Pop Go the Weasel Words

By Bob FerrisPine marten
 
When my wife and I lived in Santa Barbara our house was up a brushy canyon and we had trouble getting fire insurance.  The real estate agent joked about an old saw in the area that goes something like this: It is not “if” your house is going to burn in Santa Barbara but “when.”  
 
This saying is common in the area and our house—after we sold it and left Santa Barbara—did in fact burn to the ground during a canyon fire.  Not only that, but it would have burned a second time had it been rebuilt.  So certainly there was some truth in the saying, but is it too strong considering that some houses do not burn in Santa Barbara?  Perhaps a more cautionary statement with caveats is in order including the use of so-called weasel words?
 
“The key is that suction dredging represents a chronic unnatural disturbance of natural habitats that are already likely to be stressed by other factors and can therefore have a negative impact on fishes that use the reach being dredged.” Dr. Peter B. Moyle 
 
Every scientist who has ever written a recommendation or a report is familiar with the term “weasel words.”  Those are the words that we have been trained to use.  We use them because we have been aggressively taught the necessity to be “right” much more often than we are “wrong.” In this context, we also are all painfully aware that when we test something and are 95% sure that it works that way, 5% of the time it will not.  Pop go the weasel words and we preload our statements with this uncertainty.  
 
“Timber harvesting could possibly cause what is likely an inevitable event to occur sooner.” Noel Wolff, a hydrologist who worked for Washington State writing about the timber harvest above the deadly landslide on the Snohomish River in Washington in the Seattle Times
 

Oso Slide

But those who interpret “may” as “won’t” or “could” as “will not,” do so at great peril (see AP photo of the Oso, Washington mudslide at left).  This becomes even more problematic when we deal with complex, multi-variant natural systems where uncertainty and confusion are accounted for with even more cautious language and phrasing.
 
Interestingly, the level of complexity and the level of consequence often track one another.  Unfortunately, the financial rewards of inaction also track both these measures too.  So the fiscal benefits to the fossil-fuel industry, timber companies, livestock interests and suction dredgers for actively clouding the science on climate change, geological stability, predator-prey relationships and disturbing rivers are incentivized.  Essentially the complexity provides both opportunities and shelter for those wanting to invest profitably in misinformation.  
 
Original Language: "Many scientific observations indicate that the Earth is undergoing a period of relatively rapid change."
 
Modified Language: "Many scientific observations point to the conclusion that the Earth may be undergoing a period of relatively rapid change."
 
Weasel words come from this caution, but they are also frequently injected into documents for political and economic reasons too (see language changes above from 2002 report on climate change).  Climate change policy documents in this country are rife with statements that are altered not by the scientists themselves but by those who edit or provide comments in order to dampen the call for action.  
 
Likewise, many of these documents and the cautions of scientists are removed via the consensus process that is sometimes insisted on by special interests groups.  A good example of this is to compare habitat comments and recommendations relating to forestry and grazing practices in a document prepared by black-tail deer biologists and one completed under a consensus process that included timber and livestock interests in Oregon.   
 
The “take home” messages here are to listen carefully to what scientists say and why.  The insurance industry has done this well and as a consequence was one of the first industries to recognize the perils of climate change.  Some sportsmen groups and hunters are starting to understand that prey species are more often limited by habitat and land management regimes than by predators.  And legislators in Maine recently listened to the message delivered by scientists and will no longer allow suction dredging in Class AA rivers occupied by important salmon and trout species.  Keeping it wild means paying attention to the science–weasel words and all–and letting that point both to peril and also opportunities to make the world a little wilder.
 
 

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