The Woo Factor

If you've never really delved into it, I highly recommend that you take some time to discover the skeptical community. People who consider themselves bona fide skeptics are generally delightful people, if a little nerdy, and if you are not someone who gets highly attached to what skeptics like to call "woo" — a catchall term for beliefs that have little to no grounding in reality, from conspiracy theories to belief in the paranormal. Skeptics are big fans of science (most of the contributers to one of my favorite podcasts, "The Skeptic's Guide To The Universe," are scientists of some sort), and a handful of honest magicians like James Randi and Penn and Teller also throw in, angry at less ethical magicians who present their tricks as something more than entertaining diversions. They have books, podcasts, websites, and even TV shows, like "Mythbusters" and "Bullsh*t."

Skeptics enjoy debunking people's delusions. They poke holes in the claims made by "alternative medicines" like homeopathy, acupuncture, or chiropractic therapy. They like to expose psychics as frauds. They show up ghost hunters, and question people who believe they were abducted by aliens. What they don't take on, and has always puzzled me, are the woo-based claims made by the anti-choice movement.

I can't think of a better example of organized woo than anti-choicers. UFO aficionados and conspiracy theorists have the numbers, but rarely do they exhibit the same kind political pull that the anti-choice community has. But other than their extraordinary political effectiveness, the anti-choice movement resembles any other group of woo believers. They organize around some really wild claims that filter out to the rest of society in a milder form that makes them seem more sane. For instance, UFO believers and homeopathy followers internally believe, respectively, that people live entire alternate lives on board alien ships and that almost any disease can be cured by drinking lots of water with microscopic traces of herbs in it. What filters out to the rest of us is just the erroneous belief that we have aliens that visit occasionally and taking herbs can be a substitute for real medicine. Similarly, anti-choicers internally believe that sex education and birth control is unilaterally an offense against god and nature, but the outside world that picks up on this mostly walks away with the message that abortion is bad.

Seriously, it should only take one look at the folks marching around the Hollywood premiere of "Horton Hears A Who" with red stickers that say "Life" over their faces, half willing themselves to believe that this movie is secretly all about them and their issues. It's a cult, and a strange one at that.

But what should really put the anti-choice community on the radar of the skeptical community is their hostility to science and their affection for anti-scientific claims. Anti-choicers make outlandish claims about the brain activity and feelings of embryos and fetuses, claims that could potentially affect a woman who obtained an abortion and believed lies about what happened later. They make deeply unscientific claims about how hormonal contraception causes abortion in order to give cover to a larger anti-contraception agenda. They make claims about how condoms don't work in an effort to dissuade people from using this potentially life-saving prevention device. And let's not get into the unscientific, woo-esque claims made about how Terri Schiavo could have a miraculous recovery.

Penn and Teller did in fact take on the anti-choice community's claims in an episode of "Bullsh*t," when they did an episode on abstinence-only education. So there's some indication on the horizon that the skeptical community senses all the woo coming from the anti-choice community and leaking into the regular political discourse, sometimes into alarming bills like the Human Life Amendment that attempts to enshrine the woo about "life" beginning at conception into law. But even though there's ample unscientific material to work with in the anti-choice literature, there's not a whole lot of correction coming from the usual skeptical sources. Why not?

Probably because politics ruins a good party. Skeptics come from all over the political spectrum, so digging into this angle might cause strife in the community. Many skeptics, while still being pro-science, might be amenable to the idea that women should be held as second class citizens by laws against reproductive justice, and starting internal battles on this issue might be seen as too much trouble. There's also the fear that getting political leads to ideological claims, which color the ability to practice skeptical inquiry properly. Penn and Teller often get called out on the carpet because their libertarian ideology often leads them to abandon their commitment to scientific evidence, most notably in their episode about second hand smoke, an episode that ignored evidence against their claims that it is basically harmless.

Unfortunately, the struggle between science-based thinking and woo-based thinking is getting increasingly politicized in this country. Even the most reluctantly political science supporters have had to face up to the political power of woo in the aftermath of increasingly vehement attempts from creationists trying to replace genuine science in the biology classroom with myths that sit better with their more magical understanding of the world. Maybe the scope of skepticism could widen to include skepticism about outrageous claims made by anti-choicers? God knows a lot of us fighting the woo-based anti-choice activists come from a background of social justice, not science, and we could use all the help we can get.

