Monday, 14 April 2014

Teapots, Dilutions and Infrasound: The Negative Proof Conundrum

We can't prove negatives. If I tell you that there's a teapot orbiting Earth, and you can't provide evidence that there isn't, it doesn't mean that I'm right, or that there's a 50/50 chance that I'm right. The philosopher Bertrand Russell used this celestial teapot as an example of the 'burden of proof' - those making a claim need to support that claim with evidence. It's not incumbent on critics to produce evidence of the opposite.

Two groups promoting claims in the world of medicine had their theories assessed by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC): homeopaths and anti-wind groups. The NHMRC found no evidence to support their claims.

This absence of evidence was twisted into vindication, rather than incrimination. This is due to the common misunderstanding that if there is no evidence for something, the probabilities of that claim either being correct or incorrect are precisely equal.


'Homoeopathy' is based around the idea that water has a 'memory', and consequently, you can treat someone using absurdly tiny amounts of whatever it is that caused their ailment ("like cures like"). The quantity of active ingredient in homeopathic products is insanely small.

In homeopathy, the smaller the quantity of the active ingredient, the more potent the medicine is said to be. This is bonkers.
Last week, the NHMRC released an evidence review examining the efficacy of homeopathy, which found that:
"There is no reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective for treating health conditions" 
The Australian Homeopathic Association (AHA) responded in an interview on ABC News 24 - you can watch the full thing here, but one remark was quite relevant. The head of the AHA said the following, when asked about the NHMRC report on homeopathy:
“What I think you could fairly say is that what the NHMRC have presented does not say that homeopathy does not work or cannot work, but that the evidence might not be particularly strong in certain areas, or that their might not be enough of it”

Wind Turbine Syndrome 

A similar NHMRC evidence review into wind farms and health was released a few weeks back. They state: 
"There is no reliable or consistent evidence that wind farms directly cause adverse health effects in humans"
This matches the results of a 2010 evidence review that did essentially the same thing. In a letter to the then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard, CEO of the 'Waubra Foundation' Sarah Laurie wrote: 
"The current CEO of the NHMRC, Professor Warwick Anderson made it clear there was a concern, in his oral evidence to the Senate Inquiry, on 31st March 2011. He stated “we do not say that there are no ill effects”, and acknowledged that there was very little existing evidence, and that the absence of evidence did not mean there was not a problem.

Why the inaction, when families are being forced from their homes, or elderly pensioners are left to “rot”?"
It's a line held firm by anti-wind groups. An absence of evidence is no barrier to claiming that wind turbines are things to fear, as stated again in this interview, after the release of yet another report, this one by the South Australian EPA, clearing wind farms of health impacts (emphasis mine):
"TIMOTHY MCDONALD: But I guess - you just made the claim that country people are being harmed by these wind farms, but at the same time you're saying that the research isn't there to show one way or the other. I'm just trying to reconcile those two points. 
SARAH LAURIE: Well they're reporting serious harm to their doctors. Their doctors are reporting harm, their psychologists are reporting harm. The individuals are reporting harm to a series of Senate inquiries and nothing is being done.
The fact that it's not getting in the peer reviewed published journals doesn't mean the harm isn't happening."
Some Claims Really Need Evidence

You can make any claim you want. But some claims need to be backed with evidence. If, for instance, you travel to a community considering a wind farm development, and you tell them that the wind farm is going to give them autism, one might expect there to be strong evidence in support of that claim, rather a simple absence of evidence against it.

Or, if someone with cancer needs treatment, and you tell them that magic water will heal them, simply throwing up your hands and saying 'welp, there's no evidence I'm wrong!' doesn't cut it.

Be Clear About The Burden of Proof

An irksome feature of the NHMRC's report into wind farms and health was the exclusion of social and psychological issues.

There's no consideration of the impact of lobby groups that exist outside academia or the medical profession, and consequently, aren't bound by the need for evidence. It's hard to skirt around the fact that despite there being no evidence for homeopathy or 'wind turbine syndrome', both claims have incredible cut-through, due largely to the fact that people accept those claims based on value systems and world-view, rather than quantity of evidence.

This might be something the NHMRC could consider in the future. It's inevitable that an established and quantified absence of evidence is no barrier to people travelling to a town and trying to instil fear of wind energy, or other people trying to sell magic water as a cure for cancer.

Why not understand and pre-empt this, when trying to arm the community against misinformation? 

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

The Legal History of Wind Energy Health Fears

In the past five years, a phenomenon known as 'wind turbine syndrome' has suffocated and stifled rational discourse around the deployment of wind farms. It's based on the assertion that inaudible sound emissions from wind turbines are responsible for an incredible spread of symptoms, at large distances.

It's been shown, clearly, that low-frequency sound levels from operational wind turbines are much lower than you'd find in a CBD or in a rural environment. Professor Simon Chapman, from the University of Sydney, showed in a study that out of an estimated population of 32,000 living with five kilometres of wind farms, there were ~124 people who had complained of health or noise impacts from wind farms.

There have been 20 evidence reviews, by government, industry and research bodies, to assess whether there's enough scientific research out there to suggest that the symptoms stated by residents are caused by wind turbines - each found no positive evidence. Recently, the Australian Medical Association released a position statement, saying the same.

