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Published on April 22nd, 2019 | by Michael Barnard


Adventures In Pseudoscience: A Case Study Of The Rhetorical Tricks Of A Fake Disease Anti-Wind Advocate

April 22nd, 2019 by  

In a rare occurrence, an anti-wind medical pseudoscientist, Mariana Alves-Pereira, engaged in a public debate with someone who wasn’t already convinced that wind turbines cause horrible diseases and actually knew what the evidence really said. The latter would be me and this was back in 2013 when I had read literally all of the English-language literature on wind farms and their alleged health impacts, and much of the non-English literature as well.

The argumentative tricks that pseudoscientists use to try to win such debates were on full display. This post details those tricks. Six years later, Mariana Alves-Pereira is still peddling her anti-wind pseudoscience and it continues to be spread by anti-wind groups. This material is completely fresh, sadly. Full references and extensive quotes from the studies are in the captured discussion at the end of this article.

Maria Alves-Pereira presenting at an anti-wind conference

First, a little on the pseudo-science

Vibro-acoustic disease (VAD) is the invention of a Portuguese doctor, Nuno Castelo-Branco, who worked tirelessly and fruitlessly for roughly 30 years to get it accepted as a workers’ compensation payable condition. He claimed that long-term exposure to inaudible levels of infrasound made people sick. He and a very small team, most notably Mariana Alves-Pereira, have continued to diagnose people with VAD although it has not been accepted by any medical authority as a legitimate disease. They have published roughly 34 ‘studies’ in various journals over the 30 years, but a large percentage of them were published in an un-peer-reviewed supplement to the journal Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine in 1999, a linkage which allows them to reference them as if they were viable studies. (This last is a trick mirrored by anti-wind campaigners with their special edition of the unindexed and now defunct Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society out of the University of Toronto at the time). The VAD group claims an extraordinary range of symptoms, including genotoxic effects, neurological disorders, heart disease, and psychiatric issues from levels of infrasound that are common in our surroundings and below what exists within our bodies from normal bodily functions.

In October of 2013, a trio of studies specifically assessing VAD crossed my desk. To summarize the findings, the studies found no biomarker or physical evidence supporting the VAD claims using very sophisticated techniques well suited to the purpose, no other researchers support or reference their claims, and the linkage to wind turbines is based on a single case study reported only in a conference, not in a peer-reviewed journal. The studies jointly show that VAD is fictitious and everyone except the VAD researchers and anti-wind campaigners knows that.

Of course, this isn’t news. As of 2013, there had been 19 reviews of the literature and complaints related to wind energy, and every single one of those reviews by highly qualified, credentialed researchers and groups ignored VAD, found that VAD in total was bogus, or that if there were any reality to it, there was no chance that it would express near wind turbines at the levels of infrasound that they emit.

Having written up the results in post on what was then Barnard On Wind, a quick Google search found useful places to make reference to these studies as a means of combating the continued spread of this fictitious pseudo-disease. One of those places was an Occupational Health discussion group on LinkedIn. The moderator had posted a link to a 2004 report written by Castelo-Branco and Alves-Pereira in the journal Noise & Health summarizing their belief that VAD was real and that infrasound and low-frequency noise were horrible health risks. Please note that the moderator is not to blame for having been deceived by a 30-year pseudoscience campaign and workers’ compensation ploy; he’s far from alone in that.

Alves-Pereira had made an innocuous comment on the post prior to the debunking material being added. Upon addition of the debunking material, a useful and open discussion with the moderator and another group participant ensued over a few days in which the evidence showing clearly that VAD was fictitious was outlined with full references. Similarly high-quality material was provided showing that annoyance due to wind turbine noise as dominantly related to psychological factors not physical issues or noise, and that infrasound was harmless if inaudible.

Five days in, Alves-Pereira returned to the thread to respond to the vivisection of her pet disease. This is an analysis of the rhetorical tricks and sophistries she attempted in order to derail the discussion. The material in italics are Alves-Pereira’s words without alteration.

Quote 1: you have no biological or medical background, and have chosen to rely on statements and junk-science studies developed by “scientists” that have quite a different agenda other than improving the health conditions of workers and the general population.

Despite significant referenced material and clear and articulate statements that might be argued intelligently, rationally and with references, Alves-Pereira immediately goes on a personal offensive against the people behind the studies. She managed two serious smears in one sentence regarding the researchers of the three studies cited debunking VAD; the first that they were junk scientists, and the second that they had a hidden agenda. The latter is of course conspiracy ideation.

My response was to list the impeccable credentials of the various researchers from Norway and Australia, as well as the quality and reputations of the institutions she was maligning.

