The junk science of wind turbine syndrome

In the past five years, a harmful and potent new creation has become prevalent in the field of renewable energy.

'Wind Turbine Syndrome' is the name given to a generic list of symptoms purportedly attributable to low-frequency sound emissions from wind turbines. These range from common maladies such as headaches, nausea and sleeplessness, to apocalyptic claims such as the mass death of 400 goats.

The 'Waubra Foundation', and various 'Landscape Guardians' groups serve as the main proponents of Wind Turbine Syndrome, a concept that has become the masthead of anti-wind lobbying in Australia. 

Several key techniques are utilised by anti-wind groups to successfully convince communities, politicians and journalists that their claims are scientifically plausible. That these claims regularly go unscrutinised is cause for alarm, in both medicine and science.

'Wind Turbine Syndrome' glides effortlessly into the definition of 'pseudoscience' - any claim, belief or practice which professes classification as a science, but quietly shuns the deployment of the scientific method. Scratching at the surface of the anti-wind movement uncovers a broad and significant venture aimed at acquiring the authority of scientific inquiry, despite professing concepts that are starved of rationality, validity or basic self-awareness. 

The Null Hypothesis

The origins of Wind Turbine Syndrome set an unambiguous precedent for the scientific attitudes of the anti-wind movement. Nina Pierpont coined the term 'Wind Turbine Syndrome' in 2009, after interviewing 23 people on the phone, and listing anecdotal evidence from 15 others. Pierpont, paediatrician and wife of fiercely unreserved anti-wind activist Calvin Luther Martin, had this to say about her study: 

"I never set out to prove that wind turbines cause Wind Turbine Syndrome. This was already obvious. Instead, I chose to study and document the observations made by people who had already figured it out and proved it on their own."

This research, often put forward as primary evidence of a causal relationship between wind turbines and health issues, betrayed a basic scientific principle before it even began. The null hypothesis, in science, is the assumption that two phenomena are causally unrelated - the aim of investigation is then to determine the existence of a relationship between these two variables.

Pierpont's admissions are particularly important, given the status with which this research is held by anti-wind lobby groups. This flaw is by no means the only problem with her study, which serves as a textbook checklist of methodological flaws, explored further here.

This ideological skew is disturbingly prevalent in a large portion of the documents cited by the proponents of Wind Turbine Syndrome. To assume the correctness of a hypothesis prior to investigating it is the undeniable seal of junk science.

Falsifiability

One aspect of scientific investigation involves 'falsifiability' - the concept that if a hypothesis is false, this can be shown through investigation. If wind turbines were indeed a health risk to residents, one would expect a higher incidence of symptoms adjacent to a wind farm, compared to a control group. In pre-emption of attempts to delineate the health risks of wind turbines through empirical research, Pierpont claims that 'not all people living close to turbines are susceptible'. This has since filtered into political discourse around wind farms in Australia:

"I've often described that infrasound as being a little like car sickness - there's four people in a car, one feels sick and the other three feel fine, so I suspect infrasound is something a little like that."
David Ridgway, Opposition Planning Spokesman, South Australia, said.

This subtle inclusion has rendered their proposition immune to epidemiological research. If it is found that residents adjacent to a wind farm experience headaches, nausea and sleeplessness at a level no greater than a matched control group that is not near a wind farm, the Landscape Guardians need simply refer to their original caveat.

The factors required to be susceptible to the effects of infrasound go undescribed - a refusal to set boundaries for a hypothesis is prevalent among pseudosciences. This ambiguity ensures that any residents adjacent to wind turbines that do not report symptoms are simply one of the 'lucky ones not affected by turbine infrasound'. 

Anecdotal Evidence

Perhaps the most prevalent tactic of wind turbine syndrome proponents is reliance on anecdotal reports. The issues that exist with anecdotal reports are well-known in the scientific community. Small sample sizes, cognitive bias, the 'cherry-picking' fallacy - these logical errors serve as the foundation for the effectiveness of anti-wind lobby groups. 

