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

From Abracadabra to Zombies

What's the harm? No. 3

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.

September 18, 2006. If someone tries to sell you a candle that will reverse your fortune from bad to good when you burn it, walk away. Otherwise, you are the one who will get burned. Even if the seller is a kind, motherly type, walk away. If you don't believe me, ask Judy. She didn't walk away. The candle cost her $1,500 and over a two-year period she gave her new best psychic friend over $15,000. In exchange, she was left with a red face.

July 27, 2006. BBC reports: A television documentary team has pieced together details surrounding the case of a 16-year-old girl, executed two years ago in Iran. On 15 August, 2004, Atefah Sahaaleh was hanged in a public square in the Iranian city of Neka. Her death sentence was imposed for "crimes against chastity." The state-run newspaper accused her of adultery and described her as 22 years old. But she was not married - and she was just 16. She was abused by the moral police and raped by Ali Darabi, a 51-year-old former revolutionary guard, married with children.

July 21, 2006. ABC News has a story about one of the more common ways by which harm comes to those who believe in psychics: You are cursed; pay me and I'll remove the curse. In this case, the victim gave the psychic $220,000 in cash and jewelry over a period of time. To con people, start small and escalate gradually. Appear sincere and give the impression that you are spiritual and trustworthy. Convince the client that skeptics and doubters are evil and never do anyone any good. Play and prey on the client's wants and fears. And, if possible, use trickery to make the client think you have extraordinary magical powers. Convince yourself that your clients are fools who get what they deserve.

To avoid being conned, read the books reviewed here. (Pay particular attention to Bob Steiner's warning: you too can get taken!

To read another story about a cursed woman, click here.

July 18, 2006. Children are dying of measles again and not only in third-world countries. Also, children who aren't being vaccinated are endangering other children they come in contact with, especially those with weakened immune systems. Throughout Europe, many parents have stopped bringing in their children in for the MMR vaccination. Cases of measles in England are at a 20-year high following the collapse in MMR immunization rates.* The panic is due to at least two things: Andrew Wakefield and widespread belief that governments are conspiring with pharmaceutical firms to hide the truth about vaccines. An investigation of misconduct by Wakefield was initiated by Britain's General Medical Council after The Lancet publicly rejected his findings about an MMR/autism link. Wakefield failed to reveal that he had received £55,000 in legal aid to carry out separate research for parents who claimed their children had been harmed by the MMR vaccine.*

We now know that Wakefield was paid more than £400,000 by lawyers trying to prove that the vaccine was unsafe. The payments were part of £3.4m distributed from the legal aid fund to doctors and scientists who had been recruited to support a now failed lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers.*

There is strong evidence that there is no connection between MMR vaccines, which have never contained thimerosal,* and autism or any other disorder.

A recent study found that "There is no relationship between the level of exposure to MMR vaccines and thimerosal-containing vaccines and rates of autism."* The Canadian study surveyed 27,749 children born from 1987 to 1998 in the Montreal area and was published in the journal Pediatrics. It is the latest of several studies to reach this conclusion. See also:

July 11, 2006. Hellfried Sartori, 67, is being held on charges of fraud and practicing medicine without a license in Chiang Mai, Thailand. "Police allege that several ill foreigners traveled to Thailand with false hopes for his cures, only to die after receiving injections of a dangerous chemical compound bought for $A50,000 from Sartori."* Sartori is accused of luring terminally ill foreigners to Thailand with promises of a miracle cure, something he has been doing for many years. He offers "alternative" cancer treatments such as chelation therapy and ozone treatment. He has had his medical license revoked twice in the U.S. during the 1980s, once in Maryland and once in the District of Columbia. He's been jailed at least twice, in New York State in May 1992 and Washington in July 1998, for illegally administering his so-called "ozone treatments."

Sartori has his defenders. Keith Preston's wife died after traveling from Australia to Maharaj Nakhon Chiang Mai Hospital in Thailand to be treated by Sartori. She had been diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. Mr. Preston supports Sartori because he offered hope when Australian doctors had sent his wife home to die.* Given that many people prefer false hope to accepting mortality, quacks like Sartori will always find a vulnerable clientele willing to spend large sums of money in the vain hope of beating death.

May 10, 2006. Another cleansing scam. Whenever a psychic claims to need your money or valuables so they can be cleansed, she is preparing to take you to the cleaners. Here is another example from Florida. Linda Marks claimed she was a gypsy and could peer into the future. She liked to conjure snakes and scorpions out of chickens’ eggs and turn water blood-red. These parlor tricks would frighten gullible clients into believing that their lives were infected by evil spirits. The solution, she told them, was for them to give her all their money so she could pray over it and "cleanse" it of evil. They did, to the tune of about $2 million. Once they did so, the gypsy and the money would disappear, as if by magic. Ms. Marks will have four years in prison to perfect her art and repay the money she stole from her mostly elderly clients.

April 21, 2006. Sylvia MillecamThe Netherlands is considering tougher laws on practitioners of complementary medicine after government health inspectors severely criticized the treatment given actress and comedienne Sylvia Millecam who died from breast cancer in 2001. An investigation found that alternative practitioners contradicted the diagnosis of breast cancer made by her doctors and offered her instead the prospect of a cure with "unfounded methods of treatment."

