Be afraid, be very afraid... no, don't

September 16, 2005

Frank Furedi warns that academics are helping spread scare stories in their bid to exert influence and gain funds from states with fear-based agendas

Academics often criticise politicians for indulging in the politics of fear. Public figures along with the media are frequently condemned for their alarmist messages and for initiating moral panic.

Unfortunately, the promotion of fear is not an activity over which the political class has a monopoly. Fear has become the common currency of claims-making in general. Health activists, environmentalists, business interests, pressure groups and lobbyists are no less involved in using scare stories to pursue their agendas than politicians who grab public attention by inciting anxieties about law and order or immigration.

Advocacy groups often claim that we are not scared enough, that we should be more "aware" of the dangers we face.

Academe, too, is thoroughly implicated in communicating such messages. The involvement of higher education in the fear market should come as no surprise. Politicians, moral crusaders and advocates continually rely on academic research to lend legitimacy to their causes. Funding bodies often have a clearly defined agenda and use research that "raises awareness" and impacts on the public imagination to give that agenda credibility. Invariably, raising awareness serves as a euphemism for inciting alarm about a putative problem facing society.

Take a press release published last month by Victim Support. It announces a £100,000 "major new research project" whose objective will be to "look at the growing phenomenon of hate crime and the extent to which it is affecting British society and individual victims". The words used to promote press interest in this research indicate that its aim is not to discover something as yet unknown but to raise awareness of the "growing phenomenon of hate crime". Whether hate crime is indeed a growing phenomenon is not in question. It is an assumption that does not demand any empirical evidence. The way the project is framed indicates that Victim Support already knows what it will discover. It simply requires further "research" to lend its crusade intellectual authority.

Anyone familiar with this type of research can predict its outcome. It is unlikely to show that hate crime is well contained and that its impact on communities is negligible. On the contrary, it will demonstrate that there is an "epidemic" whose impact is little short of devastating. Indeed, this point was made by a Victim Support spokesman at the launch of the project.

According to Peter Dunn, hate crime has had a "wider impact than was generally realised" and it has "a destructive effect, not just on victims but on whole communities". Advocacy research of this nature can play a powerful role in promoting the panic generated in the media. Headlines such as "Hate crimes soar after bombings" are no less driven by the imperative of fearmongering than past attempts to promote anxieties about muggers or paedophiles.

In a study on the social construction of the US "hate-crime epidemic", James Jacobs, director of the New York University Center for Research in Crime and Justice, and co-author Jessica Henry, point out that "proponents of social problems, believing that the more serious their problem, the more serious their demand for action, have appropriated the term 'epidemic' to mobilise public attention and government resources". Alarmist research has made a crucial contribution to the recent invention of "hate crime". And once a new crime has been invented and given a name, it is only a matter of time before it will appear to be on the rise.

It does not take high-powered academic research to create fears about crime. I still recall back in July 1998 reading a headline in The Observer that stated "One in five women has been stalked". The impression conveyed by this article was that the problem had become a normal experience and that women in Britain were in grave danger. Its message was that they were quite entitled to fear this hitherto unpublicised threat. On closer inspection it became evident that the claim that one in five women has been stalked was based on the research of three postgraduate students at Leicester University. Their figure was constructed from a self-selecting sample of 80. The transformation of this small group into a claim about national patterns appears to be practice regularly carried out by fear entrepreneurs. Indeed, experience shows that the smaller and less representative a study is, the more it can be used to validate one's prejudice and the greater its impact in the fear market.

A paradigmatic example of fear entrepreneurship was the research paper published in The Lancet by gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield and his collaborators that suggested a link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and autism. This research, like the stalking study, was based on a very small sample. Moreover as the London GP Mike Fitzpatrick notes in his critique MMR and Autism , it did not provide any evidence of a causal connection between the vaccine and the condition. "They simply reported the conviction of the parents of eight of the 12 children in the study that there was a link between MMR and the onset of behavioural problems," Fitzpatrick writes. That such an insubstantial and speculative study based on a tiny sample could have such an alarmist impact on the behaviour of parents illustrates the power to scare. For fear entrepreneurs, research is an invaluable resource for effectively transmitting the message.

