Thursday, March 17, 2011

Open letter to TVNZ

Dear Closeup people,

I viewed your coverage of Ken Ring's "predictions" on your March 17th 2011 Closeup programme through TVNZ's "on demand" system.

Do you have no shame?

Your reporting was poorly researched, ill-informed, and scared large numbers of people in Christchurch unnecessarily.

You gave very large amounts of airtime to the views of two people who have had extremely limited and not statistically relevant "successful predictions" of earthquakes while ignoring all their failed "predictions".
You placed coverage of these two, Ken Ring and Jim Berkland, alongside two highly qualified scientists (with less airtime for the latter), thereby setting up a hypothetical "balance" between two points of view, when one view was well informed and the other was nonsense. This kind of so called "balance" gives undue credence to the nonsense, and as reporters you should have been well aware of this effect.
You lined up two very talented and famous New Zealanders who clearly have no scientific expertise and used their misguided opinions as support for Ken Ring.
You claimed that two earthquakes (the Napier earthquake of Feb 3rd 1931, and the Feb 22nd 2011 quake in Christchurch) had occurred during combined perigees and full Moons and sensationally implied that this validated Mr Ring's methods.
It appears that you bent over backwards to promote Mr Ring's views and to convince people that they were correct.

Facts that you should have researched before your programme went to air:

1) The Napier event was in fact very near to a coincidence of a full Moon and a lunar perigee
2) The Christchurch event occurred when the Moon was about 50 degrees from full and 3 days past a perigee.
3) If you insist on using isolated events as evidence (which is total nonsense, by the way), then what about the largest earthquake in the recent past in Japan, which occurred when the Moon was closer to apogee than perigee, and almost midway between a full Moon and a new Moon?
4) Of New Zealand's 20 largest earthquakes on record, only 2 were close to a perigee combined with either a full Moon or a new Moon and this is about what we would expect if those earthquakes were randomly distributed in time. If we take a more liberal view of Mr Ring's vague "prediction" method, then we get 5/20, which again is about what we would expect if the earthquakes were randomly distributed in time given the proportions of time represented by this "prediction" window.
5) An analysis of daily seismic intensity in Canterbury since September 4th 2010 shows a 2% correlation with the Earth-Moon distance (an r-squared of only 0.02), and a slightly higher intensity between full Moon and new Moon, although this latter relationship is also exceptionally weak (see The correlation with the Earth-Moon distance is totally inadequate for any sort of useful prediction, and the very weak correlation with lunar phase runs counter to Mr Ring's assertions.
6) 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.

I think your reporting was shameful, and that you only increased the panic in my home city.

So what should you have done? You should have ignored the fringe people with failed predictions.  This is obviously the moral thing to have done under the circumstances and it is astounding that your programme went to air.

What should you do now?  You should begin tomorrow's programme with an apology, and state that your implied support for Mr Ring's earthquake predictions was totally misguided and poorly researched.

Oh, and just in case you are planning a repeat performance, if we do get a large earthquake this weekend will that single event validate Mr Ring's methods? No, it won't. A large earthquake could still occur this weekend even if they are randomly distributed in time. Does this latter statement also represent a bob each way? No, I am not the one making predictions.

Yours sincerely,
Euan Mason

PS (sarcasm on)

Did you know that over 70% of all earthquakes occurred on days whose English names contained the letters s, y, d and a?

Also, over 70% of all earthquakes occurred on days whose French names contained the letters e, i, and d!

Oh, horrors! March 20th 2011 is a day whose English name contains the letters s,y,d, and a, and whose French name contains the letters e, i and d!

TVNZ should run a Closeup programme on this!  (sarcasm off)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The case for science

A recent correspondent suggested that, "Science has become another holy grail, its importance, capabilities and contribution to society are overestimated, resulting in it being the new 'religion'. The amount of conceptual 'knowledge' might have increased massively, but the pure scientific ethos is getting more and more diluted and polluted, as the arrogance, pride and self-righteousness of present day 'scientists' has increased manifold. This mindset makes it impossible to remain open, objective and self critical, which at least to me, are essential attributes of a real Scientist." and, "All the intellectual 'scientific' knowledge in the world has not added an ounce of inner refinement, humanity or love to society. Just witness present day society: We have jumbo jets, atom bombs and god knows what, but have we stopped killing and hating each other? Instead of using arrows, we use bombs or gas or other scientifically 'evolved' weaponry, but all the selfish and narrow attributes and negative traits have remained the same."

What follows is my response to him:

Science may be amoral, as you say, and clearly technology allows us to express our dark side more destructively. I think that on balance science enhances humanity, however, not just because it allows us to contemplate and communicate this way, but also because in my opinion applied science has led to the rise of middle classes, and we middle classes generally have the time and influence to try to promote more democratic, equitable societies.

