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Boo to Woo
April 1, 2012 3:47 PM   Subscribe


 
Is this the link you want?
posted by Eyebeams at 3:51 PM on April 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Otherwise, it's like looking at the back of one's receding head in a barbershop mirror.
posted by y2karl at 3:55 PM on April 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oops. Hope me?
posted by latkes at 3:57 PM on April 1, 2012


Woo
posted by sammyo at 3:59 PM on April 1, 2012


[Fixed the link, carry on. ]
posted by restless_nomad at 4:00 PM on April 1, 2012


Thank you!
posted by latkes at 4:00 PM on April 1, 2012


Who are these people who are afraid to talk to scientists/skeptics because they are not nice enough?
posted by munchingzombie at 4:02 PM on April 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


I like that one of the entries under the "woo" tag is a link to this.
posted by RobotHero at 4:03 PM on April 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think the word "woo" is a useful shorthand. Especially in forums where the major focus is discussion of theories/practices that are not-science based, and persist in the face of overwhelming evidence.

Homeopathy is a good example of something I wouldn't hesitate to call "woo." The theory itself makes little sense and contradicts mountains of known evidence, and in practice it produces no discernible results. Ditto with any theory relying upon a life energy/force/field which remains hitherto undiscovered except by certain special people.
posted by PJLandis at 4:03 PM on April 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I really like this, though I worry that when I shop it around I'll find lots of people not actually reading the words on the page and dismissing it as an emotional appeal to "be less nasty" by hiding your skepticism. Which it isn't. It's an appeal to actually engage with people and explain why you are skeptical in the first place.

It also reminds me that I have a half-written essay on how people get confused between the process and the culture of science.
posted by Zarkonnen at 4:05 PM on April 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


I get you Zarkonnen. I just have never encountered the people mentioned.
posted by munchingzombie at 4:12 PM on April 1, 2012


It's an appeal to actually engage with people and explain why you are skeptical in the first place.

Is this really a problem we have though? I think "woo" is used, as PJLandis said, as a useful shorthand, and not in the presence of "woo"-believers or -practitioners. I think in a conversation with someone who believes in, say, astrology, I wouldn't have any desire to use the word. It wouldn't be useful.
posted by knave at 4:13 PM on April 1, 2012


From the first link:
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.
Which which very nice and all, but my experience has been that it is very difficult to reason someone out of a position which they did not reason themselves into in the first place.

Scientific literacy isn't just about actually knowing science; it's about knowing how to learn. About being able to say to yourself, "I seem to be confused. I don't understand this. Time to go away and do some research".

If someone is not willing to question their own beliefs, then they are unlikely to be able to admit that there may be alternate explanations.

Of course, we still have to try.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:13 PM on April 1, 2012 [6 favorites]


I feel the writer may be two issues here. One the one hand there are knowledge claims that try to look scientific but aren't anything such, such as some kinds of alternative medicine. On the other there are moral claims that never attempt to be scientific but often get rubbished with scientific arguments, such as some opposition to nuclear power or GM foods. The former deserve to criticized for their claims and made to show their proof. The latter needs all sides to recognize the line between science and morality. For example, the Greenpeace article linked to mentions "food sovereignty" and patents as an argument against GM food. Regardless whether you agree with it or not, science has relatively little to say there, and any labelling of such a campaign as "woo" really jeopardizes good faith.
posted by Jehan at 4:21 PM on April 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


Is this really a problem we have though? I think "woo" is used, as PJLandis said, as a useful shorthand, and not in the presence of "woo"-believers or -practitioners. I think in a conversation with someone who believes in, say, astrology, I wouldn't have any desire to use the word. It wouldn't be useful.

The problem is that we live in a relatively open society, now: "private" conversations that take place on open message boards and enthusiast blogs are conversations with true believers, whether we like it or not. The same problem bites believers who use ingroup language that outsiders find creepy.
posted by verb at 4:22 PM on April 1, 2012 [8 favorites]


Which which very nice and all, but my experience has been that it is very difficult to reason someone out of a position which they did not reason themselves into in the first place.

I think part of the point is that this kind of thinking makes a lot of assumptions about how and why someone got to their positions. A lot of anti-vaccinators would say that you "aren't willing to question your own beliefs". Without having a respectful conversation, there is no way to know why someone holds their beliefs or in what ways those beliefs are flexible.
posted by latkes at 4:23 PM on April 1, 2012 [8 favorites]


The problem is that we live in a relatively open society, now: "private" conversations that take place on open message boards and enthusiast blogs are conversations with true believers, whether we like it or not. The same problem bites believers who use ingroup language that outsiders find creepy.

And this is why I suspect that, at the bottom, this is a tone argument. That all groups have to, at all times, maintain a tone that is pleasant, welcoming, and non-challenging to those who may be newbies or who may disagree with the fundamental consensus of the group.

