Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Hypothetical Questions - A Rant

I have been struck by the number of times our President and all of our presidential candidates state that they will not answer a hypothetical question. Now, quite frankly, I am not sure they all know just what that means, but it sure makes them sound kind of stupid.

Why do I say this?

Let's just suppose that the Mysterious Chinese Woman and I were planning on going on a picnic tomorrow. Let's also suppose she asked What should we do if it rains? A reasonable man, such as myself, might say that we could go to a movie instead, or stay home and watch something on television, or go to the bar and drink beer and eat popcorn. In other words, a reasonable man would think about alternative courses of action if, for some reason, the original plan no longer seems like such a good idea. I certainly wouldn't say that I couldn't answer because it was a hypothetical question.

Ask Rudy Guiliani what he will do if he loses the Florida primary and he says "I don't answer hypothetical questions." What does that mean? He has no alternative plans? If he was asked what he would do if he won the Florida primary would he answer the same way? I doubt it.

Now don't get me wrong, I am not just picking on Rudy. It seems everyone is doing it these days. Here is an actual exchange that occurred in a press conference that President Bush was holding:

Q: But Mr. President if you have an invasion plan that you've been reviewing, doesn't that indicate that you've decided to invade Iraq?

The President: That's not the case at all. I mean let's say that there's an alien invasion tomorrow and the whole United States is suddenly forced to fend off hordes of 'saucer people' who want to stop our senior citizens from collecting their Social Security and their Medicare payments. Well if that happened, I'd do whatever it took to defend the interests of our seniors and I hope they'll remember that in November.

Q: Ok...well let's say that there's is no alien invasion. Would we invade Iraq?

The President: Well that's a hypothetical question so I don't think I should answer it. Next question.

I am not even sure what President Bush was referring to as a hypothetical question unless it was, I am guessing here, If there is no alien invasion would we invade Iraq? I also find it interesting that he was kind of able to answer his own hypothetical question of what we would do if we were invaded by aliens.

Now I don't want to suggest that only Republicans play the hypothetical question card.

When Hilary Clinton was asked by Tim Russert if she would support an Israeli attack on Iran similar to the Israeli attack on Syria she refused to answer saying it was a hypothetical question. Again, what does that mean? Does it mean she hasn't thought about the possibility and therefore has no idea whether she would support such an action? That seems a bit scary. Shouldn't someone in her position have at least thought about this possibility and have some idea as to whether or not they would support it? Hell, just say that you have formed an opinion but that it wouldn't be appropriate to reveal it at this time. I can live with that. But to say you cant answer because it is a hypothetical question makes no sense at all. Sometimes it doesn't take long for a question to cease being hypothetical.

Some of you may remember when Under Secretary Sumner Welles was asked "If Russia is attacked by Germany, will she be eligible for aid under the Lend-Lease Act?" Mr. Welles responded that it was a hypothetical question that he could not answer. Three days later the German Army moved into Russia.

After all, aren't many questions, and certainly the most interesting ones, hypothetical in nature? I would think the inability to answer hypothetical questions is a sign of either deviousness or very limited reasoning abilities. Think of it this way. If you asked a chess player what he might do if his opponent played a queen's gambit at the opening you would, I suppose, be asking a hypothetical question. However, if the chess player said he couldn't possibly answer because it was a hypothetical question you might wonder how well he could actually play chess.

In a nutshell, I am tired of people, and especially politicians, who, when asked a simple question of the form If this happens what would you do? refuse to answer by simply saying it is a hypothetical question.

By the way Rudy, the question about what you would do if you lost the Florida primary is no longer hypothetical. Can you answer it now?

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