At what point, when someone believes something that is counterfactual, unscientific, and (to put not too fine a point on it) ridiculous, does it become the person's fault for not knowing better?
We live in a culture which, to a large extent, has an expectation that people should be protected from the effects of their own stupidity. This extends to the availability of insurance, and claims for government aid, when people build their houses in areas that are known to be targets for natural disasters. When a five million dollar house is built onto a canyon wall in earthquake-prone, mudslide-prone, wildfire-prone California, and it (to borrow a phrase) burns down, falls over, and sinks into the swamp, and the owner acts all mystified that it happened, how sympathetic should we be?
This question isn't just relevant to matters of property loss; it also is appropriate to ask in a great many issues of personal safety. Take motorcycle helmet laws. Take smoking cigarettes. Who, at this point, doesn't know the dangers of these behaviors? At some point, it is not the government's responsibility to prevent us from doing stupid stuff; it is ours.
The matter becomes a little fuzzier with medical issues, because (1) people are trained from birth to listen to white-coat-wearing individuals with stethoscopes, (2) there's a huge profit motive to the whole quack-cures industry, inducing charlatans to spend a lot more time and effort pushing their claims, and (3) human physiology is a great deal more complicated than "if you ride a motorcycle without a helmet, and get in an accident, you will be turned into a giant splat mark on the asphalt." Still, I can't help but think that there is a point at which it is the consumer's personal responsibility to be well enough informed that (s)he won't do anything egregiously idiotic, such as trying to treat an illness by taking pills that have had every last potentially useful molecule removed by serial dilution.
But homeopathy isn't my topic today; the genesis of this post is something even stupider. Something that makes homeopaths seem worthy of the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Something so monumentally idiotic that I felt obliged to dig around and see if it could possibly be a hoax.
Tragically, it is not. It really seems to be true that a Swiss woman died last year -- after a guru convinced her that she could live on sunlight alone. (Source)
Apparently the woman, whose name was not released by the press but who was a resident of the town of Wolfhalden, had had some health problems, and after being unsatisfied with the medical care she was receiving from actual doctors, she decided to ask a guru's advice. The guru said he was 70 years old and was still in prime health, and had done it by giving up food and water entirely decades ago. He said all you had to do was to sit in the sun with large sectors of your skin exposed, absorbing the sun's "life-giving rays," and that if you had reached a high enough plane of spiritual consciousness, that'd be all you'd need not only to survive, but to thrive.
The article didn't say, but I'd bet hard cold cash that the guru also used the words "resonance," "frequency," and "vibration."
Anyhow, the woman didn't do what I'd like to think most of us would do in that situation, which is to burst into guffaws and say, "What the hell? Do I look like a house plant to you?" And walk away. No, she apparently said, "Wow! I never thought of that!" and proceeded to stop eating and drinking. She spent a great deal of time sitting, scantily-clad, in the sun. And amazingly enough, she succeeded not in curing her illnesses -- but in starving to death.
An unanswered question I had is how on earth her friends and relatives let this happen. If I saw some nimrod I knew stop eating anything and spending large quantities of time sitting outside naked, I think I would probably question whether he'd lost his marbles, and try to intervene. But either she didn't have enough close friends, or hid it from them well enough, that by the time she was admitted to medical care, it was too late to save her.
This, of course, has elicited calls to prosecute the guru. My general thought is that this is probably justified, because victimizing stupid people is a pretty terrible thing to do, but there's a part of me that can't get all that worked up about this. Shouldn't we have an expectation, as a presumably educated society, that people will at least understand biology to the extent that they know that humans cannot conduct photosynthesis? If there really is someone who is that dumb, or that gullible, should the authorities step in to protect them from the consequences of their foolishness?
I think that at some point, personal responsibility has to kick in. If we fail to educate ourselves on issues of vital importance to our health and happiness, and then become victims of natural disasters, preventable accidents, hucksters, and frauds, it is no one's fault but our own. And as far as the Swiss woman who thought she was a plant; this, to me, is just a case of natural selection in action, improving the gene pool for the rest of us.