Is it Harmful to Believe in the Paranormal?

There have been a few threads lately about paranormal phenomena and why or why not people should believe in them. So I wonder, exactly how is it harmful for a person to believe in something that has no scientific backing? For those of us who believe in science, do we have a responsibility to try and persuade others away from those sorts of thinking? If so, is it for their own good, the good of society, or merely our own self-gratification? How much should we try to persuade others? If a coworker mentions their weekly palm readings, should we try to strike up a conversation on whether it’s a crock or not, or should we just let it be? As an example, suppose a grieving mother goes to a psychic claiming to be able to talk to the spirit world who tells her that her lost child is happy in the afterlife and loves her. What should we say to a person like this? This is just an example, feel free to posit others.

Personally, I argue that we should try to dissuade people from nonscientific ways of thinking as much as possible. Humans are inherently flawed and biased in our ways of thinking, and only by developing objective means of evaluating the world can we make any real process. When people think they can talk to the dead, that seems unhealthy, since they should be trying to let go and move on with their lives. When people believe in astrology, they tend to become fatalistic and more willing to accept their condition as is, without trying to make things better for themselves. Things like dowsing lead us to waste resources following false leads. When it comes down to it, all these unfounded beliefs cause us to waste time, energy, and resources, and so we should discourage them as best we can.

Also, I’m more or less taking for granted that paranormal phenomena do not exist. If you wish to argue over the validity of a specific type of paranormal activity, that is beyond the scope of this thread, though I encourage you to start a new thread discussing it. However, claims that belief in certain types of paranormal activity have benefits are within the scope of the topic, so feel free to argue that believing in astrology leads to a happier, more fulfilling life.

It’s not harmful to believe, period. Acting on those beliefs, though, is where you starting taking risks, including making financial or medical decisions based on spurious information. The worst, I guess, is a well-meaning person making decisions that affect other people, i.e. the Jehovah’s Witness who blocks lifesaving medical care for their child, or someone who invests an elderly parent’s life-savings in a bogus scheme promoted by an astrologer.

If you want to just believe your dead child is talking to you, I can’t see the harm. Even paying a “psychic” to reinforce this belief isn’t any more harmful than paying for any service to make you feel better for a little while, including buying tasty meals or going to the movies or riding a roller coaster. I’d consider it rude to go out of my way to ridicule the belief but if my honest opinion is ever asked, well, first I’d probably hem and haw a bit hoping for a distraction to let me make my escape, but eventually I’m just going to have to do some eye-rolling and dismissive lip-pursing.

Positive belief in something without evidence, as opposed to suspending disbelief, can become a nasty habit.
Once you do it about one thing, it gets easier to do it about the next.

Hm. On one hand, becoming too skeptical leaves us open to ignoring data we think is unlikely. For example, if one person magically got funding to investigate a paranormal phenomenon and found solid evidence that it was true, I don’t think many people would believe them. Skepticism is good, but hard-headedly believing something is untrue can be as dangerous as believing it is true. Not that I think people should believe things without data, but it’s good for us to think critically before we accept or discredit anything. Getting angry about it and yelling at people for being stupid because they believe stupid crap helps nothing. Also, as long as it’s playing a harmless role in people’s lives, who am I to judge?
On the Other Hand:

–Stan Marsh :smiley:

I don’t know if I would use the word ‘harm’. But it is definitely bad. One of evolution’s greatest ‘achievements’ (if you can call it that) is the creation of a mind that can understand the world in which it lives, that can form true beliefs about its environment. Using the human mind on paranormal beliefs is like using a Cray computer as a doorstop–it is more than just a waste; it is a goddamned shame.

But arguing with people with such beliefs is usually a waste of time–in fact, it is usually counterproductive, if you hope to continue to have a positive working relationship with them. So oh well.

Believing in something such as this is fine in my opinion, but if you are going to come to a board such as this, you need to be prepared to support your belief.

People believe all sorts of things and we all have our own opinions on the validity of those opinions. If you want to present your ideas without scorn though you need to be open to the fact that on a board dedicated to fighting ignorance that more then ‘I know’ is going to be necessary.

I like to feel I keep an open mind. I don’t feel I know all there is to know out there, but if you are going to sway my mind it will be with something that you can prove in some form or another. If your belief is such that it can’t be proven by conventional means, then you should dedicate your efforts to finding another way to convince me. I know because I know is not going to do it.

Conversly if you hold a belief that you can’t support, perhaps you don’t need to shout it out on a board such as this. Or if you do, then be prepared for the treatment you get and in my opinion you should get.

Whether it’s harmful or not depends on the results of that belief. If a believer spends a lot of money communicating with a dead spouse, that can be quite harmful.

If a believer is in a position of power, and she believes a supernatural being created the universe in seven days, she could cause erroneous science books to be placed in a state’s public schools. That would be harmful.

Nowhere near that simple, at all.
See, for example, the Nocebo Effect.

