Chapman’s Nocebo Study

Simon Chapman, a public-health professor in Australia, has long maintained that the health and annoyance issues from wind turbines that people complain about are the result of nocebo.  Recently he published a study that purports to conclusively demonstrate that those health complaints are not caused by the wind turbines; rather they are caused by anti-wind activists (presumably like me) instilling these ideas into people by our writings.

In an effort to give his study the fairest shake I could, I haven’t read it yet.  Instead, I’m going to put myself in his position and think about what kind of study I’d have to do to and what it would have to show.  After that exercise I’ll be looking through his paper to see if it in fact shows the things it needs to show to confirm his assertions. 

My Nocebo Thought Study

1) I’d start by examining projects and comparing those where there were complaints to those where there were not.  I’d see if there was a significant  correlation between negative, fear-producing publicity in the area around the complaining projects vs. others.  This publicity would have to precede the project.
2)  I’d check to see if there were any other significant differences between the complaining and non-complaining projects to make sure there’s no other explanation, i.e. different setbacks, bigger turbines etc.
3)  I’d survey the complainers to see what their attitude was before the project went into operation.  If they were favorably disposed towards it and then complained the case for nocebo is greatly weakened.
4) Finally, I’d check to see if there was any other plausible cause for the complaint.  The most obvious one would be that the noise from the turbines is plausibly bothersome enough to cause the complaints.  This would require visits and measurements.

I thought the above up in about an hour, so calling them rigorous would be a stretch.  Let’s now read Chapman’s study and see if he meets even these minimal criteria.  Read.  Read.  Read.

My Summary

It’s now 2 days later and I’ve read through the study.  This was a typical Chapman exercise.  He designed a study whose outcome could safely be predicted to confirm his prior beliefs.  He cherry picks the data, ignoring stuff he doesn’t like, and finishes up with unsupported assertions and innuendos.  The main value of this study is to demonstrate how “science” can be bent, and how carefully we need to read studies written by clever people with agendas.  It certainly does nothing to advance our understanding of the very real health issues that are now affecting thousands of people world-wide.  Think I’m being harsh?  Read on…

Some Background

The nocebo theory has been around for a number of years.  It recognizes that people may well develop health issues because they believe something will harm them, even when there’s no plausible physical way it can.  An extreme example is a witch’s curse killing someone.  A modern example would be cell phones (the jury is still out on them, it seems).  Just to be clear, nocebo itself is not particularly controversial.  With regard to wind turbines, it would be surprising if some complaints about them were in fact not due to the turbines themselves.  On the flip side, industries have used various victim-centered defenses (like nocebo) when in fact their product was harmful.  It confuses the regulatory bodies for a while and keeps the gravy train going, hopefully until they can retire.

The trick for anyone studying this issue is to separate real problems from induced ones and find out where the predominance lies.  For his part, Chapman maintains that:  “18 reviews of the research literature on wind turbines and health published since 2003 have all reached the broad conclusion that the evidence for wind turbines being directly harmful to health is very poor.”  And at the same time, the evidence he has created for his nocebo hypothesis shows that: “the reported spatio-temporal variations in complaints are consistent with psychogenic hypotheses that health problems arising are ‘communicated diseases’ with nocebo effects”.  Therefore he concludes nocebo effects are: “likely to play an important role in the aetiology of complaints.”  So what constitutes “important”?  Studies whose value is entirely dependent on the reader’s interpretation of (in this case) the word “important” aren’t really of much value.

More importantly, note where he’s set the bar for accepting his nocebo hypothesis.  He hasn’t shown any evidence at all that nocebo is the actual cause.  Rather, he insists that since the evidence for direct harm is weak and nocebo plausible, ergo nocebo must win by default.  Note the use of the word “direct”, a topic I’ve posted about at some length.  He is clever enough not to say wind turbines don’t cause health effects at all, because they do, and it has nothing to do with nocebo – and the evidence for this is substantial.  As Nissenbaum (a real doctor, unlike Chapman) relates, assigning a patient’s chest pains to nocebo without a lot of tests would be the height of malpractice, even though nocebo-induced chest pains no doubt do occur.

The Hypotheses

Coincidentally, we each had 4 criteria/hypotheses to guide us through our studies.  Mine are above and concentrate on separating the real effects from the induced ones.  His are quite different and generally serve to see if Nocebo is a plausible cause in the first place.  They are:

  1. Many wind farms would have no history of complaints.
  2. A small number of complaining residents.
  3. Few wind farms would have any history of complaints consistent with claims that turbines cause acute effects.
  4. Most complaints would date from 2009 or later, when opposition groups began to publicise health and noise effects.

