Socratic Theatrics

Socratic Theatrics December 11, 2014

Not long ago, one of our lovely commenters, ratamacue0, asked me a very good question with regard to the homeschooling post: namely, why I took exception to the weird, twisted form of “Socratic questioning” used in a video made by one of these religious-zealot homeschooling outfits.

English: Bust of Socrates in the Vatican Museum
English: Bust of Socrates in the Vatican Museum (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Doesn’t he look downright jolly?

This type of questioning, called the Socratic method, involves an instructor who–instead of simply telling a student the answer to a question–leads the student through careful questioning so the student can arrive at the answer for him- or herself. We call the method “Socratic” because we’re most familiar with it through the works of Plato, who recorded a number of these question-and-answer sessions he’d seen or had with his mentor Socrates. Socrates used this method of teaching in situations where the answers weren’t always observable or cut-and-dried–like in discussions of morality and human qualities like courage.

This teaching method caught on as a great way to teach lawyers, so law schools all over the United States use it. Here’s the basic idea: Students read casebooks and other materials at length so they’re very familiar with it all. The teacher either asks a question for a volunteer to answer or else picks a student at random, and then conducts the questions with that student. After the line of questioning is done, then the teacher starts the process over again.

The central idea of this sort of questioning is elenchus, which sort of means “cross-examination,” if you’re wondering why the legal profession is so in love with it. It’s about asking an opponent to create an argument which the instructor can then refute and show to be incorrect, maybe through showing that the student’s argument is self-contradictory or that it rests upon false or fallacious premises. The idea is that the student will learn from this exchange to construct an argument that is airtight.

Are you seeing the big problem here yet? Exactly where in this mess is someone supposed to learn scientific facts, which don’t care what kind of argument someone’s got? Where is someone supposed to learn world history or the quadratic equation, which don’t rest even a little on fancy wordplay?

Regardless of the technique’s limitations, Accelerated Christian Education is very proud of how it uses the “Socratic” method. In my post about it, I wrote:

ACE uses that bizarre-ass twisted version of Socratic questioning that’s becoming the trendy way for fundagelicals to interact with non-believers–where someone with the information refuses to just get to the point, but instead dances around it with the person who requests information.

Instead, this is how “Socratic questioning” is done in ACE (paraphrased from the video):

Student: “I have a question.”

Supervisor: “WELL did you read the MATERIALS and the OTHER MATERIALS?”

Student: “Yes, I totally did.”

Supervisor: “WELL then let’s read it again together!”

Not only is what I saw in that video not a proper example of the Socratic method, it isn’t even an adequate example of a way to teach a child to think for him- or herself. It’s just being snarky, asking a question of a question.

Indeed, even in law schools this form of questioning is increasingly getting seen as needlessly convoluted and torturous, a way for teachers to feel smug and clever at the expense of their floundering students. It isn’t hard to find criticisms of the method, most of those criticisms coming from the students who are growing unpersuaded of its value and complaining about how little it actually teaches anybody about the law. But if one considers that Socrates himself wasn’t using it to teach concrete concepts like “is it illegal to shave someone else’s pet gibbon naked?” but rather stuff like “is it actually virtuous to be stupidly brave?”, then this criticism swims into sharp focus and starts making a lot of sense.

The Socratic method has some distinct sexism problems associated with it as well, one that makes ACE’s decision to emphasize its use all the more puzzling. Here’s a Harvard article outlining studies about not only how ineffective this method is in teaching law students but citing a study that found that female law students were way more negatively impacted by the method than their male peers. Even a woman who gets into law school may find being put on the spot and grilled to be quite an intimidating proposition–and the cultural expectation that women be quiet and never voice an overly-robust opinion comes into play even in these august environments. One can hardly imagine that homeschooled Christian girls are more assertive than law students are.

Remember how we talk sometimes about how toxic Christians’ tactics don’t often match their stated goals? This may be another one of those times.

ACE uses Socratic questioning because its creators say this method helps kids think for themselves. But we already know that the primary criticism of ACE is that it does anything but that. Its program emphasizes rote memorization, fill-in-the-blanks worksheets, and lockstep indoctrination. It ridicules real science and encourages kids to learn denialist and revisionist talking points, not actual facts. This type of questioning teaches kids how to deploy fancy arguments and refuse to give clear answers to questions, not to think for themselves. And those kids grow up to become adults who then invade forums parroting the nonsense they’ve learned.

