Where woo woo comes from and why it’s so seductive

If we are to explore some of the woo woo that’s been peddled about perfectly ordinary – and hugely spectacular – things on the planet, like ancient pyramids or apparently mysterious rock formations, I guess the first port of call is to understand why these things get turned into mysteries in the first place.

Some 20 km east of Lake Taupo in New Zealand’s North Island is a curious natural structure known as the ‘Kaimanawa Wall’. It’s made of ignimbrite and was formed by a pyroclastic flow that rolled across this part of New Zealand some 330,000 years ago. As the flow cooled, it split in a way that left the exposed side of the flow looking remarkably like a stone wall.

Needless to say, the fact that it looks like a stone wall has meant, to various ‘independent thinkers’, that it therefore is one, thus ‘proving’ that an ancient civilisation existed in New Zealand. The total lack of any actual evidence of such an entity hasn’t stopped them. Nor does the hard scientific data, which shows its natural origins. That’s rejected because, after all, the wall is obviously a wall.

It’s a style of thinking I have a hard job fathoming.

Modern scientific thinking runs something like this. There are hidden truths behind the superficial appearance of most things, the issue is finding out what they are. So we look at the ‘Kaimanawa Wall’, hypothesise that it might be an artificial structure, and the first question is whether that is literally true. We test the hypothesis, carefully investigating the material it’s made of and its context, to discover what lies beneath the superficial appearance – its composition, age and so forth. From that emerges the actual story of its origins – origins which, I might add, are consistent with the known geology of the era.

The ‘woo brigade’, on the other hand, also assume that there are hidden truths behind what they see up front, but have a very different idea about how these truths are hidden. They  look at the ‘Kaimanawa Wall’, note the similarity to an artificial structure on the face of it, and take that to be a literal and immutable truth. No testing is needed, because it seems self-evident, and from that assumption flows questions about how such a structure might have been built.

1195430130203966891liftarn_Writing_My_Master_s_Words_svg_medIt’s a kind of logic that was used by Medieval monks and other thinkers of a millennium or more ago – the world we see is literally what it seems, and points to hidden truths that can be discovered not by experimentation, but by deductive logic.  The approach was superseded by the very different thinking of the Early Modern period and the Age of Reason.

The consequence is that the woo brigade assume that the literal appearance of many of the apparently ‘mysterious’ artefacts and structures around the world reveals the actuality of what they see, and do not question the conclusions that follow. But if that initial premise is in fact not true, then the whole chain of logic they build after that breaks down – because it’s built on a faulty assumption.

This is me doing my 'writing getaway' impression on Rarotonga.
This is me doing my ‘writing getaway’ impression on Rarotonga, the key island from which Polynesians migrated to New Zealand around 1280 AD. The departure place is marked on the island. (Yes, it’s that well known).

That, of course, is why modern scientific method demands that we have to test that first assumption, as the very first port of call.

The other point is that woo offers simple certainties; anybody can ‘get’ the obvious literal answers it provides. And that’s attractive.

I’ve gone into this in some detail because it explains a good deal about how ‘woo’ gets traction in terms of various apparent archaeological mysteries and phenomena, around the world. More on this soon.

As for the ‘Kaimanawa Wall’ – well, the main problem with the woo brigade here isn’t that they think it’s artificial. It’s the rest of what follows – a fantasy construction about ancient ‘pre-Maori’ civilisations in New Zealand that inevitably ends up being tangled up with the assumption that these imaginary ‘pre-Maori’ settlers were ‘Celtic’. Dog-whistle code, in short, for some extremely unpalatable present-day bigotry.

The take-home facts? The ‘Kaimanawa Wall’, a natural formation, was already ancient around 1280 AD when New Zealand became the last large land mass in the world to be settled by humans. These settlers probably landed on the Wairau Bar, were probably preceded by exploratory voyages, and were Polynesians who came from the Cook and Marquesas islands. This has been established beyond doubt from a wide range of disparate evidence – genetic, linguistic, archaeological and so forth. No humans existed in New Zealand before then – evidenced, among other things, by the fact that the original flora and fauna were untouched when the Polynesians arrived, but succumbed quickly soon afterwards in the last of the great Pleistocene collisions. A distinctly ‘Maori’ culture emerged indigenously from the Polynesian settlements during the fifteenth century, a turbulent time of significant culture change.

All this is well established – as, indeed, is the origin of the ‘Kaimanawa Wall’. No woo required.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


9 thoughts on “Where woo woo comes from and why it’s so seductive

  1. While I agree with you in terms of broad strokes two items might be worth mentioning.

    1. Your linking “woo woo” thinking to medieval monks is particularly telling, given that the scientific method and “scientific thought” didn’t exist for more than a handful of people — a very bare handful at that, and not a consistent habit, arguably, even for that handful — until possibly as late as the mid-19th Century. I learned about the scientific method in high school biology, but that was something my teacher emphasized. Other teachers I had did not. One might, from this, argue that “scientific thought” is a matter of conscious evolution, although the “conscious” part might be worth further argument and discussion. Consider also, in this vein, what percentage of the total population of the planet is engaged in scientific work. Is it as much as 5%? Might it be as little as 1%, or even less? From an evolutionary perspective, what is the effect on the majority of the population when an extremely small minority drives cultural changes?

