AI: What’s the Harm?

I’ve been using Tim Farley’s excellent What’s the Harm site recently.

This is a valuable resource for when people ask you, “What’s the harm in drinking your own urine?”

This got me thinking about my own answer to this question. My first thought was of my mother, who once saw a Naturopath for a puzzling set of symptoms. The alternative therapist suggested she take iodine. Soon thereafter, a qualified doctor diagnosed her as hyperthyroid. Taking the iodine could have been deadly.

Then I thought of my Uncle Bruce, who suffered from a rare form of thyroid cancer. He had a thyroidectomy, but then vetoed chemotherapy in favor of fasting, vitamins and herbs, and a trip to the Phillipines for psychic surgery.

When he died, his specialist said he could have lived an extra 5-10 years had he tried conventional treatments.

What’s your personal What’s the Harm story?

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  1. I agree entirely. Using pseudo-scientific methods is oftentimes very detrimental to people. It isn’t just a “silly belief” it is a belief in something that is medically unsound, and it shows a demonstrated lack of scientific knowledge on the person taking part.

  2. My stepmother buying “The Cure for All Cancers” when she had stage IV breast cancer that had metastasized into her liver and brain. She became convinced that the book would save her and we spent months denying her of her favorite foods, grinding herbs and filling capsules, and spending loads and loads of money trying to find all the specific things the book demanded. She died not long after all of that.
    Then when my great aunt was diagnosed with cancer, my dad sent HER the book and we went back to grinding herbs and doing it all over again. He finally came around to it all being false hope and a scam. I don’t think he ever learned of Hulda Clark’s Tiajuana clinic or the fact that she herself died of cancer. I don’t have the heart to tell him now.
    False hope is fabulously dangerous.

  3. Seems any unsubstantiated belief can have unfortunate consequences.

    What I experienced isn’t nearly so deadly as other’s. This was just a small group of born-again types who’d started a computer-networking business. My boss had hired them to install a new network to bring us up from coaxial Ethernet to twisted pair. I met them outside the building where they were praying for guidance and protection, so that this install would go smoothly and cause no delays (this was a daily newspaper, and one of the contract clauses stipulated that they would not disrupt the production systems.)

    They were sloppy workers, and managed to loose dirt from every part of the ceiling they worked in, dumping significant quantities into some sensitive production systems including Linotype typesetters.

    It cost the paper tens of thousands to get emergency printing done outside, as well as pay me and the rest of the IT crew to work all night to get the equipment fixed. The lawsuit resulted in their small company’s eradication.

    So, what’s the harm in believing in a protecting and guiding god?

  4. Here’s the veterinary perspective:
    I have a client that with a dog with severe separation anxiety (barks and tears up the apt when she’s gone). Instead of medicating him, she used Bach flower remedies. They didn’t work. Now she is giving the clomipramine I prescribed and is amazed at how well it works. But it’s too late. She is being evicted from her apartment.

  5. A second-cousin died because her Christian Science belief told her that it would be a mistake to take medicine to clear up her minor infection.

  6. I also have a friend and colleague that was feeding her cats a raw-food diet, which is touted as being closer to nature* and the cure for all that ails your pet. Two of her cats died suddenly a few months apart. She had a necropsy performed on the second one. He died of dilated cardiomyopathy. In cats this condition is almost always caused by a taurine deficient diet.

    *There is nothing natural about feeding your pet a frozen hamburger patty.

  7. Now that spring is here, almost every day I see a puppy with parvo. It’s caused by a virus and is virtually unheard of in vaccinated dogs.

  8. My mother and paternal grandmother were really into New Age stuff all my life. It never hurt me, and was a pretty good childhood, but my very last foray into pseudoscience before becoming a full-blown skeptic was in October of 2009, when I used ear candles for a severe ear infection. This was a few days after I had first discovered SGU and Skeptoid when searching for science podcasts.

    My thinking was, “Sure, herbal supplements and reiki are bullshit, but ear candles work, because they are based on simple physics, right?” If you don’t know, ear candles are cone-shaped tubes of linen dipped in beeswax. You put the small end in your ear, light the big end, and the heat is supposed to create a gentle vacuum that sucks out earwax and relieves congestion. When you cut a used ear candle open, it appears to be full of earwax. It sounds stupid now, but at the time, it seemed pretty convincing.

    The candle must be dipped in undyed beeswax, which is supposed to be more “natural.” The real reason is that paraffin wax would look like a normal melted candle that people are used to seeing instead of earwax, and colored wax would also give it away. It must also be burned vertically, with the user lying down sideways. If there were a real vacuum, you could use it standing up, holding the candle horizontally, which is much less dangerous, but if you do it that way, it won’t fill up with beeswax properly.

