The science of woo woo
I guess you are familiar with the term ‘woo woo’ — it’s one of those terms that always brings an ironic smile to my face because it has a lovely onomatopoeic ring to it — something like a comic bedsheet ghost trying to scare you or perhaps a visitation from a late night owl. But if you are not, let me illuminate you on the term:
It’s one of those terms that is readily used in disdainful tones by a good American artist friend of mine whose upbringing in an academic family causes the term to spring to his lips whenever he hears me talk about anything that doesn’t ‘follow the science’.
If you follow any social media feed, you will encounter a lot of woo woo. Millennials are according to some sources, addicted to astrology, which is a regular edifice of the woo, albeit built upon the movement of identifiable cosmic bodies above. Plenty of people identify with their generic star sign or if you are seriously into it, your natal chart based on sidereal coordinates, and this readily falls into that bracket according to my friend. And indeed, he would not be alone in that opinion, sharing the same view as Carl Sagan who in his informed way, cleanly dissected and debunked the industry years ago in a grainy video I’ll share here.
His main contention is that astrology is viewed by its believers as a cosmic set of traffic lights which engenders a dangerous sense of fatalism as they navigate through life. It’s an unfortunate thing that he didn’t make it to witness the Millennium because he very well predicted the fatalism that guides us in these troubled world times:
‘I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudo science and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive.’
Apart from being a multi-million dollar astrology industry which testifies to the power of the woo, it’s just one of the many siren songs guiding us closer to the rocks. And once again, I think that social media can be blamed for the inflationary value of belief and opinion over hard core facts.
When someone like Donald Trump suggested the idea in 2020 of injecting bleach into the body to kill SARS CoV-2, a fair number of his fans emptied the shelves of Clorox and started filling up the ERs instead. The same goes for Hydroxychloroquine and most lately, the worming medicine for horses and other livestock, Ivermectine.
Curiously though, many of the same Republicans under Trump overlooked their ex commander-in-chief readily (albeit stealthily) taking the vaccine back in January of 2021, after a nasty encounter with Covid in November. To date, Republican counties trail Democrat ones by a fair margin in their uptake of freely available vaccines with predictable consequences in the mortuaries and intensive care wards.
This is the danger when science becomes a political football.
On the flip side of that argument, there is also the danger of adopting a purely scientific and rational approach to world problems. The Nazis were the first to develop and use chemical weapons on a large scale in the Great War with the ends justifying the means and were also instrumental in perfecting the use of Zyklon B in the execution with extreme prejudice of their ‘Final Solution’ in WW2, otherwise known as the Holocaust. This rationale quickly excludes any notion of humanity and this is the point, albeit a blunt one, that I am trying to make.
In Trump’s case, it is a cynical appeal to the anti-intellectualism and tribal superstition that characterizes his base to sneer at the science. Coups and revolutions of any sort historically are quick to target the intelligentsia or indeed anybody who might have a rational argument to counter an emotional one. Usually small in numbers and easy to demonize, by removing them you are left with an uncritical audience ready for you to feed appropriate baloney that fits their prejudices and narrowed world view.
The fact is that it doesn’t matter if experts rail against misinformation and woo once you have achieved a critical mass of uninformed people validating each other’s misguided beliefs. In today’s modern world, opinions trump facts for the vast majority of people too partisan or lazy to fact check their sources. It also feeds into the latter-day anti-intellectualism, which thrives on hive think and threats of violence to anybody who stands against it.
The only solution, apart from dismantling the whole grotesque edifice of western politics and replacing it with something that actually equates with democracy, is education unbiased by opinion and informed by science and fact. In the world’s largest democracy, Trump and co unfortunately did much to dismantle the education system in his four year tenure and to install right wing judges across the judiciary all the way up to the Supreme Court. These actions will have long repercussions in a country already in turmoil. The same arguments apply everywhere to the divided politics of the present pandemic and depressingly, any subsequent ones the world will face.
I personally believe that woo woo can happily co-exist with the rational fact-based world just as long as you can make the distinction between the two. In truth, science cannot provide us all the answers even in the known universe and for all our collective knowledge, there are gray areas and eminences, which may remain so for millennia to come (if humans outlive their ignorance) — things like extraterrestrials, ghosts and invisible sky gods.
Woo appeals to our need for cosmic traffic lights and a sense of the numinous. Human beings lived for thousands of years more on this planet without the guiding light of science and the ever-present threat of extinction and the old gods and beliefs are still present, somewhere encoded in our spines. Much of what we experience today is a kind of cognitive dissonance created by a paleolithic brain trying to make sense of technologies and cultures too quickly advanced in too short a timeframe.
The one thing common to science and woo, is in my opinion, the sense of awe. For technologists, science has become their religion — a religion capable of defeating disease, creating new life forms and even non biological sentience but also capable of deleting all life on this planet at the turn of a button. For people of a spiritual bent standing before their gods in all their mortal human frailty, awe is an appropriate response also. Humans incorporate both camps and it’s hard to imagine a world without one or the other.
I will leave this blog with words again from the eminently wise and tolerant Sagan — the original baloney detector but at heart, a great humanist:
‘When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the, intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. That notion that science or spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.’