Harmony vs. Harm

It’s not always easy being a skeptic.  Being the voice of reason can sometimes get translated into being the ‘buzzkill,’ particularly when it comes to the more ‘socially acceptable’ forms of pseudoscience.  Is it really that big of a deal that your co-worker checks her horoscope every day?  So what if crazy cousin Jimmy believes in ghosts?   What about good luck talismans?  In India, it’s common to hang lemons and chillis over the door of a house or shop. Sort of like hanging a horseshoe, it’s said to prevent the ‘evil eye.’  Little traditions like this or similar seem silly, but surely they’re mostly harmless and maybe even a little fun to indulge in once in a while. (Lemons and chillis make your house smell exotic!)
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Alas, it’s a slippery slope.  Have you ever been talking to someone about some form of pseudoscience and had them say ‘well, why not just give it a chance?’  Ever have them argue that there’s no harm in keeping an open mind to alternative medicines or treatments or therapies?  My friend and fellow Atlantan, Tim Farley heard that argument one time too many.  So he’s spent the last few months compiling a list of exactly what the harm is and created What’s the Harm.

Tim has collected examples from anywhere he could where he could find real stories and facts about actual harm done by pseudoscience and lack of critical thinking.  So far, he’s up to 2,427 people killed, 17,708 injured and over $89,328,989 in economic damages across about 60 topics as varied as ayurvedic medicine (20 people harmed), faith healing (16 people harmed, 9 deaths) and apocalypse fears (1,807 people harmed, mostly dead.)

The list keeps going.  The data is real, the facts are scary, and it’s only the results of a few short months of data collection.  This is a great resource, for the next time you need data on the dangers of the next big pseudoscience kick.  The thing that really hit home for me was the data around innocent victims.  Tim’s got a whole section on examples of children harmed by people not thinking critically (16,753).

Help Tim out by contacting him with other examples of physical, emotional, financial or psychological harm that has been caused to people.  And next time crazy cousin Jimmy comes by, tell him that ghosts are crap and that believing in them can do serious harm.  And have the facts to back it up.

 And for any other folks in Atlanta, come join Tim and other cool skeptics for Skeptics in the Pub in a couple of weeks:

Saturday, February 23, 3:30 p.m.
North Avenue Room
Manuel’s Tavern
(at the corner of North and Highland Ave.)

See you there! And remember – CONSTANT VIGILANCE, my skeptic friends!  Harmony is no fun anyway :)

Cross posted at Masala Skeptic.


Maria D'Souza grew up in different countries around the world, including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Kenya and it shows. She currently lives in the Bay Area and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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  1. I have one for Tim, but for the life of me I can't find his email address on his page. Can you post a link to where I can find it?

  2. Peregrine, I thought the same thing when I read the slippery slope statement.

    I don't think most of the stuff is harmful if it's done for fun, but when you get to things related to people's health and welfare, it's pretty scary. I read my horoscope sometimes because it's funny, and I perform some other silly superstitious behaviors from time to time, like knocking on wood and such. I know it's not real but it's a cultural tradition. I don't think it's harmful as long as its done in jest.

    There's nothing inherently wrong with the idea of 'well, why not just give it a chance?’ The problem is that many of these things have been given a chance — or many chances — and they've failed spectacularly.

    What bothers me in general is that people accept things without thinking and without checking the facts. That's a dangerous way to make decisions.

  3. I'm pretty much on the same page. As long as there's a clearly defined threshold between superstition and reason, then many superstitions can be harmless. Throwing salt over your shoulder doesn't typically hurt anyone, except in sit com sketches, where someone's standing behind you and gets it in their eyes. Using a potato to remove warts is reasonably harmless. But then warts are generally benign, and can be removed by a really convincing placebo.

    I stopped reading my horoscope over a year ago. Even then, I didn't believe in it, I just read it for fun. But after a while, it became more and more pointless, and just a waste of time.

    The problem is that the general public doesn't get all the facts. They get a flurry of information blurring past them at lightspeed, buried in with a whole bunch of other crap. Information is available to scientists and curious onlookers, and anyone else ignores it until they need it for some reason, and then they're left out of the loop. The popular press tells them about a clinical trial, but doesn't bother with a followup, and a year later when they actually need that information, it's nowhere to be found.

  4. Rob Carrols site, The Skepdics Dictionary has a section called "What's the Harm." There are many good/bad examples of the harm caused by pseudoscience and stupidity like the priest that tried to rape the devil out of his teenage daughter (freekin gross man).


  5. I agree with writerdd… though I don't read my horoscope. I think there often can be harm, but sometimes I think Skeptics are guilty of taking things to illogical conculusions/extremes… for instance the item "Vegetarianism" on that linked list. It wasn't proper vegetarianism that killed those infants, it was stupidity. Mainstream vegetarianism (which has a lot of documented health benefits) has nothing to do with feeding your ten-month-old nothing but seaweed. A diet full of meat kills a lot of people too (heart disease, etc.) but I wouldn't go so far as to say meat-eating is dangerous. I get a bit uncomfortable when skepticism starts to just kind of point its finger in ridicule at anything and everything non-mainstream. I think we're all guilty of sometimes absorbing only facts that reinforce our own opinions, and skeptics aren't immune.

