Obligatory sociological reminder that there is little evidence of Halloween candy tampering

Every Halloween, sociologist Joel Best reminds people that there is little  evidence of Halloween candy tampering:

For decades, parents have been warned to check sweet-wrappers for signs of tampering, chocolate bars for hidden needles, and apples for surreptitiously inserted razor blades when their children return home from knocking on strangers’ doors. But Dr Joel Best, a sociologist and criminologist at the University of Delaware, has researched every reported case of so-called “Halloween sadism” in the past 45 years, and has concluded that not one of them was genuine…

Dr Best has discovered 90 cases of alleged poisoning reported by newspapers or hospitals since 1958 but he says that none can be attributed to random attempts to harm kids. Most are pranks by children seeking attention; some are murkier attempts by parents to gain compensation…

The myth picked up speed in the late 1960s, as the popularity of Halloween also increased. At the time, many Americans apparently believed that hippies might get a kick from adding LSD to the sweets of unsuspecting children.

The phenomenon peaked in 1970 and 1971, when there were 10 and 14 reported incidents respectively. There was another mini-peak in 1982, when 12 alleged cases occurred. None have ever been confirmed, but the myth of “Halloween Sadism” nonetheless endures. Over the years, America’s National Association of Confectioners, for whom 31 October is crucial, have attempted to persuade the nation that trick-or-treating is safe. But Dr Best’s research, which has informed a book called Threatened Children, leads him to believe they face an uphill struggle.

Some urban legends live on. Here is what might contribute to the longevity of this particular story:

1. Journalists who are looking for such stories. If most of these cases did not pan out, did these same media outlets report this or issue a correction or retraction? Even if they did, the harm was likely already done.

2. Parents who are generally scared for their children in lots of areas, not just candy received on Halloween.

3. Are there any movies, books, or TV shows that have perpetuated this storyline? I can’t think of any but I wouldn’t be surprised if such works exist.

4. It seems like it could be plausible, perhaps even more so than cases like the unsolved 1982 Tylenol cases in Chicago (see a recent oral history here).

5. The holiday of Halloween lends itself to such stories. It is hard to imagine similar stories emerging out of Easter or Christmas, both holidays that involve candy and gifts that could be tampered with.

Verdict: very limited baby boom in Chicago due to Feb 2011 snowstorm

It is a common story that natural disasters lead to baby booms as residents have little else to do except spend “quality time together” (a perhaps unintentional euphemism from the story cited in the next sentence). But the academic research on the topic isn’t so clear – here is a quick review from Friday’s front page story in the Chicago Tribune:

Udry’s [negative] finding [regarding a lengthy 1970 New York City blackout] is frequently viewed as the final word in “disaster babies” — the popular debunking website Snopes.com cites it in declaring the phenomenon a myth — but more contemporary research suggests there might be something to the idea.

A 2005 study of birth rates following the Oklahoma City bombing looked at 10 years of data and found that the counties closest to the site had indeed experienced higher than expected numbers of births after the attack…

But perhaps the most intriguing evidence supporting the idea of disaster babies was published last year by Brigham Young University economist Richard Evans. He and his colleagues looked at hurricane-prone counties on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and compared birth rates that came nine months after the announcement of impending storms.

They found that while the rates went up after the mildest expected disruption (a tropical storm watch) they went down after the most serious (a hurricane warning)…

If Evans is right that the blizzard would only produce a 2% increase in the birth rate, this is not a huge jump. In fact, Evans is cited later in the story saying that this would only be a difference of a “few dozen births” throughout the Chicago region of 8.3 million people. So if there is an effect, it is minimal. But urban legends have lives of their own – another example is the recurring issue of tainted Halloween candy that sociologist Joel Best gamely tries to stamp out.

What about other data regarding the February blizzard like a rise in heart attacks or back injuries or other medical traumas? I can think we can be pretty sure that there was a lot of shoveling that took place.

Even with a small drive, it took quite a while to clear all that snow.

Blizzards do not lead to baby booms in 9 months

There is a story out there that suggests when a blizzard comes along, like the one that hit Chicago this past week, one can expect a rise in births in nine months. Experts say this story has little foundation in fact:

The commonly held assumption dates at least to the widespread blackout of 1965 that doused New York City in darkness. About nine months after residents spent hours together with the lights off, The New York Times reported an uptick in births. A sociologist quoted at the time offered this euphemistic explanation:

“The lights went out and people were left to interact with each other,” he said.

Over the years, blackouts, snowstorms, and even full moons have all been deemed natural aphrodisiacs. But for nearly as long, experts have sought to debunk the relationship between catastrophe and copulation, dubbing it mere myth.

“It is evidently pleasing to many people to fantasy that when people are trapped by some immobilizing event which deprives them of their usual activities, most will turn to copulation,” demographer J. Richard Udry wrote in a 1970 paper that showed there was no statistically significant increase in births that could be attributed to the 1965 blackout.

Tom Smith, director of the Center for the Study of Politics at the University of Chicago, agreed that most baby boom speculation following various disruptions has not proved true.

“First, these events are as likely to separate partners as they are to isolate them together with ‘nothing better to do.’ Second, most people are using contraceptives,” Smith said. “(And) third, these are hardly the type of events that make couples say, ‘Let’s start a family.'”

So why exactly does this myth still make the rounds? This one is fairly easy to disprove: just look at the records for birth nine months after any event.