1080 – What’s all the Fuss?

The 2009 Bent Spoon Award went to the anti-1080 “Poisoning Paradise” film, which engendered a great deal of response, some of it valedictory, some of it vituperative.
More on the Bent Spoon
More on the reactions

This was followed by a report in the Herald on Sunday that stated “tests” by an electroacupuncture machine had demonstrated that Hauraki Gulf marine life were being killed by poison drops. We responded to that, as did the Department of Conservation.
More on the Herald on Sunday article
More on the DoC response

Given all the heat and misinformation generated by this, it was excellent to see a straightforward report by Vicki Wilkinson-Baker on One News.
See the report on the One News site

We are working on an extended article on 1080 and the general levels of FUD (fear doubt and uncertainty) that surround this issue, in the hopes of shining some sensible discussion and actual facts on the issue. Watch this space!

Skeptics Slam Scare Stories as Endangering the Environment

A documentary which highlights the “distress, cruelty, horror, ecocide, cover-ups and contamination” involved in 1080-based pest control has won the Bent Spoon brickbat from the NZ Skeptics for 2009.

“Poisoning Paradise – Ecocide in New Zealand” claims that 1080 kills large numbers of native birds, poisons soils, persists in water and interferes with human hormones. Hunters-cum-documentary makers Clyde and Steve Graf believe that 1080 has “stuffed the venison business”, and have been travelling the country showing their film since March.

The NZ Skeptics, along with other groups, are concerned that wide media coverage and nation-wide screenings of “Poisoning Paradise” will lead to a political push, rather than a scientifically based one, to drop 1080 as a form of pest control, with nothing effective to replace it. United Future leader Peter Dunne appeared in the film, and described 1080 as “an indiscriminate untargeted killer”. Emotions run high in the debate, with one anti-1080 campaigner going so far as to hijack a helicopter at gunpoint and last month threatening to die on Mount Tongariro unless the documentary received prime-time billing.

“Members of the NZ Skeptics are involved in various conservation efforts across the country. They have seen first-hand the effectiveness of 1080 drops and the brutal ineffectiveness of attempts to control pests by trapping and hunting, even in the smaller fenced arks, let alone in more rugged, isolated areas like Hawdon Valley or Kahurangi National Park,” says Skeptics Chair-entity Vicki Hyde.

“People say that 1080 is cruel – so is a possum when it rips the heads off kokako chicks. Environmental issues aren’t simple. We are forever walking a difficult balancing act. At this stage, 1080 is the best option for helping our threatened species hang on or, even better, thrive. It would be devastating for our wildlife were we to abandon this.”

Hyde has a particular interest in this area, having served for eight years on the Possum Biocontrol Bioethics Committee, alongside representatives from Forest & Bird, the RNZSPCA and Ngai Tahu. Over the past 20 years she has seen 1080 use become more effective with the advent of better knowledge and application methods, and acknowledges that there is always room for improvement.

“We would dearly love a quick, cheap, humane, highly targeted means of getting rid of possums and other pests but until that day comes, we cannot ignore the clear and present danger to our native wildlife. To do so would be environmentally irresponsible in the extreme.”

Hyde notes that people should be careful in taking documentaries at face value. A 2007 TV3 documentary “Let Us Spray”, and related news material, has just been cited as unbalanced, inaccurate and unfair by the Broadcasting Standards Authority.

“We tend to assume that documentaries are balanced and tell us the whole story, but the increased use of advocacy journalism doesn’t mean this is always the case. After all, remember that psychic charades in programmes like ‘Sensing Murder’ are marketed as reality programmes!”

The NZ Skeptics also applaud the following, with Bravo Awards, for demonstrating critical thinking over the past year:

  • Rebecca Palmer, for her article The Devil’s in the Details (The Dominion Post 15 June 2009) pointing out that the makutu case owed more to “The Exorcist” than to tikanga Maori.

    “Exorcism rituals, regardless of where they come from, have been shown to harm people, psychologically and physically. There are over 1,000 cases of murder, death and injury recorded on the whatstheharm.net website purely as a result of exorcisms reported in the Western world press over the past 15 years. There are thousands more that occur, for the most part unregarded, in places like Africa, South America or Papua New Guinea. These are all needless victims, often injured by people who care for them and who tragically just didn’t stop to think about the nature of what they were doing.”

