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Monday, October 26, 2015

What's the worst that could happen? How about death?

How's it going folks? If you've been involved in the skeptical community for any length of time, you'll notice a phrase repeated fairly often. When talking to proponents of almost any form of pseudoscience, at some point, you'll hear them say something along the lines of "What's the worst that could happen?" To be blunt, the worst thing that can happen is almost always death or financial ruin. Everyone can point out the dangers of the anti-vaccer movement and the alt-med crowd. But many other forms of pseudoscience can have dangerous results.

Many people feel that a belief in cryptids is a bit of harmless fun, and can be entertaining. Most of the time, this is true. However, some people have sunk large amounts of money into the search for these supposed unknown creatures. They buy the latest and greatest pieces of equipment (that they don't always fully understand how to use properly), rent or buy land that they feel have the creatures living there, buy books, movies, go to lectures, and otherwise spend their hard earned money. Granted, it's not normally as bad as other forms of pseudoscience, but there is still a lot of money changing hands. There are also injuries and deaths associated with cryptids, especially Bigfoot. From, there is the story of the poor man that was trying to hoax people with a Bigfoot costume and was hit by a car and killed. From HuffPo comes a story out of Oklahoma. A man was shot during a Bigfoot hunt, and 3 people were arrested.  Of course, they have been a great many injuries suffered by folks looking for various cryptids. Falls, burns, cuts, scrapes, broken bones, and so on, though these are also injuries that anyone can get while hiking and camping, so they aren't really unusual.

Ghosts are another flavor of pseudoscience that is often thought of as being safe and harmless. Much like the cryptid hunters, they tend to buy a lot of equipment (that, once again, they don't often know how to use). They also buy books, go to lectures, and travel long distances to visit supposedly haunted locations. And much like looking for cryptids, it can be dangerous. They often go into dilapidated buildings, run around in the dark, and generally scare the hell out of themselves. From, there is a story of a group of ghost hunters investigating a 119 year old train crash and 2 were killed. From comes the story of a group of ghost hunters that burnt down a historic plantation in Louisiana. There are a lot of stories of ghost hunters being shot at, injured, or killed on a site called

Going to a psychic or a medium is just a bit of harmless fun, right? Not quite. There are dozens of stories about so-called psychics being arrested for fraud. On HuffPo, there are several links to stories of these folks being arrested. From the NYPost site, they have a story of a man being taken for $700k after his girlfriend died. And yet another story from the Skeptics Guide of a poor fellow being taken for a lot of money to remove a "love curse". When it comes to bodily harm and death caused by people going to a psychics instead of an actual medical professional, the CDC and the WHO don't really keep records. However, there are quite a few stories about folks being injured because they heeded the advice of a psychic. The problem with trying to Google these events is that they get buried under dozens of positive results concerning these hucksters. Most skeptical websites, such as and the Neruologica Blog, will have stories about people being hurt by psychic advise.

Of course, there is the anti-vaccination group. These are the people that will claim that vaccinations can cause autism, cancer, neurological damage, and pretty much any other sort of illness you can imagine. The people that promote the anti-vaccination message are normally the same people that push all the varieties of alt-med B.S. There can be a financial deficit from believing the anti-vaccers, mostly from trying to treat an easily preventable disease. This is definitely a case of an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The treatments of  preventable diseases are normally many times more expensive than the vaccinations. From the CDC, there are a lot of numbers concerning people being hospitalized or dying for vaccine preventable diseases. Of course, there is the infamous Jenny McCarthy Body Count site. You can also look at the World Health Organization (WHO) and the National Institute of Health (NIH) for even more numbers. This is one of the most dangerous forms of pseudoscience that is out there. Not only is it dangerous to the people that practice it, but it is actually dangerous to everyone around them, especially the very young, the old, and the immuno-compromised.

And of course there is homeopathy, naturopathy, acupuncture, crystal healing, and other alt-med treatments. There are so many stories of people spending their life savings on alt-med treatments that I'm not even going to try and link to the stories. There are also a ton of stories that demonstrate the physical dangers of trusting in these quacks. What a lot of these alt-med practitioners either won't tell you or they don't know is that there can be dangerous drug interactions between actual medicine and their so-called treatments. On Tim Farley's What's the Harm site, he lists not only the number of people that have either died or been injured by naturopathy, but also has economic damage listed for naturopathy, homeopathy, acupuncture, and other pseudosciences.

As I said in the beginning, the simple answer to "What's the worst that could happen?" is death. It's almost always death. Putting your trust in any sort of pseudoscience, especially when it comes to a persons health, is a dangerous proposition. I know that anything I write or say is not going to convince the hard core true believers. But hopefully, if anyone is undecided, some of this will at least get you to do a bit of research yourself. And also make sure that you validate the sites you're looking at. There are a lot of them that are just fear mongering sites. They have their own products they are trying to sell, and will attempt to scare you away from actual science in order to make a few bucks. Even though they aren't infallible, the CDC and the WHO are trustworthy sources. They have no financial gains from saying something does or doesn't work. They are simply trying to get the best and most accurate information out there.

1 comment:

  1. Like any word, "dangerous" is defined relative to background information. The fact that people die horribly while pursuing pseudo-scientific beliefs provides absolutely no support for the consequentialist argument that people should avoid pseudo-science because it is dangerous. Most people suffer injury, and everybody dies.

    What would (at least plausibly) provide such evidence would be whether something fairly equivalent to ghost hunting in the dark but without the pseudo-science is shown to be much safer.

    Let's assume for argument that "abandoned house spelunking" exists (does it?) and was equivalent to ghost hunting. To make a valid argument, we need to show a counter-factual: that "but for" belief in ghosts, the same level of injuries would not have occurred. That's a form of valid support for claiming "pseudo-scientific ghost hunting is dangerous", and there are others.

    Science is more of a method than it is the conclusion reached by that method.

    Let's not fight pseudo-science with more of the same.