Category: Risk assessment

Subverting logic, public health, & the environment

A handful of my neighbours, falsely purporting to repesent the residents of Boularderie Island, noisely oppose a plan to put up a couple of wind turbines at Hillside, Boularderie, near Bras d’Or.

Their arguments deserve scrutiny because of what they reveal about the logic underpinning the anti-wind movement.

In a CBC interview this morning, a spokesperson for the NIMBYists pointed to an elderly lifelong Hillside resident who has grown distraught about the project, and worries it will render her unable to live out her years in the beautiful place she has always called home.

bertrand-russell-200Back in March, an Australian researcher cataloged every illness complaint related to wind turbines in that country and concluded that “wind turbine syndrome” was a disease spread by word of mouth. Its prevalence bears no relationship to the number and proximity of wind turbines, but correlates closely with the intensity of nearby protests against wind farms.

The Boularderie NIMBYists have spent months promoting fear of wind farms, with little success. Now they cite the fear they themselves aroused in a single elderly woman as a reason not to allow the project. This is akin to electroseining every fish in a disputed pond, and then citing the lack of fish as a reason to ban fishing.

In their magnanimity, however, the Boularderie NIMBYists would allow the turbines to go ahead as long as they are erected at least two kilometres from the nearest dwelling (a condition that would preclude their location on Boularderie, and virtually everywhere else in Nova Scotia), and as long as the proponents can prove they will do no harm — in other words, unless they prove, not just a negative, but every conceivable negative.

While it is sometimes possible to prove a specific negative proposition, it is impossible to prove an ill-defined an all-encompassing set of imaginary negatives. We’d have a better chance of disproving the existence of Bertrand Russell’s celestial teapot.

The really sad thing is to see environmentalism—probably the most important -ism of our time—distorted and corrupted to fight trivial or imaginary problems, at the expense of fighting real and pressing environmental threats, like emissions from burning coal.

And where do we burn coal? Why at the Point Aconi Generating Station, barely 10 kilometres upwind from Hillside.


Was the Boston shutdown a cop-and-donut joke?

[Headline-related punchline at the end.]

One reason behind my campaign [here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and most amusingly, here] to restore sanity to weather warnings and school cancellations is the tremendous cost these bureaucratic panic attacks impose on society. Every school cancellation begets a cascade of expensive waste: students missing school; taxpayers paying school employees not to work; parents losing work time to make last minute child-care arrangements; employers with missing or distracted workers; etc.

Blogger Clark [NLN] at Popehat argues that Friday’s unprecedented lockdown of commerce, transportation, and public events in Boston imposed a vastly greater cost with no commensurate benefit to public security. Clark points out that Washington DC, Kileen TX, and London recently experienced terrorist attacks with two, three, and 10 times greater fatalities respectively, but authorities did not impose civic paralysis.

[K]eeping somewhere between 2 and 5 million people from work, shopping, and school destroyed a nearly unimaginable amount of value. If we call it just three million people, and we peg the cost at a mere $15 per person per hour, the destroyed value runs to a significant fraction of a billion dollars….

[T]he cost isn’t just measured in dollars – it’s measured in the degree to which it trains a population to freak out over minor risk and to trust blindly in authorities.

The phrase, “training the population to freak out over minor risk and to trust blindly in authorities,” fits Nova Scotia of the 2010s to a “T.”

Bringing “the kinetic and salty city of Boston” (in the words of the Washington Post) “to a standstill Friday while an army of heavily armed police hunted for a skinny 19-year-old in a gray hoodie,” also meant that “99% of the eyes and brains that might solve a crime were being wasted,” as Clark points out. The skinny 19-year-old wasn’t found by the cops, but by a citizen, after the lockdown ended.

The punchline? It turns out not all businesses in Boston were shut down Friday.

Law enforcement asked Dunkin’ Donuts to keep restaurants open in locked-down communities to provide… food to police… including [four shops] in Watertown, the focus of the search for the bombing suspect.

