Stupid Questions

We’ve all heard it said that there are no stupid questions. Most of us have probably said it a time or two in the course of our lives. That said, most of us have probably heard a question or two that really did strike us as stupid after all. Whether or not you’ve actually called out a stupid question by name is, well, …another question, but most of us, I reckon, have thought about a question or two with a certain trace of contempt.

It’s a dilemma. There is something in the nature of a question that leads us to want to say ‘hands off!’ Don’t criticize this! Be nice! There is also something in the nature of a question that leads us to want to put them back in the category of fair game.

…some of them anyway.

Why protect questions? I don’t think the issue is literally that there are no stupid questions. The problem has more to do with how you treat people than how one things about the intellectual merits of a query. Calling something ‘stupid’ isn’t usually all that helpful, to begin with. The real issue here is the likelihood that somebody asking a question is already putting herself in a vulnerable position. The fact that she is asking a question suggests that she is seeking new information, and so it seems particularly unhelpful to respond to such a request by mocking its source. She just said doesn’t know the answer, so why would you mock her? No matter how obvious the answer should be, mocking someone for asking a question seems pointlessly cruel, and very unhelpful. So, when someone is asking a question, it just seems like a good rule of thumb to give maximum charity to their question itself and to any impressions we may form about the person asking it.

There are of course exceptions to this.

It is worth remembering, for example, that sometimes people ask a question, not because they don’t know the answer themselves, but because they have other reasons for wanting you to be the one who actually produces the answer. It is often said of lawyers, for example, that they like to know in advance the answers to any question they ask a witness at trial. One might think of them as using the witness to help them tell a story rather than soliciting new information. We can of course find comparable examples outside a courtroom. In such cases, all our assumptions about the nature of a question and what it says about the person asking it go right out the window. In such instances, we may still wish to refrain from calling a question ‘stupid’, but that no longer has to do with any special kindness to the one asking it.

All of which brings us to an uncomfortable point; whether or not one ever wishes to tell someone their question is a stupid one, one ought to remember that questions are not entirely above suspicion. A poorly framed question can send anyone thinking about it down the wrong path, and some questions can be highly deceitful or at least terribly wrong-headed. Other questions come loaded with so much interactional significance that the information exchange requested pales in comparison to the social dynamics at issue. Either way, questions can pose a whole host of concerns other than just the need to figure out an answer to them. The problem with such questions is rarely that the answer should be obvious. In that sense, the ‘no stupid questions’ principle still holds. Nevertheless, some questions can be highly problematic.

What follows is a list of the types of questions one might want to twice before answering.

Is the list incomplete, you may ask?

Good question!


Complex Questions: Perhaps the most commonly known pitfall in problematic questions would have to be the complex question fallacy (sometimes known as a ‘leading question’ or even a ‘trick question’). A complex question is phrased in such a way as to presuppose an assumption which is itself problematic. To answer the question is to grant the assumption. The classic example of a complex question fallacy is the question; “Have you stopped beating your wife?” A ‘yes’ answer affirms that you used to beat her. A ‘no’ answer means you still are beating her. Either way, answering the question puts you in a bad light, and (assuming you don’t beat a wife, which you may or may not have), your best hope to steer clear of the trap is to deny the terms outright and refuse to answer the question as it has been asked.

The trick to handling a complex question is recognizing it in the first place (and hopefully you will do that BEFORE you have answered it). Once you see it for what it is, it is best to call out the assumption that was embedded in the original question and state your objections to that assumption. This is the reason you are not answering the question.

Don’t be surprised if people sometimes try to taunt you into answering the question after all. It is particularly common in some online interactions to find people will just keep telling you that you still haven’t answered the question or that they are still waiting for it. The goal here is to suggest that your refusal to answer the question is a failure of some sort, the implication being that you either do not know the answer or you are embarrassed to admit the real answer out loud. Of course, sometimes people really do duck an honest question, but a complex question is not an honest question, and it does not deserve an answer. So, you are better off sticking to your guns.

Of course, not every complex question is a direct personal attack as in the example above, but whatever the assumption that is embedded in the question, granting it means something. Usually, that meaning if far more important than the specific answer you may give to the question. Even when the question is theoretical, it really is best to avoid answering a complex question.

Rhetorical Questions: A rhetorical question is a really a statement put in the form of a question. Usually, this is done for rhetorical effect. Let us say, I tell you that student had called me at 2am in the morning to ask whether or not they had an assignment due the next day. I then follow this by saying; “Is that a time to be calling me about homework?” If I do this, I am not really asking if that’s a good time to call; I am saying that it definitely isn’t. My question is rhetorical, and most likely you would understand this, but what if you didn’t? Were you to answer my question by saying; “sure,” and then going about explaining your answer, I am probably going to get frustrating and put you on my do not call list right along with the student.

The trouble with answering a rhetorical question isn’t as sharp as it is with a Complex Question. You don’t end up admitting to something terrible. Instead, you will may find yourself encountering significant resistance to the answer (or even outright hostility as a result of that answer) The person who asks such a question actually assumes the answer is obvious, and if you try to suggest otherwise you are raising an issue they themselves regard as closed. If your answer doesn’t match theirs, then you are in for a long haul.

The trick is to realize when a question is rhetorical.

The challenge to handling a rhetorical question is a lot like that of dealing with a suppressed premise in an argument. Because the implied answer to a rhetorical question was originally thought to be obvious, any subsequent discussion may involve extra stress.

Once you know that you are dealing with a rhetorical question, you have a couple options for addressing it. If you agree with the implied answer, then so be it. Nod your head and grunt affirmation. The conversation will then move on. If you don’t agree, then you should realize your answer will likely be the opening round of an argument, and that argument is a little more likely than normal to be with someone who doesn’t want to listen. One strategy that may help is to suggest that the other person explain their own reasons for thinking as they do, thus spelling out the point they have already made for you. At that point, you will be in a better position to consider their views and respond accordingly. Also, the person you are talking to may feel better about the susequent discussion after having expressed themselves more fully before hearing your objections. Either way, you will understand each other better once the original speaker’s thoughts on the matter have been expressed more directly.

