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I run into this situation often in the office. I have a specific question to ask somebody and have chosen the person to ask it, but that person doesn't know the answer.

Instead of answering the question, however, they choose to attack the question itself and increase the scope of the discussion to find a way to avoid having to answer it:

Example:

Asker: I'm not sure if Google Maps has picked the best route to McDonalds. What do you think of this route?

Responder: You can get to Burger King faster, and the food it better.

What has the responder done? I was thinking of strawman fallacy (logic), unasking the question (zen), etc. But none of these exactly fit.

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I want to know what to call this so I can point it out to people who do it concisely! –  Sprague Jun 30 at 14:48
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They are hearing what you meant instead of what you said. –  KitFox Jun 30 at 15:02
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They are assuming what I meant. Maybe McD has a discount or a sandwich I like. Perhaps a friend of mine lives across the street... I don't think it's appropriate or welcomed to not answer the question which was asked. –  Sprague Jun 30 at 16:29
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Be sure this is not instead an instance of the "XY Problem": mywiki.wooledge.org/XyProblem –  Peter Jul 1 at 15:17
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So maybe this could be called the "imaginary X" problem, if enough people get on board with that. The "imaginary X" problem occurs when you need to do Y, but there exists a plausible ultimate goal X which could be achieved via Y but which is more fun to answer by a means not including Y. It is then impossible to persuade anyone who has heard of the XY problem to help you do Y. –  Steve Jessop Jul 1 at 18:25

8 Answers 8

up vote 16 down vote accepted

One relevant term from logic:

red herring — The idiom "red herring" is used to refer to something that misleads or distracts from the relevant or important issue.

Specific forms of red herring exist and I find that appeal to motive fits nicely:

appeal to motive — Appeal to motive is a pattern of argument which consists in challenging a thesis by calling into question the motives of its proposer. It can be considered as a special case of the ad hominem circumstantial argument. As such, this type of argument may be an informal fallacy.

The person who answers that you should go to Burger King instead is assuming that your motive for asking the question is that you want to get something to eat. This is an invalid assumption and, therefore, their answer is completely irrelevant.


More informally, this pattern of behavior is simply known as "dodging the question":

dodging the question — Question dodging is the intentional avoidance of answering a question.

On that wiki page they have a list of example forms and these seem particularly apt. In response to the question, "Why are you here?":

  • Answering things that weren't asked ("I'm in the corridor.")
  • Questioning the question ("Are you sure that's relevant?")
  • Challenging the question ("You assume I am here for a reason.")
  • Giving an answer in the wrong context ("Because I was born.")

The motive for dodging the question in your example is that they don't know the answer. Thus, they answer a different question.

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Excellent. Appeal to motive is dead on. –  Sprague Jun 30 at 15:34
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"dodging the question" or "ducking the question". –  Scott Jun 30 at 20:22
    
+1 for the ("Because I was born.") example –  Vality Jul 1 at 10:03
    
I was going to answer "side-stepping the question" but it's too close to your "dodging" to stand on its own. –  TecBrat Jul 1 at 18:05

You might consider this as a case of ignoratio elenchi, where an irrelevant argument is presented as an answer to the question at hand:

Ignoratio elenchi, also known as irrelevant conclusion, is the informal fallacy of presenting an argument that may or may not be logically valid, but fails nonetheless to address the issue in question.

[...] The nature of the fallacy, then, consists in substituting for a certain issue another which is more or less closely related to it, and arguing the substituted issue.

It seems a little grandiose for what you're describing but is a good fit nevertheless.

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"more or less closely related to it" makes me think this is a good fit. Unfortunately, I'm not dealing specifically with an argument, but rather trying to keep from engaging in one. Does that make sense? I've gotten into the habit of saying, "'I don't know' is an acceptable answer," but some people love the sound of their own voice so much they'll gladly skip over the answer and straight to the non-sequitur! –  Sprague Jun 30 at 15:28
    
@Sprague I think this is probably the best "big word" answer but Mr. Hen's dodging the question is right on. –  terdon Jun 30 at 15:32
    
"Dodging the question" means avoiding answering a question because it is uncomfortable: because a straight answer is embarrassing for some personal reason, or because it reveals something negative about the speaker, or someone whom the speaker is trying to protect: such as having been wrong, guilty, inconsistent, unfair, weak, lazy, immoral, stupid, ... –  Kaz Jun 30 at 19:03

I'm not entirely sure that this is the word you're looking for, but it's a good place to start:

non sequitur

Look under the section called In everyday speech.

