Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Dowsing For Deduction: Why My Tweet Was Stupid

There's different ways of findings things we can't quite see. Like water, buried deep underneath the soil. We know it's there somewhere, but we don't quite know where.

A slow, deliberative search is likely to yield better results, but.....it's not as romantic as slinging a hession sack over our shoulder, and riding out into the dark. Taking a chance, and pushing out past the pack, underneath the stars.

There's nothing with this inductive approach to exploration. In fact, it's a key component of the scientific spirit.

Proto-sciences like alchemy and phrenology ultimately turned out to be false, but they played a small part in the foundation of contemporary and well-checked fields of science like chemistry and neuroscience. They're pseudoscience now, but they were once valid fields of wonder.

It's this stirring spirit of pushing forward that was cited by the new head of the CSIRO, when citing the ancient art of 'water dowsing' as a potential research area for water identification within the commonwealth science organisation. Kylie Sturgess, podcaster and blogger for the Token Skeptic, transcribed the interview:

"this is a little bit ‘out there’, but something that has always fascinated me, I don’t know if you've ever seen farmers find water, and as a scientist I can’t explain how they do this, but there’s a number of tricks when people dowse for water, and I can tell you, I've seen people do this with close to 80% accuracy"

The story appeared on ABC Rural, and the response on social media was far from sympathetic:




There's a wealth of evidence demonstrating that dowsing/divining, a method through which vibrating bent metal rods are said to 'turn' in the direction of things desired by those who wield the rods, is, frankly, a pseudoscience.

This great video, featuring British psychologist Christopher French, demonstrates that despite repeated failed attempts to prove their claims, their belief continues unabated:



The Australian Skeptics community has been testing the claims of dowsers and water diviners for three decades now, and they've consistently found that the claims of dowsers failed under testing:

"One thing must be made clear — dowsers on the whole are very honest folk. They believe in what they do. Unfortunately their belief is poorly placed. They cannot perform as they think they can"

A particular comprehensive set of experiments in the late 90's (the Munich experiments) demonstrated conclusively that even in conditions sympathetic to the dowers, their success at locating water using the rotating rods is no better than chance:

"It is difficult to imagine a set of experimental results that would represent a more persuasive disproof of the ability of dowsers to do what they claim. The experiments thus can and should be considered a decisive failure by the dowsers."

The most interesting component of the research is at the end, where the authors write:

"Because of the vigour, however, with which Professor Betz and colleagues defended their positive conclusions (Betz et al. 1996), and in view of the discouraging history of other claims about the occult, one may have residual doubts, as do I, about whether reason will prevail in this arena (Enright 1996)"

Kylie Sturgess is similarly pessimistic:

"Maybe I’m too optimistic that the skeptical really can make a difference. Excuse me while I go be depressed for a while…"

My own initial response to the news wasn't exactly optimistic, either:


Even writing this a mere half-day after hastily casting those words into the twitter-sphere, I'm not sure I can stand by them.

I don't think the pronouncements of the head of the CSIRO (so far removed from the enormous and dedicated efforts of Australia's skeptics community) mean we ought to 'cancel science', nor do they mean we should spiral dejectedly into a cynical expectation of the eternal existence of the pseudoscience of dowsing.

The spirit Marshall summons during his interview with the ABC is exploratory. The head of an institution like the CSIRO ought to wield a caution that goes above and beyond even the most cynical scientists, but past this fairly significant transgression, we ought to consider that this declaration stemmed from an inductive spirit, something that's important in scientific inquiry.

The other thing that comes to mind is the fact that most dowsers, and Marshall himself, seem to be genuinely convinced by the power of the technique. Nearly every case of testing performed by skeptics and scientists acknowledges that those doing the dowsing are fervent and honest in their belief.

I suspect Marshall's remarks came from a good place, rather than any sinister plans for pseudoscientific domination. They also serve as an important and unmissable reminder that no one's immune to the vulnerability of the human mind to ignore the misses, remember the hits, and reach past the pack, into the dark and the unexplored.