Suggestive Questions: Sometimes the point of a question is really to make a suggestion. “Are you gonna check the expiration date on that milk?” or “Do you want to run a spell-check on this post?” might be good examples. “Are you going to check the oil in the car?” would be another. Putting these suggestions in the form of a question might be meant to leave an out for the person being asked, but in some cases, you could literally translate the question into a statement, a request, or even a command.

In most cases, suggestive questions are no big deal. The phrasing of a suggestion in the form of a question may serve to soften the tone of the suggestion, or it may be clever, or it may be the tip of the passive-aggressive iceberg. Either way, you can usually deal with these questions without too much drama. There is at least one type of suggestive question that can pose real problems, however, the accusatory question.

Accusatory Questions: Sometimes a question is asked for the sole purpose of poisoning the well. This is usually done for the benefit of an audience. When facing such questions, your own answer is quite beside the point. The only reason you were asked is because the person asking the question wants to suggest something that will prove personally embarrassing to you. Examples?

“Is it true that you are a sexual deviant?”

“Are you a socialist?”

“an atheist?”

“Isn’t it true you are only doing this because you are mad about _____?”

Hopefully, you get the idea. Of course, any one of these questions could be asked honestly of some people in some contexts, and depending on the audience or the community in which they operate, the answers may not even be all that troublesome. In other cases, the questions are asked in order to malign someone’s character and demean them in front of others. Depending on the audience, the question alone may be sufficient to give them a negative view of the person asked.

Things just get worse from there!

As the point behind such questions is really to make an accusation, any answer given is likely to be unhelpful. You may be given the courtesy of a chance to deny it, but doing so may actually just strengthen the impression that you are guilty, and in the court of public opinion, answering an accusation may effectively keep a harmful narrative in the news cycle. There isn’t really a clear and obvious way of handling such questions, but it is important to realize when you are facing them. The other person isn’t really asking you anything; they are making an accusation. One tactic you might consider using is to insist that the other person put their own cards on the table and present any evidence they may have in support of the accusation. If you can show that they don’t have any reason to ask the question to begin with, then there is a chance any audience will see the question as the cheap shot that it was. That will get you further than providing an honest answer to a dishonest question.

Diversionary Questions: Sometimes a question is asked for the purpose of changing the subject. The person asking it is introducing a red herring of sorts into the conversation. Diversionary questions can be subtle, or they can be blatant. They can also be used to slow down a discussion and bring a speaker back to a point already covered. Alternatively, they can be used to speed up a discussion and push a speaker to address advanced points before they have covered the most basic pieces of information necessary to handle those advanced topics. Diversionary questions can also just change the subject altogether.

The person asking diversionary questions may believe them to be relevant or they may be very deliberately trying to pull you off topic because they would rather talk about something else. Either way, the trick to handling a diversionary question is to recognize that it will effectively change the topic and refuse to go along with it. Whether or not your refusal is phrased politely may depend a little bit on just how politely the diversionary question was worded and/or the degree to which the questioner insists on pressing their question. It can sometimes work to say that you would like to answer the question later, bu first you wish to finish discussion the current topic. A reasonable person will likely accept this. An unreasonable person may press. Mileage varies!

Start-from-Scratch Questions: One of the hardest things to deal with in the context of intellectual discussion is one which asks a speaker ready to address a complex subject to address one or more really basic points in dealing with that subject. Simply put; you can only cover so much ground in a single discussion. So, if you are starting with the most basic building blocks of a topic, then you may not get to the complicated stuff at all. What to do about it depends a lot on how one assesses the situation.

If the person asking you to start from scratch appears to be sincerely, then the best course of action may be to shift gears and go ahead and discuss the basics. You may not get to the more complex information you had hoped to talk about, but if the person you are talking to needs more basic information, then you are better off covering that anyway. Now if that person is outnumbered by a group reading to get into the thick of complex issue, then you may have to balance their needs and interests against those of the larger conversation. Either way, so long as the question was asked in all sincerity, it should be possible to manage the conversation.

The real problem here is that sometimes people ask start-from-scratch questions, not because they really want to know the basics, but because they mean to make you work for every single piece of information you wish to claim. Socrates did this, and he became a hero to philosophy (though he doesn’t seem to have impressed the Athenian community of his own era). Internet trolls also do this. Most of us just find them irritating. The tactic is akin to sealioning and/or rhetorical questions, but the main point here is that when someone actually knows a topic well asks very basic questions, they are likely preparing to call into question answers we like to take for granted. This can be a great intellectual exercise if everyone is game for the challenge. It can also be a form interpersonal aggression clearly intended to aggravate others and/or to prevent people from forming meaningful conclusions to serious questions.

What to do about a start-from-scratch question? It’s your call. Considerations include the following questions:

Do you think the question is asked in sincerity? Are they really in need of basic instruction? Alternatively, do they openly acknowledge their own intentions for asking such a question?

What are your own obligations to answer questions? Is this your job or are you free to decline the task at hand? How patient are you? How likely is the questioner to try our patience or to listen to your answers?

Unanswerable Questions: Some questions simply cannot be answered. No, this isn’t usually because they are extra profound. It is far more likely that the question is in some sense incoherent. These usually fall into two categories; questions that employ contradictory terms, and those employ vague terms. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” would be a good example of the first. So would; “What color is the sound of a horn?” (though my old philosophy professor insisted the answer to this was obviously ‘blue’.) The second sort of question would include such gems as “is the United States of America exceptional?” or “Are you a spiritual person?”

Questions of the first sort are a bit like complex questions. They cannot really be answered in their own terms. One has only to explain what the problem is. One hand cannot clap by itself. It must at least be clapping up against something or it is not clapping at all. We either need to know what that other thing is, or we should probably just skip the question.

Questions of the second sort can be addressed by trying to define the terms in such a manner as to make a clear answer possible, but people asking such questions are often invested in the enigma of vagaries to begin with. Each effort to spell out what one means by ‘higher power’ or ‘exceptional’ is likely to leave the person asking them unsatisfied with the subsequent answer. In some cases, it might be better to just skip these questions to.

Assignment Questions: Sometimes the problem with a question is not in the question itself; it is in our own inability to provide a serious answer at the time and place in which it is asked. People typically answer them in one of three ways; by answering anyway, by asking for more time to study, or by flat out refusing to answer the question after all.

