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

 

 

 

Ship of Fools

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Ship of Fools by Hieronymus Bosch (1490-1500)

The allegorical concept of the ship of fools served in the middle ages as a counterpoint to the “Ark of Salvation” represented by the Catholic Church. The authorities in Rome used it as a teaching tool to expose the “folly” of independent thinking and the rise of Protestantism. In simple terms, the Catholic Church, with the Pope at the helm, was bound for the hereafter, and the Protestant churches were rudderless, leaderless, adrift and bound for who knows where?

In practical terms there were actual “ships of fools”. They were the renaissance version of the freak show. Communities could divest themselves of lunatics by handing them over to the ship of fools. When the ship docked you paid an entry fee to see the antics of the fools aboard.

The concept of the State as a ship is far older, going back to ancient Greece. Plato immortalised it in “The Republic” when he likened the good management of the state to the good captaincy of a ship. A well run state should be captained by a philosopher king, ideally one trained in the Platonic school.

It is very easy to string together the concepts of Ship of State and Ship of Fools to come up with the State of Fools that is the Irish Government. Recent revelations show how the Irish Government was played for a fool by the executives in Anglo Irish Bank. The tapes expose the bankers themselves to ridicule. They come across as little more than a clique of silly schoolboys playing games with a lot of money. Their behaviour would be puerile in a football locker room, it has no place in a national bank.

What is really sad is how the regulators and the government were asleep at the wheel. When they were called on deck to save the ship they didn’t know their location or their direction and were sailing without compass, sextant or chart. As long as the bankers were playing with bank money they exposed nobody but those foolish enough to trust them. When the Irish Government agreed to support the banks, they made the people of Ireland responsible for the bad behaviour of the bankers. Not just bad, but downright fraudulent behaviour.

If you asked me ten years ago for my opinion of those running our banks, our banking system and the government I would probably have believed them to be knowledgeable and capable. I would have thought that they held the best interests of the state at heart. I would have felt that they held their very well-paid positions through merit and deserved the money they earned.

Now I believe that the managers of our banks and our elected politicians are deeply flawed characters. They hold their own interests ahead of those of the state. They are not well qualified for what they do. They plan only in the very short term. They are grossly overpaid. They are a very, very expensive bunch of fools.

The Ship of State: by Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace)

O ship the fresh tide carries back to sea again.
Where are you going! Quickly, run for harbour.
Can’t you see how your sides
have been stripped bare of oars,

how your shattered masts and yards are groaning loudly
in the swift south-westerly, and bare of rigging,
your hull can scarce tolerate
the overpowering waters?

You haven’t a single sail that’s still intact now,
no gods, that people call to when they’re in trouble.
Though you’re built of Pontic pine,
a child of those famous forests,

though you can boast of your race, and an idle name:
the fearful sailor puts no faith in gaudy keels.
You must beware of being
merely a plaything of the winds.

You, who not long ago were troubling weariness
to me, and now are my passion and anxious care,
avoid the glistening seas
between the shining Cyclades.