Dear FSM, I Am a Skeptic Living in a House of Woo

Just so you know, I do love the new roomies, and the house is awesome, and most of the people I’ve met have been quite interesting. There are even many science-oriented ones! But there is also so much woo, I am not even kidding. I mean, we’re living atop a shaman, what could you expect?

Image is Buzz Lightyear with his hand on Woody's shoulder and the other hand reaching out as if showing the world. Woody looks appalled. Caption says, "Woo. Woo everywhere."

It’s quite awkward, being the resident skeptic. It’s never comfortable, having someone come up eagerly telling you about quantum this or energy that, and ooo you should totes look up this one dude who’s revolutionizing science. Several years ago, I would’ve been in a sort of ecstasy. I mean, I loved quantum and energy and revolutionary stuff. Then I fell in with the skeptics, and, as I told S, I can’t believe anymore. I mean, pretty much every bit of woo has been so shot full of holes, there’s nothing left for me to believe in. All of the advocates of quantum and energy and revolution have either been exposed as cons, frauds, or people whose experiments, statistics and suchlike are so full of problems that they’re worthless. I do mean, all. Every single woo-meister I’ve ever encountered has been either inadvertently or deliberately peddling bullshit. Even the ones who sound scientific on the surface get found out and shown up. I cannae take any more, Captain!

So far, in the last week or so, I’ve had someone press Rupert Sheldrake upon me as a man remaking the foundations of science. And I had no idea who they were talking about, until they mentioned how Rupert had revealed problems with the speed of light, and I was all like, “Oh, that guy.” Sorry, dear new friend, but he hits far too many alarms on the quack-o-meter: boasting about how settled science is wrong without producing convincing evidence, complaining about some measurement that’s well within the margin of error, screaming persecution and censorship when people don’t accept his ideas…. yeah. Not wasting my time until I’m presented with a paper of his published in a reputable peer-reviewed journal, thanks.

Astoundingly, such a paper has not yet materialized.

Image shows a mightly amused Xzibit (hip-hop artist Alvin Nathaniel Joiner). Caption says, "Who else saw this coming?"

Not long after, we were sitting round the firepit with a delightful bunch of young people. One of them turned out to be a global warming denier, but he got piled on by everybody else, so that was sweet. Another wants to get a degree in neuroscience and combine it with energy work, because he believes energy fields are real. I’m all for the neuroscience degree, and he plans to go to a reputable university, so I figure a robust science curriculum will steer him gently away from the shoals of woo. I just kind of smiled and nodded and wished him well. Then he told me I should look up the work of Al Seckel, who’d done some really extraordinary work on optical illusions. I’d never heard of Seckel before that. Damned if it wasn’t the very next day that dude gets exposed as a fraud, too.

Image shows a brown puppy with floppy ears and a mouth that looks like it's pursed in disapproval. Caption says, "Well... I guess I'm not surprised."

This, darlings, is why I can’t just shut my mouth and nod along as people spout their favorite woo at me. And I realized, sometime after, that I don’t have to feel bad about it. Sure, it may make people feel upset, having someone deflate their every theory and hero. But you know what? I get pretty uncomfortable having this crap thrown at me as if it’s all wonderful and good and not at all a problem. People are thrusting their beliefs upon me left and right. I get to thrust right back. And so far, everyone’s been pretty accepting of it, anyway, letting me have my say and sometimes debating in a friendly way without taking it personally. Which rocks.

And if they do manage to come up with some convincing evidence that’s passed scientific muster, well, that will be an awesome day. It’s just that I ain’t gonna be holding my breath, waiting. There was a time I really really wanted this stuff to be true. I wanted the universe to be more astounding than we’d ever imagined, full of supernatural awesomeness. I thought a universe without magic and sacred energies and mystical quantum stuff would be bor-ring. But then I got over the initial disappointment when I realized none of this stuff was ever proved, and then I started digging deeper into science, and let me just say that the natural universe is more than intriguing enough. Why, just this week, I’m going to show you an example of how everything we thought we knew about something is probably wrong, and how discovering that opens up whole new lines of inquiries that tell riveting stories of the ways the world works, complete with strong evidence backing it all up. It’s a beautiful example of the difference between real science and woo. And it’s part of the reason why woo doesn’t fascinate me anymore, aside from the how do people get sucked in by that? question, and the entertainment value of watching fraudsters get exposed. Reality is a lot more fun!

I’ll settle into my role as resident skeptic here. In fact, I believe we shall all enjoy it. And those who don’t will quickly learn to keep the woo to a minimum around the skeptical person, which will do wonders to balance our energies and harmonize our quantums – or something like that.