Despite a pointed lack of evidence for 'wind turbine syndrome', the issue has grown to become a central component of campaigns run in communities against wind energy, boosted by anti-wind groups that travel to towns to bolster health fears. Anecdotal evidence is the focus, as stated in this meeting held by a group opposed to a nearby wind farm development:

The barrister in the video is explicit about what it takes for a successful legal challenge to a wind farm - as much anecdotal evidence as you can muster:
"That experience is in itself, evidence. If you dragged in thirty people from Waubra, twenty from Waterloo and put them in a court room, to talk about the loss and the suffering, it will support a claim to obtain an injunction against any wind farm being proposed"
A recent post by energy blogger Mike Barnard examined a thorough history of the times this health issue has been considered by the courts, around the world. He crawled legal databases, found more than 150 decisions, and examined 47 of which had addressed noise or health issues from those proposed wind farms. 46 of those found no evidence that the proposals would damage humans or animals living nearby.

Mike's list of 47 court cases is interesting. Firstly, it's worth noting that all of the countries are English speaking. Despite a large installed capacity in European countries, the issue seems nearly non-existent. Mike did search European countries, but acknowledges that language might have been an issue with the search.

There was also a distinct increase in the issue being raised in the courts after the publication of a book called 'Wind Turbine Syndrome: A Natural Experiment' by a paediatrician named Nina Pierpont - the wife of an anti-wind activist in the US. It was published in late 2009.

In the NHMRC's latest evidence review, they excluded it from their report, listing it under the "Article is not a study" section.

Australia's distribution is interesting. Victoria comprises the bulk of cases that considered the health issue. Every time the health issue was tested in Australian courts, they found no evidence to support the claim that 'wind turbine syndrome' should make us fearful of wind farms.

It's unlikely that having claims assessed and debunked by health bodies and tested in a variety of courts in several different countries will put a dent in the motivation of groups that travel to communities, with the hope of convincing people that they ought to feel visceral fear.

Thanks to Mike's analysis, it's interesting to see how the publication of a single report, not peer-reviewed or published in any journal, can give birth to a mythical syndrome expressed through the court battles detailed in the timeline below, and the imperviousness of this 'syndrome' to demands for evidence.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Technophobia Comes From Deep Beneath Our Skin

Adapted from a presentation delivered at the Annual Australian Skeptics Dinner at Ryde-Eastwood Leagues Club, on the 29th of March 2014

Back when I was studying my science degree, we’d frequent a nearby pub. We had one friend who was full of wisdom, and deeply suspicious of anything that needed electrical current to operate. “Mobile phone radiation” he’d boom over the beers scattered on the table, “can cook popcorn”.

Our young minds instantly generated pictures of our soft, mushy brains popping out of our skulls like kernels of freshly exploded corn. One of my braver friends raised a skeptical eyebrow and asked him how he knew this astonishing fact. He was prepared for the question, and his answer came with the same booming confidence as his original assertion. “Try it yourself” he smoothly declared, “You’ll see”.

I didn't try it, and neither did anyone else. Yet, I felt a little weird, holding a phone to my head.

That feeling, of consternation stemming from some internal, primal mechanism rather than any logical, conscious conclusion, arises with nearly every single technology we encounter, and when it’s combined with misinformation spawned and propagated by vested interests, we suddenly see ourselves ditching careful risk analysis in favour of a fearful approach towards the implementation of technology.

This is a sensation, not a conclusion. It’s driven by something deep under our skin, rather than the machinations of logic.

Though this sensation has rough, indeterminate edges, let's call it ‘anything syndrome’ - a consistent set of symptoms reported when we’re exposed to a technology that emits sound or electromagnetic radiation. These emissions can be quantified, and when they're measured, they're well below the levels at which we'd be harmed.

The syndrome doesn't stem from any physical causal agent. It stems from somewhere deep beneath our skin - something that grows clear when we dig a little deeper into this odd social phenomenon.

Landline Syndrome

In 1889, in the September 21st edition of the British Medical Journal, a doctor wrote:
“The patients suffered from nervous excitability, with buzzing noises in the ear, giddiness, and neuralgic pains ...All the trouble speedily vanishes if  the ear is allowed a sufficient measure of physiological rest; this it can only obtain by the cause of the evil being withdrawn. The victims … seem all to be of markedly nervous organization, and the moral may be drawn that such persons should not use the telephone"
It’s comical and anachronistic to think that landline telephones once posed a physiological threat. But in the early 1900s, as the telegraph system spread, so did a powerful newfound anxiety about their usage. This is something that’s been happening for a long time. It’s embedded in us all.

Microwave Syndrome

Microwaves (aka, the 'science oven') bear the mark of health fears far removed from scientific knowledge. The ‘Global Healing Centre’ website states that:
"Microwave sickness’s first signs are low blood pressure and slow pulse. The later and most common manifestations are chronic excitation of the sympathetic nervous system [stress syndrome] and high blood pressure.
This phase also often includes headache, dizziness, eye pain, sleeplessness, irritability, anxiety, stomach pain, nervous tension, inability to concentrate, hair loss, plus an increased incidence of appendicitis, cataracts, reproductive problems, and cancer”
I used to think that technology that was ubiquitous would be relatively immune to technophobia. We've all been near a microwave, and we didn't suffer sudden hair loss.

As it happens, the ubiquity of microwave ovens seems to be a key contributor to precisely how much they’re feared. Microwave syndrome exists because we’re inherently sensitive to an inescapable threat - it’s powerful not in spite of its ubiquity, but because of it.

WiFi Syndrome 

The clip below is from a British Current Affairs Show called ‘Panorama’. The show has a fairly wide audience, and this episode was about the dangers of WiFi, and ‘electromagnetic radiation’ in general.

Part 1

Part 2

Health fears associated with the spread of technology frequently get traction on media that have a wide audience. This episode of Panorama rated incredibly well; though the science underpinning the show was poor, it still got aired, and it still got a large audience.

Via Treehugger
Contained within media that presents health fears in this way is a set of symptoms that people are told to expect - the consequences of exposure.

Included in listed symptoms of WiFi syndrome are headache, dizziness, memory loss, aches, sleeplessness, digestive problems, face rash, nausea, moodiness and infertility. If you’re concerned, you have no reason to fear. There’s a way to protect yourself.

Via MakeUpAlley
A patented WiFi spray from a company called Clarins is made from ingredients found in undersea volcanoes. They claim that:
"Scientists at Clarins whipped up the "Magnetic Defense Complex" from ingredients found 2000 metres deep in the ocean and were elated-"We exposed our cell cultures to a frequency of 900 MHz in the presence of these two plant extracts and found that their structures hardly changed!"
Does it work? An online review says:
“After 12 months it expires i doubt you would be able to use all of it......It smells like kraft dinner macaroni and cheese”
Selling products to protect people against wifi syndrome, and all of its associated subtypes, is a lucrative market.

It’s natural for us to fiercely protect the thing that sustains our existence. If your work as a presenter depends on a large audience, then why wouldn't you take up a cause that’s likely to bolster your ratings? If your products can only be sold if people are truly scared by technology, you’ll accept the bad science that underpins ‘anything syndrome ’.

Smart Meter Syndrome

Financial and career motivations are only a part of the story. Sometimes, ideology can play a big role, and you can estimate the role of ideology by gauging the ferocity with which health fears are communicated and expressed.

Via the 'Institute for Geopathology'
As the sentiment gets stronger, the fonts gets larger, the colours get more garish and the text size increases in variability. Animated gifs, shouty caps lock and word-salad ranting overtake any need to present a polished, commercial message.

Recently, I came across a great example of how ideology can stimulate the spread of misinformation. A libertarian and privacy advocate wrote an article for the Hobart Mercury back in December 2013, about the 'health dangers' of smart meters. Though the health issue formed the bulk of the article, it was book-ended by concerns about privacy and data-retention. These two concerns are quite different, but they were awkwardly jammed together into a single piece.

A few days ago, the author of the article was challenged on Twitter about propagating health fears, despite our best scientific knowledge indicating they pose no health risk. His response was to simply restate that he's a libertarian.

The spread of ‘Smart Meter syndrome’, through the communication of misinformation, is driven in this case by a strong sense of libertarianism and a passionate advocacy for the right to privacy.

Ideology, in a multitude of forms, can make us drop our guard and translate low risks into high risks, when we’d otherwise be more deliberate in our considerations.

Via the National Toxic Encephalopathy Foundation
There are quite a few symptoms listed for Smart Meter Syndrome. I found a list of 91 unique symptoms of smart meter exposure online - these include childlessness, drug resistancy, treatment resistancy, therapy resistancy, Lupus, Tourettes, Sjorgens disease, Suicide, Depression, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Motor Neurone Disease, Muscular Dystrophy, Cancer, Autism, and somehow, foetal alcohol syndrome.

Mobile Tower Syndrome

This is a clip taken from an episode of Today Tonight, a story which aired in 2010. The man in this clip believes working near mobile phone telecommunications towers has caused him real harm.

This next clip is worth watching in its entirety. A community, now known as Freshwater, used to be known as Harbord, and in this clip they gather to protest a Telstra mobile phone base station built next to a Kindergarten.

There are few things worth considering, after watching footage of the man who drove a tank into a mobile phone tower, and the Freshwater Community panic around the Telstra mobile phone base station.

A community protest in March 2014 against a Telstra mobile phone tower at the Gumdale State School and Community Kindergarten - nearly 10 years after the Freshwater community protest.  Via The Courier Mail 
Control, helplessness and invasion are themes you may have noticed cropping up in the video of the Freshwater Mobile phone tower protest. Sir Tony The Brave rides into town to fight back the hordes of faceless, cold-hearted goons - restoring the rights of the community, over the spread of invisible radiation spawned inescapably from faceless technological terror.

The fellow who drove a tank into a mobile phone base station simply felt he was being ignored, and as a consequence, he made some ‘rash decisions’. "But it was out of sheer frustration, wasn't it?" states the interviewer. It was.

Being ignored or being marginalised is a shitty feeling, and it’s worth considering for a moment what it might be like to be in a similar situation. As it happens, ‘Control’ has been identified as a key component in how we judge the risks posed by the construction of technology. So, it’s clear that anything syndrome can, sometimes, be catalysed by the entirely human sentiment of helplessness.

The clip featuring the Harbord Telstra protest was four minutes and 13 seconds long. The comments from the scientist at the Australian Radiation Laboratory (now known as ARPANSA), take up a grand seven seconds, or about 2% of the total air time. The terminology he used was precise and unambiguous - it was impossible measure any radiation at all from the device. Nil exposure. Nothing.

The fact that the device was literally undetectable is quite important. So why did he get such little air time?

The residents were driven by an incredible passion. The drive to defend their community and their children made them intensely focused, and their declarations were infused with vigour and dynamism. The scientist can't compete with footage like that.

Briefly, a glimpse at the symptoms of exposure to mobile phone towers: fatigue, headache, nausea, appetite loss, sleep disturbance, memory loss, skin problems, dizziness.

Via the 'PowerWatch' blog
NBN Syndrome

This is a clip from WIN news, about a proposed wireless NBN tower in the town of Dereel, in Victoria.

The lady who features in the story is genuinely concerned about her health. It frustrates and angers me that she's been sold products that are likely ineffective, to 'shield' her against electromagnetic radiation. It's predatory, and creepy, and it makes me a little irate.

You'll note that one resident speaks to the reporter, and there seems to be a group of about six or seven involved in a discussion. From the clip, we get the impression that local sentiment against the development is strong.

However, another resident of Dereel, Scott Weston, runs a community website, detailing news about the NBN tower, which has now been built.

An article in The Australian covered the views of the residents opposed to the tower. 
I couldn't find any definitive polling of Dereel regarding support and opposition to the tower, but Scott Weston told Delimiter in 2013 that he’d petitioned the community and received 188 signatures in support, and 5 signatures against.

When it comes to the development of technology, the view of the community as a whole is very, very likely to lose out to coverage of a media-friendly vocal minority, whose words and actions make for compelling footage.

Wind Turbine Syndrome

From what we've seen so far, there are some consistent symptoms that seem to occur as a result of anything syndrome. In the case of wind energy, Professor of Public Health Simon Chapman, at Sydney University, has actually gone to the effort of compiling a list of ailments that people have attributed to wind turbines, and it’s huge. One of the reasons behind the size of this list is a fascinating phenomenon called ‘Patternicity’.

A graphic I made displaying the claimed symptoms of 'Wind Turbine Syndrome', for a prior blog post 
Last year, I wanted to explore the issue of symptom attribution, and I decided to use one of my two pet guinea pigs in a harmless demonstration. This one’s name is Mrs Ewan McGregor. I lived in Redfern, and my house was about two kilometres away from a small wind horizontal axis wind turbine in Glebe. So, I went to a website called ‘Ill Wind Reporting’, which collates reports of ‘adverse health impacts’ from wind energy.

The wind turbine, in Glebe
I submitted a report to their page. Everything I submitted was true - my guinea pigs make a weird rumbling noise when they walk around, and we did, at the time, live two kilometres away from an operational wind turbine. I didn't submit an email address or any further information for verification.

From my blog post
They accepted what I’d written as a valid report of the symptoms of ‘wind turbine syndrome’. You could describe anything in that box, and they’d publish it on their site as a symptom.

They even accepted that I’d classified Mrs Ewan McGregor as one of my children, and they marked it the submission with a big, friendly green ‘VERIFIED’ tag, despite the fact I’d provided no personal or contact details.

An example of a pattern perceived in meaningless noise - something Michael Shermer calls 'Patternicity' 
Michael Shermer, the author of Skeptic Magazine and the publisher of an excellent book called 'Why People Believe Weird Things', defines 'patternicity' as the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise.

It’s classically been viewed as an error in cognition, but that’s not quite the case. It’s an adaptation that evolved in an ancient world, where we had to be risk averse. We hear a noise; is it a rustle in the wind, or is a predator lurking slowly through the tall grass? We were better off assuming it was a predator, because if we assumed it was the wind, we were wrong, and we were dead.

Ill wind reporting” is a website comprised entirely of rustling grass. That sensation that we feel, of an imminent threat, goes back many thousands of years, and that’s why anything that occurs nears technology is a potential candidate symptom for ‘anything syndrome ’.

Recently, the Australian Medical Association released a position statement, reiterating that there’s no evidence wind farms cause any sort of health impacts, low-frequency sound levels are imperceptibly low, and that misinformation can itself cause real issues in communities. This response was posted by Member of Parliament Craig Kelly. He writes:
“It took until around 30 years, until the 1960’s that the adverse health effects of Tabacco (sic) were finally fully acknowledged by the medical fraternity - let’s hope those those (sic) suffering and living near industrial wind turbines don’t have to wait as long”
There’s more to this than just a simple example of a false analogy being motivated drawn by someone with a deep-seated hatred of wind energy (and a lack of knowledge around the history of scientific investigation into tobacco).

Every technology I've considered so far has been compared to tobacco, asbestos or thalidomide, or in the case of wind energy, all three. When scientists and medical experts try to communicate the best available science about whether these technologies are a risk, their statements somehow constitute evidence that those technologies are the 'next tobacco'.

Solar Panel Syndrome

'Solar Panel Syndrome' isn't yet a reality, but it might be, if we're not careful. Small-scale solar has taken off in Australia, passing one million Australian solar homes in April last year. But large-scale solar farms are in their infancy, and already, we’re seeing a set of concerns raised that closely match the pattern of complaints that preceded the emergence of ‘Wind Turbine Syndrome’.

An article in the Canberra Times, where a resident complains of impacts from glare
Like wind turbines, issues of aesthetics, autonomy, control and community engagement are now coming to the fore. Despite the fact that solar PV is designed, as you’d expect, to absorb light rather than reflect it, glare is a major concern for residents living near these developments. Dedicate 15 seconds to some thorough googling, and you can find the symptoms of exposure to solar panels - pain, headaches, mood swings, restlessnesss, diabetes, injury, cancer and death. Solar syndrome isn’t widespread yet, but it has all the makings of a new sub-type of anything syndrome .

The Symptoms of Anything Syndrome

The symptoms that bubble to the surface whenever technological health fears arise are consistent.

Dizziness, headaches, nausea, sleeplessness - these are common ailments, and the physical manifestations of anxiety also tend to be prevalent. I gathered a list of the symptoms that came up. It’s probable you've experienced at least one of the 416 symptoms in the past 12 hours.

To fit the diagnostic criteria for 'anything syndrome', you only need to be alive. So, how do we push back against a syndrome so wide-spread, so ubiquitous, and so easily spawned by human nature?

Stating the facts about exposure to radiation and low-frequency sound is likely to be ineffective, on its own. An assertion born of sentiment can’t be negated by simple facts. Facts combined with a powerful sentiment seem to be a better bet.

Graeme Maconachie is a landowner at the Challicum Hills Wind Farm. He was interviewed for a video produced by the Victorian Wind Alliance. Andrew Bray, who spoke for the Ballarat Skeptics in the Pub was involved in the production of this video.

Listening to Graeme talk frankly about his motivations for hosting wind turbines certainly puts ‘wind turbine syndrome’ in stark perspective. On one hand, he's talking about scientific investigation, but he's also combining it with a strong sentiment. It's important, and it's powerful. I like it.

I'm not advocating against the use of facts. But when you closely consider how deeply human these fears are, then perhaps we need to dig a little deeper, past data and facts, and try to address what's spawned these concerns.

There are some bits of scientific research that serve as incredibly powerful demonstrations that people really don’t need to feel the fear that those with vested interests want them to feel. An utterly fascinating piece of research by Witthoft and Rubin published in 2012 showed that simply receiving negative information about WiFi signals can cause people to report illness when exposed to a sham WiFi signal. The film they watched was the BBC Panorama documentary we saw earlier.
“54 percent of the subjects reported experiencing agitation and anxiety, loss of concentration or tingling in their fingers, arms, legs, and feet. Two participants left the study prematurely because their symptoms were so severe that they no longer wanted to be exposed to the assumed radiation.”
Witthoft and Rubin's results, via Discover Magazine
The story of how we’re so deeply vulnerable to misinformation, to the extent where it can cause real suffering and anxiety, is profoundly important and incredibly interesting, and it’s based on solid science.

We shouldn't shy away from communicating facts - we just need to make sure people feel the same thrill that we do, when we’re diving deep into the world of scientific venture. If we fail to do this, we risk coming across as a little arrogant.

These fears stem from the fissure between the technological output of science and the fairly unavoidable fact that we’re fleshy organisms with hopes and fears and cognitive shortcomings. We are born terrified, and every moment of calm is a temporary excursion from a state of extreme caution.

An effective way to stick it to the merchants of fear is to embed ourselves deeply in that thrilling, violent and dynamic fissure that sits between what we’re told by science, and what we’re told by the primal messengers underneath our skin.

Monday, 24 March 2014

The Contours of Misinformation

Recently, the Australian Medical Association (AMA) released a comprehensive position statement on the curiously invulnerable issue of 'wind turbine syndrome'. One phrase from the statement caught my eye, because it goes slightly further than other institutions (like the Victorian Department of Health, the National Health and Medical Research Council, or New South Wales Health), in that it mentions the impact of misinformation:
"The reporting of ‘health scares’ and misinformation regarding wind farm developments may contribute to heightened anxiety and community division, and over-rigorous regulation of these developments by state governments"
The CEO of the 'Waubra Foundation', the only organisation in Australia devoted solely to the propagation of the purported 'health risks' of wind energy, wrote a 5,231 word open letter, angrily and verbosely demanding the AMA explain themselves. The AMA announcement struck a nerve, for sure.

I suspect it hit home because anti-groups have focused their efforts on spreading the assertion that wind farms are responsible for a slew of mysterious and wide-ranging health impacts, a campaign alluded to by the AMA. Importantly, these claims aren't backed by strong evidence, and so, they'd classify simply as 'misinformation' of the class the AMA warn against.

When you examine the statements made to communities that are considering wind farms, it's clear they're firmly convinced the question is already settled:
Sarah Dingle (reporter): If federal and state governments agree to fund the research you’re calling for around the country, and it clears wind farms of any adverse impact on human health, would you accept that? 
Sarah Laurie: Sarah, the adverse impacts have been shown by a number of studies, both overseas and in Australia.
This claim, that the impacts have 'already been shown', is polished, packaged and presented to communities considering the development of wind farms. The quote above comes from an ABC Background Briefing story on the largest proposed wind farm in Australia, King Island Wind Farm. The reporter quotes Laurie at a public meeting for the development:
"‘Yes, wind turbines do cause adverse health effects, and increasingly the data and research is showing it's happening,’ she told residents.......At the King Island meeting, Dr Laurie even drew a connection between wind turbines and autistic behaviour. 
‘People with autism are known to be particularly noise sensitive,’ she told residents. ‘There’re certainly children with autism, and families with more than one child with autism, who have a really difficult time the turbines start operating.’"
These claims are pushed deep into communities and wrapped in a powerfully emotive context. It's impossible to state that this constitutes 'research advocacy'. If the group is attempting to spurn research into a medical mystery, why speak to citizens, rather than to researchers, universities and scientific institutions? And why state wind farms are certainly going to cause harm, when there's no evidence to support that claim?

This tactic, of switching between 'advocating further research' and telling communities 'the impacts are proven', dates back to 2009, when the concept of 'wind turbine syndrome' was findings its feet.

An ad placed in the Pyrenees Shire Advocate in 2009, by the Western Plains Landscape Guardians. 

This embryonic manifestation is startlingly irresponsible. It reads like a bad episode of Today Tonight, replete with scary formatting.

Two years on, the claim of guaranteed suffering, wrapped in a blanket of urgent, deep-red danger, is presented under the banner of the 'Waubra Foundation':

The 'Explicit Notice' lists pages of symptoms, attributed by the organisation to the operation of wind turbines

There's no ambiguity in the last sentence of the screenshot above, which is followed by a long list of 'symptoms', similar to the ad placed in the newspaper in 2009.

There's no way anyone could describe these words as a 'call for research'. It's a plea for consternation, alarm and fear.

That they direct it to 'those responsible for wind turbine siting decisions' highlights the AMA's mention of 'over-rigorous regulation' of renewable technology. Last Friday, the SMH reported on a slew of additional red tape for wind farms in New South Wales, based partly on 'health concerns'.

Footage and transcripts of community meetings in which anti-wind groups attempt to instill fear are, unsurprisingly, hard to come by. Those running the meetings are hostile towards being filmed or recorded. There are rare exceptions.

Below is an excerpt from a meeting of the 'Booroowa District Landscape Guardians', on the 21st of May 2012. It's another clear example of communities being told that wind farms 'will make you sick', not that 'more research is needed':

Senator John Madigan states, quite simply, that "The practical reality of what I've found is there is a lot of people out there who are affected by wind farms". This isn't a call for caution or research - it's an assumption that any experience that occurs in the vicinity of a wind farm must, without any doubt, be caused by the operation of a wind farm.

Kathy Russell, a board member of the Waubra Foundation, features in these Victorian TV ads:

The scary, cracked font and the loud, slicing blades are all there to convey dread. Again, this is no 'call for research'. It is, unashamedly, a piece of communication deployed solely to evoke a real, inescapable sensation of fear. There's no declaration of who funded, wrote or produced the ad.

There's a vast disparity behind the professed aims of anti-wind groups focusing on 'health impacts', and the information they pass on to communities considering wind farms. No organisation truly vested in encouraging scientific inquiry needs scary fonts, or 'Threatening_Swoosh_Noise.mp3'.

There's currently no limitation on what you can and can't say to communities considering the development of technologies nearby. You don't actually need any medical qualifications to travel to a town, and tell them that there's an established medical reason to fear renewable energy. The spread of information around wind energy, whether true or false, is a function of how its presented, rather than how it's supported.

Evidence-based medicine has no space to breathe in the furious, congested space occupied by anti-wind campaigners.

Though the Australian Medical Association explicitly warns against misinformation, there's little chance anti-wind groups will listen. Fear has an instantaneous impact, and the cost is borne by the recipients, rather than the propagators. For now, the use of misinformation in spreading anxiety has no consequence.

Friday, 14 March 2014

How Not To Do Infographics

The good people over at the Australian Skeptics Facebook Group pointed me in the direction of an interesting infographic, this morning:

Apparently, to power a one megawatt hospital, you'd need 100 football fields' worth of wind farms. It seems sketchy from the outset. A quick reverse Google image search takes us to the source, 'I Dig Uranium Mining', run by Andrea Jennetta, "President & Owner at International Nuclear Associates Inc". She states on her post:
"A single gram of uranium can produce roughly 1 megawatt of energy for 24 hours. To put that in perspective, it would require 56.5 million square feet of wind farms (that’s 100 football fields) to produce the same quantity of energy, assuming the wind is blowing that day"
Something's horribly wrong with the calculations on her infographic, which was re-posted by the group 'Things Worse Than Nuclear Power' - a site that seemingly exists primarily to exaggerate the environmental impacts of any technology that isn't nuclear.

Without performing a single calculation, we can say with certainty that a single 3 megawatt wind turbine, with good wind resource all day, would easily match the one megawatt demand of our hypothetical hospital. But let's dig further into their claims.

A standard American Football field has an area of 57,600 square feet. So, if you had 56.5 million square feet, you could actually fit ~998 football fields, not 100. This just seems to be a miscalculation.

So how many wind turbines could you fit into the area they've proposed on their infographic? Let's assume each wind turbine is a three megawatt machine, and given the wind is blowing, let's conservatively assume each machine is generating at 50% capacity (1.5 megawatts per turbine). Each tower is 200 metres from the other towers. That means each turbine takes up an area of 0.4 square kilometres. The Uranium Mining site's original area was 56.5 million square feet, which is 5.2 square kilometres.

So - you could fit 5.2/0.4 = 13 wind turbines, generating a total of 19.5 megawatts. Which gives us a conservative estimate of 19 hospitals. If the wind was really blowing, and the turbines were at maximum output, it's be ~39 hospitals. Calculations here:

The comparison isn't really fair. Wind energy output is variable, which means it generates a fair amount of energy over time, but you can't assume that it'll be generating at a certain capacity, if you were to randomly choose an interval.

Plug it into an energy grid, and it successfully crowds out fossil fuels, regularly. In South Australia, it's already doing it, every single day. A quick look at how energy output has changed in SA shows this quite clearly:

On a smaller timescale, here's how wind output worked in South Australia, during the week of one of Australia's most significant heatwaves:

As you can see, there were times when SA's generation formed a large percentage of South Australia's generation. But, at other times, the percentage was quite small. So, is this a problem for the market operator, who are tasked with reliably meeting electrical demand over the entire electricity market?

Well, no. They forecast the output of wind farms - here's a comparison, for the same week, of actual output to the wind forecast generated 24 hours prior, and 12 hours prior:

Basically, you don't need to worry about hospitals shutting down because of wind farms, no matter what 'I Dig Uranium Mining' tells you.

Friday, 7 March 2014

How Irish Health Authorities got Anti-Vaxxers on Board with Spreading 'Wind Turbine Syndrome'

Natural News isn't an easy website to browse. If you're conscious of the impact of the anti-vaccination movement, the content on the website quickly goes from mildly-entertaining weirdness to real, dangerous quackery almost instantaneously. Their Facebook page has 1 million subscribers.

It also hosts a grab-bag of conspiracy theories and pseudosciences - a tiny selection:

"Swedish official admits toxic 'chemtrails' are real, not a wild conspiracy theory"

"Yes, fluoride makes you stupid"

"Swine flu vaccines cause 17-fold increase in narcolepsy, horrified scientists discover"

You get the idea of what they're about. They're certainly one of the most popular anti-vaccination sites on the internet, and anti-vaccination content makes up the bulk of their articles, but they don't hesitate to dabble in theories that slot neatly into the avowedly anti-scientific policy they espouse on their site.

Natural News express concern that, at its worst, science will create artificial intelligence, that threatens 'the future of life in the universe'
'Wind turbine syndrome' is a weak theory, in that there's little evidence to suggest it's a real, physical phenomenon. In fact, there's none - the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council have examined the current body of evidence, and last week released a draft systematic review
"- There is currently insufficient published scientific evidence to positively link wind turbines with adverse health effects;
- Relevant authorities should take a precautionary approach; and
- People who believe they are experiencing any health problems should consult their GP promptly"
Yet, recently, according the Irish Examiner, Irish Health Authorities released a statement, seemingly suggesting the phenomenon was a real thing: 
"Expanding further on wind turbine syndrome, she said older people, people who suffer from migraine, and others with a sensitivity to low-frequency vibration, are some of those who can be at risk of wind turbine syndrome. In the controversial document, which she sent to the Department of the Environment last year as part of their review of wind turbine guidelines, she controversially stated that while turbines do not represent a threat to public health, “there is a consistent cluster of symptoms related to living in close proximity to wind turbines which occurs in a number of people in the vicinity of industrial wind turbines”
It's a weird statement. If they don't represent a threat to human health, why suggest that the machines are physically responsible for a cluster of symptoms? It's either extremely clumsy wording, or a pseudoscientific acceptance of something that's been well-examined by health authorities, and rejected every time. The Irish Department of Environment were quick to clarify
"Department of the Environment is now dismissing the deputy CMO’s literature review as only “a preliminary literature review and not a recommendation of the Department of Health”
As you'd expect, nuance was left out of the mix when Natural News picked up the story - now spreading like wildfire across social media sites like Facebook and Twitter: 
"An Irish health official has warned that people who live near massive wind turbines of the sort used to generate electricity run the risk of having their physical and psychological health compromised"

No one's actually seen the original report from the Chief Medical Officer, so there's no real way to tell exactly what was said.