Which, sure, would be nice, but is also completely unrealistic. For ANY group.
posted by muddgirl at 4:29 PM on April 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


In my experience only, I've found it easy to talk to people about their beliefs, even the irrational ones, but difficult to convince someone to change beliefs that inform their worldview. But yeah, insulting people while conversing about such worldview-informing beliefs is probably something to be avoided. I didn't find the article in the FPP to be particularly well-written or enlightening.
posted by IvoShandor at 4:34 PM on April 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think part of the point is that this kind of thinking makes a lot of assumptions about how and why someone got to their positions.

Maybe so. But I can't see a way in which any rational person in posession of all the facts could reasonably come to the belief that vaccinations cause autism, or that the earth is flat, or that evolution is a myth.

Sometimes it feels to me that it doesn't matter how they came to that position; the position is self evidently wrong. If they were capable of understanding why their beliefs were wrong, then they wouldn't have those beliefs.

Perhaps it's not the best way to approach this kind of issue. But there's only so many times that you can say "but what about conclusive study 1-58, or the results of empirical test X - these strongly support my argument, and you have no evidence at all", and recieve the response "oh, well, I just feel the way I feel", or "but Jesus!", before you start to lose all hope.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:37 PM on April 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


I guess it's a tone argument, but the problem is that so many communication issues fall under "tone argument" that calling it one isn't very informative. I think this is part of why tone arguments are so often used to derail discussions. They're easy to come up with because there are lots, and they can all apply to any subject matter, so if you'd like to have an argument, tone arguments got your number.
posted by LogicalDash at 4:52 PM on April 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


Arguing with people generally isn't the best way to persuade them, no. The art you want to practice is rhetoric, not logic.
posted by LogicalDash at 4:54 PM on April 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


This is ridiculous. "Woo" refuses to listen to evidence. It relies on denying evidence. That's why it's denigrated, not because it goes against conventional wisdom. Going against conventional wisdom is the only way science gets advanced. But great claims -- that water has memory, that medically-accepted vaccines cause autism, that diseases are caused by the spine being out of alignment -- require great evidence. Discovery of the Higgs Boson or general relativity are great claims as well, but those are willing to stand up to scientific inquiry.
posted by supercres at 5:02 PM on April 1, 2012 [8 favorites]


Well, water certainly has memory below thirty-two degrees fahrenheit.
posted by LogicalDash at 5:05 PM on April 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


I guess it's a tone argument, but the problem is that so many communication issues fall under "tone argument" that calling it one isn't very informative.

I think that there's a difference between tone suggestions and tone arguments. A tone suggestion would have been "Don't call people woo if you're trying to convince them to listen to you." Which is (a) correct and (b) facile. A tone argument is "This is/isn't happening because your tone is wrong," which is rarely true when we are talking about the internet (although it may be true in f2f conversations). It pre-supposes that people have the specific goal of causing 'this' to happen or not happen. It also supposes that people are too stupid to realize that we have to use different language when we're talking with people that we disagree with vs. talking about them.

I honestly don't have much of a problem with this blog post - it's the author's personal opinion about some words. I just don't find it to be very convincing as to why I should stop using the word "woo" when I talk to other skeptics (which I rarely ever do, anyway - I think that, thankfully, the field of topics of interest to skeptics has grown beyond 'woo', such that the label is becoming less helpful).
posted by muddgirl at 5:09 PM on April 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


People who believe in woo are not necessarily unreasonable people in general. They may have become unreasonable about this particular topic for reasons you are not aware of. This is extremely common. Perhaps that speaks badly of the human capacity for rational thought, but, here we are, what now?

You don't know, before having the discussion, just how someone came by any particular belief. If you find the belief indefensible in a scientific context, your objective is to get your interlocutor to consider the belief in question in a scientific context. Attacking the belief in open debate is unlikely to work. Argument is divisive, which you may not intend as a way to other anybody, but that's the kind of risk you take when you argue. Perhaps there's a better way.

Therapists get people to solve their own life problems by just talking about them, and never mind if the problems don't refer to anything in the material world, keep talking until you're personally on a level with them. This works pretty well. If you consider woo to be a sort of mental illness, the therapist's approach makes much more sense than the theorist's.
posted by LogicalDash at 5:14 PM on April 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


the field of topics of interest to skeptics has grown beyond 'woo', such that the label is becoming less helpful

I agree. Stuff like homeopathy and anti-vax is so stereotypically "woo" that it's pointless to even label it that. Skeptics talking to skeptics can see woo a mile away, and ignore it, unless it's actively doing harm. I guess this post is just saying that skeptics talking with the gullible shouldn't use the word "woo", because it's not going to turn them from their gullibility. Sure, ok. But then, neither will well-reasoned arguments.
posted by supercres at 5:15 PM on April 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


"This is/isn't happening because your tone is wrong," which is rarely true when we are talking about the internet (although it may be true in f2f conversations). It pre-supposes that people have the specific goal of causing 'this' to happen or not happen.

No, there are lots of other reasons why tone might cause people to behave differently. Emotional triggers are an obvious example.
posted by LogicalDash at 5:18 PM on April 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


"Woo" refuses to listen to evidence.

Or considers things evidence that you might not.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:20 PM on April 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


"Woo" refuses to listen to evidence. It relies on denying evidence.

