When Is a Fallacy not a Fallacy? (aka “Have You Stopped Beating Your Wife Yet?”)


NBA Commissioner David Stern, 13 April 2007
Picture by Cody Mulcahy

Have you stopped beating your wife yet?

~ David Stern in an interview with Jim Rome

The loaded question — we’ve all heard examples of these.  Make no mistake about it, it is a logical fallacy.  However, like all such designations, we have to be careful to keep in mind the context.

This one has been on my mind for about a week or so.  This actual question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?”, came up, and it was severely misapplied.  In fact, it was used much in the same way as it was used in the link to a report on an interview of David Stern by sports commentator Jim Rome last year.  We’ll come back to that, but first let’s go into why it is a fallacy.

“When did you stop beating your wife?” is a common enough example of this fallacy.  If you give a date, then you incriminate yourself.  If you say “never”, then implies you still are.  Even worse is when it is stated as “Have you…?”, requiring either a “yes” or “no” answer, but in either case, you do not win.

The problem is that it starts with the assumption that the person being asked is guilty.  Assumptions are important parts of debates, theories and scientific experiments.  Not everything can be proven, after all.  Formal assumptions are often called axioms, and they are an intrinsic part of mathematical proofs.  Anything less is often stated in an experiment as a part of the “given” clause.  This is why spelling out details of scientific experiments are so important.  Methodologies often have hidden assumptions that the experimenters may not even be aware of at the time.

Science and the Loaded Question

Believe it or not, there have actually been experiments about the loaded question.  The science and science fiction oriented site io9 earlier this year ran “The scientific equivalent of ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’” (this is a Gawker site, so I’ll warn you about that before you look at the comments in it).

Two experiments were done by Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer involving perception using university students as respondents.  In the first, respondents were shown short videos of car collisions.  They were then asked to judge how fast the drivers were going, but different verbs were used: “smashed, collided, bumped, hit, and contacted.”  “Collided” had the lowest estimated speed, while “smashed” had the highest.

As you may well know, I like TED talks.  One was interesting but a bit scary.  It was about how easy it is to induce false memories in people.  It turns out that our memories are more fragile than we often think.

I state this because the second experiment shows how unreliable eye witness accounts can really be.  In the second Loftus-Palmer experiment, the respondents were only shown a single video of a crash, so there should have been no discrepancy in what occurred.  Again, the verbs used to describe the crash were varied as before.  This time, however, the students were asked if there was broken glass at the scene (there was none).  If the verb used was “smashed”, they were three times more likely to remember broken glass than if the verb was “hit”.

The Non-Fallacy

Back to the opening question.  It was a response to a question that David Stern apparently felt was not fair.

Many were questioning the draft lottery that year, as the New Orleans Hornets were still owned by the league, yet they got to have first pick of Kentucky Anthony Davis.  Did “the league office put its thumb on the scales and rigged the lottery drawing“?

So, it shouldn’t have surprised Stern at all that Rome would ask him about it.  Well, I guess he believes that the best defense is a good offense.

“You know, New Orleans won the draft lottery, which, of course, produced the usual round of speculation that maybe the lottery was fixed,” Rome said. “I know that you appreciate a good conspiracy theory as much as the next guy — was the fix in for the lottery?”

Stern bristled.

“Uh, you know, I have two answers for that,” Stern said. “I’ll give you the easy one — no — and a statement: Shame on you for asking.”

After emphasizing that his line of questioning intended no disrespect, Rome noted that he still thought the question valid, since many NBA fans and observers have openly questioned the validity and purity of the lottery. This time, Stern not only bristled — he swung.

“Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” Stern asked.

There is only one problem.  What he was asked is not an example of this fallacy!  There were several ways that it could have been answered — and less rudely, I might add.

Now, if he were asked, “When did you stop rigging the lottery?”, then that would have been totally different.  Yet, he was asked a simple question — was it done?  It is similar to what some news reporters do when they interview someone accused of murder: “Did you do it?”  There is nothing loaded about such a question, although it certainly could be used as a lead-in to more difficult questions.  If anything, Rome bent over backwards to ask it in a respectful manner from what I can tell.

When a Fallacy Is Not

One more circumstance should be mentioned, although it is quite different.  The above scenario described a non-fallacy because it never even was an example of one to begin with.  However, just because a question is phrased that way does not always mean it is a proper example of a loaded question.

Fallacy Files describes the “Loaded Question” quite well:

A “loaded question”, like a loaded gun, is a dangerous thing. A loaded question is a question with a false or questionable presupposition, and it is “loaded” with that presumption. The question “Have you stopped beating your wife?” presupposes that you have beaten your wife prior to its asking, as well as that you have a wife. If you are unmarried, or have never beaten your wife, then the question is loaded.

Notice it is a fallacious question (and the article makes it plain it is a question rather than a fallacious argument), but only if you are unmarried or have never beaten your wife.  It is not a fallacious question, however, if you actually had ever beaten your wife!

If you meet someone for the first time and they ask you, “So, how long have you been an alcoholic?”, then that is likely a fallacious question.  They are probably presuming that you are without any proof.  That is, they are unless you are at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, then that might be different.

It should be noted, however, that it still can be used to evoke an emotional appeal rather than rational debate, and so isn’t part of the normal civil discourse.  However, outside the debate arena, there may be times that you would call out an alcoholic as part of an intervention.  It should be noted, however, that emotions are not always predictable, and denial is strong, so it might not work.

When people want to attack the inerrancy of Scripture, they will likely throw out all sorts of fallacies, but they will also falsely accuse others of engaging in fallacies that are not.  Be on the lookout for this type of argument that implies something completely different than what it originally meant.



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