Carl Sagan wrote a book in 1995 called “The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark”. He writes:
“We live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology and yet have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. That’s a clear prescription for disaster”
The urgent need for rapid decarbonisation of our electricity system means we have to research, build, test and deploy a raft of new technologies, all in a short time period. As new technology collides with human nature, myth and misinformation take hold. Fighting back against this means looking closely at the cultural and cognitive drivers that lead to people rejecting science.
Last Sunday, the IPCC released a report reminding us that “a global roll-out of clean energy would shave only a tiny fraction off economic growth”. Wind energy is one of the most promising clean technologies, and in the past two years, has supplied between 3% and 7% of total electrical generation on the National Electricity Market, per month.
Currently, the total installed capacity of wind farms in Australia is 2,584 megawatts, comprised of 1,397 wind turbines across 62 different wind farms. This chart shows the rise in installed capacity – the rise in wind power is matched only by the rise in solar.
Wind energy has grown significantly in the US as well – this interactive infographic from the US Energy department shows spread of wind energy across the US over a much longer timescale – in the past 40 years. With this increase came the creation of one of the most powerful and pervasive myths that exists with regards to wind farms – something called “Wind Turbine Syndrome”.
Back in 2006, a paediatrician married to an anti-wind activist placed an ad asking for:
“Anyone living near wind turbines and suffering ill health effects of whatever sort which he/she suspects are a result of the wind turbines – asking these people to contact her”
This paediatrician, married to an anti-wind activist, theorised that sound emissions of a very low frequency were the cause of a range of symptoms she’d discovered in a small group of people she conducted telephone interviews with.
Her theory, put forward in 2009, still survives, despite her research being widely discredited. The idea behind “wind turbine syndrome” is that low frequencies of sound stimulate the inner ear and cause an enormous range of symptoms. These are known as infrasound, between 0 and 20 Hz, and Low-frequency sound, between 20 and 200 Hz.
This chart, from an article published on Renew Economy, shows infrasound and low-frequency sound measurements. Strangely, infrasound measurements are actually higher when the wind turbine is not generating, compared to when it is. This leads to the first major problem with the “Wind turbine Syndrome” myth.
When you measure the infrasonic and low-frequency emissions from wind turbines, and compare these to measurements taken in other areas, they’re significantly lower. These data published by acoustics firm Sonus in 2011, shows that it’s clear you’d be exposed to greater amplitudes of infrasound if you were at a gas-fired power station, in Adelaide’s CBD, or at the beach.
Last year, the South Australian Environmental Protection Authority measured infrasonic and low-frequency noise levels near wind farms, indoors, outdoors and at times when the turbines were off and on. They also compared these measurements to a range of different environments, including rural, urban and CBD. Some of the highest levels of infrasound were measured inside the offices of the Environmental Protection Agency.
An acoustics firm called Resonate went a little further, and measured the exposure of the human body to infrasound in a variety of different situations. These data show the infrasound levels we’re exposed to when we’re walking. Why aren’t we suffering from a plague of “Wind Turbine Syndrome”, every time someone ventures to the beach, or decides to go for a stroll?
A study conducted by Professor Simon Chapman, from the Public Health department at Sydney University examined the total number of complaints that had been issued to wind energy companies, to media outlets and to government and senate inquiries. He found that there’s a distinct temporal and geographical skew. Complaints largely began after 2009, and also, they occur at significantly greater levels at wind farms that have been visited by anti-wind groups.
In addition to being seemingly unlinked to the presence of infrasound, there seems to be a strong link between a small number of reports of ill health that closely follow medical misinformation about the experience of living near a wind farm. The image on the bottom half of this slide comes from an ad placed in a Victorian rural newspaper by an anti-wind group in 2009 – the year the term “Wind Turbine Syndrome” was coined.
