A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

What's the harm? No. 1

These links and comments illustrate the harm done by occult, paranormal, pseudoscientific, and supernatural beliefs. The harm may be tangible and easily documented: physical, financial, or interpersonal.

December 29, 2003. Rupert Sessions poured more than $300,000 into a "Nigerian 419" scam. He ignored police warnings that the deal was bogus and blames his losses on corrupt foreign governments. He has not filed a complaint with authorities, and he keeps on his coffee table the carved wooden elephant and antelope given to him by his "associates." "I consider them my friends," he says. "They're not criminals."
[thanks to Mike Kohary]

December 22, 2003. Kansas City attorney Stephen B. Small pumped more than $74,000 into a "Double Red, White and Blue" $1 slot machine at the Ameristar Casino on the banks of the Missouri River. Why? Because this educated man did not understand the gambler's fallacy. Since the machine had not paid off its top prize since it was installed in July 2001, Small thought the machine was overdue and that now the odds were in his favor. Wrong! Fixed odds never change.

Small understands cognitive dissonance, however. Rather than admit his error, he is suing the casino, the slot machine manufacturer, two computer software companies and the executive director of the Missouri Gaming Commission. "The machine has either (a) grossly and materially malfunctioned," Small said in his suit, "or (b) ... deliberately been employed as a cheating device."

December 18, 2003. A traditional doctor in central Nigeria has been shot dead by a patient who was testing the potency of an anti-bullet charm the herbalist had prepared for him, police told AFP on Wednesday.
[thanks to Joe Littrell]

August 29, 2003.  A Milwaukee minister is barred from performing exorcisms after an 8-year-old autistic boy died during a faith-healing prayer service.

August 27, 2003. A Brazilian cult leader and five others accused of kidnapping boys in a remote Amazon town, cutting off their genitals and sacrificially killing them went on trial on Wednesday. Valentina de Andrade, the suspected leader of a cult known as Superior Universal Alignment, two doctors, two security guards and the son of a businessman in the town of Altamira are charged with murder, attempted murder and torture.

update: 22 June 2011. This just in from Carolina Fernanda Castiñeira, Esq.:

As legal representative of Ms Valentina de Andrade, I am writing to alert you about the bad information that you are providing.... The content of the press release related to my client is totally false, except for the fact that there was a prosecution. She was acquitted on all charges, in full accordance with the procedures established by the Brazilian law. I kindly request you to remove the aforementioned text from your website, because the information provided throughout the webpage, apart from being highly offensive, is extremely incorrect as well. I understand that this publication was an error from your sources, and that you will delete it as soon as possible. If you have any further questions, please contact Ms Carolina Fernanda Castiñeira, Attorney at Law.

It's true. According to my source: "A Brazilian court on Friday [5 Dec 2003] acquitted the alleged leader of a Satanic sect of the ritual mutilation and killing of boys in a remote Amazon town, officials said."

For those who don't remember de Andrade, in her book "God, the Big Farce," she claimed to have received messages from extraterrestial beings giving her exclusive knowledge that children born after 1981 are evil and must be expunged. Only adherents to the group were to escape the pending destruction of the Earth in 1986 by escaping in a spacecraft. [/update]

August 25, 2003. Prayer seems to have killed an 8-year-old autistic boy in north Milwaukee, according to CNN, and a 2-day-old infant in Indiana. In Australia, a naturopath, Reginald Fenn, has been charged with unlawfully killing an 18-day old infant with a heart condition because he prescribed natural remedies and advised against surgery. [Update: February 13, 2004: Fenn was convicted of manslaughter and was today sentenced to five years in jail, but the term was suspended because the 74-year-old Fenn is too ill with cancer to serve his time.] And I recently learned from Loren Pankratz, while attending the Skeptic's Toolbox (sponsored by CSICOP), about children who have been killed by doctors who blame the parents. Some of the most egregious offenses seem to have been committed at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital, which is associated with Vanderbilt University. Professor Sir Dr. Roy Meadows, the medical doctor who started the Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy witch hunt, is also under investigation. Meadows is also one of the pioneers in the diagnosis of "cot death" or SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) as it is known in the U.S. How many of those diagnoses have been misdiagnoses? We may never know, but it is frightening to realize that so many people claiming to be protectors of children are sometimes the most grievous abusers of the young and old alike. Pharmaceutical firms share some of the blame for this abuse, especially those that promote powerful neuroleptics for infants that cause such symptoms as tardive dyskinesia.

