18 May 2011

Unhealthful News 138 - Another side of Simon Chapman? Nope, he's clueless about wind turbines.

Credit to Paul Bergen for noticing this and pointing out the remarkable coincidence: Simon Chapman, a professor of public health at the University of Sydney, wrote a really bad commentary about wind turbines, employing the utter confidence while having no idea what he is talking about.  The great coincidence was that he wrote that in March, at a time when I was spending most of my time writing about the health effects of wind turbines, but then this week, while I spend most of my time working on tobacco harm reduction, he was prominently featured in our THR weekly readings – in the comic relief section.  It is a bit off-format for Unhealthful News to write about something that is a month and a half old, but this is just too good to resist.

For those who do not know, Chapman is probably the most aggressive proponent of anti-tobacco extremism in Australia.  He claims credit for causing the premature deaths of more Australians than almost anyone else.  That is not quite how he phrases it, of course.  What he claims is personal credit, as his life's greatest accomplishment no less, for causing popular smokeless tobacco products to be banned in Australia, and thus forcing many smokers there to keep smoking rather than follow the lead of Scandinavians and Americans, switching to a low risk alternative. 

To summarize his role in today's THR weekly reading list for those of you not involved with the topic (those of you who read me because of your interest in THR should be keeping up with that weekly list itself!), he was commenting on Australia's latest not-helpful contribution to the world of anti-smoking, requiring that all cigarettes be sold in unattractive plain packages because, of course, we know that people smoke in order to have access to the attractive logos.  One major company put out a report suggesting that this would facilitate black market sales, because counterfeiting is easier when the packaging is simple; they claimed that more black market sales, which are untaxed and thus a lot cheaper, could exert downward price pressure in the market.  Chapman seems to mistake this economic analysis for a threat by the company to lower prices out of spite, and things go downhill from there. 

His main point is if the company is objecting then the policy must be good; it is not entirely clear whether this is an error of logic (because he does not realize that there are ways to hurt both the company and people at the same time) or ethics (because he does not care about people and hurting the company is the only goal).  He leads off by likening the industry claims report to the play-within-a-play in Hamlet, unforgivably misconstruing one of Shakespeare's most sublime lines:
British American Tobacco’s long-threatened campaign against plain packs kicked off today. Has there ever been a more complete demonstration of Shakespeare’s “the lady doth protest too much”?
Apparently he is unaware that that line refers to someone whose guilt is implied by their repeated affirmations of innocence.  It gets extended to non-guilt situations where repeated affirmation (which does not exist in the events in this case) undermines the credibility of a claim, but such a metaphoric extension could never be the "most complete demonstration" of Queen Gertrude's point.  Most important, Chapman's point is that BAT must feel that their profits are threatened because they are protesting the policy (note also that this is a different use of the word "protest" from Shakespeare's use to mean "affirm"), but since they are not claiming that their profits are not threatened, it is difficult to see how the quote is relevant.

His errors extend well beyond understanding literature (or is it analogy he has trouble with?).  He blithely proposes that any reduction in price could be countered by raising taxes, perhaps not realizing that the argument is that the prices will drop because of increasing market penetration by those who evade taxes.  He argues that there really is no risk of black market for cigarettes in Australia because they only exist in countries with high corruption.  I guess he means Canada, Ireland, and the US.  Beside, he claims, it is trivial for the government to stomp out illegal markets through force – after all, if the customers know where to find them then the cops must be able to track them down.  Perhaps he has not read a newspaper in a few decades.

So we can see just how good a scholar Simon Chapman is.  That careful, razor-sharp reasoning is what it takes to rise to the top in tobacco control academia.

I realize that there is probably too much competition for the title of "public health professor who has done the most damage to public health and research" and opening up nominations would be kind of like asking "what is the worst popular song of all times".  But sometimes it is tempting.

