So, can Ken Ring predict the future?

Economists do it. Sports commentators do it. Weather presenters do it. So what is the big deal when Ken Ring does it? Mark Price takes a look at predicting the future.

Ken Ring does not sound like a nutter when I speak to him on the telephone, and he does not look like a nutter on his website.

As for his theory - that if the moon can pull the sea around to create the tides it can also pull the magma around to create earthquakes - well, who am I to argue? I got 51% in school certificate physics and never went near a textbook again.

So why, after Ken Ring sort of predicted the Christchurch earthquake and has sort of predicted the moon will cause another big quake tomorrow, have people threatened to kill him?

"I've had death threats and all sorts," Mr Ring told the Otago Daily Times in a phone interview earlier this week.

"I have to lay real low. My family are threatened."

Ken Ring lives in Auckland and, until recently, was getting along quite nicely making money from selling his moon-based weather predictions.

But, then he branched out into predicting earthquakes.

At 4.30am on February 13 he twittered: "Potential earthquake time for the planet between 15th-25th, especially 18th for Christchurch +/- about 3 days."

And sure enough nine days later (+ 4 days), on February 22, Christchurch was hit.

His twitter attracted a flash of international curiosity and an unusual interview on TV3's Campbell Live show, and an apology.

But, that was not the end of Ken Ring by any means.

He has gone on predicting earthquakes, and suggests tomorrow everyone between Christchurch and Wellington should look out for "a significant earthquake event".

He told the ODT he is not suggesting Christchurch people flee the city, but he considered those who already have "have done the right thing by moving away at these risk times, just purely based on the pattern in the past".

Mr Ring is referring to a pattern involving the moon, the earth, "king tides" and, of course, the timing of earthquakes.

"I'm trying not to scare people. I'm actually trying to only point out danger times and times to avoid old buildings."

Mr Ring said "all" he was doing was "adding to the information available".

"Hey, everybody's free to make their own decisions based on the information available."

And he considered he would be failing in his social responsibility if, "having seen this pattern, I didn't just come out and try and point it out to people."

ACC Minister Nick Smith also believes he has a social responsibility. And that is to debunk Mr Ring and his earthquake predictions.

"I've got nephews, and nieces in Christchurch who are pleading with their parents to get them out of Christchurch next Sunday because of the fears Mr Ring has created," he said when contacted this week.

"I have been taken aback by the number of people that have taken his predictions seriously."

Mr Smith, who says his background is in geotechnical engineering, described Mr Ring's predictions as "reckless, irresponsible mumbo-jumbo".

"Given the level of anxiety and trauma the people of Christchurch have been through, the last thing they need is Mr Ring's pseudo-scientific predictions of when another earthquake might strike.

"The truth is the science is miles away from being able to predict such events."

At noon tomorrow, Mr Smith will join members of the Skeptics Society for lunch in one of the tallest, oldest buildings left standing in Christchurch.

Mr Smith says he quite expects there will be an after-shock of some sort tomorrow.

After all the city has recorded more than 600 since the earthquake of February 22.

"I hope people will see that a group of geologists and geotechnical and earthquake engineers are sufficiently dismissive of Mr Ring's predictions that they are prepared to position themselves in a heritage building."

Mr Smith said he was initially concerned the Skeptic Society's lunch would give Mr Ring more profile than he already had.

"But when I spoke to people on the ground in Christchurch and found the number of people leaving town and giving credence to his predictions, it said to me that someone needed to have the courage to stare down these claims and expose them for the nonsense that they are."

"What he is doing is as irresponsible as a person standing up in a major theatre or stadium and crying 'fire' when there is not one."

In addition to Mr Smith, a band of scientists has fired off press releases weighted against the moon-based theories Mr Ring uses.

Canterbury University tectonics expert Dr Mark Quigley has referred to "opportunistic and meaningless self-promotion during a time of national crisis".

"Vague quotes about dates of increased activity, plus or minus several days, without magnitudes, locations and exact times do not constitute prediction."

He said the link between the moon and earthquakes had been studied for more than 100 years with some scientists suggesting a small effect.

"This is peer-reviewed but controversial research; it does not make it so, but it has undergone scrutiny and will continue to do so." 

Two GNS scientists said using the movement of the tides was "not useful for precisely predicting the location, magnitude and time of an earthquake".

Another said there did not appear to be "any clear, obvious correlation" between the position of the moon and earthquakes.

And even the Prime Minister's chief science adviser, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, weighed in at a press conference during the week to say there was "no added risk" of an earthquake on March 20.

"Inevitably, there will almost certainly be aftershocks of low magnitude in Canterbury on March 20 as there are today, tomorrow and will be on most days over the next two weeks."

University of Otago PhD student David Winter has taken a particular interest in Mr Ring's predictions and told the ODT his methods "sound wildly implausible".

"The moon does have an effect on the earth but it's pretty small and differences from day to day are really minute."

Mr Winter says he is a student of evolutionary biology rather than seismology but knows how to analyse data.

And, he says, while Mr Ring's methods are "a bit odd" it is his record of predictions and the data on earthquakes "that really shows how useless they are.

"We shouldn't be very surprised that he 'predicted' the February earthquake since he predicts earthquakes all the time - an increased risk on more than half of the days between January and March by my count.