  • Closeup for Hannah Ockelford’s piece Filtering the Truth (11 Sept 2009), regarding the dodgy sales tactics by an Australian organisation which claims that New Zealand’s tap water can cause strokes, heart attacks, cancer and miscarriages. Paul Henry described the Australian promoter as a shyster using scare tactics targeting vulnerable people.

    “This sort of solid investigative reporting makes a welcome change from the celeb and animal stories that so often pass for news and current affairs these days.”

  • Rob Harley and Anna McKessar for their documentary The Worst That Could Happen (Real Crime, TV1, 29 July 2009). They took a hard look at the increasing tendency for accusations of accessing computer porn to be made on unfounded grounds, and how it can have devastating consequences for people.

    “Unprotected Internet use can be as life-changing as unprotected sex. It is disturbingly easy to have your computer unwittingly contaminated, and that makes people very vulnerable to job dismissals or even prosecutions on the most circumstantial of evidence.”

  • Colin Peacock and Jeremy Rose of Mediawatch on Radio New Zealand National

    “Every week Colin and Jeremy cast a critical eye on New Zealand media. That’s something we all should be doing in demanding that we get thoughtful, informed news and analysis from our media.”

You’ve got Mail – Initial Reactions to the Bent Spoon

An inspired bent spoon award and a truly important contribution to NZ wildlife conservation!

Please stop making silly statements about stuff you eat up from Forest and Bird folks. These people spend time and effort finding strange ways of deluding others. Try and talk to the workers in our bush and see what they have to say about the way things really are. If you folks keep on the track you are going, we will be hearing things like, cyanide is good for you because it occurs naturally in almonds. Get off the 1080 case. Learn some stuff first. Then make statements.

1080 poisoning may be a necessary evil but there is no comparison between dying a slow agonizing poison induced death and having your head ripped off in a swift natural act of nature.

The feathered / furry cuteness of the victim does not change the agony.

Despite a personal hatred of people who go hunting as ‘sport’ I suspect that no one who has been brought close to death by poison would countenance widespread poisoning as acceptably humane.

This is a brilliant [award]. Makes me proud to be a Skeptic.

Thank you, a GREAT choice for the bent spoon.

I expect a great deal of stirring will be done with said bent spoon but maybe the blunt end will pry open a few minds.

I know that the pattern of 1080 air drops in the Tararuas is to be changed to areas of no drops, 6 yearly and 3 yearly, bowing to the hunting lobby pressure. A ten year bird count is to start in October/ November this year to monitor birds in the three zones. I believe drops are currently done every 6 years – not enough to save mistletoe – drops every three years should do that.

You lot make me laugh.I bet you have never been out in the bush and seen what 1080 does.Footage not enough for ya .Believe everything the government tells you.You live in youre own self important world.fkn tossers the lot if you.Believe in god? lmfao.

You wankers – you obviously have no proof for your point of view, but obviously are swayed by popular politics and the need to get on TV while you have a nice little conference.

If the skeptics can bring some sense into debates such as this, we are not just having a bit of fun; we have a mission.

In fact the scientific evidence is overwhelming (not merely adequate) that 1080 is a very effective poison for killing pests in native forest especially where it is not feasible to use other methods (such as individually controlled bait lines and traps). While there may be some bycatch of non-target species such as native and endemic birds the main effect far outweighs this. There is a significant regeneration of flora and fauna after the use of 1080.

Nevertheless despite an array of equally unsound evidence, and after an extremely comprehensive review, ERMA certified the continued use of 1080. One of its merits is that unlike some other poisons (such as brodifacoum) it biodegrades extremely quickly.

[There is concern that the film it could] stimulate so much resistance to the use of 1080 that DOC might be forced to stop using it with the concomitant result that conservation would be significantly retarded.

Obviously deer hunters are not going to be fans of 1080 but then deer are a pest that needs to be controlled (and ideally exterminated completely) if one wants to allow the forest to regenerate.

