rss
30

Why new technology often attracts bad science

Print Friendly

Recently, the New South Wales Planning and Assessment Commission (PAC) approved Infigen Energy’s Bodangora Wind Farm development, southeast of Dubbo in NSW. The finding is a positive outcome – something the development team at Infigen Energy has worked on for four years.

In the past few years, community concerns have grown around the purported health impacts of wind energy. These fears have focused largely on wind farm infrasound – sound below a frequency of 20 hertz, and low-frequency sound, below 200 Hz. Organisations dedicated purely to propagating the theory that wind farms are responsible for an incredible range of symptoms (including “batteries on phones, cars, tractors, and cameras discharging very quickly”) focus on communities considering wind farm developments.

An article in the Daily Liberal, Wellington’s local newspaper, re-stated the claims of Waubra Foundation CEO Sarah Laurie, made at the PAC public meeting in Wellington, in July:

“When she [Dr Laurie] was alerted to health problems associated with wind turbines, Dr Laurie decided there was potentially serious health problems associated with them.

Dr Laurie also described the cover up by government bureaucracy in regard to windfarming as being equal to that of big tobacco, asbestos and thalidomide.”

Smoking-related diseases caused 14,900 deaths in 2004-05, there have been 4,700 deaths from mesothelioma since the 1980’s, and during the thalidomide crisis, 10,000 children were born with birth defects. No registered health professional or health authority in the world has been able to find evidence that infrasound from wind turbines can harm human health. Interestingly, the same comparison is made by opponents of vaccination:

 ‘In a public talk, the Sydney chiropractor linked vaccines to asbestos, thalidomide and cigarettes…”It’s important to remember people told us many different things were safe, such as asbestos and thalidomide and cigarettes – all of those things we know are harmful to us”’.

And, by opponents of smart meters:

“We’ve seen this awful behaviour before in the cases of tobacco , leaded petrol, asbestos, thalidomide etc etc.”

And, by opponents of WiFi:

‘”I think it’s a terrible mistake,” she says. “Is Wi-Fi going to turn out to be the tobacco, asbestos or Thalidomide of the 21st century? It’s looking that way.”’

 

Screen Shot 2013-09-04 at 10.28.51 AM Ill-considered comparisons to genuine public health disasters seem to closely follow technological scares. Image Source:Syncrenicity.com

Why do we regularly see this blindingly disproportionate comparison between demonstrably disastrous public health epidemics, and demonstrably harmless technologies?

Invoking technological dread cuts to our core like nothing else, and this has had an enormous impact on the deployment of renewable energy. The efficacy of this tactic isn’t proportional to the strength of the evidence underlying those claims, and as such, it’s unsurprising that groups spreading health fears consider a lack of evidence no hindrance to the spread of misinformation, even when health authorities directly contradict their claims.

Screen Shot 2013-09-04 at 10.28.44 AM

Imagery and logos  designed to invoke fear tend to focus on portraying dangerous and inexcapable waves radiating from some technological threat. Image sources: Southweb.orgWindturbinesyndrome.comExhibithealth.comtreehuggersofamerica.org

 

The report published by the PAC details a meeting held between the Commission and representatives of NSW Health. The results of that meeting are unambiguous:

 “NSW Health was very clear in its advice, which is consistent with that of the National Health and Medical Research Council – that there is no published scientific evidence to link wind turbines with adverse health effects.

NSW Health noted that the symptoms reported by residents concerned by wind farms are also reported by those living near other new developments of various kinds. Studies suggest these symptoms are suggestible, i.e. if individuals are expecting to be impacted they will be more likely to report symptoms.”

Not only do these paragraphs reassert the findings of the Victorian Department of Health (who released a report in May on wind farms and health), they remind us that spreading information about health and medicine should be carefully bound by an ethical framework, and by scientific rigour. The medical community is well aware of this. Section 4.6 of the Australian Medical Association Code of Ethics states:

“When providing scientific information to the public, recognise a responsibility to give the generally held opinions of the profession in a form that is readily understood. When presenting any personal opinion which is contrary to the generally held opinion of the profession, indicate that this is the case.”

Bad science is not harmless. The recent exponential rise in misinformation regarding wind farm safety has precipitated an important shift in how wind energy can contribute in the fight against climate change. Health fears far removed from contemporary scientific knowledge, aimed at stifling wind development, can result in real anxiety and real worries, in communities that choose to host wind farm developments.

Though community engagement has always been important, the rise of ‘wind turbine syndrome’, pushed into existence and communicated by anti-wind campaigners, has quadrupled the importance of community engagement. The danger of homegrown, unchecked, medical misinformation is a threat neither the wind industry, nor communities adjacent to wind farms, can afford to ignore.

Ketan Joshi is a Research and Communications Officer at Infigen Energy, interested in scientific, technical and community issues surrounding renewable energy development. The views expressed above are his own, and not those of his employer.  

