Mailbag: What’s The Harm?

mailbag letter

It is time for another entry in the mailbag series where I answer feedback email from readers and others. If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact info on the about page.

Tony recently wrote a comment on the post about six general approaches to refute any conspiracy theory. Because it represents such a common and typical response to efforts to promote scientific skepticism, it deserves to be part of the mailbag series where it can be discussed and dissected in some detail.

It is a combination of the “what’s the harm” gambit, the fallacy of relative privation and the uneasy relationship between those atheism-centric individuals who want to exclusively focus on religion (and ignore everything else) and scientific skeptics who take a broader approach to pseudoscience wherever it can be found.

This response will focus on several questions. What are the harms with pseudoscience and conspiracy theories and why should you care? Are they not just fun and harmless? Why is it not productive to insist that people ignore problems just because some other problem is deemed more important? Finally, why is Debunking Denialism about scientific skepticism and not a generic anti-religion blog?

Tony writes:

An interesting and absorbing article! My question is this: Why worry? In a world where, based on zero evidence, a high percentage of the population believe in various higher beings of one sort or another. A belief which flies in the face of any reason or logic and which leads to tens of thousands of deaths and untold misery for millions more. I would think there are bigger things to be concerned about than a few nutty, basically harmless and amusing conspiracy theorists.

What’s the harm with pseudoscience?

It is tempting to think of pseudoscience and conspiracy theories as just harmless fun. However, the facts show something entirely different. Here is how I characterized the situation in a previous mailbag entry when the issue came up:

Alternative medicine is a 34 billion dollar industry per year in the United States (NCCIH, 2009). Over 330 000 people died a premature death due to the HIV/AIDS denialism of the South African government under former President Thabo Mbeki (Chigwedere et al., 2008). 57% of U. S. adults say that GMOs are generally unsafe to eat (Funk and Rainie, 2015). 58% of Americans either say that vaccines cause autism, or that they are not sure what the facts are and almost 1 in 10 think that vaccines are more dangerous than the diseases they protect against (Newport, 2015). 42% of Americans think that the problem with climate change is exaggerated (Dugan, 2014) and 1 in 4 is not worried at all (Saad 2014). Half of the world does not even know the Holocaust happened, and only 1 in 3 is aware of it and think that the historical account is largely accurate (Green, 2014).

There are real and substantial harms to conspiracy theories and a substantial proportion of the American population embrace them. The characterization that it only involves “few nutty, basically harmless and amusing conspiracy theorists” is a scientifically false statement. In fact, this “what’s the harm?” gambit is so common that there is a website called What’s The Harm? that specifically focused on collecting documented examples of harm from pseudoscience.

It is also worth noting that pseudoscience and misinformation was likely one major factor in the election of Donald Trump. The Trump administration also continues to push conspiracy theories and even goes so far as to make up “alternative facts” and even alleged historical events that never happened to justify their policy decisions.

The fallacy of relative privation

Tony questions why people even bother with scientific skepticism when there are “bigger things to be concerned about” and hints that this bigger problem is religious belief. However, as we have seen, Tony has grossly underestimated the harmful impacts of pseudoscience. It is substantially worse than he thinks.

The line of argument deployed by Tony also constitutes the fallacy of relative privation. It is a rhetorical trick used to distract from an important issue (A) because some other issue (B) somewhere else might be more important. There are a number of problems with this approach. For instance, it might be empirically false to say that B is worse than A and it is possible to focus on more than one thing at the same time. Also, it can be used to condescendingly dismiss any issue (including B). For instance, we might reply that infectious diseases, cardiovascular disease and extreme climate events combined (at least tens of millions of people) kill more people than religion (which, according to Tony, merely kills a few tens of thousands of people). So according to Tony’s own logic, we can safely dismiss religion as relatively harmless. Since he would not accept this kind of argument, he should not accept the argument that he laid out about the harmful effects of religion versus pseudoscience and conspiracy theories.

Why is Debunking Denialism not an anti-religion website?

There is an unstated question in the comment submitted by Tony. Why is Debunking Denialism about scientific skepticism and not focused on anti-religion instead? As it turns out, there are several reasons for this.

Before we explore those reasons, I am tempted to cite the introduction to the documentary “The Enemies of Reason” (2007) narrated by Richard Dawkins (one of the most well-known atheists in the world):

Science has sent orbiters to Neptune, eradicated smallpox, and created a supercomputer that can do sixty-trillion calculations per second. Science frees us from superstition and dogma and enables us to base our knowledge on evidence. Well, most of us.

Previously, I have explored how organized faith and primitive religious values blight our lives. The fault lines runs deeper even than religion. There are two ways of looking at the world: through faith and superstition, or through the rigors of logic, observation and evidence, through reason. Yet today reason has a battle on its hands.

