From the Skeptic's Dictionary:
"Woo-woo (or just plain woo) refers to ideas considered irrational or based on extremely flimsy evidence."
I notice this among my friends who reject one irrational belief system to adopt another (recently, Asatru), or who reject ley lines and astrology but embrace the dubious efficacy of various detoxification programs.
Do people need woo-woo?
Human beings are not, cannot, be entirely logical or rational. We're not Vulcans.
Even as an atheist, a skeptic, and someone who tries to shed superstition in its entirety there's still that part of me that is enamored with mythology, philosophy and all manner of bizarre beliefs. I think it's entirely possible to enjoy woo-woo without actually believing it.
After I left Christianity I believed all sorts of different things:
- Human beings were hominids altered by aliens to mine precious metals
- The Universe is God and we are part of God
- Jesus Christ was trying to teach us to save ourselves rather than waiting around for supernatural help, he taught responsibility for one's own sins
- the New World Order is on the way and symbolism in advertisements is proof
- The energy of a persons consciousness can survive death in the form a "ghost"
- People can be reincarnated
I don't think human beings can be or should be entirely rational. Certainly I think its important for people to shed false belief systems as much as possible because they can be dangerous to our progress as a species and to us as individuals. That being said though I think a world with no woo-woo whatsoever wouldn't be as much fun. There's no reason we can't enjoy a mythology and religion AND know that it's false at the same time, after all I enjoy stuff like Skyrim, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars while knowing that the Force, magic, elves and the gods from these things do not exist.
Those who sell the snake oil certainly need it to fool the gullible.
Belief in the irrational is a by-product of evolution. It's the old "noise in the grass" dilemma. If you're walking through the tall grass, and hear a noise, it might be a tiger, or it might be your buddy. If you run away before you know what it is, you haven't lost anything if it's your buddy. That's a false positive. If you had a false negative, where you stayed, but it was a tiger, then you'd be in trouble. Evolution, therefore, rewards false positives with continued existence.
If I buy these pads that suck toxins out of my body through my feet, and feel OK afterward, I haven't really lost anything (except money, and maybe status among non-woo believers). A false positive.
Michael Shermer (publisher of Skeptical Inquirer) wrote a great book on this topic: Why People Believe Weird Things.
Pretty much everything goes through a woo woo phase. Even branches of science. You have to hypothesize and then prove with found facts as they are found. Humans, thankfully, are willing to theorize and explore. With the exception of those too fearful to think for themselves.
Because people are fundamentally programmed to use intuitive thinking a lot of the time and not pure logic. Let he who has not a single superstitious habit cast the first stone. Lucky shirt, knocking wood, buying blue for boys (a protection charm), etc etc etc.
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