Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Campbell vs Ring: Fight!

NB: Apologies for the link-fest, but there has been a lot of comment on this today. NBB, not 'alot'.

So John Campbell lost his objective cool somewhat last night and went pit-bull on deliverer of weather, fishing, and earthquake 'opinions' Ken Ring, giving him a thorough savaging on live TV (link) Campbell has since apologised for what one commentator called 'a disgrace to the interviewers trade'. Interestingly that commentator (who has delivered a few savagings himself in his time) has now made an apology of sorts to Campbell. There have been many comments today across several blogs and boards criticising Campbell's conduct. There have also been a few backing him up.

I am inclined to agree with the critics, but only partly. It may have been a set-up, and after dodging the first question and provoking his interviewer, Ring was effectively run into the ground and not really allowed back into the conversation. It was ugly and unnecessary. In attempting to discredit his subject, Campbell only made him look like a hapless victim. A better approach would have been to give Ring some rope and let him discredit himself.

And here's the thing: I think the interview itself was a mistake and doomed from the beginning. It gave Ring's theories a bit of extra seriousness and credibility they don't deserve. If you subject them to proper rigorous analysis, they fall apart. In light of the earthquakes in Christchurch his 'opinions' (he doesn't call them predictions, I guess in case someone gets into trouble after following them) are getting more consideration from the spooked and the wary population of NZ. They don't deserve it, and the people don't deserve the stress. Ring is at best misguided, at worst a cynical charlatan con artist. He bases his predictions on the Moon and tides, and uses such a scattergun approach that he is bound to be right some of the time, pure Texas Sharpshooter style. An excellent analysis was put out here today showing just how full of it his opinions are. If your maths isn't so hot, the graphs are an excellent summary. Representatives of GNS have also offered responses today. Some are arguing that it isn't a fair discussion if both viewpoints aren't given equal exposure and credence, but when it comes to bad science like this I disagree, since giving it equal exposure only adds unwarranted merit.

While I don't agree with Campbell's style, I am glad he did it, because someone in the media needed to. Ring has had fairly uncritical media exposure for some time, with his weather prediction almanacs given prominent space in some bookshops. I am glad someone stood up and had a proper go at a peddler of pseudoscience and woo, even if it backfired somewhat. While on the face of it these opinions seem harmless, to the lay person who can't tell the difference between them and actual good science (through no fault of their own) they are potentially dangerous if taken seriously. In a wider context it adds to what sometimes feels like a popular anti-science, anti-intellectual, anti-expert sentiment, something I find unsettling. Often though the people who buy into that sentiment are ignorant or misinformed about how science actually works.

Of course, if Ring's 'opinioned' big March 20 earthquake arrives (and I survive) I will reconsider my opinion. That's how scientific method works. But I wouldn't bet on it.

1 comment:

Not Kate said...

I saw that interview too. Me and my flatmate were both appalled at John Campbell's approach. It was really aggressive and I think if you ask someone to be on your show under the guise of giving them a chance to speak, it's ethically wrong to attack them like that off the bat. It's not the first time he's done it (think 'Corngate').

I don't believe what the Moon Man says and see that John Campbell was ultimately trying to quell fears he was causing in others (so his motives might have come from a good place) but the interview was terrible. The Moon Man came off seeming like an articulat decent guy, and Campbell came off looking like a git.

I'm sure he's very embarrassed now and hence the apology. You're right that his approach had exactly the opposite effect than what he'd wanted to achieve.

Definitely an odd little media side-story.