Sanity Injection

Injecting a dose of sanity into your day’s news and current events.

Archive for August 14th, 2008

“Wind turbine syndrome” – the latest postmodern Luddite paranoia

Posted by sanityinjection on August 14, 2008

The funny thing about wind power is that everyone loves the idea of it but no one seems to like it in practice. Everyone talks about wind power as a renewable, environmentally friendly domestic energy source and how we should be devoting more resources to it. And yet, when someone actually tries to put up a wind farm, the very same people suddenly develop objections. The right wingers object to the effect of unsightly wind turbines on their property values and unspoiled vistas; the left-wingers scream that birds and fish will die in droves. For both groups, what it boils down to is, “We want wind power, we just don’t want it near us” – otherwise known as NIMBY (“Not In My Back Yard”.)

The latest ammunition for the NIMBYs comes from the people who always want to terrify you that all new forms of technology are quietly killing you. These people are a modern manifestation of a historical group in Britain called Luddites, who opposed the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution by trying to smash the machinery. In modern America, they are usually to be found within the environmental movement, as a significant segment of environmentalists seem to be perennially susceptible to the idea that evil corporations are plotting to kill us all in our sleep. I was first exposed to Luddite paranoia as a youth when a study came out in 1979 suggesting that living to close to power lines could cause childhood leukemia. Needless to say, parents everywhere, including mine, were frightened. I had attended a day camp where we used to play in a field adjacent to huge power lines, but not after that, although I remained healthy as a horse. Since then, many studies have been done on this, and no causal link between power lines and cancer has been demonstrated, yet a sizable percentage of Americans still believe they do.

Next it was cell phones – we are all giving ourselves cancer, or decreasing our fertility, or something, by using our cell phones. This one has had a harder time taking hold, because cell phones are so ubiquitous and so beloved by their owners that many people will still use them even if they think they’ll get cancer.

So the Luddites needed a new bogeyman, and they have found it in wind turbines. The slow-turning wind turbines, you see, emit a constant, low-frequency hum – sometimes audible, sometimes not depending on how close you are. The newly coined “wind turbine syndrome” rests on the idea that these low frequency vibrations are picked up by the inner ear and cause “headaches; difficulty sleeping; tinnitus, or ringing in the ears; learning and mood disorders; panic attacks; irritability; disruption of equilibrium, concentration and memory; and childhood behavior problems. ” Hell, I can have all those symptoms just from my morning commute.

Like power lines and cell phones, the notion that anything that emits radiation could have an effect on the human body is not inherently impossible. However, most people forget that we are subject to all kinds of radiation in our daily lives from radios, lights, televisions, computers, etc., none of which seem to be killing us. Because there has not been a great deal of research done on the effect of low-frequency vibrations, I can’t state categorically that there might not be a possibility of harmful effects. But I find it shockingly irresponsible that members of the scientific community, aided and abetted by a dimwitted and irresponsible press, are only too happy to terrify the public with half-assed conclusions based on little evidence.

Thus I present exhibit A: One Dr. Nina Pierpont, who began reseraching this issue after (surprise) a wind farm was built near her home. To give Dr. Pierpont her due, she is a board certified pediatrician and a graduate of Johns Hopkins, was a professor of clinical pediatrics at Columbia, and holds a PhD from Princeton in “population biology”, which sounds relevant but actually isn’t. She’s also an aging hippie environmentalist who once lived with Eskimos in Alaska. Anyway, Dr. Pierpont began studying the health of families who lived near wind turbines and came up with the idea of “wind turbine syndrome” based on her findings.

Now, what a good doctor or scientist would do would be to publish a paper in a respected journal, so that her findings could be reviewed and perhaps duplicated by others. If subsequent studies confirmed her work, she would be hailed as a pioneer. Instead, Pierpont decided to write a book for commercial sale, presenting her work as established scientific fact to an uncritical audience ready to be terrified by her conclusion, that it is unsafe to live within the totally arbitrary distance of two miles of a wind turbine. Her most likely reason for doing so was her knowledge that her research was sloppy and that she had assumed her conclusions before she even began.

I haven’t examined Pierpont’s research in detail, but she studied 10 families who live near wind turbines – an extremely small sample size and statistically meaningless. It does not appear that she studied a control group that did not live near turbines, or even factored in the possible psychosomatic effect (if you *think* the wind turbine is going to make you sick, you will get sick.) Pierpont actually suggests with a straight face that the wind turbines appear to cause headaches in people with “pre-existing migraines”. In other words, if you suffered from migraines to begin with, you will continue to get them if you live near a wind turbine! There’s a shock.

I don’t blame anybody for disliking the idea of living near a wind turbine. But spreading paranoia is reprehensible. The wind companies deny that “wind turbine syndrome” exists, and they have a financial motive to do so. But Pierpont has a financial motive – sales of her book – to insist that it does. Currently there are a couple of other scientists studying the issue, which she frequently mentions to prove she’s not a crackpot. But in fact it is the very plausibility of the idea that makes it so dangerous.