Since I already accept that nocebo is a plausible cause, this study seems to me to be beating a dead horse.  But plausibility is not the issue, is it?  The real issue is: are most (or essentially all, in his view) of these complaints due to nocebo, or is there some evidence that points to the real effects of wind turbine noise that could explain them?  Chapman’s study and conclusions adroitly sidestep that.  No conclusions to his hypotheses above could falsify alternative explanations, while mine concentrate on doing so.

His Results

Table 1 contains a list of 49 Australian wind “farms” with sizes, dates, opposition activity and complaint history.  The core of his study is the almost perfect correlation of complaints and activist activity; 45 out of the 49 agree.  His general conclusion is that the opposition activity led to the complaints.  But for us to accept that conclusion we must first eliminate all the alternative explanations: for example that the noise led to the complaints which in turn led to the activist activity.  That is especially true when the alternative is not only plausible; it is in this case well documented.  He mentions 4 specific projects that should have generated complaints but had no opponent activity and thus no complaints,  and 5 equivalent projects that had both activity and complaints.  To save my time and your sanity, I’ve boiled his table 1 down to the following (thankfully clickable) chart:

The first 4 projects are the ones that didn’t have activity/complaints and the last 5 are the ones that had both.  You can see the “complaints” and “opposition activity” columns totally agree, which is the core basis of his conclusions. A secondary result are the dates, with Chapman maintaining that the later dates for the complaint projects supports his conclusions.  Chapman generated the “complaints” by doing media and government searches and asking the project operators.  He generated the “activity” columns by simply asking the project operators!  Asking someone with a direct and substantial financial interest in his results for critical not-easily-verifiable input tells me Chapman wasn’t really serious about getting an honest answer.  I have to wonder how this will get by peer review.

The yellowed cells are what I added, using Google Earth to locate each of the projects and counting up the close-in homes.  I also took pictures of the projects where a picture was worth the proverbial thousand words.  There is obviously a lot of evidence in the above chart to support alternative explanations.  The projects are larger (and thus more likely to surround the neighbors), the turbines are larger and there are generally more close-in neighbors.  His selection of 5 km to define neighbor is typical of wind proponent behavior – declare the affected area large enough and the unpleasant effects disappear.  This is precisely what proponent property value studies do.

To get a sense of how the first 4 “non-complaint” projects are different from the last 5 “complaint” ones, I created pictures of Starfish and Waubra.  All of these pictures can be enlarged.

First, Starfish Hill.  By the way, other “non-complaint” projects are even more isolated than this one. I show the entire project and the closest concentration of homes, in Cape Jervis.  The red line is 3300 m long.

Next below, Waubra.  This is just a part of the Waubra project, closest to the town of Waubra, with the remaining turbines spreading out to the west.  The red line is 1600 m long.  Note the number of turbines on a ridge directly overlooking the town.  I didn’t bother counting the close-in houses – there were too many.  As an aside, I looked at the “non-complaint” projects first and I recall being quite shocked by the density of the surroundings when I came to Waubra.

Based on my close-in numbers, I noticed some anomalies in my chart, namely Wattle (should have had some complaints but didn’t), Waterloo and Wonthaggi (shouldn’t have had many but did).  So I prepared the following pictures to get some insight into why.  Of course there may be additional reasons, like payments or poor performance, but I don’t have the ability to research those.  But just the pictures are instructive.

First, Wattle.  I estimated the cluster had 60 houses in it, which represents a substantial majority of all the close-in houses in Chapman’s 4 non-complaint projects.  The other turbines in that project are strung off to the west of the two closest ones shown here.  The shorter red line is 1700 m long.  I’d guess the turbines are audible in the cluster, but two 1.65’s at 1700 m may not be enough to create complaints.

Waterloo was the site that Wang studied in 2011.  Note that Chapman reports 11 complaints.  Wang, who surveyed the area,  reports 34 (70%+ times 48).  The town is 3300 m from the ridge.  Note how many turbines there are, arrayed on a ridge overlooking the town.  Aside from the distance, this looks pretty much like Waubra.

Finally, Wonthaggi.  There’s not so many turbines, but there’s a lot of houses just outside my 2 km red line.  According to Chapman the complaints there have been resolved: “Some of these former complainants had had their houses noise tested with the results showing they conformed to the relevant noise standard, some received noise mitigation (eg:double glazing), while others simply stopped complaining.”  I have to ask: is this history consistent with nocebo?

Even with my cursory look at the actual projects Chapman cites, it is apparent that there are consistent and substantial physical differences between the complaint-prone and non-complaint-prone projects.  I’m pretty sure that if you were shown overhead pictures of the 9 projects you could pick the ones where complaints were registered more often than randomly.  If nocebo was in fact the determining factor, as Chapman would have us believe, you couldn’t.

Chapman’s “Scientific Consensus”

In his conclusion he states: “In view of scientific consensus that the evidence for wind turbine noise and infrasound causing health problems is poor…”.  And how does he know this?  “18 reviews of the research literature on wind turbines and health published since 2003 ([references] 3-20) have all reached the broad conclusion that the evidence for wind turbines being directly harmful to health is very poor.”  This is simply a rehash of his 17 reviews (plus one from Massachusetts), about which I posted previously.  To sum that posting up, Chapman has misused the conclusions of many of these reviews, some of which misused the results of the actual studies they were reviewing.  Ontario’s Hazel Lynn, a pesky real doctor with actual experience with victims, in association with a real epidemiologist, did her own review and concluded that her 18 studies (many were the same ones scooped up by Chapman and his reviews) indicated wind turbines had a “noise-induced” effect on the neighbors.  As an aside, none of these reviews, nor any of the studies underlying the reviews, even mentions nocebo.

As an example of how Chapman misuses both the reviews and the studies, let’s look at his first assertion on page 3: “Small minorities of exposed people – typically less than 10% – claim to be annoyed by wind turbines (15).”  Reference 15 happens to be Knopper 2011, which in itself is a review, and about which I have serious problems.  Regardless of my issues, nowhere in Knopper is 10% mentioned in any form.  As close as Knopper comes is: “Results of the Pedersen and Persson Waye studies [13-15] also suggested that the proportion of participants who were fairly annoyed or very annoyed  remained quite level through the 29-37 dB(A) range (no more than roughly 5%) but increased at noise levels above 37 dB(A), with peaks at 38 db(A) and 41 dB(A), where up to 30% of people were very annoyed.”  I guess if you define “exposed people” carefully enough, his assertion could be correct.  But that is by any standard I’m aware of terribly dishonest, and this type of dishonestly permeates Chapman’s writings.

On to the Innuendos

If Chapman stuck to exploring the evidence regarding noise, health, nocebo and so on we’d simply be having a disagreement.  Unfortunately he goes way beyond that.  It is though he takes the wind turbine issues viscerally, attacking anyone or anything that is inconvenient.  Take the very first sentence in this study: “With often florid allegations about health problems arising from wind turbine exposure now widespread in parts of rural Australia and on the internet, nocebo effects potentially confound any future investigation of turbine health impact.”  Florid?  My my. Scientific terminology at its finest.

He also has a great deal to say about the Landscape Guardians, implying they are merely fronts for fossil fuel interests.  Now I don’t know what they might be fronts for, if anything.  I’ve been associated with anti-wind activists for going on 6 years now, and I’m not aware of any significant fossil-fuel money.  Actually, I’m not aware of any significant money at all, darn it.  An inconvenient fact for Chapman is that oil and gas interests are major wind-energy players, the linkages (i.e. Mitchell) all involve oil and gas – not coal.  Does Chapman bother to level similar charges against the wind energy industry?  Scientific disinterest at its finest.

Finally, Chapman seems to have a special place in his heart for Sarah Laurie.  He mentions her 3 times in this study, and I don’t recall anything he’s written about wind turbines where he hasn’t mentioned her.  In his “17 reviews” paper she got over a page’s worth.  Here his attack was more subtle, linking her to fossil fuel interests via Waubra and the Landscape Guardians.  Could this be unrequited love?  There’s as much evidence for that as there is for nocebo.  Scientific hypothesizing at its finest.

Chapman may still consider himself a scientist, but he certainly looks like an advocate to me.

21 thoughts on “Chapman’s Nocebo Study”

  1. According to the “windpushers”, wind turbines cause decent, respectable, law-abiding, intelligent, honest individuals, to become irrational, hypochondriacs, with tendencies to lie. …According to Chapman, it also causes victims to disappear, and non-English speaking victims to cease to exist, entirely. It’s going to be difficult explaining that to all of those hundreds of wind opposition groups in Europe and elsewhere. Maybe I should have each of them send him a word to the wise…..wherever turbines are placed too close to people, there are people suffering because of it. I guess he hasn’t noticed the translate bar on the top of the computer page.

