Woo, woo-woo, Oga Boga, POOF!ism, and my favourite Oogity Boogity! (Blessed be His name). Many people are deeply offended to have their most cherished beliefs classified this way. But should they?
Well, these terms represent not things but conclusions of causal effect by some mysterious yet apparently interactive agency that are unjustified. The cherished belief simply falls into this category if the claim for causal effect is made by the believer regardless of what the specific belief may be. The belief is wrong not because what it represents may or may not be true in whatever the specific case may be (god or gods, Lanza’s biocentrism, young or old earth creationism, life after death, conspiracy theories, alternative medicine, supernaturalism, metaphysics, caste system, astrology, and so on) but because the method of arriving at the conclusion (the epistemology) doesn’t work to accurately reflect reality in the general. Here’s why: the explanation is first imposed on reality and then is immune from being arbitrated by it for accuracy. That’s how woo works! Using the method of woo to explain anything is a guaranteed way of fooling ourselves into empowering some measure of confidence of that belief (as an interactive agency of some kind causing effect in the reality we share) where it is not justified (not arbitrated by reality), and so we confuse our beliefs imposed on reality to be an accurate reflection of it. This is woo in action, justifying all kinds of beliefs that deserve none.
Believing in woo matters because acting on the belief really does cause effect. It really does cause real harm to real people in real life all the time. But this evidence from reality doesn’t matter, you see: the belief is true and nothing from reality’s arbitration of it can make a dent in this assumption. Evidence from reality can then be relegated to some other reason… usually in the form of becoming some artificial outlier (in statistical parlance). And we see this in action all the time: those believers identified causing this harm by utilizing this method are some imaginary fringe group, a ‘few bad apples’, extremists, fundamentalists, and so on, keeping the method of belief that fuels acting to promote harm free from scrutiny by reality.
The is how woo works and why it is so seductive. The methodology – applying a belief that cannot be adjudicated by reality – produces a false confidence we call ‘faith’. And it empowers all kinds of pernicious effects in the world… everything from denying climate change to presuming evolution is scientifically controversial, from going along with cutting off a girl’s clitoris to a boy’s foreskin, from assigning different legal rights to women to denying legal rights to gays and lesbians, from refusing to inoculate children to subsidizing tax free housing allowances to US pastors. People spend billions of dollars buying into bullshit like Deepak Chopra’s consciousness-determines-reality as they do applying snake-oil remedies in place of evidence-based medicine. Public policies are affected by these beliefs in critical areas such as abortion and euthanasia where belief in a ‘slippery slope’ determines very real suffering for real people in real life. The list goes on and on and on and yet the common root – infusing unjustified confidence in faith-based beliefs – rarely is subjected to the withering criticism it so richly deserves.
Calling any kind of faith-based belief that people are willing to act on with the pejorative term ‘woo’ is a good place to start. More of us should be far more concerned with figuring out what constitutes justified beliefs than offending others who don’t. And if people don’t care about what’s true, then why on earth should we pretend that what they have to say about their faith-based beliefs is worth serious consideration? We already know that they have rejected reality’s role to act as an arbiter of the causal claims they make in its name and will dismiss as irrelevant even the most compelling contrary evidence with an intellectually deceitful wave of the metaphorical hand, because they know that far too many people are willing to concede that people’s faith-based beliefs should be respected out of politeness and personal consideration as if they were equivalently justified as beliefs arbitrated by reality. Perhaps that willingness to police our tone makes us part of the problem, and one that we as non believers of woo should consider.