    Though I definitely agree that when you have practitioners of woo convincing gullible people to treat real conditions with scientifically disproven treatments, there is harm. This is mostly a great list, and I need to pass it on to my poor friend whose new neighbor is building her house right on top of his property line because of feng shui, and had a dowser wandering his property to find the right spot for her well. Ugh.

  6. It wasn’t proper vegetarianism that killed those infants, it was stupidity.

    Possibly not generic stupidity, but the kind of fervent stupidity that thinks if something in moderation is claimed to be potentially good, that thing in excess is going to be better, or that if something else is thought to be harmful, bucketloads of the opposite is the best choice.

    It seems like the same logic that attracts people to all kinds of extreme religious/social/political positions, possibly because once at the extreme, they don't have to bother thinking any more.

  7. PH, I'd agree with how you laid that out. As I said, I just think it's a leap to go from "XYZ is good in moderation but can be harmful if followed to an extreme" (which is true of exercise, vegetarianism, medication, lots of things) to "Vegetarianism kills."

    Sorry. I'm having a grumpy week for various reasons, and am finding that my tendency to play Devil's Advocate seems to turn itself on skepticism as well as anything else I encounter. Maybe I just like to argue. :) At least you guys are a decidedly worthy bunch to argue with.

  8. For those who are looking for a contact address, I just updated the site and added a contact page. Sorry about that!

  9. flygrrl: I totally agree, and in fact I think that's the difference between skepticism, which is good, and cynicism, which is a bit unhealthy. It's a fine line… kinda like the fine line between reasonable vegetarian/veganism and the crazy variety that results in dead kids.

  10. flygrrl wrote:

    PH, I’d agree with how you laid that out. As I said, I just think it’s a leap to go from “XYZ is good in moderation but can be harmful if followed to an extreme” (which is true of exercise, vegetarianism, medication, lots of things) to “Vegetarianism kills.”

    But isn't that the exact "slippery slope" mentioned before?

    True, a slippery slope is basically a logical fallacy, but that's why it also applies in this case: someone is bound to take it to its extreme, where it's no longer harmless.

  11. But then where do you draw the line, Exarch? I wouldn't call Vegetarianism pseudoscience by any definition, but should we be against it because it could be taken too far? What I'm saying is that it gets my hackles up to see people discouraging something for which the positives can far outweigh the negatives by using the slippery slope argument. It's like when the Religious Right say "if we let the homosexuals get married, pretty soon there will be people screwing dogs in the street!!!" Idiots will always find something to hurt themselves with. Yes, we should remove homeopathy and sharp objects from the equation, but some things don't really (in my mind) warrant Skeptical Intervention.

  12. No, that's right. But vegetarianism is something that, when attempted by the uninformed, may leave you with a serious nutritional deficiency. You need to know what kinds of food you need to substitute the meat with, or you'll get sick. And of course, there's various degrees of vegetarianism (from simply laying off the red meat to extreme veganism where you can't/won't eat anything that might remotely have touched an animal somewhere along the line).

  13. exarch said:

    But vegetarianism is something that, when attempted by the uninformed, may leave you with a serious nutritional deficiency.

    This is a little bit inaccurate. If you are eating a varied diet, you're getting everything you need. There is protein in everything we eat (and nowadays everything from breakfast cereal to crackers are fortified with vitamins and minerals). Cutting out meat, on its own, is not going to cause a nutritional deficiency. My daughter has a dairy allergy, and I've learned that the body absorbs calcium more efficiently from plant sources in the absence of dairy products. My allergist says he's never seen a calcium deficient kid, even among the most severely dairy-allergic. In the US, where nutritious food is plentiful, it's very rare.

    Now, if you are "vegetarian" and subsist on nothing but pasta or organic pop-tarts or something, yes, you are probably not going to be as healthy as you could be. I lived with several Junk Food Vegans in college, and they were not the fittest lot. But the whole "you have to carefully balance beans and grains at every meal" thing is a myth. You need to look at what you eat over the course of several days at a time to see if you're getting balance, not each and every meal. Same thing with kids who "won't eat." You don't worry if your toddler goes through a day or two of eating nothing but bananas, as long as they have a day where they eat nothing but chicken and a day where they eat nothing but pasta that week as well. The variety and bounty of food we get as a species is a relatively new thing. People would have died out long before now if the human body weren't able to subsist on a wide range of food sources.

    Oh, I did not mean this to turn into a lecture on nutrition. I'm so sorry that this excellent post has spawned me running off at the mouth about one little nitpicky thing…

  14. Just to clarify, I'm not trying to discourage vegetarianism on the site. I'm trying to encourage critical thinking. You'll note that all the "victims" on that page are small children. There are very real issues with feeding toddlers and small children a vegetarian diet that people need to think about before proceeding.

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