Back to All News

Speech: Richard Di Natale on wind power, science and evidence-based policymaking

Speeches in Parliament
Richard Di Natale 28 Feb 2013

 

Today in the Parliament, Senator Richard Di Natale spoke in defence of science in policymaking during the debate on the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment (Excessive Noise from Wind Farms) Bill 2012 (28 Feb 2013).

 

Senator DI NATALE (Victoria) (09:51): I must admit to some disappointment that we are today debating a bill about wind farm noise. The Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment (Excessive Noise from Windfarms) Bill has its origins in concerns about the supposed health effects of living next to wind farms. As Senator Milne noted in her contribution to the debate, an enormous variety of symptoms have been attributed to wind turbines. The list starts with headaches, nausea, loss of sleep and fatigue, and goes as far as things like terminal cancer. Indeed, allegations have been made that animals keel over dead as a result of wind turbines. As a doctor, many of these symptoms are familiar to me, and they do have much in common with many other conditions that are associated with modern life. I do not doubt for a moment that these symptoms are real, but the cause is much more complicated than the substance of this bill implies.

What we are debating today are matters of scientific fact—are wind farms noisy, how much acoustic energy do they introduce into the environment, does that energy have a direct impact on the human body that can lead to health problems. These are not political questions; they are questions of empirical fact. I will come back to the facts of the health impacts of wind farms in a moment, but I do need to emphasise the importance of science in this debate. Science is the pursuit of truth; the pursuit of knowledge. As a scientist by training I have always respected, indeed have been in awe of, the scientific method and what it has achieved for the human race. The results are all around us. In a few generations, in the blink of history's eye, we have seen air travel, electric power and instantaneous global communication all move from the miraculous to the routine.

My medical training instilled a deep respect for the scientific method as a way of sifting truth from falsehood. Nowhere are the benefits more plain than in medicine. There is a deep respect for this method amongst medical practitioners and researchers. After all, it is not that long ago that medicine concerned itself with balancing the humours and bloodletting. Nowadays a fairly routine trip to the hospital might involve a trip, for example, to a PET scanner. For a PET scan, unstable atomic nuclei are introduced into the body so we can build up a three-dimensional image based on the gamma rays that are emitted. It is just incredible. Few of us would probably stop to consider the centuries of painstaking work that made this possible, but it is reflected in the longer, healthier lives that we lead here today. Many or even most of us would not be alive were it not for the scientific advances of previous decades and centuries.

In other words, science works. Its fruits are on display and cannot be denied. Indeed, we take them for granted. We cannot come up with cogent explanations for the workings of the mobile phone. I use an aeroplane frequently, and I will fly home tomorrow. I trust the phone and the aeroplane, and many other things, because they are built on sound and well tested scientific principles. Science deals with facts in a way that is fundamentally different from politics. Science is not about going into bat for a particular position, about finding some evidence to tailor some predetermined desired outcome. Science is a process; it takes into account the biases inherent in human nature and systematically eliminates them from the final result. Science is not a journey to some predetermined outcome but a commitment to follow the evidence wherever it leads. That is quite foreign to the way public policy is generally made in this place.

It is paradoxical that our lives have become more dependent on science and technology while, at the same time, the status of science in the public debate is eroding. This is a fairly recent phenomenon. It was not that long ago that the polio vaccine, penicillin and even the atom bomb were branded as new reminders of how science is changing everyday lives and the future of our world. As constant scientific and technological innovation has become a part of background life, the significance of science has faded. As a result, scientists now occupy just another voice in the public debate. On a good day they are given equal billing with another lobby group or vested interest, and this is a dangerous thing when we are debating a matter of scientific fact such as whether wind farms are harmful to human health.

Scientists are not always the best people to participate in policy debates—they are often inexperienced and not skilled in the media, and they can be drowned out or outfoxed by those who are much better equipped for these tasks. Cashed-up lobby groups have the skills and resources to distort debates, and it can be difficult for scientific experts to overcome this. We have seen before the dangers inherent in this way of doing things. The tobacco lobby were extraordinarily successful in muddying the waters around science. They did not need to prove that tobacco was safe, that there was no link between smoking and lung cancer—all they had to do was instil in the public mind the idea that the question was not yet settled and then let inertia and commercial interests do the rest. The same thing is happening with climate change—think tanks, pet academics, fake grassroots groups; they have long been sowing doubt about the seemingly undeniable reality of climate change. They are not struggling for cash or access to the megaphone. Powerful and wealthy industries have a commercial imperative to delay action on climate change, and it is frightening to see how successful they have been.