Those answering anyway may try to finesse the issue by using vague terms or even diversionary tactics, or they may just take a guess based on whatever information they have available. They might acknowledge their lack of confidence openly or they might try to bluff their way through it. Either way, the decision to answer anyway involves the risk of getting the answer wrong, and possibly looking very foolish in the process of doing so.

Asking for time to study-up on the answer to a question may or may not go over well, depending on the expectations of those asking the questions and or any audience present. It’s also worth considering whether or not the time it takes to study up on the answer to a question will be well spent in doing so. In professional contexts, one might be expected to do the work in question and get back to people, but if the discussion is unmotivated by any clear practical interests, then one may be better off admitting that he is not in a position to answer and that additional time is not likely to change this fact. On the other hand, sometimes a good question can send us to google or to a library and the end-result can be be provided later. When this is possible, most reasonable people will accept it.

The hard part to such questions is often admitting to oneself at least that you don’t know to begin with.

Thunder-stealing Questions: Sometimes people ask a question knowing full-well what the answer is and/or that the answer will be forthcoming if they just wait. In at least some cases, te point of asking the question is really to steal the initiative for addressing the issue from the person being asked. Case in point, upon hearing a teacher announce a new essay assignment, and knowing very well that the teacher is likely to announce a deadline and a minimum word count, one student may ask; “When is this due?” Another asks; “How long does this one have to be?” Students may be doing so as part of a genuine effort to get an answer or even because they are overly-eager to get started, but they can also do so as a means of transforming the power dynamic. getting an assignment from a teacher means someone else is in charge. transforming the instructions into an interrogation of sorts can undermine the authority of the teacher and create the impression that the students are driving the conversation.

Conversely, I once a saw a faculty member go through a proposal from administration, asking a series of accusatory question (“How are you going to deal with this?” and “What about___?” The administrator had answers to each question, but each answer came across in a defensive tone. I finally realized my colleague was actually staying a paragraph or two ahead of the administrator on the document, effectively asking questions the answers to which we had already been provided and would have discussed in a few minutes anyway. The point of asking these questions was to dominate the discussion and create the impression the admin hadn’t thought about these things and did so only after being pressed on the matter.

What do you do about this kind of question? Quite frankly, the best answer may be nothing. You just answer them and move on. Anyone aware of the dynamics in question will likely know what is going on anyway, and many of these power games are only as important as you let them be. The biggest problem posed by such questions can be the fact that they involve an interruption, so if you get a lot of them, it can be difficult to keep up, and/or they can disrupt the order at which you meant to move through the issues. If that is a problem, or if it seems like the damage to one’s credibility is getting serious, it may be worth it to claim the floor, so to speak, and ask people to withhold their questions until after one is done with an initial presentation.

Of course, this leaves open the question of what to about isolated thunder-stealers; “are you going to get me flowers for my birthday?” may effectively weaken the power the gesture, but that isn’t a question of handling an audience; it’s a question of handling a relationship.

Um, good luck!

A Comment on Project Chariot

Introduction: The comments below come at the 7 and a half minute mark in a documentary called “Project Chariot.” The film depicts an effort by the Atomic Energy Commission to create a harbor by means of detonating nuclear bombs. Said harbor was to be located just south of Point Hope, Alaska. putting it within Inupiat territory and making it a threat to the Inupiat people of Point Hope and the surrounding lands.

The Documentary was made by Rachel Naninaaq Edwardson.

Another good source on this topic is the book, The Firecracker Boys, by Dan Oneill.

Key Facts: Project Chariot was part of a larger program know as “Operation Ploughshare” which was intended to explore peaceful use of nuclear power including the prospects of geo-engineering through nuclear detonation. Project Chariot would have created a harbor on the coastline of Alaska, just south of Point Hope. Opposition by the community of Point Hope in conjunction with other environmentalists and Alaska Natives helped to shut down Project Chariot, though radioactive materials were left at the target site after the project had been pulled. Many in the Point Hope Community remain concerned about the possible health effects of radioactive materials and the possibility that additional materials may have been left at the site.


“This is supposed to be a push to use nuclear energy for peaceful uses. Now to me, a peaceful use is a joke. I don’t think there is a peaceful use for nuclear energy. There is too much waste and too much damage.”


  • Ernie Frankson, Point Hope Elder and Inupiaq Historian.


Comments: The clip is certainly brief, and Mr. Frankson may have been more concerned with the specific history of Project Chariot than with the philosophical implications of nuclear technology. Still, he has provided an argument on the larger topic of nuclear energy.

Statements: I made a couple minor adjustments to statements 2 and 3, just to clean the wording up a bit for argument analysis.

[1] This is supposed to be a push to use nuclear energy for peaceful uses.

[2] …Peaceful use is a joke.

[3] [There is no] peaceful use for nuclear energy.

[4] There is too much waste and too much damage.

[5] [Project Chariot was unjustified.]

Diagram: I reckon the argument looks like this.



Misplaced Literalism: It is possible to interpret Mr. Frankson’s use of the term ‘joke’ as a literal joke, in which case on might object to the premise on the basis of the fact that it isn’t funny. In context, however, it seems quite clear that the word is used simply to expression rejection of the idea. I think it’s fair to say this approach would be misplaced literalism.

Missing Assertions: It looks like the final conclusion to this argument is unstated. We could probably come up with a few variations, but in context, I think a simple statement condemning Project Chariot is most likely the intended point.

Alternatively, one could suggest a conclusion along the lines that Project Chariot could not have accomplished any peaceful goals. That would be a more modest conclusion, but it probably falls short of the practical goals of the speaker. As someone who would be negatively impacted by the project, it is doubtful that he means only to criticize the goals of the project; he means to reject it outright.

Evaluation:There are two central premises to this argument, 1 and 4.

Premise 1: Given the stated goals of both Operation Ploughshare and Project Chariot, it seems quite fair to suggest the point here was to develop peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Mr. Frankson’s account of the rationale for going through with this seems quite accurate.

Premise 4: The biggest question regarding truth value in this example is probably focused on premise 4. To really do a good job of evaluating the argument, we would have to make a systematic study of the possible benefits and the possible detriments of nuclear energy. Note that this is a much larger theme than the specific effects of Project Chariot. In this clip, Mr. Frankson is not merely condemning Project Chariot; he is categorically rejecting the peaceful use of nuclear energy. This would include the use of nuclear power plants in use today. Different people are likely to assess the total pros and cons differently, and even systematic studies are likely to produce different results owing to differences in source funding and personal motivation, etc.

