This paper first appeared in the Summer Issue of the 'Skeptical Adversaria' (the Newsletter of ASKE, the Association for Skeptical Enquiry), 2012, pp 8-9
If the mass media (including the internet) are to be believed, it seems that so many things that happen in daily life are 'mysteries'. But what is a mystery? I looked up the word in my Chambers Dictionary and found a number of definitions, several with historical and religious allusions. The one that appears to refer to the everyday usage of the term is 'a phenomenon, circumstance or happening that cannot be explained'. So it follows that many everyday events that are considered worth reporting as news are 'mysteries' - they cannot be explained. I have just read about one such mystery: 'A runaway piglet has been discovered in an alpaca pen at a theme park, but how he ended up there remains a mystery' (Sky News, 26.6.12).
It seems to me that there could be a range of explanations for how Al, the piglet in question, came to be in the alpaca pen. So is it a mystery? Perhaps what is intended by the writer is, 'We don't know what the true explanation is yet'. Given the evidence, there may be several contenders, some more plausible than others. It may turn out that at the end of the day there is insufficient evidence to decide on the correct or most likely explanation. So we are left with uncertainty - we are not sure. But that is not the same as having a 'mystery' on our hands according to the earlier definition.
All this may be unduly pedantic: we all apply the term 'mystery' to any happening for which we are unsure of the explanation. And 'we all love a good mystery'. But sometimes it is relevant to ask the question, 'Do you really mean this is a mystery?'
In October 2011, pupils at Le Roy Junior/Senior High School Buffalo, New York, began complaining of a variety of bizarre symptoms, most notably Tourette-like behaviour (involuntary twitches and vocalisations). Eventually 20 people were affected, 19 of them female and only one of them being an adult. A number of possible explanations were proposed (e.g. pollutants and vaccinations) and appropriate tests were carried out. By June 2012 it was concluded that the most likely diagnosis was conversion disorder and many of those affected had recovered in time for graduation.
It is well established that the experience and expression of physical symptoms of a disease, and the limitations they impose on the patient by are often only partially related to the underlying organic pathology. Indeed a considerable range of physical symptoms that have no immediate organic cause can arise through a combination of psychological factors and context. This may happen in groups of people, when the appearance of symptoms is potentiated by social influence and suggestion. The term mass hysteria is popularly used to describe this phenomenon. The individuals affected are not in control of their symptoms. There are treatments, but excessive attention is often counter-productive. (Incidentally, it is not 'a mystery illness' in the sense of the term 'mystery' as defined earlier. It is, to use an overworked expression, 'not fully understood'.)
To begin with, once word got around about what was going on in Buffalo, a multitude of celebrity doctors and other 'experts' descended on the school or appeared in the media eager to promote their own explanations for the symptoms. As the problem spiralled, some of the youngsters appeared on national and local television and in the press with headlines about their 'mystery illness'. The girls posted updates on their condition to Facebook and videos of their symptoms to YouTube.
'We noticed that the kids who were not in the media were getting better; the kids who were in the media were still very symptomatic', said Dr Laszlo Mechtler, who eventually successfully treated 15 of the girls at Dent Neurologic Institute. 'One thing we've learned is how social media and mainstream media can worsen the symptoms. The mass hysteria was really fuelled by the national media, social media - all this promoted the worsening of symptoms by putting these people at the national forefront'.
So that's it. 'Mystery' solved. Yes? I imagine not! I would predict that at least some of the individuals affected (particularly those who had their 15 minutes of fame) as well as their families will not be happy with a 'psychological' diagnosis'. This is a normal human reaction and should not be interpreted pejoratively. I imagine too that some experts who publicly committed themselves to other explanations (e.g. pollutants) will be psychologically incapable of accepting the conversion disorder explanation. (I also have a vision of compensation lawyers circling overhead with their collective eye on the main chance.)
What makes me say all this? Well, there many previous cases of 'mass hysteria' on record, as a Google search will testify (the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, the French Meowing Nuns, the Tanganyika Laughing Epidemic, and the West Bank Fainting Epidemic, to name but four; at the time of writing, 16 people have been arrested in Afghanistan over the alleged poisoning of schoolgirls, which some believe to be a case of 'mass hysteria'). But for me, the Buffalo case stirred memories of an event in England that was in the news over 30 years ago. A Google search brought me quickly to the details of this case and I recommend the account in the Fortean Times, August 2010 (see note 1). On a sunny morning in July 1980 the annual Hollinwell Show was taking place in fields near Kirkby-in-Ashfield in Nottinghamshire. One of the events was a competition involving around 500 children in marching bands. According to the Fortean Times account, 'Just after 10:30, the children and some adults began collapsing. They were ferried by dozens of ambulances to four local hospitals, where about 259 children were examined and nine were detained overnight. Symptoms included fainting, running eyes, sore throats, dizziness, vomiting, trembling, weakness, numbness and a metallic taste in the mouth… but neither all at once nor all felt by the same person'. (If the image of a troupe of drum majorettes toppling over like ninepins causes you some hilarity you are not alone.)
The suggestion of 'mass hysteria' was greeted with outrage by parents and organisers alike. But why? A more mature understanding of the nature of illness should not provoke this kind of reaction. Nor would this explanation be considered so unreasonable and demeaning by the individuals affected. Someone who didn't help matters was the MP Mr Dennis Skinner ('the Beast of Bolsover') who declared the verdict to be 'an insult to the intelligence and another cover-up by the Establishment'. Why do we have such awful politicians?
Well, I shall leave you to read the aforementioned account for the full details and the re-examinations, recriminations, 'mystery-solved-at-last' announcements, and so on that reverberate to this day. 'All human life is there', as they say - but no mystery, only some uncertainty.
Real mysteries rarely happen. But I wouldn't be at all surprised if, in the years to come, we shall still be hearing about 'the mystery illness' that struck down 19 children in Buffalo NY. Will Hollywood get in on the act I wonder?