Part of what I find frustrating in this point of view is the denial about how much of what we all would consider scientific is also subject to this same problem. There are lots of aspects of medicine to which this applies (I can't speak to other areas of science, but have enough experience in health care to know about this problem in this field). Here are a few examples:

Cough medicine
Fetal heart monitoring
Physical therapy
Knee surgery
etc. These are just off the top of my head examples of areas of medicine where not only do we not know if they work - we actually know that they do NOT work, yet doctors keep recommending, prescribing, or using them.

We are all subject to faulty and illogical thinking. And even people we disagree with may have some valuable ideas, or some reasonable questions to ask about the beliefs we hold dear.
posted by latkes at 5:21 PM on April 1, 2012 [12 favorites]


"Which which very nice and all, but my experience has been that it is very difficult to reason someone out of a position which they did not reason themselves into in the first place."

"I think part of the point is that this kind of thinking makes a lot of assumptions about how and why someone got to their positions. A lot of anti-vaccinators would say that you "aren't willing to question your own beliefs". Without having a respectful conversation, there is no way to know why someone holds their beliefs or in what ways those beliefs are flexible."
This.

I hear a lot about how impossible it is to argue with anti-vaxxers, but haven't really experienced it. Even in Olympia, WA where I went to school, a dark heart of woo-dom. The trick is to actually know what the fuck you are talking about and not be a dick about it. If you have a decent idea of how vaccines work, you can explain that it is about as natural as a therapeutic modality can possibly be; vaccines can quite easily, and truthfully, be described using woo-esque language.

In terms of knowing what the fuck you are talking about, if you want to actually be convincing, learn how the human immune system works well enough to be able to describe it over some beers, it is incidentally amazingly cool. Really what I've found to be effective is the little things, like if you know where to find the mandatory declaration of the ingredients of all mandatory vaccines (PDF), you can just open a laptop and show it to anyone who still thinks that the ingredients list is proprietary. With that you can also conveniently show them that there is no thimerosal in any of them anymore.

In terms of not being a dick, I think it is most important to separate the 'what you are saying is dumb' conversation that you want to very carefully have from the 'you are dumb' conversation that only assholes have; ala Jay Smooth. Without a real knowledge of how vaccines work, why we use them, and why they both are and aren't dangerous, woo-based arguments are pretty convincing. Remember that, even most of the readers in this thread will have a turn of the last century level of understanding of immunology, and are thus ultimately relying on similar arguments from authority and hearsay to the ones woo followers do.

Really, 'skeptics' generally have bigger issues than the vocabulary we use.
posted by Blasdelb at 5:23 PM on April 1, 2012 [16 favorites]


No, there are lots of other reasons why tone might cause people to behave differently. Emotional triggers are an obvious example.

If I am in a Republican-consensus space online, IME tone will not make a big difference when it comes to my response to the website. Again, I'm only speaking of the internet, but either I am curious about the viewpoint or I'm not. And if I'm not curious, the tone isn't going to matter. If I am curious, I can probably see past the negative tones to the positive ones. And that has been my experience with people unfamiliar with skepticism coming into skeptical spaces. If they're not interested, no amount of non-judgmental, positive tones will help.
posted by muddgirl at 5:26 PM on April 1, 2012


(I meant to add that I do think the internet is unique in this sense, because the cost of changing spaces is relatively low, compared to physical spaces).
posted by muddgirl at 5:27 PM on April 1, 2012


what I said aboveTo expand on what I said above, it's far too easy to cherry pick your evidence. Take a discussion between a hypothetical alt-med guru and john q. skeptic. For every piece of "fact" presented by one side of discussion, the other side has their own "fact". You end up butting up against a wall and the discussion goes no where, no matter how reasoned and seemingly evidence-based. I run across Christians all the time who cite the Bible as evidence, same thing really.

Discussion and argument are useful sometimes but not with this topic. I just don't see it changing anyone's opinions very readily, a few maybe, but I don't think it's the use of the word "woo" or any other insulting terms that are at the heart of the communication gap between skeptics and true believers.
posted by IvoShandor at 5:34 PM on April 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


The use of "woo" strikes me less as an insult and more as an in-group signifier. It's a sort of code - using it establishes one as a good, trustworthy skeptic.
posted by jhandey at 6:00 PM on April 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Which, sure, would be nice, but is also completely unrealistic. For ANY group.

And yet every group -- atheists, feminists, Mormons, businesspeople, revolutionaries, politicians, lefties, righties, aspies, neurotypicals, Republicans, Greens, PETA volunteers, blondes, Brazilians, whatever -- is quick to point at The Other's use of prejudicial ingroup language as proof of condescension, perfidy, or evil intent.

"The Tone Argument" sucks because it conflates venting with dialogue. It says, "You don't have the right to say what you feel unless you process it through nine layers of softening so others don't think you'r angry." What we're talking about here is whether it's okay to use insulting or prejudicial language (and calling other peoples' beliefs 'Woo' is just that, no matter how justified we believe it is) when we're in what amounts to a public forum.

