Thinking outside the square

By Sarah Lang

There have always been people with radical ideas on the edge of society. And throughout history, countless "cranks" have been denounced as odd or, frankly, crazy, only to be proven right in time. Dr Oliver Holmes' belief that doctors should wash their hands before delivering babies was rubbished until his death.

Charles Darwin was viciously attacked as a "monkey man" for believing humans shared ancestors with apes. Was the first person to suggest smoking was bad for you smiled upon?

Even people who ate mainly organic or local produce were considered enviromental fringe oddities until recently. Sure, not everyone with a radical idea is vindicated as a visionary; some will always be seen as cranks.

We all know a crank when we see one: someone who holds a belief which the vast majority of contemporaries would consider false, insists their beliefs are urgently important, dismisses all contradictory evidence and is often, but not necessarily, eccentric and bad-tempered.

Visionaries get an altogether different rap: as individuals with a clear idea of how to achieve a difficult or futuristic goal. But while there's a yawning gulf between the two terms, often the same person gets both tags, depending on who's doing the tagging.

Historically, it's been people with left-field, "cranky" ideas who've been agents of change. Shouldn't we at least consider their ideas before dismissing them? In the tiny East Auckland inlet of Karaka Bay, where waves lap a few strides from front porches, a letterbox is canvas to a merry illustration of children and cats riding a pink elephant.

It's an appropriate introduction to Jeffrey Moussaieff "Masson's household. The unorthodox author, formerly a Sanskrit professor, psychoanalyst and Sigmund Freud Archives project director, is a vigorous 67-year-old. He stays young parenting sons Ilan (11) and Manu (6) with pediatrician wife Leila.

Jeffrey, Leila, and Manu are all vegan; Ilan, dog Benjy and the family's two rats are vegetarian. The three cats are carnivores. "Given a choice, cats will eat meat. I feel you can't force any creature to do your will," remarks Masson, who's decidedly American in that brash, utterly unironic way.

In 25 years, Masson has penned as many books. On his computer screen is the final draft of his latest book, The Face on your Plate: The Truth about Food. Due to be published early next year, it argues there are three reasons why it's better not to eat animal products: for your health, the environment, and the animals.

It'll be his 10th and last book on animals. Since 1995's bestseller When Elephants Weep, followed by million-copy-selling Dogs Never Lie about Love, his books about animals (many on their emotional lives) have been published to worldwide acclaim.

As an ex-psychologist, he looks at how humans use defence mechanisms to avoid facing what's involved in eating animals. "I also thought the question of happiness is an important one that hadn't been asked." Don't go immediately writing these off as wishy-washy notions. Each book was meticulously researched: first colossal reading, then globe-trotting, hands-on study.

For his third book, The Emotional Lives of Animals, he visited farms and animal sanctuaries in Europe, America, Australia and New Zealand, studying animals both raised for food and not. "I wanted to find out what makes a farm animal happy and by no stretch of the imagination could you call any animals raised for food happy. And if they weren't happy and we were taking products from them - it was at best selfish and, often, cruel."

While researching, he visited Karaka Bay to meet a pig who would become the cover star of The Pig Who Sang to the Moon. It was a turning point. Seduced by our antipodean beauty, Masson moved to New Zealand in 2000 and also turned from being a vegetarian to a vegan.

"What I knew about animal emotions meant there was just no excuse anymore for using animal products. I now believe eating animals is the equivalent of slavery."

In April, Masson gave a pro-bono talk on animal emotions at the SPCA's 75th anniversary. While there, he heard people talking about how horrible it was to see cat and dog being served in Vietnam. Masson finds deep hypocrisy in the attitude that it's okay to eat certain types of animals while cringing at eating others.

"There's no real difference between a dog, a cat and a pig. The truth is these animals all want to live, have strong feelings, care about their lives and friendships." When he said as much at the SPCA event, tempers flared. As they did when he brought up the question of whether any domesticated animal can lead an ideal life in the company of humans.

"Cats are perhaps an exception, they're really independent and wander freely." His justification for a pet dog is that living wild with a pack isn't a realistic option, so Benjy's doing the second-best thing. "But fish [in tanks] and birds in small cages is terrible."

Hang on, aren't there two rats sniffing around half-eaten corn cobs in a cage downstairs? Masson, who's not ruffled, got them for his son but wouldn't do it again, and makes sure they get plenty of time out of their cage. As any vegetarian or vegan who's endured years of being asked "why" knows, the onus is normally on Masson to explain why he doesn't eat or feed his children meat.

So he turns the tables. "Why shouldn't they [meat-eaters] explain why they eat it?" He ruffled plenty of omnivirous feathers with his views, and has heard all the pro-meat-eating arguments. Economic necessity doesn't hold up: animals marked for slaughter consume more food than we do "and no, we don't eat grass, but those fields could be used for crops".

But our economy's heavily reliant on agricultural products, so what if New Zealanders stopped eating meat and even dairy? "New Zealand should go organic." While Masson doesn't push his views on anyone, if people ask he'll talk about them. And that's put a dent in his and Leila's social life.

