the science terminology abuse top five

Science is full of technical jargon and words with multiple, context-dependent meanings. And purveyors of woo and snake oil are happy to abuse this to line their wallets.

junk science warning

For as long as there was science, there have been people poaching words from technical jargons to generate an initial sense of respectability to whatever they were saying or selling. And unfortunately, for the same length of time, they’ve been disregarding what the terms they borrow actually entail and spun their definition to justify elaborate quackery and crankery. Today, the situation is no different and technobabble flows from the mouths and pages of woo-meisters like an oceanic current. Now, all words are not created equal for pseudoscientific abuse and there are trends in woo-speak. So what are some of today’s hottest out-of-context buzzwords?

#5. Evolution

As far as scientific theories go, evolution is a damn good one so it may seem like an odd place to begin. However, when biologists and non-scientists talk about the concept, they often mean two drastically different things. In biology, evolution is a process of gradual change and selection. In pop culture, evolution is synonymous with advancement which is why many woo peddlers, New Age enthusiasts, and transhumanist pontificators use it in their discussion. According to them, human transcendence or spiritual enlightenment is simply part of an evolutionary process and we’ll somehow overcome our natural limitations as a final stage of our evolution. Seriously? Just try and tell a biologist about a final stage of evolution without being brained and very rightfully so. Evolution is like climate. It’s an ongoing, dynamic process that will be with us as long as life can survive on our planet and its end will only come when the last remaining organisms on Earth a few billion years from now will fade into extinction and our world burns under a blistering, giant, red Sun.

#4. Natural

Invoking the natural, wholesome goodness of things is the latest marketing craze in the generally static food and supplement business. Today, with millions of people highly conscious of their health reading the ingredients on just about every can and box they buy, entrepreneurs figured out that substituting chemical names with herbs and other “natural” products would give their customers a warm and fuzzy feeling of escape from all those scary synthetics. And millions of people fell for it. Here’s the funny thing though. Natural doesn’t mean safe or good for you and many of those scary sounding chemical names on boxes are actually extracts from plants, fruits, vegetables and milk. Nature also has a vast supply of venoms, toxins and radioactive rocks which could kill you just by being in the same room with you. In reality, natural simply means that it’s extant in this universe which is a list that consists of well… everything you can legally buy or illegally obtain.

#3. Energy

Invoked by mystics, homeopaths, psychics and a whole swath of New Age woo-meisters, energy is perhaps one of the most abused terms in physics. To get an idea how badly the term could be abused, just check out the inanities uttered by homeopathic optometrist Charlene Werner. The howling you can hear in the background if you listen hard enough is Einstein’s ghost screaming in his grave as his formula of mass- energy equivalence is violated in ways that would impress even Marquis de Sade. For those of us who live in the real world, energy is the potential of a system to do work via whatever mechanism generates and uses it, not a euphemism for magical powers supposedly laying dormant in our bodies, waiting to be harnessed by a meandering quack who trips over her own tongue trying to explain something a middle school student would be expected to know on a science test.

#2. Toxin

Listen to an alt med practitioner and you’ll soon imagine a miasma of toxins settling over everything you touch. They’re everywhere and their buildup in your body can make you sick which is why all those “natural supplements” they sell should be bought for the purpose of cleaning out your system. While it’s true that toxin buildup can cause you to get sick, diseases are generally caused by germs which is often missed or outright ignored by naturists and alt med quacks. Your body evolved in an environment in which it’s exposed to plenty of toxins on a regular basis and you do have a tolerance for them and their effects on your body. Unless you’re having bizarre symptoms, you’re probably not in danger of being poisoned to death by invisible gunk. And if for some reason you see trees in your neighborhood turn strange colors and producing their own lacquer, you’re probably better off going to a doctor and the EPA than someone who wants to sell you a bottle of whatever he’s calling a natural holistic body cleanser.

#1. Quantum

Ordinarily, quantum mechanics describes the complex behavior of the basic building blocks of matter. The implications of understanding how the most fundamental parts of everything around us work can yield grand insights into the function of the universe itself. But of course, the woo crew had to show up to ruin a good thing and they’ve co-opted some of the most exotic behaviors in particle physics into their technobabble, which seeks to somehow justify their belief that something inherently unscientific and useless actually works. One wonders if any of the cranks who invoke quantum particles have ever even seen the formulas underlying the modern understanding of how particles form, interact, arise and decay. Here’s a small sample…


And that’s just the Higgs Lagrangian which provides an overview of the dynamics of the Higgs boson. Let me give you a moment to pick up your jaw while posing the question of where can we find a paper using what we know to be an accurate mathematical description of how bosons and fermions work, supporting all the ideas behind quantum homeopathy advocated by Deepak Chopra and other oblivious cranks. Even worse, many a theologian eager to play scientist are dropping the word quantum and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in their proofs of a deity’s existence, often demonstrating they have no grasp on the very ideas they invoke. Much like the advocates of woo, they’ve substituted the quantum for their invocation of magic and miracles and then pretend that by merely using a word from scientific jargon somehow makes their explanations empirical when in reality it does no such thing and adds infinitely more harm than good to their arguments.

# science // pseudoscience / skepticism / woo

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