Afternoon InquisitionAnti-ScienceReligion

AI: Weeding out the Woo 101

This weekend at Skepchick we got an email from a guy with some “scientific theories”… and he pointed us to where we could download his research. The link was over 99% (not kidding) content that was illegally obtained multimedia sources. I opted not to take a look at his “evidence” supporting his “theories” because it was pretty obvious that it was not scientific, a theory, or anything insightful.

When someone tells me “I have a scientific theory about that!” and “I stole my research off the internet and looking at it is completely illegal.” What they are saying to me is: Hi. I’m kind of crazy… and not crazy in the colloquial sense, I’m totally diagnosable and I don’t like how my meds make me feel so I don’t take them and I hope that cat I just beheaded wasn’t yours and if it was, sorry but he was transmitting my thoughts to the Russians via satellite.

It’s kind of the same way that websites which include yellow and red highlighted text are 100% scams, woo, and conspiracy guys… just like anything with an outer-space-themed hurts-your-eyes background and/or blinking text and/or animated clip art. No one legit uses anything like that… in fact, it’s become so cliche that I’m actually starting to believe that all web-designers are skeptics.

What’s your favorite “this is woo” red flag? What makes you say, “I don’t have to listen/read any further ____ tells me all I need to know”?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.


Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

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  1. I can usually tell by how quickly they get to the point. If there is not a simple declarative sentence in the first paragraph then I usually move on. The worst site dance you all over the room with “secrets they don’t want you to know” and conclude many pages later with a solicitation for money to reveal these secrets.

  2. Anything advertised with “personal Stories” rather than studies and results = crap.
    Anything tapping into “Ancient Wisdom” or “Natural Medecine” = Crap.
    Any Medical treatment/procedure/decision being advertised or fronted by a celebrity = Crap.
    Basically, I look to scientists for science, dietitians (not nutritionists, know the difference)for food advice, doctors for medical advice, dentists for toothache, etc… If someone is talking about something they clearly have no training in, I go find someone else who knows what they’re talking about.

  3. @davew:

    I’d say the word “secret” anywhere in a pitch will always lead you to a place where you can pay for something that’s not only not secret, but not even based in any sort of reality.

  4. Like you said, any monument to mid-90’s web design is already off to a bad start, especially if it’s clearly been done with PageMill or has those old style frame-dividers. Spinning gifs, songs that auto play, hit counters…. ugh. Presentation counts.

    But as far as content goes, when someone says that they have privileged information, that only they have figured out, and that there’s some kind of fee involved somewhere.

  5. Whenever I hear “energy and quantum” combined with “healing” I’m out.

    I also enjoy “string theory proved that.” String theory might eventually prove you’re and idiot but no, you can’t have any money.

  6. When they do that knowing inhale, followed by a slight head tilt and then a forgiving smirk. Usually what comes out next is utter rot delivered as condescendingly as possible.

    *Inhale, smirk* “Science doesn’t know everything. ” (Or “Jenny McCarthy is a mom.” or “It’s OK, God loves you anyway.”)

    You would think that skeptics, confronted with stupidity, would have a similar response. But in my experience they tend to go for the jaw-drop.

  7. Anti vax nonsense coupled with a link (or reference) to It’s bad enough that there are those who think vaccines are bad, but it takes a special kind of someone to take seriously the claims of a guy who thinks the world is being run by a reptilian conspiracy.

  8. “I read it on the internet” or “This was on TV, I swear!” Also, stuff “they” don’t want you to know about and any sort of ancient wisdom or prediction. And every time I hear the word “natural” I scream “Arsenic is ‘natural’ too, you dolt!” and throw something at the TV.

  9. @Zapski: I once showed one of the web designers that works for the company I work for the timecube site. He didn’t stop laughing for a good 10, maybe 15, minutes.

  10. I am tipped-off when any product claims to “detox” a healthy body. Aside from people who have liver or kidney failure, our organs do a pretty good job of detoxifying us. However, I have noticed that a lot of people buy into this nonsense, so more than once I have thought about starting a business to put tap water in little bottles and slap on a label that claims to “Activates your kidneys to naturally detoxify your body!” To bad I’m not sleazy enough to take advantage of people like that.

  11. I’m taking this from my liberal arts/film studies background rather than as it relates to my sciencey hobbies.

    When I was in grad school, there were certain things that definitely made me check out of a paper/book/lecture. Some of these things are:

    – When the theories of Marx, Freud, or deSaussure are utilized outside of their intended contexts of history/economics, psychology, and linguistics (respectively)

    – Any time anyone gave any degree of credence to anything at all said by Jacques Lacan

    – Points were lost for each usage of the following words: bourgeois, phallus, yonic/vaginal, ’empiricism’ (with scare quotes)

    – Whenever the ratio of jargon to non-jargon words hits or exceeds 2/1

    – If I can read a page 2 or more times without getting a sense of what that page is saying or, indeed, why anything on it needs to be in the book. I require a one idea per page, minimum.

