July 22, 2008 — -- Tim Farley's interest in skepticism, which seeks to expose dubious claims, started when he began listening to comedian and outspoken doubter Penn Jillette's radio show.
It was through the show that he heard about the skeptic community, became involved through meetings and decided to find a way to contribute.
So in February, the software engineer from Atlanta started compiling news reports of those victimized by psychics, faith healing and other new age beliefs and posting them on his Web site.
"A lot of stories I see of people getting harmed by these various types of belief systems often appear and disappear very quickly," Farley says. "So I was hoping to capture some of this and create a resource for skeptics to point to when they make their arguments."
The site he created, Whatstheharm.net, serves as a virtual warehouse of cautionary tales.
Think there's no harm in astrology? Click around and you'll find cases such as that of Myanmar's former prime minister, General Ne Win, who decided to issue the nation's currency in denominations of 45 and 90 and other multiples of nine, a number his astrologer said was his lucky number. The move immediately made citizens poorer since all other once-valid forms of currency were now worthless.
"I think it's excellent," Michael Shermer, president of The Skeptics Society, says of the site. "'What's the harm?' is the question that all of us skeptics get asked whenever we do interviews on T.V. or debate people about irrational beliefs. And often, they are quite harmful."
Farley also uses the site to draw attention to what he says are the hidden dangers of seemingly benign things such as relying on GPS, home child birth and even being a vegetarian, a topic that has drawn quite a bit of heat from some of the site's users.
"Some vegans have sent me e-mails that say 'why don't you put up a section about people who have gotten hurt from eating meat?' or 'I know a guy who choked on a chicken bone,'" he recalls, with a slight chuckle.
However, others like Len Torine, who heads the American Association of Vegetarians, doesn't see any humor in what he considers a "slur on veganism and vegetarianism," which he finds "aggravating."
"These are stories of disturbed, irresponsible people and has more to with the administrating person instead of the diet," Torine says. "They're just extreme examples and has nothing to do with veganism or vegetarianism. It's just nonsense. It's just silly."
While Farley admits that the site does have a point of view, he stresses that he isn't opposed to vegetable-based diets and says that what he's trying to point out is that younger children, like toddlers and babies, have different nutritional needs than adults, requirements that can be met simply by learning how to arrange an appropriate vegetarian diet.
Besides being a resource for his fellow skeptics, Farley feels the site encourages visitors to think more critically.
"There are a lot of ads on the Internet that try to sell you unproven health products and I am trying to spend a bit of my time to counter that kind of message," he says. "Am I going to convince a true believer with my site? I don't think so. But what I hope to do is to convince a person who is on the edge of pursuing some of these ideas on the site to think twice about it."
And to prove that skeptics don't always take everything so seriously, Farley created a section categorized "Moon Landing Denial," where he highlights the case of Bart Sibrel, a documentary filmmaker who was punched in the face by former astronaut Buzz Aldrin after he asked the moonwalker himself to swear on a Bible that NASA's moon landing wasn't staged.
The section "is mainly for the skeptics because they are entertained by that stuff," he says. "Skeptics are out there all the time arguing with people on various Web sites and it can get frustrating."