There was an article in the Transcript this week with people claiming that wind turbines are making them sick. No surprise; that's often the first line of offense when people don't want something mechanical in their backyard. It's what's called a "nocebo," and it's a form of mass hysteria.
This article from Discover Magazine does a great job at tracing the phenomenon, citing the concept of a "communicated" disease and other incidents of it happening.
The arguments made in favor of such syndromes are similar to the arguments made against evolution, climate change, vaccinations, public wireless Internet and plenty of other things. I've never seen it better illustrated than in this blog post from a horticulturist in Florida who makes the bold claim that organic food causes both autism and diabetes. My food friends are no doubt shaking their heads at such an idiotic sounding proposition, but the post is really a brilliant satire that uses the arguments of all sorts of denialism and nocebos to illustrate the backward arguments that are employed in such claims.
As a way of example, I'll use my own. I notice that the influx of artists into North Adams has gone hand in hand with a significant rise in teenage pregnancies. I find that curious and I think that all these artists are out there getting teenage girls pregnant. Sure the artists deny it, but you'll
Several hundred thousand dollars later, any study is going to tell you what's obviously the fact about the correlation.
But that's the way the human brain works. The one mass hysteria that has never caught is the revelation that your mind plays tricks on your body, that you can exhibit the symptoms of anything if you believe it hard enough. Some things studies have proven include the correlation between warning labels on medication and higher incidents of people exhibiting those very symptoms: You are far less likely to exhibit those symptoms if you do not have a warning label describing them.
In a worst-case scenario, it has been shown that intense belief has lead people to premature, seemingly natural deaths in their sleep (http://b.globe.com/12l4jZH) that were really the result of cultural and religious beliefs that manifested in deadly sleep paralysis that killed them.
Mass hysteria spreads much like the legendary "War of the Worlds" incident with Orson Welles, where each claim incited the next one.
These days, it isn't that people are reading lengthy articles on a subject and making their decisions. Instead, they are exposed to claims made in news briefs and headlines without any context. Go ahead and Google the phrase "wind turbines headache" and you'll see hundreds of headlines about such things that pose it as a question or a possibility.
It's a barrage that your brain has to process, and it's the old political truism that if you tell a lie enough, it becomes true. You see how it goes after that. Next thing you know, Dutch fortunes are being destroyed by tulips, the Virgin Mary has appeared in the sky and made the sun dance, teens in Upstate New York can't stop twitching, thousands of Tanzanians can't stop laughing, a chunk of the population in New Delhi is being attacked by a vicious monkey man and thousands of men in Singapore swear that their penises are disappearing. And you think wind turbines are causing problems?
John Seven is the Transcript's arts and entertainment editor.