What’s the harm? That’s the question I’m sometimes asked when I’ve explained why a particular pseudoscience or alternative medicine is nothing but BS. If someone wants to have a few needles stuck in them or to swallow a sugar pill, who cares? They’re happy and they’re not harming anyone.
My answer is that belief in nonsense is harmful; it does hurt people. Using homeopathy or acupuncture can cause direct harm by stopping people seeking out treatments that actually might help them. Indirect harm can also be caused as it blurs the lines between science and pseudoscience, between actual medicine and alternative medicine. “If homeopathy worked for my headache then maybe it will work for this infection or my cancer.” It may sound silly to you but, I promise you, it happens.
Remember, there is no such thing as alternative medicine. If you were presented with two bridges that crossed a chasm would you choose to cross the one built by professionals on the principals of engineering, architecture and materials science or would you go for the one built by amateurs using alternative engineering and alternative architecture?
If you would like to peruse examples of where a lack of critical thinking or scientific understanding lead to people being harmed, or even killed, then check out whatstheharm.net Though it hasn’t been updated in a few years it still makes its point well. It catalogues 368,379 people killed, 306,096 injured and over $2,815,931,000 in economic damages. This is by no means an exhaustive compendium, it is just a collection of stories gleaned from the media by a small team of volunteers.
It does a good job of highlighting that a lack of understanding of the worth of different types of evidence can, indeed, cause significant harm. Let’s not be shruggies; we need to take every chance we can not to ridicule or mock, but to educate and guide.