In our class on the Scientific Method, Profs. Cotton, Scalise, and I talk about “Weasel Words.”  These are a form of logical fallacy – specifically, of “equivocation,” wherein a word is used with vague and various definitions, leaving it to the listener to choose the definition that best suits their biases or world view. Weasel words are everywhere, and their use is an indicator of propaganda (e.g. advertising is a form of propaganda aimed at getting you to buy something; politicians use weasel words all the time to get you to agree with them). Weasel words are meant to take advantage of your biases, your ignorance, or your pre-conceptions, and trick you into siding with something that you actually might not agree with, if you thought carefully about this issue. If someone is using weasel words, and you know how to spot them, you immediately learn two things about that person:
- They think you are an idiot who can be duped to their cause; they are using weasel words to take advantage of what they perceive of as your stupidity. You already know what they think of you – they think you are a stooge.
- They are using pseudoscience or weak-sense critical thinking to argue for a claim, and this should set off alarm bells that what they are peddling may be utter nonsense. You know that they are in a weak position with little or no evidence to argue their cause; otherwise, they would use the evidence.
Since the tricks and lies of the “alternative medicine” industry are in the spotlight, I thought it might be useful to show you some of the weasel words used by people who (a) advocate for the causes of this industry or (b) have been tricked by the industry and inadvertently have become their mouthpieces. Once you add these weasel words to your B.S.-detector toolkit, you will be in a better position to resist being fooled, and more apt to think critically about the claims of alternative medicine peddlers.
- “Natural” or “All Natural” or “Naturopathic” (in reference to a product)
- If you think about the universe critically for a moment, you realize that there is nothing outside of nature. All things that are in the universe are natural. So, already, you can see the “weasel word” aspect of this – they are trying to appeal to a sense that what people make is “unnatural,” even though people are also part of nature.Even if you accept the claim that things people make are “unnatural,” and everything that people don’t make is “natural,” there are reasons to be skeptical. The use of the word “natural” or “all natural” in reference to a product is meant to be equivocated with the words “safe” or “harmless.”
- However, don’t be fooled. There are plenty of natural things that will kill you: hemlock, for instance, is a natural toxin to human beings (and is famous for how Socrates killed himself); you can find an extensive list of poisonous plants here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_poisonous_plants.
- The use of these weasel words is intended for one purpose: to make you pay money for something that you are tricked into believing is safer and as/more effective than a science-based product, such as a medicine. You have to be very careful about this; you may be buying something that hasn’t been tested at all, either for harm or good. If the product is so effective, demand the multiple, independent, peer-reviewed studies of drug trials against the leading drug on the market and against placebo. If none exist, WALK AWAY.
- “Alternative Medicine” or “Non-Western Medicine” or “Traditional Medicine” or “non-allopathic medicine”
- There is only one kind of medicine: evidence-based medicine. Anything else is a fairy tale. Either a product delivers what it promises under controlled conditions, and does so better than placebo, or it doesn’t do anything at all. These weasel words are meant to imply that the product or procedure is somehow a secret passed down through the ages that works better than the best evidence-based method.
- As comedian Dara O’Briain says, (and I paraphrase a bit here), “I’m sorry. ‘Herbal Medicine.’ ‘Oh, Herbal medicine has been around for thousands of years.’ Indeed it has. And then we tested it all, and the stuff that worked became ‘medicine,’ and the rest of it is just a bowl of soup and some nice potpourri.’ Either it works, better than placebo (e.g. taking a non-medical intervention that fools the patient into thinking an actual medical intervention is occurring) or it doesn’t work at all and should be discounted or discarded.
- Anyone who uses these weasel words and cannot show you actual evidence for the efficacy of the procedure is trying to steal your money.
- “Chemical free”
- All atoms and molecules are chemicals. The only thing that distinguishes them is their reactivity, which is determined by the number of free electrons (or number of absent electrons) in the atom or molecule. Everything is chemicals. Water is a chemical. Vinegar is a chemical. There is no such thing as “chemical free.”
- When someone uses this, they fundamentally misunderstand the universe. Walk away.
- This is also used when somebody wants to distinguish their product or procedure from one that involves a laboratory-tested chemical. The reality is that laboratory-tested chemicals have effects on the human body (or, at least, on animal bodies) that are documented. You can complain all you want about whether or not all chemical or drug trials are released by manufacturers, but that is a separate issue; if somebody has a chemical-free process to sell you, not only are they lying, they probably have not tested the effects of their process on humans (unless it’s something like “rinsing with water,” whose relative safety has been long established by trivial observation).
- Bottom line: there is no such thing as “chemical-free” – there are only chemicals whose effects on the body are documented well, or less well-documented. Demand chemicals whose effects are well-documented, but don’t buy because of this weasel word.
 I find the etymology of this phrase fascinating, as I do with most language. The Wikipedia article on “Weasel Words” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weasel_word) cites a magazine article (recorded in The Macmillan Dictionary of Contemporary Phrase and Fable) that explains the meaning of the phrase, “weasel word”: “words that suck the life out of the words next to them, just as a weasel sucks the egg and leaves the shell.” Weasels cannot actually suck eggs empty, but you get the idea.
Techniques > Use of language > Modifying meaning > Weasel Words
Method | Example | Discussion | See also
Use 'weasel words' to modify statements, weakening any real meaning or force. This allows you to say anything without offending anyone or putting yourself into danger of being contradicted.
Use weasel words assertively and their weakness will often all but disappear (it's not what you say but how you say it).
Weasel words give you a way out, should anyone criticize you or make any counter-claim.
Weasel words include:
- Helps, supports, is useful (friendly, but no real value added)
- Better, improved, gains (does not say how much)
- Acts, works, effective, efficient (action, but no quantitative value)
- Seems, appears, looks, is like (gives impression, not real change)
- Many, most, virtually, almost all ('lots' but no real quantity)
- Up to, from, at least, as many as (talk about the best case)
Zokko toothpaste combats oral bacteria. (combats, but does not necessarily win)
I could come with you. (on the other hand, I might not)
Books from as little as... (best case description)
Weasel words are designed to give the appearance of truth whilst protecting the speaker from attack or legal redress. They are very common in advertising and marketing, where the goal is to attract people rather than ask them to think deeply about something.
Weasels suck out the eggs of birds through a small hole, leaving the egg appearing intact, but of course now having no real value.