Skepticism 101: What's the Harm? Plus, Resources

So what’s the harm? What’s the harm, if people believe silly stuff?

Skepticism 101 panel

I have an answer to that: What’s the Harm. Go there, and you’ll see what the harm is. Even the most harmless woo can be quite harmful.

The thing about believing in “harmless” woo is that it leaves you open to harmful stuff. You’ve shut your critical faculties down, you’ve learnt not to question certain things. That leaves a crack in the door through which some snake-oil salesperson can insert a foot.

You could end up thinking some little bit of natural medicine is harmless, even helpful, until it delays a critical treatment, or you take a supplement that wasn’t so natural and pure after all.

Ghosts are just a bit o’ fun – until strange things happen that scare you, and rather than searching for a mundane explanation, you call a ghosthunter or exorcist, who then parts you from cash best spent elsewhere at best, and feeds your fears until you end up doing something dangerous at worst.

And on. And on, and endlessly on.

What’s the harm? It blinds you. You can’t see the spectacular beauties of this world as they truly are. You can’t see the rough edges and the dangers, nor the non-woo things that can sand down those edges and protect you from those dangers.

You donate to homeopathic “healers” instead of Doctors Without Borders, and thus fund useless medical care for desperately needy people instead of funding the real medicine they so desperately need.

What’s the harm? It saddens me we even have to ask that question.

So, seeing as woo is harmful, and needing a good skeptical toolkit to protect you from it, where do you turn?

Here are some of my favorite skeptical resources. Feel free to add your own.

James Randi Educational Foundation.


Respectful Insolence.

Science-Based Medicine.

The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.


And finally, courtesy of Caeli “Starspider” Kane, moar pitchoors!

Jen McCreight et moi
Valerie Tarico and Meg Winston
Jen McCreight
Meg Winston
Skepticism 101: What's the Harm? Plus, Resources
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8 thoughts on “Skepticism 101: What's the Harm? Plus, Resources

  1. 1

    I guess what people mean when they ask the question “What’s the harm?”, or at least what I mean by that, is “where is the harm for me?”
    Why do I have the obligation to go into peoples houses uninvited and tell them that the tiger tooth they bought will not solve their erectile disfunctions, that the gecko blood they drank will not ease their sleep?
    Even western medicine’s effect often does not exceed that of placebos, and still costs a fortune.
    So where is the harm for me when other people believe silly stuff? I don’t see it.
    It gives people however comfort, spiritual benefits and pleasure, so why not let them?

  2. 2

    Considering you think most “Western” medicine is no better than placebo, I think we can see where the harm is for you. Go avail yourself of a good read through Science-Based Medicine.

  3. 3

    I don’t think most Western Medicine is no better than a placebo. But I’ve seen people getting high on powdered sugar or smoking dried moss.
    But I’m really curious to why it bothers you so much when other people go into TCM pharmacies or consult their priest when they have a fever. Noone is forcing you to do the same or pay for such choices, and I also see no external effects fom their actions.
    And to be honest, your crusade against other people’s poorly informed choices does sound very missionary to me.
    You have an easy time proving that such choices would harm you or me, since we both probably value our health or joy over the marginal possibilty of going to a heaven, but other people base their decisions on a different criteria that sounds as silly to us as ours sounds to them.
    I don’t get the fun of riding motorcycles for example, I would not do it because I think it puts me in danger while giving me extreme discomfort in rain or on bad roads. And even though I can prove both of that objecitively, I don’t see a reason to blog about how silly it is to ride motorbikes, so why would you?

  4. 5

    Leo, I think the point – which you may have missed – is that many people do not choose “alternative” therapies entirely of their own volition or because they are fully cognisant with the scientific reality. Your motorcycle analogy fails because a rider understands the risks involved before she chooses to venture onto the road. To the best of my knowledge we do not have “alternative” transport therapists who tell people motorcycling is far safer than the car, or countless examples of the hapless and uninformed careening into the nearest tree when they had hitherto believed they were entirely safe.