The result of all this is articles like this one, which even if they are trying to be objective, end up stirring up more panic among those who do not read critically – and incidentally, help Dr. Pierpont’s book sales:


Posted in Current Events, Domestic News | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments »

Memo to Israeli PM: Rejectionism is not helpful

Posted by sanityinjection on August 14, 2008

ABC News reports that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has denied rumors that he had proposed allowing a small number of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel as part of a final peace settlement, in keeping eith the “right of return” which has always been a fundamental demand of the Palestinians. However, his office went a step further and said that, “under any future agreement, there will not be any return of Palestinian refugees to Israel in any number.” While this may play well politically in Israel, that kind of categorical denial hurts peace efforts and encourages similar rejectionism from the Palestinian side.

The issue concerns large numbers of Palestinian families who either (depending on your point of view) fled or were forced out of Palestine in 1948 when Arab armies attacked the newly-declared State of Israel. Since that time, they have been housed in run-down, squalid refugee camps in Arab countries, some the size of small cities. The Palestinains have consistently demanded that the right of these refugees to return to what is now Israel be recognized – the so-called “right of return”.

Of course, there are tons of problems with this. Most of the houses, and in many cases, the villages the Palestinians left no longer exist. There is nowhere for them to return to. The refugees, now almost all elderly, have bred large families who would all want to return along with them. In addition to arguing that the Palestinians left voluntarily, Israel rightly points out that the refugees are still in the camps because the Arab countries (with the notable exception of Jordan) have consistently refused to allow them to integrate into their countries, fearing that would be a symbolic acceptance of the Israeli victory.

Allowing the “right of return” in any significant numbers would be impossible for Israel. It would create a huge Arab population with a high birthrate that would eventually swamp the Jewish population and have the political power to destroy Israel as a Jewish state through democratic means. Olmert’s statement is grounded in this understanding, and Palestinian negotiators are well aware of it.

On the other hand, the “right of return” is so fundamental to the Palestinian cause that it is impossible to imagine a peace settlement that does not address the issue in at least a symbolic way. And the Israelis are aware of that also. Olmert’s categorical rejection of even a symbolic right of return is basically a slap in the face for Palestinians, and that’s not how you negotiate.

Olmert will be stepping down as Prime Minister, so a new government will not be bound by his statement. But it is dismaying to see an Israeli leader deliberately sabotaging the atmosphere of peace talks for cheap political gains.

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Wherefore dost thou tax me?

Posted by sanityinjection on August 14, 2008

Interesting little story from Reuters regarding an Italian athlete, Francesco D’Aniello, who just won a silver medal in a shooting event at the Beijing Olympics. Apparently, Italy, like a number of countries, offers cash prizes to Italian athletes who win medals. However, those cash prizes are subject to taxation, like other forms of income. So D’Aniello, at a press conference, suggested the Italian government carve out a special tax exemption for Olympic medallists:

We athletes go through major sacrifices to get to this level. It would be the right thing to do to remove the taxes from what we get here. It would be a very good thing.

Normally I am inclined to sympathize with anyone who feels their taxes are too high. And I have no doubt that the Italian tax rates are probably higher than ours here in the US. But D’Aniello’s request is fundamentally flawed. Without gainsaying the amount of work and sacrifice that went into his achievement, does D’Aniello really think that athletes are the only ones who devote tremendous hard work and make sacrifices for their professions? How about police, firefighters, soldiers – should they all be tax exempt too? Or maybe D’Aniello thinks he’s more important than they are. The bottom line is, the government bonus for his medal is income, and should be taxed as such. The amount of the bonus was not given, but based on what similar countries pay, it’s probably a six-figure amount.

Of course, the Italian legislature might be wise to at least make a pretense of seriously considering D’Aniello’s suggestion. He is, after all, armed and a crack shot.

How do you say “ungrateful ass” in Italian?

Posted in Current Events, Foreign Affairs, Politics, Sports | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

O Brave new world…

Posted by sanityinjection on August 14, 2008

Agence-France-Presse reports that British scientists have succeeded in creating a robot with a biological brain made from rat neurons. The neurons are attached to electrodes and communicate with the physically separate body wirelessly. Scientists do not control the robot but allow the brain to do so, and have observed it learning not to bump into walls, for example.

Actually, the robot, named “Gordon”, has multiple interchangeable brains, each of which displays a different “personality” or type of behavior based on the particular chemical bath inhibiting or enhancing particular neural pathways. Without sufficient external stimuli, however, the brains die after a couple of months.

I find this absolutely fascinating and creepy at the same time. I’m not troubled by the idea of humans with cyborg limbs, but what these scientists have really done is to create a new, partially biological life form. I have no doubt that all kinds of scientific discoveries about how the brain works can come from this research, with possible benefits for people with certain brain conditions. But I am troubled by the line we are crossing here. As usual, scientific achievement is way ahead of the ethical framework that needs to be in place to guide it.

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