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Many Questions Fallacy

Also called:

  • Complex Question
  • Loaded Question
  • Interrogation Fallacy
  • Fallacy of Presupposition
  • Demanding a Simple Answer to a Complex Question

The interrogative version of Begging The Question, the Many Questions Fallacy occurs where a question is asked that assumes the answer to one or more additional questions, and a demand is made that it be answered without qualifiers. The classic example is "have you stopped beating your wife? Answer Yes or No!" — The question assumes a positive answer to an unstated second question ("have you ever beaten your wife?"); as a result, if you answer "Yes" you are admitting that you used to beat her, but if you answer "No" you are admitting that you still beat her. A qualified answer such as "I haven't stopped because I never did." is not accepted. A similar situation occurs if the person asked has never even been married; "I've never been married" is not accepted as an answer even though it is by far the most truthful answer to give.

Looks like this fallacy but is not:

  • When the question includes an assumption which is regarded as uncontroversial. For example, "Where were you last night, sir?" assumes the person being questioned to be male, but is not fallacious unless the person's gender is actually in question. It also assumes that there was, in fact, a last night, and that the person being questioned existed at that time and was in some location, but these are also not generally questionable assumptions.

Compare Morton's Fork, where you are given two or more choices which all lead to negative outcomes.

Examples:

General
  • Many Logic Bombs require such a fallacy; for example, the Master Computer will be obliged by its programming to give only a yes or no answer to a question like "I always lie, and this is the truth, am I telling the truth?" It's impossible to give a yes or no answer to this question that is correct, but the Master Computer will not be allowed to either simply point out that the question cannot be answered, or to note it is being obliged to assume a positive answer to "do you always lie?" A truly logical computer would respond that the opposite of "I always lie" is not "I always tell the truth", but "On at least one occasion I have told the truth," so there is no contradiction in calling someone a liar for saying he always lies. The variant where the speaker says "This statement is a lie" is more rigorous.
  • In legal matters, these are considered a type of "leading questions", where the intent is to persuade someone being questioned towards a certain line of replies. For example, "You saw the defendant with a knife in his hand, right?" is a loaded version of "Was the defendant carrying anything?". Leading questions are for the most part severely discouraged and have led to the collapse of cases where it became clear that witnesses had, for various reasons, allowed themselves to be led into giving completely false testimony. Note that there's a difference between a "loaded" and a "leading" question; they are often confused. A loaded question is one that assumes some fact. For instance, if the witness says that he saw someone leaving the scene, then "Was the defendant carrying anything?" is a loaded question, because it assumes that the person that the witness saw was the defendant. A leading question is one that prompts a particular response. Often, they're in the form of "Such-and-such happened, correct?" or "Did such-and-such happen?", though the latter depends somewhat on context; for example, if the question is in response to a witness's testimony regarding an event they thought might happen, and the attorney is attempting to confirm whether or not the event did happen. The open-ended "What happened?" is never considered to be a leading question.
    • Similarly, it's a common cross-examination trick to do this, because the attorney conditions the witness to respond "Yes" or "No" to everything and then traps them with a question like this. The delay as the person scrambles to shift from simple "yes" and "no" answers and mentally compose what they want to say can make them look uncertain. If the questioning attorney tries to insist on a simple "yes or no" answer, the opposing attorney will usually make the objection "Assumes a fact not in evidence." Unfortunately, the objection doesn't always work. An earlier witness may have testified to the claimed fact. An example of a loaded question is, "Did you smirk when you kicked him?" This can't be answered yes or no if the witness never kicked him. Nevertheless, the objection wouldn't apply if someone earlier had testified that this witness had kicked the person. The simple, obvious solution is for the judge to allow the witness to answer, "I never kicked him."
    • Note that at common law, and under the modern rules of evidence in most countries adhering to an adversarial system (where the lawyers, not the judge, ask most of the questions), you are not allowed to ask leading questions of witnesses favorable to you, but are allowed to ask leading questions of witnesses hostile to you. It is generally assumed that any witness you call is favorable to you, and any witness called by the other side is hostile to you, but if a witness you called is known to be or has turned out to be hostile to you, the judge may grant the attorney permission to treat the witness as hostile (and thus allow him/her to ask leading questions).
  • Another common one is "stop pretending to be stupid". No matter how you answer, you implicitly are admitting to pretending to be stupid or just plain being stupid. Everybody's parents has used this one on them at least once.
  • "Does your mother/father/parent know you're gay?"

Literature
  • Plato depicts Socrates doing this all the time, along with Begging The Question, Appeal to Nature, and the Four Terms Fallacy. And a lot of the Converse Error. It was an important element in his razor reasoning with which he beat opponents like Gorgias into submission, and was not at the time considered illegitimate, since formal logic was in its infancy. Despite this, common historical belief is that Socrates hated sophists (although was labeled one).

Live-Action TV
  • Stephen Colbert is often fond of quizzing guests, "Bush: great president, or the greatest president?"

Tabletop Games
  • This can sometimes be used to brand someone a traitor in Paranoia - simply ask "Are you a happy communist?" If they say no, they're saying they're not happy, which is treason. But if they say yes, then they're saying they're a communist, which is also treason. This can backfire, however; if The Computer doesn't buy your interpretation, then you've just accused them of being a traitor without proof, which is itself treasonous.

Web Comics
  • This Left Handed Toons strip gives the example of, "Have you told your parents you're gay yet?"

Western Animation
  • The Simpsons:
    • One episode has the family being accused of being unpatriotic but, when given the chance to clarify, are asked loaded questions such as, "Which part of America do you hate the most?" There is no "correct answer", since naming any part allows the assumption that you hate the other parts too, just not as much.
    • Another episode showed the Springfield Police Department official website, whose front page says "If you committed a crime and you wish to confess, click 'Yes'. Otherwise click 'No'". If you click 'No', the site assumes you committed a crime but don't wish to confess and dispatches a police car to your house.
  • Used in the Family Guy episode "Screwed the Pooch," though really a better example of False Dichotomy.
    Lawyer: What phrase best describes Brian? (the family dog): "problem drinker" or "African-American haberdasher"?
    Peter: Well I guess of the two, "problem drinker", but I don't see...
    Lawyer: How about this- "sexual deviant" or "magic picture that if you stare at long enough, you will see something."
  • In The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad during Mr. Toad's trial the prosecutor barrages Toad's friends with loaded questions demanding yes-or-no answers and once they answer yes or no he dismisses them before they can elaborate further.

Video Games
  • In Ultima VII, the leader of the local Church of Happyology administers a personality test when you discuss joining. It's full of loaded questions that allow him to conclude you have serious emotional problems no matter how you answer.


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