It’s official. Issue activists really can make you sick

Companies and communication professionals often face claims that a particular product or process causes health problems in the local community.  And sometimes there is a legitimate problem which needs to be properly addressed.

Yet few health scares are based on so little evidence and so much emotion as claims that wind turbines trigger a whole catalogue of illness

Two new studies just released suggest the claimed health effects are in all likelihood caused not by wind turbines, but by anxiety and fear spread by anti-wind farm activists.

There is even an official name for it – the nocebo effect – where people who believe something causes an illness create a perception of illness.  In other words, activist and media claims about wind turbines making people sick can make them believe they really are sick.

In order to test this theory the University of Auckland took an experimental group and showed half of them frightening TV footage downloaded off the Internet about the dangers of wind farms. The other half were shown experts explaining that exposure to inaudible low-frequency sound generated by wind turbines would not cause symptoms. All the subjects were then told they would be exposed to such infrasound  – – though in fact half were exposed to nothing but silence.

The results of the experiment were frighteningly conclusive. Those in the “low expectation” group reported little or no effect. However, many of those who had seen the alarming footage reported a variety of symptoms, regardless of whether they had been exposed to real or sham infrasound.

In the same week Professor Simon Chapman of Sydney University reported a detailed analysis which showed that most of Australia’s 49 wind farms generated no health or noise complaints. More than two thirds of all complaints (68%) came from people living near just five wind farms, each of which had been heavily targeted by anti-wind farm activists. He also found that although Australia’s first wind farm began operating in 1993, the “florid allegations” about health effects only really began in 2009 at the same time as some key opponents became active: 82% of complainants made their first complaint after that date. Chapman’s conclusion: The key factor seems to be the presence or absence of anti-wind activists, generally visiting from outside the area.

I claim no expertise in the psychological basis of health allegations. But these new studies (and 17 official inquiries which found no link) raise important questions for how organizations faced by such claims should respond.

Sadly there is no easy answer, and the problem is exacerbated by the sometimes vicious, murky world behind the wind farm debate. However there are some general principles which are effective:
• Acknowledge and respect individual concerns, regardless of whether you think they are “real”
• Avoid attacking the motivation or credentials of critics (take note Professor Chapman)
• Use good science, but don’t expect science alone to be the answer
• Provide constructive support to politicians and regulators struggling to find “middle ground”
• Listen to risk guru Peter Sandman who says perceived risk is just as “real” as statistical risk, and you can’t deal with one and not the other

 

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About managingoutcomes

Issue and crisis management expert
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