  2. The problem with much interpretation on data is that study designs frequently don’t allow the rejection of the Null Hypothesis. Chapman attempts this and presents a robust case for his hypothesis. Unfortunately many people already have their responses to studies before they have read the study (like the author here) or others like Shellie exaggerate the finding to the ridiculous. If I may recommend reading more about epidemiology and its investigation methods and also Daniel Kahneman’s book ‘thinking fast and slow’. This would help achieving your stated goal of going where the evidence takes you.

  3. Hi Will, thanks for your comment. I’ll probably get the book you suggest and read it. Not to understand Chapman any better, but rather to understand Lynn better, as this double-negative way of thinking is that they used. What null hypothesis did Chapman reject or not reject? I’m looking for something like Lynn’s “There is no association between wind turbines induced-noise and human distress”, like maybe “Nocebo has no effect on health complaints”, and I’m not finding it.

  4. Indeed, Chapman’s paper proposes 4 hypotheses, all variations of each other, but no null hypothesis against them. And Shellie’s comments are actually what Chapman has been loudly saying for quite some time, if not so blatantly in this paper.

  5. Hello thanks for comments. I am happy for the criticism and I will reply more thoroughly later. I am rather over burdened with work to reply now. But I will already give a compliment to you for posting what may be seen as pro wind comment and your calm critiques of my comment. Regards

  6. European platform against Wind, amazingly alot of the signatories to the organisation are not English speaking, plus EPAW was formed in Paris!
    is their website. I think chapmans comments that there are no non English speakers complaining of issues regarding wind farms, rather illustrates how poor his research is. The translate button is indeed very useful, I would also like to say how unprofessional I think some of his language is, surely a Professional would not be sneering, and snide in his descriptions of humans. In truth under any circumstances, even if NOCEBO were a case worth considering, which I do not believe it is……….you do not sneer at those who may be suffering from such an affect. A real Professional surely would be more sensitive? Very unimpressed.

  7. final point is this, what we should be doing is looking beyond the specific research looking at wind farms induced ailments, we need to look at the plethera of research that is out there about the affects of sleep deprivation, research into Infra sound, affects of noise, we just need to start pulling it altogether. Wind farms create noise, more noise at night, sleep deprivation, gene alteration, these genes controlling a lot of the bodies functions, when these genes mutate, cancer, diabetes, heart disease etc can all be the results. What I would like to see, is for Sleep experts to become involved, set up a sleep lab near a wind farm, in one of the areas where people are affected, monitor these peoples sleep properly. Bring in volunteers, from an outside area, have them their for three months and properly monitor their sleep, their cortisone levels etc. I would encourage Neurologists to use brain imaging to watch for the brains response to infrasound, I suspect some Human beings have an inanate built in response to Infrasound, it was a useful early warning system, Human beings would feel uneasy at the approaching storms etc. Many Animals also have a similar response to infrasound, and use infrasound to communicate over very long distances, we are animals, which may suprise some! If I am right I believe Neurologists will see brain function in the early part of the brain, which is the most ancient structure of our brains. Will be interesting to see how many humans in a study show little or no response.

  8. re: Wattle, and lack of complaints with relatively close turbines. It looks from the image that the houses are all quite close to the shoreline, so likely significant ambient wave noise. I’d also guess that prevailing winds are coming from offshore, which tends to be the case in coastal areas; can anyone confirm if this is true?

    Great job of zeroing in on the physical differences among the sites; very helpful. I’m always surprised yet again when I’m reminded how far turbines are from Waterloo; I also tend to feel that using 5km as the zone-of-inquiry distorts the data on what proportion are bothered, and often suggest, as in your charts, that 2km is a more useful range to examine. Yet, then, 3.3km and a real concentration of problems, with far better assessment of proportion of population affected (via the two surveys), than most areas…..

    My lay summary of Chapman and the related Crighton study (expectations and symptoms reported in lab study) should be up by sometime tomorrow.

    UPDATE – Jim’s paper is up:

  9. Typical of Mr. Chapman, ignoring experts overseas and making out with skewed data. He seems to spend all day doing nothing else but denigrating peer-reivewed studies, people like Dr. Laurie and Mr. S. Cooper yet does nothing to see or question those in opposition especially those being impacted by wind turbines. He knows nothing of industrial wind turbines. He should go to an industry that uses turbines and see how the users are treated. He should also stay in a wind turbine complex for seveal months in an abandoned home of wind complex refugees. Thanks for showing us the problems with his study.