I recall that we gave the Bent Spoon Award some years ago to those who were promoting possum peppering as a means to control possums. I suggest that using pseudo science and anecdote to denigrate the use of 1080 through the film ‘Poisoning Paradise’ is likely to be much more deleterious for sound science-based conservation in New Zealand.

Please continue your fight for rationality on this stuff, our native wildlife needs you!

Poisons Story Shows April Fool Comes Early for Herald on Sunday

Correction: Herald on Sunday Made the Gaffe, not the NZ Herald
A senior member of the NZ Herald’s editorial department has taken us to task for using the NZ Herald’s name in our initial response to the Herald on Sunday EAV story, stating that the story was not run in the New Zealand Herald.
We apologise for assuming that the Herald on Sunday was part of the NZ Herald’s operations. We were confused by the fact that the online material is run under the NZ Herald masthead, within the nzherald.co.nz domain name with no indication on the byline that the Herald on Sunday edition was a separate stand-alone publication. They share common ownership, a common contact page and the corporate website lists them as one with one common link (New Zealand Herald & Herald on Sunday).

We thought initially that the comment was an attempt to distance the senior paper from its more tabloid sub-species, but that’s apparently not the case. The editor tasked us to live up to our own standards of accuracy, hence this correction.

In closing, when dealing with shonky claims and gullible stories, we often say if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. In this case, it’s clearly a mallard….

A claim that you can detect poisons in Haruaki Gulf marine life via a discredited electro-acupuncture technique has been swallowed whole cloth by the Herald on Sunday.

The paper printed the claim (September 27) under the heading “Samples positive for poison”, citing campaigner Sarah Silverstar. Marine birds, oysters and dog vomit were apparently “tested in an Auckland clinic by EAV machine” and found to contain brodifacoum and 1080.

EAV machines combine acupuncture with tiny measurements of the skin’s electrical resistance, claiming variously to map energy imbalances, detect AIDs viruses or correct imbalances in the immune system. Although popular in the alternative health industry, a number of civil, criminal and professional board actions around the globe have been taken against proponents for misleading claims, false advertising and even manslaughter.

“This is like saying your fridge magnet can tell if you have swine flu,” says Vicki Hyde, Chair of the NZ Skeptics. “What’s next – will the Herald’s political reporters recommend that Parliament sit only when the Moon is in Scorpio? Or will they get their weather page information from chicken entrails?”

There is a serious point to these examples, says Hyde.

“With more media employing less experienced journalists, we can expect more truly silly stories to be run by the press. The tragedy in this case is that it involves important issues for the New Zealand environment.”

The claims were made despite many different bodies citing testing by independent scientists, veterinary surgeons and pathologists which showed no symptoms of such poisoning in the dogs, dolphins, penguins, fish and shellfish checked. Information on these results is publicly available on the Department of Conservation website. Furthermore, 1080 has not been used on any Gulf Islands since at least 2004.

Sarah Silverstar even admitted in her original email that testing by a reputable body showed there was no detectable traces at all in the penguin samples, but rejected this evidence.

“so what? these EAV test results prove the EXTREME sensitivity of life to these toxins. We are talking parts per billion, parts per trillion.”
[all errors/cap in original]

“We wish that the Herald’s reporters had taken a moment to wonder what EAV testing did and whether it was a credible claim,” says Hyde. “By all means critique the use of 1080 – that’s how application practices have improved over the years, after all – and keep looking for better alternatives. But our native flora and fauna, and how we save them from introduced pests, are far too important issues to be treated so naively.”

Links to Materials Mentioned in the Story

Back to the top

DOC questions poison claims

Press Release by Department of Conservation at 4:38 pm, 28 Sep 2009

The Department of Conservation is urging Waiheke Island environmental group Ocean Aware to have samples of marine birds, oysters and dog vomit independently tested by accredited laboratories.

The Herald on Sunday reported yesterday that Ocean Aware’s Sarah Silverstar had carried out tests on samples collected from Rangitoto and Waiheke using an EAV machine. Ocean Aware claimed the tests showed brodifacoum or 1080 in all samples – including one Waiheke resident.

The newspaper neglected to mention that EAV machines, often used by holistic health centres, simply measure the electrical resistance of the skin. They are not used by accredited laboratories for diagnostic testing.