I am personally inclined ti agree with Mr. Frankson here, though I could not pretend my view of the matter is based on any particularly rigorous study of the subject.

Inference from 4 to 3: If Premise 4 is true, then 3 most likely has to be true (hence the inference between them is deductively valid). If premise 4 is deemed false, then that leaves the truth value of premise 3 up in the air.

Inference from 3 to 2: If the truth value of premise 3 is true, then most likely 2 if true as well, barring the misplaced literalism mentioned above. The language used in these premises doesn’t match closely enough to warrant calling them deductively valid, I think, so perhaps a strong value would be appropriate for the inference bewtween these statements.

Inference from 1+2 to [5]: The final inference from premises 1 and 2 to the unstated conclusion [5] seems strong as well. Given the terms of the argument, the purpose of the project is to generate peaceful uses for nuclear technology. If that is that is not possible in general, or in relation to this specific project, then it is hard to accept the justification for Project Chariot.

Why isn’t the last inference deductively valid? One could possibly suggest the project was warranted on some other grounds. In point of fact, other grounds were offered (such as economic utility), but as Oneill’s book makes quite clear the benefits anticipated by the project were implausible, even when studied closely at the time, and the harms likely to follow the blast, at least to the people of the North Slope of Alaska would be substantial. It is perhaps unfair to base an evaluation of the project on this other data since that is not mentioned in the argument, but if that is the case, the problem applies to both pros and cons, so I think it best to acknowledge only the possibility that other considerations could come into play. Given the issues raised by Mr. Frankson, the inference to 5 seems well supported if not deductively valid.

As I regard the main premises of this argument as true, and as the inferences appear to be highly relevant, I am inclined to think of this argument as sound. The most plausible counter-arguments, I would think would be coming from those who see nuclear technology as more beneficial than harmful. To someone with that view, one plank of Mr. Frankson’s argument begins from a questionable truth value. This would undermine the soundness of the argument.

Final Thoughts: This is a very tiny text dealing with a very large issue. Both Oneill’s book and Edwardson’s documentary are well worth the time.

Note also that a more modest set of premises focused on the specific costs and benefits of Project Chariot itself (rather than the categorical rejection of nuclear energy offered by Mr. Frankson in this particular quote) might avoid the questionable truth value of premise 4, making the argument less susceptible to counter-arguments, but of course, there are reasons to consider more general premises, reasons such as trying to pre-empt similar projects in the future.

Rocky Mountain Way

Introduction: In 1973, Joe Walsh released “Rocky Mountain Way” with his band at the time, Barnstorm. It became a regular feature of Eagles shows during Joe Walsh’s tenure with the band. This is one of the lyrics to that song.

Key facts: N/A


“And we don’t need the ladies
Cryin’ ’cause the story’s sad, uh huh
Rocky Mountain way
Is better than the way we had


Comments: The only thing about this passage that is of particular interest is the use of ”cause.’


[1] “We don’t need the ladies cryin’ cause the story’s sad.”

[2} “Rocky Mountain Way is the better than the way we had.”

[3] [The story is not sad.]

Diagram: This is a simple argument.

2 -> [3] -> 1.


Inference Indicators: The only significant question here is whether or not the word ”cause’ is used here as an inference indicator. If the author is using ’cause to indicate that “the story is sad” is actually a reason for believing that “we don’t need the lady’s cryin’,” then this line actually contains two statements which together constitute an argument in themselves, but of course this is absurd. If anything, the sadness of the story would be an argument against needing the lady’s to cry. Instead, it is best to think of the song as denying the inference itself. We don’t need “the lady’s cryin’ ’cause the story’s sad.” It is the whole notion of the story being sad as a reason to have the lady’s cryin’ that is denied. If pushed, we could sat that the denial applies to the inference itself.

Argument Recognition: There actually is an argument in this stanza, it just isn’t the argument you might expect if you had just learned to recognize ‘because’ as an inference indicator. The actual argument runs something along the following lines.

[2] “(The) Rocky Mountain Way is better than the way we had.”


[3] “The story is not sad.”


[1] “We don’t need the lady’s to cry ’cause the story is sad.”

Meta-argumentation: Oddly enough, this example still uses ”cause’ as an inference indicator, but the inference in which it is used that way is denied by this argument, so it’s usage in this example is just part of the statement denied in the song. Walsh is not using the word to point to any reason for believing any specific conclusion.

Micro-Reasoning: It’s just 2 lines and a missing assertion. I’ll bet Walsh would be surprised to find anyone thought to treat it as an argument for purposes of logical analysis.

Evaluation: The only substantive truth claim here would be whether or not the Rocky Mountain way was better than the way we had, and only Joe would really know the answer to that question, because the assertion is really expressing something about his personal experience and the experience of people around him.

The rest of the argument really isn’t that interesting.

Final Thoughts: Just an interesting example of ‘(be-)cause’ used in a way that doesn’t add up to an argument.

Edna Maclean On Iñupiaq Counting

Introduction: The argument below can be found of page 831 of Edna Maclean’s Iñupiaq to English Dictionary.

Key Facts: N/A.

Text: Edna Maclean, Iñupiatun Uqaluit Taniktun Sivuniŋit: Iñupiaq to English Dictionary, Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2014.

The decimal system is handy because the fingers can be used as counters. The Iñupiaq  base-20 system clearly extends this notion to the toes as well. The Iñupiat counted on one limb at a time, so there were 4 groups of 5, hence the sub-base 5 and the two-dimensional system. The human body may be considered the living model of the earliest abacus or counting board. Even the prototype of the Babylonian base-60 used points of the body to keep track of numbers. The majority of human counting systems are body-based. Some of the Iñupiaq number words clearly reflect their corporal origins. Tallimat, the word for five, for example, is related to the Iñupiaq word taliq, meaning ‘arm.’ The word for ten, qulit, means something like ‘top,’ suggesting that it refers to both of the arms  on the top half of the body. The word for eleven in most Inuit-speaking communities, including some Iñupiaq-speaking communities, means ‘it goes down,’ an indication that one is now counting on the toes. Further evidence is found in the word akimiaq, Iñupiaq for fifteen, which means something like ‘it goes across,’ implying that counting will now cross over an continue on the other foot.

