Some people believe strange things – live and let live, right? What’s the harm? Tim Farley, creator of What’sTheHarm.net, wants you to know. Why? Because he’s committed to critical thinking, and he wants to demonstrate that, in a lot of ways, failure to think critically can actually cause harm.
Tim Farley, creator of What'sTheHarm.net - trading card courtesy of My (Confined) Space.
The cases on What’sTheHarm.net cover a broad range of failures to think critically – from the plainly absurd, like driving into a building because the GPS said so, to the truly sinister, like families torn apart by repressed memory therapy gone awry. The consequences may be directly or indirectly related to the question at hand: one anecdote tells of a family who brawled with neighbours because one family’s decor disrupted the other’s feng shui. The consequences of each incident are given in terms of financial loss, jail time, injury, or loss of life; the site estimates “368,379 people killed, 306,096 injured, and over $2,815,931,000 in economic damages”.
But the real point of focus is that these consequences are not abstract; they happen to real people just like you and me. And the harm done might affect the person who’s failing to think critically, but often it also affects others, sometimes primarily. Each page repeats the same unifying coda: “Here are [x] people who were harmed by someone not thinking critically.”
From what I can tell, Tim Farley considers all the things he debunks on his website, from acupuncture to witchcraft, absolutely false and deceptive. I’m not sure I’m willing to go that far in every case. Some of it – like Holocaust denial or refusing children blood transfusions – I’m absolutely with him. But are ghosts real? Could there be actual psychics? How about demons? I hesitate to say that, just because science cannot detect them, they aren’t real. After all, science deals with material things, and I believe reality goes beyond the strictly material.
Other things are grey areas. For instance, the section on chiropractic medicine lists cases in which chiropractors seriously injured patients, which is horrible. But are these valid indictments of chiropractic practice as a whole, or cases of unscrupulous or incompetent practitioners, or simply people making mistakes? The same could be said of psychics who lie or fail, and in many other areas of the site. Cases of failure or swindling do not necessarily make the practice false.
Farley acknowledges – and for the critical thinker, this is important – that his site proves nothing. It’s all anecdotal. But anecdotes can be powerful in convincing people to think carefully about the decisions they’re making and the potential effects.
Which, in the end, is all that this site is about. No one is trying to make you a non-believer: believe it or don’t. Non-believers will support the site for promoting accurate information to answer the question, “What’s the harm?” And for the true believer, weeding out the fakers and swindlers is crucial to winning credibility for the Cause, whatever it may be. Get rid of the fake psychics, for instance, and the real ones – if they exist – might be able to gain some respect.
In short, whatever you believe, you should check out What’sTheHarm.net if you have an interest in any of the following topics:
- Alternative medicines and physical therapies
- Autism and vaccination
- Communication, information, and misinformation
- Conspiracy theories, particularly [insert noun here] denial
- Divination, prophecy, and predicting the future
- Health care
- ‘Natural’ or ‘organic’ lifestyles
- Paranormal topics
- Religions, especially those that are perhaps not-so-mainstream
Image courtesy of Western Michigan University.
If nothing else, it gives you a starting place for a fresh inquiry into whatever field interests you, and highlights the red flags you’ll need to watch out for to protect yourself from fraudsters. Even something that’s true can involve some shady characters, and the topics covered on What’sTheHarm.net have varying levels of credibility.
Critical thinking does matter, and the lack of critical thinking can cause problems. This website gives us a great starting place for talking about why.