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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? archive

February 24, 2008. South Africa's health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang says that medicines used by traditional healers should not be subject to clinical trials. Medicines used for thousands of years should not become "bogged down in clinical trials," she said.

I guess she's never heard of the placebo effect or considered that even if traditional medicines are harmless, they might prevent patients from seeking scientific medical treatment if available. If the medicines are more than placebos, scientists might find something really useful by doing clinical trials. The minister is not against the trials for ethical reasons, but opposes them in general because: "We cannot use Western models of protocols for research and development." It appears she is just arguing in a circle and from tradition.

The Traditional Health Practitioners Act was passed in 2005 with the goal of integrating traditional healers into the mainstream health system. The minister seems determined to speed up the process.*

In California, Democratic Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally is carrying a bill (AB54) that would require insurance companies to include acupuncture treatments in coverage plans. The state Assembly passed the bill last month. Who knows what other placebos our lawmakers will require insurance companies to cover next. Hypnotherapy? Homeopathy? Healing waters from Peter Popoff?

Neither Dymally nor Tshabalala-Msimang seem to understand that an essential part of good medicine is to be open to challenging and rethinking traditional practices, whether conventional or not.

Someone should send the California legislator and the South African minister Snake Oil Science: The Truth about Complementary and Alternative Medicine or Suckers: How Alternative Medicine Makes Fools of Us All.

February 22, 2008. The number of measles cases in England and Wales jumped more than 30% last year to the highest level since records began in 1995, the BBC reports. The unfounded fear that the MMR vaccine causes autism is thought to be the cause behind the latest outbreak.

February 17, 2008. There have been eleven confirmed cases of measles in San Diego County. The victims range in age from 10 months to 9 years. Most of the children were victimized by their parents and anti-vaccination groups. (One year of age is the minimum for measles inoculation.) The San Diego Union-Tribune reports:

School leaders, health officials and physicians say they hope the outbreak will persuade parents to have their children inoculated against measles, mumps and rubella. They said the vaccine is safe.

However, a growing number of parents are exercising their right under California law to decline vaccination for their children. They fear that vaccines may be linked to autism.

Measles was widespread in the United States before a vaccine was developed in the early 1960s. At that time, many parents felt relieved when their children got measles because the infection meant the youngsters would be immunized for the rest of their lives.

Today, non-immunization rates throughout San Diego County average 1.6 percent in preschool students and 2.5 percent in kindergartners....

Measles is potentially fatal and highly contagious. So is ignorance.

February 14, 2008. Saudi Arabia's religious police are under fire from Human Rights Watch for allegedly forcing an illiterate woman to fingerprint a confession that she used witchcraft to make a man impotent, among other things. Fawza Falih has been convicted and sentenced to death. According to the BBC: "When an appeal court decided she should not be executed, the law courts imposed the death sentence again, arguing that it would be in the public interest."

January 24, 2008. Traditional cures or folk medicines loaded with lead are commonly given to children in Latin America, India and other parts of Asia and in the United States to the children of immigrants from those regions. Azarcon, also known as greta, alarcon, coral, luiga, maria luisa, or rueda is 95% lead and is just one of several lead-based potions used in households and by traditional healers.* According to the Associated Press, such remedies " are the second most common source of lead poisoning in the U.S. — surpassed only by lead paint — and may account for tens of thousands of such cases among children each year."*

Azarcon is sold in the U.S. by curanderas (folk healers) and in ethnic grocery stores and shops. "They are usually brought into the country by travelers in their suitcases, thereby slipping past government regulators." According to the curanderas, lead has curative properties. Science says otherwise. Lead poisoning can cause serious cognitive and neurological impairment.

Adults are also frequent users of questionable folk remedies. Dangerous amounts of lead have been found in Ayurvedic medicines, including ghasard, a brown powder given to relieve constipation in babies, and mahayogaraj gugullu, for high blood pressure. A study of shops in the Boston area by Robert Saper et al. found high concentrations of lead, mercury, and arsenic in Ayurvedic medicine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 12 cases of lead poisoning in 2004 associated with Ayurvedic remedies in Texas, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, and California.

January 20, 2008. The good news is that Fr. Jose Luis del Rio y Santiago of the Mexican Diocese of Saltillo is warning his congregation about the evils of astrology, parapsychology, and psychics. The bad news is that the Catholic priest gives his warning while performing a "healing Mass" during which he does an exorcism and tells his flock that these occult practices "open the door to Satanism." The priest rants against television programs that encourage belief in occult nonsense, but not because the stuff is nonsense. He rants and rails because he believes devils are lurking in the shadows waiting to pounce on anyone who gives in to the temptation to acquire secret knowledge. Or perhaps he believes that devils are luring people to watch these paranormal shows and tricking them into believing the rubbish that programs like A&E's "Paranormal State" put forth as fact. The paranormal is Satan's bait, perhaps, and believers in ghosts and fortune tellers are not being connected to their loved onesas James Van Praagh, John Edward, and Sylvia Browne claim—but are being lured into eternal damnation by the Prince of Evil. The priest rails that people "get carried away by their ignorance," but he is so self-deceived that he cannot see his own ignorance. The young girl he recently exorcised in front of his congregation needs medical attention, not bullying by a priest governed by ideas that should have been burned at the stake centuries ago. What this priest is doing is a form of child abuse, but because he does it in the name of religion and according to tradition, he will not be charged with any crime.

January 17, 2008. A few years ago, I reported on stories that HIV-positive men were having sex with children in Africa to cure themselves. Ignorance leading to rape isn't confined to Africa, however. Today, a newspaper in Sweden reports that a 69-year-old Orthodox Christian priest has been found guilty of having sex with his daughter to drive Satan from her body. Before he resorted to rape, the priest had tried several other methods of exorcism, such as prayer, touching her with a crucifix, and blessing her with holy water. When those techniques didn't work, he tried to beat the devil out of her. That failed, too. His sentence? One year and three months in jail. He was also ordered to pay his daughter 127,000 kronor (about $20,000).

January 16, 2008. Non-doctor Gary (The Joy of Juicing) Null's advice that juice is the fountain of youth and good health nearly kills cirrhosis patient. As WhiteCoat Underground shows, woo-woo can kill. Hey, if it's natural and organic, how could it possibly hurt you?

January 14, 2008. Ponzi schemes and pyramid scams impoverish an already impoverished Chinese populace.

Between July 15 and August 16 last year, authorities discovered 600 fraudulent schemes in 14 provinces and cities, arresting 3,300 people. And, again, those 600 scams represent only what has been reported. Multiply by 10 or more, and China becomes a swindler's dreamland. (Ants and pyramids: China scams abound By Kent Ewing)

The swindles are made easier by widespread and insidious poverty, ignorance, and greed. Throw corrupt officials into the mix and you have a recipe for continued corruption and heartbreak. The latest swindle was uncovered when there were riots protesting losses by investors in ant farms. (Ants are used in some traditional medicines.) Wang Fengyou, chairman of the Yilishen Tianxi Group, which organized the ant scam, was not charged with fraud but with "instigating social unrest."

January 8, 2008 The Seattle Times calls her a  "phony" psychic but whatever you call 79-year-old Sophie Evon she'll be in prison for the next year or so for her part in a cleansing scam. Nine years ago she bilked a lovesick woman out of her life savings (more than $200,000 cash from the victim's savings account and her parents' retirement account). How can Evon be a phony? After all, she ran a legitimate business called "Ms. Lee's Psychic and Astrology Readings."

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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.

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.

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


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