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"Lawyers" detail from Library of Congress, P&P Online, LC-USZC4-2900Philosophy 103: Introduction to Logic 
Complex Question

Abstract: The fallacy of complex question is discussed, and several typical examples are presented.

  1. Complex Question: the fallacy of phrasing a question that, by the way it is worded, assumes something not contextually granted, assumes something not true, or assumes a false dichotomy. To be a fallacy, and not just a rhetorical technique, the conclusion (usually an answer to the question) must be present either implicitly or explicitly.

    1. Other names for this fallacy include: fallacy of loaded question, many questions, false question, leading question, trick question, and fallacia plurium interrogationum.

    2. The fallacy of complex question is usually (but not always) in the form or a question. The fallacy involves the asking of a question that tacitly assumes the truth of a statement (or occurrence of a state of affairs) not generally granted or not given into evidence.

    3. If an argument is present, the question, itself, must be evaluated as a statement, i.e., a verbal expression implicitly having a truth value.

    4. The informal structure of the fallacy is sometimes used to invoke some kind of action in accordance with the following:

      Informal Guide to Complex Question

      How or why are related statements p and q the case? (Where either p or q or both are unwarranted assumptions.)

      So statement p or q or both are assumed to be true (often for the sake of affirming something else).

      For example, consider the following:

      “How can we save our country from the bureaucratic dictatorship, the corruption, and the creeping socialism of the present administration? Only one way — through the Independent Party.”

      The truth of the existence of the states of affairs alluded to in the question needs to be established or settled before evaluating whether the truth of the conclusion logically follows.

  2. The problems associated with both the fallacy and the rhetorical techniques of complex question often are used as techniques of subterfuge by persons in authority to elicit a confession or to manipulate attitudes.

    1. Although often manipulative, unethical, and improper, complex questions in the form of leading questions occur in surveys, law courts, journalistic interviews, and police cross-examinations. Leading questions can be assumptive, implicative, or intimidating, not all of which are necessarily fallacious.

      1. Assumptive questions are designed to take for granted the very question at issue in order to induce a specific response.

        As a former police interrogator and fraud examiner states, “Regardless of the questioner's surety of … guilt, it would be most sensible to start with [a] question [that] … assumes guilt, which makes the job of denial more difficult than issuing a simple ‘no.’”[1]

      2. Counselors, psychologists, and related professionals use complex question as an investigative technique.

        For example, a noted psychotherapist writes, “We therapists have our little cunning ways—statements such as: ‘I wonder what blocks you from acting upon the decision you already seem to have made.’”[2]

      3. Although some leading questions may be asked as the discretion of the presiding judge, in general they are not permitted because they have been shown to alter testimony.

        After one of Hugo Münsterberg's eye-witness testimony experiments at Harvard, “the leading question was put to each member of the class—‘Did you notice the stove in the room?’ (there was no stove there)—and 59 per cent of the class answered ‘Yes,’ and having once admitted seeing the stove they proceeded to locate it, and tell in what part of the room it was.”[3]

      4. Francis Wellman, the famous trial lawyer, writes, “[I]t is easy to produce evidence that varies very widely from the exact truth. This is often done by overzealous practitioners by putting leading questions or by incorporating two questions into one, the second a simple one, misleading the witness into a ‘yes’ for both, and thus creating an entirely false impression.”[4]

    2. Identification of the presuppositions of a complex question and clarifying what is at issue has much in common with “dividing the question” as is done in an application of the rules of order in conducting meetings:

      Dividing a question. When a motion embraces several parts, each of which forms substantially a separate proposition, the resolution of it into distinct motions or questions is called dividing the question. … Advantage of such division. It affords the assembly an opportunity to receive or to reject what part it thinks proper …”[5]

    3. The technique of resolving complex questions is also comparable to understanding the need for a “line-item veto” where particular provisions of a list can be vetoed without rejecting all provisions of a proposal.

    4. Occasionally, the fallacy of complex question is simply an unproven assertion of evidence in an argument, and a question (i.e., an interrogative sentence) is not present in the passage.

