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Member since: 2001
Number of posts: 18,889

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Not Yet vs. Not at All: Defining Woo

o~ "Please allow me
to introduce myself...
I'm a man...
of wealth and taste...

I see we're on the topic of woo today. Well, and most days, right?

We actually have a broad range of opinions and feelings on this topic, so far as I can tell, but the loudest voices are the ones on the far ends of the spectrum.

What are those "far ends?"

Well, let's start over here, where we have the folks who passionately assert that if it can't be accurately described and reliably reproduced by existing scientific tools and perceived with our existing sensorium (augmented by existing scientific tools, of course,) it's manifest crap, perpetrated by greedy, evil people for the the furtherance of their own agendas and the delusion of the weak-minded, foolish, and/or intellectually-challenged.

Let's skip over a substantial spectrum of minutely nuanced, kaleidoscopically idiosyncratic viewpoints in between to get to the other end, way over here, where we find the folks who passionately assert that just because it can't be accurately described and reliably reproduced by existing scientific tools, doesn't mean it isn't being perceived and effective outside the documentable sensorium in ways that have real effects. And attackers of their beliefs are greedy, evil, materialistic corporate oligarchs or their close-minded puppets.

Of course, a large portion of the disagreement rests on the definition of terms.

"Woo," itself, set aside, let's look at "effective," and zero in on one of the most nebulous and troubling (to both sides) questions in relation to efficacy: the placebo effect.

Woo-sters sometimes acknowledge the placebo effect as "mind-body healing."

Rockhead rationalists sniff "placebo effect" as if that explains away and/or invalidates anything that can't be understood or measured given our current array of tools.

The fundamental question of whether invoking the placebo effect by woo-ish methods has any actual value and can or should be an end in itself is rarely discussed.

Me, I have great faith in the placebo effect. I know darn well that if my brain is convinced to pull the right physiological strings, my pain will be relieved, my symptoms will be alleviated, and my physiological well-being will increase.

I have private theories of how/why this works, none of which can be verified by current scientific tools. For instance, I believe that if my mind AND body feel a higher level of confidence, experience lower levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and other endocrines related to experiencing pain, my immune system has more moxie to fight internal enemies, and my metabolic system will find it easier to achieve homeostasis at a higher level of function. Plausible? I think so. Verifiable? Hardly.

Which is why, even though there is no reliable scientific evidence to support the efficacy of inhaling herbally-infused steam when I have a miserable upper respiratory ailment that blocks my sinuses, makes my throat sore, inflames my pulmonary system, etc., that steam inhalation makes me feel better, as in "increases my comfort level" and therefore I believe I'm healing faster.

Again, no way of verifying that.

But I think it's true. So, it works for me.

Is steam inhalation "woo?" Or is it legitimate therapeutic remedy for my upper respiratory ailment?

I tend to look at two things:

1) No one is getting rich off my steam inhalation. I do it with a $9.99 hot pot and inexpensive bottles of essential oils like camphor, eucalyptus, lavender, etc. Contrariwise, no one's being harmed by it-- there's no scientifically-validated reliable therapy for mild seasonal upper respiratory infections that I'm NOT using, because I think the inhalation is "better."

2) Given the directions science is going, it might indeed be possible someday-- maybe even someday soon (within the next century or so)-- to reliably isolate all the potential factors and make a verifiable measurement about how my beliefs influence my own physiology.

So, I dunno whether it's woo or not, but I'm gonna keep doing it, and consciously decide to believe "this is helpful." For me.

I could give half a dozen other examples of places I (so to speak) allow woo into my life, embrace its power, and admit that yeah, it's unscientific and maybe someday it'll be "proved" to be crap, but it's beneficial to me so until then, here's the bird to all you unbelievers. Go rain on someone else's parade.

I meditate.

I use Tarot cards to help provoke insight and start trains of thought that sometimes help me find connections and formulate ideas and answers about subjective areas of thinking and feeling.

I eat local honey to boost my body's ability to deal with local pollens without catastrophic histamine overload.


Now, let's go back to those two things, because I think they're important:

1. I'm not making anyone rich nor harming myself or others; and

2. The possibility of efficacy, either by placebo effect or by some currently unmeasurable mechanism, is within my area of "reasonable belief" (as opposed to "reasonable doubt."


Back to #1, in more detail: Here's the area where we have consolidated Big Pharma and Agri Biz slugging it out with Diffuse-but-Massive Snake Oil. We can argue the moral relativism of Oligarchic griftery versus VoxPop griftery until the cows come home, but when the rubber hits the road, the net effects look pretty similar to me. Arguments based on "it's all a plot by Big Pharma to keep natural herbal miracle snake oils from putting them out of business" cut just about the same amount of ice as the arguments based on the sleazy characters and self-serving personal agendas of the snake oil salesmen and their shameless exploitation of human gullibility. They bleed on both sides, as it were.

Back to #2, in more detail: Everyone has what I think of as a "functional lacuna of credibility." We evolved to believe in unprovable stuff for a good reason. Luck, fate, religion, the abstruse and theoretical endpoints of cosmology, statistical modeling... it has a function, and any good grifter knows that the second-easiest mark is the one who can be convinced to play him/herself. The easiest mark is the one who's convinced they can't be played at all. If it does no harm (and I include in "harm" the harm done by rejecting therapies with a higher chance of success and greater weight of verified evidence, when the stakes are high-- as in, let's not bother with actual cancer treatment but head straight for the laetrile) belief may help activate that placebo effect, so belief, in and of itself, is useful.

When the folks at the far ends butt heads here on DU, it all too often looks to me like the old "I am RIGHT and you are WRONG, and EVERYONE including YOU must be brought to ACKNOWLEDGE this fundamental reality!"

And what's more futile than that?

And if part of the definition of "woo" is "futile," well...

And finally, to circle back around to #2 again: For me, my functional lacuna of credibility is defined by the title of this thread: Can we prove this? If the answer is "not yet," perhaps because we don't have the tools or the sensorium to perceive, I'll keep an open mind. If the answer is "not at all," perhaps because it's already been shown to be not only invalid but harmful, or it's so far beyond where I can EVER imagine us having tools or sensorium to perceive, then for me, yeah... that's where the line is drawn.

Your mileage undoubtedly varies.

Which is fine, too.

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