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Ken Ring debate: Skeptics and supporters respond

Top Debate — Ken Ring says he never predicted an earthquake for Christchurch on March 20th – he responds, as do readers.. 

Nick Smith is the Minister responsible for ACC – but some might say he’s just asking to come a cropper.

Smith and the Skeptics Society are planning a lunch in one of Christchurch’s highest, oldest, stone buildings – on the day that “moon man” Ken Ring says the city will be hit by another devastating earthquake. Ring’s prediction of another earthquake on March 20 – a week today – has caused alarm among some Cantabrians, who have said they will flee the city.

But the minister, who has a doctorate in geotechnical engineering, said he took a very dim view of people causing alarm with no scientific underpinning.

“I believe in free speech but just as people should not stand up in a picture theatre and scream fire, people should not be making phony predictions of major earthquakes.”

The Herald on Sunday reported last week that both Ring and television psychic Deb Webber were predicting a further earthquake in the city, to the fury of city leaders and the scientific community. Smith said he was aware of other geologists and earthquake engineers who would also attend next Sunday’s lunch, to “strongly discredit” Ring’s claims.

Smith said he was “surprised and taken aback” by the number of people who had given credence to the prediction.

So, is this the pride before a fall? The ACC minister said no.

“It is important that such nonsense is exposed and people with good science point out the flaws in those who claim they can predict when earthquakes can occur.”

The lunch will be held at noon on March 20 at the Sign of the Kiwi, on the top of the Port Hills – which Smith said was the closest building to the epicentre of the February 22 quake.

Skeptics spokeswoman Vicki Hyde said she wouldn’t be surprised if a shake happened during the lunch because Christchurch had been getting shakes almost every day – “but it wouldn’t have anything to do with what Ken Ring’s been saying”.

Earthquake engineers and geologists are invited to attend the meal, for a discussion about “the earth moving under our feet and what we know and don’t know”.

Hyde said science was about uncertainty – it was “the ones who say they know what’s going to happen” who had to be treated with caution.

She said Ken Ring had scared a lot of people.

“When you get situations where people start to create panic you really do have to say, that’s bulls**t mate.

“Kiwis have a tendency to believe people who demonstrate certainty and have a bad habit of not asking the hard questions.”

– Story by Andre Hueber | Herald on Sunday

Ken Ring response is in the comments below this article


Richard on 23/03/2011 2:51am

Hi all,

Ken Ring’s theories are obviously a subject that people feel passionate about. Words have been thrown around in this debate such as science and anti-science. I don’t want to be a hater on science (my favourite subjects at school), but it’s just another discipline employed by humankind to help us study and understand the world around us. Being a scientist (however you define that) doesn’t make us immune from human traits such as being bigoted, stubborn, tunnel-visioned when it suits us and egocentric.

Science seems to be used in this debate more to align ourselves with our impression of a superior way of thinking than to clarify one’s position. Those of you who have criticised Ken Moon’s comments have a good look at the arguments that you have offered and ask yourself if your arguments satisfy even the most basic requirements of science. Have you faithfully quoted (or even attempted to) Ken Ring in context as he meant his comments? Do you think that you could stand up and explain Ken Ring’s position accurately and dispassionately to a bunch of critics? If you can’t accurately explain Ken Ring’s theories to others as he understands them then you have failed Science 001 (the kindergarten class) in that you haven’t even bothered to accurately observe that which you are attempting to analyse.

I’ve spent all of an hour reading a little of Ken Ring’s material and seen him interviewed by John Campbell. Unless I’m missing something, his theory doesn’t seem that difficult.
1. Cosmic bodies exert observable influences on earth (normal tides, king tides, my mother’s moods etc)
2. When the planets and the moon and the sun are in optimal positions relative to each other, then the effects are cumulative and magnified. This may or may not be linear (I haven’t seem him mention it).
3. When these forces are applied to a system already under stress, then the likelihood of that system failing increase. This might result in extraordinary tidal action, an earthquake, volcanic activity etc.
4. The times of increased risk of these events can be estimated by studying the alignment of the celestial bodies that affect us. The dates that Ken Ring gives for increased risk of these events follow logically from the hypothesis that celestial bodies influence the earth; like that unscientific hypothesis that says that bodies of water on both sides of the planet move up and down as a result of the gravitational influence of the moon.
5. An indication of increased stress simply means an increased likelihood of a correcting event such as an earthquake, volcano etc. It doesn’t make it inevitable and it doesn’t exclude or debunk other factors, whether they be geological or otherwise.

Warning people to take precautions during times of increased risk when you think the information is credible seems to be a sensible and responsible thing to do. Is that the dictionary definition of scaremongering now?

Unless I’ve missed Ken’s appearances on Jerry Springer, Ken’s message always seems to be about taking prudent measures during times of increased risk, rather than apocalyptic or alarmist warnings. The references Ken Ring’s critics make to March 20th always seem to take his comments out of context. I don’t know if this is deliberate or the inability of these critics to grasp the distinction between increased probability and emphatic certainty.

And for those of you who say that a less than certain % prediction rate means that something is unscientific (and I know it’s not everybody’s argument), you might want to be thankful that Thomas Edison didn’t subscribe to your idea of science. Some could say that his 9,999 unsuccessful lightbulbs were failures (that number is exaggerated I hope) before he got the last one right. You could alternatively argue that the search for knowledge is often an iteration through the things that don’t work before you find the things that do. You could also look at the success rate of predicting anything in science and argue that it will likely increase as our methods are refined and improved without compromising the truth of the underlying argument. Any system devised by humans that has increased in efficiency over time is a testament to this.

