Not everyone believes the public would have panicked if warned that a nuclear-powered satellite was about to crash to earth.

"The fear of panic is based on misconceptions. Actually, most studies show that people bear up remarkably well under stress and do what can be done in the situation," said Dr E. L. Quantarelli, co-director of the Disaster Research Center at Ohio State University in Columbus.

The center has been studying social behavior surrounding disasters since 1951, conducting or reviewing hundreds of analyses of what happened both in disasters of which there was warning (hurricanes, blizzards, floods) and in those that occurred suddenly (earthquakes, fires, tornadoes, plane crashes).

"When warned, people and organizations can respond more intelligently. They simply don't break down when they're told of the dangers facing them. It affects the entire organizational response," Quantarelli said.

He called the widespread belief to the contratry "the panic myth," and traced it to the fact that fear occurs when there is very short notice of an impending event. "If you wait until the last moment, no one can plan intelligently," he said. "The fear of panic itself prevents intelligent preparation and it undermines public confidence in the future action of the (government) agencies. Really, it's an indefensible position."

When disaster acutally strikes, "people don't just sit around waiting for outside help. They dig out, try to find shelter, take care of each other - at least in the short run," the sociologists continued. A warning also minimizes the matural tendency after something occurs to seek scapegoats, he added.

"If [the satellite] had fallen on New York, there would have been a great search for a focus for blame: people would want to know why no one had said anything beforehand," he said.

Advance knowledge of the possible crash as it developed this week, he said, "would have gotten a great deal of attention but theye wouldn't have been any terrible worry or unusual behavior. Actually, people will now wonder in the future if they're really being told the truth since they weren't [fully informed] this time."