Windfarms, Wifi and Self-Fulfilling Myths

By Neuroskeptic | March 3, 2013 4:48 am

Modern life is toxic.

…allegedly. It’s not. But a lot of people think so. Driven by media and online coverage of the idea, many believe that things like wifi and cell-phone signals are making them ill. There’s no good evidence that such ‘electrosmog‘ causes health problems. From what we know of physics, it’s most unlikely that these signals interact with biological systems at all – they’re just not the kind of radiation that affects living cells. However, the symptoms are real enough – people are suffering.

Psychologists Michael Witthöft and G. James Rubin investigated the effects of an alarmist TV program (this one) on ‘wifi induced’ symptoms: Are media warnings about the adverse health effects of modern life self-fulfilling?

In this study, volunteers were randomized to either see the scary show, or else a neutral program on an unrelated topic, to act as a control condition. Everyone was then made to wear a fake ‘wifi amplifier’ attached to a headband, and told that they would be exposed to 15 minutes of high-powered signals. The idea was to maximize their expectation of feeling symptoms.

In fact, it was all a sham, but half of the volunteers thought they’d suffered wifi symptoms, ranging from stomach pain, to headaches, and difficulty concentrating. Two of the participants even quit the study early, because they felt so unwell.

The effects of the TV show on people’s reactions were actually fairly modest. It increased wifi-induced symptoms in people with an anxious personality, but it actually decreased them in the less anxious folk, so it had no effect overall:

Many are skeptical of these kinds of ‘subgroup-specific’ results because they can be a sign that researchers didn’t find the effect they expected and decided to try other statistical tests to get some kind of result. So that’s a bit of a bust.

However, Witthöft and Rubin’s study still clearly shows that, just through the power of negative expectation – the nocebo effectmany ordinary people report feeling unwell due to fake wifi exposure. Over 50% of volunteers thought they’d been hit. And without media coverage of the ‘wifi-syndrome’ meme, very few people would ever have heard of this idea, and so there’d be no such expectations. So even if 15 minutes of dodgy TV doesn’t have much effect, it’s evident that the media, as a whole, does.

Still, while these kinds of studies are very interesting, by themselves they can’t prove that there isn’t a real syndrome out there. This experiment show that symptoms associated with wifi exposure can be produced by expectancy alone. I’d say that’s by far the most likely explanation for wifi ‘sensitivity syndromes’… and all the others along the same lines: windfarm, ‘sick building’, etc. But it’s still a possibility that someone, somewhere, is actually sensitive to these things. It’s hard to prove a negative.

To settle the issue of, let’s say, windfarms, I’d like to run the following experiment. Get together a bunch of windfarm-syndrome sufferers, and put them on a bus with blacked-out windows. Then, on a nice windy day, someone drives them around the countryside. The route would take them past windfarms but also far away from them at other times. Without being able to see them, could they tell when they were near a turbine? As I see it, this study would be the only way of convincing the die-hards that there’s no effect.

It would be a pretty easy study, you could do it within a $1000 budget for a day’s coach hire and refreshments. Also, it would be the wackiest road-trip since the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. For added fun, you could take along some of the media advocates of windfarm syndrome for some comic relief (they tend to be ‘eccentrics‘, let’s say.)

ResearchBlogging.orgWitthöft M, & Rubin GJ (2013). Are media warnings about the adverse health effects of modern life self-fulfilling? An experimental study on idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields (IEI-EMF). Journal of psychosomatic research, 74 (3), 206-12 PMID: 23438710

  • Jayarava


  • Buddy199

    It’s called hypochondria.

    • Neuroskeptic

      Kind of, but I’m a big hypochondriac yet I don’t worry about these things, only about real diseases.

      • Buddy199

        Maybe mass hysteria is more accurate. Irrational fest of our modern witches.

  • David Evans

    One group of wind farm sufferers “said they’ve lost sleep and suffered headaches, dizziness and nausea as a result of the turbine’s noise and shadow flicker”.

    I find that quite credible. And because it happens only when they are aware of the noise and flicker, your blacked-out bus experiment wouldn’t prove anything.

    • Neuroskeptic

      That’s credible (although not specific to windfarms – a noisy road would do the same thing.)

      However there’s also a theory that they cause symptoms in unaware people, or symptoms beyond just noise, through some kind of infrasound or what have you.

      • Annette Smith

        No, a noisy road does not do the same thing as the noise from wind turbines. In Vermont we have a family living between an Interstate (which they’ve lived near for nearly two decades) and a big wind project. They could live with the Interstate. They cannot live with the wind turbines. The health effects from big wind turbines are very real.

