Thursday, April 8, 2010

Avoiding Questions on Presentations

Suppose we are presenting a paper, and, as usual, our view is obviously problematic. After presenting our paper, we will no doubt have many questions from the audience, and some of them are likely to be quite devastating. So, how are we to answer these questions? Simple, we won't; instead we will engage in the complex dance of avoiding the questions while appearing to answer them or at least make ourselves look good in not answering them. I cannot give a complete list today, but I can sketch out a few things you should do. Remember: Always jump on trivial misstatements, minor errors of fact, or errors of reasoning, blow them out of proportion so that the minor error appears to bear the weight of the objection, and then refute that error with elan.

1. The Simple Filibuster
When faced with a difficult question, a good strategy is to stall and avoid answering by talking at length about a somewhat related topic. Make sure you connect your answer to the question by using at least some of the same words or concepts, but that's all the connection you really need. You might start by explaining that you need a brief digression in order to answer the question or even admit that your digression is not a direct answer. Suppose someone asks about your theory of justification for rights. You can talk at length about the details of English Common Law or the historical origins of rights with reference to these specific details. First, you can appear very knowledgeable. Second, with luck, people will have forgotten the question by the time you finish your digression. Third, this strategy puts off your inevitable failure to answer the question, but, fourth, most importantly, it raises the cost to the audience of asking you any kind of difficult or involved question since it will raise the possibility that you will still be filibustering when the phase of the moon changes.

2. The I-Feel-Your-Pain Filibuster
Obviously, the simple filibuster is not the best solution to your problem, but if you know a bit about the literature on your topic, and, of course, you should know the literature fairly well, you can go on at some length about the traditional problems related to the problem your interlocutor raises. You should restate and explain the person's question at considerable length; you can even, ostensibly, do this for the benefit of the rest of the audience that is not aware of all the background of the question. The more detail you give, and the more sympathetically you explain the problem, the more you gain ownership of the objection and the more it looks as though you are raising the objection yourself rather than being subject to the objection. In addition, this gives you the intellectual authority over the question. Then, when after describing the objection in excruciating detail, you finally agree that it is a significant problem that you cannot fully refute, it hardly matters. You get credit for intellectual honesty and authority despite giving a paper with such a well-known and irrefutable objection.

3. The I-Feel-Your-Pain Filibuster with a Strawman Twist
Finally, if you think you can get away with this, you should add to the I-Feel-Your-Pain Filibuster described above details of a description that are not fully compelling critiques of your position. This is especially useful if some other philosopher has already made this case but made it imperfectly, so that you can attribute this other philosopher's objection to the questioner and then refute the imperfect critique. Warning: Do not do this if the objector is the philosopher whose position you are describing. That would seriously undermine your authority on the question and your ability to describe it as a strawman against your position.

4. The Fake-Reverse Ad Hominem
I've been victimized by this one twice with different levels of deftness. If you do not have a convincing counterargument, you should ask for more detail from the objector. There are four possible advantages to this. First, it makes you look interested, sympathetic and charitable to the objector. Second, it increases the chance that the objector will misspeak in a trivial way that you can then use against him/her. Third, you can then attack the objector's putative alternative theory. Of course, this is irrelevant to the objection, but it distracts attention from that fact and lets you score an easy victory.

Fourth, finally, there might be some chance that the objector will characterize your view in a way that you can construe as an ad hominem attack on you. Here are the two examples. David Armstrong gave a talk at my graduate school arguing that intentionality was defined as whatever caused the mental item and which was the ultimately satisfying result of the item's existence. So, my desire for a cheeseburger is about a cheeseburger iff it is caused by a cheeseburger (ultimately) and if it satisfied by a cheeseburger. Questioning David Armstrong after a talk on intentionality, I noted that his view was susceptible to an objection leveled against behaviorist theorists. If one gets hungry, wants a cheeseburger, but can only afford a cheese sandwich but is satisfied by that sandwich. Then it would appear that one's thought was really about a cheese sandwich, not a cheeseburger. My mistake was using the term "Behavioristic" because then Armstrong, outraged, said, "This guy is calling me a behaviorist." Clearly I was not; I was only noting that his theory was afflicted with a similar objection, but he dodged the question by taking umbrage at the supposed ad hominem.

A more subtle form of this occurred more recently when I questioned David Schmidtz on his justification for property rights. Schmidtz claimed that property rights were ultimately justified by their capacity to allow for people to prosperously and productively live together. This suggested, however, that some people's property could be violated under some circumstances in order to, successfully, lead people to live more prosperously and productively overall. Specifically, I asked how it wouldn't be beneficial overall for the government to select a small percentage of people at random to donate a kidney by force. This would benefit the people needing a kidney much more than it would harm the kidney-donors. And, since it would be done to only a small sample, randomly, it should not undermine everyone's confidence in their own safety or their government.

His response, first, was that you wouldn't want an Inhospitable Hospital situation because this would undermine people's confidence in getting treatment at hospitals. Obviously, this was not my objection, but that was the best response I was going to get. Essentially, he claimed that societies would never put up with victimizing some small subset of the population for the benefit of the society overall. As Bugs says, "It is to laugh." But to distract from the obvious falsity of his response, he asked "What's the theme behind this question?"

I wanted to answer, "Boy meets girl, boy loses girl--wait that's a plot. Love conquers all? Man's inhumanity to man?" But I answered that his view appeared to be like utilitarianism and susceptible to the objections that had been raised to it. He replied, "Well, I've been called worse things than a utilitarian." Everyone laughed, and the question was successfully ignored. I would have pushed on this problem, but he had already used the filibuster to such an extent, that I thought I might die of old age waiting for an answer if I followed up.

So, remember, you cannot go wrong by getting your interlocutor to give you more information or argument, since it is almost impossible that he/she will not say something you can attack. Then you score your easy victory and move on.

This is by no means a complete list of responses you can use, but these ideas can start you on your way to avoiding legitimate questions. Best of luck.

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