What’s the Harm in False Beliefs?

If you’re like me, whenever you find yourself criticizing some form of pseudoscience masquerading as reality you will inevitably get someone who says something like, “Oh, what’s the harm in believing in that? Everyone has to believe in something.” What’s the harm has the answer. This site, organized by category, shows the cost in both dollars and human life of believing in everything from astrology to vaccine denialism. These beliefs have real-life consequences.

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  • Ed:

    C’mon it’s not like some religious conman could convince hundreds of people to drink cyanide laced KoolAid.

  • Michael Heath

    It’s a start but they wildly underestimate the harm on one of the two subjects I wanted to purview, evolution denialism; while lacking any information regarding the denial of climate change.

    I’ve slowly, over decades, come to the conclusion that the promotion of creationism and the lack of education in evolution in kindergarten through most bachelor degree programs is a particularly insidious form of child abuse. It harms kids because it restricts many of them from pursuing educative and career opportunities which would interest them and they would thrive in if they were properly taught science. It also harms society because it restricts the talent pool for careers from these same young people.

    Any anyone well informed on climate change predictions over the next couple of centuries understands that our near-‘business as usual’ approach presents both one of the greatest threats to humanity and guarantees massive human suffering. The costs from climate change are already being accumulated.

    The denialism of both of these topics als harms society because it effectively fosters a successfully deployed political approach which aggressively avoids or opposes what experts understand and instead frames the advocacy of policy around false talking points guaranteed to cause harm and human suffering.

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  • Abby Normal

    It’s interesting, but something about has my skeptic sense tingling, a “the plural of anecdote is not data,” vibe. Then again skeptic sense and vibe are also setting off my skeptic sense. So I’m just going to shut up before I give myself a migraine.

  • slc1

    Re Michael Heath @ #2

    On the subject of climate change, it is interesting to note the response of one of the leading climate change deniers, Anthony Watts, to the recent report from the Berkeley Earth Project because it is typical of denialist shenanigans. Before the project started, here’s Mr. Watts: “I’m prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong.” After the report by the project was released, here’s Mr. Watts: “I consider the paper fatally flawed as it now stands, and thus I recommend it be removed from publication consideration by JGR until such time that it can be reworked.” Interestingly enough, the project was supported financially, in part, by none other then the Koch brothers, who are undoubtedly considering suing for their contributions to be refunded.

    From this, we can conclude that anyone who henceforth cites Mr. Watts as an authority on climate change is automatically discredited, much as anyone who cites Casey Luskin as an authority on evolution is automatically discredited. That’s a given.

  • Trebuchet

    What’s The Harm is a great, but to me, somewhat depressing, site. Do be sure to visit their Moon Hoax page however for a bit of cheering up!

  • scienceavenger

    Oh, what’s the harm in believing in that? Everyone has to believe in something

    I just stop them right there. No, everybody doesn’t. If you don’t know anything about a subject, then “I don’t know” is the opinion you ought to hold.

    IMO its the insidious influence of religion, where children are taught that knowledge comes from on high, perfect and unchanging, that saddles so many with this flawed view of knowledge.

    “I don’t know” – the beginning of wisdom

    “I know it all” – a revelation of ignorance

  • Aquaria

    It’s a start but they wildly underestimate the harm on one of the two subjects I wanted to purview, evolution denialism; while lacking any information regarding the denial of climate change.

    From their FAQ:

    The cases on this website are culled manually from news reports by a very small group of volunteers on their free time. As a result the totals do not represent any sort of scientific approach to the issues covered here, and are not even close to being comprehensive.

    So let them know how climate change and evolution denialism are harming people. They’d probably appreciate the input.

  • The Christian Cynic

    I tend to agree with Abby Normal: the fact that the site focuses on anecdotes bothers me a bit, even though I don’t have a problem with any of the topics they cover. Anecdotes should be at least accompanied by actual data if they’re going to be used (and I think they can be pretty effective at humanizing issues).

    Also, I think that their categorization system leads to some misrepresentation. I glanced at the home childbirth page, and it’s pretty obvious that some of those harms are caused by other factors and not really by the home birth itself, like the three children whose parents believed in faith healing and the one whose father was a naturopath. That strikes me a bit sloppy. (For the record, I find the notion of home births virtually incomprehensible. Why anyone would choose to give birth in their own home as opposed to a hospital where a variety of trained professionals and equipment are readily available is beyond me.)

    scienceavenger@7: Well said. I’ve never encountered that statement before (which is surprising, since I’ve heard a lot of crazy shit in my lifetime), but I would hope that I would answer similarly. I find it infuriating that people believe they have to be absolutely confident in their beliefs, even when they have little or no justification for them; it is, as you note, perfectly acceptable to admit ignorance.

  • The Christian Cynic

    After reading the FAQ excerpt that Aquaria posted, however, I do feel a little better since they admit that the site is currently neither scientific nor comprehensive; I hope that’s their ultimate goal, though.

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  • Michael Heath

    To pile on Abby Normal and the The Christian Cynic’s point the authors’ defective reliance on a handful of anecdotes: Their anecdotes on evolution denialism has harm disproportionately being suffered by creationists being persecuted. That’s absurd.

    I’m seeing more harm than good from this effort. Anecdotes need to used merely to illustrate and reinforce representative results, here they instead misinform more than inform by creating a false framing of the actual harm. At least on evolution and all harms when compared to each other since they ignore climate change denialism and greenwashing.

  • In some ways, the effect false beliefs have on us is kind of like the effect alcohol does. There are some who never drink, and most people who drink never have a problem with it, but then there is a minority who do get into terrible trouble.

