The thing is, many more young people die from taking alcohol than mephedrone - 5000 a year on one estimate. If we were serious about protecting youngsters from dangerous drugs, we would clamp down more upon alcohol. But we don’t. One reason for this is that alcohol is a known quantity and we have become accustomed to deaths from its misuse. Mephedrone is relatively unknown and unfamiliar, so it is more feared even if it is, objectively, speaking, no more dangerous than other substances.*
Which brings me to a link with Peter Chapman. He has been called the “Facebook killer” because he used Facebook to contact his victim, thus kicking off a panic about the safety of social networking sites.
But, Chapman could equally be called the “Ford Mondeo killer” or the “Murderer who killed because of police incompetence.”
Why bring Facebook into it? Why not have a moral panic about Ford Mondeos?
It’s because Facebook is relatively new and unfamiliar, at least to trash papers’ target audience. So it’s easier to have a moral panic about it than about Ford Mondeos.
Now, if these were just two isolated cases, we could ignore them.
But I fear they might not be. This Frankenstein syndrome is closely related to several other cognitive biases (bias is, I think the right word rather than error).
One is ambiguity aversion; we fear unknown unknowns, such as new drugs, more than risky knowns such as alcohol. Others are loss aversion and the status quo bias: we tolerate existing certain evils much more than potential new ones.
The combined effect of these biases can be pernicious. They can lead to an unwarranted hostility to innovation - how many people have been killed by Frankenstein foods? - an excessive illiberalism** and, perhaps, to undue opposition to radical new policies in general.
* Note that the claim that mephedrone use is widespread is actually evidence of its relative safety - otherwise there would be many more deaths than have been reported.
** It’s claimed that Wainwright and Smith might have taken contaminated mephedrone. It’s unclear that criminalizing the drug would reduce such dangers in future.