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Pop goes the weasel

Bandolier was reading a review while trawling for interesting articles for these pages and was struck by the sheer number of weasel words that keep appearing. These are words like "may" and "should", and phrases such as "could be expected to", "it would appear that", and so on.

Perhaps it was a bad day, but distinctly lacking were solid word like "will" or "can", and definitive phrases like "will cure" or "will harm".

Much of our medical literature is plagued by weasel words, which we all use from time to time because there is always some circumstance in which a definite statement can be proved to be incorrect. Such is the complexity and diversity of medicine, and our natural caution about being wrong.

The trouble is that overcautiousness will lead to confusion. Bandolier saw one sentence which read something like "such-and-such drug may result in fewer side effects". Did this mean that the author knew that the drug would give fewer side effects, but was being cautious, or did the author have no idea that such was the case, but thought it possible? Readers could interpret it in any way they chose - not, perhaps, the result that was intended.

It is just this sort of confusion that systematic reviews based on randomised controlled trials help dispel. Weasel words can be replaced with numerical estimates with confidence intervals. Cure or harm become quantifiable and understandable, rather than matters of opinion.

So Bandolier is going to try to stop using weasel words in its columns. This won't be easy, and we will be grateful for readers spotting those that get away.

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