5X5 Episode 113

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5X5 Episode 113
What's the Harm?
9th May 2012

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5X5 112 5X5 1
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
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What's the Harm?[edit]

You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.

S: This is the SGU 5x5 and tonight we're talking about the harm done by belief in pseudo-science and magic. Often times, as skeptics, we here the question of, "What's the harm? What harm does it do if people have innocent beliefs in psychics or in some paranormal belief or other?" But this is actually a naïve position and skeptics have actually carefully documented in many articles and books etc. that there is quite a bit of harm that comes from believing in magic. In my own field of medicine perhaps it's the most obvious, if people believe in treatments that are ineffective then they may forgo treatments that are effective. There are numerous cases and in fact there's now a website called What's the harm? dedicated to documenting cases in which people came to significant medical harm from delaying treatment because they believed in fanciful, implausible or magical treatments. But that kind of direct physical harm, either because the treatment itself is risky, or delaying legitimate treatment, is not the only type of harm that comes from believing in implausible treatments. There is also the lost time and effort, sometimes people go through great personal expense flying to China to get stem cell therapy from a clinic there, for example, that may cost tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars. They may saddle their families with extreme debt pursuing a treatment that really has no chance of working. Further, there is a huge psychological harm in addition. People will often put a great deal of hope in treatments that are being offered, especially if the claims are extraordinary, like being cured of an otherwise incurable disease. And then when that hope is dashed that adds additional psychological harm to an already difficult situation. So there are many types of harm, not just direct physical harm, that comes from false hope and false belief in magical cures.

R: One recent case that's been in the news has been a particular cult death. Cults are very good at preying on people who may be marginalised or in need of help, and hey are able to take advantage of the lowest members of society, people for instance who are...

S: People who are vulnerable

R: ...vulnerable is the word I was looking for. One cult in particular that does this quite often is one we talk about on SGU quite a bit: Scientology. They even have a group called Narconon, not to be confused with Narcanon. Narcanon is a valid recovery group for drug addicts, Narconon is a Scientology front-group that finds people who are drug-addicts and gets them addicted on Scientology which ends up costing them quite a bit of money, often requiring people to disconnect from family members and friends and relying entirely upon the cult. The other one that's been in the news lately has been the Breatharian death. Breatharians are a cult that believe you don't need to eat and you can survive entirely on sunlight. It may seem silly but when they find people who will actually believe in this for... maybe they need the social structure or maybe they have mental problems, the cult finds these people and what ends up happening– just last week it was reported that a Swiss woman starved to death after believing that she could survive on light.

B: The belief that the apocalypse is imminent didn't start with Y2K fears back in 2000, it actually has a very long and harmful history. The earliest record of such beliefs date back to around 2800 BC according to an Assyrian clay tablet which reads, "Our earth is degenerate in these latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end". Now, related to – and often causing ‐ this fear of an apocalypse is a host of pseudo-sciences including numerology, cultish beliefs, fundamentalism, UFOs, even just general scientific illiteracy and a lack of critical thinking. Belief in an imminent apocalypse may seem somewhat harmless on the surface, you know, once the date of the supposed apocalypse passes – if there is one – you go on living your life right? Well often that's not the case, a very sad example that I never really forgot occured in 2008 when the Large Hadron Collider was coming online. There was much news, if you guys remember, around that time about the possibility of the LHC causing the end of the world through the creation of things like mini black holes or destructive strange matter or things like that. In fact, all serious scientists thought none of these scenarios would come to pass. Unfortunately 16-year-old Chayya Lal of India wasn't aware of any of this. She became very frightened about the news reports she was seeing on TV regarding this imminent apocalypse caused by the Large Hadron Collider. She became so terrified, in fact, that the world would end that she drank poison and killed herself instead of seeing everything and everyone she loved die.[1] Now this is just one example but the toll from apocalyptic thinking is much higher than you may think, according to the What's the Harm? website created by Tim Farley, over the years the harm has been quite significant. His tally is over 368,000 people killed, over 306,000 people injured and $2,815,000,000 in economic damages.

J: Psychics can do a serious amount of damage because people tend to use them when something serious is going on in their lives and this leaves them very susceptible to misinformation and fraud. The typical psychic uses cold reading to fool their customers into thinking they have mystical powers, and then once people start to believe that this information is true, that they're getting from the psychic, pretty much anything is possible at that moment. So as a quick example, imagine a circumstance where a family member has died and the psychic claims that they can talk to them. People end up paying an incredible amount of money to say their goodbyes and they get emotional closure, but actually the only thing they're saying goodbye to is their money.

E: James Randi once said to a national TV audience: "It's a dangerous thing to believe in nonsense." Some people end up paying for it with their own lives but in some cases other innocent people pay the ultimate price. Belief in witchcraft is not an artefact of ancient of medieval times, it's currently widespread across swathes of areas, most notably sub-saharan African countries. The primary target of these witch-hunts are the most vulnerable among us, namely children. Children accused of witchcraft are subject to psychological and physical violence, typically first by their family members and circles of friends but then they get passed on to church pastors and traditional healers. Once accused of being a witch these children are stigmatized and discriminated for the rest of their lives. They are caught in the cycle of accusation and they risk yet further accusations of witchcraft as they get older. Children accused of witchcraft are often abandoned by their families and they are forced to live on the street, and some of them die of neglect or are outright killed. Those that survive are subject to further violence, tortures and indignations including physical and sexual violence by members of the authorities supposed to be protecting them. They have to live in appalling conditions, they often resort to using drugs and alcohol and they are at increased risks of exposure to sexually transmitted diseases and HIV infection. These archaic beliefs have spread out beyond the boundaries of places such as Africa, we've seen these kinds of heinous crimes against children being committed in Western Europe and even North America. As believers emigrate around the globe, sure they might assimilate in some way to their new surroundings, yet they'll continue to embrace the notion that some children are witches or possessed in some fashion, and for what? Because these cultures cling so tightly to their 7th century ideas in our 21st century world. Medieval beliefs yield medieval results.

S: And even without the specific examples that we gave off when people ask: "What about just believing in UFOs or believing in ghosts?" Beliefs that may seem to be innocent but perhaps the most insidious and dangerous aspect of, as Evan said, "believing in nonsense" is the toll it takes on critical thinking skills and scientific literacy. Believing in one form of nonsense definitely leads to believing in other forms of nonsense, which can result in unpredictable harm. So even in its most benign form I would say that believing in nonsense does do incalculable harm.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.


  1. BBC News: Girl suicide 'over Big Bang fear'
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