Reasons to be fearful? Top 10 panics of 2011

It was a turbulent year across the world, yet petty fearmongers still grabbed their share of the headlines.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

Panics are rather like Christmas TV: you get the odd new addition from time to time, but there are always plenty of familiar ‘favourites’. So it was in 2011: fearmongering and authoritarian over-reaction revolves, in the main, around a sturdy collection of stalwart issues. The past year has seen some absent friends – there was no major scare about influenza in 2011, for example – but our No.1 panic of the year is a hardy perennial that made a stunning comeback this year.

Here’s a countdown of the big scare stories that managed to squeeze their way into the news headlines in this tumultuous year.

No.10: It’s all gone tits up in France

The French government last week offered 30,000 women surgery to remove a brand of breast implant made by a company called PIP, which went ‘bust’ last year. The company’s products are, according to the French authorities, prone to leakage and were made using a form of silicone that is not deemed suitable for human use. However, the UK authorities have not extended the offer to the thousands of British women who also received the implants. For once, panic-happy British medics seem to be in the right: though a handful of cancer cases have been circumstantially linked to the implants, both the French and UK health authorities have said there is no increased risk of cancer.

So, on one side of the English Channel, the French government is spreading alarm in its efforts to play safe; on the other side of the water, lawyers are eagerly awaiting a big pay-day from blaming the UK government’s watchdog, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), for approving the implants in the first place. The big losers are the women who have now been made anxious about implants that are almost certainly safe.

No.9: It’s all over in the early years

In the UK, we’ve had a cradle-to-grave attitude to panics for a long time. There is no moment in life that the government hasn’t made the object of its attentions with one form of state intrusion or another. One period of life that has received special attention over the past 12 months or so has been the so-called ‘early years’, between birth and five years of age. MPs Frank Field and Graham Allen, along with think tank CentreForum, have been at the forefront of producing report after report on the need for government intervention in this period. It seems that if parents don’t interact with their children in particular ways for a minimum amount of time each day and feed them a brain-nourishing diet, their offspring will become dim-witted delinquents. This idea is based on some extremely dubious lessons learned from research on utterly neglected Romanian orphans and some greatly overstated lessons from neuroscience. It is hard to know which is worse: the dim view the authorities hold about parents or the deterministic notion that our life chances are settled before we even start school.

No.8: Shaken by fracking

The hot new idea in the world of energy is the extraction of natural gas from rocks using a process called hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’. This technique has already generated considerable new supplies of energy – and controversy – in the US and attempts are being made in the UK to determine if large supplies are available here, too. However, in April and May, exploratory work in the north-west of England resulted in two tiny earth tremors and work was suspended. All the signs are that such tremors are of no practical significance – indeed, barely detectable by human beings – particularly set against the potential benefits of having new, reliable domestic supplies of energy. But these so-called ‘earthquakes’ are already being used by green campaigners in a desperate attempt to justify cutting off the gas.

No.7: Another pisspoor drinks panic

If fracking is a whole new fear, there is no panic as long in the tooth as the dangers of alcohol. Of course, there are genuine problems associated with excessive boozing, but alcohol campaigners and medical experts – with the able assistance of the media – seem intoxicated by the idea of exaggerating the risks in order to foist their prohibitionist agenda on us all. This was best summed up by an edition of the BBC’s high-profile current-affairs show, Panorama in August. The programme was a one-sided portrayal of a nation drinking itself to death while the government stands idly by and allows it to happen. In truth, alcohol-related deaths occur in 13 in every 100,000 people (0.013 per cent) each year while UK alcohol taxes are already relatively high and the government is constantly looking at ways to nag us about our drinking. Rather than trying to find solutions to the problems of the minority of people with really serious drink problems, however, there are now advanced discussions across the UK on making alcohol even more expensive for everyone. Cheers!

No.6: An ill wind blows over New York City

An occupational hazard of living in the USA is the threat of hurricanes. Occasionally, these are devastating events, as the damage done to New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 testifies. However, the danger of over-reaction to such natural threats is becoming a real one, too. In August, another big storm – Irene – struck America’s east coast. It was a potentially significant problem, although by the time the storm hit, it was clear that it was a weaker weather system than first feared. But the decision by New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and state governor Andrew Cuomo essentially to close down society and evacuate hundreds of thousands of people was the exact opposite of how such events were dealt with in the past. Then, the aim was to keep society working. The ‘better safe than sorry’ approach adopted this time around is costly both financially and to society’s sense of its ability to cope in adversity.

