Earlier this June, researchers from the Canadian consulting firm Instrinsik published a 60-study review looking at the scientific basis for so-called “wind turbine syndrome.” Their impetus: sporadic, clustered claims of people suffering headaches, nausea, ringing of the ears, dizziness, and stress all because they lived near a farm that made use of a wind turbine.
Unsurprisingly (and maybe anticlimactically), the review turned up dry. Wind turbine syndrome looked a lot like the handful of other ailments cooked up by modern society, such as WiFi sensitivity or the false notion cell phones give you brain cancer. Science has a name for these benign suspicions: the nocebo effect. Once the first seeds are planted, people begin to convince themselves the electromagnetic field generated by the turbines or the radiation emitted from their home electronics confuse their bodies’ own circuitry. So, they suffer.
The Turbine Problem
Wind turbines are loud. Maybe you find them to be an eye sore. But noise and ugliness don’t produce adverse health effects on their own, at least not to the degree 19 people in Michigan's Mason County think they do.
Residents of the area are suing Consumers Energy company for, what they claim, are reduced property values and pain and suffering resulting from the 56 turbines scattered around their neighborhood. The lawsuit contends the wind farm “directly and proximately” caused physical harm and adverse health effects, disruption of their lives and emotional distress, and difficulty conducting work-related activities. While the words “wind turbine syndrome” do not appear anywhere in the legalese, the symptoms seem to fit the bill.
But as the plaintiffs’ attorney Craig Horn concedes, there’s nothing in the physics of wind farms that should produce much suffering. "The further you get away from sleep disturbance and headaches, the more difficult it is to find sound science to back those up," Horn told Climate Central. More likely is the possibility those 19 people are letting their own heads get the best of them.
Placebos produce a positive effect using the patient’s psychology alone. Nocebos, meanwhile, produce a negative effect — a perception of illness — with nothing but the power of the mind. The evil twin of the placebo effect, nocebos have yet to match their siblings’ massive donation to medical science research. The placebo effect roots out sham drugs. It lets scientists hone in on which medicine yields genuine chemical effects, not just phony neurological ones — though one could argue that, in any meaningful sense, those results are the same.
But so far, science has focused mainly on observational analysis of nocebos, which is to say clinical significance may still be years down the line. To many researchers, given the frequency with which the public is inundated with warnings of what could eventually kill them, media scare tactics seem like a fitting place to start.
Last year, a pair of psychologists named Michael Witthöft and G. James Rubin wanted to test the waters of gullibility. After showing a group of subjects an alarmist TV show about “WiFi syndrome,” they fitted the group with headbands they claimed had the special ability to increase the room’s WiFi signal. They told the subjects that for 15 minutes their brains would be bombarded with high-power signals, though they didn’t specify why the signal would cause pain or even that the pain was guaranteed.
Roughly 50 percent of the people felt sick. They reported stomach pains, dizziness, and a difficulty concentrating, and two people even had to tap out early because the discomfort was too great. These symptoms, of course, were entirely psychosomatic. The headbands did nothing. Like the disgruntled wind farm residents, the only thing compelling subjects’ physiologies to change was the expectation that they would.
Nocebos have eluded our common sense in far stranger ways. The National Cancer Institute, for example, judged the public perception of cell phones as cancer-causing agents to be so great they released an official statement denouncing the risks.
“Cell phones emit radiofrequency energy, a form of non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation, which can be absorbed by tissues closest to where the phone is held,” the statement begins. However, “studies thus far have not shown a consistent link between cell phone use and cancers of the brain, nerves, or other tissues of the head or neck.”
For all its reassurance, the organization doesn’t reject the risks outright. And this, it turns out, is a much deeper challenge than spooky electromagnetic radiation, because proving a positive effect — that something could happen — is a much simpler task than proving something never happens.
That’s why we test nocebos. The best science can do is test the effect one time, on a reoccurring basis, to show the results stay consistent. With each WiFi headband that turns up bunk, the window of risk closes ever so slightly. But that attacks the problem from the back door. It shows the nocebo exists; it doesn’t prove WiFi signals could produce stomach aches or dizziness as much as it offers a new, separate theory: It’s all in your head. There still exists the possibility that, floating somewhere in the universe, the tiny box that delivers your Internet also emits mysterious signals that cause you physical anguish.
But probably not.