Bullshit Detection – “Woo Words”

Watch out for Woo words

There are specific words that should trigger your bullshit alarm whenever you hear them. I’d recommend that you build up and keep your own list, but to ensure that you get the idea I’ll start you off with an initial list and take you through a few examples.

energy” – This is a word that is normally used to describe measurable well understood physical things such as sound, light, heat and electricity. Usage beyond that is an abuse of the word. Terms such as negative energy, chi energy, aura, psi or just a plain old energy-field do not describe anything real or measurable and have no meaning. Such usage is most commonly found within the context of the paranormal or alternative medicine, and when detected should set your bullshit meter buzzing, so keep an eye out for this one.

quantum” – Unless you happen to be engaged in a conversation with a theoretical physicist, then hearing this associated with some product or wild claim should put you on an immediate alert. Its usage outside its normal habitat is reason enough to be extremely wary. Its very popular; Google it and you get over 44 million hits including “quantum health”, “quantum-Touch Energy healing”, “Quantum Consciousness”, “quantum business school”, etc… It might sound impressive, but when used like this, it usually relates to some form of woo that you should consider being wary of.

natural” – Now this one has been rattling about for a few decades; but what does it actually mean? As a bit of marketing hype it sounds great. The thought of selecting a natural offering in contrast to a chemically saturated substitute would lead you to think that the “natural” choice is a superior healthier offering. However, before you make that assumption, consider this. Substances that are “natural” include mercury, arsenic, plague, MRSA, the flu virus and many other similar quite deadly alternatives. On the other hand, engineered compounds have been designed to be effective, safe, and have been clinically tested to prove that they will do no harm. In other words, a “natural” branding is just marketing hype. While it might imply a healthier option, it does not in any way state that it is.

Organic” – Very much in vogue and marketed as a superior, more expensive, and far healthier alternative. Why? The nutritional value within a plant is determined by its genetic structure. Plants gain what they need from the soil and any fertilizer given. If what it needs is missing, it does not grow. Using natural manure or an artificial fertilizer makes no difference, it grows just the same with perhaps slight variances in its mineral content. Pesticide residue is harmless and is not a health risk. Organic is not safer or more nutritious, its just more expensive, that’s all.

Consumers may choose to buy organic fruit, vegetables and meat because they believe them to be more nutritious than other food. However, the balance of current scientific evidence does not support this view” – UK Food Standards Agency –

The link to that is here – http://www.food.gov.uk/foodindustry/farmingfood/organicfood/

The are lots more words that can be added to this list. The above are just a few examples to get you going, so all you need to do is to extend it by adding your own additions, and over time it will build up into a quite comprehensive filter. Here are a few more suggestions. Be wary of “Western Medicine” being used as a derogatory term and also the phrase “Alternative Medicine” should set alarm bells ringing in your mind. As observed by Tim Minchin in his wonderful “Storm”, the correct term for “Alternative Medicine” that actually works is “Medicine”.

How about “detoxify”, “crystal healing” and “vibrations”. Sigh! yes sadly it just goes on and on, its a truly endless list. Over time the actual buzz words may change, but the underlying intent of befuddling you with meaningless sound bites remains the same, so be wary.

Develop a built-in bullshit detector.” – Ernest Hemingway

Update – 27 Mar
There has been some interesting discussion on this over in the skeptic reddit forum along with a couple of interesting suggestions.

Here are a couple:

  • [intisun] – “Science proves that” followed by a wacko claim
  • [Sly_r] – “clinically proven”, “wellness”, “holistic”
  • [kyle_90] – Anything that uses “power”, “force”, and “energy” interchangeably is always bullshit.

Daemonax, Timefabric and  Xyenon brought up the topic of post-modernism babble:

Organic proved to be rather debatable

  • Some felt that it should not be a red flag because it is an effort to improve modern agriculture and can be contrasted with existing farming practices, which pollute groundwater with toxic run-of
  • Others felt that the word has been abused and misused just like ‘energy’ or ‘quantum’, so it may indeed be appropriate
  • Does organic taste better? The suggestion was to try a double blind test with a few friends and find out

However, the big win I think is the addition of the word “toxins” (from YummyMeatballs). Yes indeed, its a favorite for alternative medicine (the stuff that has not been proven to work) where we have all sorts of weird potions, diets or devices that will apparently purge these from your system without ever telling you what these toxins actually are or offering any real evidence at all.

13 thoughts on “Bullshit Detection – “Woo Words””

  1. More and more I believe that the futile search for “safe” and its expression is the biggest bullshit indicator of them all. The British Medical Association Guide Living with Risk (1987) says it well on the back cover synopsis – the first sentence is: “Nothing in life is safe.” and I like to test it by: x was not safe in the past; x is not safe at present; and x most likely won’t be safe in the future; however, bullshitters should be aware that they potentially attract liability such as willful blindness by making such statements – if the audience become to believe the assertion and suffer adverse effects by following the bullshitters assertion.

  2. “organic is not safer or more nutritious”? I BEG YOUR PARDON THAT IS NOT TRUE WHAT SO EVER!
    it does make a difference where the nutrients the plant up takes were derived from, try growing some stuff yourself instead of acting like you know all the answers.
    and “can’t be scientifically proven” is the most meaningless statement ever! For instance, god can’t be proven, evolution can’t be proven, and another thing that can’t be proven is if glyphosate (round up ready crops) leads to autoimmune disease because Monsanto makes it illegal to do scientific testing on their food.
    Try re educating yourself and re writing this! It’s fourms like this and people like you who misinform society into walking around with their head up their ass.
    so pull yours out!