April 13, 2006. Consegrity co-founder dies of untreated diabetes while she and her partner apply their patented brand of energy healing.

February 13, 2006. The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) claims that some five million UK citizens lose about £1bn a year to mass-marketing scams such as miracle health or slimming cures, fake lotteries, and Nigerian 419 scams.

Clairvoyant and psychic mailings are also highlighted by the OFT as a growing fraud. In this scam, letters from a clairvoyant promising good luck (e.g. winning lottery numbers) or predicting bad omens are sent out requesting that recipients send money for an 'intervention' from the psychic to prevent the bad luck. OFT chief executive John Fingleton said: "Do not think that you can't be taken in by a scam. We may believe we are too savvy or streetwise to fall for these cons, but they target different people in different ways to exploit our weaknesses and take our money." VNUnet

February 4, 2006. Coretta Scott King, civil rights leader and widow of  Martin Luther King, Jr., spent her last days at a clinic in Rosarito Beach run by Kurt Donsbach, a chiropractor whose "alternative treatments" for incurable diseases are illegal in this country. Since 1983 he has been selling hope to the dying and desperate at his Santa Monica Health Institute, which he moved from Chula Vista, California, to a few miles south of the border in 1987. Quackwatch founder Dr. Stephen Barrett, who has investigated thousands of health-related scams, has been monitoring Donsbach since 1971. Barrett says: "I know of nobody who has engaged in a greater number and variety of health-related schemes and scams."

Donsbach was sentenced to a year in federal prison in 1997 for smuggling more than $250,000 worth of unapproved drugs into the US from Mexico. He never served a day of the sentence, however. In 1988, the US postal service ordered Donsbach to stop claiming that a hydrogen peroxide solution he sold could prevent cancer and ease arthritis pain.

The 78-year-old King was just one of many desperate souls who have been lured to the Mexican clinic over the past twenty years to be treated with vitamins and herbs, iron lungs, and other useless procedures. (Mrs. King was partially paralyzed from a stroke last August. She was brought to the clinic by her daughter, Bernice King, and a nurse. The clinic was recommended by members of Mrs. King's church.) Donsbach was tutored by Royal Lee (d. 1967), who, until the rise of Kevin Trudeau, was, in the words of a prominent FDA official, "probably the largest publisher of unreliable and false nutritional information in the world."

On his website, Donsbach appears to be a sweet old man who serves up big helpings of fruits and vegetable and other nutritious things. In reality, he's just another healing arts huckster who appeals to the desperate and dying who have too much unhealthy faith and not enough healthy skepticism. Donsbach's partner in crime is Harry R. Alsleben, another quack who, like Donsbach, used to run his own correspondence school, which offered pseudo-credentials in nutrition, e.g. "Clinical Nutrimedicine and Biological Sciences," "nutri-medical dentistry," "nutri-medical eye and visual health care," "nutri-medical homeopathy," and "therapeutic nutrimedicine."

How do such quacks flourish? They sell a good story and a few of their clients survive and can serve as endorsements. The dead, of course, don't testify, as they aren't around to tell their story. And, unless one is famous, as Mrs. King was, the press won't do any stories on your visit to places such as the Santa Monica Health Institute. King was near death (from ovarian cancer that had spread to her intestines) when she was brought to the clinic, so, while she was admitted, no treatment was administered.

The Santa Monica clinic was closed shortly after Mrs. King's death and patients were given three days to leave the country. No reason was given for the closure.*

The body of Coretta Scott King was brought to Atlanta, where she became the first African American and first woman to lie in state at the Georgia Capitol.

further reading

January 17, 2006. A cleansing ritual by three psychics cleaned out a Poolesville, Maryland, woman's savings of $100,000. She believed that she was under a centuries old curse and that the cleansing ritual would rid her of the curse, according to police spokesperson Lucille Baur.

One of the dangers of believing in curses is the fear they cause of impending trouble and doom, which makes believers vulnerable to those who claim they can lift curses through such means as "cleansing rituals." The psychics tell the victim that they must give them their money or valuables for the ritual; they promise to return the goods after the ritual, minus any fees. That is usually the last anyone sees of the psychics, unless the police catch up with them.

January 5, 2006. Anything goes, if God exists. When men believe they have the word of God, they may do anything and claim it is God's will. Militant Muslims in Afghanistan believe the Koran forbids girls from being educated or being educated by men or being educated with boys or being educated by men with boys or ???? They also believe that if a man teaches girls they (the Taliban) have the right or duty to kill him. That's what they did to Malim Abdul Habib in Qalat, the capital of Zabul province. Habib was head of Shaikh Mathi Baba, a coeducational secondary school with 1,300 pupils. According to news reports, several armed thugs broke into Habib's house and ordered him to report to a local Taliban leader. He refused and was dragged into a courtyard and beheaded in front of his family.

For the past several months, threatening notices calling for an end to the education of girls have been pinned to shop walls in the town. According to the Guardian, last month gunmen pulled a teacher in Helmand province from his classroom and shot him at the school gate after he ignored orders to stop teaching girls.

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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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