What's the harm?

UK-Skeptics © 2005

Skeptics 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 skeptics 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:

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.


A case where magical thinking was very costly:

Uncritical acceptance of an extravagant claim:

An example of the real harm posed by irrational thinking:

Alternative medicine: the ultimate price:

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