The connection to the human body is most apparent in the Inuit words for twenty. Throughout the entire Inuit-speaking world, there is a clear human association. Most Inuit dialects use the same word for ‘person’ as for ‘twenty.’ The Iñupiaq word for twenty, iñuiññaq, is a word denoting a ‘complete person.’ Inuktitut dialects spoken in Eastern Canada use the word avatit, signifying ‘all the extremities’ of the body. Some have proposed that even the Iñupiaq word atausiq, for ‘one’ is probably also derived from a reference to the human body. Atusiq (or some close cognate variation, such as atauseq) is used almost universally where an Inuit dialect is spoken.

(Emphasis in original)


Comments: This is part of a larger discussion of numbers in Iñupiaq.

Statements: Okay, this is a long one (Sorry).

[1] The decimal system is handy because the fingers can be used as counters.

[2] The Iñupiaq  base-20 system clearly extends this notion to the toes as well.

[3] The Iñupiat counted on one limb at a time, so there were 4 groups of 5.

[4] [This pattern of counting on one limb at a time explains] the sub-base 5 and the two-dimensional system.

[5a] The human body may be considered the living model of the earliest abacus or counting board.

[6] Even the prototype of the Babylonian base-60 used points of the body to keep track of numbers.

[5b] The majority of human counting systems are body-based.

[7] Some of the Iñupiaq number words clearly reflect their corporal origins.

[8] Tallimat, the word for five, for example, is related to the Iñupiaq word taliq, meaning ‘arm.’

[9] The word for ten, qulit, means something like ‘top,’

(suggesting that)

[10] it refers to both of the arms  on the top half of the body.

[11] The word for eleven in most Inuit-speaking communities, including some Iñupiaq-speaking communities, means ‘it goes down,’

an indication that

[12] one is now counting on the toes.

(Further evidence is found in)

[13] The word akimiaq, Iñupiaq for fifteen, which means something like ‘it goes across,’


[14] counting will now cross over an continue on the other foot.

[15] The connection to the human body is most apparent in the Inuit words for twenty.

[16] Throughout the entire Inuit-speaking world, there is a clear human association [in words for twenty].

[17] Most Inuit dialects use the same word for ‘person’ as for ‘twenty.’

[18] The Iñupiaq word for twenty, iñuiññaq, is a word denoting a ‘complete person.’

[19] Inuktitut dialects spoken in Eastern Canada use the word avatit, signifying ‘all the extremities’ of the body.

[20] Some have proposed that even the Iñupiaq word atausiq, for ‘one’ is probably also derived from a reference to the human body.

[21] Atusiq (or some close cognate variation, such as atauseq) is used almost universally where an Inuit dialect is spoken.

[22] The Inupiaq Counting system is based on body parts.


Explanation: The word ‘hence’ included in statement 4 is best interpreted as signaling an explanation rather than an inference. The authorisn’t really using statements 1-3 to prove statement 4 so mas as suggesting a systemic relationship between each of these elements. The wording of statement 4 has been altered to reflect this fact.

Missing Assertions: The final conclusion of this argument isn’t fully spelled out. It has been supplied as statement 22.

Redundant Assertions: These two statements do not exactly mean the same thing, but for purposes of the argument at hand, the differences do not appear significant. Hence, I have provided both with the same number [5].

[5a] “The human body may be considered the living model of the earliest abacus or counting board.”

[5b] “The majority of human counting systems are body-based.”

argargbigargyepDiagram: The diagram for this argument isn’t as difficult as it may seem. The author is presenting multiple pieces of information in favor of a general conclusion. Some of her points can be grouped into sub-themes with intermediate conclusions leading to the main point. She may be talking about the meaning of words, but Edna Maclean doesn’t make use of tricky semantics here. Her evidence is pretty straight forward.

One judgement call that I did make in preparing this diagram was spelling out a statement to represent the final conclusion of this argument. Although it does contain general statements about the role of the body in language in general, it does seem that Edna Maclean’s main point here is that the Iñupiaq counting system is body-based, as she might put it. Since there is no specific claim in the text that quite expresses that, I took the liberty to spell this out as a missing conclusion.

Although I am a little concerned about the semantics of the phrase ‘body-based,’ I thought it best to use her own vocabulary to express this main conclusion, not the least of reasons being that I wasn’t sure I could improve upon that language anyway.

I left two statements out the diagram, because I am not entirely sure how they fit in the overall argument. Statement 20 raises the prospect that the Iñupiaq  word for ‘one’ is derived from the human body and statement 21 says that all the Inuit languages seem to use a similar term. It seems that statement 21 could be used in conjunction with the general pattern which serves as the overall point of the argument to suggest that such consistent pattern must also be derived from body parts. This would suggest adding an argument that runs 21+[22] -> 20, but this would be a minor side point in relation to the arger argument ending at statement [22].  Since I’m not sure that I understood the point anyway, I think it best to leave these off to the side.

Evaluation: Most of these inferences are pretty straight forward. The author keeps providing empirical evidence in support of a range of observations about the role of the body in counting systems in general, within Inuit languages, and specifically in Iñupiaq. I think ‘moderate’ to ‘high’ ratings would be appropriate for most of these inferences, but I’m not going to break each of them down.

Final Thoughts: The basic question here is whether or not Edna Maclean has given us adequate reason to believe that Iñupiaq numbers exhibit a pattern touching on the practice of counting body parts. I believe she has done so.


A Hopi Comments on American Music

Introduction: This story appears in the book, Native American Testimony by Peter Nabokov. It is attributed to Fred Coyote of the Wailaki people. Wailaki and Hopi are two different Native American peoples. This is nevertheless a story about an exchange between a Hopi elder and an anthropologist.

Key Facts: Hopi dwell in a relatively dry region of northern Arizona. As with a lot of indigenous peoples, they have seen their share of anthropologists intent on learning about their ways. The story thus begins with a perfectly plausible exchange between an anthropologist and a Hopi elder about Hopi music and its relationship to the environment. A final twist in the story reveals a completely different point.

Text: Peter Nabokov, Ed., Native American Testimony, Revised Edition. 1978. New York: Penguin Books, 1999. It can be found on page 392-393. Note that the section quoted below begins after several paragraphs of narrative in which the anthropologist in question keeps asking a Hopi elder to explain various songs only to find each time that the song is about water.

