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Weasel word

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A weasel. Kind of cute, actually. Deceitfully cute...? Some people might say so.
Part of the series on

Logic and rhetoric

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Some say he appears on high value stamps in Sweden, and that he can catch fish with his tongue...

Weasel words are words or phrases used in an ambiguous manner in order to make a point. This can also apply to selling a product or spreading a meme. These words often do not reflect the whole truth about the point, product or meme they describe - indeed, they can often be used to actively mask the truth. As such, weasel words may be used to deceive or avoid having to back up assertions.

It has been suggested that the phrase comes from an old folk-belief that weasels sucked the contents from birds' eggs to leave only an empty shell.

Probably the most common form of weasel words are those that make a topic appear accepted without providing anything specific to back it up - the validity of the point then rests on the ambiguity provided by the weasel term. For example, a phrase might be that "blow-up dolls are widely considered to be crazy". This assertion may or may not be true, but by itself it tells us absolutely nothing about who considers it to be true, why they think it's true, nor how wide "widely" is.

Weasel words are sometimes a form of argument from authority or argument from popular opinion, which many people believe are logical fallacies. Weasel words are widely considered to be a sign of intellectual laziness. Most people use weasel words a lot without realizing it, even when they are writing an article on weasel words. This problem is believed by many to be widespread (see what we did there?).

[edit] 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.
  • "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.
  • "Most scholars today believe Jesus existed" actually contains at least five weasel words:
    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. "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 insane inane creationists will occasionally try their hand at.
    4. 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 too (through a variant of confirmation bias). A parallel is William Lane Craig's waffling on/conflation of "a god" and "God".
    5. 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).

[edit] See also


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