Why new technology often attracts bad science

Published by Renew Economy. View original article.

peer_review_monster_flickr_Gideon_BurtonRecently, 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.

2 thoughts on “Why new technology often attracts bad science

  1. Yes, WIFI/mobiles are looking a bit like asbestos, and officials in Britain are looking a little nervous about it too:

    “The Department of Health says children should be discouraged from using mobiles, particularly if they are held next to the head, while the country’s chief medical officers say children and young people under 16 should be encouraged to use mobiles for essential purposes only, and to keep calls short.”


  2. If Wind Farms are the panacea that some are claiming, then why is there a backlash in every country where they’ve taken hold? Why are the Dutch and Brits handing out money hand over fist to keep neighbours quiet, why are Wind Farms being pushed away from mainland England, why have 800,000 people in Germany had their power disconnected, why are CO2 emissions in Wind Farm belts steadily increasing, why are the courts in Canada being filled with valid lawsuits against Wind Consortia, why have the Spanish given up on the ‘experiment’ and left thousands of rusting wind turbines dormant throughout their country, why in all these countries (and now ours) are there thousands of health and illness complaints emerging, why are property values around wind farms plummeting?

    It’s disgraceful to know, that when you do some digging, you soon find that the bulk of people/groups that are supporting wind farms, or bashing anti-wind farm groups are more often than not financially supported by the companies supplying ‘wind power’.

    How about some balanced views instead of just Greenie Propaganda?????

    Wake up Australia, before we’re a country with non-productive and rusting fans blighting the landscape.

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