Look Around You (Or, The Man With The Beret Wants Me To Stare Silently At Strangers)

Tuesdays are not great. They're so close to Monday, and the weekend is so distant, they kind of feel like Monday except without the right to complain.

Making them somewhat better is the fact that the ABC Media Watch video is loaded onto their website, so I can download the show in the morning, and happily dig into the episode on my way to work on Tuesday. This morning, I did so, and once I'd finished, I pulled out my earphones - the train was incredibly crowded, so I wanted to hear in case someone was needing to push past me.

"You're totally obsessed with your phone, aren't you?"

The words came quietly from my left, and I glanced at their source. A squat man in his early 40s, sporting a thin, patterned scarf, an over-sized black leather jacket, dark jeans, and most importantly, a round, high beret, was staring silently at me.



His expression was oddly similar to the expression that those who exercise regularly have when scooting past still-drunk revellers at 6am - a mixture of feigned sympathy and barely-concealed disgust, topped with near-masturbatory righteous pleasure.

I'd been preparing for this moment my whole life. I knew he'd be getting off the train some time soon - he didn't look the sort to venture north of Redfern, so I didn't have a lot of time.

"Yes, I am obsessed with my phone. Is that a problem?"

"Well, why don't you just look around you?"

It's too easy. The snooty drawl. The leather jacket. The beret. Oh, god, the beret. Make it hard for me, man. Don't make it so easy.

"I can access the entire wealth of human knowledge through this device. I can watch a live feed of the space. I can read about psychology, art or poetry. I can access and read the majority of contemporary literature. I can have  real-time conversation with relatives in San Francsisco, Denmark, London and Germany. What do you propose I do?"

Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

"Look up from your phone. Take in the world. Look around you"

I glanced around the train. In the vestibule stood around 15 people, packed in tight peak-hour congestion, each staring down at their phone or straight ahead. Directly to my left sat a young woman reading a book.

"I've just found out about the death of a major Australian figure through Twitter. I can guarantee you're not going to know anything about it unless you turn on or walk past a digital device. I also read the tweets of people in space, or watch comets flying past Mars. There are just people standing on this train. It's astonishing that you're saying I should just weirdly stare at these people instead"




"Yes, astonishing" he muttered, as he sauntered grumpily out of the train carriage and onto the platform at Redfern.

As he stepped off the train, a man standing nearby glanced at me. With a knowing look, I smiled and raised my phone at him. He smiled back, and raised his phone, and I went back to reading an article about how we'd sent a robot to another planet, and that a comet had flown past that planet, which we'd watched using a gigantic telescope orbiting the Earth.

If I'm at a beach, or in view of some magnificent vista, I won't be buried in a handset. But my daily commute is a fairly perfect time for consuming everything fantastic that the internet has to offer. There's no ridiculous bygone era where people would sit on the train, wordlessly gazing lovingly at each other, taking in the varieties of human morphology.


Basically, Beret-Wearing-Redfern-Technophobe, you better think twice before screwing with people on a Tuesday.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Alan Jones declares (at least) 219,000 Australians Should be Suffering From Wind Turbine Syndrome

Pseudoscience needs drama to survive. Without conflict and heightened emotions, spurious claims based on poor logic stand vulnerable to reasoned assessment. When surrounded by theatrics, you can make any claim you want.

And so, with the drama emerging around the NSW Gullen Range wind farm development, involving several wind turbines built in unapproved locations, comes an unsurprising segue from radio presenter Alan Jones, during an interview with the NSW planning Minister:

"There's any amount of scientific evidence that anyone with ten kilometres of wind turbine (sic) has health problems, and there's international scientific evidence...that will dramatically prove that this a public health disaster"



Well. This is a pretty significant claim. It was curiously echoed by Senator John Madigan in a press release on Thursday:

"Low frequency noise and infrasound from industrial wind power stations are not mentioned in the applicable wind farm noise standard and are not measured. The impacts are not assessed. But ask anyone living near a wind factory and they'll tell you it exists alright. Infrasound is experienced by the body as a sensation, pressure or vibration rather than heard"

Again, it's explicitly stated that 'infrasound' impacts everyone - the mere existence of a low frequency is merciless, no one is spared.