In refusing to give clear answers to simple questions, ACE shows that what it really wants is for kids to learn not to ask questions–and not to expect straightforward answers. I can’t imagine a way to better destroy a child’s curiosity than to demand that child justify all the self-directed efforts he or she has made so far to uncover the answer already. Just imagining the hassle that’d result from even the simplest question doesn’t seem like it’d encourage a lot of questions. The burden for answers is put on the narrow, thin little shoulders of the party in the room least able to bear that burden, while the adults who should be teaching them push on them again and again demanding they take more of that burden. As a former law professor so eloquently says of the method itself,

[I]t’s sort of like blindfolding your students, handing them legos dipped in goo, and asking them to construct a railroad depot, with the added caveat that you do not, in fact, want a railroad depot; you really want a museum of trains, something that only looks like a railroad depot from a distance. The fact that some students manage to produce the appropriate museum is no reason to pat ourselves on the backs.

Now, let’s remember he’s talking about law school and not 8th-grade frickin’ math class here, which makes ACE look even more soul-crushing to children.

The kind of ersatz “Socratic method” used by ACE teaches kids to be lawyers, not scientists, at a time when they really need to be scientists and not lawyers. It teaches them to evaluate concepts based on arguments rather than on objective facts. It teaches them to distrust observation and the scientific method. It teaches them to view with disdain anybody who can’t keep up with their rhetoric. And yes: it teaches them never to expect a straight answer to anything, or to give one.

These kids are then sent off all shiny and bright-eyed into the world, where they fully expect their hard-won lawyer expertise to win them converts and world dominance–not knowing that the real world knows that trial questioning is not how we arrive at knowing what’s true and false.

For a few years I wondered why there seems to be such a proliferation lately of lawyer-like Christian apologists flooding forums and social media. I don’t wonder anymore. I’m certain that a big part of their inflating numbers is the rise of ACE-style homeschooling materials. Even if a Christian isn’t put through that meat-grinder personally, he or she gets exposed to the technique by friends, peers, and apologetics media (like the videos put out by the increasingly-laughable Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron, who use obviously faked question-and-answer sessions to sell their ideas). And chances are that anybody who hangs around spots where the salt water of apologists mixes with the sweet water of skepticism has been exposed to a Christian who thinks he or she is a lawyer.

I want to show you what this lawyer act looks like in the wild, how to tell it’s happening, and how to stop that train from leaving the station.

And I’m going to accomplish that task by introducing y’all to Rosa Rubicondior, if you haven’t had the distinct pleasure already.

If you’re not reading that blog, then you really should be. Its anonymous author has a mind like a steel trap and no tolerance whatsoever for apologetics shenanigans. She updates fairly frequently and always has fascinating things to say about religion, politics, science, and the like.

A few years ago she wrote a post called How Do You Know Satan Didn’t Write the Bible?. I want you to go take a look at it and then cruise on into the comments. I know, I know, but this time it’s for a good cause. “Matt” charges in (at the 10/20/2011 23:27 mark) with this:

Rosa I have a quick question in response. If you can answer this plainly and unequivocally, I will do the same:

How do you know 1 + 1 *isn’t* 3?

Parameters: Obviously you cannot appeal to math or logic or science because they presuppose each other.

And this, friends, is a Christian trying his best to start in on a lawyer routine.

The “quick question” can vary quite a bit, but here we see every single element of a Christian trying to set up a trial cross-examination:

* It’s phrased as “a quick question.”

* It’s posed to the person who is responding to the truth claim being made, asking that person in effect to justify why the truth claim isn’t compelling enough to believe–what philosophers in The Biz call “shifting the burden of truth.”

* The question posed is not actually related to the truth claim in any way.

* The “quick question” sets up a piss-poor analogy (in this case, comparing a basic math operation with a complicated series of nested premises regarding the supernatural).

* The Christian wants to set up parameters that would not exist in the real world so that the question can only be answered the way that Christian wants it answered.

In this instance we’re not going to talk about the question itself. Obviously it’s beyond idiotic, given that any fool with fingers, toes, or dried beans can arrive at the answer to his supposedly-deep question whereas nobody would ever come up with any Christian doctrines or ideas without being pre-loaded with Christian mythology. And we’re not going to talk about Rosa’s question itself here–that’s something for another day. All we’re going to do is look at this Christian’s response to her question. Instead of just answering her, he chose instead to try to set up a line of questioning, a sort of cattle run for her to dash down and through and over and around while he directs her to his desired end-run, which is obviously going to be a lawyer-like pointing of the finger and an “AHA! SEE, JESUS REALLY IS REAL! YOUR WITNESS, YOUR HONOR!”

His question has the taste of something he’s deployed many times, maybe only on his Christian peers but more likely on non-believers who weren’t aware of this dishonest apologetics trick.

I want you to take note of how Rosa short-circuits this guy at 10/21/2011, 00:37 mark:

I’m sorry about your sad dyscalculia but this isn’t the right place to look for help. The question here is how do you know Satan didn’t write the Bible. Would you like to have a go at answering it?

And no, you can imagine he did not. You can kind of tell when a Christian’s using an especially favored technique; it’s got a smarmy sort of polish. And the more favored the technique, the harder it is for that Christian to let go of it and actually start communicating honestly. So he tried a second time to set up his line of questioning, hoping that this time she’d take the bait and let him begin his routine. And then a third time. And then a fourth time. And a fifth. And on and on. Say what you want about this li’l bugger, he was tenacious!

His efforts came to naught, however. Rosa did not let him off the hook or engage in this side questioning. She’d quietly remind him that his question was not an answer, and ask him if he finally felt like actually answering her question or not. He’d try to rationalize why he was using a lawyer routine on her, she’d refuse to let him, and she’d keep asking the question. This back-and-forth went on for days until finally the Christian doing it understood that nobody was giving his routine the traction it needed to get going, and he left the discussion entirely rather than actually answer her question. And Rosa is right: it’s not hard to guess why he might have gone that route at the end.

This blog post and its comments are important because this exchange is probably one of the clearest examples in anti-apologetics of false Socratic reasoning. You’re never going to find a more clear-cut attempt to cross-examine a non-believer than you will right here.

Here’s the takeaway I want you to have:

If someone makes a truth claim, then that person is the one obligated to defend that truth claim. You are not required to defend your skepticism. If you ask for evidence for a claim and get in response a strange-sounding or irrelevant question, then you are very likely witnessing the beginnings of a Christian cross-examination attempt. Refuse to give in to that question. Demand evidence. The Christian you’re asking for evidence is not going to like that request at all and will go to truly absurd lengths to avoid clearly answering your question.

If you do accidentally let the Christian get rolling with their cross-examination, then be aware that your new “teacher” has a very set destination in mind where all his or her questions are going to lead you. Somewhere along the way you’re going to say something vaguely contradictory or fumbling–we can’t all be Christopher Hitchens, after all–and when you inevitably do so, the Christian will get to point at you, shout “AHA!” and declare victory, at which time you’ll be expected to kneel and recite the Sinner’s Prayer because you got beaten fair and square by the superior Romulan weaponry of the Christian’s keen wit and Jesus-fication.

Notice that nowhere in here is actual evidence produced or provided. You’re not supposed to wonder how the author of the entire universe has been reduced to such conversational chicanery and tricks to sound halfway plausible to the weak-minded. Indeed the blatant manipulation game represented by this technique probably worked wonderfully on the Christian doing it, who likely confused arguments for evidence just like he or she is hoping you will. Even if you flub in the first exchange, that doesn’t mean that the Christian’s argument is actually solid; an argument can be pretty tight and still be objectively wrong. And you’re not supposed to notice that either.

You can put the brakes to this entire game by simply refusing to play along.

Evidence doesn’t demand a verdict at all–the apologetics author who wrote that wants people to think that it does because he makes a lot of money on gullible Christians buying his books, but in reality evidence doesn’t make any demands or actually give a shit what our verdict about it is. Nor does it depend on fancy arguments to sell itself. If the person making a truth claim at you can’t give some good and clear reason for believing that truth claim, then you are under no obligation whatsoever to indulge that Christian’s private courtroom fantasy.

Rosa’s various shutdowns are good, and there are certainly others besides hers:

* “Questions aren’t evidence. What evidence do you have for your claim?”

* “I’m sorry–I don’t have time to play courtroom drama with you. Can you please get to the point?”

* “Please don’t try to shift the burden of proof like that. You made the claim. You need to defend it without my help.”

If you need additional incentives to refuse to buy into this game, it’s also just funny to pull the rug out from under a lawyer-Christian by refusing to dance with them. They really have no idea in the world what to do if someone won’t let them get their question train rolling. They’ve never learned any other way of demonstrating a claim, which makes their floundering doubly obvious. Hopefully they’ll wonder why nobody seems interested in having the big arguments their apologetics materials say works marvelously to convert people.

Christianity is failing because it’s breeding and training lawyers, not scientists. And we’re finally starting to notice. The real tragedy is that a couple generations of kids are getting raised thinking that this is a perfectly valid way to learn and interact with others. But when they’re ready, we’ll be right here to help them stumble free.

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