Welcome to Logical Fallacies 101, an ongoing exercise to help foster more reasonable debate on Newsvine and wherever else you may find yourself discussing differences of opinion.
To remind everyone of the goal, these articles serve as simple logic primers, and I'm addressing them one at a time to make it easily digestible. The basic definition of a fallacy established earlier in the series is...
A fallacy is a rhetorical sequence that doesn't logically connect. For a variety of reasons, logical fallacies are invalid. A logical fallacy does not necessarily render the point invalid, but it means you need to rethink how you're making your point.
The argument from ignorance might be a popularly mis-cited fallacy, but today we're going to tackle another one you hear all the time. It really begs the question...
You've probably heard that phrase plenty of times. Someone might say:
Paul had to go to the hospital after he ate that egg salad sandwich. But he knows he's allergic to mayonnaise, so it begs the question of why he'd order an egg salad sandwich at all.
Poor Paul. While we all feel for him and his rapidly swelling windpipe, this is a misuse of the term. People tend to say something "begs the question" when they mean, "it sorta makes you wonder." Like last week's entry, this is one that people frequently misuse. Unlike last week's entry, people aren't on the right track but slightly off; they're just misusing a figure of speech.
Used accurately, begging the question means someone is makes a statement without proof, but that statement is meaningless without proof. Most often, the accuracy is presumed by the premise, and used as a basis to prove itself, making it a form of circular argument. In simple terms it can be made in one "move" (or statement), but more often it's presented in a tier of statements that build on each other in order to support the first statement.
So as a simple (and popular) example:
When did you stop beating your wife?
This is classic begging the question in one move. The unstated premise is that you beat your wife, and therefore it serves as a verbal trap. There is no way to answer the proper question (when) without indicting yourself as a wife-beater.
Here's a more controversial, three-step example:
The Bible is the word of God.
The Bible says it is the word of God, and God would not lie.
Therefore, the Bible is the word of God.
Again, the premise is assumed and then proven by the next few steps. Whether the Bible is the word of God or not, you can't use statements from inside the book to prove itself. This is a particularly tricky one, since the intricacies of the English language can make it hard to spot. With a little practice, you'll be calling them out in no time.
Let's take a look at a few political examples:
Obama isn't an American citizen because he's Kenyan.
Sarah Palin can't win for President because she'll lose.
In both cases, the premises (Obama's citizenship, Palin's viability) are presumed from the initial statement. Neither statement offers proof of its claim, it just repeats the premise in a different way. This can make for good banter or an opening statement when formulating your argument, but if you leave it there without offering proof, you're begging the question.
The hospital says Paul will be fine, because he's doing better.