The Weiler Psi

Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics

What’s the Harm? A Skeptical Look at a Skeptical Website


What’s the Harm? is a skeptical website promoted by magician Penn Jillette. I was alerted to this site by a skeptic comment on the $1 million dollar challenge article I wrote. Since the comment itself was an emotional rant and personal attack and more importantly contributed nothing to the discussion, I did not allow it to be posted. Still, I was curious and checked out the site.

What’s the Harm? is a collection of documented horror stories from people who apparently did not think critically. In their own words:

This site is designed to make a point about the danger of not thinking critically. Namely that you can easily be injured or killed by neglecting this important skill. We have collected the stories of over 670,000 people who have been injured or killed as a result of someone not thinking critically.

The claim is that 368,379 people have been killed, and 306,096 injured by this lack of critical thinking. That is a big number, but an examination of where they came up with that number reveals that of the people killed 365,000 of them were South African AIDS patients who did not receive care due to AIDS denial. I flat out disagree with the premise that this has anything to do with critical thinking and I put forth the argument that this has everything to do with politics. Certainly the people who died were not all AIDS deniers. This leaves us with the much less impressive number of 3,379 people killed by poor critical thinking.

A perusal through the medical section tells the story. The vast number of these people had pre-existing medical conditions that would be possibly fatal under any circumstances. They chose alternative medicine over conventional care and died. The approach taken by this site is that every one of these people should have chosen conventional care and perhaps would have been saved. This is possibly true, but it overlooks how complicated the issue really is. As in very complicated.

First of all, some of these people may have died in about the same amount of time regardless of treatment. Any doctor will tell you: it just happens.

Second, conventional medicine carries its own fatal risks which include: misdiagnosis, infectious superbug diseases, lethal prescription medicine, (100,000 people die from prescription medicine each year.) and malpractice or merely substandard care. By not acknowledging the risks of conventional medicine, this website is leaving a false impression that alternative medicine puts people at much higher risk than conventional medicine. The choices are much more complicated than they appear.

Third, in order to properly evaluate alternative treatments we would need to know who was saved or helped by it as well as who died or was injured. What are the percentages? No where is this more apparent than in an evaluation of chiropractic treatment. A list of horror stories in this case is just plain misleading because of the sheer quantity of people under chiropractic care and the large numbers of Doctors of Chiropractic Medicine. Someone, somewhere is going to screw up big time, but this has nothing to do with the value of chiropractic care in general.

If the same standard were applied to conventional medicine no one would ever see a doctor again in their lives because the list of bad doctors, indifferent hospitals and malpractice problems would stretch to the moon. We cannot use a list of worse case scenarios to make a rational decision.

Fourth: There is no distinction between harm caused by an ineffectual treatment and harm caused by poor medical procedure. The website points out 1,144 acupuncture patients exposed to infection by an inferior acupuncture practitioner. This isn’t a problem with acupuncture, this is problem with proper medical procedure. You can have similar problems in hospitals, but you don’t find them on this list.

The problem with the approach used by this website in the medical section is that one cannot use it to make an informed decision. Indeed, if this were our only source we would conclude that alternative medicine was far more dangerous than conventional sorts. That would be an unwise conclusion if for no other reason than alternative medicine is generally far less toxic and invasive than ordinary medicine and therefor puts people at less risk for complications due to surgery or medication.

As an example, when I injured my back getting rear ended last year I went to a chiropractor. The remedies were ice, massage, electro-stimulation of the muscles, mechanical traction and spinal adjustments, all adjusted to my pain and inflammation level. Three months later I was completely cured and I was able to work the entire time. Conventional medicine would have been much more risky with prescription drugs and a possible operation.

The method of presenting medical evidence on this website could conceivably do more harm than good.

Moving over to the paranormal section, the people who were collecting evidence were clearly stretching in some cases. Here are a couple of the more questionable calls:

Rachel and her friends decided to go ghost hunting near a local haunted house. They didn’t realize the owner of the house did not like visitors, and owned a gun. She ended up with a gunshot to the head and a long hospital stay.

A man believed his father’s ghost came to him in a dream and told him to kill 70 women so he could have magical powers. Belief in sorcery is widespread in Indonesia, and he used that to lure women to their deaths. He was executed in July 2008.

The message seems to be don’t believe in ghosts or you might get shot or become criminally insane. Most of examples were property disputes over haunted houses.

In the psychic section, many of the cases are about fraud, which is not about psychics, but rather people claiming to be psychics for the purpose of committing fraud. If we applied the same standard elsewhere, we would believe that all building contractors were harmful because frauds, posing as building contractors had bilked people of their money. Should we come to the conclusion that we should never build anything ever again?

They are pulling these cases from all over the western world with a potential pool of about 3 billion people. Again, we run into the same problem as with medical situations. It is just a worse case list with no sense of perspective. What about people whose lives were saved or improved by visiting a psychic. It DOES happen occasionally. As with all things in life, we have to do a risk assessment. How dangerous is this versus how much potential good it might do. By merely looking at all the possible harm, they are taking a very one sided approach which is not entirely helpful.

But I do see potential harm from this site with how they deal with witchcraft. Most of the examples are third world or some backwater in India and involve violence. The lone U.S. example was from people who thought doctors practiced witchcraft and let their son die of wasp stings. This gives an incredibly distorted view of witchcraft which could prove dangerous to people who practice Wicca. The objective of the site, I’m sure, is not to foment panic over an obscure and harmless religion that is even accepted by the U.S. armed forces, but that is what can happen when people misinterpret propaganda style information like this.

It also seems that some things have been piled on this site that don’t really belong: To wit: Expert witnesses, gps navigation systems, IRS denials, internet misinformation, rituals and multi-level marketing. These all involve things that we have to live with, but have no choice but to take the bad with the good.

The overall intent of the site seems to be simply to belittle the targeted areas and to scrape together as many categories of deaths, lost money and injuries as possible. And this is a shame because tucked into the site in various areas there is some important information. Acupuncture is not totally harmless and under the wrong conditions can be harmful. And another example is to stay the hell away from ear candles.

But it is not fair for example, to lump Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists together with those suicidal whackjobs known as breatharians. I don’t agree with their beliefs regarding conventional medicine but it’s not in the same league as believing you can live on just air.

The same goes for mainstream chiropractic care being lumped in with medically dangerous ear candling, colon cleansing and life threatening detoxification programs. If the creators of this site had just shown some restraint and given this whole idea a little thought beyond, “how can we make this stuff look as bad as possible” the site might have actually been useful. As it stands it’s just a crude club for extreme skeptics.

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