People ask me, whenever I bring up skepticism and the things that I feel very strongly about (usually belief in the supernatural, or alternative medicines), I am always asked "what does it matter what people believe?" or "whats the harm?" I’ll definitely be taking notes in how to respond to those questions from Heather Doran and Sonia Watson from Aberdeen Skeptics, who gave a fantastic talk for us about the frankly bizarre world of healing crystals.
The talk was a well-researched and very interesting look into what crystal healers say their funny coloured rocks can do and what they can actually do(hint: not much), and also the procedures involved with their use. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that their method of action appears to be less about actively fixing a medical problem and more about bringing calm and relaxation to a patient. And this is a difficult subject for skeptics worldwide: at which point does something move from being a harmless activity for making people appear to feel better and become a harmful activity that can lead to a lighter wallet and – at its worst level – a potentially dead person?
As well as going over some of the beliefs that crystal healers have, and looking into the claims made about certain rocks (they vary wildly, which makes it more difficult to verify certain claims), there was a full account of Heather’s visit to a crystal healer in my native Blackpool (I do hope it’s not my mother’s secret life and she’s been a woo peddler all these years…). Heather seemed to genuinely enjoy the experience, which made the question of "What’s the harm?" even harder to answer.
The question was posed to the crowd and a very lively discussion followed in some of the best audience participation I’ve seen at a skeptics talk. It was a shame we had to leave when we did as there were definitely more points to be made. Ultimately, we were pretty much all in agreement that alternative medicines of this type are worse when they exploit vulnerable people, either through giving false hope or through taking their money (and some of these crystals are VERY expensive – £117 was an example brought up in the talk).
Like many dodgy science claims, the mode of action talked about by woo peddlers seemed to stem from a very loose interpretation of known science, and a less-learned person would very easily be taken in by talk about energy levels, resonances and frequencies. And despite the procedure for crystal healing seeming to do more for relaxation than for medical conditions, the advertising literature in the various places you can buy them actually talks about specific medical conditions (despite this being illegal). Somebody at their lowest ebb, with a condition that is getting no better, and a mind that is less rational could be taken in by this, and sometimes with horrible consequences.
So at the end of the day, that’s why we do what we do.