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.

Continue reading “Dog Whistles: Phrasing that Encodes Anti-Science”

Claim Assessment – Winter Break Edition (“The Ford Dealer” Email)

U.S. Federal Spending in 2011
U.S. Federal Spending in 2011. From Ref. 2.

I’ve been seeing a lot of friends and family over the last week during the Winter Break. One of my friends presented me with an email – it’s unclear whether they wanted me to read it and agree with it or read it and debunk it. It was a chain email, and after reading the first four or five paragraphs it was clear that this was fodder for critical claim assessment.

The email is discussed briefly over at snopes.com [1]. They collected it in August of this year. It is clearly intended as a hit piece on people who receive government assistance, and was circulating prior to the Presidential election. Broadly speaking, it’s an attempt to create a straw man – the cheating lazy American who games the system and makes a ton of money – and then blame that straw man for all the financial woes of the U.S. The version I saw was slightly modified to appear clearly in support of Governor Romney’s comments about the fraction of people receiving government assistance and the quality of those people. Here are the added pieces I saw in the mail. At the beginning of the message, prior to the introduction:

This is exactly why Mitt Romney said that 40 some odd % of the people are too dependent on the government. They have learned to work the system.

At the end of the mail is a plea to send the mail to 10 people. It then says,

Many of us believe business oriented leadership by Romney and Ryan would have helped turn disaster into recovery . . . the Business of America is Doing Business!

So, we realize this doesn’t seem like we’re doing much when we pass these on to our 10, but take a look at what the polls said.

Yes, we CAN help by getting the word out. Media refuses to cover such issues. PLEASE PASS THIS ON TO YOUR 10!

The common content listed at snopes.com is sandwiched in between these added sections. The use of conditional simple tense – ” . . . would have helped . . . ” – suggests that the added text was written AFTER the election’s outcome, as a “told you so” warning. However, the story clearly predates the election itself.

I found the piece overall interesting as fodder for critical claim assessment. I invite you to read through it and look for the many logical fallacies involved – for instance, there is reliance on anecdotal evidence (we cannot even know if the story is true as reported, including the specific numbers), hasty generalization (extrapolating to a large population based on a very small sample size), appeal to emotions, etc. I found one part of the mail specifically interesting. Let me excerpt the pieces and then discuss what I found so interesting.

[The woman purchasing a car at the Ford dealership] said the gov’t sends her $1500.00 a month in 1 check. And she gets $700.00 a month on an EBT card (food stamps), and $800.00 a month for rent.

Oh yeah, and 250 minutes free on her phone.

That is just south of $3500.00 a month . . .

Do the math and then ask yourself why the hell should she go back to work.

If you multiply that by millions of people, you start to realize the scope of the problem we face as a country.****

The socialists have nearly 51% of the population in that same scenario, so we are about finished.

So the claim is that based on this one woman (whose existence we cannot independently verify and whose numbers are not sourced), this is typical of what all people on government assistance receive. The claim is also that 51% of the population is on such government assistance.

Does that add up? Well, if every such person receives $3250/month for 12 months, and we take the population of the U.S. to be about 310 million [2] in 2011 (you’ll see why 2011 matters in a moment), then the cost to the Federal government is:

$3250.00 x 12 x 0.51 x 310,000,000 = $6.2 trillion

What is the total Federal budget of the U.S.? In 2011, the total Federal budget was $3.6 trillion [3]; however, only 43% of that budget is spend on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. That means a maximum of $1.5 trillion. Only a fraction of that money is spent in the way outlined above – on the food program ($78 billion [4]), or on a monthly stipend.

So if we take the claim at face value – as the author of the email clearly wants a reader to do – it is physically impossible for the message to be true. Given the basic falsehood of the premise for the final claim – that this “kind of person” is to blame for all the financial woes of the United States – how can we trust anything else stated in the mail. A major flaw like this financial extrapolation deconstructs the entire argument.

Is it possible that there is such a person? In a system as complex as ours, it’s possible. But is every person who receives any such money receiving such generous benefits? That’s not only extremely unlikely, it’s financially impossible.

That’s why I called this mail a “hit piece.” It’s intended to go straight for your emotions and by-pass your brain. If you apply a little critical thinking and some very basic math to the email, its power is robbed.

Coda:

There were two particularly worrying things about this email. The first is that it claims to be derived from the Facebook post of the owner of a Ford Dealership – ostensibly, a businessman who says “The Business of America is Business!” This businessman is also apparently willing to air the private financial details of his own customers, a practice that is already distasteful (assuming it’s even true at all!). The second worrying thing is that the copy I saw had been sent internally within a business from a supervisor to his subordinates. This was being circulated intentionally by management within a business organization, asking employees to pass it along. At best, that is abuse of a corporate email system.

Both of these observations implies a total misunderstanding of basic money and math by management in either of these two businesses. The Ford Dealership owner used the hasty generalization fallacy to project the situation of a single person to the whole of those who receive any financial support from the U.S. government. Neither of these particular two businessmen stopped and did the math – if they did, they would have realized the core claims of this mail are impossible. At the risk of drawing my own hasty generalization fallacy, if anything spells doom for American business, it’s weak sense critical thinkers running the businesses that participate in our economy.

More info:

Is Tom Selkis a real person? If so, is he connected to Latham Ford?

Latham Ford is real. Tom Selkis is real; he is the owner and a dealer. See the snap of their page below. Does that mean he is really the origin of this mail? Not necessarily, because this information is publicly available and anyone could fake the origin.

20121229-215308.jpg

[1] http://www.snopes.com/politics/taxes/forddealer.asp

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_the_United_States

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_federal_budget

[4] http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=2226

[5] The full mail, from [1]:

A Ford Dealer’s Report – From Tom Selkis’ (Latham Ford) Facebook – True story yesterday at the dealership.

I’ll try to make this as short and to the point as I can.

One of my salesmen here had a woman in his office yesterday wanting to lease a brand new Focus.

As he was reviewing her credit application with her he noticed she was on social security disability.

He said to her you don’t look like you’re disabled and unable to work.

She said well I’m really not. I could work if I wanted to, but I make more now than I did when I was working and got hurt (non-disabling injury).

She said the gov’t sends her $1500.00 a month in 1 check. And she gets $700.00 a month on an EBT card (food stamps), and $800.00 a month for rent.

Oh yeah, and 250 minutes free on her phone.

That is just south of $3500.00 a month.

When she was working, she was taking home about $330.00 per week.

Do the math and then ask yourself why the hell should she go back to work.

If you multiply that by millions of people, you start to realize the scope of the problem we face as a country.
Once the socialists have 51% of the population in that same scenario, we are finished.

The question is when do we cross that threshold if we haven’t already, and there are not enough people working to pay enough taxes to support the non-working people? Riots?? Be prepared to protect your homes.

She didn’t lease the Focus here because the dealer down the road beat our deal by $10.00/month.

Glad to know she is so frugal with her hard earned money.