“How such a machine could possibly register the presence of brodifacoum or 1080 is beyond belief – we have not used 1080 on any Gulf islands for over six years,” says DOC’s acting Auckland Area manager Phil Brown.

“It’s very concerning that Ocean Aware is relying on pseudoscience to test their samples. If they are really concerned they should urgently commission tests – particularly for the local Waiheke resident – from accredited testing laboratories.”

Phil Brown said it was also a major concern that Ocean Aware apparently ignored earlier test results on penguins – that they themselves had commissioned from independent laboratory Landcare – which came back negative for brodifacoum.

National Poisons Centre director Wayne Temple says the poison centre “does not support the use of EAV testing since it is a methodology which has not been scientifically validated.”

“Some practitioners make very wild claims about EAV testing and what it is capable of diagnosing. The US FDA has banned importation of EAV devices into the United States and warned or prosecuted some marketers,” he says

NZ Food Safety Authority toxicologist John Reeve says that EAV testing was investigated in the 1980s and was “thoroughly discredited”.

“It has never been scientifically validated.Attempts to have it scientifically tested during the 2,4,5-T debate were turned down,” he says.

Phil Brown says the latest claims seem to be part of an ongoing misinformation campaign to undermine the Department’s pest-eradication programmes and the use of both 1080 and brodifacoum.

Tests commissioned by DOC – which revealed low-level traces of brodifacoum in some of the penguins tested – were carried out by independent laboratory Landcare.

Ken Ring

Ken RingKen Ring was once a maths teacher with a good line in puzzles and conundrums. As such, many years ago he was the opening entertainment act for an NZ Skeptics Conference (NB not a keynote speaker, as has sometimes been claimed). More recently, he has gained notoriety for his claims to be able to provide long-range weather forecasts and, even more controversially, earthquake predictions.

Ken’s claims should have been critically examined by the media early on. If he were right, then we would have a very valuable tool that could save lives and property; and Ken would have a shot at the Nobel Prize. If he were wrong, people needed to know not to believe his predictions, and not to bother acting on them (beyond the sensible injunction to be prepared for a civil emergency). Keep an open mind by all means, but that also means you should be willing to discard ideas — even your favourite ones — if they don’t actually reflect reality.

After examining Ken’s claims, his observations, his methods, his predictions, the NZ Skeptics can only conclude that he is, in fact, incorrect in his beliefs. It appears unlikely that Ken will ever admit that possibility — it’s very uncommon for people to consider alternative explanations other than their own. However, his over-extended 15 minutes of fame may be coming to an end as the New Zealand media finally seems to be coming to the conclusion that Ken belongs in the same category as their reports on psychics, talking dogs and images of Christ found in burnt toast. Here’s some facts, and how the story has played out.

Let’s Look at the Evidence

What do the observations tell us?

Ken says that “Earthquakes cluster more around full moon times as is evidenced by most of the big ones in history”. He also says you get major earthquakes when the Full Moon comes at perigee, when the Moon is physically closer to the Earth.

That’s pretty straightforward to check out. What do you see when you map major earthquakes and the Full Moon or the perigee?

Here’s one graph, courtesy of SillyBeliefs.com, which we think is pretty darned clear:

That shows the months with the perigee and the Full Moon lined up down the centre. The blue squares mark 32 major earthquakes in New Zealand.

If Ken Ring was right, the blue squares should all line up on or close to the centre line of either chart. But they don’t. They are scattered all over the place. As Phil Plait said on BadAstronomy.com, the relationship should scream from the data — but it just doesn’t.

Even his basic facts are often wrong. Ken siad that the closest moon in 2010 “brought the Haiti earthquake”. But the closest moon approach on January 30th was a good two weeks after the Haiti earthquake of January 12. If you want to see other basic blunders which call into account his credibility and accuracy, take a look at the article Ken Ring’s False Claims, courtesy of the SillyBeliefs website. As they put it:

These demonstrate a gross ignorance of real science, incompetence at performing basic research, and a clear indication that we should have no confidence that true science or history supports Ring’s claims.

So Ken’s proposal has failed the first critical test of any idea — the observations do not match the assertions.