Curiously enough, this is where a lot of arguments about context in sexism come in. The fact that you, chatting at the bar with a group of like-minded friends, can [call homeopathy 'woo'|call heterosexuals 'breeders'|make jokes about menstruation|whatever] does not mean that it is a productive mode of communication n a mixed group. And for better or worse, our world is pushing the boundaries of what constitutes private, closed communication -- the likelihood that someone will in fact be party to your conversation goes up with every passing day.

I'm torn on this, too, but at the end of the day if a group is using insulting language about people privately and neutral language about them publicly, it's no surprise that those people dismiss the group as two-faced nad untrustworthy -- regardless of the merits of the group's claims.

If science matters, it's worth the effort. Isn't it?
posted by verb at 6:13 PM on April 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


The use of "woo" strikes me less as an insult and more as an in-group signifier. It's a sort of code - using it establishes one as a good, trustworthy skeptic.

Insulting members of the outgroup is an ingroup signifier.
posted by verb at 6:13 PM on April 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


This is ridiculous. "Woo" refuses to listen to evidence. It relies on denying evidence.

The problem is that the word "Woo" is a pejorative label with no connection to the definition you describe, and like any other pejorative label it ultimately becomes a team signifier rather than a useful descriptor. Remember way back in the day when Rush Limbaugh coined the term "Feminazi," and insisted after criticism that it only described a tiny number of people -- perhaps five or ten in the whole world, in his opinion -- who legitimately desired the number of abortions to increase because they hated babies?

Inevitably, the label quickly became a catch-all handle for anyone remotely involved in feminism or reproductive rights. That's how pejorative labels work: they're a cathartic insult rather than a way of conveying information. "Denialism" works just as well as a descriptor, and if you're serious about what you say "Woo" means, the meaning is the same. It's harsh, but informational rather than emotional.
posted by verb at 6:20 PM on April 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


For what its worth, I've heard the term woo used more by 'woo' identified folks than 'skeptic' identified folks.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:25 PM on April 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


And yet every group -- atheists, feminists, Mormons, businesspeople, revolutionaries, politicians, lefties, righties, aspies, neurotypicals, Republicans, Greens, PETA volunteers, blondes, Brazilians, whatever -- is quick to point at The Other's use of prejudicial ingroup language as proof of condescension, perfidy, or evil intent.
Please, give me one example of a blond doing that.
posted by delmoi at 6:28 PM on April 1, 2012


Please, give me one example of a blond doing that.

Damnit, you caught me.
posted by verb at 6:30 PM on April 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I teach general science for non-science majors, so this is the stuff I think about a lot. I work very hard to keep in mind what Carl Sagan said about pseudoscience and unfulfilled needs, and I try to never talk down to my students. I ended up teaching about complementary and alternative medicine a bit last week, because it had come up in a discussion. They were dumbfounded when I explained the main principles of homeopathy; even the ones who had taken homeopathic medication before and had started out friendly to "natural medicine" were disgusted. They're smart, rational, attention-paying people who simply have not been encouraged to look deeper into things yet.

Of course, one of the dangers of teaching people how to make up their own minds is that they might not agree with you in the end.

A couple of them really want to talk more about what pseudo-science is, exactly, and I'm thinking about doing a short bit on it after we finish climate change. Something to cleanse the palate of despair.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 6:33 PM on April 1, 2012 [11 favorites]


Yeah, anyway. Does it really matter? Do these groups hang out on eachother's websites? Part of the problem is that everyone just talks to themselves on their own message boards and blogs. Scientists talk to scientists, wooers talk to wooers.

The funny part is when people who've spent all this time talking with other people agree with them are suddenly exposed to people who disagree and are just totally shocked that people disagree with them. In their mind, their position is totally settled and the idea someone might disagree for a sincere reason just blows their mind.

I do sometimes think Atheists go 'overboard' in attacking religious people. And of course, most monotheistic religions are premised on the foundational idea that atheists are wrong and going to hell, or whatever. So it's not like there's no reciprocity.

The other problem I sometimes see is people who think they're on the side of 'science' when really they're being just as obnoxious as the woo-licious. Micheal Chrightion style global warming 'skeptics' believe people who oppose global warming were anti-scientific when in fact they were the ones who opposed science.

The nuclear debate is similar. Pro-nuke advocates tend to dismiss any concern about radiation as being based on superstition, and that the obvious 'scientific' thing to do is to build a shitload of nuclear power plants.
posted by delmoi at 6:36 PM on April 1, 2012


Calling someone out for using racist terminology to describe an idea that really isn't racist at all is a tone argument, and it's the right thing to do. Sometimes militant atheists appropriate the vocabulary of Islamophobes. They should not. I guess the author believes "woo" to be in the same category as using "towel" to refer to turbans.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:58 PM on April 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sometimes militant atheists appropriate the vocabulary of Islamophobes.