    2. While the question I now pose shouldn’t, in any way, shape, or form, be considered as a hindrance or limit on scientific inquiry or thinking, can skepticism be taken too far? At what point, for example, does “skepticism” become a defense of orthodoxy? At what point, too, does orthodox thinking become uncomfortably close to “woo woo” thinking? The medieval monks were orthodox thinkers, for example. Non-orthodox ideas would be treated with skepticism — in defense of that same orthodoxy. At what point, then, does skepticism become a useful tool in the examination of new ideas?

    1. I guess if we took scepticism to its logical conclusion, then even scientific conclusions would have to be questioned; at a certain point, we have to accept the if-then logical chains proposed. I think the medieval thought process is very much with us; the whole of Dan Brown’s ouvre pivots on it and there’s no questioning the popularity of his work – including the way his readers identify with what he is proposing. But I don’t think it’s universal. While, as you point out, in a strict sense scientific method is limited to the scientific community, I think the principles in general, in terms of our if-then chains of logic, are applied more widely – and to this extent that very small community have had a disproportionate effect over the years.

  2. “Celtic” — GRRRRR. As in “if white men didn’t do it, it didn’t happen”…… Great article. So much of humanity is so, well, frightened I suppose you could say. The universe is huge, the Earth is small, and humans are, by and large, not as much as a dust mote upon the vastness around them. So, they try to make us “special” in ways that only make us even more ridiculous. And more dangerous, as we thrash around destroying everything in our paths… including the only world we have to live on.But that doesn’t matter to them as some alien being or god or someone is going to swoop down and take the “good” (read sanctimonious, illiterate and nonscientific thinkers) little humans away…

    I can’t help but think of the scene in “Independence Day” where the woo woo were standing on top of the high rise waving signs “Bring Back Elvis!” – – – and we all know what happened to them. . . 😉

    1. Here in New Zealand the Celtic crowd have revealed their true nature by their behaviour towards the Treaty of Waitangi, which is the key document that defines race relations – conceptually and legally – in New Zealand. When the National Library organised a national bus tour to promote knowledge of the Treaty, the Celtic crowd followed it about in a van emblazoned with placards declaring the Treaty to be a fraud. This is because they have their own version of it, apparently discovered in a drawer set purchased at an auction house which they regard as the ‘real thing’ although it differs from the actual Treaty and is, of course, unauthenticated and unsigned. I am not joking. Of course this is all in line with their own agenda. If they were in a history class I was teaching, I’d give them an F. For ‘idiot’. Well, actually a 7-letter word beginning with f that means the same thing…

  3. Fascinating post, Matthew. I suppose it is something that this “ancient civilization” was not from another planet. That said, I appreciate the chagrin regarding a Celtic civilization. Frankly, I find geology so fascinating in its own right that I am among the last to look for any human hand in any formation. In other words, I see a geologic formation where someone else may see a human structure. This does keep me on the fringe…. 😉 Good one, Matthew!

    1. You, me and the scientific community on the fringe! 🙂 One of the funniest stories about the local Celtic woo woo crowd here happened a couple of years ago when they decided boulders dug up in the central North Island by a local district council were an ancient Celtic temple. They ‘proved’ this by measuring the angles and orientation of the boulders, completely ignoring the fact that the specific locations were a result of the council’s bulldozers. Of course there is always the possibility that the council was part of a conspiracy to hide the point, or something.

  4. There seems to be no end of woo woo. Over here, we’ve got Area 51, where alien spaceships are kept. The more the government claims there isn’t any, the more people know they are lying. I still love that face on Mars and the “conspiracy” to cover it up. Recently, Discovery produced a “documentary” showing new proof of a civilization of Mermaids. It was very cleverly done. In the fine print, they admitted it was for entertainment only, but people’s eyes were glazed over by then.
    I think woo woo can be fun, so long as it’s placed in the proper container, that of entertainment, NOT science.
    I think woo woo propagates so well because it isn’t actual science. Science concerns itself with all sorts unintelligible jargon like “specific gravity,” “viscosity,” and “shear strength versus “tensile strength.” There’s confusing ideas like diamonds are the hardest substance known to man, but at the same time they are very fragile. Huh? Doesn’t make sense until you understand material properties, and few layman do. Woo woo is much easier to understand. Its loose but “apparently logical” links never require the listener to understand technological lingo. The links from one point to another seem straightforward. If it makes sense immediately, then it must be true, right?
    The general populace wants to understand things, I believe, but after a long hard day at the office they don’t want to think too hard at it. People want things that are interesting and fascinating without doing all the legwork (that science always does) to find it. Woo woo is the perfect solution for providing what most folks want.

    1. Exactly. And if only the world was as the various woo-brigade advocates suggest, it would be so much simpler! That Mars face sums it all up – even when the reality emerges, it’s a cover-up.

      I must do a post about Area 51. All the woo about it is real, and I know this because Elvis, who’s currently living on Venus disguised as a walrus, visited me secretly in his UFO and told me. Or was that Hoffa in the walrus disguise? A bit confusing. Anyhow, it’s all true.

      1. It actually is Elvis in the walrus suit. The part about Jimmy Hoffa is a lie spread by the Illuminati. It’s all part of their secret eugenics plan to build super-humans with alien DNA. 😉

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