In the post-9/11 environment, academic fear entrepreneurs appear to be active across the ideological divide. Arizona State University sociologist David Altheide is concerned about the trend of academics chasing money for research related to "homeland security". In his book Creating Fear , he remarks that the fear market has "spawned an extensive cottage industry that promotes new fears and an 'army of social scientists and other intellectuals' who serve as claims-makers, marketing their target issues and agendas in various forums, such as self-help books, courses, research funds and expertise". The trend outlined by Altheide constitutes a crucial dimension of claims-making. The promotion of fear represents a claim on resources. Many disciplines are tempted to inflate problems and create a climate of fear around issues to expand the demand for their professional services. Often claims made about a new threat or risk are a roundabout way of requesting research money.

So when the British Geological Society demands that the danger of super-eruptions be recognised by officialdom, it also pleads for "investment in research to improve our understanding of regional and global impacts of major volcanic eruptions". To justify its demand for investment in research, the BGS issued a report warning about the danger of "super-eruptions" from "super-volcanoes". It notes that the "effects of a medium-scale super-eruption would be similar to those predicted for the impact of a 1km-diameter asteroid with the Earth", and adds that such an eruption is "five to ten times more likely to occur within the next few thousand years than an impact". There is no need to question the integrity and professionalism of this authoritative institution. But when it releases a report that reads like a script for a Hollywood disaster movie, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that its alarmist tone may be related to its professional interest.

It would be wrong to present the involvement of academics in fear promotion as an enterprise that is driven simply by professional or material interests. It is frequently cause-driven. Birkbeck, University of London historian Joanna Bourke's Fear: A Cultural History provides plenty of examples where a crusading spirit motivates alarmist research. She notes the cultivation of panic over child abuse was carried out through surveys that sought to inflate the prevalence of the problem. Her book reminds us of the now discredited research published by The Lancet in 1986 claiming that anal rape could be detected through reflex and dilation. The use of this technique led to a panic about child abuse in Cleveland the following year. Many parents became afraid of taking their children to a hospital in case their children were taken away. To this day prejudice that masquerades as research continues to promote anxieties in the domain of family violence.

Many academics genuinely believe that promoting anxiety and fear about a problem is a form of public service. Michael Walzer, co-editor of the periodical Dissent , believes that "fear has to be our starting point, even though it is a passion most easily exploited by the Right". Others believe that it is legitimate to exaggerate research findings or to make small mistakes in the interest of a greater truth. The defence of the "good lie" or the "greater truth" is invoked when inflated stories are peddled to raise awareness of an issue. For example, a study of urban legends about human sexuality claims that some myths can be put to good effect.

In their book Did You Hear About The Girl Who..?, Mariamne Whatley, professor of curriculum and instruction and women's studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Elissa Henken, professor of English at the University of Georgia, note that although urban legends about kidney theft have not been verified, the story "may be useful in other ways". "The reminder that drinking [can] lead to a state in which the person is extremely vulnerable to sexual assault and to robbery, even if not to kidney surgery, is a useful one", they state. They also adopt a positive orientation towards urban legends about drunken college students having sex with their siblings. They observe that since "college women are often drunk when sexually assaulted" the story may be "an effective warning". From this perspective, using an urban legend to promote safe drinking is seen as a responsible way of manipulating people's anxieties.

Appeals to a "greater truth" are also prominent in debates about the environment. It is claimed that problems such as global warming are so important that a campaign of fear is justified. Stephen Schneider, a climatologist at Stanford University, justified the distortion of evidence in the following terms: "Because we are not just scientists but human beings... as well... we need to capture the public imagination." He added that "we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified statements and make little mention of any doubts that we have". With such attitudes widely circulated, is it any wonder that Hurricane Katrina is widely perceived as punishment for humanity's environmental sins? That advocacy research translates so well into the language of divine retribution indicates how the crusading spirit can destroy the integrity of academic enterprise.

Of course academics are entitled to adopt a partisan role. They also have a right to raise concerns about the problems that capture their imagination.

We are also normal human beings who can get carried away with the findings of our research. Academic passion and commitment make a significant contribution to society. But however noble the ideals that motivate it, the promotion of fear displaces the quest for the truth. Instead of clarifying issues it contributes to a dishonest polarisation of attitudes that invariably closes down discussion. Fear entrepreneurship on campuses, like elsewhere, serves only the interest of intolerance and prejudice.

Frank Furedi is a professor of sociology at Kent University. Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right is published this week by Continuum Press, Pounds 12.99.

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