If you're a scientist working for private industry, it helps to invent something useful. But if you're a scientist trying to get funding from the government, you're better off telling the world how horrible things are.
And once people are scared, they pay attention. They may even demand the government give you more money to solve the problem.
Usually the horrible disaster never happens. Chaos from Y2K. An epidemic of deaths from SARS or mad cow disease. Cancer from Three Mile Island. We quickly forget. We move on to the next warnings.
This is the story of a looming disaster that never became an actual disaster -- because the science that led to the terror was never sound science at all.
In the late '80s and early '90s, the media used a few small studies of babies born of cocaine-addicted mothers to convince America that thousands of children were permanently damaged. Dr. Ira Chasnoff, of the National Association for Perinatal Addiction Research and Education, after studying only 23 babies, reported that mothers were delivering babies who "could not respond to them emotionally." He told People magazine the infants "couldn't respond to a human voice." This led to a frenzy of stories on "crack babies." Many people still believe "crack babies" are handicapped for life.
It isn't true. It turns out there is no proof that crack babies do worse than anyone else. In fact, they do better, on average, than children born of alcoholic mothers.
Nevertheless, Rolling Stone told us these children were "like no others." They were "automatons," "oblivious to affection," and "the damage doesn't go away." Education magazines warned that soon these children would reach the schools, which would be unable to control them.
It was terrifying news -- thousands of children likely to grow up wild and dangerous.
It wasn't until several years later that the myth started to unravel. Emory University psychologist Claire Coles had her graduate students spend hours observing "crack babies" and normal babies. Her students did not see what Chasnoff had seen. In fact, they couldn't tell which children had been exposed to cocaine.
Coles told me, "They couldn't really tell whether they were looking at the effects of cocaine or the effects of alcohol or the effects of poverty, and everybody ignored that. They just said, 'This is cocaine.'"
How could that happen? "Well," Coles said," they wanted to get published." It is easier to get your work published, and, more importantly, funded by the taxpayers, if you find something dramatic.
Coles said, "If you go to an agency and say, 'I don't think there's a big problem here, I'd like you to give me $1 million,' the probability for getting the money is very low."
It's also easier to get funded if what you conclude feeds someone's political agenda. The idea of crack babies was perfect. It met the needs of liberals and conservatives. Conservatives wanted to demonize cocaine users. Liberals wanted more money for social programs.
When Dr. Coles dared suggest that crack babies were not permanently damaged, she was attacked by politicians, called incompetent, accused of making data up or advocating drug abuse. Dr. Chasnoff, who helped start the scare, did not receive similar criticism. After his scare was shown to have been exaggerated, he denied that he had pushed any agenda: "Neither I nor any of my colleagues were ever pushing junk science. Is everything we thought then -- do we know that every bit of that is correct now? Well, obviously, the answer is no. But that's the process of science."
He said People and Rolling Stone exaggerated the implications of his research -- took him "out of context." Perhaps. Journalists hype risks constantly. But Chasnoff didn't ask the magazines to correct or clarify their reports. So people continued expecting the crack babies -- the real human beings who had to grow up with that label -- to be walking disasters.
Next time you hear dire "scientific" warnings -- and demands to surrender more control over your life to the government in order to avert disaster -- remember the crack babies. The only disaster coming may be an activist-induced panic.
Think about that when you hear dire predictions about global warming or avian flu.