Can positive thoughts injure another person?

Some positive thought therapy is harmless and maybe builds social capital of affection and community. Surely it’s good for me to concentrate on the welfare of someone else even if the magic mystery ray doesn’t actually transmit; if the patient is present, I can’t imagine that the zillion subconscious signals we are so good at picking up from each other (not to mention an actual hug) won’t do him some real, physical, good.

But the nonsense NPR is peddling destroys another kind of social capital, respect for science and actual facts and, um, thinking. It can also do much more direct injury. For example, the positive thoughts of these parents didn’t work out too well for their daughter, not to mention leaving the whole family with lifelong guilt that they didn’t pray hard enough. And not vaccinating children you want the best for because you get your medical guidance from entertainers can sure hurt them, and other children they can then infect.

It’s a wonderful world that has such effective public health measures in place – like plumbing that separates sewage from drinking water, and widespread vaccination conferring “herd immunity” – that obscurantist, self-indulgent, solipsistic behavior causes so little real harm, making cases like Neumann’s newsworthy. Good science protects the responsible and the Darwin Award contenders alike.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.