What’s the Harm?
Whenever I go off on a rant about some pseudoscience, quack medicine, or some general form of woo, I often get a response from people that amounts to “But if people like it, want it, and say it makes them feel better… what’s it to you?” Chiropractics, for example. Tons of people see chiropractors every day, many swear their lives have been changed for the better since starting treatment, and almost everyone has some anecdotal evidence “proving” that chiropractics works miracles. So what if it has no scientific evidence backing it’s claims, if it makes people feel better, what’s the harm? Plenty.
First off, let’s be clear: most of these alt-med treatments actually do cause harm. Real, physical harm. Sometimes death. The website “What’s the Harm?” is dedicated to collecting verified, sourced, stories of harm caused by alternative medicine and pseudoscience. Here’s a list of 310 people harmed by chiropractics, 1,184 people harmed by acupuncture, and 100,493 people harmed by herbal remedies, for example. Many of these are deaths. Chiropractic neck adjustments can cause stroke. Natural medicines can have real, and really serious, side effects. Many people have forgone traditional medicine for alternative medicine and died from extremely preventable or curable illnesses.
Beyond physical harm, though, these things also cause financial harm. I have loved ones who have probably spent thousands of dollars over their lifetime on scams and pseudoscience. Alternative medicines, miracle cures, psychic/energy treatments… these things all cost money. In some cases, a lot of money; money that could have gone to scientifically-based medical treatment, retirement funds, mortgages, or any number of other worthy causes.
What’s more, I believe that pseudoscience, quackery, and woo cause intellectual and emotional harm. When fancy fruit juices declare that “studies prove” their effectiveness at curing cancer they are coopting scientific-sounding language to push non-scientific claims. When ear candlers assert that the ancient tradition of this practice validates it as legitimately beneficial, they are making an implicit claim that the age of a practice is correlative with its benefits. When non-specialists and non-skeptics hear claims like these go largely unchallenged, they assume that the weight of scientific evidence must be on the side of these claims, and they learn that non-specific “studies” and ancientness are legitimate ways to ascertain truth. When people lack the skills to critically evaluate scientific claims, they have no way of understanding just what is so wrong with intelligent design theory, and why it does not belong in the classroom. Spillover effects are rife.
Furthermore, I have a particular bone to pick with psychics, especially those who claim to talk to the dead. I believe that these practices cause a special kind of harm: emotional. Psychics who claim to connect with deceased loved ones are preying on the vulnerable and desperate (which most pseudoscience does, to some extent). They cold read cues from the client and make up fanciful stories which damage and dilute the client’s (more) real memories of the deceased. Now, instead of thinking of dad as gone and remembering all the fun you had together, psychics like Sylvia Browne encourage you to think of him as creeping around your house leaving pennies on dressers. At least most religious folk believe that when a person dies they have moved into another, inaccessible, realm. Believing that they are still nearby, talking to strangers (although not to you), moving keys, ringing wind chimes, stacking card decks, and leaving coins, makes it impossible to ever deal with their death. Kept in a perpetual state of grief and vulnerability, you then return for more readings.
Most of the time I just let things slide. When a particular family member comments that a pet’s behavior is due to its astrological sign, I just keep talking about the behavior rather than the astrology. When my grief stricken friend tells me about how her dead husband turned the volume down on her stereo, I just commiserate about how much I miss him too. People who believe in these things I disbelieve in are usually good people, just confused about how the universe works and working off of a definition of true as “what makes me feel good.” Their entitled to that, of course. I’m sure I believe all sorts of silly things, and I don’t want every conversation with family or friends to turn into a lecture.
If I am on a rant though, and people ask me “what’s the harm?” well, I have a few answers.