Skeptical Inquirer Investigates High School Mass Hysteria

June 24, 2012

Also: Why We Believe in
Myths, from the Political to the Paranormal

In 2011, fifteen students at Le Roy Central School in Western New York simultaneously began experiencing bizarre physical symptoms of an unknown origin, including twitching, facial tics, and garbled speech. The incidents quickly induced media and medical hysteria that even lured the likes of Erin Brockovich to weigh in on the possible source of the problem; confusion was rampant. The latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer, the premier journal of investigation of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims, delves deep into this episode, as well as others like it, to understand the reality behind the uproar.

Historian Robert Bartholomew, an expert in media-driven panics, examines the events in Le Roy from a wide angle, comparing it to similar outbreaks from years past to show that such phenomena usually occur within contained, tightly-packed places like schools and factories where occupants are already under high levels of stress. Bartholomew also posits that a technology particular to today may have an exacerbating effect, writing, “We may be witnessing a shift in the history of psychogenic illness in which the primary agents of spread are the Internet, media, and social networking sites.”

Description: SILegendary investigator Joe Nickellgoes on the ground to Le Roy Central School, interviewing parents and other figures involved with the case, and parsing through the myriad explanations for the strange behavior. True to form, Nickell takes into account not only the raw evidence but also the human impact, reminding us “It is important to understand that although the teens’ symptoms may have a psychological origin, they are nonetheless real and painful.” 

Steven Novella aims a skeptical eye at the conspiratorial reactions of many who were attracted to the case—including Brockovich—dubbing the Le Roy events a “Rorschach test of sorts: people see in the illness a diagnosis that fits their worldview or pet cause.” 

Also in this issue:

What can science tell us about why people believe things that are not so, whether the subject is the paranormal or the political? Chris Mooney, author of The Republican Brain, looks at political conservatives’ predilection for authoritarianism and such a worldview’s natural resistance to science. Sociologist Jeffery S. Victor looks at how and why certain political myths endure, as well as how they can serve to both bolster existing institutions and legitimize resentment toward minorities and other out-groups.

Psychologist Matthew J. Sharps recounts his research into how pre-existing psychological conditions can prime people for particular kinds of unsubstantiated and erroneous beliefs when confronted with phenomena not immediately explainable. “People with identifiable psychological profiles are not only more likely to believe in the paranormal or supernatural,” writes Sharps, “but their psychological tendencies may also be used to predict the exact types of ‘unexplained’ phenomena in which they are likely to believe.” In other words, individuals of one psychological disposition can be reliably predicted to believe in UFOs, and those of another can be predicted to believe in ghosts. 

All this and much more fascinating insight into the worlds of science, investigation, and the paranormal are to be found in the July/August issue of Skeptical Inquirer.

* * *

Skeptical Inquirer is the official journal of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), a nonprofit scientific and educational organization. CSI encourages the critical investigation of paranormal and fringe-science claims from a responsible, scientific point of view. Learn more about CSI and SI at