      For example, in Barack Obama's primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, Assistant Secretary of State Susan Rice condemned Clinton's policy of Iraq and Iran by demanding an ”explanation of how and why she got those critical judgments wrong.”[6]

      Or in the 2016 U.S. Presidential race Froma Harrop argues, “Left on the table is the biggest and most troubling question mark: whether [candidate Donald] Trump is mentally stable. Evidence overflows that he is not. That someone so clearly disturbed got this far in a presidential race is absolutely terrifying.”[7]

    5. Rarely, the fallacy occurs with the presuppositions of the question explicitly stated in separate statements as in this example:

      “Wall Street Journal columnist Dorothy Rabinowitz wrote recently: ‘It is the president of the United States—the same one who presented himself as the man who would transcend political partisanship because we were all Americans—who has for most of his term set about dividing the nation by class, by the stoking of resentments. Who mocks millionaires and billionaires. Who regularly makes it clear that he considers himself the president of the other — the good Americans. How's that for presidential tone?’”[8]

    6. The fallacy of complex question is often effected by the fallacy of a false choice (or false dilemma) where the assumption of alternative states of affairs omits one or more other possibilities. Consider this example:

      “[President Trump] continued to cite a discredited survey … purporting to show that many Muslims in this country support ‘global jihad’ and the replacement of our legal system with Islamic Sharia Law. Is Trump just playing politics or is he truly an anti-Muslim bigot who believes this rubbish? At this point it hardly matters.”[9]

      The assumed dichotomy in this example of Trump either playing politics or being anti-Muslim omits other possible alternative states of affairs.

  3. The assumption or presupposition to a complex question can only be known from the context. Not all cases where something not generally granted is assumed are fallacious because not all such passages involve arguments.

    1. E.g., a prosecutor demands from a defendant, “Did you commit the murder before or after you bought the soft drink?”

      Here, no argument is being given, so no fallacy occurs. Obviously, the whole sense of the question changes if the prosecutor is asking the question just after the defendant confessed to the murder.

    2. The classic question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” would not be a fallacy unless explicitly or implicitly the speaker is assuming without evidence that you beat your wife, and this is the very point he wishes to draw as a conclusion. It's difficult to construct this example in such a way that a fallacy, instead of a rhetorical technique, occurs. This interrogative sentence, often used as a defining example of the fallacy of complex question is not a fallacy unless it occurs as a premise in an argument.

    3. As an example of “unpacking” presuppositions of a question, analyze what is being assumed in the following example sentence:

      “What church do you and your family attend?”

      The main presuppositions can be listed as follows:

      1. You attend church.
      2. You have a family.
      3. Your family attends church.
      4. You and your family attend the same church.

  4. Here are some assorted examples of the fallacy of complex question:

    1. “If a choice must be made, I'll adopt God's nonexistence as a working assumption. If I am mistaken, I hope He is not offended by my demand for evidence. (Many believers seem to think that God is offended by atheists. Is he overly proud or merely insecure?)”[10].

    2. “When software programs are trying to outsmart other software programs and hack the world's trading platforms, that is a recipe for disaster.… How many times an hour are there failures across individual equities around the world because of software running algorithms battling each other for supremacy to make a profitable trade? We have no idea.”[11].

    3. “Look very closely. You will see that no person and no circumstance can prevent you from becoming a self-understanding man or woman. Who is stopping you at this very moment? No one.”[12].

    4. The following passage on the problem of redistribution is discussing whether people should be paid on how hard they try, rather than rewarding those with natural ability:

    “How hard you're willing to work is powerfully influenced by how much skill nature has given you and thus how much chance you have of achieving a satisfying success. The case for redistribution is not without its troubles: Anyone who says that what nature has given you has nothing to do with what you should be allowed to keep must ultimately answer questions like why couples who produce beautiful children shouldn't be made to give some of them to parents who can only turn out ugly ducklings.” [13]

  5. Nonfallacious examples of complex question are usually rhetorical techniques, as explained above. Again for a fallacy to occur an argument must be present.

    1. If a question's presuppositions are legitimately assumed by all parties, and the presuppositions are all relevant, then no fallacy has been committed.

    2. Often the phrase “complex question” is used in a descriptive, nonfallacious sense to describe a topic that does not have well-delineated elements or well-understood factors as in the following instances:
      “It's not always possible to answer a complex question about how something works with one experiment. The question needs to be broken down into parts, each of which can be formulated as a hypothesis.”[14]
      “[IBM scientists] demonstrated that a computing system — using traditional strengths and overcoming assumed limitations — could beat expert humans in a complex question-and-answer competition using natural language.”[15]
      Consequently, rather than any sort of logical error occurring in these passages, a heterogeneous topic is being described.

    3. Fallacy Practice: Analyze the following passages and state whether or not the fallacy of complex question has occurred.

