One's life and

livelihood can

end up being 


damaged by





What's it Hurt?
By Jeanine DeNoma
 By Jeanine DeNoma 
So what does it matter if someone consults an astrologer, balances their "energies" with crystals, or dowses for the best pick at the video store? "It's a little flaky," my friends agree, "but its not hurting anyone. Let them do their thing."

     Too frequently while talking with skeptics or assembling material for this newsletter, I encounter the tragic side of pseudoscience. Scams, false claims by alternative medical providers, faith healers preying upon the vulnerable, there is an endless stream of quackery from the unscrupulous to the credulous. One's life and livelihood can end up being irreparably damaged by one's own - or someone else's - irrational belief. O4R members have sent me numerous newspaper clippings documenting the harms that have come from an irrational belief. While the events in these articles need no commentary (the tragedies speak for themselves), I have not been able to bring myself to juxtapose their contents next to the reports of UFO carpet circles, Bigfoot sightings, psychic predictions, and similar absurdities that I generally place in the Pro Factoid section. Nonetheless, these articles deserve mention, if only to call our attention to how irrationality hurts.

     The most tragic cases result in the loss of life. Too often these events are connected to peoples' religious beliefs. We remember the Brownsville couple whose son died after they tried to cure him with prayer instead of medical help, believing their faith in God would heal the boy. The Associated Press reported July 6 that a South Korean woman died following a ritual exorcism. Her husband and two others had beaten her for six-hours in an effort to drive evil spirits from her body.

     Satanic cult beliefs are linked to the Christian view of evil spirits. In 1992 Patricia Rice of Vancouver, WA crashed head-on into another car, killing a Portland man. Rice was convicted on first-degree manslaughter, but "she contented at her trial that a 'good witch' took control of her car and was 'telepathically directing her to safety' from a satanic cult" when the crash occurred, according to a May 22, Associated Press report. Rice said that at the time of the accident she had been in therapy for three months for marital problems and to quit smoking and lose weight. During that time the therapist had sowed images in her mind of sexual abuse by her father, rape by her mother, and a satanic cult that was out to kill her. Rice sued and received an out-of-court settlement for a $425,000 lump-sum payment and $1,570 a month for life from the therapist's insurance company. The therapist admitted no wrong.

     Quackery may play into cultural beliefs. The Statesman Journal reported scam artists posing as psychic healers took up to $50,000 from Hispanic families in Salem, Woodburn, and Clackamas. The psychics offered to heal people by praying over their valuables or money then return the items after they had been blessed. The "healer" threatened that if they didn't follow her request, their illnesses would get worse. One man emptied his family's bank account and deposited the money with the psychic for her blessing to heal his chronic back problems. When he returned the money and the psychic were gone. "Since some illnesses take a longer treatment," said one social worker, "a lot of people feel it is quicker to go to a healer to expel the evil presence inside." According to the report, folk healers are common in the Hispanic community. Folklore perpetuates faith healing. Most healers, known as "curanderos" say God has bestowed them with the power to heal and they are merely God's agents. Traditional curanderos usually do not get paid for their services.

     Irrationality comes at a cost to taxpayers too. Note the CIA's 20-year study on remote viewing, and the local government agencies that bought $1000 "dowsing rods" from the Quatro Corporation (see Pro Facto, Winter 1996). Randi has exposed another expensive scam on taxpayers (Skeptic, Vol. 4, No. 2), the "Inset Fuel Stabilizer." This 7-inch, stainless-steel cylinder fits into a car's fuel line and, supposedly, increases fuel efficiency up to 20%, reduces emissions, and extends engine life, but the New Jersey Institute of Technology reported the inset had no effect in tests. Fort Worth, Texas; the state of New Jersey; and Aurora, Illinois have all equipped their fleet cars with this $1600 device. And now it has surfaced that pseudoscience may have played a role in the US's largest municipal bankruptcy: Robert Citron, the former Orange County Treasurer who lost 1.64 billion dollars in county investments, reportedly consulted an astrologer for interest rate forecasts.

     So, what does it hurt?

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 2001 Oregonians for Rationality