That’s often the fallback of woos when the lack of evidence for their claims is exposed – “what’s the harm?” The desperate last argument goes something like, “OK, maybe there’s no evidence for [brand of woo], but what’s the harm in believing it?” Of course, it’s a red herring - paint the skeptics as mean for arguing against their harmless woo, and they can escape having to admit their woo is nonsense.
Of course, woo does cause harm. Just ask Mark Klass or the parents of Shawn Hornbeck, for example. Or the police who are forced to waste time chasing the lame guesses of “psychics” such as Allison Dubois. Don’t forget the time wasted by the authorities looking for Elizabeth Smart’s dead body where the PsiTech fraudsters claimed it was buried.
So called “alternative medicine” might not harm people directly (homeopathy’s only water, after all), but when it causes people to adopt quackery in place of the real medicine that could save their lives, it does do harm.
As I’ve said before, all skeptics should have responses such as the above, ready. The Skeptics' Dictionary has a What's the harm? archive that is worth consulting. Now there is also a website called What’s The Harm? It aims to record the numerous instances where woo has actually verifiably caused harm. As they say, “2,427 people killed, 117,711 injured and over $115,461,902 in economic damages”. I think the $902 at the end is pretending a degree of accuracy that isn’t really there, but minor niggles notwithstanding, it’s a great resource.
The site is pretty new and is of course a work in progress. If you have any examples, the webmaster would love to hear from you. The strength and success of this site in my view, will be in submissions they receive from readers, so please consider sending them any cases that you are aware of. Please read their criteria, and check first that the case you’re submitting isn’t already there. Also, include citations to support your case – it is a skeptics’ site, after all. The webmaster has the following tips, if you feel like being proactive and searching for some additional cases with The Google:
Tip 1: Simply combining the name of some form of woo with the word "died" or "injured", often gets amazing results. For example, "naturopath died".
Tip 2: Use the archive search on Google News. You can search older news at Google. There are tools there to limit the year as well.
Tip 3: Please check the site to see if I already have the case! No sense wasting your time on something I already have. However, if you find a link that is better than the link I'm using on a given story, feel free to send that in.
Tip 4: Pick a category I don't have many cases in. If you don't have a favorite form of woo that you would rather concentrate on, browse the whatstheharm.net topics list and pick a topic I have under 20 cases in. (There are a bunch). This makes it easier to avoid having to scroll through stories I already have while searching.
Tip 5: If you have non-web resources available, use them. Anybody have access to Lexis/Nexis or other non-public databases? Many news web sites cycle their stories very quickly. I've had some of my links go stale just in the four months I've been doing this. But those pay databases keep everything. I'm thinking the same search techniques that I mention above might work well there.
Given time I expect the number of cases included to be huge.
Of course, some woos will argue that, for example, real medicine can also cause harm, medical mistakes are made, wrong medications prescribed etc. That’s of course true, but real medicine also has a benefit and so there is a risk / reward trade off. Woo has no benefit and so there is no risk / reward trade off, only risk / risk. This site aims to quantify some of that risk, and certainly shows that woo does, in fact, cause harm.