I'm often asked why I feel so passionately about critical thinking. "Why," the question usually goes, "does it matter so much if people believe in crazy stuff? How does a belief in astrology, crystal healing, Tarot cards, or whatever harm anyone?"
Two recent stories will illustrate that there can be a tremendous human cost to irrational thinking.
First, we have a story broken by Karen Stollznow of the James Randi Educational Foundation (read it here) regarding a quack cure called "The Life Vessel." The purveyors of this useless piece of woo-woo "alternative medicine" state on their website, "THE LIFE VESSEL is a patented non-invasive technology and technique by which Frequency, Vibration, Sound and Light Waves are applied to the human body in a resonate [sic] frequency, resulting in the body being able to perform its innate Natural Ability to Heal Itself."
Note the use of our favorite words "frequency," "vibration," and "resonate" (although I think they meant "resonant"). I'm surprised they didn't throw in "quantum" for good measure. The machines are basically a bunch of light bulbs and speakers in a box; you climb into the box, and are exposed to light and sound, and voilà! You're healed! Now, fork over...
... $125 per session.
And these things are showing up in "alternative medicine clinics" all over the Midwest. An investigative reporter working for the James Randi Foundation posed as a potential client, claiming to speak on behalf of her ill mother, found that the practitioners of this foolishness claimed it could cure ovarian cancer!
How many people are forgoing medical treatment for serious conditions to pay $125 for the privilege of spending a half-hour in a box with some light bulbs? And yet when the CBS station in Denver did an exposé regarding the practice, people came howling out of the woodwork claiming that the treatments work -- logic and the placebo effect be damned.
Then, out of South Africa we have this story, in which a popular "faith healer" presided over an event in which one man died and sixteen were hospitalized.
Brother Chris Oyakhilome, a Nigerian pastor, stages something he calls the "Higher Life Conference" at venues all over the world, attracting huge crowds and raking in money. He has supposedly made paralyzed individuals walk, cured terminal illnesses, and performed other miracles. And last week, he was doing his dog-and-pony show in Cape Town, South Africa, to a crowd of 150,000.
I guess the miracle pipeline was down for repairs that night, because one man collapsed from renal failure and later died, and thirty had to seek treatment at a local medical center. Sixteen were sent from there directly to a hospital. "Some of them had traveled long distances to get there, they had ongoing medical issues and were in a lot of pain," Dr. Wayne Smith, the doctor in charge of the emergency room, stated.
What harm if people believe in ignorant superstitions? A lot. Sometimes a fatal dose of harm. Had the gentleman who died in Cape Town last week gone to a hospital directly, instead of trying to get Brother Chris to heal him through miraculous means, it's possible that he could have received treatment and might still be alive. But no doubt Brother Chris would rationalize the man's death as being "god's will."
Sorry, I don't see it that way. People like Brother Chris and the purveyors of the Life Vessel are charlatans and frauds. They are making claims that are factually untrue, and are harming people in the process. And as there seems to be no particular will on the part of governments to institute legal proceedings in these cases, the only alternative is to educate the populace in how to think critically -- and put these hoaxers out of a job.