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04 November 2010

Think of the Children

From Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point:

The best analogy to this kind of epidemic is the outbreak of food poisoning that swept through several public schools in Belgium in the summer of 1999. It started when forty-two children in the Belgian town of Bornem became mysteriously ill after drinking Coca-Cola and had to be hospitalized. Two days later, eight more schoolchildren fell sick in Brugge, followed by thirteen in Harelbeke the next day and forty-two in in Lochristi three days after that - and on and on in a widening spiral that, in the end, sent more than one hundred children to the hospital complaining of nausea, dizziness, and headaches, and forced Coca-Cola into the biggest product recall in its 113-year history. Upon investigation, an apparent culprit was found. In the Coca-Cola plant in Antwerp, contaminated carbon dioxide had been used to carbonate a batch of the soda's famous syrup. But then the case got tricky: upon examination, the contaminants in the carbon dioxide were found to be sulfur compounds present at between five and seventeen parts per billion. These sulfides can cause illness, however only at levels a thousand times greater than that. At seventeen parts per billion, they simply impart a bad smell - like rotten eggs - which means that Belgium should have experienced nothing more than a minor epidemic of nose wrinkling. More puzzling is the fact that, in four of the five schools where the bad Coke allegedly caused illness, half the kids who got sick hadn't actually drunk any Coke that day. Whatever went on in Belgium, in other words, probably wasn't Coca-Cola poisoning. So what was it? It was a kind of mass hysteria, a phenomenon that is not at all uncommon among school-children. Simon Wessely, a psychiatrist at King's College of Medicine in London, has been collecting reports of this kind of hysteria for about ten years and now has hundreds of examples, dating back as far as 1787, when millworkers in Lancashire suddenly took ill after they became persuaded that they were being poisoned by tainted cotton. According to Wessely, almost all cases fit a pattern. Someone sees a neighbor fall ill and becomes convinced that he is being contaminated by some unseen evil - in the past it was demons and spirits; nowadays it tends to be toxins and gases - and his fear makes him anxious. His anxiety makes him dizzy and nauseated. He begins to hyperventilate. He collapses. Other people hear the same allegation, see the "victim" faint, and they begin to get anxious themselves. They feel nauseated. They hyperventilate. They collapse, and before you know it everyone in the room is hyperventilating and collapsing. These symptoms, Wessely stresses, are perfectly genuine. It's just that they are manifestations of a threat that is wholly imagined. "This kind of thing is extremely common," he says, "and it's almost normal. It doesn't mean that you are mentally ill or crazy." What happened in Belgium was a fairly typical example of a more standard form of contagious anxiety, possibly heightened by the recent Belgian scare over dioxin-contaminated animal feed. The students' alarm over the rotten-egg odor of their Cokes, for example, is straight out of the hysteria textbooks. "The vast majority of these events are triggered by some abnormal but benign smell," Wessely said. "Something strange, like a weird odor coming from the air conditioning." The fact that the outbreaks occurred in schools is also typical of hysteria cases. "The classic ones always involve schoolchildren," Wessely continued. "There is a famous British case involving hundreds of schoolgirls who collapsed during a 1980 Nottinghamshire jazz festival. They blamed it on a local farmer spraying pesticides." There have been more than a hundred and fifteen documented hysteria cases in schools over the past three hundred years."

Nowadays, of course, it's not demons and spirits or toxins and gases, it's radio waves.

link -- [idiocy]