Debunking Denialism

Fighting pseudoscience and quackery with reason and evidence.

How Anti-Science Activists Abuse Dictionaries

The dictionary definition of dictionary

Dictionaries can be vital to getting a basic understanding of what words mean. However, anti-science activists have developed several different methods to exploit dictionaries for their own ideological goals. They attempt to use generalized dictionaries to sow confusion about highly specialized terms in science or business. They insist that dictionary definitions determines what is correct or incorrect use of language when in reality, dictionaries are passive recorders of the way language is used and changes over time.

They let semantic issues play the role of arguments in a way that sidesteps issues of facts to prop up their ideology. They attempt to distract with dictionary arguments when discussing current events or new findings where dictionary definitions are not at all relevant. They neglect the fact that dictionaries are brief summaries and never encompass the full diversity of the meaning of words in an effort to deploy a No True Scotsman fallacy or greedy reductionism. Finally, they also ignore the fact that dictionaries can sometimes be wrong or heavily biased in a way that negatively impact their credibility in a substantial way.

Much of the discussion below applies to both dictionaries and encyclopedias more broadly, but the term “dictionary” will be used for simplicity unless it deals with encyclopedias specifically.

Some generalized dictionaries do not include specialized definitions

The first problem with excessive appeals to a dictionary in the place of arguments is that not all dictionaries are equal. Some dictionaries, called generalized dictionaries or general-purpose dictionaries, attempt to give a broad view of how language is used in everyday life by the average educated person who speaks the language. These are useful for some purposes, such as getting a quick-and-dirty idea of what a particular word (such as “nebuly”) means. However, they are often less useful for understanding how a certain word is used in a particular technical area. For that, we need to look at another type of dictionary. These are called specialized or technical dictionaries and can cover one field (single-field dictionaries) or many (multi-field dictionaries). They provide more highly specialized definitions of technical terms as they are used in a particular field, such as business or science.

A common trick used by anti-science activists is to talk nonsense about a subject and defend it by appealing to a generalized dictionary when, in fact, it is more appropriate to use the definition present in certain specialized dictionaries. This is common for scientific terms, such as evolution, momentum, theory or energy. To understand these terms, it is often not enough to cite the definition of a generalized dictionary that mostly focus on how the term is used in a non-technical, everyday context. Instead, one should turn to specialized dictionaries appropriate for the field or even a textbook or recent scientific paper on the issue. Some generalized dictionaries have improved over time and now include a brief mention on the technical definition, but many do not.

Dictionaries do not rule language, but language rules dictionaries

There are two common stances when it comes to dictionaries, which are known as linguistic prescriptivism and linguistic descriptivism, respectively. To put it simply, proponents of linguistic prescriptivism believe that dictionaries determine the meaning of words. So if you use a word in a way that deviates from a dictionary, you must be using it incorrectly. The other position, linguistic descriptivism, states that dictionaries are passive recorders of how language is used, but does not determine what is right and what is wrong. Instead, the way language is used determines its meaning and this meaning is then imperfectly captured in dictionaries as time goes on.

Generally speaking, linguistic descriptivism is considered a more credible position since language evolves despite efforts by various policing efforts to retain some kind of “pure” language. There is also an obvious time lag between the appearance of new words and meanings in the language and the time they are entered into a dictionary. There are many other problems with linguistic prescriptivism, such as the tendency to arbitrarily prioritize one social class or group, the subjectivity inherent in language prescription rules, and dogma.

Many anti-science activists often pick and choose between linguistic prescriptivism and descriptivism in a manner that greatly benefits them. Understanding the difference between prescriptivism and descriptivism is crucial for defusing this tactic. The meaning of words is determined by how they are used by the relevant parties (such as in a technical field) and dictionaries passively record this. Thus, dictionaries are helpful, but never the final word on the meaning of technical terms.

Dictionaries are not arguments

An argument is, put simply, a logically valid or at the very least a reasonable combination of premises that lead to a conclusion. It can be as simple as stating that “Socrates is a man and that all men are mortal, therefore Socrates is mortal”. It can also be more complicated like “climate data indicate a current warming trend and that humans contribute substantially to this trend”.

A dictionary definition can sometimes be useful such as understanding the meaning of the word “mortal” or “trend”. However, anti-science activists often let dictionary definitions do the work that arguments are supposed to do. If an argument crucially depends on a semantic issue related to a definition rather than an issue of facts, it is not a good argument. This is because the truth of the conclusion is too dependent on an intersubjective conflict about the meaning of words rather than a conflict about what the facts are.

Dictionaries are not always relevant

For some discussions of a highly technical or specialized nature that involve current events or research, dictionary definitions might not even be relevant. Some issues that are being discussed might be recent or ongoing and therefore it is not appropriate to reference a dictionary with dated terms. Other issues might be complex and dynamic that generalized dictionaries cannot provide any illumination and specialized dictionaries might be too brief. This is especially true for new research that explore previously unknown aspects, areas or questions.

