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Logic and rhetoric
“”Some argue that the use of weasel words is both vague and deceitful — a view that is shared by most experts. A recent landmark study at a leading university has since confirmed these suspicions in the eyes of many. Critics claim that most people likely employ weasel words all the time, often without even realizing it, and questions have been raised as to the likelihood of this occuring even when writing an article on weasel words. Thankfully, experience has shown such concerns to be unfounded.
|—See what we did there?|
Weasel words (also known as anonymous authorities) denote the use of ambiguous words and phrases intended to create the false impression that a vague or meaningless statement is, to the contrary, both specific and informative. In a sense, weasel words basically amount to an obscured appeal to authority in which the identity of the very authority being appealed to isn't even made clear by the appealer.
While weasel words may seem authoritative in their apparent support of a given point (or product), a closer look reveals that weasel words provide no actual strength to an argument whatsoever — ironically, when properly identified, even weakening any argument of which they were a part.
The allure of using weasel words lies in the possibility that they go undetected as such,[note 1] thus allowing them to fallaciously lend the pretense of depth to the vagueries in question. As such, weasel words can be employed strategically (in order to deceive outright) via attempting to obfuscate the otherwise apparent burden of proof which rests on a given speaker — expertly, with plausible deniability of the very presence of said weasel words left intact.
A common form of weasel words are those that make a claim appear widely accepted (Argumentum ad populum) by merely implying that it is (e.g. "Most people agree…"). For example, the claim could be made that "X is widely considered to be Y" — widely considered being the key phrase here. True or not, the statement itself provides no meaningful information whatsoever as to who considers X to be Y, to which extent X is considered to be Y, nor indeed how widely X is considered to be Y.
Another form of weasel words involves making a statement that sounds significant but really does not mean much (deepity). Cereal brands that tell you that they are "part of a balanced breakfast" imply that their products are healthy, when in reality, they have little nutritional value on their own. And we've all heard the story of the Walmart/McDonald's cashier who says s/he "handles transactions for a Fortune 500 company".
It has been suggested[note 2] that the phrase originates from the folk-belief that weasels snuck up to bird eggs and carefully sucked out their contents,[note 3] leaving naught but the empty shell behind.
Definitions of the word 'weasel' that imply deception and irresponsibility include these: the noun form, referring to a sneaky, untrustworthy, or insincere person; the verb form, meaning to manipulate shiftily; and the phrase "to weasel out", meaning "to squeeze one's way out of something" or "to evade responsibility".
Examples of weasel words
- "Some argue that atheism partly stems from a failure to fairly and judiciously consider the facts," while ignoring who those "some" are and how many they are (though in fairness, the answer would probably turn out to be way too many).
- "Probably the most common form of…" While not mentioning how probable the statement is.
- "Save up to 50% or more." You won't save more than 50%. You won't save 50%. You probably won't save more than 20%. In fact, full retail prices may have been marked up before being marked down, so you may end up spending more on a "sale" item than you would have before the sale.
- "Is President Obama really a radical Muslim socialist who hates America?" Making an accusation in the form of a question is a popular technique.
- "Linked to" or "has links to" — could mean anything or, more usually, nothing. Useful when painting a conspiracy theory.
- Vague claims that a product "detoxifies the body" without mentioning what types of toxins it removes.
- Studies show that if someone says "studies show" before a statement, people will believe them, even if they don't say where the studies came from (or if better studies refute the claim).
- "Classed as" is a frequent offender, when used without proper checks of how the thing being discussed is legally or scientifically classified or defined. It often means little more than the asserter's opinion: e.g. someone noisily proclaiming "misusing a credit card isn't classed as fraud", when the law may well actually include it as such.
- "Most scholars today believe Jesus existed" actually contains at least five weasel words:
- Crucially, it doesn't mention what kind (no pun intended) of "scholars" we're talking about. However, as used by apologists (for instance, William Lane Craig loves to use this line in both his resurrection and "Does God Exist?" debates) it almost certainly refers to "New Testament scholars" (i.e. Christian theologians). A majority of this group agreeing that Jesus existed is about as surprising as a majority of imams agreeing that Muhammad really was the prophet of Allah and made a miraculous night journey to Jerusalem. The relevant "scholars" to ask would actually be historians, but they tend not to give the kind of answers that apologists want to hear.
- Another weasel word is "most". As historical questions, such as the existence of Jesus, can't always be settled conclusively due to the lack and/or the character of the evidence (an especially pertinent issue in the case of Jesus), there is often a large scope for legitimate disagreement. Thus if "most" means 55% or even 75% of experts (and here we're assuming that these experts are historians rather than theologians or apologists), this would still rate the existence of Jesus as a quite controversial subject. And if such proportions of theologians (who can be expected to be biased in favor of Christianity) held such opinions, the apologist's case would actually be even weaker. Anything less than an overwhelming (something like >90%) consensus among historians is problematic for an apologist using the reference to what "most scholars" think about Jesus' existence to argue that it is a settled question.
- "Believe" is also quite ambiguous when discussing such an intersection of scholarly concerns and religion. A historian will use "believe" in the sense that this is the scenario (s)he finds most plausible, given the state of the evidence (as evaluated through the historical method). However, especially if the "scholars" referred to are theologians, "believe" could actually mean religious belief which is the topic under question and thus citing the religious beliefs of others will get an apologist nowhere ("I believe God exists and this is reasonable because these theologians also believe in God"). Alternatively, "believe" could also be the rather mundane sense of "guessing" with a more or less solid basis for the guess (as in "I believe it's going to rain today"). This problem is analogous to the silly "Science is also a belief, just like religion" line which rests on a similar conflation of the various meanings of "believe/belief" that some of the more
insaneinane creationists will occasionally try their hand at.
- The fourth weasel word is "Jesus", because it doesn't distinguish between a historical Jesus and the clearly unhistorical/fictional Jesus of the New Testament. While it might be possible to get most historians to agree that "some guy named Jesus" (or more accurately the Hebrew/Aramaic version of that name) existed and inspired the tall tales of the New Testament, this is not the same as affirming this latter "Magical Jesus". Now the apologist probably won't care too much about this distinction and instead bet on conflating these two Jesuses and hope that the audience will do so too (through a variant of confirmation bias). A parallel is William Lane Craig's waffling on/conflation of "a god" and "God".
- The fifth and final weasel word is "existed". It's essentially an outcropping of the Jesus weasel word, but also includes the possibility of quite different interpretations of when this Jesus walked around or what kind of existence we're talking about (a rather "liberal interpretation" could even claim that an entirely mythical Jesus definitely "existed" as a fictional story told in the New Testament).
- Code word
- Disguised opinion
- Intellectual dishonesty
- Sound science
Not to be confused with
- Much like real weasels do. The sneaky bastards.
- The irony of this statement is not lost on us.
- This, despite weasels not having the necessary
Planned Parenthoodmandibles for such a procedure.