Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Wind Turbine Syndrome: mass hysteria in the 21st Century?

6 Jun 2012

"The patients suffered from nervous excitability, with buzzing noises in the ear, giddiness, and neuralgic pains,.. in some cases,..objective lesions, such as a subinflammatory condition of the membrane tympani,.. All the trouble speedily vanishes if the ear is allowed a sufficient measure of physiological rest; this it can only obtain by the cause of the evil being withdrawn. The victims,.. seem all to be of markedly nervous organization, and the moral may be drawn that such persons should not use the telephone". British Medical Journal, September 21, 1889

The history of the introduction of new technology has often featured highly publicised panics about the miseries that will be visited upon those who fall prey to these Mephistophelean temptations. The industrial revolution in the nineteenth century was the golden age for technophobes and those convinced that modern society was toxic.

George Miller Beard, an American neurologist, popularised the long-discredited diagnosis of neurasthenia. He argued that "wireless telegraphy, science, steam power, newspapers and the education of women; in other words modern civilization" was responsible for widespread anxiety, depression, headaches and fatigue. While we can laugh at the amusing conflation of ideologies about the social order with disease, such attributions are not hard to find today. At 60, I'm old enough to remember neighbours telling my parents that they wouldn't have one of those televisions in the house. Electric blankets, microwave ovens, computer screens and most recently, mobile phones and towers have all attracted panic.

With there being many more mobile phones than people in Australia today, and mass use going back now more than 15 years, the flatline data on the incidence of brain cancer doesn't suggest much evidence to support the populist rumour that mobile telephony causes cancer.

Panics about wind farms are the latest example of technophobia, although those convinced that wifi emits death-rays have recently joined the queue. I've been closely following the claims that wind turbines cause illness for about two years. Many aspects of this unfolding and increasingly hysterical saga point to large psychogenic factors. Psychogenic illness is defined as a constellation of symptoms suggestive of organic illness, but without an identifiable cause, that occurs between two or more people who share beliefs about those symptoms. The idea that fear of illness can precipitate symptoms goes back at least to the time of Francis Bacon who said, "Infections,.. if you fear them, you call them upon you".

A key component of psychogenic illness is that sufferers are warned that they should fear some agent. They are truly 'communicable diseases'. The internet is awash with such warnings and Australia's very own Waubra Foundation, with unregistered doctor Sarah Laurie at the helm, is doing all it can to spread alarm in rural communities. Media monitoring records of alarmists' messages in rural communities provides important evidence for the strong likelihood of a nocebo effect at work.

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Simon Chapman is professor of public health at the University of Sydney. Twitter: @simonchapman6