North Carolina town’s idiocy, news media’s incompetence, blogosphere’s imposture

The shock­er head­line, A US town has reject­ed a pro­pos­al for a solar farm fol­low­ing pub­lic con­cerns that solar pan­els ‘suck up all the ener­gy from the sun’ is such a good illus­tra­tion that the word fol­low­ing is a jour­nal­is­tic weasel word that it has been added to the list of ways which so-called jour­nal­ists (as well as real ones) mis­lead us here on Mono­chro­mat­ic Out­look. The head­line from the pri­ma­ry source reads, Wood­land rejects solar farm. The first head­line implies a spec­u­la­tive con­clu­sion; the sec­ond reports facts. But the truth is deep­er — and more trou­bling — than either head­line lets on.

The Wood­land North Car­oli­na Town Coun­cil did indeed reject a pro­pos­al to rezone a plot of land from Residential/Agricultural to Indus­tri­al, for the landown­er’s stat­ed desire to cre­ate a solar pan­el farm on that land. And yes, some hilar­i­ous and dis­turb­ing com­ments were made dur­ing the pub­lic com­ment por­tion of the Town Coun­cil meeting.

It’s fright­en­ing how ill-informed those com­ments were. The rea­sons includ­ed the rea­son cit­ed by David John­son’s The Cyber Col­umn post head­line: local res­i­dent Jane Mann1 voiced con­cerns that «pho­to­syn­the­sis, which depends upon sun­light, would not hap­pen and would keep the veg­e­ta­tion from grow­ing.» She claims to have «observed areas near solar pan­els where veg­e­ta­tion is brown and dead because it did not receive enough sun­light» (quotes are from the Roanoke-Chowan News Her­ald arti­cle, not nec­es­sar­i­ly Mrs Man­n’s own words.) Of course, the only way this is pos­si­ble is if she was refer­ring to ground beneath the solar pan­els, but this isn’t sup­port­ed by an image search for solar farms and even if it were true, it could­n’t be any worse for that grass than build­ing a barn or pavil­ion on that land.

Roanoke-Chowan News Her­ald reports that Mrs Mann went on to raise the ques­tion of whether exist­ing solar farms were caus­ing can­cer in the com­mu­ni­ty, «say­ing no one could tell her that solar pan­els didn’t cause can­cer.» Of course, yes, many peo­ple could tell her that. There are health risks asso­ci­at­ed with solar pan­els includ­ing can­cer risk, but only if you eat them.2

One of the trou­bling things is that Mrs Mann is iden­ti­fied as a retired sci­ence teacher. One would hope that a sci­ence teacher, even one long-retired (she isn’t3) would under­stand that pho­to­syn­the­sis hap­pens when­ev­er sun­light direct­ly falls on a plant. On social media this has turned into an indict­ment of edu­ca­tion in North Car­oli­na, claim­ing that Mrs Mann is «the town’s sci­ence teacher», which is not true.4, even if it is trou­bling that any teacher would hold the belief that solar pan­els col­lect ener­gy that does­n’t hit them directly.

But any­one who has ever been to any City Coun­cil meet­ing of any munic­i­pal­i­ty where the pub­lic is invit­ed to speak knows that there is always a crack­pot who takes the oppor­tu­ni­ty to use the open micro­phone as a chance to pro­mote some ridicu­lous the­o­ry. It does­n’t mean that the Town Coun­cil took either Mrs Mann or Mr Mann seri­ous­ly. Even if they did, usu­al­ly Town Coun­cil mem­bers have their minds made up how they will vote on the agen­da top­ics before the meet­ings begin. There were oth­er (some­what) more rea­son­able objec­tions made to the con­struc­tion of the solar farm, and it’s pos­si­ble the Coun­cil had rea­sons to reject the pro­pos­al unre­lat­ed to any of the pub­lic comments.

…Or it would be, except for the sto­ry which ought to have been the lead sto­ry. Both the Roanoke-Chowan News Her­ald and The Cyber Col­umn buried the most dis­turb­ing part at the end of the arti­cle,5 that lat­er in the meet­ing the Town Coun­cil also vot­ed to enact a mora­to­ri­um on all fur­ther con­struc­tion of solar farms in Woodland.

This goes beyond a sin­gle deci­sion about alter­ing exist­ing zon­ing. A mora­to­ri­um on all solar farms also pre­vents com­pa­nies from build­ing solar farms on their own (or leased) prop­er­ties which are already zoned as Industrial.

Town and city of course com­mon­ly reg­u­late the indus­tri­al con­struc­tion in their juris­dic­tion, but it’s a big con­cern that the gov­ern­ment would place an out­right ban on all of one kind of pri­vate use. Much more con­cern­ing than a deci­sion not to waive or change exist­ing reg­u­la­tions in order to accom­mo­date that use.

Addi­tion­al­ly, few of the more-rea­son­able con­cerns for reject­ing the solar farm apply to a gen­er­al mora­to­ri­um. If solar farms are so ugly that they reduce prop­er­ty val­ues in res­i­den­tial areas, that ought not apply to the land zoned as Industrial.

