Watch out for Woo words
There are specific words that should trigger your bullshit alarm whenever you hear them. I’d recommend that you build up and keep your own list, but to ensure that you get the idea I’ll start you off with an initial list and take you through a few examples.
“energy” – This is a word that is normally used to describe measurable well understood physical things such as sound, light, heat and electricity. Usage beyond that is an abuse of the word. Terms such as negative energy, chi energy, aura, psi or just a plain old energy-field do not describe anything real or measurable and have no meaning. Such usage is most commonly found within the context of the paranormal or alternative medicine, and when detected should set your bullshit meter buzzing, so keep an eye out for this one.
“quantum” – Unless you happen to be engaged in a conversation with a theoretical physicist, then hearing this associated with some product or wild claim should put you on an immediate alert. Its usage outside its normal habitat is reason enough to be extremely wary. Its very popular; Google it and you get over 44 million hits including “quantum health”, “quantum-Touch Energy healing”, “Quantum Consciousness”, “quantum business school”, etc… It might sound impressive, but when used like this, it usually relates to some form of woo that you should consider being wary of.
“natural” – Now this one has been rattling about for a few decades; but what does it actually mean? As a bit of marketing hype it sounds great. The thought of selecting a natural offering in contrast to a chemically saturated substitute would lead you to think that the “natural” choice is a superior healthier offering. However, before you make that assumption, consider this. Substances that are “natural” include mercury, arsenic, plague, MRSA, the flu virus and many other similar quite deadly alternatives. On the other hand, engineered compounds have been designed to be effective, safe, and have been clinically tested to prove that they will do no harm. In other words, a “natural” branding is just marketing hype. While it might imply a healthier option, it does not in any way state that it is.
“Organic” – Very much in vogue and marketed as a superior, more expensive, and far healthier alternative. Why? The nutritional value within a plant is determined by its genetic structure. Plants gain what they need from the soil and any fertilizer given. If what it needs is missing, it does not grow. Using natural manure or an artificial fertilizer makes no difference, it grows just the same with perhaps slight variances in its mineral content. Pesticide residue is harmless and is not a health risk. Organic is not safer or more nutritious, its just more expensive, that’s all.
“Consumers may choose to buy organic fruit, vegetables and meat because they believe them to be more nutritious than other food. However, the balance of current scientific evidence does not support this view” – UK Food Standards Agency –
The link to that is here – http://www.food.gov.uk/foodindustry/farmingfood/organicfood/
The are lots more words that can be added to this list. The above are just a few examples to get you going, so all you need to do is to extend it by adding your own additions, and over time it will build up into a quite comprehensive filter. Here are a few more suggestions. Be wary of “Western Medicine” being used as a derogatory term and also the phrase “Alternative Medicine” should set alarm bells ringing in your mind. As observed by Tim Minchin in his wonderful “Storm”, the correct term for “Alternative Medicine” that actually works is “Medicine”.
How about “detoxify”, “crystal healing” and “vibrations”. Sigh! yes sadly it just goes on and on, its a truly endless list. Over time the actual buzz words may change, but the underlying intent of befuddling you with meaningless sound bites remains the same, so be wary.
“Develop a built-in bullshit detector.” – Ernest Hemingway
Update – 27 Mar
There has been some interesting discussion on this over in the skeptic reddit forum along with a couple of interesting suggestions.
Here are a couple:
- [intisun] – “Science proves that” followed by a wacko claim
- [Sly_r] – “clinically proven”, “wellness”, “holistic”
- [kyle_90] – Anything that uses “power”, “force”, and “energy” interchangeably is always bullshit.
Daemonax, Timefabric and Xyenon brought up the topic of post-modernism babble:
- The post-modernism generator is a great example of this. Also the Sokal affair if you’ve not heard of it.
- This was one of my favorite parts of A Devil’s Chaplain.
Organic proved to be rather debatable
- Some felt that it should not be a red flag because it is an effort to improve modern agriculture and can be contrasted with existing farming practices, which pollute groundwater with toxic run-of
- Others felt that the word has been abused and misused just like ‘energy’ or ‘quantum’, so it may indeed be appropriate
- Does organic taste better? The suggestion was to try a double blind test with a few friends and find out
However, the big win I think is the addition of the word “toxins” (from YummyMeatballs). Yes indeed, its a favorite for alternative medicine (the stuff that has not been proven to work) where we have all sorts of weird potions, diets or devices that will apparently purge these from your system without ever telling you what these toxins actually are or offering any real evidence at all.