When people make the assertion that wind turbine operation is directly responsible for ill health, they’re doing so without good scientific evidence to back them up. We know because a vast range of health authorities and research institutions have checked. The following Australian health authorities have issued position statements or evidence reviews on the wind farms and health issue:
Association of Australian Acoustical Consultants (2013)
Victorian Department of Health (2013)
NSW Health (2013)
Worksafe Victoria (2013)
Doctors for the Environment Australia (2011)
Climate and Health Alliance (2012)
Public Health Association of Australia (2013)
South Australian Environmental Protection Agency (2013)
Australian Medical Association (2014)
The Australian Medical Association (AMA) is the peak membership organisation representing registered medical practitioners, and they go a step further than other medical bodies, with regards to this issue:
“The reporting of ‘health scares’ and misinformation regarding wind farm developments may contribute to heightened anxiety and community division”
There is a decent quantity of experimental evidence demonstrating how priming and misinformation can actually directly result in symptoms being reported, despite what seems to be a complete absence of a causal agent. WiFi is a good example of a technology that spread rapidly, and consequently spawned small but significant health fears.
Researchers examined this phenomenon by telling a group of participants that they’d been exposed to a WiFi signal, which was actually fake – people who had been primed with misinformation about the supposed ‘risks’ of WiFi reported immediate and severe symptoms. Some people left the experiment early because the symptoms they experienced were so severe. This amazing research demonstrates the degree to which we underestimate the role of expectations and priming in how people engage with misinformation.
The risks of misinformation aren’t limited to WiFi. Researchers at the University of Auckland performed a similar study, priming two groups with either misinformation or accurate information about exposure to infrasound, and then exposing these groups to both real and sham infrasound.
They found a statistically significant increase in the reporting of symptoms in the group that had been primed with misinformation about wind turbines, regardless of whether they were exposed to real or sham infrasound.
Digging deeper into the myth of wind turbine syndrome shows us that misinformation can be unnervingly powerful. Knowing the impacts of fear and anxiety, we need to consider effective ways of disempowering misinformers.
Risk perception theory is one component of fighting back against misinformation. At times, our perception of risk is far removed from the actual scientific assessment of risk, particularly around new technology. Disempowerment and disenfranchisement play a big part in why people consider a very small risk to be a big one. Trust, fairness and courtesy also have an impact on how people will engage with proposed technology.
Tackling this sentiment is, refreshingly simple. Countries that adopt community ownership schemes are largely spared the adoption of the myths that we see arising with regularity in countries that don’t. Germany is a great example – community ownership is widespread, and community opposition and the consequent spread of myths like “wind turbine syndrome” occur less frequently and less fervently than here in Australia.
Australia is starting to adopt community ownership schemes for wind farms. My own employer, Infigen Energy, is adopting a community ownership scheme for the recently approved Flyer’s Creek wind farm development in NSW, called CENREC.
We also have to pay close attention to the latest research on science communication, whether we’re scientists, or members of the industry such as myself. Traditionally, we’ve believed that the best antidote for misinformation was simply ‘more science’ – what’s known as the “Information Deficit” model. Accurate science is necessary, but it’s not sufficient.
A science communication researcher named Dan Kahan thinks it’s more complex than this. People work to protct values and ideology that they hold dear, and opportunistic misinformers recognise how willing people are to reject science, if it means that their worldviews can be maintained. There’s good evidence to suggest that presenting more and more facts that grate against someone’s worldview actually backfires, and causes people to reject science even more.
A great example of effective science communication is a set of videos produced by a group known as the Victorian Wind alliance, comprised of renewable energy workers, landowners and community members near Victorian wind farms. The videos are comprised of interviews with people who live directly next door to wind farms. They effectively communicate the scientifically verified fact that there’s no infrasonic pandemic blanketing communities near wind farms – in fact, operational wind farms coexist quietly and peacefully with residents living nearby.
A mix of scientific information that’s tailored to ensure it doesn’t grate against the worldviews or ideology of your intended audience seems like a much better approach than the assumption that facts alone will win the day. Embedded deep in every morsel of misinformation and portion of pseudoscience is a cryptic hint at the motivations driving people to angrily reject the outcomes of scientific inquiry.
If we hope to smooth the course of a clean energy revolution, we need to work against the scientific and technological knowledge gaps Carl Sagan warned us of. We can see this happen through empowered and informed communities, and the latest that science communication research has to offer.
Ketan Joshi is a research and communications officer at Infigen Energy. This article is based on a presentation delivered on the 15th of April 2014 at Renewables Futures Public Symposium. He blogs here, and tweets here.