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4.0 out of 5 stars Panic attacks: the making of modern witch-hunts, 12 Jun 2009
Roy Everett - See all my reviews
This review is from: Panic Attacks (Paperback)
We have all heard of the famous mass panic caused by the 1936 CBS broadcast in the USA of a radio adaptation of HG Wells' The War of the Worlds, and the incident (including Orson Welles' comments) is outlined as one chapter of this book, which begins by setting out in chronological order a selection of other incidents of hoaxes, mass panic and delusions in the past few centuries. The incidents cover both hoaxes (where an individual sets out to temporarily to fool the public knowing the story not to be true) and mass hysteria (where there is no initial intent to spread false alarm); at the end of the book you realise that the effects are similar even if the motives are different. However, these historical delusions are by way as preamble for the author brings up to date with arguably one of the most devastating and long-lasting mass delusions to have spread around the USA and later the UK in the twentieth-century: the belief that children's care homes across both countries have been penetrated by supposed `paedophile rings', practitioners of `ritual satanic child abuse', that a huge fraction of the child population are the `victims' of family incest and sexual abuse, and that this inevitably results in `psychological scars' in adulthood which can be healed only by years of therapy and litigation.
As you read this book, your mind will gradually change as you are reminded of past incidents and discover ones that you never knew of: the 1630 Milan phantom terrorist poisoning, the hoax reporting of Locke's animals and humanoids on the moon, the 1906 Halley's Comet poisoning, the 1992 UK BBC Ghostwatch scare, the UK child abuse panic attacks (such as Orkney, Shieldfield, Nottingham, the Western Isles, Jersey and Plymouth), and the post-9/11 terrorism paranoia. You will start out mocking the gullibility or tendency to hysteria of past generations and feeling smug that nobody would fall this sort of thing again. However, as the events move from mediaeval times to the present, especially if they are within the timespan of your own memory and within your own country, the smugness gives ways to unease as the authors point out that you, too, fell under the same delusion or for the same hoax, even if for only a short time. By the end of the book you may well be seriously questioning whether what you hold to be a well-known fact is delusional.
Finally you will reach the New American Witchhunt panic which swept across the USA in the eighties (Rush-Herman-MacKinnon), and diffused into the UK in the nineties (Rantzen-Campbell-Dawson-Waterhouse-Nelson). Indeed in some influential quarters it was still regarded as fact well into the 2000s, despite being repeatedly demonstrated to be the product of the interaction of unsupportable psychiatric theories, religious anti-satanic revivalism, a smattering of feminist political agenda, media hype, compensation-seeking and an amazing credulousness on the part of the public, policiticians, doctors and social workers.
The authors are thorough in setting these stories in the context of the age, so that we can begin to understand the collective consciousness that provided the fertile ground which nurtured these delusions at the time but seems bizarre nowadays. A recurring theme they put across is first that the media are to blame by sacrificing diligence and objectivity in the interests of increasing programme ratings, celebrity status, newspaper advertisment revenue and psychotherapist pension funds, and secondly that they are reckless in perpetrating deliberate hoaxes on the gullible public. A secondary balancing theme is that it does no harm in the long term to society to have occasional mass hoaxes and mass delusions to remind us of how gullible the human race is to irrational behaviour in spite of --- or perhaps because of ---- the rapidly increasing speed at which we can spread information --- or disinformation.

The book would benefit by the addition of a final chapter about Climategate in its next edition.
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Panic Attacks
Panic Attacks by Robert Bartholomew (Paperback - 19 Aug 2004)
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