Human culture is full of woo. Basically, woo describes ideas about the nature of reality that are irrational and that often run counter to critical thinking and scientific understanding. Woo is resistant to logic, dismissive of mainstream empiricism, and swims in a fuzzy stew of quasi-theories and unjustified assumptions. Woo is essentially a belief in magic.
Magic, in the context of woo, is a power or process that can subvert, bypass, or operate contrary to the laws of nature as understood by modern science. Woo magic can take on many forms, ranging from the mythological (e.g. guardian angels, ghosts) to the pseudo-medical (e.g. homeopathy, chiropracty). It can be external (such as in astrology) or internal (including the belief in souls or that thought alone can manipulate the physical universe). Whatever form it takes, in all cases woo magic involves some force interacting with the material universe in a way that cannot be explained by physics (although some woo theorists will try to use physics to justify their beliefs; quantum mechanics is their favorite go-to model).
A great deal of woo magic is described using models that might be impressive in scope and complexity, but they always turn out to be operationally vague or resistant to critical examination (for instance, the ability to create and test predictions). Definitions are fuzzy, causal explanations are obscure or missing altogether, and areas of ignorance are too often treated as fact. This is all dealt with by accepting a very different measure of evidence—subjective experience and anecdotal accounts are given priority over objective, transparent, replicable research. But make no mistake—if any such research were to one day support any given brand of woo, its advocates would accept it loudly and with pride.
While woo is certainly plentiful in organized religions (especially the granddaddy of woo—belief in a personal god), it has a quality that allows people to feel autonomous. Woo is not dependent on dogma or cultural traditions, so anyone can adopt their own unique form of woo (which generally falls within the realm of New Age). In many cases, woosters attach themselves to a guru or two—such as Deepok Chopra, Rhonda Byrne, or Ken Wilbur—or to an organization of some kind—such as the Esalen Institute, a pseudoscience center, or one of the many occult-based orders. But because woo is not grounded in reality or logic, woosters can mix and match woo-elements to create any stew of woo that catches their fancy.
It must be stated that there are things that might resemble woo but aren’t. There is a long list of accepted scientific theories that were once on the woo list, such as plate tectonics. As another example, the therapeutic practice of mindfulness, which originated from yoga, was long considered to be woo in the field of psychology, but is now accepted as a mainstream treatment that is demonstratively effective. The difference between woo and not-yet-mainstream science is not always clear, but it is possible to look at the underlying assumptions for clues: while plate tectonics has been well established as fact, the idea would have originally been pure woo if it was assumed that the plates floated on whipped cream and were pulled around by gnomes. The point here is that just because an hypothesis about what we observe might be based on woo doesn’t mean that something isn’t really going on, so be careful not to assign the label of woo prematurely.
One of the unfortunate misunderstandings of woo is the false notion that it includes emotional states. It doesn’t. Positive or profound feelings grounded in experience are not woo. The delight that comes from connectivity, art, meditation, discovery, or play is not woo. Such emotional experiences might not be your thing but that doesn’t make it woo. If someone says, “I just sat watching the stars for hours and was overcome by a deep sense of peace, like I was connected to the entire universe,” is not woo. But it would be if that person then goes on to say, “…and that made me appreciate that I must have a special destiny in this cosmos that God created.”
Despite the irrational nature of woo, one possible reason for its ubiquity is its ability to bestow a sense of specialness. Woo can give color and sparkle to an otherwise mundane life; for many, a world without woo is not a world worth living in. It is not clear why so many people, including very intelligent folks, feel this way and are therefore susceptible to woo. It probably comes down to the same things that formal religion thrives upon—existential anxiety, the need for a sense of agency and purpose, and the drive to be connected in a meaningful way to something larger than one’s own self. Woo allows one to (apparently) bypass the unending frustrations of reality by imagining access to control and insight not easily attainable in every-day life, which can lead to increased health, power, happiness, and personal worth.
Compared to science and other formal disciplines, woo “logic” is relatively easy to grasp, and this becomes ever more true as our knowledge of the world grows ever more complex and strange. This is perhaps woo’s essential allure—its ability to provide a sense of understanding without the need for empirical or intellectual rigor. But the cost is substantial. Woo inhibits curiosity and critical thinking; it dulls the majesty and splendor of the natural world as it really is; it promotes social factions that manifest pointless yet frequently damaging in/out rules; it is a standard required for political service so that public servants either lie about their worldview or (much more often) actually allow their irrational beliefs to influence their decisions. This is why our world would be, on the whole, a better place without woo.
The cosmos really is an exhilarating, magnificent, beautiful place. True, understanding it to the degree that science currently allows, even on a lay level, takes substantial effort. But doing so is incredibly liberating. It honestly is. Letting go of woo means peeling away the gauze that blurs interpretations of events. It means losing fear of divine judgment or supernatural threats. It means that one can adopt ethical guidelines that are rational and pro-social. It opens the eyes to the wonder of reality in a way that woo cannot.