  3. I have to say my bullshit detector went off when I saw how this (admittedly three-year- old) post claimed that the word toxin is a woo word. By coincidence just yesterday the European Union banned the import of American apples. http://guardianlv.com/2014/04/american-as-apple-pie-takes-on-new-meaning-as-europe-bans-u-s-apples/
    Why the ban? Because American apples are sprayed with a chemical called diphenylamine, better known as DPA. It’s a substance which has been shown in extensive scientific tests to break down into a carcinogen. American apples have four times the EU allowance for DPA. Is DPA a toxin? Depends on whether you think that carcinogens are toxic. Since I’m capable of critical thinking I think that they definitely are.

    I can only hope that this kind misinformed claim is an anomaly for skeptical-science forum.

    • Hi Karen,

      You are in fact spot on in so many ways Where there is good solid evidence, then yes, the use of the word toxin is wholly appropriate.

      I would however add that there is rather a lot of abuse of that same word in some contexts, for example the strange fad diets or mystical devices that are supposed to purge our bodies of toxins that nobody can ever identify or in fact product any evidence for at all.

  4. Perhaps the most obvious Bullshit Detection ‘woo words’ are when the speaker makes promises that s/he/it knows they can’t keep and everyone in the audience also knows that the speaker can’t deliver on the promises.

    I like to put it this way:
    The dance of the bulls.
    I know that you know that I know and you know that I know that you know! So let’s cut the bullshitting and talk trukey.

  5. Let me add one more trigger for your bullshit alarm: Leader and leadership – if you know any German it translates to ‘Fuehrer’ – been there; done that! Most leaders spend most of their time justifying their fat saleries. One of my favourite books is: Managers and Magic by Graham Cleverly, Penguin Books, 1973. The only thing wrong with the book is that it should have been: Managers and Bullshit!

  6. I came to this site while writing a piece entitled: On Truthiness and Safe – how safe is safe if safe isn’t really safe? see http://truthontruthiness.blogspot.com/2011/02/on-truthiness-and-safe-how-safe-is-safe.html and thought this is a good discussion. As a retired scientist who found salvation in the academic literature “On Bullshit” I would like to add a few more examples:

    Evidence based decision making – usually used by official spokesthingies (often in regulatory), often in public health.
    Consensus based science – Science is not Consensus!
    ‘Science is science’ – is bullshit because there is so much bullshit science.

    Some time ago I published this item:

    June 24, 2003
    The Ottawa Citizen
    G.W. (Bill) Riedel of Ottawa writes regarding, What is the risk?, June 21,
    to say that the term “zero risk” is essentially an oxymoron, since a product
    or condition that has zero risk is clearly safe by definition. It is
    interesting how risk communicators frequently spin risk and abuse the term
    “safe,” especially in the area of public-health scientific-product
    regulatory activities. For example, we are all told by public-health
    regulatory scientists that each year, an estimated 30 Canadians die of and
    two million of us come down with microbial food-borne disease. Yet the same
    regulatory scientific community assures us in the 2000 Canadian government
    publication Food Safety and You, that “There’s a good reason why the foods
    we eat in Canada are safe.”
    Clearly, the risk of death due to microbial food-borne disease in Canada is
    roughly one person per million per year.
    As a food microbiologist myself, Riedel says he sees two major problems
    associated with this careless use of the term “safe.” First, it shows
    callous disrespect for those individuals who died from these risks and
    essentially denies their life, and it appears unkind to their surviving
    relatives. Second, it is clearly credibility-destroying behaviour by the
    regulatory and scientific community. Is it any surprise that our credibility
    as scientists is being eroded?
    While we like to blame the media, Riedel says he believes that we members of
    the regulatory/scientific community are entirely to blame.

  7. Yeah, “organic” is a totally useless label. Anything that is now or used to be alive is organic – meaning that it consists primarily of molecular carbon.

    There are certifications of “organic” in some countries, including Australia, but it’s not clear what the benefits are supposed to be. Anyone who claims that such a piece of food is more nutritious doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

    However, one thing that is commonly associated with these foods is that they are farmed and distributed more sustainably – that they rely not on a centralised fragile system of food monocultures and the assumption of endless cheap petrolium, but on local growers and minimal transport and cycles of agriculture that are resilient to inevitable change.

    So I often go to local farmers’s markets – we have good functioning certification programs for those also – where “organic” foods are sold, and I just ask about where the produce comes from and what went into growing it. That’s much more useful information than simply telling me that my food contains carbon :-)

  8. Mikey B … my source is the UK Food Standards agency. The guidance they provide is …

    “Before pesticides are approved they are rigorously assessed to ensure they do not pose an unacceptable risk to human health or the environment, and that any pesticide residues left in food will not be harmful to consumers. Pesticide residues in the food chain are also monitored to check they are within legal and safe limits.”

    You can find that here …

    The use of pesticides is not new or modern, the first known pesticide was elemental sulfur dusting used in ancient Sumer about 4,500 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia.

  9. “Pesticide residue is harmless and is not a health risk.”

    This is untrue through omission. SMALL AMOUNTS of pesticide residue are harmless. Over time, and through repeated exposure, pesticides can cause health problems. They can also cause environmental problems if they build up in ground water.


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