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Efficacy of Prayer – an update

Since I wrote my piece (NZ Skeptic 75) based on Bruce Flamm’s article in Skeptical Inquirer concerning a research paper on the efficacy of prayer, Dr Flamm has reported ‘significant development’. Lest you jump to the conclusion that the authors, journal and university have acknowledged their serious error and have retracted the paper, be at once disabused. The significance of these developments, to my mind, is their minuscule and peripheral nature; nothing has really changed. One could reasonably grant a significant development to Wirth; he pleaded guilty to a 46-page indictment and is in jail for five years. Concerning the ‘lead’ author, Lobo, the journal later printed, at the bottom of the back page, an Erratum, that this name had been included ‘in error’. Young researchers often complain that senior colleagues insist on their names appearing on papers unjustifiably. In the topsy-turvy world of this journal, people find their names put unknowingly on papers they have had nothing to do with!

Despite never acknowledging any enquiries about this paper, and printing no comments, the author Cha was eventually given space for an extended, and misleading, response to the criticisms (which the readers knew of only from other sources).

The university set up a committee to investigate the research, but, on Dr Lobo withdrawing his name from the paper, disbanded the committee, saying it was no longer needed. So, despite all the unsavoury aspects of this matter, no one is admitting their mistake, and this nonsensical paper remains in the medical literature as ‘evidence’ of the efficacy of prayer.

Bernard Howard

Christchurch

Colour therapy – ’tis no puzzlement

Some weeks ago I met up with an old golfing friend I hadn’t seen in years. He was fit and well and is one of the few men I’ve ever met ageing better than I am. He is a retired mathematician with very good UK degrees, a solid skeptic, a fine golfer (handicap 8), down-to-earth and fun company. Another fellow, a man clearly unwell, whom I had also known as a professional colleague, accompanied us for the round. Afterwards, Roy and I caught up on the 28 years since we had worked in the same organisation and the topic of health arose. Our mutual friend, said Roy, had been given remission of his prostate cancer through colour therapy.

“Rubbish!” I responded. “Furthermore,” Roy continued, “I’ve used the process myself to alleviate the continuing effects of a bout of flu or bronchitis which I couldn’t shake off for months.” I demanded more information.

Roy then explained how, with some cynicism, he had been connected electrically to the colour-therapist’s machine for about six hours while the device operated with a strand of red-dyed material (wool?) in an electrically-charged stainless-steel cup. Afterwards, said Roy, his symptoms were gone and have not recurred. He roundly denied the placebo effect… A short while later, on another golf course, I met an old man practising chipping. After we got talking we discovered that we were both of a mind about the game, so played together a couple of times. Bob told me that he had recently recovered from a debilitating and life-threatening illness he’d contracted due to varnishing his house floor with a modern two-pot mixture. For two years he’d been in and out of hospital, talked to endless specialists and finally had begun to recover bodyweight when certain (unspecified) aspects of his diet were changed. I was invited to his home a little later and to my surprise discovered his wife is a colour therapist with a roomfull of equipment and walls covered with charts. At no time did Bob suggest his wife ever was able to give him relief using her machine or techniques.

What do I take from these admittedly flimsy accounts? The overwhelming thing I see is that alternate techniques are generally tried when all else has failed, by which time it is very likely that orthodox treatment is at last working in conjunction with that great healer, time.

Clive Shaw

Thames

Greenhouse Skeptics and Creationists no comparison

I am aware that the global warming subject has been ‘done to death’. However, the Keith Garratt item on skeptical environmentalism included several criticisms of my work which must be answered. In the interests of brevity, I will respond only to the most insulting (insulting to me as a skeptic).

He compares global warming skeptics to evolution skeptics. This is utter balderdash. Deniers of evolution are led by religious nutters. Global warming skepticism is led by climate scientists, and there are literally hundreds of professional climate researchers who have expressed their disquiet at the current paradigm.

Lance Kennedy

(And that really is the last word! -ed.)

Darwin and religion

Following the article by Alison Campbell in the Autumn 2005 Skeptic I got on to the Waikato University website and clicked ‘Darwin and Religion’ and was surprised to find a long article which completely failed to mention Darwin’s attitude to religion, or the difficulty in reconciling evolution with religious belief.

