What's the harm? What does it hurt if I don't accept your principles of critical thinking and continue to accept weird thing x (some urban legend, piece of pseudoscience, New Age belief, or conspiracy theory) as true?
This line is trotted whenever skeptics and lovers of science elucidate a culturally, though not scientifically, controversial fact like evolution, global warming, or the safety of vaccines. It is also used to thwart our bullish dismissal of dangerous nonsense, like holocaust denial, HIV denial, and the denial of the cancer-cigarette link, and silly fluff, like haunted houses, Bigfoot, astrology, and UFO abductions. I've been a skeptic for over eight years, but I have never had a rock solid response to "what's the harm." I usually just point to What's the Harm. This website chronicles examples of physical, psychological, and financial harm incurred by believers in weird things and is an invaluable resource if someone says something like "calling psychics doesn't harm anyone." The problem with over relying on this resource, however, is that it does not address what is the harm in having poor critical thinking skills and believing in weird things in general?"
While attempting to come up with a better rebuttal, I messaged the authors of many of my favorite books on science, critical thinking, and/or weird things. If anyone has a better answer to "what's the harm," I thought, it should be them. Despite not knowing me, they were very generous with their time and, upon my request, sent in thought provoking responses. I originally intended on placing their words throughout this article to fortify and strengthen my own points. Their points were so good, however, that I concluded I could add nothing of value to them. Instead, I am simply going to shut up and let these thinkers shed some light on this issue.
Keith Parsons is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Houston at Clear Lake. Keith has written extensively about poststructuralism (commonly known as "postmodernism") and its attack on the sciences. His two books, Drawing out Leviathan and The Science Wars (ed.), are great starting points to learn about these conflicts. In his response, Keith pointed out that irrationality disempowers us.
As the old saying goes, the main opponent of truth is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge. Popular B.S.—like creationism, Holocaust denial, conspiracy theories (e.g. the Obama “birther” nonsense), anti-vax, etc.—is not mere ignorance but the counterfeit of knowledge. Defenders of such noxious and groundless beliefs defend them with fallacies, misinformation, disinformation, bogus “studies,” junk science, debunked claims, rhetoric, spin, half-truths, and so forth, and such ploys are often devilishly effective in subverting clear thinking and obscuring the truth. B.S. is not just non-rational, it is aggressively irrational, and when you believe it, you empower irrationality and disempower yourself. Truth has value, both intrinsically and instrumentally. Rationality has value, because it is by thinking rationally that we have the best chance at truth. When you buy into schemes of irrationality you weaken your own ability to think critically and you give your support to enemies of truth. If you lose respect for truth, you soon lose everything else, like freedom, self-respect, and decency.Daniel C. Dennett is the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy and the co-director at the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. He has been a bulwark against Intelligent Design Creationism and authored the locus classicus Darwin's Dangerous Idea and the philosophical toolkit, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. Dan pointed out that the denial of critical thinking lowers our society's "herd immunity" against nonsense.
What’s wrong with taking a devil-may-care attitude about the truth is the same thing that’s wrong with not vaccinating your kids: you become a freeloader, a social parasite who gets the benefits of ambient truth and evidence without supporting it. “Herd immunity” is key for vaccines; that’s how we eliminated smallpox and polio (almost), for instance. People who won’t accept their (tiny) share of the ineliminable risk of vaccines jeopardize public health in general and should accept responsibility for the deaths that could have been avoided had they had some community spirit and cooperated. We are now facing an epidemic of fake news and loony-tunes credulity; if you don’t do your part to squash it, you are part of the problem. We don’t want our children and grandchildren growing up with wacky doubts about science befuddling them.Harry Collins is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Cardaff University and a Fellow of the British Academy. Harry has published on the methods of science and done fieldwork studying the gravitational waves community. His two recent works, Are We All Scientific Experts Now? and Gravity's Kiss, are both tier one pieces of science studies. Harry pointed out that disregarding science (and truth in general) disarms us and puts us at the mercy of the powerful.