Despite a large opening, in the discussion I didn’t point out that Alves-Pereira, roughly 25 years into her career, was only an Auxiliary Professor, two full steps below tenured Professor, indicative of how the educational institution she is affiliated with viewed the quality of her work. Of course, that educational institute, Lusofona Univeristy, was the 10,059th best university in the world at the time per Ranking Web of Universities, so not having tenure there is even more embarrassing.

The above is relevant as a very low-grade academic is attacking the academic qualifications and reputations of researchers far, far more respected and credentialed than she is, and pretending to academic authority she does not have in an attempt to win arguments. Her ad hominem attack on me is merely a puff of hot air compared to that, and did not have the intended effect of shutting me up as it likely does others.

Quote 2: I thought science was to be based on the merits of scientific methodology, and not personal and political credentials!

Having smeared the credentials and integrity of researchers and been slapped down for it, Alves-Pereira then performs a screeching 180-degree turn and pretends that I brought it into the discussion. This is typical of pseudoscientists and other con artists, and we’ll see another display of it further on. Bald faced lies and reversals are par for the course, and are only useful against the gullible who are being told what they want to hear.

Naturally, it wasn’t effective on me, and once again, I called her on her rhetorical tactic, pointing out that the record of her smears was in black and white and without dispute. As a note, going meta is often the only recourse other than walking away in these kinds of debates.

Quote 3: Thirty years of systematic and consistent research, with both human and animal models, by a multidisciplinary team, and recipient of several international scientific prizes…. Do you really think, Mike, that I am unable to defend this research?

Once again, Alves-Pereira is attempting to scare off potential debaters, this time by talking about how long and seriously the VAD group have worked on the subject. This is another appeal to false authority, and an attempt to frighten off people questioning the work. And of course, it continues not to be a defense of the work itself and is an appeal back to the theoretical qualifications of the unnamed people and unstated awards that they have been granted. In other words “personal and political credentials” again, and still without any verifiable references.

Quote 4: Lets Skype! My (american) English is fluent as I am bilingual, so you need not fear language miscommunication….

There are two lovely twists to observe here. The first is that her initial attempt to shut down the publicly observable debate wasn’t working, so she wished to move to a private and deniable forum. The second is a little bit of snobbery regarding language skills, intended to make her debater feel inferior. Possibly a third with the little aside about American English which would likely be a dog whistle to other Europeans with anti-American sympathies. Presumably she knows better than to think that Canada is part of the United States.

Alves-Pereira is undoubtedly an adequate debater, and the gambits she had tried so far do work better in conversation than they do in print, where it’s very simple to scroll up and see that she had said the complete opposite in her previous comment.

Quote 5: I refuse to be baited into useless, superficial and scientifically dishonest discussions.

This is a lovely line. Three pieces of peer-reviewed research had been presented with clear statements about why they disproved VAD. Alves-Pereira’s initial response was ad hominem attacks on the integrity and qualifications of the researchers, virtually the definition of “useless, superficial and scientifically dishonest discussions.” Yet she’s turning this accusation on me, instead of herself.

Listening to pseudoscientists and other con artists, you begin to observe a clear pattern of them accusing the person they are trying to con of doing exactly what they are in fact doing.

Of course, my response was to point out that Alves-Pereira had every opportunity to respond to the evidence that had been clearly laid out, and that she was avoiding doing so. I declined to move the discussion out of a public forum.

Quote 6: Although I usually reserve these types of discussions for real scientific forums, I will agree to discuss some of the issues you raised, specifically the Norwegian study and the Chapman article, even though Letters to the Editors are being prepared for each journal.

The first thing to point out is “real scientific forums.” As pointed out, this debate occurred in a professional Occupational Health discussion group. Secondly, the lovely snobbery when her work is most often referred to and discussed in anti-wind campaign efforts is fascinating. Once again, she attempts from her lowly milking stool of an academic position to invoke scientific authority. It likely works a lot of the time.

The Letters to the Editors are a nice touch as well, as if a serious response to breaking news is under way, and she wants to keep her points reserved for that forum. However, the first study was published four years before this discussion, the second a full year before the discussion, and the third was available on eScholarship five months before this discussion. Alves-Pereira is actually unable to respond to the content and has been for years, and is waving her arms to pretend otherwise. As a note, Alves-Pereira managed exactly one Letter roughly six months after the interaction to the least significant study.

Quote 7: The CT Scan is a complementary diagnostic medical test. Definitive clinical diagnoses are not established through these types of imaging techniques.

