The argument from “code words”

Charles DarwinThe argument from code words fascinates me. You can use it to prove anyone is saying anything. Just say X is a code word for Y. This post may be an encoded call for terrorism; just declare that “the argument from code words fascinates me” is code for “Let’s nuke every major city in the US.” (They do things like that in spy novels!)

A while back, I saw a claim that Betsy DeVos is a creationist. Having no idea whether this was true or false, I did a search, which led me to an article on propublica.org:

At a confirmation hearing earlier this month, Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s pick for education secretary, responded to a question about whether she would promote “junk science” by saying she supports science teaching that “allows students to exercise critical thinking.” …

DeVos and her family have poured millions of dollars into groups that champion intelligent design, the doctrine that the complexity of biological life can best be explained by the existence of a creator rather than by Darwinian evolution. Within this movement, “critical thinking” has become a code phrase to justify teaching of intelligent design.

Hearing DeVos refer to “critical thinking” was “like hearing old catch phrases from a nearly forgotten TV show that never made prime time,” Michigan State University professor Robert Pennock told ProPublica. … “She evaded what should have been a simple question about not teaching junk science,” Pennock wrote in an email. “More than that, she did so in a way that signaled her willingness to open the door to intelligent design creationism.”

DeVos’s answer was entirely to the point. Promotion of critical thinking is highly relevant to warding off junk science. Just declare it a “code phrase,” though, and you can call it an “evasion” while putting creationism into her mouth. Putting anything into anyone’s mouth.

Just as bad, it concedes the scientific high ground to creationists. If you favor critical thinking, you should find Genesis more intellectually rigorous than The Origin of Species? But then, a lot of people favoring evolutionary science treat it as a matter of faith, just as much as “intelligent design” advocates do. Their concern isn’t with correcting erroneous thinking but with damning heresy. At a wild guess, I suspect about one person in ten who agrees with evolutionary science can give any scientific arguments for it. (I’m one of the 10%: DNA similarities, adaptation of structures, observed genetic drift, etc.) It’s become a cultural battle instead a reply to poor reasoning.

I’d like to find that “nearly forgotten TV show” which promotes critical thinking. It sounds interesting.

Happy Darwin’s birthday!

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7 Responses to “The argument from “code words””

  1. thnidu Says:

    I must admit, I’m confused here. First you say
    «The argument from code words fascinates me. You can use it to prove anyone is saying anything,» which sounds like an argument against using the term or concept “code words” in analyzing public utterances.

    Then you quote propublica.org: «DeVos and her family have poured millions of dollars into groups that champion intelligent design, the doctrine that the complexity of biological life can best be explained by the existence of a creator rather than by Darwinian evolution. . Within this movement, “critical thinking” has become a code phrase to justify teaching of intelligent design.» So there you label “critical thinking”, when used within the creationist movement, as a code phrase with a very different meaning from the usual one on account of an unspoken set of unscientific assumptions. The creationist definition of “critical thinking” isn’t what most people understand by the phrase but an “alternative fact”.

    «Promotion of critical thinking,» you say, «is highly relevant to warding off junk science» using the phrase in its normal, literal sense — including the normally taken-for-granted caveat “without sneaking any junk-sciency assumptions into the process”. But you immediately add «Just declare it a “code phrase,” though, and you can call it an “evasion” while putting creationism into her mouth.»

    But this is not putting anything into her mouth, but rather recognizing the deception that is already there. If a Russian in the United States speaks of “our laws”, we know and they know that they’re referring to Russian laws, unlike what we would mean by the same phrase in the same conversation. Similarly for a Christian speaking of “holy Word” in conversation with a Muslim. But DeVos and other creationists know that “critical thinking” means something special to them that most outsiders aren’t aware of.

    I agree with you that it’s important to know what we’re talking about in this and other debates and to be able to back up our arguments. But I don’t agree that that devalues the useful term “code phrase” (or the older, similar “dog whistle”). It’s just that calling something that is not enough.

    • Gary McGath Says:

      It seems to me you’re committing the fallacy of begging the question. If there’s evidence that she has used the phrase as jargon or to mislead, that’s another thing. But the article simply assumes that she is, even though her answer to the question is entirely reasonable in context. I’d want to see cases where she clearly misuses terminology before concluding that she does.

    • Eyal Mozes Says:

      The article bases its case on two claims: first, the DeVos is a creationist; second, that creationists use the phrase “critical thinking” as a “code phrase” meaning something different from its plain English meaning. The problem with the article is that it presents no evidence at all to substantiate either claim; it instead treats DeVos’s statement in support of critical thinking – a statement which, as Gary correctly points out, was perfectly reasonable and entirely to the point as an answer to the question she was asked – as if it were evidence for these two claims. I very much agree with Gary that this is a blatant logical fallacy, and that the same kind of logic can be used to put any words you want into anyone’s mouth.

      On the first question – whether DeVos is a creationist – I don’t know enough to have the answer; but I do note that I haven’t seen any evidence presented for the claim. Certainly, as far as I’m aware, no one has found any verifiable quote from her supporting creationism or supporting the teaching of creationist “science” in schools. Donations she has made may provdie some evidence, but if so a lot more is needed than a generalized statement that “DeVos and her family have poured millions of dollars into groups that champion intelligent design”; someone would need to list exactly which organizations she has donated to, and demonstrate that promoting teaching of creationism is the central mission of these organizations; I haven’t found anyone do that. But as I said, I don’t know enough to have a firm opinion either way.

      One the second question, on the other hand, the case is very clear: creationists do talk about critical thinking in its plain English meaning, and there is nothing wrong with how they use the phrase. Those who claim that “critical thinking” being a “code phrase” are exposing their intellectual bankruptcy.

      Consider, as an analogy, how the phrase “critical thinking” is used by atheists. When you hear the phrase “critical thinking” from an atheist, in the context of talking about religion, that phrase is almost always associated with promoting atheism. Is this because atheists have some different meaning in mind for the phrase than its plain English meaning? No; it is because most atheists hold that there is no way to make rational sense of the concept of God or to make a rational case for the existence of God; if you accept that, then it follows that promoting critical thinking would help to promote atheism.

      The more rational type of Jewish or Catholic religionists, who reject that claim and hold that there is a rational concept of God and a rational case for God’s existence, would have no problem separating that claim from what atheists mean by critical thinking. They would not accuse atheists of using “critical thinking” as a “code phrase”, or of engaging in deception; they would not claim that “the atheist definition of ‘critical thinking’ isn’t what most people understand by the phrase”; and they would not suggest that the normal sense of “critical thinking” has to include “the normally taken-for-granted caveat ‘without sneaking any atheist assumptions into the process'”. Instead, they would recognize that atheists are talking about critical thinking in its plain English meaning; agree with atheists that critical thinking is a positive value; and regard atheists as wrong about what conclusions critical thinking leads to in regard to God.

      The only ones who’d make the above claims, about “critical thinking” being an atheist “code phrase”, are those whose approach to religion is completely anti-rational. By treating “critical thinking” as a “code phrase”, they admit that they agree with atheists that the idea of God can’t withstand rational scrutiny, and that therefore protecting religion requires suppressing critical thinking.

      The way creationists talk about “critical thinking” is entirely analogous. What you hear the phrase “critical thinking” from a creationist, in the context of discussing evolution, that phrase is almost always associated with promoting creationism. That is not because they have some different meaning in mind for the phrase; it is because they hold that the rational case for evolution is badly flawed and cannot withstand critical scrutiny; if you accept that, it follows that promoting critical thinking would help to promote creationism. Those supporters of evolutionary science who reject that claim, and recognize how overwhelming the scientific case for evolution is, have no problem separating this claim from what creationists mean by critical thinking. They can recognize that creationists are talking about critical thinking in its plain English meaning; agree with creationists that critical thinking is a positive value; and regard creationists are totally wrong about what conclusions critical thinking leads to in regard to evolution.

      The only ones who regard “critical thinking” as a creationist “code phrase” are those whose approach to evolution is anti-rational; those who approach evolution not as a scientific idea but as an article of faith and a side to take in a culture war, and don’t know or don’t care about the scientific case for it. By treating “critical thinking” as a “code phrase”, they are confessing that they agree with creationists that evolutionary science can’t withstand rational scrutiny, and that therefore protecting the theory of evolution requires suppressing critical thinking. Sadly, many, probably most, supporters of evolutionary science approach it this way; and I agree with Gary, such people are much more common than those who’re actually familiar with the scientific arguments for evolution.

      • Gary McGath Says:

        Just to be clear, while I think that a majority of the people who support evolutionary science can’t cite arguments for it, I don’t think most of them take an anti-rational view. I think they’ve just learned that it’s “science” and never gotten beyond that. On just about any position, however well-founded, the people who understand the reasoning behind it are in the minority.

        • Eyal Mozes Says:

          Is it any more rational to believe an idea because you’ve learned that it’s “science” and never gotten beyond that, than to believe an idea because you’re learned that the bible says so and never gotten beyond that? I’d say the people you describe here are within the anti-rational group I was talking about.

          That said, the rational supporters of evolution do vary in their level of understanding of the evidence. Those who have learned the evidence to at least some degree, enough to accept evolution as a rational conclusion rather than as an article of faith, are certainly a much larger group than those who can give a clear explanation of the evidence. Just what fraction they are, we’d need some empirical research to find out. My (admittedly highly unreliable) estimate, from my own experience of people I’ve discussed this with and discussions I’ve seen, is that among supporters of evolutionary science, those who have at least some knowledge of the evidence are a large minority, much more than one in ten, but still a minority.

          • Gary McGath Says:

            People learn (or perhaps I should put “learn” in quotation marks) more things than they have time to think about. They’re just rote facts to them. I was about to give “Fargo is the capital of North Dakota” as an example, but I checked to make sure and discovered it isn’t. (Bismarck is the capital.) So I myself “knew” something that wasn’t supported by the facts. That doesn’t make me anti-rational; the capital of ND was just never an important issue to me. Likewise, most people have never had the need or inclination to look into evolution. Some accept it and some reject it simply because it’s what they’ve been taught. It’s only when they start defending it with insults or bad reasoning that they become anti-rational.

      • thnidu Says:

        Thank you both, Eyal and Gary, for clarifying this for me. I need to learn to think more critically about such emotion-laden topics as this.


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