Boo to Woo

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.

36 thoughts on “Boo to Woo

  1. Karen Masters

    Great post.

    When I take a deep breath and try to engage with anti-vaccination people (comes up as a lot as a scientist who is a parent so I feel a responsibility to engage sometimes) I am often shocked at how rude and horrible the “pro-vaccination” people come across online. Yes the anti-vac people have misunderstood the science, but they are generally (with exceptions obviously) just scared parents who need help understanding their fears are unfounded, not to be told they are stupid and insulted.

    1. Zachary

      That doesn’t mean we need to validate their stupid fears by engaging them in conversation. They should be ignored, told that they are unequivocally wrong at most with no further explanation because they would not understand why they are wrong anyways.

      1. Karen Masters

        I think that’s quite an assumption to say that they would/could not understand. I consider that most of these people (usually women/mothers) are people who have been failed by the scientific education our society currently provides, and I would rather try to help them understand better than ignore and ridicule them. That’s just not going to get us anywhere….

  2. mariawolters

    I agree – it is very important to understand where people are coming from, and why they take the stance they do. For example, talk of “energy” in complementary approaches could well be a short hand for the complex emotions and mental states that people feel when they come together to heal and be healed.

    It’s also important to be open to arguments such as “My naturopath listens to me when my GP doesn’t.” Naturopathy may be flawed scientifically, but this kind of interpersonal support matters enormously. I know many GPs do give it (or would love to give it, if they had time). Slagging off medics is not the answer – seeking change is.

  3. Pingback: Boo to Woo | through the looking glass « Secularity

  4. burge5k

    I recently wrote a blog on another perjorative commonly used in my line of work (renewable energy): NIMBY.
    I would be interested to see suggestions of how to approach the problem I was describing wherein opponents of wind energy projects attack them on the basis of extremely flawed economic or emissions angles when one suspects that their true grievance with wind turbines is not economics and not their contribution to climate change mitigation but to do with their appearance.
    I think it strange as the arguments from economic or from global environmental perspectives can be proved to be demonstrably false where questions over the appearance of wind farms are much more subjective and, while I find them to be quite modern and elegant, I can completely understand the opposite view.

  5. Jeremy Das

    “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.”

    Just like labelling people “climate deniers” and pretending that scientific ignorance is what leads them to be sceptics?

      1. Jeremy Das

        Re the Guardian article.

        “It is true that most people have only a limited amount of knowledge about climate science (as they do about most specialist subjects). And without doubt, free market and fossil-fuel industry lobbyists have shamelessly acted as “merchants of doubt” , exaggerating the level of uncertainty about climate change, or downplaying its importance.”

        This paragraph contains an interesting conjunction of two seemingly unrelated statements. It seems to me that the intent is to insinuate that sceptics, through lacking adequate knowledge of climate science, are susceptible to the influence of these oft mentioned but rarely named lie-spreading industry lobbyists. (When they have been named they have, at least in my experience, been people I have never heard of or people who flatly deny it).

        “…older, white, conservative men tend to be more sceptical about climate change.”

        It does not therefore follow that they are more sceptical because they are older, white, conservative men.

        “The critical difference, of course, is that those who were not climate sceptics had the weight of empirical evidence on their side.”

        That’s his opinion. By stating it as if it were an incontrovertible fact he denies the possibility that C-AGW sceptics – including numerous PhD-holding scientists and engineers – might legitimately have formed a different opinion.

        He also admits that biased assimilation is a universal phenomenon, but he says in the next paragraph, “without belief in climate change, scientific evidence simply bounces off. ” It is only the author’s failure to admit the possibility that he might be wrong and that the numerous PhD-holding scientists and engineers who are C-AGW sceptics might be right that allows him to ignore the fact that one might equally say, “without disbelief in C-AGW scientific evidence simply bounces off”. Either way, it’s a pointless statement: there will always be people who hold their opinions for spurious reasons or whose opinions are firmer than their knowledge and understanding legitimately allows. It is only by prejudging the matter, however, that one can claim that it is exclusively – and comprehensively – those on one side of the argument.

        1. alice Post author

          Mmm, Adam’s done some research on this, and read others’ research. Not just “opinion”. I think your more detailed argument is with him not me though – might be better off in comment thread under that piece than here?

          1. Jeremy Das

            “Mmm, Adam’s done some research on this, and read others’ research. Not just “opinion”. I think your more detailed argument is with him not me though – might be better off in comment thread under that piece than here?”

            I only commented on the article because you recommended it to me, presumably because you stood by it. If you now feel unable to discuss it then that’s fine. I am not aware of there being anything further for me to say about it – except regarding the one point you have taken up.

