afraid, be very afraid... no, don't
Academics are helping to spread scare stories in their bid
to exert influence and gain funds from states with fear-based agenda
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
published in the Times Higher Education Supplement, 16