What You Fixate on Twitter is Revealing

By Keith Kloor | February 8, 2013 9:59 am

On Twitter, people tend to mention and link to things that correspond to their own pet issues. So Bill McKibben tweets a lot about the weather and news of droughts, wildfires, and other natural disasters. Since these tweets are coming from a leading climate change activist, the inference is clear.

Similarly, Robert Bryce, an energy writer, often tweets about bad news related to wind power, such as local opposition to wind turbines arising from noise complaints and claims of adverse health effects. Like McKibben’s obsessive attention to weather news (the tweets implicitly suggest a link to climate change), Bryce’s singular focus on the downsides of wind energy is melodramatic and intentional.  He highlights only news that reflects negatively on wind energy, linking to all manner of anecdotal claims of harms to public health that may actually have no scientific merit. In that sense, he mirrors anti-fracking greens who seize on every study or news item (regardless of accuracy) that highlights–and often overstates–the negative impacts of fracking. I’ve pointed this out to him, which he evidently doesn’t see or want to acknowledge. Let’s just say that when it comes alarmist rhetoric, greens aren’t the only guilty party, which has become increasingly obvious with respect to the anti-wind crowd.

It’s also worth mentioning that Bryce never tweets (that I am aware of) any news reports of environmental or public health concerns related to coal, oil & gas, or fracking. (There is abundant material to choose from.) He also appears worried about the potential impacts to wildlife from wind turbines, which are legitimate. He does not appear to be similarly concerned about impacts to wildlife from oil and gas infrastructure, which are just as legitimate and well known.

If you want to know about a documentary on the supposed harmful health effects of wind turbines, Bryce will alert you to it. If you want to know about a documentary that counters the supposed harmful effects of fracking, he will alert you to it. Such intellectual inconsistency is demonstrated by others who often rail against the the exaggerated claims of the anti-fracking movement but unreservedly accept the exaggerated claims of the anti-wind movement.

None of this it to take away from Bryce’s normally astute assessment of energy realities and trends, which are on display in his book Power Hungry. But he is a biased analyst. Which is fine. So is Avory Lovins. If you play up the positives or negatives of one form of energy, and do so in a way that exploits claims not supported by evidence, you are biased.

I should also point out the obvious: Most people on Twitter (who are active participants) tweet not only what they find interesting, but also what is aligned with their politics, ideology, or stance on a given issue. What jumps out is the level of fixation and the one-sided nature of it that some exhibit.

Now, back to the subject of wind energy. Bryce has recently alerted me to a study that suggests wind turbine syndrome–which I’ve previously discussed here–may have some legitimacy. I’ve read the study and communicated with the lead author. That will be the focus of the next post, coming up later today. In it, I will also also revisit the wind power syndrome issue.

File:Guantanamo Bay windmills.jpg

[Wind turbines at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base. Source/Wikimedia Commons]

  • ChrisFahlman

    Amory Lovins?

    • kkloor

      Yeah, wrong Lovins and almost immediately corrected. I’ll plead temporary brainlock.

  • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

    I agree that we tweet what we align with. But partly that’s because you don’t want to retweet crap and draw attention to it. And you can’t add disclaimers about flawed stuff very easily because of the limitations.

  • harrywr2

    I guess I’ll pontificate my humble opinion on wind.

    1) I’ve probably visited at least ten 100 MW+ wind farms.

    I wouldn’t want to live near one. I’m not sure of what the appropriate separation distance between residences and turbines should be but it’s surely greater then zero. Probably on the order of 10-20 times turbine blade height. Given the relatively small size of landholdings in places like the UK siting large wind turbines without negatively impacting neighboring properties would be difficult. A problem less pronounced in the US Midwest and West.

    2) In the context of UK/European Energy policy(from where Bryce writes)…the amount of wind penetration is harming the commercial viability of all base-load technologies.

    3) IMHO Wind is a reasonably cost effective method to generate electricity when coupled with hydro in a ratio of 2 parts hydro to 1 part wind(Chinese 2020 energy plan). Higher then that go back to #2

  • Tom Fuller

    The advent of the blogosphere contributed to segmentation of analysis by personal predilection and political affiliation. POV reporting has become the new norm and Twitter is just making it obvious.

    You’re one of the best at what you do, but you do the same here–and I think on Twitter, if I read the scroll bars correctly.

    That’s not a criticism. A whole lot of pontificators would do well to study what you do–but that wouldn’t make the phenomenon of subjectivity disappear. It would just make subjective expression more effective.

  • Tom Scharf

    I did get a laugh when I read wind farms were likely to receive bald eagle kill permits on an fast track basis. As the greens utilize their armies of eco-lawyers to slow down every form of progress they can, the hypocrisy here is 3 feet deep. Try getting a bald eagle kill permit for an oil well without a brain seizure from the greens.

    If you want to be honest with yourself, you do have to spread what you read among several places. Nobody gets the “unbiased” crown in my opinion. A good mix is WP, WSJ, NYT at least in my opinion. It doesn’t mean I don’t lean right, it just means I at least know what the other side is saying.

    I have never bought into the social science theory of the public becoming more compartmentalized by selectively reading only favorable material to their views is a “problem”. 50% of what you read is about what the other side is doing as it is. Freedom is getting to select your sources, the people who rail against this are usually the same ones who want to control this freedom for “our own good”.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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