  • Thanks Ketan for another great article. I look forward to the day when proponents of antiscience and bad medicine are held to account for the unnecessary fear and damage they cause. I long for the day when all our politicians have to be scientifically literate before being eligible for Parliament. It would then be a lot harder for malcontents like Sarah Laurie, Ian Plimer et al to get any traction with our legislators.

    • I totally agree Blair. I would include the anti-nuke brigade in that list. They are creating havoc in Fukushima using similar antiscience and bad medicine.

      • Giles

        Yeah, those nuclear power authorities are infested with watermelons aren’t they. I look forward to the day when the pro-nuke brigade move into Fukushima, take their morning swim in the sea in front of the reactors and rejoice in their healthy environment. Then, if you can deliver nuclear plants at 10c/kW or less, and can find non-government funding, build as many as you want.

        • Giles, I am very disappointed by your rather facile comment. You clearly are not keeping up with some recent announcements trying to explain what the current radiation exposure in Fukushima means.

          http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/RS_Fear_and_Fukushima_0309131.html

          http://www.tepco.co.jp/en/announcements/2013/1230191_5502.html

          Poor reporting, fanned by the anti-nuclear believers, is causing significant and unmerited distress to the people in Fukushima and is an excellent parallel to the bad science of the Waubra Foundation.

          I’m particularly disappointed that you don’t seem to see the parallel.

          • Giles

            Great. So why don’t you grab a piece of sheet metal as Tepco suggests and move to Fukushima. If nuclear is so critical to the future of the planet, and the radiation threat so minimal, it is the least that someone from the pro-nuclear lobby could do. Or is it the case, as the Japanese government suggests, that Tepco can’t be trusted?

          • George Papadopoulos

            Martin, I don’t understand why you think the WF engages in bad science. In case you are not aware, it is an organisation dedicated to research and promoting awareness of the problems wind turbines cause to surrounding residents.

          • Lying again George? You know full well the Waubra Foundation is an Astroturf group and that none of the directors live anywhere near Waubra. They are just adept at using useful idiots like yourself for the purposes of their propaganda.

          • George Papadopoulos

            Giles, recall our communications last week about what constitutes abusive behaviour. Is the comment from Blair above decent and appropriate?

          • Giles

            No it’s not. and it’s gone. Blair, welcome to repost without the personal abuse. Think what you think, let the facts do the talking otherwise it gets unsightly. both sides.

          • Giles, if my comments to George were out of line, my apologies.

      • Martin, I reluctantly acknowledge we may need to resort to nuclear power for a period of time but it is in no way renewable or clean and the sooner we can bypass it entirely, the better.

        Do you live anywhere near a nuclear power station or a region that has been adversely affected by the failure of a nuclear power plant? I suspect not which is why I have some empathy or those many thousands in and around Fukushima who have had their livelihoods destroyed – And makes me doubt your sincerity.

        The unexplained 18 fold increase in radiation around the destroyed plant is not some minor aberration, nor is the radiation spreading off the coast of Japan.

        Ignorance might be bliss for some but it does bugger all to help those many who are affected by an avoidable failure that has been massaged and denied by the industry and the government in Japan.

        If the region around the nuclear plant is as benign as you and others would have us believe, why is nobody from the industry living right next to the damaged plant and why our workers regularly rotated through so as not to be exposed for longer than necessary?

        • Blair and Ketan, assuming you have some basic radiation science understanding, I can only suggest you carefully reread the links I put in my first post.

          If you then reject them out of hand, then there is no purpose in continuing the conversation further.

          • Martin, I assure you I do have some basic understanding of nuclear radiation. It was a mandatory requirement of the medical research I was involved in many years ago – and that was only with isotopes with very short half lives. The fact that no proponents of nuclear power see fit to live next door to the failed nuclear plant at Fukushima but are happy to snipe from the sidelines from the safety of other countries says heaps.

          • “… On living close to a nuclear plant”

            With respect and that’s a slight gilding of the lily, the article talks about jobs not people living close to any plant. And as for projections on the number of nuclear power plants by 2030, I call BS because most plants take at least a decade to construct, usually more which would mean all those new plants would have to be starting construction about now. That’s not the case as I understand it. While some new projects are starting, many have been delayed, deferred or cancelled outright.

            And then there is the perennial problem of what to do with the waste. Most of the facilities in France and Japan are chock-a-block and looking for places to sequester it. It’s still waste and still a problem even if they find somewhere vaguely appropriate to store it but vaguely appropriate usually mean some poor community somewhere away from the larger population centres.

            Since I was a kid I have heard of the wonders of nuclear power yet none of the predictions have proven to be anywhere near accurate.

          • Michel Rahme

            If we start a fund, with Giles permission, I am sure there would be plenty of reneweconomy readers who will gladly donate money for you to take a 7day holiday to Fukishima Martin, go for a swim in the ocean off the coast of the nuclear plant every day, drink some of the water, eat the local fish and vegetables every day you are there – then I will take your conviction more seriously!

      • Ketan Joshi

        I’m astonished by how frequently otherwise rational people equate the anti-nuclear lobby with the anti-wind lobby. There might be some similarities between the two, but the differences are enormous.