Militant? Did I miss a rash of atheist terrorist attacks and assassinations?
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:05 PM on April 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, conflating the common use of "militant atheist" to refer to those who seek to spread their nonbelief with the use of actual military force is a perfect example of when it's appropriate to use a tone argument. Cut it out.
posted by LogicalDash at 7:07 PM on April 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


Is 'woo' a term used about people, or is it a term used about ideas? I suppose a few skeptics have used it in the former sense but my impression is that 99% of the time it is used for the latter.

So no, I don't think derogatory labels used towards other minority groups is a fair comparison.
posted by muddgirl at 7:09 PM on April 1, 2012


Hey, Made of Star Stuff...I think a good reference for students to learn about psuedo-science would be Michael Shermer's "Why People Believe Weird Things." Shermer is definitely in the Skeptical camp, and I imagine a profligate user of the word "woo," but I think even a strong believer in "woo" would find his exploration of the difference between science and psuedo-science is and why people come to beleive and defend ideas in the face of all evidence to the contrary worthwhile.
posted by PJLandis at 7:10 PM on April 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I guess the author believes "woo" to be in the same category as using "towel" to refer to turbans.

But I just don't see a lot of usage of something like 'woohead'. Again, it's possible it's out there (I recognize that there is a spectrum of skeptics, including what some call 'militant skeptics', theist skeptics, moderate skeptics, friendly skeptics, etc. etc. etc.), but I don't think that it is prominent.
posted by muddgirl at 7:13 PM on April 1, 2012


I also recommend Shermer's book to anyone else, it's a fun read I thought. An anecdote about Shermer's experience being abducted by aliens was a highlight for me at least.
posted by PJLandis at 7:13 PM on April 1, 2012


Yeah, conflating the common use of "militant atheist" to refer to those who seek to spread their nonbelief with the use of actual military force is a perfect example of when it's appropriate to use a tone argument. Cut it out.

Sorry, I was kidding. I should have included a /hamburger tag.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:14 PM on April 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am in full support of wholesale dismissal of the scientifically illiterate on scientific issues. They should simply be ignored, they put forth nothing of value. Debating them, engaging them at all, gives validity to their ludicrous views.
posted by karmiolz at 8:12 PM on April 1, 2012


There are a number of us on the left who are done with skeptics as a scene because it's so obviously polluted with libertarian assholes.
posted by mobunited at 8:13 PM on April 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


It seems like there has been collusion between the far right and left. The left hates establishment and thus becomes a skeptic of higher professionals who have been through the nefarious "system." The right extols the virtue of the common man and has waged open war on anyone elite. With their powers combined, they are crippling ignorance on a vast array of issues!
posted by karmiolz at 8:18 PM on April 1, 2012


I am in full support of wholesale dismissal of the scientifically illiterate on scientific issues. They should simply be ignored, they put forth nothing of value. Debating them, engaging them at all, gives validity to their ludicrous views.

I find this view extremely attractive. I generally have a 'cut idiots out of my life' policy.

But you can't just dismiss the scientifically illiterate. They vote, and they have power, and there's a lot of them. If you let them run rampant, they will screw everything up and make life worse for everyone, including you. The best way forward is to change their minds. And the only way to do that is to engage.

Nobody's mind ever got changed by some elitist smarty pants screaming "YOU ARE WRONG YOU STUPID POO FACE LISTEN TO ME BECAUSE I AM SMART AND YOU ARE DUMB" at them. It doesn't matter if it's true.

So tone is important after all.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:05 PM on April 1, 2012


The problem is any tactic you use to change their minds will be disingenuous. You cannot educate an adult that questions evolution, and convincing them that they should just trust you because you actually know what you are talking about isn't going work either.
posted by karmiolz at 9:48 PM on April 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


If we stop using the word "woo," we can simply replace it with "bunk" or "mumbo-jumbo," etc. Or is "woo" such a powerful weapon that "bunk" just doesn't include enough subtle ridicule?

On the other hand, if the term "woo" is avoided, what can we use as a religious/racial slur? In the list of derogatory group-labels, I see no obvious replacement for "The Woo-woos."
posted by billb at 9:50 PM on April 1, 2012


You cannot educate an adult that questions evolution.

You can't talk to a sinner, either, because they will never, ever listen to the truth -- they are too invested in protecting themselves from the reality of their own sinfulness.

I spent most of my life as a hardcore conservative Christian. I railed against the deception of the Evolution Conspiracy, and the perfidy of the secular-humanist educational elite. Over time I came to the conclusion that I was wrong -- that the way I saw the world was a house of cards and that I had painted myself into an philosophical corner. I have quite a few friends with similar stories.

I really do believe that it's okay to say, "I don't have the patience for conversations like this," and walk away from the discussion. There's nothing wrong with that and people should be okay with it, just like people are okay with walking away from 24-hour Firefly marathons and competitive eating contests. Not everyone is a teacher! If you don't have the patience of interest in communicating with people who have different beliefs, though, just own that -- don't pretend that it's based on some sort of objective analysis of the learning capabilities of that particular people-group.

I'm glad that the more reality-based people I knew still treated me like a person worth dialoguing with, rather than some sort of mental reject, before I changed my tune. Otherwise, it would've been much much easier to continue lapping up the shit about "secular atheists using bad evolutionary science to mock believers" and never learn anything about the actual science.

