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Science woo

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Science woo is woo that confuses science with magic, often in the heads of the people espousing it. The science is often accurate yet superficial, and the "woo" is a result of a tragically poor understanding of the scientific detail, the scientific method or the burden of proof. Woo often is presented as an elaborate or remarkable configuration of the laws of nature to explain something that science is alleged to be lacking. As a result, people can be "woo'ed" into believing total bullshit.

In some cases, like "chaos theory", "vacuum energy", "zero point energy" and "quantum computing", only the name of the scientific principle or discovery has actually made it into the popular culture and minor details like what they actually mean are left up to the imagination.[1] New Age is particularly enamored of quantum woo, where the "strange" behavior of subatomic particles is claimed to work in the macroscopic world.

The popular press may be partially to blame for this, by simplifying science reporting so far that they almost completely leave out any real science; one particularly striking example being a picture of an X chromosome and a pair of scissors to "cut one leg off" to convert it to a Y chromosome. Popular science media, especially the bad kind, also bears some of the blame by playing to public tastes for sensationalism over skepticism and drama over fact. Articles on speculative topics such as how the universe will end may be based on accurate science but have an actual likelihood of occurring of close to nil.[2]


[edit] Examples

Prominent examples of science woo tend to cluster around very abstract hypotheses in physics that have strange predictions (whether "valid" and useful yet or not). These include the venerable quantum theories[3], chaos theory, string (and superstring) theory, fractals, the work of Nikola Tesla, and anything interesting one ever reads about black holes and wormholes. Two common features of most of these occurrences of science woo are one, lack of genuine familiarity with the field in question, and two, an utter lack of familiarity with the mathematics required to understand them. Biological examples tend to leap far beyond minor test results to almost magical "cures" for cancer, obesity, and stupidity.

[edit] Terraforming

An artist's delusion of what a terraformed Moon would look like

For an example of science woo, take someone who may have read an article in Omni magazine (or an Arthur C. Clarke novel) about terraforming Mars, or at least creating sustainable human colonies there. While every speculation about how this would work may be grounded in valid scientific principles, the reader may make the leap to thinking the only real obstacle is getting enough ships to Mars to get it started. Then (and this is where the woo kicks in), when presented with an issue about environmental damage here on Earth, their reply might simply be "Well, then, we'll terraform Mars!" The very complex concept of terraforming Mars may indeed have some validity — but if we can't keep Earth "terraformed" first, how could we possibly succeed on Mars?

[edit] Anti-gravity

Anti-gravity prototypes vibrating on scales give a false weight-change reading. Gyroscopes are another anti-gravity favorite but they don't get lighter. They would only work to squeeze energy out of the rotating Earth. A gyro points in one direction while the planet turns under it. It would be a great power source but the gearing ratio would be 4,320,000 to one (This is not how conservation of angular momentum works, it won't be a powersource).

The anti-scientist Richard Hoagland wrote thousands of words declaring that Wernher Von Braun[wp] had a secret knowledge of anti-gravity, and no doubt his fans believed it. The whole essay was invalidated by Hoagland's own mathematical errors.

[edit] Squeezing energy out of the rotating earth

See the main article on this topic: Rotation of the Earth

Attempts to take energy from the earth's rotation must contend with conservation of angular momentum. Any earth-bound device will fail for this reason. One thing that would work is attaching a weight to a very (very) long string anchored to the ground, and releasing the weight at above the height where geosynchronous satellites orbit. The weight would be flung outwards, and the unwinding string could be used to power a generator. The device would generate power by slowing the earth down, but rotational inertia is conserved. It's just not terribly practical, is all.

A much better idea is to exploit the effects of a large mass in space that just happens to be conveniently located in Earth orbit: the Moon. Ocean tides are caused primarily by the Moon's gravity, and they slow down the Earth's rotation by transferring angular momentum to the Moon. Several power plants that generate electricity from ocean tides are currently in operation.

[edit] Limitless energy

See the main article on this topic: Perpetual motion

Skeptics often ask, "If your perpetual motion machine is so good, why isn't it widely available?" And the reply is invariably, "The oil/coal/nuclear industry/government is conspiring to suppress my invention." But utility companies are required by law, in the U.S. and E.U., to buy back excess juice. So if their machine works, all they have to do is phase match their machine to the AC line with an inverter, sit back, and collect their payments. Also, the US government has such a strong interest in reducing the use of fossil fuels that it would jump at this, even as it violates the laws of thermodynamics, despite John Hutchison's claims to the contrary.

A very specific subset of this is fusion woo — claims of practical low-cost fusion technologies. These devices are often capable of causing fusion, but never deliver an energy gain.

[edit] Space woo

Never mind!

"Space woo" is the kind of woo peddled by Richard Hoagland on his appalling web site and his radio chat show. Since all woo depends on the inaccessibility of counter-evidence to third parties, nothing is more ripe than space woo. The images of Mars returned from the Viking orbiter in the 1970s, with its primitive camera providing resolution only down to 45 meters per pixel, provided an instance of pareidolia when a mesa that resembled a human face was imaged. Hoagland asserted that it was a monument, something like Mt. Rushmore on Mars. When Mars Global Surveyor was sent in 1998, with resolution down to less than two meters per pixel, it took a picture of the "face" and Hoagland was exposed as a fabulist.[4]

Another kind of space woo involves a peculiar if not scientifically recognized tendency called the Overview Effect: the cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts and cosmonauts during spaceflight, often while viewing the Earth from orbit or from the lunar surface.[5] While most comments amount to awe and wonder at the world and/or cosmos, quite a few vocal advocates like Frank White (the man who coined the term) and Edgar Mitchell had taken the idea and interpreted it into what could be best described as a mix of New Age fluffiness and systems thinking taken to its extreme, with a dash of hard green and pseudo-Carl Sagan polemics. It's no surprise that the woo version of the effect had gained some traction among some fringe-meisters and well-meaning if naive supporters with its emphasis on "global/cosmic consciousness" to the detriment of any legitimate effort to validate the effect itself.