As it happens, infrasound is everywhere, and most environments are significantly 'louder' (in terms of infrasound) than environments near operational wind farms:


For the sake of curiosity, let's assume Jones' warnings are accurate - anyone within ten kilometres of a wind turbine is going to 'have health problems' - the map below shows a ten kilometre radius around the mid-point of each Australian wind farm (the coordinate set is a little old so a few newer farms may have been left out), along with a pin indicating a rough installed capacity. Zoom in to the pins to see the radii:



There are a few towns that are completely engulfed by the Alan Jones' 'Wind Turbine Syndrome' radius, including:

Wonthaggi - population 20,032


Newcastle - population 148,535


Bungendore - population 3,553


Hepburn - population 14,367


If you compile a selection of towns within ten kilometres of wind farms (along with some multipliers for some radii that cover some portion of the town), you get a minimum of about 219,468 individuals who, according to Jones, ought to be suffering the health impacts of wind turbines.



Remember this is a massive underestimate, involving only 9 of Australian's 30-or-so wind farms (and an old list that doesn't include newer wind farms).

A piece of research published last year collated all publicly held complaints about health and noise impacts from wind farms, and found only 129 individuals had issued these complaints - compared with an estimated population of ~32,000 within a five kilometre radius of Australia's wind farms:



A very small proportion of individuals living near wind farms claim their health problems are due to the operation of wind turbines, and of these, a majority are at wind farms that have been visited by anti-wind groups.

The vast gap between the strength of their belief and the absence of any evidence to suggest their problems are caused by wind turbines betrays the vital role of community discontent in the emergence of weirdly unhinged claims like that of Jones.

Alan Jones' 'public health disaster' has failed to materialise

The Waubra Foundation, a 'wind turbine syndrome'-based anti-wind group that's been doing presentations at the Gullen Range Wind Farm development hearings, claims 50% of those within five kilometres are susceptible to wind farm disease - which suggests there should be about 16,000 complaints nationally - about 8,300% larger than the actual published number of individual complainants in Australia. Even if the mythical disease affected 1% of the population, the observed rate of complaints would still fall short of the hyperbole.

Alan Jones, John Madigan and the Waubra Foundation are free to make claims as outlandish and physically ridiculous as they please. A requisite level of theatrics provides an unspoken writ of illogical, irrational allowance.

Perhaps, then, the tactics for fighting misinformation might lie (at least, partly) in ensuring conflict, disagreement and drama don't arise around the development of new technology. Once emotion is removed from the picture, absurd claims are seen by most for what they are.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Kinetic Energy and Power: A Timelapse Visualisation of Clean Tech

We've dug up compressed bits of old plant and burned them to make energy for a few hundreds years, and its powered a revolution that's helped us build and sell nice things, like air-conditioners and computers.But, burning these fuels leads to our habitat becoming royally screwed, because a byproduct blocks heat in the oceans and the atmosphere.

The kinetic energy stored in the movement of the atmosphere is a good alternative to fossil fuels. Wind speeds change over time, and we can't control that, so it means we can source some, but not all, of our power from this source.

With this in mind, I left a laptop running (in low-power mode) for two weeks (22nd September to 6th of October), with an excellent visualisation of the Earth's atmosphere (created by Cameron Beccario) running on the left, and a display of the output of South Australian and Victorian wind farms (Australia's two highest-wind states) running on the right. You can see Australia's wind farms dotted along the south coast in the map below:

Elemental Power Industries map of Australian operational wind power - click here for a kmz file for viewing in Google Earth
Included in this time period is the one day period where nearly 100% of South Australian demand was met by clean tech - the 27th of September.

