Reader mailbag: What is woo?

I don't often do reader mailbag sorts of posts, but this question was so good that I thought it would be worth answering on the blog. Indeed, I almost thought of making this whole question another in my Friday Woo series, but decided that I wanted to answer it now.

Reader TB writes:

I've been following your blog for a few months now and love being both educated and entertained. The Friday Dose of Woo is great. While I have an idea of what you mean by woo it would be helpful to me and others visiting the page if you included a definition and perhaps the etymology.

My first temptation was to respond, as Supreme Court Justice Potter Steward famously did about defining pornography, by quipping that "I know it when I see it." However, after thinking about it, I realized that woo is probably as hard to define as pornography, unless you are referring to the cocktail, which consists of peach schnapps, vodka, and cranberry juice.

It's a drink that, like the woo this blog casts a skeptical eye on, would likely make me turn up my nose, given that the very thought of peach schnapps sounds disgusting to me. Why would anyone want to mess up a perfectly good vodka and cranberry juice with peach schnapps? Vodka and cranberry juice make a plenty tasty libation.

But I digress.

"Woo" is shorthand for "woo woo" and is not just limited to alternative medicine but rather represents an entire philosophy of credulity of the sort favored by New Age types. It's clear that "woo" or "woo woo" can refer to either a person or a belief system. When it refers to the person, it is referring to a person who believes in woo. To me, when referring to "alternative medicine," I view the "altie" and "woo" as largely synonymous, but woo has a broader meaning, embracing a wider variety of credulity. One thing is for sure, it is not generally meant as a flattering term--for very good reason.

So what is woo?

If I had to boil it down, I'd define woo as beliefs that clearly demonstrate magical thinking, uncritical acceptance of things for which no good evidence exists. This includes, but is not limited to, psychic phenomenon, ghosts, the paranormal, "energy healing," the use of "colon cleansing" and "liver cleansing" to rid oneself of "toxins," homeopathy (especially quantum homeopathy), and a wide variety of other mystical and pseudoscientific beliefs. Woo is resistant to reason. Indeed, woo has a double standard when it comes to what it considers to be good evidence. It is very accepting of a wide variety of fuzzy, mystical ideas, but is often incredibly distrustful and skeptical of anything having to do with "conventional" science or "conventional" medicine. Woos tend to be very quick to react to defend their particular brand of woo and very unforgiving of its being questioned.

Sometimes the line between woo and non-woo isn't so obvious. For example, while the magical thinking required to have faith in homeopathy clearly constitutes woo (to me at least), not all alternative medicine is woo. For example, the concepts behind acupuncture are clearly woo, but there is evidence that acupuncture may do something to influence neurotransmitter activity regionally; what, if anything, acupuncture may or may not do, it's certain that it has nothing to do with affecting qi along "energy meridians." In contrast, certainly looking at herbs as potential medicines is usually not woo. The exception, of course, is if a person happens to believe that herbs have some sort of special properties that are ndue to more than just the the pharmacological activity of their chemical components (or interactions between them) and/or that just because something's "herbal" or "natural" means that it must be inherently "better" than synthetic medicines. (Of course, my response to that altie trope is that curare, foxglove, and a variety of toxic compounds are entirely "natural," and will kill you just as fast, if not faster, than synthetic poisons.) Because it isn't always obvious what is woo and what isn't (although, let me assure your, dear readers, that in Your Friday Dose of Woo it will never be in doubt that what I am discussing is, in fact, woo), some skeptics consider the term unnecessarily derogatory, although some woos have actually taken the term as a badge of honor.

Finally, regarding the etymology, I tried to look into that a bit. I do know that The origin of "woo woo" is lost in the mists of time (well, at least decades) of time. I've seen suggestions that it comes from the "woooooo" noise that a Theramin used to make in old horror or science fiction movies. I've also seen suggestions that it somehow derives from the music in the theme to The Twilight Zone. Whatever the etymology, the term can, as far as I can tell, only be traced back to around 1986, at least in print, although I'd be shocked if the term wasn't in use long before that. However, I can't remember having heard the term until more recently, within the last few years. Maybe I was just sheltered.