That doesn’t address beliefs in the paranormal, though.

Well, not directly, no. It addresses that beliefs can be harmful even if action isn’t taken.
Nor is it much of a leap to go from that basic premise to addressing some paranormal beliefs.
Someone who believes that they are afflicted by “bad vibes”, or “the devil”, or"demons", or “vortexes”, or whatever, can have very real physical consequences.
Someone who goes to a “psychic” and gets a prediction of impending doom can have real physical reactions to it.

So no, not all ‘paranormal’ beliefs are necessarily harmful. But dismissing them all, out of hand, as being harmless unless acted upon, “period”, is simply false to facts.

I stand by my earlier statement as being a valid response to the OP of this thread.

It’s bad both because it implies poor judgement or a lack of education to believe such things in the first place, and because false beliefs lead to people making bad decisions. Someone who believes in psychic healing for example can easily be killed by relying on it instead of real medicine.

Assuming you care about the people and the society in question, you do have a responsibility to tell people they are in error when it’s practical to do so, both for their own good and the good of society. If it gives you self-gratification, that’s just a bonus. And how much you should try to persuade them is wholly context dependent. Are they likely to listen ? Are you persuasive ? Do you care if their beliefs are likely to hurt them ? Is trying to tell them likely to cause you harm ( like by telling your boss that he’s made an idiot of himself ) ? And so on.

That they are being scammed, and that their grief is being preyed upon. People who pull that sort of scam are utter scum, and you shouldn’t just stand by and let them prey on someone without even trying to warn the victim off.

The “paranormal” has gotten plenty of funding over the years; it’s simply failed to produce evidence of it’s existence.

Also, most Americans already believe in the paranormal, even without any evidence. Actual evidence is hardly going to reduce people’s belief.

It’s unlikely to be harmless, that’s the problem. At the very least, it leaves the believer open to scams based on the false belief.

People who believe in the paranormal are by definition unimpressed with reality.
This makes them easy dupes for the unscrupulous to manipulate, for money or blood.

Not harmful; most of us have seen ghostbusters, right? I mean, the stay-puff marshmellow man looked legit to me. :stuck_out_tongue:

I’m the people in this thread who state that as long as the beliefs themselves aren’t dangerous, and as long as the person doesn’t act on them or get scammed, where’s the harm?

If we include religious beliefs when discussing the paranormal, then the hypothetical that always pops into my mind is the woman who believes that her five year old daughter is waiting for her in heaven. Now assuming she isn’t being taken in by a medium or planning on committing suicide to speed the process along, then why debate this illusion with her? Would she really be better off being convinced that this is a false hope? I’d say that trying to talk her out of this belief would do more harm than good and would be unnecessarily cruel.

I agree*; also, I don’t think drinking and driving is bad, as long as you don’t get into an accident. I mean, having a buzz is a good thing, right? So long as you don’t happen to run into trouble or anything.

Seriously though. Being in a habitual state of increased credulity (even if only about certain subjects) definitely makes you much more likely to engage in wasteful or damaging behaviour, either on your own or with the ‘assistance’ of those who make their livings on the gullibility of others. Surely there’re better ways to get your kicks than that.

(* I don’t actually agree)

Your analogy doesn’t hold up. Drinking and driving is a harmful action, and I explicitly excluded those from the example. Also, how is a woman under the impression that her daughter is in heaven “getting her kicks”? And finally, are you really saying it would be better to try to make her stop believing this?

Honestly, the questions stands. Would she be better off? I say no. Absolutely not. Moreover, if she did start seeking out mediums or talking about suicide, one could talk her out of the action, without talking her out of the basic belief in where her daughter is.

There are a lot of people who believe they have a telepathic connection to an invisible spirit in the sky. They are mostly harmless.

To add to that, there plenty of atheists and agnostics out there with more self-delusion and poor judgement than any theist I’ve ever come across. People aren’t self-deluded because they’re theists. They’re self-deluded because they’re human.

As physicist and atheist Richard Feynman once quipped “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool.”

What’s harmful about getting in your car and slewing down the road if you don’t get into or cause trouble as a result of it? Are you claiming that staggering out of a bar, slewing half a mile down a vacant road and then parking crookedly in front of your house without further incident is inherently harmful?

If not, then the analogy holds up just fine.

She’s making herself happier by entertaining the belief, right? I think that matches the meaning of the term closely enough to justify the use of the phrase.

And by honking or screaming at the right time you could alert the drunken driver enough to prevent the accident, too.

You took great care to exclude the cases where the woman was doing something overtly stupid and destructive as a result of her belief. The fact that you felt the need to exclude such cases makes my argument for me.

(And no, I’m not sure it’s mentally healthy to become lodged in the middle of the grieving process, to the point to clinging desperately to a delusion to avoid facing reality, anyway. But I’ll leave that one for more educated minds than mine to work out.)