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Many Questions Fallacy

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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", or "I have never beaten my wife" is not accepted, and the interrogator may accuse the respondent with dodging the question. 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.

An even more devious version of this fallacy is to make the accusations in such a way as to preempt the subject from being able to give any simple rebuttal. To return to the classic example of domestic abuse, "When did you stop beating your wife?" forces the subject to counter both the assumption that he has beaten his wife, and that he has been beating his wife for some time. To complicate matters further, asking "When are you going to stop beating your wife?" casually assumes that he has beaten his wife, has been beating his wife, and is still beating her now, thus loading three accusations into one question, all of which can be difficult to answer in the time-limited formats such as during a political debate or in a press conference with hostile reporters seeking quick soundbites. (Not to mention, as stated above, the question of whether the person being accused of beating his wife is or has even been married.)

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.

Note that the term "loaded question" terminology is often confused with a leading question, that is, a question that invites a particular answer. The two are not at all synonymous: "You like chocolate, don't you?" is a leading question (in that it invites a "yes"), but not loaded (because answering "no" doesn't imply anything other than not liking chocolate). On the other hand, "Do you still beat your wife?" isn't leading (since the question doesn't suggest an answer).

Compare Morton's Fork, where two or more choices all lead to the same outcome.


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    Comic Books 
  • Demonstrated in issue #1 of Paranoia:
    "Are you after my job, Lint Trap-G-BIV-5?"
    "Never, sir! I'd never want your job!"
    "Are you implying there's something wrong with my job?!"

    Fan Works 
  • In Secrets Harry defends Snape and the Malfoys in front of the Wizengamot after Voldemort is defeated. One member claims that they might backslide once separated from Harry's influence.
    Harry: In other words, youíre afraid of pardoning them unless I agree to watch over them like children. You wish to make me responsible for them.
    Wizengamot member: Are you unwilling to be held responsible for them?
    Harry: What kind of question is that? If I say yes, you take it to mean that I think they need someone to watch over them. If I say no, you take it to mean that Iím not willing to stand behind their actions.
  • Whispered Tribulation: Aizawa attempts to hijack Naomasa's interrogation of Izuku this way, having convinced himself that Izuku must be The Mole and determined to badger him into 'confessing'. Thankfully, Naomasa and Principal Nedzu are having none of it, to the point that Nedzu tases him in the thigh when he refuses to stop.

  • 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.
    Crown Prosecutor: (To Mr. Rat and Mr. Mole) Is it true you had the accused locked in his own house because he threatened to get a motorcar? Did you or did you not have him locked up?
    Rat: We did.
    Crown Prosecutor: THANK YOU, that is all! Next witness.
    Bailiff: Mr. Angus MacBadger!
    Crown Prosecutor: As trustee of the Toad estate, you knew of the prisoner's mania for motorcars?
    MacBadger: Well I uh...
    Crown Prosecutor: And due to his reckless extravagance, you've cut off his allowance?
    MacBadger: Well, uh...
    Crown Prosecutor: That he was, to the best of your knowledge, without funds?!
    MacBadger: Well, uh...
    Crown prosecutor: That is all, thank you!
  • In Daddy's Little Girls, the protagonist is asked "Did you or did you not go to jail for rape?". He did, but it turns out that the underlying assumption - that he actually committed the rape that he was convicted of - was false.

