Asking the Socratic Questions
A line of reasoning named for Socrates helps us help believers in the strange re-examine their beliefs.
Of all the possible perspectives, beliefs, theories, ideologies,
and conclusions in this world, which of them are beyond question? None
of them. And neither should be any person who holds one of those
positions. People believe all sorts of strange things, and even though
they might be passionate about them, most will still admit that
questioning their belief is an appropriate undertaking. Therefore, we —
as scientific skeptics — have an available avenue by which we can always
encourage believers in the strange to revisit their beliefs. Despite
the fact that we may lack professional expertise in the subject at hand,
we can still plant the seeds of an uprising of logic within the mind of
the believer. One way to do this is through the application of Socratic
Returning to our fake example guys used in the past, Starling and
Bombo, we can illustrate this concept. Let us choose an example
scenario. If Bombo has seen a UFO and believes that it was an alien
spacecraft, it would likely be difficult for Starling to reason him out
of the idea by offering alternative suggestions. People are often
pretty stubborn when it comes to personal experiences that they've
already interpreted for themselves; Bombo saw an alien spacecraft, and
telling him it was the planet Venus would probably be a dead end.
Indeed, even offering lines of logic for Bombo to follow on his own
would probably be refused. So is there any effective way at all of
getting someone to consider a different explanation?
The answer is yes, and it involves getting Bombo to arrive at
alternate explanations on his own. We're all far more prone to accept
our own ideas than someone else's. Starling might well able to get Bombo
to consider the idea that the UFO might not have been an alien
spacecraft by employing Socratic questioning. Named (quite obviously)
for Socrates — the ancient Greek philosopher (also quite obviously) —
the Socratic questions are primarily teaching tools. Just as Bombo
better accepts his own ideas, so do students of all types. Socratic
questioning helps people to take a second, closer look at their own
beliefs, and to apply critical thinking even when they least expect it.
There are six commonly described categories of Socratic questions,
and they're all good. You could familiarize yourself with any one of
them, and you'd have a pretty good chance at changing Bombo's mind, or
that of anyone else who has made a conclusion based on faulty logic. An
adept at all six types of questions would be a formidable reformer of
popular pseudoscience believers.
Let's begin with the first type:
1. Questions of Clarification
In order to engage Bombo's critical analysis of his own conclusion,
we must first make certain that Bombo's conclusion is clear in his own
mind. For example:
Bombo: "I saw a UFO, and it was an alien spacecraft."
A great way to start is to make darn sure that Bombo understands the
full force of what he's saying, which (assuming his belief is invalid)
almost always raises a fatal weakness. Let's see if we can get him to
clarify exactly what he's arguing:
Starling: "Just so I'm clear, do you mean you saw something unidentified, or you actually identified it as something from another planet?"
That one question might be all it takes. Bombo might reflect for a
moment, and then realize that all he can really say is that he saw
something that he couldn't identify. Discussion over; Starling 1, Bombo
0; rationality 1, UFOlogy 0. However such an easy and early victory
would not make this into much of an episode, so throughout, we're going
to proceed as if nothing sways Bombo.
Let us continue to clarify, and keep the focus on the invalid part of Bombo's claim.
Starling: "What exactly do you mean by alien?"
Keep the crosshairs on the target. If Bombo is going to promote his
claim, we want to make sure his only way out is to promote it very
specifically and in no uncertain terms. Socratic questions of
clarification are a great way to do this. You can even ask something
Starling: "Are you saying you found sufficient reason to
conclude that what you witnessed was an actual manned spacecraft from
Of course, in reality, Bombo is likely to blurt out at any time:
Bombo: "What's with all these stupid questions? Do you think I'm lying, or what?"
He might reasonably say that now, or at any time during the rest of
these categories, and it's a perfectly natural response. But if or when
he ever does say this, you've got a perfectly rational answer that even
Bombo can't disagree with:
Starling: "Wouldn't you agree these are important questions?"
Bombo's the one making the outlandish claim; he's always
going to agree that questions clarifying his claim are important. We can
now move on to the assumptions Bombo has made that have allowed him to
make his conclusion.
2. Questions that Probe Assumptions
Remember it's not all about Bombo's specific claim; it's about the
faulty assumptions he has made about the world that give his claim a
disguise of plausibility. So force Bombo to admit exactly what those
Starling: "Sounds like you're assuming that aliens visit the Earth. Is that correct?"
That's one facet of his claim. It has others, so let's look at those
as well. One thing that characterizes many false claims is the existence
of something that actually doesn't exist, like life force, ghosts, or
other things that the claim depends on. Here we can force Bombo to
re-examine his ability to have identified an alien spacecraft:
Starling: "What are the characteristics of alien spacecraft?"
Of course he doesn't know, and of course he agrees it's an important
question. So it's always interesting to see where he'll go from here.
But, in my experience, sally forth he will. Push him harder.
Starling: "Should we take those assumptions as fact; or should we leave them open?"