Recently a close friend didn't invite them to her barbecue: Masson believes it's because she thought he'd make people feel guilty about eating meat. What helps him handle such censure is emails from readers saying they've become vegetarian or vegan. It doesn't bother Masson if people don't agree with his beliefs, but it does if people dismiss them off-the-cuff.

"My aim is to influence people to take this issue seriously. One day, people will look back and be astonished and appalled we killed animals for food when we didn't have to." Masson doesn't argue with Wikipedia's description of him as "iconoclastic".

"You could give a psychological explanation and say I'm battling for the sake of the battle. But there are lots of views I accept, and I'm open to being persuaded. I simply don't accepting the status quo just because it's there." Perhaps his most radical belief is the capacity of humans to become less selfish.

Next door to Masson in a dark, decidedly-more-rudimentary house, Dr Joan Chapple sits, scanning the newspaper. Chapple's initial claim to consequence is as New Zealand's first hand surgeon and first female plastic surgeon. But at 78, with deep creases around her eyes, she couldn't be much more removed from the botoxed nip and tuck mercenaries.

Rather than sidestepping into highly-paid, highly-respected private cosmetic surgery, she held the fort at Auckland's hospital stable (Middlemore, Greenlane, North Shore and Auckland) between 1958 and 1994, latterly as a freelance plastic surgery specialist and teacher. "As the only woman, I never felt welcome in the surgical profession."

In 1972, unmarried, she gave birth to a daughter. While she wanted only five months off from Middlemore, her job wasn't kept for her. And career-long, it was understood she wouldn't attend professional-surgeon meetings at the men-only Northern Club. She didn't want to push the issue. "I was already fairly offside with my superiors, because I wouldn't go by the status quo if I thought there was a better way."

Gradually, Chapple developed and practised an unorthodox thesis about mending wounds without stitches. As a senior staffer, despite management frowns, Chapple was left to practise and teach her way. And her treatment of hundreds of patients, extensive case notes and photographs, books, teaching and speaking engagements, the adoption of the technique by doctors and nurses countrywide, and specialist referrals to her, suggest she was on to something.

In standard woundcare, stitches, tapes and tight bandaging restrict blood circulation, and circulation is key to healing. Says Chapple: "Stitch it up and make it look good sounds lovely, but my approach works with the body's agenda to heal itself, not against it."

Her technique is to first immobilise and anaesthetise, then inspect and clean the wound, as is standard. Then her treatment differs: one applies tape-like tulle strips (a soft mesh-cotton), gauze then a crepe bandage in a figure-of-eight fashion, only using a stitch if absolutely necessary. By not absolutely closing the wound, this technique allows any further bleeding to come through the mesh into the dry-gauze layer rather than accumulate within, while reducing swelling and pain, and leaving less scarring.

Trained medical staff can apply the technique to anything from a large wound to a clean cut. Chapple's not saying standard treatment doesn't work; she's saying each wound's circulation needs to be carefully assessed first.

While sometimes doctors can get away with standard technique, she says they often can't when it's a poor-circulatory area such as the leg, or when there are dangerous or multiple injuries. Most doctors treat the throbbing pain, rather than releasing the tension causing the pain. Circulatory complications can lead to infections, gangrene, and more procedures. Many have seen the technique's merit.

Chapple has presented papers at GP conferences, travelled countrywide teaching doctors and nurses, lectured to surgical trainees, and handled many difficult-wound referrals. But her technique has never been accepted as standard. "My superiors were stuck in traditional modes and wrote me off as an eccentric, too passionate." She was expected to conduct a trial with cases treated both ways.

"But by the time you know one way's better it's completely unethical to be treating some people another way." So she wrote her own reference book. With no joy from publishers she self-published in 1980, and in 2001 updated and expanded it into Wound Care and Healing: the Physiological Challenge, based on further experience, case studies and a unique set of clinical photographs.

In 2001 Chapple received a New Zealand Order of Merit for services to medicine and the community. While she's quietly proud of the honour, what she'd really like is for her technique to be accepted "for the difference it would make to patients, not for personal glory."

"You don't set out to be outside the square. You just do what you think's right and you find yourself there, surprised."

Ken Ring can see me well before I can see him. As I pull up outside his ramshackle Titirangi home, he's watching me on a hidden security camera. The alternative weatherman and global-warming sceptic, who has made a name and a living predicting rain and shine from the moon's cycles, has plenty of hecklers and is being careful in case they turn up.

A former primary-school teacher, then school-roving magician "Mathman", Ring has been researching a "lunar code" to predict our weather for 30-plus years and has been selling his predictions for 11. The most lucrative slice of the lunar pie is flogging forecasts via his website, predictweather.com: one week's subscription is $25, one year's $150.

His annual Predict Weather Almanac for 64 New Zealand towns (the 2009 almanac is out in August) is usually among the top 10 New Zealand nonfiction sellers. While Ring also writes columns for New Zealand provincial, farming and fishing publications, he's a courted celebrity over the ditch: as well as writing an Australian almanac, Ring's an on-call weather reporter for Channel 7's Today Tonight show, and Channel 9's Breakfast Today.

This is a booming business not an eccentric sideline: a slick set-up includes two forecasting assistants, marketing manager (daughter Miriam), business consultant (son Keri), web designer, and sales executive Brendan Horan (former TV One weatherman).