Darwin was an unusually honest scientist. He came to realise that human evolution was not essentially different from the evolution of any other creature, and that humans could not therefore claim the exclusive privilege of a supervising deity or of an afterlife. Only one of his scientific colleagues, Joseph Hooker, was prepared to support this view, and it was opposed by his wife and family. In Charles Darwin’s autobiography, published posthumously, his son Francis deleted the section on religion with the excuse:

“It will be easily understood that in a narrative of a personal and intimate kind written for his wife and children, passages should occur which must here be omitted; and I have not thought it necessary to indicate where such omissions are made.”

It was only in 1958 in the uncensored edition published by his granddaughter, Nora, Lady Barlow, that we were allowed to read Darwin’s true opinions on religion, which were as follows:

“I was very unwilling to give up my belief… But I found it more and more difficult to invent evidence to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete.”

“…the constant inculcation in a belief in God on the minds of children producing so strong and perhaps an inherited effect on their brains not yet fully developed, that it would be as difficult for them to throw off their belief in God as for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear and hatred of a snake.”

“I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.”

In an interview with Edward Aveling in September 1881, the following retort took place:

Aveling: “‘Agnostic’ is but ‘Atheist’ writ respectable.”

Darwin: “‘Atheist’ is but ‘Agnostic’ writ aggressive.”

Many people have sought to distort Darwinism to remove Darwin’s insistence that man is just another animal. The most influential was Julian Huxley in his Evolution: The Modern Synthesis (1942) who claimed that humans were ‘different’ and ‘unique’; so, presumably, qualifying them for divine guidance, life after death, and dominion over all other organisms.

Vincent Gray

Wellington

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It is with sadness that I see that the Skeptic is still accepting articles and letters with political bias. I would like to spend much of this letter countering some of Owen McShane’s arguments from his article “Why are we crying into our beer?”, but I see we are still arguing in the pages of our magazine about science. It would be really nice if Jim Ring or C Morris could explain to me and I’m sure others who are puzzled by this whole affair, as to what legitimate arguments between legitimate scientists have to do with scepticism.

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Skeptics and the environment

When it comes to environmental issues, it’s not always easy for a skeptic to decide where to stand

Over the last few years, there has been a growing community of “environmental skeptics”, who question the validity of global environmental concerns. Bjorn Lomborg’s book The Skeptical Environmentalist is a major contribution to this strand of thought. At the 2004 Skeptics’ Conference in Christchurch, Lance Kennedy presented some of the ideas that he espouses in his book Ecomyth. The final speaker of the conference, Owen McShane, presented his version of environmental skepticism, and an abridged version of his presentation appeared in Issue 74 of this journal.

Writers such as Lomborg, Kennedy and McShane provide interesting food for thought, and illustrate that in the environmental field, as in others, there is a need for careful critical thinking. However, there is a significant difference. In general, we skeptics tend to be skeptical about beliefs that run counter to mainstream scientific thought – astrology, paranormal phenomena, UFOs, creation science and alternative medical practices are examples. In contrast, environmental skeptics often bravely challenge the opinions of scientists who are specialists in the fields concerned. In this respect, environmental skeptics are somewhat equivalent to alternative medical practitioners or creation scientists. This does not mean that they are necessarily wrong, but it does mean that they have to demonstrate very good evidence to prove that the experts are wrong. For environmental skeptics, the adage “extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof” applies to them rather than the objects of their skepticism.

In practice, environmental skeptics are often inconsistent and selective in their attitudes to science and professionals. For example, in his chapter on global warming, Kennedy largely ignores and discounts the work of the 2000+ climate scientists who make up the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Yet in his chapter on nature conservation, he states “We should question what enables the amateur environmentalists to set themselves up as ‘experts’ and deny the analysis and planning of professionals.” Having made this statement, it is interesting that he feels that he is qualified to state categorically that “Global warming and its consequences are an unproven theory.” This statement is suspiciously similar to those made by “creation scientists” in criticism of evolution theory. In fact, I see parallels between the history of the evolution debate and the current climate change debate. It may be that in 100 years’ time, those that continue to deny the reality of climate change will be seen as the lunatic fringe minority and objects of ridicule for skeptics of the time.

In other ways also, environmental skeptics display some of the characteristics of those who we as skeptics would normally challenge. For example, I believe that the refusal to accept the reality of global environmental problems is very similar to the refusal of most people to accept that there is no life after death. It seems that humans instinctively reject unpalatable news.

