The Jane Mann Incident : Should Freedom of Speech Trump Scientific Responsibility?

The Jane Mann Incident : Should Freedom of Speech Trump Scientific Responsibility?

Reading Time: 11 minutes

Freedom of speech is a fundamental right that most democracies value and uphold. Science is an eclectic band of disciplines that strives to understand life, the universe and everything, and can be used for the betterment of human life. As citizens of a scientific age, we have a responsibility to not be scientifically inaccurate to a degree where it is indistinguishable from stupidity. However, how does this scientific responsibility stack up against the right to say, think and believe anything we wish? I try to find out.

A couple of weeks back I has shared, on Facebook, a report that came out in the The Independent (a UK newspaper) concerning how a North Carolina town in the US had voted to reject the local installation of a solar farm. The piece was provocatively titled US town rejects solar panels amid fears they ‘suck energy from the sun’, cause cancer – and will harm house prices. A subtitle said that A retired science teacher said she was concerned the panels would prevent plants in the area from growing. The article, written by Samuel Osborne, was published on 13 Dec 2015. The Independent article referred to an earlier article by Keith Hoggard that came out in the Roanoke-Chowan News Herald which reported the incident. The R-C News Herald has a far milder headline, Woodland rejects solar farm, and reports that the town, Woodland, had actually voted against a proposal to rezone a section of land to the north of the town from RA (residential/agricultural) to M2 (manufacturing), thus essentially denying approval of a solar farm.

In the Independent article, Osborne reported that During the Woodland Town Council meeting, one local man, Bobby Mann, said solar farms would suck up all the energy from the sun and businesses would not go to Woodland. It further reported that Jane Mann, a retired science teacher, said she was concerned the panels would prevent plants in the area from photosynthesizing, stopping them from growing. Ms Mann said she had seen areas near solar panels where plants are brown and dead because they did not get enough sunlight. She also questioned the high number of cancer deaths in the area, saying no one could tell her solar panels didn’t cause cancer.

Since the Independent article had linked the original article in the Roanoke-Chowan News Herald, I had looked it up before posting. Here’s what Keith Hoggard reported about what Reverend Jane Mann, who is currently a pastor at a local church, had actually said :

Jane Mann said she is a local native and is concerned about the natural vegetation that makes the community beautiful.

She is a retired Northampton science teacher and is concerned that photosynthesis, which depends upon sunlight, would not happen and would keep the vegetation from growing. She said she has observed areas near solar panels where vegetation is brown and dead because it did not receive enough sunlight.

She also questioned the high number of cancer deaths in the area, saying no one could tell her that solar panels didn’t cause cancer.

“I want to know what’s going to happen,” she said. “I want information. Enough is enough. I don’t see the profit for the town.

“People come with hidden agendas,” she said. “Until we can find if anything is going to damage this community, we shouldn’t sign any paper.”

And this is what Hoggard reported about what Bobby Mann said :

Bobby Mann said he watched communities dry up when I-95 came along and warned that would happen to Woodland because of the solar farms.

“You’re killing your town,” he said. “All the young people are going to move out.”

He said the solar farms would suck up all the energy from the sun and businesses would not come to Woodland.

Sensational articles like this are often rather wanting in the facts department, and tend to highlight matters that are otherwise minor over issues that have more import. A good way to figure out whether the claims of such articles are true or not is to see if the fact-checking website Snopes has anything to say about it. Turns out Snopes did indeed investigate this, and its conclusions were that, while the original article is genuine, and so is most of what the Independent had claimed, it was untrue that, and I quote Snopes, Concerns hinged solely or mostly on the dangers of solar panels sucking up all the energy from the sun. Snopes, however, categorically stated that A North Carolina town rejected the further installation of solar panels; some residents registered fears that the panels would disrupt the local ecosystem, while many others worried property values would be affected.

Let’s focus of the following statements.

Jane Mann : “I want to know what’s going to happen,” she said. “I want information. Enough is enough. I don’t see the profit for the town. “People come with hidden agendas,” she said. “Until we can find if anything is going to damage this community, we shouldn’t sign any paper.”

Bobby Mann : Bobby Mann said he watched communities dry up when I-95 came along and warned that would happen to Woodland because of the solar farms. “You’re killing your town,” he said. “All the young people are going to move out.”

These statements seem rather logical and reasonable. Mostly. The I-95 is part of the Interstate Highway system that connects various parts of the US together. The Interstates have been blamed for economic downturns in various communities and towns in the US since the ’50s. Quite a few have been abandoned because of local opposition. In that, Bobby Mann’s fears that a similar fate might befall Woodland if the solar farm is built is perhaps no entirely unjustified. What’s more, Hoggard’s report says that this solar farm was the fourth proposed farm to be built near Woodland. It is conceivable that Bobby Mann saw whatever happened after the first three farms were built and was thus simply voicing his concerns as a concerned citizen.

Jane Mann’s emphatic statement that she needed more information about the solar farms and that she failed to see how the farm would being profit to the town is also quite reasonable. She warns that there might be hidden agendas. Given what the Swiss corporation Nestle routinely does worldwide with drinking water, her fears might not be entirely out of the realm of possibility. After all, the company that wants to build the solar farm, Strata Solar Company, is a company that deals in energy. So does Big Oil. Who knows, they could have hidden agendas.

