Forum

SCIENCE has not “progressed only by slow cautious steps” as Piers McLaren claims (Forum, Spring 2004), but by great bold ones. Scientists should resist new ideas but it is a myth that they do so irrationally. Contrary to Maclaren’s letter, quantum theory rapidly won the day. Planck published in 1900, Einstein in 1905, in 1913 Bohr produced a quantum structure for an atom. By 1922 all three had won Nobel prizes for work on quantum theory.

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Hokum Locum

If you don’t get the answers you want from a Government inquiry, press for another inquiry. Vietnam war veterans have continued such a campaign and have produced a map to confirm that they were present in areas that were sprayed with the defoliant under the US Army “Operation Ranch Hand”.

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Newsfront

The small Pennsylvania town of Dover has become the latest battleground in the creation/evolution war. If it survives a legal test, this school district of 2800 children could become the first in the US to require that high school science teachers at least mention “intelligent design” (ID) theory (Dominion Post, 31 December). In October, the board passed this motion: “Students will be made aware of gaps and problems in Darwin’s theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design. Note: Origins of Life is not taught.”

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Ring Around the Moon

Neither theory nor observation support claims that lunar cycles can be used to forecast the weather

Ken Ring of Titirangi is New Zealand’s best known proponent of the idea that the Moon is an accurate weather forecasting tool. He publicly scoffs at official forecasters and climate scientists for ignoring the lunar effect, and the news media love him.

In 1999 he self-published a book expounding his theory (Predicting the Weather by the Moon). He willingly addresses community groups. He has his own website, www.predictweather.com, where he sells forecasts and peddles his theories, and he publishes an annual Almanac of daily weather forecasts for the coming year for 57 New Zealand towns. His theory can be summarised as follows: It is well known that the Moon’s gravity causes tides in Earth’s oceans and these can be predicted with great accuracy. There is some evidence of comparable tides in Earth’s atmosphere. Like the ocean tidal bulges, the atmospheric tidal bulges occur at points in the atmosphere roughly in line with the Moon, and like the ocean bulges, they sweep around the Earth daily (really Earth sweeps under them) due to Earth’s axial rotation. These atmospheric tides cause predictable changes in the weather due to the gas laws. Therefore the Moon’s position can be used to predict the weather.

The theory claims that monthly perigee (Moon closest to Earth) and fortnightly syzygy (Moon, Earth and Sun aligned at full and new Moon) cause atmospheric tide maxima sufficient to cause predictable bad weather at these times, in the same way that they cause the well-known weekly spring neap component of the ocean tides.

To anyone with the average hazy understanding of astronomical processes this would sound like very convincing science. But it is not as it seems. On scrutiny Ken Ring’s understanding of gravity and tidal force is poor, as is his understanding of astronomy and atmospheric science. On scrutiny his weather forecasts are no more successful than orthodox ones. It is obvious his book has not even been proofread let alone assessed by experts in astronomy and atmospheric science. It is riddled with typographical errors, careless mistakes, confusing sentences, muddled astronomical explanations and outright contradictions. Like its New Age stablemates it is a misleading mixture of correct and garbled science, folklore, astrology, misrepresentations of other authors, and hints of trickery and bluff. His attempts to match Moon events with weather events are amateurish with no analysis of statistical significance (this would not be possible with his crude data anyway).

According to Ring, “The weather is nothing more than the Moon pulling the atmosphere around.” What is wrong with this theory?

Firstly, the physical forces invoked could not have the supposed effects — they are so weak that they would be completely overridden by other more powerful forces. Secondly, the claimed correlations between weather events and Moon positions are spurious.

As any good weather textbook will detail, the behaviour of the atmosphere, both on large and small scales, is governed by the laws of thermodynamics driven by the Sun’s heat, which is vastly more energetic than gravity. There are also significant influences from Earth itself — its shape, axial rotation, the Coriolis effect, the orientation of its rotation axis to the Sun, its oceans and land masses, its ability to absorb and reflect heat, the composition and structure of its atmosphere, its own gravity (which exerts about 10,000 times more force on the atmosphere than the Moon’s gravity), and an array of chaotic factors associated with these influences, all of which combine to make weather prediction an inexact science at the best of times. The effect of the Moon’s gravity on Earth’s atmosphere, although it exists, comes a very distant and feeble last in the list of forces associated with the weather.