    • Stephen Daugherty

      Of course you find that quite credible. The operative question is, why should anybody else? The point of science is to distinguish what we imagine to be the explanation from what we have better reason to believe is true.

  • Kathleen Sherman

    The ‘test’ often comes with correlation to operation or not, wind direction and/or speed, and meteorological conditions such as wind shear and temperature inversions that enhance low frequency noise propagation. And from a correlation with distance from the source. Effects of noise pollution on health have been known since the 70s which is why there are regs. for many forms of transportation and industrial noise. Wind turbine noise can have adverse impact at levels up to 20 dB lower than those sources and are regulated accordingly in Europe (generally smaller, shorter and quieter turbines). If neuro- stands for -science rather than neuro-tic, I suggest you learn more of the science of turbines sweeping 747-size plus acres of air suspended 26 stories up near homes, and about the science of sleep disruption. I won’t ask you to learn about the emerging science concerning infrasound, etc. Re health effects on energies used for modern communication, what little I looked into it as related to ‘nocebo’ turned up the largest concern coming from firehouses- I have never met a fireman who seemed prone to ‘hypochondria’. P.S. They are planning an experiment somewhat like yours in WI.

    • Neuroskeptic

      Well I’m sure firefighters aren’t generally hypochondriacs, but the people in this study weren’t either, they were random people who answered an email advert, mostly students. The point is that if you expect symptoms, they are likely to happen, for many (although not all) people.

      And like I say below, for windfarms, they of course cause noise & any noise pollution is bad. But the ‘windfarm syndrome’ theory goes beyond that & that’s where I think it descends into wifi-syndrome territory.

      • Annette Smith

        And that’s where you’re wrong. There’s a good example of your blind bus suggestion. A blind boy in Canada was driving near wind turbines and became very aware of the health effects. He couldn’t see them. It’s not a theory. There are plenty of abandoned homes where people would be glad to have you spend a few nights (when the wind is blowing and the turbines are operating). Go see for yourself before you theorize about things you have never experienced.

        • Neuroskeptic

          It’s not a matter of me, or you, “seeing for ourselves” because the moment you set off on such a journey to “see”, your head’s full of expectancies. Even mine would be – I know what symptoms to expect, I expect they won’t happen but that’s still an expectation and means I’d be an invalid observer.

          Which is why we need blinding.

          • Annette Smith

            You’re sitting in an office somewhere having some sort of abstract discussion. For the people who live around these big wind machines, it is real. Your blinding test suggestion is insulting to the people whose lives are being devastated by these big wind machines. We have all the real victims we need to prove they are a public health crisis. People who stay in their ivory towers punching at people who are sick may be tickling your own intellectual curiosity but unless you get out in the field and experience it for yourself, what you are proposing is not real or helpful.

  • Semigrounded

    When you’re driving them around, would the seats be comfortable? Is it hot or cold? Is the driver nice? People are terrible at assessing the source of their pain. I’m not sure your method would prove anything.

    Instead, it might be better to treat them like phobia sufferers and attempt desensitization. Use a virtual world. Start out with a painting of a wind farm. It may irritate them at first, but you could include a caption that talks about the painting’s history. Make them focus on specific parts of the painting, like the brushstrokes of the grass and the way motion was portrayed, something that changes the context of the picture. Then you could introduce them to a virtual wind farm without sound or motion and gradually work those elements in. If the desensitization works, then you have evidence of a learned response. The added bonus is that you actually treat people, possibly educate them and avoid making fools out of people who, wind farms or not, probably are suffering.

    • Semigrounded

      Although, if you want to introduce illicit drugs during the desensitization process, I think that’d be swell.

  • Hominid

    This is part of a broader category of psychosis called Lib-think. It includes the warmists, the anti-genetically modified crop folks, the vaccine-induced autism folks, the alien abduction folks, the second-hand smoke folks, and on and on and on.

    • Foster Boondoggle

      “second-hand smoke folks”?!? What – smoke is now scientifically known to be benign? “Lib-think” seems to mean “not sanctioned by Rush Limbaugh”. Your clever argument here has sure convinced me that pumping CO2 into the atmosphere has zero effect. I’m so glad to know those dumb scientists with their data and models are wrong.

      Why are you bothering to read a site dedicated to science, since you can get everything you need to know on AM radio?

      • Hominid

        I’m an MIT-trained scientist – I know the difference between science and pseudoscience. Sorry if that disturbs your fantasy world view.

        • Neuroskeptic

          Alright, that’s enough of this. Discussion here must be either cordial, or on-topic, and this is neither.

        • Stephen Daugherty

          A scientist in what field?
          Being a scientist is no guard against believing nutty things.

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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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