      1. “An almost equally exasperating aspect of the autonomy struggle is the toddler's inability to make choices. The parent asks whether the child wants a cookie or a lollipop. First the child says, ‘Cookie,’ but as soon as he gets the cookie, he wants a lollipop. The parent patiently takes away the cookie and gives the toddler a lollipop, but now the child wants the cookie again. The problem is that the child wants the right to choose, but does not want to make a choice. From the child's point of view, he does not have a choice unless he can choose them both.”[16]

      2. “Shoppers at F.W. Woolworth Co.'s stores might detect one means of a company minimizing its borrowing needs. According to Ellis Smith, executive vice president of finance, the company ‘hardly acknowledges’ it own charge system. The first question our people are instructed to ask is, ‘Is the purchase cash?’ If it isn't, the second question is ‘Is this Visa or Master Charge?’”[17]

      3. “Agence France-Presse concluded its story by noting, ‘Studies have described a rise in the prevalence of mental disorders in China, some of them linked to stress as the pace of life becomes faster and socialist support systems falter.’ There [sic] is sheer preposterous propaganda. What ’study‘ could possibly prove that stress regarding ‘the pace of life’ and the decline of ’socialist support systems‘ (whatever they are) had increased mental illness? Western intellectuals, very much including the press, are still in love with socialism—even its communist variant.”[18]

      4. “Concerning the July 16 Cover Story, ‘The Euro's Fate’ Is that the best Europe can do? Print, print, print money; destroy the middle class by crushing savers and stoking inflation; enforce unnaturally low interest rates that only serve to provide cover for irresponsible politicians; destroy the dreams of the next several generations that will be impoverished with debt.” [19]

      5. “There is a tale, probably apocryphal, told of that notoriously merry monarch Charles II. There was a dinner to commemorate the foundation of the Royal Society. At the end of the evening, ‘with the peculiar gravity of countenance which he usually wore on such occasions,’ he put a challenge to the Fellows. ‘Suppose two pails of water were fixed in two different scales that were equally poised, and which weighted equally alike, and that two live bream, or small fish, were put into either of these pails.‘ He wanted to know the reason why that pail, with such additions should not weigh more than the other pail which stood against it. Many suggested possible explanations, and argued for their own suggestions with more or less vigour. But at last one who perhaps remembered that the motto of that great society is ‘Nullium in verba’ (Take no man's word for it!) denied the assumption: ‘It would weigh more.’ The King was delighted: ‘Odds fish, brother, you are in the right.’”[20]

      6. “Romney did what he has done when in trouble in the past. He lashed out. ‘Do you want four more years with 23 million people out of work or underemployed?’ he asked. ‘Do you want four more years where incomes go down every single year? You want four more years with gasoline prices doubling? Do you want four more years with unemployment above 8 percent?‘ Romney was shouting, jabbing his finger in the air.”[21]

      7. “Bion, that was an atheist, was showed in a port city, in a temple of Neptune, many tables of pictures, of such as had in tempests made their vows to Neptune, and were saved from shipwreck: and was asked, ‘How say you not? Do you not acknowledge the power of the gods?’ But he said, ‘Yes, but where are they painted that have been drowned after their vows?’”[22]

      8. “ Joe, let's take a look at what is happening for you in the group. Here you are, after two months, not feeling good about yourself in this group and with several members impatient with you (or intimidated, or avoidant, or angry, or annoyed, or feeling seduced or betrayed). What's happened? Is this a familiar place for you? Would you be willing to take a look at your role in bringing this to pass?”[23]

      9. “Cutting your next year's budget by 2% but still having it up 4% from this year and calling it a ‘cut’ is ludicrous. [The suggestion is] our leaders must kick the deficit-reduction can down the road one more time. I ask: When exactly will it be a good time to have economic contraction?”[24]

      10. “Is that the best Europe can do? Print, print, print money; destroy the middle class by crushing savers and stoking inflation; enforce unnaturally low interest rates that only serve to provide cover for irresponsible politicians; destroy the dreams of the next several generations that will be impoverished with debt[?]”[25]

      11. “To many women, the Donald Trump who debated Hillary Clinton was painfully familiar.…Only two candidates stood in that stage. Only one will name the next Supreme Court Justice. Who do you want that to be? The bully or the nerd? The good girl or the bad boy? There is no third option.”[26]

      12. “[President] Trump's assault on the concept of an independent judiciary can be seen as something out of Orwell. ‘What is our country coming to when a judge can halt a Homeland Security travel ban and anyone, even with bad intentions, can come into U.S.?’ Trump tweeted on Saturday. … So should that tweet be read as a deliberate attempt to encourage fear as a way of grabbing more power? Or was it simply Trump's pre-kindergarten reflex to hit back at anyone who hits him? I think it was probably the latter.”[27]