Without further ado, here's the short video (no sound) of the last fortnight's worth of atmospheric power conversion - you can see walls of energy moving across the continent, and the output of wind farms ebbing upwards when these pockets of power move over the installations:



Or, the middle 10 seconds of the video, in djiff form:


If you're interested in a different view of the two-week period, below is the generation data for Australia's wind power fleet (SA, Tas, Vic and NSW), averaged by day:


You can download the enitre set of images (~127 MB) used to create the animation here, the video (in mp4) here, or the djiff, here. GeoScience Australia has an excellent summary of Australia's wind power resources here.

I like nice things, like air conditioners and televisions. If we can source our electricity from a fuel source that doesn't burden us with current and future harm, we can continue to have nice things.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

A Sour Relationship: How The 'Wind Turbine Deafness' Story Got So Wrong, So Quick

The relationship between the tabloid press and science has always been sour.

Not sour like a wedge of lemon. More, like 58 wedges of lemon soaked in vinegar, in a bed of kumquats and Greek yoghurt, sprinkled with sauerkraut and wrapped in pages torn out of Kevin Rudd's memoirs.  Very sour.

So it's unsurprising that the latest cycle of "wind turbines make you [thing they don't make you]" has been instantaneously debunked by the scientist who wrote the research in the first place.

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The Daily Mail was first off the mark, with a shouty article headlined "Could living near a wind farm make you DEAF?"


The article's written in a slightly frenetic fashion. Though that's standard operating procedure for the Daily Mail, it still suggested they were trying to compensate for something - my suspicion was that they'd screwed up the science, somehow. The UK's Telegraph picked up the story as well:

"The physical composition of inner ear was “drastically” altered following exposure to low frequency noise, like that emitted by wind turbines, a study has found. 
The research will delight critics of wind farms, who have long complained of their detrimental effects on the health of those who live nearby."

As predicted by the journalist, wind farm critics have been dripping with delight:



In addition to anti-wind groups, a fair few media outlets have credulously repeated the news:


Equally predictably, the story's completely wrong.

Markus Drexl, the lead author of the study, told Carbon Brief that their study didn't look at wind turbines, but at low-frequency noise, and that there was no evidence of 'deafness' or 'hearing loss':

"There's a very loose relationship between our work and wind turbines... If you mention low frequency noise people always seem to relate this to wind turbines. 
"The noise we used was at the same frequency as some of the sounds turbines emit but we by no means mimicked the spectrum of sound they produce." 
"It's [the 'deafening' claim] definitely not what we're saying in the paper. You cannot make this claim. It is not substantiated at the moment because we haven't shown whether low frequency sound is causing any damage to the inner ear. I also don't know of any cases of deafness being reported by people living near wind turbines."
Drexl used an amplitude of 80 dB(A) for the low frequency (around 30 Hz) noise they were looking at. A 2013 South Australian Environmental Protection Agency study, conducted by an acoustics firm, measured low frequency noise at Australian wind farms, and other environments frequented by humans:

"Overall, this study demonstrates that low frequency noise levels near wind farms are no  greater than levels in urban areas or at comparable rural residences away from wind farms"

No surprises there. What about the 80 dB(A) at 30Hz levels that Drexl used in his study? Figure 33 of the EPA's study sheds light on the amplitudes we get from wind farms at this level, though these measurements are 'unweighted' (ie, just 'dB' rather than 'dB(A)'):


Wind farm noise levels (the orange and yellow lines) at 30 Hz are around 40 dB. Taking into account the A-level weighting, this is significantly lower than the noise use in Drexl's study.

