Friday, January 31, 2003

About gullibility

The story from Australia just below reminded me of the several years I spent examining conspiracy theories by way of doing background research for In God's Country. One of the things that makes this work so interesting is exploring the mechanism whereby people -- educated, seemingly well grounded, thoroughly decent and mostly intelligent people -- come to believe in demonstrable nonsense. [I'll be talking about this in greater detail in the series on fascism.] Sometimes it can happen on a large scale, as it is at Coogee Beach.

One of my favorite research finds is an essay by Nahum Z. Medalia and Otto N. Larsen from American Sociological Review in its April 1958 edition. It has the unwieldy academic title, "Diffusion and Belief in a Collective Delusion: The Seattle Windshield Pitting Epidemic," but it makes in part for an amusing read:

Beginning March 23, 1954, Seattle newspapers carried intermittent reports of damage to automobile windshields in a city 80 miles to the north. Police suspected vandalism but were unable to gather proof. On the morning of April 14, newspapers reported windshield damage in a town about 65 miles from Seattle; that afternoon cars in a naval air station only 45 miles from the northern limits of the city were "peppered." On the same evening the first strike occurred in Seattle itself; between April 14 and 15, 242 persons telephoned the Seattle Police Department reporting damage to over 3,000 automobiles. Many of these calls came from parking lots, service stations, and so on. Most commonly, the damage reported to windshields consisted of pitting marks that grew into bubbles in the glass of about the size of a thumbnail.

On the evening of the 15th, the Mayor of Seattle declared the damage was no longer a police matter and made an emergency appeal to the Governor and to President Eisenhower for help. Many persons covered their windshield with floor mats or newspaper; others simply kept their automobiles garaged. Conjecture as to cause ranged from meteoric dust to sandflea eggs hatching in the glass, but centered on possible radioactive fallout from the Eniwetok H-bomb tests conducted earlier that year. In support of this view many drivers claimed that they found tiny, metallic-looking particles about the size of a pinhead on their car windows. Newspapers also mentioned the possibility that the concern with pitting might have sprung largely from mass hysteria: people looking at their windshields for the first time, instead of through them. On April 16, calls to police dropped from 242 to 46; 10 persons called the police on the 17th, but from the 18th on no more calls were received about the subject of the pitting.

... On June10th, the University of Washington Environmental Research Laboratory, assigned by the Governor in April to investigate the pitting, issued its report. This report, prepared by a chemist, stated that there was no evidence of pitting that could not be explained by ordinary road damage: "The number of pits increases with the age and mileage of the car." The puzzling little black particles found on many automobiles turned out under analysis to be cenospheres, formed by improper combustion of bituminous coal. According to the report, "Cenospheres are not new to Seattle. They have been observed in years past and they can be observed in cars in downtown Seattle today. They are incapable of pitting windshields by impact or otherwise." In its key passage the report concludes:

"Although there is a considerable body of testimony from reputable witnesses to the effect that windshields were pitted by some mysterious cause in the space of a few minutes or hours during the 'epidemic,' it has
not been possible to substantiate a single one of these statements by scientific observation. Actually, the observed facts tend to contradict such statements.

People bend reality to make it fit their fears. This was the same dynamic that was at work in Seattle 12 years before, when hysteria about Japanese-Americans swept the coast in the wake of Pearl Harbor, and led ultimately to internment camps.

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