Other Commentary
  • Ken Ring and Earthquake Clusters from SillyBeliefs.com
  • Open letter to TVNZ Closeup:Mr Ring’s “predictions” always have a bob each way, so that having scared the bejesus out of people in Christchurch with his nonsense, if a large earthquake fails to occur then he will point to his website where he says that a quake might not happen. This kind of weaseling is a hallmark of pseudoscience. So why did you give his “predictions” airtime and attempt to convince people they were correct? What did you hope to achieve? Was it done to try to attract an audience for your advertising clients, with absolutely no regard to the emotional consequences for an already shattered populace in Christchurch? When TV3 tried the same stunt and interviewed Mr Ring, my 9-year old daughter burst into tears in fear of March 20th.
  • Ken Ring: he’s wrong about everything:These predictions, made by an arrogant, ignorant, and foolish astrologer have somehow persuaded members of my community – friends and neighbours – that there is a real risk of a major earthquake in North Canterbury some time over this weekend. Some have left home, others have admitted being unsettled by the “moon man” and his predictions. For people who have already lived through two major earthquakes, suffered the knife-edge uncertainty of repeated aftershocks, stressed and traumatised by the loss of loved ones, the sort of “opinions” offered by Ken Ring are the worst kind of medicine. But the real responsibility for the stress being foisted on my friends is not Ring’s – charlatan and hypocrite though he is – it lies with the people who give him credibility, the newspapers who publish his weather columns and fishing hints, the radio stations that give him air time, and the TV stations who have credulously interviewed him or reported his earthquake predictions and their impact on the Canterbury population
  • No need for alarm over Ring’s quake prediction:It is only natural to seek certainty, particularly in fraught times. There is, therefore, comfort of sorts in being advised when a quake will strike. But there is also heightened alarm. When people say they plan to flee Christchurch on the predicted day of danger, it is time for the scientific community to speak up.

Is there any independent verification?

Any real observation should be obvious to other people. Science checks itself by encouraging independent verification by others.

Lots of geologists, astronomers and interested members of the public have looked at the data Ken claims supports his assertions, but can’t find any relationship.

We do know that the Moon has an effect on Earth — science has measured the tiny tremors that arise, but it takes sensitive equipment because they are very small and tend to hide in the background noise from local earthquakes. There’s no question about those — they have been measured and independently verified over the past 40 years.

Independent verification helps avoid confirmation bias — the tendency for people to see patterns they want to see. It also means that you have a better chance of finding unbiased data. Because of this we think that it’s very important to look beyond Ken’s own website for evidence and comment. (There’s also a rather disturbing tendency for the content on that to be modified or deleted if it turns out to look bad for the theory. That’s not a good sign of legitimate inquiry.)

As far as we know, not one qualified geologist or astronomer supports Ken’s claims. Not one. The main support we’ve seen in the media is coming from a frightened public, a US astrologer, a world champion canoeist and a pop star. Testimonials are not considered a valid type of independent evidential support, much in all as they are beloved in the more dodgy parts of the commercial world….

How good is the predictive power?

Last year, after the Sept 4 earthquake, Ken said at various times:

…it seems unlikely that as large an earthquake (as 4 Sept) will occur in the same place. I would still not consider that another massive earthquake is certain, in fact I think it’s more likely not to be the case in Christchurch. I can only repeat that other well-known earthquakes in NZ’s history have not, as a rule revisited the same site

…my guess is that these aftershocks will end soon for Christchurch, probably around the end of November.

…it is reasonable to relax and assume that another devastating shake is unlikely to repeat anytime soon, despite a seismology-department knee-jerk reaction that a 6+ mag. earthquake aftershock could be arriving in the district at any time.

…There is no reason to suppose any aftershocks of significance will occur…

Sadly he was very, very wrong.

Of this year’s Hokitika WildFoods Festival, Ken said that there was a chance of an Alpine Fault rupture but “more probability of an extreme weather event”. He said there should be Civil Defense preparations as he predicted “gale westerlies and much rain”. In fact, it was a gloriously sunny West Coast day with temperatures over 20 degrees.

Wrong again.

(See the full report here. And our congratulations to Janna Sherman and the Greymouth Star for running a news story about a non-event!)

