• What exactly is the harm? An interview with Tim Farley of WhatsTheHarm.net

    As someone who doesn’t shy from telling people that pseudoscience (like homeopathy) is a load of bunk, I often get asked one terribly frustrating question over and over again:

    “But, what’s the harm? Who cares if someone think astrology is real? Or if they go to an acupuncturist?”

    Thanks to one person in particular, I now don’t have to spend 30 minutes telling them about how believing in one non-science is a slippery slope that leads to belief in other non-supported ideas, trying to convince them belief in pseudoscience is harmful to both individuals and society. Instead, I just point them to a website – WhatsTheHarm.net

    WTH.net logo

    Run by Tim Farley, WTH.net is a compilation of stories that answer that very question.

    This site is designed to make a point about the danger of not thinking critically. Namely that you can easily be injured or killed by neglecting this important skill. We have collected the stories of over 670,000 people who have been injured or killed as a result of someone not thinking critically.

    We do this not to make light of their plight. Quite the opposite. We want to honor their memory and learn from their stories.

    Tim FarleyIn addition to his work cataloging the harms of pseudoscience to his fellow humans, Tim is also a Research Fellow for the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) who specializes in electronic media. He is a prolific poster on Twitter and Facebook, and put together the information in the JREF’s Today in Skeptic History iPhone app. A computer software engineer by trade, Tim has published work in skeptical and professional outlets and has two patents.

    I had the good fortune to be able to interview Tim earlier this week, and you can find the interview transcript below. My questions are in italics, while Tim’s answers are in plain typeface. I’ve also included hyperlinks to further information (or explanations).


    First off, I find it interesting to hear a bit about why a person is a skeptic. So, what led you to become a skeptic? Any particular eureka moment? Or more of a gradual experience?

    I don’t think I had a Eureka moment. I was always interested in science, I started out studying astronomy and physics before I got into computers as a career. What I didn’t know at the time (college) is I had skeptics all around me.

    I realized later that one of my college roommates ran the email archive for James Randi – years later I got involved in James Randi’s Educational Foundation where I am now a Research Fellow. It was getting involved with JREF that made me realize I was probably a skeptic all along, but just didn’t have a name to pin on it.

    So it was more of a general appreciation of science and reason, but not an overtly active skepticism then? Was that from an early age? Were you a childhood science fan?

    Interrupted JourneyYeah, it was science and science fiction from childhood, but I definitely had a few things I was interested in that I would be skeptical of now. I remember reading several of the key UFO books back then like “The Interrupted Journey,” and reading about the Betty and Barney Hill star map in Astronomy magazine.
    Like most kids I wanted that stuff to be real, as I got older I got more skeptical and realized there wasn’t much evidence. It was after I attended the JREF’s The Amazing Meeting in 2007 that I became aware of all the other things like alternative medicine and various forms of denialism.

    Was it around then that you started WhatsTheHarm.net?

    Yeah, that was a direct result of attending TAM 5. Especially the Sunday paper presentations, which are regular people talking about skeptic projects they have done. I went home and though, “Hey, I could do something like that.” it took me a few months to kick around some ideas, but eventually I landed on stories of harm as being something that needed more attention.

    Originally the idea was to do a “Wall of Harm” and have it be a display at TAM. The idea being – this is why we are here. These are the people we are trying to help. As I collected the stories I realized, it would be a shame to assemble it all and only see it once a year, so a website was a natural. The idea of a physical display got dropped along the way, though I suppose that still could be done.

    Do people send the stories into you now, or do you still do a lot of legwork to find them?
    That’s one of the great things, I really don’t have to do any work now to find stories. People send them to me, through email and social media. It’s almost funny when one of the stories gets a lot of attention, I’ll get it sent to me like 10 or more times. Combined with paying attention on Twitter when other skeptics tweet news stories, I don’t have to go looking.
    What have been the saddest or most upsetting cases?

    The most upsetting ones are always the children, because they were usually forced into their situation by their parents. At least with an adult you can say the person made a choice at some level. But a 9 year old child dying of untreated diabetes because of faith healing parents is just insane.

    What does the future hold for WhatstheHarm.net? Any major changes coming, or just adding to the database?

    Well, I’ve been meaning to do a revamp of the site for a while now, right now mostly I send out new stories on @WhatsTheHarm on Twitter and on my personal social media feeds. The current design limits the amount of text I can have on each story, mostly because there aren’t alot of details on some of the older stories. I’d like to add a blog element so when a story comes along that has more details, I can flesh it out at length.There are also some technical issues about updating the site that I need to fix.
    Tim Farley speaking
    Tim speaking at TAM2012

    I think that’s one of the biggest issues with a project of that size, especially one run on a volunteer basis – how do you keep it easily updated? Have you thought about working with other people on it, or turning it over to a group to run?

    Yes, I really need to do that, make it a crowd project. I’ll probably move it to a regular blog platform, which all have support for multiple authors, so I can take on some assistance. Right now the site has to be updated all at once which requires some care.I’ve taken on a bunch of other projects, such as my blog, guest posts on other blogs, the “Skeptic History” posts that I do, plus a podcast and a webcast. It’s a bit much. Last week I decided I needed to take a step back and think about what’s working and what’s not, so I’m taking a bit of a “skeptic sabbatical” right now. Just taking it easy until the end of the year trying to think about my next move.
    And of course, right as I started my “sabbatical” our friend “Mabus” got himself arrested.
    What an interesting coincidence….
    Switching gears a bit: Your day job is working in computer software engineering. How does that inform your skepticism, and vice versa? 

    Well, my specialty is computer security, and that’s a very skeptical form. You have to look at a computer system and forget what the builders know about it, but think about it in a whole new way – the way an attacker looks at it. And then apply what you figure out to make the system better.

    So do you think your skepticism drew you to that particular field in software engineering?

    Hmm, maybe, I’ve never thought about that. At the time it was more my interest in taking things apart – I used to reverse engineer software just to figure out how it works. Later I learned you could earn good money reverse engineering viruses and malware. I had a boss at a non-secruity-related software company who knew my interests, and he recruited me to a security software company. I’ve been doing security-related stuff (off and on, mixed with teaching and other stuff) ever since.

    Category: ActivismPseudoscienceSkepticism


    Article by: Caleb Lack

    Caleb Lack is the author of "Great Plains Skeptic" on SIN, as well as a clinical psychologist, professor, and researcher. His website contains many more exciting details, visit it at www.caleblack.com