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Misappropriation of science. 
20th-Jul-2010 03:08 pm
webcomics, science
This is a representation of the periodic table. Click through for Web Elements: a comprehensive resource on the chemistry of the elements.
A periodic table from a screencap of webelements.com

The Periodic Table

The periodic table is a perfect example of truth and beauty and simplicity in nature.

Invented by Dmitri Mendeleev, and published in 1869, it originated when Mendeleev realised he could arrange all 65 (then) known elements in order of increasing atomic mass, and add line breaks to form a table in which each element shared properties with others in the same column.  Mendeleev was Russian, so the elements are arranged top left to bottom right, but the table would emerge had he used any other direction of reading. The arrangement was so accurate in its simplicity that it enabled Mendeleev to predict the existence and properites of Germanium, Gallium and Scandium before their ‘actual’ discoveries.

Later, Moseley would demonstrate that Mendeleev had inadvertantly organised his table according to atomic number, not mass, which enabled Moseley to predict yet more elements based on gaps this left in the arrangement. The Periodic Table is just a graphical illustration of chemical elements, but it’s much much more than just a comprehensive list: the layout of the table enables it to be divided into columns (Groups) and rows (Periods) which each share trends and similarities in elemental properties. The Wikipedia page for the Periodic table demonstrates not just the periods and the groups, but blocks of varying shapes that cluster together elements of similar properties. The position of an element in the table predicts the properties that element has – determined just by atomic number.

This is all GCSE level chemistry. There are reasons why elements in certain positions have those properties, but that’s not important. What’s important is atomic number (the number of protons in the atom) of an element predicts that element’s properties in a way that the Periodic tables illustrates simply and elegantly.

That’s the periodic table.

This, posted by Crispian Jago at Blogspot, is not a periodic table. It’s a list of things Crispian Jago thinks are nonsense, sorted roughly into groups and plonked onto the same layout, ont0 which he (?) has assigned something called a ‘WOO number’. I’ve no idea what ‘woo’ is supposed to be, but I’ve heard it bandied about as a noun among the Skeptic community* before, presumably to mean “things I disagree with.” It’s enough to make me wish to reclaim the verb, honestly. I think Bing needs a good wooing.

There are blocks of ‘Cryptozoology’, ‘Religion’, ‘Extraterrestrial’ and the like but beyond that very superficial sorting, there’s absolutely no effort to even think about what the periodic table represents. No thought to groups, to periods, to… well, anything, really. I mean, if there’s a point beyond “everyone who disagrees with me can be lumped in together with everyone else who disagrees with me!” then feel free to point it out to me.

But Debi, you may be saying, surely you’re just throwing a hissy fit because he’s stuck Buddism in, called it a religion, and given it a higher ‘WOO’ number than Christianity? Nah, dude, whatever. It’s not worth getting into. You can check the comments for the usual ‘I heard it’s got reincarnation and gods and stuff, therefore it MUST be a religion!’ schtick (with bonus “Wikipedia says it’s a religion”). I’m not a Dharma teacher, I’m a science communicator, and I’m more concerned with the misappropriation of a scientific concept (and as a writer, the abuse of symbolism and metaphor) than I am with the content.

(But let’s take a second to marvel at the implications of reducing the whole of “traditional Chinese medicine” into one ‘element’)

If you want someone commenting on the content, try Andrew, who says:

…I can see two possible ways that list was put together:
Possibility a – The author has, himself, researched into all these categories, read all the relevant literature, looked at the arguments used by the most prominent advocates of those beliefs/hypotheses/ideas, checked their data, and somehow come to the conclusion that only those things that are attacked regularly by Ben Goldacre, Richard Dawkins and other prominent ‘skeptics’ are irrational nonsense or
Possibility b – He has chosen a list that, within the group of people he wishes to associate with, is completely uncontroversial, a list endorsed by the alpha males of his group, without actually thinking rationally about any of it.

Andrew challenges the rationality of anyone who can’t pick one of Crispian’s list of ‘woo’ and defend it. I’d like to extend that invitation to you guys; anyone who wants to should feel welcome to do that on the comments of his entry or here (wherever this post is duplicated), because I think he’s very very right. Of course, Andrew and I don’t agree on the subjects in question -  he thinks memetics should be tucked in next to Scientology and to me, the inheritance of ideas is so self evident it’d be like defending the existence of the milkman. But we do agree on one thing: that just making a list of ‘things I disagree with (and you should too)’, pasting it onto an appropriated and entirely unrelated illustration, and calling it humour.

I think I’m well and truly done with this ‘movement’.

*honestly sceptical people can be distinguished from Skeptics, at least in the UK, by their ability to spell ‘sceptic’. In the USA, and anywhere sharing the spelling conventions, the task is harder.

This post can also be found at Thagomizer.net. Feel free to join in the conversation wherever you feel most comfortable.

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20th-Jul-2010 02:18 pm (UTC)
We'll get into it when we both have time. I may be missing some huge leap of logic that is made to go from what I htink to what the accepted idea is.
20th-Jul-2010 02:53 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I see the word "meme" as being a scientification of "idea". It doesn't actually add anything more on, and it's there purely to make it sound like there's hard science involved.
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20th-Jul-2010 02:28 pm (UTC)

You know beyond "things I disagree with and wish to lump into one general category so I can dismiss it without engaging with any of it."
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20th-Jul-2010 02:31 pm (UTC)
Ah yes. Why on earth should there be a short, convenient term for "things which are not supported by any empirical tests but persistently pushed as effective and aggressively defended by people with huge emotional and financial stakes in them"? Then we might be able to get onto the discussion part more quickly! What an awful word "woo" is.
20th-Jul-2010 02:34 pm (UTC)
Really? That's the definition? What's wrong with the word 'bullshit'?
20th-Jul-2010 02:36 pm (UTC)
Bullshit is something different. Bullshit exists to deceive others; woo (or woo-woo, or whatever - it's deliberately childish because the premise "it just works, okay?" *HUFFSTAMP* is childish) exists to deceive the self as well.
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20th-Jul-2010 02:41 pm (UTC)
Have you read Bad Science, at all? I believe there was reference in there to the maaaany many many trials in which acupuncture, vitamin ODing, homeopathy, Bach Flower Remedies and so on never produced a better-than-placebo effect. Perhaps people talking among themselves don't feel the need to reach back and explain any more than feminists have to reach back and explain feminism 101 every time we mention a concept that's new to the passerby?
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20th-Jul-2010 02:54 pm (UTC)
I've also heard "Woo" to refer to emotional/arty things. So The Fountain was full of Woo because it was a parable rather than being a straightforward portrayal of events.
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