Unhealthful News 142 – Interpreting health science evidence, the case of wind turbines

Trying to draw scientific conclusions requires reviewing all of the evidence, whatever form it might take.  This is true of health science, though you might never know it if you just observed the way many ostensible scientists behave in that area.  There are activists and paid hacks who pretend to be doing science, but are just looking for sciency-sounding claims to support their goals.  But even apart from that, the majority of those writing in the field are basically lab technicians, not scientists:  They know how to carry out some specific tasks and interpret the results, but really have no idea what constitutes good scientific inference.

The big picture is that there is remarkably little supply of or demand for (among those who control the market) good health science.  One specific implication is the problem for those trying to communicate the health effects of wind turbines on nearby residents and have that considered in policy making.  There is quite a remarkable collection of information, but most of those commenting on it simply do not understand it (to say nothing of those who are paid to intentionally denigrate the evidence).  Quite a good story by Don Butler on the topic ran in the Ottawa Citizen yesterday – probably the best I have seen on the topic.  It covered points that are usually not talked about in a useful and intelligent manner.  Still, it had the obligatory statement,

…the health impact of turbines has yet to be conclusively demonstrated. In a May 2010 report, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Arlene King, found that scientific evidence to date “does not demonstrate a direct causal link between wind turbine noise and adverse health effects.”

That King report was pretty much a joke, ignoring most of the evidence.  It provides a great example of how medics are typically not very good a evaluating scientific evidence (“medical officers of health” are an odd Canadian institution that puts physicians rather than public health science experts in charge of the science side public health policy – not much different from what happens to public health policy making elsewhere, frankly, but completely institutionalized).  Of course, being a physician does not prevent someone from understanding health science, it just does not promise it.  Butler’s article followed immediately with another MOH (my only fault with Butler was not finding some scientists to quote rather than just government medics, but at least he found one who got the right answer):

But Dr. Hazel Lynn, medical officer of health for the Grey Bruce Health Unit, reached a different conclusion in a report in January. It’s clear, she found, that many people have been “dramatically impacted by the noise and proximity of wind farms. To dismiss all these people as eccentric, unusual or hyper-sensitive social outliers does a disservice to constructive public discourse.”

She is quite right.  It also does a disservice to science.  I will take this opportunity to post my paper, Properly Interpreting the Epidemiologic Evidence About the Health Effects of Industrial Wind Turbines on Nearby Residents (PDF).  Anyone interested in the topic or sufficiently interested in my analysis of health science might find the whole thing interesting.  (Note:  It is not as long as it looks from the page count.  There is a long appendix.)  I mentioned a few days ago, when I criticized one lame dismissal of the wind turbine evidence, that I would write more on this topic.  This paper offers some observations that are generalizable to interpreting health science that I will draw out on near-future slow health news days.  If you want a shorter read, I posted the abstract and final paragraph of an earlier version (which is almost the same) a few months ago.

One response to “Unhealthful News 142 – Interpreting health science evidence, the case of wind turbines

  1. UPDATE re that paper:

    “We are pleased to say that your article Properly Interpreting the Epidemiologic Evidence About the Health Effects of Industrial Wind Turbines on Nearby Residents will appear in print in Volume 31 Issue 4 August 2011 pp. 303 – 315. [Bulletin of Science, Technology, and Society]
    Your article's home page is http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0270467611412554
    [Note: not yet live at the time of this update.]
    Citing the DOI will always find the version of record online.

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