Monthly Archives: March 2011

Ken Ring’s guide to creating a pseudoscience

Ken Ring – aka “Moon Man” or more recently “Earthquake whisperer” is the perfect case study for the creation and mechanisms of pseudoscience.

Sadly, way too many people are way too convinced that “Moon Man” Ken Ring has some special powers for predicting earthquakes and the weather by the moon – something that seems to have eluded a century of real science. Come on Nobel, give Ken his prize!

Kerre Woodham raises a good point in her March 20 New Zealand Herald column on this issue – how does one with no training in the relevant scientific fields make a judgement call on such topics?

A little knowledge can go a long way, as does the realisation that for one to change a robust scientific consensus, their ideas must pass muster.

Lessons from magicians and “psychics”

Magicians, mentalists and psychics use a psychological technique known as cold reading, whereby the practitioner provides the illusion of special knowledge via linguistic tricks. These techniques take advantage of psychological tendencies inside the listener that create the impression of psychic powers.

It comes as no shock then, that Ken Ring has experience as a magician and fortune teller, as he would have used the techniques of cold reading in those professions, as he does in creating his pseudoscience.

Lessons from Ken – The seven ways of fortune telling

Step one: Take advantage of an established pseudoscience

Why reinvent the wheel? Simply ride on the coat tails of an existing pseudoscience and just add a twist of your own interpretation. The moon is excellent for generating wacky beliefs. The moon features prominently in the myths and superstitions of humans societies throughout the ages. Couple this with the fact that many people think (wrongly) that astrology is valid and you have a ready-made audience of believers.

Step two: Make pseudo-predictions and take advantage of the human tendency remember only the hits and filter out the misses

Non-events are not memorable so we tend not to remember them. Also, confirmation bias means that we tend to notice the events that we expect, thereby bolstering our beliefs further.

This is a key mechanism in superstitions – we tend to notice correlations and discount the times when the correlation doesn’t happen. Ken Ring routinely takes advantage of this tendency in his weather predictions. We’re wired to ascribe more significance to the times when he got right than we are to the times where he was flat out wrong.

Example: Many people erroneously claim that incidents of madness, hospital illnesses, crimes etc… Increase when it is a full moon. When this is studied closely so that the hits and the misses are taken into account, it shows that these kinds of “full moon causes X” beliefs are without foundation.

Example: Baseball players notice little things, such as the order they put their shoes on for games they score home runs.

Step three: Apply loose standards for what counts as a ‘hit’ and don’t acknowledge the misses

The key here is to look scientific, sound plausible but completely shun scientific testing protocols and standards. The cool thing is – your audience does this anyway! (see step two).

Ken Ring is the master of ad hoc fudging of his predictions. By keeping his predictions vague and open-ended, this process of appearing to land a hit can seem more spectacular.

It is not surprising that fields we know to be pseudoscientific suffer when reasonable standards of evidence are practised. If the claims are true, there is no need to relax your standards in order to salvage your ideas.

Good (scientific) predictions do not require picking ‘second-best’ results after the fact. You design the experiment, set strict protocols for what constitutes a successful trial beforehand and run lots of trials.

Step four: Make high probability predictions so as to appear credible

One skilled in the arts of cold reading knows that it is possible to appear to be psychic by throwing in some predictions that have a high probability of being successful (or can later be rationalised as a hit).

As Grant Jacobs points out in his post on this at sciblogs.co.nz, Ken rings claim that:

An extreme weather event is possible that day worldwide, and an earthquake within 500kms of the Alpine Fault is a risk on that date. More likely to be a 4-6mag.

is simply not useful. Geoff points out that New Zealand gets about 333 magnitude 4 or greater earthquakes a year. So predicting quakes of this nature, especially in a region experiencing an increase in earthquake activity, is one way to satisfy the high probability criteria.

Step five: Cast a wide net

For a prediction to be meaningful, it must prove to better than blind luck. By creating a prediction that seems specific but in fact covers a lot of territory, you can make this luck work for your predictions.

For instance, some of Ken’s earthquake predictions seem to be scattered randomly throughout the month. But, by putting the qualifier, “+ or – 3 or 4 days” allows him to claim success if the event happens the week surrounding his prediction.

Step six: Feed on the fears of others

“Humans are pattern-seeking story-telling animals, and we are quite adept at telling stories about patterns, whether they exist or not.” – Michael Shermer

The fact is, our pattern detection mechanisms go on hyper-drive when we’re afraid. This is a good thing historically. When faced with a threatening situation it paid off for early humans to exercise caution. Of course, this tendency doesn’t guarantee that a pattern is real, and for the most part the truth value was unimportant.

I cannot presume to know whether Ken Ring is intentionally preying on the fear of others. Whatever the case, the numbers of people that have bought Ken’s claims is not surprising given the emotional states of the people involved.

Step seven: Act confident – conviction fuels the belief

Certainty is addictive, especially in times of fear. Certainty also has the ability to shut down a person’s critical thinking faculties. Such is the intoxicating effect certainty has on a human nervous system.

While it could be argued that certainty makes people feel better, having reliable, accurate information seems a much healthier and intellectually honest way to navigate through life.

Conclusion

While it is good that the media are giving this Ken Ring pseudoscience issue a good hearing, it is disheartening to know that this will simply harden his existing supporters views and likely attract a few more.

