Reader mailbag: What is woo?

I don’t often do reader mailbag sorts of posts, but this question was so good that I thought it would be worth answering on the blog. Indeed, I almost thought of making this whole question another in my Friday Woo series, but decided that I wanted to answer it now.

Reader TB writes:

I’ve been following your blog for a few months now and love being both educated and entertained. The Friday Dose of Woo is great. While I have an idea of what you mean by woo it would be helpful to me and others visiting the page if you included a definition and perhaps the etymology.


My first temptation was to respond, as Supreme Court Justice Potter Steward famously did about defining pornography, by quipping that “I know it when I see it.” However, after thinking about it, I realized that woo is probably as hard to define as pornography, unless you are referring to the cocktail, which consists of peach schnapps, vodka, and cranberry juice.

It’s a drink that, like the woo this blog casts a skeptical eye on, would likely make me turn up my nose, given that the very thought of peach schnapps sounds disgusting to me. Why would anyone want to mess up a perfectly good vodka and cranberry juice with peach schnapps? Vodka and cranberry juice make a plenty tasty libation.

But I digress.

“Woo” is shorthand for “woo woo” and is not just limited to alternative medicine but rather represents an entire philosophy of credulity of the sort favored by New Age types. It’s clear that “woo” or “woo woo” can refer to either a person or a belief system. When it refers to the person, it is referring to a person who believes in woo. To me, when referring to “alternative medicine,” I view the “altie” and “woo” as largely synonymous, but woo has a broader meaning, embracing a wider variety of credulity. One thing is for sure, it is not generally meant as a flattering term–for very good reason.

So what is woo?

If I had to boil it down, I’d define woo as beliefs that clearly demonstrate magical thinking, uncritical acceptance of things for which no good evidence exists. This includes, but is not limited to, psychic phenomenon, ghosts, the paranormal, “energy healing,” the use of “colon cleansing” and “liver cleansing” to rid oneself of “toxins,” homeopathy (especially quantum homeopathy), and a wide variety of other mystical and pseudoscientific beliefs. Woo is resistant to reason. Indeed, woo has a double standard when it comes to what it considers to be good evidence. It is very accepting of a wide variety of fuzzy, mystical ideas, but is often incredibly distrustful and skeptical of anything having to do with “conventional” science or “conventional” medicine. Woos tend to be very quick to react to defend their particular brand of woo and very unforgiving of its being questioned.

Sometimes the line between woo and non-woo isn’t so obvious. For example, while the magical thinking required to have faith in homeopathy clearly constitutes woo (to me at least), not all alternative medicine is woo. For example, the concepts behind acupuncture are clearly woo, but there is evidence that acupuncture may do something to influence neurotransmitter activity regionally; what, if anything, acupuncture may or may not do, it’s certain that it has nothing to do with affecting qi along “energy meridians.” In contrast, certainly looking at herbs as potential medicines is usually not woo. The exception, of course, is if a person happens to believe that herbs have some sort of special properties that are ndue to more than just the the pharmacological activity of their chemical components (or interactions between them) and/or that just because something’s “herbal” or “natural” means that it must be inherently “better” than synthetic medicines. (Of course, my response to that altie trope is that curare, foxglove, and a variety of toxic compounds are entirely “natural,” and will kill you just as fast, if not faster, than synthetic poisons.) Because it isn’t always obvious what is woo and what isn’t (although, let me assure your, dear readers, that in Your Friday Dose of Woo it will never be in doubt that what I am discussing is, in fact, woo), some skeptics consider the term unnecessarily derogatory, although some woos have actually taken the term as a badge of honor.

Finally, regarding the etymology, I tried to look into that a bit. I do know that The origin of “woo woo” is lost in the mists of time (well, at least decades) of time. I’ve seen suggestions that it comes from the “woooooo” noise that a Theramin used to make in old horror or science fiction movies. I’ve also seen suggestions that it somehow derives from the music in the theme to The Twilight Zone. Whatever the etymology, the term can, as far as I can tell, only be traced back to around 1986, at least in print, although I’d be shocked if the term wasn’t in use long before that. However, I can’t remember having heard the term until more recently, within the last few years. Maybe I was just sheltered.

In any case, the definition of “woo” is not entirely satisfactory, although I still contend that I know it when I see it. Given that, perhaps my readers would kindly add their thoughts about how best to define woo, that we might together come up with a more objective definition if possible. (And don’t forget, feel free to send me candidates for future editions of Your Friday Dose of Woo. I still haven’t settled on this week’s topic yet.)

Of course, if anyone has any credible sources that tell the story of the origin of the term “woo” or “woo-woo” as applied to alternative medicine and the paranormal, by all means pleas share them with us!