Interestingly, the only location in the EPA's study that might apply to Drexl's study is an office environment, as seen in figure 27:


Dr Ralph Holme, Head of Biomedical Research at Action on Hearing Loss explained in more detail to Sense About Science:

“Our ears normally produce very quiet sounds that can be measured by sensitive microphones. These sounds are called spontaneous otoacoustic emissions (SOAEs). The research does show that low frequency noise can change the level and frequency of these sounds. However, the researchers only monitored for up to 7 minutes after the low frequency exposure, so we do not know if the changes are permanent or temporary. 
It is important to remember that SOAEs can be influenced by many different things including everyday noise we might experience just walking down the street. And there was no evidence provided in this research that these changes alter a person’s ability to hear.”
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There's nothing wrong with the research published by Drexl and his team. So how the media manage to screw up the story so badly? Carbon Brief gives us a hint:

"The research paper doesn't mention wind - at all. However, a press summary written by the authors gives wind turbines as one example of sources of low frequency noise, along with ventilation and air conditioning systems" 

It's clear the journalists behind this gargantuan error weren't interested in the science; nor were they interested in hearing what the scientist had to say. This was an opportunity to create bad news about a politically-charged piece of technology. Fear and neophobia can create hits and shares like nothing else.

That this comes at the expense of the scientists publishing work is no barrier to the publications spreading misinformation. The only decent coverage of the research was published in Science Magazine - all other coverage seizes solely on the mention of wind turbines, and ignores the science.

If the outlets involved were to pull their articles, it would make absolutely no difference to the now self-sustaining meme. The myth will be angrily paraphrased and repeated at community meetings by concerned citizens, ill-equipped to debunk the misinformation themselves. It's already been pasted and re-blogged by an array of anti-wind blogs.

Outlets that openly manifest a seething hatred of technology they perceive as a partisan threat are solely responsible for damaging science, in the hope of creating falsehoods that are used to spread fear and anxiety.

Damaging science, all in the name of damaging people. The misinformers and the revenue counters at the media outlets are the only ones left without a bad taste in their mouths.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Personal Attacks and Conspiracy Theories Can't Alter Reality

Conspiracy theories come to life when a movement desperately desires vindication, despite scientific evidence flying in the face of their assertions. I've been recently and awkwardly shoehorned into one of these conspiracy theories, involving an old complaint and Microsoft Word. It's silly, and wrong, but it's fascinating. 

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At the yearly international conference of the global skeptics community, science communicator Bill Nye described the fallout of his debate with creationist Ken Ham:

"This was all over the Internet the next day. 'Bill Nye: The Science Lie'. You laugh, but it shows you the antagonism. Somehow, by discrediting me, the Earth will be 6,000 years old, and science won't be true" 


Nye points out that somehow, the insult is expected to negate the enormous body of scientific work supporting evolution. This happens regularly in public discourse around climate science.

Recently, the Australian climate denial movement has targeted the scientists who work at the Bureau of Meteorology. Maurice Newman, Tony Abbott's business advisor, wants a full inquiry into the bureau, and Jennifer Marohasy, an ex-IPA biologist, wants to see the scientists put in jail. She actively yearns for the confinement of scientists despite (or perhaps, due to) the inarguable strength of the science underpinning anthropogenic global warming.


The phenomenon known as "wind turbine syndrome" is inextricably linked to the organised denial of climate science. The Waubra foundation, an anti-wind group dedicated to being Australia's primary proponents of 'wind turbine syndrome', write in their submission to a renewable policy review that:


In the two ABC Environment articles, I argue against over-reliance on anecdotal evidence, and for an increased reliance on community engagement and ownership. Were my opinion pieces part of an over-arching conspiracy to defend machines the industry knows to be harmful? Well, no, they weren't. I don't make a secret of my vested interests and I , so why the conspiracy theory?

As it happens, Sarah Laurie, the CEO of the Waubra Foundation, has a fondness for conspiracy theories. In a fascinating interview with Radio National's Background Briefing, Laurie outlines her suspicions that wind turbines are somehow being made to rotate at different speeds during acoustic testing, and that her phone is being tapped by the wind industry:

