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Complex Question

Two otherwise unrelated points are conjoined and treated as a single proposition. The reader is expected to accept or reject both together, when in reality one is acceptable while the other is not. A complex question is an illegitimate use of the “and” operator. “The fallacy of many questions is a common form or error, which has been variously defined as: 1) framing a question in such a way that two or more questions are asked at once, and a single answer is required; or 2) framing a question in such a way as to beg another question; or 3) framing a question which makes a false presumption; or 4) framing a complex question but demanding a simple answer.” (Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies, p. 8.)


On his HBO show Real Time, Bill Maher asks actress Lisa Kudrow: “Do you feel the Republican War on Women is still an important issue to voters?” (during online “Overtime” segment, November 7, 2014)

In The Unknown Known (2013), Errol Morris questions Donald Rumsfeld about the American people’s widespread but mistaken implication of Saddam Hussein in the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center. He cites a 2003 Washington Post poll in which “69% said they believe  it is likely the Iraqi leader was personally involved in the attacks carried out by Al Qaeda.” Rumsfeld responds, “I don’t remember anyone in the Bush Administration saying anything like that, nor do I recall anyone believing that.” Morris cuts to a February 4, 2003 Pentagon briefing in which a reporter asks: “Mr Secretary, today in a broadcast interview, Saddam Hussein said, ‘There is only one truth, Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction whatsoever. And he went on to say, I would like to tell you directly, we have no relationship with Al Qaeda.'” In the briefing, Rumsfeld responds. “How does one respond to that. It’s just a continuous pattern . This is a case of the local liar  coming up again and people repeating what he said, and forgetting to say that he never, almost never, rarely, tells the truth. (16min mark) The implication is that Rumsfeld had himself propounded the confusion, but it is at least possible that Rumsfeld was replying only to the first clause in the conjunction, respecting weapons of mass destruction.

Do you support freedom and the right to bear arms?

From a list of questions from Don Fehrenbacher “especially worth asking and answering”: 1) Could Lincoln have succeeded where Johnson failed. 2) What part did terrorism play in the ultimate triumph of the Southern ‘redeemers’? 3) When did racial segregation harden into its elaborate mold? 4) What were the primary motives of the radical Republicans? (cited in, Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies, p. 9.)

Complex questions are often used to encourage clients to comply with a request, as in the example of a staff member who is having touble getting a patient to take a bath. Rather than asking him if he want to take a bath tonight, she might say, ‘Do you want to take a bath now or at seven?’ Another variation of complex questions is requesting explanations for supposed facts that have not been supported, as in ‘How do you account for extrasensory perception (ESP’? Since there is controversy about whether ESP exists, and many people believe that research exploring such phenomena has yielded negative results, there may be no extraordinary effects to explain, perhaps just fallacies or questionable experimental designs to be uncovered.

(Gambrill, Critical Thinking in Clinical Practice, p. 154.)


Identify the two propositions illegitimately conjoined and show that believing one does not mean that you have to believe the other.


Its questionable status as an argument is suggested by the very label assigned to it. Questions are not declarative statements that can be judged true or false and accepted or rejected. Questions require a different kind of response than statements. For this reason, few theorists are inclined to include ‘Complex Question’ in any stable of fallacies. The variant of this problem, Many Questions, was the last fallacy in Aristotle’s list, but even on Aristotle’s treatment, the fallacy label seems inaccurate. A Complex Question is not a straightforward one: it contains an assumption that is hidden but that must be implicitly or explicitly acknowledged if the respondent is to answer the question. Invariably, such an acknowledgement commits the respondent to a position or claim with which she is at least uncomfortable, and to which she may be adamantly opposed. Since it contains such an assumption, a Complex Question can be unpacked to reveal two or more statements and thus could be revealed to have the structure of simple argument. … Whether or not we take Complex Question as a fallacy, it introduces us to the problem of unacceptable assumptions that can be hidden by statements or questions. Complex Questions are the problems they are because they cannot be answered without the respondent’s being committed in some way to the assumptions contained in them. Even questions that require just a yes/no response like the old saw ‘Have you stopped beating your dog (or robbing banks, or engaging in public nudity)?’ presuppose that the respondent has been beating his dog, and so on. Some examples will involve assumptions that, once drawn out, constitute full arguments.

Tindale, Fallacies and Argument Appraisal, pp. 69,71.

To ban all complex questions from reasonable dialogue as general policy would seem to be an extremely dubious proposal. To forbid altogether the asking of conjunctive, disjunctive, or conditional question would be to impoverish an arguer’s ability to ask many kinds of important and legitimate questions. Such and impoverishment would surely have to be balanced by a strong argument for believing that semantically complex question are inherently misleading or fallacious. But this approach seems misdirected, for semantically complex questions seem to be fallacious only when several other factors combine to make them problematic…

Walton, Informal Logic, p. 34.

So the important thing is to distinguish carefully between loaded questions and questions like the spouse-beating question that are more than just loaded, but could be said to be force-loaded because an answerer must become committed to the unwelcome presupposition(s) no matter which answer he gives, of all the possible direct answers.

 Meyer, Questions and Questioning, p. 218.