And so it went all afternoon. And every time the old man would sing a song, the ‘anthro’ would say, ‘What’s that about?’ And the old man would explain it. It’s about something or other – a river, rain, water.

And the anthropologist was getting a little short tempered. He said, ‘Is water all you people sing about down here?’

And this old man said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘For thousands of years in this country we’ve learned to live here. Because our need for this water is so great to our families and to our people, to our nations most of our songs are about our greatest need.’ And he said, ‘I listen to a lot of American music. Seems like most American music is about love.’ He said, ‘Is that why? Is that because you don’t have very much?’


Comments: Anthropologists take a lot of grief, much of it deserved. Still, the reaction of anthropologist in this story seems counter-intuitive. Hell, I think lots of anthros would be happy to find such a clear and consistent pattern in their notes. Still, he makes a good stand-in for the many non-native voices that have had bad things to say about Native American practices.

Statements: For purposes of this analysis, I have omitted much of the narrative framing and focused on the arguments attributed to the Hopi elder. I’ve taken the liberty of summarizing the first few sentences (and much of the larger text that was omitted here) in terms of one simple assertion (statement 1). I believe this is a fair estimation of the point behind these comments lead up to. I have also taken the liberty of rewriting the final question as a statement (number 7).

[1] Hopi songs are virtually all about water.

[2] For thousands of years in this country we’ve learned to live here

[3] [The reason for the theme in question is] Because our need for this water is so great to our families and to our people.

[4] to our nations most of our songs are about our greatest need

[5] I listen to a lot of American music

[6] Seems like most American music is about love.

[7] [Americans need love.]


Analogy: This is a good example of analogical reasoning The Hopi elder in this story begins with an explanation for the musical themes of his own people and then infers a similar explanation for the American public in general.

Explanation: The word ‘because’ in this argument could trip people up, particularly if they have recently been circling inference indicators in order to help them learn the difference between reasons and conclusions. In this instance, the ‘because’ isn’t really using the statement that follows to prove anything. It is suggesting that the rest of statement 3 is the cause of statement 1. Of course this text still presents us with an argument, but that argument involves a claim about the best explanation for the  central observations made by the anthropologist. Sorting the explanation from the rest of the argument is crucial to getting the argument right.

Redundant Assertions: Statement 1 is a very simplified version of the main point behind much of the text in the actual story.  The narrator, the anthropologist, and the Hopi elder all affirm the truth of the claim (though the anthropologist does so through a rhetorical question). Statement 1 thus expresses the point in each of the following claims:

{1a} “It’s about something or other – a river, rain, water.”

[1b] “Is water all you people sing about down here?”

[1c] “Yes.”

Rhetorical Questions: The question: “He said, ‘Is that why? Is that because you don’t have very much?'” is rhetorical. It has been rewritten as statement 7.

Voicing: At face value, this isn’t even an argument. It’s a story. The argument is plot a development that unfolds within the story itself. The author nevertheless uses the story to voice an argument about mainstream American culture. In effect, the argument of the elder is the argument of the narrator.

Diagram: This is the diagram as I see it.

argI reckon statements 1 and 2 combine to prove 3, effectively telling us that a need for water is the reason for the prominent musical theme. Statement 3 is then used as an anecdote illustrating the truth of 4. Statement 4 is then used as the major premise, taken in conjunction with 6 (a new observation about Americans in general) to prove statement 7.


I figure statement 5 is an effort to provide evidence for statement 7.

This isn’t the cleanest argument structure you could find, but I’m pretty confident about most of it. The inference from 3 to 4 is the shakiest part of the diagram. It’s a big jump, and we could probably imagine a few different ways to look at the relationship between those statements. Still, people often derive a general principle from a single example. They may have unstated reasons for doing so, but this type of inference isn’t all that unusual.

Evaluation: I don’t see fallacies in this argument, and I don’t see deductive validity.  Most of the inferences here provide a little evidence for the conclusion, but they might be considered more suggestive than definitive. The result is a bunch of judgement calls.

1+2 -> 3. The notion that need for water is the best explanation for the musical theme emphasizing it is certainly plausible. We could explore other explanations, and knowing how to weigh them would raise questions not really covered in the argument. Is the argument enough? Hard to say, so I would consider this inference ‘moderate’.

3 -> 4. This is a Hell of a jump. The inference is ‘weak’ at best.

5 -> 6. This would be a kind of argument from authority. It’s a light version of authority, but the speaker is essentially using his personal experience to back the truth of his observation about American music. The strength of the inference thus rests on his authority to report that experience accurately.

Of course, listeners might find that statement 6 resonates with their own experience in listening to American music in which case they might not need an argument.

Either way, the inference is ‘weak’ to ‘moderate’.

4+6 -> 7. Once again the inference is reasonable, but we could probably find other explanations for the prominent theme in American music. What really accounts for the prominence of ‘love’ themes in American music is a tough question, though the Hopi elder certainly makes a plausible case. I would consider this inference ‘weak’ to ‘moderate’.

Final Thoughts: It does occur to me that this whole thing could seem rather petty to some readers. Why is the Hopi elder taking a dig at Americans in general? But of course explicit contrasts between the merits of mainstream American culture and that of Native Americans are very much a part of the history of Indian-white relations. That’s why it appears in Nabokov’s book. Whether or not this particular story is true, we can certainly find numerous instances in which non-natives have taken it upon themselves to comment on the short-comings of Native American culture, and unfortunately numerous cases in which such views informed actual policies with harmful effects.  The dig taken at mainstream American culture should probably be understood in this regard. It is as much an effort to counter-balance aggression from outsiders as it is a direct criticism of American culture.


William L. Iġġiaġruk Hensley’s Name

Introduction: In his autobiography, William Hensley provides the following account of his name. It comes in the midst of a number of observations on names and the changes that non-natives brought to his own people (Iñupiat).

Key Facts: William Hensley is a well respected figure within the Alaska Native community. Among other things, he played a significant role in the politics leading up to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

Text: This excerpt is from William L. Iġġiaġruk Hensley, Fifty Miles from Tomorrow: A Memoir of Alaska and the Real People, New York: Picador, 2009. The quote can be found on page 12.