Sarah Dingle: You think wind farm operators are actually reducing the amount of power they generate because your acousticians are going to visit. 
Sarah Laurie: Yes, we do. 
Sarah Dingle: And what evidence do you have of that beyond residents' anecdotal..? 
Sarah Laurie: Oh, we've got some film footage that suggests that that's what is going on. 
Sarah Dingle: And how does the film footage suggest that is the case? 
Sarah Laurie: Well, you can see that the turbines are turning at different speeds. The wind is blowing at the same strength and you have turbines in the same area that are turning at different speeds, markedly different speeds. 
Sarah Dingle: A senior engineer at Hydro Tasmania says individual wind turbines catch different wind speeds, even in a local area, and each turbine automatically adjusts to the wind, which is why they can turn at different rates. 
........ 
Sarah Dingle: Sarah Laurie also says her phone is being tapped. 
Sarah Laurie: I've had it confirmed by police on a number of occasions when I've complained. 
Sarah Dingle: Background Briefing has statements from the South Australian police and the AFP, saying they don't have any record of Dr Laurie's complaint, and the South Australian police say they have no evidence of her phone being tapped.
The most recent example of this approach relates to an analysis by the Energy and Policy Institute, which found that after repeated legal tests, courts consistently reject the claimed linkages between wind turbines and 'wind turbine syndrome'.

In response to the publication, the Waubra Foundation published a 4,251 word letter, written by someone named 'J A Rovensky', about the author of the analysis, Mike Barnard.

The unappetisingly long diatribe is designed to discredit him, and more pointedly, rattle his employer. As it happens, I'm part of their conspiracy theory.

The Microsoft Word Default Formatting Style Conspiracy 

In April 2013, an anonymous complaint was submitted to the national health body, detailing times at which Sarah Laurie had engaged in collecting medical data, despite no longer being a registered health practitioner:

"The concerns about Laurie’s research ethics are outlined in a document written by an  anonymous academic and first sent to the Public Health Association Australia. The document  alleges Laurie is not currently registered as a medical practitioner but has been conducting  activity that meets the definition of medical research involving human subjects. On her website, Laurie uses the title of “Dr” and describes herself as a former GP" 
- Crikey News, April 2013

Despite the fact I'm not really an academic, the author of the post on the Waubra Foundation website seems to think it was me who wrote the letter, on behalf of my employer:

"Infigen Energy’s propagandist Ketan Joshi is uncharacteristically silent when challenged by others on various blog sites about his knowledge and involvement in the production and distribution of this defamatory document. The format of the document was remarkably similar to the way Infigen energy prepares their responses to issues raised by objectors to their environmental assessments"

Though I probably don't even need to say it, it wasn't me, or my employer. The letter to the NHMRC is in Calibri size 11 - the default format for Word documents. Incidentally, it's the same format the Waubra Foundation uses (my employer uses a custom Arial template). 


The fact that they're publishing claims that are silly and wrong isn't all that remarkable. Where it gets more interesting is the origin of this conspiracy theory - a man named George Papadopoulos first accused me of being complicit in this letter in some comment threads a while ago: 

Renew Economy Comment Thread, February 2013
George's conspiracy theory became manifest at a time that I switched into a period of fairly intense shift work, so I lost the ability to 'lock horns' with wind farm opponents on websites. I like that he called me a 'loose canon', and he seemed to be a little sad that I'd lost my spark. He kept it up for quite some time: 

The Conversation Comment Thread, June 2013

George also operates under a pseudonym, 'Earth's Internet', on a forum in which he goes into further detail: 

"There is also suspicion that Ketan Joshi may have such knowledge of this letter. The format of the complaint is very similar to that used by Infigen in its responses. Ketan (Infigen e3mployee) has denied to have been the author of the complaint, but refuses to elaborate whether the complaint came out of the offices of Infigen 
I've noticed Ketan is not as smart-assy and arrogant since his own involvement in the anonymous letter has surfaced and he is questioned about this. Though no doubt he'll continue to pimp for his company with all the prejudice and bigotry of any good company man"
Attempting to rattle my employer is an easy alternative to engaging with evidence. It's happened a few times.

After I linked to a particularly egregious Facebook post from a Liberal politician on Twitter, another ex-IPA lobbyist, Justin Timberlake fan, and paid defender of the tobacco industry, did a bit of googling, discovered my employer and decided throw out a response:



It's unsurprising that the Waubra Foundation adopted the same approach. The issue of 'wind turbine syndrome' has seen a vast range of rejections in the past year, ranging from scientific to legal to community push-back. The narrative of fear can't last forever, particularly given the huge number of Australians who live near wind farms without experiencing any problems they attribute to the wind farms.

