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What’s the harm?

Posted by neuralgourmet on June 21, 2008

One of the common refrains heard when someone is challenged on their paranormal or supernatural beliefs is, “What’s the harm?” After all, if someone believes their grandfather’s ghost gave them solace during a crisis or that the tarot-reading neighbor is able to offer them some slight advantage in navigating life’s choices, who is harmed? At worst the person seeking other-worldly guidance is out a few dollars and maybe, just maybe they get some tangential benefit from their belief. And often that’s the case. No real harm comes from anomalous belief, and many people do derive, at the very least, comfort from their beliefs. So why burst their bubble?

But it’s easy to think of instances where the opposite is the case. Perhaps the most famous instance in popular culture where supernatural beliefs led to great atrocity are the Early Modern European witch trials where tens of thousands of victims were executed and tortured. However, less remembered are the everyday tragedies arising from unexamined belief such as the credulous senior citized bilked out of their life savings by a crooked clairvoyant preying on their desire to reconnect with lost loved ones.

Most recently there’s the case of Colleen Leduc. Colleen is the mother of an autistic child in Barrie, Ontario, about 60 miles north of Toronto. Her daughter attends a public school because Colleen is unable to afford private therapy. On the morning of May 30th, Colleen received a frantic phone call from the school telling her that she was urgently needed back at the school. She wasn’t prepared for what awaited her.

At the school, Colleen was confronted by the principal, vice-principal and her daughter’s teacher with the disturbing news that they believed her daughter had been sexually abused based on a report from her daughter’s educational assistant and that the Children’s Aid Society had been notified. What was even more shocking was the basis for their accusations — a psychic!

“The teacher looked and me and said: ‘We have to tell you something. The educational assistant who works with Victoria went to see a psychic last night, and the psychic asked the educational assistant at that particular time if she works with a little girl by the name of “V.” And she said ‘yes, I do.’ And she said, ‘well, you need to know that that child is being sexually abused by a man between the ages of 23 and 26.'”

Later Colleen was visited by a representative of the Children’s Aid Society but the questions of her daughter being sexually abused were quickly put to rest because Colleen had equipped her daughter with a GPS tracking unit that continuously recorded both her movements and the audio around her. While it might seem odd that Colleen had equipped her daughter with a tracking device, it’s understandable after one learns that this same school had allegedly lost Colleen’s daughter several times. The geographic and audio data handily contradicted the psychic’s claims and thus the CAS case was closed, although an investigation into the school and how a psychic’s word came to be accepted as proof of sexual abuse is ongoing.

While it might be reassuring to think that cases such as Colleen Leduc’s are abberational, neither are they unheard of. While in the Western world we may no longer have witch trials, people are harmed by their credulous beliefs, or the beliefs of others, everyday. Often times instances of harm arising from beliefs in the paranormal and supernatural never come to public attention. Furthermore, we have a short memory for the fraudulent, thus people like Uri Geller are able to continue their careers despite having been repeatedly exposed.

So harm does demonstrably follow from paranormal and supernatural beliefs, and that is reason enough to challenge those beliefs where we might find them while the fact that harm does not always follow is insufficient cause to leave believers to their blissful ignorance. And since it is impossible to predict which anomalous beliefs will result in harm (leaving aside some radical religious beliefs for the moment) it becomes necessary to critically examine all beliefs in the extraordinary. I doubt this sort of belief can ever be eradicated since humans are quick to believe, and slow to doubt, but increased skepticism can only help further reduce the harm from irrational belief.


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