Stopping the Scares and Scams

Someday, I'm sure, it will become common knowledge that a health scare can be physically baseless yet cause real anxiety. People will learn to resist the urge to find a scapegoat for whatever illnesses happen to exist in the population (including symptoms induced by anxiety itself). And just as an individual's awareness of his own hypochondriac tendencies can do wonders to diminish pain and anxiety (alleviating the need for some visits to the doctor), so too will society's awareness of the dynamics of health scares probably work wonders in preventing incidents of mass hysteria and collective hypochondria.


Take, for instance, the Coca-Cola scare in Belgium. As journalist Malcolm Gladwell noted, it had all the earmarks of mass hysteria, with people attributing a wide range of unrelated symptoms to their Coca-Cola consumption. Now comes word that scientists have completed a study showing that there was no underlying increase in illness to be explained. Coca-Cola was scapegoated for a mixture of unrelated illnesses and psychosomatic symptoms, and people should have seen it coming.

Kokomo, Indiana residents attribute a host of ills to a buzzing noise nicknamed "the Kokomo Hum." reports: "Complaints about the 'Kokomo Hum' began in 1999, when a handful of local residents began to report a constant low-pitched rumbling noise. They say they developed a range of mysterious health problems soon after, including dizziness, diarrhea, extreme fatigue, joint and muscle pain, nosebleeds, and excruciating, unending headaches." The mayor asked for a $100,000 investigation into the problem.

A federal court decision was necessary in Arkansas to eliminate a religious exemption to the law requiring vaccinations before children can be admitted to public schools. Fear of vaccinations is on the rise in religious and alternative-medicine-influenced communities in the U.S. and in England, despite the fact that the risk of vaccine side effects is miniscule compared to the risks posed by childhood illnesses including the risk of epidemics if too few people are vaccinated.

Camden, New Jersey residents, who must have a great deal of spare time on their hands, have pressed for an investigation into the source of the round, black splotches you see on sidewalks, usually dirt-encrusted chewing gum or paraffin from packing materials. Naturally, the activist calling for the investigation notes that many people in the area have headaches or asthma (and, naturally, there is no evidence that the townfolk are more likely to have headaches or asthma if they've been near the black splotches).

Some New Hampshire residents nearly had to forego fluoridated water recently after a vigorous anti-fluoride scare campaign influenced public debate on the project. This was essentially a repeat of a debate between scientists and anti-fluoride conspiracy theorists that should have long since become a cliche.

As science writer Michael Fumento has said, people used to blame black cats for their misfortunes, and now they often blame things like chemicals, breast implants, or magnetic fields. If more people were conscious of this pattern, it might decrease the odds that they would repeat it. Unfortunately, as long as people are oblivious to this general problem, skeptics find themselves playing defense, having to shoot down each new absurd fear as it arises, using painstaking scientific analysis that often takes far longer to conduct than the scare takes to spread.

Legal Remedies?

Skeptics have generally limited themselves to quelling unnecessary fears, but perhaps it's time they went on the offensive and sought to punish people who cause fear, at least in cases where the scaremongers can be shown to be engaged in deliberate, sophisticated exaggeration (there would be little ethical or legal grounds for suing every honest but gullible yokel who thought his wearing long underwear caused his skin cancer or that his town was being menaced by Bigfoot or Mothman).

Inducing fear is itself harmful, after all. That's one reason we revile stalkers and a certain faith-based organization called Al Qaeda (not to mention domestic terrorist organizations, like some of the animal rights groups linked to PETA). It's also the reason that a person can be arrested for publicly brandishing a pistol even if he never intends to use it. Why not consider health scaremongering when it is deliberate and not just the result of an unusual interpretation of data legally actionable as well?

That would help recoup some of the losses caused by hyperactive trial lawyers, pandering regulators, and activists who try to make biotech sound as dangerous as bioterrorism. Perhaps it's time, too, that journalists who knowingly exaggerate making garden hoses sound like deadly sources of lead poisoning or intact asbestos sound like a common cause of lung cancer be required to pay for the recalls, clean-ups, and abatement programs they inspire.

Mystics and Scammers

And why stop at the fearmongers? Unwarranted optimism can do as much damage as fear. There are plenty of quacks and mystical hucksters whose rosy claims do not quite fit the legal definition of fraud but who arguably ought to be held civilly liable for ruining lives, impairing health, and wasting people's money:

South Koreans who practice a form of martial arts meant to focus a spiritual energy called "gi" are convinced that this energy makes them immune to venereal disease and lung cancer, enabling them to have sex and smoke with reckless abandon. The fact that the rituals and physical exercises associated with gi are genuinely useful in fostering poise and balance helps obscure the imaginary nature of the energy much as the psychological efficacy of imagining one's fist becoming steel-hard just before smashing it through a board convinces some people that they really are magically transforming their fists.

Alternative medicine advocates have been working to get a range of dubious therapies covered by an already cash-strapped Medicare system, effectively creating a taxpayer subsidy for bad health care.

Miss Cleo and other national psychic hotlines have been the subject of recent scandals due to overbilling and financial irregularities but where are the class action suits against such services for all the erroneous advice they've given over the years? How many people are there out there who skipped doctor's appointments or stopped taking their medication because some "psychic," knowing full well she didn't have any real ability to predict the future, said they would live to a ripe old age, blessed with good health, a large house, and a career in Hollywood?

The herbal supplement and homeopathic remedy industries would seem like ripe targets for an enterprising attorney who realizes that many companies have gotten rich from unscientific claims and that large classes of bilked consumers deserve their money back.

Public Awareness

The day may yet come when outrage at the scares and scams is as strong as the widespread fear of chemical and pharmaceutical companies is today, when the tide turns and the scarers and scammers are seen as fit targets for lawsuits, regulations, and protest marches.

Here and there are signs of hope, such as a recent New York Times article that explained the basic point that coincidences happen and not every two events that happen in close proximity are causally related (the Times debunked the recent conspiracy theory about a series of deaths among microbiologists a series of deaths I was disinclined to think were the result of an Islamic terrorist plot after I heard that one of the victims was killed with a sword by a man claiming to be a member of a vampire cult). One of the reasons people are prone to superstition to seeing causal connections that aren't really there is that they have a tendency to try to fit events into a familiar narrative. One can only hope that the narrative of scare leading to hypochondria leading to opportunistic lawsuits leading eventually to scientific debunking of the scare becomes as familiar to people as the narrative of evil company making innocent townfolk sick. Once they're familiar with the former narrative, they may be more eager to avoid playing their assigned roles in the silly story.