On Thursday, the Telegraph ran an incredible story: back in the '50s, an entire French village suddenly went mad. This was not, as previously thought, due to an ergot (fungus) contamination of the village baker's bread, says investigative journalist H P Albarelli Jr., who published a book on the subject. Instead, it was part of the CIA's secret mind-control experiments with LSD. In other words, the CIA put a French village on acid. The Telegraph story by Henry Samuel reported Albarelli's argument.
Sound too fantastical for truth? It may be: some bloggers and one U.S. historian are crying foul, saying the Telegraph story was (a) slanted, (b) uncomfortably similar to other reports, and (c) bizarrely old--Albarelli's book was published in 2008, so it's hardly breaking news. What's going on? Here's the debate:
- 'Harebrained' France 24's Christophe Josset runs the CIA idea by Cornell historian Steven Kaplan, who specializes in French bread history and has written his own book about the village insanity incident. "It's clinically incoherent," Kaplan responds.
LSD takes effects in just a few hours, whereas the inhabitants showed symptoms only after 36 hours or more. Furthermore, LSD does not cause the digestive ailments or the vegetative effects described by the townspeople. ... As for pulverising it [for ingestion through the air], that technology was not even possible at that time. Most compellingly, why would they choose the town of Pont-Saint-Esprit to conduct these tests? It was half-destroyed by the US Army during fighting with the Germans in the Second World War. It makes no sense.
- Plagiarized? Global Dashboard's David Steven wonders why the Telegraph story didn't even bother to cite Kaplan's competing book on the subject. He also digs up what looks like some startling similarities: "parts of [the Telegraph article] bear an extremely suspicious resemblance" to a New York Times review of Kaplan's book back in 2008, while another section almost looks like a direct translation of a French blog post from this past Monday. He lays the quotes side by side for comparison.
- Chemically Laughable The Awl's Alex Balk (whose primary reaction is "really?") digs up a post by a chemist in the pharmaceutical industry, Derek Lowe. Lowe says the Telegraph story is hogwash. He's particularly skeptical of a passage saying the village went crazy because of "diethylamide, the D in LSD." Diethylamide "isn't a separate compound," and "LSD isn't some sort of three-component mixture," Lowe scoffs: "I'd like to hear this guy explain to me what the 'S' stands for." Furthermore, diethylamides don't provoke hallucination. It's clear to him that "neither the author of this new book, nor the people at the Telegraph, nor the supposed scientific 'source' of this quote, know anything about chemistry." He's not dismissing this wild story out of hand, but he doesn't think this particular narrative makes sense:
Now, there most certainly were secret LSD experiments during the 1950s and 1960s. (The book Storming Heaven has a good account of them, as well as of the history of LSD in general). But it's rather hard to see why the CIA should decide to dose some village in the Auvergne, especially when the symptoms (burning sensations in the extremities as well as hallucinations) seem to match ergotism quite well.