Bill Nye the Science Guy is right. The purveyors of bad science can publish invective as fierce as they like - it doesn't change the nature of scientific evidence.

Update 15/10/2014 - I received this email from Jackie Rovensky, seemingly an apology about inaccuracies in her letter directed at Simon Chapman, a professor at Sydney University. 

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Damaging Science and Ecology: How The Australian Inflated Avian Impacts by 886%

Attacking science isn't easy. Simply burying your head in the sand isn't nearly enough - you need to push back against scientific research. Delete the evidence, and write your own narrative.

The best recipe for this is the production of a thin, barely-visible veneer of scientific credibility. Bury this in whatever scientific uncertainty you can find. Stir.

Yesterday, the environment editor for The Australian, Graham Lloyd, added another article to a vast catalogue of anti-wind pieces covering wind turbine syndrome, wind farm output, wind farm economics,  aesthetics and of course - the impact of wind turbines on bird life



Lloyd's 'exclusive' on avian impacts at AGL's Waterloo Wind Farm was obtained from a mechanical engineer named Hamish Cumming - the two have history. In September 2012, Lloyd published an article featuring an unfortunate but incredibly significant misunderstanding. Cumming, a trained engineer, assumed that electricity produced by wind farms is somehow 'spilt' into the aether during times of low demand and high wind, as coal-fired power stations in Victoria don't alter their output downwards.

It's a very, very, very big misunderstanding of the National Electricity Market, but all that was needed was the veneer of scientific credibility. So it is with Lloyd's freshest offering

"EAGLES, falcons and other raptors make up to a third of the estimated 1500 birds killed each year at Australia’s biggest wind farm. 
The finding of an independent report for Macarthur Wind Farm operator AGL follows 12 monthly searches of 48 turbines at the 140-turbine operation in Victoria that found 576 bird carcasses."

An anti-wind blog published a scanned copy of the report, covered in (presumably) Cumming's hand-written notes.


So did the scientists find 1,500 dead birds at the Macarthur wind farm? They must have - Lloyd claims that 1,500 birds were killed in the space of a year by the machines. The report states: 

"A total of 65 individual birds from 15 species and six bats from three species were found during carcass searches"
- Australian Ecological Research Services

Lloyd breathlessly declares that 1,500 birds are killed each year, and that 576 bird carcasses were found at the wind farm. So, what's going on? Why the discrepancies? First of all, Lloyd has misread a quote in the report: 

"A total of 576 carcass searches (12 searches of 48 turbines) were conducted over the subsequent 12 months from March 2013 to February 2014"
- Australian Ecological Research Services

Yep. That's right. 576 is the number of searches undertaken; not the total number of carcasses found during those searches (65). It's okay. That's only an inflation of 886%. Close enough.

But, what about the 1,500 figure declared in the byline of the piece? That's slightly more complex, and it betrays a distinct attitude towards scientific uncertainty and estimation.

The report relies primarily on 'correction factors' - they multiply the number of carcasses they find by a certain value, to adjust for the fact that carcasses may be removed by predators before the researchers had a chance to find them (they went out once a month to look for deceased birds): 


Australian Ecological Research Services (AERS) euthanised a collection of turkeys obtained from a turkey farm in Victoria, and used these as controls, to determine how long it takes for a carcass to be removed. As AERS state: 

"Estimates of bird and bat mortality are subject to several sources of bias which may result in inaccurate estimates. Such sources of bias include the use of correction factors for searcher efficiency and scavenging rates which are ineffective if no fatalities are found at a turbine due to prior removal from scavengers.  
However, the likeliest source of error in the current estimates of mortality at the Macarthur Wind Farm is the search interval between consecutive carcass searches Each turbine was searched approximately 30 days apart but as illustrated by the scavenger trials, most carcasses are removed by scavengers within one week This results in fewer carcasses being detected and of those that are detected, a very high scavenging correction factor is applied. As such, the estimate of mortality is likely to be inaccurate as it relies primarily on correction factors rather than actual fatalities"

The estimates used by Lloyd and Cumming to headline their piece are just that: "very high" factors to adjust for the fact that the data were acquired at a low resolution (once a month) rather than at a higher resolution (once a week).

