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My day job is research in economics. In economics seminar culture, a common way to demolish the speaker is to play dumb and say "I don't understand what you are saying", implying that the speaker should try to explain in simple terms what they are doing.

This is usually a very effective tactic, as it does not come forward as attacking the speaker, because you are putting the responsibility on yourself for not understanding and merely asking for clarification, at least on the surface; however, it is usually employed by someone in a position of authority, e.g. a professor when a PhD student is speaking, such that the speaker can't just answer "well that's too bad, but it's your problem".

It is often very useful to catch those who use some complex technique they don't really understand too deeply (e.g. economists using pre-programmed machine learning software without a deep understand of the theoretical background in computer science). However:

  • even if the speaker does understand what they are doing, a simplified but thorough explanation may be outside the scope of the presentation, or impossible without some simplifying assumptions that can't be taken in the context of the paper being presented, or not be feasible without taking a sizable chunk of the speaker's time away from the main topic
  • even in the speaker does understand what they are doing and a stylized explanation is possible, the speaker may trip up (as they may while answering any other question) and look particularly bad because the audience will think "they can't even explain in simple words what they are doing"
  • in the particular context of economics, where people really like parsimony and simplicity in modeling, as simple models provide insight more easily, this already puts the speaker in a bad light because it implies their model is not stylized enough - although the field probably run out of findings that can be uncovered by stylized models and simple statistics, and indeed mastering of complex techniques, from very deep theory to ingenuous research designs or statistical methods, are very much rewarded

Note that I am NOT referring to honest clarification questions, but to a deliberate attempt by someone in the audience to trip up the speaker when they actually understand perfectly what is going on. I have seen seminars where professors who have decades of experience in the speaker's field asserted they "did not understand" more than three times, when they were clearly understanding very well and just did not like the paper or the speaker.

Is there a name for this way of attacking a speaker?

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    "passive aggressive"? Socrates did this in some of the dialogues. Also apparently Einstein said: "If you can't explain it to a 6-year-old, you don't understand it yourself."
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jan 6 at 15:39
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    My mom calls this "being obtuse". Commented Jan 7 at 4:54
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    Performative stupidity.
    – J.G.
    Commented Jan 7 at 12:10
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    In my experience, when a professor suggests they have not understood, it's because the speaker has said something that appears to be stupid and they wish to be polite rather than simply calling the speaker wrong. Commented Jan 7 at 22:04
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    If an explanation would take too much time, it would be perfectly fine to say that. If you can point them to a reference that explains it, that'd probably also help. "Out of scope" may be a perfectly fine reason too, although if you can briefly answer their question, I'd probably just do so, unless it's egregiously out of scope or they've asked multiple questions already. It'd almost never be appropriate to respond with "too bad".
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Jan 7 at 22:45

5 Answers 5

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The closest I could find is :

Sealioning: A subtle form of trolling involving “bad-faith” questions. You disingenuously frame your conversation as a sincere request to be enlightened, placing the burden of educating you entirely on the other party. This is not a fallacy; it is more of a form of deception. As always, be careful in assuming you know the other person’s intent. On the surface, “sealioning” looks a lot like legitimate and honest Socratic inquiry.

https://www.logicallyfallacious.com/logicalfallacies/Pseudo-Logical-Fallacies

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sealioning

Playing dumb is psychological ploy to gain an advantage in a debate or discussion. I don't believe it's a fallacy.

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In rhetoric, argumentation requires a certain level of good will and willingness to participate honestly in the communication process. If you are on a debate stage and your opponent fakes a heart attack to avoid the argument through shenanigans, your opponent isn't really participating in the debate stage.

The tactic you mention is a violation of the principle of charity. From WP:

In philosophy and rhetoric, the principle of charity or charitable interpretation requires interpreting a speaker's statements in the most rational way possible and, in the case of any argument, considering its best, strongest possible interpretation.1 In its narrowest sense, the goal of this methodological principle is to avoid attributing irrationality, logical fallacies, or falsehoods to the others' statements, when a coherent, rational interpretation of the statements is available.

So, if EITHER your opponent feigns your claims are irrational and incomprehensible OR your opponent deliberately uses irrational and incomprehensible claims deliberately taking advantage of other's confusion, then your opponent isn't being ethical like the principle of charity requires. One common form of violating this ideal is using philosophical bullshit to make claims that have no regard for the actual truth that is being uttered hoping to get some performative effect. There are famous rambling politicians who will say whatever when reporters attempt to engage them and pin them down on issues who care not that they are evading a question. In a court of law, a judge would compel the witness to answer and hold them in contempt eventually if they did not. Deliberately using fallacies is another violation of the principle.