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  • invalid-0

    It is unfortunate that you and the “skeptics” include traditional medicine in this issue: there have been many studies that show the efficincy of acupuncture, massage and acupressure, chiropractic, and certainly herbs(which are the basis of most drugs btw!) and even homepathy(though I admit that one is hard to beleive–except that it does work.) Those of us who promote natural, traditional healing techniques (who are also ethical) do not offer those methods as an alternative to modern medicine but as as complementary to it for life threatening illness and sometimes an alternateive for those issues where modern medicine is not successful at all. My family doctor who is the most ethical doctor I know regularly refers patients for complementary care when he can see that stress and tension are the major issues involved, for example. As a pro-choice person I don’t think we need more devisiveness in our movement–stick to pro choice issues please and don’t comment on things that you obviously have no knowledge on! Thank you.

  • invalid-0

    Anonymous says acupuncture etc work. That’s an assertion without evidence which is what all supporters of these
    non-scientific beliefs say.(homeopathy works???) Yes, massage can lower blood pressure and chiropractic “can” have some beneficial effects in limited circumstances but
    saying that does not validate any other belief.

    Those who do not understand the complexity of scientific research, that all “studies” are not always done correctly or are blatantly done to support a conclusion without regard to proper standards or who believe that there is some mysterious reason that prevents the public from knowing how helpful all this fringe crap is, please spend YEARS reading Skeptic, the Skeptical Inquirer and other reputable sources. Then you will begin to understand how gullible the public is and how there is an industry ready to take advantage of their inability to think and analyze critically.

  • invalid-0

    It’s good to see another pro-choice skeptic! Actually, it seems like most pro-choicers have a healthy degree of skepticism. It is frustrating, however, that I can’t think of any prominent skeptics who are openly pro-choice. Like you said, it seems that they’re afraid of getting too much into politics.
    < br/>
    Or, maybe it’s also that they don’t want to take sides on abortion/reproductive justice because those are very complex issues. Sure, the anti-choice side is fond of using oft-debunked, unscientific “evidence” to back up their claims, but they also often have genuine concerns about the ethics of abortion. Unfortunately, most people see pro-choice and pro-life as opposing sides that are equally untrustworthy, and think that pro-choice is an extreme position.
    < br/>

  • invalid-0

    glad to hear lots of skeptics are pro-choice, but please, stick to what you know. Alternative medicine modalities do work, depending on a person’s disposition and what they choose; there is an alternative for everyone out there just as there are so many different religions, each suitable for different individuals. and follow the money trail to see where the allopathic ‘scientific’ tests are conducted and for and by whom. In Europe, for example, many alternative medicines have been studied at great length in scientific studies and have been found to be affective but because they are not funded by our big pharmas, ‘they’ do not count.

    and not to take away from your interesting approach to pro-choice, but let’s not forget this is basically an issue of a woman’s right to choose; just as there are so many different religions to choose from and so many different medical modalities to choose from, each woman has a myriad of reasons, that she has and that only she is entitled to know in order to choose or not to choose to have an abortion; and likewise, who’s to say when ‘life’ begins? as this is both a philosophical and/or religious belief and can’t be proved one way or another. If we could just convince the anti-choice people of this, well, then, maybe they could become a little more tolerant but as with all fundamentalists, only their way is the right way so that if you’re not one of us, you are against us.

    Let the skeptics continue their discourse; let the penn & tellers of this world hold these basically misinformed anti-choicers to a level of intelligence they should aspire to and let’s hope one day we can forever say that a “woman’s right to choose” is for her and her alone to decide with a clinic less than an hour’s drive from her home! everywhere in the USA!

  • invalid-0

    “What they don’t take on, and has always puzzled me, are the woo-based claims made by the anti-choice movement.”

    because pro-lifers have the Truth on side, there is no debunking:

  • invalid-0

    The arguments against choice completely miss the point – the point is that women have a right to privacy, and to control their own bodies. Women will try to exercise that right whether it’s legal or not. Making abortion illegal does not reduce the number of abortions – it just drives the practice underground and endangers the lives and health of the women seeking the procedure. I am confident that almost all pro-choice people would like to see the number of abortions reduced, and that is acheived by preventing an unwanted pregnancy in the first place. The myths promulgated by the anti-choicers about barrier birth control methods such as condoms is incredibly misleading and inaccurate – especially in regards to preventing STDs such as AIDS. When AIDS was hitting the gay community hard, there was a concentrated effort in the community to educate their members about safe sex practices focusing especially on condom use, that effort dramatically reduced the rate of new infections in that group. I would respect the anti-choice community more if in addition to protesting at reproductive health clinics, they would also protest with the same vehemence at fertility clinics where dozens of viable fertilized ovum left over from implanting procedures are routinely discarded, or protest the “imprisonment” of frozen embryos. When women have access to birth control, comprehensive sex education and safe and legal abortions, the number of abortions drop, as well as the rate of STDs. The actions of the anti-choice movement in shutting down reproductive health clinics, reducing access to birth control and insisting on “abstinence only” sex education actually increases the number of abortions performed.

