The Begging Epidemic

I’ve been enjoying “Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey” with Neil deGrasse Tyson, a science series airing currently on the Fox Network, although I have to take issue with something the man who is our current great explainer said on a recent episode, something that made me cringe and then hang my head in disappointment.

No, it wasn’t the moment when he revealed the age of the Earth to be 4.5 billion years.  Duh.  Have you taken a good look at the Earth?  Years and mileage have taken their toll on the old girl.  This planet's been around the block more than a couple of times.  The brilliant thing about the age-of-the-earth episode was that the information wasn’t merely presented as a dry fact.  It was dramatized step-by-step as the solving of a grand mystery by a dogged detective-scientist, voiced by Richard Gere, who is menaced later by some sinister villains who want to shut him up.  

The entire series is a beautifully-crafted updating of Carl Sagan’s 1980 “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage," produced back when he was the nation's chief explainer of science and a model of clear thinking.  Sagan’s death in 1996 left a great void that was only partly (And far too briefly) plugged by the late Stephen Jay Gould, who was a prodigious writer, but lacked Sagan’s nerdy rock-star persona.  When Carl Sagan showed up on Johnny Carson’s show with his turtleneck sweater, corduroy jacket and beatlesque haircut to expound on the wonders of the cosmos, it was like having science explained to you by Klaatu, if, instead of getting back on his spaceship and returning to his home planet after making the Earth stand still in 1951, Klaatu had moved to Brooklyn and tried to assimilate.

When Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about science, he does it so joyously that he threatens to break into an irrepressible chuckle, and sometimes does.  Yes, he can also seem a bit other-worldly, like a benevolent representative from a superior alien race who’s forced to speak slowly so his intelligence doesn’t overwhelm us, but also one it might be fun to have a beer with.  So what did he say that troubled me?  I’ve tried to put it out my mind since then, but it sounded something like, “That begs a whole lot of questions.”

I would call “It begs the question,” one of my pet peeves, if that didn’t make me sound slightly fond of it.  It’s just a peeve.  A great big one.  A great big old one.  So, it’s more like a vendetta.  Back in the 1930’s a finicky grammarian pointed out that misuse of the phrase was starting to get out of hand, and if we didn’t take measures soon it would lose all intrinsic worth and become the befouled property of barbarians.  Well, it’s gotten worse than that.  When smart guys get hold of it, they swing it around with the same wild abandandon.  If it’s used in its proper sense, we might expect to hear it twice a year.  I think I heard it misused three times last week.  When Neil deGrasse Tyson gets it wrong, the barbarians have won.

“Begging the question” is a garbled 16th century translation of the Latin petitio principii, “assuming the initial point," a very specific logical fallacy with a definition that puts me to sleep, but here’s the key:  If someone says “It begs the question,” and then announces what question is supposedly begging to be asked, he's committing a linguistic foul.  What he means to say is, “It raises the question,” or “It suggests the question,” or “It makes us ask,” or “It leads us to wonder,” but he won’t say any of those things.  He'll always reach for that same tired, misunderstood cliché, like a golfer who uses his sand wedge for every shot.  

Rather than try to define it, I'll borrow another golfing example, one from the 1967 movie, “Banning” with Robert Wagner, the story of a golf pro with a shady past.  It’s a lackluster movie with no energy at all and a transparent plot, but it has an early Quincy Jones score with a beautiful love theme, plus a cameo by Gene Hackman, so if it’s on, I’ll watch.  There’s a golfer played by Howard St. John, a specialist in oozing pomposity, who, whenever faced with a putt that’s longer than a tap-in, turns to the other golfers and asks, “You’ll all concede that, won’t you?”  They always do, unless there’s real money on the line.  He then fills out his scorecard without ever sinking the putt.  Begging the question is a little bit like that.  

For a better example, we can turn to Professor Joseph Taplin Lovewell, the Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson of his day, the man who once devoted a scientific paper to debunking the practice of water-witching or dowsing.  Besides being a scientist and a teacher, Lovewell was also a careful wordsmith.  Here are a few snippets of his own 1903 version of a mini-episode of “Cosmos,” done without greenscreen effects or computer graphics, or even charts or lithographs, just a compact, lovely word-picture of Earth's water cycle.    

We propose to examine the validity of these claims of the water-witches with the candor due to many people of acknowledged ability and integrity who believe in them.  There is a great deal of mystery in the construction of this earth on whose surface we live.  We can not penetrate it more than about one mile, nor can we rise above it more than about five miles.  Geology enables us to guess more or less closely what is the construction of this thin shell less than one ten-thousandth part of the diameter of the earth.  The seas, lakes and rivers send up into the air their tribute of vapor, which is finally precipitated upon the earth and is carried by gravity back to Mother Ocean.  Part of this precipitation soaks into the soil, as we say; it settles down, saturates the surface deposits and the rocks below, and finally reaches a ground-water level where it never dries out, and this is the layer which our wells must penetrate.  Gravity still acts upon the water at this level and it still continues its onward journey to the sea.

Can the favorable or unfavorable place for a well be discovered by the divining rod?  It is claimed that there is a sort of attraction of water upon the rod but this is not manifested except in the hands of persons of peculiar temperament.  This exception is the stumbling block in the way of any accurate tests.  It introduces a psychological inquiry and begs the question if we are to decide it by the established principles of science.

There.  That’s a textbook use of “It begs the question,” and an especially appropriate one for my purposes, because Prof. Lovewell had caught another man with a stick filling out his scorecard without making the putt.  You’ll all concede that, won’t you? 

© Dale Switzer 2023