            I don’t know what you mean when you say that because Corner has done some research on the subject and read others’ research his opinion is not just “opinion”. Sceptics have also done research and read others’ research, some of which has even been in the physical sciences rather than in the social sciences, which tends to suggest (to me, at least) that their opinions might at least equally qualify for your category of not just “opinion”.

  6. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    To simply throw that back as it is late here: I really, really dislike when people trivialize useful methods.

    Here is denialism blog on why it is useful: “Denialists deserve ridicule, not debate”.

    “The solution to these problems is not in confrontations or debates or even necessarily careful fisking of their arguments every time they appear in the blogosphere. For one, it’s somewhat futile. They’re cranks. They will just go on and on, immune to any new data, scientific findings, or any evidence the real world can present. Worse, evidence suggests that repetition of false claims reinforces them even if you are debunking the claim. So debating them to supposedly educate those around you is not a legitimate reason because it’s probably making things worse, not to mention legitimizing the denialist. It’s a constant struggle I have to try to write about things in such a way as to reinforce positive true claims rather than repeat false claims with correction. It’s natural, but it doesn’t work.”

    That doesn’t mean most or even many ideas out there are promoted by denialists, nor that it is the only method. It means that there are many ideas, many personalities and many useful methods. Ridiculing woo is one of those.

  7. vertigo25

    The stopper on this for me, is where you say it’s used against ‘critique of science.’ Personally, I’ve never encountered that usage. I’ve seen it use against things that people have presented as ‘theories,’ quacks, and quackery in general.

  8. devdeathray

    I think that what you’re trying to say is the the word woo is bad PR for the skeptic community, and that using it won’t help them win the hearts and minds of the general populace. I think you’re assuming that all skeptic groups or organizations exist to improve the critical thinking skills of ordinary people. I don’t think that’s the case for many of them; most skeptics just want to have a place they can go and chat with like-minded people, in which case, i don’t think there is anything wrong with using woo. Do I think it wise for an outward-facing organization to use woo? No, but exclusionary jargon is a common, if not integral, part of all subcultures. Do you think that all subcultural groups should give up their rituals and slang so that they can be more welcoming to outsiders? If not, why hold just skeptics to this higher ideal?

    1. alice Post author

      I’m not assuming that – I know how diverse the sceptic community (communities) are – but I get why you might think that from this post. Personally, I think any sub-cultural group has to realise the external impact of their discourse.

  9. sam

    “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. ”

    This is missing the point – people shouldn’t be scared to talk about “what they think of science” but they *should* be scared to talk about, for example, what they think about the ecological consequences of introducing GM species.

    Valid opinion: “I may not be a scientist, but I think that we should be more risk-averse in our policies regarding technological development.”
    Opinion that should be ridiculed: “I may not be a scientist, but GM food is bad for your health.”

    1. alice Post author

      I’m not sure anyone should be ridiculed, though as I’ve said earlier in this comment thread it’s maybe a different issue

      1. sam

        Ridiculed is strong, but when it comes to policy debates, I think that engaging in a substantive conversation risks legitimizing non-empirical claims about empirical matters. You have to write like people are only going to read the first sentence, because in a lot of cases, that’s all they will read.

        And of course on Twitter you only get one sentence. Maybe the term “woo” is a bit destructive, but how would you have phrased that tweet?

  10. Mike

    Anyone seriously interested in the subject needs to watch this great speech given by Sadie Crabtree, James Randi Educational Foundation Communications Director, on “Winning Hearts And Minds for Skepticism” – at TAM Las Vegas 2011:


    1. alice Post author

      I can recommend the don’t be a dick stuff from the Bad Astronomer too (google it). Also Frank Swain’s “being sceptical about scepticism”.

  11. franc hoggle

    “Woo” is pretty trite. Much prefer “mumbo-jumbo” myself. It seems to convey the assessment far more clearly, and is far easier to append “and this is why” to. As for the science vs. antiscience armies facing off, this is but a symptom of the larger malaise that is also reflected particularly disastrously in politics (especially US). The root is the loss of basic critical thinking and allowing emotion to fill the void. This naturally creates dualism, no matter what the sphere. Many, many pro-science critics are as incoherent as their snake-oil vending opponents. Proof? The sheer number of “skeptics” who list Carl Sagan alongside The Secret as their favourite books on facebook.

  12. Bill Beaty

    Some clarification: there is the term “woo,” essentially meaning “crazy ideas” or “unscientific assertion.” No big prob, just use “bunk” etc. if you don’t like the word “woo.”

    Then there’s the term “The Woo-woos.”

