Casting doubt and conspiracies: asking questions in the Evolution Wars

The end of Aristotle’s The Art of Rhetoric provides an outline of what the philosopher deemed to be useful methods for concluding a speech. This includes challenging a rival’s case with such questions as, “What has my opponent proved?”1 These sorts of queries, he instructed, are to be posed rhetorically in an effort to attack a competitor, which can then be followed by an overview of the speechmaker’s own central ideas. While Aristotle’s Rhetoric had an enormous historical impact on theories of oration and notions of what is persuasive, its brief advice on the use of rhetorical questions is relatively scant. Despite this, the communicative effects of rhetorical queries have gone on to become an important focus for 20th- and 21st-century propaganda and persuasion research, while such questions have often been utilized in contemporary advertising campaigns.2 In many ways, the primary research findings concerning these questions are encapsulated in the following account provided by the advertising veteran J. Scott Armstrong. “I was sitting in a lecture and struggling to stay awake,” notes Armstrong. “Then the lecturer asked a question. It jolted me awake. The lecturer then went on to answer his own question.”3 As this succinct narrative relates, rhetorical questions have been found to heighten learning and message involvement when an audience lacks the motivation to pay attention.4 Our understanding of these outcomes have been further illuminated by the Elaboration Likelihood Model, which has identified that rhetorical questions can prompt reflection about topics when elaboration is low but may have differing impacts in high-elaboration contexts.5 Along with studying these questions, research has also been dedicated to understanding how inquiring about future intentions persuasively influences behavior. These two distinctive ways of enhancing persuasion, described here as Intention Questions and Rhetorical Questions, are included together under the ample code designated as Asking Questions.

Asking questions

Intention questions

Studies have found that when people are asked self-predictive questions about their upcoming behavior, they are far more likely to follow through

Casting doubt and conspiracies 103 with the forecasted action than if the question had not been asked in the first place. In short, answering even a “seemingly innocuous question regarding future intentions” can significantly persuade an audience’s actions toward those same intentions.6 For instance, if individuals are simply asked to respond with projections about whether they would, in the future, purchase a commodity or be willing to predict how much time they could see themselves volunteering for a local charity, they are appreciably more likely to initially overcommit to, and then later carry out, the said activity.7 Answering such simple intention questions has been described as causing “automatic or nonconscious changes in cognitive structure that lead to behavioral changes of which the respondent is often not aware.”8 This technique, also characterized as self-prophecy, can be identified as any attempt to ask audiences to predict whether they will carry out a targeted action.9

Rhetorical questions

The use of rhetorical questions, known as eroteme, or simply rhetorical, involves asking a question without expecting an answer because the answer itself is strongly implied within the question itself. Though this may seem a rather simple procedure, the communicative outcomes of such questions can be relatively complicated. For instance, various research projects have established that these queries are effective as well as ineffective, depending upon the study. Nevertheless, investigations informed by the Elaboration Likelihood Model have largely concluded that such questions enhance message processing in audiences, specifically in cases where individuals initially exhibit little interest in a communication’s claims.10 As a consequence, rhetorical questions can be used as a type of persuasive cue to stimulate thinking about message content in reduced elaboration likelihood contexts. When there is low elaboration, such rhetoricals also tend to increase message acceptance when the communication is considered well argued, but they actually decrease audience acceptance of messages interpreted to be weak.

At the same time, the effects of rhetorical questions involving high-elaboration contexts are far more mixed. It has been found that in such cases rhetorical queries may interfere with people’s ability to cognitively elaborate. Accordingly, with higher elaboration a message that includes sound arguments actually became less persuasive with the inclusion of rhetoricals, while communications with weak arguments containing rhetorical questions were wont to become more persuasive.11 The cognitive diversionary force of such questions can also impede an audience’s ability to recall message content.12 Furthermore, according to Rohini Ahluwalia and Robert E. Burnkrant, rhetorical questions seem to trigger audience attentiveness to a message’s source when audiences perceive a question to be particularly conspicuous.1’’ In such cases, after a rhetorical question is offered, message recipients will either be won over or dissuaded by a communicationdepending upon their opinion of the communicator. As a result, rhetoricals may provoke interest in messenger attributes, including those associated with Source Cues (Chapter 3).

It seems then that the persuasion effects of rhetorical queries are not straightforward, especially for individuals expressing high elaboration. Nonetheless, studies have recurrently determined that such questions do stimulate cognitive scrutiny in situations of lower elaboration likelihood.14 If an audience does not demonstrate the ability or motivation to analyze a persuasive message, therefore, rhetoricals are particularly valuable for provoking interest and the mental processing of communications. With all this in mind, the related rhetorical devices, termed hypophora and anacoe-nosis, are further included within this category. Hypophora entails asking a question and then immediately answering it, while anacoenosis involves asking the opinion of an audience in a way that implies common interest without requiring an answer.15 The rates of recurrence of Asking Questions in both Darwin-skeptic and proevolutionist media are presented in Figure 4.1.

Recurrence Rates of Asking Questions

Figure 4.1 Recurrence Rates of Asking Questions

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