I want to confront the epidemic of irrational, superstitious thinking. It’s a multi-million pound industry that impoverishes our culture and throws up new age gurus that exhort us to run away from reality. As a scientist, I don’t think our indulgence of irrational superstition is harmless. I think it profoundly undermines civilization.

Reason and the respect for evidence are the source of our progress, our safeguard against fundamentalists and those who profit from obscuring the truth. We live in dangerous times when superstition is gaining ground and rational science is under attack. In this program, I want to take on the enemies of reason.

The title of this documentary is the inspiration for the mission statement for this website that can be found at the top of the sidebar to the right.

Let us return to the reasons for why Debunking Denialism is a website that focuses on scientific skepticism instead of being just another anti-religion blog.

First, as we saw above, organized religious communities with anti-science tendencies are really just a special case of the more general problem with pseudoscience and irrational nonsense. Thus, there is nothing wrong with taking a broader approach and criticizing many different forms of pseudoscience. In fact, refusing to take this broader approach at least some of the time might be seen as giving a free pass to non-religious forms of nonsense.

Second, religion is extremely broad and includes everything from people who just cherish the symbolism and sense of community to violent religious extremists. Thus, from a pragmatic standpoint, it is not all that useful to attack less malignant forms of religion or liberal believers because they can be important allies in the struggle against pseudoscience. In particular, religious believers and organizations have been crucially important in the fight against creationism in public schools.

Third, most of the arguments for and against religious beliefs and claims have already been discussed to death on the Internet. There are not that many original contributions that can be made by me at this point. However, Debunking Denialism has taken on many different kinds of pseudoscience that have been promoted by religious extremists, such as those who refuse mainstream medical treatment for sick children, creationism, and HIV/AIDS denialism pushed by some evangelical religious organizations.

Fourth, taking on pseudoscience more broadly increases the reach of scientific skepticism and critical thinking as well as might help undermining selective skepticism. Some people might find this website looking for information about one of the more than a dozen different categories or any of the 380+ articles because they reject that particular pseudoscience. Then, as they investigate this website further, they might find a pseudoscience or misconception they actually do believe in and change their minds. If they consider the website credible on, let’s say, climate change, they might be more inclined to trust the information about vaccines. It could be a way to break down their cognitive dissonance. Although purely anecdotal, there have been a few people who have sent emails to this website and said that this was exactly what happened. Because selective skepticism is such a threat, it can be useful to focus on many different forms of pseudoscience. Finally, once a person understand the benefits with science, the folly of pseudoscience and quackery, and the psychology of conspiracy theories, religious extremism might not even come up as an issue for them.

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Debunker of pseudoscience.

11 thoughts on “Mailbag: What’s The Harm?

  • Pingback: Mailbag: What’s The Harm? | Emil Karlsson

  • Well done. Brilliant. I am going to recommend this posting over at my little blog 🙂

    • Thank you for maintaining a no nonsense blog covering exactly the kind of issues we face as a society, and maintaining an air of unimpeachable integrity.

    • Exactly what I am aiming for.

      I’ll even let you in on a little secret: I will try to increase posting frequency above 1 post / weekday in the very near future. 😉

    • I won’t, but I would really like to turn this skepticism hobby of mine into a full-time, independent activity supported by readers.

      My plan is to push out more content, use high-quality photos instead of clipart and a special knowledge base section with evidence-based replies to common pseudoscience claims. Kind of like Index to Creationist Claims, Skeptical Science or, but for many other forms of pseudoscience and general anti-science complaining.

      I do not think there are currently any skeptical websites that push out multiple posts on a wide range of topics on weekdays run by a single person, so looks like a productive niche.

    • That is a great idea I’m thinking. Something the world could use a fair bit of.

      I had sort of the same notion based upon keeping up with the lies of our commander in chief and co. but soon realized it was a next to impossible task…

    • Yeah, impossible for a single person to write entire posts about all the nonsense that he promotes. To me it looks like there are 4-5 new things every day. All one can hope for is to aggregate some of it with a good sense of humor to avoid falling into too much darkness.

      Considered making a fun Twitter account for it and just retweeting news items and analyses of his actions?

    • I’m afraid WP is about as social media as I can get…

      I tried FB once, lasted 3 days. I figure Twitter would be as bad. Perhaps I just don’t have the will. 🙂

    • Yeah, social media can be horrible. I try to avoid the worst of the worst qualities of it and use to to push science and critical thinking, but I have wasted many evenings on meaningless exchanges with very unreasonable people. If you don’t think it would be fun or productive, don’t waste your time on it.

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