Tag Archives: Complex Question

Complex question triple play

Many are familiar with the fallacy of the complex question, perhaps in the form of its most well known example:

when did you stop beating your wife? 

The trick consists in cramming two questions into one such that a response to one of them (you can after all only answer one question at a time) looks like a response to the other. So if you answer "I haven't" to the above question then you admit to beating your wife, but  you thought you were denying beating your wife.  Chris Wallace of Fox News tried this out on Bill Clinton a few years back.  He asked: why didn't  you do more to stop al Qaeda?  Clinton, smart guy that he is (whatever else you may want to say about him) attacked the question.  Why this is called a "fallacy," by the way, is really beyond me, since no inference is really drawn.  Perhaps there's an inference drawn at the end when the person responds to the trap.  It seems to me to be more of a trick than a fallacy. 

In any case, most examples of it that I have seen involve two questions.  My informal sense is that the structure forces a negative answer to the trick part of the question which looks like an affirmative answer to the assumption.  But I'll have to think about that a little more. 

But it doesn't seem to me by the way that one needs to be restricted to two questions.  Why not three?  I can only get as far as three in a complex question.  But I fear I may have not thought hard enough about it.  Here's my example:

Why must you persist in doing that?  

That's three questions: (1) why do you do that? (2) must you do that? (3) why do you persist in doing that?

Why can't anyone come up with more?

Weighed, analyzed, confronted

On the theme of taking pride in being ignorant, here's Michael Gerson on Barack Obama:

What took place instead under Warren's precise and revealing questioning was the most important event so far of the 2008 campaign — a performance every voter should seek out on the Internet and watch.

First, the forum previewed the stylistic battle lines of the contest ahead, and it should give Democrats pause. Obama was fluent, cool and cerebral – the qualities that made Adlai Stevenson interesting but did not make him president. Obama took care to point out that he had once been a professor at the University of Chicago, but that bit of biography was unnecessary. His whole manner smacks of chalkboards and campus ivy. Issues from stem cell research to the nature of evil are weighed, analyzed and explained instead of confronted.

Weighing, analyzing, and explaining them does not entail not confronting these issues.  Indeed, I shudder at the confronting that does not follow the weighing, the analyzing and the explaining.

One more thing.  Later in the piece, Gerson writes:

Obama's response on abortion — the issue that remains his largest obstacle to evangelical support — bordered on a gaffe. Asked by Warren at what point in its development a baby gains "human rights," Obama said that such determinations were "above my pay grade" — a silly answer to a sophisticated question. If Obama is genuinely unsure about this matter, he (and the law) should err in favor of protecting innocent life. If Obama believes that a baby in the womb lacks human rights, he should say so — pro-choice men and women must affirm (as many sincerely do) that developing life has a lesser status. Here the professor failed the test of logic

It doesn't follow by a matter of logic alone that "uncertainty" in the matter should tend one way rather than the other.  Besides, the mother's autonomy seems more well established than the fetus' personhood, so one could say well established rights should take precedence (in the case of conflict).  But Gerson obviously distorted Obama's point.  Aside from this, Warren's framing of the question ("gains rights") is devious: human rights are not "gained" and "lost" (except in certain places) as one accumulates chips.  You have them or you don't.  Suggesting otherwise (in the case of the fetus) seems something of a heap paradox: when is a heap a heap? Two? Three?

There may, of course, be nothing wrong with the "heap" view of rights, Warren (and Gerson) just ought to acknowledge when it has been sneaked into a question to a pro-choice Presidential candidate in front of an admittedly hostile pro-life audience.  In light of those facts, Obama's answer–with its weighing, analyzing, and confronting–was right on point.

H/t mahablog

When did you stop beating your wife?

Michael Gerson provides some examples of the elusive complex question fallacy.  After a column devoted to examining whether Obama is really a "centrist" (by looking at the exclusive evidence of whether he has voted against his party on any issue–not his stated policies), Gerson writes:

These are welcome gestures, but they are not policies. Perhaps Obama is just conventionally liberal. Perhaps he has carefully avoided offending Democratic constituencies. Whatever the reason, his lack of a strong, centrist ideological identity raises a concern about his governing approach. Obama has no moderate policy agenda that might tame or modify the extremes of his own party in power. Will every Cabinet department simply be handed over to the most extreme Democratic interest groups? Will Obama provide any centrist check on liberal congressional overreach? 

In other words Gerson hasn't done nearly enough (even on the relaxed standards of Charity one would expect from him) to show that Obama is some kind of "extremist."  He takes it that the absence of one kind of evidence against that view is sufficient to establish it.  So what results is a kind of argumentum ad ignorantiam which sets up two complex questions.  Nice form.