Fallacy of the complex question
"Why are we so obsessed with what other people think of us? Why are
we so concerned to fit in? Why do we submit so readily to the tyranny of the
Giles Fraser, the
Guardian 20 Dec 2003
The most common example given to illustrate the fallacy of the complex question
is "When did you stop beating your wife?" Such a question asks one
thing while assuming a second, when it is just this assumption which needs to
be established. First we need to know whether you did beat your wife. Only if
it turns out that you did should we concern ourselves with when you stopped
The great trick of a complex question is that any direct answer to it implicitly
endorses the assumption, whereas any failure to offer a direct answer can look
like an evasion. However, although in the heat of an argument it can throw someone
off track, in this example, and in another favourite – "Why did you steal
the money?" – it doesn’t take much thought to see the trick and simply
respond, "I never started beating her" or "I didn’t steal the
The fallacy is harder to spot when people use a complex question, not to make
an accusation, but to frame a discussion or enquiry. In the example I quote
from Giles Fraser, he opens his article with three questions, all of which assume
something that he has not established and which, on reflection, may well not
be true. How many of us are really "obsessed with what other people think
of us"? Most people are at least concerned about how they are seen by others,
but I would suggest it is a minority who are obsessed by it. Yet Fraser’s question
assumes that we – he and his entire readership – are all obsessed by the opinions
of others. Similarly, many of us are not "so concerned to fit in"
and refuse to "submit so readily to the tyranny of the ‘they’." His
questions encourage us simply to assume that we are all highly preoccupied with
what other people think and only think about why this should be so.
This kind of debate framing, which assumes a state of affairs which may not
pertain, is remarkably common in the media. Often there is some flimsy basis
offered, such as a report or single opinion poll. But then we are thrown straight
into a debate: Why are people rejecting marriage? Why aren’t British men romantic?
Why can’t actresses over forty get work? Why is the government destroying the
BBC? How much freedom should we be prepared to sacrifice for security?
Because the assumptions being made in such cases are often very plausible or
reflect conventional wisdom, it is much easier to fall for the fallacy than
it is when a false accusation against us is being smuggled in. The remedy, however,
is the same. We need to be aware of what assumptions are being made by a question
and challenge them if we think they are unfounded.
Which leaves me with one final puzzle: Why do we fall for the fallacy of the
complex question so easily?