This paradoxical feature of human nature – that thorough debunkings of nonsense claims often increase support for said claims – is something to be wary of as science communicators.

The key to assessing predictions is to assess their specificity before the event. Ask yourself:

  • Is the claim to accuracy being retrofitted after the fact?
  • Does the claimant have a history of making nonsense claims?
  • Have they defined clearly what would count as a miss?
  • Could the prediction have been achieved through sheer luck?
  • What does science say on the matter?

These are the questions Ken Ring doesn’t want you to ask. Ask them anyway, and save yourself the expensive exercise of buying Ken’s “predict weather” books or going to “psychics” and “mediums”.

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A guide to Jehovah’s Witness anti-science propaganda, part 3 – Thinking derailed

In part 3 of this series, we will explore the logic or lack thereof employed by the Watchtower authors in their anti-science propaganda.

The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true. – Carl Sagan.

I always maintain that anyone who cares whether their beliefs are true or not ought to honestly examine the claims they are being asked to believe.

In this series of posts, my aim is to show that the arguments put forward by The Watchtower Tract Society (Jehovah’s Witnesses) as evidence against the sciences of evolution and abiogenesis amount to little more than a desperate attempt to revive bad ideas refuted centuries ago (the final knife blow dealt by Darwin 150 years ago).

Simply believing assertions with faulty reasoning is not a path to truth. So without further ado, let’s continue our critique of the Watchtower brochures “The Origin of Life” and “Was Life Created?”

Appeal to ‘intuition’ leads to error

Routinely, the reader of the Watchtower brochures is asked “What do you think?” And then asked to evaluate biased leading questions (attempting to make science sound absurd). 

The use of this appeal to intuition or ‘common sense’ is a huge red flag for a couple of reasons:

  • ‘Common sense’ is where personal incredulity and arguments from ignorance come from “I don’t have an explanation, therefore God”
  • “Isn’t it obvious” gut feel thinking espoused by the Watchtower creationist texts is often overturned by empirical observation. How many scientific theories at their core make intuitive sense? Quantum physics? No. Einstein’s theories of relativity? No. Even the heliocentric theory took some work to develop.
  • The situation is akin to the blind leading the blind. Here we have a group ideologically opposed to evolution asking the layperson to make a judgement call on a scientific theory. Before coming to a conclusion discover the evidence for evolution here or read a book that describes the science of evolution from a reputable scientific source.

The appeal to common sense is a good way to end up with false beliefs. The human mammal has not evolved reasoning faculties to readily deal with the counterintuitive, complex and vast.

We are predisposed to seeking design and purpose – even to the point of invoking causation beyond experience. We also tend to believe what appeals to our self-importance. Given these tendencies and biases, we can’t trust our intuitions in matters of fact. We need external feedback from reality to inform our thinking.

Our intuitions about what led to the variety of life we see today were wrong right up until the 19th century. Intuition is what primitive human beings relied on in the absence of proper knowledge. Relying on such problematic mechanisms to determine the truth of our claims in the 21st century is naïve given the success of the scientific method.

The creationist obsession with “chance” and “randomness”

Another common tactic of creationist arguments that the Watchtower brochures embrace is the “complexity can’t emerge from chance”. They assert that our existence cannot be accounted for by chance because seems absurd.  “Look at how complex the cell is”, they chant, “where did the instructions come from” they cry while admiring the complexity of the DNA molecule.

Fantastic, we have awe of the natural world. What a starting point to begin investigation right? Well, not so fast – the Watchtower authors want us to take a different track – one in which is both scientifically inaccurate and logically untenable.

“Was it chance or intelligent design” is a false dichotomy. Yet, this is the only choice Watchtower seems to be capable of mustering.  

But the candidate solutions to the riddle of improbability are not, as falsely implied, design and chance. They are design and natural selection. – Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion page 145.

Evolution is not chance and is decidedly not random. Evolution is the non-random selection of randomly generated variants. In other words, mutations at the genetic level are random, however the selection via environmental pressures is not random.

Chance is a strawman argument.

Dawkins continues his devastating assessment:

Chance is not a solution, given the high levels of improbability we see in living organisms, and no sane biologist ever suggested that it was.

He adds that the statistical improbability is the central problem any theory of life must solve.

Natural selection is not only a parsimonious, plausible and elegant solution; it is the only workable alternative to chance that has ever been suggested.

Intelligent design serves to increase the complexity of the problem, thereby making it more improbable and implausible. Adding extra unknowns (intelligent designers) to a problem increases the problem because now we must explain the designer’s arrival on the scene.

Unscientific speculation

Intelligent design is an example of a non-explanation that fails to do anything useful. It doesn’t qualify as a scientific hypothesis because it asserts untestable criteria. Observations put forward by apologists for intelligent design have been falsified many times over.

The fact intelligent design is used to explain such a wide range of natural observations is precisely why it fails as any sort of explanatory model. Like the medicine that is claimed to cure all illnesses.

Supernatural claims amount to a declaration that we have reached the limits of our knowledge. In essence, invoking the supernatural is mind paralysing halt to inquiry. This suits Watchtower just fine because they don’t want you to engage your mind to learn, lest you might discover they are pulling the wool over your eyes.

Excellent resources:

That’s my lot for now. I have one more post in the works on the anti-science of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Next time, we’ll look at some specific claims in the Watchtower brochures.