Monday, 24 March 2014

The Contours of Misinformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. I wonder if there will be a time when people like Sarah Laurie will be held to account for promoting health scares and false claims?

  2. So Ketan do you support more research in to wind turbines? If yes, then what sort of research do you think appropriate.

    Also do you have any clues about who authored the AMA document?

    1. Hello George,

      A comparative study that examines the impact of all generation technologies, including nuclear, coal and coal seam gas, would be something I'd get behind.

      I'd also strongly support study that examined both the physiological and psychological aspects of this issue.

      Also I get the impression you don't know how a position statement released by an organisation works. An organisation is usually more than one person.