Petitio Principii, or “Begging the Question,” as illustrated by the high school dropouts of the TSA
One of my larger pet peeves regarding proper use of the English language (and there are many) is the near-universal misuse of the term “begging the question.” When used in casual conversation – indeed in almost any conversation these days – all it means is “brings up the question.” For example: “John Kerry believes that the wealthy should pay very high taxes. Since John Kerry is exorbitantly wealthy, it begs the question, why did he register his yacht out of state to avoid taxes?” Well actually, it does not beg the question at all. It merely raises the question, since the scenario indicates massive hypocrisy.
So what is begging the question? Quite simply put, begging the question is a form of circular reasoning by which someone who makes a proposition requiring proof assumes the proposition to be proved is true as a premise of the argument (“petitio principii,” or assumption of the initial point). For example: “John Kerry believes that it would be good policy to restrict people’s freedom because, on the whole, restrictions on freedom produce positive results.” (“Good policy” is equivalent to “produce[s] positive results” and a proposition cannot logically be used in support of itself.)
So the next time you hear someone say that a proposition “begs the question that…” you’ll know what the true meaning of the term is. If you’re truly a pedant, you may even correct them. At this point, however, you may have recognized that petitio principii, along with all the other forms of circular reasoning, is incredibly widely used. It seems that, when one couches a proposition in enough fancy language or seemingly-complicated steps, one is easily able obfuscate the logical weight of the original premise.
Then again, sometimes you get called out. Take yesterday’s New York Times for example, which talks about the abhorrent, utterly inane use of whole-body scanners at the airport. As if it wasn’t bad enough that we’re expected to bend over and be violated by functionally retarded high school dropouts with God complexes and TSA badges, now we’re expected to be strip searched via x-ray machine? But the part where the article questions the radiation dosage is where it gets really good:
Another issue is that the devices haven’t been thoroughly tested. The T.S.A. claims that the machines have been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, the Commerce Department’s National Institute for Standards and Technology and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. But when I called these organizations to ask about their evaluations, I learned that they basically tested only one thing — whether the amount of radiation emitted meets guidelines established by the American National Standards Institute, a membership organization of companies and government agencies.
But guess who was on the committee that developed the guidelines for the X-ray scanners? Representatives from the companies that make the machines and the Department of Homeland Security, among others. In other words, the machines passed a test developed, in part, by the companies that manufacture them and the government agency that wants to use them.
Let’s sum up:
TSA: “We think these machines are perfectly safe.”
Sane Citizen: “How are we supposed to know that?”
TSA: “They’ve been tested by reputable labs.”
Sane Citizen: “To what standards?”
TSA: “The standards that the TSA and the x-ray machine companies have given us.”
Sane Citizen: “And how are we supposed to know that these standards are valid?”
TSA: “Because they’ll show us that the machines are perfectly safe.”
You can’t assume the validity of your own tests and use the tests as “proof” of the machines’ safety.
As usual, the TSA has failed us.