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How Politicians and Scientists Have a Vested Interest in Spreading Panic

Stealth bombs? Killer plagues? There's money to be made in fearmongering.

Photo Credit: luchschen


Now it is planes falling from the sky. On Tuesday it was " superbugs threaten return to dark ages". At the weekend it was internet thought-control menace. Last week we had killer fruit juice. The edifice of fear knows no limits, its apparatchiks know no shame.

Had the Guardian leaked yesterday's story from the US about a "stealth bomb alert" at world airports, it would have been accused of traitorously warning terrorists that the authorities were on to their new weapons. Unnamed officials were asserting "a global threat environment" related to plastic explosives hidden in body cavities and tested in Syria. Details of the cells responsible were traced by the BBC to the rightwing American Cato Institute and David Cameron's office confirmed "there are terror organisations that seek to do the UK, its citizens and its allies harm". I am sure – but why tell us now?

A day earlier Cameron was double-barrelling. He held a press conference to smother his European presidency debacle with antibiotics. Banging the drum for Britain, he trumped Jean-Claude Juncker with superbugs posing "a very serious threat. He spoke of "tens of thousands dying", of "unbelievable scenarios" and of a time when "minor scratches could become fatal if nothing is done" – that is, done by him. He said Britain had saved "billions of lives round the world" by inventing penicillin, and would do so again." He appointed a committee.

How to respond to this daily output from the fear factory? At the drop of a headline, prime ministers disappear into "Cobra bunkers", to return telling of blood-curdling threats. These are always backed by "hard evidence" from the government's two most trusty allies, the security-industrial complex and big science and/or big pharma.

There is no better maxim in politics than that of Watergate's Deep Throat, offered in the dark of a Washington car park. "Follow the money: just follow the money." Whenever I see a scare story, read a letter to the press or hear an interview, I crave to know where is the money. I am rarely told.

In the case of security scares – from "Xmas shopping bomb threat" to "Olympics missile menace" – we can see the whites of their eyes. Terrorism is the bread and butter of the post-cold war army, police, the intelligence services and their friends in the security industry. I am told that airlines and their passengers are getting seriously fed up with idiot-scanning queues. They need putting in their place. Hence the "new terror threat to air travel". If the threat really is newly detected, the last thing to do is reveal it.

Cameron's deployment of a health scare is more dangerous. Many people still believe in doctors and scientists, and associate them with reason and probability, not emotion and alarmism. When they say antibiotic resistance is growing, I am inclined to believe them, and agree we should keep medical research abreast of the risk.

Yet what is the risk? Who knows, when they use emotive words such as threat, danger, menace, thousands dead. These are used in conjunction with what is virtually a new grammatical tense, the "future conditional horrific". Unless the subject is given a large sum of money then global warming or a storm, a bomb or a pandemic "may … might … could kill perhaps, possibly millions".

No one deploys this construction to its own gain so freely as big science, be it through professional bodies, research institutes, quangos or pharmaceutical companies. They profess to be models of intellectual rectitude, but we all have to make a living.

After following the pandemic sagas of recent years I remain amazed at the lack of any postmortem, any "truth and reconciliation" by big science to so many false, and immensely costly, predictions. In 2001 scientists warned of "up to 136,000 deaths" from mad cow disease. They did not occur. In 2005, the chief medical officer, Liam Donaldson, warned that bird flu "could lead" to 50,000, even 750,000 deaths. Bird flu is estimated to have infected just 550 people worldwide.

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