    I was in a lot of pain, and I couldn’t get a doctor’s appointment fast enough, so I dug through my mom’s old stuff and found two ear candles. Afterwards, it hurt worse, and I had severe ringing in my ears. I realized I should look them up on skeptical websites (something I should have done before using them) and learned that there is no vacuum, that the candles fill up with “earwax” when you burn them in an empty bottle, and that they can be dangerous, possibly dropping hot wax into the user’s ears.

    Fortunately, the full, congested feeling, as well as the pain and ringing were caused by swelling from the infection (so removing earwax would not have helped, anyway), which was cleared up with antibiotics. I wasn’t hurt, but I had a good scare. I thought I had permament tinnitus and hearing loss, which some ear candle users now suffer.

  9. I can think of a number of examples. There was a pregnant friend who was told by an herbalist to take a concoction that included blue and black cohosh. These are herbs that are touted as being good for uterine cramps (which is what they were prescribed for), but they’re also abortifacients – not 100% definite pregnancy enders, but definitely contraindicated. Oh, and there’s also the former roommate who took a “safe” herbal cold remedy that made her bleed out of five orifices.

    And then there’s the woman whose daughter’s hip dysplasia got much more severe and required surgery to correct because she listened to the chiropractor who told her the baby just needed regular adjustments.

    Oh, and to continue the theme of people harming their own children, there’s the neighborhood woman who chose to have an unassisted homebirth which resulted in the child’s death from oxygen deprivation.

    Yeah, for me it’s one thing when people off themselves due to their own mistakes, another entirely when they cause suffering, disability and death for their children.

  10. When my wife was in high school, her uncle was diagnosed with lymphoma and came to live with her family. She ended up being the person who took care of him most of the time. His lymphoma was quite treatable with chemotherapy, but of course chemo is quite unpleasant and after his first round he looked for alternatives. His brother happened to live in Montana at the compound of the new agey cult the Church Universal and Triumphant, which has a whole arsenal of bogus alt-med practices. He swore to the effectiveness of some juice diet and convinced his brother to use juice instead of chemo. My wife spent a huge chunk of her waking hours juicing everything under the sun and watching her uncle die of treatable lymphoma, which he of course succumbed to. It was tragic and messed her up for a long time.

  11. @B Hitt: The magic fruit juice people are the worst. Read the forums at Brian Dunning’s site ( Every time he has ever blasted magic fruit juice, especially Monavie, the proponents go into crazy evangelizing stalker mode, and there is no convincing them that the stuff doesn’t work. They’re worse than Scientologists.

  12. I’ll try to keep this story anonymous, as it isn’t about me. I know a girl who had digestive problems (pain, reflux) her whole life. Her mother sought treatment for these issues from a homeopath at her church. When she was 15, she got so sick she couldn’t eat, so her mom finally took her to a specialist. It turned out that she had a rare congenital cyst that had grown dangerously large. Usually, this condition is detected by the time a child is 10, and the surgery is major, but has high success rates. In this case, the doctor found it when she was 15. The cyst had attached to her liver and gall bladder, and was blocking the opening to her stomach. The surgery took 13 hours, and she now has gastroparesis, which will require her to eat a special diet for the rest of her life.

  13. Glow-Orb, my vet told me that she doesn’t think raw food diets for cats are a good idea based on a study that was done in Oregon which found that thirty percent of raw chicken in markets was contaminated with salmonella.
    I see that some vets are pro raw-food. I fed my cat raw food for about six months. One day he threw up under our coffee table and I have never heard a more frightening sound come out of him. You know when cats throw up, they make many heaves and “hurk” noises before anything comes up? He vomited massive amounts of liquid EVERY time he heaved. It just kept coming out of him. The stain on our carpet was so huge I couldn’t believe it came from my cat. Sure enough, it was food poisoning. We couldn’t even get him to eat canned tuna and I had to give him water with an oral syringe. It was a week before he’d eat again. When the vet told me the raw food was to blame, I felt horrible.
    He’s off of it now, of course and healthy as can be. He’s very active and sprightly and none of my friends can believe that he’s 12!
    Is there any way raw food can be done safely? Is it bad across the board? I’ll never feed it to him again, based on my experience, but is there a way that it can be done well?

  14. Here’s my issue with this site: the logic seems to be that if people use something bogus like homeopathy or drinking their own urine and it hurts them, that’s proof it’s bad. However, we reject that same logic when it comes to other things (real medicine) when it harms the recipients. It seems to me you can’t have it both ways. If you want to say harm caused by a treatment is proof the treatment is bogus, you’d have to apply that consistently — to the treatments you like and those you don’t like.