The tides are weak

The feebleness of tidal forces can be seen from the magnitude of the ocean tides. The tidal force from lunar gravity raises Earth’s oceans only about half a metre. (This is the calculated magnitude in mid-ocean due to the Moon only — the Sun adds a small fraction at syzygy. The tides we notice at sea coasts vary worldwide from 0.1m to 18m in bays, estuaries and coastlines due to the “slosh” effect around land masses). A half metre tidal bulge in Earth’s oceans is a minuscule amount in terms of Earth’s diameter (12,000,000 metres) and in terms of the depth of the oceans (about 4000 metres mean depth). A parallel tidal bulge in Earth’s atmosphere would not be detectable due to the mobile and less dense nature of gases. The mass of Earth’s atmosphere is about 300 times less than that of its oceans.

As Newton taught us, gravity is a function of mass and distance. The mutual gravitational force of attraction between two masses is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. This relationship dictates extremely weak forces in the case of small masses or great distances. Tidal forces are even weaker because they are a function of the difference between the gravitational force at the centre and that at a distance from the centre of the body being tidally influenced. These forces can be calculated by well-understood formulae and agree with measurements.

It is true, as Ken Ring tells us, that the Moon’s distance from Earth at perigee is significantly closer than at apogee — about one eighth closer. It is also true that the perigee tidal force of the Moon on Earth is about 50 per cent stronger than that at apogee. However, this translates to a tidal bulge in the ocean of 0.45 metres at apogee and 0.67 metres at perigee. This is a minuscule variation in terms of Earth’s size. A comparable variation in atmospheric tide would not be detectable and could not possibly contribute to the weather because it would be overwhelmed by the much more energetic thermodynamic processes.

The detection of atmospheric tides is problematic. Unlike ocean tides they could not be observed easily as a height variation because of the diffuse and mobile nature of gases. The upper boundary of the troposphere (the bottom layer of the atmosphere where the weather happens, and where 85% of its mass is located) cannot be defined more accurately than to the nearest kilometre. Its height is usually given in the range of 12-15 km at the equator and it is several kilometres lower at the poles. Its height varies, due to thermodynamic forces, by an amount far greater than any tidal bulge in the atmosphere due to lunar gravity — likely to be only a few centimetres.

These facts alone make detection of atmospheric tides problematic. The scanty evidence that exists comes indirectly by extrapolation from measurement of factors other than height. They have been identified as the cause of small barometric pressure variations observed as daily cycles above the equator. One study (Hutchings and Gellen, 1988) analysed about 30 years of daily sea-level atmospheric pressure readings from 16 stations on Pacific Islands in the tropical latitudes north of New Zealand. The authors determined the magnitude of the twice daily lunar tide component of sea-level atmospheric pressure at a maximum of about 0.1 hPa. This is much too small to affect the weather — it would be overwhelmed by the typical 20 hPa pressure variations associated with weather systems. There is also evidence that these observed barometric tides are partly caused by forcing of the sea-level atmosphere by the ocean tides.

Ring’s arguments are always directed at making the theory fit the known weather patterns. But any theory that atmospheric tides cause the weather must explain the absence of any regular weather pattern cycling twice daily in step with the tides (two tides a day, as with the oceans, from two tidal bulges on opposite sides of Earth). Ring’s version of the theory relies mostly on the long period tide cycles caused by the orbital motion of bodies, ignoring the twice daily cycles due to Earth’s axial rotation. The orbital period tides, such as the lunar syzygy quadrature spring neap tides and the perigee apogee tides, are only small components of the daily tides and their maxima are located at different latitudes on Earth. Occasionally Ring paradoxically refers to the daily tides with statements like, “If the Moon is in the sky there is less likelihood of rain.”

Supporting Evidence

By way of supporting the existence of atmospheric tides Ring lists in his bibliography a few journal articles on the subject but he doesn’t discuss them. Harry Alcock of the Waikato, the author of an earlier book expounding the theory (The Lunar Effect, 1989), described an experiment he conducted to test for the existence of atmospheric tides. Using a filtered photographic exposure meter aimed at the Sun he recorded the readings on cloudless days. He also recorded the Sun angle and Moon phase for each reading. He seems to have expected high atmospheric tides to allow less solar radiation through the atmosphere. He didn’t give any of the data, but simply declared, “The brightness readings under similar conditions, but different Moon phases, varied by an amount which suggested the atmospheric tide could alter by as much as 25 per cent.”

