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.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent analysis Ketan. The old saying Perception is Reality certainly seems to ring true in these situations. I know of some people who are so fanatical in their opposition to wind energy projects that they can make themselves ill just during the lengthy proposal stages, when there is not a single turbine or wind farm within 100 KM of them to lay blame for their ailments. The human mind is a powerful tool, and we all know the dangers of tools being used improperly.