What’s the Harm? Revisited
October 2, 2018
Skeptic Tim Farley has produced an excellent website called “What’s the Harm?,” which catalogs tangible negative consequences from belief in pseudoscience. It’s an answer to the common apologetic from believers who claim that belief in things such as acupuncture, astrology, Bigfoot, and ghosts is harmless, or even beneficial. Farley’s catalog is an excellent resource, but I believe there are additional reasons to eschew involvement in what we can call intellectual “rabbit holes.”
The use of the term rabbit hole has recently been popularized by Mick West in his book Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect. A rabbit hole is an excellent metaphor, as it captures the byzantine complexity and disorienting incoherence of many fringe beliefs.
1. Human attention is finite. Modern life offers myriad intellectual “rabbit holes” into which to plunge. Virtually all conspiracy theories and pseudoscience are rabbit holes in the sense that one is never able to get a well-established resolution of fact. There are hundreds of books on the assassination of John F. Kennedy alone. Logically, the competing theories can’t all be correct. A deep dive into any rabbit hole is time not spent engaging in creative enterprises. Learning a skill; exercise; exposure to science, art, music; or other productive activities demonstrably enhance the functioning of one’s mind, body, and economic status. Entry into a large library is a humbling experience, as it’s immediately apparent that one can only hope to read a tiny fraction of the intellectual output of humanity. The experience should reinforce the need to carefully choose what to read. Focus on rabbit holes and pseudoscience is time not spent assimilating the best of what humanity has created.
2. Intellectual rabbit holes foster inauthenticity. We see this in the attitude of Alex Jones, whose lawyer argued in court that Jones’s public behavior was “an act.” This is understandable, as publicly voicing outrageous sentiments can extract a social cost to one’s reputation. An easy defense is that one is “just asking questions.” For someone such as Jones, this allows for overt promotion of fringe and often toxic beliefs, yet when challenged or rebutted, a fall-back defense of “just asking questions” can be employed. The social gambit of asserting that one is “just asking questions” is ultimately inauthentic, as it acts as a shield from announcing one’s true beliefs. It’s impossible to forge deep and meaningful human connections with another human being if we don’t even know if their values and beliefs align with ours.
3. Crunch Time: We are all going to die. This is the hard fact of life, a fact most of us most of the time would simply like to ignore. The corollary to this is that we (or the ones we love) will almost certainly fall ill during our lives. If one’s intellectual life is spent cultivating scientific, political, journalistic, and medical uncertainty, one is primed to discount evidence-based treatments when illness occurs. The brute fact of our lives is that illness will occur. Living a life completely free of serious illness at some point is extraordinarily unlikely. To illustrate this, I’d like to suggest what I call the “quadratic formula” analogy. Since most adults have attended high school, and most high school curricula include algebra, most adults will have learned the quadratic formula in their lives. How many of us remember it now? More seriously, do you remember it well enough to actually use it to solve an algebraic equation? I suspect probably not for most adults. This example illustrates that certain types of ideas need to be cultivated and used periodically to be remembered. Similarly, if a life is lived with no attention paid to a skeptical analysis of claims, particularly medical claims, when “crunch time” hits critical thinking skills that should have been exercised throughout one’s life will simply not be manifest. Suppose one is given a diagnosis of a serious condition. At this point a decision is mandatory, as even doing nothing is itself a choice. Will the decision be based on well-cultivated critical thinking skills and good evidence, or are those skills nonexistent and forgotten, like the quadratic formula of our high school years?
4. Intellectual rabbit holes are not particularly challenging to the mind. The corpus rarely rises above personal anecdote. This is in direct opposition to real science, which seeks to establish causal chains between events and has a mathematical foundation. As an example, there are thousands of ghost stories, yet there is no reputable theory on the origin of ghosts, their life cycle, their relationship to each other, their population numbers, their energy sources, and many other characteristics. We know far more about neutrinos than we do about ghosts, despite centuries of ghost claims. Learning real science is intellectually challenging. This is an intrinsic moral virtue not shared by pseudoscience. Even the best fictional narratives produced by humans have a depth and structure that warrants deep analysis. One can earn a PhD in the study of Shakespeare. This is not a feature of the generally simplistic narratives of fringe pseudoscience.
5. “Alternative facts” whether in the political, social, historical, or scientific domains are socially schismatic. They needlessly divide people into tribes. Do you believe in astrology, yes or no? Do you believe in reiki, yes or no? Is The New York Times “fake news?” Reality becomes “my truth” vs. “your truth” when we should all strive to embrace the best models of reality based on reason and evidence. The more our species converges on knowledge based on reason and evidence, the fewer opportunities for needless division there are. We don’t divide ourselves into camps over “my” version of plane geometry and “your” version of plane geometry; there’s simply plane geometry.
6. Fringe beliefs in a person, even those that are relatively benign, may be the tip of the iceberg or, to use a biological metaphor, an “indicator species.” In many cases people don’t hold just one fringe belief but instead hold numerous fringe beliefs. This is likely because such an individual doesn’t hold or exercise critical thinking skills in general, which explains why they have the known fringe belief in the first place. While failure to apply critical thinking skills to something such as astrology may not result in negative consequences, a similar failure with regards to medical treatments can result in significant problems. So by this argument the answer to “what’s the harm?” with regards to astrology or Bigfoot is that it diagnoses a lack of applied critical thinking. Lack of critical thinking skills in one’s life is a fundamental problem.
With many things in life, it’s easy to ask simple questions. For instance, why do we parallel park our cars backward instead of forward? To answer this question honestly actually requires a significantly complex answer, with reference to an arcane domain of mathematics known as “kinematics.” Similarly, the answer to “what’s the harm?” also requires some degree of nuance and complexity, as there are several interconnected issues at hand.