complexes about questions

Yesterday in Critical Thinking class we went over the list of fallacies generally described as fallacies of “ambiguity” (I know that that’s not an entirely accurate or useful designation). Among these is the fallacy of the complex question. Generally this fallacy occurs when one sneakily makes a dubious or contentious assertion and then asks a question on the basis of that assumes the truth of that assertion. I told the students–and I think this is true–that it’s fairly rare. Furthermore, when it’s committed, it’s obvious. So far in the two plus years we’ve been at this I’ve only found two instances of it (click here). So I offered extra credit (lots of it) for any student who could find an actual example. So I thought perhaps to throw the idea out here. Anyone?

7 thoughts on “complexes about questions”

  1. I’m rather fond of this one. “Why is it that Democrats hate America and our Soldiers”. I first heard of it on the Daily Show, a while back. Jon points to the running headlines under shows like MSNBC and CNN. And there it is, “Why do Dems hate America?” They quoted a Republican talking point. The actual headline was a claim made by Ann Coulter in an interview. The show was going to discuss her new book.

  2. A couple of years ago I remember being called by a survey company of behalf of Walmart. Walmart wanted to build a store in the area where I then lived, and it was meeting harsh resistance for local residents which the company was not use to handling. Almost all the questions were cleverly worded so as to force one to admit something that she probably didn’t really want to admit. I particularly remember one question near the beginning that asked something close to this:

    “Is denying Walmart the ability to help the economy by providing low cost products to lower income communities a bad thing?”

    I figured I had four choices of how to answer this question. 1) I could go with my instinct to laugh out loud; 2) I could take the time to explain why this was a loaded question and that I was refusing to answer it; 3) I could take the bait and answer like Walmart hoped I would; or 4) I could answer in a seemingly irrational way and simply say “no” it wasn’t a bad thing. I chose (4) because I thought choosing (2) would have got my answer disqualified and Walmart would have never seen it.

    After asking about 30 questions the young woman, who was conducting the phone survey, then began asking me questions that I’m sure weren’t Walmart approved, but were simply her questions. The reason I believe this is because she started that period of questions off by telling me her current geographic location (several states away from where I then lived) and her company’s name. She seemed intrigued by what was going on. Judging from her reaction to my answers and the fact that one month later Walmart started a nation wide ad campaign that promoted the “good” things it does, led me to believe that there must have been a lot of people who answered the way I did. I would suppose if you are a company and you conjure up a survey full of complex question fallacies designed to force people to choose the company’s side and you still don’t get the answers you hoped for then you probably can safely conclude that your company has some massive image rebuilding to do

  3. Both good examples. Matt–yours is especially good as it forces a yes or no answer. Keep them coming.

  4. Slippery Slope? with a possible CQ Courtesy of Mr Bush

    PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, one way to – and one of the things I have found here in Washington amongst those who were skeptical about whether the Iraqis will do what it takes to secure their own freedom, is to remind them of what would happen if there’s failure. In other words, there would be chaos. If we did not work to secure Baghdad and help the Iraqis to secure Baghdad, the country could evolve into a chaotic situation, and out of that chaos would emerge an emboldened enemy.

    Sorry this post does not deal exactly with topic at hand, but after searching for a complex question i came across this bush quote in npr interview. this statement by bush seems to come across more rhetorically, “skeptical about whether the Iraqis will do what it takes to secure their own freedom”

    Hopefully i will find an example because the extra credit would be useful. my current aim is to find one during the bush/cocaine debates. however,so far i have only been able to find the standard “when did you stop beating your wife?” example.


  5. I think it comes up most in surveys and polls. I found this one taday at a website I check regularly. I know it’s rather tongue-in-cheek considering the author, and that’s probably part of the point, but I still can’t bring myself to take the poll, as I would be assenting to the validity of the term. Even for the sake of argument, I can’t accept that.

  6. Here’s one from Fox News’s complex questioner, Chris Wallace (via Crooks and Liars):

    “what message does it send the terrorists if we cut and run?”

    See it here:

    If we really wanted to be sticklers (which we do) then I would say this is an example of a loaded question. And I’m certain someone is an expert on this. I’m wondering now, however, how a complex question differs from a loaded question. More on this later.

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