This bill, which I contend is largely the product of such mischief by vested interests, is one small example of the phenomenon that is now playing out all over the world—and critically here in Australia.

Senator Edwards: What vested interests?

Senator DI NATALE: The irony is that these lobby groups are compelled to cloak their campaigns in the language of science.

Senator Boswell: Just like you.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Fawcett ): Order! I remind the chamber that Senator Di Natale has the right to be heard in silence.

Senator DI NATALE: Because of their extraordinary success, science and the sciences do command public respect. We still see scientists as disinterested experts we can trust. Politicians and lobby groups do their best to cash in on that. Science suffers from some of its worst abuses when it is misused and twisted to give a veneer of scientific respectability to a specific policy or ideology. This is pseudoscience, and it is rife in the public debate.

Sorting real science from pseudoscience can be difficult for the public at large, and it is a challenge that the media are often not up to. It takes a lot of time and hard-won expertise to do that. After all, an anecdote is very, very powerful. We all know about the power of the personal story. Personal stories are really of little worth when it comes to settling scientific questions, but they do have the power to sway a debate. They make for a juicy and readable story or a compelling TV moment, and the quest for balanced reporting makes it all too easy to give equal time to both sides of the debate. Especially in scientific matters where it may not be apparent where the consensus lies, it is easier to throw in quotes from competing experts. But, in reality, there are not two sides to every story—at least not two equal sides. In a debate like climate change, giving the impression that there are two sides accomplishes precisely what the vested interests want. The science is undermined because it looks like the question is open and the debate is still a live one.

As policymakers, we have to consider a variety of factors. Science is just one of them. Public values, priorities for scarce resources, and even election commitments all need to be taken into account, but we should be honest about it. Hand-picked evidence, friendly experts and data taken out of context are not science. That is just keeping up appearances. The role of science in policymaking is to find out what works. When used honestly, it is not just another tool that one can use to buttress a predetermined ideological position.

Scientists look for evidence that disproves their theories. They know that, if they do not, others will do it for them, and they will look foolish and lazy. No slogan, no matter how well received by a focus group, will help a scientist if her peers have failed to replicate experimental data. An inconsistency in theory cannot be dismissed based on good polling. In other words, integrity is critical in science. When used properly, science brings integrity back into public policy.

On the substance of this bill: what does the science tell us about wind farms? Wind farms are a mature technology. There are over 200,000 of them operating in the world today. That is enough for us to have some confidence in the effects they have on health. According to the NHMRC's public statement on wind farms and health, there is no scientific evidence that indicates that wind turbines have a negative effect on human health. The level of noise caused by a wind turbine at 350 metres, well short of the typical distance of houses from any turbine, is barely discernible from the ordinary background noise in a quiet bedroom. Measurements of the infrasound—that is, sound of a frequency too low to be detectable by human ears—show that levels near wind farms are lower than a typical urban environment. Of course, wind turbines are not completely silent. Experiencing the peace and quiet of the Australian countryside is one of my chief pleasures in life. Everyone should be entitled to a quiet environment and a good night's sleep. However, noise issues are already regulated, and wind farms are not exempt from these laws.

So, on the one hand, we have good evidence that wind farms produce noise at low levels, often undetectable to the human ear, and we have a situation where science can suggest no mechanism whereby such noises could impact the human body. On the other hand, we have a considerable body of stories from people who are suffering severe health impacts from their proximity to wind turbines. What is going on here?

The special interests that are hell-bent on disrupting the scientific debate in our papers and on TV are also having an effect on people's health. When outfits like the Waubra Foundation spread fear, uncertainty and doubt about the safety of wind turbines, this scares people. It is a terrible thing to have to worry about your health and that of your family. I shudder to think of how anxious I would be if I thought a facility was being built next to my family's farm that would pollute the environment and make us ill.

The symptoms attributed to the so-called wind turbine syndrome, including headaches, nausea, tinnitus and loss of sleep, appear to be the invention of a single person. Those symptoms are not unknown. There are many historical examples of illnesses such as these associated with the rise of modern technology. In the 19th century, the symptoms we are discussing here today were given the label 'neurasthenia'. In 1880, George Beard attributed the causes of neurasthenia to a collection of things, including wireless telegraphy, science itself, steam power, newspapers and the education of women.