Alves-Pereira ignored the first study showing no acute biomarker changes at all, and leapt to discussion of the second paper. For context, a group of clinical and medical imaging experts associated with four respected Norwegian medical institutions designed the study specifically to assess the thickening of the pericardium that VAD claims. They chose CT scanning as the appropriate and accurate technical approach to achieve this end. Without any references to third-party material supporting her statements, Alves-Pereira asserts that this was an inappropriate choice. While Alves-Pereira does have a couple of degrees, she is not a doctor, a clinician, or a medical imaging specialist as the experts who chose CT scanning are. Once again, she is trying to trade on her authority to make a sweeping statement with the hope that it will merely be accepted.

Quote 8: The pericardial thickness that we have referenced since 1992 pertains to the pericardial thickening measured when the fragment is carefully removed at the beginning of the surgical intervention (performed for other reasons), and pinned in wax with the serosa side upward. This is not comparable with pericardia measured post-mortem or with pericardial fragments that have been subjected to surgical trauma.

This sounds very serious and credible, until you start to unpack the statement. First, it’s important to know the provenance of the samples. They were removed as part of coronary bypass surgery in six cases and were the result of autopsies in four cases, per the VAD groups 1999 paper, Vibro-Acoustic Disease: some forensic aspects, published in the same supplement with many of their other papers.

The first set of samples were from people with diseased hearts, likely due to the typical reasons why people have diseased hearts: diet, lack of exercise, smoking, and drinking. Yet they are accepted as high-quality data points by the VAD group. The second set of samples specifically have the “pericardia measured post-mortem,” exactly what Alves-Pereira says is invalid. This is a tiny sample of low evidentiary significance at the best of times.

This is of course another situation where Alves-Pereira is making a bold-faced claim that research disproving VAD suffers from her own group’s poor methodology, yet another gasp-worthy reversal, as none of the people who underwent CT scans for the Norwegian study were dead or were cut up in any way.

Of course, this is all moot, as the secondary finding of the Norwegian study was that Castelo-Branco didn’t know how thick the pericardium was, and thought that the perfectly normal pericardium thickness of one to two millimeters he observed was three-four times thicker than usual. The Norwegians point out that this is not the case based upon well structured assessments from CT scans performed in London.

This is important to draw out, as Alves-Pereira is attacking CT scans as the correct technology, but based on an apples-to-pears basis. The Norwegian team assessed pericardial thickness on an apples-to-apples basis to world-standard data using the same technology and found no thickening.

Once again, misleading argumentative practices from claiming undeserved authority, to misleading comparisons, to claiming failures in others’ methodology that exist in one’s own. It’s quite a lot of misdirection to pack into two sentences.

Quote 9: Did anyone even bother to read the material to understand why the self-citations are relevant? For a better understanding, perhaps it would help to remind whomever is reading this text, that our team has been researching this agent of disease since 1980.

For context, Prof Simon Chapman (now Emeritus) did a minor assessment of reliability of VAD papers using citations as a measure of reliability. He found a startling 74% self-citation by the VAD group of their papers, when 7% is the academic average. This is a standard assessment of scientific papers, made publishable only by the absurd degree to which the VAD group exceeded normal practices and by the negative impact of their claims on public health due to health fears and stress created around wind farms.

The first claim to draw out is the assertion that the VAD work was going unread. This is in context of three studies specifically aimed at debunking the VAD groups claims, and in context of a discussion thread where the VAD group’s own work is being quoted. This is typical of pseudoscientific rhetoric, that no one has actually read and understand the work despite all evidence to the contrary. Yet again, another bold-faced reversal of reality, hoping that it would go unnoticed.

The second is that the VAD literature has been mounting since 1980, and no one except the VAD group and those debunking them are referencing it. Alves-Pereira tries a fascinating reversal again, where this is actually a good thing, instead of the remarkably obvious bad thing it is. Building on ones’ own work is one thing, but no one else bothering to cite it is a completely different issue.

Quote 10: unless I plan to write a treatise here on this forum, it is quite tedious to be discussing this through a written text not in article format.

All Alves-Pereira was being asked to do was to respond to three specific studies’ clear statements. At the point when she wrote this, she had already written roughly 900 words without actually saying anything substantive, accurate, or referenced. Apparently it is completely acceptable to her to attack the integrity and credentials of others, but tedious to actually respond to the substance of their research.

Further, given that the studies had been publicly available for four years, one year, and five months respectively, it’s remarkable that Alves-Pereira doesn’t have coherent boiler plate responses to them already written that she can cut and paste into any discussion or even reference in third-party journals. Once again, this is evidence that she does not have a response, not evidence of the challenge of responding in an online forum.

Quote 11: mechanotransduction cellular signalling that explains LFN-induced pathology

As expected, pseudoscientific gibberish comes to the fore as well, in the form of a little known aspect of cellular functioning and a nice acronym that is meaningless in context of the first, outside of the echo-chamber of the VAD research group where it is taken as a matter of faith.