Before those of you who feel your turf has been invaded or your profession has been unjustly accused of malpractice, please read some of the articles listed on this site.
[thanks to Alison Bevage, Joe Littrell, and Grant Middleton]

reader comments

14 Feb 2004
I read your entry today in What's the Harm and while I am very pleased that you decided to cover the Munchausen by Proxy fiasco and Dr. Meadows which I completely agree with MAMA's assessment of. However, your claim that pharmaceutical companies share blame was not at all backed up by the articles you cited. The article clearly opens with a blatant refutation of your claim:

"While the package insert says it should not be used for more than 12 weeks, many physicians who prescribe it do so for long periods of time... Long term use has led to the serious problem of tardive dyskinesia, though this may not be recognized and diagnosed by the prescriber. "

So why are you blaming a pharmaceutical company for the actions of an incompetent prescribing authority? There is no doubt that Wyeth has tried to distance itself from this debacle by divesting it's injectable metoclopramide product, but that would seem to be the wise thing to do under the circumstances whether the iatrogenic pediatric epidemic was in any way their fault or not.

Keep up the good work, but like you said about Stossel, I think you may have dropped the ball on this one. I know a bit about the people from MAMA and I am very sympathetic of their cause but they have been effected by the mainstream belief that evil scientists are trying to kill us all with chemicals. Sadly, this crazy belief is routinely used to further victimize them as supposed proof of a nutty manifestation of Munchausen's....

reply: The reader is referring to the notes posted by Bill Proctor, Ph.D. of a talk given by Ralph Pittle, J.D. Near the end of the notes Proctor writes: "Ralph implied that this medication really shouldn’t be indicated for a child." It is possible I did drop the ball on this one and that powerful neuroleptics are safe and effective for infants as long as they are not used for longer than 12 weeks. In any case, I would be interested in knowing how the pharmaceutical firms came up with the 12 week safety period.

However, Julie Patrick, founder and author of the MAMA website, writes:

You did a wonderful job on this piece and I thank you for covering many points of the MAMA website. I was aggravated upon reading the comments made by one of your readers:

"However, your claim that pharmaceutical companies share blame was not at all backed up by the articles you cited." [...] "I am very sympathetic of their cause but they have been effected by the mainstream belief that evil scientists are trying to kill us all with chemicals."

Your response:
"neuroleptics are safe and effective for infants as long as they are not used for longer than 12 weeks."

Neuroleptics are never safe for children. The package inserts warns against it use in ADULTS for more than 12 weeks. Children under the age of 18 months have a under-developed brain-barrier (tiny mesh of capillaries around the brain) which makes them particularly susceptible to the debilitating effects of neurotoxic neuroleptics.

In no way do I make such a claim that scientist are evil and out to kill our children. To the contrary, in fact, my daughter's miraculous recovery from a fatal lung tumor was the result of some very dedicated researchers at UCSF in San Francisco, who operated on her in the womb while it was still considered by most insurance companies experimental. Your reader must not know "a bit about the people from MAMA", or she would also know that before the torture and death of my son, Philip, I had a non-profit 501(c)3 foundation to promote medical research for unborn children.