Oh my freaking word. Talk about essential services.


Old media’s immutable dread of new communications technologies

In a prescient book published a quarter century ago, when few people had heard of the internet, Carolyn Marvin, a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, catalogued the fear and loathing with which newspapers greeted the advent of the telegraph and the telephone. High on the list of perceived horrors was the inevitable moral degradation of women.

Old media are still at it, constantly warning us to be very afraid of the perils lurking in the internet, computers, smart phones, cell phones, etc.

The magazine Pacific Standard gamely took note of this handwringing today with an article celebrating the 40th birthday of the first cell phone (see image at right).


Is your cell phone…

Killing you?
Spying on you?
Making you sick?
Giving you a brain tumor?
Driving you crazy?
Making you a jerk?
Making you into a terrible person?
Posing a flu risk?
Cooking your brain?
Damaging your baby’s brain?
Keeping you up at night?
Hurting your children?
Stealing your life force?
Making your face sag?
Zapping your thyroid?
Getting between you and your Valentine?
Ruining your relationship?
Giving you hemorrhoids?
Not actually a cell phone and actually a cook book?
Listening in on you?
Violating your rights?
Your best friend?
Hitting you below the belt?
Due for an antivirus shot?
Fueling rape and murder in the Congo?

A person just can’t be too careful.

An interactive history of drone strikes in Pakistan

How often has the US attacked targets in Pakistan with unmanned drones, and how many of those killed have been children, civilians, putative insurgents, or “high-value” military targets?

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has prepared an interactive graphic to help answer these questions, which you can try for yourself by clicking the screenshot below.

Drone Strikes


Definitely worth a look. The bureau summarizes the results:

The justification for using drones to take out enemy targets is appealing because it removes the risk of losing American military, it’s much cheaper than deploying soldiers, it’s politically much easier to maneuver (i.e. flying a drone within Pakistan vs. sending troops) and it keeps the world in the dark about what is actually happening. It takes the conflict out of sight, out of mind. The success rate is extremely low and the cost on civilian lives and the general well-being of the population is very high.

The interactive graphic has two views. The Attack View pictured above shows each attack chronologically; the Victim View focuses on the people killed in each strike.

The category of victims we call “OTHER” is classified differently depending on the source. The Obama administration classifies any able-bodied male a military combatant unless evidence is brought forward to prove otherwise. This is a very grey area for us. These could be neighbors of a target killed. They may all be militants and a threat. What we do know for sure is that they are targeted without being given any representation or voice to defend themselves.

With increasingly sophisticated drones become ever more widely available, how long before the US regrets opening this particular Pandora’s box?

Illness spread by word of mouth


Do wind farms make some people sick? Or do false claims of a connection between wind farms and illness make people sick?

The question arises because opponents of wind farms often contend they cause illness, but scientific studies have consistently found little or no evidence to support such a connection. [This report by Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health is typical.*]

Now a team of public health researchers at the University of Sydney in Australia has collected every known public complaint of wind farm-induced illness in that country (those filed with the wind companies themselves, those filed with three government commissions, and those collected by an independent council that monitors media reports), and cross-tabulated them against the location, size, startup date, and number of people living within five kilometres of all 41 Australian wind farms.

The results are instructive.

  • Nearly two thirds (63%) of the wind farms, including half of those with large (greater than 1MW) turbines, have never been subject to a single complaint.
  • Kangaroo_crossingThe state of Western Australia, with 13 wind farms, including three with large turbines, has never had a single complaint of turbine-related illness.
  • Of the estimated 32,677 people living within five kilometres of an Australian wind farm, only 120 have ever complained of turbine-related illness — a rate of 1 in 272.
  • Although almost 70% of Australia’s wind farms went into operation before 2009, 82% of the complaints occurred after that date, when wind-farm opponents began to promote warnings about alleged health effects.

