“We practice cutting edge medicine.” That was what the doctor told my wife my wife as he described a course of treatment. We did not find that reassuring. Neither of us cares a whit about if a treatment is cutting edge or if it has existed since before Hippocrates, what we care about is if the treatment is effective.
That physician's attempt at reassurance is an example of fool's gold words (or phrases). Like witch words* they are words that short-circuit thinking, though fool's gold words have an opposite effect. While witch words make us think something is automatically bad, fool's gold words make us think it is automatically good. Both however interfere with critical thinking. If you accept that something is good or bad without examining the evidence you will be frequently misled.
I first encountered the term “Fool's Gold Words” in John Chamberlain's introduction to the 1944 American edition of Hayek's The Road to Serfdom though I do not know if the term was original with him. He applied it to concepts such as full employment, economic pump priming, the good of the whole, the greatest good for the greatest number etc. However it also fits many buzz-words today.
The “cutting edge” phrase is only one of the fool's gold words infesting the world. Business, advertising, politics etc. all have words and phrases that mislead. Those words tend to be nebulous enough that it is difficult to pin down exactly what they mean. The phrase “cutting edge” of medicine, for example, tells us nothing about exactly what treatment is proposed nor about any evidence of its effectiveness or side effects.
In business I remember when “inventory reduction” became a fool's gold phrase. Everybody wanted to reduce inventory. In some cases that made sense but doing it uncritically caused problems. Many companies discovered that they needed the inventory they had discarded. However business at least has some effective feedback that often mitigates the problem. Companies that follow fool's gold words blindly tend to fail, allowing smarter companies to prosper. Not so in the political arena.
In politics fool's gold words and phrases abound. One often used is “for the children,” generally employed in the attempt to get higher taxes supposedly to benefit the children. However the effect of the fool's gold phrase is to convince people that they must do anything for the children, at any cost. That leads to uncritical actions at the expense of other parts of society. In fact it is often at the expense of the children themselves as their parents face heavy financial burdens.
Another fool's gold phrase is “a living wage.” The term is undefined but people who use it seem to think that everybody is entitled to wages far beyond what most people in this world receive. Most receive much less than what is commonly called a living wage – yet they live on it. Critical examination of the concept and how divorced it is from reality should show how meaningless the term is.
One current political fool's gold word is “stimulus.” Politicians want to use tax money and borrowed money to stimulate the economy. That sounds good but does it work? Evidence from history and economics indicates that it does not. Our economic problems were short-lived until Hoover and FDR decided to intervene. That led to the worst depression in history, yet our current leaders seem determined to repeat the actions that worsened the problems of the past.
Like witch words, fool's gold words will mislead us unless we are careful. We must learn to recognize and counteract them. Whenever a word or phrase short-circuits critical thinking we should be careful. When we recognize fool's gold words we should delve into their implications and see if there is evidence for those implications.