If someone simply doesn't believe in the scientific method, or they've abandoned any belief in objective observable reality, yeah-- there's not much basis for a conversation about science or scientific principles. Solipsists are tough nuts to crack.
posted by verb at 10:05 PM on April 1, 2012 [14 favorites]


verb I rather enjoy teaching. I am simply not willing to teach adults concepts like humility, patience, and the value of objective reality. I will discuss evidence certainly, it's just that in the public sphere we should not even pretend it is a serious conflict. Interactions on a personal level differ from having a PhD biologist debate some bored housewife on the news.
posted by karmiolz at 10:15 PM on April 1, 2012


I live in Asheville, North Carolina. I am a skeptic and big fan of science. I think I might go insane one day, living here.
posted by lazaruslong at 10:21 PM on April 1, 2012


We went through this long war with the Solipsists on the last thread. So much of what needs to be said isn't about converting the other side, but just making it known (impolitely if necessary) that our side exists. Much sympathy to you lazarus.
posted by Chekhovian at 10:29 PM on April 1, 2012


lazaruslong I'm toasting to your bravery buddy.
posted by karmiolz at 10:33 PM on April 1, 2012


verb I rather enjoy teaching. I am simply not willing to teach adults concepts like humility, patience, and the value of objective reality. I will discuss evidence certainly, it's just that in the public sphere we should not even pretend it is a serious conflict. Interactions on a personal level differ from having a PhD biologist debate some bored housewife on the news.

Well, yeah. Unfortunately, simply "refusing to pretend it's a serious conflict" works both ways -- the world divides into camps. Everyone on one side knows that the other side is clearly composed of self-deluded know-nothings who don't listen to reason. Cross over the wall, and everyone agrees that it's glaringly obvious that the other side is just a bunch of pseudo-intellectual circle-jerkers.

Whenever someone wanders (or stumbles) across the wall, matter and antimatter mix with predictable results.

For better or worse, the role of science in public life is up for debate today. Whether we like it or not, simply presupposing victory and refusing to show up for the discussion doesn't work if the opponent is determined enough. Simply insulting anyone stupid enough to believe the opponent's arguments doesn't work well, either. What's being debated, ultimately, isn't evolution or global warming or homeopathy. We're not educating people about humility and patience, either -- we're educating them about how to assess competing claims.

It's frustrating, but that's why I think it's not for everyone. I know I'm not often up to it. But it is important, and it's important in the public sphere just as much as the private.
posted by verb at 11:01 PM on April 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


Was there any actual content in that post or did I miss the bit where he does something other than whine about scientists occasionally being dismissive of anti-scientific stupidity?
posted by Decani at 11:19 PM on April 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Whoops. Apparently I mean "she". Curse my sexist assumption.
posted by Decani at 11:20 PM on April 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


For what its worth, I've heard the term woo used more by 'woo' identified folks than 'skeptic' identified folks.

Me too, although I hear "woo-woo" more often than just simply "woo". I've definitely seen some Craigslist ads that specify that houses are "woo-friendly"--which in my experience means they have a house altar and sometimes hosts Neopagan events and not that you are required to believe in homeopathy and can ask no questions about it.
posted by overglow at 11:24 PM on April 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Verb The arguments against science have mostly taken on the armor of religion, namely faith. These are not winnable debates, assessing competing claims requires agreed upon guidelines. This is impossible once objective reality has been replaced by dogma, no matter the name-tag it's wearing. Insulting them will make them feel martyred, conspiracy theorists love this as much as any Catholic, I do not suggest it. Also, do not become an armed camp which presupposes victory, understand that there is no real conflict. It's not chess to checkers, it's chess to potato.
posted by karmiolz at 11:25 PM on April 1, 2012


These are not winnable debates, assessing competing claims requires agreed upon guidelines. This is impossible

Speaking truth to power is never futile, no matter the outcome.
posted by Chekhovian at 11:38 PM on April 1, 2012


Chekhovian Speaking truth to power just makes it appear as if there is a debate on these topics. It invents and legitimizes a controversy when there isn't one.
posted by karmiolz at 11:46 PM on April 1, 2012


I have a long history with science - being raised by a physical chemist and discussing science casually over the dinner table for years. I'm also religious and a mystic, and have been dismissed because of it by innumerable people (including one saying I was too "intelligent" to be religious, and another saying his opinion of my intelligence was affected simply because I was religious). I'm all for critical thinking, but in my experience critical thinking is more critical kneejerk dismissal of everything the critic doesn't believe in on the basis of it not being "scientific" (even when the topic is, say, religion and thus NOT scientific).

Watching the recent response of the skeptic and atheist communities to respond to Skepchick's statement that propositioning a woman at 4am in an elevator is creepy was a really rude awakening for me in terms of how much I wanted to engage with a skeptic community, even after the hostility and dismissal I've received on religious grounds. One of the problems with assuming one is right because one is scientific (besides the fact that that isn't even a valid line of thinking within science, given it's basis is anything could possibly be disputed) is a calcification of opinion that leaves few openings for alternative perspectives, as they are dismissed outright - including such shocking and apparently unwanted things as feminism.