We have to think about the kind of society we want to live in. If we give too little respect to experts, particularly scientific experts, then we will find ourselves living in a dystopia where decisions about the distribution of resources for scientific research, including medical research, where medical treatments, the advisability of vaccinations, the truth of certain historical episodes and so forth, will be decided by the rich and powerful and those who have great media presence rather than those who spend time trying to discover the truth of the matter. It won’t be long before the outcome of court cases is decided in the same way; justice will become the preserve of the powerful rather than having anything to do with the truth of the matter. To endorse the views of conspiracy theorists and the like is to help move us toward such a dystopia because everything you do and say contributes to the way the common culture develops.Theodore Schick Jr. is a Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Muhlenberg Scholars Program at Muhlenberg College. He, along with co-author Lewis Vaughn, wrote How to Think About Weird Things and Doing Philosophy. The latter of these works is literally the best book I've ever read on critical thinking. Ted pointed out the personal and societal damages of being irrational.
For those who wonder what's the harm in holding unfounded beliefs, there's a simple and undeniable answer: credulity kills. Forming beliefs without regard to evidence or reason not only harms the individual who holds them, it endangers society as well. Actions are based on beliefs, and if our beliefs are mistaken, our actions will be misguided. The personal cost of irrational beliefs is well-documented on the site: www.whatstheharm.net. There many categories of paranormal and supernatural beliefs are canvassed and the price that believers paid in terms of loss of life, health, and wealth is recorded. The social cost of cavalier believing is eloquently explained in W.K. Clifford's classic article, "The Ethics of Belief." There he notes that a well-functioning democracy depends upon a well-informed citizenry. But the ability to make rational decisions is a skill that can only be honed and maintained through constant practice. If we do not develop the habit of responsible believing in our private lives, we run the risk of making irrational decisions in the public sphere.David R. Montgomery is a Professor of Earth and Space Studies at the University of Washington. He has authored many popular level books, such as The Hidden Half of Nature, which explain the principles of geology and the importance of soil to a lay audience. He also addressed the claims of creationists in The Rocks Don’t Lie. This book's friendly tone makes it ideal for non-committed creationists. David astutely pointed out that accepting bunk erodes our ability to make decisions.
What’s the harm in not believing the world works the way that it does? Because we live in it and are subject to how it works. If we want to understand the impacts and the potential consequence of our actions we won’t be making informed choices if we base our decisions about beliefs unmoored from critical examination or verifiable experience. For some issues of course the consequences may be small—not much hangs in the balance around the existence of Bigfoot. But for issues like climate change the potential consequences may alter the fate of humanity. What these issues have in common is that the uncritical embrace of debunked or groundless ideas undermines the foundation of our ability to make rational choices as we make decisions that shape the future.
Benjamin Radford is a Research Fellow with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, Deputy Editor of Skeptical Inquirer, and is co-founder and co-host of the “Squaring the Strange” podcast. He has authored many skeptical books, such as the excellent Tracking the Chupacabra and Bad Clowns, that deal with urban legends and popular delusions. Given that Ben deals with these issues so often, I expected him to have a strong, yet articulate position. I was right.
False beliefs, by themselves, are not harmful. Belief is inherently harmless; believing that you can safely jump off a building isn’t a problem until you actually attempt it. It is instead the actions and decisions made based on those false beliefs that cause harm. Every human lives and dies having held countless false or unproven beliefs. Most of them are insignificant (such as, perhaps, thinking Sydney is the capital of Australia); some are profoundly personal (such as, perhaps, not knowing one was adopted); and still others are serious and life threatening. With each false belief a person sheds, they decrease their chance of being harmed by that belief in the future. Thus the harm in a given belief depends entirely on what the specific belief is. Belief in the efficacy of unproven medicine can kill; belief in psychics has cost people their life savings, and so on. There are also many indirect harms and costs to false beliefs; people have died while hunting for ghosts and looking for mythical lost treasures. Others have spent decades of their lives—and personal fortunes—searching for Atlantis, Nessie, and other myths based on unfounded beliefs. Belief in extraterrestrials did not, by itself, cause the 1997 Heaven’s Gate suicides, but it was a key element in the cult’s belief systems. False beliefs can harm not just the deceived but others as well, for example parents who refuse their children medical care in the belief that God will heal them. I have for many years documented the harm that comes from belief in magic—not just historically but in the present day; women in India and Pakistan have been accused of witchcraft and murdered, and in East Africa albinos have had their limbs hacked off with machetes for use in magic rituals. The harm is all around us if we choose to look. Fundamentally the answer is that truth matters; what is real and accurate and true is important. An excellent forgery of a great painting is still a forgery, and whether it’s authentic or not should matter to someone who buys it. Ignorance is the default condition of mankind, with critical thinking and skepticism the best ways to fill that knowledge vacuum with information and fact upon which to make human progress.