So it appears we are to be treated to another pointless examination of a manufactured controversy in the name of health science. One can only guess at the motivations for the Federal Government announcing a NHMRC-led review of the science around the purported health effects of wind farms, but you can be sure it’s not being driven by scientific curiosity.
In fact this review is probably the most futile bit of spending yet announced in the term of the Abbott administration and is exactly the sort of tomfoolery you might expect of a cabinet which has no room for science. Why? Because there is no controversy about the so-called Wind Turbine Syndrome. It doesn’t exist as a thing. It has not, as the philosophers might say, been reified.
Wind turbines have no health effects on the surrounding populations. That’s not just my personal opinion. It’s the overwhelming scientific consensus. The book is closed, the story is written, the circus has folded its tents and moved on.
It would, however, potentially suit the Abbott Government politically to keep this manufactroversy going. The conservative side of politics in this country has a well-documented preference for fossil fuel production, largely based on economic arguments and the hope of carbon capture technology to reduce carbon emissions from current coal-fired power stations. Using fringe science to advance political ends is nothing new, but this is not a political comment column so I don’t propose to stray too far from discussing that science.
The proverbial musty tomes of medical history are full of such exotic diagnoses as Railway Spine or the Vapours not to mention Fan Death in South Korea. Why not investigate those as well? After all, it has been a long time since the NHMRC had a look at them as well.
This facetious rhetorical question has a serious answer. Why does it seem ridiculous to have a government inquiry into Fan Death, which is after all reported as the 5th most common cause of serious injury during summer in Korea, according to the Korean Consumer Protection Board?
I submit that there is no scientific justification for any further investigation of ‘Wind Turbine Syndrome’ just as there is no reason to investigate Fan Death or Railway Spine, because they are not real diagnoses. They are cultural responses to new or unfamiliar technology. I would support an academic investigation into the sociological aspects of the phenomenon as it may help us understand how to prevent useful and essential renewable energy technology from being hindered by groups of sincerely deluded activists. But a scientific investigation? A complete and utter waste of my tax dollars, as it will not alter either the scientific consensus or the tiny, one-track minds of the denialists.
And as for the Chief Scientist’s report on assessing the ‘evidence’ supporting homeopathy and other implausible treatments, don’t get me started. The UK parliament produced the defintive smackdown on homeopathy in 2010, but for some reason the Government is stalling the report which many (including myself) hope will stop these treatment being paid for with funds from the 30 per cent Private Health Rebate (i.e. tax dollars). The delay in implementation is meant to allow for more ‘consultation with industry’. Again, it’s certainly not to allow for any more scientific input, as the supporting evidence consisted of tumbleweeds two years ago when it started, and it’s tumbleweeds all the way down still.
The most unsavoury aspect of this announcement is more subtle. The younger Bush administration in the US became notorious for its disregard for the scientific process. They forced policy to drive evidence, rather than the other way around. They purportedly dictated the preferred outcomes of major environmental studies using funding threats to hold the scientists hostage. They cut funding from scientific programs that seemed ‘pointless’ to scientifically illiterate pollies and bureaucrats. The ideologically-driven ban on stem-cell research by the Bush administration set the US back a decade in major biotech research, which also meant that the industry created by this innovation left their shores.
Mr Abbott clearly signalled his intentions prior to the election to curb free inquiry and direct research funds to ‘useful’ areas. Now he has commissioned a large scientifically futile project at his own behest, so we would be naive not to expect more of the same.
Australia cannot afford the luxury of a scientifcally illiterate body politic for very long. From the stump-jump plough and Coolgardie safe to the invention of WiFi, we have had to use technological solutions to the difficulties of living in this country. We have punched well above our weight for a very long time thanks to our outstanding record of scientific innovation, which has been enabled by solid support from governments which have always judged it (rightly in my view) to be a critical path to keeping and improving our quality of life.
Until now, it seems. When junk science can be used as a prop in a political debate, and jobs in outdated and harmful industries are valued more highly than jobs in the industries of the future. It’s not too late for the PM to reverse this apparent willingness to use bad science as a political tool, and to unwind his government’s disregard for the proud track record of Australian scientific innovation but until then we will pay the price for his War on Smart.
Michael Vagg is clinical senior lecturer at Deakin University School of Medicine and Pain Specialist at Barwon Health.
Michael Vagg does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.