2-89. Stop the Presses!


Over the last couple of days, my social media feeds have been filling up with short articles and witty headlines pointing at the people of Woodland, North Carolina, who are reportedly afraid that solar panels will drain the sun.

A pause.

One oft-cited source is the Independent UK, a fairly respectable paper who ran the story in their “Americas” section with the headline “US town rejects solar panels amid fears they ‘suck up all the energy from the sun’. As of this writing, the article has been shared more than 148,000 times. (In the time it took to create this article, that number jumped to 167,000.)

Most people who are aware of this story know one more fact from the article “A retired science teacher said she was concerned the panels would prevent plants in the area from growing.”

And with that, people are having a Ha Ha! at Woodland, North Carolina. Folks in the North point to the South and say “Look how dumb they are.” People in the world, point at the US and say “What a ridiculous country.”

Here’s a representative comment from the Independent UK article:

“This is wonderful! Another laugh out loud too crazy to make it up goofy story from Amurica . It’s like the light hearted story segment at the end of the news – problem is, these are the majority of the news stories coming out of this literally joke nation.” (sic)

And when you look at the facts with curiosity, you find that those blanket assessments were based on the statements of two people, who may be married.

Sharon Hill of Doubtful News looked into this story, using the same articles that people were sharing around, except that she actually read them. The short version is this: there was a town planning meeting where public comments were accepted. Two people made unscientific complaints against the project, and one of them is a retired science teacher. Other people complained that there were already solar plants in town, and that these new plants weren’t a good enough reason to change zoning on this one parcel of farm land.

When I shared the Doubtful News article this morning, I’m not sure everyone read it, as some of the replies continued to make fun of people who are afraid of solar power. Again, those “people” were two individuals who were possibly married and had a political agenda against solar panels. Their comments are silly, but silly comments from two unknown citizens aren’t newsworthy.

Sharon’s article gives a MUCH better picture of the story. And it’s actually not much of a story: people at a town meeting voted down a zoning change for a variety of reasons, and two people said some laughable things during the comments portion.

So was the Independent UK just lazy? No, they wanted to write an article making fun of Americans. And while there’s plenty to make fun of, this doesn’t really qualify. Thankfully, some local papers reported the story factually. Keith Hoggard in the Roanoke-Chownan News-Herald reported a very matter-of-fact account of the meeting. His headline: Woodland rejects solar farm.

That’s the truth, but that doesn’t sell papers or online ads.

If you’re a curious person, and you see something and wonder “How could that be?” It’s ALWAYS worth it to take a deeper look. We live in a world where content creators are clamoring for your attention, and they know that if they skew a story in certain ways, you’re more likely to click. But that skewing does curiosity a disservice when it tells a story that isn’t there. And it ignores some truly interesting parts of the story, like the fact that fire departments need special training to deal with solar panel fires. That’s a fact I didn’t know today, and it’s not a fact I would have learned from the Independent UK.

Kudos to Sharon Hill for trying to bring the truth to light. She’s performing a service for curious people, everywhere.

Completely unrelated photo to grab your attention. (Photo from Underwriters Laboratory)

Completely unrelated photo to grab your attention. (Photo from Underwriters Laboratory)

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  1. Life can be very difficult and, often, it’s people that make it so. I grew up in an environment full of anger and insult. I learned at a very young age how awful people can be. I find it most unfortunate that the internet has made it easy to engage in the same type of ugly behavior I grew up with but, now, on a massive scale. These types of ill-informed, misleading stories are written solely to generate site traffic by playing to the worst in people – the desire to make fun of someone else so you can feel superior.

    IMO, those who have written reports about that town hall meeting solely as a way of making the people who attended seem stupid, and all those who chose to add to that negativity by sharing those reports with more insulting comments while failing to check the validity of those reports are no better than the people they have chosen to deride. In fact, I would say they are worse. No one is an expert in all things (including all there is to know about every scientific field even if you are a high school science teacher). Being unclear about the science behind solar energy doesn’t make you a bad person. Choosing to make fun of people who aren’t as “smart” or “educated” as yourself does make you a bad person.

    Sorry about my rant, Jeff! I’m just getting so very tired of seeing the internet, which could be the most worthwhile tool ever invented, being used to create a gargantuan garbage dump because people don’t now how to behave like decent human beings.

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