Science is a tool. Skepticism is a tool. Both can make you a tool if you act like they're the only tools you should have.
posted by Deoridhe at 1:34 AM on April 2, 2012 [9 favorites]


Militant? Did I miss a rash of atheist terrorist attacks and assassinations?
No, you missed the common use of the word 'militant' to refer to people who do not do those things.
posted by delmoi at 2:53 AM on April 2, 2012


just makes it appear as if there is a debate on these topics. It invents and legitimizes a controversy when there isn't one.

Yes yes, even having the debate generates a false equivalence, unfairly giving the other the illusion that their points are potentially just as valid because all modern journalists are fucking incompetent these days and can't manage to do anything but push for the appearance of "fairness".

But it doesn't seem to work. This represents a kind of neglect, which when watered with unconcern grows into something larger. It was pretty much the narrative of Obama's first two years after all right? "I shouldn't intervene in this issue, it will just give credence to my enemies, and there's no way any could be so stupid as to believe the claims they're making, right?". Maybe a better name is the John Kerry strategy.
posted by Chekhovian at 3:01 AM on April 2, 2012


There needs to be a debate, but not of science vs. religion. The debate needs to be about what contexts may be considered acceptable for debate over political issues.
posted by LogicalDash at 3:53 AM on April 2, 2012


At least for me, the argument (when discussing something like vaccines or evolution, not generally feminism, which falls outside the scope of this type of argument unless someone is making specific claims about biological differences) is not "I am right because my argument is scientific," it is instead "This is the best information I know of on which to base decisions. It might not be entirely right, but it has a better chance of being right, and of being more right, than something for which there is no evidence." Unfortunately, if you present it like that, it seems like a really weak argument when put up against someone saying "no, vaccines kill children!" and presenting five anecdotal cases.
posted by Nothing at 4:25 AM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


And as a side not, I also see "woo" used more as a self-identifier in the new age community than as a pejorative in the skeptical community, but I have less experience with the skeptical community.
posted by Nothing at 4:27 AM on April 2, 2012


I am in full support of wholesale dismissal of the scientifically illiterate on scientific issues. They should simply be ignored, they put forth nothing of value. Debating them, engaging them at all, gives validity to their ludicrous views.
posted by karmiolz


Aren't you posting in another thread saying that there is no scientific evidence for climate change?
posted by futz at 7:15 AM on April 2, 2012


Damn, I was really hoping this would be a discussion of people who hate Zack Ryder, and we'd get to talk about last night's Wrestlemania.

(Seriously, what the fuck was that Seamus / Daniel Bryan match? Way to turn what could have been a highlight of the evening into a bullshit squash job...)
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 7:21 AM on April 2, 2012


As an aside on vaccination, dismissing anti-vaccination folks as purely superstitious isn't constructive and in fact, kind of dumb because pro-vaccination positions are not simply "scientific" but moral.

Vaccines contribute to herd immunity and represent a non-trivial commitment to social good because they are medical procedures associated with pain and hassle, to prevent diseases that appear because of a collective failure of commitment. It is not that we ask parents to subject their kids to an infinitesimal risk for just their own good, but for the good of a community.

Despite the individual risks being very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very low, even a one in a million chance seems like a stupid chance to take for a parent who may rely on existing immunities and free ride their kids on the already-vaccinated. The fact that if we collectively decided to drop vaccination the diseases would come back is of little consequence when we fail to frame vaccination as a social responsibility. When we are not even comfortable talking in this fashion because we'll be seen as communist scumbags, we lose the ability to even frame the issue in a persuasive fashion, and there's no reason for parents not to take the most rational, selfish, short term option, which is to not vaccinate and let everyone else's kids carry the burden.

The main thing to note, however, is that this doesn't require an iota of fetishistic scientism to talk about. In fact, fetishistic scientism is part of the problem. Anti-vaccination types generally don't believe in magical explanations. They simply distrust the social practice of science and consequently, the consensus view, and direct their scientism at quacks. The consensus view just happens to be *right* but that doesn't make a difference. Some further persuasion is required.

Angrily answering that the social practice of science is beyond reproach and that anyone who thinks otherwise should shut the fuck up is a terrible position, particularly when people can so easily point to climate change and other ecological catastrophes as reasons not to simply trust that scientists and engineers will always make the right decisions.
posted by mobunited at 8:19 AM on April 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


As a different aside on Luddites: I agree with the linked article, the term is used to unfairly denigrate people who have legitimate socioeconomic concerns with various technologies. It's frustrating to talk to someone who thinks "Luddite!" is a useful counter-argument.
posted by ead at 9:03 AM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


:)
posted by prentenr at 10:27 AM on April 2, 2012


There is an inherent legitimacy in knowledge itself. Whatever you want to call it, "Woo" or otherwise. Knowledge remains exclusive of a practical scientific enterprise. The mode of Science can at best conform to, or suppress, the social and historical configuration of knowledge within individuals. But the application of this "woo" label does nothing in this regard, in fact it is cut from the same cloth as the rabid cultural and historical expressions that virtuous Science seeks to inform and uplift.
posted by kuatto at 10:39 AM on April 2, 2012


"This is the best information I know of on which to base decisions. It might not be entirely right, but it has a better chance of being right, and of being more right, than something for which there is no evidence." Unfortunately, if you present it like that, it seems like a really weak argument when put up against someone saying "no, vaccines kill children!" and presenting five anecdotal cases.