It was common for converts to keep their Iñupiaq names as well as their new English versions, and to pass both down through the generations.

Thus my birth mother – Clara, or Makpiiq – named me Iġġiaġruk after her father, and also gave me his English name William Hensley.


Comments: Hensley’s has played a substantial role in the politics of Alaska Natives. His book is influential.

Discussion: There are a few themes here, all related to the question of whether or not this passage contains reasoning.

Argument Recognition: The issue here is argument recognition. As the passage includes the word ‘thus’ which is often used as a conclusion indicator, this could be confused with an argument (particularly by logic students who have just been taught to look for such words when trying to identify an argument). As indicated above, the term is not really used in that way here.

Explanation: The key to understanding this piece is asking a very simple question; how likely is it that Mr. Hensley is actually trying to prove that his name is both Iġġiaġruk and William Hensley? (The answer is ‘not at all’.) Instead, he is trying to explain how his name came into being, and at the same time illustrate a little about the context of cultural changes reflected in his own name and that of many of the people he grew up with. Hensley’s audience is likely to assume that his name is exactly what he says it is. So, the point isn’t to prove that these really are his names; it is to help us understand what they mean and how he came to acquire them. The text is accordingly best treated as an example of an explanation instead of an argument.

Inference Indicators: See directly above.

Final Thoughts: Because this is not an argument, the analysis ends here.

David Silverman on Atheist Bilboards

Introduction: This is a tweet from David Silverman (President of American Atheists) defending the practice of placing billboards critical of religious views in public places.

Key Facts: David Silverman is the President of American Atheists which is a non-profit organization promoting the interests of nonbelievers in the United States. Under Silverman’s leadership, American Atheists have put up a number of public billboards promoting atheism and criticizing religion. These billboards have themselves drawn criticism from religious figures and in some non-believers as well. Some of the criticisms have been directed at specific themes and specific statements included in the billboards. Others have been directed against the general wisdom of putting such statements out into the public.

Text: This is the tweet in question.



Comments: Two general points come to mind when considering this argument.

One is the possibility of a double standard in reference to billboards expressing a stance on religious topics. Christians in particular have been accustomed to producing such statements for as long as some of us can recall. The placement of anti-religious sentiments on a public billboard is however a relatively new practice, and it may draw more criticism due in part to the unusual nature of the messages. Simple confirmation Bias may be another factor insofar as the bulk of the public is unlikely to agree with an overtly atheistic message.

A second concern lies in the potential obfuscation of specific concerns about specific billboards. While this particular tweet addresses the issue in the abstract, some of the concerns raised about these billboards have been about very specific details about specific billboards put out by American Atheists, This is particularly true of those raised by unbelievers – whom Silverman presents as the party he intends to answer here.

Statements: The argument is set out as follows. Two missing statements [4] and [5] have been added. [4]  helps to seal the relevance of statements 2 and 3 to the rest of the argument and [5] is most likely the intended conclusion of the argument.

[1] Atheists who object to billboards attacking religion are ALSO victims of religious indoctrination.

[2] Lies deserve death.

[3] [Lies do not deserve] Protection.

[[4]] [Religious claims are lies.]

[[5]] [Atheists ought not to oppose billboards attacking religion.]

Discussion: Issues raised by this argument include the following; ad hominem, Interactional eclipse, micro-reasoning, missing statements, the principle of charity, provincialism, and thought policing.

Ad Hominem: The assertion that critics (atheist or otherwise) of billboards promoting atheism are victims of religious indoctrination is an ad hominem (circumstantial). If there is a non-fallacious way to interpret that suggestion it would be to treat it as a simple explanation to be taken at face value. In others words, it would be possible to simply think of this as an empirical question about the motivations of a select group of people. The second statement in the tweet, however, belies this interpretation as it makes it clear Silverman means to argue with his critics. This is not simply a diagnosis; it is an attempt to undermine the credibility of billboard critics.

Interactional Eclipse: To the degree that this argument constitutes a form of thought policing, it is explicitly an attempt to subvert efforts to engage in critical thinking about the value of anti-religious billboards through appeal to social dynamics. Whatever the value of the argument, any resulting debate is more likely to generate more heat than light.

Micro-Reasoning: As with most (if not all) tweets, the brevity of this argument is a problem, hence the need to supply nearly as many missing statements as those clearly expressed.

Missing Assertions: The intended conclusion of this argument is most likely some statement intended to discourage unbelievers from engaging in criticism of billboards promoting atheism. I have accordingly supplied statement 5 as an attempt to express this missing statement.

I would also suggest an additional Missing Assumption (statement [4] that religious views are lies). If this assumption is not true, then both statement 2 and 3 fail to produce anything of value in the argument.

Principle of Charity: It isn’t entirely clear whether Silverman means to suggest this argument applies to all instances in which atheists prove critical of billboards attacking religion or simply those who do so on principle (I.e. those who object categorically to the creation of such billboards instead of those with particular objections to specific billboards). His wording could facilitate either interpretation, and it is likely those who agree with him will include parties adopting each interpretation.

For purposes of keeping the discussion thoughtful it is probably best to treat this argument as applying only to those who object to such billboards in general. The alternative would in effect amount to a blank check to produce any content (no matter how foolish) critical of religion without fear of counter-criticism from other atheists. That would hardly be a reasonable position, so it’s not the most productive interpretation of the argument to pursue here.

Provincialism: Insofar as this argument seems to be encouraging atheists to be less like religious people, it could be viewed as an appeal to provincialism. Essentially, the appeal here is something along the lines of; ‘this is how WE act” or even “this is how WE should behave.” Well, WE (i.e. atheists) may or may not typically fall prey to religious indoctrination, but that appeal isn’t very cogent.

Thought Policing: One of the more compelling features of this argument lies in its implied comparison with believers. It is not merely that Silverman is suggesting that his atheist critics have been indoctrinated; he is reminding atheists that the conduct in question is unbecoming for unbelievers..This is classic thought policing., which goes a little beyond the normal ad hominem to invoke peer pressures and trigger loyalties associated with group membership. Just how significant such loyalties may be for atheists is an interesting question, but the argument still works this angle. The social dynamics at issue thus overshadow the rational significance of the argument itself.