However, these symptoms did not disappear as we got used to the innovations that caused that anxiety back then. More modern examples include high-voltage powerlines, wireless phone towers, fluoridated water and, indeed, vaccination. All of these have been associated with the symptoms of fatigue, anxiety, headache and so forth. In every case, the best science has failed to find a causative link between these issues and adverse effects on human health. Indeed, with things like wireless internet or powerlines, it is often possible to prove that the symptoms continue as long as the sufferer believes that they are being exposed to the source, even when the source no longer exists. In medical science this is known as the nocebo effect: the belief that something causes you real harm.

These problems, known as psychogenic illnesses, are well documented in the scientific literature. Psychogenic conditions may be on the rise. A growing distrust in science is manifesting itself in a suspicion of conventional medicine and technology. The advent of the internet—which is, incidentally, another one of science's great achievements—has widened access to information and misinformation. Anyone concerned about health impacts can find no shortage of information to fan the flames of their fears. Wind turbines would appear to be but the latest example of this phenomenon.

Simon Chapman, who has made some valuable contributions to this debate and has investigated the situation, has found that only a small minority of wind farms have attracted health complaints.

In evidence he gave to the inquiry into this bill he found that, while nobody in Western Australia has ever made such a complaint, it is where anti-wind-farm activism is present that complaints occur. Complaints about health tend to follow publicity about health effects. In short, there is no substantial evidence that wind farms impact on human health. But the literature on psychogenic illness is very compelling in this case.

Further evidence that has been tendered to the inquiry into this bill points out that people who have financial interests in a wind farm near their properties exhibit none of these symptoms. They are also rare in non-English speaking populations, such as in Denmark, where they have many more wind turbines but less access to the English literature on the supposed ailments associated with wind power.

I want to be clear about this: I do not doubt the testimony of those who are experiencing these symptoms. I believe that those symptoms are genuine and do lead to suffering. When somebody says they are experiencing pain or are in discomfort, we should not deny them that experience. Those symptoms are real. What I do contest is the source of these symptoms. The evidence is very clear that the acoustics of the turbines do not have a measurable impact on human health but, of course, the anxiety created by wind farm opponents does. Stress and worry have enormous consequences for health and wellbeing. Once the seeds of fear have been sown, it is very difficult to undo the health consequences. I therefore heartily condemn those who continue to spread this misinformation. It is the spread of misinformation that harms, not the wind turbines themselves. A bill such as this only exacerbates that fear and aids those who want to hinder the development of wind power for other commercial reasons.

This bill focuses on the supposed negative health effects of wind farms which, as I have pointed out, have no scientific basis whatsoever. Yet it completely ignores the health benefits, which are well documented in the scientific literature. Australia is heavily reliant on fossil fuels, including coal, for power generation. Australia is the world's largest exporter of coal. As such, it seems absurd that we are spending time debating whether the noise from distant wind turbines can injure people and not debating the terrible and well-documented effects that coal has on human health.

At every stage of the process, from the mining of coal to the combustion of coal and the transport of coal, there are measurable impacts on our health. Coal fired power in Australia burdens the community with a human health cost—including from lung and heart conditions—of over $2 billion annually. Reducing the burning of fossil fuels for electricity and transport can reduce the incidence of these conditions of heart and lung diseases, including lung cancer. In Australia, air pollution is estimated to kill more people every year than the road toll. That does not even take into account the health impacts of climate change; extreme weather; heat waves; flooding; the spread of vector borne diseases like dengue fever and Ross River fever, and the increase in incidences of diseases like gastroenteritis, all of which the World Health Organisation have stated will increase as a result of runaway climate change. The effects of climate change have already been responsible for the deaths of many Australians.

This bill is a case study in the need for evidence based policy. Those who suffer from 'wind turbine syndrome' are not suffering because turbines are dangerous. They are suffering because they have been poorly served by those who claim to be acting in the public interest but are really acting for vested interests. Scaremongering about the health effects of wind power is irresponsible. It causes enormous anxiety for some people and it threatens to derail a promising and necessary industry for this country. For those reasons, I cannot support the bill.

Back to All News