The danger of belief.

When discussing and criticizing New Age, New Thought, pseudoscience beliefs (like The Secret, crystals, homeopathy, chiropractic, ESP, psychics, Tarot, astrology, chi, feng shui, ghosts, reflexology, etc. ad nauseum) people often say “Oh, what’s the big deal? It’s harmless; let people believe what they want,” it’s often because they themselves have some belief or three that they know fall into the category of superstition and credulity. Subconsciously they think, “Hmm, I better not be too harsh on people who believe in The Secret because I know some know-it-all busybody would have problems with my belief in alien visitation.”

But there is a harm to non-critical thinking and it can be as “small” as spending good money on bunk to as significant as death:

(_Another Child Dies from Faith Healing_.) A cousin of his also recently died due to lack of medical care thanks to religious beliefs. There’s a woman I work with who also believes in faith healing, and has ignored ever-increasing symptoms until she passed out at a chiropractor and was sent to the hospital. Seems she has a brain tumor. (No word yet if it’s malignant or benign.)

There’s no reason for this. I want to try hard not to disparage faith or spirituality, but let’s be realistic here: medical science over the last 200 years has literally turned the worldview of illness in the west completely upside down. What was once thought to be caused by demons and curses we know to be viruses, bacteria, and chemical disorders. No amount of praying has ever repaired anything visibly irreparable and known to be medically incurable or able to go into remission such as amputations or visible horrific burn damage. A recent massive double-blind study showed that of the three groups of heart surgery patients, (one prayed for by large amounts of cross denominational Christians and not told about it, one prayed for and told about it, and one not prayed for) the group not prayed for and the one prayed for and not told had no difference in post-surgery recovery or complications. In fact, the one prayed for and who knew about it fared statistically worse. (Hypothesis is that some of the patients felt increased stress and concern which lead to complications.)

Recently a girl with serious Autism had a teaching assistant who visited a psychic. The psychic told her a student of hers was being molested. She went to the school with her “evidence” and they turned it to the Canadian version of Family Services:

(_Psychics and gullible people do REAL harm_.) Long story short, it was proven without a doubt that the girl was not being molested–the psychic was full of crap (surprise!) The result of her “for entertainment purposes only” seering was to throw a family into upheaval and cost them a great deal of money and emotional distress.

Neurologist Steven Novella has an excellent commentary on this story: _Psychic Alleges Sexual Abuse_:

Any reasonable assessment of the evidence, in my opinion, clearly shows that alleged psychics are frauds – yes, all of them. Some may be self-deluded, while others (by the techniques they use) must be con artists. But they are all frauds – they pretend to do something they cannot do. Spreading false beliefs about reality is harmful in and of itself. But this harm is greatly magnified by great mischief ensues when alleged psychics make serious allegations based upon their intuitions. This elevates fraud to negligence, and perhaps even depraved indifference.

My wife is often a voice of reason to me. When I go off on something, criticizing what I think is irrational thought, she usually has a point of view that pulls me back down to civility. On this issue she suggested that people should be allowed to believe whatever bogus ideas they want, but should be held accountable should negative results arise. Well, of course that makes sense–I don’t think we should outlaw gullibility or non-critical beliefs, that’s fascist and would actually be counter-productive. But there’s a problem: people AREN’T being held accountable because people are scared to death to publicly criticize religion, pseudoscience, superstitions, or other credulous beliefs. From that CNN article on the boy’s death:

After earlier deaths involving children of Followers of Christ believers, a 1999 Oregon law struck down religious shields for parents who treat their children solely with prayer. No one had been prosecuted under it until the Worthingtons’ case [last March].

We have reached a point in our culture where criticizing, examining, demanding evidence for people’s beliefs is verboten. That kind of Christian fundamentalism which eschews modern medicine and science and puts their children in harm damn well deserves to be criticized at its very foundation. All psychics are frauds, period, and should be treated as such by the legal system and society at large. Beliefs which can and often do lead to harm should not be tip-toed around and given a pass because of some misguided desire to give all beliefs respect and tolerance. Some don’t deserve it.

There’s a CNN article yesterday:

It floored me. Because of vaccinations we’ve eradicated polio, a disease which used to kill or paralyze or cripple literally hundreds of thousands of people a year. Measles? Silly measles, we can risk it–why vaccinate. Because measles is a highly contagious disease with a 10-30% fatality rate and killed half a million unvaccinated people in 2003. There’s a reason we vaccinate children–it saves countless lives from many easily preventable diseases. And because of completely non-critical thinking, this process is thrown into question. Because of three converging conditions, this life-saving science is questioned and debated and needlessly avoided by many:

  • Symptoms of Autism reveal themselves at the same age range in which we vaccinate kids–regardless of vaccination. We’ve known this for decades, we see this in places where vaccinations aren’t done. It is coincidence which confuses correlation with causation.
  • We’re diagnosing more cases of Autism because of changes in methodology. It used to be that only the most severe cases of Autism were recognized as such–non-functional, “Rainman” style Autism. Now an extremely expansive continuum of symptom severity is being diagnosed. People with Ausperger’s Syndrome, a form of high-functioning Autism was virtually undiagnosed a couple of decades ago…now doctors are more readily recognizing and diagnosing cases. It’s always existed–we’re just diagnosing it more and it has nothing to do with vaccines.
  • Parents understandably want to blame something. No one, parents, anyone, likes hearing “sometimes things just happen.” People want reasons, they want answers, they want something to blame. It’s completely understandable, perfectly human. It’s why people turn to ideas of “luck” and fortune, ESP, ghosts, aliens, what have you, for explanations to coincidence, accident, unexplained (in their mind) occurrences.