In a similar manner to people such as proponents of quack medicine, environmental skeptics are selective in their use of scientific information. In his talk to the conference, Lance Kennedy stressed the need to employ good science, and that it is essential to “rely on the numbers”. Unfortunately, his book does not provide a good demonstration of this. For example, his chapter on global warming includes the graph in Figure 1. It is virtually meaningless, with no indication of the origin of the data, no data on the vertical axis and in fact no indication at all of what it purports to illustrate.

Environmental skeptics often ignore rather than challenge the mainstream environmental science community. They focus much of their criticism on sometimes admittedly questionable claims by the more visible and extreme environmental lobby groups. Greenpeace, WWF and the World Resources Institute are favourite targets. The skeptics often fail to clarify that, at a less visible level, there is a huge body of rational and responsible scientists world-wide who confirm a high degree of real cause for environmental concern. This is somewhat akin to condemning the whole world of Islam by quoting Muslim philosophies as espoused by Al Qaeda.

In the fields that we are traditionally involved in, we skeptics get frustrated about the willingness of the media to give time and credence to mediums, alternative health practitioners and the like, without seeking an informed balanced viewpoint. In the environmental field, it is the professional practitioners who can be frustrated by the coverage given to the environmental skeptics (and, for that matter, the antics of radical environmental lobbyists).

Environmental Management

I suspect that if the human lifespan was really the 500-800 years claimed for the Old Testament patriarchs, self-interest would assure that we would have quite a different attitude to the future state of the world.

Owen McShane states that “We are rich enough to care about the environment…Truly poor people focus on finding tomorrow’s breakfast.” In fact, the great majority of environmental aid projects in developing countries through UN and other reputable international agencies focus on the impacts of environmental degradation on people. They explicitly address and focus on the need to protect and improve the welfare of those in poverty. None of the many international environmental projects that I encountered in 10 years’ work in around 15 poor countries was based on the ecocentric anti-people philosophy that Owen McShane criticises.

As just one example of the direct impact of environmental mismanagement on human welfare, I mention Muinak, a village in northern Uzbekistan. Up until the 1960s, Muinak was the home for a fleet of fishing trawlers and a fish factory, as part of a fishing industry that took some 40,000 tonnes of fish per year from the Aral Sea. Under the direction of Soviet central planning in Moscow, the waters from the two major rivers feeding the Aral Sea were taken for irrigation of cotton crops. The Aral Sea is now a remnant of its former self, and the fishing industry is gone. When I visited Muinak about four years ago, the trawlers were rusting hulks in the sand. Muinak was over 100 kilometres from the water’s edge, and was fast becoming a ghost town. Most poignantly, the town’s World War II memorial, built on the sea cliffs overlooking the point where local soldiers embarked to cross the Aral Sea to join the war effort, now looks out over desert stretching to the horizon and beyond.

A particular concern that I have is that environmental skeptics (and for that matter some environmental lobbyists) tend to think in time scales that are far too short. A profound influence on my thinking was the marvellous “Time-Line” installation by Bill Taylor that we saw at Victoria University at the 2003 Skeptics Conference (NZ Skeptic 70). In brief, the 4.6 billion year life of Earth was represented by a cord 4.6 km long. On this basis, the 2000 years since the dawn of the Christian era occupied the final two millimetres.

I find it amazing and somewhat sobering to consider that, on this scale, the dawn of the Industrial Revolution occurred only 0.15 millimetres ago. There is no question that in that instant of geological time, humans have wrought major changes to our global environment. For example, it is an accepted fact that recent human activity has caused measurable changes to the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere, and in particular the concentration of the so-called “greenhouse gases”. The debate is not about whether these changes have occurred, but whether they are causing climate change. To me, that is almost academic. The fact that, in such a blink of time, we have caused measurable changes to the atmosphere that sustains all life is adequate cause for concern.

The Resource Management Act requires us to consider the needs of future generations. Owen McShane talked about the difficulty of this concept, because the future generations are walking away in front of us, so that we never get there. To me, this indicated that he sees “future generations” in the very short term, meaning our immediate successors, our children and grandchildren. I see things quite differently and in a longer term. Given the headlong pace of change and impact in just the last hundred years, my concern is for the way the 20th and 21st Century generations might be viewed in say 500 years (0.5 mm), 1000 years (1 mm), or even longer.