While Ring's preferred moniker is a long-range forecaster, he says he's "dealing in pure medieval astrology". Basically his premise, as outlined in his 2006 book The Lunar Code, is that the moon's gravitational effect on Earth's atmosphere creates our weather; therefore our weather can be predicted by observing lunar position and movement.

The theory claims even small variations in the moon's distance and orientation to Earth can cause variations in atmospheric tides large enough to cause predictable weather events at specific locations. Ring, who claims he can predict the weather up to 20 years ahead to a three-day window, says the weather repeats according to a lunar-year 355-day cycle, a 19-year cycle, and a 36-year cycle.

Essentially a numerologist, he arrives at predictions by combining past-weather-pattern statistics with equations to track the moon's path around the earth. Many swear by his predictions and think he's on to something that blinkered mainstream meteorologists have missed.

The 63-year-old is in demand as a speaker at events including Federated Farmers and Rotary gatherings and bank symposia; businesses, media, festivals, corporate and sporting events use his weather-prediction service; and he's produced a 6000- forecast report for the Gisborne City Council covering 2004-2020. But farmers, with their weather-dependent livelihoods, are his cash cow. "They come up to me and say 'everybody knows the moon created the weather, where's the problem?"' Because there is one.

While it sounds convincing at first glance, Ring's theory is an anathema to meteorology-science consensus that the moon doesn't influence anything except tides, that weather predictions are only accurate three-to-five days ahead, and long-range forecasts are bogus.

Meteorologists may predict general conditions for a season, but not heavy rain on Thursday in a year's time. Scornful of forecasters for ignoring the moon as a long-range tool, Ring wishes they would accept his system in parallel.

"These guys look at me like doctors look at alternative medicine, saying it wasn't in our training so it must be wrong, or evil. The MetService attitude is if they can't do it, nobody can."

Criticisms of Ring's theory and techniques abound: in fact, two websites - limestonehills.co.nz and sillybeliefs.com - devote considerable space and effort to discrediting him. One of his many critics is retired schoolteacher and longtime amateur astronomer Bill Keir, who's published six articles critiquing Ring's theory.

"Ken thinks the scientific community rejects his theory because it threatens the orthodoxy on which comfortable professional careers are based. It's pretty obvious Ken strongly believes he's right. He does make a genuine attempt at scientific discourse: some of it's correct, but much is muddled. The mistakes Ken's made are easy to make if you don't understand the science, or if you invent your own science to fit your pet theory. So why don't I leave this harmless eccentric alone?"

Keir, who draws parallels between astrology and Ring's moon-weather theory as feel-good belief systems, says the difference is Ring presents his theory as science. Scientific-sounding language and trappings include graphs, tables and citations.

"So he can't be surprised that his work gets thoroughly scrutinised at that [scientific] level. A scientifically-naive citizen would get the impression from Ken's writings that science is an arbitrary process where any idea is as valid as the next. Science isn't like that: it's progressed only because it ruthlessly rejects what doesn't stack up against the evidence. So Ken's work is not entirely harmless; for a start it has the potential to contribute to scientific illiteracy."

Sure, Ring doesn't profess to always be right: he gives himself an 85-per cent hit rate "a day or two a week missing, because it's not an exact science."

While he compares each day's Australasian MetService weather map with his own almanac map, he says he doesn't have time to compare each day's predictions for 152 Australian towns and 64 New Zealand towns with the consequent weather instance.

Long-term comparisons show little correlation between his predictions and out-of-the-ordinary weather (there are no prizes for saying it'll be cloudy/rainy in Auckland in July). Ring's "proof" is that people buy the almanacs each year. That's true. And there are certainly instances of uncannily-correct predictions.

For instance he has predicted several cyclones, the South Island snowfall in June 2006; that it would be too cloudy for people in Gisborne to see the millennium sunrise. On April 16 he sent a public email declaring his almanac had predicted heavy central-plateau rain between April 11 and 14, which culminated in swollen rivers on April 15's school-trip canyoning tragedy.

The email says "the NZ Metservice is simply incorrect when [it claims it] issued heavy rain warnings in time for the area of the recent tragedy". Isn't it a little rank to send a warning message in retrospect to score blows against your detractors? "I haven't got time to go through every rain warning and warn every individual or institution in New Zealand or Australia."

Despite doubters, Ring's currently fielding interest in almanacs for Japan, Britain and the United States. "This has to be the meteorology of the future."

In a long monologue, Ring blusters about the rise of Christianity forcing science underground, and draws comparison between his situation and the ridiculing and suppression of Galileo, Copernicus, Nostradamus and Newton: "They all had almanacs and were all lunar forecasters".

Aside from alarm-bells about drawing comparisons between yourself and great historical figures (who, aside from Nostradamus, made ground-breaking scientific contributions despite the handicap of their times), there is nothing to suggest any of the four were lunar forecasters, says Britain's Dr Nick Campion, world authority on the history of astrology.

Moreover, in the 21st century it's not religion telling Ring he's wrong, says Campion it's scientific evidence.

- NZ Herald

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