Tag Archives: misuse of language

Watch Your Language

I think it was Tallyrand who said “speech was given to man to conceal his thoughts.” Political spinmeisters, advertising executives and faux scholars are proving him prescient; they have perfected the use of language to label and deceive, rather than communicate.

The following paragraph is typical (no link, as I have forgotten where I got it):

The Sanders-led progressive movement has successfully tugged the party to the left, bringing ideas that seemed fringe in 2016 to the center of the mainstream Democratic agenda. Many of the party’s presidential hopefuls now embrace some of the biggest planks of the Sanders platform, from Medicare for All to legalizing marijuana to rejecting corporate donations.

A genuine Leftist–vanishingly rare in the U.S.–would laugh at the suggestion that universal health care (once proposed by Richard Nixon), sane drug policies based upon sound medical research, and campaign finance reform (championed by John McCain) are somehow “far Left.” But that’s the state of political discourse in America these days, where ideology and animus trump both evidence and the careful use of language.

Peter the Citizen, an expert on social welfare programs to whom I’ve previously cited, recently sent me a good example of the way it works. (Peter is hardly a bleeding heart liberal–he worked in the Reagan White House. He just believes that research projects should be designed to find answers to questions, not manipulated in order to confirm pre-existing biases.) The issue was whether recipients of certain social programs should be required to work in order to qualify for benefits.

He wrote:”I believe work requirements can be a useful policy tool, but they must be reasonable, realistic, and based on sound evidence.  Too much of the debate today ignores these factors and is based on misreading the credible evidence that exists (i.e., the random assignment experiments of welfare-to-work programs) or, even worse, relies on studies with fundamentally flawed methods.

“How effective are work requirements?,” a paper by Angela Rachidi and Robert Doar of the American Enterprise Institute, came in for special scorn. The authors purport to find evidence that “largely supports” extending work requirements to non-cash programs like SNAP  and Medicaid, and they argue that critics of work requirements have “misread” and “misrepresented” this research.

As Peter notes,

It turns out that it is Angela and Robert who have misread the evidence.  They mischaracterize the arguments of “critics” of work requirements, misinterpret the results of random assignment experiments, and then over-generalize from a limited number of demonstration projects to make claims about work requirement proposals that would operate on a much larger scale, for different programs and populations, and with different levels of funding.

Peter’s paper critiquing this “research,” can be found here.

Peter also referenced an article titled “They’re the think tank pushing for welfare work requirements. Republicans say they’re experts. Economists call it ‘junk science,’” by Caitlin Dewey of The Washington Post. In the article, Dewey described the newfound influence of a think-tank named Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA) (given the name–the label– I assume its an offshoot of that well-known organization “Grandmas and Kittens for Good Government.”)

But hey–they are saying what Paul Ryan and the Koch Brothers want to hear, so they must be legit, right?

House Republicans – including [Speaker] Ryan, who was introduced to the group in 2016 through Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback – have repeatedly proffered the FGA’s analysis as proof that most Americans support strict work rules in welfare programs and that such rules boost income and employment.

While the FGA’s “studies” have support among some politicians, their work is not seen as credible by serious observers.  To understand why, it is informative to compare their methodological approach for making claims about the impacts of work requirements (and other welfare reform policies) with generally accepted criteria for assessing the soundness of an evaluation.

In 1997, Peter co-authored a monograph with Doug Besharov and Peter Rossi – Evaluating Welfare Reform: A Guide for Scholars and Practitioners – which described and explained those “generally accepted criteria.”  Peter applied the criteria the to the FGA’s “research,”  and developed the following “report card”: “How Do the Foundation for Government Accountability’s Evaluations of Welfare Reform Measure Up? A Report Card (Hint: The FGA Fails)”: https://mlwiseman.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Evaluating-Welfare-Reform.pdf

In 1984, Orwell introduced the concept of “Newspeak,” language imposed by the governing Party. The purpose of Newspeak was to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits “proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, (the Party ruling Oceana)”– and simultaneously to make all other modes of thought impossible.

The “alternative facts,” of Trumpworld, politicians’ increasing use of language to obfuscate and label rather than inform, and the bastardized “research” of zealots and ideologues are creating an environment in which their version of Newspeak displaces actual conversation and distorts reality.

We. need to watch our language.