That doesn’t sound very unreasonable, does it? Now let’s analyse the other statements this pair made.

Bobby Mann : He said the solar farms would suck up all the energy from the sun and businesses would not come to Woodland.

Solar panels are flat panes of about 60 photovoltaic solar cells, each of which is usually made out of crystalline silicon. Their job is to sit in the Sun (or any other source of light, artificial or otherwise) and convert the light that they receive into electricity using Einstein’s famed photoelectric effect. The conversion efficiency of solar cells in the lab is about 40%, while that of industrially manufactured ones are quite a bit lower, being anywhere between 6-20%. This means that if 100 watt light energy falls on the solar cell, 40 watt of electricity is generated in optimum conditions. The rest of the energy is either reflected back or is absorbed as heat.

A conventional silicon solar cell

Solar cells and panels are excellent at clean energy production. In places like Colorado where the skies are clear and the sun bright, a single 1 sq m solar panel operating at 20% efficiency can produce close to 440 kWh of energy per year. 1 kWh is the common billing unit of electrical energy. Such solar panels can thus produce almost 1.25 units of electricity per day by simply sitting in the Sun.

Before I move on, here’s a little digression on how light behaves. Light, as most of us are aware, is made out of a stream of photons, and is an electromagnetic wave that can travel through vacuum. A distinguishing feature of light is that it always travels in a straight line while travelling through vacuum or any medium, and makes sharp turns at the interfaces between media. Although light is itself an electromagnetic wave, it does not carry any charge, and thus cannot be bent by electric or magnetic fields. In fact, the only force that can bend light is the gravitational force. At first glance, this might seem counterintuitive, since light does not carry matter. However, gravitation does not bend light directly, it bends spacetime through which light travels. This gravitational bending or lensing of light was first postulated by Einstein in his General Relativity paper of 1916, and confirmed three years later by Eddington during the solar eclipse of the summer of 1919, when one could observe stars during the eclipse which would otherwise be directly behind the sun.

Coming back to Bobby Mann’s statement, solar panels do indeed suck up a maximum of 20% of all the energy from the sun that directly falls on them, and 0% of all the energy from the sun that does not fall on them. Solar panels are not massive enough to bend spacetime in any significant way that they would be able to suck up light from around it. Not unless the solar panels somehow miraculously create miniature black holes that have hidden agendas.

Another interpretation of Mr Mann’s statement could be that solar panels would actively, by some means of suction, draw excess energy from the sun, which would cause a solar energy crisis. This is true of finite power resources such as electrical grids, where a single heavy power user might dim the bulbs of all the other consumers on the same grid. However, the sun is a nearly infinite resource of energy. No matter how many solar panels are pointed at it, it is not going out for another five billion years. As for solar panels actively suctioning energy out of the sun, guess what that would take. Yep, miniature black holes.

To be fair to Bobby Mann, he (probably) isn’t much of a science person. Which is fine. Not everyone is scientifically inclined, and I’m certain Mr Mann goes by just fine without knowing — or seemingly caring to know — about how light operates. He is also entirely within his rights to make a statement about what he believes in, no matter how utterly and absolutely wrong his belief might be. It is not his responsibility to be scientifically right (well, it should be, but that’s not the point here). If not his, then whose responsibility is it to ensure that people like Bobby Mann are taught the difference between the facts and the fiction concerning basic science? Usually, that job is performed, in basic education, by science teachers.

Which is precisely the profession that Reverend Mann had retired from just a few years earlier.

Was it then Jane Mann’s responsibility, being a person of sufficient scientific education, to be aware that the statement made by Mr Mann couldn’t possibly have been right? Was it also her responsibility to correct Mr Mann at that juncture?

Well, instead of doing that, she herself says that she is, and I quote again :

Jane Mann : She is concerned that photosynthesis, which depends upon sunlight, would not happen and would keep the vegetation from growing. She said she has observed areas near solar panels where vegetation is brown and dead because it did not receive enough sunlight.

She is quite correct about the first part, I’ll give her that. Photosynthesis does indeed depend on sunlight. It is a process by which plants, algae and certain bacteria make glucose by using a green organic molecule called chlorophyll to absorb energy from the sun, carbon dioxide from the air, and water from the soil or the surroundings. Chlorophyll is green because it absorbs red and blue light, and it is what gives leaves their distinctive colour. It is very much a natural counterpart of solar photovoltaic cells.

A simple schematic of the mechanism of photosynthesis

If photosynthesis doesn’t happen, presumably because of a lack of sunlight, vegetation would not grow, and would probably go brown and die. If you keep a plant in the shade for an extended period of time, it would be unable to perform photosynthesis and die after a while. If you do have a pet potted plant, and have forgotten to sun it in a while, this is the time to do so. Your pet potted plant will appreciate it.

