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A Year of Harm


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The web site What's The Harm? ( has been up for just over a year. In this presentation I review what I've learned in creating the site, how I've had to adjust it over time, and talk about the reaction to the site. Versions of this presentation were given at Skepticamp Atlanta (Feb. 6, 2009), Boston Skeptics in the Pub (Feb. 23, 2009) and on The Amazing Adventure 4 Cruise (Mar. 13, 2009). These slides are from the final version.

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A Year of Harm

  1. 1. A Year of Harm Tim Farley Amaz!ng Adventure 4 March 13, 2009
  2. 2. What’s The Harm? • Public web site • Went online in January 2008 • Where did I get the idea? • What is the site good for? • What have I learned in doing it? • Where is it going next?
  3. 3. Inspiration: TAM 5 • Penn Jillette kept mentioning TAM on his radio show • The Amazing Meeting 5, Las Vegas – January 2007 – Sponsored by JREF ( – Hundreds of skeptics in one hotel • I attended and was amazed • I wondered: “What can I do?”
  4. 4. Looking for an Idea • Why are we skeptics? • What good do we do? • Aren’t there victims of “woo-woo”? • Who focuses on them? • Stories exist, but supporting news stories disappear quickly • TAM 5.5 theme: “Skepticism & Activism”
  5. 5. What are these cases? •News stories –Deaths, injuries, loss of money •Relate to skeptical topics –Psychics, Alt-med, Religion, Scams •Reported on skeptic web sites •Largely anecdotal evidence
  6. 6. Case: Laurie Mathiason • 20 years old • Saskatoon, Saskatchewan • Went to her chiropractor for a “tailbone injury” • He adjusted her neck. She went into a coma due to induced stroke. • She died 3 days later
  7. 7. Case: Brittney & Jessica • Ages: 2 and 4 • Vancouver, Washington • Mother suffered from severe depression, but controlled it with medications • Treatment lauded in the news • She stopped taking her anti- depressants in favor of St. Johns Wort, an herbal remedy. • She fell into a deep depression and murdered her daughters.
  8. 8. Case: Dawn Page • Age: 52 • Holton, Oxford, England • She went to a “nutritionist” for advice in losing weight • Was put on a “detoxification diet” that required large amounts of water & no salt • She suffered brain damage and was awarded £810K in a lawsuit
  9. 9. Idea: “Wall of Harm” • List victims names along with the pseudoscience or belief that hurt them • Remind skeptics at TAM this is why we do this • Act as a call to action
  10. 10. Inspiration: Vietnam Wall
  11. 11. Next Step: JREF Forum • Started thread on • Put up prototype web site, asked for comments • Got many good ideas, more cases • Logo created by volunteer • Many technical suggestions • Surprisingly, no objections to “anecdotal evidence”
  12. 12. Lesson: Be Neutral • Original site was very skeptic oriented –Used words like “woo,” “bogus,” and “quackery” • Neutral tone allows site to appeal to non-skeptics as well –Suggested by Robert S. Lancaster of “Stop Sylvia” • Lure believers in via Google hits
  13. 13. Idea: “What’s the Harm?” • Vietnam Wall metaphor doesn’t work outside the U.S. • Useful outside the 3 days of TAM • “What’s the Harm” is an existing and understandable meme • Web site allows more details to be included, with supporting links • Launched the site in January 2008
  14. 14. Why anecdotes? • Some people just don’t “get” it –scientific evidence –probabilities and risk –logical fallacies • Most people can empathize with a person who died • It makes the dangers of pseudoscience more real
  15. 15. Very Specific Tool • It is the Allen wrench in your toolbox • Don’t need it every day • If you do need it, it is essential • Solves a specific rhetorical problem
  16. 16. Adopted Some Limits • Stories from last 50 years • Must affect a specific person • Must be concrete and understandable (death, injury or substantial $$$) • No hate crimes • This helps limit control the scope and focuses on skeptic topics
  17. 17. Case: Isabella Denley • Age: 13 months • Victoria, Australia • Parents stopped her epilepsy medicine due to side effects. • They saw an iridologist, applied kinesiologist, a psychic and an osteopath. • She was being treated solely with homeopathy when she died of a severe seizure
  18. 18. Lesson: Woo Squared • People prone to believe one pseudoscience will believe others • Multiple forms of “woo” will appear in individual cases • Common syndrome in many stories • Needed to adapt database to handle this
  19. 19. Case: Rudi Boa • Age: 28 • Tumut, NSW, Australia • He was backpacking on vacation and ran into a fellow Brit. A pub discussion of evolution became violent. • Rudi was murdered.
  20. 20. Lesson: I Get Letters • Alan McManus writes: – “Evolution or Darwinism would indeed be true to its theory by allowing a person to murder another person …” • 7 paragraphs of how Darwin allows murder • He had it backwards! • When corrected, he said it was “neither” Darwin nor Creationism that caused it
  21. 21. Cases: Vegetarianism • Early source of controversy - many emails • Originally titled “Vegetarianism / Veganism” • Some thought site was against vegetarianism • Page was mostly child victims • Children require more B12 and other nutrients than adults, hence the issue
  22. 22. Lesson: Adjust • Sometimes people miss that the core idea of the site is critical thinking • Removed two adults in that category • Renamed it “Child Vegetarianism” • Added link to a helpful pro- vegetarianism book about children • Adjustments to existing content are sometimes necessary
  23. 23. Case: Paula Ceely • Age: 20 • Dyfed, Wales, UK • She was following GPS instructions to the letter, and ended up stuck on a train track. • Her car was wrecked by a train.
  24. 24. Lesson: Levity Helps • The endless parade of dead people can be depressing • Some silly cases lighten up the site • Critical thinking is useful in cases other than “woo” • Controversy over whether GPS is really the cause can open a dialog
  25. 25. January 2008 Statistics • 480 cases (63 with photos) • 2,427 people died • 17,708 people injured • $89 million in damages • 414 linked news stories • 62 visible categories
  26. 26. February 2009 Statistics • 790 cases (114 with photos) • 368,379 people died • 306,096 people injured • $2.8 BILLION in damages • 890 linked news stories • 78 visible categories
  27. 27. What’s Next? • More Cases – Every time I go looking, I find cases • More Categories – Dahn Yoga, EST, Fasting/diets, Gerson therapy, Polygraphs, Tarot, Therapeutic Touch and more • More Ways to Sort and Search – Show me my state/country/ continent only • Skeptical Software Tools
  28. 28. It Comes Back to Penn • See Penn Jillette’s video endorsement of the site at at the URL below • URL:
  29. 29. Lessons Learned • Web sites are a good venue for activism • Special purpose web sites are needed • Skeptic community can help you • Neutral tone helps reach believers • Be prepared to learn, adapt & change • People believe multiple crazy things • Some levity helps • Have a thick skin
  30. 30. Questions? •Site: •Blog: