Here at the American Council on Science and Health, we're releasing the fourth edition of our handy tome Facts Versus Fears (which inspired the name of our website, FactsAndFears). The booklet surveys the greatest unfounded health scares of the past five decades, from the "Cranberry Scare" of 1959 to current paranoia over PCBs in farmed salmon and thimerosal in vaccines. In between, scares have occurred with great regularity -- and precious little scientific evidence to justify them.
Why are people, particularly TV reporters and TV viewers, drawn to false health reports more often than to the true ones? It's just basic psychology, I think. If you present a person -- or for that matter, a monkey -- with two thick scientific documents, one well-researched and the other full of fallacies, but the one full of fallacies is on fire, that one will of course draw more attention. People are not significantly different from the monkey in this regard. Give them a quiet, sober, factual report and, understandably, they'll ignore it in favor of one that screams YOU ARE (possibly) ABOUT TO DIE, BUT TUNE IN AT 11 AND YOU MAY AT LEAST SAVE THE LIVES OF YOUR CHILDREN!
There is indeed a marketplace of ideas, and thank goodness for that, but it should not be assumed that truth is the most highly-valued commodity in that market -- which is a systemic problem deserving greater attention.
Facts Versus Fears rightly focuses on the big, expensive, deadly, influential scares, but unnecessary scares of varying sizes happen almost daily. Just in the past few months, in addition to the bigger scares reported on this site, there have been countless reports like these:
>New York Newsday, upon hearing of a report that chemicals called PAHs released in the World Trade Center collapse quickly dropped to harmless levels, manages to wrest a scare-headline out of the news, and it read: "Cancer Risk Small But Real: Dust from the Collapse of the Twin Towers Contained Carcinogens, But Most New Yorkers Will Not Be Affected."
>A report showing that children in poor countries die in large numbers not from side effects of modern chemistry or advanced technology but from the perennial low-tech problems of unclean drinking water and in-door coal and wood stoves nonetheless leads to the green-sounding (and no doubt green-encouraging) AP headline: "Many Child Deaths Blamed on Environment."
>Speaking of greens, in a bizarre sidelight 2004 to the presidential campaign, former Green Party candidate and frequent health scare-starter turned Reform Party candidate Ralph Nader sat down to be interviewed by former Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan for Buchanan's magazine, American Conservative. They quickly bonded over their mutual fear of Israeli efforts to manipulate the U.S. government. Nader summed up his views with a final doom-and-gloom rant that explains how these two seeming opposites find a common populist cause in pessimism, or as Nader put it, in their aversion to the impact of "giant corporations, commercialism, direct marketing to kids, sidestepping parents, selling them junk food, selling them violence, selling them sex and addictions, selling them the suspension of their socialization process -- years ago conservatives spoke out on that, but it was never transformed into a political position. It was always an ethical, religious value position. It is time to take it into the political arena." Well, we'll find out in a month. Meanwhile, Theresa Heinz Kerry's foundation pumps money into radical environmental causes and Republicans criticize embryonic stem cell research as tantamount to dismembering people on assembly lines. Almost any way you turn you find a political party acting as an obstacle to science or industry and scaring the public in order to do so.
>Though it will likely take centuries for anything noticeable to happen, the possible shift in position of the Earth's magnetic fields (an all-natural phenomenon!) led to an alarming New York Times story about nature thrown into chaos and birds losing their sense of direction. Of course, the planet's been through such a change many times before, so scientists are confident the birds will adjust -- and so, I imagine, will compass manufacturers. Whole continents being hurled into space on giant plumes of magma, no matter how cool that might look, is not in the cards.
>Numerous companies have leapt on the terrorism-preparedness bandwagon, but it's not always in their interest to explain (as ACSH carefully does in our Citizen's Guide to Terrorism Preparedness and Response) that some greatly-feared hypothetical terror scenarios aren't as dire as they're cracked up to be. Kudos to AP's Charles J. Hanley, though, for his June story "Scientists Say Dirty Bomb Would Be a Dud" about the low likelihood that a bomb spreading radiological material, like the one allegedly contemplated by terror suspect Jose Padilla, would cause much direct harm. The real danger would be a panicky public and excessive government safety regulations that would likely render any dirty-bombed area off-limits for years.
>For truly trivial risks, though, there are always stories of (invariably bogus) paranormal phenomena, and the BBC and http://DrudgeReport.com should both be ashamed of themselves for uncritically repeating a report from Iran that a woman there gave birth to a frog. Rest assured: your risk of giving birth to a frog is negligible.
>Meanwhile, back in the real world, or somewhere close to it, Connecticut's state legislature this year approved an extremely expensive bill mandating power lines be placed underground, partly in response to scientifically unfounded fears of health effects from electric and magnetic fields, pushed with particular gusto by the predictably-named group Save the Children of Woodbridge, CT. (This nonsensical scare has been going on for decades now, as I've explained in previous articles.)
Humanity has enough problems dealing with real threats -- and mainstream science is hard enough to do (witness the ambiguities of epidemiology) -- without searching in paranoid fashion for the most obscure, bizarre, and tenuous causes for alarm. Reading through the numerous scares in Facts Versus Fears, one sees an unmistakable cycle that is involved, with minor variations, in almost every case: fear (activists fixate upon some target they deem a menace), spectacle/drama (the idea is served up to the media as an easily-repeated narrative), faith (the public hears the idea repeated enough to take the warnings for granted), control (government or lawyers step in to assure people the supposed danger will be combated), and shifting of resources (the activists or the purported victims they represent end up with new loot and power because of the new regulations or settlements from the lawsuits -- and the cycle begins anew as the activists use their newfound power to seek out new causes or make more stringent demands).
If we want to live in a world without irrational fears, we have to start talking about this tragic cycle and vowing not to repeat it -- simply fighting the false accusations one chemical at a time will never enable defenders of science to keep up with the highly creative paranoiacs. If we want to live in a world where the immunization rates of entire countries are not plunged to dangerous lows by a handful of anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists (whether anti-autism activists in England or Muslims afraid of Westerners deliberately giving them AIDS in Nigeria)...if we want to live in a world where people do not die needlessly by the millions from malaria because the effective and safe pesticide DDT has been banned...if we want to live in a world where mothers are not frightened into removing salmon (or "inorganic" fruits and vegetables) from their children's dinner plates -- we need to let facts, not the failings of human psychology, guide science and public policy.
Facts Versus Fears is filled with detailed case studies, but it also has a unifying message about the ease with which panics get started. Awareness of that problem, as much as the results of any one empirical study or experiment, must become part of the storehouse of human knowledge.