Getting back to Rev. Mann, she is rather wrong about the second part of her statement. Since we have already established that solar panels do not have a magical light-suction effect (unless there be hidden miniature black holes with hidden miniature agendae), it is impossible for vegetation to die out in areas near solar panels where vegetation is brown and dead because it did not receive enough sunlight. I am not challenging her observation that vegetation died out near solar panels, or that it very well might have done so for a lack of sunlight. What I am however rather concerned about is her declaration that the solar panels are somehow responsible for this dearth of sunlight in areas adjacent to them or nearby. That doesn’t happen. Period.

Jane Mann also questioned the high number of cancer deaths in the area, and stated that, and I quote again :

Jane Mann : No one could tell her that solar panels didn’t cause cancer

The average rate of cancer deaths in the US is about 170 per 100,000 individuals. In North Carolina, taken as a whole, the death rate was 169.2 per 100,000 in the period between 2011-15. In Northampton county, which Woodland is a part of, the 2011-15 rate is slightly higher at 189.9 per 100,000. In adjoining counties Bertie and Hertford, the rates are 166.2 and 175.1 respectively. In comparison, the mortality rates in the period 1995-99 were 225.8 for Northampton, 267.7 for Bertie, and 250.3 for Hertford (source); the rates have dropped by 16%, 37% and 30% for the three counties respectively.

This is not to completely disregard Rev. Mann’s observation about the high number of cancer deaths in the area. It is entirely possible that a large fraction of cancer deaths were focused on Woodland and adjoining areas. However, even if that be the case, the overall mortality rate has indeed decreased, possibly due to an increase in the quality of medical care.

That is cancer mortality. However, if Rev. Mann’s assertion that solar panels could be the cause behind cancer is true, then it is entirely possible that cancer incidence rates in that area have increased due to the solar farms, with people not actually having died by the time the comments were made. The cancer incidence rate is the number of people per 100,000 people who get cancer. Naturally, we have data for that too. Between 2005-09, the cancer incidence rates for Northampton, Bertie, and Hertford were 490.3, 508.5, and 509.8 respectively. Between 2011-15, the same rates dropped to 446.2, 422.1, and 418.2 respectively, that is, a drop of 9%, 20% and 18% respectively.

Furthermore, there is not a shred of evidence relating solar panels to cancer, in any scientific literature or elsewhere. Too much exposure to sunlight, which has ultraviolet rays, might very well give you skin cancer, whether you are in an empty field or perched atop or near a solar panel.

A different possibility could be related to the way solar panels are manufactured. Such methods might very well produce toxic compounds as by-products which, if not disposed off properly, might very well cause health problems for human beings. However, as Brent Niemann, an engineer with Strata Solar, pointed out, there were no toxic materials on site.

However, as the adage goes, absence of proof is not proof of absence. Being a former science teacher, Rev. Mann has exercised her scientific cynicism. That is to be appreciated. In addition, it is entirely conceivable that Keith Hoggards might have misquoted her in some form or another, rendering this entire circus moot.

Does it really matter what a former science teacher might or might not have said? The Woodland Town Council has every right to vote for denying approval of a fourth solar farm. Citizens have every right to voice legitimate concerns, whether they be about the local ecosystem or property values. They retain this right even when they have absolutely zero evidence backing them up, and are also clearly wrong.

However, rights don’t always trump responsibilities. Did Donald Trump have the right to cancel DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals that Barack Obama had signed into law in 2012 and which protected undocumented children from being deported from the United States? Yes, he most definitely does. However, does he have a responsibility to protect the children that know of no nation other than the US, and have possibly no memories of their native ones? The answer to that is an emphatic yes!

Can scientific responsibility be equated with sociopolitical responsibility? Can the fates of the 800,000 children really be on the same footing as whether solar farms suck too much power and kill plants and humans? Does Jane Mann wield power equivalent to DJT or US Attorney General Jeff Sessions?

In the short-term, no. Unless extraordinary circumstances prevail, Trump will be in power at least till Jan 20, 2021. However, solar farms are here to stay, and by the time Trump leaves office, the percentage of power these farms supply will have increased. This increase in necessary, and some would say absolutely critical for the survival of humanity. Ever since 1750, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the use of coal has increased exponentially, with the result that the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide is now at 406 ppm, up 40% from the 1750 value of 250 ppm. The invention of the internal combustion engine and cars that run on petrol and diesel in the past century and a half has contributed significantly to that figure. The increased pollution has resulted in global warming as well as health problems for human beings; health problems that are directly relatable to pollution due to this indiscriminate use of fossil fuels. Human beings have no choice but to switch over to cleaner forms of energy. Solar energy in one of the best candidates. Is solar energy safe? The evidence says yes. Evidence contrary to this conclusion does not yet exist.

Does Jane Mann, as a former science teacher, have the right to be wrong? Yes. Does she, as a former science teacher, have the right to be this badly wrong? Jury’s out. Does she have a scientific responsibility not to be this wrong, and to correct other people who might be this wrong? Great Scott, yes!

As for Strata Solar, they suffered a minor reversal, but it might not affect them much. Their solar farms already account for more than 1.21 jeegawatts1 of solar power, and a further 3.5 GW is in the works. So that’s that. Everyone’s happy!

Facebook Comments

Footnotes

  1. I had to, I just had to.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *