I really, really, dislike the word “woo”.
I don’t mean it as in “to woo a fair maiden”, though that’s a bit weird too. No, I mean the term used by some communities of sceptics (the science-y ones) to refer to ideas which seem to be based on very flimsy evidence or are rooted in a belief in supernatural forces of some sort. It is short for “woo-woo”, as in the noise you might make when jokingly referring to ghosts.
Woooooooo, spoooookeeeeey. If you want a fuller description, there is an entry on the skeptic’s dictionary.
The fact that I feel I need to start by explaining the word is a big part of the problem. It’s slang. It’s jargon. It’s code between a group of friends. Above all, it’s a word that’s used in a loose, ill-defined way to talk about people other than those using it. It’s exclusionary, used about an amorphous “them” and just a bit too vague for my liking. What has the woooooo of a cartoonish ghost got to do with, for example, GM policy?
If it’s not obvious already, it’s also a derogatory term, one that I think unfairly trivialises critique of science. It’s used to shut people up. Now, there are many (many, many, many…) people I personally wish would simply stfu on the subject of science and technology, but I also think critique of science and technology is often useful and/ or entirely understandable and know that my view is just my view, others have theirs. Maintaining a culture where people feel scared to talk about how they feel or what they think about science (or, perhaps worse, are alienated from interacting with the scientific community so they talk amongst themselves) really isn’t going to do anyone any favours. Moreover, when I do want people to shut up about science and technology, I like to think I have an argument more focused and intellecually rigourous than making wooooo noises.
While I’m on the subject of terms I don’t like, I’ll repeat my dislike of calls for scientific literacy, echo Jack Stilgoe’s argument against anti-science and point out to anyone who wants to blithely use the word Luddite that it’s a lot more complicated than simply being anti-technology (this is great on the Luddites, but sadly behind the Nature paywall, there’s a pretty good Comment is Free piece though). These are terms used to articulate and reinforce a boundary around who is allowed to speak about science and technology, and who is not. They are also simplistic and, all too often, simply inaccurate.
If you’re frustrated by what seems to be someone’s lack of scientific understanding or unjustified belief in an alternative view, contribute knowledge, listen to try to find out where they are coming from and explain why you disagree. If it’s mendacious, show people how and why precisely. Share your cleverness with the world, don’t try to intimidate people with it.