    – Whenever an author makes definitive declarations about how “the audience” will react to something without defining who exactly comprises this audience or why exactly they all react the same way.

    If you think I come across as slightly disgruntled with academia, well, you’re right ;)

  12. What I call ‘the big three:’

    Quantum Mechanics
    Chaos Theory
    The ‘Many Worlds’ theory

    Individually, they don’t necessarily say woo, but put them and together and OH! MAMA!

    Also, Lizards masquerading as Humans.

  13. When the only “proof” available on the website is a testimonials page, that lets me know I’m in woo-ville. Also, all of the aforementioned items in previous posts.

  14. It’s a little one with a comparatively low correlation, but the preferential use in conversation of “I believe,” to “I think.” I don’t really give a crap about laying the epistemological differences on the philosophical carving board, nor am I a fan of ascribing Freudian precision and unconscious drive to everything that comes out of a person’s mouth, but I run into “I don’t believe evolution is true” far more often than “I don’t think evolution is true,” and one suspects if there is cause for it.

    Speaking of which, if I have to spend anymore time in an upper-level bio class with someone that starts discussions of, say, the regressive evolution of viruses with “I don’t think people could have come from fish, but…” I will kill people with hammers. Of truth and justice. And metal.

  15. Any email to my work that begins, in all caps, “DEAR SIRS”.

    It’s usually someone with an “all-natural cure for AIDS” that they found while working with the “aboriginals” in “Kenya”.

  16. If writer doesn’t have the courage to admit his uncertainty. If he speaks with more certainty that is warranted. If he doesn’t seem willing to make the reasons for his conclusions available for criticism.

  17. At grad school the rule of thumb I was taught was that anything which doesn’t not include the expression “confidence interval” or ± in the abstract is bollocks and not to be contended with.

    Otherwise I’m just lazy and Nature or Science do the sorting for me

  18. What’s your favorite “this is woo” red flag? What makes you say, “I don’t have to listen/read any further ____ tells me all I need to know”?

    For me, the word “processed” is a red flag. When someone brings up the evils of high-fructose corn syrup, I ask why the fructose in HFCS is evil, but the fructose in “health” foods sweetened with concentrated fruit juice (which I call “high fructose something-other-than-corn syrup”) or honey is supposed to be good, the answer is invariably that HFCS is “processed”.

    Varients include: Insisting that fruit juice can’t be bad for diabetics, because it’s “natural”.

    The weirdest twist came when I saw a jug of Log Cabin syrup with a label proclaiming “New! No High-Fructose Corn Syrup!”. I checked the ingredients, and saw that it was (of course) mostly sugar. There are those who will insist that refined sugar is not “processed” but HFCS is.

    Not that HFCS isn’t evil–it most certainly is. It is used as a food extender in everything from instant potatoes to canned soup. But it’s evil because it is sugar, and concentrated fruit juice or “raw, unprocessed organically grown cane juice” is just as evil.

  19. Whenever there are abs in health/exercise ads. It is really dumb, you see a product that only makes you do push ups, and there are all these people with abs, as if they had done a million sit ups. Apparently, exercising one’s arms exercises one’s abs.
    Also, if there is a “before” and “after” comparison. I don’t buy it.

  20. (1) When someone makes a claim, and you ask them how they know that, and they respond: “I just know.” Red flag that you are talking with a true believer.

    (2) Anything having to do with “energy fields”.

  21. Anything that discredits “the experts.”

    Also, anything physiological that talks about “energy” or “energy levels.” You want to know what’s going to boost your energy levels? Going for a run rather than reading about healing crystals.

  22. Anything promoted by Oprah.

    Any substance which cures “all” ills.

    Anything promoted by a “news”caster who appears to be 90% or more plastic.

  23. @marilove:

    But … but … real sugar tastes SO GOOD! I love the sodas with real cane sugar you can get (usually from Mexico). Om nom nom.

    Evilness can be so tasty sometimes.

    Fine, but do we need it in soup or instant potatoes, fercryinoutloud? I was disgusted to see that Campbell’s soup is sweetened with HFCS, so I went to a yuppie supermarket and looked at an “all natural” canned soup that cost several times as much, and it did not contain HFCS–it contained “raw, unprocessed organically grown cane juice”. In both cases, by using a sweetner, they can get away with using less ingredients. @#$%^&*!

  24. I pretty much don’t believe anything without a good reason.

    And most of the time I don’t believe what I believe. ;->

    For some reason I keep remembering… “4 out of 5 dentists recommend sugarless gum, for their patients who chew gum.” (And yes, you guessed it: the other 20% of 1200 dentists pretty much said, “Please, just stop chewing gum; it’s not good!”) I always ask myself, “Why are they telling me this?” out of habit.