Environmental skeptics tend to airily dismiss energy concerns by saying that we have enough fossil fuels to last part or all of this century. Again, this is short term thinking. While one may argue about the remaining life of reserves of fossil fuels, the inescapable fact is that they are a finite resource. There is no doubt whatsoever that, on a geological or evolutionary time-scale, the period in which humans have been able to develop and maintain a lifestyle that relied on one-off extraction of fossil fuels will be a mere instant of history.

Loss of Forests

On the subject of forest loss, Lance Kennedy states that world forest cover has increased from 1950 to the present — from 40 million to 43 million square kilometres. In fact, the 2000 Global Forest Resources Assessment by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN puts the current figure at 39 million. More importantly, its best assessment is that there was a net global forest loss in the 1990s of about 2.2%. This is equivalent to an area the size of New Zealand each three years. Again, this apparently small percentage figure is very serious if considered in any form of medium or long-term time frame. For tropical forests, environmental skeptics accept that there is a rate of loss of about 0.5% per year, but dismiss this as being of little cause for concern. Again, this is in fact a very high rate of loss both in absolute area and if considered in the context of even a medium time frame of say 100 years.

Some environmental skeptics dismiss concerns about any future scarcity of fossil fuels and their polluting effect by suggesting that they will be replaced by hydrogen as a source of energy for transport. In reality, hydrogen is not a fundamental energy source, but only a medium to transport energy, somewhat equivalent to electrical cables or batteries. Production of hydrogen itself requires huge energy inputs. Current technologies to produce hydrogen either use fossil fuels as a base (with large energy losses on the way through), or require electrical energy to produce it by electrolysis of water, again with energy losses in the process. For the moment, there seems little prospect of achieving the required dramatic increase in electricity production other than by using fossil fuels or nuclear energy, which of course is no more than a relocation of the same problem.

Both Lomborg and Kennedy ridicule pessimistic writers of previous decades. They paint a rosy picture of the current situation and point out how much better things are than such writers’ forecasts. What seems to escape them is that all such earlier predictions had an underlying message, “If we don’t change our ways, … will happen.” In fact, the improvements that Lomborg and Kennedy are now trumpeting are in nearly every case because governments and society responded to the concerns that grew so rapidly in the 60s and 70s, and did change their ways.

Ironically, having criticised the weaknesses in earlier predictions, Lomborg and Kennedy are willing to make or embrace unsubstantiated predictions that suit their arguments. For example, in discussing oil prices, Lomborg said that “It is also expected that the oil price will once again decline from $27 to the low $20s until 2020.” As I write this, the price is hovering in the mid-$50s.

Kennedy’s optimistic predictions are of a more general nature, apparently based more on a touching faith in science and technology rather than on rational analysis. They read rather like the confident predictions of a clairvoyant or an evangelist. For example, in discussing the predicted world population size in the middle of this century, he states “The world will be able to nourish such numbers by the time growth reaches this point. This ability will come from improvements in biotechnology and in other sciences, and in the increase of prosperity and agricultural efficiency in developing nations. The pessimists will again be wrong.”

This article is not a call to ignore and ridicule the work and beliefs of environmental skeptics. In this as in other fields there is a need for critical thinking. Having worked in the environmental field for some 30 years both in New Zealand and elsewhere, I have my own doubts about certain aspects. I have my own concerns about both the philosophy and application of the Resource Management Act. However, skeptics do need to appreciate that environmental skepticism is of a different character to skepticism as we usually understand it, and needs to be approached with caution. It is easy to criticise mediums, psychics, homeopaths and spoon benders, with little fear of exposing ourselves to credible scientific challenge. If we do join in the environmental skepticism debate, let us be sure that we do so with the same quality of informed critical thinking and respect for all the facts that we espouse in our other activities.

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.

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Ancient Celtic New Zealand – More Reasons Not To Believe

In connection with David Riddell’s article about “Ancient Celtic New Zealand” (Skeptic, Winter 2004) your readers may be interested in my more detailed examination of the twaddle in Martin Doutré’s book in two articles published in the Auckland Astronomical Society Journal last year.

In these I analysed the garbled astronomy and contrived mathematics with some rigour. I did my own survey of the Maunganui Bluff site on the ground, identifying clear examples of misrepresentation and deception, leaving me in no doubt that the Waitapu “stone observatory” and “survey network” are pure invention. More recently I have found other examples of deception on Doutré’s website. No doubt this is not deliberate deception – I’m sure these people believe their own fabrications – but it is dangerous because many gullible people are sucked in by it.

