Commentary: Four Moral Panics Not Backed by Science

by Ross Pomeroy


We humans are social animals, with society serving as the glue that binds us together. Through our ideals, ethics, and actions, we all have a hand in forming the collective views of society. “Work hard”, “take care of your family”, “don’t commit crime”, are a few basic tenets. But sometimes, often when faced with something novel, society can panic. Rather than try to understand this new trend or thing, frenzied members might view it as a threat and seek to banish it. Sociologists call these moments “moral panics”. More often than not, they’re irrational, with little to no support from scientific evidence. Here are four moral panics not backed by science:

1. Dungeons & Dragons. In the 1980s, spurred by a few attention-grabbing incidents, the media, politicians, and many prominent members of society glommed on to the idea that the tabletop roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) was driving players to psychosis, suicide, and even murder. The fantasy game has players cooperatively imagine themselves as a party of heroes (or villains) in a magical world filled with demons, beasts, and spells.

As James C. Zimring, the Thomas W. Tillack Professor of Experimental Pathology at the University of Virginia, explained in his new book Partial Truths: How Fractions Distort Our Thinking, the correlation was spurious. An analysis showed that 28 individuals who played D&D had committed murder or suicide over a span of five years, but that was out of an estimated player base of three million! For that number of people, we might expect 360 suicides each year. “It thus appears that D&D may have been, if anything, therapeutic and decreased the rate of suicides,” Zimring concluded.

2. HIV/AIDS. In one of the most harmful moral panics of all time, societies across the world initially stigmatized HIV/AIDS as a “gay plague”, wrongly thinking that the virus is highly infectious via airborne particles and spread almost exclusively by gay men. Infected gay men were often forcibly quarantined, left to die alone and in shame. Scientific research that conclusively nailed down how the virus is spread (via fluids, primarily blood or semen) and showed that half of cases were not in homosexual men finally started to dispel the unwarranted stigma. Today, HIV/AIDS patients are deservedly treated with considerably more compassion.

3. Dangerous Dogs. In 1991, the UK Parliament hastily passed the Dangerous Dog Act, which prohibited four breeds, including the popular Pit Bull Terrier, thinking that these dogs were more dangerous than others, a perception promulgated by panicked media reports of attacks on kids. The thing is, there’s never been solid evidence that any of the banned breeds are actually more aggressive than other dogs, or do more harm. Rather, they seem to be unfairly stereotyped on account of their muscular bodies and larger jaws. The law is still in place today. Prominent skeptic and writer Alice Howarth thinks that it should be repealed. “All dogs can be a danger and it is the responsibility of the owner to take responsibility for managing that risk with their dog, for the sake of both the dog and of the other animals and humans the dog encounters,” she wrote.

4. Violent Video Games. In the wake of the school shooting at Columbine High School, societal attention turned to violent video games. Did lots of killing in the digital world make it easier or even drive Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to murder their classmates in the real world? Many politicians argued as much.

In the decades since, scientists have repeatedly analyzed whether or not violent video games trigger lasting aggression or result in increased criminal behavior among players. No clear link exists to either.

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Ross Pomeroy reports for RealClearScience.
Photo “Pit Bull Terrier” by 6591713.









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