What’s the harm?

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a skeptical account of a ghost story, and believe me, this wasn’t the first conversation I’ve gotten into about what I’ll simply call, “questionable phenomena.” And, both from my own personal experience and from numerous public discussions, I can say that a common response to this is, “Yeah, but what’s the harm?” Who cares if someone believes in ghosts, psychics, or alternative medicine without hard evidence or scientific support? As long as they’re not hurting anybody, leave them be. Right?

Well, here’s my way of thinking. First, we’ll avoid the “slippery slope” style of arguments, where I trot out the cases that resulted in grave misfortune and death. Yes, they exist – but in all honesty, most of those are examples more of people that have serious mental issues in the first place, and it’s difficult to make a case that their belief structure was directly and solely responsible for their downfall. Most people aren’t like that, and wouldn’t ever get so wrapped up in something that they lose all judgment.

So, what of the mild, common cases? How are they bad? We can start with, they introduce a bias to thinking. People who follow UFO accounts in most of the popular media will immediately entertain the notion that a strange object in the sky might just be alien in nature. People who find the idea of alternative medicine intriguing tend to be a bit slower to go to the doctor when becoming ill, which means that they’ll be contagious longer and probably miss more work. And overall, there’s an extremely damaging affect on our advancement. The plethora of ideas that “science can’t answer” – psychic powers, faith healing, alien visitations, secret organizations that control the world – taken together build this concept that science isn’t all that good at determining “truth.”

Science, actually, has provided the answers to all of these. They’re simply answers that too many people don’t want to hear.

What about personal damage? Faith is considered a very personal thing, none of anybody else’s business. And we’ll talk more about that in a moment. But how many people live agonized lives because they’re trying to balance everything, from making a living to having a sex drive, with the concept of inexcusable sin? How many people who suffer misfortune for perfectly normal reasons feel they’ve somehow “earned” this treatment from a vengeful deity? Is it a good thing to see the death of a loved one as a failure, either of theirs or yours?

But this only affects individuals, right? Perhaps they agonize over things, but they’re just doing it to themselves. I’d agree, if I didn’t routinely see that people really enjoy spreading it around to others as well. Do you think kids, that have yet to develop a decent sense of right and wrong, need to have emotional baggage or fuzzy thinking piled on top of that? Generally until reaching adulthood themselves, children see adults as authority figures, imparting wisdom that is unquestionable and unshakable – this is, of course, why churches like starting early. But so much of childhood, adolescence, and yes, often far into adulthood, is spent unlearning many of the things they’re bombarded with in their formative years. Sometimes, this serves to impart a hard lesson that stays with them for the rest of their lives. Other times, it simply turns them bitter, or worse, they never really do unlearn the crap and just perpetuate it to their own kids.

And it’s not just kids that receive the largesse of fractured thinking. Let’s face it, people have a tendency to follow the herd, and alter their thinking to the majority of people around them. How many coworkers talking about a “great new health product” do you think it takes to cause someone to support it too, or at least not view it with a healthy dose of critical thinking? As little as one, if that person is respected, but it rarely takes more than two or three on average.

And we have a wicked bias towards personal accounts. How many people are far more willing to listen to the advice coming from one friend’s personal experience, than the meticulous double-blind clinical trials in a representatively large and varied population performed by universities, hospitals, and professional research institutions? Almost sounds ludicrous when I say it like that, but you know it happens all the time, don’t you?

So, did I just say that one person with questionable beliefs can affect a collection of others? Yes, I did. And I haven’t even touched on the idea that this one person might be a celebrity and reach thousands to millions of people with even offhand comments.

Here’s a funny aspect of the whole thing too: People don’t treat everything they do or think about the same way. Even scientists, who often have to catalog all of their work in excruciating detail and can’t even get their degrees unless they understand tests that eliminate personal bias, can view other interests with a blind eye to critical thought. This is actually pretty common (like the idea of doctors who smoke,) but we definitely have a hard time believing it. So we end up with authoritative figures providing info that we trust, info that really isn’t trustworthy.

Did I just say, “trust nobody?” In a way, yes. More importantly, don’t place your faith in anyone by virtue of their position or social standing. As Joe Friday used to say, “Just the facts.” Be aware that when I talk about “people” above and all of their foibles when it comes to questionable phenomena, I’m not just talking about “those people,” I’m talking about us – human beings. It’s a trend we all have and can all fall prey to.

And that means not becoming one of those who helps spread the fuzzy thinking. Believe in alien visitation? Okay, ask yourself why. Because you’ve heard lots of UFO stories? Yeah, me too. Those books sell really well. Wait – did we just find a key element in the idea?

Do you want to know what’s been hard about this post? It’s that I know too many people who hold some of these beliefs, and I’m trying not to make this sound like a personal attack. But to make it brief, there is harm in simple beliefs, and for the other side of the coin, there are numerous benefits to thinking critically, especially making a habit of it. It’s something that we could stand making a lot more popular. And when you compare it to the efforts spent in spreading ideas like ear candling and astral travel, you realize we could stand trying really hard to make it popular.

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