The Longest Now

Unverified Research, Part I : Mass Hysteria
Thursday May 05th 2005, 3:56 am
Filed under: fly-by-wire

I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about trust recently, ever since
getting involved in a heated debate two years ago about the efficacy
usefulness of information generated by collections of anonymous people.

My first reaction was, that all information
is generated this way.  No matter how well you know someone else,
it is never possible to truly shake the shackles of anonymity. 
Some people look to Wikipedia et al and assume original sin, then write
about the mediating
advantages of letting people add content directly – rather than
requiring a ‘licensed practitioner’ to go out and extract and parse
such content.  I figure all sources are tainted;  I’d like to
highlight the kind of
unverifiable and unsourced reporting that passes as research today…
starting with the mainstream media and academia.

I. MSM : Mass Hysteria and the Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic of 1962

(a) Here is a credulous report, by the Chicago Tribune, of research done by academic Christian F. Hempelmann (who received his PhD in linguistics from Purdue around that time) :    reprint via a mailing list

There is no original data; it is hypothesized that none
can be obtained. When the issue comes up in earnest, the author
mentions he may try to go interview people who were there, but he does
not seem to feel that the lack of such evidence should prevent him from
declaring the event to have been mass hysteria, nor from going off on
tangents about the physiological limits of laughing. Having myself been
incapacitated by laughter for slightly more than “a minute” (an upper
limit he places on one’s ability to laugh, adding elsewhere that one
can only sustain laughter for 20 seconds), I find myself wondering
which if any of the statements in that article could be backed up by
good research.

(For reference, the Wikipedia article
on the same subject is slightly more skeptical, but has no further
information on the subject. It repeats the unsourced claim that there is no good information on this event.)

(b) Here is a fictional story
based on the same event. Equally informative, if not moreso… equally
unsourced. I would prefer a well-sourced historical narrative,
fictional or not…

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