In his piece on wind turbines, Chapman seeks to deny that industrial wind turbines have health effects on nearby residents by attacking, at length, one book by one researcher, Nina Pierpont.  He tries to imply that the small number of cases Pierpont follows in that work constitute her, and perhaps everyone's, entire basis for believing there is a problem.  Amusingly, for someone who publishes in anti-tobacco journals that will take anything that has the right conclusion, he suggests that because here book was not peer reviewed it must be wrong.  In reality, that book went through a better peer review than is employed by Tobacco Control.

All of this stuff is right out of the wind turbine industry's standard playbook, which Chapman was obviously reading from.  Though he goes rather further than many industry apologists in not merely being skeptical or demanding "proof", but arrogantly dismiss all concerns.  He denigrates people's suffering because it is "subjective".  I assume this means he no longer believes in the concept of addiction in is anti-tobacco activism, since addiction (in the typical usages of the term) is rather more subjective than wind turbine effects are.  He also suggests that people suffer just because they fear this magical newfangled technology, like they once feared telephones.  Apparently he is claiming that his countrymen find a metal tower with a spinning blade to be some kind of mysterious dragon or alien; he apparently does not realize that Americans and Canadians (the people creating most of the knowledge on the topic, and who comprise Pierpont's study subjects) are not so easily spooked.

Oh, and he also dismisses the concerns about wind turbines killing birds and bats.  That tells us a lot more about him than it does about birds and bats.  Are we really supposed to accept unsupported assertions about wildlife by a random public health professor who is shilling for the industry?

The most pathetic part of this piece, though, the one reflected in the headline, "Wind turbine sickness prevented by money drug", is the suggestion that health complaints are just a matter of financial jealousy because they are never made (actually, it is only almost never, but this is among the least of Chapman's errors) by those who are being paid to have the turbines on their property, only their envious unpaid neighbors (though often the neighbors are paid too, another error that has to be considered minor by Chapman standards).  Apparently Chapman did not want to bother spending the ten minutes of research it would have taken to learn that in Australia and many other places, most turbine siting contracts include an anti-free-speech provision that would subject the paid-off landowners to severe penalties if they spoke up about any problems they were having.  This is so obviously the explanation for this pattern that even the industry – which produces documents that basically take every conceivable excuse for an argument supporting their interests and throw it all against the wall to see if anything sticks (those of you familiar with anti-THR will recognize this game) – shies away from making the financial jealousy claim because it is so obviously wrong. 

Chapman adds insult to injury by suggesting that the many families forced to flee their home, family land, and community due to health effects, often without being able to sell their house, are just angling to force the turbine companies to buy their properties.  What a sweet deal that would be.  Apparently he cannot be bothered to read the heartbreaking stories of those families before portraying them as money grubbers.  He is as bad with humanitarianism as he is with economics, though we already knew that from his anti-THR efforts.

(Note:  For those who want to learn something about the subject, many of the comments on Chapman's piece are written by people who actually understand the effects of wind turbines and how to understand science.  Also, I plan to post something substantial about it later this week.)

Why did Chapman write that piece?  I can only guess that he is being paid (or seeking to be paid) by the wind turbine industry, since this describes about 99% of those who attack the evidence about health risks.  After all, why would someone make adamant declarations in an area he obviously is not competent to comment on, risking embarrassment, rather than keeping an open mind on the subject?  On the other hand, Chapman might be in the residual 1%, since his anti-THR history suggest that embarrassment and open mindedness might not be major motivators in his world.

I guess his appreciation of Hamlet extends to "to thine own self be true". 

(P.S. Yes, I know I butchered the meaning of that last quote, which is really about not deceiving oneself though it is often quoted as if it were about consistency.  Polonius continues with, "And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man", but I really doubt he was right.)


  1. Shortly after I posted this, Krugman wrote in his blog (not about Chapman, obviously -- it was about Gingrich):

    "Now you may ask, how did a once-powerful figure become such a clown? But that’s the wrong question: what you see now is what he always was. The real question is why so many media figures pretended, for so long, not to notice."

  2. For more on Chapman :



    see his comments regarding the SAGE pub here in the comments section:



Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.