well with the public. Rhetorical questions can drive people to reject your view simply because they’re irritated by hearing the same thing repeated so many times. Asking the same rhetorical question 10 times in a row begins to look like piling on and not an exercise in discovering the truth.

A leading question, on the other hand, is trying to get the person who is answering to answer in a particular way that has been pre-selected by the questioner. Leading questions frequently contain unwarranted assumptions, unsupported value claims, and restrictions placed on the nature of the answers. We are asked to choose between yes and no (the either-or fallacy) when it is clear that only one answer is set up to appear to be the better one. People have a natural tendency to choose the positive response, so there’s a cognitive bias that already influences what answer the questioner will get: we’ll tend to choose yes. Both methods of questioning—leading and rhetorical—can rightly be seen as dishonest, devious and ineffective (unless the goal is character assassination or a general obfuscation of the facts). 

AOC’s approach to questioning stood in marked contrast to most of the other questioners. Her questions looked forward rather than backward. She didn’t seek to assign blame but instead sought to identify individuals who can answer the as-yet unanswered questions about Trump’s business dealings. And her questions led to the names of people who can answer those questions. This was the only instance (that I noticed) of answers bringing to light new information that is actionable. AOC’s questions are called “probing questions” because she used her questions to unlock a pathway to more detail or more support for the claims that have been made about Trump. AOC did her homework.

Author: Craig Butcher

Craig Butcher is an award-winning educator who has taught critical thinking skills for more than two decades. In addition, He has worked on Capitol Hill as a congressional aide and has been a top-rated broadcaster.