Diagram: I take it that 2 and 3 are intended (with missing assumption [4] to prove statement 1, which is in turn intended to demonstrate the truth of the missing conclusion (statement 5).

2+3+[4] -> 1 -> [5].


Evaluation: Let’s consider both inferences:

2+3+[4]=>1. The truth of each of the assumptions in this inference would certainly be debatable. It isn’t clear that religious claims are all untrue (much less that they are lies), nor is it clear that lies deserve death (which is presumably a metaphor indicating the discrediting of such claims and a hope that they will eventually cease to circulate). If we assume by protection that Silverman means only protection from criticism (and not protection from coercive sanctions, then perhaps statement 3 fairs reasonably well in the truth evaluation, though a creative thinker could probably find a reason to protect at least some lies.

The inference itself fairs no better. It isn’t clear that objections to the billboards are offered in an attempt to ‘protect’ religion. Nor is it clear that the billboards play any constructive role in advancing the demise of religious beliefs.

If one doesn’t assume the charitable interpretation of Silverman’s intent, the problem becomes still sharper insofar as specific concerns about specific billboards may well address the effectiveness of those billboards in advancing a critique of religion.

4 -> 5: This is arguably an ad hominem (circumstantial) and/or an argument from Provincialism, as outlined above. In either event, the inference would be fallacious. Also, the argument side-steps the possibility that atheists might have reasons to oppose the billboard campaign other than latent sympathy for religious sentiment.

Also, if we do not adopt the charitable interpretation of Silverman’s position, it seems clear that atheists (even those who genuinely hope to confront religion whenever possible) may have a number of concerns about specific messages contained on specifi billboards.

I think the argument has to be considered unsound.

Final Thoughts: In the end, this argument does strike me as a simple effort to engage in thought policing. It effectively urges atheists to support their own camp regardless of any concerns they may have about the specific messages placed on these billboards or the general effectiveness of public billboards as a means of challenging religious views.

A Meme of Race

ctzeorzw8aqoujcIntroduction: This meme uses an observation about three black men to make an argument about the relative significance of race and personal decisions in determining success or failure in life.

Key Facts: N/A.

Text: “3 men in 3 different positions. In America, color doesn’t define your future. Your choices do.”


Comments: I don’t know anything in particular about the history of this meme, or about the specific circumstances of those men pictured in it. It’s probably fair to think of this as one round in the culture wars. The absence of context is of course one of the characteristics of argumentation-by-meme. In effect, this lack of context serves to encourage readers to fill in the gaps with their own assumptions about the issues in question.

Statements: The components of the argument are represented below. Two possible missing assumptions have been added (in blue).

[1] 3 men in 3 different positions.

[2] In America, color doesn’t define your future.

[3] Your choices do [define your future in America].

[4a][Success or failure is best explained in terms of a single cause.]

[4b][If race determined the success or failure in a person’s life, we would expect all three of the black men in this picture to occupy similar roles in life.]

Discussion: This argument raises the following issues; false alternatives, micro-reasoning, missing assumptions, Modus Tollens.

False Alternatives: There are a few ways to model the reasoning in this argument, but it’s tough to get around the presentation of two (mutually exclusive) options as the total universe of possible explanations for success or failure in life.

Micro-Reasoning: As with most memes, this argument reduces a complex issue to an extraordinarily small text.

Missing Assertions: It may be helpful to think of this argument as resting on a missing assumption. I have supplied two different variations of this missing assumption. When either assumption is added, the inference is perhaps a bit more cogent, but the truth value of the assumption is questionable at best. So, adding these assumptions doesn’t improve the soundness of the argument too much, though it may help to clarify the nature of the issues in question.

Modus Tollens: Using Missing assumption 4b as a major premise, statement 1 appears to deny the consequent. Statement 2 could then be construed as a denial of the antecedent. It would take a little rewording to make everything match up, but the essential idea is there.

20161216_173528-copyDiagram: I can think of a several different ways to model the reasoning in this argument. I am presenting 3 of them here:

Option alpha: This approach leaves out the addition of a missing assumption. Statement 1 is thus taken to prove two separate claims, all on it’s own.

Option beta: In this example, missing assumption 4a is added to statement 1. The two together are taken to prove both statement 2 and statement 3. The additional assumption helps to explain why statement 1 might lead to statements 2 and 3, but as this assumption is of dubious truth value this simply transforms the problem from questions about the cogency of the inference to one about the truth value of one of its premises.

Option boo: In this version, statement 1 is combined with missing assumption 4b. The two together are taken to prove the truth of statement 2 (by Modus Tollens) which is then taken to prove the truth of statement 3.

Note: The reason statements 2 and 3 are represented here in the form of a serial argument rather than separate conclusions in a divergent argument is that the missing assumption focuses attention on statement 2 without contributing directly to statement 3. The notion that statement 2 would then provide evidence for statement 3 seems the best way to proceed from there.

Evaluation: No version of this argument comes out sound, because the argument turns on false alternatives no matter how you look at it. In option alpha, the false alternatives leaves conclusion 2 and 3 unsupported by assumption 1, so the inferences are neither valid nor cogent. In option beta, the false alternatives have been expressed directly in terms of a missing assumption, but that assumption is likely false. In option boo, the missing assumption has been articulated in terms of a conditional statement, but that statement too is clearly false. No matter how we set this argument up, it turns on an unrealistically narrow set of possibilities.

Why does every version of this argument turn on false assumptions? Because it addresses the question of what makes the difference in the lives of these men as though a single causative factor will account for the difference rather than a combination of different factors. The notion, for example, that race might make some outcomes more or less likely than others without totally determining the outcome is simply not considered in the text of this meme. So, whether race is construed as a direct biological cause (as overt racists would have it) or a social construction and the impact of social stigmas attached to racial identity (as those interested in social justice might suggest), the meme sets aside any efforts to consider how racial factors could interact with other issues such as class, religion, family background, or personal resilience to produce an account of these different life trajectories.

Final Thoughts: In addition to the sloppy argument, it’s tempting to suggest there is something prurient about this meme. It invites all of us to entertain questions about what makes the difference between success and failure for black men. For most of us, that is a question about someone else, a chance to dwell on the reasons for someone else’s failure. This doesn’t really pose active questions for its intended audience, not about their own lives.

Just for someone else.