Wikipedia:Embrace weasel words

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Some think that weasels are cute. Occasionally, we should embrace them. However, it has been asserted that this is a picture of a ferret, a member of the mustelid family, which does include weasels (and otters, badgers, stoats etc.), but we have no words for them.

A weasel word is, potentially, a word intended to, or having the effect of, softening the force of a potentially loaded or otherwise controversial statement, or avoids forming a clear position on a particular issue. Some people say the quintessential example of weasel words is the phrase "Some people say".

Wikipedia has a style guide entitled Avoid weasel words which strongly discourages the use of weasel words. However, there are editors [who?] who think that weasel words are helpful and appropriate in some cases. These editors believe that we should embrace weasel words, not avoid them.

Conserving brain space[edit]

It may be claimed without evidence that some neuroscientists claim that every time you learn a new fact, you must necessarily forget some other fact in order to make room for the new fact to fit inside your head. (Admittedly, neuroscientists who subscribe to this theory invariably cannot recall why they believe it, and if you try to explain to them why the theory is flawed, they will run from the room while shrieking loudly, lest your teachings cause them to forget their happiest childhood memory.)

Though the science may be flawed, the point is valid: don't bother the readers with details they don't need to know. Don't tell them a name if they don't need to know it. Instead, embrace weasel words, and back those weasel words up with a citation:

Bad: His critics have suggested that John Smith may be a functional illiterate.
Better: Author Ed Jones, in his book John Smith is an Idiot, wrote an open letter to Smith asking, "John, are you able to read and write on an adult level?'"
Best!: One author even suggested that John Smith may be a functional illiterate.[1]

A few Wikipedians, mistaken about the goals and principles of Wikipedia, have written on this page that if “a belief is sufficiently prevalent, we shouldn't let weaselphobia stop us from clearly saying so”, suggesting that they are the ones to decide when a belief is “sufficiently prevalent”, and that weasel words should be “embraced” even though they render the statements vague. Such attitude arises from the inability, or unwillingness, to conduct appropriate research on the topic:

Bad: Mr. Guy WhoIsntFamous and others like him believe Bigfoot exists, but most experts[weasel words] are skeptical.
References to very specific and particular sources in the study of widespread or regular phenomena make it hard to see the wood for the trees.
Even worse with weasel words: While some people[2] believe Bigfoot exists, most experts[weasel words] are skeptical.
Advocates of weaselspeak attempt to “hide” such specific references. While the information hidden is not valuable, wiki-weasels are very wrong to consider it appropriate for Wikipedia to move the useless reference to the bottom of the article, and leave it at that.
All right: Brief, inconclusive sightings of Bigfoot have been reported regularly throughout the XX century[3]. At least seven of them are admitted hoaxes[4]. To date, no specimen, live or dead, has been publicly presented[5]. The International Sceptical Society’s official resolution advises the Bigfoot phenomenon to be “…considered a hoax until any clear evidence is presented; for only this attitude satisfies the Occam’s principle of scientific enquiry.”[6]
The reader is presented with a full, clear and unambiguous overview of the phenomenon, verified by authoritative references. Unlike wiki-weasels, good Wikipedians never give first-hand judgements, even if deemed “sufficiently prevalent”; and never attempt to cover up their bias with meaningless specific references to “Mr. Guy WhoIsntFamous” or whomever else. At Wikipedia, we strive to give clear, authoritatively verified information free from bias, regardless of the latter’s “sufficient prevalence”.

In some cases, a viewpoint isn't particularly prevalent and its adherent isn't particularly famous. Many people may have a legitimate reason to mention the viewpoint, but we don't want to trouble the reader with names they don't really need to know. In this case, we can still use weasel words, but it's essential that they be backed up with a good citation:

Bad: Some people believe the Flying Spaghetti Monster exists, but most experts are skeptical.
Better: Some people, such as Mr. Guy WhoIsntFamous, believe the Flying Spaghetti Monster exists, but most experts are skeptical.
Best!: Some people believe the Flying Spaghetti Monster exists,[7] but most experts are skeptical.

Other times to embrace weasel words[edit]

Avoid weasel words gives examples of some other cases where weasel words are good:

  • When the belief or opinion is actually the topic of discussion.
"In the Middle Ages, most people believed that the Sun revolved around the Earth."
  • When the holders of the opinion are too diverse or numerous to qualify.
"Some people prefer dogs as pets; others prefer cats."
  • When contrasting a minority opinion, it's not necessary to source the majority opinion when describing the minority one.
"Although Brahms's work is part of the classical music canon, Benjamin Britten has questioned its value."

To some extent, weasel words are inevitable. Because any politically contentious assertion is likely to be quickly edited by someone with different political views, only the most inoffensive phrasing will endure, ensuring that at any given time, a political entry will be likely to have a high proportion of weasel words. When "Neutral Point of View" is interpreted to mean that an objectively probable or even certain statement should be edited in order to maintain "neutrality" toward political groups, then there is an evolutionary mechanism ensuring the survival of the weasliest. Specifically, the NPOV is defined as representing "all significant viewpoints". Even if this doesn't mean that articles are encouraged to be politically neutral, the effect of voluntary edits will still ensure that, at any given time, the weasliest words remain after the contentious comments have been deleted.

Plus if you publish something on a website, you can reference it in your Wikipedia article, and provided the other editors are too lazy to bust you for violating Wikipedia's rules against self-publishing – voila! – no more weasel word. ;-)

When not to embrace[edit]

It could be assumed that weasel words may improve readability and verifiability, but they are often the hallmark of serious NPOV problems. You should avoid controversial weasel words that aren't backed up by citation. There are other situations where weasel words absolutely should be avoided:

  • If you couldn't back them up with a citation if you were asked to, don't use them.
  • If the opinion itself isn't notable, don't mention it—to do so may be giving it undue weight.
  • If the "some people" are particularly noteworthy, don't call them "some people", just name them instead.

When not to use a weasel tag[edit]

  • Talk pages
  • User pages
  • Essay pages
  • Any page that is not part of the main space
  • Direct quotations

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Ed Jones,(1607) John Smith is an Idiot, Jamestown Publishing
  2. ^ Channel 22 interview with Mr. Guy Whoisnotfamous.
  3. ^ All about Bigfoot, Sasquatch and Yeti website: Timeline.
  4. ^ All about Bigfoot, Sasquatch and Yeti website: Hoaxes.
  5. ^ The Sceptical Society website: Bigfoot.
  6. ^ The Sceptical Society website: Bigfoot.
  7. ^ Guy WhoIsntFamous, (1996) The Flying Spaghetti Monster and Me, Pendant Publishing