But the bottom line, is test after test, study after study, research after research, prove that there is no link between Autism and vaccines. In fact, one of the most vocal proponents of the connection was invited to help design what was one of the largest and most comprehensive studies examining the possible link. When the data was analyzed and it was becoming obvious that once again there was no link, she took her name off the study and started a propaganda campaign to distance her involvement and try to discredit the study.

Sometimes people want to believe something despite all evidence to the contrary. That’s delusion.

We should hold people accountable for the effects of their beliefs, absolutely. But what happens when those responsible for holding people accountable themselves rely on magical-thinking, superstition, and other woo? People get a pass. Children are being killed by medieval religious beliefs? Well, we have to be tolerant of religion (especially in this country if it in any way involves the words “Christian” or “…of Christ”.) “Psychics” like _Sylvia Browne_ crassly lie to grieving families, feeding on their pain and grief for their own fame and money? Well, it’s for “entertainment purposes” so they’re covered. (Or, hey, in Sylvia’s case it’s a “religious belief”! Two passes in one!) Besides, cultural leaders and gurus like Oprah advocate mysticism, New Age and New Thought, psychic beliefs, and pseudoscience–so, there must be something to it.

And so we continue to support and encourage un-critical thinking and credulous belief in woo as a culture in general, and that affects our legal system, politics, media.

The other day I heard a commercial for some “all natural” prostate health herbal supplement. “And it’s all natural, so you don’t have to worry about those annoying side effects that come with pharmaceutical products.” Got a message for you: poison ivy is “all natural.” Hemlock, toadstools, heroin, arsenic, Ebola, hepatitis, cancer, cyanide, anthrax…all natural, my friends! And here’s another clue: if something, like an herb, is capable of any kind of “positive” biochemical effect on your body, it’s capable of producing unwanted and negative side effects. The only difference, FDA regulated pharmaceuticals go through rigorous testing to find all or most of those side effects, their severity, cross medication reactions. Herbal remedies get none of that testing. St. John’s Wort? All natural, and promotes liver disease. Ginko biloba? All natural, and contributes to heart disease and strokes. (True) homeopathic “medicine” is the safest, being pretty much complete water, so what’s the harm? A lot if people trust water and sugar tablets instead of seeking needed medical advice for symptoms that may indicate something water and sugar don’t affect!

A culture that believes in woo won’t and can’t hold people who harm others or themselves, based on woo, accountable in any significant degree.

6 thoughts on “The danger of belief.”

  1. What an excellent and powerfully written entry! You are probably aware that there’s been a burgeoning of books discussing recent advances in neuroscience. One book in particular is relevant to the question of why people hold to beliefs not only in the absence of evidence, but in the presence of counterevidence. It’s called On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not by neurologist Robert Burton. He argues that the tendency to ignore evidence contrary to our beliefs is built-in, that our brains are hard-wired to generate a feeling of knowing or a feeling of certainty that we are right – and that when this “feeling of knowing” often trumps evidence to the contrary. Example: In one of the studies Burton describes, a professor asked students – in class, on the day after the Challenger exploded – to describe where they were, what they were doing, who they were with, etc. when they heard of this tragedy. Two and half years later he re-contacted the students – he still had their original essays in hand. When asked if they remembered hearing about the Challenger explosion, they were all certain that they remembered the circumstances clearly. Yet less 10% were correct in all details, and 25% got it all wrong. Yet so strong is our feeling of knowing that even when shown their original essays, many had trouble accepting that they were wrong. One student said “Well, that’s my handwriting but that’s not what happened.” So we have a long way to go to convince people that our feeling of certainty that we are right is often wrong! Thanks for a great entry.

  2. Thank you for visiting my site and commenting!
    Yeah, I first heard of Burton’s book (and your own, I believe) from the “Point of Inquiry” podcast.
    It’s an absolutely fascinating subject, consciousness, the epistemology of “knowing”.

  3. I think it is interesting when you include reflexology in a whole list of fringe practices. Have you actually looked at reflexology? Have you looked at the research? Or do you just know it is wrong.

    Intuition plays a big part in a lot of skeptics lives. Yet they rail against it.

    Very interesting that you know all these things are illogical with just a hunch.

  4. @kevin
    are you kidding?? Your comment reveals a lot. Skepticism has absolutely nothing to do with intuition! Nothing. Quite the opposite. For the skeptic all claims start at the same level: prove it or it’s unfounded, regardless of what the claim is. Whether it’s mystical or scientific claim, they’re all considered unfounded and unproven until a preponderance of objective and verifiable evidence proves the validity of the claim BEYOND and regardless of any ideas of intuition.
    Reflexilogy has yet to provide any verifiable, objective, repeatable evidence that proves the validity of its claims beyond the default condition of all claims: unfounded.
    Start with

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