    It appears to me the credulous often alight upon their decisions with their critical faculties blunted in part because of a kind of soporific intellectual relativism, which says “You have your truth and I have mine and that’s okay.” Emphatically it is not. It represents a failure of thinking which is part of a powerful nexus of external agencies, some benign, others far more malignant, which influence the bad choices people make. It’s irritating when one has to bite one’s tongue when that cute girl one hopes to make progress with looks at the stars and dribbles “I just think, like, there’s something, like, totally bigger than us, yeah?” but it’s wholly reprehensible to say nothing, or merely shrug with indifference, when people are dying.

    You “see no external effects” when the sick imbibe substances of which the medical efficacy is at best placebo; I see families wrenched apart by the premature loss of their loved ones. You “see no external effects” when a parent enforces their medical choice upon their children; I see the unnecessary and wholly preventable death of a child betrayed in the most monstrous failure of care imaginable. You “see no external effects” from the toleration of these treatments; I see science and medicine debased in the public perception. This is the logic of your argument when it is followed to its grim conclusion.

    You have seen “people getting high on powdered sugar or smoking dried moss.” When I was six I saw my father die suddenly from a heart attack. As I stare down the barrel of my fortieth year I’ve commenced a daily self-medication programme of a substance derived from willow bark and the herb Meadowsweet, the effect of which is to thin the blood and reduce the risk of a coronary. You may have heard of it. It’s called aspirin. The difference is my drug of choice has been clinically tested, the pharmacokinetics are understood, it is easily measurable and I understand the risks of overdose. The same cannot be said of alternative medicines. It is a trite observation but one that needs repeating: there is a name for alternative medicines that are proven to work after clinical trials. We call them medicine.

  5. 7

    Thanks for your point Sean, that’s the sort of argumentation that I like and that I would have loved to see in the article.
    I think your point on children is a very valid one, and I like the idea of putting children into schools against their parents’s will, so that the children can look beyond what their parents think, or rather, not-think.
    But once an adult that is able to consent makes irrational decisions or holds silly believes, i do not think that we should hold it against them or even try to educate them.
    Such people might not agree with the way we measure “success” of a drug, and take entire different measurements into account.
    Like when someone refuses blood transfusions, that person might clearly see how that kills them, but take into account that “if god wants me to be killed, so be it” and put their “ability to go to heaven” over their life.
    And forcing that person to accept the transfusion would benefit that person under our measurement, because we would very much like to stay alive, but harm them under theirs, because that life is not worth anything when looking into a future of eternal damnation.
    And such different measurements might also take place in arguments. We both can easily argue over this in a civil manner, but if someone doesnt accept the principles of our arguments and proofs then they of course reject everything we say.
    Like the way we measure success. We can easily prove that prayers don’t heal people from cancer, but we can’t prove it to someone who believes that all those who prayed and died “weren’t meant to be saved”.
    I’m not even trying to stop you from exercising your right to tell others that your argumentation is better and your outcomes are more beneficial, but I am trying to understand why so many people get so upset about others inflicting harms on themselves. And if motorcyclists can enjoy riding their bikes if they understand the harms, why can’t they enjoy it when they don’t?

  6. 8

    In that specific example, the harm is that they are contributing to the destruction of an endangered species. (Not my strawperson, your chosen example.)

    Also, it’s 2011, and we have medications that work better than placebo for erectile dysfunction; why do you want to encourage people to harm wild animals for less benefit than they can get from a synthetic chemical? That’s one of the things that synthetic means: it means no tigers were shot, no bears tortured, no rare plants removed from the wild.

    Do you really need to ask where the harm is in charging people more money for something that doesn’t work than for something that does? That may be the free market, but if so, I will note that the free market only works properly if the consumer is properly informed. In this case, that precisely means people saying “that doesn’t work, but these pills do” and even “there’s no substance to fix that yet, but getting a good night’s sleep and not drinking before your date might help.”

    Nobody is saying you have the obligation to tell people this. There are a lot of worthwhile things that neither you nor I are obliged to do. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to complain when someone else does them.

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