What’s The Harm?

“Our greatest mistake would be to forget that data is used for serious decisions in the very real world, and bad information causes suffering and death.”

-Ben Goldacre[1]

In 2004 Silvia Browne, who claimed to be a psychic, told the mother of kidnapping victim Amanda Berry that her daughter was dead, and that she was “lying in water”. Amanda Berry was found alive in May of 2013 when she escaped from a basement in Cleveland where she was held for ten years. Berry’s mother died in 2006 believing her daughter was dead.

Browne’s prediction about Amanda Berry wasn’t the first time she made a prediction about a missing person that turned out to be wrong. In fact, a thorough review[2] of all her predictions about missing persons and murders found that of the 33 instances where the case was eventually solved, she was mostly or completely wrong about every single one of them. Browne claimed she was right 85% of the time. If this were true, the probability of her being wrong 33 times out of 33 works out to slightly less than 0.000000000000000000000000065%.

It’s not just missing persons and murders where Silvia Browne made predictions that turned out to be false. She also predicted that Bill Clinton was falsely accused in the Lewinsky affair, that breast cancer would end in 1999, that Bill Bradley would win the 2000 US election, that Michael Jackson would be found guilty of child molestation. She’s told people that they’re going to live a long life, only to have them die just a few years later. Even her prediction about her own death, that she would die at age 88, was wrong – she died last year at age 77. She also publicly claimed that she was going to try for the Randi Prize but never did. Oh yeah…and she was convicted of investment fraud and grand theft.

So after all that, surely nobody took her “predictions” seriously…right?

Nope, not even close.

She was constantly invited to be interviewed on TV. She had her own radio show. She published more than 40 books. She even founded a church and had thousands of followers. It’s difficult not to see this as a symptom of something deeply troubling about our culture.

Certainly, the blame for any harm resulting directly from Sylvia Browne’s claims of psychic powers is entirely her own, but there’s a subtler problem here too – one for which we all bear the blame. That problem is that we have created a culture in which someone like Sylvia Browne could rise to popularity in the first place. By taking people like her seriously we create a demand for sensational claims and supernatural nonsense. If we choose to consume information because it’s sensational, or because it tells a compelling story, without caring about whether the story is actually true or reasonable, we’re only going to end up being fed more news stories credulously reporting on people claiming psychic powers, free energy devices, quack miracle cures, etc.

It’s not impossible that Sylvia Browne was simply a fraud – that she knew her claims were false when she made them – but it’s much more likely that she sincerely believed she had psychic powers. She probably arrived at this conclusion the same way other people do. Perhaps at some point in her life she make some guesses about something and, using her intuition and a little luck, turned out to be correct. Not having a ready explanation for how she had been correct, she decided she must have psychic powers, and confirmation bias did the rest.

We all have a part in deciding what kind of thoughts and actions our society encourages people to have and what kind it discourages. If we wanted to we could collectively choose to live in a world where claims like Sylvia Browne’s are met with skeptical murmurs and raised eyebrows rather than book sales and fawning adoration. We could choose to live in a world where cognitive biases and logical fallacies are something every child learns about in school; a world where “I have psychic powers” might not seem like a likely explanation in the first place.

Sure, there’s plenty of harm directly caused by beliefs in psychic powers, medical quackery, and all sorts of other common types of irrationality, but even if everyone suddenly stopped believing in those things today, we’d still have the social acceptance and predispositions to flawed reasoning that allowed people to believe in them in the first place. It’s certainly helpful to try to address these specific examples of irrationality, but what we may have to do in the long term is to address the root causes of the problem rather than the symptoms, what AI researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky has called raising the sanity waterline[3].

Rationality is something that deserves to be taken seriously because every decision we make is an opportunity to create a future that we prefer to another possible future. Decision theory tells us that the ability to make decisions that will tend to bring about the outcomes we prefer is strongly dependent on the correctness of the beliefs we have. Every time a decision is made based on fallacious logic or wrong ideas we miss out on an opportunity to live in a better world. That’s the real harm.

Update April 3, 2014: A web site that shares this article’s name (http://whatstheharm.net/) has compiled a database of hundreds of thousands of people who have been scammed, injured, killed, or otherwise harmed by a lack of critical thinking or various other kinds of irrationality.