Tag Archives: sophisims

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?