They multiply the '10.19' per turbine figure with 140 turbines to get 1,426, and automagically add on another 74 to reach that wholesome round number of 1,500. Fits the narrative a bit better, if it's a bit bigger. 

The scientists do their best to generate approximations in the face of uncertainty, and they're open about the limitations of their estimates in the study. Do Lloyd and Cumming declare the same information in their article? Not really: 

"But an AGL spokesman said the report had “shown no significant impact on threatened ­species”. The company said overall ­estimates of bird and bat mortality “are subject to several sources of bias which may result in inaccurate estimates”" 

What? 'The company' said that? Those words come directly from the report. Lloyd is making out that the company is begrudgingly criticising the findings of the scientists, when really, they're simply quoting the uncertainty declared in the report, as Lloyd has spectacularly failed to do in his article. 

Another of Cumming's multitudinous angles of attack against wind energy is the survival of the brolga

"All of Australia’s GHG is now less than 1% of the world’s emissions, wind farms in Australia will not reduce the global GHG emissions by any measurable amount. Wind farms will however displace Brolga from their habitat, threatening their survival"

AGL commissioned a separate environmental firm, Biosis, to review the veracity of their Macarthur report: 

"Biosis found that the collision mortality rates at Macarthur wind farm are ‘not high relative to other wind farms’.” Key findings of the monitoring research found no brolga deaths and the protected species had successfully bred on the wind farm and continued to return to the site"

Significantly, Cumming's focus on the preservation of the Brolga isn't included in Lloyd's article. Presumably, it distracts from the narrative, somewhat. A science communication writer wrote on uncertainty at The Conversation recently: "Genuine researchers are those rare individuals who have come to terms with their uncertainty and confront it on a daily basis". This is true; but I'd append a further feature of uncertainty.Those who seek to erode research and damage science use uncertainty as a blank substrate for fear and anger.

As an avian ecologist pointed out on ABC Radio National's Ockham's Razor: 

"Wind farms are one of the few sources of impacts to birds and bats that are being systematically monitored. Most other forms of energy generation do not monitor impacts. Nor do we have widespread systematic monitoring of all the other human-related activities that we inflict on species – such as collisions with cars, powerlines, windows, poisoning, shooting, pollution etc."

By presenting estimates of bird mortality without any context, such as monitoring conducted at a coal-fired power station or a gas-fired power station, Lloyd and Cumming together work to damage efforts by scientists to directly address the issue of avian impact.

They're making it harder for scientists to publish work without it being co-opted and misquoted and tarred with the brush of anti-wind groups. Uncertainty and estimation ends up under the wheels of the narrative. 

There is already some data on comparisons between generation technologies and avian impacts: 

"Environmentalists and environmental scientists have criticized wind energy in various forums for its negative impacts on wildlife, especially birds. This article highlights that nuclear power and fossil-fuelled power systems have a host of environmental and wildlife costs as well, particularly for birds. Therefore, as a low-emission, low-pollution energy source, the wider use of wind energy can save wildlife and birds as it displaces these more harmful sources of electricity"
Source + You can read a response to this paper here

So why won't you see any articles about the impact of Australia's coal-fired power stations on bird life? Well, fossil fuel companies aren't required to do any monitoring or reporting, despite the likelihood their impact on wildlife is many times greater than that of wind energy.

This is one field of uncertainty very likely to remain untouched by The Australian, Graham Lloyd, and Hamish Cumming. Can't mess with the narrative, can we?

Update 24/09/2014

Found this report from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau - provides information about bird strikes from aircraft: