Thursday, 6 December 2012

The End of the World

Nearly 14 days from the time of writing, the world will end. This isn't a modest prediction. In fact, if the doomsayers are right, even they won't even be around to gloat at the charred, smoking remains of humanity, satisfied that they were right all along. Most people understand that the predictions fall easily in line with a broad history of failed apocalyptic forecasts, the most recent being Harold Camping's failed efforts to foresee the Second Coming. 

Our Prime Minister has even taken to Triple J to poke fun at the predictions. To revel in the comedy of an inherently funny theory is natural, and of course, should never be discouraged. There is, though, another side to dramatic predictions of harm or suffering that often goes unexplored, and is, in my eyes, analogous to the issue that currently exists around wind farms and health. 

Most media coverage of the event has been limited to tabloid publications, such as 'Todays Newz' 

The theory itself is predictably shaky. The idea stems from a stone tablet found in Mexico a few decades ago. The concept is that as the Mayan calendar reaches its end, some assorted Mayan gods will descend from the heavens and start behaving like petty sky-morons, resulting , of course, in widespread armageddon. The evidence supporting this theory is essentially non-existent, as NASA patiently explains on their website.

An astrobiologist from NASA, David Morrison, points out there are in fact real consequences of promoting claims that have no evidence to support them. reports on Morrison’s comments:

“Unfortunately, Morrison said, the fantasy has real-life consequences. As one of NASA's prominent speakers on 2012 doomsday myths, Morrison said, he receives many emails and letters from worried citizens, particularly young people. Some say they can't eat, or are too worried to sleep, Morrison said. Others say they're suicidal.”

Proclamations of harm, destruction and apocalypse have caused damage to physical and mental well-being many times in the past. On October 28th, 1844, the Millerites (a religion from which the modern Seventh-Day Adventist church arose) patiently awaited the return of Jesus Christ, as predicted by the Baptist preacher William Miller. As the tales go, several Millerites woke that morning and jumped from their perches, expecting gravity to be annulled by the Second Coming. 

Predictions of religious apocalypse persist, though they more regularly avoid setting specific dates.

Threats, whether real or anticipated, are likely to induce anxiety in human beings. I suspect the response exhibited is not always a function of the quantity or quality of supporting evidence. It seems likely that the framing and presentation of information about the threat will be a significant factor in how that response is received, and consequently, the manifestation of anxiety or fear.

The Waubra foundation is the primary proponent of a hypothetical disease known as ‘Wind Turbine Syndrome’, said to affect residents living near wind turbines. Curiously, many of the symptoms that are claimed to be the result of exposure to wind turbines are congruent with the symptoms of stress, anxiety and fear. The UK’s Mental Health Foundation lists the more common ones:

·         heart beat gets very fast – maybe it feels irregular
·         breathing gets very fast
·         muscles feel weak
·         sweat more
·         stomach is churning or your bowels feel loose
·         hard to concentrate on anything else
·         feel dizzy
·         feel frozen to the spot
·         can’t eat
·         hot and cold sweats
·         dry mouth
·         tense muscles.

Simon Chapman, Professor of Public Health at Sydney University, has compiled a list of symptoms purportedly associated with Wind Turbine Syndrome. Though the variety of symptoms is quite large, the most frequently occurring reports are closely correlated with general feelings of stress, fear and sleeplessness.

The Waubra Foundation, led by the unregistered ex-general practitioner Sarah Laurie, plays a key role in framing wind turbine developments as a valid threat to health. ‘Cautionary notices’ and heated community meetings are the stage from which they vociferously spread claims that are definitely counter to evidence-based medicine.

The spread of misinformation on wind turbine health issues is a successful tactic in inspiring anger, fear and anxiety in small rural communities. This photo taken from a protest in Ontario.  

The fear of a wind farm development, inspired by creative pseudoscience, shares some commonality with the amusing but potentially detrimental tales of Armageddon spread through the internet. Ultimately, both have the potential to spurn fear and anxiety that is entirely avoidable. I imagine we’ll see both claims filed away in the history books among Y2K, power-line hysteria, and vaccine health scares

This does not revoke responsibility from science communicators, and professionals in the wind industry, from actively investigating, examining and where necessary, rebuking irresponsible claims made by those who simply have very little to lose. As we become more aware of the dangers of unfounded health scares, particularly in the context of worsening rural mental health issues, I hope the impetus to combat falsehood and myth grows proportionally stronger. 

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