SGU Episode 432

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SGU Episode 432
October 26th 2013
Wind turbine.jpg
SGU 431 SGU 433
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week
'The pursuit of balance can create imbalance because sometimes something is true.”
Okrent's Law
Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Topic


You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.

This Day in Skepticism ()[edit]

  • October 26 1984: Baby Fae has a baboon heart transplanted

News Items[edit]

1000 Exoplanets ()[edit]

Scientific Literacy and the Tea Party ()[edit]

PPMOs ()[edit]

Wind Turbine Syndrome (24:50)[edit]

S: Alright, let's move on. Evan, you're going to tell us about this new dangerous health scare, Wind Turbine Syndrome.

E: Dun, dun, duuuum.

J: Wait a second. What, are people's ears flopping, like what's happening Ev?

E: Yeah, so here's what's happening. Several residents of Falmouth Massachusetts, which is on Cape Cod...

R: I've been there.

E: Have filed lawsuits claiming that three 400-foot tall, 1.63 megawatt turbines were responsible for an array of adverse health effects. The symptoms being reported by the residents include headaches, tinnitus, insomnia, dizziness, sensations of fluttering in the chest and that's just to name a few, there's even more than that.

S: Although it's tinnitus (tin-it-us).

E: No, it's tinnitus (tin-eye-tus).

S: It's not inflammation of anythying. It's ringing in the ears, tinnitus.

E: So all those commercials I'm hearing on the radio and everywhere are wrong? They're all pronouncing it incorrectly.

S: Yes, that's correct. (laughs)

E: OK.

S: It's tinnitus.

J: But Steve, if everyone says it wrong, maybe they're all right.

S: OK, officially you'll find that both pronunciations are used and accepted. There's also an English/British difference I think in the pronunciation. But I prefer tinnitus because tinnitus sounds like inflammation and that is misleading therefore tinnitus should be preferred.

E: Aha.

J: I thought -itis meant heebeejeebees.

E: Well, in any case, so in 2011 a doctor at Harvard Medical School diagnosed one of the residents with something the doctor called Wind Turbine Syndrome. Plaintiffs are seeking anywhere between $150,000 and $300,000 in damages for loss of value of their home and to cover their medical bills. The name "Wind Turbine Syndrome" was coined by a gal named Nina Pirpont, she's a John Hopkins university trained paediatrician. Her husband is an anti-wind activist.

S: That's just a coincidence, Evan. That has nothing to do with her medical opinions here.

E: Well yeah. She lives in New York, in upstate New York and she calls Wind Turbine Syndrome the green energy industry's dirty little secret. She published a book in 2009 called "Wind Turbine Syndrome" which included case studies of people that lived within 1.25 miles of these wind turbines and they reportedly got sick. So, once again we must step back from all the noise and the anecdotes and the politics, and ask ourselves, "what is the evidence"? What is the evidence which supporting the claim that wind turbines are the cause of these peoples' symptoms? So, has this been studied? Yeah it has, actually. There have been a lot of studies about this. So, modern wind farms have been in use around the world for decades. But only in more recent years, perhaps the last five years or so have human-health-related complaints been reported. There have now been 17 reviews of available evidence about wind farms. These are reviews of all studies, not just single pieces of research and each of these reviews have concluded that wind turbines can annoy a minority of people in their vicinity, but there's not strong evidence that they make people ill at all. So, what else might be going on here? We don't have just like one or two people, we've got in some communities dozens of people all claiming to have similar kinds of symptoms. Where have we heard this before, where have we seen this before?

J: I don't know, wifi? The wifi illness?

E: Mmhmm. Yep, the wifi illness, the case with students in upstate New York we covered last year. What was their condition, Steve?

S: They had psychogenic symptoms.

E: Right, psychogenic symptoms. So these are all examples of what's known as communicated diseases. And it spreads via the nocebo effect. And in fact they're calling this, or they have called Wind Turbine Syndrome a textbook example of the nocebo effect. Right? If you believe something bad's going to happen, chances are your brains are going to make it happen.

S: Or not even that, even simpler. You have non-specific symptoms for whatever reason. You're not sleeping well. You're depressed. And you look for a specific cause. Maybe it's that big wind turbine I don't like looking at on the hill over there. Or it's all these power lines buzzing overhead. Or whatever, make up your fake cause. I think that's responsible for a lot of this.

