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Spin counts more than facts in SA wind farm dispute

  • 21 October 2016


On 28 September an extreme storm lashed South Australia and the entire state lost power. How could this have happened?

It's a question that has occupied the country for the last three weeks as politicians and commentators have peddled their unqualified opinions in an escalating culture war about the role of renewable energy.

Most of the coverage has been pure speculation, of course. No one really knew what had happened until Wednesday this week, when the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) released its updated report on the events leading to the blackout.

Even now, there are more questions than answers. And they won't be cleared up until AEMO's final report five months away, by which time any misinformation will be entrenched in people's minds. So before looking at the facts, let's analyse the spin, which will have greater sway on public opinion in the long run.

It's well established that misinformation has a lingering effect on people's views, even after a falsehood has been corrected. Psychologists call this the 'continued influence effect', and it's been demonstrated many times.

In one famous 1994 experiment (pdf) about a fictitious warehouse fire, people were exposed to misinformation which implied negligence on the part of the business owners. The misinformation was then completely retracted. Despite understanding and accepting the correction, people still attributed negligence to the owners, referring to the misinformation they knew to be wrong.

In a later experiment, the researchers found that misinformation with a causal story — a reason why something happened — is especially persistent. It isn't enough to retract or refute a causal story. It has to be replaced with another causal story.

As psychology academics Stephan Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook write in a guide to debunking myths, 'people prefer an incorrect model over an incomplete model. In the absence of a better explanation, they opt for the wrong explanation.'


"How much of this official explanation will filter down to public opinion? Bugger all. It's too technical and complicated. As psychologists have repeatedly demonstrated, it's just the gist — the causal story — that has a lingering effect."


That brings us to the coverage of the South Australian blackout. In the immediate aftermath, vested interests pushed their preferred explanation — their causal story — well before the facts were established. The federal Coalition government wants to skewer Labor for taking a 50 per cent renewable energy target to the last election, so it's been trying to associate the blackout