Orwell, Chomsky, and the Power of Twisting Language

Choosing the right word is very important, but I’ve recently found it to be far more important than I previously thought. Influences: George Orwell, Noam Chomsky.

An Experiment

Consider the 1974 Loftus and Palmer experiment [1][2][3]. Participants were shown identical short videos of car crashes, and were then asked one of the questions:

  1. About how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?
  2. About how fast were the cars going when they collided into each other?
  3. About how fast were the cars going when they bumped into each other?
  4. About how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?
  5. About how fast were the cars going when they contacted each other?

The only difference is the wording. Yet it was able to produce a statistically significant result:

People will believe what they hear.

Framing the Question: Politics and Religion

There are many issues today in America that suffer similar biases from wording.

Take immigration for example. Most people would probably be against illegal aliens, but would probably be more sympathetic towards undocumented workers. With this phrasing, the same person might support giving rights to undocumented workers, yet might vote the opposite way when the media or a political party calls them illegal aliens. Even though they are referring to the same people, one term focuses to the illegality, while the other focuses on their work. Of course when you call them illegal aliens, you’re going to have a biased discussion.

Abortion falls to the same bias. It is the termination of pregnancy, yet those who are opposed label it as bad as killing babies.

Or if you are not a Muslim, you are a non-Muslim; however, Islamist extremists label you as an infidel.

And don’t think Christianity gets off the hook here. A non-Christian is similarly labeled by extremists as a blasphemer (or infidel or heretic as well). And since one can’t be both Muslim and Christian at the same time, every person on Earth is an infidel or a blasphemer. That’s just the logical truth.

Framing the Question: Science and Religion

The power of twisting language is nowhere more important than in the evolution vs creationism “debate.” The reason I put the word “debate” in quotes is that it’s really not a debate where both sides use logic, reason, and facts. Yet, as long as the creationists manage to convince people there is still “debate” by labeling the whole thing as a “debate,” then they are winning their “debate.”

So far, every debate I’ve seen between evolution and creationism, and between logic and religion in general, is more of a lecture to a stubborn adolescent who still believes in fairy tales. The power of language is so strong that in labeling the conflict as a “debate” in the first place, the creationists are creating the false presumption that there even is a debate.

They use completely wrong and misleading words to describe the theory of evolution. Even calling it a theory or hypothesis in the first place is misleading, because the word theory in everyday speech strongly focuses on the possibility of being uncertain or wrong (if I said “My theory about why the grades were lower on this test…”), whereas the word theory in science implies strong logical mechanisms and the possibility to confirm or deny through evidence (such as the theory of gravity).

To adapt this “debate” to everyday speech, we should really call it the fact of evolution. One is of course allowed to call it a theory, but only seriously if one actually understands it scientifically. Most of those who claim “it’s just a theory” don’t actually understand it at all.

A debate would imply both sides are using reason. That is hardly the case. It is really more of a clearing of misunderstandings than the use of any higher cognitive skills.

The following words are extremely well misunderstood: random, chance, selection, adapt, and purpose. Consider the following dialog, which more or less actually happened (I am putting quotes around the word “Evolutionist” as it is really just a label that shouldn’t have to exist, just as you don’t have to call people who believe the world is round “Round-Earthers”):

Creationist: It’s hard to believe that the eye happened by accident.

“Evolutionist”: Evolution doesn’t say it happened by accident.

Creationist: Then it has to have a purpose.

What’s going on here is not a debate at all, but an abuse of language. The eye does not have any intrinsic purpose, but it is also not an accident. Creationists often create this false dichotomy of purpose vs accident. And when they show it is preposterous for life to have developed by accident, they think they have shown it must have been done on purpose.

Randomness does not imply either purpose or accident. Why is a cheetah fast? Because in a larger pool of animals in an ecosystem, if it were slower, it wouldn’t be able to catch its prey, and it would die off, and that would have happened millions of years ago, so we wouldn’t see it today. That’s the simple logic. No accident or purpose is implied.

So many other words—good, evil, salvation, sin, faith, and I’m sure I’m missing a ton more—are all heavily loaded, ill-defined, ambiguous concepts that are twisted around by religion to suit its needs depending on the situation. This is Orwellian Doublespeak at its strongest.

Words and the Future

It is imperative that the American public understand how loaded words are affecting its choices and decisions. The election process should be dependent on the rational discussion of real issues, not by a massive popularity contest shrouded by mutual insults and loaded words oversimplifying the situation and vilifying the other party. News should be news, not political indoctrination. Language should be the way we voice our concerns to the government, not the way political parties usher us like pawns to certain death.

In addition to math and science education, which should most certainly be improved, we really do need to keep our English and history classes in able hands. But, in English classes, instead of teaching only books written long in the past, they should occasionally make students read current news articles and critically think about them. Then maybe people will realize that English is not all pointless. And once this happens, the government will be afraid, and it will be forced to listen to the educated American people, as history perhaps once intended.

2 thoughts on “Orwell, Chomsky, and the Power of Twisting Language

  1. Your last point about keeping our English and History classes, the humanities, top notch, I think is really important. In America, we have meltdowns every time we hear some report that we’re lagging behind other countries in math and science, but we rarely even stop to evaluate whether or not our students can think critically about language, history, politics, and even the science they’re struggling so much with. Math and science are important, but the humanities, like English and History teach us how to ask the “why,” questions that science doesn’t always answer. There’s so much language abuse and manipulation today, we really need to be sure students can cut through to the core of the matter.

    Like

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