Telling lies #10: Weasel Words

Colgate.jpg

 

Ovid in Metamorphoses, describes how Juno orders the goddess of childbirth, Lucina, to prevent Alcmene from giving birth to Hercules.

Realising that Lucina is using magic to frustrate the birth Alcmene’s servant Galanthis announces outside the birthing chamber that the birth has been a success.

Lucina, in her amazement, drops the spells of binding and Hercules is born. The furious Lucina responds by transforming Galanthis into a weasel.

So we come to the term “weasel words” which are vague, unsubstantiated and easily deniable claims. Weasel words abound in the modern world. Colgate were banned from using their claim that 80% of dentists recommend their toothpaste when the Advertising Standards Authority analysed the basis of the claim.

Anti-vaxxers continue to quote the work of Dr. Andrew Wakefield long after the work has been discredited as junk science.

Once the #Brexit referendum was won the #VoteLeave campaign admitted that there was no £350 million for the NHS.  It was a chimera, a phantasm.

Brexit bus

There is an entire body of pseudo-academic work aimed at spouting out clickbait studies with small, highly biased, carefully selected “judgement” samples, dubiously leading questions and highly conjectural results.  These studies are funded by “interest” groups to deliver on foregone conclusions.  They are then trotted out as though they are science.

Politicians are particularly adept at using weasel words.  If you cannot make your point using science, statistics or aggregate national data then you resort to telling the story of Joe the Plumber.  Go for the down homey personal story of the plucky underdog who nobody can seem to track down.

Journalists will use weasel words to give spice to a mediocre story.  If the police raid the home of a white collar tax cheat the story is unlikely to set the world on fire.  The police will probably seize papers around the house to use as evidence.  They will put the papers in a bag to carry them to the squad car.  The bag may also contain several weapons.  The bag may also contain cocaine.  The bag may also contain undisclosed cash.  The bag may also contain a ham and cheese salad for lunch, but who wants to read about that?

If you find yourself on the receiving end of weasel words alwasy get specific.  “What scientific study are you referencing?  Who are the researchers?  Who paid for the research?  What was the original stated aim of the research?  What questions were asked?  Who was sampled?  How does the sample match the general population?  What is the sample error?”  You need to be very, very specific.

How would Nigel Farage have coped if any decent journalist had hauled him fully over the coals on the NHS £350 million?  How would Boris Johnson have coped if anyone sat down and ran the calculations in front of him and forced him to justify the numbers?

Advertising standards authorities actually impose considerable discipline on commercial advertisers, especially in response to complaints from consumers.  Politicians face no such discipline.  Politicians have the greatest freedom of any group in society to spout lies to the voting public.  Politicians have no interest in passing laws against the telling of lies, because politicians are perfectly happy to continue to use weasel words to fool most of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time.

Weasel Words from the Swamp

 

 

 

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