The response in you post doesn't prerfectly qualify as a non sequitur, though, because there actually is some connection to the original question.

The link points to a concept called derailment that seems to be a cognitive problem, but the word fits well in this context. To derail a conversation means to interrupt it so that it goes off topic.

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Maybe we could call it a 'strategically disguised non sequitur'. I'm leaning towards this as the answer but will leave the question open for a bit longer. –  Sprague Jun 30 at 15:29

The term is conversational implicature. The responder has inferred from the questioner's question that the relevant topic of conversation is "How can I get to a place serving fast food quickly?" and answered appropriately.

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The main thing which the person has done is not some technical manipulation of a question; this person has tried steer the conversation to his favorite topic -- himself, and his opinions and preferences -- by dropping a shift response. There doesn't seem to be a glib word or phrase for "attempt to steer conversation toward oneself", though. In general, using one topic as a springboard into another one is a segue. That coworker used your topic about how to get to McDonald's to segue into opining about his or her preference for Burger King.

Someone who steers conversation toward himself (specifically, his superior wit and better grasp of the "bigger picture") by constantly looking for the "real problem" that someone is trying to solve, and offering supposedly superior alternatives which avoid the specific question, is a "smart ass" or "smart alec". The latter can be used as a verb: "smart alecing/alecking".

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What you have asked versus the example that you gave are 2 unrelated things.

Some good answers have been posted about your example. Personally I believe that, as an earlier poster mentioned, segue pretty much "hits the nail on the head".

However, your question is not talking about this at all. To relate your example with your question the respondent would need to say something like:

"That's a dumb question" or "Your question has no merit" or possibly responding with the rhetorical question "Why would you want to go to McDonald's anyway?"

In all three of these cases, you have posed a question and the response is a premise without argument (indirectly in the case of of the third example response which is a rhetorical question or in other words a question that expects no response and is merely trying to assert a premise - that being that your question shouldn't be asked).

In the world of logic a premise on its own without arguments leading to a conclusion that supports the given premise is laughable and shrugged aside. It is a symptom of a lack of understanding, ignorance or foolhardiness.

The person is acting as a demagogue attempting to get their point across not by reasoning rather by volume, repetition, or in this case mocking you or interposing a premise in an effort to block your query. I can't think of an idiom that exactly matches your original question. It is close to tautological reasoning but that doesn't quite cover it.

To me, it exemplifies ignorance. The person should lend a little more credence to "no question is a stupid question". Of course, one thing someone who deals in premises without reasoning would probably do is take "no question is a stupid question" and apply another logical fallacy "Reductio ad absurdum" and come up with a ridiculous question to prove that there is such a thing as a stupid question, completely ignoring the spirit of the above idiom.

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What is your suggested word/phrase/idiom that answers this question? –  tchrist Jul 1 at 17:14
  • floundering (v.) — to proceed to act clumsily or ineffectually (if he doesn't know the answer).
  • obfuscation (v.) — to make obscure or confuse (if he knows the answer).
  • smoke screen (n.) — something designed to obscure, confuse or mislead.
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The responder is a politician, this is a special breed of human that is able to ask inane off topic questions that are irrelevant to a conversation while avoiding answering the question that required a direct answer in order to move the conversation forward. The politician often employs similar feats of avoidance with techniques such as kissing babies, sticking to a script, using the familiar "no comment" and the critically acclaimed filibuster. These techniques can be enhanced with the addition of props to further hide from answering the question among the most useful of these is the teleprompter. They are often found exhibiting avoidance of duties as well as questions such as holding hearings on steroid use in baseball rather than pass a budget.

In your example the responder has used the Lobbyist's Gambit. This technique is only used to when it is necessary to oppose any debate in favor of a Lobby with which they have a "quid pro quo" relationship.

See also fanboi, a similar creature that would have responded with the following variation:

You can get to Burger King faster, and Maps on iPhone is better

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If your answer to the question is lobbyist’s gambit, then it would have been easier to find without the extra hoopla. If that is not your answer to the question, then I can’t find it. –  tchrist Jul 1 at 17:13

protected by KitFox Jul 1 at 17:04

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