Many questions, also known as complex question, presupposition, loaded question, or plurium interrogationum (Latin, "of many questions"), is a logical fallacy. It is committed when someone asks a question that presupposes something that has not been proven or accepted by all the people involved. This fallacy is often used rhetorically, so that the question limits direct replies to those that serve the questioner's agenda. An example of this is the question "Are you still beating your wife?" Whether the respondent answers yes or no, he will admit to having a wife, and having beaten her at some time in the past. Thus, these facts are presupposed by the question, and if it has not been agreed upon by the speakers before, the question is improper, and the fallacy of many questions has been committed.
The fallacy relies upon context for its effect: the fact that a question presupposes something does not in itself make the question fallacious. Only when some of these presuppositions are not necessarily agreed to by the person who is asked the question does the argument containing them become fallacious.
A related fallacy is begging the question, in which a premise is included that is likely to be at least as unacceptable to an opponent as the proposed conclusion.Implied form
One form of misleading discourse is where something is implied without being said explicitly, by phrasing it as a question. For example, the question "Does Mr. Jones have a brother in the army?" does not claim that he does, but implies that there must be at least some indication that he does, or the question would not need to be asked. The person asking the question is thus protected from accusations of making false claims, but still manages to make the implication in the form of a hidden compound question. The fallacy isn't in the question itself, but rather in the listener's assumption that the question would not have been asked without some evidence to support the supposition.
In order to have the desired effect, the question must imply something uncommon enough not to be asked without some evidence to the fact. For example, the question "Does Mr. Jones have a brother?" would not cause the listener to think there must be some evidence that he does, since this form of general question is frequently asked with no foreknowledge of the answer.Examples
In a September, 2006 New York Times column, David Leonhardt queried readers whether they would "prefer spending an extra $5,500 on health care every year — or losing 10 years off" their lifespan.
In doing so, Leonhardt — who earlier in the same column dismissed health-care cost-cutting as "wrong" — forced readers to make a choice that was, in essence, based on a fallacious presupposition that precluded medical cost-cutting.
Alternatively, those who saw value in medical cost-cutting might have arrived at a less loaded question, or, at least, at a less expensive loaded question. (E.g., "Would you prefer: (a) spending an extra $5,500 on health care every year as a couch potato, (b) spending an extra $3,000 on health care every year as a fitness enthusiast, or (c) losing 10 years off your lifespan?")
In 1952, US Senator Joe McCarthy said:
"This is a document which shows that Alger Hiss and Frank Coe recommended Adlai Stevenson to the Mount Tremblant Conference which was called for the purpose of establishing foreign policy (postwar foreign policy) in Asia. And, as you know, Alger Hiss is a convicted traitor. Frank Coe has been named under oath before Congressional committees seven times as a member of the Communist Party. Why? Why do Hiss and Coe find that Adlai Stevenson is the man they want representing them at this conference? I don't know. Perhaps Adlai knows."
On an October, 2006 The Daily Show monologue, Jon Stewart noted two common news-channel examples of this:
On CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC: the frequent use of television "crawl" (lines of text at the bottom of the screen) to ask questions that were fallaciously presuppositive, like "End Times?", "Apocalypse Now?", "Have Democrats forgotten the lessons of 9/11?", "Why do Democrats hate America?"
Asserting that two sides of an argument have equal weight, where one side is libelous, as in: "Is your mother a whore? What? I'm not saying she's a whore. I'm just wondering out loud if she is a whore."
The common schoolyard question — "Does your mom know you're gay?". In most cases the kid being asked this will say no as a reflex, only to fall into the trap set by the asker: either way, he admits to being gay. Another common form of this question is, "Have you stopped beating your wife?"
Note that in these cases, no accusation was actually made. However, there are clear presuppositions in the questions.Defense
A hacker jargon term originating in Asian philosophy, mu (meaning neither yes nor no), can be used to accurately respond to a question of this sort, saying that the question asked carries incorrect assumptions.
A common way out of this argument is to not respond with a simple 'yes' or 'no' answer, but with a full statement that also includes context. To use an earlier example, a good response to the question "Do you still beat your wife?" would be either "I have never beaten my wife" or "I do not have a wife." This removes the ambiguity of the expected response, therefore nullifying the tactic. However, the askers of said questions have learned to get around this tactic by accusing the one who answers with "dodging" the question. The best tactic when faced with this kind of opponent is to ignore the question entirely or to point out that the question is, indeed, a loaded question.