Home > science, things could be so much better > Mad Scientist Syndrome – a significant and increasing burden on society

Mad Scientist Syndrome – a significant and increasing burden on society


Science – in of itself – is pretty straight forward. You know the drill: review all of the knowledge on your chosen topic currently available; form a hypothesis which if verified by experimentation will extend that knowledge; perform said experimentation; discard hypothesis if results are not in agreement, otherwise publish hypothesis in Nature; repeat.

Obviously, medicine is in a number of ways a lot ‘messier’ than science, but exactly the same principles should apply. Epidemiology has no such excuse, since real people here are just numbers in a spreadsheet to be summed and averaged at will of the investigator. So, why do we continue to go through scare after hysterical scare about health matters – surely we should all be tired of it by now?

Cited on Dick Puddlecote’s blog, I came across an excellent article by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian with a title which perfectly summarizes the problem: Swine flu was as elusive as WMD. The real threat is mad scientist syndrome.

“The BBC was intoning nightly statistics on what “could” happen as “the deadly virus” took hold. The chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, bandied about any figure that came into his head, settling on “65,000 could die”, peaking at 350 corpses a day.

Donaldson knew exactly what would happen. The media went berserk. The World Health Organisation declared a “six-level alert” so as to “prepare the world for an imminent attack”. The happy-go-lucky virologist, John Oxford, said half the population could be infected, and that his lowest estimate was 6,000 dead.

The “Andromeda strain” was stalking the earth, and its first victims were clearly scientists. Drugs were frantically stockpiled and key workers identified as vital to be saved for humanity’s future. Cobra alerted the army. Morgues were told to stand ready. The Green party blamed intensive pig farming. The Guardian listed “the top 10 plague books”.

If anyone dared question this drivel, they were dismissed by Donaldson as “extremists”. When people started reporting swine flu to be even milder than ordinary flu, he accused them of complacency and told them to “wait for next winter”. He was already buying 32m masks and spending more than £1bn on Tamiflu and vaccines. Surgeries refused entry to those with flu symptoms, referring them to a government “hotline” where prescription drugs were ordered to be made available without examination or doctor’s note. Who knows how many died of undiagnosed illness as a result? Lines were instantly jammed. It was pure, systematic government-induced panic – in which I accept that the media played its joyful part.”

Jenkins go on to make the point that we have been here before: remember SARS? What about BSE/CJD? To this list I would add AGW, although the list could go on and on. Every time it’s the same: media quotes ‘scientists’ claiming that there is yet another major catastrophe just around the corner which, surprise surprise, means that we all have (a) give up more personal freedoms to the state, (b) pay more taxes, (c) stop enjoying something which we enjoy doing/taking that has been perfectly legal up till now, (d) live in a state of near-permanent anxiety or (e) any combination of the above.

Jenkins rounds off his article with the sad consequence of the ongoing farce of ‘crying wolf’ from our politicians and leading scientists/doctors:

“This is why people are ever more sceptical of scientists. Why should they believe what “experts” say when they can be so wrong and with such impunity? Weapons of mass destruction, lethal viruses, nuclear radiation, global warming … why should we believe a word of it? And it is a short step from don’t believe to don’t care.”

 It’s not meant to be like this…

  1. 2010-10-01 at 11:15

    >I disagree, Manu. First of all, swine flu is an unfortunate example. Viruses have a nasty habit of mutating and coming back again and again, only more virulent (great word) until the round that's truly lethal. Trying to guess which round is the lethal one typically fails precisely because its interaction with residual cross-immunity in the general population is impossible to guess with any precision. Only in retrospect did we realize that the core strain of HIV had been around for generations before we recognized it. Attacking or mocking scientists for raising the alarm on the swine flu epidemic is as stupid as the people in Indonesia who gathered on the beaches to stare at the suddenly exposed sea bottom immediately before the tsunami. Anyone with a passing exposure to the second book of the Old Testament would have taken the cue, and gotten the hell out of there.Failure of a new, highly mutated (bird/swine/human) virus to be as destructive as predicted should be a warning to get to the higher ground of even more aggressive preparations for the next wave. Otherwise, we'll be back to where we were in 1984, trying to blame our lack of preparation for the next strain on some intellectually bankrupt idea like it was caused by a gay TWA flight attendant who brought it to America from Africa.If you want an example of totally alarmist science – if you can call it science – attack the rare birds in the EU/UK research community who side with the farm lobby against GMO crops. Not a single shred of evidence that GMO agriculture has any real risks, but like our Tea Party in America, they initiate a frenzy with false "facts" that result in policy and fear vastly more destructive than the swine flu threat where we have plenty of tragic example and sound virology to explain them.Mel Snyder

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