I don’t know whether Ken Ring’s predictions are accurate, or even whether the hypothesis is sound. I do know that he appears to be one of the few people I have seen in the discussion that appears to be consistent, logical and polite to his opponents. After all, there’s no need to be uncool and throw bananas at each other because we disagree about the weather is there?

westcoast on 26/03/2011 8:54am

Well written
but the thing is, it has not been proven that earthquakes are more likely during these alignments
(and in fact earthquake scientists have looked for a correlation and have only found a weak one (just above background noise) for small aftershocks, which if that is true, then its not going to be a concern)
and so his predictions are just making people more worried than they should be on any day in an area that is getting on going aftershocks
yes people living in an area that is getting on going aftershocks need to be prepared for a bigger than average aftershock, which the GNS scientists said was 5% chance on the 20th any way (for a aftershock 1 ricther scale less than the original (i.e the 6.3 (which was a near enough 1 ricther scale less than the first one at 7.1 (i.e there was not likley to be one bigger than 5.3 anyway, which would have caused only minor problems)

Richard on 28/03/2011 12:18pm

Thanks, and I appreciate your comments. My point however is not about whether Ken Ring is right or wrong. I haven’t read enough about his or his critics’ points of view to have an opinion either way.

My biggest concern is how antagonistic people seem to be towards somebody who is simply expressing his opinion in what appears to be good faith. Some of the views here even go so far as to hold Ken Ring accountable for other people’s fear. How is that reasonable? If GNS were to state a specific probability of a magnitude 6 quake in a certain month we take that as a given, but if Ken Ring suggests something similar using an alternative theory he’s ridiculed and even vilified as being a scaremonger.

If this were a rational argument, would we not just accept that Ken Ring has a different opinion than the mainstream and rate the quality of his information according to our beliefs? How do we get to the point that his character is being attacked and his motives questioned, simply for having an alternative point of view?

History is littered with cases of those who offer an alternative, or contradictory, view to the mainstream being marginalised in some way. Ignaz Semmelweis was a pioneer of hygienic practices in medicine (obstetrics specifically) in the mid 19th century. His proposition that medical practitioners contributed to the morbidity rate of childbirths by not observing basic hygiene (washing hands and changing into clean scrubs) was met with ridicule by his peers. Despite overwhelming observational evidence and his reduction of mortality rates at Vienna General Hospital from 18% to almost zero, his theories were rejected until after his death (and the publishing of Louis Pasteur’s work on germ theory). Hundreds of women and children died needlessly because practitioners rejected a simple regime of washing hands and observing basic cleanliness. As it turns out, he was right, but he might not have been. Either way, we would have known sooner had his arguments been considered rationally.

You’ve mentioned that earthquake scientists have looked at the relationship between celestial bodies and earthquakes and see no clear pattern. This might seem definitive, but it probably isn’t. Most people take it as gospel, and our kids are still taught, that milk is good for healthy, strong bones and general good health. Few people in NZ are told about research that directly links dairy products to early onset of diabetes, artheroschlerosis and heart failure. And, believe it or not, linked to an increase in osteoperosis in older women; the exact opposite of what the dairy industry claims. There are often more alternative views to what we consider obvious knowledge than we’re aware of, and sometimes the heretic turns out to be the visonary.

Information is information. The more we have, particularly from diverse points of view, the more able we are to make informed decisions. The more we suppress, either directly or through our hostility to the bearer of the alternative view, the more entrenched in ignorance we are likely to become. If we really think that Ken Ring’s arguments are spurious or without merit, then surely we can just politely nod and be thankful that he’s keeping those guys in the labcoats on their toes. Either way, I personally don’t see how it’s reasonable for us to hold him responsible for all those who are fearful of a second opinion.

Guest on 20/03/2011 5:44pm

Forearmed, forwarned, is what I say about Ken’s predictions. What is wrong with him giving people a choice. I think he knows just as much about the possibility of earthquakes, as the so called Scientists.
If the skeptics were so confident about there theory, and the rubbishing of Ken Ring, why are they talking about it so much. They must be worried, or else they would shut up and get on with there own ideals.
You don’t have to act on what Ken Ring says, it is quite easy to ignore isn’t it.
The MEDIA are the ones they have scared people, there talking about Ken Ring, on every TV broadcast and Radio. WHY? Shut up media and stop scaring people, and stop blaming Ken Ring.

I am a very open minded person.

Stuart on 20/03/2011 6:33pm

I’m open minded too, but sadly Ken has been proven that he can’t do this. Which means you can be just as forewarned by someone random in the street. That’s the whole arguement here – it’s not about sensoring people, it’s about someone that has – in fact – been proven that he can’t predict massive quakes. The quake that happened last night was just part of the many aftershocks that city has had. People seem to forget that GeoNet predicted, more accurately too, the series of aftershocks. Should Ken be allowed to predict quakes? Absolutely. We all have a right to do that actually. But people are so desperate to believe him that they are overlooking the facts – his track record isn’t accurate. That’s not attacking him – that is simply fact. He didn’t even pick the Boxing Day earthquake in Chch which was far stronger and more damaging than last nights little quake which caused no damage. I agree with one thing you said – the media should stop talking about him. By mentioning him they are elevating his importance.

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