Dog Whistles: Phrasing that Encodes Anti-Science

A “dog whistle” in a political sense is a code phrase that stands for an idea other than the one used in the phrase. Let’s look at a dog whistle in the discussion about science education, one intended to weaken science in the classroom.

President Trump’s candidate for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, was approved today by the Senate committee that conducted her hearing. During her hearing, a question was asked of Mrs. DeVos by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) about whether or not she would work to keep “junk science” (such as “Intelligent Design” or efforts to erode climate science) out of the public school classroom. Rather than a simple “Yes,” she replied that she would support “especially science that is, uh, that allows student to exercise critical thinking…” [1]

This sounds innocuous, and even supportive, but in the long fight to keep anti-science forces from degrading US science education efforts, “critical thinking” has been appropriated by anti-science forces in public education conversations to mean “promote non-scientific views in the science classroom about established scientific frameworks.” Let’s explore this a little to understand it better.

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Trump, Behind Closed Doors, Insists Earth is Flat (a lesson)

The flat earth of Trump’s imaginings. Image from Ref. (2)

A story hit the press today – behind closed doors last night, while meeting with both Democrats and Republicans, Trump advanced the idea that the world is flat and not round. In a story tonight on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” excerpts from a press briefing today with Press Secretary Sean Spicer suggested things got pretty heated as Spicer came under increasing pressure to have Trump take action on this matter if he so strongly believes it.

The transcript

Here is the transcript from a segment of the “All Things Considered” story [1]. The italicized portions are from audio from the press conference, and italicized and bold portions are from the radio story itself with host Ari Shapiro interviewing Mara Liasson, national political correspondent:

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Does the president believe that the earth is flat, and what evidence do you have of a flat earth if that’s the case?

Sean Spicer takes questions from the press as he deals with Trump’s closed-door assertions about the shape of the earth. Photo from Getty Images.

SEAN SPICER: The president does believe that. He has stated that before. I think he’s stated his concerns of misrepresentation of the earth’s shape during the campaign. And he continues to maintain that belief based on studies and evidence that people have presented to him.

LIASSON: Spicer didn’t say what that evidence was, except for at one point, he referred to a Nature study that actually is not about the shape of the earth. It’s about irregularities in the crust of the earth, like the number of mountains in the Andes range.

SHAPIRO: Mara, what are the implications of President Trump bringing this up again?

LIASSON: There are a lot of implications . . . This would be the biggest cover-up of a basic fact in human history. It would call into question the model of the Solar System, too . . . And if he believes the earth is flat, wouldn’t he want to restore faith in our basic knowledge of the world by calling for an investigation to get to the bottom of this. Now, I asked Sean Spicer about that today, and he wasn’t taking the bait. Here’s what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

LIASSON: If the earth is really flat and not round, that is a scandal of astronomical proportions. Doesn’t he want to restore Americans’ faith in their education system? Wouldn’t he want an investigation of this?

SPICER: Well, I…

LIASSON: I mean this is a huge, huge scandal.

SPICER: But Mara, you – as I’ve noted several times now, he’s believed this for a long time.

LIASSON: I’m not (unintelligible).

SPICER: And I think he’s traveled uneventfully in a jet from place to place in the world, so he’s not – and look; we’ll work…

LIASSON: I’m asking you, why not investigate something that is…

SPICER: Well, maybe we will.

LIASSON: Maybe we will, but later he said an investigation was just hypothetical.

WTF? Relax – this is satire

OK, you can be done being confused. This was satire.

Of course, Trump didn’t say this specific thing and that’s not what this press conference questioning was about. Instead, it was about Trump’s repeated and continually baseless claims that there was massive voter fraud in the 2016 Presidential Election. He, nor his aids, ever produced evidence of this claim – yet they repeat it over and over and over again. That’s propaganda, not science.

Yet, many people buy into this nonsense because it suits their worldview. I thought it would be a useful exercise to use parody to get across how it feels, as a scientist, to listen to people like Trump and Spicer assert unverifiable or absolutely refuted claims. So I replaced references to voter fraud in the original transcript with phrases about the shape of the earth, and adjusted other text accordingly. Because, you see, without a mountain of gold-standard evidence to back his claims, Trump’s assertions are about as sane as the assertion that the earth is flat. Massive voter fraud claims fly in the face of all direct evidence to the contrary, and any attempt to assert the claim is a distortion of reality so terrifying that it makes my brain hurt – much the same way that “flat earthers” make my brain hurt. They are merely asserting a false claim to protect some value system or world view – but that is not science.

So now you know how I feel, listening to this man spout his nonsense.

UPDATE – Jan. 25, 2017

Over night, Trump tweeted that his administration will conduct a thorough investigation of his own claims. He tweeted this:

I will be asking for a major investigation into VOTER FRAUD, including those registered to vote in two states, those who are illegal and….even, those registered to vote who are dead (and many for a long time). Depending on results, we will strengthen up voting procedures! [3]

(emphasis is his own)

This is a major victory for the press, who called his bluff and made him blink. Thank God for the 4th estate.

[1] http://www.npr.org/2017/01/24/511468443/as-trump-moves-ahead-on-agenda-controversial-election-claim-resurfaces

[2] http://www.geek.com/culture/internet-gutter-welcome-to-the-flat-earth-1659303/

[3] https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/824227824903090176 and  https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/824228768227217408

Signs and Portents: Rumors of Energy Dept. Gutting and Basic Science Tweets Deleted

Rick Perry answering questions at his Jan. 19, 2017 confirmation hearing for Secretary of Energy (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster). Perry may have been auditioning for the role of “King Nothing” if rumors of a Dept. of Energy gutting prove true.

In a continuing look at the signs and portents regarding science policy and spending from the Trump administration, let’s look at a few headlines that made the rounds in the past day. These concern the possible gutting of the Energy Dept. under the guise of “cutting the deficit” and the deletion of tweets from the Badlands National Park Twitter account, tweets that contained basic climate science information.

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Signs and Portents: White House Website Energy Policy Sketch

A screen capture of the whitehouse.gov energy policy page from 1/22/17.

In a continuing effort to collect the signs and portents from the Trump administration that might signal actual science policy, here is a quick look at the White House website [1]. After Friday, the website changed over to the new administration and with that came a set of new issues that Trump’s administration has made the centerpieces of the site. Notable under the energy policy section is this:

President Trump is committed to eliminating harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the U.S. rule.

 

In case you are wondering what the “Climate Action Plan” is, it used to be a page on the White House website but is gone now with the change of administration. Using the internet “Wayback Machine,” you can find this from 1/19/17:

The White House website on the climate action plan prior to the Trump administration.

I downloaded the PDF to preserve it here, to remind us when the Executive Branch used scientific information to make policy frameworks:

President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan (PDF)

It was a series of executive action directions that the White House took, in the absence of action from the Congress in response to scientific information, to try to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s worth noting that Trump has repeatedly stated that policies like this resulted in the collapse of the coal industry, but this claim has been widely and repeatedly debunked. In fact, it’s largly cheap natural gas, the result of hydraulic fracturing, and the emergence of renewal energy sources (like wind energy and solar) that competed with coal and caused the coal industry to have to compete with better fuels (in other words, coal lost the free-market fight). [2]

These are still just words, and Trump’s words are never to be trusted. But since these have now appeared on the White House website it becomes a policy direction, and thus should be a more reliable signal of intended action.

[1] whitehouse.gov

[2] c.f. http://www.politifact.com/missouri/statements/2016/mar/16/roy-blunt/sen-blunt-overstates-white-house-policys-impact-co/http://oilprice.com/Energy/Energy-General/Cheap-Natural-Gas-To-Spark-Another-Wave-Of-Coal-Plant-Retirements.html