Online Quizzes

Test your understanding of Complex Question and other arguments with one of the following quizzes:

Fallacies of Relevance I
Fallacies of Relevance II
Fallacies of Relevance III

“The fallacia plurium interrogationum consists in trying to get one answer to several questions in one. It is sometimes used by barristers in the examination of witnesses, who endeavour to get yes or no to a complex question which ought to be partly answered in each way, meaning to use the answer obtained, as for the whole, when they have got it for a part. … We are often reminded of the two men who stole the leg of mutton; one could swear he had not got it, the other that he had not taken it. … The answer of the owner of the leg of mutton is sometime to the point, ‘Well, gentlemen, all I can say is, there is a rogue between you.’”

Augustus De Morgan, Formal Logic: or, the Calculus of Inference, Necessary ad Probable (London: Taylor and Walton, 1847), 270.


1. Jeff Nance, Conquering Deception (Kansas City: Irvin-Benham,2004), 131.

2. Irvin D. Yalom, The Gift of Therapy (New York: Harper Perennial, 2009), 140.

3. Francis Lewis Wellman, The Art of Cross-Examination (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1904), 166.

4. Wellman, 150. But this technique can backfire in some cases: ”To ask a complex question … will give the witness an opportunity to play games. If they can say no to a part of the question, the other parts fall, as well. The correct way to form the cross-examination question, therefore, is to break it up into one fact at a time.” Lynne Z. Gold-Bikin and Stephen Kolodny, The Divorce Trial Manual: From Initial Interview to Closing Argument (Section of Family Law, American Bar Association. 2003), 73.

5. W.H.F. Henry, The Practical Debater: An Outline of Instruction in the Law … (Indianapolis, Ind.: J.E. Sherrill, 1883), 57.

6. Dana Milbank, “Susan Rice's Tarnished Résumé,” Index-Journal 94 no. 202 (November 20, 2012), 6A.

7. Froma Harrop, “Donald Trump is mentally ill,” Index Journal 98 no. 202 (October 14, 2016), 7A.)

8. Cal Thomas, “Distractions and Diversions,” Index-Journal 94 no. 146 (September 24, 2012), 8A. (The fallacy turns on the contextual assumption that the examples of “presidential tone” listed are not characteristic of the Obama administration.)

9. Eugene Robinson, “A disgraceful exercise in cruelty,” Index Journal 94 no. 362 (February 1, 2017), 9A.

10. Kent Bach, Exit-Existentialism: A Philosophy of Self-Awareness (Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1973), 4.

11. Scott Patterson, “Mark Cuban: High-Frequency Traders Are the Ultimate Hackers,” MarketBeat, Wall Street Journal,

12. Vernon Howard, The Mystic Path of Cosmic Power (Nottingham, U.K.: New Life Foundation, 1999), 64.

13. “Up Against the Wall,” Wall Street Journal 165 (June 18, 1979), 22.

14. Cynthia Gibas and Per Jambeck, Developing Bioinformatics Computer Skills (Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly & Associates, 2001), 38.

15. John E. Kelly III and Steve Hamm, Smart Machines: IBM's Watson and the Era of Cognitive Computing (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 1.

16. Frank Caplan, The Second Twelve Months of Life (New York: Random House, 1982), 188.

17. Wall Street Journal vol. 166 (February 25, 1980), 1.

18. Mona Charen, “Capitalism Did It,” Index-Journal 94 no. 98 (August 7, 2012), 6A.

19. Paul Lindeberg, "Mailbag," Barron's 92 no. 31 (July 30, 2012), 34.

20. I. D'Israeli, The Quarrels of Authors (London: John Murray, 1814), 341.

21. Dana Milbank, “More Substance, Less Mitt,” Index-Journal 94 no. 146 (September 24, 2012), 8A.

22. Attributed to Plutarch quoted in Francis Bacon, Apophthegms in The Works of Francis Bacon ed. Basil Montagu (Philadelphia: Parry & McMillan, 1859), Vol. I, 109.

23. Yalom, 140.

24. Chad Karnes, “Mailbag: Over the Cliff,” Barron's 92 no. 48 (November 26, 2012), 46.

25. Paul Lindberg, “The End is Near,” Barron's 92 No. 31 (July 30, 2012), 34.

26. Cokie and Steve Roberts, “Women Have Seen This Trump Before,” Index-Journal 98 no. 192 (October 4, 2016), 6A.

27. Eugene Robinson, “The Age of Trump: Governing by Tantrum,” Index-Journal 98 no. 310 (February 8, 2017), 8A.

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