Telling lies #10: Weasel Words

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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

 

 

 

Telling Lies #8: Defamation

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Mmmm, gluten free hair!

Defamation is a communication that causes harm.  It may cause harm to a person, a business, a political party, a religion, a race, a group of people, a brand, a product or a category of goods.  Defamation is deliberate and is usually an attempt to profit in some way by the damage it causes to the defamed party.

Smoking causes cancer.  This is proven by science.  Telling people that smoking causes cancer is not defamation.  It is the truth.  It causes harm to the tobacco category of goods, but it is not a lie.  So this is not defamation.

To qualify as defamation it must actually be a lie.

Telling people that vaccinations cause autism is defamation.  Dr. Andrew Wakefield falsified medical studies to cause harm to existing vaccinations.  He did this because he was allegedly working on an alternative vaccination.  He caused widespread confusion around the safety of MMR vaccines, leading to parents rejecting vaccines.  As a result we are seeing explosions in infection rates from measles all across the western world.

Wakefield’s science has been disproved.  His papers have been rejected.  He was struck off the UK Medical register, but he continues to be cited as a reason to avoid MMR vaccination.  Indeed the panic he started has also impacted on takeup of HPV vaccination rates.

Defamation can be very subtle.  It works extremely well in mock denial.  If I make a statement along the lines of  “the prime minister has an STI” I am open to a charge of slander.  My statement will be denied as rubbish and will largely be ignored.

But what if I make a statement like this “I categorically deny any accusation that the prime minister contracted an STI during a visit to a refugee centre in County Louth.”

I denied a rumour.  What rumour?  Does the prime minister have an STI?  Where did he catch it?  What was he doing in that refugee centre?  If he didn’t catch the STI in the Louth refugee centre which one did he catch it in?  By denying the rumor I make the defamation all the more believable and all the more damaging.  Doing it this way unleashes the press horde into the private life of the prime minister.

You can do the same with brands, categories and products.  “Unlike our major competitors we make our shampoo gluten free.”  Is gluten bad for your hair?  If the man in the white coat says it then it must be!

Now I don’t want to defame the fad for gluten free shampoo, so if your partner suffers from Coeliac disease and if they like to clean your head by regularly licking your hair, go for it.