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I've been active on a couple of questions where "science woo" claims are being challenged. The trouble with this kind of woo is that so many of the claims don't mean anything.

To quote one sample:

[The device] brings water back into [its] natural form.

How are we to determine if this is true or false? First we must determine what is meant by the "natural form" of water. But since the original claim does not define what this means, and there is no widely accepted meaning for the term, there is no way to do this.

We could of course make some guesses, but the list of things that this statement might mean is very long, and that is before the original writer responds to requests for clarification with even more woo.

When I wrote this in response to the first question @LangLangC commented:

I agree that there a lof of dubious claims around that 'device'. But you might take them one by one and analyse them by a common standard of language and scientific conceptions. 'They' may then continue to "but-I-meant". That is not futile, just a big task. In fact, it might be necessary for you to convert this long comment into an answer with the required references.

I can certainly see the merit in LangLangC's argument; a core value of skepticism is that we don't dismiss claims without evidence. However I stand by my original argument that trying to reverse-engineer a meaning into woo is a pointless exercise.

So how should we deal with woo in questions? Can we simply say "This is meaningless woo"?

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Please do NOT merely assert that something is meaningless woo.

There are many sites that permit people to stridently assert their unreferenced opinions on the scientific status of claims. Skeptics.SE is not one of them.

If you want to do that, please check out Quora, Google Answers, Twitter, YouTube comments, Facebook pages, etc. While you are there, note the median quality of the other posts.

One of my favourite examples is how many times accusations that an image has been manipulated appears in the comments on many sites, on images that are later proven to be authentic. It is common enough to be parodied in a meme.

Your opinion is not nearly as important as the verifiable evidence you use to form your opinion, that we can follow up and hopefully use to form the same opinion.


So what should we do?

Well, the first thing to do would be to fix the question.

Take the "Does a vortex affect water?" question.

That title is meaningless, and I have already rolled it back to the original title which is only marginally better:

Does a vortex make water healthier?

This question is still poor. It too many different claims listed.

Some are meaningful. Does it remove any metallic taste? That's answerable.

Some appear to be meaningless: Does it bring water back into its natural form? At first blush, that's gibberish.

Some are tricky. Does it precipitate manganese and iron? Answerable, but with no filter, does that make a difference?

Ideally, this question should have been edited down to one or two claims before people jumped in with half-answers. It is now hard to edit the question without invalidating the answers. If we ended up selecting one of the meaningful claims, the problem goes away.

(Ultimately, the claim is that stirred water is healthier, which has its own problems. None of the answers adequately address that claim.)


Once we have it down to one claim, we might still find the claim seems meaningless. Suppose the question was "Does the vortex vessel bring water back to its natural form?"

Firstly, we need to be sure that it is meaningless. We need to find out what the original claimant meant by that. Maybe they wrote a definition of "natural form" somewhere else that they are referencing. Maybe if we accepted their definition, the claim would be prosaic to us. Simply declaring "this is meaningless woo" is not acceptable - it is an argument from ignorance fallacy.

One way to break this deadlock is to ask the OP what sort of evidence they would accept. If there is no conceivable way to prove that stirred water is or isn't in its "natural form", then it is time to close the question as unclear.

  • Not sure I like the idea of N questions of the form "Does this device do X to water?", but definitely agree that asking the OP to clarify woo is the way to go. – Paul Johnson Nov 11 '18 at 9:19
  • I was thinking of asking a similar question. Not about woo, but about loaded questions, for example ones on climate change (where subtle innuendo assumes it isn't real) or conspiracy theories like that recent one about badbios, which seems to have quite a following after all. Do you treat every question with equal merit and take them all seriously? I suspect the answer to be similar to this one though. – Jerome Viveiros Nov 14 '18 at 13:28
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I'm a new kid on the block but I would tend to tackle it like this:

Claim: [The device] brings water back into [its] natural form.

Verdict: Not amenable to skeptical inquiry.

This has the potential to cover a lot of ground -- perhaps too much. Everything from old classics like "There is a God" to more-modern "These magnets will make you feel better".

Possibly a good candidate for an FAQ, whatever approach is approved.

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    Why should we trust your opinion on whether something is puffery? – Oddthinking Nov 7 '18 at 2:25
  • Good answers are voted up and rise to the top. Trust the majority opinion. – Roger Nov 7 '18 at 3:05
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    The "vote" argument only works on objective stuff, voted upon by people competent on the subject, neither of which is true at the moment. – Sklivvz Nov 7 '18 at 9:24
  • It's as subjective as voting to close a question for insufficient notability, and that seems to be working well enough. – Roger Nov 7 '18 at 14:44
  • Not exactly, insuffisiant notability can just be considered that not enough sources have been provided. Specially coming at least from some professional mainstream in their respective fields (scientific publication, wide audience news like BBC, ...). – Walfrat Nov 12 '18 at 15:04

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