AN INSIDIOUS INFLUENCE

What explains the bizarre epidemic of worker suicides at France Telecom?


OK, so this looks pretty weird.  A few days ago a guy who worked at France Telecom near Bordeaux walked into the parking lot outside his office and … set himself on fire.  He’s not the first.  According to the Guardian:

At least 23 of [France Telecom’s] employees killed themselves last year, and there were more than 30 reported suicides in 2008 and 2009, as well as many more attempts.

Spooked yet?  Do you remember the GEC-Marconi suicides of the late 1980s?  These were at a UK defense contractor – which had funds from the US “Star Wars” missile-shield project, among other sources – and involved a bizarre array of self-destructive techniques.  As the Independent reported in August 1988:

The police said it was suicide, and no doubt they were right. Ex-Brigadier Peter Ferry, a marketing manager at Marconi’s Command and Control Systems centre at Frimley, Surrey, had apparently killed himself by inserting mains electric wires into his mouth and then turning on the power. The method chosen was perhaps marginally more grisly than in the case of several other Marconi employees. In 1986, for example, Ashad Sharif, a computer analyst who worked for Marconi Defence Systems in Stanmore, Middlesex, tied one end of a rope around his neck, another to a tree, and put his car into gear. Two months earlier, the body of Vimal Dajibhai, a software engineer responsible for checking the guidance systems of Tigerfish torpedos for Marconi Underwater Systems, was found under Clifton suspension bridge at Bristol. In March 1987, David Sands, a project manager working on secret satellite radar at Marconi’s sister company Easams, in Camberley, drove up a slip road on his way to work and into a cafe at an estimated 80 mph. A year later Trevor Knight, a computer engineer at Marconi’s space and defence base in Stanmore, died in his fume-filled car at his home in Hertfordshire. Earlier, two other Marconi employees, Victor Moore, a design engineer, and Roger Hill, a draughtsman, had killed themselves, both seemingly as a result of work pressures.

So what do you think?  Were these poor people the victims of top-secret Soviet (and maybe more recently, Chinese?) mind-warping microwave testing?  And are these infernal covert testing squads now also using aphasia-inducing microwave patterns on TV presenters?

I actually favor a different theory, which is that there are two possible factors contributing to these “epidemics,” and sometimes both work at once.

One is a behavioral contagion – a phenomenon long known to underlie suicide outbreaks among young people, mass hysterias, the witchcraft hysterias of the 1500s and 1600s, and probably much of the multiple personality disorder and UFO abduction lore.

The other is the “false epidemic” phenomenon, which I think also accounts for those bird death stories in January this year, and probably is all one needs to account for the TV presenters’ aphasias.  This illusion is caused when the media suddenly focus on a spate of events without providing context, e.g., the normal background rate of those events.  For the France Telecom suicides, for example, the WSJ noted in 2009:

France Télécom employs 100,000 people in France, and the number of suicides is less than the national average. According to the World Health Organization, the average suicide rate France is 26.4 per 100,000 men, and 9.2 per 100,000 women. The recent number is also in line with suicides at France Télécom over past decades…

The “Gulf War Syndrome” which got so much coverage in the late 1990s is, in my opinion, the classic example for our time of this false-epidemic-plus-contagion phenomenon.  In other words, part of it was simply the spectrum of ailments you would expect from such a large population (700,000) moving through time, and part of it was the added, non-specific, “multisymptom illness” you would expect a media contagion to produce (or at least exacerbate enough to reach the clinic).  After years of political pressure on scientists from the veterans lobby via Congress, to find something (pressure which, imho, was not resisted as loudly as it should have been), the Institute of Medicine reported in 2006:

The committee found that although veterans of the first Gulf War report significantly more symptoms of illness than soldiers of the same period who were not deployed, studies have found no cluster of symptoms that constitute a syndrome unique to Gulf War veterans.

AN INSIDIOUS INFLUENCE