The naivety of this exercise will be obvious to anyone with a nodding acquaintance with scientific method. But Ken Ring swallowed it whole, recounting the experiment in his book and announcing the 25 per cent atmospheric tide as if it were established fact.

Long term Cycles

Ken Ring claims that weather patterns repeat over long term Moon cycles enabling you to predict the weather many years ahead for a specified location to the day. To support this claim he presents a table of eight serious droughts in Britain between 1853 and 1976 which purports to show that they fall into pairs separated by the length of the Metonic cycle — 19 years — or multiples thereof, give or take a year or two. But the pairs have been selected nonchronologically. When you put the eight drought years into chronological order none of them are separated by 19 years. The separations vary randomly from three years to 46 years. Furthermore, two of the pairs are repeated on the table, feigning seven pairs instead of five. Three of the drought years are used in more than one pairing, and two of the pairs are achieved by selecting conjoining drought years from the same drought (some of the droughts lasted up to two years).

To support his claim that the lunar perigee brings disasters Ring gives a table listing 11 disasters which occurred between 1931 and 1999. Two of them are earthquakes, one is a volcanic lahar, and the rest are weather related. Eight of them occurred in New Zealand and three elsewhere. Part of Ring’s theory is that earthquakes are also triggered by Lunar gravity maxima.

The table employs a cunning device. To increase the hit rate the definition of a hit is made as broad as possible. Five of the disasters are said to have occurred “in the same week” as perigee. The date of the disaster is deemed eligible for coincidence with perigee if it occurred within four of five days. This, of course, is approaching half way to apogee (seven days) when the lunar tidal force is on its way to its minimum. The table also has several errors and significant omissions. Three of the events are tropical cyclones that reached New Zealand, but he doesn’t attempt to determine when they formed, which is the crucial fact needed to validate his theory. On my count there are only five out of the 11 disasters on Ring’s table with convincing perigee coincidences (within a day). You could expect such a result by chance given that lunar perigee happens once a month.

Other Lists

He has more comprehensive lists on his website giving the date of every perigee in the previous year with a list of world disasters that happened around each. He notes that some disasters happen around apogee, but that doesn’t faze him. He simply invents a mechanism to make it fit, waffling on about potential energy being stronger than kinetic energy at apogee because the orbital speed is slower, and appealing to astrological talk about the Moon “giving its energy” to the Earth.

A recent study on earthquakes (J Vidal et al, 1998) analysed 13,000 earthquakes over 25 years from 1969 to 1994 along a section of the San Andreas fault. It found that when lunar tidal forces “favour” earthquakes the rate of quakes is only, at most, 2% higher — a statistically insignificant correlation with no predictive value.

Isobaric Maps

An intriguing feature of the annual Almanac is the isobaric maps drawn for every day for a year ahead. Ring implies that he generates his maps “using algorithms derived from past Moon cycles.” This sounds very impressive, but he doesn’t reveal the algorithms. I’ve compared his maps with Met Service maps over several months and never found more than superficial similarities. Some are glaring mismatches. Occasionally there is a mildly convincing chance hit.

He employs an engaging trick with his maps. He publishes two maps for each day, deliberately drawn very differently (using “lunar orbital calculations” of course), and invites you to select the one that matches the reality best. Now wait a minute. Aren’t these maps supposed to be a prediction? Or is this a matching exercise after the event?

Ring obligingly provides hints in his Almanac for doing your own forecasting. Some are akin to hints for fortune telling — couched in terms so general that virtually all possibilities are covered. Some don’t follow the principles of his own theory. For example, he says, “When perigee or apogee is close to new or full Moon, then a dry weather period can be expected (less than 36 hours between). When perigee or apogee is more than two days apart from the nearest new or full Moon then a wet period may be expected.” This contradicts his main argument that perigee and full and new Moon are the lunar positions strongly linked with rain.

The Bottom Line

Are Ken Ring’s weather predictions accurate? You don’t have to look hard to find evidence that they are not as impressive as he wants the world to think. Curiously, he has deemed it prudent to admit this in the disclaimer he attaches to his work: “The forecasts in this work are the result of best-of-ability endeavour. They represent the opinions of author and associates and no claim of 100% accuracy is made.” This rather dampens his claims about the superior forecasting capabilities of his theory. He also insists that we allow a three to four day latitude when interpreting his predictions. This nicely covers most of the possibilities, given New Zealand’s well known average three day high-low cycle, but negates his claim to be a reliable consultant for choosing a day to make hay or have a wedding.

