What's the harm?

by John Jackson © 2005

Rationalists often get engaged in debate with people who believe in things such as: angels; aliens; alternative medicine; ghosts, and other paranormal or pseudoscientific ideas. It's an area where opponents can come across as the "bad guys" who are trying to take someone's cherished beliefs away by opposing them. Usually, someone will say something like: "some people believe in angels; if it comforts them, what harm does it do?"

It is a fair question. Do these beliefs cause harm?

Whilst it is true that many people can go through life holding such beliefs without harm, there is a potential for harm associated with irrational thinking. People who uncritically accept one claim are just as likely to uncritically accept other claims. The potential for harm is not caused by any particular belief: it comes from the manner in which those beliefs are formed and the uncritical way in which they are accepted.

The potential for harm comes from:

  • Magical thinking.

    Magical thinking is the opposite of logical thinking; it is a mode of thinking where anything goes. Beliefs that have no scientific explanation or foundation in reality are simply explained by invoking forces, energies, entities, etcetera, that require no explanation or proof.

    Magical thinking often occurs by making naïve assumptions about cause and effect, or through a lack of understanding about probability and statistics. Once someone embraces magical thinking, his or her objectivity and rationality is diminished. This leaves them vulnerable to the many bogus and fraudulent claims that exist.

    Paranormal and pseudoscientific claims rely heavily on magical thinking.

  • Uncritical acceptance of claims.

    We are faced with many extraordinary claims every day from advertisers promoting dubious goods and services, to psychics claiming to talk to the dead. Once magical thinking has been adopted, we no longer need to question, scrutinise, or even think about whether or not a claim may be true, we just simply accept it at face value.

    Of course, many claims are false. Uncritically accepting claims leaves us susceptible to manipulation by those who wish to prey on us.

  • Diminished powers of reasoning.

    Someone who believes that angels guide their life or that their fate is written in the stars has given up some personal control over their life. Rather than use their own reasoning power to reach conclusions about important matters, this type of person is more likely to seek advice from astrologers or psychics; people who in reality are not qualified to give important advice.

    If someone needs to consult a psychic to ask whether or not to change jobs, or go on a date, how are they going to cope if they have to make a major health or financial decision?

    By assigning our fate to magical forces, we are reducing our ability to use logic and reasoning to make informed decisions.

  • Poor decision-making.

    Decision-making is about looking at options and choosing the best one for the problem in hand. When magical thinking comes into the equation, the options that should be eliminated, due to say a lack of evidence, will not be. Example: Should our children be vaccinated at the doctor's or should we opt for a homeopathic vaccination?

    Unless we are capable of eliminating the bad choices through logic and reasoning, we are inevitably going to make poorer decisions. We may not realise that we have done so, until we suffer the consequences.

  • Medical harm.

    One major area where magical thinking abounds is in alternative medicine. Relying on alternative treatments is fine as long as the illness is a self-limiting (cures by itself) one; the danger arises when more serious conditions occur. By avoiding proper medical diagnosis and treatment, it is possible that a treatable illness could become more serious, or even fatal.

  • Financial harm.

    People who are magical thinkers are natural targets for scammers. Alternative medicine, astrology/psychic hotlines, multi level marketing etc. are all ways of getting money with false promises.

    There is nothing better for scammers than to have a willing victim; the fact that such a victim may be a grieving mother desperately going to psychic mediums for messages from her dead child doesn't seem to matter. They just pass on the phoney messages and pocket the money.

  • Harm to others.

    The harm that can be caused by holding irrational beliefs is not limited to the believer. A grieving mother who develops a dependency on psychics, for example, may do so to the detriment of her relationships with her other family members, including her other children.

The belief in angels, following on from the original example, in itself is most likely completely harmless on its own, which is why the "what's the harm?" question seems to be so pertinent. What we have seen here, however, is that such a belief is unlikely to be an isolated one: a person prone to magical thinking will probably hold many more such beliefs.

It is when life's crises occur that credulity and magical thinking can harm people. This is the time that people are at their most vulnerable, and there are many who are waiting to take advantage.

Irrational beliefs have their consequences: they are not inherently harmless.

Links:

A case where magical thinking was very costly:
http://www.phillyburbs.com/pb-dyn/news/113-11022004-393811.html

Uncritical acceptance of an extravagant claim:
http://www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/200410/s1230402.htm

An example of the real harm posed by irrational thinking:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/3488806.stm

Alternative medicine: the ultimate price:
http://www.expatica.com/source/site_article.asp?subchannel_id=19&story_id=4821