Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, April 9, 2022

What's the harm?

One of the questions I get asked pretty frequently, apropos of my work as a debunker and critic of woo, is "What's the harm?"  So what if people want to believe in astrology or divination or whatnot?  Surely it's harmless to check your horoscope daily or make your decisions on your latest Tarot card reading.  Just leave people alone and let them do whatever floats their boat.

The problem is, these kinds of beliefs aren't harmless.  I see three different ways in which such practices generate a potential for direct harm.  First, belief in something despite a complete lack of evidence establishes a habit of credulity; so your acceptance of something fairly benign (like astrology) can predispose you to believe something that isn't benign at all (like the claim that homeopathy is a legitimate way to treat human disease).  Once you've fallen for one bit of nonsense, the next one is that much easier to fall for.

Second, a great many of the people who are purveyors of this nonsense are in it for one reason: money.  They are happy to relieve you of your hard-earned cash in exchange for a tissue of lies.  One good example of this is faith healing, which even today brings its practitioners millions of dollars a year, ripped off from the gullible and the desperate.

Last, though, is that some forms of woo -- the ones that, like homeopathy and faith healing, claim to alleviate something real, something with an actual physical cause -- lead people to abandon practices that might actually work, and seek out what amounts to magic.  And that brings me to Christina Lopes, a self-styled "healer and life coach."

I ran into Christina Lopes over at the r/skeptic subreddit, where someone posted one of her videos along with some rather acidic commentary.  I'd never heard of her, so I decided to watch the video.

In order to save you a half-hour of your life that you'll never get back, allow me to summarize the main points.

First, she says we're all "ascending."  Our bodies, supposedly, are in the process of transforming into something "higher."  What she means by "higher" is never defined in any rigorous way, but apparently it has to do with two things -- your "light quotient," the amount of light your body can hold, and the rate at which you're vibrating.  Lopes subscribes to the idea that the faster something is vibrating, the better it is, an idea you'd think anyone would realize is false just based on sound waves.  (If you don't believe me, you listen to a guy playing a solo piccolo for an hour, and I'll listen to a guy playing a cello, and we'll see who has a headache afterward.)  Better still, consider that claim applied to the light she likes talking about so much; compare the effect on the body of very high-frequency light (e.g. gamma rays) as compared to lower-frequency light (e.g. visible light).

I know which one I'd want bombarding me.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Salma2789, Spirit man, CC BY-SA 4.0]

So far, nothing so different than a lot of these kinds of wacky spiritual claims.  But then she goes into the health effects of "ascension," and that's where things get dangerous.

She says that when you start "ascending," it's hard on the body.  Our cells (which she claims are sentient) "literally purge themselves of lower energy."  If she means "literally" literally, it's hard to fathom why the scientists have never detected this energy purge, since you'd think it would be measurable somehow.  But she goes on to tell us that this phase of things creates some real physical symptoms -- muscle inflammation, which "could be anywhere" including your chest, and mental agitation (disjointed, dark, or violent thoughts).  If this happens to you, she says, don't be afraid, because fear is a "dense emotion" which will just make things worse.  You should also increase water intake, because "water is a conductor of energy."  (Good idea, but for the wrong reason.)

At this point, she's moved into the realm of advice that could cause actual harm.  The symptoms she describes -- inflammation and mental agitation -- can be the result of real, and potentially serious, medical conditions.  Believing her bullshit explanation about this being just a natural result of "ascension," and nothing to worry about, means someone might forgo legitimate medical treatment, perhaps until it's far too late.  (For fuck's sake, chest pains and mental agitation are signs of a heart attack.  If you're feeling this, don't mess around with wondering if you're "ascending," get your ass to a hospital now.)

It's to be hoped that the scope of damage she's doing is limited; not only is she not especially widely-known (I couldn't find any mention of her on RationalWiki, for example), but fortunately a lot of the little aches and twinges we experience, and many of the disjointed or chaotic thoughts, are completely normal and not the sign of any dire problems.  But one person dying of cancer because he thought his symptoms were signs of "ascension," and he put off seeing a doctor, is way, way too many.

It's amazing how quickly beliefs can move from "weird but basically harmless" to "actively dangerous."  The problem is, setting aside rational thought so you can accept the former means you'll be much more likely to accept the latter without question.  All the "your body is light" and "high-frequency vibrations are good" stuff is innocuous enough; but as you can see from Lopes's video, those lead directly to "here are some real physical symptoms you shouldn't worry about."

I don't see any way to stop her from posting her videos; her advice is mostly vague enough that trying to establish culpability for harm in a legal sense would be next to impossible.  Failing that, the best we can do is to stress once again how important education in critical thinking is.  Not to mention a solid background in actual science.  If enough people call this out as the bullshit it is, purveyors of snake oil like Christina Lopes will be permanently out of a job.


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