I have found many cases where his predictions failed. For example, from January to July 2004 he predicted dry weather almost everywhere around the dates of six major rain events including the Manawatu floods in February. In the same period he also predicted widespread rain events which didn’t eventuate in two prolonged dry spells. I also compared his monthly rainfall estimates with actual rainfall and found that in only 18 of 78 cases did his estimate come anywhere near the actual rainfall.

It is hard to escape the impression that Ken Ring achieves his claimed 80 per cent forecasting success by a combination of luck and educated guesses based on known weather patterns. Nothing in his writings constitutes evidence that Moon positions are a useful weather forecasting tool, or that they are related to weather at all.

This article is condensed from two articles first published in the Auckland Astronomical Society Journal, October and November 2004, and published here by permission of the society. The full versions can be read at the society’s website, www.astronomy.org.nz, in the Journal section.
Bill Keir is an amateur astronomer of Hokianga who has published many articles on astronomy.

Deadly Ignorance

Pseudoscientific beliefs can be dangerous when they form the basis of government policy

In my last column, I mentioned that conspiracy thinker Phillip Day travels the world (he again toured New Zealand late last year) with his message that there is no Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), that Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (Aids) is not sexually transmitted and that the “highly poisonous Aids medications” are part of a “calculated and inhumane population control agenda which has been sanctioned at the highest political levels.”

So absurd are these claims that readers may doubt whether people such as Day attract much of a following. Why should Skeptics bother to speak up? Sadly, misinformation can be deadly to entire populations when policy makers adopt it. A shocking example is the case of Aids in the Republic of South Africa.

In 1982 the first cases of HIV were diagnosed in South Africa. The government was very slow to respond to the growing crisis. By 1998, when 50% of adult medical admissions to hospital in Gauteng province were Aids related, there was still no national treatment plan, public education about Aids was almost nonexistent, and superstitions were widespread. When health worker Gugu Dlamini made her HIV status public on World Aids day, she was stoned to death by a mob that included her neighbours.

The reason for the government’s slow response became clear: ignorance among the leadership of the ruling African National Congress. The South African president, Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Nelson Mandela as president in 1999, shocked the world health community when he said Aids is caused by poverty, not by HIV. By 2000, 10% of South Africans were HIV positive, but in May of that year he appointed a panel and charged them with solving the country’s Aids problems. One of the panel members chosen by Mbeki was American scientific outcast Peter Duesberg, who says Aids is caused by anti-Aids drugs, such as AZT, but not by HIV! Mbeki ruled out providing AZT to HIV positive pregnant women, claiming the drug did more harm than good. In fact, the drug has been proven effective in drastically cutting the transmission of the deadly virus to the baby in childbirth. Thousands of HIV positive babies continued to be born every month. Duesberg said he doubted South Africa was experiencing an Aids epidemic, and the panel debated whether Aids is spread by sex or not. Mbeki thus wasted precious time and resources. In July 2000, about 5000 doctors and scientists took the extraordinary step of releasing The Durban Declaration as a rebuke to Mbeki. The document said the link between HIV and Aids is “clear-cut, exhaustive and unambiguous.” South Africa’s doctors appealed for an end to the debate which they said was confusing people who should be fighting Aids, which was spreading faster in South Africa than anywhere else on Earth.

Mbeki continued to downplay the threat of Aids. His government continued to ban doctors from providing antiretroviral drugs to HIV infected women, thus ensuring that the disease was passed on to thousands more babies. The cheap or free drugs that pharmaceutical companies had been offering for five years were not accepted.

Indeed, the Ministry of Health at great expense distributed a pamphlet justifying this deadly nonsense. In 2001, Mbeki again refused to link HIV with Aids, even though he agreed “that’s what the scientists say.”

Progress slowly came. President Mbeki found himself increasingly isolated as members of his cabinet and government supporters stated that they accepted the link between HIV and Aids. He also came under fierce international criticism from scientists and medical experts for his ignorance and lack of action.

In November 2003, the government reversed its position on the antiretroviral drugs and planned to quadruple its spending on HIV/Aids. President Mbeki, however, continues to lash out at efforts to provide scientific treatment. Phillip Day praises Mbeki’s bizarre beliefs.