[edit] Cryonics, transhumanism, the Singularity

We cannot yet freeze humans and bring them back, and it is doubtful whether anyone frozen with current technology can be resurrected; we can't upload minds; we don't have nanobots; we don't have strong AI. But more than that, we have no current prospects of any of these things and literally have no idea how to get to any of them from here, despite what science fiction may suggest to you, and certainly not within a few decades. Advocates of the cryonics/transhumanism/Singularity belief cluster confuse science-fictional speculation with anything we have any idea how to do, especially when extremely superficial progress is reported, and tend to predict such things will come to pass in their own lifetimes.

[edit] Brain woo

There are numerous woo ideas surrounding the brain, psychology, and neuroscience, often pejoratively referred to as "neuromythology". These are largely misinterpretations of actual science by pop psychology or New Age types trying to jam some kind of mysticism into fields studying the mind. Dredging up Freudian psychoanalysis and mixing it with some new brand of woo is a common form of this. Pseudoscientific ideas about the physiology and function of neurons manifest in non-materialist neuroscience and quantum consciousness, which mixes quantum woo with brain woo. Brainwave woo and "brain exercise" products like Brain Gym arise from misconceptions surrounding the biology of the brain. Personality woo like the enneagram and distortions of hemispheric dominance have always been popular. Phrenology is often synonymous with brain and personality woo.

[edit] Nanobots

See the main article on this topic: Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology is best understood as microscopic chemistry. Unfortunately, the pop-culture depiction of Nanotech is often cell-sized robots that can magic anything into existence. This ignores that physics is different at the microscopic level. Even ignoring that there is a physical limit to information/programs (even if each bit of data was stored on a single atom, you only have so many atoms), individual atoms and molecules don't behave nearly the same way as large quantities would. As for the "grey goo" scenario, where a self-replicating mini-factory covers the entire world, that happened once already; it's called "life".

[edit] Others

This phenomenon extends beyond the intentional woo, to a person who buys and consumes many various dietary supplements, herbs, and vitamins, and even normal food items, and "knows" for what each are supposed to be curative or preventative. Each of these factoids may rest on nothing more than reading of a preliminary study in the Science section of their local newspaper or television news show. Often these stories lead with a dramatic claim, to make a headline, and then barely make it clear that the test groups were very specifically chosen and that the results were barely statistically significant. The woo-ee simply memorizes the magic list of potions and takes them in order to live forever. Such overconsumption of one single item can actually have adverse consequences.

Also, many purveyors of intentional woo like to throw as much woo on the wall to see what sticks. For instance, Danie Krugel likes to mix space woo, quantum woo, and bio woo all together to convince everybody.

[edit] Technology dangers woo

A subset, or perhaps flip side of science woo, is the "ack, technology is dangerous woo". Cell phones are killing our honey bees is one example. Other examples include: power lines cause cancer, mercury amalgam fillings cause just about everything, microwave ovens create "toxins" in your food, and aspartame is hazardous to your health.[6]

[edit] Science as a religion

A special section of science woo has been optimized by the advertising world who turn "science" into a virtual "religion" with scientists acting as something like "priests" to the unsuspecting, under-informed, too-trusting public. Generally, ads using such woo put bespectacled men or women in crisp white lab coats in front of a myriad of glass flasks, bottles, and beakers filled with liquids of pretty colors, who then look directly into the camera with that look of authority and toss out buzzwords like "laboratory analysis", "scientifically proven", "research has shown", and "experts agree". They then move on to sell anything from the latest diet aid, to the best carpet cleaner in the world. The woo-ed sit back and, unable to decipher "carbon tetra anything" from "oxidization reactions" accept the woo and buy buy buy buy buy.

A subset of this is scientists, and others such as engineers and inventors, who really are brilliant in their field but get way out of their depth in another area by trying to apply the scientific method to inappropriate fields, and making utopian claims that by doing so we can solve all mankind's problems. Examples: Galambosianism and the Technocracy movement.

This has sometimes gone by the more general term 'scientism' or 'historicism' when scholars inappropriately apply the methods of the physical sciences to the social sciences like economics or history. CF http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Poverty_of_Historicism

[edit] See also

[edit] Footnotes

  1. Pretty much all the major sci-fi TV shows are guilty as sin of this. If you want your TV scientifically accurate, you're best off with The Big Bang Theory.
  2. See the 10 Ways To Destroy The Earth. Implausible; maybe. Fun; definitely. Which sort of proves the point, really.
  3. With even neopagans getting into the act
  4. Carl Sagan used that word to describe Hoagland, pointing out that it is perfectly OK to say that an eggplant looks like Richard Nixon. It is not permissible, however, to say that the eggplant actually is Nixon
  5. The main gist of it, if rather biased can be found here.
  6. Well, all the other artificial sweeteners were, so why not the blue packets, too?
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