The Erin Brockovich Effect

A social phenomenon I have noticed through both the media and through my own work is something I call “the Erin Brockovich effect”. This typically occurs when:

  • (a) some well-meaning person notes an alleged increase of incidence in a localized social tragedy, and
  • (b) local media or authority deems this incidence to be beyond baseline levels and looks for a scapegoat, which
  • (c) prompts the authority to blame the social ill on an unrepentant local controversy.

Of course, often there is rarely any evidence for this linkage, or for the relative increase in social ill, or even if this ill actually exists, but the pattern is persuasive and difficult to combat. This series of events doesn’t even have to be in this sequence. What’s important is that the need to find a cause for social ills that are completely out of control of the little people.

Take the eponymous case. Erin Brockovich was a legal assistant in Hinkely, Ca., who says she dug up some information on Pacific Gas & Electric and their contamination of the local water supply. Brockovich alleged (a) the pollution could make people sick, (b) pollution significantly affected the town’s population, (b) that PG&E was knowingly negligent, not only through their damage to the environment, but also in making people sick.

Today, it’s been found that (a) the pollution was unlikely to make people sick and (b) that there is no epidemiological evidence proving the pollution actually made anyone sick. Therefore, even if (c) was correct, it was hardly worth the $333 million arbitrated settlement that it generated.

And it certainly wasn’t worth subjecting us to the phrase “Oscar winner Julia Roberts”.

Often, this phenomenon is associated with so-called “cancer clusters.” A few people get cancer or some other awful ailment in a community and residents start looking around for something or someone to blame.

Oh, look! A power plant! That’s what’s making my kid sick!

If you live near the Athabasca oil sands, the cancer in your community is caused by that. You live near an aluminum bauxite mine, it gives you cancer. Power lines? Cancer. Fertilizer plant? Cancer. Wind farm? Cancer.

It doesn’t matter if facts do not support your theory. What matters is that the Big Man is slimed and thus brought down by the little guy.

Now, the Erin Brockovich phenomenon isn’t isolated to supposed cancer clusters or industrial activity. We just saw (a) a horrific act of violence in Tucson about 10 days ago, and what happened? People (b) noticed the so-called “culture of violence” supposedly brought about by political rhetoric in Arizona. Ergo, (c) the originators of this rhetoric (Sarah Palin, the Tea Party, Jan Brewer, etc.) ought to be blamed. It didn’t matter that there was no evidence to support this theory — the hated object had to be brought down by the giant killers; in this case, the giant killers were the New York Times and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman.

Remember this the next time you see this pattern.

Furthermore, Julia Roberts should return her Oscar.

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