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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Microcosm: when science and the public meet

A recent DCII Panel Event on "Scientific Research and Public Responses" at SMU.
A recent DCII Panel Event on “Scientific Research and Public Responses” at SMU.

Science is a process by which reliable information is obtained by repeated use and assessment. In science, all claims are up for revision; however, absent better information when there is enough reliable information to make a decision it is usually considered wise to do so, even if future revisions (which one cannot predict) might cause adjustments to past decisions. This past week, the Dedman College Interdisciplinary Institute, on whose Faculty Advisory Board I serve, hosted a panel discussion [1] of four scientists moderated by a local public radio journalist. The event quickly became a microcosm of the very problem that the public has in understanding and using scientific information, and about public understanding of what it means to be a scientist. I’ve had a few days to process this event, and I want to share my personal observations and thoughts here.

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Certified free of actual science content

I doubt that this product contains no genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Humans have been breeding plants according to their useful functions – cold-weather resistance, nutrition, disease-resistance – for thousands of years. It was only when Gregor Mendel illuminated the laws of genetics that we learned how to control this in meaningful ways and generate intentional benefits in plants on shorter timescales. With the discovery of DNA as the source of genetic information we learned to speed the design of biological improvements even more. The point is, like all other plants, black beans (a Meso-American crop) have been bred into many varieties and it’s pretty much impossible to have non-GMO beans these days. Marketing a product in this way caters to the lack of science literacy in our country, taking advantage of people who mean well but totally misunderstand what is means to genetically modify anything. ALL things are genetically modified.

Author’s comment: Thanks to R. Scalise for sending this my way after the original post: