Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Eco-Modernism's Omission

In some ways, spending most of my existence advocating for the construction of a relatively small number of wind turbines and solar farms (on a global scale, anyway) is nice. I don't think we ought to take an axe to existing power stations (not yet, anyway), nor do I spend my days proclaiming that current wind and solar technology can power the entire universe (not without other things, anyway).

Still, we need to think about what happens once we've won (we will) the battle to see a percentage of Australian energy demand met by readily deployable zero-carbon machines. The 'Eco-Modernist' manifesto (not the kitchen people) outlines a philosophical super-structure they hope might support this next step:

"We affirm one long-standing environmental ideal, that humanity must shrink its impacts on the environment to make more room for nature, while we reject another, that human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse"

Things are getting a little intense

The authors nominate nuclear power as the ideal technology for a zero-carbon future. Their justification follows: 

"Transitioning to a world powered by zero-carbon energy sources will require energy technologies that are power dense and capable of scaling to many tens of terawatts to power a growing human economy. 
Most forms of renewable energy are, unfortunately, incapable of doing so. The scale of land use and other environmental impacts necessary to power the world on biofuels or many other renewables are such that we doubt they provide a sound pathway to a zero-carbon low-footprint future"

This is familiar, to me. The land usage of wind energy seems to be a favourite of nuclear power advocates - the idea that wind and solar energy shouldn't exist, should exist less or should be limited in their existence, because they chew up more units of land, per MWh of energy output.

The graphic below, made by the UK DECC, comes up a lot. Like, a lot

It's weird: the calculations assume that each wind turbine has a diameter of ~624 metres (as I calculated here).

The Eco-Modernist Manifesto doesn't cite any figures, but the general principle of energy intensity seems to be something that will drive people to accept weird and wild assumptions - such as the assumption that any spot of ground within a polygonal distribution around a wind farm is utterly unusable (it's farmland. You can use it for farmy things).

A wind farm in the Netherlands failing to obey the infographic's weird maths

A Microsoft Paint illustration of what's going on. Here's what they say can't be used, due to the presence of a wind farm:

And here's what's actually unsuable, due to the presence of a wind farm:

The focus on 'energy density' in the manifesto reminds me immediately of this whole boundary-vs-pad-diameter issue. The idea has merit, but clinging to it too feverishly has its downfalls. Wind farms don't get treated fairly, for instance. Query the miscalculation, and it's defended. There's some motivator behind this, and I suspect it's driven by an intense focus on intensity.

Where yo wind farms at? 

The document doesn't mention wind power. It doesn't mention a raft of other technologies, does mention solar power, following on from the previous quote above:

"High-efficiency solar cells produced from earth-abundant materials are an exception and have the potential to provide many tens of terawatts on a few percent of the Earth’s surface. Present-day solar technologies will require substantial innovation to meet this standard and the development of cheap energy storage technologies that are capable of dealing with highly variable energy generation at large scales."

That renewable technologies are dismissed as 'incapable', with the pointed exception of solar, strongly suggests wind power was left out with conscious intent. The authors insist this isn't the case, and one of the authors of the document, Mike Shellenberger, took the time to expand on this:

I get his point. But if I were sitting atop a keyboard with a draft of this document plastered on my screen, I'd dedicate some serious words to outlining the importance of existing and readily-deployable energy technologies, and explain why the technology I advocate for serves as a benefit to these other things.

Without that, it just looks like a list of reasons why we should build more nuclear power stations, rather than a list of reasons why we should decarbonise our energy mix.

The authors are faced with a tricky conundrum, here. In discussing renewables, they have to choose between triggering the adrenal glands of those who really like renewable energy (like me), or triggering the adrenal glands of those who truly hate renewable energy (like this weird dude).

They've seemingly opted for neither here, not digging in to the benefits and shortfalls of current technology, but focusing solely on their stated necessity of nuclear technology.

I'm fond of technological solutions to big, horrible, weird, terrible problems. Wind and solar are well-loved by the public (mostly sort of), as long as they're built with community engagement and ownership at the forefront of developer's minds. They rely on fuels that vary in availability over time, but this means only that we can't replace the entire grid with them - it doesn't mean we can replace some energy output with them. Better yet, we can do this right now. You can't replace the world's energy technology with nuclear, either. It feels weird that this manifesto - a call for technological prowess being deployed through an unforgiving dedication to natural protection, basically excludes these technologies from mention, let alone both mentioning them and advocating for their urgent deployment.

Some nice people at the Energy Collective outline this quite well:

"Indeed, for a group of authors who have oft-decried “energy technology tribalism” and chastised those who omit nuclear energy from their vision of a low-carbon future, it is striking to see wind and “other renewables” cast aside in this otherwise expansive vision of the future"

You should read it. They're on-point (random side note - I got in to a late-night Twitter argument with one of the authors late one night because I'd just ingested an inhuman quantity of flu medication and I was trying to distract myself from writing.....sorry, Robert, I reckon you're alright, don't take anything Codeine-Ketan says for granted, hey).

I'd take it a step further than the Energy Collective people. By pointedly excluding wind power, and by 'incapable'ing' the entire span of renewable energy technology, they've alienated a rather large chunk of people who would have otherwise been keenly receptive to their message.

Drop the hate

There's still a sizable faction of nuclear power supporters who truly hate renewable energy. I've learned to recognise the difference between a level-headed assertion, and an assertion born of fury and disgust and animosity that's been held for too long.

I feel that sometimes, this is driven not by their view that renewable energy is insufficient for worldwide, rapid decarbonisation, but by a visceral loathing for 'traditional' environmentalists: essentially, the green movement. The Eco-Modernist Manifesto isn't really part of this world. It's more linked to people who are actually quite nice, and who are either a little skeptical of renewables, or genuine supporters. But I'm not sure we can consider one world without the other.

You can't ignore these nuclear-supporting renewable-loathers. Tweet about a wind turbine and you're suddenly sodden with a torrent of tweeps screaming THORIUM at you.

Dennis Jensen, a West-Australian senator, supports nuclear power and thinks denying climate science is the same as being Albert Einstein. Senator Sean Edwards is a vocal advocate for nuclear power in SA, but also thinks the wind industry ought to cease to exist. Patrick Moore supports nuclear, and also thinks carbon dioxide is plant food. A broad selection of nuclear advocates on Twitter dedicate most of their time to propagating weird myths about renewable energy. It's not a representative sample, but it's a noticeable one.

I enjoy my self-contained rectangle of advocacy. I think we can built more wind and solar projects in Australia, and swipe a big chunk out of our emissions. In doing this, I draw the ire of a bunch of really very angry nuclear advocates, despite the fact I'm not really talking about nuclear power when I advocate for this. Despite my very enjoyable interactions with nuclear advocates who seem to be great people, I'm also faced with a sizable quantity of humans who really, really hate renewable energy.

Angry tweets about wind farms aren't in the manifesto, and they shouldn't be. But if the manifesto took a slightly more bullish approach to supporting the short-term deployment of whatever cost-effective technology we have to decarbonise right now, would it tame the passions of this second, angrier crowd? Maybe.


I think there's a lot to be said about the fact the manifesto creates criteria to which nuclear power is the only answer, despite the fact global decarbonisation will necessitate a mix of technologies. If it was a 'nuclear power manifesto', sure, you don't need to mention other stuff. But it's a decarbonisation manifesto, so the omission of other technology is significant.

It suggests the balance needs to be tweaked, if their goal really is a globe on which people use lots of clean energy.

Update 22/04/2015 14:48 - I forgot to mention, Australia has lots of land; great for zero-carbon energy sources that are less intense, but well-supported by the public, and by businesses.....

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Earth Hour makes me feel weird (still, don't be inefficient)

Being a contrarian simply for the lulz isn't really worthwhile. You just end up alienating friends and attracting idiots. At risk of doing both, there's something about Earth Hour that I need to get off my chest.

Earth Hour is now into its eighth year, and it's become a powerful tradition in more ways than one.

Along with the requisite display of environmental awareness - the symbolic switching-off of one's lights and appliances - come a veritable tsunami of terrible, clich├ęd, furious responses from a conservative base that's automatically stirred by the mix of acceptance-of-climate-science, environmental-awareness and perceived-slacktivism. These are things they are truly disgusted by. It stirs emotion in them that you and I cannot parse.

The angry critique of Earth Hour centres around the perception that Earth Hour is somehow anti-human - that it calls for the regression of the human species, back to fire and hunting and unlit caves.

It's an argument that triggers the passions of people who aren't able to detect the fallacy. It seems to be an affront to everything we've worked hard to acquire - plasma televisions, electric lighting, abundant, relatively cheap electricity. Like clockwork, it inspires an equal and opposite reaction:

"An alternative celebration of "Human Achievement Hour" was promoted by the libertarian think tank the Competitive Enterprise Institute to celebrate the advancement of human prosperity....participants in this celebration were asked to "celebrate the achievements of humanity such as eating dinner, seeing a film, driving around, keeping the heat on in your home""

Though the logic is truly absurd, it's still hard to argue against the perception that Earth Hour is urging us to live in darkness, considering it's an hour in which we live in darkness. This is not what energy efficiency is. Reducing the quantity of energy you use without any major alterations to your lifestyle is easy, effective but hard to sex up for global campaigns.

The biggest reason Earth Hour makes me shift uncomfortably in my seat is because it unintentionally paints a picture of future loss, despite this not being what a clean / low energy world would look like. The Earth Hour FAQ states that:

"Earth hour does not claim that the event is an energy or carbon reduction exercise - it is a symbolic action. Therefore, we do not engage in the measurement of energy or carbon reduction levels. Earth Hour is an initiative to encourage individuals, businesses and governments around the world to take accountability for their ecological footprint and engage in dialogue and resource exchange that provides real solutions to our environmental challenges. Participation in Earth Hour symbolises a commitment to change beyond the hour"

Reactive, snarky comparisons to the carbon emissions of paraffin candles vs electricity consumption of light globes miss the point - the event is more a collective 'awareness raising exercise', than a mechanism for emissions reduction. But the point itself seems to have its own issues.

I don't understand why we can't inject the same quantity of motivation from marketing in an exercise that actually leads to a measurable, quantifiable reduction. Energy efficieny is, inherently, something with the potential for widespread support. The right loathes inefficiency, and the left loathes over-consumption and environmental harm. Earth Hour builds a wall in the middle, by framing demand reduction as a value-based action.

Perhaps we could gamify the goal of cheaper electricity bills through altered habits - I do it at home, and it works quite well. I like the idea of big, sweeping change - something that shatters crusty, fetid old styles of thinking. This is why I relish being part of the renewable energy industry.

Earth Hour, as it stands, isn't clear on what it's symbolising. To a passionate, angry and illogical few, it symbolises a desire to destroy civilisation. To others, surely, it encourages behaviour that eventually leads to a reduction in energy consumption, and consequently, lower carbon emissions. I'd like to see the first reaction gone, and the second reaction occur consistently among everyone.

Pushing down the quantity of electricity we consume means acknowledging that some react viscerally and angrily to issues framed as collective environmental action. Like a clockwork, it makes them go nuts. They start talking about candles and jets and they lose their minds. This doesn't mean collective environmental action is something to be avoided. It just means we need to accommodate both world views, not just one. We'd see a much higher reduction in carbon emissions, and a bigger change in behaviour.

We want that, right?

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Lloyd's new 'wind turbine syndrome' expert: A Computer Scientist Who Openly Dislikes Wind Farms

Yesterday, The Australian found itself in the odd position of having to defend an extremely unscientific report their environment editor has been covering regularly since earlier this year.

The defenders all took refuge in attacking the credentials of those critiquing the study. Senior Reporter Simon King writes:

"Other experts lined up to slam the report included the Australian National University’s Jacqui Hoepner and Will Grant, who wrote about it for The Conversation. Grant has a PhD in politics and Hoepner is a journalist and neither has either acoustic or medical training.
Then came the most damning of them all, Sydney University’s professor of public health, Simon Chapman. Professor Chapman is also neither an acoustician nor a medical practitioner"

Originally, King lambasted Chapman for 'not having a PhD in medicine' - something quietly altered after Chapman issued a correction. His focus changed to the topic of Chapman's PhD:

Confusingly, the author of the original report insists, a lot, that his study wasn't a 'medical study', so it's weird and inexplicable that King angrily insists one needs to be a medical practitioner, or have a PhD in medicine, to offer comment on Cooper's study.

Anyway, it gets funnier, today, now that Lloyd's published another follow-up:

"Richard Mann, at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, said scientists there had arrived at a similar position to Mr Cooper despite working in a different way. 
“Our results show that wind turbines emit a characteristic pulsation (change in barometric pressure) that repeats with every blade passage,” Professor Mann said.
“This is consistent with the infra sound ‘signature’ you have reported.” 
The Waterloo University research did not consider health effects from wind turbine infrasound. But Professor Mann said: “I join the many scientists and experts worldwide requesting a thorough investigation of wind turbine noise.’’"

Well, first of all, the research wasn't published by Waterloo University. In fact, it wasn't published anywhere. Obviously, Richard Mann is an expert in acoustics, or a medical expert, or perhaps both.

Mann's published work include "Detecting Hand-Ball Events in Video Sequences", "Categorization and Learning of Pen Motion Using Hidden Markov Models" and "Analyzing the kinematics of bivariate pointing". Interesting, probably quite fascinating, but it's a little hard to detect his acoustics and medical training. Perhaps I'm just not googling enough?

"You probably know me for my recordings of live music and also nature and ambient sounds (see above). 
Recently I have been recording Industrial Wind Turbines (IWT).  It is not because I like the sound.  On the contrary I am recording to show just how noisy and intrusive the sound really is.  They are enormous industrial machines that have been forced on rural communities by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment (MOE).  Below is my (ongoing) documentation of noise polution (sic), noise and vibration (aka "infra sound"), medical evidence for harm to humans, and scientific links related to Wind Turbines."

On Mann's website,, he details a long list of wind farm opposition groups. It turns out I once interacted with him on a comment thread, in an article from a while ago. He says:

"I am not (yet) a claimant. I don't know if they will impact me or not. However, I have met people who are suffering. I met a woman who drives 20 miles every night to another place to sleep. There are many like that. Not the majority, but a significant minority of people. I just find it hard to believe all these "coincidences" are an accident. If this were a "clinical trial" it would be called off. Any other field of scientific inquiry would put a probable hypothesis on wind turbines. Maybe you think people are somehow "hypnotized" to believe turbines are bad. Many were pro Wind until they noticed the problems."
His Disqus profile is revealing. He's active on the Guardian, too:

Mann's also a member of the succinctly-named "Ontario Coalition for Harm-to-Health from Industrial-Wind-Turbines":

And his public Facebook page gives us a hint as to his motivations:

Of course, he's free to say all these things, but it's really quite amusing that, after yesterday's angry retaliation from journalists at The Australian, they've now enlisted the expertise of a computer scientist who doesn't like wind farms.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Bad Science Reporting Causes Real Harm

Last night, Media Watch reported on The Australian's coverage of a study into wind farms and medical impacts. The Australian's full response named me as a leader of criticism:

"Published criticism of the methodology used in the Cooper report in Australia has been led by psychologist and wind company Infigen's communications officer, Ketan Joshi"

I'm not a psychologist......but, whatever. It's an under-handed, simple way of saying my arguments can be rejected due to my interests and my employer, rather than any rational engagement with what I've said. That's their choice.

But the Media Watch story itself highlights a confusing and relentless paradox that won't settle: did the study establish a causal link between health symptoms, or didn't it? The residents believe it did, but the author of the report says it didn't, but also says he fully accepts reporting saying it did. It matters, because a lot of beliefs are being solidified on the back of the reporting of his work.

"Pacific Hydro are correct that we don’t have a correlation in terms of medical and I agree with that 100%" 
— ABC Ballarat, Mornings with Anne-Marie Middlemast, 21st January, 2015 
"Another participant, Jo Kermond, said the findings had been “both disturbing and confirmation of the level of severity we were and are enduring while being ridiculed by our own community and society.”"  
- Statement from The Australian to Media Watch 

These beliefs are strongly held, and they're defended with real passion. A letter published in the Hamilton Spectator shows that the participants in Cooper's study believe wind turbines don't even need to be moving to cause health impacts: 

"Around the Macarthur wind farm, residents suffer from infrasound emitted by the turbines, even when they're not operating, similarly to Cape Bridgewater.

Even when the turbines are turned off, we feel the same "sensation", being headaches, ear pressure, nose pressure, heart palpitations, nausea, dizziness etc., and still cannot sleep at night.

Due to the mammoth scale of these towers, there is movement all the time, whether high or low winds, in addition to when they're turned off. Due to the extreme size of the towers, they still continue to vibrate, thus emitting infrasound waves. The laws of physics show such structures exhibit natural frequencies that are associated with structural resonances in the infrasound region"

The idea that a stationary wind turbines emit low-frequency noise that's injurious to human health is a relatively new modification to the 'wind turbine syndrome' theory. It first emerged in mid-2014, in a publication by acoustician Les Huson:

"The tone "lines" in the spectrograms show that structural resonances from the turbines continue irrespective of whether the blades are rotating or parked"

It's repeated in The Australian's rolling and increasingly confusing coverage of the 'peer reviews' of Cooper's report, this time by an American acoustician:

“It really does not matter what the pathway is, whether it is infra-sound or some new form of rays or electromagnetic field coming off the turbine blade"

So, if wind turbines are said to cause 'wind turbine syndrome' even when stationary, how did Steven Cooper establish a 'cause and effect' relationship?

I went through the three appendices that contained graphical representations of wind farm power output and sound measurements, upon which Cooper had overlaid instances of complaints - the full table is here.

Cooper claims a total of 522 sensation reports were written in the course of the study - my count of the appendices shows 258 of these were reported during times at which wind farm output was zero kilowatts.

234 'vibration' and 233 noise reports were also penned during times of non-operation.

Going by the information in Cooper's report, it seems nearly half of the 'sensation' reports, the variable upon which Cooper bases his conclusions, were written during times at which wind speeds were low, or the wind farm was offline.

Does it mean the participants were lying? No, it doesn't. It just raises the possibility Mr Cooper was measuring something other than what he seems to say is a human physiological response to wind energy.

Regardless; there's not the faintest semblance of correlation, here - let alone causation, or definitive proof of medical health impacts. Only a tiny fraction of Cooper's recorded data were 'selected' for inclusion in his analysis, and even on this specially selected sub-set, Cooper didn't use measures of statistical significance.


This isn't the first time an inert, motionless and unpowered structure has been blamed for human suffering. In 2010, a mobile phone tower in Craigavon operated by iBurst received a raft of complaints over a four week period, with residents reporting, during a town meeting, of 'headaches, nausea, tinnitus....totally disrupted sleep patterns'. Sound familiar?

The operator of the tower had actually switched off the tower six weeks prior to the meeting. Did that resolve the issue, once and for all?

"Bismarck Olivier from the legal firm Bezuidenhout, Van Zyl and Associates, who represents the Craigavon residents, previously said that there is no talk of abandoning the action against iBurst and that the recent activity surrounding the issue is ‘only the beginning’"

Eventually, the company tore down the tower. "To raise it again is to the benefit of no one. This is not good for us, the industry, or anyone".

Spreading health fears can itself result in harm. A BBC Panorama report on the 'health dangers of wifi' warped a collection of already-flawed 'studies' to present the theory that WiFi causes health impacts. Subsequent research showed that people 'primed' with this documentary perceived a greater severity of symptoms, compared to a control group shown scientific information.

Will media coverage continue to spread fear around wind farms? I hope not, but I've little to justify that hope.

If technology doesn't even need to be operational, or energised, to cause health impacts, it reminds us of the importance of accurate information - something we won't see much of, today.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Tanveer Ahmed's Weird Article Seems To Have Been Plagiarised

Tanveer Ahmed, a psychiatrist and ex-Sydney Morning Herald columnist, wrote an extremely terrible opinion piece for The Australian last Monday the 9th of February, re-entering the heady world of opinion writing after he was revealed on ABC's Media Watch as a serial plagiarist - the show lists an unbelievable number of examples of Ahmed plagiarising himself, or directly copying and pasting the text of other journalists:

His most recent work in The Australian is reprehensible. He hypothesises a cause for male violence as such:
"Family violence within newly arrived ethnic groups is often related to the sudden dilution of traditional masculinity, leaving men lost and isolated, particularly as females enjoy greater autonomy and expectations"
MP Tim Watts explains why this view is abhorrent much better than I can:

Ahmed is, ridiculously, still an ambassador for White Ribbon - a movement that works to reduce domestic violence. This piece by Petra Bueskens at The Conversation is excellent.

Out of curiosity, and following some of the social media commentary around Ahmed's piece, I plugged his writing into a bunch of online plagiarism checkers, and, lo and behold, a portion of his article is either plagiarised from work he's published well into the past, or ripped directly from another website.


This paragraph seems to have been copied from the website Prospect.Org:

The Australian, February 2015 (full text)

" is critical that improving arrest and prosecution rates, establishing shelters and abuse hotlines, pushing for state provisions against stalking, and creating protections for immigrants all have the goal of getting victims out of abusive -relationships" Feb 2013, Marcotte

"Improving arrest and prosecution rates, establishing shelters and abuse hotlines, pushing for state provisions against stalking, and creating protections for immigrants all have the goal of getting victims out of abusive relationships and into safe situations."

This paragraph has been used four times in the past five years, with only minor alterations, most recently in an article on 'Online Opinion'. It's been copied so many times by Ahmed that it actually shows up in the PDFs hosted on the Media Watch website, from his appearance on the show in 2012.

The Australian, February 2015

"Men for whom the security of unionised labour in the manufacturing industries is becoming a distant memory are experiencing a huge displacement from modern economic trends. It’s been replaced by casualised, service-oriented work with relatively low wages. In essence, their work has been feminised."

Online Opinion, 2013

"In the Western world, it can be seen among the traditionally white Anglo-Saxon working class, for whom the security of unionised labour in the manufacturing industries is slowly but surely becoming a distant memory. It is (sic) been replaced by casualised, service-oriented work with relatively low wages. In essence, their work is being feminised..."

Sydney Morning Herald, 2012

"Men, for whom the security of unionised labour in the manufacturing industries is slowly but surely becoming a distant memory, are experiencing a huge displacement from modern economic trends. It's been replaced by casualised, service‐oriented work with relatively low wages. In essence, their work has been feminised...."

Sydney Morning Herald, 2011

"Men for whom the security of unionised labour in the manufacturing industries is slowly but surely becoming a distant memory are experiencing a huge displacement from modern economic trends. It's been replaced by casualised, service-oriented work with relatively low wages. In essence, their work has been feminised, a development exacerbated by the financial crisis"

Sydney Morning Herald, 2010

"Men are experiencing a huge displacement from modern economic trends. In the Western world, it can be seen among the working class, traditionally white Anglo-Saxon, for whom the security of unionised labour in the manufacturing industries is slowly but surely becoming a distant memory. It's been replaced by casualised, service-oriented work with relatively low wages. In essence, their work has been feminised, a development exacerbated by the financial crisis."


This rabbit hole is curiously deep. Ahmed wrote an article in the Medical Journal of Australia in 2013, outlining his views on alternative medicine. At the end, there’s this note:

“Dr Ahmed has given an assurance to MJA InSight that this is his original work”

To the plagiarism checker:

Ahmed, MJA, 2013

“The thinking is that the human body has an energy to it that can be guided by external manipulation, much the way that matter and tissues are influenced by chemicals and radiation in conventional medicine.”

Dworkin, 2001

“Supposedly, the human body has an energy to it that can be guided by external manipulation, much the way that matter and tissues are influenced by chemicals and radiation in allopathic medicine.” 

Dworkin was the source of Ahmed's plagiarised SMH articles (in that case, a different article Dworkin wrote for The Atlantic).


Ahmed wrote another piece, this time more recently, in January this year, in The Australian, on the same topic. Some paragraphs are ripped directly from his article in the MJA:

Ahmed, The Australian, January 2015 (full text)

“According to the National Institute of Complementary Medicine, two in three Australians use complementary medicines each year and spend almost four times as much on out-of-pocket expenses for these medicines as on pharmaceuticals. Mostly, the use of vitamins or supplements is unwarranted in healthy people.”

Ahmed, MJA 2013

“According to the National Institute of Complementary Medicine two in three Australians use complementary medicines each year and spend almost four times as much on the out-of-pocket expenses for these medicines as they do on pharmaceuticals. In most cases, the use of vitamins or supplements is unwarranted in healthy people.”

Which itself seems to be taken directly from this website:

Life Sciences Queensland, Date Unknown

"Research has shown that two in three Australians use complementary medicines. Furthermore, consumers are spending four times more in out of pocket expenses on complementary medicines than on pharmaceuticals"
Another line has been edited slightly, but clearly self-plagiarised:

Ahmed, MJA 2013

"There also needs to be an admission of the power of placebo, the inherent doubts that are part and parcel of health care, and that the veneer of omniscience within the medical profession is, in part, charade"

Ahmed, The Australian, January 2015 (full text)

"We need to recognise the power of the placebo and that the veneer of omniscience in the medical profession is, in part, a charade"


When you submit work to a publisher, you agree that what you've written is original work - copying something you've submitted to another publisher also counts as plagiarism, given you're forcing an outlet to unwittingly publish and derive revenue from content also published elsewhere.

Plagiarism is a shitty thing to do for a large variety of reasons, but to me, putting other people, who have placed their trust in you, in a legally compromised position, is really nasty part.

In an interview on ABC's Radio National in late 2012, Ahmed confusingly confesses his sins, tries to explain his plagiarism, and pleads to be given a 'second chance':

"And already, I must say, the…I’ve been…I’ve felt well supported. I’ve felt lots of journalists and doctors too have said, okay, look, you screwed up but nobody really thinks you need to plagiarise but, you know, this’ll take time. You need to steadily ride up again, build trust. And that’s, that’s what I’d like to do, you know, and do it in a humble way with purpose."

I have very strong feelings about the perpetration of domestic violence (a big part of the reason why I'm not really qualified to offer meaningful commentary on the issue). A huge number of men get away with the infliction of harm because they're talented at creating awkwardly misshapen justifications for their actions - post-hoc rationalisations that allow them to slip easily and regularly into state of stupidity.

Ahmed's incoherent justification of plagiarism seems to mirror his twisted explanatory reasoning around domestic violence. He characterises himself as some sort of innocent automaton - carelessly copying paragraphs from other people's work, only semi-aware that his actions are wrong.

In his article in The Australian last Monday, he imagines male perpetrators of violence in the same way - stressed, struggling with identity and reacting only to external pressures - devoid of any personal responsibility.

Both arguments are devoid of logic and evidence, and both are ethically indefensible.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

The "Wind Turbine Syndrome" Study: Demand, Reject, Repeat

Today's National Health and Medical Research Council report re-affirms the answer to a question that's been asked by scientists many, many times prior. Is there any scientific evidence to support the claim that wind farms have direct impacts on human health?

"The National Health and Medical Research Council has today released a statement concluding that ‘there is currently no consistent evidence that wind farms cause adverse health effects in humans.’"

No; there isn't.

But, if a little thing like the vast, howling absence of scientific evidence highlighted above could impact the zest of groups that propagate the 'wind turbine syndrome' theory, it would have happened years ago.

As expected, the NHMRC re-asserted its call for more 'research' into this issue, an idea that's seemingly the brainchild of Liberal-National Party - an article from last year elaborates:

"Abbott told commercial radio this month that research should be refreshed "from time to time" to consider whether there were "new facts that impact on old judgments". "It is some years since the NHMRC last looked at this issue - why not do it again?" Mr Abbott said."

This mirrors a recent announcement from conservative US Governor Scott Walker, who's dedicating US$250,000 to study 'wind turbine syndrome' in America.

On the surface, it seems like a harmless venture. If there's community concerns, why not answer them with scientific research? Scientific answers offered in response to unscientific questions will be perpetually ignored.

If we commissioned a million studies, they would all impact with a dull, unceremonious thud against a solid wall - an impenetrable fortress of belief that was fully armed and operational the very moment the syndrome was first imagined.


The genesis of 'wind turbine syndrome', the nature of its spread and the motivation behind its uptake unambiguously indicate that no scientific research will convince proponents of the theory.

Wind turbine syndrome was first hypothesised by Nina Pierpont - the wife of a particularly profane anti-wind activist named Calvin Luther Martin. Both lived near a wind farm proposed near their home, and both were behind the creation of (now, seemingly defunct) and the publication of 'groundbreaking' research in which a tiny sample of self-selected individuals were asked about their symptoms on the phone. Pierpont writes:

"I never set out to prove that wind turbines cause Wind Turbine Syndrome. This was already obvious. Instead, I chose to study and document the observations made by people who had already figured it out and proved it on their own."

The theory was not created by disinterested parties investigated a theory. The dual architects of "Wind turbine syndrome" openly admit that they believed their theory to be true before they put pen to paper.

Their study only needed a thin veneer of scientific credibility - enough to convince unforgivably credulous journalists that their investigation was scientifically worthwhile.

Since it reached the shores of Australia in 2009, a full eight years after the first wind farm in Australia began operation, it's been adopted by groups and individuals that harbour some motivation to oppose wind power.

The utility of the syndrome was immediately apparent to anti-wind groups.

An ad placed in the Pyrenees Advocate clearly demonstrates the reason 'wind turbine syndrome' was created
As is the case with Pierpont, the moment the theory was adopted, it was assumed to be correct, and unassailable.

Peter Mitchell, chairman of the Waubra Foundation (an anti-wind group focused on health impacts), opponent of a wind farm development near his property in Victoria, and a listed 'observer' on the NHMRC review, states in objection to the development:

"There are proven health problems associated with living too close to turbines. That is a fact. No quibbling by proponents or politicians nor the Department of Health’s apparent ducking for cover and state of ignorance can dissolve or camouflage that fact. 
Essentially, Dr Pierpont collected sufficient data to demonstrate a link between wind turbines and human health problems. She then proposed a theory linking the certain cause and the observed effect. This theory is of no importance to our consideration. What is important now is to ensure avoidance of symptoms from this project. 
The industry, and government wind enthusiasts will continue to attempt to remain in denial, and response with ad hominem criticisms and pedantic mini-criticisms of work published on the subject. Regardless of their ‘assurances’ it is imperative that precautionary action is taken in this project so that the 12% of exposed families affected at Waubra is not repeated at [Stockyard Hill Wind Farm]"

It should be noted how perverse it is that a listed observer of the NHMRC review is the chairman of an organisation that exists solely to spread the health fears being research by the review.

This is five years in the past - even then, the proponents of the disease asserted that the theory was unquestionable.

Sarah Laurie, CEO of the Waubra Foundation, stated in an interview:

"Sarah Dingle: 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"

It's hard to get any clearer than that: No, the NHMRC's expensive study isn't going to convince her: she's already convinced, and logically then, information that contradicts that view must be wrong.

The Waubra Foundation (it recently had its 'Health Promotion Charity' status revoked by the ACNC), harbour an extremely weird set of beliefs about wind energy:

Will the NHMRC investigate these as part of their research? Source
If there's no evidence either way on the impact of wind farms on the discharge of cameras, does that mean we have to investigate it, just to be sure? What's that, you're opposed to research it? What have you got to hide, hmm?

A recent and major complication in the issue the new-found aspect of the theory - that the impact of wind turbines on human health can actually occur during periods at which the turbines are stationary - revealed as part of a Pierpont-esque report that involved self-reported health measures, a self-selected, small sample size, and no control group:

In the Hamilton Spectator, Saturday the 7th of February, 2015, written by two Penshurst residents
Again; the outcome is simple: there is literally no way that this theory can be countered by any format of scientific investigation.

Another example  is an enormous, long-running and extremely expensive research project commissioned by the Canadian equivalent of the NHMRC late last year. Coming in at $2.1 million, the research project examined objective and subjective health measures of randomly selected residents living near a large number of different wind turbines in Canada.

The study found no linkage between wind farms and health: it was immediately rejected by Canadian anti-wind groups. They continue to call for more 'research' into 'wind turbine syndrome'.


This relentless cycle, of demands and the instantaneous rejection of the outcomes of those demands, has been given new life by the government's demands of the National Health and Medical Research Council.
"The CEO, Professor Warwick Anderson noted that, based on the poor evidence base and continued public interest, NHMRC intends to issue a one-off Targeted Call for Research"
The funds could be direct to expanding our knowledge of the world. Instead, the money serve the sole purpose of keeping a pseudoscience on life support for several more years - leading to more anxiety, more fear and more consternation for communities around proposed and operational wind farms. The outcomes of the study will be rejected by the misinformers, and ignored by everyone else.

The NHMRC could spend money researching how community engagement and ownership models have essentially stunted any efforts to spread health fears to countries like Germany and Denmark, and how better models of science communication can counter pseudoscience that's tailored to feed our fears and anxieties. Though there's brief mention of psychosocial factors, the influence of anti-wind activism goes completely unmentioned.

This direction would be roundly rejected by the political and activist groups currently dictating our medical research agenda. An actual resolution of this issue would be a horrifying scenario, for them.

In their ideal world, they continue to demand ever-expanding scientific research, whilst the outcomes of each study deflect off the solid concrete walls of belief that have always bound this manufactured malady, and always will.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Creating a Spurious Correlation: How The Most Recent 'Wind Syndrome' Study Ditches The Scientific Method

After The Australian broke news, on their front page, of a ‘ground-breaking’ study into ‘wind turbine syndrome’ based at a Victorian wind farm last week, I spent the whole day firing off tweets into the relentless river of social media, picking apart the story.

It's not a good report. It breaks a raft of basic tenets of scientific inquiry, and by doing so, creates a spurious correlation. It's this fictional relationship, between wind turbine operation and a collection of very real reports of ill health, that's caused harm - the propagation of a medical diagnosis that has no backing by the medical profession.


The one thing that stood tall above the noise was a statement released almost immediately by the six participants in the study (an unusual thing for research participants to do). It was published on the website of the Waubra Foundation – an anti-wind group (that recently lost its ‘health promotion’ charity status):

“Our diaries and the concurrent full spectrum acoustic measurements inside and outside our homes clearly demonstrate that it is the operation of the wind facility correlating with our symptoms”

The article in The Australian, penned by Graham Lloyd, also states that the study conclusively proves a direct causal link between the operation of wind turbines and the ill health experienced by the research participants:

“People living near wind farms face a greater risk of suffering health complaints caused by the low-frequency noise generated by turbines, a groundbreaking study has found….“We now have a basis on how to start the medical studies,” 
…The relationship between turbine operation and sensation demonstrated a “cause and effect”, something Pacific Hydro was not prepared to concede, he [Cooper] said. 
…Mr Cooper was not engaged to establish whether there was a link between wind turbine operation and health impacts, “but the findings of my work show there is something there,””

If the statements here by the journalist and the author of the report are accurate, it means Australia’s operational wind farms are emitting a toxic acoustic signature into the homes and heads of thousands of rural residents, and that this inaudible pollution has a direct physiological impact on these residents.

Every single scientifically sound investigation into this issue has found no relationship between wind farm operation and measured health impacts - the most recent being a Canadian study using ~1,300 households, 17 different models of turbine and a large range of international acoustic and medical experts.

So - does the report support the statements made by residents, the author and the journalist?

The (Extremely Small) Sample Size

The report featured noise diaries taken from six individuals at three residences near the Cape Bridgewater wind farm, over the course of eight weeks. The six participants weren't randomly selected – they were chosen based on their status as complainants, dissatisfied with a number of previous noise studies done by acoustical consultants, some at Cape Bridgewater itself.

This is what’s known as ‘Selection Bias’ – something that peer-reviewed, scientific studies control for by selecting a random, large number of individuals.

If you stepped onto a street, and picked six blonde people, and ignored all others - could you conclude that everyone on the street is blonde? It's an extremely poor way to establish causal linkages - it almost guarantees a spurious linkage.

The "Sensation" Metric

A much-heralded feature of the report was the inclusion of ‘sensation’ reporting, in addition to industry-standard methods of reporting audible noise impacts – diary entries that inform residents what the expected ‘symptoms’ of wind turbine exposure are, prior to the start of the research. As explained in Appendix 1:

Before the study begins, the participants are provided with a suggested list of experiences, each presented as symptoms of being 'subject to operational wind farms'.

Each of these sensations shows up in a study published by Petrie, Faase and Crichton in the British Medical Journal. The research determines the most common symptoms reported by an average population of randomised individuals:

So, how do we know that the sensations reported by the residents wouldn't have been reported regardless of location? There's no control group in the study - each participant was chosen for the fact they're already reporting the health effects being measured and reported by the acoustician.

Without a control, we don't know if we're measuring the signal or the noise - this is basically why the scientific method exists - it's a tool for controlling our own tendencies to see patterns in data. This study rejects that philosophy.

Stationary Turbines Cause ‘Wind Turbine Syndrome’

Lloyd claims in The Australian that “The study by acoustics expert Steven Cooper is the first in the world in which a wind turbine ­operator had fully co-operated and turned wind turbines off completely during the testing” (it's worth noting that this is a standard feature of nearly all acoustic tests of wind farms, and it's been done many, many, many times).

Here's the thing: the appendices of the report show an enormous number of reports of noise, vibration and sensation impacts during the times at which the wind farm isn't generating: whether due to low winds or a site-wide shutdown. Only a few examples are shown below – you can see them all in Appendices 2 and 3.

Blue arrows are noise impact reports, green arrows are 'vibration' reports, and red arrows are 'sensations' - the power output of the wind farm is shown at the bottom of each chart.

There are many, many more examples. That so many 'wind farm impacts' occurred during times at which the turbines weren't spinning ought to indicate that the report isn't quantifying what it thinks it’s quantifying.

The author's response to this criticism was published in a follow-up article by Graham Lloyd in The Australian, and it’s incredible (in the 'this totally isn't credible' sense of the word):

“Some sensations and vibration impact had been reported when the turbines were not operating. But Mr Cooper said this was due to vibration of the blades and towers when they were subjected to wind gusts”

This doesn't explain the large number of 'sensation' reports at low wind speeds, and it isn't mentioned that 'noise' impacts are reported during periods of non-operation as well.

Post-hoc rationalisations are not a good way to do science. By creating this hypothesis, the report is unfalsfiable - all possible measurements either confirm his hypothesis or can be explained away by 'vibrating stationary turbines'.

Reversing the Scientific Method (Conclusion First; Evidence Later) 

The author of the report also declares his analytical philosophy in Graham Lloyd's follow up article:

“The study was required to work backwards from the resident’s observations and see what wind or noise levels agreed with the complaint,” Mr Cooper said. “I don’t think you can get any more objective than that.”

He says pretty much the same thing on page 50 of the full report:

"The use of the diary observation is relevant in that the concept from the outset was not to take the noise levels and then provide a correlation of the noise levels with the diary observations. The approach was to start with the diary observations and then look to see if there was any correlation with the measurement data. 
Hence the use of the visual concept of arrows and sensations overlaid on the data, rather than a statistical analysis of the severity ranking and the data"

It may seem like an irritatingly obvious thing to say, but you can’t establish a causal link by ignoring the ‘misses', highlighting the 'hits' and ditching measures of statistical significance.

Digging deeper - as discussed by Tristan Edis in this article in Climate Spectator, page 115 confusingly outlines the extremely large number of'sensation' reports that were 'excluded' from the analysis:

"From the resident’s diaries there are 441 Sensations classified as severity ranking 4, and 81 as severity ranking 5.....Whilst sensations 4 & 5 would normally be grouped for analysis, as sensation 5 is of a level that would make the specific residents in the study want to leave their premises to obtain respite, the following analysis is based on sensation severity 5 and being the absolute worst case scenario. Noting that the degree of time involved in analysing the data for sensation 4 would be significant"
This is hard to decipher, but I've tried to simplify the remarks below:

It doesn't seem right to reject 84.48% of the recorded data because 'the degree of time involved in analysing the data' would be significant. That's the whole point of the scientific method: taking the time to follow the evidence, wherever it leads.

I've seen confirmation bias in scientific studies before; but this is the first time I've seen it openly championed as an analytical philosophy - only 5.94% of the collated 'sensation' reports ended up being used in the analysis.

The 'Bending Over Exercise'

Another feature of this report that seems to pull it out of the realm of standard acoustic studies and place it deep into 'wind turbine syndrome' territory is section 6.9.4 - disconcertingly entitled 'Bending Over Exercise':

"For the purpose of assisting others in terms of the investigation of balance mechanisms for individuals that are sensitised to the wind farm there was a request to undertake a separate exercise in the hotspots, open areas and in the dwelling where the resident would first stand towards the wind farm close their eyes and observe the perception at that position. 
The resident was then requested to turn through 90° repeat the exercise, turn through another 90° (so as to be facing away from the wind farm) repeat the exercise, and then continue another 90° (to be side on, opposite to the second orientation) and repeat the exercise"
The author goes on to request the residents do the same, but lying on the ground and then, sitting up.

It's admitted that this part of the research isn't 'part of the acoustic study' - certainly, requesting research participants orient physically point themselves at a wind farm isn't a standard part of an acoustic study. Again; there are no controls, no justification for the methodology, and no discussion of confounding factors.


The residents involved in this study express a profound sense of relief, in their written statements included in the appendices, and in the remarks they supplied to journalists.

"During the testing program Steven Cooper revealed some of his preliminary findings. The fact that he had established correlations between the residents recorded observations and the operations of the wind turbines, was immensely encouraging, particularly in light of previous assertions by Pacific Hydro that there was no cause for complaint"
- House 89; Resident 5, Appendix Part 3 

“It is an absolute relief, like an epiphany to have him (Mr Cooper) say I was not crazy (that) when I am doing the dishes I feel nausea and have to get out of the house.”
- Sonja Crisp, Research Participant, The Australian 
There is no question that the residents consider the report to be definitive proof of a causal link between the symptoms of 'wind turbine syndrome' (labelled euphemistically by the report author as 'sensations') and the operation of a nearby wind farm.

Our own biases confound our attempts to gain knowledge about the world. We're riddled with cognitive shortcuts that make us see patterns in meaningless noise, or ignore information that threatens our worldview.

The scientific method is a tool for wrangling these biases and cramming them into a box, where they're less liable to lead us to mistakes. Without them, we're at the mercy of the shortcomings of the electrified meat between our ears, whether we like it or not. To not only reject these anti-mistake bias-control tools, but to champion their absence, is the hallmark of a study that is truly non-scientific. To then convince human beings that their ills are caused by a nearby technology, based on this, is deeply unethical.

There's much to explore on this, including a series of credulous, unscientific and error-ridden media reports that accompanied the release, and the history of Cape Bridgewater wind farm's development - something that I know for sure will tell us more about the sentiments expressed by nearby residents than this report. More on that later.