The researchers noted:

As anti-wind farm interest groups began to stress health problems in their advocacy, and to target new wind farm developments, complaints grew. Significantly though, no older farms with non-complaining residents appear to have been targeted by opponents. The dominant opposition model appears to be to foment health anxiety among residents in the planning and construction phases. Health complaints can then appear soon after power generation commences. Residents are encouraged to interpret common health problems like high blood pressure and sleeping difficulties as being caused by turbines.

Their conclusion:

In view of scientific consensus that the evidence for wind turbine noise and infrasound causing health problems is poor, the reported spatio-temporal variations in complaints are consistent with psychogenic hypotheses that health problems arising are “communicated diseases” with nocebo effects likely to play an important role in the aetiology of complaints.

Nocebo was a new one on me. Wikipedia defines it as, “the harmful, unpleasant, or undesirable effects a subject manifests after receiving an inert dummy drug or placebo. Nocebo responses are not chemically generated and are due only to the subject’s pessimistic belief and expectation that the inert drug will produce negative consequences.”

Download the full report here [pdf].

H/T: Stephen Manley

* For other examples, see footnotes 3 to 20 in the University of Sydney study.


A thumb on the weather scale — more reaction

Contrarian reader Peter Barss waxes philosophical about the primal draw of radio-storms and weather-porn:

It ‘s exciting to sit in our warm, safe living rooms listening to dire warnings of impending weather doom. It’s even more of a thrill to turn on our flat screen TVs and watch weather gals and guys get whipped by wind-driven snow as they stand outside yelling into their microphones so they can be heard over the howling “weather bomb.”

We live in a society that is soft and luxurious. One of the luxuries we indulge is the illusion that if we just do everything right we can avoid all of life’s unpleasantries. Obey weather warnings and no one will be hurt on the highways. Wear pink T-shirts and bullying will go away. Warning your kid every ten minutes on her cell phone will keep her out of the clutches of the perverts hiding in the bushes.

While society at large presumes nothing bad will happen if we just do the right things, there’s something primal in us that needs a thrill, a threat of danger. We manufacture dangerous situations and enjoy them vicariously. After we’ve stocked up with groceries and turned up the heat, we can slump back in front of our TV and get our adrenaline rush without ever getting wet or cold.

After the storm we can watch hockey players beat each other up, race cars smashed to smithereens, and ordinary people humiliated on “reality shows.”

Exaggerated weather drama and all the rest of it satisfies our need to flee or fight while we snuggle under a warm blanket several steps removed from any real danger.


A thumb on the weather scale — reaction

Most of the listeners who responded to my debate with CBC manager Andrew Cochran about the network’s (in my view) inflated coverage of weather are just fine with the CBC’s weather treatment.

Highway conditions at 3:30 pm, February 20, when Cape Breton schools closed early due to forecasts of possible freezing rain that evening.

Highway conditions at 3:30 pm, February 20, when Cape Breton schools closed early due to forecasts of possible freezing rain that evening: Pavement dry; precipitation nil.

This doesn’t surprise me. Some people like being frightened about weather, just as others like being frightened about crime. Lurid coverage of crime by some media has led to a sharp increase in the public perception of personal risk from crime even as crime rates have plummeted. I see a parallel with public perception of weather risk.

Two listeners added interesting points to the debate.

Geoffrey May of Margaree said forecasts have become more extreme because weather has become more extreme—a result of climate change. Maybe Geoff can supply confirming data, but my subjective impression supports his view. Let me be clear, however: It’s not detailed reporting of occasional serious storms that I object to; It’s inflated reporting of routine storms, as if they were serious. What Oran sports reporter Bill Dunphy deliciously termed, “radio storms.”

Rosemary Algar of Cape North, a listener who shares my annoyance at weather hyperbole, pointed out a subtle result of our current timorous approach. We are teaching our children, she said, that at the first sign of inconvenience, it’s OK to stay home and disregard our responsibilities to work and school.

Worse still, it’s school officials who are delivering that message.

Putting a thumb on the weather scale

Kudos to Andrew Cochran, Maritimes Regional Director of the CBC, for agreeing to debate the network’s hyperventilated coverage of routine weather events. We hashed it out in an extended session this morning on CBC Cape Breton’s Information Morning program.