The World Health Organisation says Aids is the biggest cause of death in South Africa, where it affects nearly six million people, more than in any other country. About one million people died in South Africa last year from Aids.

No society in history has had to deal with an epidemic like this. There is no containing an epidemic that has already infected 30% of adults in Durban. By 2010, life spans will probably be reduced in South Africa from about 70 years (in the absence of Aids) to about 36. Millions of deaths from Aids that have occurred in South Africa and millions that will happen were avoidable. When leaders fall for crank ideas, the results can be massively tragic.
Dr Raymond Richards is a Senior Lecturer in History and American Studies at Waikato University. He can be reached at ray@waikato.ac.nz

Why are we crying into our beer?

The battle between the Enlightenment and Romantic traditions is far from over, though it has taken on new forms. This article is abridged from a presentation to the NZ Skeptics Conference, 2004.

P J O’Rourke famously asked “Here we are, the longest lived, healthiest, wealthiest, best educated, best fed generation that has ever lived — so why are we crying into our beer?” This question begs the reverse question “Why are some of us not crying into our beer?”

Many of us recognise that we are indeed well off and are optimistic about the future. Virginia Postrel has recognised the existence of two cultures, in a political sense, in her book, The Future and its Enemies. In this she divides people into two groups, the stasists, who fear the future, and the dynamists who enjoy change, choice and the multiple futures which lie before us.

The Root Cause

Previously I have argued that these big debates about the nature of our world continue to reflect the contest between the conflicting traditions of the Enlightenment and of Romanticism. Of course these traditions overlap in their influence on all our lives. The most reasonable of us is likely to have some affection for nature. So we are talking about positions on a spectrum.

My earlier argument was that:

  • Socialism is the dark side of the Enlightenment tradition — if we can use science to design a bridge then we can use science to design Europe.
  • Fascism is the dark side of the Romantic tradition — Fascism is anti-reason, believes that truth is culturally constructed, looks to the racial wisdom of the “volk” and promotes the need for great leaders to tells the masses what truths are holistically true.
  • Communism combines these two dark sides into an engineered utopia which also accepts fascistic leadership to reveal the truth of the Marxist “book”.

All three belief systems maintained that the modern world is too complex to depend on spontaneous order, and must be planned, and that wise men must therefore direct and control the rest of us. The alternative was economic chaos. There are many people who are happy to be planned and only too many who are happy to do the planning. Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and the belief systems which shored it up, these models are no longer there — but the conflict between reason and romanticism remains. And the controllers are always waiting in the wings. The new controllers have identified a new chaos or dystopia. They say that our population, wealth and technology and consumption is destroying the planet, or will do so in future, unless, of course, the environmental planners take control and manage our lives so as to avoid this future.

The Two Views

These two conflicting cultures have differing views on the environment. The people of the Enlightenment tradition, or the dynamists, are concerned about the environment because they live in it, and know that their enjoyment of life depends on clean surroundings. They know that as people get wealthier they become increasingly concerned about the quality of their physical environment. At a certain income per capita people want clean water, at a somewhat higher income they want clean air, and at a higher income again they want clean soil, waterways and visual amenity etc. Which is where we are.

We are rich enough to care about the environment and have the discretionary wealth to do something about it. Truly poor people focus on finding tomorrow’s breakfast. The truly poor people of the past were responsible for the great megafaunal extinctions.

However, the Romantics interpret our care for the environment as a sign of our willingness to make penance for our sinful consumption and that everything wrong with the environment is our fault. We have sinned against nature and must be punished for our sins.

Global warming presents the perfect punishment — we shall be burnt in the heat of a greenhoused Earth. A new group, Powerless New Zealand, are convinced we are about to run out of fossil fuels and have cheerfully predicted that only two billion of our present six billion will survive this century. No doubt they continue to believe we shall be cooked in greenhouse gases at the same time because many nature worshippers are able to believe in two impossible things before every breakfast.

How are these alternate views expressed?

Environmental law

After almost a century of neglect there is now much discussion of the role of private property in promoting personal freedom and generating wealth. Property and Freedom by Richard Pipes, and The Mystery of Capital by Hernando de Soto are two excellent examples. Both implicitly support the view that environmental law should maximise human welfare.

Klaus Bosselmann and David Grinlinton, of Auckland University’s School of Environmental Law, reject the “anthropocentric” view that environmental law should focus on managing adverse effects on the environment in order to maximise human welfare. This “anthropocentric” view, reflected in the concept of sustainable management within the Resource Management Act (RMA), assumes that there is not much point in being rich if you cannot swim in the sea, breathe the air, or drink the water.