  10. Let’s see. All of the credible, mandated-to-be-kept complaints data — validated against another source — in an entire country around every wind farm in the country over almost two decades.

    Yup, that’s some cherry picking of data.

    And as a non-researcher, you’ve built an unintelligible mess of a study which wouldn’t pass muster from any panel because it goes all over the place. Having built this mess, you then use it as the standard of comparison for a well constructed, well thought out study with a necessarily narrower aim and focus. And having done this, you find out that researchers don’t build studies the way you think they should, but in fact the way that is rational and provides useful results.

    Professor Chapman’s extensive, peer-reviewed and acclaimed research into tobacco harm and gun control and his very-high rating as a public health researcher might give you pause to think that perhaps he knows what he’s doing and you don’t.

    Wayne, the evidence is clear. Chapman’s study, the Auckland study on sham infrasound and the two recents studies on personality traits and neuroses being stronger indicators of annoyance make it clear that anti-wind campaigners and fear mongers — including you, so please do take this personally — are causing people to fall ill.

    And you are now doing it intentionally and with full knowledge of your actions. While previously you had a belief and could claim a lack of evidence to the contrary, you can no longer do that with any credibility.

    You are now actively and consciously causing the problem. You are not part of the solution and you know it. You have no excuses.

    If you want to be able to live with yourself, I’d suggest taking a one-month hiatus before posting more things that you will feel a deep and burning sense of shame over in coming years.

  11. Hi Mike, I was wondering how long it would take you to show up here. What specific part of my posting is inaccurate?

  12. Beyond the two points already laid out? Do you really think it’s in your best interests to have your material shredded further?

    Wayne, if you were really interested in where the evidence takes you, you would have have taken down this embarrassing post and stopped posting entirely for a while. Then you would have taken down your blog except for an apology for the harm you have been complicit in.

    Man up. The evidence is clear. You are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

  13. Mike, shred away. If you come up with something substantive I’ll post it and retract. So far you’re just yelling louder.

  14. One of the houses in the Photo of Waterloo South Australia, Is my Home, I don’t ever recall getting a call from Simon Chapman, asking me why I had to leave it and go and leave in my Mums shed, that just happened to be on one of the busiest streets in Adelaide, if you know Adelaide at all, her Home is by the South road over pass, very laud and noise, funny I could sleep there, and NO headaches , after 1 year I had to move as Mum past away, then because I could NOT go back to my Home, My brother in law offered me to stay with him, as he also had bad inexperience from the Turbines in Waterloo and he knows how badly we get affected from the Turbines, so much that he wrote a letter of complaint to the Sydney Uni to complain about Simon Chapman and his attitude towards the people that are effected by Turbines .
    I also know three of my Neighbours, two Families have been there for generations , they also moved out because of the Turbines , I bet that Simon Chapman didn’t talk to them , and asked them why they moved, it’s funny that isn’t it ?.
    Now I would like to also let you know that Dr. Sarah Laurie is NOT a scare monger, she is a wonderful Lady, that I invited to come to Waterloo AFTER we send letter of complaint to Council , E,P,A , and Roaring 40s and lets not forget Truenergy the new owner of the Industrial Waterloo Turbines , when she came to my Home to let me know what might be going on , she first asked me and 4 other people that I asked to come and see what Dr. Sarah Laurie could tell us , she first asked each of us about what we are feeling and why I asked her to come, after we all told her what was happing to us , she told us that similar problem are happening in lots of other places around the word, and she is right, I’m in Germany at this time , and I have been talking to people here that have the same problems here as we do, and they been complaining for 20 years, and most of the ill effects are the same all around the worlds where you find Larger Turbines, I have done my own resurge on Wind Turbines for over 2 years, I have a Terabyte of Info from all around the world , If Simon Chapman done sum real resurge he would be fighting this just as hard as he did the Tobacco companies .

    Regards, a Wind Turbine Refugee

  15. It’s interesting to read about the town of Falmouth where the resident are fighting hard to try to get 2 turbine removed, and finding out this would be atrociously expensive.
    In the following report, one can see that several of the annoyed inhabitant were initially very much in favor of the project before suffering the symptoms :
    “Meeting with those people quite honestly blew our minds,” Argo said. “We had expected that they would be kind of wacky. And we would be able to dismiss them. And none of us will dismiss their complaints now.”

  16. One additional factor that might be considered is the direction of the prevailing winds. Here on the island the cement plant is very noticeable, even indoors, when the wind blows from the west. Not so much when it blows less frequently from other directions.

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