The Imaginary Scientist

by Harvey Wrightman

I have attended as many of the sessions of the ERT hearing as I have been able to justify. The last witness was Dr. Robert McCunney, who has a specialty in environmental and occupational health. Dr. McCunney speaks without the bombast and personal hurt that Dr. Colby exhibited during his testimony. Instead, he comes across more like one of those 1950’s dads –  dressed in gray, driving a gray ’52 Pontiac. I first saw him in action when he appeared with Dr. Michael Nissenbaum in a debate in Rutland, VT in May, 2010.

He presentation style is very droll and sleep-inducing. He has the appearance of having thoroughly researched his subject matter –  but suffers recall trauma when pressed for deatails. He is apt to make statements that lack any sort of basis. This lead to errors in his witness statement, and the need to correct them.

Mr. Engel, Suncor counsel, as he did previously with Dr. Heraud,  lead Dr. McCunney to specific points in the witness statement that required clarification and correction. Dr. McCunney was wise enough to admit when he had erred, unlike Dr. Heraud who had to be physically led word by word and chart by chart through his corrections.

Dr. McCunney revised his original statement of, “Annoyance is not a health effect.” to,

“Annoyance per se, is not an adverse health effect. Each situation needs to be evaluated on its own merits. In some cases protracted annoyance can lead to stress, which in some cases may lead to sleep disturbance that if untreated may lead to harmful, adverse effects.”

Dr. McCunney is a seasoned administrative warrior. In his testimony, he came across as a very incurious, defensive person. His testimony gave no hint of interest on his part, in what might be causing so many people living near wind turbines to exhibit the symptoms expressed. Like Dr.Colby, he inferred that the symptoms were common to the population and were the result of other factors.

He went on to quote (selectively)  from Eja Pedersen’s work about the positive correlation between the visual cues of seeing the turbines , the aural cues of hearing the turbine noise and the resultant annoyance – implying that annoyance is due more to the sight of the turbines  than the noise. He reinforced this idea by saying, “…this point (seeing and hearing turbines) is repeatedly made in the peer-reviewed literature…that the visual impact of wind turbines has the strongest relationship with annoyance.” – he didn’t bother to offer any expansion or explanation for this, nor did he offer citations  –  just a flat-out assertion. Not 2 minutes later, when asked about the effects of “shadow flicker”, he had “No comment”.

The disruptive effects of the combination of turbine noise and shadow flicker are prominent features of wind turbines –  well documented in various case studies and several videos posted on You-Tube –  if not in the “peer-reviewed” literature.  Dr. McCunney only used “Pub-Med” for his searches, and so restricted himself to “peer-reviewed” articles.  As it turned out, Pub-Med was a convenient filter for the ACanWEA report to use for the benefit of the wind industry.

Mr. Gillespie  read aloud the mission statement of the ACanWEA  Report on the Health Effects of Wind Turbines which proposes to offer, “… an authoritative reference document for regulators, legislators…”

Mr. Gillespie and Dr.McCunney had a protracted battle over the significance of  the Salt/Hullar study into the perception of infrasound by the human ear through the outer hair cells – Dr. McCunney  stressing that it is only a hypothesis at this point. He then  used an analogy for illustrative purposes saying that, “… not all physiological responses are deleterious …for example, if we’re cleaning out a garage and there is dust and exposure and you get too much, you want to be able to cough, that cough is an appropriate physiological function, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s deleterious.” He then concluded, “ So, I have no reason to dispute Dr. Salt’s assessment for the need for further research.” –  huh??? was he equating wind turbine noise with dust?

Mr. Gillespie noted the ACanWEA report authors were instructed to do a comprehensive and exhaustive literature review, to include case series and single case reports; yet, only Dr.Pierpont’s study of 38 subjects was cited in the report, and it was criticized for selective bias. His further claim that it was not “peer-reviewed” because she chose to self-publish is an incorrect, narrow interpretation of peer-review – very condescending. The study was peer-reviewed and  amended in some cases because of that input. The fact that it is self-published, not journal-published is immaterial.

As if to emphasize the one obvious deficiency of  peer-review Dr. McCunney claimed that the lack of a search mechanism such as Pub-Med for non-peer-review articles was why they did not include the non-peer-review literature (case reports).  He further insisted, “…case series reports have value…it’s incumbent upon physicians, including myself …to take the time and effort to write it up and have it reviewed by your colleagues to improve the quality of the work…” implying that patient observations and field notes are not worth much.

Does not the immediacy of the work serve in alerting us the medical profession to potential problems?  It’s interesting that we hear this call for peer-reviewed studies repeated over and over by the MOE and Suncor witnesses. It comes across as delay/derailment tactic.  Yet, as Mr.Gillespie pointed out, the ACanWEA  report that Dr.McCunney co-authored clearly states the importance of informal physician reports, case reports, and case series reports –  very few of these are ever put through the “peer-review” journal process. What field physician has the time and resources to publish such work?

Dr.McCunney tried to have it both ways, offering that they had considered Dr.Pierpont’s study in their report. Taking the cue, Mr.Gillespie asked if Dr.McCunney had considered the 2007, Dr. Phipps study (NZ) of 92 subjects. The reply was no, because it was not peer-reviewed,  journal-published. He gave the same answer for the Dr. Amanda Harry (UK) of 42 subjects and the Windvoice  study of 83 subjects. Mr.Gillespie then asked Dr.McCunney if he “…now had a suspicion of harm” based on the 255 reports from 3 continents.

The  response, “I would suggest that all those authors (Pierpont, Phipps, Harry, Windvoice) submit their papers for a refereed journal,,,have it peer-reviewed,,, get it published…do a longitudinal study…I’ve recommended that in fact. It’s not such a bad idea to do a cohort study and try to sort out some these case series that have been been appraised in other settings…certainly a cohort study or longitudinal-cohort study would be more definitive in addressing the question.” – contorted as it is,he has endorsed the idea of an epidemiological study – at least in this statement.

When presented with  the critique of the ACanWEA report done by the National Health Service, UK, Dr. McCunney claimed he had never seen it before. On reading it, he disagreed with the conclusion that no epidemiologist was included in the ACanWEA team. Never failing to underestimate his abilities, he claimed that while ,”…I am not an epidemiologist…” his education, training, and experience in epidemiology  provide, “…that with all modesty I feel reasonably comfortable with epidemiology as a science to look at the literature in terms of potential health implications based on epidemiology studies.”   It seems, there is no subject this man won’t claim for his own.

Asked if more research needs to be done on the health effects of wind turbine noise, Dr.McCunney stated, “…there was enough information in the scientific literature about environmental noise exposure from a variety of sources, to formulate some conclusion. Now, as Dr. Colby indicated on Tuesday and I would agree with him, clearly some priorities have to be set…  It’s  a matter of priorities whether that research is necessary to formulate good public policy decisions.”

Mr.Gillespie surmised, “…the answer is that you and Dr.Colby  agree with each other that no further research, publicly funded, should be done on this issue…We have his answer, and those are my questions.”

I’ll end with this quotation from Dr. McCunney given in his debate with Dr. Nissenbaum last May, 2010,  “There’s no question that some people may be very annoyed and adversley affected by the sound and the characteristics of the sound. There’s no question that annoyance can cause sleep disturbance. There’s no question that if sleep disturbance persists it can cause health effects and all sorts of consequences. However, I am struggling to understand how the noise from wind turbines is substantially different from other aspects of life, whether its’s trucking, transportation, railroading, aviation and so forth. That’s where I draw the line.”

So ends the testimony of the imaginary scientist.

Also read: Lowell Mountain: Expert supports Vermont’s wind decibel standard

11 thoughts on “The Imaginary Scientist

  1. Dr. McCunney, a self-professed multi-disciplinary expert, needs to understand one thing. When you put both feet in your mouth at the same time you haven’t got a leg to stand on.

  2. Did all the worlds’ greatest scientific discoveries go through a peer review process? The answer is NO.

    Peer review is just another excuse to avoid the fact that adequate wind turbine health effects studies were never done.