Instead, Bosselmann and Grinlinton’s collection promotes an “ecocentric” world view which assumes “that nature with all its life forms has intrinsic value independently from any instrumental values for humans.” The ecocentric view assumes that nature exists in stable harmony and that extinctions and similar catastrophes can be prevented by human action — or inaction. Unfortunately, nature does not see it this way. As John Gribbin explains in Deep Simplicity, virtually all species are now extinct, and every surviving species is at equal risk of extinction at any time. We occupy a biosphere continually on the edge of chaos. The ecocentric view also assumes that the purpose of environmental law is to protect nature from human activity. We are the problem and our welfare ranks below the welfare of “nature”.

Most authors introduce us to Rousseau’s thoughts on property rights with the following quote from his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality: “The first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. What crimes, wars, murder, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared had someone pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch and cried out to his fellow men: “Do not listen to this impostor. You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and the earth to no one!”

Rousseau’s assault on private property reflected his recent discovery of “the state of nature” enjoyed by “the noble savages” of Tahiti and elsewhere.

Rousseau clearly flagged that nature worship leads to an assault on private property in favour of communal ownership and governance. Bosselmann and Ginlinton appear to be happy with Rousseau’s position, and appear equally comfortable with contemporary equivalents of the “noble savage” who uphold their own ecocentric view.

Their collection includes a chapter by Andrea Tunks, lecturer in the Auckland University Faculty of Law from 1994–2001, which records her “indigenous vision” of sustainable development, which suggests:
“… indigenous peoples see ‘the West’ as responsible for cumulative environmental degradation and environmental catastrophe. This is due to its economic and political ideologies which do not have a holistic and spiritual understanding of the environment nor the humility attached to being one small part of a complex web of environmental systems.”

Ms Tunks then quotes from Maori Marsden’s Kaitiakitanga: A definitive introduction to the Holistic World View of Maori, written for the Ministry for the Environment in 1992:
“Man is the conscious mind of Mother Earth and plays a vital part in the regulation of her life support systems and man’s duty is to support and enhance these systems. The tragedy however is that when these first principles are forsaken and Mother Earth is perceived as a commodity and her natural resources as disposable property … man becomes a pillager, despoiler and rapist of his own mother.”

One wonders if Rousseau himself dropped in on early New Zealand and shared a few thoughts with the locals.

The Bosselmann and Grinlinton collection honestly acknowledges that ecocentric environmental law inevitably undermines private property and the freedoms we associate with the Open Society. The authors see man as a tool of nature and nature’s needs must determine what we can or cannot do. Once again, human beings are subservient to the state, but this time it’s “the state of nature”.

These ecocentric arguments are mounted by intellectuals sitting in the comfortable affluence of Western societies, which have generated sufficient wealth to allow them to promote the welfare of insects and rocks above the welfare of their fellow human beings. They can even afford to espouse the animist wisdom of indigenous peoples over the scientific traditions of the Open Society.

Hernando de Soto sees a different world. In the Mystery of Capital he asks why capitalism works in the West and fails everywhere else. De Soto is a third world economist who finds millions of people living short, brutish and poverty stricken lives within an environment which poses a continual threat to their health, safety and longevity.

These people have no great affection for their “state of nature” and want both the wealth and health of their capitalist neighbours. Traditional explanations for their failure to generate wealth have been either racist — bad genes, or culturalist — wrong beliefs. De Soto finds that their real problem is a lack of private property — both in lack of ownership of land and other assets, and in the legal framework needed to support secure property and to enable contracts and trade.

To the discomfort of the wealthy ecocentrists these people are increasingly raising their voices against the “ecoimperialists” who place the welfare of first world birds over the lives of third world children.

In his book Risk Society, Towards a New Modernity (1992), Ulrich Beck proposes that society is in the process of moving from the culture of the “Industrial Society” to a “New Modernity” which he calls the “Risk Society”.

I am not convinced that this is a universal movement in which Beck’s Risk Society will finally prevail. Once again, I see this new conflict as just as another example of the ongoing conflict between the Enlightenment and Romanticism.

