24 February 2006


Two recent news items demonstrate just how jumpy we have become. We need to get a collective grip on reality.

First came the news that scientists at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre have successfully developed a vaccine against the potent toxin ricin. The science behind the experiment is elegant, and was appropriately published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (subscription required). But wait a minute - there are really only two known instances in which ricin has been used in a way that might warrant concerns. The first was when Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was killed after being jabbed with a ricin-filled dart hidden in a KGB agent's umbrella in London in 1978. The second was when two ricin-laced letters were intercepted in 2003 by postal authorities in the USA. One of the letters was addressed to the White House. Given this rather sparse history, the question arises: who is going to take a ricin vaccine?

The second piece of exaggerated news arises from a report released by the National Academy itself. Writing in MIT's technology review, Emily Singer describes the prospect of terrorists 'hijacking your brain' with new generation chemicals. Perhaps disruption is possible, but hijack is just a tad hysterical.

While it is understandable to be vigilant, this level of paranoia is just plain silly. Not only does it demonstrate that otherwise level-headed folks are getting a bit carried away, the noise that it generates has the potential to blind us to real threats which should be judiciously minimized.



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