]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]       SCARE OF THE WEEK       [[[[[[[[[[[[[[[[
         By Daniel E. Koshland, Jr., editor of SCIENCE
             From Science 244, p. 9 (7 April 1989)

            [Kindly uploaded by Freeman 10602PANC]

   The fable of the  boy who cried wolf  is as pertinent today as
it was in Aesop's  time.  We are being  subjected to the scare of
the week.   Some of  these scares  may reflect  real dangers, but
they are becoming  obscured  by a  cacophony  of  false or  exag-
gerated  ones.   Two that hit the headlines  recently  illustrate 
quite different problems.
   The first was a highly  publicized announcement by the Natural
Resources Defense  Council that  Alar-treated apples  would cause
thousands  of  cancer  deaths  to  children.   The  reaction  was
predictable: school districts quickly canceled apple distribution
and the fruit piled  up on grocery shelves.   The facts came more
slowly.  Only 5% of apples are  treated with Alar, and in that 5%
the  levels of  Alar  are well  below  conservative Environmental
Protection Agency tolerances.  Even in  a worst case scenario the
probability of cancer among the  affected group would change from
25% to 25.025%.   When health commissioners  announced the facts,
the country returned to normal and apples were returned to school
districts  and grocery  shelves.  However,  serious psychological
and financial damage was sustained.
   It  is  time to  recognize  that public  interest  groups have
conflicts of  interest, just as  do business  groups, even though
their public positions  are orthogonal.  Businesses  prefer to be
out of the  limelight; public interest  groups like to  be in it.
Because they are selling  products in the marketplace, businesses
downplay discussions of hazards.   Because public interest groups
acquire members by publicity, they emphasize hazards.  Each group
convinces itself that its worthy goals justify oversimplification
to  an  ``ignorant''  public.    Businesses  today  have  product
liability and can  incur legal damages if  they place a dangerous
product  on  the market.   Public  interest groups  have  no such
constraints at the moment; it  may be time to develop appropriate
ones so that  victims of irresponsible  information have redress.
Public  interest groups,  as  well as  apple  growers, contribute
importantly to our society, but both groups should be accountable
for their acts.
   The second  scare was  the banning  of Chilean  grapes after a
terrorist threat and the finding of traces of a little cyanide in
two  grapes.  On  the surface  it resembles  the Alar  scare: the
amounts of cyanide were found to be negligible, so the job losses
and the  ensuing ill  will created  among Chilean  farmers seemed
disproportionate in  retrospect.  The  difference is  that eating
too much cyanide can cause instant death, whereas Alar presents a
possible  danger only  over a  lifetime  of consumption  and that
scare  required no  instantaneous  action.  Although  the Chilean
grape  scare  may  have  been  more  justifiable,  a reevaluation
suggests  that  a  less extreme  reaction  would  have  been more
   The  overreaction in  these cases  has  as its  background the
present climate in  our society in  which complete safety without
cost  is seen  as a  feasible goal.   The possibility  of danger,
therefore, is perceived to  result from chicanery, negligence, or
incompetence.  In such a  climate, officials respond with extreme
measures.   Because  increased  costs   in  either  the  affected
products or in  taxes are not obviously  linked to these official
actions, the  system becomes  tilted to  overreaction.  A certain
balance is  necessary to prevent  the costs  of legitimate safety
measures from  becoming prohibitive.   A graphic  illustration of
this problem surfaced recently with  the arrest in Los Angeles of
a person who admitted having made about a hundred bomb threats to
airlines,  all false,  each of  which had  to be  investigated by
authorities.  If  every threat causes  flights to  be canceled or
fruit  to  be  removed   from  grocery  shelves,  terrorists  and
psychotics will soon be able to  grind society to a halt.  On the
other hand, the  alternative of broadcasting  each threat, caveat
emptor  with a  vengeance, would  soon cause  all warnings  to be
   To thread  our way between  real dangers and  false alarms, we
must often let  officials decide which  terrorist threats deserve
wide publicity, and the public  must be understanding of risks as
well.   Because  these  officials  cannot  always  be  right they
deserve to be judged on an overall record, not from any certainty
of hindsight.  The public must recognize that a risk-free society
is not only impossible, but intolerably expensive.  At some point
the real  danger of too  much pesticide must  be balanced against
the value  to poor people  of cheaper fruit.   There are numerous
deaths from falls down  stairs in the home  every year, but we do
not  advocate  that  all  staircases  be  replaced  by elevators.
Scares of the week are in the same category.  We cannot afford to
be complacent about real threats, but we must remember that to be
alive is to be at risk.  -- Daniel E. Koshland, Jr.

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