Beck characterises the “Industrial Society” and the new “Risk Society” as follows:
The Industrial Society

  1. The Role of Science: Science is the keystone of the Enlightenment Tradition — science is in the service of man and generates wealth for all.
  2. The Major Concern: Having generated so much wealth the major problem is how to distribute the wealth among the people, and among different communities and nations.
  3. The Nature of Risk: Risk is an external factor subject to objective analysis. Risk analysis is one of the triumphs of mathematics. We manage risk by weighing benefits against risky side effects.
  4. Civilisation and Nature: Civilisation is safe and Nature is dangerous. The aim of the Industrial Society is to tame and harness nature for the benefit of people.
  5. Democracy: Industrial Society exports democracy along with the benefits of the Industrial Economy.
  6. Awareness of Risks: Members of the Industrial Society are aware of the risks they must deal with — such as loss of job, accident, and death, and these risks are assessed and managed by experts.

The Risk Society

  1. The Role of Science: Science is the destroyer of the environment and society. Science is the problem. Science has no monopoly on “truth”.
  2. The Major Concern: How to deal with the undesirable abundance and dangerous knowledge generated by unconstrained science. Waste is the problem.
  3. The Nature of Risk: Risk is internal and an outcome of modernity — rather than an external and manageable problem. These threats are global and unknowable — and all risk must be eliminated (eg the zero molecule approach).
  4. Civilisation and Nature: Civilisation is dangerous and Nature is safe. The key task is to protect nature from humanity and preserve its harmony and balance.
  5. Pollution: Industrial society exports pollution to underdeveloped societies and puts all at risk.
  6. Awareness of Risks: “Victims” cannot determine their level of unknowable risk. Hence risk is assessed by “self knowledge” and internal conviction. The precautionary principle protects us from the unknowable risks of change. Chernobyl is the turning point. We calculate the future dead rather than count the existing bodies.

At the root of Beck’s manifesto is the fear of a world “out of control”. The Socialists believed that the economy was too fragile to be left to Smith’s invisible hand or “spontaneous order”. Environmentalists and planners (by definition) believe the biosphere is too fragile to be left at the mercy of selfish individuals. Beck declares: “Society has become a laboratory where there is absolutely nobody in charge.”

As always, hordes of willing “controllers” are waiting in the wings.

There is a measure of truth in Beck’s comparative schema. The Industrial Society removed us from a human condition where naturally occurring hazards (disease, flood, famine, and the like) — along with social hazards such as invasion and conquest — moulded the fate of individuals and groups. Members of the Industrial Society take control of their own fate by deliberately undertaking risky behaviour for the sake of the benefits conferred. Achieving these benefits requires technologically mastery of nature. So far, so good.

Thereafter Beck’s arguments get murkier. His key position is that Risk Society begins where nature ends. We switch the focus of our anxieties from what nature can do to us to what we have done to nature.

Surely in the age of Aids, BSE, Sars, as well as earthquakes and eruptions, we are still subject to nature’s hazards. Nature is NOT safe.

The food supply is far safer than it has ever been, mainly because we are now protected against naturally occurring deadly toxins such as botulism.

How real is Beck’s assumed novelty of the “global dimension of risk”? The Mount Pinatubo eruption vented as much particulate matter into the atmosphere as the entire history of industrialism to date. Beck ignores such “global” impacts of nature’s handiwork.

Many of the “new modernists” aspire to zero risk or perfect safety, and yet we know that if we pursued this to its logical conclusion we would ban all human activity including conception. Indeed, life is a sexually transmitted terminal disease.

The State of Harmony

The idea that Nature is in a state of harmony and balance underlies much of the resistance to human activity. And yet this view is surely anthropocentric. Our surroundings appear stable only because we look at the world through the eye-blink of a human lifetime.

The idea of the stable fragile globe was hugely reinforced by those early Nasa photos of the Earth as seen from the Moon. These photos encourage modern stasists to believe that when our satellites tell us that sea levels are rising at about 2 mm a year on average then this is what is happening everywhere around the globe.

Local district plans are rushing to confirm that every beach in New Zealand is going to sink beneath the waves (a few hundred millimeters in a hundred years’ time) and hence we must withdraw from the coast and huddle behind the walls of inland towns, watch Coronation Street, and ride in trains.

