17. Complex Question

The fallacy of complex question is committed when a single question that is really two (or more) questions is asked and the single answer is then applied to both questions.

Every complex question presumes the existence of a certain condition.  When the respondent's answer is added to the complex question, an argument emerges that establishes the presumed condition.  Thus, although not an argument as such, a complex question involves an implicit argument.

This argument is usually intended to trap the respondent into acknowledging something that he or she might otherwise not want to acknowledge. Example:

Have you stopped cheating on exams?
Where did you hide the cookies you stole?

Let us suppose the respondent answers "yes" to the first question and "under the bed" to the second.  The following arguments emerge:

You were asked whether you have stopped cheating on exams.
You answer "yes".  Therefore, if follows that you have cheated in the past.

You were asked where you hide the cookies you stole. You replied "under the bed." It follows that you did in fact steal the cookies.

On the other hand, let us suppose that the respondent answers "no" to the first question and "nowhere" to the second. We then have the following arguments:

You were asked whether you have stopped cheating on exams.
You answered "no." Therefore, you continue to cheat.

You were asked where you hid the cookies you stole.  You answered "nowhere."  It follows that you must have stolen them and eaten them.

Obviously, each of the above questions is really two questions:

Did you cheat on exams in the past?  If you did cheat in the past, have you stopped now?

Did you steal the cookies?  If you did steal them, where did you hide them?

If respondents are not sophisticated enough to identify a complex question when one is put to them, they may answer quite innocently and be trapped by a conclusion that is supported by no evidence at all; or, they may be tricked into providing the evidence themselves.  The correct response lies in resolving the complex question into its component questions and answering each separately.


The fallacy of complex question should be distinguished from another kind of question known in law as a leading question.  A leading question is one in which the answer is in some way suggested in the question.  Whether or not a question is a leading one is important in the direct examination of a witness by counsel.  Example:

Tell us, on April 9, did you see the defendant shoot the deceased?  (leading question)

Tell us, what did you see on April 9? (straight question)

Leading questions differ from complex questions in that they involve no logical fallacies; that is, they do not attempt to trick the respondent into admitting something he or she does not want to admit.   To distinguish the two,  however,   it is sometimes necessary to know whether prior questions have been asked.   Here are some additional examples of complex questions:

Are you going to be a good little boy and eat your hamburger?
Is George Hendrix still smoking marijuana?
How long must I put up with your snotty behavior?
When are you going to stop talking nonsense?















Other fallacies
2. Hasty Generalization
3. Begging the Question
4. Suppressed Evidence
5.  Appeal to Pity
6. Appeal to the People
7. Against the Person
8. Appeal to Force
9. Accident
10. Straw Man
11. Missing the Point
12. Red Herring
13. Appeal to Ignorance
14. False Cause
15. Slippery Slope
16. Weak Analogy
17. Complex Question
18. False Dichotomy
20. Equivocation
21. Amphiboly
22. Composition
23. Division
24. Irrelevant Conclusion









Since 07-19-99