Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Belief in 'Wind Turbine Syndrome' seems unrelated to the presence of wind energy

Doing an opinion poll isn't an ideal way of establishing whether two phenomena are causally linked. Which is why, when investigating the reality of the phenomenon known as 'wind turbine syndrome', the National Health and Medical Research Council turned to peer-reviewed scientific literature, rather than asking the Australian population whether they believe it's real.

Sometimes, though, opinion polling can give us an interesting insight into the political manifestation of the syndrome, which was created as a campaigning tool for wind farm opponents, and subsequently began to drown out other more legitimate concerns communities had with large-scale clean tech developments in their neighbourhoods.

Polling conducted by a bipartisan organisation in the United States (as far as I know, the first of its kind) examined the attitudes of 2,477 voters on clean tech issues, including their attitudes on wind turbine syndrome, focusing on states in the Mid-West.

Their findings are fascinating, but I'm going to focus on their question around 'wind turbine syndrome'.

It's clear that the concept of 'wind turbine syndrome' hasn't taken hold in any of the states - the percentage of people who suspect the syndrome is a real condition is quite low. What interests me is how these findings relate to the installed capacity of each state - wind power has grown rapidly in the last decade, in America, as can be seen in this great US energy department graphic:


We can see an interesting trend when we compare current installed capacity to the poll's findings on 'Wind Turbine Syndrome' belief:

Alright, so what's going on?

An article in Midwest Energy News offers some insight around why there's no relationship between the presence of wind turbines and belief in wind turbine syndrome:

"The highest percentage believing [claims about wind turbine syndrome] (21 percent) was in Wisconsin, a state which has far fewer wind farms and where some political leaders have in recent years been hostile to renewable and distributed energy"

As I said earlier, this gives us more insight into the political and social existence of this phenomenon, rather than questions about its physiological feasibility. The times and places at which 'wind turbine syndrome' emerges give us a fascinating and insightful clue as to why its existence is seemingly unlinked to the operation of wind turbines.

Which brings me to something in the article I disagree with:

"Advocates say the key is using science and information to address residents’ fears and debunk myths"

Sort of. It's necessary, and the communication of science has to be done better than ever. But it's not sufficient, and it's not necessarily the 'key'. If someone adopts a belief for social, political or ideological reasons, scientific information won't be enough to cancel it out. That's why information like the polling above is so important.

It's a warning: ignore sociology and psychology, and you'll draw the gap between reality and perception even wider.

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