Dear FSM, I Am a Skeptic Living in a House of Woo
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12 thoughts on “Dear FSM, I Am a Skeptic Living in a House of Woo

  1. 1

    I feel your pain. As you can imagine, I hear all kinds of nonsense in my classroom. I sometimes wish that I could respond like this. I’m not sure if it has been posted here before, but I though of it right away. I’d like to show it to my students, but for obvious reasons I can’t.
    I’m pretty sure that the sexism is intended as satirical, but it is definitely NSFW (or school).

  2. 2

    I agree. I bothers me when people try to pass off this stuff as science; and I’m not even a scientist!! I truly feel for those of you who are in a science field. I can’t imagine what it’s like for you. Whenever I hear of outlandish claims I always think to myself, “that sounds great: now show me the evidence! and then we’re gonna test it. and retest it, etc”. (Well, someone is gonna test it. Not me. I’m not a scientist)

  3. 3

    Sometimes I consider buying up a bunch of cheap property in the Yukon, at an elevation of about 200 feet. Then sit back and cheer the climate change denialists on, waiting for my property to become temperate beachfront.

    Then integrity kicks in. Oh well.

  4. 4

    The best thing about having a bunch of woo friends: they’re all very loving, well-meaning, helpful, positive, sharing people. They can do much with little, they are open and friendly, and they don’t care too much whether you have money or not, so long as you contribute what you can.

    The worst thing about having a bunch of woo friends: when they turn negative, they turn on each other, and use the language of “lightworking” and “healing” to mask their nastiness as concern and to play “more psychic than thou” oneupmanship games. If this starts to happen, just leave, it isn’t worth getting involved in the playground politics. On the bright side, they aren’t all that good at it.

  5. 5

    To me, being skeptical of woo is the same as being skeptical of religion. I will give the perpetrator exactly one chance (very politely) to back out. If, after that, they still feel the need to share their opinions, I will have no compunction about also sharing mine.

  6. 7

    I hear ya, Dana.

    My next door neighbor – a lovely and seemingly sensible-in-most-other-respects person – believes in ghosts. She is convinced that her house is haunted and apparently has cell phone pictures that she took during various paranormal events that (she believes) prove it.

    She also believes that our house is haunted too; and was quite surprised (and mildly disappointed) when I informed her that we’d experienced nothing unusual in the 3+ years we’ve lived in it… let alone in any of the other places we’ve lived or visited.

    Fortunately, we seem to have “agreed to disagree” on this particular issue: she hasn’t raised the subject since, which is good because I like her and want to get along with her… but not at the cost of passively accepting nonsense.

  7. 8

    I feel very annoyed at quantum-mechanics woo-woo. As far as I can tell, it’s derived from various interpretations of quantum mechanics, not the theoretical content itself.

    I can say that because I’m very familiar with QM and quantum field theory, complete with their rather complicated mathematics. Do any QM woowoomeisters know even the tiniest bit about the math of QM?

    I must say that I find some QM math very elegant, like the ladder-operator versions of the harmonic oscillator and angular momentum. I’m sometimes disappointed that such things aren’t more widely appreciated.

  8. 9

    Woo is the worst because it is so widespread. I can probably count on one hand the number of friends I have that DON’T believe in some form of Woo or another. Especially here in Los Angeles, even among fairly well-educated Liberal Atheists. I know EFT therapists, people who claim to be spiritual healers, and lots of fairly intelligent people who believe the accounts of Near Death Experiences, crystals, magnets and of course The Afterlife (TM). I usually just roll my eyes and change the subject. The only way I can tolerate those kinds of conversations are if the person is so bat-shit that I can enjoy just how far out there they will get, or if we are good enough friends that I can challenge and even mock their beliefs without it getting heated.

  9. 10

    I’m considering buying property in Greenland. Land is cheap now, but should become an excellent investment once the glacier melts and the central latitudes become uninhabitable.

  10. 11

    A new housemate recently moved in where I live. They work on the reception desk of a place that hosts people coming from abroad to undergo cancer treatment. A couple of days ago they asked me, knowing I work in medical research, ‘should I recommend this fantastic new cancer treatment I read about online to the patients I see?’… it’s one that Orac’s written up in some detail that recently may have killed 5 people in Switzerland due to the unlicenced lab that made it contaminating the stuff. I hope my spluttered, ‘oh hell no’ replies sunk in, but I’m not optimistic….

  11. 12

    I started digging deeper into science, and let me just say that the natural universe is more than intriguing enough.

    This! So much This!

    I remember when Avatar came out. I saw a comment somewhere from someone who said, “Oh, I wish I could go live on Pandora! I want to study all those amazing species!” ARGH! You ARE living on the one planet known in the whole flipping cosmos to have a biosphere – and what a rich biosphere it is! There are species and ecosystems everywhere that are screaming to be studied and protected RIGHT HERE ON THE PLANET YOU ACTUALLY LIVE ON and you spend you time dreaming of studying cartoon lifeforms on a CGI moon! YOU FUCKING MORON!

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