It's helpful to put the type of response in a bucket when assessing whether or not an opponent is deliberately dodging the argument. I enjoy using Paul Graham's hierarchy of disagreement. It allows you to directly label where your opponent is, and confront them. In the case of feigning misunderstanding, which is more like pretending not to speak English than it is missing the point, it's hard to imagine any other response than calling out the interlocutor. One can say "I'm not sure how this possibly can confuse you, can you explain exactly why are you struggling with this relatively clear statement? If I'm being unclear perhaps someone in the audience can take time to fill in the pieces you're missing." Of course, snark may or may not be appropriate given the venue. ;)

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    On the other hand, the OP explicitly mentions a professor-student interaction. When a student says "A, therefore B", it is fair for the professor to not apply the principle of charity, and instead ask the student to further detail why A implies B. Of course, that's as long as the professor's goal is to help the student, and not humiliate the student in public.
    – Stef
    Commented Jan 7 at 19:11
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Feigned ignorance is more or less what you're describing.

Nearby are

  • Appeal to ridicule I've seen this used dishonestly but effectively in job interviews
  • Strawman can generally be assumed to lurk behind many dishonest arguments

Funny anecdote that seems apropos to your question. Told to me by my teacher about a time when he was a student (S).

S: Sir what's wrong with my solution?
Teacher: It's fine.
S: But you gave only 60%. Why?
T: When I was a student and was giving the same course I got 60%. (indignantly) Are you suggesting you know more than me?!

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It depends on the questioner's intent. If the questioner's intent is either to genuinely help educate the person or to evaluate the other person's education with a good faith reason for doing so, then you are encountering the Socratic Method. If it is being done by a professor to a student, even if not necessarily their own student, then it is quite likely to be an attempt at using the Socratic Method. Notably, I have seen such attempts fail completely.

If the intent is to harass, then as Idiosyncratic Soul said before me, then it is a form of sealioning. Note that this is hardly the only form of sealioning, but this technique fits within that umbrella when done to harass or exhaust the other participant in the conversation.

Finally, particularly in law and similar contexts, there are techniques that get used routinely without necessarily acquiring a widely accepted name. This is one of them. When questioning my own expert, I frequently ask my expert to clarify or re-explain something in laymen's terms even though I understood it perfectly because I want to make sure the audience understands. I have seen professor's do this with guest speakers.

When cross-examining the other side's expert witness, you want to be careful about doing that. You would often prefer to have the jury confused about what the expert is saying. But if a lawyer suspects the expert does not in fact know the material well enough to explain it to an average juror, then demonstrating that fact by asking for clarification and letting the opposing expert flounder is a perfectly valid and useful rhetorical tactic for the attorney. This kind of thing is often referred to as a "destructive cross". That however is definitely not the word you are looking for. First, it doesn't make much sense outside of proceedings that involve cross examination. And second, like sealioning, it is something of an umbrella term that goes far beyond asking for clarifications that you think the other side can't provide.

(As a side note, but an important one, destructive cross is a technique to be used cautiously.)

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    In situations where questions are being asked for the benefit of an audience, other than the person being questioned, this approach could be seen as a form of "soliciting exposition", and in fictional scenarios is a common literary or dramatic device.
    – supercat
    Commented Jan 8 at 18:32
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    It's use ranges from a personal attack on credibility and character to legitimate inquiry. That's why it's so powerful. Commented Jan 8 at 20:01
  • +1 Insightful! I always love a good trial law example. I'm adding sealioning to my vocab.
    – J D
    Commented Jan 8 at 21:15
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This could be considered Socratic irony:

[Socrates] had a reputation for irony, though what that means exactly is controversial; at a minimum, Socrates’s irony consisted in his saying that he knew nothing of importance and wanted to listen to others, yet keeping the upper hand in every discussion.

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/socrates/#SocStr

A significant difference between this and sealioning is that Socratic irony is usually performative, as the people Socrates was speaking to usually knew him as very wise. An example from Wikipedia:

For instance, when Socrates laments his misfortune of having a poor memory, the object of his irony is the overly long speech made by the fictionalized Protagoras in Plato's dialogue; his memory, we are to understand, is perfectly fine.

This also differs from sealioning in that sealioning is a malicious technique which seeks to distract from the point being made by making requests that seem reasonable at surface level but which the speaker could not possibly be prepared to answer competently (at least, according to the webcomic which coined the term). Socratic irony can be a good-faith technique as part of a Socratic dialogue, although it often relies on asking questions that at a lower level than expected.

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