Wednesday, January 28, 2009

 

The Crack Babies Scare

Around 1990, people were afraid of "crack babies": that babies born to mothers smoking crack would be seriously damaged. This might be worth looking at now because it might (I'm not sure) be another case, like Y2K, of a scare caused by experts who supposedly were a scientific consensus-- like global warming.

This 1995 MOther Jones article talks a bit about it.

Seizing on early studies that raised alarm over fetal damage from cocaine, scientists cited the same inconclusive data again and again. Local news organs spun their own versions of the crack-baby story, taking for granted the accuracy of its premise. Social workers, foster parents, doctors, teachers, and journalists put forward unsettling anecdotes about the "crack babies" they had seen, all participating in a sleight of hand so elegant in its simplicity that they fooled even themselves.
and

"It really got out of control," says Donald E. Hutchings, a research psychologist and editor of the journal Neurotoxicology and Teratology, "because these jerks who didn't know what they were talking about were giving press conferences. I'd be sitting at home watching TV, and suddenly there'd be the intensive care unit in Miami or San Francisco, and what you see is this really sick kid who looks like he's about to die and the staff is saying, 'Here's a crack baby.'" But what a few cautious scientists had to say did little to weaken the momentum of the crack-baby myth. In fact, researchers who found no or minimal effects from cocaine had a hard time getting their results before the public. In a 1989 study published in the Lancet, Canadian researcher Gideon Koren showed that papers reporting a cocaine effect in child behavior were likely to be accepted over those showing no effect, for presentation at an annual meeting of the Society for Pediatric Research--even when the no-effect studies were of sounder design. "I'd never experienced anything like this," says Emory's Claire Coles. "I've never had people accuse me of making up data or being an incompetent scientist or believing in drug abuse. When that started happening, I started thinking, This is crazy."

The earliest and most influential reports of cocaine damage in babies came from the Chicago drug treatment clinic of pediatrician Ira Chasnoff. His first study, published in 1985 in The New England Journal of Medicine, found that the newborns of 23 cocaine-using women were less interactive and moodier than non-cocaine-exposed babies. In the years that followed, Chasnoff was widely quoted and fawned over in the press ("positively zenlike," according to Rolling Stone) and became known as the rather pessimistic authority on what happens to babies whose mothers use cocaine.

Of course, Chasnoff wasn't the only researcher to report serious effects. They were legion, some publishing simple case reports that took a few cocaine-exposed kids and racked up their problems. Judy Howard, a pediatrician at the University of California, Los Angeles, piped up regularly, once telling Newsweek that in crack babies, the part of their brains that "makes us human beings, capable of discussion or reflection" had been "wiped out."

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