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What's the harm?

These links and comments illustrate the harm done by occult, paranormal, pseudoscientific, and supernatural beliefs. The harm may be tangible and easily documented: physical, financial, or interpersonal. »What's the Harm? archives

17 February 2013. Belief in black magic persists in Papua New Guinea, where communities are warping under the pressure of the mining boom’s unfulfilled expectations. Women are blamed, accused of sorcery and branded as witches — with horrific consequences.

9 October 2011. Jackeline Lopez, 42, of Palmdale was arrested for inducing a 12-year-old girl into stealing more than $10,000 worth of unique jewelry from the girl's parents. Lopez claimed to be psychic and scared the girl into stealing the jewels to end a "curse." The duped thief is a classmate of Lopez’s daughter.

27 September 2011. A 13-year-old girl suffocated after she was strapped down and doused with water by her father and a monk who were trying to expel an "evil spirit."

20 August 2011. Rhinos threatened with extinction to meet demand for bogus cancer cure Some 265 rhinos have been poached so far this year, according to government figures, an average of more than one per day. This puts 2011 on course to surpass last year's record death toll of 333. In 2007, it was just 13.

Why? There is no mystery about it. Experts agree the carnage results from a false belief, widespread in the far east, that rhino horn can cure cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. There is now soaring demand from the newly moneyed consumers of China and Vietnam.

16 August 2011. Self-proclaimed prophet jailed 18 years A 34-year-old self-proclaimed spiritual healer, Edmund Taurai, was given an 18-year prison term for raping a married woman under the guise of exorcism.

11 June 2011. Texas tipster: Angels told me of mass grave site Liberty County, Texas, detectives got a phone tip from a psychic that led them to a farmhouse in search of a mass grave that did not exist. The psychic says she got the information from Jesus and 32 angels. She still maintains that there are three children "out there" in need of help. No doubt about that, but they aren't the only ones in need of help. Liberty County Sheriff's deputies, Texas Rangers, the FBI, DPS officers, and the media converged on the town of Hardin, Texas, to look for signs of a mass grave. A search at the farm turned up nothing. Duh.

The harm here is not that some mentally disturbed person thinks spirits exist and talk to her. The harm isn't that she called the police. The harm is that there are law enforcement officers who act on such flimsy evidence to justify kicking in the door of honest, law-abiding citizens. The psychic claims she's worked with law enforcement agencies in the past. There's no reason to believe anything she says, but it is a fact that many law enforcement agencies justify working with psychics either because "we have to follow every lead" or because "psychics have a sixth sense." No. Psychics do not have a sixth sense. Psychics do not solve crimes with their psychic powers. And No, not every tip is a lead. Some tips, on their face, are unworthy of follow-up, unless the follow-up is to investigate the person calling in with the "tip."

Embarrassing themselves further, authorities say the "tipster" could face charges for filing a false report. These authorities should be charged with the crime of impersonating officers of the law. If the police were interested in preventing psychics from wasting their time and resources, they would have arrested the "tipster" or had the mental health authorities give her a visit. Then they would publicize the fact that they do not find it amusing to have people wasting everybody's time by calling the police to share their delusions. The police should also be required to take a course in critical thinking and read about the sordid history of so-called proof of ESP and other paranormal powers. Here's a link to something they should read this summer: a short history of psi research. After they finish the short history, they should read my reviews of Dean Radin's Entangled Minds, Charles Tart's The End of Materialism, and Renée Scheltema's Something Unknown is Doing We Don't Know What.

The cops are diverting attention away from the real story by baiting the media with irrelevant information about what story the psychic fed them (was it several missing children or was it many dismembered bodies?). It doesn't matter. The woman got her information from spirits, for Christ's sake! The cops are also blaming the media for leaking the story and getting the details wrong.

What should we say about the "reporters" who followed the police around in this hunt for non-existent bodies whose whereabouts were known to a phone tipster because Jesus and some angels told her? Their justification, I suppose, is that they were just following the story. Right. And why not write about the real story? The real story is the harm done by some buffoons who excuse their invasion of privacy and waste of taxpayer's money by saying, as Captain Rex Evans, spokesman for the Liberty County Sheriff's Office, said, the tip-off had to be taken seriously because children's bodies were claimed to be in the property. No, Mr. Evans, that does not justify the invasion of a private citizen's property. You should have considered the source of the "tip." If the content alone of an anonymous phone call gave the police the right to kick in your door, what would prevent one cop from tipping off another when they both wanted to destroy some third party?

Finally, what about the judge who issued a search warrant based on finding blood on the porch of the farmhouse? Evans declined to discuss deputies' failure to check a paramedic's report that the blood was a remnant of a suicide attempt that happened some two weeks earlier. The judge says the police acted properly, but he may be covering his own pathetic action of granting the search warrant because some blood was found on a porch that police were checking out because some woman told them that some angels told her .......

update 12 June 2011. The Houston Chronical reports that news directors at each of Houston's four major network affiliates sent at least two crews of reporters and cameramen plus satellite trucks to Liberty County to cover this fiasco.

"In hindsight, you can look at it and think the whole damned thing was ridiculous," KHOU (Channel 11) executive news director Philip Bruce said. "But as it was happening, none of us knew it was a psychic that was the source of this stuff. None of us had a clue what promoted the huge turnout by police. We just knew that we had this massive thing going on in a small town and people saying they had found blood and there's a smell of decomposition."

The headline on the story says:

False mass-graves story holds lesson Chasing breaking news requires skepticism, news outlets say

Skepticism? Yes, but what are you going to do when every other news outfit is following the headless leader?

Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute said the frenzy reflects digital-age confusion. Reporters and editors want to be right, but they also want to be the first with the story. "Information travels fast, and bad information travels even faster," Tompkins said. "What is our standard for reporting news? Is it that there is a report of something happening, or is it that there is actually something happening?"

Channel 11 issued a message on Twitter in the 5 p.m. hour that read, "Liberty County deputies search property after tipster reports 'dismembered bodies.'" An hour later, another tweet read, "Source: Mass grave with 'a lot of bodies' found in Liberty County." In an email alert, the station said, "A law enforcement source confirmed that a mass grave with 'a lot of bodies' was found on the property near the intersection of County Roads 2048 and 2049. Some of them are children, according to the source."

Pick a source, any source. Tomorrow is another day. We were just following the story. If the police had told us up front that their tipster was a psychic, we'd have acted more better. You can trust us. We're the friendly news station. We're on your side. Video at 11.

CNN reported that a "federal official" had confirmed the report that bodies were found.

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* AmeriCares *

About harm

It is difficult to assess the harm done to society and the world at large by the spread and encouragement of anti-scientific, irrational, and magical thinking. It is also difficult to measure the extent of harm done to individuals and their families who give up thinking for themselves to follow some guru astrologer, psychic, or cult leader.

It is impossible to calculate the losses to those bilked because they are ignorant of basic logical and psychological principles. Even so, Tim Farley gives it his best shot.

For those cancer patients who are thinking of trying an untested alternative therapy, please read Dr. Stephen Barrett's A Special Message for Cancer Patients Seeking "Alternative" Treatments.

faith healers

Read this book and you will wonder no more about the harm done by false beliefs


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