Back in July I wrote an article for the The Conversation arguing that wind turbine syndrome was a classic “communicated” disease: it spreads by being talked about, and is therefore a strong candidate for being defined as a psychogenic condition.
Wind farm opponents repeatedly argue that turbines cause both rapid and long-gestation health problems. At the time the article was published I’d counted 155 health problems that had been attributed to wind farms including cancer, hemorrhoids, weight loss, weight gain and death. The list now stands at 198.
On Sunday, I received an emailed letter of response from Sarah Laurie, Australia’s most prominent proponent of the view that wind turbines cause health problems in people exposed to them. She circulated the letter widely and it ended up on the anti-wind farm action website, WindWatch.
Here is my point-by-point response to Laurie’s claims and questions.
Sarah Laurie says she has obtained information about the health effects of wind turbines from “sick residents”.
My response: the “information” she is obtaining will be un-publishable in any serious research journal because she has no clearance from any institutional human ethics committee to obtain it. Laurie has a lengthy record in making public statements that are likely to cause considerable anxiety and distress about wind farms. Here is an example.
Against this background, any human ethics committee would be greatly concerned about her conducting “research” with such distressed people who are highly likely to know or be told of her views. Actively spreading alarm is likely to contribute to nocebo effects, something she ought to be personally concerned about as a former practicing GP.
Any legitimate researcher doing what she claims to be doing would be dismissed from their research job for engaging in “research” on human subjects without ethics approval.
Laurie points to evidence from Daniel Shepherd and colleagues to show wind turbines are harmful to human health.
My response: Shepherd et al’s paper reported lower sleep quality and a “less restful environment” in a turbine-exposed community in the Makara Valley in New Zealand, than in a matched nearby community without turbines.
Fiona Crichton from the University of Auckland provides the following critique of the paper:
The study was cross-sectional and used a non-equivalent comparison group. The wind farm sample was drawn from 56 houses and the control group from 250 houses. The researchers do not identify how many participants per household were recruited, however the final sample included 39 people in the wind farm group and 158 in the control group. While there were differences detected between the groups in relation to satisfaction with the living environment, critically there were no differences between the groups in terms of self-rated health and current illness.
You can read more of Fiona Crichton’s critique here.
Laurie says the Shepherd et al paper provides “incontrovertible” evidence that wind farms cause sleep problems.
My response: Experienced researchers rarely if ever use expressions such as “incontrovertible” unless there is a massive amount of high quality evidence (which here, there is not).
Fiona Crichton’s critique actually does not go far enough. The paper says nothing about the activities of the Makara Guardians, an anti-wind farm group active in the area since 1997. It is inconceivable that anyone living in that small-populated area could have not been exposed to the anti-wind farm information spread by that group, including alarm about alleged health problems. Such activity is an obvious trigger for nocebo effects. The omission of any mention of this important factor in the paper is a disgrace.
Laurie asks, “Are you prepared to explain why you do not reference the peer reviewed published work of Daniel Shepherd and his colleagues…?”
My response: It is a very poor paper.
But we should all ask why she persistently ignores the conclusions of 17 reviews of the evidence that all reject her views about wind turbines causing health problems, except when she is in denial of what they all conclude. Why does she never tell her enthralled audiences about what these reviews have concluded?
Laurie selectively quotes the acoustician Geoff Leventhall, including claiming he “has known about the symptoms of low frequency noise exposure or ‘wind turbine syndrome’ for some time”.
My response: Laurie knows that Leventhall very much disagrees with her about the health impacts of wind farms. For example, Leventhall wrote:
“I am appalled that Laurie asserts that experimental exposure to high levels of infrasound, around 125dB or higher, is relevant to the low levels of infrasound from wind turbines, although this gross misunderstanding might explain some of her irrelevant and inaccurate statements.”
Why does Laurie persist in quoting an acoustical authority as if they support her when Leventhall has repeatedly clarified his strong rejection of her views?
Laurie claims people affected by wind turbines have been gagged from speaking out about their health problems. She quotes Slater & Gordon’s General Manager as evidence of these gags.
My response: The debate here is about alleged gags: the idea that people who claim to have been made ill cannot speak out because they have signed contracts cancelling their rights under common law to sue for negligence.
The “evidence” Laurie refers to are dispute settlements, not complaints prior to those settlements. It is common for legal settlements about all sorts of issues, not just wind turbines, to contain confidentiality clauses.
The only confidentiality or “gag” clauses refer to financial transactions — standard commercial practice across all sectors. This is understandable, as the companies want to be able to negotiate with hosts on a commercial-in-confidence basis.
While some contracts do appear to have gag clauses, these are likely to be unenforceable in any case where true negligence or harm could be established.
Laurie insinuates that because I am “a sociologist” and not a medical “practitioner” or an acoustician that my views should be dismissed.
My response: It might have escaped Laurie’s attention that there are many people whose claims she quotes authoritatively who also do not have undergraduate degrees in medicine or acoustics.
Nearly all the authors of the collection of anti-wind farm essays in the Bulletin of Science and Technology do not have undergraduate degrees in medicine. Nor does her chairman Peter Mitchell, who studied engineering at university many decades ago. Nor does Daniel Shepherd. I could go on.
Why does Laurie think people should take her seriously as she parades herself as an arbiter of “incontrovertible” research when she:
- has no qualifications at all in any research discipline,
- has repeatedly demonstrated (as in her assessment of Shepherd et al’s paper and Leventhall’s comments on her understanding of infrasound) that she has poor understanding of research,
- has never published a single piece of research on any subject, and
- for some time used the research degree post-nominal “MD” on the Waubra Foundation’s Australian website (see below) when she does not have a doctoral degree in medicine, but only bachelors qualifications?
Now, some questions for Sarah Laurie:
Will you provide a list of the addresses of all the “many” houses adjacent to wind farms in Australia that you claim people have “walked away from” so that these can be verified (after submitting a proposal to my university’s human ethics committee)? This verification will be sought via neighbours and local real estate agents. (One example often highlighted in Waubra involves the departure of a resident allegedly because of wind turbines when that person was in fact admitted to a long-stay facility for a degenerative condition unrelated to wind turbines.)
Why have there been zero health complaints associated with the large majority of Australian wind farms? Or do “susceptible” people somehow mysteriously only live near a few of them?
If wind turbines cause acute health effects within minutes of exposure, why then has it often taken several years for complaints to be expressed and why have these generally occurred after exposure to anti-wind farm propaganda?
Having appropriated the name of the town of Waubra for your foundation why do you not appear at any of the town’s celebratory events, such as the one held last month? Do you appreciate that there is widespread anger in Waubra about the way your foundation has used the name of the town?
Why is it that two acousticians you rely upon, Steven Cooper and Bob Thorne, are both refusing to release documents for open peer review that have been used to cast doubt upon compliance of wind farms with noise levels?
Why is it that after almost 2.5 years, you have not been able to recruit a single qualified and reputable Australian health or medical identity to publicly support your position?
Why do you persist in publicly describing yourself as a “clinician” when you have not practiced medicine for over 10 years?
Why is it that your organisation’s objectives (enshrined in your constitution) state that you will at all times maintain complete independence from wind farm advocacy groups when your directors are almost all associated with aggressive anti-wind activism? Why does your name appear as a contact on the anti-wind farm site sWINDle when you purport to not be anti-wind farms but only concerned about health issues?
Why does your organisation deserve the indirect government subsidy of DGR (deductible gift recipient) status to pay for its anti-wind activism, including the legal fees of people objecting to wind farm developments?
Why did your Chairman, Peter Mitchell, not explicitly disclose his involvement with fossil fuels and uranium in his statement of interests with the NHMRC? And why does his declaration say that he had involvement with the Australian Landscape Guardians until “mid-2010” when he authored a submission to the Australian Senate for them in February 2011?
With activism about fire risk and property values, an anti-wind farm board, no membership and no serious scientific agenda, how should the public see you as anything other than another anti-wind lobby group?
Your actions are likely to be causing residents near turbines who may have legitimate noise concerns to be confused by outlandish claims of health effects that have near zero credibility. The unfortunate result will most likely delay the rectification of legitimate concerns.