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  Ken Ring's Moon Madness - Another Update for the Record

By BILL KEIR

Click Here for Part 1 Click Here for Part 2

On 26 December 2004 a huge earthquake occurred under the ocean near Indonesia causing a tsunami (tidal wave) that caused massive devastation on nearby coasts and loss of life in the hundreds of thousands.

The next day, 27 December, Ken Ring breathlessly announced his explanation to the world in a National Radio interview with the radio host Brian Crump. Ring’s statement was somewhat incoherent, but he implied that the earthquake was caused by the close coincidence of full Moon and lunar perigee (Moon closest to Earth). Having learnt long ago not to trust anything Ken Ring says I quickly checked the facts. Full Moon was indeed early on 27 December, but perigee was on 13 December. The quake actually occurred much closer to lunar apogee (Moon furthest from Earth), which was on 28 December.

Ring also said in the same interview that the quake was linked to a 19-year Moon cycle because it occurred exactly nine cycles after a large quake in the same region in 1833. The relevant cycle that Ring has latched on to here is the revolution of the Moon’s nodes and its associated high declination maximum. Its period is actually 18.6 years. Using this more precise value to reckon from 1833 the December 2004 quake was about four years late.

In any case, there was no high declination maximum in 1833. The nearest was in 1838. The most recent was in November 1987, and the next is in June 2006. So there is no link between these Moon cycles and these two earthquakes. Ken Ring has duped us, and obviously himself, by treating an 18.6-year astronomical cycle of peak magnitudes as if it applies to any pair of years 18.6 years apart. He did the same thing in his website comment linking the Bay of Plenty Floods in mid-July 2004 with the Moon’s high maximum declination cycle. He said that the floods were exactly 18.6 years after similar floods in that area in January 1986. The arithmetic is correct so it seems convincing, but both floods were nearly two years away from the dates of the Moon’s high declination maximum. To be valid for his theory his evidence would have to itemise all the heavy rain events, suitably defined, in a given area over several cycles and show that they consistently clustered around the Moon’s high declination maximums to a statistical significance convincingly above chance. His evidence is so selective it is meaningless.

Besides, the peak tidal force component of lunar orbital cycles is much too small to cause earthquakes or extreme weather events. Such events are caused by vastly more energetic forces (see my earlier articles in this Journal, October and November 2004).

In the same interview Ken Ring said that there is a pre-Maori stone circle in Northland with the same dimensions as Stonehenge. My articles in this Journal, July and August 2003, deal with that fabrication.

Question: Why do people listen to a man who is so sloppy and manipulative with the facts? Answer: Because he is seldom challenged, the real facts are seldom given, and few people would be bothered checking the claims.

On 28 December I wrote an email to radio host Brian Crump with detailed corrections of Ken Ring’s misinformation and invited him to read the corrections on air. To my knowledge he didn’t (I wasn’t listening to his programme very often). I offered to go on air myself but he didn’t invite me. Some weeks later he invited Jim Salinger of NIWA to comment on Ken Ring’s theories. Salinger said on air that some astronomers had recently written articles giving Ring’s theories no credence. Good on him, but he was not given the time to elaborate on the science.

Crump also asked meteorologist Augie Auer to comment on Ring’s theories. Auer said that the physics didn’t stack up because the atmosphere is 1000 times less dense than the ocean, so the Moon’s gravitational pull on the atmosphere would be 1000 times less than on the oceans. Auer was on the right track but the statement is a bit muddled – he was only given a few seconds to say it. The density of the atmosphere varies dramatically with altitude. The more important value is its mass which can be given as 5.3 × 10 18 kg, and that of the oceans 1.3 × 10 21 kg. Using the mean Earth-Moon distance, these values yield a lunar gravitational force on a mass equivalent to the atmosphere about 256 times less than that on a mass equivalent to the oceans. This is still a big enough difference to make the same point Augie Auer was trying to make, namely, that atmospheric tides caused by the Moon would be so feeble that they could not cause the weather.

Did these very short, simplistic, off-the-cuff sound bites really educate listeners about the interesting scientific facts? Of course not. Rather, they illustrate how difficult it is to improve public understanding in the context of the electronic media’s imperative to distil complex matters into a few words.

With this in mind, on 2 January 2005 I also wrote a letter to TheNew Zealand Herald correcting Ring’s claims about the link between Moon cycles and the Boxing Day earthquake/tsunami in Indonesia. My letter was not published even though public interest was still at a peak with saturation news coverage of all angles. Over the last five years I have written several letters to The Herald correcting Ring’s misleading public statements. Only one of these letters was published back in November 2000. By contrast I have a large cuttings file of the generous exposure Ring has had in TheHerald and other newspapers over those years. By their sins of omission the news media contribute to public ignorance on this matter.

Obviously Ken Ring has a significant loyal following, and his weather forecasts are correct often enough to convince impressionable people. But why do the news media love this man so much?

I suggest several reasons. Ken Ring probably pesters them so much they can’t resist, and he is charming, affable and a master of bluff. Most news media people are as gullible as the rest of the population – there’s one born a minute. Most media people have a poor understanding of the sciences. Like the rest of the population most media people love a good yarn and regard raw facts as dry, boring, and a non-seller – a good story angle is deemed more important than factual accuracy. The electronic media especially have an aversion to anything that taxes the brain for more than a few seconds. This is obvious from the way factual corrections are handled – they are either not published at all or hidden away where they will be missed. I wait in vain for a front-page headline reading, “Moon did not cause floods – yesterday’s headline wrong”.

Our Roving Mole column in February put a finger on a real worry. The fringe theorists won’t go away. We are dealing here with a growing trend. These people are exploiting modern information and publishing technology, and freedom-of-speech principles, to spread fabrication posing as fact. They go largely unchallenged. The Ken Rings of this world are purveyors of falsehood with the gullible collusion of the news media. The whole process increases public ignorance – the exact opposite of what the information explosion is thought to be doing.

But will Ken Ring and his followers listen to serious refutations? I fear not. Expert refutation will probably only reinforce their conviction that the establishment is suppressing their brilliant ideas. And that’s just the sort of juicy story angle some people fall for.

But we must continue the battle to educate in the hope that it will help a few more people to see through the shams. Long may the Auckland Astronomical Society, its Journal, its website and its educational programmes, flourish.