        Health fears around wind energy are as far from scientifically valid as you can get. I suggest you visit some links in my article to get a feel for that.

        There does seem to be a fair degree of scientific validity around the impacts of nuclear technology, though at times, some of these might be over-stated (as is the case with coal, gas, solar, wind farms, power lines, and every single other tech).

        An inaccurate assessment of risk is far removed from the stratospheric falsehoods of ‘wind turbine syndrome’.

        • George Papadopoulos

          Health “fears” around wind energy Ketan are based on a univeral problem with wind turbines: turning people’s living environments into unbearable sonic torture camps. Where things rattle, vibrate, go whoosh etc.
          I suggest you spend less time on sociological approaches – a specialty of Simon Chapman – and instead deal with the reality of the complaints that come into your offices.

    • George Papadopoulos

      Yes, for the wind industry its all science Blair – including the science of manipulation/deception!

      Here is one report: http://www.businessspectator.com.au/news/2013/9/5/wind-power/winds-farms-have-no-effect-house-prices-study#comment-form

      and here is another: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=wind-power-plant-property-house-values
      Both reports mention the conclusions of the study. But only the second confirms it was a cynical process of diluting down an analysis by making the inclusion criteria so broad, that it would create an insignificant result anyway! Analysis of data subsets carefully avoided. No surprise!

      • George, given you sell non-science to week, sick and desperate people because they are uninformed and/or misguided, I humbly submit you are in no position to accuse others of being cynical when you epitomise it.

        • George Papadopoulos

          Blair some reading for you from the AUSTRIAN

          • George Papadopoulos

            (pardon the key stroke) AUSTRIAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION GUIDELINES FOR EMR: http://electromagnetichealth.org/electromagnetic-health-blog/oak-emf-guidelines/
            Hope this give you some clue about how I work.

          • George, once again you confuse infrasound with electromagnetic radiation. The two are completely different phenomena. Infrasound can only propagate through a medium such as air or water but not through a vacuum, something electromagnetic radiation can do. EMR can propagate at the speed of light, infrasound cannot. Your ignorance is breathtaking.

            Why should anyone believe you when you display a poor understanding of the terminology and clearly do not understand the basic physics?

            It illustrates just how feeble your understanding is and why your biases against wind energy are built on demonstrably false ideas.

            Posting links from some poorly recognised medical association promoting dubious claims while ignoring evidence from resident Australian groups such as the Australian medical Association, CSIRO and others proves you are not objective.

            “Hope this give you some clue about how I work.”

            It certainly does and it’s not a good look.

          • George Papadopoulos

            Blair, I get your point: your inability to separate different points of discussion makes you very confused.
            Next time your label me as an EMR assessor, I will have to remind you that EMR and infrasound may have a common source, but don’t mix together…

  • George Papadopoulos

    Ketan, plenty of rhetoric but you seem to have missed one simple detail coming out of Infigen’s own office which admits that is a problem with wind turbines and health:

    “NSW Health also made it clear that noise levels at distances of more than one km
    from the turbines would not cause health impacts…”
    The quote is from Infigen’s Bodangora wind farm press release. Good starting point Ketan! 1km now, let’s see how the officially recognised figures starts to creep outwards as the research continues…

    • George, as has been pointed out earlier, your promotion of pseudoscience and junk medicine to the gullible really disqualifies you from making any enlightened comment about sound levels from anything, let alone wind farms.

      And for the benefit of others, here is the sort of garbage George sells to the unwary… http://geovital.com.au/geovital_george_papadopoulos_nsw.html

      • George Papadopoulos

        So Blair, you must agree than Infigen’s comment is an admission of health problems? Is that why you prefer personal attacks?

        • No George, once again you demonstrate your grasp of the English language is as tenuous as your grasp of reality. Reason and understanding are not your strong suits.

          • George Papadopoulos

            So Blair, what does this mean: “NSW Health also made it clear that noise levels at distances of more than one km
            from the turbines would not cause health impacts…”
            I assume it means than within 1km, there are some issues that the health department recognises…
            I think Ketan’s silence is telling.

  • Miles Harding

    Well done Ketan, you’ve managed to find some first rate rubbish. I have long been surprised by the garbage that many people believe, apparently unable to separate ludicrous from meritorious.

    The Waubra foundation being a particular case in point, their claims are obvious garbage. For example; many people pay a lot of money to live near the sea and experience the rhythmic crashing of the waves on the beach without once thinking that the infrasound from the surf is driving them mad.

    It is a fact of life that disingenuous fronts like Waubra and trolls like George can’t be silenced in an open and inclusive society. Their power comes from ignorance.

    Unfortunately, most of the human race prefers to believe a comforting lie rather than embracing a difficult truth. The former defers problems, the latter confronts them permitting an appropriate course of action to be taken before the problems become insurmountable.

    Apparently we have this playing out in Australian politics, the Abbott policy is clearly rearward facing and solving problems in a framework that existed half a century ago.