  15. Sylvan on the Amazing Adventure cruise we had a medical student address the issue you raised. What is the difference when alternative medicine fails as opposed to traditional medicine. He was treating someone that had a blockage in an artery to the brain caused by a chiropractic treatment. The surgery to fix it resulted in a stroke. His point was that with the stent that traditional medicine used to treat the blockage, the dangers are clearly stated to the patient… and the odds clearly talked about. Then the patient signs a paper. The chiropractor never tells his patient that a blockage in an artery in your neck leading to your brain IS a danger. Medical science is very clear about the limitations. Alternative medicine never says “well there could be this side effect or it could cause in rare cases death.”

    That honesty is a real difference.

    For my story, my husbands cousin was diagnosed with lung cancer. She was 40 years old. My husbands family has a clear genetic predisposition to lung cancer at an early age. (my father in law died at age 55 from lung cancer and that was considered pretty long lived in the family for a smoker). She decided that if she smoked JAPANESE cigarettes she would be safe, because American cigarette companies added chemicals and stuff that were the real problem. After all, tobacco is NATURAL. When she got cancer she was insistant that it wasn’t LUNG cancer. (it was first discovered in her spine, but doctors believed it had spread from the lungs). She never could accept that her expensive imported Japanese cigarettes could have lead to lung cancer. She also asked me to look for alternative treatments for her.
    I also made her a nice quilt that people could write nice things to her on. Sort of inspirational or just “I love you” and she could cuddle up in it. She decided it was a “healing” quilt full of the love of her friends and family. She also told everyone to THINK of her as being healed and not to feel sad when they thought about her being sick. If we all THOUGHT she was going to get better, she would.

    I have another friend that is on year 6 of lung cancer. She never smoked and she got lung cancer also in her early 40’s. She’s doing great, but she has been traditional medicine all the way. She’s also lucky as she figured out the best hospital to go to (a teaching hospital with a program of trying new treatments). She was in a study of a new method of treating lung cancer and the results have been great for the entire group. Is she cured? Nope they never cure lung cancer. But by researching and asking questions, she has been able to find treatment that has extended her life and she STILL works full time and enjoys her kids. The time others have put into woo, she’s put into finding the best treatments.

  16. @sylvan.nak: I think the problem with your argument is that you’re not weighing risks vs. benefits. Yes, medical treatments carry some risks of side effects, but there are also known benefits to the treatments. The “treatments” examined on What’s the Harm are not proven to have any benefits beyond possible placebo effects. For example, Chelation therapy has known risks, but no known benefits as a treatment for autism. It’s not reasonable to accept the risk without the potential for some benefit.

    Many of the anecdotes shared in this thread involve the risk of forgoing effective treatments like Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy does carry the risk of unpleasant side effects, but the benefits outweigh those risks. The reason we accept the risk is because of the benefits.

  17. @zorazen:

    There is also a study (I don’t have it handy) that found that most dogs fed raw meat diets shed live salmonella in their feces, which can be a health risk to humans. (Especially those that don’t wash their hands after poop-scooping, but I don’t like to think about that.)
    To kill bacteria in food (for people or animals) you need a “killing step” in its preparation, usually cooking. Of course then it is no longer raw. I suppose radiation might work, too, but it would propably cook the meat in the process (like a microwave). There might be a way to chemically sanitize meat (bleach?), but I can’t imagine that it is too edible afterwards.
    Of course the other concern is balancing the diet. Cats are obligate carnivores (unlike dogs and people, who are omnivores) and have special dietary needs. In particular, they need taurine, an amino acid that omnivores are able to make within their bodies, but carnivores are not.
    I usually say, when pet food manuafacturers spend millions of dollars studying animal nutrition and providing convenient, balanced commercial diets, why not take advantage of that and feed prepared foods? Cooking for your pet requires a major committment and shouldn’t be taken lightly. You can’t just give them some of what you’re having.

  18. @sylvan.nak: lexicakes has already said almost what I’m going to say, but I think it’s important enough to almost repeat.
    You’re wrong when you assume people on What’s the harm consider the harmful effects of alternative treatments to be proof that they’re bogus. They’re considered bogus because the evidence for them is either lacking or actually prove their inefficiency. A standard reply from the less skeptical when faced with the lack of positive evidence is: “Well it can’t harm, and it might make things better.” What’s the harm is about making available the evidence that that’s an incorrect view of many treatments and patient choices.

