New Yorker explains nocebo effect, NPR airs junk science

In recent weeks, we've reported here on new studies from Australia and New Zealand that strongly suggest ailments attributed to wind turbine sound are actually caused by the "nocebo" (similar to placebo) effect, in which individuals who are led to expect physical symptoms experience those symptoms, whether or not the supposed cause of the symptoms is actually present.

This week's news stories have included two related items, one illuminating and the other less so.

First, the New Yorker blog has an excellent discussion of nocebo, titled "The Nocebo Effect: How We Worry Ourselves Sick," that mentions wind turbine sound only briefly and focuses instead on other activities that have resulted in similar concerns, such as wireless communications. It notes, for example, "After the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo sarin nerve-gas attack in Tokyo … hospitals were flooded with patients suffering from the highly publicized potential symptoms, like nausea and dizziness, but who had not, it turned out, been exposed to the sarin. This is common in disasters where the agent is invisible, as with chemicals or radiation."

The article also summarizes a famous case in which a single teacher at a high school complained of a "gasoline-like" smell and dizziness, whereupon more than 100 other teachers and students fell ill–and no cause for the ailments was found. Describing other experiments in which nocebo effects have been found, the article says that they "… [draw] a direct line between irresponsible journalism and health problems."

"Irresponsible journalism" brings us to the second item of note, a segment by National Public Radio (NPR) that highlighted the findings of Dr. Nina Pierpont, a New York pediatrician who coined the phrase "Wind Turbine Syndrome" to describe symptoms reported to her by neighbors of wind projects. Dr. Pierpont's work has been strongly criticized for its lack of basic scientific procedures and safeguards, as Media Matters for America, a media watchdog group, explains in a blog post on the NPR piece:

"Pierpont's report consisted of telephone interviews with 23 people who responded to an ad asking for people who claimed to experience 'wind turbine syndrome,' and their anecdotes about 15 family members.

"The Chief Medical Officer of Health of Ontario, Canada, stated in a report that 'no conclusions on the health impact of wind turbines can be drawn from Pierpont's work due to methodological limitations including small sample size, lack of exposure data, lack of controls and selection bias.'" [emphasis added]

NPR also implied that a recent scientific review finding that hair cells in the ear may react to inaudible low-frequency sound provides support for Dr. Pierpont's thesis. Media Matters, however, correctly noted that this finding is not new and that there is no evidence that the reaction of these cells affects the functioning of the inner ear. Low-frequency sound, it added, is very commonly found in both natural and human environments. The NPR report, it concluded, " … is the kind of 'irresponsible journalism' that the New Yorker noted can exacerbate the 'nocebo effect.'"

Related articles:

Science: Anti-wind groups appear to spread illnesses they complain of, March 21, 2013
Ontario resident's personal testimony: 'Anti-wind groups make me sick', March 13, 2013
GMP reports on Kingdom Community Wind sound levels, March 5, 2013
South Australia study finds infrasound from wind farms not a concern, February 4, 2013
Science proves that wind energy is safe for Wisconsin, January 9, 2013
Ontario tribunal turns down anti-wind appeal, December 26, 2012
Reason trumps fear in Australian debate on wind energy and sound, December 5, 2012
Nissenbaum paper on turbine sound recycles claims on wind energy and health already found inadequate by courts and expert panel, November 16, 2012
Negative oriented personality traits and wind turbine sound, November 2, 2012
Quality of research on wind farms published in the Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society, September 25, 2012
'Say No to Wind Turbines'–and Yes to ?, July 25, 2012
Fact check: On turbine sound, it's Bryce vs. science, July 24, 2012
Wind turbines not a threat to human health, another study finds, May 31, 2012
Opinion: Wind turbines are good for our health, March 2, 2012
Review of wind turbine sound studies gives debate needed balance, February 28, 2012
Anti-wind-farm "astroturfers" in Australia, February 27, 2012
NBC4's 'iReporter' lacks context on wind turbine sound, February 14, 2012
Fact check: Bryce misleads again on land, sound, resource use, January 31, 2012
Massachusetts clears wind of health effects after independent experts review evidence, January 20, 2012
Opinion: Dr. W. David Colby: Turbines and health, December 2, 2011
Canadian researchers: No direct link between wind turbines and adverse health impacts, November 29, 2011
Wind power: A quiet solution to climate change, June 27, 2011
Sierra Club Canada 1.1: Time to confront anti-wind fear campaign, June 15, 2011
Environmental Defence (Canada): 'No basis' for health impact claims, June 6, 2011
Sierra Club Canada: Time to confront anti-wind disinformation campaign, June 3, 2011
WHO guidelines on sound are … guidelines, March 28, 2011
Scientists, doctor weigh on wind and health, November 30, 2010
Wind Turbines and Health, fact sheet
Maine physician: distortion in anti-wind health claims, November 3, 2010
Australian health agency: Turbine sound has no health effect, July 6, 2010
UK report debunks wind turbine syndrome, June 9, 2010
Wind gets clean bill of health from Ontario, May 20, 2010
Expert panel concludes wind turbine sounds not harmful to human health, December 15, 2009

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