In any case, the definition of "woo" is not entirely satisfactory, although I still contend that I know it when I see it. Given that, perhaps my readers would kindly add their thoughts about how best to define woo, that we might together come up with a more objective definition if possible. (And don't forget, feel free to send me candidates for future editions of Your Friday Dose of Woo. I still haven't settled on this week's topic yet.)

Of course, if anyone has any credible sources that tell the story of the origin of the term "woo" or "woo-woo" as applied to alternative medicine and the paranormal, by all means pleas share them with us!

I've always called this "cosmic hoo-hoo." However, I can't find any references for that. Maybe I made it up.

I've got a potential topic for you, Orac. A month or so ago I had reason to go looking for OTC drugs that can help alleviate snoring that's due to sinus congestion. I checked several typical drugstores and supermarket pharmacy sections ... and discovered that most of the "anti-snoring remedies" on their shelves were homeopathic. Reputable stores. Real pharmacies and prescription drug sales, just one aisle over. And here they were charging six, seven, eight, ten bucks for something that can't possibly work as claimed. The only one I found that wasn't was the "Breathe Right" nasal strips.

As for the origin of "woo-woo": I'm pretty sure I remember hearing it long before '86. I'd ascribe it to the age-old noise that people make when telling a ghost story: woooOOOOooooo.... (usually accompanied by dramatic waving of fingers)

The other possibility that springs to mind is that it's based on some Japanese or Chinese word, in a way similar to Gary Zukav's bizarre treatise on woo-woo physics, The Dancing Wu Li Masters.

By wolfwalker (not verified) on 01 Aug 2006 #permalink

When I lived near Ann Arbor, MI the contrast of state-of-the-art technology and science at the U was such a weird contrst to the woo on display, specially around north 4th and 5th Streets. Why build a biotech building when crystals will heal everything?

When I defend evidence-based science, I feel like Dagney Tagart in "Atlas Shrugged". It may take the decline of our medical technology for some people to belatedly learn its value.

The term woo woo has been used in my industry (publishing/bookselling) for years to describe New Age stuff. Many laughs have been shared over what people will actually buy, but they keep buying it. I guess P.T. Barnum was right, and there is one born every minute. If the woos understood how some authors, and some publishers, are manupulating them, probably wouldn't matter.

I appreciate your point about the double standard used by woos -- skeptical about science -- gullible about anything mystical. Then they accuse skeptics of not being "open".

Another possibility is that "woo woo" is the sound of a train going around the bend.

I would call this woo

I like the theremin idea, but I always had a less charitable understanding of the origin of "woo woo". It seemed to me to be an imitation of the noise chimpanzees make when they see something that they don't understand.

By Big Nasty (not verified) on 01 Aug 2006 #permalink

I would be inclined to describe "woo" as belief in a thing, phenomenon or property not because of evidence, but because of a personal desire for said thing, phenomenon, or property to exist or be true.

Alas, this means that all religious beliefs get lumped in with "woo", but if you believe in things without evidence, you're liable to end up with unexpected company.

I'm also partial to the term "flake" for individuals who have "woo" beliefs (the beliefs themselves being "flakey"). This allows subdivision of flakes by their degree of flakiness, ranging from corn flakes to sugar-frosted flakes with sprinkles and marshallows.

Thanks for the correction and the link, Bronze Dog. A classic of the genre.

Then there are companies that even misuse their woo woo titles! I have in front of me a box of "Zicam" swabs clearly labeled as "Homeopathic" and yet, the actual concentration of the zinc contained is measurable and published at 33 mmol/l! This is not homeopathic! There is no hole in this gel the shape of zinc, it clearly contains zinc!

This is not a homeopathic product, I am outraged at the company for actually selling me something when I was clearly trying to pay them for nothing.

By planetaryGear (not verified) on 01 Aug 2006 #permalink

I don't really think of woo as being a particular belief or set of beliefs, or a type of argument or anything like that. I prefer to define woo as a reaction, not a belief. It is the reaction that alties and others have to good scientific evidence (although I'd consider "altie" to be a particular set of beliefs).

