Begging the Question: Dogs Are Cats

(Courtesy of the CatDog wiki)

There are phrases in the English language that drive me absolutely batty when I hear them. One of them is “begs the question.” People say this all the time when they really mean to say “raises the question.” For example, “Pluto is not a planet anymore, which begs the question, where are my socks?” And then my HEAD FARKING ASPLODES. The only way that kind of sentence could be worse is if you threw “irregardless” in there somewhere. Then my brainnards would double explode and maybe even go supernova.

“Beg the question” does not mean what you think it means. “Beg the question” is a logical fallacy. It is an example of a fallacy of presumption. It is circular reasoning. “Begging the question” means assuming the truth of an argument without actually arguing it.

It goes something like this: “This blog post is trash because it is garbage.” (A is true because B–which is just a rephrasing of A–is true). It can take a more convoluted form: “This blog post is trash because it’s obviously worthless. The fact that it’s worth nothing proves that it’s trash.” (A is true because B is true, and B is true because A is true.) Or the mother of all ridiculousness: “This blog post is trash because it is worthless. It has no value because no one will read it. Obviously, no one will read it because it’s trash.” (A is true because B is true, and B is true because C is true, and C is true because A is true.) That’s not an argument; it’s a carnival ride.

Real examples of begging the question should make your brain hurt like an M.C. Escher drawing where the world folds in on itself yet somehow still stands like it ain’t no thing.

A visual representation of logical fallacy.
Up And Down” (lithograph, 1947) M.C. Escher.

Another form of logic FAIL is association fallacy, which is essentially guilt by association. The characteristics of one thing are intrinsically the characteristics of another because of some irrelevant lowest common denominator bullcrap.

It goes something like this: “All dogs have four legs. Cats have four legs. Therefore, cats are dogs.” Sometimes the comparative statements aren’t even true or they’re based on gross generalizations, as in my example; i.e. not all dogs have four legs. Not only is your argument invalid, but your hair is a bird.

The sad reality of association fallacy.
(Image from CatDog)

I could go on and on about fallacy, but that’s not the reason for this post. I am writing this invective post about inductive reasoning because of two articles in The Atlantic. One is titled “Where The Uninsured Live,” which begs the question by quoting from a previous Atlantic article called “America’s Uninsured Belt.” The point these articles are trying to make is that American states with higher rates of uninsured people also tend to have higher rates of religious, less-educated and poor people than states with higher rates of insured residents.

This is a quote from the newer article quoting the previous article:

Uninsured states are significantly more religious, based on the percentage of state residents who say that religion plays an important role in their everyday life. The correlation between the two is .51.

Politics and ideology factor in as well. Conservative states (based both on the percentage of state residents who identify as conservatives (.58) and the percentage of who voted for McCain in 2008 (.60) have a higher percentage of uninsured citizens. Economics also comes into play. There is a positive correlation between the percent of a population that is uninsured and the poverty rate (.58). Blue-collar and working class states also boast a higher level of uninsured (.40).

Not surprisingly, the share of the population that is uninsured is lower in more affluent and more highly educated states. The share of uninsured people is negatively associated with state income levels, the percentage of college grads, and the percentage of workers in professional, knowledge, and creative occupations.

Both articles display the following nifty, pointless graphic. Let’s just disregard the fact that the kind of insurance, presumably health, is never mentioned and the “ranges” are never actually given so this chart is totally useless, shall we?


“Where The Uninsured Live” mainly just quotes “America’s Uninsured Belt” and provides little new information, editorial or factual. It seems its entire purpose is to tie the first article in with the Supreme Court decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act. I only mention “Where The Uninsured Live” at all because it conveniently disregards this key quote from the previous article:

With the help of my Martin Prosperity Institute colleague Charlotta Mellander, I took a quick look at the economic, demographic, and political factors that might be associated with state-by-state levels of insurance coverage. As usual, I note that correlation does not imply causation; other factors may well come into play. Still, our findings are intriguing on a number of levels.

If I were the author of “America’s Uninsured Belt,” Richard Florida, I’d be livid that the newer article left out that rather important bit, I might want look up the definition of “belt” and I’d be pissed that my parents named me Dick Florida. Correlation does not equal causation, which is exactly what annoyed me about the second article.

You could take that nifty green map up there, throw out the superimposed statistics about religion, wealth and education, and replace them with “thinks Pluto is a planet” and it would have the same contextual relevance and significance. The Atlantic‘s laissez-faire attitude towards fact makes both articles sound like this: “Texas has a high uninsured rate; ‘More than one in four of its residents (27.6 percent) are uninsured.’ Religious and politically conservative people live in Texas. Therefore, Texans are religious, conservative and uninsured.” That is pure correlation, total conjecture and a compete generalization. Even Dick Florida said it when he said, “I note that correlation does not imply causation; other factors may well come into play.”

So, here are a couple of letters I’d like to send if I weren’t so lazy:

Dear The Atlantic,
You have been around for roughly 150 years. You ought to know better than to try to pass off conjecture as news… twice. Granted, you went from being a mainly literary to a mainly editorial publication, but the articles I quoted don’t look like opinion to me; they seem to be dressed up as fact. Outside of polls, most publications don’t typically use graphs and charts for opinions. For example, here’s a pie chart showing the different types of pies I like to eat.

Statistically significant.

It looks pretty impressive, right? It’s way more impressive and definitive than had I just said that I like apple, cherry and blueberry pie in that order. However, it’s hardly comprehensive since I also like pecan and pumpkin pie. There are no numbers provided nor is it clear who the respondent(s) is or what constitutes “times.” It is not factual. Even if it were true that I enjoy apple pie 53% of the time, it’s still just opinion. And that’s fine! There’s nothing wrong with opinion if that’s your thing! Really, as long as it’s clearly marked as editorial, go crazy with it, but do not try to pass off your fancy speculation as news, because it’s not.

You have some mighty impressive founders: Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., John Greenleaf Whittier and James Russell Lowell. Please do them proud and knock it off.

Thanks in advance.


Dear The Rest Of You,

I show these examples of inductive reasoning so that you might glean two things from them. First, please, don’t believe everything that you read. A lot of what’s printed, even in established publications like The Atlantic or on prominent, distinguished websites like Fish Of Gold, is really just balderdash or opinion or both. Second, I’d greatly appreciate it if you’d refrain from saying “begs the question” when you really mean “raises the question” since I would prefer to keep my brainnards un-asploded.

Thanks in advance.