E: There is also evidence suggesting that the feedback that people get from each other, if you start, two people tell two other people and they start telling other people, yeah the symptoms will actually spread because people will start associating whatever little aches, pains or just comforts that they're experiencing and they're going to attribute it to, oh well it must be the wind turbines that John down the street is experiencing. And it's been proven that this is a real psychological effect that takes place in communities.

R: And you know when yuo're talking about the choice of target here and what could be causing these non-specific problkems, I think there might be another thing going on here which I will call NIMBY-ism. I think they have a severe case of NIMBY-itis, or Not In My Back Yard -itis. Because, having lived in Boston during the Cape Wind Project's approval process, it was really astonishing to see the excuses that rich people came up with to prevent the turbines from going in. And this isn't to suggest that there aren't often real concerns about wind turbines, for instance their environmental impact, but the arguments against the wind turbines going in where they went in which was in Nantucket Sound were primarily things like "this will affect the yachting routes".

J: Yeah, exactly.

R: And "this will lower property values" because of... yeah, and but they lost, the Cape Wind Project was approved and so this is the next step. The turbines are causing health issues.

S: There is a sliver of plausibility here and there are a couple of published studies, not really studies, more like ananlyses of is this possible? And that is these really big wind turbines do cause infrasound.

R: Infrasound, yeah.

S: Yeah, and that could annoy certain people.

J: So what is that, Steve? Is it that warbly flutter of air circulating?

S: Well by definition, sound that's too low for your ears to hear.

R: It's like when trucks go over a freeway, I think that's probably the most common source source that people get on a day-to-day basis, and it's been blamed for a huge number of problems, very few of which I've seen solidly supported by research. It's known as the "brown note" because it was rumoured to cause some people to poop themselves which was studied, there was a study where they played the brown note to a theatre full of people listening to an orchestra. They were asked to rate certain songs and during some songs they played the brown notes and in others they did not. There were no cases of pooping.

J: Come on! The brown note is a lie!

S: With regard to Wind Turbine Syndrome, they certainly do not have their ducks in a row. They haven't proven that people who think that they're sensitive can actually tell when they are or are not being exposed to an active wind turbine, that it is causing their symptoms, that there is a specific mechanism there, that the syndrome can even be identified, that it has any features that identify it as Wind Turbine Syndrome. It's just non-specific symptoms and supposition. That's all they've got at this point in time. It's not impossible, crazy-impossible, but chances of it actually turning out to be real are pretty small. And even if there is a minority of people who are sensitive to infrasound from wind turbines, that doesn't mean that it explains all cases. I think that most cases probably are just people who have non-specific features who are looking for a cause, or as Rebecca says, it's a convenient excuse not to have a giant wind turbine in your area.

R: And I'm not saying that they're necessarily consciously doing that, even so I do think that there could be a very good chance that someone has these non-specific symptoms and they will naturally gravitate towards the thing that they hate, not coming up with these symptoms as a way to get rid of the turbines, although maybe that would happen too, who knows?

J: Also, these wind turbines are all over the world. I've seen them in Hawaii, I've seen them in Sweden.

E: They're big in Australia, yep.

J: Yeah, that's right Ev. A lot of other people around the world would be complaining about this. I find it hard to believe that the only people that are finding these symptoms are people that live near the ones in Nantucket.

Who's That Noisy ()[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Brian Malow

Brian Malow ()[edit]

Science or Fiction ()[edit]

Item #1: A computer engineer has developed an algorithm to restore a digital image from as little as 1% of the original information. Item #2: A new study finds that younger siblings may contain cells with the DNA of their older siblings. Item #3: Researchers find that eucalyptus trees concentrate gold in their leaves, and in some areas represent a significant source of the mineral.

Skeptical Quote of the Week ()[edit]

'The pursuit of balance can create imbalance because sometimes something is true.”- Okrent’s Law

Announcements ()[edit]

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at, where you will find the show notes as well as links to our blogs, videos, online forum, and other content. You can send us feedback or questions to Also, please consider supporting the SGU by visiting the store page on our website, where you will find merchandise, premium content, and subscription information. Our listeners are what make SGU possible.


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