Since the enlightenment we have seen a burgeoning of democratic states. This change appears to have arisen in tandem with changes in perceptions of place, cosmology, cause and effect, and personal security that science has helped to bring about. We are not perfect, and our prejudices still wax and wane, but I believe we have made sound progress during the last 500 years. We are more free, more wealthy, healthier and happier on average than our ancestors of medieval times. Our societies are less barbaric in their treatment of illnesses and social problems. All this gives me grounds for hope that we can continue to make a better world, and that science is part of the solution. I accept that I participate in a society that has to continue to change, to become more equitable globally, to offer better opportunities to people, and to live within the capacity of our planet.

I hear your point about scientists being arrogant, a new priestly caste, and maybe sometimes we are too arrogant. All I can say in response is that as a scientist/academic, my integrity is my most valuable asset, and like all other scientists I know, I guard it as well as I can by taking care with my statements and by listening to other points of view with as much charity as I can muster.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The nature of science and studies of complex subjects

The KenRingGate saga offers us an opportunity to ponder differences between science and other human endeavours, particularly with respect to complex systems.  The inverse square law was an early success for those involved in the Royal Society, and the theory can be derived by just thinking about it. The surface area of a sphere is 4pr2 (a result first derived by Archimedes), and so observations of a force or energy emanating from a point source should be expected to diminish in proportion to the square of r, the distance of the observer from the source. This is because the same amount of energy per unit time is spread out over an ever larger surface area as r increases, and the surface area increases linearly with r2. Predictions made with this theory agree very consistently with actual observations within the usual scales of dimensions we inhabit, and so the theory is a strong one that we confidently use for predictions.  But do theories have to be as precise as the inverse square law in order to qualify as "scientific"?  As the complexity of the topic of study increases, the precision of predictions tends to decline.  Some would argue that this merely reflects our lack of understanding of complex processes such as biology or climate, but it arises also from our inability to precisely define and measure complex starting and finishing conditions.  Does this mean that researchers studying complex processes are not practicing science?

The philosopher Karl Popper distinguished a scientific theory from a non-scientific one by saying that the former was falsifiable; that an experiment could be conducted with at least one outcome that would recognisably contradict the theory, which says little about complexity.  Many of my colleagues are "Popperian" in their approach to science, although we accept that there is still plenty of healthy discussion about the nature of science.  So let's consider the question of complexity in Popperian terms.

Biologists and climate scientists can offer scientific theories or models so long as they could be falsified in ways that take account of probability.  We accept that our estimates of starting and finishing states are subject to error, and also that our models of processes may be incomplete, but we can still falsify them if we test them with independent data and use statistical methods.  Our theories, models and means of measurement need to be precisely stated, and we also need to include statements of probability.  Imprecision and bias can both be regarded as criteria for falsification.  If I assert that 95% of estimates obtained from my model of forest growth will be within a given range under certain conditions, and then someone finds significantly more than 5% of estimates outside that range then my model can be said to be falsified.  Similarly, if I say that under those conditions errors of estimates should be normally distributed around the model with mean zero and someone finds that they are significantly different from normal or that the mean of the distribution of errors is significantly different from zero then my model can be said to be falsified.

Ken Ring’s “theory” of earthquakes, by contrast, is vaguely stated and predictions from various interpretations of his stated methods do not agree at all well with observations. His predictions sometimes include bounds, but when an event happens outside those bounds he will assert that it was only a bit outside the stated bounds and therefore "validates" his prediction. The vagueness and malleability of his predictions apparently make them unfalsifiable. He does not appear to be behaving as a scientist and his predictions are not terribly useful.  The fact that he propagated his predictions and scared the bejesus out of people in an already stressed out city is therefore monstrous, and he deserves strong criticism.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A quick look at Ken Ring's predictions for New Zealand's 20 largest recorded earthquakes

Mr Ken Ring says that severe, damaging earthquakes are more likely when the moon is full or new and when it is at perigee (closest to the Earth in its elliptical orbit). A quick look at New Zealand's 20 largest recorded earthquakes shows that Ken would have missed most of them. Assume "at perigee" means "closer to perigee than 30% between perigree and apogee at the time of the earthquake", and allow "full" or "new" to mean "within 30 degrees of a full or new moon respectively", then only two earthquakes out of 20 satisfy these conditions: The 2nd equal (with 3 others) highest magnitude earthquake of February 3rd, 1931 in Napier, and the 19th largest of March 2nd, 1987 in Edgecumbe.

Other interpretations of Mr Ring's conditions might be to require a close, recent perigee (say 20% of the way between minimum and maximum perigee, or approximately a 20% likelihood) or alternatively less than 5 days between the earthquake and a perigee (i.e.: roughly 9 days/month). Combine these with "within 60 degrees of a full or new moon" to reflect Ken Ring's broad statements about days from full or new moons (i.e. 2/3rds of the time), and we get 5/20 correct predictions in each case.

On a statistical note, these results are not significantly different from a random occurrence with respect to the conditions imposed, i.e.: there is not a significant correlation between times of occurrence of these earthquakes and my numerical interpretations of Mr Ring's stated prediction method.

Enough said.