Fallacy: Loaded Questions and Complex Claims

  1. Your father: Did you enjoy spoiling the dinner for everyone else?
  2. Your mother: Well, I hope you enjoyed making a fool of me in front of all my friends.
  3. Your boss: Can you begin to appreciate this wonderful opportunity I'm making available to you?
  4. Your significant other: Have you finally stopped flirting with Dana?
  5. Your critical thinking instructor: Aren't you ashamed about how little effort you've made in this class?
Complex claims and questions--that is, ones that combine two or more questionable terms--present a special problem, if they are constructed in such a way that agreement or disagreement with one term seems to imply agreement with the second. In the first example above, the reply, "No I didn't," can be taken to mean, "I didn't enjoy it, but I did spoil the dinner," when it may actually be intended as a denial that the dinner was spoiled.
Questions like the one in the first example are usually called loaded questions, because, like loaded dice, they seem to produce a predictable outcome: as long as the response to a complex question or claim is simple, usually just "yes" or "no," then the person responding seems to be assenting to something he or she normally would not.
The impulse to give a simple response is strongest in reply to certain questions, and so loaded questions are the more common form of this fallacy. But complex claims can have the same effect, as in the second example above. You might protest, "Mom! No, I certainly didn't," but that would only sound as though you made a fool out of her in front of her friends, and didn't even enjoy it!
The relationship between the speaker and the responder, and the situation in which the question is asked, greatly affects the "success" of a loaded question. But just as important is that the question must be constructed in a way that clearly prompts a "yes" or "no" answer, and that the least agreeable element of complexity be buried in the sentence. Consider the third example. Since you would want to appear properly appreciative to your boss, you might answer this question affirmatively before considering whether such a response would commit you to agreeing that the opportunity is, in fact, wonderful, and that your boss has, in fact, made it available to you.
In the same way, the fourth example seems to demand a quick denial, but saying simply "No," suggests not only that you have been flirting with Dana, but that you are continuing to do so. But would you ever answer "yes"?
Finally, the fifth example shows that critical thinking instructors are not above fallaciously promoting a little guilt to get students to study harder. Answering the question as asked, with "yes" or "no," would only accept or deny the claim that you are ashamed, but in either case it would also seem to acquiesce in the notion that you haven't made much of an effort.

The solution to this fallacy is simple: A complex question or claim requires a complex response. Do not allow the question to dictate your answer. Instead, without prefacing your response with "yes" or "no," indicate whether you agree or disagree with the characterization implied by each term in succession: "Dad, I didn't mean to spoil the dinner, I don't think I did, and I certainly wouldn't have enjoyed it if I thought I had"; "Mom, I hope I didn't make a fool of you, in front of your friends or at any other time, and I certainly wouldn't have enjoyed it had I done anything that might make you think that"; "Boss, I do appreciate the opportunity, but I just don't think it's very wonderful"; "Honey, I wasn't flirting with Dana, so I can't stop something I wasn't doing"; "Professor, aren't you ashamed of yourself, fallaciously attacking my self-esteem with an intentionally loaded question?" Sometimes, answering a loaded question with another loaded question is the best reply.


Exercises:

1. Which of the following is not an example of the fallacy of a loaded question?

"Have you stopped cheating on your taxes?"

"Have you stopped taking advantage of your position as an advisor?"

"Are you happy with the mess your interruption has created?"

"Are you happy with the job that the repairmen have done?"

1. Which of the following is not an example of the fallacy of a loaded question? You answered:

"Have you stopped cheating on your taxes?"

If you answer "yes," it would be taken to mean that you used to cheat on your taxes, and now you have stopped, though you probably don't mean to affirm that you ever cheated on your taxes. This is a result of the complexity of the question's construction--and an example of a loaded question.

1. Which of the following is not an example of the fallacy of a loaded question? You answered:

"Have you stopped taking advantage of your position as an advisor?"

Answering simply "yes" or "no" to this question, as with most loaded questions, makes it sound as though you are admitting that you used to take advantage of your position as an advisor; the only difference is that in one case you've stopped taking advantage, and in the other case you apparently continue to do so. But you probably have no intention of admitting any such thing. So, to answer a complex or loaded question, you need a complex answer, such as: "I have never taken advantage of my position as an advisor."

1. Which of the following is not an example of the fallacy of a loaded question? You answered:

"Are you happy with the mess your interruption has created?"

Did you interrupt? Did the interruption create a mess? Neither of these questions can be addressed by answering "yes" or "no" in this case, because those repsonses would seem only to affirm or deny that you are happy. To answer complex questions, avoid simple responses. Here, you might say, "I didn't mean to interrupt, and I can't see that I caused any messes, but if I did inadvertently, then I am certainly not happy about it."

1. Which of the following is not an example of the fallacy of a loaded question? You answered:

"Are you happy with the job that the repairmen have done?"

Correct!

There is only one question here, about your satisfaction with the work performed. To make this into a loaded question, we would need to make the logical subject more complex. For example, "Are you happy to have been the one who prevented the repairmen from finishing the job?"

Congratulations

You have finished the section on the fallacy of shifting the burden of truth.