The War of the Worlds and the Myth of Mass Panic

The 75th anniversary of the broadcast nears.


Wars and rumors of war.

Next week will mark the 75th anniversary of Orson Welles' The War of the Worlds, a radio drama that is often accused of provoking a mass panic. (In fact, the panic was a myth.) Big Picture Science, a public radio show sponsored by the SETI Institute—yes, that SETI Institute—just devoted an hour to Welles' show, and I was one of the guests.

You can listen to the episode here. First Michael Socolow does an excellent job of debunking the story of the mass panic, and then I put the legend into a larger historical context. Then Kevin Schindler talks about the idea of life on Mars, and then Katy Culver discusses misinformation in social media today. Clips from Welles' broadcast appear throughout the program, but if you've never heard the whole play, I recommend it highly; you can download it here.

Bonus links: The radio play later inspired a strange Superman comic, and the original H.G. Wells novel later inspired a bad disco record.

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    1. He could lend his name to a tofu and broccoli salad, and people would buy it. Not eat it, just buy it.

  1. OT, but I wanted to share where people would see it.

    Yglesisas: The failure of does not disprove liberalism

    Two salient points here.

    First, it’s just obviously not the case that “the government” lacks the competence to build a good website. We have several state exchanges that work fine! FRED is great! NASA has a great website! NASA also sends robots to explore Mars!
    Second, believe it or not, the existence of great websites is sort of incidental to the operation of a social insurance system. Social Security and Medicare, for example, both have good websites in 2013. But both programs functioned fine for decades without any kind of website at all. Universal health care systems were built all around the world before the Internet existed. The reason the Affordable Care Act is supposed to feature great websites is because the Internet exists in 2013, so we expect things to have websites, but it’s not like the underlying idea of bringing a Bismarkian health insurance system to the United States depends in some conceptual way on the website. Bismark did it in 1883! They’ve added a prominent “apply by phone” tab to for just this reason.

    Is there a penalty for not using the NASA website? Do we all pay a penalty if a NASA mission fails?

    1. Social Security and Medicare, for example, both have good websites in 2013. But both programs functioned fine for decades without any kind of website at all.

      Racking up $100+ trillion in unfunded liabilities = functioning fine.


    2. NASA also sends robots to explore Mars!

      And the missions where the engineers can keep meters and feet straight even make it there.

  2. We’re going OT already?

    “Europe’s shudder at circumcision

    “In a society where most men are circumcised, e.g., the U.S., it’s hard to imagine the European attitude that circumcised men are trauma victims.

    “by James McDonald

    “…I am not of the camp that believes attempts to ban circumcision constitute anti-Semitism….[T]he European Parliament’s castigation of circumcision is a cultural assault upon norms and traditions that have been embedded in many societies for thousands of years. Furthermore, it is indicative of the continent’s continued disposition towards cultural imperialism….

    “…As a native New York Jew, I can emphatically state that I have never felt trauma, shame or low self-esteem from the procedure….This, I believe, is rooted in the fact that I was raised in a society where the majority of men are circumcised.

    “…In the United States, I never thought twice of the fact that I was circumcised, whereas here [in Scotland] it singles me out as being different ? both Jewish and American ? and someone in need of sympathy, a trauma victim.”

    1. Unless you walk around with your dork hanging out, how are people going to know?

      1. Three words – T. S. A.

      2. The ladies – they like to gossip.

    2. Dudes with that extra piece of skin look like freaks. Their like, not normal and stuff. Don’t they feel traumatized because they look all gross and shit?


      Keep the government away from my dick!

      1. Or They’re…

        …or something.

        Curse the site that allows uneditable comments!

        1. There, Their. You’ll feel better in a moment.

  3. So the cover-up continues. You guys are SHOWING a picture of the NY Daily News that there was [INDEED] mass panic about the “fictional” alien invasion from the radio broadcast. If was in the Daily News, it must be true.

  4. Based on what you’ve written, there was widespread panic in places that could have widespread panic–like NYC. Small towns and places where the broadcast was unavailable went largely unaffected,

    Hardly a ‘myth’.

    1. I’m not sure what you’re talking about. Nothing I’ve written, and nothing in the broadcast, suggests that “there was widespread panic in places that could have widespread panic–like NYC.” Nor do I see where you’re getting the idea that panic is possible in a city but not in a small town.

    2. Hey, buy the book, and comment from a position of knowledge, not like some derp reasonoid who barely even reads the headline.

  5. Katy Culver uses most of her time explaining the misinformation about Obamacare. If it were just that. Instead it turns into partisan advocacy. Also interesting that she is *concerned about* ethics.

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