Saturday, 13 January 2018

Merchants of Woo

Back in the day, woo was a verb. Young men would woo/court a young woman with a view to marriage. There were also business applications: trying to woo a patron of some sort.

Sadly, the skeptics* have subverted 'woo'. It's now mostly a derogatory noun or adjective, selectively applied of course:
Woo, also called woo-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. [links in original]
This definition is consistent with a recent conversation I had with a prominent science communicator, so let's run with it. There are two interesting things in the definition:
  1. it refers to "explanations" that are "often...to good to be true"; and
  2. unscientific concepts are involved.
In practice, skeptics* call woo on people who share or trade natural remedies or health tips, or commit other crimes against the status-quo. Woo is a slur for punching down on curious people who doubt the dominant paradigm.

This usage is profoundly unscientific. It lacks two hallmarks of good science and scientific thinking: Doubt/curiosity and transparency.

Doubt and Curiosity
Doubt and curiosity are central to science. As the great physicist Richard Feynman said
it is imperative in science to doubt; it is absolutely necessary, for progress in science, to have uncertainty as a fundamental part of your inner nature.  To make progress in understanding we must remain modest and allow that we do not know.  Nothing is certain or proved beyond all doubt.  You investigate for curiosity, because it is unknown, not because you know the answer.  And as you develop more information in the sciences, it is not that you are finding out the truth, but that you are finding out that this or that is more or less likely.
Notice how Feynman links doubt and curiosity as co-motives: one begets the other in Feynman's view of a scientist. He's pointing to a form of duality between doubt and curiosity.

Here's my hypothesis: doubt and curiosity are rampant among people working on alternatives to the status quo in many areas (including health/remedies, and more sustainable forms of agriculture, energy, transport etc) but people favouring the status quo are not curious about alternatives.

In agriculture/food/health/energy, seriously questioning the dominant paradigms (doubt) tends to makes people curious about alternatives. But don't expect much curiosity from skeptics* if you say that olive leaf extract was effective against your shingles, or that celery seeds broke up your brother's kidney stones or that you grew a crop without pesticides. More likely, you'll hear: "Woo, woo this is all woo."

Woo throwers these days are incurious doubters: semi-scientists at best.

Transparency
As defined above, the woo word is used when an "explanation" is not reasonable, placing an obvious focus on transparent disclosure of the explanation/reasons for any claim.

Siouxsie Wiles strongly supported transparent disclosure as a basic scientific principle yesterday and was rightly lauded by the scientific community for doing so, including by a gmo developer. In Siouxsie's motivating example, scientists rigged a report to get extra research money. If scientists would do that, what would ruthless business-people do?

Gosh I don't know, but we don't get much transparent information on pesticides, do we? Nor on publicly funded gmo research.

Conclusion
If lack of transparent disclosure for your claim is enough to be woo, then the few big pesticide/seed companies look like woo merchants to me.

1 comment:

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