Friday, July 31, 2015

Today's Logical Fallacy is... Complex Question!

(fallacy of presupposition, trick question, fallacy of many questions, loaded question, leading question, presumption of guilt, false question, plurium interrogationum) 

A complex question is a rhetorical technique that poses a question that contains assumptions. It is a fallacy when the assumptions are unjustified or when the question is worded in such a way as to force a particular answer. Complex questions must be challenged and analyzed before they can be answered. When the presupposition contains especially inflammatory or negative connotations, it is most appropriately called a “loaded question.” The recipient of these questions often goes on the defensive, appearing flustered and off-put, resulting in appearing guilty without evidence. This is a very common tactic and, while unethical and manipulative, is often used by attorneys, police officers, journalists, therapists, and social researchers as they tend to elicit confessions and manipulate attitudes. This fallacy is similar to both the begging the question fallacy and the double-barreled question fallacy.

A classic example of this fallacy is the question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” The question itself automatically paints the husband as abusive because it assumes prior assault, and either a “yes” or a “no” would seemingly indicate guilt to previous assaults. Those listening in automatically believe the husband to be abusive, and this will likely taint him in their minds.

The fallaciousness of the complex question lies in the context of the question. The same example above would not be fallacious if the man had already admitted to beating his wife. A valid use of a complex question would be, “How long can you survive without water?” because the presupposition (that surviving without a long time without water is near impossible) is an accepted fact.

This fallacy is a particularly pernicious because it protects the person asking the question; after all, they’re not making any false claims. They’re just asking questions, albeit misleading and inflammatory ones, and as a result, those listening to the discourse often jump to the wrong conclusion. If you are presented with a loaded question, take the time to address the complexity of the question; “I have never beaten my wife” is a better answer than the expected “yes” or “no.”


"Is Mary wearing a blue or a red dress?" (artificially narrows down the options to two colors)

Legitimate use of complex question: "Who is the monarch of the United Kingdom?"

Illegitimate use of complex question: “Who is the King of France?”

“Are you going to New York or London?”

“Is your favorite color red or blue?”

“Have you stopped smoking yet?”

"Answer me yes or no! Did you think you could get away with plagiarism and not suffer the consequences?"

“Why did you rob that bank?"

"Do you believe in God or in science?"

A prosecutor demands from a defendant, "Did you buy the gun before or after you decided to kill your wife?"

"What church do you and your family attend?"

Grace and Helen were both romantically interested in Brad. One day, with Brad sitting within earshot, Grace asked in an inquisitive tone whether Helen was having any problems with a drug habit.

Madeleine Albright (U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.) claims to have answered a loaded question (and later regretted not challenging it instead) on 60 Minutes on 12 May 1996. Lesley Stahl asked, regarding the effects of UN sanctions against Iraq, "We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that is more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?" Madeleine Albright: "I think that is a very hard choice, but the price, we think, the price is worth it." She later wrote of this response

“I must have been crazy; I should have answered the question by reframing it and pointing out the inherent flaws in the premise behind it. … As soon as I had spoken, I wished for the power to freeze time and take back those words. My reply had been a terrible mistake, hasty, clumsy, and wrong. … I had fallen into a trap and said something that I simply did not mean. That is no one’s fault but my own.”

President Bill Clinton, the moderator in a town meeting discussing the topic "Race In America", in response to a participant argument that the issue was not affirmative action but "racial preferences" asked the participant a loaded question: "Do you favor the United States Army abolishing the affirmative-action program that produced Colin Powell? Yes or no?"

The New Zealand corporal punishment referendum, 2009 asked: "Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?" Murray Edridge, of Barnardos New Zealand, criticized the question as "loaded and ambiguous" and claimed "the question presupposes that smacking is a part of good parental correction."

“How many school shootings should we tolerate before we change the gun laws?” (The presupposition is that changing the gun laws will decrease the number of school shootings.)

“Are you going to admit that you’re wrong?” (Answering yes to this question is an admission of guilt. Answering no to the question implies that the accused accepts that he is in the wrong, but will not admit it. No room is left to protest one’s innocence.)

In Hugo M√ľnsterberg's experiments at Harvard, "the leading question was put to each member of the class—‘Did you notice the stove in the room?’ (there was no stove there)—and 59 per cent of the class answered ‘Yes,’ and having once admitted seeing the stove they proceeded to locate it, and tell in what part of the room it was."

For example, in Barack Obama's primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, Assistant Secretary of State Susan Rice condemned Clinton's policy of Iraq and Iran by demanding an "explanation of how and why she got those critical judgments wrong."

"Wall Street Journal columnist Dorothy Rabinowitz wrote recently: ‘It is the president of the United States—the same one who presented himself as the man who would transcend political partisanship because we were all Americans—who has for most of his term set about dividing the nation by class, by the stoking of resentments. Who mocks ‘millionaires and billionaires.’ Who regularly makes it clear that he considers himself the president of the other—the good Americans. How's that for presidential tone?’"

"When software programs are trying to outsmart other software programs and hack the world's trading platforms, that is a recipe for disaster.… How many times an hour are there failures across individual equities around the world because of software running algorithms battling each other for supremacy to make a profitable trade? We have no idea."

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