  • scott-swenson

    Color me skeptical of the skeptics. If these alternative modalities don’t work, why is western medicine embracing so many of them and why is big pharma racing to patent and own all the plants in the amazon that indigenous peoples have been using for thousands and thousand of years. Those “witch doctors” are responsible for many of the modern medicines we attribute to science. The best part of alternative healing methods, like alternative birthing methods, is that it encourages individuals to take more responsibility for their lives and turn less power over to others. Penn and Teller are comedians, to some, I’m not sure I’d source them on much scientific as Amanda points out, they use material that suits their sketch routine. As for the other skeptic web sites, reading through those always makes me think that these people just never met an idea they liked, that wasn’t theirs to start with. To Amanda’s larger point, the woo factor in the pro-life movement is significant and it is telling that supposed skeptics are silent.

    Be the change you seek,

    Scott Swenson, Editor

  • invalid-0


    After seeing your comments I read your bio. Your efforts are important and I sincerely respect and appreciate your work. But your comments are essentially uninformed.

    Pharma racing to patent plants. Of course many drugs come from those plants. What does that have to do with skepticism. Skeptics (a varied group like any other) are not against what works. The essence of skepticism is evidence, objective, scientific, verifiable evidence. Penn and Teller; just like everyone else – right on some things wrong on others.

    Your comments regarding skeptic sources is suggestive of a bias. Uninformed people, those who like their pseudoscientific beliefs resent those who debunk them. If I told you you were a jerk saying what you believe is dead wrong (and proving it) would you tend to like me more? Or the same? Or less? Science is very complex and as one who respects real evidence I know how difficult it is to know what is real and battle those who peddle baloney. If you received solid evidence that one of your beliefs was misguided would you drop it? Most people don’t because they are rigid and don’t care about evidence. What they believe makes them feel good and evidence is resented because it tampers with their self-worth (or something else).

    Finally, you say that skeptics only like the ideas they have. You obviously have never analyzed how much daily information we see that is phony. We are manipulated constantly to believe, to buy, to reject, or to like. Being appropriately skeptical is the only way to separate truth from fiction – which is mandatory to know how to live defensively.(critical thinking anyone?) Lately there has been a refreshing attempt to bring some rationality to the subject of religion. The 1920’s had more of this than we do now. Based on the words you used in your bio, faith and blessed, can one assume a discomfort on your part with some skeptic’s efforts to show another side of religious belief?
    I’m just asking, not completely believing until I get solid truthful evidence. Because I’m a skeptic.

  • marysia


    You write that "Skeptics enjoy debunking people's delusions."

    Skepticism is a good and valuable thing when it is a tool for inquiry and discovery of truth (or at least what our finite brains can discover and discern of it).

    And incidentally, skepticism is not regarded as valuable by nonreligious persons alone.  In many forms of religion/spirituality, even (!) in some forms of Christianity, doubt and skepticism are regarded as essential components of personal and social evolution.

    However–like any other tool humans have at their disposal, skepticism can be abused.  Like when it is used for the sadistic thrill of asserting how intelligent and enlightened one is as opposed to those despicably deluded idiots who would believe such a stupid thing.

    When skepticism is employed in this fashion it becomes something else besides a valuable methodology.  It becomes a very basic and community-destroying form of unkindness.  When "truth" is used as a weapon, it becomes a lie, because it is used to demean. 

     Should skepticism be applied to the beliefs ad practices of abortion opponents?  Though I am one, I answer, of course.  By the same token,

    skepticism should be applied to the beliefs and practices of abortion rights advocates.

    In the experiences of many people, a skeptical, deep analysis of both "camps" and the stereotypes each has about the other–an analysis bent on finding what's there instead of exalting one's own "righteousness" at the expense of dreaded "others"–reveals something very interesting. 

    There are thoughtful, compassionate people on both "sides" who often overlap significantly in their visions of human rights and reproductive justice.  And even where they diverge, they can recognize each other as human beings deserving of respect and kindness, not of mockery and putdowns.

  • invalid-0

    called Life_Controversies was recently launched yahoogroups. Would you be interested in participating? The moderator said it was alright for me to mention it here.