His most infamous prediction has been that of the March 20 “moon-shot” just before noon which “could be another one for the history books”. A magnitude of 8.2 was widely reported to be likely in Canterbury or Marlborough, and this caused an estimated 50,000 Cantabrians to leave the city, frightened by the possibility of living through another, even worse, city-leveller.

He was wrong about that too.

This has been one of the few times Ken has been specific, but even then he attempted to muddy the waters by broadening the date to 19-21 March, or possibly a week either side or possibly “an extreme weather event worldwide” or perhaps a risk of a much smaller 4-6 magnitude earthquake within 500kms of the Alpine Fault (which covers all of the South Island and a significant part of the North Island too!). By the time he started stating “it could be anywhere in NZ, or it may not even happen at all”, the whole thing really was becoming farcical.

We are very familiar with this kind of tactic — it’s the same sort of thing we see from psychics, mediums and others in the pseudo-prediction industry. In fact, many of Ken’s techniques have these familiar hallmarks, which casts a great deal of doubt on his credibility. As does his belief that dolphins beam sonar signals to the Moon, there there is an ancient astrological energy grid in the constellations, and that ancient stone circles in Dargaville indicate an Indo/Egypto/European culture existed in NZ many thousands of years ago. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks….

Yes, we did have an aftershock on the 20th — a mag 5 a little before 10pm. Some people have chosen to see this as vindication of Ken’s prediction, despite it being over a thousand times less powerful than predicted, 10 hours later than predicted, and part of the expected pattern of aftershocks of the February 22 quake.

But consider this — say the weatherman predicts a howling southerly with driving sleet and gale-force winds, so you cancel your beach party. It turns out to be a brilliant day. Later that night a quick light shower passes through and the weatherman says “ha, told you so!”. Would you feel he had lived up to his prediction?

No? No-one would be impressed. And we don’t think you should be impressed by Ken Ring either.

Celebrating a Non-Event

It’s not every day to get together to celebrate something not happening. But it’s important to remember when things don’t happen if that lack can teach you something. Here’s the press release we put out to announce our Ken Ring Non-Event Lunch, followed by the short presentation given at the lunch by long-time skeptic Vicki Hyde, and by clinical psychologist Mark Ottley. (The lunch was great, and uninterrupted by earthquakes, in case you’re wondering.)

Moon Man Non-Event Lunch Planned

Members of the New Zealand Skeptics, geologists, earthquake engineers, MP Nick Smith and NewstalkZB morning host Sean Plunket are to gather for a lunch on top of the Port Hills in Christchurch on March 20th, the time when so-called “Moon Man” Ken Ring has predicted a large earthquake for the battered region. The get-together is aimed at quelling the unfounded fears people have in attributing credibility to Ring’s predictive abilities.

“There may well be a tremor then – we’re getting multiple after- shocks every day after all – but it will have nothing to do with the phase of the Moon, the position of Jupiter, dolphins beaming sonar signals to the Moon, the existence of Indo/Egypto/European culture in NZ thousands of years ago, or any of the other truly odd ideas that Mr Ring has espoused,” says Skeptics media spokesperson Vicki Hyde.

Ring has gained a great deal of opportunistic publicity on the back of allegedly predicting the February 22nd earthquake. The Skeptics note that, like psychics, tea-leaf readers, astrologers and others of that ilk, the predictions have been very vague beforehand, and are given a veneer of accuracy only after the event.

The March 20 prediction has already undergone some morphing from an apparently definite magnitude 8 in Canterbury/Marlborough to the chance of an “extreme event” sometime around March 19-21, to “it could be anywhere in NZ, or it may not even happen at all”. What’s the use of that, Hyde asks, comparing it to saying that it might be rainy today or sunny or somewhere in between.

“At times like these, we think it is irresponsible to allow anyone to exploit the understandable anxieties of Christchurch residents,” says Hyde, herself at one stage an earthquake evacuee. “People should understand that these predictions are just like the one last year claiming that giant bats would attack South America – and have just as much value.”

After last September’s earthquake Ring stated “I would still not consider that another massive earthquake is certain, in fact I think it’s more likely not to be the case in Christchurch.