Longtime Contrarian readers know I think Nova Scotia has lost all perspective about weather, working ourselves into a lather over events we would have taken in stride 30 years ago.

The CBC is one link in this chain of timorousness. Environment Canada, which issues daily “statements,”  “advisories,” and “warnings” about routine weather inconveniences, is another.

School officials arbitrarily grant paid holidays to hundreds of public employees on grounds of child safety, with no data to show that school closures make anyone safer, and no consequences for the significant costs their needless caution imposes on society.

That’s my perspective. You can hear Andrew Cochran’s rebuttal in the debate below.

Saturday’s storm in 41 seconds

A time-lapse video from Hartford, Connecticut:

H/T: Marie S.

The Program is watching you

A curmudgeonly friend writes:

Last winter, the Nova Scotia Prescription Monitoring Program ruined my wife’s first vacation in eight years.

The Program exists to restrain the abuse of prescription drugs, something I thought prescriptions themselves were for. To this end, among other things, the Program provides the police with information about legal (that is to say legal) drugs you are taking (you may have thought that information was confidential).

But the hammer in the Program’s toolbox is its ability to intimidate doctors out of doing what they believe is right for their patients. To wit, from the Program’s FAQ: “If the Program has reason to believe that a doctor, dentist, or pharmacist may be practicing in a manner that is inconsistent with the mandate of the Program, the Program may refer the case on an anonymous basis to the Programs Practice Review Committee (PRC) for review. The PRC may choose … to refer the individual to their licensing authority for further review. The Program … shall provide the licensing authority with all relevant information.”

It’s a big hammer because, win or lose, being the subject of proceedings by your licensing authority is stressful and sometimes ruinously expensive.

Enter my wife, M. She has a painful chronic disease. Worse, one of the few drugs that can help control her pain is the opiate OxyContin, the mellifluous, beloved favourite of media in search of hysterical stories about drugs.

M knows all this. So in planning our vacation, she calculated the number of OxyContin pills she would need to endure our flight and two days or so after our arrival. She did the same math for the return trip. She then asked her family doctor, a good one, for a prescription, being careful to explain why she would need each pill.

But the doctor refused to prescribe all the pills she wanted. This had nothing to do with M’s medical history. The doctor knew that she had previously taken the same medication in very high doses without becoming “addicted”. It was also clear that she had refrained from peddling her pills on the street over the previous eight years (there’s only one entrepreneurial bone in her body and it’s in pain). It was obvious that the Program was casting its shadow over her putatively confidential relationship with her physician.

As the good doc put it to M in a subsequent conversation: “(The Program) is monitoring me, and it’s monitoring you, too.” In other words, woe unto the doctor who comes to the attention of the Program.

So M spent a considerable portion of her vacation in bed because she didn’t have enough medication to manage the pain caused by the effort involved in travelling to our resort. (Note: people with debilitating chronic pain need vacations just like the rest of us.)

Of course, this was a mere skirmish in the saintly “war on drugs”, but it’s a big deal when someone you love becomes collateral damage. Who’s in charge of my wife’s health, her doctor or the Program? Her doctor has known her for more than 10 years; the Program apparently has difficulty knowing whether or not she’s a junkie.

Dear fellow taxpayers, if you want to spend billions playing cops and robbers with dopers, with no victory in sight, be my guest. But my wife and others need legally prescribed drugs to control pain. They didn’t sign up for your war. So, if you insist on forcing a choice between people in pain and people stupid enough to take drugs they know are dangerous and weren’t meant for them, then please bring the consequences down on the heads of the abusers. Life is full of dire consequences. Junkies, would-be junkies, and the parents of would-be junkies all know that. Or ought to. M is not responsible for their choices.

Let the abusers have their illicit pills. Shut down the Nova Scotia Prescription Monitoring Program. Leave my wife in peace. Let her doctors do their jobs.



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