Whakatane’s new plan is full of the problems of rising sea levels. I pointed out that the Institute for Geological and Nuclear Science’s measuring devices confirmed that the tectonic plate at Whakatane is rising over the Pacific Plate at a much faster rate than the sea level is rising, which adds up to an overall fall. In my submissions I pointed out that if someone in Whakatane had a sea view they were much more likely to have the floodwaters come through the back door than the front door and that this could happen next week — rather than in a hundred years’ time. Unfortunately, nature decided to appear as an expert witness on my behalf and delivered floods and an earthquake to Whakatane only a few weeks later.

The Conflict of the Culture Clubs

The new Romantics reveal their greatest inconsistencies when they deal with cultures, and tribal cultures in particular. On the one hand they oppose globalisation but are all for global government. The late Alistair Cooke’s favourite placard at an antiglobalisation rally read “Join the International Movement against Globalisation.”

Global government is espoused on the grounds that the air does not need a passport and only global government can enforce Kyoto protocols etc.

But the Romantics’ attack on reason draws on a conviction that scientific knowledge is just one human construct and that because all cultures are valid then all belief systems are valid. They conveniently overlook the fact that some seem to work better than others.

However, the Romantic nature worshippers’ attack science for several reasons — not the least of which being that they always have. Rousseau argued that the way we see the world depends on our upbringing and our cultural heritage and hence there is no single “truth”.

The Fascist Romantics have always turned to the forest people or völke whose deep wisdom was deemed to be superior to that of the rational thinkers, or elite — especially those of Europe, who just happened to be Jews.

The nature worshippers now turn to the indigenous peoples of the world because they are seen as maintaining a holistic view of the world as opposed to the hated reductionism of the Open Society, which rests on a foundation of science and democracy (which are two sides of the same coin).

The late Karl Popper, in The Open Society and its Enemies, reminded us that holistic thinking is the handmaiden of fascism. Although he wrote that while here in Christchurch I suspect it is seldom quoted in those halls of academe where social sciences prevail.

The irony is that not long ago we were encouraged to believe in “the family of man” and to overlook the differences in our colour, race, creed or religion. In these post-modern times we celebrate the difference between cultures and especially the difference between tribal cultures and the culture of the Open Society. Indeed these cultures are now regarded as “indigenous species” which must be protected from the impact of the Open Society.

Unknowable Cultures?

Many RMA documents, and the documents which surround them, argue that Maori culture is essentially unknowable to non-Maori. These views are strongly challenged by Pinker in The Language Instinct but they have gained much traction. Again, the cultural anthropologists emphasise the differences between our “tribes” at the same time as the biologists are finding that genetic differences between races are trivial.

The latest challenge comes from Germaine Greer, who, from the comfort of her home in England, is telling Australians that the only way they can gain an identity is to become aboriginal. As Nicoless Rothwell writes in the September 2004 issue of Prospect, “Greer assumes that ‘being aboriginal’ is straightforward, and that you can almost think yourself into that state.” I am not sure if the half million aboriginals would appreciate the impact of 20 million Aussies suddenly “thinking themselves” into being aboriginals, and just whose identity would finally prevail. On the one hand we are supposed to cherish these unknowable cultures and on the other we are supposed to embrace them — presumably without knowing what we embrace and even whether the indigenes actually look forward to the embrace.

What is remarkable is that this mythmaking gains any traction at all. But it does. Our Environment Court has concluded that the Maori holistic view of the world means they make no distinction between land and water. I find this hard to believe. Certainly the Maori who live around me seem to know when to turn off their outboard motors to avoid running aground. Indeed I suspect that the difference between land and water was central to the conceptual framework of the ocean-going Polynesians who settled so much of the Pacific.

But should we worry? We have done remarkably well and most of our great achievements have been in recent times. It’s not that long ago that there were only two of us. Now there are six thousand million of us. And yet as PJ reminds us we are richer, longer lived, healthier, better fed, and better educated and enjoy more creature comforts than at any time in history. If any of you have a hankering for the good old days, PJ reminds us to consider just one word — dentistry.

Owen McShane is director of the Centre for Resource Management Studies. He lives in Kaiwaka.

Electoral transparency vital for democracy

In the Autumn 2004 issue of the NZ Skeptic, we reported on Vicki Hyde’s prediction in the Dominion Post that George Bush would win the US presidential election. Given that this was at the height of the scandals over Abu Ghraib prisoners and the lack of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, it seemed a bold claim indeed, on a par with her prediction that the All Blacks would miss the 1999 World Cup final. But once again, history has shown our chair-entity to be better at the prophecy game than almost any of the professional seers.

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