    It’s about time that Ontarians got fed up with peer review crap of this and that issue inorder to install wind turbines.

  3. Thank you Harvey, for all your time following this trial, and keeping us informed. We`d not have a clue what was going on, without your regular reports from ground zero. It is greatly appreciated.
    It would be interesting to know, what Dr.McCunney & mr.Colby are being paid,by the INDUSTRIAL w.t. industry, all perks included? Any idea on that Barbara?
    For alleged drs.,to flush their morals, as these two obviously have, I`d bet their compensation is considerable.

  4. Next question.Did all the worlds’ great advances in medicine go through a peer review process? Again the answer is NO.

    Perhaps it’s time to remind these physicians of the historical facts in the advancement medicine.

    Don’t know if any of these witnesses are being paid or not.

  5. Expert witnesses like this one are typically paid. It can be a lucrative business.

    Expert for Hire! Will reflect your opinions. Will Travel!

  6. Interesting comment David – last year I asked a good friend who has a business of providing expert medical witnesses for medical malpractice lawsuits what his opinion was of Dr.McCunney. His reply – wouldn’t use him. He described Dr.McCunney as being a career administrator who doesn’t have an extensive research background – Dr.McCunney might argue that his input into the regulatory process fulfills this function. So, it’s a bit ironic that Dr.McCunney effusively spoke about “peer-review”, since he has published so very little. The question is , why?
    The other thing that irritates, is this snide view that self-published work is less valuable. In my library I have 3 monographs by Czech botanist, Josef Halda – all self-published and beautiful volumes in their own right. Halda, who after the 1968 “restoration” lost his university posting, never gave up. Diligence and determination produced an amazing amount of work on several major genera. One can always argue with his interpretation of taxonomy, but no one has ever matched the completeness of his revisions – especially for the genus primula, which numbers some 700 species. He included a very long , complex key – and it works.
    Unlike Dr.Colby or Dr.McCunney, petty academic or bureaucratic jealousies never became his obsession. His attitude has always been my inspiration.

  7. The history of medicine is littered with peer reviewed farces. One recent one that comes to mind is the the what causes ulcers farce. It almost cost the life of a young Australian doctor to prove most all of the previous known causes wrong. Most cases caused by a bacteria which had been strongly denied in peer reviewed medical literature prior to his work. Even with his discovery his work met with great resistance. His work is now well accepted in medicine.

    So peer review is no guarantee that something is true.

    Perhaps we should also have lawyers who know the right questions to ask witnesses?

  8. Barbara is correct. What does “peer review mean in this political arena?”. Many errors have been made in peer review for whatever reason. The knowledge in science improves and resistance to accept the new knowledge comes from those that would gain, either from fame or financially. When an “expert witness” is based on a “Dr.” title but not on that person’s experience than whatever they say is opinion only. A peer review journal does not mean it is right just that those that were recognized in the review had the same opinion. Many times the comments are just editorial as each circle of reviewers are small and they tend to look after each other.


    For any that have not read this article check it out. The inclusion of unreliable, erratic sources such as wind and solar (clouds, snow, heat, breakage) make management of the grid more expensive and in the end no power gains from what we already had. It is not just the expensive price per MW paid but the cost to include them. There are extreme costs to install and maintain more transmission lines (used far below capacity) , the payouts from pre-paid but not used electricity and for further adjustment of other power sources to accommodate erratic changes in power demands (including when wind increases and decrease input). Toronto has to realize if we continue with installing more wind rotating black outs or complete failures will have to be considered acceptable if we become more reliant on these renewables. Tell that to someone in an elevator or reliant on air circulation and lights in office buildings and as all consumer items reliant on electricity become increasingly more expensive.

  10. Since it’s a healthy response to cough and sneeze when dust is raised, by McCunney’s reasoning it is OK to blow dust into someone’s house 24/7!

    Tat natural response is a sign to avoid something, before the momentary defenses are overwhelmed.

Comments are closed.