Gotcha Questions

The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere

The Gotchas are Coming!

Sarah Palin certainly deserves credit for introducing the world to the notion of the “gotcha” question. Given the name, a “gotcha” question should be a question that is intended to trap a person in some devious or tricky manner. This, naturally enough, makes me think that perhaps Palin had in mind something like the fallacy of complex question or a loaded question.

The fallacy of complex question is committed by attempting to support a claim by presenting a question that rests on one or more unwarranted assumptions. The fallacy has the following form:

1)      Question Q is asked which rests on assumption (or assumptions) A.

2)      Therefore A is true.

This version of the fallacy is similar to begging the question in that what is in need of proof is assumed rather than properly
established.Complex question is also often defined as presenting two or more questions as if they were a single question and then using the answer to the single question to answer both questions. The answer is then used as a premise to support a conclusion. This version has the following form:

1)      Question Q is presented that is actually formed of two (or more) questions Q1 and Q2 (etc.).

2)      Question Q is based on one or more unwarranted assumptions, U.

3)      An answer, A, is received to Q and treated as if it answers Q1 and Q2.

4)      On the basis of A, U is concluded to be true.

This is a fallacy because the answer, A, is acquired on the basis of one or more unwarranted assumptions. As such, the conclusion is not adequately supported.

This fallacy needs to be distinguished from the rhetorical technique of the loaded question. In this technique a question is raised that rests on one or more unwarranted assumptions, but there is no attempt to make an argument.  In the context of law, a loaded question is sometimes referred to as a leading question.  The classic example of a loaded question is “have you stopped beating your wife?”

I think it would be quite reasonable (and colorful) to refer to complex and loaded questions as “gotcha” questions. However, this view of “gotcha” questions is based on there being some sort of trap or unwarranted assumption in the question. That is, the “gotchaness” is a property of the question. This does not, in practice, seem to match how Palin uses the term. After all, in defending her mistakes regarding the ride of Paul Revere she claimed that the question “”What have you seen so far today and what are you going to take away from your visit?”” was a “gotcha” question. The question itself does not seem to have any tricks, traps, or unwarranted assumptions built into it. In fact, it seems like an easy and innocuous sort of question. As such, either she is wrong about it being a “gotcha” question or she means something else by the term.

If she is not in error, then the most plausible account of the “gotcha” question is that it is defined not by what is asked but by what Palin answers. To be specific, if she gives a rather bad answer to a question, then it is a “gotcha” question, regardless of the content of the actual question. Presumably anyone can help themselves to this defense. So, if you give an incorrect or embarrassing answer to any question, be sure to insist that it is a “gotcha” question. That will surely show that either you are not accountable for your answer or that your answer is, in fact, right.

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  1. I think you should consider the possibility that a “gotcha” question is not a property of the question or of the result of one giving a poor answer, but an allegation about the intent behind the question. It isn’t leading in the legal sense as it is not impossible to answer correctly, but that the content of the answer is designed to, or very well could trip one up (into giving an unappealing response). By extension it could be defined by the content of the answer being of little importance to the person asking the question as the motivation for asking was the production of an unflattering sound bite. The fact she seems to apply this to innocuous questions is more a function of accusing the interview of having nefarious motives, although the observations about this as discrediting tactic seem spot on.

  2. Wasn’t it George W. Bush who introduced the term?

  3. I am sure when Palin uses the term, it simply means ‘a question about something I got wrong, designed to show me up as the intellectual lightweight I really am”…

    Which is not to detract from an excellent article, by the way…

  4. Paulie Carbone

    “In the context of law, a loaded question is sometimes referred to as a leading question”

    “Have you stopped beating your wife” isn’t a leading question. In the context of law, a leading question is one that suggests a desired answer, not one based on an unwarranted assumption.

  5. It seems to be commonly thought that the yes/no wife-beating question is impossible for x to answer correctly (if ‘x used to beat his wife but stopped’ and ‘x continues to beat his wife’ are both false). Still it seems to me that if x has a wife who he has never beaten (or indeed if x has no wife ??) then to answer correctly (truthfully) he simply has to say ‘no’. Surely a logician or a good lawyer (who should be on the look out for ‘literal truths’) would know that the ‘x has not stopped beating his wife’ does not entail ‘x continues to beat his wife’, even if most would (quite reasonably) assume the two amount to saying the same thing?

    Just wondering…

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