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October 27, 2003
The Power of Modern Fads

Robert Bartley has written an excellent essay in today's OpinionJournal about instant cultural obsessions and the price paid for them:

In an age of instant communications, we become members of a huge world-wide tribe, in constant contact with the thoughts and emotions of our fellow members everywhere. This carries many blessings, not least in undermining of local totalitarian regimes. But like tribal societies throughout the ages, it's vulnerable to sudden surges of emotions, to shared if unexamined assumptions that harden into instant fads.

Bartley reviews two cases championed by the Wall Street Journal: the Amirault child-abuse conviction and the forced bankruptcy of Dow Corning caused by pseudoscientific hysteria about silicone breast implants. In the Amirault case, the best that Bartley can claim is a draw; Gerald Amirault is getting paroled without ever acknowledging any kind of confession in the supposed child-abuse cases for which he was convicted. Amirault and Bartley can claim with some good reason that this is an acknowledgement by Massachussets that there was no substance to the case, but still, Amirault served 17 years and has not yet been formally exonerated. The Amirault case was eerily similar to the discredited McMartin Preschool case in Southern California, where ultimately juries threw out badly-manipulated testimony and freed the defendants accused of child abuse.

Likewise, the vindication Bartley expresses for the silicone-implant trial "fad" is similarly Pyrrhic. While science eventually proved that silicone implants are physiologically inert (IOW, cause none of the problems claimed by attorneys), that came far too late to save Dow Corning, its stockholders, and its employees. We all may be wiser now -- at least until the next Alar-like scare rolls around -- but the attorneys still have their money, and the people hurt have received no recompense.

To his credit, Bartley recognizes the nature of their "victories", and part of his message is how bittersweet eventual vindication becomes. His essay is a much-needed reminder of how important it is to never give up the concept of assuming innocence until guilt is proven, and how quickly a seemingly rational society can re-enact the Salem Witch Trials all over again.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at October 27, 2003 12:34 PM

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