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.
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”.