Logical Fallacy #6: Begging the Question

“Begging the Question”, as a logical fallacy, describes polluting the question with a built in partial answer or a repeat of the initial statement. It comes from the Latin: petitio principii – literally “assuming the initial point“. This assumption of the initial point bypasses error checking that particular point. This results in possible answers to the question being as false as the assumption built into the question.

There are two main types of Begging the Question. The first has a conclusion which depends on a faulty assumption. The classic question used to highlight this logical fallacy is “When did you stop beating your wife?” The implication of this question is that wife beating has occurred, reinforced by the question “when did it stop?”. Assuming the initial point – wife beating – any answer to this question relies on the assumption being write. If it is wrong, then the answer will encompass an error about when such occurrences will stop, as they never started. If the assumptions is correct, then the answer might be correct.

I’ll use a bit of logical math at this point. A + Q = C. ‘A’ is an assumption, ‘Q’ is the question, ‘C’ is the conclusion created based on the assumption ‘A’. If ‘A’ is faulty, then ‘C’ is faulty.

The second version of Begging the Question can be far more subtle. This is where the statement includes a redefinition of itself. “Sleep medicines are all those which induce a soporific effect.” Soporific is another word for “sleep”. So “Sleep medicines are defined as medicines which cause sleep.” No kidding.

Going back to math, D = D, therefore D, where ‘D’ is a definition. This doesn’t actually tell us anything new beyond ‘D’, which we already knew. Yet it can often be used to imply a grater level of knowledge that quite frankly does not exist in the statement.

These fallacies are frequently used in arguments to imply that the defendant is in a minority. Examples of these minorities are that the defendant is holding out, or in the recognised wrong. For example, Dr Steven Novella was asked by Dr Oz “what are alternative medicine sceptics (termed ‘holdouts’) afraid of?” This effectively suggests that people sceptical of alternate medicine are holding out on the truth of alternate medicines, implying great success with them and that the sceptics are holding out on this great truth. The assumption ‘A’ in this case is that Alternate Medicines work despite the minority view held by professionals. This belies the complete lack of any actual evidence of efficacy of the alternate medicine – that is, all double blind trials show no greater effect than chance or placebo.

By “holding out” and being “afraid”, the question begs an inadequacy of those asking for evidence of these medicines having any measurable effect. Certainly if I were to pay money for a product I would want to know it would work, or at least know the range of its effectiveness. For example, if I purchase a car I would like to know that it turns on, moves forward, is in good mechanical repair, how fast it goes, how many people it can carry, how much fuel it uses and so on. I could ask a car salesman what this information is and they would give me the same answer as the salesman in the next car yard for the same model – because it is known. If I were in doubt, they could show me the manual, specifications and so forth.

In the case of alternate medicines, two different ‘professionals’ will likely give you two different answers, because there is no data on these aspects. Even if they gave you the same answer, you couldn’t check where they got it from, because other than the un-tested claims of the manufacturer, there is no data on effectiveness.

A pharmaceutical medication, that is medication prescribed by a doctor, will have certification, testing and trials indicating the effect, side effects, effectiveness and so forth of the medication. Without these trials, the medication cannot be prescribed. Even if the trials are faked, and sometimes they are, follow up trials or lack of efficacy in the field prompting re-trials, quickly get these medications taken off the shelves. This allows you to have a high degree of confidence that the medication prescribed will work as expected, and if you are an exception to the rule, the prescribing doctor will note the lack of effectiveness of the medication and put you on another drug. None of these steps generally happen in the ‘alternate’ medicine industry.

All of this gives you an idea of why Dr Oz’s question, assuming alternative medications to be effective, and thus Dr Novella being ‘afraid’ or a ‘holdout’, gives completely the wrong impression.