Question mark made from question marks

Alias:

  • Complex Question
  • Many Questions
  • Plurium Interrogationum
    Translation: "many questions", Latin

Quote…

"How am I to get in?" asked Alice again, in a louder tone.

"Are you to get in at all?" said the Footman, "That's the first question, you know."

…Unquote

Source: Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Ch. 6.

Form:

A question with a false, disputed, or question-begging presupposition.

Example:

Why should merely cracking down on terrorism help to stop it, when that method hasn't worked in any other country? Why are we so hated in the Muslim world? What did our government do there to bring this horror home to all those innocent Americans? And why don't we learn anything, from our free press, about the gross ineptitude of our state agencies? about what's really happening in Afghanistan? about the pertinence of Central Asia's huge reserves of oil and natural gas? about the links between the Bush and the bin Laden families?

Source: Mark Crispin Miller, "Brain Drain", Context, No. 9

Analysis

Exposition:

A "loaded question", like a loaded gun, is a dangerous thing. A loaded question is a question with a false or questionable presupposition, and it is "loaded" with that presumption. The question "Have you stopped beating your wife?" presupposes that you have beaten your wife prior to its asking, as well as that you have a wife. If you are unmarried, or have never beaten your wife, then the question is loaded.

Since this example is a yes/no question, there are only the following two direct answers:

  1. "Yes, I have stopped beating my wife", which entails "I was beating my wife."
  2. "No, I haven't stopped beating my wife", which entails "I am still beating my wife."

Thus, either direct answer entails that you have beaten your wife, which is, therefore, a presupposition of the question. So, a loaded question is one which you cannot answer directly without implying a falsehood or a statement that you deny. For this reason, the proper response to such a question is not to answer it directly, but to either refuse to answer or to reject the question.

Some systems of parliamentary debate provide for "dividing the question", that is, splitting a complex question up into two or more simple questions. Such a move can be used to split the example as follows:

  1. "Have you ever beaten your wife?"
  2. "If so, are you still doing so?"

In this way, 1 can be answered directly by "no", and then the conditional question 2 does not arise.

Exposure:

Since a question is not an argument, simply asking a loaded question is not a fallacious argument. Rather, loaded questions are typically used to trick someone into implying something they did not intend. For instance, salespeople learn to ask such loaded questions as: "Will that be cash or charge?" This question gives only two alternatives, thus presuming that the potential buyer has already decided to make a purchase, which is similar to the Black-or-White Fallacy. If the potential buyer answers the question directly, he may suddenly find himself an actual buyer.

Resources:


Analysis of the Example:

This is a series of loaded questions and it illustrates one of the common uses of the loaded question as a rhetorical device, namely, innuendo. The questions come at the end of the article, and presuppose the following controversial claims:

  • The American government did something to bring about the terrorist attacks.
  • The public doesn't learn anything from the press about that government's mistakes.
  • The public is not learning about what's happening in Afghanistan.
  • Central Asia's oil reserves are somehow pertinent.
  • There are some unspecified links between the Bush and bin Laden families.

No evidence is given in the article for any of these claims. Loaded questions are used in this way to slip claims into rhetoric without the burden of proving them, or the necessity of taking responsibility for unproven assertions.


Q&A:

Reader Steven Flintham asks the following unloaded question:

Q: "I've just been browsing your site and the page on loaded questions reminded me of something I came across ages ago without ever getting quite clear in my mind. Although it looks misleading, if I don't have a wife or have never beaten my wife, isn't it strictly accurate to answer 'No' to the question 'Have you stopped beating your wife?'? I haven't stopped, after all—I never even started."

A: The answer to your question turns upon an important subtlety about presupposition. Putting aside the unpleasant example of wife-beating, let's use as an example the type of question: "Have you stopped Xing?"—it doesn't matter what X is. This question is equivalent to saying: "You have stopped Xing: yes or no?"

Consider the contained proposition: "You have stopped Xing". Clearly, this means: "You have Xed and you are not now Xing." However, these two conjuncts are not equal: the first conjunct is a presupposition of the question. A presupposition to a question is a proposition which is normally known to be true before the question is asked.

Given that our example question is a yes-no question, there are two direct answers that we can give it:

  1. "Yes": "I have stopped Xing" or, equivalently, "I have Xed and I am not now Xing." Obviously, this implies "I have Xed."
  2. "No": "It is not the case that I have stopped Xing" or, equivalently, "It is not the case that both I have Xed and I am not now Xing." This implies: "Either I have not Xed or I am now Xing." In other words, there are two bases for answering "no" to the question:
    • You have never Xed.
    • You are now Xing.

So, you are right, Steven, that you could answer the loaded question "Have you stopped Xing?" with "No", because you have never Xed. However, this answer has a kind of ambiguity, since it leaves it open as to whether you are saying that you have never Xed or that you are still doing so. This is why it is misleading to simply answer "no" and leave it at that; one should at least say, instead: "No, I've never Xed so I can't very well stop."

However, since the proposition that you have Xed is a presupposition of the question, we normally presume that it is true or the question would not arise. This leaves as the only possible reason for denying the question that you are still Xing. This is why the second direct answer also commits you to Xing, though it does not logically imply it by itself. Rather, it implies it when taken together with the presupposition.

This is why loaded questions as a fallacy are sometimes classified as a type of question-begging. By loading some controversial or even false presupposition into the question, the unscrupulous questioner tries to sneak it in unchallenged.

Thanks for a difficult question, Steven!


Reader Response

Reader Doug Merritt raises the following objection:

You overlooked something important when you said, "Since a question is not an argument, simply asking a loaded question is not a fallacious argument." Loaded questions are, as you said, rhetorical devices, but in particular they are "rhetorical questions", and a rhetorical question is a form of statement that is merely phrased superficially as a question; it is not a true question. So I strongly disagree that a loaded question is not an argument. It is just as much of a (fallacious) argument as all the other categories in your taxonomy. This isn't merely splitting hairs; a debate can be won (in the view of the audience) by someone who does nothing at all but pose loaded questions; each serves to presume things for which no logical argument is offered, and it is very effective in practice.

Even if you're right, Doug, that a loaded question is not really a question, but is a statement, then it's still not an argument by itself. A loaded question is often a way of rhetorically making a statement, but it is grammatically a question. You will notice that as a logical fallacy it is in a category by itself, as can be seen in the Taxonomy of Logical Fallacies. This is because Loaded Question is a fallacy of questioning, as opposed to arguing. So, I don't disagree with you that asking loaded questions can be a powerful and fallacious rhetorical trick. Rather, I simply think that fallacies involving questions should be classified as a different type of fallacy than those involving arguments. I hope eventually to add further fallacies of questioning, so that Loaded Question will no longer be in a class by itself. In the meantime, the first chapter of Fischer's book, listed in the Resources above, concerns eleven "Fallacies of Question-Framing".

Acknowledgment: Thanks to Carol Whitney for pointing out a dead link.


fallacist@fallacyfiles.org