Before I get started, (and I’m pretty fired up this week), I just want to take a second and let y’all know that I’m doing a public show in Worcester on Dec 2nd! If you’d like to see some live forkbending and other psychic phenomena, drop me a comment or e-mail and I’ll get back to you with the details. Space is limited, so let me know ASAP.
Now, back to our regularly scheduled post…
When conversation turns to the weird and wild world of the paranormal, I try and speak up, if quietly. Even though I’m pretty passionate about pseudoscience and the paranormal, I try not to go into a rabid, foaming polemic. I found out long ago that direct confrontation over this stuff generally leads to people shutting down and getting defensive.
Still, no matter how hard I try to diffuse the issue, sometimes people just insist on having the argument. I present my side, they present theirs (usually relying on a heavy dose of anecdote and logical fallacies) and we reach a epistemological stand-off. At this point, the defender of the irrational plays what they consider their trump card:
“Well, even if it can’t be proved, or even if it’s not true, what’s the harm in believing in ‘x’? ”
This is supposed to appeal to my acceptance, respect and tolerance of people’s beliefs and/or cultural differences. Being a good citizen in a pluralistic society means that we all agree to disagree and respect each others religious freedoms. Admitedly, it’s a pretty good tactic. There are a lot of things up for grabs in the arena of truth, and as a skeptic, I have an open and questioning mind.
That being said, there are things that are true and real, and there are things that are fantasy and delusion. When things that are fantasy are taken to be true, with no questioning or investigation, tragedy can and does happen.
Need proof? How about this story from New Zealand . Yes, it’s another needless excorcism death. Long story short, a family was supposedly under a Maori curse, so “experts” were called in to deal with it. I’ll spare you the details, but it was a week-long ordeal of psychological and physical near-torture that left 4 of the victims in the hospital and one dead.
What? Oh, that was a religious ceremony from a culture I don’t understand, and I have no right to judge it? Well, maybe…but faith in nonsense can lead to tragedy, no matter what the source. Well, for the sake of argument I’ll grant you a religious exemption. Although it still makes me sick. (btw, here’s a list of exorcism related deaths and tragedies compiled by Perry DeAngelis, in case you’re curious)
So then, religion is out. How about this one from the wonderful world of quack psychology? Warning: the details of this story are heartbreaking and I really don’t feel comfortable re-telling it here. It’s not gory per say, just so damn unnecessary. Once you’ve read it, you can’t unread it. I especially warn parents of small children, your heart will ache in terrible ways…
You might think I’m being callous or overly hard, pointing out these tragedies. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. These events are tragic because they are the acts of desperate people, willing to do whatever it takes to help the ones they love. They do terrible, horrible things to their children and families because they have some authority figure or belief system that tells them “It’s the right thing to do”. They believe that they are doing the right thing, and it leads to the loss of the very people they were trying so hard to save.
That’s why the ability to ask critical questions of EVERYTHING is so important! Yes, I’ll grant you that these are extreme cases, but each and everyone of these needles horrors could have been avoided if someone in the family had the courage to speak up and ask the right questions. They are symptoms of a bigger, humanity-wide problem. The belief in the power of faith to trump reason.
So, does buying a box of “Airborne” immediately lead to the death of your family? No, the consequences of that decision are certainly smaller. You’re out a couple of bucks, and your rational friends probably snicker at you behind your back, but no biggie. How about that “herbal viagra” you bought from late-night tv. If it doesn’t work, at least it’s harmless right? Well, maybe…or maybe not . There’s no way to know the eventual consequences of misplaced faith. The important thing is to constantly ask: “Why do I believe that “x” is true, and is that reason good enough to act on?”
What’s the harm in believing in pseudoscience and superstition? I’ll leave the final word to someone much wiser (and deader) than me.
“As long as people believe in absurdities, they will continue to commit atrocities” -Voltaire