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Woo is a term for pseudoscientific explanations that share certain common characteristics, often being too good to be true (aside from being unscientific). The term is common among skeptical writers. Woo is understood specifically as dressing itself in the trappings of science (but not the substance) while involving unscientific concepts, such as anecdotal evidence and sciencey-sounding words.
Woo is usually not the description of an effect but of the explanation as to why the effect occurs. For example: "Homeopathy is effective (even when no molecule of the active ingredient remains in the final product) because the solution retains a memory of the solute."—the explanation for these results, e.g. water memory, is woo.
Woo is used to blind or distract an audience from a real explanation or to discourage people from delving deeper into the subject to find a more realistic explanation. You can't make money if nobody buys your bullshit. (As such, "woo" that has zero paying customers is more like just ordinary batshit crazy.)
Despite the terrible name, it has become quite a popular term within the skeptical movement—probably because it's fun to say.
The term comes from "woo-woo", an epithet used in the 1990s by science and skeptical writers to ridicule people who believe or promote such things. This is in turn believed to have come from the onomatopoeia "woooooo!" as a reaction to dimmed lights or magic tricks. The term implies a lack of either intelligence or sincerity on the part of the person or concepts so described.
As a coincidence, the Chinese word 巫 (pronounced in the Mandarin dialect as Wū) means a shaman, usually with magic powers. Also coincidentally, the Chinese word 無/无 (pronounced Wú in Mandarin) means "nothing" or "negation".
Woo generally contains most of the following characteristics:
- Anecdotal evidence: Prefers to use testimonials over actual studies. (Much less likely to go wrong.)
- Panacea: Is a simple idea that purports to be the one answer to many problems (often including many diseases).
- Pseudoscience: Has a "scientific-sounding" reason for how it works, but little to no actual science behind it; especially:
- Science woo: Uses words that sound scientific but make no sense in their context, such as "quantum".
- Quote-mined studies that, if bent properly, appear to support the woo.
- Appeal to authority: Claims that a scientific authority supports the woo; this is usually combined with a quote mine.
- Applies studies from different, unrelated fields.
- Disdain for objective, randomized experimental controls, especially double-blind testing (which is kind of what makes epidemiology actually, y'know, work. And maybe one or two other obscure corners of the field of scientific endeavor...)
- Involves the supernatural and/or paranormal. Failing that, the preternatural.
- Persecution complex: Claims to be persecuted, usually perpetrated by the government, "Big Pharma", or the entire worldwide scientific community (see Galileo gambit). Usually accompanied by a claim that the public and/or scientists are blind to the discovery, despite attempts to alert them.
- Uses a hypothesis that remains virtually unchanged for years or decades, despite changes in the evidence for the woo. This is sometimes presented as a strength.
- And, almost always, is willing to share the woo-peddlers' precious knowledge/insight/revelation... for a price. And repeatedly. (Because if it didn't take the first time around then the victims didn't believe sincerely enough.)
Not every characteristic need be present for something to be woo. Woo manifests itself as a gradient, rather than a binary: the more of these tactics that are used, the more likely it is that the idea is woo.
Not to be confused with
WoO (Werke ohne Opuszahl, "works without opus") is the classification given to any originally unpublished compositions by Ludwig Van Beethoven (Für Elise() being the most famous example) or other composers of classical music.
However, unlike woo, WoO always describes something which demonstrably exists.
Bernie Worrell, the keyboardist for Parliament/Funkadelic and Talking Heads, was often known as the "Wizard of Woo"; however the "woo" in this case is an onomatopoeic representation of his distinct synthesizer sounds, and not an indication that he ever dabbled in psuedoscience.
- ScienceBlogger Orac uses the term prominently in his weekly "Your Friday Dose of Woo", a review of recent pseudoscience
- James Randi Educational Foundation is an organization developed to publicly debunk "the paranormal, pseudoscientific, and the supernatural," often collectively referred to by Randi as "woo-woo."
- "Kooks in the wild", including kook ratings.
- 2009 Golden Woo Awards
- The Woo-Woo Stuff:Musings on the Metaphysical
- The (unofficial) Manga Guide to Woo Arguments, Skeptic North
- "Woo," Skeptic's Dictionary
- What is "Woo"?
- Skeptic Report: The Woo-Woo Credo
- Reader Mailbag: What is woo?
- The Shaman or Chinese Wu: His inspired Dancing and Versatile Character