    The vast majority of people who read horoscopes, for example, don’t suffer any significant harm from doing so. Perhaps they are influenced by reading them in some small way, but then, if it wasn’t horoscopes, it would be some other haphazard or irrational thought or belief that would do so instead. Even amongst those who spend money on private readings, most limit their spending to their disposable income, and while it may be a waste of money, is it any more harmful to them than if they spend their disposable income on, say, collecting baseball cards?

    Only in a relatively small number of cases does this type of false belief cause palpable harm — the ones listed on the site, for example, which tend to happen either when large amounts of money are involved or when people in positions of power and influence (e.g. Nancy Reagan) are affected.

    I have always considered myself a skeptic, but there was one very sobering event in my life that reminds me how easy it is to fall into false beliefs and convictions. About ten years ago, after some noticing some mild neurological symptoms (which I still have) and a battery of tests that showed nothing wrong, I jumped to the conclusion that I was dying of ALS. My doctors insisted I didn’t, I didn’t believe them. Worse, my family and friends didn’t believe me, which led to a seriously miserable 18 months until the fact that I wasn’t getting any worse forced me to accept that I was wrong.

    A couple of years later, an acquaintance of mine shocked the local community when he shot and killed his wife and then turned the gun on himself. It turned out, unknown to most of us, that for years he had believed that he was suffering from cancer that had been caused by a massive overdose of X-rays he believed he had been subjected to during a routine screening. He went for test after test, second opinion, third opinion — even a thousand miles to the Mayo Clinic, but everyone told him there was no cancer. But instead of accepting it, or just thinking they were wrong (as I did about my “illness”), he came to believe that they were all conspiring to cover up the initial mistake of exposing him to an X-ray overdose.

    We will never know what would have happened if he had not shot himself after killing his wife (she was about to leave him) but we did find out that he had only recently bought the gun and a list of the home addresses of the doctors who had treated him was found in the house.

    Now, it never even crossed my mind that the doctors were conspiring to keep me in the dark as to my illness, but then I suspect my psychological makeup is just not prone to believing conspiracy theories. But it still leaves the question, how much choice do we actually have in the matter? In the majority of cases, people who become deluded about something only end up causing limited harm to themselves, but then a few end up destroying their whole family. What’s the deciding factor?

    Clearly, education is key to minimizing the risks–at a young age, before the mindset has been fixed–and rational explanations and rebuttals are a major weapon in fighting harmful irrational beliefs, but I have seen enough to know that it will always be an uphill battle.

    People (even skeptics like me) are prone to accepting irrational beliefs, and can become incredibly defensive and hostile when they are called into question (my family’s skepticism of my belief was by far the worst aspect of my delusion about having ALS. It hurt to be disbelieved, and they were extremely considerate about it).

    There can and will be successes. I believe the power of the religious right in America is probably already seen its high water mark–only just though, and it will be a long, long road before they become close to being as irrelevant as they currently are in many European nations. But I don’t think we’ll ever come close to stamping out, say, belief in the paranormal, or the afterlife, so the best we should hope for is that such beliefs do not influence public policy–as in the British government’s funding of homeopathic hospitals…

    (Curious fact — I was once successfully treated and cured in a homeopathic hospital — I bet nobody else on this blog can say that!

    Okay, so I was only there because there were no beds available in the main local NHS hospital, and the cure was a minor surgical procedure conducted by a good, old-fashioned surgeon…)

  • Abby Normal

    Re: Michael @12

    Perhaps they should add a section on the harm caused by the belief that belief is harmful.

  • The Christian Cynic

    Michael Heath:

    To pile on Abby Normal and the The Christian Cynic’s point

    Double articles? Sweet!

    Quick: what would be the opposite of anarthrous? Diarthrous?

  • Aliasalpha

    Wasn’t there some story about steve jobs delaying potentially beneficial treatment in favor of trying out magic first?

  • Wasn’t there some story about steve jobs delaying potentially beneficial treatment in favor of trying out magic first?

    Yes, but it sounds like he did that as much out of fear of the surgery as he did believing in alternative medicine. That’s not all that unusual — especially for men, who quite routinely avoid facing up to medical issues.

  • Michael Heath

    Aliasalpha writes:

    Wasn’t there some story about steve jobs delaying potentially beneficial treatment in favor of trying out magic first?

    It was reported as ‘magical thinking’ which caused Steve Jobs to delay surgery, but that doesn’t accurately describe his failed alternative approach. Instead Mr. Jobs was just wrong similar to how Bill Maher wrongly thinks eating better can supplant the use of drugs to treat certain medical ailments.

    There’s a good lesson to be learned by rejecting Messrs Maher and Jobs’ approach, with Jobs now providing a vivid illustration why we should reject their thinking; but it’s a different lesson than some people relying on magic and superstition.

    Cite: http://www.npr.org/2011/10/20/141564330/biography-sheds-new-light-on-steve-jobs-life [I don’t think the claim the about the physic is representative of the dominant approach he used which failed him but instead his belief he could primarily eat away his cancer.]

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Judging by the topics list, WtH? doesn’t see any problem in, f’rexample, participation by adults or children in activities of the Roman Catholic Church.

    Nor do supply-side economics, 9/11 trooferism, fluoridation paranoia, or Teh Gay/Commienist/Islamoeverything Conspiracies make the front page. There is a Conspiracies page, which barely scrapes the surface of the abundant material available, and which distorts the story of Andrew “Don’t tase me, bro!” Meyer quite unfairly.

    Almost all the “Read more” links connect to Wikipedia; many of the others are in obvious need of updating (“In July 2008 it was ruled he can be extradited to the U.S. to stand trial.”).

    Still, this is a good idea and a worthy effort – had I lots more free time, I’d like to volunteer to help it live up to its potential.