    This one is different; it’s a derogatory label used to dehumanize a particular group of people. The old “us” versus “them.” The pure and superior in-group versus the inferior sub-humans. We’ve all seen this before, no? It goes like this:

    Those Woo-woos, THEY’RE ALL THE SAME. They’re inferior and disgusting, not really human like we are. Woo-woos can’t be taught, so we have no choice but to attack, silence, and eliminate them. This is a war, and we’re fighting for Purity against those who would contaminate everything we hold dear. If lots of woo-woos move into your neighborhood, it’s time to move out!

  13. kafoodie

    While the accommodationist/uber-polite tactics you seem to endorse have their place, ridicule and mockery (in this case represented by the word “woo”) are essential tools in the skeptic’s toolbox. People should be made to feel uncomfortable about blindly espousing ridiculous, unsupported nonsense as believing lies leads to bad and dangerous decision making.

  14. Daniel Loxton

    Writing for Skeptic magazine (US), I’ve argued for years that skeptics should not use the term “woo” (or worse, “the woo-woos”) for just the reasons you suggest. It’s derogatory, it’s exclusionary in-group jargon, and it effectively declares that we lack the integrity to investigate these topics in an honest academic light—in which case, who needs a skeptics? People can not believe stuff just fine on their own.

  15. Warren

    My particular feelings on the word are that it is often the context of use, not the actual word, that are misused.
    If someone is engaging in debate with a ‘low-level’ believer then tact is likely the most useful strategy, you are unlikely to get anywhere with such a person if you immediately brand them an idiot or belittle them. If someone is open to rational discourse then explaining why it doesn’t work should, in theory, be sufficient to get your point across.
    The other side of the coin concerns the listener being open to rational debate. Not all believers in quackery are. If rational debate is swatted away by a quack then I see no problem in using a term that belittles a quack. If you are unwilling to rationally justify your position then you have earned the label ‘woo’. Woo is no more exclusionary than terms like quack or bunk in the correct context in my opinion.

    Another element to context is, of course, the readers or audience of the discussion. It may not be nice or pretty but accusing someone of being a quack or woo-artist can quickly shift the burden of proof onto the believer (where it should rightly be). This may be important if there are fence-sitters and such quackery may prove genuinely harmful. The reason I generally detest debates concerning ‘matters of skepticism’ is that it does give the opposing viewpoint a credence it does not deserve, it does this through the power of rhetoric, fallacy and persuasion (a listening audience very rarely has the immediate information to spot true statements from false etc). As I said, it may not be pretty or nice but sometimes it may be necessary to put a quack on the back foot. If calling Jenny McCarthy a purveyor of woo is more effective in a 5min TV slot than saying her views do not accurately represent the views of the scientific community, or here is the evidence of why she is wrong etc. then I’ll happily accept a more pragmatic approach.

    ‘Woo’ can seem exclusive and close debate but if the debate isn’t even allowed to start due to a quack then I don’t see a problem with flat out asserting that a belief system is incoherent. If they wish to deny that it is then they betta come out with some evidence…

    1. uninterestingthings aka Dominic

      To be a tad sensible – the point is that ‘woo’ is generally regarded as a resort to ‘supernatural’ explanations for ‘real world’ phenomena. It has nothing to do with scientific literacy, I would claim, rather it is a resort to the ‘it is too complicated for me to explain, ergo [insert parapsychology/religious argument].

  16. Marya Zilberberg

    I agree with you, Alice. I also understand how frustrating it is to try to engage with the unengageable. All the same, spiraling into insults seems counterproductive in public discourse. It will not only turn away those who are in willful denial, but those who may be on the fence as well. I have been called anti-science simply because I have disagreed with the militant and insulting rhetoric (if you read my blog, you will see just how absurd that accusation is). Someone needs to rise above the crap and I would rather it be the group that has facts on its side and claims to be measured and rational.
    I blogged my similar views here:

  17. altissima

    I happen to think it’s handy to have a word for “ideas which are based on very flimsy evidence or are rooted in a belief in supernatural forces of some sort”. What word would you prefer I use?

    1. alice Post author

      You can use whatever you like. I’ll just think you’re not thinking about the topic in as much detail as you could. We all use catch all phrases like that which are really quite silly at times though.

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  19. anandmurugan

    I realize this is old internet by now, but I have to say you are dead on. I heard someone use the word recently (to describe yoga and meditation, of all things) and I was infuriated. It reflects the same dogmatic, unthinking mindset that these people are presumably criticizing.

    I also completely agree with you on ‘denialism’ and ‘scientific literacy’. You are awesome!


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