Some anti-science activists often try to bring in dictionaries to dismiss new findings that contradict their beliefs. But this is putting the cart before the horse. It is not that dictionaries disprove new research findings. If a research finding is in conflict with a dictionary, the research finding takes precedence if the former turns out to be true.

Dictionaries never encompass the full diversity of a concept

Dictionaries typically devote small space to each word. This is of physical necessity, because if it had attempted to cover the real diversity of a concept, they would be too large to carry around. Thus, dictionaries can offer a decent starting point for many discussions, but cannot capture the full range of the way a word is used. This is often also due to the conservative nature of many dictionaries and the fact that language evolves rapidly and dictionaries lag behind.

Anti-science activists often try to cut through critical discussions of a topic by ignoring the real-world diversity of a word, belief, field or movement and appeal to a seemingly innocuous dictionary definition. However, those dictionary definitions are often decades or even centuries old and can therefore not reflect the full spectrum of how the word or movement is used today. This typically comes in one of two flavors: either the anti-science activist wants to ignore uncomfortable real-world aspects of the word because it would refute their narrative (“nothing-buttery” or greedy reductionism) or the anti-science activists want to limit a concept X to the “true definition” in a way to dismiss the full diversity as “not true” X in a move that qualifies as a No True Scotsman fallacy.

Dictionaries can be biased or wrong

Dictionaries are written by humans, and humans can make mistakes or have biases. This is especially clear in areas that are deemed to be socially controversial. This might happen when defining political or religious terms by an individual or a group who do not share those positions, or hold very different and even opposite positions. Thus, on should not trust conservative definitions of liberal terms, fundamentalist definitions of secular terms and so on. One should also be skeptical of overly generous dictionary definitions written by proponents or believers in what is being defined. Definitions of e. g. “homeopathy” written by homeopaths or “communism” written by self-professed communists should be critically appraised and not accepted at face value.

More sinister versions of this problem appear when ideological groups create their own dictionaries and encyclopedias. On the surface, they might appear to be written and maintained by parties interested in objectivity and fact, but a brief examination of the content reveal them to be extremely partisan and biased. Perhaps the two most vulgar examples of this are Conservapedia and Metapedia.

Conservapedia was launched as a conservative “alternative” to Wikipedia which was accused of having a “liberal bias”. This encyclopedia describes itself as a “Wiki encyclopaedia with articles written from a Christian fundamentalist viewpoint” and many articles about evolution and sexual minorities reveal a substantial and malignant bias that repeat the same myths and misconceptions that creationists and social conservatives have promoted for decades.

Metapedia, on the other hand, is not so honest about its ideological bias on their front page. Instead, it labels itself as “the alternative encyclopedia” and “an electronic encyclopedia about culture, art, science, philosophy and politics” with a special focus on material that is “usually are not covered in — i.e. that fall outside of — mainstream encyclopedia”. In reality, it is a Wiki with a distinct far-right bias and include articles defending Holocaust denial and conspiracy theories about Jews.

Conclusion

Dictionaries can be useful for getting a basic understanding how words are used in everyday language or in specialized fields. However, they are also ripe for being abuse by anti-science activists in a wide variety of sinister ways. Understanding the proper roles of dictionary definitions and when they are not relevant, appropriate or accurate is vital to defending science and critical thinking.

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5 responses to “How Anti-Science Activists Abuse Dictionaries

  1. Pingback: How Anti-Science Activists Abuse Dictionaries | Emil Karlsson

  2. Elizabeth Trescher January 14, 2017 at 06:08

    EmilI I respectfully disagree with the assertion that a dictionary never encompasses the full diversity of a concept. Words need to be accurate and have accurate meanings. You cannot conflate the definition of a word that is measured accurately in real terms just because it doesn’t fit a new narrative. This is where a new word would be needed.

    • Emil Karlsson January 14, 2017 at 15:28

      Words need indeed be precise for many usages and there is much value in precision.

      However, prioritizing precision (analogous to specificity) always means that diversity (analogous to sensitivity) gets lowered. Also because dictionaries lag behind usage, it cannot track the full diversity of a concept as it is used in language.

      Sometimes a new word is needed, but sometimes it is a minor development of an older concept that acquires a new aspect or facet.

      There is a certain degree of subjectivity in language, which is one of the reason why I think issues of the meaning of words will always be with us. Sometimes it is harmless (such as confusing extract the verb with extract the noun), but sometimes it could be dangerous (such as miscommunication in hospitals).

  3. Sceptom January 24, 2017 at 08:34

    Hi
    There’s a mistake about socrates: “… Therefore socrates is mortal”

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