  19. As long as alt-med sells itself on annecdotes and appeals to those that distrust data I can see the benefit of a site that compiles less favorable annecdotes.

    Again, there’s a whole lot of reasons this kind of thing makes sense, don’t pretend we’re the ones with an inconsistent internal logic.

  20. I think it’s also important to keep in mind that the harm in these cases isn’t necessarily a direct effect of the treatment. Magical thinking itself can cause harm. In fact, many of the harm stories shared here involve people avoiding effective treatment because of irrational thinking. As skeptics, it’s the bad thinking we’re opposed to and not just for the purpose of feeling superior. Those that engage in magical thinking are not the enemy, but the victims, and the bad ideas are the enemy.

  21. Karen, that’s very tragic about your uncle who had thyroid cancer. I’m also a thyroid cancer patient and except for one quite rare form of thyroid cancer it is typically very treatable even if there’s a recurrence. It seems to me that CAM often ignores thyroid cancer because it’s treatable and because of how rare it is for this cancer to become late stage and fatal except for the anaplastic form of thyroid cancer.

    My British sister-in-law who is Norwegian by birth and a nurse by training was diagnosed with breast cancer about four years ago. Her oncologist in the UK suggested she go to a Laetrile clinic in Mexico for treatment and she did twice to the tune of $40,000 each trip. And I have a good friend who is quite bright but thinks colonics are the cure for all the pepper and other assorted toxins and junk in her poop pipes. I also have a number of friends I golf with who are regular users of chiropractic and they even have their necks adjusted despite my polite warnings about serious health problems or deaths associated with neck adjustments.

    I’d also wager that many people and family members we know get a lot more woo/cam treatments than we’re aware of because many people just don’t let others know about all the silly and odd things they do, or they could be embarrassed about how much money they’ve spent on useless quackery and keep it to themselves.

  22. Yes, there are medicines and treatments that can have side effects and even cause death. However, studies have shown that they’re more likely to cure or relieve symptoms. If there was actual evidence that homeopathy or cervical manipulation or colonics had an actual benefit that wasn’t placebo, it’d be a different matter.

    And there’s also the problem that many people have this idea that if something is “natural” or “alternative” it can only heal and can’t cause harm. It doesn’t matter if the substance comes from Eli Lilly or Aunt Lily’s backyard – if it changes the way your body functions, it’s a drug and it has risks. Some herbal treatments can help – in fact many common medicines are based on herbs and other plants.

  23. My best friend died of cervical cancer a few years ago next month. She bought into all kinds of alternative therapies, eschewing ‘allopaths’ and science based medicine, so she never went in to get regular pap smears. She started feeling unwell and was seeing some energy healer asswipe for the better part of a year who never encouraged her to seek proper treatment, insisting she just had some chemical imbalances due to emotional distress. By the time she saw a doctor the cancer was advanced and aggressive and there was no chance for treatment. She died a week after the last day I saw her in the hospital. To this day I wish I knew who the woo slinging therapist she was seeing is. I’d love to drive his business into the ground and prevent it from happening to someone else.

  24. @James Fox

    You’re right, papillary thyroid cancer is very treatable. I’ve heard of cases of people dying of other illnesses and autopsies revealed they also had long-term thyroid cancers.

    Unfortunately, my Uncle had medullary cancer, almost as rare and dangerous as anaplastic. It runs in families, so I have occasional calcitonin tests. The maternal side of my family is beset with thyroid conditions, me included.

    Stay well!

  25. While undergoing fertility treatments, things were looking pretty bleak. I did everything the doctors asked, took all the medications, and was going through the process and treatments that they prescribed. It wasn’t working fast enough for my liking, so in addition to everything the doctors recommended, I started adding in anything else I could find that had even the smallest grain of truth to it. I switched to a diet I found in a book that said it would help me get pregnant (it didn’t) and then, started taking capsules of royal bee jelly, because, according to what I’d read, the fertile queen bee’s eat only that in the larvae stage while the worker bees are only fed that for a limited time. My husband, backs me in all things, but the bee jelly was upsetting to him because 1) it cost a lot 2) it was an act of desperation not an act of logic and 3) there could have been any kind of contaminant in that bottle. There are a million reasons why royal bee jelly wasn’t going to do a single thing, but it was an emotional crutch. A way of getting some sense of control back when I felt like I had none. We did eventually have our baby, no thanks to any non-standard treatment plan, and joked about naming her Bea. (we didn’t)

    It can be difficult to be what amounts to a bystander in your treatment plan, and I think that’s why people do things that are medically unsound.

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