For context, mechanotransduction is a real thing. Cells use it for proprioception and some communication. However, there are two very large holes in the VAD group’s theory about its applicability.

The first is that per Leventhall’s long-standing work most recently updated in the July 2013 issue of the journal Acoustics Today, infrasound inside the human body from natural bodily processes is very high, in the range of 100 dB, and external sources need to be greater than about 120 dB to exceed it. The VAD group’s claim related to aviation infrasound was at 80 dB, or 10,000 times less intense than the well understood external threshold. The VAD group’s claim related to wind turbine infrasound was even more extreme, as infrasound from wind farms rarely exceeds 40–60 dB at the exterior of homes, or one million (1,000,000) to one hundred million (100,000,000) times less intense.

At heart, this is a key reason why every group of people capable of assessing medical literature who looks at VAD dismisses it. The levels of intensity are so far removed from anything which could overcome bodily generated infrasound that they are completely trivial, like dropping a pebble into a raging sea. Acousticians involved with wind farms and health I discussed this with said that the occasional time VAD is brought up in wind and health discussions among competent professionals, it is dismissed almost immediately.

Second, mechanotransduction unlocks chemical changes and cellular responses to those chemical changes. The over 40 carefully selected biomarkers assessed in the 2009 Norwegian study would have detected these changes if any were occurring. No changes, therefore mechanotransduction is not impacted by external infrasound at the levels under discussion.

But from a pseudoscientist’s perspective, this gibberish is great stuff! They have this mysterious stuff called infrasound and low frequency sound with an ominous (and almost completely erroneous) history of weird effects, then they’ve got this mouthful of syllables that no layperson has ever heard of but which actually exists. It’s a golden combination, and Alves-Pereira is unafraid to drop it casually into the conversation hoping that it would finally do the trick of shutting the conversation down.

Quote 12: Gibberish!? LOL! You are too funny! Which part exactly was gibberish to you?

When the gibberish was pointed out to Alves-Pereira, along with why it was gibberish, her response was once again to attack the understanding of the person questioning her. She finally did provide a reference of sorts, but only to another VAD paper which they had managed to get into another journal. Once again, Alves-Pereira attacks the individual, and only references the highly self-referential material supporting her argument. She is incapable of referencing other material that supports VAD or their claims because there is none, and she uses rhetoric intended to make others believe that those who question her are incapable of understanding.

Eventually, Alves-Pereira stopped responding. Another key characteristic of most pseudoscientists and con artists is that they play percentages. If one person isn’t being conned by outrageous statements, then they move on to the next and the next until they find someone who will buy it. Alves-Pereira has a greater depth of pseudoscience to spread than most, but it’s still the same thing.

Alves-Pereira tried ad hominems, conspiracy ideation, appeals to false authority, fright tactics, bold-faced reversals, mirrored accusations and a variety of other argumentative tricks to win the debate, without ever actually responding clearly, coherently, and accurately to the substance of the vivisecting studies. These are the tactics of pseudoscience and con artists. Watch for them in the ongoing debate on wind energy and health. You’ll see that 100% of anti-wind campaigners employ at least a subset of them, and usually a majority.

Key References

Key quotes

we have an on-going commitment to establish VAD as an occupational disease, reimbursable by Worker’s Compensation.

(Castelo Branco 1999)

Note: no medical organization or publication has accepted VAD as a disease as of 2019

The most likely possibility is that sound and vibration exposure have no discernible physical effects on cellular tissue.

J.I. Kasin et al 2009

On the basis of the CT scans, our findings do not support the existence of vibroacoustic disease, where pericardial thickening is the most prominent sign. […]Portuguese groups’ findings in the vibroacoustic disease patients do not seem to be elevated from normal values and that normal pericardial thickness may have been underestimated.

J.I. Kasin et al 2012

Of the 35 papers on VAD, 34 had a first author from a single Portuguese research group. Seventy four per cent of citations to these papers were self-citations by the group.

Chapman 2013 

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About the Author

is Chief Strategist with TFIE Strategy Inc. He works with startups, existing businesses and investors to identify opportunities for significant bottom line growth and cost takeout in our rapidly transforming world. He is editor of The Future is Electric, a Medium publication. He regularly publishes analyses of low-carbon technology and policy in sites including Newsweek, Slate, Forbes, Huffington Post, Quartz, CleanTechnica and RenewEconomy, and his work is regularly included in textbooks. Third-party articles on his analyses and interviews have been published in dozens of news sites globally and have reached #1 on Reddit Science. Much of his work originates on Quora.com, where Mike has been a Top Writer annually since 2012. He's available for consulting engagements, speaking engagements and Board positions.

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