The Skeptics in the Pub group had been discussing a possible March 20 gathering, but Christchurch members have lost their usual Twisted Hop watering hole as it is within the CBD cordon. The idea for the lunch came about during a discussion between Hyde and Smith. The MP, who has a PhD in geo-technical engineering from Canterbury University, was once given a Bravo Award from the Skeptics for speaking out against mediums exploiting the disappearance of Marlborough pair Ben Smart and Olivia Hope.

“The NZ Skeptics do a real public service in exposing these pseudo-science claims that the timing of earthquakes can be predicted. The last thing needed by the thousands of traumatised people in Canterbury, including elderly and children, is junk science and made- up predictions of future major quakes,” says Smith. “This lunch is about taking a stand for robust science, including its limitations, and ensuring we make sound decisions for managing the risks of earthquakes.”

Geologists and earthquake engineers are being invited as representatives of other groups incensed by Ring’s pronouncements. The group plans to have lunch, MC’d by Sean Plunket, at the Sign of the Kiwi, which from its Port Hills vantage point overlooks both Lyttelton and the Canterbury Plains. It is also the closest highest caf&#eacute; to the epicentre of the February 22nd earthquake.

“It was the highest place we could find that was accessible, is a lovely heritage building that has come through both quakes, and has great food. We get to support a local business while highlighting the problems of giving too much credibility to pseudo-science. It’ll be a great event,” says Hyde.

Janice Thornton, the caf&#eacute; owner-operator, is pleased that the fear-mongering engendered by Ring is being addressed and delighted that her hilltop caf&#eacute; is the chosen venue.

“The Kiwi is still flying high,” she says.

Let’s be frightened of real dangers

— like contaminated water and ignorance

People want reassurance about the future — we seek some kind of certainty, whether in the form of three-year political plans, saving for retirement, or looking for comfort in the various forms of crystal ball that try to make guesswork and psychological manipulation look like the truth.

If I could have a dollar for the number of predictions of devastating earthquakes I have heard over the years, I could damned near fund the rebuilding of Christchurch myself. If I had to rely on the predictions that turned out to be correct – I couldn’t even buy a coffee.

In 1989, an Elim preacher prophesied a major earthquake in Taupo would cause devastation across the country. A small tremor some weeks out from the alleged date saw people ring regional Civil Defence officers, frightened that it was a forerunner. Church members took their children out of school and waited for the big one that never came.

It wasn’t the earthquake prediction which concerned me at the time – it was having a Minister of Civil Defence who said the Bible had predicted an increasing rash of earthquakes and he could see that happening. The rest of us resorted to more factual sources and noted that there had been no such increase.

We had more earthquake predictions throughout the 1990s in the run-up to the millennium, including the hoary old annual one of San Francisco falling into the sea. It’s not there yet. Fundamentalists, psychics and astrologers every year predict massive earthquakes, along with other end of the world scenarios, cometary impacts, giant bat attacks, the rising of Atlantis. They are invariably wrong.

I didn’t worry about the pseudo-predictions of earthquakes then and I don’t worry about them now.

What I do worry about is the very real psychological harm that inevitably accompanies such predictions, particularly when they are reported by an uncritical, uninformed media. Facts may whisper, but fear screams.

I worry about groups like the ominously named Ukrainian White Brotherhood who caused riots and bloodshed in their shaky nation in preparation for their earthquake apocalypse.

I feel sorry for the believers who sold their businesses and their homes in New Zealand and abroad, to meet the end of the world predicted by a Korean fraudster. I guess one thing to be said for him: at least he didn’t tell his followers to bring their world to a real end by mass suicide. It’s been known to happen.

I worry about the Cantabrians who end up with unnecessary psychological stress heaped on an already deservedly anxious frame of mind because they believe in the likes of Ken Ring’s pronouncements regarding a massive earthquake happening here on this day at this hour.

Ken’s beliefs do not match the facts. When you plot full moons or close approaches against major earthquakes, there is no relationship whatsoever. As astronomer Phil Plait said, the Moon orbits the Earth every month, and there are thousands of earthquakes every year, so any correlation between the two would scream out of the data. It doesn’t.

Even more disturbing is the apparent willingness to fudge the data. Ken has claimed, for example, that the closest moon in 2010 brought the Haiti earthquake. The closest moon approach was January 30th; but the Haiti earthquake had already occurred two weeks earlier, on January 12.