I do feel that the pharmaceutical companies (not researchers) can be very motivated by greed and not safety. As you gave a link to a website "neuroleptics for infants" stating that metoclopramide was "Clinical class: antiemetic". This is flatly misinformation, it is in fact in a class of atypical nueroleptics. There is much more they should do to inform the public, or at least to educate the pediatricians (who are not trained in identifying side-effects of antipsychotics) how to identify Tardive Dystonia, Tardive Dyskinesia and Neuroleptic Malignant Syndrome. Metoclopramide has never been approved for children by the FDA. It is in the class of drugs used for psychiatric illness.

Even more disturbing is the fact that this drug carries a heightened risk for those who are mentally impaired. Those with neurological deficits are much more likely to have problems with reflux, yet this is the primary use for this drug in children. My child having been 4 weeks premature and having just had cranial surgery for a birth defect that was thought to be causing pressure on his brain was given metoclopramide the day after surgery for only a couple of weeks. This produced tardive dystonia, which is a much more severe and painful form of a movement disorder and is more likely in children. He would  go into muscle spasms that  looked extremely painful, causing  seizure-like episodes that caused his arms and legs to flail and his face and eyes contort and writhe in horrendous pain until his death at 11 months. He would have up to 50 of these episodes a day. Yes, I have been "effected" but not by some whacked-out "mainstream" belief, but by first hand knowledge and experience that will forever haunt me and my family.

You should also see http://www.munchausenmovie.com/.

Very Truly Yours,
Julie Patrick

April 25, 2003. Psychic Scams by May Chow. There are many scams run by so-called psychics. If you believe in curses and psychics you may be especially vulnerable.

June 18, 2002. Auckland, New Zealand. "Seventh-day Adventist Deborah Moorhead, 34, and her husband, Roby Jan, 45, were sentenced June 13 to five years in jail for the manslaughter of their six-month-old son, Caleb, for failing to provide the basic necessities of life. Caleb died of complications from a vitamin B12 deficiency.

In a press release to the media, the church in North New Zealand recognized Deborah Moorhead as a member of the Dargaville Church, but noted that "the Moorheads' dietary practices and attitudes to modern medicine are not the teachings of the corporate Seventh-day Adventist Church, but choices of the couple. The Seventh-day Adventist Church is praying for the Moorheads."

The Moorheads were regular attenders at the Dargaville Church, reports the church minister, Pastor Victor Acuna. They were active in the church and known for their passion in the area of health. Acuna has been the pastor at Dargaville since February last year."

May 11, 2002. Japanese Exorcist Given Death Penalty.

April 4, 2002. PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - A 14-year old virgin girl was strangled in a good luck sorcery ritual in Cambodia, police said Wednesday. Police said two men -- a 22-year old sorcerer and his student -- were charged with the murder in court Wednesday. Another four were charged with conspiring to commit murder.

April 7, 2001. Colorado. Therapists held 10-year-old Candace Newmaker down, screamed at her, shook her, and threatened her with never going home again -- all part of her treatment in the days leading up to her fatal [rebirthing] therapy session.

March 20, 1999 Pat Davis, TV news anchorwoman, dies at age 39 after 2 1/2 years of "alternative" therapy for breast cancer prescribed at the Center for Holistic Life Extension in Tijuana. She followed a rigorous 13-hour-a-day regimen of diet (green vegetables and green juices), exercise, and coffee enemas (four a day) developed by Dr. Max Gerson.

March 28, 1997. Thirty-nine members of a UFO cult known as "Heaven's Gate commit suicide as they wait for a space ship to take them to a higher level.

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About harm

It is difficult to assess the harm done to society and the world at large by the spread and encouragement of anti-scientific, irrational, and magical thinking. It is also difficult to measure the extent of harm done to individuals and their families who give up thinking for themselves to follow some guru astrologer, psychic, or cult leader.

It is impossible to calculate the losses to those bilked because they are ignorant of basic logical and psychological principles.

For those cancer patients who are thinking of trying an untested alternative therapy, please read Dr. Stephen Barrett's A Special Message for Cancer Patients Seeking "Alternative" Treatments.

Read this book and you will wonder no more about the harm done by false beliefs


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