The importance of words

On of the most popular posts on the Musings is that where I expounded about the importance of a general scientific education for kids as a general tool in life. Aside from the actual scientific content (what is an atom, why does the Earth rotate, what mammals are, why it rains etc.) the actual part of critical thinking and assessing evidence on its merits is incredibly useful. Since my return to the English speaking part of Europe I have been staggered and irritated in equal measure by the sheer weight of weasel words in advertising things. I’m not sure if I’m more irritated that advertisers think this will work, or the fact that it probably does. In a fully rational world, no one would buy this stuff.

I recently saw a TV add for yet another anti-wrinkle cream which claims it was ‘inspired by the science of genes’. Now for starters this is meaningless, ‘genes’ are things, not a science. You cannot be inspired by the science of rocks. It’s called geology. Gene therapy, genetics, gene technology yes, but genes? No. In any case, and more importantly, this is such a transparent attempt at sounding scientific and include a nice important sounding buzzword. I could be inspired by the science of genes to draw a small picture of the moon but it would not actually require DNA, a lab, primers, electrorphoresis, or anything like genetic research at all to actually do. Which is the case here as soon as you see the product.

Words are important and spotting when words are being used to imply something which they do not actually say is useful. Most advertisers would be out of a job in seconds if they were not able to use things like ‘people say’, ‘it is thought’, ‘many suggest’ and ‘it’s well known’ when what they want you to think – but can’t say – is that ‘this is true’. And presumably they can’t say it because it’s not true, so they have to hint and suggest and imply. Only the other day I say a piece of rock salt advertised as being good for asthma because of it’s alleged properties at ionising the air. This is, I strongly suspect nonsense, not just because it sounds like rubbish but because the most convincing ‘evidence’ they could get on their note was that ‘some people say that’. Some people say? That’s all it takes for people to transpose this into their head as ‘X does Y’? Wow.

Think about words, think about their real meaning and how they are being used and don’t misinterpret them. And don’t fall for the traps that are being set by people who want you to misinterpret them. And do make sure that what you write means what you want it to mean.

2 Responses to “The importance of words”


  1. 1 mattvr 23/10/2010 at 12:18 am

    Some people say there’s a slow movement toward people verifying the information they’re led to believe by others, but I don’t believe it for a minute. ;-)

  2. 2 Mark Robinson 25/10/2010 at 5:04 am

    I’m with you Dave. I’m annoyed at just how misleading most advertisements are (and apparently allowed to be), and one part of me would like to see “the advertisers” suffer some appropriate punishment (say, being buried up to their chins in bullsh!t).

    However, another part of me thinks that if people are so credulous as to believe that things like “the seven signs of aging” have any real meaning, if they want to waste their time and money, well, it’s a free world.

    I just think about how much could be achieved if all that money and effort was spent on constructing clean water supplies in countries with fossil-bearing deposits or improving the working conditions of palaeontologists.


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