Ill wind: The real cost of pseudo-scientific scaremongering

First published on Renew Economy by Ketan Joshi, 20/06/2013.

wind farm cartoonOn October 22nd, 1844, a man soared from the roof of a barn, with his eyes squeezed shut. William Miller, a Baptist preacher, had told him that Jesus would be returning to Earth on that specific day, and he leapt from his perch, expecting to be whisked upwards in a rapturous flurry of salvation. Jesus did not return, and the man was not saved.

As Miller gazed on the chaos resulting from what came to be known as the ‘Great Disappointment’, he was probably thinking deeply about the problems with prophecy. Namely, that he had chosen to predict something entirely out of his control. If Miller wanted advice on daunting foreshadowing, he may have benefited from the tactics deployed by Australia’s anti-wind lobby.

Wind energy has been subject to a broad cluster of concerns, ranging from reasonable questions about visual amenity to fears that wind turbines can makes houses ‘shake apart’ and explode. Anti-wind groups focus their efforts on creating an air of impending doom, where wind farms are proposed. Two star performers used to arouse a sense of prophesied dread – property value reductions and health impacts – are inextricably linked.

For nearly three years now, Australian anti-wind groups have focused their lobbying on spreading concerns about health impacts of wind turbines, transmitted invisibly through the menacingly unfamiliar ‘infrasound’ threat.

The hypothesis that wind farm infrasound directly harms human physiology is resoundingly illogical, given the ubiquity of low levels of infrasound in nearly every environment. Anti-wind groups such as the Waubra Foundation remain unperturbed by this, continuing to relentlessly spread health fears around wind energy. Sarah Laurie, CEO of the Waubra Foundation, has informed the residents of King Island, the site of a proposed wind farm development, that “Yes, wind turbines do cause adverse health effects”.

The actions of the anti-wind lobbyists have remarkable cut-through in communities that are considering the development of wind farms. Infrasound-related health fears have been at the forefront of concerns on King Island, an illustrative example of fear and anxiety closely following the presence of the Waubra Foundation. This is not the first time that health fears have arisen around modern technology.

Power lines were once considered by the public and the media with palatable apprehension. This video shows a community in Sydney’s west carrying fluorescent tubes underneath a high voltage transmission line. “It just amazes me that there’s so much EMF [electromagnetic field] around. You know, we’re all living right underneath this.” A greyhound owner explains why 14 of his dogs have died from cancer: “It wouldn’t be the grass or the trees, so it’s got to be the wires. You know, it’s only logical.”

The perceived health risks of living a few hundred metres from powerlines, though divorced from scientific reality, had a serious impact on land values. In 1998, Patsy W Thomley wrote in the journal of Land Use and Environmental Law about a National Research Council report clearing power lines of health impacts: “Ultimately, as long as the public believes that electric and magnetic fields are a health risk, effects of that perception will remain. The devaluation of land located near electric and magnetic fields will likely continue because the perception makes the land less desirable.”

“Even if electric and magnetic fields do not present a substantial risk to public health, land values near power lines will be affected because the public is unlikely to believe the report”. Thomley’s melancholy prediction is relevant in light of the Coalition’s plan to engage in a full-scale health study to determine the health impacts of wind energy.

A paper published in 2002 by Sally Sims reaches a similar conclusion, stating that “Despite the fact that there is no conclusive proof that electromagnetic fields (EMFs) produced by power lines causes cancer or other adverse health effects, public perception of these risks appears to have a negative effect on the value and desirability of this type of property”.

The media play a role in the public perception of risk and consequent reductions in property value. McCluskey and Rausser pose a tricky question: “Should firms be held responsible for the entire amount of real property value losses caused by risk perceptions that are inflated by the media?”

Their analysis shows that “media coverage and high prior risk perceptions increase perceived risk”, resulting in lowered property values. They even suggest that litigants can recover lost value from their properties from parties such as media sources that have propagated a ‘scientifically baseless’ risk.

The Australian reporting that wind farms might be linked to embryonic mutation springs to mind, when considering the role of media in the inflation of risk perception.

Anti-wind groups are now travelling to wind developments and spreading the message that wind farms are conclusively linked to an absurd range of health impacts. The more success they find in spreading ominous and scientifically unjustified health fears, the more property values will be impacted by an artificially skewed perception of risk.

Their skill at preaching prophecies of dread, destruction and dismay make William Miller seem decidedly amateur.

One thought on “Ill wind: The real cost of pseudo-scientific scaremongering

  1. Great article Ketan. Unfortunately, the likes of Sarah Laurie and her fellow woo merchants will never be convinced they are wrong – they have invested too much time and effort to turn back now.

    It’s going to take some serious legal action from somebody with deep pockets to make these proponents of pseudoscience be a little more circumspect about how they promote their anti-wind message.

    It’s a pity there isn’t some consumer law requiring honesty (and evidence) when people like Laurie make particular claims.

    The systematic undermining and destruction of the anti-vaxers in Australia needs to be replicated with the anti-wind mob. The first place to start is educating the media regarding the basic science of sound transmission and wind energy. Even better, physical demonstrations might help get the message across. On this last issue, wind energy companies need to lift their game.

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