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IFLScience Meets: Simon Chapman On Social Science, Activism, And What Links Wind Turbines And Haemorrhoids

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Stephen Luntz

Freelance Writer

clockApr 9 2021, 15:07 UTC
Simon meets

Simon Chapman has made a career fighting for science-based approaches to health. Image courtesy of Simon Chapman

Simon Chapman is an author, activist, social scientist, and professor in public health at the University of Sydney, Australia. A rich and varied career has seen Chapman tackling everything from targeted advertising to Wind Turbine Syndrome, ending up at the barrel of a gun more times than one might like. Here, he highlights the importance of presence if you want to tell your story, and why it's better to be looked over than overlooked.

What do you do?

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I am Emeritus Professor in Public Health for the University of Sydney

What did it take to get here?

In the late 1970s I worked with others to have the actor Paul Hogan (of Crocodile Dundee movies fame) removed from the most successful cigarette advertising campaign in Australian commercial history because his immense appeal to children contravened advertising industry self-regulation rules. We won, and overnight I became a go-to person for news media on tobacco control.  I quickly learned that some of the most important people in news audiences were political ministers and their staff – the people best able to make policy, law and regulatory changes. I’d often be contacted by them soon after an interview. I got to know a lot about how politicians choose people to advise them.

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From the very start of my research career, I could never understand the tunnel-vision common in researchers that they were publishing primarily for other researchers, often in pay-walled journals. I instinctively knew that the most important research questions in health were inspired by hopes of solving important problems and that when policy relevant answers came in, these needed to be megaphoned to those impacted by the problems and especially those with the power to solve them.

I started one of the world’s first masters’ courses in public health advocacy at the University of Sydney, wrote “how to” textbooks and detailed case studies and continually refined what I taught and wrote from my experience as both an advocate and a researcher.

Imagine you’ve met yourself as a teenager at a careers fair: How would you describe what you do to your former self?

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Young Simon, I understand that you sometimes intensely irritate your headmaster by questioning school rules and finding inconsistencies in them. Well, for most of the last 50 years, I’ve actually made a living doing that sort of thing in some very big ponds. You like to point out injustice, unfairness and stupidity at your school. I’ve spent a lifetime putting 10,000 watt arc lights on corporate malfeasance, on weapons-grade fruitcakes trying to scare people with alarming health claims about really useful and important things like mobile phones, WiFi, wind turbines and vaccination, and on self-absorbed special interest groups like gun owners and those who refuse to fence their swimming pools who want to put their interests or garden aesthetics ahead of public safety. A radio shock jock once called me “the academic, intellectual, self-appointed chief wowser of the nanny state”. “Academic” and “intellectual” … ouch! But champion of the nanny state? Here are 150 reasons why I can live with that.

What's the most common misconception about your line of work?

I’ve got a PhD in preventive and social medicine and have worked nearly all my career in a medical faculty. But my discipline is social science. However, some who don’t understand that public health has long been a multi-disciplinary exercise, assume I must be a clinician. So I’ve always been scrupulous to correct that whenever it comes up. Many times, those trying to discredit me think it’s self-evident that anyone who is not a clinician and talks about health can only be an imposter. One critic told a libertarian conference session on “health Nazis” that I “made out” I was a medical practitioner and that I was a “jumped up … type who had qualifications in one field but who claims to be an expert in another.” After coughing up $15,000 and issuing a grovelling apology in a defamation settlement, that line of attack has gone quiet.

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What have been some of the proudest or funniest moments in your career?

In the 1990s, I did a lot of work advocating for gun control laws in Australia. Here I am debating the head of the US National Rifle Association in 1992. In April 1996, a man shot 35 dead at Tasmania’s historic Port Arthur site. A few weeks later, the Australian government banned all semi-automatic weapons, something we’d been calling for. After 18 mass shootings in 13 years, a ban on semi-automatic saw 22 years pass without a single firearms mass shooting in Australia. Being part of several years of successful intense advocacy for Australia to become the first nation to mandate plain tobacco packaging was also wonderful. Challenges in Australia’s High Court, the World Trade Organization failed and today 17 nations have implemented plain packs. But perhaps my proudest achievement was when the right-wing, anti-regulatory Institute of Public Affairs named me in its “dirty dozen” all-time opponents of freedom list.

In terms of funniest, I’d often noticed wind farm opponents claiming that infrasound from turbines caused many symptoms and diseases. One wet Sunday afternoon, I decided to sit down and Google random diseases and “wind farms” to see how many I could find. I just kept going all afternoon hitting gold like lung and skin cancer, and nearly everything I searched for. You name it: wind turbines caused it according to those who were worrying themselves sick. When – just for a laugh – I searched for “hemorrhoids and wind farms” and instantly got a hit, I thought all my birthdays had come at once. This list shows 247 awful things that can happen to humans and animals (eg: disoriented echidnas) if they go near a wind turbine. It inspired me to write Wind Turbine Syndrome: a communicated disease. Health complaints about wind farms have all but disappeared in Australia while wind farms are greatly increasing in number.

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Hairiest moment on the job?

I’ve been pulled over in a car by drunk Ugandan boy soldiers with machine guns; had a death threat from a gun owner; survived a Europe to Australia marathon flight next to a prominent religious bigot; and shared a hotel bed with a woman in India who turned out to be a nun. Some of these tales are captured in 20 work and travel short stories I wrote here.

What do you never leave the house without?

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My mobile phone and its camera. I once asked the host of ABC Sydney breakfast radio why he had me on the program so often with its half million listeners. He replied “Because you always answer your phone. You’d be amazed how many people effing don’t, so they miss out telling their story”. Pictures tell a thousand words and if you are camera-ready, you can come across gold that can powerfully illustrate tweets, blogs and lectures. Here’s a snap of me being badly affected by driving through wind farm country north of Berlin in 2019.

Image Credit: Simon Chapman

What’s one piece of advice you'd give to someone wanting to embark on the same career?

I can’t resist offering three.

  1. 1. Quality evidence is absolutely critical to credibility. Keep up with evidence and if it changes, you must too.
  2. 2. It’s better to be looked over, than overlooked. Do not be deterred by snooty colleagues who think it’s unseemly to talk about your work in the media.
  3. 3. Grow rhinoceros hide. If you are a potent public health advocate you will upset lots of people who will do all they can to discredit you. They don’t bother with inconsequential critics. If they are attacking you, they are worried about you succeeding. Here are a few more.

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