But it's absolutely clear that the original comments, combined with new-found support from a popular and dangerous anti-vaccination group, means the Irish health authorities are likely to contribute successfully and significantly to the needless spread of anxiety and health fears around the entirely manufactured malady of 'wind turbine syndrome'

Update 10:00 07/03/2014

Thanks to a friendly commenter, I've now obtained a PDF copy of the Irish CMO's remarks. It turns out that her statement was based on a 2009 version of the NHMRC report I quoted above - both versions of which concluded there is no evidence of health impacts from wind farms.

The full file is embedded below, but here are some quotes that were seemingly unimportant to the Irish Examiner:
"Numerous reports have concluded that there is no evidence of health effects arising from infrasound or low frequency noise generated by wind turbines (DTI, 2006; Can WEA, 2009; Chatham-Kent Public Health Unit, 2008; WHO, 2004; EPHC, 2009; HGC Engineering, 2007)" 
"There is no reliable evidence that infrasounds below the hearing threshold produce physiological or psychological effects' (Berglund & Lindvall 1995)" 
"Infrasound associated with modem wind turbines is not a source which will result in noise levels which may be injurious to the health of a wind farm neighbour (DTI, 2006)." 
"Dr Pierpont's [originator of wind turbine syndrome] assertions are yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, and have been heavily criticised by acoustic specialists. Based on current evidence, it can be concluded that wind turbines do not pose a threat to health if planning guidelines are followed"
After two pages illustrating the stark absence of evidence linking any symptoms to wind turbines, infrasound, shadow flicker or glint, somehow the CMO concludes:

"There are specific risk factors for this syndrome and people with these risk factors experience symptoms"

It's further evidence that the Irish CMO is directly responsible for the dispersal of health advice based solely on pseudoscience and conjecture. It's unsurprising Natural News were on board, straight away. Click here for the full document.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Climate Deniers Fail to Check Carl Sagan's Views on Climate Science

Trawling through the varied lands of Twitter, I came across an interesting link:
'AGW IS A HOAX' links to a blog post that cites a lengthy quote from a scientist who introduced me to the world of skepticism - incidentally, it's also from the first book I ever read on skepticism, 'The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark':
“The business of skepticism is to be dangerous. Skepticism challenges established institutions. If we teach everybody, including, say, high school students, habits of skeptical thought, they will probably not restrict their skepticism to UFOs, aspirin commercials, and 35,000-year-old channelees. 
Maybe they’ll start asking awkward questions about economic, or social, or political, or religious institutions. Perhaps they’ll challenge the opinions of those in power. Then where would we be?”
This is irritating, because climate change denial is not skepticism. Being a skeptic means doubting claims that are strongly asserted despite an absence of evidence. There is not an absence of evidence for a human role in anthropogenic global warming.

It's also not the first time Carl Sagan's authority as a legendary science communicator been used dishonestly by climate change denialists.

One climate denial blogger, from 'No Frakking Consensus', writes:
"There was once a time when scientific celebrities revered skepticism. Rather than telling members of the public to sit down, shut up, and respect the scientific consensus, we were instead urged to use our own brains."
This is a common line of rhetoric. "Don't blindly accept the consensus. Think for yourself, and don't be one of the sheeple".

This is a disfigured, mutated bastardisation of scientific skepticism. It's an appeal to arrogance: 'why should scientists know better than I?' It's the rejection of any claim, regardless of the quantity of evidence supporting that claim, or the views of experts who have assessed that evidence.

As it happens, climate scientists have expertise in the field of climate science, so they're better qualified to interpret and analyse data than, say, Cardinal George Pell. A large number of experts have checked to see whether the evidence is sufficient. Nearly all of them agree, and that counts for a lot.

Image Source: Wikimedia commons, Data source - cited in graphic

Carl Sagan was an actual skeptic, in that he didn't deploy suffocating, misfired doubt in an effort to preserve his value system, in the face of insurmountable scientific evidence. He accepted the science underpinning climate change, and was deeply concerned about the impacts of fossil fuels. IO9 published an essay he wrote expressing these concerns.

A quote from his essay:
"Our intelligence and our technology have given us the power to affect the climate. How will we use this power? Are we willing to tolerate ignorance and complacency in matters that affect the entire human family? Do we value short-term advantages above the welfare of the Earth? 
Or will we think on longer time scales, with concern for our children and our grandchildren, to understand and protect the complex life-support systems of our planet? The Earth is a tiny and fragile world. It needs to be cherished."
His views on climate change from the utterly brilliant documentary 'Cosmos':

And, Chris Mooney, science communication expert, writes for Mother Jones on whether or not Carl Sagan would have been engaged with the issue of climate science today, if he were alive:
"The notion that, today, Sagan would have been deeply engaged with the climate issue is highly plausible. In publicizing the threat of "nuclear winter" in the early 1980s, Sagan was basically outlining the possible consequences of a human-induced climate-alteration (albeit one that would freeze us rather than fry us).
In fact, Sagan gained recognition as an astronomer for his research on the greenhouse effect of Venus, work that later inspired NASA climate researcher James Hansen."
If you're hoping to hijack deceased science communicators in a quest to spread pseudoscience, probably best to check their actual views before doing so.