After all, we are all capable of coming to an erroneous conclusion on any given subject. The difference is that when most of us find or are given evidence which pretty solidly confirms that we were wrong, we look it over and change our conclusions. Our reaction to good solid evidence, in other words, is to consider it carefully and rationally and fit it into our worldview. The woo reaction, of course, varies in its precise wording, but usually involves at least one or two logical fallacies and non-sequiturs, some hand-waving (the image of which always enters my head when I read the word "woo"), and a rigid mainenance of their beliefs (plus some philosophical waxing on the nature of "indictment" and "conviction" if it's Trudeau). It is the specific reaction to evidence that I think of when I think of the word "woo," and that is why I agree with you that the term transcends the various sub-genres of ignorance.

Set in this light, it becomes far less of a Potter Stewart conundrum.

I first heard "woo woo" in 1982. My sister used it to describe our brother who, among other things:

-astrally projects himself
-lucidly dreams
-uses "energy" through his hands to "heal"
-when you call him he says "I KNEW it was you!" (this, before call waiting)and REALLY means it
-time travels

Oooooooooh yeah. I got your woo right here.

Lucid dreaming is "woo"? I was under the impression that lucid dreaming is when you recognize that you're dreaming, and are able to affect a change of course in the dream, due to that. I've woken myself up from nightmares before like that. Am I mistaken?

My (admittedly limited) understanding is that lucid dreaming is a perfectly natural neurological phenomenon. However, some alties think it has some deeper spiritual meaning and that ancient wisdom can be gained through it or some crap like that.

Thanks for the definition - I was wondering myself. While never having heard the term before, I can certainly say I've met plenty of woowoos in my life!

I like the way woo rhymes with poo.

I agree that 'woo woo' is a train noise, but it's a train warning of impending danger (going into a tunnel etc). Um. Insert spurious connection here?

I would be inclined to describe "woo" as belief in a thing, phenomenon or property not because of evidence, but because of a personal desire for said thing, phenomenon, or property to exist or be true.

I like that definition because it helps me address a question that I have asked myself since I first started reading about woo here a few months back. The question is "Do I have any woo beliefs?"

I've received chiropractic adjustments for over ten years. I find that after a treatment I feel a lot better for several weeks, but if I skip a month I get stiff and sore. (I know I could reduce the problems a lot with lifestyle changes like exercising and losing weight -- but so far it's been all good intentions and not much willpower...) Am I woo-ing to believe that it's helping? I think not -- ten years makes for a pretty big sample of evidence.

My mother-in-not-law stopped taking arthritis medication because after she discovered accupuncture the pain went away almost completely. Am I woo-ing to wonder if some forms of accupuncture -- which I always disparaged in the past -- might actually be effective? I think not -- because I don't really believe that it works, I just hope it helps her and I plan to watch and see what happens.

I wonder if there might be truth to the conspiracy theories about 9-11. Am I woo-ing? I think not -- I actually don't want them to be true. And truthfully, I don't know that it makes a big difference -- I will work to throw out our current government in any case.

Of course, the rationales above may just be more woo-ing. I'm certainly open to comments.

you wrote:
"uncritical acceptance of things "

Spare a thought for us medicos, who used to have the benefit of a clientelle who fitted this description. Now we have to explain the scientific basis for a medical deduction, differentiating it from your woo other-world, then translating it all into bi-syllabic language that the client can actually understand. it is approaching an in dependent art form.

"for which no good evidence exists"

Ah! But what would they know anyway?
Sorry, that should be , shoudn't it?

Remember whenever you would say something really trippy, and then hold up your hands and wiggle your fingers and say "Woooooooooooooooooo", in order to put an exclamation on the eerie magical twilight-zone acid-trip non-reality-based comment you just made? Like you're casting a spell?

That's what I think of.

I wonder if it perhaps springs from the sound the credulous make when confronted with something ludicrous that, still, strikes them with awe and amazement? "Yes, ladies and gentlemen, if you each send me only $100, this little boy will walk again!!!" "Wooooooooooo!"

I had always thought that "woo - woo" was used in polite company in place of "bullshit" or any other of a number of two - syllable terms that are less than flattering.

Thus: "That sounds like a load of woo - woo to me."

An amusingly childish way of obfuscating a perfectly acceptable word. Kind of appropriate really.