instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, January 08, 2010

Another stock question

I seem to have misplaced the stock question bumper stickers that used to be found along the left margin of this page. As I recall, they were as follows:
  1. Have you tried prayer and fasting?
  2. Can we say "both/and"?
  3. Are you sure you aren't justifying your means by your ends?
  4. But is it true?
For the sake of completeness, there was also a stock process: Cherchez le telos.

I'm ready to add a fifth stock question to this list of all-purpose questions (though I may not get around to restoring the clip-and-save bumper stickers for a while):
  • And is that a lot?
This is a somewhat specialized question, intended to be used when someone tells you how many of something there is, as though the brute fact of how many of something there is constitutes an argument. The point of this question is that we humans are inclined to be impressed by numbers that would take us a while to count to (counting by ones, starting at 1), but the real question is probably not whether the ordinal number corresponding to how many of something there is is impressively greater than 1.

As an example, suppose someone in a conversation tells you, "There were about a thousand people there." Depending on the "there," you might reasonably be expected to know that 1,000 people is a lot (waiting in line at the post office, for example) or a few (watching a World Cup qualifying match). But the "there" might also be a set of circumstances in which the speaker simply wants you to agree that 1,000 people is a lot or a little (like at a demonstration downtown).

Asking, "And is that a lot?," allows the other person to make an actual argument that yes, it is a lot (or no, it's not). It may even cause the person to say, "Gosh, I have no idea. Is it?"