Giving anecdotal evidence disproportionate influence can be a double-edged sword. Simon Chapman, professor of public health at Sydney University, has compiled a list of symptoms, which currently stands at 200. The sheer size of this list, and the incredibly variety of maladies contained within it, indicate the likelihood that the syndrome does not have a consistent physiological cause.

Sarah Laurie, an unregistered ex-general practitioner, and 'medical director' of the Waubra Foundation, states that Wind Turbine Syndrome can be perceived 'out to distances as great as 30 km and sometimes more.' George Papadopoulos, a pharmacist from New South Wales, goes further, stating that Wind Turbine Syndrome can affect humans up to 100 kilometres away from wind turbines. Mapping this 100 kilometre radius, a conservative estimate of the number of Australians purportedly affected is 6.3 million, including the ACT, Melbourne and Adelaide. This serves as a powerful illustration of the problems with self-reported evidence.

Importantly, questioning the usage of anecdotal reports as primary evidence is usually portrayed as an attack on individual honesty, inoculating anti-wind groups against the weaknesses of this form of evidence. Graham Lloyd, environment editor at The Australian, states that, 'Chapman ridiculed complaints', in a recently published article. Chapman's piece in New Scientist literally and directly recounts the claims made by those adjacent to wind farms.

Misrepresentation

In line with other pseudoscientific ventures, the anti-wind lobby deploys a static set of quotes that intentionally misrepresent research, court cases and other documents - sources that normally posses some form of inherent authority. This technique is used to imply that there is a large body of scientific research and legal precedent supporting their hypotheses. An example of this is the following quote, in a document authored by Sarah Laurie:

"Later in the DEFRA document, Professor Leventhall lists some of the then known scientific peer reviewed published evidence relating to the physiological effects of exposure to low frequency noise."

This study is referenced with astonishing frequency by anti-wind lobbyists, as can be seen here, here, here, here and here.

Critically, the physiological effects that Leventhall references 'later in the DEFRA document' are the result of exposure to infrasound at very high levels of sound pressure - usually 125 dB or more (pg 55), compared to the infrasound emitted by wind farms, which is typically at around 65 dB, at 10 Hz. This is a difference of around 60 dB.

This is larger than one might expect - sound pressure level is measured on a logarithmic scale, which means 125 dB is about 1,000,000 times the sound intensity (measured in watts per metres squared) of sound at 65 dB. To put the mind-boggling magnitude of this error in perspective, this is equivalent to stating that the distance between the Earth and the Moon is 384 metres. Laurie's misrepresentation is not insignificant. She continues to use the reference, as recently as October 28th, in a letter written to Professor Simon Chapman of Sydney University, as does Graham Lloyd of The Australian, in his aforementioned article.

An equally astonishing example of the intentional slanting of research is a study conducted in 2008 by Todd. et al, and published in the journal Neuroscience Letters. The website 'www.windturbinesyndrome.com' serves as the online headquarters of the Wind Turbine Syndrome movement, and quotes the study in the following way: 

“The very low [noise] thresholds we found are remarkable as they suggest that humans possess a frog- or fish-like sensory mechanism which appears to exceed the cochlea for detection of substrate-borne low-frequency vibration and which until now has not been properly recognised"

The original paper does not include the word 'noise' - this was added by Pierpont. The original research is in reference to 'seismic' or 'substrate-borne vibration', which the author of the paper explains is vastly different to sound:

"We described a sensitivity of the vestibular system to low-frequency vibration of the head, at about 100Hz, and not air-conducted sound. At present I do not believe that there is any direct evidence to show that any of the above acoustico-physiological mechanisms are activated by the radiations from wind turbines."

Despite this very public rebuke from the author of the original research, the website continues to display the word 'noise', nestled in the quote. Their deliberate misrepresentation is not limited to these two examples. The full range of misquotes and embellishments is vast, and they play a key role in their efforts to manufacture an image of scientific veracity, in their dealings with communities. 

The Burden of Proof

Standard scientific practice incorporates a principle known as the 'burden of proof'. The party responsible for making a novel claim is accountable for providing the evidence for that claim. The more remarkable the claim, the greater the need for comprehensive and explicit evidence. An example is the hypothetical teapot, proposed by philosopher Bertrand Russell. This teapot, Russell claims, is orbiting Earth. We can't produce evidence showing that the teapot isn't there. Is that enough reason to conclude that there is definitely a teapot orbiting Earth? Obviously not. 

The anti-wind lobby have successfully managed to absolve themselves of the responsibility of supporting their claims with evidence. Instead, they insist that the wind industry is bound to demonstrate that wind turbines do not cause direct physiological health effects. At a 'Booroowa District Landscape Guardians' meeting in May 2012, Senator John Madigan demonstrates the use of this logical fallacy:

"You'll quite often hear 'There is no peer-reviewed literature' or 'There is no peer-reviewed report' or whatever they want to call it. Of course, if you don't investigate, you're not going to end up with anything that's peer-reviewed. I've often said that these, that the proponents of these wind turbines would be tripping over themselves to prove these people wrong, with the literature, the data, the figures, the recordings, whatever."

Sarah Laurie sternly re-asserts this fallacy in her letter to Simon Chapman:

"I would be obliged if you will direct me to the population studies or even small case control studies, which have been performed in the vicinity of large operating wind turbines, confirming that there are no adverse health effects for any of the residents from these wind turbines, including sleep deprivation, stress related illnesses, and symptoms of vestibular dysfunction. I believe there are no such studies."

By shifting the burden of proof from the claimant (in this case, anti-wind groups) onto the skeptics (the wind industry), the proponents of Wind Turbine Syndrome further cement their position as an established and effective pseudoscience. 

Community Meetings

The presentation of purportedly scientific claims outside the context of peer-review, publication and discussion is necessary for any pseudoscience to flourish. The proponents of Wind Turbine Syndrome focus their efforts on small community meetings, held with regularity in areas that are facing proposed wind farm developments. Tense, necessarily emotive and pointedly focused on anecdotal reports of health effects, these meetings give the anti-wind lobby the opportunity to present misinformation in the context of an extremely salient emotional backdrop. The meetings are also designed to ensure opposing voices are not represented, and are given little-to-no opportunity to critique the claims of anti-wind groups.

Creating anxiety

Spreading information that a safe technology is dangerous has the potential to create anxiety that need not be experienced. The ailments frequently listed by Laurie and the Waubra Foundation are, for the most part, commonplace. High Blood Pressure affects 21.5 per cent of Australians. Almost 90 per cent of Australians suffer from a sleep disorder. If residents living near operational wind farms become convinced that these common ailments are causally related to nearby technology, there is no doubt these issues could be exacerbated. Thus, to loudly pronounce a confirmed causal linkage between wind turbines and adverse health effects, in the absence of statistically significant, peer-reviewed evidence is at the very least unethical, and the very worst, horribly reckless. 

As with all pseudoscience, rigorous public debunking is vital. Methodologically sound research into the topic can do no harm, and may well give communities respite from the health concerns that have spawned from motivated anti-wind activism. Government institutions, such as the National Health and Medical Research Council, and the Victorian and NSW Departments of Health, have performed reviews of the current body of evidence, and announced publicly that there is no evidence wind turbines cause adverse health effects. It is becoming even more pertinent to arm communities with knowledge of the techniques utilised by anti-wind activists to construct an atmosphere of dread around wind technology. 

The current mix of generators in the National Electricity Market is skewed towards technologies that emit detrimental quantities of carbon emissions - we know that these emissions are causally related to catastrophic changes to the Earth's environmental systems. To move away from that is vitally important for the continuance of human prosperity, and this shift ought to be guided by rational, evidence-driven decision making.

Ketan Joshi is a data analyst at Infigen Energy.