Begging the question

[Dudley Poplak] gave Charles a copy of the book A Time to Heal: My Triumph over Cancer – Beata Bishop’s story of how she beat malignant melanoma 23 years ago by following the strict dietary regime.
Jo Revill (Health Editor), the Observer , 27 June 2004

The strict dietary regime in question is the Gerson Therapy, which eschews drugs in favour of coffee enemas and fruit juices. It has the support of well-known medical experts such as Prince Charles, interior designer Dudley Poplak and Lord Baldwin of Bewdley. Their opinions, of course, carry more weight than those of the American Cancer Society, which warns that the treatment could be dangerous.

To say that Gerson is controversial is therefore something of an understatement. Jo Revill’s piece in the Observer on Prince Charles’s advocacy of the therapy was supposed to deal with this debate. The overall point of the article is that Charles has “infuriated the medical establishment” by backing a treatment which medical experts believe there are no grounds for thinking works. We then hear opponents and proponents of the therapy offer their views. Revill’s role is not to pass judgement but to survey the opinions fairly.

Overall, Revill remains impartial. But when she says that Bishop “beat” cancer “by following the strict dietary regime” she begs the question: she assumes precisely what is being contested. Bishop could only have beaten her cancer by following the diet, if following the diet actually caused her to get better. But this is exactly what is in question. What Revill should have said is that Bishop got better while following the diet. The facts indicate a temporal coincidence, not a causal link.

Although the slip may seem a small one, it is crucial. For what this form of words implies is that on at least one occasion the therapy did work. That means the controversy is transformed into a debate about how often it works and how reliable it is, when it is really concerned with whether it works at all. To say someone beat cancer by following the diet therefore crucially grants to the advocates of the therapy that which they have not demonstrated to be true.

Begging the question – assuming what needs to be argued for – is often a result of a careless use of language. More specifically, we often use “success” words where more neutral vocabulary is needed. For example, we say learned French when really we only studied it and never developed any real competence. Republicans say that Ronald Reagan won the cold war, when perhaps the cold war simply ended while he was president. A military retaliation may achieve little, but it is still said to have avenged an attack. When we learn, win or avenge, we achieve something by our actions. No such success is implied by the fact that we study, retaliate or simply have power.

The unjustified use of success words is not the same mistake as begging the question, but it is often the means by which question begging occurs. In the Gerson example, the success word “beat” certainly contributes to the question begging. To say she beat cancer is to say her actions caused her to get better. And since the only apparently relevant action she took was the Gerson Therapy, to say she beat her illness is to assume the therapy can work when this is precisely what the article is putting into question. But if the recovery was not the consequence of anything Bishop did, then it is not accurate to say she beat her cancer. Rather, she simply got better.

It is interesting to note that the question begging in this article all worked to the favour of alternative medicine, which the media always seems to give the benefit of the doubt. Such bias goes largely unnoticed, whereas to beg the question the other way would be seen as narrow-minded and prejudiced. Imagine that Revill had described the treatment as ineffective. That would be seen as unfair, yet she is permitted to say that someone got better by taking the treatment, and that the treatment is therefore at least sometimes effective. Some beliefs, it seems, are treated with more respect than others.

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