“If you want to get the right answer, you have to ask the right question.”

A debate isn’t won or lost when the first question is answered; it’s won or lost when the questions are written.

The first statement can be taken one of two ways. If you’re answering a question, you might use it to ignore the spirit of the question and answer the literal question, perhaps evading the spirit of the question in doing so. If you’re asking the question, of course, it means you have to frame the question in just that way that forces the answer to meet the spirit of the question.

For debates, either formal or informal, how the questions frame the debate will determine how the debate will go for some people. If we debate how much we’ll burden America’s small business owners, we’ll head down one path. If we ask about the long term costs of not taking care of our poor, we might go down a different path. Both might be questions about America’s public health care system and its costs, but the questions elicit very different answers.

This is also why seeing poll results isn’t enough; one has to know the poll questions to understand the results. “Would you vote for the man who hobbled our teachers or the experienced business woman,” isn’t the same question as, “Will you work for the man who’s working to reform state government, or will you vote for another Madison Liberal?” even if both are asking Wisconsin voters, “Walker or Burke?”

That’s why I get upset about the issue of whether both parties in Congress are open to compromise. If the range of allowable compromises is between 12 and 15 on a 1-10 scale, those really aren’t compromises. That’s a strawman argument. That’s why I scoff at statements like, “We shouldn’t have Ebola in this country!” or “Nurses shouldn’t be put at risk of contracting Ebola!” In a ideal world, both ideals are reasonable, but in this real, flawed world, even if Ebola shouldn’t be anywhere, it is some places, and in some Americans’ attempts to help others, they’ve gotten sick. As for the notion that nurses shouldn’t be endangered by Ebola, there’s no practical alternative. Death row inmates might be less valued than nurses, but they don’t have the skills actually to help the sick, do they? Are you heartless enough to suggest that anyone who gets Ebola deserves to die untreated rather than risk the lives of health care professionals? It’s fine to state that nurses shouldn’t catch Ebola or America should avoid risks, but each premise ignores parts of reality that we can’t afford to ignore. Ask the correct question and you’ll realize you have to accept the answer you don’t like.

If you ask me a question that leads to an answer my gut tells me is wrong, before we debate the answer, we’ll debate whether it’s the question to debate.


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