Imagine your home was subject to some environmental assault so egregious and relentless that you had no option but to abandon your home: walk away from it without sale, because no one would be mad enough to buy it when they saw what you were enduring.
And then try to imagine that, under these circumstances, you would have never publicly identified yourself. Never protested about what you were experiencing. Never made yourself known to those causing the problem. Never called in the media to report the unfair conditions under which you lived. Never mentioned it in a submission to parliament.
While the first is possible to imagine, the second would be hard to fathom. People at the end of their tether tend to be angry. They have awful stories to tell. They welcome arc lights thrown on their situation to so the injustice might be stopped. Such a situation would be prime cut news.
Yet this is the situation we are being asked to accept when it comes to claims that Australian wind farms have allegedly driven “more than 40” families to abandon their homes: to become “wind farm refugees”, as the anti wind farm lobby likes to call them.
This “more than 40” families claim has been made by the face of Australia’s most prominent anti wind farm lobby group, Ms Sarah Laurie. I immediately smelt the deep fragrance of factoid: a baseless claim, which if repeated often enough, comes to be accepted as true. Three Senators (Back, Madigan and Xenophon) strapped on their megaphones and while not repeating the “40” number, used the “abandoned home” or “refugees” expressions.
In a paper just published, I describe how I set out to corroborate Laurie’s claim. I used six sources (parliamentary submissions, media reports, an anti wind farm website, wind industry sources, attempted correspondence with known anti wind farm activists, and email to the three politicians above) to find evidence of these 40 home “abandonments”.
I found 10 cases of families who had permanently left their homes, attributing this to wind turbines near their home. Another two claimed to leave occasionally for respite.
However, none of the houses appeared to have been permanently “abandoned” without sale, as the expression implies. People move houses for many reasons. And here importantly, most of the twelve cases need contextualizing against considerations that several of those involved were either dedicated activists against wind farms from times sometimes pre-dating the construction of the farms; some were engaged in protracted negotiations for their homes to be purchased by wind companies; some had pre-existing health problems now attributed to turbine exposure, grievances with the wind company over employment or had left the area for unrelated reasons of employment elsewhere.
Laurie advised me by email that she had supplied details about her claim in a confidential submission to a Senate Committee. Her claim about “40 families” is thus not open to any scrutiny.
As we see regularly, refugees fleeing intolerable or deadly circumstances are usually desperate to highlight their plights to anyone who might help. People whose homes are threatened by proposed freeways, tunnels, flight path changes, or dodgy chemical factories do not hesitate to protest and publicly identify themselves. Several of the 12 had indeed gone very public with their cases, but 12 is a lot less than “more than 40”. So why are more than 28 mystery families being so shy, if they really walked away from their homes?
My paper concluded that the claim was a factoid promoted by wind farm opponents for dramatic, rhetorical impact. The claim sits alongside other contestable claims made by wind farm opponents, including a list of symptoms of Biblical pestilence proportions (currently numbering 236) said to be caused by wind farm exposure, the promotion of non-diseases, claims that wind farms can rock stationary cars 1km away, make people’s lips vibrate 10km away and that they can be heard at up to 100km. A recent review by a team including Sir Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatry, of the evidence for the nocebo effect explaining adverse reactions to wind concluded:
“First, the “nocebo effect” is a well-recognized phenomenon in which the expectation of symptoms can become self-fulfilling. Second, misattribution of pre-existing or new symptoms to a novel technology can also occur. Third, worry about a modern technology increases the chances of someone attributing symptoms to it. Fourth, social factors, including media reporting and interaction with lobby groups can increase symptom reporting.
For wind turbines, there is already some evidence that a nocebo effect can explain the attributed symptoms while misattribution seems likely. Although worry has not been directly studied, research has shown that people who are annoyed by the sound that turbines produce are more likely to report symptoms and that annoyance is associated with attitudes toward the visual impact of wind farms and whether a person benefits economically from a wind farm.”
Simon Chapman is Professor in Public Health at the University of Sydney. He has published 469 articles in peer reviewed journals and 17 books and major reports.