What is the Complex Question?

Plurium interrogationum, which translates as ‘of many questions’, is otherwise known as the fallacy of the complex question. When several questions are combined into one, in such a way that a yes-or-no answer is required, the person they are asked of has no chance to give separate replies to each, and the fallacy of the complex question is committed.

 

Have you stopped beating your wife?

(If ‘yes’, you admit you were. If ‘no’, then you still are.)

 

This might seem like an old joke, but there are modern versions:

 

Did the pollution you caused increase or decrease your profits?

Did your misleading claims result in you getting promoted?

Is your stupidity inborn?

 

All of them contain an assumption that the concealed question has already been answered affirmatively. It is this unjustified presumption which constitutes the fallacy. Many questions may be asked, but if the answer to some is assumed before it is given, a plurium interrogationum has been committed.

A common version of the fallacy asks questions beginning ‘who’ or ‘why’ about facts which have not been established. Even oldies such as ‘Who was the lady I saw you with last night?’ and ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ are, strictly speaking, examples of this fallacy. They preclude answers such as ‘There was none’, or ‘It didn’t.’

 

Why did you make your wife alter her will in your favour? And why did you then go along to the chemist to buy rat poison? Why did you then put it into her cocoa, and how did you do it without attracting her attention?

(Attempt not more than three questions.)

 

The inhabitants of the world of the plurium are a puzzled lot. They can never understand why we tolerate television reporters who echo anti-patriotic propaganda, how we can curb drug abuse in our schools, or why it is that so many unemployable people are produced by our universities and colleges. The advertisers of that world want to know whether our families are worth the extra care that their product brings and if we are glad we chose their brand of shampoo.

In the real world none of these questions would be regarded as valid until the facts they depend on had been established. The complex question has to be broken into simpler ones; and often the denial of the fact presumed invalidates the larger question altogether.

A variety of complicated genetic or evolutionary explanations could be advanced to explain why the adult human female has four more teeth than the adult male. None of them would be as effective as counting along a few jaws and denying the fact.

Plurium interrogationum is very effective as a means of introducing the semblance of democracy into the domestic scene. It enables you to give children a choice over their destinies:

 

Would you prefer to go to bed now, or after you’ve finished your cocoa?

Do you want to put your bricks in the box, or on the shelf?

(Beware, though. After about ten years this will come back to you as:

Mum, would you prefer to buy me a disco deck or a motorbike for my birthday?

He who sows the wind…)

 

The above article is from the book How To Win Every Argument by Madsen Pirie. The article is only for educational and informative purposes to explain and understand formal logic and logical fallacies. It is a great book, definitely worth a read!