Numerous science and enlightenment-minded blogs have recently posted links to the What’s the Harm? website, and I finally got the opportunity to give it some study. It sounded like a great idea, a website devoted to showing the deleterious effects people suffer for believing pseudoscientic claims. We need sites like that.
Unfortunately, the site immediately set off alarms for me, as it is entirely anecdotal evidence based, meaning there are only stories posted with no actual scientific studies posted to back them up. It’s interesting that someone died of dehydration in a sweatlodge, but that tells me nothing about the detrimental effects of believing in astral projection, as the site seems to mistakenly believe it is informing its readers.
Ironically, the site links to an article on anecdotal evidence and how it is used by pseudoscience to misinform people. The article gives the best explanation for why What’s The Harm? is just as bad as the pseudoscience it claims to debunk:
The primary weakness of anecdotes as evidence is that they are not controlled. This opens them up to many hidden variables that could potentially affect the results. We therefore cannot make any reliable assumptions about which variable (for example a specific treatment) was responsible for any apparent improvement.
The most grievous example of this is the site’s section on vegetarianism, where stories about vegetarians suffering horrible consequences of their dietary choices are presented completely without context, with only a solitary 1991 article meant to “debunk” Vegetarianism offered as evidence that vegetarianism is unnecessary. The page also claims “3,233 people killed, 222,977 injured and over $272,944,000 in economic damages” as a result of people being vegetarian or vegan, but then fails to cite where they got those numbers1.
It would be easy for opponents of enlightenment principles to put together a What’s the Harm? site dedicated to destroying science. They could cite the victims of Hiroshima, the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, and Thalidomide as proof that believing in science leads to terrible ends. Ben Stein is currently doing this in his film Expelled, where he argues that godless science spawned the Nazi party.
I understand completely the appeal of this website; however, in exercising my critical thinking skills, I suggest rational people reject it rather than lower ourselves to the same level of irrationality of our ideological opponents. Anecdotal Evidence does nothing to inform.
1 It should also be noted that most of the vegetarians or vegans the site uses as examples are not vegetarians or vegans at all… just malnourished crazy people. I recently reviewed a well-researched book advising a mostly-vegetarian diet (note the “mostly”). Wikipedia cites numerous studies outlining the benefits of a vegetarian diet, which includes reduced incidence of heart disease and increased longevity. If What’s the Harm? was an informative website, it would not have made the mistake of lumping a vegetarian diet in with a vegan one.