You have to ask, how many times does Ken have to be self-contradictory or just plain wrong before people give up listening to him? But it’s rare for any coverage of non-events as that’s not news, so people get a false impression of Ken’s accuracy.

I have to commend Janna Sherman from the Greymouth Star for covering another Ken Ring non-event — the earthquake and wild weather that did not demolish the Wildfoods Festival this year. Ken had hedged his bets by saying that there was a chance of an Alpine Fault rupture but “more probability of an extreme weather event”. He said there should be Civil Defense preparations as he predicted “gale westerlies and much rain”.

In fact, it was a gloriously sunny West Coast day with temperatures over 20 degrees.

As with psychics, mediums, astrologers and the like, Ken’s claims have changed over time, broadening out from the semi-specific to a meaningless morass that allows him to reinterpret facts to his benefit. It can be tricky to track as website content becomes modified or even disappears if it proves inconvenient — the SillyBeliefs.com team have done a great job keeping an eye on the comings and goings.

Late last year Ken said the aftershocks following the September 4 earthquake would end in November, and that there was no reason to suppose any aftershocks of significance would occur. Yeah right. Don’t we all wish he’d got that correct!

Then he said that the 20th March would see a big earthquake risk for the South Island, with a moon-shot straight t hrough the centre of the earth just before noon, targeting NZ, specifically the east/west fault lines of Marlborough and Canterbury. “It could be another one for the history books, he reckoned. The magnitude of 8.2 has been widely promulgated and that certainly has made Cantabrians nervous.

Possibly the media attention has made Ken a little nervous too. In responding to comments on SciBlogs, Ken resiled from his big earthquake prediction and changed it to possibly “an extreme weather event worldwide” with the risk of a much smaller 4-6 magnitude earthquake within 500kms of the Alpine Fault. That covers all of the South Island and a fair amount of the North. Presumably if there’s a 4.2 quake in Te Anau or the Wairarapa, Ring will claim a success.

And, just to hedge the bets even further, Ring has also stated elsewhere that something may happen between March 19 to 21, noting that “The Alpine Fault itself seems to be fairly inactive at the moment. However, as we have said, it could be anywhere in NZ, or it may not even happen at all.”

Would you pay attention to a weather forecaster who tells you that it’s going to be sunny tomorrow or maybe rainy or a bit in between or something else entirely?

No, and no-one should pay attention to the pronouncements of Ken Ring either.

I have been asked why give this man the oxygen of publicity? Wouldn’t we be better off by ignoring him and ignoring the concerns of our frightened friends and neighbours. To paraphrase a famous quote that we all should bear in mind:

For a dangerous idiocy to succeed requires only that good people say nothing.

Science on the Mount

Clinical psychologist Mark Ottley spoke movingly of the need to build stronger minds as well as stronger buildings in the aftermath of the February 22 earthquake. Here is an excerpt; here is the full text.

We have frequently seen the strength of calm science and reason,that so boosts the practical effect of our compassion and courage. Kia Kaha, rather than blind superstitious panic. Amongst my patients, the most common response to doomsayers crying wolf (beyond indifference, and I avoid bringing the issue up unless they mention it), has been what I would term altruistic anger. This is really quite beautiful, in that, despite their own losses, they are motivated by concern for others they perceive as more vulnerable. For unfortunately, we do also have some people who are more vulnerable to the distress caused by such scaremongering, especially children.

Amongst those alarmed, there are also those who fail to consider the evidence against, and those who have a strong psychological intolerance to uncertainty. Including, if I was to be kind, doomsayers who see patterns where there are none in the sequence of earthquakes, AND fail to appreciate patterns where there definitely are some — and the unnecessary distress they cause to people who have suffered so much already.

In schools, families, and the media, we teach ways of preventing physical injury in earthquakes. I think we can also do more in these institutions, to reduce the numbers of people affected by this sort of psychological vulnerability to maladaptive belief. For example, we can do more to teach the principles of paying attention to disconfirming evidence, and tolerating uncertainty. These are processes often utilised in psychological therapy by the way. Read the rest of it here.