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Gambling: Pretty words describe bad idea

November 17, 2007|By ALLAN POWELL

Is "word hedging" intellectual dishonesty?

The word "hedge" in this usage is defined as "to turn aside; swerve; avoid an open decisive course." In other words, when we verbally "hedge" we are artfully dodging or "swerving" in order to avoid a clash. It is readily recognizable that literally all human beings, in order to bypass friction and hostility, "swerve" to avoid unpleasant encounters! Such a ploy could indicate sensitivity to the feelings of others. But, it could also signify intellectual deceit.

The use of "hedging" surfaced while reading a newly published book on the life of Charles Darwin. This biographer reports that in 1845 (fourteen years before he published "The Origin of Species"), Darwin was revising for publication in his journal, a description of the great variety of plant and animal species on the Galapagos Islands, which he had visited while sailing on the Beagle.

Darwin was seriously considering the mention of his revolutionary new idea of natural selection as the causal force behind the multitude of variations he had observed. But, Darwin elected to "hedge" his words about this purely natural law affecting the retention or elimination of mutations and wrote the following. "Hence, both in space and time, we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact - that mystery of mysteries - the first appearance of new things on this earth." For the moment, Darwin wisely "played it safe" by "hedging" his words.

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Eventually, in 1859, Darwin "came out" with a complete and, frankly naturalistic, theory of the origin of species. True, he was reluctant to "go public" from the start; he was pushed into publication. The defense of his radical views was done by others. Time has done little to reduce the animosity to Darwin's great achievement, at least in the United States. At this point we can apply the concept of intellectual "hedging" to a modern setting. Hindsight shows that "swerving" has been a feature of human interaction since the dawn of language. The gambling proposal put forward by the governor of Maryland is a text book example. By a wide distribution of slots it is possible to raise large sums of money to provide services and pay bills.

There are no new arguments to justify this expansion of a very bad habit. The old clichs about how "much good will come" from the addition of slots ring hollow when measured against the reality that the state is promoting what moralists fear is harmful. Gambling revenues "offer benefits," help to "improve" education, and "save travel to other states to gamble." Sure looks like giant "hedges" to avoid looking down the road to unintended consequences. The quest for a republic of virtue is gone.

The "word hedging" in the gambling issue is one of omission. The words that are needed to give a holistic accounting of the total costs of using gambling as a way to raise revenue are not used. The downside of gambling is muted by the drumbeat to get a quick fix. Things really haven't changed all that much since 1845.

Allan Powell is a Hagerstown resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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