Remember, when you're putting Bombo in a corner, any direction you
push him is going to put him further into the corner (insisting his
assumptions be immune to question) or you're successfully getting him to
back down (admitting his assumptions should be considered open
questions). Next let's see how he got to the conclusion he did.
3. Questions that Probe Reasons and Evidence
Get Bombo to take another look at the quality of his evidence and the reasons he found it convincing.
Starling: "How were you able to make a positive identification of 'alien'?"
Of course there's no way he logically could have; but manage to, he
did. If he's going to make a specific claim, then he must have some
reasoning or evidence behind it that led him there. That reasoning must
have allowed him to make this distinction:
Starling: "How would some secret new Earthly aircraft have behaved or appeared differently?"
Again, he's not going to know, so he either has to paint himself
further into his corner, or he has to back off and admit the weakness of
his position. Either way, the Socratic questions are making progress.
Since the claim Bombo is making is a factual one, it's therefore
testable. Most likely Bombo has not done any actual testing that led to
his conclusion, and neither has anyone else; but every factual claim
must be able to pass this question:
Starling: "How would you verify or disprove that the UFO was an alien spacecraft?"
Next let's see if we can get him to question his preconceived notions.
4. Questions about Viewpoints or Perspectives
Is Bombo's fundamental viewpoint logically invalid?
Starling: "You seem to have the perspective that anything unfamiliar to your personal experience must be alien. Is that correct?"
This is not a straw man argument. What Bombo saw was unfamiliar, and
he refused to allow the possibility that there might be Earthly things
in the sky that he didn't recognize. He did not conclude:
Bombo: "It's either an alien spacecraft, or it's something I don't recognize."
Bombo: "It's an alien spacecraft."
So it's a fair question. It's also fair to see if he might be simply repeating pop tripe:
Starling: "Have you ever seen anything in the media that might have influenced your identification?"
Or here's a good one. Get Bombo to honestly acknowledge what people
from a different perspective would conclude about his observation:
Starling: "How do you think people who don't believe in aliens might have identified what you saw, if they'd seen it too?"
5. Questions that Probe Implications and Consequences
Pseudoscientific claims often imply facts that, if they were true,
would have tremendous impacts on our world. Think what a cure for cancer
would do if it existed, or the implications if the government were
found to have faked the moon landing. Encourage Bombo to see that his
claim would have similar consequences; consequences that have so far
failed to materialize:
Starling: "What do you think the consequences of this will be?"
Starling: "How would this change our knowledge of the universe?"
Obviously, it would overturn much of what we think we know. Don't you
think someone in science or government would have expressed an interest
if so much of astrophysics were suddenly proven wrong?
Or even the practical implications for the day-to-day guy on the street:
Starling: "Do you think the news or the military should do anything about it?"
If Bombo's claim were true, the whole world would be in a huge fit. It's not; so what does Bombo have to conclude?
6. Questions about the Question
At any time, as mentioned previously, Bombo is likely to attack the
questions themselves. Skeptical inquiry is, of course, the greatest
enemy of falsehood. If that happens, ask something like this:
Starling: "Why do you think I'm asking these questions?"
Starling: "Are these questions making sense to you?"
And finally, the most important question, that you probably will have already had to ask by now:
Starling: "Do you think these are important questions that should be asked?"
...and it really is the most important question. Nobody in the world
wants to admit that their position is so tenuous that it can't withstand
any questions, and so when put on the spot, they'll almost always agree
that the questions which might lead to their position being found true
should be asked. Once in a while you'll get:
Bombo: "No, my position is right, there's no point in questioning it."
...but even though he might say those words, he'll feel disingenuous
even as they're coming out of his mouth. And he will reflect to himself,
either now or later, that his assumptions and perspectives should
be questioned. Because they should. Always. For everyone. On every
subject. If your facts are right, you'll breeze through such questions.
Everyone should welcome them, no matter what your perspective or your
In fact, I'll go out on a limb. If anyone feels that Socratic
questioning is unfair to their particular field, one that the mainstream
considers to be pseudoscience, email me. I'll be happy to do a specific
episode addressing this, and I'll be happy to include your comments.
© 2013 Skeptoid Media, Inc.
References & Further Reading
Fadiman, C. Socrates and the Slave. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1958.
Fogler, H., Gürmen, M. "The Six Types of Socratic Questions." Strategies for Creative Problem Solving. University of Michigan, 13 Sep. 2013. Web. 10 Oct. 2013. <http://www.umich.edu/~elements/probsolv/strategy/cthinking.htm>
Gower, B., Stokes, M. Socratic Questions: New Essays on the Philosophy of Socrates and Its Significance. London: Routledge, 1992.
Hintikka, J. Socratic Epistemology: Explorations of Knowledge-Seeking by Questioning. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Kirkland, S. The Ontology of Socratic Questioning in Plato's Early Dialogues. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012.
Wilcomb, R., Wilcox, M. "Socratic Questioning." Physics Teacher Education Program.
Illinois State University, 4 Oct. 2012. Web. 11 Oct. 2013.
Reference this article:
"Asking the Socratic Questions." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc.,
15 Oct 2013. Web.
10 Jun 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4384>