Chomsky at the Bit

The new spin appeared in headlines on both side of the Atlantic: "Watch Out: Hysteria About," "Mass Hysteria Blamed in Coke Safety Scare," "It seems the problem was all in the mind." The cover line on the July 12 New Yorker took it to the extreme: "Malcolm Gladwell on the Belgian Coke myth." Of course, calling the scare a "myth" was a slight overstatement of the text, in which the author opined, "Whatever went on in Belgium . . . probably wasn't Coca-Cola poisoning. So what was it? Maybe nothing at all."

As Press Clips has previously reported, The New Yorkercan now be counted on to champion the infallibility of U.S. products such as electromagnetic radiation, breast implants, and psychoactive drugs. While rhetorical in nature, these arguments are variously presented under the rubric of editorial comment, reporting, or criticism.

In the July 12 piece, Gladwell's scientific analysis draws on two assertions: the low incidence of sulfides in the contaminated Coke, and the high incidence of psychosomatic reactions among the sick students. Without informing the reader as to the source or context of those facts, Gladwell turns the piece over to an interview with British psychiatrist Simon Wessely, an expert on mass hysteria who is filled with stories and eager to speculate.

"When this Coke business started I bet two of my friends a bottle of champagne each that I knew the cause," Wessely told The New Yorker. "It's quite simple. It's just mass hysteria. These things usually are."

Cheers! To be sure, the media exaggerated the Coke scare in Belgium, despite its irregular epidemiology. But was it really "nothing at all," or is it possible that, at the same time many of the poisoning reports turned out to be psychosomatic, the company whitewashed the cause of the legitimate complaints?

The crisis started June 8, when about 40 students in Bornem, Belgium, were hospitalized, complaining that drinking Coke had given them stomachaches, dizziness, and nausea. Soon, students in four other cities developed similar symptoms. In response, Coca-Cola hired three research institutes to test the product and a European toxicologist to analyze their results. After spending a reported eight hours with the evidence, sipping Coke, the toxicologist issued his conclusion: a fungus on the cans had caused an "off-odor," and a few sulfides in the product gave it an "off-taste," but the level of sulfides was so low, there was never any health risk at all. Around June 20, the company released the collected summaries, some of which suggested that many of the illnesses were psychosomatic. (The company says these reports are no longer available.)

Meanwhile, Belgian government epidemiologists interviewed the students, and on June 30 announced they had found not one, but two problems: In Bornem, the complaints were clearly caused by a toxic product, while in the other four cities, about half the complaints were psychosomatic.

That ambiguous premise was followed by an onslaught of spin. In a letter published in the July 3 issue of Lancet, four Belgian doctors advanced the diagnosis of mass hysteria. One of them, Dr. Benoit Nemery, told Press Clips they had formed their "hypothesis" based on "reported clinical features, the erratic epidemiological spread of the outbreak, the absence of a credible toxicological explanation . . . the published literature in the field, the apparent influence of the media reporting, and the ongoing dioxin crisis." Which sounds credible enough. He said he and his colleagues have no financial ties to the Coca-Cola Company.

Dr. Nemery and others are calling for further inquiry, including the company, which wants to see the medical reports, and the Belgian government, which wants to conduct its own tests on the product. But stonewalling has turned to stalemate. Even The Wall Street Journalremains skeptical, noting that the company has yet to release its test data or to make its hired guns available for interviews.

But Gladwell considers the case closed. He said he would not trust the Belgian government to run toxicology tests because, in the wake of the dioxin scare, it's "hard to get an objective reading from them." (So, Coke's objectivity was never in doubt?) He believes the country owes Coca-Cola an apology, and likens the controversy to the Halcion scare in the early 1990s, when consumers reported widespread adverse reactions to the popular sleeping pill. "At the end of the day, there was nothing wrong with Halcion," only the manner in which it was prescribed.

Thus, at the hands of a master, the conventional wisdom is born.

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