Per­haps — though this is not men­tioned in the arti­cle about Wood­land’s deci­sion — the res­i­dents are con­cerned about the State and Fed­er­al sub­si­dies that go in to the con­struc­tion of solar farms and the high­er rates North Car­oli­na pow­er util­i­ties have to pay for green ener­gy. These con­cerns were voiced in an op-ed by Her­bert M Eck­er­lin in the Raleigh NC News & Observ­er. More gen­er­al­ly, con­ser­v­a­tive groups com­plain about solar ener­gy being a gov­ern­ment boon­dog­gle. North Car­oli­na is not known for its lib­er­al bent.6

All that is spec­u­la­tion. There isn’t any evi­dence (at least from the news report) that those con­sid­er­a­tions went into the deci­sion to ban future solar farms. The idea that Wood­land insti­tut­ed this mora­to­ri­um for those rea­sons are spec­u­la­tive. That leaves the pos­si­bil­i­ty that the Town Coun­cil’s deci­sion stemmed from can­cer or envi­ron­men­tal fears to be much more likely.

That leads to a haunt­ing hypoth­e­sis which may seem far-fetched but which has come up repeat­ed­ly as I’ve observed par­ti­san memes on social media. It’s a hypoth­e­sis for which I can­not pro­vide evi­dence, but it’s a strat­a­gem I might employ if I were try­ing to mis­lead a cer­tain seg­ment of the public.

What if this is an exam­ple of inten­tion­al­ly hid­ing a larg­er sto­ry inside the small­er one? Gen­er­al­ly lib­er­al pro-solar peo­ple are out­raged about this, but for the most part it ris­es only to mock­ing scorn for the sup­pos­ed­ly igno­rant res­i­dents of a small town in North Car­oli­na. The sto­ry will blow over in a few days and peo­ple will stop talk­ing about it. After all, based on the head­lines, this is an iso­lat­ed inci­dent affect­ing only one solar farm. If the lead sto­ry were that the town in North Car­oli­na had banned all con­struc­tion of solar farms, peo­ple might actu­al­ly be alarmed rather than dismissive.

Anoth­er effect of this method is that the small­er sto­ry becomes a hon­ey­pot for one’s oppo­nents’ argu­ments. If the sto­ry that peo­ple get upset about is eas­i­ly debunked or con­tra­dict­ed (as done in the first sev­er­al para­graphs of this post) it can be used to dis­cred­it them when they com­plain. Mean­while, the big­ger sto­ry, while tech­ni­cal­ly hav­ing been report­ed, is ignored.

Per­haps this is far­fetched, and even if this method is employed by peo­ple wish­ing to spread dis­in­for­ma­tion, it does­n’t mean that that’s what has hap­pened here. But the pat­tern fits well enough here and else­where that it war­rants a watch­ful eye. There have been oth­er instances I’ve sus­pect­ed of this which fall out­side the scope of this post, but even if I’m wrong about the inter­pre­ta­tion the prac­tice of bury­ing the lead or wrap­ping the real sto­ry in more out­ra­geous claims is not an iso­lat­ed case. As I already wrote, it’s some­thing I would do if I were try­ing to mis­lead people.

For now, it does­n’t mat­ter whether my crack­pot hypoth­e­sis is true or just my own delu­sion. What mat­ters is that we pay atten­tion to what we read more crit­i­cal­ly and not just repost sto­ries because they are out­ra­geous. And when we do, we ought to ignore the hyped-up head­lines and stick to the facts.

Espe­cial­ly when the facts are more out­ra­geous than the headlines.

  1. Mrs Man­n’s com­ments were also voiced by Bob­by Mann; it is unknown based on the news report what (if any) rela­tion the two are to one anoth­er. Mr Mann is the one who report­ed­ly said «the solar farms would suck up all the ener­gy from the sun». As with Mrs Man­n’s com­ments, the quote is from the Roanoke-Chowan News Her­ald and not nec­es­sar­i­ly Mr Man­n’s actu­al words. 
  2. Or if you breathe sil­i­ca dust while improp­er­ly pro­tect­ed dur­ing the man­u­fac­ture, or if you are a min­er extract­ing that sil­i­ca dust. There’s a good arti­cle com­piled for the Ore­gon Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion out­lin­ing the safe­ty con­cerns. The bib­li­og­ra­phy is a wealth of pri­ma­ry infor­ma­tion. 
  3. 4 Feb­ru­ary 2013 Board of Edu­ca­tion meet­ing min­utes men­tion her retire­ment. 
  4. Board of Edu­ca­tion meet­ing notes from 12 Novem­ber 2013 list Mrs Mann as a math­e­mat­ics tutor at Gas­ton Mid­dle School. , and [meet­ing min­utes from 7 Novem­ber 2011] refer to her as a Mid­dle School Math Teacher at Con­way Mid­dle School. The only ref­er­ence to her teach­ing sci­ence is in the staff direc­to­ry for Gas­ton Mid­dle School but hav­ing described her­self as retired and been list­ed by the Board of Edu­ca­tion as a tutor it’s unclear that she ever taught sci­ence class­es as part of her full-time teach­ing career. Nei­ther Gas­ton Mid­dle School nor Con­way Mid­dle School are actu­al­ly in Wood­land. Describ­ing her as the town’s sci­ence teacher cer­tain­ly is false. 
  5. Admit­ted­ly, it’s at the end of this post too. The con­text had to be estab­lished, but it’s true that any­one read­ing only the first few para­graphs would miss this. 
  6. Except for Asheville. 

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