  • invalid-0

    Lying for a “noble” cause is still lying, pal.
    < br/>
    The funny thing about ambiguous, suspicius URLs is that people can read them by hovering the mouse over them. I see that you’ve posted a site full of gory, nasty “abortion” pictures. Since you’re so commited to “the Truth” and since I’m sure you’re an honest person, I think you ought to know the truth about a lot of those icky pictures:
    The Truth About Anti-abortion Pictures from Life And Liberty For Women
    Since I have some idea of common courtesy, I will warn people that THE ABOVE LINK CONTAINS IMAGES SOME MAY FIND DISTURBING/OFFENSIVE.
    < br/>
    So you see, many of those pictures are misrepresented, doctored, or hoaxes. If you really want to help your cause, I suggest not holding up the images that the link debunked as evidence. After all, how right can you be if you have to lie to get people to beleive you?
    < br/>
    Another thing: Assuming that some of those pictures are real, so what? Lots of things are disgusting, but we don’t ban them. I’m a vegetarian, but I don’t go around shoving dead animal pics into people’s faces like some PETA nut, because I know that appeal to emotion is not a valid debate tactic. We don’t make thing illegal because they’re gross.
    < br/>
    Lastly, remember that for every time you show an “abortion” picture, I’ve got a real picture of a woman who died from a coathanger abortion at my disposal. And besides that, there are dozens of accounts like it from the “good ol’ days” when abortion was illegal and the culture of life was one of injured, dead and disappeared young women.

  • invalid-0

    Alternative medicine modalities do work, depending on a person’s disposition and what they choose; there is an alternative for everyone out there just as there are so many different religions, each suitable for different individuals.

    < br/>
    The emphasized bit works against your assertion. When you say that they work depending on things like “dispostion”, it suggests that it works like a placebo, which would mean that it is not effective. Also… the “big pharma” stuff kind of makes it sound like you’ve got a conspiracy theory and a persecution complex going on…
    < br/>
    And this isn’t an issue of choice and alternatives. This isn’t about pro-life and pro-choice beleifs per se, it’s about what these beleifs are built upon: evidence. Facts. Reality. People can believe whatever they want, but when beliefs are unfounded or based on illusions, lies, or misinformation, they ought to be challenged. As Skeptic’s Society founder Michael Shermer is fond of saying, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.
    < br/>
    And just to nitpick…

    …with a clinic less than an hour’s drive from her home! everywhere in the USA!

    Actually, that’s a bit much. I live about half an hour away from school and the nearest supermarket, and about an hour from nearly everything else, and it’s not that bad.

  • amanda-marcotte

    Is that I got a long email from someone defending the existence of UFOs.  I wouldn't have realized that, more than anything else, would stick in someone's craw.

  • marysia

    sounds interesting…where/how to sign up?

  • invalid-0


    I agree there is the potential for abuse in anything people do. Everyone has met those who like to advertise their “superior” knowledge. But there is a way to protect
    yourself from that treatment. Never buy into ANYTHING that does not have overwhelming evidence in its favor. That way you will not be emotionally threatened when given facts you never considered or knew and you will also be more willing to change your mind based on new evidence. Additionally, you have to be as knowledgeable as possible about your belief so as to ask questions of the person advancing the criticism. One of you will find the other lacks support that way. Now how many do that? That’s why disagreements (or worse) arise. Almost all of my positions are flexible because that way I can add new facts. Which by the way does not necessarily mean they are “wrong” now – just incomplete.

    Your point regarding religion allowing skepticism is unsupportable. The essence of religion is unchanging truth and obedience to that “truth”. Sure some pick and choose what they believe but that is not the same because there is always the criticism that you are not a real…….. because you don’t accept everything. Need I give examples of those that have questioned religion in any way to prove it can, in extreme circumstances, kill (e.g. anti-Islam CARTOONS!)

    Skepticism is not a patch to use or something brought out for special circumstances. It’s a way of evaluating information scientifically, which I have already said in a prior post is necessary in varying degrees every day. Those that feel threatened, abused or ridiculed by respectful criticism or debunking do not have facts in their favor. It’s just raw emotional belief without support. It’s what humans do.

    P.S. Sayna – I like your comments.

  • invalid-0

    The group is here:

    Irrazione is the group moderator.

    I look forward to not-quite-so-stressful discussions with you. *crosses fingers and knocks on wood* Because some people get so ANGRY.

  • invalid-0

    a town in Wisconsin hosts an official UFO landing site? [grin]