This post originally appeared on Sciblogs.co.nz.
John Campbell's interview last night with "Moon Man" and self-proclaimed earthquake predictor Ken Ring was, according to the unprecedented stream of Twitter messages following it, a "train wreck", "harsh", "disappointing" and "poor journalism".
Media veteran Dr Brian Edwards weighed in (site loading slowly today) soon after the appearance to condemn Campbell's effort:
"John, your mindless, bullying, tirade against 'moon man' Ken Ring on tonight's Campbell Live was perhaps the worst piece of egotistical, self-important, out of control, closed-minded, biased, unprofessional non-interviewing I have seen in more than 40 years of New Zealand television."
With respect to Dr Edwards, I think he is over-reacting. What John Campbell engaged in was on a par with a mild episode of BBC Hardtalk as fronted by attack dog intellectual Stephen Sackur - though without the finesse or, it has to be said, the intellectualism. In a sense, the interview with Ken Ring was a train wreck, but at least Ring wasn't permitted to air his banal theories in a softball interview, the trap a journalist at the Gisborne Herald fell into:
"The Gisborne Herald has been the only media outlet to ask him about his success highlighting the likely dates of quakes, he said.
Nobody has interviewed me at all. The way I see it the geologists have got it all wrong - they say these earthquakes are not occurring on any known faults, but earthquakes create faultlines as they go."
Not that the Gisborne Herald felt the need to consult a geologist, an astrophysicist or a scientist of any persuasion in this single-source story.
It is this type of easy media exposure which Ken Ring is adept at manipulating to his own end. Let us not forget that Ken Ring publishes a long-running and presumably lucrative series of weather prediction almanacs - his website is currently pushing the version for Ireland.
Giving Ring airtime in the media has turned out to be a very bad idea - people are taking his theories seriously and in the wake of last week's quake, many are considering leaving Christchurch in the days around March 20, when Ring next predicts a quake will occur. The Campbell Live interviews preceding the exchange with Ring showed how intelligent, hard-working and obviously fearful Cantabrians have bought into Ring's scientifically unfounded predictions.
Given all of that, its not surprising that Campbell was angry, that he was unwilling to give Ring a free run as so many before him have done. Campbell succeeded in shutting Ring down and tore into his theory as he should have done. But so unfocused was the attack that the average viewer never even got to hear a summary of Ring's theory before Campbell attempted to demolish it. The overall impression for those who had only vaguely heard of Ken Ring then was that of a poor old man sitting alone in a TV studio being shouted at by a flustered and clearly angry John Campbell. Tragically, people are flocking to Ring's defence as a result.
The irony is that Campbell could have simply asked Ring four or five simple questions and stood back as Ring shot himself in the foot attempting to answer them with his wacky pseudoscientific explanations. That's all that would have been required for the average Campbell Live viewer to write Ring off as a crackpot and move on.
The set-up of the interview didn't help, with Campbell on location in Christchurch and Ring stuck up on his own in the Auckland studio. At least TV3 didn't put Ring head to head live on national TV with GNS Science seismologist Dr Kelvin Berryman - that would have been unfair, inappropriate and have made for bad TV.
I yesterday spent much of the day at the Science Media Centre trying with limited success to persuade journalists not to give Ken Ring any more airtime. Unfortunately last night's episode of Campbell Live has resulted in a lot of people lending moral support to a guy who is preying on the fear of vulnerable quake victims. I don't think that's what John Campbell set out to achieve but it was a side-effect of the shotgun approach he took when he needed the incisiveness of a surgeon's scalpel.
* For an analysis of Ken Ring's earthquake predictions check out this piece by fellow Sciblogger David Winter.
Peter Griffin is managing editor of Sciblogs and the Science Media Centre. View his work and that of 35 other scientists and science writers at Sciblogs, New Zealand's largest science blogging network.