In my opinion, that is a feature, not a bug. Science is supposed to be measured, incremental, and not overstate. It's supposed to be based on widely observed and repeatable evidence which people can verify independently. It's supposed to invite curiosity and exploration. I'm dismayed by the number of people who dismiss entire swaths of humanity because the dismissers hold the dismissed's intelligence in contempt.
posted by Deoridhe at 1:18 PM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm dismayed by the number of people who dismiss entire swaths of humanity because the dismissers hold the dismissed's intelligence in contempt.

I just don't think that, even in skeptical and atheist circles, lots and lots of people 'hold the dismissed's intelligence in contempt.' Maybe I just self-select away from contemptuous forums, but in 99% of spaces that I inhabit as a skeptic, the mechanics of belief beyond or parallel to reason are very well understood and even sympathised with (many of us are former believers in 'woo' - I used to be a whole-hearted believer in UFOs). Rather, we hold contempt for the people who are actively profiting off those mechanisms of beliefs. Very, very few skeptics seem contemptuous of, say, those who believed that the world would end in May or October 2011, but to be sure we were extremely contemptuous of Harld Camping, who made millions of dollars by preaching about the end times and asking for donations of people's entire net worth.
posted by muddgirl at 1:40 PM on April 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Very, very few skeptics seem contemptuous of, say, those who believed that the world would end in May or October 2011

Um, were you around for this thread?

Here are some quotes from it:

it's pretty obvious after this stunt that they'll fall for just about anything you tell them if you can come up with some half-assed biblical interpretation to back it up.

The way the Christian Right has marginalized non-believers in much of the US and Canada, I'm happy to smugly laugh at the misfortune of a few fucking idiots who would joyfully count themselves part of that demographic, and tough shit if you don't like it.

When I hear someone calling Camping's followers victims, it just really rubs me the wrong way... those people are victimizers, not victims.

Who the hell do you think you are to tell me what to think of a bunch of assholes that just yesterday were wetting their panties at the thought of people like me or my three year old daughter suffering horribly while they were going to be picked up to go meet their dear moon god in heaven.

Sounds pretty contemptuous to me.
posted by overglow at 8:57 PM on April 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wait a minute - so being Anti-GM is considered as being anti-science?
posted by mary8nne at 5:23 AM on April 3, 2012


Wait a minute - so being Anti-GM is considered as being anti-science?

The danger of a universal "Just mock 'anti-science' people and they'll go away" policy is that it quickly expands. Anyone who expresses concerns that the speaker considers unmerited becomes "anti-science," and honest engagement is framed as unacceptable capitulation.
posted by verb at 6:10 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


The danger of a universal "Just mock 'anti-science' people and they'll go away" policy is that it quickly expands. Anyone who expresses concerns that the speaker considers unmerited becomes "anti-science," and honest engagement is framed as unacceptable capitulation.

I feel this strongly, thanks for saying it. There's a lot of this around medicine where questioning a doctor can be considered 'woo' even though of course one doctor can easily disagree with the next and there's plenty in medicine that is not evidence-based.
posted by latkes at 7:08 AM on April 3, 2012


Um, were you around for this thread?

Some skeptics are assholes, but that does not mean that all assholes are members of the Skeptic community, or that all people who express skepticism about one topic are Skeptics.

But I admitted in my comment that there are probably assholes in the Skeptic community, and that I probably just avoid associating with them.
posted by muddgirl at 7:20 AM on April 3, 2012


That's kind of a No True Scotsman response, though, isn't it?
posted by verb at 8:35 AM on April 3, 2012


Yeah, being Anti-GM is being anti-science. Or at least, it does seem to me to be true that most scientists are suitably cautious about GM foods, and want to have regulations and practices that carefully introduce each new product only after rigorous testing, but also generally think there's nothing inherently dangerous about genetically modifying plants and animals and other organisms. Rather, GM foods are probably our best hope for feeding the increasing human population, not to mention their potential for producing new, more stable, hypoallergenic vaccines. We could even use them as pharmaceutical manufactories.

Geneticists are cavalier about transgenic organisms because they know that gene transfer happens all the time. Maybe the biggest thing to be concerned about is the possibility of new allergens being introduced into food, but that's not something we don't already deal with, or the possibility of plant-generated pesticides killing beneficial species, which is again, already a problem with non-GM pesticides.

(Note my lack of source for these claims. However, if it helps at all, PBS's Harvest of Fear is a resource I used in my class to talk about GM foods.)
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 10:22 AM on April 4, 2012


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