  25. “You want me to put my feet into water with that electrical thing you just plugged into the wall?” I said. “And it’s supposed to do WHAT?” says I. And they even admitted that it had hurt several people — along with claims about it “scanning all your organs” and “fixing problems.” OK, how’s A/C supposed to do that? Hmmm…. :-/

    [I’m related to these people. And I love them. Really. But that doesn’t make me believe them.]

  26. Anything involving the phrase “doesn’t want you to know!” Radio and internet ads ads are filled with lines like “We have the secret the pharmaceutical industry/the medical establishment/the government doesn’t want you to know!” It’s always full of crap. The guy behind one ridiculously overplayed set of radio ads in the NYC area just got fined for lying about his “treatments.”

    Also, anything involving toxins. I’ve never seen an ad regarding toxins that pointed to anything actually toxic.

  27. The usual: misspelled words, inappropriate/excessive use of punctuation (!!!), anything that blinks, scrolls, or otherwise animates, and requests for money. The last also includes the promise that you will “learn” all the “facts” if you just purchase this brochure/book/pamphlet/DVD/handsomely bound compilation of Chick Tracts.

  28. What always triggers my “I don’t believe it” reaction in all cases is when I hear a contradiction: To hear them from the Multi-Level Marketing crowd, show some interest in becoming a seller: “Trust me, I’ve studied health for years; this dietary supplement will cure all your ills.” / “No, you don’t need any experience and hardly any training to sell this stuff.”; “You’ll get these great discounts off of a good price from me.” / “The profit margins are generous — all the way up and down the line.”; etc…

  29. @epe: I heard a commercial opposing asbestos this morning and the woman speaking (Dana Reeve’s sister, I think) used the word to describe the air we breathe. I could feel my skin crawl. She’s probably on the right side of things, but “toxins” rubs me the wrong way now -thanks, Jenny!

  30. @pciszek: Well … yes, actually. Just because it’s a savory dish doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put sugar in it. I’ll be putting sugar in my crock pot chili tonight. Not a lot, just a bit, to help with the acidity of the tomatoes. I’m not even a great cook and I know this. ;)

    Of course, there may be other alternatives I don’t know about, and it’s likely the canned soup has more sugar than it needs, but still…it’s not unusual. And 100% raw sugar is still better than processed sugar. Sugar isn’t ALL evil, you know, at least not any more than anything else. Moderation is key.

  31. One of the first things that I do after skimming through is look at the author of the article or website. If they have proof of the knowledge or an extensive education then they can be taken as more credible.

    Also, i see a bunch of jobs posted on sites that are obviously scams because they make a ridiculous claim that you will make all of this money while hardly doing any work at all. Then, they usually ask for money to start out which is a huge red flag.
    I still have much to learn as far as weeding out the woo though.

  32. I just thought of another one, I don’t know if anyone has mentioned this one before, but this generaly causes mini hemorraging in my brain meats: You need to have faith/believe for it to work. I generally stop paying attention to what ever proofs or evidence the other person claims when that person uses that argument.

  33. “They laughed at / discredited / ignored / ect. (insert famous scientist/inventor here)”

    As the saying goes “Yes, they laughed at the Wright Brothers, but the also laughed at the Marx Brothers.”

  34. @marilove:
    And 100% raw sugar is still better than processed sugar. Sugar isn’t ALL evil, you know, at least not any more than anything else. Moderation is key.

    Is this like a sea-salt vs. mined salt discussion?
    ‘Cuz it’s basically al NaCl …

    The same could probably be said about sugar.

  35. I wonder if as much processing and additives get used when creating industrial grade ingredients compared to end-user products.

    I can imagine crap like preservatives not being needed because any manufacturer will probably add their own when making their product.

    In other words, “processed sugar” would just be sugar that has the canes and/or beets removed leaving only sugar cristals, or syrup, then packed in large drums or containers.

    By the time sugar ends up as a finished product on the supermarket shelf, a bit more processing is done, plus a lot more “sitting around” in various storage, stocks and your pantry before it finally reaches your coffee cup or oven-creation.

    Processing and adding stuff doesn’t equate less healthy. People always seem to assume that it is (which is what @pciszek was getting at in his original coment).

  36. “Science might say ____________, but I think ____________ is really true”

    Yes because what an uninformed person thinks trumps years, decades or even a century or more of research, experimentation and careful study conducted by intelligent, educated and dedicated scientists.

    Tell you what fuckweed why don’t you go work on your theory of inteligent falling.

  37. @exarch: Regular table salt is usually sodium chloride, with a bit of iodine intentionally added. Sea salt tends to be sodium chloride with trace amounts of some elements (e.g. calcium, magnesium) but no iodine.

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