Monday, September 24, 2007

Bias Against Humans

The other day someone accused me of being biased against peasants.

That’s not exactly true. I’m just biased against most humans.

Backtrack: I mentioned to someone about the meteor that fell in South America. A fireball was seen in a remote region of Peru. Later a smelly crater - apparently created by a meteor slamming into the earth - was discovered. Local villagers went to look at the impact site and many fell sick later, symptoms ranging from headaches to stomach pain. [link]

I said that a number of different answers could apply to the outbreak of illness, e.g., mass hysteria (or to use the more accurate term, collective delusion). The other person replied I was being prejudiced against the peasants who reported being sick.

I told her that it had nothing to do with the socio-economic background of the people. Collective delusion has been reported over the years, involving people from all social groups.

There’s the classic case of the Seattle windshield pitting epidemic [link] that occurred in Washington state back in 1954. All sorts of people were noticing pits in their windshields that they assumed had appeared out of nowhere. Speculation and rumor ran rampant. Did it have something to do with cosmic rays or nuclear testing? Or was it gangs of kids going around on a BB gun spree?

Not really. In most cases the pits were already there. They were created by prosaic incidents such as loose gravel on the road flying into the windshield. That’s why most marks were found on the front window, not the back one. No one bothered to notice them until the story hit the media. If the story had never been reported, people would have continued looking through the pits. (And, of course, the awareness generated by the media probably caused some juvenile delinquents to copycat the suspected crime.)

Citizens from all walks of life – educated professionals, skilled laborers, etc. – were caught up in the delusion. And don’t forget those authority figures – police, military, governmental – who added to the problem when they overlooked a simple explanation, thinking that something mysterious was going on. (It should be noted that an official from the Seattle police crime lab figured out the truth: most reports were caused by pubic hysteria with some vandalism thrown in.)

It doesn’t matter if peasants or college professors are involved in an unusual event. Human perception must always be considered as a factor.

I don’t know what is going on with that crater in Peru. I’m not into One Answer explains every event every time. It’s reasonable that among the theories to what caused the many reports of illness, collective delusion could be included. Maybe some people actually felt sick – for whatever reason – and others, concerned about the mysterious crater, thought they were also affected, minds over matter.

It doesn’t have to be the Andromeda Strain on the loose.

[Newspaper image from]

UPDATE: 9/27/07

It seems I've been vindicated. Collective delusion or public hysteria was probably a factor in the large number of reported illnesses:

While we are keeping score, only 30 were sickened, the researcher told National Geographic, not the hundreds as previously estimated. Presumably, the remainder had the “provoked psychosomatic ailments” that one scientist diagnosed. [link]

I should have made my position clearer earlier by stating that I didn't doubt people were getting sick or that the meteor had something to do with it. I was considering all the angles, including the possibility some of the reported illness being "in the mind," due to the unusual event.

Another angle was that the fireball sighting and the crater were unrelated. The meteor burned up or landed elsewhere and the crater was a volcanic mudhole that happened to form or be discovered at the same time. But according to the same linked article, meteorite material was found in the crater so there is a direct connection established. One theory was material in the ground, not the meteor, caused people to feel ill. This turns out to be the case:

Martine Hanlon told the BBC experts did not believe the meteor would make anybody sick, but they did think a chemical reaction caused by its contact with the ground could release toxins such as sulphur and arsenic.

Anyway, when it comes to puzzling incidents like this one, I think all the angles have to be entertained until more data comes in.


X. Dell said...

After reading the article, I wouldn't suppose one could rule out mass hysteria, but that wouldn't be my first guess. I don't know if my first guess would be the meteor, either. After all, the water could have been contaminated with something independent of the meteor's landing. Other polutants and food sources could account for the symptoms. We'll just have to follow this and see.

Ray said...

X. Dell:

I just added an update to this story and in it I stated that I should have made myself clearer regarding the event. I was considering mass hysteria as a factor but not as a blanket answer to all cases of illness. As you can see in the update, my speculation wasn't off base. Thirty people were indeed sick but apparently many others fell prey to hysteria/psychosomatic illness. And I won't deny that psychosomatic symptoms can be just as bad as physical ailments.

But if you're dealing with a possible deadly germ from space incident, you have to find out what is really going on. Even if there's no germ, overreaction by the public can cause harm.

Look at the Orson Welles radio broadcast of "War of the Worlds in 1938." No invasion from Mars but things did get a bit out of hand. But not as bad as what happened in 1949 in Quito, Ecuador when a radio station did the same thing. The realistic broadcast caused public upheaval, a mob burning down the radio station, killing 15 people.


X. Dell said...

If you got fifty minutes, you might get a kick out of this.

Doug said...

My dear Ray,
I'm not sure what makes you think this whole "being rational" thing is going to catch on here on the internet. It's crazy to believe anything other than being crazy will be paid attention to.

Or so the mass delusion I'm suffering has caused me to believe.