The past couple of days, my posts here at Skeptophilia have looked at a couple of loony beliefs -- that the Earth is hollow, and that satire sites like The Onion are actually telling the truth but no one believes them. It brought to mind one question I get asked frequently: "Why do you care so much if people believe goofy stuff? It's not hurting anything or anybody if someone falls for a weird claim for which there is no evidence."
It's a fair question.
To start with, some of these loony beliefs are way more common than thinking that the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel vanished into the interior of the planet. Take astrology, for example. But still, what's the harm? The vast majority of people who believe the stars guide our lives take it only to the level of consulting their daily horoscope; many fewer pay for getting their star charts drawn up, and fewer still spend an amount that might cause a serious hardship. So how is any of it harmful to anything other than their pocketbooks?
It's probably no surprise that I do think it's a problem, and the damage it causes is as insidious as it is subtle. Accepting a claim in the absence of evidence -- in the case of conspiracy theories, often because there's no evidence -- establishes a habit of credulity. Okay, reading and believing your horoscope causes no direct harm, but once you've decided that something sounding good, or wanting something to be true, means that it is true, you've set yourself up for belief in something that could potentially hurt or kill.
If you think I'm exaggerating, check out this new alt-med claim that I heard about from the wonderful Twitter user @Neuroskeptic. It's called "German new medicine" and seems to be the brainchild of Ryke Geerd Hamer. And I am not exaggerating when I say that anyone who believes this nonsense is literally putting their life at risk.
The claim is summarized in what he calls "five biological laws," although none of them are within hailing distance of anything like actual biological science. In the interest of space, I'll paraphrase them; if you're so inclined, you can read about them at greater length at the site linked above.
- First law: Every disease is due to one cause, which Hamer calls a "specific biological special program" -- a response the body has to a conflict, shock, or emotional injury. This "program" affects not only the brain and psyche, but a specific organ that then manifests the "program" as a disease.
- Second law: The "program" has two phases; a conflict-active phase in which you can have symptoms like high blood pressure, fast heartbeat, frequent urination, and loss of appetite, and a healing phase in which those symptoms abate. Hamer states explicitly that cancer is caused by having a "conflict that requires tissue proliferation" and that people with cancer die not of the effects of the cancer itself, but directly because of chemotherapy.
- Third law: Diseases should be classified not by the systems affected, nor by the cause (bacterial, viral, genetic, and so on), but by the "embryonic germ layer relation." He seems to be claiming that the three embryonic germ layers (endoderm, mesoderm, and ectoderm) create some kind of fundamental functional linkage between organs in the adult organism. Along the way, he makes statements that are patently idiotic. He claims that the parts of the brain come from different germ layers; for example, that the brainstem comes from the endoderm. (It doesn't; the entire nervous system, including the brain and spinal cord, comes from ectoderm, something that was conclusively demonstrated a hundred years ago.)
- Fourth law: Microbes don't cause diseases. The presence of microbes in damaged tissue is because -- this is a direct quote -- "the organism uses the microbes to optimize healing." Because a healthy person has a large and diverse microbiome (which is true) he thinks that all microbes are beneficial (which is absurd). I'd like to see if Hamer would volunteer to drink a culture of Vibrio cholerae -- the causative agent of cholera -- if he's so confident all microbes are harmless.
- Fifth law: Diseases, basically, don't exist, because "Mother Nature doesn't create anything meaningless, malignant, or diseased." All the symptoms of every "disease" (to mimic his use of quotes to indicate disdain) are caused by these "specific biological special programs" the body is running to try to heal itself, which would work if only the damn doctors would just step aside.