Complex question

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A complex question, trick question, multiple question or plurium interrogationum (Latin, "of many questions") is a question that has a presupposition that is complex. The presupposition is a proposition that is presumed to be acceptable to the respondent when the question is asked. The respondent becomes committed to this proposition when he gives any direct answer. The presupposition is called "complex" because it is a conjunctive proposition, a disjunctive proposition, or a conditional proposition. It could also be another type of proposition that contains some logical connective in a way that makes it have several parts that are component propositions.[1]

Complex questions can but do not have to be fallacious, as in being an informal fallacy.[1]

Implication by question[edit]

One form of misleading discourse involves presupposing and implying something without stating it explicitly, by phrasing it as a question. For example, the question "Does Mr. Jones have a brother in the army?" does not claim that he does, but implies that there must be at least some indication that he does, or the question would not need to be asked.[2] The person asking the question is thus protected from accusations of making false claims, but still manages to make the implication in the form of a hidden compound question. The fallacy is not in the question itself, but rather in the listener's assumption that the question would not have been asked without some evidence to support the supposition.

In order to have the desired effect, the question must imply something uncommon enough not to be asked without some evidence to the fact. For example, the question "Does Mr. Jones have a brother?" would not cause the listener to think there must be some evidence that he does, since this form of general question is frequently asked with no foreknowledge of the answer.

Complex question fallacy[edit]

The complex question fallacy, or many questions fallacy, is context dependent; a presupposition by itself doesn't have to be a fallacy. It is committed when someone asks a question that presupposes something that has not been proven or accepted by all the people involved.[1][3][4][5][6] For example, "Is Mary wearing a blue or a red dress?" is fallacious because it artificially restricts the possible responses to a blue or red dress. If the person being questioned wouldn't necessarily consent to those constraints, the question is fallacious.[1][4][5][6]

Hence we can distinguish between:

  • legitimately complex question (not a fallacy): A question that assumes something that the hearer would readily agree to. For example, "Who is the monarch of the United Kingdom?" assumes that there is a place called the United Kingdom and that it has a monarch, both true.
  • illegitimately complex question: On the other hand, "Who is the King of France?" would commit the complex question fallacy because while it assumes there is a place called France (true), it also assumes France currently has a king (false). But since answering this question does not seem to incriminate or otherwise embarrass the speaker, it is complex but not really a loaded question.[7]

When a complex question contains controversial presuppositions (often with loaded language – having an unspoken and often emotive implication), it is known as a loaded question.[3][4][6] For example, a classic loaded question, containing incriminating assumptions that the questioned persons seem to admit to if they answer the questions instead of challenging them, is "Have you stopped beating your wife?" If the person questioned answers, "Yes", then that implies that he has previously beaten his wife. A loaded question may be asked to trick the respondent into admitting something that the questioner believes to be true, and which may in fact be true. So the previous question is "loaded", whether or not the respondent has actually beaten his wife – and if the respondent answers anything other than "yes" or "no" in an attempt to deny having beaten his wife, the questioner can accuse him of "trying to dodge the question". The very same question may be loaded in one context, but not in the other. For example, the previous question would not be loaded were it asked during a trial in which the defendant has already admitted having beaten his wife.[4]

Similar questions and fallacies[edit]

A similar fallacy is the double-barreled question. It is committed when someone asks a question that touches upon more than one issue, yet allows only for one answer.[8][9][10]

This fallacy can be also confused with petitio principii, begging the question,[11] which offers a premise no more plausible than, and often just a restatement of, the conclusion.[12]

Closely connected with [petitio principii] is the fallacy of the Complex Question. By a complex question, in the broadest meaning of that term, is meant one that suggests its own answer. Any question, for instance, that forces us to select, and assert in our answer to it, one of the elements of the question itself, while some other possibility is really open, is complex in the sense in which that term is here employed. If, for example, one were to ask whether you were going to New York or London, or if your favourite colour were red or blue, or if you had given up a particular bad habit, he would be guilty of the fallacy of the complex question, if, in each case, the alternatives, as a matter of fact, were more numerous than, or were in any way different from, those stated in the question. Any leading question which complicates an issue by over simplification is fallacious for the same reason… In the petitio principii an assumption with respect to the subject-matter of an argument functions as a premise, in the complex question it is a similar assumption that shuts out some of the material possibilities of a situation and confines an issue within too narrow limits. As in the former case, so here, the only way of meeting the difficulty is to raise the previous question, that is, to call the assumption which lies back of the fallacy into question.[13]

— Arthur Ernest Davies, "Fallacies" in A Text-Book of Logic


  1. ^ a b c d Walton, Douglas. "The Fallacy of Many Questions" (PDF). University of Winnipeg. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2006-11-29. Retrieved 2008-01-22. 
  2. ^ "compound question, definition". Retrieved 2010-02-03. 
  3. ^ a b Michel Meyer, Questions and questioning, Walter de Gruyter, 1988, ISBN 3-11-010680-9, Google Print, p. 198–199
  4. ^ a b c d Douglas N. Walton, Fundamentals of critical argumentation, Cambridge University Press, 2006, ISBN 0-521-82319-6, Google Print, p. 194–196
  5. ^ a b Douglas N. Walton, Informal logic: a handbook for critical argumentation, Cambridge University Press, 1989, ISBN 0-521-37925-3, Google Print, p. 36–37
  6. ^ a b c Douglas N. Walton. Witness testimony evidence: argumentation, artificial intelligence, and law, Cambridge University Press, 2008, ISBN 0-521-88143-9, Google Print, p. 329
  7. ^ Layman, C. Stephen (2003). The Power of Logic. p. 158. 
  8. ^ Response bias Archived 2010-02-13 at the Wayback Machine.. SuperSurvey, Ipathia Inc.
  9. ^ Earl R. Babbie, Lucia Benaquisto, Fundamentals of Social Research, Cengage Learning, 2009, Google Print, p. 251
  10. ^ Alan Bryman, Emma Bell, Business research methods, Oxford University Press, 2007, ISBN 0-19-928498-9, Google Print, p. 267–268
  11. ^ Fallacy: Begging the Question The Nizkor Project. Retrieved on: January 22, 2008
  12. ^ Carroll, Robert Todd. The Skeptic's Dictionary. John Wiley & Sons. p. 51. ISBN 0-471-27242-6. 
  13. ^ Davies, Arthur Ernest (1915). A Text-Book of Logic. R. G. Adams and company. pp. 572–573. LCCN 15027713. 

External links[edit]