Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Mass hysteria?

Over a thousand people have become sick while working in Cambodian shoe and garment factories. Stricken employees report dizziness, nausea, exhaustion, and shortness of breath; hundreds have required brief hospitalization.

With no concrete explanation for the symptoms, a few people with an interest in such things have leapt to the obvious conclusion:
It's been almost 50 years since girls at a boarding school in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) were struck by an illness whose symptoms — fainting, nausea and helpless laughter — soon spread to other communities. Or consider the Pok√©mon contagion in 1997, when 12,000 Japanese children experienced fits, nausea and shortness of breath after watching a television cartoon. Sufferers of World Trade Center syndrome, meanwhile, blamed proximity to Ground Zero for coughs and other respiratory problems long after airborne contaminants posed any health threat.

All these are examples of mass hysteria, a bizarre yet surprisingly common phenomenon that is increasingly recognized as a significant health and social problem. For centuries it has crossed cultures and religions, taking on different forms to keep pace with popular obsessions and fears. In our post-9/11 world, it thrives on the anxiety caused by terrorist attacks, nuclear radiation and environmental gloom.

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It's an interesting theory. Far more interesting than the symptoms turning out to be real. Time won't sell any magazines with headlines like "Toxins are Toxic" or "Flu Virus Gives People Flu."

The problem is, hysteria doesn't have any real evidence behind it. Failing to discover a virus or toxin that's making people sick doesn't mean the virus or toxin doesn't exist. It may simply mean we haven't found it yet. Think how many people died of AIDS before anybody knew what HIV was.

Is hysteria a real thing? Do we have any way of finding out?

Here's my challenge to any researcher who backs the mass hysteria hypothesis:

Test it.

This should be relatively easy if you have access to facilities, grant money, and cheap graduate student labor. Bring subjects into an experiment that's ostensibly about something else. While everyone is answering survey questions on an unrelated topic, have numerous confederates (people pretending to be subjects, but who are in on the experiment) fake some kind of medical issue. Seizures, maybe, or fainting.

Then see if the one real subject in the room starts feeling and mimicking the "symptoms."

It took me five seconds to think up this experiment, and I'm not even a psychologist.

I hope some enterprising mental health professional takes up the challenge, because this isn't just a matter of scientific curiosity. Ask people with myalgic encephalomyelitis. When there was an outbreak of the disease in Incline Village, Nevada, back in 1984, the CDC declared it to be mass hysteria despite evidence of neurological problems. 27 years later, the victims haven't recovered ... and most of the scant funding that exists for their disease goes to psychological research.

If patients have to prove that their illnesses are real, then the scientific community should have to prove that mass hysteria is real. It's only fair.


DeppityBob said...

I think there is such a thing as mass hysteria, but I don't think it applies to ME/CFS. The numbers are way too low for "mass" hysteria. I'm sure it happens--I was relating an illness story to Kyle, who asked if I had read an article about it before feeling symptoms (I hadn't). Mass hysteria is like intelligent design in that scientists who demand an answer but can't come up with something falsifiable invent a plausible, yet untestable, answer. It puts a period at the beginning of what should be an entire line of inquiry.

cinderkeys said...

If any scientists test the theory in the manner I've described, and their methodology is good, and the results come up positive, I'll take them seriously. Until then, the burden of proof is on them.