No.5: Smoking out some dodgy statistics

Perhaps the most boneheaded attempt at stirring up fear and changing policy came from a briefing produced by the British Medical Association (BMA) in support of the idea that smoking in cars should be banned. Stringing together junkscience through a daisy chain of non sequiturs, and with an alarming absence of any interest in such ideas as privacy and autonomy, the BMA’s ‘dodgy dossier’ included the factoid that ‘the concentration of toxins in a smoke-filled vehicle is 23 times greater than that of a smoky bar, even under realistic ventilation conditions’. Even the BMA had to concede within hours that there was no evidence for this assertion, before suggesting the in-car figure was ’11 times’ the concentration for a smoky bar. However, this was only if the car in question was at a standstill with all the windows shut, and only for a short period of time. And these are ‘realistic ventilation conditions’? Then again, there is nothing realistic about the BMA’s policy-based evidence.

No.4: More flabby tales about obesity

The panic about obesity is the scare story that just keeps on giving. Never mind that obesity rates seem to be plateauing or even falling, or that life expectancies in the UK keep remorselessly rising: the Obesity Orwellians still want to ban advertising, slap taxes on the ‘wrong’ foods, inspect lunchboxes, lecture us endlessly and even snatch chubby children from their parents. In August, medical journal the Lancet produced a special issue on obesity, claiming that obesity rates were going to keep on rocketing upwards. This is all the fault, said the authors, of an ‘obesogenic’ environment created by wicked businesses desperately trying to push unhealthy food down our throats. In other words, researchers with their own weird agenda about the world – ‘corporations are evil and everyone but us is too stupid to realise this’ – are dressing up their prejudices as peer-reviewed research.

No.3: No more salad days for Spanish cucumbers

The biggest ‘whoops!’ of the year came in connection to a serious outbreak of food poisoning in Germany. There were 50 deaths caused by a form of E. coli infection in May and June. The German health authorities initially pointed the finger at salad vegetables imported from Spain, causing enormous losses for Spanish farmers. The accusation was withdrawn a few days later as it became increasingly clear that the immediate source of the outbreak was an organic beansprouts farm near Hamburg. The initial story fitted the prejudices of some food writers about our ‘broken’ food system; the real lesson was about the dangers of ill-informed speculation by those in authority.

No.2: Seven billion reasons to be fearful?

This year saw the world’s population break through the seven-billion mark. The fact that human societies around the world can now support three-and-a-half times as many people as in 1927 – when the two-billion mark was passed – should be an occasion for awe at the wondrous successes of mankind in the past century or so in terms of agriculture and medicine. Not only are there now seven billion humans, but they live longer and more comfortable lives on average than ever before. In reality, the moment was accompanied by handwringing and fear for the future. Instead of fretting about how we can possibly feed the world, or about how humanity’s ecological ‘footprint’ will stamp out every other species, we have seven billion reasons to believe that we can identify and solve the problems – both present and future – that confront us.

No.1: Fukushima: the nuclear disaster that wasn’t

In March, an earthquake and tsunami killed over 20,000 people in Japan. Yet perversely, there was only one story being discussed by the Western media: the crisis at a nuclear-power plant at Fukushima. Comparisons were made with the Chernobyl accident in 1986. An exclusion zone, in a radius of 20 kilometres from the plant, was created and evacuated. Within weeks, Germany had decided to phase out nuclear power altogether and Italy voted to reject its development. Yet the death toll from the radiation emitted from the Fukushima plant has been precisely zero. If anything, the incident is confirmation of the safety of nuclear power.

If ever there was a symbol of our fearful societies – where governments panic in the light of every setback and where debate is dominated by the navel-gazing fearmongering of minority interest groups – it is the blown-out remains of a nuclear-reactor building 140 miles north-east of Tokyo.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. His new book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, is published by Societas. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).) Read his blog here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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