Logical Fallacies in the Unscientific what’s the harm? Web Site

Posted on 11th August 2008 by Ryan Somma in Enlightenment Warrior

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.

2 Comments

  1. I think anecdotal evidence is absolutely informative. It just doesn’t have nearly the same stock that the scientific method does. But if you get 0 knowledge from anecdotal knowledge, then you are essentially a moron with 0 facts in your head unless you go to school. Yet, there are people who were never schooled who have street smarts. Where’d they get it? Not from peer-reviewed studies, that’s for sure.

    To discard anecdotal evidence is to deliberately ignore most data that you assimilate over the course of your life. I find that unwise.

    Comment by ClintJCL — August 11, 2008 @ 1:54 pm

  2. I think you need to read the site introduction page and the FAQ page at What’s The Harm. On those pages I explain the purpose of the site. I also point out that the anecdotes on the site should not be considered “proof” of anything, and that anecdotal evidence is limited at best. I also clearly point out that I am not opposed to vegetarianism or veganism, just the misuse of same.

    I also have an entire page (linked to from every page on the site) where I collect all the cases that are supported with scientific studies or medical case reports.

    If you pay a little attention as you navigate the site, you’ll notice that those totals at the top of the page are the same on every page. This is because they are totals for ALL of the stories on the entire site, not just the vegetarianism page. I didn’t think it was necessary to explain where the numbers came from — they came from the content of the site.

    Stories have a unique power with people because we are story-telling by nature. As any skeptic who has argued with proponents of nonsense knows, they often offer only anecdotes in support. They also often fail to understand the value of scientific evidence and properly supported data. What’s The Harm is intended as a rhetorical tool when arguing with such people and is NOT intended to replace other more formal forms of argument. It is merely a tool in a skeptics toolbox, not the entire toolbox.

    Comment by Tim Farley — August 11, 2008 @ 7:32 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.