"One hit among all those misses doesn't prove his methods."

Mr Ring told the ODT forecasting was an "inexact science".

"I've never ever used the word 'will' and I never do because nobody knows.

"I use 'may'. I use 'the potential for' because that's what I believe. There's always the chance ..."

Mr Winter agrees with Mr Ring about the difficulty of predicting the future.

"But the heart of the scientific approach to understanding the world is letting your theories be tested against reality.

"When we compare Mr Ring's methods with the data, they just don't work - weather predictions included."

Victoria University psychologist Assoc Prof Marc Wilson told the ODT that a study of 6000 New Zealanders he carried out in 2008 showed 44% believed "some people can inexplicably predict the future".

And that, he suggested, meant there would always be an audience for theories put forward by the likes of Mr Ring.

Prof Wilson said human beings found not knowing the future "discomfiting" - some more so than others.

"There's an individual difference in the extent to which people are past, present, or future-oriented."

He said people's main interest was in knowing "if bad stuff is going to happen" so they could avoid it or plan for it.

"We are relatively less interested in knowing the causes of good stuff because it has a less live-or-die effect on our lives."

That is why people were "much more interested" in stories of "conflict and misery than happiness and reconciliation".

Prof Wilson said the desire to predict the future has always been there.

"I don't know of any culture in which there isn't either a mainstream or cottage-industry of belief in trying to predict and control the future."

"The methods used might have changed - less chicken entrails are spilt these days - but people have historically looked for patterns in the world around them that might allow them to divine their fate, or to allow them to exercise control over it."

And, he said, the primitive rituals that had disappeared had been replaced by modern ones.

"If there is a difference it's in the commodification of it - the numerous cases of psychics on television, 0900 astrology hotlines, self-help books purporting to help you develop your psychic powers, etc."

Prof Wilson said people were more inclined to concentrate their prediction efforts on life-threatening activities or events or where the result could go either way (gambling) or where there was a slim margin for error (surgery, sport).

"We have this drive to predict, understand, and control potentially bad things so we actively, in most cases, seek out ways to do this.

"One of the downsides for science is that any self-respecting scientist will supply a raft of caveats to go with their predictions because much of science is about probabilities rather than certainties."

That meant people would "sometimes plumb for the easier-to-digest" ideas.

"One of the problems with our rate of scientific progress is that many of our advances can only really be understood easily by people who deal with them every day -'experts'."

Mr Ring said he had received emails from "thousands" of people thanking him for his warnings "and saying I've saved their lives".

"That kind of keeps me going far, far more than the scientific ones that say I'm a lot of tosh."

Mr Ring has cited articles supporting his theories in National Geographic, Science Express and the Journal of Geophysical Research, and studies in Russia and France.

Believe it or not

Dr Wilson's study also found New Zealanders believed in (%): Evolution 79.4, big bang theory 71.4, climate change 66.4, life on other planets 65.6, an immortal soul 52.4, mind reading 48.8, God 39.9, witches 36.4, communication with the dead 32.4, psychics can predict the future 32, heaven and hell 30.4, reincarnation 26.3, black magic 24.3, the devil 24.1, levitation 17.4, lucky numbers 16.6, astrology 14.2, yetis 12.2, Loch Ness monsters 11, the accuracy of horoscopes 9.3, taniwha 8.9, broken mirrors cause bad luck 6.9, black cats affect your luck 3.8.

Do it yourself
Some tried but yet-to-be-proven ways of predicting the future. -

Chicken entrails:
Extispicy is the practice of using anomalies in animal entrails to predict the future. Method: After ritually slaughtering an animal, inspect organs such as the liver and intestines. Probable origin: Mesopotamian.

Tea leaves
Tasseography is fortune-telling by means of tea leaves, coffee grounds and wine sediment. Method: Pour the tea without a strainer. Drink the tea. Shake the cup. Look for significant patterns among the tea leaves on the bottom of the cup. Probable origin: Scotland, England and Ireland.

Crystal balls
Scrying or "peeping" is the art a clairvoyant uses to tell the future by means of a crystal ball. Method: Take a natural gemstone and scan for images of the past, present or future. Probable origin: Druids or earlier Celtic tribes.

Tarot cards
A pack of cards, commonly 78, used to determine mental and spiritual pathways.
Method: The reader lays out cards and looks for symbolism and/or employs psychic abilities. Probable origin: Europe 15th century.

Flying birds
Method: Study the pattern and behaviour of flocks of birds. Blackbirds that fly around trees without settling, for instance, were considered to be the reincarnated souls of evil-doers. Probable origin: Ancient Rome and Greece.

Palm reading
Palmistry or chiromancy is predicting the future by marks on the palm. Method: Look at the hand's characteristics and study the lines and patterns for the emotional, mental and health condition of the person to whom it is attached. Probable origin: India.

Groundhogs are North American rodents that emerge from their burrows in the spring. Method: Monitor groundhog behaviour. It is said that if a groundhog sees its shadow and retreats back into its burrow, winter will last six more weeks, but if it emerges on a cloudy day winter weather will soon end. Probable origin: Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.

Sources: wikipedia,,,,




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