  • Many Logic Bombs require such a fallacy; for example, the Master Computer will be obliged by its programming to give only an unqualified 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 have sufficient programming to point out either that the question cannot be answered, or to note it is being obliged to assume a positive answer to "do you always lie?"
  • 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?", among other questions. 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 
    • 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). Please note that you can ask leading questions, not loaded ones: if a defense witness being cross-examined by the prosecution in a criminal case says "I saw someone leaving the scene," the prosecution is allowed to say "And that person was the defendant, yes?" but is not allowed to say, "And did you see the defendant carrying a knife?" (or rather, isn't allowed to say that yet: if the prosecutor starts by asking the first of these two questions, and the witness says "yes" to the first question, then the second question is permissible, as it has been established that the witness saw the defendant leaving the scene). If the witness was called by the prosecution, both of these questions would be impermissible: the prosecutor would have to ask "Whom did you see?" and "Were they carrying anything?" and then "What were they carrying?"
    • Sometimes, this kind of rhetorical trickery is used for Perp Sweating or getting a certain emotional reaction out of a suspect instead of leading a witness. In a book by FBI profiler John Douglas, for instance, he mentions a trial in which he was advising the prosecution's lawyers in their attempts to convict a serial killer of several murders. The jury didn't understand a lot of the complicated scientific evidence they were presenting for his having committed the murders, and the defense was doing very well at presenting the superficially charming killer (when they had him take the stand) as an innocent and upstanding citizen too mild-mannered to commit the crimes of which he was being accused. On John Douglas' advice, when the prosecution cross-examined the killer, the prosecutor stepped up very close to him and demanded "Did you panic when you strangled [the victim]!? Huh!? Did you panic!?" While the defense immediately yelled their objections, the rattled killer started ranting angrily about how he hated the police and the prosecution and what "fools" they all were. The defense's objections were (of course) sustained, but the damage to their client's charming image was done, and the jury finally started taking the prosecution's evidence seriously enough to convict the killer of the murders.
  • Another common one is "stop pretending to be stupid". No matter how you answer, you implicitly are either admitting to pretending to be stupid or to being just plain stupid. Very nearly everyone has had a parent or guardian pull this at some point or other.
  • "Does your mother/father/parent know you're gay/about all the penguins you've raped/that you're a child molester?"
  • Accusations of "When are you going to stop being a rape apologist?" are very common, especially on Twitter, since it's difficult to defend against them with only 140 characters.
  • The old joke "Do these pants make me look fat?" Say yes and you just called your wife fat, hurting her feelings. Say no, and you're accused of lying and hurting your wife's feelings. Some twists on the joke has the husband/boyfriend Take a Third Option, such as one candy commercial having said husband/boyfriend stuffing his mouth with the candy bar so that he can't give a coherent answer.
  • (At least) In Finland, once a man turns 18, they need to choose between army training, civilian service or prison. A few decades ago, the second option required a valid reason (nowadays it's more accepted), and pretty much the only accepted reason was pacifism. However, those who chose it were then interviewed to see if they really practiced what they preached; they were asked such lovely questions as "You and your girlfriend/wife are attacked on an alleyway. You see a baseball bat leaning against a wall, what do you do?" If you answered "fight back", they used it to "prove" that you were lying and have nothing against violence, and choosing "do nothing or run" obviously made you look like an cowardly asshole who'd let their girl get assaulted. Fortunately, this kind of trickery has been buried for a while now.

  • 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 he was labeled one).
  • In Chocolat, Vianne's claims of innocence don't influence Reynaud's judgement of her at all: she is still the criminal he pegged her as before they met. All they "prove" is that she's in denial about her crimes, or trying to conceal them. There is literally nothing Vianne can do that won't validate Reynaud's preconceptions about her.

     Live Action TV  

  • Stephen Colbert's character on The Colbert Report is often fond of quizzing guests, "Bush: great president, or the greatest president?"
  • Broadchurch lawyer and Hate Sink Sharon Bishop asks Ellie how long had she been having an affair with DI Hardy. Ellie, not unnaturally, goes "What?" and is told that she is under oath, and how long was that affair again? There are not enough words to express how much real lawyers are not allowed to do this.
  • Community: Pierce's (posthumous) first questions for Britta at his bequeathal:
    Mr. Stone: In all your sexual fantasies about Pierce Hawthorne, none of them involved his murder?
    Britta: What? No.
    Mr. Stone: But you have had sexual fantasies about Mr. Hawthorne.
    Britta: No! What kind of question is that?
  • As the guests on it would attest verbally, some questions on the game show Tattletales fall into the "have you stopped beating your wife?" line.

     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.

     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.

     Web Comics  
  • This Left Handed Toons strip gives the example of, "Have you told your parents you're gay yet?"
  • In Freefall, Florence asks Helix, a robot, a question to give his self preservation routine a real test: "Does this dress make me look fat?" Helix immediately runs away screaming, leading Florence to state, impressed, that she's met humans with far worse survival responses.

     Western Animation  
  • The Simpsons:
    • "The Bart-Mangled Banner" 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.
    • "The Computer Wore Menace Shoes" 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," which doubles as an example of False Dichotomy.
    Lawyer: What phrase best describes Brian, "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 one episode when Darkwing Duck was trying to clean up his image, Negaduck sabotaged him at a press conference by asking him a series of these, such as whether he'd stopped digging pot holes and scaring children. That someone (almost certainly Negaduck himself, he being Darkwing Duck's Evil Twin) had been doing all of these things made responding to these accusations that much more difficult for Darkwing.