This grossly misleading material is widely available in bookshops, libraries and websites, giving it an air of respectability. But there is no widely available corpus of published work to counter it. May I suggest that NZCSICOP find some way to commission investigators to research, publish and disseminate definitive books to expose and correct these deceptions case by case. We are dealing here with a growing trend. Crackpots are exploiting modern information and publishing technology, and freedom-of-speech principles, to spread fabrication posing as fact. We cherish freedom of speech ourselves, so we can’t suppress this material, and it won’t go away if we ignore it. Our only option is to match it punch-for-punch.

My articles are:

  • An Ancient Megalithic Observatory Near Dargaville? I Don’t Think So! AAS Journal, July 2003.
  • Secret Astronomical Number Codes? Bunkum! AAS Journal, August 2003.
  • These can be read at the Auckland Astronomical Society website (www.astronomy.org.nz). On the home page select Journal, then select the issue.

Bill Keir
Hokianga

Greenhouse Effect: What would it take?

In this magazine, and at conferences, a number of skeptics seem to have classified the belief in anthropogenic climate change as nonsense, together with spoon-bending and astrology. I wonder if the opposition to a radical new scientific idea is not just a symptom of conservatism – resistance to change – as demonstrated by the historical reluctance of scientists to accept other iconoclastic beliefs such as tectonic plate movement or quantum theory. If so, this is a desirable characteristic (in moderation), because science has progressed only by slow, cautious steps.

Regrettably, the debate has remained at the level of vikings and grapevines, rather than (say) discussion as to whether increasing cloud cover constitutes a negative or a positive feedback loop. Remember that the theory of the enhanced Greenhouse Effect was well established long before any warming was actually observed (in the 1990s). I first became aware of it in 1970, but Sven Arrhenius published a paper on it back in 1896.

The letter is an open challenge to all Greenhouse skeptics, including Vincent Gray, Chris de Freitas, Owen McShane, Denis Dutton and Jim Ring. What empirical evidence would it require, over and above that which has been published in the first, second and third IPCC reports, for these people to publicly declare in these pages that they were wrong? I assume that (being good scientists) skeptics would be quite willing to change their beliefs when confronted with compelling evidence. That being the case, there would be no loss of face if that eventuality should arise. What would it take?
Piers Maclaren

Moral Values

Vincent Gray asks which combination of moral values I support. My values are irrelevant to the topic of this discussion, which concerns the efforts by Bruce Taylor to find a consensus on environmental policy. Gray leaves us in little doubt as to his own values – like the Model T Ford, they come in one colour only! He doesn’t believe in consensus; in fact he opposes any environmental policy other than the continuing insanity of placing scientific “progress” before any other consideration. I am, it seems, “one of the few people who believes what comes out of the Pentagon”. Well, not exactly. Others include the ex-CEO of the UK Met Office and the Chief scientist at the World Bank. The Pentagon warns of chaos as global warming continues. I am also “a sucker for disaster scenarios” because I quoted from a report in Nature which estimated that a quarter of all species will become extinct by 2050. His scorn is misplaced. I never suggested that global warming would be the sole cause of this. The shift in climate zones is too rapid for ecosystems to make corresponding shifts in location. He quotes from an unnamed reference which estimates three to five extinctions per year. This was indeed worth citing in more detail, since the best estimates of the “background” extinction rate are much higher than this!

His references to Darwinism and to evolution derive from Herbert Spencer’s 19th century concept of Social Darwinism, which was an attempt to apply Darwinist ideas to politics. The fallacy is, of course, that “survival of the fittest” in a socioeconomic context has nothing to do with biological fitness. Over a century later, Gray perpetuates this fallacy. Like it or not, Homo “sapiens” is part of nature, and not separate from it.

Finally, environmentalism does not “fundamentally oppose modern technology, such as GE and nuclear energy”. It does, however, advise the proper use of the precautionary principle.
Alan P Ryan
Kaiapoi

Personal Restraint

It is good to see Forum getting letters but the tone of some recent ones is disturbing. It should be possible to challenge somebody’s views without resorting to personal attack; a little more politeness would help. In the last issue Vincent Gray found it necessary to defend his moral values; this should not be necessary.

I am not asking for editorial censorship, just personal restraint. Argue the case, do not attack the person, such attacks are somewhat self defeating. I may well believe that my intellectual opponents are blithering idiots but saying so in print merely gets them sympathy.
Jim Ring
Nelson