“Daddy. Is he a weasel?” My daughter asked this question many decades ago as she was sitting on the floor watching television and eating her cereal. The cartoons were over and she was watching an early morning show interviewing some politician.
“Why do you think he is a weasel?” I asked.
“He said ‘mistakes were made.’ You said that’s what weasels do,” she replied.
Meanwhile, the guy on TV chattered on, dodging the questions and explaining how everything was someone else’s fault.
“Yes, sweetie, he’s a weasel.”
Unfortunately, our weasel population has grown in the last forty years. You can spot them by their weasel words. They spout a vocabulary designed to be unclear, to confuse, to mislead, to cover-up, and to make them look good when they are not.
And today’s weasel word is “enhance.”
“Enhance” was always in our vocabulary. There are flavor-enhancers that improve taste. And some colors subtly improve the appearance of a room or art or clothing. But about 20 years ago, enhance began to be used as a substitute for improve, increase, or anything else supposedly positive.
I first saw the dark side of “enhance” while reading a “research” article on salmon. When salmon encounter dams, they cannot migrate up to their spawning grounds. So, we provide fish ladders, little stairstep waterfalls, that help them climb over the dam. The title of this research article claimed that a new design of fish ladder “enhanced” this salmon migration. So naturally I expected the data table to show an increase in the number of fish that made it upstream. It didn’t! Well, maybe there was some other factor that improved the fish’s survival, such as: fewer made it upstream but they were healthier. But they weren’t.
The title of the article was simply incorrect. The new fish ladder didn’t work as well as the old design. But since “enhance” is so ambiguous, it gave the impression of being positive when there was no evidence for it.
Except for judgements about flavors and colors, “enhance” should never be used. If the test is something measured, then the words “increase” or “improve” work quite well. Otherwise it is just a way to make something neutral or bad seem good. Enhance is usually a lie.
But “enhance” is often found in those mission and vision statements that some companies and most schools love to advertise. Whether they succeed or fail at their job, they can always claim to “enhance” since they do not have to actually increase or improve anything. Indeed, it is hard to read through a copy of Education Week, the weekly newspaper of record on K-12 education, without finding “enhance” on nearly every page and especially in the advertisements.
As editor for the Kansas Biology Teacher journal, I scan and list the biology and education research for our classroom teachers for each year. When there is an important claim in the title or abstract, I check the data they provide. In most science research, the title matches the data. But in over two-thirds of education papers, the research done to support some new methodology has negative data showing it does not work—but yet the author claims that it should have worked anyway. And I can rely on “enhance” being in the title. That explains why every failed education reform has plenty of initial research “proving” it would work.
But the most egregious use of “enhanced” occurred just last December when the C.I.A. released its report on torture as so-called “enhanced interrogation.” That exposed a boatload of legal and political weasels who went through a tedious and distorted logic to explain why enhanced interrogation was not torture.
But Senator John McCain clearly explained that if it was torture when done to us, it was torture when we did it to others. That Golden Rule is even obvious to little kids sitting in front of the television.