     Real Life 
  • A particularly manipulative version of this occurs in so called "push polls", which usually takes the form of asking "If you knew Bob (insert some really unpleasant and usually completely made up claim) would you be more or less likely to vote for him". Obviously, they don't really care what the person thinks, it's just away to make the claim without actually saying anything legally actionable.
  • Using this fallacy during examination of a witness in court is generally considered an Unconventional Courtroom Tactic. The appropriate objection is "assumes facts not in evidence". (Again, a "loaded question" is different from a "leading" one—loaded questions are never permissible, but leading questions are permitted in some circumstances.)
  • In the 2010 Supreme Court case of Berghuis v. Thompkins, defendant Van Chester Thompkins, after being arrested by the Southfield (Michigan) police as a suspect in a fatal shooting, was advised of his Miranda rights, not invoking any of his Miranda rights when they were read to him. Later, the detectives attempted to appeal to his conscience and his religious beliefs, asking him "Do you believe in God?", "Do you pray to God?", and "Do you pray that God will forgive you for shooting the victim?" Thompkins answered yes to all three questions, with the final 'yes' response being equal to a confession of shooting. After attempting to appeal, Thompkins was ultimately convicted and sentenced to a life sentence with no possible chance for parole (the maximum penalty for murder in Michigan, which banned the death penalty in 1847). He was not solely convicted due to his confession however. Even so, the decision upholding this was widely criticized for eroding established Miranda rights against self-incrimination.
  • Some examples used in grade school or junior high, usually (but not necessarily) by bullies:
    • Are you a homo? If yes, you are a homosexual; if no, you're not human (a member of species Homo sapiens). A good third option is "I'm just as much of a homo as you are." (Be prepared for a punch in the face, however.)
    • Are you PT? If you say yes, you are a pregnant teenager; if no, you aren't potty-trained. Are you a PLP? If so, you're a public leaning post (the bully promptly barges into you). If not, you aren't a proper looking person. One could, of course, always claim to not know what the abbreviations mean, forcing the bully to choose one, and refuse the assertation to "Just say yes or no."
    • (For a male target) "Are you a lesbian trapped inside a man's body?" If he says yes, he's transgender; if no, he doesn't like girls (i.e. is gay). The easiest way around this is to be one of the two, but in that case you're probably gonna get bullied anyway.
    • "Would you suck my cock if it was clean?" If yes, then you're a 'cocksucker'. If no, you're a 'dirty cocksucker'. The way around this is to say "Sorry, I don't swing that way," The "Why? Are you cruising for a piece of ass" from Highlander, "Are you hitting on me?" "WOW! I didn't know you were GAY!" or "I didn't know you HAD a cock!" (Be careful with that last one, though. The bully might assault you for saying that.) Or perhaps "It'll never come up because you're never clean."
    • Do your parents know you're gay? (Or something else for the sake of switching it up, such as watching hentai or banging your sister.) If yes, then you're gay (et al) and your parents know it already; if no, then you're gay (etcetera) and you haven't told your parents yet.note 
    • Someone will give you something unpleasant to eat, e.g. chilli chocolate or a Black Death (a sweet so sour it burns the skin off the roof of your mouth). If you eat it, you are ridiculed for being gullible, if you donít eat it, you are ridiculed for a) being a bad sport and/or b) not trusting the person who gave it to you. The way out is to eat it, and then ask for another one, until you have eaten all of their Black Deaths/chilli chocolate etc. That way you are a good sport, trusting, proved you werenít gullible, got one over whoever gave it to you, and most importantly have ensured nobody else will fall victim for this fork for the rest of the day. Be careful when doing this though, particularly with Black Deaths, since your mouth will hurt for days afterwards.
    • A bully will dare you to do something extremely dangerous. If you don't do it, you get bullied for being "chicken". If you do it, you get bullied for being a moron or crazy for doing something so dangerous and stupid. The correct answer is to say "Only if you do it first," since they'll then have to put up or shut up.
    • "Do you have HIV?" No. "Are you positive?" If you say yes, you're "positive" in the sense of being "HIV positive"; if you say no, you're "not positive" in the sense of "not positive that you don't have HIV". The way around this one is to say, ďI am positive that I donít have HIV.Ēnote 
  • Some classic examples of "loaded questions" are:
    • "Have you stopped beating your wife?" If you say no, then you beat your wife. If you say yes, then you admit to having beaten your wife. The only way to escape is to say that you have never beaten your wife (or that you arenít married).
    • "Do you fancy my sister?" If yes, you get beaten up for having designs on her and so dishonoring her. If no, you get beaten up for thinking there's something wrong with her. Ways to Take a Third Option include:
      • "Not in that way" and "Only as a friend" if the relationship is platonic.
      • 'I didn't know you had a sister.' 'I'm married/in a committed relationship and faithful to my significant other.' In the case of a man, 'I'm gay.' In the case of a woman, 'I'm straight.' Still might not work as he could claim you're lying, assume one or the other, and still beat you. Chavs wanting to pick a fight often use a question like this (ex, "You eyein'me bird?") to guarantee an excuse: either you're ogling her, you think she's ugly, or you're lying about one of the two. The correct response is to say you didn't know they were a couple and offer to buy their next pint.
    • "Are you a [derogatory noun] in a cage?" If yes, it's admitting to be one. If not, then the response you get is "[Derogatory noun] on the loose!" Insult Backfire is probably the best defense: take the term with pride and turn it into a compliment.
    • "Are you embarrassed that you soiled your pants today?" If yes, you admit to soiling your pants. If no, you admit to soiling your pants, and you're a weirdo who doesn't see anything embarrassing about that. You can also replace "pants" with "diaper" to add the extra embarrassment of not being toilet-trained. Possible counter: Say no because you do dirty work ("Hey, someone's gotta do it"). Or turn it around ("Why would you know if someone did that or not? What are you, a poop fetishist?", which may still backfire if true or the insulter is wearing something like an "I pooped today!" T-shirt).