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Woo, also called woo-woo, is a pejorative 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 a very effective selling point, as it usually ignores an effect of a complex phenomenon, instead putting focus on the complexity and "unexplained nature" of the phenomenon, and providing an alleged, embellished, easy to grasp, yet fallacious "explanation" as to why it 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, putting emphasis on the lack of an obvious explanation in favor of chalking it up to what appears to be sorcery. The term implies a lack of either intelligence or sincerity (if not both) on the part of the person or concepts so described.
As a coincidence, the Chinese word 巫 (pronounced in Standard Mandarin as Wū) means a shaman, usually with magic powers. Also coincidentally, the Chinese word 無/无 (pronounced Wú in Standard Mandarin) means "nothing," "lacking," or "negation." Another Chinese word 误 (pronounced in Standard Mandarin as Wù) means "mistake" or "incorrect". There is also the English verb "woo", which means to seek someone's love, especially with false promises; it can also be considered appropriate, because woo-meisters seek people's admiration, falsely promising them miraculous and easily understandable knowledge.
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.
- 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…)
- A supernatural and/or paranormal involvement; 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.
- 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, a willingness 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 number") 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, Talking Heads, and Claypool's Bucket of Bernie Brains, 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 pseudoscience.
Types of woo
- Audio woo
- Automotive woo
- Bodybuilding woo
- Brainwave woo
- Cancer woo
- Comet woo
- Computer woo
- Crime woo
- Crystal woo
- Dental woo
- Food woo
- Fusion woo
- Language woo
- Light woo
- Martial arts
- Math woo
- Native American woo
- Nature woo
- Paramilitary woo
- pH woo
- History woo
- Quantum woo
- Salt woo
- Science woo
- Water woo
- Woo energy
- Logical fallacy
- Style over substance
- Fractal wrongness
- Placebo effect
- Conspiracy theory
Want to read this in another language?
- 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
- "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
- Fazzioli, Edoardo (1987). Chinese calligraphy : from pictograph to ideogram : the history of 214 essential Chinese/Japanese characters. calligraphy by Rebecca Hon Ko. New York: Abbeville Press. ISBN 0-89659-774-1.
- "误 entry on Wiktionary
- "Werke Ludwig van Beethovens" - Note the source link is in German.
- "Bernie Worrel, the "Wizard of Woo," dies at 72" - NPR. Published June 24, 2016.