William Burroughs, the infamous US writer and author of Naked Lunch, had a typically counter-culture approach to seeking knowledge: “Your mind will answer most questions if you learn to relax and wait for the answer.”
If only it were that easy for the rest of us. Instead, to ask a question is harder than it might seem. British Prime Minister David Cameron discovered this last month when the UK Electoral Commission told him to change the wording of a proposed question for the country’s referendum on membership of the European Union.
Cameron’s suggestion — “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?” — was a classic example of what linguists call acquiescence bias. Take the Burroughs route and relax, and the answer to such a question that comes to mind more often than not is to stick with the status quo. Rejecting something is more difficult.
If that was Cameron’s intention, then his plan has been rumbled. The question will now have the extra clause at the end: “or leave the European Union?”. To answer that one, citizens must now make more of a cognitive effort, and that should remove the chance for bias.
Cameron’s linguistic nudging was more subtle than most attempts to bias questions. Lawyers and politicians tend to be fans of more explicit tricks of language. There is the classic loaded question — when did you stop beating your wife? — which presupposes guilt; and the pernicious influence of the hypothetical question. During the 2000 US election campaigns, South Carolina voters were asked: would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?
Researchers have found that the way a question is phrased can alter how people remember incidents. Witnesses asked how quickly cars were travelling when they “smashed” are more likely to imagine that they saw broken glass on the ground than others told that the vehicles simply “bumped” into each other or “collided”. They were also more likely to say that the cars were travelling at higher speed.
Scientists have a particular relationship to questions. Turned into testable null hypotheses, questions are at the heart of the scientific method. Allied with proper experimental design and robust statistical analysis, they can be answered with confidence — or not.
Some answers are known before the question is asked; other questions are genuine calls for information. Some want to benefit the questioner and others to empower those who answer it. How to judge? In all areas — politics and science included — the best questions are simple and to the point. So who knows what the residents of Quebec thought when confronted with the following for their referendum on independence in 1995:
“Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership, within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?”
The ‘No’ vote won with 50.6%. ‘Don’t know’s were not recorded.
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